Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Act 1974

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West 7:45 pm, 26th June 1985

We are discussing the extension of arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland which, as the Secretary of State recognises, no one would have sought as a first option. Like so many aspects of the history of Ireland, they exist, not because anyone wanted them, or planned them but simply as a consequence of what has gone before, each chapter unfolding with the predestined inevitability of a Shakespearian tragedy.

The arrangements entail that the people of Northern Ireland can influence only marginally the electoral fortunes of the party which controls the machinery of government, which formulates the policies, and takes the decisions on which their fortunes depend. That is not a healthy situation. Representative government and the politics of electoral choice do not operate for the people of Northern Ireland.

This morning in Committee the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) observed that the gas industry is the latest example of the casualties which flow from direct rule. It is not the case that the British Government want to run the affairs of Northern Ireland. Those who insist that the Government are clinging to Northern Ireland as a miser clings to his gold are simply wrong. It is not an example of a colonial power reluctant to let go. Indeed, the reverse is true; the British Government do not want to rule Northern Ireland, because it entails finding parliamentary time for matters which they would prefer to be discussed elsewhere. There is no electoral advantage for the Government. Frankly, they do not care about it. Northern Ireland is simply an additional problem, a complicating factor in their work.

Decisions which, if they concerned any other part of the United Kingdom, would take the form of primary legislation — Second Reading, Committee and Report, with amendments and concessions, all the circumstances and safeguards of parliamentary democracy — are replaced for the people of Northern Ireland by non-amendable orders debated for such time as is available, often an hour and a half at some period in the week which has not been pre-empted for more important business. That may be inevitable until we find an alternative which secures a measure of agreement, but we might have hoped that, understanding the situation, the Government would have shown some sensitivity, some sympathy for the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

We are discussing two orders of great importance to the people of Northern Ireland, involving matters on which feelings run high and which evoke strong emotions. If they related to any other part of the United Kingdom, each would have been accorded at least a full day's debate. The Government believe that in the case of Northern Ireland they can crowd both into the same day. I confess at once that when we, the Opposition, were told of this arrangement, we accepted it. Perhaps that was because we are conditioned to accept that Northern Ireland is not accorded the same priorities as other regions. Having achieved that, the Government decided to push matters further. They decided that not only should the two orders share a day, but that they should not even have a day, and they should be discussed after other business.

The Government gave an undertaking that at least the other business would not proceed beyond 6 o'clock. They said that if it seemed likely to proceed beyond that hour they would report progress. I understand that unforeseen difficulties arise, but the point of a promise is that it is kept even when it is inconvenient.

The Government's business managers do not normally disregard their promises. What I resent is the attitude that promises on Northern Ireland business do not really matter. No issue of comparable importance relating to other regions would have received such insulting treatment. We have a Government whose business managers simply do not care a tinker's cuss for Northern Ireland or its people.

We must draw one of two conclusions. Either the Government are not capable of controlling their business managers and the Whips Office tail wags the policy dog, or the importance that the business managers attach to Northern Ireland reflects the importance attached to it by the Government. I absolve the Secretary of State from that allegation and I do not call on him to comment on his colleagues. I believe that their attitude to Northern Ireland business is a cross that he, too, has to bear.

But two comments have to be made. The business of the House is about the rights of minorities, and part of their sanction is that no party is in a majority for ever. I say to the present Government, as I ventured to say to political leaders on both sides in Northern Ireland, that one good reason for respecting the rights of those with whom we disagree is that those who in one context and at one time are in a majority, in a different situation and a different year are appealing for the rights of minorities. History has a habit of turning every situation on its head. There is no instance in the history books of a dominating group which stayed dominant for ever, and we know that for the Government time is running out.

Secondly, if daily life in Northern Ireland is to improve and there is to be any redress of its real problems—unemployment, financial hardship and bad living conditions, the problems that we were discussing in Committee this morning—something has to be changed. We all hope for a solution to the constitutional questions which beset Northern Ireland. The solution may come about through a process rather than a single event, but that will be next year or the year after, or some other time in the future. It is now that people are despairing-like the people I visited last week, in the Divis flats, whose afflictions the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) was kind enough to discuss with me today, or the people I hope to visit shortly in some districts of east Belfast.

If the people of Northern Ireland are to feel confident in constitutional, democratic politics, and if they are to have any expectation from the ballot box, one of two things must happen. Either the Government's managers must take the affairs of Northern Ireland more seriously, even though their electoral fortunes are not dependent on Northern Ireland electors, or if there is no future in that, we must find a way to return a greater share of executive power to elected bodies in Northern Ireland. I take the point by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that that has to be on the basis that there is some sharing of power.

We had hoped to hear from the Secretary of State what progress had been made. I appreciate that these things are always difficult, but whatever differences there may be about ultimate objectives, interim solutions or simply the way forward, no one wants to retain the status quo. That is unloved because it is unlovable. It is axiomatic that we all want to find a way forward—however we may differ as to the solution that we favour, no one would choose the status quo as the ideal form of government. No one is enamoured of the economic opportunities lost or the waste of resources following the troubles. So far as I know, there is no one who has not tired of the posturing and the sloganising, and, above all, everyone is sick of the violence and the fear.

We discovered last year that people on both sides of the sectarian political divide, as the Secretary of State said, were prepared to explore ways of walking together in peace. There are groups who are working assiduously and positively to build bridges, although we do not pay tribute often enough to people such as the Corrymeela community, Women Together, the Ulster People's college, or Lagan college. I hope that one day, history will accord them greater recognition than their own generation has done. But they reflect what many people are saying, although sometimes understandably they hesitate to say it aloud in their own community: "Let us try to live together in harmony, even with those from whom we differ. Let the two traditions not only tolerate each other but enrich each other, and let us offer the next generation of children a better inheritance as a result."

We had hoped to hear from the Government about the progress of their conversations with the Government of the Republic. Shortly after the summit last year, when the Government were trying to mend the gaping tear in their fences made by the brick that the Prime Minister had let fall at her press conference, we heard of a possible further summit in February and then heard that it might be in April and then probably in September. We heard that the talks were ranging over some practical issues such as a possible Anglo-Irish parliamentary tier and a possible office for officials from the Republic in Belfast to make representations on behalf of those who wanted to seek their aid, although I understand that that is not necessarily welcome to people such as the hon. Member for Antrim North (Rev. Ian Paisley).

There was talk of a jurisdiction to try terrorist offences on the basis of a common judiciary, and leaks have it that the separation of powers had extended so far that the judiciary was hardly on speaking terms with the Executive. There was talk of a closer liaison between the police, repairing the bridges at the highest level and with a kind of common recruitment policy on a less exalted level, so that, in a phrase I heard the Foreign Minister of the Republic use some months ago, a young Nationalist could join the police without being any the less a Nationalist.

I understand that we cannot ask the Secretary of State to offer details on such questions while discussions on them are proceeding. I wish not to embarrass the Government but rather to encourage them to pursue those talks in detail, in private rather than public, provided that we are given a progress report when the time is opportune.

So I am grateful for what the Secretary of State has said, but how long is the time scale likely to be? As he said, this cannot be allowed to drag on for ever. I am grateful, too, for what he said about discussions within Northern Ireland between the Government and the political leaders of the various groups, and I agree that a few months ago there was an atmosphere of tolerance that would not have been possible two or three years earlier. But I should be grateful for a little more information as to whether those talks are still proceeding, because that was not clear from what the Secretary of State said, although I understand what he said about their progress being interrupted by the local elections. Can we expect a report in due course?

But there is no prospect of agreement unless people are ready to talk together. There can be no resolution of differences unless political leaders will discuss matters with those whom they differ. And if there is one thing which men of violence are anxious to achieve, it is to ensure that that does not happen.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I repeat what I have said many times before. It may be felt that it does not require repeating, but for the avoidance of misunderstanding, I repeat that we have no sympathy for violence as a means to achieve political ends. Not only do we not believe that the ends justify the means, but we do not believe that worthwhile ends can be achieved by violent means. Murder, and fear and intimidation, cannot give rise to a peaceful and just society. We do not believe that peace and justice can grow in soil that has been soaked with blood.

We would tell that message to men of violence on both sides of the sectarian divide and we, like the Secretary of State, repudiate Sinn Fein's undisguised support for the use of violence. So if there was a plan to spread injury and death indiscriminately in holiday resorts, and if that plan was frustrated by the vigilance of the police, we all share in the rejoicing. But if it leads to the consequence that people refuse to continue talking together, and if it brings political discussion to a standstill, then the men of violence will have achieved their objective after all.

Violence in Northern Ireland feeds on three factors. They have all to be tackled simultaneously, because when they are resolved, the men of violence on both sides will be isolated. Until they are resolved, there will always be a reservoir of potential recruits for the paramilitaries, particularly among the young. First, there are the economic and social conditions in which people are living. Unless they believe that the ballot box can offer some redress for their grievances, we must not be surprised if those who speak of alternatives to the ballot box find someone to listen. Secondly, there is the danger that the methods we use to combat violence may be seen as unfair and oppressive, and they may actually contribute to the problem. I will say no more about that as it will be discussed in the next debate.

In this debate I simply want to make an appeal for a willingness to meet and talk. If that sounds naive, we have no babes or sucklings to say it, and I am convinced that someone has to say it. The Labour party does not believe that meeting people entails agreeing with them, or indicating approval or endorsing their claim to respectability. It means simply what it says, meeting them and listening. If in Northern Ireland I met only those with whom I was already in complete agreement, I would spend a very solitary existence.

I hesitate to endanger our new alliance with the Ulster Unionist parties which was launched so successfully this morning, but I hope that they will receive my comment in the spirit in which it is intended. I believe that we can differ without rancour, and by ventilating our differences we may go some way towards resolving them.

A fortnight ago a working group from the National Executive Committee of the Labour party and of the parliamentary Labour party visited Northern Ireland. We wanted to talk to people from as many different view points as possible. There had to be some criterion of whom we invited to meet us, so we invited every party which had a representative elected to a public body. We did not expect to agree with them all.

In fact, that was impossible because we knew they would be saying inconsistent things, but we believed that if we listened to what they had to say that might help us to understand their point of view and perhaps might even allow us to act as a catalyst in pointing out where the common ground lay. Sinn Fein was within that criterion because it had elected councillors. Sinn Fein agreed to meet us. We did not make it a condition that it modified its views before we met, and Sinn Fein did not impose a condition that we express any sympathy with its position. It was our judgment that we should make no distinction between the parties that fell within our criterion.

The Unionist parties did not agree with our judgment. That is strange because they are so anxious to see nationalists pursuing their objectives by taking part in constitutional democratic politics, fighting elections, representing their constituents and taking their place in committees that when they do, they will not talk to them.

If the nationalist parties are not serious about representing their constituents, and if they do not want to promote the work of the councils, why not call their bluff? Why not offer them the opportunity and see whether they take it?