Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Act 1974

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:19 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Witney 7:19 pm, 26th June 1985

I beg to move, That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 4th June, be approved. I ask the House this evening to renew the provisions by which a number of Governments have administered Northern Ireland for more than a decade. These powers are unusually wide compared with those of other Ministers. I do not mean to rehearse how and why direct rule was imposed because that might be to blow on embers which are perhaps best left to cool. But I need to answer the reasonable question why today for the eleventh time a Secretary of State comes to this Dispatch Box to ask the House that direct rule be continued. It is certainly not because the Government wish to retain the full powers which my colleagues and I now exercise. The record shows otherwise. All my predecessors have tried to find ways of divesting themselves of many of those powers to elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland. Neither they nor I desire to continue to take those decisions, many of which are detailed, which are better taken within the Province about, for example, education, housing and industrial development.

The reason why these almost continuous efforts to devolve power have not so far succeeded are familiar to the House. They are essentially the same reasons for which on other occasions we have asked the House to make special provisions for special efforts to establish the security and maintain the economy of the Province. We are wholly and rightly committed to maintaining the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom so long as a majority of the people there so wish. I see no prospect of the majority changing their views on that matter, but the majority community live city by city, town by town, county by county alongside a minority community, and the future of the two communities is inextricably linked. There is no new line to be drawn, and no ingenious new arrangement which could be devised to separate their futures.

In many aspects of life that causes few problems. Recently, I visited a thriving factory in an area which has been deeply troubled. There members of the two communities work side by side in complete harmony, so far as I can see. Any Member of the House who visits Northern Ireland for more than an hour or two with a reasonably open mind will know that that is a commonplace experience. In many aspects of human activity there is no difficulty whatever. No one who saw the people of Belfast welcome Barry McGuigan can doubt that fact. But that harmony does not extend into political life or into the search among politicians for institutions which would enable the two communities to form some kind of partnership in the formation or administration of policy.

In the Northern Ireland Act 1982 Parliament laid down that any system for the devolution of powers must command "widespread acceptance". That was defined in the preceding White Paper as meaning acceptability to both sides of the community. That must be right, and not merely as an expression of political philosophy or idealism. Simple majority rule, as in the past, would leave the minority in perpetual opposition and would not in practice lead to a stable society. A system which did not command such widespread acceptance would simply not survive. Let us make a practical test. If I were to come to the House and propose a new constitutional system for Northern Ireland, and if I then had to add, "By the way, I have to tell the House that this new system will be boycotted or otherwise rejected by the constitutional representatives of one or the other community," I would be laughed out of court, and rightly so. The common sense of hon. Members would lead them to ask, "What on earth is the point of that?" The search for acceptance must continue, and I shall say more about that in a minute. Meanwhile, direct rule must continue.

The Parliament of the United Kingdom cannot shirk its duty to provide good government for Northern Ireland. Direct rule is a firm and fair framework, and in many ways we should be proud of it. However, it is right that hon. Members should have a regular opportunity to reflect their views on the state of affairs in Northern Ireland, which is far from satisfactory, and to suggest how it might be improved. Therefore, I should give the House a brief but wide-ranging account of our stewardship. The House does not have many opportunities to debate Northern Ireland in general terms, and this is an occasion which we should seize.

I make no apology for saying again that for the Government security policy must come first. Certainly there is a link, as I have often been told, between security and politics, but no accommodation is possible with the killers. We must drain the support on which the killers depend, but the terrorist paramilitary organisations must be defeated by a robust security policy. I shall say more about that policy when we debate the renewal of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 later this evening, but the essence is simple. We want people in Northern Ireland to be able to go about their everyday pursuits free from the fear of violence.

The security forces have made substantial progress in recent years in bringing that about. Their skill, patience and bravery call for our gratitude and, more important to them, for our help and co-operation. All of us, especially those of us in public life, have a duty to help in that way. Neither the Government nor the House can be satisfied while terrorists are able to carry out brutal murders such as those of recent years and, indeed, of recent weeks. We must continue to speak out and bring to justice those who have committed these crimes, and to do all that we can to deny them money, weapons, recruits and explosives. That means doing many things, including intensifying co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. No one who knows the facts about security in the Province and who is serious about improving the present position can deny the need for intensified co-operation. The security forces will continue to work impartially within the law to prevent violence. Meanwhile, it is important that a bomb in Newry or in a village in Fermanagh should be regarded by the House as being as important as a bomb in the Rubens hotel because the suffering which can result from it is as great.

Violence flaws Ireland's image abroad. It deters investors whose talents and resources are needed to complement the inventiveness and skilled application of our people in Northern Ireland. Unemployment, as I come across it week by week, is just under 21 per cent. across the Province and much higher in some areas, and it is a tragic problem. We must understand the personal

frustration and waste of talent which it causes. But output, investment and the number of people in employment are rising. A record number of new jobs is being created in small businesses as the business climate improves. Shorts, our largest manufacturing employer, has won important orders recently from the Royal Air Force, the United States air force and China. The shipyard Harland and Wolff has a full immediate order book, although much work is needed to improve its finances. There is a battery of special employment training measures for adults and young people. Since 1982 Northern Ireland has had a two-year youth training programme—well ahead of Great Britain.

Regarding the economy, it is necessary, but not enough, to spend money to mitigate our difficulties. It is not in Northern Ireland's interests to become increasingly dependent on public funds any more than it is in the nation's interests as a whole. That dependence today is somewhat too high. We must therefore work to encourage wealth-creating enterprise and industry. I should like to see an expanding private sector in Northern Ireland because I do not believe that Northern Ireland is exempt from the lessons and experiences of other democratic countries. I am sure that an expanding private sector is the best foundation for prosperity.

If Northern Ireland is to improve its security and prosper, it must develop links with our closest neighbours and further afield.

The Republic of Ireland is a member, with us, of the European Community. It is a country with which Northern Ireland shares the same island, and with which it shares many common interests and a common security threat. A significant part of the community in Northern Ireland wishes to see fuller recognition of its Irish identity and to see it reflected in the conduct of relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic. This, as the two Heads of Government agreed at Chequers, must be respected, as must the wish of the majority in Northern Ireland to retain its British identity and to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

We have maintained a dialogue with the Irish Government. Its basis was clearly spelt out in a communiqué issued after the Chequers summit last November. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach agreed that the identities of the majority and the minority communities in Northern Ireland should be recognised, respected and reflected in the structures and processes of Northern Ireland in ways acceptable to both communities. They reaffirmed that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom would not be changed without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland. That was a reaffirmation by both Governments, not just by ours.

There has been speculation recently — I make no complaint about that—about the talks which are going on between the British and Irish Governments. Hon. Members would not expect me to reveal details of discussions which, by their nature, must for the time being remain confidential. The talks are a serious attempt by the two Governments to develop relations within the framework set out in the summit communiqué. The Irish Government have a legitimate interest in what goes on in Northern Ireland, especially in those matters which affect the minority community. We do not know the outcome of the present discussions, or whether they will succeed. If an acceptable basis can be found within the terms of last November's communiqué and within the terms of what was then said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for deepening our relationship with the Irish Republic, it will benefit both communities in Northern Ireland and relations between the two Governments, but it will not be a substitute for developing a sense of partnership within Northern Ireland or for seeking arrangements, in consultation with our political parties, for the better administration of the province.