HC Deb 29 November 1995 vol 267 cc1199-211 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement about Northern Ireland.

Yesterday evening, the Irish Prime Minister and I met at Downing street to launch a new initiative in the Northern Ireland peace process. A copy of our joint communiqué has been placed in the Library of the House.

In the 15 months since the first of the two ceasefires, there has been a dramatic improvement in the daily life of people in Northern Ireland. They have enjoyed the freedom to go about their daily business without fear of terrorist attacks. Many new jobs have been created. Much new investment has arrived. New opportunities have opened for people of all ages.

We have responded positively—following advice from the Chief Constable and the GOC—to the much reduced threat to security. By the end of this year, half the Army's emergency or roulement battalions will have left Northern Ireland. Security infrastructure has been dismantled. Remission rates for scheduled offenders have been returned to their pre-1989 levels.

Although we have a ceasefire, however, we are still far from a comprehensive political settlement. To work towards that, we must establish a negotiating process that is open to all democratic parties, and embraces all democratic parties. That aim underlies the twin-track initiative that we have now launched with the Irish Government. The first of the two tracks in the joint communiqué will involve invitations to the parties to intensive preparatory talks.

These are not substantive negotiations on Northern Ireland's constitutional future; they are designed to prepare for such negotiations in the future. There are many issues to be resolved if substantive negotiations are to take place successfully. The preparatory talks will consider the best structure and format for all-party negotiations, and how those negotiations can address all the relevant relationships in an interlocking three-stranded process. Several of the parties in Northern Ireland have suggested that an elected body could play an important part in all-party negotiations. Other parties disagree. As the communiqué makes clear, this is an idea that will be discussed in the preparatory talks.

As I have indicated, meeting the requirements of paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration will be an essential condition for any party claiming a seat at the all-party negotiations. Not all the parties yet do so. That too will be a valid subject for discussion in the preparatory talks.

The format for those talks is intentionally flexible and permissive. We shall build on the exchanges and bilateral contacts that have already taken place. We shall treat each party equally. Exchanges can be bilateral or—where the parties so wish, and where it will further the objectives of the preparatory talks—they could be multilateral.

This new round of preparatory talks is an opportunity for each of the parties in Northern Ireland to express its view, in whatever format it chooses, on the best way of moving the political process forward. It is an opportunity for them to work together with one or other or both Governments, according to their wishes. It is an opportunity to generate fresh momentum. It threatens no one, no interest and no party. I hope that all the parties, each in their own way, will take advantage of this opportunity. The objective of moving towards a just and comprehensive settlement will be of benefit to all.

Let me turn now to the decommissioning of the weapons and explosives held in large number by paramilitary organisations linked to political parties in Northern Ireland. Before the Downing street declaration and the ceasefire, we recognised that the need to address this question was one of the practical consequences that had to follow the ending of violence. In a democratic society, political parties cannot be linked to private armies. In a society where parties are committed exclusively to peaceful methods, there can be no need and no justification for holding illegal weapons and illegal explosives. In a democracy, parties and Governments cannot be expected to negotiate under the duress of an implicit threat of a return to violence.

For that reason, we have throughout this year sought to engage the representatives of both Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitaries in an exploratory dialogue on how their weapons will be taken out of commission. In order to achieve more progress in that area, we have now agreed with the Irish Government to establish an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue and have given it specific tasks. It will consist of three members under the chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell from the United States. They will act in a personal capacity and on an advisory basis.

The body has been asked to identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning and also to report whether there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that. We expect it to invite relevant parties to submit their analysis of matters relevant to the decommissioning issue. The Governments are not setting limits to the scope of the submissions that may be made to it. It will be for the international body, in reaching conclusions within its remit, to consider such evidence on its merits.

We will not be asking the international body to question the Government's position on what has become known as the third Washington criterion. It has not been established to make recommendations on when decommissioning should start. That is a matter for governmental decision; and, as I have indicated, it is properly a matter for discussion in the preparatory talks. To avoid any doubt, let me stress that the Government stand by the three criteria on decommissioning, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set out in Washington earlier this year. We cannot see a way of securing the necessary confidence to bring all parties to the negotiating table without a start being made to the decommissioning of illegal arms.

This is not a matter of dogma; it is a matter of practicality. It goes without saying that we, like the Irish Government, will consider constructively any practical suggestions that could help bring all parties into negotiations on the basis of the Downing street declaration.

It is no secret that yesterday's agreement between the two Governments required long and difficult negotiations. The British and Irish Governments agree on the need for disarmament by the paramilitary organisations, but we do have an acknowledged difference of opinion about its timing. We have decided not to allow that difference of opinion to stand in the way of forward movement along these twin tracks. That is a measure of our determination to continue working together in the future as we have done in the past.

We have asked the international body to report by the middle of January. We hope that progress on both tracks will then enable the two Governments to launch all-party negotiations by the end of February. That is our firm aim. I am confident that it is attainable, but it will require a serious commitment by all concerned. We are ready to make that commitment. But let me make a crucial point. The British and Irish Governments cannot themselves make peace in Northern Ireland. Our role in the process is to facilitate the making of that peace.

We have borne a great deal of the burden. We have been ready to take risks for peace. Now is the time for others to do the same. Now is the time for all parties and all groups to make a sincere and constructive contribution; for the paramilitaries on both sides to give not merely qualified verbal assurances, but a real and tangible commitment to peace. If they mean peace, they do not need guns and semtex. Now is the time for all the political parties to enter the preparatory talks, not with rigid and irreconcilable positions, but with the will to make them work. Ultimately a lasting and peaceful settlement is in their hands and not mine. I hope that they will all have the courage and the wisdom to grasp it.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

For reasons that you, Madam Speaker, and the Prime Minister know, I have to leave straight after the Prime Minister has responded to me. I hope that the House will not treat that as a discourtesy.

I welcome the statement the Prime Minister has made. We know that progress has been tough over the past few months and both he and the Taoiseach and their array of advisers deserve credit for their perseverance and dedication.

Can I be sure that I have accurately understood the status of both the preparatory talks and the establishment of the international body on arms decommissioning? I understand that the preparatory talks will be bilateral or multilateral. They are designed to facilitate the all-party talks and will involve all parties, but will not in themselves be negotiations on the substantive constitutional issues. The international body similarly will advise on the issues connected with decommissioning, but will not deal with the question of whether arms are decommissioned prior to all-party talks. Therefore, both the preparatory talks and the international body are, in a sense, designed to create a mood and momentum by which the all-party talks can take place.

May I express our support for the view that, for those all-party talks to take place, there has to be full trust and confidence that each party in those talks will abide by and accept exclusively the democratic path? Trust is the key. There can be no threat, implicit or explicit, of any return to violence by any party if such talks are to be successful.

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that this agreement, although of course it does not resolve the problem of decommissioning, produces a mechanism by which the question can be discussed? There is a heavy obligation on all those who say that they want peace to prove it by engaging in this process and providing solutions to the outstanding problems.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House how the preparatory dialogue will operate? In particular, how will the two Governments be involved and when does he expect the first meetings to take place?

The Prime Minister mentioned the idea of an elected body playing some part in this process. Can he tell us how he would envisage the possibility of such a body becoming part of the peace process? What would be the timing of establishing such a body and, in particular, what would be its role in relation to the all-party negotiations that the two Governments hope to establish?

We essentially agree with what the Prime Minister has done today, and we welcome the framework that has been set out. It is not a solution, but it may provide a bridge to a solution. In constructing that bridge, the Irish and United Kingdom Governments should know that they will have the whole-hearted support and good wishes of all decent people in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

For 15 months, although unacceptable violence of a sectarian nature still continues, there has been without doubt a transformation in the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. Their liberation from the bomb and the bullet has brought new hope and the chance of renewed prosperity. Peace is now too precious to squander. The duty lies on all parties to make this process work. From the outset, the Labour party has regarded this issue as transcending party politics. We have supported the Government in their search for peace because we believe it to be right. We have worked with the Government and will continue to do so.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and his consistent support. I am also grateful to him for explaining to me his impeccable reason for needing to leave the Chamber during the course of this statement. I fully understand that that is unavoidable.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in the tribute that he paid to the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach has shown great courage and persistence, and I much admire what he has done. We have not invariably agreed on every matter, and all our discussions have not been easy, but I have found him an honest and straightforward man with whom to do business and I believe that, between us, we have made progress.

The right hon. Gentleman's characterisation of the preparatory talks and the decommissioning body was correct and I shall not reiterate the points that he put. They were certainly right. He raised a number of specific questions about the preparatory talks: how the Governments will he involved; and when they will start. We have set ourselves ambitious targets. We shall need to make a start on both tracks within a matter of days and we shall seek to do so. I hope that each Government will issue invitations to preparatory talks very soon. The starting point will obviously be existing exchanges and bilateral contacts, but we shall encourage other formats for meetings where the parties believe that they might further the objective of securing agreement.

This will be an intensive process. The two Governments have set out a way forward, but, as the right hon. Gentleman intimated, it requires the co-operation of all the parties in the tracks if we are to achieve real progress towards the targets that we have set ourselves. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the role of an elected body and whether that could play a part in the negotiating process. Certainly it will. That is one of the propositions for serious consideration in the preparatory talks.

Both the Unionist parties represented in the House have put forward interesting and constructive proposals. They are not the same but they are both worthy of careful consideration by all the parties with an open mind, and we shall endeavour to ensure that that is precisely what they receive. The key to this, as to so much else in this process, is what will give the parties the confidence to come together for substantive political negotiations. If an elected body can play a part in that—one can certainly see circumstances in which that could be the case—it should be looked at very hard and it most certainly will be in the preparatory talks in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are obvious fears about the significant risks that are being taken in the initiative that he has announced and agreed with the Taoiseach? Is he also aware that there were even more significant risks in allowing the logjam to continue and no progress to be made? In that respect, will he accept the strong support, as echoed by the Leader of the Opposition, for the view that there is no prospect of all-party talks of any value and meaning unless there is confidence between the parties? It is therefore essential that Sinn Fein-IRA and other paramilitaries recognise the challenge that they will face in a matter of weeks—I understand that the commission is to report by the middle of January—and that they give clear evidence and conviction to all those concerned that they are genuine about becoming non-violent democratic parties and are prepared to embark on the decommissioning of arms.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I share his judgment about the relative balance of risk between proceeding as we propose and not having proceeded at all. I believe that we have made the right judgment. No progress in this affair is without risk and it could never have been without risk.

I share the view that my right hon. Friend set out. The key to progress is to establish proper confidence between the parties, and all those who propose to take part in the negotiations must be set upon a secure democratic future. This is not a new condition or proposition. It was set out clearly in paragraph 10 of the joint declaration when we embarked on this whole affair and it remains as relevant and important today as it was on the day when we first agreed it.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I am happy to welcome and support the Prime Minister's statement and the joint communiqué on which it was based which was issued last night. This is not a breakthrough. The bottom line problems remain to be resolved, but it returns momentum to the peace process and provides a time frame and a structure within which those problems can be resolved. That may not be very tidy, but it is sensible and good politics.

We are now less than three weeks away from the anniversary of the publication of the foundation document. The Prime Minister will no doubt agree that the only rock on which that document and the peace process can be founded is absolute unanimity of purpose and action on the part of the British and Irish Governments. Perhaps he will confirm that in the process that he sees ahead, we shall overcome the disagreements and divergences that have perhaps taken some momentum from the peace process over the past few weeks.

On the role of an elected assembly, we support the Government's position that talks cannot take place between all parties until the process of decommissioning has started because that is the clear indication that all parties have committed themselves exclusively to the democratic process. But does The Prime Minister agree that the establishment of an elected assembly may have a role in that as well, and that in this matter the Irish Government may have a role to play in encouraging those who have so far been reluctant to take part in that to do so?

Finally, the Prime Minister said that within the next two or three days invitations will be issued to the parties for the exploratory talks. May we take it that that means that he sees those talks starting in a week or so—at all events before Christmas?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The answer to his last point is yes. I certainly see the talks starting as speedily as we can manage and invitations being issued within a few days. I hope that all those who receive those invitations will both join in those talks and join in them at senior decision-making level within their parties because that is important.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a balance of advantage, a very clear balance of advantage, in working with the Irish Government. We do not agree on every aspect; both the Taoiseach and I would state that quite plainly. There is no doubt that there is a different perspective on some of the matters that we have been discussing, but the prospects for success are infinitely greater if the two Governments can continue to work together in this process rather than apart. There were efforts during the past few months by some of the parties involved to seek to provoke differences and breaks between the two Governments. We are well aware of the number of occasions on which they tried to do that and we have resisted.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about decommissioning. As I said a moment ago, that was set out in the Downing street declaration. It is not a matter of dogma but of practicalities. No one has yet found an alternative way of providing confidence. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) once said that if there were other ways, of course one could look at them. But no one has yet provided another way. We shall wait to see whether one is provided. As for an elected assembly, I do not need to reiterate what the right hon. Gentleman said: I agree with it.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

In warmly welcoming yesterday's communiqué and my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask him to confirm that the international body will be purely advisory, that it will have no executive role and that both Governments will be free to respond to its suggestions in the way that they wish?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can confirm all my hon. Friend's points. It will have an advisory, not an executive role. Of course we shall listen carefully to what it has to say and both Governments will consider its recommendations, but, ultimately, it is for the British Government to take decisions on matters affecting Northern Ireland and for the British and Irish Governments to take decisions jointly on matters that are of joint interest to north and south and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. I believe that the international body, although advisory, will have a very valuable role to play.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I note that the communiqué that was issued last night is in its essentials identical to the one that would have been issued at the beginning of September if the Irish Government had not given way to IRA threats at that time. In his statement the Prime Minister referred to paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration and said that meeting the requirements of paragraph 10 are an essential condition. He will know that one of those requirements is the need to establish a commitment through exclusively peaceful means. I welcome what he said in the statement with regard to the decommissioning requirement and I welcome that clear restatement of the Government's position, but does he agree that there is also stated in paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration a need for parties moving into all-party talks to have a democratic mandate and to show a willingness to abide by the democratic process? Does he agree that that mandate can be obtained, and that willingness to abide by the democratic process can be shown, only by the parties submitting themselves to an election and showing a willingness to participate in an elected body, and that, therefore, the sooner we have such an election and such a body, out of which negotiations can subsequently be developed, the better?

The Prime Minister

There is a great similarity between the agreement that would have been reached in September and the communiqué that was issued last evening. One difference of course between the two, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is that the communiqué issued yesterday was far more detailed in its content than the relatively brief communiqué that was still-born in September. To that effect, the time that has been lost has not been wholly lost because we have made some progress in the detail of the matters.

The hon. Gentleman quotes paragraph 10 correctly and that is, of course, one of the ways in which parties may achieve a democratic mandate. We said clearly in paragraph 10 that democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics". That has been our guiding position from the outset and it remains so.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Does the Prime Minister accept that my colleagues and I have always been willing to meet him and to express our views on how political progress can be made and that we shall continue to do that, but that we are not prepared to be included in a process in which Sinn Fein-IRA plays a part while it still holds on to its semtex and weapons?

Will the Prime Minister explain to us how it is fair and just in paragraph 4 of the communiqué that constitutional and legitimate political parties should be treated on an equal basis to a political group that is a support organisation for a terrorist organisation, which, in turn, still holds on to its weaponry? Will the Prime Minister explain in relation to paragraph 3 what the term "widespread agreement" in that context is intended to convey? Is it possible for a talks process to begin without the support of all the Northern Ireland political parties?

The Prime Minister

We certainly seek as broad as possible participation and I hope that we can have universal participation. That would certainly be the best guiding star to achieving a satisfactory outcome and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party, who represent a great deal of important opinion in Northern Ireland, will play a constructive role. They have an important role to play. The proposals that he and his hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) brought to me recently were constructive. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) will see the echo of them in the reference to an elected assembly in the communiqué that was issued yesterday. I should like to continue that constructive approach and I hope that he and his party will contribute to these discussions at a senior decision-making level.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are seeking the prospect of a proper dialogue for peace, but there is a dilemma for the two Governments in that respect: we cannot ensure that dialogue ourselves. We can only encourage it. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Gentlemen with political responsibility for parties in Northern Ireland can deliver it and I very much hope that they will do so. They can help to ensure peace or they can help to prevent peace. I very much hope that they will work to ensure it.

As we have seen in the sad history of Northern Ireland, it is very easy to prevent peace. All that is necessary is to play to the old script, stand on the sidelines and play on the old fears and there will be no lasting peace. We know that that is the case. The history of Ireland has sadly told us that, but there is an alternative: if the people of Northern Ireland, who have shown great courage, can find a similar courage in all their political leaders—courage and determination to banish the old enmities—then, in joining in these discussions, those leaders can provide a more secure future for Northern Ireland than it has ever known in the past. That is a very great prize. It is a prize that is worth examining very carefully. It is worth examining all the options, including the option of deciding to engage in these preparatory talks.

The hon. Gentleman set out correctly what is necessary before one can move to what one might call the mainstream constitutional talks. We are here talking about the preparatory talks, and I hope that he and his party will show the same constructive spirit as they showed when they called upon me recently in Downing street, and will join in the talks, for the sake of the contribution that they can bring to making them a success.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Will the Prime Minister accept that we should not take the present ceasefire for granted? That is why the talks last night were so welcome, because they prevented the ceasefire from beginning to fray at the edges, as some of us feared that it might, given that there are always a few people who would like to return to violence. More importantly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the British and Irish people expect the parties to participate in the preparatory talks, and that failure to do so would cause enormous damage to the communities that they represent in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Certainly it is not wise to take the ceasefire for granted. One illustration of the extent to which that is true is that although, mercifully, we have had 15 months free of bombings and murder, emphatically we have not had 15 months free of crime and thuggery. Day after day, on both sides, punishment beatings have occurred, and people utterly defying the normal rule of law have taken it upon themselves to enter homes and break them up with baseball bats, and to break the arms and legs of teenagers with baseball bats for not toeing what those people thought was the appropriate party line in their particular part of Northern Ireland. That is not peace as I understand it, and it provides an illustration of the dangers that lie there.

There is one other relevant point: if the parties that have not been bombing and killing over the past 15 months are genuine in what they have repeatedly said since we lifted the broadcasting ban and enabled them to speak directly to the world, the peace that they seek is permanent. If that is true, there can be no question of going back to guns and bombs. In the future we shall find out whether, when they talked of peace over the past months, they were speaking the truth, or whether they were not. I hope that it will turn out that they were. Time alone will tell.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

May I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend and the Taoiseach and all who have worked towards this welcome progress? The international body is to be given a substantial task, and a formidably short time in which to do it. My right hon. Friend has named the chairman of the international body; can he say when he expects to be able to tell us the names of the other people serving on it?

The Prime Minister

I hope that we shall be able to announce the other two names speedily—I hope that one will be Canadian and the other Nordic. We are going through the final processes now and, as soon as those names are confirmed, and agreed by their Governments, I shall make them public.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Does the Prime Minister now agree that to make total or even partial arms decommissioning a precondition for all-party talks is rather impractical, because arms handed over today could be replaced tomorrow? And will he therefore pursue more vigorously the twin-track approach, with a firm starting date for all-party inclusive talks, which would help to find an agreed new constitutional settlement, as well as helping to bring about the total arms decommissioning that we all want to see?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right that the ultimate prize is complete decommissioning, not the partial decommissioning that we seek before we get to all-party talks. The problem is a practical one. Unless there is some partial decommissioning there is unlikely to be confidence among the other political parties that Sinn Fein is committed permanently to peace, and we cannot have all-party negotiations unless all parties are prepared to sit down and talk together. The reality of life is that, without something that will engender confidence—[Interruption.] The only thing that we have been able to identify is a decommissioning of some of the arms. If there is an alternative, it has not yet been produced. If it is produced, of course any sensible person would look at it. But it has not yet been produced and we have not been able to conceive what it might be. It is a practical problem, not a dogmatic problem. I hope that that point will be understood by those who have the arms and could decommission a portion of them to try to engender the confidence to ensure that those all-party talks can then take place.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his perseverance and wish him well with his future endeavours in the matter? Does he accept that a considerable number of Conservative Members believe that it is absolutely crucial that we put beyond all doubt and misunderstanding the central issue of decommissioning? Will he therefore confirm that there is absolutely no question whatever of the Government agreeing to enter into all-party talks before a start has been made on decommissioning?

The Prime Minister

I have indicated to my hon. Friend several times this afternoon that that is the Government's position. More relevantly, it is not only the Government's position. We must make that clear. It is the position of the parties who would be party to the talks. That is the real point. The parties would have to sit down together.

A number of the parties take the view, and I myself would not question that view—it is absolutely understandable—that they would not have confidence to sit down with Sinn Fein until they have a greater indication that Sinn Fein is prepared to disarm. That is the substantive point. It was implicit in the Downing street declaration mentioned earlier. It has been implicit ever since. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set it out in the three Washington conditions, the third of which is the one to which my hon. Friend refers. That remains the Government's position.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is the Prime Minister aware that all people in these islands will be congratulating him and the Taoiseach on having overcome some considerable difficulties and differences of opinion in achieving the communiqué yesterday? It is greatly welcomed. Will he answer two points? First, in talking about the three interlocking agreements, can he confirm that the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed still stands? In relation to confidence-building measures, will he confirm that the proposal of an elected assembly may in itself cause a lack of confidence in other participants, bearing in mind, as they do, the fact that the result is a foregone conclusion, that the constituency itself was drawn up to give that particular electoral conclusion and that they have unhappy memories of Stormont and of the conventions?

The Prime Minister

That is of course a proper matter for discussion. But there is one thing that I hope that we will be able to do. Time after time in the history of Northern Ireland an opportunity to progress in one form or another has been pushed aside because something similar was tried at some stage in the past and did not succeed. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the assembly route was tried in the past and did not succeed. But that was in a different time and in different circumstances. That is not to say that it would not succeed on this particular occasion.

I am saying to all the parties that I hope that they will stand back and consider whether it is possible to put some of those old shibboleths to one side and decide in the circumstances of 1995, on the back of the talks that have taken place, on the back of the changed situation that exists in the everyday life of people in Northern Ireland, in the understanding that this may be a chance that may not readily be repeated in the years ahead if it slips away from us, and when everyone should be prepared to go to the limit of what is tolerable for them and their view, to see if we can reach a communal settlement.

In that sense, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to rule out instinctively the question of going down the route of an elected body. One of the proposals is that there should be an elected body—not to govern Northern Ireland, but from which a negotiating team with a proper mandate to negotiate the future is drawn.

Negotiating those constitutional points will not be easy. I am open-minded about how those constitutional talks come about, but I can see the advantage that some of the political parties in this House see in having an elected assembly—not to govern Northern Ireland but to produce nominees from that assembly to negotiate constitutional matters for Northern Ireland. I hope that that matter will not be pushed aside by anyone in these preliminary conversations.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on so assiduously seeking a resolution of the problems in Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that a democratically elected body in Northern Ireland could be entirely consistent with the often expressed commitment of the Government not to seek to impose solutions on the Province?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite right; it would be consistent. That is legitimately one of the matters for discussion in the preparatory talks and thereafter. The fact of the matter is that the possibility of imposing solutions is more apparent than real. One cannot impose a solution that is not acceptable to the people generally. We need to reach agreement on those issues, and that is why it is so important that the discussions between all parties take place.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the Prime Minister agree that, although the issue of decommissioning has been firmly put in place by his statement today, Sinn Fein will not be admitted to substantive negotiations until it has physically commenced decommissioning? There is of course a more significant point, and that is the whole issue of consent. It seems to me—I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree—that the whole basis of the Downing street declaration was that the principle of consent, which is consent by the greater number of people in Northern Ireland, should rule any agreement. Does the Prime Minister therefore confirm that Sinn Fein will not be admitted to any substantive negotiations until it has unequivocally accepted the principle of consent as a basis for discussion?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, Sinn Fein cannot be admitted to talks with other parties until the other parties are prepared to talk to it. Therefore, the principle of consent, in that respect, lies in the hands of all the parties. There is a bigger issue on the subject of consent, and it is one that I sought to deal with some months ago. I have made it clear, and I happily reiterate it this afternoon, that if we are able to get through the preparatory talks and then move into all-party talks, and if those all-party talks reach an agreement, the agreement that emerges from the all-party talks will have to be put in a referendum to the people of Northern Ireland for their consent. Given the nature of what is under discussion, that is proper. I reiterate that that consent, in that respect, remains at the heart of the Government's plans.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's courageous determination to keep up the momentum? Will he confirm that the international body has a clear remit to consider only illegally held weapons, and that there is no question that the legally held weapons of the security forces in Northern Ireland will be dragged into the process?

Mr. Major

Yes, I can confirm that for my hon. Friend. That point is explicitly made in the communiqué agreed between the Taoiseach and myself.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

May I begin by thanking the Prime Minister for clinging so tenaciously, if somewhat precariously, to his Washington third criterion, which requires that a full decommissioning process be agreed and the first phase be implemented before any paramilitary organisation can enter into substantive talks? May I caution him that the Irish are very good wordsmiths who are able to craft their language in a way which means all things to all people? Does he recall that Albert Reynolds, who with him signed the Downing street declaration, was unable to understand the meaning of "commitment to exclusively peaceful means" to include decommissioning of illegal weapons? Does he also recall that, in 1985, the Government's commitment to allowing the status of Northern Ireland to be decided by the people of Northern Ireland was overruled by the Irish Supreme Court, which said that status was not defined—carefully not defined? In the communiqué, could it be that the Irish believe that decommissioning is not defined—carefully not defined?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman began by saying that there was great skill in the use of language in Ireland, and I would suggest that that skill extends to all parts of the island of Ireland, both north and south. The hon. Gentleman has just illustrated that skill with great clarity, and I understand his point.

The hon. Gentleman was one of the early advocates of the possibility of an international body, and I congratulate him on his prescience in that respect. It is clearly a valid way forward, and we have decided to adopt it. We also were considering it at the time, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is misjudging the communiqué in his use of language. The communiqué is not a fudge, and what is set out in it is very clear.

The only point of difference that exists between the British and Irish Governments has been set out clearly by both the Taoiseach and me last night and separately this morning. That point of difference has been acknowledged, but the substance of the communiqué is very clear and includes the remit of the international body and the nature of the arms to be considered by that body.