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United Kingdom Membership

Volume 888: debated on Thursday 13 March 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether, before the Convention elections are held in Northern Ireland, he will make clear the acceptable conditions for continuing membership of the United Kingdom for the guidance of voters.

No, Sir. I would draw the hon. Member's attention to the statement in the White Paper of last July that

"any pattern of government must be acceptable to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole and to Parliament at Westminster. Citizenship confers not only rights and privileges, but also obligations".

I am sure that the Secretary of State will appreciate that his statement yesterday, on which I congratulated him, answered many of my anxieties. However, does he not agree, first, that there can be no question of the new Consultative Assembly opting to return to some form of Stormont-type Government, and that to be acceptable to Westminster any constitution proposed must involve community-sharing of responsibility at all levels? Since this is the view of Westminster, is it not right that this parameter should be spelled out clearly to the electorate before they go to the polls?

In the White Paper last year the Government spelled out the parameters. We used a phrase in the legislation which added up to "generally acceptable". I am very happy to lay down the parameters again and again and again. In the changing mood in Northern Ireland, after five or six years of war, with all the history that lies behind that, there is a chance that those people who met at Stormont will work to find as good a means of performing their duty of governing Northern Ireland, as with all our imperfections, we do here. I think now that people have learned a great deal on both sides, and we should give them a chance to work together.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any additional statement on the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. James), implying, as it would, the break-up of the unity of the United Kingdom, would create the worst possible conditions for the elections and prejudice the chances of a successful outcome to the Convention? Does he further agree that the only conditions for continuing membership of the United Kingdom would be the acceptance of the institutions of the United Kingdom, and no other?

I agree with the last part of that question, but on the first part, since the hon. Gentleman has raised it, I must say that I do not believe that any part of the United Kingdom can lay down the terms on which it will stay in the United Kingdom. There is something which cannot be spelled out which is implicit in belonging to the United Kingdom, and I believe that people understand it.