Orders of the Day — Commission on the Constitution

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th March 1974.

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Photo of Mr James Kilfedder Mr James Kilfedder , North Down 12:00 am, 20th March 1974

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas). Despite what he said about his speech I found it inspiring. Indeed, I always find all Welsh speakers eloquent, including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and it is a great honour to make my first speech in this Parliament while you are in the Chair.

I regret that when I asked the Prime Minister yesterday if he would implement the recommendation of the majority report of the Royal Commission to increase the number of Members from Northern Ireland from 12 to about 17 he could not give any such assurance. The Government seem unwilling to implement that recommendation. The Prime Minister had an opportunity yesterday to say that, for the sake of democracy, he would consider the recommendation so as to ensure that Northern Ireland was properly represented in the House.

This attitude by the Government is in stark contrast to the statement in the Gracious Speech that discussions are to begin on the Kilbrandon Report with a view to bringing forward proposals for devolution in Scotland and Wales. I do not believe that my hon. Friends from Wales and Scotland—I mean the Scottish and Welsh nationalists—have been deceived for one moment by the sudden conversion of the Labour Party from its consistent opposition to devolution.

The Labour Government offer discussions in the hope that they will undermine the standing of Scottish and Welsh nationalists and will, hence, enable Labour to win back a few seats at the next election. The Government's offer of discussions is also made in the knowledge that such talk will not even have reached a satisfactory conclusion, let alone be translated into legislation, before the next election. If the Labour Party wins a majority at the next election, all its new-found sympathy for devolution will evaporate, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists in the House will find that they are as unpopular as the Ulster Unionists. Indeed, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists experienced such a status until the last election, which resulted in the present minority Government which cannot afford seriously to offend minorities in the House—a situation which will alter if the Labour Party secures a majority in the next election.

However, the Labour Party has looked unkindly on the recommendation for an increase in the number of Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland largely because it seeks support from the considerable number of Eire citizens living in England and partly because, until recent years, Unionist Members slavishly —I use the word deliberately—followed the Conservatives into the Division Lobby for the past five decades.

But this is no longer the position. All that has changed. Like the Liberals and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Unionists will judge every piece of legislation—that relating not only to the region they represent but to the nation as a whole—on its merits.

A greater number of Members from Northern Ireland would mean that there would be a wider spectrum of political opinion represented in the House. It would make the people of Northern Ireland feel more secure if they were seen to be treated as British citizens elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

The Ulster people have often been told of the safeguards to protect their rights, but there is not much evidence of these. Increasing the number of Members from Northern Ireland from 12 to about 17, as recommended in the majority report of Kilbrandon, would be a way to demonstrate Westminster's good will. As far as I am aware the minority report does not demur from that recommendation. However I would argue for about 20 Members from Ulster.

It is regrettable that the previous Conservative Government did not wait until the publication of the Royal Commission's report before deciding that the Stormont Parliament should be suspended. The Royal Commission which examined devolution in Northern Ireland up until 1969, when the IRA violence engulfed the Province and caused, to date, 1,000 dead, thousands mutilated, and millions of pounds worth of property to be destroyed, came to the conclusion that devolution had worked admirably.

The report makes no comment on the creation of a power-sharing Executive, or a compulsory coalition, of persons who are fundamentally opposed to each other on political grounds. That is not surprising, since it would not be contemplated for any other part of the United Kingdom; nor would it be received with anything but anger. Even this Government refused to be party to a Government of national unity, despite the grave national crisis. They refused to have anything to do with the Liberals or the Conservatives. They wanted to rule on their own.

Yet, so far as Northern Ireland is concerned, the Labour Party, with the Conservative Party, decided that people who are politically opposed to one another must serve in an Executive which, I understand, is guided by the concept of collective responsibility.

Although Northern Ireland has had a Parliamentary Commissioner and a Commissioner for Complaints, neither of these Ombudsmen, although they quite properly set out to find evidence of discrimination, was able to discover a single case of deliberate discrimination on political or religious grounds against a person or persons. They found some minor cases of poor administration, but such are not unusual in any region. In Wales, Scotland and even England there are many examples of poor administration. Administratively, the former Stormont Parliament and Government did better for the people of Ulster than the central Government here at Westminster have done for Great Britain.

Not surprisingly, the commissioners came to the conclusion that Northern Ireland was equitably and honestly governed. The first Parliamentary Commissioner, Sir Edmund Compton, said that in his experience the relations between the governed and the Civil Service were far better and closer in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain.

The allegation is often made that Northern Ireland is subsidised by the British taxpayer. I have heard it in this Chamber. There is nothing of which to be ashamed about being subsidised. It is the proper consequence of being part of the family. Many people who make the allegation forget that the Ulster people pay the same taxes as other citizens of the United Kingdom.

The Royal Commission deals with the subsidy allegation in paragraph 1309 and the two succeeding paragraphs of the majority report. It says: Those who made the allegation"— that Northern Ireland was subsidised by the rest of the United Kingdom— were usually concerned either to discredit the Stormont regime—the implication being that the Northern Ireland Government was inefficient and could not manage on its allotted income—or to substantiate the argument that the people of Northern Ireland stayed in the United Kingdom only because of the subsidy they received from the United Kingdom Government.In the sense that the amount contributed by the people of Northern Ireland in taxation was not sufficient to pay for their share of imperial and domestic services, it was obviously true to say that they were 'subsidised' … But the same was and is true of several other regions of the United Kingdom. The practical difference is that in these other regions the figures have not regularly been made available.…In any event the 'subsidy' was nothing to be ashamed of. It was a proper consequence of common citizenship. In any state, some regions are bound to be poorer than others. In modern democratic states it is accepted that these poorer regions should share in the greater wealth produced by the more prosperous regions. That was the conclusion of those who compiled the majority report of the Kilbrandon Commission. It is an answer to those who have made the allegation.

Northern Ireland is poorer than other regions in England for a number of reasons. The same reasons can be applied to Scotland and Wales. The South-East, the Home Counties and London have acted as a magnet drawing the lifeblood from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The young people come here. Very little private money is invested on the periphery of the United Kingdom. That is why Northern Ireland suffers. Many Ulstermen, Irish people, Scots and Welsh are to be found in London. We suffer because London and the Home Counties, the areas of great affluence, draw those people and the wealth away from what were once prosperous regions.