HC Deb 21 March 1996 vol 274 cc477-80
1. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what consultations he has had with the Government of the Irish Republic on their contribution to the substantive negotiations relating to the peace process. [20407]

4. Mr. Canavan

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the progress of the peace process. [20410]

7. Mrs. Bridget Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what discussions he has had with the Irish Government concerning an acceptable elective process leading directly to all-party negotiations. [20413]

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

A round of intensive consultations was held between 4 and 13 March involving the British and Irish Governments and the constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland. These discussions were illuminating and the Government have been reviewing the outcome with the Irish Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making a statement later this afternoon which will set out the Government's decision on the way forward.

Mr. Riddick

As there is some understandable resentment on the part of some people in the north of Ireland of the considerable involvement of the Irish Government in the affairs of the north, would it not be an appropriate goodwill gesture for the Irish Government to announce that they intend to drop the clauses of the Irish constitution that lay claim to Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Under the Anglo-Irish Agreement, certain rights are conferred upon the Irish Government. I think that it is worth remembering that one of the declared principles shared between the two Governments on the process of negotiations with which we are concerned is the possibility of finding a replacement for the Anglo-Irish Agreement that would attract broader support and have a broader base. I think that the Irish Government recognise very well the limitations placed upon the rights that I have mentioned, and observe them.

Mr. Canavan

Does the Secretary of State now realise that, by trying to please the Ulster Unionists' demand for elections as a passport to all-party talks, there is a distinct danger that he will end up pleasing no one, and that the only positive result might be that he will unite all Northern Ireland parties in their opposition to the scheme? If there is widespread opposition to this hare-brained hybrid electoral scheme, will he consider an alternative approach whereby the passport to all-party talks might be based on existing electoral mandates, with fresh elections being held after a new constitutional framework is agreed at the all-party talks?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am fairly philosophical about uniting people in opposition to anything that the Government may put forward in the interests of negotiations in Northern Ireland, but I think that one of the things that we have learnt is the wide disparity of views that are held. We will wait and see how what the Government will introduce this afternoon is received. We have a shared ambition with, I believe, all the constitutional parties to bring forward the process by which all the parties who are democratically mandated and wholly committed to peaceful and democratic means can sit down and discuss the issues that will be fundamental to an ultimate political settlement.

Mrs. Prentice

On those discussions, does the Secretary of State agree that, as well as the electoral system, there are other crucial elements on the road to 10 June and that having discussions with the Irish Government, and agreement with them, is the best way to ensure that those other elements are included?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is certainly true that the Irish Government have a legitimate interest in those matters that have come to be called strand two and strand three matters. It is therefore sensible that we should reach a common position, if possible, as to the ground rules for negotiations that bear upon those matters.

Mr. Wilshire

In respect of Question 7, which focuses on elections in Northern Ireland, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the organisation of elections within a sovereign state is entirely the business of that sovereign state and of nobody else? Can he confirm, therefore, that the foreign Government in Dublin will play absolutely no part in the discussions that will take place in the House when we come to legislate?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Yes, that is true, and that is understood by the Irish Government.

Mr. Trimble

Does the Secretary of State recall the inter-party talks of 1992, which failed largely because of the failure of the Irish Government to make a positive contribution on substantive matters? Has the Secretary of State any indication that the Irish Government will in the future act positively not only on articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, but on the issue of finding a new agreement, to which he referred?

With regard to that matter, when the Secretary of State says that the Irish Government recognise the limitations on their powers to interfere under the existing Anglo-Irish Agreement, were they acting within the limits of those powers when they interfered so shamelessly in the past few days, with the effect of changing the statement that the Prime Minister is to make this afternoon?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I recall very well the discussions of 1992, as I know the hon. Gentleman does. They came to an end, inconclusively, after between five and six months, in November, for a variety of reasons, and I do not think that it is possible to identify any particular one today.

As to the conduct of the Irish Government that we may anticipate in the negotiations that we hope will take place, I have every confidence that they will be positive and will wish to address matters in a constructive way, as indeed will we and, I am confident, all the constitutional parties.

I dealt earlier with a question about the involvement of the Irish Government by right in matters connected with strands two and three. I am not aware that the Irish Government have sought to go outside those entitlements in any respect recently.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Secretary of State has spoken much about the shared understanding between the Government and the Government of the Irish Republic. Was the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic acting in keeping with that shared understanding when he said in The Irish Times of 18 March that decommissioning would not be allowed to inhibit … progress"?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is difficult to extract from one newspaper headline or one newspaper report anything that gives a reliable account of people's views. From the point of view of the British Government, I can say unequivocally that we stand by the position adopted by both Governments in paragraph 12 of the joint communiqué of 28 February. I have no reason to suppose that the Irish Government are in any different position.

Mr. Mallon

Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the Government have had any unofficial contact or discussions with the IRA, or those representing its views, since the breakdown of the ceasefire?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Since the breakdown of the ceasefire, no. I do not know quite who the hon. Gentleman would include in the category of those representing the views of the IRA, but since the breakdown of the ceasefire I have not had, and I do not believe that any Minister has had, any contact with Mr. Adams or Mr. McGuinness; before then, I had.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that compromise actually means seeking agreement? If the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland could reach agreement, would there be any difficulty in the United Kingdom Government agreeing to their system of defining those who should be party to the talks?

May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that the only people who appear to want to go on turning women into widows and children into orphans are those who represent Sinn Fein-IRA, who appear at the moment to find every excuse to avoid getting involved in the democratic process?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hope very much that Sinn Fein will become involved in the democratic process. I believe that any subsequent and ultimate political accommodation will be more soundly based if it does. That, of course, involves its being prepared to accept an adverse outcome to its wishes, if that be the case under the operation of the democratic process. That is the test that it has to face. As to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I would be glad to accommodate any system that was agreed by the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland.

Ms Mowlam

Following the consultations with the Irish Government, does not the Secretary of State agree that what is important is that the talks start on 10 June? When, therefore, does he envisage telling hon. Members about the basis of the structure, the format and the agenda for those talks? What time scale is he working to?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement this afternoon, as the hon. Lady knows, and I shall not anticipate it. The statement will be accompanied by the publication of a paper, which will be available in the usual way.

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