HL Deb 09 July 1981 vol 422 cc825-33

3.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Elton) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will have seen another order on the Order Paper, to be taken as the next item of business after this. That order deals with security and the extension of the Emergency Powers Act. This order deals with the constitution and the temporary continuation of direct rule. Although the subjects have a bearing on one another, they deal with matters that are separate and distinct. I gather that some noble Lords wish to speak on the second order and not on the first. I have consulted with the usual channels and I am advised that we should deal with the orders separately. I hope it will be for the convenience of the House, therefore, so to do, and accordingly I ask noble Lords to reserve points on security matters, except security in general as it affects constitutional matters, for the second debate, otherwise we shall not only confuse the issues we are now to consider but we shall also have noble Lords speaking in the second debate who have heard only half the arguments relevant to the subject they are then considering.

The order before the House this afternoon extends the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1974—the legislation under which direct rule is operated—for a further period of 12 months. It was on 11th July last year that I last asked this House to consider the future government of Northern Ireland. On that occasion we had before us a Command Paper on the subject, which I described as a stepping stone to peace in the Province, and it was in the context of that paper that I sought and obtained your Lordships' agreement to the extension of direct rule for the period of 12 months that is about to end. Your Lordships will well know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made the best use he could of that stepping stone, but to no avail, and I shall return shortly to what he now proposes in its place.

As long as there is no alternative system of government available to the Province, direct rule must go on. The order being considered today provides for the legislative procedures made necessary by direct rule, and for the discharge of executive functions by the Northern Ireland departments, to continue for another year. We are considering this order when conditions in Northern Ireland are neither as settled nor as prosperous as we could wish. The Province shares all the economic and social difficulties that beset the rest of the United Kingdom and of some of them it even has a disproportionate share.

None the less, I do not think we need be apologetic about direct rule. In all parts of the community in Northern Ireland there is, I believe, a genuine appreciation of its strengths. It was originally introduced as a purely temporary expedient; to fill the gap until devolved government could be restored. It has now lasted for an almost continuous period of nine years. During that time it has proved both efficient and flexible. Above all, it has proved fair and impartial. Particular decisions may be criticised from one part of the community or the other, or from both, but they are criticised on their merits; the days when Government were seen to discriminate have gone. But for all its strengths, there is no denying its weaknesses. It consists of government by Ministers of an essentially British political party who are directly responsible to Parliament here at Westminster. The local input, for all the efforts we make to consult with local opinion and respond to local needs, is very limited. And that, above all other things, is why the Government are not content for direct rule to go on for ever.

We are therefore determined to continue the search for political development in Northern Ireland. Our ultimate aim remains what it has been since coming to power; the transfer of powers of government to locally elected representatives on a basis acceptable to both parts of the community. Inherent in that aim is an overriding principle, the principle of acceptability and consent. The history of Northern Ireland in recent years has held one dominant lesson for us; that a system of government that does not command the consent of both parts of the community is doomed. That is as true now as ever it was and it is not only futile, it is dangerous, to disregard it.

In considering how to achieve political movement in Northern Ireland, the need for consent is the first thing to recognise. The second is that the local political parties still cannot provide it. They find it impossible to agree on how power should be exercised —in particular how the minority should be involved in the decision-making process—and as long as that disagreement continues, the path to a transfer of powers is blocked. That, we contend, is a reality which has to be realised. But that does not mean that there can be no movement at all. We may have been thwarted, but we have not been fossilised.

In another place last week my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced his intention to establish a representative Northern Ireland Council, and it may be of assistance if I briefly remind your Lordships of what the Secretary of State proposed. He will set up the council by administrative act; this is a great deal quicker than introducing legislation and it is entirely appropriate to the functions which the council will be designed to perform. He will invite people to serve after seeking nominations from the political parties in accordance with their electoral strength. The nominees will already be qualified to speak for the different political parties because the nominations will come from among existing elected local, and not only local, representatives; Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament as well as district councillors. The council will have three roles. First, to consider the activities of the Northern Ireland departments and advise the Secretary of State generally on the operation of direct rule; secondly, to scrutinise proposed legislation before it is presented for approval to Parliament; and, thirdly, to consider how powers of government might be transferred to locally elected representatives on an acceptable basis.

We believe it is essential that such a political forum should be restored to Northern Ireland. The lack of a focus for local political activity has been damaging in many ways. In particular, it will enable the voice of Northern Ireland to be heard on the matters that affect the people of the Province in their daily lives. The council may not in all cases say what the Government might want to hear—indeed, I can confidently forecast that it will not—but that is no reason to avoid creating it. And finally, it will offer a continuing opportunity for the local politicians to seek agreement about how Northern Ireland should be governed in the future. That search can be conducted within the council, not under the aegis of the Government but in whichever way the local representatives decide would be most profitable.

The Secretary of State will shortly be consulting the parties about precisely how the council should be established. There have already been initial reactions in Northern Ireland. As was wholly predictable, the local parties have not welcomed it with open arms. After all, each of them would like to see something that more nearly coincided with its own particular wishes. But that, given the divergences between those wishes, was not possible. What we do find encouraging is that, through all that has been said in the past week, there seems to have been a careful attempt on all sides not to shut any doors finally. We hope that the parties, whatever reservations they may have, will use the opportunity that the council represents constructively and positively and as a force for good in Northern Ireland.

In the debate in another place last week the Northern Ireland Council was not the only proposal that was made. We had, from an ex-Prime Minister, a very different proposition indeed. And I should like to say just a word about that and also about one or two other ideas that have had some currency recently. As I said earlier, the principle of consent must be upheld in Northern Ireland. The right honourable Member for Cardiff South East, Mr. Callaghan, proposed independence. If the idea of independence for Northern Ireland had the consent of the people, then there would be a strong case for it. But all indications of opinion that have been seen in recent years show that independence is attractive to only a very small number of people. In the minority community there are clearly strong fears as to the effectiveness of the protection that could be afforded to them under such an arrangement. And in the majority community there are grave doubts about breaking the link with Great Britain once and for all.

There are other questions. Where would the money come from? Surely not from Westminster, if Westminster has no participation, control or responsibility. We should wish to know where the money is to come from. What would be the nature of the citizenship following the transfer of the guarantee which Mr. Callaghan proposes, from the territory to the people of the Province? Would it be citizenship without representation? If there was representation of the people, but the territory was independent, what would be the constituencies of the representatives? We shall of course follow with interest the debate on this subject that has been initiated by the right honourable Member for Cardiff South East, and I shall listen carefully to what noble Lords may have to say on the subject. But those who are not attracted to independence can be assured that this Government will not sever the link with Northern Ireland as long as the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want to maintain it.

There are others who advise us to exert ourselves to achieve the unification of Ireland by consent. It is not exactly clear to me, I must confess, what is the course of action upon which Her Majesty's Government would be expected to embark in order to do so. As I have already said, the Government are already committed to maintaining Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of its people wish it to do so. Some people regard that commitment as too open ended; some describe it as giving to the Unionist or Protestant majority an absolute veto on future developments—a veto which they appear prepared to exercise in perpetuity not merely to keep the Province British but to stop any sort of progress towards devolved government at all. There is a note of exasperation in the voices of those who make that criticism in Great Britain as well as elsewhere, which Unionist politicians in the Province might do well to heed. But the fact remains that Her Majesty's Government cannot do less than guarantee continued citizenship to its existing citizens, if they wish to keep it. Circumstances would have to be very unusual indeed for such a fundamental concept to be altered by them.

But I must emphasise—and this is something which is too often missed by our critics—that it is not only to the majority community that this Government are committed. The commitment to membership of the United Kingdom is explicit in the Act and it therefore gets noticed and commented on. But implicit in every deed and every policy decision from the start of direct rule until today has also been the commitment of successive British Governments to the minority community. That commitment is not to hand them over to a devolved Government until a formula is found, and agreed, which will protect their interests. Our every action has proclaimed this and it has been pretty clearly stated in every speech made by Ministers on the subject; but perhaps it has not been said openly enough. I am glad, therefore to take the opportunity of saying it today.

I ought also to point out the direct corollary of the guarantee to the majority. If the guarantee is that the majority can remain within the United Kingdom for as long as it wishes, then the corollary of that also needs to be clearly stated. It is that if the majority wishes to bring about Irish unity the Government will not stand in its way. If that is what those who urge unification as a policy objective seek from the Government it is easy enough to give it to them. What I cannot give them, of course, is the prospect of the Government seeking to coerce them into transferring from one state to the other. Indeed, I scarcely think that anyone would suggest it.

The same principle of consent colours our approach to the other suggestions that have been made as a means of resolving Northern Ireland's problems. For example, repartition or redrawing the border: T can scarcely believe that there is any substantial body of opinion in the Province who sees that as a lasting answer. There might be some who would be encouraged to increase their violent efforts by the ceding of territory. There might be others who would see it as a gross betrayal. But it would certainly solve nothing.

And finally there is one other so-called solution. That is to pretend that Northern Ireland is precisely the same as other parts of the United Kingdom, and to make no distinction between it and any other part of Britain in so far as its arrangements for its government are concerned. Yet Northern Ireland is not identical to an English county. It is different. History and geography have ensured that. To deny that difference and to make no allowances for it is to lose all chance of inter-communal consent that we must achieve if peace and stability are to be achieved.

It would be very nice if Her Majesty's Government could produce, as if in a conjuring trick, a neat, popular, and final constitutional solution to the problem of Northern Ireland. But a conjuring trick is what it would have to be. This is a massive problem. It is not one susceptible of superficial solutions. It is too big to be resolved by one single move. What we must have is the determination and the patience to keep working away at the problem; to keep exerting ourselves; to keep trying to chip away at this great blockage in the path of history until we can open up a way forward. Small steps alone will suffice today and what is now proposed is perhaps by those standards, a small step—but it is a step in the right direction; and I ask this House to extend the order for 12 months so that we can take it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th June be approved.—(Lord Elton.)

3.48 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for his clear and concise introduction to the renewal of this extension order. Before I proceed with expressing my views on the political implications of this draft order, I wish to say that, regrettably, and as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has already mentioned, we are again discussing today these sensitive Northern Ireland issues at a time of high political ferment and in a climate of acute community tensions in the Province. I feel sure that I echo the views of noble Lords in this House when I say that in such tense situations one should temper words with responsible understanding and compassion. I am certain that today is one of those occasions when, without sacrificing reason and frankness, noble Lords will join with me in exercising even greater care and restraint in the choice of comment about the business before us.

As many of your Lordships will know from experience, it is so easy in these issues to be misunderstood—if not misrepresented—and to unwittingly add heat to an already highly charged situation. Yesterday I received a copy of the public statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in which he expressed the gratitude of the Government for the strenuous efforts made over the past few days by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace to resolve the prison protest campaign. I am sure that noble Lords from all sides of the House will share with me the sadness and disappointment that, notwithstanding all the genuine efforts and earnest appeals which have been made by individuals and organisations during the past months, there is not yet in sight an acceptable way of resolving the hunger strike and the H Block protest issues.

Notwithstanding that dull outlook, I believe that there is still hope that reason will prevail. The statement issued today by the Irish Commission reiterates the rejection of violence and states that a solution is still possible if truth is honoured.

At such times when community peace is shattered, when homes and property, life and limb are at great risk, when such events as we have had to endure for years in Northern Ireland are now, sadly, being experienced here in Britain, as law-abiding citizens we depend so much on the great courage, the skills and the dedication of the security forces and the services that they provide. I am sure that other noble Lords would join with me in warmly paying tribute to the police, the army, the fire brigade personnel and the prison staff for their work and the way in which they carry out their public duties. In the United Kingdom we are well served by these security forces and their families who, with quiet fortitude, bear the many strains that arise from these kinds of occupational hazard.

Like the noble Lord the Minister, I recall 12 months ago (11th July last year) when the Minister sought approval of the 1980 Extension Order and at the same time introduced the Government White Paper entitled, The Government of Northern Ireland: Proposals for Further Discussion. On that occasion the noble Lord said, as reported at col. 1445 of the Official Report: I bring before the House a document which I believe to be a stepping stone on the way towards peace in Northern Ireland … It is concerned to bring closer a better form of government of the Province than that which it now enjoys". The Minister has explained—and reasonably explained, I feel—the reasons why the stepping stones did not lead to success. During the debate on that previous occasion I joined with other noble Lords in welcoming the Government's initiative and wished success to its objectives. Whatever might have been the confidence and faith of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in the outcome of the initiative, whatever might have been my hopes that the initiative would succeed where other such efforts had failed, speaking for myself I am afraid that my hopes were quenched before the initiative completed its first step.

Why did the Government initiative fail? An answer to this question was provided by Mr. Atkins, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when in his Statement in another place last Thursday he said, as reported at col. 1026 of the House of Commons Hansard: …all the political parties in Northern Ireland—not just some, but all—have been seeking for seven years an alternative way of running the Province. That is why successive Governments have made the most serious and comprehensive attempts to find a way forward that commanded general acceptance. That is why, as the House will remember, I convened a conference in the early part of last year to which I invited the main Northern Ireland political parties to establish what was the highest level of agreement between them as to how we should proceed. We found out. We found that the level of agreement was no way near high enough to enable me to come to the House and invite it to pass legislation setting up some new system. I think that it is true to say that there was a genuine feeling of regret in this House and outside that this opportunity—which was real and from which there was much to be gained—was not taken. One party refused to come and those who did found themselves unable to move from their entrenched positions. No one in Northern Ireland can be said to have gained from the refusals ". I totally agree with the Secretary of State's summary of the reasons for the failure of the initiative.

Since this is not an elected Chamber and I claim to represent no one except myself, at all times I seek to uphold the collective rights and the responsibilities of the democratically-elected representatives of the people. Therefore, rightly or wrongly, my disappointment lies mainly with the failure of the elected representatives to find a realistic basis for working together with the Government to find a way forward for the Northern Ireland people.

Your Lordships may ask, what is the way forward? What is the future for the people of Northern Ireland —and their children? Perhaps the question was answered dramatically and poignantly by Mr. Gerry Fitt when he spoke in the debate in another place on 2nd July. As reported at col. 1086 of the Official Report of the House of Commons, he declared, We are all frightened when we look into the future—because we see no future". Those are the words of a man whom we all recognise is a person of courage and commitment, a man who, with his wife and family, has suffered much because of their political convictions and their forthright condemnation of violence.

However, if anything hopeful emerged from the debate on the order in another place on 2nd July, in my opinion it was the fresh and open frankness actively to seek to find political solutions to the deep-seated problems of Ireland. It appears to me that there is a widespread and genuine desire to search for acceptable ways to heal the divisions within Ireland and to enable the emergence of the will of the peoples of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic to work together for the common good.

Noble Lords will have noted that the debate in another place was wide-ranging and that it discussed in detail matters concerning security, law and order, and the terrible deterioration in the Northern Ireland economy, with the demoralising plight of the unemployed, in particular young people. The noble Lord has already mentioned a number of the matters that were discussed regarding the proposals for the government of Northern Ireland and for constitutional change. I could list permutations of at least 10 options that were mentioned. They included—I shall be brief—integration; direct rule; devolved assemblies of three or four different types; the federation of the United Kingdom; an independent Ulster of six counties; a condominium approach to Northern Ireland, underwritten by London and Dublin; a Nordic economic union, consisting of London, Belfast and Dublin; a federation of the four provinces of Ireland; repartition of Northern Ireland into a Belfast city state; and a United Ireland. In addition, we had of course the proposal of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State for the creation of an advisory council composed of Northern Ireland elected representatives: Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament, and district councillors.

I wish to mention briefly two of the many suggested options; the Minister has already dealt at length with one of them. I mention both of them because I feel that both have been somewhat dismissed without sufficient careful attention having been paid to the content of the proposals. I believe that the thoughtful proposals put forward by Mr. Jim Callaghan are deserving of deeper study. Those who have read Mr. Callaghan's speech will know that he was not putting forward a blueprint for an independent Ulster. He dealt realistically with the acute political and economic situation of Northern Ireland, and he suggested that the way forward lay in active policies based on a continuous series of acceptable and separate steps—a point that the Minister has already underlined; steps based on a new dynamic relationship with London, Belfast and Dublin, and on mutual friendship, self-respect and justice. My reading of Mr. Callaghan's speech is that all that he asked was that that should be one of the options that should be duly considered. While I do not totally support what Mr. Callaghan said, I believe that his speech contained seeds to which people in this House, in another place, and outside in general have already given credence and are talking about.

The proposal made by Mr. Atkins for an advisory council has my support. In my opinion the instant gut reactions of some politicians were not mature comments. I am convinced that when the due consultations that the Minister has already mentioned take place, there will be a much readier acceptance to participate in what I believe are reasoned and helpful proposals to meet some of the more immediate administrative difficulties in the Province, in particular the difficulties relating to social and economic problems.

However, one must conclude there is still no plan from any quarter which points to a peaceful and lasting solution. What I feel has emerged is that the taboos which have inhibited new thinking in a free debate are falling away. A healthy political system requires the active interest and the co-operation of all thinking citizens, especially the reasonable, the moderate, the law-abinding, and the conciliatory. It is unfair to the politicians for such people to withdraw for whatever reasons. Political action within representative Governments is essential to freedom and democracy. If sufficient voices are clearly heard, politicians will pay heed and political action will follow. It is for these reasons that I welcome the thoughtful views and the influence of Members of your Lordships' House especially at this crucial time in Irish affairs, and I shall listen with interest to what the noble Lord the Minister has to say on the way forward. I support the proposals for the new Government initiative to establish an advisory council as a first step, and approve of the draft order which is before us.