HC Deb 21 March 1996 vol 274 cc497-509 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the arrangements leading to all-party negotiations in Northern Ireland.

In my statement to the House on 28 February, I announced that all-party negotiations would commence on 10 June. In a communiqué issued on the same day, the British and Irish Governments also agreed on intensive multilateral consultations with the Northern Ireland political parties. The purpose of those was to help the British Government to draw up proposals for a broadly acceptable elective process, including the possibility of a referendum, and to try to reach agreement on the format and agenda of all-party negotiations.

During those consultations, the Government have met all the major parties and most minor parties in Northern Ireland on several occasions. Sinn Fein has of course excluded itself. There have been several meetings between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Tanaiste, Mr. Spring, including a review of the outcome of the consultations. The Irish Government have also had a number of meetings with the Northern Ireland parties.

In some areas, we have seen encouraging signs of convergence between the parties' views. In others, sharp differences have remained. The form of elections has been one of the main areas of disagreement between the parties.

Three main systems have been proposed: an election in 18 constituencies, each electing five members by single transferable vote; an election on a party list system across one single Northern Ireland constituency; and a single constituency election across Northern Ireland with votes for parties, but not for named candidates. None of those systems has secured the clear support of major parties representing each of the main communities. Some parties have even threatened not to participate in the process and thus abort the possibility of all-party negotiations should one of the other systems be chosen.

I made it clear in my statement on 28 February that, if no agreement proved possible, the Government would come forward with proposals based on a judgment of what is most likely to be broadly acceptable to the parties and to the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever the merits of each of the three main systems, it is clear that none, on its own, meets that criterion of broad acceptability.

We have therefore considered how to proceed. We have decided to propose a new system, including the most attractive elements of other proposals. We will therefore introduce legislation, immediately after the Easter recess, providing for an election on 30 May using a list system rather than individual candidates, organised in 18 constituencies, but not by single transferable vote, and supplemented by Northern Ireland-wide party preference.

Briefly, electors will have to register just one vote which they will cast, in the constituency, for the party of their choice. Five seats in each of the 18 constituencies will be allocated from party constituency lists of candidates, published in advance, in proportion to each party's share of the vote. In addition, the votes in all the constituencies will be aggregated and the 10 most successful parties across the whole of Northern Ireland will secure two elected representatives each, from party lists published in advance.

I believe that this is a fair and balanced system that will produce a representative outcome. The Province-wide element should help to achieve the widely shared objective of making the negotiating process as inclusive as possible through representation of the smaller parties.

The elections will create a pool of 110 elected representatives. The successful parties will be invited by the Secretary of State to select, from among their representatives, negotiating teams for the negotiations to begin on 10 June. The transition from the elections to the negotiations will be automatic and immediate.

Our aim is to see inclusive negotiations. Sinn Fein has, however, currently excluded itself from negotiations by the ending of the IRA ceasefire. That is its choice. But it can make itself eligible to participate through the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire. That, too, is its choice.

The negotiations need to take place in an atmosphere of confidence. As I told the House on 28 February, all parties will need to make clear at the beginning of negotiations 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 negotiations, Senator Mitchell's proposals on decommissioning. There can be no backing away from that. Equally, there must be confidence that, as the negotiations proceed, they will be comprehensive and address all legitimate issues.

As well as furnishing negotiating teams, the elected representatives will be members of an elected forum to meet in Belfast on a regular basis when negotiations are not in session. The purpose of discussion in that forum will be to promote dialogue and mutual understanding within Northern Ireland.

The forum will not engage in the negotiations, which will be free-standing, but could interact with and inform the process at the request of the participants in negotiations. For example, the negotiators might agree to commission discussions, studies or reports from the forum. The legislation will also provide for the forum to be able to conduct hearings at which public submissions by relevant bodies or individuals can be made.

The forum's life will be time limited to 12 months, renewable for up to a maximum of a further 12 months. It will not continue in existence if negotiations are no longer in process. In its procedures, it will be required to proceed by broad consensus.

We have also looked at proposals for referendums. We agree that the people of Northern Ireland must have full ownership of the negotiation process and its outcome. The electoral legislation will give the Government powers to hold referendums in Northern Ireland. That will enable us to meet our undertaking to put the outcome of negotiations to the people of Northern Ireland before submitting it to Parliament.

It has also been argued that a referendum now could be valuable, for example, on the use of violence for political ends. Our judgment at present is that the case for such a referendum has not yet been conclusively made, but we have not ruled out the option of holding a referendum with an appropriate question or questions on the same day as the elections.

There is one other important area that needs to be settled before negotiations can begin: the ground rules for the negotiations. At the end of last week, a consultation paper was issued to the parties. It sets out what an acceptable approach might be, drawing on the experience of the 1991–92 talks round and preliminary consultation with the parties. Further consultation with the parties will continue to ensure that the maximum common ground can be identified.

I have outlined today what I believe to be a viable and a reasonable way forward. Everyone in this process has had to make compromises, some of them difficult compromises. Everyone has needed to exercise patience, and I am grateful to those who have done so. But the basis of our approach has remained unchanged—namely, the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the Downing street declaration, and the need for an approach that can build confidence and lead to an agreement capable of winning the allegiance of both main communities.

I therefore urge the Northern Ireland parties to look carefully at the announcement that I have made today, and the short paper giving more detail which we are publishing in parallel. No party has got all that it wanted. Equally, I see no issue of principle that could reasonably cause any party to walk away from the democratic process that I have set out. I do not believe that the people of Northern Ireland would understand if any party did.

Let us also not forget that the threat of terrorism continues to hang over the process. That is why the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence, and parallel decommissioning, remain so important. The IRA used the lack of a fixed date for all-party negotiations as an excuse to break its ceasefire. There was never any justification for its actions. Now, its excuses are running out.

What I have set out today represents a clear and direct route to all-party negotiations. The prospects for a just and lasting settlement are better than they have been for a generation if all parties take advantage of the opportunities that lie before us. Let me make it clear yet again that, while we want to see all parties round the table, the process will go on with or without Sinn Fein. If it excludes itself from taking part in democratic negotiations, it will not be able to exercise a veto against others doing so.

Once again, the people of Northern Ireland are watching the latest steps along the road to negotiations with bated breath. Their hopes for peace could not be clearer or more overwhelming. We need to move beyond procedures to the substance of negotiations as speedily as we can. The chance is there—no one who stands unreasonably in the way of a settlement will be readily forgiven.

I therefore commend to the House the approach that I have set out and the hope that the House will today send a clear signal of support for this democratic process. That would be the best answer to the terrorists who continue to threaten it and the people of every part of our islands.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

For obvious reasons, the statement has been difficult to make, and we all need to consider the details carefully. As I am sure that the Prime Minister would agree, the solution on the election process is certainly not ideal, but then the situation is not ideal. So long as the Government search in good faith for peace, Labour Members will not stand in the way of progress. Indeed, we shall try to assist it.

Does the Prime Minister agree that the crucial point is that there is now a starting date for talks—10 June—that the elections will lead directly to those talks, and that he envisages no delay to that process? Does he further agree that the position on decommissioning remains the same, and that no party will be able to participate in negotiations unless it supports the Mitchell six principles and commits itself unequivocally to peaceful methods?

May we repeat again the call echoed across Northern Ireland in the nationalist as well as the Unionist community, for the IRA to cease forthwith its murderous campaign, for which there is no shred of political or moral justification?

Obviously it is unfortunate that the Prime Minister has been unable to announce all the elements of the package today, and we look forward to further details, especially about the format and agenda of the negotiations. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the other elements in the package, including the ground rules and the issue of the referendum, will be wrapped up as soon as possible, in a way broadly acceptable to both communities?

Am I right in thinking that although the negotiators will be nominated from the elected parties, the two bodies—the forum and the negotiators—will remain independent, and the conduct of the negotiations is to remain with the negotiators? Will the Prime Minister say a word more about how he sees the two bodies operating in parallel? And can he confirm that the negotiations will be based on the three-stranded process, with both Governments taking part in the strands appropriate to them?

Of course, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the electoral process gives no one exactly what he or she wants—but in fairness I remind the House that the Government's duty was to find consensus and, if none existed, to bring forward their own proposals. The plain fact is that consensus does not exist, and imposing one absolute system over another is obviously fraught with difficulty; hence the compromise. Imposing this on participants is obviously desirable, but least desirable of all would be any more delay or uncertainty. We should not forget that the election is a means to an end—genuine negotiations to try to give a proper forward settlement for Northern Ireland. And that leads to the final and most desirable objective of all, which is peace—a peace that lasts and is sustainable, because its basis is determined not by violence or bombs but by debate and agreement.

In all the complexity of the electoral systems—no doubt hon. Members found it difficult to follow precisely that complexity, the interweaving strands, and how the various parts of the process fit together, even as we were hearing about them—we should not lose sight of that simple and higher duty, to let no prejudice or interest stand in the way of peace. I am sure that that is the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I agree with his view that the electoral solution is not ideal. It seems complex, but from the point of view of the elector it is simple. Electors will simply have to cast one vote in their own constituency, and everything else flows immediately from that. So there is no complexity from the point of view of the elector in Northern Ireland; it is a very simple process.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the start date of 10 June is fixed, and that there will be no delay. The position that he set out on decommissioning, the Mitchell report and the six principles is also correct.

We shall conclude the format, the agenda and the ground rules paper as speedily as possible. The ground rules paper is out for consultation, and we shall wish to consult further the constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland, with the intention of reaching, as far as that is possible, an agreed position on it. We shall seek a consensus if one is there to be had.

On negotiations, the right hon. Gentleman is right about the separation of the forum and the negotiators. The negotiators, in essence, are masters of their own process. If they choose to refer elsewhere they may so choose, but it is not obligatory for them in any way to do so. The three-stranded process is as he set it out. He is also right in saying that this election is a means to an end. The election is not the end in itself, it is simply the process by which a proper, democratic mandate is arrived at which will enable the parties honourably to sit down one with the other and conduct the negotiations that all Northern Ireland is crying out to see happen. With that in mind, I hope that the House will give them a speedy and helpful start.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

First, may I welcome the fact that we are going to have elections and a forum on the way to the negotiations, as I believe that that is the right way to proceed. However, I must tell the Prime Minister that we are concerned about the practicality of this entirely novel suggestion for 18 different list elections.

I believe that I am right in saying that there is no precedent for list elections on this small scale anywhere in the world. We need to have a lot more information about the mechanisms, particularly when we come to allocate fractions for the final seats. Would it not have been better to stick to the existing proportional representation system, which is accepted by all parties for all local elections in Northern Ireland and not to have allowed himself to have been blown off course by the unholy alliance of the Irish Government, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Democratic Unionist party?

I welcome the clear statement by the Prime Minister on the Mitchell report on decommissioning, but will the reference in his statement to "at the beginning" really mean the beginning, with no other matter coming beforehand on 10 June? What arrangements will be made to ensure that the commitments to Mitchell will be honoured? That clear statement on Mitchell contrasts with the fudge in the paper on ground rules that was issued last Friday. Does the Prime Minister know of our concern about the duplicitous manner in which that paper emerged and on the need for greater openness and integrity about the way in which the Northern Ireland Office conducts its business?

The Prime Minister

Let me deal with the last point first. The paper that emerged on Friday was a paper for consultation, not a blueprint with decisions. It was published so that we could consult the hon. Gentleman and his party and the other parties in Northern Ireland. At the end of that consultation we will be able to make decisions.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's welcome for elections. He is right to say that there is no precedent for the nature of the election that I am proposing. But I have to say that there is no precedent that I know for the circumstances and complexities that exist in Northern Ireland. If I had been able to find an easier compromise more familiar to people across Northern Ireland, I assure the House that I would have found and advanced such a compromise. In the absence of one, I have had to seek a system that I believe combines attractive features from the representations made to us, is simple and will provide a fair and representative outcome of the elections.

On the Mitchell report, I reiterate that, at the beginning of negotiations, all participants will need to make clear their absolute commitment to the Mitchell principles and progress on that is clearly vital, as the hon. Gentleman indicated. If I may return to the electoral system, I believe that, although the description of the electoral system and how it amasses its outcome seems complex, its mechanism—one single vote for one single party on one single occasion—could not be simpler.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I do not disagree with much of what the Prime Minister has said, except when he said that this was simple. I am not sure that people will see it that way. Is not the plain truth that this is a dog's breakfast, but that it is probably the only dog's breakfast on offer and may well be the best dog's breakfast that could have been arrived at, given the position that the Government found themselves in? In those circumstances, is it not a good thing that all parties should now get on with it and try to produce the maximum vote for those who want to negotiate peace and the minimum vote for those who want to continue with conflict?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his last words and grateful for what he had to say about this being the best that might have been achieved. I might have preferred him to use a term other than "dog's breakfast", because I do not believe that to be true.

I believe that what we have here is a compromise to which all people should be able to subscribe. Its purpose is to make sure that we achieve the outcome that I think the people in Northern Ireland wish to see—to go through an election process and into negotiations. The election is the means to that end, and I am glad at least that the right hon. Member welcomed it in that spirit.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

It is a matter of some regret that the Prime Minister was not able today to give a definitive answer to three important questions. The first relates to the referendums suggested by our party; the second to the transitional steps between elections and negotiations; and the third to the ground rules for all-party negotiations. Can I surmise that those questions are not yet to the liking of the Prime Minister's friends in the Ulster Unionist party, and that they are being given more time to nibble away at them as well? We will await those answers with interest, so that we can judge the package as a whole rather than piecemeal.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that, in the joint declaration of 28 February, the British and Irish Governments stated that any elective process must be broadly acceptable? In Northern Ireland terms, that means acceptable within the Unionist and nationalist communities. May I tell the Prime Minister again that a body of 110 people elected in the context of overall negotiations has no support within the nationalist community? It is seen as Unionist-inspired and Unionist-dominated. In effect it is a prototype of the Unionists' preferred structure for Northern Ireland, given to them and delivered to them even before negotiations begin. That will be done by sleight of hand and will pre-empt the negotiations.

The Prime Minister knows that there is no support for that elected body in the nationalist community. The Irish Government know that there is no support for it in the nationalist community. How can they then proceed with it, when it does not even meet their own criteria as stated on 28 February?

Will the Prime Minister also accept that there is no broad support within the nationalist community for the proposed elective process, which is seen as a sop to the Unionist parties, and judged divisive and nonsensical? It will distort and distract the real negotiations. How then can the Prime Minister claim broad support for that which can best be described as a monster raving loony election proposal? Was he not tempted to send for the men in the white suits when those proposals were put to him by his advisers?

The Prime Minister

I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time, and he did himself no credit in the past two or three minutes. None the less, let me pick up each of the points that he raised.

On the referendums, there was no agreement among the parties we consulted about them. I have kept the option open, as I expressly stated a few moments ago, about whether there should be a referendum. At the moment, there is no agreement for one.

On the ground rules, as I have made perfectly clear, the paper on those rules has been published for consultation. The hon. Gentleman knows that—it has been published for consultation with him as well. There is no point in his making absurd charges when he knows that the paper has been published for consultation with him and with each and every other party.

As for the timetable for transition, the hon. Gentleman will find that that has been dealt with in the paper we published this afternoon. As for a broadly acceptable electoral system, if there had been one, I would have used it. One of the reasons why there was not one is that the hon. Gentleman's party blocked some of the proposals. The hon. Gentleman and his party were involved in ensuring that there was no broadly acceptable, satisfactory electoral system, as did some of the other political parties. If there had been one, I would readily have taken it up. The hon. Gentleman must take his share of the responsibility for the fact that there was not one. As he is an elected Member in Northern Ireland, that responsibility needs to be taken seriously.

Both the hon. Gentleman and I have a responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland. If the permanent settlement that I and the hon. Gentleman desire is to be achieved, it will be bound to involve some compromise. No one, not even the hon. Gentleman, will get all that he wants out of it. I am prepared to address the question of compromise and I have done so. The hon. Gentleman must also do the same, because if the peace process breaks down due to the intransigence of any one person or party, that person or party will have to defend himself or itself to the people of Northern Ireland. I could not defend any party that walked away from the best chance of peace that Northern Ireland has had for a generation—and I believe that the hon. Gentleman could not defend it either.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Is it possible that the Prime Minister, having set himself the goal of finding an elective system that is most broadly acceptable, has found one that is most broadly unacceptable? Is it not the case that the Prime Minister is dancing on the head of a pin when he divides the second and the third elective systems as if they were two separate systems? They are both list systems. If they were taken to be one system, it would show that there was broad acceptance for a list system in Northern Ireland—acceptance by parties that gained about 70 per cent. of the vote at the last election in Northern Ireland, and acceptance by parties across the political and community divide. Instead, he has allowed himself to be blown off course by the whingeing and the electoral panic of the Ulster Unionist party.

Will the Prime Minister also indicate to hon. Members what he means when he refers to decommissioning as having to be "addressed"? What is the relationship between the negotiating teams and the elective body? Will the elective body have a role in determining whether there is sufficient consensus on proposals brought forward by the negotiating teams?

The Prime Minister

There are a variety of list systems, including the one that I have proposed. I refer to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the Ulster Unionist party—not only did the Ulster Unionist party oppose it, but the Alliance party opposed it. Indeed, for almost every proposition that was put forward by one party, more than one party was prepared to oppose it. For every solution that I propose, I have no doubt that several parties will claim that it is being done solely in the interests of another party.

The reality is that I am trying to produce a compromise that not everyone may like, but that people will have to accept because the pressure of public opinion in Northern Ireland requires this process to move forward, as I believe it should.

The negotiating teams will be selected from the forum and, as I indicated a few moments ago, they will be masters of their own destiny as to how they carry out the negotiations. I will not reiterate what I said about decommissioning at the beginning of the process. In answer to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I made the point that progress on decommissioning is clearly vital.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Apart from selecting the negotiating teams, the main purpose of the forum thereafter seems, to some extent, to reflect the activities of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, which has had some considerable success. Is it the intention of the Prime Minister that the forum should operate in a similar way in order to bring some reconciliation within the communities of Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the forum will be similar. We see the forum as a body that will provide an opportunity for elected representatives to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. That, in Northern Ireland, is a valuable task in itself. The forum will also provide an opportunity for individuals and for groups in the wider community to make their views known.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the opinion of many people, he is a prime candidate for the Nobel prize for patience? Many people in this country, who have a deep desire to see the Union preserved, are beginning to feel a trifle impatient.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is enigmatic, and I note his comments. I say to my hon. Friend and to all hon. Members: in terms of the difficulties that we face in Northern Ireland, patience may well be the mother and father of progress.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that no party—particularly not Sinn Fein—will be allowed to retain its weaponry right to the very end of any negotiations that take place? Many people in Northern Ireland who are committed to peace are concerned that the people in question will simply negotiate and if the ultimate bargain—if bargain there be—is not to their liking, they will use the weapons that they have retained and which the proposed agreement calls upon them only to "address"?

Does the Prime Minister recall that the whole purpose of the electoral body was to act as some sort of detoxifying chamber, in which representatives of Sinn Fein could meet elected representatives of democratic parties? In fact, the whole decommissioning issue has now been knocked on the head, and it would appear—I ask the Prime Minister to confirm this—that no final agreement will be reached while Sinn Fein-IRA retain their armaments.

The Prime Minister

Let me deal with the points that the hon. and learned Gentleman raised broadly in the order in which he raised them.

The question of decommissioning must be addressed at the beginning and progress must be made. There must be parallel decommissioning, as the Mitchell principle set out. As the talks proceed, the decommissioning must proceed in parallel with the talks. The precise manner of that is a matter to be determined at the beginning of the talks, as I previously indicated.

The second of the Mitchell principles—I believe from memory that it was the second—does refer, as the hon. and learned Gentleman rightly intimated, to the total decommissioning of weapons. That will obviously be a point that all the negotiators will wish to fix on at the beginning of the discussions.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

My right hon. Friend has produced a most imaginative proposal—a proposal that should ensure that the widest possible representation is available for the talks when they begin. Can he tell me, however, whether there is in his proposals a safeguard to ensure that such electoral eccentrics as Screaming Lord Sutch and Sir James Goldsmith do not become involved in that election for their own curious purposes?

The Prime Minister

Democracy is a strange and curious thing, but I think the nature of Northern Ireland politics suggests that the specific candidates suggested by my hon. Friend would not be likely to obtain many votes. I think also that it is likely that the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland will be indicated on the face of the Bill that comes before the House. To the best of my knowledge, neither of the two parties headed by the two gentlemen mentioned by my hon. Friend is likely to feature in that Bill.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Many people dislike electoral systems in which they nevertheless participate. In this country, the Liberal Democrats dislike the fact that we do not have proportional representation and the Opposition parties dislike that fact that 3 million to 4 million people are missing from the electoral register, but we still all participate. The key thing now is that all the political parties in Northern Ireland, despite what they feel about that method, should tell us now that they intend to take a full part in the election to advance the peace process.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I entirely agree with every word he said.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the elected forum should reflect the widest possible range of democratically mandated opinion in Northern Ireland? Will he welcome with me, therefore, the opportunity that has been given to the smaller political parties in Northern Ireland to be represented via the top-up of 20 members?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In the consultations we had with the parties, there was a wide desire to find a legitimate way to ensure that the smaller parties were represented, for without them the prospect of the negotiations making progress would have been greatly lessened. That is the purpose of the top-up provision—a novel constitutional element in the United Kingdom, I know, but one that is effective and will ensure the widest possible representation in the negotiations that lie ahead.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

The Prime Minister said that his Government remain to be convinced of the value of holding a referendum. Could it be that he has been encouraged in that attitude by the rapidly diminishing enthusiasm of the Irish Government for such a referendum since he proposed that we include, as a question in that referendum, part of question 10 of the Downing Street declaration—the part that alludes to a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods? Could it be that the Downing street declaration is not supported by the Irish Government as whole-heartedly as we had hoped? Could it be that they are adopting an attitude similar to that of the SDLP, whose members seem to have lost their enthusiasm for the consent of the people of Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I forget whether I said that there was "no enthusiasm" for a referendum—I had in mind the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland rather than the Irish Government. I do not know whether the Irish Government retain their enthusiasm for a referendum: I was referring to those consultations with the constitutional parties.

No case has yet been made, and I have not yet uncovered any likely agreement as to what precise question would be posed in the referendum. It is possible that such an agreement may be reached. I have not ruled out the prospect of holding a referendum on the same day as the elections, but at the moment it seems more unlikely than likely.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend accepts that all hon. Members—whatever their position or party—want peace in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend has announced a very complicated package that will clearly need a great deal of study. However, he has not yet said why he believes that there are no grounds for declaring that a referendum could solve the problem. If we believe that the province of Ulster is part of the United Kingdom, why are we not prepared to put a straightforward proposition to the people of Northern Ireland: do they believe in the integration of Ulster, the province of Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom? I believe that that is long overdue.

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend says, there is a place for referendums. I have said that, at the end of the negotiations, we shall put the outcome of those negotiations to the people of Northern Ireland. In my judgment, it is right that they should have the opportunity to decide on the outcome of those negotiations. That is the way in which we propose to operate: that referendum is certain.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the new Rubik' s cube-type election procedure that he has announced today could have been avoided, as everyone knows that the all-party talks could have taken place without any elections? We know also that, at the time of the Scott report, the Prime Minister and his colleagues made sure that the three votes of DUP Members were registered on his side by flying a kite that favoured them in order to save the Government.

Now that the Scott report is out of the way and the Prime Minister managed to secure victory by one vote, he must turn to the nine Ulster Unionists whose votes he needs in order to carry him for as long as possible through to the next election. That is why he has come up with this complicated procedure. He conned the DUP, and the chances are that he will con the Ulster Unionists before the day is out.

The Prime Minister

I am not entirely sure how the hon. Gentleman's thought processes work—in fact, I am not even sure whether the hon. Gentleman's thought processes do work. However, he has the unique gift of being 100 per cent. wrong in every assertion that he has made. The all-party talks could not have taken place without an election—as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had the first crumb of knowledge about what was happening in Ulster. The talks could not have taken place and the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that fact. There was no agreement with the Democratic Unionist party.

Mr. Skinner

They thought so.

The Prime Minister

They did not think so. DUP Members know that there was no such agreement; the hon. Gentleman should ask them about it.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

In view of the trenchant opposition to the proposals voiced by the somewhat strange alliance of the DUP and the SDLP—I do not know what to call it—does the Prime Minister agree that it seems to some entirely appropriate that the views of the major party in the province, which represents the majority of the population, should be taken very seriously?

The Prime Minister

We take very seriously the views of everyone in Northern Ireland. One of the great tragedies of Northern Ireland over the past 30 or so years is that a minority on any particular point has been able to bring whatever peace process existed to a juddering halt. That is why we need to take into account not only the views of the largest party but the views of smaller parties and the views of both traditions of Northern Ireland. Without that, no settlement could last.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

The Prime Minister said that Sinn Fein-IRA would not be at the negotiations on 10 June unless there was what he called an unequivocal ceasefire. Will he clarify for the House and for the people of Northern Ireland how he will define such an unequivocal ceasefire?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we want the restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994 and an indication that it is intended to be unequivocal. That is the point that we have made in the past, and it remains the position.