HC Deb 27 November 1980 vol 994 cc557-60
5. Mr. Latham

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on the response to his White Paper on constitutional changes in the Province.

6. Mr. van Straubenzee

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he will make a statement on his current discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland.

7. Mr. McNamara

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his discussions with the leaders of the political parties in the Six Counties.

9. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has to hold further discussions with the various legal political groups in Northern Ireland.

11 Mr. Stanbrook

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on his proposals for further constitutional development in Northern Ireland.

13 Mr. Farr

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress he has made in the setting up of a new trial consultative assembly.

20 Mr. Hal Miller

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he is now in a position to announce a decision and further measures to devolve local government in the Province.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

The Government believe that locally elected representatives should have a greater role in the government of Northern Ireland. For the past 18 months we have been seeking an acceptable basis for a transfer of responsibilities. We have published two Command Papers, we have held a political conference, and I have had extensive discussions with political leaders and other groups. But we have had to conclude that there is not sufficient agreement between the political parties to justify the Government bringing proposals to the House for setting up a devolved administration at this stage. In the words of paragraph 64 of Cmnd. 7950, we shall now explore other ways of making the government of Northern Ireland more responsive to the wishes of the people, and such alternatives could involve a progressive approach to a transfer of powers. The principles enunciated in successive Command Papers will, of course, continue to apply and I shall be consulting the local political parties.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the seven hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Latham

As it is proving as difficult to reconcile conflicting opinions over the Irish question as it has been since the reign of King Henry II of pious memory, will my right hon. Friend consider a serious alternative to his calculations—namely, that he should continue to do the job himself?

Mr. Atkins

There is no doubt about that. We must seek to pursue ways of giving the elected representatives a greater role in Northern Ireland. Until that can happen, the Province must be administered. It will continue to be administered as at present.

Mr. van Straubenzee

My right hon. Friend has mentioned principles. Am I correct in understanding that one of the principles to which he remains committed is that he will seek to make progress towards a solution only in ways that are acceptable to the people as a whole of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Atkins

Yes. It is clear that no proposals could be hoped to work if they were not acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland. That has been an essential criterion throughout and it remains such.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are many who would not accept his definition of the position vis-à-vis those who have been arrested and convicted under the emergency powers legislation? Apart from that, is he prepared to tell the House, the people of Northern Ireland generally and those in the Republic what his attitude is to the statements made by the Taoiseach on the future of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Atkins

I am not responsible for what the Taoiseach says. We have always accepted the interest of those in the Republic in what goes on north of the border. However, the ultimate decision on the way in which Northern Ireland is governed will be made in the House.

Mr. Flannery

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the past 10 years have revealed that it is impossible for either side—if we look upon them as that—to beat the other side into submission? Does he agree—I am sure that he does—that the answer lies in a political solution? Does he further agree that the hunger strikers are bound to intensify and deepen the conflict and that there could be further killing? Will concessions be made of a political nature to try to prevent that from occurring and to bring on to the horizon a political solution for us all?

Mr. Atkins

The hunger strikers and those who support them are not in the least interested in political advance. They have made that entirely clear from the word "go". They want something quite different. We shall continue to deal with the situation in the way that I have outlined to the House. In the meantime, it is our belief that it is right for the Government to continue to search for political ways forward.

Mr. Stanbrook

As the honourable attempt by my right hon. Friend to create by agreement a system of devolved government in Northern Ireland has clearly failed, what is there to stop us from proceeding now with implementing the part of the Conservative election manifesto that promised that in the absence of devolved government one or more regional councils would be established — in other words, a development of the existing local government institutions?

Mr. McNamara

Half a million people.

Mr. Atkins

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that what is necessary is the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland. I am bound to tell him that none of the political parties with which I have been discussing these matters favours that way forward.

Mr. Farr

May I assure my right hon. Friend that most hon. Members wish him to keep on trying and that, difficult though the task may be in the foreseeable future, eventually the barriers of prejudice on both sides against which he is struggling will succumb and he will be successful?

Mr. Atkins

I hope very much that my hon. Friend is right. Whether I am successful or not, I intend to go on trying.

Mr. Miller

As a way of making the administration more responsive to the wishes of the people, will my right hon. Friend consider devolving greater powers or restoring powers to local district councils? Will be bear in mind the need to consider that well in advance of the district council elections that are due to be held next May?

Mr. Atkins

I am considering all ways forward. I am bound to tell my hon. Friend that there is a substantial body of opinion in Northern Ireland that would regard that step as a disaster. It may be right or wrong. What matters is that that is what it believes.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Liberal Bench entirely agrees with his last statement? It would be a disaster to extend powers to local government in Northern Ireland. What are the right hon. Gentleman's views about setting up a small advisory scheme? Has he ruled out any idea of an appeal to the people of Northern Ireland in the form of a referendum in perhaps more settled times?

Mr. Atkins

I have never ruled out a referendum. However, before one can have a referendum one has to have a proposition to put. We are ready to explore all ways forward in order to make a political advance that the political leaders of Northern Ireland all say they want.

Mr. Bradford

Will the right hon. Gentleman issue an immediate directive that all communications between his office and the Provisional Sinn Fein should cease forthwith, whether those discussions are centred on the constitution or the hunger strike?

Mr. Atkins

I have had no contact with the Provisional Sinn Fein since I took office and I have no intention of having any contact now.

Mr. Stallard

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is no exclusive British solution to the difficulties of the Six Counties? Will he, therefore, embark on immediate and urgent discussions, in the recognition that the Government of the Republic are an essential element in any permanent solution to the problem? Will be embark on discussions with that Government to ascertain whether he can come to an agreement on the future government of the Six Counties?

Mr. Atkins

I repeat that the Government have recognised throughout the interest of the people of the Republic of Ireland. The fact remains that future constitutional arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland will be decided in this place and nowhere else.

Mr. John

Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little less coy about what he intends to do now? Does his coyness mean that there is to be another round of consultations with all the parties? If that is so, upon what basis are the consultations to take place and what are to be the options? When the Green Paper was published, the Opposition thought that all the possible options for constitutional advance had been set out somewhere in that document. Has the right hon. Gentleman new proposals? On what basis does he intend to have further discussions?

Mr. Atkins

In the original paper, which formed the basis of the conference, we set out a variety of approaches. The conference gave us to believe that there might be a way forward in a particular direction that we set out in a more recent White Paper in July. That, unfortunately, has proved not to be the case. Therefore, we shall have to consider other matters — indeed, a variety of other matters. Our object is to make the government of Northern Ireland more responsive to the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland and to involve locally elected representatives in it, which at present they are not.