The Hillsborough talks established by my right. hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach last week have now continued for eight days. The British and Irish Governments helped to establish a basis and a pathway on which we believed it would be possible for the parties to reach a reasonable agreement. Considerable progress has been made. With good political will, we believe that the parties should soon be able to reach a reasonable agreement.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. May I place on record the thanks of the people of Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the extraordinary patience and diligence that they have applied throughout these talks? Does the Secretary of State share the frustration and anger of the people of Northern Ireland about the lack of real progress in these talks? Could he explain to the House why the Government have abandoned the core agreement principle of inclusivity by excluding 44 per cent. of the electorate from meaningful inter-party dialogue at these talks, and explain the abandonment of proportionality in the allocation of Ministries?
I certainly share the sense of frustration; after eight days and 110 or 120 hours of talks, sleep deprivation might be having its effect, as well.
The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach wanted to ensure that it was possible for the political parties to reach a reasonable agreement. Let us remember that, ultimately, because of the St. Andrews arrangements, the completion of devolution will be decided by a cross-community vote. However, before that, the political parties have been engaging in the past week in talks in an inclusive way. I can only say that, from what I have seen so far of the product of these talks, many of the points that the political parties in Northern Ireland would have wanted to see in such a process are very much under consideration.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and for clarifying the position for the House. I have been a little concerned in listening to at least one of the parties talking about whether any agreement that was reached among the parties to the talks would have in some way to be put out for public consultation or a vote—it is a bit unspecific. What is the Government’s position on that? Do they think that that would be a helpful process or that it would hinder a solution that would be durable and remain for the foreseeable future?
Clearly, whatever agreement is reached by the parties must be durable. It is very important for us all to understand that what is at stake are not simply arrangements for a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers, for which the Government strongly believe that the time is now right: this is the end of a political process that began with the peace process itself. If we succeed with this, we will secure all the achievements of the peace process; if we fail, we will put many of them at risk.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, and all the other local and national politicians, on all the efforts that they have made in trying to progress this very important matter. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on the new unit that he opened this week in Maghaberry prison. On that particular aspect, if the devolution of policing does not go ahead, what might be the implications for the future of the prison-building programme in Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is responsible for security and policing, had the pleasure of opening that unit. He was allowed out of our open prison to go to another one, but I am pleased to report that we brought him back pretty promptly.
We are committed to the provision of new places in prison. In the past two years, we have provided some 300 new prison places, with 120 more to come. The House may wish to note, however, that if no agreement is reached in the next few days, and if therefore we cannot complete devolution, the loss of the £800 million that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would make available would almost certainly mean that extra prison places would not happen, that the new women’s prison would not happen, and that, indeed, the new Magilligan prison would be unlikely to proceed.
Does not the Secretary of State think that an essential ingredient of the current discussions must be a consensus that can command community confidence? Without that community confidence, no matter what pressure is placed upon me or my colleagues, the Democratic Unionist party will not be buying into any deal. Progress has been made, but more remains to be done, and we certainly agree with including all the other parties in these discussions.
Of course everyone must have confidence, but confidence does not belong to any one community. One of the principles is that an agreement must indeed command support from everyone in Northern Ireland, but we are speaking about something that was understood in the St. Andrews agreement and that people expected would be completed. All the political parties in the Assembly elections understood the importance of completing devolution. The Assembly has been up and running for nearly three years, and that business remains to be done. We believe that the confidence is there, and it is now time to summon leadership and courage and act.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is very important that no party in Northern Ireland is seen to be blackmailing Her Majesty’s Government? The actions of Sinn Fein, in threatening to pull down the Assembly if the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach did not go almost straight over to Northern Ireland and spend hours without sleep, would not seem to any reasonable person a sensible way forward. Of course we want the agreement to happen, but that is not necessarily the best way to move forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. Let us be clear that the Prime Minister works extremely hard whether he is here in Downing street or in Northern Ireland, which is why I am sure we are all very grateful to him for what he has done. He went to Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach because he has been following the matter very closely over the past few months and judged that the time was right last Monday to go and help facilitate the talks and to build a pathway on which it would be possible to construct a reasonable agreement. That was the critical role that he played in those two days. If we reach agreement, the people of Northern Ireland from every community should be grateful to him and to the Taoiseach.
In thanking the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for the time and effort that they have spent over the past few days, may I urge the Secretary of State to use whatever extra patience is necessary to ensure that when an agreement is reached, as I hope and trust it will be, it will hold and be supported throughout all the communities in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks, and indeed for his help during those two days when his being in Northern Ireland with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs coincided with the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach being there. He is absolutely right that patience is required, but equally we must be careful not to try people’s patience to distraction. Unfair failure to make progress would not be rewarded—not by any particular process now, but by the people of Northern Ireland. We have changed their lives through the peace process and secured peace in the political process. It is right to make progress, but we now sit on the edge.
For those of us who definitely do not want to go back to direct rule and who want devolution and the talks at Hillsborough to succeed, with the principles of tolerance and respect at their core, what more can we in this House do to encourage those in the negotiations to take them forward and make them successful, in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. She always speaks well on these issues, and indeed she always speaks well on behalf of her constituents. She is absolutely right to talk about the importance of tolerance and respect. It is essential that we also learn to put trust into the process. Every step of the way in the peace process has at times required us to make acts of faith. We need acts of faith and trust now, and whether one is a negotiator or standing outside the process, we all have a responsibility for its success. We would all have a responsibility were it not to succeed, although I hope that that will not happen.
May I, too, endorse the efforts of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State in recent days in relation to the talks? I endorse also what the Secretary of State says about the importance of trust and faith. Does he believe that he would have been able to engender that trust and faith and perform the role that he has if he had been caught out trying to construct a pan-Unionist alliance?
The hon. Gentleman tempts me with the last part of his question. I will not make any attempt to secure any party advantage, because the politics of Northern Ireland are such that we must put the interests of the people above any party interest. However, I say this to the hon. Gentleman: we all have a responsibility. It is possible to grandstand what is happening in Northern Ireland, and in doing so, to say “It wasn’t my fault” if it fails. As I have said before, we are all responsible.
Everyone acknowledges the determination of the Secretary of State and his colleagues to see devolution completed, and we fully support his efforts and objectives. For devolution to be durable, it must command community confidence. Will he therefore ensure that both the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour party are fully involved in the negotiations as equal members of the four-party coalition?
I wish to put on record that I believe that that can be done only if there is an unequivocal commitment to succeed by all parties in the House. I am grateful for what I believe is the hon. Gentleman’s full support for what we are trying to negotiate, but let us be clear that the process at Hillsborough has been open to all parties. None the less, the agreement must be forged initially between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Let me pay tribute to the leadership offered by both parties. The process has been undertaken in a good spirit and in good faith, but it requires the support of those who may not be able to be involved in the intimate parts of every negotiation. I urge the hon. Gentleman to do all he can with his alliance partner in Northern Ireland to help that party understand that the talks must succeed.
The negotiations have been much more protracted than anyone anticipated. Like the Secretary of State, we want them to succeed, and I again assure him of our continued support. Can he confirm, however, that issues other than criminal justice, policing and parades that have been raised by the parties are being carefully considered as part of the final deal?
These talks are to facilitate an agreement—the agreement must be reached by the political parties. I can confirm that in plenary sessions those issues have been raised and that a reasonable agreement would include a process to address them. However, it is sometimes difficult to address such issues if some Northern Ireland parties are not available for meetings or if they are not as prepared as other parties to meet me or my right hon. Friend the Minister.