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Northern Ireland (Government)

Volume 972: debated on Thursday 25 October 1979

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

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the government of Northern Ireland.

The Queen's Speech declared that the Government's intention was:
"to seek an acceptable way of restoring to the people of Northern Ireland more control over their own affairs".
Since taking office in May I have for that purpose had wide-ranging discussions in the Province and a series of private meetings with leaders of the main Northern Ireland political parties represented in this House. My discussions and meetings have confirmed the Government's view that it is right to transfer back to locally elected representatives some at least of the powers of government at present exercised from Westminster. The political parties in Northern Ireland in their election manifesto asked for that, and there is widespread support for it in the Province. There is, moreover, an awareness that such a restoration of political responsibility can be brought about in Northern Ireland only by all parts of the community recognising and respecting the interests of others.

It will in due course be a matter for Parliament to decide, on proposals put to it by the Government, what kind of powers and responsibilities are to be transferred to elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland and through what kind of institutions they are to be exercised. The Government wish, however, to put forward proposals that, so far as possible, have the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland.

We intend therefore to convene a conference of the principal political parties in Northern Ireland to seek the highest level of agreement that we can on proposals for a transfer of responsibility, which the Government might put before this House in due course. We are, for that purpose, preparing a consultative document, which will be laid before Parliament, to serve as the basis of the conference.

The document will set out the range of powers and responsibilities that the Government, for their part would be prepared to see transferred from Westminster. It will set out as options for consideration by the conference a number of ways in which the transferred powers might be exercised, and in each case state what the Government would regard as reasonable and appropriate arrangements to take account of the interests of the minority.

Responsibility for law and order in the Province, which as I indicated in reply to questions earlier today, remains the Government's overriding priority in Northern Ireland, would not be transferred.

I shall shortly be approaching the party leaders concerned to discuss with them the arrangements for a conference to be convened as soon as possible—I would hope, by the end of November.

Our aim will be to secure from the conference, drawing on suggestions in the consultative document, workable and acceptable arrangements for restoring to the people of Northern Ireland greater responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, which we can then recommend to this House in fulfilment of our commitment in the Queen's Speech.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we on the Labour Benches feel that it is time for decisions rather than discussions? Nevertheless, if the Government judge that such a conference is a possible means of progress we shall not seek to obstruct or discourage it. I caution the right hon. Gentleman however, that further delaying decisions until the new year will make the intervening period fraught with danger.

May I put four points? First, what soundings have been taken, from those likely to be invited, on the acceptability of the proposals? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman wishes for acceptance from all parties concerned, but what are the contingency plans if one or more of them refuse to attend?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that any discussion document that is issued promotes flexibility and does not harden attitudes? If it encouraged participants to hold out for the option that may be their ultimate ambition rather than what is acceptable and possible today, it would be detrimental.

Thirdly, reports will appear in the newspapers of the progress of the talks. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore not merely report to Parliament at the end of the talks but keep us informed of progress during the talks?

The success of such talks is closely bound up with the security position in Northern Ireland. Not only is that position causing grave anxiety; there is deep concern and widespread criticism of the control, or apparent lack of control, of security policy. The appointment of Sir Maurice Oldfield has not yet yielded any apparent benefits. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that appointment has blurred or clarified the control?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman reiterate to the House that responsibility for security rests where it always must—on an elected Secretary of State responsible to this House for the discharge of his duties?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming our move. I agree that the time is coming for decision, but the Government wish to put proposals before Parliament with the knowledge that we have the agreement of the people to whom they will apply. That cannot be done without discussion. I have had a series of discussions throughout the summer and the moment has arrived for those discussions to become more formalised and for the parties to sit down together.

We shall certainly be flexible. The proposals that we shall put before the conference and before Parliament will contain a wide variety of suggestions for ways in which we might move forward. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that a high degree of flexibility, within certain limits, is essential, and we shall seek to ensure that.

I am prepared to report to Parliament whenever Parliament wishes me to do so on the progress of the conference and, I hope, before too long, on the conclusions.

Every political party in the Province less than six months ago said that it wanted to make progress in the political field, and I feel sure that that is so today. The conference is a way of making progress that I believe will commend itself to the House, and it stands the best chance of enabling the Government to establish the highest level of acceptance.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right in saying that the security situation is in no way satisfactory. Whatever takes place at the conference, the present security position will remain unaltered. We do not intend to invite the House to approve arrangements to transfer responsibility for security away from this Government.

Does the Secretary of State recall that I have constantly made clear to him, privately and publicly, that the Ulster Unionist Party will not engage in time-wasting exercises and window dressing of that type? Is he also aware that we shall, however, carefully and reasonably consider, in the Northern Ireland Committee or on the Floor of the House, any proposals brought forward to give effect to the specific suggestions and commitments in the Conservative Party manifesto?

The proposal is not time-wasting but is designed to secure agreement as early as possible. A variety of suggestions will be put before the conference and before the House—suggestions that should be discussed by the people who will be most affected, namely, the political parties in Northern Ireland.

We clearly have to discuss together how we can move forward. I know that the hon. Gentleman is anxious to move in a broad direction, and naturally that will be one of the directions that we shall discuss and upon which we shall seek the agreement of everyone who wants it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman enlarge upon what he means by a conference of principal political parties? Does he mean all the political parties in Northern Ireland? How many will he invite to the conference? Will he give us the timing of the document? Will the House be able to debate the document first? Will the Northern Ireland Committee be able to debate the document first? After the House has given its opinion, the Committee having deliberated upon it and given its opinion, should we then be able to proceed? Why cannot we have a conference of elected representatives so that people can come with a mandate from the people to speak for the people. Is the Secretary of State aware that for 50 years there was a devolved Government in Northern Ireland which did far better in terms of security than this House has done?

It would be my intention to invite to the conference representatives of the four main political parties in Northern Ireland—the hon. Gentleman's party, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party, which represent between them over four out of every five voters. I hope to be able to place the document before the House within two weeks. Of course, if the House wishes to debate it either on the Floor or in Committee that would be a matter to be decided. I should be most happy to deal with it and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would be happy to listen to any representations.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the findings of the Cameron report in relation to the onset of the present troubles, wherein it was proved conclusively that local authorities in Northern Ireland were responsible, to a great extent, for the onset of the present troubles? Is he further aware that the minority population in Northern Ireland appears very suspicious about any talks, undertaken in any circumstances, about restoring powers to local authorities, that it feels that the last Government increased the number of parliamentary seats, and that the present Government will restore a Unionist ascendancy by returning powers to the local authorities? Will the Secretary of State consult the Prime Minister and say clearly whether there is any truth in the statements that they have been put about by the Leader of the Official Unionist Party and his colleagues that they have been given an undertaking that under no circumstances would there be a devolved Government in Northern Ireland during the lifetime of the present Parliament?

Where does the right hon. Gentleman get the confidence that enables him to say that there is widespread support for a measure of this kind? Does he not recognise that on Tuesday last week a resolution was circulated throughout district councils that he had to contradict? Is he aware that the wording of that resolution was to the effect that there is no hope of finding any agreement to restore local authority powers to Northern Ireland?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating. He says that there is no hope. I believe that there is hope. I say that for two reasons. First, as I said in my statement, every political party fought the last election on the basis that it wanted to see political advance. Secondly, I am glad that I have detected an awareness among the people with whom I have talked that such a move must be an advance—that we cannot go backwards to systems that have been tried and have failed before. They believe that any advance means respecting the point of view of people with whom one does not necessarily agree on everything.

If there is that spirit, as I believe there is—I have detected it—it seems to me right that Her Majesty's Government, in pursuance of their objectives, should take advantage of it, and that we should call the parties together and seek the highest level of agreement about how we can advance and what we can recommend to the House.

I warmly welcome the proposals for talks to try to bring the parties together. However, will my right hon. Friend take a leaf out of the book of my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary and so organise the conduct of this conference that those whose contribution to it is purely negative—people who are purely against a coming together in any way—cannot wreck it by these tactics?

I do not believe that responsible political leaders in the Province want to wreck an opportunity to make an advance that they all say they wish to see. Therefore, I have every reason to hope that the parties will come together under my chairmanship and will engage in constructive discussions to see how far we can get agreement and how Her Majesty's Government can best recommend proposals to this House.

Will the Minister make it clear whether he will go ahead with the conference regardless of the success or failure of his talks with the parties? Are the two things to be put in train at the same time, or are the talks with the parties to determine the agenda and the timing of the conference? When does the Minister hope the conference will meet?

I said in my statement that I hoped that the conference would meet about the end of November. That is a matter that I wish to discuss with those who will be there along with the arrangements about where it will meet, and so forth. I hope to be able to publish and put before Parliament in just over two weeks the discussion document that will form the basis of the conference and give the parties time to study and consider it, with a meeting perhaps a week later, which would bring us to about the end of November. That is the time scale that I have in mind, although I am putting no definite date upon it until I have discussed with those who will be there what would be the most convenient date for everyone.

In view of the attitude of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) who represents the SDLP, will my right hon. Friend consider two points? Will he consider a time limit on the consultations on his document within which some agreement ought to be reached, or, failing that, at least for making a start on devolving the powers to area boards of elected representatives?

Since the conference will be about ways of devolving powers—of returning powers to the people of Northern Ireland—I think that it would be a mistake to do anything in advance of the conference. It would not be helpful to put a time limit on the conference before it has even begun. Naturally the Government believe the quicker the better, but to put a terminal date would be less helpful rather than more.

Order. I will call the Front Bench again when I have given a fair hearing to Back Benchers.

The Secretary of State said that he was prepared to consider anything that was acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland. Is he aware that there is one subject upon which the opinion polls show a majority of both communities to be in agreement, although their leadership may not necessarily be so? Is he prepared, apart from this, to consider the question of desegregating education in Northern Ireland?

I think that the hon. Gentleman misheard me. I did not say, nor could I possibly say, that we will be prepared to consider everything that is acceptable to the parties in Northern Ireland, because in the end it is for Parliament to give its approval to what the Government may put before it. The ultimate decision on what is done and how rests here. Therefore it is clearly not only right that Her Majesty's Government should seek to find agreement between the parties but should seek to prepare proposals which they believe the House will accept. It cannot, therefore, be limitless.

Will my right hon. Friend be putting forward a favoured proposal to the conference? Will he give an assurance that the manifesto's proposal for a regional council, arrived at after so much heart searching and hard thinking, has not been left out of his thoughts?

The answer to the first part is "No, Sir", and to the second part, I think, "No, Sir", as well, although that rather depends on how my hon. Friend has worded it. In other words, that proposal will certainly be among those considered.

Will the Secretary of State accept that many of us hope that any political initiative, no matter how small, will bear fruit? Will he, however, accept that the polarisation of voting recently could have caused more intransigence among certain people in Northern Ireland? When the Secretary of State talks about political advances, does he agree that certain people believe that political advance is the ability to fasten the yoke around the necks of the minority community even more firmly? That was the cause of the trouble last time. Will he therefore ensure that the conference gives further hope to the minority community and does not maintain a situation which makes their already low spirits even more desperate?

I recognise—I said so in my statement—that the people of the Province recognise that there will be no political advance unless people are prepared to respect and recognise the interests of other people. The proposals that we shall put before this House, and the conference, will do just that. He is quite right. The Government cannot, and will not, put forward for the consideration of the House any proposals of the kind that he described, which would give total dominance by one part of the community over another. Of course we would not do that.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his statement today will be a disappointment to a great many people? Does he recognise that there is an increasing number of people who feel that the determination of successive Governments to have talks, and talks about talks, is understood by many to be a rationale for doing nothing, or, even worse, a reason for not knowing what to do? Will he accept that there is increasing unhappiness among the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—particularly Northern Ireland—that successive Governments gave vetoes to Northern Ireland politicians over the action of Her Majesty's Government, even though those politicians are known to be not the most flexible men in this House? Would the Secretary of State accept that the problem of Northern Ireland is one for the United Kingdom and that the Government since May have shown great determination in governing in other areas? A similar determination to govern Northern Ireland would be greatly welcomed.

I do not think that many people will be disappointed with a proposal to call together the political leaders of Northern Ireland to seek ways, by agreement, of advancing in a direction in which not only they but the Government and this House wish to go. It seems to me that this is the course most likely to produce a answer satisfactory, not only in Northern Ireland but to this House. I emphasise again that it is Parliament which has the final say about what is done in Northern Ireland. I am anxious to recommend to Parliament measures which, I believe, have a high degree of acceptance in Northern Ireland.

As a member of one of the parties that have not yet been consulted, it is difficult for me to discuss these proposals. Does the Secretary of State not accept, in view of the opinions already expressed following his summer talks, coupled with the expressions that we have heard today from three out of four of the parties concerned, that the conference is doomed to fail even before it starts unless he has in mind some kind of Lancaster House type conference. Does he seriously believe that he is doing the situation in Northern Ireland any good by holding a conference that seems doomed to failure from the very start?

What a gloomy fellow the hon. Gentleman is. Why should he assume that the conference is doomed to failure straight away? Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that all the political parties concerned have expressly said that they want to make a political advance? This is a way of seeking how best to do that. I cannot believe that if that is what they really want to do—and I believe it is so—they will turn down this opportunity.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that at no stage will the consultations be broadened to incorporate the leaders of any political party who give support to any kind of terrorist activity in Northern Ireland?

Under no circumstances will people who engage in, or support, terrorism be consulted.

Is it the intention of the Secretary of State to allow those parties who will attend the conference to select their representatives? If that is so, is he aware that that could result in the conference being composed of people who not only have no mandate from the people of Northern Ireland but have been specifically rejected by the people of Northern Ireland during the past few months?

This is one of the matters about which I intend to consult with the leaders of the parties immediately. We shall have to settle how many people come to the conference and where it happens. All those details must be gone into now.

Will the Secretary of State indicate to the House that should this conference ever arrive at a result, that result will be put to the people by way of a referendum?

That is a matter which we can consider. I do not rule it out. It depends upon the measure of agreement reached and the popular support for it. If it seems necessary to judge popular support for it we will consider that course. In the end the decision as to what is done—what powers are devolved, and how, to Northern Ireland—is taken here.

Order. I propose to call four more hon. Members. One of them has been rising continually.

I have two questions for the Secretary of State. First, what does he mean by the "minority community"? Everyone knows that the fundamental problem in Northern Ireland is that there are two political philosophies which are irreconcilable. If by "minority community" the Secretary of State means a minority in terms of political philosophy he is trying to reconcile the irreconcilable and the conference would be a waste of time.

Secondly, will the Provisional Sinn Fein be involved in the conference? That is a registered political party and is the equivalent of the Patriotic Front in Northern Ireland.

The answer to the last part of the question is "No, Sir". In answer to the first part of the question, I was using a colloquial term to describe that part of the population which by history, politics or religion—or whatever it may be—forms part of what is generally thought to be the minority.

I welcome any initiative by the Secretary of State to move away from merely discussing the violence and get down to discussing some of the causes of that violence. I also welcome his view that we will not make political advance while old attitudes remain. Does the Secretary of State see any change in those political attitudes, and does he not agree that it has never been possible to maintain the present state of Northern Ireland except by various repressive laws? Will he consider widening the discussions to bring in the Government of Southern Ireland? I make this point since we are speaking about a political advance. There can be no political advance for the minority community while it is kept within the boundary of the present Northern Ireland State. It is, in effect, made into a political minority in Northern Ireland, whereas it would be in the political majority in the country as a whole.

The future arrangements for governing Northern Ireland are a matter for the people of the Province, for the United Kingdom, and for Parliament; they are not the responsibility of the Dublin Government. Of course, the Dublin Government are interested and no doubt they will keep a close watch on what goes on. But there can be no question of their engaging in these discussions.

As for the hon. Lady's point about security, I must tell the House that political advance—or even the prospect of it—will not solve the security question, because those who are responsible for the violence in Northern Ireland will, if anything, feel that this move is a threat to them. They will not, I fear, relax their efforts to disrupt society in Northern Ireland. We must be just as resolute in seeking to control violence and bring terrorism down from its present level. I do not hold out to the House any hope that the security situation will be solved by the proposal that I have put before the House.

While commending the intention to hold the conference—whose chances of success do not seem very high, judging by the exchanges today—may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he accepts that there is a clear limit to the patience of the people in Great Britain towards the whole Northern Ireland situation?

The hon. Gentleman must speak for himself. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It is our business to seek to protect the people of the United Kingdom wherever they may be, and to ensure that the way in which they control their affairs is satisfactory from everyone's point of view.

Notwithstanding recent history, one assumes that one of the issues before the conference will be some kind of elected assembly or council. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that in spelling out such a proposal he will link with it firmly some kind of proportional representation system of election?

That will be one of the matters that it would be proper to discuss at the conference. As the House knows, most elections in Northern Ireland—not all—are held under a system of proportional representation. It is a matter that I would wish to discuss with those concerned.

May I return to the question of the consultative document and serve notice that it will be the wish of the Opposition and, I think, of many other hon. Members, that it should be debated on the Floor of the House before it is put to the parties in Northern Ireland?

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. So does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whose concern it principally is.