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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 February 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Transas Group Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 12 February.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Assembly

1. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): If he will make a statement on the recent discussions he has held with Northern Ireland political parties on re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [94820]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): Intensive discussions are in progress, aimed at restoring the full operation of the devolved institutions and at the continuing implementation of the Belfast agreement. They involve the political parties in Northern Ireland and both Governments, including the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, who will visit Northern Ireland on 12 February. It is essential that we restore the institutions on a stable basis, founded on the use of exclusively peaceful means.

John Robertson: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the breakdown in trust and confidence that led to the suspension of the Assembly needs to be repaired to ensure that devolution is re-established. Does he also agree that Northern Ireland wants devolution to be restored? How will he ensure that all the political parties can be consulted during the process and achieve devolution?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I do believe that people in Northern Ireland want the institutions to be restored. I believe that devolution has been a success there, and the sooner I can ensure that my responsibilities for health, education and all the other matters that were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive are returned, the better.

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My hon. Friend is also right that it is important for everyone in Northern Ireland, nationalist or Unionist, to have trust and confidence in each other and in the institutions.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The Secretary of State will recall the Prime Minister's visit to Belfast in October, when he called for acts of completion on the part of paramilitaries, that being a euphemism for the complete cessation of all activity by the IRA and, effectively, the IRA's winding itself up. Will the Secretary of State assure us that, in their discussions with the republican movement, the Government are pressing for genuine acts of completion? Given the length of time for which the discussions have been going on, lest it turn out that the republicans are unable or unwilling to deliver the acts of completion that the Government require, are the Government thinking of having a plan B?

Mr. Murphy: We must concentrate on what we are doing now—on plan A—before considering any other plans. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, what is important is ensuring a complete cessation of paramilitary activity that is real, total and permanent. All our efforts over the past few weeks—and what will be done next week when the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach come to Hillsborough—involve our concentrating on ensuring that that is delivered. Of course other issues must be discussed during the talks; the right hon. Gentleman knows what they are. Central to all our activity, however, is addressing the problem that has caused trust to break down. He and other parties will of course be invited individually to talk to the two Prime Ministers on Wednesday, and I hope that the issues will be discussed fully then.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): Does the Secretary of State agree that the real weakness is the lack of political negotiations between the political parties? Negotiations are about matters military or paramilitary, and are conducted between the representatives of an illegal private army and the Prime Ministers of two sovereign Governments. Can the Secretary of State understand the difficulties that that causes for the other political parties, which do not have private armies to inflate their importance or to increase their negotiating powers?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right to say that it is important to involve his party, and indeed all others in Northern Ireland, in meaningful discussions. He is aware, however, that the reason the Assembly lies suspended and there is no Executive is that trust and confidence have broken down. They collapsed because of paramilitary activity. That issue is central.

My hon. Friend is also aware that other issues are being discussed—issues such as human rights, equality, policing and the devolution of justice, which different parties have brought to the Government's attention. Parties are discussing between themselves, and in different formats, the issues that I know my hon. Friend considers most important. His party met the Prime Minister in Downing street some weeks ago, and all parties will have that opportunity during the forthcoming round of talks.

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Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford): How many times must the institutions collapse before the Government recognise the necessity for new institutions and structures, so that all the people of Northern Ireland can unite behind them?

Mr. Murphy: I believe that the institutions established by the Belfast agreement are the best because people voted for them in referendums. They voted for the institutions that we want to restore. The hon. Lady should understand, however, that whatever institutions are established in Northern Ireland must have the confidence of both the Unionist and the nationalist communities.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South): The journey back to devolution will probably involve fresh elections, yet there is concern that up to 200,000 electors are missing from the electoral register, including 50,000 young people who are attainers, and who can get on the register only if they present photo passes. We have a problem with the young engaging in the electoral process in general. Can my right hon. Friend give me some assurance that the Northern Ireland Office will look seriously at the problem of those who are missing from the register, and in particular at how we can get young people to register, making it as easy as possible for them to take part in that process, so that they can have a stake in the Assembly once it is elected?

Mr. Murphy: Like everybody in this House, I want to ensure that as many people as possible vote in all the elections that we face. My hon. Friend will know that there have been particular difficulties in Northern Ireland over the years that we have had to address. I realise that there have been some misgivings about the current process, but I believe that the chief electoral officer has introduced an effective method of looking at these matters, and of course there is now a rolling register. However, my hon. Friend may certainly have my assurance that, if the NIO can do something to ensure that more people vote, then all the better.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Does the Secretary of State agree that any settlement in Northern Ireland and the future of the Province as a whole must be based on the full implementation of the Belfast agreement?

Mr. Murphy: Yes I do, and that is exactly what we have been discussing during talks in the past couple of weeks.

Mr. Davies: Does the Secretary of State recall that article 1.vi of the Belfast agreement recognises

If so, why, on 29 January, did the Labour party make the following formal deposition through its lawyers—one cannot get much more formal or binding than that—concerning the case of Mr. McGivern, a Northern Ireland resident who wants to join the Labour party? It states:

of the Labour party.

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Mr. Speaker: Order. That has absolutely nothing to do with the question.

Irish Language Broadcasting

3. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the establishment of funding for Irish language broadcasting. [94822]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has contacted the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, expressing his wish that officials from all relevant Departments will continue to explore ways to make urgent progress on the Government's commitments on Irish language broadcasting under the Belfast agreement.

Mr. Thomas: I thank the Minister for her reply. She will know that there is a treaty commitment to establish a fund for Irish language broadcasting in Northern Ireland. Will she look at the Communications Bill that is currently going through this House, and which puts on a statutory footing funding for Welsh language broadcasting and for Gaelic broadcasting in Scotland? Will she use that opportunity to set up on a statutory basis the fund promised in the Belfast agreement for Irish language broadcasting in Northern Ireland?

Angela Smith: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking at all practical and effective ways in which to pursue our obligations in respect of Irish language broadcasting under the Belfast agreement. The Secretary of State has asked me to introduce further proposals for funding, including the establishment of a production fund.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Can the Minister explain why the cultural diversity required under the Communications Bill has been applied to Welsh and to Scots Gaelic, but not to the Irish language? What consideration has her Department given to the very detailed submission made on behalf of the Irish language by Foras na Gaeilge, the all-Ireland body that is trying to instigate those aspects of the Good Friday agreement that refer to cultural diversity?

Angela Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interest and concern. I assure him that my Department is fully committed to implementing commitments made under the Belfast agreement. We will give the proposals full consideration, and do what we can in the light of the further funding that we hope to make available.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): On cultural diversity, does the Minister accept that there are more Chinese people who would like their language to be used in public broadcasting? Does she also accept that Ulster Scots Gaelic was the language of Northern Ireland,

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not Irish Gaelic, and that the latter has been used in the Republic—and now in Northern Ireland— as a political tool, rather than as a cultural one?

Angela Smith: The hon. Gentleman may be aware of my meetings with Lord Laird of the Ulster-Scots Agency. I assure him that we follow what is in the Belfast agreement and fulfil our commitments as well as we are able.

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