ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 49

Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka: Military action leads nowhere: Murphy

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab):

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) for their kind comments.

The interchange between the hon. Member for Cotswold and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) touched on the issue of human rights, and that must be set in the context of the 65,000 to 70,000 people who have perished on that island in about 30 years. I will deal with the Northern Ireland comparison later, but the two situations are uncannily similar in terms of the proportionate number of people who have died, been injured or been displaced: Northern Ireland has a population of approximately 1.5 million, and some 3,500 people died there.

When I visited the island in November I was struck, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Cotswold said, by what a beautiful island it was, and how talented, courteous and decent the people, from whatever background they came, were-certainly to me personally, in my limited experience. Incidentally, I saw no examples of religious intolerance on that island. Travelling late at night from the airport to the capital city, we turned one corner and saw a statute of St. Anthony of Padua, and turned another corner and saw a Buddhist shrine. When I went to the north, I saw a cathedral at the end of a street, and the sacred cows of the Hindus walking in the same street. Of course, a substantial minority of Muslims also play an active role in the country.

I was struck by the fact that all those to whom I talked, whatever their background or experience, were very complimentary about our own country. I felt that, in accordance with the deep relationship between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom and its people-not least, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister, the diaspora of 200,000 who live in our land-those on the island were still very sympathetic to us, as a country and as British people.

I want to say something about the small role that I played back in November, and to share my experiences with the House. The President of Sri Lanka had asked the Prime Minister if we could send someone to share our experiences of peacemaking in Northern Ireland with the Government and peoples of Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister asked me to go, as a former Minister of State and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, along with Chris MacCabe, political director of the Northern Ireland Office. My experience in Northern Ireland went back a dozen years; his went back nearly four decades. His experience, knowledge and expertise proved very important in our meetings.

During our visit I met the President, a number of Ministers and civil servants, the peace secretariats, non-governmental organisations, the armed forces, different political parties, bodies set up by the Government to consider the country's constitutional future and a panel of experts, and I travelled to the north of the island to talk at some length with the LTTE. In all those encounters, I met nothing but courtesy and friendliness. I also met representatives of the business community in Colombo, who are very important to the country's future regeneration.

The message that I tried to get across did not involve preaching to anyone, or telling the people of Sri Lanka what to do. That would have been entirely counterproductive. I think that the reason for the point we have reached in Northern Ireland-over the whole 10-year period of the peace process, and over the last few weeks in particular-is that the people of Northern Ireland themselves created the peace process and the peace settlement. Similarly, it is for the people of Sri Lanka to complete their own peace and political processes.

In many ways, I was in Sri Lanka to tell a story-a success story, I am delighted to say, and I am sure we are all delighted about it. I wanted to know whether people in Sri Lanka, within or outside politics, could look to us and Northern Ireland as an example in bringing peace to their country. The first message that I hoped to convey to the people and their representatives was one that had been given to them, only weeks before I went to Sri Lanka, by Mr. Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister-elect and the chief negotiator for Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland peace talks. He had gone to Sri Lanka and said what my hon. Friend the Minister has said: that no one can win the war in Sri Lanka, just as no one could win the war in Northern Ireland.

It is possible to continue such a war, of course. More people can die, more people can be injured and more people can be displaced. Ultimately, however, comes the realisation that a military solution is not possible. I say that without reference to either side: it applies across the board, like our tests on abuse of human rights, torture, and all the other terrible things that have happened in that country. I lay no blame on anyone. I simply say that, at the end of the day, military action leads nowhere.

How is it possible for those in Sri Lanka to look to our peace process in Northern Ireland, beyond that central message, and for peace to come to Sri Lanka? One answer is that there must be absolute parity of esteem, the phrase that we used in Northern Ireland. It means that all people must be treated equally, regardless of their past or who they might be. Every single idea or concept-some might be dotty, some good; it matters not-must be put on the table. Such inclusiveness had to apply not only to the constitutional settlement-that is being worked on in detail in Sri Lanka-but also to the issues of language, social and economic equality, human rights, freedom of information and all the other things that divide people. Such issues have divided people in Northern Ireland, and they do so in Sri Lanka, and none of them should be excluded from discussion.

Another lesson that can be learned is that there must be an international dimension to any solution in Sri Lanka. I pay tribute to our Norwegian friends, who have done a tremendous job in Sri Lanka in holding things together as best they can. They have often managed to engage in difficult circumstances where almost everybody was against them because they were in the middle. This House and the Government should pay tribute to the work that the Norwegians do, and we should also pay tribute to the co-chairs. When I was in Sri Lanka, I met the ambassadors of the EU, Japan, India and the United States, and our own high commissioner, who is doing a good job.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: On the Norwegians and the peace process, does the right hon. Gentleman think that externalising the negotiations in Geneva is the right way forward, or would it be helpful to have one or two meetings in Sri Lanka itself? Does he have a view on that?

Mr. Murphy: I have a view, but I would not want to propose it to either side in Sri Lanka as a solution to things. I suggest that the Northern Ireland peace process was ultimately successful because it was held in Northern Ireland. There was also international chairmanship from three different countries. People were constantly working on a peace process. Members will recall that people were elected to be negotiators in Northern Ireland, and that they were, in effect, locked up in Castle buildings in Belfast for almost three years, and they were paid, and had support, to do nothing but negotiate. It is important that there is that constant working at a peace process-as is the fact that in negotiations people inevitably come together. They have to come together because they are physically together and they are talking together.

That issue of talking is very important. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) touched on that. Even at the most desperate times over the last 30 years in this country, there were lines of communication between those in Northern Ireland who were engaged in the strife there and our Government. We should read the history books about what happened over the past 30 years. At no time did the lines of communication cease. That is missing in Sri Lanka. The British Government and our allies should constantly press for there always to be a proper line of communication. There is a line of communication with the Norwegians, but another could be set up.

In Sri Lanka, I met the people who had been displaced in the eastern part of the island. That brought dramatically home the appalling tragedy for ordinary human beings of situations such as that in Sri Lanka. We are talking in this nice Chamber this afternoon, but the reality is that there are men, women and children who are constantly and severely suffering because of the lack of peace, and the lack of a proper peace process, such as there was in Northern Ireland.

There is an issue to do with the diaspora which is also comparable to the Northern Ireland situation. We have talked about what happened in our case. One of the key reasons why the Northern Ireland process was successful was that the attitude of the Irish diaspora-in Australia and other countries to an extent, but most importantly in the United States-changed towards what should happen in Ireland. Nowadays, almost everybody in the USA-such as Irish-American politicians and business people-has signed up to the Good Friday agreement. If we can get the Sri Lankan diaspora across the world to have a similar frame of mind-if they begin to think that they can sign up to a process and then help the people of Sri Lanka economically and commercially-that will be a considerable improvement. However, that cannot happen unless there is a proper ceasefire.

The other great lesson that people across the world, and particularly in Sri Lanka, can take from our experiences in Northern Ireland is that a ceasefire has to be meaningful. Only when violence effectively ended in Northern Ireland did we see success. Of course, sporadic violence occurred, and to a certain extent it will continue to occur among criminal elements in Northern Ireland, but when the fighting stops and the ceasefire is effective, everything is possible. To me, that is the first and most important thing that should happen.

There is another, political issue. In the past 30 years in this Chamber, there has been a bipartisan approach and unanimity among all political parties on the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland. That has not happened in Sri Lanka, but we should applaud the fact that it is beginning to happen. If the political parties do not adopt a unified approach, the issue of peace will become a political football, which is the last thing that should happen.

I hope to visit Sri Lanka in the not too distant future and to take part in telling the story of our peace process in Northern Ireland. I am reminded of something that Lee Kuan Yew said, which some Members might also remember. When he was building Singapore, he wanted his country to become something like Ceylon, as it was then called. Now, of course, it should be the aim of everybody in Sri Lanka to ensure that their country becomes as prosperous, dignified and civilised a country as any other in the world.

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