HC Deb 25 June 1997 vol 296 cc847-60 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Madam Speaker, with permission, I shall make a statement about the Government's continuing search for peace and a political settlement in Northern Ireland.

In my speech in Belfast on 16 May, I set out the principles of the Government's approach: first, the primacy of the consent principle, to make it clear that any settlement must command the consent of both unionists and nationalists and cannot be imposed on Northern Ireland against the wishes of a majority of its people; secondly, the need for urgent progress in the talks and particularly the need for the key political issues to be addressed as soon as possible; thirdly, the absolute unacceptability of violence or the threat of violence in the democratic process; fourthly, the desirability of talks involving all the parties, including Sinn Fein, if, and only if, there is an unequivocal IRA ceasefire; and, fifthly, the need to move on rapidly without Sinn Fein if there is not.

I want, therefore, to move as rapidly as possible to an agreed political settlement. The situation in Northern Ireland means that delay is not acceptable. I also continue to believe that such a settlement must be one with which all the people of Northern Ireland can feel comfortable and to which they can give their allegiance. The outline of a settlement is clear. The key elements are devolution in Northern Ireland, including an Assembly elected and operating on a widely acceptable basis; and sensible cross-border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

I believe that there is a wide measure of agreement on those two elements, although there may be disagreement about the details. New arrangements will also be needed between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, including formal constitutional acceptance on both sides of the principle of consent and a new, more broadly based Anglo-Irish Agreement. They represent the three strands of the negotiations.

Terrorism continues to haunt Northern Ireland. We were reminded of that again this morning, when only prompt RUC action averted another serious attack. Ten days ago, we saw the despicable murders by the IRA of RUC Constables John Graham and David Johnston. Five more young children are without fathers. The whole House will join me in condemning that pointless and cowardly crime. Those responsible deserve our contempt in a measure equal to the sympathy that we feel for the constables' families and colleagues. We shall do everything in our power to bring those responsible to justice.

However, this was worse than just another terrorist crime. The location and the timing of the murders, which occurred close to one of the most sensitive areas for marches, can be seen only as deliberately provocative. However, it was even worse than that—and I shall explain why. I announced in my Belfast speech that officials could meet Sinn Fein to ensure that there was no misunderstanding of our position and to hear Sinn Fein's response to my statement that the settlement train was leaving, with or without it. That initiative was widely welcomed, and two meetings were held.

Following the second meeting, in order to make our position absolutely clear and to remove any shred of justification for claiming that it was not, I authorised the sending of an aide-memoire to Sinn Fein putting in writing the Government's position on the points where Sinn Fein had sought clarification. The aide-memoire was passed to Sinn Fein on Friday evening, 13 June, three days before the Lurgan murders. I have placed a copy in the Library.

The aide-memoire set out clearly and concisely the Government's position on confidence-building measures, decommissioning and how long we thought that the talks should last. It also repeated that Sinn Fein's entry into talks required an unequivocal ceasefire, and that a period of time would be needed to ensure that that was genuine and that words and deeds matched. In order to put at rest fears that the Government might seek to spin out that process, it added that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would come to a political judgment about Sinn Fein's qualification for entry in some six weeks.

Assuming that words and deeds were consistent with a genuine and unequivocal ceasefire, Sinn Fein would at that point be invited to join a plenary session of the talks. It would then need to make clear, as the other participants have done, its absolute commitment to the Mitchell principles. The aide-memoire represented a reasonable approach, which had the full support of the American and Irish Governments, although the text was entirely our own.

Then came the appalling murders in Lurgan. They caused revulsion and outrage not only in this country but across the world. That was clear to me in the United States, where President Clinton condemned the cold-blooded killings in exactly the same terms as I did. It was clear, too, in my discussions with the outgoing Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton.

The credibility gap that the IRA and Sinn Fein have to bridge is wider than ever after Lurgan. Whatever Sinn Fein now says or does, I am determined to move on. It is essential to make political progress rapidly. The preparation for substantive talks must quicken.

Last autumn, we—that is, the previous Government—and the Irish Government, building on discussions in the talks, began to develop a comprehensive set of proposals for the handling of decommissioning. Final agreement was reached on them earlier this week. The two Governments have today given those proposals to the independent chairman of the talks, Senator George Mitchell, for circulation to the parties involved in the talks, and will be commending those proposals to the other participants as a basis for agreement on this important and complex subject. Again, a copy has been put in the Library.

Briefly, we propose the establishment of an independent coimmission to make proposals for decommissioning and to monitor its implementation, and a committee of the plenary to deal with these issues, with a sub-committee specifically on decommissioning.

The two Governments are fully committed to the approach to decommissioning that is set out in the report of the international body. That recommended an approach under which some decommissioning would take place during the negotiations. The report foresaw mutual progress on decommissioning and substantive political issues leading to a progressive pattern of mounting trust and confidence. That is what the two Governments want to see.

Under our proposals, a plenary meeting should be convened every two months to enable all participants to review progress across the entire spectrum of the negotiations, including decommissioning, and to consider whether the necessary confidence is being maintained. All participants, including Sinn Fein, if it is there, will, of course, have already committed themselves to the Mitchell principles. They include not only the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations and the renunciation of force, or the threat of force, but action to prevent so-called punishment killings and beatings.

A second sub-committee will deal with other confidence-building measures that are set out in the Mitchell report. There can be no question of trading guns for political concessions in all this. There will need to be genuine progress in both decommissioning and the political negotiations if the process is to be successful. All the parties in the talks will have to face their responsibilities.

If the proposals provide a basis for agreement, important preparatory work can take place over the summer. It will be crucial to put the machinery in place as soon as possible, in particular the independent commission. I appeal to all the parties to look at the proposals in a constructive spirit. I really do not believe that there is another way forward.

Agreement would at last clear the way for substantive talks to start in earnest. I want them to begin as quickly as possible. I am also determined that, so far as we can influence the process, the talks will move as fast as possible. I can announce for the first time a clear timetable. The substantive talks should start in early September at the latest. In my view, they should conclude by next May at the latest, when the legislative basis for the talks expires. That is an ambitious target, but I have no doubt that it is achievable if all concerned put their minds to it.

As I said at the beginning of my statement, there is broad agreement on the key elements of a settlement: devolved and fair government in Northern Ireland, sensible and significant north-south arrangements, and a revamped relationship between the two Governments. The outlines of a settlement are reasonably clear, even if many of the details will be fiercely fought over. Let us now get down to the substance without further ado or prevarication.

Let me also repeat, in case anyone still has a doubt, that any agreement will be put to a referendum of all the people of Northern Ireland, as well as to Parliament. So the triple lock is secure.

There is no time to waste. The situation on the ground in Northern Ireland is fragile. Everyone is conscious of the dangers of the forthcoming marching season, and no one wants to see a repetition of last year's dreadful events. On that, too, the Government are determined to act. As the North report said, the best way to balance the conflict of rights and responsibilities involved in disputed marches is through local accommodation.

The Government are absolutely committed to doing everything they can to encourage a local accommodation at Drumcree, as elsewhere, to take account of the legitimate concerns of all sides. Accordingly, the Secretary of State is today issuing invitations to discussions with the Orange order and the Garvaghy road residents at Hillsborough castle on Friday. Nobody will be forced to talk face to face to those with whom they do not wish to talk, but my right hon. Friend will make a further determined effort to make progress. I appeal to all concerned to accept that invitation to talks. Accommodation need not be a dirty word where human lives may be at stake.

This morning I met the 12-year-old girl, Margaret Gibney, who wrote to me and to other public figures, urging us to commit ourselves to bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. I owe it to her, and this House and all who have influence and authority owe it to her, to put a stop to the killing and to put in place a lasting political settlement. She has enjoyed one year of peace in the whole of her life. When her children are born, I want every year of their lives to be a year of peace.

This process must get moving. The settlement train is leaving, with or without Sinn Fein. If it wants to join, it is absolutely clear what it has to do. I have dealt straight with members of Sinn Fein, and I expect straight dealing from them. We and the other parties will not wait around for them.

There are, of course, risks in the approach that we are taking. No lasting settlement can be arrived at without taking some risks. But I have no doubt that the measures that we have put in place are right. They provide the basis for a way forward and a settlement within a matter of months. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want, need and deserve.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I wish the Prime Minister well in his endeavours to pursue the peace initiative so vigorously commenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon(Mr.Major)The Opposition share his horror and condemnation of recent murders, including the two RUC officers in Lurgan. We also share his concern about the fragile situation on the ground in the Province.

I welcome in particular the continued improved appreciation in the United States of the real character of Sinn Fein-IRA. I also welcome the Prime Minister's efforts to find a credible and secure way through the decommissioning block. I welcome his assurance that, in informing Sinn Fein that in the event of an unequivocal IRA ceasefire it could gain entry to the talks in six weeks, he has made it clear that that would be dependent on the credibility of such a ceasefire as shown by both deeds and words.

There are four areas on which I seek further information or reassurance. First, will the Prime Minister confirm that he will proceed with simultaneous negotiations on all three strands as originally set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke)? Secondly, can he confirm that there will be no question of substantive negotiations with Sinn Fein proceeding without early parallel decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons? Thirdly, does he believe that there should be regular reviews within the talks process to ascertain progress, and the viability of continuing the process? Fourthly, can he confirm that progress can be made only by agreement within the talks, reached on the basis of sufficient consensus, and that he has no intention of seeking to impose solutions?

Finally, may I assure the Prime Minister that Conservative Members are anxious to maintain the previously successful bipartisan approach to these matters, provided that the Government's actions continue to be in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming the statement, and particularly for expressing his desire to maintain the bipartisan relationship. It is difficult to do such things in politics, and he deserves great credit. I think that his predecessor would agree that the attempt to establish a bipartisan relationship under the previous Government helped the process. I am grateful to him for that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether it was clear that any participation by Sinn Fein must be on the basis of a ceasefire that is credible in word and deed. Yes, that is absolutely correct. I can agree with the four points that he put to me. The timetable for the substantive negotiations on decommissioning will be discussed by the committee that will be established, but, as I emphasised when I quoted the words of Senator Mitchell, it is a process that occurs during the negotiations. As for the simultaneous negotiations on each of the various strands, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that they are proceeding apace at the same time.

I hope that we can make progress within the talks. I believe that it is possible to do so. I know that it requires an immense act of endeavour from all concerned, but I concur with the right hon. Gentleman that that is the only basis—it is certainly the only basis that we can see—on which we have a chance of moving the process forward. If it does not move forward, it will only move backwards; it will not stay as it is now.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Would it be helpful if I confirmed what I suspect the Prime Minister knows already—that Liberal Democrats will wish to preserve the cross-party onsensus, as we did with the previous Government?

I welcome the Prime Minister's statement. We believe that he is right to seek at this point to give more momentum to the resuscitation of the peace process on the basis of the Mitchell principles, which he has clearly done. We also believe that he will gain wide support for the idea that it is now time to make progress again, and that the negotiating train, as he put it, cannot wait indefinitely for Sinn Fein. It is "make up your mind" time for politicians and terrorists alike in Northern Ireland.

Will the Prime Minister confirm, however, that there is an open door for Sinn Fein on that train, provided that it subscribes to the Mitchell principles and has a durable ceasefire in place by that time? Will he also confirm that the best way in which Unionists in the House can represent the best interests of their constituents is to give a positive welcome to the Mitchell process and the Prime Minister's initiative, so that the two-year logjam in the peace process can end, and end soon?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, particularly about the negotiating train leaving. Sinn Fein knows what it must do: it is absolutely clear. Any ceasefire that is called must be unequivocal, and its credibility must be there in word and deed. Sinn Fein knows that—it has known it all the way through—and there is no shred of justification for the retaining of its present position.

Everyone involved in the process now has a huge responsibility to take the opportunity to move it forward. As I said a moment ago, if it does not move forward, it will move backwards. One of the reasons why I thought it so important to try to act early is that the situation is fragile. In some areas, it is deteriorating on the ground. If we do not move the process forward now, I fear for the future.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

The Prime Minister will recall agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) last week when, after the murder of two policemen in Lurgan in my constituency, he described Sinn Fein-IRA as irredeemable. Does he not agree that the attempt last night in Lurgan to murder members of the security forces and the thwarted ambush at Woodbourne RUC station in west Belfast this morning reinforce that description? Does he appreciate that most people will wonder why yet another last chance is being given to terrorists who have failed again and again to renounce violence?

Will the Prime Minister make it clear that an unequivocal ceasefire must be a genuinely permanent end to violence with no more social and economic terrorism and no more orchestrated civil disorder, and that the character of the ending of violence is much more important than any time period, however it might be expressed? Does he agree that the 17-month delay in implementing the Mitchell report proposal for a verification commission to oversee decommissioning of terrorist weapons is a serious reflection on both the British and Irish Governments, and that it reinforces the suspicion of many of us that there are elements within those Governments that do not want to see any actual decommissioning at all?

Does the Prime Minister agree that parallel decommissioning as suggested by Mitchell must mean decommissioning that begins with the talks, continues during the talks and is complete at the end of the talks? Does he not agree that, consequently, any timetable for talks must be matched by a timetable for decommissioning and that the paper that he is circulating is seriously deficient in such mechanisms and needs to be supplemented? Can we be assured that those deficiencies will be remedied before the summer recess, so that the target date in September is not postponed? It is not enough simply to put mechanisms in place: they must actually start to work.

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that statement and pay tribute to his determination to try to move this process forward in what I know is a very difficult situation for him. I entirely agree that the essence of any ceasefire is that it is a genuine end to violence. It is the sincerity of it that is the most important thing—I totally accept that.

It is worth, when hon. Members can, re-reading the Mitchell six principles and understanding that they represent a pretty tough and clear statement not just that there should be an unequivocal end to violence, but that, during the course of the negotiations and talks, there should be no threat of violence; that no one should be able to negotiate with the idea that, if the negotiations do not go the way that he wants, going back to violence is an option. That would be a false negotiation and it must not happen.

It is not just the bombings and the killings that we read about, but the punishment beatings, the thousand little examples of acts of mini-terrorism and violence that make life absolute hell for people in many communities. When one talks to a 12-year-old schoolgirl and finds that she is so aware of the problems and has lived with them all her life, one realises that there is a heavy responsibility on everyone to make sure that this situation ceases.

In respect of decommissioning, as I made clear, it must be during the negotiations. That is part of the whole process upon which Senator Mitchell based his report, and he made that quite clear, because it was the very issue that was debated and discussed before he came to that conclusion. Obviously, the committee will discuss the precise way in which that is done. It is now extremely important for everyone to realise that this is the moment of decision, when we can move the process forward and get the chance of a genuine lasting settlement, which is entirely consistent with the principle that the consent of the people in Northern Ireland is absolute and uppermost. We have the chance to push the process forward, and we cannot let it go.

I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to make it clear that there are aspects of this with which he is unhappy and on which he seeks change, but I thank him for at least being prepared to see that there is the possibility of trying to move the process forward.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

I place on record my deep appreciation of the priority that the Prime Minister has given to the problems of Northern Ireland since taking office. By so doing, he has strengthened enormously among people at grass-roots level the will and the wish for peace and, therefore, the pressure to bring about peace.

May I especially welcome the rational and reasonable steps that the Prime Minister has outlined in the aide-memoire to bring Sinn Fein into talks? The central step has to be a total and complete end to all violence, and I am asking that that happens because not only should there never be violence in our situation, but it is the will of the people of Ireland, north and south, that it stops immediately. Let it now stop immediately and let all parties, for the first time in our history, get together in the real task of reaching agreement that will provide lasting stability. If that is to happen in a totally peaceful atmosphere, all the better, but, if it is not, let the rest of us get together and work quickly and strongly with both Governments to reach that agreement, to put it to the people and to provide lasting peace and stability.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that very much indeed. May I assure him of this? The attention that we have given to this is because we believe that the process is so important and the situation so serious. I agree with what he says about the total end to violence and I agree particularly when he says that, of course, we want these talks to be inclusive. That is the best way for it to happen, but it is now clear what needs to happen for a ceasefire—it is absolutely plain—and if that is not going to happen, the process cannot be held up any longer. In that circumstance, we have all those people—the parties that are prepared to accept that, if we are to negotiate a lasting settlement, it should be done without the use of violence—getting together and moving the process forward. Those are the only two options that are now available to us.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

May I, as the last remaining member of the Cabinet that sent in the troops in 1969, after which more than 3,000 people died in Northern Ireland, warmly welcome the attention that the Prime Minister has given to this matter, the work done by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the active intervention of the President of the United States? My right hon. Friend will of course recall that, when the last ceasefire occurred, brought about by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), Albert Reynolds and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), there were no talks, and that talks and a ceasefire go together. My right hon. Friend is right in saying that a return to violence offers nothing for the future of Northern Ireland, but neither would any reversion to the policies followed by a succession of British Governments, who were also unable to resolve the problem.

The Prime Minister

I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is important that the violence is brought to an end. Of course, if it is important to do that, it is also important that, with or without Sinn Fein, we move the process forward so that we can get a lasting political settlement, and that will include devolution to Northern Ireland that allows this to be done on a basis that is acceptable to all traditions. That is the chance that is now there to be taken. I hope that we can take it. I agree with my right hon. Friend entirely that the history of this has been one of tragedy all the way through, and we have the responsibility now to try to end it.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

The Prime Minister referred to what he said when he was in Northern Ireland. May I remind him that he said: I am prepared to allow officials to meet Sinn Fein, provided events on the ground, here and elsewhere, do not make that impossible. This is not about negotiating the terms of a ceasefire. We simply want to explain our position and to assess whether the republican movement genuinely is ready to give up violence and commit itself to politics alone. Can the Prime Minister explain to the people of Northern Ireland, who believed him, as I did, the proposition that these officials would not be talking about a ceasefire or how it could be brought about? Can he explain how two of the matters that Sinn Fein said it was determined to negotiate and talk about—first, the time that would elapse between a ceasefire being declared and its entry into the talks and, secondly, that no obstacle would be placed in the way of its entry into the talks after that had been decided, if it declared its ceasefire—have now been yielded to Sinn Fein?

Number one is six weeks. How, in six weeks, can the Prime Minister guarantee that the declaration of a ceasefire by IRA-Sinn Fein—which, not very long ago, shot a mother in the back because she was dressed in a police uniform in the city that the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party represents in the House, and murdered the two constables in Lurgan, and moreover, was engaged in setting up other attacks on police in the last few hours—is something on which we can depend, bearing it in mind that the Canary Wharf bombing was planned when President Clinton was in Northern Ireland and when the IRA was pledging itself to peace? It was planned and was found out—

Madam Speaker

Order. I understand that this is a very serious subject, but the hon. Gentleman appears to be making a speech and I have a House full of Members seeking to ask important questions. I hope that hon. Members will ask the Prime Minister questions so that we can have brisk and informative exchanges.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I want to put one final question, and it is a very simple one. If Sinn Fein is to get into the talks under these proposals, it will do so without giving up one weapon or one ounce of Semtex.

The Prime Minister

First, in relation to the talks that officials had with Sinn Fein, the time is secondary to whether there is a genuine ceasefire, and often that has to be a judgment that is made. The position that we outlined is not the position that Sinn Fein wanted. Likewise, in relation to decommissioning, the talks about whether there could be an agreement on decommissioning, at least between the British and Irish Governments, have been going on since last autumn. It is a process that is very much based on the outline of an agreement then.

I agree that the killings are appalling. Of course they are. One had only to see on television the pictures of the funerals of the two RUC people killed. It is unbelievable; it is an offence against the very meaning of humanity that those crimes occurred. But what we are trying to do is to prevent such things happening, and we are trying to do so in a way consistent with basic principles. The basic principles are, first, that no change should be made to the way in which Northern Ireland is governed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland; and secondly, that, if we can reach agreement in the talks that happen, it is put to a referendum of the people in Northern Ireland. So there will be ample opportunity for people to say whether the settlement is fair or unfair.

However, one always comes back to the situation that there are only two ways of resolving this—violence or political and democratic debate. We want to resolve it by non-violent democratic debate. In order to achieve that, we have done everything we can. Whether Sinn Fein is part of the process now is up to it. As President Clinton said, the ball is in its court. 1 want the process to move forward, because I fear what will happen if it does not.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

If the Government in this context use categorical words such as "last", "final" and "ultimate", can the Prime Minister give an assurance that those words will mean exactly what they say, as nothing is more dangerous in these matters than the impression being abroad that further, better and alternative particulars might be on offer?

The Prime Minister

I agree—that is exactly right—which is why I have said very simply that it is a matter now for Sinn Fein to determine what its future will be in this situation. We have set out the basis upon which anybody can participate in the talks, which is that there must be a ceasefire that is unequivocal, clear in word and deed. In other words, it must be clear that any persons sitting down to talk are sitting down to talk without the threat of going back to the gun if they do not get their own way. That is clear. The basic principles of that, which have been set out over a long period, are also clear.

The huge change that has happened—the change that happened under the former Prime Minister—is that we have a situation now where all the main parties in the Republic of Ireland agree that this is the right way forward. The main party of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland agrees that this is the way forward. In those circumstances, there cannot be any shred of justification for people saying that there is any other way. We will not yield on that at all.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

May I thank the Prime Minister for his continued personal support for peace in a part of the United Kingdom, which is a very beautiful Province indeed? Does he remember that, during the last ceasefire, the number of punishment beatings by paramilitaries increased? Does he agree that the quality of any ceasefire has to be measured not only by the length of time, but on whether paramilitary punishment beatings finish?

The Prime Minister

I agree, and that is where the Mitchell principles are an important part of the process. Any party that has come into the talks will have come in on the basis of agreeing with the Mitchell principles, and one is specifically related to punishment beatings. Those beatings in any part of the community are an outrage. It is so important to make sure that the ceasefire is genuine, and we need to eradicate the culture of resolving issues by violence rather than through the rule of law and due process. In the end, that is the only guarantee of the rights of the citizen.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that, if Sinn Fein is admitted to the talks, it will say that it has no weapons to decommission and that it is a political party with a mandate? Does he further appreciate that, with the time scale reduced to September until May, to some eight months, and without a firm determination that the first weapons will be handed over the day that it is admitted, Sinn Fein will string out any discussions about decommissioning over that period and go through the whole gamut of political discussions on the political track without handing over a single gun? Once it has come out the other end with its armoury intact and its active service units ready for action, we shall be back to square one. It will examine the democratic process, and if that does not deliver what it wants, it will resort to the methods that have traditionally been the only way in which it can fulfil its objectives.

The Prime Minister

It is important that we have the time scale for the talks in order to get an agreement, because that is the only way to concentrate people's minds on it. As for Sinn Fein stringing out the process, the review built into the decommissioning arrangements that we have put forward is designed precisely to prevent that. In respect of Sinn Fein going back to violence if it does not get what it wants, in the end what is important is to do the best we can to make sure that the process is carried through.

We have made it absolutely clear that the ceasefire must be genuine and unequivocal. If there is any attempt or threat to revert to the use of violence in the course of the talks, the hon. and learned Gentleman will know that, in the report of Senator Mitchell and of the international body, it is made clear that, in those circumstances, any party that reverts to violence cannot remain in the talks. That will be the case.

The alternative is to let the present situation drift and continue, and I cannot do that. I have looked at it with the best judgment I can. In such a situation, one always worries that one's judgments are wrong, because they are so difficult to make and the calls are so fine. It is difficult, but I have given it the best shot that I can. If we do not try to do something that is consistent with principle but which gives us the chance at least of moving the process forward, all we do is engage in the ritual of violence and more violence, condemnation and more condemnation—and the whole of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom is fed up with that.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

May I commend the Prime Minister's clarity and consistency on the issue, and welcome the work done by the Secretary of State and her team? One of the most important parts of his statement concerned the close working relationship between the British and Irish Governments. Is it not a fact that, when the British and Irish Governments work closely together, the men of violence, whether unionist or republican, are marginalised, but when the British and Irish Governments are driven apart, those people gain in strength? It is therefore vital that my right hon. Friend does as he says he intends—and I am sure that he will—by building on that relationship and developing it.

The Prime Minister

Of course it is important that we work with the Irish Government, although that must always be on the basis of the principles that we have set out.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

While I welcome and support the Prime Minister's central points, I seek reassurance on one. Is he really sure that the decommissioning that he proposes is in parallel? Do not his proposals allow substantive talks to start before there is any agreement on any decommissioning proposals, let alone agreement by an independent commission and the two Governments? Is there not a danger that the proposals give significant ground to the IRA's demands for the postponement of decommissioning for as long as possible?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his general welcome. The purpose of what Senator Mitchell put forward was that decommissioning should happen during the negotiations, which is not what Sinn Fein sought. The details of how the new committee will work, together with other aspects, will be arranged over the summer. I should like to get on with that as quickly as possible. If that can happen, we shall be able to make a start all the sooner on the process.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not clear from the Prime Minister's statement that the IRA has run out of excuses for not stopping its terrorist campaign? In view of the often unjustified criticism that this country receives abroad about what is happening in Northern Ireland, not least from the United States, would it not be useful to try to get those countries and Governments to understand what my right hon. Friend said today and the efforts that are being made and have been made previously to get peace in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I welcome the honesty and forthrightness with which he has expressed his views on these issues over a number of years. It is essential that we build support in every part of the world for our position. When I was in the United States, I noticed a different attitude, even among elements of the media and opinion in Congress and the Senate that had previously been prepared to be sometimes sympathetic and often extremely naive towards the activities of Sinn Fein and the IRA. That has changed, because people can see that the British Government are trying to do what we can. There is a growing centre ground that stretches across the communities in Northern Ireland, consisting of people who say that, if Sinn Fein is prepared to play by the rules, it can have its place in the talks, but if it is not, we have to move on without it.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Prime Minister has made a persuasive, powerful and compelling statement to the House this afternoon. I pray most sincerely that his proposals will succeed, but I think that he would expect me to ask this: what happens if Sinn Fein-IRA, the callous killers and terrorists, is not prepared to join the peace process or to agree to what I hope will be a peace settlement? What fallback position does he have to contain and—I put this directly to him—to take out those who are seeking to govern by the bomb, the bullet and punishment?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his broad welcome for the proposals. If Sinn Fein and the IRA do not agree to be part of the process, the rule of law will continue to be applied to them. We shall look at every means we can to ensure that that is the case. If those who are exercising violence are not prepared to give it up, it is important that they are brought to justice. Within the rule of law, we shall do all that we can to ensure that that is the case. That is why I said earlier that we shall do everything we can to pursue those responsible for the Lurgan killings. We shall be doing the same for those responsible for punishment beatings. If Sinn Fein cannot be part of the process because it decides that it will not, people will see it exposed and they will understand that we owe it to the citizens of Northern Ireland to give them the same rule of law there that we have elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

I wish my right hon. Friend every success with this initiative. Does he agree that it is essential for the British and Irish Governments to work closely together to further the peace process? Will he tell the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and other critics of the initiative that the idea that decommissioning should be in parallel with talks rather than a precondition for talks is not exactly original? It was first proposed by Senator Mitchell's commission almost 18 months ago. If it had been accepted by the then Tory Government, the peace settlement train might have been closer to its destination.

The Prime Minister

I hope that all the parties understand the importance of agreeing to the principles that were set out by Senator Mitchell—not merely the Mitchell principles as such, but what he said in relation to decommissioning, that is, that it should happen during negotiations. That is important for everyone to accept. I hope that people will, because that is the right basis on which decommissioning can proceed.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the IRA still relies on violence as the core and overriding element of its strategy, as manifested when it brought the ceasefire to a conclusion at Canary Wharf, when it responded to the aide-memoire of the Prime Minister last week and this morning when it tried as a prelude to this statement to kill policemen going into Woodbourne police station? Can he assure me that decommissioning is not in his terms a euphemism intended to dilute the word "disarmament" and that he and the Irish Government sincerely mean what they say in the first sentence of the statement that he will release to the parties this evening— The two Governments are resolutely committed to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations"? Will he assure me that he understands "parallel" to mean exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), my party leader, requested it to mean this afternoon? Will the Prime Minister implore the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, if he is sincere about what he said in the House this afternoon, to interface with other democrats in Northern Ireland, come back into the forum and try to make progress, as he gives the House the impression that he wants to do?

The Prime Minister

As I made clear, decommissioning has to be something that happens during the negotiations. As for what has been said by ourselves and the Irish Government, yes, both of us hold to the position set out in that agreement. It is important that we manage to make progress on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), the leader of the SDLP, has also shown by what he has said today considerable courage in wanting to move the process forward and saying that, if Sinn Fein is not prepared to abide by the same rules as everyone else, he is prepared to work with others to ensure that the process is carried forward. That is the only hope.

The hon. Gentleman says that violence is still relied on by the IRA. That is right. There is no doubt about that. That is precisely why we have to reach a situation either in which we move on the process without the men of violence, or in which a clear and unequivocal ceasefire is called and we move the process on inclusive of everyone. One way or the other, the process now has to move forward.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

May I commend the two Governments on finally agreeing a position on what is one of the single most important issues in Northern Irish political life? May I also commend the Prime Minister for placing the question of decommissioning where it should be—at the heart of the Mitchell recommendations? The Prime Minister knows that some of us have sat for one year dealing with the problem, so may I ask him to tell the House that that is a firm position by the two Governments and that it will not be amendable within the talks process? Will he assure us that we shall not have to spend another month, two months, three months or six months dealing with the interminable amendments and procedural devices that have bedevilled the issue?

The Prime Minister

What is important is that we use what is there as the basis for moving the process on. I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done to try make progress. It must be deeply frustrating for all concerned to be sitting there unable to make substantive progress. It is doubly frustrating, because there is essential agreement on the elements of any eventual agreement. Those elements are, first, devolution to a Northern Ireland body that is credible and has support across the political process and, secondly, some form of north-south co-operation. Those are precisely the details that serious-minded politicians should be able to discuss. The whole purpose of what we are doing is to ensure that we get on to the substance and away from the points of procedure.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. We will now move on to other business.