HC Deb 27 June 1974 vol 875 cc1702-9
2. Mr. Nigel Lawson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make arrangements for elections to a constitutional conference, convention or assembly to be held in the Province this year.

3. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

4. Mr. Biffen

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement indicating what success he has achieved in his most recent efforts to achieve power sharing in Northern Ireland.

7. Mr. R. C. Mitchell

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what steps he is now taking to seek new power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland; and with which groups he has has consultation.

10. Mr. Michael Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress he is making in his discussions with political parties and interested persons on the future arrangements for the Government of Northern Ireland, following the collapse of the Executive.

12. Mr. Duffy

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what consultations he has had with interested parties on the formation of a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland.

18. Mr. Wm. Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will list the political parties, the organisations and individuals in Northern Ireland with whom he has had meetings regarding the future Government of Northern Ireland since the ending of the Executive.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

Since the fall of the Northern Ireland Executive I have had an intensive series of discussions in Northern Ireland with leaders and members of all political parties represented in the Assembly and with many other groups and interests. A number of ideas have been put forward and the discussions are still continuing.

It is my intention to make a detailed report to the House before we rise for the recess.

Mr. Lawson

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his remarks. I hope that the statement, when it is made before the recess, will give a firm date for such elections and that that date will be in the relatively near future.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a real danger of losing the support of the British people for a policy which, however well meaning, is inclined at times to look rather like one of drift?

Mr. Rees

As matters stand, any election to an Assembly would have to take place under the Constitution Act. A large number of people who have been to see me do not wish this to happen, so they say.

I am not unaware of public opinion at home, which is my base and the base of most of us in this House. I have that very firmly in mind.

Mr. Mitchell

How many more by-elections will have to take place in Northern Ireland before the Government realise that the concept of power sharing, as we have had it before, is dead and they really start a radical re-think of alternative policy?

Mr. Rees

I have said that that by-election arose because I had no power to do aught else. The Government had advised the Queen to prorogue the Assembly—for good reasons. This still allows the Assembly members, in the short term, at any rate, to meet and talk together. I disagree completely with my hon. Friend. What I have found from all sorts of people who have come to see me is that though they may have disagreements about the form of power sharing, the one thing which has come out of the last year is an understanding on all sides of the community that both parts of the community must find a way of working together. Power sharing is not dead. It is the one thing which has stayed on since the fall of the Executive.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

However impatient hon. Members may become with our fellow subjects in Northern Ireland, is it not a fact that it is our moral duty to uphold the right of those fellow subjects to remain with Britain? Is it not also a fact that it is an interest of the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland should so remain? Is it the intention of the right hon. Gentleman that when a new Assembly is elected, that Assembly should be a constitution-drafting body?

Mr. Rees

As to what the future may bring, in the state of discussions that I am having it is too early to say. The hon. Gentleman has a great knowledge of Northern Ireland, which he visits very frequently. He knows many people there. I say to him that membership of the United Kingdom is not a one-sided thing. It means duties and obligations, and it means a way of life. It works both ways. I believe that my job, on behalf of the House as Secretary of State, is to look after and to be responsible for people in Northern Ireland, whatever their beliefs and whatever their religions. But there are two communities in Northern Ireland, and we in this House can never forget that.

Mr. Duffy

As my right hon. Friend continues to have consultations, will he impress upon those who recently rejected political initiatives which London and Dublin thought reasonable and, moreover viable, that there is now a special onus on them to come forward with propositions that are not only seen to be viable but can command agreement?

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is referring to what we all came to describe as the Irish dimension.

Mr. Duffy

And power sharing.

Mr. Rees

And power sharing—despite the failure. Indeed failure is the wrong word, because the Executive and the members of the Executive showed the people of Northern Ireland in a very fine way that the communities could work together. But the Executive did end. However, there is a realisation on the part of people in Northern Ireland—and increasingly, if I did not know it before, I realise this, as do many hon. Members—that it is out of Northern Ireland that a solution must come, based on the principles, in which we believe, for membership of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Biffen

In view of the wide range of options for the future which the right hon. Gentleman, very understandably, wishes to keep open, and in view of the transformed political situation in Northern Ireland, will he state whether the Government still remain obdurate in their rejection of integration?

Mr. Rees

The short answer is, "Yes." Nothing that I have ever seen, given the situation of the two communities in Northern Ireland, has convinced or will ever convince me that integration is a way out of the problem of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Fitt

In the discussions which the Secretary of State has had with the various political groupings in Northern Ireland, has it been said to him by any of these groupings, or by a number of them combined, that they regard the present Northern Ireland Constitution Act as being dead and no longer viable in Northern Ireland? In regard to the statement that the Secretary of State proposes to make to the House before the recess, is it the intention of the Government to spell out in clear, unmistakable terms to all political parties in Northern Ireland the conditions under which Northern Ireland will be allowed to remain part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rees

On the first point, some of the people who have been to see me have told me firmly that they regard the Northern Ireland Constitution Act as dead. It may be that they are referring to parts of it, because there is a large amount of it which I should have thought would be extremely valuable for any form of Government in Northern Ireland. But I have pointed out two things. There is not only Section 2, which is a special form of power sharing; there is Section 1, which concerns the status of Northern Ireland. If the Act is dead, it is not just one section that is dead.

With regard to the future, as I am still discussing matters at present I think that I should keep the options open, as the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) said. But I take the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). There are facts and realities of belonging to the United Kingdom. It will be one of the main jobs of the Government in the future, as the people of Northern Ireland meet and talk together, to put the facts of the situation forward. That is one of our major obligations

Mr. Latham

Whatever our personal views on this matter may be, is it not increasingly necessary to recognise the political fact that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland clearly consider the right hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. West) and his friends as their main political spokesmen, and that we shall have to move forward on that basis?

Mr. Rees

I should be the last to deny—if one is facing realities—that in the Westminster elections, 11 out of 12 Northern Ireland Members came from one particular grouping. But I would also say that one thing which I have learned in the last month, when talking all day and every day, is that there are no monolithic groups in Northern Ireland and that there is a wide variety of views even within party groupings. This is another factor which is a new element, perhaps—certainly on the Protestant side—in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it wise to allow these elections to become entangled with probable Westminster elections?

Mr. Rees

With regard to probable Westminster elections, I am very pleased to say that that matter does not lie with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—but my hon. Friend can take it as read that I am not unaware of possibilities and will take them into account.

Mr. McCusker

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that in his discussions with the various political parties in Northern Ireland he will tell them all, particularly the SDLP, that he considers as an absolute prerequisite to any form of power sharing a declaration of unequivocal support for the security forces in their fight against terrorism?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman will recall that in the last days of the Executive, members of the SDLP, like the rest of the Executive, made a very useful statement on policing. But we should not ignore the facts of history and the effects arising out of them—that there are not many Catholics in the police forces. Would that it were the other way. Indeed, until we achieve that it will be extremely difficult to have normal policing in Northern Ireland.

It is a very good idea, in the current situation in Northern Ireland, if people not only tell me things but tell each other things, because the people of Northern Ireland talking together and facing the facts together would be an excellent thing, in public as well as inside this House.

17. Mr. Carol Mather

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the current constitutional position in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The present constitutional position is that the Northern Ireland Assembly stands prorogued and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are being temporarily appointed to head the Departments and offices formerly headed by members of the Northern Ireland Executive and administration.

Mr. Mather

Before he makes his statement in July, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake a study of the strategic importance of Northern Ireland to the United Kingdom? In the context of the constitutional position, does he not agree that if power sharing is to be successful in any future constitution those who are sharing power must believe in that power—in fact, must believe in the Union?

Mr. Rees

Of course, the strategic position must be taken into account. I think that the hon. Gentleman would read with pleasure the oath that all members of the Executive took when they assumed office, which was to work for the good of Northern Ireland. I believe that they did just that, and that those who accepted power sharing accepted their position in Northern Ireland, which did not prevent their having an aspiration for the future which many people in this country have in other regards.

Mr. Ian Gilmour

Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up a possible ambiguity arising from his earlier answer? Is it he who objects to holding elections under the Constitution Act because some of the people who have come to see him think that that Act is dead, or is it the people who have come to see him who object to holding the elections under the Act?

Mr. Rees

May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his Shadow position? I answered the Question earlier in that way because I was being asked to carry out elections under the Constitution Act. It is people who have come to see me who have objected to the Constitution Act. It is only three or four weeks since the Assembly ended. Representatives of the parties in Northern Ireland told me pretty firmly that they regard the Northern Ireland Constitution Act as dead.

Mr. Gilmour

I am sorry to press the right hon. Gentleman, but he has not answered the question. Do these people object to elections being held under the Constitution Act?

Mr. Rees

This is not a pedantic point; it is an important point. Anything that I do I have to do under the legislation enacted by the previous administration. People who have come to see me have told me that they regard the Constitution Act as dead. If they have any new ideas for any other form of election, or for any other purposes, it will require legislation.