HL Deb 10 March 1976 vol 368 cc1273-9

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on their policy for Northern Ireland, now that the Convention has failed to reach an agreed solution.


My Lords, my right honourable friend made a Statement on this matter in another place last Friday morning. If your Lordships' House had been sitting, that Statement would no doubt have been repeated here. To repeat a statement of such length would be inappropriate at Question Time and, with the leave of the House, I shall arrange for it to he circulated in the Official Report.

In answer to the noble Lord's Question, I shall confine myself to saying that the Convention has been dissolved, that its members will continue to receive their full salary until 7th May; and that, although it still remains the Government's objective to make progress towards a devolved system of government for Northern Ireland, there is no alternative at present to the continuance of direct rule. Direct rule will be positive, and it is out intention to provide firm, fair and resolute government for Northern Ireland.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. May I ask him whether he will tell the Secretary of State that many of us, while we do not agree with large areas of his policy, have a very high regard for his integrity and his determination to do what he believes to be right for Northern Ireland in the face of the most gruelling routine? Many of us, including myself, have a great admiration for the tremendous amount of work and effort which he and his team have been putting in, although we disagree with his policy. Can I ask the noble Lord whether the remark made by the Secretary of State in another place, in which he said that the Government did not want people represented in Parliament who do not want to be in the United Kingdom, represents a fundamental change, in that the Government intend to imply that Scottish Nationalists will be denied their civil rights? If this is to apply only in Northern Ireland, where we have but a very small representation of people, is it not a far more fundamental denial of civil rights than is alleged to have occurred at any time? Does the noble Lord agree that, at the present moment, there is a great danger of men of violence providing the only method of communication apart from the 11 Members of Parliament at Westminster, and that this must be very carefully looked at or we shall have the gunmen ruling the day?


My Lords, first, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his kind words about the Secretary of State, which I shall pass on. I do not feel that I can give a satisfactory answer to the obiter dictum that the noble Viscount seizes from the Secretary of State's Statement that he does not wish or expect to see in this Parliament people who do not wish to continue within the United Kingdom. I should have to examine that very carefully in its context, and I feel that any application to other parts of the United Kingdom for which devolution is being discussed would be absolutely inappropriate.

Clearly, for a period there will be an absence of local politicians to conduct general discussion in Northern Ireland. Some people think that this is not altogether a bad thing. But what is essential is that the citizens of Northern Ireland should learn to make complaints and applications without needing to do it through a politician. In this country, people write directly to the body concerned, and there is no reason why the local people in Northern Ireland should not look after themselves much more directly than they have been in the habit of doing.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we on this side of the House support the Government's decision taken last week to end the Convention? I do not believe that the Secretary of State could have reached any other decision. But when the noble Lord says that there will be an absence of local politicians in Northern Ireland, may I ask whether he accepts that there are no representatives in another place of the Alliance Party, no representatives of Mr. Faulkner's Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and only one SDLP representative? Will the Government consider whether any machinery should be set up in Northern Ireland to enable those Parties and others to speak for those whom they represent?


My Lords, this will be very much in the Government's mind, and it is hoped to have continuing discussions of various kinds out of which something may come. My right honourable friend is not at the moment supporting the idea of an advisory council, but that does not mean that he never will. I feel that we must allow matters to run for a while to see how they go.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, with reference to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Brooke borough, is the noble Lord aware that many people feel that the Secretary of State has worked hard, patiently and manfully and find it very sad that, owing to events outside his control, the constitutional Convention has failed to produce a solution?


My Lords, I am most grateful for the noble Viscount's tribute. I know that he has recently had a look at us, so his tribute is particularly relevant. I shall pass it on to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us—and I speak only for myself in this matter—whether there is any hope of advance on the local government front if there is none on the front of devolution?


My Lords, this is a tricky question. There is some change in the powers being given to local government, but there is no question in anybody's mind of giving back the major work such as housing, which is being done by the Housing Executive. The local government councillors are, I believe, largely dissatisfied with the amount of power they have. On the other hand, the arrangement was made as a result of the criticism of the way in which powers were used in the Province, and the reorganisation is so recent that the Secretary of State feels that, whether or not there is a case for further change, it would be unwise to do anything drastic soon.


My Lords, will the noble Lord also convey our admiration to the Army. The Army in Northern Ireland has, in my view, sustained a most underhand attack. Will the noble Lord convey to the Army the admiration of 98 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland? Will he also make plain the great fear of the people of Northern Ireland that there is a gap in legislation as a result of which men who organise violence in Northern Ireland are not being convicted? We are all full of admiration for the RUC and glad of the number of people who are convicted, but the big men are not being convicted because the evidence is not there. In the South of Ireland and in Dublin they have a very determined attitude and those people who are going free in Northern Ireland are being convicted in the South. There is a gap.


My Lords, I shall of course pass on to the GOC and his colleagues the admiration not of 98 per cent, but, I believe, of everybody in this House. As regards the noble Viscount's second question, convictions have been very much more successful recently and, with the help of the RUC, we are pressing hard on that point.


My Lords, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said about the non-representation of the Alliance Party and other small Parties in another place, and bearing in mind the maxim, "No taxation without representation ", can the noble Lord say how soon the Government intend to introduce legislation to give Northern Ireland fair representation at Westminster, particularly in the absence of any local, regional or provincial assembly?


My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord's question is that I cannot. This is a matter of subtlety and difficulty. Clearly there is a case on both sides and it must be discussed, but I believe that it will take its place in the devolutionary discussions which are going on generally, and Northern Ireland will not be dealt with in advance of the general position.

Following is the statement referred to: As the House will recall, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention was set up by Parliament at Westminster to consider what provision for the government of Northern Ireland would be likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the Community there. The Convention was born out of a belief that the people of Northern Ireland themselves ought to have the chance to play a constructive part in seeking a solution to their own constitutional problems, in the knowledge that final decisions were for Parliament at Westminster. The Constitutional Convention has had two distinct phases. The first phase lasted from May to November last year. As I reported to the House on 12th January 1976, the Report of the Convention submitted to me on 8th November showed agreement that there should be an unicameral legislature and a Government in Northern Ireland with a broad range of responsibility, including responsibility for industrial and commercial matters. All the parties agreed on a number of other matters, including the desire to see Government responsibility for law and order devolved to Northern Ireland and additional human rights legislation introduced. The Convention did not, however, agree on the central issue that is, how, in a divided community, a system of government could he devised which would have sufficient support in both parts of that community to provide stable and effective government. As I told the House on 12th January: 'Experience in recent years has made plain that no system of government within Northern Ireland will be stable or effective unless both parts of the community acquiesce in that system and are willing to work to support it—[Official Report, (Commons) 12th January 1976: Vol. 903, col. 54.] The proposals in the Conventions' Report did not meet this basic need. The Government considered it right, therefore, to reconvene the Convention to see whether agreement could be reached on the specific and crucial issue of a system of government within Northern Ireland which provided for a form of partnership and participation. There have been a number of meetings between the Convention parties since the Convention was reconvened. But it is now clear that no further progress was made, even though new proposals were advanced by the Alliance Party and considered by the United Ulster Unionist Coalition. The debates which have taken place in the Convention and the resolutions which have been conveyed to me make it plain that there is now no prospect of agreement between the parties there. The reconvened Convention has already sat beyond the four weeks which, as I said on 12th January, should be sufficient for progress to be made on the matters referred to it. In view of the clear indication that further progress will not now be made, I have advised Her Majesty to dissolve the Convention, and an Order in Council has been made dissolving it as from midnight tonight and I have so informed the Chairman. I believe the House will share the Government's deep regret that the opportunity provided by the Convention has been lost and that its members have not succeeded in their task of devising a workable system of government for Northern Ireland. My strongly held view is that there is no instant solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. It would be a grave mistake to pretend that there was one, let alone to rush forward with some new devices. It is clearly not possible at this time to make progress towards a devolved system of government for Northern Ireland. This still remains the Government's aim, but it does not contemplate any major new initiative for some time to come, though we shall always be ready to entertain constructive and responsible ideas from those in Northern Ireland who are prepared to work together for Northern Ireland. There is no question of a ban on legitimate political activities. The immediate need now is for a period of constitutional stability so that we can tackle the problems of criminality and unemployment. There is no need for any immediate change in the machinery of government for Northern Ireland. In 1972 this House decided to take responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland and to bring to an end the Stormont Parliament. The short-lived Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly was brought to an end following the Ulster Workers' strike. The Convention has never been a part of any system of Government. Direct rule is already in being under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 and it will continue. I shall bring before the House in due course proposals for its renewal, including any changes that may be desirable. I want to make it plain that my firmly held intention is that direct rule will be positive and not negative. The Government will continue to discharge fully their responsibility for all aspects of the affairs of Northern Ireland and will provide a firm, fair and resolute Government. In particular, I would like to make it clear that the Security Forces will continue to do all that is necessary to deal with the security problems and to restore law and order. They will have the full support of the Government in bringing to justice before the courts criminals from all parts of the community. Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has economic and employment problems. We have yet to see the end of rising unemployment in Northern Ireland. The full impact of the problems that are facing the United Kingdom as a whole have taken longer to reach Northern Ireland than elsewhere. I want to stress that the Government are doing and will continue to do everything possible within the resources that are available to mitigate these problems and to promote employment. It is not going to be easy, despite public expenditure in Northern Ireland exceeding £1,300 million in the current year. The ending of the Convention, which was set up by this Parliament, means that the role of its members has ceased. The House is already aware that Convention members will continue to be paid until 7th May. I intend to follow Westminster procedures as closely as possible. As with dissolution at Westminster, dissolution of the Convention will mean that Convention members cease to have any role as such. They will cease to have the use of any of the facilities at Stormont, but they will, of course, be able to clear up their papers and belongings I must place firmly on record a tribute to the work of Sir Robert Lowry, the Chairman of the Convention, who has been so ably assisted by his small staff. Sir Robert has, I know, been wholly independent and impartial. I am sure that the House will join with me in expressing our gratitude and thanks to him. The people of Northern Ireland will continue, like citizens in any other part of the United Kingdom, to be able to pursue matters with Ministers through their elected representatives at Westminster. I and the other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office will always be ready to listen to their representations on behalf of their constituents. They will be the normal channel of communications with Ministers. The Government will carry out their responsibilities to the ful and fulfil their obligations to all the citizens of the United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is a part.