HC Deb 29 October 1997 vol 299 cc885-9
2. Mr. Corbyn

What recent meetings she has had with political parties to discuss the peace process. [12407]

3. Mrs. Fyfe

If she will make a statement on the present state of the peace talks. [12408]

6. Mr. Tony Clarke

What progress has been made in multi-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland. [12412]

8. Mr. Soley

If she will report on the progress of the negotiations in Northern Ireland. [12414]

Marjorie Mowlam

The talks started on 24 September and by 7 October we had had substantive discussions in the talks on all three strands. Since 7 October, the talks have, for the most part, proceeded in a calm, constructive and businesslike manner. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), and I have had multi-party talks in the talks process with all the parties. Alongside that, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), and I have had meetings with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his party in normal bilateral meetings. A couple of weeks ago in Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also met the parties.

Mr. Corbyn

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her work in getting the talks under way and her preparedness to meet all parties in Northern Ireland as a way of furthering the peace process. Does she agree that it is important to keep the peace process on track and to keep confidence-building measures going? My right hon. Friend has already mentioned the transfer of prisoners, but will she enlighten the House further on whether more prisoners will be transferred, either to Northern Ireland or to the Republic, as is appropriate? Does she recognise that maintaining prisoners in Britain is often as much a punishment on their families as it is on the individuals themselves, and that transfers are an important part of building confidence in the peace process?

Marjorie Mowlam

I made it clear in response to an earlier question that we would continue to transfer prisoners closer to their families because that was in the best interests of the judicial system. This is one of the many issues that have been raised during the talks process and, in considering it, we must also take into account broader questions, such as the pain and suffering felt by the friends and families of those who have been killed. We made announcements last week on exactly that point. We shall continue to consider the merits of each case separately, as we have done up to now.

Mrs. Fyfe

People in Glasgow will very much welcome my right hon. Friend's comments on Jason Campbell. Will she join me in congratulating the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition on its constructive role in the talks? Attitudes such as it brings forward will help the talks move towards a successful conclusion by, we all hope, May next year.

Marjorie Mowlam

May is the date for which we are aiming to reach an accommodation that can be put to the people of Northern Ireland—the final guarantee in the basic principle that guides us is consent: that no decision that comes out of the talks will be acted on until the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of them, have stated their views.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition has been a positive force in the talks process. When I turn around and see so many women in the House, I look forward to seeing more women in the political process in Northern Ireland. However, only the actions of all the parties in the talks process, together, reaching an accommodation, will move the process forward. Our wishes must be that the parties must accommodate and work together, otherwise the progress that we would all like to see will not happen.

Mr. Clarke

May I add my congratulations and express my gratitude to my right hon. Friend and—as she said—her team for their sterling work over the summer recess? Will she use this occasion to enlighten the House on the public's mood and response to the all-party talks? We have heard much about what the parties, politicians and media have to say of events in Northern Ireland, but how have the public reacted to the work that has been done over the recess?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Although, given the chance, many Northern Ireland hon. Members have their own views on the public mood, the first thing that people say to me when I talk to them is, "Please continue; we must have peace." The second thing that they say is, "Jobs—jobs will make the difference." Those are the two overwhelming messages that one receives. Sometimes, the questions asked in the various polls—although we could quote the Belfast Telegraph poll versus the News Letter poll and reach different conclusions, as I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to do—produce responses that reveal the amount of fear and distrust in the communities. One can ask any set of questions and discover the fear that people feel. It is therefore up to all those involved in the process to try to build the trust and confidence that ultimately will produce the respect that will move the process further.

Mr. Soley

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the people of Britain and of Ireland are united in wanting the process in Northern Ireland to work and in wishing the people of Northern Ireland well? Does she also accept that the people of Britain and of Ireland greatly admire the efforts made in recent months by her and her team? Both in Britain and in Ireland, however, we also expect something. We expect a very high standard of political leadership in the north—from both Unionist and republican leaders—which, sadly, has sometimes been missing. It seems that a real effort is now being made by both sides, and everyone in the two islands wants to help those leaders in the negotiations—which, preferably, will be finished by 1 May 1998. It is a hard deadline, but it is a goal that they could achieve. They will receive all our support and acclamation if they do so.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I agree with every word of it.

Mr. Hunter

As the Government believe that confidence-building measures have a part to play in the process, and as those measures include prisoner issues, whose confidence was the Secretary of State trying to build in her recent decision on the case of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright? Is she aware of the anger and resentment that that decision has caused, and that it has undermined the Army's confidence in her?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Yesterday, I met Army representatives, and they did not mention that point to me. However, that does not mean that the decision was not very difficult, and I do not want in any way to underestimate the matter.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter came across my desk because the previous Government decided to move up the review by the Life Sentence Review Board from 10 to five years. In those circumstances, I examined the case—as it is my job to do—and I made a judgment in the round, based on the conditions that I was faced with. I decided that, for deterrence and retribution for the murder, it was necessary for them to serve six years before the case was again reviewed. I made that decision only because of the role that I must play in such cases.

Mr. Donaldson

Given the Secretary of State's commitment to building confidence, does she share with me the deep concern felt in the Unionist community about the memorandums that were leaked, emanating from the Anglo-Irish secretariat at Maryfield? Does she agree that it shows the secrecy and underhanded dealing in the Government's approach to Northern Ireland? Given the Government's commitment to open government, is it not time that the Maryfield secretariat was closed? Would not its closure do an enormous amount to build confidence in the Unionist community that the Government are even-handed in their approach to Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I begin by condemning the Loyalist Volunteer Force threat to the Irish and the British working at the Anglo-Irish secretariat at Maryfield and I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in doing that. I understand the Unionists' deep concern about the issue and we have discussed it with the Unionist parties. We are committed to openness and transparency. I have reassured the hon. Gentleman and others that we are looking at ways of making things more open, as we are in response to letters from the public in terms of making the talks more open. The difficulty is that, when trying to reach agreements, it is sometimes difficult to put things into the public domain immediately. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point and we will be as open as we can.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's statement that there is underhand activity taking place. There is not. I have said clearly today that there is no hidden agenda. I can assure hon. Members that we will continue to talk and work with the Irish because history has shown that, when the British and Irish Governments work together, more progress can be made.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Would the Secretary of State care to catalogue for the House the amount of illegal weaponry that has so far been decommissioned under the Government's scheme? Would she care to tell the House what the Government understand to be the intention of each of the paramilitary organisations in relation to decommissioning their illegal weaponry?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have made it clear on numerous occasions that we would like to see some decommissioning during the talks, in line with the Mitchell report. In case there is any doubt among hon. Members, that is the same position as the previous Government. I pay tribute to General de Chastelain and his colleagues for their work towards that end in the decommissioning commission.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, I can tell the House today that the commission has now presented its initial report to the two Governments. Both Governments have started to consider that report today and I envisage that it will shortly be submitted to the decommissioning sub-committee in the talks. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman will not be there at the talks to read that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the United Kingdom Unionist party have a chance to reconsider their position, because their voice would mean so much more if it was heard at the talks.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the Secretary of State aware that her counterpart in the Irish Government, Mr. David Andrews, declared yesterday that the future of the Union was on the table for negotiation and that the representatives of Sinn Fein-IRA have stated that their purpose in the talks is to smash the Union? Is it the Government's policy to secure and strengthen the Union or to go along with the expressed views of those two participants?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question. As the House knows, numerous views have been expressed about the desired outcome of the process. Some want a united Ireland and some want the present situation of the Union to continue. We have said that all options are on the table.

It is important to remember that consent is the guiding principle of this Government in the process. Without the consent of the people, nothing will change. As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, in the talks process decisions are taken by sufficient consensus, which means that we need a majority of both communities represented by parties in the talks process for any decision to be reached. Above that, any decision that eventually comes out of the process will go to the people of Northern Ireland for a vote in a referendum. It is the majority vote in a referendum that will count. That is consent in practice. From the hon. and learned Gentleman's perspective, that is a guarantee which means that, if one participates in the talks, an accommodation can be reached with which, we hope, both communities can live.

Mr. MacKay

That answer was welcome, because the Secretary of State will be aware that, after her interview with Mr. McCartan in the Belfast Telegraph on 28 August, there was real worry in the Province that when she said that consent was not necessarily even numerical or geographic it meant that there was some sliding from the previously announced policy that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was the only one that counted. Will she re-emphasise that today and say that the interview was a mistake and should no longer be on the record?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I have made it clear on numerous occasions that there will be no change in Northern Ireland without consent being the guiding principle and without the triple lock and the referendum. I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute guarantee.

I do not disown the article, for the simple reason that what I was trying to express, and what I obviously expressed badly because of the furore that followed, is that my aim in the talks process is to build a level of consent that is more than just a simple majority on one side. I want a greater level of consensus and consent from the community so that we have a real chance to make the decisions that are reached work.

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