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Northern Ireland (Political Developments)

Volume 21: debated on Monday 5 April 1982

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3.41 pm

I will, with permission, make a statement on political developments in Northern Ireland.

The Government have today published a White Paper setting out proposals for the election of an Assembly, which would provide a framework within which a devolved Government might again be set up in Northern Ireland. These proposals are designed to meet two objectives: first, to provide at once a means for greater democratic participation by the people of Northern Ireland in their own affairs; secondly, to give them the opportunity to evolve for themselves a form of government acceptable to them.

The Government propose that there should be an election later this year to a new Northern Ireland assembly. While consideration of the arrangements for a devolved administration will be its most crucial task, the Assembly will from its first day have important scrutinising, deliberative and consultative functions. It will be able to report on a wide range of topics, and its reports will be laid before Parliament. The Assembly will establish Committees corresponding to each of the Northern Ireland Departments to monitor and report on their policies and activities.

The Assembly will from the outset be empowered to recommend arrangements under which the whole or part of the full range of legislative and executive responsibilities, which were devolved in 1973, could be exercised by the Assembly and by a devolved administration answerable to it. If the Assembly sends to the Secretary of State proposals which have the support of 70 per cent. of the total membership of the Assembly, he will be required under statute to lay those proposals before Parliament for its consideration. He would also have discretion to present to Parliament proposals which did not command 70 per cent. support but which in his view enjoyed the support of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

I should like to make two things clear: first, the parties in Northern Ireland will have wide discretion about the basis on which a devolved administration and Assembly might be formed and operate—Her Majesty's Government are not seeking to impose any particular system; secondly, the Government would not recommend any arrangements to Parliament unless they believed them to be acceptable to both sides of the Northern Ireland community. Stable government can come only from such acceptability. If Parliament approved the Assembly's recommendations, powers would be devolved by Order in Council.

The Assembly will have the option of moving to full devolution of powers from the outset or, if if seems easier to achieve agreement on devolving the responsibilities of only some Northern Ireland Departments, to make proposals for partial devolution.

The arrangements will be flexible in that partial devolution could lead to further or full devolution, and if the agreement on which devolution was based collapsed and could not be re-established it would be possible for the Assembly to revert to its scrutinising, consultative and deliberative functions, with the Secretary of State taking back other responsibilities.

Direct rule has served Northern Ireland well. It was, however, introduced as a temporary arrangement. It does not provide satisfactory political structures through which a divided community in Northern Ireland can make the necessary mutual accommodations to tackle its special problems. For Northern Ireland requires new political arrangements suited to its unique character. These must reflect the history of the Province and its long experience of devolved government and must recognise and respect the differences of identity and aspiration which exist there. The proposals in the White Paper take account of those circumstances. At the same time, they are firmly based upon Northern Ireland's position as a constituent part of the United Kingdom for so long as that is the wish of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Government are convinced that good relations with the Republic of Ireland are of great importance. These relations are for the sovereign Governments and Parliaments. It is for the London and Dublin Parliaments to consider whether the governmental meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council should be complemented by an Anglo-Irish body at parliamentary level in which members of an elected Assembly in Northern Ireland could take part. In addition, it would remain open to a devolved administration in Northern Ireland to make such bilateral arrangements and agreements with the Government of the Republic as it wished concerning the matters for which it is responsible.

The problems of Northern Ireland are formidable. The evil of terrorism has struck at the lives and expectations of ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant alike, for far too long. The economic decline is more acute and more intractable than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Government believe that the defeat of terrorism, the recovery of the economy, and the establishment of effective political institutions go together and support one another. An end to the political deadlock of recent years offers the best hope of a sustained improvement in the economy and in security.

The proposals in the White Paper are fair and flexible. Like all proposals for Northern Ireland, they involve risk and controversy. The Government in no way underestimate the magnitude of the task or the strains any proposals will have to bear. But they also offer an opportunity which, with time and patience and the continued commitment and good will of Parliament, may be exploited to the advantage and relief of all the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for presenting the White Paper to the House today. We hope that it will put an end to rumour and lead to a constructive debate about constitutional arrangements.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we agree on the pressing need for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and that we think it right that the people of the Province should be given opportunities for broader political participation? Does he accept that we favour devolution of political power to Northern Ireland, and that we find the proposals broadly in line with what we would wish to do and build on? However, will he accept that the time is not altogether right for these proposals? Where economic and social conditions are so depressed, and where one in five of the workers in Northern Ireland is on the dole, it is unlikely that there will be a wide or enthusiastic response to constitutional changes.

Does the Secretary of State recall that when we were in office we took the view that political progress would be lasting only if people had safe jobs and decent social conditions? Have not the Government, in choosing to go the other way, put the cart before the horse? Does the Secretary of State accept that far more attention should be devoted to creating jobs in Northern Ireland than to righting social wrongs?

Putting those doubts aside, we support the plan for the election for an Assembly, and we hope that Northern Ireland politicians will take part in the elections. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no better way of isolating the men of violence than by participating in legitimate forms of political activity? From what the Secretary of State said, it appears that new legislation will be necessary. Can he say when that legislation will be published? Does he realise that we shall have many questions to ask, not least about the confusion that may occur when political heads of departments are responsible to two different Assemblies? We shall look for strong safeguards to prevent abuse of executive power and to protect minorities from discrimination? Additionally, we shall want to be assured about the ultimate power of Parliament and the ability of this House to debate Northern Ireland matters, even when power has been totally devolved.

Will the Secretary of State note our disappointment about how little has been said relating to the Irish Republic? Will he confirm that the only channels through which members of the Northern Ireland Assembly may partake in the Anglo-Irish dialogue will he the parliamentary tier of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council? If that is so, will he give the House an assurance that the Government will allow time for the House to debate the merits of a parliamentary tier to that council? Further, will he look into the possibilities of allowing Northern Ireland representatives to take part in the Anglo-Irish council at other levels, pending the introduction of the parliamentary tier? We give a cautious welcome to the White Paper, and will the Secretary of State accept the Opposition's wholehearted endorsement of the theme of his statement and of the White Paper that all new structures of government in Northern Ireland must be acceptable to both sides of the community?

Such a principle must lie at the centre of our deliberations on this subject.

Finally, is it the Government's intention to have a separate debate on the White Paper? That would have a great deal of support in the House.

I am grateful for the support that the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) has given to some of the proposals in the White Paper. I recognise that any Minister seeking to embark on a course of trying to restore political stability to the people of Northern Ireland is bound to find certain areas of controversy. The more that I can win and hold the support of all hon. Members, the better it will be for the people of Northern Ireland to see that we are determined to press ahead sensibly and that we are prepared to leave to the people of Northern Ireland as much as we can.

Economic stability and prosperity go hand in hand with the political and security situations. One cannot achieve the one without at the same time seeking by every means possible to deal with the other two. The economic situation in Northern Ireland has deteriorated and continues to deteriorate. Regrettably, part of the reason for that is the lack of political stability in the North of Ireland as a whole.

Subject to what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House might have to say, I would welcome a debate on the White Paper before debating the Bill, but I think that, in a matter which concerns the transfer of powers and fitting the new proposals into the context of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, it would be convenient if the House had the Bill presented to it before the White Paper debate. We would then have both in front of us even if we had, as we should, a separate debate on the White Paper.

I can confirm that it is for the Parliaments of the Republic and the United Kingdom to reach a decision about the parliamentary tier, but I hope that Members of the Assembly would be able to take part in any arrangement that is made. This ought to be a gradual process, and it is one on which all parties in the House and perhaps in the Parliament of the Republic will want to proceed with care if it is to be successful and if we are to remove the suspicions which will otherwise surround the initiative. There will also be opportunity for debates on those matters.

On the very day that the Armed Forces of the Crown are embarking on an expedition to free British subjects from foreign domination in the South Atlantic, is it not utterly shameful that a Minister of the Crown should come to the House on the pretext of improving internal government in part of the United Kingdom and launching an operation to erode the rights and privileges of British subjects within the United Kingdom, and in so doing using almost the same terminology as that employed in the statement on the Falkland Islands made by a Foreign Office Minister in the House in December 1980?

The hon. Gentleman does himself, his party and his fellow countrymen a grave disservice by such remarks. It could be interpreted that on a difficult day for the Government—we all know that it is a difficult day for the Government—we still thought that it was right in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we should face up to the difficulties as we are. I admire the people of Northern Ireland and I do not wish the hon. Gentleman's statement to detract from anything that happens in Northern Ireland or from all the great successes and contribution of British soldiers and the security forces in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State's proposal for an elected Assembly in Northern Ireland with the powers that were envisaged in the convention report, but does he not recognise that the different valuation that he proposed to put on the religious and political colour of votes in the Assembly is repugnant to democracy in Northern Ireland? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why a 70 per cent. vote is demanded of the Unionist people who do not want power sharing of a united Ireland, but only 50 per cent. plus is demanded of those who will not even recognise the security forces that the right hon. Gentleman has praised but who want to destroy the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom?

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Assembly is not to be given its proper freedom to appoint or not to appoint people to the Council of Ireland? Surely the Assembly itself has a right to make a decision on such an important matter.

Paragraph 4 of the introduction to the White Paper states:

"The Government's proposals do not require any group in Northern Ireland to compromise its deeply held beliefs. They provide an opportunity for both sides to create a workable form of government in the interests of the common good and in the face of the urgency of the Province's problems. It will be for the people elected to a Northern Ireland Assembly to decide whether they are prepared to adopt this approach."
If it is the case, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that the people are not prepared to move forward to a form of devolved government which involves both sides of the community, either through a 70 per cent. vote, or, as I have suggested, by something less which still has cross-community support, a devolved Government will not come into being. But there are other important matters that an Assembly in Northern Ireland could still undertake. It is in the spirit that there has to be some movement and compromise if Northern Ireland is to escape its problems that we are putting the proposals for an evolving form of devolution before the House.

At a time when the United Kingdom is on the brink of a conflict which may be both grave and long lasting, would it not be wise for the Government, having presented their White Paper, to allow mature time for it to be considered by the House and all those concerned in Northern Ireland before they committed themselves to the form of legislation or introduced a series of debates in the House and in Northern Ireland which might have the effect of creating division when unity is what is needed in the coming weeks?

No one will do more than Ito seek greater unity. I shall do all that I can to sustain and promote such unity. I believe that the unity of the United Kingdom is a great aim and goal to be protected and preserved at all costs.

On the question of debates, I recognise that this is an important matter for the House and the country. We should see how we get on. I do not think that we need to rush things unduly, but, at the same time, there are some who have suffered for many years. Are we to neglect their problems because of events in other parts of the world? We have a responsibility for the whole of the United Kingdom, and it is a responsibility which we shall discharge.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his proposals seem likely to be deeply divisive, not only in Northern Ireland but in the House and, I suspect, in the Conservative Party? Is he aware that they will be seen partly as implying Government support for the idea of a united Ireland and as leading inevitably to an encouragement of a revival of the devolutionist movement in Scotland and Wales?

May I join the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in urging my right hon. Friend to let us debate the White Paper at leisure before there is any question of legislation being tabled so that he may take the feeling of the House before he finally commits himself?

I have already said that I believe that it would be right to have a separate debate on the White Paper. I do not believe that there is any connection between the problems of Scotland and Wales and those of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had a devolved Government for 50 years. Its political parties are not organised in the manner and on the basis of the political philosophies of the parties in other parts of the country. Of course, there is also the problem of the percentage of the minority who identify with a united Ireland. For all those reasons, I do not believe that there is a connection with the problems of Scotland and Wales and what we seek to do in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland is not connected with what we do for Scotland and Wales.

As for the issue being divisive, any proposal put forward in Northern Ireland is unlikely to be able to bridge the chasm between those who aspire to the nationalist cause and those who aspire to the Unionist cause and is, therefore, bound to create divisions. All that I can say to my right hon. Friend and to other right hon. and hon. Friends is that I seek no division within the Conservative Party. I will do all that I can to explain why I believe that our proposals are in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland and in the interests of the United Kingdom as well.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that many in the United Kingdom will expect the political parties in Northern Ireland to give his proposals careful and constructive consideration? Can he tell us whether the Assembly will be able, if it wishes, to consider the economic links between the North and the South and report on them, bearing in mind that that could be of considerable assistance to the people of Northern Ireland?

That will be a matter for the Assembly to decide. In days gone by, there were far closer economic links and discussions between Stormont and the Government of the Republic than there have been in the past 10 years. I do not wish to say anything that might make the re-creation of those links more difficult. It is best to leave the Assembly and the Government of the republic to sort out those matters themselves, but there are a number of matters on the economic side that would be helped by closer co-operation. I am certain that that is one of the points to which the Assembly will wish to turn its hand.

Order. There is another statement to follow. I will allow questions on this subject until 4.20 pm. I hope that we shall have quick questions and answers.

I do not doubt the Secretary of State's sincerity, but does he realise that regret will be felt in Northern Ireland that he has made no promise about introducing a Bill of Rights before the establishment of an Assembly and no reference to the ending of religious apartheid, at the taxpayers' expense, in education?

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council and parliamentary tier are detrimental to the interests of the people of Ulster, because we believe that the Foreign Office is involved in selling out the people of Northern Ireland?

I am sorry that we have not so far found time to include provisions on human rights in legislation. It is a complicated issue. We have done a great deal already, but more remains to be done. I take seriously what the hon. Gentleman said about education, because that is of very great importance.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue his comments about the Foreign Office. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and remains a part of the United Kingdom. The consent of the people would be required for any change in that arrangement, and that consent is not forthcoming. I hope that over a period of years the Government and I will be able to show to all the people of Northern Ireland the great benefits of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

I accept the Secretary of State's dedication, but is it not a fact that three important elements on the island of Ireland—the Official Unionist Party, the SDLP, which is the party of the minority, and the Taoiseach and Government of the Republic—have expressed not only reservations, but total opposition to the proposals in the White Paper? If they maintain that attitude and the parties seek a mandate from their electors on their opposing ideologies, will not tha mean that the executive will have no hope?

Everyone of good will wishes the Secretary of State well in his endeavours to re-create parliamentary structures in Northern Ireland, but does he agree that if the ground is not well planned in advance and there is another failure it will be a total disaster for Northern Ireland into the foreseeable future?

Carrying on as we are is not a policy which carries no risks. That is one of the factors which I had to weigh up. I have also had to bear in mind that there is considerable resistance to the proposals that I am putting forward, but in Northern Ireland—as in some other parts of the world—it is easier to be against something, because that means that people do not have to go further in explaining their point of view.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his considerable influence—it is a considerable influence and one which is greatly admired in the House—to do what he can to help the House bridge the gap that is so detrimental to all the people of Northern Ireland, but, perhaps above all, 10 those who have suffered most—the ordinary, decent, working class people.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Liberals welcome his initiative and congratulate him on the patience, determination and speed with which he has produced the proposals? Few politicians are less divisive than the Secretary of State. Is he aware that we greatly welcome the fact that he recognises that the Assembly must be representative and that, if it is to be representative and, therefore, effective, it must be elected by proportional representation?

The Assembly would be elected by proportional representation, on the same basis as the previous Assembly was elected. I point out again that we will leave it to the Assembly to put forward proposals about devolved government. I think that it will take some time to get to that stage, but unless we have a political forum where the cut and thrust of debate and the influence of one person's views on another person are able to operate there is no way that the problem that has dogged Northern Ireland for so long can be solved.

Will my right hon. Friend try to understand the strong feelings of those who want Northern Ireland to be bound closer to Britain and not put into quarantine with fancy remedies that would perpetuate the sectarian differences of which he has spoken and would tend to undermine the Union? Has my right hon. Friend studied the latest poll, which shows that 88 per cent. of Protestants and 45 per cent. of Roman Catholics would find integration acceptable?

I have studied public opinion polls as closely as every other politician studies them, for one reason or another. I am not arguing with the figures that my hon. Friend has produced. However, in the same poll there are other figures which show that 60 per cent. of Catholics said that full integration with the Republic was acceptable to them and that 60 per cent. of Catholics wished to remain within the United Kingdom with a power-sharing Assembly. I do not think that we should place too much emphasis on the results of that public opinion poll.

I recognise the strong feelings that exist. I am doing nothing which puts the future of Northern Ireland into quarantine. I believe that our proposals are the most likely way to tie Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom. It is the duty of the House to seek to do that.

In the opening sentences of the White Paper, and in his statement this afternoon, the Secretary of State has emphasised the importance of defeating terrorism. In view of the slaughter which has been perpetrated by the IRA over the past eight days, and the likelihood that it will be able to repeat that performance in the autumn, is not the Secretary of State aware that it is the terrorists rather than the political parties in Northern Ireland who are likely to render his efforts meaningless? Whether they like it or not, the Members of the new Assembly will be held responsible by their electorate for security in the Province. What plans, if any, does the Secretary of State have for giving them some say in the overall security policy?

I believe strongly that there will be no total isolation of terrorism until all the parties and all the people of Northern Ireland can strongly and openly support the forces of law and order. That situation is still some way off, but it would be my wish that from the early days of the Assembly it might be possible for closer liaison on security to be developed between the Assembly and the Secretary of State. Although for the time being security and matters of law and order will remain with the House and with the Secretary of State, those are matters which could be transferred when it was thought that the moment was right to do so.

As for security generally, undoubtedly any move towards a devolved Assembly is perhaps too great an opportunity for the IRA to miss, because, if we are successful, that is the way that terrorism will be defeated. We should all remember that in what may be some difficult months ahead.

Does the Secretary of State recall that in a previous White Paper the Government stated plainly that they recognised that there were equally acceptable and satisfactory alternatives to power sharing? Does the Secretary of State still stand by that view, or is he saying, through these weighted majorities, that the views of the people of Northern Ireland are of little account and that whatever kind of devolution they may have it will be power-sharing devolution?

No. As far as possible, I am leaving it to the members of the Assembly to put forward their own views on how a transfer of power should take place. I must make it abundantly clear, since the aim is to create political stability, that political stability will not come unless there is a wide measure of cross-community support. That does not have to be achieved by a power-sharing executive. There are other means by which it can be achieved. It does not alter the fact that unless it has that cross-community support it cannot be stable and cannot work.

Is the Secretary of State aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends give a broad welcome to the White Paper, albeit with guarded optimism? We shall look forward to a full debate on these matters after Easter. Questions arise concerning the mechanics of the way in which the Assembly will operate in practice. We shall seek to deal with some of them in the debate.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, whatever the reluctance of some political leaders and their parties in Northern Ireland to support these proposals, the majority of people there support moves towards filling the vacuum in an evolving devolution, and, indeed, would accept actual power sharing? The proposed Assembly——

Order. I said that questions on this statement would end at 4.20 pm. The hon. Gentleman has asked enough.

I am grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. There is some momentum now which could enable the parties in Northern Ireland to come together in an Assembly. I think that, it will require a great deal of patience and understanding to get further than that, but the economic pressures alone now demand that we at least try to get some political stability.

When will the Secretary of State hold a referendum in Northern Ireland on his devolution plans? Does he recall that he voted in favour of the key referendum amendment on the Scottish devolution Bill? If it was right to consult the voters of Scotland and Wales directly on devolution schemes, why is it wrong to give the voters of Northern Ireland the same opportunity?

I know my hon. Friend's strongly held views on this subject; I have discussed them with him. I believe that the Northern Ireland situation is unique, as I think most hon. Members recognise. It would be easy for the parties to evade the issues, and I think that the result of any referendum could be negatived. If it was to have any impact at all, it would have to have an 83 per cent. majority before it could be seen to have a majority of both parts of the community. That would make matters very difficult.

Is the Secretary of State aware that he should be congratulated on his proposals this afternoon, particularly in view of what has been happening behind him and is happening behind the Chair at the present time? The Government have kept their promise by bringing the White Paper before us in these difficult times, for which they should be commended. Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that a power-sharing executive was last brought down by para-militaries on both sides—those who supported the Ulster Workers Council and those who supported the Provisional IRA? There is a lesson there for the democratic parties to ensure that their voices are heard.

Finally, can the right hon. Gentleman say to what extent there will be a degree of economic initiative lying within the power of the new Assembly?

On the last point, I have nothing to add to what I have already said. However, I would certainly wish to explain to the country, and perhaps to other countries, particularly America, the initiative that the Government are taking, and therefore the need for inward investment in Northern Ireland from America. I emphasise that I wish to see inward investment coming to Northern Ireland.

I believe that we are right, in the interests of Northern Ireland, to bring forward these proposals at the earliest possible moment. I do not think that anything that we say which would be helpful to get American investment in Northern Ireland should be interpreted in the way that the hon. Gentleman sometimes seeks to do.

Will my right hon. Friend re-emphasise that devolved institutions, supported by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, can serve to strengthen and not weaken the Union?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I believe passionately that that is the case.

Otherwise, there will be continual erosion in Northern Ireland of Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom. With a little wisdom, we could put that behind us for ever.

Why is the Secretary of State so nervous of the parliamentary tier? Was it not agreed at the Heads of State meeting? Who has warned him off?

It is a question not of being nervous but of being frank with those who place a great deal of emphasis on the parliamentary tier. My experience of the House suggests that right hon. and hon. Members would be reluctant to give any of their sovereignty to that tier I have had to tell members of the SDLP and the minority community of the difficulties involved in that suggestion. That should be a matter for the House and the Dail to decide.

Does my hon. Friend accept that many of us—and I speak as a colleague and an Ulsterman—will welcome the proposals? Is lie not surprised at the unhappiness expressed when devolution is simply on offer and not imposed on the people of Northern Ireland? Does he agree that the divisions in the Province are likely to be made worse unless a move is made to bring the two communities together?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the help and advice that he has given over many months in trying to move forward a step at a time. I hope that some of the resistance from my our own side of the House will be mitigated by the fact that we are moving forward only as and when the people of Northern Ireland are prepared and willing to do so.