HL Deb 15 June 1972 vol 331 cc1130-5

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, this may be a convenient moment for me to repeat to your Lordships the Statement being made in another place by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement reads as follows:

"Mr. Speaker, I will with permission make a Statement on two steps upon which Her Majesty's Government have decided in relation to Northern Ireland. In assuming direct responsibility for Northern Ireland on March 30, the Government held it to be an important objective to create an atmosphere in which the varying political views in Northern Ireland on the future of the Province could be brought together and discussed. As I said in the debate in this House last Monday, there is a strong desire in Northern Ireland that discussions on the future should now begin. It is therefore my intention to enter into immediate conversations to arrange an early conference and the conditions under which it might he held. I believe that the conference should he a conference of the people of Northern Ireland. The object will be to enable those who hold a wide variety of political opinions to exchange views to see what common ground can be found concerning the future of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland and report the conclusions to Her Majesty's Government and to this House.

"If my conversations show that there is also a widespread desire for a plebiscite on the Border at an early date the Government would he very ready to arrange it.

"The second step relates to the local government reforms which were inaugurated by the previous Northern Ireland Government. As I previously confirmed, to that end elections to the new district councils will be held in the autumn of this year.

"Her Majesty's Government have been giving much thought to the most appropriate basis under which these elections might be held. During the 1920s both Parliamentary and local elections were held under a system of the single transferable vote with multimember constituencies. In the previous Northern Ireland Government's Consultative Document, published in 1971, the possibility of this system was put forward for discussion. Her Majesty's Government have decided to propose to Parliament that in the present particular circumstances in Northern Ireland it would be right to hold these local elections under Proportional Representation by means of the single transferable vote.

"I should like to make it clear that this decision relates only to these particular elections. It in no way prejudices decisions on Northern Ireland's democratic institutions in future, nor on subsequent local elections. The required administrative preparations will make it necessary to postpone the elections from the date hitherto envisaged in the second half of October to November or December. However, the councils elected will still take office in April, 1973, as planned."

That ends my right honourable friend's Statement.


My Lords, we thank the noble Lord for making that Statement in this House. I take it as a further indication of the courage, the patience and the persistence of Mr. Whitelaw and his colleagues whom we have entrusted with this task of trying to improve affairs in Northern Ireland. May I put the following points to the noble Lord? I understand the delicacy of the talks about talks, but may we assume that information will be given about their progress? In particular, I note the reference to the use of a plebiscite on the Border. I wonder whether the noble Lord could give us any further information as to what he has in mind there.

There will be many on this side, including, I have no doubt, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, whose Bill dealing with this matter has already had a First Reading, who will welcome what is said about Proportional Representation. I content myself at this stage with saying that I hope those upon whom the situation in Northern Ireland ultimately depends—namely, the Northern Irish themselves—will respond to what has been said and what has been offered.


My Lords, we should very much like to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has said about Mr. Whitelaw and the part he is playing in Northern Ireland. I welcome the proposal to call a conference on the future of the Province. May I ask the Government whether it is the intention that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will chair this conference and take it under his own auspices.

I should like, from these Benches in particular, to congratulate the Government on their wisdom in agreeing to ado Proportional Representation for local elections, and particularly the decision to use the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. This system should ensure a more balanced representation in local government. I would ask that when drawing up instructions for voting they will bear in mind the tremendous experience which resides in the Electoral Reform Society who can give help on this subject.


My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for their expression of appreciation on the progress being made in Northern Ireland by my right honourable friend. I am pleased to know that the two important measures he has announced to-day command their general support. I am sure it will be possible to give this House regular reports as we go along in the same way as they will be given by the Secretary of State in another place. He has already indicated that he will be reporting regularly and I hope that I can keep your Lordships' House similarly informed.

The noble Lord, Lord Byers, asked about the chairmanship of the conference. My right honourable friend would like to keep open as long as he can his options on the chairmanship, the composition and the agenda of the conference in order that he may bring as many people as possible together to express their views. He hoped not to be pressed too hard on detailed matters of this sort to-day.

As to the plebiscite, the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, may remember that the Prime Minister referred to this before Easter. We have said that there will be a plebiscite on the Border to enable the people of Northern Ireland to express their views as to whether they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. The question is when this plebiscite should take place; whether it should be held as early as possible or later on.


My Lords, regarding the plebiscite on the Border, is it a question for or against the Border, or for any alteration in it?


My Lords, a great deal of thought has been given to the form that a plebiscite might take. As your Lordships might expect, it is one of those subjects that sounds very simple, but the more you look into it the harder it is. I depends very much on the methods used, the type of questions put and the context in which they are put. We are giving careful thought to all these matters. The reference to the plebiscite in the Statement referred to the timing, rather than to the detail.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell me whether the membership of the conference will be on a proportional representation basis, divided as to various political Parties and shades of opinion in proportion roughly to their numbers?


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State hopes to have as free a hand as possible. The nucleus will be representatives of the recognised political Parties in Northern Ireland, but it is difficult to say at present in what proportion.


My Lords, I welcome the Statement which the noble Lord the Minister has made. May I take the opportunity of saying—I regard it as a matter of honesty—that I want to withdraw the cynicism which I expressed when the Minister of Northern Ireland was appointed and, instead, to congratulate him.

May I ask two questions? While I recognise that the composition of the conference must still be a matter for further discussion, I was interested in the use of the phrase that it should "represent the people". In that instance, is it proposed to have not only the political Parties represented but also some representation of the expression of opinion that is coming from the roots and which is so welcome in Northern Ireland to-day? The second question is this. May I welcome particularly the decision to apply Proportional Representation to the local government elections? My Noble friend was slightly in error in saying that my Bill had had a First Reading this year; in fact, it was a Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Archibald. But I did a year ago secure a First Reading for a Bill upon this matter, and quite clearly, although that Bill is on the Order Paper, it may be desirable in view of the Statement which has been made to-day, to withdraw it. But particularly I want to congratulate the Minister on both the proposals in the Statement.


My Lords, I have no cynicism to withdraw, not having expressed any; but I will give very careful consideration to the withdrawal of the Bill in my name which has had a First Reading.


My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords. My memory is not sufficiently long for me to remember any cynicism being expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Brockway. I can therefore assure him that there is nothing for him to withdraw. I feel that it would not he right at the moment to add to what I have already said on the composition of the Conference. The mind of the Secretary of State is open on this matter. He wants the widest and most representative composition that he can possibly achieve. I must emphasise that the decision mentioned in the Statement on Proportional Representation in the next local government elections is a decision for those elections only. It would not be right to prejudice the future system for Parliamentary elections, or local government elections, which relate to the future of Northern Ireland as a whole. But a decision had to be taken quickly, and after careful thought as to what electoral system should be used we came to the conclusion that, on balance, this was the best solution.


My Lords, may I put a small question to the noble Lord? In the Statement there was an announcement about a plebiscite on the Border and about a future conference to be held. The question of timing was obviously very delicate. Is there any connection between the two? Is the plebiscite on the Border to take place before or after the conference?


My Lords, some people have expressed the view that an early plebiscite should be held; others feel that it would be better to defer it for a time. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he would like to hear people's views on the timing of the plebiscite at the same time as we are holding talks about talks on the subject of the conference.