Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Act 1974

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:15 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Richard Needham Mr Richard Needham , North Wiltshire 10:15 pm, 26th June 1985

I was not trying to go too far. I was saying that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley cannot compare unemployment here with the problems of Northern Ireland. That is not a fair comparison.

It is clear that, however well direct rule may have worked—I can understand that in some ways it has—it must be the second-best option for the British Government. I should have hoped that all those who represent the people of Northern Ireland in the House would have had their minds concentrated by the threat of the Provisional IRA and would have tried to find methods of working more closely together than they have in the past.

I do not believe that that will happen overnight. This evening's debate has clearly shown the difficulties in achieving that. I would sound a note of caution to the hon. Member for Foyle were he here, and to the Irish Government. There is a great deal of talk in southern Ireland at the moment about the possibility of what I might call a great leap forward—a fast move towards a final solution. The problem with exaggerating leaps forward is that they often end up in the dark.

The hon. Member for Foyle must explain what will happen to the initiative in which he puts so much faith if reasonable men after a reasonable time for good and understandable reasons do not agree that major steps can be taken at the moment which are saleable to both communities. To build up hopes only for them to be shattered plays to the wishes of Sinn Fein as much as have the activities of some councils in the last few weeks. I agree with the hon. Member for Foyle about that.

The chances of working toward better co-operation between the two sides is more likely to be successful with a step-by-step approach than by pinning too many hopes on some great solution from the two Governments.

I hope that agreement can be reached by the two Governments, but an arrangement will stick only if it takes into account the two certainties which I mentioned earlier. Those two self-evident truths are that the Unionists will never break their links, and that Irish nationalism in the North will not disappear.

There is no cross-community support for an agreed solution, but that does not mean that the British Government can fall back on the assumption that direct rule will solve the problem. The Government must continue to do everything that they can to bring about devolution. It is difficult to see how the politicians of the North can exercise power if they are not given responsibility. They do not now have responsibility. It is not possible for British politicians, who are remote from the problems, to appreciate, as Northern Ireland politicians can appreciate, what it is necessary to do.

The British Government must push equal opportunity into every aspect of life in Northern Ireland. The rules on flags and emblems which cover Northern Ireland, and the regulations on street names and all the other paraphernalia, would be laughed at if they applied to Wales. I appreciate the problems for the Province, but changes must be made. I was unconvinced by what the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said about the need for marches to go down particular roads. Just because something has happened for 100 years does not mean that it must continue for another 100 years. In Britain the routes of marches are decided by the chief constable, taking into account the effects on residents. That should not be impossible in Northern Ireland, particularly amongst people who are proud of their British links.

I firmly believe also that it is important to build on the ties between the Irish and British Parliaments. The hon. Member for Foyle said that the problems were not about relations within Northern Ireland. What are they about if not about relations within Northern Ireland? A million or more Irish people have lived in Britain and have not needed great assistance from Government about what they do. Unfortunately, that is not the case in Northern Ireland. Equally, many English people have made their homes and lived happily in Eire. The problems of the North will not be solved by some great leap, but they can be solved in time if both communities work together. I was much heartened earlier this year to hear a group of Members from all the constitutional parties of Northern Ireland singing "We shall overcome". I am sure that that can happen, but my message to the House, to the Irish Government and to the hon. Member for Foyle is that we should not expect it to happen all at once.