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Volume 22: debated on Thursday 29 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the response to the White Paper "Northern Ireland: A Framework for Devolution".


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the response to his proposals on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received about the White Paper, "A Framework for Devolution".


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received about his document "A Framework for Devolution".


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received concerning his political proposals for the Province.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received from political parties in Northern Ireland following the publication of his White Paper, "A Framework for Devolution".


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the response in the Province to his constitutional proposals.

Since the White Paper was published I have received written representation on the Government's proposals from only one Northern Ireland party, but the other parties have left me in no doubt of their views, many of which were discussed during the debate yesterday. I recognise that criticism exists, but I shall continue to do all that I can to encourage the parties to take full advantage of the opportunities that the proposals offer.

I shall first call the seven hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Does it not appear from the history of Ireland, both North and South, that there is a powerful case either for a strong local Parliament with legislative powers or for no devolved Parliament? However, there is very little case in history or otherwise for a weak and ineffectual Assembly.

Northern Ireland requires a strong local Government with the necessary powers. It is with that goal in mind that we are seeking to move forward. It is unrealistic to believe that it will come quickly.

In view of the reference in the White Paper to an Anglo-Irish Council will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Government of the Irish Republic that there is no question of a parliamentary element in that council while the Republic claims sovereignty in its constitution over part of the United Kingdom?

I need go no further today than to refer to the summit conference that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the former Prime Minister of the Republic. At that time it was suggested that we should set up some parliamentary body that would be open to Members of this House, the Dail, the European Parliament and any Assembly from Northern Ireland, if such Assembly came into operation. It would then be for the Parliaments to decide what further action should be taken.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm once again that each of four main political parties in Northern Ireland remains committed to the principle of devolution?

It is clear that that is the policy of the four parties. However, the difficulty is to get them to agree on the type of devolution. All wish for different things.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when these questions were tabled most of us did not know that yesterday's debate was to take place? Was it not obvious to the right hon. Gentleman from that debate that the likelihood of any implementation of the White Paper is rather remote? If it becomes acceptable, will he examine carefully the disgraceful point in it that the president, who is liable to be an Ulster Unionist by any counting, can then appoint whoever he wants to be chairmen of committees? That is more in line with Stormont than it is with democracy.

On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman cannot have read the Bill. It makes it plain that the presiding officer will first have to consult the parties concerned. His appointments of the chairmen and deputy chairmen of the committees will be according to the balance of the parties represented in the Assembly. If the hon. Member examines the Bill he will find that this is well catered for.

In proceeding in this matter I, like any Minister, am at the behest of the House of Commons. I shall try, during the course of the next few weeks, to take the views of the House of Commons into consideration. I hope that the House will recognise and help, because these proposals can be made to work. If the House of Commons shows that resolve the parties in Northern Ireland can be brought to believe that these policies can and should work in the interests of Northern Ireland.

When the new Assembly has been set up, will it not be unimaginable that the North can be forced into union with the South, against the will of that Assembly? Given the likely make-up of the Assembly, is it not most unlikely that that will be forthcoming? Therefore, is not the most important aspect of my right hon. Friend's proposals this bulwark to sustain the Union between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom?

I believe that the Assembly is very important for Northern Ireland and its people. As my hon. Friend points out, it is clear, even apart from the constitution Act, which sets out the matter plainly, that the consent of the Northern Ireland people would be required before any change was made in the constitution. The Assembly will help to augment that, and the Members of the Assembly will have a chance to say so.

In view of the power sharing by consent between Unionists and nationalists in a number of district councils, why should devolution, of which Unionists and nationalists have incompatible concepts, be deemed feasible in the central administration of the Province and not in local authorities?

There is some element of power sharing in local authorities, but, as was pointed out yesterday, there are all too many examples, even today, of discrimination. If my hon. Friend believes that we can have more forms of voluntary co-operation at local level, I hope that the same attitude can be displayed in the Assembly.

Why are the Government so keen to provide devolution sauce for the Ulster goose, which is rejecting it, yet do not provide it for the Scottish gander, which voted in favour of it?

As I pointed out yesterday, we believe that circumstances in Northern Ireland are completely different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. The history, geography and politics of the Province make for devolved Government there a case of a quite different order from that which might apply to any other part of the United Kingdom.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in spite of what he says, many people in the United Kingdom are worried that his proposals for Northern Ireland, whatever their merits, are bound to lead to a greater demand for devolution in Scotland, which we had hoped had gone away?

I never like disagreeing with my hon. Friend, but, as I said yesterday, I do not believe that the constitution necessarily means that there must be exact conformity in every part of the United Kingdom. We must, as I and my hon. Friend wish, maintain the unity of the United Kingdom. That is the main aim of the proposals.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the setting up of the Anglo-Irish Council may help to bring about the acceptance of the proposed new Assembly? As he has said that it is a matter for Parliament when such an organisation meets and comes into being, will he leave it to the House to decide on a free vote if and when that council is to be created?

I have always acknowledged the problem of those in the North who have an identity with and a desire for an all-Ireland arrangment. As long as they work for that peacefully, they are perfectly entitled to do so. However, we must make it clear that they are part of Northern Ireland and any parliamentary body which the House might decide to have must be seen within the context of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Nothing must be allowed to break that down. This is an important and sensitive issue for the Irish minority who believe in it. We should proceed with this measure on that basis. If the House of Commons, the Dail and other people put such a measure forward, the Government will have to consider it.

Does the Minister accept that, despite the difficulties of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) in understanding the role of the president, the first part of the White Paper is in agreement with his desire that Unionists should not govern Northern Ireland?

I do not know what I am meant to answer to that. I shall not try to intrude upon any disagreement between the hon. Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) and Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).

The Opposition said yesterday that they would give the Secretary of State's efforts a fair run. I trust that when it comes to the Committee and subsequent stages of the Bill, the Secretary of State, with his views on the minority, will take seriously what was said yesterday, not only by Labour Members, but by others. I hope that he will consider those points carefully, because the whole intention of the Opposition is to improve the Bill by suggestions and amendments, which we hope will give it a better chance when it is further dealt with by the House.

Obviously, in a matter as delicate and difficult as this, I want to carry as much of the House with me as possible in our proposals. It is greatly to the advantage of people in Northern Ireland if we can show that there is a degree of unity in the House on what we propose. I hope that we shall be able to work in that spirit during the Committee stage of the Bill. I shall try to do so.