HC Deb 27 April 1995 vol 258 cc967-9
3. Mr. Molyneaux

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will report progress on dismantling the apparatus of terrorism. [19609]

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

Despite the welcome cessation of violence, I can report no evident dismantling of the apparatus of terrorism. How that may be achieved is rightly for discussion in exploratory dialogue with parties closely associated with paramilitary organisations.

Mr. Molyneaux

Given that terrorism will be a continuing and permanent scourge of civilisation, will the Secretary of State enter discussions with the Clinton Administration with a view to designing measures to extricate all terrorists, including those posing as members of political parties, and removing from their hands all instruments of terror and destruction?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I noted, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman did, that some time ago President Clinton described the need for a worldwide campaign against terrorism. I do not doubt for one minute that recent tragic events have reinforced that opinion, which we certainly share.

Mr. Hunter

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that what is important is not only the dismantling of the apparatus of terrorism but maintaining the momentum in political developments? Was not my right hon. and learned Friend's recent invitation to the constitutional parties to take part in bilateral talks a significant and timely step? Will he make encouraging such discussions with and between the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland a priority?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I much agree with my hon. Friend that political progress is an important component in protecting people against the scourge of terrorism, and I look forward to beginning the talks to which he referred. This is a single-track process—not a dual-track process, as I sometimes see alleged—to substantive political talks. That single track is open to all parties with a substantial electoral mandate that establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and show that they abide by democratic means.

Mr. Mallon

The Secretary of State will be aware how difficult have been the past eight months. Nevertheless, does it come as a surprise when I tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that public perception of the Government's handling of the peace process of late has been one of vacillation, clumsiness and a lack of àny defined strategy? Would he be even more surprised to learn that at times the Government look uncertain, if not foolish, in some of their utterances?

Given the centrality of this issue to the lives of the people in the north of Ireland, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to tell the House how he intends to move from the present point to the round table negotiations, the only context within which the fundamental questions about an absence of violence and the principle of consent can be put to those parties and answers irrevocably gained?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I very much agree with the importance of proceeding to round table talks, resuming after an interval of some two or more years. I think it extremely important, and I believe that the people of Northern Ireland think it very important, that their politicians should be talking to see whether we can achieve that overall political accommodation which was our objective two or three years ago.

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question. I am quite used to a variety of criticisms being made. I should be surprised if this is the one area in Northern Ireland politics in which there is the total agreement that he suggests; but I do my best, with my right hon. and hon. Friends, to secure the maintenance of the important principles, one of which, and only one of which, is that we do not sit down and negotiate the political structures on the future of Northern Ireland with people who, by implication, reserve the right to resort once again to violence.

Ms Mowlam

The Labour party welcomes the exploratory dialogue between Sinn Fein and Ministers, and we also welcome the statement, which I think the Secretary of State just made, that no political party can expect to participate in full-scale talks about the future of Northern Ireland while it retains, by inference or implication—if I understood what the Secretary of State was saying—the use of violence.

Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House the statement that he just made—that he does not see inclusive talks happening in under two years? I think that that is what he said. I think that there was some confusion among Opposition Members and it might be useful if the Secretary of State clarified that matter at this point.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am very glad to clarify that. I referred to talks that concluded two or more years ago. I certainly hope that round table discussions will resume very much sooner than that. I welcome the hon. Lady's confirmation of the principle that I described a moment or two ago. It is essential not only that we do all that we can to get those talks resumed but that we maintain the principle which I have described. If we do not, we send a signal that we are prepared to sit down with people who, if they do not get what they want in democratic discussion, are prepared to go outside and resort once again, or support the use once again, of armaments. That is fatal to democracy and to the interests of those who have submitted themselves to the disciplines of constitutional government.

Mr. Robathan

Notwithstanding what was said by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), may I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend's and his hon. Friends' skilful handling of the peace process so far? Does my right hon. and learned Friend not think that the time has come for some tangible evidence of good faith from terrorist organisations, particularly the major terrorist organisation—the IRA, linked with Sinn Fein? When does he think that we might see some movement towards it actually handing in some of its huge stockpile of arms?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said at the beginning. Of course, he is right to say that this is the time for some tangible evidence of good faith. He will recall that the Government have consistently said that, in order to make the transition from exploratory dialogue to participation in the substantive political talks, a willingness to support the principle of decommissioning has to be declared. In addition, some substantial progress has to be made, including tangible decommissioning of arms, sufficient to signify the beginning of a process—which must be on-going—and the good faith of which my hon. Friend spoke.