HC Deb 13 January 1977 vol 923 cc1621-4
4. Mr. Molyneaux

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he intends to bring forward proposals to improve administration in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

12. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what proposals the Government has for devolution in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Roy Mason)

The Government's principal aim is to see stable and effective devolved government in Northern Ireland accepted and supported by both sides of the community. I believe that the people of Northern Ireland want reconciliation and agreement, and that it can be reached.

The responsibility now lies with the politicians in Northern Ireland to demonstrate their willingness to work together in the interests of Northern Ireland. Given the will, problems about constitutional forms can, I believe, be resolved.

I noted the suggestion of the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) for administrative devolution in Northern Ireland, and I shall be interested to see whether it attracts the necessary widespread acceptance throughout both parts of the community.

Until devolved government becomes possible, direct rule will continue, and I am constantly considering ways to improve its responsiveness and decisiveness. I am currently examining the scope for increased consultation between Government and district councils and councillors.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that despite all his efforts to improve the quality of government in Northern Ireland, which we all appreciate, the system as it stands fails to provide satisfaction for the citizen and burdens Parliament and Ministers with matters with which they would not be concerned elsewhere in the United Kingdom? Is there now any real reason for delaying the start of a process of returning administrative authority to elected representatives in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mason

I shall be interested to know in a little more detail the hon. Gentleman's ideas about administrative devolution. As I indicated in my initial reply, I have undertaken a special study of how best we can help to bridge the gap between my ministerial team, Her Majesty's Government, the 26 councils and the many local councillors. I hope to be making a statement on that fairly soon.

Mr. Gow

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is rather anomalous that at a time when the House is debating devolution to Scotland and Wales there are no proposals before it in respect of devolution to Northern Ireland? Does he also think that there is merit in the suggestion put forward from the Opposition Benches that he might set up a Council of State in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mason

I have not seen any proposals about a Council of State. The words are used loosely and glibly, but I have seen no detailed proposals. As for fresh proposals for devolved government in Northern Ireland emanating from Her Majesty's Government, although we make quite clear that it is our aim I must warn the House, and especially the hon. Gentleman, that I am not in favour of dramatic initiatives or impositions, or of trying to force the people together. I hope that the House and all parties concerned have learned those lessons. I hope that there will be proposals coming from the political parties concerned that will command widespread acceptance throughout the Community. If they are brought forward, I shall be prepared to step in and help.

Mr. Fitt

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to a recent speech by the Most Reverend Dr. Daly, the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise, in which he requested the British Government to take further steps to try to resolve the admittedly difficult deadlock in Northern Ireland? Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that there is no great demand for a better administration as put forward by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), and that the only hopeful form of devolved institution in Northern Ireland would be a legislative assembly commanding the respect of both communities in Northern Ireland? Does my right hon. Friend not believe that it may now be advantageous to have further discussions with the poltical parties in Northern Ireland to see whether it is possible to find some form of agreement?

Mr. Mason

On my hon. Friend's latter point, I see no movement yet. I have seen no movement during the time I have been Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I should like to be encouraged in that respect, and I await some proposals from the parties concerned. I read and heard the comments of the member of the cloth, speaking from the Republic, about a lack of initiative from Her Majesty's Government but, of course, he proffered no solutions. He was adequately replied to by the Foreign Minister of the Republic. I was pleased to hear that Bishop Daly denounced the activities of the IRA.

Mr. Neave

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that for a long time we have been warning that there could be a political no man's land in Northern Ireland, and that there are dangers in such a situation? The hon. Member for Antrim South (Mr. Molyneaux) has been making his contribution and we shall make ours in the form of plans for a Council of State. Is it not wrong for the Government to say that they will take no political initiative in Northern Ireland? Will they publish a White Paper setting out their plans and the prospects for the future government for Northern Ireland over, for example, the next five years?

Mr. Mason

No, I do not think that I would consider seriously at this stage the production of a White Paper. I should not like to say emphatically and dogmatically that there will be no political initiatives from Her Majesty's Government, but I am not satisfied that the time is now righ or opportune.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that people will welcome his statement that there can be no administrative devolution unless there is proper power sharing in questions of administration? That will allay many fears that the suggestion might have been a backdoor move to the situation that existed at the time of Stormont. Is my right hon. Friend also aware that many people in Northern Ireland do not seem to appreciate that initiatives at a political level include not only the work of political institutions and forums but, for example, my right hon. Friend's remarkable victory in retaining REP for Northern Ireland and the imaginative proposals of the Quigley Report, all of which will help create the stable conditions in which we hope that politicians themselves will be prepared to come and talk?

Mr. Mason

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that question. First, it is essential that in any form of devolving government it must be understood from the outset that it shall be a partnership between the two communities. Second, if direct rule is seen to benefit the people as a whole—members of both communities—thereafter the people may not yearn for change, especially change for change's sake.