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Peace Process

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1997

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What plans she has to meet the Irish President to discuss the peace process. [16233]


What plans she has to meet the Irish President to discuss the peace process. [16234]

I hope to meet President McAleese when she visits Northern Ireland in the future. President McAleese has taken "Building Bridges" as the theme for her presidency. I warmly welcome this, and I look forward to hearing the President's views on a variety of topics in the near future.

I note that my right hon. Friend joins me in congratulating President McAleese on her election. Does she agree that the excellent work in all parts of the community carried out by Mary Robinson, the former President, has provided a positive foundation on which President McAleese can build?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The legacy that Mary Robinson left is a positive one. Now she has left to continue the work on human rights elsewhere, but I am sure that she has left a good base which President McAleese will study carefully, because it consists of listening to and encouraging people towards an accommodation, just as, in parallel, we in the north will continue to build bridges and work for progress and accommodation in the talks.

Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the President the work of the Great Famine Commemoration Committee in my constituency? The work of that committee involves recognising the tragedy of the lives lost in the great famine, but the committee also thanks those who gave support to the people who arrived on the shores of Liverpool and elsewhere, and commemorates the achievements of Irish people in Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The famine and its after-effects are part of our history, as they are part of Ireland's. The famine's consequences, which my hon. Friend described for her constituency in Liverpool, continue to affect the lives of many people in Britain and Ireland. As I am sure she is aware, in a statement in May my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister expressed his regret for the famine, and paid tribute to those who have settled in this country, many in Liverpool. A memorial proposed for Liverpool will focus on the famine, commemorating the victims who passed through Merseyside and the help that many people in Liverpool gave.

As the Secretary of State knows, the talks process in respect of the Irish Republic involves important constitutional issues, and, indeed, issues of international law. Does she realise our surprise when we were told recently by officials in the Northern Ireland Office that there exist understandings with the Irish Republic of a constitutional nature beyond those disclosed in public documents? Does she realise our shock when we were told later, in response to a question from me, that the Northern Ireland Office has never bothered formally to consult the Government's experts in international law in the Foreign Office? Will it now seek advice on these important matters of constitutional and international law and will it publish that advice?

I do not know the specific reference that the hon. Gentleman is making to a Northern Ireland civil servant, and the information that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I assure him that we will certainly take advice from international lawyers and that we take advice at the moment from our own lawyers, and those in the Home Office where relevant. I guarantee that—as we have done elsewhere in Northern Ireland— where it is relevant, viable and possible, we will put the information in the public domain.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest contribution that any of us can make to building bridges is to get a political settlement that can be supported by the vast majority of people in the north of Ireland? What deliberations has she had with the Irish Government and the parties within the talks to ensure that the review plenary sessions on Monday and Tuesday next week will be so positive that, in effect, we can focus on clearly defined objectives to reach a settlement?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mat question. I agree whole-heartedly with the first part of his statement: a political settlement reached by accommodation, based on consent, is the only way in which we will have a different future from the violent history that we have had.

In terms of where we go from here, as hon. Members from the parties in Northern Ireland will know, discussions are taking place now, in bilateral and other formats, to begin to try to move the process forward, so that we have specific recommendations to make at the review plenary on 1 to 3 December. We are working very hard to progress that; I am sure that others are as well. On Monday, we will discuss what form it will take. I hope that it gives us something concrete with which to move to Christmas.

When the Secretary of State speaks with the President of the Irish Republic, will she raise the matter of the President's announcement that she would make frequent visits to Northern Ireland? Will those visits be controlled under the proper protocol arrangements, or will the President be at liberty just to come and go as she pleases?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I presume that it will be normal protocol, just because of the advice that will be needed for somebody in the President's position moving around. When we hold the EU presidency in the next six months, I hope that we can, with the minimum of protocol, invite people from across Europe to see the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland in terms of the talks, the economy, investment and economic and social stability, so that people in Northern Ireland realise that, although they want peace in the months and years ahead, many people in Europe and elsewhere wish it too.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that a central requirement of the settlement that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) mentioned is a cross-border body with executive powers, and that the overwhelming majority of the pro-Union community reject that as any basis for settlement?

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question. Different parties have different parts that they consider to be essential to some sort of final accommodation—these include devolution in terms of an assembly, cross-border co-operation and the nature of the powers of that body. Surely, the point of negotiation and discussion is to consider the basic tenets that each party brings with it, whether it be cross-border co-operation, a devolved assembly or a change in east-west relations. That is what discussion, debate and negotiation should be about. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman finds it within himself to join those talks in the future, because his contribution would be welcome.

How would the Minister view visits by various representatives from Northern Irish parties to Dublin in the interests of reciprocating the important and urgent need to build bridges in the negotiations?

I would welcome participation, debate and discussion among all the different players and parties. I should like them to be fully engaged in the process. I hope to see others who are currently outside the talks or are not fully part of them come into the talks and play a fuller role, because that would help the process considerably.

Are we not at a decidedly premature stage of the political talks for the Prime Minister to be inviting Mr. Adams to Downing street? Does the Secretary of State not appreciate the public outrage when, only last week, a Sinn Fein council said that, if it did not get its own way, it would go back to what it knows it does best? Let me assure the right hon. Lady that, if we were still in office, we would not be inviting Mr. Adams to Downing street.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, if he were still in office, he would not be inviting Mr. Adams in the same way as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—openly, above board and straightforwardly. When the Conservative Government did it in the past, they did it behind closed doors and without acknowledging it. At least we are doing it in a straightforward and open way. The Prime Minister has made it patently clear that, if groups and parties sign up to the ceasefire and accept the Mitchell principles of a democratic and constitutional way forward, we will treat them as normal. The Prime Minister is in a cycle of talks with all the parties and he will treat them all the same. Let us do it openly, not in a hidden way.