HC Deb 15 November 1966 vol 736 cc224-8
Q7 Mr. McNamara

asked the Prime Minister (1) what further plans he has to continue the discussions with Captain O'Neill and the Government of Northern Ireland;

(2) if he will introduce amending legislation to enable all Northern Ireland matters to be raised in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.

Q8. Mr. William Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister what plans he has for further discussions with representatives of the Government of Northern Ireland; and what progress has been made to date.

Q9. Mr. Hamling

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now initiate discussions concerning constitutional changes in the Government of Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister

The House will recall that I had a useful discussion with Captain O'Neill on a wide range of matters in August. We both hope to resume our discussions fairly soon but no date has yet been arranged. I cannot at this stage speculate about the subjects which will be covered.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable concern on this side of the House that, whereas the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) can ask questions about direct building schemes in Salford, we cannot ask questions about discrimination in housing matters in the hon. Member's constituency?

The Prime Minister

There is certainly illogicality here, and there have been cases, when majorities were smaller than at present, when a Government could have fallen with a Northern Ireland vote on Rachmanism in London, although nothing could be said about housing conditions in Belfast. This is part and parcel of the long-standing arrangement between the two countries. In our talks with Captain O'Neill, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have been trying to discuss with him some of the questions on which there is anxiety on both sides of the House.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there are some violently anti-democratic practices in Northern Ireland which we find very difficult to tolerate? My right hon. Friend talks about "long-standing" practices. Do these anti-democratic practices which I have talked about warrant another look at these long-standing practices? Will he consider setting up a Royal Commission on the whole problem?

The Prime Minister

When I referred to long-standing practices, I was talking about the constitutional position and constitutional convention. I was not referring to some of the individual actions taken in Northern Ireland, which I know cause concern to my hon. Friends. But as hon. Members from Northern Irish constituencies have said in the House very frankly, Captain O'Neill has shown very great courage in this last year or two in standing up to some of the most reprehensible types of activity in Northern Ireland—

Mr. William Hamilton

There is a long way to go.

The Prime Minister

There may be, as my hon. Friend says, a long way to go, but he will be aware of the political campaign and the very squalid mock religious campaign mounted against Captain O'Neill as a result of his actions.

Captain Orr

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the prospect of continuing these discussions is welcomed in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that the thing which is giving us most real anxiety there at the moment is the rising unemployment, that the latest figures show that our unemployment was 4,000 up on the same period last year? Will he, in these future talks with Captain O'Neill, be as helpful as he can towards any proposition which may be put to him in that regard?

The Prime Minister

I discussed this question with Captain O'Neill in our previous talks and, of course, in any future talks—as is the case every time I meet him—economic questions will be discussed. The anxieties expressed by my hon. Friends and, indeed, by some hon. Members opposite, related not to this very serious and continuing economic problem which we have had for many years in Northern Ireland: the anxieties have referred to discrimination in many other matters, but not excluding the allocation of jobs.

Mr. McMaster

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Question simply asks for discussions with Captain O'Neill? Is he aware that unemployment in Northern Ireland is now increasing at the rate of 1,000 a month and that this presents a very serious problem, particularly in relation to aircraft and shipyards in Belfast?

The Prime Minister

I am very well aware of the serious position that exists there. A serious position has existed for many years and the figures have been a great deal higher than they are today, although I agree that that is no reason for complacency. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that the main purpose for seeking these particular talks with Captain O'Neill related to some perhaps different and non-economic questions, although when they take place economic questions can be discussed.

Mr. Fitt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the greatest single cause of discontent in Northern Ireland is the operation of the completely undemocratic electoral system, allied to the vicious gerrymandering in Deny City? Would he assure the House that, in any future discussions with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, he will impress on him the necessity of implementing British standards in electoral law in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that Captain O'Neill is well aware of the facts brought out from time to time by my hon. Friend. [Interruption.] I am sure that he is well aware of them. I am equally sure that he is well aware that complaints are sometimes made on both sides about the electoral system in Northern Ireland. Where there are breaches of the law, that is a matter for the prosecuting authorities and not for Her Majesty's Government. I agree that over a period of time all these questions should be discussed with the Government of Northern Ireland because they affect—and I am not thinking of any particular hon. Member on either side—representation in this House. Naturally, over a period of time they should be discussed, but this has not been a very propitious year for putting pressure on Captain O'Neill in view of what he has had to face in connection with the actions already taken.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Is the Prime Minister aware that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and the hon. and learned Member for Antrim, South are both elected on the universal franchise of one man, one vote; and would he like to choose between them?

The Prime Minister

I am well aware of the state of the law in relation to elections in Northern Ireland, though there are, of course, many parts of the world where one man, one vote applies; but one is not always totally happy about what one reads about the electoral practices within them. The one thing on which I am sure the hon. and learned Gentleman and I will agree is that he could have been elected here only as a result of his superb eloquence and deep intelligence.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Godber, personal statement.