HC Deb 17 April 1973 vol 855 cc419-45

11.38 p.m.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

I beg to move, That the Oaths and Declarations (Repeals) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 603), a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th April, be approved. The House will recall that in paragraph 64 of the recently-issued White Paper on Northern Ireland the Government made clear their intention to provide, in the constitutional Bill which has yet to come before Parliament, that the Northern Ireland Assembly might not impose upon any member of an appointed body or upon any person paid out of public funds in Northern Ireland the requirement that that person should take any form of oath or declaration except when such oath or declaration was required in comparable circumstances in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The House now knows that the local government erections in Northern Ireland will take place on 30th May. Quite obviously, with a Bill of such importance as the constitutional Bill there is no possibility whatever of its passing through all its stages in both Houses before the date of the local government elections. For that reason the Government undertook, in the White Paper, that in the meantime an Order in Council would be presented amending existing Northern Ireland legislation so as to bring it in this respect into line with the rest of the United Kingdom in time for the local government elections. The order that I am now moving represents the fulfilment of that undertaking. Incidentally, it is for this reason, too, that the order has been presented under the urgent procedure. It is necessary to remind the House that the last date for nominations for local government elections is as close as 2nd May.

It will probably assist the House to see how necessary it was for some action to be taken one way or another if I illustrate briefly the effect of the present law in Northern Ireland in connection with local government reorganisation, taking the law as it is at present.

For example, the Area Education and Library Boards, which have already figured in our discussions, are only partially constituted at present and, therefore, consist wholly of nominees appointed by the Secretary of State. After the local government elections the remaining 40 per cent. of the places will be taken up by persons appointed on the recommendation of the district councils. But if we do not amend the law, the 60 per cent. appointed by the Secretary of State would not have been required to take an oath, while the 40 per cent. working alongside them would have been required to do so on election to their respective councils. Or again, it is broadly true to say, although I am not being precise, that in local government service in Northern Ireland clerical and administrative workers are required to take an oath while manual workers are not. That is not an exact statement of the law, but I am not being misleading if I state it that way.

As a result of local government reorganisation, a considerable number of such manual workers will be transferred from the employment of the local councils to the employment of the Government, for example, through the Ministry of Commerce. So if the law is not altered, a considerable number of manual workers, doing precisely the same job as they have always been doing, will find themselves subject for the first time to the requirement of making an oath.

For all these and many other reasons, the Government thought it best to abolish the requirement over the whole field except, as I have already made clear, where such a declaration is required in comparable circumstances elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

I should, perhaps, draw attention to the oath as it will be applied to new members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. As in the rest of the United Kingdom, they will still swear to serve the Sovereign, but the order provides for the removal from the oath of references to the Government of Northern Ireland.

I realise that it is possible to take different views of this comparatively modest measure. For some it is removing an irritant which is not imposed elsewhere in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, for those who want to see the same standards apply in Northern Ireland as apply in Great Britain, this is one more example of bringing practices into line in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I interrupt the hon. Gentleman rather than seeking to make a speech later. When the hon. Gentleman is finishing his speech, will he indicate the type of oath which might be required for Members of the Executive when they are elected to the Assembly? This does not come within the bounds of the order, but it would be helpful to have an indication of the Government's thinking, although they have not yet formulated the oath.

Mr. van Srraubenzee

I was just finishing my speech, as the hon. Gentleman, being keen eyed, observed. The answer is "No". I mean no discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman, but it would be more convenient if he were to await the public cation of the major constitutional Bill, which clearly must deal precisely with this matter. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is not a matter contained in the order.

For the reasons I have set out, I commend the order to the House.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. Peter Archer (Rowley Regis and Tipton)

The House is no doubt grateful to the Minister of State for his explanation of the order. We are embarking on consideration of yet another order under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. Unlike the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) and the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), I did not comment on that matter in our previous debate tonight. That was because I thought that some comments from me might be appropriate at this stage of our proceedings.

As the Minister said, the order is presented under the urgency procedure. We discussed that some days ago. I shall not detain the House on that matter now, except to comment that the urgency procedure is a constitutional foreign body. It means that this measure is effectively law before the House discusses it and irrespective of whether we approve it. If no complaint is made tonight about the urgency procedure being used, the Government should not take that to mean that this can operate as a precedent. This is a procedure which should be used only where it can be justified because there really is urgency. Normally the House will look to Ministers for an explanation of why it is used on any particular occasion, even though on any such occasion the House may not be in a mood to view that explanation very critically.

It is worth remembering that there is now a vast amount of legislation, the birth of which was by this Caesarean procedure. Certainly a great deal of the time of the House has been spent in the last few weeks on Northern Ireland legislation. This week we have had two Bills, one of which went through all its stages in one day, and three orders. Before this week those who have done some arithmetic for me tell me that there has been a total of 34 pieces of legislation —Bills and orders—since the passing of the Act. There are others still to be dealt with. There is the main constitutional Bill and the job discrimination measure. Possibly before the Assembly meets there will have been about 50 Bills and orders passed by this House.

We are wearing ourselves out in the process. Yet all the orders are dealt with in this unsatisfactory way. Perhaps this is a further good reason why the Assembly should come into existence as early as possible. I hope that some of the discussions which take place in the Assembly will mean that the discussions which would otherwise take place here in the small hours of the morning may at least be dealt with by way of reference.

This is not an unwelcome measure to this side of the House. The principal enactment which is repealed is the Promissory Oaths Act (Northern Ireland) 1923. That measure was passed because the authorities were confronted with a situation where a substantial minority of the population clearly did not believe in the regime. It was felt necessary to have a test of loyalty for those engaged in the public service and in the teaching profession. As an observer from the touch-lines I take leave to doubt whether the Act ever achieved its purpose. An oath excludes, by its nature, only the scrupulous and honest. They would probably have carried out their duties loyally anyway, whatever their personal views.

Those who are prepared to take an oath in which they do not necessarily believe, if they exist, clearly will not be excluded by the requirement of the oath. We welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that this requirement operates chiefly as a rather purposeless irritant. I believe that since the passing of the Temporary Provisions Act no measure has included this requirement.

I have two questions. Presumably from what the Minister said there are certain office holders who will continue to be required to take some oath. I am not quite sure whether I spelled this out from what the hon. Gentleman said but perhaps he can confirm that the position in Northern Ireland, if the order satisfies the House, will be exactly similar to the position in the remainder of the United Kingdom and in the words of the White Paper there will be no requirement to impose an oath upon anyone save when such an oath or declaration is required in comparable circumstances in the United Kingdom.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Is it not a fact that when a person is elected to a local authority in this country he has to make a statutory declaration before the town clerk? In this order, instead of keeping to what was proposed in the White Paper, we are going a step further. The reason given is that for elected representatives we must get rid of the oath for local government.

Mr. Archer

I should not dissent from that. I have never understood the function of the oath in local government in the rest of the United Kingdom. Clearly I should be going outside the rules of order if I were to develop that argument. But I am not worried by what appears to be the anomaly which has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley).

Mr. van Straubenzee

Perhaps I might be allowed to assist. We must be careful about terminology. It is purely a matter of fact. I was directing my remarks to oaths. The act to which reference has been made is a declaration of acceptance of office, if we are to be technical, which is contained in the appropriate schedule of the particular Local Government Act. That declaration remains in Northern Ireland and is not amended if the House agrees to the order. In other words, those elected to local government in Northern Ireland will be on all fours with those who are elected to local government in England and Wales. They still make a declaration of acceptance in terms which are set out in the appropriate Act.

Mr. Archer

I am sure that the House is grateful to the Minister for that clarification. The anomaly which I said did not trouble me apparently is not an anomaly at all and therefore could not have troubled me.

May I take it that the hon. Gentleman confirms what I substantially asked— that in relation to any specific oath now required in Northern Ireland a similar oath would be required in comparable circumstances in the remainder of the United Kingdom?

Mr. van Straubenzee

That is a fair question. However, I must draw attention to the fact that there is a slight difference in the words. In the oath taken by a constable in Northern Ireland he still undertakes, as he did before, not to belong to any association formed for a seditious purpose. That is slightly different from the English form of oath. Otherwise it is on all fours with it.

Mr. Archer

I am again grateful to the Minister for pointing that out so fairly, as one would expect of him. I do not think that many constables in the rest of the United Kingdom belong to seditious organisations, so it is possibly an academic point.

My second question concerns intention. May I ask the Minister whether he can arrange for the order to become widely known? If it is approved, the public and the teaching services in Northern Ireland will be open to some who would serve loyally but who had previously objected to taking the oath and therefore had not applied to join either of those services. It is important to ensure that there is no problem here of what, in the social services, is called non-take-up—a situation where an enlightened provision lies concealed from those whom it is intended to help.

This is a welcome measure. We on this side of the House hope that it will receive the attention and response that it deserves.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)

I should like to take up the point about which the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) has been speaking, and that concerns the way in which the order has been introduced and presented under the emergency procedure. It has already taken effect and the House is therefore debating something which is already law.

That is a deplorable way in which to abolish a system which has been in operation for 50 years. My hon. Friend the Minister said that he wanted the oath applied in Northern Ireland only where it was applicable in comparable circumstances in the rest of the United Kingdom. I may be wrong about what he said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), but surely the Members of the new Northern Ireland Assembly could make the same declaration, as paraphrased by my hon. Friend the Minister, as the councillor or alderman undertakes, that is not to belong to any association formed for a seditious purpose.

One regrettable feature of these orders is that they cannot be amended, even by the Minister at this stage. The Minister used the phrase that the oath was an irritant to some people in Northern Ireland. But presumably Republicans from Northern Ireland who are elected to this House must find the oath they take here objectionable. If that argument about avoiding irritation is applicable to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it must also apply here. Does that mean that we get rid of the oath in this House? I do not think that hon. Members will accept that argument. When an hon Member takes that oath he understands that he is taking on a solemn and serious duty and it is a ceremony which he undergoes conscious of what it means.

An oath of allegiance does not make people loyal who are disloyal, people who are secretly working for the destruction of the State. It excludes only the scrupulous and the honest. The same can be said of oaths generally in the United Kingdom. Some people would not wish to take the oath falsely and others would take the oath yet would be disloyal.

We must consider the oath in relation to the situation in Northern Ireland. The taking of such a solemn oath was important in 1920 when the two new States of Ireland were both determined to establish their separate identities. It today clearly reminds the person who is required to take the oath that he cannot lightly dismiss the undertaking he has given, and it emphasises the importance of the duty he is taking on. Of course, if an oath is falsely sworn, it brings the whole ceremony into contempt. I accept that. We would all deprecate anyone taking an oath falsely.

I do not accept that in the circumstances existing in Northern Ireland the oath of allegiance should be abolished. As we know from cases in court, people take oaths in Great Britain and do not abide by them. But that is no argument for the abolition of oaths throughout the United Kingdom. Just because some individuals who are taking on responsible jobs wilfully perjure themselves, why should we condone their calculated conduct by removing the oath altogether for the positions set out in the order?

Many responsible people in Northern Ireland—not just politicians—will consider that the order is one more example of appeasement of the Republican element, whose demands have increased with insatiable greed. These have been increasing since 1968, and every time we have given way to a demand it has been followed by a fresh demand.

The order is not an isolated case. Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State refused to require that Members of the new Assembly should take the oath of allegiance which is taken in this House by the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) and Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin). If peace were restored in Ulster, I would urge that we should require an oath of allegiance only when it was required in the rest of the United Kingdom. But peace has not been restored, and I think it essential that the Government should not be seen to be giving way to the Republican demands.

School teachers are included in the schedule. Concern has been expressed in this House over the years about the extreme left-wing or Communist or Maoist political philosophy expounded by some school teachers to students in Great Britain. I have heard complaints about it by my right hon. and hon. Friends, although perhaps such complaints have not come from Opposition Members.

In Northern Ireland, school teachers exercise even greater responsibility because, if they so wish, they can be the purveyors of hate to young minds eager to absorb new ideas. We want to put an end to such inculcation of hate. Too many young people involved in the streets, throwing stones at soldiers, have been brought up in hate, and we must try to stop it. School teachers can, if they wish, inculcate hate into the minds of the young they are teaching. As a Unionist, I do not wish to see the divisions which exist among adults perpetuated in the schools. That is why I have always been in favour of the abolition of segregated education.

It is worth remembering that a greater number of school teachers were interned in Northern Ireland than members of any other profession. There must be something in that simple fact. Apart from those interned, a number of Republican teachers have appeared in the courts on criminal charges. Only a few months ago, a Republican school teacher was blown up near Strangford together with a girl pupil when they were making a bomb. No doubt he had taken an oath of allegiance.

Nevertheless, I believe that the great majority of people in Northern Ireland feel that the oath of allegiance should be retained and certainly in the emergency situation wish to see that we do not seem to be giving way to the Republicans. What a horrifying picture appears of the dangers to which the minds of schoolchildren are exposed when teachers are engaged in such action and involve their pupils in these extremist actions.

Mr. Peter Archer

Since the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) has given the answer to his own argument— namely, that the teacher involved had taken an oath—does it not follow that the oath is no answer to the problem he mentions?

Mr. Kilfedder

I said at the beginning that anyone who wished to be disloyal would be disloyal even after the taking of an oath, but at the same time, the very ceremony of taking an oath and speaking those words means that some people will feel bound to respond to that oath of allegiance or declaration and it is important to keep it.

In ordinary circumstances, when there is peace in Northern Ireland, let us have the oath only where it is applicable in the rest of the United Kingdom. But in an emergency situation as exists today in Ulster it seems that we are giving way to another Republican demand, and that is another reason why I think the oath should at present be retained.

I shall close with an example. A Mr. O'Hagan, who is now on the headquarters staff of the Sinn Fein organisation in Dublin and who, I think, acts as their publicity officer, was appointed as a lecturer in English at Stranmillis College which is 99 per cent. Protestant—almost completely Protestant—merely because Roman Catholics are expected by the hierarchy to train in their own voluntary teacher training colleges. Friends of mine at Stranmillis have expressed amazement that a man like O'Hagan could be appointed in view of his criminal record during the 1952–56 IRA campaign of terror, but he was appointed. Someone must have known his record and that he had been convicted in the courts. Yet he took the oath of allegience.

This is one of the unscrupulous people, but it is an example of what we, in Northern Ireland, are up against. While I accept that it is an argument for doing away with oaths in Northern Ireland, and indeed is an argument for doing away with them throughout the United Kingdom, it is a deplorable state of affairs. In my humble opinion this order is an indication that once again the Government are prepared to appease the Republicans in Northern Ireland.

12.8 a.m.

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

I want to put on record that I am wholly opposed to the order. There is a great deal to be said for the view put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) on the general question of oaths and whether an oath or an affirmation of allegiance means anything much, except to those who intend their allegiance. One knows of Members of this House who have said that they have taken the oath of allegiance in a sense which they did not mean.

That, of course, is not the question at issue in this business. The hon. Gentleman argued to my hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) that because someone took the oath of allegiance and then committed some crime which was contrary to that allegiance, then the oath of allegiance was of no value. There is equally an argument for saying, "Why take the trouble to abolish it. What will abolition of the oath of allegiance achieve?—nothing at all". According to the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, it will make no difference.

Mr. Peter Archer

My argument was that, if it served no purpose, it would be better to remedy it because it was an irritant.

Captain Orr

The hon. and learned Gentleman now comes to the nub of the problem: why are the Government removing the oath of allegiance? They are removing it, he says, because it is an irritant to some people. Why is it an irritant? It is an irritant because it troubles their consciences. They are troubled because they are taking office under the Crown to which they do not intend to owe allegiance. That is the reason why the oath of allegiance should be kept and not abolished. If it deters one person from taking an office which demands allegiance that he does not intend to carry out, then the oath of allegiance ought to be kept. If it is an irritant, it at least prevents somebody from taking office on a spurious oath of allegiance. If it is not an irritant and means nothing at all, why bother to abolish it?

What the Government are trying to do is to make it plain that they are willing to involve people in responsible offices in central and local government, in the teaching of children, in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in important positions under the Crown—people to whom they are willing to say, "We know that you do not owe allegiance to the Crown."

Mr. van Straubenzee

I think my hon. and gallant Friend made a slip of the tongue. Members of the RUC will swear allegiance to the Sovereign.

Captain Orr

I am afraid that was a slip of the tongue. There is a wide section of people, particularly in local government, who are supposed to serve the community under the Crown and who are assumed to owe allegiance to the community as a whole. The order places on record the Government's view that it is possible for people to undertake those important tasks under the Crown without owing allegiance to the Crown or to the State.

Mr. Kilfedder

I suppose my hon. and gallant Friend would agree that even though a police officer took the oath of allegiance, he could also be unscrupulous, and the argument could be advanced that that oath could be abolished in respect of allegiance. I am sure that my hon. and gallant Friend would like, as I would like, to have an undertaking from the Government that that step will not be taken in due course by Order in Council.

Captain Orr

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. The point I am making is that this is not just the removal of some sort of irritant or of something that does not mean very much at all. It is said, "Let us put it all on the same basis as it is in Britain." It is curious how this House will use the argument to those in Ulster, "Let us be on all fours with Great Britain" when it suits the situation to have something similar, but then when it comes to PR it is said, "No, you are rather special people. You are to have PR though you loath and detest the idea. But we ourselves shall not accept it because it is foreign to out ideas." When it comes to something as fundamental as taking an oath or affirmation of allegiance to the Crown which binds together this Kingdom, the House is willing to say "You must surrender the right."

I tell the Government, this order will do serious damage in Ulster. It will lower morale, it will destroy confidence in the Government. People there will say that this is yet another concession to violence. It will undermine all the good the Government have tried to do with the White Paper. It will act as an irritant the other way because those who value their allegiance to the Crown and are proud to take the oath will suddenly find the demand not to take the oath an irritant very much more deeply wounding than any irritant involved in taking the oath. This is a wholly wrong and wholly bad order and I want to put on record that I wholly disapprove of it.

12.16 a.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

We in this House are now learning, slowly but surely, the act of folly that was done by this House in doing away with the democratically elected House in Northern Ireland. We are learning that we cannot legislate properly for Northern Ireland simply by taking away the House of Commons there and proceeding by Order in Council.

Of course, I quite understand the irritant caused to hon. Members, many of whom resent the fact that Ulster Members should keep this House sitting until a quarter past midnight. I know that in the Lobbies they are saying, "Bother these Ulster Members; we want to go home. We are sick and tired of this." But they glibly walked through the Lobby. They brought this situation on themselves, and upon their heads be it. When we discuss this matter we representing Northern Ireland find ourselves at a great disadvantage because we cannot alter one iota of any of these orders. We can express an opinion—and I pay tribute to the exceeding courtesy that has developed among all the Ministers for Ireland.

It is quite a feat to be a Minister for Northern Ireland because one can become so gracious, kind and gentle with opponents in every part of the House, but, as the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) said, there is not a crumb of comfort at the end of the day. When the Secretary of State for the hon. Member, but …". The same Northern Ireland was Leader of the House he was so gracious in the way he said, "Of course, I would like to meet has developed at Stormont Castle—"We would like to meet you all, but …" and it is in this law that we have the "but".

We may smile and it is good, as the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) will agree, that in Ulster people can still laugh among all our troubles, but the matter we are discussing is very serious. If we are to argue that we should do away with the oath, we should be consistent. We should then say that the oath is an irritant and is in many ways meaningless—I am trying to state the argument which has been put—and that because people do not believe in the oath they take, therefore let us abolish it.

I come now to one area which has resulted in more controversy than any other. I refer, of course, to the police. Everyone in this House has been asking why the minority cannot join the police force and why the Royal Ulster Constabulary cannot become an across-the-spectrum police force, so that everyone may be in it. But, with respect, if this House tells a Roman Catholic school teacher that because the oath is an irritant to him it will be removed so that he may teach without taking it, how can it then say to a Roman Catholic wishing to join the RUC that the oath should not be an irritant to him?

Anyone coming to this House, whether he be a member of the Labour Party, a Unionist or a Republican, has to take the oath of allegiance. In fact, this House has a history of controversy about the taking of the oath. On one occasion, a person who denied the being of God remained for a long time on the other side of the Bar of the House until finally he was allowed to slip in and make a declaration in order to take his seat.

I am happy about one aspect of the order, and only one. It is that in future the police will not be asked to swear allegiance to the Government of Northern Ireland. That was a definite irritant. I do not believe that anyone should be abliged to swear allegiance to a Government. After all, Governments change. I do not owe allegiance to this Government or any other. But I owe allegiance to the Crown, and I am happy to take that oath of allegiance, seriously and honourably. But I quite understand people saying that they do not want to swear an oath of allegiance to the Government of Northern Ireland. Looking at the composition of some of the Governments which we have had, it would be a most unwise step to take. But the oath of allegiance asked of the people with whom the order deals is no different from that which we take in this House.

If it is argued that the oath of allegiance should be abolished because it is an irritant, it could equally well be argued that the one reason why Republicans cannot take their seats in Parliament, assuming that they are elected, is that they refuse to take the oath. There was once a Republican elected in Mid-Ulster who was unable to take his seat because he would not take the oath of allegiance. In Stormont, Mr. Harry Diamond tore up a piece of paper on one occasion and said that that was what he thought of the oath.

If unscrupulous people use the oath to further their own ends, on their heads be it. That is their responsibility. But the majority of people of Northern Ireland are quite happy to take an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. They do so because they feel something. This is the point that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, North (Captain Orr) tried to make. Whether the Minister believes it or not, it happens to be the fact that the steps now being taken by the Government seem to be designed to undermine the will and wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. It seems that the majority are to get nothing. They are not to be considered. But the agitation from the minority has always to be heeded.

Some may say that this is not true, but one cannot destroy this feeling among the people of Northern Ireland. The ordinary man in the street will say, "At Westminster, they have torn up the oath of allegiance." This will react grievously against any proposals for the better peace and good government of Northern Ireland.

If these people say that the oath means no more than a piece of paper which they can tear up, let them. There are other urgent matters which we should discuss, and we waste time on something which will not help.

We are told that this order must be rushed through because of the district elections. I understand that a councillor makes a declaration in this country. With that declaration in Northern Ireland goes an oath of allegiance. In future, someone elected to a district council will have to swear only to discharge the duties of his office faithfully.

We are also establishing the precedent that the governing body of Northern Ireland will have no oath of allegiance. The Minister hopes that, as soon as possible, important powers with regard to the government of Northern Ireland will be devolved on the Assembly. If I am elected to this House to take part in the government of the United Kingdom and to speak for people in Northern Ireland, it is demanded of me that I take the oath of allegiance. If Republicans said that they would not take the oath, they would not be admitted to the House, and would therefore not draw their salaries.

We are saying that those elected to the Assembly do not need to take the oath either. The man in the RUC who did not want to take the oath could well feel that he was being discriminated against; his obligation would soon be seen as an irritant too and also removed. Tonight, it is possible that we are on a slippery slope.

Northern Ireland will see this as a retrograde step.

I am told that, under old legislation, which was mirrored in Northern Ireland, people had to take an oath of allegiance to the Government of the United Kingdom. I do not believe in swearing an oath of allegiance to a Government or Parliament, but an oath of allegiance to the Queen and her successors is important. By removing that obligation at this time and in these circumstances, we are not helping the situation in Northern Ireland.

12.29 a.m.

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

I do not know why my hon. Friend the Minister sighs a little when I rise.

Mr. van. Straubenzee

I did not sigh. I look forward to what my hon. Friend will say.

Mr. McMaster

I wonder where my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is at this hour. After all, it was his decision that we should debate three orders tonight, after two long days on Northern Ireland business. The House decided that it would take on the responsibility. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) say that after more than a year's experience he was beginning to see the defects of providing that the House should legislate for Northern Ireland.

When the Parliament in Northern Ireland was suspended in March last year we took on the job of legislating for Northern Ireland. It is an odd way to legislate. We are now considering an important provision which I, as a Member for Northern Ireland, cannot amend. Such procedures have been going on for about 14 months. What is to happen in the future? I am somewhat confused.

We have been debating constitutional Bills for Northern Ireland. We are told that they return some form of legislative power to Northern Ireland, and that therefore there is no need to increase the representation of Northern Ireland in this House. Yet a little later we are told that the new body for Northern Ireland is not to be called a Parliament of Northern Ireland, that it is just an Assembly, and that its Members are not to take an oath of allegiance. We are told that it is rather like a county council, and that we are to go on legislating in this unsatisfactory way at Westminster on those matters that are not to be entrusted to the new Assembly. Will this Assembly be at Stormont? Where will it be set up? I agree with my hon. Friends who have already spoken that the present arrangements is totally unsatisfactory. After more than a year, we must be able to deal more democratically with the affairs of Northern Ireland.

My friends—five of us on this side and two on the Opposition side—representing one and a half million of the citizens of the United Kingdom who live in Northern Ireland, are legislating on three important matters for Northern Ireland in a totally unsatisfactory way, when the House and its servants are obviously exhausted. We cannot apply our minds properly and efficiently at this late hour to three major measures. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) wishes to intervene, perhaps he will not do so from a sedentary position. I would willingly give way to him. I have been waiting to hear a contribution from him on the important matter we are discussing.

1 should like my hon. Friend the Minister to clarify one small point for me. He seemed to say that in local government there is no difference between the position in the United Kingdom and the position as it will be in Northern Ireland, and that a declaration rather than an oath is taken here. But he seemed to qualify that, because he referred to an oath which is taken in Northern Ireland. Is an oath taken by members of local government in Northern Ireland, or do they simply make a declaration? Is there a fundamental difference between the position as it has been in Northern Ireland up to now and the position in the United Kingdom? What is the significance of my hon. Friend's referring at one minute to a declaration and a little later qualifying that reference by saying that there is an oath that applies in Ulster and does not apply in Great Britain?

The schedule refers to seven Acts, each of which incorporates an important tradition in Northern Ireland which should not be summarily dispensed with tonight. I should like to hear a little more about the oath which is taken, for instance, under the Belfast Water Act. Why will those who have served up to now as water commissioners, and who have taken an oath in that capacity, suddenly no longer be required to subscribe to the oath?

Mr. Kilfedder

Does not my hon. Friend's experience of the Belfast Water Board agree with mine—that the oath has never prevented any Republican from serving on the board, just as the oath never prevented a Roman Catholic from joining the police force up to 1968, when the numbers went down? One-third of the police force was composed of Roman Catholics—and we welcomed them.

Mr. McMaster

I take that point. This is the first time during the debate that it has been suggested that the reason the oath is being dropped is that one section of the community resent subscribing to it.

Mr. Peter Archer

If the hon. Gentleman is agreeing with the intervention of his hon. Friend the Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) that the existence of the oath has never prevented a Republican or anyone with Republican views from serving on the Belfast Water Board, for instance, will he say what is the function of the oath?

Mr. McMaster

This is a fundamental matter. Surely the reason for introducing the order is not that we believe that the oath has prevented people from serving on public bodies. As I understand it, the reason is to bring the position in Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain, not because the Government believe that the oath is a bar to certain people serving. If that is so, an entirely different light is shone on the order.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Surely the issue is not that the oaths are an irritant or that the Government believe that they have been a bar to people serving on public bodies. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) pointed out, the Government's attitude is, "The single transferable vote is good for you in Northern Ireland, but it is not good for the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the oaths must be the same in Northern Ireland as they are in England and Wales and in Scotland."

Mr. McMaster

We are getting to the essence of the matter. Let us assume that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) is right in saying that the Bill is a concession to the minority. Here I agree with the comment in the Diplock Report that it is incorrect to speak of "the Roman Catholics" and "the Protestants" in Northern Ireland. It would be more accurate to refer to the Unionist and the Republican side. If it is an irritant because the Republicans, who form only a small part of the Roman Catholic population and an even smaller part of the Protestant population, are barred from serving on these various boards, then the Minister should have said so. He should have made it clear that that is why the order was being debated tonight.

If, on the other hand, my hon. Friend merely wishes to bring the position in Northern Ireland into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom, one is entitled to ask why the order has been introduced at this late stage not only in the evening but in the period during which the House has been legislating for Northern Ireland.

Would it not be better to leave this matter to be dealt with by the new Assembly in Northern Ireland so that it can find out the wishes of the people there? Why should not the new Assembly, which is to be elected in June, voice the opinions of the people in Northern Ireland and decide whether to retain these oaths?

12.42 p.m.

Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)

I had not intended to enter into this controversy, particularly after listening to the remarks of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). The hon. Gentleman suspected that some of our English colleagues were waiting in the corridors and wishing that all the Ulster Members would go home. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that sentiment is held not only by some of our English colleagues. I am desperately waiting to see some flagging of energy among hon. Members from Northern Ireland who have so vociferously opposed the order.

The oath was regarded as an irritant by a certain section of the community in Northern Ireland not so much because they did not owe any allegiance to the Crown as such, but because throughout the history of Unionism the minority group felt that the Protestant community was the dominant one and that those in the minority were regarded as second-class citizens.

In this part of the United Kingdom the Union Jack is accepted by everyone as the flag of the country. No one pays any particular attention to it, except when there are international rugby matches. But in Northern Ireland the flag of the United Kingdom was not regarded as such either by the Unionist majority or by the Catholic minority. It was regarded as a party political symbol of Unionism, and it was stuffed down the throats of its political opponents at every opportunity.

The same thing happened with the oath, and it is not realistic, in 1973, to have the situation that a labourer working for a local authority or for the Ministry of Agriculture at a low wage is expected, with due solemnity, to take the oath of allegiance before he can dig a ditch and be paid a small wage for doing so.

The oath and the Union Jack were used in Northern Ireland as a symbol of rampant Unionism. That is why so many people in Northern Ireland were offended by having to take the oath, and regarded it as an irritant.

In their White Paper proposals the Government are attempting to do away with some of the greater defects that Northern Ireland society has had to live with. The Bill this afternoon was not to my liking. I do not believe that it will help to bring together the two Northern Ireland communities, or in any way ease the tension. But this order seems to be an attempt by the Government to ease the situation. We can see that by the opposition put forward by Unionist Members, who know very well that the oath and the flag were great irritants to people who were not out-and-out, rabid Republicans—people who did not think seriously about the question of allegiance but who certainly knew one thing; that they did not want the oath and the flag stuffed down their throats at every opportunity.

I commend the Government on intro ducing this order. I was opposed to the legislation that passed through the House a few hours ago. On that occasion some of my hon. Friends and myself, in defiance of our own party Whip, went into the Lobby and voted against the Second Reading of the Bill. If Unionist Members are sincere in their opposition to the order, let them carry their opposition into the Lobbies.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Wait and see!

Mr. Fitt

Let them vote against the order and see how ridiculous it will make them look in the eyes of every reasonable person in the United Kingdom.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Even if a person in the House voicing his own opinion is in a minority of one it should not make him a fool in the eyes of the world. I am always prepared to say what my view is. I tell the hon. Member that on many occasions he has been in the minority and on many occasions I have been in the minority—and he should not argue that on those occasions we have made fools of ourselves. His hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) was the only Teller to turn up for a Division, but that did not make him a fool.

Mr. Fitt

I say that to the vast majority of people throughout the United Kingdom this debate is about a non-event— a non-issue. Reasonable people in this part of the United Kingdom do not lose a night's sleep or have to take tranquillisers because they are so concerned about taking the oath, whether they are school teachers or farm labourers. The people are more sophisticated than that.

The argument was advanced rather heatedly by the hon. Member for Antrim, North that to abolish the oath—as has been done, because we are now talking after the event; it is a fait accompli— would mean that thousands of people in Northern Ireland would be marching through the streets and protesting. He implied that the people of Northern Ireland would bitterly resent the fact that they were no longer allowed to stuff the oath down the throats of their political opponents. I do not believe that anyone in Belfast or anywhere else in Northern Ireland will lose any sleep because this order has been brought before the House.

12.50 a.m.

Mr. Frank McManus (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I noticed several hon. Members, mainly from Northern Ireland, with some of their colleagues, particularly those from this side of the Channel, running round shaking their heads and saying what a dreadful thing it was that they should be kept here at this hour. In fact, I heard some of them use words that would be described by Mr. Speaker as unparliamentary. I am deeply saddened that they should lose any sleep, but it is a small measure of the sort of thing that the army they have sent to Northern Ireland is doing to thousands of people every night. For all we know, hundreds of people in the Falls Road and other areas cannot sleep tonight because Saracen armoured cars are passing their doors. If hon. Members have to lose a few hours sleep because they dictate that orders will be discussed at this late hour, that is too bad. One has little sympathy for them.

I raise only one point on the order. I preface that point by saying that I am pleased enough that at long last this ridiculous oath business has been dispensed with. But perhaps the Minister of State would comment on a situation which arises from the removal of the oath.

In the very recent past I have had occasion to fight tribunal cases arising from these oaths. My most recent case is still in the pipeline. It concerns a young man who applied for a job with the drainage department of the Ministry of Agriculture. His first duty was to leap into a ditch, up to his knees in water. Before he did that, a lady arrived in a car. She said, "Before you can leap into that ditch, you must sign this oath of allegiance."

It was a cold morning. The young man, all things considered, said, "I am not all that fussed about you and your oath". The matter gets more serious. The lady said, "That is too bad". The young man lost his job. He lost more than that, however. He was barred from receiving unemployment benefit for six weeks. He had no income of any sort for the subsequent six weeks.

That young man came to see me, and we fought a tribunal case on the basis that he was wrongly treated. But we did not succeed. For six weeks he had no income because of an oath which has now been abolished.

For a young man in that situation, and for many others in similar situations recently, is there any possibility of recompense for the moneys that would have been due had the oath not existed?

Mr. Kilfedder

When seeking advice from the hon. Gentleman on this issue, did the young man say, "Should I have followed your example?" Did the hon. Gentleman explain that he took an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen and this House when he subscribed his name on the roll of Members? This was something that the young man could also have done in a minor way, and it was not objectionable.

Mr. McManus

No, the young man did not do that, but he was well aware of the fact that I have taken such an oath. The point is that in his case he was deprived of six weeks' income. It is not a joking matter. Over the years, many people who have taken a stand on principle on this issue have been debarred from employment. If after gaining employment there has been a delay of a few weeks in the administration of the oath, when confronted with it not only have they lost their job but the Ministry concerned has ensured that they subsequently lost six weeks' unemployment benefit.

Will the Minister indicate that there is a possibility that persons in that category will become entitled to unemployment benefit for that period?


Mr. van Straubenzee

We have had a useful and full debate. The House has not heard any complaint from me about the lateness of the hour or the time being taken. We have another important and particularly humane order to come which I hope the House will approve. I recognise that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies have every right to raise serious points on such an occasion.

I respond positively to the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer). He is quite right in saying that the Government ought to use the urgency procedure only when the matter is truly urgent. It could be misused. I hope he will accept that it was not done without careful thought. When I remind him that notice of election in respect of the local elections will probably come up in about two or three days and that nomination forms will then be available, he will, I believe, accept that this was genuinely an urgent matter.

He asked me about publicity and I think he will like to know that the order has already appeared in a Press release which has received a good deal of attention. I have had letters welcoming it from two of the teachers' organisations—teachers have been specially mentioned—one of which is in no way sectarian. This cuts across sectarian boundaries. I will naturally explore other ways of making this as widely known as possible.

My hon. Friends the Members for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder) and Belfast, East (Mr. McMaster) asked again about councillors. It is important to get this absolutely right. My hon. Friends will probably find it helpful if I give the reference. It is to be found in Schedule I of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. This is the declaration that a councillor will take in Northern Ireland and it is to the best of my understanding exactly comparable with that taken by councillors in England and Wales. It reads: I… having been chosen Councillor for the District of … hereby declare that I take the said office upon myself and will duly and faithfully fulfil the duties thereof according to the best of my judgment and ability". This is a declaration which I took when I was a member of a local authority many years ago.

It used to go on to say further words which were an oath of allegiance and it is those further words which have now been removed in respect of councillors. It brings Northern Ireland into line with the remainder of the United Kingdom. I hope that I have explained the slight difference in the oath which is still taken by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It is not on all fours with the remainder of the United Kingdom but very nearly.

I must avoid the blandishments of various hon. Members who asked me to talk about whatever form of declaration it is that may be taken by Members of the Assembly. It is clear that the White Paper envisages there being no oath. It does envisage an appropriate form of oath for members of the Executive. This is a matter germane to the major constitutional Bill. We must await the publication of that Bill. There must be time to discuss these matters with great care.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. McManus) asked a question about a detailed point. If he will write to me with the details of the case I will gladly have it examined. I am sure he will understand that I cannot, without the details, give him an answer now. In general, my immediate answer would be that whatever the law was at the time that the application was made—I understood the hon. Gentleman to refer to unemployment benefit—that would be the correct law and that situation would not be altered by a subsequent variation or alteration in the law.

That is my short and immediate answer to the question. I must not and do not raise the hon. Gentleman's hopes that there will be some kind of retrospective payment on the basis of what the position would have been had the law been different from what it was. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman will send me the details of the case he mentioned I will gladly have it looked into.

Again, I have not dealt with the broad argument. I do not think I should assist the House by repeating that argument. I put it as succinctly, yet as appropriately, as I knew how. I do not think that I can improve on what I said in opening, save only that this matter needs to be looked at in the broader concept of the settlement towards which I hope we are moving in Northern Ireland rather than as a single step on its own and in isolation. It is part of something bigger and must be dealt with separately by the House—that is right and proper—but in a week when we have been seeing movement towards new institutions in Northern Ireland, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will look at this proposal constructively as part of a broad settlement, not merely on its own.

On the basis of the words with which I introduced the order, may I commend it to the House.

Mr. Kilfedder

Will my hon. Friend give way? I did not wish to interrupt him earlier. I want to pay tribute to him for the patience and courtesy that he has shown to the House. At the same time I should like to record my protest at the behaviour of some hon. Members who have wandered into the Chamber and objected to the way that Ulster Members—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. Interventions should refer to the order.

Question put, That the Oaths and Declarations (Repeals) (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 603), a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th April, be approved: —

The House divided: Ayes 30, Noes 3.

Division No.110.] AYES [10.0 p.m.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Hannam, John (Exeter) Murton, Oscar
Astor, John Harrison, Brian (Maldon) Nabarro, Sir Gerald
Atkins, Humphrey Haselhurst. Alan Neave, Airey
Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone) Havers, Sir Michael Noble, Rt. Hn. Michael
Benyon, W. Hawkins, Paul Normanton, Tom
Biffen, John Hayhoe, Barney Nott, John
Biggs-Davison, John Hiley, Joseph Onslow, Cranley
Blaker, Peter Hill, John E. B. (Norfolk, S.) Oppenheim, Mrs. Sally
Boscawen, Hn. Robert Hornsby-Smith, Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia Orr, Capt. L. P. S.
Bowden, Andrew Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.) Osborn, John
Bray, Ronald Hunt, John Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)
Brocklebank-Fowler, Christopher Hutchison, Michael Clark Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Iremonger, T. L. Page, John (Harrow, W.)
Chapman, Sydney James, David Parker, John (Dagenham)
Chataway, Rt. Hn. Christopher Jopling, Michael Parkinson, Cecil
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Kershaw Anthony Peel, Sir John
Clegg, Walter Kilfedder, James Percival, lan
Cordle, John King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Pounder, Rafton
Cormack, Patrick King, Tom (Bridgewater) Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
Costain, A. P. Kinsey, J. R. Prior, Rt. Hn. J. M. L.
Crltchley, Julian Kirk, Peter Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis
d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, MaJ.-Gen.Jack Knight, Mrs. Jill Raison, Timothy
Dean, Paul Knox, David Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. Lane, David Reed, Laurance (Bolton, E.)
Dixon, Piers Langford-Holt, Sir John Rees, Peter (Dover)
Dodds-Parker, Sir Douglas Le Marchant, Spencer Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Drayson, G.B. Longden, Sir Gilber Roberts, Michael (Cardiff, N.)
du Cann, Rt. Hn. Edward MacArthur, lan Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) McLaren, Martin Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne,N.) McMaster, Stanley Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Emery, Peter McNair Wilson, Michael Russell, Sir Ronald
Eyre, Reginald Madel, David St. John-Stevas, Norman
Finsberg, Geoffrey (Hampstead) Maginnis, John E. Scott-Hopkins, James
Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton) Marten, Neil Shelton, William (Clapham)
Fowler, Norman Mathen, Carol Shersby, Michael
Gibson-Watt, David Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Sinclair, Sir George
Goodhew, Victor Meyer, Sir Anthony Skeet, T. H. H.
Gower, Raymond Mills, Peter (Torrington) Soref, Harold
Grant, Anthony (Harrow, C.) Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Speed, Keith
Gray, Hamish Miscampbell, Norman Spence, John
Green, Alan Moate, Roger Stanbrook, Ivor
Grieve, Percy Molyneaux, James Stewart, Rt. Hn. Michael (Fulham)
Gummer, J. Selwyn Monks, Mrs. Connie Stewart-Smith, Geoffrey (Belper)
Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley) Monro, Hector Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M.
Hall-Davis, A. G. F. Mudd, David Stokes, John
Sutcliffe, John Vaughan, Dr Gerard Winterton, Nicholas
Taylor, Edward M.(G'gow,Cathcart) Vickers, Dame Joan Woodhouse, Hn. Christopher
Taylor, Frank (Moss Side) Waddington, David Worsley, Marcus
Taylor, Robert (Croydon, N.W.) Walder, David (Clitheroe) Younger, Hn. George
Tebbit, Norman Ward, Dame Irene
Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth) Weatherill, Bernard TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Tugendhat, Christopher Whitelaw, Rt. Hn. William Mr. Tim Fortescue and
van Straubenzee, W. R. Wiggin, Jerry Mr. Marcus Fox.
Allaun, Frank (Sallord, E.) Fitt, Gerard (Belfast, W.) Tope, Graham
Atkinson, Norman Hamling, William Wellbeloved, James
Booth, Albert Heffer, Eric S.
Davidson, Arthur Judd, Frank TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove) Kaufman, Gerald Miss Bernadette Devlin
Duffy, A. E. P. Marsden, F. Mr. Frank McManus.
English, Michael Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Fernyhough, Rt. Hn. E. Stallard, A. W.
Division No. 111.] AYES [1.3 a.m.
Archer, Peter (Rowley Regis) Goodhew, Victor Roberts, Michael (Cardiff, N.)
Atkins, Humphrey Gower, Raymond Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Chapman, Sydney Gray, Hamish Russell, Sir Ronald
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Haselhurst, Alan Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)
Clegg, Walter Hill, John E. B. (Norfolk, S.) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Concannon, J. D. King, Tom (Brldgwater) Weatherill, Bernard
Cordle, John Knox, David
Eyre, Reginald McManus, Frank TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Fitt, Gerard (Belfast, W.) Onslow, Cranley Mr. Michael Jopling and
Fortescue, Tim Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis Mr. Oscar Morton.
Fowler, Norman Raison, Timothy
Fox, Marcus Rees, Peter (Dover)
Kilfedder, James TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Molyneaux, James Mr. Stanley McMaster and
Orr, Capt. L. P. S. Rev. Ian Paisley.

It appearing on the report of the Division that forty Members were not present Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next Sitting of the House.