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Political Talks

Volume 957: debated on Thursday 9 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any plans to hold discussions with the various political groupings in Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any plans to meet the leaders of the main political groupings in Northern Ireland in the immediate future.


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

The political situation has not changed much in recent months. Since I last reported to the House, I have had informal discussions with the leaders of three of the Northern Ireland parties, and I hope that I shall soon be able to meet their counterparts in the other main parties.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although the security situation in Northern Ireland has eased considerably, there do not seem to be—at least to me—any parallel political developments alongside that relaxation? Did my right hon. Friend notice that at last weekend's national conference of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) is the leader, a resolution was passed that I am sure caused a great deal of feeling among everybody who is interested in this situation? Can my right hon. Friend comment on that and any similar developments that he has in mind?

My hon. Friend is right. We are making good progress on the security front. Certainly, we are introducing more social reform. We are active in promoting industrial investment in the Province. But we are not making the same progress in political change. The first three matters are well within my own orbit of operations.

On the fourth, political change, I must get the parties in Northern Ireland to be prepared to talk together and eventually work together. I am now going through the second major round of political talks with the parties. I still have to meet the Democratic Unionist Party and the Official Unionist Party. I hope that thereafter we shall be able to make some political progress.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a number of my hon. Friends feel that his statements on Tuesday were not conducive to the kind of political settlement that he now says he has in mind? May I also suggest that many of my hon. Friends feel that we ought to inject some democracy into Northern Ireland before we talk of giving additional seats to that part of the United Kingdom?

I am sorry if my hon. Friend feels strongly about what I said on Tuesday. I referred to the fact that most of the people in question in Northern Ireland were being charged with offences—and I repeated that at least four times towards the end of my statement. Secondly, I am concerned about security in the Province and about law and order. I am sorry that the prison officers' dispute is tending to affect law and order and that solicitors and barristers feel slighted by what I said on Tuesday. If they do, I am sorry, but no slight was meant.

As for political progress, my hon. Friend must recognise that within Northern Ireland there are still 26 district councils electing 526 district councillors. Therefore, because the Macrory gap between the district councils and Westminster is not filled, there has to be direct rule of the Province, administered by a Secretary of State and four Ministers.

My right hon. Friend acknowledges that the recently introduced emergency order has caused political trouble in Northern Ireland. Is he contemplating any emendations to the order so as to ensure that in some way or other the magistrates actually see the prisoners?

As I told my hon. Friend the other day, I am prepared to consider his suggestion of prisoners being visited. I have also quite clearly stated that the order is just as distasteful and repugnant to me as it is to the lawyers in Northern Ireland. As soon as the prison officers' dispute is at an end I shall take urgent steps to rescind that order.

Does not the Secretary of State agree that those who say that an urgent political initiative is needed in Northern Ireland at present to avoid a political vacuum are quite right? One way is to close the Macrory gap, as he suggested. Will the Secretary of State invite Sir Patrick Macrory to update and review his recommendations of 1970, as he has agreed that he would not have made the same proposals if he had known the circumstances that followed in later years?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Macrory's view would have been different if he had known that Stormont would be abolished. However, it is too soon to call for that kind of review. I would rather hold consultations with the rest of the political parties before I take the hon. Gentleman up on that.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we agree with his recent statement in Socialist Commentary, where he said:

"we want to see established in Northern Ireland a new elected regional authority that can take responsibility for the great majority of those matters which affect the daily lives of the people who live there"
Is he further aware that he can count on our co-operation in the fulfilment of that objective?

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. Although qualifications and reservations were omitted from that short statement, generally we are in league. But the matter has to be dealt with on the basis of acceptability to this House, and the major parties in the House have said that if there is to be a regional authority, on which I concur, it has to be on the basis of partnership between the sections of the communities in Northern Ireland.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that there has been a radical alteration in the political situation? Yesterday we saw the introduction of the Bill providing for extra seats in this House. Last Saturday there was the resolution at the SDLP conference which was a direct result of what was known was to be presented yesterday. Does not my right hon. Friend think that we are drifting into a position of integration and that the Unionists have no need to concede anything because under direct rule they are getting everything and the minority nothing in a political sense?

I should be very sorry if my hon. Friend, and indeed the House, felt that we were rapidly moving towards integration. That is not so. Regarding the extra seats, Scotland and Wales are likely to get their own devolved Assem- blies and will keep their parliamentary seats on the same percentage thereafter. This compounded the difference between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales. In fairness and equity, it must be admitted that there has been injustice and it ought to be remedied. Therefore, we intend to give Northern Ireland equal parliamentary representation with Scotland, England and Wales. I do not believe, as some people do, that the extra seats will all be Unionist seats. Of the 17, it is quite likely that four or five could be anti-Unionist seats.

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity in the near future to have further talks with the Republican Clubs, the workers' party representatives, who in recent weeks in a by-election in my constituency showed, by defeating the present chairman of the SDLP, that they have more support than the SDLP has in the Roman Catholic community?

It is very difficult for me—and, I am sure, for my hon. Friends—to understand how political parties mushroom in the spring and die at the first frost. They are always growing and dying. The hon. Gentleman will know that at the last local government elections eight major parties stood and only four withstood the storm, four being wiped out. Since then, the Republican Clubs Party has begun to grow in strength, the Irish Independence Party has come on the scene, and, naturally, they are going for the same electorate as that led by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). Therefore, politically in the Catholic population there is certainly competition among the parties.

When will my right hon. Friend accept that the Irish prisoners of whom he speaks so scathingly are really prisoners of war? When will he take a real political initiative to bring about a phased withdrawal of the troops in Northern Ireland, in accordance with the wish of the majority of British people?

I am sorry to inform my hon. Friend that I do not agree that those in Her Majesty's Prison Maze should be regarded as political prisoners or as prisoners of war. As far as I am concerned, they are criminals. They have been guilty of criminal acts. They have killed, murdered, bombed and massacred and have been responsible for major terrorism in the Province in past years. Now, because we are treating them as criminals and they are being sentenced to gaol, much of the terrorist activity in Northern Ireland is on the wane.