The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on Northern Ireland – 22 February 1995

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons statement on Northern Ireland, made on 22nd February 1995.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Northern Ireland. Almost every day there brings new evidence of the benefits of peace. The conditions taken for granted elsewhere in the United Kingdom are gradually returning. But a return to normal life in Northern Ireland requires much more than just a paramilitary ceasefire, important though that step is. It requires a permanent end to violence; and it requires a balanced political settlement under which all parts of the community can live alongside each other without fear or antagonism.

That is the purpose of the talks process, started in 1991. We need to seek new arrangements for the internal government of Northern Ireland, for the relationship between north and south, and for the relationship between the two Governments.

The British Government have discussed these matters at length with the Northern Ireland political parties and with the Irish Government. I should like to pay tribute to the role played by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and my hon. Friend the Minister of State. Today we have published proposals in two framework documents, copies of which have been placed in the Library.

Let me make it clear from the outset that nothing in these documents will be imposed. The aim is to assist discussion and negotiation with the parties in Northern Ireland. It is not an immutable blueprint.

I urge all hon. Members and people across Northern Ireland to read and study the documents carefully. The proposals in them have been the subject of a number of leaks and misrepresentations, which have resurrected old fears. When people study and consider the documents, I believe that they will come to see that those fears are unfounded. They will see that these proposals are based throughout on the principle of consent. It is made absolutely clear that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom for so long as that is the expressed wish of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am a Unionist who wants peace for all the people of the Union. I cherish Northern Ireland’s role within the Union. I have no intention whatsoever of letting that role change, unless it is the democratic wish of the people of Northern Ireland to do so.

I turn to the documents published today. I begin with strand 1, which sets out the Government’s ideas for restoring local democracy in Northern Ireland as part of a full political settlement. That paper has been prepared after consultation and talks with the main political parties in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government played no part in its formulation.

The circumstances in Northern Ireland are widely recognised to be unique in the United Kingdom. There are two traditions with very different political aspirations. What is needed is a structure of government that combines democratic legitimacy with a system of checks and balances. That calls for mechanisms different from those appropriate in the rest of the United Kingdom.

It was those historic differences that meant that, until 1972, there was a Northern Ireland Assembly with a wide range of functions. Since then, however, those functions have been the direct responsibility of central Government–unlike anywhere else in the United Kingdom, where many of them are carried out by elected local authorities. In Northern Ireland, local accountability has been lost, and political talent has been unused.

That is why the Government are now putting forward plans for a new elected Assembly, with responsibilities for a range of subjects at least as wide as those in 1972. The proposals envisage that the Assembly might have a single chamber of about 90 members, elected for a four or five year term. To reflect the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, they would be elected by a form of proportional representation. Where appropriate, decisions in the Assembly would be taken by a weighted majority.

There would be a system of committees to oversee the work of the Northern Ireland Departments, and there would be a separate panel, elected from throughout the whole of Northern Ireland, with a consultative, monitoring and representational role.

The new Assembly would not have tax-raising powers, and would receive its funding from central Government. It would have legislative powers for the functions transferred to it, although it would be for consideration whether it would assume legislative powers from day one, or whether such responsibility would be transferred progressively.

The Assembly would have responsibility for functions that are, in many cases, devolved to local government elsewhere in the United Kingdom, including education and housing. Policing and security matters would, however, remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government and of this Parliament, at least for as long as the terrorist threat makes the active support of the Army necessary in Northern Ireland.

I now turn to strand 2, the arrangements for north-south co-operation. We have today published a joint framework document, “Frameworks for the Future”, which has been agreed with the Irish Government. That sets out a series of proposals as a basis for further discussion.

One crucial component is that, as part of an overall settlement, the Irish Government have committed themselves to introducing and to supporting proposals to amend article 2 and article 3 of their constitution. Those amendments would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland.

Paragraph 21 of the joint framework document spells out that they would “demonstrably be such that no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland contrary to the will of a majority of its people is asserted”.

That intention is unambiguous, and was reaffirmed by the Taoiseach this morning.

For their part, the British Government would, in those circumstances, enshrine in our legislation the principle that Northern Ireland’s future should reflect the wishes of its people. That would be done either by amending existing legislation or by introducing new legislation. That would not affect the United Kingdom’s sovereignty over Northern Ireland, which could only be changed by further primary legislation.

The joint framework document also sets out proposals for a new north-south body, which could carry out a range of consultative, harmonising or executive functions. It would not have free-standing authority: it would be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to the Irish Parliament respectively. The Northern Ireland members of the body would be drawn from relevant elected heads of Department from the Northern Ireland Assembly, and would naturally reflect policies determined by that Northern Ireland Assembly. Fears have been expressed that this body would, in effect, give the Irish Government joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland. That is emphatically not the case. It is a proposal for co-operation by agreement between Northern Ireland’s representatives and their counterparts in the Republic. Decisions in the body could only be taken where there was agreement north and south. There is no question of a majority outvoting a minority. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament would each therefore have an absolute safeguard against proposals it did not approve of.

The north-south body would be established by legislation in this Parliament and in the Irish Parliament. It would discharge or oversee only such functions as were designated for it. There is no predetermined list of those functions: that would be decided only after discussion and agreement with the political parties in Northern Ireland. It would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament to decide whether any additional functions should subsequently be designated.

The document also sets out how European Community programmes might be handled in a north-south body. It envisages that the north-south body would be responsible for implementing and managing those programmes which are explicitly designed on a cross-border or island-wide basis. There are currently very few such programmes. Otherwise, the north-south body would have primarily an advisory role.

The House will wish to be reassured that responsibility for determining policy towards the European Union would remain, as now, with the United Kingdom Government.

Let me now turn to strand 3, where the joint framework document sets out proposals for future relations between the British and Irish Governments.

These envisage that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be replaced by a new agreement between the two Governments. As now, there would be a continuing intergovernmental conference, with a permanent secretariat. The intergovernmental conference would be the forum in which the two Governments would jointly keep the new arrangements under review.

It would be open to either Government to bring up concerns about breaches of the new arrangements and to discuss how they might be resolved. This is the so-called “default mechanism.” But there is no question of this process giving the Irish Government the right to take action in respect of the internal government of Northern Ireland. The framework document explicitly sets out that

“There would be no derogation from the sovereignty of either Government; each will retain responsibility for the decisions and administration of Government within its own jurisdiction.”

As I have sought to emphasise, these documents are intended as a contribution to the talks process. They set out ideas that the Government believe represent a balanced and realistic way forward that could command support across a wide political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

The next step will be for further negotiations to take place with the political parties in Northern Ireland. In those negotiations, others will be naturally be free to put forward their own proposals. I very much hope that everyone will agree to negotiate seriously. There is too much at stake for anyone to stand aside from these discussions.

If agreement is reached in the negotiations, the outcome will be put for approval to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum. I should equally make it clear that there is no question of putting proposals to a referendum before there is agreement between the main political parties.

There is a triple safeguard against any proposals being imposed on Northern Ireland: first, any proposals must command the support of the political parties in Northern Ireland; secondly, any proposals must then be approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum; and thirdly, any necessary legislation must be passed by this Parliament. That provides a triple lock designed to ensure that nothing is implemented without consent.

The prize from a successful outcome to the peace process is immense. We want to see the people of Northern Ireland permanently free from the fear of terrorist violence. We want to see institutions that reflect the different traditions in Northern Ireland in a manner acceptable to all, and we want to enshrine the principle, both north and south, that no change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position can take place without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

I believe that these documents make an important contribution to that process, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement, and I welcome it. As he knows, we have supported the Government throughout the peace process, in times of difficulty as well as in times of progress, and we do so again today without hesitation. People in Northern Ireland should know that, whatever party is in government, this process will continue, pursued, I hope, with the same patience and determination, and motivated by the same desire for peace.

I also applaud the courage and skill of the British and Irish Governments, and, indeed, all those politicians and people who have contributed to this process. In particular, I salute the courage and fortitude of the people of Northern Ireland, who, throughout all those dark years of terrorism, none the less kept faith with peace. I emphasise too that these are documents for consultation; they are not diktats. They seek balance; they threaten no one’s fundamental interests, and therefore no one should fear discussing or debating them.

May I put to the Prime Minister the following points of detail on the document which outlines the new institutions in Northern Ireland, and on the joint framework document? I would make one preliminary point. Although, of course, the Government will want to negotiate on the basis of their own documents, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that any other documents tabled by other parties will be seriously examined and taken into account in this process?

On the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, the Prime Minister will not, of course, expect me to agree with his assertion that devolution is suitable only for one part of the United Kingdom. Will the right hon. Gentleman say what legislative powers he envisages, not only executive powers, for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, and over what specified areas? When he says that the funding will come from central Government, is it to come in block, or will specific sums be earmarked for particular areas?

As to the north-south body, again as a preliminary point, will the Prime Minister confirm–I think that it may be helpful–that the principle of cross-border co-operation already exists in certain areas such as transport and tourism and energy? It is therefore not an unknown concept.

Can we be clear about the functions of this new body? In respect of the executive functions, am I right in thinking that the new body will be responsible for European Union programmes, but only those designated as covering both north and south? In implementing those programmes, will it deal directly with the European Union or only through the Governments? In that connection, will it have its own executive officers and civil servants?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also spell out the difference between the north-south body’s executive functions and what are called its harmonising functions? Is it right that, in respect of the harmonising areas, such as education or industry or agriculture, the obligation is to try to agree a common policy, but in specified parts of those areas only, and that, in any event, that implementation is through either the Assembly or the Dail?

As to the third strand, relations between the Irish and UK Governments, the document talks of both Governments seeking ways of enshrining the protection of civil rights in their respective jurisdictions. What does the right hon. Gentleman envisage that the UK will do to implement that, and is it by way of legislation? Will he be a little more precise about the reciprocal constitutional change needed in the UK as a result of the package that he has announced? What will be the next step? When does he foresee talks beginning, and between whom?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that none of those proposals will come about at all without consent? Parties must agree, people must agree, Parliament must agree. Consent, as I think that he was saying, is of the absolute essence. It has at its core the principle of self-determination. The people of Northern Ireland will choose their own future. There lies the power and there lies, also, the responsibility–a responsibility to be exercised not just for today, but for future generations.

The house of peace has stayed shut and locked in Northern Ireland for too many years. The agreement is the key to its door. I have no doubt that entering in will pose its own risks and challenges, but how much better that will be than to stay for ever outside, battered by the elements of hatred and mistrust. Today, therefore, across the House of Commons, let hope shape history–the hope of the ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland, of both traditions, that they should be freed from the tyranny of violence, to enjoy the peace which they deserve and which we have all sought for so long.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support, and for the unqualified manner in which he expressed that support. He is entirely right to illustrate to the House that nothing in the document is a diktat–nothing seeks to be imposed, nothing seeks to be threatening, and everything is there to be determined by consent and agreement.

I shall deal with the specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman has posed. Will the Government, in the talks yet to continue, be prepared to accept and consider other documents? The answer, in unqualified terms, is, yes, we will welcome other contributions to the debate, and we shall wish to explore them in the discussions that lie ahead.

The devolved Assembly will deal with many matters traditionally dealt with in local government, and some beyond. It will deal with education, health and agriculture–broadly, the range of responsibilities that existed in 1972 when Northern Ireland, for historic reasons, had its own Assembly. Funding is not for each individual aspect of responsibility, but will come in a block, as the right hon. Gentleman anticipated.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, cross-border functions currently exist.

The right hon. Gentleman’s description of the executive element was entirely correct, so I need not reiterate that. The Executive will deal with the European Union through the Government and will have its own secretariat, drawn jointly from north and south–answerable to the body and to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to the Dail. The right hon. Gentleman was entirely right about the obligation to try to agree, and I need add nothing more to that.

The straight answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question about civil rights is, yes, we shall seek to determine civil rights. That was a matter raised by each of the political parties–I think, without exception–with whom we had discussions. There is much work still to be done beyond the principle that we shall seek to enshrine such rights.

Bits of the document may require legislation, but it is as yet unclear precisely which ones. Where necessary, we shall proceed, with agreement, towards such legislation.

On the subject of reciprocal changes, we shall seek to enshrine the principle of consent in the joint declaration–which was echoed again in the documents this morning–in British legislation. That could be done by amendment to the Government of Ireland Act 1920 or by fresh legislation. It will not affect Britain’s sovereign right to govern Northern Ireland.

I reiterate that the right hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that the principle of consent is writ large through every page, every action and every purpose that exists within the document.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the most common criticism made of the Anglo-Irish agreement by people in Northern Ireland was that it was imposed, and that it would have been far better if it had been advanced on the basis of a contribution to further discussions between the parties in Northern Ireland? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in my judgement, the basis on which he has announced the framework document today precisely meets the criticisms made at that time? I congratulate him on that.

Are not my right hon. Friend and all the brave people of Northern Ireland, to whom the Leader of the Opposition rightly referred, entitled to expect that the political leaders of those people should now carry out the undertaking that they claimed to me to be capable of discharging? They should now recognise the document as a basis for discussion and as an opportunity to negotiate and achieve a sensible and lasting agreement.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I think that he is entirely right about the resentment and concern that was felt in Northern Ireland over the manner of the birth of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I think that that legacy has haunted subsequent efforts to move towards finding a better way forward in Northern Ireland.

As my right hon. Friend says, the new legislation will be discussed. I hope that it will remove the difficulties that existed at the time of the Anglo- Irish Agreement precisely because it will be discussed and, if legislation proceeds, it will proceed only after that discussion.

I am grateful that we have already received some written proposals from some political parties–the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party–for consideration alongside the framework document. Of course we are prepared to consider them. I hope that we will have the opportunity to consider them with the political leaders themselves, and consider also the propositions that we were asked to provide, and have now provided, in the framework document.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Is the Prime Minister confident that the Irish Republican Army has fully understood his message which is enshrined in the framework document: that, when it resumes its violence, it should not bomb the Baltic Exchange, since his Government have now distanced themselves from 90 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland who have eschewed violence over the past 20 years and who have vested their faith in the ballot box?

How can the Prime Minister endorse paragraph 9 of the document? It says: “The primary objective . . . is to promote and establish agreement among the people of the island of Ireland”.

What does that have to do with Northern Ireland? How can the Prime Minister endorse harmonisation of policies between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic when Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom by the will of its people demonstrated at the ballot box? When the Prime Minister comes to write his memoirs, does he believe that, like his predecessor, he will regret his part in driving Northern Ireland back at least 10 years by promoting this dishonourable blueprint for a united Ireland?

The Prime Minister: I understand the strong feelings that the hon. Gentleman has about this matter, but I beg him to examine more carefully what is in the document, and the way in which the document intends to proceed. I cannot accept that it drives Northern Ireland back 10 years to try to seek a peace which may be entrenched permanently in Northern Ireland after generations of mistrust and hatred. That is the purpose which underlies all the actions in the document.

As far as the Irish Republican Army and a message to it are concerned, I simply say to the hon. Gentleman and to everyone in Northern Ireland that our determination to resist terrorism has always been there, it is there now and it will remain there. That is why we have had British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century. That is why I increased the number of British troops in Northern Ireland. That is why I am prepared to say to the hon. Gentleman at this moment that, for so long as I am here, I will keep troops on the streets of Northern Ireland for as long as it is necessary to protect the people of Northern Ireland against terrorism, from whatever source it may come.

If the hon. Gentleman seeks my message to the Irish Republican Army, it is this. While it bombs and kills, it has an implacable opponent in Downing street and in the Government. If it is prepared to talk and return to democratic politics, we will offer it a ready ear. We will discuss with it how it may return to democratic politics, so that the next generation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency may not face the privations, the murders, the sorrows, the hardships, the deaths and the funerals year after year that he and his constituents have suffered in the past.

That is the game in which we are engaged at the moment. Where do I find myself in Northern Ireland? I place myself alongside 100 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland and believe that it is right to take action to move out of the spiral of despair that existed there and move towards the possibility of a permanent peace. I know that it will be difficult; I know that it cannot be done without difficulty, and perhaps it cannot be done without disagreements, setbacks and problems. But I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is right to try. I do not believe that any Prime Minister of the United Kingdom–Conservative or non-Conservative–could or should sit in Downing street without actively trying to find a way out of the problems which have existed for so long.

As for harmonisation, when the hon. Gentleman studies the document he will not find things in it which will cause him fear. I happily say to the hon. Gentleman that I will sit down with him and go through the document paragraph by paragraph, line by line and word by word to try to reassure him that there is nothing in it for him to fear, and everything in it which may make progress to what he wishes for his constituents and for Northern Ireland and what I and this House wish for his constituents and for Northern Ireland–a permanent peace and a prosperous future.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): As my right hon. Friend tries to reassure those with misgivings about the document, will he take every opportunity to emphasise that it imposes nothing but rather suggests a possible way forward, that its primary purpose is to promote meaningful debate between the political parties in Northern Ireland, and that those parties may, if they wish, during bilateral talks with each other or with the Government, bring forward alternative suggestions?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The document seeks to impose nothing, and its primary purpose is debate. My hon. Friend touches on a very important point when he talks about the possibility of further bilateral discussions with the political parties. It will be necessary for further bilateral meetings with the parties, both to discuss proposals which they may have and to seek wherever necessary to take the parties through our proposals and discuss with them any fears which they may have about the proposals in the document. My door is open, as are those of my Ministers, for those bilateral discussions, which could start at any moment.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Could I begin by placing on record on behalf of myself, my party and the people we represent our deepest appreciation to the Prime Minister and the Government for the enormous effort they have made, and for putting this problem at centre stage and at the top of their agenda, because this is the greatest human problem facing the Government and the peoples of these islands? May I also pay tribute to the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties for placing the matter above party politics–where it belongs–so that we can have a totally unanimous approach to tackling this serious problem?

Does the Prime Minister agree that, when all the words have been taken away from the document published today, the fundamental message is that the problem we must solve in Ireland is not that we are a divided piece of earth but that we are a divided people? Does he agree that that can be resolved only by agreement, and that all the resources to which both Governments are now committing themselves should be committed to promoting that agreement? Agreement threatens no section of our people.

I say to the Unionist people that I understand their fears and tensions, given the 25 years which we have been through. We have said before that this problem cannot be resolved without the participation and agreement of the Unionist people, because of their geography and numbers. We know that they do not trust Governments. All they are now being asked to do is trust themselves, and to come to the table. If they do not agree with this, they should come to the table and join all the parties and both Governments as soon as possible, to begin the difficult process of reaching agreement.

Let us all recognise that all our past attitudes have brought us to where we are, and have built those terrible walls in Belfast. If those walls are ever to come down, all sides must re-examine those past attitudes and come forward with new arrangements and relationships, which respect our differences but which at last harness all our energies to spill our sweat together, and not our blood, so that the next century will be the first century in the island’s history in which we have no killings on our streets, and no young people have to go to other lands to earn a living.

The Prime Minister: I know that that has long been the dream of the hon. Gentleman, and the whole House knows the role that he has played in moving towards it.

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the fact that there cannot be an agreement without taking the majority tradition in Northern Ireland entirely with it. Agreement cannot be imposed; it will not be imposed; it would not work if anyone sought to impose it. One of the problems that one needs to try to deal with is the problem of old fears and of trust. That requires consensus, agreement and a lot of discussion. I know that some people are pessimistic about whether such agreements can be reached, and whether such progress can be made. If those pessimists had been confronted two years ago with today’s situation, they would not have believed the changes that have taken place in Northern Ireland in the past two years. They would not have believed that the joint declaration could be agreed; they would not have accepted that the joint framework document would be agreed, or that we would have six months of peace, or that it would be possible for any British Government to sit down and talk to the political representatives of the paramilitaries of both sides.

These are but a small example of the changes in Northern Ireland over the past two years. Heaven alone knows, there are difficulties enough ahead, but if we look at what has been done in the past two years and take the hurdles in the future one by one, with patience I believe that they can be overcome, trust can be forged and the old fears can be diluted. That is how I hope we shall all be able to move forward.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster): Will my right hon. Friend accept the wholehearted support of the members of the British-Irish inter- parliamentary body, British and Irish alike, for this historic process? Will he firmly reiterate yet again that sovereignty is not at stake, and that the principle of consent reigns paramount? Finally, does he agree that it is now for the people of Northern Ireland to seize this opportunity, and to ensure that the changes that will secure the peace are made on their behalf?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and for the role that he has played for many years in Anglo-Irish relations. He is right to stress the fact that consent is paramount. I guarantee that it will remain so in the future.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Prime Minister recognise that, while there are bound to be differences between the parties about the details of these proposals–we, for example, feel that a Bill of Rights should have been part of the framework–the discussion process is there to consider differences and to work out an agreement that will win the votes of the people of Northern Ireland? It is they who will decide. Is it not also clear that, when it comes to determination to maintain this peace process, the three largest parties in this House are–unusually, but absolutely–united?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he had to say. The most clear-cut exposition of the fact that he is right–that the people of Northern Ireland must decide, for without them there can be no agreement–and of the fact that that is the view of the British Government, is the guarantee that I have given that, after the political parties have reached an agreement–if they can–we shall put the outcome of their discussions to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, so that all the people of Northern Ireland will have the chance to express their view on the proposals that will affect their future.

Sir Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South): As this remains the sovereign Parliament of the people of Northern Ireland, can my right hon. Friend, whose courageous persistence I salute, say what role he envisages for elected Members of this House in the parliamentary forum?

The Prime Minister: There is of course a parliamentary forum now; it will continue. As the talks process proceeds–this follows from what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) just said from the Liberal Bench–the Government are open to propositions that would be helpful to these discussions from every hon. Member. I hope that those with positive points to put will make them. In due course, provided we get through the first hurdles of agreement between the parties and the referendum, it will of course be for this House to determine the legislation that will be laid before it.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): Although there is much in these framework documents that will not be welcomed by Unionists throughout Northern Ireland, I think it only right on behalf of my constituents to place on record our appreciation of the fact that the Prime Minister is giving such priority to the problems of Northern Ireland. In addition, I add the concern and interest that the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is equally taking in matters affecting peace in our Province.

In the Prime Minister’s statement, he said that he was a Unionist. He has repeatedly said that throughout this morning. Can he therefore assure the people of Northern Ireland this afternoon, as the Union and the maintenance of the Union is the key to progress and peace within Northern Ireland, that, as a result of his new policy announced today, the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more secure today than it was yesterday?

The Prime Minister: There are three points that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman. First, I would thank him for his initial words. Secondly, I would say to him that the guarantee of the Union for the people of Northern Ireland lies within their own will. For so long as the people of Northern Ireland share the view that they wish to be part of the United Kingdom, they will remain part of the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman will also have heard the Taoiseach make it clear this morning that he was removing the claim to territory that exists in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. He set out the point about jurisdiction quite clearly this morning. That has been a source of great friction in Northern Ireland.

I believe and hope that we are now in a position where we shall be able to remove some of the old fears that have existed, as the immediate hubbub settles around the publication of this document, and look at a practical route forward. I am willing to do that. I think that it is clear from what the Leader of the Opposition and the deputy leader of the Liberal party have said that there is widespread consensus among Rt hon. and hon. Members across the House, who would be prepared to give as much time, trouble and interest as is necessary to try to solve the problems that have bedevilled Northern Ireland for so long.

Sir James Kilfedder (North Down): May I preface my question to the Prime Minister by stating my passionate dedication to reconciliation between the two sections of our community in Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic? But the Prime Minister will understand–the Leader of the Opposition referred to this–that many have died over 26 years of terrorism in Northern Ireland. My mind goes out to all those who have been murdered by the terrorists, men who now pose as peacemakers.

With regard to the last Northern Ireland Assembly, my right hon. Friend gave the date as 1972. The last Northern Ireland Assembly lasted from 1982 to 1986, when it was brought to an end by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I was the Speaker of that Assembly. It was my regret that the SDLP and other nationalists boycotted that Assembly, which was, in fact, a good basis for political progress in Northern Ireland. If that had not happened in 1982 to 1986, imagine just where we would be today.

I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind that the surest foundation for political progress in Northern Ireland, as indeed anywhere else in the world, is trust and good will as well as consent. Will he therefore consider the establishment of another Assembly as soon as possible, without all the details to which I see reference in the document, which would allow elected representatives to get together, to get to know each other and to work out their own problems? As a matter of good will–I believe that that exists today in Northern Ireland–they could develop good relations with their opposite numbers in the Dublin Parliament.

The Prime Minister: Of course, if that is the wish of the parties, we would respect and honour that wish. That is certainly a wish that may legitimately be put on the table for discussion in the manner that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

My hon. Friend mentioned the two sections of the community for which he has affection. I believe that the best thing we can do for the two sections of the community is to continue to try to remove the strife and the problems that have divided them for so long. My hon. Friend referred to those who died in the many years of terrorism. We all feel strongly about that–hon. Members from Northern Ireland understandably more strongly, from more direct involvement than others. Our aim surely must be that no more people are killed in that fashion. I very much hope that we will be able to ensure that there are not.

My hon. Friend referred to the Assembly, in which, as Speaker, he played a distinguished role for a long time. Of course, the surest foundation for the future is trust and goodwill. Trust and good will is what I ask for and what I seek, and what I hope will carry these talks forward.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): The Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic signed the joint declaration on 15 December two years ago. They gave themselves an awesome responsibility when they committed themselves to remove the causes of the conflict, to overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions that have resulted.

Does the Prime Minister agree that those responsibilities have been furthered by the framework document, which was published today, which is based on consent and which can be implemented only through agreement? Does he further agree that that primary agreement–not exclusively–will be between those people represented by the Ulster Unionist party and by our own party within Northern Ireland; and that, as two parties representing the vast majority of the people in the north of Ireland, of both traditions, we also have an awesome responsibility to pursue the noble objective of peace and to make the concessions which are going to be required, not just from Unionism but from nationalism as well; and that, if we pursue that line, then we will all be fulfilling those responsibilities?

The Prime Minister: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and am grateful for what he had to say. He is entirely right that the principle determinants of a permanent peace, if it is achievable, will have been the political parties and the people of Northern Ireland. The role of any British Government, and the role of documents like the framework document, is the role of a facilitator. We will put in front of people ideas that we hope will bring them together, but it is for the political parties to decide whether those are the right ideas for their constituents and for their future, and that is what I hope that they will do.

I will make the point, if I may, even more clearly about the joint framework document. It is not, as the hon. Gentleman implied, there on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. It is not a diktat. It is there for the political parties and the people to accept it, to reject it, or to change it. But it is there for discussion, to bring the parties together, in the way that the hon. Gentleman speaks of.

Sir John Cope (Northavon): In supporting my right hon. Friend, which I do wholeheartedly, could I ask him to emphasise to the Irish Government that the changes proposed to the Republic’s constitution are not only of the greatest constitutional importance, as has been emphasised, but are an essential prerequisite before any new north-south body can be set up, because that should be a meeting between representatives of equal administrations trying to co-operate and not with one side committed to trying to interfere in and take over the other, which is what some people fear?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is entirely right about that, and of course he speaks with great knowledge, from his own distinguished period at the Northern Ireland Office. I agree with him about the importance of the changes proposed in articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. I think that many people anticipated that there might be some change in article 3. I think that far fewer people imagined that there would be change in article 2. That is what has been agreed, and confirmed again this morning.

The change that is proposed will address both articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. The purpose of the change will be to remove any jurisdiction or territorial claim of right over the territory of Northern Ireland, and that will remain the position while it is contrary to the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): The Prime Minister referred to the need for the approval of the main–the main–political parties before any proposal is put to the people by way of a referendum. Will the Prime Minister spell out precisely what he means by “the main political parties”? Will he make it absolutely clear that the threat of a boycott by any party will not be allowed to jeopardise this historic, and perhaps unique, opportunity for a peaceful settlement?

The Prime Minister: While I seek the widest possible consensus to this agreement, what I do not wish to do is seek to place any political party, large or small, beyond the pale of these discussions, providing that they are a legitimate and democratic political party. We seek this wide agreement for the very practical reason that, if we can get the wide agreement, we will win the peace.

What we have learnt from the history of Northern Ireland is that any significant part of the community, if it dissents, can in practice frustrate a move forward. We have learnt that from experience time and time again in recent years. It is for that reason that we will seek the widest possible agreement. I do not wish to specify which particular parties and run through them: I think that we know which the main political parties are. But there are other distinguished voices in Northern Ireland whom one might not regard as a main political party. We would seek to ensure that those distinguished voices were also heard.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his immense courage and determination in seeking to achieve a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. I think that I speak on behalf of not only everyone in the Chamber but those outside in wishing him success in his initiative and that of the Government.

However, can he perhaps explain to me, bearing in mind that those responsible for the killing and bombing in Northern Ireland during the past 25 to 26 years have stated through their spokesman, Mr. Gerry Adams, that their sole objective is to get the United Kingdom out of Northern Ireland, how the two objectives of the peace that we all want and the union in which I and, dare I say to my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister of this country believes, can be achieved?

The Prime Minister: I think what needs to be done as far as the paramilitaries are concerned–the IRA and, indeed, the Protestant paramilitaries as well–is to disattach them from the legitimate support of the people of Northern Ireland; to disattach those who legitimately wish for a nationalist future from the violent men of the IRA. I think that that has significantly happened in the period since the joint declaration.

It is certainly equally the case that the joint declaration has made a remarkable difference in the support that the IRA had previously received from many sources outside Northern Ireland. There is a changing tide of opinion towards those who wish to pursue by violence an end that is not legitimate.

The other great change, of course, is that the change in the Irish constitution actually enshrines the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s position. It is not easy to over-emphasise the significant changes that we have seen in Northern Ireland during the past few years. It is not all that long ago that the only people who would have agreed with the principle of consent in Northern Ireland would have been the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland and the British Government. The principle of consent is now accepted almost everywhere. That is one illustration of the changing nature of debate in Northern Ireland that I believe will meet the point that my hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): I join in congratulating the right hon. Gentleman and his Government, and the Government of the Republic, and not least the former Taoiseach, Mr. Reynolds, on the work that they have done in achieving the publication of this quite historic document today.

Is he aware that, on reading that document, careful attention is paid to the dignity, the rightful aspirations and the integrity of each of the traditional communities within Northern Ireland and, on the basis of that document, nobody has anything to fear when entering freely into discussions with the right hon. Gentleman and his Government and with the other parties in Northern Ireland; that the essence of consent is very much there? Is he also aware that, should this brave initiative, this try which is well worth making, sadly fail, at the end of the day people will have to return to the same principles that are enshrined in the documents published today?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has to say. I agree that there is nothing to fear from continuing in these discussions, precisely for the reason that has been spelt out by hon. Member after hon. Member on both sides of the House–that we proceed with consent and by agreement. It is a rational way to proceed. I believe in the politics of reason, and proceeding in this way is an illustration of the politics of reason.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham): I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office for their considerable achievement in producing the document. My right hon. Friend has stated wisely that the state of emergency will continue, and that law and order will continue to be administered by the British Government. Does he agree that the state of emergency can end only when all the weapons on all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland are surrendered? Will he further reassure the House, as he did in his statement on the Downing Street declaration in December 1993, that there are no political prisoners in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: Yes. I am happy to reaffirm to my hon. Friend that there are no political prisoners in Northern Ireland, and we do not accept that term in any sense. The purpose of removing weapons is crucial to ensuring that significant progress is made in future. That, of course, is not directly dealt with in the documents published today. It is a matter under discussion with the political representatives of the paramilitary groups in the discussions that the Government are having with them at present. We are moving towards discussing such issues as the decommissioning of arms, and my hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the central importance of success in that role.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): May I say on behalf of Plaid Cymru that we support unconditionally and wish well the important step that has been taken by the Prime Minister and the Government today?

May I press the Prime Minister to clarify the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly? He mentioned that it would have functions that belonged to local government, but he also said that it was to be a legislative assembly. Local government is not a legislative tier of government. Will he confirm that there will be full law-making powers in the Northern Ireland Assembly over the functions that fall into its remit, and that we are talking about a powerful assembly for Northern Ireland, not a glorified county council?

The Prime Minister: Yes, if that is what is wished. What we have put forward today are ideas for the political parties themselves to determine. I reiterate that it is not a prescription. The Northern Ireland Assembly would have legislative functions, it would not have tax-raising powers, and it would bid for its money in terms of block grant and utilise that money.

For many of the functions that would be devolved to it–although the hon. Gentleman makes the point about legislation, as opposed to the order-making and byelaw powers that often exist with local authorities–the Northern Ireland Assembly would have legislative authority, but it would need to bid for the money, and that would be provided to it in block grant form. It would not have the power to raise resources, and it would emphatically not be a tax-raising assembly.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, far from driving Northern Ireland back by 10 years, what he has achieved over the 14 short months since the signing of the Downing street declaration is to drive the peace process forward in a way which many people said was literally impossible at the time? He, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State are to be congratulated on that. Although the north-south body refers to the designation of delegated functions, because that section also talks about the agreement of the parties, as the document does throughout, there is really no reason why all the parties should not participate in the talks on that basis.

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend, as he knows from his own period as a Northern Ireland Minister precisely how people feel about those issues, and precisely what the difficulties are; I am particular grateful to him for his comments with that in mind. As far as the designation of authorities is concerned, it is worth spelling out the point clearly, so that it cannot be misunderstood by people in Northern Ireland, and I would not wish it to be. In the first instance, this would be discussed among the political parties. If they agreed, there would be a referendum. After the referendum, there would be legislation in the House. The Assembly would then be set up, and any changes–any further powers that might then be devolved to the north-south body–would be devolved by the Northern Ireland Assembly itself. Agreement in the north-south body could be reached only with the agreement of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The fear that arose at one stage in the past that this would be an entirely independent, entirely autonomous, high-powered executive body that would rapidly change the mode of existence and way of life across a great swathe of functions in Northern Ireland is self-evidently wrong. I hope that that fear has been well and truly put at rest by the documents published today.

Madam Speaker: Thank you, Prime Minister. I now bring this session to an end.