HL Deb 15 February 1984 vol 448 cc257-60

2.59 p.m.

Lord Hylton

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will appoint junior ministers in the Northern Ireland Office drawn from the Unionist parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, if the Northern Ireland parties were prepared to work together in an administration, the way would be open to devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly as provided in the Northern Ireland Act 1982.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for his reply. Would he accept that this suggestion is not an original one but one which has been made by others, including a distinguished Northern Ireland Privy Counsellor? Would the noble Viscount agree that if it were adopted it would be a first step towards power sharing, an incentive to make the Assembly work; and, above all, it would show that the Government are really keen on the political process as they were in 1982 and previously?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord says, that it is not an original suggestion. Regarding helping towards power sharing, I should point out that the opportunity for power sharing is available under the present Assembly and under the present Northern Ireland Act 1982. However much people like the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and I (who were associated in a previous endeavour) may regret it, that failure is there and we have to accept it. As for the proposal helping towards that end, I have to point out to the noble Lord that such proposals as he puts forward would of course create considerable constitutional problems, particularly of collective responsibility.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, would the noble Viscount the Minister accept from me that there would be no-one more anxious than I to see the political experiment in which he and I were engaged in 1974 resurrected and brought to a successful conclusion? But is it not a fact that there are three major political parties in the North of Ireland: the Official Unionist Party, the Sinn Fein Party and the SDLP, who are at the present moment boycotting that Assembly? If the Government were to accede to the request of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, to create these offices, would that not be regarded as something of a bribe? With the experience that the noble Viscount has had in Northern Ireland, is it not the case that you cannot bribe politicians into that Assembly, that they will only go there when they are convinced that arrangements made to suit their own parties have become foreseeable? At the moment it would seem that the furum deliberating in Dublin may, we all hope, hold some sort of key to enabling those members who are at present boycotting the Assembly to once again put in an attendance.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. There are other people besides the noble Lord and myself who would very much like to have seen the continuation of power sharing, but that was not to be. As for the position today, I very much regret that the Northern Ireland parties in many cases have not seen their way to be able to take part in the Assembly. That is their decision, and the noble Lord is perfectly right. As for the Irish forum, we shall have to see what comes out of that; and the Government will of course consider carefully what is said there.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, does the noble Viscount appreciate that, except for debates on Northern Ireland orders and Statements—which are, tragically, all too frequent—there is no opportunity for your Lordships to debate the general question of Northern Ireland? Will the Government therefore give an undertaking—whatever the report of the new Ireland forum may be—that there will be a debate in this House?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I will consider that through the usual channels. Of course, there are many opportunities for debate in this House; and if I were to concede that point directly, I would expect a certain quid pro quo, as there is a lot of Government legislation to get through the House and I would hope to have support in doing that.

Lord Ellenborough

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, highlights the irrelevance of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which less than two-thirds of its members attend? Some of them have boycotted the Assembly almost permanently and I believe that the Assembly costs about £3 million annually. Does not my noble friend the Leader of the House think that the time has come for this rather pointless Assembly to be wound up so that the money, time and effort involved in it could be better spent in combating terrorism and ensuring greater prison security, which must be the Government's prime objective?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, of course I agree with the noble Lord on the need for security and, indeed, for prison security, in Northern Ireland. Anyone who had my responsibilities there would do so. Equally, I appreciate the problem of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in that there is need, if we are to be successful in security, to have some political progress, and that is what my right honourable friend was seeking to do through the Assembly. I deeply regret that it has not succeeded and I hope that there may still be a chance that it will.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that there is a political stalemate in Northern Ireland which is assisting the recruitment of men of violence, particularly from the younger generation? Will the noble Viscount give the House a little more encouragement and say that the Government are looking for the opportunity to take a new political initiative which might very well include the suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I think I should be arousing expectations if I were to give that hope, because it has to be faced that the problems of security in the North are paramount, and must be so. I do not wholly accept the argument about the recruitment of men of violence. I believe that one must realise that there are people who will probably continue with violence, whatever is done, either in the North or the South of Ireland. I fear that that must be said because I feel it very deeply.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that those of us interested in Northern Ireland are grateful to him for not holding out false hopes, of which we have had far too many?

Viscount Whitelaw

Mr Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who has had considerable experience in Northern Ireland, as I have. Anyone who has had any experience there and who holds out false hopes is a very unwise person indeed.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, in his second reply, the noble Viscount mentioned collective responsibility. Could this perhaps be overcome by merely appointing one junior Minister from each of the two main traditions in Northern Ireland?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, the point I was making was that it is up to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to decide to whom she offers jobs in her Government. Equally, it is up to the individuals who are offered them to decide whether to accept them. I think the ground of collective responsibility would make it very difficult for some of the people the noble Lord proposes to accept those jobs.