HC Deb 12 January 1978 vol 941 cc1833-9
3. Mr. van Straubenzee

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

6. Mr. Farr

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has to establish an assembly for local government in Northern Ireland.

9. Mr. Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the talks with political leaders on the constitutional future of the Province.

11. Mr. Thorne

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made regarding the meeting of political parties in Northern Ireland towards a new political initiative.

Mr. Mason

Further exploratory talks with my officials started last month. I can understand that the parties would wish to approach talks with caution and I would not wish to force the pace. I hope that talks within the framework that I have put forward will continue in due course. My door is always open.

I believe that my framework for the talks provides the best opportunity to make progress towards the return of substantial power and responsibility to locally elected representatives. Within this framework I envisage such representatives exercising control over the major Government services other than law and order and having a consultative role on legislation.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Does the Secretary of State realise how understanding we all are of his difficulties arising from the untimely intervention of the Taoiseach, which, in diplomatic terms, has all the finesse of an educationally sub-normal elephant? Will he reflect that there seems to be abroad at present a feeling that when the Secretary of State uses the term "power sharing", he necessarily means exactly the form of power sharing that existed in 1973? Is that the case?

Mr. Mason

First, I have never used the expression "power sharing"; I have always insisted that it should be a case of partnership and participation in the administration in Northern Ireland. The House will remember that my predecessor, more than 15 months ago, had also dropped the use of that emotive term.

It is right to inform the House that the term "power sharing" tends to be taken in Northern Ireland as meaning the system laid down in the 1973 Act. The Government are in no way committed to this system or, indeed, to any other system. We are committed to a devolved system of government in which all sections of the community can participate on a fair basis and in which the rights of all citizens are fully safeguarded. This means establishing a system which both sides of the community can support and sustain—a partnership administration reflecting the interests of both sides.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call first those hon. Members whose Questions are being answered. Mr. Farr.

Mr. Farr

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his reply to my hon. Friend's Question, but is he aware that at times he gives the impression of expecting someone else to come forward with a working plan? Will he immediately look into the possibility of producing, at an early date, what I would call a local government functions plan? That, at least, would be a Government document upon which all parties in Northern Ireland could express views.

Mr. Mason

I do not see any reason why I should take that sort of initiative at present, when I have already laid before the four major parties of Northern Ireland the framework of a possible interim form of devolution and when talks are going on. The talks have not broken down. Some members of the Northern Ireland political scene have thought that the interjection by the Republican Prime Minister might have caused a setback, but the talks are continuing, and there is no reason why they should not continue. I do not wish to consider any other plan until the discussions are completed.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

In commenting with appropriate asperity on Mr. Lynch's incursion into the affairs of the United Kingdom, did not the right hon. Gentleman say that he was not committed to any particular arrangement? Why, then, in the series of answers that he gave hon. Members on 24th November, did he set his face against a restoration of an upper tier of local government?

Whatever may be decided about devolution, is not the undemocratic and bureaucratic structure in the Province a constitutional monstrosity, to which Sir Patrick Macrory has drawn attention?

Mr. Mason

I recognise the need to try to fill the political gap between the district councils and Westminster. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Macrory Report he will see that it does not want an upper tier of local government, which is generally talked about. It was in favour of the devolution of some powers, and the framework that I have laid before the parties shows how we can devolve the transferred functions to Northern Ireland and that it can be done on a partnership basis. Those talks are continuing.

Mr. Thorne

Will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely what Mr. Lynch said that offends against the traditional support of the Labour Party for a united Ireland? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Will he, further, indicate to what extent he welcomes the Unionist Party's use of Mr Lynch's statement as an excuse to torpedo the talks in Northern Ireland, which, according to my right hon. Friend's remarks, are still based on the acceptance of shared power?

Mr. Mason

I do not think that in making that statement the Taoiseach really had it in mind purposely to jeopardise or sabotage the talks going on in Northern Ireland. He had, of course, to be reminded of the policy of Her Majesty's Government. It is a bipartisan policy, shared by Her Majesty's Opposition, that Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority of the Province so decree. Therefore, we had politely to remind him that that still is the policy.

Mr. Molyneaux

Does not the Secretary of State agree that, if the framework to which he has referred were reduced to the essentials, the need for caution, to which he also referred, would be correspondingly decreased?

Mr. Mason

I do not know exactly the point to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. Once one starts getting into the nitty-gritty of the continuing talks, I do not think it wise to start elaboration in the House. What would, I think, be helpful to the House would be for me, with permission, to circulate in the Official Report the letter that I have sent to the four leaders of the main parties outlining the framework, so that the House may be better informed if we are to have questions on this matter again.

Mr. McNamara

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us regard the hysteria following Mr. Lynch's broadcast as being not particularly helpful to reaching any sort of solution to the problems in Northern Ireland, particularly when people in distinguished places seem to be merely re-echoing statements made by intransigent parties in the Six Counties? Therefore, will he read carefully again what the Taoiseach said to see which, if any, part of the transcript suggests that he denies, or says that he denies, the point that my right hon. Friend has just made about the majority of people in Northern Ireland? Also, will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to recognise an Irish dimension, participation, community Government or power-sharing—whatever it is—and a solution that comes forward must be acceptable to this Parliament?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I had hoped to call a number of hon. Members on this Question, but if supplementary questions are as long as that it will be quite impossible.

Mr. Mason

Just to inform my hon. Friend—he must know, and I have reiterated it many times—any moves to devolve Government in Northern Ireland most be based on partnership between the two communities. As regards his first question, my hon. Friend must have been aware that, when the Taoiseach made that long broadcast and it then appeared in cold print, there certainly would be a Unionist reaction, because Mr. Lynch indicated that there was the possibility of an amnesty for criminals and terrorists, and that was bound to cause a major reaction in the North and even in my own mind. I clearly state that Her Majesty's Opposition and Her Majesty's Government will not allow an amnesty for those criminals who have been sentenced, who are in gaol in Northern Ireland and who have been responsible for deaths, murders and bombings in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Nelson

As the Secretary of State mentioned in his initial reply that some consultation on legislative matters was envisaged, can he describe in a little more detail the extent to which he has reached any preliminary conclusions on the discussion by any future devolved Assembly of matters falling before Westminster, either in a pre-legislative form or during the course of the passage of that legislation through this House?

Mr. Mason

Not yet, and it is not possible to give a reply to that question yet because we are in the midst of the talks. We have had one ministerial round. We have had a round of bilateral talks between the four parties and officials, and I hope that those will continue. It is not possible to give an indication just yet.

Mr. Fitt

My right hon. Friend has restated the Government's policy that any political structures which are created in Northern Ireland must have the participation and the partnership of both communities, but will he understand that what is now being demanded by Unionist members in Northern Ireland is a return of local authority functions to the local authorities in Northern Ireland? Will he be ever mindful of the work of the committee set up under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr van Straubenzee), which led to the setting up of the Fair Employment Agency, whose latest report was published yesterday and which highlighted all the dangers that were brought about by one-party government in Northern Ireland? Will he once again assure the House that in no circumstances will he bow to Unionist pressure for a restoration of a one-party political State in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mason

I have already said it twice at Question Time. I often have to repeat it and I repeat it again for the people of the Province and for the sake of my hon. Friend. I have said quite emphatically that we are looking forward to a partnership administration reflecting the interests of both communities. We want an administration where the minority and the majority can participate.

Mr. Kilfedder

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the plan which he proposes is for an administrative council in which there would be partnership, as he has just said, but it would mean that local people were being used as natives to bolster up a colonial type of direct rule?

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman has got it completely wrong once again. We are trying through this series of talks and by way of this form of devolution to transfer most of the powers back to the people of Northern Ireland—not all the powers, but a lot of them.

Mr. Hardy

Does my right hon. Friend agree—I think he has already done so—that the premature suggestion of an amnesty is likely to be much less helpful than his pursuit of participation? Will he, in that regard, encourage and emphasise the commendable achievements of the public education bodies in Northern Ireland over the past few years?

Mr. Mason

We have been going through a series of major talks with the education bodies, especially during the past 18 months, under the guidance of Lord Melchett. We are making good progress both in the transition from grammar schools and in the abolition of the 11-plus examination. That will take a little time and we cannot be hasty, because it is a major change. In spite of seven troubled years, schools have managed, pro rata with Great Britain, to get more pupils through with GCE and "A" level certificates.

Following is the letter:

Copy of a letter sent by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 22nd November 1977 to the leaders of the Official Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party and the Democratic Unionist Party: Having now completed talks with the four major political parties, I think it would he helpful if I set out in writing the framework for talks with officials which I described. The aim of HMG remains unchanged. We should like to see in Northern Ireland a fully devolved legislative administration which provides a stable and durable government for this province. But no such government can or will be imposed on the community here and I do not believe that the time has yet come when such an administration can be established by agreement. There are therefore two options open to us. One is to continue with direct rule. The other is to try to find an interim system of devolved government which will help to make progress towards the aim of a fully devolved administration and in the meantime will bring a larger measure of local participation back into the government of Northern Ireland. I believe that any such interim system should be based on the following:—
  1. 1. There should be a single assembly elected by Proportional Representation.
  2. 2. The assembly should exercise real responsibility over a wide range of functions and should have a consultative rôle in relation to legislation.
  3. 3. The arrangements should be temporary and should envisage progress in due course 1840 towards some form of full legislative devolution.
  4. 4. Although the interim arrangements would be temporary, they must be durable, which means that the interests of minorities must be safeguarded and that political parties representing different shades of opinion must be prepared to make the arrangements work.
  5. 5. The arrangements must make good administrative sense. We are not interested in making merely cosmetic changes.
I invited all four parties to take part individually in more detailed talks with my officials to establish what form of devolved system consistent with these principles would be acceptable to you and to explore the possibilities in more detail. It is my hope that such talks, which can begin as soon as is mutually convenient, will be entered into in a constructive and positive spirit, so that a way can he found to return a measure of self-government to Northern Ireland in a form which both parts of the community can support and sustain. My officials will be in touch with you to make arrangements. I shall keep in close touch with the progress of the talks and I shall be ready to meet the parties again, about the whole matter, at an appropriate stage.