§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Brooke)
I have been having discussions with the leaders of the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland about the possibilities of transferring greater power to locally elected representatives. I have made it clear that the Government would give serious consideration to any workable proposals for more local involvement in the government of Northern Ireland if they seemed likely to command widespread acceptance.
§ Mr. Cran
Does my right hon. Friend agree that far too much power is exercised in Northern Ireland by Northern Ireland Ministers and that, perforce, not enough is exercised by local people in the Province? Because the transfer of powers is well understood and accepted, and because the constitutional arrangements are there to accept, does my right hon. Friend agree that now may be the time for Northern Ireland politicians to sink their differences—which we all accept have been very real—in the interests of transferring power, which would be in everyone's interest?
§ Mr. Brooke
My hon. Friend is right in saying that Northern Ireland Ministers hold considerable power in Northern Ireland. It is within the knowledge of the House that we have been seeking to persuade locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland to accept that we might transfer some of that responsibility elsewhere. It is, inevitably, a two-way process and requires involvement in talks and consultations.
§ Mr. Clifford Forsythe
The Secretary of State intends to introduce compulsory competitive tendering in local councils in Northern Ireland. What plans does he have to prevent paramilitary involvement in those services in future?
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that particular danger, which the Government have very much in mind.
§ Mr. Kilfedder
The truth is that the onus is on the Government to act. They must get off their knees and not let Dublin stymie political progress in Northern Ireland any longer by setting down conditions for such progress. Without further delay, the Government must now restore the Northern Ireland Assembly which they brought scandalously to an abrupt end in a way that was a disgrace to them. They also entered the Anglo-Irish Agreement which was a betrayal of the Ulster majority. Surely the 380 Government should now recognise that betrayal and return powers to elected representatives in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Brooke
I recognise the hon. Gentleman as a distinguished Speaker of the Assembly to which he refers. Conversations relating to the transfer of power to locally-elected representatives are covered in article 4 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement which acknowledges the possibility of such developments occurring, but the involvement of the Irish Government in such conversations, as stated in article 4, would relate to the attitudes and modalities to be expressed. The decision about the talks themselves rests wholly with the parties in Northern Ireland and with the Government.
§ Mr. McGrady
Does the Secretary of State agree that although in certain enlightened councils in Northern Ireland, especially those on which minority parties have a substantial say, progress has been made, in the mainstream of local government sectarian practices and attitudes are still very much to the fore? That is especially true of the Belfast corporation, which should be the flagship of local government in Northern Ireland. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the committee structures have been arranged there to prevent proper participation by the minority parties and that they have been deprived of offices and proportional representation? Even this week, financial resources have been denied to community services in minority areas. In those circumstances, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the return of functions to local government in Northern Ireland is still inappropriate and is best left to an overall agreement between the parties in due course?
§ Mr. Brooke
It will not have escaped the attention of the hon. Gentleman that contacts between Ministers and Belfast city council have been limited in recent years. In those circumstances, it would be wrong for me to pass comment on those with whom I have not been directly in contact. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that if we were to advance on the transfer of power, we should need to see widespread acceptance of the principles involved.