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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 December 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Sessional Returns


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Belfast Agreement

1. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): If he will make a statement on the current state of progress on the Belfast agreement. [141214]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): We believe that the agreement remains the only political framework that is capable of securing the support of both communities in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to its implementation. We are inviting the Northern Ireland parties to participate in the forthcoming review, which will consider how it might operate more effectively.

Mr. Robathan : It is now five and a half years since the Belfast agreement, in which all parties confirmed that they would

of referendums, which were held in May 1998. Is it any wonder that the majority Unionist community is entirely disillusioned with the Belfast agreement? When

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will the Government uphold their own agreement and compel Sinn Fein, inextricably linked to the IRA, to give up its terrorist arsenal?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that decommissioning is an important part of the Good Friday agreement. Of course it is. Attempts were made before the elections, back in October, for further decommissioning. The issue has not gone away and of course we have to address it, but I still believe that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of the Good Friday agreement. I said that the review will consider how the agreement has operated in the past four years. However, any accommodation for governing Northern Ireland has to take into account the fundamental principles of that agreement: the sharing of power between nationalists and Unionists, based on the principles of consent and of a non-violent democratic Northern Ireland.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): The Secretary of State knows that the Democratic Unionist party has been in political discussions with the Irish Government for some time. What information have the Irish Government given to the Secretary of State that indicates clearly that, in effect, the DUP wants to work the agreement rather than smash it? Will the Secretary of State say, on the basis of that information and his meetings with the DUP, when we might expect these poachers to become gamekeepers?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend knows that we face challenging and interesting times. That does not mean, however, that all the parties that were elected to the Assembly in last week's elections will not be talking. My meetings over the past couple of days indicate that all parties will be in a position to talk to me about the issues that affect the Good Friday agreement. So far as the Irish Government are concerned, the Taoiseach made it absolutely clear that he is prepared to engage in discussions and negotiations on various issues in the review. I understand, too, from the Democratic Unionist party that, where appropriate, it would not be averse to talking to the Irish Government.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): Does the Secretary of State agree that recent events have not changed the underlying problem? Indeed, if anything, they have brought that problem into sharper focus. As other hon. Members suggested, the problem is the failure of republicans to deliver the end of paramilitarism and the full decommissioning that the agreement presented. Should not the Secretary of State focus on that rather than re-arrange the details through a review that looks only at the mechanics of the institutions and their operation? Should he not keep the focus on the failure of republicans to deliver peace, wholly and completely? What we need is not just a further act of decommissioning, but the completion of that process and to address properly the winding up of paramilitary organisations.

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot avoid the issues that he describes. Of course it is important to deal with issues such as decommissioning, the end of paramilitary activity and the need to move towards a wholly peaceful and democratic society in

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Northern Ireland. Those discussions and negotiations, in which he was involved in October, must resume. At the same time, he knows that under paragraph 8 of the Good Friday agreement we are obliged to hold a conference on reviewing it, but in no way does that diminish the fact that his points are valid.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): However the DUP feels about the Belfast agreement, are not its Members obliged to go along with it, if only because of acts undertaken by the Provisional IRA to end its role in beatings, exiling people, holding arms and racketeering? If that is out of the road, the DUP and Sinn Fein can unite democratically in the Executive.

Mr. Murphy: More than 70 per cent. of those elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly last week support parties that are in favour of the Good Friday agreement. I believe that the fundamentals of that agreement in terms of the accommodation that we need to arrive at are common to many in Northern Ireland, perhaps even those who never voted for the agreement in the first place. My hon. Friend is right to say that we cannot avoid the issues that he describes—of course we cannot. However, the immediate matter facing us is that we must try to restore the institutions of the Assembly and the Executive, but the issues that prevented the restoration of the Executive are still with us and need to be resolved.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State accept that the process requires the support of Unionists as well as nationalists, and that in last week's elections a clear majority of Unionists voted for change and for an end to the current process, which has failed, stalled and needs to be replaced? Will he not accept the fact of the election: that the DUP won more votes than any other party and more seats than any other party? However much he, his colleagues and other hon. Members may not like that or may choose to ignore it, will he now give an undertaking that the Government will stop isolating, marginalising and excluding the real representatives of Unionism and instead work with us to find a better way forward for Northern Ireland—a stable way forward, an accountable and democratic way forward, one that does not elevate—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Supplementaries are supposed to be brief.

Mr. Murphy: Of course we recognise that there has been a change in the electoral geography of Northern Ireland. Of course we accept that parties, including the hon. Gentleman's, have now been elected with mandates. However, he will know that with those mandates comes responsibility. The responsibility lies on us all—on his party, on all the parties in Northern Ireland and on the two Governments—to try to ensure that we can restore our institutions in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that, although times are challenging and difficult, Northern Ireland is a much better place than it was 10 years ago because of what has happened under the Good Friday agreement and others.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): As the longest-serving Front-Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland, on behalf of the whole House, I welcome the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) to his new role.

The non-sectarian Alliance party, which held all six of its seats, has repeatedly called for the review of the agreement to commence. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will begin that review before Christmas? That dialogue with all parties, including the Alliance and the DUP, is much better than back-door unilateral deals which, after all, are in part responsible for the current impasse?

Mr. Murphy: Yesterday, together with the Irish Foreign Minister, I wrote to all the parties in Northern Ireland asking them to tell me and my colleague in Dublin what issues they felt needed to be addressed in the review and what the process and procedure of that review should be. I expect replies by the end of December, and the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the review will start when we come back after the Christmas break.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I wonder if there is a system over there in Northern Ireland in which after an election, there is a swearing-in process, and when people have sworn in, they get paid. May I take it that the new Assembly Members will get paid, even though they are going to sit on their hands?

Mr. Murphy: I am not sure what they are going to sit on—[Laughter.] What is certain is that Members of the Legislative Assembly will be paid 70 per cent. of their salaries, as they were when the Assembly was suspended a year ago. There are two reasons for that. First, when Members are elected to a Parliament, such as our own or the Northern Ireland Assembly, they expect the Parliament to meet; however, for various reasons, the Assembly cannot do so and, for all the reasons that I have just described, we cannot restore it. Secondly, my hon. Friend can rest assured that that is not a permanent solution and that we shall carefully review it regularly.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I start by wishing the Secretary of State well in his forthcoming talks with the leaders of the Northern Ireland political parties. Although the Opposition have never treated bipartisanship as though it were a blank cheque, we shall, as far as we can, continue to support the Government in the search for a political settlement that is acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the failure by both republican and so-called loyalist paramilitaries to complete decommissioning more than five years after the Belfast agreement is in flat contradiction of the commitment written into that agreement to exclusively democratic and peaceful means? Will he give an assurance today that, during the talks and the forthcoming review, the Government will give an overriding priority to securing not only the greater transparency that we all want to see, but a clear timetable for the completion of the decommissioning process?

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Mr. Murphy: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on becoming the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I know that he has a great interest in these matters and I wish him well in his new job.

The hon. Gentleman is right that decommissioning and the other issues to which he referred are an important part of the Good Friday agreement. These issues were dealt with in the joint declaration. They were dealt with by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and Mr. Gerry Adams in a succession of different meetings before the election. Those issues have not gone away. It is important to prioritise the issues that the hon. Gentleman has identified. Clearly, the restoration of the institutions depends not solely on these particular matters, though they are extremely important, but also in trying to get an accommodation between parties in Northern Ireland that have been given mandates in the election.

Mr. Lidington : The Secretary of State referred to this year's joint declaration. Does he recall that in the joint declaration the Government's proposed two-year programme of security normalisation was declared to be conditional upon

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that those conditions still apply and that the Government will not withdraw troops or make the other proposed changes to security policy unless those conditions are met?

Mr. Murphy: We have not reached the point at which we can give any dates or timetables on those condition elements. The hon. Gentleman is right in pointing to the parts of the joint declaration that identify them. Our concentration at the moment must be on the restoration of the institutions, and that is why we will be talking with all the political parties in the days and weeks ahead.

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