HL Deb 04 July 1974 vol 353 cc367-76

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House I will repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made in another place this afternoon. He said:

"I have to-day published a White Paper on Northern Ireland and have given notice of presentation of a Northern Ireland Bill which will give effect to the proposals in the Paper.

"The arrangements in the Constitution Act 1973 which have now been brought into force for the temporary government of Northern Ireland were designed only for short periods which might arise between Executives. My discussions since the fall of the Executive have shown that no Executive can be formed out of the present Assembly.

"I have appointed temporarily Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office to administer Northern Ireland Departments. They are constituentially responsible not to Parliament but to the prorogued Assembly. Under the present arrangements any Northern Ireland legislation would have to be obtained by Bill at Westminster. No Parliamentary timetable here could bear this load.

"The new Northern Ireland Bill will therefore make the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland responsible to this Parliament for the devolved services and will provide that laws for Northern Ireland may be made by Order in Council on matters within the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"These arrangements will supersede for the time being those provisions of the Constitution Act of 1973 which deal with the functions of the Assembly and the Executive but all other of its provisions will remain in full force and effect. The arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland in the new Bill will have a life of one year but can be extended or terminated subject to the approval of Parliament. The arrangements are designed to be temporary and could not be the permanent form of Government for Northern Ireland.

"Turning to the future, the extensive discussions I have had with political leaders and with the representatives of many groups and interests, following the fall of the Executive brought about by the Ulster Workers' Council political stoppage, have shown that many people in Northern Ireland would welcome the chance of trying themselves to find a way of solving their own political and economic problems. The Government believe, therefore, that the time has come to give representatives of all the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to meet together to discuss their future.

"As the first stage in this process the Bill will provide for a Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention to be elected to consider what provisions for the government of Northern Ireland would be likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there. The existing Northern Ireland Assembly will be dissolved as from the date of calling this election. The Government will play no part in the proceedings of the Convention but will be willing to assist it in any way which is likely to bring its deliberations to a successful conclusion.

"The Convention will have an independent Chairman of high standing and impartiality from Northern Ireland and 78 members elected for the existing 12 Parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland by the single transferable vote system. The Convention's report will be laid before Parliament. The Bill also provides that questions arising from the work of the Convention may be tested by referendum in Northern Ireland.

"It is not proposed to hold an immediate or early election to the Convention but about four weeks' notice of an election will be given.

"No local institutions can be established in Northern Ireland if they are unacceptable to broad sections of opinion there. Equally, I must emphasise that they cannot be established on a basis unacceptable to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole and to Parliament. This is why the report of the Convention will be laid before Parliament and it is why in the White Paper I have seen fit to spell out some of the realities of the situation which the Convention must face. I will supplement this with a fuller explanation on the financial side at a later date.

"There is the overriding need that both communities in Northern Ireland must participate in government by a sharing of power. There is the fact that Northern Ireland has a special relationship with the Republic of Ireland—what the previous Govenment's White Paper described as the Irish Dimension. There is the reality of the financial link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

"The fall of the Executive was a turning point in the recent history of Northern Ireland and this explains the concept and tone of the White Paper. The Government think it essential at this time also to emphasise again the overriding importance of the particular question of law and order.

"The Army went into Northern Ireland on a temporary basis nearly five years ago in a situation where there was widespread sectarian confrontation. It is now dealing with urban guerrilla warfare but it has also become involved in policing in many areas.

"Her Majesty's Government will continue to discharge their responsibilities but our hope is that normal policing, effectively backed by the support of the whole community in Northern Ireland, will take over a steadily increasing share of this heavy burden. A determination by the whole community to support the police service and to co-operate with it would transform the security situation. If this process developed, the Army would be enabled to make a planned, orderly and progressive reduction in its present commitment, leading ultimately to the point when the Army would no longer need to be involved in a policing role.

"It is in this context that I have laid before the House to-day an Order which provides for the extension of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 for six months. This will provide time during which Lord Gardiner's Committee, which has already begun work, can advise on the future of the Act. In the light of recommendations of the Committee, proposals will in due course be brought before Parliament.

"I must, however, make it clear that the need remains for some kind of emergency powers in Northern Ireland until violence stops. It is a society in which over 1,000 people have been killed in the past five years. It is not a normal United Kingdom situation. The lives of soldiers, of policemen and of the civilian population must be given greater protection in Northern Ireland than the ordinary law allows. The Government believe that their proposals for the Convention offer an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to contribute directly and in their own way to the establishing of a joint and stable society in Northern Ireland.

"An election will take place at which a wide range of parties representing all shades of opinion can put their views on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland to the electorate. All those who genuinely have political views can face the electorate and the Government hope that the process of discussion and consultation will develop on as wide a basis as possible and cover the whole range of Northern Ireland's problems.

"The reward of success will be victory for all the people of Northern Ireland; the penalty of failure will be defeat for all."

My Lords, that completes the Statement.


My Lords, this is a very important Statement. We shall need to study the White Paper and will certainly require time for full debate before the Summer Recess. I hope that that can be arranged through the usual channels. At this stage I should like to confine myself to two comments.

I notice that in the Statement which we have just had repeated to us the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that it is not proposed to hold an immediate or early election to the new Constitutional Convention. I hope that the noble Lord will bear in mind the supreme advantages to be gain in trying, so far as he can, to keep distinct in time and in purpose the election for this new Convention in Ireland, in the Irish context, from any General Election which may occur for the Westminster Parlia- ment. Secondly, I wish to emphasise the need (I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and his colleagues in Northern Ireland will agree with this) to try to keep the moderates in Northern Ireland—Mr. Faulkner and those who support him, the Alliance Party and others who, we might remember, have been the people who have upheld the principle of power sharing—with an active rôle in a developing situation. I notice that in paragraph 26 of the White Paper tribute is paid to them in the following words: Yet, if the Executive failed, the men who served in it did not fail. They disproved for ever the idea that it is not possible for Protestant and Roman Catholic to work together for the good of Northern Ireland and its people". My Lords, I hope that this will continue to be the theme for the future.


My Lords, may I join in thanking the noble Lord for reading this long Statement. Obviously we shall require time to study the White Paper. I welcome the proposal that the people of Northern Ireland should themselves try to find a way of solving their own political and economic problems. I note that this Bill will be introduced to provide for the election of a Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention and I am glad to see that the method of election will be by proportional representation by the single transferable vote.

May I ask whether the noble Lord is in a position to say a little more about the anticipated timetable. I can foresee anomalies. This has been touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. If an election to the Westminster Parliament by one method of election and an election to this Convention were to coincide or take place at roughly about the same time, I think it would be unfortunate. Can the noble Lord tell us when he thinks it is probable that the four weeks' notice will be given for the election to the Convention in Northern Ireland? I will not ask him about the date of the Election to the Westminster Parliament! In conclusion, my Lords, I welcome the effort once again to try to make power sharing work. I hope that it will.


My Lords, I am grateful for the reception which the two noble Lords have given to this Statement. The only question which I have been asked by both noble Lords concerns the date of the election. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has made it clear that it is important that the date of this election should not be confused with the date of the General Election. As I do not know the date of the General Election—nor, I imagine, is it known by my right honourable friend—it is clear that it would be difficult and perhaps improper to make a guess about the date of this election. Clearly, there are a number of imponderables. There is the holiday period to come and the possibility of an election. However, I think that my right honourable friend wishes to get on with this at the right moment, and I do not think I can say any more about it than that we shall have to wait and see. Of course, the Government agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, has said about those people who have made power sharing work in the past. We have paid tribute to them in the White Paper but we are now at the beginning of a new chapter. People have got to stand on their own and there will be no interference from us at this stage.


My Lords, may I add my thanks to the noble Lord for the Statement and say that I fully approve what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said about the desirability of having a debate at a suitable moment. It is sad to think that Northern Ireland once had a Parliament, that for five months it had an Assembly, and will now have a Convention. I do not know where we can go below that—perhaps down to county council level.

Secondly, may I say how glad I am to see that there is a chapter on finance in the White Paper. I have not had time yet to study the White Paper, but I would describe this as one of the British dimensions. I am afraid that the noble Lord will find, as I did in my day, that the people of Northern Ireland will refuse to believe that they are subsidised from London. And if you can make them believe that they are subsidised from London, they will say, "We are entitled to it anyway". It is not a rewarding task. However, when you look at the largest projection—" Part 5—Finance" on page 12—one sees a projected figure of £430 million for 1974/1975 which is a lot of money. I am delighted to see that in this particular White Paper the Government have drawn attention to the British dimension.


My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lord. What the noble Lord has said on this particular subject is of the greatest possible interest. He will have noticed that in the White Paper the Government have promised a further and more detailed financial statement, which I think will do all that the noble Lord is asking for. I do not feel quite as gloomy as does the noble Lord. I do not believe that we shall go down to county council level but will start on our way up again very shortly.


My Lords, recognising that one must reserve for debate much fuller consideration, may I say a few words to the House. Broadly, I welcome the Statement which has been made, particularly the suggestion of a Constitutional Convention which a number of noble Lords urged when this subject was debated last. May I say to Her Majesty's Government that despite the difficulty of some conflict between a General Election in this country and the election to the Constitutional Convention, it is desirable in the Irish situation that the proposal for the Constitutional Convention should be made evident as early as possible.

My Lords, we are in a critical situation. There has not been the opportunity for many years, but I believe that there is now the opportunity for accord in Northern Ireland if the people of Northern Ireland are given the responsibility for taking the initiative in proposing a solution to their problems. If, however, the psychology of that situation is to be accepted, it is desirable that this proposal for a Constitutional Convention should be made something which is realistic, something which gives new hope and something which, by its immediacy, may contribute towards the coming together of the two communities in Northern Ireland.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said. Of course my right honourable friend is acutely conscious that timing is extremely important. We take the view that there is still a good deal of talking to be done and even if it were convenient I do not think one would want to summon the Convention tomorrow. The question of timing is all-important, and my right honourable friend will give it the fullest possible attention.


My Lords, will my noble friend accept the congratulations of this side of the House to his Department for having produced what appears to be a well-founded initiative so quickly after the shambles left by the political general strike and by the fall of the Executive. Is he aware that the decision to make the elected representatives of the people of Ulster totally responsible for new proposals to solve their problems is absolutely in accord with the current reality in Northern Ireland?


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. We are proud of the Department's performance which has been very good, and my noble friend's kind words will be passed on.


My Lords, I think that we should follow the speech of the noble Lord, Lord O'Neill of the Maine, for he understands the position in Northern Ireland at the present time better than anybody else.


My Lords, may I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and his Department on the work that has been done, the care with which it has been done and indeed—something which has been criticised—the way in which it has been kept confidential, which seems to me to have been most important.

I should like to ask one question but I shall quite understand if the noble Lord feels unable to add anything to what he has already said. In listening attentively to what he said it occurred to me to ask whether it is the hope of the Government that the way in which the Constitutional convention will be elected will give at least adequate representation to those who disagree with the vast majority of representations from Northern Ireland which we now have in another place. Is it the Government's hope that the plans they have made will at least ensure that the voice on behalf of which this country intervened will have a proper chance of putting its case and seeing that it is represented.


My Lords, may I join in the congratulations and, speaking as an Army man, I long for the replacement of troops on police duties by police on police duties.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken. In relation to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, the Government are confident that the system by which the Assembly was elected last time was fair and was not open to much criticism. All that happened was that certain of the elected representatives chose not to take part. I do not wish to say anything to encourage my noble friends on the Liberal Benches, but we think that the system of proportional representation with a transferable vote worked extremely well, and we are confident that it will give a fair representation of people's views for general discussion in the Convention.