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Since I last reported to the House there has been a meeting on legal affairs within the framework of the conference. At the same meeting I discussed security co-operation with Mr. Noonan, the then Minister of Justice. A joint statement was issued after the meeting giving an account of our work. I have placed it in the Library. The meeting was useful and constructive, and I am encouraged by the commitment of both sides to make rapid progress to ensure that cross-border security co-operation is as close and effective as possible.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. I acknowledge and welcome the step taken on the security front. I should like to express our continued support for the agreement. I trust that the Government will maintain their firm resolve in these matters. Have we got round to talking within the conference on the subject of the administration of justice, which is covered, I think, by section 7?
I expect that further discussions on that aspect will take place shortly. I appreciate the administrative support that we have. I think that we are starting to make progress. Whatever the reasons for not signing the European convention, many Unionists did not believe in that item when it was included in the communiqué. They thought that the document either would not be signed or, if signed, not for a considerable period. The fact that the Irish Government and the Taoiseach made that announcement when they did is encouraging.
Are not the Unionists' reactions to the talks at Downing street—they seemed to give some measure of encouragement but have now been translated into even firmer intransigence—likely to alienate the rest of the British people, who give time, energy and a great deal of money to try to help the Province?
I am well known as a strong supporter of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. I fully support the commitment of the whole of the United Kingdom to the defeat of terrorism and the achievement of a more stable, prosperous and happy society in Northern Ireland. The present developments are extremely worrying in the sense that they stir up the sort of comments that my hon. Friend has made. I am anxious to cement the relationship, and at the moment I am worried that some Unionists are working precisely in the opposite direction to their professed ambition.
I think that that point is clearly understood. It is an agreement which confers benefits on both communities in Northern Ireland. It is an agreement also to work together with the Government of the Republic for the benefit of the people in the north of Ireland and the people in the whole of Ireland. I confirm the right hon. Gentleman's point.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be no progress with the conference without the consent of the majority? Coercion will not be the way to achieve that consent. In those terms, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will pursue the concept of round table talks, because out of those talks could come a new framework for Northern Ireland, which may or may not include the Anglo-Irish at least treaty as it is currently constituted, but may at least, show the way ahead?
I very much agree with the point that my hon. Friend made when opening his question. I think he would agree that coercion can have no part in this, and that is precisely the spirit of seeking a sensible way forward that has motivated my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and me, and has motivated us in the discussions that we had. I suppose it is that that adds the peculiar sense of disappointment that we have at the subsequent events. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) remarked afterwards at the press conference:
We have got away from deadlock".
That is precisely what we had hoped, and we are very sorry that second thoughts seem to prevail at the moment.
With the dangerous events that are proceeding in the Province, does the Secretary of State not agree that while it is absolutely true that there is no way in which the North could be put into the South against its wishes, it is equally true that the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be broken by the Unionists? There is a grave danger that this is what might happen in the months ahead.
I obviously respect very much the right hon. Gentleman's great experience and knowledge of this subject. I fear that the threat to the Union could come from those who most claim to espouse it, and at the moment some of them appear to be embarking on a course which is in direct collision with this "sovereign imperial Parliament".—as they would describe it—of the United Kingdom. It is a serious matter.
I know the strength of feeling over this matter in Northern Ireland, and I respect that. All of us who are democrats know that it is in this Chamber that those matters should be discussed and argued. A policy of abstention, an unwillingness even to enter into debate and argument, is not a policy of strength—it is a policy of weakness and a policy of disaster.
Our discussions at the Intergovernmental Conference have already set in train a programme of work between the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Commissioner of the Garda Siochana. It will, inevitably, take time for the full benefits of this work to show, but I am optimistic that this will enable us progressively to deal more effectively with terrorism. The signature this week by the Government of the Republic of the European convention on the suppression of terrorism also bodes well for future security co-operation.
Is not the virtual abdication of any political responsibility by the two main Unionist leaders bound to create a difficult and delicate security situation on Monday? There is the likelihood that the hard men will take over. May we have an assurance that there will be the widest mobilisation of the security forces to preserve the peace and ensure that those people who want to go to work will get to work without having barricades and thugs all over the place preventing them, as they did on a previous occasion?
I deplore the fact that the action on Monday is likely only to divert the resources of the RUC away from its principal task of combating terrorism. It is up to the police to decide how Northern Ireland is policed in the light of the circumstances that are likely to arise on Monday, but I am confident that we can look to them to do their duty.
The agreement is described in The Times today as a constitutional monstrosity. Its consequences are predictable and were predicted from the Conservative Benches, but is it not desirable that nothing should be said, done or not done on Monday that could endanger security or jobs, in particular those at Harland and Wolff?
I echo that sentiment, but those who have embarked on that course and who are urging people to take that course will bear the responsibility for whether it puts pressure on the security forces, for whether it puts the life of the elderly or infirm at risk and for any other damage that is done to jobs in Northern Ireland at present or in the future.
Is not the Anglo-Irish agreement's concentration on security undermined by the comment of a Mr. Peter Clark made last night on Border Television during an interview? He is a Downing street adviser and a Conservative candidate in Scotland. He said that one side has to win and he would fancy changing the border by retaking county Donegal—[Interruption.]
The Anglo-Irish agreement is designed to bring peace and reconciliation to Northern Ireland. That is the Government's intention. We face opposition from the Unionist community at the moment and we are sensitive to that, but we have every intention of making the agreement work.
It is not for me to say. My hon. Friend will be as aware as I am that within the Unionist family there are divergent opinions on the constitutional way forward. The Government are convinced that the way forward lies with devolution back to the political parties representing both traditions in Northern Ireland so that day-to-day decisions may be taken by locally elected political leaders.