HC Deb 01 July 1976 vol 914 cc637-9
8. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in what respects he has made the present system of direct rule more positive than that in force in previous periods of direct rule; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

During direct rule, successive Governments have rightly hesitated to take action on non-urgent matters on which a future devolved Government could be expected to make its own decisions. But there has been direct rule for all but five months of the last four years, and I have decided that it would no longer be right to defer decisions in this way.

In recent months the Government have instituted searching reviews on security, economics and social policies in Northern Ireland, the results of which will enable me to decide whether any fresh initiatives should be taken.

I have also been reviewing the machinery of direct rule in regard to such matters as parliamentary procedures and the handling of legislation for Northern Ireland. I shall have something to say on this in the course of the debate tomorrow.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the Secretary of State aware that we eagerly await his contribution to tomorrow's debate? Meanwhile, will he and the Northern Ireland office endeavour to help community groups which are doing such good work in Northern Ireland in bringing people together by providing some kind of interim representation of ordinary people in the Province?

Mr. Rees

I shall do a great deal, through my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to help community groups, but not in any sense of their being representative as if they were elected. It is most important to stick to that view. There is one other factor to be considered. There are community groups and community groups in Northern Ireland, as the people who live there know. My colleagues have to be selective in the attitude that is taken in that respect. I shall tomorrow give my views to the House on aspects of direct rule, but I should not like to give the impression that there is something new and urgent in dealing with this basic problem. I feel that all along there has been too much said in this House in the last five years about solving the Irish question instead of seeking to deal with the immediate situation and to cope with the situation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hardy

I welcome the answer given by the Secretary of State to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison). Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the pace of his actions must be such that Northern Ireland opinion must not be isolated, because progress will be determined by Northern Ireland opinion and not by any degree of impatience at Westminster?

Mr. Rees

I agree firmly with my hon. Friend. Our aim must be to use the developing mood of the people in Northern Ireland. Indeed, this is what Her Majesty's Government will do.

Mr. Mates

On the general question of future direct rule, many of us broadly agree with the profile taken by the Secretary of State in regard to talks between the parties, but is he aware that much will depend on his attitude to the outcome of talks? Could he, either tomorrow in the debate or in his replies today, give an assurance to the people who are spending so much time trying to negotiate delicately that he will look favourably on any scheme that is agreed by Ulstermen among themselves?

Mr. Rees

Of course, I shall look favourably on any agreement that may come forward between the two major groups in Northern Ireland, and I shall say something about that aspect of the matter tomorrow. Any agreement that is reached will depend on the supposition that people are prepared to work together. The details must be examined searchingly, but I hope that the basic factors of agreement will be successful.

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