HC Deb 26 January 1984 vol 52 cc1039-42
5. Mr. Murphy

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what consideration is currently being given to the transformation of the Northern Ireland Assembly into a regional council with local government powers in order to provide administrative devolution.

13. Mr. Hal Miller

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he next expects to address a meeting of the Ulster Assembly.

14. Miss Maynard

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

20. Sir John Biggs-Davison

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what discussions he has had since Christmas with political leaders in the Province.

Mr. Prior

In recent weeks I have had a number of meetings with the Northern Ireland constitutional party leaders. I have listened carefully to their suggestions for political development in the Province, including suggestions for the devolution of administrative functions to locally elected representatives. The Government remain of the view that any such arrangements must enjoy widespread support across the community if they are to be stable and durable. I regret that the Ulster Unionist party has withdrawn from the Assembly and I urge it and the SDLP to take their places. Meanwhile, the Assembly continues. I have no plans to address it at present.

Mr. Murphy

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I appreciate that he wishes to obtain widespread community support for his plans, but does he agree that administrative devolution to a local authority, which may come from the Assembly, thus turning it into a regional assembly, may be a way forward which would command widespread support in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Prior

That remains to be seen. I do not necessarily rule out the possibility of some changes which could be helpful to the Northern Ireland community generally if we could obtain agreement on them.

Mr. Hal Miller

When my right hon. Friend next talks to political leaders, or has the opportunity to address the Assembly, will he take the opportunity to explain why permission was given for the change in the name of the Londonderry district authority?

Mr. Prior

I have no doubt that I shall have a number of opportunities to explain that in the next few weeks. The Local Government Act 1972 clearly provides that district councils may apply for their names to be changed—and it is the district council. The city council made it very clear over a period of time that it desired the change. Recognising the sensitivities of the case, and having listened to a range of representations over a considerable period, the Government thought it right in this case to accede to the council's request.

Miss Maynard

Does the Secretary of State accept that the horrific problems of Northern Ireland will not be solved within the context of the present Northern Ireland state, that the violence springs from the fact that we divided Ireland without the consent of the Irish people, that that violence requires a political solution and that we shall not be able to get down to the politics until the Unionist veto is withdrawn? Will he give favourable consideration to that?

Mr. Prior

That point of view is frequently put to me, but I must tell the House that I am absolutely certain that there can be no change in the constitution of Northern Ireland within the foreseeable future. I make that absolutely clear. Those who suggest otherwise do not help the many constitutional nationalists who may wish for a different solution but who know perfectly well that without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland it will simply not be forthcoming.

Sir John Biggs-Davison

In view of the strange present condition of the Northern Ireland Assembly, will my right hon. Friend receive and consider ideas on administrative devolution being prepared by several of his hon. Friends with due regard both for unionist aspirations and for nationalist anxieties?

Mr. Prior

I am of course, prepared to look at any sensible proposals which meet the broad criteria that we have laid down. I have made that absolutely clear on a number of occasions to deputations which have come to see me. I must, however, insist and advise the House that unless there is a willingness by the minority as well to accept the proposals put forward they simply will not work. One of the difficulties is that it was the local government route which was so despised and was the original cause of so many of the problems which we now face.

Mr. Hume

Will the Secretary of State admit at last that from the very beginning, and even before he announced his proposals publicly, the SDLP told him that no Unionist party would accept the terms that he was laying down for devolution of power and that therefore the Assembly would not work? Will he thank the SDLP for its honesty, because if our advice had been taken he would not have wasted the last 18 months on a useless initiative?

Mr. Prior

I am afraid I cannot accept that. The whole purpose of the Assembly in its first instance was to enable people of very different and entrenched views to discover what they had in common, and many of them have a great deal in common in Northern Ireland, including the preservation of peace. I believe that if the SDLP had taken part in that Assembly it would have had a lot more influence on the Unionist party than it has been able to have from outside.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the Secretary of State agree that considerably more hope for the future of Northern Ireland comes from the Northern Ireland Assembly than from the talks taking place in another jurisdiction, in which the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) is taking part? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that consideration is presently being given to the setting up of a Report Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to discharge one of the functions that he set it under the 1982 Act?

Will he tell the House in what way he can give support and back-up to the Assembly in the Report Committee? Will he assure the House that the change of the name of the city council of Londonderry to Derry will go through the Assembly by way of an Order in Council and not a statutory rule, and that the House will also have the opportunity to debate and give a verdict on that matter?

Mr. Prior

I think that the Assembly has done some extremely good work. If the Report Committee is set up—I hope that it will be—we shall seek to give it what help we can. I believe, though, that only the people of Northern Ireland themselves, whether they are unionists or constitutional nationalists, can actually prepare and advance the ground for devolution and for a greater say in their own affairs. I think that the Assembly provides them with an opportunity to do so.

Mr. McNamara

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many people consider that his failure when he established the Assembly to give any meaningful consideration to the aspirations of the SDLP, which prevented it from joining the Assembly, in fact so undermined the SDLP's position that in very many ways the success of Provisional Sinn Fein in the election could be laid at the right hon. Gentleman's door?

Mr. Prior

I think that that would be a grossly unfair position to adopt and I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman for taking it. The SDLP was very suspicious that the terms written into the 1982 Act would not protect it from an old-type Stormont. I should have thought that everything I have said and everything that has happened since show that the Government were not prepared to put proposals to this House for devolution until and unless there was widespread acceptance throughout the community. That acceptance must mean that the minority themselves are agreeable to the sort of proposals that we have made.

Mr. Stan Thorne

Will the Minister consider, in view of his reference to consent, setting up a conference of organisations north and south of the border in order to draw up a new constitution for a united Ireland?

Mr. Prior

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that, if he believes that Act is an option, he knows very little about Northern Ireland.

Mr. Soley

Does the Secretary of State accept that nothing could be less helpful than for him to say to the constitutional nationalist parties that there is no hope for a constitutional change whatsoever? Everyone accepts that there is no hope for a Northern Ireland settlement without consent from the 1 million unionists and the 4 million nationalists in the island of Ireland, but the Assembly itself was in fact a constitutional change and one which was bitterly resisted by both unionists and nationalists. We ought to recognise that and make it clear that other changes in the constitution are needed, and those might be necessary in the face of resistance from some parts of the community.

Mr. Prior

I have made it perfectly plain that if there is a widespread wish for changes to the Assembly this House and the Government will consider them, but I stand by the general criteria laid down in the 1982 Act. All I can say about constitutional change is that the Labour party is committed to no constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people. It knows as well as I do that that consent is simply not forthcoming, and that is what must be understood.