HC Deb 19 January 1995 vol 252 cc835-7
4. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received from Sinn Fein regarding progress in the peace talks.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

A range of issues has been raised in the course of exploratory dialogue between Sinn Fein and Government officials. Those exploratory talks continue.

Lady Olga Maitland

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his reply. Further to the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that now that Sinn Fein has admitted that it has influence on the IRA, it is incumbent on it to insist that the IRA makes a significant demonstration of its commitment to surrender weapons? Furthermore, it must end the punishment beatings.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree with my hon. Friend. Any influence that can be brought to bear should be brought to bear to instil into everyone who may think to the contrary that there is no place for violence of any kind—including punishment beatings—in the democracy which is Northern Ireland.

Mr. Maginnis

Can the Secretary of State give me a single area in which the IRA-Sinn Fein delegation, led by Martin McGuinness, has made a single concession or adjustment since 31 August? Is there not a danger, if adjustment after adjustment is made by the Government in response to the ceasefire, that the IRA will feel justified in the violence that it has used and that law-abiding people will feel disheartened? Is it not time that the Government stopped, studied the situation and attempted to see whether the books could be balanced?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Sinn Fein has got nothing out of the Government and the Government have got nothing out of Sinn Fein. What each of us has got is dialogue with the other and that on the back of a ceasefire, which has lasted now for four and a half months. It should, of course, have come into force much sooner, but it is in force and we welcome it. That represents, I believe, an improvement on anything that we have known for 25 years and we must build on it.

Rev. William McCrea

Bearing in mind the continuing sadistic beatings of old and young people throughout the community, the daily threats and intimidation of our people, the continuing serving of exclusion orders on our young people by the IRA, the continuing robberies and racketeering, the stockpiling and moving of arms, the recruiting, the training and the active targeting by IRA terrorist groups which is going on, will the Secretary of State tell the House specifically when, during the present talks with Sinn Fein, the Sinn Fein delegation first, renounced violence and secondly, unreservedly condemned the murder of the innocent Mr. Kerr from Newry?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are far too many signs of a continuance of the use of violence for political purposes, not simply on the Republican side of the paramilitary spectrum, but on the Loyalist side. From either side, it is totally repugnant. We know that on 31 August there was a declaration that what were called military operations had ceased. Everybody knows, and the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein know, that the Government require that there shall be confidence that the ceasefire is intended to be for good. That is why substantial progress must be made on the issue of the decommissioning of arms in this exploratory phase. As a matter of reality, we cannot move from that phase unless that happens.

Mr. Mallon

I have been involved in the peace process over the past 25 years in South Armagh, long before it came into vogue. Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a perception in the Nationalist community which is damaging to the peace process, and that is that somehow or another there is a pan-Unionist front at work in Westminster? Does he also accept that it is unedifying—indeed, bad for the political process—to have his Government's nose tweaked by the Unionists almost on a daily basis? Will he assure the House that the Government will not respond to those bullying tactics every week? In effect, he now has the opportunity, for the third time during this Question Time, to state categorically to the House that the Government will not sacrifice peace or progress to satisfy their own party political expediency in the House.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Of course peace will not be sacrificed by the Government. The Government have done more to achieve peace than any other Government of any colour in the past 25 years, so I think that that charge will be rejected. As for the nose being tweaked, I have rather a large nose and I am not conscious of it having been tweaked at all. What I am conscious of is that in the Belfast Telegraph about a fortnight ago, the whole of one page was taken up with assertions that the Government were being hammered or were under fire by Nationalists and that they were being grilled or otherwise mistreated by Unionists. That seems to be about par for the course and I shall continue, for my part, to do what I believe to be right.

Mr. Couchman

My right hon. and learned Friend has stressed the need for the decommissioning of weapons. Has he had any significant contribution from Sinn Fein, the IRA or, indeed, from the other paramilitary organisations on the other side of the sectarian divide, about the circumstances in which they would give up their weapons? Furthermore, can he tell me what seizures of weapons and what arrests for possession of weapons have taken place since the ceasefire at the end of August?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I shall not go further than my hon. Friend the Minister for State has gone, at the end of each of the sessions of exploratory dialogue, in describing what has taken place. However, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), who takes such a close and proper interest in these matters, that it is necessary to inculcate confidence in the people of Northern Ireland—not just in the Government—that the intention on the part of the paramilitaries is to give up, for good, violence, the threat of violence and the justifying of violence. That is why substantial progress must be made, in this exploratory phase of the talks, in the issue of decommissioning arms and making them no longer available for use.

Mr. Alton

Will the Secretary of State accept that many hon. Members have had considerable confidence in him and in the Government because of the way in which they have conducted the negotiations so far, but to maintain that credibility it is vital that the Government are not seen to be aligned to any group? The Secretary of State's failure to respond to questions that have been put to him legitimately this afternoon, and his failure to say that the Government are not involved in a specific agreement with one party in this House, will be read as a confirmation that they are.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. For my part, I shall continue, as I have done for the past two and a half years, to do all that I can to help all the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach an accommodation, because that is the only way in which stability can be achieved. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) has said, that can be achieved only by consent. I have to have regard to what is likely, and what is not likely, to achieve consent when I look at the whole spectrum of the options available to the Government.