HC Deb 17 February 1994 vol 237 cc1054-6
3. Mrs. Roche

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has had with representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland concerning the resumption of the inter-party talks process.

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

My right hon. and learned Friend is meeting the leaders of the three Northern Ireland parties who have recently been involved in exploratory talks with me to discuss ideas with them for giving direction to further bilateral discussions across all three strands. He has invited the Democratic Unionist party to participate in those proceedings also. At the last intergovernmental conference on 28 January, both Governments confirmed their commitment to the three-stranded talks process and underlined the urgency and importance of the search for political agreement.

Mrs. Roche

In a recent article in The Irish Times, the Secretary of State quite rightly said that it was not a question of promoting one tradition at the expense of the other. Given that welcome statement, will the Minister guarantee that, in any such talks, equal emphasis will be placed on north-south institutions, ensuring that they work jointly and are strong and effective, as well as ensuring that links are maintained with Great Britain?

Mr. Ancram

The talks have always been across the three relationships, which is why they are known as the three-stranded talks. In a sense, each of those strands is related to the other. None of them can stand in isolation: one relates to north-south relationships, the second to internal relationships and institutions in Northern Ireland and the third to the relations between the two Governments of the Republic of Ireland and of the United Kingdom. All those strands will be considered in any talks process.

Rev. William McCrea

Does the Minister believe that the Secretary of State was assisting the process of peace by sending the details of his proposals to a foreign country—the Irish Republic—before informing the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, especially those who are participating in his three-stranded talks?

Mr. Ancram

The ideas that are at present being given to the leaders of the three constitutional parties that are prepared to take part in the process stem from our assessment of the exploratory talks and what had gone before in relation to where the parties stand on the three strands. As they are partners in the process, it would have been strange if we had not made known those ideas to the Government of the Republic of Ireland. That was why it was done.

Dr. Hendron

Does the Minister agree that, while the violence continues on both sides—the Provisional IRA tried to kill a young soldier earlier today, loyalist paramilitaries are firing rockets and bullets and have tried to kill a number of people in my constituency and elsewhere—it is immoral for the political parties not to come together? Will the Secretary of State encourage the parties to come together for inter-party talks with the two Governments, based on the three-stranded approach?

Mr. Ancram

I unreservedly condemn the acts of violence to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I agree that nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of seeking a political settlement within the three relationships that I have described. That is something which we are trying to take forward, and in an intensified way. Our hope is that, as that process continues, those who are on the outside, either because they wish to be or because they will not renounce violence as we have asked them to, will change their minds and become part of that process as well, because a political settlement that will bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland must have widespread acceptance. That is what we would obviously seek.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the Minister accept that there is an absolute need to be clear on issues? We have already had a misunderstanding today when the Secretary of State, in answering a question about the United States, referred to Northern Ireland. Therefore I ask, while we are going on the three-stranded approach, whether they will be on the same pattern as previously—nothing is agreed until all is agreed? What would happen to the business in the House if that were carried through in the light of the present difficulties in getting the usual channels to work together?

Mr. Ancram

The talks are continuing under the agenda set on 26 March 1991 by my right hon. and learned Friend's predecessor. The purpose was to embrace the three strands in the discussions. At the time, round-table discussions were envisaged; we have made it clear that at present we do not think it right or wise to return to that arrangement because the basis for round-table agreement does not yet exist, but we wish to embark on such discussions eventually—under the agenda to which I have referred.

The talks are not an end in themselves, but a means of achieving a lasting settlement. That must be their purpose, and it is certainly the British Government's intention.

Sir Thomas Arnold

Does my hon. Friend draw a distinction between consulting the Government of the Republic, and viewing that Government as a party to the inter-party talks process?

Mr. Ancram

The Government of the Republic are a party to the three-stranded talks, and always have been. The reason for acquainting them with the ideas was the fact that they stemmed from exploratory discussions that I have been having with the parties. We wanted to take those ideas further, and showing them to the Government of the Republic was a matter of courtesy, given the relationships that exist.

Mr. Alton

May I put the question of courtesy aside, and revert to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea)? Surely the Minister accepts that political parties represented in the House of Commons should have received the details at the same time as our partners in Dublin. Does he not recognise that the systematic alienation of parts of the loyalist community is now a problem as serious as the alienation of republicans? What is he doing to try to engage loyalist paramilitaries in the important peace initiatives?

Mr. Ancram

The position regarding loyalist paramilitaries is the same as that regarding Sinn Fein and the IRA: if they renounce violence, they can become part of the democratic process. As for trying to bring in other parties, I have said repeatedly—as has my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State—that we hope that the party of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster will return to the talks process. The door remains open, and we will welcome them if they wish to enter; but as long as they stay away from the process, it is not surprising that we will not show them our ideas.