HC Deb 30 April 1970 vol 800 cc1445-9
Q1. Mr. Rose

asked the Prime Minister whether he will initiate a meeting with the Prime Ministers of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with a view to easing tension and creating a more peaceful atmosphere in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

I would refer to my reply to a question by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) on 6th November, 1969. —[Vol. 790, c. 1173–5.]

Mr. Rose

Would not such a meeting serve three purposes: first, to assure the Unionists that there is no intention on the part of the Republic of Ireland to coerce them; secondly, to demonstrate the futility of any attempt by extreme Unionists at U.D.I.; and, thirdly, to make clear to Northern Ireland that the British Government are willing to legislate, above the head of Stormont if necessary, to secure the same rights, privileges, democracy and equality as in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

On the attitude of the Republic of Ireland, my hon. Friend will be aware of the helpful statement made by its Prime Minister which I quoted in a recent exchange at Question time. That is the position of the Irish Republic.

On the question of U.D.I., no responsible person in Northern Ireland is contemplating such a solution to the difficulties. Therefore, I think that we can regard that as hypothetical.

Regarding legislation and human rights, I refer my hon. Friend to the declaration signed by Major Chichester-Clark and myself at Downing Street last August when we made clear that all citizens of the United Kingdom, whether in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, have the same rights in respect of civil rights, freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion, or any other matters.

Mr. McMaster

Concerning the last point, may I ask whether the Prime Minister is aware that any threat, either direct or indirect, is counter-productive in present circumstances, because it encourages the Nationalists and aggravates the extreme Right wing, and that, therefore, it is better in this case to avoid making any threat one way or the other?

The Prime Minister

We have not made threats in this matter. Our policy throughout the troubles of last summer and since—indeed, over the period since we took office—has been to assert the rights which are necessary in Northern Ireland, but not to give any aid or comfort to extremists on either side in the dispute.

Mr. Simon Mahon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us are not as pessimistic about the affairs of Northern Ireland as others? For instance, in the sphere of voluntary church schools the Northern Ireland Government treats almost every Church with the same facility as does this Government, and equally generously. It is not a pity that this could not be emulated in Northern Ireland in the housing and employment spheres?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, knowing his strong feelings on many of these matters, for putting his supplementary question in the way that he did. Concerning housing, discrimination in jobs, and investigation of grievances not only in central Government policies, as we have here, but also in local government now, it is a fact that, as a result of discussions that we have had over a period with Major Chichester-Clark, the Northern Ireland Government have moved, if belatedly—I also include what Lord O'Neil did—with a clear determination in the spheres referred to by my hon. Friend, and in other matters as well.

Mr. Doughty

Is not the violence in Northern Ireland largely caused by people who wish to promote violence to disturb the Governments of both Northern and Southern Ireland and play upon local grievances to cause the present disputes and violence?

The Prime Minister

It is true that this is an extremely complicated issue. It has been debated in the House, and the whole analysis was set out by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. It is true that some of the violent trouble comes from extremists who can be acceptable to neither the Government of Northern Ireland nor that of the Irish Republic. There is, however, a great deal of other violence, arising in some cases from fear, perhaps irrational fear, and some violence which arises, as we know, from drink, and other violence, because violence breeds and begets violence, some even resulting, we are told, from the deployment of a Scottish Regi- ment there—because of some doubts about which football team in Glasgow some of the members of the regiment supported.

Mr. Hector Hughes

As the Prime Minister referred to a previous reply to me, may I ask whether he will endeavour to include in any such conference as is proposed ecclesiastical leaders to give a lead to their flocks who seem to be at the root of much of the trouble?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. and learned Friend knows, when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary visited Northern Ireland twice last year he made it his business to have very full discussions with all sections of opinion in Northern Ireland, including church members of all persuasions. He received an extremely helpful response from the vast majority of church leaders of all denominations whom he saw. He met trade unionists, industrialists, and representatives of all shades of opinion. I do not think that it is necessary to contemplate the kind of conference which my hon. and learned Friend has in mind.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Is the Prime Minister aware—and I say this as moderately as I can—that in contradistinction to the Home Secretary, by his tendency to party political replies in this House and by some of his television broadcasts, notably the one on " This Week " during this month, he has himself done a certain amount to encourage the very forces of Paisleyism and the like which he detests so much?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. In this House I always reply to questions in the spirit in which they are put, and if I have sometimes been a little rough with the hon. and learned Member for Antrim, South (Sir Knox Cunningham), I think that I have shown considerable restraint in view of his continued attitude on some of these questions.

With regard to other remarks that I have made, I think that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to recognise that all of us in this House have shown great restraint in these matters, because the difficulties of the last year, particularly, all stem from the failure of politicians over 50 years to move fast enough. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman cannot wipe out the past, nor his party's responsibility for it.

Mr. Hogg

Will the right hon. Gentleman be generous enough to admit that over the past 50 years people of all parties in this House have been alarmed lest intrusion into the delicately poised affairs of Northern Ireland might cause the loss of innocent lives and the very sort of thing which has been happening during the last 12 months?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is particularly right in using the phrase " delicately poised ". We have all had bitter experience during the last year or more of how true that phrase is. But, taking the situation over 50 years, it would perhaps have been easier to avoid some of these confrontations, or at any rate to concentrate blame on the intruders to whom he referred, and other extremists, if more progress had been made on reform, particularly in regard to civil rights and non-discrimination, on which great progress has been made by Lord O'Neill and his successor, Major Chichester-Clark, during the last three or four years. The whole of human history shows what happens when reforms are pressed on with in a situation where too little was done before.

Mr. McMaster

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the last part of the Prime Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.

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