HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc377-9
6. Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

If she will make a statement on progress in implementing the Good Friday agreement. [71203]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

The Government aim to have completed the legislative preparations for a transfer of powers to the new institutions by 10 March. I welcome last week's approval by the Assembly of the determination on the number and functions of ministerial offices and on areas for north-south co-operation. The Government are honouring their commitments and I look forward to others honouring theirs.

Mr. Temple-Morris

We all wish my right hon. Friend well in not very easy times in the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. Does she agree that the removal of tensions is a most important factor? One particular tension relates to the communities in Portadown, where there is a real and long-standing problem. What impact is that having, one way or the other—I fear that it is the other—on the implementation of the agreement?

Marjorie Mowlam

The successful implementation of the Good Friday agreement depends to a large extent on confidence. The situation at Drumcree is a corrosive influence on progress. The only way in which progress will be made at Drumcree is for both sides to talk and try to find a way forward. We are doing everything that we can to help with that. We have recently asked the head of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service in Scotland, Mr. Frank Blair—no relation—to act as a negotiator and facilitator in that process. No one in Northern Ireland wants a repeat of last year's events at Drumcree, and we will do all that we can to avoid it. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Will the House please come to order? It is very noisy, with people shouting across the Chamber. We need a little order before we can proceed.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that no institution of government in Northern Ireland can claim to be democratic if it contains the representatives of a party known to her to be inextricably linked with an organisation of tenor that has publicly declared its intention to remain fully armed and in an aggressive state?

Marjorie Mowlam

As I have often said to the House, I base my judgment on the information, facts and evidence that I am given. On that basis, I do not agree with the assumptions built into the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, so I have no difficulty in believing that the parties in the process are on ceasefire. If he has information to the contrary, as his question implies, he should send it to the RUC.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that two important aspects of the agreement relate to the North-South Council and the British-Irish Council and urge, on the latter, that no strategic decisions be taken by Dublin and London before the elections in Scotland and Wales? If the Council is to have a fixed location, as is the case with the Nordic Council, may I suggest Glasgow?

Marjorie Mowlam

I find it difficult to give my hon. Friend a categoric assurance, on the first part of his question, that no strategic decisions will be taken, because that would involve timing and would put the implementation of the Good Friday agreement—if progress were made on 10 March—in difficulty if certain parts were implemented and not others. We have seen the tensions that can develop if some parts move quicker than others and it is important that all move together. If the real crux of his question was a request for the headquarters to be in Glasgow, I hear what he says, but he is not the only one to make suggestions along those lines.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Last August, the Secretary of State provided the Assembly with the draft standing orders necessary to fill ministerial posts. Since then, she has not forwarded the finalised copy to the Assembly. Does she contemplate any changes and will the orders be forwarded immediately?

Marjorie Mowlam

It is difficult for me to answer that question, because I am not in Belfast. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), is dealing with the draft standing orders in Belfast today. We look forward to sending them to parties as quickly as possible, but the details and arrangements are being worked on at this moment.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the key elements to achieving the Good Friday agreement is the future of policing in Northern Ireland? Does she agree that making fast progress with the introduction of the police ombudsman, the community awareness project and the ending of the RUC canteen culture will bring great benefits to the people of Northern Ireland and could signal the way ahead for policing in the rest of the country?

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The future of policing, as she rightly points out, is a difficult question and one of the big problems that we have to cope with in Northern Ireland. I hope that the introduction of the police ombudsman will happen quickly. We are interviewing this afternoon for the post, and a number of other aspects of the legislation are being implemented. The Patten commission will report in the summer and I wish to wait and see what it proposes so that we can maximise the improvements on offer.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Minister earlier referred to the peace associated with the Good Friday agreement. Does she agree that it is a fragile sort of peace when arms are not being decommissioned, and a strange sort of peace when people are being beaten and maimings are happening on a daily basis in Northern Ireland? Can she foresee any circumstances in which the early release of prisoners could be stopped to ensure that more progress could be made towards a real, lasting peace in Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it is a difficult period. It is a difficult, tense time and it is not easy. I do not agree with the assumption in the second part of his question that stopping early releases would improve the situation. I would like to know what evidence he has to support that view, because all the evidence that I have is to the contrary.

7. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

What consultations she has had with the Northern Ireland parties on the regulations arising from the legislation to implement the Good Friday agreement. [71204]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

We are continuing in intensive consultations with all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly over all aspects of the legislative and preparations for the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. We shall work as closely as possible with them.

Judy Mallaber

My right hon. Friend knows the importance attached to the equalities and human rights provisions of the Good Friday agreement by those of us who tabled amendments to the legislation, which were eventually accepted. My right hon. Friend has to deal with many difficult issues, but is she able to give the House any idea of any plans in progress to implement the equalities and human rights provisions and, in particular, to set up the two commissions?

Marjorie Mowlam

I can assure my hon. Friend, as I did the House earlier on the other aspects of the Good Friday agreement that are being put in place in time for 10 March, that the appointments procedure for the new equality commission is in progress. We are looking forward to the working group established on setting priorities and new structures for the equality commission reporting soon. Then we will be able to move, I hope in a matter of weeks, to an announcement on the equality commission. As for the human rights commission, we have appointed the chairman, Brice Dixon, and I expect to be able to announce the other commissioners next week. I assure my hon. Friend that progress is being made on both those institutions.