HC Deb 11 July 1996 vol 281 cc559-62
5. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [35384]

8. Mr. Dykes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on recent developments in the Northern Ireland peace process. [35388]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Since 12 June, each of the participating political parties has affirmed total and absolute commitment to the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence. With the British and Irish Governments, they have been conferring on important procedural issues under the impartial chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell, supported by General de Chastelain and Prime Minister Holkeri.

Good progress is being made in establishing a negotiating framework which is acceptable to the participants—an essential preliminary to considering the substantive political issues.

Mr. Winnick

Arising from present events, is the Secretary of State aware that, although most people in Britain understand the role of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and have no desire to see that association come to an end, the same people find it almost impossible to believe that, year after year, there should be such deeply sectarian marches and demonstrations, which serve no purpose whatever? Bearing in mind the right hon. and learned Gentleman's previous experience, is it not the case that the police in the rest of the United Kingdom would not allow such marches, which would create community, racial and religious tensions? I hope that that point will be borne in mind.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is worth remembering that last year there were 3,000 marches in Northern Ireland, of which no more than 13 gave rise to any disorder. The lesson there is surely that, where marches can be negotiated, brokered and discussed, a balance is achieved between two opposing interests—the right to march and the right not to feel intimidated or oppressed. The record is 3,000 to 13, and I believe that we can do a lot better.

Mr. Dykes

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for all the work that he has done, and will do in his remaining period as Secretary of State, and particularly for his current attempts to recover the momentum of the peace process. We wish him well.

Further to the previous exchanges, notwithstanding what my right hon. and learned Friend said about police decision making, does he accept that yesterday's events in particular have caused serious misapprehension among the nationalist and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland? There appears to have been an abrupt change of policy without proper explanation, and I think that that has alienated many Catholics who were committed to the peace process. It has also caused anxieties in the Catholic communities in England and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that some Catholic households in the areas surrounding the march stand-off were intimidated by Protestant thugs who were involved in and on the fringes of the marches? That must stop before there can be real peace.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am naturally grateful for what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his question. I hope to go on doing my job for as long as I can—and I hope that someone is listening.

There was misapprehension—and also apprehension—when the original decision was made by the Chief Constable on 6 July. There was apprehension in pro-Union quarters, and I do not doubt that there is now apprehension in nationalist quarters. It is therefore important to heed what the Chief Constable himself said this afternoon—that the decision was made because the risk was so great. In other words, the balance that he had to strike had shifted since 6 July. He said that there had been no political influence or interference of any kind. That is why the decision was made.

It is also necessary to heed the fact that recent violence has not been on one side only. Officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary have also been driven from their homes.

Mr. John D. Taylor

I will ignore the contemptible question from the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and concentrate on the future. As we look ahead to the resumption of all-party talks, does the Secretary of State recognise the contribution that the Ulster Unionist party has made to their success so far? Does he agree that the mere resumption of a ceasefire is not sufficient passport for Sinn Fein-IRA to enter the multi-party talks, and that the main issue which lies ahead is the decommissioning of illegal firearms? Must there not be agreement on the process for that, and honouring of decommissioning as well?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am glad to hear that the right hon. Gentleman and his party are looking forward to the resumption of the all-party talks, and that they will be there. That is extremely important.

I certainly acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman's party played a very constructive part at a very difficult stage after 10 June in ensuring that the talks did not go straight into the sand. As for Sinn Fein, both Governments have insisted that the first requirement is for it to bring about a total and unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. All parties, and both Governments, agree on that. As the Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton, has said in the past, it must be made absolutely clear—and Sinn Fein must find the means of satisfying the rest of us—that this time it is irrevocable and will not be unravelled. After that, the same conditions will apply to Sinn Fein as apply to all other parties. It must sign up to the Mitchell principles and, at the outset, still address the question of decommissioning of arms.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that peace in a democracy requires tolerance and understanding of the convictions of others? It comes ill from those who support marches by trade unions and other pressure groups to suggest that it is wrong for others to march.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend points to the need for consistency and balance and, above all, for an even-handed approach in the exercise of such powers as the forces of law and order and the Chief Constable of the RUC have in ensuring that the rights of all people, although they may conflict with other rights, are equally and equitably addressed, enforced and protected.

Mr. Mallon

Is there not something very sad about the Secretary of State in the present circumstances coming to the Dispatch Box and hiding behind the Chief Constable, who has been jettisoned, and behind Church leaders who tried their best to resolve a problem? This is a Government problem and the result rests with the Government. Does the Secretary of State accept that those marches had nothing to do with who marched up what road but were about whose writ runs in Northern Ireland? His Government were asked that question and they failed.

The other question is, who polices Northern Ireland? Is it the legitimate police force or is it those thugs with sashes who have once again imposed their will upon the whole of the north of Ireland? Will the Secretary of State tell the House and the community in the north of Ireland whether he realises the damage that his Government have done to the peace process over the past week? Does he realise that he has broken faith not just with the Chief Constable but with the Irish Government, the nationalist community and with our party in no less than two days? I ask him finally—

Madam Speaker

Order. So many Members on both sides want to ask questions that it is totally unfair to make speeches and ask long questions. The hon. Gentleman may put one final question to the Secretary of State.

Mr. Mallon

How can anyone negotiate with confidence with a Government who cannot keep their word?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am genuinely saddened by the hon. Gentleman's questions, because I have a deep respect for him, for his courage and for his integrity. I ask him to consider this. He spoke of my hiding behind the Chief Constable, by which I suppose he means that the Chief Constable is not telling the truth when he says that there was no political pressure. I must ask the hon. Gentleman whether he would have preferred the decision of 6 July to be taken by the Chief Constable or by a political Minister.

Mr. Mallon

Who was it changed by?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It was changed by the Chief Constable, as the Chief Constable himself has said. It does not do the hon. Gentleman or anybody else any good unjustifiably to feed suspicions that are apparent to all by saying things for which he has no evidence but which he believes will feed a particular suspicion if he articulates them. To say that I have broken faith with the Chief Constable is no more true than to say that the Chief Constable was leaned upon either today or on 6 July.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Are there not marches every weekend, in this capital city and in many other cities in the world, which some people find offensive? Is it not an inalienable right in any civilised free society to demonstrate peacefully, whether that involves marching or anything else?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Yes; my hon. Friend is right. It is an inalienable right, but it cannot be exercised without qualification and that qualification is imposed by a democratic Parliament. That is what has happened here.

Ms Mowlam

I join others in thanking the RUC and its chief for their courage and professionalism over the past four days. I also thank the residents of the Garvaghy road, members of the Orange and those in the House who have sought peaceful mediation. Does the Secretary of State agree that the situation demands political leadership and initiative? One accepts that the Chief Constable is there in terms of public order, but the situation needs public, political leadership.

In that sense, we welcome the Secretary of State's announcement 20 minutes ago that there will be an early review of marches—he said that an "independent eye" would be cast over the situation. Does that mean the independent commission that we asked for six months ago and that he rejected in June? If not, what does it mean for the months and years ahead? Will he join me in a shared desire not to heighten tensions further, but to perform the duty of the House and condemn all who seek to undermine the rule of law through the exercise of might and intimidation in Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her tribute to the police and to the Army. As to the "independent eye" being cast on the question of how the right to march may best be regulated, I have in mind a general review that will make recommendations. The earlier suggestion included limiting that to some body that would exercise jurisdiction, and there are serious difficulties about that in terms of ministerial responsibility and the Chief Constable's responsibility. I have already dealt with the last part of her question. It is important that we do not, any of us, behave or speak in a way that heightens tension at this time.

Mr. Nicholls

As somebody who was brought up as a Roman Catholic, and by an Irish Roman Catholic at that, I find it both patronising and insulting that anyone would suggest that, simply because one is a Roman Catholic, one would want to stop people of a different tradition demonstrating peacefully. That is an extraordinary remark for any hon. Member to make, and it should never have been made.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am afraid that I am not aware that anyone has made it but, if it had been made, I would warmly agree with my hon. Friend's castigation.

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