HC Deb 24 November 1999 vol 339 cc604-6
4. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

If he will make a statement on progress in the peace process. [98767]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

As I informed the House on Monday, Senator Mitchell has now completed his review of the implementation of the agreement. Following his concluding statement, and those of the political parties and others, I have announced my intention to call a meeting of the Assembly on Monday to nominate Ministers. Parliament will then be invited to approve the legislation necessary for powers to be devolved on Thursday 2 December.

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments on progress. We are all aware that there are extreme groups that will attempt to sabotage the process by acts of violence. Does he agree that, regardless of what outrages they commit or seek to commit, he will continue with the process undeterred, and that they are wasting their time?

Mr. Mandelson

I readily give my hon. Friend that categorical assurance. We shall not allow any threat coming from any quarter to drive out the very real prospect of success that is now before us. It is the prospect that, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Northern Ireland will see its representatives—its politicians—running its local affairs; local people deciding how the local health service will be run; local people deciding the future of education; and local people in charge of the local economy encouraging local jobs. For so long, that has been only the remotest of remote possibilities. However, next week in Northern Ireland, that dream could very well become a reality. Next week, direct rule could end. Nothing should be done by anyone in any quarter to impede that happening.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons remains a priority for the Government, as it does for us, unlike the party led by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), which has declared that it is no longer a priority for it?

Will the right hon. Gentleman welcome the decision of the Democratic Unionist party to take up its seats in the inclusive Executive, whose formation the hon. Member for North Antrim has foreshadowed? Will he point out to the DUP that that inclusive arrangement—having been approved by the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum and endorsed clearly in the Assembly elections last year, with the parties which support the arrangement being returned with an overwhelming majority—cannot be described as undemocratic?

Mr. Mandelson

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. People in Northern Ireland have shown again and again that they want the Good Friday agreement to be fully implemented. As for others who have done nothing and contributed not a jot to the successful negotiations that the right hon. Gentleman has led, I find it extraordinary that, against that background, and having experienced none of the political pain that the negotiations have generated, they are none the less prepared to take up their seats in the newly formed Executive, as they have announced this week. In spite of themselves, they seem prepared to make the thing work and to give it a go. Their hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I agree with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) when he stresses the critical importance of decommissioning. I have long argued for a timetable for that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Unionist politicians and their constituents have already gained a great deal and will obtain a great deal more from the Good Friday agreement? There is comparative peace on the streets, a devolved Assembly is waiting to be set up, and, next week, the Dail will irrevocably amend articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. Nationalists in the north now recognise that they must take a leaf out of the Scottish secessionist book by playing the long game. They have everything to gain by going along with the agreement.

Mr. Mandelson

I share my hon. Friend's views. Every person in each community in Northern Ireland stands to gain from the implementation of the Mitchell deal. What Unionists in Northern Ireland can point to as their achievement is the return of self-government, the repeal of the south's territorial claim on the north, the ending of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, republican acceptance that decommissioning is essential and a start to discussions about how and when that decommissioning can take place. Those are considerable gains for Unionists in Northern Ireland. They have been achieved as a result of the tough and tenacious negotiating skill shown by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I hope that these gains will bear heavily on those who will be voting in the Ulster Unionist council on Saturday.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Will the Secretary of State tell the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that, although he may want to change his words, he will not change mine, and that there is a distinct difference between something being a priority and something being the main priority?

Will there be a default mechanism if the Sinn Fein-IRA organisation does not fulfil what the Secretary of State believes to be its commitments? He said that, in those circumstances, the institutions set up under the Belfast agreement would be suspended. Will he tell the House whether he is also prepared to suspend the operation of the Patten commission report and the early release of terrorist prisoners?

Mr. Mandelson

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that it is not only I, on behalf of the British Government, who gave that undertaking about the default mechanism: yesterday in the Dail, the Taoiseach added his words to what I said on Monday. He said that any failure to implement the Good Friday agreement would force the Irish and British Governments to step in and assume their responsibilities, including through appropriate suspension arrangements for institutions set up under the agreement.

The default mechanism could not be clearer, both from me and from the Taoiseach.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

The Secretary of State will be all too aware that policing plays a vital role in the peace process. The Opposition are delighted that the RUC has received the award of a George Cross. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is deserved because of the RUC's courage and even-handed professionalism over the past 30 years of troubles? The RUC has been a thin green line between the Province falling into anarchy and the rule of law.

Mr. Mandelson

I am keen to echo the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I associate that commendation with the Army and the intelligence services in Northern Ireland which, together with the RUC, have maintained security in the Province.

When people look back at my record as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I hope that they will acknowledge not only my desire to honour the RUC's sacrifice and courage, but the fact that I have brought about necessary change and reform with the utmost sensitivity. I hope that they will recognise, too, that, through those reforms, we will have made possible acceptance of policing across communities, which has not been possible for the past 30 years.

Mr. MacKay

The Secretary of State will be aware that we support many of the Patten recommendations, but we share the concerns of those who object to changes in the cap badge insignia and the name of the force. Will the right hon. Gentleman think again about changing the cap badge, which is a uniquely cross-tradition insignia? May I also ask him to find a way of compromising on the name of the force? For instance, it could be the RUC Northern Ireland police service.

Mr. Mandelson

I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am receiving many submissions and undertaking numerous meetings during consultations on the Patten report. As I said, I want people to feel and to acknowledge that, in any changes that we make, we will have decided on them and carried them out with the utmost sensitivity to the very real emotions and feelings of people in both communities in Northern Ireland.