HC Deb 12 January 1989 vol 144 cc984-5
7. Sir Michael McNair-Wilson

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what measures he is considering to enable Northern Ireland political parties represented at Westminster to play a more constructive role in the administration of the Province.

14. Mr. Gow

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress he is making towards his declared aim of devolution in the Province.

Dr. Mawhinney

All the main constitutional political parties have said that they support a policy of devolution. The two Unionist leaders put to my right hon. Friend nearly a year ago outline proposals about devolution. As he told them at the time, and on several subsequent occasions, he found their proposals constructive and suggested that the next step should be to move to inter-party dialogue. He has since repeated his call for further talks, without preconditions, and I confirm our hope that the Unionist and other party leaders can respond positively to my right hon. Friend's invitation.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson

My hon. Friend will be aware of the promise in the Queen's Speech to give local politicians greater involvement in the affairs of Northern Ireland. What proposals has he for making that promise come true?

Dr. Mawhinney

My hon. Friend will know that the proposals that were put to my right hon. Friend were seen not only by him but by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as a constructive basis for discussion. I confirm that we would wish to do what we could to encourage party leaders and members of the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to seek ways to enable them to sit down together without pre-condition and, if necessary, outside the framework of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to consider how best to carry forward the governance of the Province.

Mr. Gow

If it was right in 1979 for our party to propose that we should seek to set up a regional council or councils in Northern Ireland with widely devolved powers over local matters, why is it wrong for us to implement those proposals in 1989?

Dr. Mawhinney

Because, as my hon. Friend knows, the other part of our manifesto commitment in 1979 was to seek to move towards devolution. The part that he quoted was in recognition of an inability to do so. I must repeat to my hon. Friend what I said in my original reply. All the main constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland have said that they support a policy of devolution, as does Her Majesty's Government. It is to that end that we are continuing to work.

Mr. John D. Taylor

As a better alternative to the failed Anglo-Irish Agreement is required, hon. Members will welcome the Minister's statement that he wants talks without any pre-conditions. Am I to assume that that means that his previous pre-condition that the Anglo-Irish Agreement remain in operation, has now been dropped?

Dr. Mawhinney

The right hon. Gentleman must understand that every political party in Northern Ireland can find some reason in history for not looking towards the future. In some cases it may be three years into history, in some cases it may be 30 years, and in other cases it may be 300 years. This Government believe that it is time for political parties in Northern Ireland to fix their eyes on the future and to find ways that will enable them to come together to put that into effect without pre-conditions and, I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, if necessary, outside the framework of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Mr. Alton

Given what the Minister has just said, does he accept that the major aim of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was the creation of a cross-community devolved assembly? Does he accept that a logical step towards that objective might be the creation, under Standing Order No. 99, of the Northern Ireland Committee which would allow politicians from both sides of the community to come together? If that Committee was to meet in Northern Ireland, it might be a useful step towards devolution.

Dr. Mawhinney

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government's policy on devolution did not start with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the Northern Ireland Committee. If approaches were made to the Government to reconstitute the Committee they would be looked at sympathetically.