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Constitutional Conference

Volume 978: debated on Thursday 7 February 1980

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


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the constitutional conference including the parallel talks with political parties.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the progress of his constitutional talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has considered any final date for the ending of the conference on Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the constitutional conference and other talks taking place on Northern Ireland; and what is their cost to date.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the progress made during the present conference on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the progress of the constitutional conference on Northern Ireland.


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

The conference opened on Monday 7 January in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, under my chairmanship. It is attended by representatives of the Alliance, Ulster Democratic Unionist, and Social Democratic and Labour parties. The invitation extended to the Official Unionist Party was declined.

The object of the conference is to identify the highest level of agreement on the transfer to locally elected representatives in Northern Ireland of some of the powers of government. The conference has so far held 17 sessions. It meets again the week after next.

After general policy papers had been presented by the parties, an order of business was agreed, based on the questions in the Government's working paper, Cmnd 7763. Because the separate agenda items interlock, the conference, after preliminary discussion of them, is likely to return to them at a later stage. The conference is at present engaged in a detailed consideration of how a devolved administration would work in practice and of the role of the minority in it.

While, of course, there are major differences of view among participants, the conference discussions have been serious and businesslike. I take this opportunity on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to thank all participants. I shall, in due course, report to the House the outcome of the conference. As there is still much work to be done, I cannot set a final date for the conference.

As regards parallel talks, these are with Northern Ireland political leaders on matters outside the scope of the conference, but relevant to the relationship between Her Majesty's Government and any new elected body in Northern Ireland. I met leading members of the SDLP on Wednesday 30 January, when they set out their views on matters relating to security. There will be further meetings on this and other subjects.

The extra cost to public funds of the conference up to 1 February is estimated at £23,000.

Order. I propose to call first the seven hon. Members whose questions are being answered. I then hope to give a fair run to the House.

Since it is alleged by the SDLP that Unionist-majority district councils cannot be trusted to treat the minority fairly, will my right hon. Friend appoint what might be called a little Macrory inquiry to ascertain what structure of regional and local bodies can best prevent that?

I know that allegations of this kind have been made. There is statutory machinery for considering these matters—the Commissioner for Complaints, the Fair Employment Agency, and so on. But these, admittedly, are somewhat cumbersome bodies and rather slow to act. I think that the purposes of the conference include what my hon. Friend suggests. It is essential that government in Northern Ireland, whether at district council or higher level not only works properly but is seen to work properly and takes account of the interests of everyone. That is what the conference is about. It is a matter to which we are giving close attention.

It has been suggested that the holding of a constitutional conference does not have the support of the people of Northern Ireland. Can my right hon. Friend make any estimate of the degree of support that there is, or is not, for his patient efforts at reconciliation?

This is a difficult thing to do. All of us in the House claim that we do not rely on public opinion polls. Nor do we. But there was a poll before the conference started in Northern Ireland, which indicated—[Interruption.] I do not rely on the poll, but it said that 84 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland thought that the conference was a good idea. I do not know whether that is true, but my understanding is that a considerable majority of people in Northern Ireland think that it is right, at this time, for the political leaders of the Province to sit down with Her Majesty's Government to see whether we can find a way by which power can be transferred to elected representatives in Northern Ireland. That is what we are doing.

Is it not a fact that a sense of helplessness and hopelessness pervades the vast majority of the people of the Republic and of the United Kingdom, most of whom are not even watching this conference? Is not this engendered by certain powerful sections, particularly the Official Unionists, who refuse even to talk to the other side? Are not there ultimately bound to be conversations and discussions between the various groupings? Is not the time fast approaching when our people will demand, in the interests of democracy, that all those concerned come together and thrash out how they can cross the sectrian divide and arrive at some conclusion by which peace can be achieved?

I do not think that it would be wise for me to comment on the hon. Gentleman's observations about the Official Unionist Party. I shall not do so. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in referring to a sense of hopelessness. I detect exactly the opposite. I detect in Northern Ireland a feeling among ordinary people that here is an opportunity by which the British Government are genuinely seeking ways to return democracy to the Province and asking the political leaders whom the people chose—we did not choose them—to come together and see how best this can be done. Rather than the sense of hopelessness mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, I would say the opposite is true. I believe that there is an air of expectancy and hopefulness.

Will my right hon. Friend and the Cabinet give equal attention and weight to the discussions and outcome of the Mark II conference with the SDLP on the Irish dimension as they will to the Mark I conference?

The discussions that I am having with political parties outside the conference proper are extremely important. They relate to matters of great concern to the people of Northern Ireland—the security situation, the economy and other matters that are not strictly for discussion at the conference, but about which people have determined and important views. They also affect the relationship that will exist between Her Majesty's Government and any newly elected body in the Province.

I regard these discussions as important. I have suggested that they should take place with a number of parties, but it is for the parties to decide whether they wish to do that. So far, I have had discussions with the SDLP, and I am looking forward to having discussions with other parties.

Many people will sympathise with the view of the Official Unionists that their attendance at the multilateral talks is a waste of time. But the parallel talks, I understand, are bilateral in nature and may be of even greater importance than the main conference. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that an invitation has gone to the Official Unionists to participate in the bilateral talks and that if any significant development comes out of the bilateral talks with the other parties they will be told about it?

Yes, Sir. The Official Unionist Party has been invited to this other series of talks. I hope very much that I can meet the leaders of the Official Unionist Party to talk about these important matters.

Bearing in mind that one of the first actions of the Tory Government was to repeal the Scotland Act, against the wishes of the majority who voted in the referendum, will the Secretary of State say whether the Government have any plans to use a referendum to test the acceptability of any devolution proposals for Northern Ireland; and, if so, whether they will resort to any devious tricks, such as the 40 per cent. rule, which was meant to sabotage the Scottish referendum?

The basis of what the Government are doing is to seek a way forward which is acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland. There are a variety of ways in which one can test acceptability. A referendum is one. We have not ruled it out.

As the Official Unionists apparently do not wish to take part in the conference, or even to take part in questions today, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the offer remains open should wiser counsels prevail.

Yes, Sir. I regard it as important that the views of the Official Unionist Party should be taken fully into account by Her Majesty's Government when deciding how to proceed. The offer is open, and remains open, and I hope that in due course it will be taken up.

Is any official record being kept of the conference? What steps can the Secretary of State take to make available to hon. Members and, through us, to the public, details of the progress that is being made, or not being made?

No official record, such as Hansard, is being kept of the conference. We agree on a statement to the press. It is the wish of the participants that the conference and the discussions there should be conducted round the table rather than on television. The conference, at the suggestion of its participants—it was not my suggestion—adopted what I might call a self-denying ordinance, which means that the participants do not go out immediately afterwards and on the radio and television, and in the newspapers, tell everyone what has happened. This has the advantage that the discussions can be entered upon in the knowledge that they will not be read about in the press the next day.

I emphasise that the conference is only the first step along a road which goes a great deal further than that. The purpose is to find what level of agreement exists between the parties which are there. Thereafter the Government will have to decide how to proceed. They will have to consult people who are not at the conference, they will obviously have to consult the House, and then they will have to make up their mind. This is an important step, but it is only the first.

During the conference, has the Secretary of State had discussions with the participants on the question of the reunification of Ireland? If not, when will the conference get round to considering that question?

If the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of reading the working paper, he will see from paragraph 4 that this is specifically not a matter which the conference is invited to discuss.

In his original answer the Secretary of State made what was, for him, a revealing statement when he said that the purpose of the conference was to find the highest level of agreement among the parties at the conference. Since the majority of Unionists throughout Northern Ireland are not represented at the conference and are represented by only a minority Unionist party, will he give an assurance that when the conference formally ends—because it is dead already—he will not introduce legislation based on the majority decisions or judgement of that conference?

The statement that I made was not revealing, because I have been saying it all the time. The purpose of the conference is to seek the highest level of agreement among the people who come to it. I am sorry that the conference is missing one party. I am equally well aware that there are other parties—old and new—which are not at the conference, and it is obviously the business of Her Majesty's Government to hear the views of those people. That we shall seek to do. There can be no question of our relying entirely upon what we achieve at the conference. We shall have a lot more consultation to do in London, naturally, and consultation with this House.

The hon. Gentleman said that he thought the conference was dead. If he were to talk to those who have been there, he would find that it is very much alive.

Has the right hon. Gentleman heard statements that, in the event of failure of the conference, the Government may despair of ever reaching agreement and impose a solution upon Northern Ireland? Will he take this opportunity to deny that and give an undertaking to resist that temptation, however strong it may be?

The hon. Gentleman and the House, I hope, know me well enough to know that I do not despair very easily. I do not for a moment believe that we shall not find any level of agreement; I am sure that we shall. How high that level will be I cannot tell the House as yet, but I shall report regularly to the House. Clearly, when the conference has concluded its useful work the Government will have to consider how best to proceed. They will have to consult other parties and people in the Province, and this House, before deciding on what to ask this House to approve. As the House knows very well, in the end it is Parliament that will decide.

Is it intended during the course of the conference or the parallel consultations to study the development of possible anti-poverty programmes, on a comprehensive basis, for inner city and other areas of the Province?

The Government are all the time seeking ways to improve the economic life of the Province. It is not the purpose of the conference to discuss that. This is a conference about political structures and political institutions. It may be that in the end the Government will recommend to the House that power over these matters should be transferred to somebody in Northern Ireland, but I cannot tell yet. These matters continue to engage our close attention, but they are not the subject of discussion round the table.