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Constitutional Conference

Volume 980: debated on Thursday 6 March 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 progress of the constitutional conference on Northern Ireland.


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


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the constitutional conference currently being held at Stormont.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made with the talks on the future administration of Northern Ireland.

Since I last reported to the House the conference has met on 11 occasions, making a total of 28 half-day sessions to date. The conference has been engaged in detailed discussion of matters central to its task. It has completed a careful examination of how a devolved administration might operate and has discussed the crucial question of the role of minorities within a new system. There remains a substantial amount of ground to cover and it is too early to indicate when the conference will conclude its work or what level of agreement will materialise. I have gained a deeper understanding of the viewpoints of the parties at the conference and they have similarly gained a better understanding of each other's point of view. All the participants have continued to demonstrate their commitment to the task of the conference, and I remain convinced that it will contribute to political advance in Northern Ireland.

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

Despite the non cooperation of the Official Unionist Party and the die-hard weekend speeches of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) will the Secretary of State give a categoric assurance that any form of devolved assembly for Northern Ireland will not simply be a resurrection of the old Stormont system which helped to cause many of the injustices in Northern Ireland, which in turn helped to bring about the emergence of violence in Northern Ireland?

Without commenting on the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's observation I can give the categoric assurance he asks for. It is clearly spelt out in paragraph (4) of the Government's working paper which the conference is discussing that the Government are not contemplating a return to the arrangements which prevailed before 1972.

While nobody would expect particularly rapid progress on a matter that has been going on since the reign of King Henry II—let alone more controversial monarchs of the seventeenth century—will my right hon. Friend say that sooner or later this matter will have to be brought to a conclusion and that a full statement will be made to the House of Commons?

Yes, Sir. We are engaged in the process of seeking agreement about how to proceed. It is the firm belief of the Government that we ought to proceed and that the existing arrangements are not satisfactory. We wish to advance. Of course the House of Commons will be brought into the consideration of these matters at every stage because in the end it is Parliament that will decide the future arrangements in Northern Ireland.

A number of people who are not part of the constitutional conference have made suggestions about the future of Northern Ireland. What would be the attitude of the Secretary of State should any of the parties to the conference wish to invite someone to come along and speak to a proposal that had been made?

Among the people who have produced ideas for the considera- tion of the conference is my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) and I and the other parties to the conference are grateful to him for the trouble that he has taken and for the paper that he has submitted. As he requested, his paper has been placed before the conference but the conference has not so far thought it necessary or right to invite people to come and speak to their papers. This is something that the conference will be considering during the next few weeks.

Is the Secretary of State aware that he still has the good will of Liberal Members who hope that the talks will be a success? Is he further aware that I agree with the article on qualified majority by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) which appeared in The Guardian? Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government do not intend to continue with direct rule for longer than necessary?

The answer to the last question is "Yes, Sir." I am grateful for the continued support of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). I agree that the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) is valuable.

During the Secretary of State's long periods of boredom and frustration as he presides over the time-wasting conference will he find time to reflect that for the protection of minorities and for the securing of powersharing no instrument has been devised which compares with the House of Commons?

The right hon. Member is wrong in thinking that the conference is time-wasting. It is far from time-wasting. It is addressing itself seriously to difficult questions. I note the right hon. Gentleman's view about the way in which we operate here. I hope that he will come to the conference table and argue that view.

The Secretary of State has given an assurance to the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) about paragraph (4) of the working paper. Will he assure the House that a revival of the system which obtained in the first five months of 1974 is not under consideration by the Government nor being discussed at the conference?

Yes, Sir. Paragraph (4) of the paper contains that assurance. I remind the hon. Gentleman of paragraph (5) of the working paper which states that arrangements must be acceptable to both sides of the community.

While I totally reject the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) may I ask the Secretary of State to accept that many people of good will in Northern Ireland and in the House of Commons have deliberately refrained from making any comment on the conference on the ground that that might jeopardise the result? Does he agree that everyone in Northern Ireland recognises that to continue the conference is nothing more than a charade? Is it not evident that no agreement will be reached at the conference? Does he agree that the sooner the House has an opportunity to debate what has or what has not happened the better so that we can inform the people of the United Kingdom what a charade the conference is?

I cannot agree that the conference is a charade. It is nothing of the kind. I note the request for a debate in the House. I shall ensure that the attention of the Leader of the House is drawn to it. There is still a certain amount to do in the conference. We have not yet completed our agenda. Many important matters have still to be considered. It would not be right to bring the conference to an end now.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the growing concern and anger in Northern Ireland because the promised security initiative is being deliberately held up by the Government as a result of the constitutional conference, which has been dead for a considerable time? Does he agree that it is time that the Government did something to destroy the Provisional IRA, which the Prime Minister promised to do on her two visits to Northern Ireland?

There is a question about security later on the Order Paper and I shall answer that question then. The conference is not dead. Those who attend it are very much alive.

I shall call one more hon. Member from either side to ask a supplementary question before calling the Front Bench spokesman.

Although the vast majority of the ordinary people in Northern Ireland want peace and an agreement of some kind that will make their lives bearable, is it not the case that the conference has been rendered useless by the Official Unionist Party, which has openly mocked the conference, and by the DUP's intransigent attitude? May we have a debate in the House because we all know that the conference will produce no useful results?

I shall draw the request for a debate to the attention of the Leader of the House. The conference discussions on Northern Ireland, are not easy. Nobody ever expected them to be. I did not expect a solution to be found quickly or for the problems to be solved in the twinkling of an eye. That is no reason not to explore possible ways of advancing politically with the political leaders in the Province.

What other important matters has the conference not yet discussed? What timetable does the Secretary of State have in mind for the extent of the conference and for the Government's deliberations on what may or may not come out of it?

We have yet to discuss how we determine the acceptability of arrangements which may be agreed. We must also discuss a number of financial arrangements. One newspaper thought that that involved how much members of a new assembly would be paid. That is not correct. That item covers how the financial arrangements of the Province might be dealt with by a new assembly. A number of other items of importance remain to be discussed.

We have never been definite about a timetable. I am not definite now. In January I said that by Easter it might be appropriate to reflect on everything that has happened. I am not sure that we shall meet that target. However, since there is no fixed timetable, that does not matter. We want to discuss among ourselves the important matters as long as it is useful to do so—but no longer.

Will the Secretary of State use the opportunity to consult more widely in the Province on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland in order to involve some bodies which are not participating in the talks? Will he report to the House before the Government's hard proposals are known and when the proposals still have green edges? Will he report to the House on the basis of maximum information about what has happened at the conference?

It is important for the House to be brought into the discussion. I am not sure that the phrase "green edges" will go down well with everybody. However, I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says in a parliamentary sense. I am anxious to take the House with us on this issue. The hon. Member asked about wider consultation. I have already held meetings with people who were not invited to the conference. It is important to include more than the four invited parties.