HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc535-9
1. Dr. George Turner

What progress has been made in the peace process in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. [32127]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

The inter-party talks are making good progress. All participants are committed to reaching a settlement. It remains the Government's intention to strive for an early agreement by Easter and to put the outcome to a referendum.

Dr. Turner

Have not fairness and equality of opportunity been at the core of the problems faced in Northern Ireland for many decades? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the peace process can satisfactorily address those issues and ensure that future generations in Northern Ireland, whichever side of the divide they are born and live, have equality of opportunity and fairness in their lives?

Marjorie Mowlam

Our manifesto included a commitment to an equality agenda on the basis of fairness, justice and equality of opportunity. The Government are introducing the European convention on human rights and, in relation to Northern Ireland, yesterday we launched a White Paper for consultation on equality issues, based on the principles of equality of opportunity and addressing, in particular, the question of long-term unemployment in both communities. It contains a host of recommendations based on the report by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, and copies have been placed in the Vote Office and in the Library.

Mr. Trimble

I shall not pursue the previous question, except to say how disappointed we were by the refusal of the Secretary of State to consult us before the publication of the report.

I wish to draw the Secretary of State's attention to the statement, in the European charter on local government, that local government is one of the main foundations of any democracy. Does she share with me a sense of discomfort that the United Kingdom proposes to ratify that charter purely on a Great Britain basis, without extending it in any way to Northern Ireland? Does not doing that at this juncture send people the message that the Government are not interested in ensuring democratic local government in Northern Ireland? Should not the Secretary of State bring forward—because she has not yet done so in the talks—some proposals to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the charter on a United Kingdom basis?

Marjorie Mowlam

The right hon. Gentleman began by referring to the previous question. Consultation is written into the document that was published today so that the recommendations that it contains can be consulted on and the views of parties, voluntary groups, businesses and trade unions can be consulted on the major proposals.

As to local government and the European charter, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland is a serious issue which needs addressing. We shall consider it. We have put together papers on quangos, but the questions will be addressed in the talks in partnership. In the process of the talks, the questions can be addressed. If people want papers on subjects, we shall submit papers on those subjects, as we have done for the past three weeks, so that we can obtain a structure for Northern Ireland, with the consent of the parties, that deals with the serious problem of the democratic deficit.

Mr. McGrady

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement on the proposals for a commission to monitor equality, and especially the extension of the statutory obligation to provide equal opportunities. I draw her attention to the fact that, although the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1989 has been in place for nearly 10 years, unemployment among Catholics is twice that among Protestants. Will she suggest targets and timetables for the eradication of that anomaly, which is offensive to the Catholic minority? I am sure that she disagrees fundamentally with the official Unionist party's comment that her programme extended false hope to the Catholic community.

Madam Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House of my instruction only recently that I want Secretaries of State and Ministers to be asked direct questions, with no long comments?

Marjorie Mowlam

Briefly, then. The statutory obligation applying to public services and to goods and services is covered by the document. The paper makes the important point, which came out of the SACHR report, that progress has been made on tackling long-term unemployment since the enacting of fair employment legislation in 1989. We agree with the report's conclusion that systematic discrimination is not the main cause of twice as many Catholic as Protestant men being long-term unemployed. The causes of long-term unemployment are manifold, and related to the multiple causes of deprivation. In the report, we are addressing the issue of equality of opportunity to ensure that the progress that has been made under the fair employment legislation continues. At the same time, we want to target and address long-term male unemployment, which is the root of problems for both communities.

Mr. MacKay

Is not the message that must come across after the shocking and sinful murders at Poyntzpass last week that the two Governments and the constitutional parties must redouble their efforts to find a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland? Will the Secretary of State confirm that she does not intend to go over the heads of the political parties and impose a solution on the Province?

Marjorie Mowlam

I concur with the hon. Gentleman's opening comment. The soul-destroying murders of Mr. Trainor and Mr. Allen—I believe that people have been charged this morning in relation to them—will, I hope and believe, make all those involved in the talks process and the peace process as a whole redouble their efforts. We must be sure that there is a commitment to finding some kind of accommodation. I again confirm that we have no intention of imposing any accommodation or settlement on the participants in the talks. They must own some kind of agreement, and the triple lock—gaining the consent of the parties, of the people in the referendum and of us in Parliament—is still in place.

Mr. MacKay

Will the Secretary of State confirm categorically that there will be no referendum in which the people of Northern Ireland decide on a settlement that has not been agreed by the majority of the parties in the political talks?

Marjorie Mowlam


Mr. Öpik

Given the Government's evident commitment to holding a referendum in May, are they equally committed to holding elections in the Province in June? If elections are not held in June, when does the Secretary of State intend them to be held?

Marjorie Mowlam

It is difficult to give a specific answer. We are consulting the parties, and we must achieve a positive vote in the referendum. We should then have to find a period long enough for the election campaign and the procedures to be put in place. My view—it is not agreed with the parties, and we are still consulting them and others involved in the process—is that, the sooner elections are held, the better. The parades period and a long summer are coming up, and logistics have to be taken care of, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer.

Mr. McDonnell

My right hon. Friend will have noted the statement made by the president of Sinn Fein at the weekend, and appreciated its significance. Does she agree that, while we all hope for—and are working for—a settlement of some sort, an agreement or a conclusion to the existing talks, the process is on-going, regardless of any conclusion? Does she also agree that we want all the communities to achieve their respective ambitions and respect each other's views?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. I sometimes do not emphasise enough the importance of the process in which we are involved in saying that I want to aim for the referendum on a particular date in May, but I think it important to see it as a process. There is random violence from splinter groups, which I believe will continue until the referendum, and I think that things will be difficult afterwards; but the more we view this as a process in which confidence and trust are built up as we go along, the better.

2. Mr. Flight

What assessment she has made of the objectives of the Government of Ireland with regard to the Northern Ireland peace initiative. [32128]

Marjorie Mowlam

The British and Irish Governments share the common objective of achieving a widely acceptable political settlement and a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Flight

What discussions have been held with the Government of southern Ireland about joint security following a settlement? May I suggest that that is a crucial ingredient of both the achievement of a settlement and its success thereafter?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree that security co-operation across the border is an important element. We have seen two very good examples. The Garda Siochana in both County Louth and County Cavan found large bombs that were not where everyone expected them to be—north of the border. I pay tribute to the Garda Siochana for the help that it has given us in the last couple of weeks, and assure the hon. Member that such co-operation goes on now and, I believe, will continue.

Mr. Mallon

Does the Secretary of State agree that the joint action by the two Governments—as represented by the joint declaration, the joint framework document and the two Governments' participation in the talks—has allowed the talks process, and enabled the participants to move towards a solution? Does the right hon. Lady also agree that, if we are to see the end of the remnants of terrorism in both the north and the south of Ireland, that joint approach must continue—hopefully with a new administration in the north?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree that joint action between the two Governments is crucial. History shows us that, when they have not worked together, the process has run into trouble.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned some papers. There is the framework document, and a host of papers have now been submitted by the Governments in strand 1 of the talks process, at the request of the parties, and in strand 2 by the chair of the process. I believe that, as we synthesise those papers, the areas of agreement and disagreement are becoming much clearer as the weeks go on.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Secretary of State says that the talks process is making good progress. As it ends its two-year lifespan in May, will she spend a minute or two outlining something to the House? The process was built on the premise that decommissioning must take place during it. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many handguns, rifles, rocket launchers, machine guns, explosives and detonators—and how much ammunition—have been handed in either to this Government or to the Government of the Irish Republic?

Marjorie Mowlam

Both this Government and the Irish Government take decommissioning seriously. We have agreed with the Mitchell principles. I should like decommissioning to take place tomorrow, but we have agreed with the Irish Government that it must proceed in parallel with the current process. We have a decommissioning body working, and on 25 February we published a document outlining decommissioning methods. An order on the decommissioning timetable will be dealt with in the House later. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that we all want decommissioning, which would be a very positive step, and a vote of confidence in the process. However, as I have told the House so many times before, I cannot force people to do it. Nevertheless, I assure him that we are doing everything that we can to encourage it.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the type of mortar bomb used to attack Armagh police station has never before been used in Northern Ireland by any terrorist organisation other than the Provisional IRA? Will she confirm whether there is any intelligence of any group utilising such mortar bombs for terrorist activity other than the Provisional IRA?

Marjorie Mowlam

As the hon. and learned Gentleman is aware, after the mortar attack in Armagh, one of the local police officers implied exactly that—that the only group identified with such mortars is the Provisional IRA. However, I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman—as a lawyer and as a Member of Parliament—will agree that one must have pretty conclusive evidence before acting—[Interruption.] I do not have conclusive evidence on the mortar attack at Armagh.

Mr. Thompson

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, irrespective of the objectives of the Irish Government or the outcome of the talks, the supreme authority of this Parliament will remain over all persons, matters and things in Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom?

Marjorie Mowlam

The hon. Gentleman will know that, ultimately, part of the answer to his question lies with the parties and the people of Northern Ireland, which is where, in the talks and in the referendum, some of those decisions will be taken. I should like to add—because of some of the barracking after my previous answer—that there is not conclusive evidence. I cannot make a decision based on one person's view on who they believe did it. I need to have evidence and security advice. Then, as I acted in relation to the UDP and Sinn Fein, I shall act again.

Mr. Moss

Has the Secretary of State had any contact with the Irish Government in the light of the very serious allegations that Roisin McAliskey's fragile mental state—on the ground of which the Home Secretary refused to extradite her to Germany—was attributable to her treatment at the hands of RUC officers at the Castlereagh holding centre? In view of the seriousness of those allegations, does the Secretary of State plan to instigate an inquiry? Conversely, if she believes—as we do—that those allegations are completely without foundation, why has she not issued a statement unequivocally repudiating them?

Marjorie Mowlam

The Irish Government, like many parties involved, strongly expressed their points of view on Roisin McAliskey's situation to the Home Office and to my Department. However, as the Home Secretary made clear last night in his announcement, his decision was taken independently and was based on medical grounds, not on lobbying. The allegations that the hon. Gentleman mentions are still only allegations. The Home Office has informed me that it has received no specific submission from Miss McAliskey on allegations reported in the press, but has said that if it receives such a submission, it will not only respond to it but place it in the public domain.