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Constitutional Future

Volume 984: debated on Thursday 8 May 1980

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


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress he has made in preparing the White Paper on the future Government of Northern Ireland, arising out of his constitutional conference, now adjourned.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects to publish his consultation document about future possible political institutions for the Province.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the Government's policy as to the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects to announce his proposals for constitutional advance in Northern Ireland.

The conference on the government of Northern Ireland adjourned at the end of March. In the light of the conference discussions of the Government's working paper and of the proposals put forward by the Northern Ireland political parties themselves, the Government are giving careful consideration to the preparation of their own proposals for transferring to elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland greater responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs. These proposals will, of course, follow the principles set out by the Government in our working paper—Cmnd. 7763. The Government's proposals will, I hope, be published in the next few weeks, but I cannot yet give the date of publication. When they are published we look forward to the widest possible discussion, including discussion in this House, if the necessary arrangements can be agreed. As to the conference in Northern Ireland, it will be for the parties concerned to decide how best they can discuss the Government's proposals with us, and whether or not that should be done by re-convening the conference.

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

Failing that agreement between the major political element on a devolved system of government, which my right hon. Friend has been seeking so diligently, will he turn to the improvement of the existing system of administrative devolution, and to the development of local government?

My hon. Friend will remember that one of the options in the working paper was very much what he has in mind. I am bound to tell him that it did not command a great deal of support at the conference table. I stress again that our proposals will be within the principles of the working paper. We shall continue to seek a way forward, which is what all the political parties in Northern Ireland say they want.

Can the Secretary of State be a little more precise as to the timing of the release of his document? Can he say what status that document will have? Will it be a Green Paper or a White Paper? Does not he have a responsibility to recall the conference, as he has already told the House that it has only been adjourned? Can he assure the House that he will make every effort to work in a deliberate and positive manner towards publishing that paper within a matter of days, so that the people of Northern Ireland can be assured that the remarks of some Northern Ireland politicians, to the effect that devolution is dead and will not be resurrected, are not true?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date. As I said in my original answer, we are giving careful consideration, which this complex problem undoubtedly deserves, to the way forward. We shall produce the document as soon as may be. As to the conference itself, it stands adjourned. However, it may well be that we and the parties believe that a reconvening of the conference is the best way forward. If that is so we shall reconvene it.

As there were no fewer than five different options in the consultation document, can my right hon. Friend say whether it is the Government's intention to distil one proposal or whether it is proposed to reduce the five to one or two options and to hold a further discussion about the best of those possibilities?

Apart from the fact that there were six options rather than five, I must ask my hon. Friend and the House to await the publication of our proposals, which I assure the House will be done as soon as we can. However, I cannot give a date at present.

While not, of course, asking my right hon. Friend to disclose his proposals in advance of publication, does it not remain clear that those proposals will contain effective safeguards in respect of the minority, on the basis that without such safeguards there is no future way forward politically in Northern Ireland?

Yes. That was clearly set out in our working paper. If my hon. Friend will re-read paragraph 5, he will find that that is one of the principles. I am quite clear in my mind that we must adhere to all the principles which are set out there. Indeed, in our discussions so far, I have found it to be generally accepted in Northern Ireland that we should do so.

When the right hon. Gentleman prepares this White Paper—I assume that it will be a White Paper—the contents of which he cannot reveal today—will he take on board the possibility, which many of us would urge upon him, of giving a role to the concept of an all-Ireland council under which there could be the closest possible development of co-operation between the Province and the Republic?

Close co-operation between the Province and the Republic with regard to security and economics already exists. I am not convinced that the introduction of a formalised all-Ireland relationship between the north and south on political matters would do anything to advance the cause which we are following, namely, to seek to re-establish democratic control of affairs in Northern Ireland by Northern Ireland people.

Will the document embrace the accepted fact that without the emergence of a united Ireland there can be no long-term solution to the problems of Northern Ireland?

Let us be quite clear about what it is that the Government are seeking to do. We are seeking to find ways of restoring to the people of Northern Ireland more control over then-own affairs. We are not seeking to solve the future of Northern Ireland. That is not for us. As I have said, we are seeking to re-establish some democratic way of controlling affairs in Northern Ireland. That is what we are about.

It was no doubt a slip of the tongue, but the Secretary of State implied that the matter would be discussed only in this House if mutually acceptable arrangements could be arrived at. Does he accept that the House must consider the White Paper at the earliest possible opportunity. Is he aware that I would welcome his views as to the order in which it should be discussed? When considering the reconvening of the conference, or whatever further discussions he will undertake in Northern Ireland about the White Paper, will he bear in mind the non-participation of a number of parties and bodies in the previous conference and the difficulty which that caused? Does he also accept that in many cases the hasty way in which that conference was called, and the lack of preparation, led to it being less representative of opinion throughout the whole of Northern Ireland than it should have been?

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point, the words I used were designed to avoid treading on the toes of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whose business this is. Of course, I accept that in general hon. Members feel that an early debate would be a good thing. Like the hon. Gentleman, I regret that the conference was not attended by all the parties which were invited to it, but I am firmly of the opinion that arrangements for the future government of Northern Ireland affect everyone who lives there. Naturally, it is right and proper to talk to the political leaders in Northern Ireland and I intend to continue doing so. But I want to talk wider than that, and when I used the phrase " the widest possible discussion ", I meant exactly that.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the rumours which are now circulating in Northern Ireland to the effect that the Government will decide on the restoration of Unionist ascendancy, or something called " majority rule ", in Northern Ireland? Taking into account the dangers involved in pursuing that policy, and the fears which would be created among the minority population—particularly in view of the antics of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) in Armagh yesterday afternoon—can he envisage the restoration of any type of government in which the hon. Member for Antrim, North would give fair play to the Northern Ireland minority?

I think that I shall refrain from commenting on a lot of what the hon. Gentleman says, save only to say that I note what his view is. As to rumours, I have discovered during the year in which I have had the honour to hold this office that Northern Ireland is no less prone to rumours than anywhere else—in fact it is rather more so.