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Constitutional Conference

Volume 976: debated on Tuesday 20 November 1979

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which parties have now indicated to him that they intend to participate in the conference on Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he is satisfied with the progress of all-party talks in Northern Ireland; and what action he now proposes in the matter.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the proposed conference on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made with the discussion of his consultation document; and what response he has had from Northern Ireland political parties and other interested groups.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the latest situation regarding acceptances and rejections for attendance at the expected conference on Northern Ireland and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a further statement on his proposed constitutional discussions with political parties in the Province.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his conference with political parties.

I have recently had further contacts with the leaders of the four main political parties in Northern Ireland. The leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party have now indicated their readiness to attend the conference. Its purpose will be to consider how powers of government could be transferred to locally elected representatives in Northern Ireland on a basis that is acceptable to both sides of the community there. I have now written to the three party leaders informing them that the conference will begin on Monday 7January at Parliament Buildings, Belfast. I have also written similarly to the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in the hope that, before the conference opens, his party will, after all, decide to attend.

I do not underestimate the task that faces the conference. But there is a general desire in the Province for progress. We must now turn it to good account.

Order. I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. I am sure that many hon. Members will welcome the attendance of the Social Democratic and Labour Party at the conference. It was consistently advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). Will the Secretary of State agree that, sooner or later, the whole question of the Irish dimension must be discussed?

Yes. As I indicated to the House on 29 November, the Irish dimension, which is a phrase which means exactly what one wants it to mean, has a part to play. The relationship between any elected body which is in control of the affairs of Northern Ireland and the authorities in the Republic of Ireland will be a matter for that body to decide. There are a great many areas in which co-operation between the North and South is extremely important. We all want to develop those.

Does the Secretary of State agree that enshrining minority rights in any new constitutional arrangement for Northern Ireland will perpetuate the divisions between the communities? Would it not be far more positive for Northern Ireland to be entirely integrated within the United Kingdom, with a system of county councils similar to that in England? Does he agree that, in that way, people would get together and there would be a process of gradual assimilation?

One of the purposes of the conference will be to discuss and seek agreement on points such as those my hon. Friend makes. There are a variety of ways in which we can do what the Government are determined to try to do—to transfer to locally elected representatives responsibility for affairs in the Province. My hon. Friend has suggested one particular way forward. Other people have other ways. That is what the conference will be all about.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is not possible for the British Government to stand back and wait for an agreement reached around the conference table by the parties concerned? Is it not true that sooner or later the British Government must take a part in these negotiations and produce proposals to this Parliament?

Yes, I hope that I have made that clear. The responsibility ultimately is for the Government to decide what to suggest to Parliament and bring those proposals to Parliament, and then for Parliament to decide whether to let them go forward. This stage in the proceedings is simply an attempt to get representatives of the people of Northern Ireland together around a discussion table to see what level of agreement we can find. If we can find a reasonably high level of agreement, the House would wish to know this when it decides what to do.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is a certain amount of confusion about the scope of the conference? Will he confirm the remarks that he made to my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), to the effect that the agenda and consultative document are still unchanged? Will he outline what action he will take if the taboo subjects outlined in paragraph 4 of the document are raised?

Yes. It is quite clear that the working paper, Cmnd. 7763, which the House debated on 29 November, is the basis for the conference. In my speech on that day I made it clear to all parties that they would be free to put forward papers containing their own proposals. I have gone one stage further, and I have said that I shall invite those parties to introduce those papers orally at the conference. But, as is made clear in paragraph 4 of the White Paper, I shall not invite the conference to discuss a certain range of subjects.

Will the Minister agree that the polarisation of the voting in the two general elections was an indication of the developing intensity of the struggle in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by the recent increase in bombing? Does he not agree that the time has come for all sides to talk? Would it not be much better, now that the SDLP has agreed to come to the conference, for the Official Unionists to do the same? Is he aware that it will not be a proper conference, with any real hope, unless the Official Unionists see it in that way? I am convinced that the ordinary supporters of the Official Unionists want them to attend.

Of course I hope that the four parties will come and discuss ways of making progress. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong to link that with the level of violence in Northern Ireland. Un-happily, the situation in the Province at present is that the Provisional IRA has no interest whatever in political developments. In fact, I do not believe that it wants to see any political development. Its only concern is to seek to destroy democratic institutions, both in the North and South, as it has said. Therefore, while I am sure that it is the wish of people in the Province that we should make political progress, we must not be under any illusion that this will reduce the level of violence. I am afraid that it will not.

If the Official Unionists do not come to the conference, will not the actual result be, whether desirable or not, that, both on this side of the water and possibly on the other side as well, people will regard the party led by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley, as speaking for the vast majority?

:I do not think that that is for me to say. I hope very much that the four main parties will come to the conference. We are seeking agreement among the political parties on how to progress. It is not only the Government who need to know this, but the House as well. In the end, the House will make the decisions. We all want to make decisions for the future of Northern Ireland which we believe will be acceptable to the people and have a chance of lasting. Therefore, the greater the level of agreement we can get, the better.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the phrase "Irish dimension"? Has there not always been, and must there not always be, business-like cross-border co-operation? To remove false hopes on one side and dangerous fears on the other, will my right hon. Friend make clear that his interpretation of the phrase "Irish dimension" does not affect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I readily make that point clear. The difficulty about the phrase "Irish dimension" is that it seems to me to mean exactly what one wants it to mean. It is quite clear that there are a number of matters of common interest to people who live in Ireland, whether it be north or south of the border, and there are matters which are discussed between the North and South at present which will continue to be discussed in future. We must avoid the temptation to put ourselves in the position of saying that we either can or cannot discuss the Irish dimension. It is there; it is a fact of life, or at least a fact of geography. Of course it will be discussed, but in the end the progress that is made in the political field depends on the will of Parliament.

So that this House may be absolutely clear about the answer of the Secretary of State to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), are we to understand that what was agreed in the exchange of letters was that the subject of Irish unity may be raised in a memorandum, but will not be discussed at the conference? Or will there be a discussion as well as the introduction of the memorandum? Have the Government ruled out any sort of association of other elected representatives in the Province with these talks?

On the question of Irish unity, I repeat what I said before. In the first place, I have invited any party attending the conference or any other party or individual to submit to the conference whatever proposals they please, without any limit. Secondly, when the conference meets I shall invite the parties to introduce their papers orally. Thirdly, I shall not invite the conference to discuss the matters set out in paragraph 4 of the White Paper which include Irish unity. Equally, when dealing with paragraph 5, I shall not invite the conference to discuss the control of security. The Government are not prepared to recommend to the House that that should be transferred.

That is the limit of my remarks. I do not think that there is anything more that I can usefully say. There are those who have aspirations about Irish unity, for example, and that is all right. It is what the conference discusses that matters, because the whole purpose of the conference is to seek to make an advance, even if it is a comparatively limited one. We should be wrong to spend time discussing a range of subjects on which we know perfectly well there will be no agreement.

Political parties or individuals not represented at the conference will be invited to submit their views in writing. In a recent debate it was suggested that there should be an arrangement by which I could, at the same time, consult the House. I am ready to do that and to consider means of doing it effectively.

Does the Secretary of State not yet realise that the Official Unionist Party is as much opposed as the Provisional IRA—but for different reasons—to the creation or re-creation of a devolved Stormont Parliament? So that the Ulster people have full representation at the conference, will he invite all Ulster Members of Parliament who are willing to attend, so that there can be full and proper discussions on the future of Ulster?

It is right to confine the conference to the four main political parties, although I am ready to seek ways of taking into account the views, on a continuing basis, of other hon. Members. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should expect me to answer for anything other than Her Majesty's Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is still much confusion and controversy about what can and what cannot be discussed at the conference? Will he tell the House, now, whether paragraph 4 lays down the broad parameters of discussion? Will he tell the House what would happen if one of the parties at the conference were to put forward proposals that contravened paragraph 4? Would the Secretary of State rule any discussion of such proposals out of order?

Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the White Paper set the limits of the discussions that I am prepared to invite the conference to follow. Any party is able to put forward any ideas in writing. The parties at the conference will be invited by me, as the chairman, to introduce their papers orally.