HC Deb 30 June 2004 vol 423 cc270-1
5. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)

What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for the reinstatement of devolved government in Northern Ireland. [180484]

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

As the Prime Minister said on Friday, it is time to complete the negotiations with a conclusive agreement or find another way forward. The Prime Minister made it clear that there will be intensive talks in early September. Our position is clear—we need to see an end now to all forms of paramilitary activity, and it is imperative that we restore as soon as possible a stable and inclusive partnership government in Northern Ireland.

Helen Jackson

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. When we were in Northern Ireland recently, it was trade unions, business and community organisations that urged us most strongly towards an early reinstatement of devolution in Northern Ireland. That was not a criticism of him or his fellow Ministers but a desire for an early return to normality. What chance has he had to discuss the issue closely with those organisations, to enable them to make their voices heard?

Mr. Murphy

My hon. Friend is right. Last week, I talked to the Irish TUC, its general secretary and president, and to the CBI and other business leaders. It is important that civil society in Northern Ireland recognise the accessibility of devolution and local administration. We want a swift end to the present situation of direct rule and the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive. It is also worth reminding the House that all political parties in Northern Ireland also want an end to direct rule and the restoration of devolution as soon as possible.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

I welcome the fact that the Government are finally planning in the autumn to have a series of intensive discussions, which, unfortunately, are much postponed. Will the Secretary of State make it clear, however, that that is not just yet another target but that it really is a deadline, and that the Government will stick to this—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Perhaps we could have some quiet in the Chamber.

Mr. Trimble

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Will the Secretary of State make it clear that this really is a deadline and not just another disposable target, and that if the deadline is not met, there will be firm action by the Government to make it clear to the parties that have been dragging their feet over the past couple of years that the Government will move on, close down the Assembly and put in place alternative arrangements?

Mr. Murphy

I understand that there are other attractions besides me in the Chamber this morning. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said on Friday that these talks in September must decide the issues that are in front of us. We cannot go on for ever in this way. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), who said rightly that there is an appetite for devolution in Northern Ireland to return, we understand the issues that must be dealt with when we return in September. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we must decide them then.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

As one whose head feels even more naked than usual today, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he was as intrigued as I was to read in this morning's paper that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) has stated that the Democratic Unionist party will enter into talks with Sinn Fein towards a devolved government when Tim Henman wins the men's singles at Wimbledon? May I ask my right hon. Friend, whose skills and abilities are widely respected in this House, whether he can offer us any hope that this happy event may come about? While we are cheered that at least the DUP is talking about talking about talks, we may, at the end of the day, yet again be cheated by the Swiss.

Mr. Murphy

I have always believed that international involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process is important, but that is a rather roundabout way of getting to it.

As my hon. Friend says, the parties must engage with each other in the talks. I believe that the DUP is serious in wanting an end to direct rule and the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive; but like other parties in Northern Ireland, it wants an end to paramilitary activity first.