HC Deb 09 February 1972 vol 830 cc1349-51

4.0 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Ireland Act 1949. I begin by acknowledging my obligation to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) who would have associated himself with this but has now to be overseas. Indeed, a number of minds, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), have been working in the same direction, and the proposition that I seek to ventilate in a House deeply concerned for the serious situation in Northern Ireland was first put to me by a fellow Catholic serving in the Ulster Defence Regiment.

The Ireland Act, 1949, was occasioned by Eire's departure from the Commonwealth, and declared, amongst other things, the constitutional position and the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland". My proposition is to alter Section 2, which provides that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom and that neither Northern Ireland nor any part of it should cease to be So without the consent of the Parliament of Northern Ireland". This Bill would substitute for the words: the Parliament of Northern Ireland the words: the people of Northern Ireland". My intention follows logically from the Downing Street Declaration of August, 1969. This reaffirmed the clear pledge made by successive United Kingdom Governments that Northern Ireland should not cease to be a part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland". This is a quotation from the first paragraph of the Declaration, which concludes: The border is not an issue". That was the position of the Administration headed by the Leader of the Opposition and of the Northern Ireland Government. Nor is it incongruous with the speech delivered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Sunday at Harrogate. Hon. Members will have noted also what the Northern Ireland Prime Minister stated at Stormont yesterday: The border is not an issue". Let us give effect to this assertion in the Declaration of Downing Street.

At the present time it might be said that every General Election in Northern Ireland is a virtual referendum: for the Union or for a united Ireland. If, however, the border were taken out of Stormont politics, elections could be fought on policies rather than on the prejudices of the past; and men and women of the minority might find it easier to play their part in legislation and in government in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister said at Harrogate: It is not for us to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they must choose to join a United Ireland or that they must choose to remain part of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend went on: It is a fact that at the present time a substantial majority in Northern Ireland insist on remaining within the United Kingdom. I myself would add that that substantial majority includes many Catholics. [Interruption.] Indeed, the voting figures in various elections would confirm that. But, as Her Majesty's Ambassador, Lord Cromer, said on American television on 4th February: If the people of Northern Ireland voted to become members of the Republic we would do nothing to prevent or discourage this. My contention is that the effective vote for or against such a proposal, such a profound constitutional change, should not be that of the Northern Ireland Parliament of the day but should be that of the people as a whole.

The mechanics and timing of a plebiscite cannot be entered upon now. It should not, in my view, be held too frequently. The interval should be long enough not to cause distraction from the problems of bread and butter, work and welfare, housing and health, education and development. In a wise leading article on 5th February The Times newspaper urged the Governments in London and Belfast to search for an initiative that might overcome this reluctance on the part of the Northern Ireland opposition to enter into negotiation, but added the warning that nothing should he done which would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and acted upon accordingly by the I.R.A. and organisers of civil disobedience; or one that would provoke the Protestant part of the population to look after their own safety. This Bill, if enacted, would demonstrate that the I. R. A. 's method of trying to unify Ireland is an outrage upon the people's right to decide their future by equal and secret vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Biggs-Davison, Mr. Ronald Bell, Mr. Goodhart, Mr. Wall, Mr. Maginnis and Mr. Fell.

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