HC Deb 28 April 1999 vol 330 cc325-8
1. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

If she will make a statement on progress in implementing the Good Friday agreement. [81279]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

A great deal of progress has been made in implementing the Good Friday agreement. The Government have already made all the practical preparations necessary for devolution and for all the institutions set up under the agreement to go live. Talks between the two Governments and the parties continue to try to overcome the remaining obstacles. No one is hiding the fact that this is a difficult period, but it is clear that the people of Northern Ireland want to make progress and want their agreement to be put into practice.

Mr. McNulty

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will she join me in welcoming the opinion poll in the Irish Times yesterday which revealed that support for the Good Friday agreement among the people of Northern Ireland is still strong and, if anything, getting stronger? Does she agree that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland want their politicians to compromise, make the Good Friday agreement work and bring a lasting peace and normal politics to Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree with the points made by my hon. Friend. The poll revealed that 73 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland—a higher number than in the referendum — support the agreement and would vote for it. It revealed also that a phenomenal 70 per cent. of people understand that the only way forward is to compromise. I always like to have the results of more than one poll, and the good point about this poll is that the guts of it, on the major issues, support previous polls by other newspapers and institutions. There is a continuity of view on those issues.

The poll also demonstrates—we should not ignore this fact—that half the population have confidence and believe that the Good Friday agreement will be implemented, and half have their doubts, are fearful and distrusting and do not have the confidence to believe that progress will be made. It is important that we continue our work with the Irish to build that confidence to find a way forward.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I refer the Secretary of State to the security section in the Belfast agreement, in which the Government undertook to make progress towards normal security arrangements in accordance with a published strategy, and to consult with the parties about that strategy. When will the Government publish that strategy? Are they engaged in any consultation or negotiation on that strategy, or elements of it, with any parties? Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking to the House that any published strategy will eschew gimmicks and make sure that the safety of society is the overriding consideration?

Marjorie Mowlam

I shall start with the right hon. Gentleman's last point. Clearly, the safety of the people of Northern Ireland is paramount in our minds, and that will be the overriding issue. The safety of the people is the job of any Government, and it will remain a strong priority and central to anything that this Government do.

The right hon. Gentleman asks whether there has been any consultation. We have consulted the Irish, as I am sure he and others would expect. Our close working relationship with the Irish is consistent with that consultation, and it would be surprising if we had not consulted.

The right hon. Gentleman also asks whether we shall consult other parties. We shall certainly consult him, as the First Minister, and the Deputy First Minister before any strategy is published. He asks whether there is a date for publication. We are still working on that strategy, so I cannot yet give him a date, but we shall publish it as soon as we have finished.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Irish Times poll yesterday reveals that 69 per cent. of Ulster Unionist voters and 77 per cent. of Sinn Fein voters demonstrate an unwillingness to compromise. Given that fact and the fact that the interminable talks are getting nowhere, is it not time for the two Governments to stop playing nanny to the two parties that are holding up the agreement and to define clearly the compromises that must be made, the process through which the international body on decommissioning can progress and advance decommissioning and a date on which the Executive Committee and the institutions will come into being, without being vetoed by any political party?

Marjorie Mowlam

I share some of the hon. Gentleman's frustration with the speed at which the process is moving, but he knows as well as I do that it will not work unless we get all parties acting collectively to find an accommodation and a way forward. Therefore, as he suggests, the two Governments are working closely together to do what we can to move the process forward, but we need to do so with the parties on side, because the Good Friday agreement cannot work—decisions cannot be taken—without cross-community support. We are working on that now, and we shall continue to do so in the days and weeks ahead. I believe that there is not a party around that table that does not want to make progress and, as the poll suggests that the people want progress, it is incumbent on all of us to take a risk and keep going.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Irish Times poll represents very good information indeed and that, although we do not always take such polls seriously, its findings seem to fit the general mood in Northern Ireland? In that context, does she agree that although it is perfectly legitimate for politicians in Northern Ireland to represent the 27 per cent. who oppose the Good Friday agreement, they should not use their position to obstruct the progress that has been made so far?

Marjorie Mowlam

The 27 per cent. who did not support the agreement obviously have a democratic right to continue to voice their views, but I hope that they will acknowledge the wishes of the majority that we do everything we can to help rather than hinder. We have come a long way. A lot of progress has been made. It is a difficult time, and people are getting frustrated, but if we stick in there, keep talking and do not walk, we have a chance to make it.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Most of us hesitate to intervene in these discussions from the mainland because we are reluctant to be back-seat drivers, but I believe that an increasing number of British MPs have realised that we have allowed the opponents of the agreement to hitch its success to a single aspect—the decommissioning of selected weapons — whereas, for most people, the essence is that the agreement delivers peace: the absence of hostile action by all sides. That is something which the surrender of weapons will not guarantee, and which requires further commitment from all sides. Might it not be possible to move the process forward by emphasising other aspects of the achievement of peace, which we all want?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend. I think it is clear from both sides of the House and from everyone around the table that agreement needs the support of all the parties — which is what we are working towards—and that, in addition, the whole of the Good Friday agreement must be implemented. As George Mitchell said, reaching agreement was tough; implementing it is tougher, because many people wanted one bit and not another. That is the stage that we have reached. People are looking at a host of options and ways forward.

My hon. Friend suggests that we look at other aspects and see whether that helps. What helps—an aspect that, as he suggests, might make a difference—is the building of trust and confidence, because what is needed is for all parties to realise how far we have come, for all parties to realise that people in Northern Ireland want to make progress and for all parties to ask themselves, "What can we do with the lack of trust and lack of confidence of others around the table?" I believe that if everyone did that, progress would be made.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the two Governments have jumped every hurdle and fulfilled all their obligations under the agreement? Does she also accept that the constitutional parties, Unionist and nationalist, have also jumped all hurdles and fulfilled all their obligations, and that the stumbling block that stops an Executive being set up is the fact that the paramilitaries, republican and loyalist, are not starting their decommissioning?

Marjorie Mowlam

What the right hon. Gentleman has to do in understanding the Good Friday agreement is accept that all parts of the agreement have to be implemented. There is not a stumbling block for one side or the other because decommissioning, as we have said in the House on many occasions, is an essential part of the agreement. It is not a precondition but it is clearly an obligation, so that has to be part of what moves forward. As I said in my answer to the main question, we are almost there in implementing other parts of the agreement. By introducing preconditions of any sort, progress will not be made. The parties must come together, with all the help that the rest of us can give them, to find a way forward.

Mr. MacKay

Surely the Secretary of State accepts that everybody else has fulfilled all their obligations, including herself. The only stumbling block is now the paramilitaries. I do not believe that it can be right in a democracy that the democratic process is vetoed by the men of violence. Will the right hon. Lady seriously consider setting up a devolved Executive without Sinn Fein-IRA, and allow them to join as and when they start to fulfil their obligations by decommissioning?

Marjorie Mowlam

If I do what the right hon. Gentleman has asked me to do, I will lose the one bit of leverage that I have, which is to implement the Good Friday agreement in full. I would succeed in destroying that agreement. I have no intention of doing that.