HC Deb 10 March 1977 vol 927 cc1608-11
1. Mr. John Ellis

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress in political terms in reconciling the different views held by elements in both sections of the community.

4. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which political groups in Northern Ireland he has met since becoming Secretary of State to date; and if he will make a statement.

13. Mr. Carson

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has now completed his round of talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

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

Since taking office I have met all the principal political groups in Northern Ireland. In recent weeks I have had further discussions with the Official Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, and the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

All the principal parties accept Northern Ireland's right to remain within the United Kingdom so long as the majority of the people there so wish, and all want some form of devolved government. I regret that I see little sign as yet that they are willing to build upon these and other areas of common ground so as to reach agreement on the issues that still divide them. I have assured the parties that the Government want to establish a devolved Government in Northern Ireland in which representatives of both sections of the community can play a part.

If the parties show some readiness to reach agreement the Government will not be slow to play their part. Meantime, until an acceptable form of devolved government can be created the Government will continue to provide responsible and effective administration in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ellis

Does my right hon. Friend agree that since everything that we have suggested has borne so little fruit, the only thing that we can do is to tell the people of Northern Ireland who have dismissed our initiatives that the solutions must come from them and that they must be on the basis of co-determination? To this extent, will he consider whether we could have some form of non-legislative devolution to get people together to talk? I have even heard it suggested that we could open the bar at Stormont so that the various political factions could talk together.

Mr. Mason

I am willing to listen to any suggestion that emanates from the ideas of the political parties in Northern Ireland. There were discussions on administrative devolution, but if devolution is to be right and proper, and respected in Northern Ireland, it must be in such a form that there is real power and responsibility for the local politicians concerned.

Mr. Carson

Does the Secretary of State recall that during the last Northern Ireland Question Time he stated that the official Unionist Party leadership was unwilling to move and was imposing a veto on political movement by its attitude? Will he tell the House whether any willingness was shown by the SDLP to move from its entrenched position, even on such matters as recognition and support for the RUC and the constitution of the Irish Republic?

Mr. Mason

On one side there is the mentality of not moving an inch and wanting to abide only by the majority Convention report, but on the other side I hope to see some flexibility by the SDLP in its thinking about the rôle of its representatives.

Mr. Powell

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that political institutions are a means not of reconciling differences but of enabling people to live with their differences, and that it is just as unreasonable to make agreements between parties the condition of devolution to Northern Ireland as it would be to make agreements between the two Front Benches the condition of the functioning of parliamentary democracy in this country?

Mr. Mason

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my job is not to impose any solutions on Northern Ireland. I want to assist the parties concerned to reconcile their differences. If I can see a willingness for reconciliation between the majority and the minority communities and the emanation of the germ of an idea on some form of devolution, I shall be only too pleased to assist.

Mr. Neave

Reverting to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the absence of any organised forum encourages an entrenched mentality and outlook? Therefore, will he consider setting up a political forum that can discuss the subject of Ulster? That would be of great importance.

Mr. Mason

I wonder whether the time is opportune for that. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman will know, as he watches the Irish scene, that one of the reasons why there is not a willingness on the part of political parties to move from their entrenched positions is that in eight months' time local government elections will take place. The parties are now building their political platforms and making sure that their electorate can see that they have clear-cut policies—

Mr. Powell

Does the right hon. Gentleman not do that too?

Mr. Mason

—and therefore the parties feel that if they were to talk it might cloud the issues that they want to get across to their electors.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall allow three more supplementary questions, but that means that we shall have to go more quickly on subsequent Questions.

Mr. Fitt

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still Government policy, supported by the Opposition and all hon. Members, to try to establish in Northern Ireland political institutions that will have the support of the whole community? Will he confirm that there is no possibility of this Government or their successors—in so far as my right hon. Friend can speak for them—returning to a one-party ascendancy Government in Northern Ireland, which will bring with it all the troubles that have led to the present deteriorating situation?

Mr. Mason

I hope that I have made it clear beyond a shadow of doubt to the official Unionist Party in Northern Ireland that there will not be a return to a one-party State. I have endeavoured to establish that clearly in the minds of all the politicians who have been to see me in recent weeks. Devolved government in Northern Ireland must provide for the participation and partnership of representatives of both communities.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

Is the right hon. Gentleman not losing sight of the main object of democratic government, which is the right of people to elect those whom they wish to elect? Are the Government not standing against one of the most primitive of human rights—that of people electing their own Government? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that this is more important than his imposing from the top what he believes to be right?

Mr. Mason

The people of Northern Ireland do elect their own representatives, and most of them are sitting on the Opposition side in this House. Those hon. Members form Northern Ireland's parliamentary representation. The Unionists and the SDLP are talking about the political gap between local government elections and Parliament. That gap has to be filled.

Mr. Kilfedder

In order to cut through Government humbug and political confusion in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. Gentleman consider, as a step towards restoring democracy to the Province, allowing Northern Ireland Committees to sit in the Stormont so that the people of Northern Ireland can at least see democracy in action there?

Mr. Mason

I would not give consideration to that suggestion just yet. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not accusing me and my Ministers of political humbug. At least we are giving a decisive lead to the people of Northern Ireland, which is more than the hon. Gentleman and some of his friends are doing.

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