HC Deb 23 June 1977 vol 933 cc1715-20
2. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what talks he has had with the political parties in Northern Ireland during the Whitsun Adjournment to lead to a political settlement in the Province.

5. Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about his recent discussions with party political leaders in the Province.

10. Mr. Watkinson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the talks he has had with parties in Northern Ireland.

13. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about his talks with political leaders.

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

During the week beginning 23rd May I met separately representatives of the Official Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party and the Democratic Unionist Party to discuss security and constitutional matters. Following these meetings, on 8th June I announced a package of measures which offered an intensification of the security effort against the terrorists within existing policy. This has since been generally welcomed.

In discussions with the parties on constitutional issues, I explained that a fully devolved legislative government remained the goal of the Government, as it is of the main political parties, but I concluded that the parties were not yet ready to come to an agreement on the form this should take. Some parties did, however, show an interest in continuing the discussion by exploring the desirability of some interim form of administration short of full devolution, and this is being done.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Does the Secretary of State understand that there are many outside the ranks of his own party who would want respectfully to commend him very warmly for the firmness he showed in standing up to the attempted disruption of the Province? Does not the repudiation of the leadership of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) give the right hon. Gentleman a real opportunity for political initiative? Will he take the House a little more into his confidence and perhaps speculate on the areas in which, as he said in his answer, interim progress might be made rather than attempting a long-term solution at this stage?

Mr. Mason

I am much obliged for what the hon. Gentleman said initially, but, of course, any firm resolution by any Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have been of no avail if the people themselves had not been prepared to contest the intimidation that took place and on occasions to march to work in spite of the fact that there was no transport to take them there.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I told all the political parties I met that I was prepared to consider an interim arrangement which would involve the devolution of real power and responsibility provided that it commanded widespread support from both parts of the community.

Concerning the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), he has not shown an interest particularly on that score. I think that the Democratic Unionist Party and the hon. Member for Antrim, North were prepared as a first step, but probably no more, to look at the democratisation of the area boards.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's desire to act cautiously, but does he agree that a top level of local government would at least give the Province comparability with the rest of the United Kingdom in the way in which administrative local government is carried out? May I suggest that this is a natural first step which would not really carry him into dangerous and difficult ground?

Mr. Mason

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will try to understand the political difficulties in Northern Ireland, as distinct from observing them from this House. There are eight major parties in Northern Ireland. Four of them survived the last election, and not one of them, at this stage, is prepared to look at seriously and quickly a form of county council or an upper tier of local government. One party would believe that it would be a divergence from the main goal. Another party would fear that it was giving one of the parties in Northern Ireland unnecessary responsibility too quickly and recognises that participation might come about without it getting its proper bargaining rights. That sort of area is the area of discussion now between the parties concerned. I am hopeful that there will be a solution, but it will take a little more than hon. Members realise.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

In view of the asperity of the Secretary of State towards my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), may I ask whether he is aware that my hon. Friend has worked in Northern Ireland for a number of years and has a good deal of knowledge of the affairs of the Province? As Northern Ireland is a Province and not a colony of the United Kingdom, when Ministers have important statements to make, whether on security or anything else, will they ensure that Parliament is the first to hear, and not the Press?

Mr. Mason

I think that that really depends upon whether the statement that is being made in the Province is of a major change of policy. If that be so, of course the House ought to be properly informed and a statement made. But that must be a matter of judgment for the Secretary of State and his Ministers in the Province. I know to which matter the hon. Gentleman refers, and on this occasion I did not think that it necessitated a major statement in the House.

I also ought to let the hon. Gentleman know that there is no personal difference between his hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) and myself. However, it is as well to remind the House that there is quite a large number of political parties in Northern Ireland, which take very strong and different points of view, especially on political movement to devolved executive government with its own legislature. That is where we would like to go. It is the objective of the Government, and I should like to help them along that path.

Mr. McNamara

At the risk of running foul of my right hon. Friend's asperity, may I add my congratulations to him and to his colleagues for their work during the recent strike? My right hon. Friend talked about political initiatives. He will have observed the comment of the new Prime Minister of the Republic. When does he hope to start to meet his opposite numbers? Have any tentative dates been fixed yet even though there is no actual formation of a Ministry?

Mr. Mason

Once again, I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks at the outset of his question. At this stage, I have no plans to meet either Mr. Lynch or whomever he appoints as Ministers. It is a little too early to say. He is not officially appointed Taoiseach until 5th July. We do not know who will be appointed as Ministers, especially for foreign affairs. Therefore, it is a little too early to say. As I have stated previously, I hope that the close co-operation and the good working relationships that were established with the former Government will continue, and I do not see any reason why they should not continue.

Mr. Kilfedder

The right hon. Gentleman spoke disparagingly of Ulster's political problems, but does he not recognise that under the present inept Government and under direct rule Northern Ireland suffers from an alarming and heartbreaking increase in unemployment, rocketing prices, lower wages, a lower standard of living, and a stultifying bureaucracy? Is it not about time to hand over Ulster affairs to an Ulster Government and an Ulster Parliament on the British system?

Mr. Mason

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. There is now an unemployment rate of 11.2 per cent. in Northern Ireland, which is nearly twice the average for Great Britain. The hon. Gentleman will recognise, however—without being too carping a critic—that Her Majesty's Government have been taking special measures to try to help Northern Ireland in its economic difficulties. My regional friends might disagree with me, but we have managed to save the regional employment premium for the whole of Northern Ireland. It has been phased out completely in Great Britain. That has saved 10,000 jobs in Northern Ireland. When we were called upon to make a contribution to the public expenditure cuts of £1,000 million, Northern Ireland gave a nominal £5 million. It should also be recognised that the major effort by Her Majesty's Government to get the two LPGs for Harland and Wolff has made the biggest practical and psychological breakthrough for Northern Ireland and has given it the first chance in the world of building the most technologically advanced ships on the stocks today.

Mr. John Ellis

Following the last outburst by the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), does my right hon. Friend agree that some of us are of the view that we are waiting for the hon. Gentleman to put forward solutions that we may then disagree with? We are looking to members of political parties in Ulster to come forward with some ideas whereby rapprochement can be achieved in seeking to find a path forward. My right hon. Friend must not go further than he has done, otherwise he will fall into the trap that the hon. Member for Down, North wants him to fall into.

Mr. Mason

Yes, I think that there is great truth in what my hon. Friend says. There are some Opposition Members who want vigorously to discuss matters but never come to a solution. It must also be remembered that we are paying a major subvention in order to help the economic difficulties of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

It was a matter of surprise that the right hon. Gentleman did not choose to make his major and welcome statement about the strengthening of security and the increase of penalties for terrorist crimes to this House and not first to the Press. The right hon. Gentleman spoke to the Press on 8th June. Could not the statement have waited until we came back here?

Mr. Mason

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that I treated the House with discourtesy. We have been working for some time on the intensification of security within present policy, and there was no change in policy. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends have been urging me for months to intensify security, and therefore I made my statement at the earliest possible moment without discourtesy to the House.