HC Deb 28 January 1982 vol 16 cc989-92
4. Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about constitutional development in Northern Ireland.

5. Mr. McNamara

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

7. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he now intends to propose any new constitutional plans for Northern Ireland.

9. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he proposes to initiate discussions on the possibilities of establishing an elected assembly in the Province and with whom.

12. Mr. McCusker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will indicate the timetable he would like to work to in his efforts to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland.

19. Sir John Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he will announce new constitutional proposals.

Mr. Prior

I am anxious to see some responsibility for their own affairs restored to the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives. I am currently discussing with local political parties means of transferring power that would be broadly acceptable to the whole community. The discussions that I have held have been very valuable, and they are continuing. No final decisions have yet been taken, but I recognise the need for action.

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call first the six hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Mr. Arnold

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the four main political parties in Northern Ireland are still committed to the principle of devolution? Is it his impression that there is now sufficiently broad agreement among the political parties to enable him to introduce legislation to further that objective?

Mr. Prior

The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question is "Yes". The answer to the second part is that I am not yet in a position to say that that is a fact, but it would be in the interests of all the political parties if it were.

Mr. McNamara

If no final decisions have been taken, will the Secretary of State on this occasion give an undertaking that no final decisions will be taken on education policy, particularly in connection with the training of teachers, before there has been a proper discussion of the matter? Does he agree that it would be sad to muddy waters of good will by taking precipitate decisions on the future of denominational teacher training in the Province without the full consent and support of the denominations involved?

Mr. Prior

No final decisions have been taken on the matter. We continue to have talks with the various parties involved. We are well aware of the sensitivity of the matter.

Mr. Winnick

Does the Secretary of State accept that, to gain the confidence of the minority community, it will be necessary in any new constitutional plans to have schemes which are basically acceptable to it and for which its spokesmen have argued for a long time—for example, power sharing? Before plans are finalised, does the right hon. Gentleman intend to discuss constitutional developments in Northern Ireland with the new Irish Government when they are duly elected?

Mr. Prior

Any new arrangements must make adequate provision for the interests of the minority. This is a matter for the British Government and the people of Northern Ireland. We have friendly relations with the Republic, and we shall therefore keep that country informed from time to time. However, it is our decision, and we must decide in our own way.

Mr. Ross

I welcome the Secretary of State's initiative and determination to press on with these discussions. Can he give us some idea of the time scale? When does he expect to be able to present definite proposals to the House?

Mr. Prior

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said. I wish that I could give an idea of the time scale. It will depend entirely on how the talks go. It would perhaps be better if we took a little longer and more care about the way in which we put forward the proposals. There is still some way to go before I could be confident of putting forward proposals to the House.

Mr. McCusker

Is the Secretary of State aware that, inadvertently or otherwise, he is creating a momentum towards the restoration of a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland? Such a momentum will be hard to contain. If it does not lead to a satisfactory conclusion, it will lead to further alienation and disenchantment in the community there? That being so, will he ensure that any proposals that he puts forward are soundly based and have a clearly laid out procedure and timetable for transferring power from the Northern Ireland Office to the newly-elected body before any election takes place?

Mr. Prior

I shall do my best to fulfil those conditions. I recognise that there is now a momentum in Northern Ireland towards some form of devolved Administration. That momentum has been created not entirely by myself, but by the wish and desire of the people of Northern Ireland, who believe that the time is now ripe for that to happen.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

In all that he does, will my right hon. Friend make it apparent that the union is to be consolidated and not eroded? Otherwise, terrorism will be encouraged, loyalty discouraged, and new suspicions aroused about the Anglo-Irish exchanges.

Mr. Prior

It is as much a matter of the Unionists themselves making clear their views as anything that I can say to them. I believe that the union will be best maintained if there is a growing recognition among the people of Northern Ireland that they should have a devolved Government in which there is adequate provision for the interests of the minority.

Mr. Fitt

Does the Secretary of State recall the sad experience of the election to, and subsequent report of, the Constitutional Convention which we have already had in Northern Ireland? It was permissible for all the parties to seek election to the Convention and for each to seek a different mandate. Having been elected on different mandates—some for and others opposed to power sharing—they went to the Convention and found it impossible to get off the hook on which they had firmly placed themselves during the election. Therefore, in any election to an Assembly or Convention, will the Secretary of State lay down the guidelines on which people are to be elected so that they do not create unnecessary hooks from which they subsequently find it impossible to get off?

Mr. Prior

If the House permits, I shall try to lay down adequate guidelines to prevent the sort of situation to which the hon. Gentleman alluded. However, when it comes to an election, I cannot say that people will not get themselves on hooks which they might later regret.

Mr. Amery

I await my right hon. Friend's definitive statement on what he proposes for Northern Ireland, but is he aware that newspaper reports of his intentions have caused great anxiety among Conservative Members and, I dare say, others elsewhere? Is he further aware that we do not see the relevance of these proposals, as described in the press, to the security situation? Would it not be better, as a first step, before seeking to impose a devolved Government on Northern Ireland, to allow it to have the same local government authorities as we have in this country?

Mr. Prior

Frankly, I do not believe that the same conditions for local government exist in Northern Ireland as exist here. The people of Northern Ireland are asking for a form of devolved Administration. Of course these are matters for discussion, but if we are to return to the people of Northern Ireland responsible politicians who will not go in for the extremism of the past few years, it is essential that they have political responsibility as soon as we can arrange it.

Mr. Concannon

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Opposition are pleased that he has outlined his intentions today? However, will he go further and say whether he has a specific timetable in mind and—more important—whether, after publication of his proposals, the House will have a chance to debate and comment on them before he proceeds further?

Mr. Prior

I am certain that all parties in the House will wish to have discussions on such difficult matters. I shall do all that I can to ensure that a widespread and wide-scale debate takes place. I hope that hon. Members do not believe that it is an easy business or that I have a panacea for the problems of Northern Ireland, because that would be asking too much.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member before we move on.

Dr. Mawhinney

Does my right hon. Friend accept that broadly based proposals for constitutional change in the devolving of power to a Northern Ireland Assembly would be most welcome, but that its chances of success may be impaired unless the Government also consider the problem of 24 per cent. male unemployment in the Province and the need to do something to alleviate that distressing postion?

Mr. Prior

The prime need is an end to the violence in Northern Ireland. The measures that we could propose for political responsibility would help towards that end, but until there is an end to violence, and until we get political responsibility back into Northern Ireland, it will be difficult to achieve increased economic activity or prosperity. That is one of the three parts of the tripod to which we must pay attention.

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