HC Deb 16 March 1995 vol 256 cc1017-9
7. Mr. McFall

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has to consult (a) community groups, (b) churches and (c) other public institutions on the framework documents.

Mr. Ancram

Copies of "Frameworks for the Future" have been made widely available within Northern Ireland. The Government have encouraged all those who read it to consider the proposals it contains and to let us and the political parties know their views.

Mr. McFall

What legislative powers does the Minister envisage will be devolved to a Northern Ireland Assembly? How does he see the relationship between that body and the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ancram

If the hon. Gentleman reads the first part of the framework documents he will see the Government's proposals set out, including proposals that legislative powers over matters regarded as transferred, or as essentially transferable, in 1973, be given to an assembly. Obviously the relationship between that assembly and local authorities will be a matter for discussion when the framework documents are being considered, but it would also be a matter for consideration by the assembly itself, once it was set up.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my hon. Friend consult the European Foundation as to the merits of allowing a north-south body to be the interlocutory mechanism for dialogue with the European Union on the disbursement of funds relating to the northern part of Ireland? Will he consider the precedent that such a devolved body could pose for other parts of the kingdom in their relations with Brussels were devolution to extend ultimately to Scotland?

Mr. Ancram

I am interested in my hon. Friend's question and will certainly wish to consider some of the nuances of it, but I am can tell him now that as regards its European representations, any assembly set up within Northern Ireland would have to operate, as does any other part of the United Kingdom, through the sovereign Government of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Molyneaux

The Minister was kind enough to tell us earlier of the vast volume of copies of the framework documents circulated throughout Northern Ireland. Would that be approximately on a par with the circulars that we receive from the Inland Revenue, and would the response be roughly equivalent? Will the Minister press on with the consultations and talks with other parties, as we have done, for the simple reason that, apart from the initial response of what one might call the hired hacks, those who have carefully read the document have concluded that it is divisive and fatally flawed? At the end of all those consultations, will he consider producing another consultative paper—an outline paper on which there could be widespread agreement?

Mr. Ancram

I listened with interest to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, and I have not yet come across a case of citizens going out voluntarily to collect the forms that he mentioned, or ringing to ask for those forms to be sent to them, as has happened with the framework documents. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes, as I do, the fact that within Northern Ireland, which is a mature democracy, there has been great interest in the documents so that people can inform themselves about what is being proposed and can play a part in advising their political representatives on the line that they might take in negotiations.

As for the talks, I repeat that the important thing is that the issues identified within the framework documents as those that have to be dealt with be discussed. We do not claim a monopoly of wisdom either in the British Government or in the Dublin Government. We simply say that in the documents we have identified the issues and have suggested ways in which they could be resolved. If anybody else comes forward with other ways that could secure the necessary measure of agreement we would welcome that as part of the discussion. I shall certainly be pleased to meet any party at any time to take the discussion forward.

Mr. Beith

To what extent has the Minister ascertained the views of the political representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries on their willingness to take part in discussions on the document and to assist that process by participating in the decommissioning of arms?

Mr. Ancram

I must first say that I have not been in direct communication with the representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries, any more than I have been involved in the exploratory discussions with Sinn Fein. The same criteria would apply in that case as apply to Sinn Fein. It is our understanding from statements that have been made that representatives of the loyalists are keen to enter discussions and that, although they may have reservations about certain parts of the framework documents, they are prepared to enter discussions on the basis of the documents. Again, I welcome discussion from whatever quarter it comes, so long as the criteria for becoming involved in discussions, in terms of the decommissioning of arms, have been met.

Mr. Dykes

I thank the Minister of State for the many initiatives that he has taken since the documents were published. Does he not agree that, far from being divisive, they are an excellent basis on which to take the discussions forward, through whatever mechanism and whatever medium, and that, closely and on a continuing basis, the English majority are watching to ensure that all Unionist politicians rise to the moderate opportunity presented?

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I find it difficult to understand how a document that is based on the consent and agreement of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland can be divisive; after all, if we believe in democracy, the consent of the majority and the agreement of the political parties within that part of the United Kingdom must be at the very foundation and roots of democracy.

Ms Mowlam

We welcome the consultations on the framework document, and wish the Government well. What message has the Minister for the many groups—trade unions, businesses and parts of the voluntary sector—whose members I have consulted in the past couple of weeks? They are frustrated not only by the lack of any clear economic strategy for the use of the money that is available from both the public purse and international funds, but by the lack of accountability and transparency in relation to how the money is currently allocated.

Mr. Ancram

I find the hon. Lady's question very surprising. As she knows, we are consulting various parties about how moneys can be spent. We are trying to encourage inward investment into Northern Ireland, to provide jobs and prosperity for its people. We are keen to ensure that whatever dividend results from the cessation of violence and, I hope, the permanent establishment of peace is shared as widely as possible, and that no part of the Northern Ireland community feels that it has not gained advantage from it. The most important element in any future prosperity for Northern Ireland, however, must be political development. The question concentrates on that, and I would welcome the views of trade unions, Churches and business organisations, from whichever quarter they may come.