§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement.
First I apologise to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for having only just got them a copy of the statement. We thought it most important to finish writing the statement and come to tell the House at 12.30 pm what is going on in Northern Ireland. I hope that they will understand the speed at which we have had to move.
The House will be as sad as I am to hear that the Deputy First Minister designate of Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), has just resigned from that position. He will be greatly missed in Northern Ireland in that job because, as I know only too well from my position, his contribution has been crucial in holding everything together. The experience of over 30 years that he has brought to the process has been incredible. I hope that he can see his way to stand again for an office in the Assembly in the months and years ahead because without him it will be a sadder place. It will miss his skills, oratory and contribution greatly. I am sure that it is a great relief to all hon. Members that his skills, abilities and oratory will not be lost to this House.
On 2 July my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed with the Taoiseach a way forward to implement the Good Friday agreement. It was a way forward to secure both devolution and decommissioning, with a clear failsafe for both. As proposed on 2 July, the Assembly met this morning to select the departmental Ministers to take office on devolution. Devolution would have followed on Sunday.
The decommissioning process would then have begun within a period specified by the Decommissioning Commission—as General de Chastelain said on 2 July:literally within a couple of days.Actual decommissioning would then have followed, according to a timetable laid down by the Commission, "within a few weeks". If commitment on either devolution or decommissioning had not taken place, there was a failsafe: parties would not have been expected to continue in government with those in default.
As many in the House will now know, the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party and the Alliance chose this morning not to nominate any Member to ministerial office. All parties have agreed on the principle under the Good Friday agreement of an inclusive Executive exercising devolved powers. With those parties not nominating Ministers, it was clear beyond doubt that such an inclusive Executive could not be formed. Therefore, this morning I acted immediately to undo the appointment of Ministers designate since the requirement for a cross-community Executive had not been met. I will now take steps with the Irish Government to institute a formal review under the Good Friday agreement.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), and I will be available to the parties in Northern Ireland over the next few days for discussion as to the nature of that review. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will meet the Taoiseach next week to announce the arrangements, 566 agenda and timetable for this review. It will take place under paragraph 4 of the review section of the agreement. It will be a review not of the agreement itself but of its implementation.
Earlier this week the House debated the Northern Ireland Bill which provides the failsafe envisaged under "The Way Forward" proposals. We judged that it would help to reassure Unionists and nationalists, but particularly Unionists, that we were serious about the failsafe if we published the Bill and demonstrated that it was on its way to becoming law. I am grateful to the House for considering the Bill at such speed on Tuesday. We shall not withdraw it, because it may well be that a failsafe on those lines will be necessary to underpin whatever way forward is eventually agreed. However, the Bill will not now proceed at emergency speed in the other place this afternoon.
I still believe that the way forward proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach is a balanced approach that could have succeeded. I do not seek to blame any party in the House. The last thing that the people of Northern Ireland need now is an outbreak of recriminations. I believe that all those who supported the agreement when it was made genuinely wanted to see it implemented. The reality is that we either move forward together, or we do not move forward at all.
Today is a setback: it would be foolish to deny that. It would be even more foolish to conclude that the Good Friday agreement cannot continue. Apart from those who have always opposed the agreement, no one is seriously suggesting an alternative way forward. There is still a wide measure of agreement on the issues that have divided people in the past, such as on the resolution of the fundamental constitutional question on the basis of consent; on a fully inclusive form of government, with both communities represented; on a fair and just society in which both traditions are respected and rights are safeguarded; and on the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms in a manner determined by an independent commission, and the eventual normalisation of society.
That is, in my opinion, a massive consensus, which was inconceivable before the Good Friday agreement, and which puts today's setback, serious though it is, in perspective. One must never forget that, however fed up one may get with the results of this morning. Most of all, I place my faith in the people of Northern Ireland, who are bitterly disappointed, as is clear from the phone calls that we have received in the past 10 minutes—let alone what I believe will happen this afternoon in terms of public opinion.
During this year, and particularly in recent weeks at the beginning of the parades period, people in both communities have shown that the strongest of disagreements can be expressed peacefully. For their sake, we, the Irish Government and all the Northern Ireland parties must not be disheartened. We must continue to work to implement the agreement that the people have approved.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)
I thank the Secretary of State for coming so quickly to the House to make the statement. In the circumstances, I fully understand why I did not get the draft of the statement very far in advance.
567 This is a sad day for the people of Northern Ireland, because it is clear from what the Secretary of State said that a devolved, inclusive Administration for the people of Northern Ireland is sadly still some way off. Will she confirm again that the real stumbling block to progress was non-decommissioning? Will she lay the blame fairly and squarely—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Can I ask the Secretary of State to lay the blame fairly and squarely with the paramilitaries, loyalist and republican, who have failed to fulfil their obligations under the Good Friday agreement by not decommissioning any of their illegally held arms and explosives? They are entirely to blame for the process not proceeding.
I endorse the Secretary of State's commendation of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who has just resigned as Deputy First Minister designate. Will the right hon. Lady also place on record the outstanding contribution of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the First Minister designate? At all times he has behaved not only honourably but with great courage in trying to move the process forward.
May I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that the amendments that were much trumpeted and much spun by Downing Street yesterday, but never laid before Parliament, did not include any of the essential failsafes that the Unionists and I would have required to ensure that Ministers were appointed to the Executive? Let me remind the Secretary of State of the essential failsafes that we required. First, we required a tight, transparent timetable for decommissioning. Our second requirement was that, if any of the paramilitaries, republican or loyalist, failed to decommission, their terrorist prisoner releases would be halted. Our third requirement was that, if the IRA failed to decommission, Sinn Fein would be immediately excluded from the Executive.
May I also ask the Secretary of State to promise the House, as the paramilitaries are failing in their obligation to decommission their illegally held arms and explosives, that she will immediately halt the early release of terrorist prisoners back on to the streets of Belfast?
I entirely agree with the Secretary of State that the Good Friday agreement is still the best way forward, and I think it right and proper for a review of its workings to be carried out now. Will the Secretary of State confirm what I have heard her say before—that the Belfast agreement must be implemented in all its parts, not cherry-picked? The part that is not being conformed to at the moment is the requirement for decommissioning of illegally held weapons.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
Let me begin with the right hon. Gentleman's last question. We firmly believe that the Good Friday agreement should be implemented in full.
The hon. Gentleman raised another point about something that is not part of the Good Friday agreement. It is crucial for people to understand that the question of prisoner releases is part of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, and that suspension is related to the ending of the ceasefire, not to decommissioning. The right hon. Gentleman keeps repeating that there is such a relationship, but it does not exist.
On prisoner releases, I have made it clear—I have said this from the Dispatch Box on numerous occasions—that I, like the hon. Gentleman, desperately want to be sure that the commitment to a ceasefire is not broken. 568 As Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said 10 days ago, I have not—by default, or by actions that I have taken—done anything contrary to the advice that he has given me.
As for evidence on prisoners, I will not shirk that. I will act if I have to—we have twice excluded parties—but I will not act on the basis of hearsay or allegations that keep being brought up. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will act; but there is no point in asking for the halting of accelerated release of prisoners. Yes, that was part of the Good Friday agreement, but it was not tied to the conditions that the right hon. Gentleman wants to be imposed.
Opposition members must understand that we cannot cherry-pick. We cannot suddenly say, "I think that I will stop this". That would guarantee the end of the Good Friday agreement.
As for the amendments proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in relation to the speech by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) on Tuesday, they are there. They were not tabled last night, but they are there ready to go. As I said in my statement, we will continue with the legislation, because there may well be a chance for it to be used in future; but we will not force the Bill through on an emergency timetable when there is clearly no longer an emergency. I assure the House that the amendments are there, ready for tabling. We attempted to respond to the points made by the right hon. Member for Huntingdon and others, and we believe that we have done so.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the outstanding contributions of the leaders in Northern Ireland, and mentioned in particular the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). Let me say categorically that I believe the leaders of every party in Northern Ireland have tried hard—all of them. I condemn none of them because I believe that they have all tried with determination and courage to make progress. It is just very sad that we have not been able to do that today.
In response to the right hon. Gentleman's first statement, I do not want to indulge in blame and recriminations because that is the one way to guarantee that the whole process will unravel again. That is why it is crucial that, if we go backwards—
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I blame terrorists who murder people. It is appalling. It is outrageous. It is disgusting. But I am here implementing the Good Friday agreement and the agreement is inclusive.
People have tried desperately in the past 18 months and, as I have said, sadly, we have not made it by today, but we will not make progress and we will not hold the fragile ceasefires that we have at the moment, if we start a whole exercise in the House today of saying who we think was to blame.
We all carry responsibility—everyone. As a result, everyone should do all they can to move the process forward, rather than try to unpick it. The basic problem that we experienced, as was clear in the House 569 on Tuesday, was one of trust and confidence. We must all work to try to rebuild that over the summer because the Good Friday agreement is not lost; neither is the peace.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
May I say first how deeply I regret the resignation of our hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). It has always been my view that both he and our hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) stand head and shoulders above most of those involved in politics.
We always knew that the negotiations would be protracted and cumbersome, but they have been deeply harmed by the intransigence of the hardliners in the Unionist parties and, indeed, among the republicans. This is a setback, but that is all it is. Matters have improved enormously in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years. We have to remember that. We have a peace of sorts, but it could help if General de Chastelain—not that he can be influenced by anyone, let alone a Back Bencher such as me—could come up with a definite timetable concerning the process of decommissioning over the next several months.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I respect what he personally has done in relation to Northern Ireland. I say that just before I disagree with him, because I do not think that it helps at this point, sad though we all are at the loss of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh from the process, to begin to do what I have just said to Opposition Members we should not do, which is boost some Members above others. Yes, everyone in Northern Ireland has to take risks. Yes, everyone has to change and that goes for hon. Members and for the two Governments. Unless that happens, it will be tougher to make progress.
I accept that there are hardliners on both sides who do not help the process. It is equally not helped by those who oppose the Good Friday agreement, but opposition to the agreement is Opposition Members' democratic right, which we have never denied. The real difficulty in the weeks and months ahead will come from those on either extreme who have not given up violence. They are there with the intent purpose of trying to destroy the agreement. What will be tough and difficult in the weeks and months ahead will be to ensure that they do not succeed in bringing down what can potentially again be built on.
In response to the final point on de Chastelain and a definite timetable, that is one of the things that was discussed yesterday. I hope that, when the review gets going, it is discussed again, but, as is patently clear from what is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment, it is the parties who will decide whether that is crucial, not us.
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
May I also say that we understand the very important reasons that led to the late arrival of the information that came to us before the statement—indeed, I applaud the Secretary of State for doing her best to keep us posted at all.
May I first ask the Secretary of State to note some slight concern about the effect that the very late arrival of the new Standing Order that she determined this morning had on the proceedings in Northern Ireland? Perhaps she could explain why it was sent so late.
570 Secondly, will the Secretary of State confirm that, according to the regulations, the resignation of the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister creates a vacancy also for First Minister—although the current First Minister would be entitled to continue as acting First Minister for up to six weeks, by which time an election must be called?
Thirdly, does the Secretary of State agree that, although it may now be difficult to move forward, that is no excuse for moving back? Do we not have to recognise that the failure to choose the current process will do nothing to provide an alternative to what has come before us?
Fourthly, does the Secretary of State also realise that—despite protestations of it all being fair and square by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) on behalf of the official Opposition—when something of such gravity is occurring in Northern Ireland, this is not the time to try to score party political points? Does she agree that it sounds to many Northern Ireland people as though some mainland politicians have forgotten that we are here in the Province's interests, not our own? Does she also agree that trying to justify some of the comments made in the Chamber has made it exceedingly difficult for Northern Ireland politicians who desperately want to make progress to do so?
Finally, does the Minister agree that there will have to come a time when all sides show some faith, even if that involves risk? Without that faith, the Province can have little faith in the future.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
The Standing Order was determined this morning because—last night, and until the early hours of this morning—it was unclear whether the Ulster Unionist party would be able to include someone in the process. That was clarified only when the UUP announced from Glengall street in Belfast that it would not field a nomination in the d'Hondt procedure. I had made a commitment, as had the Prime Minister, to run d'Hondt, and we had to give the Assembly 24 hours' notice before doing so. The process was therefore inevitably taking its course.
Subsequently, it became clear to me that if the UUP and the Ulster Democratic Unionist party would not make nominations, we would end up with an Executive composed of 10 nationalists. The spirit and words of the Good Friday agreement have always been that movement would have to be on a cross-community basis.
I apologise to the parties that were in the Chamber in Northern Ireland at lunch time, but I could not pull d'Hondt. Equally, if only one community had participated in it, it would not have worked or been cross-community. The Standing Order was drafted, therefore, when the situation became clear, at about 9.30 am to 10.00 am, so that we could have it in the Chamber, and avoid an even more unworkable situation.
As for the impact of the Deputy First Minister's resignation on the First Minister, the two posts are connected, and I believe that there will have to be an election for both. I believe that a six-week time frame, which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) mentioned, is another dimension to the matter. Although we are—to be fair—still checking the details, I share the hon. Gentleman's view that, after six weeks, there will have to be an election for both posts.
571 I do not really want—however frustrated I might feel—to deal with the hon. Gentleman's final point, on political parties, point scoring and bipartisanship. As so often in this process, we have to do all that we can to protect bipartisanship. It would not help for me to go through what we did when we were in opposition that has not been reciprocated, as I should be indulging in what I told the rest of the House would not be productive, today, of all days. Nevertheless, bipartisanship does help, and I hope that, from now on, we can continue acting positively and constructively in that manner.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
As the Secretary of State will know, the sense of disappointment that she expressed will be shared by the overwhelming majority of Members of this House and the people of Northern Ireland, because the Belfast agreement represents the majority of the people in Northern Ireland more even than any party there. May I thank her for the immense amount of work that she has done? No British Minister in history has ever devoted so much time, attention, care and thought to finding a solution, and the language she uses is clearly designed to keep all the participants in a position to negotiate. I am sure that she is right to talk about the future because of the majority in the referendum.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for many people, the ultimate decision by the Unionists will not come as a surprise? From the time of the first ceasefire, their feeling was that there could be no negotiations until it was permanent. Now we have the problem about decommissioning.
The impression has been given that the representatives of old Unionism, which commands the Ulster Unionist party, is interested in the Union with the United Kingdom only if we will send troops to support them, but not if they are asked to sit down with the Catholic community on the basis of equality. One of the consequences of that, as I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, is that if the emphasis now moves to London and Dublin running a condominium in Northern Ireland, that will be the first stage towards what many people—including myself, for all my life—believe; that the Irish people will have to settle their own future. I hope that she will use those arguments with the skill that she has shown to try to make the Ulster Unionist party—I am not speaking about the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), but his party—realise that the old days are over, and that the majority of people in the Northern Ireland want that to be the case.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I ask all hon. Members to avoid recriminations, however strongly we may feel; otherwise, we revert to oppositional behaviour, and today is not the day for that. I am sure that we will have debates in future when these views can be expressed clearly. Today, we are making a commitment to stick with the principles in the Good Friday agreement and to have a review. The details of the review will be discussed by the parties in Westminster and there will be input from those in the House. My right hon. Friend talks about the old days being part of the past and, for many people in Northern Ireland, they are. If one goes to Northern Ireland, one sees new buildings and increasing jobs and industry. Normality is coming to Northern Ireland, and all politicians have to show leadership and make sure that we make happen politically what is happening in many communities.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
Does the Secretary of State agree that, not for the first time 572 in our history, "Steady the Buffs" is not a bad national watchword, and that the important thing at this juncture is calm thought for the future about how the delicate plant that is the peace process can be fostered? That, of course, includes—as the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said earlier—the work of General de Chastelain on the decommissioning programme.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I acknowledge the work of the right hon. Gentleman, who will feel as sad as anyone that we have got to this point but no further, as he was one of the architects of the process. General de Chastelain will continue to work as hard as he has done, and he has made a positive impact on the process. I am sure that that will continue. "Steady the Buffs" might be his phrase. Mine would be "Keep your head, keep it down and we will keep going."
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that her right hon. and hon. Friends admire her stateswomanlike qualities this afternoon, as she must be under tremendous pressure to vent her opinions? We admire the way in which she continued her job, despite the fact that, from the time when the Good Friday agreement was made, the Official Opposition—in conjunction with the Ulster Unionists—sought to cherry-pick and alter the agreement, change it and bring in fresh conditions. As much as anything, the Official Opposition are responsible for bolstering the Ulster Unionists in their rejection of the agreement.
The Ulster Unionists are halfway through another Parliament, and still there is no change. That has always been their policy. Many of us believed from the start that they never had any intention of coming to an agreement.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has put into building the process, but I must also say to him that there has been change in Northern Ireland. Incredible progress has been made since the Good Friday agreement. The principle of consent has been agreed, so there is a way forward on the basic constitutional difficulty that has always been at the root of the problems in Northern Ireland. That, more than anything, is a good building block to start from; it was for the Good Friday agreement, and it will be as we move forward.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I very much welcome the Secretary of State's insistence that this is not the end of the Good Friday agreement but that the review itself is being conducted within the agreement. I greatly appreciate her demeanour and presentation today, which are a signal improvement on some of the comments from Government Back Benchers to which she has had to respond.
When the Prime Minister talked in his original statement about a failsafe mechanism, which is obviously a very important agreement, I was concerned that he was not able to say what the mechanism was. The Government are trying to produce suitable amendments rather late in the day. I strongly endorse what the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) said. Surely the opportunity is now there for General de Chastelain to produce the mechanism, which could be put in the Bill. The Bill has been laid aside but not abandoned. The independent commissioner's report could be attached to 573 the Bill and the mechanism would be endorsed, with the authority of Parliament—it would not be a bad thing if it were endorsed by the Dail as well—so people might be able to have real confidence that it was, indeed, a failsafe.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, but unhelpful comments sometimes come from both sides of the House. I appreciate and reinforce strongly his point that this is a review; the Good Friday agreement is still there, we are certainly not going backwards and we fully intend to move forwards. However difficult it is today, and however disappointed people are, we must not lose sight of that. I have often thought in the past two years that we have come a long way quite quickly.
One can see from conflicts around the world that it will take years to build a strong, stable base. That we go three steps forward, one back, four steps forward, three back is in the nature of building a process of trust and confidence and achieving the reconciliation that is needed. I certainly endorse the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the review is to take place on the basis of the Good Friday agreement.
On tying the failsafe to the broader political statement and to the role of General de Chastelain, the best thing to say at this point is that I am sure that General John de Chastelain and the parties in Northern Ireland have heard what the right hon. Gentleman said. As the review progresses in the weeks ahead, I am sure that his points will have been heard.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be much disappointment not only in Northern Ireland but on the mainland and that the overwhelming majority in Britain itself want the Good Friday agreement to be endorsed and implemented as soon as possible? I hope that, despite today's disappointments, that will come about later.
Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that the Government intend to continue to work as closely as possible with the Government of the Irish Republic? Today, there may be a kind of victory for those who were against the agreement from the beginning—the majority of Unionist Members—but it is essential above all that we do not give them a permanent victory, because that would be a terrible disaster for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
The disappointment that my hon. Friend mentioned will be shared not only by people on the island of Ireland and in Great Britain, but—if my mailbag is anything to go by—by people across the world who have been watching the situation. What is important today is to reinforce the contribution from the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and say, "Yes, it is disappointing and sad that we have not made progress, but we still have the Good Friday agreement and a review."
In a sense, we are where we were before "The Way Forward" document was put forward. We are where we were when the Hillsborough declaration failed. That is disappointing, but we are no further back than we were several months ago and that does not mean that we cannot find other ways forward. That is what we should focus on.
574 My hon. Friend mentioned the Irish Government, and I may say that we would not have got to where we had got if we had not worked as closely as we have with the Irish Government. Previous Governments knew that, and Opposition Members who have spoken also know that. We have had a good working relationship with the Irish Government and we are still talking through the night about how we can go forward. We will continue to talk over the weekend. The Taoiseach and others in the Republic are as sad and disappointed as many people here are that progress is not being made.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I first wish to apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). He expected the statement to be made later and was hoping to be here in time for it.
We are used to spin doctors and I understand the reference to the Good Friday agreement, but I thought that we were talking about the Belfast agreement rather than the spin on it. The harsh reality—when one considers what has been said across the Chamber—is that unlike those why buy from disreputable insurance salespersons who mention benefits but do not encourage reading of the small print, politicians should read the small print. From the beginning some of us saw where the problem lay. That emerged from the statements of the Prime Minister when he came to Belfast some two weeks ago and wanted everyone to subscribe to a document that stated, first:That Unionists are committed to an inclusive administration"—and, secondly:that the Republican movement is prepared to decommission by May 2000".We have answered the first point and we are prepared to go down that road, despite what has been said today by Labour Members. Unfortunately, they are following the big lie by the leader of Sinn Fein, who went on the media to say that Unionists did not want to share not with nationalists or republicans but with Roman Catholics. My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann has answered that specifically in the House and elsewhere.
The second point about decommissioning has not been dealt with. The failsafe mechanisms did not deal with it. We live in the reality of Northern Ireland and it was none other than Gerry Adams who categorically denied that any commitment had been given to disarmament. Hence, there is no evidence that there has been a seismic change in republican thinking.
The Secretary of State mentioned movement in Northern Ireland in her statement and I would expect her to agree that that has been going on for a considerable time. If we went back to the report from the constitutional convention of 1975, we would find many of those points in it. Unionists have been moving forward, but we are not prepared to sell democracy at the price of terror.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I have tried to acknowledge the role of the anti-agreement parties because in a democracy everybody's voice should be heard. We have not indulged in spin doctoring on this issue: I do not believe in it and will not do it.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I have not and will not, but I can tell the House who has been spinning. It is all the parties 575 in Northern Ireland, and the sooner they stop spinning and start talking to each other, the sooner progress will be made. On the hon. Gentleman's final point about looking back to what happened in 1975, it is important that we do not keep replaying history or living in the past: we must look to the future. We have a chance of looking to the future if we all try, by admitting the mistakes and errors in the past, to build for the future.
Progress has been made over the past 30 years, but hundreds of people have also been killed, as the hon. Gentleman and I know. The violence continued after the Good Friday agreement was reached, but the smaller number of people killed in the period shows that the agreement considerably lessened that violence.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)
My right hon. Friend reminds us all that this is a good time to remember the lessons of the recent past, one of which is that there is a greater chance of agreement when the major Opposition party supports a Government. That is true even when strange things happen, such as the previous Conservative Government holding direct talks with the IRA. What has happened in the past few days is a result of the major Opposition party partially withdrawing support for the Government. In so doing, it has undermined the already severely divided Ulster Unionist party—so that those responsible members of that party who wanted the agreement found it almost impossible to go the extra mile—and allowed the agreement to slip through our fingers.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I thank my hon. Friend, in view of all the work that he has done on this matter, but I must reinforce the point that we will make progress when people stop spinning and start talking to each other.
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
If the ceasefires are "fragile"—the word that the Secretary of State used earlier—rather than permanent, firm and unshakeable, as we had been assured previously, does not that suggest that it is especially important to halt prisoner releases until there is some decommissioning of weapons?
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I am saddened that the hon. Gentleman has put that interpretation on my use of the word "fragile" in relation to the situation. The ceasefires become more and more fragile when there is no alternative political way forward. When there is a vacuum—
§ Marjorie Mowlam
It is all very well to say "Ah", but that is the reality: a political vacuum makes it easier for people who use the road of violence to justify their course of action. At the moment, there is no political vacuum in Northern Ireland. The political way forward is still being debated and discussed. The fragility is not in the nature of the ceasefires which, as I have said many times in the House, I keep under constant review. I have made a clear commitment that I will act if and when I am advised that the ceasefires are not holding. The fragility stems from the possibility that people will not talk and from the presence of extremist groups who want to break up the agreement.
576 Conservative Members may be trying to secure a statement from me that could be headlined as "Secretary of State Admits Ceasefires Fragile", but that is not the case. There is fragility in Northern Ireland at the moment: that is inevitable. People will be disappointed and worried, and there remain marches to be held. However, I hope that all hon. Members will play a part in sustaining confidence and ensuring that divisions are not exacerbated. We must do our best to try and hold the situation together.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend for her patience in carrying out all the duties associated with her office over the past two years. On this sad day, she has had to announce a review of the Good Friday agreement which, when it was agreed, was an enormous step forward.
Will the review look again at the basic principles of the Good Friday agreement, or will the basis of the review be that we retain the agreement, under which both communities must be represented and in agreement before any progress can be made? When does my right hon. Friend expect the review to be completed?
Finally, the First Minister designate has failed to attend Stormont this morning. He has not offered his resignation, but his party has not nominated people to the Executive. Does the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) remain as First Minister designate, even though he has vetoed this final hurdle in the peace process, or will he remain in office only until such time as the two Governments have completed the review?
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I said earlier that I think that the Good Friday agreement will be the basis of the review, which will concern the agreement's implementation rather than its content. That is the perspective that we have adopted since it became clear, an hour or so ago, that we shall need a review pretty quickly.
Those discussions with the Irish Government are taking place now.
We have said clearly that we will discuss matters with the parties over the days ahead. I hope that by the time the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach meet next week, they will be able to outline the terms of reference, the nature of the review and its conditions. I can be no firmer than that at present.
I cannot give a specific time scale, either. I have come to the House within an hour and a half of knowing what was happening, and it would be premature, if not unwise, to start to set down times until we have talked to the Irish Government and to the other parties. I assure the House that the statement to be made by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach after their summit next week will make those answers clear.
Like my hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked about the First Minister remaining in office at the moment. The two appointments are connected, but within six weeks, the situation will change. That is our understanding, but I should like to check the details, because I have not yet had the chance to make sure that it is definitive. I am 99 per cent. sure that that is how things stand.
§ Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)
When will the Secretary of State and the Government recognise that the 577 idea of an Executive for Northern Ireland composed of Unionists, nationalists and republicans is simple nonsense that will never work?. Has the time not come to end the farce played out at Stormont today, to scrap the agreement, so that Northern Ireland can be governed as it should be—according to the same principles and practices as apply in the rest of the United Kingdom—and to defeat terrorism, wherever it comes from?
§ Marjorie Mowlam
We will continue to work for what the people of Northern Ireland ask us for. In implementing the Good Friday agreement, we are implementing what 71 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland voted for. We are acting not off our own backs, but because the people want progress. It would have been wonderful to move towards devolution today, as has happened in Scotland and Wales. Along with the Irish Government, we believe that the Good Friday agreement provided the best way of doing that, but we cannot act in Northern Ireland exactly as we did for the Scots and Welsh, because they have different histories, and the history of Northern Ireland, with its large element of violence, means that mechanisms are needed that include both communities. We are trying to achieve those mechanisms, and we shall continue to do so.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
I am not the sort of politician who tends to praise my Front-Bench colleagues, but the Secretary of State's approach has been exactly right. Matters are still open and much work must still be done, but we must not give up hope. We must avoid the politics of blame, and shouting yah-boo against particular groups or people. We must recognise the complexity of Northern Ireland, and of the attitudes in the House towards resolving these matters. Some elements of Unionism may stand strongly against any change, but others would accept matters as they stand, while others still want progress, a timetable and an agreement. There are differing positions, too, within the Conservative party—but honourable positions are held and argued on all sides. We must try to pull all those views together to achieve the settlement that we all want.
§ Marjorie Mowlam
I agree. I certainly have not given up hope and belief in a vision of a better future for Northern Ireland.