HC Deb 05 November 1968 vol 772 cc688-93
Q2. Mr. Judd

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on his consultations with the Government of Northern Ireland concerning recent events in that territory.

Q14. Mr. Whitaker

asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a statement on his recent talks with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

Q15. Mr. McNamara

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his talks with Captain O'Neill.

The Prime Minister

My discussions with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland covered five main areas: the local government franchise, allocation of housing, recent events in Londonderry, the Special Powers Acts, and the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in Northern Ireland. We agreed to report back to our colleagues.

Mr. Judd

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that there is widespread feeling in Great Britain that there is much in Northern Ireland that is an affront to the standards of democracy and human rights which we like to take for granted in Britain and that he will have all possible support in any action he thinks it necessary to take?

The Prime Minister

Without associating myself with the particular words used by my hon. Friend, I can say that I am well aware, and the whole House is aware, of the very great feeling in the House, not entirely on this side of the House, and the feelings and the reasons for these anxieties were very fully represented to Captain O'Neill and his colleagues.

Mr. Whitaker

By when may we expect universal local franchise in Ulster, and by when may we expect a multi-religious body to investigate allegations of religious discrimination impartially?

The Prime Minister

With regard to the local government franchise, the current expectation is that this would take some little time, because it would be waiting until after the very necessary and complicated system of local government reform. We have represented that it is urgent that the local authority franchise should be got on with now, because the principles underlying one man, one vote, the company vote and the rest on the franchise are just as applicable whatever the form of local government boundaries or local government units there.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that when this subject was discussed yesterday we had no refutation of the allegations made against the Ulster situation other than a vicious and monstrous personal attack upon my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)? Did the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland give any firm undertaking about the reforms that he is likely to introduce and name any firm date other than some of the vagueness that appeared in some sections of the Press this morning?

The Prime Minister

Both Captain O'Neill and I will be reporting back to our colleagues. It will be then a matter for decision how this matter will be carried further forward. Captain O'Neill can be in no doubt about the contrast we are able to point to between the handling of these matters in the recent demonstration in London and what happened in Londonderry recently. I am proposing to send to Captain O'Neill the report by the three hon. Members of this House which came to me. It is right that this report should go to Captain O'Neill, because Northern Ireland has the full responsibility in these matters of internal law and order and I think that this report should be seen by them. I think that the whole House would feel more confidence in the administration of that particular incident if the Northern Ireland Government were to appoint an impartial inquiry into what happened.

Mr. Heath

Does not the Prime Minister agree that, if progress is to be made in Northern Ireland in the way which most hon. Members want, this can be done only by supporting those in Northern Ireland who are pursuing a moderate policy, and that to do otherwise is only to play into the hands of extremists, with results which may well be very damaging for both Northern Ireland and this country?

Second, I refer to the list which the right hon. Gentleman read of subjects discussed with Captain O'Neill. He did not mention the Constitutional Commission proposed in the Queen's Speech. Was this discussed, and, if not, what was the reason for not discussing it?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I very much agree, and I think that the whole House will, with what he said. Many of us on many occasions have paid tribute to the reforming liberalism, as far as it has gone, of Captain O'Neill; it ought to be encouraged to continue. On the other hand, we cannot get into a position where his vulnerability to pressures from the extremists referred to by the right hon. Gentleman could be used as an occasion for blackmail and could be used on occasion where we failed to press for the reforms which are necessary. If Captain O'Neill were thrown over, or what he is trying to do were thrown over, by extremists, we should ourselves need to consider a fundamental reappraisal of our relations with Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, therefore, he should be encouraged in pushing on with reform as fast as he can.

Now, the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question. We did not discuss the Commission about the constitution with Captain O'Neill at this stage. It will be discussed later. We spent most of the time discussing matters which are really urgent in relation to decisions which have to be taken now.

Captain Orr

Will the Prime Minister agree that, in so far as there exists any real or alleged religious discrimination in the allocation of houses or employment, by far the best answer is to build enough houses and to create enough employment? Will he assure us that Her Majesty's Government will continue to give the maximum financial support to the Government of Northern Ireland for these purposes?

The Prime Minister

The simple answer to the problem raised by the hon. and gallant Gentleman is to stop the discrimination. I welcome the progress made in the number of houses built in Northern Ireland over the past few years, just as, I am sure, the hon. and gallant Gentleman will welcome the unprecedented financial assistance which this Government have been giving for that and other purposes. However, if there were a general acceptance of standard rules for allocations, on the basis of a points system or something of that kind, in each local authority, the allocation of houses would be far more automatic and would not be subject either to discrimination or to suspicions of discrimination.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that some of us regard the proposed Commission on constitutional reform as sufficiently important to merit debate in the House, which is why we had a debate yesterday, though, unfortunately, we were not supported by the Opposition?

I accept the confidentiality of the Prime Minister's talks with Captain O'Neill, but will he confirm that it is his view that all people in the United Kingdom may enjoy equal human rights in the immediate and foreseeable future even if they live in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that we are about to enter into consultations. We should start the consultations here first, before we have discussions with the Government of Northern Ireland, but we shall then discuss the matter with the Government of Northern Ireland and with other relevant bodies and authorities. However, there are certain matters, as I said last week in the debate on the Queen's Speech, which are too urgent to wait for consideration by a Constitutional Commission, including those raised by the right hon. Gentleman himself. For example, discrimination and the question of the Special Powers Act, for which we bear international responsibility, are matters which must be discussed urgently.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Will the Prime Minister condemn attacks on the police, whether they occur in Grosvenor Square or Londonderry, and condemn any Member of Parliament who encourages such attacks?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly not respond to the latter part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question. That is what this House exists for—not least, abuses of power by the police or anyone else.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

The right hon. Gentleman misunderstood my hon. and learned Friend's question.

The Prime Minister

I could not hear the first few words, but I think I heard the last. If the hon. and learned Gentleman was referring in his first few words—he will correct me if I am wrong—to attacks on the police, I am sure that the whole House will join the Leader of the Opposition in the tribute paid to the London police last week. We shall pay tribute whenever it is due. But we must also comment on brutality when there are signs of that brutality. If I did not understand the question aright, I shall be glad if the hon. and learned Gentleman is given leave to repeat it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister has asked the hon. and learned Member for Antrim, South (Sir Knox Cunningham) to put his supplementary question again. I call him to do so.

Sir Knox Cunningham

I am much obliged, Mr. Speaker. Will the Prime Minister condemn any Member of Parliament who encourages attacks on the police, whether in Grosvenor Square or in Londonderry?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry; there was so much noise that I did not quite hear it. I thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman was referring to attacks on the police in the form of Questions or in the form of statements. If he was referring to anyone, be he Member of Parliament or anyone else, who stimulates provocation to the police, whether in Grosvenor Square, Londonderry, or anywhere else, all of us would condemn that, irrespective of whether the instigator was a Member of Parliament or not. I am sorry that I did not understand the question in the first place.

Sir Knox Cunningham

I am obliged.