HC Deb 10 November 1975 vol 899 cc926-30
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I will, with permission, make a statement.

The Report of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention has now been transmitted to me by the Chairman. The Report will be published as soon as possible in the new Session of Parliament and will be laid in accordance with the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act.

The House will recall that the Convention was set up under the Act of 1974 for the specific purpose of considering what provision for the Government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there". This was the sole task of the Convention. It was not a Parliament or an Assembly and, as a Convention, had no advisory or other functions in the governmental field. It was in the discharge of its statutory task that it transmitted its Report to me.

Under the provisions of the Act, the Convention is now dissolved, although there is a provision under which it may be recalled at any time within six months of the date on which the Report was submitted, which takes us to 7th May next year. In answer to a Question on 31st October by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) I announced that I had decided to exercise my discretion under the Act to continue to pay salaries to members of the Convention. Suitable allowances will also be paid. I regard it as essential that members of the Convention should continue to be available for further consultations on constitutional matters. I wish to make it clear again that the Convention is not—cannot be—an advisory body to me. No decision has been taken whether or not to recall it for its constitutional purposes.

The House will not expect me at this time to make any substantive comment on the Report. As will be seen when the Report is published, it deals with a number of fundamental issues affecting the future government of Northern Ireland. These include, for example, the form of that Government, its powers and functions, its legal authority, questions of constitutional rights and its relationship with Parliament, financial assistance and taxation and responsibility for law and order and the use of the Army.

Both the Government and this House will wish to consider these matters very carefully, and I also hope that the people of Northern Ireland will ponder upon them since they profoundly affect the future of Northern Ireland. It is important that Parliament should now have time to consider the Convention's Report so that when, at an appropriate moment, we come to debate these matters, we shall do so on the basis of considered views. Nevertheless, I should make it clear that the British Army is under the control of this Parliament only, and the sovereignty of the Queen in the Parliament of the United Kingdom rests also at Westminster.

There is no quick and easy solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, and my strong view is that everything we say and do should acknowledge this. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland will continue to be governed by, and from, this Parliament. It is in accordance with this principle that the Northern Ireland Act 1974 provides for all functions of government to be exercised by me, with the help of other ministerial colleagues. That is the position until Parliament decides otherwise.

I should finally wish to take the opportunity—and I am sure that the whole House will join with me in this—of paying a warm tribute to the Chairman of the Convention, Sir Robert Lowry, and his staff, for the way in which he has guided the work of the Convention.

Mr. Neave

Will the right hon. Gentleman take it that we should like to join in the tribute that he has paid to the Chairman of the Convention, Sir Robert Lowry, for the way in which he has guided the work of the Convention, and to his staff.

We shall wish to study this Report when it becomes available to us, but is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement that the British Army is under the control of this Parliament only, and that sovereignty resides with the Queen in this Parliament, is undeniable and has the full support of the Opposition? Can he say when comments can be expected from the Government, when they will announce them on the Report, and in what form they will do so?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support of my strongly felt view about the Army, which some people do not understand. Sovereignty for the United Kingdom Parliament rests at Westminster and nowhere else. It is most important that that should be realised. The best place for me to give the considered view of the Government on the Report will be in the House of Commons at an appropriate time when we have had time to consider it.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the Secretary of State agree that the question of the future structure of government for Northern Ireland, within the framework of the United Kingdom, cannot meaningfully be considered in isolation from the important forthcoming discussions on the problem of devolution within the United Kingdom as a whole?

Mr. Rees

I think it inevitable that, within the course of the next year, we shall be talking about devolution in a wider aspect, but I should like to make one point. I am well aware that Wales is different from Scotland, and that Scotland is different from Northern Ireland. When we talk about devolution, we are talking about it in different places. The philosophy may be the same, but I think the hon. Gentleman will fully accept that Northern Ireland has problems different from those of Scotland.

Mr. Stallord

Will my right hon. Friend make the Report readily available to the House as soon as possible? Is he aware that there have been reports that included in the Convention Report is a detailed Bill with a lot of wide-ranging powers covering all aspects of future government for Northern Ireland? Are those reports true? If so, will he be presenting that Bill to this House, and when?

Mr. Rees

I have just received the Report. It is a matter now of printing it. I observe from the contents that a draft constitution Bill has been drawn up, and this will be available with the views of the Convention itself on a majority vote, plus the views of the other parties in the Convention. I confirm that there is a Bill, and it makes very interesting reading.

Mr. Beith

Does not the Secretary of State agree that the earliest possible printing of the text of the Convention's Report is desirable if there is not to be speculation based on incorrect or inadequate reports? Does not he further agree that he is right to make clear at this stage that anyone who supposes that, during the period when the Convention's Report is being considered, this House could be intimidated by violence against its Members or against the British public in general is sadly mistaken? That should be made absolutely clear now.

Mr. Rees

I think the message is getting through—it certainly has got through in Northern Ireland during the past five years—that the violence, the killing, the 1,500 dead, do not seem to have changed anybody's views and that they will not solve the problem of Northern Ireland. I readily support what the hon. Gentleman said. Bombing and killing, including the violence aimed at Members of this House, some of whom are present today, will have no effect at all—in fact, it will have the opposite effect on public opinion in this country.

The Report has been sent for printing. As soon as it emerges, I will present it.

Mr. Fitt

Can my right hon. Friend indicate when the House will have an opportunity to debate the Government's assessment of the Convention's Report? In the meantime, can he indicate to Convention members in Northern Ireland, many of whom were local parliamentarians under the old system, what opportunities will be afforded to them to continue to represent their constituents in so far as they are still regarded in Northern Ireland as being the elected representatives of the people?

Mr. Rees

It is not for me to say when the debate will be. Obviously, the Report must first be printed. It needs to be read carefully. I shall endeavour to talk to politicians in Northern Ireland and it would then be appropriate to have a debate in the House of Commons.

I must make it clear that, although I am happy that Convention members should write to me or my colleagues on issues in Northern Ireland, they are not constituency members in Northern Ireland. The 12 Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland are the ones to bring matters to this House, where they can achieve a desirable result or otherwise.

The Convention was formed for one sole purpose, and it is an important purpose. I want to see political discussions take place. For that reason, we are continuing to pay Convention members for the foreseeable future, but it would be wrong of me to derogate from the position of elected Members of Parliament to this House of Commons.