HC Deb 01 December 1994 vol 250 cc1315-6
1. Mrs. Helen Jackson

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in what ways the British Government have participated in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

None. This is an initiative of the Irish Government, within their own jurisdiction, to enable democratic parties to consult and share in dialogue together.

Mrs. Jackson

Is it not time that the Government built on the real hopes of all the communities in Northern Ireland, which have been increased by the cessation of violence in the past three months? Should not the British Government now agree to send a representative to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, which has been established by the Irish Government, especially as they have been invited to do so?

Mr. Ancram

If I may, I should, first, correct the hon. Lady on a misapprehension. The British ambassador was invited to the opening session of the forum. That is the only invitation that the British Government have received. As for talking to parties, as the hon. Lady is aware, we have been holding bilateral discussions with the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland for a considerable time. It has been announced today that a proposal has been made to hold an open meeting for exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein on Wednesday 7 December in Belfast.

Rev. Ian Paisley

As the Government have announced today that they will talk with the men of blood next week, and as that is highly resented by a vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, will the Minister tell us whether he rules out full-blown talks with the IRA so long as it keeps its killing machine intact and holds on to its guns and explosives?

Mr. Ancram

We have made it clear over a long period that the exploratory dialogue would have three purposes: first, to explore the basis on which Sinn Fein would come to be admitted to an inclusive political talks process, secondly, to exchange views on how Sinn Fein would be able, over a period of time, to play the same part as current constitutional parties in the public life of Northern Ireland and, thirdly, to examine the practical consequences of the ending of violence. Only after those exploratory talks are completed will the issue that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned arise. He might like to note that the last of the elements of exploratory dialogue would cover the decommissioning of arms.

Mr. John D. Taylor

As the southern Irish Forum for Peace and Reconciliation has not been particularly successful in resolving disputes between the Dublin political parties, does the Minister agree that much greater importance should be given to the two forums that the Minister has announced in his own jurisdiction?

Mr. Ancram

Indeed, those are the forums for which the British Government are responsible. We have great hopes that the investment forum will produce significant benefits for Northern Ireland.

Dr. Spink

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although forums are important, the only real way to peace arid reconciliation will be through the paramilitaries on both sides handing in their arms so that those guns and explosives can be taken off the streets arid decommissioned?

Mr. Ancram

I hope that it is clear to my hon. Friend, who asks an important question, that, if we are to get around the table to discuss the future governance of Northern Ireland and the relationships between the north and the south and, indeed, between the two Governments, then around that table can be only parties that are there on an equivalent basis. Obviously, in that regard, the decommissioning of arms is an important element.

Mr. Winnick

Whatever may be the political position in the Republic of Ireland, it is a democracy and it will settle its differences in the normal way. Does the Minister agree that its outgoing Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, played a particularly important role in the peace process and that tribute should be paid to him for the contribution that he undoubtedly made in seeking to end the violence in the island of Ireland?

Are not the Government doing precisely what they promised to do when they said that if violence ended there would be talks? As long as that continues to be the position and the Provisional IRA makes it clear that terrorism will not start again, there is every justification for doing precisely what the Government have said. They have the almost entire support of the House for saying that talks with Sinn Fein should begin.

Mr. Ancram

Today's announcement is consistent with the Government's policy, as enunciated over a long period.

On the hon. Gentleman's first question, I pay tribute to the acting Taoiseach—as he now is—for the role that he has played to bring about the present cessation of violence. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that a similar tribute must be paid to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his role in that regard.