HL Deb 20 March 1973 vol 340 cc613-21

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, that is an extraordinarily generous suggestion. It is the first time that I have heard it made in your Lordships' House. I daresay it has happened on other occasions but I am most grateful to the noble Lord and with the permission of the House I will now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The Statement reads as follows:

"Mr. Speaker, I will, with permission, make a Statement. The Government have today published a White Paper setting out Constitutional Proposals for Northern Ireland.

"I will not today take the House through our proposals in detail especially as I understand that my right honourable friend the Leader of the House agrees that there should be an opportunity for an early debate.

"The Government propose to present to Parliament as soon as possible a Bill which will provide for a restoration of elected institutions in Northern Ireland to which a wide range of Governmental powers will be devolved. There will be a single-chamber Assembly of about 80 members elected on this occasion by the single transferable vote method of proportional representation applied to the 12 Westminster constituencies. The Office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will continue and, as well as responsibility for those services reserved to him, he will represent Northern Ireland's interests in the United Kingdom Cabinet.

"The Northern Ireland Executive will be formed from the Assembly and discussions will immediately be put in hand by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with the Party leaders in the newly-elected Assembly on how this will be done. But the Government have decided that the Executive cannot henceforward be based on any single Party if that Party draws its support and its elected representation virtually entirely from only one section of a divided community. When the Government are satisfied that this condition can be met and that the system will be worked by those concerned, Parliament will be asked to approve the devolution of extensive law-making and executive powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. There will, however, be a range of matters which will be excluded from the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the present security situation there will be no devolution of responsibilities within the area of law and order. Arrangements will be made for the Northern Ireland Executive to be consulted on law and order matters, and for the involvement of elected representatives from the Assembly and from District Councils.

"The heads of departments in the Executive will also be chairmen of functional committees whose membership will, so far as possible, reflect Party strengths in the Assembly. No new law or policy will be proposed unless the appropriate Committees have been consulted.

"The White Paper proposes a charter of human rights for Northern Ireland. Central and local government and statutory boards will be debarred from any legislative and executive action of a discriminatory nature. In addition, a Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights will be set up to co-ordinate the activities of all agencies working in this field, both in the public and private sector. A Bill will in due course be brought before Parliament to deal with job discrimination on religious or political grounds in the private sector following the recommendations of a Northern Ireland Working Party including both sides of industry.

"The Government reaffirm the pledge that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as that is the wish of the majority of its people and this declaration will form part of the constitutional Bill.

"The Government favour the formation of a Council of Ireland but this must be achieved by consent. Therefore, following the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Government propose to invite representatives of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland to a conference to discuss three interrelated problems. These are the acceptance of the present status of Northern Ireland and of the possibility—which would have to be compatible with the principle of consent—of subsequent changes in that status; effective consultation and co-operation in Ireland for the benefit of the North and South alike; and the provision of a firm basis for concerted governmental and community action against terrorist organisations. The Northern Ireland Assembly will thereby have an oppor tunity to play a full part in devising the form of any such Council.

"The introduction of new institutions in Northern Ireland must be accompanied by progress in the economic sphere. The Government will judge the financial needs of Northern Ireland so as to accomplish as quickly as possible the task of reconstruction; create a sound basis for the economy; and work progressively towards the achievement in Northern Ireland of those standards of living, employment and social conditions which prevail in Great Britain. When the new institutions in Northern Ireland have been formed, the Government propose to discuss with them how they can exercise, within prescribed limits, a large measure of freedom of decision as regards financial priorities and policies.

"In putting forward these proposals, the Government recognise that there is no more urgent task than to bring violence to an end. They will take all steps which are necessary. As part of this task Parliament will shortly be asked to approve legislation to combat terrorism more effectively. This legislation will give effect to the recommendations of the Diplock Commission, and will repeal the Special Powers Act re-enacting only those measures which are still essential. The Government propose that this legislation should operate only in an emergency and should be subject to the approval of Parliament.

"These are the Government's proposals. Under them, Northern Ireland will continue to have a greater degree of self government than any other part of the United Kingdom. Both the majority and minority communities will have an opportunity to play a full part in dealing with issues and procedures of crucial domestic importance to Northern Ireland. The proposed settlement is devised for the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. It cannot meet all the wishes of any one section of the community. It requires the co-operation of all the people of Northern Ireland. A heavy responsibility now rests upon their leaders. There can be no excuse for withdrawal of co-operation or resort to violence. The many problems of Northern Ireland cannot be solved by Government alone but the proposed settlement, given good will, provides a fair and reasonable basis for progress."

My Lords, that ends my right honourable friend's Statement.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for providing that summarised account of what is a long, complex and obviously very carefully worked-out White Paper. We have continually pressed for the publication of this White Paper. But having done so, I certainly urge my noble friends, and indeed any other noble Lord, to follow the advice of my right honourable friend Mr. Wilson, to avoid to the maximum extent detailed comment on these proposals at this stage. Because of my deep interest in this matter and my views, I myself have some difficulty in not commenting in detail, and I would go so far as to say that my comments might have been pleasing to the Government. But I am quite sure that this is now a responsibility which rests on the people of Northern Ireland, and the Government have wisely presented their proposals in a form which clearly puts upon them the responsibility as to whether they will live in peace and prosperity or in a continuation of the violence and tragedy of the last few years.

It seems to me, without commenting in detail, that the issue of the greatest importance will be the enactment of this legislation. Clearly we shall need to see it. Clearly the Government will wish to get it through. At the same time, I hope that we shall be able to give it the kind of consideration which we have not been able to give to so much other Northern Ireland legislation that has been passed. My particular reason for asking the Government to publish this legislation at the earliest opportunity is the hope that the proposals, for good or for bad (and I believe I have indicated my personal views that they could be very much for good), can be implemented; and, in particular, the elections to the proposed new Assembly, if that proves to be acceptable, should be carried out at the earliest possible date—and I would hope even in the earlier part of the summer.

My Lords, this is once again an opportunity for the moderate opinion in Northern Ireland which we believe exists in large measure to assert itself. When one considers the alternative choice, I am sure that all noble Lords wish to encourage that moderate opinion to emerge and if possible to avoid being turned in an extreme direction one way or another. As the noble Lord made clear in his Statement, this White Paper cannot possibly please everyone. It is simply not possible. It is incumbent on all of us to recognise that; and I hope that the majority of people in Northern Ireland will do so. I understand that we are likely to have an opportunity to debate this subject next week and that is an occasion when we may be able to press our views on particular issues. But I should not like to end without extending my personal thanks and gratitude both to the Secretary of State and to the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for their efforts.


Hear, hear!


I believe it would be right at the same time to take note of a man who has not often been mentioned but who has had a difficult task; namely, Lord Grey of Naunton, the Governor of Northern Ireland, who, I believe, is shortly to retire; and, once again, all those in Northern Ireland who have continued to behave responsibly and with moderation.


My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that this is not a moment to pass judgment prematurely. Nevertheless, there is obviously enormous food for thought and for action in this White Paper and we on these Benches cannot help being particularly pleased that there are at least two or three major proposals for which we have been pressing for a very long time. This is the first real opportunity for the moderates on all sides in Northern Ireland to work out their future together, and this is a great step forward. Our thanks are due, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, said, to the Secretary of State and his Ministers, including the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, for the obviously very painstaking care which has gone into this White Paper. They have, indeed, shown themselves to be honest brokers.

There is just one question I should like to ask to elucidate this point. In the Statement the noble Lord said that there will be a single Chamber Assembly of about 80 Members elected on this occasion by the single transferable vote method of proportional representation". May I ask him whether "on this occasion" does not mean "in this case"? I understand the Government's reasons for qualification, but the Statement does not mean, surely, that the Assembly will be elected on future occasions by going back to the old "first past the post" system.


My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords for what they have said, and particularly for the restraint they have shown in not making instantaneous comments on the proposals of substance in the White Paper. Both noble Lords said that this is a chance for the more moderate people in Northern Ireland to come forward, and we certainly hope that that opportunity is one which will be taken. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, mentioned his desire to see urgent action taken, and I can assure him that we shall act with urgency. There will be two Bills, one enacting the constitutional proposals set out in the White Paper and the second Bill dealing with emergency provisions—that is, implementation of the Diplock recommendations; the repeal of the Special Powers Act; and making certain other special provisions which may be called for because of the emergency situation in Northern Ireland. We hope that both these Bills can be presented to Parliament as quickly as possible. They will, of course, be considered by Parliament under the normal full legislative procedures; not by the foreshortened substitute procedures that we have had to make do with. As soon as that is done, elections can be held for the new Assembly in Northern Ireland.

I would not split hairs with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, about whether the S.T.V. is "on this occasion" or "in this case". The election for the Assembly will be on the basis of P.R. and so will the local government elections for the new district councils, but we do not want to commit ourselves for ever for the future. There have been different electoral forms in Ireland, North and South, in the past, and we should like to keep that particular option open.


My Lords, while paying my tribute to the high-mindedness of all those concerned with producing this White Paper, and without having had a chance to study it carefully, may I ask whether the aspiration of the Government, which I entirely share, that the minority will be represented in the new Executive will not in fact be implemented in the proposals here but will continue to be the responsibility of the Secretary of State, and it will be his task to see that it is carried out?


My Lords, it will be for the Secretary of State to judge when powers can be devolved on the Assembly and on the Executive, and in paragraphs 52 and 53, which I commend particularly to the noble Earl, the criteria which the Secretary of State will have in mind are spelled out in some detail. What is said there is that executive powers cannot be concentrated in the elected representatives of one community only. It will depend on the judgment of the Secretary of State when a situation has been reached which fulfils the criteria laid down in the White Paper, and so power will be shared in this way.


My Lords, supposing that in fact he forms the opinion that these powers can suitably be devolved and devolution takes place, and afterwards—which I hope will not occur—it breaks down, will he retain the responsibility and the power to make sure that the minority are properly safeguarded in the new Executive?


My Lords, this perhaps is getting a little more detailed than I had hoped on this occasion. There are three categories of powers—excepted matters, reserved matters and transferred matters—which are set out in some detail in the White Paper. I know the noble Earl is going to visit Northern Ireland very shortly. I hope he will be able to take part in the full debate which we shall have next Tuesday, and perhaps we could pursue this matter, along with any others that seem to him of importance, on that occasion.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for his Statement and paying tribute to him and the Secretary of State, and, if I may say so especially to him as a Member of this House, for contributing towards this White Paper, may I ask him whether he is aware that those of us who have put forward proposals in the last two years, many of which are now adopted in the White Paper, wish to make an appeal to all people in Northern Ireland to accept a period for consideration of these proposals without seeking to exacerbate the present situation, in order that calm consideration may be given to the ultimate solution which is to be gained?


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said, and he is quite entitled, more so perhaps than almost anybody else in this House, to read the latter part of this White Paper entitled A Charter of Human Rights "with some satisfaction. The timing and the form of the changes that are proposed may be different from those that he has made on a number of occasions, but the aim of policy is the same, and I think he can take considerable credit for that. I hope that the noble Lord's voice, which is listened to with respect in Northern Ireland in those circles concerned particularly with the preservation and the furtherance of human rights, will be listened to on this occasion more than on any other.