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10.1 pm

Mr. Alex Carlile: I was about to add one comment. I hope that, during the general election campaign, those who may be in the House afterwards will allow the public to be given a sensible and informed debate on the issues surrounding the criminal justice system.

Members of Parliament serve the public ill by misleading them about the nature of legislation and the attitudes of other political parties. Every party represented in the House, without exception, wants to improve criminal justice policy. No party in the House is soft on crime. We are all striving to find better solutions to a serious problem. Let us hope that, during the election campaign, the subject can be debated intelligently, for a change.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 88 agreed to.

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Education Bill

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): I have to acquaint the House that a message has been brought from the Lords as follows. The Lords have agreed to the Education Bill with amendments, to which the Lords desire the concurrence of the House. I understand that copies of the Lords amendments are now available in the Vote Office.


Lords amendments accordingly considered.

Lords amendments Nos. 1 to 110 agreed to [some with Special Entry].

19 Mar 1997 : Column 996

Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations)

10.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew): I beg to move,

The order would withdraw from effect, subject to possible later revival, the provisions of section 3 of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996, which established a forum for discussion of

    "issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland".

Putting it in plain English, the order would wind up the forum, at least for the time being.

If, in the language of section 7 of the Act, it appears to me that the negotiations that have been proceeding in Northern Ireland since last June are suspended, I am obliged by that section to make an order of this character, which requires the approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.

At a session of the opening plenary of the negotiations on 5 March it was acknowledged that, in the words of the chairmen's statement, while some areas of potential agreement had been identified, no basis had emerged for reaching agreement on the question of decommissioning.

That crucial subject has been under discussion since last autumn. There was a general recognition that further progress in the talks was impossible before the general election and the local elections that will be held in Northern Ireland on 21 May, so the plenary agreed to adjourn until 3 June. By reason of that and of all other relevant circumstances, it appears to me that by that adjournment the talks are suspended. Accordingly, I must make the order.

It has been a disappointment to us all that the talks were not able to make greater progress in their first nine months. It is important that the participants want to resume, and they will do so on 3 June. We should not underrate the progress that has been made under the dedicated and excellent chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell of the United States, General John de Chastelain of Canada and Prime Minister Harri Holkeri of Finland.

The participants agreed a complex set of rules of procedure, and there was a wide measure of agreement on the agenda for substantive negotiations--although there has so far been no vote on that question--but they have not been able to reach agreement on the question of decommissioning of arms, despite much discussion and the emergence in some areas of a significant degree of potential agreement.

Decommissioning is a question of capital importance. There is very wide agreement that there can be no place in a democracy for the use or threatened use of force for political purposes. It is the Government's view that the only approach likely to deliver decommissioning of arms illegally held by terrorist organisations is the approach recommended by Senator Mitchell and his colleagues in the international body. That is the approach requiring that some decommissioning take place during the progress of political negotiations.

That is a question to which the talks will undoubtedly have to return. I hope that it will prove possible to advance quickly over the decommissioning hurdle and

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enter into the substance of the negotiations. I am delighted that the independent chairmen have reaffirmed their personal commitment to the process. Meanwhile, by reason of the forthcoming elections, we have reached an impasse, and hence the suspension.

I want to emphasise that I believe that the negotiations have the potential to deliver the settlement that the great majority of people in Northern Ireland hope for. The process is capable of bringing together all the main political interests in Northern Ireland, but they must each acquire the same entry ticket: they must show that they are willing to work only by democratic and non-violent means.

Sinn Fein should at once remove its self-imposed exclusion. An IRA ceasefire should be unequivocally and credibly restored, and Sinn Fein should show that the other conditions set out in section 2 of the Act are fulfilled. That will open the way for an invitation to Sinn Fein to enter the talks.

Most important is the fact that the process is one of dialogue. Without dialogue, the prospects for Northern Ireland are at best unpromising. I profoundly hope that, early in my successor's time, there will be sustained movement into substantive negotiations, and progress through the heavy agenda that must be addressed, in a generous and constructive spirit. That, I believe, is what much the greater part of the people of Northern Ireland hope for from the talks, despite the anxieties and hesitations that they will inevitably feel.

If such progress can be brought about, we have the prospect of a far brighter and more hopeful future for Northern Ireland. However, if it cannot be brought about, prospects will be far worse across the entire range of everyday life for everyone who lives there. I firmly believe that there are sensible grounds for hope. For the moment, however, a pause in the process has supervened.

It is right, therefore, to review briefly the work of the forum. It opened shortly after the talks, on 14 June last year. It set to work with industry, under the distinguished and dedicated chairmanship of Mr. John Gorman, who deserves warm thanks for agreeing to take on so novel and challenging a set of responsibilities.

Many of the forum's early meetings were taken up with discussion and agreement on its rules of procedure. They were eventually agreed, and were approved by me in September 1996. Since then, it has debated and considered a wide range of social and economic issues, including education, health care, disability, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and environmental pollution. In addition, it has established five standing committees, whose remits currently relate to education, health, agriculture and fisheries, the economy and public order. Some of its proceedings have attracted criticism, but I believe that, by a substantial balance, its work has been beneficial. It was a pity that the Social Democratic and Labour party thought it right to withdraw from the forum, and I greatly hope that, when it is revived, the SDLP will return.

When considering the motion, we should note that the forum's initial lifespan would in any event have expired at the end of May this year. The Secretary of State is, however, with the approval of Parliament, empowered to revive it for a further period, or periods, until its definitive

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expiry at the end of May 1998. It cannot go on longer. That will plainly not be a matter for me, but I can say that it will be the intention of a future Conservative Government to revive the forum as early as practicable in the life of a new Parliament. That is for the future. Meanwhile, I invite the House to agree that the forum should, in conformity with the scheme that the House approved last year, cease to meet because the talks are suspended. I commend the draft order to the House.

10.22 pm

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar): As this will be my last debate with the Secretary of State, I acknowledge and put on record his personal commitment over his years in the job to trying to move the Northern Ireland peace process forward. We know that from trying to keep up with him seven days a week when he is working as hard as I know he has. His determination to keep Northern Ireland high up the political agenda is well known, and we wish him well when he leaves the House at the forthcoming general election at the end of a distinguished career. In view of what he said earlier, we ought to wish the horse well, too.

It is unfortunate that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), who has been here all evening, has left. This is also his last Parliament, and I put on record the Opposition's acknowledgment of his breadth of knowledge and of the fact that his commitment both to the House and to his constituents over many years has been unstinting. The House will miss him.

The order is relatively uncontentious. It is the expression in statute of our view that the sittings of the Northern Ireland forum should be entirely dependent on the existence of the talks process. Labour's insistence on that helped to produce the legislation in this form. The elections held last May were designed to build confidence and provide a route into negotiations. As the Prime Minister said, there were two options--some prior decommissioning or an elective process--to determine who should take part in negotiations. The second option provided the route for talks to begin on 10 June. That Sinn Fein was not part of those negotiations when they began was entirely its own responsibility. It is up to the IRA and Sinn Fein to do what is necessary to convince us that they genuinely want peace.

The elections also provide delegates to the forum. The existence of the forum was not approved widely in both communities in Northern Ireland. To offset that disadvantage, it was given a specific remit to discuss

Some members of the forum, whether they currently attend or not, would dispute that that objective had been adhered to, but many of the debates have been informative, such as the debates on the damage caused by the action for community employment cuts, on the problems in the health service and on drug abuse. The committees set up by the forum have also produced some interesting reports, for example on the BSE crisis, on opposition to the Government's proposals on the education and library boards, which were mentioned in an earlier debate, and on water fluoridation.

I am not making a judgment this evening about the operation or effectiveness of the forum, but democratic accountability and openness in Northern Ireland are of

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concern to us. They are themselves issues of trust and confidence. We hope to have the chance to examine them in much greater detail across the board in Northern Ireland. I have said that, in the event of a Labour victory in the election, we will introduce the necessary order to give the forum its second year of life. I trust that, if we do that, the central objective of discussing issues relevant to the promotion of dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland will be at the forefront of people's minds when they begin again to take part in the forum debates.

We support the order. As the Secretary of State said, it is a procedural matter. If we are in government after 1 May, our main focus will be on making a success of the talks process. It is essential that progress is made towards a just and fair settlement that is supported by both traditions. It is crucial that current hurdles are overcome, in view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), in line with both the principles and the recommendations in the Mitchell report.

Those taking part in the forum can help by working to build an atmosphere of trust and confidence to encourage those taking part in the talks on both sides to engage with each other and reach a new accommodation. I trust and hope that they will do so.

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