HC Deb 27 May 1976 vol 912 cc609-12
2. Mr. Watkinson

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

8. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what discussions he has had with political leaders in Northern Ireland on the continuation of direct rule.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

Since the dissolution of the Constitutional Convention on 5th March, I have had a number of meetings with the leaders and members of political parties in Northern Ireland to discuss issues of common concern, for example direct rule and the security situation. As I told the House on 5th March, it is my firmly-held intention that the Government will continue to discharge fully their responsibility for all aspects of the affairs of Northern Ireland and provide firm, fair and resolute government.

Mr. Watkinson

Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the statement issued by two leading Northern Ireland politicians only this week, suggesting extra-parliamentary activities? Does he agree that that only serves to undermine the policy of Her Majesty's Government in Northern Ireland? Does he not also agree that such activities involve a somewhat curious interpretation of the term "loyalty"?

Mr. Rees

I agree with my hon. Friend. In Northern Ireland, among some Loyalists, there is always a curious interpretation of what the word means. We saw just that at the time of the Ulster workers' strike. Loyalty to the Queen in Parliament is what I understand by the word. But any such threatened actions taken in Northern Ireland are not for me but for the Chief Constable, who is responsible for dealing with anything that may happen.

Mr. Gow

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how long he envisages direct rule continuing, and whether he does not think that there is at present a political vacuum in Ulster, between the locally-elected people at county council level and the Secretary of State himself?

Mr. Rees

I do not accept that there is a political vacuum in Northern Ireland. I agree that our aim must be to get a devolved administration there, but, on the whole, people in Northern Ireland have had enough of politics in recent years. I want to get political life nurtured again, but at the right time. When the hon. Gentleman asks me "How long?", I can only reply that I do not know. But I will tell the hon. Gentleman—because there is no sign of devolved government—that if there is no direct rule there is anarchy, because there is no one to hand over to in Northern Ireland. Her Majesty's Government will keep direct rule, perhaps with some changes, for as long as is necessary.

Mr. Powell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the elected political leaders of Northern Ireland sit in this House, on both sides?

Mr. Rees

I agree that that is so, and increasingly people are putting matters that concern them through their Westminster Members.

Mr. Dalyell

Will my right hon. Friend expand on the phrase that he used—that there is no sign of devolved government?

Mr. Rees

I meant that the developed government set up from this House fell down. Then we set up a Convention, and asked the politicians to agree. They did not. At the moment I do not see any chance of an agreement in Northern Ireland for a devolved administration.

Mr. Neave

How can there be any advance if the Secretary of State, through his officials, gives political credibility to organisations like the Provisional Sinn Fein by currently holding these talks? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm or deny that they are going on? Did he read the interview, reported in the Sunday Times last week, with the President of the Provisional Sinn Fein, who said that these talks are very valuable to him? Are they very valuable to the people, and, if so, how?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman should not always believe what he reads in newspapers. If what he has been saying is based on newspaper reports, it is not good enough. Over all, my staff have talked to individuals belonging to legal organisations—that is quite clear. In Northern Ireland, many people who belong to legal organisations have views which are anathema to many of us in this House. There have never been negotiations with anyone, but, as I have told the House before, it is valuable to explain Government policy, and my advisers believe that benefit is to be gained from doing so. The exchanges with the Sinn Fein have not been anything like as frequent as many people appear to think, but there was great advantage in them about a year ago.

Mr. Neave

Is not that answer very unsatisfactory? Is not the real point that the right hon. Gentleman is giving political credibility to the Provisional Sinn Fein? Surely he will tell us that it is representative of a terrorist organisation.

Mr. Rees

I say again that it is advantageous to me and those working for me to know what is going on in Northern Ireland. There never have been negotiations. I simply state again that these meetings have not been nearly as frequent as the newspapers and others seem to make out, but if it is considered necessary, they will happen again.

Mr. Craig

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the political situation must get more difficult as the security situation deteriorates? The casualty list for this part of the year is greater than in 1972. Whilst we would like to see political progress, it is important to stress that, as the security situation gets more difficult, we as politicians can do very little to get forward movement.

Mr. Rees

I agree. When the Executive was first formed the heavy bombing campaign that took place in Belfast at the time was probably designed to make life difficult for the Executive. There is a relationship between the two. But I do not believe that political agree-men would end the violence. The two are connected, but it is not the simple connection that some people think. The nature of the violece has changed. The ability of a very small number of people in the Province to cause trouble is much greater than I thought. In the long run I am sure that it is a question not of numbers in the security forces but of their efficiency in dealing with small numbers of people who murder and maim.

Mr. Speaker

I allowed a quarter of an hour on the first two questions because they covered a very wide range of topics, but we shall have to move quicker with the rest of Questions.