HC Deb 10 December 1973 vol 866 cc28-41
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

Mr. Speaker, I will with permission, make a statement about the tripartite conference at Sunningdale between the British and Irish Governments and the parties involved in the Northern Ireland Executive. The House will know that the conference was brought to a successful conclusion and that an agreed communiqué was issued last night. Copies of it have been made available in the Vote Office and it will be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

The House will not wish me to repeat the details which are recorded in the communiqué. The outcome of the conference has shown that the existence of apparently incompatible political aspirations has not prevented Her Majesty's Government, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive-designate from working together for the benefit of both parts of Ireland.

The communiqué sets out for the first time parallel declarations by the British and Irish Governments that the status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland so desire. These declarations will be incorporated in a formal agreement which will be registered at the United Nations.

The conference agreed on the establishment of a Council of Ireland which will have both executive and harmonising functions and a consultative rôle. The Council will have equal representation from both North and South with safeguards for the British Government's interests and will act on the basis of unanimity. There will also be a consultative assembly, with equal representation from the Dail and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The communiqué also sets out fresh proposals for dealing with politically motivated violence throughout Ireland.

The way is now open for the appointment of the Northern Ireland Executive, and, subject to the approval of Parliament, for the devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The necessary legislation and legislative instruments will be brought before Parliament later this week.

It was agreed that a formal conference should be held early in the New Year, in which the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive can meet together to consider reports on the studies which are being commissioned and to sign the agreement reached.

The agreement has immense significance for the future of Ireland. The fact that such an agreement has been reached is due to the constructive and realistic attitude taken in the talks both by the Irish Government and by those parties in Northern Ireland who will MOW come together in a Northern Ireland Executive. It now remains for us all to implement the agreement for the benefit of the people of Ireland as a whole.

Mr. Harold Wilson

I join the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister in commending the agreement to the House. For my part, as Northern Irish affairs have been conducted in the House on a bipartisan basis for some years past, I pay tribute to the achievement and to all who played their part in it. I refer, in particular, to the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for what he did in making the agreement possible.

The Council of Ireland proposition was one which was first revived in modern times by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have pressed such a proposition.

As the agreement will be under attack by shellbacks and by subversives of various persuasions, none of us should today say anything which would make a vulnerable situation still more difficult. It is the duty of all of us in the House to make the Sunningdale agreement stick.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition for what he has said. We join with him in our hopes that the agreement and, in particular, the declaration will be accepted fully in Northern Ireland and by the other parties in the Dail in exactly the same way as the all-party approach in this country.

Captain Orr

While I in no way impugn the motives of my right hon. Friend and others in the agreement, its effect is to deceive someone. If the purpose of the agreement is better law enforcement and fruitful economic co-operation in Northern Ireland, the erection of this vast edifice tends to deceive the people of the Irish Republic that a united Ireland is round the corner. If, on the other hand, there is another motive, it is the people of Ulster who will be deceived. Surely an executive based upon such a flimsy type of deception is bound to be unstable and is bound to feed violence on both sides? Surely the outlook must be grave?

The Prime Minister

I must strongly repudiate everything which my hon. and gallant Friend has said. I cannot accept that there is any element of deception. For the first time an Irish Government have declared their position on the status of Northern Ireland. The agreement is to be registered as an international agreement at the United Nations. This is a major step forward of the utmost importance to everyone in Northern Ireland. I met no one at the conference during the long hours when we were working together who believed that a united Ireland was round the corner. Far from it. It was acknowledged that at present the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to remain in the United Kingdom. Her Majesty's Government have accepted that if at any time the people of Northern Ireland change their view their wishes will be respected. That is absolutely right. There is no element of deception.

There is not, as my hon. and gallant Friend suggested, an enormous structure. All parties at the conference wished to ensure that the secretariat should be small and limited to the requirements of the work of the Council. It is, after all, a small council consisting of only 14 members. It was felt that the assembly should have all such services as are necessary to enable it to debate and advise when required. It is a consultative assembly and, therefore, it is out to achieve the purpose of enabling both parts of Ireland to work together more effectively in the common good.

Mr. Hooson

On behalf of the Liberal Party, I add my congratulations to all the parties who took part in the discussions for reaching an agreement. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are some people who will never be satisfied and who will try to shoot down any agreement? Is he further aware that that has been the great tragedy of Ireland, both in the North and in the South, over the years? To what extent have the executive powers of the Council of Ireland been agreed?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his words of welcome for the agreement. It has been agreed that the Council should have executive powers. It will act on the unanimity rule. That was agreed on the basis of common accord between all those who took part in the discussions. We have listed the elements which we conclude should now be considered either for executive function or for harmonisation. Those elements will now be ex- amined in detail and, as I said, recommendations will be made to the formal conference which is to be held early in the New Year. Each item will be considered on its merits.

We came to the conclusion, after considerable discussion, that it was not possible at the conference for those round the table to decide, for example, whether in the electricity industry North and South the Council should have executive functions and precisely what those functions should be. We thought it essential that there should be detailed examination of each item before reaching a conclusion.

Mr. Deedes

I acknowledge the rôle which not only the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has played in achieving this historic step forward. Does my right hon. Friend agree, and will he bear in mind sympathetically, that much may now depend on the rôle which the loyalists and Unionists apart from those who have been in discussion at Sunningdale may now assign for themselves—namely, whether they wish to be a working or a wrecking opposition? Will my right hon. Friend underline that point?

The Prime Minister

I agree fully with what my right hon. Friend has said. All who were at the conference were distressed by the scenes which took place at the Assembly last week. We hope that we shall never see the like of them again.

By the declaration of the Irish Government to register at the United Nations and the fact that the Council of Ireland will work on the unanimity rule, we hope that we have given a full assurance to all in Northern Ireland that their interests have been, and will be, properly protected.

Mr. Duffy

I, too, pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and to everyone else concerned in this historic and tremendous achievement. While none of us should say anything which may prejudice the acceptance of the Council of Ireland in any quarter, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that if it is to have continuing life it must have the capacity to grow and to evolve? Does he not agree also that there is, therefore, a responsibility on any Government at Westminster to promote these conditions whilst at the same time winning the active consent of the people of Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. The conference was agreed entirely on this point, and there is capacity for the Council to grow. It has to do so by the unanimity rule, whereby both North and South are assured that their interests will be looked after. Where both feel that they can co-operate in the common interest, it is open to the Council to develop and grow in order to do so.

I take the view that, wherever possible, all decisions about the Council should be taken by those who are going to operate it—the Irish Government and the three parties represented in the Executive-designate. We were willing and able to help, but I felt it much better, as the Council is to consist of North and South and not the United Kingdom Government, that they should work out together how they wished to operate and to settle, for example, their places of meeting, procedures and so on.

Mr. McMaster

I, too, pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and the other parties present at this far-sighted agreement. Can my right hon. Friend tell us how far the other parties in the Republic support the statement in the communiqué by the Government in the South of Ireland recognising the status of Northern Ireland? Does this statement preclude any amendment of Article 2 of the Irish Constitution? Secondly, can the provisions relating to the trial of murderers be extended to other serious offences committed in the North and in the South? Will that have any effect on the amendment of the extradition laws of the South of Ireland? Finally what effect will the conference have as a whole on restoring law and order, both North and South of the border, and in particular on improving the security of the border itself?

The Prime Minister

I have already expressed the hope that the other parties in the Dail will support the whole of this agreement. Of course, this rests on the confidence of the Irish Prime Minister that he can gain the support of Parliament for the declaration which he will make, and I think that was the right basis on which to act in this conference.

This declaration does not in any way preclude the alteration of the Irish con- Stitution if the people of Southern Ireland so wish. Indeed, Mr. Cosgrave informed us at the conference that there is already a constitutional reform committee in existence, which is examining the whole of the Irish Constitution. As we know from our own proceedings, such commissions naturally take time to report. What we wanted at this conference was immediate action at the same time as we put forward proposals for the Council.

With regard to the question of offences, the Irish Government indicated that they would take immediate and effective action to deal with the particular problem of those accused of murder. The question of of the other offences will immediately be studied by the commission. Again, in the discussions we found that it was extremely difficult to come to conclusions on such proposals as that for a court of Ireland because, obviously, considerable problems are involved. I do not say that they cannot be overcome, but they need detailed examination by those specialised in the matter. The question of the other offences will come up for consideration by the commission we are setting up

Mr. Callaghan

May I offer my congratulations to all those who have succeeded in getting both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Council of Ireland? Did the right hon. Gentleman hear Lord O'Neill of the Maine, former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, saying at lunchtime that, while he hoped the agreement would succeed, he feared that the history of Ireland showed that extremists always win in the end? I ask the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, to repeat once again that we shall proceed, despite the cost to this country, with the utmost resolution against extremists on both sides, who are the only people who can prevent the majority from having a peaceful future?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I can give the right hon. Gentleman the categorical assurance for which he asks. Of course, I know that there are some who will be pessimistic about anything in Ireland ever coming to fruition. It was right that in the discussions at the conference we should examine critically every proposal, and those round the table were anxious that there should be a proper balance between all the interests involved. I believe that we have achieved that. I believe that we can now make progress in this respect. What is more, I believe that the agreement reached will so improve the political atmosphere over a large part of Ireland that it will make it more difficult for men of violence to achieve their purpose.

Mr. Goodhart

I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend on this major step forward. Can he, however, give an assurance that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until the majority of those on the electoral register in Northern Ireland, not just a simple majority of those voting in a single referendum, give a positive indication that they want a change in the status of their country?

The Prime Minister

Parliament has already laid down the procedures for ascertaining the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and we shall adhere to them.

Mr. Fitt

Does the Prime Minister agree that it was his impression that all those people involved in these very delicate negotiations were acting with the free consent of their electors, of those who had elected them to office, and that there was absolutely no compulsion upon them to reach any agreement except that they were acting in the best interests of the people, not only of Northern Ireland but, indeed, of Ireland? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the agreement was reached only with the co-operation of himself, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, indeed, many right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House, particularly my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), and that it has been a joint effort over many years to try to lay the basis for the very successful conclusion arrived at yesterday?

In condemning the violent actions of violent men on both sides in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. Gentleman also condemn the violent words and the incitement to violence now being expressed by elected Members of this House in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I certainly acknowledge the contributions made by the right hon Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) in the proposals they put forward some time ago, some of which were embodied in the agreement. As the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) knows, I acknowledged to the conference last night and to the Press at the signing the part which my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has played. Again I pay tribute to those round the table from the Executive-designate as well as to the Prime Minister and his colleagues from the Republic.

I willingly confirm that the whole of these arrangements were reached voluntarily and without any sort of pressure or compulsion. I would have thought that the length of time the conference took, and the amount of work we had to do, indicated that clearly enough to everybody outside the conference, and those inside who heard the varied proposals put forward—some of them very ingenious for solving the problems we were confronted with also realised that there was no question other than that of voluntary effort by everybody and, in the end, voluntary agreement.

Mr. Harold Wilson

If the right hon. Gentleman's answers have been spoken in a voice not quite as robust as sometimes it is, will he accept our sympathy, and also recognise that the voice of this House today, through the exchanges about the agreement, is unassailably the voice of the House of Commons and that, should it be challenged from any quarter, we shall join him in supporting any motion put before the House in support of the agreement reached this weekend?

Since the word "loyalist" was used by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes), will the Prime Minister also recognise that when some of us hear the word "loyalist" we feel that it is sometimes a euphemism for "disloyalist"? Whether that may come from one side or the other of those who oppose it in Northern Ireland, the House of Commons, as it has shown today, is 100 per cent. behind what the right hon. Gentleman has put to the House.

The Prime Minister

Again I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the wholehearted support he has given to the agreement, as indeed has the Liberal Party. The House knows that I condemn all those who use violence or try to wreck the democratic process. We have under way a new democratic process in Northern Ireland and a democratic arrangement between North and South. I hope that the Dail will give as wholehearted support to the agreement as we in this House are giving it.

Following is the communiqué:

1. The Conference between the British and Irish Governments and the parties involved in the Northern Ireland Executive (designate) met at Sunningdale on 6, 7, 8 and 9 December 1973.

2. During the Conference, each delegation stated their position on the status of Northern Ireland.

3. The Taoiseach said that the basic principle of the Conference was that the participants had tried to see what measure of agreement of benefit to all the people concerned could be secured. In doing so, all had reached accommodation with one another on practical arrangements. But none had compromised, and none had asked others to compromise, in relation to basic aspirations. The people of the Republic, together with a minority in Northern Ireland as represented by the SDLP delegation, continued to uphold the aspiration towards a united Ireland. The only unity they wanted to see was a unity established by consent.

4. Mr. Brian Faulkner said that delegates from Northern Ireland came to the Conference as representatives of apparently incompatible sets of political aspirations who had found it possible to reach agreement to join together in government because each accepted that in doing so they were not sacrificing principles or aspirations. The desire of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, as represented by the Unionist and Alliance delegations, remained firm.

5. The Irish Government fully accepted and solemnly declared that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired a change in that status. The British Government solemnly declared that it was, and would remain, their policy to support the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The present status of Northern Ireland is that it is part of the United Kingdom. If in the future the majority of the people of Northern Ireland should indicate a wish to become part of a united Ireland, the British Government would support that wish.

6. The Conference agreed that a formal agreement incorporating the declarations of the British and Irish Governments would be signed at the formal stage of the Conference and registered at the United Nations.

7. The Conference agreed that a Council of Ireland would be set up. It would be confined to representatives of the two parts of Ireland, with appropriate safeguards for the British Government's financial and other interests. It would comprise a Council of Ministers with executive and harmonising functions and a consultative role, and a Consultative Assembly with advisory and review functions. The Council of Ministers would act by unanimity, and would comprise a core of seven members of the Irish Government and an equal number of members of the Northern Ireland Executive with provision for the participation of other non-voting members of the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive or Administration when matters within their departmental competence were discussed. The Council of Ministers would control the functions of the Council. The Chairmanship would rotate on an agreed basis between representatives of the Irish Government and of the Northern Ireland Executive. Arrangements would be made for the location of the first meeting, and the location of subsequent meetings would be determined by the Council of Ministers. The Consultative Assembly would consist of 60 members, 30 members from Dail Eireann chosen by the Dail on the basis of proportional representation by the single transferable vote, and 30 members from the Northern Ireland Assembly chosen by that Assembly and also on that basis. The members of the Consultative Assembly would be paid allowances. There would be a Secretariat to the Council, which would be kept as small as might be commensurate with efficiency in the operation of the Council. The Secretariat would service the institutions of the Council and would, under the Council of Ministers, supervise the carrying out of the executive and harmonising functions and the consultative role of the Council. The Secretariat would be headed by a Secretary-General. Following the appointment of a Northern Ireland Executive, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive would nominate their representatives to a Council of Ministers. The Council of Ministers would then appoint a Secretary-General and decide upon the location of its permanent headquarters. The Secretary-General would be directed to proceed with the drawing up of plans for such headquarters. The Council of Ministers would also make arrangements for the recruitment of the staff of the Secretariat in a manner and on conditions which would, as far as is practicable, be consistent with those applying to public servants in the two administrations.

8. In the context of its harmonising functions and consultative role, the Council of Ireland would undertake important work relating, for instance, to the impact of EEC membership. As for executive functions, the first step would be to define and agree these in detail. The Conference therefore decided that, in view of the administrative complexities involved, studies would at once be set in hand to identify and, prior to the formal stage of the conference, report on areas of common interest in relation to which a Council of Ireland would take executive decisions, and, in appropriate cases, be responsible for carrying those decisions into effect. In carrying out these studies, and also in determining what should be done by the Council in terms of harmonisation, the objectives to be borne in mind would include the following:

  1. (1) to achieve the best utilisation of scarce skills, expertise and resources;
  2. (2) to avoid, in the interests of economy and efficiency, unnecessary duplication of effort; and
  3. (3) to ensure complementary rather than competitive effort where this is to the advantage of agriculture, commerce and industry.

In particular, these studies would be directed to identifying, for the purposes of executive action by the Council of Ireland, suitable aspects of activities in the following broad fields:

  1. (a) exploitation, conservation and development of natural resources and the environment;
  2. (b) agricultural matters (including agricultural research, animal health and operational aspects of the Common Agricultural Policy), forestry and fisheries;
  3. (c) co-operative ventures in the fields of trade and industry;
  4. (d) electricity generation;
  5. (e) tourism;
  6. (f) roads and transport;
  7. (g) advisory services in the field of public health;
  8. (h) sport, culture and the arts.

It would be for the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate from time to time as to the extent of functions to be devolved to the Council of Ireland. Where necessary, the British Government will cooperate in this devolution of functions. Initially, the functions to be vested would be those identified in accordance with the procedures set out above and decided, at the formal stage of the conference, to be transferred.

9. (i) During the initial period following the establishment of the Council, the revenue of the Council would be provided by means of grants from the two administrations in Ireland towards agreed projects and budgets, according to the nature of the service involved.

  1. (ii) It was also agreed that further studies would be put in hand forthwith and completed as soon as possible of methods of financing the Council after the initial period which would be consonant with the responsibilities and functions assigned to it.
  2. (iii) It was agreed that the cost of the Secretariat of the Council of Ireland would be shared equally, and other services would be financed broadly in proportion to where expenditure of benefit accrues.
  3. (iv) The amount of money required to finance the Council's activities will depend upon the functions assigned to it from time to time.
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  5. (v) While Britain continues to pay subsidies to Northern Ireland, such payments would not involve Britain participating in the Council, it being accepted nevertheless that it would be legitimate for Britain to safeguard in an appropriate way her financial involvement in Northern Ireland.

10. It was agreed by all parties that persons committing crimes of violence, however motivated, in any part of Ireland should be brought to trial irrespective of the part of Ireland in which they are located. The concern which large sections of the people of Northern Ireland felt about this problem was in particular forcefully expressed by the representatives of the Unionist and Alliance parties. The representatives of the Irish Government stated that they understood and fully shared this concern. Different ways of solving this problem were discussed; among them were the amendment of legislation operating in the two jurisdictions on extradition, the creation of a common law enforcement area in which an all-Ireland court would have jurisdiction, and the extension of the jurisdiction of domestic courts so as to enable them to try offences committed outside the jurisdiction. It was agreed that problems of considerable legal complexity were involved, and that the British and Irish Governments would jointly set up a commission to consider all the proposals put forward at the Conference and to recommend as a matter of extreme urgency the most effective means of dealing with those who commit these crimes. The Irish Government undertook to take immediate and effective legal steps so that persons coming within their jurisdiction and accused of murder, however motivated, committed in Northern Ireland will be brought to trial, and it was agreed that any similar reciprocal action that may be needed in Northern Ireland be taken by the appropriate authorities.

11. It was agreed that the Council would be invited to consider in what way the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms would be expressed in domestic legislation in each part of Ireland. It would recommend whether further legislation or the creation of other institutions, administrative or judicial, is required in either part or embracing the whole island to provide additional protection in the field of human rights. Such recommendations could include the functions of an Ombudsman or Commissioner for Complaints, or other arrangements of a similar nature which the Council of Ireland might think appropriate.

12. The Conference also discussed the question of policing and the need to ensure public support for and identification with the police service throughout the whole community. It was agreed that no single set of proposals would achieve these aims overnight, and that time would be necessary. The Conference expressed the hope that the wide range of agreement that had been reached, and the consequent formation of a power-sharing Executive, would make a major contribution to the creation of an atmosphere throughout the community where there would be widespread support for and identification with all the institutions of Northern Ireland.

13. It was broadly accepted that the two parts of Ireland are to a considerable extent inter-dependent in the whole field of law and order, and that the problems of political violence and identification with the police service cannot be solved without taking account of that fact.

14. Accordingly, the British Government stated that, as soon as the security problems were resolved and the new institutions were seen to be working effectively, they would wish to discuss the devolution of responsibility for normal policing and how this might be achieved with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Police.

15. With a view to improving policing throughout the island and developing community identification with and support for the police services, the governments concerned will co-operate under the auspices of a Council of Ireland through their respective police authorities. To this end, the Irish Government would set up a Police Authority, appointments to which would be made after consultation with the Council of Ministers of the Council of Ireland. In the case of the Northern Ireland Police Authority, appointments would be made after consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, which would consult with the Council of Ministers of the Council of Ireland. When the two Police Authorities are constituted, they will make their own arrangements to achieve the objectives set out above.

16. An independent complaints procedure for dealing with complaints against the police will be set up.

17. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will set up an all-party committee from the Assembly to examine how best to introduce effective policing throughout Northern Ireland with particular reference to the need to achieve public identification with the police.

18. The Conference took note of a reaffirmation by the British Government of their firm commitment to bring detention to an end in Northern Ireland for all sections of the community as soon as the security situation permits, and noted also that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland hopes to be able to bring into use his statutory powers of selective release in time for a number of detainees to be released before Christmas.

19. The British Government stated that, in the light of the decisions reached at the Conference, they would now seek the authority of Parliament to devolve full powers to the Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly as soon as possible. The formal appointment of the Northern Ireland Executive would then be made.

20. The Conference agreed that a formal conference would be held early in the New Year at which the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive would meet together to consider reports on the studies which have been commissioned and to sign the agreement reached.

Sunningdale Park.

9th December 1973.