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Inter-Party Talks

Volume 210: debated on Thursday 25 June 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the progress of the inter-party talks.

There have been substantive constructive exchanges in strand 1 of the talks under my chairmanship. Sir Ninian Stephen last week chaired a meeting between representatives of the Government, the Irish Government and the four parties. It completed consideration of a possible agenda for strand 2 of the talks. I hope for an early meeting in strand 3 formation to give preliminary consideration to the issues that are likely to arise in that strand.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and all those concerned on proceeding so successfully through strand 1 to strand 2 of the talks. However, I recall that in 1976 there were signboards all over Northern Ireland saying that seven years was too much, yet here we are 16 years further down the road with the same problems. In the light of that, will he inform the House, clearly, who is responsible for the delay in proceeding to strand 3 and assure us that we will get to the pre-strand 3 talks very soon?

I am grateful for the good wishes with which my hon. Friend began his question, but we are not yet into strand 2. We have had a preliminary meeting to discuss an agenda, but the moment has not arisen when I think it right to propose the transition to strand 2 proper.

It is worth pointing out that all involved in the talks have shown real determination to make a success of them and have applied themselves to a very difficult task with, in my respectful opinion, great imagination and determination. I hope that we can now look forward to the pre-meeting for strand 3 and not dwell on the disappointment of not being able to achieve that meeting this week. I have said what I wanted to say about that, and I believe that there are now good prospects for having the type of preliminary meeting that we all want.

Will the Secretary of State inform the House why he has not yet called a substantive meeting of strand 2, as he is required to do by the statement made in the House on 26 March? Will he also inform the House whether he or any of his colleagues gave a written commitment to the Democratic Unionist party that a strand 3 formation meeting would take place this week? If he did, will he confirm that he gave such a written commitment to all the other party leaders involved in the talks? If he did not, will he surmise where such a written commitment may have come from?

The answer to the second part of the question is no, I did not. In answer to the first, I have a rather better recollection of what my right hon. Friend said on 26 March 1991 about the foundation for the whole process of the talks. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is required, when he thinks the moment is right, to propose the transition to strand 2 after consulting the parties. I do not yet think that that moment has arrived. I look forward to it arriving and I wish it to arrive as soon as possible, but I shall not—[Interruption.] Rather than being shouted at by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), I should like to finish the answer. I do not wish to prejudice the outcome of strand 2 by proposing it prematurely.

If the Anglo-Irish Agreement is such a wonderful instrument for consultation, does the Secretary of State have any idea why it has already taken two weeks to establish a mere preliminary strand 3 meeting which, after all, was foreshadowed as much as 15 months ago?

All institutions are mortal and, therefore, fallible—and it seems to me that some are more mortal than others. Those of us who consider the issues of the government of Northern Ireland from any standpoint do not have an easy task, and we must make the best use that we can of the structures already in existence in our task of getting agreement for better and more effective structures. That is what all of us are about.