HL Deb 11 November 1992 vol 540 cc219-27

5.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran)

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

"These talks were built on those which were held last year. Like them, they took as ground rules my predecessor's statement to this House on 26th March 1991. The first strand of these new talks began in Belfast under my predecessor's chairmanship on 9th March this year and resumed on 29th April under my chairmanship to consider political arrangements within Northern Ireland itself.

"By the beginning of July I thought it appropriate to propose that the other two strands be launched. Accordingly, on 6th July, the second strand, involving both the Irish and British governments and concerning relationships in the whole island of Ireland was commenced. We met initially in London and subsequently in Belfast and Dublin. This strand has taken place under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir Ninian Stephen. To him, and to the Australian Government who permitted him to be available, we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude, particularly since in the latter stages he readily accepted an invitation to help us in our proceedings across all three strands.

"On 28th July in Dublin the two governments held the opening meeting of the third strand, concerning future relationships between them.

"Throughout the talks I have received wise and indefatigable support from the Parliamentary Secretary, my honourable friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes. In particular he chaired a most fruitful series of Strand 1 Committee sessions and has often deputised for me in other strands.

"The present talks, like those last year, were stipulated to be held during a specified gap between meetings of. the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference. Before the talks resumed after our own general election, the two governments announced that the next meeting of the intergovernmental conference would not be before the end of July. Since then the gap has been extended twice. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach announced on 25th September, in a final extension, that the next meeting of the conference would be held on 16th November. More than six months have accordingly been available for these talks.

"We have not yet succeeded in the ambitious task of securing an overall settlement, that is to say, a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland, and between the peoples of these islands. Since the talks were held on the basis that 'nothing will be finally agreed in any strand until everything is agreed in the talks as a whole and that confidentiality will he maintained', the question of a partial settlement did not arise. Nonetheless, the talks have seen substantive and detailed engagement on issues of the first importance.

"In Strand 1 the Northern Ireland parties, together with the British Government, identified common themes and principles which should underlie any new political institutions in Northern Ireland and examined possible structures which might reflect these.

"In Strand 2, in which of course the Irish Government have also been a participant, delegations discussed fundamental aspects of relationships within the island of Ireland, and of the realities underlying them, including constitutional issues and questions of identity and allegiance. We examined the scope for enhanced co-operation within the island of Ireland, in the social, economic, and security fields, among others. We considered the nature of the structures which might best serve such co-operation.

"In Strand 3 the two governments, as co-signatories of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, addressed, in liaison with the other participants, possible principles for a new and more broadly based agreement, and possible intergovernmental arrangements.

"Much has been done to identify and enlarge the common ground, and to increase understanding and respect for the participants' respective positions. The process has involved hard work and commitment from all the participants. The talks participants have collectively reaffirmed their total abhorrence of, and unqualified opposition to, all forms of terrorism, from whatever source they may come. Nothing has taken place to alter my firm view that it was right to bring together the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, and the two governments, to address, in a single process, a comprehensive agenda. It remains my judgment that, with good will and application, a comprehensive settlement can yet be secured. Those qualities are not lacking.

"Yesterday the talks participants agreed and issued a statement, copies of which have been placed in the Library. In it they recognised that, `while at this time there is no basis to agree a settlement, they have identified and discussed most, if not all, of the elements which would compromise an eventual settlement; they have developed a clear understanding of each other's positions; and established constructive dialogues on ways in which an accommodation might be reached on some of the key issues which divide them'. All recognised the great value of that dialogue. The two governments expressed their view yesterday that further dialogue was both necessary and desirable. The four Northern Ireland parties agreed with that and accordingly undertook to 'enter into informal consultations with a view to seeking a way forward.'

"The whole House, although doubtless disappointed that fuller agreement has not been reached, will welcome that commitment. The objectives of the talks process remain valid and achievable in the expressed opinion of the independent chairman Sir Ninian Stephen and in my own opinion. The objectives are realistic. We have a duty therefore to build on what has been begun, however slow that process may have been, and not to give up.

"We have a duty not to lose patience; not to give way to exasperation; not to recriminate.

"Her Majesty's Government for their part, therefore, will steadily persevere. We shall maintain our line of approach to these objectives and we shall continue also our commitment to the resolute and just government of Northern Ireland. Not only the people of Northern Ireland but the people of the rest of these islands—let us not forget them—deserve this of us".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the comprehensive Statement made by the Secretary of State earlier this afternoon. We very much welcome the progress that has been made, as referred to in the Statement, but the whole House will deeply regret that the talks were not more successful. The people of Northern Ireland desperately want peace and reconciliation in their day. I believe that many will be saddened by the failure to achieve more progress.

We have been fully aware at all times and throughout the talks of the huge differences between the parties and the grave difficulties facing Sir Ninian Stephen. Our expectations were not too high when the talks started six months ago but there were grounds for hoping that the talks would be concluded against a more positive background than the one revealed in the Statement. Indeed, as recently as last Saturday, it was reliably reported that Sir Ninian was trying to draw up what was described as a "heads of agreement" document to salvage something from the talks processes which started last April.

It was also hoped that the parties might agree some kind of suspension of the talks until a new Irish Government had been formed and had had time to settle into office, thus making it easier to restart another round of talks, when no doubt the pressure of public opinion in Northern Ireland would require their resumption. Indeed, that would also in effect have bridged the November meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference.

The Statement refers approvingly to the undertaking that the parties will at a date in the unspecified future, enter into informal consultations with a view to seeking a way forward". While those words are on the vague side, I note with some satisfaction that nevertheless it is an undertaking. Do the Government know when the process of informal consultation will begin? Do the Government propose to take any steps to encourage and facilitate those consultations? In any event, will the Government give consideration to publishing a document identifying the elements which would comprise an eventual settlement, as referred to in the Statement, and possibly identify the areas of agreement and those of continuing disagreement. Finally, I trust that the Minister is able to confirm that meanwhile the basic position of the Government continues to be that of support for the 1985 Anglo-Irish Conference.

Before I resume my seat, I join with the Government and all others in paying tribute to the role of the distinguished chairman, Sir Ninian Stephen, and his staff in helping to facilitate the talks. A tremendous amount of effort and very hard work went into the preparations for the talks and they deserved to succeed.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for reading the Statement so clearly. Perhaps I could correct him on an inadvertent mistake in reading it. I am sure he will be grateful for the correction since it changed the meaning of the Statement placed in the Library by the four constitutional parties. He spoke of the elements which would "compromise" an eventual settlement rather than those which would comprise it. As that changes the meaning, I thought he would appreciate and would not mind that minor correction to his delivery.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, is right when he says that everyone—the whole House and indeed the country, the people in the Republic of Ireland and, most of all, in Northern Ireland where they bear such heavy burdens with such stoic courage —will be very sad that the talks have broken down. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he thinks that the talks have broken down or whether they have been suspended. As I listened to the Statement, I was slightly unclear as to what would happen next. Perhaps I may return to that point in a moment.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, that we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the Secretary of State and to Sir Ninian Stephen. I should also like to pay tribute to the predecessor of the Secretary of State, Mr. Peter Brooke. The fathers of the talks, and those who have conducted them, have done so with great skill and patience.

We ought also to do something which does not often occur in your Lordships' House; that is, pay tribute to the Northern Ireland parties themselves. They have advanced quite a long way out of their trenches. They have now returned to them but have done so alive and perhaps that will encourage them to come out of their trenches again on a future occasion.

In an earlier debate in your Lordships' House, I expressed some doubts about whether the participants were sufficiently secure on Strand 1 before they proceeded to Strand 2; and whether they had consolidated their position on Strand 2 before they moved on to Strand 3. It was a thought which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, shared with me. It is not a criticism. It is apparent that if nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, matters have to be kept fluid. Nevertheless, I suspect that one of the reasons that the talks have not ended in the success for which we all hoped is that the step by step process was a little too fluid.

Be that as it may, a great deal has been achieved. There has been an investment of good will on all sides. As the noble Earl repeated in the Statement, there is a wide measure of agreement. There is now something to build on. The question is: what happens next? I sincerely hope—perhaps the Minister will reassure me when he replies—that we shall not go back to talks about talks. I hope that we have moved beyond that process. When the Statement refers to dialogue, I hope that it does not mean that we shall begin to talk about how to talk. I hope that we may move to the substance of the talks which the parties had reached when the talks were suspended.

Within a short space of time, we shall have a new government in the Republic of Ireland. We shall know how that is composed. That may affect the Government's perceptions of how to proceed. Does the noble Earl believe that there is some scope for an initiative by the Secretary of State—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies—and the British Government now to play a more positive role and to put forward their own proposals based on the terms of an eventual settlement? We are told there is a wide measure of mutual recognition. Like the noble Lord, I would value reassurance that the Anglo-Irish Agreement will remain intact until replaced by an agreement arrived at by negotiations between all the parties.

Finally, I have never detected among people in Northern Ireland in the time in which I have been involved in the subject such a willingness to urge the parties on to continue talks. There is a great feeling on the part of the population of Northern Ireland, whichever community they are drawn from, that the process must continue. I hope that that pressure makes itself felt as the hot breath of public opinion blows down the necks of the Northern Ireland parties. I hope that the Secretary of State feels able to promote the resumption as soon as possible.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, first, I am grateful that both noble Lords have spoken of their general agreement of how well the talks have gone so far. To the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, who I think expressed, as he called it, disappointment, regret or perhaps both, that the talks have not actually progressed further, I would just make these points. When the talks resumed in April few thought that they would even last for one month. In fact they have continued for over six months. Historic watersheds have been passed. Unionists have sat down with the Irish Government. Dublin Ministers have been questioned in Belfast. Ulster Unionists have gone to Dublin for talks—the first talks in Dublin on the future of Northern Ireland involving Unionists for 70 years.

Those serious and substantive talks examined in detail the real issues at the heart of the problem. There has been discussion of both general principles and the detail of possible institutions. Views have been honestly and at times forcefully expressed. Everyone understands each other's position better than when we started. We have at times been surprised by the amount of common ground. Important disagreements, even fundamental ones, still remain, but the issues have been seriously addressed. Therefore, while the present talks have come to an end, all the participants have agreed to enter into informal consultations with a view to seeking a way forward.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, asked when talks might continue. I have already said that it will be in the future on an informal basis, obviously after 25th November, following the general election in Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, questioned the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Of course both governments have made it clear that they would be prepared to consider a new and more broadly based agreement or structure if such an agreement can be arrived at through direct discussion and negotiation between all the parties concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also suggested that perhaps a paper should be published on what has been agreed or even disagreed so far. We all accepted, as I said in the Statement, that nothing will be finally agreed until everything is agreed and that confidentiality will be maintained. We shall hold to that because the process is not at an end.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, suggested that perhaps at this point we should impose our own solution. However, I remind him that we are committed to an agreed outcome. Everyone accepts that any new arrangements must command the widest possible support and allegiance in Northern Ireland.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for giving way. What I suggested was that in order to promote the process of the talks the British Government might wish to take some initiative and show more of their hand to prompt the parties back to the table rather than—I use the words he used—impose our solution. I believe that that would be wrong.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, if I misread him on that. Of course it is up to all the participants on an informal basis to seek to start the talks again at an appropriate time.

Finally, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Home of Cheltenham, that he was indeed right about "comprised" rather than "compromised".

5.57 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, not for the first time in your Lordships' House I feel myself unable to agree with what has been said by previous speakers. The outcome of the talks was entirely predictable. Indeed, I said so on numerous occasions. In 1985–86 when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was promulgated, I said in this House that the terms of that agreement made it impossible at any time in the future for the Unionist members in Northern Ireland, the Protestant community, to talk to the Nationalist community. For the very first time since the creation of the Northern Ireland state the Unionists saw the process as giving preference to opinions from the Government of the adjoining republic. Having been born and reared in Northern Ireland, I realised that no matter how extreme or moderate the Unionists may be, they would never accept what they regarded as intervention by the Government of the Republic.

I saw that also in the Sunningdale agreement in 1973–74. I thought that that was the best political development in Northern Ireland since the creation of the state. There was absolutely no doubt about the acceptance and the creation of a Northern Ireland Executive. That was Strand I of the talks. It was Strand 2, on the Council of Ireland, which brought that executive to an end. There is no doubt that agreement can be reached on Strand 1 but I say here and now and with no great enthusiasm that in my lifetime—and I hope to live a long time—there will never be any agreement on Strand 2 of the talks; namely, the intervention of the Government of the Republic into the affairs of Northern Ireland. Whether I would like such an agreement and whether it would be the best solution it will never come about in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The talks are not new; they did not start six months ago. The first talks began under the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. They were continued under the noble Lords, Lord Colnbrook and Lord Prior. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees did what he could to start talks to try to find an agreement. So these talks have not been going on for six months or a year. There was the intervention of the Irish Government, which was legitimate under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The latest series of talks began because the Unionist community in Northern Ireland so detested and despised every word of every sentence in the Anglo-Irish Agreement that they were prepared to enter into talks to do away with it. The SDP and the Irish Government also entered into the talks with the intention of consolidating that agreement or, if that were not possible, of finding another agreement which would give exactly the same authority.

That was the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. No agreement could be found under those circumstances. There will be no agreement if it is insisted that the Irish Government continue to have a part to play in the affairs of Northern Ireland. We must face realities in this House and that is the reality of the situation in Northern Ireland.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, perhaps I may say first that I hope the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, lives for a very long time. But I think that even he will agree that six months of Irish politics is but an evening gone. I hear very clearly what Lord Fitt says but I really do not believe that it would be in the interest of the resumption of the talks to recriminate and backtrack on what has already happened. There is a lot that yet has to be done. A lot of general very good will has come about. A lot of profound understanding has happened as a result of these talks, and we wish them well in the future as soon as they recur.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said is it not inevitable that a time of consolidation should come? It therefore comes as no surprise that there is what I would call a "temporary suspension" in spite of what my noble friend said in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. The most dangerous action which the British Government could possibly take would be forceful intervention because forceful interventions have bedevilled Anglo-Irish relations for many years. I hope that my noble friend will agree with that.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I agree that a forceful intervention at this particular point would be extremely unwise and extremely uncalled for. It was agreed by both my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Ireland that the talks would come to an end before the next intergovernmental conference on 16th November.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, it is not necessary for me to ask the Minister whether the Government know about Initiative 92. Perhaps I should declare an interest as a person associated with the scheme. However, I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to the initiative and say briefly what it is. It is an investigation into what the citizens of Northern Ireland actually want. They are being asked what kind of accommodation, political and otherwise, they can foresee and in what ways they believe progress can be made. Views are being sought not only from individuals but from organisations of every kind.

The work of the investigation has been voluntarily funded and organised. It is, therefore nongovernmental, non-sectarian and completely across the board. It is important because while there are many elections in Northern Ireland there has, alas, not been a great deal of practice of normal democracy. I believe that the initiative can pave the way to renewed formal talks between the official political parties and the governments concerned. No doubt your Lordships have many friends and contacts in Northern Ireland. I hope that it will be possible to publicise the initiative so that views can be submitted during the next two weeks.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Certainly we are aware of Initiative 92 and wish it very well. Indeed, we are ready to play a part if it is helpful but of course the noble Lord will understand that the main focus is the talks.

Lord Stewartby

My Lords, may I suggest that, although we listened to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, with great respect, we should not be too pessimistic about the development which my noble friend has reported today. Each exercise of this kind helps gradually to further the reduction of mistrust which has bedevilled these discussions and relations for so many generations. I hope that formal processes will not be resumed too quickly because there must be a great deal that needs to be assessed and reconsidered as a result of the process which has ended. The best way of ensuring that the next time the tide comes in it comes a little further up the beach will be to look in detail at what has happened on this occasion and see whether we can build on that so that our next efforts will be more fruitful.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that the British Government are far from pessimistic. I am sure that it is the hope of us all that they find a way forward. Certainly we in Her Majesty's Government will continue to do all that we can to play our full part and we believe that present talks have made sound progress. We are determined to hold on to that foundation.