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Constitutional Talks

Volume 78: debated on Thursday 9 May 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent discussions he has had about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.


asked the Secrtary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his discussions with party leaders in Northern Ireland.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about recent ministerial conversations with political parties in the Province.


asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent consultations he has had with representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland.

At my request, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) has met representatives of the Ulster Unionist, Social Democratic and Labour, and the Alliance parties privately to explore and clarify their positions. He has also had an informal discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly Devolution Report Committee. His conclusions will help me to assess how best progress can be made towards new devolved arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Instead of pussyfooting around with an expensive and relatively powerless Assembly with representatives from only six counties of Ireland, is it not time that more radical steps were taken to set up some form of all-Ireland parliamentary body? Is any progress at all being made towards that end in the talks between the British and Irish Governments, or is the British Prime Minister afraid of a few Unionist Members who represent only a minority of opinion within Ireland as a whole?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister perhaps has a keener sense of the point of Parliaments than has the hon. Gentleman. It would be for this House, or the Westminster Parliament, and, I suppose, for the Dail on the other side of the Irish sea, to decide whether the Parliaments wanted such an organisation.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the impatience expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), which my right hon. Friend appeared to echo, is matched by the frustration felt by the majority parties in Northern Ireland at his refusal to countenance the normal operations of democracy, namely, rule by the majority? Could not a useful role be found for the present Assembly by making it an upper tier of local government and allowing the proper processes of democracy to take place within it?

I am perfectly ready to consider any suggestions—that one or others—which appear to command widespread acceptance. By "widespread acceptance" we must mean acceptance across the division between the communities. The House would think me foolish if I suggested some new proposition without being convinced that it had that widespread acceptance.

Leaving aside the immediate question of the Assembly, will my right hon. Friend tell us the extent to which, in his deliberations with representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland, he has come across an awareness that, ultimately, it is only through compromise that social harmony can replace social discord?

That awareness is scattered across various pronouncements and pamphlets which appear at different times, and I always welcome it. We need to bring together those hints of greater understanding and a greater willingness to listen to others into detailed and practical discussions.

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that during the war Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, offered to reunify Ireland. He made an offer to Dublin without consulting Stormont. Defence considerations were then dominant in his mind and are now dominant in the minds of the British and American Governments. Were the Republic to be persuaded to join NATO, would not the British Government's objection to reunification almost certainly completely disappear?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are British and proud to be so, and that no decision taken by anyone else will change the Britishness of the Ulster people? Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the House must respect the supremacy of the ballot box, and that any politician wishing to defy the democratic wish of the Ulster electorate would make a mockery of all our battles for freedom?

Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom rests not on any perception of ours about the foreign and defence policies of the Republic, but simply on the wish of the majority of the people who live in Northern Ireland. I believe that their wishes are clear.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many people on the mainland are asking why the Tory Government, and others before them, have set up ramshackle organisations in Northern Ireland which have cost a small fortune to run and why decent councils in Britain, which are being run well, are being demolished by the Tory Government while that in Northern Ireland never even gets rate capped?

Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues impress on the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), the leader of the SDLP, the importance of that party's participation in the Assembly at the earliest possible time?

It is highly desirable that the SDLP should take its place in the Assembly, although I understand the present difficulties in doing so. We shall not reach the political stability in Northern Ireland which every right hon. and hon. Member here would like unless there is an unfreezing of attitudes, including the attitudes of representatives of both communities, towards the desires and anxieties of the island.

May I tempt the Secretary of State to be a little more cheerful about the prospects of progress and co-operation with the Republic? Does he agree that, whatever decisions fall to be made by Parliament, the initiative must come from the Government? Does he further agree that the Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Minister have shown generosity and courage in an attempt to invite progress? Will he accept that the alternative to pessimism might not be optimism, but that it is at least hope?

I have not yet said anything cheerful or uncheerful about co-operation with the Republic. I was dealing with the proposal about a parliamentary tier, which surfaces from time to time. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a constitutional expert, I would expect him to honour my point, which is that if these things are to endure as parliamentary institutions, they must be parliamentary proposals.