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Peace Process

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [113801]


To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [113806]

We shall continue to work for the restoration of trust necessary for the effective functioning of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, on the basis of the Good Friday agreement and the proposals published by the two Governments earlier this month, with the aim of holding elections to the Assembly in the autumn. Progress depends on absolute clarity on both the future of paramilitarism, and the stability of the institutions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the one hand, we need absolute clarity about the end of paramilitary operations and, on the other hand, we need to make it clear that if the IRA co-operates in that way, we will not allow further hurdles to be put in place to stop it playing its full part in the democratic process?

I agree that trust is absolutely necessary for the process to succeed. There is no question but that the breakdown of trust was the reason for the Assembly's suspension last October, which was a direct consequence of paramilitary activity. My hon. Friend knows that during the past few weeks various efforts have been made to try to ensure that we get greater clarity from the IRA. We have made some progress, but not enough.

It is interesting that this week's Belfast News Letter contained the results of an opinion poll. It clearly showed:
"If IRA made a statement that they would never again use weapons under any circumstances",
support in Northern Ireland for the restoration of the institutions would greatly increase. Indeed, the poll also showed:
"If IRA decommissioned all weapons and disbanded",
that support would increase even more.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the postponement of elections to the Assembly brings the danger of a period of drift for the peace process, which is certainly to be avoided? Will he consider, as a matter of urgency, convening a paragraph 8 comprehensive review of the agreement that would involve dialogue among all the parties in the Province? That will have to be done by December at the latest, in any case.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot allow a vacuum to exist in the months ahead. As he will know, representatives of the Government met representatives of the Irish Government in London yesterday and had more than three and a half hours of discussions and negotiations about where we should go. Both Governments agreed that we should ensure that the momentum continues and that we maintain progress. To that end, I shall hold a series of meetings in Belfast over the next two or three weeks with parties in Northern Ireland to find out how we can best make progress. The hon. Gentleman is also right that the paragraph 8 review needs to be held before the year is out. I shall take soundings among the political parties to find out their opinions on the best time for the holding of the review.

The Secretary of State has often stated that clarity and trust must be established to process the re-establishment of the institutions of Northern Ireland. He says that he will negotiate with the parties. Will he state clearly that all parties will negotiate together so that the atmosphere of secret deals being done may be permanently eradicated? In the aftermath of the Stakeknife revelations, will he accept that trust in the Government as an impartial participant has been seriously eroded and that action needs to be taken? Will he state that an appropriate and urgent inquiry on Government participation in the Stakeknife process will be undertaken?

I cannot comment on intelligence issues. I do not agree with my hon. Friend that trust in the Government has broken down due to recent newspaper reports. I think that he would agree that after three decades of conflict and division in Northern Ireland, it is almost inevitable that issues such as those to which he refers will come out over time. It is important for everyone to realise that the process is sufficiently robust to withstand such circumstances.

On the round-table talks, I shall listen to what the parties say during the coming weeks. I rule out no specific format or process. We are all concerned with whatever is best for movement forward so that we can restore the institutions and hold elections.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that, if and when we have a successful peace process, one of the great benefits for Northern Ireland will be the opening up of the Province's tremendous tourist potential. Does he realise that other countries throughout the world put a lot of money behind their constitutional celebrations, such as the United States, which promotes Independence day on 4 July, and France, which promotes Bastille day on 14 July? When will the Northern Ireland Office give some support to our great constitutional celebrations, which are coming up on 12 July and 12 August, to promote the colour, the pageantry and the music, and to bring tourists into Northern Ireland to celebrate the great constitutional events in our history?

The hon. Gentleman is right: tourism has increased tremendously over the past number of years. One of the great advantages of the Good Friday agreement is the fact that tourism has been able to increase. I know that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. People now come to the island of Ireland in numbers that they never did before, as a consequence of the great progress that has been made, economically and socially, over the past five years.

I shall have to consult on the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised. I know that the different traditions in Northern Ireland enrich Northern Ireland, and as a consequence people want to go there.

May I give the Secretary of State the opportunity to complete the answer that the Under-Secretary attempted to give in a recent debate that was cut off because of a shortage of time? Will he tell the House, in clear and precise language and without using terms that can be conveniently interpreted at a later time, what the IRA—an illegal terrorist organisation—must say and do before ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland can exercise their democratic right to vote?

It is encapsulated in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, on which the two Governments agreed. That is as clear as crystal. There should be a full, immediate and permanent end to paramilitary activity, by which we mean targeting, training, the procurement of weapons and surveillance. There must also be an end to paramilitary beatings and so-called punishment beatings, to the incitement of rioting and to exiling.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House, frankly and clearly, which aspects of the joint declaration he proposes to go ahead with and implement in any event, and specific ally which are contingent on acts of completion by paramilitaries?

The issues that are contingent on acts of completion include the legislation and details of on-the-runs. They include what has been termed the so-called Sinn Fein clauses in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, which have to return to this place for agreement by both Houses after restoration, and the full normalisation package, which is in the annexe to the joint declaration. The issues that will be implemented are those that should be implemented because they are part of the Good Friday agreement. They include human rights, equality, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots, criminal justice and other matters.

I appreciate that clear answer. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what he has got in return for agreeing to dismantle the two observation towers in South Armagh?

I hope that we have got progress in the process. The dismantling of the two towers was part of the normal process of returning to a normal society in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman knows that the normalisation package—the annexe to the joint declaration—referred to normalisation at a much greater pace and at a much greater intensity. That does not mean that we will not go further with what is necessary to ensure that Northern Ireland returns to being a normal place.