Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC Stmnt: [Anglo-Irish Summit]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [68/150-59]
Editorial comments: 1534-1609.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 5265
Themes: Agriculture, Public spending & borrowing, European Union (general), European Union Budget, Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Northern Ireland, Terrorism
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Anglo-Irish Summit

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on my discussions with Dr. Garrett Fitzgeraldthe Taoiseach on 18 and 19 November. I was accompanied by my right honourable and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Howethe Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my right hon. Friend Douglas Hurdthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Dr. FitzGerald was accompanied by Mr. Spring, the Tanaiste, and by Mr. Barry, the Irish Foreign Minister. The text of the communiqué issued after our meeting has been placed in the Library of the House.

This was our second bilateral meeting in the framework of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council. We exchanged views on European Community matters and on other current issues in international affairs. We also reviewed the work done over the year under the auspices of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council at both ministerial and official levels on a wide range of matters.

We had a thorough and realistic exchange of views on developments in relation to Northern Ireland, taking into account the positions of the two Governments; the report of the New Ireland Forum; and the proposals of constitutional democratic parties in Northern Ireland as set out in documents published in recent months. We agreed that it was a major interest of both our countries, as well as both the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland, that there should be lasting peace and stability there.

The Taoiseach and I further agreed on the need for efforts to diminish the division between the two communities in Northern Ireland and to reconcile the two major traditions that exist in the two parts of Ireland. I affirmed yet again that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and that it will remain so unless the majority in Northern Ireland wishes otherwise. The Taoiseach for his part, while reaffirming the Irish aspiration to a united Ireland, recognised that any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom would come about only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

We also agreed that any attempt to promote political objectives by means of violence or by threat of violence must be rejected, as must those who adopt or support such methods; the identities of both the majority and the minority communities in Northern Ireland should be recognised and respected, and reflected in the structures and processes of Northern Ireland in ways acceptable to both communities; the process of government in Northern Ireland should be such as to provide the people of both communities with the confidence that their rights will be safeguarded; co-operation between two Governments in matters of security should be maintained and where possible improved.

We also agreed on the importance of creating a political framework in Northern Ireland which was acceptable to both the majority and minority communities. We recognised that this can be brought about only with the full co-operation of the Northern Ireland political parties themselves. My right hon. Friend Douglas Hurdthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be continuing his discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties with this in view. [column 151]

The Taoiseach and I agreed that there should be close and continuing discussion on these subjects between the two Governments in the framework of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council. We decided that it would be useful for us to meet again in the early months of next year to take stock of progress and to pursue our established aim of promoting peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

I welcome the fact that another meeting has taken place between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, and that an undertaking has been given that a close “and continual” dialogue will go on. I strongly endorse the categoric rejection of violence and the threat of violence contained in the joint communiqué and in the Prime Minister's statement this afternoon.

Will the Prime Minister say whether the Government's attitude is still expressed by the words of the right hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior) when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that

“the present situation … is not satisfactory for the Government, … for nationalists in Northern Ireland, … for Unionists, … for the Irish Government”


“not satisfactory for our two countries.” ?—[Official Report, 2 July 1984; Vol. 63, c. 29.]

If that is still the Government's attitude, will the right hon. Lady explain why, in spite of the grave and enduring problems in Northern Ireland, this recent meeting did not produce more tangible results? Does it mean that the Prime Minister is now content with the status quo in Northern Ireland, with all its misery, cost and lethal dangers? If she is not, how does she explain her dismissal of the New Ireland Forum report even as a basis for further discussion and possible addition?

Is the Prime Minister aware that responsible authorities, including the Irish Government and the Roman Catholic bishops, are alarmed at the risk of loss of confidence in the democratic process among many in Northern Ireland? Did the right hon. Lady and the Taoiseach discuss that alienation, because it is of such continuing and widespread anxiety? Is she aware that it is essential to encourage those who work for change by democratic means so that they are strengthened and the forces of terror are weakened and defeated?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman raises the fundamental problems. He will be the first to recognise, as will be many Opposition Members who have held office in Northern Ireland, that it is easy to recognise the problems, easy to analyse and define them, but very difficult to get the necessary agreement, to find a political framework acceptable to both the majority and minority parts of that community, in spite of all the efforts that have been made—they are strenuous and superb efforts by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the security forces to eliminate terrorism. We have excellent co-operation with Dr. Garrett Fitzgeraldthe Taoiseach and across the border on trying to improve security.

I think that most people would accept that we have not yet been successful in getting a political framework acceptable to the minority and majority communities. It is difficult. My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins), the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in our period of office, had a round table conference, but we were not successful in getting anything out of it, although the discussions went well. Then my [column 152]right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior) initiated the Assembly, but the Republican party, the SDLP, did not take part in it. So we have to try yet again.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

To carry the Northern Ireland majority with her in improving the Anglo-Irish partnership, will my right hon. Friend press for the abandonment by the Irish Government of their perverse claim to the sovereignty of Northern Ireland and the honouring of the tripartite agreement of 1925?

The Prime Minister

I know that the Unionists in Northern Ireland, who are the majority, feel very strongly about that claim, which is in the Republic of Ireland's constitution. But what to do about it is, of course, a matter for Dr. Garrett Fitzgeraldthe Taoiseach. My hon. Friend will notice that in my statement I said that I believed that the Republic still retained an aspiration to unify the whole of Ireland. We of course reject that solution.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

May I congratulate the Prime Minister on the courage and clear-sightedness that she showed in taking the Government off the treadmill of initiatives which in the past have been the cause of so much turmoil? Will she consider phasing out summits of this type, which also add to instability?

The Prime Minister

I think that all of us would still like to find a political framework that was acceptable to both the minority as well as the majority communities. We have not yet succeeded in finding it, and I hope that all Northern Irish political parties will play a constructive part in trying to seek it, because those in the Republic of Ireland and many of us believe that unless and until we get that we shall not be able to get the full improvement in security which we all seek.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to repeat to all the people in Northern Ireland that neither community has anything to fear from improved and continuing working relationships between herself and the Taoiseach—the Unionists because of the often-stated guarantee that their position as full citizens of the United Kingdom will not be changed against their will, and the nationalists because it must be in their interests that their problems and aspirations, which only recently have been publicly acknowledged by the Official Unionists, can only benefit from increased and better co-operation?

The Prime Minister

I believe that we are right to hold these bilateral meetings with the Taoiseach and his Ministers, and we shall in fact continue to do so. As my hon. Friend knows, we reject the three proposals in the New Ireland Forum; and, of course, the majority of Northern Ireland knows that it will continue to be part of the United Kingdom unless it wishes otherwise. I hope that that will give the majority the necessary confidence to get together with my right hon. Friend Douglas Hurdthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and enter into another round of political talks.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

On the negative side, the Prime Minister has confirmed that she has rejected the main parameters of the New Ireland Forum. On the positive side, the communiqué yesterday and her statement today make it clear that

“the identities of both the majority and the minority communities in Northern Ireland should be recognised and respected, and reflected in the structures and processes of Northern Ireland” .

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It was also said that instructions had been given to the intergovernmental council to work on that and to bring proposals back in the new year. What instructions have been given to the intergovernmental council in this respect?

The Prime Minister

Precisely what was said. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman realises that throughout the communiqué we have tried to convey the flavour that we depend strongly on all political parties in Northern Ireland to assist in bringing that section of the communiqué to fruition and a satisfactory conclusion. We cannot just impose a solution on them, and we had to institute direct rule because there was no alternative solution. The statement means what it says—that we shall work to try to find a solution, but we look to constructive help from all those involved in the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

While accepting the need for a new political framework in Northern Ireland, and the fact that Northern Ireland will continue to be governed from Westminster, may I ask what thought was given in the discussions to transforming the Assembly into something closer to a local administration more able to cope with the local government problems of the Province?

The Prime Minister

That is one proposal, but it must depend on its widespread acceptance as a possible solution. My right hon. Friend Douglas Hurdthe Secretary of State will be talking to the Northern Ireland parties that seek to proceed by agreement and co-operation. It will be difficult to get a solution otherwise; and in the absence of an acceptable political framework we shall not be able fully to get rid of violence. If we cannot do that, without security it will be difficult for people to have the freedom that they should have as citizens of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I welcome the terminology of the statement, but why is it not possible to go a little further? Why could we not accept the challenge of terrorism with which both Governments are faced and set up a joint security commission now? Why can we not have a parliamentary tier to the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council? I trust that the Prime Minister will not say that that is up to Parliament, because it is up to the Government to take an initiative. Is there not a paramount need for close co-operation between London and Dublin?

The Prime Minister

The joint security commission is one proposal. These matters will be pursued. However, a number of people think it better to try to get a solution to both security and the political framework at the same time, believing that the one may assist the better solution of the other. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's views about the parliamentary tier, but it is not for Government to propose that; that must be left to Parliament. But if the Government were to propose a parliamentary tier between the Assembly in Northern Ireland and the Dail in the Republic of Ireland a number of people would have considerable views against that.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that part of the realism of her meeting included the fact that as there is no ambiguity about [column 154]Northern Ireland's constitutional position no one will be allowed to deflect her from taking the necessary security and political measures in the Province by trying to suggest that ambiguity exists?

The Prime Minister

There is no ambiguity about the position in Northern Ireland. I have tried frequently to make that clear, and to reaffirm the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and it will remain part of the United Kingdom unless the majority there wishes it otherwise. I hope that that gives sufficient confidence to make improvements in the security situation and to try to have a new effort to secure a political framework that is more acceptable to the minority in Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is bound to be immense disappointment at the negative view that she took at the New Ireland Forum which, after all, represented 90 per cent. of Irish nationalist opinion on both sides of the border? How much bloodshed and suffering could have been avoided in Ireland in the past 100 years if British Governments had responded in time to the constitutional progress and proposals made there? Yesterday was quite a victory for the Provisional IRA.

The Prime Minister

I disagree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman's last sentence and regard it as most unhelpful. I have made it quite clear that the Government will not be bombed into taking any different approach to the Republic from that which we would have taken in the absence of bombing. It would be totally and utterly wrong if we were to be bombed into doing anything that we would not otherwise have done. The hon. Gentleman, if he is absolutely frank, is well aware that the proposals in the New Ireland Forum were rejected by James Priorthe Secretary of State for Northern Ireland very quickly after they were published, when he made it clear in a statement that we rejected reunification, the federal solution and the joint authority proposals. The hon. Gentleman is well aware of that.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

No one could accuse my right hon. Friend of not trying to accommodate the interests of the Irish Republic, but has not the time come to stop treating Northern Ireland at arm's length constitutionally? Would it not be in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland if we treated it as a region of the United Kingdom like any other, which it undoubtedly is?

The Prime Minister

I am well aware that a number of people in Northern Ireland hold that view, and that is one possible solution, but we seek a wider measure of acceptance before putting forward any further proposals.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Leaving aside the Prime Minister's comments at her press conference yesterday which caused deep and justifiable anger and offence in Ireland and contributed very little to the communiqué's stated objective of peace and stability in Ireland, does the right hon. Lady agree that her fundamental mistake is her insistence that the problem of Northern Ireland is a Northern Ireland problem? Is she not aware that the problem of Northern Ireland is a matter not just of relationships within Northern Ireland but of relationships within Ireland and between Ireland and Britain? Does she agree that that is the failure of British-Ireland relations, [column 155]which were pushed into a corner and allowed to fester? Does she appreciate that when she gives a total veto to a tiny section of the people of both islands she paralyses all progress? Will she accept that the right approach is to seek the maximum consensus of all the people of both islands?

The Prime Minister

I do not recognise the press conference at which I was present. I had hoped that there might be a possibility of getting more co-operation, but the hon. Gentleman's comments do not give me much hope.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread admiration for her having had a meeting with the Taoiseach on the subject of Northern Ireland in view of all that she herself has experienced in recent weeks? It is readily understandable that she could not accept the three proposals in the New Ireland Forum, but will she tell us to what extent her talks with the Irish Prime Minister went beyond the condemnation of violence and the subject of crisis management to consider the question of political progress?

The Prime Minister

We most certainly considered the question of political progress and we tried to go from many of the generalisations to practicable propositions, but I am very much aware that whatever proposal is put forward it will not have much chance of success if it is anything different from what we now have unless it has a wider measure of co-operation and acceptability than that which we now enjoy. I had hoped that if we entered into talks between the majority and minority communities they might enter the talks in a spirit of co-operation. I hope that they still may do so.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that the current violence on the streets of northern England which arises from the miners' strike and the long-standing violence on the streets of Northern Ireland which arises from the existence of the border are both the consequences of policies which she could change, but the imperious and callous manner of her dismissal of every model for change in the New Ireland Forum report, as set out in her press statement yesterday, is not only an affront to those who continue to suffer in Northern Ireland but an insult to the authors of the report and all those who have worked for it, both in Ireland and in this country?

Picking up the challenge of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I ask the right hon. Lady whether she really believes that her negativism today can do anything but undermine constitutional nationalism?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's hearing is very partial. First, the New Ireland Forum report and its three proposals were rejected in a statement in this House on 4 July by my right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior), who was then the Secretary of State. They were rejected clearly and decisively on that date. There is nothing new in that attitude. The majority of people in Northern Ireland would have been deeply offended if those solutions had not been rejected, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman still believes that majorities should have some considerable standing in deciding the future of the Province of Northern Ireland.

Secondly, violence is totally and utterly wrong and is to be condemned. Changes should come about through the ballot box. Every person in Northern Ireland has a vote, just like everyone else.

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Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

The problems of Northern Ireland are a matter of concern not only to the communities in the Province but to people in the United Kingdom as a whole. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread concern about the increasingly large financial bill which the British taxpayer has to meet in order to deal with what sometimes appear from the mainland to be the self-imposed problems of Ulster?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the financial bill is large, but that is not the fault of those who are the victims of terrorism. The people of Northern Ireland are as much entitled to be defended against terrorism as are the people of any other parts of the United Kingdom.

Miss Joan Maynard (Sheffield, Brightside)

The Prime Minister said that it is not possible to impose a solution, but I remind her that we divided Ireland. We imposed that solution. If the Prime Minister persists in saying that the guarantee to the Unionists must remain, how can we help the minority population to have any democratic rights? Is not the terrorism caused by the fact that the minority do not have democratic rights? Is it not the case that the only way of achieving lasting peace is to work positively for a united Ireland?

The Prime Minister

The guarantee is enshrined in legislation passed in this House. That is what gives confidence to the majority in Northern Ireland, and, on the basis of that confidence, I hope that we can enter into talks which fully respect the rights of minorities. Yes, minorities are, and will probably continue for many years to be, minorities, and, yes, they have rights, as in all democratic societies. We are asking for more co-operation between the political parties to try to reach something more acceptable to both.

On the question of the imposition of solutions, we had to impose direct rule because there was no agreement on anything else, and, if there is no agreement on anything else, direct rule must continue. I had hoped that we could enter into talks in good heart and in a spirit of good will. We shall have to wait and see whether that is so.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

In the context of the Irish presidency of the EEC, did my right hon. Friend and the Irish Prime Minister consider the implications of the negotiations on the enlargement of the Community in regard to getting those negotiations right and ensuring that we deal adequately with the problems of wine, agricultural surpluses and Gibraltar rather than be too obsessed with bringing Spain into the EEC on 1 January 1986 on any terms?

The Prime Minister

I believe that it is advisable for us to bring Spain and Portugal into the EEC at the expected time. One of the problems that is giving cause for concern is wine, as my hon. Friend is aware. With regard to Gibraltar, Spain is very much aware that she cannot enter the Community unless the barriers are fully up. I have reason to believe that we shall reach some satisfactory agreement on that. Many problems are by definition difficult and will take time to solve, but we should like to solve them in time for Spain and Portugal to come in on 1 January 1986.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

After all the fanfare in the build-up to the summit, does the Prime Minister agree that her statement shows that there has been no progress and that the misery, killing and death in [column 157]Northern Ireland will continue? Will she face up to the fact that the majority of the people of Ireland were always and still are against the partition of Ireland? Does she agree that there is mounting evidence that the majority of the people of Britain are against our presence in Ireland and wish to withdraw? For how long can one small intransigent minority, which has treated the nationalist community unjustly, continue to dictate to all of us that there can be no solution to this dreadful problem?

The Prime Minister

There is a guarantee given by legislation passed by this House to the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Most of us stand by that guarantee but also believe in human rights for each and every citizen of Northern Ireland and try to uphold them.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

With regard to the European element of the talks, was there any discussion of reform of the CAP? Did my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to convey to the Taoiseach the view that is widely held in Britain that it would be grossly unfair for Irish agriculture to have further increases in its quota of milk when our farmers are suffering severe cuts in production?

The Prime Minister

We did not spend much time on the reform of the CAP. My hon. Friend will be aware that, under the strict financial guidelines that have been agreed, the gross of the expenditure on the CAP should be much more constrained than hitherto. That will bring about a reduction in and, I hope, eventually the abolition of surpluses. I know how strongly some people feel about quotas for the Republic.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Is the Prime Minister aware that many people in Ireland and in Britain will feel that a real opportunity has been missed? Is she further aware that her out-and-out rejection of any of the proposals in the New Ireland Forum report does not lie four square with the tentative comments of the previous Secretary of State when the report was first published? That will also be seen as a slap in the face for the many people who believed that there was some way forward. Would it not have been possible at least to use the ideas in that report for joint authority as a basis for making some progress? That would have not have flown in the face of the guarantee, which I reject. Moreover, that would have allowed for some sense of Irishness to be given to the nationalist population on Northern Ireland. In the absence of any positive comment, what hope is there for the people of Ireland?

The Prime Minister

Co-operation yes, joint authority no. Joint authority is a derogation from sovereignty, and the hon. Gentleman must understand that. We seek greater co-operation. The opportunity will be missed if the political parties do not try to come together to get something more acceptable to them all than the arrangement which we now have. That will be the missing of opportunities, but it is not in my hands.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the four Conservative Members who have been rising if they were here at the beginning of the statement.

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Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Billericay)

Will my right hon. Friend describe how the new political framework differs from the system of parliamentary democracy which serves the rest of the kingdom so well?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, Northern Ireland has for many years had a system of devolved government. It no longer has that system. There are questions as to whether it should be fully integrated into the United Kingdom under the ordinary United Kingdom pattern or whether there should be a different model of devolved government and what that model should consist of. We cannot put forward any particular proposals unless we are certain that they will meet a reasonable measure of acceptance among all parties. That is why, although people expect us to pull rabbits out of hats, there is no point in doing so unless we get more widespread co-operation from all parties.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Although I agree with my right hon. Friend that the key to the future of the Assembly is participation by the SDLP, did she suggest to the Taoiseach that he should put pressure on the SDLP to join the Assembly?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend would not expect me to give exactly the details of the matters that Dr. Garrett FitzGeraldthe Taoiseach and I discussed. I stand by the words in the communiqué.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we all agree that discussions should go on between all people who believe that a peaceful solution to any problem should be found? Does she further agree that many of us are perplexed when people go on as though co-citizens of the United Kingdom are somehow for sale if terrorists make it hard enough? People who live in Northern Ireland are as much citizens of the United Kingdom as are people from Birmingham, London or Crewe. The sooner those who wish to bomb us into submission realise that, the sooner we shall have a peaceful solution to the problem of Northern and Southern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

I agree with most of what my hon. Friend has said. We are seeking a peaceful and stable solution which gives the people of Northern Ireland confidence that that stable solution can continue for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Was my right hon. Friend able to bring to the attention of Garret FitzGerald the six principles which were agreed at the London economic summit in respect of international responses to terrorism? As much of the practical problem of dealing with security depends on better cross-border co-operation between the Garda and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was she able to congratulate him on the fact that his Government have given greater help than their predecessors?

The Prime Minister

Yes. Dr. Garrett FitzgeraldThe Taoiseach is as much against terrorism as we are north of the border. He has been adamant in his condemnation of it and very forthright and swift. We appreciate that very much. He is aware of the London economic summit declaration against terrorism and of the need for greater co-operation. We secure co-operation from the Taoiseach.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the questions and answers arising out [column 159]of the Prime Minister's statement, there has been some bewilderment about why, for the first time when a Prime Minister has made a statement, the leaders of the Social Democratic party and the Liberal party have not felt it necessary to catch your eye.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot see that there is any point of order in this for me.

Mr. Skinner

I am coming to it. We think that it would not be a bad idea if you, Mr. Speaker, could help us check the record to see whether that is the case, as we should like to establish whether they were colluding on the Bench, whether they were having another row or whether, to use common parliamentary parlance, the Prime Minister's statement was what was known as a no-win situation and the two of them chucked in the sponge.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is quite able to do his own homework.