HC Deb 10 February 1983 vol 36 cc1128-30
2. Mr. Arnold

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

4. Mr. McCusker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on progress to date towards the development of cross-community support in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

13. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of St ate for Northern Ireland whether he is satisfied with the working of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

17. Mr. Stanbrook

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the progress of constitutional reform in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Prior

The Northern Ireland Assembly resumed its work after the Christmas Recess on 25 January. As envisaged, a good deal of business is being handled by the six statutory committees corresponding to the Northern Ireland Departments. I welcome the fact that all the parties attending the Assembly are participating in the work of these committees. It remains a matter of regret that the SDLP has not taken its seats. I believe that Northern Ireland's interests would be best served if the elected representatives of all the constitutional parties were to seek agreement on devolution in the Assembly.

Mr. Arnold

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the internal procedures of the Assembly are not a matter for the British Government and that he will not intervene in disputes between Members of the Assembly and the Speaker?

Mr. Prior

I can confirm both parts of my hon. Friend's supplementary question. It would be much in the interests of the Assembly if we allowed it to get on with its work.

Mr. Canavan

When will the Secretary of State admit that his Northern Ireland Assembly is an absolute farce because of its inbuilt Unionist majority, which resulted from the gerrymandered division of Ireland more than half a century ago? When will he admit that the only constitutional change that will bring lasting stability to the people of Ireland is the peaceful reunification of Ireland, which is now the official policy of the Labour party?

Mr. Prior

If the hon. Gentleman believes that that will happen tomorrow, he has a lot to learn about the state of opinion in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Stanbrook

As, by any standards, Northern Ireland needs a period of constitutional peace and continuity, will my right hon. Friend refrain from encouraging the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic to propose any fresh initiative that might carry the majority of people in Northern Ireland along a road that they do not wish to travel?

Mr. Prior

It is not for me to restrain the Taoiseach from having views of his own. I am strongly concerned with the future constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. I hope that all hon. Members will give me what assistance they can to help with that development.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Secretary of State agree that Northern Ireland needs not just constitutional peace but peace, and that the present situation is not conducive to that? How is the Northern Ireland Assembly progressing, since the minority community is not represented because its representatives are not attending the Assembly? Will he make a statement about that, as it is the crux of the matter?

Mr. Prior

The answer to that, with deep regret, is that one of the minority parties is not attending the Assembly. The Alliance party, however, which has a number of Catholics, is attending the Assembly and is playing a full part in it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his influence to help the SDLP to play a full part, too.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Secretary of State take it from me that, far from being a farce, the Northern Ireland Assembly is already getting down to useful work? Does he appreciate that there is more time in the Assembly than in this House to concentrate on examining Government legislation and proposing changes to it, and that Assembly Members have already seen some fruit from their labours?

Mr. Skinner

Another gravy train.

Mr. Prior

There is much in what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) says. I believe that the Assembly, even in its present form, is performing a task which the people of Northern Ireland wish to see carried out. The more that it gets on with that task, the better.

Mr. Fitt

Does the Secretary of State agree that after nearly 14 years of murder and carnage the possibility of peaceful reunification suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) does not exist at the present time? Does he further agree that, irrespective of what may be said in Dublin, in this House, in Washington or in the European Community, the only people who can resolve the differences that now divide Northern Ireland are the Protestant and Catholic communities of the north, that that must be the starting point and that every effort should be geared to that?

Mr. Prior

I endorse all that the hon. Gentleman said. I urge hon. Members in all parts of the House to appreciate the difficulty of the problem and the necessity to seek a solution in the context of the two traditions of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Concannon

Will the Secretary of State take it from me, as one who has tried to be helpful on this and who has spoken to members of the SDLP, that, sadly, there is no possibility of the SDLP taking part in the Assembly, at any rate before the next general election? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if he wishes to take the minority community with him he must take its views into account when considering what is said in the Assembly about cross-community support?

Mr. Prior

I am aware that I must take the views of the SDLP into account, and that factor would always be before this House if any proposals for devolution were put before us. In the meantime, I shall try to give the SDLP as much access as possible to government and to what is happening.