Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Act 1974

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , Lagan Valley 8:20 pm, 26th June 1985

The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) made a plea for talks and appealed to us all to resolve the problems of Northern Ireland by engaging in talks. He seemed to equate that with what we in the House of Commons regard as consultation and co-operation between different parties and groupings of parties. I must tell him that there is really no true parallel.

There is no problem in this House in getting Members and groupings to come together. We who represent parties and constituencies in Northern Ireland wish to come together when we consider it to be in the best interests of our people to do so. However, it is a very different matter to expect us to get together around a table and arrive at some improbable constitutional structure. To do that would be utterly unthinkable in this House, even within the normal context of parliamentary democracy as it is generally understood, not only in Britain but in most of the civilised world—including the bits that were formerly civilised—to which we have bequeathed our system of parliamentary democracy.

The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West and the Secretary of State should accept that it is rather unfair to expect party leaders to get together and find an alternative to direct rule. We complain about direct rule. Indeed, the Secretary of Sate came near to chiding us for so complaining. But he is generous enough to take account of the fact that we did not bring about direct rule. That was brought about by a former Conservative Government. Admittedly, the Secretary of State was not a member of that Government, but he was not without influence in that Administration, and I say that in the kindest possible way.

When the right hon. Gentleman is reflecting on that period, he might let us into a secret. Perhaps he would tell us what alternatives were considered. Surely no Government in their right mind would abolish a system of devolved government, in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, without having a clear idea of what would be put in its place. I do not believe that at that time they addressed their minds to that. However, shortly afterwards they presented what they knew in their heart of hearts was unworkable. I refer to the 1973 Act and all that flowed from it.

The House of Commons is in danger of making itself look ludicrous, or of permitting the Government to make it look ridiculous, by referring to the words "interim period extension" in the order. That form of words implies that we are dealing with a temporary measure. "Interim" is the sort of word one uses if one's house is being demolished and reconstructed. The occupant may have to live in a caravan as an interim arrangement. The caravan dweller will tolerate such conditions for a month or two. Indeed, he may be able to survive an entire winter under such conditions, as many people are obliged to do.

Thereafter, he would become extremely impatient, and I fear that his patience would snap totally if, towards the end of the first year, the clerk of works in charge of the building tapped on the aluminium door of the caravan and said, "Sorry, old chap, but we shall have to defer everything for another 12 months." That, incidentally, is the type of well-worn phrase that has been used annually, in June, by successive Secretaries of State of Governments of various complexions in this House in the context of tonight's order.

One Oxford dictionary defines "interim" as "meanwhile" and gives, as a secondary interpretation, during the time that comes between. We are entitled to ask, between what? Is it between one Stormont Government and another? As a description, I suppose that was reasonably accurate from 1972 to 1973 and from 1974 to 1975. However, the phrase was wearing more than a little thin by 1982, which was a watershed year for Northern Ireland. In 1982–10 years after the abolition of Stormont—the Government Made the word "interim" inapplicable, for they introduced the 1982 Act, even though the House of Commons regarded it as unworkable.

It was an item of legislation which so bewildered the majority of right hon. and hon. Members that they reacted in two different ways. The Opposition could neither speak nor vote, and Government Members excused their support for the measure on the ground—I repeat a comment made to me at the time by many hon. Members—that it would not work anyway. Despite the pleas of those of us who were directed to make it work, the unworkable Act is still with us, and I am afraid that I see no inclination, particularly following the Secretary of State's speech tonight, on the part of the Government to amend it.

The Secretary of State rightly said that so far we have not applied the test which he thought should be applied to any proposal that might come forward within the meaning of the word "proposal" under the 1982 Act. He suggested as a test that for any structure to be acceptable it would need—I refer to the proposal for the formation of a Government—widespread acceptance. In other words, whether it had widespread acceptance would be the test.

I am afraid that if the right hon. Gentleman attempted to apply that test here, he would never have a Government, for there could never be a Government with widespread acceptance in this House. If I am told that Northern Ireland is different and that the same sort of problems do not exist in this part of the kingdom, then I must ask, without becoming involved in monetarist arguments, whether the 3 million-plus unemployed in this island do not warrant an experiment in power-sharing, with a coming together of the leaders of the two main parties. In saying that, I do not entirely exclude the Members on the alliance Bench. Surely the 3 million-plus unemployed are entitled to expect the party leaders in this House to get together to try to work out a solution to the serious problem that affects them all.

Reference is often made to the way in which this island is developing into two nations. What is being done to bridge that gap? Is there not a case for a coalition, or at least an exploration to see how far it is possible to get with the formation of a coalition, to prevent that gulf between the north and south in this island becoming unbridgable?

Meanwhile, the Report Committee of the Assembly has entered on the second year of its deliberations, frustrated and shackled with a near-impossible task. Nevertheless, the Government insist on the use of the word "interim"—or perhaps they are using it to mean during the time that comes between. It is true that Ministers and those who advise them have not been helped by misguided thinking inside and outside the House, because for 15 years there has been a mistaken belief that all political movement has to be designed to placate the terrorists. It is a mistaken belief that terrorism sprang from social, economic or other alleged defects in the democratic system but, in fact, it was the other way round. That is not my opinion; it is proved in an extract from the IRA's manual dated 1968—two years before the IRA was supposed to come into existence as a reaction to majority oppression in Northern Ireland. Who are we to disbelieve the manual, because at least the IRA meant what it said. It stated: Our strategy if it is to succeed must be the perfect blending of Politics and violence … at the most opportune time and under the most favourable circumstances … We will not succeed in winning support for our policy and ideas by mere propaganda publicity. We must at every possible occasion involve ourselves in any agitation or issue that is part of Republican policy, and it should be made known to the public at large that Republicans are involved and helping in the particular cause at issue. Some time later, when I was elected to the House, I drew attention in my maiden speech on 15 February 1971 to the real nature and intention of terrorists. My natural modesty prevents me from quoting from the Official Report, but it so happens that afterwards I was furnished with a copy of the Press Association report, giving an indication of what that association made of my remarks. I shall quote a few sentences which sound not so strange in 1985. The report states: The first demonstration of urban guerrilla warfare in Western Europe was being seen in Ulster, the Commons were told tonight. 'Our Army is meeting the onslaught with great courage' said Mr. James Molyneaux. But it had been given 'an impossible task and would be engaged on it for many years to come.' The troops endured a 'deluge of abuse' after every incident. The first page of the Anarchist's textbook apparently said charges of brutality should be made after every incident. It would be futile to get the three governments round a table because the IRA and their anarchist friends were utterly opposed to all governments. Nor could direct rule from Westminster make a scrap of difference to 'the gunmen'. Mr. Molyneaux said the questions of reforms were not relevant to the problem. IRA leaders had said they did not want reforms. Such views were not fashionable in 1971, and they have remained largely unfashionable during the intervening 14 years. That is why successive Governments have wrongly believed that any modification of the interim period arrangements had to be considered with one eye on the terrorists in the hope that the terrorists might give tacit approval or in the hope that the changes and concessions might at least take the heat out of the terrorist campaign and somehow, in a magical way, isolate them from the community from which they sprang.

Today, in 1985, the terrorist mask has been ripped away. What concessions and administrative changes could influence the evil brotherhood of international terrorists? What softening influence would political considerations exert on minds that planned the hijacking of the American airliner, the bomb at Frankfurt airport, the mass murder on the Indian jumbo jet, the explosion in the baggage section at Tokyo airport or, more recently, the planned slaughter of holidaymakers in England's seaside towns?

We need not, after the events of the past two weeks, waste any more time on analysing the so-called causes and motivations of this murderous worldwide league. Other debates will be more appropriate for a consideration of how the civilised world can snuff out the terrorist menace, but in this debate we need only resolve that this democratically elected body—the House of Commons—should not be distracted or diverted by terrorist action or threats which conveniently coincide with occasions when decisions are in the offing. In this case, the IRA clearly intends invervening to turn the screw to force the British Government to deliver what is desired by the IRA and those who share its objective of dismantling the United Kingdom.

How the so-called IRA army council must have cheered when it yesterday heard the leader of the Liberal party unwittingly transmit the signal that it most wanted to hear when he asked the Home Secretary to agree that this would be a good time for the Government to underline yet again their intention to continue the constructive dialogue with the Government of Ireland".—[Official Report, 25 June 1985; Vol. 81, c. 776.] The idea was that we should attempt to break the impasse. I believe that those words originated in Paul Johnson's article in The Guardian the day before when he said that blatant efforts were being made to breathe some form of life into the negotiations between London and Dublin. He referred to breaking the "impasse". It is not the impasse in negotiations about many of those worthy items of co-operation to which the Secretary of State and the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West referred. It is not the impasse in negotiations about co-operation on fishing rights, animal health, tourism and all the matters that one would normally expect to be dealt with between two neighbouring friendly nations. It is very different—it is an impasse in the negotiations about starting the process of ending Northern Ireland's existence as part of the United Kingdom. It is that process which the IRA seeks to hasten. That is why the IRA considers this to be a good time for it to underline, in its rather indelicate way, the need for the British negotiators to be given another kick.

The Secretary of State conceded earlier that in his view the Government of the Irish Republic had a legitimate interest in the affairs of the minority community in Northern Ireland. One would assume that that claim was based in turn on that Government's claim that the minority in Northern Ireland—for all I know, all the citizens in Northern Ireland—are Irish subjects. If so, why do not Dublin Ministers make representations to the Secretary of State or his Cabinet colleagues about the plight of Irish citizens who reside in England, living under the same Government and having to endure the decisions made by the Cabinet of which the right hon. Gentleman is a member? Why is there such a difference in the treatment of—to be blunt about it—Irish Roman Catholics who reside in Belfast and Irish Roman Catholics who reside in Birmingham? I have addressed that question indirectly to members of the Dublin Government and there has been no answer. But as the Secretary of State attaches such great importance to the right to interfere, the right to advise and the right for the Government to concern themselves, perhaps he would attempt to seek clarification and say whether perhaps there ought to be a Minister for Irish affairs sitting in the British Cabinet because that would seem to be logical.

Coming back to the central point that all of them in Birmingham and Belfast are governed by one and the same Government, it is important to emphasise that in Northern Ireland they are being governed not by a coalition of Unionist parties but by a Government elected by the people of the United Kingdom and a Government who in the final analysis are accountable and responsible for all their actions, be it in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, to the House of Commons. The Dublin Government, before they continue to reassert that claim, must substantiate that claim and they must tell us and the Secretary of State why they seek to interfere, intervene and interest themselves in only one part of the United Kingdom.

I want to make a point about the discussions going on between London and Dublin which have caused a great deal of suspicion, I think quite unnecessarily, because there should be no problem in Her Majesty's Government taking the House of Commons into their confidence and telling them what it is all about. Because of all this suspicion, because of all the kite-flying and because of all the projections, all the rumour-mongering and all the deliberate leaks, they can hardly blame Loyalists for being a bit suspicious and, if it comes to that, they can hardly blame the IRA for imagining that, if it gets in on the act, it will expedite affairs along the road that it would wish to choose.

Hundreds of men, women and children with their buckets and spades will die because of the IRA's intention to break the impasse to which I referred earlier. Now that the eyes of all have at least been opened, let us here in this House of Commons, where we have consultation and co-operation and where we can talk to each other, devote our energies to making democracy work. After 13 years in the political trenches, do not expect that all can be put right in a single day. But today at least we can give an indication of our intention to start dismantling the colonial apparatus of direct rule.

Let no one be deterred by the mistaken notion that our efforts will be resented or resisted by anyone in Northern Ireland who believes in democracy. Who in Northern Ireland would be prepared to defend insensitive legislation by Order in Council and ministerial decree? Who in Northern Ireland can condone a regime which contemplates the passage of legislation for Great Britain only with absolutely identical legislation for Northern Ireland following on anything up to two years later?

The Secretary of State referred to the high percentage of Orders in Council which come before the House dealing especially with Northern Ireland because of Northern Ireland's special legislative background, but I think that he knows that it would not be too difficult to adapt Great Britain's legislation as it comes forward to suit the needs of Northern Ireland and to fit in with Northern Ireland's existing legislative background. Perhaps he would be good enough to enter into consultations with those who have given a great deal of thought to this process. That process is designed to make direct rule more sensitive, more acceptable, and more efficient, and to operate in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, given that the present Government and the present House of Commons, in positive ways and sometimes in negative ways, have put on the statute book the Northern Ireland Act 1982 which prevents the restoration of devolved government as long as it remains unamended. We are saying that no time should be lost in making direct rule more acceptable and more efficient in all its workings.

I hope that the Government and the House will now conclude that 13 years of interim temporary arrangements have been at least 10 years too long and that within the next 12 months we will have introduced arrangements more in line with British democracy as it is understood and admired the world over.