HC Deb 16 June 1994 vol 244 cc739-41
3. Mr. McAvoy

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress towards securing a resumption of the inter-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland and on discussions he has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland concerning a constitutional settlement for Northern Ireland.

12. Mrs. Bridget Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the current political situation in Northern Ireland; and what recent discussions he has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the political parties in Northern Ireland concerning a constitutional settlement.

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

Bilateral discussions are continuing with three of the main Northern Ireland parties. The Government are also consulting closely with the Irish Government on the preparation of a framework document, which would facilitate a comprehensive political settlement. Our aim remains to return to multilateral talks at the earliest appropriate time.

Mr. McAvoy

Does the Minister accept that there can be no purely internal settlement of the Northern Ireland question and, therefore, that there is a need for a formal, institutionalised Irish convention?

Mr. Ancram

The Government's position has been clear for some time. Any settlement must address the three relationships—relationships within Northern Ireland, those between the north and the south of Ireland and those between the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the Government here. The formula of 26 March 1991, under which talks are currently conducted, made that clear and that remains the Government's clear position.

Mrs. Prentice

Can the Minister give us any idea when the joint framework document will be presented to the Northern Ireland parties? When does he think that the document will be published?

Mr. Ancram

As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, work is going on between the two Governments on the framework document, which is intended to set out a shared understanding of the elements of a settlement within strands 2 and 3 that have the best prospects of achieving widespread acceptance and support. It is also likely to include constitutional issues. At this stage, it is not possible for me to say when that process will be completed. Some time after it is completed, we shall wish to discuss the understandings with the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I should like to press the Minister a little further on the same subject. I wonder whether he has seen The Irish Times this morning, which contains a quotation from Mr. Dermot Ahern, co-chairman of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body. He says that the Taoiseach hopes to finalise the document before he meets the Prime Minister in mid-July. Presuming that Mr. Reynolds finalises the document and it is rubber-stamped by the Government, is it to be issued to the public, so that the people of Northern Ireland may see it, or is it to be given to the constitutional parties or all the political parties in Northern Ireland? Who exactly will receive it?

Mr. Ancram

First, I should like totally to knock on the head the idea that the British Government are going to rubber-stamp anything. The process that is taking place between the Irish and British Governments is to see where we can find a shared understanding on the elements of a settlement that is likely to receive widespread acceptance by the people of Northern Ireland. That process is carried out intensively at this moment and it is not possible to set a time scale for it, but in due course we hope that it will form part of the process of dialogue that will, in the end, lead to a settlement in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Bill Walker

When my hon. Friend discusses constitutional change with the parties in Northern Ireland, will he bear in mind the interests of the Unionist party —particularly in Scotland—on constitutional change? As a former Scottish Office Minister, my hon. Friend will realise what I mean when I say that the interesting election results in Scotland have recently given us cause to have concern about the Union.

Mr. Ancram

I always watch with nostalgia political developments north of the border, but my responsibilities at this time are for political developments within Northern Ireland. There are great dangers in trying to draw analogies between the situation in Northern Ireland and that which exists in Scotland.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Having confirmed that talks with some political parties have been on-going since last September, can the Minister confirm that it is still the Government's position that the constitutional settlement is within the constitution of the United Kingdom, despite the comments of Mr. Reynolds, who may now be having some midsummer madness after his recent Christmas mislongings?

Mr. Ancram

I can make clear to the hon. Gentleman what has been clear all along: there can be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. I can go further and say that there can be no settlement under the present dialogue which does not achieve the widespread acceptance of the people of Northern Ireland. There is no question of coercion or imposition, and that is recognised as much by the Government in Dublin as it is by us.

Sir Thomas Arnold

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government of the Republic do not exercise any kind of veto over the progress of the inter-party talks?

Mr. Ancram

We have made it clear that no one exercises a veto and the important talks will proceed on the basis that no single participant can prevent the talks progressing by simply refusing to come to the table. It is absolutely clear that if we are to achieve agreement, it must be on the basis of widespread acceptance throughout the community in Northern Ireland.