HC Deb 11 February 2004 vol 417 cc1396-8
2. Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)

If he will make a statement on the review of the Belfast agreement. [153156]

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

The review of the operation of the agreement formally began, as the hon. Gentleman knows, in Belfast last Tuesday, and it has continued this week. It involves all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as the British and Irish Governments. Several parties, including the hon. Gentleman's own, have put forward interesting proposals, which we welcome. We have proposed an indicative calendar for intensive discussion between now and Easter across the range of issues that parties wish to raise.

Mr. Campbell

Does the Secretary of State agree that it will be absolutely essential at the conclusion of the negotiations that each section of the community in Northern Ireland has confidence that its rights, culture, identity and future employment prospects are safeguarded, bearing in mind the Unionist community's concerns about the 1998 model?

Mr. Murphy

I agree that, clearly, the agreement and its review must achieve confidence in all parts of the community. That includes nationalists, republicans, loyalists and Unionists, and, indeed, those who do not describe themselves as anything. The fundamental purpose of the Good Friday agreement was to ensure parity of esteem between people in Northern Ireland, from different communities and with different ways, who felt aggrieved over the years about what had happened to them in their communities. Clearly, it is important to give the confidence for which the hon. Gentleman asks. I believe that the discussions in Belfast over the next few weeks will need to concentrate heavily on building confidence across the board.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP)

Will the Secretary of State reaffirm the Government's attitude and policy that the review is about the workings of the agreement, and not about the fundamental principles established and agreed to not only by the parties that participated in it, but by referendums, north and south, in Ireland? Will he confirm that it will be essential for a successful conclusion that all parties participating and agreeing will eventually participate in all strands—strands 1, 2, and 3? Documentation from the party of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) deals only with strand 1. Will the Secretary of State say what is happening at the moment to the functioning of strand 2, which deals with north-south relationships?

Mr. Murphy

Yes, the Government still take the view that the Good Friday agreement is the basis on which progress can be made. We know that the agreement covers fundamental matters such as the principle of consent, power sharing between parties, parity of esteem, which I have mentioned, and proper arrangements both north and south on the island of Ireland. All those things must be discussed and agreed in, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, a review of the operation of the agreement. There are inevitably differing views on the fundamentals of the agreement, but I believe that I have covered them. There are certainly differing views on the details of the operation of the agreement, and the discussions, reviews and negotiations are about trying to agree a compromise between nationalists and Unionists.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

The Secretary of State will recall that the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in October 2002. At that time, the Government said that the Assembly would not resume until republicans had clearly completed the transition from paramilitarism to exclusively peaceful means. Is that still their position, and if it is, what steps are they taking to pressure republicans to complete that transition or are they addressing that issue, as others, in a purely passive way?

Mr. Murphy

No. The right hon. Gentleman is of course right that the Assembly was suspended in 2002 because of the collapse of confidence among politicians in Northern Ireland. He rightly emphasises the fact that paramilitary activity, as defined in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, was the reason why confidence collapsed. Both Governments take the view that we must resolve the issue, which is an important function of the review. Not only Governments but parties too must play their part in ensuring that paramilitary activity and violence are both things of the past.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend rightly spoke about the need for confidence, but part of that is confidence in the good will of Her Majesty's Government. It is more than four months since the Government received the Cory report, and the Republic of Ireland Government have issued their two statements. There is a general feeling that the security forces are attempting to sanitise the report by Judge Cory and that they will deal with it in the same way as they tried to protract matters before the Saville inquiry. Can he give an undertaking to the House that the Government will publish the reports before the projected judicial review takes place? The courts have said that the Government have a case to answer in the Finucane family's case for not publishing them.

Mr. Murphy

I assure my hon. Friend that there is no question of trying to suppress the Cory report, which we hope to publish fairly soon. He knows that there are difficulties regarding the protection of individuals who might be named in those four reports, which is obviously a matter of safety and privacy, but there are other legal reasons that we must examine carefully. However, he may rest assured that the Government intend to publish the report.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con)

May I press the Secretary of State on the fundamentals of the agreement, and in particular the extent to which he sees power sharing as fundamental? If the Independent Monitoring Commission reports to him later this year that one or more parties in Northern Ireland have failed to comply with their commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and failed to break their links with paramilitarism, would the Government be prepared to take the necessary action to exclude such a party from participation in government in the way in which the Taoiseach has said that it would be his policy south of the border?

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Act that set up the Independent Monitoring Commission is clear about the process that must be followed. If the Assembly were up and running—I hope that it will be—it would have a role to play in the process, too. If the Assembly failed to agree on a method to deal with that situation, it would come before me. I cannot comment on what has not yet been reported, but the mechanisms for doing so are clear.