HL Deb 20 May 1974 vol 351 cc1262-6

3.49 p.m.


With the permission of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland earlier this afternoon. The Statement reads:

"I should like to inform the House of the circumstances leading to yesterday's proclamation of a State of Emergency in Northern Ireland.

"On Tuesday, 14 May, a body calling itself the Ulster Workers Council with no trade union or democratic standing but supported by paramilitary organisations advertised in the press that there would be a general stoppage if the Northern Ireland Assembly voted that day to support the Sunningdale Agreement.

"The Northern Ireland Assembly voted to support the Executive's policy on the Sunningdale Agreement and the broadly based system of Government established under the 1973 Constitution Act.

"On Wednesday, May 15, I met the honourable Members for North Antrim and Belfast East, accompanied by Assemblyman Laird. Three members of the Ulster Workers' Council and three observers from Protestant para-military organisations were also present.

"The Ulster Workers' Council told us that the purpose of their action was to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement and have new Assembly elections at an early date. They intended to force this by limiting the supply of electricity, dictating themselves who should have current and who should be denied it. They said that further measures would be taken if the Government refused to negotiate. I made it plain that the Government, and indeed this House, were committed to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act and the Sunningdale Agreement, that the Northern Ireland electorate would be free to decide their future at elections held in accord with the Constitution Act, that the strike was a political one for purely sectarian purposes and that the Government would if necessary maintain essential services. There was no agreement. The next day, Thursday May 16, there was an attempt by widespread intimidation to bring normal life in Northern Ireland to a standstill.

"On Friday May 17 a meeting was arranged between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with elected political leaders and members of the Ulster Workers' Council it being made clear that this was without any commitment by Her Majesty's Government. No members of the Council availed themselves of this opportunity and the Secretary of State saw the honourable Members for Belfast East and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Assemblymen Beattie and Barr. The Secretary of State said that the stoppage bore no relation to normal industrial action and that the Government would not be blackmailed.

"On Saturday May 18 the Ulster Workers' Council called for a complete stoppage from midnight on Sunday May 19. They drew back from this however, but still called for extensive closure of industrial and commercial business and presumed to dictate the times when certain shops could open.

"It was in these circumstances that my right honourable friend, following consultations with the Northern Ireland Executive, issued the proclamation of a State of Emergency.

"A number of roads into and around Belfast were obstructed to-day, as were roads in and around some of the other towns including Larne and Bangor. The blocks included trees and hijacked vehicles. Some have already been removed by Security Forces and in many cases alternative routes were available. But the net effect has been a disruption of ordinary traffic and considerable inconvenience to parts of the Province, particularly in North and East Belfast.

"Mr. Len Murray on behalf of the Trades Union Congress and after consultation with the Northern Ireland Trade Union Committee has condemned the actions of the Ulster Workers' Council. He said:

'They are a body created to pursue a sectarian policy which is rejected by the trade union movement generally, and their objects and activities have no connection with the protection of working people or the promotion of their common interests.'

He went on to say:

'The welfare of the great mass of the workers in Northern Ireland is at risk, and the T.U.C. is in no doubt that they will return to work as soon as they can safely do so.'

"The House will earnestly hope that those who are bravely standing out against bullying and intimidation will rally the mass of the people of Northern Ireland to the path of reason.

"The Government have a duty to preserve life. They will do so. Her Majesty's Forces have been put in a position to help to maintain essential services if necessary. I hope this will not be necessary. The Government are not seeking a confrontation. But if it is necessary to take action to preserve the essential services then this will be done. Equally, all the necessary steps will be taken to maintain law and order."

My Lords, that completes the Statement.


My Lords, the House is grateful to the Government for this Statement which keeps your Lordships up to date with what is a critical situation in Northern Ireland. On this side of the House we certainly welcome the noble Lord's statement that it is the Government's declared intention that industrial action with intimidation shall not deflect the Government from the policy which can surely only bring peace; namely, the policy of co-operation. May I ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, whether the Government know a little more than is in the Statement about the origins and constitution of the Ulster Workers' Council, which, after all, is threatening such damaging disruption to the Northern Ireland economy? For instance, is it an elected body? How long has it been in existence? Who purports to speak for it?

After five years of violence, people in Northern Ireland of course have doubts and apprehensions. But may I also ask the noble Lord whether it is true that no Constitutional rights for the people of Northern Ireland are being threatened, that it is the electorate of Northern Ireland who will decide the future of the Province, and that what is needed at this time is firm political leadership of all Parties working within the Northern Ireland Constitution?


My Lords, I should like on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches to thank the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, for what he has said in repeating a very full Statement, and I would thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for what he said. There is really nothing further for me to say, except that we support the Government firmly on this statement of policy that they have laid down to bring the present terrible situation to an end.


My Lords, I am grateful for both noble Lords' statements. On the two questions of the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, I cannot fill in a great deal about the Ulster Workers' Council. It is a small, self-appointed group and is in no way part of the trade union movement. That is perhaps all we need to know at the moment. The noble Lord asked who purported to speak for it. It purports to speak for itself. As to the second point, it is of course absolutely true that the various follow-ups of the Sunningdale Agreement, fear of which is really at the root of all this trouble, are self-defending in the sense that the Sunningdale Agreement includes, as has been said a hundred times, a unanimity rule and nothing can be done without unanimity; so the fear of the consequences of this Agreement, in my opinion and in the opinion of most balanced observers, is a myth. I thank noble Lords for their support. The Government will carry on as stated.