HL Deb 15 December 1993 vol 550 cc1368-79

3.40 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister about the Joint Declaration by the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about my discussions with the Irish Prime Minister.

"As the House will be aware, the Taoiseach and I agreed a Joint Declaration this morning. Copies of the declaration have been placed in the Vote Office. I know that the whole House will want to hear what lay behind this declaration, and what it may mean for the future.

"For the past 25 years, the people of Northern Ireland have suffered levels of violence that any civilised community would find intolerable. No community, and especially no part of the United Kingdom, should have to endure the murder and destruction that have afflicted the Province. That is why successive British governments have sought to find a solution to these terrible problems.

"We must care as much about violence in Northern Ireland as about violence in any other part of the Union. When the Taoiseach and I met at Downing Street two years ago, we both agreed on the need to work together to try to bring about peace in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic. We were both well aware of the pitfalls and dangers which have wrecked so many previous attempts. But we both knew that, after 25 years of killing, we had to make it our personal priority both to seek a permanent end to violence and to establish the basis for a comprehensive and lasting political settlement.

"The declaration we have agreed today shows the joint commitment of the two Governments: for peace and democracy, and against violence. Its objective is to set a framework for peace. A framework which reflects our responsibilities to both communities, in a way that is fully compatible with the undertakings we have both given and with the objectives of the talks process.

"Copies of the Joint Declaration have been placed in the Vote Office. I urge all honourable Members to read it carefully. It deserves careful study. It has required detailed and painstaking negotiations between the two Governments. It addresses the concerns of both sides of the community. And it is totally consistent with the principles which this Government have repeatedly confirmed to the House.

"It may help the House if I set out the main elements of the declaration. I will where possible quote directly from the text of the declaration, so there can be no misunderstanding about what it says.

"First of all, paragraph 2 expressly reaffirms the British Government's commitment to Northern Ireland's statutory constitutional guarantee. This guarantees that for so long as a majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Government will uphold their right to do so. That pledge is rock solid.

"This is set out most clearly in paragraph 4, which reaffirms that the British Government will: uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. "Later in that paragraph the British Government agree: that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish. "This is a crucial sentence, and one about which there has been much misleading speculation. So let me repeat that it says that a move to a united Ireland could only take place, by agreement between the two parts respectively and, on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South". "This fully protects the position of the majority in Northern Ireland, and means that change could only come about with their consent.

"In line with previous undertakings, the British Government also reaffirm that, if a future majority in Northern Ireland desires a united Ireland, we would introduce the necessary legislation to bring that about.

For his part, the Taoiseach accepts in Paragraph 5 that: it would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland in the absence of the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. "And later in the same paragraph, that, the democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland. These are important commitments by the Taoiseach, which I know will be widely welcomed in this House. The House will also welcome, in paragraph 7, the Taoiseach's confirmation that, in the event of an overall settlement of the talks process, the Irish Government will, as part of a balanced constitutional accommodation, put forward and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution which would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. "The Joint Declaration fully backs the three-strand talks process involving the main constitutional parties and the two governments. It says that it is the two governments' aim, to foster agreement and reconciliation, leading to a new political framework founded on consent and encompassing arrangements within Northern Ireland, for the whole island, and between these islands. "I believe the passages I have quoted, and the other language in the Joint Declaration, set out a clear framework under which differences can be negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means. But that can only come about if the men of violence end the killing and commit themselves to the democratic process. The Joint Declaration sets out the way in which this can be brought about. Paragraph 10 says that both governments, reiterate that the achievement of peace must involve a permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence. They confirm that, in these circumstances, democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process, are free to participate fully in democratic politics and to join in dialogue in due course between the governments and the political parties on the way ahead. "Let me make it plain on behalf of the British Government what that undertaking means. If there is a permanent end to violence and if Sinn Fein commit themselves to the democratic process, then we will be ready to enter into preliminary exploratory dialogue with them within three months. But, first, they must end violence for good.

"I understand the fears and concerns of Unionists about the prospects of the British Government entering into talks with Sinn Fein. This period has been a worrying and uncertain time for them. Although they have the primary interest in seeing an end to violence, they are rightly concerned lest this be achieved by selling out the fundamental constitutional principles which this Government have always upheld. If they fear that, they should be reassured by this declaration. It reaffirms the constitutional guarantee in the clearest possible terms. And the Taoiseach himself fully accepts the principle that any constitutional change could only come about with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.

"In summary, let me make it clear what is in this declaration and what is not. What is in the declaration is a renewed commitment by the British Government to Northern Ireland's constitutional guarantee; an acknowledgement by the Taoiseach that a united Ireland could only be brought about with the consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland; a willingness by the Taoiseach to make changes in the Irish constitution if an overall settlement can be reached; a confirmation that if Sinn Fein renounce violence they will be able to participate in future democratic discussions.

"What is not in this declaration is any suggestion that the British Government should join the ranks of the persuaders of the 'value' or 'legitimacy' of a united Ireland. That is not there. Nor is there any suggestion that the future status of Northern Ireland should be decided by a single act of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole. That is not there either. Nor is there any timetable for constitutional change, or any arrangements for joint authority over Northern Ireland.

"In sum, the declaration provides that it is—and must be —for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own future.

"All the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland will want to study this document very carefully. I would like today to extend an offer to meet each of the parties regularly in the future, so that I can hear at first hand their concerns and ambitions and can explain to them the British Government's position. If we can work together to quell ancient fears and suspicions then we can help build a better future for Northern Ireland.

"In conclusion, I have made clear that, if they renounce violence, the way is now open for Sinn Fein to join in legitimate constitutional dialogue. That is a political route that they now have no excuse not to follow.

"That is the opportunity offered by this Joint Declaration, and it has been obtained without compromising any of the constitutional principles which this government have consistently espoused.

"The onus is now on Sinn Fein to take advantage of this opportunity. I urge them to do so".

My Lords, that concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend in another place. The whole House will recognise that this is a Statement of great importance. We shall wish to study it in detail. The declaration is distinctly wordy in nature but important in context. Since I suspect that in Northern Ireland at least every word will be weighed, every comma will be looked at and every jot and every tittle will be subject to deep analysis, we shall also wish to examine it.

I should like to make two preliminary comments. First, on this side of the House we welcome the fact that the two Prime Ministers and the two Governments have been able to produce this declaration. Secondly, both Governments, and both Prime Ministers in particular, deserve our congratulations upon the amount of work that they have put into it, the efforts they have made and their courage in coming forward with this declaration.

Obviously there are a large number of questions which one would wish to raise, but perhaps this is not the occasion on which to go into the matter in great detail. This is a first step. It is no more than that. It does not bring peace to this unhappy part of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, it may bring the prospects of peace a little nearer. One may be able to say that without this declaration the prospects of peace would have been pushed further back. Therefore, recognising the Statement for what it is, we should all welcome it enthusiastically.

Having said that, the important issue now is how the Government see the next steps. I have looked at the joint declaration in the time available. I should be grateful if the noble Lord the Leader of the House could confirm that, as set out in paragraph 11 of the document, in so far as concerns the Irish Government it is envisaged that there should be a forum for peace and reconciliation: to make recommendations on ways in which agreement and trust between both traditions in Ireland can be promoted and established". Is it suggested that the British Government and the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland should attach themselves to that forum for peace and reconciliation, or is it envisaged that on our side there should be negotiations parallel to those which are taking place in Ireland itself?

Secondly, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House confirm what is in the Prime Minister's Statement but not in the declaration, namely, that if there is a declaration by the IRA of a permanent ending to violence and no violence occurs over a period of three months, exploratory talks will take place between the British Government and the IRA? That is how I read the Prime Minister's Statement, and I should be: grateful for confirmation that that is the intention.

Thirdly, can the noble Lord tell the House anything about the reaction of the Unionist parties and the Protestant community in Northern Ireland to this development? I gather that there has already been a violent reaction, in the verbal sense, by Dr. Paisley outside No. 10 Downing Street this morning. I do not know whether the Government have had any reaction from the official Unionist parties, but the House will be grateful to know how they see the process continuing.

Finally, I reiterate what I said at the outset. This is a welcome first step. It is very important that both governments and all parties concerned build on it. There is a deep yearning for peace in Northern Ireland. It would be sad indeed if those hopes were dashed.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I join the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition in thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for reading to us the Statement of his right honourable friend. I too should like, from these Benches, to congratulate the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister on having arrived at this declaration. We know that it was not easy because we read in the newspapers and heard on radio and television how difficult it was. I am sure that it involved a great deal of intricate negotiation. Our congratulations should go equally to Sir Patrick Mayhew and Mr. Dick Spring, who must have done much of the work in arriving at the declaration and Statement.

The declaration itself, to which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred, talks about the legacy of history. The noble Lord is surely right to say that in the legacy of British-Irish history, which is not a happy one, every word counts. We can be sure that every word of the declaration has been gone over carefully for its theological and political significance. Therefore, in commenting on it we have to weigh words both for their obvious meaning and for their deeper meaning in this particular context. The document certainly deserves the most careful study.

It is probably fair to say that so long and so fraught a history will not easily be forgotten. It will not be papered over by one declaration, however eloquent. On the other hand, we should recognise that the tone of the declaration is warm and extremely positive. In a situation in which emotion counts for so much, as it does in both Northern Ireland and British-Irish relations, we should welcome the warmth and forward-looking nature of the declaration.

Everything depends on how the declaration is received, in Northern Ireland particularly, and how it is followed up. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would clarify one or two points. First, there is the question of the IRA response, dealt with in paragraph 10 of the declaration, to which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred. That paragraph indicates that a party which renounces violence and makes clear that it wants to take part in the democratic process could join the dialogue in due course. That was amplified earlier in the press conference by a reference to three months.

I, too, should like to be absolutely clear about that period of three months referred to by the Prime Minister. Is that the period during which the IRA should desist from acts of violence so that it should be taken seriously? Is it a period of three months in which there will be exploratory talks with the IRA to see whether it will desist from violence? Is it the period which follows exploratory talks peacefully, which is the qualifying period for the IRA to enter into dialogue? I should like clarification because, if we seek to lure those people out of the shadows where they skulk into the daylight, it is important that we should be clear what we propose. At the moment it is not altogether clear.

Perhaps I may add a plea to the Government. The factor that slightly depressed me about the Statement is that so much emphasis is put on the IRA. We must get the IRA off centre stage. The IRA is not the PLO. It is not the ANC. It is the violent representative, the violent actor, of a tiny and unrepresentative minority. It must not be allowed to become the object of the exercise. The object of the exercise is to get the Unionist and nationalist people of Northern Ireland to live together in a peaceful and stable way. If we can achieve that, I believe that violence will end.

With regard to the constitutional parties, other noble Lords may share my view that the reaction of Dr. Paisley of the DUP in immediately attacking the declaration tooth and nail before it had been published, before he knew what it said, was extremely discouraging. We must hope that his example is not followed by the official Unionists, and in particular by Mr. Molyneaux who until now has preserved an extremely statesmanlike approach on which I believe the future of the declaration depends. It depends greatly on the reaction of the official Unionists. We must hope that their competitors and rivals do not provoke them over the next day or two.

I believe that the declaration is extremely sensitive to nationalist opinions and, indeed, in the Taoiseach's words, to nationalists' rights. The declaration states that in any final constitutional arrangements rights will be taken account of. Is it in the Government's mind, and in the mind of the Irish Government, that there should be some Bill of Rights as part of the settlement in Northern Ireland?

The declaration raises this question: what precisely are the next steps? It is the first step but it is by no means the top of the staircase. Will the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries now recognise that they could have an honourable role in reaching peace? Will the nationalist and Unionist people of Northern Ireland recognise that the time has come when they should stop talking unionist to the British Government and nationalist to the IRA but should talk to each other? That is where progress has to be made; and that is where the creative role of the British Government lies. The declaration has certainly raised hope. It allows us to travel hopefully but we are far from having arrived.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for a great deal of what they said. They stressed the importance of the Statement and the need to study it carefully. I am grateful to them for their congratulations to the Prime Minister and to the Taoiseach, and to all those who have worked to reach this point today.

I put it this way. The purpose of the declaration is to provide a framework for peace, stability and reconciliation. It sets out constitutional principles and political realities. It fully addresses the concerns of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland and safeguards their vital interests.

Both noble Lords asked me what I thought was the next step. It seems to me that the Joint Declaration has two objectives: to search for peace; and to reinforce the talks process which both governments have been pursuing since 1991. Peace will make it easier for an overall accommodation to be reached. But it is not a question of achieving peace first; we must have both. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, our objectives are complementary and reinforce each other.

The noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Holme, referred to paragraph 11 of the declaration with regard to the forum. The forum is a body designed to advise the Irish Government. As I understand it, it is not likely to be set up until there is a cessation of violence. The Unionist parties would be eligible to join and take part in the discussions if they wished, but Her Majesty's Government would not. This factor is important. The forum is not a substitute for the talks process.

Both noble Lords raised questions about the position on entering into a dialogue with the IRA. The Government have made it clear that they would be prepared to enter into a purely exploratory dialogue with the IRA. The Prime Minister said that if a renunciation of violence is made, and sufficiently demonstrated, new doors could open. After three months, preliminary dialogue would, in our view, be possible. Sinn Fein would not be eligible to enter into the talks until the ending of violence had been sufficiently demonstrated.

I should be careful in what I say about the Unionists' reaction because I have no doubt that they will say it for themselves. What I can say is this. The drafting of the declaration is the sole responsibility of the two Governments. The Joint Declaration takes full account of the interests and concerns of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister and his colleagues have met with Unionist politicians recently and have taken fully into account the views that they expressed.

On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, about a Bill of Rights, the Government's position is that they have no blueprint for a solution. They want an overall settlement; and they want that settlement to address all the relevant relationships and be one to which all the parties can agree. Such a settlement would need to address the three strands which were referred to in the Statement. However, they have no preconceived notion as to exactly what that settlement will be.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that both Prime Ministers agreed to work together to build a framework of peace, stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland? This joint accord is a major stepping stone towards those objectives. I believe that the Joint Declaration is fair and balanced. I am especially pleased to note that the people of Northern Ireland have had reaffirmed their right freely and democratically to determine their own future.

From the links that have been established, and the talks that have taken place with various parties, in the Government's view what are the prospects of this package bringing all the participants around the table in order to secure that lasting peace and settlement? Has there been any indication of a renunciation of violence from the parties concerned? During the discussions, was the laying down of arms or an amnesty mentioned?

We must be aware that terrorist hawks on both sides may try to shatter the declaration, and the Irish National Liberation Army may well ignore it. But it may well be that there is not enough conceded to the Provisional IRA in the declaration. We shall just have to wait and see; but the onus is now on them. However, for the two governments it is a fresh start and it opens up a new era of understanding on this most intractable Irish problem. I earnestly hope that a forum of peace and reconciliation is established.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the House will have listened to the noble Lord with particular interest and concern in view of his experience. I hope that he is right, although I do not think it is for me to forecast exactly what will happen. As I indicated in a previous answer, the drafting of the Statement is the sole responsibility of the two governments concerned. It is for others to react to it. There have been no private or secret deals or discussions of any kind behind the scenes. The message of the Joint Declaration is quite clear: there is now no pretext for violence. The violence must stop now and, if it does, both governments have stated that democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods which they have shown they will permanently abide by will be free to participate in that democratic discussion. That is what we urge them all to do.

The Marquess of Donegall

My Lords, if and when the Government enter into dialogue with Sinn Fein, I ask my noble friend to accept that there can be no confidence in lasting peace unless and until the IRA surrenders the large quantities of arms and Semtex high explosive which it has stored in various places on both sides of the Border.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, as I sought to make clear in the previous answer and as the Prime Minister said, we shall be prepared to enter into exploratory dialogue only if there is a renunciation of violence and if it is sufficiently demonstrated that that is the case. That is an important proviso—the renunciation of violence.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, we welcome the Statement and appreciate the pressures that will be put on the IRA to renounce violence. However, I am bound to ask the noble Lord the Leader of the House what pressures will be brought to bear on the so-called Loyalist paramilitary forces, which have done most of the damage in recent times?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, there is nothing in the Statement that justifies violence, from whatever quarter it comes. The message is quite clear: there should be a proper, democratic discussion. That is what the Joint Declaration is all about.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, will my noble friend take from this House—as I am sure he can—the best wishes of us all for the success of the negotiations? But is he able to say why there is no reference in specific terms to the repeal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution? As he will notice, the words which are held to refer to that are couched in terms which would allow for very simple evasion, if evasion were sought. Can my noble friend further say whether any significance should be read into the words at the foot of page 2 in paragraph 4 of the Joint Declaration? The second part of the sentence refers to a, measure of agreement on future relationships in Ireland which the people living in Ireland may themselves freely so determine". Has my noble friend noticed that that does not state that such consent would have to be given separately by the peoples of the Republic of Ireland and the peoples of Northern Ireland? Is there any significance in that?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his question. He and I have a bond going back a long time. I listened carefully to what he said and I have to say to him that the important protection for those in Northern Ireland is that the Irish Government confirm that, in the event of an overall settlement, they will put forward and support proposals for changes in their constitution fully to reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. I do not see the one happening without the other. I think that that is the great protection for those people. It is the most important answer I can give to my noble friend.

The Earl of Erne

My Lords, will the Leader of the House pass on our congratulations to his right honourable friend the Prime Minister for his huge efforts towards peace in Northern Ireland? How often have we heard in the past in Northern Ireland that there is no solution? How often have we heard that the troubles in Northern Ireland are at a tolerable level of violence? We have even been told that statistics show that it is safer to live in New York than it is in Northern Ireland, which is little comfort to those who live in the Province. At last we have a Prime Minister who is to be thanked for and congratulated on his efforts in facing the Northern Ireland problem with courage and skill and for using his great powers of negotiation, giving us all hope. I do not wish to ask any questions on the content of the Statement, but I wish to read it and the Joint Declaration with great interest. I look forward to the future with hope.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for his comments.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, it is an honourable task to search for peace; many of us have tried and failed and I commend what the Government have done. I hope they succeed with this framework in getting talks going. There is a lot of ground to cover and I hope that we do not have a great deal of euphoria here, believing that Statements and Joint Declarations are a sign that we have won the battle. There is a long way to go. However, I commend the Government for what they have done.

With others, particularly the spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party, I have been with Members from the Irish Dáil for two days and we have learnt much about their expectations. There is a lot going for the framework, not only in the United Kingdom but in the Republic as well.

I wish to make two brief observations and ask a question. The observations are brief because the points have already been covered. As regards Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, it is a pity that the statement was not firmer, but my understanding is that it would need a referendum to get the constitution changed. As things are at the moment, any suggested change would not be passed. Other steps are needed before there is any hope of that. No one can know whether that is absolutely true, but that is what I was told in our discussions over the past couple of days.

The other matter I regret is that there is no mention of the Loyalist paramilitaries. Everyone whom I have met in Dublin last week and during the past two days has told me that the amount of money and arms that the Loyalist paramilitaries have garnered together is large and that support for the paramilitaries is rising in the community as a whole.

My question is this. Nearly 17 years ago I had talks with the IRA about bringing the violence to an end. The problem is guns. The point which was put to me was this. If they hand over their guns, what about the weaponry in the hands of dissident groups and of the Protestant paramilitaries? It will take careful planning to deal with that, and that is the next step. I hope that the Government are putting their minds to it, because without that there is no point in talking about three months, or whatever it is. If that question has not been resolved, then the violence will not stop.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the whole House will have listened very carefully to the noble Lord in view of his former responsibilities. I am sure that he would not want me to pursue in detail some of the points that he made. However, it is not just a question of time. There must also be satisfaction that the parties concerned have genuinely ceased violence and that the necessary steps have been taken.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. For the future, do the Government have in mind the possible usefulness of a fully independent media; and in particular do they still have available to them the services of Sir Ninian Stevens? If he is not available, will they think of finding an equally eminent replacement?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the position as I understand it is that this Statement does not change any arrangements that are at present in force. The Statement is meant to reinforce the talks process. There are no changes other than that. We believe that it will make the talks process that much more likely to be successful.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, perhaps I may stress to the noble Lord the Leader of the House the importance of the point made by my noble friend Lord Holme. The history of repression by the majority in Northern Ireland is very, very important. There is no doubt at all that the minority of Catholics in Northern Ireland are oppressed in jobs, education and housing. Whatever settlement is arrived at, they will be in the minority. Allaying the fears of that minority is very important in an ultimate settlement. Therefore a protection for the rights of minorities needs to be built in to any ultimate solution.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I did not disagree at all with what the noble Lord's noble friend said. What I said was that the Government do not have a blueprint as to exactly how these things will be done. We need to get consent, freely entered into. If a sensible and free agreement is reached, then the British Government will be extremely pleased; that is what they want to achieve—but not on the basis of a British Government blueprint.

Lord Monson

My Lords, can the noble Lord the Leader of the House say what would happen if in 15 or 20 years' time, as a consequence of the well-known differences in demographic patterns between the two communities, a situation arose whereby the community most associated with nationalist aspirations came to form 50.01 per cent. of the population, while the community most associated with unionist sentiments fell back to form only 49.99 per cent. of the population? Could the Province at that point be forced into a United Ireland against the passionate wishes of every single member of the unionist community?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I have been long enough in politics not to forecast what will happen in the next 15 minutes, let alone in the next 15 years. I can only say to the noble Lord that it is a very interesting question. I suggest that he reads the joint declaration as carefully as I tried to do this morning to see whether he can draw a conclusion from it that gives him any answer to that question. I am not sure that the joint declaration is designed to find solutions that will not be put into operation for 15 years. That is not to say that we do not want to find a lasting and permanent solution. But I hope, without putting any timescale on it, that there will be some progress before 15 years from now.