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House of Commons

Thursday 20 January 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Republic of Ireland Government

1. Mr. Devlin : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he last met the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Eire ; and if he will make a statement.

7. Mr. Corbett : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland relating to Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew) : I last met the Irish Foreign Minister, Mr. Spring, on 15 December 1993, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made their joint declaration. Since then, we have been working within the framework set out in that declaration to carry forward the talks process involving the constitutional political parties as well as the two Governments. We remain in close contact.

Mr. Devlin : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the joint declaration is a fair arrangement for the future and that it is now up to the IRA and other organisations to renounce violence for good and come to the negotiating table?

Sir Patrick Mayhew : I warmly agree with my hon. Friend. The joint declaration document sets out and recognises the rights, interests and aspirations of both communities and the safeguards by which they might be protected. It is founded on the fundamental principles of consent, agreement and democracy. It is not a final settlement--it does not pretend to be. It provides a framework for peace. As such, the declaration and the realities affirmed in it will stand. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those who perpetrate violence and those who justify violence should renounce it once and for all, and for good.

Mr. Corbett : Given that there are now two sets of documents on the secret line of communication between the Government and Sinn Fein, will the Secretary of State confirm that, earlier, the British Government were willing to clarify their position to Sinn Fein? Given also that the Prime Minister described the Downing street declaration as a framework for peace, why are the Government refusing

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to clarify their position again to Sinn Fein, short, of course, of full negotiations until, as the Secretary of State says, there is a clear renunciation of violence?

Sir Patrick Mayhew : The Government were prepared to clarify their thinking quite a long time before receiving the message of 22 February, which was the outset of the exchange of documents authorised by the Government and received by the Government, which were included in the dossier that I subsequently published. A very different situation now obtains. The joint declaration is the result of careful discussion between the two Governments. Those Governments considered it for a matter of months. There is no justification now for entering upon a process of clarification of its contents ; that would inevitably lead to a renegotiation, a glossing of it and an interpretation of it. That is a very different matter. Sinn Fein should now agree to a renunciation of violence and of the justification of violence, and it should then enter the process that leads to the exploratory talks, which I set out in a statement on the matter in November.

Mr. Peter Robinson : If the Provisional IRA does not accept the offer contained in and through the Downing street declaration and instead continues its violence, will any of the provisions of the Downing street declaration collapse as a result?

Sir Patrick Mayhew : No. The Downing street declaration is a statement, as I have just suggested to the House, of the fundamental realities and principles that govern relationships in Northern Ireland, the future of Northern Ireland and the future of the island of Ireland in the view of the two Governments. Therefore, they will stand. I should like to make it absolutely clear that nothing is waiting upon the answer that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA should give. We are continuing to pursue them through the security forces and within the law with the full vigour that their crimes demand. Similarly, the talks process is continuing under the guidance of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the Minister of State. It is business as usual. The question at issue is whether Sinn Fein decides to join that process, and that is for it. If it wants to do so, it must renounce violence.

Rev. Martin Smyth : In his conversation with the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic, did the Secretary of State impress on him the need to reform its constitution, because in the modern world it is utterly unreal and improper to obtain territorial possession of a neighbouring territory? It has been the cause of problems over the years, and it gives a moral impetus to the IRA, as its members claim to be freedom fighters.

Sir Patrick Mayhew : Mr. Spring and his colleagues are under no illusion about the strong significance that is seen in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. There is a reference to the referendum that would be held in the event of an overall settlement. In the joint declaration, the Taoiseach says that the Government would then bring forward and support proposals that reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland, and that is a clear reference to articles 2 and 3.

Mr. Couchman : When my right hon. and learned Friend met the Irish Foreign Minister, did he have an opportunity to discuss the ban on the broadcasting of interviews with Sinn Fein and paramilitary groups in the

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Republic? Did he ask whether the Irish Government had it in mind to let that ban lapse? Did he further ask what impact they thought that that might have on the similar ban that prevails in this country?

Sir Patrick Mayhew : As I said, I last met the Irish Foreign Minister when the declaration was signed, and to the best of my recollection that matter was not discussed. We have made known our views about the importance of maintaining our legislation, and we were not told about the decision that the Irish Government proposed to take. Our position remains that it is important that people should be spared the additional grief and gall of listening to people justify acts of inhuman violence when they have to suffer those acts in Northern Ireland. It is known that my right hon. Friend the Heritage Secretary has the matter under review.

Mr. Mallon : In all the concentration on Sinn Fein and the IRA, it might be as well to remind the House that the vast majority of the nationalist people in the north of Ireland do not support Sinn Fein, the IRA or violence. The Prime Minister has said that the Downing street declaration is a balanced document and is fair to each section of the community, and I agree with him. Does the Secretary of State accept that if it is a balanced document, the Government's presentation should also be balanced? If he examines carefully the comments made by the Prime Minister, by himself and by other Ministers, can he honestly say that they have been sensitive to the position and the needs of both sections of the community? In recognising that imbalance, will he take this opportunity to ask the Prime Minister to remember that an unbalanced presentation of the declaration can go a long way to affect the chances of peace in Northern Ireland? I ask him again to remember that there are two sections within that community, each with its own needs and sensitivities.

Sir Patrick Mayhew : I do not think that anybody is likely to forget that there are two sections within that community. It is from that feature and that factor that so many of the difficulties and problems derive. I do not think that there is anything in the way in which my right hon. Friend or I have described the agreement for which we should apologise. What we have said and insisted on is that the agreement speaks for itself. We have been careful not to interpret or put a gloss on any of its terms, for the sensible reasons that I gave the House a few moments ago. Later today, I shall be delivering a lecture, the text of which I shall publish. I hope that it will be seen as giving a fair and balanced account of the joint declaration.

Mr. McNamara : During Prime Minister's Question Time last week, he said that he and the Secretary of State

"have gone to great lengths in this House and beyond it to ensure that the joint declaration is fully understood and we shall, of course, continue to do so."

Yet, in answer to another question, the Prime Minister said : "we are not in the business of clarifying the declaration."-- [Official Report, 13 January 1994 ; Vol. 235, c. 330-34.] Will the Secretary of State explain the difference between clarification and promoting full understanding?

Sir Patrick Mayhew : Promoting full understanding is well served by pointing out to people that the declaration has been extremely well drafted and carefully considered, and that it bears close examination. It would be a great mistake to enter into

interpretations and say, "When it says

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this on the face of it, it actually means something else." If one does that, the process degenerates quickly and inevitably into one of negotiation. That is a great mistake, and is of no service to anyone.

We see no need for clarification. We see dangers in it for the reasons that I have suggested. Those reasons argue against clarification, and we do not intend to give any. The topic of clarification could be brought forward in the hope that it will serve to muddy the waters and distract attention from the real question that needs to be answered and clarified by Sinn Fein and by the Provisional IRA--will they now give up violence for good? The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), has said--I will paraphrase him--that any reason that the IRA might conceivably have had for using violence has been removed by the declaration.

Higher Education

2. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the number of students entering higher education in Northern Ireland in 1993-94.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram) : Approximately 16,000 students entered higher education in NorthernIreland in 1993-94. This represents an 8 per cent. increase on the previous year's intake.

Mr. Marshall : I congratulate my hon. Friend upon his well-deserved promotion. Does he agree that the fact that the proportion of students entering higher education in Northern Ireland is greater than in the country as a whole reflects well upon the Northern Ireland education system? Does he also agree that the upsurge in the number of students entering higher education gives the lie to the absurd forecasts that the introduction of the student loan system would lead to fewer people doing so?

Mr. Ancram : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and I totally agree with what he said. It is worth reminding ourselves that an estimated 39 per cent. of young people in Northern Ireland enter higher education, compared with an estimated 31 per cent. in Great Britain. Those are the figures for 1993-94. As my hon. Friend so rightly said, the figures show the results of the high-quality education that is provided within the Province.

Mr. Beggs : I, too, welcome the Minister to the post to which he has been promoted. I trust that he will not be too speedily promoted yet again.

The Minister will be well aware from statistics from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland that 44.8 per cent. of students in Northern Ireland depend on student grants and are in receipt of no parental contribution. Is he aware that many young graduates in Northern Ireland do not earn anything near £14,000 per annum, and that it will be a long time before they are in a position to repay student loans and to reach the national average for earnings? Will he monitor closely future enrolment, especially the impact of the 10 per cent. cut in student grants? Will he seek to ensure that Northern Ireland's young people have the opportunity to realise their full academic potential without the burden of too-heavy loans?

Mr. Ancram : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. The questions of promotion are not for me,

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thank goodness, and I find my role as Minister with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland challenging and fulfilling. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) made it clear that we recognise that, even with the loan system, the number of students has increased considerably. That shows that there is an enormous demand for increased higher education within Northern Ireland by the young people of Northern Ireland, and that demand is being satisfied. Since 1988-89, the number of students in higher education institutions in Northern Ireland has risen by 44 per cent. to about 37,500. That is an enormous increase and reflects the value of education in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to operate the loan scheme and will not withdraw loans? Will he also confirm that the Government reject the policy suggestions made by the Labour party in a debate last night--that it would withdraw loans but not introduce any grant in their place? Is not that a strange way in which to increase the number of people in higher education?

Mr. Ancram : I have not seen the report of that debate, but if my hon. Friend is correct, his comments are significant. We are satisfied that the current system, offering a mixture of grant and loan, is effective. It is giving sufficient sustenance to students and that is reflected in the increasing number of young people who wish to enter higher education.

Dr. Hendron : I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new position. Bearing in mind the fact that several thousand students leave Northern Ireland every year to pursue further education in Britain and beyond, will the Minister reaffirm his support for the proposed plan by the university of Ulster for its new university campus, which would stretch between the west and north of Belfast from Springfield road to Woodvale? That proposal commands the support of a massive number of people in both communities and has the support of my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) and myself.

Mr. Ancram : Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. The Springfield project is still in the early stage of consideration and the university of Ulster is currently carrying out a feasibility study on it. We have made it clear that we would wish to consider the proposal after that study has been carried out, not before. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, however, that we shall have to judge the results of that study within the constraints of available resources.

Mr. Stott : I have already congratulated the Minister in private on his promotion, but I have no objection to doing so formally, once again, for the record.

The Minister said that the number of students entering higher education in Northern Ireland has increased, and the Opposition welcome that. Despite what the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) said, the Minister will be aware that recent records show that that number is levelling out, particularly the number of students from poorer backgrounds. They are increasingly deterred from entering higher education because of student loans, which cause them great worry because of the great debts that they cause.

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Can the Minister therefore explain how his Department intends to attract students from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland to the proposed fifth campus? Will he tell the House when he intends to meet the Northern Ireland Congress of Trade Unions to discuss the matter, because I gather that, so far, he has refused to do so?

Mr. Ancram : I will meet representatives of the congress when I believe that we have an appropriate agenda for discussion. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his public congratulations as well as for those which he offered me in private, which I greatly welcomed at the time.

The issue of the number of students from the lower socio-economic groups who enter university education has been raised on a number of occasions. The relevant number for Northern Ireland compares very favourably with that for Great Britain. As I said earlier, of those students who enter higher education in Northern Ireland, 33 per cent. come from the lower socio- economic groups, compared with 21 per cent. in the United Kingdom as a whole. Once again, that suggests that the university and higher education system in Northern Ireland is producing what is required by those who wish to enter it.

High Technology

3. Mr. Fabricant : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps his Department is taking to promote investment by high technology manufacturers in Northern Ireland ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tim Smith) : The Government actively target and encourage inwarinvestment in Northern Ireland by high technology companies and there have been many notable successes in the past year. Companies already located in Northern Ireland are also encouraged to increase their technology base through the provision of assistance for research and development and business expansion.

Mr. Fabricant : I am grateful for that helpful answer. May I take this opportunity of congratulating the Minister on his promotion to the Front Bench? He will be aware that NTL, the privatised arm of the old engineering division of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, is now a world leader in digital audio processing and is developing techniques to provide 16 channels for satellite broadcasting in just one channel space. However, is he aware that Audio Processing Technology from Northern Ireland is providing a vital element to that research? Does he agree that Northern Ireland is now becoming the silicon valley of western Europe?

Mr. Smith : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind personal remarks. He has drawn attention to one high technology manufacturer in Northern Ireland, but I am glad to say that there have been a number of successes recently. Seagate Technology from the United States has announced a 500-job project in Londonderry, Valence Technology from the United States will create 660 jobs in Belfast and Daesung Circuits from Korea will create 120 jobs in Ballymena. That is good news for the Northern Ireland economy and for jobs in Northern Ireland and I am sure that the whole House will welcome it.

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Mr. Clifford Forsythe : Without wishing to test the patience of the House, may I congratulate the Minister on behalf of my hon. Friends? He is welcome to Northern Ireland and, although we miss his predecessor, the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), we wish him every success.

Naturally, we welcome any inward investment into Northern Ireland that the Industrial Development Board manages to bring in. Will the Minister join me in encouraging and appealing to the media to honour the confidentiality of sensitive business projects that may be under negotiation, and to hold their hand until an official announcement is made? Will he continue, as his predecessor did, to consider the interests of firms in Northern Ireland that require financial assistance?

Mr. Smith : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and appreciate the warm welcome that I have received in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about confidentiality. It is vital that details of confidential negotiations should not be disclosed prematurely, as that could damage the outcome. I share his view that we should pursue a twin-track approach to investment ; indigenous investment in high technology is just as important as inward investment.

Sir James Kilfedder : May I join other hon. Members in congratulating the Minister on his appointment? He will not yet be aware that my constituency of North Down has an unacceptably high level of unemployment, particularly among school leavers and graduates. Will he take effective action to encourage investors to establish high-tech factories in North Down, where great skill and talent are waiting to be tapped?

Mr. Smith : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Industrial Development Board is keen to attract inward investment to all of the Province, including the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I recognise the importance of what he said about unemployment, although we have recently had the good news that unemployment in Northern Ireland has fallen below 100,000.

Mr. William O'Brien : As the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board plays a keen part in attracting high-tech industries into the region and must provide infrastructure and factories to encourage people to locate there, what is available to the board to ensure that new high-tech factories can be attracted into the region?

Will the Minister take as read the congratulations from both sides of the House?

Mr. Smith : Considerable resources are available to the Industrial Development Board for attracting high technology manufacturers into the Province, but the Province is in competition with many other regions in the European Community for that highly mobile investment.


4. Mr. Maginnis : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler) : Inexcusable violence has continued since I answered a similar question on 21 October 1993 and there

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have been 34 deaths as a result of the security situation in Northern Ireland. Those include 10 civilians killed in an explosion on the Shankill road, Belfast, the murder of seven civilians at Greysteel, and the murder of 12 other civilians, three police officers and two soldiers.

The Government's first priority is to bring terrorist violence to a permanent end in Northern Ireland. They continue to give their full support to the security forces, who are relentlessly pursuing those responsible for terrorist attacks and bringing them before the courts.

Mr. Maginnis : Does the Minister recognise that, despite the desire for peace in Northern Ireland, the IRA has already, since the end of December, made its decision to reject the Downing street declaration? Will the Minister unequivocally assure us that there is no reduction in the level of the security services' capabilities, including the deployment of special forces? Does he agree that those who promote the interests of Sinn Fein and the IRA in the House are no less traitors than those who laud middle eastern dictators?

Sir John Wheeler : I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that those who seek to further or encourage violence in any way do the cause of democracy great harm. The Provisional IRA and other terrorist gangs have not ceased their violence since the publication of the joint declaration, despite the unique opportunity offered to them. I deplore the fact that, only this morning, fire bombs were delivered in Limavady and Coleraine, and the cycle of violence and killing has continued unabated. We utterly condemn that course of action. However, I am glad to tell the House that the security forces also have their successes. In 1993, 366 people were charged with terrorist-related offences--60 of them with murder or attempted murder.

Rev. William McCrea : What deal was agreed between London and Dublin in July 1985 concerning the early release of prisoners in the event of the end of violence? Why was not the House informed of that deal and why was it left to a former Prime Minister of the Irish Republic to unveil British Government policy? Surely the policy of the United Kingdom Government should be announced to the people of the United Kingdom at the Dispatch Box by a Minister of Her Majesty's Government. We should not have to rely on someone from Dublin telling us about such a deal.

Sir John Wheeler : I am unaware of any such deal. We live by the rule of law. Those who are sent to prison for offences in Northern Ireland serve their sentences of imprisonment in accordance with the understood procedures and the rule of law. There are no deals.

Political Talks

5. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his recent contact with political parties in Northern Ireland.

9. Mr. Canavan : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the recent meetings that have been held with representatives of the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ancram : My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met the four party leaders together on 22 December. All the parties were subsequently invited to continue the private

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bilateral discussions that I have been having with the parties since the autumn and these discussions are now in progress.

Mr. Corbyn : Will the Minister assure us that he will continue contacts with all political parties, including Sinn Fein, with which there have been meetings for a considerable period? Will he also assure the House that as the Government are privy to discussions with Sinn Fein, it is time to lift the broadcasting ban on that organisation's leadership and to lift the exclusion order against the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, so that the possibilities of promoting peace and a ceasefire in Northern Ireland can be further advanced? That would put an end to the 25 years of bloodthirsty conflict.

Mr. Ancram : It is a matter of great regret that today, as earlier this week, the hon. Gentleman has sought to divert attention, and assist Sinn Fein in diverting attention, from the need to renounce violence under the joint declaration and to come to the peace table on that basis. He would be far better served in trying to achieve peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland if he were to say to his friends in Sinn Fein that they should renounce violence today, enter exploratory talks with the Government and come to the table as a full democratic member of the talks, having renounced violence fully and for ever.

Mr. Canavan : On the clarification of the Downing street declaration, does the Minister accept that there is a big difference between clarification and negotiation or renegotiation? Bearing in mind the fact that the Government are supposed to believe in open government and the fact that parts of the declaration are ambiguous, will the Government respond positively to genuine requests for clarification, even if it means consulting the Irish Government about a joint statement of clarification?

Mr. Ancram : I can only effectively reiterate what my right hon. and learned Friend said. The joint declaration was the result of an enormous amount of careful and long-standing work to produce a document that was self-standing and clear. It would not be in the interests of using that document as a framework for peace now to respond to what purport to be requests for clarification, but which would qualify and renegotiate the document. That would not be in the interests of the peace process or of achieving an acceptable political settlement to the problems of Northern Ireland in the longer term.

Mr. Matthew Banks : May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment and ask him to make it clear to the House that Britain will not be following the lead of the Irish Government in relaxing the ban on broadcasting on Sinn Fein, unless and until Sinn Fein and the IRA renounce violence or give a clear indication that they intend so to do?

Mr. Ancram : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He will have heard what my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier about the broadcasting ban. If Sinn Fein were to renounce violence permanently, become a constitutional party within Northern Ireland and become part of the democratic process, the implications would have to be considered in that context.

Mr. Molyneaux : As it is abundantly clear that the IRA intends to treat with contempt worldwide appeals for peace, may we assume that the Government will now

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proceed, having first taken the necessary steps to extirpate terrorism, to use the words of the Foreign Secretary, to speed up consultations with the constitutional parties, ignoring the sheer nonsense of leaving an empty chair at the table for Sinn Fein to occupy one of these days? In my view, it will be a worm-eaten piece of furniture by the time they arrive there.

Mr. Ancram : I remind the right hon. Gentleman of the remarks that my right hon. and learned Friend made earlier. The talks process is not awaiting anything ; it is continuing. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear soon after the joint declaration that the talks process would be intensified. It is our intention to move forward with the talks in a more focused way to move the process towards an agreement. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that his party has been participating fully in those talks and will continue to do so.

Mr. Dickens : Accepting that both Governments support 100 per cent. the Anglo-Irish Agreement, may I ask my hon. Friend to confirm that it is perfectly possible that a new, more broadly based agreement and perhaps a new structure could be considered, but not a moment before Sinn Fein denounces violence and the IRA stop violence?

Mr. Ancram : We have made it clear that if Sinn Fein wishes to be a part of the process that is designed to achieve a political settlement, it must renounce violence to become part of that process. But the process will continue nevertheless. It will continue on the three strands which cover the three sets of relationships within Northern Ireland, between the north and south of Ireland and between the Irish Government and the Government of the United Kingdom. It is the hope of the British Government that those talks will eventually achieve an acceptable settlement that will lead to lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McGrady : Will the Minister confirm that the inter-party talks are clearly and unequivocally based on the agreement made by his right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) on 26 September 1991? If there is a three-strand approach to the overall problem, and taking cognisance of the fact that, up to October 1992, the talks indicated the complexity between them--the interweaving between strands one and two--does he intend to engage all six parties, the two Governments and the four democratic parties, in inter-party talks?

Mr. Ancram : On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, I should stress that, at the moment, I am talking to only three parties and that the door is open to that fourth constitutional party in Northern Ireland to join the talks process at any time. I am referring to the Ulster Democratic Unionist party. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the talks that are taking place at the moment are based on the three strands set out on 26 March 1991. That has been the basis of the talks from the time that they were initiated and continues to be so.

Industrial Development, Belfast

6. Mr. A. Cecil Walker : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what further plans he has for the industrial development of north and west Belfast.

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Mr. Tim Smith : The Department of Economic Development is setting up an economic working group, comprising its agencies and representatives of local economic development groups, to consider how to encourage more inward investment in north and west Belfast and thus build on recent announcements about new manufacturing projects planning to establish operations in those areas.

Mr. Walker : I, too, congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I trust that he will be able to give the same commitment to Northern Ireland as did his two predecessors.

The Minister's answer reflects the efforts of all those involved in the regeneration of west Belfast, including that of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), which deserves special mention. We need confirmation of what is happening and the Minister's assurance in that respect would be most welcome.

Mr. Smith : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and certainly hope to emulate the performance of both my predecessors in my support for investment into Belfast. I pay tribute to the work that he has done in that regard and look forward to working with him.

Trade Unions

8. Mr. Mackinlay : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland how often he meets the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and representatives of the major unions representing employees within Northern Ireland to discuss the economy, employment and related issues.

Mr. Tim Smith : My predecessor met leading trade union representatives from time to time to discuss matters of mutual interest and concern. The last meeting was in May 1993. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the trade union movement on its pro-active stance for peace and its efforts with employers to keep the workplace free of strife.

Mr. Mackinlay : While echoing the Minister's comments on the trade unions' view and motives with regard to the peace process in Northern Ireland, may I ask him to reflect that ministerial contact with representatives of the trade unions in Northern Ireland is infrequent and insufficient? When it occurs, Ministers do not listen to representations arguing for restoration of the national health service, full rights in terms of employment protection and the capacity to try to persuade the Government against foolhardy processes such as the privatisation of the port of Belfast and the airport. Will he give an undertaking that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will start regular meetings with the trade unions in Northern Ireland so that the views of working people can be adequately represented to the Government of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Smith : The hon. Gentleman may have underestimated the occasions on which Ministers meet trade union representatives. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State met trade union representatives as recently as November. We have regular contact. I should be very happy to meet them if they so request it.

Mr. Trimble : Were the Government consulted about the guidelines that have just been agreed between the

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unions, the employers and the Fair Employment Commission on the display of emblems, not, as hitherto, enabling a minority to object to emblems within the workplace, but now enabling them to object to emblems displayed anywhere within the premises, a significant and sinister shift when one bears in mind the fact that previously FEC officials have tried to intimidate people into not flying the national flag or displaying pictures of Her Majesty the Queen? Were the Government consulted about that and will they take steps to ensure that the FEC does not attempt again to inhibit people from displaying the national flag and the sovereign's face in the workplace or on the premises?

Mr. Smith : I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about this issue. I cannot offer him an immediate answer, so I shall write to him about it.

Anglo-Irish Joint Declaration

10. Mr. Hunter : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the representations that he received following the Anglo-Irish joint declaration.

Sir Patrick Mayhew : The significance of the current declaration made on 15 December by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach has been recognised in the reactions to it from around the world. Most of those share the hope that the declaration can and will provide the basis for a lasting peace in Ireland. I welcome the support for the declaration given in the House. In addition, my right hon. Friend and I continue to receive a great number of letters on the subject from members of the public.

Mr. Hunter : In his recent dialogue with interested parties, has my right hon. and learned Friend commented, or been asked to comment, on the view expressed by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland on 10 January that the consent of the majority applies only to the constitutional issue and not to what he called "all other political forms"? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with that point of view?

Sir Patrick Mayhew : The agreement speaks for itself. An overall agreement is the objective of the talks process of which the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), has spoken this afternoon. The reality is that, to be lasting and durable, new political structures need to secure widespread acceptance and the allegiance of both communities and that is why the talks process seeks agreement across all three strands.



Q1. Mr. Oppenheim : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

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