Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC Stmnt: [Anglo-Irish Summit Meeting]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [46/147-53]
Editorial comments: 1530-1557.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3807
Themes: Parliament, Union of UK nations, Defence (Falklands), Elections & electoral system, European Union (general), Foreign policy - theory and process, Foreign policy (International organizations), Northern Ireland, Security services & intelligence, Terrorism
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Anglo-Irish Summit Meeting

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

I should like, with permission, Mr. Speaker, to make a brief statement on the discussions that I held with Dr. Garrett Fitzgeraldthe Taoiseach on 7 November. I was accompanied by my right hon. Friends Sir Geoffrey Howethe Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and James Priorthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Dr. Fitzgerald was accompanied by Mr. Spring, the Tanaiste, and by Mr. Barry, the Irish Foreign Minister.

This was our first meeting for two years, other than in the margins of the European Council. It took place within the framework of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council which we set up at our meeting on 6 November 1981. The meeting provided the occasion for a useful and constructive exchange of views and reflected the good relationship which now exists between our two countries.

We reviewed the state of work of the council at both ministerial and official levels. We approved a joint report describing the co-operation which has taken place between the two countries since the publication of the Anglo-Irish joint studies in November 1981. We particularly welcomed the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations for the supply of Kinsale gas to Northern Ireland. The report and the review annexed to it, with the exception of the section on security matters, have been placed in the Library of the House.

We also discussed other issues in Anglo-Irish relations, including the situation in Northern Ireland. We reaffirmed our deep concern about continuing violence and our joint determination to take all possible means to end it. Dr. Fitzgerald spoke of the work of the new All-Ireland Forum. We also discussed a wide range of international issues, including the Lebanon. We gave special attention to community issues in the light of the forthcoming European Council in Athens. We look forward to further meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council at Heads of Government level at regular intervals.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

I thank the Prime Minister for her statement. As the main purpose of Dr. Fitzgerald's visit yesterday was to secure the reassurance that the British Government attach—in his words—

“a very high priority to Northern Ireland affairs”
, was the Prime Minister able to give that assurance, and did it include any proposals by her for any new initiatives? It is reported that Dr. Fitzgerald spent much of his interview with the Prime Minister yesterday expressing his anxiety that the political stalemate in Northern Ireland was increasing alienation in the community. Is such an impression confirmed by the information available to the right hon. Lady from Northern Ireland?

I understand that it is plainly impossible for the right hon. Lady to offer any opinion about the new All-Ireland Forum in advance of the publication of its report, but what status does she propose to award the report when published? Will she make provision for a debate in the House on the document?

I welcome the Prime Minister's statement that meetings on what I should prefer to call the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council at Heads of Government level will continue regularly. Can we look forward to further periodic reports to the House or publications from the council?

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The Prime Minister

Yes, of course we give high priority to Northern Ireland affairs. The circumstances there are such that we have to. We seek constantly to end terrorism and violence there, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. We were not able to consider any new initiatives and, as he would expect, if there were to be such new initiatives they would have been reported to the House.

I was not aware that there had been increasing alienation within the minority community in Northern Ireland. What has been disturbing is the extent to which Sinn Fein has gained extra support. I think that that is a worry to all of us who oppose violence.

I believe that a report from the new All-Ireland Forum is not expected until the new year and perhaps it would be best to wait and see what it contains. We await the report with interest. I understand that one hon. Member has already given evidence before the forum.

The right hon. Gentleman's comments about “British-Irish” , highlight a problem with so many of joint bodies—Anglo-American, Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Israeli—because “Anglo” has a connotation of England. If the right hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members wish to change the names of those groups to “British” —[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.” ]—perhaps he would consider the matter further with my right hon. Friend John Biffenthe Leader of the House.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I commend the Prime Minister on her fortitude yesterday in listening to Dr. Fitzgerald for some five hours. It may have seemed a little longer. While regretting that the Government feel it necessary to maintain the fiction of an Anglo-Irish council when, for example, there is no Anglo-American council, can we assume that the Prime Minister achieved her object of telling the Irish Government that the dangerous course pursued since 1979 is being reversed?

The Prime Minister

It is important that we should try to have good, friendly relations with the Republic of Ireland. The Leader of the Opposition agreed with that. It is the only country with which we have a land border, and there has to be a considerable amount of co-operation across that border. I believe it advisable, therefore, that we continue in every way possible to have close and friendly relations with the Republic of Ireland. The position of Northern Ireland has not changed. It is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so unless the Northern Ireland people wish it any other way.

Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster)

This summit has been hailed as a normalisation of relations with the Republic of Ireland. Will the Prime Minister explain how, having due regard to this nation's constitutional integrity, it is possible to have such normalisation with a foreign state when it continues to claim part of our territory and harbours fugitive terrorists?

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is relatively new, but he should not read his question.

Rev. William McCrea

I thank you, Mr. Speaker. What extradition and other demands did the Prime Minister make of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland?

The Prime Minister

This was not a meeting for making demands. These meetings began within the context of the fact that we are both members of the [column 149]European Community. We have bilateral meetings with other members of the Community. There have been fewer with the Republic of Ireland than with other Community members. The Northern Ireland constitutional position remains fully safeguarded by the statutory provision that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will continue to be so unless her people wish otherwise.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Is the Intergovernmental Council authorised to continue discussions on more effective joint security operations and policing across the border and the possible creation of an all-Ireland court?

The Prime Minister

Yes, on security matters, but for obvious reasons that part of the report has not been placed in the Library. Discussions are held and I stress that we receive maximum security co-operation across the border, for which we are grateful.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Although I welcome the restored cordiality that befits a unique relationship that could one day lead to the reunification of the British Isles—spoken of not just by me but by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth)—will my right hon. Friend allay Unionist misgivings by recognising that devolution is impracticable and by seeking the fullest integration of Northern Ireland with Great Britain?

The Prime Minister

I know that the reunification of the British Isles has been an objective of my hon. Friend for a long time, and that he puts it forward on all possible occasions. It is his idea, and he must be left to pursue it in his own way.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Does the Prime Minister believe that any proposals that might emanate from the All-Ireland Forum in Dublin could be relevant to any change of policy by the Government for the North?

The Prime Minister

It is too early to say, but one must not have a mind closed to new ideas. There are problems of violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland, and the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to wish to have put to us any ideas to improve the position. If those problems were substantially improved, matters may be very different.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Did Dr. Fitzgerald tell my right hon. Friend about his attitude to relations between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and whether his attitudes were different from those of his predecessor, Mr. Haughey, who was Taoiseach at the time of the Falklands crisis?

The Prime Minister

We discussed that matter in the light of the resolution that will soon come before the United Nations, and we expressed the hope that the Republic of Ireland would abstain.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Although I welcome the Prime Minister's statement that she does not approach the matter with a closed mind, is she aware that many people believe that with the start of a new Administration that has a large majority behind it she owes it to the British people to search for ways of resolving the problem? Has she noticed the striking example in the [column 150]republic, where all three political parties have been ready to explore a new political initiative? Should not that be an example for the House to follow?

The Prime Minister

What happens in the House is not a matter for me, and I am sure that there are many discussions in the normal way in all-party committees. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we would owe it to a new idea to give it a thorough intellectual inspection to see whether it can contribute to the improvement of some of the problems of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Do not the efforts of the Irish Republic to keep the political pot boiling in Northern Ireland serve to encourage violence there? Is it not in the interests of both countries for Northern Ireland to enjoy a long period of political peace and stability and no further political initiatives?

The Prime Minister

We have had very good co-operation from the Republic of Ireland in trying to stamp out violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend will be aware that, soon after the recent escape from the Maze, the Taoiseach said publicly that the fugitives would find no safety in the republic. That is the statement of someone who is trying as hard as we are to stamp out that violence and terrorism which so worries my hon. Friend, myself and other right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the lesson that arises from the continuing tragedy in Northern Ireland is that past approaches by all parties have failed, and that there is an urgent and drastic need for a reappraisal by all parties of their approach to the problem? Will the Government give a lead by reappraising their policy? Does she further agree that the Northern Ireland problem is the greatest human problem facing the Government, and does not that problem need and deserve the full and constant attention of the Prime Minister? Must it not be a priority of the Government in a way that it has not been in the past?

Does the Prime Minister further agree that the Northern Ireland problem is not simply a matter of relationships between the people of Northern Ireland but involves the relationships between both parts of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain, that therefore the British-Irish framework is the proper framework for reaching a solution and that both Governments have a role to play in solving the problem?

The Prime Minister

We are frequently asked for new initiatives and reappraisals. My right hon. Friend James Priorthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has taken new initiatives. We try constantly to find ways to stamp out the violence and terrorism, and we shall continue to seek new ideas and examine them to see whether they can help. It is easier to ask for reappraisals and new initiatives than it is to define measures that will be of practical help. We shall always look for measures that will be of practical help.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that many of the Conservative Members who stand four square behind the continued unity of the kingdom welcome regular high-level talks between the United Kingdom and the republic on the basis that they shall discuss matters of mutual interest to two sovereign [column 151]states? Will she communicate that view to Foreign Office officials, who sometimes fail to understand that that is the only purpose of such talks?

The Prime Minister

The talks are between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is a member of the European Community, and it has been clear all along that the talks are between the two capitals.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

If the Prime Minister accepted with Dr. Fitzgerald that a major problem in the Six Counties was the alienation of a large part of the minority of the population, what positive steps did she discuss to end that alienation and to swing the minority back to supporting constitutional national parties?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will recall that I said at the beginning of my answers that we have not found an increase in alienation but that we were worried about the apparent increase in support for Sinn Fein. Dr. Fitzgerald and I did not discuss individual measures. He is waiting for the report of the All-Ireland Forum. If the hon. Gentleman has any ideas to put forward that may help, I am sure that he will do so.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House. We have a ten-minute Bill before an important debate. I shall call those hon. Members who have already risen, but I ask for brief questions.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Makerfield)

Does the Prime Minister agree that, although we do not want dramatic statements about new initiatives, the Government should provide a smoke signal to the republic and to the people of Northern Ireland? Should it not show that the Government will not be bound for ever by the veto that we have given to the one million people in Northern Ireland, by means of which, unless it is rescinded, they will continue to frustrate the desire of 54 million people for a solution?

The Prime Minister

I am bound by the statute passed by the House, which states that the people of Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom because the majority of them wish it, and that that position will not change unless the majority wishes it.

Mr. Reg Freeson (Brent, East)

In pursuing that point, which the Prime Minister stressed constantly today as she has on other occasions, does she accept that no section of the population of the United Kingdom can have a veto on discussion or on working out alternative political frameworks and ideas, wherever in the House or the country that section may be found? Does the right hon. Lady accept that the veto should not mean that the House or the British people should not pursue discussions and consultations to produce alternative frameworks for a solution?

The Prime Minister

The House approved the provision which is now in legislation, and I am bound by the House. That guarantee to Northern Ireland has been supremely important.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Will the Prime Minister use her considerable influence to try to [column 152]encourage the Unionist parties to go to the All-Ireland Forum and discuss the problems that are common to the whole of Ireland? [Laughter.] Does the right hon. Lady agree that instead of laughing when such a suggestion is made, Unionist Members should talk to their colleagues in the republic, which would set an example to all the Irish people, both North and South, and show that talking together is far better than killing? They could help by doing so.

The Prime Minister

I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members of the Unionist party do talk to some of the people in the Republic, but whether they take part in the new All-Ireland Forum is a matter for them to consider, not for me.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

In future discussions in the All-Ireland Forum, will the Prime Minister ensure that any consultations are made of all political parties on both sides of the border and also with the Irish community in Britain? Will she ensure that the question of Irish unity remains on the agenda?

The Prime Minister

I have said that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It is fully represented in the House. We have increased the representation so that it shall be fully represented in the House. It stays a part of the United Kingdom until the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish it otherwise. Alongside that, I think it very right and proper that the United Kingdom, and the Government of the United Kingdom, enjoy friendly and good relationships with the people of the Republic. That is in the interests of the United Kingdom and the Republic as a whole and in the interests of Northern Ireland and the Republic as well.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Prime Minister recall that a little over five years ago when she was Leader of the Opposition, and used to challenge my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) when he attended summits, she used to pour scorn on the idea of that sort of summitry? What has made her change her mind after five years' practice? Why does she still attend summits?

The Prime Minister

I frequently said from the Dispatch Box—[Interruption.] Yes, indeed, I remember the occasions to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The main value of summits is not the new initiatives or specific communiques that come out of them that are important—that is what I used to say then, and I still say it as Prime Minister—but the regular contacts, so that we can discuss main issues of the day. What has happened in the world, and the difficult problems that we face make it more important to continue those contacts. We notice that, with those with whom we have frequent contact—including those in the European Community—we understand one another's view on disarmament, the East-West relationship and the Middle East. Those consultations and contacts avoid misunderstanding. If we can avoid misunderstanding, that in itself is a great achievement.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that her claim that she now has good relations with the Irish Government cannot extend to the bulk of the people in Ireland, who have felt a deep distrust for her since her disastrous handling of the hunger strike——

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Rev. William McCrea

Sit down.

Mr. Duffy

Is the Prime Minister aware that she can begin to make amends only when she recognises her responsibility for alienation, and begins to face up to the meaning and strength of Irish nationalism and then seeks ways of reconciling it with unionism?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will also face up to the strength of feeling of unionism in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that, unless there are some genuine new initiatives and political progress in Northern Ireland, there is not likely to be a reduction in violence? If agreement is reached in due course with the Irish Prime Minister on various matters relating to the Province, will it be possible for those proposals to be put to a referendum in Britain and Northern Ireland so that 54 million people can give their views—not only those who happen to live in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister

The point is to try to get genuine new initiatives that lead to the reduction of violence in Northern Ireland and also honour guarantees that have been given and that must exist unless they were repealed in any way by the House. I do not believe that they would be, without the full consent of the people of Northern Ireland. With regard to general referendums as distinct from a border poll, which is already enshrined in statute, there is no legislation in this country for a general power to have a referendum. Any proposition for a referendum has to be passed through in a separate statute on each occasion.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

Does the Prime Minister recall that, in response to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, she said that she saw no sign of increasing alienation of the minority community and then went on to say that she was concerned about the increase in support for Sinn Fein? As the increased support for Sinn Fein can come only from the minority community, and if she does not accept increasing alienation, to what does she ascribe the increased support for Sinn Fein?

The Prime Minister

I said precisely that I found no general increase in alienation, but in that part of the United Kingdom one is very concerned—[Interruption.] I would not necessarily agree with that. One reason is that we do not know why support has gone from the constitutional republican parties to the other parties. That is a deep question.