I beg to move,
That the draft Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 (Cessation of Section 3) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 10th March, be approved.
The order would withdraw from effect, subject to possible later revival, the provisions of section 3 of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996, which established a forum for discussion of
issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland".
Putting it in plain English, the order would wind up the forum, at least for the time being.
If, in the language of section 7 of the Act, it appears to me that the negotiations that have been proceeding in Northern Ireland since last June are suspended, I am obliged by that section to make an order of this character, which requires the approval by resolution of each House of Parliament.
At a session of the opening plenary of the negotiations on 5 March it was acknowledged that, in the words of the chairmen's statement, while some areas of potential agreement had been identified, no basis had emerged for reaching agreement on the question of decommissioning.
That crucial subject has been under discussion since last autumn. There was a general recognition that further progress in the talks was impossible before the general election and the local elections that will be held in Northern Ireland on 21 May, so the plenary agreed to adjourn until 3 June. By reason of that and of all other relevant circumstances, it appears to me that by that adjournment the talks are suspended. Accordingly, I must make the order.
It has been a disappointment to us all that the talks were not able to make greater progress in their first nine months. It is important that the participants want to resume, and they will do so on 3 June. We should not underrate the progress that has been made under the dedicated and excellent chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell of the United States, General John de Chastelain of Canada and Prime Minister Harri Holkeri of Finland.
The participants agreed a complex set of rules of procedure, and there was a wide measure of agreement on the agenda for substantive negotiations—although there has so far been no vote on that question—but they have not been able to reach agreement on the question of decommissioning of arms, despite much discussion and the emergence in some areas of a significant degree of potential agreement.
Decommissioning is a question of capital importance. There is very wide agreement that there can be no place in a democracy for the use or threatened use of force for political purposes. It is the Government's view that the only approach likely to deliver decommissioning of arms illegally held by terrorist organisations is the approach recommended by Senator Mitchell and his colleagues in the international body. That is the approach requiring that some decommissioning take place during the progress of political negotiations.
That is a question to which the talks will undoubtedly have to return. I hope that it will prove possible to advance quickly over the decommissioning hurdle and enter into the substance of the negotiations. I am delighted that the independent chairmen have reaffirmed their personal commitment to the process. Meanwhile, by reason of the forthcoming elections, we have reached an impasse, and hence the suspension.
I want to emphasise that I believe that the negotiations have the potential to deliver the settlement that the great majority of people in Northern Ireland hope for. The process is capable of bringing together all the main political interests in Northern Ireland, but they must each acquire the same entry ticket: they must show that they are willing to work only by democratic and non-violent means.
Sinn Fein should at once remove its self-imposed exclusion. An IRA ceasefire should be unequivocally and credibly restored, and Sinn Fein should show that the other conditions set out in section 2 of the Act are fulfilled. That will open the way for an invitation to Sinn Fein to enter the talks.
Most important is the fact that the process is one of dialogue. Without dialogue, the prospects for Northern Ireland are at best unpromising. I profoundly hope that, early in my successor's time, there will be sustained movement into substantive negotiations, and progress through the heavy agenda that must be addressed, in a generous and constructive spirit. That, I believe, is what much the greater part of the people of Northern Ireland hope for from the talks, despite the anxieties and hesitations that they will inevitably feel.
If such progress can be brought about, we have the prospect of a far brighter and more hopeful future for Northern Ireland. However, if it cannot be brought about, prospects will be far worse across the entire range of everyday life for everyone who lives there. I firmly believe that there are sensible grounds for hope. For the moment, however, a pause in the process has supervened.
It is right, therefore, to review briefly the work of the forum. It opened shortly after the talks, on 14 June last year. It set to work with industry, under the distinguished and dedicated chairmanship of Mr. John Gorman, who deserves warm thanks for agreeing to take on so novel and challenging a set of responsibilities.
Many of the forum's early meetings were taken up with discussion and agreement on its rules of procedure. They were eventually agreed, and were approved by me in September 1996. Since then, it has debated and considered a wide range of social and economic issues, including education, health care, disability, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and environmental pollution. In addition, it has established five standing committees, whose remits currently relate to education, health, agriculture and fisheries, the economy and public order. Some of its proceedings have attracted criticism, but I believe that, by a substantial balance, its work has been beneficial. It was a pity that the Social Democratic and Labour party thought it right to withdraw from the forum, and I greatly hope that, when it is revived, the SDLP will return.
When considering the motion, we should note that the forum's initial lifespan would in any event have expired at the end of May this year. The Secretary of State is, however, with the approval of Parliament, empowered to revive it for a further period, or periods, until its definitive expiry at the end of May 1998. It cannot go on longer. That will plainly not be a matter for me, but I can say that it will be the intention of a future Conservative Government to revive the forum as early as practicable in the life of a new Parliament. That is for the future. Meanwhile, I invite the House to agree that the forum should, in conformity with the scheme that the House approved last year, cease to meet because the talks are suspended. I commend the draft order to the House.
As this will be my last debate with the Secretary of State, I acknowledge and put on record his personal commitment over his years in the job to trying to move the Northern Ireland peace process forward. We know that from trying to keep up with him seven days a week when he is working as hard as I know he has. His determination to keep Northern Ireland high up the political agenda is well known, and we wish him well when he leaves the House at the forthcoming general election at the end of a distinguished career. In view of what he said earlier, we ought to wish the horse well, too.
It is unfortunate that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), who has been here all evening, has left. This is also his last Parliament, and I put on record the Opposition's acknowledgment of his breadth of knowledge and of the fact that his commitment both to the House and to his constituents over many years has been unstinting. The House will miss him.
The order is relatively uncontentious. It is the expression in statute of our view that the sittings of the Northern Ireland forum should be entirely dependent on the existence of the talks process. Labour's insistence on that helped to produce the legislation in this form. The elections held last May were designed to build confidence and provide a route into negotiations. As the Prime Minister said, there were two options—some prior decommissioning or an elective process—to determine who should take part in negotiations. The second option provided the route for talks to begin on 10 June. That Sinn Fein was not part of those negotiations when they began was entirely its own responsibility. It is up to the IRA and Sinn Fein to do what is necessary to convince us that they genuinely want peace.
The elections also provide delegates to the forum. The existence of the forum was not approved widely in both communities in Northern Ireland. To offset that disadvantage, it was given a specific remit to discuss
issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland".
Some members of the forum, whether they currently attend or not, would dispute that that objective had been adhered to, but many of the debates have been informative, such as the debates on the damage caused by the action for community employment cuts, on the problems in the health service and on drug abuse. The committees set up by the forum have also produced some interesting reports, for example on the BSE crisis, on opposition to the Government's proposals on the education and library boards, which were mentioned in an earlier debate, and on water fluoridation.
I am not making a judgment this evening about the operation or effectiveness of the forum, but democratic accountability and openness in Northern Ireland are of concern to us. They are themselves issues of trust and confidence. We hope to have the chance to examine them in much greater detail across the board in Northern Ireland. I have said that, in the event of a Labour victory in the election, we will introduce the necessary order to give the forum its second year of life. I trust that, if we do that, the central objective of discussing issues relevant to the promotion of dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland will be at the forefront of people's minds when they begin again to take part in the forum debates.
We support the order. As the Secretary of State said, it is a procedural matter. If we are in government after 1 May, our main focus will be on making a success of the talks process. It is essential that progress is made towards a just and fair settlement that is supported by both traditions. It is crucial that current hurdles are overcome, in view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), in line with both the principles and the recommendations in the Mitchell report.
Those taking part in the forum can help by working to build an atmosphere of trust and confidence to encourage those taking part in the talks on both sides to engage with each other and reach a new accommodation. I trust and hope that they will do so.
The Secretary of State will forgive me if I do not follow the line that he took for much of his speech, which was, by way of giving his view of the worthiness of the talks process, the work that it has gone through and the basis of the forum. I do not follow him because I think that he is attempting to achieve by deflection what the Northern Ireland Office attempted to achieve by deception.
In a press release issued on 10 March, the Northern Ireland Office stated that the forum was being suspended. The order shows clearly that there is to be a cessation. The Secretary of State is wiping away the Northern Ireland elected body that was set up as a result of the elections last year. He does that without any degree of balance.
When the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 went before the House, it had an equivalence— on the one hand a talks process, and on the other the Northern Ireland forum. The Act made it clear that the elections that would be held would be for those two purposes. On that basis, Unionists were prepared to take part. For Unionists, the process clearly required those two facets. As soon as the Secretary of State takes away one of those facets, he undermines the whole. In short, there will be no talks if there is no forum.
The bottom line in terms of the order is that the Secretary of State is wasting the time of the House. The House does not need to deal with the order. There is no requirement for it. The Secretary of State has a responsibility under the Act to bring the forum to a conclusion if he judges that the talks have been either concluded or suspended.
The participants in the talks process made it abundantly clear when asked for their views at the last meeting that they were adjourning the talks and that they were doing so to a specific date. There was no question in their minds but that they were suspending the talks. There was no view expressed that the talks were concluded. The talks were adjourned to a specific date and that was not the first occasion on which that had happened. On several previous occasions, the talks had similarly been adjourned, the most recent being the adjournment over the Christmas and new year period. There was nothing new in the participants' deciding to adjourn proceedings.
The talks participants did not adjourn for the reason the Secretary of State offered the House tonight. I was somewhat surprised by his indication that there were problems in relation to decommissioning—that an impasse had been reached; thus, he said, suspension, but disagreement on decommissioning had nothing to do with the reason for the adjournment. The adjournment came because of the expected elections for the House of Commons and for local government in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State is asked in section 7(4) of the 1996 Act to determine whether negotiations have concluded or suspended. Clearly they had not done so, so the forum could have continued its business until it decided, in its wisdom, that it would be appropriate to adjourn. What did the forum decide? It decided that, because of the two elections, it would adjourn its business. It has already resolved that it should adjourn—it has taken the decision and is now in adjournment. The body that the Secretary of State seeks through tonight's order to put into cold storage has already put itself into cold storage. It is master of its own business. It has determined that it will adjourn until 30 May—the last possible date to which it could have adjourned under the present legislation.
The Secretary of State, in proceeding with this order tonight, must therefore have some motive other than to stop the forum from meeting—the forum did not intend to meet. Why does he do it? I can offer two explanations, and he can choose between them. One explanation might be that he is afraid that the committees might continue and do some valuable work, or that the forum might decide to come out of adjournment and make some public comment unfavourable to the Government. That is one possibility, but the Secretary of State should not run away from the views of the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.
The other possible explanation is that the IRA-Sinn Fein organisation demanded that the Secretary of State close down the forum. Is he being obedient to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who have required him to do what he is doing here tonight? I let him choose which of those two explanations is the right one. If he has a third, let him tell it to the House tonight, because he has yet to tell the people of Northern Ireland what reason he has for doing something that is totally unnecessary. The forum has decided itself that it should adjourn, and the legislation does not require him to cause the forum to cease to have effect if it has adjourned to a specific date.
I hope that the Secretary of State will face up to those issues. He has put on public record his understanding that a future Conservative Government after the 1 May election would be prepared to resurrect the forum if talks were to proceed, and I seek a similar statement from the Labour party. I heard Labour Front Benchers' comments on local radio, and I hope that they, too, will put their views—dare I say unequivocally—on public record tonight. I put it to them that in the forum we have a body that has done a significant and positive job for the people of Northern Ireland.
Labour Members should not decry the fact that, in some areas, politicians in Northern Ireland have not achieved agreement. It does not automatically follow that we have done a good job in areas about which we agree—such as agriculture, health, education or drugs—and a bad job in areas on which there is not unanimity. If those were the criteria, what obituary would the House have, given that we disagree on a wide spectrum of matters? The record of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation would be much better than the record of the House of Commons if the litmus test that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) offers were the right one.
The forum has done a significant job in airing controversial issues. The fact that a matter is controversial does not mean that it should not be raised in the forum. If we are to achieve understanding in Northern Ireland, it is important that each party understands the angle of vision of the others, so the forum has performed an important role. There were 31 plenary meetings. About five or six committee reports have been produced. The committees would have wanted to continue their work and produce further reports. As an innovation, a representative whom the Secretary of State had appointed to carry out a review of policing in Northern Ireland spoke to the forum and was questioned by it—all in a calm, deliberative manner.
The work of the forum deserves significant credit, and I am glad that the Secretary of State made it clear that, even in his assessment of the performance of the forum, substantially, it had worked to its credit.
Before I conclude, may I say to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that there really is a requirement—I put it as strongly as that, a requirement— on the SDLP to return to the forum? Its representatives cannot turn their back on the elected body to which they were elected. The people of Northern Ireland from their tradition determined that they should be at the forum to speak and vote on their behalf. Through no fault of the Unionist representation in the forum, the SDLP turned its back on the forum and decided, because it was under pressure on an issue of public concern in Northern Ireland, to take it out on the forum. That is essentially what the SDLP did.
The only ugly scene that I witnessed in the forum involving the SDLP was an attack on the SDLP, not by the Unionists, but by the so-called sister party of the Liberal Democrats, the Alliance party, which sneaked into the forum, stole the seats of the SDLP and tried to push it into the background.
Who stood up for the rights of the SDLP in the forum? The Unionist parties. The SDLP has no reason to say that the Unionists were not sympathetic to ensuring that its rights were protected in the forum.
I am sure that that was an odd line that the hon. Gentleman was fishing with to get me to respond. Let the House know that the SDLP withdrew from the forum because it was the only democratic weapon that we had to show our horror and disgust at the Drumcree events, the intimidation of our communities and the blocking of every road in Northern Ireland, led by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. What did people want us to do—go to the barricades?
The hon. Gentleman has confirmed that he took out on the forum something that was not its responsibility. He talks about taking up a democratic weapon, but there is little sense in taking up a democratic weapon if one merely shoots oneself in the foot with it, as he and the SDLP have done.
I noticed the hon. Gentleman marching in the St. Patrick's day parade a few days ago. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, on calm reflection, while going around his constituency during the coming election, will spend a moment to think of the useful work he could be doing on behalf of his constituents in the forum. If the new Government take the step of resurrecting the forum, and we then attend our first meeting, I hope to see the pleasant, smiling face of the hon. Member for South Down as he takes his seat on the forum benches.
St. Patrick, great British personality that he was, has been mentioned this evening. I have just spent a long weekend in Washington attending various events marking the annual occasion. I was at the White House, at our British embassy and elsewhere. I travelled back last night, and have been on my feet for the past 36 hours, so I shall certainly not speak at great length.
I want to thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) for her tribute to our former parliamentary leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), who is leaving the House at the forthcoming election. I know that he will thank her himself, but I wanted to place my party's appreciation for her kind thoughts on the record.
In turn, we wish the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland all the best. As a former Stormont Minister, I know that the role he has had to play is one of the most difficult in the Government of the United Kingdom. It is not just a matter of deciding policies; the job concerns issues of life and death. No other Cabinet Minister carries such serious responsibilities. Although my party has had many differences with the Secretary of State on issues of policy, I and my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party know that he believed at all times that he was acting in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We appreciate the time and service which he has given our community.
I find it difficult to understand the order under discussion. I share the views of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson); I remain unconvinced that such an order is necessary. If it is possible to adjourn the forum for the Christmas recess, it seems to me possible to adjourn it for the few weeks of a general election campaign. I fail to understand the need for an order formally suspending the body. I can certainly understand the need for an order to resume the forum after 31 May— the legislation requires that if the forum is to have a second year of life.
In Northern Ireland, there are three possible ways forward. One is to resort to violence, to killing, to terrorism and to destruction. We have had that for more than 27 terrible years, and we do not want to fall back into it. The second option is for the Dublin Government and our Government to attempt to impose a solution on Northern Ireland. That will definitely result in street reaction by the people of Northern Ireland. We have had that before, and we do not want violence again.
The only way forward, therefore, is dialogue and agreement. That is what the legislation providing for the forum and the talks process was all about. I am glad of the recognition of the progress that has been made in the talks process at Stormont. We have reached agreement on a number of issues: on the chairmanship, the rules of procedure, and the agenda for the first plenary session. Whenever there was a crisis on those issues, it was the Ulster Unionist party that gave the lead in bringing about agreement. I believe that the talks process can make progress.
The good news is that the nine participating parties mat entered the talks nine months ago, even if others tried to throw them out, are still there tonight. That is an achievement in Northern Ireland, where so many people have walked out of talks on various issues over many years.
Tributes have been paid to the forum's work. I agree that it has passed many motions and resolutions that would appeal to Labour Members, as was said in an earlier debate. Likewise, the committee work has been imaginative and has contributed towards parties in Northern Ireland working together for the good of all the people there. We have had reports on BSE, potatoes, agriculture and many other issues, all of which have been first-class productions.
Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I appeal to the Social Democratic and Labour party to reconsider its position. Dialogue requires everyone to participate— that is, everyone who opposes violence. The SDLP has portrayed itself as—and is—a constitutional party. From time to time, through its leader, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), it has said that it will talk anywhere, any place, any time. Our national Parliament created a forum in Belfast and I hope that, after the forthcoming general election, when the political temperature subsides, we shall find the SDLP taking its proper place in the Northern Ireland forum.
We in the Ulster Unionist party want to see the forum and the talks proceed. If there is no forum, there will be no talks process because the legislation combines both— one goes with the other. The Government clearly understand that message, which is why we welcome the Secretary of State's statement that, after the general election, a future Conservative Government would restore the forum in Northern Ireland. Likewise, the hon. Member for Redcar also made a commitment that a future Labour Government would restore the forum in Belfast. We welcome the Labour party's statement and look forward to the election. Whichever party wins, we are thankful that we shall once again have a forum in Belfast in June 1997.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) and I have worked closely together on many occasions. We had deep divisions but always respected one another, and he knows that well. He and I entered the House at the same time; he is now leaving the Chamber—although I do not think that he is leaving the House; he is going elsewhere and will still be seen in the Corridors as an ex-Member of Parliament. We wish him well. I used to tell him that, if he got married, I would do the marriage ceremony for nothing, but he never took up that offer. That is a pity— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) could have shared it.
Some things need to be said tonight. I agree whole-heartedly with what my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said: there was no need for tonight's debate. Nothing in law makes the Secretary of State come to the House and say that he is exercising those powers, because the forum can go on until the end of May. A new Parliament would then be in existence and it could deal with the issue.
The forum has been severely criticised, simply because Sinn Fein said that it would not be there. How could anybody trust Sinn Fein? It tells us that it wants to look at the whites of our eyes and enter into debate. It could have debated with us every Friday at the forum; we could not have kept it out. It was a member of the forum; why did it not come?
Sinn Fein did not come because the forum is the only representative body in Northern Ireland that mirrors the wishes of the electorate. The crowd that meets at Stormont does not mirror the electorate, because the largest party has three people at the table and the smallest party has two. There is no proper representation at the talks at Stormont. At the last meeting, the two Governments and the SDLP were able to block any discussion about decommissioning. All the other parties wanted to talk about the 17 resolutions that we had on the table, except the southern Government, the British Government—our own Government—and the SDLP, so we were not allowed to talk.
At least in the forum there is a mirroring of the percentage of votes of each party. Of course, I disagree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). We did not push the SDLP out of the forum. We wanted SDLP representatives to stay. We fought and we adjourned the talks, so that the chairman could shift the Alliance party representatives out of their seats. They had to be shifted out of their seats—the Alliance party that reads us all lectures about good behaviour, law keeping and so on.
I fought to get the SDLP representatives seated, but what thanks did we get? They all went away. They told us tonight that they went away because of what happened. The hon. Gentleman may as well have gone away from the House, because the House has more responsibility for what happened in Northern Ireland than the forum ever had. The Secretary of State took decisions about what happened in Northern Ireland. To go away because one does not get one's own way is childish.
The issue in the forum centred on the fact that we believed that the flag of our country should fly, but others disagreed. That was the bone of contention: should the Union flag be seen on the building? A great deal of rubbish was spoken about whether it was a public building, whether people could object under the present laws and so on. A strange country we live in, when the national flag cannot fly on an elected forum. That would not be said about Dublin castle. If I went there and said, "Take down that flag—it offends me," I would be strung up from the nearest lamp post.
It is a shame that the SDLP representatives do not go to that forum. They should be there and they should be debating with us. If they can persuade us, they should do so. They do not like the forum because it mirrors the percentage of the electorate of Northern Ireland. They are not a majority. Even if they brought Sinn Fein with them, they would not be a majority. That is their trouble.
Those who are in a majority position in Northern Ireland are reduced by boycotts of public bodies. We sat at Stormont. We did good work on the prior assembly.
The SDLP would not come to Stormont either. The official Unionists boycotted the other talks. My party was at all the talks.
I was amazed to hear the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) speaking about Washington. I got an invitation to the Washington do, and I was amazed. It was in honour of his excellency the Prime Minister of Ireland and Mrs. Bruton. I am sure the hon. Gentlemen did not say in their constituencies that they were away to Washington to honour the Prime Minister of Ireland—not the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic—oh no, the Prime Minister of Ireland and, I am sure, his dear, sweet wife. I had no intention of going.
No, I am not giving way. Did the right hon. Gentleman not get an invitation?
Let us have a little common sense and realise that there are deep feelings in Northern Ireland about the territorial claim of the Irish Government and of Mr. Bruton himself. I will not honour the Prime Minister of Ireland because there is not a Prime Minister of Ireland. There is a Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, but he is not the Prime Minister of the whole of Ireland, and the same applies to his sweet wife.
This Parliament is following the foolish path that it took years ago when it abolished Stormont. I heard the former Prime Minister say, "We have settled things in Northern Ireland. There will now be peace." That was when Stormont was prorogued. I said, "It has been like a Sunday-school party hitherto. Now you will see the real happenings." How true that prophecy was. Look back upon what happened when Stormont was abolished.
I acknowledge that Stormont was not a perfect assembly. I was a member of it only at its end. I was a leader of the Opposition when all the nationalists left. That was when I got a job. I led for the Opposition. It is interesting that all the leaders of the Opposition were nationalists until I came along at the end of the day. I know of Stormont's weaknesses, but it was pulled down when it could have worked. It could have been mended. It could have been helped. Instead of that, the House said, "Wipe it away."
I know that.
What happened? We had chaos. I say to the Government and to those who think that they are the Government in waiting, but only God knows that, that my party will not be at the talks until the forum has its first meeting. My party will not be bluffed. I am aware of the deals that have been talked about with Dublin. One of the deals is that the forum cannot meet if the IRA declares a ceasefire. That is the IRA's position and its negotiating stance. In effect, it is saying, "We can't have that forum meeting. We never went to it. We don't want it to meet. We don't want the Unionists to be discussing what is happening." If there is to be a move on either side of the House to bring back talks without the forum, that will not be on. I am glad that there are signs that some agree with me.
It is not on to say to the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, "We are not going to listen to you." The reasoned majority of the Ulster people must be heard. The election will prove that once again. The people will not have their elected assembly destroyed merely because the Social Democratic and Labour party or Sinn Fein says, "We are not going to sit in it."
It could be that, before the forum returns, Sinn Fein will declare a ceasefire. There are some who say that that will be before the election. I do not think so. I think that the announcement will be made after that. If Sinn Fein does better than is expected in the election, it will say, "We have got our votes and we will now have a ceasefire." Before anyone can say anything in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State, who holds the key, can say, "Yes, we are inviting you." If Sinn Fein is to say to the British Government, whichever party forms that Administration, "Right, we are prepared to return to the previous ceasefire," that will not be sufficient. It was a phoney ceasefire. The Government should be warned of that, whoever that Government may be.
My party will not be sitting with the gunmen who have not given up one weapon. They are engaged in terrorism. There is serious news from Northern Ireland. Shipments of arms and armaments are getting through. We could be in for the darkest and bloodiest of times. Is it thought that any self-respecting Unionist will negotiate with people who can put a gun to his head and say, "I don't agree with the talks at the forum; we shall start up violence again"? They will be responsible. They are responsible, and the Government—whoever they are—must deal with IRA-Sinn Fein and anybody else who has weapons and is not prepared to give them up. Let the House learn that tonight.
It is sad that, at the end of this Parliament, we shall abolish something that does not need to be abolished. Why not let it ride out its time? On a free vote, the forum decided unanimously that it would adjourn. That is how it should have been left. It is a pity that we are having this discussion, which will not help the decent people of Northern Ireland who want peace and liberty, who want, as does everybody else, to do their work and to rear their families in peace and quiet.
I have only two brief points. I have a suggestion as to how the Ulster Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party can get the Social Democratic and Labour party into the forum. I made this point in an earlier debate. If the Unionists entered, or proposed to enter, the British-Irish parliamentary body, could they not make a deal with the SDLP so that the SDLP could go to the forum and the Unionists could go to the British-Irish parliamentary body?
The British-Irish parliamentary body has nothing to do with interfering with territory and arguments of that nature; it operates in much the same way as the forum in terms of committees, and produces reports on day-to-day concerns. There must be many matters that it would be useful to discuss with the Republic of Ireland—matters that do not in any way interfere with sovereignty. The two separate countries would have to decide, through their own systems, the extent to which they accept any proposals.
We have Select Committees in the House, but that does not mean that, if a Select Committee produces a report, the Government have to respond to its recommendations. The British-Irish parliamentary body is a weaker link to some extent. Representatives from two different nations meet and discuss ideas. Reports are produced on valuable measures on social security and a whole host of issues that are quite enlightening to the representatives of the two nations.
There is a chance for the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP to talk turkey and to make arrangements so that they overcome the limitations of being involved in forums and bodies in which it would be fruitful for them to be involved.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that there are three strands in the present talks structure, and that strand 3 addresses the issue of relationships between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom? Therefore, to follow the line that he suggests would undermine the purpose of strand 3.
From the talks, all sorts of things might develop about the future of Northern Ireland. It might affect whether there is to be a forum and what the arrangements are. In the end, the people of Northern Ireland will decide. In the meantime, the British-Irish parliamentary body would not interfere in any way with these matters. Its discussions are mainly about economic and social matters, the role of the European Union, funding and so on. Those are matters about which it is quite fruitful to have different viewpoints.
TDs and senators on the Irish side of the discussion are keen for Ulster Unionists to be involved, not to dominate them or to influence the decisions. They feel that a viewpoint is not being put. It is fruitful to have debate between people to sort out one's position. The Unionists could do a valuable job within the British-Irish parliamentary body.
I have carefully followed the hon. Gentleman's remarks. We are always interested to hear what he has to say in a Northern Ireland debate, because he is one of those who contributes to Northern Ireland business. He does not compare equals. The forum is a body elected by the people of Northern Ireland. It was elected to bring the talks about, as the way into the talks is by the forum. One cannot participate in the talks without being a member of the forum.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about a body of people representing two Parliaments. That raises the issue of the claims of the Irish Parliament, which was built on the 1937 constitution. That constitution states that the Irish Parliament's authority is over the whole of the island. I will not sit down with any representative who says, "I rule you anyway. You're here only on my sufferance." I do not want to sit down in such a body. If the colleagues to whom the hon. Gentleman refers really want peace, why do they not get rid of that immoral, illegal and criminal constitutional claim? We would then have the Berlin wall down.
Many hon. Members on both sides, from Ireland and from the United Kingdom, who attend the British-Irish parliamentary body, would like articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution to be removed. Some of them want that to happen more quickly, and for some it is a long-term aim. Understanding would be much greater if the Ulster Unionists were involved and could put that view strongly.
I grant that these are different bodies with different arrangements, and that one has a direct democratic mandate, whereas the other is an indirect arrangement between the two Parliaments. However, given the present impasse—the Social Democratic and Labour party does not attend the forum and the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionist party do not attend the body—such involvement may be fruitful, and I hope that serious thought will be given to my suggestion.
I often show my dislike of the Conservative Government and much of what they stand for, but I have great reservations about such criticism when it comes to the present team led by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I often feel that their position is somewhat undermined by other factors.
The problem of parliamentary arithmetic has had an impact on developments, although not as great as some Opposition Members believe. The Northern Ireland team have the problem of the ideological baggage that the Conservative party carries around with it. Sometimes they take up economic and social policies that are replicas of those applied to Great Britain. That undermines some of their work to establish peace and reconciliation.
I welcome the work that has come out of the framework documents and the role that the Secretary of State has played. I have encouraged that, although I have not always accepted everything. I want to associate myself with the comments that other hon. Members have made about the Secretary of State.
I shall be fairly brief. I open my remarks by saying how much Conservative Members owe my right hon. and learned Friend for the way in which he has filled the difficult position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We have heard much about the forum, but it is a tribute to him that the forum has been established.
I also want to pay tribute to the British armed services, which have protected the people of Northern Ireland through difficult times, and have perhaps offered reassurance in times of comparative peace.
I regret that the forum is to be suspended, and I am just a little worried about what other issues in Northern Ireland are being suspended. Let me draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to the findings of the judicial review back in December, when the cases of my constituents Jim Fisher and Mark Wright—two Scots Guardsmen—were referred back to the life sentence prison review board. Since then, there appears to have been stagnation and inaction.
I should have liked to hear that, as well as the forum's being suspended, the process in that regard would be reversed—that there would be no suspension of the review board's examination of the position of those two guardsmen, with the possibility of a fair and just settlement in respect of their current imprisonment at an early date.
Other soldiers who have made errors of judgment on the streets of Northern Ireland have served three and three and a half years respectively. These two soldiers have now served more than four and a half years, and every week that passes is wasted time for them and their families. I feel that those in the Northern Ireland Office, particularly the civil servants, should get a move on with the inquiry in which they have been asked to engage, make recommendations to my right hon. and learned Friend, and bring justice to the cases of Mark Wright and Jim Fisher.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
We have heard a number of interesting speeches. Let me make clear our hope that, when the forum resumes after the election, whichever party is in government—for the commitment to resumption has been made clear by both sides of the House—matters relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland are at the forefront of the minds of all delegates, and that all parties to the talks bring a renewed vigour and commitment to their efforts to reach agreement.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Let me give grateful thanks for the kind and gracious things that have been said about me, and couple with that the name of my future horse. I refer to the tribute kindly paid by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam). I am also grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), in particular, for mentioning the team.
I should point out that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office—who is now in his place beside me—will no longer be here, his constituency having sadly been shot from under him by the boundary commission. My right hon. Friend has greatly assisted the people of Northern Ireland. I also associate myself with what was said about the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), who is an old friend as well as a very wise bird.
The key to the critical things that have been said tonight is: "There is no need to do this." Alas, I disagree: there is not only a need, but a requirement on me by law, because it appears to me—that is the language of the legislation— that the talks have been suspended. That is what it says in the Act.
I could have said that this was one of the adjournments that happen from Friday to Friday or even over the Christmas holidays, and that it was plainly not a suspension; but I have had to take a number of factors into account. I have had to take into account all relevant factors.
Those factors include, but are not limited to, the fact that this is a period of adjournment—so expressed, as I made clear in my opening speech—of some three months. It is intended not to see us over the period from one week to the next, or over a holiday period, but to enable us to overcome a difficulty that can now properly be described as an impasse. During that period, there will be a change of Parliament, and there will constitutionally be a change of Government, although whether there is a further Conservative Government or a Labour Government remains to be seen.
Those questions led me to conclude, after careful thought, that this was not one of those adjournments that were simply adjournments and not suspensions; this was a suspension. That being the case, it is imposed on me by law that I withdraw from effect the provisions of the Act that bring into force a forum.
This House is not subject to a constitutional statute that speaks of suspension. The talks process is in the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act and is subject to such a statute. It does not fall to anyone to determine whether the House is suspended. It falls to people to decide whether it has been adjourned. There are adjournments and adjournments in the context of the Act. That is why I have had to introduce the motion—it is imposed on me by law.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) made the amiable suggestion that I introduced the motion because the IRA told me to do so. At this time of night, I will allow that to speak for itself. He also thought that it might be because the forum would continue and come out with something uncomfortable. I have made it perfectly clear why I have had to introduce the motion.
I warmly endorse what has been said—and the manner in which it has been said—about the desirability of the Social Democratic and Labour party rejoining, if and when the forum is resumed, as it will be if there is a Conservative Government after the election. I repeat what I have said about, on balance, the value of the forum's work. It would be much better if the SDLP were able to resume.
I am grateful for the way in which this matter has been debated. I commend the motion to the House.