HL Deb 02 July 1980 vol 411 cc363-72

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I propose to make a statement on Northern Ireland. "The Government have today published a Command Paper entitled The Government of Northern Ireland—Proposals for Further Discussion. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

"Publication of this paper is the latest stage in a process that began with the resolve expressed in the Gracious Speech to: seek an acceptable way of restoring to the people of Northern Ireland more control over their own affairs.' "Last summer I held talks with the leaders of the principal political parties in Northern Ireland. And in October last I announced the Government's intention to hold a political Conference to identify the highest level of agreement on how powers might be transferred to locally elected representatives. To assist that Conference we published a Working Paper (Cmnd. 7763). That Working Paper set out certain principles to which the Government believe any transfer of responsibility should conform; and it gave a number of illustrations of ways in which transferred powers might be exercised.

"The Conference met in Belfast between January and March, and was attended by three of the four main Northern Ireland parties. It did valuable work. It identified a substantial number of issues on which very little seemed to divide the parties. It enabled the parties to describe in detail to me and to each other what their views were and the reasons for them. And it explored very fully the key questions which still have to be resolved if we are to establish any kind of acceptable local administration in Northern Ireland. In addition, we have had the benefit of submissions and views expressed by parties and individuals not represented at the Conference, including the paper submitted to the Prime Minister by the Ulster Unionist Party.

"The document published today has two principal aims.

"First, it describes those areas where it is now possible to see fairly clearly how powers might be transferred. For example, there is a clear desire for the transfer of both legislative and executive powers over a range of subjects similar to that transferred in 1973; and for the establishment of a single elected Assembly for Northern Ireland with about 80 members. As was made clear in the Working Paper the Government at Westminster would need to continue to be responsible for certain functions, especially law and order and the determination of Northern Ireland's share of the total of public expenditure; and some arrangements would be needed whereby elected representatives were able to give advice to the Secretary of State on the exercise of those functions.

"Second, the document analyses and puts forward for discussion proposals on those aspects where, as is well known, there is disagreement between the parties, namely, how the executive powers of government in Northern Ireland are to be exercised so as to take account of the interests of both parts of the community ', as the principles in the Working Paper put it.

"On the one hand, some wish to see the Executive formed by the leader of the party or parties commanding a simple majority in the Assembly. On the other, some believe that an adequate role for representatives of the minority community could only be assured if executive powers are exercised by a more broadly-based body.

"It is clear that further discussion and negotiation is needed in Northern Ireland on this issue; and the Government have set out in the Paper specific proposals, on two somewhat different approaches, as a basis for further talks with and between the parties.

"I do not need to tell the House the importance of this subject to the people of Northern Ireland and to the people of the United Kingdom as a whole. For that reason I ask, and I believe that the House would expect, that all concerned study this document with great care. I do not intend this afternoon to summarise the content of the document. It deserves more extended consideration, and my right honourable friend, the Leader of the House, has already promised an early debate, when I look forward to hearing the considered views of honourable Members.

"Following that debate, I and my colleagues will be discussing the proposals as widely as possible in Northern Ireland. I hope also to embark upon bilateral discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, and I shall of course welcome any views or ideas they may put forward for our consideration.

"I envisage these talks taking place in confidence and, to begin with at least, with the parties separately. It is not my intention for the time being to reconvene the Conference.

"For my part I approach these talks determined to make progress. I must emphasise that to make progress a constructive approach is needed from the people of Northern Ireland and their political representatives. It is my hope to complete this further stage by the end of the summer recess. The Government can then reach their own conclusions on what proposals it would be appropriate to put before the House.

"The document published today refers to the need for peace and stability in Northern Ireland as a basis for economic reconstruction. The present economic situation in the Province is a telling reminder of how urgent that task is and how desirable it is for the elected representatives of Northern Ireland to be directly involved in it.

"I would say one final thing. The House will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that the men of criminal violence will, if they can, disrupt the progress of political discussion and reconciliation; and honourable Members on all sides will, I hope, join with me in appealing to the people of Northern Ireland to support the security forces who are committed against terrorism, so that these further discussions about their future can take place quietly and with confidence".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Minister for repeating the Statement to this House. The Statement is indeed a very critical stage of the Government's initiative to deal with the constitutional problems involved in the transfer of responsibility and the transfer of powers within the United Kingdom. But I must honestly say that I am disappointed at the Statement's flimsiness and general lack of content. I had expected more from it. However, I look forward to reading the Command Paper in due course. I think we must not ignore the fact that we are dealing and deeply concerned with longstanding problems connected with the economic situation in Northern Ireland as well as with constitutional problems and as well as with three hundred years of conflict, mistrust, abuse of power and with terrorism. Certainly we have waited patiently for the past eight months for this stage in the Government's initiative in the search for a constitutional advance, and I wholeheartedly agree with what has been repeated by the Minister in the Statement; it would be wrong to jump to conclusions at this stage, and I do not intend to do that.

As the Minister has already said, I believe we ought to give earnest thought and consideration to the Statement and the White Paper before taking up any traditional stances or any position which would be misleading or unhelpful to the people of Northern Ireland and perhaps unhelpful to the Irish problem and indeed to the people of the United Kingdom. So the point I wish to raise is simply one of clarification. Can the Minister indicate precisely what arrangements there are for having some form of debate in this House about the contents of the Command Paper, and can he further elucidate the timetable for the future talks? Is it intended that the Government shall introduce legislation in the next Session of Parliament, after proceeding with the talks?

Before I sit down I should like to indicate to the Government and to this House that in no way would these Benches wish to impede the Government in their efforts to obtain an agreed form of devolution in Northern Ireland. We are certainly concerned about the constitutional advance but we are also deeply concerned about the economic and social problems that exist in Northern Ireland. The one cannot be tackled without the other, and we should like to give equal care and thought and attention to each of those sections.


My Lords, I too should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for repeating this Statement. We shall of course read the Command Paper carefully and I want now to make only a few points. First, perhaps I may echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when, a little time ago, speaking of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, he said that he was a man of both courage and patience. We hope sincerely to be able to add to that the words "of success", also. Certainly we believe that the Government have a correct sense of the urgency of the continued effort to find solutions in Northern Ireland and that the people there are looking for a constructive lead. But we are conscious that it is essential that the different parties in Northern Ireland should understand the meaning of the word "compromise" and realise that any lasting solution demands of them some "give" and not all "take".

Thirdly, I agree with the Government and also with the noble Lord, Lord Blease, in regard to the vital importance of dealing with the critical economic situation, which must not be lost sight of behind the worries about the terrorist position. Lastly, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Blease, in asking whether it is possible to have a debate in this House on all the problems of Northern Ireland, as indicated by the Statement, and at a reasonably early date.

3.46 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the reception which the noble Lord, Lord Blease, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, have given to this Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, recognised the size of the problem and also the intimate nature of its connection with the welfare of the United Kingdom. He indicated, however, that he was disappointed by the flimsy nature of the Statement. I make no apology for that. It seems to me that the greatest disaster which could befall this initiative would be if people were to seize a summary of what was in the discussion document, took that to be the sum total of what was in it and the limit of its extent and then, publicly and in Hansard, sprang to conclusions thereon which would be widely quoted. Therefore, I am greatly obliged to both noble Lords for not pursuing the detail of the document, which I think could prove to be a counter-productive exercise.

Of course, as a corollary to that, there is a need to debate the Paper properly in Parliament. The Statement referred to the occasion in another place, and in this House the Government regard it as essential that your Lordships should have an opportunity to debate this important Command Paper at the earliest possible moment. This is still a matter for the usual channels, but I understand that an opportunity will be given towards the end of next week, probably on Friday, 11th July. A Motion will be put on the Order Paper, probably today or tomorrow.

I think those are the things with which your Lordships will be most urgently and immediately concerned, but the noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked for clarification of the timetable. Of course, a lot depends on what happens in the summer, but it is the Government's intention to be in a position to digest during the Summer Recess what they have received and then to come to Parliament with proposals which may or may not take the form of legislation, although of course it is likely that they will, but I cannot anticipate the date of that.

I should like to welcome again the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Blease, to the co-operation of his party in achieving a peaceful settlement for the future of the Province, which is a very valuable gift which he brings to this House. I accept the importance also—as I have already done this afternoon—of the state of the economy as being one of the factors in the context in which these discussions continue. Finally, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for echoing what I said on an earlier occasion about my Secretary of State. I think he has now given evidence to all concerned that he has both patience and courage, and I think those are the two most necessary attributes—in addition perhaps to a pair of ears—if we are to arrive at a successful conclusion.


My Lords, while I also wish to congratulate the Minister and Her Majesty's Government on their attempt to bring about some form of compromise in Northern Ireland, I should like to state that it is utterly futile to hope for any form of success without consultations with the Government of Southern Ireland. To me that is absolutely imperative to bring about any form of peaceful solution. As I have stated in your Lordships' House on previous occasions, Ireland is a geographical entity and it is a recipe for further strife if Her Majesty's Government do not approach the problem with this in mind. It is natural that all Irishmen, including the overwhelming majority of peace-loving Irishmen, are interested in their country, North and South, and I can only say that, without bearing this in mind—

Several noble Lords: Question!


Would the Minister not agree that, bearing this in mind, there is as much chance of a settlement in Northern Ireland as there is of Belfast becoming the Vatican City?


My Lords, the noble Lord certainly will not expect me to agree with that somewhat protracted exposition of his interrogative position. So far as the constitutional position is concerned, the Government are wholeheartedly committed to maintaining Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom so long as that is the wish of the majority of the people who live there, as it clearly is at present. However, the document recognises that it is legitimate to work peacefully for the aspirations of Irish unity, and if a majority were ever to give its free consent to a change in the present status then Her Majesty's Government would respect that wish.

As for more practical and immediate matters, if a new Northern Ireland Government has a wide range of powers, including powers over matters such as industry, employment and the environment, then it would be free to consider how best to co-operate on these matters with the Government of the Republic. That makes sense both on grounds of geography and because both Ireland and Britain are partners within the European Community. That is the practical Irish dimension. It also recognises the importance of a settlement in Northern Ireland in the context of the wider unique relationship which exists between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic.


My Lords, the noble Lord has promised us a debate, and having given us a Statement which really says nothing beyond the fact that there is a White Paper for us to study, it is essential that we should have that debate. As my noble friend has said, we are on the same side as the Government in regard to looking for a settlement. However, I think that to have a debate on a Friday of something as important as this is treating the subject in quite the wrong spirit. I think we ought to have a debate. It is far more important than half the Bills we are being asked to consider. I ask the noble Lord whether he could not arrange that we have a debate at a major period of our sittings.


My Lords, I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and indeed your Lordships' House, that choosing Friday for this debate was no belittling of the subject at all. The object was to give your Lordships the earliest possible opportunity to discuss it. Now I have made that absolutely clear, perhaps further discussion could take place through the usual channels.


My Lords, I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for repeating the Statement. May I ask whether he is of the opinion that the Government's proposals, or tentative proposals, tally with the promise implied in the Conservative election manifesto, even if not specifically spelled out in the manifesto, that Ulster would be treated just like any other part of the United Kingdom, without devolution, which of course the Conservatives rejected in the case of Scotland and Wales, but with the restoration of the upper tier of local government?


My Lords, the Province will be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom in this respect: that the Government which is given to it and which it elects to have will be that which it is prepared to accept. There is no point whatsoever in pursuing forms which would be rejected by any major sector of the population. Our commitment is to give the people of the Province an increasing say in the conduct of their own affairs. That is the direction in which we are moving. This paper is a narrowing down of the options that were in the first discussion paper. May I make a technical point? I think I know the reason, but people are referring to this document freely as a White Paper and I think I have seen that mentioned in writing at one stage. Of course, it is a discussion paper. There is an important distinction of machinery here which I should not like to be overlooked.


My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for repeating the Statement, I wonder whether I might ask him three questions. First, are not the Government being strangely inconsistent in that having opposed devolution in Scotland and Wales they are now trying to impose some form of probably unworkable devolution in Northern Ireland? Secondly, am I not right in thinking that Ulster representation at Westminster is to be increased from 12 to 17, quite rightly, so as to reach parity with the United Kingdom as a whole, and is there not really some danger that these proposals are going to rekindle Scottish nationalism? Lastly, and most important, why do the Government not feel that the best way to heal the divisions between the two communities is by integrating Northern Ireland more closely within the much wider, and I should have thought much safer, context of the United Kingdom as a whole, rather than trying to set up a complicated assembly or parliament which will inevitably act as a focal point for suspicion, bitterness and rivalries as among the various factions?


My Lords, there is a considerable range of ways in which the situation in Scotland and Wales differs from that in Northern Ireland. I will not weary your Lordships by producing the catalogue, but merely say that in Northern Ireland the whole of the population wishes to move in the direction of devolved government, and that cannot be said of either the Kingdom or the Principality. I also made it clear, and I really think the House would accept this point, that there is no prospect of a solution of any kind if it is not broadly acceptable to all the considerable bodies of opinion within the Province. If we tried to impose integration which would be repugnant to a very large number of people, we should really have wasted our time for 14 months.

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