HC Deb 05 March 1976 vol 906 cc1715-27

11.4 a.m.

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

I will, with permission, make a statement.

As the House will recall, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention was set up by Parliament at Westminster to consider what provision for the government of Northern Ireland would be likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the Community there. The Convention was born out of a belief that the people of Northern Ireland themselves ought to have the chance to play a constructive part in seeking a solution to their own constitutional problems, in the knowledge that final decisions were for Parliament at Westminster.

The Constitutional Convention has had two distinct phases. The first phase lasted from May to November last year. As I reported to the House on 12th January 1976, the Report of the Convention submitted to me on 8th November showed agreement that there should be a unicameral legislature and a Government in Northern Ireland with a broad range of responsibility, including responsibility for industrial and commercial matters. All the parties agreed on a number of other matters, including the desire to see Government responsibility for law and order devolved to Northern Ireland and additional human rights legislation introduced.

The Convention did not, however, agree on the central issue—that is, how, in a divided community, a system of government could be devised which would have sufficient support in both parts of that community to provide stable and effective government. As I told the House on 12th January: Experience in recent years has made plain that no system of government within Northern Ireland will be stable or effective unless both parts of the community acquiesce in that system and are willing to work to support it."—[Official Report, 12th January 1976; Vol. 903, c. 54.] The proposals in the Convention's Report did not meet this basic need.

The Government considered it right, therefore, to reconvene the Convention to see whether agreement could be reached on the specific and crucial issue of a system of government within Northern Ireland which provided for a form of partnership and participation.

There have been a number of meetings between the Convention parties since the Convention was reconvened. But it is now clear that no further progress was made, even though new proposals were advanced by the Alliance Party and considered by the United Ulster Unionist Coalition. The debates which have taken place in the Convention and the resolutions which have been conveyed to me make it plain that there is now no prospect of agreement between the parties there.

The reconvened Convention has already sat beyond the four weeks which, as I said on 12th January, should be sufficient for progress to be made on the matters referred to it. In view of the clear indication that further progress will not now be made, I have advised Her Majesty to dissolve the Convention, and an Order in Council has been made dissolving it as from midnight tonight and I have so informed the Chairman.

I believe the House will share the Government's deep regret that the opportunity provided by the Convention has been lost and that its members have not succeeded in their task of devising a workable system of government for Northern Ireland.

My strongly held view is that there is no instant solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. It would be a grave mistake to pretend that there was one, let alone to rush forward with some new devices. It is clearly not possible at this time to make progress towards a devolved system of government for Northern Ireland. This still remains the Government's aim, but it does not contemplate any major new initiative for some time to come, though we shall always be ready to entertain constructive and responsible ideas from those in Northern Ireland who are prepared to work together for Northern Ireland. There is no question of a ban on legitimate political activities. The immediate need now is for a period of constitutional stability so that we can tackle the problems of criminality and unemployment.

There is no need for any immediate change in the machinery of government for Northern Ireland. In 1972 this House decided to take responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland and to bring to an end the Stormont Parliament. The short-lived Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly was brought to an end following the Ulster Workers' strike. The Convention has never been a part of any system of Government. Direct rule is already in being under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 and it will continue. I shall bring before the House in due course proposals for its renewal, including any changes that may be desirable.

I want to make it plain that my firmly held intention is that direct rule will be positive and not negative. The Government will continue to discharge fully their responsibility for all aspects of the affairs of Northern Ireland and will provide a firm, fair and resolute Government.

In particular, I would like to make it clear that the security forces will continue to do all that is necessary to deal with the security problems and to restore law and order. They will have the full support of the Government in bringing to justice before the courts criminals from all parts of the community.

Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has economic and employment problems. We have yet to see the end of rising unemployment in Northern Ireland. The full impact of the problems that are facing the United Kingdom as a whole has taken longer to reach Northern Ireland than elsewhere. I want to stress that the Government are doing and will continue to do everything possible within the resources that are available to mitigate these problems and to promote employment. It is not going to be easy, despite public expenditure in Northern Ireland exceeding £1,300 million in the current year.

The ending of the Convention, which was set up by this Parliament, means that the rôle of its members has ceased. The House is already aware that Convention members will continue to be paid until 7th May. I intend to follow Westminster procedures as closely as possible. As with dissolution at Westminster, dissolution of the Convention will mean that Convention members cease to have any rôle as such. They will cease to have the use of any of the facilities at Stormont, but they will, of course, be able to clear up their papers and belongings.

I must place firmly on record a tribute to the work of Sir Robert Lowry, the Chairman of the Convention, who has been so ably assisted by his small staff. Sir Robert has, I know, been wholly independent and impartial. I am sure that the House will join with me in expressing our gratitude and thanks to him.

The people of Northern Ireland will continue, like citizens in any other part of the United Kingdom, to be able to pursue matters with Ministers through their elected representatives at Westminster. I and the other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office will always be ready to listen to their representations on behalf of their constituents. They will be the normal channel of communications with Ministers.

The Government will carry out their responsibilities to the full and fulfil their obligations to all the citizens of the United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is a part.

Mr. Neave

We share the Government's profound regret that there has not been agreement in the Convention, and we sympathise with the Secretary of State in having to make his very depressing statement today. But will he take it that we feel that there is a great danger that, in exercising the only option open to him—by dissolving the Convention—he is creating a political vacuum in Northern Ireland? That view is widely shared in many quarters.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many people think that, as a result of there being no local forum whatever of a political nature in Northern Ireland, violent and unscrupulous men will pose as the champions of the people in local affairs? This is continually happening.

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in addition to announcing that the ordinary citizen can go through hon. Members elected to this House, take further steps to see that access is open to Ministers from local representatives on an advisory body of some kind? Is there any reason why such a body should not be set up, created from the ranks of the Convention?

Mr. Rees

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about a political vacuum. All I can say is that, if he reads the reports of the Convention debates, he will see that it looks rather like a vacuum, even though in a positive way.

I think that there is force in what the hon. Gentleman says about the para-military forces. There is a danger that paramilitary forces will pose as defenders of their community. Sadly, it is in the nature of the divided community in Northern Ireland that this can be done in a way which is not possible here.

There is a large number of advisory bodies in Northern Ireland. That does not completely answer the question, but I call in aid the Government of Northern Ireland discussion paper, which contains a long list of advisory bodies of all sorts in Northern Ireland. I am quite happy for that to continue. But we asked for advice on the constitution—hon Members may care to look at the report of the inter-party talks, a copy of which will be put in the Library—and asking for advice did not get us very far. On important economic and security issues, the decisions can be taken only by one man responsible to this House. It is easy to give advice on complicated issues. Advice looks easy. Implementation is difficult.

However, having said that, I fully acknowledge the point which the hon. Gentleman makes, and I shall be prepared to meet anybody who has constructive advice to put to me. But I must add one other point which weighs with me. We cannot have a continuation of the demands on my private office, often put in a bad way, with demands to see the Secretary of State and the suggestion that, without it, people will make sure—as was said a week ago—that my political career will be ruined unless some man is allowed through the door. People come down 30 at a time.

As far as I am concerned, the "battle of the broken arm" is Paisley's last stand. We are not having that sort of thing in Northern Ireland. We must follow the procedures of the United Kingdom, and in that sense I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do that. But we must break away from the constant nonsense which takes place in Northern Ireland of demanding meetings with Ministers, with the television cameras outside the door ready to play it up.

Mr. Molyneaux

Will the Secretary of State agree that we should express our gratitude to the members of the Convention for discharging the task given them by this Parliament, although Her Majesty's Government did not feel able to accept the Report? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that now more than ever the people of Northern Ireland will be looking to this House to ensure that they are given the same degree of protection and security as is enjoyed by all other citizens of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Rees

Yes, I have never had any doubt—my conviction has been reinforced during two years there—that Northern Ireland is the responsibility of this House and of the Government. There is no simple answer. The responsibility lies here. What we need is co-operation in a divided community. Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the United Kingdom in that respect, but it is not different in the respect that the responsibility lies in the House of Commons.

Mr. Fitt

Will my right hon. Friend agree with me when I say that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland will sympathise with him in the undoubted frustration which he, like most of us here, will feel at the failure of the Convention? Will he further agree that the Convention was worth while in so far as it clearly identified those political parties and representatives who were willing to give their all in an attempt to find a political solution in Northern Ireland, and it also clearly identified the wreckers, those who were intent on ensuring that the Convention would meet with failure and thereby bring about a confrontation with this Government? Will my right hon. Friend agree when I say that the man personally responsible for the downfall of the Convention was none other than a Member of this House, the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. Paisley), and that he, allied with others, did everything possible to ensure the defeat of the Convention?

In addition to what he has already said, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he is prepared to meet other representatives in Northern Ireland to see whether any possible steps can be taken forward? Would those persons include members of the now defunct Convention, and could they be people in other walks of life in Northern Ireland, so that, even after the death of the Convention, there will still be an opportunity to make representations to my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Rees

I regard the Convention as very important in the continuing story of Northern Ireland. There were those who felt that the Conservative Government's attempts to deal with the problem, which I fully supported, should have had a base in Northern Ireland. I constantly had it put to me that this was so, and, indeed, blame was put on the United Kingdom Government—both Governments—to the effect that, if only they understood the Northern Ireland situation, they could get it right.

The Convention has shown that the problem of Northern Ireland is rather deeper than that. I believe that it has been of great importance. Of course, it identified strains of opinion and changes of opinion which have taken place over the years. It has identified also that it is very easy to break up political institutions such as Stormont, but it is far more difficult to re-erect them. Irrespective of the merits, it is extremely difficult to do so. I do not want to comment on who is to blame in Northern Ireland. Everybody in Northern Ireland seems to have a view about it, so F shall on this occasion accept that.

I come now to the third point. Of course, as in any Government Department, one meets people for talks. All I am saying is that it is the Government's view—and my very strong view—that from this House we should not give the impression that there is a nice simple answer waiting if only some clever chap could bring it out of a drawer. This is a long and involved problem; it has been 50 years brewing, with 800 years behind that. Let us take our time on it, and let us not pretend that there is an easy solution.

Mr. Craig

The Secretary of State must be aware that, despite all the disappointment about the Convention, real progress was made, and it would be a pity if we were to forget that progress or do things now that might cause us to lose the ground that was gained.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Sir Robert Lowry. Every politician in Northern Ireland will be eternally grateful to him for his understanding, hard work and magnificent diplomacy on difficult occasions.

I believe that the extent of the agreement that was reached could have led to a complete agreement if there had been a little more skill in the leadership of both sides. Even though there are no institutions in existence, will the right hon. Gentleman encourage the continuation of the exchanges, because I believe that there is a real possibility that agreement can be reached one day?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said, particularly about the Lord Chief Justice, who has had a difficult job.

The right hon. Gentleman's concept of a voluntary coalition, which would not have required fancy franchises or devices, and which could have arisen from the community on a normal constitution, seemed to me to be worth discussing. It did not require parliamentary draftsmen to get that right. It needed wisdom, and the wisdom was not forthcoming. Anything that I and the Government can do to encourage that concept in the months and years ahead will be done.

Let us get away from the idea that a new initiative every week or so is the way to solve the problem of Northern Ireland. It is not. One could look at the history of the past century and draw graphs. This House was for ever having initiatives, but in the end it took something far bigger to resolve the situation. We must listen to the voices in Northern Ireland, but wisdom is what is required—not here, but in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ogden

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he and his ministerial colleagues deserve the thanks of every hon. Member and every person in Northern Ireland or Ulster? Will he deny the suggestion from the Opposition Front Bench that there is a political vacuum in Northern Ireland? There is a danger of its being thought that there is a political vacuum. Will my right hon. Friend deny the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) as strongly as he can, and say that the Government of Northern Ireland will be continued as it is continued in any other part of the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future, and that despite any pressures from the mainland part of the United Kingdom, the British Government intend to remain there until a solution acceptable to all the people of this United Kingdom is found?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. Of course it is our intention to stay there. We play a positive rôle, and we cannot wash our hands of Northern Ireland, for historical and much more practical reasons.

As for the question of a political vacuum, it is easy to coin phrases. About a year ago, before the Convention, there always seemed to be people arguing that there was a political vacuum. What people mean, I think, is that Northern Ireland has been used to its own representative institutions, and, in the sense that there is not one there, I accept the use of the word "vacuum". But the other factor is that always, on top of that, there is the responsibility of this House. The vacuum is there because of a divided community—completely divided in a cultural-cum-religious way. The responsibility is here. I repeat that when we do have institutions in Northern Ireland there seems to be a sort of vacuum, because the fact that a great deal of noise is generated does not mean that a political vacuum is being filled.

Mr. McCusker

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that many people in Northern Ireland will welcome his assertion that we are in for a period of positive and not negative rule? I think that that is what the right hon. Gentleman said. Will he confirm that it is more likely to be benign as distinct from malign, as has been suggested by many parties in Northern Ireland?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also take seriously what my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) said about security? In my constituency last night a tanker hijacked in Crossmaglen, and supposed to be kept under surveillance for 14 days, was driven 15 miles across South Armagh with an armed guard to blow up business premises of elected representatives. Such events will go no way to restore confidence in the will to govern Northern Ireland.

Mr. Rees

I do not know the circumstances of that happening in South Armagh. I know that there are 2,000 members of the security forces there. I have every confidence in the Army and the brigadier and colonel of the unit concerned. I do not believe that it is my job to instruct them how to carry out their rôle. However, I shall look into the matter.

The mere fact that we have 15,000 soldiers from all over the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland is the basic reason why responsibility stays in this House. I say to the hon. Gentleman something which I say in Northern Ireland and which is often not well received. I understand why it is not. I am told "The B Specials were ended. You did this, and you did that." I tell the hon. Gentleman that those areas of Northern Ireland where the community is on our side is where the security forces do well. There are some areas where there is little or no support from the community. Security is not just a function of tanks, armoured cars or weaponry. It is a function of support from the community. That is what we might achieve from a political settlement. A Government in Northern Ireland made up of representatives of both sides of the community working together on the side of security would have made an enormous difference.

Mr. Watkinson

Whilst I accept the logic of the decision taken by my right hon. Friend, does he still believe that the problems of Northern Ireland must ultimately be solved by the people of Northern Ireland? Does he accept that the hard decision which he has had to take today places this country and the people of this country right in the front line of the conflict? Does he envisage any deterioration in the security situation so far as the para-military groups are concerned in the immediate future?

Mr. Rees

I believe, and have always believed, that the answer to the problem of Northern Ireland will emerge in Northern Ireland. In the end that is the only way. It is extremely difficult for us on this side of the water even to begin to comprehend the nature of the problem.

As for the para-military forces, to make an assessment is one thing and to make it in public is another. It would be difficult to do that. I would say to all paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland, where my responsibility lies, that if I have learnt anything in the past two years it is that those who engage in sectarian murders and those who blow up the middle of cities are very wrong to believe that, given the nature of the people of Northern Ireland, their actions will change the minds of those people. Then-actions reinforce all the feelings that exist.

Mr. Beith

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a short-sighted section of Unionist opinion that has slammed the door of Stormont shut, and that it will remain shut until it is knocked on by representatives of both communities with agreed proposals? Does he agree that the kind of advisory council suggested from the Opposition Front Bench might simply blurr the responsibility of this House, but that that responsibility cannot be properly discharged as long as Northern Ireland is inadequately represented here by reason of the insufficient numbers of Northern Ireland Members?

Mr. Rees

I think that there is a great deal of short-sightedness. It is much easier to see the short-sightedness over here than when living in the Northern Ireland community. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right.

I have made the Government's view clear on representation. We only want people to be represented in the House who want to be in the United Kingdom. The history of the past 50 years includes those who were elected and who did not attend the House, those who played little part in its proceedings and those who came here and said that they did not want to belong to the United Kingdom. It is only in the context of a community that has decided to work for the good of Northern Ireland that we should consider these matters. In any event, in terms of extra representation there is a major Boundary Commission report to be issued at the end of the decade that will affect the whole of the United Kingdom. Anything that needs to be done will be done in that context.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I shall allow two more questions. The House will remember that Private Members' time is being used.

Mr. Anthony Grant

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that yesterday's bomb outrages in London on a train and elsewhere indicate a new form of tactic by the terrorists? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that they were in any way intended to coincide with the statement that he has made today? Is he aware that no matter what happens in Ulster, the London commuter, though naturally anxious, is absolutely determined to go about his business normally regardless of bullying from fanatics?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his last point. The situation here is rather as in Northern Ireland. Bombs and bullets do not change people's minds but reinforce the opinion that is already held. I do not think that I should offer an opinion about the timing of the outrages. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who has responsibility for this part of the United Kingdom. Bearing in mind that I have no responsibility, I point out that I have always found it wrong to jump to conclusions in Northern Ireland as to who has perpetrated something of this nature. I say that without having examined the facts of the bombings yesterday.

Mr. Loyden

I accept that my right hon. Friend has made untiring efforts in terms of the Northern Ireland problem, I accept his advice about giving advice and I accept that there are no instant solutions, but will he seriously consider the involvement of the trade unions in Northern Ireland in any new initiative that is taken? Will they be asked to accept their responsibility in playing a positive rôle in any determination of the problem in future?

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have very close contact with the trade unions. Many of them are British based. They are extremely helpful on the political side and the industrial side. However, I should point out—I believe that reality is of the greatest importance—that the Ulster Workers' strike of last year was a strike by trade unions, or by people who belong to them. The trade unions of Northern Ireland have had a very difficult time, but my praise for the views which they put forward when I meet their representatives and talk with them cannot be too high.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry, but we must proceed to the next business.

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