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I want to say something about the small role that I played back in November, and to share my experiences with the House. The President of Sri Lanka had asked the Prime Minister if we could send someone to share our experiences of peacemaking in Northern Ireland with the Government and peoples of Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister asked me to go, as a former Minister of
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State and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, along with Chris MacCabe, political director of the Northern Ireland Office. My experience in Northern Ireland went back a dozen years; his went back nearly four decades. His experience, knowledge and expertise proved very important in our meetings.

During our visit I met the President, a number of Ministers and civil servants, the peace secretariats, non-governmental organisations, the armed forces, different political parties, bodies set up by the Government to consider the country’s constitutional future and a panel of experts, and I travelled to the north of the island to talk at some length with the LTTE. In all those encounters, I met nothing but courtesy and friendliness. I also met representatives of the business community in Columbia, who are very important to the country’s future regeneration.

The message that I tried to get across did not involve preaching to anyone, or telling the people of Sri Lanka what to do. That would have been entirely counterproductive. I think that the reason for the point we have reached in Northern Ireland—over the whole 10-year period of the peace process, and over the last few weeks in particular—is that the people of Northern Ireland themselves created the peace process and the peace settlement. Similarly, it is for the people of Sri Lanka to complete their own peace and political processes.

In many ways, I was in Sri Lanka to tell a story—a success story, I am delighted to say, and I am sure we are all delighted about it. I wanted to know whether people in Sri Lanka, within or outside politics, could look to us and Northern Ireland as an example in bringing peace to their country. The first message that I hoped to convey to the people and their representatives was one that had been given to them, only weeks before I went to Sri Lanka, by Mr. Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister-elect and the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland peace talks. He had gone to Sri Lanka and said what my hon. Friend the Minister has said: that no one can win the war in Sri Lanka, just as no one could win the war in Northern Ireland.

It is possible to continue such a war, of course. More people can die, more people can be injured and more people can be displaced. Ultimately, however, comes the realisation that a military solution is not possible. I say that without reference to either side: it applies across the board, like our tests on abuse of human rights, torture, and all the other terrible things that have happened in that country. I lay no blame on anyone. I simply say that, at the end of the day, military action leads nowhere.

How is it possible for those in Sri Lanka to look to our peace process in Northern Ireland, beyond that central message, and for peace to come to Sri Lanka? One answer is that there must be absolute parity of esteem, the phrase that we used in Northern Ireland. It means that all people must be treated equally, regardless of their past or who they might be. Every single idea or concept—some might be dotty, some good; it matters not—must be put on the table. Such inclusiveness had to apply not only to the constitutional settlement—that is being worked on in detail in Sri Lanka—but also to the issues of language, social and economic equality, human rights, freedom of
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information and all the other things that divide people. Such issues have divided people in Northern Ireland, and they do so in Sri Lanka, and none of them should be excluded from discussion.

Another lesson that can be learned is that there must be an international dimension to any solution in Sri Lanka. I pay tribute to our Norwegian friends, who have done a tremendous job in Sri Lanka in holding things together as best they can. They have often managed to engage in difficult circumstances where almost everybody was against them because they were in the middle. This House and the Government should pay tribute to the work that the Norwegians do, and we should also pay tribute to the co-chairs. When I was in Sri Lanka, I met the ambassadors of the EU, Japan, India and the United States, and our own high commissioner, who is doing a good job.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On the Norwegians and the peace process, does the right hon. Gentleman think that externalising the negotiations in Geneva is the right way forward, or would it be helpful to have one or two meetings in Sri Lanka itself? Does he have a view on that?

Mr. Murphy: I have a view, but I would not want to propose it to either side in Sri Lanka as a solution to things. I suggest that the Northern Ireland peace process was ultimately successful because it was held in Northern Ireland. There was also international chairmanship from three different countries. People were constantly working on a peace process. Members will recall that people were elected to be negotiators in Northern Ireland, and that they were, in effect, locked up in Castle buildings in Belfast for almost three years, and they were paid, and had support, to do nothing but negotiate. It is important that there is that constant working at a peace process—as is the fact that in negotiations people inevitably come together. They have to come together because they are physically together and they are talking together.

That issue of talking is very important. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) touched on that. Even at the most desperate times over the last 30 years in this country, there were lines of communication between those in Northern Ireland who were engaged in the strife there and our Government. We should read the history books about what happened over the past 30 years. At no time did the lines of communication cease. That is missing in Sri Lanka. The British Government and our allies should constantly press for there always to be a proper line of communication. There is a line of communication with the Norwegians, but another could be set up.

In Sri Lanka, I met the people who had been displaced in the eastern part of the island. That dramatically brought home the appalling tragedy for ordinary human beings of situations such as that in Sri Lanka. We are talking in this nice Chamber this afternoon, but the reality is that there are men, women and children who are constantly and severely suffering because of the lack of peace, and the lack of a proper peace process, such as there was in Northern Ireland.

There is an issue to do with the diaspora which is also comparable to the Northern Ireland situation. We have talked about what happened in our case. One of the key
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reasons why the Northern Ireland process was successful was that the attitude of the Irish diaspora—in Australia and other countries to an extent, but most importantly in the United States—changed towards what should happen in Ireland. Nowadays, almost everybody in the USA—such as Irish-American politicians and business people—has signed up to the Good Friday agreement. If we can get the Sri Lankan diaspora across the world to have a similar frame of mind—if they begin to think that they can sign up to a process and then help the people of Sri Lanka economically and commercially—that will be a considerable improvement. However, that cannot happen unless there is a proper ceasefire.

The other great lesson that people across the world, and particularly in Sri Lanka, can take from our experiences in Northern Ireland is that a ceasefire has to be meaningful. Only when violence effectively ended in Northern Ireland did we see success. Of course, sporadic violence occurred, and to a certain extent it will continue to occur among criminal elements in Northern Ireland, but when the fighting stops and the ceasefire is effective, everything is possible. To me, that is the first and most important thing that should happen.

There is another, political issue. In the past 30 years in this Chamber, there has been a bipartisan approach and unanimity among all political parties on the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That has not happened in Sri Lanka, but we should applaud the fact that it is beginning to happen. If the political parties do not adopt a unified approach, the issue of peace will become a political football, which is the last thing that should happen.

Mr. Love: During his trip to Sri Lanka, my right hon. Friend will have received delegations from the Muslim community and from Tamil communities who are not part of the Tamil National Alliance, who are concerned that their voices might not be recognised in the dialogue between the LTTE and the Government on a solution to the Sri Lankan problem. The experience in Northern Ireland shows that all the different political tendencies ought to be recognised in order to reach a solution. Does my right hon. Friend view that as an important part of making progress in Sri Lanka?

Mr. Murphy: That is a vital part of the process. As part of the peace-making negotiations in Northern Ireland, the tiniest of the parties elected had exactly the same say in the process, even though their votes did not necessarily carry the same weight. The necessary will, trust and confidence also have to be there. They can sometimes take many months—even years—to develop, but will, trust, confidence, parity of esteem and the equality of treatment of everybody, whatever their views might be, are essential.

I hope to visit Sri Lanka in the not-too-distant future and to take part in telling the story of our peace process in Northern Ireland. I am reminded of something that Lee Kuan Yew said, which some Members might also remember. When he was building Singapore, he wanted his country to become something like Ceylon, as it was then called. Now, of course, it
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should be the aim of everybody in Sri Lanka to ensure that their country becomes as prosperous, dignified and civilised a country as any other in the world.

3.52 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I very much welcome this debate and the contributions of the Minister and of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, given their experience in these matters. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who wanted to be here but cannot. I am therefore happy to speak on behalf of my colleagues, and to do so in the light of my interest in these issues over many years, having had the privilege and opportunity of visiting Sri Lanka a few years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and other hon. Friends with London constituencies represent, as I do, significant numbers of people from Sri Lanka from all the different communities. Many colleagues in the House are in the same position, so we have direct day-to-day knowledge of the experiences of our Sri Lankan constituents, who have lived out war and peace, death and bereavement. Constituents of mine have lost sisters and other direct family members.

This issue is very important to the United Kingdom. Sri Lanka is connected to us through huge links of history. It was not only a colony with which we had a trading background; there have been very positive relations following the Labour Government’s granting of independence to Sri Lanka and the first former colonies after the war. Sri Lanka then evolved into a republic, and since then many commercial, travel, cultural and sporting links have been established. My only light-hearted comment on this issue is to commiserate with Sri Lanka on not, in the end, pulling off victory in the cricket world cup final in the West Indies.

Mr. Love: At least they got to the final.

Simon Hughes: Absolutely—says a Scot. Thank goodness the competition comes around again once every four years.

I wish to start by making two points, one from a constituency perspective and one from the historical perspective. First, I became involved in Sri Lankan issues because people came to see me about them. I knew about the history of the issues from the books, but soon after I was elected some Tamils came to see me. They wanted, as proud people in national groups who do not have autonomy do, to have the pride of running their own place. The Minister of State has strong Welsh links, as I do, and the Welsh are proud of their heritage. The Labour Government have given Wales more independence and we will celebrate that in the elections for the Welsh Assembly tomorrow. Further power will be given to the Assembly and I hope that, one day, it will become a Welsh Parliament. Colleagues from Scotland have celebrated the fantastic devolution to Scotland of its own Parliament and powers of decision making. The Tamils told me that they wanted to make their own decisions, too, and that is a laudable and honourable objective.

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I was sympathetic to the Tamils’ case and, over the years, I have met them and talked to people who have been sympathetic to all aspects of the struggle, including the peaceful and the military, just as in the past hon. Members have been sympathetic to people who took peaceful and non-peaceful routes in South Africa to try to get justice for their people. As people who are far more eminent than any of us, such as Archbishop Tutu and President Mandela, have said, one may never agree with people using violence, but one can understand why they sometimes do. I understand why some people decided that they had no recourse other than violence, and I have met some people who had taken that view.

A few years ago, I visited Anton Balasingham, the No. 2 in the LTTE who had settled in this country. He died a few months ago and his funeral was in north London. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton and I went to meet him because, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen said, the way forward is through dialogue with people on all sides.

I have been to the high commission of Sri Lanka and I have met Ministers when they have visited, and I have always tried to keep open the dialogue. However, the view of the Sri Lankan Government and officialdom has sometimes been that I must be a supporter of the Tamil Tigers and take the terrorists’ view. I have never taken the terrorist view that taking arms and killing people is the solution. However, unless one recognises that the people who are in that position have the same right to put their case and unless they are engaged in the process—as Northern Ireland showed they have to be—there will be no peace. It is no good going back over the terrible history of Sri Lanka in the past 60 years, with the assassinations of Prime Ministers, Presidents and Foreign Ministers and people living by the bullet and suicide bombers. That cannot be used now as a justification for not talking to people, because that will mean that no progress will be made.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will recall that he and I have often attended Tamil events in Trafalgar square. Does he agree that the non-recognition of the LTTE’s presence in Britain is not helpful? We need to develop a dialogue, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) outlined after his visit. The declaration that the organisation is illegal has angered many people and does not help to bring about a peace process. That is not to say that those people approve of the violence, but they do want dialogue.

Simon Hughes: Speaking for myself, I share that view. I understand why the organisation was proscribed, but I agree that it has been more unhelpful than helpful. The proscription of organisations gives people a further cause to take up arms. I remember when Sinn Fein could not be heard to speak—its representatives were banned by the Conservative Government. Did that reduce support for Sinn Fein? Of course it did not. Did it make it go quiet? No. In fact, it gained support. Banning people makes them go underground. I am sure that the UK and the EU as a whole would benefit from the unbanning of the LTTE if that were to be part of a package of movement towards peace on all sides.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I understand where the hon. Gentleman is going with his argument, but the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about keeping communication channels open reminded me that Conservative Home Secretaries met representatives of the Provisional IRA, even when that organisation was banned. Does he agree that face-to-face contact and open lines of communication are more important than headlines about banning organisations?

Simon Hughes: I do agree. In Northern Ireland, the conversation was sometimes carried on through intermediaries. History shows that conflicts are resolved only by communication, often conducted by people who used to hold high office and who are slightly freer when they leave it. Those people may often not be well known public figures.

In that context, I want to pay a particular tribute to the Norwegian Government. London’s Norwegian church is in my constituency, and I have had dealings with the community over many years. The Norwegian Government have been assiduous in offering their services in these matters, and they have done great work. I hope that they and other members of the international community will be given the opportunity to do more in the future. In the past, it has often been people outside Sri Lanka who have been able to facilitate communication and bring people together.

I turn now to the make-up of Sri Lanka, which is understood by everyone here, but not by everyone outside. The Minister told us that the island has a population of about 20 million, of whom about three quarters are Sinhala. Of the rest, about 13 per cent. are Tamil and about 5.5 per cent. are Muslim, with smaller groups making up the total. However, it should be noted that people in the various Sinhala, Tamil or other communities do not all share the same opinion about matters.

Three languages—Sinhalese, Tamil and English—are the most commonly spoken. Nearly two thirds of people are Buddhist, but there are significant Hindi, Muslim, Christian and other communities.

From the early days of independence, Sinhala nationalism became the flavour of the Sri Lankan Government, and Buddhism was given a particular status. We in Britain must not be hypocritical about that, as protestant Anglican Christianity has a similar status here. I consider that to be unhelpful in our modern age, and believe that no denomination or faith should have special status here. The situation in Sri Lanka is certainly not helpful: if there is to be progress, it must be accepted that all peoples, major languages and faiths deserve equal recognition.

I hope that the Sri Lankan Government understand that, although I know that they, like Governments in India, often depend on nationalist votes. However, if Sinhala nationalism can be justified, so can Tamil nationalism. An accommodation between the two sides needs to be reached.

Stephen Pound: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again, and I shall try not to trespass on his patience. He is giving the House the history of what is a sad, tragic but utterly beautiful island, yet many of my Tamil constituents tell me that
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the first Governments after independence were made up of people from all communities, representing all strands of opinion in all parts of the island. The unity Government were destroyed not by a Tamil national movement, but by the sort of movement that he has described, which was not based in either the north or the east of the island.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Sri Lanka became independent in 1949, nearly 60 years ago. The great consensus was broken in 1956, when Solomon Bandaranaike was elected

in the words of the BBC. At that time, Sinhala was made the island’s sole official language and other measures were introduced to bolster Sinhalese-Buddhist feeling.

That is how the problem started. After independence, the majority Government said, “We are the bosses now, and no one else will get a look in.” That Government represented two thirds of the people, and a 70 per cent. religious majority. The votes that were cast reflected that, as did the make-up of the Sri Lankan Parliament. As the situation in Sri Lanka in 1956 did not resemble the situation in Northern Ireland now, where there is a guarantee of participation across the communities, the island’s Government have been able to impose their will on minorities. Only in 1976, 20 years later, was the LTTE formed in response. Eventually, Tamils in the north and east, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula and along the north-east coast, said, “We want our place, too. You’ve given us enough stick for 20 years.” Since then, the Tamils have given as good as they got.

All the independent monitoring shows that the fault lies on both sides. I absolutely condemn suicide bombers, the use of child soldiers and the terrible violence, but let us remember that it started with the majority oppressing the minority. Unless there is recognition of that fact—what Tutu, Mandela and others call peace and reconciliation based on putting right injustices—there will be no progress.

Jeremy Corbyn: If the hon. Gentleman checks, I think he will find that the issue started somewhat earlier, with the treatment of the plantation Tamils in the early 1950s, which should have been a sign of the problems to come—the majority language and the legislation to which he referred.

Simon Hughes: Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right. He and I are roughly the same age and it was at about the time we were born that the Indian Tamil workers were disfranchised and the problems started, but the really heavy Government reaction came a few years later and it was much later before the LTTE responded.

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