HC Deb 15 June 1972 vol 838 cc1739-52
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Mr. Speaker, I will with permission make a statement on two steps upon which Her Majesty's Government have decided in relation to Northern Ireland.

In assuming direct responsibility for Northern Ireland on 30th March, the Government held it to be an important objective to create an atmosphere in which the varying political views in Northern Ireland on the future of the Province could be brought together and discussed.

As I said in the debate in this House last Monday, there is a strong desire in Northern Ireland that discussions on the future should now begin. It is therefore my intention to enter into immediate conversations to arrange an early conference and the conditions under which it might be held. I believe that the conference should be a conference of the people of Northern Ireland. The object will be to enable those who hold a wide variety of political opinions to exchange views to see what common ground can be found concerning the future of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland and report the conclusions to Her Majesty's Government and to this House.

If my conversations show that there is also a widespread desire for a plebiscite on the border at an early date the Government would be very ready to arrange it.

The second step relates to the local government reforms which were inaugurated by the previous Northern Ireland Government. As I previously confirmed, to that end elections to the new district councils will be held in the autumn of this year. Her Majesty's Government have been giving much thought to the most appropriate basis upon which these elections might be held. During the 1920s both parliamentary and local elections were held under a system of the single transferable vote with multi-member constituencies. In the previous Northern Ireland Government's Consultative Document published in 1971 the possibility of this system was put forward for discussion.

Her Majesty's Government have decided to propose to Parliament that in the present particular circumstances in Northern Ireland it would be right to hold these local elections under proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote. I should like to make it clear that this decision relates only to these particular elections. It in no way prejudices decisions on Northern Ireland's democratic institutions in future nor on subsequent local elections.

The required administrative preparations will probably make it necessary to postpone the elections from the date hitherto envisaged in the second half of October to November or December. However, the councils elected will still take office in April, 1973, as planned.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Is the Secretary of State aware that we regard his statement on proportional representation as an important step forward? We shall need a full debate on this important issue because it comes outside the arrangements made in the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act for legislation emanating from Northern Ireland. Given the social and religious barriers in the North, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that proportional representation is the only way of giving moderation a chance of expression? Is he aware that all the moderate parties, which I have met again in the last few days, want proportional representation? As the right hon. Gentleman has explained, Mr. Faulkner had proportional representation in his Consultative Document. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, however, that in our view proportional representation will be equally vital in the next stage of return to democracy in Northern Ireland?

With regard to the next stage, to talk about talks, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House approve of this flexible, one-step-at-a-time approach? When he talks about the plebiscite, we are glad also that he proposes to discuss this with all sides in Northern Ireland before taking a decision.

With regard—because it is relevant to this—to the recent ultimatum by the Provisional I.R.A., it so happens that I was in the Bogside at the time. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, however inepty the offer was made, it is a sign both of the growing minority feeling for peace and that the Provisional leadership is beginning to think politically? Would he not agree that the fact that they would talk without the precondition on internment is a most significant factor? Would it not help in concentrating the mind of all in Northern Ireland if the Secretary of State made it clear, however, that a final decision on the future of Northern Ireland will be taken by representatives elected by the people of Northern Ireland and that in this respect the local elections are a beginning?

Finally, reverting to the right hon. Gentleman's meeting with the Ulster Defence Association, which is also relevant to his talks about talks, I have spent some time with the majority—in this instance, the majority working class—in Northern Ireland in recent days. Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that they still need reassurance and that, if the Provisionals continue with violence, no amount of talking will save the day? Indeed, within the next week or two if both the UDA and the Provisionals would stop talking and acting in a violent way there is a chance that the initiative would give much that everyone in Northern Ireland wants.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On his first point about proportional representation, I believe that it is right to give this system a trial in these particular local elections without any further commitments at all. I believe that it will provide evidence as to how this system would work, which would be of great value in deciding what would be right for the future. This is a trial, in one particular set of local elections, without any prejudice to what might happen in the future.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about talks. I believe that in these matters such a conference giving the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity to express their views is very important. I believe, equally, that in discussions as to how such a conference should be mounted it is right not to lay down preconditions, but it is important to try to get them all around the conference table.

On the third point, the ultimatum by the Provisional IRA, I want to say to the House as little as possible at present, apart from what I made perfectly clear on Monday, particularly because I am shortly to see two members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who, after all, are the elected representatives in these areas. It must surely be right to talk to the people who are the elected representatives. I shall be talking to them about this situation, and I should prefer to say nothing in advance of my conversations with them.

I have had meetings and discussions with some members of the Ulster Defence Association. I certainly respect the feelings—if respect is the right word—I certainly understand the feelings of anger and frustration that many people have because violence has continued, and those, after all, are feelings which everyone can share. They need reassurance. This House, both the Government and the Opposition—the hon. Gentleman the other night—has given them all the reassurance that we are concerned about the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. I equally made clear to them how important I believed it was in the current climate to take no actions which would promote further sectarian conflict, which could only bring disaster to everyone. I believe that they undersood that position.

Mr. McMaster

In view of his answer to the previous question, can my right hon. Friend say what arrangements he intends to make for the chairmanship of the conference and what right the elected representatives in Northern Ireland, whom he has just praised, will have to take part in the conference? These are the only people who are properly responsible spokesmen for the people of Northern Ireland.

We welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman met members of the Ulster Defence Association and that he refused to meet members of the Provisional IRA earlier this week. The members of the Provisional IRA are responsible for over 350 cruel murders in Northern Ireland and many thousands of mutilations of innocent men, women and children in a campaign of violence which is still continuing at this moment.

As my right hon. Friend's statement gives litle guidance on the Government's intention for dealing with this matter, which is the main problem, what steps do the Government intend to take to bring this campaign of violence to an end and to restore law and order and policing to the Bogside, the Creggan and fully to every part of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Whitelaw

First, I accept the position that the UDA and other people in Northern Ireland want reasurrance about the determination to bring terrorism to an end. I do not want to add to what I have consistently said on this subject at this particular moment. We have various opportunities. I cannot tell what will happen, but I do not want to prejudice them by any remarks I may happen to make at this particular time.

Mr. Orme

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of us feel that events have taken a most welcome positive turn during the last few days? Would he not agree that the talks that he had with, for instance, the UDA were not negotiations but opportunities for people to express their opinion? Would he take it from me, at least—and from some of my hon. Friends—that if he met other bodies in Northern Ireland to hear their views, whether it was the Provisionals or anyone else, that in itself would not be negotiation, and that if an exchange of views led to the ending of violence and then to the talks taking place with the elected representatives, this would be the most heartening development in 1972?

Mr. Whitelaw

If the violence could be ended, that would certainly be the most heartening development of all from every point of view.

As to any question of negotiating, I did not negotiate with the Ulster Defence Association. This afternoon I am seeing the members of the SDLP who asked me to see them, who, I believe, are the right people to see. I shall see them first. Otherwise my position remains the same as set out before.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be satisfaction in the House that he appears to be gaining the trust of moderates in both communities? We wish him well in that. Is he aware that the experience of the 1920s at local government level was that the system of proportional representation encouraged moderates to have an influence, not excluding the Shankill and Falls Road area? Therefore, many of us feel that this is the one way in which the moderates could have an influence and extremism will not be at a premium in politics? We therefore welcome it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that all parties who have an interest in a peaceful democratic solution in Northern Ireland will co-operate with his conference?

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the administrative preparations for PR. In case he should fall into administrative difficulties with his advisers, who are always rather conservative in facing any change, is he aware that to combine existing boundaries and to publish the necessary regulations will take roughly 48 hours? If any of the right hon. Gentleman's advisers think that will take longer, I should be delighted to give the right hon. Gentleman assistance.

Mr. Whitelaw

I do not want to be misunderstood, but I do not think that my advisers, in this instance those in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, for whom I have the highest praise, would be described as conservative. I think that they are extremely wise administrators and that they can do this job, which I tell the House is quite an administrative task, in the time involved.

As to what the right hon. Gentleman says about moderate people, this is the great problem in Northern Ireland, and no one must doubt it. There are many people on all sides who feel very deeply, as they are entitled to do, about the issues involved. Many of those who feel very deeply are equally at the same time very suspicious of any changes and very suspicious of anyone who is trying to set a new course. I need hardly tell the House how suspicious and angry quite a large number of people are with me. I must accept that in the task I am seeking to perform.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the festering sore in Northern Ireland at the moment among the majority section of the community is the sore of the no-go areas? Can he tell the House what he has in mind to prevent, not this weekend but the following weekend, an outbreak of opposition from the majority party against the no-go areas in the Roman Catholic area? Will he not agree with me that we cannot sweep this matter under the carpet and that it has to be faced?

When the Secretary of State calls this conference of all the people—I quote what he said—will he make it clear that those people who have publicly declared that they have murdered British troops, murdered members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, murdered part of the civilian population, and blown up places like the Co-operative Stores will not be at any conference table to discuss the future of Northern Ireland and that he will ensure that the elected representatives of the people will be the responsible people called to this conference table and no one else?

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that if he does not put up the shutters as far as the IRA is concerned, in both its wings, as to discussions about the future of Northern Ireland he will have such an aftermath from the Protestant population that there will be no future in any talks?

Mr. Whitelaw

The no-go areas is a subject which is constantly discussed with me on every occasion in every conversation that I have. I cannot do better than quote words that were put to me. These words may, indeed, indicate to those who know the situation the sort of person who made the remark to me. The answer I was given was this: "There are more ways of killing a pig than cutting its throat". If this is said, I believe that that is a very wise comment on the ways in which the no-go areas should and can be dealt with. But dealt with they have to be, and I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

On the hon. Gentleman's other point, I think I made my position perfectly clear in what I did on Monday; and on that position I stand.

Mr. McManus

While deploring the bloodthirsty metaphors of the Secretary of State, which may be indicative of the British Government's entire attitude to Northern Ireland, can I ask him to reverse his decision not to talk to the Provisional IRA? Will he agree with me that everybody in the minority, even the SDLP, has suggested that this is a genuine peace offer and that if he refuses to accept this genuine peace offer the responsibility for the continuation of violence will be seen to rest squarely on his shoulders?

Hon. Members


Mr. McManus

The right hon. Gentleman gives as his reason the fact that he will not speak with those who shoot at British soldiers. Does he not agree with me, as the Army itself has stated, that members of the UDA have themselves shot at the British Army? Yet he felt able to talk to their entire inner council.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree as will all reasonable people, that any man who is interested in peace and who deliberately excludes those without whose consent peace is not possible is not genuinely seeking peace? If the Secretary of State does not change his mind, the 48 hours will shortly be over, the violence may likely continue, and the responsibility for that violence in the eyes of the minority will rest on the Secretary of State?

Hon. Members


Mr. Whitelaw

It is sometimes very difficult not to be provoked. I have no intention of being provoked. However, if there is one person in this House, besides the hon. Gentleman—or indeed in this country—who is going to say that I would be responsible for the violence created by people who are bombing, who are shooting civilians, and who are shooting British troops—

Miss Devlin


Mr. Whitelaw

—after all that I have tried to do in Northern Ireland, I think I am entitled to resent it very much indeed. If the hon. Lady thinks so, too—

Miss Devlin


Mr. Whitelaw

—and I understand that she thinks so—I cannot believe that many people will take that view.

However, the hon. Gentleman talks about my bloodthirsty words. I am accused constantly in the House of being a coward for not doing various things, of being too soft, of being too weak. Now I am accused of using bloodthirsty words. After a short time I understand all these remarks, and I suppose they are all true at the same time.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the simple position that I am put in if clear ultimatums are put to me by people who are still continuing with violence. Ultimatums from people who are continuing with violence cannot be accepted. That is what I said. I am seeing the elected people from the SDLP this afternoon, and I do not wish to prejudice that in any way.

Mr. Stratton Mills

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I welcome very much his decision to proceed with the basis of commencing political talks? Can he tell us the process by which these talks will take decisions? Is it to be on a unanimous basis or on a majority basis? Or on what basis is it intended that decisions should be taken?

Second, is it the Government's intention, prior to these talks, to stake out the area of their thinking as to the form of regional Parliament which they envisage?

Mr. Whitelaw

I have left open exactly how the talks should proceed, because I wish to discuss with those concerned what would be the best way and not to close options. I have been constantly told in Northern Ireland that the people there want an opportunity of stating how they see their future. I think that is the right first course. I do not wish them to feel—it is important that they should not—that anything is being imposed upon them by the British Government or this House. Therefore, it is right for them to express their views in the first instance.

Mr. Fitt

Does the Secretary of State agree that at the beginning of this week the signs in Northern Ireland were not very hopeful and that many of us were looking forward to a real catastrophe this weekend? However, since then there have been helpful and hopeful signs from both communities in Northern Ireland. Ultimately both communities must be brought in to bring about permanent peace in Northern Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State also recognise and make it clear that the announcement he has made this afternoon relating to the implementation of proportional representation for local government should not be regarded as a victory for the minority over the majority or a victory for the Catholics over the Protestants, but that, in fact, it will be for the good of all people in Northern Ireland who are totally committed to the ending of violence?

Regarding the Secretary of State's announcement that he proposes to call a conference, will he recognise, particularly in the discussions in which he is to engage this afternoon, that the SDLP is totally committed to the ending of violence, but its responses can be matched only by responses given by the right hon. Gentleman? If he will see these discussions which are taking place this afternoon as a step forward, we will reciprocate in the hope that it will be in the interests of everybody in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful for what the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) has said and for his constructive spirit, which is extremely important. It is true that everyone has a vested interest in ending violence. It may be a cliché, but if one has lived in Northern Ireland even for a short period, as I have, one knows how desperately true that remark is. I can only hope that the developments will help. One has so many disappointments and setbacks in this world that one has to be ready to accept them and fight on. I very much hope that this is a start.

On proportional representation, I can only repeat that elections were held under this system in the past. It was one of the systems put forward—on a broader text, I know—by the previous Government in their Consultative Document in 1971. Therefore, this is something which people of all parties throughout Northern Ireland have been carefully considering. I believe that the opportunity in these local elections to try it out without commitment for the future is the right way. It is not a victory for anyone. It is simply a good opportunity to try out this system.

Mr. Maginnis

I ask the Secretary of State two short questions. First, how does he hope to ascertain the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland regarding the timing and holding of a plebiscite? Secondly, will he be careful regarding the announcement of proportional representation in local government because most people in Northern Ireland may take this as something which has been imposed on them and as a system which has been operating in Southern Ireland which they are trying to get rid of? Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that this is only a temporary basis and that they will have the right in their own democratically elected associations to reverse this process in future?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis). On the first point about a plebiscite, I simply said here that if, when I am discussing with various people the proposals for the conference, I find that they say they also want this plebiscite at an early date, the British Government will be prepared to organise it. That is a matter for the representatives of the parties and groups that I shall see.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I can only repeat that this system was used before in Northern Ireland. It is absolutely temporary. It is only for these elections. The reason for doing it is that it is a trial. We will see how the system works in these local elections. That will be a good guide to whether it is right to go forward in future.

Miss Devlin

I should like to ask the Secretary of State about a number of issues on which he may or may not be particularly well informed. For example, why has the right hon. Gentleman referred on many occasions to meetings he will have later this afternoon, meetings which he does not care to prejudice? Is he aware that regarding meetings he may hold with the SDLP, while I accept that I am certainly not representative of Provisional opinion, I am certainly more representative of it than any member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party?

Therefore, on the basis of any meetings that the right hon. Gentleman may have this afternoon, there are only three possible conclusions that he may draw. First, the SDLP is asking him to reverse his decision and to talk to the Provisionals, which means talking withnon-elected representatives. Secondly, the SDLP claims to represent the Provisionals, which it cannot do given the statements of several—indeed, most—of its members against the Provisionals. Thirdly, the Social Democratic and Labour Party will act as messenger-boys to the Provisionals, whom the right hon. Gentleman would condemn as terrorists, which, in keeping with its status as the opposition party in Northern Ireland, it could not do.

Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman first accept that his talks with the SDLP today amount to nothing, mean nothing and will produce nothing in terms of the Provisionals' campaign? [Interruption.] Hon. Members may say it is ridiculous, but in terms of the Provisionals' campaign the talks will mean and produce nothing.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Miss Devlin

I wish to ask a question concerning proportional representation. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the phenomenon in Irish politics, totally alien to British politics with which he has closer links, of the policy of abstention? I represent a constituency which year after year before my election to this House returned a Member who was considered a felon and a terrorist and who, by his own admission, was an IRA man. However, he was continually returned to Parliament before my election. The right hon. Gentleman may or may not have proportional representation, but, unless the last internee is released and unless we end the policy of intimidation of the minority, he may well have proportional representation on the policy of non-attendance at local government, Stormont or Westminster. Has the right hon. Gentleman considered that possibility?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the hon. Lady's various points about the SDLP, with which, frankly, I do not agree, she is an elected representative. As an elected representative she has her particular responsibilities. I have been accused before by the hon. Lady and others concerning my responsibilities about violence, but she has her responsibilities as well. If she wishes to come and talk to me, as she is an elected representative, she is at liberty to do so.

Miss Devlin indicated dissent.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Lady shakes her head. She will not do so. Then she has her responsibility for not doing so.

As for what the hon. Lady said about proportional representation and all the various points about elections: very well, I note what she has said.

Regarding the hon. Lady's argument about internment, I have made my position abundantly clear over and over again. If I may say one thing to the hon. Lady—

Miss Devlin

It is blackmail.

Mr. Whitelaw

There is no blackmail whatsoever.

Miss Devlin

It is blackmail.

Mr. Whitelaw

If only violence would stop in Northern Ireland the opportunities open to all the people there, the people the hon. Lady represents and everyone else, would be limitless, but the violence is the thing that must stop.

Mr. Kilfedder

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the members of the Ulster Defence Association acted manfully and sensibly in deciding not to go ahead with the erection of permanent barricades despite the continuance of the terrorist campaign?

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that a number of people in the Bogside and the Creggan have publicly repudiated the IRA and told it to get off their backs? Does he realise that many people in Northern Ireland have sympathy for and support him in his efforts to bring peace to the Province and hope that his efforts will succeed?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend restrict the conference which he is contemplating holding to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland so that democracy will in the long run prevail?

Mr. Whitelaw

I note what my hon. Friend has said. I am glad that the UDA decided to refrain from its action concerning barricades, which I believe would have had considerable dangers, and I think it is clear that it does not wish to stir up further sectarian violence. I recognise its decision in that regard.

As for what my hon. Friend has said about the people in the Bogside and Creggan who have tried to get the IRA off their backs, this point has been made con- stantly by a great many people and it inevitably conditions a lot of one's thoughts and actions. As to what he has said about the conference, I want discussions with all concerned. The elected representatives are the people to whom I will naturally turn in the first instance for discussions. I have made that perfectly clear. I am grateful for what he says about the desire that my efforts—I am answerable to the British Government and this House—should succeed. I cannot but emphasise that the more people who come out and say that the better, because, frankly, we have a responsibility and we hope for Northern Ireland that we succeed because the dangers of failure would be very great.

Mr. Mikardo

Many hon. Members fervently hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to bring his efforts in Northern Ireland to an early and successful conclusion, not only for the great intrinsic value of that outcome but also because that conclusion could possibly allow him to resume his former duties as Leader of the House, a position in which his good temper, his fairness and his courtesy are being greatly missed at the presnt time.

Mr. Whitelaw

I cannot accept that for one moment. For all I am told and all that I have heard, I gather that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is far more courteous and far more even-temptered than I am, and I think that this is true.


Mr. McManus

Can I seek your guidance on a matter which is misleading me and, perhaps, the House, Mr. Speaker? It is the use in this House of the word "terrorism". On the one hand, we have described as terrorists men who wear para-military uniforms and shoot at soldiers. On the other hand, we have men who wear para-military uniforms, shoot at soldiers and wear masks over their faces, and they are not described as terrorists. Would it be in order to ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the man who is most intimately involved, to make a statement detailing his precise definition of a terrorist?

Mr. Speaker

It would not be in order. The Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.