HC Deb 27 November 2002 vol 395 cc299-301
2. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

What the preconditions are for the ending of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and if he will make a statement. [81600]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The devolved institutions can operate only if there is trust that all parties to the Belfast agreement are committed to fulfilling their obligations, including the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. Rebuilding trust was a key focus of the talks at Parliament buildings last Thursday. We are urgently seeking with the Irish Government and the parties in Northern Ireland the basis on which that trust can be restored.

Simon Hughes

The House will accept entirely the premise that the Secretary of State set out. Does he agree that it would therefore be timely for the Government to initiate in this context a complete review of the Good Friday agreement as provided for under paragraph 8 of the agreement? Does he accept that, to see a good way forward, one has to predict all the foreseeable difficulties, and they must include how Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are designated? That was a major stumbling block a year ago.

Mr. Murphy

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we will conduct the review under paragraph 7 of the agreement. That review gives all parties in the Assembly—those that choose to turn up to the meetings in Parliament buildings, such as the one that we held last week and that we will hold tomorrow—the opportunity to put their cards on the table and to make the points that they want to make.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to designation. He will know that his colleagues in the Alliance party raised this issue last week. Of course, it is important that all of us get round the table, talk about the issues and resolve the current impasse.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Given that for the first time in history the people of Ireland, north and south, have overwhelmingly, by voting for the agreement, stated how they wish to live together, it is therefore the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people. That sends a message to certain people on both sides. It sends a message to the paramilitaries such as the IRA, which since its foundation has always said that it is acting in the name of the Irish people. If it is now truly acting in the name of the Irish people, it should not only cease the violence but cease its existence as an organisation. It also sends a message to certain people—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is a supplementary question. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to continue. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must sit down. Will the Secretary of State reply?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is right in terms of the fact that the people of Ireland, north and south, agreed to the Belfast agreement in a referendum after the Good Friday agreement was signed. Some 90 per cent. of the people of the island of Ireland and 70 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland agreed with it. That means—I am sure that he agrees with this—that there is an onus on everyone in Northern Ireland to understand that the only way that we can achieve progress is to do what the people of Ireland have voted upon.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

In recalling the circumstances that led to the suspension, I am sure that the Secretary of State has seen the statement by the police in Northern Ireland that the criminal conspiracy that they uncovered went to the very heart of the republican movement. Their inquiries are continuing. In the light of that, would it not be wise to wait until we have seen the full extent of that conspiracy and who was involved in it? Should we therefore not wait until the inquiries have been completed? While doing that, would it not also be wise to have a thorough public inquiry into how the Northern Ireland Office conducted itself while the spy ring was operating in its own offices?

Mr. Murphy

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that a thorough investigation is being undertaken by the security services as to why these events took place. He is also right to remind the House that this series of events finally led to the loss of confidence and trust between the parties in Stormont and to the suspension of the Assembly. It is important to discuss these issues in the political context. I am sure that that will happen tomorrow; it certainly happened last week.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if it is not possible for the Assembly to be reinstated immediately or in the near future, the proposed elections to it will go ahead next year as planned?

Mr. Murphy

We have no plans to change the dates of the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, set for 1 May next year. I sincerely hope, as I am sure every hon.. Member does, that we resolve the difficulties before then.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Does the right hon. Gentleman's less than precise first answer to the question—I am putting it kindly—mean that the completion of decommissioning and disbandment will be a precondition for Sinn Fein resuming its place in a revived power-sharing Executive?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that is a precondition in the sense that, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, republicans must make the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, real, total and permanent". My right hon. Friend went on to say: We cannot carry on with the IRA half in and half out of this process. That is clear to me. Those issues will be discussed at the beginning of the meeting tomorrow in Belfast and doubtless they will be at the heart of discussions in meetings to come.

Mr. Davies

I am grateful for the clear assurance at the beginning of that answer. It is enormously important. To put minds at rest in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, will the right hon. Gentleman give another assurance? He has made it clear in his handling of the police Bill that he has gone some way to understanding the error of unilateral concessions and the importance of linkage and of enforcing compliance. Will he therefore deny the rumour in the Northern Ireland press yesterday that the Government are again contemplating an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman knows that those issues were discussed at Weston Park. We all know that those issues are particularly painful to victims in Northern Ireland on both sides of the community. I repeat what I said: as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear, the Government will only contemplate steps on all issues, including the ones to which the hon. Gentleman referred, in the context of acts of completion.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)

Despite the tortuous nature of current negotiations on police reform and the peace process, will my right hon. Friend commend the words and actions of all those politicians who are working towards peace? Will he also commend the words of Martin Luther King: Peace is not merely a distant goal…but a means by which we arrive at that goal"?

Mr. Murphy

Of course I echo my hon. Friend's eloquent comments. When I recently took on this job after an absence of three years, I was struck by the fact that the streets of Belfast and Northern Ireland are still very peaceful by comparison with the situation a decade ago. We cannot take for granted the progress that has been made, but we understand that much still needs to be done.