Skip to main content

Northern Ireland

Volume 403: debated on Monday 14 April 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.41 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on recent political developments in Northern Ireland.

The House will recall that, with great regret, we were obliged to suspend devolved government in Northern Ireland in October last year. We were left with no alternative following a series of events that gave rise to serious concerns about continuing paramilitary activity. As a result, it was evident that there had been a breakdown of trust on both sides of the community. It was also clear that an inclusive Executive on the basis set out in the agreement was not sustainable for the time being.

For six months, the two Governments have been engaged in extensive dialogue about ways of restoring trust and confidence and securing long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The two Governments continue to emphasise what the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said in their joint statement on 14 October 2002: that the agreement remains the basis for political progress; that they remain committed to its full implementation; that concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means must be removed; that paramilitarism and sectarianism must end; and that there should be commitment to the full operation of the agreement and to the stability of the institutions.

The Prime Minister reiterated and developed those themes in a speech in Belfast on 17 October. He made it clear that it was now essential to complete the permanent transition to exclusively peaceful means. We had reached a crossroads, a fork in the road. Acts of completion were needed: the trust necessary for the system to work could not arise from any other foundation. The commitment to exclusively peaceful means should be real, total and permanent. If that happened, we could implement the rest of the agreement, including on normalisation, in its entirety. He also acknowledged concerns about the instability of the institutions: those, too, had to be addressed as an essential part of the way forward.

Since October, both Governments have been closely engaged with the political parties to find a basis consistent with those principles for restoring devolved government and completing implementation of the agreement. More important, the parties have increasingly engaged with each other, without the Governments present, to the same end.

Those efforts led to prolonged negotiations at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March in which the two Governments discussed drafts of proposals with the pro-agreement parties. What became clear by the conclusion of those discussions was that there was a very large degree of shared understanding between the parties on what needed to be done to set the process back on course, However, it was also clear that time was needed for reflection and discussion. The impending election, due on 1 May, would have impinged on that necessary process. We therefore asked the House to postpone the election for a period of four weeks, until 29 May.

When the President of the United States came to Hillsborough on 8 April, he, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said that the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders had a momentous opportunity to ensure that peace was strengthened and political stability secured. Since last October, there have been many hours of intensive discussions between the British and Irish Governments and the pro-agreement parties, which have led to the development of a comprehensive package of proposals. The two Governments judge these to be an excellent basis for acts of completion but, as the Prime Minister made clear at Downing street last Thursday, it is necessary to have absolute clarity about acts of completion. Without such clarity, the trust and confidence needed to restore the agreement's institutions cannot be fully rebuilt. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach therefore directed further intensive political dialogue, which has continued since last Thursday.

On 12 April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach issued a further joint statement. They said that the two Governments were absolutely committed to upholding the agreement and were determined that it must be implemented in full. They said that all parties and groups had a collective responsibility to fulfil the promise and potential of the agreement. The House will be aware that the Provisional IRA yesterday made a statement saying that it would be passing to the two Governments a statement dealing with the status of its cessation, its future intentions, its attitude to re-engaging with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and a process of putting arms beyond use, and a third act of decommissioning. It said that it stood ready to issue this statement in due course.

I can confirm that the two Governments have received a draft statement from the Provisional IRA. The Governments have studied it with great care and have asked the IRA to clarify a number of questions arising from it. They believe that there has been progress and that the statement shows a clear desire to make the peace process work. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach continue to believe that we can move to the final implementation of the agreement if there is sufficient clarity and certainty from all sides.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve the long-term peace, stability and normality that is within reach through acts of completion. The two Governments pay tribute to the vision, dedication and courage shown by all those who have contributed to the work on acts of completion. The two Governments will continue to make every effort to bring about a basis for publishing the package of proposals, but it would not be right to publish the proposals, and they can have no status until the necessary clarity on all sides about acts of completion is in place. I recognise that the steps the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach outlined last October are indeed big steps for all the parties to make.

The Government will stand by their commitments. We will not ask anyone to surrender their legitimate aspirations. We recognise how significant are the steps that we are asking for, but the prize is huge and historic—for this and future generations. It is a prize that does not forget the past, but draws a line under it and moves on. So, I urge all concerned in this process to redouble their efforts, in order that future generations will stand back and admire the courage of those who took the long view, and chose the road to the future, not the past.

I start by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in letting me have an advance copy of the statement and for many opportunities for consultation over the past few weeks, which I much appreciate.

From time to time, we have had our difficulties and differences with the Government over their tactics in the last year or two, but never over our commitment to the Belfast agreement and, of course, to peace. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in declining to publish the two Governments' proposals in the light of the refusal of Sinn Fein-IRA to date to commit themselves irrevocably to complete decommissioning and ending the IRA as a military or paramilitary organisation he has our fullest support? Does he agree that nothing short of complete decommissioning, verified by the de Chastelain commission and as transparent as possible, will provide any solution? Otherwise, we shall simply face a series of crises over an indefinite future as each new tranche of decommissioning has to be negotiated in turn. Does he agree that it would be a fatal error to allow ourselves to become victims of such salami tactics from Sinn Fein-IRA?

Is it not the case that, under the Belfast agreement, paramilitary decommissioning should have been completed within two years—by May 2000? Is it not therefore right that Sinn Fein-IRA should be brought to understand that they cannot continue to play games with the peace process and with the rest of the community in Northern Ireland indefinitely and with impunity? Is this not the moment when we should consider other possible approaches and will the Secretary of State discuss that aspect in particular with our Irish partners and our American allies?

Will the Secretary of State also, and for the same reason, make it absolutely clear that the concessions envisaged in the document that the two Governments remain, at this moment, willing to issue are entirely conditional and contingent, and cannot simply be left on the table indefinitely?

Pursuing the same theme, does the Secretary of State recognise that, after five years of running after Sinn Fein, the time may be approaching when we may need to plan forward to enable an Executive to operate, if necessary, without Sinn Fein if it still cannot bring itself to take the decision to turn the republican movement definitively into a genuinely and exclusively democratic and peaceful political organisation?

May I ask the Secretary of State, not for the first time I know, to remove the slightest scope for ambiguity, misunderstanding or self-delusion, especially on the part of republicans, about what is required by ceasing to use the undefined and conceivably elastic term "acts of completion" in his public and private statements? Instead, he should use the concrete terms "the completion of decommissioning" and "the end of the IRA as a military or paramilitary organisation". Would not that best serve the principle of achieving absolute clarity—a phrase, I notice, that the Secretary of State used a few moments ago and which I heartily endorse?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman regarding the nature of any statement that might be made by the IRA—it should be clear and people should be able to understand it, right across the religious and political communities in Northern Ireland. I also agree that decommissioning is a vital part of the agreement. There are few of us still in the Chamber today who were present when the Belfast agreement was signed. All of us know that decommissioning was an essential part of it. We also know, of course, that the agreement says that we wanted decommissioning to take place, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, within two years of the Assembly elections.

It is important, as the hon. Gentleman also rightly said, to look at the picture as a whole. That is why it is important that we want to deal with the joint declaration in a way that is consistent with the commitment of everybody in this process, which is why we do not believe that now is the right time to publish it. I agree with him, too, on the importance of our allies. Certainly, there have never been better relations between the British and Irish Governments. Particularly in the past number of days, the whole House will have recognised that the unity in the approach taken by the two Governments has been uniquely good for the process. I think, too, that the role of the United States Administration has been particularly significant over the past number of years, but also over the past number of weeks and days, when Ambassador Richard Haas has played an enormously important role in the process.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, ultimately, we have to ensure that the democratic process in Northern Ireland continues. People in Northern Ireland have been pleased with devolution. They want Ministers who are from Northern Ireland, elected by the people of Northern Ireland and accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that the days ahead ensure that devolution will indeed be back with us in Northern Ireland.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he not think that Northern Ireland people are entitled to transparency when it comes to this issue? Therefore, will he consider publishing the so-called draft statement that the IRA has produced? Does he agree with me that there are people in IRA-Sinn Fein who will never be satisfied with anything that the Government give, or any agreement, unless it means that the people of Northern Ireland are no longer British and are part of a united Ireland? Will he therefore consider that at some stage we may have to accept that Sinn Fein-IRA are no longer entitled to be part of the democratic process in Northern Ireland, and that we shall have to go ahead and try to bring the democratic parties together to work for a devolved Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend refers to the role of Sinn Fein. The reality is that Sinn Fein had about 17 per cent. of the vote at the last elections to the Assembly and as a result of that was entitled to two Ministries in the Executive. I believe that the leadership of Sinn Fein and many people within Sinn Fein are committed to the democratic process. I agree with my hon. Friend that undoubtedly there are people, whether in the republican movement or in other political movements in Northern Ireland, who do not agree with the Belfast agreement. To want a united Ireland is a perfectly honourable course to take, so long as it is achieved by democratic means. The past week has been about trying to ensure that politics in future is exclusively democratic and nonviolent. That is what the Good Friday agreement was all about, and that is what we have to achieve.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for early sight of his statement. Does he agree that permanent acts of cessation of violence are ultimately the outcome and that acts of completion of decommissioning are the process? The problem is that there is not real confidence that either has yet been achieved.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to see from paramilitaries more than one-off decommissioning gestures, which could be criticised as apparent public relations exercises rather than strategic intent totally to decommission? Even more to the point, does the right hon. Gentleman further agree that paramilitaries should also be expected to allow exiles back to their homes to ensure that paramilitary activity stops in those communities? Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that while Sinn Fein asks the Government to publish their declaration, the IRA has given no explanation for not having published its own declaration? That sort of opportunism begins genuinely to try the good faith that many of us have shown in believing many of the statements that the IRA has made in the past, claiming that it is genuinely committed to acts of long-term completion.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is no place in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else that claims to be a democratic society, for paramilitarism. There is no room for it. It has gone out of fashion. It is no longer relevant. For those reasons alone, and there are many others, there should be no paramilitarism or paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is right also in drawing the attention of the House to the important question of exiles. Many families in Northern Ireland want their loved ones back. People want to return to Northern Ireland. Those issues and the issue of victims are the result of 30 to 40 years of troubles in Northern Ireland. They need to be resolved in the spirit of peace and reconciliation. That is what we have been talking about over the past number of months.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the principles behind the Belfast agreement were an inclusive future for all political persuasions and traditions in the future of Ireland as a whole, and particularly in Northern Ireland, and that the statement that has been sent to the two Governments by the IRA and the intentions behind it are to be welcomed? Will my right hon. Friend indicate how long he expects further consultations to continue between the two Governments and the IRA so that this matter can be dealt with and there can be full speed ahead to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement?

I cannot give my hon. Friend details about the timing because we are still considering these matters. Where he is right, of course, is that there has to be confidence in the process across the political and social spectrum in Northern Ireland. That confidence is built on trust. Until we can rebuild the trust that collapsed during the course of last year, we shall get nowhere in the democratic and political process in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State referred in his statement to the Prime Minister's speech at the Belfast Harbour Commission last October and his reference to a fork in the road. Does he also recall the reference in that speech to this not being yet another inch-by-inch negotiation? The Prime Minister's objective was rightly to try to change the way in which things are done, and the expectations with regard to the way in which things are done, but is it not the case that since October we have unfortunately had another inch-by-inch negotiation? Is it not the case, too, that the very limited progress between last Wednesday night and today in terms of the IRA statement shows that the IRA does not feel any compelling need to address the fork in the road? Is not that the problem: there is lots of exhortation, but no significant pressure has yet been brought to bear to compel the IRA to make a choice? Is that not the issue on which the Government should now focus their attention?

My experience, like the right hon. Gentleman's, is that things can sometimes go rather slowly in Northern Ireland as long as at the end of the day we get the right result, and the right result in this case is to try to restore the institutions, get devolution back and move forward in the political and peace process. As for the IRA, he and others who have followed the media in the past number of days will have read every editorial in every newspaper, whether in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, that has pointed to the absolute need for the IRA to realise that we have entered a different world in Northern Ireland and that, in 2003, there is no need for paramilitarism.

I was pleased to assist my right hon. Friend as his Parliamentary Private Secretary five years ago when he played such a vital role in negotiating the Belfast agreement. He will remember that the clocks were held for some time and we went beyond deadlines until we got an agreement, but does he agree that the clock cannot be held indefinitely and that there is increasing frustration among many of us in the House at the intransigence and obstructionism that now seem to be in evidence? It is time that we made that decisive completion of the full implementation of the agreement.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. He will recall from those weeks and months leading up to the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that it was sometimes very difficult, very painful and very stressful, but at the end of it we thought—and I hope we had—that we had achieved an agreement, on which everyone in the island of Ireland had the opportunity to vote and on which they overwhelmingly voted positively. In that agreement, it says that we should move towards a peaceful, non-violent, democratic society in Northern Ireland. Everyone who signed up to the Good Friday agreement signed up to those principles. He is right in saying that the IRA, like all paramilitary groups, must accept the will of the people.

The right hon. Gentleman will remember the 27th day of November last year, when he sat on that Bench beside the Prime Minister and I asked the Prime Minister whether we were going to depend on another statement, or a complete repudiation by the IRA of violence, its disbanding and its ceasing to declare war on the people of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister was loud and clear in his response:

"It is not merely a statement, a declaration of words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence".—[Official Report, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
Is the Secretary of State now telling the House that that has been gone back on? He informed me and my colleagues that we would not hear anything about the package because it was not going to be renegotiated. He said that it was going to be put down on the table and that negotiations were over, whereas in the event there has been continual negotiation with the IRA—negotiation that is still evidently going on. Can the Secretary of State tell the House today what he means by "legitimate aspirations"? In his opinion, has the IRA any legitimate aspirations? Can he spell that out to the House and tell the people of Northern Ireland whether or not we are going to have the election on the day that he set for it?

It is certainly not my intention to move the date of the election, which is on 29 May, and the Assembly will be dissolved on 28 April. As to legitimate aspirations, the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that any political party in Northern Ireland has aspirations that are legitimate—so long as they are pursued peacefully and democratically. A united Ireland is a perfectly legitimate aspiration; the continuation of being part of the United Kingdom is a legitimate aspiration. All such aspirations are legitimate, so long as they are peaceful and democratic.

So far as the Prime Minister's statement on 27 November is concerned, I entirely agree with that, as one would expect; indeed, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with it too, because it is important that, above all, we commit ourselves to peace.

What arrangements are being made for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is based in Vienna and is monitoring Scots and Welsh elections, to monitor these elections as well?

I also invite the Secretary of State to consider this. We are acting as proxies. Where are our great allies and colleagues from the Social Democratic and Labour party on this critical occasion? If this issue is so vital for Britain and Ireland, I should tell the Secretary of State that some of us are sick to the back teeth of turning up here when our colleagues who are supposed to represent the nationalist and republican interest do not. The Secretary of State needs to take back this message and spell it out in stark terms: they cannot pretend to be Labour Members of Parliament if they do not turn up on vital occasions such as this. We are sick and tired of it, and the sooner the Labour party organises in Northern Ireland, the better.

I do not want to enter into that particular discussion today, but I will take back my hon. Friend's comments to SDLP Members of Parliament. So far as monitoring is concerned, that process applies throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he is right to continue to combine political flexibility with certainty and transparency? However, will he also recall that there would have been no agreement had the IRA not made commitments that were accepted by everybody else in good faith, and that it would not be acceptable for the IRA to continue to make similar promises each time around, extracting more concessions from all the other legitimate political parties and the people of Northern Ireland time and again? That is not the way forward in terms of peace and building confidence, or of security.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the agreement was founded on everybody who signed it playing their part in it, including parties that represent republicans, nationalists, loyalists, Unionists and others. Through his own experience as a native of, and as a Minister for, Northern Ireland, he understands these matters extremely well. But I repeat—as he has repeated—that at the end of the day, it is a matter of clarity and of transparency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the complete cessation of violence and the complete surrender of all illegally held arms are not concessions but the basic minimum requirements expected of anyone involved in the democratic process? Does he also agree that any ambiguity on the part of the IRA on this point simply plays into the hands of those forces in Northern Ireland, democratic and undemocratic, that want the Belfast agreement to fail?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has played a significant role within the Labour party on these matters. He is absolutely right that what we are asking for is nothing exceptional, but something that the people of Northern Ireland themselves expect.

This is part of coming to terms with history, and the two Governments' co-operation follows the 18 years since the Anglo-Irish agreement. Can the Secretary of State say whether the overlapping leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA—together with the leaders of the disloyalists, whose killings have marred the history of Northern Ireland just as much in the past 20 years or so—are prepared to give up the chance of publicity and power by violence, and whether they will stop intimidating their own people, just as they threaten people on the other side of the divide?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the communities in Northern Ireland that have been plagued by paramilitaries on both sides. That, unfortunately, continues, although to a lesser extent than it did. Until it ends—and it is an essential part of paramilitary activity, which must end—we will not have a peaceful Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State will know that it is taking some time to drag these words from the IRA. Does that not tell us something about the IRA's real intentions—the fact that it is so reluctant to make a statement that is clear and offers certainty?

In May 2000, the IRA told us that it would deal with the arms issue in a manner that would maximise public confidence. Instead, it smuggled in further illegal weapons from Florida. The IRA speaks with forked tongue. Is it not time the Secretary of State recognised that? And—here I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—is it not time he worked with the democratic parties to restore a proper democratic institution and administration to Northern Ireland? If the IRA is not prepared to move it must be left behind, and the rest of us must move forward without it.

Certainly the IRA, and indeed all paramilitary groups, must recognise the changing times. I agree that there is no place in Northern Ireland for the activities in which they have engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I—and, indeed, the other Northern Ireland Ministers—constantly have discussions with the democratic parties about the way ahead, and will continue to do so. At the end of the day, however, the people of Northern Ireland themselves will decide how they are to be represented when the elections happen.

Will the Secretary of State comment on the very strong feeling in Northern Ireland that no further concessions should be made to the IRA in advance of its disbanding and decommissioning totally? Will he also comment on the feeling that the package that is understood to be on offer is an affront both to the principles and practices of democracy and to the rule of law?

The hon. Gentleman must wait until he has an opportunity to see the proposals of the joint declaration. Some—I have indicated what they might be on a number of occasions during Question Time—were indeed linked to further progress on the issue of paramilitarism. Others constituted part of the implementation of the Good Friday Belfast agreement, and we must continue with them. They relate to issues such as human rights and equality.

At this year's annual Sinn Fein conference, the president demanded further extensive reforms to policing in Northern Ireland. We already have a 50:50 recruitment procedure, which is restricting recruitment because there are not enough Catholic applicants to match the Protestant applicants. Similarly, if a Catholic trainee drops out halfway through the course, a Protestant must be dropped as well. What further concessions or reforms can possibly be made if the trust and confidence of the people in Northern Ireland are not to be destroyed?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act was given Royal Assent only last week. It made a number of changes to the running of the police force in Northern Ireland, including the workings of the Policing Board. I understand the issues raised by the hon. Lady, which are a subject for debate here on another occasion, but what impresses me is the phenomenal transformation of the police, enabling them to represent everyone who lives in Northern Ireland. When I returned there after a gap of three years, those changes in the police were the most significant that I saw.

Will the Secretary of State remind the House how many mutilation beatings, shootings, forced exiles and acts of intimidation have been carried out by republicans over the past year? Given those facts, how much trust does he think can be placed in an organisation that speaks the language of peace and justice on the one hand and commits such evil acts on the other?

There is no excuse in this wide world for those acts, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are unfortunately committed throughout the community. So-called punishment beatings occur in republican and in loyalist areas, and I agree that they should not exist in any civilised country.

At the start of his statement, the Secretary of State referred to the reason for suspending the Executive and the Assembly as "serious concerns about continuing paramilitary activity, creating a lack of trust." Will he confirm that the reason why the Government suspended the Executive and the Assembly is that Sinn Fein-IRA—the republican movement—was found to have been involved, from last July to November, in a spy ring within the Northern Ireland Office? Will he also confirm that the Unionist community's lack of trust about ever again being in an Executive with Sinn Fein is based on Colombia, the ongoing investigation into the break-in at Castlereagh police station, Stormontgate and the Ormeau road? Is it not time to move on and have a voluntary coalition between the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the ever-absent Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party? That would allow us to get Stormont up and running again without Sinn Fein.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the events that he described were responsible for a breakdown in trust between the political parties in Northern Ireland, which led to the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly. On the second part of his question, however, the institutions are based on the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland voted for that agreement by a majority. It is therefore our duty to ensure that the agreement is implemented as soon as possible.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the democratic parties in Northern Ireland that do not have links to terrorism—and, more importantly, the people who vote for them—cannot indefinitely be held to ransom by the refusal of the IRA and Sinn Fein to submit to the demands of the agreement?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the republican movement must ensure that it is exclusively democratic and peaceful.

The Secretary of State has referred several times this afternoon to the agreement, which was voted for by the people of Northern Ireland. Will he accept that the promises made by the Prime Minister prior to that referendum were influential in persuading many people to vote yes? When will the Prime Minister deliver on the promises that he made?

The hon. Gentleman refers to what my right hon. Friend said in those days. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the fact that we wanted to change the society of Northern Ireland to help it down the road of peace, democracy and non-violence. I think that my right hon. Friend would repeat those assurances. One of the reasons why we have not obtained what we wanted is that we are not securing the clarity that is required under these circumstances.