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Political Talks

Volume 961: debated on Monday 22 January 1979

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on what basis he intends to pursue further consultations with the various political groups in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

I think that I can best answer the question by publishing in the Official Report the text of a letter which I sent recently to the leaders of the four main political parties in Northern Ireland.

Following is the text of a letter sent by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 16 January 1979 to the leaders of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party and the Democratic Unionist Party:

"Before Christmas I talked with you and with the leaders of the other major parties in Northern Ireland about the possibility of making some political progress. Before our next talks I thought it might be helpful to you and to the other party leaders to whom I am writing similarly, to set out the basis on which I believe that such progress can be made.

"First, we must all recognise the fact that people in Northern Ireland have different long-term aspirations. Some want to maintain the union with Great Britain, others want to see a United Ireland. I believe, however, that all four parties in Northern Ireland accept, as do the main parties at Westminster, that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can be changed only with the consent of its people.

"I believe also that all those parties want to see the early establishment as soon as possible of some form of devolved administration so that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland have a substantial measure of control over the affairs of their region. But any system of devolved government in Northern Ireland, if it is to be effective and durable, must be such that both sides are willing to support it. It must be a system in which elected representatives from both sides of the community would be willing to participate. This is what I mean by 'acceptable'.

"Just over a year ago I set out five points which seemed to me to be basic elements in any acceptable system. In discussions one possible model of a system was put before you which had been evolved in the light of earlier exploratory talks and which sought to exploit what seemed to be common ground and to avoid particular points of difficulty. This was illustrative—a basis for discussion—and I am not committed to it. The one thing to which I am committed above all is the principle of acceptability.

"Perhaps I might remind you of the very considerable devolved powers I visualised in the first stage of the proposals I made over a year ago—these could have comprised all the executive powers held by the 1974 Executive—that is, responsibility for the activities of all the Northern Ireland Departments including such subjects as industry, agriculture, housing, education, health and the environment. In addition the Assembly would have been able to debate and to move amendments to proposals for legislation and also to initiate such proposals.

"In the earlier discussions the parties insisted on seeking guarantees of their long-term aspirations. The differences in those aspirations are not capable of resolution now. They do not need to be resolved now in order to establish a system of devolved government which need in no way prejudice those aspirations. If the parties continue to concentrate on long-term aspirations no progress will be possible and there is then no alternative to the continuance of direct rule. The way forward is for the party leaders to agree to differ about them for the present, to concentrate on finding common ground

on which to base a practical, acceptable system by which real power can be devolved now.

"Before Christmas I had a first round of talks with each of the main parties. In each case we were agreed that further discussion was appropriate and necessary. I am encouraged by this. Specific ideas have come in from some of the parties. I am encouraged by the fresh thoughts and by the signs of flexibility and of a readiness to recognise the interests of others. I look forward to carrying this further in the second round of talks on which we are agreed. If we enter these talks constructively real progress can be made. For my part I am fully committed to the search for an acceptable basis for devolution and the ending of direct rule."