HC Deb 07 December 1995 vol 268 cc476-80
2. Mr. Stott

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on developments in the peace process. [3030]

4. Mr. Skinner

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further meetings have been arranged to continue the peace initiative. [3032]

7. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest situation in the Northern Ireland peace process. [3037]

8. Mr. Hain

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about recent progress in the peace negotiations. [3038]

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

Last Tuesday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton, announced the launch of a twin-track process to make progress in parallel on the decommissioning issue and on all-party preparatory talks.

Senator George Mitchell has been appointed as chairman-designate of the international body by both Governments. The two other members are General John de Chastelain, chief of the Canadian defence staff, and Mr. Harri Holkeri, a former Prime Minister of Finland. I wrote to the Northern Ireland parties on 1 December inviting them to begin the preparatory talks. The Tanaiste, Mr. Spring, has issued parallel invitations.

Mr. Stott

The Secretary of State will be more aware than anyone else of President Clinton's hugely successful visit to Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State will have heard, as I did, the President of the United States putting the weight of his office behind the twin-track proposals. What will be the terms of reference for Senator Mitchell's committee?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The terms of reference are set out in the communiqué, which I have in front of me, but which would take too long to read out now. The terms of reference are set out in paragraphs 5 to 8 of the communiqué, which I think the hon. Gentleman will find in the Library of the House of Commons.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Secretary of State explain how it is that the Government have recently signed a peace treaty in Bosnia and lifted an arms embargo, although there has been no decommissioning before the signing of the treaty? Why is it necessary in the dispute in Northern Ireland and Ireland for decommissioning to occur before a treaty is agreed? Why do the Government operate double standards on different peace treaties throughout the world?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is the hon. Gentleman who is uncharacteristically operating double standards. He regards himself as a good democrat. In a democracy one cannot expect people to sit round a table or in any other formation to discuss the future of part of their democracy unless they have full confidence that everybody claiming to participate is there exclusively by reason of the votes that he commands, and not by reason of any armaments that he can discard.

Mr. Riddick

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that some Conservative Members have not been at all happy with the American President apparently interfering in the Northern Ireland peace process? However, I acknowledge that President Clinton made an extremely positive contribution last week during his visit, particularly because of the timely and powerful message that he gave to all the terrorists there that their day is over. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the robust and sound stance that he has taken on the issue of terrorist weapons and decommissioning.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There had earlier been some misunderstanding as to whether the interest of the United States was, in some degree, interference, but that never was the intention or expectation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in pointing to the deep significance of what the President said. Speaking to those who still wish to use violence for political objectives, he said:

You are the past; your day is over". That has rather an interesting resonance. He continued:

Violence has no place at the table of democracy, and no role in the future of this land. The sooner that that is accepted on all sides, the better.

Mr. Hain

Can the Secretary of State confirm that it is his view that some paramilitary arms need to be decommissioned before all parties can enter full and substantive negotiations? If an alternative is produced that engenders sufficient trust and confidence on all sides to bring all parties to such talks, will he study it closely?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

As the hon. Gentleman suggested, the key to this question is confidence that everybody who claims to participate is there on a solely democratic basis and in fulfilment of what paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration required. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear time and again that we can see no means by which that confidence can be engendered, save by the fulfilment of the three Washington conditions that I stipulated in March this year. If some other means become apparent by which that confidence could be engendered, naturally we would wish to consider it. I emphasise that we cannot see any at present.

Mr. Trimble

If and when we move towards any form of talks process, there will be a more precise focus on the policies of the Government. In that context, can I refer the Secretary of State to the recent statement by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in which he said that the Government stood foursquare behind the Union with Scotland, and that that Union was a matter not only for the people of Scotland, but for the people of all the Union? How does the Secretary of State reconcile his position of disinterested neutrality and his close co-operation with a foreign Government who are subject to a constitutional imperative to destroy that Union?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman does less than justice to what was said at the time of the launching of the joint framework document in February this year, when Mr. Bruton made it clear that, as part of an overall settlement, he would put to the Irish people, in a referendum, proposals that would mean that there was no further territorial claim—such as undoubtedly exists at the moment in the Irish constitution—to that part of the island of Ireland that is part of the United Kingdom in international and domestic law. That is the first point.

Secondly, it is very important that all those matters should be available for discussion during the political track of a twin-track process. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—and I, for what that is worth—have made it clear time and again that we very much support the Union, supported as it also is by the majority of people living in Northern Ireland. The key to the understanding of the Downing street declaration is that both the Irish Government and our own stipulate in it that there will he no future change in the status of Northern Ireland, save by the wishes of most people who live in Northern Ireland.

Rev. William McCrea

Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's statement that his working assumption was that the ceasefire was permanent, has the Secretary of State heard or seen reports of the interview with Mitchell McLaughlin, Sinn Fein party national chairman, who, when asked about the permanence of the peace, said that it was not possible to say peace was permanent because the conditions that led to 25 years of violence still existed? When asked why the IRA would not decommission weapons, he said:

The reality is that nobody can say that these guns will not be used again". What will the Secretary of State tell the people of Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I will tell them what I have told them on many occasions before: that we do not have a complete peace, by reason of the remarks that the hon. Gentleman has just recited, and many others. There is, for instance, a passage in Mr. Adams' book, published in May this year, in which he reasserts the right of the Irish people to the "armed struggle". That is why it seems to us, and to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom, essential, if confidence is to be established, that Sinn Fein in particular be wholly committed to peaceful and democratic means.

Then a beginning must be made to decommissioning, to signify good faith and the start of a process. There must also be a commitment to the principle of decommissioning and a method of achieving it. I very much hope that the first track—decommissioning—of the twin-track process will help to allow that confidence to be engendered.

Mr. Mallon

The Secretary of State will be aware that much has been spoken and written about President Clinton's words during his welcome visit to the people of the north of Ireland. Not so much notice, however, has been taken of the words spoken, or perhaps not spoken, by the people of Northern Ireland during that visit, although they have made it clear that they want two things: lasting peace, and a new, agreed political dispensation in the north of Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to tell the House what dynamic the two Governments are going to instil in the multilateral discussions that are to precede the all-party talks? Can he confirm that such a dynamic, which is essential, will lead to real negotiations and will put the political process back on the subject of politics, not the question of arms?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

When the Prime Minister held a press conference last Wednesday week to announce agreement on the communiqué, he said that the twin-track process was intended to impart new momentum to the peace process. I am sure that it will; it is the means by which the Governments will achieve that.

Secondly, I warmly endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about President Clinton's visit. It was a most extraordinary and moving series of occasions. I certainly agree that the people of Northern Ireland, if not articulating what they meant, shouted—nay, roared—it.

Lady Olga Maitland

Has my right hon. and learned Friend made it absolutely clear to the chairman of the international body, former Senator George Mitchell, that his remit is purely to look at illegally held weapons, not at security weapons held by Government forces? I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend watched the "Newsnight" programme last week in which Mr. Mitchell leant back laughing in his chair and said that he would be perfectly happy to look at Government weapons too. Surely that is not what we have in mind?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I can assure my hon. Friend that the communiqué uses language which accurately reflects what both Governments intend—that the arms and armaments which shall be the subject of study and advice by the commission relate to those held illegally by paramilitary organisations and do not include constitutionally held arms north or south of the border. I am aware of the "Newsnight" programme; my hon. Friend will, I think, agree that it was broadcast only a very few hours after the agreement had been reached. It may have been the case that at that stage Senator Mitchell, whose appointment had not been completed, had not fully read, read at all or been shown the terms of the communiqué. I do not know, but there is no doubt about its content.

Ms Mowlam

The Opposition congratulate both Governments on the launch of the twin-track process. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge the public desire for a lasting peace so vividly expressed in Northern Ireland last week during President Clinton's visit? Interestingly, paramilitary punishment beatings on both sides of the divide stopped during that period, which is indicative that they could soon stop altogether. As to reflecting the feelings exhibited during President Clinton's visit, does the Secretary of State agree that it is up to the political parties in the preparatory talks to reach widespread agreement through dialogue on the way to proceed to all-party, substantive negotiations?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her opening remarks. I much agree with her about the significance of the intermission in punishment beatings at a time when it would have been politically inexpedient for the persons who carry them out for political purposes to have continued doing so during President Clinton's visit. If those individuals could stop the beatings at that time, let us hear no more about the inability to control them at any other time. As to the last part of the hon. Lady's question, I join her in hoping that the political parties will take full advantage of the political track—of the preparatory talks that can take place.

The hon. Lady rightly used the word "dialogue", which is intended to mean that there shall be talks in any format that seems convenient. They need not necessarily be around a table. One-to-one talks are still a dialogue. That is an important point to make, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for enabling me to make it.