HL Deb 03 July 1991 vol 530 cc997-1006

3.40 p.m.

The Paymaster General (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"The political talks which have been taking place at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, have been brought to a conclusion. I should like to take this opportunity to explain to the House the background to this decision, to describe what has been achieved during those talks and to set out the Government's hopes for the future.

"Honourable members will recall that my Statement to the House on 26th March was accepted as a basis for political talks which would address, as part of the same process, relationships within Northern Ireland, including the relationship between any new institutions there and the Westminster Parliament; among the people of the island of Ireland; and between the two governments. I announced that talks would take place in three strands corresponding to those three main sets of relationships. To allow an opportunity for the wider political dialogue which the four main constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland and the two governments envisaged, the two governments had agreed not to hold a meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference between two pre-specified dates, subsequently confirmed as being 26th April and 16th July. This interval, allowing some time at either end for the Anglo-Irish secretariat to complete the business of servicing one conference and to make preparations to service the next, provided 10 clear weeks for substantive political exchanges. The talks began on 30th April.

"It has become clear that it would not be possible to launch the other strands of the talks and thus to complete the process as a whole before the end of this interval, and that this was beginning to inhibit our ability to make further substantive progress. After consultation with the leaders of the political parties, I concluded that the talks should therefore be brought to an end. I have also been in touch with the Irish Government to recount my conclusion. I should now like to take stock of what has been achieved during the talks and of the further prospects for securing constructive political development in relation to Northern Ireland.

"As the House knows, it did not prove possible to move as rapidly as we had hoped to plenary sessions of the first strand of the talks. A range of new procedural issues had to be resolved. A series of bilateral exchanges succeeded in determining the venues for meetings in the second strand of the talks, arrangements for chairing that strand of discussion, the identity of the chairman and the procedural guidelines which would be observed.

"Plenary sessions started on 17th June. After my opening statement the parties presented their initial position papers, after which the papers were discussed, examined and clarified. Subsequently, during a more intensive schedule of meetings, there was a debate on themes which had emerged from the initial presentations.

"The commitment and seriousness of purpose shown by all the parties in these talks is a source of encouragement for the future. The plenary sessions provided the forum for some significant and constructive exchanges among the parties and with Her Majesty's Government on a range of fundamental issues. The nature of those exchanges served to confirm the judgment involved in initiating the talks process that the time is ripe for political talks in relation to Northern Ireland which address all the relevant relationships; that the process is of value and has potentially even greater value; that a degree of common ground exists; and that there is a good prospect that a comprehensive political accommodation can be reached. I should like to express my appreciation of the commitment shown by all the participants.

"To those who would say 'I told you so—it would never work', I offer the reality of the past few weeks. While I am naturally disappointed at this moment that the current process has to end, foundations have been laid for progress in the future which neither cynics nor the men of violence will be able to undermine.

"For myself, I hope that it will prove possible in due course to have further exchanges with the parties, and with the Irish Government, to explore, initially on a bilateral basis, whether we can establish terms on which fresh discussions could be held."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement which was made in another place. Although the Statement is not a despondent one and although it is not entirely unexpected, it is a cause of sadness for all the people who have longed for peace and reconciliation in the Province. Therefore, one very much regrets that it was necessary for the Secretary of State to bring the political talks to a conclusion. I am sure that there are many lessons to be learnt from the experience of the past 18 months in Northern Ireland, apart from those which are mentioned in the Statement. However, in our view, it would not be helpful today to seek to apportion blame. We have to view the Statement as constructively as we can.

The Statement refers to the Secretary of State having brought the talks to a conclusion. However, no where in the Statement does the Secretary of State use the word "failure". That word carries with it a certain finality, but that is not used in the Statement; indeed, the Statement brings together a number of affirmatives and this has been a source of encouragement for the Secretary of State.

We understand that the talks were terminated because the timetable was too tight, and not because of the nature of the agenda which was presented to the negotiators at the talks. But while we understand the Unionist position on the timetable issue and also fully appreciate the Government's firm commitment to the Anglo-Irish Conference, we would have thought, given the grievous losses suffered in Northern Ireland over the past two decades, that the parties had very little to loose by showing some degree of flexibility and understanding. The fact that it proved impossible to find a formula which would accommodate the two conflicting positions on that issue is most worrying. It suggests that there are still limitations, and possibly mistrust, which have yet to be overcome.

The Statement implies that new bilateral talks will be possible in due course, although there is no promise of such talks. That must depend upon the attitude of the other parties. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government consider that there is a possibility, or a chance, that talks about talks will be resumed this side of the general election?

The Statement, especially in the last paragraph, makes it abundantly clear that the Government are not in the process of abandoning the search for a political solution. We welcome that determination. Perhaps the Minister can also confirm to the House that the events of the past 18 months will strengthen the resolve of both governments to continue to work together to achieve a solution and to safeguard and enhance the interests of Northern Ireland.

The Statement speaks of achievements. Of course, it was a considerable achievement in itself that the leader; of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland were persuaded to come to a conference to discuss the three sets of relationships to which the Minister referred. The Labour Party has made it clear that this is an agenda to which a future Labour Government would be firmly committed.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that we were not in the business of apportioning blame: instead, I want to express our appreciation of the immense efforts which have been made by the present Secretary of State over the past 18 months to reach a settlement and of the many fine qualities which he has brought to the affairs in Northern Ireland. Those factors will be appreciated by people all over the world. At the same time, I wish to congratulate the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland who have shown courage in declaring their willingness to embark upon talks which would embrace all three sets of relationships to which the Minister referred.

It appears to us that the Secretary of State and the leaders of the political parties of Northern Ireland have established a valuable precedent upon which others can build in the future.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State. There is no concealing that this is a major step backwards. It must be deeply disappointing to the Secretary of State after all his efforts, upon which I, like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, should like to express the warmest appreciation from these Benches. It is disappointing for everyone throughout Great Britain and the Irish Republic, but it is especially disappointing for the people of Northern Ireland because they are the losers from the breakdown in the talks.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, that this is not the time for apportioning blame, but there are clearly some Northern Ireland political leaders who are more responsive to their most zealous supporters than they are to the great bulk of public opinion in Northern Ireland. I hope that over the next few weeks the citizens of Northern Ireland, most of whom sincerely want peace and progress and are prepared for power sharing in a devolved government, can make themselves heard and act as a source of pressure, and bring the politicians and parties back to the negotiating table in Northern Ireland. If that could be achieved, the breakdown in the talks, could be used as a constructive pause rather than a disheartening ending of hope.

It took a long time for substantive discussions to get under way because of the delicate negotiations over the process, but it appears from the Statement and reports that, once the parties were engaged in discussions, those discussions were serious and substantive. A basis exists upon which to build. We all know that this is a time of year in Northern Ireland when thoughts of the future tend to be displaced by memories of the past; but the autumn will come, and timing is everything in politics. The times may be out of joint now, but they will not be so for ever, and we must hope that they will not be so for too long.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, it is a disappointment to make the Statement today, but I make it clear that my right honourable friend believes that the process has confirmed his view that there is sufficient common ground among the parties to bring a comprehensive political accommodation within reach. We are therefore naturally looking to the future with some hope. The timetable was mentioned by both noble Lords. While the experience of the last three weeks has shown how much progress can be made in a short time, unfortunately it proved necessary to use much of the 10 weeks discussing the important procedural issues. That was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, was right when he said that we must face the fact that there are important and fundamental issues still to be hammered out. Again, I make it clear to the House that the talks have reaffirmed that all the Northern Ireland parties wish to discuss matters that can he resolved only in talks involving the three strands. Strands Two and Three of course involve, in turn, the Irish Government.

The noble Lord asked whether it would be possible for the talks to be renewed before the general election. While I do not wish in any way to speculate upon when that day may come, at the end of the Statement it is made clear that my right honourable friend believes that he will be able to explore, initially bilaterally, whether terms can be established upon which fresh discussions could be held. That would not be talks about talks, but would be returning to talks. He also asked whether the resolve of both governments to continue to work together in these matters remains firm. My answer to that is yes.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, made one or two points that had the same thrust as those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. He said that public opinion, especially public opinion in Northern Ireland, should be a vital factor in ensuring that we go further down this road. I feel that I can make clear, because I work there, that the widespread support for this process that exists in Northern Ireland has been a very significant factor. That applies to Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and overseas. Both noble Lords generously paid tribute to my right honourable friend, and I believe that that is the feeling in Northern Ireland. We now have to see whether public opinion can have the effect that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, wishes.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is there any way in which the Government can persuade the media to be a little more reticent when they anticipate what they believe will happen in these sensitive matters? The description given by many of the media as to what today's Statement would contain bears no relationship to the Statement itself. It is not helpful to create an atmosphere in which it appears that one side is winning and another is losing. The Statement clearly indicates that this is not, and need not be, the end of the matter; and that some progress has been made. One would not gain that impression from reading many of the reports, and that can be damaging. Could the media be persuaded on the odd occasion to wait for the Statement and not to anticipate it and use their own words to describe what it contains?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has asked that question. An agreed draft press statement has been put out by my right honourable friend. It was agreed by the parties to the talks. The last sentence reads: The Secretary of State made clear his own wish in due course to explore the possibility of finding terms on which fresh discussions could be held". That was a valuable agreed press statement.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I am sorry to hear of the stoppage of the talks. The Secretary of State's patience and diplomacy deserve a successful outcome. He must be praised for his diligence and sterling efforts. The major obstacles to making political progress between North and South remain. The first is the deeply held opposition of the major political parties in the North to the Anglo-Irish agreement, which in their opinion sacrificed to the Republic of Ireland some of the United Kingdom's sovereign rights. The second is their understandable attitude and opposition to the Irish constitution, which lays claim to govern their Province of Northern Ireland.

With that background, your Lordships will no doubt remember that a Statement was made on 26th March in which three conditions were laid down. The first was that we should all seek an alternative to and replacement for the Anglo-Irish agreement. The second was that the Anglo-Irish conference should not meet while the negotiations were going on. Those were two clear conditions. Were not those conditions agreed by all the parties to the negotiations before the Statement of 26th March? If that is so, does the Minister agree that making the Anglo-Irish agreement and its next meeting appear so sacrosanct undoubtedly played a part in halting the talks and suggests that Her Majesty's Government believe the continuation of the Anglo-Irish agreement and the meetings to be more important than the talks that the Secretary of State started?

Although the Secretary of State says that the talks are concluded, I am pleased to note that he is not disappointed; is encouraged to continue in due course; and believes that he has laid some foundations for progress. However, as he well knows, he is coming up against the buffers of a general election, and I believe that that will frustrate further progress.

Finally, these were not peace talks. The Provisional Sinn Fein, the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force were not involved. Any constitutional changes that are agreed by all parties will not halt the Provisional IRA's campaign of terror. Its objective is the smashing of all democratic institutions in the north and, if it succeeds, in the south as well. We must not lead all those people in Northern Ireland or Great Britain into a false sense of hope and security. The terrorists of the Ulster Volunteer Force and particularly of the Provisional IRA still have to be defeated and we must not take our eyes off that objective.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, perhaps I may make absolutely clear the position concerning the meeting on 16th July, the next meeting of the intergovernmental conference. Her Majesty's Government entered into a commitment with the Irish Government to hold a meeting on that date. The decision was announced after the last intergovernmental conference on 26th April and all the participants in the talks understood that it marked the end of the agreed gap during which the talks would take place. The gap was referred to in the Statement in the House on 26th March to which the noble Lord referred. The meeting on 16th July is therefore part of the framework within which it was agreed back in April that the talks should be held. The Government are under an obligation to honour that decision.

I was grateful to the noble Lord for his final remarks. It is a disappointment to have to make this Statement today. The disappointment is for all law abiding people both within and outside Northern Ireland. The key point to hear in mind is the determination of the British Government and the people of Northern Ireland to resist the activities of the terrorists. That determination is as strong now as it has ever been.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I join noble Lords who have thanked the Minister for making the Statement. I very much share the tone and tenor in which the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Holme, presented constructive points concerning reconciliation which looked with some hope to the future.

During the course of the talks, discussions took place on other matters which arose when the question of the talks came before the House. I was pleased and welcomed the non-partisan approach of the House to reason and the constructive points being made that would help and encourage the Secretary of State, Mr. Brooke, and the Minister in what they attempted to achieve.

In this House we all realise, like many in Northern Ireland, the tremendous task that has been undertaken there. The result today is disappointing. It was without surprise that we heard that this announcement was imminent but I am pleased that the Minister has rounded off the report in the Statement today with a message of hope. I totally agree with him that the talks have not been in vain. They have aroused tremendous interest in Northern Ireland as to the basis upon which trust, faith, confidence and accommodation can be formed. Those possibilities will be explored.

There is a general reaction perhaps not always apparent among people in Northern Ireland, and here I agree with the Minister. This is not the time for making a statement apportioning blame or making any similar comment. I believe that I heard the Minister correctly and that he said that all peaceable people. in Northern Ireland would be disappointed and consider themselves the losers in their disappointment and loss after the cessation of the talks. However, I am sure that they will appreciate the end of the Statement which looks forward to talks being resurrected and put on the agenda again with a positive construction.

I end by repeating that like other Members of the House I appreciate the efforts of the Minister. I and other noble Lords know that behind the scenes he has worked in equal partnership with Mr. Brooke in the talks and we warmly appreciate his efforts.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said and particularly for confirming that the Statement of my right honourable friend ends with a message of hope. We now anticipate picking up the threads in due course.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for repeating the Statement and the information that a small degree of progress has been achieved. Does he agree that well before the talks began Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien publicly forecast that because of certain historical and political realities, both north and south of the Border, it was extremely unlikely that the talks would get very far? Once again, he has been proved right. One would never for a moment claim that Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien was infallible, but does the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, agree that Her Majesty's Government would save themselves an enormous amount of time, trouble and expense if they paid rather more attention to his analysis of the Irish situation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the fact of the matter is that Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien does not have to face the absolutely fundamental problem that the way in which Northern Ireland is administered is not satisfactory. It is not satisfactory to have direct rule. From that flowed the attempt by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to try to do something about it. He took soundings of the political parties in Northern Ireland to see whether there was a basis for talks and found that there was. It is fair to say that that judgment has proved to be right.

Without detaining the House unnecessarily, I feel that we have come away with a confirmation that the time is right for political talks in relation to Northern Ireland which address all the relevant relationships. The process is of value and could potentially be of even greater value. A degree of common ground exists.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Statement makes clear that my right honourable friend has achieved a balance among the four political parties which has not broken down. However, it was impossible to further it in the light of another conference under the Anglo-Irish Agreement. We all heard what the noble Lord, Lord Mason, had to say. I hope that it is clearly understood that the United Kingdom believes in obeying both the spirit and the letter of international treaties. A break of 10 weeks in conference meetings was negotiated; that was all the time that was available for talks unless agreement was secured to run them in parallel. That turned out to be impossible.

We have all praised and recognised the achievements of my right honourable friend today. I hope that he will now be able to turn his attention to using the next few conferences as a means of engineering another break so that the constitutional talks in Northern Ireland can be reconvened to the advantage of all people in Northern Ireland. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, said. I hope that my noble friend can give me some comfort in that direction.

Further, like almost all noble Lords who have spoken, both the Minister and my right honourable friend will work to see that no one seeks to cast blame for what I regard as an interregnum. I believe that the last contribution to the short debate was not helpful in that direction.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my noble friend asked whether my right honourable friend will sieze the opportunity for meetings under the Anglo-Irish Agreement intergovernmental conferences to talk about recommencing the talks. I wish to make it clear that the circumstances surrounding any fresh talks would have to be a matter for discussion with all the interested parties. Having said that, I am grateful to my noble friend for his intervention.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, one could easily be tempted to express sentiments on this occasion which would meet with the overwhelming approval of people in this House who have been desperately seeking a solution to the Northern Ireland problem. However, one must speak with honesty and that is what I intend to do within the next few minutes.

The talks have ended; now we wait for recriminations. Never for a single second did I believe that these talks could be successful. I invite all noble Lords present to read what I said during the course of the debate on the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. I said then that the terms and conditions and the way that agreement was constructed made it impossible for any Unionist to take part in talks. The existence of the Anglo-Irish Agreement over these past five years has made it impossible for the Protestant Unionist community to speak in any way to the Catholic community.

These talks began because the representatives of the Protestant Unionist community so detested every single sentence in the Anglo-Irish Agreement that they were prepared to enter into talks which would do away with the agreement, and whip it off the statute book. On the other hand, the SDLP, the Nationalists, and the Irish Government, entered into those talks with the intention of consolidating and reinforcing the existing Anglo-Irish Agreement. So there you have the irresistible force and the immovable object. There was no way that a meeting of minds could take place. One wanted to continue the Anglo-Irish Agreement and one wanted to make certain that it was dead. I have read every single Irish newspaper every day since these talks began and I must say that from the Nationalist point of view there was a great deal of triumphalism —"we have got the Unionists with their backs to the wall". Indeed, an editorial in the Irish Times said: "the Unionists agree with us but we have got the Anglo-Irish Agreement; it is very acceptable to the Government in the Republic, and it is very pleasing to the SDLP in the North." That was the sort of language which inflamed opinions on different sides of the political fence.

The talks have failed. I agree with the sentiments that have been expressed: it is not the end of the road and probably in due course some new path will be taken. Of course, we have all heard of "in due course", and we all know what it means; it means absolutely nothing. No further talks will take place this side of a general election. A statement has been cobbled together which will in some way seek to canonise those who were seeking peace in Northern Ireland. But the fact is that these talks have failed, and no further talks will succeed with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in existence in its present form. While that is there, and while Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution are in existence, there will be no talk of bringing together the two communities in Northern Ireland. Everyone has been giving credit to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; but the luckiest man in this whole process has been the fellow from Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen, who must be thanking God that he has not had to go there.

I have said that the talks are not going to be resurrected this side of a general election. But whatever government is in power after the next election, the Anglo-Irish Agreement in its present form will ensure that there is going to be a continuous divide between the two communities in Northern Ireland.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord, with whom I must say I normally agree—and, no matter whether I agree with him or not, I certainly always respect what he is saying—began his remarks by saying that the talks were pointless. I must point out to the noble Lord that the agreed press statement which was put out this morning says that The Secretary of State and the party leaders agreed that the talks had been valuable and had produced genuine dialogue. The noble Lord then went on to say that anyway the talks had no possible chance of success. He knows better than I that where there are problems which go back for many, many years what is needed, if there is to be a hope of success in beginning to solve them, is perseverance. We must now see whether the political parties who have been involved in the talks are prepared to persevere.

Finally, perhaps I may say this. When the noble Lord referred to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and to Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution of the south, I apprehend that these are matters which did not form part of the discussions in the first strand because they would have been discussed in the subsequent strands. We have a situation where we have concluded the talks with the first strand still unfinished. The Statement made by my right honourable friend today makes one thing crystal clear: he believes that there is the possibility of a political accommodation if we persevere, and I am sure that the noble Lord wants that as much as Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, may I put one short point to my noble friend? It is this. He will perhaps remember that I was not uncritical of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in its present form for precisely the reasons that have been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. But for the first time in our history as a nation, we are faced with a land frontier which is difficult to police and which is threatened on both sides with terrorism. Would he not therefore agree that some form of agreement by which we can mitigate the results of that is inevitable with the South? That is something which ought to be universally accepted both on this side of the water and on the other side.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am most grateful for the intervention from my noble and learned friend. This would have been a matter which we could have come to, and still can come to, if there can be perseverance. One of the major features of the talks that have taken place has been the resilience in the face of terrorist attacks, together with determination by the parties not to be diverted from a dialogue.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am sorry, but the 20 minutes is up.