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Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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What recent discussions he has held with the Northern Ireland party leaders about the future of the devolved institutions. [107068]


If he will make a statement on the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. [107070]


What recent discussions he has had on the prospects for re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [107072]

Before I answer, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the vital contribution made by soldiers from Northern Ireland and from the island of Ireland—notably in the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment—in Basra and southern Iraq. Our thoughts are with their families, and our sympathies and prayers are with the family of Lance Corporal Malone and those who have sacrificed their lives in Iraq.

We had intensive discussions with the parties last month in Hillsborough, and yesterday between President Bush, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Those discussions have confirmed our belief that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to the Secretary of State that so many conversations are going on in the House. I know that hon. Members have other things on their minds, but those who wish to take part in Northern Ireland questions want to be heard, and they want to hear the Secretary of State.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I should repeat my last sentence. We had intensive discussions with the parties last month in Hillsborough, and yesterday between President Bush, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Those discussions have confirmed our belief that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties on the way forward in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I agree that building trust between the parties is an essential ingredient in any way forward. Can he say what contribution the visit of President Bush has made to accelerate that process?

Yesterday's meeting at Hillsborough was extremely important, and reflects the United States Administration's commitment—previous Administrations were similarly committed—to ensuring that they encourage all the pro-agreement parties to come to an agreement. The President spent quite a lot of time talking to individual parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, and takes a personal interest in these matters. The most important thing is that the President, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach—the Heads of the Governments most involved in making peace in Northern Ireland were in Belfast during what is the most important week, I believe, since the Good Friday agreement was signed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that devolution has been a success in Northern Ireland, as a recent poll has shown, and that the majority of people are for devolution? Does he also agree that we need to restore trust and confidence between the political parties in Northern Ireland? What is he doing to ensure that the political parties are part of the process to restore the required institutions and to achieve lasting devolution in Northern Ireland?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of devolution in Northern Ireland. Part of the Good Friday agreement was that people in Northern Ireland would be governed by people from Northern Ireland who, because they lived and worked there, had a huge interest in the decisions that they made. I believe that devolution will be restored in time, but what my hon. Friend said about trust and confidence are vital. None of this will work unless trust and confidence are built up between the political parties themselves. The only way in which we can achieve success in the process before us is for the parties themselves to engage with each other and restore that trust. That is what this week is about, and I obviously hope that success is in front of us.

I warmly welcome the engagement of the United States Government in the problems of Northern Ireland, but does my right hon. Friend agree that without demilitarisation we can never have proper rule of law and a proper democracy in Northern Ireland? What progress has been made on the demilitarisation and the decommissioning that was promised by the IRA?

My hon. Friend is right that a vital part of the Good Friday agreement is that there will be what is termed "normalisation", so that Northern Ireland becomes just like Scotland, Wales or parts of England in terms of military presence, and that that is predicated on a stable, peaceful society. That is why decommissioning too is a vital part of the Good Friday agreement.

The Secretary of State knows that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are planning to go to Northern Ireland tomorrow. Reference has been made to a joint declaration that, I understand, indicates the sort of things that the Government might do in the event of acts of completion from the Irish republican movement. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in that case, it would be extremely ill-advised of the Government to publish a joint declaration unless they were absolutely sure that the republican movement would deliver genuine acts of completion both on demilitarisation and disbandment that would be convincing for the public of Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that none of this will work unless there is a commitment from the IRA and paramilitaries in general to ensure that we live in a peaceful and democratic Northern Ireland. He knows too that there must be a cessation of paramilitary activity—real, total and permanent—and that the picture would not be complete unless the Government's declarations and statements from the IRA indicated that there was no longer paramilitary activity. In both cases, we would have to go forward, because acts of completion apply right across the board.

First, within that anticipated joint declaration, will the Government address the sectarian voting system that operates in the Assembly and serves to reinforce divisions rather than to resolve them? Secondly, can the Secretary of State confirm what the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), promised yesterday: while the Assembly is suspended, from now on we will get the chance to table amendments to statutory instruments rather than having to vote on each one on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?

On the last point, I shall obviously have to look into that. The question of secondary legislation clearly depends on the success of the discussions and negotiations, and the sooner devolution is restored in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly takes its own decisions, the better. As for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the way in which Members of the Assembly vote in the Assembly is a matter for a paragraph 8 review, which is due in the autumn.

May I echo, on behalf of the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman's words of tribute to the gallantry and brilliant professionalism of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment? We are all extremely proud of them. May I also echo his words of condolence to the families of the fallen?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we warmly welcome yesterday's joint British-Irish-US statement on the peace process? On the understanding that the words really do mean that the Government will settle for nothing less than 100 per cent. completion of decommissioning and disbandment, we strongly endorse that declaration. Does he agree that, if decommissioning is to meet the criteria in the IRA's own undertaking of 6 May 2000 that IRA weapons should be put beyond use
"in such a way as to … ensure maximum public confidence",
a greater degree of transparency will be required in that process in future?

The hon. Gentleman is right to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that no agreement is possible and no deal can be reached unless there are acts of completion right across the board, including the activities of the IRA. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. May I also thank him for his tribute to the soldiers who have fought and died in Iraq?

If, as the whole House hopes, an important statement is made on Thursday by the two Governments and by other parties to the process, will the right hon. Gentleman take the earliest opportunity—and I mean the earliest opportunity—to come before the House to make a statement? Parliament, as well as the media, has a right to hear an authoritative account of what has gone on, to ask questions and to consider the matter. If that statement were delayed beyond 24 hours at the very latest, it would be a real abuse of Parliament, which we are all hoping to avoid, because we sincerely want to do everything possible to support the Government in these important negotiations.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is hugely important that the House is kept informed of developments in Northern Ireland, and that as soon as possible a statement would be made to the House with regard to the declaration and to other matters that we are discussing in that respect.