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Political Situation

Volume 931: debated on Thursday 12 May 1977

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3.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Northern Ireland political situation.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he intends to take any political initiative.

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will now reconsider his policy towards the restoration of a Stormont Parliament.

It remains the Government's primary aim to establish in Northern Ireland a system of devolved government that has been built on agreement between political leaders and that has the respect and support of the majority on both sides of the community. If it is the general wish, however, the Government will be ready to consider arrangements for partial devolution provided that what is being devolved is real power and responsibility. There has been much discussion recently of the Macrory gap—between 26 district councils and Government and Parliament at Westminster. My right hon. Friend recognises that this is a matter of genuine concern and is hoping that the political parties in Northern Ireland will want to hold discussions on the issue after the local government elections.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that it is important, even in these difficult times, that one should think about the future of Northern Ireland? My hon. Friend's reply, which indicated that administrative devolution is still on the agenda, is significant. Does he agree that the political future of Northern Ireland is very much bound up with the economic situation? Does he agree that the present problems and difficulties exacerbate the economic problem of Northern Ireland and discourage investment in the Province?

I am in charge of the Commerce and Manpower Departments in Northern Ireland. The recent incidents will do incalculable damage to the economy of Northern Ireland. We cannot calculate the damage. The sooner the present situation is over and we can again spread confidence in Northern Ireland industry, the better.

Have not recent events made quite clear that there is a political vacuum which is adverse to democracy in Northern Ireland? We are pleased about what the Minister said, but can he say whether the Secretary of State will be willing to entertain proposals from the official Opposition for a political forum?

I have not noticed that there is a political vacuum in Northern Ireland, nor has there been one for some time. The possibility of discussions about improving the existing structure of local government in Northern Ireland is in our minds. There are no cut-and-dried solutions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes that the political parties will want to hold discussions as soon as the local government elections are over.

Administrative devolution has been mentioned. Will the Minister take it from me that the people of Northern Ireland do not want administrative devolution? They do not want a second tier of local government, because it would be bureaucratic and costly. Does the Minister accept that the people of Northern Ireland want the restoration of the Stormont Parliament, despite what certain members of the Unionist coalition say at the moment?

That might be the hon. Gentleman's view. It is certainly not the opinion of everyone in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will have the chance to express his opinions.

With regard to the concluding part of the Minister's reply, may I ask whether his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would be willing to assist by putting forward from the Government an outline of the kind of proposals that would be likely to secure the Government's agreement?

As I have said, we intend to hold discussions. We are waiting for the air to clear on the political front after the local government elections.

I welcome the Minister's comments on behalf of the Government this afternoon. Will he shortly announce really positive powers and responsibility for local government in Ulster? Is he aware that during my recent visit to Northern Ireland many complaints were made that there was no real power for local government at the moment? Is he aware that this was much regretted by the able and competent people who wish to administer the Province?

In my time in Northern Ireland I have also been responsible for local government. Local councillors have ways and means of putting forward their views. The hon. Member says that they have no power. One has only to examine certain booklets from local government offices saying how much power they have or look at the amount of money they spend each year to discover that they have plenty of power. There is a gap between local councils and the central Government. We want to talk about that as soon as the local elections are over.