HC Deb 14 November 1996 vol 285 cc469-73
1. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest political developments in the peace process. [2509]

5. Mr. McFall

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress in the multi-party talks in Northern Ireland. [2513]

7. Mr. Corbyn

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he next expects to meet representatives of all parties in Northern Ireland to discuss the peace process. [2516]

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

Having agreed rules of procedure and settled the agenda for the remainder of the opening plenary session, the two Governments and the other talks participants are accordingly now addressing proposals regarding the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Sinn Fein continues to exclude itself from those negotiations.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not time that the IRA stopped teasing about a possible ceasefire and reinstated one on a permanent basis? Is there any information that the Secretary of State would like to share with the House on that matter? Should not the public be warned, certainly on the mainland, that the IRA will almost certainly try to commit a terrorist crime, or perhaps more, in the period leading up to Christmas?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is not merely time but overdue that the IRA should do what the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is abundantly clear that preparations for further attacks were being undertaken at the time of the ceasefire. It is desirable that Sinn Fein should, on proper terms—on terms equal to those that apply to everyone else—be included in negotiations. However, the position of the Irish Government and ourselves has been made very clear, which, so far as our Parliament is concerned, is incorporated in the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996.

Mr. McFall

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating George Mitchell on the excellent work that he has done on the talks, and especially on bringing all the parties together? If President Clinton should award Senator Mitchell high office in the United States, what plans does the Secretary of State have for a new chairman?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am glad to share in the congratulations that the hon. Gentleman rightly considers to be due. We have all been extremely grateful for Senator Mitchell's chairmanship, which we very much admire. We wish him the very best—although that is outside our jurisdiction. Naturally, we also wish the best for ourselves.

Mr. Corbyn

Does the Secretary of State realise that one of the problems has been delays by the Government in opening all-party talks after the first IRA ceasefire? Does he agree that, if we are to make progress and achieve all-party talks and another ceasefire, we must at least maintain lines of communication, confidence-building measures and a hope of change in the six counties? Does he agree that all-party talks have no meaning unless all parties—I mean all parties—are around the table as part of the discussions and negotiations?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I certainly do not accept the "foot-dragging" argument, which I hear occasionally, that somehow the British Government are responsible for the abandonment of the ceasefire, in February 1996, because we did not respond to the ceasefire, in August 1994. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sinn Fein was not admitted to the talks because it did not satisfy us—or any reasonable person—that what it meant by its words was what it was prepared to secure by its action—by the things that it did and, just as importantly, by the things that it did not do.

The British Government moved their position on several occasions in an effort to overcome the impasse, and we attracted a great deal of criticism from some quarters for doing so. I believe that the Government's action was right, and that the blame lies in one area, and in one area only, for the abandonment of the ceasefire: that is, with Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Mr. Trimble

Did the Secretary of State read reports of President Clinton's words last weekend, when he said that a ceasefire had to be genuine and permanent? Does the Secretary of State agree with that? Does he agree with the obvious truth, which is clear to everyone in Northern Ireland, that there is not the slightest likelihood that Sinn Fein will meet those requirements, and that there is now a clear need to move on to substantive talks without that? I should tell the Secretary of State that we are deeply frustrated by the Government's unwillingness to move forward on that basis, and that there is considerable and growing unease in Northern Ireland at the Secretary of State's inability to express himself publicly as clearly as President Clinton did.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I would have thought that it was well known from what the Prime Minister said and from what I have said that there has to be a ceasefire that is genuine and permanent, and, what is more, one that is intended to be genuine and permanent. Of course that is right. We have to guard against what one might call a tactical ceasefire to secure advance which will then be followed by a return to violence, or the threat of a return to violence, if that seems expedient.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I think it likely that Sinn Fein will comply with that. I cannot tell whether it is likely—only Sinn Fein knows whether it is likely—but I certainly believe it to be desirable. Whether it is likely or not will depend not on what it says but on what it does. Meanwhile, as we have often made clear, the absence of any one party will not prevent the talks from going ahead. There is a great deal of valuable work to be done by the talks even if one party is absent. Of course, it is much better if all parties elected for the purpose take part, provided that they do so on proper terms.

Mr. Hunter

With regard to the possibility of Sinn Fein re-entering the process, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that it will require not only the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire but Sinn Fein establishing a commitment to exclusively peaceful means which will take some time, albeit one which one cannot specify in advance?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I agree with my hon. Friend. He recites the language of paragraph 8 of the ground rules paper referred to in legislation as a Command Paper. After what happened in South Quay, in Manchester and at the Thiepval barracks at Lisburn, as the Prime Minister said, mere words cannot be enough. I am happy enough to adopt language which I think the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) has used in the past, namely that Sinn Fein must commit itself in word and deed to the path of peace and democracy—I stress "and deed".

Mr. Wilkinson

By what mechanism does my right hon. and learned Friend hope to secure in the current talks procedure the physical elimination of terrorist weapons that are currently illegally held?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I cannot secure it but I can facilitate it by legislation that will provide for a scheme to be set up by the Secretary of State, which will enable terrorist weapons to be got rid of permanently and which will secure that in the narrow act of implementing the scheme—by bringing forward weapons for that purpose—people shall be protected from prosecution for offences of possessing unlawful weapons. That is the character of the legislation that we hope to introduce very shortly.

Dr. Hendron

With regard to the on-going peace process in Northern Ireland, I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that, if taken as a whole, the territory between west and north Belfast is the very epicentre of social and economic deprivation in the north of Ireland. That being so, I ask him once again whether he will encourage the university of Ulster and the thousands of people who live on either side of the peace line by giving the go-ahead for the development of a university campus at Springvale.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I very much agree that the area represented by the hon. Gentleman has far too high a level of deprivation of one kind and another. That is why I am especially glad that only last week the Japanese ambassador opened the new Fujitsu Telecoms (Ireland) factory, which will provide 200 jobs, 100 of which will I think be provided almost straight away. The matter of the Springvale complex is more complex. A number of considerations have to be weighed, not least the effect on the provision of education throughout Northern Ireland and the variations that the university has made to its own proposals and those which it may make in the future.

Mr. Robert McCartney

The Secretary of State referred to the terms of the Command Paper of 16 April: that there should be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of 31 August 1994. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the term "unequivocal" refers to the restoration, not to the ceasefire? Does he also agree that any new ceasefire should be not only complete in nature, but permanent in duration and should be accompanied by tangible evidence of good faith through the immediate handing over of a significant amount of guns and Semtex to evidence that the declaration of the ceasefire was not merely words but credible?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Government's position on the latter part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question is based four square on what has come to be called the Mitchell compromise approach, to be found in paragraphs 34 and 35 of the international body's report. The hon. and learned Gentleman is familiar with those paragraphs, so I shall not make my reply unduly long.

I very much agree that it is essential that the words used should be accompanied by external, objective indications that can lead the rest of us to form a well-founded judgment on whether they are intended to mean a permanent, not a tactical, ceasefire. Getting rid of all illegally held terrorist weapons is one of the best possible means by which that can be done. We have to consider all the circumstances, including the words used, what is happening on the ground and what is not happening on the ground.

Mr. Soley

Would an unequivocal ceasefire delivered by the IRA, accompanied by statements similar to those made by the Unionist paramilitary groups, elicit a new response from the British and Irish Governments?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

That would obviously be helpful. I do not want to add to what I have just said to the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). We have to consider all the circumstances, including the words used, what is happening on the ground and what is not happening on the ground. In other words, one has to form a sensible judgment that is as well founded as it can be, taking account of all the available circumstances.

Mr. Madden

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Home Secretary's decision this week to repatriate further prisoners to the Republic of Ireland will be widely welcomed? In the same spirit of building confidence in the peace process in both communities, will the Secretary of State exercise the utmost compassion in maximising home leave before Christmas and new year?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

It is a well-established principle here and in Northern Ireland that prisoners ought to be able to serve their sentences as near as is practicable to their families, for obvious reasons connected with rehabilitation, among others. I certainly follow that principle, and I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary does as well.

I realise the importance attached to what are sometimes called prisoner issues. I have to take account of all proper interests, in particular the sentences passed by the courts, remembering that they have been passed judicially and are not to be interfered with in any material way by the Executive. That said, I realise that there are always grounds for scrutiny of the conditions under which people serve their sentences. That will continue.