HC Deb 01 June 1998 vol 313 cc33-42 4.14 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the outcome of the referendum held in Northern Ireland on 22 May.

There was a very positive result: 81 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland voted, and 71 per cent. of them supported the agreement reached on Good Friday. There is no doubt that it was an emphatic endorsement of the agreement from all sections of the community—republicans, loyalists, Unionists and nationalists. Now they want to see the agreement as a whole—every part of it—work.

In their own referendum, the people of the Irish Republic voted by 94 per cent. to endorse the changes to the Irish constitution required to implement the agreement.

By these referendums, the people of Ireland, north and south, have voted overwhelmingly to say yes to the principle of consent; yes to using only peaceful means to resolve political disputes; yes to fairness and equality; and yes to building new relationships based on agreement, not coercion.

The people have spoken. Those who seek to frustrate that—whether by violence or by other means—fly in the face of democracy. Our job now—both as the Government and in this Parliament—is to act as the people wish.

Let me briefly set out for the House the steps that are now being taken. Last Wednesday, I signed an order bringing into force all the remaining provisions of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998. The elections to the New Northern Ireland Assembly will take place on 25 June, with the nominations closing at 4 pm on 3 June, this Wednesday. It would not be right for the Government during the election campaign to seek to influence the people's choice, directly or indirectly, but I hope that, on 25 June, those who voted in the referendum will finish the job by voting in the assembly elections as well.

In the meantime, we will work to implement the agreement. Both the British and the Irish Governments will very soon bring into force schemes under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997; I am grateful for the efforts of my predecessor, the noble Lord Mayhew, in establishing that legislation and its amnesty provisions. When that happens, there will then be no practical barrier to a start to decommissioning. We look to all parties to honour the commitment that they made to use any influence that they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons within two years.

I shall also present to the House shortly a Bill to implement the provisions of the agreement relating to prisoners. The Government are committed to seeking to enact the appropriate legislation to give effect to new arrangements by the end of June. The Bill, which I know the House will wish to examine carefully, will include the safeguards that are in the agreement and to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister drew attention in his speech in Belfast on 14 May. The agreement is to be implemented in all its parts, not cherry-picked.

As the Prime Minister said, we need to be sure that both the terms and the spirit of the agreement are met. The Prime Minister set out a range of factors on which it would be possible to make an overall judgment so that we can be sure that all parties are committed exclusively to peace and democracy and that violence is genuinely given up for good.

There are a range of factors to take into account, as the Prime Minister said: first and foremost, a clear and unequivocal commitment that there is an end to violence for good, on the part of republicans and loyalists alike, and that the so-called war is finished, done with, gone; that, as the Agreement says, non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means are the only means to be used; that, again as the Agreement expressly states, the ceasefires are indeed complete and unequivocal; an end to bombings, killings and beatings, claimed or unclaimed; an end to targeting and procurement of weapons; progressive abandonment and dismantling of paramilitary structures actively directing and promoting violence; full co-operation with the Independent Commission on decommissioning, to implement the provisions of the Agreement; and no other organisations being deliberately used as proxies for violence. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister again made clear: we are not setting new preconditions or barriers". However, we will be giving legislative expression to those factors in the Bill relating to prisoners and the Bill to implement the remainder of the agreement which we shall introduce later this Session.

Our aim is to transfer powers to the assembly and to establish the north-south ministerial council, agreed implementation bodies, the British-Irish council and the British-Irish intergovernmental conference at the same time. We are aiming for early 1999.

In the meantime, following the elections, the assembly will meet first in shadow form in July. In the shadow period of the assembly, Members will elect a Presiding Officer, consider Standing Orders, elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, examine Northern Ireland departmental structures and arrangements and allocate other ministerial posts.

In the period after the assembly elections, there will also be meetings of the British-Irish council and the north-south ministerial council in shadow form. In the shadow north-south ministerial council, representatives from Northern Ireland and the Irish Government will undertake a work programme in consultation with the Government with a view to identifying and agreeing by 31 October this year areas for north-south co-operation and implementation.

The agreement also provides for a range of measures to promote rights and equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland which the Government will continue to implement.

I hope very shortly to announce the other members of the independent commission to review policing in Northern Ireland who will serve alongside the chairman, Chris Patten. I also hope to announce soon the arrangements for the review of criminal justice, including the assessors who will provide an independent element in the review.

On 22 May, the people voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Good Friday agreement. I commend that endorsement to the House as we undertake our clear duty to follow the will of the people and implement the agreement in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I am sure that the Secretary of State was correct to say that the referendum was a remarkable milestone in the history of Northern Ireland. The turnout of more than 81 per cent. frankly shames the rest of the United Kingdom, where the participation rates in recent elections have been much lower.

There is absolutely no doubt that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland are anxious to show their democratic credentials and yearn for a lasting settlement and an end to the troubles. The result for the yes campaign was equally significant. By any reasonable statistical judgment, it was a vote in both communities for the agreement, and we must never let critics of the agreement say anything else, as it would be a plain untruth.

Looking forward to the assembly elections, may I ask the Secretary of State for slightly more detail about the forthcoming legislation which will be introduced before the elections are held? When I was campaigning for a yes vote in the Province with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, it became very clear indeed, particularly in the final few days of the referendum campaign, that a significant number of moderate, ordinary, decent people in both communities finally decided to vote yes only when the Prime Minister had given them clear, unequivocal assurances that decommissioning and the renunciation of violence would be incorporated in the legislation on early prisoner release and setting up the assembly, with particular reference to members of the assembly taking ministerial or Executive office. It would be a tragedy if those assurances were not fully incorporated in the legislation to be introduced shortly. I should like to be certain that they will be. If they are not, I fear that more politicians who will not act positively will be elected to the assembly, which would be a great pity and not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State was right to announce that the Government wish in no way to interfere in the assembly elections. Her Majesty's Opposition share that wish. However, this is a time for great sensitivity. I wonder whether the Secretary of State was right to have invited Sinn Fein-IRA leaders to the Hillsborough reception. Such acts will destabilise the Unionist electorate and community. We have been fortunate that, for wrong and inexcusable reasons, Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness have declined the invitation. I should like assurances that there will be no further such insensitive acts before the elections, which could bring about the wrong result.

Marjorie Mowlam

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's opening comments about the reasonable statistical judgment that there was a majority in both communities in favour of the agreement. We have done a fair amount of work on that and agree whole-heartedly with his interpretation. We also welcome his support for non-interference by Her Majesty's Government or Her Majesty's Opposition in the Northern Ireland elections. However, if individual Members of Parliament from either side want to go over, that is a choice for them. It is not up to us to dictate to other Members.

The hon. Gentleman's point about decommissioning and holding office is central, but I should like to deal first with his more minor point about the garden party later this week. It is normal to invite representatives of all political parties to the garden party. All those who signed up to the Good Friday agreement have been invited. That is the only just way to proceed. We cannot expect people to participate together in the assembly if we judge them by different standards. More than 90 per cent. of the invitations this year went to people from the national health service, because the 50th anniversary of the NHS is being celebrated at the garden party. We have kept the arrangements fully under discussion with all concerned parties. I was well aware of the sensitivities among the families who have been victims of the violence, including the royal family. Had matters turned out differently, as the organiser of the event I would have ensured that nobody suffered any further hurt or pain.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the more substantive point of the Prime Minister's comments on 14 May, outlining the factors that are crucial to moving the process forward. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that there must be a genuine and unequivocal commitment to peace by those participating in the assembly. We shall make an overall judgment based on those four factors, which I listed in my statement, so I shall not bother the House by repeating them all. One was about ensuring the full co-operation of the parties with the independent commission on decommissioning to implement the agreement. Our judgment will be based on consideration of all the factors. I cannot prejudge that decision, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that his point will be answered in the settlement Bill and the prisoners Bill. As he well knows, there are arrangements in the agreement for excluding from office those who are not genuinely committed to peace.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Rather than dwelling on invitations to garden parties, is it not far more important to dwell on the bigger picture—the fact that the attempt by terrorism, murder and violence to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom has been defeated by democracy, something in which the whole House rejoices? Are there not two dangers? The first is of terrorist breakaway groups from the IRA, and possibly from loyalist murder gangs, that do not accept the ceasefire and would do their utmost to destroy the democratic decision of the large majority in Northern Ireland. Secondly, although I understand and appreciate why the Secretary of State does not want to intervene in the election for the assembly, would it not be extremely unfortunate if anyone elected were elected only on the basis of trying to wreck the agreement, and therefore, in his own way, undermined what the majority of people in Northern Ireland agreed to last week?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is important that we act in a fair and just way in the weeks and months ahead as we try to put into practice the plans for building peace and ensure that the process begins to work. I agree that we should focus on the fact that democracy has spoken. The people in Northern Ireland—71 per cent. of them—have said that, by consent, they want to find a peaceful way forward. That is the answer to the terrorist breakaway groups, whether they be the Irish National Liberation Army, Loyalist Volunteer Force, Continuity IRA or the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. They in no way represent the people of Northern Ireland or of the Republic. There is a wish to find another way forward. I assure the House that terrorist breakaway groups that continue to function will be treated very firmly by both the Governments in the north and in the Republic, working together where necessary to ensure that such groups do not destabilise the process, as they are clearly intent on doing. We will do our best as much as possible to ensure that destabilisation does not take place.

In the elections on 25 June, we would obviously want people who are committed to taking forward the spirit of the Good Friday agreement into the assembly. The election is the people's choice; it is their voice. The electorate in Northern Ireland are very savvy, they know how the electoral system works and I have faith in them.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the decisive referendum on 22 May. We congratulate the Secretary of State and her Ministers on the job of work that they did, as we do former Ministers on their work in bringing about the historic decision. We also welcome the fact that legislation, especially to deal with prisoners, will be brought before the House sooner rather than later. That will be a litmus test of whether the entire agreement will be followed through.

I spent last week partly in Northern Ireland and partly in the Republic of Ireland. As the concert at Stormont in Belfast was going on, I was speaking to people who voted no. We must remember that about 28 or 29 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland voted no. It is crucial that we do not forget that large number, the majority of whom are not terrorists, bombers or wreckers but people who have genuine worries about the future of their Province. What efforts will the Secretary of State and her Ministers make to ensure that those people are not excluded from the future but are brought into the fold and can play a positive part in what we hope will be a very successful transition to peace in Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and would add to his list of thanks gratitude for the support and help that the Liberal Democrats have given. I avoided giving a great thank you in my statement because it took so long last time. The people who have put in the work know who they are. Their collective effort has brought us to where we are today.

I agree that it is welcome that legislation on prisoners is before the House sooner rather than later. It is in the agreement that it will be in place by the end of June. We must not ever forget that we are dealing with a package and cannot cherry-pick. Some people do not like some bits and others do not like other bits, but we must treat the agreement as a package in order to be able to keep the whole thing together. That is what the parties signed up for and that is what we must keep on the table.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point—the same point was made by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). There are many who voted yes for peace, and there are those who have concerns—there is no doubt about that. The Prime Minister, when he was across on 14 May, did his best to reassure those who were seeking more information.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I would like to build bridges, as we did during the referendum. We funded all the parties during the referendum to put their case because we did not want to discriminate against anyone, whatever their position. We are talking with all parties about the elections. We will do all we can—not just with the parties, but with the people—to answer questions and to ease fears, because unless we can allay those fears, trust and confidence will not exist for the future.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I congratulate the people of Ireland, in both parts, on the clarity of their decision, and I congratulate the Government on their conduct of the referendum. Does the Secretary of State agree that, during the referendum, the two Governments made at least one decision that might have had serious adverse consequences? I speak delphically, but I think she knows to what I refer. Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that, during this next difficult year, there will not be much margin for similar errors to be made?

Marjorie Mowlam

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman prefers to be seen as the father or the grandfather of this agreement, but his input eight or nine years ago created what happened early this year, and it took place, in many ways, thanks to his initial work and the risks that he took.

The releases, to which the right hon. Gentleman was referring, were different in nature. One was not ours—it was the Irish Government's. We have made releases to try to bring the process forward. The other point is that those releases are part of an overall package of prisoner compassionate and temporary leave that was put in place by the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member. I had to decide whether to change the system on this occasion because of the individuals concerned, bearing in mind the impact of their release on the prisons and the impact on individuals of changing the system for external reasons. I thought that it was safer to stick with a scheme that had been in place for many years.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the vital role played by the Prime Minister in the referendum campaign, particularly in the last few days. She will be aware particularly of the personally written pledges he gave when he spoke to an audience in Coleraine a couple of days before the vote. How will these pledges be incorporated into the Bill, as that is what the people of Northern Ireland thought was going to happen?

Marjorie Mowlam

I fully concur with my hon. Friend on the central role of the Prime Minister in the last days of the referendum campaign. On the personally written pledges which she and I saw in Coleraine, I repeated them in the House today and I listed them as the four factors. I have said that the four factors are part of the overall agreement and will be written into the Bills on prisoners and on the settlement.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to propose legislation on the release of prisoners, however distasteful that will be to a lot of people and however inevitable it is, given Irish history. As she prepares the Bill, will she give a moment's thought to the horror of more than 3,000 murders in the past 25 years? Within that horror, will she recognise that some of the murders were so horrible that the sense of revulsion swept across the community, irrespective of political or religious view? Would she be willing to give herself reserved powers in the Bill so that, after consulting—perhaps on a bipartisan basis—it might be agreed that there are certain people on both sides of the community whose deeds were so dastardly that they ought not to be part of the release process?

Marjorie Mowlam

I give more than a moment's thought to the victims, and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, we set up the Bloomfield commission many months ago to consider what responses we could make on a much larger scale than previously. It is difficult for everyone to cope with change, but victims' families will find it even harder—we want to ensure that they receive fair treatment in the consideration of the issues. I have appointed a Minister to ensure that the commission's recommendations are taken seriously, pushed through the system and delivered, so that the victims' families see a change in the policies that we adopt.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said in the first part of his question. There is no doubt that the release of prisoners has been an on-going factor. He and I know—as do many Conservative Members—that that process was started in 1995 under the previous Government, and that 240 prisoners have already been released early, some of whom are those horrific people to whom he refers. Half those who will be given accelerated release under the proposed scheme would be out even if we made no changes. Safeguards have been built in—I know that the right hon. Gentleman has considered them—such as the revocation of licences if there is a breach in the commitment to the ceasefire and to a peaceful way forward. Moreover, particular conditions apply to lifers.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I welcome the neutrality of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the election, but I think that we are all aware of the areas on which her glint of approval will fall. It is appropriate that the Government should not adopt a particular attitude, as there is no Labour party in Northern Ireland; if there were, the Government's approval might appropriately be given to it. Will the Republic adopt a similarly neutral attitude to the election?

Some of us, as Back Benchers, have the advantage of not being bound by the self-denying ordinance and can involve ourselves in the arrangements, although we should consider whether it would be tactically wise to do so, or whether people would be offended by our involvement. Nevertheless, I believe that we should all support the parties that are with the agreement 100 per cent. It is by no means the case that all those who voted no will not accept the decision that was made in the referendum—it is perfectly possible for people to vote one way, to find that the result went against them and then to operate in the new framework.

Marjorie Mowlam

It was exactly my hon. Friend of whom I was thinking when I said earlier that some individuals would want to do their own thing. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to speak for the Republic, and I should not speak for another Government, but it would be fair to say that they have shown sensitivity to the issue—I do not think that there will be any difficulties on that front.

I agree with my hon. Friend's final point—some who voted yes may vote in the elections to the assembly for a party that said no, and some who voted no may vote for a party that said yes. That is what I mean when I say that it is the people's choice and decision.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Will the right hon. Lady accept my congratulations on the roles that she and the Prime Minister played in securing the significant achievement that we are recording today, which is another important step in the long march towards a happier Northern Ireland and island of Ireland? She said that it is not for her to speak for the Republic of Ireland, but does she recognise the significance of the fact that a referendum was held on the same day on, in effect, the same issue in both parts of the island of Ireland? Those people who have said that the people of Ireland have not been able to express their will since the 1918 election no longer have a hiding place—let no one forget that that excuse is now totally expunged from a valid record of Northern Ireland events.

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that she made a slip of the tongue in saying that 71 per cent. of people voted for peace? I know that she meant to say that those people voted for the agreement. I strongly endorse the remarks of hon. Members that many of the people who desperately want peace but did not have the conviction to vote for the agreement can be won by the Government's confidence and resolution in the weeks and months ahead.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, partly because I know what a tough time he had in doing my job—it was not easy in those days, so I appreciate his comments. The consent of the majority of people north and south is historically crucial. I accept his slight rebuke, in that people voted for the agreement, but I believe that the agreement was the best option for getting all the parties together. Agreement on the basis of consent has given us a chance that we have not had for years, and I appreciate the support that he has given today.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I add to the congratulations to politicians on both sides of the House my congratulations to the armed forces and to the police? If those people had not put their lives at risk—and, in many cases, lost their lives—in manning the front line for so many years, the men of violence would not have recognised the importance of making peace.

I re-emphasise a point on prisoner releases that I made during one of the Secretary of State's previous statements and which she seemed partly to acknowledge. Does she agree that one of the reasons why men of violence from both sides of the divide have been keen for the agreement is to secure the release from gaol of convicted murderers? Does she accept the importance of retaining the incentive to prevent such people from returning to violence? If it is proposed that convicted killers should be let out en bloc on licence, will she confirm that, if the peace agreement breaks down, they will be put back in gaol en bloc, and not only if they, as individuals, are caught committing another crime?

Marjorie Mowlam

May I set the record straight in a number of ways? There are no releases en bloc; each case is considered individually by an independent commission. If there is any breach in the conditions on which a prisoner has been let out, the licence will be revoked and the prisoner will be put back in gaol.

The agreement will work only if all the parts move together. There is no general release of prisoners at one point in time. To build trust and confidence between the groups, we must move in parallel on the different elements—prisoners, decommissioning, the north-south ministerial council and the New Northern Ireland Assembly—if we are to make progress. If we do not move on one element, the agreement will not work. That is why the four factors to which I referred in my statement are central to this process, as will be reflected in the forthcoming Bills. Those four factors encapsulate the essence of the six pledges that the Prime Minister made in Coleraine.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Given the importance of the commitment, which the Secretary of State repeated today and which the Prime Minister originally made, that participation in the Executive of the Assembly will be contingent on full co-operation in decommissioning, will she confirm that, for that assessment, she will continue to treat Sinn Fein and the IRA as the same organisation?

Marjorie Mowlam

I have already said that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked. I also said today that the agreement sets out arrangements for excluding people from office if they are not genuinely committed to peace. The Prime Minister has made it clear that if the arrangements are not working, we shall support changes to them. The overall judgment on whether parties are genuinely committed to peace will be based on the range of factors set out by the Prime Minister, which will, as I said, be given legislative expression in both Bills that will come before the House later this year.