HC Deb 10 March 1983 vol 38 cc935-7
1. Mr. McCusker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects to devolve further powers to the Northern Ireland assembly.

2. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what plans he has for the future of the Northern Ireland assembly.

6. Sir John Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the working of the Northern Ireland assembly.

10. Mr. Arnold

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

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. James Prior)

Since I last answered questions in this House the Northern Ireland assembly and its departmental committees have continued to scrutinise the workings of government in Northern Ireland. Devolution of powers to the assembly is dependent on satisfying the criteria of widespread acceptance throughout the community, as set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1982.

My noble Friend the Minister of State made a statement to the assembly on public expenditure on 16 February; and on 22 February my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I met the leaders of the parties in the assembly to discuss agricultural matters and other matters touching on the conduct of assembly business. I welcome the wide range of topics which the assembly is addressing, and my ministerial colleagues and I will continue to do all we can to assist the assembly and to take full account of its recommendations.

Mr. McCusker

Does the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland agree that it is hard to visualise a more dangerous position than that which emerges from a powerless talking shop of 60 elected representatives from Northern Ireland being goaded, as they were yesterday, by the provisional IRA? Since it is considered imperative in some quarters that a long-term plan should be developed through which devolution might be achieved, will the right hon. Gentleman consider devolving some limited administrative powers to that assembly?

Mr. Prior

The efforts of the IRA will be centred on trying to make unworkable any democratic institution in Northern Ireland. The assembly should always bear that in mind. That is why it has acted with great responsibility.

Devolution must wait until such time as there is an agreement between the parties and widespread acceptance throughout the community, otherwise any form of devolution would not have the political stability we seek.

Mr. Canavan

When will the Secretary of State admit that there is no long-term future for his assembly and that only an all-Ireland Parliament, through which the Irish people can decide their own future—instead of being subjected to a sequence of divisive constitutional manoeuvres imposed by Britain—will bring peace and stability?

Mr. Prior

The hon. Gentleman's remarks show his lack of knowledge of Northern Ireland.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

Is not devolution to that body as conceived by my right hon. Friend an impossibility? Could not the useful committee work be transferred to Committees of Parliament sitting at Stormont and Westminster, thus strengthening the Union?

Mr. Prior

I do not accept for one moment that devolution to the assembly is impossible. Devolution is possible, but it will depend on the parties which take part in that assembly reaching widespread agreement.

Mr. Arnold

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Conservative party will go into the next general election committed to the principles set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1982?

Mr. Prior

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Soley

Does the Secretary of State accept that the assembly is unlikely to work or to bring in the minority community unless there is an all-Ireland dimension at one level or another? In our recent talks in Dublin there was interest in a British Irish council. Following his remarks in The Guardian today, cannot the right hon. Gentleman pursue that possibility, as it might enable people to lake part in the Assembly?

Mr. Prior

We must take all these things in time and allow proper consideration so that the people of Northern Ireland can understand exactly what we are seeking to do. We cannot hurry these things. However, I certainly accept that the better economic and security relationships that we have with the Republic will help. We can build on that basis, but it must be one on which all the parties in Northern Ireland can agree both with the Republic and with Great Britain.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the vast majority of those in the assembly have already embarked on obtaining devolved powers for Northern Ireland by working the powers that have been given to the Assembly? Does my right hon. Friend further recognise that there are those within the Assembly who will not submit to IRA pressure from outside or to the wreckers inside?

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for the latter part of that question. The Assembly is doing a good job and is scrutinising the work of direct rule. Furthermore, it has already achieved much more than most people thought possible.