HL Deb 28 February 1996 vol 569 cc1475-87

4.29 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

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 on the Anglo-Irish Summit earlier today and its implications for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

"The Taoiseach and I met in Downing Street this afternoon and agreed a way forward, set out in our communique, copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House. Let me summarise the main points of the approach.

"First, both Governments condemn unreservedly the IRA abandonment of the ceasefire and subsequent acts of terrorism and call for the immediate and unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire.

"Secondly, we have confirmed that the two Governments will have no ministerial dialogue with Sinn Fein until the ceasefire is restored. Thirdly, I am glad to say that the Irish Government have now made clear their support for an elective process that is broadly acceptable to the parties in Northern Ireland. We and the Irish Government will conduct further intensive consultations with the parties between now and mid-March. After that, this Government will bring forward for consideration by this House appropriate legislation for the elective process, and we will take other decisions necessary for the peace process to take place.

"Fourthly, both Governments reaffirm their commitment to all-party negotiations with a comprehensive agenda. These will be convened on 10th June, following a broadly acceptable elective process. Whether those negotiations will include Sinn Fein will depend on whether the ceasefire has been restored.

"Fifthly, we have agreed that at the beginning of the negotiations, in order to build confidence, all participants, including Sinn Fein if the ceasefire has been restored, will need to make clear their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the Mitchell report and to address, also at the beginning of the negotiations, Senator Mitchell's proposals on decommissioning.

"Madam Speaker, I believe these agreements and commitments represent a balanced approach to which I hope all the parties in Northern Ireland will be able to subscribe. No-one will find in there all they might have asked for. Equally, no-one need fear that their basic interests and requirements are being overlooked.

"The approach the Taoiseach and I agreed marks out a clear route to all-party negotiations. We believe that this route is viable and direct. That is why we have set a firm date by which the negotiations will be launched. There is still detail to be filled in, and some important issues to be settled. That is the purpose of the intensive consultations due to start next week and last until mid-March. But we now have a framework and a timescale to address and decide these matters. We are ready to meet all the parties in whatever format best suits them, but I repeat that there can be no dialogue between Ministers and Sinn Fein until the ceasefire is unequivocally restored. That is the Irish Government's position as well.

"The issues still to be settled include: first, the nature of the electoral system to be used in the elective process. There are strong views for and against different systems. While the decision is for us, we intend first to explore and test all the options in discussions with the parties before coming to our decision on what seems most broadly acceptable; secondly, the nature and role of an elected body that will come out of the elections. Again there are strongly held views, although many believe such a body has a role to play as a forum for peace; and, thirdly, format, structure and agenda of the negotiations themselves.

"Madam Speaker, we have been discussing these issues intensively with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government for some time now. I would have liked to have been in a position to announce agreement on these issues and to have been able to publish detailed proposals today. There are, however, still gaps to he filled in. That is why we have called for fresh but time-limited consultations to make a last effort to reach agreement on these issues. If I judge it would be helpful I may put forward to the parties, and perhaps publish, specific written proposals during the consultations. At the end of that period, the two Governments will review the outcome.

"Whether or not final agreement on all issues can be reached during this period, let me make clear that at the end of it, the Government will put forward to this House legislative proposals for elections in Northern Ireland. Decisions on the other outstanding arrangements will also be announced. These decisions will be taken on the basis of a judgment of what is most likely to be broadly acceptable to the parties, and to the people of Northern Ireland. We have decided to act in this way to make clear that the process cannot be held up further if in the end there is still lack of agreement.

"Madam Speaker, we are taking these decisions upon ourselves together with the Irish Government where appropriate, because we do not believe that the overwhelming desire of the people of Northern Ireland for lasting peace will brook further delay. We are ready to fulfil our responsibilities.

"There is one other aspect of the communiqué I should bring to the attention of the House—the suggestion that there could be referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. These could be held on the same day as the proposed election in Northern Ireland. The aim would be to give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to speak clearly about their own commitment to peaceful, democratic methods and rejection of violence.

"The Government will consider with the parties whether such a referendum would be valuable or not. There is clearly room for debate about what the question or questions should be in such a referendum. But we will listen to the views of the parties and make our own views clear at the end of the consultation period.

"Meanwhile, let there be no doubt about three points: first, that there is no place whatsoever for violence or the threat of violence in the peace process or in the negotiations. Those who advocate violence or do not dissociate themselves clearly from its use or threat by others cannot expect others to go on sitting at the negotiating table with them. Senator Mitchell's report sets out clear principles on democracy and non-violence, makes clear the priority to be attached to the decommissioning of illegal weapons and makes proposals on how this can be tackled. These issues, however difficult, cannot be dodged. They will be on the table at the beginning of negotiations. If it becomes clear that any party is not committed to these principles and this approach, either at the beginning of negotiations or subsequently, there will in our view be no place for them at the table.

"The second point is that there has never been any justification for terrorism and violence in Northern Ireland. These proposals and the firm commitment to all-party negotiations by a fixed date will remove any lingering shred of obfuscation and pretence about this. Thirdly, the battle against terrorism is being intensified. Co-operation between us and the Irish Government has never been better. We will hunt down those responsible for bombings and killings and maintain security at whatever level it needs to be to protect the citizens of this country as they go about their daily business.

"Madam Speaker, the people of this country and the Irish Republic have made clearer than ever before their demand for an end to violence. That demand must now be met and the people have the right to expect the violence to stop for good.

"The search for peace has been much complicated by the resumption of terrorism on 9th February. But the Government said they would not be deflected from their efforts and we have not been. I am grateful for the support we have received in our efforts from this House, across all the parties. We and the Irish Government are united in our determination to stamp out terrorism and bring lasting peace. With the support of this House I believe we will succeed. But I warn the House that the road ahead may yet be long and stony. The men of violence will not give up lightly. Among them are people who do not truly want peace as we understand it.

"As we go though the process leading to the negotiations and take the difficult decisions, concerns will be raised from this or that side, this or that interest. We will, of course, take account of all views, but we will not be deflected from our central objective. Because the men, women and children of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demand no less of us. It is their lives and their futures that must be our first concern.

"Madam Speaker, I commend to the House this approach to negotiations and ultimately to a lasting and comprehensive peace."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, on behalf of the Opposition, perhaps I may thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement that his right honourable friend has just made in another place. I should like to say at the outset that we welcome the Statement. We believe that the Government are right to pursue that potential road to peace and we therefore support it.

For the sake of clarification, as I understand it there are basically three elements in the route that is now proposed. First, June 10th is now a firm date for the commencement of all-party talks, negotiations, or whatever word one likes to use. Secondly, there is to be some form of electoral process in the period between now and 10th June. Given the pressure of time that that imposes, I imagine that that process will be sooner rather than later. However, I am not clear from the Statement—and I shall be most grateful if the noble Viscount could help us in this respect—of precisely what it is that the electoral process is designed to produce.

I believe that the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister says in the Statement that perhaps it could provide a forum for peace. Can the noble Viscount say whether it is intended that the elections are to be held in order to produce negotiating teams with a negotiating mandate to go into the negotiations on June 10th, or whether there is some other reason for them which is not set out in the Statement?

Thirdly, as I understand it, preliminary talks over the details are to start very early; indeed, I believe that someone has said as early as the beginning of next week. A possible fourth element is the idea of having a referendum. I assume that that would be a referendum both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic, although, again, that is not clear from the Statement. Of course, that may be because the right honourable gentleman is speaking for this country and not for the Irish Republic. If the noble Viscount can tell us that that is how it is envisaged, we would be grateful.

One's immediate comment is that clearly it is most important now to ascertain what the attitude of Sinn Fein will be to this route towards all-party talks. Sinn Fein has urged all-party talks for a very long time. It seems to me that Sinn Fein now has a very clear and obvious route whereby those concerned can get the all-party talks for which they have been pressing. We would obviously prefer—indeed, everyone would—that Sinn Fein were part of the whole process and taking part in the talks. However, I very much agree with what the noble Viscount said: Sinn Fein cannot run them and it cannot be in charge of the process. It is right that Sinn Fein should have to accept the Mitchell principles, if I may call them that, before its members fully participate in the all-party talks. On one point of detail in that respect, is it envisaged that Sinn Fein should accept those principles before the talks start, or will they be on the table when they all sit down in order to try to negotiate?

Those are not minor points but they are, perhaps, peripheral ones for today. I believe that the best we can do today is to welcome the progress that has been made and emphasise yet again how important it is that the two Governments march in step on the whole issue. We wish the process well, and hope that it will succeed.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, from these Benches perhaps I may, equally, welcome the Statement just repeated by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House. I believe that the process was always going to be bumpy. Just as it is incumbent upon us not to be over-depressed or cast down by the had times, the terrible things that happen and the had moments in the whole process—and let us remember, for example, that the process of peace in the Middle East has been marked by periodic and terrible explosions—so I believe that we should not overreact or become over-euphoric at happier moments like this.

I believe that this is a happier moment, not so much because the package in the Statement represents some sort of magic solution to the multifarious problems of the advancing peace in Northern Ireland, but because it demonstrates that the two Governments are together again. After the very dangerous period of the past few months when the two Governments diverged, they have now made it their highest priority to find agreement.

I suspect that the noble Viscount will agree, but it seems to us on these Benches that, whenever the two Governments are together as they were so conspicuously at the time of the framework document and the joint declaration, the terrorists do not thrive and when the two Governments open up a space between them in that atmosphere, the terrorists come out again from under their stones. The fact that the two Governments are together is the indispensable rock upon which any sort of progress has to be built. Through the noble Viscount, I should like to extend our congratulations to the Prime Minister and to the Taoiseach on the imagination and energy that they have undoubtedly put into the package that we are looking at today.

Perhaps I may make one or two observations. There are all the characteristics in the package of a trade-off—that is, a trade-off between the Irish Government's emphasis on fixed dates for all-party talks and the British Government's emphasis on the helpfulness of the elective process. When he replies, can the noble Viscount say whether he is now convinced that the commitment of both Governments to both elements of the package is complete? It will be tested severely in the weeks ahead.

I turn now to the second observation that I should like to make. What a conspicuously impressive phenomenon it was last weekend to see those demonstrations in Belfast and Dublin of tens of thousands of people saying that they wanted their ceasefire back! The demonstrators were turning their backs on the terrorists in a way that we have very rarely seen so publicly. In that context, I should like to emphasise particularly the brave and outspoken words of the Taoiseach, John Bruton, on the subject of the IRA.

I have one or two further questions for the noble Viscount. First, can be clarify the conditions for Sinn Fein participation in the talks? I am sure that it is right to put the onus on Sinn Fein to say whether it wants to be part of the process. There have already been three scares today in central London. It is an ever-present question in all our minds. The Government said quite clearly that the first condition is that there should be a ceasefire again. I am sure that that is right. Beyond that, I am afraid that the Statement leaves me slightly confused. In order to take part in the elections and the talks that follow, does Sinn Fein have to commit itself to the Mitchell principles? At one point in the Statement it appears that during the talks Sinn Fein will have to be consistent in its approach to those principles rather than that being a precondition. I should be most grateful for some guidance on that question.

Secondly, among the issues to be settled—they are very large issues and I fear that, as so often, the devil will be in the details of the package—there is the question not so much of electoral systems (where I gather the intention is to have preferential voting) but of the basis of the constituency. As the Statement does not refer to that matter, perhaps the noble Viscount will be able to clarify that aspect.

Thirdly, there is the important question of what the nature and the role of this elected body is to be. If we cannot be clear as to what it is—and, indeed, the Statement is not clear on that—we should be clear as to what it is not. Are we clear that it is not a reversion to Stormont? In other words, that it is not to be a talking shop, but simply a transitional gearing towards a negotiating body. I must say that I am most unclear from the Statement as to the answer to that question.

I turn next to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, regarding the linkage of the election to the 10th June negotiating date; in other words, the gearing between those two. That may not yet be agreed, but I believe that it would be better for us to know whether that is the case.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about a referendum. If we are to have a referendum, please let us have a meaningful question. It would be totally meaningless to have the sort of question that has so far been discussed, for example, "Are you against violence?", or, "Are you in favour of motherhood and apple pie?" If we had such a referendum, it might be sensible to ask: "Should only parties committed to a peaceful future take part in talks?" That would be a meaningful referendum question. Let us only have a referendum if it asks a question which has some meaning in it and which will advance the process.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to both noble Lords for the measured, restrained and extremely constructive welcome they have given to my right honourable friend's Statement. One of the most comforting elements during these distressing past few weeks has been the statesmanlike support both parties opposite have given to the Government in what has been a difficult process.

I can confirm the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, of the three elements. I shall not bother to repeat them here, except to say that he is right about that. As regards the referendum, which is the fourth element that the noble Lord mentioned, that is a kite which has so far been flown and we do not yet know whether it will be brought successfully to earth. However, it is clear that it could be helpful in the prosecution of the process to hold a referendum both in the north and the south. I certainly note what the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said about the nature of the question. I shall make sure that that is brought to the attention of my right honourable friends in the consideration of what the question ought to be. It is a matter which will have to be discussed between the parties in the course of the intensive talks, which it is hoped will begin on 4th March next. It is hoped that they can be brought to an end by 13th March. That is another question that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, asked.

I was also delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Richard, say that Sinn Fein cannot run the talks. It is absolutely right that they should renounce violence, particularly in view of the undertakings that they gave at the beginning of the 17-month ceasefire. It is important that they should be able to convince us this time, if and when they declare another ceasefire, in the most believable manner.

In that context I should make it plain to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that the condition for Sinn Fein, and any other party which has been associated with violence (and we should remember that Sinn Fein is not the only party that has been associated with violence), is that there should be a ceasefire. In answer to the two understandable questions which the noble Lord asked arising out of his observations I can do no better than quote the words at paragraph 12 of the agreed communiqué which was issued at the end of the talks which my right honourable friend held this afternoon with the Taoiseach. In relation to the discussions which will take place after the elections among the negotiating teams, both Prime Ministers agreed that: all participants would need to make clear at the beginning of the discussions their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the report of the International Body. They would also need to address. at that stage, its proposals on decommissioning". Therefore, I hope that it is clear that at the beginning of that process both those matters would be addressed.

Both noble Lords asked what was the purpose of the elected body. The electoral process is designed to choose the negotiating teams. As my right honourable friend's Statement indicated, there could also be a role for a forum consisting of all those elected, which, as my right honourable friend also said, many believe has a role to play as a forum for peace. Precisely what that role will be will have to be nailed down between 4th and 13th March. Clearly, before we can proceed it is important that all the parties we need to persuade to participate in the process should agree what that role should be. I should be grateful if noble Lords will allow me to rest my comments at that point.

I wholly sympathise with the warning of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that we should not be over-optimistic, just as we had no need to be over-pessimistic during the past two or three weeks. Nevertheless, as my right honourable friend has emphasised, we should be aware that the road ahead will be difficult and stony. As both noble Lords said, the only way we can hope to make progress is by trying to ensure as best we can that both Governments move as one.

Finally, I shall of course pass on to my right honourable friend, and via him to the Taoiseach, the congratulations of the noble Lord, Lord Holme. The best reward that any of us can have is that this process should lead to a successful conclusion.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend said. I agree with the Statement, and I believe that all parties in this House will be prepared to back the course that has been outlined by the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, and especially the election proposals for the Province. I believe that eventually that will reveal the democratic strengths of all the parties concerned, but particularly the strength of the Provisional Sinn Fein.

I agree in particular with what the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said. The vast majority of the peoples of the island of Ireland are yearning again for a ceasefire. They have had 18 months of peace and are yearning for a return; witness the thousands of people who marched in north and south last weekend. If there was a referendum in both north and south—without worrying at this stage about the words, which would be centred upon peace—there would be a vast majority in support. What is more, it would be a clear declaration that the Provisional IRA would be isolated.

Has not the Provisional IRA army council taken the view that holding the republican movement together is more important than the continuation of talks? The extremists, the marxist ideologues, the bombers, will not change. The hasty activity of Ministers to meet and prepare further plans, with which I agree, may have given the Provisional IRA the impression that bombing pays. They must be absolutely denied any satisfaction on that point.

Did the Government ascertain whether Gerry Adams knew that war was to be declared, for that is what it really is? If so, why did he not warn Her Majesty's Government? If he did know, he should have warned them; if he did not know, what credibility has he left to negotiate a ceasefire? Are Her Majesty's Government still dependent on Adams to assist in effecting a ceasefire, or have they determined—as was indicated in the Statement—to go ahead with all-party talks to the exclusion of Adams?

Of course we are trying to be optimistic, but there are many irreconcilables to be considered during the course of the next few months. I notice that the Provisional Sinn Fein say that there should be no elections before talks; Her Majesty's Government say that elections must precede talks. We cannot iron out those differences at the moment, but they will be some of the imponderables.

In my opinion it is essential that the Government have a referendum as quickly as possible, in both north and south. The result is already clear to us, but it will be a clear indication to the Provos that they are isolated and the vast majority want peace.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hope that the words of the noble Lord will reverberate far outside this Chamber. I am sure that when they do, his remarks about the desirability of a referendum will reverberate with them and we will be able to take note of his strong recommendation.

I agree with what he implied about the electoral process revealing the true strength of Sinn Fein. I also would like to associate myself with his remarks about the extraordinary demonstrations that were seen in recent days in both parts of the island of Ireland; and, if I may say so, the touching and extraordinary courage of the parents of the young bomber in their declaration about the nature of their son's funeral.

The noble Lord rightly asked me whether it could be said that this latest development proves to the IRA that bombing pays. I think it is fair to say that we would have had a much better chance to have been where we are today a week or two ago if the bomb had not gone off. I would suggest to the noble Lord that far from hurrying the process of agreement between my right honourable friend and the Taoiseach, the explosions that we have seen in London over the past few days have delayed the process. If noble Lords take that same view with me, it is all the more important that we should proceed and realise that it is up to Sinn Fein whether it participates in a process that will take place anyway among parties who have renounced violence and who can agree on the way forward. Those parties are committed to the parliamentary traditions with which we conduct our politics in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. I do not know whether Mr. Adams knew or did not know of the resumption of violence. I am not privy to the internal counsels of Sinn Fein IRA. However, if he did know, I can do no more than say that I am driven to the same conclusions as the noble Lord.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, as an Ulster Unionist, perhaps I may join in the welcome that has been given to the Statement this afternoon. I was particularly glad to hear the noble Viscount condemn violence and assert that the Government would not give way to it. To give any concessions as a result of bombs would be shortsighted and irresponsible in the extreme because it would merely invite more bombs to produce more concessions.

I was, indeed, glad to hear the noble Viscount say that he would not deal with Sinn Fein until it renounced violence; and, I hope, until the weapons are handed over. You cannot have democratic discussions or negotiations if one of the parties has armaments and bombs readily available if that party happens to feel dissatisfied with the progress of those negotiations.

I note that the noble Viscount said there would be no ministerial dialogue with Sinn Fein. I understand from a press report that a few days ago there was a meeting at Stormont between members of Sinn Fein and civil servants. As we all know, civil servants must report to their Ministers. Is this just a device for achieving communication, while at the same time saying that there is no ministerial contact? I should like to hear an assurance from the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that negotiations, or even discussions, should not be held with Sinn Fein in any roundabout method or with any subterfuge.

I join with what the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said about the demonstrations that we saw recently in Northern Ireland. I think that they are a clear indication of the feelings of people of all political persuasions who are completely disgusted with the bombing which has gone on over so many years.

When it comes to the election, it is said that various methods will be discussed. However, I believe that the good old British system is by far the best and that we should not start playing with systems such as lists, and so on, which are quite alien to British democracy.

As regards a referendum, certainly in Northern Ireland—what they do in the Irish Republic is their own affair—I agree that the question to be asked is important. We have all seen opinion polls where a loaded question produces the answer that the person running the poll wishes to obtain. Therefore it is important that any question should be fair. Subject to those reservations, I join with other noble Lords in welcoming the Statement.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great authority on these matters. I agree wholly with what he says about the shortsightedness of appearing to prove to terrorists that terrorism works. They are all too convinced of that delusion already.

On decommissioning, I can do no more than refer the noble Lord once again to the two sentences that I quoted a little earlier from paragraph 12 of the communiqué which seemed to me to be about as clear as we can be on the subject.

I am pleased that the noble Lord referred to the contact between officials and Sinn Fein. It was broadcast on Sunday evening last by some news channels, I think, as being talks. It is well worth making it clear that the contact which occurred was at the request of Sinn Fein and that officials merely listened to what was characterised as an urgent message. I understand that their response was no more than a restatement of present government policy.

I believe your Lordships would feel that it would be sensible at least to have a listening post so that if a communication has to be delivered there is a mechanism for doing so. But I believe that my right honourable friend has been perfectly clear that negotiations are matters for Ministers and that until Sinn Fein renounces violence in the terms that I have described to your Lordships this afternoon negotiations will not be open to Sinn Fein if it wishes to deal with Her Majesty's Government. I am delighted to be able to say that the Republic of Ireland Government maintains precisely the same position.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in adding my name to those who welcome the Statement, it would be proper to add a note of admiration for the way in which we have been brought to the situation. It will not have escaped your Lordships' notice that the return of terrorist activity, the pressure of important international events, and quite serious political difficulties have not for a moment detracted the attention of the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State from this issue as a first item of importance on the national agenda. In those circumstances, to deny any of the participants in the negotiations preceding the Statement any advantage whatever from the local domestic political difficulties is a mark of great political statesmanship and integrity which should not pass unremarked.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. I know the pressures there have been on my right honourable friend the Prime Minister from a number of quarters in the past few days. I can testify to your Lordships' House that never for a second has he thought of trying to obtain party advantage out of the talks. I only hope that in his position I should have had the same courage.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I welcome the talks and the fact that the two elected governments are working together. It has not always been thus, and that is the main reason that after the events of last week there has been the announcement today.

With regard to the IRA, in my view, we should not underestimate the possibility that throughout Belfast anyway the story will be that the bombs in London have brought about the Statement today. It is easy to do that. I refer to the electoral system and testing. One test has already taken place under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lowry. As Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, and after permission from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, he chaired the convention of 1975 when there was an election and a forum. Noble Lords should look at copies of Hansard and read the debates. If anyone expects a negotiating position to come out of this, it will not happen. Negotiating is a difficult job. As regards the forum, I believe we should not forget that there are elected representatives in the north and south who were elected to Parliament or the Doyle. They must not be forgotten in the story.

I wish to raise one point on the electoral system that may or may not emerge. We must have wide representation on the negotiating body; noble Lords should not forget the Protestant paramilitaries who have political parties. Under most systems they would not be elected because they are powerful in only one or two parts of Belfast. However, if they are not at the negotiating table it will lead to problems. I know that they meet with government representatives. It ought to be made clear to one of the groups that if they go down to the south and bomb Dublin, the same position will apply to them as applies to Sinn Fein: they will not be at the negotiating table. I wish the Government well; they have a difficult task ahead.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for what he said. As regards the so-called Loyalist paramilitary parties, I should emphasise that so far they have played what anyone would call an important and constructive role. We sincerely hope that it will continue. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is not just Sinn Fein who have to denounce violence in the terms that I have attempted to describe to your Lordships this afternoon; it is all parties. Some parties will find that more difficult than others. We shall see. Nevertheless, the noble Lord's point is well made and taken.

We will want to put forward proposals in intensive multilateral discussions about how to deal with parties who do not achieve an adequate electoral mandate. I am sorry that at this stage I cannot be more specific to the noble Lord, but I am sure that he will understand.

I wholly agree about the story which is no doubt already running in certain parts of Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as perhaps certain parts of Great Britain, about whether "It was the bombing wot did it". I have attempted to give my answer to that canard. We have clear internal evidence, when the story of the negotiations comes to be written, of what I regard as being the incontrovertible truth of what I have told your Lordships this afternoon. Whether we can be clever enough, direct enough and forthright enough to "unconvince" people who are inclined to believe that canard will be up to the people of Northern Ireland and the south. However, like everyone else in your Lordships' House, I am encouraged by the size of the demonstrations which may enable us to ensure that the truth is given a proper hearing.

As regards the electoral system, in the main two systems have been proposed so far. In fact, there have been many more, but two seem to be the front runners. Our mind is not closed and it is important that between 4th March and 13th March we ascertain whether we can reach an agreement which is acceptable to the parties. My right honourable friend has made it clear that in the absence of that agreement, Her Majesty's Government will put forward proposals which they will deem to be the best and most acceptable under the circumstances. That should not lead to holding up the process.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I wish to express the view that the Prime Minister's handling of the matter greatly increases the admiration which many of us feel for him. We would like respectfully to send our congratulations to him that, despite many other manifold problems, he has handled the matter in a courageous and masterly way. I am sure that all elements in this country are profoundly grateful to him for it.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and, with his permission, will, with the greatest pleasure, pass his sentiments on. I also associate myself with them.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that: given the fact that Sinn Fein and the IRA are one and the same organisation, that membership of that organisation is both tiny and wholly unrepresentative of the people of either Ireland or Ulster, that it has four components: first, a few genuine Irish Republican Nationalists; secondly, a few committed Marxists whose long time desire has been for a united Ireland (Gerry Adams having been a long-term member of that persuasion); thirdly, a small number of dangerous psychopaths who enjoy the process of killing and maiming; and, fourthly and overwhelmingly, a group of criminal extortionists who for years have been making a very satisfactory living out of this form of crime, there is a certain conceptual contradiction in trying to arrive at a political agreement with Sinn Fein/IRA? Indeed, is it not rather like trying to arrive at a political settlement with the Mafia in the United States?

Does my noble friend agree that for the vast majority of the active members of the Sinn Fein/IRA a political settlement in Northern Ireland would represent a terminal threat to their chosen way of life, and that is precisely why the Governments of the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States must continue to strive for such a settlement?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. As negotiations begin, we shall see whether Sinn Fein is able to change its spots.