HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc494-8
4. Mrs. Fyfe

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest position with the peace process. [11970]

6. Mr. Corbyn

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent contact he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland to promote peaceful dialogue. [11972]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Participants returned to the multi-party talks, initially for bilateral discussions, on Monday 13 January. The first session of the opening plenary since the break was held last Monday. We believe that there remains scope for progress before the elections and we shall continue to make every effort to secure it. Sinn Fein continues to exclude itself from the process, in the absence of an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire.

Mrs. Fyfe

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he say whether he has noticed the fact that 65 hon. Members have today signed early-day motion 461 which calls for a re-examination of the events of Bloody Sunday? Does he agree that an honest and open re-examination of those events could only help the peace process?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The events of Bloody Sunday constituted a tragedy—there is no doubt about that. That tragedy was investigated by Lord Chief Justice Widgery. If there is any substantial fresh evidence, it should be submitted to the authorities where it will receive full and proper consideration.

Mr. Corbyn

Does not the Secretary of State recognise that Don Mullin's recent book on the events of Bloody Sunday provides important and compelling new evidence which should be examined independently so that the deaths and tragedy can be dealt with properly and guilt properly ascribed? If we are to build a peace process, there must be dialogue, but grievances and injustice must be examined and dealt with. Surely that has to be the way forward; otherwise we descend once more into the violence of the past 25 years.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I recognise that, in the history of Ireland—Northern Ireland and the Republic—many grievous events have occurred that live long in people's memories. I do not regard that as a matter of criticism, although I wish that people looked forward as vigorously as they sometimes look back. If there is fresh evidence in Mr. Mullin's book, I find it surprising that it was not first submitted to the authorities, if it was thought to be of significance. That should happen now that the book has been published. Any fresh evidence will receive proper consideration.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am sure that the Secretary of State will bear in mind that there have been bloody Mondays, bloody Tuesdays, bloody Wednesdays, bloody Thursdays, bloody Fridays and bloody Saturdays. What does he think of the attitude of IRA-Sinn Fein, who mouthed to the media about a peace process when their colleagues entered a sick children's hospital and tried to kill a colleague of mine and put a bullet through a baby's incubator? Will he investigate what happened two nights ago, when a crowd inside and outside that hospital rioted because the police tried to arrest a person who was hijacking a car?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The first part of my reply to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) showed that I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about previous outrages. Violence, from whatever quarter, is to be condemned. The Government and all people of decent mind unfailingly do so.

I notice that Sinn Fein now has a slogan, A fresh opportunity for peace. It is remarkable that it should believe there to be a fresh opportunity for peace when the IRA, with which it is inextricably linked, has broken its ceasefire. There is no place for violence in the politics of any democracy.

I shall have the matter with which the hon. Gentleman concluded his question investigated.

Mr. Trimble

I ask the Secretary of State to turn his mind back three and a half months, to a paper that we submitted to him and the other participants in the inter-party talks. The paper showed how the talks could proceed to substantive issues quickly. Does he share my disappointment that, rather than following the path that we had mapped out, some parties preferred to give a higher priority to trying to involve Sinn Fein in the process, notwithstanding the abundant evidence that Sinn Fein-IRA are committed to violent methods and to a mixture of threat and political manoeuvre to achieve their ends? Does he agree that the resulting impasse must be tackled positively and that there is no point in us being stuck in that impasse? It is now necessary to find other ways to make progress.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I recall the paper to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is, unhappily, beginning to be clear that Sinn Fein is unwilling to make the declared commitment to exclusively peaceful purposes that is the passport to the talks required of all parties. Nevertheless, it is necessary to proceed by consent within the rules of procedure agreed in the talks process. It has been necessary, in our judgment, to try to find an agreed solution to the problems of decommissioning arms. That is why we have taken so long over it. I know that the hon. Gentleman is impatient and wants to get to the substance. We should also like to get to the substance. We shall continue our efforts to find a way to do so by consent when we resume next week.

Mr. Dykes

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to return to those questions that were allowed by the Chair about events in 1972? I wish him well in the Government's continuing peace process. Given that the events of 1972 have been raised again, and bearing in mind the words of the Irish Foreign Minister—a respected figure in Irish and international politics, and in this country—would it not be right for the matter, which is of great concern, to be considered again, not least in view of the need to reassure the Catholic community in Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Of course I know of my hon. Friend's concern and have seen the paper that he has recently published on the subject. Very manifest difficulties are involved in investigating afresh something that occurred 25 years ago, however serious it may be and tragic its consequences. However, I repeat that, if from whatever quarter fresh evidence of real substance is presented, it will be received and examined properly and thoroughly. We need no encouragement from sources outside, however distinguished, to do that.

Mr. Mallon

The Secretary of State will remember that, when the Prime Minister presented the proposals for multi-party talks, he assured everyone in writing that they would be real, and would meaningfully address the concerns of both communities, and that no single issue would be allowed to block the substantive negotiations on the three strands. Eight months later, we have not even completed the opening agenda. Will the Secretary of State tell us in specific terms what steps the two Governments envisage taking to ensure that we progress into those negotiations, now and that the nature of the problem and the solution will not change simply because there is to be a general election?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not think that the general election has anything to do with the nature of the solution. The hon. Gentleman asked me what steps the two Governments can take to ensure that we move now into the substance. It is not within the power of the two Governments to ensure that we move now into the substance because that step has to be made in circumstances and on conditions that achieve sufficient agreement among the participants. There has been no change in the British Government's position since the time to which he referred. We have always made it clear, with the Irish Government, that those who will take part in the process of talks will be those who declare and show themselves to be wholly and exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic principles and methods. That is, of course, the significance of the decommissioning issue, which has proved, and is continuing to prove, so troublesome.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Given the apparently slow process of the all-party talks and the reluctance of some to participate in them at all, what is the current role and effect, if any, of dialogue between the British Government and, respectively, the Governments of the Republic of Ireland and the United States of America in possibly catalysing the effectiveness of the talks?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I pay tribute to the interest of the United States of America, and of course to the interest of the Government of the Republic of Ireland. In my view, the effect of American interest has been especially beneficial, with the chairmanship of Senator Mitchell and the President's encouragement. There is, however, no substitute for people coming to agreement. Imposition is not a very helpful concept when we are considering future political arrangements for Northern Ireland. Unless we are to continue with direct rule, people must come to agreement through their representatives. We must continue to press for that, however long it takes.

Mr. Hunter

With regard to the Bloody Sunday controversy, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we could spend a very long time going through the pages of Anglo-Irish history, apportioning and reapportioning blame, but the exercise would achieve nothing? It is far better to spend our time and energies building new relations than reliving past tragedies.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

My hon. Friend points to something of great importance. We have to look forward. An immensely long and very controversial history of course affects the whole of Ireland, but we must not be governed by it. I repeat that a full inquiry was conducted by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, but if there is anything of substance and significance that anybody believes ought to be considered by the authorities, there will be no obstruction to that and it will be thoroughly reviewed. I agree with my hon. Friend's thrust that we must be looking forward.

Ms Mowlam

I would like to send my condolences to the families of those who died on Bloody Sunday and to all the families who have lost someone in the conflict in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree that, although this is a difficult time for parties to take extra steps forward in the talks, the time will always be difficult, and that what is needed now is a determination from all parties to make some progress? Do the two Governments have any specific plans to encourage and assist the parties to take those steps?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I endorse what the hon. Lady said at the beginning of her remarks and her concern that people do not stay in rigid positions to the exclusion of sensible opportunities to make progress in the talks.

On the last part of the hon. Lady's question, this Government—for whom alone I can speak—are always available, in bilateral discussions or on other occasions, to discuss ways in which we could help with any other participant in the talks. That is the virtue of the bilateral talks in which we have been, and are still, engaged.