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Constitutional Reform

Volume 86: debated on Thursday 14 November 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on recent meetings he has had with Ministers in the Government of the Republic of Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the talks with the Republic of Ireland Government.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the latest negotiations with the Government of the Irish Republic over Northern Ireland.

I met Mr. Barry, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, on 17 September in Dublin and on 7 October and 6 November in London. I was accompanied on the last two occasions by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The aim of the talks has been to deepen our relationship with the Republic in ways that will benefit both communities in Northern Ireland. They have been taking place on the basis that there can be no change in the status of Northern ireland as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority there, and that there can be no derogation from sovereignty on the part of the Government of the United Kingdom.

With regard to the forthcoming summit, what steps will my right hon. Friend take to carry with him the elected representatives of the majority community in Northern Ireland? Should they not already have been properly consulted?

As my hon. Friend knows, any negotiations between sovereign states must inevitably be conducted with some degree of confidentiality. However, I have sought to take the opportunity at least to explain the background—for example, as I did in answer to my hon. Friend's main question—and the framework within which such talks have taken place. I am anxious that, at the earliest opportunity, the consequences of any agreement will be put fairly before the elected representatives of all parties in the House.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the absence of an agreement between the two Governments, those who would rejoice most would be the Sinn Fein terrorists? They would do so because it would set back closer co-operation between the two Governments on terrorism, and because they would immediately seek to undermine the SDLP by saying that the minority community could hope for no progress through constitutional means.

It certainly must be in the interests of all those in the Province and in the United Kingdom generally that we ensure that constitutional means triumph and that terrorism is defeated. It is clear from their published statements that those who aspire to terrorist approaches are extremely concerned about any chance of better cooperation between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom.

Would it not have been better if the House had been kept fully informed, instead of being faced with all the leaks and rumours that have been flying about? Is the Secretary of State aware that we shall judge any Anglo-Irish agreement on how far constitutional progress is made in Northern Ireland, and that we shall not be swayed by the hysteria that we are likely to witness on the Unionist Benches?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me explain why discussions of this sort between sovereign Governments have inevitably to be conducted confidentially. I hope that any judgment that is made on any agreement will not be made in the absence of the full facts, and will not be based on what may be leaks, rumours or slanted impressions from certain quarters. I hope that everyone who cares about the future prosperity of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom will recognise his responsibility to await the facts that may emerge from any agreement and then to judge the agreement fairly on its merits.

I hope that the Secretary of State was not suggesting that I am not concerned about my future, my children's future and my constituents' future in Northern Ireland. If, as we assume will be confirmed, the Secretary of State has conceded the right of a permanent presence of representatives of the Irish Republic in Northern Ireland, will he advise me how to reassure my constituents that those agents of a Government who lay claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland will not be working to further the territorial ambitions of that Government? Would it not be natural for such representatives to do so?

With the responsibilities that I have the honour to hold, I fully share the hon. Gentleman's concern for his family and the well-being of all those in Northern Ireland. In such a situation, it is all too easy to stir up passion, fear and prejudice that can be turned easily to violence and tragedy. I believe that I am entitled to ask those who have been elected to represent others in the Province at least to suspend their judgment until they have seen the terms of any agreement that may be reached. We shall then be able to decide whether such fears are justified.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite what he has said, any legal obligation to consult a foreign state about a matter within Britain's domestic jurisdiction will be a derogation of sovereignty and will need precise statutory authority, on the lines of the European Communities Act 1972?

I know that my hon. Friend, with his legal training, will be the first to say that advice should never be given without having seen the full terms of any agreement. I know that I can look to him to consider these matters objectively and to form his judgment on the facts of any agreement that may emerge, and not on hypothesis, assumption and rumour.

During the meetings between the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues and Ministers of the Republic, did they at any time promise any relinquishment, to any degree, of the British Government's sovereignty over the government of the Province? The right hon. Gentleman should take the opportunity now to clear the air on that issue.

I think the right hon. Gentleman will understand that he puts me in an extremely difficult position. I have explained clearly—[Interruption.]—that the substance of any discussion between sovereign states must be confidential. I take note, obviously, of the issue that he has raised. He will have to make his own judgment on any agreement that is reached.

Has the Secretary of State not contributed to the rising tension in Northern Ireland by not consulting the representatives of the Unionist community over the past 12 months—those who will be affected—while the SDLP leader, some Conservative Members, the Secretary of State to the Vatican, the President of the United States, the United Nations and the European Community have been consulted? If there is not consent for the agreement in Northern Ireland, does he believe that he can govern Northern Ireland?

Throughout our discussions, we have observed the necessary requirements of confidentiality. I understand the concern, but my first act on walking into the office in Stormont was to write personal letters to all the leaders in the Province to invite them to come and talk. I only regret that the hon. Gentleman and his party refused to accept that offer.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a young policeman was shot and critically injured in my constituency this morning, and that it has already been established that the gunmen made good their escape across the frontier to the haven of the Irish Republic? Does the right hon. Gentleman really believe that, by conceding territorial rights to the Irish Republic, there will be better security on the frontier? If so, does he believe that that country can be a good neighbour when for 16 years it has allowed slaughter to take place across its frontier and has to wait for political advantage to make amends?

I made it clear—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman listened to my original answer—that there is no question of conceding territorial rights. I note the hon. Gentleman's belief that there could be a considerable advance in security if it were possible to achieve improved co-operation between the Republic and the Government of the United Kingdom relating to border problems. I understand that point, and I share the hon. Gentleman's view.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are growing tired of those who would constantly put up barriers against a solution and seek to deny advantages to the minority as well as to the majority in Northern Ireland? Will he bear in mind that the future of the people of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom is a matter that will be decided by this Parliament of the United Kingdom?

I note what my hon. Friend says. We are all Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and we should support it. There are strong feelings over this matter at a time when there is still uncertainty about the content of the agreement. I hope that those most closely in touch with people in Northern Ireland and who have a position of responsibility will recognise that. Hon. Members will recognise the difficulties of their position, but we are entitled to look to such people to show responsibility as well.

Is it not a fact that the British people can see no end to the trouble in Northern Ireland, and that it is in that context that the British Government are having discussions with the Republic of Ireland? Is not the cause of the trouble that during 50 years of strife, and 16 years of the troubles, the Unionist party when in power would not treat the minority party in the proper democratic manner? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that even now, sitting behind me and across the Floor of the House, such people are proving intractable and still have the same opinions as they have had all the time—the opinions that cause the trouble?

This is not the occasion to decide where all the blame should be allocated. The purpose of any talks with the Government of the Republic is to see whether we can find a way to deepen our relationship, to the advantage of all those who live in the Province, in the United Kingdom and in the island of Ireland. I hope that every hon. Member will ultimately share that objective.

Will the Secretary of State note that constructive progress to reduce alienation and provide reassurance for the genuine anxieties in the communities of Northern Ireland is worthy of our support? Will he also note that violence by word or deed would be a form of prejudging agreements that may be entered into, and would not only jeopardise sensible discussions, but would be construed as a demonstration of weakness on the part of the perpetrators—weakness in the sense that they would not believe in their own argument? Will the Secretary of State further confirm that no one in Northern Ireland has anything to fear from peaceful progress towards the solutions of its long-standing problems?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome, which he delivered via my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. I appreciate them. Obviously, the purpose of any agreement is to ensure that by constitutional means the constitutional parties can achieve advance, and that the men of violence will not succeed. Those are the key components of our approach, and I hope that they will ultimately commend themselves to all parties in the House.