HC Deb 25 January 1996 vol 270 cc470-3
5. Mr. Wareing

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his preparations for the first round of all-party talks on Northern Ireland. [9630]

11. Mrs. Bridget Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress towards substantive political negotiations involving all parties in Northern Ireland.[9636]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Government have now had bilateral meetings with all the relevant parties to discuss their ideas on the way forward, although the meeting with the Democratic Unionist party was not part of the twin-track process. Meetings involving both the British and Irish Governments have also taken place separately with the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein. Further meetings are planned with the continuing aim of reaching agreement on a basis for launching all-party negotiations by the end of February.

Mr. Wareing

Does the Secretary of State agree that no obstacles should be placed in the way of all-party talks to perpetuate the peace in Northern Ireland? As Mr. Dick Spring made it clear this morning that the holding of elections was not broadly acceptable, is it not true to say that the holding of such elections, with an Assembly, at an early stage before all-party talks, would be unacceptable and would threaten the peace? When was Mr. Bruton informed of the Prime Minister's proposal which was made in the House yesterday?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

What we are seeking, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained yesterday, may well be described as elections to all-party talks. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, of course, that no one should put obstacles in the way of progress towards peace. It is precisely in order to circumvent the obstacle represented by the fact that the paramilitaries are not willing even to begin to decommission their illegal arms that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced yesterday that we think it very desirable that there should be urgent consideration of the question of an election. That represents the way forward.

In answer to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had a conversation, which lasted some 35 minutes, with Mr. Bruton late on Sunday night. It was made clear to Mr. Bruton that we saw the elections as an opportunity to get the parties around the table. We did not see any other way of doing that in the light of the report.

Mrs. Prentice

The Secretary of State will, of course, be aware that there is a marked lack of trust and confidence among some parts of the community in Northern Ireland about such elections and what they will establish. Can he tell the House what measures he could take which might build trust and confidence among those communities so that they might wish to participate in such elections?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The most important objective is to allay the nationalists' traditional and classic misgivings that the elections are intended as a way back to a Stormont regime.

May I correct what I just said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing)? The conversation did not take place on Sunday, but on Monday night.

There is a traditional feeling that elections are sought as a way back to a Stormont regime. As I understand it, everyone who has brought forward that proposal has made it clear that that is regarded as quite impossible and is not intended at all. It would be quite impossible. Once that fact is hoisted in and accepted, I believe that the notion of elections will become much more acceptable. I hope that that will be the case.

Mr. Hunter

With regard to decommissioning and the elective process in parallel, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it is envisaged that the Northern Ireland parties would agree to the remit of an elected body, and also that that elected body would not have legislative or administrative powers? Surely such considerations would greatly reassure those who fear the return of Stormont.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is an important point. The situation now is substantially different from the two occasions in the 1970s and 1980s when elections took place without altogether successful results. What is now being envisaged is not a body with legislative or administrative powers, but something quite separate and in the context of inclusive all-party negotiations. That is very different indeed.

I am terribly sorry—I said that the conversation between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Mr. Bruton was on Monday, but I am reminded by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), that it was on Tuesday night. It was on the evening before the statement—there is no advance on that.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is incumbent on all those who have any misgivings about the elections to do everything possible, in public and in private, to urge those who hold the weapons to give them up?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I believe that my hon. Friend is right about that. If independent and impartial corroboration and support for that is needed, it is to be found in the Mitchell report.

Mr. Hume

Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Government are still committed to their agreement with the Irish Government that the target date for all-party talks is the end of February? In order to achieve that, will the Secretary of State implement the only major proposal of the Mitchell report, which is that all parties be invited to such talks provided that they accept and commit themselves to the six principles contained in the Mitchell report? Sir Patrick Mayhew: It remains the firm aim of Governments that all-party negotiations or all-party talks should begin by the end of February. I reaffirm that fact, but I cannot command it; I cannot require and compel people to come who will not come. As I have said to the House on many occasions, if I were to try to do that and to summon talks in the sure and certain knowledge that people would not be there, I would destroy the very process upon which all progress depends.

I happen to know—it has been made perfectly clear to me—that Unionists would not attend the talks according to the terms advanced by Mitchell. Therefore, we want to secure the confidence that will ensure that people attend the talks, and I believe that that confidence will be found in the alternative route of elections.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Most people in Northern Ireland welcome the measured approach of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to the Government's proposal for an elected body. However, does the Secretary of State understand that there was considerable disappointment in Northern Ireland last night at the negative response emanating from certain quarters in Dublin? Will he arrange an urgent meeting with the Dublin Government to make it clear to them that the peace convention—as I prefer to call it—is not an internal settlement, but will address many issues? All parties involved will address many issues, including cross-border relations and enhancing relations between Belfast and Dublin.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The reassurance of which the right hon. Gentleman speaks is to be found in the way that he describes. I think that there is a strong case for all interested parties and Governments to talk together "intensively"—to use the word employed. in the communiqué. I believe that that is no less true after the publication of the Mitchell report than before it.

Mr. Worthington

If there is general agreement about an elective process, as the Prime Minister proposed yesterday, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the purpose of that electoral process is to lead directly to all-party talks in which the interests of all minority parties are safeguarded fully? Will the Secretary of State describe how he believes that that safeguarding will be achieved?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That is right. It is very important that any settlement that is achieved should attract widespread support. It can be arrived at only by way of a process in which all democratically mandated parties—including those representing quite small minority groups—have a part to play. I agree with the hon. Gentleman: that is the only viable way forward and we now wish to see it proceed.