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Irish Government

Volume 210: debated on Thursday 25 June 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he last met members of the Irish Government to discuss matters relating to Northern Ireland.

I met the Irish Foreign and Justice Ministers on 27 April at an intergovernmental conference. I have had several telephone conversations since then with Mr. Andrews, the Irish Foreign Minister, the most recent on 22 June.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his persistence in the talks, in which he has the Opposition's full support. Has he discussed with his counterparts in the Irish Republic the possibility that if, as we all hope, the talks succeed, there could be a referendum in Northern Ireland and the Republic, and that if there is a clear majority in favour of what could well be negotiated it would further undermine the claims of the terrorists on each side of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland that they have any kind of mandate to carry on with their killings?

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman says and I greatly appreciate the interest that he takes and the attitude that he consistently displays towards the problems of countering terrorism in Northern Ireland and also to securing better institutions of government in Northern Ireland. It is extremely important that, whatever structures emerge from the process, which we all hope will succeed, shall have the highest degree of acceptance on both sides of the community. I think that my counterparts in the Irish Government share that view of mine to the full.

Will the Secretary of State inform the House what discussions he has had with his opposite number in Dublin on the calling of a meeting in the formation of strand 3 to have a preliminary discussion with the Northern Ireland parties present on the likely matters that would arise as that strand 3 goes on? Can he tell us why there has been a delay from 12 June until today, with meetings called tentatively and cancelled? Can he further tell us who is putting the barriers in the road and what the objections from Dublin are? When will the meeting take place and will it do so exactly as it was called by the plenary?

The parties to the talks agreed on 12 June, with the consent of both Governments, that a meeting should take place in what is described as strand 3 formation to discuss in a preliminary way the agenda for, and the matters that might arise in, the strand 3 stage of the talks. It is important to maintain the momentum of the talks, which have already achieved much agreement.

I had hoped that the meeting, to which both Governments and all parties remain committed, would take place this week. I am sorry that the Irish Government could not agree to that, but I am hopeful that it will take place in the near future. Our officials are meeting now, and I believe that there is every prospect that the kind of meeting that we have in mind will take place very soon.

Will the discussions with the Irish Government deal with the subject of so-called border checkpoints and, in particular, their intensification since the Secretary of State took office? Will the Secretary of State confirm that nothing is ever found at the checkpoints, that they are merely targets and that the victims are the young soldiers and policemen who man them? The last seven soldiers to die in my constituency were all killed at checkpoints, which have now been extended to include private homes in such places as Culmore and Molenan.

The question of cross-border co-operation and border security is a constantly recurring theme at the intergovernmental conferences. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view about the usefulness of the checkpoints; more important and more persuasively, it is not shared by those who are responsible for security in the border areas.

Great improvement can be reported in cross-border co-operation between south and north, but more remains to be done. Unfortunately, the border still constitutes a considerable advantage for the terrorist and the checkpoints provide a valuable means of checking that advantage.

My right hon. and learned Friend has just given us the heartening news that there has been some progress in cross-border co-operation. Will he go further and tell us whether, when he last met the Justice Minister of the Republic of Ireland, he gave him a list of wanted IRA terrorist suspects whose extradition to the United Kingdom to face trial is currently required? If so, has there been any progress on that front since the meeting?

There is no need for me to give Mr. Flynn such a list, because the names in question are already well known to the Irish authorities.

It is necessary for each country to have effective extradition machinery. Let me remind the House that the judiciary in the Republic of Ireland is no less independent than the judiciary in this country. Although—from the point of view of a Minister who wants persons against whom a proper case exists to be brought to trial in this country—I share the frustration that is felt in regard to some recent events and decisions, it must be borne in mind that both the prosecuting authorities and the judiciary in the Republic have the same degree of independence as those in this country.

I welcome the Secretary of State's confirmation that his announcement on Friday 12 June that a meeting in strand 3 formation and inter-party talks would take place this week was made after consultation with the Irish Government. Does he appreciate our disappointment that the meeting failed to take place, especially as this is the first week since the talks began in which no progress has been made? Will he devote the maximum effort to ensuring that that meeting, and those that would follow from it, take place as soon as possible?

Naturally, I share the hon. Gentleman's disappointment, as I think I have made clear. The lesson of Irish affairs is that one looks not backwards to the last bridge under which the water has flowed but forwards to the future. I have every hope that we shall have a meeting very soon.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, no matter how much foot dragging and time wasting there may be from the Government of the Irish Republic, Her Majesty's Government will not welsh on the agreement of 12 June, but will comply with it in every part—in particular that there will be a meeting between two Governments and not between civil servants? Will he assure the House that the purpose of the meeting in strand 3 formation will be to give preliminary consideration to the issues that may arise in strand 3 and not, as he said earlier, to set an agenda?

The language of the agreement is perfectly clear and is set out in the third paragraph. I do not dissent from what the hon. Gentleman said. It is not, if I recall, specified whether the meeting will be at ministerial or official level. What is specified is that matters that are likely to arise in strand 3 discussions can be the subject of preliminary discussion or examination at that time. I think that there is every prospect that the meeting will take place in a manner that is satisfactory to all concerned.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Labour would like to see greater use made of the Criminal Justice Jurisdiction Act to avoid many of the problems that have arisen with extradition in the past? We share the Secretary of State's disappointment that a meeting was not held this week and hope that one will be held shortly, but will he confirm that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach may talk about some of these matters at the margins of the Lisbon summit? Will he further confirm that for the strand 2 talks there was again a formation period or the preparation of an agenda, as we are having on strand 3, and that we are not having specific negotiations and agreements as we go along?

Taking the last point first, it is not a question of getting into the substance of the matters that can be expected to arise. These are preliminary meetings, and the one that took place last Friday under the chairmanship of Sir Ninian Stephen was generally regarded as having been very workmanlike, successful and helpful. It is not appropriate for me to anticipate what, if anything, may take place between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Lisbon. The use that is sought to be made of the Criminal Justice Jurisdiction Act is a matter for the Attorney-General or the Minister of Justice in the Republic. I recall from my previous occupation that there is no reluctance here to use the Criminal Justice Jurisdiction Act, if it is appropriate, having regard to the nature of the offence, that a case should be tried in the Republic of Ireland rather than here. It saves a lot of difficulty if that course is taken, but not every offence makes that appropriate.