§ 4 Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
If he will make a statement on the state of the implementation of the Belfast agreement.—
§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy)
The central issue remains that only by restoring trust and confidence can we get stable and inclusive devolved institutions up and running again. We have taken positive steps towards that—most 315 recently, as I mentioned just now, with the announcement of substantive progress on the independent monitoring commission. It is also necessary to have clarity on the ending of paramilitarism and on the stability of the institutions, once restored. We will continue to engage with the parties in Northern Ireland, and I hope that that will lead to the early progress that we all want.
§ Mr. Robathan
It is now five and a half years since the Belfast agreement. Critically, as the Secretary of State said, terrorist arsenals remain intact and the institutions of the agreement are largely suspended. How does that leave the review of the agreement that, according to page 26 of the agreement, is planned for four years after its implementation, and which is due in December? There are no parties in the Assembly to call for the review. Will the review go forward and what is the Government's position on it, as a whole?
§ Mr. Murphy
The position is that it was decided in the Good Friday agreement—in paragraph 8, I think—that there should be a review after four years. People in Ireland, north and south, voted for the agreement, so they obviously expect the review. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that it refers to parties in the Assembly. Of course, it was anticipated at the time that the Assembly would be up and running at the time of the review. Although the agreement is not a legal document, but a political document, we all hope that elections will be held before the year is out so that there will indeed be parties in the Assembly to participate in the review.
§ Mr. John Hume (Foyle)
Does the Secretary of State agree that the overwhelming consent of the people of Northern Ireland was given to the Good Friday agreement; that the principle of consent has always been central to Unionism; that that principle of consent is now accepted by all other parties in Ireland, north and south; and that if those parties that are trying to overthrow the agreement succeed in not having it implemented, they are completely overthrowing the principle of the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, which means that if there has to be a future agreement it would be confined solely to the two Governments to work it out together?
§ Mr. Murphy
Of course we do not want to get into the situation whereby it is for the two Governments to work it out together, as my hon. Friend suggests. It is for the parties and the Government in Northern Ireland to be able to come to a proper settlement. He is right to remind the House that the principle of consent is central to the Good Friday agreement and that people north and south overwhelmingly voted for that. I still believe that the Good Friday agreement is the best way forward and that the majority of people in Ireland believe that as well.
§ r. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
Can the Secretary of State confirm that it s still the Government's policy that there must be effective and substantial acts of completion—which is a euphemism for complete decommissioning and effective disbandment—before 316 there can be a resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly? Can he give his assessment of whether we will see early movement on effective acts of completion?
§ Mr. Murphy
I sincerely hope that there will be early movement on such acts. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in March and April we made considerable progress over a number of weeks—although not enough, of course, to be able to do what we wanted in setting up the institutions. I believe that by working on what occurred in March and April, and because all parties in Northern Ireland want to make progress, we can be hopeful that there will be progress on acts of completion in order to ensure that we can get the institutions up and running again.
The right hon. Gentleman is aware—more than anybody, I suppose—that we want to get not only the Assembly but the Executive up and running in Northern Ireland. The establishment of that Executive must be based on mutual trust, understanding and confidence among the parties that make it up.
§ Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)
When the Secretary of State presents the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill next week, will he ensure that the measure requires parties in the Executive to attend Executive meetings and north-south ministerial meetings as part of their duties and to ensure that they assume collective responsibility along with their ministerial colleagues? Will he ensure that the Bill deals with such breaches of rules or will they be put on the long finger again? [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. May I ask for the private conversations, which are unfair to Northern Ireland Question Time, to cease before the Secretary of State replies?
§ Mr. Murphy
My hon. Friend is right that the independent monitoring commission will deal, among other matters, with political breaches of the Good Friday agreement. He also knows that the commission will report to the implementation group in the Northern Ireland Assembly. There will be an opportunity next week to debate that in detail. It is therefore up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider the best way to deal with such a report. I repeat that we shall debate those matters in greater detail next week.
§ Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the implementation of the Belfast agreement is going nowhere unless and until the Northern Ireland Assembly is allowed to renew its democratic mandate? Will he therefore take the opportunity to confirm that elections will be held in the autumn and that there will be no further postponement, which would constitute cancellation?
§ Mr. Murphy
No one wants postponement or cancellation of elections. Earlier, I said that we all want the elections to take place before the year is out. I repeat the point that I made to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble): that we want the other institutions as well as the Assembly to work again. Of course, we want the Northern Ireland Assembly to be up and running, but we also want the Government of 317 Northern Ireland to do those things that my fellow Ministers and I currently have to undertake on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not enough for the nationalist community to give its support to the Belfast agreement and that we can have no lasting, stable political structures unless both sections of the community support them? The support of half the Ulster Unionist party, which represents less than half of the Unionist community, is not sufficient to provide that consent. Will he therefore allow politicians to get a mandate for new negotiations for an agreement that has the support of both sections of the community?
§ Mr. Murphy
I agree that, for the agreement to work, it must have the commitment of both sides of the community—Unionist and nationalist—in Northern Ireland. However, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis that the Unionist people are opposed to successful implementation of the Belfast agreement. He knows that the latest opinion poll in Northern Ireland showed that most Protestant and Unionist people want the agreement to work. I still believe that it is the best way forward.
§ Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)
As the Secretary of State said, there has been agreement that the best way forward for all the people of Northern Ireland is reconciliation and the restart of the Belfast agreement. Given that the breakdown and suspension of the Executive last year was due to extra-political activity in Stormont, can he give evidence of willingness on the nationalist side, especially on Sinn Fein's part, to play a more constructive and positive role in bringing about the negotiations?
§ Mr. Murphy
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the republican movement in Sinn Fein and that of the IRA in ensuring that the IRA undertakes the necessary acts of completion so that people in Northern Ireland—nationalist and Unionist—can have proper confidence.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)
I must take up the Secretary of State on an answer that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). He implied that the four-year review for which the agreement provides could take place in December, whether or not the Assembly was in place. Is that seriously what he meant? Has he forgotten the provision in paragraph 8 of the agreement that the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly must summon the review?
§ Mr. Murphy
Of course I have not. I was present when the agreement was signed and helped to make it. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)—I was referring specifically to parties in the Assembly. The document in question is not a legal document. It is imperative that we have an Assembly up and running; that is what everyone wants. The parties in that Assembly will take part in the review.
§ Mr. Davies
It might not be a legal document, but it is a very finely balanced one that has resulted from 318 extremely delicate negotiations, in which the Secretary of State took part. It cannot be unilaterally rewritten in part. This is just one reason among many why, if we are to make any progress in the peace process, the Government really must stop shilly-shallying and call an election.
§ Mr. Murphy
No one wants to rewrite the agreement; no one is suggesting that. I am merely pointing out to the hon. Gentleman the facts in relation to the paragraph 8 review. He is right to say that everyone wants an Assembly in Northern Ireland, but we also want a Government there and a review. I sincerely hope that all three will be achievable before the year is out.