Northern Ireland (Framework Documents)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 22nd February 1995.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair , Sedgefield 3:31 pm, 22nd February 1995

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and I welcome it. As he knows, we have supported the Government throughout the peace process, in times of difficulty as well as in times of progress, and we do so again today without hesitation. People in Northern Ireland should know that, whatever party is in government, this process will continue, pursued, I hope, with the same patience and determination, and motivated by the same desire for peace.

I also applaud the courage and skill of the British and Irish Governments, and, indeed, all those politicians and people who have contributed to this process. In particular, I salute the courage and fortitude of the people of Northern Ireland, who, throughout all those dark years of terrorism, none the less kept faith with peace.

I emphasise too that these are documents for consultation; they are not diktats. They seek balance; they threaten no one's fundamental interests, and therefore no one should fear discussing or debating them.

May I put to the Prime Minister the following points of detail on the document which outlines the new institutions in Northern Ireland, and on the joint framework document? I would make one preliminary point. Although, of course, the Government will want to negotiate on the basis of their own documents, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that any other documents tabled by other parties will be seriously examined and taken into account in this process?

On the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, the Prime Minister will not, of course, expect me to agree with his assertion that devolution is suitable only for one part of the United Kingdom. Will the right hon. Gentleman say what legislative powers he envisages, not only executive powers, for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, and over what specified areas? When he says that the funding will come from central Government, is it to come in block, or will specific sums be earmarked for particular areas?

As to the north-south body, again as a preliminary point, will the Prime Minister confirm—I think that it may be helpful—that the principle of cross-border co-operation already exists in certain areas such as transport and tourism and energy? It is therefore not an unknown concept.

Can we be clear about the functions of this new body? In respect of the executive functions, am I right in thinking that the new body will be responsible for European Union programmes, but only those designated as covering both north and south? In implementing those programmes, will it deal directly with the European Union or only through the Governments? In that connection, will it have its own executive officers and civil servants?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also spell out the difference between the north-south body's executive functions and what are called its harmonising functions? Is it right that, in respect of the harmonising areas, such as education or industry or agriculture, the obligation is to try to agree a common policy, but in specified parts of those areas only, and that, in any event, that implementation is through either the Assembly or the Dail?

As to the third strand, relations between the Irish and UK Governments, the document talks of both Governments seeking ways of enshrining the protection of civil rights in their respective jurisdictions. What does the right hon. Gentleman envisage that the UK will do to implement that, and is it by way of legislation? Will he be a little more precise about the reciprocal constitutional change needed in the UK as a result of the package that he has announced? What will be the next step? When does he foresee talks beginning, and between whom?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that none of those proposals will come about at all without consent? Parties must agree, people must agree, Parliament must agree. Consent, as I think that he was saying, is of the absolute essence. It has at its core the principle of self-determination. The people of Northern Ireland will choose their own future. There lies the power and there lies, also, the responsibility—a responsibility to be exercised not just for today, but for future generations.

The house of peace has stayed shut and locked in Northern Ireland for too many years. The agreement is the key to its door. I have no doubt that entering in will pose its own risks and challenges, but how much better that will be than to stay for ever outside, battered by the elements of hatred and mistrust. Today, therefore, across the House of Commons, let hope shape history—the hope of the ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland, of both traditions, that they should be freed from the tyranny of violence, to enjoy the peace which they deserve and which we have all sought for so long.