HC Deb 29 July 1982 vol 28 cc1220-2
7. Mr. Dubs

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will take immediate steps to seek to amend the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 to ensure that members of the Irish Parliament are eligible to stand for election to the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr. Prior

Any change in the current law would involve primary legislation and would have to be considered in the general context of disqualification criteria. A review of the criteria for disqualification from this House is currently in progress. A report will go to my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council later this year. There is a close link between the criteria for disqualification from the Northern Ireland Assembly and those for this House. The outcome of the review will have implications for Assembly disqualification criteria.

I well understand the political sensitivities of the current law on this point but I believe that the right course is to await that report and to consider at that point whether any provisions of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 require amendment.

Mr. Dubs

Does the Secretary of State agree that the worst possible outcome would be if the SDLP felt unable to contest the elections in October because its deputy leader, Mr. Seamus Mallon, was disqualified by a fairly obscure Act of Parliament? Does he agree that it would be a source of strength rather than one of weakness if some Members of the Assembly were Members either of this House or of the Irish Parliament as well?

Mr. Prior

I hope that any member of the SDLP who wishes to take part in the elections for the Assembly will do so and, if elected, take his seat in it. Mr. Mallon, who is a member of the Senate, will have to exercise his judgment. I hope that he will decide, if he is elected, to take his place in the Assembly. Nevertheless, there is no way in which the law can be changed without primary legislation.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Is there any reason to suppose that Mr. Mallon was unaware of the provisions of the 1975 Act when he decided to accept nomination for membership of the Senate of the Irish Republic?

Mr. Prior

It is for Mr. Mallon, not for me, to answer that. The Act is quite obscure. There is a reasonable chance that he was unaware of it. There has been an erroneous view that in some way the Secretary of State has the discretion, or the Assembly has the discretion on the advice of the Secretary of State, to make a change. There is no such discretion.

Mr. Farr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some people believe that no Members of the new Assembly should be other than British subjects who are resident in the United Kingdom and that they should be Members of no national Parliament outside the United Kingdom?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir. I am aware of that view.

Mr. Fitt

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is highly unlikely that the SDLP will refuse to participate in the elections because of the present circumstances of Mr. Seamus Mallon? Does he further agree that, while Mr. Mallon may have been unaware of the provisions of the 1975 Act—indeed it is highly likely that he was unaware of them—the person who was not unaware of them is the present Taoiseach? Does he agree that Mr. Mallon's appointment was intended to embarrass the British Government at that time?

Mr. Prior

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. All I can say is that it is better for Mr. Mallon to state whether he was aware of the legislation rather than for others to come to conclusions.

Mr. Molyneaux

Is the Secretary of State aware that any attempt by the Government to bend the laws of the United Kingdom to rescue one individual from the consequences of his own judgment would be greatly misunderstood and greatly resented by the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Prior

Many things are misunderstood and misrepresented by people in Northern Ireland. My job is to try to make them understand all the things that go on.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the Secretary of State agree that, as well as opening the door for Mr. Mallon, such a ludicrous decision would also allow in IRA supporters such as Neil Blaney? Does he believe that that would be helpful or harmful to the prospect of agreement in the Assembly?

Mr. Prior

Many of these things are not particularly helpful. I am simply trying to get started an Assembly that could help the people of Northern Ireland. It is remarkable how good people are at putting up difficulties. If they would only co-operate and do something useful, it would be helpful for all of us.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the report will at least be considered by the Government before the arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections are made? Does he recognise the significance of the decision for the SDLP's decision to take part in those elections? Can he assure the House that he does not intend that the new Northern Ireland Assembly will in any way repeat the experience of the Stormont devolution?

Mr. Prior

I can give the hon. Lady an assurance about her last point. I do not yet know when the report will be available. Bearing in mind that the election is to be held on 20 October, I doubt whether the report will be available beforehand. We are dealing with a sensitive and difficult matter. I am taking it extremely seriously. As is clear from this House, there are difficult and divided views on the subject. I shall have to advise the House nearer or at the time as to what I believe is the best course of action. I urge the SDLP to take part in the election and, if elected, to take its seats in the Assembly and to play a full part in. Northern Irish affairs. That is what is necessary.