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Northern Ireland (Government)

Volume 974: debated on Thursday 29 November 1979

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4.2 pm

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the Working Paper for a conference on the government of Northern Ireland (Cmnd. 7763).
Just over a month ago, I announced to the House the Government's proposals for a conference of representatives of the four principal Northern Ireland political parties. This working paper is designed to provide the basis and the agenda for that conference. I shall devote a substantial part of my remarks today to the working paper, but before I do so perhaps the House will allow me to say one thing.

It is one of the Government's main preoccupations day after day to seek to improve the security situation in Northern Ireland, to maintain law and order there, and to improve law and order there. The fact that I shall not be talking about that today does not mean in any way that this is not one of our main preoccupations. It is simply that there will be an opportunity, I hope—if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House provides time—before Christmas to discuss this in some detail.

I propose to concern myself today with the political situation in the Province and our proposals. The House will expect me, in addition to referring to the working paper, to say something about the Government's broader objectives, and in particular to refer to the reaction of tthe Northern Ireland political parties to the working paper and to the proposed conference.

Let me begin by saying why we are making this move at all. There are three reasons. Since the suspension of the Stormont Parliament in 1972, Northern Ireland has been governed, except for a short period in 1974, by what has come to be known as direct rule from Westminster.

Successive Governments, successive Secretaries of State, their Ministers and the civil servants in the Departments concerned have done their best to give Northern Ireland an efficient and impartial Administration and to make it sensitive to the special needs of the Province. I believe this has been done with some success and that direct rule has a fair degree of acceptability.

But because district councils in Northern Ireland have a very limited range of functions—far less than their counterparts in Great Britain—it means that Northern Ireland Ministers and therefore Parliament are burdened with too great a range of what are essentially local matters. No one will complain about the burden on Ministers—I do not complain about it myself—but this House, with all its other preoccupations, is not able effectively to scrutinise, question and control Ministers in the discharge of so great a range of responsibilities.

In the second place, the present system gives too little opportunity for the normal wish of politically aware citizens to involve themselves in the administration of their own affairs. This wish is as strong in Northern Ireland as anywhere else—perhaps stronger. It is only right to seek to provide a proper democratic channel for the exercise of this opportunity.

In the third place, all the political parties are on record as wanting a transfer of power to elected representatives in Northern Ireland. All political parties said so in their manifestos only a few months ago.

So the Government's view is that it will be right to propose arrangements for renewed political life in the Province, and before doing so to seek the highest level of agreement among the political parties, who will be operating those arrangements, as to what they should be. We need to search for something which, while perhaps no one would regard it as the millennum, would be regarded by enough people in all parts of the community as a step forward—something that they could live with and work for the time being.

That is the approach in the working paper which we are debating today. The House will see that in the early part of the paper, in paragraphs 3 to 8, we define the scope of the conference. Paragraphs 4 and 5 particularly indicate the limits which the Government believe it is sensible to set on the discussions. If we are to make progress away from direct rule, it is simply no good putting up for discussion ideas on which everybody knows there is no prospect of reaching early agreement. It is because it would manifestly be unfruitful to discuss some topics that the working paper says, in paragraph 4, that the conference
"will not be asked to discuss"
or "invited to consider" certain issues.

The first of these relates to "Irish unity". The words in the working paper are that
"The Conference … will not be asked to discuss issues such as Irish unity, or confederation or independence".
This is because it is so obviously the present clear wish of a substantial majority of the people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom that a discussion of those matters at the conference would be unproductive. Worse than that, it would hinder—perhaps to the point of rendering impossible—discussion of more limited but practicable measures to substitute for direct rule something both better and generally acceptable.

This does not mean that, in some sinister Orwellian way, the conference would proceed as if the idea of Irish unity had never been mooted. Nor do I visualise anything approaching a ban, during the proceedings of the conference, on references to aspects of the topics under discussion which may lie beyond its strict terms of reference. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that I have learnt enough from you and your predecessors about the elasticity of rules of order to avoid falling into that trap. But I should feel obliged, simply in the interests of reaching a measure of agreement on the more limited aims of the conference, to discourage the participants from embarking on a full-scale discussion of this topic, just as I would if the conference sought to embark on a full-scale discussion of law and order—a subject which the Government will reserve to Westminster. In any case, there are more kinds of Irish dimension to the Northern Ireland problem than are encompassed by the words "Irish unity."

The existence of an Irish dimension to the problems of Northern Ireland is a straight matter of geography. Put in its simplest terms, it is a question of how two communities, living on the same island, can help each other—communities which share the same natural resources and which are both part of the wider European Economic Community. People, goods and services move freely between the North and the South. Explicit cooperation takes many forms. Transport matters, animal health, sport and energy are four of the most obvious.

I attach particular importance to the energy question—supplying more of the South's need from Northern sources. I regard reconnecting the two electricity systems as an urgent economic need which would be in the manifest interests of the Republic as well as those of Northern Ireland. We also look forward, for example, to the joint development of tourist facilities, financed in part by EEC funds.

The North and the South may not see eye to eye on all economic matters, but in the longer run the identity of interest between the two areas on practical matters is self-evident and indisputable.

Joint activity on matters of common interest, rather than emphasis on political and constitutional problems, is the most practical evidence of the Irish dimension. The Government seek an acceptable form of devolved government in which the minority community can have confidence as the first step. An elected representative body in Northern Ireland would have ample opportunity to work out for itself the precise nature of its relationship with the Republic of Ireland on all those matters for which it enjoyed transferred responsibility.

Let me also remind the House that it is not only advocates of Irish unity who are being asked to accept some measure of constraint as regards the subject matter of the conference.

The working paper make clear the Government's view that there is no profit in discussion at the conference of a straightforward return to the arrangements under which Northern Ireland was governed between 1921 and 1972. We know that that approach will not be acceptable to one side of the community, and it is fundamental to the Government's approach that any new arrangements agreed on must include reasonable and appropriate provision to take account of the interests of the minority.

Some people have commented on the absence of the phrase "power-sharing". That is absent because to many people the phrase implies the system which obtained in the first five months of 1974. Here, too, it would be profitless to discuss returning precisely to that system, because it was not acceptable then and I am sure that it would not be acceptable now. But no one who reads the working paper can fail to find in it a number of proposals put forward for consideration that would give minority representatives a positive part in the administration of devolved government.

Let me now consider the working paper in more detail. I should like to say at the start that I have been gratified by much of the reception given to it by the media and others on both sides of the Irish Sea. On the whole, the object and character of the working paper have been rightly understood.

It does not seek to set out a blueprint for the future government of Northern Ireland. Rather it is a working kit to help the discussion about what form of devolved government would suit Northern Ireland in the present circumstances, so as to assist the British Government in taking the necessary decisions and introducing the necessary legislation.

I have called the working paper a "kit". It is a kit with many pieces—interchangeable pieces. The illustrative models at the end of the working paper show some—but by no means all—of the ways in which the different component parts can be used to construct systems of government that might meet the needs of Northern Ireland.

Those models extend through a wide spectrum. At one end are models of assemblies with one chamber or two, enjoying a wide range of legislative as well as executive powers. Next there are models with devolved executive powers, but no power to legislate. Then there are models closer to the pattern of local government as we know it in Great Britain.

Hon. Members may wish to comment in detail on, and express preferences for, the models. I intend to withhold comment at this stage, for three reasons. First, I wish to say nothing that would imply that the Government have any secret preference among the models. We do not.

Secondly, I do not wish to seem to pre-empt discussion by Northern Ireland political leaders themselves. Thirdly, I do not wish to focus discussion too much on the actual models. They are no more than illustrations of how the necessary constitutional elements can be put together.

It is likely that whatever solution emerges will be different from any of the illustrative models, though no doubt it will contain elements that appear in more than one of them.

Can my right hon. Friend say who devised the models and to what extent Ministers in the Department had a say?

Without pressing my right hon. Friend to express a preference, may I ask him a question in which I declare an interest? He has rightly said throughout that the question of security will be reserved to Westminster. Can he say whether in any, or all, of the models there is an arrangement for the local administration of the police service, as distinct from the carrying out of security operations, to be handled, as, for example, on the mainland, by police authorities that deal with the detailed matters of police management?

There is a police authority in Northern Ireland, but it is answerable at present, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, to the Secretary of State.

It is important at this stage to focus on the three dimensions that have to be considered in deciding how to make progress. They are the sort of institutions that might be created, the subjects and powers that might be transferred to an elected body or bodies in Northern Ireland, and the arrangements needed to look after minority interests.

As regards institutions, the working paper offers a wide range of choice. There is the Westminster pattern—a legislature, with an executive or cabinet. Another approach, more familiar in the local government context, is a series of committees made up of elected members, charged with the exercise of government in particular areas. There is also another sort of committee—the investigative or scrutinising committee, of the sort that the House is setting up to oversee the work of Government Departments.

On the question of powers or functions, we have to decide what range of subject matter should come within the competence of whatever new institution is set up.

There is a wide range of transferable subjects, as is shown by the list of the present functions of Northern Ireland Government Departments set out in appendix B. All those subjects could be transferred to a new elected body for Northern Ireland or the transfer could be more limited, perhaps to the range of subjects for which local authorities in Great Britain have responsibility.

The right hon. Gentleman is proposing, in effect, that under the maximalist solution in the working paper both executive and legislative self-government could be initiated in Northern Ireland. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why his party opposed such proposals for Scotland in relation to the Scotland Act and why the West Lothian question, which was raised when the Act was going through the House, has not been discussed in the working paper?

There is a major difference between the situation in Northern Ireland and that in Scotland. There was such a body in Northern Ireland for 50 years and all the political parties in Northern Ireland campaigned during the general election for devolved government. As the hon. Gentleman knows, his views about devolved government in Scotland represent only a minority opinion in Scotland. His party discovered that.

That is not what the referendum showed.

The question is what extent of power should be devolved when the question of the subjects has been dealt with. It could be full legislative and executive power, subject only to the ultimate overriding authority of the United Kingdom Parliament and Government. Alternatively, executive power only could be conferred on a Northern Ireland elected body. In that case, it could be transferred either to a single regional body or to a number of bodies charged with the administration of services for particular geographical areas within Northern Ireland.

The third and crucial dimension is provision to take account of the interests of the minority community. I call that a crucial dimension because, as the working paper reiterates time and again, it is fundamental to the Government's approach that a transfer of powers must be made in a way that will take account of the interests of both parts of the community. I know that I need not spell out to the House why the Government attach so much importance to that. I simply want to say that the Government regard it as vital.

When I made my statement on 25 October, there was some questioning of who is the minority in Northern Ireland. When we speak of the minority community, as the working paper does, I do not think that any of us is in any doubt about whom we mean—the Catholic one-third, or thereabouts, of the population.

However, it is a fair point that when we come to consider political institutions, the term "minority" takes on a different meaning, having reference to votes cast and seats held rather than to religious or other affiliations. The working paper, I hope, makes this distinction clear—and it is a fundamental one which we shall need to keep clear in our minds as we take these discussions forward.

Subject to that caveat, there are various ways in which the position of the minority community could be protected. There is the direct or positive approach—giving minority representatives the opportunity of direct participation in the decision-taking processes of government. There is the indirect or negative approach—giving minority representatives powers, beyond what their numbers would justify, to block or delay certain decisions of the majority, as the means by which they will come to exert influence over the way in which those decisions are taken.

The working paper illustrates various ways in which either approach could be applied to the circumstances of Northern Ireland. The working paper also raises the possibility of safeguards, taking the form of appeal to an external authority, for example, the Secretary of State, Parliament here or the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. To us in Westminster sonic of this may sound slightly strange language; but all experience shows that without some such safeguards progress will not be made in devising institutions that are acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland and will last.

There are other ways of protecting minority interests. The working paper declares the Government's intention that under any new arrangements existing safeguards and remedies against discrimination on religious or political grounds should at least be maintained and, if possible, improved. As the House will know, in recent years a considerable range of safeguards against discrimination has been developed in Northern Ireland. There are the Fair Employment Agency, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, the Commissioner for Complaints and the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Additionally, there are statutory provisions against discrimination which are enforceable in the ordinary civil courts. All this is a considerable achievement. But I do not maintain that it is by any means the last word on the subject. Indeed, it may well be that improvements can be made. This would be a natural subject for consideration by the conference and I look forward to hearing what the participants have to say about it.

So much for the working paper. What of the conference for which it has been prepared? As the House will know, the Alliance Party and the Democratic Unionist Party have both accepted my invitation to take part; the Official Unionist Party has declined the invitation. The position of the Social Democratic and Labour Party has yet to be decided. Since the resignation of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) last week, the party has been without a confirmed leader. It was only last night that Mr. John Hume was elected the leader of that party. I am hoping to be able to see him very shortly to discover the mind of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Because of that situation, the conference, which I had hoped would open next week, must stand postponed. But I would emphasise that it is only postponed and not cancelled.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not yet realise that by limiting membership of this conference to four political parties, and not inviting all the Northern Ireland Members, he is adversely affecting the outcome of the conference, which will—as the Official Unionist Party has rejected his invitation—now have only the Democratic Unionist Party representing some unionist opinion and other unionist thought will not be expressed? Will he give an assurance that the outcome of the conference will be put to the Ulster people in a referendum so that they can decide whether to accept or reject the agreement?

If the hon. Gentleman will wait for one moment, I shall deal with precisely the point he raised at the next page of my notes.

Before the hon. Gentleman intervened. I was emphasising that, although the conference clearly cannot open next week, as I had hoped, and must be postponed, it is only postponed and not cancelled.

I take this opportunity of confirming that it remains the Government's view that the best way of proceeding is to hold a conference of the main political parties. We are offering an opportunity for political advance, albeit of a limited kind, with a wide range of possibilities available for discussion. I must tell the House that I find it hard to believe that the leaders of any of the main Northern Ireland political parties would feel it right to turn their backs on this opportunity. There is a real advantage to be gained for the people of Northern Ireland in participation in this conference. It is difficult, frankly, to see what can be gained by staying away.

As I have said, the Government have invited only the four main political parties. I think that the House would agree that it is obvious that if a conference is to make progress there must be some limit on its size, and those invited, between them, obtained some 80 per cent. of the votes cast at the last general election. But we recognise that there will be a wide range of opinion outside those parties which it would be sensible and proper to take into account, including the opinions of Members of this House as well as those of smaller political parties, trade unions, employers' organisations and many others.

I propose to invite all who wish to make their views about the working paper known to the Government to let me have their opinions in writing so that I, in turn, may put them before the conference. Indeed, it will be helpful if such papers are also put forward by the participants themselves. It will, of course, be a matter for the conference itself to decide how to take account of submissions received in this way. If, as a supplement to this suggestion, it seems desirable for me to keep in touch during the progress of the conference with the Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, I shall be very willing to consider the possibility of doing so and the ways in which this can be done. This is a point upon which hon. Members may very well like to comment in the course of today's debate. I shall listen with interest to what they say.

I return, in conclusion, to the working paper itself.

As the Secretary of State is approaching his conclusion, will he say whether, in putting forward these proposals, Her Majesty's Government have been influenced by any consideration of opinion outside the United Kingdom on the affairs of Northern Ireland?

I have said in this House and outside it many times, and I am prepared to say it again, that the future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, for Her Majesty's Government and for this House. Of course, other people are interested, but only those three groups of people are concerned. I have said it before and I shall say it again.

On a point of clarification—this will help the debate—supposing a situation arose where, and let us call him this as he would be such, a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland took one view and the Secretary of State in the Cabinet took another, if there were disagreement, where would the ultimate power actually lie? Would it lie with the Secretary of State?

The hon. Gentleman is jumping a very long way ahead. The conference has not started yet. These are matters to be discussed. In one of the principles outlined in the working paper—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity of reading it—we seek to make it clear that the overriding authority of the House remains as it has done ever since 1920.

Will the Minister give an answer on the question of the referendum? The Ulster people need to know this and they need to know it now. Will the conference go ahead even if some of the political parties refuse to attend it?

The object of the conference is to ask the political parties to come together to discuss the level of agreement that may be obtained—the highest level of agreement that we can get—about how to move forward. I do not know yet how high that level of agreement will be. Nor can I tell, until I know precisely who will come, for how great a range of the population of Northern Ireland the people who come to the conference will be able to speak. All those matters must, of course, be decided.

The hon. Gentleman, quite rightly, raised the point about the referendum, which he made before but which I did not answer. I have said before and I say again that we are most anxious to be able to come to this House with proposals for the future government of Northern Ireland which we believe have the support of the people of Northern Ireland. There are various ways of assessing whether they have that support. One of them is a referendum. We shall certainly keep it in mind to be used if it seems the most appropriate way of doing so.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, as Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, what was required of the citizens of Wales and the citizens of Scotland should be required of the people of Northern Ireland, and that it should be a referendum with a 40 per cent. vote?

Let us not discuss the details of the referendum. I said that a referendum was certainly one way of finding out whether any particular proposal had the support of the population. We do not in any way rule it out.

I should like to conclude by returning to the working paper itself and the conference. It remains the Government's firm belief that a conference of the kind proposed is the best way forward and will take place and prove fruitful. The object, let me remind the House, is not necesarily to reach complete agreement on a full-blown constitution. It is to find the highest level of agreement for a transfer of powers of government to Northern Ireland so that proposals based on that level of agreement can be put by the Government here to Parliament. It is Parliament in the end that will have the responsibility of deciding what shall be done.

I believe that there is a widespread desire in Northern Ireland to move away from direct rule, and well-wishers of Northern Ireland, this side of the Irish Sea and elswhere, want to see progress towards a devolved Administration which both sides of the community can sustain and support. As an aid to reaching agreement, the Government have put before the parties in the working paper a wide range of possibilities. We now look to the political leaders of Northern Ireland to respond. I commend the working paper to the House.

4.31 pm

The backdrop to this debate, as in all debates on Northern Ireland, as the Secretary of State reminded us, can be starkly seen in the tragic and senseless events of last Monday night and in the brutal killings which disfigure our political scene.

No one can pretend that there is a purely political solution to these problems, but neither can anyone rule out the political dimension as a contribution towards the solution of that problem. That is the importance of any political initiative, including this one. That is why, although we may have our doubts as to the way in which the initiative was launched or about some details of it, all of us must wish for some progress to be made on this occasion.

The Secretary of State said that the resolution of this problem was a matter for the Government, for the people of Northern Ireland and for this Parliament. This Parliament has a legitimate voice which must be heard. I think that the Secretary of State, for understandable reasons, has been somewhat cautious in dealing with the prospects lest his dealing with them should itself affect the talks. But there is some danger of Parliament being inhibited and of the debate being stifled if we are over-cautious now because of the prospects of the talks, if we are to be over-cautious during the talks for fear of upsetting them, and then, were there to be an agreed solution, if we were to be over-cautious for fear of putting the agreement at risk. Our debate today is Parliament's only opportunity to consider the discussion document before the conference begins. We should approach it in that light.

I wish to deal with two aspects of the talks, and I press the Minister who is to reply to the debate to be as forthcoming as he can on the Government's view of the situation. One party has formally declined to take part in the talks. The only one which has not formally commented has indicated its unwillingness to attend. That may change—we do not know. We must know, therefore, whether the talks will go ahead in the absence of one or more of the invitees. An objection to answering that question may be that to go public on this issue will harm the prospects of talks. However, the invitation was issued in public, and we are therefore entitled to a public response in this House as to what the situation is. If we do not get it, Parliament will to a large extent be debating this matter today in a vacuum. or in a somewhat academic atmosphere in ignorance of some of the basic facts.

I wish now to deal with the format of the conference. One of the parties invited to it does not have parliamentary representation, and another which at the time the invitation was issued did have such representation now no longer has. I do not believe that lack of that representation should have prevented them from being invited. They polled a significant number of votes in the general election. We are discussing the future of Northern Ireland in terms of there being 17 parliamentary seats rather than 12, and that means that the question of parliamentary seats now is somewhat irrelevant to the argument.

However, it means that four Members of Parliament who are here today—my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and the hon. Members for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maguire), Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop)—are not members of any of the invited parties. They have this Chamber in common with all other Members of Parliament as a forum for expressing their views, but that is not good enough. They represent substantial electorates and therefore substantial interests in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, if the matter is to proceed—and this comment may earn me the displeasure of the hon. Member for Down, North—if the Secretary of State is to make progress he should involve those four Members of Parliament in associated bilateral talks whilst the main conference is in progress. At the same time, he or one of his Ministers should do the same with other interests represented in Northern Ireland such as the TUC, the CBI, and the Church. I say that because this is a document for discussion and, therefore, the widest involvement and the widest comment are necessary if an agreed solution is to be reached.

Surely the hon. Gentleman cannot expect representatives who were only recently elected by the people of Northern Ireland to sit in some anteroom or to sit at their homes and to telephone the Secretary of State to give their views on what they believe is happening in a closed conference. That is just not on. This will be a delicate conference. A lot will depend on emphasis and on give and take. It is not possible or reasonable to expect elected representatives to send written or oral communications to the Secretary of State or to whoever is holding his hand.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Down, North for that helpful intervention. I talked not about written representations but about bilateral talks. That does not, in my view, involve telephone communications, with all the uncertainties that they can mount. I am trying, given the basic premise of the discussion document, to envisage a way in which Members of Parliament who are not members of the favoured four parties can be involved in talks about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Down, North will not take "Yes" for an answer.

I wish now to deal with a matter that has evoked a great deal of comment, namely, the Irish dimension. I realise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West has said, that that phrase is notable for meaning all things to all men. Let me explain what I understand to be the position as laid down by the discussion document, taken with the Secretary of State's letter to the Social Democratic and Labour Party. That seems to suggest that, while the conference itself will not be concerned with the Irish dimension, nevertheless any assembly or other body set up in pursuance of any agreement by such a conference could consider for itself what co-operation should take place under its devolved powers.

As the Secretary of State has pointed out, there is considerable economic cross-border co-operation in agriculture, in power and so on, and it seems only sensible and right that that should be extended. However, I should be grateful for confirmation tonight that my understanding is right and that the Government of the Republic will be kept in touch with the progress of the talks.

Consideration must be given by this House or, if not in public, by the Government to what will happen if the talks fail. As I understand it, the Government are trying to achieve the maximum agreement possible, and in the event of failure presumably the search for such an acceptable maximum would continue. However, I must admit to being a little puzzled and alarmed by what the Under-Secretary of State is reported to have said to the EEC seminar, as reported in the Belfast Telegraph on 23 November last. He said that the Government had a large majority in the House of Commons and were determined to break through the present deadlock. The report may have misrepresented the total context of the speech, but if the Under-Secretary was describing a steamroller approach to the matter I now sound a warning to the Secretary of State of the folly of such a course. Difficult though it may be, an agreed solution is likely to be the only lasting solution.

I turn now to the details of the discussion document. The Secretary of State added another formula to the various descriptions of it. It has been described as a Leggo brick construction, though to me it looks rather like a Woolworth's sweet counter at which one can pick and mix one's options according to what suits one best.

Unless we as a Parliament, and certainly I, on behalf of the Opposition—who will not be involved in any conference—give an indication of our views on this matter, people are likely to gain the quite mistaken view that the combinations involved in the discussion document are infinite and that all are equally good. I believe that some suggestions are objectionable in principle. One of the features of the old Stormont that was notable was its aura of over-government. To have a Cabinet with a Prime Minister for a population of 1½ million seems to be over-weighting the situation. Therefore, I would not favour the Prime Ministerial and Cabinet type approach being resurrected as it was then.

If, however, that is objectionable because of over-government, the suggestion that there might be a two-tier representative body to govern Northern Ireland seems to be ludicruously top-heavy. I would hope that the Government and the participants in the various discussions on this paper would knock that on the head at a very early stage. Similarly, I would welcome a definite statement about the nature of the Assembly. I accept that the Secretary of State said today that page 2 of the document contains the definite statement that the conference will not be expected to consider a return to the pre-1972 Stormont, and with that I would agree wholeheartedly. But what exactly does this mean when one takes the rest of the discussion document into account?

Although in paragraph 12 the only example of voting given is the proportional representation method, certainly the first sentence of that paragraph cannot be said to have ruled out simple majority voting. Does it, therefore, amount to this: the major change from 1972, or the pre-1972 Stormont, might not necessarily be the method of voting or the powers; it might be the important question of law and order? We in Parliament would need to ponder very hard the return of such a body as Stormont, even with that exception, and elected on a simple majority vote, before we accepted it.

Secondly, there are some parts of the schemes that would sit very poorly together. For example, for the reasons that I have given, I believe that to have a Cabinet-type structure for executive devolution would again be an example of over-government of the Province, but it would be even worse to have legislative devolution based upon a committee system, as set out in model C in the appendix to the document. How on earth would that work? Would, for example, a minority of a committee that voted against a certain proposal be bound by the committee's decision when it came to the full Assembly?

More importantly, however, unless there were an Executive that provided consistency and took an overall look at the matter, how on earth would there be any majority in the full Assembly for a committee's recommendation, and how would legislative consistency be achieved between perhaps what the leisure and recreation committee would want to do and what the public health committee would want to do? Those committees might propose diametrically opposed legislation without any coherent philosophic theme running through it. I do not believe that we can have legislative devolution coupled with a committee system.

Thirdly, there are a number of matters upon which the House would welcome clarification. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised one question, the devolution of legislative functions. With the exception of the West Lothian dilemma—which frankly I did not see to be a total dilemma at the time—legislative devolution is a tolerably well defined principle, whereby everything that the legislature—which is subordinated—does within its competence is valid, and every excess of its powers is overridden by the sovereign Power; but there are in this document two concepts that complicate that simple concept.

The first of these is the question of the weighted vote. I quite understand the sentiment behind this, as one of a number of suggestions by which the minority community can be protected, but I am not sure how we can, in practice, devise such a system without knowing the system of voting or perhaps even the result of the election, unless we are to state boldly that a decision would require either X per cent. or X number of votes from the Opposition parties. But if the weighted vote itself is somewhat complicated, the weighted vote of confidence is an even stranger animal, and I should be grateful if the Minister of State would adumbrate its working during his winding-up speech.

Presumably, what is being put forward is that the failure to attract minority support would cause the Executive to resign, but I come back to the problem which the Secretary of State said was made quite clear in the document but which to my mind, at any rate, is not made absolutely clear. When we are talking of a minority in this context, are we talking of a minority political party or of a minority community? If one were to take the example of a party that had a large number of seats and there was a party of the same faith with a minor number of seats—say, five or six—it might be laid down that there should be at least four Opposition or minority parties voting in support on certain legislation to enable it to be passed, and then, in practice, by having the same broadly religious community voting for the measure it could override the weighted vote of confidence. That is why I would like the Minister of State to clarify the position.

Paragraphs 29 to 36 and model A give the Secretary of State power to refer legislation that he does not like back to the legislature. In my view, this really blurs the division of power between the sovereign legislature and the devolved legislature. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify how he sees the powers of the Secretary of State fitting in with this relationship between the sovereign and the devolved legislature. In particular, I ask him to consider most seriously whether it would not be highly dangerous if the Secretary of State had the ability to do so without reference to this House, which is the sovereign legislature and which would be responsible for keeping the devolved legislature in check.

In paragraph 37, one of the external safeguards is stated to be a Bill of Rights. Would this be merely a consolidation of existing protective legislation or would it, as the Secretary of State seemed to indicate in his speech earlier, go further? Personally, I would not rule out a Bill of Rights as part of a constitutional settlement in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, but, equally, I—and I suspect many other hon. Members—would not support it as a general measure, because it would be a clog upon this Parliament.

We would need to scrutinise such a limited measure very carefully, and I want to know from the Secretary of State, so that the Bill of Rights can be considered, whether this is really a phrase that appears in the discussion document and is not further specified or whether there exists in draft within his Department a Bill of Rights and, if so, whether he will undertake to let hon. Members of this House see it so that we can pronounce upon it.

Finally, I ask the Government to talk about another matter that is not mentioned in the document, namely, what is to be the position of Northern Ireland Members of Parliament if legislative devolution is conceded? Will they be prohibited, either formally or informally, from voting on subjects applying to the rest of the United Kingdom, which are devolved in their case to a local legislation? I have no doubt—the Secretary of State in his speech today made it quite clear—that the Government would like to keep as many as possible of these possibilities open, but some kind of Government sphere is important if there is to be an acceptable solution.

Some newspapers, in their more fanciful moments in recent weeks, have called for a Rhodesian conference approach to the problems of Northern Ireland. It is rather premature to anticipate success in the original forum at the moment, but if that approach is successful it will be because all parties have clear ideas of the possible options, so that the Government can steer them towards the one that is most likely to be acceptable to all.

By their response to the debate and by the recognition that they show to the House of knowing what is probable rather than what is merely possible, the Government give a fillip to the chances of the discussions being fruitful and to the ultimate chances of success, even if, in the short run, the matters cannot be resolved. However, I urge upon the Government the fact that some Government steering is necessary if the parties to the conference, or any discussions that deal with the constitution of Northern Ireland, are to come to a conclusion that is acceptable to all and that has the confidence of the communities of Northern Ireland.

4.50 pm

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on ruling out an independent Ulster in his working paper. Many regard an independent Ulster as being a stage on the road to the South. That idea has been taken up by adherents of the Troops Out Movement, but it has little support in the Province. If it were adopted, it would plunge Northern Ireland into a civil war which would not stop at the Irish border or even at the Irish Sea.

My right hon. Friend also did well to omit a united Ireland from his options. I hope that, in the difficulties in which he now—alas—finds himself, he will not be tempted to cast the Irish dimension as a fly over the SDLP. That would drive the two main political entities further apart. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) always enjoys the sympathy of the House. Mr. John Hume also enjoys that sympathy in his assumption of the leadership of the SDLP at a time when uncertainty of the Government's intentions weakens moderate counsels within that party. The parade of options itself invites terrorists to believe that Ministers are at a loss. It is well that it is set out in the working paper that most people in Northern Ireland want to remain within the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I feel that the words "at present" in the first sentence of paragraph 4 could have been left out. They weaken the Government's endorsement of the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland. I prefer the words in the Conservative manifesto:
"We shall maintain the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in accordance with the wish of the majority in the Province."
I stress the words "we shall maintain".

The manifesto of the Conservative and Unionist Party looked forward to changes in local government in the absence of devolution. I should like to say a few words about both. I see that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) has left the Chamber. I apologise for saying a few words about him in his absence. From time to time, he has espoused or toyed with about as many formulae for Northern Ireland as are propounded in the working paper. When the old Stormont was being dismantled gleefully by those who thought they would render a service to their country by "breaking the mould" of the unionism that sustained the Tory interest in Ulster, I found myself in the same Lobby as hon. Members from the Official Unionist Party and the hon. Member for Antrim, North, who leads the Democratic Unionist Party. Together, we defended the governorship, the Privy Council and the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

Towards a dawn, after the House had sat all night, the hon. Member for Antrim, North told me that he thought that the Parliament we were doing away with would never be resuscitated. I demurred from that belief. In a subsequent debate, I described myself as an "Ulster Home-Ruler". At that time, I thought that the security of the Province and its permanence within the Union might be better safeguarded at one remove from such a Parliament. However, an abolition of the Parliament of Northern Ireland was the first demand of the Provisional IRA. On the other hand, nationalists as well as Unionists, and Southern as well as Northern Irishmen, deplored the suppression from what Eddie McAteer called the "smoke rooms of Westminster" of what, after all, was an Irish legislature.

Since that time, I have come to believe that the hon. Member for Antrim, North was right. I am not so sure that he and the DUP and others who call for a devolved Parliament are right today. The restoration of the old Stormont, albeit without an upper house, would be regarded by many non-Unionists as menacing and provocative. Doubtless, they would be wrong in that fear. Yet they would not be ready to take the risk.

The SDLP also demands devolved institutions but in a different way. It insists that such institutions should provide for power sharing as a right—or whatever power sharing may now be called, because it has entered the glossary of political dirty words along with the Irish dimension. Power sharing and majority rule are two ways in which devolution could be achieved in Northern Ireland but, theoretically, they are contrary concepts and cannot be reconciled. What are we to do?

It is just over a year since Airey Neave said:
"If direct rule is to continue for the foreseeable future, the means must be found to improve it. Purely local affairs cannot continue indefinitely in the hands of Ministers and civil servants of the Northern Ireland Office. In the absence of an assembly it would be appropriate to place regional services under an elected regional council such as Mrs. Thatcher has proposed. Such a council could pave the way for devolution—if that should be the wish of the people of the Province."
We talk of the Macrory gap between district councils with paltry powers and the representation at Westminster, which was pronounced as insufficient by the Royal Commission on the Constitution whether or not there was devolution. Macrory assumed that Stormont would be there both as a legislative assembly and as a metropolitan or regional authority in a local government sense. Stormont was suppressed.

I was glad yesterday to receive a written answer from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saying that the Boundary Commission hoped to publish its draft proposals shortly after Christmas. As is well known, there is little, if any, democracy in the Province. What I call the colonialism of the Castle constitutes what a noble Lord during the debate on 1 November in the other place called a "bureaucratic Utopia".

In the time of the late Brian Faulkner's premiership, boards nominated by Ministers and the Northern Ireland Government took over important functions discharged in other parts of the United Kingdom by local authorities, and that was not the product of direct rule. However, there was then a Northern Ireland Parliament to exercise scrutiny and supervision and replace the former county and county borough councils as the upper tier of local government.

It will cause no surprise that from the complexities of the working paper I single out for attention model F, which is consonant with the election undertakings of our party. It represents what the Secretary of State called the highest level of agreement.

However, whenever one suggests adding to the powers of district councils, minority fears are expressed. Hon. Members opposite will remember the debates upstairs, and those fears were also expressed when the previous Government invested district councils with certain extra powers, but I do not think that Roman Catholics have been harmed as a result of district councils receiving those powers.

Power sharing—that blessed or cursed expression—is of the essence of the British system of local government. A local council is an executive body as well as a maker of byelaws. Of course, minority fears should be allayed. Perhaps there could be a little Macrory to find out how that could best be done, and it would be an appropriate subject for the conference planned by my right hon. Friend. I hope that the Official Unionist Party, among others, will wish to discuss such practical matters with him.

I draw attention to note 2 (iv) in the working paper's discussion of model F. The Secretary of State would have default and call-in powers and power of direction. The Londonderry city council, which did not measure up to the policy of the Northern Ireland Government, was superseded before the Stormont Government were done away with and a nominated commission took over. Today the Londonderry city council is one of the brighter examples of power sharing by consent between the SDLP and the Unionists.

The Commissioner for Complaints—the Parliamentary Commissioner—and a number of quangos—perhaps too many—exist to protect minorities. Overall there is this House and this Parliament, which has shown itself over this decade to have been sensitive to the grievances of Ulster people, long since liberated from the convention that there should be no interference from Westminster and little discussion of matters within the competence of Stormont. I particularly commend model F to the study of the House at the risk of being called an integrationist—another dirty word in this glossary of dirty words.

In the debate in another place on 1 November, Lord Elton said that
"there can be no question of integrating Northern Ireland completely with the rest of the United Kingdom."
Fortunately the noble Lord did not define his terms. He pointed out that Northern Ireland had never
"had representative institutions exactly like those in any other part of the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 November 1979; Vol. 402, c. 578–9.]
Can the Minister say whether Ulster and the other provinces of Ireland were completely integrated between the Act of Union and the departure of Southern Ireland from this realm? After all, there was an Irish Executive in Dublin but one Parliament at Westminster. Is Scotland or Wales completely integrated? Scotland has its own law, the Scots and the Welsh have their own structures of local government, and there is far-reaching administrative devolution to Edinburgh and Cardiff. However, by decision of Parliament, taking account of the referendums, Wales and Scotland remain in parliamentary union with England. They remain under the supremacy and sovereignty of Westminster. My mind will be set at rest if the noble Lord will say that those three parts of the United Kingdom are not completely integrated. It is unfortunate, however, that new talk of legislative devolution to Northern Ireland has stirred the declining forces of nationalism in Wales and Scotland.

Unless and until legislative devolution again becomes an issue in Great Britain—and as a Unionist I pray that it will not—Northern Ireland will do best under institutions of local government and regional administration that are analogous to but not identical With those in other parts of the United Kingdom.

5.6 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) because it is difficult to answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), with whom I agree on few matters. If some of these proposals go forward, is there not a dimension for Wales and Scotland, and, if that is so, have the proposals been properly thought out?

Some of us think that we have been here before. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) had a phrase for it five years ago when talked of the smell of death. The proposals have raised expectations, but I wonder whether they have been properly considered. It is one thing to put forward proposals but another to go through them and examine the options. It is dangerous to put forward ideas, raise expectations and at the end of the day discover that the very rocks on which, heaven knows, this House spent two and a half years disscussing the Scotland and Wales Bills are still present.

I agree with the hon. Member for Epping Forest that power sharing is possible in the context of local government. In front of so many Irish Members—and heaven knows why some of them were not called before me—I feel diffident about saying this. Surely in housing allocation, as in many of the problems which concern us most about day-to-day affairs in Northern Ireland, power sharing is more important at the local level than at the whole Ulster level. I believe in local decision making. As a non-Ulster Member of Parliament, I think that it is absolutely right that power should be returned to healthy local government in Northern Ireland.

I turn with diffidence to the question of the Northern Ireland Office and the office of Secretary of State. None of us should be strident on an occasion like this. It is all very well to say, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that it is absolutely clear that authority lies with this House and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over a putative Prime Minister in Belfast. In reality, if a Prime Minister of Northern Ireland were overruled either by this House or, in effect, by the Northern Ireland Office, we would encounter all sorts of difficulties. They were discussed ad nauseam during the debates on the Scotland and Wales Bills and are, because of the nature of the situation, compounded in Northern Ireland.

Some of us have grave doubts about the pro-consular role of the Secretary of State. During the last 10 years a succession of some of the best politicians this House has produced have been responsible for Northern Ireland, including Mr. Maudling, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the present Home Secretary, the present Secretary of State for Defence, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). They were a succession of honourable, conscientious, dedicated politicians. One is entitled to ask why they failed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason)—I say to his face—could not have been more hardworking, courageous and dedicated in the application of his task as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I do not say this to flatter him—it is a fact. How is it that all those men fared unsatisfactorily? Perhaps it has something to do with history. The same thing happened—albeit in the context of the whole of Ireland—to Strafford, Cromwell, Gladstone, Rosebery and Lloyd-George. Is there not something inherent in the situation that prevents the success of whatever measures are put forward by proconsuls from this side of the water? I will not say that it is a game. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) says that it is poppycock.

That puts a different interpretation on it. It is called the border, but I think one is entitled to ask whether in the coming talks the existence of the Northern Ireland Secretaryship itself is debatable. Some of us wonder whether that office does not make solutions more, rather than less, difficult. Therefore, we say let us have strong, healthy local government in Northern Ireland. If Northern Ireland is to remain a part of the United Kingdom, let it be a full part. If, on the other hand, there is a feeling that the Province desires either independence or a link-up with someone else, so be it. That is its business. If Northern Ireland is to be a part of the United Kingdom, let it be a fully-fledged part and not what has resulted from the arrangements that we have had during three and a half years' debate in this House, which are basically unworkable and, if not unworkable, incapable of lasting.

5.15 p.m.

I am sure that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is right to raise the West Lothian question in relation to the proposals in the paper. As an Englishman, I share his diffidence in speaking in this debate about Ulster. It is a debate about the United Kingdom and it is right for those of us who do not live in the Province to take part. The trouble for someone observing the situation from outside the Province is the constantly shifting sands of Ulster politics. A distinguished example is the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), who has just left the Chamber.

One feels like a swimmer in a rapidly flowing river desperately trying to find a foothold. One seeks, therefore, to grab at rocks which one can hold on to when assessing the proposals of the Secretary of State in his working paper. The first rock that I hold on to is the often-expressed desire of the Ulster people, by majority in elections and in a referendum, to remain part of the United Kingdom. That must be the principal rock on to which we hold. Those people are entitled to say that their rights, as citizens of the United Kingdom, must be the same as those on this side of the Irish Sea.

The second rock at which I grab is the need to defeat terrorism. It must be defeated because it is not just wicked in Ulster terms. It is a threat to the Government of Southern Ireland and to this Government, eventually. We must defeat terrorism because unless our democracy can show that it can meet and deal with the bomber and the gunman, it will fade and he doomed. We face a war of attrition. That is the most difficult war for anyone to fight. It is particularly difficult for a democracy where there are so many factors to take into account. We are all on trial in this country.

Because they hear of them so often, many people in this country dismiss incidents in the Province which are described on radio and television. People do not realise that if a prison warder over there is killed it is our warder who is killed. If a policeman is killed it is our policeman who is killed. If a citizen is injured or killed, it is one of our fellow countrymen who is involved.

The third rock on to which I hold, as is mentioned in paragraph 5 of the working paper, is that any political solution must provide a role for, and adequate protection of, the minority. The principal reason for this is that in the polarisation of Irish politics the minority will always remain so and will never have the opportunity to take power as political parties have on this side of the Irish Channel. If we accept these three bases, certain conclusions follow.

First, my right hon. Friend is right to exclude the Irish dimension because that is the wish of the majority. He is equally right to reject any return to Stormont because that, again, is not policy that will find acceptance. The Secretary of State accepts that in paragraph 4 of the paper. We are, therefore, left with the options outlined in the working paper.

When the hon. Member says that it is not right to discuss the Irish dimension because it is not the wish of the majority, does he forget that there is a minority community of the original Irish people in Northern Ireland? If we are not to discuss with them their fundamental problems, what is the point? I want to support the conference but such statements make us despair. The Irish dimension is precisely one of the topics that we should discuss.

We can discuss that until we are blue in the face but we shall never reach agreement. It is nonsense to say that it is one of the options open to us. There will never be an agreement on that, just as there will never be agreement on a return to Stormont. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that, obviously, this would come into the discussions at the conference but that it cannot be an option.

The prospects for the conference are not encouraging but I hope that the situation will change and that statesmanship will take over. We hope that there will be the compromise which is so necessary for success. The tragedy of Ireland is that in a historical context the island has always been prey to extremists and never to moderation. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right to try. His initiative should be acknowledged here and abroad.

As a mere Englishman who took part in the devolution debates with the hon. Member for West Lothian, my preference is entirely for local government reorganisation. We hope that something will come from the conference, but, if it does not, I support the Conservative Party manifesto, which stated:
"In the absence of devolved government, we will seek to establish one or more elected regional councils."
That must be right.

One can guarantee the rights of the two communities only in a local government context and by integration with the United Kingdom. I want Ulster to conform with what happens in the rest of the United Kingdom. If it comes to having to adopt the option in the manifesto, three one-tier authorities should form the local government base in Northern Ireland. That would correspond to the county council set-up

Ulster must have the same political opportunities as the rest of the United Kingdom. We have agreed to the reorganisation of the boundaries and there will be more seats for Ulster Members in the House. There is no reason why there should not be far more participation in politics in the Province and here than in the past. It is a tragedy that the present Northern Ireland Ministers have no Irish or Ulster connections. It would be difficult to imagine that happening in the Scottish and Welsh Offices.

The police and security forces must be kept out of local government but, other than that, I hope that local government in Northern Ireland will have the same powers as it has in the rest of the United Kingdom. People say that we cannot devolve housing, for instance, because that is such a sensitive issue in Northern Ireland. It is said that housing must be kept out of local government and dealt with in another way. However, there are precedents for having scrutineers in local government so that the agreement of one member from each community is obtained before a decision is sanctioned by the Secretary of State. There are many other ways of tackling the problem.

The Secretary of State has one of the most difficult jobs in government today. I hope that he will continue trying to convene the conference. I hope that he will continue discussions. But there must be a time limit. If there is no agreement, my right hon. Friend should put forward his own solution, which I hope would be along the lines that I have suggested. It if comes to that, please let the action be quick. Let there be no more inquiries and no more conferences. Both here and in the Province, people are sick and tired of uncertainty. They would welcome a bold and resolute initiative from the Government.

5.26 pm

I am surprised to be called so early in the debate. I should have liked to have heard comments from Northern Ireland Members before speaking. I do not intend to go into the working paper in detail, but I am sure that all reasonable people support in principle the general proposition that some political initiative should be taken in Northern Ireland. We share the Secretary of State's disappointment at the reception given to his not unreasonable suggestion that a conference of Northern Ireland parties be held to reach conclusions on a comprehensive discussion document.

The Secretary of State has been pressed from many quarters to take an initiative. He has shown courage in producing the document so quickly. On reflection, perhaps he produced it too quickly. It is disappointing that the idea has been turned down apparently almost without discussion by two of the four main parties. The Unionists owe it to the House and the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom not to take such an intransigent attitude to the initiative taken by the Secretary of State. People in the rest of the United Kingdom have shown fantastic patience in the past 10 years. Our record in Northern Ireland has been extremely good.

Does the hon. Member accept that the people of Northern Ireland have shown even greater patience as they have been in the firing line for the past 10 years?

Does the hon. Member accept that the minority community have been patient since 1922?

The patience of people in the rest of the United Kingdom is stretched when one of the main political parties in Northern Ireland will not take part in the discussions. We have great sympathy for the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) in his difficult situation. The party which he helped to found and which he led with such distinction has taken up a position which he cannot support.

The possible abstention by the SDLP would be in keeping with the tradition established by the nationalists in the 1920s when they did not take their place in the newly formed Parliament of Northern Ireland. This gave Sir James Craig the opportunity to claim that there was, indeed, a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. That type of atmosphere has contributed much to the present troubles.

It is, therefore, all the more extraordinary to many of us that the Official Unionist Party is now leading the way towards abstention. What are we to make of two powerful opposing political groups in Northern Ireland apparently refusing to take part in a conference called to discuss the future government of the Province? Each party may find that it is possible to criticise the precise terms of the consultative paper. Perhaps more time should have been taken to ensure that the language was precisely right. However, it would be difficult to get it right however hard one tried.

It is most improbable that once the conference gets going any of the parties will be inhibited from discussing anything, whether it is on the Secretary of State's agenda or not. There will be matters which he will not wish to be discussed, but I am sure that a wide-ranging debate will be possible. The parties should be prepared to talk to each other and show the rest of the United Kingdom and the world that they are willing to try to do that. This is much more important than talking separately to the Secretary of State. As the Secretary of State knows, we would have gone about things rather differently. However, our objective is the same. Conservative Members laugh, but have they listened to any of the observations made by others who have been studying the Irish scene for a long time? I believe that there is something to offer in what I am about to propose.

The Liberal Party wants to persuade politicians in Northern Ireland to join together to try to solve the problems of the Province. No doubt the House will remember the opinion poll that was taken by ORC for Independent Television News last July. In response to one of the questions, three-quarters of the respondents in each community wanted the Government to encourage the communities to work together. That confirms private comment and common sense. The people murmur and the murmurings say to the politicians "For heaven's sake, talk." We have had enough of political dogma going round and round the walls of party echo chambers. We must all sincerely hope that, in spite of the intransigence of politicians from both communities, the conference will at least start. Once off the ground, and against all the omens, it could succeed. If it does, the right hon. Gentleman will deserve the thanks of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Gentleman must not—here I disagree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon)—try to force a solution. However, if the conference does not get off the ground, what is to be done? I suggest that all will not be lost if the conference does not start. We think that the Secretary of State should seriously consider going to the people direct by adopting our plan of electing an advisory council of 15–20 members. I suggest that that would satisfy the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), because he would take part in such an election. Such a council would have to be the deliberate personal choice of the voters of Northern Ireland. To ensure that it would command moral respect, it would be elected on a Province basis by the STV system. There could be four regional groups if that were felt preferable.

What would be the position if politicians in Northern Ireland decided that they would not run for such a council or, if they ran for it, decided not to serve on it having been elected? The latter event could occur in a number of instances.

I was coming to that. I do not think that that would happen. We believe that the council's object should be relatively modest. Instead of following the usual habit of English politicians of telling lesser breeds exactly what to do and how to do it—

Wait a moment. The council should be allowed to settle its own agenda and to discuss how it would tackle the problem of setting up a constitutional conference. It should be allowed to make recommendations. It is highly improbable that the official Ulster Unionists or the SDLP would fail to take part in such an election. Abstention following election would be a key issue in the election campaign. I cannot think what would happen if they failed to talk afterwards, but I hope that that would not happen.

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us what soundings he has taken in Northern Ireland before bringing his proposal to the House?

I did not see the hon. Gentleman at the lecture last night delivered by Mr. Conor Cruise O'Brien. It may be that there are hon. Members who will not listen to what he says. In fact, Mr. O'Brien confirmed the proposition that I am advancing.

My party has taken many soundings. I visited the Province at the end of August. My colleagues and I have discussed the proposition with the main political parties. Representatives of the Liberal Party went to Northern Ireland in January to put forward our suggestion. We have been pursuing this line for a considerable time. It appeared in our election manifesto.

I have heard the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) take a similar line. Nothing can be more democratic than a direct appeal to the people by means of the single transferable vote. If they want politicians to co-operate, and I believe that they do, they will make their opinion clear through the expression of preferences for those who are at least prepared to talk together. The single transferable vote would ensure that the council would fully and faithfully represent every significant viewpoint. Therefore, individual members would bear a heavy moral and personal responsibility towards the voters who elected them.

Members of such a council—we would deliberately keep its size small—could and would talk to each other, as people do in a small group, without talking past each other to their followers in a larger body or beyond. That has always been one of the problems with what has been tried before. Its procedure would be for its members to determine. They would be in a position to decide whether from time to time others should be present or whether they should maintain confidentiality. They would decide whether they wanted publicity. They would decide whether they required subordinate assistance and whether they wished to have fresh elections.

We should not try to imagine how such an elected council would operate and what it would be likely to do. However, if the present initiative does not succeed—I hope that it does—I suggest that my party's idea should be given a fair trial.

I shall conclude with the words of the Bishop of Ardagh. The Bishop gave a talk two or three days after the tragic death of Earl Mountbatten. The Earl was the governor of my constituency and his death has been felt deeply in the Isle of Wight. The Bishop said:
"Reconciliation in Northern Ireland will begin to happen, not when Protestant and Catholic churchmen walk arm in arm down Royal Avenue in Belfast; but when structures of political partnership are functioning, when barriers to opportunity are removed on both sides, when avenues of employment are open to all, when disparities of wealth and privilege between communities are reduced, when human dignity is accorded equal rights and equal respect, regardles of address or school or church or chapel. The gestures can happen then; because only then will they be sincere. Before that has happened, they might be only clerical games."

5.37 pm

Some of the occupants of the Benches on both sides of the House may be wondering why Northern Ireland Members are so dilatory in rising in their places. We have been told by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) that we shall hear the opinions of the Official Unionist Party. We have all been waiting to hear the hon. Gentleman. It may be that because I have contributed to the debate he will be encouraged to let us know the opinions of his party. We have not heard them spelt out in full.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said that he wondered why the House and why Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have failed. An illustration of the reason for the failure was the speech of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). The House has not listened to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland who have been returned to this place. The House has rejected the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. It has done so over and over again. The hon. Gentleman talked about the people of Great Britain becoming impatient with the people of Northern Ireland.

Who has been battered and abused? Who has borne the brunt of the difficulties and the heat of the day? Who else but the politicians? Northern Ireland politicians have contested seats and taken all the abuse that goes with the title "Member of Parliament". The House should listen to what the people of Northern Ireland say. Whatever the outcome of any conference and whatever the outcome of any talks that the Secretary of State may have with any groups in Northern Ireland, I plead with him to accept that the final solution that is proposed by the Government should be put to the people of Northern Ireland.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was referring to me or the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). On this occasion it was the hon. Member for Isle of Wight who voiced the opinion that he has taken up. I ask him to understand that there are many of us who will not criticise the personal courage of Northern Ireland politicians on all sides of the argument. We appreciate that they have difficulties such as most of us on this side of the water have not known. However, I say frankly that our worry concerns the habit of so many Northern Ireland politicians, again on all sides of the argument, to rush instantly to the media, to react so quickly to something that is put forward.

That may or may not be fair, but that is how it seems to us. I would say, in a gentle way, without wishing to be pompous, that if the hon. Gentleman is raising the point about why some of us are critical of Northern Ireland politicians, it is because of this obsession with instant comment, which some of us believe makes matters worse rather than better.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his own views. He is entitled to criticise the politicians from Northern Ireland as much as he likes. I am not arguing that line. I am arguing about the responsibility of this House to take cognisance of the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland. How does one find out the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland? I see that the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. He made an announcement that the DUP, the party to which I belong, was practically finished, that the SDLP was going to lose to the Republican Clubs and that the two so-called moderate parties, as he called them, the Official Unionists and the Alliance Party, were going to sweep the decks at the election. That did not happen. I would ask hon. Members, with respect, how they know what is the grass roots feeling of the people of Northern Ireland. They come to Northern Ireland on a delegation, meet a few people, go home the same evening and then say "We know how they feel".

The proposition put by the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight, the Liberal representative, would be entirely unacceptable to all the people of Northern Ireland. Twelve hon. Members of this House were elected to advise the House what Northern Ireland wants. Why cannot these 12 hon. Members give their opinions to the Secretary of State? Why must another body be elected simply to advise? Ulstermen do not want to advise. They want to make decisions for themselves. That is the crux of the matter.

It is ludicrous to suggest that Conor Cruise O'Brien, a Southern politician who has now taken a job with an English newspaper, is a man who can reflect the opinion of Ulstermen and tell us what the people of Northern Ireland want. We do not want Conor Cruise O'Brien's opinions. We want to know what ordinary people in the street think of any decision that is going to be made. The Government have a responsibility to tell the House that, whatever comes out of a conference—or whatever comes out of talks that are not related to that conference, because the conference does not get off the ground—will be submitted, as it was submitted in regard to a measure of devolution for Wales and for Scotland, on the certain basis of a vote. I suggest that the same percentage should be used in Northern Ireland. Let me say this to the House today. Whatever constitution Northern Ireland is to have, it will not stick because X number of MPs are elected to a new assembly. It will stick if the people of Northern Ireland have voted for that type of constitution. That is the only way that it can be made to stick.

There are things in this document that are repugnant to the Unionist people of Northern Ireland. There are things that we certainly do not like and that the people I represent do not like one little bit. It should not be thought by the House that the document is accepted by a majority of Unionists and that this is the reason why they are prepared to talk at the conference, or that the majority of the minority does not like the document and that this is why it is not prepared to talk, and that a section of the Unionist people does not like it and that it is therefore, also not prepared to talk.

Of course, the Ulster Unionist would like to see the old Stormont back. Of course, he would. A colleague tells me that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison), while I was absent from the House, referred to a statement that I made the night that Stormont was prorogued. I said that it was a Parliament that would never be replaced. I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. But that came true. The Convention report, which this Parliament ignored, illustrated the fact that the Unionists of Northern Ireland, across the board, at that time, were not united to bring back Stormont as it was. They were prepared for single-chamber assembly. They were prepared for many other things, unheard of in the old Stormont.

We are told by the Secretary of State that the old Stormont will not be considered and that it is not going to come back. That is resented by Unionists. We are also told that the form of government that came into being through the new Executive, under the leadership of Brian Faulkner, is not going to be considered again. I am sure that is resented, especially by the party to which the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) belonged. That was one of the main platforms of the SDLP. There is resentment among both groups on these issues.

But there is one important point on which the Secretary of State is absolutely right. There is no mileage, in any discussions with the politicians of Northern Ireland, elected or otherwise, in trying to pursue a way to Irish unity, the old Stormont and the power-sharing Executive. Agreement will never be reached on those issues. To have a conference to discuss those issues would be raking over the ashes. I would not go to such a conference. It would be a waste of time, totally and absolutely.

The Government, in this paper, have said that those matters will not be considered. It is realised that there can be no harvest of good from considering them. But the Government have said that there are many other matters that can be considered. I would suggest that the matters the Government are saying can be considered contain a degree of acceptablity, perhaps for every elected hon. Member from Northern Ireland. Some of the elected Members, even those of the Official Unionist Party, have from time to time said "I wish that we had that power." That power is listed in the document. Members of the SDLP have said "I wish we had that power." That power is on offer in this document. So the document contains something that could be discussed by the politicians. When the announcement was made by the Secretary of State, I said that I thought the forum should, first of all, be composed of the elected Members from Northern Ireland. I am glad that we have an opportunity today to debate the matter.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), who led for the Opposition, said rightly that it is hard for us to debate any meat today because of the Government's reticence in indicating the way they intend to go. I can understand why they are not going to tell us. They feel that this should be done at the conference. But that approach stymies the elected representatives of this House in debating the real matters.

Like other Opposition Members who are sympathetic to the basic idea of a conference, I am interested in the views from the Six Counties. Following the Secretary of State's statement that other matters would not necessarily be excluded—for instance, the Irish dimension and the other matters connected with it—what would be the hon. Gentleman's reaction? I understood that the discussions would involve all kinds of people in the community who would put forward their ideas, including their views on the Irish dimension, and that they would be fed to the cabal of the four main parties, of which the hon. Gentleman said he would be one. Would he then leave the conference? How would he approach the issue if that matter were raised at the conference?

The hon. Gentleman has made a very fair point. I was going to deal with that matter later, but I shall deal with it now. As has been said, the Irish dimension means one thing to one politician and another thing to another politician. To some it means Irish unity; to others it means co-operation. If the Irish dimension means that there is a recognition of two political entities in the island of Ireland and that for economic, geographic or even public security reasons it is desirable that these two parts of the island of Ireland should co-operate, that to me is common sense, and no Unionist is opposed to that.

I should like to nail the lie once and for all that Unionists are always opposed to any form of co-operation. When the Stormont Parliament was elected, a Council of Ireland was envisaged. The Unionists appointed their members to the Council of Ireland, but the Dublin Government refused to appoint members. The Unionist leadership has never looked with anger and bitterness across the border and claimed back the three counties which many in the community thought should be part of Northern Ireland. There has never been antagonism or aggression on the part of the Unionist community in Ulster against the Republic. But that cannot be said of the Republic. The House knows that its constitution claims jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. Indeed, it does not grant extradition with regard to security matters. We should consider those matters when talking about the Unionist population.

The House may not know that there was a great deal of co-operation between Stormont and the Government of Southern Ireland. The GNR railway, the Lough Erne drainage scheme and the electric grid at Tanderagee were all mutually negotiated with departments of the South of Ireland Government.

I come now to the heart of what the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) was getting at. I know that his aim eventually is a united Ireland. He has told the House that already. If the Irish dimension means that the two political entities in the island of Ireland should do certain things because it is considered that the two parts should be one, and will eventually be one—in other words, that those who aspire to a united Ireland should have their aspirations intitutionalised —that is another matter. As a Unionist, I should say that is not on. The Unionist population would not wear that at all. The House needs to know that and it needs to be spelt out in clear terms. Such a move would be strongly resisted.

We have had other conferences on Northern Ireland—conferences to which I was invited and did not go and to which the SDLP was invited and did not go. I think of Darlington. There was also a conference at Sunningdale to which we were not invited. The White Paper made it clear that the elected leaders of Northern Ireland opinion would be invited to attend, but the door was shut. The Sunningdale conference decided to institutionalise the aspirations of those who wanted a united Ireland. Indeed, one of the leaders of the SDLP told the Unionist population "This Council of Ireland is going to trundle you into a united Ireland", and that sparked off a protest.

In the middle of all this, the House went to the country. The result was that 11 UUUC Members were elected and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) held his seat. Surely that expressed to the House the deep feeling of the people of Northern Ireland. But the House went on and the Council was brought down by a stoppage. It was brought down by people saying "We are not going to wear it."

I trust that the House will have learnt from that that a united Ireland is not on. If the conference wants to speak about the relationship between any future Government of Northern Ireland and the Republic, that will be in keeping with the Convention report. I wish that, instead of throwing out the report, the House had read it carefully, because in paragraph 143 it refers to the Irish dimension, summarised in the paper put forward by the Home Secretary. It quotes that paper as follows:
"It remains the view of the United Kingdom Government that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide what should be their relationship to the United Kingdom and to the Republic of Ireland: and that it should not be impossible to devise measures which will meet the best interests of all three."
In paragraph 144 it states:
"it acknowledges that there is an Irish dimension in that there are security and economic problems common to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Economic matters should be tackled by both governments by means of schemes of mutual benefit, the Northern Ireland Parliament having the legislative power to deal directly and effectively with the Dublin Government."
That is spelt out in plain terms in the Convention report that the House did not debate but instead summarily dismissed. There is an Irish dimension in that sense, but not in the sense of Irish unity. There would be no profit in anyone calling a conference on Northern Ireland to discuss Irish unity, because it just is not on. The House should remember that and bear in mind its past mistakes.

It is a tragedy that the elected representatives cannot in some way be involved in the conference. I said that at the beginning and it is still my view. At present, one-third of the Northern Ireland Members do not belong to any of the parties invited to the conference. Why should not the views of the people represented by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop), the hon. Member for Belfast, West and the absentee Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maguire)—he probably would not come anyway—be heard? The Secretary of State must devise ways whereby elected representatives are not some kind of appendix but are a vital, integral part of the conference whose views can be heard. Elected representatives deserve to have their views clearly heard.

The Alliance Party does not have one representative in this House. It had a noble Lord, but he has now resigned be, cause he is trying to get a job running a new television or radio station in Northern Ireland and he felt that associating with the Alliance Party might prejudice his promotion. He has gone out. Therefore, the Alliance Party has no representative in either House at Westminster.

Many people ask "Why should representatives of the Alliance Party attend?" I know the amount of votes they got. This House should remember that the political situation in Northern Ireland is very flexible. We do not have a proportional representation system. It is a first-past-the-post system and those parties which cannot get Members to this House will have difficulty in ensuring that they have a real hold on the community.

Can the hon. Gentleman answer this question? If various important elements are excluded from the conference, will they not, by their very nature, given the necessity for politics, feel absolutely compelled to make a running commentary on the conference? If there is a running commentary, how on earth can the conference succeed? I recollect trying to arrange a meeting at the Labour Party conference at Brighton involving my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) and a former Minister of State, Lord Melchett. The Northern Ireland press, when questioning us about this, asked if it would see anything spectacular and newsworthy. When I said that it was a serious discussion, the reply came back "What a pity." When the news media are geared to sensation, what chance does any conference have if people excluded from the conference play to the gallery?

Perhaps the media this side of the water have been more to blame than on our side of the water. Our own journalists have handled the situation in a more realistic way because they live in Northern Ireland. We have seen what the BBC was prepared to do at Carrickmorre. I agree that there are difficulties, but they are difficulties that we shall always face. No matter who is consulted, there will be those in Northern Ireland who feel that they have been left out. But they will have the opportunity in the referendum. The final discipline should be with the grass roots.

If all the politicians agreed on a solution to the Northern Ireland problem, the independence of the Ulster people could cause them to reject it in spite of all the skill of the politicians. The Ulsterman makes up his own mind. So I do not worry too much about the media because they are not a powerful influence in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland simply say "That's a newspaper lie. Who would believe it?" That is the general attitude of the people of Northern Ireland to the press. I have never found that attacks by the press have done me any harm—in fact, they have done me a lot of good. I do not rate the press very high.

I understand what the hon. Member for West Lothian means, because immediately after this debate there will be a television programme and hon. Members will be asked to make instant comments on this matter. If we do not accept such invitations, we do not get our message across. One has to choose between making an instant comment or abstaining. At times we abstain and at other times we accept. But the hon. Member for West Lothian made a legitimate point.

It is a great pity that in Northern Ireland there are those in the Official Unionist Party who are trying to paint an entirely false picture of this conference. I have carefully read the news reports that have come through about the conference. I have in my hand a copy of the News Letter for Monday 26 November. The hon. Member for Antrim, South, when speaking to the Mid-Armagh Unionist Association, is reported as having
"accused the British Prime Minister of having promised Mr. Jack Lynch to 'put the screws' on the loyalists in return for tightening of security along the border and his help in getting the United Kingdom financial contribution to the EEC reduced at the Dublin summit this week."
He went on to say:
"This ought to be a red warning light to the Ulster loyalist people to have nothing to do with such a conference. It is a deadly trap."
The report continued:
"No unionist worthy of the name, he declared, would want to go to the conference or should be allowed to go."
I see that the hon. Member for Antrim, South nods his head in assent. That sounds strange to me, because some of his hon. Friends sitting behind him have said that the Official Unionists should go to the conference, as have other ex-Members of the House. I do not know what the hon. Member for Antrim, South will do to keep us from going to the conference, but he says that we ought not be allowed to go. In the Irish paper called The Guardian of today's date, the secretary of the party is reported as having referred to this conference as a Sunningdale conference. I understood that the Sunningdale conference consisted only of members of the Assembly who were nominated and sworn in, plus representatives of the British Government and representatives of the Prime Minister of the South of Ireland. The Prime Minister of the South of Ireland has not been invited to this conference, and if he were to be invited I certainly would not go. Further, I would not be sitting on the sidelines either; I would be there to protest against any attempt to bring him to that conference. I want to make that perfectly clear to the House. This is not a Sunningdale conference and cannot be considered as such. The Sunningdale conference was the result of a pernicious and iniquitous White Paper which I and other Members of the House opposed. In fact, candidates stood in Ulster as pro- or anti-White Paper. There were Unionists who stood as anti-White Paper and pro-White Paper, as we all know.

If this conference is to be thought of as a Sunningdale conference, the Government will have great difficulty trying to get people to understand what it is all about. We should at least have it made clear that the conference will not discuss Irish unity and that the Prime Minister of Eire will not be there, and that those who will be there will not necessarily have anything to do with the future Government of Northern Ireland, because they would first have to be elected by the people of Northern Ireland. They are there only as representing the party.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the members of the SDLP, who are crucial to the conference, will do anything other than regularly commute to Dublin, as they did last weekend, to keep Jack Lynch informed, word for word, about what transpires at that conference? Jack Lynch might not be there but his ghost will be there.

It is a very long call for the SDLP to go down to Dublin to talk to Jack Lynch. The SDLP tried to talk to him this week and was not accepted. Mr. Mallon went down and the Prime Minister said "No, I am not talking to you", but that is another story. It is a long call from that and a conference where the Prime Minister of the Republic is sitting down with the Prime Minister of Great Britain and representatives of a jerrymandered Executive—that is what it was—led by the Official Unionist Party.

I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker). He made an excursion into my constituency. He is always welcome. The trouble is that when he comes to my constituency his party always loses a seat. So it does not do him much good. However, he had something to say in the Ballymena newspaper The Guardian. He said:
"Conferences such as this one have proved in the past to be disastrous for this country and for the Official Unionist Party. Sunningdale resulted in the destruction of Brian Faulkner who found himself in a situation where he was out-manoeuvred and pressurised into a corner. Then the Convention resulted in the political destruction of William Craig. Now we have the clamour again for another conference."
When I examine that statement, I think that the hon. Member for Armagh is afraid that his leader might be out-manoeuvred and put under pressure to such an extent that he would surrender.

I do not believe that anyone at any conference can be out manoeuvred if he is a man of integrity and conviction. The trouble at Sunningdale was that the man who was leading the Unionist Party was not a man of conviction or integrity. He gave one promise to the electorate which he violated and broke, then he went to Sunningdale where he capitulated completely. When he came back from Sunningdale he said:
"The people of Northern Ireland know a good package when they see it and they will honour it."
Did they honour it? Certainly not. The lesson of that is that no one needs to be out-manoeuvred.

I shall give way in a few moments. The Convention evidently did not destroy Mr. William Craig, because his own party backed him to run in East Belfast after the Convention. The hon. Member for Antrim, South, at a recent meeting, told some schoolchildren that he would "fight to the death" to get rid of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).

I am very glad that he is not going to fight to the death. I want him to live and attend the conference. Then the hon. Member said that I had said that this was Ulster's last chance. I did not say that. I said that it was Ulster's last chance for the politicians to play a part in shaping the future Government of Northern Ireland.

If hon. Members are not prepared to accept what I said, it is up to them. We have, in this document, an opportunity to have some say in the shaping of the future Government of Northern Ireland. At least we would know that our views had been put to the Government and put with force. In a public debate the Government could then assess whether those views could be defended. On behalf of those whom I represent, both in this House and in Europe, I want to have some say about our future government. I want to be at the talks for that reason.

If the hon. Member feels that it is not possible to be out-manoeuvred at these conferences, can he explain why the present deputy leader of his party complied with Mr. Craig in the disastrous voluntary coalition proposals?

I utterly repudiate that. It was a matter of great controversy in the Assembly. Anyone can read the reports about that. I still maintain that no one can be out-manoeuvred unless he is prepared to give in. The Official Unionists who went to Sunningdale were prepared to surrender. To say that they were subjected to pressure and put in a corner is absolute nonsense. The fact is that they were prepared to lower the flag.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South claimed that all those who have tried to destroy Ulster will be at the table at this conference and, therefore, he could not go. I should have thought that that was a good reason for him to be there so that he could fight his corner along with other elected representatives—

They represent parties that have elected representatives. The leader of the Alliance Party is not a Member of this House, but if my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East had not been standing he would have been. He is an elected councillor and he leads a party of 74 councillors. We must give honour where honour is due. Such people are entitled to be at the conference. I also emphasise the right of Members of Parliament to be there. I believe that this matter should go upstairs to the Northern Ireland Committee, where, in a smaller forum, we could really get our teeth into this subject.

My erstwhile friends should reconsider their position and say that they, too, wish to be in on the conference in order to shape the future government of Northern Ireland. At some time this House will make a decision, and I trust that that decision will be put to the people of Northern Ireland. It could be that what we get from this House eventually may be far from acceptable to the hon. Member for Belfast, West or to me. Therefore, we should have our say in shaping our Government.

This paper makes it clear that if we have a local government in Northern Ireland it is hardly likely that we shall ever get any further powers or have a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland. That is spelt out in clear language in paragraph 28.

I hope that the Minister will comment on that contentious paragraph, which says, in effect, that if local government is granted in the regional council sense, it is hardly likely that there would ever be a devolved Parliament in Northern Ireland. I am totally opposed to nominees dealing with housing and planning, social welfare, hospitals and education in Ulster. I believe that in all these matters Ulstermen and women, who are elected by the people and are answerable to them, should have the powers.

In the Convention an offer was made, albeit one that was not appreciated, to find some way whereby elected members of the minority community should have some say in the government of the Province. No doubt this conference will have to consider that matter as well. We have heard something today of what happens in local government, but I make it clear that there is no way forward by discussing Irish unity or the old power-sharing Executive. Those are things of the past and we must set our sights on things of the future.

From the embattled and beleaguered community of Ulster comes the cry "Why cannot Ulstermen and women be allowed to make decisions which affect their families, their work, their homes, their hospitals and their education?" That is a cry from the heart, and it comes from both sides of the religious divide. It is the duty of every politician to be prepared to respond in some way. That is why make a response on behalf of my party. Obviously I am far from happy about the issue of security. I hope that no hon. Member will say that if a solution with political structures is found the IRA will go away. I make it clear that if the conference gets under way there will be an escalation of violence. If it begins to succeed, the violence will escalate more and more.

If there is any chance of Ulstermen getting together in some way, whether administratively or legislatively, to help carry the burden of Ulster and administer that Province, the IRA will do its best to frustrate them. That is why I welcome the remarks of the Prime Minister. She said that she saw eye to-eye with the policies that I have advocated on the defeat of the IRA. The Prime Minister said that she believed that the IRA had to be militarily defeated. It was the first time that I have heard a Prime Minister say that since I joined this House.

Prime Ministers have always said that if there is a political settlement—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Down, South laughs. He has told the people of Northern Ireland that the Prime Minister has stopped the publication of the report of the Boundary Commission and that that is also part of the plan. His hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South told the press that he had a spy in his meeting. He was a strange spy, for he identified himself in a telephone conversation.

All sorts of strange things are happening in Northern Ireland, but, apart from all those strange things, the ordinary man and woman in the street will have the final say in an election. No one else, whether he comes from outside or inside Northern Ireland, will swing those independent Ulster people. They will make up their own minds. I trust that the House has learned to heed those people.

Before I call the next hon. Member, I remind the House that there are 13 other hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate. Long speeches do not help them. I hope that we shall have some shorter contributions.

6.21 pm

Since the downfall of the Sunningdale Executive in 1974 there has been no serious attempt by the Government to try to find a political solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. It was understandable in terms of arithmetic in the House, because the Labour Government had to depend on votes from Loyalist Members to ensure their continuation in office. By so doing, by giving way to the demands of the Ulster Loyalist Members, and by bartering for their votes, the Labour Government of 1974–79 provoked the open hostility and animosity of the minority population in Northern Ireland. They granted extra seats to the Loyalists. That was bitterly resisted by the minority population in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] As their spokesman in the House, I fought that legislation every inch of the way. [Interruption.]

I note that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is falling into the habit, which I thought was practised only by people from Northern Ireland, of interjecting and trying to put his case forward. He has been in the House long enough to know that if he wants to put forward an opinion he should stand up, like anyone else.

The right hon. Gentleman can stand up and make a speech, and I am sure that the House will listen with a good deal of attention to what he says.

I have noted that since the conference was mooted by the Secretary of State the right hon. Gentleman has been running around Northern Ireland on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He has made more speeches since then than he has made in his whole tenure of office as the right hon. Member for Down, South.

The last Government appeared to be engaged in a bartering exercise for votes and in giving way to the Unionist Members. Since this Government were elected in May of this year, there has been a clamour of voices—including my own, as leader of the SDLP—for the Government to produce an initiative in Northern Ireland. The Government of the Republic, the main political parties in the Republic, some influential and some less than influential Americans, some sincerely motivated and some less than sincerely motivated Americans, made that demand. But the demand came mostly from the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. Direct rule has been an absolute and total disaster for the people of the Six Counties. Even on grounds of efficiency it leaves a lot to be desired. That is apart from what is felt about the constitutional aspects of direct rule.

I told the party that I then had the honour to lead—I consider it an honour to have led the SDLP for 10 years—that when the initiative came it would not please everyone. An initiative means something different to different people. Everyone hopes that it will be to his political advantage. We are debating the beginnings of an initiative today.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) spoke of the failures of successive Secretaries of State throughout the centuries. He said that perhaps it has something to do with history. He was right. It has everything to do with history. Were it not for the mistakes that were made time after time in relation to Ireland, we would not be in such a tragic position today.

Paragraph 30 of the White Paper, under the heading
"The exercise of powers, and the role of the minority",
is tantamount to an admission of guilt by the Government in connection with the activities of their predecessors. It is completely in line with what has been said by the hon. Member for West Lothian. It states that
"It is in the Government's view essential to recognise that the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland require special arrangements to be made to protect the position of the minority community and to specify the role of its representatives in whatever new arrangements are adopted. This is because … the representatives of the minority community cannot so broaden their appeal as to expect to win office by way of any future election. Moreover, it is a perception of the minority community that the majority, in the exercise of powers of government, have failed to take proper account of the minority interests."
History will support me when I say that the partition of Ireland was a disaster and that the creation of the State of Northern Ireland in 1920 sowed within itself the seeds of all the present discontent. Northern Ireland had a majority Protestant community and a minority Catholic community. Had the people of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh voted on a county basis, they would not have been in the Six Counties; they would have become part of the Republic. All the seeds were there for the present discontent, which has grown up over the generations. Paragraph 30 indicates that, in the opinion of the Government, there is no way that the Parliament in Northern Ireland could protect the rights of the minority.

In another part of the document it is pointed out that the system was entirely different from that at Westminster because the minority Opposition in Stormont could never become the Government. I am delighted to see that it has happened in this country, because I believe that this is a democratic country. An Opposition Member in Northern Ireland was destined to be an Opposition Member for Parliament for the rest of his life. The opposite applied in the case of a member for the majority ascendancy party. This position was brought about by the State. There was nothing to unite the majority and the minority. They were poles apart on history, poles apart on religion, poles apart on culture, and poles apart on national identity. That being so, there was no hope for democratic government as we know it here in Westminster. It could never take place in Northern Ireland.

A member of the Catholic minority who had an ideological and emotional commitment to the eventual reunification of Ireland—not by coercion but by consent—was met at every turn of the road by Unionist intransigence. I do not blame the Unionists, because history put them in that position. I am always charged with giving lessons on history in this House. The majority of the people at present living in Northern Ireland were born when that State was part of the United Kingdom, with the creation of Stormont, yet all their feelings, all their tendencies and all their aspirations remain as if they had been born in 1920. This Government have to deal with that fact.

On the day when this White Paper was first handed to me, I looked at paragraph 4 and saw immediately that it would create a good deal of trouble, because it states that
"It is at present the clear wish of a substantial majority of the people in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom."
It was the clear wish of a substantial majority created by the British Government in 1920. That British Government created that majority and that minority, and things have not changed since 1920. That is a statement of fact that cannot be denied.

Paragraph 4 goes on to say that
"The Conference will therefore not be concerned with the constitutional status of the Province."
That is acceptable, because we know that there could be absolutely no agreement on the question of the constitutional position.

I recognise the force that the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) commands when he says that in no circumstances would he be able to sit down and discuss the question of Irish unity. No Unionist leader, however courageous he might be, could contemplate for a single second sitting down with political opponents in Northern Ireland, representatives of the minority, to discuss unity. He would be regarded, quite rightly, by his own community as a traitor and would not last politically for five minutes. That is another fact of life.

Paragraph 4 goes on to state that we cannot go back to Stormont, that is to say, to the position as it was prior to 1972. That again is quite right. Any attempt to resurrect Stormont, on the ascendancy basis on which it existed until 1972, would be fiercely resisted by the minority in Northern Ireland. Any attempt to bring back the Sunningdale agreement, as it was in the first five months, would be fiercely resisted by the loyalist community in Northern Ireland. These are facts of life.

Yet I say to the Secretary of State that some less brutal way of expressing those truths could have been found. The minority population in Northern Ireland could have been told "We recognise that there is an Irish dimension. You will not be prevented from following your aspirations in a peaceable way, in the hope that you can convince the majority in Northern Ireland that some day, whether it is five, 50 or 500 years hence, there will be a united Ireland."

The term "Irish dimension" emerged from the Darlington conference. It has already been said by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), the Labour spokesman in the debate, that this was a Civil Service term. It was coined by some Civil Service expert at the Darlington conference. For the trouble that it caused, he should be hanged, drawn and quartered, because it means all things to all men. It was designed to mean all things to all men. It has been very successful in this respect, because there is no one in Northern Ireland who does not have his own interpretation of what is meant by an Irish dimension.

To the Irish Catholic minority west of the Bann it gives rise to a gut feeling—an emotional feeling that cannot be beaten or intimidated out of them. It is part of their culture and their heritage that they must in no circumstances be told "You will never get a united Ireland. Forget about it. You are to live in the Six Counties and accept for ever and a day that the Unionist, loyalist majority will be in control. You will never have any political means to bring about the unity of Ireland."

The total rejection of that aspiration, in terms of this document, brought about a fierce reaction among the minority population west of the Bann. It had the same result in Armagh. The hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) would agree with me that I express the sentiments of those people in that way. In Belfast this point is not as important as it is in other parts of Northern Ireland, because the sheer geography of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh gives the minority Catholic population who live in those areas a closer identity with the border. They watch Radio Telefis Eireann television programmes. They are involved in Gaelic Athletic Association games. They traverse the border regularly. The Catholics living in my constituency in Belfast are much more removed from that sort of activity. They do not see the Irish dimension—whatever construction they may put on it—as being a first, last and all-the-time priority.

I represent one of the most impoverished constituencies in Europe. There are 20,000 people in my constituency living on social security benefits. The Minister will agree with me when I say that it has the most appalling housing conditions of any area of Western Europe. It has poverty and social degradation on a scale unheard of in any other part of the United Kingdom. These problems are my priorities. These are the problems that I want to eradicate from my constituency.

I believe that there is an Irish dimension, and it cannot be kicked or legislated out of existence. Belfast is a Northern Irish city and there is a land frontier that people can cross into other parts, but the main priorities, as I see them, are the appalling social conditions under which my constituents are forced to live. That does not mean for a single second that I give up my claim to believe that one day Ireland will be united. That is what I believe. But, in the situation that I have described, that priority can be taken too seriously. That is the reason why I am not the leader of the SDLP. I believe that I am adequately reflecting the views of my constituents. In the first and last analysis, it was those voters in West Belfast who sent me to this House, and it is to their welfare that I shall at all times give priority.

I have mentioned the clamour for an initiative, expressed by all the political parties in the South, by the Americans and, indeed, it is said, by some Europeans. However well intentioned those people may be—some people are ill intentioned—in the final analysis the hon. Member for Antrim, North, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. McQuade) will have to agree with me and with others like me before we can begin to chart any sort of a future for Northern Ireland.

Nothing can be imposed by the House and nothing can be imposed from outside. We saw that in 1974. Model F, or any of the other models that seek to impose local authorities in Northern Ireland, would be fiercely resisted by the minority. I say that as a member of the minority and not as the leader of the SDLP. I know that it would be seen as an attempt to resurrect Unionist ascendancy at local authority level. From his short tenure of office, the Secretary of State will know that. Consider what has happened in Lisburn. Craigavon and Ballymena. In those areas there is either an overall Unionist majority or a coalition of Unionists. Let us consider the sentiments that have been expressed. Look at what has been said by members of the Lisburn rural council. They did not want De Lorean situated in that area because they said there were too many Catholics there and only Catholics would get the jobs.

Look at the way that Sunday facilities are closed because of evangelical attitudes expressed by extremist—I do not use the word in an offensive sense—Protestants. One has only to look at the record of councils that have large Unionist majorities. There is power sharing in Derry and in some other places, but those councils have either overall SDLP control or a substantial number of SDLP members who can influence the vote. There is co-operation in those councils. However, those that have large Unionist majorities still live in the backwoods.

The conference offers the only means of solving the problems of Northern Ireland. The working paper is all "ifs" and "mights". It has been deliberately worded so that nothing is excluded. Some people, even in the party that I formerly led, have said that the conference calls into question proportional representation. I do not think that it does. The DUP representatives would not go for any other electoral system in Nothern Ireland because PR is to their advantage as a minority party. It is also to the advantage of the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

No serious attempt would be made to change that system to a first-past-the-post system. I am sure that I have the agreement of the hon. Member for Antrim, North on that. The hon. Member may have indicated to the Secretary of State that he will not say that under no circumstances would there ever be power sharing.

The document implies that if agreement can be achieved between the political parties of Northern Ireland there can be active participation between the majority and minority in the community. That provides a ray of hope, because there have been times when I would never have believed that such options could arise in this context. There must have been some agreement. As the hon. Member for Antrim, North said, it is only with the active participation of Irishmen—though the hon. Member would say Ulstermen—and the participation of both Catholics and Protestants that the terrible problems that beset our constituents can be tackled.

I found myself in the same position when the Conservative Party was in Government between 1970 and 1974 under the premiership of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). During those years the Conservative Government pushed forward an initiative that led to Sunningdale. I supported that initiative, and it was a tragedy for Ireland when it failed in 1974. However, at that time I was opposed to the social and economic policies of that Administration, just as I am bitterly opposed to the social and economic policies of the present Government.

A section of the paper states that Parliament will govern Northern Ireland and give it financial subventions in accordance with its basic needs. You could have fooled me. Northern Ireland is crying out for help but it has been refused that help by the Government. The Belfast education and libraries board refused this week to implement the edict of the heartless Conservative Government to reduce the provision of school milk. That board is made up of people from all political parties and religions.

Just look at the Government's policies in Northern Ireland. They affect not just the minority in Northern Ireland, but everyone, right across the political spectrum. It is essential that those who are aware of the problems of unemployment, bad housing and social deprivation—whether they are Unionist or SDLP members—show compassion and the face of humanity in attempting to right those problems.

If the conference takes place there will be no guarantee of success. As I have said outside the House, the hon. Member for Antrim, North and I have been diametrically opposed on every aspect of Northern Ireland affairs, and that does not augur well for success. Nevertheless, the conference must be tried. It has to be tried because in the final analysis it is we who live in Northern Ireland and see the darkened streets at night and the British troops all over the place. It is we who see that as soon as it gets dark during the winter there is nowhere for young people to go in Belfast. The House of Commons has a very rarefied atmosphere. Far too few hon. Members are aware of the atmosphere in Northern Ireland.

I do not know whether Hansard will agree, but I should like to be known as a Socialist Member. That is what I was when I first entered politics. I do not want to be known as an Independent Labour Member.

It is not beyond the ingenuity of man to find a formula that will bring the SDLP to the conference table. I will not be there as their leader, but I wish its members every success in those long and possibly protracted negotiations. John Hume, who was elected leader of the SDLP last night, should take up the invitation sent to him by the Secretary of State and go to that conference. He knows that that is right and that it will be a terrible indictment of the whole concept of the SDLP if he refuses to meet the Secretary of State or go to the conference. I want him to go, and I wish all those who participate in that conference well.

It is to the eternal shame of the Official Unionist Party that it stands in open boycott of the conference. The SDLP also represents a significant proportion of the electorate in Northern Ireland.

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify one point? Do I understand him aright when he appears to indicate that in his view it is only the contents of paragraph 4 of the working paper that are preventing the SDLP from attending the conference?

To a large extent that is true. The paper says that there shall be no discussion of Irish unity and some other aspects. When members of the SDLP saw paragraph 4, they read no further. That was their gut, emotional reaction when they first read that paragraph.

The Government of the Republic are acting most responsibly in relation to the talks. They are doing and saying everything that is necessary and doing and saying nothing that could prevent the success of the conference.

I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, North that if this is not the last chance it is nearly the last chance. We have tried so many other policies and failed. I do not believe that the new initiative should be allowed to fail merely because certain sentiments have not been included in the working paper.

I do not believe that it is possible to have the document withdrawn or to have sentences inserted in order to ensure the attendance of the SDLP at the conference. However, I am sure that in their discussions the Secretary of State and the leaders of the SDLP ought to be able to arrive at a conclusion that will allow the SDLP to attend the conference.

We have demanded initiatives. The people of Northern Ireland, right across the political spectrum—even those represented by the Official Unionist Party—demand that their leaders should do something to bring the tragedy to an end. It is up to those leaders not to let their people down.

6.52 pm

Whatever one thinks of the prospects for success at the conference—and I believe that they are small—one has to concede that the working paper is a creditable document. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he was the author, but it would do credit to an expert constitutional lawyer.

The range of options presented in the paper is wide and, if it were possible to get all the parties in Northern Ireland round a table and to show good will and determination to reach agreement, it is clear that one option, or an amended version of one of the options, could be a suitable vehicle for the achievement of peace, stability and progress in Northern Ireland.

The option of a united Ireland is justifiably excluded from the document. Even if it had not been excluded because the majority in Northern Ireland are totally against that option, it would have to be excluded because the cause is associated with violence. The IRA, by its violence, has made the achievement of a united Ireland impossible, even if the cause were acceptable to a majority in Northern Ireland.

Legislative devolution, whether called Stormont or by any other name, is equally impossible of achievement. As a principle, it was rejected by the voters of Wales and received no encouragement from the people of Scotland. In addition, the experience of Stormont in its 50 years of existence was, to say the least, discouraging.

Power sharing also appears to be out of the question. Indeed, I wonder how I, among others, ever supported it in 1973. It is contrary to the elementary rule of democracy that the majority rules. I know of no democracy in the world where a minority has the rights that British Governments have sought to confer on the minority in Northern Ireland.

A fresh opportunity exists to consider solutions that may bring about peace, stability and progress in Northern Ireland. An all-party conference is unlikely to succeed, because it is an attempt to achieve the impossible. The thorough and painstaking way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has gone about his task of consultations is commendable, but the entrenched positions of the various parties in Northern Ireland are too strong.

The only way forward in political terms is to fill the void between local district councils and Westminster by a system of an elected council or councils. That is not an original idea. In his last major speech on the subject of Northern Ireland, made in Leamington Spa in February, the late Airey Neave said:
"It may well be impossible in the short-term to return to full devolution. Mr. Mason has clearly come to the same conclusion. Other methods of filling the political vacuum and improving direct rule must therefore be explored. The Conservative Party has proposed that a non-legislative Regional Council or Councils should be established to administer certain regional services which were transferred to the Government of Northern Ireland in 1973. Northern Ireland needs a strong and effective democratic instrument to take charge of those local matters which concern ordinary people.
To achieve this, I believe that an independent inquiry headed by a judicial figure widely respected by both communities is essential. This inquiry would listen to a wide range of local opinion and advise the next Government on the structure and powers of the Regional Council or Councils."
That was a wise and appropriate proposal for the future of Northern Ireland and I am sorry that it was not pursued by the present Government.

We must break out of the apparently iron barrier that appears to inhibit us from considering the constitution of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom. It is understandable that the opposition of the Republic of Ireland to the integration of Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom is due to the fear that it will make more remote the possibility of a united Ireland. That is also the reason for the opposition in the House to the proposal, happily now successful, to increase the number of parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland.

The process of integration as the only remaining viable alternative cannot be further delayed. The violence taking place in Northern Ireland is a separate matter and can be dealt with as a separate matter. However, progress to a fuller democracy is now possible. I believe that political progress lies in this way. It should be possible to guarantee to all Northern Ireland citizens the same social, economic and political opportunities as all other citizens of the United Kingdom now possess, whether in matters of schools, houses or the ability to lead decent, honourable and respectable lives.

In the United Kingdom—certainly in Great Britain—there is no institutionalised prejudice against Roman Catholics. There is no discrimination against them in any field of which I know. Even the post of Lord Chancellor can nowadays be filled by a Roman Catholic lawyer. Why is it not the same in Northern Ireland? There is absolutely no reason why in Northern Ireland Roman Catholics should not in the long term, quite apart from the present period of direct rule, enjoy the same rights as Protestants.

Here I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). It is true to say that a devolved Government—I do not believe in devolved Government as far as legislative devolution is concerned—in the form of Stormont apparently could not guarantee those rights to the Roman Catholics of Northern Ireland.

I know that the hon. Gentleman would not deliberately mislead the House. Will he bear in mind that the first Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland was a Roman Catholic? Therefore, to some degree we in Northern Ireland were ahead of the United Kingdom in taking into consideration religious affiliation.

I fully accept that. I am glad to hear it. That is true as far as wishes are concerned. Indeed, that was carried out in practice, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, the appearance of things is sometimes more important than their reality in politics. It certainly appeared to Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland that they were not getting their due share of the good life there during the time of Stormont. I do not want to go any further than that.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that was not merely the appearance but also the reality?

There may be some controversy about that. I do not need to comment on that.

This is the nub of the political problem. Yet, in its way, it is perfectly soluble. Indeed, during this present period of direct rule we are solving it. I believe that we must seek political progress through integration as the only viable option. We should therefore consider each factor which separates the so-called communities of Northern Ireland and understand in what way we may break them down.

The institution of Stormont was one such factor. The imbalance of seats between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in Parliament was another. Both those factors have now been removed. The influence of the Churches is another factor and will probably remain so for some time to come. Hostility from the South is yet another.

There is one important factor that I wish to draw to the attention of the House. The party system of Northern Ireland was born of the special fears of the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities. The result is that, after nearly 60 years' experience, mutual suspicions and antagonisms were reinforced and, in their own ways, developed into communal politics, and caused a great deal of misery and unhappiness in the process.

When all law-making power is vested in the United Kingdom at Westminster, there should be no fear of what decision is made at any time in Belfast. The existence of purely Northern Ireland political parties at present is a barrier to future political progress. It means that, whatever Government are in power in Westminster, no citizen of Northern Ireland may be a member and no Northern Ireland politician may aspire to be one of Her Majesty's Ministers, such as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or, indeed, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Is not my hon. Friend aware that the former Member for Londonderry, Mr. Chichester-Clark, was Minister of State, Department of Employment between 1970 and 1973?

I do not think that it was as early as 1970. However, I am fully aware of that example. Exceptions have occurred. Indeed, I believe that that Member took the Conservative Whip. That does not destroy my main argument, which is that institutionally the separate political parties in Northern Ireland have preserved this separation, not only from the rest of the United Kingdom but between the two main communities in Northern Ireland.

It is important that we get this matter right. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the subject of integration. However, I am interested in his arguments. He may even persuade me. When he talks about integration, does he take into account the common areas of policy on services between North and South? Would he not say, on matters of transport, electricity, water, gas, consumer services, agriculture and even security, that there is a far stronger argument for integration on those matters than there is in the way he proposed? Does he completely reject all those?

I completely reject that argument. There is the Irish dimension. To me, the British dimension is the only one that counts. It is the one that should be strengthened because it is the only way for future progress.

Northern Ireland should be no different in this respect from any other part of the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should be an Ulsterman, just as the Secretary of State for Scotland is a Scot and the Secretary of State for Wales is Welsh. There is no reason why that should not be achieved.

How should that be done? This is my submission: the Conservative and Labour Parties of the United Kingdom should form non-sectarian Conservative and Labour Parties of Northern Ireland as integral parts of the United Kingdom parties, with financing and policies, except for local variations, the same as those in the United Kingdom.

Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that it was certainly not for the want of trying? The Trades Union Congress, the Northern Ireland TUC and the Labour Party tried to form healthy and strong Northern Ireland parties, but, alas, with very little success.

The hon. Gentleman has just explained why the Labour Party was not able to make any progress in this field. It was apparently trying to repeat the mistake it made in this country when the TUC gave birth to a controlled and financed political party. It is one of the defects of democracy in this country at present that one of our parties should be controlled by the trade union organisation. That may be the reason why the Labour Party did not meet with success in this matter. However, that is no reason why the Conservatives should not have greater success.

With a Conservative Party of Northern Ireland and a Labour Party of Northern Ireland we could achieve political progress, quite apart from considerations of whether their members were Catholic or Protestant or what the proportions were within them, as the consideration overall would be that of the United Kingdom interest.

If the republicans of Northern Ireland—by whatever name they might wish to be called—want their own party, it would fall into place naturally, just as Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National Party do in Wales and Scotland. In other words, we must do away with the battles between Protestants and Catholics and replace them with healthier battles between Conservative and Labour supporters, thereby serving the cause of political progress and peace in Northern Ireland.

7.10 pm

How nice it would be if we could do as the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) suggested. What a dream world he must live in if he thinks that we could. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with that. The hon. Gentleman betrays such a lack of understanding of the subject that it almost makes one despair. That is what is sad about the whole business.

When ones intrudes in the great debate that is proceeding among the Ulster Unionists, one becomes caught in the cross-fire. I was caught in the cross-fire between Antrim, North and Armagh, and I had to keep dodging. The battle there was fiercer than the real battle in Northern Ireland. Hon. Gentlemen know that although I am being slenderly witty I have the greatest admiration for their personal courage in the way that they have fought this long and weary struggle and are continuing to do so. However, I profoundly disagree with them.

When one hears the problems of Northern Ireland equated with the problems of Wales, Scotland and England, one realises how far from reality some people are. They say that they wish for Northern Ireland the same opportunities as are available to the United Kingdom, but then they fail to delineate the problems that have historically beset Northern Ireland. They do not do as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) did, in giving at least a bit of the historical background which led to the creation of those problems.

Connolly said in 1912 that those who were seeking to split Ireland would reap the whirlwind. Here it is. They laid the foundations for what is now happening, and that was as inevitable as the fact that a rain cloud carries rain it was bound to come but it was not known in what form.

Northern Ireland is not simply split into political parties. In the Province a man with a Labour point of view will vote Ulster Unionist, God help him. People vote according to their communities. They do not see their interests according with their political views. The minority was the oppressed and the majority was the oppressor. The minority did not see the majority as its friend. Therein lies the terrible intractable tragedy which confronts us all.

Northern Ireland Members argue in this House, but they are not prepared to go to a conference to argue, and I cannot see the logic of that. The Official Unionists will not go to a conference to talk to the DUP and the others who will be there. I should be grateful for an explanation of that.

Then let me try to provide one. The occupants of the two Front Benches in this Chamber are perfectly prepared to debate with one another in a civilised and logical manner, but suggest that they should go into a huddle in a conference to find common ground and I do not think that one would find very much success.

The ineptness of the right hon. Gentleman's analogy does not do justice to his mentality. He knows that the analogy is inept, and we should therefore treat it as such. I hope that it is accepted that the Northern Ireland Members should be at the conference for discussions.

I deplore the Government's attitude. Their policies, including their policies for Northern Ireland, are dreadful. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West showed, they will take the food and the milk from the mouths of the children of Northern Ireland and say that they want to solve the problem—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] When Conservative Members react like that, it is because I have said something that stings, something that is true. However, it would be churlish of me not to pay them the compliment of saying that they are doing something that my own Government disgracefully failed to do. They failed to do it because their approach on Northern Ireland was not fundamentally different from that of the Conservative Party. The bipartisan policy followed by the Labour Government was a Conservative policy and was hence doomed to failure.

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure whether we are being limited to speeches of 10 minutes. I shall say a great deal that will induce Conservative Members to interrupt me, and if I give way I shall have to deal with constant interruptions.

I understand that certain parties are opposed to the Government's initiative. I am surprised that the Social Democratic and Labour Party opposes it, and that signifies to me a movement to the Right which I find worrying. The members of the SDLP have what they believe to be good reasons for taking that line. I do not believe that they are good.

The late Sir Winston Churchill once said that jaw, jaw was was preferable to war, war. In general terms that is true. At some time organised discussions round a table will have to begin. They had to begin on Rhodesia. Let us hope that that will be successful. Many Members of Parliament thought that they would never begin, and when they did they thought that there would be no success. There has been a great measure of success, however, and I hope that there will be more. That was an example of jaw, jaw being better than war, war, even though the war, war goes on.

The way to destroy terrorists is by democracy, not by the gun. The reality is that the war in Northern Ireland will go on and that neither side will be defeated. Those who think that they can defeat their opponents are asking for a prolongation of the conflict. Terrorism will be defeated only by the introduction of the democracy which the majority Unionists never gave to the minority community. Anyone who thinks that there is any other way will be here 10 years hence discussing the melancholy list of shootings.

Do those parties which are against talking together have any real alternative that holds out hope for both communities? If they have such alternatives, I should like to hear them spelt out in this House. I suspect that they will not come together to talk and that they have no alternative either. They therefore see the war continuing. Do they still believe that they can win and that they will get what they want after all these terrible years of slaughter? If they do, they must be dreaming.

There is no end in sight. The situation is more desperate now, no matter how many fewer casualties there may be, than it has been. It is quite horrendous and its implications are frightening and terrible. Intransigence and refusal to compromise are the twin barriers to progress in this awful conflict. The removal of the political logjam that now exists must take place by a slow and piecemeal method of reasoning together. The conference is an attempt at the sort of thing that will be needed.

The appalling alternative of death, destruction, misery and slaughter is almost too horrendous to contemplate, and it will get worse. That is the reality. Must there be more Warrenpoints? Must there be more slaughter of the innocents and the continuing risk of fratricidal strife with civil war possibly overflowing into this country? Surely a conference that tries to do something about all that is a welcome alternative.

At the moment the political divisions in Northern Ireland, unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, are such that the alteration of parties in government, as referred to in the document, is virtually impossible. What kind of democracy is it when the minority has no chance whatever of becoming the majority? The minority in Northern Ireland has no chance of securing that. I have heard hon. Members decrying other areas of the world where minorities have had no chance of becoming majorities. They are dictatorships. Northern Ireland was a dictatorship. It was a dictatorship that was called an elected dictatorship by one hon. Gentleman. Now the inevitable explosion has taken place. Hon. Gentlemen can laugh till they are blue in the face, but it is here.

I believe that the conference among other things wishes to grapple with these problems. I am sorry that a Labour Government were so rigid and intransigent in that policy as to fail to do this before the Conservative Party did it. I also believe that we have no right to be deterred by seeing failure ahead. In our lives we have to try to do many things which are honourable and which will fail. None the less, we have to make some attempt to do them. I cannot believe that the so-called "victors" in the recent polarisation which took place in the elections can be very proud of their victory. They were inbuilt majority majorities, anyway, although this time they had victories over one another. None the less, the minority community suffered and such victories will be seen to be literally Pyrrhic victories.

Surely, it is a case for sorrow and misery rather than for rejoicing. The polarisation that occurred in the two elections reveals a deterioration in the political situation in Northern Ireland which is truly horrifying, and I do not think the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) can glory in that. The working paper, whether or not we agree with it in detail, is an attempt to raise at least some of the real issues confronting the people of Northern Ireland, instead of our glaring at one another across the abyss.

Of course there will be profound differences, and of course those who adopt only the posture of democracy will resist what we are trying to do; but they will be clearly seen to resist and they will lose credibility accordingly, certainly over here. Whether or not they lose credibility in their own communities in Northern Ireland, there is no doubt whatsoever that those groupings which refuse to go to this conference will lose a great deal of credibility among our people over here—

who will begin to despair and will say to themselves "We should have nothing to do with this because the people concerned do not even want to talk to one another."

The hon. Gentleman is not Mr. Deputy Speaker. Someone else is chairing these proceedings, not him. I know hon. Gentlemen want to shut my mouth, but it does not lie in their hands to do so, thank heaven.

I want to say a few words of a fraternal nature about the SDLP. It shut the mouths of the minority community for 20, 30, 40, 50 years in Ireland and caused the present trouble. I have met practically all the SDLP leaders through the years and I regard them as personal friends, and I hope they will review their position and attend this conference and restore their credibility, because a great deal of their credibility has seeped away. I hope hon. Gentlemen here will review their position.

The alternative is to lapse into a sense of hopelessness and helplessness and to strengthen the hands of the terrorists, because that is what will happen if we do not come together at this conference. Those from both sides who will not meet to talk will strengthen the hands of the terrorists, and the blood bath will go on. I appeal to both sides, as one whose only desire is peace and justice for all the people of Northern Ireland, to sit down together and talk about this and to do so in a mood of compromise and willingness to unbend. That at least offers some hope. In the other direction lies only terrorism and disaster. Therefore, whether or not I agree with the details, I hope that this conference will go ahead and that those who have so far refused to attend will reconsider their position and attend the conference.

7.25 pm

The Ulster people have shown remarkable resilience and praiseworthy restraint throughout 10 years, in the face of gruesome, evil terrorism. Their patience is not and cannot be boundless, but once again the Government of the day are engaged on a political exercise and a political initiative, master-minded by English civil servants. The Ulster loyalists have been attacked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), as he always attacks them; but if he lived in an Irish Republic he would find that what he fights for in this House would not be granted to him in an Irish Republic.

The Ulster loyalists are attacked on many grounds but they are not intransigent. They are anxious that their politicians—their political representatives—should engage in constitutional talks on the basis of the White Paper published last week. They are of course resolved—that had better be understood—that they will never be forced, directly or indirectly, into an all-Ireland republic. It would take considerable time merely to list one horrific atrocity after another in the long catalogue of murder and mutilation perpetrated by the Provisional IRA. I say this to the Provisional IRA: it will never force the Ulster majority to capitulate. It will never force them into an all-Ireland republic.

The Provisional IRA, however, is not the only enemy Ulster has had to suffer, and one has to understand that suffering if one is to appreciate the reservations of the Ulster people to this conference. The news media at home and abroad have vilified, denigrated and hounded the Ulster majority, has distorted their true image and insulted their integrity, and of course the United States of America is to the forefront in the attacks on the Ulster loyalists.

The Irish Republican politicians in the United States do not mind seeking votes paid for by the blood of innocent Ulster people. The Secretary of State demonstrated extraordinary stupidity, even for him, in accepting an invitation to attend a conference on Northern Ireland organised by an Irish Republican Governor of New York, Mr. Carey. Fortunately for us, the Prime Minister put paid to that, but it is extraordinary that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should have been tricked into accepting an invitation to a conference outside the United Kingdom to discuss a United Kingdom matter. The Prime Minister who put paid to that is responsible for the present initiative on Northern Ireland.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. The Government ought not, however, to expect the Ulster people—who have been slandered and betrayed by successive Westminster Governments—to respond quickly with trust and understanding to another overture to their good sense and better nature. This afternoon I demanded that the Secretary of State should give an assurance that the Ulster people would be given the right, in a referendum, to accept or reject any agreement reached by the proposed conference. He avoided giving a straight answer. I did not like his shifty response, for that is all that I can call it. He equivocated. I hope that when the Minister of State replies he will be able to give a serious assurance to the Ulster people that they will have the opportunity of deciding, through a referendum, whether or not they wish to accept an agreement.

I hold no brief for the Secretary of State, still less for Governor Carey, but it seems to some of us that when people on different sides of the argument in Ulster get together, in the United States, in Europe or elsewhere abroad, by some alchemy they have perfectly civilised relations. It seems to many of us that, after all, people of violently different views do get together on this side of the water—and, we ask, why on earth can they not do it in Ulster?

Is it not partly because of the media—the incessant pressure from the media to obtain statements and to be posturing the whole time? Some of us say, for heaven's sake, if Irishmen can get together under Governor Carey's auspices or anyone else's, that is a good thing.

I hope that we will never have a British Minister who will go off to the United States to Governor Carey, Senator Kennedy or any of the Irish Republican contingent there and ask them to find solutions to United Kingdom problems—especially since those gentlemen cannot resolve their own personal affairs. The tragedy of terrorism is occurring all over the world, and it particularly affects the United States. The United States has established or maintained Fascist or military Governments in different parts of the world.

When there was an uprising in Iran it cried out to us for help to deal with the results of its interference in that country, yet the United States Government have withheld pistols for the RUC which would enable the RUC to deal with the terrorists in Northern Ireland. In America, funds can be raised for the Provisional IRA and propaganda successes can be achieved so that more money is available to buy bombs and bullets to kill innocent Ulster people. I do not like those double standards. American politicians seek votes at the expense of Ulster lives. It is an Ulster matter and a United Kingdom matter, and it is for the United Kingdom Government and the Ulster people to decide.

Other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate, and the hon. Gentleman has interrupted fairly frequently throughout the debate. I shall not give way.

Before the White Paper was published, the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that the conference would go ahead irrespective of which parties refused to attend. When the Official Unionist Party refused to attend, for its own—I believe wrong—reasons, he maintained, through press reports, that the conference would still go ahead. He equivocated on that question when he opened today's debate. Of course, the answer is that the conference will go ahead only if the SDLP attends. It is regrettable that the Secretary of State should adopt that stance. I hope that the conference will go ahead, that all reasonable public representatives will be able to attend, and that an agreement will be reached that will in due course be put to the Ulster people for them to, decide upon.

Once again, the Secretary of State showed a lack of judgment in restricting the conference to representatives from only four political parties. Last week, I pointed out to the Prime Minister that that excluded the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Dunlop), the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maguire) and myself. The general election was held only recently, and each of us carries as much weight as—and perhaps more than—some of the political parties invited to the constitutional conference. Now, of course, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) is excluded from the conference. All in all, it makes nonsense of a conference that is supposed to represent the views of the Ulster people.

At the time that the White Paper was published, the Secretary of State gave us hope that something positive and worth while would be achieved. I appeal again to the Official Unionist Party, from which I have parted company, to reconsider its decision and to attend and talk at the conference. We must try to hammer out an agreement that will provide a future constitutional and political settlement in Northern Ireland. Only then can we get down to the task of providing a decent future for the people.

In parts of Central and West Belfast, as well as in other areas in Northern Ireland, there are scenes of great deprivation. Houses are laid waste or bricked up and' youngsters roam the streets aimlessly, without any future. It is up to us, the elected representatives, to provide them with a future. The only way that I see of being able to achieve that is for the conference to go ahead and succeed. Even now, I hope that the Secretary of State will listen to my words and invite all the Ulster Members to the conference. It would be nonsensical for myself and my colleagues who have been excluded to sit in an ante-room or communicate by telephone or letter with the Secretary of State, not knowing what was happening at the conference and being unable to influence its outcome.

The White Paper protests stridently about the need for the protection of minority rights. I believe that the majority are entitled to have their rights protected. There should be the same rights for everybody. Some years ago I initiated a debate in the House on the need for a Bill of Rights for the whole of the United Kingdom. The then Labour Government refused to accept my motion and I did not put the matter to the vote because I did not wish to have a clash over a Bill of Rights. However, I believe that it is the proper thing for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, although I would be prepared to limit it to the Province for the time being. A Bill of Rights would give greater protection to the majority, who are often attacked inside the House and outside it by the press.

The problems of education in Northern Ireland will not be resolved either by the conference or by a devolved Government established by the conference. The system of sectarian education in Northern Ireland perpetuates the division of the community. The Government will be abdicating their responsibility, as did their predecessors, if they do not decide, before a devolved Parliament is established in Northern Ireland, to wipe away the division in education between Protestants and Roman Catholics. All youngsters—from the age of toddlers—should go to school together, suffer together, learn together, play together and enjoy life together. In that way, when they reach the age of 17 or 18 they will not have to try to learn what the others think or how they behave. If the Government fail to end sectarianism in education they will, like their predecessors, contribute to the continuing division in Northern Ireland.

Education will not be dealt with at the conference, nor will a Stormont Parliament be able to deal with it. I hope that before the start of the conference the Government will pledge to take steps to ensure that all children will attend the same State schools without religious interference in education. Religious education can be given in churches or at home. I disagree on this point with the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). He has set up his own Church school. I do not believe that it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland youngsters for them to be taught separately in State and Church schools; they should attend the same schools. It is a vital and important matter and it should be dealt with before the conference is established and before a Stormont Parliament is set up.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that denominational schools in Northern Ireland should be prohibited?

I do not suggest that at all. Let any Church that wishes to have its own school pay for it. However, there is division on religious grounds in education, and the taxpayer now pays for both sorts of education. That is wrong. Great praise is heaped on the democracy of the United States, where that system is not allowed. Churches which wish to set up schools there have to pay for them. I believe that the hon. Member for Antrim, North's schools take not one penny from the State. That should apply to all church schools.

7.39 pm

In view of previous strictures from the Chair, I shall be brief. I felt it my duty to listen to the speeches of those hon. Members from the Six Counties who are most directly affected and have definite views on the document, and I therefore waited before speaking.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) for leaving before the end of his speech, but I had to take an urgent telephone call. I asked him a question, the importance of which he recognised, as the length of his reply showed. He suggested in his reply that I was interested in the ultimate reunification of both parts of Ireland, and that is true. However, I have always maintained that that is a bit of a dream at present because there are two main preconditions. First, in my book, there is no violent way towards reunification. Secondly, it cannot happen until there is positive reconciliation between the two communities in the Six Counties. I have constantly repeated those provisos, but it is wrong to suggest that the hope of ultimate reunification is pie in the sky because it is not immediately achievable. I repeat, however, that reunification cannot occur without those two preconditions.

I was grateful for the reply of the hon. Member for Antrim, North and interested to learn of his approach to co-operation. His attitude to involvement, I believe, brings us closer to reconciliation between North and South. It is important to know of his attitude and I hope that we can exploit such a position. We need that commitment to co-operation from all communities in the Six Counties.

I have doubts about the conference. At one time I felt that it had almost been designed to fail and that there was a policy behind it to appeal over the heads of the politicians who could never agree. I thought that it was a typically Tory Machiavellian plot to put the conference forward, knowing that it would fail, and then produce a Rhodesian-type solution with time limits, demands and so forth. I might not be far wrong.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) mentioned the limitation of paragraph 4. That limitation was immediately apparent to those of us who have spent a long time discussing the problem of the two parts of Ireland, and it dooms the conference to failure. Such issues cannot be avoided and are bound to come up at the conference.

The Secretary of State has invited that to happen. He has said that he will have discussions with political parties and community groups outside the conference and invite them to feed in their ideas, and those ideas are bound to include aspects of unification.

A further consideration is that those who feed in ideas will take exception to their points of view, which may have taken many years to develop, being given second-class treatment. Some of the outsiders will have more support in the community than the "four wise parties" that are asked to attend. For example, the total vote for all the council seats that the Alliance Party holds is probably less than the support for the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) or other hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland seats. They probably have a bigger personal vote than the total Alliance vote, yet the Alliance Party is one of the "four wise parties" that will decide what credence to give to the trade union representations that will not be kindly accepted.

The base of the conference is too narrow. It should be enlarged, and not merely as an afterthought on the basis of "Write to us later and we will have a look at your paper". It is not too late to increase the representation, although I recognise that the conference has to be manageable. The number of representatives could be 20. Church organisations could send a representative, the nongovernmental institutions, which include community groups, peace groups and others, could get together and elect a representative, and the trade unions could send a representative. I do not even see why Northern Ireland Members should be excluded in another capacity. The base and the terms of reference of the conference should be broadened.

I am in the process of discussing documents that have emerged from the Republic in the past six to nine months. I have an important document from Fine Gael that goes a long way towards meeting the aspirations of both communities and particularly the majority community in the Six Counties. That has never been thoroughly discussed and neither have working document from Fianna Fail and other groups in the South that are deeply concerned. The Government cannot say that those groups are not involved. The minute that security is in jeopardy, this House demands that they be involved. Of course they are involved, and those documents are important and should be discussed. It is not too late to do that.

It is not difficult to see why there was reluctance, not just from people such as myself but on the part of many hon. Members even from the Six Counties, to participate in the debate. It is difficult to know what it is about from reading the documents. We have been round this course before. It is said that it is the last chance; but, like the cat, how many last chances are there? It has been suggested that this is the seventh last chance, and we are running out of them. We have had this almost identical debate on many occasions. We return always to the impossible position of trying to impose an English solution on a fundamentally Irish problem.

I remember when Arthur Latham, formerly the hon. Member for Paddington, North, introduced the Bill of Rights in the early 1970s. We had it printed and did not merely talk about it We put it to the vote. A lot of Conservative Members who talk about a Bill of Rights were absent from the Lobbies when we tried to introduce that Bill. I find nothing new in the proposals. The document produced by the Government in 1972 was one of the best analyses of the situation over many years.

That Government recognised what had to be said and did not wrap it up. The sentiments clearly expressed are close to those of the hon. Member for Belfast, West. The 1972 document states:
"It can be argued that the British democratic system only works where a regular alternation of parties is possible; that the real test of a democratic system is its ability to provide peaceful and orderly government and by that standard the existing system has failed in Northern Ireland; that other countries with divided communities have made their special constitutional provision to ensure participation by all; that a number of these countries have had stable and successful coalition governments over many years; and that there is no hope of handing the minority to the support of new political arrangements in Northern Ireland unless they are admitted to active participation in any new structures."
A Conservative Government, not a Labour Government, produced that document.

We have all been saying as much for many years. However, those views are missing from the latest document from the Secretary of State. I can understand—though I do not necessarily agree with it—the reticence of the SDLP about participating in a conference that deliberately omits to acknowledge what everyone knows exists and which has been acknowledged by a previous Conservative Government. The views that I have just expressed have been deliberately excluded from the working paper.

The SDLP was therefore right to be reticent about attending the conference. It was right to argue for different terms of reference, but I hope ultimately that it will come to the conference table. There is no way to solve the problem other than round the conference table. However, the scope of the conference is too limited. It is too inhibiting for the people who should be at the conference if we are to achieve a desirable solution.

We have heard much about integration. How can it logically be said that there is no case for discussion on areas of common concern to two parts of the European Community? There is a common interest in agriculture, transport, water, heating, lighting, gas, employment and security between the Province and Southern Ireland and there are other common areas of interest between the two parts of Ireland. It is totally illogical to say that there is no argument for integration in those areas but that there is a case for the integration of the interests of the farmer from Fermanagh and Tyrone with those of the farmer from Mid-Bucks or Wiltshire. That makes no sense. Far greater co-operation already exists—and did before the present troubles—between the farmers of the North and South of Ireland than ever existed between the farmers of Northern Ireland and those of Aberdeen. It is nonsense to argue that integration is a one-way process.

An important consideration is the type of structure that we propose to set up to continue to monitor those areas of common concern. Such a mechanism would lift a great chunk out of the general controversy in the Six Counties. We should lift that issue out of the arena and leave such bread and buter issues as education and housing to be discussed elsewhere. Areas of common concern should be acknowledged specifically in the working paper, not specifically excluded, because that exclusion creates problems.

It was once said by the Fine Gael spokesman on Northern Ireland that if the minority were excluded from political participation in the North and also prevented from joining the South they would be in a political wilderness. That meant violence. We have the recipe for continued violence unless we recognise the reasons for the violence. We do not condone the violence. We know why it is there. We do not, however, begin to face up to the fact of violence by producing a document which excludes discussions of the reason for that violence.

Before the conference fails, and before it is too late, I urge the Secretary of State to re-examine those aspects which inhibit a comprehensive consideration of the problems in the Six Counties. Let there be discussions with all the political parties, some of which have not been consulted even yet. Having had discussions with those parties the Secretary of State could come back to this House with an amended paper and with fresh proposals for a conference that might really succeed.

7.55 pm

Any Secretary of State who seeks to bring before this House proposals designed to ameliorate the situation in Northern Ireland or to do anything to cure the terrorism from which the Province has suffered for more than 10 years deserves the good will of the House. If through this conference the Secretary of State can achieve any of the five or six proposals set out in his working paper—or even broader solutions such as unity, the return of Stormont, or anything which commands the good will and acceptance of the people of Northern Ireland—it will surely be welcomed here.

However, we should address ourselves to the realities of Northern Ireland rather than to the hopes which are expressed in debate after debate. We should ask ourselves whether we shall be disappointed if the proposed conference does not succeed. I shall try to answer that question this way. We cannot simply take initiatives in Northern Ireland and think that no consequences will flow from those initiatives. I have little doubt—and I doubt whether hon. Members have—that there is a grave danger that a conference of this type, far from helping the situation, may well harden attitudes. I know, because we all read newspapers and see the nuances in the words of the Secretary of State which led up to this proposal, that he, too, is well aware of that difficulty.

A proposal is made that we have a conference at Stormont, with all the emotional overtones that flow from that building. It is a building which would do justice to a legislature of world status. Members of the various political persuasions in Northern Ireland who attend are bound to take up positions. They will take up attitudes in circumstances which are not properly understood here because the Province is so small. Every night after their debates at Stormont the delegates will go back to their executive committees, to the Orange halls, or whatever. They will return to those who expect them to make their point at the conference.

I view the prospect of a conference with some trepidation. That does not mean that we should do nothing. This Government, the previous Administration and previous Secretaries of State have said in clear terms that these proposals are the fruits of bilateral negotiations conducted privately with the parties in Northern Ireland. I cannot say whether that is true. We have been told that these proposals have their origins in such discussions. If in private negotiations either of the Secretaries of State received sufficient encouragement to bring forward this document, they were certainly getting a great deal further forward in private conversations than they appear to have been when the results of those conversations were put before the electorate.

Were the statements about the origin and the background to these proposals made publicly or privately?

I understand that both Secretaries of State indicated that they were having these negotiations and that an initiative would come out of them. An initiative has come. I assume that it is based on previous negotiations.

Once again, we are faced with a proposition that must be faced by every Government finally. Every Government feel that they must make propositions to Northern Ireland and initiate changes. It is certain that no political change that can be envisaged will make one iota of difference to terrorism in Northern Ireland. We should understand that because unfounded hopes are based on political change.

Does that mean that we do nothing? Of course it does not. It means that the House should recognise that continuing direct rule is few people's choice but that it represents the highest common denominator that can at present be achieved in the Province. If that is so, that is the way that we should proceed for the moment. Thereafter we must have mitigation.

Proposals similar to those in model F, which deals with local authorities, should be pursued. However, they should be pursued at a level which is commensurate with the changes. We do not want a high-level conference, but we must go to the local authorities, talk to the people involved and see where the changes can be made. The Minister of State makes daily decisions which should be made by the local authorities in Northern Ireland. Let us start the negotiations with the local authorities where the local politicians are. Let us give to them the powers that start at that level. If we do not succeed in the conference, I hope that we shall make such approaches quietly and at a low level.

For heaven's sake, I hope that if we do not have a successful conference we shall continue the process of persuasion. Nothing proposed by this House will, in the end, do much good in Northern Ireland, even if one concludes through a conference or negotiation that it is broadly acceptable. It is important that the Ulster people should be given the chance to make up their own minds—and that they be made to make up their minds. It is not our duty to impose a solution.

The problem has been with us in an acute form for 10 years. The problem has been in Ireland for centuries. People talk of this being the last chance. There is never a last chance in Northern Ireland. It is a continuing problem. I should be astonished if any hon. Member lived long enough to see a solution. Perhaps that is too pessimistic. I hope that quiet and moderate negotiations at the lowest level will be seen as the way forward in Northern Ireland. I hope that that chance will be taken when it comes.

8.5 pm

I shall speak briefly and, I trust, cautiously, since this is the first time that I have spoken about Northern Ireland in the Chamber. However, it is by no means the first time I have spoken about it elsewhere. I have been involved in a number of ways, both here and in Northern Ireland.

Shortly before I was elected I spent some time in Northern Ireland. I was not there in a political capacity but I was given the opportunity to discuss the problems with people at all levels. I spoke to people from the lowest end of the social scale to the highest end. That gave me a good insight into a number of different views. I was struck by the immense effectiveness of the security operation in Northern Ireland. It is perhaps the most effective security operation that any modern State can mount. The British Army is probably the most experienced in the world in dealing with this type of urban warfare. However, that operation is pitted against local knowledge which is of crucial importance. I was made aware of that in a number of ways. Individuals can obtain details from another person about what school they attended, where they were born and brought up and who their relatives are. That type of local knowledge, combined with the ability to fit in with the local community, often assists a terrorist organisation, from whatever side it operates.

The multitude of views and the uncertainty about future directions was brought home to me. I asked people what they thought that the British Government should do next and I was given a multitude of views. At a meeting a few months ago I was saddened when an American and an Australian asked the same question and received a dozen different replies. They went away in frustration and with a total lack of understanding of what should be the next move. That is a measure of the problem.

The mounting of such a security operation is a threat to democracy. We should never underestimate that. I give an example. The Army photographed from the air all the drains and culverts in an area so that they knew where bombs could be planted. Such highly sophisticated operations give to the police and armed forces a degree of power which they do not normally have in a democracy. In itself that poses a threat to any democratic State.

One of the aims of terrorism is to force the State to take more and more repressive measures because that cultivates the feeling that the State is no longer the protector of the majority. That provides an important psychological boost to the terrorists. Terror is to some extent like war. It breaks down the political system. In Northern Ireland terror thrives partly on nationalism and partly upon a despair of achieving political aims by political means. That aspect of the Government's document is important. It talks of the needs of the minority group to fulfil its political aims legitimately.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said that 20,000 people in his constituency are in receipt of social security benefits. Unemployment and social deprivation at that level provides a breeding ground for terrorist organisations. Therefore, one of the aims must be to enable the minority group to express its political views in a way which it believes to be effective. I have no doubt that for many years there has been gross inequality in Northern Ireland between the minority group and the majority group. That is reflected, primarily, in education, housing and employment. As long as that inequality exists, there will be ideal recruiting territory for the terrorist organisations. If the minority groups are to be given some hope, help must be provided at two levels.

Where is the education inequality in Northern Ireland, considering the help that is given to denominational as well as other schools?

I have in mind education in areas such as that which the hon. Member for Belfast, West represents. Such areas are grossly underprivileged when we consider the money that is made available to them for facilities.

It may be that more money is received by those schools on a per capita basis. I accept that that is good and desirable. However, the facilities that are available to the children who attend schools in such areas are much more limited than in schools elsewhere. I am prepared to accept that some hon. Members may know more about education provision in Northern Ireland than I do, but my feeling remains that there is still inequality at a fairly basic level.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in West Belfast it is the Roman Catholic Church which provides facilities for education at the behest of the local community? State provision is not deficient.

I accept that. There is not necessarily a shortage of State provision. However, the schools that I have seen in areas such as West Belfast seem to have far less available to them than schools in other areas. That is the issue. I am not trying to apportion blame for that. I am not seeking to say that it is the responsibility of the Government or anyone else. I am commenting that for whatever reason there seems to be an inequitable spread of resources.

If the minority group is to have any hope of achieving its political aims, we must bear in mind that the fourth paragraph of the White Paper poses a major problem for the SDLP. I am not criticising anyone for including that paragraph. It is probably not possible to write a White Paper on Northern Ireland without upsetting someone. Ultimately the views of the people of Northern Ireland, however important they may be, cannot exercise a veto on the decision of the House.

If at some stage, be it in the near or the far distant future, the United Kingdom Government choose to cede part of the territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to another State, it will be able to do so and no group, be it in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England, will be able to exercise a veto. We must say that to enable others to understand that what is written in the White Paper does not override the decisions of the House at any future date.

I listened attentively to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). It seems that the hon. Gentleman has left the Chamber. He said something that was significantly different from what I have heard him say hitherto. I have never heard him say before that he would be happy to discuss with the Government in the South certain matters of mutual concern. He mentioned the border, security, and economic, political and social matters. I welcome that. I ask only that he says that much more clearly outside the House.

The image that many have of the hon. Gentleman is that he is totally and utterly opposed to any communication with the Southern Government. That may or may not be fair, but that is the image that exists. Any sign of movement is to be welcomed. I should like to hear more comments of that nature from the parties from Northern Ireland that are represented in this place. If such statements are made, the conference might start with a better chance than we have thought hitherto.

8.15 pm

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I recognise that the matter before the House is peculiarly one for hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland.

I hope that they will recognise that we who represent other constituencies in Britain have a legitimate interest in the solution of the political problems that exist in the Province.

There are two reasons for that. First, there is the obvious reason that the Province is an integral part of the United Kingdom and has been for many hundreds of years. Secondly, we in the House have an inescapable moral and political obligation to ensure the political and economic well-being of all residents in the Province.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the working paper that he has presented. I do not think that it is likely to produce an overall agreement. On the other hand, there is a reasonable chance, given good will and cooperation, that some common ground may be found and identified from which an agreement will subsequently evolve.

I listened with great interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) about the fourth paragraph of the White Paper. I understand why the SDLP considers it to be phrased in an unattractive manner. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it should be possible to rephrase it to make it much more attractive to the SDLP. However, I am convinced that the Secretary of State was right when he made it clear to the House in the working paper and in his speech that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is not to be discussed at the conference. I do not believe that the conference is the right place, or that the present time is the right time, to discuss the constitutional status of the Province. If that element were introduced into the debate it would make the prospect of any agreement much less likely than is presently the position.

The plain fact from which all debate must commence is that the substantial majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish to preserve the Union. That is the political reality that no one in the House has sought to gainsay. It is that political reality that must underlie any debate upon the issue.

My view is a simple one. So long as the majority of the people in Northern Ireland wish to preserve the Union, so long should the House support them in that policy. That is a clear moral and political duty. If that requirement leads to the further deployment or continued deployment of troops, or the massive expenditure of money, that is a burden that I for one am willing to shoulder.

There are some who take a different view. There are some who suppose that by a campaign of murder and terrorism they can weaken the resolve of this House. In my view, they are wholly and tragically wrong. This House should defend the Union for as long as the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland wish to preserve it. That is our duty. That is what we will do. Nothing will deflect us from that task.

I should like to turn to another aspect of the working paper. In the course of his speech, the Secretary of State emphasised, as the working paper emphasises, the importance of protecting the rights of the Catholic minority. I warmly endorse everything that he said on this point. Many of us are only too conscious that in previous decades the Government in Ireland were both partisan and oppressive. We are absolutely determined that this will never happen again. No proposal that does not adequately protect or entrench the rights of the Catholic minority will receive the support of this House.

Will the hon. Gentleman give the percentage of grants made to Roman Catholic schools in Northern Ireland? Will he give the percentage of public sector housing granted to the minority community by previous Northern Ireland Parliaments? If he cannot give those accurate statistics, will he take back the rubbish, nonsense and prejudice that we are hearing?

Of course, I will not. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has points to make he will make them in his speech. I tell the hon. Gentleman this: anybody who knows and understands the politics of Northern Ireland knows perfectly well that from about 1920 to about 1968 there was a degree of wholly unacceptable sectarian government in Northern Ireland. We are not prepared to see it happen again.

I will not give way. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a point, he will doubtless do so in a speech. My point is that we, as a House, will not endorse, or ratify, any proposal that does not fully take into account the interests of the Roman Catholic community in Northern Ireland. That is an absolutely indispensable condition, the absence of which would be wholly fatal to any proposal that any person might bring to this House for our approval. It is precisely in this sphere of protecting minority rights that I feel the greatest concern. Listening to hon. Members who represent Northern Irish constituencies, I doubt whether the interests of the Roman Catholic community will ever be adequately or satisfactorily protected. Because of this fear, I would prefer to see either a continuation of direct rule or a strengthening in local authority rule.

I am wholly and entirely against the concept of devolved Government at this time, for two reasons. First, the greater the jurisdiction that a Government have, the greater the opportunity for oppression. Secondly, on a matter that perhaps does not concern Northern Irish Members as much as it concerns me, I believe that we shall have to look at devolution again at some future time for the remainder of the United Kingdom. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is a matter of doubt. I express only my judgment. I believe that we are going to have to look at devolution. I suspect that if this happens we shall hear a lot from the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell)—

No, I will not give way. We have already had five or six guest appearances from the hon. Member for West Lothian. I do not propose to indulge him again. If we have to look at devolution again, I would greatly prefer to see any devolution for Northern Ireland given in the context of an overall constitutional package rather than in a particular measure given at this time on an ad hoc basis.

Many hon. Members have appealed to the SDLP and to the Official Unionist Party to attend this conference. To the members of the Official Unionist Party, I simply make this observation: they are, by history and by tradition, the heirs, the allies and the friends of the Conservative Party. On the essential issue of the Union we support them. We are prepared to pledge both money and troops in order to protect the Union. In return, we expect some co-operation from them. We ask, in particular, that they should be prepared to sit down and see whether they can identify common areas for agreement.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) asked whether I would expect the Front Benches of both parties to "go into a huddle", to use his phrase. The answer to that question is "Generally, no", but on matters of constitutional change the answer is "Yes". The considerations are wholly and absolutely different. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that we are talking not about trivial policies but about constitutional change.

I welcome the proposal that the Secretary of State has brought forward. I welcome the contents of the working paper. I do not expect any overall settlement to emerge from these talks, but I do believe that some common grounds might be ascertained and identified from which agreement might emerge in the future. This is not an opportunity to be thrown away. Those who neglect it or, having grasped it, misuse it will not be readily forgiven, in this place or elsewhere.

8.28 pm

I have news for the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), whose speech I am delighted to follow. I happen to have in my hand the copy of a letter that was passed to me today by the leader of the Scottish National Party to the Prime Minister making exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman was making, that now is the time, having looked at this wonderful document, to set out on an adventure in standardised devolution for the whole of the United Kingdom. I would be delighted to supply copies.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who is not in his place, has been impatient to hear my views. I am not convinced that other right hon. and hon. Members share his impatience. They realise that I, with all my faults, at least have been consistent during the 10 years that I have been a Member of this House. Therefore, they could deduce with a fair degree of certainty that, although I would express the views that I have been putting to the House over the past 10 years in words that might differ, the principles would not be affected.

However, even if I have caused a certain degree of impatience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am convinced that my decision to wait until I caught your eye in the later stages of the debate was wise. It has meant that, with few exceptions, right hon. and hon. Members representing constituencies in Great Britain have come to the conclusion that I reached over a month ago with regard to this political initiative. No one can say that I have influenced their views in any way, because hon. Members on both sides of the House have been identifying the flaws. They have pointed to the dangers of the renewed argument, which it is now universally agreed will take place, and, most of all, they have highlighted the damaging defects of the uncertainty that will be caused by all the to-ing and fro-ing and the argument and counter-argument to which, if we are unfortunate, we shall be sentenced to endure for the next two or three months.

I think that I have a responsibility to clear up one major element of misunderstanding that has arisen from the remarks made by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). I, too, had heard it put about that this initiative and document were based on confidential discussions between the Secretary of State and the leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland. Those discussions were confidential. But I am sure that the Secretary of State will not mind my saying that, while I do not presume to speak for the other party leaders, I advised against such a course as recently as three days before his announcement.

I have more than a suspicion that in some quarters it is usually considered bad form to quote one's manifesto too frequently. But, as this Parliament is only a few months old, perhaps I will be forgiven for quoting the constitutional objectives set out in the election manifesto of the Ulster Unionist Party which was endorsed by over 250,000 electors.

First and foremost, as the title implies, is the maintenance of the Union without reservation or qualification. The second is:
"the restoration of such a system of devolved government as will neither endanger the Union nor confer contrived privileges on any section of the community."
The third is:
"full democratic local government."
There is absolutely no difficulty in identifying the form of devolved government that would "endanger the Union". It can be recognised if it includes features calculated, for example, to create friction with the United Kingdom Parliament and to provide a standing invitation to confrontation.

The Conservative Party will have no difficulty in understanding that, for it realised, before most others, the dangers and weaknesses of devolved government applied to one part of the kingdom only. Conservative Members saw that clearly in the Scotland Bill and, marshalled efficiently by their then Chief Whip—now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—they voted against that Bill on three-line Whips night after night, and we supported them for the same reasons. At that time we also ensured that our objectives did not go by default.

On 11 November 1977 we tabled a reasoned amendment on Second Reading of the Scotland Bill in the following terms:
"That this House declines to give the Scotland Bill a Second Reading so long as Northern Ireland, an integral part of the United Kingdom, remains deprived of any devolved or local administration above the level of district councils."
In that amendment we drew attention to the lack of any local administration above the level of district councils and, of course, we were mindful of the restricted and limited functions of those district councils in Ulster. In United Kingdom terms—in fact, in British Isles terms—it is in that area that the much talked of vacuum exists. If, as we are told, an initiative is required to fill that vacuum, the process is simple and there is no need for conferences or conventions.

The Government drew up their plans well over a year ago. They knew what was involved before they wrote them into their manifesto in the following words:
"In the absence of devolved government, we will seek to establish one or more elected regional councils with a wide range of powers over local services."
There is nothing mysterious or new about regional or county councils. They exist throughout Great Britain and, for that matter, throughout the Irish Republic.

In all the discussions such as the one in which we are engaged this evening, those about whom we have to think first and foremost are the people who suffer most and who have most to lose, namely, the people of Northern Ireland. It would be cruel and irresponsible if we were to encourage them to believe that their problems would be solved by dramatic gimmicks or inter-party wrangling provoked by searchers for the cheap headline.

Towards the end of the last such experiment, the Convention of 1975, The Daily Telegraph declared that there could be no further
"excuse for tormenting the Province's people with still more discussion and delay".
At the time those words struck me as a reproach, and during the intervening four years I have remained determined to protect our people from such torture.

I cannot forget that in 1975 Parliament set up a constitutional Convention in Northern Ireland. The Government and the official Opposition of the day then rejected its report. At that time we took the view, and still retain the view, that that report by the Convention provided a workable model, though I admit that I expressed some reservations about the workability of the proposed committee system. That report still stands and there is no need to have a conference to explain it. It is there and if it is necessary to submit something to the conference there are still a few copies of it around.

Is it seriously suggested that those elected representatives of the people who laboured in that Convention for almost a year to produce that report are so lacking in political integrity that if they were invited back again they would be prepared to stand their principles on their heads? For example, would those who put their hand to the Convention report be expected to betray the trust placed in them by agreeing to the inclusion in Government of those who are not merely believed to be Republicans but who openly and proudly proclaim their allegiance to another State? Alternatively, is it suggested that, in a replay of the Convention, that minority would be ready to betray everything for which it stands?

In the past few weeks we have all seen reports about imposed solutions. Like many hon. Members who have spoken, I do not credit these. One such, solution, favoured in Dublin, seems to be a consultative or advisory assembly. The motto seems to be "Pay them well and let them talk."

In other words, that solution would appear to follow Mr. Lynch's view, which is to let us have a devolved structure as an interim step towards a united Ireland. That has been Mr. Lynch's request to Her Majesty's Government during recent months. Does any Conservative or Unionist, or anyone in this House who supports the Union, wish to walk into that trap, still less to be pushed into it? I do not suggest that the Secretary of State would for one moment entertain such an outlandish idea. His long experience in the management of politicians will have taught him that such a body would create the maximum friction between the Government and the governed. A body set up with no responsibility, but encouraged to criticise everything, would place a premium on irresponsibility. I am confident that the Secretary of State and the Government will not allow themselves to be driven back on to any such shelf.

The Ulster Unionist Party wants to see genuine and lasting improvement in the methods of government in the Province. We trust that after an interval for reflection and recovery of stability we can, without any further argument, cautiously resume progress. To make that possible it is most important that we avoid recrimination, and in a spirit of real generosity we must help each other back on to firmer ground.

The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have been assured that the Ulster Unionist Party will co-operate to the full in establishing sound government in Northern Ireland broadly along the lines that have been advocated in this debate by most hon. Members from the Conservative Benches and many hon. Members on this side as well. The structure for such government is, as we know, in line with their manifestos.

8.42 pm

I speak not as an expert, as those who have gone before me have spoken, but purely as an ex-Army man. I speak with a great deal of deference, because what I say is what I feel, whereas others who spoke before me spoke as they know. I speak because I am concerned that part of my country has been at war for 10 years—a period of time longer than the First World War and the Second World War put together. During that period 2,000 of my countrymen have been killed and 21,000 injured. I cannot help wondering, if one transferred those figures to the mainland of the United Kingdom and had 70,000 people killed and 700,000 injured, whether we would not take a different and more urgent attitude to the war that has been raging for so long.

I wonder whether we would have agonised so much over civil rights. I wonder whether we would have denied the reintroduction of the death penalty. I wonder whether we would have been quite so squeamish about our methods of interrogation and about internment. Not only has there been a war, but a whole generation of children have had their lives and their youth blighted by constant violence.

What has happened has not been inevitable. It was never inevitable that there should be a war that went on for 10 years in part of my country. There have been terrorist campaigns before. Only about a fortnight ago Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer died. He had pitted himself against a terrorist campaign. He had defeated it and been victorious. He had had the skills and determination to overcome it.

The reason why this war has gone on for so long has a lot to do with misgovernment. Why have things gone wrong? Trained as a simple soldier, I was always trained to look at things in simple terms. We were always told that the first thing we should do was to define our aim. The trouble with Northern Ireland has been that we have confused our aim. We have not been sure whether we want to concentrate on protecting the people of both communities or on indulging the guilt on our consciences over 1,000 years of misgovernment of Ireland.

We heard a very effective, moving and eloquent plea about the Irish dimension today from the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I really believe, if I may make an Irish statement, that the best thing we can do with the Irish dimension is to kill it stone dead. When we have done that it will die. For far too long we have had a muddle-headed approach to this problem. I think that it started with the muddle-headed liberals and their civil rights movement which built up the screen which camouflaged the growth of the IRA. I wonder, if they look back now, whether they believe that circumstances in Northern Ireland are better than they were before they indulged in their civil rights campaign.

If the idea that the hon. Gentleman has been condemning has been alive for so long, how does he think that it can be killed stone dead?

People have been hedging and have not made up their minds. People have been uncertain. If a little certainty and determination are brought into the situation, attitudes can be changed. Faith can move mountains.

Another of the confusions is that it is suggested that those in Northern Ireland who have been most loyal are the Protestant ascendency. It is suggested that they treated the rest of the Province appallingly. But they are ordinary people and circumstances brought about the situation that occurred. They are no different from anyone else here. For a period of time, those people were treated in a way which was quite unreasonable. There was a policy of equality of alienation. If the IRA did something, it was condemned, and then something Protestant was found to condemn as well. I can think of no better way to undermine the sense of security of the majority of people who live in Northern Ireland. That was a fundamental mistake and I hope that we have learnt our lesson.

Another of the confusions is the romantic vision—I think it is shared by some Opposition Members—which has totally obscured the bestiality of the IRA. I said that we should start with an aim. I was taught in war that the aim was to kill the enemy. I commend that to my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Gentleman is speaking as a simple soldier, to use his own words. Has he ever served in Northern Ireland? If so, would he have been quite so simple?

In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, no, I have not served in Northern Ireland, but many of my colleagues to whom I have spoken have served in Northern Ireland. Having answered the first part of that question, I cannot answer the second part, can I?

I should like to make a point about attitude. A war is not won unless there is determination to win that war, and unless there is self-confidence and the belief that one will win, that one will make it. For years we have said that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom so long as it wishes to do so. If we believe that we shall be successful and that our policies will work, Northern Ireland will wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. So why do we qualify the statement in that way? Northern Ireland is, and must be, part of the United Kingdom, just the same as Piddletrenthide or Ashby de la Zouche. Would you say to a Yorkshireman "You can remain part of England as long as you want to remain part of England"? We would get a "Harvey Smith". So long as we compromise and qualify this statement, we are giving encouragement to the IRA, who believe that there is a chink in our position and that they can prise us apart. I make a plea that in future, when any Minister talks about Northern Ireland, he talks about it as an internal part of the United Kingdom and on the basis that it will always be a part of the United Kingdom. It will make it easier for the Irish Republic and for our friends in the United States if they come to realise our determination and the facts that I have disclosed.

I should like to make three points about the White Paper. An economist has been defined as someone who can find 13 sides to a 12-sided argument. I believe that the person who produced this White Paper is a very clever economist. It is rather like Heinz 57 varieties. I suggest, with humility, that we should not dilly-dally. We should get on. We know what people think in Northern Ireland. If, after 10 years, we do not know what they think, I do not know that the conference will make very much difference.

The Government should have their own proposals. They should come forward with those proposals. We are asking people to have a discussion, but can they agree? Will their parties let them agree? Will the constituents of my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland, and those of Opposition Members from Northern Ireland, let their representatives agree to the same sort of thing? If we have any agreement, if we have any commonalty, will that which is agreed be the important issue or will it be the unimportant issue? Will the agreement be satisfactory? Will it be what we want, or not?

It says in the White Paper that we should transfer as wide a range of powers as possible. Why? Before I came to this House there were discussions about devolution for Scotland and Wales. Devolution was rejected. Why cannot we make Northern Ireland as Scotland and Wales—

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there was a majority for the Scottish Assembly package? If so, why does he say that it was rejected?

As I understand it, the referendum was held on a certain basis, and on that basis there was no devolution for Scotland. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will not be any devolution for Scotland or Wales during this Parliament or in the foreseeable future. Let him get adjusted to that.

Surely, with regard to Northern Ireland, the best answer, which has already been suggested by hon. Members on each side of the House—and especially by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), who spoke last—is to go for model F, whereby Northern Ireland will become more like the rest of the United Kingdom than it has been in the past. This surely would be a body blow for the IRA.

I should like to end on an allegorical note. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, when he is considering the problems of Northern Ireland, to consider himself rather more as Churchill than as Chamberlain. Let him be firm before he is gentle. Let him be resolute before he is fair. Surely by now the people in Northern Ireland must be sick of the violence, the suffering, the bereavement, the tragedy, that they have had to put up with for so long, on a scale that we on this side of the Irish Sea would find hard to imagine. I am sure that they are waiting for a lead. They are waiting for somebody with determination. They are waiting for somebody who knows what he wants to do. They are waiting for somebody who can show them that he knows what he wants to do and who has a programme that will succeed. If that programme succeeds, they will follow the lead that is given.

There is a saying, which my right hon. Friend may have heard before, that fortune favours the brave. Speaking not literally, I say "Make your plans, say your prayers, pick up your map, get in your tank and drive. You will be surprised how many people will follow you."

8.53 pm

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) will forgive me if I do not follow his comments very precisely, except to say that I think he was a little less than fair to those who have been commanding our security forces in Northern Ireland over the past 10 years, and for not recognising how brilliantly they have handled a most complex and difficult problem, perhaps quite unlike any that has been seen in any country in the Western world this century.

I am sorry, but I shall not give way. Having made those comments, I come straight to the working paper on the government of Northern Ireland. I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the reality which shines through certain parts of this document. In particular, I should like to draw attention to the fact that he is not any longer offering this House or this nation some simple political initiative which will end the violence and bring peace to that most tortured Province.

In the past, we have been led by many politicians to believe that there was some magic formula and that, if only we could find it, it would produce peace in Northern Ireland and make us all realise that there is a solution to every problem. I recall that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) once said that that was a proposition which did not necessarily hold true. It seems to me that the White Paper bears out his thoughts. We have dispelled from our minds the idea that there is a political solution that can end the violence.

The second reality contained in the working paper is the reference to the suggestion that we must consider the Irish dimension in any discussion of a possible devolution of powers to the Province. That argument has been a will-o'-the-wisp and is extraneous to the central thrust of what we should have been discussing. Its removal from the debate will be of help to the Secretary of State when he considers the possibility of a conference.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux). I am glad that he has broken his self-imposed silence and has told the House how his party has considered the conference and the political future of Northern Ireland. He will not be surprised to know that I agree with all that he said. I particularly agree with the stress that he laid on district councils. If in the way forward, we seek, to quote the working paper, the "highest possible level" of agreement, that agreement exists now about the district councils that already serve the people of Northern Ireland.

Looking into the future and building upon success offer the greatest hope to the momentum that the Secretary of State has started in publishing the document. If the conference does not take place and the six models are not considered—as he had hoped—by the political parties, he will have an immediate opportunity to make some progress. That clearly has the support of all political parties in the Province and will not create the arguments and controversy that we have heard today.

There is a desire to recognise the rightful aspirations of the minority in Northern Ireland. The working paper stresses that there is an imbalance which must be noted. We must be careful not to presuppose that nothing has changed in the last 10 years. All the Members of Parliament from the Province have changed. There will be another five or six Members for Northern Ireland in the next Parliament. We have been through the agonies of the conferences and the Covention. If I were an Ulster Unionist, I might wonder why our report of that Convention was declared invalid by the British Government because it did not fit their ideas.

There has been a change in the type of person coming from the Province to Westminster. There has been a change in the recognition of the Province's political problems and we shall soon see a large number of new hon. Members representing Northern Ireland. That should make us realise that Northern Ireland has a new United Kingdom dimension which it did not have when Stormont existed. On Monday, we approved the setting up of 14 Select Committees. Two relate to Scotland and Wales. When the new Northern Ireland Members are elected, there must be a Select Committee to scrutinise the affairs of Northern Ireland in the same way as the affairs of Scotland and Wales will be scrutinised.

We are apt to assume that every Protestant votes Unionist and every Catholic votes for the SDLP as if there were just two political parties and two blocs. In fact, 16 political parties contested the last general election in the Province. Anyone who chooses to examine how the votes were cast will realise that a considerable number of Catholics must have voted for the various Unionist parties.

The suggestion that we can say that the minority votes only one way is not true. The people of Northern Ireland are flexing their political muscles as never before. Like those on this side of the Irish Sea, they are looking at political alternatives to express their views and attitudes.

If we try to bend democracy and to create what we believe to be a favoured position for the minority, or at least to put them on all fours with the majority, we shall damage democracy in Northern Ireland and ultimately damage parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom.

The charming supposition of the working paper that one of the beauties of our system is that the other side always knows that one day it will be in office may be attractive to the authors, but it is surely one of the principles that we politicians fight against as hard as we know how. Has anyone ever suggested that because the Liberals last formed a Government in 1914, their turn has come to form another? Of course not. No Conservative wants to see Labour in office and no Labour supporter wants to see the Conservatives in power. We must be careful not to bend democracy and damage the best political system in the world.

Surely the key is that we should give the other side the feeling that it has an opportunity. At the moment, members of the minority community in Northern Ireland feel that they have no chance of winning. In those circumstances, do we not have to make some special arrangements?

That is a fair point, but I suspect that Liberals feel that they have not had an opportunity for some time, and I am not sure that I wish to change the political system in order to give them that opportunity.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) referred to paragraph 30 of the working paper. The last sentence of that paragraph reads:
"Moreover, it is the perception of the minority community that the majority, in the exercise of the powers of government, have failed to take proper account of minority interests. In this situation it is necessary, if new arrangements for Northern Ireland are to gain the public confidence on which stability depends, that they should embrace a formula that gives appropriate recognition to the rights of both the majority and minority communities."
In effect, that sentence is reminding us of the past when it was felt that the; legislative powers of Stormont acted against the interests of the minority.

It is on the word "legislative" that I wish to conclude. If we were to create any form of legislative assembly in Northern Ireland, we would recreate those fears and would find ourselves driven into trying to bend democracy to help the minority.

It follows that, just as the powers of the district councils should be expanded so that they are put on all fours with the rest of the United Kingdom, whatever devolution we think of should be administrative and not legislative.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will get the conference off the ground, but if he cannot the district council must surely be his first step. After that, why should we not move on to the regional council mentioned in our manifesto? It was to be administrative, and I believe that it will enjoy more support if it is seen to be set up in such a way that the people of Northern Ireland recognise that there is nothing partisan about it.

Is it too late to do what the late Airey Neave suggested and ask some outside but highly distinguished person to consider the possibility of another tier of local government being set up in Northern Ireland, in such a way that a report may be produced and brought before this House to be debated?

9.5 pm

What an interesting and amazing day we have all had. One hon. Member informed us that he had given support to the power-sharing Executive but that now he did not really know why. Another hon. Member told us that he had heard for the first time the remarks of my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), on the Irish dimension, yet they were contained in a document published in 1975. Then we had the spectacle of the leader of the Official Unionist Party, the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), telling us that he was going to submit the Convention report to the conference, yet on his appointment as leader he said that this offer had been withdrawn.

Is it not interesting to see the tactics of the Official Unionist Party, so unsure are its members of their stand on this issue that they leave their remarks to the end?

I shall not give way. If Members of the hon. Gentleman's party had sought to speak earlier, when they had ample opportunity, they would not need to take the last few moments that I have to interrupt.

I value the opportunity to speak in what I believe is one of the most important debates on Northern Ireland since I entered the House. Clearly the Government's consultative document is not in itself a solution. That is recognised by everybody in the House. However, it is at least an opportunity—an opportunity that should be grasped—for the people of Northern Ireland and their political leaders to deal with the problems of Government institutions that have beset Northern Ireland for so long. The consultative document affords a reasonable basis for talks to take place. Therefore, my party will be present at those talks. However, the document is not ideal. We freely admit that. It is not ideal for Unionists, and the SDLP attitude has clearly demonstrated that it is not ideal for Republicans. However, we all must swallow something.

Let it be understood that the choice before us in this document is clearly that which is set out in paragraph 28—namely, that we have an either/or situation. Either we have devolved Government, on the basis put forward in the consultative document, or we have local government reform. We do not have both. It is clearly set out that local government, as we see it in the other parts of the United Kingdom, would not come to Northern Ireland with a devolved Parliament as well.

I put it to the Official Unionist Party that its members, by not taking part in this conference, are opting for the alternative of local government reform. By doing so they are welching on the promises of their own manifesto. I believe that that proposal will be firmly rejected by the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.

I say this to the Official Unionist Party this evening. Its members have told us that their reason for not attending the conference was that the document was ill conceived and that the conference would be window dressing and a waste of time. However, I say that there are only two reasons why they will not be present. The first is that perhaps the hon. Member for Antrim, South made a hasty judgment in jumping to his feet on 25 October—

—and in everything the hon. Gentleman has said since then he has tried to excuse that position.

That is what he said, I believe, on 25 October in reply to the Secretary of State's statement in the House.

The interesting point is that in the manifesto to commitment to devolved government the hon. Gentleman's party did not tell the people of Northern Ireland that it wanted local government reform first and thereafter would try to obtain a suitable Parliament for Northern Ireland. It was put as a priority to the people, and I suspect that on that basis many of the Unionist candidates won votes.

How many did I get in Belfast, East and how many did my hon. Friend get in Antrim, North? How many did my colleague get in the European elections, when he topped the poll? The answer is, more than the members of the party of the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker) put together. If the hon. Member for Armagh exercised his mind as much as he exercises his jaws, his party would be in a better position today.

The people of Northern Ireland clearly want devolved government. They have expressed that wish repeatedly at the ballot box. The working paper is not an ideal document, but at least it offers us an opportunity. I could not stand before my children and say that I had refused to take that opportunity. Let succeeding generations point the finger at the Official Unionist Party and say that in 1979 it had the chance but it did not take it. The finger of accusation will not be pointed at my party.

We shall go to the conference. I hope that it takes place. I hope that the Secretary of State will not be intimidated by the boycotters in the Official Unionist Party. I hope that the SDLP will return from the wilderness into which it has been led by the little green men within the party.

I remember a television programme that I did with the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). He clearly expressed the hope that his party would be at the conference. We all know what happened, but is it not sad to see who was cheering on the sidelines when the SDLP said that it would not come? It was Gerry Adams, one of the leaders of the Provisional IRA. No doubt that same man is throwing bouquets to the Official Unionists, who, in effect, are saying that direct rule will continue. They are saying that one of the IRA's excuses for continuing the violence will remain. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Armagh should tell the constituents of my hon. Friends that there are traitors in my party because they wish to have devolved government when he campaigned on that very issue himself.

The hon. Gentleman belabours me with being a supporter of integration. If wanting full membership and citizenship of the United Kingdom is to be an integrationist, I am quite happy to be called that. Why did the hon. Gentleman's party, four or five years ago, actually fight elections on a manifesto advocating integration? Who were the advocates of integration? What has changed the hon. Gentleman's mind on that matter which allows him to lecture me tonight?

Well, the hon. Member should have heard the answer many times before. My party has clearly stated that there was a time when it would have been beneficial for the people of Northern Ireland to have had integration. That time has passed. Successive Governments have betrayed the people of Northern Ireland. They have refused to listen to those who elected them. Now we have an opportunity, as Ulstermen, to thrash out a solution for ourselves. Will the Official Unionists give away that opportunity, because we certainly will not?

9.14 pm

I deliberately gave more time to Back Benchers so that they could voice their views, but having heard the contribution of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) I somewhat regret having done so. His speech appeared to mar what I thought had been, until then, a very constructive debate.

I shall be brief. The Minister of State has been asked many questions and has been writing furiously. He will be answering them as best he can. We fully recognise the problems and difficulties that face the Secretary of State on the issue before us. The right hon. Gentleman may feel that those problems and difficulties have worsened during the debate, but I suspect that he anticipated all the adverse criticism that has been made.

Our position has already been clearly spelt out by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), first when the Secretary of State announced his intention to invite the four major parties to the conference and again today in the course of this debate. We shall do nothing to impede him in his efforts to get the conference off the ground. We have many reservations on the document itself and criticisms of it. They have been spelt out by my hon. Friend. They are, however, intended to be constructive criticisms and I am sure that the Secretary of State takes them in that way. I shall return to them later.

In a week of some difficulty for the Secretary of State, I add my tribute to him and his predecessor for the effort that they have put in, in the rounds of talks over many months with the political parties in Northern Ireland. I know that criticism has been levelled at my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) by many of my hon. Friends for having not initiated a political forum. I do not wish to be dismal in the context of this document, but the events of the past few days may prove that he was right and that timing in a matter of this kind is of the essence. I hope not, but it may well be that if this conference fails it will be because the groundwork for the conference has been faulty. I say that and no more.

Some would argue that if the conference were to founder the great danger would be that the momentum that has been built up would founder with it. There would then be some very poignant remarks to the Secretary of State about that. I hope that the Secretary of State will resist that reasoning. Should this conference not get off the ground, his time would be better used analysing what went wrong in the build-up to his announcement. A few wires may well have got crossed and there will be time for reflection. To carry on regardless would be a mistake, especially if, as was hinted by the Under-Secretary of State, because of his majority in this House of Commons, he would be prepared virtually to bulldoze through any measure of his Government's choosing. We would expect that to be repudiated. There has been a hint of this from a press report and we would expect that he was inaccurately reported, but we would like the Minister of State to spell that out when he comes to reply.

I can certainly understand why the Secretary of State took this initiative. Following the last general election, he must have felt that all the four political parties which have been invited to the proposed conference had, in some form or other, asked their electors to vote for them on the basis of some kind of political initiative. I believe that they were right to do so and that they were in tune with the electors; and that basically their electors want such an initiative now. In a recent article in The Economist under the heading "An Initiative born to fail", these words were written:
"Not a single Northern Ireland politician expects any real gains to come from the exercise. None believe that Mrs. Thatcher's government itself seriously hopes for any. What the Northern Ireland politicians now wonder is why it was attempted at all. Many of them believe that the real initiative will come once this present plan has been seen to collapse.
The scheme announced in the House of Commons last week by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State seems bound for failure because the people of Ulster, on both sides of the political divide, have no real desire to compromise with each other."
I believe that the last few words especially are utter nonsense. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland are much more flexible in their approach to issues of this kind than they are often given credit for and that there is a general desire on the part of the people of Ulster to get together and to mend fences. The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) referred to a recent opinion poll carried out by Opinion Research Centre for Independent Television which was pubished in New Society on 6 September.

That survey indicates that Roman Catholics and Protestants alike are united in the desire to create a form of government which would encourage both communities to work together. The political initiative which 77 per cent. of the Catholics, 73 per cent. of the Protestants and 76 per cent. of all those interviewed want is an elected assembly with substantial powers in Northern Ireland and with guaranteed representation in decision making for both communities. There were many other such examples in that survey. I do not believe, any more than anybody else, that opinion polls are a true indicator. Nevertheless, that poll indicates something which the Secretary of State should accept. I also believe that if this initiative fails he will find a bedrock of support for his general approach.

The hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and others made the point that they wanted to see the strengthening of local government powers. However, none of those who spoke expressed any of the problems or the fears that are felt by the minority community about that sort of reorganisation. We should remind ourselves what sparked off the civil rights movement in the first place—the alleged abuse of local government powers. We should place that fact on record.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) made a reasoned speech in the main. I say that because he agreed with so much of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd. On the question of the Irish dimension, the hon. Member for Antrim, North will be quoted long and hard. I know that he likes to be quoted. It was refreshing to hear his remarks about co-operation with the South and the common sense of that approach. He pointed out some of the practical schemes that already operate between the North and the South. He agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd about the way in which the Secretary of State must somehow ensure that the elected representatives of this House are enmeshed within the conference arrangements so that they are in tune with what is being discussed by the parties which attend.

I believe that it would be wrong to ignore the fact that at the last general election the Alliance Party polled 11·9 per cent. of the votes cast. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) also referred to that fact. The party of the hon. Member for Antrim, North polled 10·2 per cent. of the votes cast. Therefore, it would be wrong to leave out of a conference a party which represents a shade of opinion with that sort of strength.

I apologise for my absence during the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I am told that he made a good, constructive speech and in no way expressed acrimony towards his former colleagues in the SDLP. Indeed, he urged them to attend the proposed conference. This debate must have been a sad occasion for him but I am sure that the House will hear his voice in many years to come, whatever may be his future political label. He said that direct rule has been a total disaster. I am sure that he is in tune with his constituents on most matters, but he is out of tune on that one. Every poll has shown that direct rule is a popular measure in the main. We do not believe that it should continue for much longer if a better system can be evolved. However, we are in tune with the hon. Member when he talks about his special regard for the social deprivation within his constituency. Certainly, we shall fight with him to see that that is eradicated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) was on sterile ground when he said that there was no difference between the two sides of the House. If he talks to trade unionists in Belfast and elsewhere, he will find that the difference between the two sides of the House on social and economic aspects of life in Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly stark. I do not want to develop that theme, but I wish that he would take on board that point.

If my hon. Friend wishes to intervene, I shall give way. It appears that he does not. I wish to say to the House—

I never saw my hon. Friend in an Irish debate or at Irish Question Time until he became a Minister.

As a Government Whip and an Opposition Whip, I sat through more Irish Question Times than my hon. Friend.

I have no intention of going back over ground that was so well covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, but I should like to spell out some of the questions that he put to the Minister.

The House would like to know more about the weighted vote and how it will operate. A further point is that the document does not go into a great deal of detail on the Bill of Rights, which means so many things to many people. We should like a clear commitment from the Government. My hon. Friend asked if there was a draft lurking round the Northern Ireland Office. Is that so?

There is a very good draft before the House of Lords at this moment, which has been propounded by my noble Friend Lord Wade.

Can the Minister say whether that is so and whether he would be prepared to adopt such a draft?

Will Northern Ireland Members at Westminster be allowed to vote on devolved questions should the conference be successful? My hon. Friend finally wanted to know whether the Government were prepared to see the conference further broadened to include the Churches, the CBI and the TUC.

I believe that the debate has contributed to the kind of dialogue that the Secretary of State wanted, and it is right that we should spell out our views as clearly and constructively as did my hon. Friend when he opened. We wish the Government well. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a better deal.

9.28 pm

The debate has been fascinating and instructive. As a comparative newcomer to the Northern Ireland scene and in the light of what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) said, I must tread carefully.

In winding-up, I have at least two objectives. I wish to focus on the helpful points that have emerged in the debate and look at the difficulties to which a number of hon. Members have referred and with which we are all too familiar. I shall also do my best to cover some of the specific questions raised by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John). Looking at the cheerful aspect of the Northern Ireland situation is a good way to approach the problems.

The positive approach taken both by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) on the one side and by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) on the other was the most significant and encouraging feature of the debate. The two hon Members are usually regarded as irresistible forces bent on a collision course. Today they showed an ability to approach the working paper from differing viewpoints and still find sufficient common ground at least to confer about its contents.

I have no doubt that anyone who has listened to the whole debate and reflected upon what has happened here must be impressed by the positive, moderate and constructive approach taken by the two hon. Members. Both made no bones about the fact that though they approached the working paper with some ideas in common there were a great many elements upon which they desagreed. They have the common aim of securing some form of devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland. They want greater autonomy in politics and local administration as they affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary Ulstermen. They think, as do many hon. Members, that devolution is a valid approach to the question of Northern Ireland. Devolved government, they believe, is a worthwhile aim. They also believe that fundamentally the working paper is far from ideal.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West noted ruefully that Irish unity is out. He expressed his profound disappointment at that. The hon. Member for Antrim, North was equally rueful in his recognition that Stormont is also out. He said that that is a fundamental defect in the proposals. Their regrets, however, did not prevent them from conferring about the working paper. The hon. Member for Antrim, North was prepared within the narrow scope of the working paper to accept the invitation to the conference and the hon. Member for Belfast, West agreed to urge his successor as leader of the SDLP to attend.

Both hon. Members see, in the aim and the principle of restoring more local powers to the people of the Province, great advantages for the people that they represent. That is also the Goverment's view. Two important and crucial questions claimed the attention of both hon. Members—the so-called Irish dimension and the question of direct participation by minorities. It is worth spending some time in commenting, in general terms, about both these aspects of the working paper in the light of what has been said by the hon. Members.

On the issue of the Irish dimension, the House will have been impressed, as I was, by the sober and realistic analysis by the hon. Member for Antrim, North in differentiating sharply between Union and co-operation. They are two fundamentally different realities.

I have been asked to comment on the Government's approach to the so-called Irish dimension. I repeat what my right hon. Friend has said. If "Irish dimension" means clear moves towards the unity of Ireland, it will not be on the agenda. It is ruled out by paragraph 4 of the document. The hon. Member for Belfast, West chided us for being so brutally frank about that. We all know of the irreconcilable views in Northern Ireland on that matter. It is not an issue which allows a compromise. Either one wants Irish unity or one believes in the unity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This Government, like their predecessors, believe that the people of Northern Ireland must decide. If they want Irish unity, the Government will not stand in the way. However, so long as they wish the Union to continue we shall respect that wish. The hon. Member for Belfast, West's own party fundamentally endorses the principle of consent in this matter.

I certainly support what the Minister has said. The principle of consent is SDLP policy. However, the members of that party believe that paragraph 4 will in some way preclude them from acting in a peaceful political way to try to bring about Irish unity. Will the Minister assure the House that no handcuffs or restrictions will be placed on that minority section of the population if it wishes to engage in peaceful political persuasion?

The conference is not exactly the right arena for the processes of peaceful political persuasion of the majority of people of Northern Ireland whom the hon. Member must peacefully persuade to give their consent to the unification, or reunification, of Ireland. The conference is not the place for that. To win majority support, the hon. Member's recently abandoned party must use the normal political processes of debate and argument in the political arena outside the conference.

The Government believe that free choice for the people of Northern Ireland on this fundamental issue is both a moral and a practical imperative. There is no other way. All responsible opinion accepts that there can be no change in Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the people most affected. That is the Government's view. Clearly, there is no point in the conference discussing the long-term constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

Is not the most effective way of removing the ghost and the fear of an Irish dimension and power sharing to remove the 1973 constitution Act which is still on the statute book?

While that is still there, many Unionist people believe that it could be tailored to any future constitutional purpose.

The removal of an Act is not a topic on which to make a pronouncement when we are talking of the attempt to construct a new political or constitutional Act. What becomes of the 1973 Act is not relevant to what we are trying to build through this document and debate. There is no point in the conference discussing the long-term constitutional future of Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend has said, that would be pointless and unproductive.

The hon. Member for Belfast, West chided us for being so brutally frank about the fourth paragraph. The hon. Member for Antrim, North made it clear that there is another way of considering the Irish dimension. If, for example, the Irish dimension means the effect that geography must have on the relationship between the local administration in Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, that is clearly a different matter. Of course there is an Irish dimension. It has always existed and it will continue to exist. Irrespective of whether the United Kingdom is a member of the EEC, there has always been and will always be a European dimension in the United Kingdom's affairs. The effect of geography is inescapable. That must apply to Northern Ireland and the Irish dimension.

Any new Administration that is set up in Belfast as a result of the principles set out in the White Paper and the conference that we hope will follow from it must take account of Northern Ireland's land boundary with the Republic. It will need to take account of the opportunities for liaison and the mutually beneficial cooperation that may exist on transferred matters. It will be able to give its own consideration to how relations with Dublin should develop in future.

That will happen inevitably in the areas to which it has devolved responsibility. To turn a blind eye, to pretend that it will not happen, or to say that it will not happen, is to defy reality. In the way that I have described it, the Irish dimension must be a factor in any consideration of how Northern Ireland should be governed. In that form it may well arise in discussion on new arrangements at the conference.

I ask the Minister to be more precise. The hon. Gentleman appears to be envisaging direct relations between the devolved Government which he thinks of in Northern Ireland and the Government of the independent State of the Irish Republic. He drew an analogy with the European interests in different parts of Great Britain. Does he envisage local administration in different parts of Great Britain having direct relations with any foreign Power?

We are talking about the possibility of a form of devolved government in the Province that is not necessarily symmetrical with forms of devolved government, or local government, in Great Britain. Were we to secure a degree of devolved government with transferred powers in a number of areas—for example, agriculture, in which there is a necessary and inescapable correlation between the two sides of the common frontier—there is in principle no reason in logic why there should be any precedent in Great Britain and why there should not be consultations between the leaders of the devolved Administration in Belfast and the Government of the Republic.

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that Mr. O'Neill, Prime Minister of the old Stormont, found nothing improper about going to Dublin to confer on issues which were of great concern. I know that the hon. Member for Antrim, North did not like that much, but it could not be alleged in any sense that that was the first chink in the armour of those who wanted to sustain and support the Act of Union.

Is the Minister able to produce any analogies for this notion of a devolved Administration in part of a unitary State having charge of external affairs with foreign countries? Does it happen in the German Federal Republic, for instance?

I cannot see why it should be necessary to produce a precedent. There is in many ways no precedent, no counterpart. If we consider the shape and pattern of government in Great Britain, we see that a substantial part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is separated from the rest of the peoples and territory of the mainland and has a common frontier with another sovereign State immediately contingent to it. This is a unique phenomenon and precedent. One has to construct relationships in practical day-to-day matters on the reality that there is a common territory. There is nothing sinister or sombre about that.

Is it not a fact that the Stormont Government, who were not a sovereign Government or sovereign Parliament, had departmental arrangements with corresponding Departments of the Eire Government? An arrangement was made in regard to the GNR to use the workshops at Drogheda to repair the engines and refurbish the carriages used in Northern Ireland. Is it not a fact that Erne drainage scheme and also the Tanderagee electricity scheme were joint affairs? I think that the Minister is unfortunate in using the illustration of Terence O'Neill.

The hon. Gentleman is a great deal more knowledgeable about the Province he represents than I am. The hon. Gentleman has sufficiently demonstrated that there are precedents for this kind of activity between the North and the South. There is no reason for precedents to be adduced to justify this in other parts of the United Kingdom.

A question that occupied the attention of the hon. Members for Belfast, West and for Antrim, North and many other hon. Members is the direct participation by a minority to which reference is made in what the hon. Member for Belfast, West knows is the critical paragraph 32. Suffice it to say, I believe that the White Paper makes clear that the 1974 arrangements for power sharing are disallowed. I am glad to note that neither the hon. Member for Antrim, North nor the hon. Member for Belfast, West jibbed at the principle that there is a role for the minority, appropriately and properly discussed, in the way presented in the White Paper. Its simple appearance has not deterred them in any way from taking part in the conference.

I want to say a word about the local government option, model F, to which reference was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison). My hon. Friend expressed preference for that option if there is to be a change from direct rule. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), likewise, expressed preference, in principle, for the local government option. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) made special reference to the more limited aim of increasing the power, in a simple and not very ambitious way, of the existing district councils.

That is a tempting offer. The Government's approach is that the final system of devolved government chosen, which could include model F, if the conference so concludes, will be that which, in practical terms, is most useful and most helpful for the people of the Province in their public administration needs. At first sight, I am bound to say that the problems raised in paragraph 28 of the discussion document are formidable. The danger is particularly spelt out of over-government, as the paragraph puts it.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, in particular, will be kind enough to glance at paragraphs 18 and 19, he will see that the more limited range in paragraph 19 of matters that might be transferred to local control exclude agriculture, commerce, employment, administration of the health service and the social security system, which would remain with the central Government at Westminster. Those that would be transferred, if we had the local government option listed in paragraph 18, namely, housing, roads and internal transportation, water and sewerage, town and country planning and protection of the environment, health, social services, social security and education, are by far the most contentious and difficult powers to transfer.

It seems paradoxical, if we are prepared on a local government basis to transfer the powers referred to in paragraph 18, not to go the whole hog and transfer the powers, much less controversial in their impact upon some of the sensitivities in the Province, listed in paragraph 19.

Surely we should not at this stage dogmatise about which powers should be handed to local authorities. It would be reasonable for some of the powers that were removed from local authorities by the Stormont Government headed by Brian Faulkner to remain with central Government. But we need not at this stage tie ourselves down to which power would be put where.

We are not doing that. I am making the simple point that if we draw the cut-off line at paragraph 19 and disallow the transfer of the not very controversial powers listed in paragraph 19, we involve ourselves in the range of difficulties—particularly in terms of overgovernment—so clearly spelt out in paragraph 28. It might be to the advantage of the system of devolution to think of it not in local government terms but in the sense of devolving all the powers listed in paragraphs 18 and 19.

The local government option can be approached from a different angle. It may be that my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest and for Buckingham approach it in that way. The different angle to which I refer is the argument of symmetry with the rest of the United Kingdom—with Great Britain in particular—in the matter of devolved powers to Northern Ireland so that no more is devolved than that which would make it symmetrical. The powers available to local authorities in Great Britain are a positive reinforcement of the principle of Union and of commitment to the United Kingdom, because symmetry tends to reinforce participation and membership of the United Kingdom. Even if it involves some local disadvantages in terms of over-government in the Province, that is a price well worth paying—

—to gain the advantages of symmetry, identity and common practice with the rest of the United Kingdom, thus emphasising and enhancing the absolute commonalty of the Province in respect of the Union.

Is the Minister aware that if the conference reaches any kind of agreement it will not be the agreement that he is spending so much time discussing? The people of Northern Ireland will not understand the talk between himself and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison). Will he deal with some important points, such as the membership of the conference, and give a clear assurance to the Ulster people that there will be a referendum on the agreement at the end of the day?

I have heard the hon. Gentleman's question and I promise to refer to it before I sit down, if there are not too many interruptions.