HC Deb 12 February 1996 vol 271 cc655-74 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the bomb explosion in the South Quay area of London last Friday, the declared end to the IRA ceasefire and the implications for security and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

There is no doubt that the evil act in London was the work of the IRA. It has all the hallmarks of its operations, with the callous sacrifice of innocent lives. The bomb followed shortly after an IRA statement, given to the Irish broadcasting organisation on the evening of 9 February, that the complete cessation of hostilities ordered in August 1994 was now at an end. The IRA admitted its responsibility for the bomb on 10 February.

The facts of the incident are briefly these. Around 5.45 pm last Friday, warning calls were made that a large bomb had been placed at South Quay station, Marsh Wall, in London. Local police arrived at the scene shortly after 6 o'clock, and anti-terrorist branch officers shortly after that.

At around 6.30 pm a suspect vehicle, a Ford flat-backed lorry, was identified, and the immediate area was cleared. While the area was being evacuated, the vehicle exploded, causing extensive damage to buildings in the area, and a large number of casualties. Two people were killed and 43 injured, two of them critically. Three police officers were among the casualties. I know that the House will join me in extending our deepest sympathy to all the innocent victims and their families. It is little short of a miracle that the casualty list was not much longer.

I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of the emergency services. Despite being hampered by a fractured gas main at the scene, they responded magnificently and they richly deserve all our thanks.

I must say to the House that this may not be the last such atrocity. More may follow, both here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland, if the IRA ceasefire is not renewed. We will do all that we can to prevent that and to catch those responsible. The protection of the public will remain our first priority.

In Great Britain, security has immediately returned to pre-ceasefire levels. In Northern Ireland itself, we had been careful from the very first moment of the ceasefire to take no irreversible steps to downgrade our security capability. All necessary measures to cope with the present situation are now in place. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is on full alert. We have sought to make an appropriate and proportionate response to the increased threat without disrupting daily life more than absolutely necessary.

The IRA has brought the 17-month-old ceasefire to an end. There is no shred of an excuse for this return to violence, least of all now, when all-party negotiations were clearly in sight. After the August 1994 ceasefire declaration, we called repeatedly on the IRA to make it clear that it was permanent, despite criticism by some for doubting the good faith of the IRA. We did doubt its good faith and the IRA did not say that it was a permanent ceasefire. None the less, after a prudent period, in order to move the process forward we were prepared to act on the working assumption that the ceasefire would last.

In the months that followed, we reduced the more visible and inconvenient aspects of security. We took soldiers off the streets and opened all the border crossing points. We did everything possible to create new jobs in Northern Ireland through renewed inward investment, and we helped to produce a remarkable economic upsurge. We talked to Sinn Fein leaders at official and at ministerial level. We constantly sought to move the peace process forward towards the all-party negotiations that everyone knows are necessary.

No one took more risks for peace than the Government over the past two years, but we never lost sight of the fact that the IRA commitment had not been made for good. No responsible Government could have done otherwise. That was why we and many others saw a start to the decommissioning of illegal arms as a way of creating confidence in Sinn Fein's acceptance of democratic peaceful methods, and showing that the violence had really ended. But all the time that Sinn Fein was calling for all-party talks, we knew that the IRA continued to train and plan for terrorist attacks. Punishment beatings and killings continued, as the House well knows. It remained ready to resume full-scale terrorism at any time. We could never be confident that its behaviour was that of an organisation that had decided to renounce violence for ever. The IRA peace was not a true peace.

I regret to say that the events of last Friday showed that our caution about the IRA was only too justified. The timing of the return to violence may have been surprising: the fact that violence could resume was not. We must now continue the search for permanent peace and a comprehensive political settlement in Northern Ireland. Let there be no doubt that the Government's commitment to that is as strong as ever, and will remain as strong as ever.

We will work for peace with all the democratic political parties and with the Irish Government. But a huge question mark now hangs over the position of one of the parties—over Sinn Fein. Its leaders have spoken often of their commitment to peace and peaceful methods, but they have always ducked and weaved when they have been questioned about the IRA and its methods. After the events of last Friday, their ambiguity stands out starkly. The test for eligibility to take part in all-party negotiations was set by the British and Irish Governments in paragraph 10 of the Downing Street declaration. They should be democratically mandated parties, which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process.

Sinn Fein's leaders claim that they did not know about the bomb at South Quay and the IRA's ceasefire statement, but they have refused either to condemn or to dissociate themselves from either. Sinn Fein must decide whether it is a front for the IRA or a democratic political party that is committed to the ballot and not the bullet. Meanwhile, one thing is clear: in the absence of a genuine end to this renewed violence, meetings between British Ministers and Sinn Fein are not acceptable and cannot take place.

That is also the position of the Irish Government. They have made it clear to Sinn Fein that their attitude and willingness to meet at political level will be determined by whether the IRA ceasefire is restored. We and the Irish Government are at one on this: the ball is in the court of Sinn Fein and the IRA, if indeed that distinction means anything. It is for them to show through their words and actions whether they have a part to play in the peace process. I am not in the business of slamming doors, but the British and Irish peoples need to know where Sinn Fein stands.

The people of a democracy are not passive spectators to events. They have the right to make their views clear on these issues, and the people of Northern Ireland, from both communities, have consistently done so. The popular will for peace has never been clearer or more coherently expressed than in recent months. The peace process will go on. I commend all those who have had the courage and the sense, in the face of this latest atrocity, to work to prevent a wider return to violence.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have met all the parties in the past two weeks. That process will be intensified with the parties that have not, for the present, disqualified themselves. The aim is, as it has always been, to establish the necessary confidence to enable negotiations between all the parties to begin. I want everyone to be absolutely clear on that point. The objective of all our actions and policies, before and since the ceasefire, has been to get to a position in which all the constitutional and democratic parties can get around the table together. Everything else is a means to that essential end.

On 24 January, I told the House that, if the paramilitaries would not start decommissioning their illegal arms, one alternative way forward was through elections, to give the electoral mandates and confidence that could lead straight, and straight away, to negotiations. As proposed by the Mitchell report, decommissioning could go ahead in parallel with those negotiations. The proposal has been consistently misrepresented by Sinn Fein, and it has been misunderstood more widely. I repeat now that its purpose is to lead directly and speedily to negotiations between all the parties that are committed to peaceful and democratic methods, and it is aimed at reaching a comprehensive political settlement.

An elected body would have to be broadly acceptable and it would be strictly time limited. I am not proposing—as I have made clear on many occasions—an assembly with legislative and administrative powers. Any suggestion of a return to old-style Stormont rule is manifest nonsense on the basis of the proposals that we have put forward. The proposed elections are a door to full negotiations, and I continue to believe that they provide the most promising available opening. We will pursue that proposal and seek to persuade all concerned that it is indeed a way forward and not a means of delaying progress.

Our ideas are still being discussed with the parties. I should like to reassure the House that there are ways forward to negotiations with all the parties, which could include Sinn Fein—but only, of course, if there is an unequivocal return to the ceasefire. Others, including the Irish Government, have ideas, too. Our minds are not closed, and neither, I know, are theirs. I have talked to the Taoiseach twice since the bombing, and we plan to meet soon in London to discuss all the possibilities. I intend to find a way through to the negotiations, with all those who are committed to democracy.

The peace process in Northern Ireland has received a serious setback from the men of violence, but the process is not over—not by any means. We have seen the benefits of what has been achieved since the ceasefire: the freedom to live and to work normally; the freedom to enjoy life; increased prosperity and new jobs; and new hope for the future of the people of both communities in Northern Ireland. Those benefits must not lightly be thrown away.

This Government will not be deterred by terrorism. The people of Northern Ireland have tasted peace—a peace that has changed their lives. I have told the House before that I will leave no stone unturned in the search for peace. That is true today, and it will remain true in the future. The people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland deserve no less than that.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

First, I join the Prime Minister in condemning without reservation the atrocity at Canary wharf and expressing our deepest and heartfelt sympathy to the victims and their families, and our gratitude once again—as so often before—to the emergency services for their unstinting courage. I also offer our thanks to the people of Northern Ireland, who deserve some credit for the calm and responsible way in which they responded to Friday's bomb. Their steadfastness among the sadness, anger and frustration that they must feel is a lesson to us all.

The Prime Minister has said all that needs to be said about the bombing itself. I would add just this: there has been much speculation about whether, as a matter of tactics, the IRA meant the bomb as a one-off or as part of some more prolonged campaign. For the IRA it may be a matter of tactics, but for the victims it has been a matter of life and death. There can be nothing but the most profound contempt for those who will butcher wholly innocent people in the pursuit of any such strategy, whatever it is.

So the question now is hard but simple. How do we regain the momentum for peace without concessions to the men of war? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Downing Street declaration made two things very plain? One was that Britain had no selfish interest in Northern Ireland; its future could rest with its people—indeed, with the people of the whole of Ireland.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

What about the United Kingdom?

Mr. Blair

Of course the United Kingdom, too. The second was that, for a lasting settlement to be reached, there had to be a clear commitment by all parties to exclusively peaceful methods. Will the Prime Minister also confirm that all the main parties in the Irish Republic and, indeed, the Social Democratic and Labour party in the north, are committed to those principles?

Is it not the case, therefore, that the vast majority of people from both traditions are committed to peace? They may differ as to the future of Northern Ireland, but they do not as to the means of achieving it. Sinn Fein represents a section of nationalist opinion, but it is worth recalling that it is not predominant even in the nationalist community, north or south. In those circumstances, is not the demand which the Prime Minister makes and which I echo today—that if it wants to participate in negotiations, Sinn Fein must accept the same peaceful methods as everyone else—not only right but the only conceivable course that any British Government could justify? The question then is, if that is so, how do we establish with confidence, now, that it will accept exclusively peaceful methods in the future? That is a question self-evidently even more central after Friday than before.

Decommissioning weapons was one way. In our judgment, it is and remains the obvious way, but that has been ruled out by Sinn Fein. A new electoral mechanism is sought as an alternative to that. Will the Prime Minister confirm that if it is to work, there must be broad agreement to it and that he will pursue all sensible avenues to achieve it? Can he also confirm, as I think he implied in his statement, that if elections go ahead, they will be on the following terms: that that is not a return to Stormont; that it will lead directly to substantive negotiations—in other words, that it is not a delaying tactic—that decommissioning could begin in parallel and that it will remain part of the three-strand peace process? So that is a way to negotiations.

The Prime Minister is surely right to emphasise that other options, whether they come from the Irish Government or from elsewhere, will always be open to consideration. All options are therefore being examined, but no option can include Sinn Fein unless it comes within the democratic process in a genuine, complete and irreversible way. Does not that mean that it must be prepared to play by the rules of democracy, namely, that sometimes one gets one's way and sometimes one does not, but one cannot achieve by violence what one is denied by the will of the people? Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be a start at least if Sinn Fein said even that it agreed with the six principles of Senator Mitchell?

I do not believe that this is the end of the search for peace. It cannot be. The benefits of peace have been incalculable in jobs, industry, confidence and security—plain, simple normality. People can go out and enjoy themselves without fear. They can learn to get on with and to come to befriend those of a different tradition. But more than that, peace is what the vast majority of the people of all Ireland—Northern Ireland and the Republic—want. To deny them peace is to vanquish democracy and to let violence determine events. The bombers should not gain concessions from the bomb, but neither should they be allowed to thwart peace.

As I have no doubt the right hon. Gentleman knows, many hard decisions will have to be taken over the next few days and weeks. Those taking them, both here and in Northern Ireland and the Republic, will require unusual courage and determination. There will be a need for still more and, perhaps, even greater risks than ever before to be taken, but the risks are justifiable. The people in Northern Ireland should know that, whatever the political differences between myself and the Prime Minister, on this matter we shall stand four square together in the cause of peace.

The Prime Minister

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his continuing and firm support for our efforts to produce a satisfactory outcome and a permanent peace for the people of Northern Ireland. As I have said before, our activities are greatly strengthened by the support that we have had from across the Floor, and I deeply appreciate it.

The right hon. Gentleman expressed his warm appreciation for the emergency services, and also referred to the courage of the people of Northern Ireland. I warmly echo that. The bomb on this occasion was in London, but Northern Ireland has suffered for many years and the courage of its people has been remarkable. That courage deserves a reward, which is why it is right that this House should continue to pursue peace.

The right hon. Gentleman asked the right question—how do we regain momentum? He accurately set out the background, so I shall not reiterate what he said. He was equally right to say that all the democratic parties are committed to peace and that Sinn Fein is but a fraction of the nationalists in the north. The other nationalist party has been a firm adherent to the peace process from the outset.

If Sinn Fein is to re-enter negotiations, it must be upon the basis that the right hon. Gentleman and I have both set out; it must be on the same basis as the other parties; and it must be with the same commitment as the other parties. I do not seek today to erect barriers, to produce harsh words or to make it more difficult for those in Sinn Fein to do what needs to be done, but Sinn Fein-IRA will need to decide again that the ceasefire must return. It is essential that they do that.

On the question of the election mechanism, of course there must be broad agreement and of course it is seen as a route to negotiations. That is the underlying purpose, and I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said. Equally, he was right to say that we must look at other options. No options can be excluded if they are likely to prove practicable and if they are likely to advance the process. No wise man would turn his back on an option that may enable us to make practical progress and ensure, perhaps, that the bomb that went off the other day is not followed by others.

Sinn Fein must indicate that it is determined to become a democratic party. Doubt has once again savagely and clearly been expressed about its activities in the light of what has happened in the past few days. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that it has not clearly and unequivocally adopted the six principles set out in the Mitchell report. The Mitchell report itself did not incorporate a seventh vital principle to Northern Ireland, accepted by all the other parties—the principle of consent. That is accepted by all the mainstream parties in Northern Ireland, and has been so accepted for some time. That was not in the Mitchell report, and it has not been accepted by Sinn Fein.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, we are not at the end of the road to peace. If we are pushed back, we will start again. If we are pushed back again, we will start again. If we are pushed back a third time, we will start again. There can be no end to the search for a permanent settlement in Northern Ireland until we have achieved a permanent settlement in Northern Ireland. That should be—and, I hope, will be—true of this Government and all successor Governments, for as long as it may take and of whatever party those Governments may be comprised.

The right hon. Gentleman offered his unequivocal support for the efforts that we are making, and I am grateful for that. We may, as he said, have to take more risks. We will not take reckless risks, but if we believe that a risk is appropriate in the cause of peace—a justifiable risk—we will take it and seek the support of the House in doing so.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we owe a duty to all those who suffered in the bomb outrage in docklands, as we have owed it to all those in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who have suffered outrages at the hands of terrorists over the years, to do two things: neither allow the terrorists to dictate the agenda, nor take away from the Government, Parliament and the Leader of the Opposition, with his welcome support on behalf of his party, the determination to continue the fight for peace? All people of good will throughout the island of Ireland, as well as the British Isles, will support my right hon. Friend in his continuing and brave determination to work to that end.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and knows the opportunities and the difficulties as well as any Member, so I am grateful for his support. He is entirely right in the premises that he sets out and I see no particular reason why I should add to his points, except to say that I agree with them.

The reaction and the courage of the people of London who were involved after the bomb the other day is also well worthy of mention in the House. There was a great deal of quiet bravery on that occasion, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to acknowledge it.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

On behalf of Ulster Unionist Members, I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. We join him in his total condemnation of the IRA atrocity in London—an incident that has not been condemned by Sinn Fein. On behalf of most people in Northern Ireland, and I might add the overwhelming number of people in the Republic of Ireland, we extend our sympathy to the families who have been bereaved and those who have been injured. We thank the Prime Minister, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats for maintaining a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland. This is a very bad day for Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, and we appreciate their united front.

Does the Prime Minister agree that some of those who were involved in the peace process were under the self-delusion that democratic procedures could attract those who are solely committed to violence? That seemed to be an error in the approach of some people. Does he agree that the inevitability of another terrorist attack was increasing as Sinn Fein steadily went through certain procedures: rejecting the Downing Street declaration, not approving the six principles recommended in the Mitchell report, and—strangely enough—refusing to reach agreement with all other Irish nationalists at the Dublin forum for peace and reconciliation, on the forum's report on Friday? Sinn Fein was totally isolating itself.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the benefits that we may derive from the terrible incident at the weekend is the mobilisation of the people of Northern Ireland towards lasting peace? There is great abhorrence of what happened and we can use that to our advantage, by isolating the terrorists and instead involving the people in the democratic process. That is why we believe that an election is the one way in which to open up an opportunity. Does the Prime Minister agree that those who have misrepresented the elected forum and given the IRA the impression that it was to be a parliament with legislative and administrative powers in a way fuelled the IRA to do what it did this weekend?

The Ulster Unionists will make their contribution to the peace process. We shall talk to all constitutional parties in Northern Ireland and leaders of all Irish political parties, but to meet them in Dublin will be increasingly difficult following the letter sent out last week by the RUC to all judges and politicians in Northern Ireland, saying that their police protection is to be withdrawn from 4 March this year.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he had to say about the victims. He speaks, of course, as someone who has himself suffered from terrorist violence in the past. I think he was right to say that Sinn Fein was finding itself increasingly isolated and that that was indicated by the fact that it was the only party not to agree with the final documentation of the forum for peace in Dublin.

Above all, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the desirability of mobilising the people of Northern Ireland for the peace process. They are the most powerful advocates for the peace process and have been since the onset of the process. I think that, with the support of their elected politicians in the House, they can again be mobilised to make it clear to that tiny minority who believe that they can live beyond the law and by terrorism that they are isolated and that they have no friends and no comforters in the democratic House of Commons or among the people of Northern Ireland, whether they be Catholic or Protestant.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, there have been misunderstandings about the nature of the elected forum that I propose. I hope now that those misunderstandings are behind us and laid to rest. I hope that it is now clear what nature of election we propose, what we propose would occur after the election and, in particular, that we seek all-party negotiations speedily thereafter. That is what all parties in the House have sought a way to find. I believe that we may have a route that will reach it. I hope that, in the discussions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I will have with the parties in the days and weeks that lie ahead, we might find the route through to those elections speedily.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

May I say that I am absolutely confident in standing here that I speak for the vast mass of the people of both parts of our island, in utterly condemning the terrible atrocity that took place on Friday in London and in expressing the deep sympathy to the families who suffered? No one understands more—especially not more than the people of the north of Ireland—what those people have suffered.

I should also like to say that that event has naturally caused a great many strong feelings in me and my party, given what we have been through in recent times, but I shall keep those to myself today, concentrate on what the Prime Minister was saying positively, and say that I agree with him. We have to concentrate our minds on getting all people together, because the objective has to be what we have never had in Northern Ireland—lasting stability. The worst symptom of the absence of that stability is violence, and it is the duty of all the people to do everything in their power to get everyone to the table.

I also agree that the people of Northern Ireland—and of Ireland as a whole—have recently shown strongly their massive will for peace. I think that one of the best ways forward now is to let the people speak and to let them speak very clearly. If they do, neither the IRA nor anyone else will be able to ignore them. How do I ask the Prime Minister to let them speak? Let us have a referendum in Northern Ireland before the end of this month and ask John Bruton to do the same. There should be two questions. Question No. 1: "Do you totally and absolutely and unequivocally disapprove of violence for any purpose whatsoever on this island?" Question No. 2: "Do you want to see all parties brought to the table to be given a process of dialogue to create lasting stability?"

The Prime Minister

I think that the sympathy expressed from Northern Ireland for the people of London will be very well received, not only by those who suffered directly from the bomb, and their families, but by other Londoners. Clearly, it is right to try to bring people together. The hon. Gentleman is entirely accurate to say that there is a massive will for peace. That has been evident throughout the past three or four years. We are looking at a range of different options on how we might proceed in the future. More than one option lies before us at the moment and we are examining them. Of course, I shall also take account of what the hon. Gentleman had to say.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

As bombs cannot destroy the yearning in Northern Ireland for permanent peace and as the search for that peace must continue, will my right hon. Friend make a priority of promoting meaningful dialogue at this stage between the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland and the Irish Government in the political track of twin-track? Will he above all make it absolutely clear that there can be no reward for violence?

The Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend upon the latter point. We are certainly keen to encourage dialogue—the former point that he makes—and will continue to do so.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I wish to be associated with the words of the Prime Minister and the leader of Labour party, in sending condolences and best wishes to the victims and thanks to the emergency services. Is it not the case that it is simply impossible for the atrocity on Friday night to have been a spontaneous act, and that it must have been carefully and deliberately planned during the past few weeks while the rest of us were trying to find ways to peace? Is it not also the case that the aim of that act was not just to maim innocent bodies, but to make a casualty of peace itself? Is not that a reason why those who will not condemn must be regarded as condoning? Is not this a moment when Sinn Fein must decide whether it will be a democratic party committed to peace, or a prisoner of every callous and arbitrary decision made by the IRA Provisional Army Council?

The Prime Minister knows that we have supported him in his patient and courageous search for peace with the Irish Prime Minister in the past years, and we shall continue to support him in every act that he takes that seeks to reinvigorate the peace process on the basis of a consensus agreement between the democratic parties. Is it not, however, an iron law in those matters that, when the Irish and British Governments agree, they can have success, but when they disagree, they give the terrorists a chance?

Surely, therefore, the first priority must now be to restore the trust and unanimity of voice and action between Dublin and London. If that requires compromise on the favourite solutions put forward by both sides, surely that is a small price to pay. Surely those who represent the people of Northern Ireland—who will listen, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) suggested, to the cry of the people of Northern Ireland to let them have the peace back—will recognise that a new spirit of compromise is the only way to ensure that peace itself is not added to the long list of casualties from Canary wharf.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right that the bomb last Friday was not spontaneous, and that it must have been planned, prepared and sanctioned over a substantial period. It did not happen miraculously within a few short hours or days. That is undoubtedly the case, and he is entirely right to draw the attention of the House to that. He is also entirely right to make the point that those who are unwilling to condemn may be seen to condone what has happened, and I hope that that point is taken where it is aimed.

With regard to the situation between the British and Irish Governments, our objectives have been and remain the same—to try to bring all parties together so that a democratic agreement can be reached. We have not always agreed on every aspect throughout the past three years, and we have had to compromise between ourselves many times on the right approach to take. We have done so and we have reached agreements, and I am confident that we shall be able to reach agreements again in future.

I look forward to meeting the Taoiseach shortly, although that meeting will probably not take place this week. It may take place next week, but a date has not yet been determined. I have no doubt that we shall both look at the options that lie ahead, to see whether we can find a way forward that we both agree is the best option to deliver the outcome that we both seek.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

May I say to the Prime Minister today that he has the support of all right-thinking and law-abiding people in Northern Ireland at this time? Some of us have come through this for almost a quarter of a century, and we know exactly how the bereaved ones and their families feel. We know the agony and the pain of those who have been injured and of those who will probably never enjoy the fullness of life again. All right-thinking people on both sides of the religious and political divides in Northern Ireland are at one in their sympathy. The House has heard from representatives from all the parties in Northern Ireland, all of whom have said the same in regard to that pain and anguish.

I find it very strange indeed that many commentators and many nationalist leaders, having condemned what IRA-Sinn Fein had done in the heart of the capital city of this United Kingdom, in their next breath repeated the propaganda line that was in the statement—that the people to be blamed for this terrible atrocity were the Prime Minister and the Unionist leaders. While they were prepared to condemn what had been done, those people were also prepared to parrot the lying propaganda of IRA-Sinn Fein. I find that very strange and dangerous.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. Points of order come later.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The leader of the Liberal Democrats was absolutely right when he said that this had not happened overnight. The police in Northern Ireland have discovered that, three weeks ago, a registered tax disc on a lorry registered in England was stolen. That tax disc was on the lorry that did the damage. New number plates were made, and the lorry was brought across, via Lame and Stranraer, to do the damage. That has been confirmed to the owner of the tax disc, who is one of my constituents.

Three weeks ago, then, the planning was going on, and the premeditation of this terrible carnage. How could any democratically elected leader in the House of Commons be asked to sit down and negotiate with people who would do that while they were talking peace?

There is only one way in which the matter can be settled, and that is to pass it over to the people of Northern Ireland. Let them have their say—not in any referendum on chosen questions, but on who speaks for whom at the negotiating table.

The Prime Minister

Let me pick up the points that the hon. Gentleman made. First, his words of understanding to the bereaved will be very well received; I am grateful to him for what he said. He is, of course, right to support what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) had to say, and I note with interest what he said about the tax disc. That is very strong corroborating evidence.

There is one obstacle to negotiations, above all—the lack of confidence. It is that lack of confidence that we are to address if we are to have everyone seated down together, which is the objective that all of us seek. Often, in emotion, hot words are spoken that cannot easily be recalled, and lie on the record to cause difficulties in the future. As the hon. Gentleman knows, they may not easily be recalled; but I think that, with the greater issue in mind, they can be forgotten, forgiven and put to one side.

I am concerned to look towards the future: not to erect any barriers, but—as we have sought to do with the hon. Gentleman and the other hon. Members who lead political parties in the House—to bring people together to see whether we can find some common ground on which we can all stand against the terrorists whom none of us in the House can or do support. That is what I am seeking to do, and I am grateful for the constructive response that I have had from all the political parties in recent weeks. I shall look forward to continuing those discussions in the days ahead.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

May I also express my sympathies for the many victims of this hideous act of violence, and my thanks to the emergency services, particularly the police and the medical services based in the London hospital in my constituency?

As to the future, of course I welcome the Prime Minister's resolution to continue with the peace process. I know that he will readily accept this, but may I urge him to put particular stress upon gaining the full, open, wholehearted commitment of Sinn Fein to the six principles laid down in the Mitchell report? Will he ask the Irish Prime Minister, whom he is to meet shortly, to join him in urging upon Sinn Fein the acceptance of those six principles?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the six principles. They are clearly important, although, as I said a moment ago, there is a seventh principle missing—which is already acceptable to all the other democratic political parties in the north—that would still need to be accepted by Sinn Fein, and that is the principle of consent. One of the great gains that we have made in the past three or four years is the general acceptance of the principle of consent by all parties in the north and by the Government of the Republic of Ireland as well. I will certainly make the points to the Irish Prime Minister that the right hon. Gentleman, has made, and I know that he will consider them carefully.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

While the response from some people to my right hon. Friend's suggestion that an election to a forum might be a way out of the impasse was completely predictable, because they are not interested in the democratic way forward, does my right hon. Friend accept that there were others who were not sure what was meant, and that that has been fed by the propaganda that this was simply a stalling device or a way to get back to the old ways of politics in Northern Ireland? As that is the case—and I believe that there are some people who are still unsure, although they would be perfectly happy to go forward to a reasonable way of testing the electorate—will my right hon. Friend, now or later today, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, spell out much more clearly what they have in mind? I believe that the Government have some very constructive thoughts that would be acceptable to democrats from both sides of the political divide.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw the distinction between those who deliberately sought to pervert the message and those who misunderstand the message in the absence of further information. I hope that some of the things that I have said over the past few days and what I have had to say to the House this afternoon will remove many of the misunderstandings.

I hope, first in the private discussions that I am having with the political parties, to remove any other misunderstandings that there may be. I would like to see how far in those private discussions I may be able to iron out the areas of difficulty before I publish a paper setting out what the outcome would be. If that is done, before agreement is reached in the back room, it may make it even more difficult to reach an agreement, because people will take an instant view of whether they are in favour of something, and that does make the difficulties rather more intense. I shall certainly take on board what my hon. Friend has had to say, but, with the House's permission, I would prefer to take it on board first in private discussions with the political parties. When a concordat is reached, clearly it will need to be known by all the people in Northern Ireland as well.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

I would like to join other hon. Members in offering sincere sympathy on behalf of my constituents in North Down to those who have been bereaved and injured. I also endorse entirely the Prime Minister's commitment to an on-going search for peace, but we must address the methods that are to be pursued in that search.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the pro-Union people of Northern Ireland had considerable reservations and reluctance about entering into negotiations with those who retained the latent threat of un-decommissioned weapons. That latent threat has, through the incident at Canary wharf, been translated into an horrific act of violence. In those circumstances, how can the confidence that is so necessary be created?

Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that, while there is a necessity to restore in some form the ceasefire, such a restoration and entering into further negotiations with Sinn Fein-IRA begs the question about whether further down the line, when it meets with another impasse, or some situation that does not meet with its approval, it will simply blast it out of the way in the manner of Canary wharf?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that many people in Northern Ireland had great reluctance, and still are very reluctant, to enter into talks and discussions with paramilitaries who retain weapons. That is entirely right. The purpose that we have in mind is to try and see whether we can proceed by broad all-party agreement, through an election process, through all-party negotiations, during which, in accordance with the Mitchell report, there would be a parallel decommissioning of weapons as the talks proceeded.

What I know the hon. and learned Gentleman will not wish to happen—neither would any hon. Member—is to see barriers erected over which no one can clamber, so that the whole process simply gets bogged down in the sand. In outright war, one can go only for victory. In circumstances such as those we face, there will be areas where people will have to look to see whether the end justifies the means.

If we can get through to an election process with parallel decommissioning, the end is clear—the end that the hon. and learned Gentleman and all sensible people wish to see, which is the beginning, the continuation and the completion of the decommissioning of weapons. What we are seeking is the mechanism. Here is a way in which I believe that we can achieve it.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

Has my right hon. Friend received any requests from the Irish Government for assistance from the British security forces in routing out terrorists and their arms dumps south of the border?

The Prime Minister

No, we have Snot, but I can tell my hon. Friend that we have very close co-operation with the Irish Government and, on security matters, with the Garda. That has improved dramatically in recent years and has made a considerable contribution to the efforts that we and the Irish Government have sought to make against terrorism in the past few years.

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

May I say how tragic it is that my constituency, many of whose residents bore the brunt of bombing during the war and many of whom are of Irish descent. should have been the target of this evil act of terrorism? I had intended to raise only matters connected with my constituents, but the Prime Minister's statement has raised two worrying questions in my mind. First, if the leadership of Sinn Fein is undermined, with whom will the Government negotiate? Secondly, has the Prime Minister taken sufficient note of the strong criticism made by the Prime Minister of Ireland of the electoral proposals?

To return to my constituents, I thank the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have expressed their sympathy with the victims and who sent their congratulations to the emergency services on the speedy and efficient way in which they responded. I must also express my admiration for the council workers who have worked night and day to board up apartments whose windows were blown out, to make them wind and weather proof.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister is aware that, in addition to the devastation in Marsh Wall, about 1,000 windows have been blown out in the Barkantine estate, which has four tower blocks, which will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to repair. At this very moment, surveyors are examining the worst-hit tower block—Top Mast Point—to find out whether there is structural damage. If there is, it will cost many millions. Will Government money be forthcoming to help Tower Hamlets council to do the repairs and clearing-up? We want that question answered. We also want to know who will pay for the repairs to the docklands light railway. There was traffic chaos today and the railway must be repaired speedily. I know that the privatisation process has begun.

Finally, is the Prime Minister aware that there has been some talk today of a fund being set up to help victims and their relatives, and householders whose house contents have been damaged by the blast and who are not covered by insurance? If such a fund was set up, would we have Government assistance in publicising it?

The Prime Minister

I hope that the hon. Lady will take back to her constituents the sympathy of the whole House for the difficulties that they have faced. She is right to draw attention to the fact that that part of London suffered grievously on previous occasions, and on this occasion the people have again responded as we would have expected.

The hon. Lady asked a series of specific questions. She asked with whom we shall negotiate. It is clear that we cannot negotiate with Sinn Fein while a campaign of violence is taking place. That is the position of the British Government and of the Irish Government. We are at one on that point. We can negotiate, of course, once there is a verifiable ceasefire back in place, because that is the practical way for us to proceed and that is what we shall seek to do. On the question of elections, that is a matter under discussion between the British and Irish Governments, and I think that we shall be able to reach an amicable agreement.

The hon. Lady raised a number of questions about costs. As far as I can give her answers now, I shall attempt to do so. With regard to Tower Hamlets, the financial implications for the local authorities are not yet clear. That is being examined, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will consider applications under the Bellwin scheme as soon as the position becomes clearer. I cannot tell the hon. Lady what that will amount to at this stage, but we are examining the position. I shall write to the hon. Lady about the docklands light railway as soon as I have further information. I have asked the same questions, but I am not yet in a position to give her the answers.

The hon. Lady mentioned that both businesses and individuals will face difficulties. Of course, any victim who was injured in Friday's terrorist outrage will, almost certainly, be eligible to apply for compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme. For businesses and other individuals, the matter is complex, but if the hon. Lady will be content I shall write to her.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

In echoing the words of sympathy and thanks, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that the effect of Friday night will make the search for a permanent and lasting peace, and progress towards all-party talks, even more important and urgent than before? In the light of comments made by other people, does my right hon. Friend accept that some suggestions—that all Sinn Fein has to do is to say sorry and then we can get back to how things were on Thursday and pretend that nothing has happened—are quite impossible to accept? Does he also agree that, if the bomb that went off on Friday results in an end to the proposals for elections, terrorism will have won and freedom and democracy will have been defeated?

The Prime Minister

We certainly do not wish to see any rewards for terrorism of the sort that we saw on Friday. My hon. Friend is right to say that Friday night makes the search for peace more important and more urgent. On the subject of Sinn Fein, I reiterate the point that I made earlier and, as my hon. Friend put it, sorry will not do. Of course it will not. We would need the clear-cut reinstatement of the ceasefire before we or the Irish Government would be able to re-enter discussions with Sinn Fein.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Everyone will share the Prime Minister's expressions of horror at the atrocity in docklands. Does the Prime Minister also recognise that the ceasefire has brought new life to Northern Ireland and that the ceasefire was the result of work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), Mr. Adams and Albert Reynolds? In one sense, there has been no peace process. There has been a ceasefire, but a peace process must mean talks.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware—if he is not, I wish to draw his attention to the point—that the breach between London and Dublin, and between London and Washington, has certainly made a peace process more difficult. John Bruton was told on the telephone about the election proposal, and he was never consulted. The Mitchell report, which suggested all-party talks and simultaneous decommissioning, was set aside.

The Prime Minister

indicated dissent.

Mr. Benn

It was set aside by the proposal for an election in the north that had never been the subject of proper discussion with Dublin. If we are to have a new ceasefire, are we going to have a peace process following, or will the Government continue to prevaricate on the all-party talks that are absolutely essential if we are to have a long-term settlement in the north?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman did not urge acceptance upon Sinn Fein either of the six principles or of the consent principle. I am sorry that he neglected to make that point, which I think would be accepted by the whole House. I am not sure that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's version of history, because it seems to me to be lamentably inaccurate in every respect.

It was nearly three years ago—I do not remember the words precisely—when a message landed on my desk one evening from the IRA saying, "The armed struggle is over. We need your British help to bring it to a conclusion." It realised where it needed to turn, and we have done what we can in the interim to try, first, to bring the ceasefire into operation and, secondly, to move from that ceasefire to a permanent settlement.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong in his assessment of why we have not been able to move forward to a permanent settlement and all-party negotiations. I can tell him that we have not done so because, first, Sinn Fein-IRA refused to decommission any arms whatsoever. They were not asked by the British Government or the Unionist parties to decommission every weapon that they had, although majority opinion both in the north and in the south felt that they should have been.

They were asked to do some decommissioning in order to instil confidence, so that the Unionist parties could sit down with them without the threat of a gun held to their head the moment that Sinn Fein-IRA did not get precisely what they wanted in negotiations. I am not sure whether it was the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) who said it—he will nod or shake his head—but the view in common currency in Northern Ireland is that talks cannot take place with guns on the table, under the table or outside the door. That is generally accepted in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hume

indicated assent.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman nods—I thought he said so.

That view has held throughout the process. It is Sinn Fein's refusal to decommission that prevented us, some time ago, from going forward to all-party talks. That was not due to the stubbornness of the British Government, the stubbornness of the Unionist parties or the stubbornness of the people of Northern Ireland, but it was due to the fact that Sinn Fein would not decommission. When it would not do so, an alternative mechanism was found through patient negotiation and agreement, so that all the parties could sit down with a proper mandate to discuss, and decommissioning could take place in parallel with those discussions. The moment that that proposition became apparent, the reward for finding an alternative method was the bomb that murdered people just the other day in London.

I know that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) feels deeply about this, but he is wrong: plain, common-or-garden wrong.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

We have used the phrase "IRA-Sinn Fein" many times in the House, as if the two parts were part of the same entity. Is it correct to treat them in that way now, because I was never sure whether the IRA controlled Sinn Fein or the other way round, or a combination of both? Certainly the events of the past few days would suggest that the IRA Provisional Army Council has ignored Sinn Fein, and, in the current circumstances, Sinn Fein could not now deliver decommissioning if it were asked. Is not this a chance for Sinn Fein now to take its democratic opportunity, not merely to say that it condemns violence, although that is important, but to take part in whatever democratic process is necessary to determine who comes to the negotiating table?

The Prime Minister

As for the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA, I think that they are both members one of another. That is the position, and has been so for a very long time. Were that not the case, perhaps Sinn Fein would be more prepared to condemn openly activities that no civilised person could possibly condone.

Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

The Prime Minister will be aware that one of the people murdered on Friday was my constituent, John Jefferies. John was a talented young musician, and extremely popular in his local community. I know that the Prime Minister will join me in sending our condolences to his family. Does he agree that we must ensure that John's life is not lost in vain and that everyone in the House and those parties that might want to be part of it must do all in their power to ensure that the peace process gets back on track?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue and I agree entirely with every word she said. I hope that she expresses my personal sympathy to Mr. Jefferies's family. In a sense, the death of Mr. Jefferies, and the death and the injury of others, is a stark commentary on what we have seen for a long time in the dispute in Northern Ireland. They were innocent victims; they had no connection whatsoever with the ancient feuds that light these hatreds and have kept them burning for so long. The hon. Lady is entirely right: the best memorial to Mr. Jefferies and to the other people who have been murdered over the past 30 years would be for us to bend all our will to find a proper, full-term solution.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it seems highly likely that in the end we shall be confronted by the old, hard choices in Ulster? Will he remind the democratic nationalists in the Province that they would have a secure and honoured position in a united and integrated United Kingdom? Will he also remind them that they would be able to exercise real power in some areas if we were to restore a proper measure of local government in Ulster?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend is aware, for he knows Northern Ireland well, most of the choices in terms of how to carry this matter forward are hard choices—there are very few easy choices in the matter. I pray that we shall not come to the old, hard choices that my hon. Friend has in mind, for that would mean that violence and terrorism had taken full root and were flourishing again.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that a whole generation of politicians in Northern Ireland have aptitudes and skills not yet fully utilised in the way that they could be and should be in their constituencies. I hope that we shall be able to reach a position, by agreement, where those politicians can use their talents in that respect once again.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his desire for negotiations as a gateway to inclusive talks is not mutually exclusive to the Irish Government's desire for proximity talks? Proximity talks could address some of the fears, anxieties and uncertainties about the nature of such elections, which would be necessary for them to be successful, which is what the right hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve.

The Prime Minister

The Irish Government seek proximity talks to clarify, essentially, what would be the position during elections and after elections. I am discussing, bilaterally, exactly the same points with the democratic political parties. The difficulty with proximity talks—I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I put the point flippantly—is that we would need to have people in proximity, and there is a certain disinclination to do that at the moment. I have never denied the underlying need for discussions prior to the elections—indeed, I embarked upon those discussions from the moment that I set out to the House the possible electoral route forward.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. I now draw questions on the statement to a close.

Mr. Benn

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This matter is of great importance and a number of hon. Members have been rising in an attempt to participate in the statement. Have the Government indicated that they will allocate time for a debate on this issue? Many hon. Members were excluded from today's debate and this is a very big issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) reminded me that we have not had a debate on Northern Ireland since the ceasefire—something has had to occur to trigger this statement. May we try, through you, Madam Speaker, to persuade the Government to make time available for a debate?

Madam Speaker

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, that is normally done through the usual channels. He is quite right: we have not had a debate on these matters for some time. Many hon. Members always stand to put a question as there is a lot of interest in these matters. I regret very much that it is not always possible to call all hon. Members who are standing. I have kept the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box for more than an hour. I have a list of all the hon. Members who have been standing—I always keep a list of such hon. Members and I try to call them alternately. I shall at least try to give hon. Members who have not been called an opportunity to put a question either to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or to the Prime Minister during subsequent statements. I will bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but it is a matter for the usual channels.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. It is obviously your decision to terminate questions at this point, but you must recognise that all those hon. Members who still want to ask a question would seek to be called in a debate on Northern Ireland, in which, we would hope, speeches would be time-limited so that those of us who wanted to contribute were not talked out by ex-Ministers or Privy Councillors, who always seem to get priority when debates are held on any subject.

Madam Speaker

I have just made it clear to the House that, every time there is a statement or a debate, I keep a list and I put stars against the names of the Members who have been called once, twice or three times—or not at all.