Community Relations

Oral Answers to Questions — Northern Ireland – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st July 1976.

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Photo of Mr Martin Flannery Mr Martin Flannery , Sheffield, Hillsborough 12:00 am, 1st July 1976

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what indications there are of sections of the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland coming together in the interests of peace; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he has any statement to make about the resumption of talks between party leaders in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

It would not be right for me to comment on the various exchanges taking place among the political parties in Northern Ireland, still less for me to seek to interfere. The Government welcome the constructive efforts of those in Northern Ireland who seek an equitable and durable agreement.

Photo of Mr Martin Flannery Mr Martin Flannery , Sheffield, Hillsborough

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that we understand the efforts which he has been making to promote peace in Northern Ireland through every possible human contact? Will he further accept that, despite the increases this year in sectarian killings, there is a feeling that the two communities are reaching out towards each other and that those who indulge in sectarianism are increasingly being isolated? Does he agree that that is a reasonable assessment of the situation?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

That is a reasonable assessment. I must not hide from the House my concern about the nature of the violence. Much of it has been straight sectarian in nature. Many people whom I meet tell me of the isolation of the men of violence, but that does not prevent them from engaging in violence. We must remember, however, that there have been false dawns before, and false dawns that suddenly collapse lead to disillusion. Let us take the matter carefully. There is a spirit there. I hope that anything we can do in the House will foster it.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the apparent alignment of the official Unionists with the constructive approach by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), as opposed to the totally negative reaction of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), might well lead to the resumption of devolved government in Ulster based on principles supported by all parties in the House?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

It certainly might do that, but the operative word is "might". Praise from me for any individual politician is not very productive, and even doing the opposite of praising, however much I might like to do that, might also prove to be unproductive. That is why at the moment I say very little about what is going on in Northern Ireland in this respect.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the work and efforts of the trade union movement in Northern Ireland to encourage and enable the two communities to work sensibly together in the sphere of the trade unions? Are not the trade unions doing work which others in the political sphere would do well to emulate?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Yes, I think that is right. I met the trade unions only this week. This is no new attempt on the part of trade unions. Northern Ireland Ministers in previous Governments praised the trade unions in Northern Ireland, and all I can do is to add to that.

The basic problem is that, although on the political and industrial levels many people are reasonable, there is beneath a basic gut feeling on both sides. Only the slow work of political life by those who are not involved in violence, and by the trade unions, will eventually lead to removing or isolating gut reactions which are a legacy of history.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whatever has been the case in the past, the background to the present violence is not the absence of co-operation or the presence of hostility between adherents of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism but the activities of small numbers of people who are irreconcilably opposed to any acceptable form of government in the Republic or in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I do not disagree at all with the right hon. Gentleman's last comment. Things have changed in the past seven years. I am not so sure about the other aspects of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Although the vast majority of the people are firmly against violence, what concerns me is the tacit acceptance of violence in some areas, particularly in the urban areas. How to overcome this is an extremely difficult question. On the main point, however, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr John Watkinson Mr John Watkinson , Gloucestershire West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the ending of detention was a material factor in improving relationships between the two communities, and that the primacy which he attaches to the rule of law could lead to an improvement of the situation in Northern Ireland? Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on an article in The Times this morning about increasing the liaison between the Army and the police to bring criminals before the courts?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I hope tomorrow to say something about the article in the newspaper, following up what I said a fortnight ago. I regard that as the right direction to take. In the past seven years the Army has taken the lead in security in Northern Ireland. I want to see that arrangement gradually—no more than that—reversed. That is the right way to go. The ending of detention was right and important. What concerns me in Northern Ireland is the existence of a small number of people on either side who organise the violence but do not go out on the street and pull the trigger. Those are the ones we want to get at. To get at them we need evidence. That is the long-term view. In the short-term, however, when I see the results of the activities of those organisers I wish that we could get at them much more quickly.

Photo of Mr Eddie Loyden Mr Eddie Loyden , Liverpool, Garston

Does my right hon. Friend agree that more positive steps could be taken to involve the trade union movement in Northern Ireland? What steps is he prepared to take to bring together the British TUC and the Irish TUC on this question?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I have already agreed that the work that is being done by the trade unions is first-rate, but I would not attempt to instruct the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and its Northern Ireland Committee and tell them what to do. The links between the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the South in Dublin and the TUC in London are very good. Mr. Jack Jones was in Ireland last week speaking at the annual conference of the Transport and General Workers' Union. What he said there could not be bettered. That shows that the valued support that the Government and the country get from the British trade union movement on the Irish question is first-rate.