HC Deb 09 July 1997 vol 297 cc921-6
3. Ms Moran

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the Northern Ireland peace process. [5892]

6. Barbara Follett

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the Northern Ireland peace process. [5895]

7. Dr. George Turner

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement on the Northern Ireland peace process. [5896]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

The Government are doing all they can in the talks to promote agreement on the issue of decommissioning illegal weapons before the end of July so that substantive talks can begin in September. With the Irish Government, we have tabled proposals on decommissioning that reflect the report of the international body. I am pleased to tell the House that, at yesterday's talks, a timetable was agreed for moving to a determination on this issue.

It will be possible for Sinn Fein to join the talks only if there is an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire, shown in word and deed. The present situation in Northern Ireland illustrates why it is so important to move towards a political settlement with some degree of urgency.

Ms Moran

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Will she join me in regretting the damage that has been done to the Northern Ireland peace process by the events of last weekend? Will she accept my support and, I am sure, the support of the majority in the House, for all her efforts in trying to seek amelioration and reconciliation on this issue? What action does my right hon. Friend intend to take now to prevent a repetition of the violence and disruption we saw at the weekend?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for her support.

Neither side will get the decision it wants unless we can reach some sort of accommodation between them. Only by accommodation and negotiation can we move forward peacefully, whether it be over the parade last weekend or the parades in the weekends ahead. In the end, a decision will be taken by the Chief Constable on the grounds of public safety.

As to where we can go in future, as I have said many times in the House, over the past two years we have campaigned for a change in the law so that the criteria which form the basis of a decision on public safety can be broadened. We have said that we shall bring forward legislation in October to achieve that. It is only by accommodation that we shall be able to change the present situation.

Barbara Follett

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lack of a political settlement was at the heart of the tragic events of last weekend? Will she tell the House what she is doing to facilitate a political settlement?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for her question.

Like my hon. Friend, I condemn the violence outright. There are two ways to make progress. First, we need measures that begin to build accommodation and trust and ensure that both sides work together to deal with the conflicting rights that were illustrated at the weekend. The main way to achieve movement in the future is by multi-party talks and moves towards a political settlement. Without a political settlement, we shall not make progress towards peace for the whole of Northern Ireland, and the microcosms of that problem, as illustrated in Drumcree, will continue.

Dr. Turner

I am sure that the House will be delighted by the fact that my right hon. Friend is able to look beyond the marching season. Before the details are leaked to all and sundry, will she explain to the House the basis on which she is looking for the removal of illegal weapons from Northern Ireland? Is any progress being made with the parties involved? Clearly the House must look to that as the next step.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make a statement on that matter before any further leaking in my Department takes place.

Two weeks ago, this Government and the Irish Government delivered a joint statement to the talks process in Belfast. It outlined what we hope are constructive proposals, in which all the parties can engage, to deal with the issue of decommissioning. As I said earlier, during the talks yesterday, agreement was reached on a timetable to try to move the process forward by the end of July. That is what we want to happen.

The proposals contain details about verification committees and how decommissioning can be put in place alongside the Mitchell international report, which refers clearly to parallel decommissioning. We hope that the parties will engage constructively in that process, so that, in September, we can start the substantive political discussions.

Mr. Trimble

Has the Secretary of State seen the press reports yesterday and the day before about a meeting in Conway Mill, at which the leader of the Sinn Fein group on Belfast City council—supported by Mr. Gerry Kelly, one of Sinn Fein's so-called negotiators with the Northern Ireland Office—discussed how there could be a more militant campaign against the Government?

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the threats made by the Irish National Liberation Army—a terrorist group that operates under the licence of the IRA—to shoot any of the marchers whom they do not like the look of this weekend? In the current situation, is it not necessary for the priority to be peace and, consequently, for the right hon. Lady to take measures over the next few days that will ensure peace in Belfast, rather than becoming fixated on a process which, with regard to Sinn Fein, is clearly bankrupt?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question.

As the Chief Constable said at the weekend, the major problem we faced then and will face in the days to come is that of extremist elements on both sides, which ensure that the genuine protests, anger and frustration of one community are so gee-ed up that they then become a difficult situation to cope with. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the other security forces in Northern Ireland are doing all they can to deal with that.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I say to all other constitutional politicians, that, unless we work together to get a negotiated settlement and to build trust and confidence between the two communities, whatever we say in the House will not bring peace to the streets of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hogg

Does the Secretary of State agree that, although it is true that those who organise and participate in the marches have a right to pursue their traditional routes, it is in the wider interests of all that they should not march in areas where their presence is likely to trigger violence and disruption? Does the right hon. Lady further agree that, in encouraging people to practise self-denial of that sort, it is important that all of us say that, in the matters of the status of Northern Ireland and its constitution, the views of the majority—who happen to be Unionists—are paramount, overriding and absolute?

Marjorie Mowlam

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point about the overwhelming rights of the majority, both he and I understand that sometimes rights are conflicting. There is the right to march, which I defend, but there is the right to live free from fear and intimidation in one's own community, which I also defend. We are trying to deal with those conflicting rights in Northern Ireland.

Unless we can build some trust and confidence between the two sides—which is what the Churches, voluntary groups, business groups and many politicians have been trying to do—we can never deal with those conflicting rights. We have to face up to the needs and demands of both communities.

The decision at the weekend was taken after we failed to find accommodation. I readily admit that I—with many other people who tried—failed to find accommodation. It was then up to the Chief Constable to make a decision in line with public safety. That is what he did, and that is what he will do again at the weekend. We shall be faced with stand-offs until common sense and rationality prevail, and a degree of trust is built in the two communities.

Mr. Öpik

Given the volatile situation that often develops in the marching season, does the Minister have any plans to revisit the North report to determine whether it contains any further recommendations that might be implemented to reduce that volatility?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The short answer is yes. We supported the North report and the need for subsequent legislation, although the previous Government did not have sufficient time to pass such legislation. We supported the requirement to announce parades 21 days in advance, and such announcements have helped. We also supported an alcohol ban.

In the autumn, we hope to revisit the report and, with the support of many hon. Members, to pass legislation providing broader and clearer criteria, so that people can make a more rational and whole decision. That is what such a revisitation will be about. It will help, but it will not be enough, because the people themselves will have to decide that they want the situation to change. We can accommodate, negotiate and change legislation, but we cannot force the people to live together unless they themselves decide to do so.

Mr. McGrady

Is the Secretary of State aware that the unnecessary decision—whoever made it—to support an Orange march through the nationalist Garvaghy area and the considerable police brutality used in the early morning to remove the residents, was a death blow to the peace process and to peace generally? What efforts will she make to repair the damage done to the nationalist community's confidence in the impartiality of her administration?

In her decision-making process—regardless of who makes a decision—will the right hon. Lady ensure that decisions are not based, as they were last weekend, on the rights of evil people and on who can do the most evil? The Chief Constable said that he allowed the march to proceed to prevent a greater evil. Can we have some principle and some justice in the decision-making process?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question.

I readily acknowledge the nationalist community's fear, frustration and anger, which the hon. Gentleman and other people have outlined to me, and which I have seen for myself. I do not accept the premise behind his question that might is right. Right is right, and we shall stick with that principle throughout.

As I said to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), we shall make decisions on legislation on the North report. Such legislation will be based on fairness and justice, which are the principles that have guided us throughout in our policy on Northern Ireland. I tell him, yes, we must all work to rebuild trust and confidence in Northern Ireland, and we shall do so in line with the principles that have always guided us—the principles of fairness and justice.

Mr. MacKay

Is the Secretary of State aware that Conservative Members, from our experience over 18 years, realise that the decision that she and the Chief Constable had to make on Drumcree was an extremely difficult one, and that we believe that she made the right decision? Is she also aware that she will have the full support of Opposition Members in resuming—with or without Sinn Fein-IRA—political talks in September?

Marjorie Mowlam

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, and thank him for his support.

We must reach a position in which there are no right or wrong decisions. If we do not do so, there will continue to be anger on both sides. We have to move towards a situation in which both sides are winners or both sides are losers. Such a possibility was not open to us at the weekend. A resolution will depend on the constitutional parties doing all they can to help in reaching by July some agreement on the decommissioning issue. We must all then, in September, get on with the substantive talks. That is what will make the difference in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Benn

Is the Secretary of State aware that one abiding impression of the events at Drumcree last year and this year is that, when loyalist triumphalism requires it, British troops are always available to back it up, and that that indeed is the basis of loyalist loyalism, which is why they do not wish to sit down at any talks that might lead to a change in the status quo? While that remains so, is it not the case that the British presence in Northern Ireland is a part of the problem, and not necessarily a contribution to an answer?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question—[Laughter] It is the nature of democracy that one takes questions from across the board—that is what the House is for.

Elements on both extremes do not want to sit down to talk. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that, but it is up to us in the constitutional parties to be sure that, in September, we have, sitting around the table and working towards a political settlement, representatives of the vast majority of the parties in Northern Ireland. That is what will make the difference.