§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)
With permission, I will make a statement concerning the lead story in The Times today. First, the background.
The House knows that, for a considerable time, Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government have been engaged in discussing a joint framework document. It has long been recognised in Northern Ireland and further afield that political progress can be achieved only by dialogue and agreement among all who are properly concerned. The purpose of the two Governments has therefore been to help the main constitutional parties get into inclusive political talks again.
How? In two ways: first, by offering the British Government's own suggestions for new democratic arrangements for the internal government of Northern Ireland; and, secondly, by jointly offering the parties, as we were requested to do, the two Governments' shared ideas about a possible basis for the other parts of a comprehensive political settlement. We are seeking a basis that might have the best chance of getting the wide support that will be needed in Northern Ireland, so that further talks will be seen to be worth while.
That document, if we could agree it, would simply be offered to the Northern Ireland parties, not as some blueprint to be imposed—time and again, we have made that clear—but for the parties to examine it. They could accept it; they could reject it; they could amend it; they could adapt it. But at least we would hope that they would sit down again together and discuss the issues in it. That has been our purpose. It remains our purpose. Far from imposing it, the Prime Minister made it clear that, once agreed, it will be immediately published, so that not only the parties but all the people of Northern Ireland can consider it.
If, as we hope, the parties resume discussions and reach the wide agreement that would be necessary, the people of Northern Ireland will have their direct and decisive say on the outcome. Any agreement that the parties may come to must be put to them in a referendum—for them to show whether they agree or not.
Lastly, it goes without saying that the consent of Parliament would be required. That is the triple lock—parties, people, Parliament—the triple lock against imposition upon the people of Northern Ireland that the Prime Minister has so often spoken of.
We have not yet reached agreement on a framework document to the parties. Last Thursday, Mr. Spring and I met in London, and afterwards we both said that work on important matters remained to be done. That is still the position.
Both Governments hope, and earnestly hope, that we can reach agreement, but consent will be the key, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that, because consent would be absent, we could not, for example, propose arrangements providing for joint authority over Northern Ireland—that is to say, the British and Irish Governments jointly running the affairs of Northern Ireland over the heads of its people. Nor, for the same reason, could we agree to propose any north-south body that was autonomous. A body accountable to a Northern Ireland 1086 elected assembly, which would delegate authority to those of its members discharging its functions, is a different matter.
Such a body, empowered in that way and accountable to the assembly, making common cause north and south in areas of common interest and mutual benefit, might well secure consent. Similarly, we have always made it clear that for the same reason there would be no point in advancing proposals that left the Irish territorial claim to Northern Ireland in place.
These are matters of the greatest sensitivity and difficulty—even danger—in an area where fears and suspicions very understandably abound on all sides. An enormous amount potentially turns on them.
In today's Times story, I recognise a few phrases lifted, highly selectively, from a lengthy negotiating text which has been employed in the discussions with the Irish Government, but on which the Governments have not agreed. I do not, however, recognise the conclusions that the author draws from those phrases. For example, the story leads with an assertion that the British and Irish Governments have drawn up a document that brings the prospect of a united Ireland closer than it has been at any time since partition in 1920. That is simply not true.
What is true is that the future of Northern Ireland is declared by both Governments in the Downing street declaration to lie in the hands of the people who live there. That is where it rests, and that is where it will stay. The two Governments constantly reiterate that principle of democracy; it has been the foundation of our resolute opposition to 25 years of violence—now ended, we trust, for good.
I must not be drawn into premature publication of a document in the negotiations which has not been agreed by the Governments in reaction to distorting leaks calculated to destabilise and destroy an immensely sensitive process. That process is too important for the people of Northern Ireland to be further damaged in such a way. When, and only when, an entire package of proposals is published conforming to the principles by which we stand can parties, people and Parliament judge its true worth.
§ Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)
The Secretary of State will know that, throughout the peace process, we have given our full support to the Government's endeavours. That peace process may at times seem fragile, but it still represents the best hope that the people of Northern Ireland have had in a generation during which they have experienced little more than division and suffering. Any help that we can give to allow the process to continue, honourably and sensibly, we will give.
Whenever a document is selectively leaked, there is a risk that the impression given by the manner of its leaking will be far worse than its actual contents. I therefore urge all parties to wait and to study what is actually being proposed, rather than selective interpretations of it. The Secretary of State will know of the work that we have been doing, and of our proposals for jobs, industry and investment in Northern Ireland. Can there be any doubt today that much of the new-found economic hope there will falter if the peace process does not continue?
Let me ask the Secretary of State three direct questions. First, will he assure the House that the British Government will redouble their efforts, along with the Irish Government, to produce a framework document as 1087 speedily as possible? He indicated in his statement that that would happen, but will he act in a way that will guarantee that no party, and no Conservative Back Bencher, will be allowed a veto on what is to be discussed?
Secondly, will the Secretary of State assure the House that any framework document that is published will respond fairly to both traditions in Northern Ireland, and that the consent of the majority there will be the guarantee of a balanced constitutional settlement? Thirdly, the Secretary of State said in his statement that the accountability of the north-south body would be to an elected assembly in Northern Ireland and to the Dublin Government. What mechanisms will be put in place to underpin such an arrangement?
Finally, I know that the Secretary of State will agree that, for this process to carry on succeeding, we all need to be open and honest in our dealings, and that the language he uses and the commitments he makes must be the same to all parties. The good will on all sides must be matched by good faith.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I begin by expressing my gratitude to the hon. Lady for what she said and for supporting the peace process both in the past and promised for the future. Secondly, I endorse her remarks about selective leaking, particularly of highly sensitive documents that deal with a subject and a process of this delicacy and importance.
The hon. Lady asked three questions, the first of which was, would the British Government redouble their efforts? We are working as hard as we can with the Irish Government, and have been for a long time, to reach a shared understanding of the character that I have described. But there must be adherence to the principles that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has described, of which I have just reminded the House. That is fundamental.
Secondly, the hon. Lady asked whether I could give an assurance that the joint framework document, if we agree it, will propose arrangements that will deal fairly with both traditions. Of course that is essential. I repeat what I said earlier: that it is absolutely essential that any proposals by the two Governments shall represent the basis for an agreement, an overall accommodation, that has the best prospects of getting wide consent and support right across that divided community. It would be futile if it were otherwise.
The hon. Lady asked what mechanisms there might be. I must not be drawn on that third question into discussing what may be in an ultimate document that would be agreed. It is important to bear in mind the principle, which has always been emphasised by my right hon. Friend, that Her Majesty's Government exercise responsibility for Northern Ireland and for events there. That will always continue to be the case.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)
Does the Secretary of State recall that, on the first day of December, I was informed that a framework document did not exist? Why were we being told by the Northern Ireland Office only last evening that the Times report is based on a document of 25 November, a week before that statement was made to me?
1088 Secondly, why were the Ulster political representatives denied the opportunity to at least inject some degree of common sense and realism into the thinking of an obscure liaison group consisting of British and Irish civil servants who are not terribly interested in the fate of political parties or Governments?
Thirdly, there have been disclosures. I use the plural because there have been leaks and disclosures over a period of weeks, so it is not just last evening's operation. Over those weeks, they have made irrelevant the post-publication consultations which we were promised, and have thereby wrecked the framework concept.
Will the Secretary of State now heed the advice that I have offered on several occasions and initiate discussions with representatives of the four main constitutional parties on how, first, we clear away the debris and, secondly, start building on structures based on democratic principles?
Finally, what did the Secretary of State mean by the phrase in his statement which reads:we hope … the parties resume discussions".All the Northern Ireland parties have been effectively excluded from discussions on the framework document.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I have always said to the right hon. Gentleman that there is no agreement on a framework document. That was so on 1 December, and it is so today. I do not propose to breach the confidentiality of discussions that have taken place between his nominees and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, or, indeed, between the right hon. Gentleman and me. He has known that we have always made it clear that we have been negotiating with the Irish Government to see whether we can together agree a document of the character that I have described today. Equally, I have always said that no agreement has been reached. To that extent, there is no framework document. It is agreement on that that we have been seeking.
Secondly, I think that I have largely dealt with the right hon. Gentleman's second question. Over a long time, and particularly through my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, we have been in discussions with the right hon. Gentleman's representatives in his party, and we attach the greatest importance to what he has had to say.
Why? Because, among other reasons but predominantly, it is essential that we should find a means of providing a base for new discussions that will carry wide consent right across the communities. It is no good coming forward with things that will not provide wide consent.
I am afraid that I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman—I am glad that I do not agree with him—in the third part of his question, when he refers to wrecking the framework concept. I do not follow him when he says that. It is important that Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government continue to seek that basis for agreement that I have described. We shall continue to do so.
It is important that I continue to listen to everything that the right hon. Gentleman says, particularly when it relates, in the last part of his question, to democratic principles because, in the joint declaration, democratic 1089 principles are said by both Governments to underpin the future of Northern Ireland and, in particular, its constitutional status.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)
The fact that the statement has been made to the House today, and that the Prime Minister will address the nation tonight, proves that the content of the document is not to be challenged. Let us make that perfectly clear. The Secretary of State, in a broadcast and in his speech today in the House, has made it clear that it was the conclusions that people were drawing that he was challenging, not the content.
Having established the content, and having listened to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux), and to what he said in a broadcast at lunchtime—that his party, which had taken part in the Ancram talks, had been sidelined and excluded—I put it to the Secretary of State: how does he think that this particular document will be a basis for any discussion, let alone agreement?
It is all very well for the Secretary of State to talk about democracy, but the statement in the document makes it clear that the chairmen of committees in any new assembly can hold office only if they are a party to an all-Ireland body that takes power away from the House. It makes it a body that negotiates all European matters, including Commission proposals and initiatives. We know that power is going to Europe. Any power that I have as an elected representative from Northern Ireland will be completely taken away if an all-Ireland body deals with those European matters.
The document is an insult to the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. It bears out what I have been saying consistently in all this controversy. The Secretary of State cannot expect any self-respecting Unionist to sit down at a table if that is going to be on the agenda. That is the price he is paying to get a deal with Gerry Adams, the IRA and Dublin.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
At the end of his statement, the hon. Gentleman reverts to a familiar line of his—that there has been a deal with Gerry Adams and the IRA. I reiterate that there is no such deal.
The hon. Gentleman says at the outset that the content is not challenged, but he cannot have listened when I said that what I have seen in The Times newspaper are a few selectively lifted phrases from a very long document that has been used in the negotiations and that has not been agreed. Therefore, the first part of his assertion—if I may put it that way—is not sustained by the facts.
The hon. Gentleman effectively said that the concept of a framework document is destroyed and that there is no future life in what has been negotiated or discussed between the two Governments. I do not agree with that, for the reasons that I have already given to the House.
I do not accept that, in European matters, it is proposed that all power should be taken from the House, and that everything should be transferred to some north-south body. I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman and the House that absolutely nothing will come forward for the approval of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum unless and until it has the broad and wide agreement of the political parties, which will include that of the hon. Gentleman. 1090 That has to be taken into account. Consent is the foundation of everything that the two Governments are seeking to put to the people of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)
The Secretary of State will recognise that the press leak shows that a fairly cynical political game is being played. It is also a very deadly game, because what is at stake is the peace that has been painstakingly created in Northern Ireland, not least by the Prime Minister.
Could the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that the peace process will not be derailed, either through threat of force of arms in Northern Ireland or threat of electoral strength in the House? Will he also confirm that it will be underpinned by the principle of consent as enunciated in the Downing street declaration, and that that principle of consent demands responsibilities from everyone in the north of Ireland if anything is going to work?
Does the Secretary of State recognise that we all have vetoes, and that if we all use them, there will not be a solution to our problem? Does he also agree that, if we are ever to solve the problem, it will be on the basis of consensus and agreement, and that threats of whatever type, be they voting threats or threats of arms, have no place in the seeking of agreement or consent?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there must be no derailment of the peace process. It offers the people of Northern Ireland the best prospect of a permanent end to violence and a permanent end to the instability that has plagued them for generations. It must be preserved. It must be preserved on the basis of all proper principles being observed. I am aware of no party in the House or elsewhere that wishes to see that process derailed.
Selective leaking of documents in the peace process and political process is doubtless calculated to secure its derailment. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to see that that stratagem does not succeed. When the hon. Gentleman spoke about the principle of consent, he reiterated something that I mentioned a few moments ago. It is the very foundation of everything that we are seeking to achieve, and anything else would be a foundation of sand.
§ Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)
If the framework document imposes nothing and its purpose is to generate debate, and if any agreement that may be reached will be tested by a referendum, will my right hon. and learned Friend do all he can to reassure those who are understandably shaken by the scandalous irresponsibility of The Times in printing extracts from a leaked document'?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with what he said. It imposes nothing. If the document is agreed, it will be offered to the parties for them to consider. It will not be imposed upon them. How could it be, given the basis of consent? My hon. Friend is right. I recognise the damage to confidence that has been done, and doubtless was intended to be done. I take on hoard what my hon. Friend said.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Does the Secretary of State agree that selective leaks are usually designed to induce a reaction, but that that reaction must not be allowed to deprive the people of Northern Ireland 1091 of their opportunity to consider proposals that have been properly worked out and to exercise their vote on them in an atmosphere of peace?
When does the right hon. and learned Gentleman hope to add to that process by bringing forward the Government's own proposals for the elected assembly in Northern Ireland, which will come directly from the British Government? Will he bear it in mind that, whatever vagaries of arithmetic may affect the Government's consideration of matters outside Northern Ireland, he has for the continuance of the peace process and the delicate task on which he has embarked a substantial majority in the House?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said at the conclusion of his question. Of course, a reaction is intended by those who indulge in what I regard as the malicious and irresponsible strategy that we are discussing. It is very important that we continue—as I have assured the House we will—to seek with the Irish Government a basis for an understanding of the kind that I have described. I intend to continue to do that, and so, I know, does Mr. Spring. I believe that the whole House wishes us to do that.
The right hon. Gentleman asks when the British Government will come forward, as they have promised, with their own suggestions for the internal arrangements for the restoration of democratic responsibilities within Northern Ireland. The answer is that we would publish our proposals at exactly the same time as the joint proposals of the Governments would be published once agreement was reached, so that the entire package, something scarcely referred to in the story with which we are dealing, can be seen—the old strands 1, 2 and 3 of the talks process—and so that the people of Northern Ireland and the political parties can make an informed and balanced judgment of their worth.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
My right hon. and learned Friend will agree that these are serious issues, as evidenced by the deaths of Tony Berry, Ian Gow, Robert Bradford and Airey Neave, who were among the thousands who died to stand up for democracy against use of violence. Does he also agree that some informed speculation would be welcome in The Times tomorrow as to who might have provided the newspaper with the partial information and why those involved would want it published? I do not mean to involve the newspaper but those who provided the information.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, if those involved had given as much attention to what he has called the triple lock, it might have been easier for people to understand their motives?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
The triple lock seems to me to be the key to confidence here, and I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has constantly reiterated the triple lock of people, parties and Parliament. That is what is meant by democracy. That is what we point to when we assert that we wish to impose, or seek to impose, nothing but simply to bring forward proposals—not something set in concrete when a declaration or agreement is signed between Governments, but simply proposals for people to look at.
1092 As for speculation about who was responsible for the matter that we are discussing, that will take place without any encouragement from us.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Irish Government have come a considerable way to meet Unionist demands by virtually agreeing to the repeal or amendment of articles 2 and 3, and that any decision taken by the proposed new north-south body should be subject to the approval of both sides? Does he agree that the peace process is far too important an issue to be put at risk by threats of blackmail from any quarter or the Government's desire for Unionist votes for their own survival?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I do not think that questions or suggestions of blackmail and the like are particularly helpful when one is discussing the operation of the democratic process. That is the same as describing it as a "veto"—someone's view that happens to be the majority view is someone else's veto, or is regarded as such. That is not a helpful way of looking at an extremely important process in which we have been engaged for a long time.
We have been engaged in that process for a long time only because we have been asked to do so to help the parties find a way in which to take the risks inherent and get back round the table. Tempting though it is to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) into a discussion of things that may have been on the agenda, and undoubtedly have been on the agenda, I shall not do so, for the very good reason that it would impede and hinder the resumption of this process, which has been undoubtedly damaged by what we are discussing this afternoon. I have to mitigate that damage.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
The Times made the irresponsible allegation that Her Majesty's Government were absolutely neutral as to whether Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom or became part of a united Ireland. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this early opportunity to deny that accusation unambiguously?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
The Government have made their position perfectly clear about that. The maintenance of the position of Northern Ireland in the union is supported by a large majority of people living there. It looks as though it will continue to be supported by a majority of people living there for a very long time. The Prime Minister and I and others have indicated our personal pleasure that that is the case.
But what matters is the will of people living there. We are persuaders for agreement. We want to persuade the people of Northern Ireland to reach agreement on their future. I find it impossible to visualise anything on which they together, freely and without impediment, agree that the British Government would wish to stymie.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that nothing that has happened in the past 24 hours will cause the Government to resile from an approach which can assist the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland, and which almost certainly has the support of an overwhelming majority of right hon. and hon. Members of the House?
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also assure the House that, while we must all respect, as I certainly do, the rights of all right hon. and hon. Members, whether 1093 from Great Britain or from Northern Ireland, to advance their views and protect their point of view, taking into account the safeguards that he has described to the House, there is no group of persons in the House who can prevent the Government from putting forward, when they publish their proposals, proposals which they believe will advance the prospect of peace in Ireland as a whole?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I certainly agree that there is no body of people in the country or in the House who can prevent the Government from doing what they consider right and prudent. I have made it clear that what is required is a solution that will carry the broad consent of the people right across Northern Ireland. I have made it clear that certain principles must be abided by—those which I have indicated today and which the Prime Minister has, from time to time, quite frequently, spelled out.
Those principles mean that we cannot propose things which will not carry the consent of the character that I have described. That is what it is about. It is no good looking for proposals which will not carry broad consent across the community. We will do our best to bring forward proposals that meet the principles that I have described and which will have a real prospect of helping the parties sit down and discuss these extremely important issues once again.
§ Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)
While I join the general condemnation of The Times for printing bits of the document, I wonder who can produce this document, because the proposals that have been printed, self-evidently, will never be acceptable to those who represent the majority of opinion in Ulster, hon. Members on Opposition and Government Benches and, indeed, on the mainland. Who produced this document? Why was it produced in these circumstances? While I accept and welcome the view of the Secretary of State and of the Prime Minister that, in the end, the view of the majority in Ulster will prevail, why was the document ever produced in the first place?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I have done my best to explain to the House why we are in that lengthy business of seeking to establish a framework document. It is because we were asked to do so to assist the parties in getting round the table again. As to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I would with great respect invite him to wait until such time, if it arrives, as a document is agreed and is immediately published. Then, and then alone, will he be able to see its true meaning, balance and intention.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
The Secretary of State will be aware that the constitutional nationalist parties from elsewhere in the United Kingdom have supported, and continue to offer support to, the Government in their attempt to ensure that a definitive peace is reached in Northern Ireland and throughout the whole of Ireland. In that spirit, may I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the Government are in no way deflected from the courageous course on which they have embarked, and that they will not sacrifice tomorrow's lasting peace because of today's headlines?
1094 Will he also assure us that the Government are well down the road to ensuring that a framework document will be available to all of us which can be debated openly and freely by elected Members of this place?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
Of course we shall not be deflected from the search which I have described, and which I will not describe again. It is far too important for the lives and welfare of so many people in Northern Ireland, and more widely, for us to do that.
As soon as agreement is reached—if it is reached—there will be immediate publication, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister promised as long ago as last October, so that the people of Northern Ireland in particular, and people everywhere else, can consider the document. That will be the time for the parties to consider whether it is sufficient to get them around the table, and whether they wish to examine carefully the issues that it contains.
§ Mr. David Howell (Guildford)
Has my right hon. and learned Friend looked carefully at the cross-border bodies and all-Ireland arrangements that existed under the Unionist Government before 1972 and the fall of Stormont? If he has not, will he study them very carefully when he prepares his framework document? I believe that he may find them helpful.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Some time ago, I drew attention in several speeches in Northern Ireland to the fact that the principle is not new. Under the Stormont regime, there was at least one example—and I believe that there are more—of bodies which were put in place and were supported in order to make common cause in areas where there was a common interest. That was done without the slightest intention of diminishing sovereignty or impinging upon it. It was seen to make sense and to work.
If that approach is available in future, and it is supported by the parties and by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, I cannot think of a point of principle that should lead the British Government to say, "No, we are not going to do it."
§ Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)
The Secretary of State told the House in his statement that he recognised some of the phrases published in The Times. Surely he should be more explicit and admit that he recognises every syllable in The Times as, later in his statement, he said that it was but part of a very long negotiating document. As that is so, will he also tell us whether the bits that have been published in The Times are those items which are still in contention between himself and Mr. Spring, and what exactly he has already agreed to?
Surely what is printed in The Times are the demands of the Irish Government which would lead inevitably to an all-Ireland republic, and well the Secretary of State knows that. Is it not clear, even to this Secretary of State, that the whole process of the framework is now so tainted and damaged that anything that emerges labelled "framework document" will immediately and inevitably be rejected by the Unionist population, because they will see it not as a framework but as a cage designed to limit their freedom 1095 of movement so as to create an all-Ireland republic? Will the Government therefore take some good advice today, change course and seek another way forward?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
If it were the Government's intention in the negotiations that they have been carrying on to lead the people of Northern Ireland to an all-Ireland republic, we would indeed change course. However, I am not going to recommend that any course be changed, because that has not been our purpose. The hon. Gentleman should know that, because he has been told it often enough, together with all hon. Members.
It is not the purpose of the British Government to lead to a united Ireland, for the very good reason that it would not stand a dog's chance of receiving the consent that would be essential. The hon. Gentleman knows that. If I have not made it clear before, I make it clear yet again now. However, I have made it clear.
I am not going to be led into the premature publication of a document, and I am not going to say what is tentatively and contingently agreed and what is not agreed. Nothing in that document has received the consent of Her Majesty's Government. It remains to be agreed as a document. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Sir George Gardiner (Reigate)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that certain lessons can be drawn from the events of the past 24 hours? They are, first, just how uncertain is the path to peace in Northern Ireland; secondly, that nothing can—I repeat, can—be done to impose a particular solution upon the people of Northern Ireland; and, thirdly, that perhaps a little more openness is called for on what is happening in the tortuous negotiations, if only to avoid misunderstanding in future.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. Of course the path to peace is uncertain. I do not think that we should have had a conflict of the horror and length that has disfigured Northern Ireland and the whole of the United Kingdom based upon Irish problems, for so long if it were otherwise. We must recognise that such things will happen, and that some extremely malign forces are at work and will make themselves felt from time to time, but we are not going to be deflected from our search.
Nothing can be done or will be done to impose a solution on the people of Northern Ireland. It would be idle to suppose that the United Kingdom Government can impose upon the people of Northern Ireland anything against their will. The history of Ireland, England and of the United Kingdom as a whole has been such as to make that abundantly clear. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made that clear. Even more important than that, both Governments—the Irish Government as well—made that clear in the Downing street declaration last year. It is idle to suppose that anything else would work. That is the case.
I sympathise with my hon. Friend about being more open and so on. It is very important to be open about the principles which will govern one's negotiations. It is absolutely impossible to be open at every stage that one has reached in continuing negotiations. That is the balance that we have to strike.
§ Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)
The Secretary of State said that this is a sensitive time. I agree with him. The selective 1096 leaking of the document is irresponsible and damaging. I share the view of the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter)—it was disgraceful.
I recall that it was the Government's hope and intention to publish the framework documents some time last year. Obviously, with the Irish Government's difficulties at the end of December, the timetable slipped. Clearly it is important, if there is not to be the start of a vacuum in Northern Ireland, for the Government to produce the framework documents as quickly as possible. When will the Secretary of State be able to do just that?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the importance of maintaining a momentum and not allowing a vacuum to develop. That is very important. I cannot tell him when or if agreement is going to be reached. As I indicated a little time ago, both Mr. Spring and I said at the end of our meeting on Thursday that work of an important kind had to be done. That remains the case.
Of course we want to see an early agreement so that there is early publication, the matter is out in the open, and we can carry it forward, but that does not rest with us alone. It would be wrong to put that ahead of the need to ensure that the principles that the Prime Minister has outlined so frequently are fulfilled.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that there is no question of any proposals or policies relating to Northern Ireland being established or constructed under a constitutional regional or all-Ireland framework within the legal aegis of the European Union?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
Yes. The British Government have to remain loyal to their obligations, and they have to continue to assert their rights under the treaties. That will be the case, and my hon. Friend need not fear that which he set out in his question.
Similarly, it seems to make some sense if a local application of European policies—if they carry the wishes and consent of the people and parties—were to be put in place. I cannot go any further than that.
§ Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)
Is it not unfair of the Secretary of State to criticise The Times for bringing to the attention of the British public what the Government have been doing behind the scenes, when similar leaks appeared the previous week in Dublin newspapers? This morning, the Secretary of State said that we should all remain quiet and calm. Does he recognise that we are pleased that, within a few hours, he rejected his own advice, and decided to come before the House to make a statement, and that we are also pleased that the Prime Minister recognised the seriousness of the situation and has now decided to broadcast to the nation?
The Secretary of State referred to all-Ireland bodies with executive powers, and not simply to cross-border bodies created by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Does he recognise the distinction between those two institutions? Does he know that the Ulster Unionists support cross-border bodies with executive powers, founded and created by a democratically elected Assembly in Northern Ireland, but that we oppose all-Ireland institutions being imposed upon us?
1097 Does he recognise that peace in Northern Ireland does not just depend on having Sinn Fein on board, but on the majority of people of Northern Ireland, of which the Ulster Unionist party is a leading factor, being on board?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I hope that I have made it clear that I regard it as essential that any proposal that is put forward is likely to carry the consent of the broad majority of people in Northern Ireland. That is fundamental.
The right hon. Gentleman says that I have been critical of The Times, and that I should be equally critical of other newspapers. I am critical of those who originate a leak with a purpose which, I believe, is absolutely self-evident. It is not really for me to comment on journalistic practice, and I shall not do so. The right hon. Gentleman should be concerned about those who, for mischievous and destructive purposes, make leaks of this character, and I deplore the use of selective and distorting extracts.
The right hon. Gentleman reminds me that today I said that I thought that the people of Northern Ireland would welcome some steadiness and calm. I know that that can sound irritating or condescending, but I not intend it to be in the slightest. I hope that the people will listen to what is said by the Government, what has been said by the Prime Minister, what will be said by him tonight and what I have said this afternoon, and that they will wait until such time as a document is published and offered to the parties.
We do not seek to impose a document. I find it odd to he criticised for being other than calm when I have come before the House to explain what the Government have been doing and our response to the leak as I have tried to do this afternoon.
§ Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)
Once again, the House has been told to wait for the publication of a document. I remember a previous matter—the Anglo-Irish Agreement—when the House was told likewise. Yet last week, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic met a representative of murderers, Gerry Adams, and we were told after that meeting that they discussed matters relating to the framework document. We were also told that other meetings would be held with the SDLP to discuss matters relating to the framework document. Interestingly enough, Unionists once again must await the final issuing of a document before gaining any knowledge of its contents. It reeks of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Hon. Members talk about The Times being scandalously irresponsible. Surely it is those who drew up such proposals, which do not stand a "dog's chance" of succeeding, who ought to be condemned. If they are civil servants, surely the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must carry the final responsibility for their actions.
Lastly, as the Prime Minister has consistently come out fighting for England, Scotland and Wales to remain a vital part of the United Kingdom and said that the Government could not countenance a diminution of that union in any shape or form, why do not the Government state unequivocally today that they desire Northern Ireland and would not countenance a change in its position as an 1098 integral part of the United Kingdom? That would certainly assist, but I am sure that we shall wait a long time before we get such a statement.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I shall not play the game of hiding behind civil servants. I recognise the strength of feeling with which the hon. Gentleman speaks, and I know of the appalling experience that he and his family underwent when his home was attacked last year. But I shall not play his game of saying that all this is down to civil servants. I wish to make it perfectly clear that negotiations that have taken place over a long time have been under ministerial direction.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Irish Prime Minister has discussed with others matters relating to the framework document. We have discussed over a long period matters relating to the framework document with representatives of political parties in this House. That was right, and we shall continue to do so. We have not felt it right, however, to disclose in mid-negotiation the precise text which we are in the course of negotiating, because that is not how future negotiation would prosper.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman asked why we do not say in Northern Ireland what we say in Scotland. That is exactly what the Prime Minister has said. In Scotland, he said that one cannot keep a nation within a union against its will, and precisely the same argument applies in Northern Ireland. I suggest that the sensible thing to do is say that whatever appeals to and is demanded by the majority of people living in Northern Ireland must determine what happens there. That is what not just the British Government but the Irish Government have said.
§ Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)
Does the Secretary of State accept that, because of the leak in The Times today, the necessity for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make a statement to the House this afternoon, and the fact that the Prime Minister will address the nation later this evening, there is bound to be disquiet and apprehension in both communities in Northern Ireland?
Does he therefore agree that it is important that politicians on both sides—not just in the House but from both communities in the north of Ireland—exercise restraint and absolute responsibility? Will he further state, as he did before, that, no matter what is in the final framework document, the principles as expressed in the Downing Street declaration will continue to be the political bible for the people of Northern Ireland?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I got into trouble this afternoon for suggesting that there should be calm and steadiness, so I shall allow the hon. Gentleman's words to speak for themselves. It is important that people should encourage agreement, if that can be reached. Nothing will work in a Northern Ireland with the character that we describe unless it is based on consent and agreement. It is because we are so determined to do all that can properly he done to prevent a recurrence of the violence that has disfigured Northern Ireland for so long that we shall not he deflected from our course of trying to secure the agreement that I described by the events that we are discussing this afternoon.
§ Sir Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)
My right hon. and learned Friend should recognise that he not only deserves but has the support of the vast majority of people in the House and the country for the work that he is putting into 1099 the enterprise to which he has set his hand. If that enterprise succeeds, it has the promise of lifting from the backs of the people of Northern Ireland the burden of terrorism that they have borne for so long. I wish him well—I am sure that the House does—in the enterprise to which he has set his hand.
At the end of the day, the head, the hoof and the heart of that enterprise is consent by the people of Northern Ireland. The buck will stop there: they will have the right to say yea or nay to the outcome of my right hon. and learned Friend's undertaking. We all wish him well in his endeavours.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who served for so long in Northern Ireland. I appreciate what he has said, and I agree entirely with his comments about the paramount importance of consent.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
Does the Secretary of State realise that the credibility of this morning's story in The Times is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is entirely consistent with the leaks that have emanated from the Irish Government in recent weeks? Does he realise that its credibility is also enhanced by the fact that his statement today contains nothing which is in any way inconsistent with what was said in the story? Furthermore, the story is corroborated by the statement that his hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made during the most recent Northern Ireland questions.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman further agree that it is totally disingenuous to say that there will be no joint authority when it is proposed that legislation from Westminster will go over the heads of the Northern Ireland assembly to set up a body which people will have a legal duty to attend, with default and enforcement powers if they fail to carry out the Irish Government's will? That is joint authority and it cannot be described as anything else.
The Secretary of State's failure to be frank both in his previous contacts and today—particularly his prevarication in answering the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux)—robs him of credibility.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I do not follow what the hon. Gentleman said about there being legislation over the heads of the Northern Ireland assembly. There will be no Northern Ireland assembly unless and until there is 1100 legislation, and there will be no legislation unless and until we secure the agreement of the parties and of the people of Northern Ireland. I thought that the hon. Gentleman, with his democratic credentials, would welcome that.
I also thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome proposals for establishing a Northern Ireland assembly which thereafter would provide the staff to discharge the functions of a north-south body, if that is what the people have shown they want in a referendum, and it is what the parties want also. That is the position.
If we can achieve agreement to restore democratic responsibility to Northern Ireland—again, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that—I hope that he will then encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends at least to discuss the principles in the document.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I do not see why he should be so reluctant to discuss the issues that are raised in that way. If he is reluctant to do so, that must remain his position. However, I think that many people will regret his decision.
§ Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Have my right hon. and learned Friend and his Cabinet colleagues learnt a wider lesson from the events of the last 24 hours? While it is obvious that the democratic process cannot operate satisfactorily without a free press, is it not the case that those newspapers which peddle half-truths—seemingly for circulation purposes—perform no valuable task in the public interest? Was my right hon. and learned Friend given the opportunity at any stage to point out to The Times the damage which would flow from the half-truths about which it intended to write?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I was not given that opportunity. I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was given an indication very late last night that something of that character would be published, but the content was not disclosed.
I do not think that I shall say more than I have said to the House already this afternoon in answering my hon. Friend. The partial and distorting publication of parts of the document which have come into the hands of the newspaper is damaging. However, I think that the principal damage is done by those who, for whatever purpose, seek to make public something of this character at this stage of complex, delicate and rather dangerous negotiations.