HL Deb 17 July 1974 vol 353 cc1131-6

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I have had it in Command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty having been informed of the purport of the Northern Ireland Bill has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. Last week the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland issued a White Paper. Consequent upon it a Northern Ireland Bill has now passed through all stages in another place. The Motion I put down for discussion in your Lordships' House referred to the White Paper because it was not certain that the Bill would have reached us by to-day. In fact the Bill is before us and so the debate to-day is properly a Second Reading debate, but if noble Lords so wish, it will be appropriate to range a little beyond the Bill itself to include what is in the White Paper.

I am encouraged by the fact that so few noble Lords have put down their names to speak on this important Bill. I take that as a general endorsement by the House of the Government's policy as supported by the Opposition and as laid down in the White Paper and now activated in the Bill before us. I think we all want the parties in Northern Ireland to talk and to go on talking until they can solve their problems in some way other than by violence. But that is no reason for talking too much here so I appreciate and commend the forebearance of noble Lords this afternoon.

The White Paper gives a very clear history of events leading up to the collapse of the Executive. In simple terms, the consensus which the previous Government had hoped for, and without which no democratic government is possible, was shown, in fact, not to exist. This created a new situation with which the Bill before us is intended to deal. My right honourable friend found that he could not form an Executive which fulfilled the terms of the 1973 Constitution Act. He thought new elections to an Assembly would leave him in no better position. He, therefore, had to do something different, and the Bill before us contains his solution. It is proposed that a Convention should be elected on the same electoral basis as the Assembly, and that it should be given the task of making proposals to the Parliament at Westminster as to the best method of governing Northern Ireland. My right honourable friend feels, and I think most of us feel, that the British have not been too successful in finding out what is acceptable to people in Northern Ireland, and he thought it right to let them have a go themselves.

The White Paper indicates three realities which any recommendation must recognise. First, there must be some form of power sharing and partnership in Northern Ireland. A political system which does not command widespread acceptance throughout the community simply will not work. In the second place, proposals must be acceptable to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole, and this means that the rights of minorities must be properly protected. Thirdly, whatever people may think of it, there is what the previous Government describe as an Irish Dimension. This must be recognised, but it in no way alters the fact, which has been asserted again and again, that no change can be made to link the North and the South without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

After our debate to-day I shall be moving the approval of an Order to renew the Emergency Provisions Act 1973, and I will leave until then any discussion of the problem of law and order. The fact is—and I think we all know it—that military victory against determined guerrilla warfare is extremely difficult without abandoning all traditional controls. I think we all know, too, that law and order can never prevail until the people as a whole are in support of the police. The gradual increase in police ability to cover all policing duties will lead to a gradual reduction in the Army's role in their support. Therefore, the Convention has a task of proposing a form of Government which will be sufficiently reassuring to minorities, as well as majorities, for them to regard the forces of law and order as their friends, and not their enemies. I shall say more about the Convention in due course, when I come to comment on the details of the Bill, to which I now turn.

Since the fall of the Executive the Government have had to face the problem of governing Northern Ireland from day to day. There were provisions contained in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 which enable the situation to be dealt with in the short term. But we are not faced merely with an interregnum between Executives. It is necessary for United Kingdom Ministers to take responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland during the coming months. We are therefore proposing that certain temporary arrangements should be made for the orderly government of Northern Ireland. In introducing these temporary arrangements, we are not repealing any part of the Constitution Act 1973. It is important to bear this in mind when one considers how ready some commentators have been to regard the Constitution Act as dead.

The temporary arrangements fall into two parts. First, there is legislation. It will clearly be impossible for this Parliament to find time to take Bills to deal with all the legislation that will be necessary for Northern Ireland. Therefore, we propose that there should be power for Her Majesty to make Orders in Council legislating for Northern Ireland on those matters on which the Northern Ireland Assembly has power to legislate. As during Direct Rule in 1972 and 1973, these Orders will be subject to the Affirmative Resolution procedure unless they are extremely urgent, in which case they must be approved within 40 sitting days of being made. The second part of our proposals concerns Executive Government. At present, the Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office who hold office as heads of the various Departments in Northern Ireland are not technically accountable to Parliament. It is proposed, instead, that the Secretary of State should control all Departments in Northern Ireland, and that he and his Ministerial team should then be accountable to Parliament for the discharge of their functions.

My Lords, these interim and temporary arrangements will provide for the better government of Northern Ireland during the coming months. But I must make it plain that they are not, in the view of the Government, a satisfactory long-term solution. For that long-term solution we now turn to Clause 2 of the Bill. The Government recognise, as did the last Government in their White Paper of March, 1973, that for a system of government for Northern Ireland to work effectively all sections of the community must be prepared to let it work. The system of government made law by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 represented a development which appeared both to the Government and the Opposition of the day to offer a realistic opportunity for Northern Ireland and its people to bring to an end the violence and instability which has afflicted them for so long. However, recent events have demonstrated that it was not an acceptable development, so we must now take stock of the situation again. And we must again face, as the previous Government faced, the need to make sure that any proposals made for Northern Ireland's future system of Government commands the acceptance of the vast majority of the people there.

It is with this in mind that the Government propose, in Clause 2 of the Bill, to establish a Constitutional Convention in Northern Ireland. This will not be a legislative body, but will be created solely for the purpose of considering, what provision for the Government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most wide-spread acceptance throughout the community there". The Convention will be given an initial life of six months, but it will be dissolved earlier if it presents its Report within that period; alternatively, subject to Parliamentary approval, its term can be extended. It will be for Parliament to decide what action should follow the Convention's Report. It may be desirable to embark on a subsequent test of Northern Ireland opinion through a referendum there. The Bill will permit this, but it specifically precludes a referendum on the Border issue.

The Convention will be Northern Ireland's chance to consider its own future. Although the Convention will be a matter for those elected to it, there are certain realities which it must face. It is a fact, my Lords, that more public money is spent on Northern Ireland than the revenue raised there. The United Kingdom Exchequer subsidies Northern Ireland. There is nothing wrong or shameful in this. It is not charity; it is part of the understanding which exists between any small part of the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom as a whole. We have never hesitated to approve additional money for Northern Ireland to ensure that the right standards are maintained there. As my right honourable friend pointed out in the debate on the White Paper in another place last week, the support for Northern Ireland was £376 million in 1973–74. The sacrifices made by the British Army are even greater, for they must be counted in terms of human lives. The Army has had a heavy commitment in Northern Ireland since 1969, and this was entirely right. It is another part of the understanding which exists between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom and the country as a whole.

However, my Lords, there is another side to this penny. If taxpayers in Great Britain are to support the standard of living in Northern Ireland, then it is reasonable for them to ask Northern Ireland to achieve a responsible and workable political solution which will promote justice there. Moreover, if soldiers from Great Britain sacrifice their lives in Northern Ireland, we must insist that it is in a just cause. However, let us never forget the terrible experience of the people of Northern Ireland over the last five years. Perhaps this will influence the Convention more than anything else. By succeeding in its task it can help to relieve the people it represents of the

burden they have had to bear for so long, and I believe that there is no decent person in Northern Ireland who does not long for that day.

Government strategy, then, is to give the people of Northern Ireland a fresh opportunity to examine their own constitutional future. Although it is necessary to make these arrangements now, my right honourable friend does not believe that it would be wise to hold the election to the Convention in the immediate future. I am aware that there has been a call for early elections from various quarters. Following my Statement on the Government's White Paper in this House last Thursday, my noble friend Lord Brock-way suggested that elections should be held as soon as possible. I repeat what I said to my noble friend then, that my right honourable friend is acutely conscious that timing is extremely important and he will give it the fullest possible attention. It would be as unwise to hold the election too late as to hold it too early. It is important, however, to be flexible in our thinking at this stage.

With this Convention, we believe that we are creating an opportunity for all the people of Northern Ireland to discuss the realities of their situation, and for them to come to a view, on the basis of those realities, about the form of the future Government of Northern Ireland. As all who have been concerned will know, it is no easy task which has been placed on the shoulders of the Convention, and the Government will do all they can to assist it in its deliberations. It must be the wish not only of both sides of this House, but of all the people of the United Kingdom, that the Convention will enjoy success. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

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