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Northern Ireland

4 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Northern Ireland peace process made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

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    resume full-scale terrorism at any time. We could never be confident that its behaviour was that of an organisation which had decided to renounce violence for ever. This was not a true peace.

    "I regret to say that the events of last Friday showed that our caution about the IRA was only too justified. The timing of the return to violence may have been surprising. The fact that violence could resume was not.

    "We must now continue the search for permanent peace and a comprehensive political settlement in Northern Ireland. Let there be no doubt that the Government's commitment to this is as strong as ever.

    "We will work for peace with all the democratic political parties and with the Irish Government. But a huge question mark now hangs over the position of one of the parties: Sinn Fein. Its leaders have spoken often of their commitment to peace and peaceful methods. But they have always ducked and weaved when they have been questioned about the IRA and their methods. After the events of last Friday, their ambiguity stands out starkly.

    "The test for eligibility to take part in all party negotiations was set by the British and Irish Governments in paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration: they should be democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process.

    "Sinn Fein's leaders claim that they did not know about the bomb at South Quay and the IRA's ceasefire statement. But they have refused either to condemn or to dissociate themselves from either. Sinn Fein must decide whether it is a front for the IRA or a democratic political party committed to the ballot not the bullet. Meanwhile, one thing is clear: in the absence of a genuine end to this renewed violence, meetings between British Ministers and Sinn Fein are not acceptable and cannot take place.

    "That is also the position of the Irish Government. They have made it clear to Sinn Fein that their attitude and willingness to meet at political level will be determined by whether the IRA ceasefire is restored. We and the Irish Government are at one on this: the ball is in the court of Sinn Fein and the IRA, if indeed that distinction means anything. It is for them to show, through their words and actions, whether they have a part to play in the peace process or not. I am not in the business of slamming doors; but the British and Irish peoples need to know where Sinn Fein now stands.

    "The people of a democracy are not passive spectators to events. They have the right to make their views clear on issues like this. The people of Northern Ireland, from both communities, have consistently done so. The popular will for peace has never been clearer. The peace process will go on. I commend all those who have had the courage and sense, in the face of this latest atrocity, to work to prevent a wider return to violence.

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    "My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have met all the parties in the last two weeks. This process will be intensified with those parties which have not, for the present, disqualified themselves. The aim is, as it has always been, to establish the necessary confidence to enable negotiations between all the parties to start.

    "I want everyone to be absolutely clear on this point. The objective of all our actions and policies before and since the ceasefire has been to get to a position where all constitutional democratic parties can get round a table together. Everything else is a means to that essential end.

    "I told the House on 24th January that, if the paramilitaries would not start decommissioning their illegal arms, one alternative way forward was through elections to give the electoral mandates and confidence which could lead straight, and straightaway, to negotiations. As proposed by the Mitchell Report, decommissioning could go ahead in parallel with those negotiations.

    "The proposal has been consistently misrepresented by Sinn Fein and misunderstood more widely. I repeat now that its purpose is to lead directly and speedily to negotiations between all parties committed to peaceful and democratic methods, aimed at reaching a comprehensive political settlement. An elected body would have to be broadly acceptable and would be strictly time limited. I am not proposing an assembly with legislative and administrative powers. Any suggestion of a return to old-style Stormont rule is manifest nonsense.

    "The proposed elections are a door to full negotiations. I continue to believe that they provide the most promising opening available. We will pursue the proposal and seek to persuade all concerned that it is indeed a way forward, not a means of delaying progress.

    "Our ideas are still in discussion with the parties; but I do want to assure the House that there are ways forward to negotiations with all the parties, and that these could include Sinn Fein but only, of course, if there is an unequivocal return to the ceasefire.

    "Others have ideas too, including the Irish Government. Our minds are not closed. Nor, I know, are theirs. I have talked to the Taoiseach twice since the bombing. We plan to meet in London soon to discuss all the possibilities. I intend to find a way through to the negotiations with all those committed to democracy.

    "The peace process in Northern Ireland has received a serious setback from the men of violence. But it is not over, not by any means. We have seen the benefits of what has been achieved since the ceasefire: the freedom to live and work normally, and to enjoy life; increased prosperity and new jobs; and new hope for the future. These must not be thrown away.

    "This Government will not be deterred by terrorism. The people of Northern Ireland have tasted peace, a peace that changed their lives. I have told the House before that I will leave no stone unturned in

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    the search for peace. That is true today and will remain true in the future. The people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland deserve no less".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. As the noble Viscount underlined, this is a sad day and a grave occasion. When we adjourned last Thursday, I do not believe that any of us could conceivably have expected that today we would have to listen to a Statement of this nature. Perhaps I may express once again--that is, if it needs repeating--our total condemnation of this unjustified and unjustifiable action by the IRA. I join the noble Viscount in expressing our deep sympathy and condolences to the families of those who were so tragically killed, and also to all those who were injured in the attack.

Listening to the Statement, I cannot help reflecting that it is fortuitous that the death toll was not a great deal higher. The fact that it was not was hardly due to any deliberate moderation on the part of the IRA. To explode a bomb of that size in such an area at 7 o'clock on a Friday evening, the intention must have been to cause casualties.

If we are all saddened by the ending of the ceasefire, we must now ask ourselves: where do we go to from here? The peace process has been gradual. Given the historical background, it could not have been otherwise. Indeed, getting the peace process off the ground in the first place was an historic achievement for all concerned. It is possible that progress has not been fast enough for some; perhaps a little too fast for others. However, there is no excuse for renewed violence by the IRA. As a matter of priority, Sinn Fein must give an unambiguous guarantee that it is committed to the peace process.

We on this side of the House have always supported the Government in their policies towards the peace process. That support is again forthcoming today. This is not the time to apportion political responsibility for the breakdown, and I do not intend to go down that particular road today. There will be plenty of time for analysis and consideration in the future. I merely express the hope that the Government will succeed in relaunching the peace process and that this severe setback will not prove fatal. It may require new thinking and a change of attitude by some of those most closely involved. If that is what is necessary, I hope it will be forthcoming.

The Government are consulting closely with the other parties involved. I reiterate our view that it is vital that the two governments proceed together. The co-operation and the co-ordination so far have on the whole been impressive. It is crucial that that should continue. Secondly, I re-emphasise--if it needs re-emphasising--that it is now for Sinn Fein to establish its commitment to a peaceful process for change. Thirdly, we should not forget the people of Northern Ireland. It is they who

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have suffered much in the past; it is they who are watching apprehensively the events taking place today with mounting concern as to what the future might bring. I believe that we owe it to them to use every endeavour to resume the search for peace.

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