HC Deb 24 November 1977 vol 939 cc1725-9
1. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what proposals he has for reopening talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland to lead to the creation of a new political forum there.

11. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which political organisations he has recently approached for discussions; and which have agreed to an exchange of views on the present political situation in Northern Ireland.

15. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement about the Government's policy for constitutional progress in the Province.

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

I have recently had separate meetings with the leading members of the Official Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.

I have told each party that it remains the policy of Her Majesty's Government to establish in Northern Ireland a fully devolved legislative Administration which both parts of the community can support and sustain. But no such devolved Government can or will be imposed. Because I do not think that the time has yet come when such a fully devolved Administration can be established by agreement, I have invited the parties to enter into talks with my officials to see whether it might be feasible to reach agreement on some from of partial devolution as an interim stage. I have no detailed blueprint to offer, but I have indicated to the parties the framework within which I propose that the talks should take place.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and extend good wishes for the success of these talks. As he knows some of us feel that they should have taken place earlier. Will he indicate—I think this arises from his statement—that he has a wide remit in terms of detailed proposals? He talks about not imposing solutions. Will he not close his mind to the possibility that, even if he cannot get agreement from all political parties in Northern Ireland, it might be right this time to proceed and back his own judgment in the end?

Mr. Mason

I shall, of course, be prepared to consider the latter point, depending how the bilateral talks between the parties and the officials go.

Secondly, I must warn the House that, at this stage, all the parties have not finally agreed, because a number of them are reporting back to their executives this weekend. Therefore, much of what is said today could be sensitive to those meetings. I have not been able to proceed earlier because, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, there was an election in the South which could have determined attitudes in the North, there was the Queen's visit, which was a major exercise and took a great deal of my attention, and, finally, there was the Summit Conference between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. Once those matters were out of the way, and with the improving climate in Northern Ireland, I thought that it was right to start.

Mr. Flannery

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, though the security situation has eased considerably—Labour Members who have been to Northern Ireland during the past week have observed that at first hand—there is urgency about the political initiative which he is taking bearing fruit? Will he accept from me that if the intransigent attitudes of the past are still maintained by some hon. Gentlemen opposite it could throw to the winds the good work that has been achieved so far? I do not want to be pessimistic, but I am worried about that aspect. Something must be achieved against the good background that now exists.

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend is quite right. If people take their old-fashioned, intransigent attitudes, we shall not make any progress in these talks. But the meetings with party leaders so far have been responsible and constructive, and our approach at this stage is very positive.

Mr. Gow

Will the Secretary of State take the House into his confidence by saying what he means when he refers to partial devolution as an interim stage"? Is he talking about administrative devolution to try to bridge the gulf between the district councils and himself?

Mr. Mason

Of course, the intention is to bridge the gulf between the local district councils and Westminster, but not on a local government administration basis. My intention is to devolve back to Northern Ireland real powers, not necessarily legislative. There will be an Assembly based on proportional representation. It will have a consultative rôle regarding legislation, but the devolved powers, whether on transport, environment, planning or whatever, will go to committees. I hope that there will be a partnership basis to run them.

Mr. Molyneaux

Before the Secretary of State becomes involved and entangled in these protracted and possibly very frustrating discussions, will he take practical steps to restore to the people of Northern Ireland the missing upper tier of local government, bearing in mind what has been said by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee)?

Mr. Mason

No, I do not think that would be right. It would frustrate the efforts of all the parties. My officials and I are embarking upon the devolution of real power in Northern Ireland as an interim step towards the devolution of a legislative Assembly and the whole range of powers.

Mr. John Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while we were meeting political parties in Northern Ireland, some criticism was made about his policy along the lines of the previous question and that his proposals had not been more specific? Will he make it abundantly clear that, if we are to find any solution that will have the broad support of both sections of the community, it is incumbent on the politicians in the various parties in Ulster to make a positive contribution, and to spell out what they think and how they will meet the criterion?

Mr. Mason

I appreciate my hon. Friend's dilemma, but that is the dilemma of Northern Ireland. The political parties will not spell out specifically exactly what they want. My approach is one of flexibility. I expect that, if the talks with my officials get off the ground, there will be an input of ideas by both sides and all parties to flesh out the framework that I have outlined.

Mr. Neave

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while we warmly welcome the talks that he is holding, the Opposition consider that it is his duty to produce a constitutional plan for Northern Ireland? We suggest that he cannot just leave that to the political parties. Will he reconsider what he has just said about restoring democratic control to local government? This is a very serious and important matter, notwithstanding the question of a future Assembly.

Mr. Mason

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's views and of those of the official Unionist Party, as explained by Harry West in Northern Ireland—namely, that they would like a local government tier. But if we are to make progress on the policy of Her Majesty's Government, shared by the parties in this House, to give Northern Ireland an Assembly and a full range of powers, we must try to make progress in that regard. I hope, therefore, that I shall receive the support of the major parties in the House as I gradually tread through this minefield. The reason that I do not place before the parties a blueprint in detail is that the parties in Northern Ireland would immediately fragment again.

Mr. Fitt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the official Unionist Party in Northern Ireland seems to have a somewhat schizophrenic approach to future developments? One section believes that there should be devolved government in Northern Ireland. Another section is hell bent on bringing about integration, having restored to Northern Ireland the local government functions which caused the disaster of the past 50 years and which would lead to total integration. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the absence of a devolved Parliament, no attempt should be made to hand back to local authorities, as at present constituted, the powers that they formerly had?

Mr. Mason

My hon. Friend spells out clearly that local government to the minority populus of Northern Ireland would indicate that it would be treading the integrationist path. Therefore, they would not be prepared, in any circumstances, to participate in that sort of role. I hope that the Opposition will recognise that, if I am gradually to solve the political problems of the Province, we must try to make headway through this attempt—namely, bilateral talks with officials—to flesh out the framework.

My hon. Friend is to have a major meeting on Saturday. I hope that he will return on Monday and let me know that the SDLP is prepared to participate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I allowed much longer on that Question because it clearly was a major issue, but we must move on more quickly.