HC Deb 17 March 1994 vol 239 cc999-1002
1. Mr. McAvoy

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the resumption of the inter-party talks process and on talks he has had with the Irish Government.

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

I recently met the leaders of the three Northern Ireland parties involved in the bilateral discussions. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), is discussing our ideas at further meetings with the parties. At the intergovernmental conference on 10 March, both Governments reaffirmed their commitment to the search for a comprehensive political settlement covering the main relationships.

Mr. McAvoy

Is the Secretary of State aware that this is St. Patrick's day, when we celebrate a great man of peace? Bearing in mind the right hon. and learned Gentleman's responsibility to follow in the footsteps of that man of peace, what proposals does he have to bring the Ulster Unionist party back into the three-stranded talks process?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I acknowledge the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said—indeed, I have personal reasons to be pleased that it is St. Patrick's day.

There is no question of bringing the Unionist parties back into the talks at the moment. The Democratic Unionist party is not prepared to engage in bilateral discussions, but I am pleased that bilateral discussions are continuing on their former basis between my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the Ulster Unionist party, the Alliance party and the Social Democratic and Labour party.

Mr. Peter Robinson

In his discussions with the Dublin Government, has the Secretary of State agreed—as Mr. Reynolds said that he had in a recent Irish News article—on a definition of the word "consent" in the Downing street declaration? Under that definition, which the British and Irish Governments have agreed, there can be constitutional mutation which leads to a united Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and only the final legal act of severance requires consent.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

There has been no such agreement.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the Secretary of State recall that, in the original scheme some four years ago, it was decided, and accepted by all concerned, that the first phase should concentrate on designing a workable, practical system of devolved government in Northern Ireland and that we would move, in due course, to discuss a possible relationship between that body and the Irish Government? Does the Secretary of State still feel that that was a natural order of progress?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the statement of 26 March 1991 set out the three strands. It was arranged that there should be discussions on the first strand until the stage was reached when, in the judgment of the Secretary of State, it was appropriate to invite the Irish Government to join the discussions, to discuss matters connected with strands 2 and 3.

I think that it has come to be recognised among the parties that the three-stranded approach is essential and it has been borne in on me from all sides that people cannot be expected to reach final conclusions on any particular strand until they know the position of other parties on other strands. That is a sensible way of proceeding.

Mr. Couchman

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the House—the callous brutality of the mortar attacks on Heathrow in the past week and of other terrorist atrocities notwithstanding—that the thrust for peace remains, that the Downing street declaration of December remains a vehicle for peace and that he will not let Sinn Fein and the IRA derail the thrust for peace through either the three-stranded talks or the declaration?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It was not only callous; it was extremely wicked to launch the attacks of which my hon. Friend speaks. The declaration stands as a freestanding declaration of principle, of consent and of rejection of violence. If Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA considers that, by violence, it can secure a departure from the declaration or any concession from the British Government, it would be better employed taking a running jump. There is to be no concession and no departure.

Mr. McGrady

May I bring greetings to you, Madam Speaker, and all Members of the House on this St. Patrick's day from the Hill of Patrick in my constituency? Does the Secretary of State agree that the best prospect for the peace process now is the continuation of the inter-party three-stranded talks, based on the carefully negotiated agreement of 26 March 1991, which is still extant? Does he agree that, based on the principles enunciated in the Downing street agreement of 15 December 1993, the hope for peace, for which we all pray, would be best served by that?

Will the Secretary of State recommence the first phase of the talks because, as he said, the strands are interwoven? We had passed from strand 1 into strands 2 and 3. We should not go back to the starting post, but carry on from where we left off. Those parties that, for reasons of violence or politics, cannot join in that process should be allowed to join the table when they feel that they can do so.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The best hope for peace is if the Provisional IRA and anybody else who uses violence for political means recognise that it will get them nowhere. They will end up in prison; in the past four weeks, 40 people have been charged with serious terrorist offences. That is the best hope for peace. I absolutely agree that it is necessary to proceed with the political talks with which I have already dealt this afternoon in answer to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux).

Lady Olga Maitland

Will my right hon. and learned Friend, when he next meets the Irish Government, raise the issue of cross-border security? I acknowledge that relations are good between the RUC and the Garda, but it would be helpful if the Irish Government showed more commitment in terms of providing resources and manpower, sharing intelligence and permitting Army helicopters to go in hot pursuit of terrorists when they flee to the south. After all, terrorists are no respecters of any sovereign nation.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Cross-border co-operation is always on the agenda at meetings of the intergovernmental conference. Progress has certainly been made. Improved communications, technical co-operation, liaison structures and joint threat assessments are all items of improved co-operation. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend and the House to the statement issued yesterday by the Chief Constable of the RUC in which he said that co-operation was at an all-time high. He said: The success rate of the Garda in finding arms and explosives, and making arrests, has been first rate and is plain for all to see. We shall continue to pursue those matters with the Irish Government.

Mr. Alton

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of underlining what the Irish Prime Minister said—that the struggle is not now against the British Government but against the Irish people? Will he consider the possibility of appointing someone like Ninian Stephen or perhaps the President as an interlocutor or mediator to take the peace process forward?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman accurately quotes what Mr. Reynolds said in America yesterday. I add to that another quotation. He said: If they"— the Provisionals— are trying to get new or additional terms for people who use violence to try and achieve a political end, then they will not succeed. I do not think, however, that there is any need for a mediator; the joint declaration makes the position abundantly clear and it will stand. As the Taoiseach said, the Provisionals have to recognise that, if they wish to join the democratic process, they must give up violence for good.

Mrs. Angela Knight

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the outrage felt by my constituents in Erewash and throughout Derbyshire at the failure of the Irish courts to extradite the two people wanted for questioning by the Derbyshire police force about the murder of a soldier in Derby two years ago. In his talks with the Irish Government, will my right hon. and learned Friend undertake to do everything he can to ensure that they change their law in such a way that the Irish courts would extradite in circumstances in the future? Murder is murder; it is not a political crime.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree, as of course does the whole House, with my hon. Friend's last sentence. She never fails—and very properly—to remind me of the concern of her constituents in that recent case. It is to be understood that the Irish Government are now taking through their parliamentary process—it has been through the Dail—a Bill that would have removed two of the three grounds on which the High Court judge relied in refusing the extradition request in the two most recent cases. I must recognise that the Irish High Court judges are as independent of their Government as ours are of the British Government. We referred to the first case at the previous intergovernmental conference and mentioned the disappointment that was widely felt at the outcome.

Mr. McNamara

The Secretary of State will, of course, remember that, in that particular case, the judges in the Republic made a comment on a third ground about the prejudging of cases by the British press and how dangerous that was. We have had examples of that both in the Republic and in this country.

May we go back to the original question that was raised? I noted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman dodged the point that was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy). Can he say that no attempt whatever will be allowed to decouple the first strand from the other two strands, that he still stands by "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" and that he does not regard that as a fatuous formula?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

There is no question of dodging anything at all. I will not make any comment on the case; I never make comments on judicial observations either in our own jurisdiction or in anybody else's. It is perfectly legitimate to express disappointment at the outcome. That is as far as I go.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, it has been made clear time and again that the Government stand behind a three-stranded approach. I suppose that I could go on saying that, but it would take a lot of time if I did. There is no question of decoupling. Whether the parties in the resumed talks wish to maintain that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed is a matter for them. That is not a matter on which I can lay down a rule.