HC Deb 14 January 1998 vol 304 cc339-41
6. Mr. Winnick

If she will make a statement on the current talks on the peace process. [20856]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

During the Christmas break, I together with several of my colleagues had a number of meeting with the political parties. As a result of these meetings, and despite the senseless and appalling killings which have occurred during the break in the talks, we remain confident that the commitment still exists to reach a peaceful settlement. On 12 January we witnessed this commitment when the talks participants returned to the table with renewed determination to make progress.

Mr. Winnick

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there must be very few people in this country who do not greatly admire and respect her determination to make progress towards success in the peace process, including her visit to the prison? Undoubtedly, her judgment proved right and kept everyone on board. Is she further aware that the whole House will wish her every possible success for a peace settlement, which would be to the obvious advantage of the large majority of people in Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for those words. The Maze visit was a difficult judgment to make, but I thought that on balance if it kept the talks moving it was the right thing to do. I put on record the telephone calls from many of the families and friends of victims of the people to whom I talked at the prison. To some of the people who called I had caused offence, for which I apologise. Others who had lost husbands, brothers and sons said, "Please keep going because if the talks can move forward, other families will not have to go through the pain that our family has gone through."

I may be the face seen on the television, but the progress has been made by the parties in the talks. It is the political parties and the people of Northern Ireland who have had the courage to get to where we have, and it is they who will get further.

Mr. Trimble

I am sure that the Secretary of State will share the pleasure that we feel at the wide welcome in the media and in the House for one aspect of Monday's paper, namely, the suggestion that there should be a council of the British Isles to draw together all the interests within that wider group. The editorial in The Independent yesterday, while identifying the suggestion as the one radical innovation in the Government's thinking, made the point that one can defuse and divert potential conflicts by bringing them into a wider arena. Will the Secretary of State please reflect in her dealings with Irish nationalists north and south of the border the benefits that they will derive from moving outside the narrow ground on which they have been for too long and by being involved in this wider arena together with the other parties in the British Isles as a whole?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question—and may I take this opportunity to congratulate him on becoming a right hon. Gentleman? The document that was put on the table in the talks process on Monday is in many ways radical. It is built on many of the ideas that the parties in the talks have put forward. It joins them together. I hope that people do not prejudge the document but take time to examine and discuss it in their parties and then make a judgment as to where we can move forward to reach agreements in the talks process.

Mr. Mallon

Does the Secretary of State agree that the television images from within the prison and the television pictures of coffins of those who were murdered leaving their grieving houses should and must shock everyone into recognising that the political problem in Northern Ireland can be solved only in, by and through the political process. Will she ensure that the momentum that has been created within the talks by the joint paper presented by the two Governments will not be lost so that we can successfully agree a settlement in the shortest possible time?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. The deaths and murders that we have seen should be condemned as appalling acts by everyone. I am sure that the House offers its condolences to the family of Mr. Enright, who is being buried at this very moment. We will do everything that we can to move the process forward. We had a meeting yesterday with the parties to discuss what measures we could put in place to build trust and confidence among the parties to facilitate movement forward.

We will do all that we can, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's party and the others involved will show determination to move the process forward.

Mr. MacKay

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Opposition whole-heartedly support the latest developments and wish her well in bringing a permanent settlement to Northern Ireland? Does she also accept that we are delighted that she has built on the work done by successive Conservative Ministers in bringing peace to Northern Ireland?

I should like to ask the right hon. Lady two specific questions. Will she assure the House that no final settlement will be reached without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland? Will she give us an absolute assurance that she will be in no way diverted by the men of violence, who talk about a "doomsday scenario" if they do not get precisely what they want?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I appreciate the support that we receive from the Opposition. I readily acknowledge that we have built on the work that was done by his Government. They put the framework documents on the table—and they are still there—and they helped to form the basis according to which we have moved forward.

We agree whole heartedly about the centrality of consent for the final settlement. The Prime Minister, who has worked very hard along with the Taoiseach in the past days to get us to where we are now, has made clear on numerous occasions the importance of centrality of consent to everything that we do in the talks process and in obtaining the consent of the people of Northern Ireland in a final referendum.

As for the men of violence, I can guarantee, contrary to some earlier comments, that we will not let ones group dictate the progress or the agenda. We want to reach a settlement that can be accommodated by all the groups in Northern Ireland and that is what we are working towards.