HC Deb 09 January 2002 vol 377 cc526-7
2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

If he will make a statement on his role in relation to the British-Irish Council. [23443]

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State(Mr. John Prescott)

I carry ministerial responsibility for the British-Irish Council and deputise for the Prime Minister at summit meetings when he is not able to attend.

Mr. Amess

Why, before the Belfast agreement had been implemented, did the Government start making concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA—concessions that were not required and have not been reciprocated—in terms of special arrangements for their Members of Parliament to have offices in the House and an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State

Those matters have been addressed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the House has been informed of the Government's position. It did not affect the decisions at the summit meetings.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The British-Irish Council is an executive body, but there is a de facto shadow parliamentary body: the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. Unfortunately, Ulster Unionists will not attend its meetings because they see it as having come out of the Anglo-Irish agreement. Would not it be a good idea to move towards establishing it as a parliamentary wing of the British-Irish Council under the provisions of the Belfast agreement? Ulster Unionists could then join without a problem.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State

My hon. Friend has expressed that view on a number of occasions. I personally take the view that the British-Irish Council is the best way to deal with those difficulties in Northern Ireland. That is the Government's position, and it is what we intend to do.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for what he has said on this important topic. May I remind him that, as the Prime Minister and many other Ministers on all sides have rightly said, the Belfast agreement must be seen to be operating in all its particulars simultaneously? He will know that it was envisaged that the Council of the Isles would meet twice a year at summit level, but it has not yet been possible for it to do so. Is his aim and hope that it will meet twice at summit level this year?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. It was the intention, as originally set out in the agreement, to meet twice a year. There have been certain difficulties: one of the meetings was cancelled because it would have taken place on the day of the sad death of the First Minister in Scotland. Of course, the difficulties of the discussions in Northern Ireland also meant that we could not hold the council meeting. It is our intention to hold meetings twice a year; the next meeting will be held in Jersey.