Mr Peter Robinson (Belfast East, DUP)
The House should not consider it a slight that so few Northern Ireland Members are here. It is not simply a matter of the inadequacy of the time available to consider the motion; there have been serious difficulties in getting flights to London from Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and some Ulster Unionists attempted to get flights, but were unable to do so.
I wish the shadow Secretary of State well as he takes on his new responsibility. This is probably the first time that the current Secretary of State has been at the Dispatch Box dealing with a constitutional motion. I hope that she has some more experience of that during her time in office and I hope that any such motion that comes here is capable of gaining the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.
I have been taking part in this ritual since 1979. I remember the early debates when it was intended that such orders were supposed to be a temporary measure. It was to be only one or two years before we had some permanent structures in Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland would have responsibility for a wide range of functions through their elected representatives. That has not been the case. Given the first year of the talks process that I witnessed, I have to say that, if it depends on agreement arising from that process, we might be coming back to renew the motion for many years to come.
The Secretary of State referred to the talks process. Many people in Northern Ireland are concerned about the initiative, if one can call it that, of the Prime Minister when he released the aide-memoire of the discussions that had been taking place under his authority with Sinn Fein-IRA. My understanding was that the Prime Minister had made it clear that the purpose of the discussions with Sinn Fein-IRA was to clarify the Government's position to them so that there would be no misunderstanding.
I thought that, when one clarifies one's position, one clarifies the position as it is; but it is abundantly clear from the aide-memoire that the Prime Minister has developed the Government's position. He has extended it and produced new initiatives in the aide-memoire. I should like the Secretary of State or the Minister of State, who is to reply to the debate, to clarify one or two points in the statement.
The first element of the statement relates to the first IRA demand that it needs a clear time scale within which it would be part of the talks process. There has been much talk in the media, and the abbreviation of this condition is that IRA-Sinn Fein will enter the talks six weeks after what is termed an unequivocal cessation of violence. That, however, is not what the document says.
The document says that it will be six weeks before the IRA will be at a plenary meeting in the talks process, but goes on to say that in the period immediately following a ceasefire, for which I must read that same day or the next day, it will have entry to Castle buildings, access to meetings with the chairman, access to meetings with the Government and the opportunity to engage in bilateral meetings with other political parties at Stormont castle. Are we clear that these contacts are to take place not after six weeks but, as the aide-memoire says, immediately a ceasefire is declared? The Secretary of State has not jumped to her feet with her characteristic promptness, but I presume that the Minister of State will attempt to answer at the end of the debate.
The Minister might also like to grapple with the issue of explaining to the people of Northern Ireland how, overnight, or—at best—in six weeks, it will be possible for the Government to assess the genuineness of any ceasefire that the IRA may declare.
The second issue that requires some clarification relates to the time frame. Is the Prime Minister saying in the aide-memoire that there will be no further extension of the talks process and that the process ends in May 1998? I should like to know the Government's view on that.
The third matter that requires clarification relates to decommissioning. It is on this issue that I do not believe the Government have fully clarified their position, perhaps deliberately. To suggest that they embrace the Mitchell report in its entirety is not the same as saying that they believe in parallel decommissioning where decommissioning would be completed by the end of the process.
All that Mitchell requires is that some decommissioning shall take place during the talks process; it does not require all decommissioning to take place and does not specify when it can start. Is it to be simultaneous? Is it to start on the first day? Are guns going to be deposited on the first day that the three-stranded talks begin? Or is it to be left to a body that is subject to an SDLP and Dublin veto to determine the rate at which the handing over of illegal weapons is to take place? If it is the latter, clearly the IRA would be in the process and would not have to hand over any guns during the entire process. The Northern Ireland public deserve a response from the Secretary of State on that issue.
I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I do not believe that the Government have to wait until they see the outcome of the process to make further changes, particularly in local government. I listened with some interest to the remarks made by Lord Dubs at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives conference about how Ministers are examining changes that they might make in local government. One must, therefore, assume that they are examining the issue, regardless of whether they are doing so within or without the context of a settlement in a wider area. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what the Government will do and what their time scale will be in changing local government.
I should also like to ask the Secretary of State about the life of the Northern Ireland Forum—a body which was established by the House under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 and has a specific responsibility. The body was established because Parliament deemed that that was appropriate. I hoped that the Secretary of State and her Ministers would respond more favourably to meeting members of that forum and its committees.
Such meetings have not taken place. I urge the Secretary of State—who seems to be very prepared to go round the country to meet all sorts of people—to spend some time meeting those who have been elected under an Act of Parliament to represent the people of Northern Ireland in that forum. It is important that she should realise that members of that forum feel that she has snubbed and slighted them by thus far not being prepared to meet them.
The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—I think that that is still the name of his constituency—seemed to be a bit concerned about the Prime Minister's remarks about articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Republic's constitution. He should not be concerned, because I did not find anything very positive in the Prime Minister's remarks. The remarks indicated not that the Republic had to abandon its territorial claim but that the principle of consent should be enshrined in its constitution. It is, of course, quite possible for the Republic to enshrine the principle of consent within its constitution and still to maintain a jurisdictional claim.
The hon. Member for Hull, North should therefore not be too concerned about the remarks. I do not believe that the Prime Minister has gone the distance that would be required of him on articles 2 and 3, and I certainly do not believe that the Government of the Irish Republic are ready to move in that direction. A fudge by inserting the principle of consent into the Irish constitution would not be satisfactory for the Unionist community.
I should also tell the hon. Member for Hull, North that the triple lock was a device by which agreement would have to be approved by the parties and people of Northern Ireland and by the United Kingdom Parliament. Although he did not say it, I hope that he meant to tell the House that—if he envisages the fall of the talks process, and even if the issue of Northern Ireland's parties' support is not dealt with—he still believes that an agreement must have the consent of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and of the people of Northern Ireland. That is the principle of consent which was enshrined in the Prime Minister's speech.