HC Deb 22 February 1996 vol 272 cc475-9
1. Mr. Hain

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what assessment he has made of recent progress towards a peace settlement. [15018]

6. Mr. Wareing

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his recent discussions with the Irish Prime Minister on the peace process. [15023]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

Since I last answered questions here, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have held discussions with the leaders of all Northern Ireland political parties and their colleagues, in some instances more than once. My right hon. Friend and I have been in close contact with the Taoiseach and I met the Irish Deputy Prime Minister on 1 and 7 February. Preparations are in hand for an Anglo-Irish summit.

Mr. Hain

Have British officials met Sinn Fein recently? What are the criteria by which Sinn Fein could meet Ministers in future?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Ministers will not meet Sinn Fein to discuss matters that are related to the peace process or political process unless and until a ceasefire has been credibly restored, as it should be forthwith. As for officials, to the best of my knowledge, there will be no meetings with officials.

Mr. Wareing

Does the Secretary of State agree that, despite the action of the IRA cowards in launching their bomb in London and killing innocent people, we owe it to the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and throughout Ireland to continue the peace process? All suggestions should be considered. The Secretary of State should consider seriously the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that there should be a referendum in Northern Ireland. That would make it quite clear to those dreadful rascals and cowards that the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the divide and in both parts of Ireland are absolutely in favour of the peace process and against the violence that has recurred.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree that the peace process must continue. The peace process consists of all the work that is carried out to replace conflict with the opposite of conflict. It is essential that there should be all-party and inclusive negotiation, and ways of achieving that are currently under intensive discussion with the parties and between the Governments. One of those is certainly the referendum to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Hunter

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it is also the policy of the Irish Government that there should be no contact with Sinn Fein at ministerial level because Sinn Fein has not condemned outright the IRA's resumption of violence? That would be in accordance with paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration, which enjoins that only parties committed to democratic principles and to peace can take part in negotiations.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend is certainly right. Paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration stipulates that, in addition to what he has said, parties have shown that they abide by the democratic process". That is exactly why the position of the two Governments is the same.

Mr. Trimble

I appreciate the Government's desire to bring about serious talks in the near future, but should we not remember that over the past 17 months, Sinn Fein-IRA constantly refused to give any evidence that they were committed to exclusively peaceful means, and latterly have demonstrated in the clearest possible manner that they have no such commitment at all? Must that not affect our future policy? Must it not mean that we shall require much more than merely a ceasefire before we can take seriously any protestation of peaceful intent from that quarter? Should there not be urgent representations to the Irish Government that they should observe their duty under international law not to allow their territory to be used as a base for attack on this part of the United Kingdom?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

As to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I do not think that the Irish Government need any reminder of what he has in mind. I am satisfied that the co-operation between the two police forces and the two Governments on security matters is very good.

As for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the key to participation in all-party negotiations is that all participants and all who claim to be participants should fulfil the stipulations of the Downing street declaration to which I have just referred. Plainly, to resort to violence at any time—let alone to go back to resorting to violence—is wholly incompatible with the stipulations. Any restoration of the ceasefire—that should occur straight away—must be credible.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does the Secretary of State agree that policing is very important to keeping the peace in Northern Ireland? Is he aware of what took place at the police authority last night, when an overwhelming vote of no confidence was passed in Mr. Cook, the chairman, and in Mr. Ryder, one of the members? It was passed because of Mr. Cook's breach of faith as chairman in revealing matters under discussion, and because Mr. Ryder said that the police authority was a performing poodle. There was an overwhelming vote of no confidence in them, but they have said that that does not matter to them and they will do what they like and stay on. Does the Secretary of State think that it would be in the best interests of the police authority that those two men leave the police authority?

Will the Secretary of State keep in mind the fact that men and women have risked their lives in Northern Ireland for being members of the police authority, and that the majority has a legitimate case to put and should be heeded?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that policing is extremely important to the people of Northern Ireland, especially in the present circumstances. It is a thousand pities that divisions are so manifest in the police authority. I look forward to meeting the chairman of the police authority at an early date, and I shall wish to hear about what has occurred and any proposals that he may have.

Mr. Hume

Does the Secretary of State agree that everybody in the House wants to see lasting stability in Northern Ireland; that the only way to bring that about—without threat to any section of our people—is by agreement; and that the way to do that is to get all parties to the table? Does he further agree that it should be the urgent priority of the Government to get all parties to the table as soon as possible? If anybody has to take risks to do that, they are worth taking if we are going to save human life.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have no difficulty in agreeing with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. One can identify an objective, but it is easier to identify and to express it than it is to achieve it. As I have twice said this afternoon, it is the immediate objective of the Government—as I know it is of the parties—to achieve inclusive, all-party negotiations, but they have to take place on the basis of confidence that the requirements of the Downing street declaration are fulfilled. That is the stumbling block at the moment.

I am grateful for the conversations that I have had with the hon. Gentleman, as with other party leaders. We must examine and continue to examine the situation. I share the same objective as the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

May I ask that attention be given to the background to the report in today's Evening Standard about the reaction in the United States to the fracture of the peace process? Would it be possible to explain, with the Irish Government, to some of the writers in American newspapers that, if they interviewed Families Against Intimidation and Terror or if they listened to the words of the family of the young man who was fatally involved in the Aldwych bomb, they would understand that the British and Irish Governments are trying to unlock the doors to all-party talks that could be held on conditions to which all parties can agree?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to the brave and moving words of the family of the young man. I think that there is an extraordinarily widely held misapprehension, not only in the United States, about the true character of the decision to return to violence. It is essential that we all explain the realities of the situation—not least that the British Government, far from dragging their feet, have had countless meetings with all concerned, including Sinn Fein, with a view to achieving the all-party negotiations that are the only route to a political settlement.

Ms Mowlam

Will the Secretary of State outline his views on the merits of Labour's proposals earlier this week for formal and intensive talks with the Northern Ireland parties and the two Governments, where appropriate, to reach widespread agreement on the way to bring the parties to full negotiation? That could include a combined referendum and an elective process to take the parties directly into talks, and chronologically fixed stages for the possible referendums and talks to begin. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that, as we believe, for Sinn Fein to take part in any negotiations in which Ministers are involved, it must be committed to a genuine ceasefire—as article 10 of the Downing street declaration states?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree, particularly with the last part of the hon. Lady's remarks. It is impossible to suppose that Ministers in this Government—the Irish Government have made exactly the same point—will discuss matters with a party inextricably associated with people who have gone back to violence to achieve their political aims and who have turned their backs on the democratic process. A restored ceasefire Is absolutely essential. We have a shared policy and objective across the House—that there shall be inclusive negotiations on an all-party basis within the three-stranded structure, because that is the only way through to the political settlement that we all seek. The means to which the hon. Lady referred are certainly each of them relevant to that process. They are not exclusively relevant—we have an open mind on any constructive ideas that are put forward in the process that we are continuing.