HL Deb 22 May 1969 vol 302 cc475-80

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but with permission I should like to repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in reply to Questions about his meeting with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, the noble Lord the Minister of State at the Home Office"— that is, of course, my noble friend Lord Stonham—

"and I had a useful exchange of views with Major Chichester-Clark and his colleagues on matters of common concern, including the momentum of social reform in Northern Ireland, security and public order, and the prospects and plans for the Northern Ireland economy.

"On social reform, we were glad to hear from Major Chichester-Clark that the Northern Ireland Government intend to introduce, at the earliest possible moment, legislation to provide that the next local government elections shall be held on the basis of universal adult suffrage and without any element of multiple voting. The Northern Ireland Government are proposing to defer the local government elections which would otherwise be due in May, 1970, until October, 1971, by which time a reorganised pattern of local government for Northern Ireland will have been established. The Northern Ireland Government aim to publish this autumn a White Paper making detailed proposals for the perimeter boundaries, functions and finance of the substantially reduced number of new local authorities. The Northern Ireland Ministers affirmed their intention to ensure that the important task of designating electoral areas within these new authorities will be carried out in a way which will be clearly seen to be fair and impartial.

"We were also told that the Northern Ireland Government hope to issue to their local authorities during the summer a model points scheme for allocation of houses. While it would he impracticable to oblige local authorities to adopt a particular scheme, all authorities will be expected to submit for approval a scheme of demonstrable fairness which can be published and made available to potential applicants.

"On procedures for remedying grievances, as the House already knows Sir Edmund Compton will be taking up his duties as Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration for Northern Ireland as soon as the relevant Bill receives the Royal Assent. Northern Ireland Ministers also propose to introduce in the present Session of their Parliament a Bill to establish machinery to consider citizens' grievances against public authorities other than central Government Departments, including local authorities.

"We discussed the Special Powers Acts and the particular question of the derogation to the European Human Rights Convention which has to be entered because of certain regulations made under those Acts. Northern Ireland Ministers appreciate our desire that this source of embarrassment should be removed as soon as possible, but clearly this will require first a period of calm.

"I expressed to Northern Ireland Ministers our desire that the commitment of troops for guard duties at vital installations in Northern Ireland should be discontinued as soon as possible but accepted that they must remain for the time being. The Northern Ireland Ministers outlined to us their plans for increasing recruitment to the Royal Ulster Constabulary which we all agreed was desirable.

"I had a lengthy discussion about employment prospects and industrial developments in Northern Ireland."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, I think that noble Lords in all parts of the House will wish to express gratitude to the noble Lord for repeating this interesting Statement, and will also agree that it was evidently a useful discussion that took place. I noted that economic development was mentioned last in the Statement. Is he aware that there are many people who think that the social and political changes may not suffice to achieve the overall purpose unless they are accompanied by a reduction in unemployment and a speeding up of economic development in Northern Ireland? Finally, can the noble Lord inform us whether the British Government at Westminster intend to follow the example of the Northern Ireland Government in promoting legislation: to establish machinery to consider citizens' grievances against public authorities other than central Government Departments, including local authorities"?


My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating this Statement. May I ask him two questions? I note that the local government elections are to be deferred until October, 1971. Is that by agreement with all the Parties in the Northern Ireland Government, which I think would be proper in such a case, or is it a decision of the Government, notwithstanding the views of Opposition Parties?

Secondly, Her Majesty's Government have ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, which presumably covers Northern Ireland. I gather it is admitted that Northern Ireland is in certain respects in breach of the Convention, and apparently it is suggested that Northern Ireland should remain in breach during a period of calm. Surely it would he more likely to maintain a period of calm if the Northern Ireland Government were not in breach of the Convention.


My Lords, first of all I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, who understands the Northern Ireland situation well. I think that at this moment I should mention that my noble friend Lord Stonham understands it very well indeed, and I should like to pay a tribute to him because I know that, among many other things he has done which we read about in The Times to-day, he has been actively and very constructively involved. I am quite sure that this Statement is very much to be welcomed by all people of good will who are interested in peace and development in Northern Ireland.

I was interested in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, about the extension of rights to citizens who feel aggrieved; the same question occurred to me. I can only say that I have noted what he has said. He knows that he will not get an answer. He referred also to the economic situation. I fully accept that there is an interaction here; both the economic and the political do interact. But, of course, unemployment is a further factor that has to be taken into account as a disturbing element to the community.

On the points which the noble Lord, Lord Wade, made, I would say, first of all, that of course everybody in Northern Ireland who is concerned has been informed. But a proposal which is so obviously designed to meet the criticisms of those who have been critical of the arrangements for local elections in Northern Ireland is one which, it seems to me, they can scarcely do other than welcome, and of course the postponement of the date of election is to make that possible. On the other point, it is of course correct that this particular question, as I made clear in my Statement, is a derogation and it has been necessary to enter this point. It is undoubtedly the wish of everybody that the Special Power Act should be swept away, but the fact remains, as the Government have made clear, that some calm has to come first. I understand that the Northern Ireland Government are considering a repeal of parts of the Public Order Act—or, rather, they were doing so; and the following day, of course, there were these explosions. I think we should hope that there will now be an amelioration, and that this promising development will lead to the results for which we all hope.


My Lords, surely it is inconsistent to accuse Northern Ireland of being in breach of the Convention of Human Rights. Because, after all, if we take for instance the country of Switzerland, we know that there the women do not even have the vote. Why is Northern Ireland singled out in this rather insulting way?


My Lords, I did not say that Northern Ireland was singled out; I said that Britain was singled out as a result of this. This is a matter of fact. I am not making any particular comments. This is in relation to the drafting of the European Human Rights Convention. This is simply a factual matter.


My Lords, may I express appreciation of the Statement which has been made, and congratulate all those concerned on the progress that it illustrates? May I ask just two questions? I listened carefully—perhaps I did not hear. Did the Prime Minister make a reference to the Special Powers Bill which is causing a great deal of anxiety in Northern Ireland? Secondly, while one welcomes the comparative calmness which now exists in Northern Ireland, I would ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that the depth of feeling about religious discrimination and civil rights is very great; and whether we will use our influence upon the Government of Northern Ireland to see that these progressive measures are put into operation very speedily.


My Lords, I think that if those remarks had been made by the noble Lord some weeks ago there might have been greater reason for them than there is following recent events and the Statement I have just made. If I may say to my noble friend (and I acknowledge his interest) this is what the Statement is about; and we hope very much that it will go a long way—indeed, it seems to go a long way—to deal with these very real grievances. My noble friend admitted that he might not have heard what I said; so I would repeat that the Prime Minister said that he discussed the Special Powers Act. I would also repeat that Northern Ireland Ministers appreciated our desire that this source of embarrassment should be removed as soon as possible, but made the point that there ought first to be a period of calm. So there was a discussion on this point.