HC Deb 23 November 1972 vol 846 cc1530-57
Mr, Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Black-ley)

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 6, after ' whole ', insert: 'and in each constituent county'. As you have said, Sir Robert, we are considering at the same time the following Amendments:

No. 29, in page 1, line 6, leave out ' as a whole'.

No. 30, in page 1, line 23, at end insert: ' (d) the votes cast in each polling district shall be counted separately and the results of such counts shall be declared separately for each polling district'. No. 31, in the Schedule, page 3, line 3, leave out ' Northern Ireland' and insert: 'the place where you live '. No. 33, in page 3, line 8, leave out ' Northern Ireland ' and insert: 'the place where you live'. Those amendments stand in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I should like to say at the outset that those amendments are quite acceptable, and No. 30 adds a useful further dimension to that which I propose with regard to counting votes in individual counties.

In moving my amendment, I want to make absolutely clear that my purpose is not the repartition of North-East Ireland but to show that a border poll is a misnomer, that this is a poll about status rather than the border, that it is an irrelevance, that it is divisive and that it shirks the real issues in both civil rights and economic progress and development in Northern Ireland.

The history of the two individual counties and the refusal, if it so be, of the Government to accept the amendment, will serve to illustrate that a poll merely begs the question with regard to the problems facing Northern Ireland. A majority in a poll of this kind depends entirely upon how and where the border is drawn. I recognise that we cannot start 1920–1924 again. I have always accepted that, as my Amendment No. 17, which has not been selected, indicates— The status of Northern Ireland shall not be changed without the freely negotiated consent of the people of Northern Ireland. Hiving off two countries from Ulster will not help the situation. Nevertheless, it serves to show that majorities exist according to where borders are drawn. The wishes of the people of at least two counties in Northern Ireland were ignored. As my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) argued cogently the other day, if the United Kingdom wishes, constitutionally, to alter the position of Northern Ireland, it can do so, irrespective of the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not want to see that happen. Nor is it what ought to happen. Nevertheless, I think that he is constitutionally right. It is a situation that could well arise if some hon. Members opposite, and some of their more extreme friends in Northern Ireland, persist in their obduracy, and persist in the manner in which they have conducted debates on Northern Ireland—certainly in the eight years I have been in the House—telling us that there was nothing to worry about and everything in the garden was beautiful.

The basic fallacy of this poll is highlighted in the amendment. On Second Reading, I used one quotation from Lloyd George. On that occasion, the quotation was not given in full merely to save time, but it is worth giving it again, and in full, because it covers the point of Amendment No. 30: There is no doubt, certainly since the Act of 1920, that the majority of the people of the two counties —that is, Fermanagh and Tyrone— prefer being with their Southern neighbours to being in the Northern Parliament. Take it either by constituency or by Poor Law Union, or, if you like, by counting heads, and you will find that the majority in these two counties prefer to be with their Southern neighbours— What does that mean? If Ulster is to remain a separate community, you can only by means of coercion keep them there, and although I am against the coercion of Ulster, I do not believe in Ulster coercing other units. That was the full quotation, which goes on to deal not only with the question of counties.

Those who represent those areas surely have a right to know what their constituents feel on this issue, and that alone would be justification for declaring the results. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) would know what the position was in his constituency, and we should know the position county by county.

4.0 p.m.

Above all, it illustrates that North-East Ireland was founded on coercion, in order to cover the maximum area with the minimum nationalist population. I do not suggest that the two counties which were coerced into Ulster should now go back. That would merely pander to those who think that the border is the key issue and neglect the social and economic priorities of people of various denominations and political allegiances, but with the same economic interests, working together against those who have oppressed them both. I re-emphasise that issue. Nor do I believe that anyone wants to swallow up those two counties, or Ulster as a whole. It is for that reason that the poll is an entirely irrelevant procedure.

In the words of Michael Collins in his "Path to Irish Freedom"—this was quoted on the previous occasion and I think it has since become the credo of virtually every responsible person in the Republic of Ireland, apart from perhaps a handful of violent extremists—I can only say: The freedom we have secured may unquestionably be incomplete. But it is the nearest approach to an absolutely independent and unified Ireland which we can achieve amongst ourselves at the present moment. He went on to say, Let us not waste our energies brooding over the more we might have got. Let us look upon what we have got, and I entirely agree with those sentiments. That is the view of every party, as I and my hon. Friends who visited the Republic not long ago know.

There is also the grave danger that the more we talk about the border issue, upon which the poll intends to concentrate the minds of everyone in Northern Ireland, the less we concentrate upon the real economic and social issues that face Northern Ireland and the less people in both communities realise that they have been mutually exploited to the advantage of others who have kept them divided. I know that that view is shared by about 98 per cent. of the people in the Republic of Ireland.

The holding of the referendum is a gratuitous insult to all who accept that Northern Ireland is not going to be bombed or coerced into becoming an all-Ireland Republic, because it implies that that is the intention of the Republic or of those who oppose the Unionist Party. If that were to come about, it would result in an Ulster in reverse, and I do not believe that anybody in Northern Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland, or here, would want that.

Contrary to what was said on Tuesday by one hon. Member whose knowledge of Irish history seems to be an example of the failure of our school system, where the only thing we learned about Ireland was something about Mrs. O'Shea, the reason for the Boundary Commission's declaration against the wishes of the people of Fermanagh and Tyrone was that Craig told the Northern Parliament in October, 1924, that if the Boundary Commission wrested territory from the six counties he would resign as Prime Minister and lead the defence of the threatened areas. Belatedly—and I am sorry that the hon. Member for one of the Bradford seats is not here—McNeill resigned from the Boundary Commission when there was an inspired leak which appeared in the Morning Post on 7th November, 1925. I do not understand the point that he made then.

Apart from the poll being divisive, the whole issue is begged by resorting to a poll of this kind. There is a very good reason for shelving the poll. The declaration of each county would at least have the advantage of giving to one section of the community the same advantage as is being given to the other. We were told last Tuesday that the purpose of the poll was to allow the majority to give a resounding "Yes" to the union. If that is so, let us allow the same right to those who hold a majority in at least two counties to say what they think about the gerrymandering of their area during the past half century.

We know the principle of making a nationalist majority as large as possible in one seat and the Unionists then having tiny majorities in two seats in relation to Stormont. The same procedure was adopted for Derry and allowed for minority rule in Fermanagh as well as in Derry. A nationalist vote of 2,000 more than the Unionists resulted in that 2 to 1 win. When proportional representation was abolished in Fermanagh, in Enniskillen rural and Irvinestown urban district councils, a majority of Unionists was returned in spite of a majority of anti-Unionists voters.

In 1967, when a well-known Liberal was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and in the ascendancy, the elections then produced 35 pro-Unionists and 70 anti-Unionists on the council of Fermanagh, a council which has a slight majority of anti-Unionist voters. That is something I did not read in the autobiography of that noble gentleman. The resultant discrimination and bitterness helps to explain the mindless violence of desperate men who have no regard for human life or dignity and the way in which they have been able to make headway among ordinary, decent people. By accepting this amendment those people will have a chance to declare what the majority have a chance to declare—their disapproval of Unionism.

The key amendment is Amendment No. 6, because what matters is a new deal on the basis of the White Paper and to take the border issue out of the battle. The Bill refers in its Title to the border. It does not refer to status. There is nothing in the Bill about a border or the alteration of a border or where it should be. I do not object to that. But the public in this country ought to know the sordid facts about Fermanagh and Tyrone because if Ulstermen in the four north-east counties do not understand, or do not want other people to understand, and they do not want to be coerced into the Republic, why did they insist on their right to coerce others?

The promises that were made in the past to the Irish delegates that the nationalist areas would be restored to the jurisdiction of the nationalist Government were broken. We all know of the terrible things that happened after that and certainly no plebiscite was ever held in either of the two counties to which I refer. No fewer than 10 nationalist councils had to be gerrymandered out of existence before the Boundary Commission was able to place them firmly in Northern Ireland. The backstairs manoeuvring that went on at that time is so sordid as hardly to bear repetition. One promise was made to those delegates who went to the conference and another had already been made to Carson. William Cosgrave said at that time that had these pronouncements been made at the time there would not have been Irish signatories to the treaty.

That is history, but it is highly relevant in this sense. Northern Ireland was created to give a built-in majority and, if that is so, what is the point of having a poll if one deliberately creates an entity to provide a majority? What is the point of having a poll in that entity, because one could create a different result merely by drawing a different boundary? The inevitable result is devisive because, on the other side of the fence, the Republicans will say, "Ah, but look at Northern Ireland in the context of all Ireland".

Some are putting forward the idea of having a referendum on the same day. Others, like my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford say, "Let us have a referendum in the whole of the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland forms a small part". That is the sort of morass into which one gets as soon as one talks about a referendum.

This amendment exposes the fallacy of having a poll. The reason that prevents me, and I think most of my hon. Friends, from going into the Lobbies against the principle is that we believe in a Government sticking to a commitment. The right hon. Gentleman made the wrong commitment, but, having made it, he has to stick to it. That is unfortunate. If he made the commitment and he has to stick to it, and if we are to have a poll, then at at least let us know that the representatives in Ulster at every level know what their constituents think, what the various areas think, and what the various counties think. Let us have a poll on the real issues, which I believe will be dealt with when we debate the second group of amendments, which is the nub of the opposition felt on this side of the Committee to the manner and timing of the poll.

I accept that history cannot be changed. Promises should not be reneged upon. But I believe that this was a great mistake. This amendment illustrates the fallacy of a poll to decide the status of an area where the area was carved out in order to give a permanent built-in majority to a minority within Ireland as a whole.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

I have been provoked by the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) to reply to some of the points which he made. He mentioned gerrymandering. The last time I heard the word "gerrymandering" used was when I was in Cork, where there are many complaints about the gerrymandering alleged in the interests of Fianna Fail. I do not know anything about that, but this is one of the complaints heard in Ireland. When the hon. Member said that the Northern Ireland State was born in repression, it would be as true to say that the Northern Ireland State was born in self-determination.

When the rule of an external power is removed from a dependency, it is often found that the unity which is imposed by that external power cannot be perpetuated. This happened in Ireland—

Mr. Maurice Foley (West Bromwich)

And in Rhodesia.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

All right. It happened in the Indian sub-continent; it happened in Ireland. The Northern Ireland State was created not because that was wanted by a British Government; indeed, the British Government were not keen on that happening. This was the only way in which independence in a part of Ireland could come about. When that happens, when there is self-determination from self-determination, one does not always get the perfect boundary. There are many factors which determine where that the boundary will be placed. The hon. Member made reference to the Boundary Commission of 1925. The result of the abortive Boundary Commission was this. The Government in Dublin at that time recognised as the frontier of the United Kingdom the present boundary of Northern Ireland.

I agree with the hon. Member that it is desirable that this border should be taken out of politics. It surely is the purpose of the poll to do this and to enable the people of Northern Ireland to decide whether they wish to remain within the frontiers of the United Kingdom.

At the time of self-determination and the separation of North from South Ireland, many people did not wish to remain under the institutions of the South, but they accepted that they would have to do so. Similarly, those in the North should accept the institutions in the North. The amendment proposes that the poll should not be conducted for Northern Ireland as a whole, but should be conducted in bits and pieces. That is entirely unsatisfactory.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)


Mr. Biggs-Davison

Because once one starts that type of poll it could be broken down into almost any units, such as parishes, wards, or streets, and that would make a nonsense of the poll. The question to be decided is whether the people of Northern Ireland wish to remain within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) for his kind words about my amendments. However, as he correctly pointed out, Amendment No. 30 goes further than his proposal.

I do not wish to delve into the sordid history of how the Northern Ireland boundary came into being. However, as the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) said, Northern Ireland came into existence as an entity after Ireland had fought itself to a standstill in what was the first example of urban guerrilla warfare in modern times. Northern Ireland is Protestant and I do not think that it will ever become part of a United Ireland without its consent. But the border of Northern Ireland was not written into the treaty. What was in that treaty was merely that a commission should be set up to determine the border, and, without going into the sordid dealings behind the scenes and the various constructions that different people put on those words in the treaty, it was plainly intended that the border should be determined by a mixed commission. According to my interpretation that means that the border should have been determined according to the feelings of people living on each side of it, but that was not done because of a deal which gave the British Government certain concessions. What was done was simply that six counties became Northern Ireland.

In Ulster terms—and this is where I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley—county boundaries have not the sanctity of tradition that they have in this country. If my history is correct, the county boundaries of Northern Ireland were convenient units for James l's planters in the early seventeeth century and did not exist previously. They are not as ancient as their equivalents in this country.

It is important to determine—

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

There is another important stage to add to the history of Ireland. After the abortive commission the border was settled and agreed and ratified by the Parliaments in Dublin, Belfast and London, and the result was lodged with the League of Nations.

Mr. English

It was not the commission that was abortive: it was the subsequent decision of the Irish and United King-don Governments that the treaty should not be carried out. We should be quite honest about that.

Captain Orr

It was subsequently decided by their parliaments.

Mr. English

The provision of the treaty was that the border should be determined by a commission. The commission met and it was subsequently decided—as the hon and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) correctly said—by the Governments of the countries concerned that it should not be implemented, and their legislatures agreed. I am contending that that subsequent decision was not as good as the original negotiation in the original treaty.

I am well aware—and I intend no pun—that this might be described as an English solution to an Irish problem. Neither Catholic nor Protestant likes this solution. Neither Catholic nor Protestant wishes to take the border itself into consideration. Since both sides are to a certain extent intransigent, I would suggest that it is possible that in this context, both sides may be wrong.

I am aware that those who wish the whole of Northern Ireland to be included in a United Ireland feel that simply by moving the border somewhat northward one would postpone for yet another generation the possibility of what is left of Northern Ireland ever becoming part of a United Ireland. That, as I understand it, is the Catholic point of view. Alternatively, the Protestants of Northern Ireland for various reasons have always desired that Northern Ireland should be as large as possible, provided that it contained a Protestant majority. Their view is equally understandable, and may be compared to the Biafrans' wish to be independent of Nigeria, but nevertheless to control the Rivers peoples who were not Ibo.

However, there is another factor, which might well be considered by somebody a little more objective on this side of the water than anyone in Northern Ireland can possibly be, namely, that while a large number of people in Northern Ireland would like to be part of the Republic an even greater number do not wish to be part of the Republic. There is no clear line of demarcation between them. There will be enclaves from either side, whatever border is drawn.

One possible solution to be considered—although it is disliked by both Protestant and Catholics—which might be a stage forward to a United Ireland, or a means of achieving a more peaceable Northern Ireland connected with the United Kingdom, is that some of the Catholic population of North Ireland should be enabled, if they so desired, to live in the Republic.

That is the object of my amendment. However, the Secretary of State may feel that he cannot at present guarantee to hold the poll in this way. I would add that whether or not my amendments are agreed, nothing in the Bill precludes the adoption of the point which underlies them. Under the terms of the Bill, details of the poll are left to the Secretary of State, who can order the results to be counted in whatever way he chooses. Even without committing himself today, the right hon. Gentleman may take time, between the passing of the Bill and the referendum, to reflect upon the point.

I would make one further suggestion to the Secretary of State. The right hon. Gentleman, for various understandable political reasons, may feel unable to order the results to be published in this way, either at the time of the referendum or at any other time. Nevertheless, I would strongly suggest that he should order the results to be counted in this way.

My reason is that if it is ordered that they should only be counted for Northern Ireland as a whole then that is the only result obtainable that can ever be published. If they are ordered to be counted separately, by polling districts as the American custom is, the options are then kept open. I suggest to the Secretary of State that he might do that.

The total figure would be on record, which would clearly have to be published in the light of commitments given, but also on record there would be a detailed breakdown of the figure which, in the circumstances of the infinite possibilities of what may happen in Northern Ireland, it might be desirable to use.

I therefore suggest to the Secretary of State that, even if he feels that he cannot accept the amendments or cannot commit himself today, he seriously considers having the votes counted in this way so that they could be used if the need arose. Otherwise, an opportunity would be lost—and too many opportunities have been lost in Irish history. There have been lost opportunities by the score, through the centuries, with the results that we all know. It is difficult enough in this country to get referendum on anything, as we also know, and once this referendum has been held the opportunity will have passed. Therefore, whatever the Secretary of State does, I urge him not to lose yet another opportunity in Irish history.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I have avoided interrupting either of the last two speakers who lectured us on Irish history—to my amusement—but I should not like it to go on the record that all the remarks from the Opposition side of the House are accepted by my hon. Friends and by me.

I say to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) that when he says that these matters have been debated in this House and that we on this side have painted a rosy picture of conditions in Northern Ireland, he must have been very deaf over the last 13 years. Certainly, since I came to the House in 1959, and in debates on Northern Ireland which I attended before then, I have frequently heard hon. Members—and the hon. Member has heard me—complaining bitterly about the unemployment situation and about the unhappy state of affairs in Northern Ireland as a whole. We have asked for many reforms over the past 13 years. We have never painted a rosy picture of conditions in Ulster. If the hon. Member would read HANSARD, I doubt that he would find any speech I have made in which I have painted a rosy picture—

Mr. Rose

Will the hon. Gentleman recall the occasion when he painted such a rosy picture that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy), I think it was, had to ask him whether he was the Member for Harland and Wolff?

Mr. English

I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Member's speech, but it is a source of some amusement to me that he attributed to me the words of my hon. Friend.

Mr. McMaster

I shall not reply in detail to those comments, as I do not wish to spin out the debate, but the hon. Member for Nottingham, West must know that in any reference to Harland and Wolff or any other firm—

Mr. English

I am the hon. Member for Nottingham, West.

Mr. McMaster

—I am sorry. I meant the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose)—I have usually cited the need for further assistance for our Ulster shipyards.

I want to deal briefly with the essence of the amendments. I welcome them and I welcome the fact that they are being debated. That shows at least that the Opposition are now taking a rather different line from that which they did on Second Reading. Apparently, they are in favour of the border poll. They would like to see the details published of the way the people in Northern Ireland feel about the political and constitutional position of Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Member for Blackley and his hon. Friends will receive a great surprise when the results of the poll are announced.

I should prefer—I hope that I shall get the constituencies right this time—the solution suggested by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West to that of the hon. Member for Blackley. The latter hon. Member suggested that the county boundaries would not be appropriate for use in the breakdown of the poll results. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might consider whether it might not be better to publish the results ward by ward. That would have considerable advantages. The Minister said during the Second Reading debate that the referendum was to be taken before the local authority elections and it would perhaps be of advantage if we could see, ward by ward, how the people of Northern Ireland felt about this issue. It might help to remove this issue partly from the local authority elections. To this extent, I feel that the referendum would do some good. I am glad that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West agrees with me.

My hon. Friends might consider this suggestion. I think they would find, if results were published ward by ward, that, although there may be some wards in Northern Ireland with a Republican majority, they are so scattered it would be impossible to accept the geographical solution suggested by the other side—that is, to cut part of Northern Ireland off and transfer it to the South. It would be clearly shown by the results that there is an overwhelming majority for retaining the present constitutional position of Northern Ireland and that those small pockets that exist not only in Fermanagh and Tyrone—in favour of a Republican solution and against the present constitutional position—are so scattered, and the province so divided that it would be impossible to adopt any surgical solution to the problem which faces Ulster. Therefore, I urge my hon. Friends to consider the amendment carefully, because I think there is some substance in it.

[Miss HARVIE ANDERSON in the Chair]

4.30 p.m.

Miss Bernadette Devlin (Mid-Ulster)

I support the spirit of what has been said by some of my hon. Friends, but I think that the placing of the amendments shows, to some extent, not only the futility of the poll but its consequences. While I should like to see, either as a matter of interest or, as has been suggested by some hon. Members, as possible future policy of some helpfulness to the Government—of a breakdown in polling areas—we have to consider what would happen.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) talked about issuing the results ward by ward. I was happy to see one of his hon. Friends almost faint in his seat at the suggestion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like the results to be issued voter by voter, then we could see where the enemies of the State were. Perhaps we can pick out the wards of the disloyal elements and perhaps some surgery would be carried out by the Ulster Defence Association—not the kind of surgery suggested by hon. Members on this side of the Committee but a much swifter and more bloody surgery to sort out those who voted against unification with the United Kingdom.

That illustrates the problems of attempting to hold a poll. If a poll were to be held in this country on the Common Market there could perhaps be no objection to either a county-by-county count, or an electoral-division-by-electoral-division count, and one might see where the strength of feeling lay.

That could not in terms of security be done in Northern Ireland. It would be to the detriment of the lives of the minority, be they the minority in Republican areas voting for the United Kingdom or the minority voting for unification with the Republic of Ireland. Their safety could not be guaranteed if, in the Newsletter and the Irish News and printed on every town hall, were the results of the electoral divisions and wards. Suppose that in my constituency the results in the electoral division of Guladuff were openly displayed and they showed that to a man the people voted against the retention of the link. They are completely surrounded by electoral divisions in which people would make them pay for the impertinence of such a decision. The same is likely to happen in areas west of the Bann where a small loyalist population finds itself equally surrounded.

Mr. McMaster

The hon. Lady is an expert on this, and I do not want to pursue the matter too far, but has she studied the casualties—650 dead, and more than 7,000 injured? She must realise that a preponderance of them were loyalist people who were either blown up or assassinated by the Republicans.

Miss Devlin

I am not sure what relevance that has to the point that I was making, except that the figures could be added to. Perhaps he thinks that it ought to be balanced by the death of 600 Catholics. That is the only point that I can possibly see him trying to make.

The other point that he has made, and which I should like to argue against, is that the areas are so divided that it would not be possible to draw any useful conclusion from a county-by-county division or collection of votes. This is not true. One has only to look at the representation in this House from the North of Ireland.

Mr. English

I understand the hon. Lady's argument that if the district is too small it might be apparent that certain people have voted for the district the wrong way, and they might be in danger. But is that her only objection? Would she be in favour of some division of this large total for all six counties?

Miss Devlin

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because that is the point to which I was coming. The reason why the division cannot be broken down into small areas like this, and why the way in which people have voted small area by small area cannot be published, is apparent when one looks at the representation in this House. It is a fallacy to suppose that the anti-Unionist population is scattered diffuse in the North of Ireland.

The River Bann divides the East from the West in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) and I represent, with the exception of the area around the city of Derry, the area west of the River Bann. Hon. Gentlemen may say, "Break it down to an even smaller area. Base it on the Stormont constituencies." If that were done, control of the area west of the River Bann would rest on a knife-edge. But on a county by county basis, there is no doubt that, taking Fermanagh and South and East Tyrone—that is around the border areas—into South Down and round to Newry, by no other division other than by the success of the activities of the Provisional IRA, the feeling in those areas is against the link with Britain.

Therefore, there is a case for saying that if a blanket vote is not taken there will be a clear breakdown. The majority of the people west of the River Bann, on a simple head count, do not want to belong to the United Kingdom. I am not suggesting that they be taken out of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

This is an important point to which I have put my mind. If the people west of the Bann were to vote to opt out of the Six Counties, does the hon. Lady think that that would solve the problems in Northern Ireland? Would it not possibly make the situation much worse?

Miss Devlin

That is the point I was making. I am not saying—and this again points out the complete futility of this poll—that if the people west of the Bann decided, even on a 50.1 per cent. of the vote, to vote against remaining in the United Kingdom or, as is more likely, that the majority of the people west of the Bann stayed away from the poll, the solution of the problem would then be to hive them off to the mercies of Jack Lynch. I live west of the river and sometimes one is inclined to feel that the blackguard one knows is better than the blackguard one is being threatened with from the other side of the border. Sean MacStiofain certainly does not want to make a decision about which is worse—the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or the special courts of Mr. Jack Lynch.

The Bill has no relevance. The Government are taking a poll to decide what the majority want. They know in advance what the majority want and yet they are clearly seeking to do nothing but find the majority. They are therefore doing something for no reason other than, as I have said, that the Prime Minister can keep one miserable promise. Nothing will be gained from it.

Coming to the other side, to the east of the River Bann, we shall find that the vast majority of the people want to be in the United Kingdom. We shall find areas like that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West. It would be impossible in practice to allow people to follow their vote into the country of their choice. It would be ridiculous to take the people of West Belfast and make them citizens of the Republic of Ireland, sitting up there on their own.

The stupidity of this poll is shown by the fact that the only possible outcome is the irrelevant outcome of proving what is already known, at a cost which the Secretary of State has yet to see paid, and I warn him again in advance what that cost will be, in terms of legislation, in terms of the amount of money to be spent, the amount of fear and intimidation, and the amount of bloodshed which may be caused by it. I cannot see why we must go through this farce, balancing on a knife-edge and not daring to break down the overall count of votes. The Government not only do not want but dare not discover any more than we already know. This is the price to be paid just so that the Prime Minister may say that he kept his promise. I speak on this amendment to show the stupidity not only of the poll but of the people who thought of it and the "twit" who promised it.

Mr. Foley

I want to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) and particularly to say that the amendment is important. It may not be the most important on the Order Paper, but it is the means of discovering the mind of the Government more than we did on Second Reading.

It is important to say clearly that the motivation behind the amendment is not to argue that by dismembering Northern Ireland as it exists, we solve the problem. It is not to argue that if we take away the two counties—Fermanagh and Tyrone—and the areas of Derry and Newry, the problems of Northern Ireland will fade into insignificance. Anyone who argues that has misread history and has misread the past few years, too.

Rather, the opposite is the case: if the Government are determined to go ahead with the poll, at least they should do so in the kind of way that will discover something of value both to the Government and to hon. Members. It is suggested that one should discover something of value, not merely the global figures in the north. In essence, that is what the argument is about. The Government have drafted their question to discover, "Are you Unionists, or Republicans?"

4.45 p.m.

Having embarked upon that exercise, at least they should see it through and try to define the volume of the majority and the geographic locations by consent or dissent. It would be helpful to hon. Members, who will probably long continue to discuss the affairs of Northern Ireland, to be made more aware of realities there. It might also be helpful to the Government, in terms of the deployment of British troops, to discover who needs to be protected, and from whom.

If the Government are determined to embark on this exercise, they should at least try to identify, county by county, the volume of support for Republicans and Unionists. In that way, they would do something, as a by-product of their exercise, that would be helpful to hon. Members. It might also be helpful to the Army, which is carrying out an almost impossible task in Northern Ireland. It might then know at least whom it had to defend.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

My attitude to this legislation is well known. The Bill having been given a Second Reading, and the principle of the border poll having been accepted, it is the duty of those who know Northern Ireland—not particularly the Northern Ireland representatives in the House—and who know of the terrible tragedy that has beset the area for the last few years, to try to improve the Bill.

There are a few questions which I should like to ask the Secretary of State. When it was first announced that there was to be a plebiscite in Northern Ireland its purpose was said to be to give an opportunity to the people of Northern Ireland to decide whether they wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. The interpretation being put on that is that we are giving the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland the opportunity for an overwhelming victory over their opponents. That is how it is regarded in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) said that unity that was imposed could not be perpetuated. He was speaking, I understand, in relation to the island of Ireland. The same conditions apply within the boundaries of Northern Ireland as applied within the boundaries of the island of Ireland. There is now an imposed unity in Northern Ireland. It is imposed by 21,000 British troops, who are in danger of their lives every day, and they impose it in favour of one political party in Northern Ireland. I agree that it cannot be perpetuated.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that British troops are perpetuating the rule of a party in Northern Ireland? Are not the British troops engaged in attempting to defeat an urban guerrilla movement?

Mr. Fitt

The British troops, when first brought into Northern Ireland by the Labour Government, were brought in to keep the two communities from tearing themselves apart. What has happened since, particularly in my area of West Belfast and other areas, such as Mid-Ulster and Tyrone, has been that many people living in those constituencies have come to regard the security forces as acting on behalf of the powers-that-be. It is seen in this way by the people.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Would the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether he is in favour of British troops remaining in Northern Ireland in an attempt to preserve peace under the impartial direction of Her Majesty's Ministers? Or is he of the opinion that it would be better in the interests of Northern Ireland that they should be withdrawn?

Mr. Fitt

I have no hesitation in answering that question. I would say that the security forces, the British Army, should be kept in Northern Ireland, particularly in the city of Belfast, and that those troops should be seen to be acting in an impartial way. In the past few days, we had 65 priests signing a letter calling into serious question the activities of some regiments and troops in Northern Ireland.

What I was illustrating was that the solution imposed on the island was imposed by the sheer weight of British military might and presence in Northern Ireland. It is now accepted by a minority of the people in that area that the British Army is there trying to bring about an imposed solution. I accept, along with most hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, that there is a great affection for the concept of democracy as we know it within the boundaries of the United Kingdom.

But what is now proposed is that a plebiscite is to decide something which was determined 50 years ago, when the boundaries were drawn. It may be, and I say this to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster, that the people in Tyrone and Fermanagh are not avowedly Republican. It could be that they just detested the Unionist Tory Government in Northern Ireland and that is why they consistently voted against them. It could be that because of that Unionist Tory Government in Northern Ireland they had to gerrymander the areas to make certain that they would be returned and their political opponents defeated.

If we are asking for a true reflection of how the people in the various districts in Northern Ireland think, the people living in Tyrone and Fermanagh, two border counties, have an ideological and emotional allegiance to the eventual reunification of the island of Ireland. In the circumstances in which this poll is being conducted, they know the result, I know the result, and everybody else in the United Kingdom should know the result. So, knowing the result, they could say, "All right, we will vote against, because we know we are going to be beaten anyway; we will vote for inclusion in a united Ireland, because we know we have nothing to lose, for the majority in Belfast will vote the other way round." One will not have a true result.

If the people in those counties were given the option in a plebiscite to vote for inclusion in a united Ireland the result of which would be taken into consideration by the British Government and if they were told their wishes at some time in the future would be met, most people now labelled Republicans in Tyrone and Fermanagh would think that their vote was going to mean something, not be just a minority vote. They would say, "It may mean that sooner or later I shall have to go into a united Ireland and I now have to decide whether I want to do so". There would be a much truer result, there would be an enormous vote cast.

But on the contrary, the people in those two counties can say, "We are going to be beaten. There are 1 million people east of the Bann, and those people will determine the result of the election. So, just for the record, I shall vote the other way".

This plebiscite will not be a true reflection of the views of the people in Northern Ireland. Purely for the sake of democracy, if there are two counties adjacent to the Republic of Ireland which say that they want inclusion in the Republic, their wishes should be given some consideration. On the one hand, we are saying to the people in the other four counties, "You have voted to maintain the link and we shall support your decision by whatever means are necessary"; but to the other people would say, "You have voted the other way round and whether you like it or not, you are going to remain part and parcel of the United Kingdom and of the Unionist State of Northern Ireland". That is bound to cause serious disaffection throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in the border areas, and I cannot see that this poll will achieve anything.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster was correct when she said that in Belfast or other areas east of the Bann a different set of circumstances prevailed and that it would be unthinkable if one part of the city of Belfast were included in the Republic, even though it had an overwhelming vote for inclusion. But that would not apply in the other areas. We are dealing only with Tyrone and Fermanagh. There are other counties in Ireland, such as Derry, South Armagh and Newry all of which were brought into the Six County State much against our will by the sheer force of the British military presence at that time.

I am sure the overwhelming mass of the British people would be against this form of diktat. They must be sick to death of hearing every morning that another young British soldier has lost his life in Northern Ireland, as I am sick to death of hearing every morning on the radio that another Catholic has been assassinated in Northern Ireland.

The first shot in the Secretary of State's armoury would be to say, "Now we have the results of the plebiscite I shall be able to go ahead and impose a solution on Northern Ireland." No more solutions can be imposed in that way on either Northern or Southern Ireland. That has been tried for the past 50 years and one can see the total tragedy that has accumulated as a result.

I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose), but in doing so I am not advocating that if there were an overwhelming majority in favour of Northern Ireland being included in the Republic of Ireland that it should be granted immediately. To do that would only lead to further death and destruction. But I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) that the votes should be counted so that the British Government in the future can consider them.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The more one listens to the clash between the parliamentary representatives of Northern Ireland, the more one reads letters that are now received in ever-increasing numbers to Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland and the hard brutal opinions that are often voiced in those letters, the more one reads literature that emanates from Northern Ireland, the more one boggles at the statement by the hon. Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) that the purpose of the Bill is to take the border out of Northern Ireland politics. Nothing could be more devoid of reality than that belief. In my judgment there is nothing that the Government can do in Northern Ireland which would take the border out of politics. The only way the problem of Ireland can be solved will be by the actions of the people of Ireland as a whole.

The amendments give us a chance between two courses by which the poll can be conducted. It is important that we carefully consider these two courses. Clearly for the time being at least, the British people will not have an opportunity to decide or make known their wishes on the future composition of the boundaries of the United Kingdom as a whole. Therefore when we decide on the boundaries of our country we shall need to utilise whatever evidence the poll reveals in making our judgment.

Therefore, when I look at Amendment No. 30, which calls for the votes cast in each polling district to be counted separately and the results of those counts to be declared separately for each polling district, I take the view which has been expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin), that that would be an invitation to extremists on both sides to exact retribution at some time in the future if they could analyse to that degree the opinions expressed in the poll. Therefore, I believe that the amendment would not help the situation.

Mr. English

I thought that I made it plain when I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) that I accept that polling districts vary greatly in size. I accept that there would be small districts, particularly in country districts, where it would be inappropriate. The amendment is phrased to allow the general principle to be discussed. I accept that where areas are too small or so small as to make it dangerous to declare the results, we should unite them with other areas in the declaration.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Even with that provision, I should be very much against supporting Amendment No. 30. We would be pinpointing by our selection of areas the polling districts which are the most sensitive and where the personal danger to individual lives is the greatest.

When the British people eventually get the opportunity to decide the future, it will be better for them to do so on the basis of Amendment No. 1, which calls for the poll to be conducted and to be declared for each constituent county. I believe that is the correct way for the poll to be conducted and I urge the Secretary of State to conduct it in that manner.

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster has made it obvious that she will advise as many of her supporters and as many people as she can influence not to participate in the poll. Therefore, it is essential that we should be able to take into account, in our judgment of the views of the people of Northern Ireland the activities of the hon. Lady and her friends. The only way we can do so is to have the poll conducted in the constituent counties so that when the result is declared we can take into account the strength of the hon. Lady and her supporters in those areas. We would know that the hon. Lady's support would be expressed by abstention, which could be taken as emanating largely from that source. Otherwise, what is the purpoes of the poll if it is not to do what the hon. Lady has alleged, merely to confirm the known fact that there is a built-in overall majority in Northern Ireland for the continued union with the United Kingdom?

As I have said before it is not that majority with which the United Kingdom must be concerned primarily. The Government must be concerned with the views of the United Kingdom as a whole. We already know about the majority which exists in Northern Ireland. I reluctantly support my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose), because I think the poll is far too restricted in being applied only to Northern Ireland. But I am offered only these two choices for an unsatisfactory poll.

During the speech of my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) a point arose in support of the British troops in Northern Ireland. I have letters and literature from Northern Ireland which reinforces the point of view which my hon. Friend expressed. However, he clarified himself very clearly and courageously, if I may say so. But many of his supporters, and many of the supporters of hon. Members opposite from Northern Ireland, are continually and increasingly making allegations and criticising the presence and the action of United Kingdom forces in Northern Ireland. If it is becoming clear that the majority and the minority are hostile to the presence of our forces, let us get the hell out of it. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House and my correspondents in Northern Ireland will start to make it clear whether they want us to continue to provide a peace-keeping force. I think that we will be prepared to continue to provide that force so long as we consider it to be our duty and to be expedient.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mills)

It has been a useful debate. I will try and go through the various amendments because we have gone fairly wide of the mark. We have had a little bit of history and a little bit of legal argument. Various views have rightly been expressed. We have had a little bit about Biafra and we have had something about "twits". A wide variety of subjects have been discussed.

First, I repeat what my right hon. Friend said during Second Reading although many hon. Members may disagree with him. My right hon. Friend said: Our aim in proposing plebiscites was to take the border out of the day-to-day political scene, and to reassure the people of Northern Ireland that there would be no change in the position of their Province as part of the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority of its inhabitants."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1972; Vol. 846, c. 1089.] It is important that that should be stated at the outset.

The effect of Amendment No. 1 would be to have the result of the poll declared county by county. It is implicit in the proposal that if the majority of the population in some counties declare themselves in favour of joining the Republic, the border should be redrawn accordingly.

Mr. Rose

The Under-Secretary of State obviously did not hear my speech. The Committee will recall that I said on at least three occasions, and every one of my hon. Friends echoed me, that that is precisely what we are not asking for. I merely put that forward as an illustration of the futility of the poll.

Mr. Mills

The hon. Gentleman has not let me finish my speech. I will mention exactly what he said. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. But it is not only in this House that people are listening to what we are saying. They are listening in Northern Ireland and many other places.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Mills

That is right. And that would be the cry of some people in Northern Ireland. Obviously there are hon. Members who do not take that view. Of all the solutions to the problem which have been suggested, a re-partition of the country is one of the least acceptable to all parties in Ireland. It would surely be a final admission of defeat, an end to all the hopes of all people of good will on both sides for a reconciliation of the true traditions in Ireland.

Mr. Foley

I hope the hon. Gentleman will recall that I explained clearly and precisely that the motivation behind my case was not to suggest that there should be this kind of re-drawing of the boundaries. I do not think that has ever been suggested in the House. If the hon. Gentleman is inferring, therefore, that this is the motivation behind the amendment it is important that it should be made clear that it is not.

Mr. Mills

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman still does not see what I am trying to get at. All I am saying is that this is what is thought outside the Committee and that it is my duty to point it out. I freely acknowledge that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley and other hon. Members do not believe in that theory, but it is what is believed outside the Committee in some quarters. Indeed, the hon. Member for Mid Ulster (Miss Devlin) mentioned it in her speech very clearly on Second Reading. The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), who is not here, answered her clearly by saying that the people would be voting as a province.

Miss Devlin

I accept the point which the hon. Gentleman is making, that, while hon. Members on this side of the Committee may not have the idea of severing parts of Northern Ireland as a result of the poll, that is implicit in Amendment No. 1. But by the same token the whole referendum, working on the same implications, is ridiculous. It is not what is behind the putting forward of a referendum that counts, so that the Prime Minister may keep his promise or can say that it has been carried out, but the implications within Northern Ireland itself, which are clearly different. The point the hon. Gentleman is making against the amendment is the same point by which the referendum falls.

Mr. Mills

That may be the hon. Lady's view. I am entitled to put forward what I feel some people may think about this and she is entitled to put forward what she feels. The Committee and the country must draw their own conclusion.

This proposal could, as it were, go down an even more slippery slope. If one talks of redrawing boundaries, there is is no reason why that should be confined to county units. One could go on to the problem of pockets and the rest. I believe that the consequences are not acceptable and I therefore reject Amendment No. 1.

I turn to Amendment No. 29. Again I make it clear that the purpose of the Bill is to ascertain the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole—the key phrase—with regard to their remaining in the United Kingdom or joining the Republic. I do not believe that there could be any useful purpose in ascertaining the wishes of people in particular areas of Northern Ireland. It would be undesirable to do so in that the impression would be created once again that there was the possibility of some readjustment of the border. I believe that this could create a great deal of unnecessary alarm in the areas which might fear that they would be affected. That is the last thing we want to do. The wrong impression could be created.

The effect of Amendment No. 30 would be to count and declare the vote for parts of each constituency—that is, for each polling district. Once again, one must repeat the stated purpose of the Bill. It is not the Government's intention to have anything other than a central declaration. The rules for the poll will be contained in regulations made by order under the Bill. One must realise that there would be political and security problems if the vote were known by areas.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. English

The hon. Gentleman cannot simply wash away the argument as easily as he is doing. It was supported by every hon. Member who spoke in the debate and they included my two Irish colleagues who sit on this side of the Committee and a representative of Ulster sitting opposite, and also all my Labour colleagues. In the context of Irish politics, a suggestion which meets with that degree of approval cannot be washed away that easily.

Mr. Mills

I am not trying to wash anything away but to state the Government's position, views and fears.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) talked about ward-by-ward. The hon. Lady again spoke of a "bloody surgery". Again, this is the kind of fear that we believe could be created if a vote were taken by areas.

I turn to Amendment No. 31 and Amendment No. 35. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West would insert the words, under Amendment No. 31, the place where you live". That is a vague description of any subdivision of Northern Ireland as a whole. If one accepted the principle, one would have to be far more definite. Again, it is against the stated purpose of the Bill which is to enable the people of Northern Ireland to make known their wishes. Both these amendments simply go over the same ground and arguments again.

For these reasons, I am afraid that the Government cannot accept any of the amendments.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 9, after 'date', insert: 'not being earlier than the 15th February. 1973'.

The First Deputy Chairman (Miss Harvie Anderson)

With this Amendment it would be convenient to consider the following Opposition amendments:

No. 4, in page 1, line 9, after 'date', insert: 'after the publication of a White Paper and a Bill of Rights'.

No. 5, in page 1, line 9. after 'date', insert: 'contemporaneous with local government elections'.

No. 6, in page 1, line 13, at end insert: '(b) The Secretary of State shall not direct that the poll be held until a date not less than 28 days after the publication by him of a statement of intent relating to the matters specified in the second schedule to this Act'.

No. 18, in Schedule, page 3, line 4, at end insert: 'on the conditions set out in the White Paper including a Bill of Rights'.

No. 26, new Schedule:

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