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Rev. Martin Smyth: I received a response from the Northern Ireland Office that there had been 30 objections to the possibility of the Europe Tool Company investing in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is rather strange that British companies that purchase from the parent company in South Korea object to British people manufacturing the equipment? It would be a wonderful investment for the United Kingdom economy, particularly in Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Mayhew: The hon. Member for Belfast, South is his usual charitable self in saying that it is rather strange.

I refer now to political progress. Intense efforts have been made to secure the beginning of political talks on an inclusive basis. As hon. Members know, the talks began, on schedule, on 10 June. The Government welcome Senator Mitchell's assumption of the chair at the opening plenary session, and the appointment of General de Chastelain and

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Mr. Holkeri as chairman of strand 2 and the business committee and alternate chairman respectively. I express our deep appreciation of the selfless willingness of these distinguished gentlemen to help.

All nine parties presently participating in this political process have formally affirmed their commitment to the six principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the report of the international body that had been chaired by Senator Mitchell. However well the participants' democratic credentials were already established, I believe that it was an important step for them to reaffirm those principles--and they have done so. We would require the same of Sinn Fein if it succeeds in lifting its self-imposed exclusion.

I believe that these talks can succeed. We have come a long way already, but we must go a great deal further. There have been significant shifts in thinking in recent years among many of those present in the negotiations. The participants arrive at the negotiations with a mandate from their electors to take part to the full in the process. There is clearly a deep wish among the population of Northern Ireland--and, indeed, among all the people of these islands--after years of conflict, for a lasting peace and for consolidation of all the advantages and opportunities of which we have had a foretaste since the ceasefires.

The process commands much international support--I believe that there is much to welcome and nothing to suspect in that. As we have repeatedly made clear, the way forward lies in the hands of the participants. However, it bodes well for Northern Ireland, in the context of any future settlement, that there is such a high degree of positive international understanding. In looking back to the enthusiasm and delight with which the visit of President Clinton was greeted, I believe that the people of Northern Ireland understand that.

An important complement to the talks will be the elected forum, which had its first meeting last Friday--14 June. As has been made clear, it has no authority over the negotiations--it is a purely deliberative body. We see its usefulness lying in its ability to debate ways forward in the development of dialogue and understanding between the communities in Northern Ireland, and more broadly. It can do this with the benefit of the views of a wide range of interests that might be invited to address it--many of whom may be outside the political sphere. I am most grateful to Mr. John Gorman for agreeing to take on the sensitive role of the forum's interim chairman, and I wish it well.

I have set out our hopes for the negotiations and for the future well-being of Northern Ireland, which in many ways turns on them. We are likely to have months of discussion ahead--indeed, I hope that we do. It is unlikely to be a rapid process, and it may often be a rough and uncomfortable one. The rewards of the process are potentially great for all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the welfare of people in both islands is intimately bound up with the settlement that we hope to reach and to put to the people in a referendum.

There is a great responsibility on all of us who are involved in the negotiations. Sinn Fein could have been a part of the negotiations, had the IRA not abandoned its ceasefire. Sinn Fein could have joined the negotiations last week, but the IRA chose not to restore the ceasefire and to bomb the people in Manchester instead. The talks

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will continue--with or without Sinn Fein. The IRA can destroy the prospects of Sinn Fein--the other side of its coin--being a part of the talks process, but the IRA cannot destroy the talks process.

I hope that we shall soon have a more satisfactory basis for administration in Northern Ireland. Until then, however, we must renew the current arrangements. I commend the draft order to the House.

7.37 pm

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar): Tonight, we have come to the House to renew the Northern Ireland Act 1974 at a time when many of the Northern Ireland Members of Parliament are working in Belfast, trying to move the talks process forward. We have come here in an atmosphere of sadness and grave disappointment. Our thoughts must be with the victims, and their families, of Saturday's sickening terrorist attack in Manchester. We commend their courage, and the courage of all the people of that town, as they continue the huge task of clearing up after the devastation of the IRA bomb.

When the Secretary of State sums up this evening, it might be helpful if he would tell us about any special arrangements or compensation that might be available to those who live and work in and around the Arndale centre in Manchester.

The Labour party has nothing but outright condemnation and contempt for the callous individuals who mounted this attack and for the cowards who sanctioned it. Had it not been for the professionalism of the police in clearing the area and for sheer good fortune, dozens of people could have lost their lives.

Those who carried out this act must be brought to justice swiftly. We are delighted with the response from the public in support of the police in their investigations. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield(Mr. Blair) said on Saturday:

After the bombing in Manchester, it is up to Sinn Fein to convince us that it has a commitment to the peace process. It is up to Sinn Fein to say and do whatever is necessary to restore what confidence it can in its shattered credibility. It is a tribute to the determination of the leaders of the loyalist community that its ceasefire has been maintained.

When the bomb exploded at Canary Wharf on 9 February, killing Inan Bashir and John Jeffries, the two Governments pledged their determination to continue the search for peace. Their concerted efforts produced the communique of 28 February, which detailed the route to the all-party talks on 10 June. Not everyone agreed with that route--we understand why--but everyone followed it.

The agreed stance adopted by the British and the Irish Governments demonstrated its worth once again this week. We welcome and fully support the two Governments' determination to continue the talks process. In view of the public anger about the appalling murder of Garda McCabe in the Republic of Ireland, we acknowledge the Irish Government's decision to keep under review their official level contacts with Sinn Fein. They are asking very important questions, to which we all want a response.

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The optimum result is a peace process that is as inclusive as possible. Although that is impossible at the moment, we must keep alive the possibility of inclusive dialogue at some point in the future. Following the important and welcome progress today, I hope that the talks in Belfast will continue with those parties who demonstrate, day in and day out, their commitment to peace and democracy. If Sinn Fein cannot do that, as the Secretary of State said this evening, the process must continue without them.

This annual debate has often taken place in exceptional circumstances--as it does again this evening--but it is concerned primarily with the Secretary of State's stewardship of Northern Ireland affairs in the past 12 months. In the absence of a new agreed settlement, decisions continue to be taken at a distance from the people of Northern Ireland in a manner that is not accountable. The absence of an agreement in Northern Ireland means that the centralisation of decision making in Westminster persists. When a policy is mistaken or when the Government mishandle a situation, people and businesses in Northern Ireland suffer, but their influence is limited.

For an example, we need look no further than the chaos and confusion surrounding the current beef crisis. Northern Ireland farmers should compare favourably with their counterparts in Britain if the framework before the European Union is accepted. Some 90 per cent. of the herds in Northern Ireland are grass-fed, there is a low incidence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and a traceability system is in place. I have not read the details of the agreement announced on the news this evening, but it appears to be very general. It seems as though reference must be made to the veterinary committee every time the process moves forward. I do not think that it will make a big difference to the beef farmers in Northern Ireland, many of whom face disaster.

The privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity is another case in point. The current level of profits and prices are against consumer interests in Northern Ireland. A Monopolies and Mergers Commission referral is long overdue and the Government must account to the people of Northern Ireland for that delay. Furthermore, this year's Budget contained a nasty sting for training providers. Groups face cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent. after the adult community employment reductions. The Government pulled a further £2 million out of the hat, but only after sustained pressure.

Given the appalling level of unemployment in Northern Ireland--which costs taxpayers more than £300 million per year--it is economically and socially short-sighted to cut training schemes, especially when alternative plans, such as the community work programme, are struggling to get going. The Government's misplaced priorities are affecting key services in Northern Ireland.

Mismanagement has also proved a problem in the past year with the rise and rise of bureaucracy in the health service. Budget cuts are plunging the Northern Ireland health trusts into crisis only three months into the financial year. Northern Ireland's hospitals are gearing up for a summer of chaos. Hospitals such as the Royal Victoria in Belfast or Musgrave Park face theatre closures and cuts in the number of beds and jobs. Patient care will suffer and bureaucracy will escalate--that is the outcome of the Government's health policies.

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When ideology triumphs over common sense, services suffer, money is wasted and the concerns of local people--citizens, consumers, business people and community representatives--are ignored. Sadly, that problem is not exclusive to the Government's stewardship in Northern Ireland--far from it. It is a symptom of a deeper malaise throughout the United Kingdom of a Government who are distant from and out of touch with the people.

Unless there is an agreement between the parties and consent is granted for a new settlement, the order will come before the House in the same form next year. A general election will intervene between now and then. If no agreement is reached and if a Labour Government are proposing the renewal of the order, we shall implement different policies from those that we are reviewing this year.

Labour has made it unequivocally clear that there can be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of its people. It seems clear to me that an acceptance of that principle of consent means that Northern Ireland will continue as part of the United Kingdom for a long time into the future. There is clearly not consent among Unionists for a united Ireland and it is equally clear that Northern Ireland's existing status does not command the consent of nationalists. That is why we need new arrangements and structures that both communities can support. As we have said on previous occasions, Labour wants to see reconciliation between the two communities and between the two parts of Ireland--north and south--on the basis of consent.

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