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Column 1057What is the next promise that may be broken? Is it the promise--
Sir Patrick Mayhew: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is being quite fair to the Prime Minister. I am looking at the Prime Minister's statement, made on 16 September in Belfast. I think the hon. Gentleman stopped short of the part when the Prime Minister said:
"We shall therefore go on scrutinising both words and actions until--as we hope--we can sensibly make the assumption that the IRA truly intend to end violence for good."
He had previously said:
"We need to know from their words and their actions that this is a firm and unequivocal decision. They are nearly there. I hope they will have the courage to remove ambiguities and make the . . . statement."
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is being fair. I think that the Prime Minister was recently expressing quite a well-established line of thought. We needed to be able to make a sensible assumption.
Mr. Robinson: I hope that I am not being unfair to the Prime Minister, but I would point out to the Secretary of State that the Prime Minister's undertaking was that he would not start the clock ticking until he was satisfied that the Provisional IRA ceasefire was permanent. The Secretary of State's words obviously showed that he is not convinced that the IRA ceasefire is permanent. Indeed, the opinion of the Prime Minister that events must be continuously monitored shows that the Prime Minister is not convinced that it is permanent. I did not set the criteria. I did not lay down the yardstick. The Prime Minister did. I am asking the Prime Minister merely that he should keep to his own guidelines.
If the Prime Minister continues to monitor events, I wonder whether he was monitoring BBC radio this morning. Did he hear the opinion of the chairman of Sinn Fein that the cessation of violence will not be permanent? Will the Prime Minister therefore say that, in view of his continuing monitoring of the situation, he will now change the opinion that he expressed when he was in Northern Ireland a few days ago?
The Prime Minister also gave a sign to the hon. Member for North Down last week, in answer to a question about the IRA's arms and explosives. I shall happily give way if someone wants to assure the House that I am drawing the wrong conclusion from this matter. The Prime Minister started to change the basis of his previous promise. His previous promise was that there would be no entry to the negotiating process for the Provisional IRA's representatives until all the guns, arms, ammunition and detonators had been handed over. However, in answer to the hon. Member for North Down, the Prime Minister last week said:
"Armaments--especially Semtex and detonators, perhaps more than guns--are a crucial issue that will have to be dealt with as we advance the process"-- [ Official Report , 18 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 140.]
Mr. Spring--who, until last week, had also been sure that guns had to be handed over before the IRA started the negotiating process--changed his opinion. He said:
"It would be unrealistic to expect the arms to be handed over right now, but I would hope that can be done in due course. I don't see a completion of any negotiations taking place until arrangements are made for the handing over of arms by both sides."
Column 1058It seems to have moved from the start of the process to some time during the process, and I note the views of the hon. Gentleman, where he seems to say that, if the guns were not handed over at the beginning, at least there should be some understanding of at what point they should be handed over.
How could anyone sit down in negotiations with the Provisional IRA or anyone else if they are still holding on to their guns? I believe that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) was right when he said that there should be no guns on the table, under the table or outside the door. That seems to make good common sense to me.
In case I was reading too much into the Prime Minister's remarks in his answer to the hon. Member for North Down, I note that the spokespersons-- the spin doctors of the Northern Ireland Office--were at work at the weekend, and that they had been helping our newspapers to interpret those events. The Mail on Sunday says:
"Both governments are trying to get the IRA to hand over most of the non- defence weapons"--
where did we hear that expression used today?--
"such as explosives and mortar bombs".
The Observer said:
"Handing in guns and explosives is not the British Government's priority".
There you are, now.
It went on to say:
"No one will want to create artificial hurdles to stop the process".
A senior Northern Ireland Office source said:
"It's not the guns. The detonators and the bombs do most of the killing."
I would question that, but that is the Northern Ireland Office senior spokesman's views on the matter. Therefore, there is some anxiety that yet a further promise may be watered down.
If the Government cannot be trusted to deliver on those promises, can they be trusted to deliver on the more important issue of the safety of the Union? The quickest glance at all those issues leads me to conclude that I should make a working assumption that the Union is not yet safe.
Mr. Winnick: I cannot understand the logic, for the life of me. If this country has fought terrorism for 25 years, and its international reputation has suffered--in some respects, wrongly, obviously, in our opinion--and if we have made it clear throughout those 25 years under successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, that we will not give in to terrorism, that we will not go against the majority wish in Northern Ireland, why on earth, under conditions of peace, would we abandon that pledge, which has been given by successive Governments and by all the political parties in the House of Commons? I do not understand the logic of what the hon. Gentleman says.
Mr. Robinson: I shall attempt to help the hon. Gentleman. I do not need to suggest any malevolent intent on the part of those people who are watering down those principles. All I need to show is that they are reducing the standards that they themselves set. The important thing-- [Interruption.] I am sorry; let me answer the hon. Gentleman. The important thing is the enthusiasm.
Column 1059Everyone can understand why people so long for peace, hope for peace, desire peace, that they are prepared to push any process forward.
But the criteria set down by the Government initially were set down in the cool light of day, when they recognised that certain standards had to be met along the route to any peace. The Government are reducing those standards as they go along. That may be due to their enthusiasm to achieve peace, but it is a high-risk strategy. If the people of Northern Ireland are made to believe that peace is on its way or that peace has already arrived, but that peace cannot be achieved, those people will be not only deflated, but without hope. I suspect that many hon. Members will know, without me having to say it, what can happen if people are let down in that way.
I want to make it clear that my colleagues and I will do nothing to present an obstacle to real, lasting peace in our Province. The people we represent have much to gain from unconditional and lasting peace, but, after the decades of vicious terror, nobody should be surprised that those who have endured that terror campaign should closely examine the bona fides of the terrorist organisations and the commitments they make.
I put it to the Prime Minister when I last met him--brief though that may have been--that the vital issue for the future of Northern Ireland, from the perspective of Unionists with fears and concerns, was that their rights must be protected through the principle of consent. The traditional guarantee, which has already been repeated in the House, which is enshrined in statute and which successive Prime Ministers have enunciated from the Dispatch Box, is that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the people of Northern Ireland wish. But the weakness of that guarantee was brought home to me most acutely in 1985, when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was published.
When the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, it became evident to me that, whatever constitutional guarantees may have been on the statute book or enunciated by Prime Ministers and Secretaries of State, the agreement represented a significant change in the way that Northern Ireland was to be governed in future. That change went to the very core of Northern Ireland's constitutional position. Dublin was now inside the door, but the people of Northern Ireland had not been asked for their consent or been given the opportunity to give it. I saw a weakness in the constitutional guarantee. It appeared that it was a guarantee only at the end, at the final act of severance--the legal handing over of Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic. It gave the people of Northern Ireland no power or control in any step leading up to that final act. The Downing street declaration also underlines the fact that the people of Northern Ireland do not have a right to give or withhold their consent. They were not asked to give their consent to that declaration and did not have an opportunity to give it.
It is clear that the traditional constitutional guarantee is a limited warranty. It does not apply to each and every step leading to a united Ireland, but only to the final step. There were even some people who looked at the joint declaration and thought that it enunciated and endorsed the principle of consent. They were soon blown out of the
Column 1060water by Albert Reynolds who, on 10 January in Dublin castle, made it clear to the Irish Association that it applied only to that one constitutional issue. He said:
"It does not mean that all forms of political progress or other decisions by the two Governments are subject to a similar block." We pressed the Prime Minister to give an undertaking that not only would any constitutional change affecting Northern Ireland be subject to the principle of consent, but any new means of governance for Northern Ireland, or any new institution or structure affecting Northern Ireland. I was heartened by the Prime Minister's statement in Northern Ireland on 16 September, when he said at a press conference at Stormont:
"So for the avoidance of any doubt I want to make clear today that the Government will submit the final outcome of the three-stranded process of talks to the electorate of Northern Ireland for approval by referendum. That is to say, we shall consult the people of the Province on the full package of proposals as a whole. The details of such a referendum will rightly be for discussion with the parties. Let me say to all the people of Northern Ireland the referendum means that it will be your choice whether to accept the outcome."
However, the Prime Minister did not say what would happen were the outcome of the talks process to be a failure. He did not say whether he would then decide--either on his own or, worse, in league with Mr. Reynolds--that they should bring in their own proposals for change in Northern Ireland. He did not say whether those proposals would also be put to the people of Northern Ireland by way of referendum. The only true consent that is meaningful within the context of Northern Ireland is the explicit approval of the people of Northern Ireland--the population--at each stage of the evolution of any change. But the Prime Minister implicitly suggested that the commitment did not or may not end with the outcome of the talks process. He said: "My commitment means that no one can go behind your backs--not today, not tomorrow, not at any time."
There is a suggestion that the commitment, while given specifically to apply in the one set of circumstances, might also apply in other circumstances. The Prime Minister should apply the principle of consent to all sets of circumstances and for all time. Once again, I today seek confirmation that that is the Government's position, and that the democratic principle of consent will apply to any future change in Northern Ireland.
The Government should clarify the extent to which they will abide by the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. They should formally submit that principle to the House. That would also give the Labour party the opportunity to commit itself to the principle of consent on the terms under which the people of Northern Ireland decide their future.
The principle of consent makes sound common sense. If one looks back into the recent history of Northern Ireland, one sees that, for about 50 years, there was a system of government that had the consent of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, but not the consent of the nationalist population. It collapsed. Why? Because it did not have sufficient consent within the community. The Sunningdale agreement had the consent of the nationalist community, but not that of the Unionist population. It collapsed after five months. Why? Because it did not have sufficient consent.
Column 1061We must all learn the lesson that one cannot govern without consent. If the Government commit themselves fully to that principle, they will, apart from anything else, leave my colleagues and me free to concentrate on our next priority--urging the Government to try to overcome the obstacles to our participation in a new talks process. I hope that the Government will ensure that they create a talks process that will not be tied to a fixed or predetermined outcome, or to one that is so circumscribed by Albert Reynolds's principles that agreement cannot be achieved.
No sensible negotiator would allow his negotiating base to be either limited or extended by the terms of agreements reached by others. No one could expect us to allow ourselves to be constrained or steered by an agreement to which we were not a party and which we had not signed. The basis for talks must be on a level playing field.
I shall now make some observations on the state of the Union. Some say that the Union is safe. In November 1985, all Unionists believed that the Union was in peril. When I look at its present state, I must ask myself what has changed since 1985 to make the Union safe. Every change since 1985--whether the outflow of the work of the secretariat and the conference to the Anglo- Irish Agreement, the Downing Street declaration or other concessions that have been granted--shows that, if the Union was in danger in 1985, it is in greater danger today. I believe that the Government's policy is based on a false premise--the idea that ultimately the people of Northern Ireland will go into a united Ireland. There is no sound reason for believing that. The whole strategy of this Government is based on the idea of a transitional process towards a united Ireland, however. They believe that some time, somewhere down the road, the people of Northern Ireland will not want to be part of the United Kingdom. This is why Northern Ireland is not governed in the same way as other parts of the United Kingdom are. It is why Northern Ireland is the detachable part of the United Kingdom.
It is quite false to believe that the people of Northern Ireland will ever want a united Ireland. An opinion poll carried out by the two Unionist parties some years ago showed that the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland wanted to retain the link with Great Britain. Not a single supporter of the Democratic Unionist party or the Ulster Unionist party said that he or she wanted a united Ireland. Only six per cent. of those who support the Alliance party said that they wanted a united Ireland; and only 41 per cent.--fewer than half--of the supporters of the SDLP wanted a united Ireland! Not surprisingly, 91 per cent. of those who vote for Sinn Fein said that they wanted a united Ireland, but that 91 per cent. brought the total who wanted a united Ireland to only 17 per cent.
Just think of the constitutional manipulation, the political transformations and the programmes for further change that have been undertaken to placate this mini-minority of 17 per cent. I believe that the Prime Minister should build the Government's Northern Ireland policy around the inevitability of its remaining in the United Kingdom, instead of being dragged by Albert Reynolds into constructing a road that has only one destination, and for which only the timetable is in doubt.
Column 1062The Prime Minister should move to ensure that Northern Ireland is more contained within the Union, instead of pushing it towards a united Ireland.
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I congratulate the Labour Front-Bench spokesman and wish her all the best. I have no doubt that she will talk to everyone and listen to everyone. There may even be a "Dear Marjorie" column somewhere along the line in the years ahead. I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and his colleagues. I salute his remarkable contribution to events in Ireland over a long period. I offer that tribute with the greatest sincerity on behalf of those whom we represent in this House.
I came to this debate with an air of confidence and with a feeling that I would see for the first time in this Chamber some signs of hope in the air. It did not take long for that hope to be dispelled and for the sourness that we heard from both Unionist parties today to creep in again.
Spinoza said that peace is not an absence of war: it is an attitude of mind, a disposition towards benevolence, confidence and justice. After listening to the two Unionist speeches this evening, I wonder where that benevolence is going to be found, or where we shall find the generosity of spirit that will be needed to overcome the problems that we will face. How are we to remove the terrible aridity that has invaded those Unionists' political lives?
I should like to refer to an historic statement made by another Unionist in another forum. William Butler Yeats reminded the people of the Republic of Ireland,
"We are not petty people".
Indeed; the Unionist people are not a petty people, and they would not want to be associated with the aridity, negativity and nihilism to which we have just listened. The Unionist people among whom I live have greeted the opportunity of peace with confidence, generosity and the sense of justice that I think will be required to solve this problem.
I do not intend to deal today with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross). I shall deal with them in my own good time, and there will be plenty of opportunities. I would, however, like to make one point about what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said. I agree whole-heartedly with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), who challenged him, saying that he had the distinct impression that the hon. Gentleman was almost sorry that peace had broken out--that he would have preferred continuing carnage in the north of Ireland and rubble on the streets of London in the wake of bombs and bullets. There is something terrible about such a begrudging attitude of mind and a disposition that cannot follow the type of leadership offered so courageously by the Prime Minister, the Irish Prime Minister, the leader of my party, and above all by the ordinary men and women, Unionists and nationalists alike, in the north of Ireland. It is they who have stood up to the bullies and resisted the terrorists, telling them, "You are not going to do that to my children, my country or my community." That is what eventually wore down the conflict and created this wonderful thing called peace, which we must nurture and treasure. We must value it, and to hell with nihilism. Those who are
Column 1063alive today because of the peace will have absolutely no sympathy with the negativity that we have heard from various quarters. I shall be brief because I know that many others want to speak and we have been detained for some time at the crossroads of aridity by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. I speak from the nationalist point of view. We nationalists want the creation of a united Ireland through peaceful and democratic means--I have never said otherwise. Now the Government and the Unionist parties face a new challenge: how, in the foreseeable future, to create a north of Ireland where nationalists and people who think like me can enjoy equality, self-esteem and dignity while the framework remains. I readily accept the principle of consent--that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. My consent to that idea means that I intend to live in Northern Ireland until a majority of its people decide to change it; but I want to live there with dignity and equality, without my political aspirations or those of the people I represent being compromised by the type of sourness that we have heard today. Together with the Unionist people, we can, for the first time, start to create a settlement in a positive and generous way that will take us beyond the myriad problems that we face. The coin of consent has two sides. Let us be clear: agreeing that the status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed without the consent of the majority of its people does not mean that I have to agree with the status of Northern Ireland. I have the right politically to disagree with its status while agreeing that it cannot be changed without a majority.
I have a question for some, but not all, the Unionist Members. If a change took place somewhere down the line and the majority of people in the north of Ireland decided that they wanted to change its status, to end the constitutional arrangement with Britain and be part of a 32-county Ireland or to have an independent Ulster, would Unionist Members go on record in Hansard and say that they would readily accept the wishes of the majority of people in the north of Ireland? I will give way to anyone who would like to confirm that on the record. That is the acid test of sincerity about adherence to the principle of consent.
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman has any difficulty about understanding the Unionist position on the right of consent. The Downing street declaration was not a document that we would have written, but we subscribed to it because it recognised the right of consent not just for today but for tomorrow and next year and for as long as we have any say in the matter.
Mr. Mallon: I am delighted that I gave way because, with his usual honesty and sincerity, the hon. Gentleman has stated what I believe to be the correct position of unionism, just as it is the correct position of nationalism. If we have done nothing else in the debate, at least we have put both positions on the record for posterity. I spoke about equality and dignity. It is the job of the two Governments to ensure that what is created will give those to me and to the people I represent. It is an onerous task because when the two Governments issued the joint declaration on 15 December, they decided to remove the cause of the conflict, to overcome the legacy of history
Column 1064and to heal the divisions of that legacy. They made a commitment to go to the heart of and solve the underlying problems in Ireland. Let us remind ourselves of what was in the joint declaration. It was not confined to Northern Ireland. It states:
"The role of the British Government will be to encourage, facilitate and enable the achievement of such agreement over a period through a process of dialogue and co-operation based on full respect for the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland." That is the role of the British Government while they remain in Ireland. By working together that aim can be translated into reality.
Does anybody imagine that, given the sorry history of the north of Ireland, there will not be problems? Does anyone imagine that those can be overcome quickly or that there will not be things said on radio in the mornings that will throw everybody into a tizzy? A remarkable feature of the speeches so far has been the absolute obsession with Sinn Fein and what it and McGuinness--not the hon. Member behind me--and Mitchell McLoughlin say. That is what the debate has been about, but I should like to put it in terms of the other section of the nationalist community in the north of Ireland, the community which does not bomb anyone and which does not, has not and will not inflict terrorism on anyone. Its stand in the north of Ireland prevented the entire nationalist community from going over the brink after the hunger strike about which we have heard in the debate. How clearly we remember that period. Let us look at the needs of those people to see how we can give them equality and dignity and whether we will have the courage to be able to do that, because that is what the two Governments will have to do.
Will anything given to the nationalist community be by grace and favour of the Unionist parties? Will it have to have Jim's imprimatur in political terms? Will I have to meet an unwritten test of unionism before I can get dignity for the community in which I live? Will we need to have the agreement of all sections of unionism before making changes in some of the matters with which we shall have to deal? Reference has been made to policing, but as soon as the term is used, hackles rise. I understand the reason for that because I know the emotional conflict in the Unionist community about policing. I remind the House that no section of the community owns the police; that the police are the servants of the entire community. Are we to approach changes in policing on the basis that they are needed for a new and changing situation, or will they be approached on the basis of what unionism will allow? Those are the questions that we and the two Governments must ask ourselves.
Will there be north-south bodies that will allow the expression of my aspirations? Will they have powers to enable them to be dynamic and capable of acting, of serving all the people and of being of mutual benefit, or will we have the sort of north-south bodies that unionism will allow? Does unionism have a veto on the decisions of sovereign Governments so that those Governments cannot make decisions about solving Ireland's problems?
That imprimatur of the Unionist parties is what we reach when we deal with questions of equality, parity of esteem and dignity. If the nationalist position is squeezed out as one squeezes toothpaste from a tube in terms of what unionism will or will not allow, we will not get to the root of the problem. I make that point forcefully
Column 1065because we are at a crossroads in deciding the philosophical basis from which we should start to address our political problems. We can address those problems only on the basis of honesty. We can respond to the type of leadership that has not so far been given with generosity of spirit and confidence for the future, and with the courage that is required to take on the unknown, because that is what we face.
Mr. Maginnis: I should like to make two points in answer to the hon. Gentleman. First, as a Unionist I do not have a veto. I have a mandate given at the ballot box, and that mandate must be honoured by me and by others who represent the majority community. The only veto that I know of in Northern Ireland is the veto that is exercised by terrorists through the barrel of a rifle. The hon. Gentleman should be careful when speaking about the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I do not want the RUC to be my police force: I want it to be the community's police force, and that will happen only if people such as the hon. Gentleman do not kick them around like a political football. I shall try not to do that if he will do the same.
If the Unionist veto means the strong political influence of a coherent community of 900,000 people in the north of Ireland, I accept that: it would be futile not to do so. If it is something extra--if it is something that must be met on every decision that a sovereign British Government will take in relation to the solution of the problem--it is a contrived veto which will do nothing for unionism and which never has over the years. We should look where it has got us; it will bring us all into a position where we can solve nothing. Generosity of spirit has been shown by the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and others, including the people of the north of Ireland, Unionist and nationalist, with the courage that will be required and with the approach that will be needed to solve this awful, intractable problem--let us face it on that basis and none other. Several hon. Members rose --
Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey): I am grateful to follow the triptych on the wall of Northern Ireland politics made by the excellent contributions of the hon. Members for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). I shall draw something from each of those speeches in the few remarks that I wish to make.
Everyone taking part in the debate recognises that there has been a very substantial change since we last met to discuss Northern Ireland affairs. Those of us who had some involvement in them way back are in many ways astounded that this debate is taking place and at its context.
Column 1066Our first feelings are a combination of relief and
gratitude--gratitude to those who, like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, have taken immensely difficult decisions showing great initiative and courage to bring these matters to book. In terms of the phases with which we have to deal with matters in Northern Ireland, relief and gratitude may well be fairly short-term. We have already seen some signs recently and in the speeches just made that there is a fairly short time limit allowed for both relief and gratitude.
After 25 years of total disruption of civil liberties, during which people experienced difficulties walking round the streets, faced road blocks and body searches, had their handbags emptied on to the pavement and were unable to go Christmas shopping--as was the case when I was a Minister--a remarkable change will have to take place before the various factors that have come into play can cohere to produce a more unified and stable society.
After relief and gratitude comes phase two--suspicion and anxiety, and I suspect that we have seen something of that already in the comments of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party. Deep anxiety and suspicion have represented a common view. People want to know what has happened to create such an enormous shift so remarkably quickly after the intransigence, the bullets and the bombs have lasted for 25 years. It is a rational view to be deeply suspicious that some secret agenda has been worked upon. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear that that is not the case and has repeated that nothing was underhand and that there were no nods and no winks, but it will take a long time to remove entirely the suspicion that something has occurred. With suspicion comes anxiety about what happens next--the anxiety that, although a hideous nightmare is apparently over, suddenly things will change in a unknown manner and, possibly, in a unstructured way.
In that second phase of anxiety and suspicion, decisions on such issues as disarmament and the role of the Army and the police are absolutely crucial. There cannot be any meaningful exchange between Government and Sinn Fein or the IRA until the issue of disarmament has been addressed. There must be disarmament to a level which is at least understandable and recognisable so that anxiety is reduced. Those of us who have been involved from time to time in, for example, Home Office activities, know that there are two attitudes to crime: there is crime itself and there is the fear of crime, and sometimes the fear of crime is a vastly more destabilising factor than the incidence of crime itself. The anxiety factor has to be addressed in the next phase into which the Government, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State in particular, will be moving. The Army must not be removed, as the Sinn Feiners would wish, until the anxieties and the confidence of the population have been restored to a level at which that can be done most safely. The third phase is the phase of caution and care. Caution, I am happy to say, is clear in some of the Prime Minister's recent speeches and comments. He is right to move slowly, to behave with great caution and to take note that he can move only in such a way that he carries the confidence of the people with him. I suspect that the vast majority of the citizens represented by Members of Parliament on both sides of the House are extremely
Column 1067anxious that there should be procedure with care--that it does not outrun the cautious view of many people in the Province that, with the termination of hostilities, there has to be a considerable period of time before people will regard the situation as something approaching normal.
We need a cautious period and a careful period, making sure that the question is not the timetable that the Taoiseach may wish to see. The rapidity with which he himself has moved is surprising--although of course at the last election the Sinn Fein commitment represented about 2 per cent. of the vote in the Republic and a much larger and more important proportion in the Province, so the anxieties that he may have in relation to the pace at which the movements are made are not as great as the anxieties of those who are responsible for the governance of Northern Ireland.
I am concerned that there should not be a timetable and that the only factor that should determine the pace is the real and genuine prospect of success--not an artificial timetable, but moving with caution and care to ensure success.
The final phase--and we do not know how long it will take--will, no doubt, be confidence and then commitment. It is clear from comments across the spectrum of the debate tonight that the confidence of the entire community of Northern Ireland has to be obtained. It may not exist currently in the nationalist community or in certain minds of the Democratic Unionist quarter of the population-- a very significant proportion of votes. It may not exist among those who support the majority party-- the Unionist party. There is certainly anxiety and suspicion, and it may take some time for confidence to be built up again.
In a sense, the Government have only to ensure that they move in a way that allows the confidence of the people to determine that point at which they can reach commitment. Obviously, within that phase comes the crucial nature of whatever structures are to be put into Northern Ireland to enable the population-- the entire community--to be reflected properly in a democratic manner and to start reaching decisions for the governance of Northern Ireland at local or regional level. Those structures have to be built in a situation where they can create confidence so that those who are elected to those structures will represent a people who are prepared to reach commitment.
The consequence of the rather laborious and dangerous process of unknown timing will ultimately, I trust, be that the people of Northern Ireland, throughout the length and breadth of the Province, whatever their view, their religion or their political
affiliation--and many will have none--will be the ultimate winners after 25 years of desperate trial and tribulation.
The course taken by the Provisional IRA from the late 1960s onwards, which was designed to force through the union of both parts of Ireland by terror and sustained violence, was always unlikely to succeed. The policy of successive Governments was quite clear--that the majority wish to remain part of the United Kingdom would be respected. Although it is true that the IRA could
Column 1068not be defeated--if that had been possible, it would have been achieved--nor was there any chance that it would succeed.
In the past 25 years, terrible crimes and atrocities have been committed, obviously mainly in Northern Ireland, but also on the mainland. In the west midlands, we recall the murder of 21 totally innocent people in Birmingham in November 1974. As we all know, they were killed by bombs in two public houses. It is right and proper that we should remember them, as we should remember the victims of all the atrocities of the past 25 years. We should also remember the victims of the loyalist murder gangs, including their last victim, who were put to death for no other reason than that they happened to be Catholics.
I am reasonably optimistic about the permanence of the IRA ceasefire. Just as the leaders of the IRA must have realised that they had not achieved their objectives in 25 years, they must also have realised that, even if they continued their terrorist campaign for another 25 years, there was no sign that they would succeed. They were right to appreciate that victory would not be possible. They, and the leaders of Sinn Fein, must also have recognised that, by continuing with the killings and rejecting the joint declaration of the British and Irish Governments of last December, they were seriously out of step with opinion in the Irish Republic and, I imagine, with that of most nationalists in the north.
Although I believe that the IRA ceasefire is likely to be permanent, I accept that another terrorist campaign could be launched in future years. No one can be certain about that. Other people may come to share the view held by the Provisional IRA in the late 1960s: that Britain can be forced out of Northern Ireland through terror and violence. Progress towards political reform is therefore necessary to guarantee that any such future campaign is unlikely to succeed in winning marked support among the minority community.
We must recognise, as I am sure that Ministers already do, that there are two distinct communities in Northern Ireland. It is no good obscuring that fact. I am not suggesting that everyone in the minority community is in favour of a united Ireland. It is important, however, to take note of the historical traditions of each community, which are as legitimate as one another. Improvements in the local economy and in the housing stock will also deter violence, because undoubtedly the economic conditions of Northern Ireland aided the forces of terrorism.
I understand that the concept of power sharing is no longer a controversial breaking point among Unionists, as it was 20 years ago. We remember what happened in 1974 shortly after the election of a Labour Government, when the Sunningdale agreement was destroyed on the ground in Northern Ireland. It is unthinkable that any political changes in Northern Ireland would not now be based on power sharing between the two communities. What was once so controversial and a matter of principle to the majority community 20 years ago is no longer so for the majority of Unionists. More is required, however, because a purely internal political settlement will not meet with the approval of the minority community, nor is it likely to meet with the approval of the Irish Republic. An Irish dimension is required. That is why cross-border organisations with some executive powers are as essential as power sharing in any political settlement.
Column 1069Irresponsible elements within the Unionist community argue that the peace process is part and parcel of a plot to drive Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. They claim that the Irish Republic and what some Unionists call the pan-nationalist front are plotting to bring about a united Ireland. That is absolute nonsense. Irish Governments of successive political parties have declared time and again that they respect the majority wish of the people of Northern Ireland. They recognise that there cannot be a united Ireland as such without the agreement of the majority community. That has been the Irish Government view for a long time, regardless of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), who co- chairs the British-Irish parliamentary body, and I have met many Irish politicians of all parties and we know that they believe that consent is absolutely essential to achieve any united Ireland.
The basis of continued progress must undoubtedly be a working relationship between Dublin and London. The problems with Stormont would probably never have arisen if there had been such a proper working relationship between the two countries. How much better it would have been had that relationship existed prior to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It is right and proper that two neighbouring countries should work closely together. It is perfectly understandable for the Irish Republic to have a legitimate interest in the north, as was recognised in the agreement.
Northern Ireland has been a feature of British politics for a very long time. Those of us who read our history know of the fierce debates that took place over home rule in 1886 and afterwards. We know about the even fiercer debates and bitter controversies of the years leading to the war in 1914. That was an unhappy time in Anglo-Irish relations and should not be repeated. It is rather remarkable that, given all the changes that have occurred in Europe since 1914, making it almost unrecognisable by comparison, here we are in 1994, six years from the next century, once again debating Northern Ireland.
I hope that, at long last, we are near to reaching a settlement which respects the wishes of the majority community. The Labour party has no plot. As my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), the Labour party spokesman on Northern Ireland, and her predecessor made clear, we are in favour of a united Ireland on one basis--that it has the support of the majority of the people. We recognise that without that consent the proposal simply would not work. It would not be possible to transfer a substantial minority of people within a united Ireland if that minority was unwilling to accept that. Such forced transfers do not work, as is clear from what has happened in the Indian sub-continent and in former Yugoslavia. What we say, we mean, because it makes political sense.
It is necessary for political reforms to take place along the lines that we in the Labour party have indicated. Certainly, there should be power sharing, certainly there should be an Irish dimension, and certainly there should be a continued working relationship between London and