HC Deb 21 June 2000 vol 352 cc327-9
5. Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

If he will make a statement on the progress being made on the British-Irish Council. [125480]

7. Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

If he will make a statement on the progress being made on the British-Irish Council. [125482]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)

The next summit meeting of the British-Irish Council is likely to be held after the summer. At its inaugural summit in December, the members of the council agreed an important and wide-ranging work programme covering subjects such as transport, drugs and the environment. These are being taken forward by each of the participating Administrations. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Before we proceed, the House must come to order. Conversations are much too noisy and the Minister can barely make himself heard.

Mrs. Fyfe

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work done over the past 10 years by the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which has worked behind the scenes to promote understanding between our two islands? Does he agree that the British-Irish Council could profit from that experience?

Mr. Howarth

Like all institutions, the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, and all the other bodies associated with it, has been important in maintaining dialogue and bringing people together to discuss issues of common interest in a period when that would not otherwise have been possible. I share my hon. Friend's sentiments—the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body has been important in creating space and opportunities that would not otherwise have existed.

Mr. Benn

What distinct contribution does my hon. Friend think the council has to make to taking forward the peace process in Northern Ireland? In view of the answer that he has just given, could he build on those parliamentary links by including Assembly Members from across the British Isles as a way of demonstrating that the political process is now working?

Mr. Howarth

As my hon. Friend implies, the process has the capacity to develop and to go in new directions. However, I think that the council's important contribution is to look at areas of policy in which there is a common interest—not just issues of security and political development but health, for example—and consider how they can be taken forward. The problems of the past in Northern Ireland were of a divided society and two divided communities. The future must be in finding ways forward, not in looking back.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

When the British-Irish Council next meets, will the Minister use his best efforts to persuade it to make representations to the Irish Government to appoint a High Court inspector to investigate the operation of International Investments Ltd. in Dublin and its Irish subsidiaries, which resulted in more than £7 million being lost by British and Irish investors? Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that the failure of successive Governments to appoint a High Court inspector suggests that there may have been a cover-up, and that if such a decision is made, even at this late stage, it could be a confidence-building measure?

Mr. Howarth

I think that the hon. Gentleman will, on reflection, accept that that is not an appropriate matter for the Government to raise at the British-Irish Council. If, however, he believes that it is a matter of importance to Northern Ireland, it is open to the First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), to use the opportunity that the British-Irish Council creates to raise it.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Minister confirm whether the next meeting of the British-Irish Council will consider policing in Northern Ireland, particularly the issue of future policing meeting the requirements of the European convention on human rights?

Mr. Howarth

The Patten proposals are being considered in Committee under the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, and there is a declaration on the front of the Bill, as there is on all legislation, that it is compatible with the European convention on human rights. In general terms, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, there is a great deal of scope for co-operation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on policing. We take those opportunities seriously. We also recognise that it creates a better environment in which to police not only terrorism but some of the problems associated with smuggling across the border.