HC Deb 27 February 1997 vol 291 cc413-7
2. Mr. Alton

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has held with his counterparts in the Irish Government and with the representatives of Northern Ireland's political parties on the peace process; and what progress has been made. [16360]

5. Mr. Canavan

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the development of the peace process. [16364]

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

There has been intensive contact with the participants in the talks, including the Irish Government. On 7 February I met the Irish Foreign Minister and we discussed several issues, including the development of the process. The talks process continues to offer the best opportunity of securing a political settlement underpinning a true and lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Alton

Although I welcome the continued efforts of both Governments to find a peaceful solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, does the Secretary of State agree that the major impediment to making progress is the continued and sustained use of violence in Northern Ireland, not least through punishment beatings and intimidation on estates and in neighbourhoods, where people—and especially young people—are being systematically abused? Is the Secretary of State aware that only last night a 19-year-old girl was abducted from a taxi rank in Armagh, held at a lamp post, covered in paint, beaten up and left with a placard around her neck? Earlier this week a 19-year-old was set about with a club with nails attached and a 12-year-old child was set about with a baseball bat by a gang of thugs. At a rate of 15 to 20 attacks per week, is not such intimidation and terror holding up the whole possibility of peaceful progress being made?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Unfortunately that is only part of the things that are holding up the development of this process. The Chief Constable has calculated that attacks on the security forces have been taking place at an average rate of about one every 30 hours since the beginning of this year. There can be no place in a democracy for violence perpetrated for political reasons. Only if and when those who seek to participate in the talks which are continuing make it credibly clear that they have set aside violence for ever will they cease to exclude themselves.

Mr. Canavan

As this may be the Secretary of State's last ever Question Time, will he take this opportunity to make an announcement today which might help to further the peace process, especially as the marching season is due to begin again next month?

Will he announce the Government's intention to implement in full the recommendation of Dr. North's review, including the establishment of a parades commission with powers to make determinations, if necessary, to avoid the kind of ugly confrontations that took place at Drumcree last year and the year before? At that time, the so-called rule of law was replaced by mob rule, with the support of certain hon. Members of the House who put their own selfish interests and those of their party before the interests of the broader community.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hesitate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am looking forward to having another Question Time before I hang up these boots. I know the interest that the hon. Gentleman takes and the sincere concern that he has for the development of democracy in Northern Ireland. I made the Government's response clear two or three weeks ago in the House, when the North report was published. We accepted at once part of the recommendations. We thought it prudent—and we have been supported in this very widely thereafter—to consult up to the end of March on the remaining parts, and that is what we are doing. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to be concerned that there should not be a repetition in this marching season of the terrible events of last year, and I share his concern.

Mr. Trimble

Will the Secretary of State make it clear in his contacts with the Irish Government that one of the reasons why so little progress has been made in the inter-party talks is the attitude that they have adopted? I am thinking particularly of statements from those close to the Irish Foreign Minister to the effect that talking to us is not worth a penny candle. The Irish Foreign Ministry's representatives constantly attempt to change the terms of the talks to enable Sinn Fein-IRA to enter them fully armed and with the capacity to continue using their weapons. Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the Irish Government that if they are to make a positive contribution to the process a significant change in their policies will be required?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not recognise any distinction between the Irish Government's policy vis-à-vis the entry of Sinn Fein into the talks and our own. Both Governments believe and insist that there should be an unequivocal restoration of a ceasefire that is credible—that is shown to be credible. In doing that, we are merely implementing the ground rules agreed between the two Governments for the conduct of the talks. That is perfectly clear.

I have always found it rather unprofitable to comment on individual statements made from any point in the spectrum and resurrected weeks, months, years or even decades later, and I do not propose to depart from my practice today. I see Irish Ministers frequently, I find their attitude and approach to these extremely difficult matters constructive, and I am grateful for that.

Rev. Ian Paisley

How can the Secretary of State think that by pursuing the conflicting views of members of the Government he can establish confidence? When Stephen Restorick was brutally murdered, the Prime Minister issued a strong statement that the person or persons who did it would be hunted and would be brought to justice. In the other place, Baroness Denton informed us that people would no doubt have strange feelings that the House should be contemplating the decommissioning of the weapon which was used to murder Stephen Restorick. She also referred to the necessary loss of evidence".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 February 1997; Vol. 578, c. 1041.] On the one hand, we say that we will follow these people and bring them to justice while on the other hand we carry out a policy that will give them a veritable amnesty. How can the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland, who have suffered so much on both sides of the divide, have any confidence?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman ought to be a bit more careful, if he will allow me to say so. There is no question of an amnesty for any offence committed using any weapon. He knows that to be the case as it was explained fully when the House dealt with the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill, which was passed with substantial support. Of course it is right that everyone who perpetrates a foul crime, such as the murder of Lance Bombardier Restorick, is pursued with every lawful means. I give that assurance now.

It is also important for weapons to be taken out of circulation. Both Houses of Parliament have recognised the principle that a scheme for the decommissioning, the handing over, the putting out of harm's way of lethal weapons must have a limited immunity from prosecution for the offence, which will be brought to light, of holding that weapon while it is being handed over. That tight limitation is imposed on the amnesty.

Dr. Hendron

The Secretary of State is aware of the unexploded bomb in my constituency of West Belfast last night. He is also aware of the young lady in Armagh whose hair was shaved off and who had paint poured over her head. We also had the horrific murder of Stephen Restorick. Bearing it in mind that the talks process in Castle Buildings will almost certainly be adjourned very shortly because of the impending parliamentary election, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that, whatever Government are in place after the election, those talks will be renewed immediately afterwards and providing that there is an unequivocal and genuine ceasefire—I emphasise the word "genuine"—Sinn Fein will be admitted to the talks?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have already this afternoon set out the shared position of both Governments in regard to the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question. As to the first part, it was again due to the extreme professionalism of the security forces that a murderous attack was forestalled last night in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and also in another part of Belfast. That is wholly incompatible with any credibility being attached to professions of seeking peace. As to the future of the talks, that will of course depend on the participants in the talks, but I take great heart from the fact that those participating in the talks have almost universally expressed the desire that, after a period in cold storage, they will resume. It is the intention of everyone that they resume in as positive an environment as possible.

Mr. Dykes

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for clarifying, at least indirectly, in answer to earlier questions the fact that the close relationship between the Irish Government and the United Kingdom Government is one of the important keys to the future success of the longer-term peace process. Does he not agree, however, that despite the massive collective grief that we still feel over the murder of Lance Bombardier Restorick, out of that very sad occasion in Peterborough, which was attended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) and others, came inspiration in the extraordinarily wise words of the family of the murdered soldier and in the invitations to the lady who had been in the car when the soldier was murdered and to the rest of her family from Ireland? Is that not on a level with the late Senator Wilson in providing the inspiration of millions of people wanting peace in the Province and in the Republic of Ireland when a small number of extremists on all sides still wish to perpetuate extremism and the exclusive use of continuing vetoes?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I repeat expressions of appreciation that I have already publicly made for the extraordinary dignity of the response of Lance Bombardier Restorick's parents and couple them with my appreciation of what was said by Mrs. Lorraine McElroy, the passenger in the car. Incidentally, Lance Bombardier Restorick was very concerned that those helping him should know that she had been injured. That is a measure of the type of young man that he was. I very much hope that the contrast between the fineness of the behaviour of that young man, the dignity of what has been said by people, which has already been mentioned today, and the squalor and disgusting character of the crime will have its own effect.

Ms Mowlam

May I identify myself with the comments that the Secretary of State has just made? Does he agree that the job of the parties who have tried to make progress in the talks has been made much harder by the on-going IRA violence and that it must stop immediately? Will he join me in saying that, whatever the outcome of the general election, the talks about a just and peaceful settlement for Northern Ireland will be pursued with every determination? Does he agree that, if Sinn Fein wants to be part of that process, the IRA violence must stop and their warm words about peace must be backed up by actions that prove that they mean it? Will he join me in saying that a new British Government, of whichever party, will be unbending in their opposition to violence but will continue his current willingness to respond positively to a genuine desire for peace?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I think that many people will take reassurance from what the hon. Lady has said in the latter part of that question. What these people have got to know and learn is that they cannot look forward to being able to turn violence off and then turn violence on again. That is what is meant by the need for a credible, unequivocal ceasefire, a setting aside for good—not just for a tactical period—of the use of violence for political purposes. I agree with what she says about the importance of the talks process.