HC Deb 28 February 1996 vol 272 cc900-12 4.21 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With your permission, Madam Speaker, I will make a statement on the Anglo-Irish summit earlier today and its implications for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach and I met in Downing street this afternoon and agreed a way forward set out in our communique, copies of which I hope by now will have been placed in the Library of the House. Let me summarise the main points of the approach.

First, both Governments condemn unreservedly the IRA abandonment of the ceasefire and subsequent acts of terrorism, and call for the immediate and unequivocal restoration of that ceasefire. Secondly, we have confirmed that the two Governments will have no ministerial dialogue with Sinn Fein until the ceasefire is restored.

Thirdly, we and the Irish Government will conduct further intense consultations with the parties between now and mid-March. After that, this Government will bring forward for consideration by this House appropriate legislation for the elective process and we will take other decisions necessary for the peace process to take place. As the communiqué makes clear, the Irish Government can support an elective process that is broadly acceptable.

Fourthly, both Governments reaffirm their commitment to all-party negotiations with a comprehensive agenda. These will be convened on 10 June, following a broadly acceptable elective process. Whether those negotiations will include Sinn Fein will depend on whether the ceasefire has been restored. Fifthly, we have agreed that, at the beginning of the negotiations, in order to build confidence, all participants, including Sinn Fein if the ceasefire has been restored, will need to make clear their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the Mitchell report, and to address also at the beginning of the negotiations Senator Mitchell's proposals on decommissioning of weapons.

I believe that these agreements and commitments represent a balanced approach, to which I hope all the parties in Northern Ireland will feel able to subscribe. No one will find in there all that he may have asked for; equally, no one need fear that his basic interests and requirements are being overlooked.

The approach that the Taoiseach and I agreed marks out a clear route to all-party negotiations. We believe that this route is viable and direct. That is why we have set a firm date by which the negotiations will be launched. There is still the detail to be filled in, and some important issues to be settled. That is the purpose of the intensive consultations due to start next week and last until mid-March. But we now have the framework and a time scale to address and to decide these matters.

We are ready to meet all the parties in whatever format best suits them, but I repeat that there can be no dialogue between Ministers and Sinn Fein until the ceasefire is unequivocally restored. That, I must tell the House, is the position of the Irish Government as well.

The issues still to be settled include, first, the nature of the electoral system to be used in the elective process. There are strong views for and against different systems. Although the decision is for us, the British Government, we first intend to explore and test all the options in discussions with the parties before coming to our decision on what seems most broadly acceptable. The second issue is the nature and role of an elected body that will come out of the elections. Again, there are strongly held views, although many believe that such a body has a role to play as a forum for peace. The third issue is the format, structure and agenda of the negotiations themselves.

We have been discussing these issues intensively with the Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government for some time. I should have liked to be in a position to announce agreement on these issues and to be able to publish detailed proposals today. There are, however, still gaps to be filled in.

If I judge that it would be helpful, I may put forward to the parties, and perhaps publish, specific written proposals during the consultations. At the end of that period, the two Governments will review the outcome. Whether or not final agreement on all issues can be reached during that period, let me make it clear that, at the end of it, the Government will put forward to the House legislative proposals for elections in Northern Ireland. Decisions on the other outstanding arrangements will also be announced.

These decisions will be taken on the basis of a judgment of what is most likely to be broadly acceptable to the parties and to the people of Northern Ireland. We have decided to act in this way to make it clear that the process cannot be held up further if, in the end, there is still a complete lack of agreement.

We are taking these decisions upon ourselves—together, where appropriate, with the Irish Government—because we do not believe that the overwhelming desire of the people of Northern Ireland for lasting peace will brook further delay. We are ready to fulfil our responsibilities.

There is one other aspect of the communiqué that I should bring to the attention of the House—the suggestion that there could be referendums in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic. These could be held on the same day as the proposed election in Northern Ireland. The aim would be to give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to speak clearly about their own commitment to peaceful democratic methods and rejection of violence.

The Government will consider further with the parties whether such a referendum would be valuable or not. There is clearly room for debate about what the question or questions should be in such a referendum, but we will listen to the views of the parties, and make our own views clear at the end of the consultation period.

Meanwhile, let there be no doubt on three points. The first is that there is no place whatsoever for violence or the threat of violence in the peace process or in the negotiations themselves. Those who advocate violence, or who do not dissociate themselves clearly from its use or the threat of its use by others, cannot expect others to go on sitting at the negotiating table with them.

Senator Mitchell's report sets out clear principles on democracy and non-violence, makes clear the priority to be attached to the decommissioning of illegal weapons, and makes proposals on how that can be tackled. These issues, however difficult, cannot be dodged. They will be on the table at the beginning of negotiations. If it becomes clear that any party is not committed to these principles and this approach, either at the beginning of negotiations or subsequently, in our view there will be no place for them at the negotiating table.

The second point is that there has never been any justification for terrorism or violence in Northern Ireland. These proposals and the firm commitment to all-party negotiations by a fixed date will remove any lingering thread of obfuscation and pretence about that.

The third point is that the battle against terrorism is being intensified. Co-operation between the British and the Irish Governments has never been better than it is at the moment. We will hunt down those responsible for the bombings and killings, and maintain security at whatever level is necessary to protect the citizens of this country as they go about their daily business. The people of this country and of the Irish Republic have made clearer than ever before their demand for an end to violence. That demand must now be met, and the people have the right to expect the violence to stop for good.

The search for peace has been much complicated by the resumption of terrorism on 9 February; but the Government said that we would not be deflected from our efforts, and we have not been. I am grateful for the support for our efforts that we have received from all parts of the House and across all parties. We and the Irish Government are united in our determination to stamp out terrorism and to bring a lasting peace. With the support of this House, I believe that we will succeed. But I must warn the House that the road ahead may yet be long and stony. The men of violence will not give up lightly. Among them are people who do not truly want peace as we in this House understand it.

As we go through the process leading to the negotiations, and as we take the difficult decisions that lie ahead, concerns will be raised from this or that side, and this or that interest. We will take account of all views, but we will not be deflected from our central objective, because the men, women and children of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demand no less of us. Their lives and their futures must be our first concern. I commend to the House this approach to negotiations and, ultimately, to a lasting and comprehensive peace.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

May I welcome the statement, and the determination to try to put the peace process back on track? That is greatly to the credit of both the British and Irish Governments, and all the democratic parties in Northern Ireland. If, two weeks ago, optimism seemed somewhat incredible and hope completely out of place, at least today—although it is far too soon for optimism—there is some sense of renewed hope.

The statement has had to be put together quickly, and I wish to understand correctly two questions arising from it. First, how do we move forward to negotiations for a long-term settlement for Northern Ireland? Secondly, what are the essential minimum conditions before Sinn Fein will be allowed to participate?

On the first point, am I right in saying that the Prime Minister has now set 10 June as a firm date for all-party negotiations, and that multilateral consultations will begin almost immediately? If the consultations provide an agreement for a broadly acceptable elective process, do we then move straight to 10 June? If there is no agreement between the parties on a broadly acceptable elective process, will the Government bring forward their own plans on the basis of what they think is broadly acceptable? I simply ask the obvious question—what if it is not possible to reach a broadly acceptable process by either route?

Am I right in saying that the Prime Minister said that the Government essentially will listen to what the parties say on the subject of a referendum during the process, and will not give their own views until the end of that process?

The Prime Minister

indicated assent.

Mr. Blair

On the legislation for the elections, I should say on behalf of the Opposition that, provided, of course, it is broadly acceptable to both communities, we will obviously facilitate the legislation and co-operate in getting it through the House.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, in a sense, we now have an agreement to have discussions to agree on a way forward, with at least the principle of an elective process being agreed—that is an achievement—if not the mechanism? Does he agree that we have such an agreement—rather than an agreement on the way forward itself—which at least maintains the momentum? Does he further agree that it will require not a compromise of basic principles, but give and take on the part of all parties if the consultations are to work?

On the second point—the position of Sinn Fein in relation to the process—I think that everybody wants the process to move forward. But the flow of democracy should not be stemmed simply because the IRA has chosen to revert to violence. Everyone would prefer Sinn Fein to be in the peace process provided it is genuinely committed to peace. Does the Prime Minister agree that it cannot, and will not, be allowed to drive the process—to seek to guide by violence what it cannot achieve through persuasion?

The bombings of past weeks were atrocities utterly without regard for human life. I want to be clear that we have understood the basis on which Sinn Fein may enter at any stage of the proceedings. Is it to be allowed to participate in the multilateral discussions if it calls a ceasefire? On the all-party negotiations, is it that, before it gains admission to the full-blown negotiations, it must accept the Mitchell six principles or is it rather that at the beginning of the negotiations to which it is to be given access, it must accept the six principles and address decommissioning as set out in Mitchell? We must be clear about that. It is also clear that, if there is any reversion whatever, or any threat of reversion, to violence during the course of negotiations, it goes out altogether. The Prime Minister said that it must address Mitchell on decommissioning; perhaps he could say a word or two about that.

Is it not right once again to repeat from this House that, now that all democratic parties in Northern Ireland and in the Republic—that is the important point—have agreed that the status of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the people, there can be no remote, residual justification, even on its own terms, for the IRA continuing any form of violence?

I acknowledge, as the Prime Minister does, that the road to peace is going to be tough. He has taken risks so far; the Irish Government have; all parties have. We have supported them over the peace process. We will continue to do so. It is the people who want peace—not at any price, not by giving in to violence, but they want peace so that the genuine debate about the future of Northern Ireland can be resolved by democratic means.

Over the past few weeks, lives have been lost, and I do not think that people will easily forget that—nor should they. If it should happen that a ceasefire is called again and restored immediately—as it must and should be—I hope that what the Prime Minister has outlined today, even in its most tentative stages, can offer the chance of building that peaceful future for all the people in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I will try to meet the particular points that he raised.

Tenth of June is intended as a firm date for the start of negotiations. Multilateral negotiations between the parties will begin on the elective process on Monday. We will begin to discuss that on Monday. I hope that we are going to reach an agreement on a broadly acceptable elective process. If we reach agreement on that, we will bring forward that agreement for legislation.

If, as the right hon. Gentleman says, despite intensive negotiations, I am unable to reach agreement with the political parties on an elective process, I will make a judgment as to what I think is the best elective process and I will bring that proposition before the House of Commons and invite it to support that proposition. That is not comfortable. I do not wish to be in that position, but neither do I wish agreement on a mechanism to get us into all-party talks and to set up a possible future development to be held up by this dispute over the nature of elections.

I hope to reach agreement, but, if I cannot reach agreement, I shall bring forward what I think to be the best option, and I will invite the House of Commons to support me on that option, and the House will make its own judgment about whether it should. That is what I propose to do. I shall first, of course, have significant extra consultations.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the best way forward is with Sinn Fein as an inclusive part of the talks. Of course that is right but not, as he said about another aspect, at any price. The ceasefire has to be restored, and on the same terms that we had in August 1994. That is fairly clear, and it is set out clearly also in the joint communiqué.

Sinn Fein's entry to the all-party talks and how they will be structured was a point to which the right hon. Gentleman turned, and it is vital. Let me try to set it out.

First, for there to be any proposition enabling Sinn Fein to take part, there needs to be a ceasefire of the nature to which I just referred. After the elective process, in which there will be elections to the proposed forum, we anticipate that the party leaders of those elected would nominate from the forum members who would then act as their individual negotiating teams. The negotiating teams would meet. The first item in the negotiations would be the Mitchell principles in their wider aspect, including the points that need to be dealt with on decommissioning. That would be the lead item in the negotiations, which would begin on 10 June.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised a crucial point: what would be the position if violence were to restart after the negotiations had begun? I think that that has both a practical answer and the answer that the House would demand. The practical answer is that it would not be feasible for the other parties to negotiate with any party were violence to return: by that violence, that party would have voluntarily excluded itself from the negotiations. I believe that that would have the united support of all right hon. and hon. Members.

Therefore, the choice is with Sinn Fein. It must decide whether it remains an inclusive part of the negotiating process. I very much hope that it will put itself in a position to take part, and will keep itself in a position to take part, in the negotiations.

Let me reiterate what the right hon. Gentleman said about the status of Northern Ireland. I remind the House of the triple lock to which I have referred in the past, one part of which is that, at the conclusion of the all-party negotiations—on the presumption that there is an agreement at the end of those negotiations—that agreement, emerging from the all-party negotiations with the constitutional parties, would be put to a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland. Only thereafter would it be brought to the House.

The triple lock exists in the agreement among the parties to the negotiations—constitutional parties above all—in the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, and, on the back of those two agreements, in legislation brought before Parliament for its agreement. That is what we have referred to as the triple lock. It is to guarantee that the consent principle for Northern Ireland, which is widely accepted by almost every party and is self-evidently the will of the House, can be sure to have been met to the satisfaction of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

It is now a month since the last statement on Northern Ireland—a month lost because of the opposition of the Irish Government and other parties to the democratic process.

I welcome the statement's reaffirmation of the need for Sinn Fein-IRA to commit itself to exclusively peaceful means. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in practice, that will be more difficult to achieve following the bombs in London? It cannot be made easier for Sinn Fein-IRA; otherwise, it will have gained from its terrorism. Consequently, we agree that establishing and honouring such a commitment to peaceful means by Sinn Fein-IRA must be the priority—the first item to be addressed and resolved.

Does the Prime Minister realise that, until that item can be resolved, we shall find it impossible to meet Sinn Fein face to face? Does he agree that, in this context, the idea of proximity talks could be useful? Does he accept that there can be no question of Sinn Fein's progressing beyond that first item on the agenda until the other parties are satisfied about the quality of its commitment to peaceful means?

Does the Prime Minister accept that the Mitchell proposals for decommissioning require legislative action in the British and Irish Parliaments, and that that must be done by both Parliaments before 10 June? Otherwise, there will be a serious problem.

Finally, we have grave reservations about the use of referendums, particularly any referendum that might give the false impression that the relevant political unit is the island of Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I agree with him entirely: every day lost in this process, while there is uncertainty, is a tragedy. The impact of the renewed campaign of mindless violence in the last month is not only a disgrace, but makes it harder for those who seek peace to find a way in which it can be viably achieved. The hon. Gentleman is quite right in what he had to say about exclusively peaceful means, and equally right to state that it now makes it more difficult to persuade people that anyone is genuine in their intentions as a result of what has happened over the past few days.

The establishment of and the commitment to peace must be met and resolved. The Mitchell report sets out a way forward, and we believe that all concerned should be able to agree. It is not entirely easy for everyone, but I think it will be possible for everyone to agree to proceed in that way.

The issues to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be on the agenda at the beginning of the negotiations and will have to be addressed seriously by all concerned—including Sinn Fein, if the violence has ended and if it is in the negotiations. We will be urging all the parties to address the agreed agenda in that positive spirit so that the comprehensive negotiations can go forward successfully. The issues relating to decommissioning cannot be dodged or swept aside—they are of critical importance, as Senator Mitchell has said, and as all hon. Members understand.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the issue of legislative action in both Parliaments on matters related to a series of technical matters, including armaments. The hon. Gentleman is right: we would need to bring legislation before this House, and it is probable—subject to an examination of the law in the Republic—that the Irish Government would need to bring legislation before their Parliament as well. If that is necessary, it will be done, and it is being pursued. That should not provide an impediment to progress.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Harsh words have been spoken across the Floor of the House recently, so it gives me pleasure to commend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach for their tenacity in bringing forward these deliberations; I should like that comment to go on the record in the spirit in which it is given. The statement is important because it is a declaration of intent by the political process that our problems will be solved in one way, and one way only: through peaceful, democratic means.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, in effect, this is a moment of truth for all paramilitary, terrorist groupings in Northern Ireland, who will have to make a choice whether they will join in creating that peace or will isolate themselves in standing against the express wishes of the Irish people who want that peace so desperately?

The Prime Minister has said that the only reason for an elective process, which he knows we oppose, is to go directly and immediately into all-party negotiations.

Will the Prime Minister give an assurance in this House today that this process will not be allowed—or that the two Governments will not allow it—to be used by any party or parties as a reason for engaging on another pub crawl of preconditions? Will he give an assurance that those who enter into this process are duty-bound to begin those negotiations and to continue them through until they either end successfully or they have reached their time limit, which the Prime Minister has not yet spoken about?

Will the Prime Minister assure the House that, when he sets out the timetable, as he has done here, no vetoes will be exercisable within this process, and that no preconditions will be used to prevent negotiations from moving to a successful conclusion?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The House is occasionally familiar with harsh words, and occasionally with generous words, and, at the outset of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman exemplified the latter.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the paramilitaries must make a choice. The road to political respectability for those in Sinn Fein is set out here, if they have the courage and the will to take it, but the choice must be theirs. If they take that road, if there is a comprehensive ceasefire, if they enter into the negotiations in the way set out by the Mitchell committee, the road to full-scale political respectability is open for Sinn Fein as a newly democratic party, but the choice is theirs and only they can make that choice. I can provide the opportunity, but I cannot compel them to take it. I very much hope that they will, but the choice is for them.

As far as the process is concerned, the fundamental purpose of what I had to say this afternoon was precisely to set a firm date for the negotiations to begin. On that firm date, I hope that we will find all parties prepared, in whatever fashion, to take part in those negotiations and to carry them forward.

I do not want any party to put a roadblock in front of the negotiations—not the hon. Gentleman's or any other party—but I cannot compel parties to do something. I can set out the circumstances and encourage them to take options but I do not literally have the power to compel them to negotiate. I can set out the way and the circumstances in which they can, try to remove the impediments that each party feels lie in the way of negotiating, and encourage them to negotiate, and all that I will do. As a result, I hope that we will be able not only to enter negotiations, but to carry them properly and fully forward to a conclusion.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The Prime Minister must know how widely this statement will be welcomed, not just in the House but throughout the country, and in Ireland as well. The Government and others have had to compromise on it. That was the right and the courageous thing to do, and I commend the Government and the other parties for doing so.

I greatly welcome the fact that a firm date has been set. The two Governments are entirely right to insist that no one shall have a veto over that process. Those who will not relinquish violence cannot take part in those talks, but they cannot stop them happening, either. We would all much prefer Sinn Fein to be on board, but on board or overboard, it cannot stop the process continuing.

I have three brief questions to put to the Prime Minister. First, he is right to say that, if agreement cannot be reached on the context of the elections, the Government must bring their own proposals to the House. Will he confirm that, in doing so, the thing that will weigh most heavily in his mind is not what the Government may prefer—the Government are likely to be neutral on this—but what will command the widest support for those elections?

Secondly, given the time frame in which the elections must be carried out, with a result by 10 June, will the Prime Minister confirm that it is most likely that the existing system of the single transferable vote is the only one that can conform to that time frame?

Thirdly, will the Prime Minister address the all-party negotiations on 10 June, because the question put to him by the leader of the Labour party is absolutely relevant here? The Prime Minister said that adherence to the six principles of Mitchell will be the first item on the agenda. Will he confirm that it will not be possible for parties simply to hold up progress at those negotiations, if it is clear that they do not intend to adhere to those six principles?

In his statement, the right hon. Gentleman said: If it becomes clear that any party is not committed to these principles and this approach, either at the beginning of negotiations or subsequently, in our view there will be no place for them at the negotiating table. He said that that was his Government's view; will he also confirm that it is the Irish Government's view?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can confirm that last point: it is the view of the Irish Government as well. Let me make it quite clear, because the same point emerged from two separate observations that the right hon. Gentleman made.

If Sinn Fein drops violence and meets the same commitments as the other parties, it can continue in the negotiations—there is no difficulty with that. If it continues with violence, it will not stop the negotiations continuing after 10 June; they will continue without Sinn Fein. If violence were to reactivate after the negotiations had begun, equally, the negotiations would continue.

The democratic process will continue, and we are not in the mood to let it be derailed by those who do not subscribe to it. That is our opinion, and I believe that it is also the opinion of the Irish Government, as the right hon. Gentleman asked.

As I say, 10 June is the date for the negotiations to begin. It follows that the election must precede that date by a few days, but probably not by all that long. We are looking to determine the time scale exactly. In purely parliamentary terms, it is necessary to take account of the length of the Easter recess in terms of bringing negotiations forward.

Self-evidently, with that tight time scale, I would much prefer a consensus on the system to be used. Were there not to be a consensus, the normal rules of the House might impede the rapid passage of whatever legislation I proposed for the establishment of the elective process. I do not yet know the precise time scales, and they are being examined.

Clearly, the single transferable vote would be the speediest option, but it may not be the only one that would fall within the time scale. That it is the speediest is probably true, but that it may not be the only one is probably true as well.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I welcome the commitment that the Prime Minister has expressed to an elective process, not least because that proposal was put to him several years ago by my party. I also welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has been able to persuade others who were against that process to come round to supporting it. May I also express a willingness, on behalf of my party, to take part in the intensive consultations, which he mentioned, especially to determine the means by which such negotiations shall take place?

Will the Prime Minister recognise that my party, like the Ulster Unionist party, would be prepared to negotiate only with legitimate political parties? Will the Prime Minister review the remarks he made earlier, when he said that he hoped that the ceasefire could be re-established on the same basis as before? Surely that is precisely what we do not want. We want a permanent ceasefire, not a temporary, tactical cessation of violence.

The Prime Minister

I had in mind the same basis as before, but this time without the word being broken as it was before. I think the basis on which the ceasefire was promised before was acceptable. What went wrong was that that promise was blatantly broken by the bombs. I wish to make it clear that a temporary and convenient ceasefire for a short period is not being suggested.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman had to say about the elective process. I confirm that the Democratic Unionist party suggested that proposition some time ago, as did the Ulster Unionist party. I am also grateful to hear that the hon. Gentleman will take part in the intensive consultations on the means of the election. I hope that, as a result of those consultations, we will be able to reach a situation that will enable us to bring forward, with agreement, the legislation on the nature of the election not later than the moment that we return from the Easter recess, and, if possible, even earlier.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the Prime Minister confirm, for the benefit of those hon. Members and the public in the present complex situation, that in no circumstances will Sinn Fein be admitted to substantive negotiations unless it conforms to two prior requirements: first, that it acknowledges the fundamental democratic procedure of consent; secondly, that it accepts the Mitchell principles? Both those considerations have already received the endorsement of constitutional nationalists.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the present peace process is based essentially on a ceasefire controlled entirely by terrorists and not by politicians? Will he explain how, following any renewal of such terrorism or any cessation of the present terrorism which is then renewed, he will deal with the enforcement of democratic procedures?

The Prime Minister

Since the terrorism recommenced, we have reviewed the security provisions with great care. The hon. and learned Gentleman will know from the evidence seen with his own eyes in his constituency of some of the measures that have been taken. He will also know that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss at the Dispatch Box some of the measures that have been taken.

I can tell the hon. and learned Gentleman and the House that we have looked in the greatest detail at what needs to be done to protect the normal democratic way of life of people in Northern Ireland as a result of the renewal of terrorism. Were there to be a ceasefire, and were it to be broken again in the hypothesis advanced by the hon. and learned Gentleman, again we would re-examine whatever further needed to be done. If more needed to be done on any occasion, it would be in our minds to take the action that we judged was right to deal with it. That has been our position for many years.

I believe that, for a long time, the terrorists operated on the basis that, if they continued with their terror, the time would come when one British Government or another would tire of the cost and effort of policing and having the Army in Northern Ireland, and would bow to their demands. After 25 years, they learned that that was not the case, and, were the terrorism to continue for another 25 years, it would not be the case. That is the strongest assurance on that point that I can give the hon. and learned Gentleman or anyone else.

On the earlier part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, the Mitchell principles embrace implicitly the points that he had in mind, and they will be dealt with at the outset of the negotiations.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Since it seems to me that the terrorists have been able to bomb themselves into the peace process thus far, can my right hon. Friend assure me, from his discussions today, that, no matter what they do in the future, it will stop there? The likes of Adams, McGuinness and Kelly are all terrorists. I do not accept the distinction between Sinn Fein and the IRA—they are all the same evil people. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that those people will not be contacting officials in this Government, and will not be contacting him or any other Ministers?

The Prime Minister

They cannot bomb themselves into the peace process. They have certainly bombed themselves out of the peace process, and they will keep themselves out of that process if they continue to use bombs. I have made it clear that the process will continue without them if there is a campaign of violence. The announcement that I have made today is in line with the discussions that we have had and the announcements that I have made to the House in the past before the campaign of violence recommenced.

What would have been a success for the bombers would be if we had been driven off the route down which we were going as a result of the return to bombing, and we expressly have not been. They are expressly on notice that the process is on track and continuing. They have an option to take part in that process, and they have the certainty that, if they do not put themselves in a circumstance in which they can take part, the process will continue without them. They can bomb themselves out of the process: they cannot bomb themselves into it.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I join in the congratulations to the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach on what they have achieved today. I congratulate the Prime Minister particularly on the sternness of his approach in ensuring that, if the parties cannot agree on a system of elections, the Government will impose a system upon them in order to ensure that they proceed.

What consideration has the Prime Minister given to the idea of a referendum? A referendum throughout the whole of Ireland would be of the utmost importance, because it would knock away the spurious theology of Sinn Fein that it owes its spurious legitimacy to the fact that it claims descent from the last time that there were democratic elections throughout the whole of Ireland. If the people of Ireland as a whole spoke in a referendum, that would remove the last vestiges of strange legitimacy that Sinn Fein can claim.

The Prime Minister

I do not propose to impose a system of elections on anyone. I will lay before the House what I believe is the right system, and I will invite the House to support me. I emphasise that I will need the support of the House, and I may need that support where there is no unanimity among the parties. I will bring forward a proposition for the House to consider.

I must tell the House that I can be concerned only with a referendum held in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government may decide to hold a parallel referendum in the south, but my responsibility would be for a referendum in the north. We are looking at whether that would be appropriate, and, if so, what the question might be. It clearly has to be a relevant question and one where there would be some net advantage in placing it before the people, most obviously on the date of the elections themselves.

I can think of a number of examples of what the question might be, and other hon. Members will have their own views. We will discuss it with the political parties. I am not yet convinced that that is the route down which we will go, but I am prepared to go down that route if there seems to be a will for it, and some advantage to be gained from it.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his refusal to be bombed out of calling elections. What more can he say to the House to persuade me that the rest of the communiqué is not selling out to the men of violence? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that I am right to judge, after considering the communique, that we have yet again changed our stance on the requirements for decommissioning?

On the triple lock, can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether Sinn Fein-IRA accepted the right of the people of Northern Ireland to settle their own future, because I have never heard Sinn Fein-IRA say so? If it will not, is that not a reason why it should not be allowed into the talks?

The Prime Minister

If my hon. Friend will look again at the communique, I do not think that he will sustain the charge that we have changed our stance. Our view on the matter has been clear cut. I do not think that it is correct for my hon. Friend to suggest that the Government are selling out to anyone, let alone the men of violence. It seems an odd way of selling out to someone to make it absolutely clear to them that, unless they give up their present pattern, they will be excluded from the talks, but that the talks will continue among the democratic political parties, and that their exclusion will be because of their actions in the weeks and months ahead.

Let me tell my hon. Friend and everybody else that I am anxious to try to create a circumstance in which there can generally be an agreement that will prevent the campaigns of violence and bloodshed that we have seen for so long. It is true that I could stay in a trench and set up a hundred good reasons for doing nothing. I believe that, were I to do that, my successors would be standing here in 50 years' time in the same trench.

It is for that reason that we have compromised on some issues in the past, and it is right to do so. There are issues upon which we cannot compromise. There are issues held dearly by every hon. Member upon which we cannot compromise, and we will not do so, because it would not be right and because the House would not permit us to do so. However, there are areas where compromise is appropriate in the interests of the outcome that we are seeking.

There are matters on which I have compromised and others have done the same. I am inviting others to take quite hard decisions also, and I hope that a combination of compromise and those hard decisions taken by people who have previously expressed views in a forceful way will enable us to reach a solution.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not essential for the British and Irish Governments to work closely together? Is it not unfortunate that some hon. Members take a different view about that?

On terrorist violence, did the Prime Minister notice the massive demonstrations against violence last weekend in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland? Apart from elections in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, do not those demonstrations show that the IRA does not speak with the authority of the Irish people, and that it is nonsense for some people outside the House to make a comparison with the middle east or elsewhere? The IRA is a minority within a minority within a minority, and it is a pity that the British and Irish Governments do not make that clear in the United States and many other places abroad.

The Prime Minister

I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, which are certainly correct. The terrorists are a minority within a minority. They do not represent a majority view in any part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and the Irish Government have expressed the same distaste for their campaign of terror that we have expressed repeatedly in the House.

We put an enormous amount of effort, in the United States and elsewhere, into making plain the majority view about the terrorists. Members of a number of democratic parties—certainly members of the Ulster Unionist party, members of the Ulster Democratic Unionist party and members of the British Government—have all been to the United States in the very recent past on more than one occasion to set before the opinion formers and the public in the United States what the majority view is in the United Kingdom about the activities of the IRA. I think that that is beginning to make some progress, and I hope that it will continue. I believe that the same attitude will be taken by members of the Irish Government as well.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you, Prime Minister. We shall now move on.