New Hebrides

Oral Answers to Questions – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th July 1980.

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Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South 12:00 am, 24th July 1980

With your permision, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the New Hebrides.

As the House is aware, it has always been the objective of Britain and France to ensure that the New Hebrides condominium should acieve independence in peace and unity.

When I met my French colleague in Paris on Saturday 19 July, we agreed that independence should take place as planned on 30 July. We also recognised with regret that our efforts to achieve a negotiated solution to the problems that have resulted from the activities of Mr. Jimmy Stevens and his associates on the island of Santo had not so far been successful.

We therefore agreed that while our two personal representatives should return to the New Hebrides to continue their efforts to establish a real dialogue between the Government and the various opposition groups we could not allow the secessionists to continue blatantly to flout the authority of the legitimate Government on the island of Santo.

As a consequence of this decision, during the course of this morning, local time, British and French troops, acting together, carried out an operation to restore the authority of the legitimate Government on the island of Santo, thus putting an end to the eight-week rebellion. The operation appears so far to have been a complete success. There have been no casualties, and no shots were fired. I should like to congratulate the British and French troops on the efficiency with which this successful operation has been carried out.

The way is now open for the central Government's representative to return to Santo and for the blockade to be lifted. A fresh attempt will now be made to reopen a dialogue to try to resolve outstanding difficulties before independence on 30 July. In this way we and the French Government have sought to fulfil our obligation to bring the New Hebrides to independence in peace and unity.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

The House will be impressed by the efficiency and speed with which this operation was carried out. However, the Minister seems not to have kept us quite as well informed as some other parts of the Establishment. For example, is it true that the French commissioner went in ahead of the troops and cleared the way? If so, where is Mr. Jimmy Stevens? How many of the secessionists are likely to be charged, and are at present in custody? How long are British troops to remain on the island? Above all, how much aid will be available to the New Hebrides Government after the country becomes independent? It is all very well for the member States which have so far held responsibility to say "We shall hand over to you in peace and unity" but it is no use if they are not prepared to put up a positive aid programme, backed not just by one member of the condominium but by both, and by a sufficient amount of money and a sufficient guarantee of territorial integrity to allow the independent Government to continue.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I really must say that I find the carping tone of the hon. Lady absolutely astonishing. It is entirely in line with the hectoring manner that she has adopted all the way through this episode. She should have gone along the corridor and talked to her right hon. and noble Friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts, who speaks for her party in the other place, who knows the New Hebrides, in contrast to the hon. Lady, and who has consistently supported the Government.

It is true that the French resident commissioner was sent to Santo 12 hours or so in advance of the arrival of the troops to inform the French settlers there of what was intended, so as to reduce the number of casualties. That was a successful operation. It was the right thing to do.

I do not know where Mr. Stevens is. There are conflicting reports. According to my information, his whereabouts are not known, although I have seen it reported in the newspapers that he was at the airport. I very much hope that Mr. Stevens will now be prepared to co-operate in negotiations with the New Hebrides Government. I do not think that this is a matter for levity. There has been a successful operation. The problems of the New Hebrides are serious for the people of the New Hebrides, even if the Opposition do not regard them in that way.

I understand that it is not intended to charge the rebels but to negotiate with them so as to reach an agreed solution to the outstanding problems. In my opinion, that would be very much in the interests of the people of the New Hebrides.

We do not intend that our troops should stay for long. If the New Hebrides Government should wish them to stay after independence day, next Wednesday, we shall be prepared to consider that request.

We have made an offer of aid to Father Lini's Government. I shall not give the House the details at the moment because the matter is still under discussion, but, given our resources, I regard the offer as generous.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe

The Minister has not answered the question. We have heard a lot about his ego; we have not heard much information. I asked him specifically what was the French Government's attitude towards aid. Is it their intention to agree to an aid package? If so, why is that not clear?

We all congratulate the French Government, who seem to have handled their end of the arrangements very well.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I am struck by the fact that the hon. Lady should now congratulate the French. That is rather a change from the attitude that she displayed on previous occasions. It is not for me to answer for the French Government concerning their aid offer, but I understand that they intend to make an offer and have already had preliminary discussions with the New Hebrides Government.

Several Hon. Members:

Several Hon. Members rose

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who rose immediately after the statement.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Somerset North

In contrast to the sour attitude of the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), may I ask my hon. Friend to accept congratulations on the quiet and patient manner in which he has conducted very difficult negotiations, in the highest traditions of British diplomacy? Will he also convey the congratulations of the whole House— with the exception of the hon. Lady—to our diplomats on the ground, to the Armed Forces, and to all others who have been involved in a very difficult period?

Is my hon. Friend able to give any further indication to the House about the topics that remain for negotiation and the prospects of reaching agreement on them before independence?

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It has been a difficult diplomatic negotiation, because five different parties have been involved. I shall transmit his congratulations to the diplomatic people and to the troops who have been concerned.

I take some encouragement from the fact that in spite of the defence cuts made by the previous Labour Government our troops are still able to conduct an efficient military operation 12,000 miles from home.

There are still three or four topics remaining for negotiation. The main one is the devolution of power to the regional assemblies. Father Lini has made a generous offer on that subject. We now wait to see whether Mr. Stevens is willing to respond in the same spirit.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

Will the hon. Gentleman please try to find out where Mr. Jimmy Stevens is? There is usually enough trouble when his whereabouts are known. He is not a character who can be easily missed.

We should like to be able to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the success that he undoubtedly had in getting Anglo-French co-operation moving again. Does he agree that the critical attention that he has had from this House and from other Commonwealth Governments helped rather than hindered him in his negotiations with the French? Is he aware that there is some doubt about the price that the new Government of the New Hebrides may have been persuaded—or may yet be persuaded—to pay for Anglo-French co-operation?

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

We shall hope to learn soon where Mr. Stevens is. It is very much up to him to come forward, and we hope that he will be prepared to negotiate.

I do not think that the criticisms made in the House have been helpful. The tone adopted by the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) has fallen below the level that we would have expected in a matter concerning Britain's national interests.

As to the price—as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) described it—that the New Hebrides Government are being asked to pay, I emphasise that they are not being asked to change the constitution. Both the French and British Governments have made it clear that they uphold the duly elected Government and constitution. No change is intended in the constitution. Father Lini has put forward some suggestions that I regard as generous, and I hope that Mr. Stevens will now respond.

Photo of Sir Anthony Meyer Sir Anthony Meyer , Flint West

Is my hon. Friend aware that this very successful outcome is due in no way to the captious and irresponsible attitude of the Opposition, in particular of the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody), but to his own persistence and quiet determination, and that he is to be congratulated on having removed this irritant to Anglo-French relations?

Will my hon. Friend give an assurance—in view of the evident wish of the Opposition to continue to foment trouble—that the declared intention of the New Hebrides Government to join the Commonwealth will not prevent them from having a special relationship with France, should they so wish?

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am sure that it was right to seek the maximum Anglo-French co-operation, if only in the interests of the people of the New Hebrides, many of whom speak French and many of whom are descended from French people. There is always the question of future co-operation between France and Britain in the granting of aid, and that is important.

The Parliament of the New Hebrides has already passed a resolution indicating the wish of the New Hebrides to join the Commonwealth, and I have no doubt that Commonwealth countries will be very glad to receive the New Hebrides immediately after independence. The New Hebrides is in the unusual position of being able to join the French-speaking Association, and I expect it also to apply to join that body.

Photo of Mr John Roper Mr John Roper , Farnworth

Will the hon. Gentleman make sure that the House is given further information on the developing position in the next few days? While Jimmy Stevens is still roaming, the trouble has not yet necessarily ended.

Will the hon. Gentleman also take to the people, the Parliament and the Government of the New Hebrides the good wishes of, I believe, all parts of the House on their independence next week? Will he also pass on those congratulations to the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force on the part that they have played in ensuring that that independence is as successful as it will be?

Finally, will the hon. Gentleman put informal pressure on his French colleague to make sure that the very important offer of French educational aid is sorted out before independence next week?

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I have no doubt that the French Government will be prepared to come forward soon with the aid offer that the hon. Gentleman has rightly described as generous.

I shall transmit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the hon. Gentleman's request that the House be given further information. I shall be leaving on Saturday for the independence celebrations.

I do not think that we should get too excited about the whereabouts of Mr Stevens. Independence will be going ahead on Wednesday regardless of what Mr. Stevens does, and that is a reassurance for the people of the New Hebrides.

I shall gladly pass on the hon. Gentleman's congratulations to the armed forces.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some of us believe that he and the other members of the Government concerned deserve credit for creating one of the very few genuine Anglo-French actions in the New Hebrides to have taken place over the years, and in succeeding, so far, reasonably well without shots being fired?

Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that four or five days is a very short period in which to enter into discussions and get agreement on the issues which created the present position? Does he believe that co-existence is possible between the present Administration in the New Hebrides and Jimmy Stevens? Finally, will he comment on discussions with the Papua New Guinea Government concerning an arrangement under which PNG troops might be brought in to stabilise a situation?

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes this example of Anglo-French co-operation in the New Hebrides. As I said before, a condominium is not the easiest system to run. I am sorry that a representative of the Liberal Party is not in the Chamber, as it was the Liberal Party in 1914 that set up the present arrangements. If it were starting again, it might think of proceeding in some other way.

I agree that it is not long between now and independence. However, in my view it is possible for an agreement to be reached if the will is present on the part of Jimmy Stevens. The issues remaining to be settled have been fully discussed and they are well known to the parties. If the will is there, an agreement can be reached in not five days but two.

I have read reports on the willingness of Papua New Guinea to provide assistance to the Government of the New Hebrides after independence. It is up to that Government after independence to decide what help they wish to call on, if any, from their neighbours. We hope that it will be possible to resolve the problem before that time and that such assistance will not be necessary.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Will the Minister accept that our ribaldry of 10 minutes ago was not because we do not regard the situation in the New Hebrides as serious? Some of us have tabled private notice questions and done heaven knows what else on this subject. Is it really suggested that Jimmy Stevens might be in the airport? The airport is not exactly Heathrow. It would not be difficult to find him if he were there.

Some of us think it a matter of importance that soon after Wednesday the troops should be brought home. They might become entangled in the New Hebrides and their stay might be many months or even years if they do not come out quickly and cleanly. Once troops remain in such a place it becomes increasingly difficult to get them out.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has consistently been con- cerned about the possible use of troops. When we last discussed the matter he was concerned that their use in landing on Santo might lead to casualties. Fortunately, that turned out to be an unnecessary fear. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the possibility of our troops remaining for a long time if they remain after independence at the request of the New Hebrides Government. That is not our intention. However, we are prepared, if requested, to keep the troops there for a short time in the interests of a settlement and in the interests of helping the New Hebrides Government.