HC Deb 15 January 1987 vol 108 cc393-4
2. Mr. John Mark Taylor

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what representations he has received concerning the revival of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

The Government have offered a round table conference on devolution and in advance of this are ready to facilitate informal talks among the parties. There is a wide measure of support for a return of greater responsibility to Belfast from Westminster and we have received a number of representations to that effect.

Mr. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Bearing in mind that Northern Ireland has no system of local government to compare with that in Britain, does he agree that it is unfortunate that there should not be a domestic forum in which Northern Ireland political activity could be induced in preference to the politics of the street and the politics of the courtroom?

Mr. Scott

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon, Friend. As he knows, we established the Assembly and encouraged and co-operated with it. We should like conditions to be created in which it could again play a constructive role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. It was only when the Assembly refused to undertake any of the work that had been laid on it by Parliament that we decided to dissolve it.

Mr. Bell

Will the Minister confirm that there is no question of returning to the status quo ante that existed prior to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and that there will be no return to the Protestant ascendancy in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that the Anglo-Irish Agreement provides sufficient scope for devolution for all the people of Northern Ireland? Is it not a fact that those who have ears should hear?

Mr. Scott

I assert once again that the Government believe that devolution remains the right objective for us to pursue, and as far as possible we shall pursue that objective. As for the hon. Gentleman's first remark, it is absolutely clear that the only basis on which such arrangements could be introduced would be on what was acceptable to the representatives of constitutional politics who reflect both traditions in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Budgen

Will my hon. Friend make it plain that it is not necessary to resurrect the Assembly in order to reintroduce a greater measure of local government in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Scott

That is certainly true, but perhaps my hon. Friend will remember what I have just said about the need for widespread acceptance of any changes in arrangements for Northern Ireland. The Government believe that devolution rather than increasing the powers of local government is more likely to achieve that.

Mr. Hume

In view of the call of the Secretary of State earlier this week for talks between the parties in Northern Ireland without preconditions about devolution, may I tell the Secretary of State that my party is ready to participate in such talks?

Mr. Scott

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will welcome that assurance as warmly as I do.

Mr. Cash

Will my hon. Friend agree that until those on the Unionist side of this problem appreciate that it is absolutely essential for them to participate locally, whether it is in an Assembly or in any other chamber, including this Chamber, it really will be impracticable to have revivals of Assemblies such as the Northern Ireland Assembly? We would all like to see it happen. The question is, will they let it happen?

Mr. Scott

The Government clearly understand the feelings of the Unionist community and their political representatives about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but I believe that it is folly for them to boycott this House and contacts with British Ministers on all of this. The sooner they get back to proper relationships in these matters, the better.