§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
It is appropriate for us to discuss political developments in Northern Ireland because in parliamentary terms it is still Thursday, so today we have seen the release of the Birmingham Six and an announcement at Question Time by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about a timetable for talks with the political parties and various other interests. However, I appreciate that the Minister might not wish to go into too much detail on those matters when he replies because they are sensitive and some details cannot be given because some of the talks are behind closed doors. They develop in stages at which something else can be said and the points can be developed.
The two events earlier today raise, as always with Northern Ireland, issues of security, although in this case it is security associated with a miscarriage of justice. They also raise the subject of. constitutional reform, as presumably devolved government is on the agenda for the first stage of discussion.
I wish to raise some extra items in this debate and to stress the economic and social background of the conditions in Northern Ireland. The adverse circumstances often act as a breeding ground for sectarianism. I also want to stress the willingness of more and more people in Northern Ireland courageously to stand up against terror and intimidation and the need for Northern Ireland to develop what could be called a more normal political scene based on the politics of class division rather than the current sectarian divisions. I shall develop that point at greater length than the other two points, which I shall touch on later.
Although I argue for the relevance of democratic socialism to Ireland, both north and south, I begin by referring to a definition of democracy which was once often quoted in political theory. It is the definition of Schumpeter in a book that he wrote in 1944 called "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy." Schumpeter was an advocate of capitalism. He thought that democracy went together with it. He was a pessimist because he thought that socialism would take over. He feared that socialism would be undemocratic, which it does not have to be. Nor does it have to be based on the experiences in eastern Europe.
Schumpeter's definition of democracy is useful as a framework for the debate. He defined democracy as essentially a competitive struggle for people's votes, rather like competition in the marketplace between capitalists in a market economy for goods and services. The classical points used in favour of that system begin to be related to democratic institutions. It is rather cold, mechanistic definition of democracy and it has a bias within it— it is not value free. It stresses points, with which the Government might have sympathy, about democratic capitalism. The definition omits the spirit and norms of democracy in which civil liberties, a concern for others and a collective concern for the public good need to play a considerable part.
Such a form of democracy is very much a part of democratic socialism. Competition for votes works better when there is competition between political organisations. I should hope that they would be socialist parties. Some might argue for centralism and some for decentralisation, 1311 but they would share a libertarian and collectivist viewpoint. Those views need not necessarily be incompatible.
We often have to put up with second-best democracy—a halfway house to the democracy that I have described—especially in a capitalist society or in a mixed economy in which the major parties divide essentially on class lines, although there may be a consensus about the democratic methods that should be employed.
The advantage of class divisions within a democratic system is that, at least in theory, they are subject to temporary compromises on divisions of interest, which allow a temporary position to be reached after which the parties can manoeuvre and hassle for their interests at a further stage. If, for example, a trade union puts in a wage demand for £10 a week and the employers do not wish to pay that, a compromise of £5 is often reached. Nobody is especially satisfied with that, but it allows people to keep the game going.
In a book called "In Defence of Politics", Bernard Crick defined such politics as being about the reconciliation of conflicting interests. That form of politics is distorted when topics that are alien to reaching temporary compromises and reconciliation begin to dominate. There have been violent disputes in countries such as Belgium where language division cuts across the normal class divisions.
The problems in Ireland are considerable. The politics of Fianna Fail and of Fine Gael are shaped by the civil war. It is as if an unnatural development has taken place in Northern Ireland. The two parties have emerged, rather than there being a left-right conflict such as we have in the British system. That has been nurtured by continued feelings about Northern Ireland and by articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which claim that Northern Ireland should be included within Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, those events have led to the classical unionist-nationalist tradition, which distorts class divisions considerably. In the heyday of single-party unionism and nationalism, the dominant body has been the unionists. Class interests and the elite of capitalism have often been associated with unionism rather than with nationalist interests. That has meant that the normal hassle between capital and labour has not emerged fully because, to gain a slightly advantageous position, part of labour has associated itself with the unionists rather than with the nationalists, who do not owe the same loyalty to the Province.
Another distortion of normal politics in capitalist or mixed economies arises when major parties are merely capitalist, as they tend to be in the United States, and as I fear is increasingly the case in Britain, where the distinction tends to be between two varieties of parties which accept general norms and values. I do not think that that is entirely lost in this particular system, but some of my fears are shared by publications such as those by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller).
If the type of system that is strong in America develops, possessive individualism will dominate, with private affluence on one side and poverty and public squalor on the other. Democratic socialism is particularly appropriate to democratic systems. Nevertheless, some healthy possibilities are developing in Northern Ireland politics— sometimes outside the Province, but nevertheless having an impact on it.
1312 In Ireland there has been the election of Mary Robinson as President. That was partly a fluke, because of some problems that Fianna Fail was having at the time, but it enabled her, at her inaugural address, to talk about a victory and having tackled the faded flags of the civil war. Out of that have come the politics of Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael and the Sinn Fein tradition which is still strong in Northern Ireland.
In addition, there are electoral signs in Ireland of the Irish Labour party and the Workers' party providing the alternative which is healthy and necessary within a democracy. That will have its own impact on the other two political parties, some of whose ground it will have to take if they are to survive. There are also changes in Great Britain. We may be experiencing the death throes of Thatcherism. Certainly some political change is on the horizon, either within the Conservative party or following a general election. A different agenda is developing. All that is healthy for Northern Ireland because of the economic and social consequences that follow from it.
Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is stuck with a divided unionism between the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party— nevertheless a unionism—and a divided nationalism between the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein. The SDLP is very much what its name suggests—a social democratic party, not particularly a democratic socialist party, but suggesting slight shifts in the agenda which point in a leftward direction, for too much has been set upon one of the communities in Northern Ireland.
There is little representation, even at local government level, of any other political parties. Both the major groups need to be pulled beyond the sectarian divide that they often fight and struggle within and which, for their own electoral advantage, they are to a large extent bound by.
In Northern Ireland, normal class politics is a minority activity of the Alliance and the Workers' parties, and I do not see that present developments in the Conservative party in Northern Ireland, or the possible future establishment of the Labour party there, would provide any magic answers to overcome the conundrum. There would merely be the extra minor element that they could not get into the political system.
Moves that undermine sectarianism will amend the nature of party politics. They will either change the nature of the current political parties or create opportunities for other parties. On some issues, such as student loans, Ulster Unionists and the SDLP forget their divisions. All the parties in Northern Ireland, except the Conservative party, opposed student loans.
Unionist and SDLP Members complain about the worst effects of the enterprise culture such as the closure of hospitals, yet they often troop through the Lobby with the Government. On the other hand, the speeches of Northern Ireland politicians show that different views are forced on them by their electorate.
The more that change in southern Ireland makes that country less worrying to Northern Ireland Protestants and the more that change in Northern Ireland makes it less worrying to Catholics throughout the island of Ireland, the more the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland will change. That was probably the aim of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which mistakenly was concluded without the prior acceptance and involvement of Northern Ireland Protestants.
1313 A factor for change in Northern Ireland is the overcoming of the enterprise culture. That must be strongly pursued because Northern Ireland suffers from many problems. The scourge of unemployment is massive and long lingering. Privatisation, which often increases unemployment, is particularly inappropriate for Northern Ireland. The Ports Bill will destroy port trusts such as that in Londonderry. Such ports are held in trust for the community and are part of communal provision that should be allowed to continue.
A further factor for change is the logic of collective cross-party and non-party activity in Northern Ireland. Several groups are challenging the terrorism of extreme Protestant groups, the IRA and other extreme republican groups and the over-reaction of state and security forces. New Consensus has three groups operating in Northern Ireland, Ireland and in this country opposing terror and intimidation. A specific group organised by Nancy Gracey in Downpatrick is called Families Against Intimidation and Terror. It opposes sectarian violence and is concerned about the role of the state. It says that Amnesty International and other civil liberties organisations concentrate on state violence, whereas about 90 per cent. of violence in Northern Ireland is perpetrated by paramilitary organisations which use intimidation and crude devices such as knee capping.
The peace train organisations run trains between Dublin and Belfast to show that the IRA threatens people, as it has in this country in terms of train services, in a quite unreasonable way. Those organisations attract support from a wide spectrum of party-political involvement and from people who have no connection with political parties. The trade unions are attempting to overcome many of the problems and have mounted campaigns such as "Hands off my mate."
Given the long haul before there is any change in Irish politics—there are no easy solutions—and a shift to a normality that has never been known in the democratic era of Irish politics, boundary questions, constitutional issues, terrorism and sectarianism can then be tackled in the best way—democratically. If democracy is to flourish, more than a mechanism is needed; the values and concerns that I have stressed must be nurtured.
No one ought more strongly to urge the need for social conditions for democracy in Northern Ireland than democratic, socialists. Terror and intimidation will thereby be undermined. In no way should we condone them.
§ 7.1 am
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
I am sure that we are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) for raising such an important topic at this hour of the morning. Occasionally it is useful to turn away from the immediate problems of a particular sectarian or terrorist outrage, and even from the day-to-day manoeuvrings connected with what is euphemestically known as the Brooke initiative, and to look instead at the longer term and at my hon. Friend's analysis, as he sees it, of the situation in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend began by mentioning two particular matters— the Birmingham Six and the Brooke initiative. All of us must welcome the release of the Birmingham Six. 1314 My only regret is that no word of compassion was uttered by Government Ministers about what happened to those men over the years. No Minister appeared to be able to say, "I'm sorry." No one on the Government side commended the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) during his campaign.
As for the Secretary of State's initiative and the statement that he made earlier today, the House will welcome the fact that the Taoiseach of the Republic has accepted the message sent to him and the Secretary of State's document. We must hope that the other parties to the discussions will be able to do so, too. They will have to look carefully at what is involved, but if in holy week the Secretary of State is able to say that all the parties have indicated their acceptance, that will start a new chapter in dealing with some of the problems to which my hon. Friend referred.
I do not intend to deal with all my hon. Friend's analyses. I do not necessarily accept all of them. I understand, however, his interpretation of history and the current situation. I think that he is right to point to some of the important developments in Northern Ireland outside the institutions of political parties and government. Some have been helped by the Government; others have been helped by voluntary organisations within society. The Minister of State is here to deal with a matter concerning which he deserves some praise. I rarely praise Tory Ministers. I hope, therefore, that he will note down the time and the date.
The work that has been done in the education programme for mutual understanding is of the utmost importance, as is the work that has resulted in cross-school relations between the voluntary and state sectors, within the integrated education sector. One of the best ways of overcoming fear is to learn about what the other side stands for and believes in. That does not undercut existing loyalties or threaten previously held positions. It is enriching to learn about those whose opinions one has not really examined before. The experience does not water down people's own beliefs and they should not fear it. It should cause them to re-examine their own positions and to realise that in the island of Ireland there are competing traditions and loyalties.
An important event that has received some recognition in the Republic and in the north, but not here, was the agreement between the two Ministers responsible for education. The glossy document that they launched in Dublin, concerning what was happening in Europe and in Ireland at the time of the battle of the Boyne, and what that battle meant to the different traditions and parties, was significant.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This is not the time to attempt a treatise on its origins, but it encompassed an acceptance by the Government and parties of the Republic of the fact that there was a distinct unionist tradition in the north, with a life and origin of its own— separate from this island. That tradition does not exist on the apron strings of successive British Governments; it has a vibrancy and organic growth of its own in the island of Ireland. That recognition, too, was significant.
The agreement also recognised that there is a powerful nationalist tradition in the north which is worthy of respect and encouragement. Whatever else one thinks of the agreement, it signified recognition by the two 1315 Governments of the legitimacy of the two separate traditions and of their right to encouragement and respect—another factor of the utmost importance.
Despite the aberrant attitude of the Government to Glor na Gael there has been a recognition of the role of the Irish language as an entity which belongs to both traditions. It should be revered, resuscitated and encouraged. It represents a unifying strand between the two traditions. Old languages under threat contain much human emotion, passion and tradition. They should not be maintained artificially by being rammed down people's throats; they should be kept alive by encouraging those who want to use them to work and be educated m the language, and by assuring them that they will then have a role to play. It is sometimes forgotten that the first major printed book in Irish was issued by the Presbyterians in Belfast.
My hon. Friend spoke about Families Against Intimidation and Terror. Often, the work of the voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland is not recognised here, although they work in our constituencies as well. I pay tribute to the fact that Mr. Quintin Oliver, chairman of the voluntary sector, has been offered, and has accepted, a post on the council of the President of the Republic. That was a tremendous gesture by the President and it showed an understanding of the position of the voluntary sector not just in the north, but throughout the island of Ireland.
This sector is of particular importance in Northern Ireland. It brings together communities from Shankill and the Falls, from the Waterside and the Bogside, from rural Ireland and from urban Ireland. It brings together people from both communities who suffer those afflictions that do not ask what tradition a person belongs to before they strike him. That includes multiple sclerosis among many other diseases. It also brings together people involved in cultural activities—music, literature, history; all matters of great importance. They enrich any society, but in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, they have an even greater role to play. They do not challenge people about whence they came or demand to know what their hopes and aspirations are. They recognise only common humanity.
It would be wrong not to mention a greater voluntary organisation that exists throughout the island of Ireland, but particularly the north—the trade unions. Unfortunately, under the dispensation of the Government, trade unions have not been recognised for the role that they play in our society. They have waged various important campaigns in the north—the most recent called, "Hands off my mate"—to keep sectarianism and terrorism off the factory floor, out of the shops, and out of industry and commerce. They have not always been successful, but they have made tremendous efforts.
My union has seen many casualties. Bus drivers have been killed, shop stewards have been killed for no other reason than that they were Protestant, and some of our members were killed at Enniskillen. These people have sought to do what my hon. Friend has recommended—identify each other by class, so as to defend their interests and enhance opportunities for themselves, their families and their communities. The trade unions in Northern Ireland have played a long, commendable and honourable role in the troubles that have beset the island. They have also sought, through cross-border co-operation and membership of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions, to create an understanding in the Republic of the problems of 1316 working people in the north and to make the argument about the future of the island of Ireland on an all-Ireland basis.
The trade unions have also argued the point made by many, including the Labour party, that problems will affect the island of Ireland as a result of 1992, and they have highlighted the need for greater co-operation in a whole range of economic and social issues, if 1992 is not to engulf both parts of Ireland. They must make sure that, as an offshore island which will have none of the so-called benefits of the channel tunnel, they will still be able to play a proper role in the emerging Community.
I am sure that we are all indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East for the rare opportunity that he has given us to take ourselves away from the day-to-day horrors and incidents of Northern Ireland so that we may try to take a longer look at what is happening and to recognise and pay tribute to the many in Northern Ireland who are doing so much that is unsung, unseen but not unappreciated, at least not by hon. Members.
§ The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) in his words of appreciation of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes). The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East was fortunate in the ballot and he chose to introduce into our discussions on Northern Ireland matters and issues which are hugely important but which, because of the pressures of security and political development, frequently do not receive the attention that they deserve. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the spirit and the grace with which he introduced the debate.
This is the same parliamentary day on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his announcement during Northern Ireland Question Time. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has recognised, there is little that I can add to my right hon. Friend's statement at this time. Like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, I welcome the Taoiseach's acceptance of the statement as a basis for moving forward. My right hon. Friend made a significant period available to all the parties precisely because the issues at stake are important. The significance is real and it is right that the parties should have the opportunity to consult and to consider carefully before making a response.
The speech of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East had the quality of consistency, for the House is aware of his commitment to democratic socialism, which he restated today. I noted en passant his reflections on what is happening within the Labour party, but, in the spirit of bipartisanship that has marked the debate so far, I shall not intrude into those private discussions.
The hon. Gentleman listed three factors that are important to democratic socialists—civil liberties, people working together and concern for the common good—and linked those factors to his broader initial reflections on the concept of democracy. I do not wish to suggest in any way that the three factors are not associated with democratic socialism, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that they are in no sense restricted to it. They are among the pillars 1317 on which democracy is based. They are the common aspirations and commitments of all who are committed to democratic institutions and democratic ways of behaving.
The hon. Gentleman talked of wishing to see more class division in the politics of Northern Ireland. I understand what he means, but perhaps it is an unfortunate phrase. He said that one of the problems that has bedevilled the island of Ireland over the centuries is the concept of division. To wish away certain existing divisions and to replace them with class division seems not necessarily to advance things much further.
I understand the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's comment. He was encouraging a reversion to more normal types of political activity, separated from issues of constitutionalism and the overbearing influence that history sometimes has on the conduct of politics in the island of Ireland, as he chose to illustrate his point from the Republic as well as the north.
At the very heart of democracy is the concept that people should freely give their consent to the government of the state and that the will of the majority should prevail, although that will is subject to periodic test on the understanding that the majority can change. It has to change on the basis of persuasion. That has been part of the problem of the island of Ireland and of political developments in Northern Ireland for a long time.
What has been known colloquially as border politics—the constitutional issue—has so overwhelmed the other concepts of politics that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, they have tended to be sidelined. In his references to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he alluded to the importance of article 1 being that it restated the fundamental democratic concept that the status cannot and will not be changed unless consent is freely given by the majority. Of course, article 1 went on to say that if such a change were to take place, Governments would react and respond accordingly.
The affirmation of consent freely given is very important, because it delineates the constitutional framework within which political developments within Northern Ireland will have to be seen for the foreseeable future. I know of no nationalist or republican, no matter how ardent, who believes that the constitutional position is likely to change democratically in the immediate or forseeable future. Therefore, it is important to hold that point in mind when we discuss the broader issues.
The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention in the first instance to the importance of economic policy to political development in the Province. Unemployment is too high. It is higher than in Great Britain and has been for some time, although the hon. Gentleman will share with me the satisfaction to be derived from the fact that it is running at about 28,000 fewer than it was at its peak in 1986. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), affirm at Question Time what I affirmed in the Appropriation debate on Monday—that the strength of Northern Ireland's economy is enabling it better to weather the current economic difficulties. That is why Ministers spend much time seeking for Northern Ireland further investment from anywhere in the world, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
1318 Northern Ireland is a place where profitability is possible and is frequently achieved, and which needs jobs. We are more than happy to welcome with open arms all who can contribute to investment and jobs. Getting people off the streets, getting them trained and into employment, and giving them a stake in the Province is an important element of the political development that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
Having said that, the hon. Gentleman may wish to reflect on his remark about the inappropriateness of privatisation to Northern Ireland—not least in the light of our experience in respect of Shorts, which moved from the public to the private sector comparatively recently, just a couple of years ago. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East will be pleased to learn, as I was, that I think probably about 700 more people are employed by Shorts today, as a private sector company, than was the case when it was in the public sector. That improvement is a little difficult to square with what I thought was a touch of the democratic socialism edging its way into the hon. Gentleman's broader argument.
We can make common cause on the hon. Gentleman's point concerning the need to mobilise citizens in resisting terrorism. It is a fallacy in any society that those paid to offer a service of care to the community by upholding the law ought to shoulder full responsibility for the community in discharging that task. All of us have a responsibility, as citizens, for the communities in which we live.
In that regard, I pay tribute to the work of New Consensus, those with whom it is associated, and the various groups that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, for the stand that they have taken, which crosses communities in Northern Ireland and brings people together, in sending the message that the citizens of Northern Ireland are united in rejecting the ways of those who, because they cannot win the argument at the ballot box, resort to terrorism and violence.
Although the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East did not say so, I am sure that he would want all the citizens of Northern Ireland to be reminded that they have a responsibility also to offer their support and encouragement to the security forces and the police, to stand alongside them as they serve the community—frequently in the face of danger—and to make available to them whatever information they have which could lead to the apprehension, arrest, trial, and conviction of those who break the law, not least by committing acts of terrorism.
The fact that we have a good security service and police force does not absolve the public from their responsibilities as citizens and their obligation to observe common standards of decency and humanity
§ Mr. Harry Barnes
Families Against Intimidation and Terror has highlighted the case of Mickey Williams, who telephoned 999 after hearing screams which had to do with an incident that apparently involved the IRA. Mickey Williams received a death threat and was forced to flee the country. His home was invaded by people who were even prepared to tell Mr. Williams' eight-year-old child that his father would be killed. Families Against Intimidation and Terror subsequently campaigned widely, with the result that the death threat against Mr. Williams was technically lifted outside Northern Ireland. The IRA member concerned was arrested. The IRA will not allow Mr. Williams to return until that case has been dealt with, but 1319 that incident shows the kind of changes that can be made by people standing up for themselves and for the normal processes of law and order, and refusing to be intimidated
§ Dr. Mawhinney
The hon. Gentleman offers an example of the more general theme in his speech.
One of the issues that New Consensus has focused on has been integrated education, and its development in our schools. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for his kind personal comments, and I noted the time and the date. While it would be nice if he were to make it a regular occurrence, I understand why he may not always wish to follow that course. However, he is right to point out the significance of what has been happening in our schools in the past few years.
For the first time, parents have the choice, under statute, of integrated schools as a third option alongside what are colloquially referred to as state schools and Catholic schools in Northern Ireland. It is an option which they ought to have. It is a matter for the parents to decide how they want to have their children educated, but there is no doubt that there is a small but growing movement, and a growing number of parents who wish their children to be educated in the same classroom as children from the other side of the community, in schools that value both traditions equally.
Having said that, it is clear that the number of children in integrated schools for the foreseeable future will be only a small proportion of those in schools. Therefore, it was necessary for us to consider what might be done to bridge the community divide for all the other children.
As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East knows, we wrote into the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 a number of curriculum changes, and he has highlighted education for mutual understanding. I appreciated his comments, as I appreciated his support in what was seen in some quarters as a reasonably contentious order. Nevertheless, there was support across the Chamber for those aspects of it and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for the support that they gave to education for mutual understanding and the other new course, cultural heritage. It is important for the House to understand that those will be compulsory for all schoolchildren between the ages of five and 16.
The other curriculum development that I think is of special importance is the move to have a common history curriculum taught for the first time in our schools in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East pointed out, given the influence of history upon the politics and political development of the island of Ireland, that common history curriculum will also make a considerable contribution after a time.
I was also grateful to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East for what he said about the development under the general title of "Kings in Conflict". I well remember having the pleasure of welcoming Mrs. Mary O'Rourke, the Education Minister from the Republic to the Ulster museum when we both launched that initiative, amid the "Kings in Conflict" exhibition, which ran so successfully at the museum for a number of months. I am pleased that it has moved to fruition and, as the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Belstead was able to go to Dublin recently to launch the final video version. Like him, I am impressed by it, and I can say that because I did not have a direct hand in planning it. Like the hon.
1320 Gentleman, I believe that as it is used it will influence for good the next generation and the generation after that in Northern Ireland
§ Dr. Mawhinney
Yes—and in the Republic. I restricted my remarks simply because this is a debate on political development in Northern Ireland, but the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North is right to point out that it will have a significant influence in the Republic, just as it will in the north.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East was also right to stress the importance of the cultural traditions programme. One of the difficulties about the Irish language has been that for whatever reasons—this is not the time or the place to analyse them—it has become politicised over the years. It has been taken out of its cultural context and put into a political context. The Government believe—and as the Minister responsible I strongly believe—that it needs to be redeveloped in its cultural context. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, in that context it spans the community in Northern Ireland. He will have taken heart from the fact that I was able to announce the prospect of significant Government grants to the Ultach trust, for example, which was set up to develop the Irish language, without any political upset in the Province.
He will also have taken heart from the fact that I was able to announce a grant for an inquiry into the development of an interpretative centre at Dan Winter's cottage, the site of the origins of the Orange order in Northern Ireland—another cultural tradition of the Province involving, again, no political perturbation.
In all those ways, we must try to undermine what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has described as sectarian politics. We have had a measure of success, not only in the social, economic and community—relations sphere but in that of elective politics. In some ways, that could be described as the most significant development in the past couple of years.
Of the 26 councils in Northern Ireland, about 10 now have a form of shared leadership: if the mayor or chairman comes from one tradition, his deputy comes from another. That development has been widely welcomed in the Province and, where it has come about, represents a challenge to the other councils that have not yet adopted the practice. Moreover, it has been widely welcomed throughout the community in Northern Ireland. We need only consider the standing and moral influence of councils such as Dungannon to appreciate that the concept of sharing—which does not always run smoothly, but which nevertheless is fundamentally important—is influencing people's attitudes.
Another welcome development is the way in which local politicians are joining forces with Ministers—trying to develop local economic plans with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North, or community relations plans with me. It is encouraging to note that, over the past 12 to 18 months, 10 councils have embarked on relationships with the Government that will involve them in employing community relations officers to work together with councillors and local people to bridge the community gap. Eight more councils have agreed to the arrangement and will be appointing community relations officers; we are 1321 negotiating with five more. Only three out of the 26 are not either involved in the scheme or seriously considering it. That represents a development in elective politics. One of the requirements is that the programmes cannot proceed unless the elected representatives of the people vote in open council to endorse the scheme, which carries with it the thumbprints of elected politicians from both sides of the community.
All those developments contain a message of hope and encouragement—whether they relate to the fundamentals of democracy which all of us affirm and reaffirm, to the concept of consent freely given and the importance of persuasion rather than threat and intimidation, to the economy, to the social sphere in the commitment to fair employment and the provision of good services, to community relations and education, or to local councils. We are able to send out that message this morning. This measure carries bipartisan support, not in the intricacies of political theory or the details of Government policy, but in the bipartisan commitment to all activities that seek to bring people together—as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, to affirm civil liberties, to encourage working together, to promote the common good—and it will be a measure of agreement widely welcomed in the Province. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to send that message today.