HC Deb 21 July 1977 vol 935 cc1828-30
6. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the progress of his talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland to achieve a political settlement.

Mr. Mason

I reported to the House on 30th June about discussions with the political parties. These are still at an exploratory stage, and there is nothing that I can add to what I said on that occasion.

Mr. Straubenzee

I appreciate that the Secretary of State is not responsible for what appears in the public Press, but will he take us into his confidence to the extent of indicating whether some kind of structure on the lines of an advisory assembly, with a committee set-up, is what he is talking about? Since we shall not be able to question him again for some weeks owing to the imminence of the Summer Recess, will he accept good wishes for whatever efforts he is making to achieve political advances in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mason

I indicated earlier that apart from my official talks with all the major four parties concerned, other exploratory talks were taking place. I have indicated that I should be prepared to consider interim arrangements that devolved real power and responsibility and commanded widespread support throughout both parts of the community. I am not committed to any specific proposals, and I personally have not been negotiating. These are exploratory talks to discover the extent to which we can find common ground between the parties. I recognise that the House will be going into recess for quite some time. I hope that these talks will continue. But the House has also to recognise that we are moving into the marching season and the holiday period in Northern Ireland as well. I hope that we can proceed.

Mr. Molyneux

Is not the time opportune when the Secretary of State might give some thought to the possibility of putting forward suggestions on behalf of Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Mason

I bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says. He has been playing a leading part from Westminster in suggesting the way in which these talks might be fashioned. I bear in mind what he says, but I think that it is too early to take any initiative. As he will recognise, the imposition of an initiative on the parties in Northern Ireland could be very dangerous, especially if it led people to believe that there was hope and then we plunged them back into the depths of despair.

Mr. McNamara

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the three principles which have underlined the bipartisan policy, such as it has been over the past years, are still the principles which govern Her Majesty's Government's policy in trying to find a solution in the Six Counties?

Mr. Mason

Yes. I have explained many times my policy goal. It is the goal of Her Majesty's Government. I am sure that all parties will agree that we want devolved executive government with a legislative assembly in Northern Ireland, based on partnership between the two communities.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Noting the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), may I ask whether the Secretary of State recalls that since the end of the constitutional convention my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has pressed on behalf of the Opposition for a political forum to fill the political vacuum? Since the Government have belatedly acknowledged that Northern Ireland is under-represented at Westminster, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that local politicians should have the means of democratic expression, without which there is danger that politics in the Province will be taken over by paramilitary bullies? Should there not be more urgency in his approach? The right hon. Gentleman said that he has not negotiated, but is he doing his utmost to reach agreement among Northern Ireland parties on the future of the Province?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that talks on an advisory council would not satisfy the major parties in Northern Ireland. If we went forward on that basis, they would assume that we were being diverted from their ultimate goal and they would lose faith in Her Majesty's Government's intention of going for a fully devolved executive Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also recognise that the paramilitary bully has not taken over, but is being forced to recede.

In regard to political aims, hon. Members should know that the Provisional IRA and the Provisional Sinn Fein have no democratic case left, have no electoral support in Northern Ireland, and are gradually being isolated.

Mr. John Ellis

Will the Secretary of State make haste slowly? Is he aware that there is considerable uncertainty about the line being followed in local representations across the political divide among responsible parties? Might there not be more merit in his arranging for a number of large halls to be made available in the recess to be put at the disposal of responsible political organisations at which they might join together and decide their policy—which might edify some of us more than is the case at present?

Mr. Mason

We have gone over these courses many times before. In regard to the role of Northern Ireland politicians, when the hon. Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) get together, I do not think the party political squabble that would ensue would result in any progress.