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Northern Ireland

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 30 November 1971

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Q1.

asked the Prime Minister whether he will pay an official visit to Northern Ireland.

Q9.

asked the Prime Minister whether he will pay an official visit to Northern Ireland.

I would refer the hon. Gentlemen to the answer I gave last Tuesday to a similar Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder).—[Vol. 826, c. 1133.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at a time of crisis the British people expect their Prime Minister to be in the thick of things and not skulking behind others? Is he further aware that although he may have scored a success conducting the London Symphony Orchestra last week, the country would think much more of him if he conducted a tour of Northern Ireland?

I explained the considerations to be taken into account in this matter when I answered a previous Question. Many people have differed from my views and no doubt will do so in the future, but I do not think that many people have questioned, in my service to my country, my courage.

Will the Prime Minister state what representations he has made, or is making, to the Northern Ireland Government about the recently-passed Payments for Debt Act which, as retrospective legislation, clearly contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights of which Her Majesty's Government are a signatory? Secondly, is he aware that by depriving the old, the sick and the disabled as well as the unemployed of up to half their income it is causing, provocatively so in the present situation, immense hardship?

This is a matter within the scope and power of the Northern Ireland Government. Those who feel aggrieved have an easy remedy, which is to go on with their normal payments.

As my right hon. Friend—and the Leader of the Opposition—have reaffirmed their adherence to the Ireland Act, 1949 would he consider a referendum in Northern Ireland to give the people there an opportunity of stating whether they wish to remain part of Britain or to become part of Southern Ireland? Would this not have an additional advantage in that if the decision can be taken and clearly seen, it can remove this matter from politics for a generation or more?

I do not think that the question of Northern Ireland becoming a part of the Republic is an issue at the moment and therefore the question of a referendum does not arise.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, serious though the position is, and irrespective of whether he goes to Ireland, he ought to try to convey to the people of Ireland on all occasions the overwhelming belief in this country that there is no problem in Ireland that cannot be settled by peaceful solution and that there is certainly no problem in Ireland that is worth the loss of life of one of our soldiers or an innocent Irishman?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I have always done my best to do as he says. In particular, the fact that we had the first meeting of the three Prime Ministers for 50 years and were able to sit round a table and discuss our differences is a clear indication of that. It also seems that if we, with considerable differences between us, can have discussions covering an entirely open agenda in the way we did, then surely those in Northern Ireland who are concerned with this problem, despite their differences, can similarly get round the table.