HC Deb 18 March 1976 vol 907 cc1516-22
2. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a further statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.

3. Mr. Luce

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what action he proposes to take following the completion of the work of the Northern Ireland Convention.

4. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on future arrangements for democratic representation in Northern Ireland.

7. Mr. Gow

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

12. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what arrangement he proposes to make for the continuation of direct rule following the endine of the Constitutional Convention.

14. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Convention.

16. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether, in view of the failure of the Convention, he has any plans within the context of direct rule for the further democratisation of Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

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

I refer to my statement of 5th March. The Government's policy in Northern Ireland is to provide positive government so as to minimise hardship in the short term and to bring about real and lasting improvements in the long term.

In pursuance of this, the Government have decided that their strategy for economic development in Northern Ireland needs to be reassessed not simply in the light of the present economic situation but, more importantly, looking ahead over the next few years. I shall be consulting the Northern Ireland Economic Council and shall want to take into account constructive ideas from any quarter, including the CBI and ICTU.

The security forces, with the full support of the Government, will continue to do all that is necessary to deal with security problems, to restore law and order and to bring before the courts criminals from all parts of the community. The examination which I announced on 12th January into actions and resources required for the next few years to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland is making good progress.

Mr. Walkinson

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In his statement he said that he would be prepared to receive constructive and responsible ideas on the future of Northern Ireland from the political parties in Northern Ireland. Has my right hon. Friend received any such representations? Is he satisfied that the channels for such representations remain reasonably open?

Mr. Rees

I think that the channels are reasonably open. The Leader of the UUUC is in the House, as are the leaders of the SDLP and the VUP. I am always prepared to receive ideas from anyone. Yes, I am content that at this pitch of time it is possible to get ideas from the leaders in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Despite what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, is he not aware—of course, he is—that since the Macrory reforms there has been less democratic control of local government and regional services in the Province? The right hon. Gentleman may wish to bring before the House in due course, as part of his policy of positive direct rule, proposals for the improvement of procedures here for the scrutiny of expenditure and legislation, and possibly additions to representation in the House.

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman's last point is not something that happens overnight, irrespective of the arguments about it. Representation in the House is part of a wider devolution argument and the wide-ranging reforms taking place later in this decade. The Macrory reforms were made before this Administration or the last took office. I understand that the UUUC is in favour of local government reform, but the SDLP members tell me that they are not in favour of it. I am looking at the question of dealing with legislation. There are some difficult aspects of this subject. I hope that when we renew the order, or perhaps before, I shall be able to say something about this matter.

Several Hon. Members rose


Mr. Speaker

Order. Seven Questions are being answered together and I intend to call the hon. Members whose Questions they are before anyone else.

Mr. Beith

Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that the size of Northern Ireland representation in this House has anything to do with devolution, since his right hon. Friend does not propose to reduce the representation of Scotland or Wales here? Is he satisfied, now that direct rule is not of a very temporary character, that there will be adequate opportunity in this House to raise wide-ranging questions of legislation and that, for example, legislation on social matters will not be held up for lack of time?

Mr. Rees

I am aware of the concern on the last point. This is not an easy matter, given the legal arrangements in Northern Ireland, but I am looking at it. I do not believe that we can provide for extra representation in the middle of a Parliament. That was the point I was making. There are wider aspects to this question. If the hon. Gentleman is asking what views have been put to me, I can tell him that one major party in Northern Ireland does not want extra representation for the Province at Westminster. What one side says is usually what the other side does not say. That is one of the problems we face.

Mr. Flannery

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that one of the major formative influences towards a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland is the Labour movement, which encompasses trade unions and trades councils? Do they not embrace both Catholic and Protestant workers, who have the same problems when it comes down to the nitty gritty of life? Is my right hon. Friend aware of any growth or re-birth of trades councils which would help in this direction?

Mr. Rees

I am not aware of any growth of trades councils which, in their 120 or 130 years' history in this country, have been concentrated in urban industrial areas. I freely admit the excellent work done across the divide by trade unions when it gets to what my hon. Friend called the nitty gritty. Any growth which takes place tends to fall apart, and this is one of the basic problems in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Luce

I agree with the Secretary of State's broad approach to direct rule. However, to the extent that there is a political vacuum in Northern Ireland, does this not open up greater opportunities for the men of violence to step in? Will the right hon. Gentleman open his mind to the possibility of evolving a modest form of political forum, whether by strengthening local government or by establishing a political advisory committee?

Mr. Rees

I will certainly keep an open mind, but experience over the last four years does not suggest that I should follow the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I must work through the elected representatives in this House. This is not a cheap party political point—hon. Members will know what I argued at the time—but if there is a vacuum it was created when Stormont was ended and not when the Convention was ended.

Mr. Gow

Since the period of direct rule is now to be without a limit of time, would the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his earlier answer about the representation of Northern Ireland in this House? If the people of Northern Ireland are to have parity with the citizens of other parts of the United Kingdom, should there not also be parity of representation?

Mr. Rees

In one respect the people of Northern Ireland have more than parity: no other part of the United Kingdom with 1½ million people has five Ministers concentrating on its problems. Hon. Members should not think that extra representation for Northern Ireland in this House is a way of solving the problems of Northern Ireland. It is a divided society. I have visited many parts where even to talk about extra representation in this House is to fly in the face of history and cultural attitudes. The time to look at this problem is when the divide has been healed and the two groups are working for the good of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Marten

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all we are asking for is plain common justice for the people of Northern Ireland? Are not the Government abandoning the democratic principle of equal representation if they do not get the Boundary Commission to look at this matter with a view to having 20 seats for Northern Ireland rather than 12?

Mr. Rees

This problem does not go back just over the last four or five years. When the Commission was set up, there was a separate Parliament for Northern Ireland. I do not believe that this is a question of justice. It would be if one were comparing Northern Ireland with the rest of the United Kingdom.

I come back to the basic point that this is a community which is divided so much that in some places there is no interest, even among decent people who are not associated with extreme Republicans, in extra representation at Westminster. I suggest that we should hear at some time what the SDLP thinks about extra representation.

Mr. Stonehouse

Could not the Secretary of State deal with this proper claim for increased representation from Northern Ireland and also with the problem he has just mentioned by introducing a system of proportional representation, so that all communities could be represented?

Mr. Rees

It would be rather odd to have proportional represention in only one part of the United Kingdom. There is proportional representation in local government elections and any possible Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. As I have learned over the last two or three years, there is no simple answer to Northern Ireland's problems and no device by which we can achieve what we want in Northern Ireland. It is a long, slow process.

Mr. Evelyn King

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on the subject of extra representation? How can he argue in logic that it is perfectly possible in mid-Parliament to introduce a Convention, or close it down and thus deprive the Province of representation, but impossible in mid-Parliament to provide proper representation in this House?

Mr. Rees

The Convention concerned only Northern Ireland, not the rest of the United Kingdom. I would advise the hon. Gentleman that if he is looking for a part of the United Kingdom to which to apply logic, he is now applying it to the wrong place.

Mr. Kilfedder

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that historic and cultural attitudes have nothing to do with fair democratic representation for the Province in this House? Will he recollect what he and his colleagues said in 1967, 1968 and 1969 and meet the demands for justice in Northern Ireland now? I do not think he should bask too much in the warmth——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are here not to know what the hon. Member thinks, but to hear his question.

Mr. Kilfedder

I hope that the Secretary of State is not misled by praise bestowed upon him——

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is an expression of opinion.

Mr. Rees

I am not basking in anybody's praise, or the opposite. I recall what was said in 1967 and 1968, but the arguments at that time are not on a par with the question of representation.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many parts of the mainland that would like equality of representation and treatment with Northern Ireland, especially in the granting of economic and financial aid towards dealing with our considerable unemployment? Is he further aware that it ill-behoves Opposition Members from Northern Ireland to make strong pleas about representation when one considers their history and attitudes until they lost their own Stormont Parliament?

Mr. Rees

There is some justice in my hon. Friend's last comment. The subject of representation and a new form of Assembly is a complicated matter in a confused cultural and political situation. I do not believe that extra representation should be seen as the "Open Sesame" to solving the problems of Northern Ireland. I admit that the subject of the money spent in Northern Ireland frequently arises. I can only say to my hon. Friend what I say to people of all political persuasions in this country; there are real problems in Northern Ireland and it is part of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

In the event of the House agreeing to have direct elections to the European Parliament in 1978, will Northern Ireland be represented? If it is possible to draw constituency boundaries for that Parliament, why is it not possible to rearrange the present boundaries to allow greater representation in this House?

Mr. Rees

It is not a matter of technicalities. It is not a matter of laws in this House. Northern Ireland is a split community——

Mr. Beith

So is Scotland.

Mr. Rees

—and if the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) believes that doing this would make people in South Fermanagh suddenly after 200 years, say "Eureka—we want to be part of the United Kingdom", he is very wrong. That is a South-East England approach.