HL Deb 16 June 1980 vol 410 cc828-35

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I shall make a Statement on the New Hebrides. On 11th June, following the shooting of a prominent Opposition Deputy during a demonstration on the island of Tanna, the New Hebrides Government asked the two Resident Commissioners to recommend to their Governments the despatch of British and French forces to the New Hebrides. This request was made during the course of a Cabinet meeting, and both Resident Commissioners agreed to make such a recommendation to their respective Governments.

The Chief Minister's understanding of their agreement was later confirmed in writing. It was in response to this joint recommendation that the French decided to send some gendarmes from New Caledonia. They informed us of this decision. It was also in response to the joint recommendation and to match French action that we decided to send a contingent of the Royal Marines, in order that we might be in a position to act jointly, should the need arise, with the French gendarmes. We informed the French of this decision.

On 12th June, the French Government decided to withdraw their gendarmes from the New Hebrides, and did so that day. On 15th June, the French Resident Commissioner made a formal protest to the British Resident Commissioner about the despatch of the Royal Marines. In deploying our troops in Vila, we are not only demonstrating our willingness to live up to our obligations, but we are satisfied that we are acting in accordance with the 1914 Protocol which governs the joint administration in the Condominium.

My honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is seeking an early meeting with M. Dijoud, the responsible French Minister, in order that we may clarify our joint approach to the problems in the New Hebrides. Meanwhile, it remains the intention of Her Majesty's Government to do all in our power to promote a peaceful solution to the problem, to support the democratically elected Government and to safeguard the integrity of the New Hebrides.

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for making that Statement and, I think, generally in support of the attitude that the Statement projects. I myself must confess—and I am not the only one—to a certain sense of astonishment as to the French reaction, particularly in the last two or three days. Here we have two friends and allies of long standing, who have been co-operating with considerable success in a difficult situation in the condominial control and government of a dependency, and, after nearly three years of progressive consultation, in which I myself was very glad to take part at one time, reaching a constitutional position of agreement with all the represent- ative bodies in the New Hebrides—that is, representative in the democratically elected sense—both francophone and anglophone, as to the timetable for an orderly and constitutional move into independence.

That was done to the great credit of both Governments, French and British, with the full agreement of Ministers on both sides. Unfortunately, certain elements attempted to disturb the integrity of the new state and, clearly, under the 1914 Protocol, and most certainly under the recent agreement of 3rd June last, which the two Ministers signed, such a situation obliged both condominial partners to take whatever steps were necessary: first, by seeking a peaceful solution; and, secondly, by putting into effect police action, if that was necessary. Indeed, it was the French Government that took the initiative. They were in a better position, territorially, to send some 55 gendarmes into the New Hebrides. They began it, by agreement with us. We followed suit, playing our part. At that point, it seems that our other partner withdrew their own contribution and have formally protested to us because we played our part.

There is a sense of mystification and of acute concern on two points: first, that there should be this sudden lack of agreement between the two partners after coming to the point of agreeing to the constitutional move forward to independence and the dates agreed for it—that is a serious matter indeed; secondly, that the situation should, because of that lack of co-operation at this late stage, not only exacerbate the dangers in the New Hebrides themselves, but, as I said earlier, perhaps encourage other movements, although we hope not, in the many other island states in the Pacific. And the Pacific is full of them. The best efforts of the British Government, whatever Government have been in power, have been exerted in order to hand over such archipelagic territories to independence with their territorial integrity assured, and we have succeeded very well indeed. It would be a very great pity if the New Hebrides not only itself underwent a process of breaking apart but also, by so doing, perhaps set on foot other equally disastrous movements in other parts of the Pacific.

Knowing a little about this matter, I can only say that I share the mystification of the Government. I am sure that we on this side of the House will wish to support the noble Lord in every effort he makes now to restructure—I think that is the appropriate word—Anglo-French co-operation so that the New Hebrides can speedily return to course; namely, the movement, on a constitutional and democratic basis, to full independence on the due agreed date.


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary for making this Statement this afternoon. When a Statement on this matter was repeated in the House on Friday of last week I asked for an assurance that the British and the French were in agreement on how to deal with the situation. The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, was reassuring. He said that the British and the French were in the closest touch, and in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, he said that that meant in the closest agreement. Yet events over the weekend, as the Statement has made clear, have shown that the concern expressed in this House on Friday was justified. It became clear that the French did not agree with the dispatch of the Royal Marine Commandos and that the withdrawal of the 55 gendarmes was not purely coincidental.

On behalf of those of us on these Benches, I should like to assure the noble Lord that we fully support the Government in upholding the democratically elected Government of the territory in urgently seeking agreement with the French Government—whose policies, as the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, has said, are not easy to understand—and in seeking to secure a peaceful settlement. There is one question which I should like to ask the noble Lord: will the Royal Marine Commandos have any special, immediate, and visible role, such as guarding public buildings, or will they merely be held in reserve?


My Lords, condominium is a very odd form of government. Any of your Lordships who have been to the New Hebrides, as I have been, will realise what difficulties it imposes and places upon those who live in the New Hebrides and those who are trying to govern. There have inevitably been difficulties over the past years because of that form of government. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, has said, as a result of an agreement between the British and the French Governments there is agreement on a constitution, and an election took place recently which was supervised by the United Nations and which was declared by them to be free and fair. I am glad to say that the French Government recognise that. M. Dijoud told me when I saw him in London last week that the French Government did accept that these elections were free and fair—and the outcome of them. The French Government have also accepted that independence should take place on 30th July.

I think that after that agreement it would be a great pity if we did not proceed along the lines that we had always said we would. It will not be the fault of Her Majesty's Government if we cannot get agreement on this, because we intend to work with our French partners to get acceptance of the outcome of the election and to get independence on the date that we have already announced.

With regard to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, the purpose of sending the Royal Marines was obviously to create stability in the islands and to provide reassurance. The job that they will do will be decided jointly between the Government of the New Hebrides and the French and the British Resident Commissioners.


My Lords, the House was informed last week that this particular matter was under discussion between the Prime Minister and the President of France at the Venice meeting. Was there any indication during that discussion that the reaction of the French would take this extraordinary form?


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister did discuss this matter briefly with the French President and they agreed that they would remain in the closest touch over the handling of the problem.


My Lords, in view of the very serious situation, may I ask the Minister whether he will immediately negotiate with the Foreign Secretary in France in order to reach a solution to this problem?


My Lords, there is a problem about that: it is that my French opposite number is not responsible for this problem. M. Dijoud is the Minister concerned. As I understand it, he works in the home department, so my opposite number is not concerned with the problem. Therefore, I do not think that there is much point in my meeting him. And I do not, frankly, think that there would be much point in my right honourable friend the Home Secretary meeting his opposite number in the home department in France! For the time being, at any rate, I think it would be better if Mr. Maker and M. Dijoud continued to meet.


My Lords, as one who has tried to negotiate with the French both in Europe and in the New Hebrides, is the noble Lord aware that he has my sympathy? Will he ensure that they are not permitted to use the arrangement which brought the condominium into existence to allow their colonists in the New Hebrides to get away with activities which are utterly unlawful and which could not stand the test of the democratic approach—because, quite obviously, they are now trying to undermine the authority of a democratically elected Government?


My Lords, as I said earlier in response to a question, I think from the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, M. Dijoud, when I saw him in London last week, specifically said that the French Government accepted the outcome of the elections.


My Lords, the French were joint signatories with us, and others, of the constitution which fully guarantees the interests—linguistic, commercial and others—of the francophone minority in the islands. May I add to my noble friend's question this one: is the noble Lord aware that we entirely agree that the negotiations, which I gather have now been resumed between our own Minister of State and the Minister for Foreign Territories—I believe the term is territoires étrangers—constitute the right forum in this case and feel that if an attempt is agreed between them to solve the difficulties on Espiritu Santo and on Tanna by peaceful means, through negotiation, all well and good? But would the noble Lord accept under advisement the need to say to our partners that, if such a final attempt at a peacefully negotiated solution fails, then we do expect that our partners will once more join with us in taking the steps necessary to sustain the authority of the properly elected Government of the New Hebrides and to make certain that that territory moves into independence on the due date in a constitutional and ordered manner?


My Lords, although I confess that I have been rather puzzled by some of the things that have happened in these last two or three days, I have no reason to suppose that the French Government would not agree entirely with what the noble Lord opposite has said.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary can clarify one aspect of his Statement. On Friday in his absence his noble friend Lord Trefgarne, in answer to a question from me, assured the House that the marines who were being sent were to give full support to the democratically elected Government and its chief Ministers. This presumably would include the suppression of any rebellion against that democratically elected Government, and yet it is reported that the French have a veto on the movement of those marines once they arrive in the New Hebrides. Can the noble Lord clear this up?


My Lords, I think that the legal position because of this condominium is a little obscure. But I myself can conceive of no circumstances in which there was need to maintain order or to safeguard the welfare of the population in which the French should not agree to the use of our troops.


My Lords, are not the developments of the last two days so damaging to more than Anglo-French relations that some attempt ought to be made at direct communication with President Giscard d'Estaing about this scandalous state of affairs?


My Lords, there appear to have been some misunderstand- ings. I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the President of France had a meeting about this on Friday, and I hope very much that these misunderstandings will now be cleared up.

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