HC Deb 26 October 1995 vol 264 cc1132-6
4. Sir Thomas Arnold

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the peace process in Northern Ireland. [36903]

5. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are his intentions for the next stage of the peace process. [36904]

9. Mr. Hain

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is his latest assessment of the prospects for peace. [36908]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Northern Ireland continues its welcome return towards normality. There is still a long way to go before a true peace and a democratic settlement are reached. The Government intend, however, to develop the substantial progress already made by steadfastly pursuing their policies, which are already well known to this House.

Sir Thomas Arnold

Will my right hon. and learned Friend now take further steps to reassure the Unionist parties of the integrity of the Government's intentions?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hope that no further reassurance on that is necessary. The Government's position has been made consistently and abundantly clear over a long time. I have just given an undertaking of our steadfast determination to pursue it.

Mr. Hughes

On a specific point, given the good reputation of the five education and library boards for promoting co-operation across the community boundaries, can the Secretary of State assure the House that consideration has been given to whether the proposal to reduce the number of boards to four—for financial reasons, as I understand it—will not have the disadvantage of making the boards far more segregated and far less able to do the very good job that they have done in the past?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The proposal is under discussion with the parties. That is the first way in which the matter should be examined, and that is what has happened.

Mr. Hain

Does the Secretary of State agree that prison issues are important in building the trust and confidence needed to carry forward the peace process? Given the new arrangements from 1 November, will he specifically urge the Home Secretary to expedite prison transfer requests so that they go through without unnecessary bureaucratic delay? Will the Secretary of State examine, on compassionate grounds, the case of Patrick Kelly, who is in Whitemoor? He is seriously ill with cancer and wishes to transfer to the Irish Republic, where he can be near his family.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The offender whose name has just been mentioned is within the jurisdiction of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, as the hon. Gentleman knows. My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard what the hon. Gentleman says. It is worth reminding the House that ratification by the Irish Government of the European convention will take effect only from 1 November. Our own country ratified it several years ago—I think in 1984. Thereafter, it has to be a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to consider,, in the light of individual circumstances, whether it is appropriate to repatriate, if that is requested, a prisoner to the Republic of Ireland, where he or she is domiciled. I am certain that those matters will be examined by the two relevant Ministers in Dublin and London.

Mr. Bellingham

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the peace process is not helped by crimes such as the one that took place today, in which a 16-year-old girl was dragged out of her house by paramilitaries in Twinbrook, beaten up and covered in paint? Will he condemn that crime and make every effort to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I condemn that, as everyone in the House will condemn similar brutal beatings. There is no need for the Royal Ulster Constabulary to be encouraged to try to bring those people to justice and to prevent similar crimes from taking place. I agree with the words with which my hon. Friend began his question.

Mr. Trimble

Is it not the case that, following the action by the Irish Republic last month in giving way to the threats of violence from Sinn Fein-IRA, it is extremely unlikely that the necessary confidence can be created for talks in the near future? In the light of that, is not the best way forward to take up the suggestion made by Unionist parties that there be an elected body so that parties to any future negotiations can obtain a mandate and, in the interval, debate and investigate issues relevant to future negotiations?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his accession to the leadership of his party.

This is the first time that we have had the occasion to do that and to say that his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), was held in great affection by all in the House. We do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman's tenure will be just as distinguished.

I do not accept the words with which the hon. Gentleman began his question. I do not accept the conclusion that he drew from them. I should like to assure him that the Government are committed, with the Irish Government, to promoting the concept of a twin track or parallel approach. We believe that it is important that all relevant parties and future participants in the negotiations to which we all look forward should have the opportunity to sit down and talk. One of the solutions that the hon. Gentleman and his party hold to is a form of assembly. It is an interesting solution and one which we hope could usefully be discussed in the talks which form the political track. So I hope that that may be a means by which that interesting and possibly fruitful suggestion may be ventilated and explored.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is Government policy shortly to introduce remission of 50 per cent. on prison sentences for terrorist offences? If that is so, how can he square it with the life sentences that are served on grieving relatives, for whom there can never be any remission?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the continuing effects of such serious crimes. I thought it right to point that out when I made a speech at Queen's university Belfast on 25 August, setting out the Government's policy on restoring to pre-1989 levels the point in sentence at which an offender is released, if he or she is convicted of a scheduled—that is to say a terrorist—offence and sentenced to five years' imprisonment or more. In 1989, that category of prisoner had entitlement to remission reduced from 50 per cent. to one third, by reason of the need at that time for a greater deterrent factor. As I said in August, the Government believe that current circumstances warrant a restoration of that pre-1989 position. I believe that to be the case and I shall be recommending it to the House. We shall have to see what it has to say.

Mr. Mallon

I also congratulate the new leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and wish him well, as I wish his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), a happy retirement.

Does the Secretary of State agree when I say that I hope that the semantic phase of the peace process will soon be over, and we will stop worrying to death words such as clarification, permanence and decommissioning, as they have clouded the issue and the two central problems? The first is how we rid Northern Ireland politics of arms for ever and the second is how we set up the type of political arrangements and structures upon which to build a peaceful future.

Will the Secretary of State accept from me that most people who share those objectives fully support the twin-track approach as being the only viable way to deal with those two objectives? Will he also tell the House what alternatives have been presented to him by others who might disagree with that twin-track approach?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the twin-track approach, which represents perhaps not the only but the best way forward in this difficult position. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Minister of State said about the overriding necessity of confidence being established. There is no point in calling a conference to negotiate the political future of Northern Ireland, when it is certain that a number of chairs will be empty. That would destroy the very process on which all future progress depends.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. and learned Friend understand that he enjoys massive support on the Conservative Benches for the firm line that he and his team have taken on the decommissioning of arms? Is he aware that that sends messages to all those throughout the United Kingdom who may be tempted into that kind of activity, particularly the lunatic fringe of the narrow nationalists in Scotland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expression of support. It is necessary to hold to a proper analysis of a very difficult problem and to hold steadfastly to a properly formulated policy for dealing with it. That is what the Government intend to do and I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support.

Ms Mowlam

As the House has shown, we are at a delicate time in the peace process. The Secretary of State has just argued that building trust and confidence is central to the process, which is why we support the remission legislation on Monday as timely and why paramilitary decommissioning must be addressed. However, can the Secretary of State do all that he can to encourage the implementation of Government policy on prisoner transfers and will he consider expanding the twin-track approach to add a track on reconciliation, focusing on a bill of rights?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I think I should rather leave the question of a Bill of Rights until later: there are interesting arguments to be advanced on both sides.

Prisoners who commit serious offences in a particular jurisdiction must normally expect to serve their sentences within that jurisdiction according to law. Where there is an international conference or a European convention, it depends on the individual circumstances whether a prisoner will be transferred in accordance with that convention. I have already said that the jurisdiction over a number of prisoners whose names are in the news at the moment rests with the Home Secretary.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Further to the remarks of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the vast majority of those of us who believe in the historic integrity of the United Kingdom have enormous admiration for the courageous initiative and persistence of the Prime Minister and for the diligence and patience that my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have been showing over many months?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

We are all grateful for anything of that character passed our way.

Mr. McNamara

I join the House in welcoming the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to his new position. He has a difficult act to follow. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) is no longer leading his party.

Will the Secretary of State give the House the terms of reference of the new international commission that is to police the problem of decommissioning, and has he now secured the full agreement of all the main parties to the twin-track approach?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Both Governments consider that there is a lot of promise in the idea of an international commission, comprised as it has been suggested, as forming the first of the two twin tracks that have been mentioned several times today. The terms of reference are not yet formulated. I believe that there is a wide body of support for this approach.