HC Deb 22 June 1989 vol 155 cc479-81
4. Mr. Harry Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will publish a draft Bill of Rights to guarantee human rights and civil liberties in Northern Ireland, for consultation.

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

Human rights and civil liberties are already well protected by existing legislation in Northern Ireland. I am always willing to consider proposals for strengthening the existing safeguards, but I am not convinced that a Bill of Rights is required.

Mr. Barnes

Later today we shall be discussing direct rule and there will be an opportunity for the Minister to elaborate on the points that he has made. I hope that we can discuss the possibility of a Bill of Rights. It is likely that Front Bench spokesmen on both sides will wax lyrical about the need for democracy in Northern Ireland and then, for the fifteenth time, we shall moot the re-establishment of direct rule. Would not a Bill of Rights help to produce the circumstances and the framework in which we could move towards real devolved government in Northern Ireland?

Mr. King

I think that if the hon. Gentleman has studied the matter, he will know that there are very real problems about trying to produce a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland without encompassing a Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to address the protection of rights, I am certainly determined to ensure that they are properly protected. If that is achieved by separate and individual measures, he will know that one of the rights to which people are entitled is protected from discrimination. The Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill now before Parliament will be a major step forward in that direction.

Mr. Gow

Will not the human rights and civil liberties of the people of Northern Ireland be best protected if they are governed in the same way as their fellow citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom? Would their rights not be better protected if Northern Ireland Members could move amendments to proposed legislation and if the system of legislating for the Province by Order in Council ceased?

Mr. King

I have always made it clear that I am ready and willing to listen to any ideas for improving the procedures in the House. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has said, we shall shortly be debating the continuance of direct rule. I have made clear on three occasions—the fourth is about to arrive—my concern about direct rule and the fact that it is not a satisfactory long-term solution. I should very much like to find better ways to address some of these issues.

Mr. McCusker

Is the Secretary of State aware that a Bill of Rights is one of the few issues which meets his oft-stated criteria for cross-community support in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that members of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland believe that his reluctance to produce a Bill of Rights has more to do with the fact that he could not continue to govern us by the present totally undemocratic methods if there were a Bill of Rights?

Mr. King

As that is the first constructive comment that 1 have heard from the hon. Gentleman, I welcome it. He has made some suggestions, whether I agree with them or not, about how one might address the real issue of the government of Northern Ireland, and he has done so on a cross-community basis, claiming that he has ideas which could command support across the communities. I would welcome hearing any further suggestions that he might like to make.

Mr. Kilfedder

It is 15 years or more since I moved a motion urging the establishment of a Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom and, failing that, for Northern Ireland, so there is nothing new in that suggestion, although no doubt it will take the Secretary of State by surprise, as so many other matters take him by surprise. Surely the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to decide this matter by a referendum. Let us have a Bill of Rights based on the United States constitution and the amendments thereto.

Mr. King

As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the proposal that he put forward many years ago was on the basis of a Bill of Rights for the United Kingdom. The issue has to be addressed in that way. It is almost impossible to conceive of a separate Bill of Rights which would apply uniquely to Northern Ireland. The issue raises wide concerns and interests. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is not a new subject and has been widely debated.

Mr. Maclennan

Why does the Secretary of State pretend that the hon. Member representing the Ulster Unionists, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker), has made a new proposal when his party made the proposal in writing more than two years ago? It has been supported by other parties from Northern Ireland and by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. Does he not recognise that if he is unwilling to move in this way he will be seen to be governing against the wishes of all parties in Northern Ireland as well as my right hon. and hon. Friends, and he will face the unattractive prospect of being dragged back to Strasbourg time and again as more and more violations of the European convention on human rights occur.

Mr. King

Obviously, I did not make myself clear. I was seeking to explain that it is novel to hear constructive proposals from people who until now have preferred to remain silent. I welcome that. I know that this issue has been much discussed. It has been much discussed within my party and there have been long-standing discussions. I recognise that there is scope for serious discussion and I have called times beyond number for constructive suggestions.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his remarks to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) about not making constructive remarks in the House will be treated with utter contempt by the people of Northern Ireland in the same way as the contemptuous remark that he made about me during the previous Northern Ireland Question Time? My political demise was greatly exaggerated by the right hon. Gentleman. Will he go back to the pigeonhole and withdraw from it the reports of the Convention and the Assembly which say that we should have a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland supported across the board? Does he not think that in this centenary year, and with his name being King, he should have his Bill of Rights?

Mr. King

I am much distressed by that intervention because I know the deeply sensitive nature of the hon. Gentleman. The thought that anything that I said caused him distress disturbs me beyond measure. I am thinking of charging for the use of my name in the hon. Gentleman's election address as I noticed that it appears considerably more often than his own.

Mr. Mallon

Does the Secretary of State agree that a Bill of Rights for the North of Ireland is incompatible with the provisions of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984 and that until that pernicious legislation is removed from the statute book any positive and constructive discussion about a Bill of Rights is pure pie in the sky?

Mr. King

It is not accurate to say that. If the hon. Gentleman studies the European convention, he will realise that there are circumstances in which nations seeking to defend themselves against the evils of terrorism may, on occasions, have to take emergency steps which are consistent with, or recognised under, a convention on human rights because of the particular circumstances at the time. Any Bill of Rights would have to recognise those circumstances. The real attack on the rights of citizens and individual liberty comes from those who seek to murder and maim their fellow citizens.

Mr. Stanbrook

Have not the people of Northern Ireland been deprived of the biggest right of all in a democracy—that the will of the majority should prevail, with safeguards for the minority?

Mr. King

If my hon. Friend would like to join me, we can debate that subject in much greater detail shortly.