The interchange between Jim Dowd touched on the issue of human rights, and that must be set in the context of the 65,000 to 70,000 people who have perished on that island in about 30 years. I will deal with the Northern Ireland comparison later, but the two situations are uncannily similar in terms of the proportionate number of people who have died, been injured or been displaced: Northern Ireland has a population of approximately 1.5 million, and some 3,500 people died there.
When I visited the island in November I was struck, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Cotswold said, by what a beautiful island it was, and how talented, courteous and decent the people were from whatever background they came—certainly to me personally, in my limited experience. Incidentally, I saw no examples of religious intolerance on that island. Travelling late at night from the airport to the capital city, we turned one corner and saw a statute of St. Anthony of Padua, and turned another corner and saw a Buddhist shrine. When I went to the north, I saw a cathedral at the end of a street, and the sacred cows of the Hindus walking in the same street. Of course, a substantial minority of Muslims also play an active role in the country.
I was struck by the fact that all those to whom I talked, whatever their background or experience, were very complimentary about our own country. I felt that, in accordance with the deep relationship between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom and its people—not least, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister, the diaspora of 200,000 who live in our land—those on the island were still very sympathetic to us, as a country and as British people.
I want to say something about the small role that I played back in November, and to share my experiences with the House. The President of Sri Lanka had asked the Prime Minister if we could send someone to share our experiences of peacemaking in Northern Ireland with the Government and peoples of Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister asked me to go, as a former Minister of State and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, along with Chris MacCabe, political director of the Northern Ireland Office. My experience in Northern Ireland went back a dozen years; his went back nearly four decades. His experience, knowledge and expertise proved very important in our meetings.
During our visit I met the President, a number of Ministers and civil servants, the peace secretariats, non-governmental organisations, the armed forces, different political parties, bodies set up by the Government to consider the country's constitutional future and a panel of experts, and I travelled to the north of the island to talk at some length with the LTTE. In all those encounters, I met nothing but courtesy and friendliness. I also met representatives of the business community in Columbia, who are very important to the country's future regeneration.
The message that I tried to get across did not involve preaching to anyone, or telling the people of Sri Lanka what to do. That would have been entirely counterproductive. I think that the reason for the point we have reached in Northern Ireland—over the whole 10-year period of the peace process, and over the last few weeks in particular—is that the people of Northern Ireland themselves created the peace process and the peace settlement. Similarly, it is for the people of Sri Lanka to complete their own peace and political processes.
In many ways, I was in Sri Lanka to tell a story—a success story, I am delighted to say, and I am sure we are all delighted about it. I wanted to know whether people in Sri Lanka, within or outside politics, could look to us and Northern Ireland as an example in bringing peace to their country. The first message that I hoped to convey to the people and their representatives was one that had been given to them, only weeks before I went to Sri Lanka, by Mr. Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister-elect and the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland peace talks. He had gone to Sri Lanka and said what my hon. Friend the Minister has said: that no one can win the war in Sri Lanka, just as no one could win the war in Northern Ireland.
It is possible to continue such a war, of course. More people can die, more people can be injured and more people can be displaced. Ultimately, however, comes the realisation that a military solution is not possible. I say that without reference to either side: it applies across the board, like our tests on abuse of human rights, torture, and all the other terrible things that have happened in that country. I lay no blame on anyone. I simply say that, at the end of the day, military action leads nowhere.
How is it possible for those in Sri Lanka to look to our peace process in Northern Ireland, beyond that central message, and for peace to come to Sri Lanka? One answer is that there must be absolute parity of esteem, the phrase that we used in Northern Ireland. It means that all people must be treated equally, regardless of their past or who they might be. Every single idea or concept—some might be dotty, some good; it matters not—must be put on the table. Such inclusiveness had to apply not only to the constitutional settlement—that is being worked on in detail in Sri Lanka—but also to the issues of language, social and economic equality, human rights, freedom of information and all the other things that divide people. Such issues have divided people in Northern Ireland, and they do so in Sri Lanka, and none of them should be excluded from discussion.
Another lesson that can be learned is that there must be an international dimension to any solution in Sri Lanka. I pay tribute to our Norwegian friends, who have done a tremendous job in Sri Lanka in holding things together as best they can. They have often managed to engage in difficult circumstances where almost everybody was against them because they were in the middle. This House and the Government should pay tribute to the work that the Norwegians do, and we should also pay tribute to the co-chairs. When I was in Sri Lanka, I met the ambassadors of the EU, Japan, India and the United States, and our own high commissioner, who is doing a good job.