HC Deb 04 December 1985 vol 88 cc299-303 3.30 pm
Mr. Peter Archer

(Warley, West) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on his speech in Brussels yesterday and its effects on the implementation of the Anglo-Irish agreement.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Tom King)

I spoke yesterday at a lunch given jointly by the Brussels Chamber of Commerce, the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium and the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board. After speaking first in support of the investment opportunities in Northern Ireland, I referred also to the Anglo-Irish agreement. I expressed my firm belief that, because the principle of consent had been accepted by both Governments so that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority, such a change would not occur. I recognise that the way that I expressed this indicated that I considered this also to be the view of Dr. FitzGerald. I of course accept that this is not the case, and I regret that my words should have given that impression. I am grateful for this opportunity to make the position clear.

In respect of the Anglo-Irish agreement, we stand fully by our commitment to its implementation.

Mr. Archer

I thank the Secretary of State for clarifying what he said, but will he clarify it a little further by confirming expressly that he stands by article 1(c) of the agreement, and that when he assented to that article it was not his view that it was wholly artificial and unrealistic? Does he appreciate that the Opposition supported the Government in giving the agreement a chance to work precisely because it did not commit anyone to any specific position on the ultimate destiny of Ireland, did not require anyone to accept or resile from any aspiration, and does not represent winning or losing for either side? We assume that both Governments meant what they said. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that, although the House is always sympathetic with someone who admits to a slip of the tongue, it is usually wiser to confess frankly that that is what it was than to put a gloss on it?

Mr. King

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will concede that I said that I regretted that the words I used gave that impression, and I wish to make that absolutely clear. I also wish to make it absolutely clear that we stand fully by the agreement in all its particulars. I gave my firm belief in my speech in Brussels, as I have elsewhere, that the principle of consent means that a change requires the consent of the majority, and that I believe that the majority will wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. It is my fervent wish that that should be so, and I make no apology for that. I hope and believe that through the agreement we shall develop relations in such a way that both the majority and the minority —it is part of our objective that the views of the minority can be properly considered —will wish to remain under the Government of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton,Pavilion)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he said in Brussels. Does he agree that, while it has been hard enough trying to govern the Province against the wishes of many of the minority, to attempt to govern it against the wishes of the majority and Sinn Fein would be to attempt the impossible? I hope that he will stick firmly to what he said in Brussels and in no way go back on it.

Mr. King

I thank my right hon. Friend. I stick firmly by my own beliefs —[Interruption.]—and I wish to make that absolutely clear. The regret that I expressed, I repeat, was that the phrases I used could have implied that others accepted them. Of course, we understand the ambitions and aspirations of the Government of the Republic, but my personal view is that the view of the majority will not change.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I, too, express my disappointment at the Secretary of State's choice of words, though I understand his explanation today. He well knows that interpretations will be put on his words on both sides of the border, so that he must be careful about what he says on these issues on all occasions. Is he aware that under the 1973 Act he can order a border poll at 10-year intervals? He might care to think about that in this case.

Mr. King

I am more than aware of what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his question, and the events of the last 24 hours have brought that home to me clearly. I am aware of the provision to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I see no requirement for it at the moment. I am not aware that that issue is in doubt as to what the will of the majority would be.

Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if his initial remarks had correctly represented the situation a great many of us would have found it much easier to support the agreement in the Division last week?

Mr. King

I am aware of my hon. Friend's view on that.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is not the real problem that to get the agreement the Government had to hint to Dr. FitzGerald that there might be a prospect of reunification, that they had to indicate that to Washington to win President Reagan's support and that they had to make statements at the same time designed to defuse loyalist opposition? Does not the real problem result from the Government having had to face two or three ways to get the agreement? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that an agreement founded on such duplicity cannot solve the problems of Northern Ireland?

Mr. King

I suppose one might have expected the right hon. Gentleman to seek to find such sinister implications in it. The agreement stands quite clearly. I was expressing my observations on Northern Ireland of what the outcome would be likely to be of the consent of the majority, and I hope that I have made that absolutely clear.

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us feel that in his short time at the Northern Ireland Office he has been pursuing this agreement with great determination and vision, and we wish him well? Will he also accept that the principle which we have accepted —that the majority in Northern Ireland should choose —has been followed for some time by this Government?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I was seeking, as I am seeking, to be understanding of the communities in Northern Ireland. Article 1 represents much more secure protection of their position than many of their political leaders are prepared to recognise. I stand by that. The acceptance by both Governments that any change in the status would come about only with the consent of the majority is a very important safeguard indeed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in future it would be wiser to allow the Irish Government to speak for themselves, which they are certainly able to do without any assistance from him? Is he aware that we have the strong impression —whether or not it is fair to have that impression I do not know —that the person who occupies the position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland usually has accepted the post with great reluctance and comes to the position with little understanding and knowledge of Irish problems or Irish history?

Mr. King

I have made my views clear. I was expressing my own believe in the matter. I accept entirely, as I made clear in my statement, that the way in which I expressed those remarks implied that the statement that I was making, as it were, expressed the Taoiseach's views as well, and I have made it clear that I do not speak for him.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the agreement will have the best chance of succeeding if he tells the truth, speaks in accordance with his conscience and is not hide-bound by public opinion in either the South or the North?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is extraordinary that certain unionist leaders have criticised my belief that there will not be a change in the majority view about their wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. I have expressed that view strongly, and I am surprised that they feel unable to support it.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley, Central)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will have to learn that the spoken word is like a sped arrow —it cannot be recalled? The Taoiseach must be suffering from a succession of blows. The first was, "Out, out, out" by the Prime Minister. Now we have heard "Never a united Ireland" from the right hon. Gentleman. What does he have to say about co-operation now with the south? Is he aware that he has shattered the accord before the ink is dry on the agreement? What does he have to say about that to those who supported him last week in the Lobby?

Mr. King

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman felt it necessary to make those remarks. I very much believe that they will not prove to be justified. We stand fully by the agreement and will seek to implement it, with the co-operation of the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the agreement states that there will be no change in the position in Northern Ireland unless the majority wish it and that there is no expectation that such a change will take place in the immediate future?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is absolutely correct. I was seeking to emphasise again the importance that I and, I believe, the majority of the community in Northern Ireland attach to article 1.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

As the words of article 1 are being questioned, may I bring to the notice of the Secretary of State that wise old Ulster adage which was put into a poem by Seamus Heaney: "Whatever you say, say nothing."

Mr. King

That has been repeated to me every day since I arrived in Northern Ireland. I am aware of that poem.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that those right hon. and hon. Members who take a different view from him about the likely long-term wishes of the people of Northern Ireland respect entirely his right to express his opinions, acknowledge that they are widely held and regret very much the damage that the action of the Opposition today is likely to do to the agreement?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have expressed sincerely my views about the significance of article 1. I stand by them and I think that they will prove to be well founded.

Mr. Eric S. Hefter (Liverpool, Walton)

Does the Secretary of State recall that when the Prime Minister outlined the accord I asked her why the Irish Government signed it. Has not the right hon. Gentleman expressed in clear terms the position of Her Majesty's Government all the way through: that at no time has it been suggested that there will be a united Ireland? There will never be a long-term solution to the problems of Ireland until the border goes and there is a united Ireland.

Mr. King

One issue upon which the Taoiseach and I are in absolute agreement is that there is no question of the removal of the border against the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach has made that clear on a number of occasions. The hon. Gentleman's solution would be singularly disastrous.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Does not the incident illustrate the defective nature of the agreement in both law and in politics in that it is possible for one party to take one view of it whereas the other party takes a completely opposite view of it?

Mr. King

The agreement is clear. The question is what is the likely forecast of what will happen. I was making it clear in my speech that I believe that the consent of a majority for any change in the status will not be forthcoming. That is my forecast. I know that there are others who hold different views, but I believe that I am entitled, on behalf of the Government, to express that view.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Nobody is objecting to the right hon. Gentleman expressing his view, which may or may not be the Government's view. The point that we are concerned about is not a mere slip of the tongue but his putting into the mouth of the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic words which would be politically damaging to any leader of any political party in the Republic. He has sought to act as a mouthpiece for the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland. Would not it be an idea, with his problems, that when he makes statements in future he should say whether he is speaking for himself, the Government, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, or just his own Back Benchers?

Mr. King

I sought to make it clear in my opening statement that I regretted the way in which I had phrased the remarks that I made which gave that impression.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Private notice questions are merely an extension of Question Time, and we have had 15 minutes on this one.

Mr. Archer

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since the Secretary of State expressed from the Government Front Bench a view which he said was his personal view, should not he make it clear to the House that it is a view which he shares with the Prime Minister?

Mr. Speaker

The Secretary of State has made his view clear.