HC Deb 14 May 1981 vol 4 cc871-2
3. Mr. Wm. Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has made any special arrangements to secure the fair conduct of the local government elections in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins

I am assured by the chief electoral officer, who is responsible for the conduct of the election, that he is taking all the necessary steps, in consultation with the police, to ensure its fair conduct, in accordance with the law, and that no additional measures are required at present.

Mr. Ross

In the light of the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has quoted, is he certain that a fair election is possible in the West Bank area of Londonderry when the schools that are to be used are in the heart of a Republican area? Would not it be far better to put in commissioners to run that electoral district until an election can be held with the IRA firmly under control?

Mr. Atkins

I am well aware of the difficulties. The chief electoral officer is a man with considerable experience, upon whose judgment I rely. If he needs extra help or protection, he will make that request. I am in touch with him and we shall do everything possible between us to ensure that the elections are fair.

Mr. Marlow

When my right hon. Friend is considering elections, will he consider perhaps a referendum, so that the people of Northern Ireland could pass judgment on their qualified membership of the United Kingdom whereby they are purported to be members only so long as the majority should wish it? They could become full members of the United Kingdom the same as anybody else, which would reduce the ambivalence that exists at the moment if a suitable majority existed. That ambivalence is a great cause of the present terrorism.

Mr. Atkins

My hon. Friend is labouring under some misapprehension. Those who live in Northern Ireland are as much members of the United Kingdom as my hon. Friend and I. They are full members of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will be aware that the law provides that a border poll may be held at intervals of not less than 10 years, asking whether the people wish the present state of affairs to continue. The last poll was held in 1973. It is a matter for consideration whether a further poll, asking that simple question, should be held in 1983, or subsequently.

Mr. McCusker

How successful was the census operation in certain areas of Northern Ireland? The right hon. Gentleman's answer will show whether fair elections can be held next week in certain areas of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Atkins

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was some difficulty in collecting the census and one collector was murdered. We all regret that and I have already spoken about it in this House. Nevertheless, the census forms are in and are almost 100 per cent. complete. People had the opportunity to return their census forms by post and in other ways. Those whose census forms were lost were invited to complete others. Although I cannot claim a 100 per cent. success, it was nearly that.

Mr. Skinner

If and when a referendum about the border takes place, will the Secretary of State ensure that, unlike what happened last time, it includes not only those in Northern Ireland, but also those on the mainland? Those in Britain could then judge whether the border should be removed. As they do in their correspondence to many Labour Members, people could show that it was time that the troops were taken out of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Atkins

The Act provides that the referendum shall be held in Northern Ireland. I do not want to discuss the "troops out" movement now, but I have not heard anyone suggest that troops should be removed from any other part of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and its people are entitled to the same level of protection as those living in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, or anywhere else.