Representatives of the Government continue exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein arid the loyalist parties. We have made clear the need for constructive discussion on the decommissioning of arms and for the parties to join in an exploration of the ways by which this can be most effectively achieved.
Given the considerable achievement by everyone, including the Government, of keeping the peace process moving, can we make sure that we do not get bogged down on the arms issue, which could be part of the normal negotiating procedure? I think that the Secretary of State will find considerable support in all parts of the House if he proceeds in that way although he might not find support for it when he picks up a British or American newspaper.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said at the outset, but it is important for substantial progress to be made on the issue of decommissioning arms before parties can enter discussions with the Government on political matters. I agree very much with what was said yesterday in Congress by Mr. Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary with responsibility for European and Canadian affairs, who said that decommissioning should begin now and should not wait until the end of negotiations.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that, for the progress of the peace process to continue, it will be necessary to maintain the confidence of the nationalist community? Does he not recognise that the Royal Ulster Constabulary is seen by many in that community as a sectarian force, and does he not think that some offer of reform and restructuring might assist in ending the log jam in the present negotiations and discussions?
First, I wish to pay a tribute to the RUC, whose steadfastness has done a great deal to lead to the ceasefires some seven and a half and six months ago respectively. Secondly, the RUC is well aware of the need to acquire, retain and enhance confidence right through the community, including the nationalist community. In that it is having considerable success now that it does not have to spend time in anti-terrorist operations to the extent that it used to. Thirdly, questions of restructuring the RUC are way beyond the mark. The RUC and the police authority together are sensibly engaged on examining the way in which the transition to more peaceful circumstances may be managed.
May I wish the Secretary of State a happy St. Patrick's day tomorrow? Opposition Members are united in supporting his determination to progress the peace talks. I wish that that were true of all his hon. Friends. I urge him to resist the determination of those weary old warhorses who have signed early-day motion 803 to keep Sinn Fein from the negotiating table. They seem obsessed with that. It is vital to get Sinn Fein, along with all other parties to the dispute, around the negotiating table as soon as possible so as to maintain the momentum.
The hon. Gentleman began very well with his question, for which I thank him, but it deteriorated fairly soon afterwards. I do not recognise his description of any of my hon. Friends. All hon. Members, my hon. Friends included, wish to see the process of talks towards an overall political settlement resume and succeed. The hon. Gentleman said that Sinn Fein should be part. If it can show itself to be like any constitutional party and no longer inextricably linked with or connected to a paramilitary organisation, that will become possible as far as the Government are concerned. But if peace has come for good, why can it not give the assurances for which we have asked and which I have communicated to all hon. Members in a letter which I wrote this week?
Is it not sickening that the head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, should describe himself as a "man of peace", unless of course he is referring to the fact that his terrorist organisation has been responsible for sending countless men, women and children to the peace of the grave? Despite the ballyhoo in Washington, may I urge all constitutional politicians in Northern Ireland in the meantime to engage in meaningful dialogue either on the framework document, or on any other document that may be produced for those talks?
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to words that, along with many others from that quarter, a large number of people throughout the United Kingdom and more widely find hard to take. On the second part of his question, I warmly agree that it is of the highest importance for constitutional parties to engage in discussion of those issues, which must inherently be interwoven in any final accommodation or settlement. I hope that that will come about. I believe that it will.
Bearing in mind the long list of Government concessions already given and pocketed by the IRA terrorists, will the Secretary of State inform the House of any further concessions outstanding or intended to be granted in the foreseeable future? Does not he understand the frustration and anger in the community at such rewards being given to unrepentant IRA murderers, and the insult that that causes to law-abiding citizens in the community?
Since I do not recognise that any concessions—let alone rewards—have been made to the IRA, it follows that I cannot give notice of any further ones. There will not be. Peace-loving constitutional people in Northern Ireland and more widely have deep hostility to those who claim that they are committed to peace and democratic methods, and who cannot and refuse to give the assurances that the Government have asked for: that they are prepared to deal seriously and constructively with the question of getting rid of the arsenal of arms they have, which is appropriate only to an army, and not appropriate to people who are concerned with peace.
Can my right hon. and learned hon. Friend confirm, as he made clear in his recent Washington statement, that, in the policy and principle of progressive disarmament, we have the best hope of delivering all parties into substantive talks, and that only those talks in that circumstance can deliver peace?
I am very glad to reiterate to my hon. Friend what I have said time and again, as has the Prime Minister—that constitutional parties and politicians cannot be expected to sit down and discuss the future structures of Northern Ireland with people who, by implication, reserve for themselves the right to go back to the use of arms, which they have used with such devastating and evil effect over so many years.
Since Martin McGuinness, who leads the Sinn Fein delegation to the exploratory talks, and Gerry Adams, who now rubs shoulders with President Clinton, were both flown to the Whitelaw Cheyne walk talks in 1972, has the Secretary of State any intelligence that he can share with us as to when those two individuals cut their links with the IRA and became democrats? We would all be interested to know that. Since the Prime Minister suggested on 16 January that the IRA and Sinn Fein were two separate organisations, and the Secretary of State told us on 7 March that they were still inextricably linked, did the Prime Minister ignore intelligence that was available to him at the time, or does the Secretary of State have new intelligence that he can share with us? We would appreciate some elucidation on that issue.
Over many a long month and year my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, myself and the hon. Gentleman have acknowledged and asserted that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are inextricably linked, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, they are separate organisations, linked inextricably as they are. The hon. Gentleman knows very well the capacity in which Mr. McGuinness and Mr. Adams came to London when they met the noble Lord Whitelaw, and he is perfectly entitled to make that point. However, what I have to do and what I have to urge others to do is to look forward and encourage those who now claim to be politicians who are committed to peaceful ways of resolving political disputes and issues. We must encourage them to demonstrate that, because only they know their true intentions. We have to go by objective outward and visible signs, and it is those for which we are calling.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be unwise to overlook the fact that the vast majority of the nationalist community have been involved in a peace process over the past 25 years, and that during that peace process over those long, difficult and dangerous years, that large section of the nationalist community kept alive their faith in the political process?
Does the Secretary of State further agree that, when we reach a stage, as we should very soon, where, in effect, the political process supersedes the peace process, we can start to do what we all set out to do—to create a solution to a very serious problem? Does the Secretary of State agree that the longer a peace process is seen to operate in isolation from a political process, the more difficult it will be to solve the problems that we have to solve?
I readily give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asked at the beginning of his question—that the overwhelming majority of the nationalist community were wholly committed to peaceful ways of dealing with political matters and condemned with disgust the violence that was perpetrated in the name of their cause. That is absolutely true. That is expressed in the enormous majority of nationalists in a recent poll—over 90 per cent.—who called upon the IRA to surrender their arms.
We all want to see—we believe that it is the only effective means of achieving stability in Northern Ireland—a process by which constitutional politicians sit down and discuss the issues and reach agreements about them. That is the way forward and I believe, therefore, that it is much more propitious for that that peace should be established. That is the way in which they are linked as the hon. Gentleman said.
I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the Opposition want progress to be made on the decommissioning of arms, but we do not want that issue to become a stumbling block in the peace process because the talks are crucial to keeping the momentum going. In that light, will he clarify to the House some of the statements that he made in answer to earlier questions? He has asked for "visible signs" and for "clear and constructive assurances". Can the Secretary of State be more specific about what he was referring to? At one point he referred to decommissioning beginning now. It might be helpful if he could clarify whether that is a precursor to dialogue between Ministers and Sinn Fein.
I was saying that it is only the IRA and Sinn Fein who know what their true intentions are. The rest of us listen to their words, but we have to make up our own minds as rational human beings by reference to what they say, what they do and, more aptly, by what they do not do. That is what I meant. I drew attention to what was said by Mr. Holbrooke on the Hill yesterday to show how important it was that decommissioning should commence.
I made clear in the letter that I sent to all hon. Members the other day what was necessary for exploratory talks. I said:
Before Ministers will participate there must first be a clear and reliable assurance from Sinn Fein that constructive discussion—particularly in achieving substantial progress on decommissioning arms—would be facilitated and accelerated by Ministers joining the dialogue.
In other words, there is no magic formula which is the one and only one which can possibly be espoused. Another way of putting it would be to say that they have got to assure us of serious and substantive talks designed to lead to concrete steps on the decommissioning of arms and explosives. You know it when you see it; let us not get tied down to a legalistic approach to something that is very simple and easily understood.