HC Deb 09 June 1982 vol 25 cc263-84

Date of Referendum

1. The referendum shall be held on such day, not less than six weeks after the making of the Order, as Her Majesty may by Order in Council appoint.

Persons Eligible to Vote

2. Those entitled to vote in the referendum shall be—

  1. (a) the persons who, at the date of the referendum, would be entitled to vote as electors at a parliamentary election in any constituency in Northern Ireland; and
  2. (b) peers who at that date would be entitled to vote as electors at a local government election in any electoral area in Northern Ireland.

Questions to be asked and form of ballot paper

3. The question to be asked in the referendum and the front of the ballot paper to be used for that purpose shall be in the form set out in the Appendix to this Schedule.

Conduct of Referendum

4. Subject to the following provisions of this Schedule, Her Majesty may by Order in Council make provision as to the conduct of the referendum and apply in relation to it, with such modifications or exceptions as may be specified in the Order, any provision of the Representation of the People Acts, any provision of the enactments relating to returning officers and any provision made under any enactment.

5. An Order in Council under this Schedule shall not charge any sum on the Consolidated Fund but may provide for the expenses of the returning officers to be defrayed as administrative expenses of the Secretary of State.

6. The functions which, in relation to a parliamentary election, are conferred on returning officers by any provision applied by an Order in Council under this Schedule shall in relation to the referendum be discharged by the persons who may discharge the functions of returning officers, at elections of councillors for district councils.

7. The Secretary of State shall appoint a Chief Counting Officer, who shall appoint a counting officer for each constituency; and each counting officer shall conduct the counting of votes cast in the area for which he is appointed in accordance with any directions given to him by the Chief Counting Officer.

8. The counting officer for each area shall certify the number of ballot papers counted by him and the number of respective answers given by valid votes; and the Chief Counting Officer shall certify the total of the ballot papers and the respective answers for the whole of Northern Ireland.

Exclusion of legal proceedings

9. No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the numbers, as certified by the Chief Counting Officer or any counting officer, of any ballot papers counted or answers given in the referendum.

Orders in Council

10. No recommendation shall be made to Her Majesty in Council to make an Order under this Schedule until a draft of the Order has been laid before Parliament and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.



Parliament has decided to consult the electorate in Northern Ireland on the question whether the Northern Ireland Act 1982 should be put into effect.



Put a cross (X) in the appropriate box.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Dean. I hope that I am not anticipating anything that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) may say, but I wonder whether you would assent to the wish of the Committee, if it were expressed to you, that there should be a separate Division upon amendments Nos. 101 and 26 and on the two new clauses. You will have observed that, although the term "referendum" is common to all, they are referendums taken in essentially different circumstances, to which, consequently, different arguments might apply. An hon. Member might wish to vote differently on any one of them.

The Second Deputy Chairman

I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Farr

Much of the time that we have spent on the debate so far, and may spend in the future, could have been avoided if there had been a greater period between the publication of the White Paper and the printing of the Bill. In the previous debate, to which most hon. Members present listened to with fascination, an interesting and excellent point was put to the House by hon. Members from both sides of the Committee. I cannot help feeling that if only there had been the normal pause of at least a few months between the publication of the White Paper in April and the printing and publication of the White Paper in April and the printing and introduction of the Bill in the same month, much of this confusion could have been avoided.

All hon. Members are anxious to do what they can to get this matter right. I think that we all feel that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, although he is passionately interested in the welfare of Northern Ireland in this respect, has been his own worst enemy by rushing into this problem. As a result, he has not given the necessary and normal amount of time for consultation between the different parties that is so important in any new legislation, and even more so in Northern Ireland. It is because of this lack of proper consultation that the Committee has to deal with many matters that could probably have been dealt with by delegation and correspondence in the usual way during the normal lengthy period of discussion for a White Paper.

I believe, although I do not know whether my hon. Friends agree with me, that the White Paper that is the basis of the Bill is one of the most important White Papers that the Government have produced. Yet we are rushing into legislation in the month that the White Paper was published.

One can compare this strange rush with the circumstances of the White Paper introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment relating to the new training initiative. The White Paper was published in December 1981, six months ago, and the Secretary of State is nowhere near the stage of publishing a Bill to bring it into effect. That is quite proper because consultations are taking place, and the White Paper is still being considered. There is a large sum of money involved and it is not likely that we shall proceed with legislation to put the White Paper into effect until later this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment clearly said in December that it was his intention to bring the new training initiatives into effect from the autumn of 1983.

8.15 pm

I wish to stress this point before I proceed to the nitty-gritty of my amendments by comparing the Northern Ireland Bill, that is being rushed through this week and next week, with the Green Paper on rate reform. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment produced a Green Paper on rating reform, with a whole series of ideas to put into effect the Conservative election pledge of 1974. We could not carry the pledge out in 1974 but we hope to carry it out soon. The Green Paper was introduced nine months ago. Since then the Secretary of State has had extensive and detailed consultation throughout the country. However, I should not like to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should emulate what has been done by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I cannot think of a right hon. or hon. Friend who has not seen the Secretary of State for the Environment privately in the past year in the Secretary of State's room at the back of the Chair to discuss the Green Paper. That is how it should be done. Rating reform for the United Kingdom as a whole is a massive task to undertake. Immense sums of money are involved and the Secretary of State is naturally treading warily. There is a good deal of unfairness in the present system and we must be careful that any change that takes place does not transfer a disadvantage from one group of people to another.

The widest consultations must take place on the Green Paper, but in terms of human suffering, care and concern, many of us think that the White Paper and the Northern Ireland Bill are of far more consequence to the well-being of a group of people than the Green Paper on rating reform. After all, when all is said and done, all that it does is turn over different ways of extracting money from the ratepaying public to see if there is a less painful way of extracting that money. The answer is that there is not. However, having given a pledge that he will try, my right hon. Friend will have to do his best.

I mention those two cases because I think that it is generally recognised that in so vital a matter as the Northern Ireland Bill a proper interval should have occurred. On Second Reading, the Minister gave his good reasons for proceeding apace with the Bill. However, he is now having to pay the price because the Committee is having to deal with matters that could have been cleared up in consultation with him.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

If there had been the interval of which my hon. Friend speaks, would there not have been time for us to consider with the Secretary of State the result of his inquiry into the structure of local government in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Farr

My hon. Friend is right. If proper consultation had taken place, we should probably have been aware before now that the inquiry was taking place. My hon. Friend is a great student of Northern Ireland affairs and is looked upon with great respect by all hon. Members. However, even he found to his surprise that the inquiry had been launched. He was not aware of it. It seems a little strange that the whole matter should be dropped upon us in this way. If there had been closer consultation in what one can call the gestation period between the introduction of the White Paper and the production of the Bill, we should all have been better informed.

The purpose of amendments Nos. 101 and 102 is to safeguard the general public by ensuring that the Bill's proposals are not put into effect without the prior consent of a referendum. That referendum, as the first of my two amendments says, shall be held of the electors of Northern Ireland on any proposals under this section. As I have said, the purpose is to try to protect the people of Northern Ireland by ensuring that should the Assembly proceed with any of the proposals in the Bill, it has public support.

The Secretary of State said a short while ago that he would take all the proper steps to ascertain public opinion. When we discussed an earlier group of amendments, it was said that he had to satisfy himself that public opinion supports the Assembly's proposals. The purpose of this group of amendments is to satisfy us that the public wants the measures that are proposed by the Assembly in the best way, by a referendum.

If one looks at the Bill—

Mr. Lawrence

Before my hon. Friend does that, I must tell him at once that I am not with him on that matter. I ask him seriously to consider where the proliferation of referendums will eventually lead us. We had a referendum in 1975 as a result of the European Economic Community referendum Act and they have spread. In the context of Northern Ireland, would my hon. Friend be prepared to submit to a referendum the question whether the troops should stay in or go out?

Mr. Farr

Unlike my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart), I am not a referendum specialist, but if someone wanted to hold a referendum I see no reason why that question should not be put to the Northern Ireland public. However, my purpose is to ensure that the Minister properly interprets the public point of view on this vital issue.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Has not my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) answered his own point? We have had referendums before and there has not been any subsequent proliferation of them. In other words, they are only to be used advisedly when the House considers that there is a major constitutional point at issue.

Mr. Farr

My hon. Friend has answered the point quite clearly for me. There has been one referendum or perhaps two referendums on whether Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom and referendums have also taken place in both Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is a special case because, strangely, we are being asked to rely on the Secretary of State's interpretation of public opinion.

I supported the amendment to delete clause 1(4)(b) but that amendment was defeated. Paragraph (b) states: the proposals have the support of a majority of those members and the Secretary of State has notified the Assembly that he is satisfied that the substance of the proposals is likley to command widespread acceptance throughout the community. There is only one fair and proper way of discovering the public's point of view. There should be properly conducted referendum so that the people can express their opinions. The Secretary of State can then be sure of receiving the correct answer.

My right hon. Friend is an expert on assessing people's views. I know of no man who uses the skill, knowledge and expertise of his civil servants better than my right hon. Friend and of no man—I was going to say who has his ear closer to the ground than my right hon. Friend. However, he knows what I mean. There is no doubt that he can sense how people feel and has a good idea of how to assess the feelings of a group of people. With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, for all his qualities the only way to be certain is to have a referendum and to ask each elector whether he agrees with the proposals.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has defended the part of the Bill that requires him to satisfy himself that the substance of the proposals is likely to command widespread acceptance". That provision is so important that we cannot leave it to my right hon. Friend to discover the answers in some cloak and dagger or mysterious way. For example, will his opinion be formed by talk in the Division Lobby? Will he receive clerical opinion and advice? Will he receive advice from the dignitaries and officials in local government? Will he conduct a door-to-door canvass such as those performed by opinion polls? Much as we respect the Secretary of State, the only way of getting a better answer and one that has a chance of being more correct is by the use of the referendum. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will merely back a hunch.

8.30 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith, North)

I appreciate that these speeches are part of the rebellion in the Tory Party. That is why, by and large, I am happy to let them continue. However, if the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) is to argue seriously, he must be more consistent. He has already said that he believes that the use of the referendum is a special case, yet his amendment No. 102 clearly implies many referendums. Secondly, if he expects us to take his speech seriously and not as a filibuster, would he give some thought to the many people in Northern Ireland who, whether he likes it or not and whether they are right or wrong, believe that the border was wrongly drawn in the first instance in a way that makes referendums and other forms of voting unfair.

That view may be rubbish but it may also be true and if people are to discuss this issue, especially the rebel group in the Tory Party, they had better face the fact if they are to be taken seriously outside the House.

Mr. Farr

This is the first time that the hon. Gentleman has intervened in the debate and I cannot say that I regard it as an advantage. No doubt he is trying to make up for the total absence from the Chamber of anyone else in the Labour Party. His attitude is similar to the hostile attitude adopted earlier by his right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon). Practically no one from the Labour Party was here then either. I remind the hon. Gentleman that his right hon. Friend said that he was shocked at the way in which Conservative Members opposed to the Assembly were playing what he called "party games". I did not intervene at the time but I wish to place it on record that we are not playing party games. The reason why many Conservatives oppose the Bill is that we believe that the Government are entirely wrong. We may be entirely wrong, but we are so convinced that we are determined to do what we can to make the Government think again and preferably to drop the Bill or at least manifestly to improve it before we proceed.

Mr. Soley

I am glad to hear that, because to many people outside the House it must seem that the Conservative rebels are playing games; that is what is so tragic.

I understand the split in the Conservative Party on this issue as I understand the split in the Unionist parties, but that does not absolve them from the responsibility of facing up to the original division of Ireland and the fact that many of the minority communities believe that the division was unreasonable. Right or wrong, the issue of the original division must be faced. It cannot be ducked.

Mr. Farr

The best answer I can give is to remind the hon. Gentleman of what he probably did not hear earlier in the day. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) referred to an extract from a leader in last Tuesday's issue of The Times. Had I been called in that debate, I should have said that I was only sorry that The Times had not followed its attitude on 6 April. I do not know whether The Times has more than one editorial writer. I do not even know whether the right hon. Member for Down, South is an editorial writer for that newspaper.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell


Mr. Farr

I am not being rude.

Mr. Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Armstrong. I seek your protection at once. I have been accused not only of belonging to the disreputable profession of journalism in general but of being a leader writer on The Times, a newspaper at whose expense I had a little innocent fun earlier. Nothing could be more discreditable to me. There is no imputation that I would wish more hastily to disown than that of being a leader writer on The Times. I seek your protection against the imputation, which I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw and for which I hope he will have the grace to apologise.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will set the record straight.

Mr. Farr

The right hon. Member for Down, South may have noticed that I was reluctant to give way. If I had been allowed to conclude, he may have decided that I need not apologise. I said that I did not know whether he was a leader writer for The Times or whether The Times has more than one leader writer. However, I was going to say that I believed that he is probably a leader writer for The Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Powell

I ask for your protection, Mr. Armstrong, and ask you to deal severely with the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who has repeated and made more severe the offence of which I previously complained and for which, if I heard correctly, you directed him to make amends.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

My hon. Friend should try the Sunday Express.

Mr. Farr

The reason why I said that is that The Times has prevaricated on the issue, as the right hon. Member for Down, South said earlier, and has now adopted an attitude of lukewarm support for the Bill. However, in two successive leaders, The Daily Telegraph has come out firmly against the Bill. If we could only secure the shield of the principle of referendums, some of the uncertainties and curses in the Bill that are outlined in those leaders will be less likely to fall upon the population of Northern Ireland.

One reason why I believe that protection is needed by introducing referendums is outlined in The Daily Telegraph editorial of 18 March, which says, about relations with the Republic: Moderate Roman Catholic Nationalists reject it because they believe that the British will ditch them en route and, in order to achieve disengagement, hand them over to a Protestant majority. In these circumstances, to persist in the plan to elect an assembly would be an act of madness productive, almost certainly, of still more violence. The paramilitaries have already begun to respond. That editorial was followed by another on 8 June, which deplored the fact that the Bill is making progress or that it was introduced at all. The gist of the editorial refers to the unease among Back Bench Conservative Members about some matters in the Bill. It said that the prevailing view among the newly met Council for the Union at its inaugural meeting in Belfast last Saturday gave substantial support to the thought that many of Ulster's current troubles sprang from the decision, 60 years ago, to impose on her a devolved parliament which the majority of her people did not want. It is apparent from the editorials in two of the most widely read serious newspapers in the country that the authors believe that there are defects in the Bill. By introducing the priniciple of a referendum we can protect the electorate of Northern Ireland from some of the consequences of the Bill.

We have discussed the number of seats in the Assembly. The Secretary of State said that there would be 85 and not 78 Assembly Members. In answer to questioning by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, he said that he believed that the Northern Ireland Assembly Act 1973 gave him the right and power to change the number of Members of the Assembly. Section 2(5) lists the powers of Secretary of State to make provisions concerning elections under the Act. Nowhere, as far as I can see, does it relate to changing the number of Members of the Assembly. It would be difficult for him to rely on that Act to change the total number.

Mr. Prior

If my hon. Friend looks at the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, section 28—which is the one that I quoted—he will find out that it is in order.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I hope that the Government will accept the amendments. I feel that most of my right hon. and hon. Friends ought to support them, if only to ensure that justice is done. It is important that we should have this additional protection for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Barry Porter (Bebington and Ellesmere Port)

Does not my hon. Friend accept that the House is the shield that the people of Northern Ireland would need? If the Secretary of State tells us that he is satisfied that proposals are likely to command widespread support, he will have to give evidence in support of his view. It is up to the House and elected representatives of the whole United Kingdom to deal with such matters. We do not need shields such as referendums. The House is the shield

Mr. Farr

If my hon. Friend had been here earlier he would have heard the doubts expressed about the West Lothian question. As the responsibilities of the Assembly increase, the nuraber of hon. Members from Northern Ireland will decrease. The present number may be adequate, but if the West Lothian principle is applied there will not be an adequate number to look after the rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems odd that the people of Scotland and Wales were not to be protected by the House and required a referendum on constitutional changes? It would be disturbing to me if I had to tell my constituents that they were not to be protected by Westminster, but the people of Northern Ireland are to be protected.

Mr. Farr

My hon. Friend has been listening with attention to most of our debates and he must realise that Northern Ireland is a special case. I am not normally a fan of referendums, but I believe that additional protection should be provided so that we do not have to rely on the Secretary of State's interpretation of what is likely to command widespread acceptance. That is too wide and woolly and it is essential to include referendums for the protection of the public.

Mr. Bill Walker

I welcome the opportunity to speak on these important amendments. I am one of the few hon. Members who have taken part in a referendum of the sort called for in the amendments. I knocked on doors and consulted my constituents on whether the Scotland Act should be implemented.

Many hon. Members are unhappy about referendums, but Scotland has had two, not one as was suggested earlier. If we had not had those opportunities, the Scotland Act would have beer implemented and we would have a Scottish Assembly of a different political complexion from the Government. One can easily imagine the situation that would have existed in the recent difficult times. Instead of having problems only with Lothian regional council and Dundee district council, there would have been a talking-shop Assembly speaking out against the Government. King-sized headaches would have been created for the Secretary of State for Scotland.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland visited my constituency and other parts of Scotland before the devolution referendum. He knows what problems devolution caused within the Conservative Party in Scotland. There were those who were keen to have devolution. There were others, like myself, who had grave doubts about the kind of devolution proposals contained in what was then the Scotland Bill. My right hon. Friend knows well how divided we were in Scotland, how deep the divisions were within the Conservative Party and what difficulty we had in repairing those divisions. I do not overstate the situation when I say that this was brought about because the Conservative Party in Scotland was facing a traumatic situation. Some believed that devolution was a way to get the Scottish National Party off our backs.

In Scotland, we have people such as they have in Northern Ireland—individuals who do not believe that the rule of law is necessarily the way forward. There are incarcerated in Scotland people who decided that the way to get change was not through the ballot box but through blowing up pipelines and other things. That was why it was deemed necessary to have a referendum in Scotland. If it was right within this unitary Parliament that one part of the United Kingdom should have a referendum to decide on a change of that magnitude, surely there can be no argument against having a referendum in another part of the United Kingdom which is also served by this unitary Parliament.

We must ask ourselves whether we are likely to put at risk the unitary Parliament. That is fundamental to everything that we should be thinking and doing. I have travelled the road of devolution. For 10 years I fought an uphill fight to get my sincerely held views listened to within my own party, never mind among other parties. Finally, we had to go to the Scottish people with the referendum to discover how they felt.

What happened when one stomped around the country to find out about the referendum? At least 40 per cent. of those entitled to vote had to support the proposal. That was not 70 per cent. but 40 per cent., as is proposed for Northern Ireland in one of the new clauses. If it was right that the Scots and the Welsh should have the 40 per cent. provision, surely that amendment must be acceptable to the Government.

Many Conservative Members voted for the referendum. I look to those who supported that type of referendum for Scotland with the 40 per cent. provision to support this amendment. I assure them that the people of Scotland will be watching carefully. The Scots do not like to be treated differently from others. They do not like to think that they are not a special case. They are a special case. That was why there was the movement for a devolved Assembly in Scotland and why the Scottish Grand Committee now meets in Edinburgh. There was a demand for something.

Mr. Moate

My hon. Friend will recall that the referendum principle was put into the devolution proposals not just by the votes of Conservative Members but because of a great deal of work done by members of the Labour Party in defence of the unitary Parliament. On a matter of such great constitutional importance, is it not appalling that present at our discussion we have just one solitary member of the Labour Party?

Mr. Concannon

He is a good one.

Mr. Moate

He may be outstanding, but he still has only one vote. On this major issue I hope that the Scottish electors will note that the Labour Party is apparently taking no interest in defending the unitary Parliament and the system which is so important to us.

Mr. Walker

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I, too, am concerned about the absence of Opposition Members when we are discussing a matter of such importance to the House of Commons, to the country and to this unitary Parliament. I find it disturbing that so few hon. Members are prepared to be here—[Interruption.] I am delighted, however, to espy the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). [HON. MEMBERS: "He is not in the Chamber yet."] He may not yet technically be with us, but he is one hon. Member who is very keen to have some form of devolved Government in Scotland. I see the hon. Gentleman nodding his agreement, so he must be in favour of a referendum to demonstrate that the people of Northern Ireland will be given the same opportunity to express their views as were the people of Scotland and, what is more, a referendum with the requirement that it shall be approved by 40 per cent. of the persons entitled to vote in it.

There is no doubt in my mind if my right hon. and hon. Friends do not accept the fairness and logic of my argument they will put me and other Conservative Members in Scotland at risk. I know that that will delight the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian, because he knows exactly what I am talking about. Conservative Members are in a minority in Scotland. We are the minority. We are the individuals who require the protection afforded to other minority groups in the House. Scottish Conservatives look to my right hon. and hon. Friends to give us the same protection. If they treat Northern Ireland differently, obviously the weight of my views and those of my colleagues in Scotland will be of little consequence. The Government may feel that it would not matter if we returned to the circumstances of October 1974. It may interest hon. Members to know that, if a Conservative Government had been returned then, the number of Scottish Conservatives elected would have meant the Government being unable to staff the Scottish Office adequately, to say nothing of the Scottish Standing Committees. There would have been a problem for the Government of the day.

Mr. Budgen

Will my hon. Friend tell the Committee what is the opinion in Scotland at present? I suppose that there may be some people in Scotland who see this Bill as a precedent for further devolution legislation for Scotland. I have no evidence of that, but if there is some evidence perhaps my hon. Friend will tell the Committee about it.

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In my judgment, in Scotland there is still a demand—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not follow that line too far. We are dealing with Northern Ireland, and the hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to the amendment.

Mr. Walker

Thank you, Mr. Armstrong. Obviously I accept your ruling on the matter. I say only, in all humility, that my concern with the referendum that I judge to be necessary for Northern Ireland is based on my experience of the referendum in Scotland. I suggest that that makes me unique on this side of the Committee.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

The hon. Gentleman is unique in the whole House. He is a one-off.

Mr. Walker

Despite the hon. Gentleman's sedentary comment, what should not be in doubt is my concern about this unitary Parliament, the Conservative Party in Scotland and the voters of Northern Ireland. It is essential that we find a method whereby the views of the people of Northern Ireland are made public. If my right hon. Friend is so confident that what he proposes is the best form of government for Northern Ireland, I am sure that he will be delighted to accept the proposal for a referendum. There can be no better way of testing the views of the people. That is why I keep making references to Scotland. The Scotland and Wales Acts are the only evidence we have of this unitary Parliament being able to test the views of the voters in the parts of the United Kingdom that would be affected by the devolution proposals.

9 pm

Mr. Home Robertson

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to share his concern about the fact that the Conservative Party in Scotland is an endangered species. Before he speaks further about the democratic merits of referendums, would he care to reflect on the fact that the majority of those who voted in the referendum on Scottish devolution voted "Yes" for a Scottish Assembly? How can he defend that outcome on any democratic pretext?

Mr. Walker

I have no difficulty, because the rules were clearly set out. If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully to my argument, he would realise that I am speaking in favour of new clause 11, with the 40 per cent. requirement of those entitled to vote. I do so, first, because that is exactly what Scotland and Wales had. If we are to give equality of justice and opportunity, it is surely right that we should use that which has already been used before.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

The hon. Gentleman's experience in Scotland is relevant to Northern Ireland, but does he imagine that a majority, let alone 40 per cent., of the Scottish people would have voted for devolution proposals akin to the proposals that are being offered to the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Walker

I am endeavouring to give the people of Northern Ireland the same opportunities as those that were given to the people of Scotland and Wales. I deem that to be just and fair. I can go to my constituency in Scotland and defend that position. I would find it indefensible if we were not to give the people of Northern Ireland exactly the same opportunities as we gave to the people of Scotland and Wales.

If it was right for the people of Scotland to vote in a referendum for devolution, it must also be right for the voters of Northern Ireland. Even the terrorists could not claim that they and the people of Northern Ireland had not been treated as fairly as people in other parts of the United Kingdom. So often we hear the plea from those who wish to cause disruption in Northern Ireland that they are not receiving the same treatment as others. That is why I feel that in all justice and fairness the Government cannot turn down the new clauses. If they do, they will not be giving the people of Northern Ireland the same treatment as the people of Scotland and Wales. That cannot be defended.

I have based my argument on the fact that the devolution proposals for Scotland were fairly recent. It is not so long since the Scots voted on whether they wanted the Scotland Act to be implemented.

I have grave doubts about many parts of the Bill. I have grave doubts about its constitutional aspects, but in the final analysis it must be judged and tested by the voters of Northern Ireland. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is serious in his view that we must carry out the wishes of the majority, I can see no better way to do this than through a referendum. The precedents are there, It is on precedent that I rest my argument.

Sir Philip Goodhart

I commend in particular the kindly attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to new clause 11 which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) pointed out so ably and so vigorously, is taken precisely from the amendment that was included in the Scotland Act 1978.

It would be idle to deny that over the past 70 years the Conservative Party has taken an ambivalent attitude to referendums. Many colleagues have found it particularly difficult to reconcile a referendum with the concept of representative parliamentary democracy. However, many members of my party are well aware that we lack the sort of constitutional safeguard that can be found in many other democracies.

As long ago as 1911, the leader of the Conservative Opposition, Mr. Balfour, made an impassioned speech on an amendment to the Parliament Bill. According to the pamphlet "Politics Today", he said: In the referendum lies our hope of getting the son of constitutional security which every other country but our own enjoys … I am convinced that whatever is done now … before long, practically in the lifetime of all of us, we may see this great democratic engine brought into practice. Mr. Balfour was moving an amendment to the Parliament Bill which could fit neatly into this Bill. The amendment said: A Bill which (a) establishes a national Parliament, or Assembly, or a national council in Ireland, Scotland, England or Wales, with legislative powers therein .… shall not be presented to His Majesty nor receive the Royal Assent under the provisions of this Act until it has been submitted to a poll of the electors and approved at such a poll in accordance with the Schedule of this Act. I shall move closer to our present controversy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire will remember, although he was not in the House, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) moved an amendment in Committee on the Scotland Bill which said, broadly, that the Bill would not come into effect unless it was supported in a referendum by 40 per cent. of the electoral roll in Scottish constituencies. In successfully moving that amendment the hon. Gentleman said: It is desirable. to hold a referendum on any major constitutional matter on which the opinion of the electorate cannot be gathered from the way in which the electorate voted in a general election. That will normally be the situation where there is a division of opinion … within the main political parties."—[Official Report, 25 January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 1466.] Does the Cunningham qualification apply to the Bill?

Mr. Home Robertson

Did 40 per cent. of the electorate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland vote for the present Administration at the last general election?

Sir Philip Goodhart

They certainly did in my constituency, I am happy to say. I suspect that they did the same in the Secretary of State's constituency.

Is the Bill a major constitutional matter? I happen to believe that it is. The political editor of The Sunday Times last week described this Bill as "modest and ingeniously unmenacing".

I am sorry to see the representative of the Social Democratic Party, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn), leaving the Chamber, because I preferred the description of the Bill that was given by the Northern Ireland forum of the Social Democratic Party: It was generally felt that the Assembly as envisaged would be inherently unstable and that it would be likely to exacerbate the divisions within the community". I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) that the Assembly as envisaged by my right hon. Friend could turn into a boxing ring. I suspect that it is more likely to be a wrestling arena without a referee. However, the Secretary of State thinks, with evident sincerity, that the Assembly will produce stability. All right; there is a division of opinion. Let the people of Northern Ireland themselves decide whether they want to run that risk.

The second part of the proposition advanced by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury a mere four and a half years ago was that it was desirable to hold a referendum on any major constitutional matter on which the opinion of the electorate cannot be gathered from the way in which the electorate voted in a General Election."—[Official Report, 25 January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 1465.] In so far as the opinion of the Northern Ireland electorate can be gathered from the last general election, it would appear that it is against this Bill. Virtually all the elected representatives from Northern Ireland have voted against it. Even the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) thought that it would not work. Certainly most of us in the Conservative Party who were concerned with Northern Ireland policy at the time of the last election do not recognise this Bill as the natural child of our manifesto committee. Thus, the second part of what might be called the Cunningham qualification has, in my opinion, been fulfilled.

Mr. Prior

I, too, have looked at the Cunningham qualification and I spent part of my Whitsun Recess reading through the debates on the referendum stages of the Scotland and Wales Bill in preparation for this debate. In this part of what we might call the Cunningham amendment, to which my hon. Friend has just referred, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said that he wanted a referendum where the opinion of the electorate cannot be gathered from the way in which the electorate voted in a General Election. That will normally be the situation where there is a division of opinion or a major division of opinion within the main political parties."—Official Report, 25 January 1978; Vol. 942, c. 1465.] However, my hon. Friend knows that neither of those premises applies to Northern Ireland. The opinion of the Northern Ireland electorate can be gathered clearly from the way in which it voted in a general election and the way in which it would vote in Assembly elections. Divisions in Northern Ireland are between and not within the major political parties. There is a significant difference and my hon. Friend may wish to comment upon it.

9.15 pm
Sir Philip Goodhart

In so far as it is possible to ascertain the views of an electorate from a general election in Northern Ireland, it seems irrefutable that a majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland voted in the 1979 general election for parliamentary candidates who are against the Bill. It is therefore impossible, taking into account the Cunningham qualification, to argue that there is a mandate from the electorate in Northern Ireland for this measure.

I have paid particular attention to the Cunningham qualification, for a reason that my right hon. Friend knows well. When it came to a vote on the qualification, a majority of the present Cabinet voted for the Cunningham amendment. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip voted for it—

Mr. Home Robertson

Then it must have been wrong.

Sir Philip Goodhart

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland voted for the amendment.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

That makes three reasons why the amendment must have been wrong.

Sir Philip Goodhart

Surely what is right for Scotland must be right for Northern Ireland.

Sir John Biggs-Davison


Sir Philip Goodhart

I wish to bring my remarks to a close. I do not believe that it is the duty of the Conservative Party or the duty of the Government to thrust on any part of the United Kingdom a system of devolution that it does not want.

Sir J. Biggs-Davison

May I bring my hon. Friend from Scotland to Northern Ireland and remind him, or ask him whether he recalls, that he was good enough to act as a sponsor of a Bill of mine which the House gave me leave to introduce without dissent? The purpose of the Bill was to amend the Ireland Act 1949. That Act provided that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom could not be changed against the wishes of the Northern Ireland Parliament. We foresaw the threat to the Stormont Parliament and we were right. That Parliament was abolished, so that buttress of the constitutional position was removed. We sought to provide that there should be no change in the constitutional status of the Province without putting the proposal to the people of Northern Ireland by plebiscite or referendum.

Sir Philip Goodhart

My hon. Friend is right and he was right on the occasion to which he has referred. I was delighted to support him then as I have been on so many other occasions.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

It would be normal when considering a proposition of this character, as it is raised by the three amendments—there are substantially three that we are considering in the group—to proceed from the general to the particular and to consider, first, the general aspects, objections and advantages of referendums and then to turn to consider the proposed applications under the individual amendments. However, I think that it will be both briefer and more logical in this case to proceed in the contrary direction. I therefore want to look at the three substantial amendments separately and test the application of a referendum in each case before concluding by drawing some general observations about referendums in a more abstract fashion.

There are three distinct circumstances in which the amendments that we are debating together envisage the use of a referendum. First, according to the amendment, and its companion, moved by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), when an Assembly has formulated and put forward proposals to the Secretary of State under clause 1, they should first be submitted for the approval of the electors of Northern Ireland before the subsequent stages for which the Bill provides take place.

The second circumstance is to be found in amendment No. 26, on which we hope to hear one of the members of the Democratic Unionist Party speak. For a considerable time during the debate I have assumed that the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. McQuade) would be dilating for the Committee on amendment No. 26. At any rate, en attendant, I shall observe for purposes of definition that a different sort of referendum is there envisaged, a referendum whereby the Secretary of State can inform himself on specific questions.

There are points that might be raised in the Secretary of State's mind that he would wish to take into account in coming to his decision on the proposals before laying an order before the House. The suggestion is that he should be enabled to use a referendum for the purpose of informing himself as to the state of opinion on those specific points.

Thirdly, and different again, there is that circumstance to which the hon. Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) not unnaturally addressed himself—the South Islington and Finsbury type referendum. After a measure—in this case, this particular measure—has passed from the House to another place and has received Royal Assent, it should then be submitted, as it were, as a long-stop to a referendum of the electorate of Northern Ireland. Therefore, in each case the subject matter is different.

In the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Beckenham it is proposed that a finished Act of Parliament should be submitted to the "Yea" or "Nay" of a referendum upon certain conditions. If it fails, it is to be repealed, as, so happily, the Scotland Act was repealed in 1979. At the opposite end of the scale is the first amendment, whereby before any legislative action to create any devolved powers has taken place by means of the machinery of the Bill a referendum is required to approve the initial proposal that comes from the Assembly.

There is one consideration that attaches particularly to the first case, that of amendment No. 101. That was illustrated dramatically by the quarrel that took place—it is perhaps not too rough to describe it as a quarrel—between the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the Secretary of State. That was a disagreement about a substantial aspect of the whole matter. It was a disagreement on a matter upon which the view and vote of an elector in a referendum might depend. There cannot be any doubt that the hon. Member for Antrim, North has been applying himself to those proposals in the Bill for a considerable time. It cannot be said that he is a person lacking either in perception or in diligence. The least that can be said is that he has devoted more time to these matters than any ordinary elector voting in the referendum would be likely to devote or would be able to devote to them. There have been various stages through which he has been able to study the incubation of the proposals, the White Paper and the Bill itself, not to mention the notes on clauses recently vouchsafed to us by a generous Minister.

At the end of all that, it appeared this afternoon that the hon. Member for Antrim, North was taken by surprise to learn a most vital fact that was implicit in the Secretary of State's scheme and in the Bill itself. If there can be a misunderstanding of those dimensions—it is certainly no intentional misunderstanding, if that is not a contradiction in terms—between the Secretary of State, who is no doubt right in this case about what the Bill means and does, and the hon. Member for Antrim, North, let us consider what we would be doing in submitting to a referendum for the approval of the electorate at large a set of proposals of a possibly complicated character arrived at in the Assembly. You may recall, Mr. Armstrong, in our proceedings yesterday, when we were examining subsection (3) of the clause, it was only after considerable labour and investigation that we became aware of certain arrangements that might perhaps be arrived at by the Assembly in framing a proposal to put forward, if the necessary conditions were fulfilled, to the Secretary of State.

How can it be rational, having elected an Assembly to lucubrate upon proposals, to mull them over and debate them, to draft them and redraft them, with all the complications that it is considered may be necessary to produce the checks, balances and safeguards for minorities and the rest, to put all that in the lap of the electorate and to tell it that its "Yes" of "No" will decide whether the proposals go forward to the Secretary of State? The proposals will net even have been presented to this House. They will not even have been debated in the House.

We would flatter ourselves greatly if we supposed that anything like 70 per cent., a figure much bandied about, of the electorate of Northern Ireland follow these debates with the degree of attention that would be necessary for it to inform itself of what the whole thing is about in the manner that hon. Members, somewhat laboriously, right and day, win through to some comprehension of the proposals before us.

Yet, before any of that has happened, and before the proposals have been processed by debate in Parliament—an imperfect instrument but nevertheless an instrument of ellightenment—it is suggested that we should throw them at the electorate with a little ballot paper asking "Do you agree or don't you agree?" I am afraid that the result is that the electorate would be voting under the influence of a gross misapprehension even if it was not deliberately encouraged by evilly disposed persons in those misapprehensions. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten), shakes his head at my reference to evilly disposed persons. I hope that he did not misunderstand me and think that I supposed that he or any member of the Government or anyone sitting on the Conservative Benches was in my mind at the time. Now the hon. Gentleman expresses assent. I am in even greater embarrassment. I can only say that if the motion of assent indicates that the hon. Gentleman did think that I was applying that description to the denizens of the Front Bench, I assure him that he is completley mistaken. I invite him to give me a negative signal. He is not giving me a signal at all. I have, at any rate, put upon the record my disclaimer and must leave it at that.

We know very well in our profession that not all of us are above concealing from the electorate on some matter of which we may particularly be desirous of persuading them a material or relevant aspect of a subject that is in political agitation. I state the matter more cautiously in those terms.

9.30 pm

What useful reliable result, that was not in itself an insult to the intelligence of the electors, could be produced by throwing at them a proposal that came from the Assembly and saying "There, do you agree with that? Yes or No? Tell us: it depends on you."? That cannot be a sensible way in which to proceed, whatever other use we are to make of the instrument of a referendum in the Bill.

I am sorry to be making these remarks in the absence of the hon. Member for Harborough, but one has to proceed with the debate. I cannot conceive that there can be a genuinely useful purpose or a practical result from the machinery that he proposes in his amendments Nos. 101 and 102.

It is a somewhat different difficulty that assails me when I consider the application of a referendum that is proposed in the name of the hon. Member for Antrim, North. There would be greater precision in the matters submitted under that proposal for a referendum, if referendum is the correct term in so narrow a context, of the electorate.

Under these amendments we should have to apprehend almost the opposite danger. It would be almost inevitable that the terms in which the inquiry was drawn would mean—I am not imputing the desire to fudge the result to any Secretary of State availing himself of the provision—that in formulating the sort of question to which the Secretary of State would have to address himself between the clause 1 stage and the clause 2 stage, the terminology of that question would prejudice the decision in the minds of the electors to whom the question was submitted.

The hon. Member for Harborough spent a considerable part of his speech ruminating upon the unsatisfactory nature of such inquiries that the Secretary of State might informally be able to make for satisfying his mind on such a matter as the widespread acceptance of proposals among the people of Northern Ireland generally. Those criticisms and doubts may be well founded. However, if I had to choose between the Secretary of State informing himself by such inquiries as he might decide to make as to the state of opinion about one subject or another, or his having to formulate his question in the terms of a referendum and go through the balloting process, I should be much more inclined to rely on the outcome of the former procedure, submitted as it would be to the House in terms of debate with the possibility of cross-examination and questioning.

That would be better than having the proposal brought to the House by the Secretary of State, who could say to the House "There is no argument about this. These are the relevant factors which I have, in accordance with the Act, ascertained by means of a referendum." I should not wish the House to be confronted either as to the main question or as to any of the ingredients of its answer with a predetermined result, served up to it, apparently, by its electoral masters. Again, I do not find much that appears advantageous in amendment No. 26.

That brings me, finally, to the precedented new clause 11, or its alternative, new clause 12; the difference being either a straight majority or an affirmative vote of 40 per cent. of the electorate, which has been applied in my view successfully to the Scotland and Wales Acts that were passed by the House in 1978. Therefore, it is a much more practical and challenging question to which one addresses oneself in considering the content of those two new clauses.

Despite the precedent and the happy outcome, to which I should like to think that I contributed—if not in Scotland where I made an occasional foray, then in the land of my fathers where I addressed the final meeting in the campaign—I am doubtful of the utility of applying the same procedure to this measure.

Sir Philip Goodhart

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that on 21 January 1978 he did not appear to have so many qualms, because he voted for that amendment.

Mr. Powell

I well remember what my motives were. [Laughter.] The laughter in the Committee suggests that I hardly need specify what those motives were.

I may have created another difficulty for myself because there is no secret of the fact that I voted against the Second Reading of this Bill. Unhappily, I remain convinced that it will do harm and no good to those to whom it is proposed to bring benefit if it reaches the statute book. Nevertheless, I find myself resisting the notion of applying to the Bill, if it should reach the statute book, the procedure that is outlined in the two new clauses.

There would be an essential difference between the Wales and Scotland Acts and this Bill, should it ever become an Act. Each of those Acts prescribed and laid down, in as much detail as was necessary legislatively, a scheme of legislative and administrative devolution—Cabinet-style devolution—for Scotland and Wales. It was a definite proposition. True, the consequences of those Acts being implemented, and one's understanding of the consequences, were largely determined by the study to which those measures had been subjected during their long and repeated passage through the House. One might have had some anxieties as to whether the electorates of those parts of the United Kingdom were fully aware—even though the finished product stood in front of them—of the dangers, disadvantages and possible political disasters which they portended for Scotland and Wales.

However, that is not what the Bill will be. If the Bill, or anything that looks like it, is to become an Act, it will not be a scheme for devolution. It will not be a devolution Act. It will not be comparable with the Scotland and Wales Acts. It will be an instrument whereby some sort, or degree, of qualified devolution—admittedly, legislative as well as administrative—might, at some time, come into existence in Northern Ireland.

That is a very different matter upon which to seek the suffrages of the electorate through a referendum. After all, only a referendum stood between the Scotland and Wales Acts and their implementation. One feels a retrospective shudder—I think that such a phrase was once coined by Nietzsche—and one feels that one has narrowly escaped a past danger when one contemplates the fact that but for the outcome of those referendums, those monstrous structures might have been at their deadly work of breaking up the Union of the United Kingdom—[Interruption.] One can always rely on confirmation from the Scottish nationalist Bench for that self—evident proposition.

For all the dangers, difficulties and disadvantages that the Assembly imports, the Bill, if enacted, would not be a measure of devolution. It would be a measure by means of which an unpredictable type of devolution might come into existence. Therefore, the analogy drawn by the hon.

Member for Beckenham, that was apparently so telling, between the Scotland and Wales Bills and this Bill, is imperfect.

There is a further consideration. Under the Bill, devolution could not be realised other than as a result of further processes to come before the House. In some cases, that will not only mean a debate on an Order in Council. A substantial matter would no doubt involve a debate on the proposals, before the question of debating the operative Order in Council arose. There would be subsequent opportunities to alarm, alert, consult or express public opinion before devolution could occur.

That brings me to the more general considerations of using referendums in a unitary parliamentary State such as the United Kingdom. In those circumstances, a referendum fundamentally impugns the status and function of a Member of Parliament. The first amendment impugns the Assembly's function and status. After all, the first amendment would say "Elect an Assembly; discover—through those whom the Assembly elects—the proposals that should be put forward and then do not believe them or take them at their word. Do not say that we have discovered the proposals that the electorate would like to put forward. Go back to square one. Refer to drawer and discover whether the whole operation of having an Assembly produced any useful result."

The challenge, conflict and incompatibiltiy is much more severe when the key to measures is held by the House. Hon. Members are empowered—as the medieval formula said—to grant and decide on behalf of those who elected them. Our entire system of control over the executive and over legislation is based upon the principle that those who sit in this House have been entrusted with that full power, on behalf of the part of the Kingdom that they represent, for the duration of a Parliament.

It is a denial of that basic assumption to say that Members of Parliament are not fit or competent to approve an Order in Council. They may be competent to decide other things and to make other laws, but they are not competent to speak for their constituents on that matter. It should be borne in mind that the election of Northern Ireland Members would largely impart to the electorate the type of considerations that are most relevant to whether this or that Order in Council should be made under this measure. Therefore, we who represent Northern Ireland constituencies could claim more than most hon. Members in most contexts in which they vote in the House that we were sent here because we share the views of the majority of our constituents.

9.45 pm

The point about the quality of Northern Ireland Members brings me to my last general observation that the Committee should take into account before coming to, or even approaching, a conclusion on the question of a referendum attached to such a constitutional matter. To which electorate should the referendum be submitted?

During yesterday's proceedings, I interrupted an hon. Member to register with him the fact that in this Bill we are enacting constitutional legislation for the United Kingdom and that, in as much as Ulster is an integral part of the United Kingdom, this is constitutional legislation for the United Kingdom. In Government pronouncements about responsibility for Northern Ireland there has always been the careful formulation that the future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland and for the Government and Parliament of the United Kingdom as a whole. Of course, initially, it must be a matter for the people of Northern Ireland in as much as they debate their future and elect Members whom they send to this sovereign Parliament as the repositories of their views and wishes. However, we come here to form an integral part of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

The central implication of our Unionist claim is that, no less than any other part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland should be legislated for by this House. It is inconsistent with that claim that we should not just overturn the discretion and the authority of hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies but that we should repudiate the authority and qualifications of the House to legislate for Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Beckenham might be entitled to say that the objection was implicit in the South Islington and Finsbury clauses of the Scotland Act and the Wales Act. It was one of the objectionable aspects of those clauses. If I had not wished to see the trigger mechanism installed, good or bad, I would have been prepared to argue that if there were to be a referendum on those Acts, since they were Acts that involved the future of the United Kingdom, it should have been a United Kingdom referendum.

After surveying the different and cogent inconveniences of the successive applications proposed in the three amendments, upon which I hope the Committee can come to a conclusion separately, my general conclusion is that there is an undeniable inconsistency between our constitutional position and the use of a referendum, which is at its extreme in the case of this Bill.

It will probably have occurred to you, Mr. Armstrong, with increasing force as my remarks proceeded, that I do not feel able to support any of these amendments.

Mr. Prior

It might be for the convenience of the Committee if I begin with a resume of the effect of the amendments. The first amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) would preclude any devolution proposals produced by the Assembly from being laid before Parliament until a majority of the Northern Ireland electorate had approved them. The Democratic Unionist Party amendment and the Tory Back-Bench new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) and others provide for the holding of a referendum, but in different circumstances. In the DUP amendment, the Secretary of State, before laying before Parliament any proposals from the Assembly for the devolution of powers, would have the discretion to hold a referendum on part of the content of such proposals or on anything concerned with the future government of Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend's new clauses provide for a referendum to be held after the enactment of the Bill to determine whether the people of Northern Ireland wish the provisions of the new Act to be put into effect.

I have considered carefully the case for a referendum on devolution proposals put forward by the Assembly, but that would not be the right course. The people of Northern Ireland will elect the Assembly, which will then have the task of producing devolution proposals. Once those proposals have been produced, they must be submitted to me and, through me, to the House of Commons. Parliament would then have an opportunity to decide on at least two separate occasions whether the devolution proposals meet the criteria that we discussed in the previous series of amendments.

I agree that the main justification for a referendum would be to assist Parliament in deciding whether any devolution proposals should be implemented. Parliament will naturally know which parties and Assembly Members are in favour of such proposals and can take that into careful account in deciding whether the proposals enjoy widespread acceptance throughout the community. But—it is a big "but"—unless devolution proposals are supported by an extremely high proportion of the Northern Ireland electorate, the referendum results will not tell Parliament whether the proposals enjoy cross-community support.

I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) that the position in Northern Ireland is different from that in Scotland because, as the White Paper illustrated, in Northern Ireland there are two distinct traditions and identities, both of which must be taken into account. The 1978 referendum on Scottish devolution provided the necessary information on whether devolution should go ahead, but it would be difficult to interpret a referendum result in Northern Ireland as there would be no way of knowing, or even guessing, the support enjoyed by a proposal in each part of the community.

In a recent article about the possibiliy of holding a referendum, Mr. Bogdanor said: A referendum, however, would have to be held separately amongst each of the two communities for, clearly, the minority Catholic community would not regard itself as bound by a majority composed exclusively of Protestants but it would be difficult and a remarkable departure from British practice to hold an official referendum amongst two separate electorates. Moreover, there would be no point in holding a referendum unless politicians had already agreed a basis for settlement for the 1973 border poll showed that the electorate of Northern Ireland would follow the advice of the politicians. The Protestant vote is solidly for the link with Britain while the Catholics did as their leaders asked and boycotted the poll. I do not believe that the idea of a referendum in the Northern Ireland context can be compared with the Scottish or Welsh position.

Mr. Moate

Would not the logic of that argument lead the Secretary of State to the conclusion that the border poll itself is unsatisfactory?

Mr. Prior

The article discusses that point. It says: Were there to be any change in the outlook of either of the two communities it would be fanciful to suppose that a referendum would be needed to register it just as if there were ever to be a swing of opinion in the Province so that the majority came to favour union with the Republic no referendum would be required to exhibit that fact. That may be right, but it is no case for a change in the border poll legislation. By the time there had been that swing of opinion we should all know about it and would not require a referendum.

There could be a number of devolution proposals. If the Assembly favoured the partial devolution route to full devolution under amendment No. 101, there would be a requirement to have a referendum on each of the proposals. We should have a series of referendums. Similar arguments apply to amendment No. 26, although I recognise that that gives the Secretary of State discretion to hold a poll to obtain the views of the people of Northern Ireland on devolution or anything else concerned with the government of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that in the 1974 Act there was a section that was almost identical with amendment No. 26. Is he now saying that the draftsmen of that Act were ill-advised to put in such a section, or is he saying that there has been a miraculous change in events that makes it unnecessary?

Mr. Prior

I am aware of the section in the 1974 Act to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It provides that the Secretary of State may obtain the views of the people of Northern Ireland on any matter contained in or arising out of a report of the Convention or otherwise concerned with the future government of Northern Ireland. The inclusion of that provision was a matter for the Government. I remain convinced that a referendum would not be right. The provision in that Act has never been used.

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress; to sit again this day.