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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 March 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Wednesday 22 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Peace Process

1. Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): If he will make a statement on the peace process in Northern Ireland. [113215]

5. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If he will make a statement on the current situation regarding the peace process. [113219]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson): Following the Government's decision on 11 February to suspend the operation of the institutions so as to preserve them for restoration, I had useful discussions last week with the political parties in Northern Ireland and with the Irish Government. Those will continue in the United States over the next few days. I remain convinced that there is the will and the desire to see the Good Friday agreement implemented in full. We shall continue to do all that we can to achieve that in close co-operation with the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McFall: Does the Secretary of State agree that the transformation that has occurred in Northern Ireland over the past few years is solely down to the Good Friday agreement? In many instances, the people have been ahead of the politicians in realising that. Does he accept that no politician or political party has any copyright on the agreement, and that if there is to be any revision of it, that must be done through agreement, discussion and consensus between all the people and parties involved?

Mr. Mandelson: The Good Friday agreement represents a potential sea-change in the fortunes of Northern Ireland. Despite all that has happened, we certainly cannot stand still. Indeed, no one can afford to

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opt out. We are working to implement the agreement in all its aspects; large swathes of it--human rights, equality, policing, criminal justice and other matters--will continue to be implemented. We want to see the institutions resume their operation as quickly as possible, but that must be on the basis of cross-community participation.

As I said, talks started last week and they will continue. We shall certainly not give up. We are deciding the future not of politicians in Northern Ireland, but of every family in Northern Ireland. That is why the process is so important and we shall spare no effort.

Mr. Fabricant: The Secretary of State will know that Real IRA have acquired updated RPG7 rocket launchers from the Balkans, with other weapons. Is he also aware that some of the terrorists now being released have joined Real IRA? Will he not say that enough is enough? Until we see some decommissioning, no more political or terrorist prisoners should be released.

Mr. Mandelson: I cannot confirm any of the information that the hon. Gentleman has given the House. Under the agreement, the continuation of early releases is linked to the maintenance of each paramilitary ceasefire. I will, of course, keep each ceasefire under regular and constant review.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Given the serious problems with the process, and given my question to the Secretary of State last month in which I urged the leader of the Ulster Unionist party to relax his 12 February deadline, will my right hon. Friend begin negotiations from the standpoint of having 22 May as the beginning of the decommissioning process rather than its end?

Mr. Mandelson: I can certainly say firmly that no single party can unilaterally change what is in the agreement. Realistically, the prospects for achieving complete decommissioning by 22 May are poor. However, there are two extreme views as to the consequences if it is not achieved. Mr. Adams seems to be suggesting that we just forget about decommissioning. Others say that it must mean the end of the agreement altogether. Both views are wrong. Decommissioning will not go away; it remains an essential part of the peace process and of the Good Friday agreement. However, the only way to achieve decommissioning is through the full implementation of the agreement; that is what we shall continue to work on.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): Has the Secretary of State seen this morning's press reports that Mr. Gerry Adams has said that there will be no political progress whatever in Washington this week, and that there will be no decommissioning of illegal armaments by 22 May this year, as required in the Belfast agreement? Accordingly, if that is correct, will the Assembly remain in suspension after 22 May? What will happen?

Mr. Mandelson: No; I hope very much that the Assembly, the Executive and all the institutions will be reactivated long in advance of 22 May. It is imperative that that be achieved, so that the issue of decommissioning, in conjunction with that reactivation, can be settled one way or another to everyone's

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satisfaction. Only in that way shall we be able to accommodate the deadline of 22 May--in the context of functioning institutions. Politics that works in Northern Ireland is the essential condition for progress.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): What is the Secretary of State's view of the Alliance party's six-point plan to break the deadlock in the peace process? It seems to me that some of the ideas are original and could be helpful.

Mr. Mandelson: There is a lot of interest in those ideas. I had the opportunity to discuss the six-point plan with an Alliance party delegation who came to see me last week. The plan is positive and constructive, and it makes a good contribution to the current consultation of all parties. I have not heard what the other pro-agreement parties' view of the Alliance proposals is, but I shall look closely at any such measures that are able to generate cross-party confidence and support.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): All over the world Irish people and their friends are preparing to celebrate St. Patrick's day. Some will return from overseas to the island of Ireland to do so, apart from those who have been sent into exile by paramilitary groups. Is it not the case that the peace agreement will have delivered fully only when exiles can return to Ireland to join in the celebrations?

Mr. Mandelson: I strongly echo my hon. Friend's remarks. Such exile is unacceptable, it must be reversed and we must create the conditions in which it is. Apart from the people to whom my hon. Friend referred, there are many young people who have left Northern Ireland because they have despaired of the inability to create lasting peace and prosperity and a half-decent future in which to bring up their families. I want all those young people to be exiles from Northern Ireland no longer; I want them to return, and I want them to be leaders in Northern Ireland. I do not want any more young people having to find their fortune and to bring up their families elsewhere. They should remain where they belong--with their families and friends in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): As the Secretary of State examines ways of taking the process forward at this difficult time, will he give the House a guarantee that any change in forces' levels in Northern Ireland will be a decision that he takes alone, and that it will be taken purely on security, and not political, grounds--and after consultation with the General Officer Commanding the Army and the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

Mr. Mandelson: We all want to normalise security arrangements in Northern Ireland as soon as possible, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman shares that objective. Normalisation is not about making concessions and it is not about wishful thinking. It reflects precisely what is happening on the ground, the progress that we have made and the progress that we have yet to make. I pay tribute to the Garda and the Irish Army for their successes against dissidents. However, we have responsibility for security in Northern Ireland, and I shall listen to the Chief Constable's advice. He and the GOC will decide the troop

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numbers that they need and where and how they want to deploy them. If they want to make changes, they will announce those changes, which will be made for good reasons, in their own time.

Mr. MacKay: Is the Secretary of State aware that his answer will be gratefully received in Northern Ireland and among the armed forces, and with some surprise, not least because of the disgraceful remarks that he made on Irish television last week, when he described the Army as chinless wonders? I am sure that he now deeply regrets those remarks, so will he take this opportunity to apologise publicly to the Army, and more particularly to the families of soldiers who have lost their lives in Northern Ireland during the recent troubles?

Mr. Mandelson: I have absolutely no hesitation in expressing again my regret for the remark that I made. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is, for his own political purposes, slightly egging the pudding, and he is being a little harsh. He will accept that all politicians are allowed the occasional gaffe, if only to remind the public that they are still human.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Is not the Good Friday agreement not only the best agreement on offer but the only one? I would hope that it has the support of all Members of this place, and certainly that of the British people. Is not the best thing now for everybody to come together to support the agreement so that we can realise the hope that is offered by the agreement? Does my right hon. Friend agree that republicans and Unionists work together at many levels in government and throughout other institutions? Does that not offer real hope for success?

Mr. Mandelson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Despite the understandable expressions of anger and some acrimony that followed the unfortunate but inevitable decision by the Government to suspend the institutions, people from different parties and different parts of the political spectrum are continuing to work extremely well throughout Northern Ireland, most notably in local government. We can get progress only with agreement on the part of Unionists, nationalists and republicans. That requires confidence on all sides, which was badly dented earlier this year. It is to restoring the confidence that all parties need to go forward that we are devoting our energies, and we shall continue to do so.

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