HC Deb 30 June 1999 vol 334 cc333-5
5. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

If she will make a statement on progress towards devolution in Northern Ireland. [87719]

6. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

What progress has been made in discussions on the future constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland. [87720]

10. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If she will make a statement on the latest position on the peace process. [87724]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam)

A great deal of progress has been made towards achieving devolution. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister are currently engaged in intensive discussions with the parties to try to reach agreement on the outstanding issues and enable devolution to take place. I am sure that the whole House joins me in wishing them well in making progress in the hours ahead.

Mr. McNulty

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. She will be aware that confusing signals are emanating from the Belfast talks. Will she ignore the witless, partisan and frankly irresponsible comments of some on the Opposition Benches and give us her real assessment of how far we are from the real prize of devolution and lasting peace in Northern Ireland?

Marjorie Mowlam

I have difficulty answering my hon. Friend's question. It is difficult to provide facts in the middle of a negotiation, as he and others who have engaged in negotiations will know. We were feeling positive at lunch time, but by the time that I left to come to this place an hour later, people were getting worried again. The situation goes up and down: it is a case of three steps forward and two steps back. It is difficult to give a fair judgment to the House now. I apologise to hon. Members for that, but it is the nature of negotiations. My colleagues in the Northern Ireland team have done their best to answer questions today, but I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that, when the talks have finished, there will be a statement on the details, by me or by the Prime Minister, as soon as is feasible.

Sir Teddy Taylor

I wish the right hon. Lady every possible success and blessing in her complex and difficult task. Will she make it abundantly clear that, should the talks sadly fail, all those who have been released very early from custody—some of whom were convicted for the most appalling crimes—will be returned immediately to prison in the interests of the security of people on both sides of the community?

Marjorie Mowlam

The details of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 do not facilitate the course of action that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. However, I make it clear that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said a minute ago, it is difficult to say exactly what will happen after the 30th. If I were to do so now, the folk in Northern Ireland would discuss not how to deal with the issues of the Executive, decommissioning and how it will be determined in line with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning but my answer to the hon. Gentleman. That is why I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait a wee while. However, I guarantee that there will be an answer when the outcome of today's talks is known.

Mr. Winnick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the negotiations do not succeed, it will be a moment of real joy for those responsible for last year's Omagh atrocity, for instance, as well as for the loyalist murder gangs who would seize any opportunity to start a murderous pogrom against the minority community? Should not that be borne in mind by those on the Opposition Benches, some of whom give the impression that they do not want the negotiations to succeed?

Marjorie Mowlam

It is difficult with the parties that are not supporting the agreement and it is very difficult with those who are bent on destroying it by violent means. However, many of those who are anti-agreement—particularly the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the Ulster Democratic Unionist party—were in the talks building yesterday. The Prime Minister and I have had meetings with them in the past three or four days. It is their democratic right to oppose the agreement, but they remain very interested in what progress is being made. That is where the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), is now and he sends his apologies to the House.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

While the Opposition hope fervently for a settlement later today on the implementation of the Belfast agreement in full, does the Secretary of State agree that talking about falling into an abyss if no such agreement is reached may be counterproductive? After all, life in the Province must go on and we cannot afford to have a political vacuum. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government intend to continue talking in order to press for a settlement and that, if Sinn Fein-IRA do not fulfil the requirement under the Belfast agreement to decommission by next May, they will proceed with devolution with the consenting parties, excluding Sinn Fein?

Marjorie Mowlam

I am sorry, but I have tried to explain in my responses to three questions today why I will not answer that specific point. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to negotiate across the Dispatch Box what the parties in Northern Ireland are now discussing. It is for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach conclusions. I hope that we in this House and those in the Dail in the Irish Republic will do everything possible.

The best indication to the hon. Gentleman of the situation in Northern Ireland and the negotiations is the number of people who come to the doors of the building in which the talks are taking place. Just as I was leaving that building, a group from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum arrived with a letter for every member of the talks. Those talks are taking place for them. In their letter, the young people said: We do not want a return to the violent sectarian cauldron of the past. Nor do we want to live…in a state of suspended animation where growth is impossible. The parties in Northern Ireland are doing their best to make progress.