Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC Stmnt: [Anglo-Irish Bilateral Talks]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [12/421-28]
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4218
Themes: European Union (general), Northern Ireland, Terrorism, Transport
[column 421]

Anglo-Irish Bilateral Talks

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement——

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

On behalf of the people of Ulster—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the kindest thing for us to do is to continue.

The Prime Minister

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement——

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

On behalf of the people of Ulster—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

—about the meeting which I had with the Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, in London on 6 November.

This meeting was one in a regular series. It was held on a similar basis to those which take place with other Heads of State and of Government of the European Community. However, it was—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister should be heard.

The Prime Minister

However, it was exceptional in that on this occasion the Taoiseach and I received the joint studies commissioned at my meeting with the then Taoiseach in Dublin on 8 December 1980.

The House will recall my undertaking to place before it the recommendations on matters of policy arising out of the studies. The studies, other than that on security matters, will be laid before the House tomorrow. They deal with possible new institutional structures, citizenship rights, economic co-operation and measures to encourage mutual understanding. I have already placed in the Library of the House copies of the joint report of senior officials on the studies and of the communiqué which the Taoiseach and I issued on Friday.

At our meeting the Taoiseach and I affirmed our agreement on a number of points which are fundamental to relations between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic.

We were agreed on the benefits of close relations between our two countries. We are determined to work for a deepening and strengthening of those relations.

We were agreed on the need to find ways to reduce the tensions between and to reconcile the peoples of the two parts of Ireland.

We were agreed on the need to intensify economic co-operation between both countries and in particular between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Such co-operation should assist the economies of both countries as well as encouraging further co-operation in other fields.

We were agreed in our resolute opposition to violence and terrorism. We are determined to maintain the very high level of co-operation between the security forces of both countries. As the communiqué states, we noted with approval the efforts being made to ensure that those who commit crimes in one country should not be able to escape prosecution and conviction by seeking refuge in the other.

We were agreed, finally, that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would require the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. This is a fact which both the present Taoiseach and his two predecessors have publicly accepted. [column 422]

It is against this background that the joint studies must be seen. Many of the suggestions in the joint studies are for further consideration, but the Taoiseach and I agreed that an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council should be established. It will provide a framework which will facilitate more regular and more frequent contacts between Ministers and officials. It involves no change whatever in the constitutional position as regards relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic.

In the same context, there was agreement to work towards the establishment of an advisory committee on economic, social and cultural co-operation. Closer co-operation and friendship are not matters for Governments only. I hope that this committee will have a wide membership, representative of a broad cross-section of ordinary people and organisations with interests in this country and in the Republic of Ireland.

The suggestion was made in the studies that an Anglo-Irish interparliamentary body might be established at an appropriate time. It was envisaged that the members of such a body would be drawn from the British and Irish Parliaments, the European Parliament and any elected assembly that may be established for Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach and I agreed that this would be a matter for the two Parliaments themselves to pursue.

This was a friendly and constructive meeting. It has helped to consolidate the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The Government's objective is to create a situation in which meetings between the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are seen to be routine. We took a significant step in that direction on Friday.

Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

The Opposition agree that there should be continuous and close meetings and discussions between the Government of this country and the Government in Dublin. Therefore, we greatly welcome these discussions, as well as those which have preceded them. Our criticism previously was that the results of discussions were not made public to the House. We are glad that there has been a change of feeling on that subject and that full reports are now to be made to the House.

We ask that the new Anglo-Irish Council should report persistently to the House on any discussions it may have.

We especially welcome the statement to which the right hon. Lady drew attention—that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would require the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. We accept that principle of consent, and we wish the whole future of our two countries to be based upon it. The Opposition have put forward proposals for advancing towards a united Ireland. We believe that that is the right course that we should travel. There can be fruitful discussions about that. That view is one that is generally in accordance with that of the present Taoiseach in Dublin. He takes much the same view. But I emphasise again that we believe that his emphasis on the process of consent is of great importance.

In view of the major matters that have arisen in these discussions and are presented to the House and the country by them, may the House have an early debate on the matter?

Another matter has arisen today, on a similar subject. Representations were made this morning by many of my hon. Friends in respect of the breakdown of the arrangements about the Belfast-Liverpool ferry. This [column 423]matter is of great concern to people in Northern Ireland. Many people's jobs are involved. Does the right hon. Lady not consider it wise, particularly in these circumstances, to take special action on this matter, which could assist the general atmosphere in Ireland and the general approach to fresh arrangements for Ireland generally?

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the meeting and for the statement.

Secondly, the joint studies will be published in full tomorrow. I hope that they will give rise to discussion and debate. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will pursue the matter of a debate at some appropriate time with my right hon. Friend Francis Pymthe Leader of the House.

Thirdly, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is set out in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, under which Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom unless the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish otherwise, as shown by a poll conducted in a way set out in that Act. That guarantee is enshrined in our law and totally remains and will remain.

With regard to P & O, my right hon. Friend James Priorthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saw a group of people about the matter this morning. I must, however, tell the right hon. Gentleman that it is not the Government's intention to provide a subsidy or to intervene in the dispute.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

Regardless of what the Prime Minister has said, the cold reality is that the terms of the communiqué and the consequential events that will flow from it represent a significant first step by a Tory Government towards easing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom with the consequent betrayal of the birthright of Ulster Loyalists.

Does the Prime Minister now realise, following the further sickening, cowardly murders of Protestants in Northern Ireland by the vile sectarian Provisional IRA, that her talks with the Dublin Prime Minister will not stop the Republican atrocities in Northern Ireland, particularly as the Dublin Government refuse to extradite the terrorists who seek sancturary in the Republic and especially as Cardinal O'Fiaich, shedding crocodile tears over the victims of these atrocious thugs, refuses to excommunicate the terrorists?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I disagree with much of what he says. The reality is that the guarantee to Northern Ireland remains. It is a part of the United Kingdom and will stay a part of the United Kingdom unless its people both wish and consent to do otherwise.

With regard to security and the combating of terrorism and crime, our security forces—the Army, the police and the Ulster Defence Regiment—do a superlative job that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would wish to acknowledge. I might also remind him that we are receiving wonderful co-operation across the border concerned with catching terrorists wherever they commit their offences and trying them either in the North or in the South. That co-operation is very valuable in enabling us to combat terrorism.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Can the Prime Minister not begin to understand the feelings of ordinary people in Northern Ireland who are experiencing a sense of betrayal that no amount of explanation or denial can remove?

[column 424]

The Prime Minister

I try all the time to understand the feelings of the people in Northern Ireland. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this Taoiseach and the two previous Taoiseachs have both accepted publicly that any change could come about only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That in itself is a great advance on the position that used to be taken up. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), sitting next to the hon. Gentleman, says, “No, no.” In the meantime, the guarantee that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom is enshrined in the 1973 Act, and it remains.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that we on the Liberal Benches assure her of our support for these tangible signs of closer co-operation between the United Kingdom and the Dublin Government? May we impress on the right hon. Lady the fact that she should not be put off, in her determination to pursue the talks, by noises on or off the stage in this Parliament? Was any further progress made during the talks on extradition and also on the subject of the interparliamentary grouping that has been suggested? How will that proceed from now on? What talks will take place on that subject?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first question, it seems to me reasonable to try to have friendly relations with an adjacent State. I am sure that this is the right policy to pursue and that it is in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and also in the interests of the people of the Republic.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we in this country abide by the extradition treaties. We extradite people even to the Republic should the circumstances warrant it. The hon. Gentleman is right in his assertion that the Republic does not have extradition. I doubt very much whether we shall succeed in persuading the Republic to have extradition, but the matter is pursued with it from time to time. Inter-parliamentary proceedings are a matter for this House and for the similar House in the Republic of Ireland. I would not wish to interfere. Now that the idea has been put up, I hope that it will be discussed in the appropriate forum here.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

In consideration of parliamentary or possible parliamentary representation on the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental council, has my right hon. Friend given thought to the possibility that it could change the constitutional relationship between two friendly nations? Has she also given thought in particular to the possibility that if she goes ahead with such a proposal some of the parliamentary representation might come from Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

There must be a slight misunderstanding. It is not expected that there would be any parliamentary representation on the intergovernmental council except in so far as Ministers are themselves Members of Parliament. There is co-operation at three levels—first, at the level of Government and officials, all of whom are associated with Government. That is the intergovernmental council. Secondly, it is for consideration whether Members of Parliament of this House and Members of Parliament of the House in the Republic of Ireland should think it right to have co-operation between [column 425]themselves. That would be co-operation at the parliamentary level. The third level would be at advisory committee level where people who are neither members of Governments nor Members of Parliament wish to take part in closer relations. There are three distinct levels.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

Will the Prime Minister accept that the vast majority of people in the island of Ireland and in this island will welcome these talks for what they are—an attempt to cement friendly relations? Is she aware that the secrecy that surrounded the talks with the previous Taoiseach has left one party to the talks in the position where a debate is taking place today in the Irish Parliament with the intention of sabotaging the talks that took place between the right hon. Lady and the Taoiseach last week?

Will she also appreciate that there needs to be a sense of urgency about the creation of the parliamentary forum as agreed at the Downing Street talks? will she accept that there would be very few objections from the Opposition side of the House to the setting up of that parliamentary forum? There might even be a number of supporters on her own Benches.

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says. With regard to the parliamentary aspect, I believe that there is an Anglo-Irish all-party group, which could perhaps consider these matters further. A sense of urgency would have to come from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I do not think it is necessarily right that the Government themselves should interfere in these things.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Have not these exchanges shown how important it is to carry Ulster Unionists with the Government's endeavours and to show them that they will not be abandoned to the embraces of so-called loyalist extremists and exhibitionists?

The Prime Minister

I agree totally with my hon. Friend about this matter. That is why we have always stressed the importance and the significance of the guarantee. We hope thereby to retain the confidence of our Ulster Unionist friends.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Does the Prime Minister not recognise that a nation cannot secure its own peace and security by entering into arrangements which its own people rightly regard as a conspiracy against them with their enemies?

The Prime Minister

The people I represent are all the people of the United Kingdom. I do not think that they would take the view that the right hon. Gentleman takes.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call three more hon. Members from either side before moving onto the next business.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Although one appreciates the frankness of my right hon. Friend's statement, how can she explain the fact that so many IRA confirmations of their involvement in atrocities come from Dublin if we are getting so much co-operation from the Dublin Government? Will she confirm that the party that we both represent still remains the Conservative and Unionist Party?

[column 426]

The Prime Minister

Yes, indeed. That is one reason why the guarantee was enshrined in an Act of Parliament. That guarantee wholly remains. With regard to the IRA and activities south of the border, the Government of the Republic are very active indeed in trying to trace all people who commit acts of terrorism or crime. They recognise that those people are enemies of democracy and are a menace to the Government of the Republic as well as to the Government and the people of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Neville Sandelson (Hayes and Harlington)

I welcome the initiatives that have been taken by the Government, which will have our firm support, but what consideration has been given by the right hon. Lady and Dr. FitzGerald to the introduction of a wider dimension as an aid to further progress? Is it not possible that the European Community and its agencies can be of great practical assistance, and that an international solution, universally accepted as disinterested, is more likely to succeed than is a purely British solution?

The Prime Minister

The future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the United Kingdom, because Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. That is a matter wholly for the United Kingdom, for the people of Northern Ireland and for this Parliament. In answer to what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) said about the wider dimension, the talks take place against the background of bilateral discussions that we have with our partners in the EEC. That is precisely how this set of bilateral discussions started.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is not the Government's policy to encourage the concept of a united Ireland, even in the long term?

The Prime Minister

It is not for me to say what the people of Northern Ireland may wish to do. I take the view that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It is accepted that it is part of the union. It will remain so unless they wish to the contrary.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

The right hon. Lady will recall that the Labour Party conference voted in favour of a united Ireland and to campaign vigorously for that by consent. Will the intergovernmental council which is to be established be statutory or conventional? Will it publish agendas? How often will it meet? What are the topics on the agenda likely to be? Can the right hon. Lady confirm or deny the rumours that there will be certain appeasement to Unionists, by giving powers to local authorities, and in particular, will she deny the canard that it is intended to give planning powers back to local authorities in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

The intergovernmental council is an informal organisation which will not publish agendas. It is a framework against which many ministerial meetings and meetings of officials will take place. Some of those meetings already take place. Now they will perhaps take place more often against that general framework. Secondly, on the question of any future devolvement of government in Northern Ireland or greater powers for local authorities, my right hon. Friend James Priorthe Secretary of State is constantly seeking a way to return more responsibility for the affairs of Northern Ireland to [column 427]the people of Northern Ireland. That search will continue. Thirdly, planning powers would also be part of that process.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she is satisfied with the rate of progress in the Republic towards reciprocal arrangements for voting in its general elections for British citizens?

The Prime Minister

I understand from the Taoiseach that he is likely to bring forward a measure to his own Parliament shortly.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

In view of the Prime Minister's studied neutrality at her press conference on the matter of Irish unification, of which we have heard some echoes here today, can she repeat with the same sense of personal conviction as she did in Belfast three years ago that she still stands rock firm for the Union?

The Prime Minister

I find it difficult to understand the precise point of the hon. Gentleman's question. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—as much as my constituency is.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Before the hon. Gentleman puts his point of order, may I make it clear that I shall take a very dim view of it if it is not a point of order but only a question that would have been asked if I had called any hon. Member.

Mr. Parry

My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is that the Prime Minister, in an earlier reply to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, said that her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State this morning met a group of people to discuss the P & O ferry closure. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman met seven right hon. and hon. Members of the House——

Mr. Speaker

Order. That cannot be a point of order for me. I cannot rule on it.

Mr. Michael English (Nottinghamshire, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order which was not the question that I intended to ask. Do you think that only one Labour Back Bencher is a disproportionately small number to call?

Mr. Speaker

No I do not, or I should have done otherwise.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the constitutional aspect of the Prime Minister's statement and the fact that it occupied less than 30 minutes, I hope that you will look at the list of speakers that you have called, in which case you might think that it is not as balanced as usual. You might at least have called those hon. Members who were on their feet. That would have occupied only another five minutes.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand——

Mr. Fitt


Mr. Speaker

Very well.

[column 428]

Mr. Fitt

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the Prime Minister rose this afternoon to make her statement, you will no doubt have heard the voice of Ulster from the Side Gallery. It happened to be two Members the House. Can I ask whether you will take any sanction against those two Members, who are Members of this House, who interrupted from the Gallery?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. Any hon. Member is entitled to call his question from the Side Galleries. It is a long-established custom, and it has been done, but not before during my Speakership. I have not named people for interrupting, or I should have been kept very busy.

Mr. Foot

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand the reply that you made a moment ago, and I do not question your ruling, but I invite you to look afresh at the number of Labour Members who were called from the Back Benches. If you do so, you may think that it will help the House to make a further statement. It is an extremely important matter, and one on which we have not had debates in the House in the past. Surely it would not exceed normal time to have half an hour on a statement of such significance. I hope, therefore, that you will look at the matter afresh and perhaps make a further statement. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall answer the Leader of the Opposition. I regret to say that I do not think that I ought to give further consideration to the matter, having dealt with it before the whole House this afternoon. It is unfair that any Speaker should be subjected to such pressure.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)


Mr. Speaker

I shall listen if it is a genuine point of order.

Mr. Atkinson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In a reply just now, the Prime Minister stated that Northern Ireland is as much an integral part of the United Kingdom as her own constituency. If that is so, how is it that people can be repatriated to Northern Ireland, which happens at the moment——

Mr. Speaker

Order. With every respect, that is not a point of order. It is a point of debate in reply to what the Prime Minister said.