Those Ministers have that opportunity now. They will continue to have it unless I were to take a line which I believe most people would regard as strange—that neither the Foreign Secretary nor the Prime Minister should meet representatives of the Irish Republic. Such meetings occur and we read about one another's remarks in the newspapers. Those opportunities exist and are taken. The question is whether the present system is satisfactory and whether it can be improved. That is what the discussions are about.
I shall now deal with political developments in Northern Ireland. Since taking up office in September last year, I have taken on the task which my predecessor had of trying to determine which form of government would command the widest level of acceptance and respect in Northern Ireland.
I began to explore with the leaders of the main constitutional political parties the more tolerant tone and recognition of the interests of others which was clearly evident in policy documents published earlier last year. I encouraged them to consider among themselves how they might build on these expressions of intent in a practical way. Recognising the difficulties of negotiating in public, I favoured private, informal discussions without commitment. I am grateful for the way in which the party leaders responded to that and for the frankness which they showed. There were some indications, although tentative, I must confess, first from one then another, that they might be prepared to inch forward. Early this year, the prospect of the May district council elections froze even that slight willingness to move.
Before the campaigning started in earnest, I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), the Under-Secretary, to talk to each of the parties away from the glare of publicity to establish more precisely the extent of any common ground and their differences. The results of his conversations redefined and clarified the positions. I am now better placed to decide how to take matters forward.
In considering how best we can make progress, I have to take account of the results of the district council elections on 15 May and to assess their impact and long-term effect on Northern Ireland's political life. As in previous elections, about 60 per cent. of the electorate voted for parties supporting the Union. They used the free elections system which are traditional in the Province to reaffirm support for the Union without ambiguity.
Within the minority the media have tended to gloss over the steadiness of support for constitutional nationalism shown by the 17·8 per cent. of the electorate which voted for the SDLP. The immediate reaction of commentators emphasised the fact that 11·8 per cent. gave their vote to Sinn Fein—a party which openly supports the use of violence for political ends. Its total vote was lower than in the 1983 general election and in the 1984 European elections. That was partly because our new anti-personation legislation was becoming effective, although many people will not agree with me about that.
It is a sad but not new fact that between 80,000 and 100,000 people in Northern Ireland over the years, when given the chance, have voted and will continue to vote for a republicanism which espouses violence.
I have been urged by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) and others to proscribe Sinn Fein before the elections. I have thought hard about it. I decided not to because such a step would have impaired the freedom of elections in Northern Ireland and the whole basis on which Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. It is not as a result of some colonial system but through the free choice of the majority of the people who live there, repeatedly asserted in wholly free elections.
If I had proscribed before the elections, Sinn Fein and others would certainly have tried to claim that violence was the only course open to them and that they represented the bulk of nationalist voters. We now know that they do not. The 11·8 per cent. does not form a winning hand, unless opponents play into it.
I repudiate Sinn Fein's undisguised support for the use of violence. As I have said, we shall use every means within the law to distinguish between those in Northern Ireland who believe in and practise constitutional methods to achieve their objectives and those who connive in violence, from whichever part of the community they come. I add that we shall keep under review the effectiveness of the law in these respects.
Before the elections we knew that a large number of Sinn Fein councillors would create problems for the Government and for other elected councillors. The Government have to sort out such difficulties within the law. Likewise, we expect district councils to act lawfully.
I understand that feelings inside and outside councils run particularly high in the wake of attacks which murder and injure. If I did not understand that, it would have been pointed out to me many times since May. Elected representatives have every right, and have a duty, to express the revulsion which all decent people feel. They also have a responsibility to defuse tension and to prevent retaliation. The language and behaviour which have marred some council meetings serve only to damage the democratic process and give welcome publicity to Sinn Fein.
I am surprised at the way in which some opponents of Sinn Fein feel compelled to build up that organisation by their choice of tactics. We should not lose sight of those many councils which have made equitable, sensible arrangements to conduct their business. I read in The Guardian this morning that the presence of Sinn Fein had reduced local government in the Province to a shambles. That is wholly inaccurate. Such a conclusion can be reached only by people who look at the councils in which there has been trouble and ignore the councils in which there has been none. The right way to deal with a repugnant minority within a minority is to outmanoeuvre, outvote and outwit them.
Faced with the facts that I have outlined, we must continue to search for better political arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland. I have explained the basis on which we wish to do that. Ultimately Parliament must determine the arrangements. We could continue to work through direct rule. I am considering closely a number of measures—as the House has been told—which could be used to remove old irritants to the minority community. I am anxious to ensure the effectiveness of arrangements which underpin equality of opportunity, particularly in employment.
I know that the present Order in Council procedures of legislation are criticised, particularly on the Unionist Benches. There is, for example, a case for making adjustments to the transferred category by removing matters such as banking, building societies and financial services, where efficiency points to the desirability of United Kingdom-wide legislation and administration by United Kingdom Departments and where the scope for separate legislation or policy initiative by any future devolved administration would be more apparent than real. I am certainly open to argument on adjustments in that direction.
We should recognise that nearly three quarters of recent Orders in Council cover legislation which, for some reason, is different in substance as between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. On many matters Northern Ireland Members are among the first to stress the need for such differences. One has only to think of the wide range of social legislation to understand that.
Whatever their differences, Northern Ireland politicians—and Northern Ireland Ministers—cannot escape their responsibility to those who vote for them and to this Parliament to see common ground. I am much clearer about the difficulties than I was some months ago. There are always problems of timing. The atmosphere might be right for one party, but another will produce an insurmountable obstacle to dialogue. People may say that it is better to wait until after the district elections, until after the marching season, until after the outcome of the Anglo-Irish talks—and so on and so on.
The Government have been and will continue to 5e patient because we recognise the difficulties. However, never-ending excuses to avoid reasoning wear thin after a time, particularly when one considers how Northern Ireland could benefit from an agreement, however modest, between the constitutional representatives of the two parts of the community. I do not think that it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and I am sure that it is not in the interests of the people of the rest of the United Kingdom, that we should be patient for ever. People cannot claim to want political progress if they refuse to co-operate with, or even to talk to, each other.
The Northern Ireland Assembly still has a part to play. The Assembly's scrutiny of proposed legislation and policy changes has helped my ministerial colleagues, myself and the officials who advise us to tune our policies and proposals more accurately to particular local sensitivities.
I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) will accept that that is our experience. I wish that I could say that some of the Assembly's plenary debates have been as constructive as the work by some of its committees. Some of the speeches in the plenary Assembly, if read outside the Province, would confirm the worst fears of Northern Ireland's friends.
This was not the role which Parliament intended. The Assembly was established primarily as a framework in which acceptable arrangements for the return of greater responsibility to locally elected representatives could be developed by those representatives. So far, the Assembly has not met Parliament's intentions, despite the useful work which it has done. We shall have to decide—not now, but early next year—in the light of what happens whether fresh Assembly elections should be held in the autumn of 1986.