HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc424-8
2. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

What progress is being made towards devolution in Northern Ireland. [92970]

3. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If he will make a statement on progress with the Belfast agreement. [92971]

4. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

If he will make a statement on the setting up of the Northern Ireland Executive. [92972]

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

The parties are currently engaged with Senator Mitchell in a review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The review's aim is to reach an agreed basis for establishing an inclusive Executive and securing the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000. The agreement is crucial for the future of peace and stability. I would urge the parties to use this opportunity to deliver its full benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.

Judy Mallaber

May I welcome my right hon. Friend to his first Northern Ireland questions and wish him well in his work to further the peace process? Does he agree that there is no alternative to the Good Friday agreement, which has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, north and south? Will he join me in encouraging all those taking part in Senator Mitchell's review to show the courage and flexibility to bring it to a successful conclusion?

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. May I say at the outset that, whatever I am able to achieve as Secretary of State for Ireland—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]— for Northern Ireland, I shall be doing so on the basis of a tremendous legacy, which I have inherited from my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam). Were it not for her, we would not have this ceasefire or the Good Friday agreement. Northern Ireland would be a less friendly place were it not for her contribution while she was in office.

It is absolutely essential for the Good Friday agreement to work. There is no alternative to that agreement; there is no plan B, should it fail. If it were to fail, I have no doubt that what would follow would be a collapse of the ceasefires and renewed violent confrontation. I pay tribute to Senator Mitchell and all those from Northern Ireland parties who are currently involved in the discussions, which are taking place as we meet this afternoon. I trust that all Members of this House will acknowledge the magnitude and importance of that work, and will give those parties their unequivocal support.

Mr. Winnick

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his position and echo exactly what he said—and rightly so—about his predecessor and her immense contribution to trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it will be a tragedy for both communities in Northern Ireland if no progress is made in implementing the agreement? Will he give a clear pledge today that, whatever happens, there will continue to be close working co-operation between the two Governments, British and Irish, at both ministerial and senior civil service level?

Mr. Mandelson

Yes, I can give that undertaking to my hon. Friend. I readily acknowledge the work that is done by him and his colleagues on the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which makes a valuable contribution to the close working relations between ourselves and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. Those will be maintained.

I entirely echo my hon. Friend's earlier remarks. In Northern Ireland, nationalists and republicans are rightly looking to the early implementation of the power-sharing Executive. Unionists, on the other hand, are looking for unequivocal evidence that republican violence is ended for good. Each party is entitled to what it wants. They need each other to make that possible; both aims need to be fulfilled. There must, therefore, be considerable give and take, and I hope that from the talks taking place this week will emerge the necessary clarity, but also the certainty, that each side needs in order to make the progress that we want to see.

Shona McIsaac

Does my right hon. Friend believe that the quality of life in Northern Ireland is now far better than it has been for a generation? Do we not have the best chance for a stable future that we have had for the past 30 years, with, for example, the ceasefires holding over the summer, the parades passing off without too much trouble and, importantly, 20 out of 26 councils having some form of power sharing? Will he impress on all the parties involved in Northern Ireland that they should not lose sight of those achievements in the current wranglings over the agreement and the setting up of the Executive?

Mr. Mandelson

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It really is difficult to overestimate how much progress Northern Ireland has made during the 1990s. A decade ago, 80 to 100 people were being killed each year in Northern Ireland. Violence was a daily reality, politics were in a stalemate and there was little or no dialogue between the parties. Today, the picture is very different indeed. That is due to the enormous efforts of representatives drawn from each party, but due more than anything else to the overwhelming demand and desire for peace that is expressed by those in all communities. It behoves politicians of all parties to listen to the public in Northern Ireland and to ensure that they deliver to those people the unbreakable peace that they need for their future happiness and prosperity.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box in his new role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I assure him that my colleagues and I will do all that we can to assist him and others to bring about the full implementation of all aspects of the Belfast agreement. Does the Secretary of State recall that only last Saturday, our party conference once again committed itself to a fully inclusive Executive, so there can be no doubt of our commitment on that? However, we require at the same time clear evidence of irreversible commitment to peaceful means. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about the need for clarity and certainty. We are not interested in a fudge; we are interested in what will work.

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and his welcome. I look forward to working closely with him and all his colleagues in the months and years ahead. It is entirely reasonable that he and members of his community should demand and receive that reassurance and certainty of intention, which it is an obligation on those in the republican movement to give him and the people he represents if we are going to make the progress in the implementation of the Good Friday agreement that we want. The key to peace is persuading republicans and other paramilitaries to engage exclusively in democratic politics and to renounce violence now and for ever. They have come a long way. They are still travelling in the right direction, but many have not yet completed their journey. We look forward with some certainty and clarity to those people setting out exactly how they are going to arrive at the end of that journey so that peace can be secured for ever.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does the new Secretary of State accept that we will support him in his endeavours to implement the Belfast agreement in full, which will hopefully one day bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland? Will he further accept that, as the Opposition, we have a constitutional duty to speak out where we feel it necessary? We cannot give him a blank cheque—unlike the previous Paymaster General.

Mr. Mandelson

As it happens, the cheque was not blank and I am glad to say that it has now been repaid with interest, but I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I hope that with a new Secretary of State in place, it is possible to make a fresh start and to return to the bipartisan spirit that has always characterised relations between the parties on Ireland. If that is the case, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will reciprocate. That unity of purpose between the parties is more important than ever now, as we move into the critical phase of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, and I look forward to a constructive relationship with the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Mr. MacKay

May I move on to another aspect of the Belfast agreement and ask the Secretary of State about the Patten commission report on policing in the Province? Clearly, the overwhelming number of recommendations should be implemented very quickly and are straightforward, but he will be aware that some of them are security sensitive. Surely it would be wrong to implement those recommendations until there is an end to violence for good. Can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that those that are security sensitive will not be implemented until there is a lasting peace?

Mr. Mandelson

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that while I am Secretary of State, I and my colleagues will always act in the best interests of the security of Northern Ireland and on the basis of the security advice that we receive from those who are our professional advisers. The Patten report is an honest and a good report, and I very much want to hear everyone's views on it.

I should like to take this opportunity to refer to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I honour those in Northern Ireland who have taken so much and have sacrificed so much in the course of their duties to protect all the people of Northern Ireland. They deserve our gratitude and from me they will get it unstintingly. Our job is to develop a police service in Northern Ireland that builds on the best traditions of the RUC—its integrity, its courage and its discipline—but a service, too, that all communities in Northern Ireland can identify with and feel protected by. It is that goal by which I shall be guided throughout.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I should also like to welcome the right hon. Gentleman on what turns out to be national stress-free week. I have no doubt that he will enjoy his new role every bit as much as his predecessor did. The document "The Way Forward" put together by the two Governments in July indicated that we might expect a report from General de Chastelain around September. I am just wondering whether there is any sign of that report.

Mr. Mandelson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I had not noticed that it was national stress-free week so far, but it is only Wednesday. The decommissioning report to which he refers would, of course, have flowed from the implementation of the "Way Forward" proposals, had they been accepted by the parties. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I had a long and constructive discussion with General John de Chastelain and his colleagues last week. I am pleased to say that they stand ready to assist Senator Mitchell and any outcome of the review that is taking place this week. I suspect that, should those talks go well, we shall have every reason to call on their services.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Might I remind my right hon. Friend that the Equality Commission has an important role to play vis-a-vis the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, but may I point out that the commission is distressingly under-resourced in terms of staff and office accommodation? I hope that he and his Ministers will do something about that.

Mr. Mandelson

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am grateful to him for referring to the immensely important role of the Equality Commission. I shall certainly be listening to the representations that they have already made about what they consider to be a shortage of resources and staff in carrying out their job. They are building up their work and operation, and they will certainly receive every encouragement from me in the months and years to come.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

I am sure that all of us wish the new Secretary of State well as he sets out on his daunting task. Does he recall that the Prime Minister sold the Good Friday agreement, in the summer after it had been reached, when he went to address the people of Northern Ireland before the referendum, on the basis that he would guarantee parallel movement towards full implementation? Is he aware that there has been no parallel movement, and will he make it his first task, as he sets out on this job, to insist that there is?

Mr. Mandelson

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to stress the important dimension that the terms and conditions of the Good Friday agreement must go forward together and must be taken forward by all the parties in unison. I attach enormous importance to that. But the reason there has not been parallel movement is the reason the Good Friday agreement is not being implemented at the moment, which is what Senator Mitchell is addressing during the talks this week. I remain hopeful that a proper agreement and sequencing of those steps forward, which accommodate the goals of devolution and decommissioning, can go forward hand in hand, because I have no doubt that if they do not do so, we will not have the implementation of the agreement that we want.