Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Act 1974

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:15 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Nicholas Scott Mr Nicholas Scott , Chelsea 11:15 pm, 26th June 1985

The debate has been wide ranging in subject and, at times, in decibel levels, but neither of those matters should be thought to be a ground for complaint. Any part of the United Kingdom that has suffered as grievously as Northern Ireland in recent years, whose system of government we are discussing today, is bound to arouse strong passions, and it is right that they should be expressed in this forum.

I have listened carefully to virtually the whole of the debate. After nearly four years as what I might call a creature of direct rule, I am as aware as most of the strengths and weaknesses of the system of direct rule, I believe that, with all the limitations that that system imposes on Ministers, Governments of both parties have sought to ensure that direct rule is as fair, even-handed and efficient as possible in the way that it has sought to bring about improvements in the technical machinery of government over those years.

Since 1982, as has been mentioned during the debate on more than one occasion, those Ministers who have been part of the system of direct rule have had the benefit of an Assembly in Northern Ireland of locally elected representatives of the people of the Province. They have been able to consult that Assembly on legislation and receive directly the views of the locally elected representatives. That may have made direct rule rather less comfortable than it was before, but it has made it more efficient and responsive to the views of the people of the Province.

Yet I am aware that, however hard Ministers may have tried, however much the Assembly may have contributed to improving the system of direct rule, it is flawed. That people from this side of the water should be moved across to Northern Ireland and asked to take on responsibility for many of the matters affecting the day-to-day lives of the men, women and children of Northern Ireland is far from the ideal position. As the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) said, no one has it as his first choice; but many people — perhaps virtually everyone in Northern Ireland — have it as their second choice. Until it is possible to arrive at a position in which the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland can agree on a first choice that is acceptable, I am afraid that we are lumbered with direct rule. What we must seek is to make that system work in the meantime, while looking all the time for a way of devolving responsibility for day-to-day matters to a locally elected Government in Northern Ireland.

In asking the House to renew direct rule in this order tonight, I am also committing the Government to search for a better way of governing Northern Ireland — something that will restore to the political representatives of the people of the Province responsibility for those day-to-day decisions that affect the lives of people. That is not hedged around necessarily in total by the 1982 Act, about which I shall say a word or two in a moment. There is only one principle that is immutable—that there should be widespread acceptance of whatever alternative is undertaken. That is not something that is being stubbornly insisted upon by the British Government in any sense from pride of authorship; it is the only basis upon which any stable Government of Northern Ireland can be created.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman raised a number of points. The first one that I should like to nail is the suggestion that the Government are uncaring and give too low a priority to social programmes in Northern Ireland. Anyone who has seen the progress in housing in Northern Ireland in recent years, and seen the quality and number of houses being built, will recognise that that is one of the major features in Northern Ireland today.

In education, the expenditure per pupil has been steadily rising in recent years. We introduced the youth training programme a year ahead of its introduction in Great Britain.

Employment is increasing in Northern Ireland, although, alas, for demographic reasons, unemployment is also increasing. We must run very fast just to stand still. But there is no lack of effort in seeking to overcome the problems of unemployment that bedevil so many towns and cities in Northern Ireland. There is certainly no lack of will and commitment to social programmes. I wish only that the security position would improve to such an extent that some of the resources which, for the time being, must be devoted to the battle against terrorism could be devoted to those social programmes. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) demonstrated the hypocrisy of the men of violence and their supporters, who condemn social deprivation when, to a large extent, their activities are responsible for that deprivation.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the status of the talks between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the political parties in Northern Ireland. Those talks were pursued first by my right hon. Friend and then by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. They were interrupted by the council elections. Recently my right hon. Friend had a stock-taking round of talks with each of the parties in Northern Ireland, and is now considering how best to take the matter forward in the months ahead. However, as I said earlier, we are determined to keep up the momentum in our search for an internal political solution that commands widespread acceptance in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) asked the Government not to stumble in their pursuit of that aim or of an agreement between the sovereign Governments of London and Dublin. Our first priority in Northern Ireland is the eradication—I emphasise that word—of terrorism. In pursuing our talks with the Government of the Republic, a priority is to ensure that the border between the two parts of Ireland is not a help to the men of terror. We shall be pursuing those talks vigorously to bring about that result in the immediate future.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) said that the 1982 Act is unworkable. The reason why it is unworkable is that people in Northern Ireland are not prepared to work it. He accused the Government of being unwilling to amend the Act. That is not true. If it became clear from the talks with the parties in Northern Ireland that amendments to the 1982 Act were necessary to provide Northern Ireland with a system of internal, devolved Government, there would be no bar to that as long as the principle of widespread acceptance across the community was an inherent part of that agreed way forward.

The right hon. Gentleman tried to use the analogy of the House of Commons and Government here, but the fact is that the nature of politics in Northern Ireland makes a change of the party in power almost impossible. That is the difference between the system of parliamentary democracy that we enjoy in this House and any system that could endure in Northern Ireland. A system of devolved government that can obtain widespread acceptance is the only stable alternative to direct rule, and the Government will continue to pursue that objective.

The right hon. Gentleman implied, if I understood him correctly, that the search for social and political progress in Northern Ireland was being undertaken to placate the IRA and its political supporters and advocates. That is a perversion of the truth. The people of Northern Ireland deserve those programmes in their own right. We know that the motive of the IRA is to destroy democracy in the North of Ireland and then to do the same in the Republic. We shall not falter in our determination to defeat those aims. We shall not weary of the task of defeating the IRA, and we must co-operate with our neighbours in the South in achieving our aims.

The right hon. Gentleman picked out the remarks of the leader of the Liberal party after the Home Secretary's statement about the arrests in Great Britain. Again, I must say that the right hon. Gentleman turns truth on its head. In pursuing the talks for either an internal settlement or agreement between the sovereign Governments in London and Dublin, we are not doing the work of the IRA. Every time there has been a chance of progress, either internally or internationally, the IRA has sought to prevent it and to destroy it. We are not doing their work but seeking to destroy and prevent them from doing their work.