HC Deb 18 June 1992 vol 209 cc1054-63 4.11 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I beg to move, That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 2nd June, be approved. The draft order renews the temporary provisions in the Northern Ireland Act 1974, under which government by direct rule continues in Northern Ireland. I accordingly owe it to the House to give an account, obviously curtailed, of the Government's stewardship in Northern Ireland during the past year. In particular, I shall describe how, through talks with and between the four main constitutional parties, we have advanced our search for alternative political structures, just and durable in character, by which Northern Ireland may in future with general acceptance be governed.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State so early in his speech, but does he agree that those of us who have been involved in the talks have a responsibility to preserve the degree of confidentiality which has been so valuable thus far? For that reason, I do not intend to contribute to the debate. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also support my word of caution to the news industry, particularly the London heavies which persist in publishing reports which will destroy their credibility when they are contradicted by the facts?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I warmly agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of confidentiality. We have gained greatly from the extent to which the undertakings that all gave have been complied with. It is of great importance, at what is a particularly sensitive time in the process, that discussions take place within the privacy of the meetings themselves and are not conducted or supplemented in public. As to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, what he said speaks for itself.

What is our purpose in Northern Ireland? It is primarily to help the people of Northern Ireland themselves to secure a tranquil, just and prosperous way of life. Its people remain divided as a community, but I sense that increasingly there is manifested by ordinary people from each side a deep desire to see co-operation taking place to secure that aim. It is the Government's desire to foster that, because the people of Northern Ireland reside in what is part of the United Kingdom; not simply by virtue of the cartogropher's pen but by the will of a majority of them. They have and will continue to have from us the constitutional guarantee whose terms are very familiar to the House. We owe them that responsibility to help, just as we owe it to the peoples of England, Wales and Scotland.

The Government are in no doubt that the present arrangements for dealing with Northern Ireland's affairs must remain in place for the time being; but they are very long in the tooth—much longer in the tooth than is becoming for arrangements that were intended from the outset to be interim. We want the indignity that is inherent in those arrangements to be lifted from Northern Ireland as soon as is practicable.

Political talent abounds in the Province. That talent has been and remains eager to shoulder greater responsibilities of government within Northern Ireland, but there are complex and often conflicting interests to be accommodated—hence the Government's determination to do all in their power to help the participants in the talks to reach agreement. In the meantime, the Government will continue to do the job entrusted to them by Parliament with unflagging commitment to the people of the Province.

Let me explain how we have discharged our responsibility. Last week, the House had an opportunity to discuss security, which it did—properly and valuably—at some length. I do not propose, therefore, to detain the House long on the subject today, crucial though it is.

Over the past year, the campaign of violence by terrorists on both sides of the community has been maintained. When I opened Wednesday's debate, I illustrated the toll that had been exacted. Little is to be gained from rhetoric, for revulsion speaks for itself; nor is much to be gained from criticism that is confined to generalities rather than dealing with particulars. What is required is the resolute application of properly thought out, clearly formulated and co-ordinated policies, within the unbending discipline that is imposed on us by the rule of law. There has been, and there will be, no acceptable level of violence.

Our first priority has been to work towards the permanent elimination of terrorist crime. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, with the support of the armed forces, has operated to that end with courage and skill, and with the high degree of success that I described last week. Those forces will continue to need and receive our fullest support.

As I know the House recognises, to be fully effective security policies must be complemented by active social and economic policies: certainly that is the Government's view. The performance of the Northern Ireland economy is central to those policies. During the 1980s, Northern Ireland's rate of economic growth broadly matched the rate achieved nationally, but ever since then the local economy has been adversely affected by the worldwide recession.

None the less, the Province's economic performance has proved remarkably resilient in the circumstances. Regrettably, unemployment has risen by 5,300 over the year, and it now stands at 104,500. That figure represents 14.3 per cent. of the work force, and it is far too high. The rate of increase has, however, moderated in recent months, and is substantially below that of the United Kingdom as a whole. Similarly, although output and employment levels in Northern Ireland have fallen by about 2 per cent. over the year, that compares with United Kingdom decreases of about 3.5 per cent.

Moreover, recent business surveys point to an increase in business confidence in Northern Ireland, and to a welcome revival in export performance. Taken overall, the past year has provided encouraging evidence of Northern Ireland's economic resilience and capabilities.

The Province has a particular need for a strong economy, by reason of its special circumstances. Strengthening the economy is therefore a compelling objective for the Government, and we are pursuing it in a number of different ways. Within industrial support schemes, we have placed increasing emphasis on the types of measure that will secure material improvement in business performance and assist the companies that have the greatest potential for growth. We have set up an industrial research and technology unit within the Department of Economic Development. That will have the task of promoting innovation and higher levels of research in Northern Ireland industry. Those matters are vital if we are to secure competitive advantages in world markets.

The Local Enterprise Development Unit has recently completed an overhaul of its portfolio of assistance so as to reflect its new approach to the task of stimulating enterprise and developing small businesses. A combination of world economic conditions and renewed paramilitary attacks on business have undoubtedly made it a difficult year for attracting inward investment in Northern Ireland.

However, I am encouraged by the fact that more Northern Ireland companies than ever before participated in Industrial Development Board-sponsored trade missions and trade exhibitions last year. They illustrated the growing willingness and ability of Northern Ireland companies to look for export markets. I have already visited a fairly new company that exports pharmaceuticals to more than 90 countries. The IDB's efforts have produced immediate results, with £12 million-worth of orders generated and potential orders in excess of £48 million.

That trend has also been seen much closer to home. The evidence is the growing interest of industry and commerce in exploiting the opportunities that exist for trade with the Republic of Ireland. The Government believe that there is scope for a substantial increase in trade, which would lead to more jobs and greater wealth in both economies. We are co-operating fully with the major business organisations to bring that about.

I pay tribute to the efforts of the Industrial Development Board. It has been working very effectively with the Irish Trade Board to develop exhibitions and road shows that will help companies from the north or south to demonstrate their products and capabilities to each other. We are seeking also to open up the public purchasing market in Northern Ireland and in the Republic to small firms from all over the island.

Good communications are vital in facilitating trade. The Belfast-Dublin rail link, which the British and Irish Governments announced two months ago, will result in valuable time savings on the journey between Belfast and Dublin. Work on it will start later this year.

During the year, the activities of the Training and Employment Agency have increasingly reflected the need to stimulate improvements in company competitiveness. Therefore, we have substantially increased the agency's budget for management development programmes and a new company development programme has been launched to assist companies to improve skill levels and performance throughout their entire organisation.

The year 1991 was encouraging for the tourism industry, with Northern Ireland recording its highest ever number of visitors—1.19 million. Within that figure there was an increase of 18 per cent. over the previous year in the number of holiday visitors, which stood at more than 250,000. Earlier this year, legislation was introduced to give more powers to the Northern Ireland tourist board. We have increased the board's budget and that should provide a solid platform for further advance in developing Northern Ireland as a competitive and attractive tourist destination.

Although it is important for the Province to be prosperous, its society must be just. Therefore, the Government remain unequivocally committed to eradicating inequality of opportunity and relative disadvantage based on prejudiced discrimination wherever they exist in Northern Ireland.

The Making Belfast Work campaign has been at the heart of our effort and will continue to be so. This year, I announced that we were making available to the programme a further £26 million which will be carefully targeted. That will make the total allocation to date more than £100 million and by the end of 1994–95 the total will be more than £148 million.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the Secretary of State's point about the Making Belfast Work campaign, but why has Belfast, South been ignored when grants have been given to north, east and west Belfast? There are some areas of extreme deprivation in south Belfast; it is not all the Upper Malone.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's proper concern. I am certain that Belfast, South is not ignored. Applications for grants under the Making Belfast Work campaign may not have been successful—not every grant can be. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who will reply to the debate, will consider that question and, if possible, reply in more detail.

Funding for the Making Belfast Work campaign is over and above the resources that Departments continue to put into these areas through their normal mainline programmes. The Government recognise, however, that significant inequalities persist in the social and economic conditions experienced in the two principal parts of the community in Northern Ireland. We believe that greater equality of opportunity can be achieved by improving the social and economic conditions of the most disadvantaged areas and people in Northern Ireland. If we can do that, the connotations for the healing of deep-rooted divisions in the community are obvious.

For that reason, the Government established the targeting social need initiative as a high public expenditure priority—the third, in fact. Targeting social need is a long-term programme. It will identify where the highest levels of disadvantage and deprivation exist and will analyse the precise extent to which Government policies have a differential impact on each side of the community. It will target resources and programmes more sharply on areas that suffer the highest levels of social and economic disadvantage. By those means, we intend to remove differentials and to rectify inequalities of that character. Work is afoot to put in place mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing not only this but other Government policies and programmes and to develop consequential action plans.

Our efforts to improve community relations between the different parts of Northern Ireland's community provide another component of our endeavour to promote a just society. We are committed to encouraging and securing greater contact between the communities.

I realise that it sounds extraordinarily trite to observe that greater acceptance of cultural diversity is necessary, but observations are trite only because they do not admit of dissent. The Government do not shrink, therefore, from proclaiming the need for acceptance, nor from putting their money where their mouth is—or, more accurately, the taxpayers' money. Support for community relations projects, co-ordinated by the central community relations unit and the Department of Education, has increased rapidly from about £250,000 in 1986–87 to £7 million in this financial year. Those measures should, over time, yield a worthy return.

I should now like to deal with the political talks that were initiated with such patience by my predecessor. As the House will understand, the talks have been a major preoccupation since my arrival as Secretary of State. In recent weeks, there has been intense activity, to which the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) has already referred, as the parties have fully engaged on strand I issues. Those issues are to do with the nature of the relationships between the peoples of Northern Ireland, including the relationship between any new institutions and the Westminster Parliament.

The talks have been variously carried forward in plenary sessions, in sessions consisting of meetings between party leaders—either en bloc or individually with me—and in sub-committees chaired by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary or by senior officials. All involved have demonstrated an unflagging will to press on with the work in hand, even at the most difficult moments—and there have been some. I express my admiration and gratitude for that, as I do for the constructive tone of our discussions.

It would not be helpful for further progress if I were to describe the course that the discussions have taken. The important thing is that I can report to the House that in my judgment there is now wide agreement on the next steps in the process of the talks. Accordingly, on the joint invitation of the two Governments, Sir Ninian Stephen has convened a meeting of representatives of the two Governments and of the four participating parties for tomorrow. It is intended that a possible agenda for strand 2 shall be discussed. The Government and the Irish Government teams will be led on that occasion by senior officials.

The two Governments are also to hold a meeting next week to give preliminary consideration to the issues likely to arise in strand 3, when relationships on the east-west axis will be considered. The meeting will be attended, for at least part of the time, by observers from each of the Northern Ireland parties. In my brief time as Secretary of State, I have been touched by the public's desire—"yearning" would not be too strong a word to use—that this time the talks shall succeed. I have gone out to meet people in the streets of Londonderry and Belfast, and they have impressed it on me there. I meet with it in all sectors of the community and in all places. Certainly, we can take heart from the fact that the talks continue to make headway and are following a constructive pattern.

That this is so is due to the participants' commitment and in great measure to their courage. Those qualities I know to be undiminished, but I owe it to the House and to the participants in the talks to warn that a task of great magnitude still lies ahead in the strands yet to be embarked on.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Given what the Secretary of State was saying about the commitment of hon. Members from Northern Ireland, and given that, as is usual when Secretaries of State speak in the House, he began his remarks by guaranteeing to the people of Northern Ireland the state to which they belong, do the Government agree that, if the death and destruction that have taken place on our streets had taken place on the streets of Britain, that would have been the major issue in the general election? If the matter were then debated in the House, would not the House be packed? It is noticeable that there is only one hon. Member here who does not come from Northern Ireland, apart from Government and Opposition spokesmen. Do not the Government conclude from that the same as appears to us—there is a total lack of interest among the people of Great Britain and their representatives in the House?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I think that I should do well to address the right hon. and hon. Members who are present rather than reflect on those who are not. However, if there is a conclusion to be drawn, it might be to reinforce all of us in our desire to end the indignity to which I referred, whereby the people of Northern Ireland have very little local representation in matters affecting their government. That should therefore spur us all on to the goal of the talks, which is to set in place—if we can do so in a just, workable, durable and acceptable way—newly devolved administrative and political structures for the government of Northern Ireland by people answerable to the people of Northern Ireland in the first instance.

I was warning lugubriously, at the end of a speech which has, I hope, been other than lugubrious in tone, that we face a task of great magnitude in the remaining process of the talks. The Government will, of course, become a participant to strands 2 and 3. There are many difficult obstacles still to overcome which have hitherto proved intractable but if hopes were dupes, fears may be liars", and I believe that all who are engaged are heartened and perhaps even inspired by the public desire, to which I referred, that we break out of the cycle of the past 20 years. Until we do so, Northern Ireland must continue to experience direct rule, and accordingly I commend the order to the House.

4.34 pm
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

There were times during the Secretary of State's speech when I felt that he was almost tempted to stray into the next debate, on the appropriation order. But he manfully resisted the temptation, and in the next debate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) will respond to some of the points made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

On such occasions it has become a ritual almost as old as direct rule itself to express hope that more acceptable and mutually agreed political institutions will obviate the need for a further renewal of the order in 12 months' time. This time, however, there are some reasonable grounds for genuine hope that that is more than just a pious aspiration. The talks, which have been in progress for the past eight weeks, offer the possibility—I put it no higher than that, bearing in mind the warnings which the Secretary of State has just given the House—that new agreed arrangements may be in place by this time next year.

The Opposition have given full support to the present initiative since it was launched by the previous Secretary of State in 1989, and we shall continue to do so, in the knowledge that the best way to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland is through a process of negotiation and agreement involving all the constitutional interested parties within the island of Ireland and between the two Governments. We therefore wish the participants in the talks well in their endeavours to secure agreement. None of us has any illusions about the difficulty of achieving that, and we recognise the great qualities of imagination and determination required of the negotiators. We firmly hope that they will live up to the expectations placed upon their shoulders not only by the people of Northern Ireland but by the people of the island of Ireland—and indeed by the people of all these islands, who have suffered and are under threat as a result of the situation in Northern Ireland.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that it is regrettable that greater interest is not shown by the House in the debate. Sadly, Members of the House may be reflecting the attitudes of constituents, and of the people of Britain in general. Indeed, I wonder if the attendance would be so depleted if a conscript rather than a volunteer army were serving in Northern Ireland.

We believe—to use a cliché—that no stone should be left unturned in the search for an agreement. We hope that the talks will cover all the relevant issues, and we feel strongly that they should move rapidly to strands 2 and 3. Above all, we hope that the Secretary of State will be able to present an agreed package to the House in the autumn, or early next year.

In the meantime, the Government remain solely responsible for the good administration of Northern Ireland. Last week we discussed security, so I have no intention of embarking upon that subject today. We shall discuss appropriation later. Now we are considering the whole subject of the direct rule of Northern Ireland, so it is important to consider one or two of the other issues, some of which the Secretary of State mentioned.

One issue which the Opposition feel must be regarded as a priority is that of equality of opportunity between the two major traditions in Northern Ireland. For us the principle of equality of opportunity is non-negotiable, and we were pleased to hear the Secretary of State underline that in his speech.

Equality of opportunity in employment is especially significant for those of us who hope to establish a just and peaceful society in Northern Ireland. A number of recent cases have shown the need for continued vigilance and progress on that score. The Government must make it clear to all employers and all employees, and especially to the state organisations, that neither they nor the House will tolerate discrimination, whether direct or indirect, and that remedial action must he taken to eliminate any unacceptable practices.

In that respect, the decision by Queen's university to review its employment practices after recent cases is to be welcomed, and we hope that it is a model that will be copied elsewhere. However, it is of the utmost regret that, years after the passage of the Fair Employment Act, it should be said of the Eastern health board by the tribunal dealing with the case of a woman applicant that it had spun a web of deceit. It was one of the most blatant pieces of discrimination by a state authority.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

That report affects my constituency. The Protestant community in Northern Ireland regrettably see the Opposition spokesman as being concerned only about the under-employment of the Catholic community. At no time does he express concern about under-employment of the Protestant community. He has now referred to two cases, both of which affect under-employment of the Catholic community. There is massive discrimination against the Protestant community in the Eastern health board area. Some 75 per cent. of the people who live there are Protestants, yet only 55 per cent. of the employees are Protestants. When will Labour's official spokesman speak up for the Protestants of Northern Ireland as well?

Mr. McNamara

I do not speak up for the Catholics of Northern Ireland, or for the Protestants of Northern Ireland; I speak up for individuals who suffer discrimination. I will speak up in favour of those who suffer discrimination, whether Catholic or Protestant. If the right hon. Gentleman had paid a little more attention to speeches by Labour Members at the time, for example, of discussions on employment prospects at Harland and Wolff, and at times when there have been closures in other industries in Northern Ireland in which Protestants were the main employees, he would have heard vigorous attacks on Government policies that resulted in the threat of unemployment and actual unemployment for many members of the community for which he speaks. I hope that he, as a Member from Northern Ireland, does not speak only for the Protestant community, but that he speaks for all his constituents, Protestant and Catholic, who may suffer discrimination in any way.

The Secretary of State will also be aware of the increasing suggestions that race relations legislation in Britain should be extended to Northern Ireland to afford proper protection to the ethnic minorities there. Although we accept that a simple extension of the legislation would create difficulties with the existing legislation on discrimination by gender, religion and political opinion, we suggest that the Secretary of State considers the best way in which he can meet the spirit of the suggestions put forward by organisations such as the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights.

SACHR is a body whose importance the Opposition do not ignore. However, we feel that its effectiveness would be enhanced if the Government occasionally acted on its suggestions. Two years ago, SACHR produced its second report on equality. The report identified a number of issues on which progress could be made. SACHR proposed that the provisions of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 governing discrimination by Government Departments and by public bodies be strengthened and brought into line with the relevant provisions of the European convention on human rights. We believe that a bill of rights is necessary for Northern Ireland, but we think that, in its absence, partial measures such as those proposed by SACHR would at least demonstrate the Government's commitment to equality of opportunity.

SACHR also proposed that the impact of equality of opportunity and the treatment of all legislation, administrative decisions and policies should be monitored. We are happy to endorse that suggestion. We believe that such measures should be introduced immediately and that regular reports should be presented to Parliament and to any assembly that may emerge in Northern Ireland on matters such as the siting of industry and what effect that has on employment patterns in the area.

SACHR also proposed that discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of religion and political opinion be outlawed. That would bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with sex discrimination legislation in Northern Ireland and with race relations discrimination legislation in Britain. That proposal seems eminently sensible to the Opposition.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

The hon. Gentleman has spoken for some time on the laws governing discrimination, and on relating the law in Great Britain to the law in Northern Ireland. Surely, as a United Kingdom, we should have exactly the same law across the kingdom on these matters. Will he therefore support the concept of extending to the minority ethnic communities of Great Britain the laws that look after the interests of the various communities in Northern Ireland, especially in regard to employment?

Mr. McNamara

If the hon. Gentleman had read our election manifesto, he would have seen that we proposed a great strengthening of the law with regard to racial legislation within this island based on the principles and experience of what had been carried through in Northern Ireland—

Mr. John D. Taylor

There were no Labour candidates in Northern Ireland.

Mr. McNamara

The courtesy and good humour of the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) are outweighed only by his intellect and by his ability to interrupt from a sedentary position.

Mr. Taylor

When will you give us candidates?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. It is widely known that seated interventions are to be deprecated.

Mr. Taylor

The Opposition spokesman has suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) should have read the Labour party manifesto. Does he understand that no one in Northern Ireland read it because the spokesman for the Labour party refused to allow candidates to stand in Northern Ireland?

Mr. McNamara

Again, the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. The spokesman for the Labour party cannot prevent Labour party candidates from standing in Northern Ireland. The decision not to organise in Northern Ireland properly rests with the conference of the Labour party, which took a wise decision on the matter. We have every confidence in our sister party in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour party. We have every confidence in its socialist principles and its ability to carry through socialist policies. We regret only that we are not sitting on the Government Benches with the SDLP supporting us.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara

This will be for the last time. I thought that this would be a short debate.

Mr. Trimble

I am a little curious about the hon. Gentleman's description of the SDLP as his "sister party". Did any Labour party candidates standing in the recent election receive a personal endorsement from any member of the SDLP? Did any other persons receive such an endorsement?

Mr. McNamara


Madam Deputy Speaker

Before the hon. Gentleman continues with his speech, I must inquire how this matter relates to the motion.

Mr. McNamara

The matter relates to direct rule, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Hume

As leader of my party, I make it clear that I was proud to canvass for Labour candidates in the election.

Mr. McNamara

So too was the leader of the Irish Labour party. We are indeed an international party.

The Government have not treated the second SACHR report with the importance that the issues deserve. The response contrasts unfavourably with the attitudes of previous Secretaries of State when facing an earlier SACHR report on inequality in employment. We appreciate that there are many demands on the time of the Secretary of State and of his Ministers, not least at the present time, but we regard the equality issue as so fundamental that we urge the Government to take action. No one should have an excuse to claim that the British Government act only when forced to do so by international pressure.

This debate comes at a moment when the future of Northern Ireland is in the balance. We hope that a new system of government for Northern Ireland will emerge —a system that will command the consent and loyalty of the majority of its citizens, a system that will be capable of putting an early end to violence and a system that will bring about the peace, justice and prosperity for which the people of Northern Ireland long and for which so many of them have worked so hard for so long. If they achieved that, it would be a boon to not only Northern Ireland but to the whole of the island of Ireland and to the whole of the British Isles. Regretfully, we support the continuation of the legislation.

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