HL Deb 29 June 1972 vol 332 cc1015-9

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I will, with permission, make the following Statement on developments in Northern Ireland that has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"It is clear that the cease-fire by the Provisional I.R.A. since midnight on Monday has been effective, with no significant incidence of violence since then. During the last two days I have sensed a widespread feeling of relief among people in Northern Ireland that they may now hope to move freely about on their lawful occasions.

"Yesterday I met representatives of the Ulster Defence Association. I told them that I believed that the cease-fire created new opportunities for the restoration of lasting peace and confidence under the law, and that I was indeed actively pursuing these opportunities at the present time. I explained that further steps were being taken against rate and rent strikers and that there was no question of remitting arrears of payments. I added that it was our intention to invite Parliament to institute a plebiscite on the Border as soon as possible, but which could not be before September. I urged them not to take any major and precipitate action which could destroy the opportunity created by the cease-fire.

"I made my position perfectly clear to the U.D.A. representatives but they have since made it known that it is now their intention to erect their own barricades throughout Northern Ireland this weekend.

"The danger, as the House is aware, of any precipitate action of this kind is that it will provoke a renewal of inter-sectarian conflict just at the time when there was good reason to hope it had ended. I trust that those who contemplate such action may be influenced by that reflection and that good sense will prevail.

"The cease-fire has brought a peace that is fragile; I feel sure that the mess- age of the House is, let those who seek to break it reflect upon their responsibilities, and their duty to maintain the Queen's Peace."


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for giving us that Statement. Our congratulations are due to Mr. Whitelaw—and indeed to the noble Lord himself—for the "fragile peace" which the Secretary of State has rightly suggested has come about in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that the Protestants and those in the U.D.A. feel subjected to a degree of quite exceptional provocation. The murders that went on up to the moment of the actual cease-fire make one feel that it is almost comparable in its horror to the sort of case we were discussing on the previous Statement. But the fact is that the Protestants and the U.D.A. stand to gain the most from this peace; they do not stand to lose anything by it. Therefore I very much welcome—and I am sure your Lordships' House welcomes—the very forthright conclusion of the Government Statement; namely, that those who seek to break the cease-fire should "reflect upon their responsibilities and their duty to maintain the Queen's Peace". That seems to me to be a condition of the loyalty which they profess.

I do not think anyone wishes to use provocative phrases now. I would only ask the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, whether he would consider one point further. While I fully accept that the testing of opinion by means of a plebiscite is at some time necessary, practically everything one does in Northern Ireland produces some unfortunate chain reaction; and therefore I would urge the Government not necessarily to hurry on too much. But again I am sure your Lordships send very good wishes to Mr. White-law, to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and to the people of Northern Ireland. I certainly will not ask the Government to speculate on the actions they may have to take if the threatened U.D.A. action follows.


My Lords, I should very much like to follow on the line which the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has developed and particularly to endorse the appeal which the Government make to the U.D.A. in this matter. This is a very precarious peace indeed, and there is a heavy responsibility on anybody who jeopardises it. I gather that one of the frustrations is the difficulty of the "No-go" areas. I would plead for patience. This is not something that can possibly be solved overnight. There must surely be a time now for political discussion and talk, and for efforts to make the best of the opportunity that has been provided. I wonder whether it is worth considering trying to hold the local government elections as soon as possible after the result of the plebiscite, so that a more representative local government situation will arise there which may give more confidence on both sides. I am not asking for an answer now: it is merely a suggestion.


My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for the reception they have given to this Statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said, it is the Protestant community, which has suffered so terribly in the past three years, who stand to gain so much out of the cease-fire. What we must do is to take every action within our power to continue the cease-tire and to consolidate it; for that will be in the interests of the Protestants and, indeed, the whole community in Northern Ireland.

As to the plebiscite, I think that probably it will be followed quite shortly by the local government elections. It is likely that the plebiscite will take place some time in the autumn, whereas the date of the local government elections is dependent on the re-drawing of the electoral units to make possible Proportional Representation. But I think the dates will come quite closely in sequence in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, has indicated.


My Lords, I should like to repeat the appreciation of the Government which I expressed on Friday. May I ask the Minister this question? Is not the core of this problem the "No-go" areas? Would the Government therefore consider making an appeal to the Catholic clergy and to the women's peace movement in Londonderry to find some solution of the "No-go" problem there? Similarly, would they consider making an appeal to the Protestant clergy who have declared for peace in Belfast, and such organisations as the Alliance Party, which includes Protestant members, to use their influence on the Protestant side as well?


My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right that the "No-go" areas are one of the things that concern the militant Protestants, the U.D.A. and others, more than anything else. But we are entitled to say that the ending of violence eases a frozen situation. The "No-go" areas in Londonderry, civil disobedience and squatting were all forms of protest against actions taken by the State to combat violence, and when violence ceases counter-measures by the State become no longer necessary. It is a long and, as the Statement said, extraordinarily difficult exercise to try to de-escalate a situation which has wound itself up so tragically over the last few years. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, that we are in close and continuing touch with the Roman Catholic Church at different levels, with the women's organisations, and with those other groups in the middle, such as the Alliance Party, to which the noble Lord referred, who have an important contribution to make in the present circumstances.


My Lords, perhaps I can take up further the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Byers. The question of the time of the plebiscite in relation to the local government elections seems to me to be important. I would not go nap on this; I would not even consider that it would be better to hold the elections before the plebiscite—it is a nice judgment, anyway. But I cannot help feeling that the plebiscite may give rise to the sort of violent campaigning of a kind which will mean that we shall go back to where we were, whereas it is just conceivable that the local government elections will yield results that will provide the sort of indication that people want, without causing anxiety to the Protestant majority, and may enable the moderate forces to come out. I may have taken Lord Byers's point further than he intended, but it struck me that this is a matter of most delicate judgment and I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, to consider it further.


My Lords, it is a finely balanced matter, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, says; and the Secretary of State made clear that his mind was open on the matter. The difficulty about the sequence mooted by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is that if the plebiscite came after, rather than before, the local government elections the local issues would be overlaid by arguments about the Border. We are most anxious that as many groups as possible should take part in these elections, on the basis of Proportional Representation, for the new district councils, which represent a major structural reform in local government, and that these groups should concern themselves with the local issues with which the district councils will be concerned.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say how long it will be before it is known what the terms of the plebescite will be: whether it will be a simple question of a united Ireland or not a united Ireland, or whether there will be some variations in the question put?


My Lords, it is too early to say what the exact form of the plebiscite will be, but noble Lords who heard the Statement which I have repeated this afternoon will have noticed that the Secretary of State said he will be putting his proposals before Parliament. Therefore Parliament will at a later date have an opportunity to discuss the exact form.