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Northern Ireland Assembly

Volume 476: debated on Thursday 12 June 1986

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4.40 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I now repeat the Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows;

"Under the Northern Ireland Act 1982 the present Assembly has two functions: first, to consider and report on how a devolved Northern Ireland administration should be formed. Secondly, the Act requires the Assembly to monitor and report on the policies and activities of the Northern Ireland departments.

"The task of making proposals on devolution was undoubtedly made much more difficult by the regrettable decision of the SDLP not to take their seats. The Assembly has not been able to come forward with agreed proposals and there is no present prospect of that occurring. As for the monitoring of the Northern Ireland departments, the Assembly suspended this work on 5th December. In spite of clear warnings about the threat that this action would pose to the continuation of the Assembly, the Unionist parties have not been prepared to resume this function. As a result, the Alliance Party withdrew from the Assembly since they believed there was no longer any useful role to be played.

"On 13th March the Assembly formally resolved not to carry out its monitoring functions, to wind up the Devolution Report Committee and merely to meet one afternoon a week for a debate on aspects of the Anglo-Irish agreement.

"The position therefore is that the present Assembly charged under the Northern Ireland Act 1982 with two important functions is now discharging neither. As long ago as last December in this House, I warned that if the Assembly continued the suspension of its scrutiny role for long, questions about its future would inevitably arise; and on 1st May and 19th May I repeated this warning. On 27th May I invited the leaders of the main parties in the Assembly to discuss with me the position of the present Assembly. The leaders of the two main Unionist parties refused even to talk about it. I regret that I have therefore had to reach my decision without hearing their views.

"The decision I have now taken is to lay an order today for the Assembly's dissolution under the powers in Section 5(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1982. This order will come before the House for debate under the affirmative procedure. In taking this step I would make the following points. The present Assembly would in any case reach the end of its normal life on 20th October. There would then automatically within six weeks be fresh elections for a new Assembly. The effect of this order is not to abolish the legal basis for an Assembly but simply to dissolve the present Assembly and to leave open the date for a new election for a fresh Assembly.

"I wish to emphasise to the House that dissolution of the present Assembly in no way conflicts with our desire for devolved government nor our commitment to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Devolution remains the Government's preferred option and I hope that we may see a future Assembly playing a responsible and valuable role in the Province. The sooner that happens, the better.

"Meanwhile, the Government remain ready to discuss with all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland the best way forward. In particular I would urge the Unionist parties to return to this House to argue their case and to take up the offer of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to discuss with her the four matters proposed: namely, devolution and the possibility of a round table conference; the future of the Assembly; arrangements for handling Northern Ireland business at Westminster; and new means of consultation between the Government and Unionist leaders.

"Only if we are prepared to talk together and discuss these matters can we hope fully to play our separate but complementary roles in building a better future for the people of Northern Ireland".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.45 p.m.

My Lords, we thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place. Many of us who believe that devolution can help to satisfy the aspirations in Northern Ireland will have received the Statement with a great deal of sadness. But we are gratified that the door opened by the 1982 Act still remains open.

We agree that the present evidence indicates that a newly-elected Assembly would not, at this stage, produce the will among the constitutional parties to work together. This is not the time to apportion blame for this state of affairs. But to elect an Assembly which would not work together in support of the prescribed functions of the Assembly would appear to be a pretty pointless exercise.

The Government propose to dissolve the Assembly by an Order in Council and not to abolish its legal basis. We regard this as encouraging, because this means that an Assembly could be revived by an Order in Council if the Government were satisfied that the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland were committed to making it work. This is important because we believe that the 1982 Act still provides probably the best platform upon which Northern Ireland can build for itself a better future.

Nevertheless, it should not be overlooked that the Assembly played a valuable role for three years in the scrutiny of Northern Ireland measures, and it compensated for some of the deficiencies of legislating for Northern Ireland largely by means of Orders in Council. Those of us who speak regularly on Northern Ireland measures benefited greatly from the knowledge and experience of the Assembly Members. We trust that when the House debates the order dissolving the Assembly the Government will have something to say about how Parliament, in the absence of an Assembly for any length of time, can improve its scrutiny of the contents of direct rule measures. We consider this also to be important.

Finally, we endorse the Government's invitation to the constitutional parties to return to discussions and to a possible round table conference. We hope that that invitation will be accepted, and that before too long we shall have the pleasure of debating an order authorising fresh elections to an Assembly.

My Lords, I should like to associate our Benches with what my noble friend has just said. We may feel sad, as he does, but we can hardly be surprised that the Government find it necessary to take some action. The Assembly was formed, as the Statement tells us, originally as an all-party group to examine how to set up a devolved Northern Ireland administration, and to monitor and report on the Northern Ireland departments. It now consists of one party only, the SDLP having led to its downfall by refusing to co-operate. It is therefore unable to consider how to make an advance towards an all-party Assembly, and recently it has refused to continue with its duties of monitoring. It had only two functions, and it is not performing either of them now, though up to date it has been fairly decently paid for its attendance.

We cannot hesitate for one moment in approving the Government's action. We are also grateful that it is not final, and that it leaves the machinery behind the Assembly available so that at some later stage something new and more constructive may be done. I end by saying that as we on these Benches are convinced—and I think that a lot of other noble Lords share this view—that there can be no move forward in Northern Ireland without some shape or form of shared government, we must hope that the Members of the Assembly, who have a bit more time to do other things than go to the Assembly, will spend at least some of it in trying to help the Government to persuade all parties to get together again so that a new Assembly may be formed which will be properly functional as soon as possible.

My Lords, may I briefly reply to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and thank both noble Lords, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his welcome of the Statement that I read out. We believe that the Statement that I have read out today, and what has happened, need not be the end of the road. We hope that it is not, for an elected Assembly acting constructively, as many of us believe they did until fairly recently, is a valuable institution. We want to have a new election when attitudes change, and that is particularly important.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, stressed the aspect of devolution. I am sure he will agree and all students of Northern Ireland matters and those of your Lordships who speak on them will agree that integration would not solve Northern Ireland's problems, because of its divided community, its politics, and, above all, its different attitudes on many issues. All of these warrant special treatment. The Government's objective remains the establishment of a new devolved government because it could give—I stress the words "could give"—politicians from all parts of the community in Northern Ireland a real say in developing and protecting the interests of their constituents.

We have no illusions that any progress will be easy. We shall do our utmost to promote it. Your Lordships will agree that any new arrangements must be acceptable throughout the community if they are, first, to survive and, secondly, to work effectively.

We thank the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, for his welcome and his wise words today. He is sad, as indeed all of us are. We agree on that. We agree that the two functions of the Assembly have not been carried out—and certainly not constructively. All the politicians who have hitherto taken part in the Assembly should pay attention to the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, because he has considerable experience of working both here and in Northern Ireland. We believe that the politicians would benefit from paying heed to his words.

My Lords, is this not another confession of failure regarding the problems of Northern Ireland? I am merely a distressed observer of the condition of Northern Ireland; I have been that for the last 50 years. This latest move almost confirms the belief that we have an insoluble problem on our hands. Your Lordships should be a little sensitive to suggestions that parts of the institution of parliamentary democracy should be abolished when it is believed that they have ceased to be useful. We are ourselves very sensitive to the word "abolition". We ought to be on guard against believing that institutions have failed when miraculously they have shown a new lease of life and have come to be regarded with great respect and as being useful, sober and worthwhile. Your Lordships' House has emerged from this kind of condition of uselessness in its time.

We should be a little careful about meting on any other assembly within the body politic the sort of fate that some people would have visited upon us. It is a great pity if one abolishes anything that has been set up to achieve a particular purpose unless there is something else to put in its place. I do not believe it helps to say that the Government's aim remains as something which at the present time is not within sight. It strikes me that people are looking upon the Northern Ireland situation as Britain's permanent confession of failure to solve the problem of unity within the United Kingdom; but we go round the world telling everybody else how to get rid of their internal difficulties. I think our reputation for hypocrisy and incompetence must surely shine throughout the world.

My Lords, I immediately refute the two words to which the noble Lord referred—hypocrisy and incompetence. I do not think any fair and unbiased observer would label the efforts of this Government and, indeed, successive governments in the past with those two words: The noble Lord mentioned at least three times the word "abolition". May I stress to him especially, and to your Lordships, that we are not abolishing the Assembly; we are dissolving it. There is a major difference.

As I pointed out in the opening Statement, we are dissolving the Assembly under the powers we have in Section 5 of the 1982 Act. We are dissolving it for all the reasons I explained both in the answers I gave to the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Donaldson, and in the opening Statement. The Statement of my right honourable friend spelt out the reasons for taking this action. We regret it, we are sad; but I refute the two labels of hypocrisy and incompetence which the noble Lord seeks to place on our efforts. The Government will spare no effort to try to resolve the appallingly difficult problems of Northern Ireland which have been spelled out in your Lordships' House. I give that undertaking. We are not pleased that we have to take this action, but we believe that it is about the only option open to us.

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister assure the House on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that in future the people of Northern Ireland will be accorded the same democratic rights as are enjoyed by the people of the rest of the United Kingdom? In particular, will he assure the House that future legislation affecting the Province will be subject to full parliamentary deliberation and scrutiny, including the power to amend such legislation as and when Parliament considers it right to do so?

My Lords, the opening service (if I may put it that way) of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, was getting quite away from today's Statement. However, he referred to scrutiny in dealing with Northern Ireland parliamentary and political arrangements. The opening Statement stressed that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister would be very willing to discuss with the leaders of the Unionist Party four matters, one of which was the arrangements for handling Northern Ireland business at Westminster. I hope that that places squarely on the record what my right honourable friend would wish to discuss with the leaders of the Unionist Party. We hope that they will take up this invitation.

My Lords, is it not a sad commentary that 14 years after the abolition of Stormont in 1972 by order of the House of Commons we now have the seventh Secretary of State—five of them have been Conservative and two Labour—coming to the House this afternoon to admit that yet another initiative has failed? Will the noble Lord the Minister accept from me as one who has lived through those years in Northern Ireland that the failure lay not with any single one of those Secretaries of State to try to find a solution to the problem? The failure lay with the problem of the Northern Ireland people. The nearest that we ever came to success was the initiative of 1973 known as Sunningdale, which was the most hopeful political development that we had had throughout the years, but unfortunately it was brought crashing to the ground.

Will the noble Lord accept that the failure of the Assembly is to be laid at the feet not of any one of the political parties, but of a combination of every single one of them, perhaps excluding the Alliance? Will he also accept that the Unionist Members at Westminster in 1982, when the legislation was going through the House, expressed their opposition to the Assembly, but attempted subsequently to make it work, whereas the SDLP and Sinn Fein representatives totally boycotted it and made its failure certain?

Will the noble Lord accept that sentiments now being expressed by the leaders of the various political parties in Northern Ireland that they want to talk without preconditions are just so much hot air because they all have their own conditions? Does he accept the fact that the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council has made it more difficult for talks on devolution to take place? There are many members of the Unionist majority who regard the existence of the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference as being a precondition in itself. Will the noble Lord agree that following the failure of this latest initiative the only hope of any help towards solving the ongoing problem in Northern Ireland is to be found within the confines of Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland and that no solution can emanate from this House?

5 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may first deal with the noble Lord's last point. He is getting a little wide of the somewhat narrow track that I beat this afternoon in regard to the Statement. Perhaps the noble Lord will go over this again when we debate the order, which we shall be doing at a future date. Perhaps I may then be able to approach the noble Lord's question and do a little more justice to it. I think that your Lordships would not wish me to go too far down that path this afternoon.

The noble Lord referred to the regrettable fact that the SDLP refused to attend this Assembly, and I pointed that out in my opening comments in relation to my right honourable friend's Statement earlier this afternoon. I believe that the House would wish the Government to take a constructive line, and that we should not rake over the reasons for failure. We can learn lessons, and I hope that we shall, but I hope that the tenor of everything I have said this afternoon, both in the Statement and in reply to your Lordships, has been one of seeking for a constructive solution. I think that that, too, was the tenor of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, today. I would thank him for his kind comments about successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, and I am sure that his good wishes cover all of your Lordships and everybody who has tried to serve in Northern Ireland. I stress that we adopt a constructive outlook, and I hope that we might be able to have more to say on that on a future occasion.

My Lords, as today's announcement seems to mark the failure of this particular experiment in devolution, might it not be sensible, despite the special problems of Northern Ireland to which the noble Lord referred, to consider in future treating Northern Ireland more like other parts of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, that is a very interesting thought and we are very grateful to the noble Lord for raising it. May I ask him whether we might cover that a little more fully when we debate the whole of this order, which we shall be doing, I hope, in the near future? It is one part of the political argument that is under way at the moment in Northern Ireland. As I suggested to your Lordships, we believe that devolution is the best avenue; but perhaps we may leave discussion of that particular aspect to a later date.

My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement. I cannot say that I welcome it, but I certainly understand and accept the inevitability of the situation that has brought about the reasons for the Statement. I note that we are to be presented with an Order in Council next week, when we shall have an opportunity to debate the position and the Government's policy. Today, I should like, with others, to express the regret that elected members of the Assembly failed to fulfil the democratic functions of the Northern Ireland Assembly and its devolved powers, although important powers, in promoting a basis for justice, peace and prosperity in the Province.

I think that this would be an opportune time for me to pay tribute and commend highly the thoughtful efforts and work of the Speaker, Mr. Jim Kilfedder; the Clerk, Mr. Kennedy; and the officers and staff of the Assembly, all of whom worked under extreme difficulties earnestly and genuinely to uphold the principles and practices of parliamentary democracy. I should like to conclude my brief remarks on this Statement at this stage by quoting two sentences from a statement made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on 26th November last. The Prime Minister said:
"We, the United Kingdom Government, accountable to Parliament, remain responsible for the government of Northern Ireland … we will make determined efforts to resolve differences." [Official Report, Commons, 26/11/85; col. 752]
Matters have been raised here today about the rights and about the dissolution, and, in my view, the dissolution leaves a vacuum. I consider that rights in Northern Ireland are on a parity with those of the rest of the United Kingdom. What is required, as others have stated here, is that those rights be exercised. I think that a dangerous void exists in the vital democratic processes in Northern Ireland. It cannot be filled by ministerial statements, nor by the verbiage of politicians; nor, indeed, by the media announcements of clergy and others. I believe that it requires concerted action on agreed principles. Therefore, I hope that the Minister, when he comes to us—if it is to be next week—to debate the order will assure us of the determined measures by which the Government now propose to bring about the brighter picture of the future, to which the Minister referred, to bring peace and prosperity with justice in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I hope that I have guarded my words suitably about the time at which we shall come to debate this order; but it will be in the near future. That is all I will indicate to the noble Lord. We are very grateful for his forthright support for the efforts that are made by everybody, particularly by the Government and all of those who seek to assist in the political life of Northern Ireland. But the noble Lord rightly stresses that all of us are seeking after peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

Quite rightly the noble Lord also stresses that dissolution leaves a vacuum. I hope that in my replies this afternoon and in the Statement we have gone some way to try to set out our ideas on the decision that we have taken, why we have taken it, and, I hope, some avenues for hope in the future. I note the noble Lord's comments and indeed his tributes to the Speaker of the Assembly and to others who have served so well, so long and so loyally to try to make it work. I think that tributes are due from all of us. We share the noble Lord's sadness that the Members of the Assembly felt unable to carry out their main task of scrutinising the work of the Northern Ireland departments.