HC Deb 10 February 1977 vol 925 cc1644-9
11. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about his latest conversations with representatives of political parties.

12. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any plans to call a conference of all or any existing groupings involved presently in the Northern Ireland problem; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Watkinson

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

16. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what consideration he has given to devolving some measure of the administration of the Province to a committee made up of politicians drawn from the Northern Ireland parties.

17. Mr. Budgen

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what are his proposals for the political future of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mason

At their request I met representatives of the Social Democratic and Labour Party on 31st January and the Official Unionist Party on 1st February. At both meetings I emphasised that the first requirement for political or constitutional progress was for the parties to demonstrate a willingness to seek agreement with each other.

The Government wish to see the establishment of a system of devolved government that commands widespread acceptance throughout both parts of the community in Northern Ireland and provides for participation and partnership by representatives of both communities. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland share that wish and that they are looking to their political leaders to rise above narrow party interests and to work together in the greater interest of Northern Ireland. Given the willingness to work together, I shall play my part and I am sure that the constitutional questions can then be resolved.

The first step is for the parties to talk together. The idea of administrative non-legislative devolution may not satisfy all the aspirations of the parties, but it could provide a subject for discussion to see what could grow from it. I do not exclude interim arrangements for partial devolution, provided that they involve some real power and responsibility and are not merely advisory.

If the parties show willingness to work together, they will not find me slow to respond.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Does that reply mean that, pending an agreement between the different elements in the political life of the Province, the Secretary of State would be willing to advance some proposals to keep democracy alive in what is now a yawning gap between district councils in Northern Ireland and this House?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman recognises that there is a gap between local councils and parliamentary representation. During the course of direct rule, with five Ministers present in the Province, we are doing our utmost to bridge the gap, but it is not satisfactory. It would be better to have a devolved Government run by Northern Ireland politicians who are nearer to the people and more representative than five Westminster Ministers operating in the Province. I do not think that the time is opportune for ministerial intervention. I am going through another round of discussions with the political parties. I have just made arrangements to meet delegations from the Alliance Party and the Democratic Unionist Party next week.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call first the four hon. Members whose Questions are being answered with this one. Mr. Martin Flannery.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, though I am grateful for the answer which he has given to this group of questions, it is unfortunate that he has lumped Question 12 with the other Questions? Does he also accept that Northern Ireland Question Time is unfortunately characterised by a lack of political questions, and that I try on every occasion to get to the politics, because the solution is not security, but political? Therefore, will he attempt to answer my question which asks him whether he has any plans to get together with the other interested parties in order to seek a political solution so that, no matter what their viewpoints may be, they can discuss that solution across the table? There is no other way. The killing will be going on 10 years from now unless that kind of conference takes place.

Mr. Mason

I agree that there is no military solution to the problem in Northern Ireland. It has to be a political solution. If there is to be a political solution, it will be necessary to have a partnership in a devolved Government. The political parties must be willing to talk to each other in order to frame an idea for an administrative or executive devolved Government. I am now going through a round of political talks with those parties. I am obliged to my hon. Friend for raising the political question on the Floor of the House. Of course we discuss security a great deal, but that is evident from the situation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Watkinson

As a result of his talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland, is my right hon. Friend able to say whether he sees any movement or development on the power-sharing front or, indeed, whether he finds any acceptability across the broad spectrum of political parties on administrative devolution?

Mr. Mason

From the meetings that I have so far held with the SDLP and the OUP, the answer is "No". There has been no willingness to move by the OUP leadership. They told me frankly that at this stage they still stand by the majority convention report. I recognised that, flowing from a proposal that was floated on the Floor of the House some weeks ago, they would like to see a little movement in local government. That proposal could be discussed if the other parties were prepared to talk about it.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Why does the Secretary of State take it upon himself to impose conditions about when democracy should be returned to Northern Ireland? Does he agree that Ulster people are denied the right to say how their money and local affairs should be administered? Will he give a more satisfactory and positive answer about the initiative that he intends to take to see that that happens?

Mr. Mason

How does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government can try to impose solutions upon the people of Northern Ireland when the people themselves and the political parties concerned are not even prepared or willing to talk about solutions? Imposition would be folly.

Mr. Budgen

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is unjust that Northern Ireland should continue to be so unrepresented at Westminster for so many years after the abolition of Stormont? Will he bring forward immediate proposals to remedy that serious injustice?

Mr. Mason

That is not a matter primarily for me. On many occasions I have explained to the members of the political parties in Northern Ireland and in this House that the course that I should prefer would be a satisfactory devolved Government, which would pave the way for increased parliamentary representation in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mellish

My right hon. Friend will be aware that what he has said will be welcomed by most of those who have the interests of Ireland at heart, that, in the view of most of us, the previous Tory Government made a valiant effort to create a system of power sharing, and that this Labour Government have tried to follow it through. Therefore, what is the future when some Opposition Members openly declare that they will never agree to power sharing of any kind? What hope is there?

Mr. Mason

If political parties, or any one political party, especially one of those that play a major role in Northern Ire- land, stand back in that way, they will be imposing a veto on political development in Northern Ireland. They therefore have some responsibility on their shoulders. Because of that, I expect them to rise above these narrow party differences and be prepared to talk to other parties, and to be willing to discuss ways and means of finding a form of devolved government.

Mr. Powell

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) and others that the IRA and the other terrorist organisations do not care a fig whether there is devolved government or political agreement in Northern Ireland, and that indeed they would rather that there were not? Second, does he agree that all the political parties in Northern Ireland that have a substantial electoral support are represented in this House and that representatives in this House stand ready both to advise and to co-operate with him?

Mr. Mason

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has said and I believe his latter point to be valid. He has just made an honest approach to the matter. I know that he and some of his hon. Friends are prepared to try to find ways and means at least of getting a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. These ideas have already been floated. Because they are ideas, they are worth talking about before they jell into proposals that may be a fait accompli to the others. There are the ideas. Why cannot the parties discuss them?

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is not only the IRA who do not care a fig about the idea of devolved government? Is he also aware that the House will both welcome his decision in holding these discussions and also stress the need for caution about any undue optimism? Would he agree that it would be foolish to try to fill the Macrory gap in local government if that were to be used as an excuse to stop any form of proper devolved government?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend speaks with knowledge of Northern Ireland affairs. Filling the Macrory gap would be a form of enhanced local government in the Province, but if the parties are prepared to talk about that form of regional council of administration, it may grow into a more executive form of devolved government in time. At this stage, however, I have no evidence of political parties wishing to discuss even that.