HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc353-8
1. Mr. Corbyn

If she will make a statement on the peace process. [26863]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

First, may I say that our thoughts are with the families of Brendan Campbell and Robert Dougan, who were callously murdered this week? Those murders and those that preceded them are appalling, and I am sure that all hon. Members in the House utterly condemn what has happened.

In contrast to those bleak acts, I have been encouraged by the discussions that have taken place—last week, at Lancaster house and this week, in Belfast. I hope that that momentum will be maintained when the talks move to Dublin next week.

Mr. Corbyn

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, and congratulate her on her efforts to keep the peace process going in Northern Ireland.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, despite the appalling killings that took place yesterday, and those of the past few weeks, the British and Irish Government are determined that the peace process should go on and that all parties should remain around the conference table and remain in proper and full negotiation to bring about a permanent peace that can end the killing and mayhem that have been so prevalent in Northern Ireland for so long?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind opening remarks. I join him in deploring the fact that nine people have been killed this year and three killed in December. We do not want to see that repeated. I also deplore the recent murders that have taken place in Northern Ireland. It has been widely asserted that one or other paramilitary group linked to parties in the talks, to which my hon. Friend has referred, has been involved in those killings. That fact has not been reliably established. If and when it is, I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will not hesitate to act to determine whether the party concerned has demonstrably dishonoured its commitment to the Mitchell principles.

Mr. Trimble

I associate myself with the Secretary of State's remarks about the murders, and particularly wish to extend sympathy to the relatives of the victims not just of the two killings of which we have been aware this week, but of what appears to have been another killing, because a body has been dumped close to the Fermanagh border, in an area regularly used by republicans to dump bodies.

I also welcome what the Secretary of State said about the application of the Mitchell principles. She will be aware of the need to maintain the integrity of the political process and to ensure that it is not used and abused by the terrorists, as it has been in the past. In that connection, has she been in touch with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and asked the Chief Constable for his assessment of who has been responsible for the murders this week? The answer is fairly clear to everybody, and certain conclusions will be drawn if there is a reluctance on either her part or that of the Chief Constable to face up to the inevitable.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and I agree with him that the need to preserve the integrity of the peace process is central. That is what we said two weeks ago, when we faced a comparable situation in some senses—we are not yet sure how comparable. The right hon. Gentleman implied that the facts are already clear, but there is still a great deal of speculation about who is involved and we have not yet reliably established what actually happened.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's final question about whether we have consulted the RUC, of course I am in constant contact with the Chief Constable regarding his assessment, and I was obviously in contact with him this morning because of Northern Ireland questions this afternoon.

The investigation has not yet been completed. The Chief Constable is not ready to draw conclusions, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, when he does, I know that, as on previous occasions, he will inform me, and I will certainly put that information in the public domain when I know. Speculation is not constructive at this point, but when the facts are there, I will ensure that the right hon. Gentleman and everyone knows.

Mr. McNamara

First, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government are lost in admiration for her physical and moral courage in the personal and political difficulties that she has had over the past few months and years? Secondly, none of us doubt her integrity on this matter, and we very much welcome her statement that the Mitchell principles will govern any decision that is taken, not any petty sniping from one side or another.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for those kind comments. It is not only the actions of the Government or of Her Majesty's Opposition that are important in the process. Whether we make an agreement by 1 May on the principles of consent of the parties and the people in Northern Ireland will depend on the leaders of the talks in the process, as well as on the actions of the two Governments.

I believe that we have made progress in the past couple of months. I believe that the determination and the courage that all political party leaders have shown is important, and I hope that they will continue. I hope, despite the view of some hon. Members in the House, that the process eventually becomes inclusive.

Mr. Brooke

Does the Secretary of State recall that, at the Evian talks on Algeria, delegates were issued with ski clothes and with Volkswagens with skis on their roof racks? Without going that far, does she agree that a period of media-free purdah might be productive and might even save lives, and does she recall that the Evian talks were successful?

Marjorie Mowlam

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's question, I shall focus on the role of the media, which is terribly important, and which was the crux of what he said. There is a contradiction that we have talked about a lot, both in government and with the parties. The difficulty is that the public have a right to know what is going on and, if they are going to vote in a referendum, they need to know the facts. They need to know how their political representatives are discussing the issue, and what is happening week by week.

The other side of that equation is that negotiations are not successful if they take place in the glare of the media, because people immediately entrench their position and one then cannot achieve the necessary accommodation and discussion of the issues. Therefore it is a very difficult question to address, which is why—skis, Range Rovers and Algeria apart—it can sometimes be beneficial to have a period when there is no need to respond immediately. That is my view, but ultimately it will be for the parties to decide what they think is most constructive and helpful to move the process forward.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the Secretary of State aware that a vast number of people in Northern Ireland would be horrified at the prospect of the readmission to the talks of the Ulster Democratic party after the organisation that it fronts murdered three Catholics, and that, equally, if the information from the Royal Ulster Constabulary should reveal that the Provisional IRA were involved in the recent murders, their expulsion should be permanent, as should be that of all those who are in breach of the fundamental Mitchell principles?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman. In answer to the second part of his question, I have made it clear that, when the facts are reliably established, we and the Irish will discuss the issue and reach a conclusion, without hesitation, as to following the rules of procedure that have been set down in the talks.

In response to the first part of the question, about the Ulster Democratic party, I should say that, having looked at the details and read the Mitchell principles, we implemented a decision two weeks ago. I have said that we need to examine the words and deeds since then; we shall do so towards the end of this week, discuss with the Irish and take a decision. That is in line with the Mitchell principles, and I think it is a fair and equitable way forward.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Secretary of State enlarge upon when, in her opinion, the facts might be made clear? Will that be when arrests are made, when charges are levelled or when a court case is adjudicated? Is she prepared to accept the Royal Ulster Constabulary's inquiry and the findings that it will put before her?

On the other side, matters were brought to a head when the RUC made a statement about the Ulster Freedom Fighters. The UFF also admitted its involvement, but it is hardly likely that the IRA and others will admit anything. When does the Secretary of State believe that she will be in a position to say that the facts are clear? Does she agree that the current situation is causing grave concern across all parties in Northern Ireland? Both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities are deeply concerned about recent events. I am sure that the Secretary of State is well aware that the police are visiting prominent people in Northern Ireland, including politicians, and telling them that they are being targeted for killing.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I am aware of the present situation—no one who has travelled to Northern Ireland could be unaware of it. The hon. Gentleman lives there; I do not. However, I am sure that he will agree that there is great fear, distrust and worry on the ground within both communities. That is why it is important that, from a security perspective, we do all that we can to reassure people. Instability will create further fear in the present climate, which is difficult for everyone to cope with.

In response to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I shall do what I did before. When the RUC and the Chief Constable take an independent operational decision and come to me with the facts, we shall act. We did that before, and we shall do it again.

Ms Southworth

Five years ago, a terrorist bomb killed two children in my constituency. Colin Parry, the father of one of them, told me today, "We want no more deaths." Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the voices of the victims of violence—people who seek an early, peaceful and lasting settlement—are heard at the conference table?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The events in Warrington will never be forgotten by anyone. We remember particularly the commitment of Mr. Parry and others who, despite losing people dear to them, were able to look beyond their hurt and loss and say, "It is important that other families do not experience the same suffering." One must take difficult decisions in this job—and I have taken some that have been unpopular, particularly with the other side of the House. However, one thing keeps me going. People telephone to say, "We have lost people. That hurt. We do not agree with your decisions." However, it is interesting to note that I receive about the same number of calls and letters from people who have lost family and friends but who say, "I don't want anybody else to experience what we have been through."

Mr. Öpik

Given the very tense situation in Northern Ireland—where, frankly, any action by the Government could be misinterpreted—will the Minister consider establishing a high-profile communications process between the Government and community leaders so that they may understand the true intent of new legislation? In that way, new legislation—such as the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill—may be tested in the conference chamber instead of on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. As to the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Bill—I know that the hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that considered the measure—we are in the process of seeing how we can distribute material to the public.

The hon. Gentleman's broader point—which relates to the first question asked from the Opposition Benches—is well taken: how do we encourage people to engage in decision making? That is very difficult. We have engaged the parties in the talks, and we involve some community groups, industry and trade unions in the Group of Seven. However, I am open to ideas about how we can reach out even further. The newspapers in Northern Ireland have been very good at publishing information, but we must find other ways of reaching people and ensuring that they know the details of legislation and the talks.

Mr. Barnes

Whatever hideous things the paramilitaries do in Northern Ireland, does not the future depend, to a large extent, on what might be called a Hume-Trimble agreement? Should we not do everything we can to encourage the parties to reach such an agreement? An agreement that is finally put to the Northern Ireland people will entirely undermine the position of paramilitaries for the future.

Marjorie Mowlam

We have always argued that it is the parties that have to reach agreement. As I said in response to an earlier question, we obviously want that agreement to be as inclusive as possible. Although, as my hon. Friend suggests, an agreement between the UUP and the SDLP is the central focus, it would be much more beneficial for everybody to be included because the probability of the agreement being accepted would be that much greater. Other parties represent other sections of the community, and we should like an agreement to be as inclusive as possible. However, I know that I will not get very far with the DUP. Beyond that, the agreement must be between the parties, and in the present process we want to do what we can to reach that conclusion.

Mr. MacKay

The Secretary of State clearly shares our view that the men of violence must not hijack the political process. We were delighted when she took our advice and threw the Ulster Democratic party out of the talks. Will she ensure that it does not return to the talks as its paramilitary colleagues are clearly still bent on sectarian violence? We strongly believe that, if the IRA is proved to be behind the latest murders, there is no question but that Sinn Fein has breached the Mitchell principles and should also be removed from the talks.

Marjorie Mowlam

I think that I have already answered the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question a number of times. The first part was about taking advice. I have often made it clear that I will take advice from across the board because it is important to listen to everybody's view and draw a conclusion, which is what we have done. The hon. Gentleman asked about the UDP not coming back into the talks. We have made it clear that we want to make the process inclusive. We have also made it clear that, in line with the Mitchell principles, if by word and deed it shows a commitment to the Mitchell principles, then after a certain time, which we are now assessing, the position can be altered. That was agreed with the parties at Lancaster house when this matter was discussed two weeks ago.

Mr. MacKay

Is the Secretary of State still sticking by the sufficiency consensus rule, which would mean that, if Sinn Fein is removed from the talks, the talks would not be over by any means and a settlement could still be reached?

Marjorie Mowlam

We still stick by the sufficiency consensus rule, and my sums say that, as the SDLP is there, we can go ahead.

Mr. Mallon

The Secretary of State will recognise that, once again, the Governments and the political parties are caught in the classic Northern Ireland dilemma. There is the moral imperative to ensure that the Mitchell principles and the principles of democracy underline the talks. There is also the political imperative to ensure that there is a final settlement and that it is inclusive.

Does the Secretary of State agree that whatever decision is made on the evidence that, is presented to the Governments and through them to the political parties in the talks, that decision must be rooted in terms of the moral core of the political process in which we are all involved? Does she further agree that, to sustain that, urgency must be injected into the talks process from this Parliament and from the Parliament in the Republic of Ireland so that those who are not engaging, those who are half engaging and those who are posturing are not allowed to stand in the way of reaching a final agreement on this crucial problem?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of the problem that lies between the moral principle and the political imperative. We faced it two weeks ago and we shall face it again on this issue if and when the facts are presented and we need to.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, it is crucial that the urgency of the present situation is taken into account, not just by people here but by the party leaders, the Irish Government and others who have an interest in this process. In the weeks ahead, we will be faced not just with trying to take the process forward—as we get closer to the detail, it gets tougher on the parties to try to find an accommodation—but with the fringe groups who are not committed to the process and want to destroy it, such as the Irish National Liberation Army, the Continuity IRA and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. With them on the edges making trouble with violence and murder, it will be very tough. I second the call for urgency.