HC Deb 20 January 1994 vol 235 cc1021-4
1. Mr. Devlin

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he last met the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Eire; and if he will make a statement.

7. Mr. Corbett

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland relating to Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I last met the Irish Foreign Minister, Mr. Spring, on 15 December 1993, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made their joint declaration. Since then, we have been working within the framework set out in that declaration to carry forward the talks process involving the constitutional political parties as well as the two Governments. We remain in close contact.

Mr. Devlin

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the joint declaration is a fair arrangement for the future and that it is now up to the IRA and other organisations to renounce violence for good and come to the negotiating table?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree with my hon. Friend. The joint declaration document sets out and recognises the rights, interests and aspirations of both communities and the safeguards by which they might be protected. It is founded on the fundamental principles of consent, agreement and democracy. It is not a final settlement—it does not pretend to be. It provides a framework for peace. As such, the declaration and the realities affirmed in it will stand. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those who perpetrate violence and those who justify violence should renounce it once and for all, and for good.

Mr. Corbett

Given that there are now two sets of documents on the secret line of communication between the Government and Sinn Fein, will the Secretary of State confirm that, earlier, the British Government were willing to clarify their position to Sinn Fein? Given also that the Prime Minister described the Downing street declaration as a framework for peace, why are the Government refusing to clarify their position again to Sinn Fein, short, of course, of full negotiations until, as the Secretary of State says, there is a clear renunciation of violence?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Government were prepared to clarify their thinking quite a long time before receiving the message of 22 February, which was the outset of the exchange of documents authorised by the Government and received by the Government, which were included in the dossier that I subsequently published. A very different situation now obtains. The joint declaration is the result of careful discussion between the two Governments. Those Governments considered it for a matter of months. There is no justification now for entering upon a process of clarification of its contents; that would inevitably lead to a renegotiation, a glossing of it and an interpretation of it. That is a very different matter. Sinn Fein should now agree to a renunciation of violence and of the justification of violence, and it should then enter the process that leads to the exploratory talks, which I set out in a statement on the matter in November.

Mr. Peter Robinson

If the Provisional IRA does not accept the offer contained in and through the Downing street declaration and instead continues its violence, will any of the provisions of the Downing street declaration collapse as a result?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

No. The Downing street declaration is a statement, as I have just suggested to the House, of the fundamental realities and principles that govern relationships in Northern Ireland, the future of Northern Ireland and the future of the island of Ireland in the view of the two Governments. Therefore, they will stand. I should like to make it absolutely clear that nothing is waiting upon the answer that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA should give. We are continuing to pursue them through the security forces and within the law with the full vigour that their crimes demand. Similarly, the talks process is continuing under the guidance of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the Minister of State. It is business as usual. The question at issue is whether Sinn Fein decides to join that process, and that is for it. If it wants to do so, it must renounce violence.

Rev. Martin Smyth

In his conversation with the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic, did the Secretary of State impress on him the need to reform its constitution, because in the modern world it is utterly unreal and improper to obtain territorial possession of a neighbouring territory? It has been the cause of problems over the years, and it gives a moral impetus to the IRA, as its members claim to be freedom fighters.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Mr. Spring and his colleagues are under no illusion about the strong significance that is seen in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. There is a reference to the referendum that would be held in the event of an overall settlement. In the joint declaration, the Taoiseach says that the Government would then bring forward and support proposals that reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland, and that is a clear reference to articles 2 and 3.

Mr. Couchman

When my right hon. and learned Friend met the Irish Foreign Minister, did he have an opportunity to discuss the ban on the broadcasting of interviews with Sinn Fein and paramilitary groups in the Republic? Did he ask whether the Irish Government had it in mind to let that ban lapse? Did he further ask what impact they thought that that might have on the similar ban that prevails in this country?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

As I said, I last met the Irish Foreign Minister when the declaration was signed, and to the best of my recollection that matter was not discussed. We have made known our views about the importance of maintaining our legislation, and we were not told about the decision that the Irish Government proposed to take. Our position remains that it is important that people should be spared the additional grief and gall of listening to people justify acts of inhuman violence when they have to suffer those acts in Northern Ireland. It is known that my right hon. Friend the Heritage Secretary has the matter under review.

Mr. Mallon

In all the concentration on Sinn Fein and the IRA, it might be as well to remind the House that the vast majority of the nationalist people in the north of Ireland do not support Sinn Fein, the IRA or violence. The Prime Minister has said that the Downing street declaration is a balanced document and is fair to each section of the community, and I agree with him. Does the Secretary of State accept that if it is a balanced document, the Government's presentation should also be balanced? If he examines carefully the comments made by the Prime Minister, by himself and by other Ministers, can he honestly say that they have been sensitive to the position and the needs of both sections of the community? In recognising that imbalance, will he take this opportunity to ask the Prime Minister to remember that an unbalanced presentation of the declaration can go a long way to affect the chances of peace in Northern Ireland? I ask him again to remember that there are two sections within that community, each with its own needs and sensitivities.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not think that anybody is likely to forget that there are two sections within that community. It is from that feature and that factor that so many of the difficulties and problems derive. I do not think that there is anything in the way in which my right hon. Friend or I have described the agreement for which we should apologise. What we have said and insisted on is that the agreement speaks for itself. We have been careful not to interpret or put a gloss on any of its terms, for the sensible reasons that I gave the House a few moments ago. Later today, I shall be delivering a lecture, the text of which I shall publish. I hope that it will be seen as giving a fair and balanced account of the joint declaration.

Mr. McNamara

During Prime Minister's Question Time last week, he said that he and the Secretary of State have gone to great lengths in this House and beyond it to ensure that the joint declaration is fully understood and we shall, of course, continue to do so. Yet, in answer to another question, the Prime Minister said: we are not in the business of clarifying the declaration."—[Official Report, 13 January 1994; Vol. 235, c. 330–34.] Will the Secretary of State explain the difference between clarification and promoting full understanding?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Promoting full understanding is well served by pointing out to people that the declaration has been extremely well drafted and carefully considered, and that it bears close examination. It would be a great mistake to enter into interpretations and say, "When it says this on the face of it, it actually means something else." If one does that, the process degenerates quickly and inevitably into one of negotiation. That is a great mistake, and is of no service to anyone.

We see no need for clarification. We see dangers in it for the reasons that I have suggested. Those reasons argue against clarification, and we do not intend to give any. The topic of clarification could be brought forward in the hope that it will serve to muddy the waters and distract attention from the real question that needs to be answered and clarified by Sinn Fein and by the Provisional IRA—will they now give up violence for good? The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), has said—I will paraphrase him—that any reason that the IRA might conceivably have had for using violence has been removed by the declaration.