Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Act 1974

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr John Hume Mr John Hume , Foyle 8:48 pm, 26th June 1985

It has already been said that for the 13th year we are discussing direct rule in Northern Ireland, and we do so with a depleted attendance in the Chamber. We in Northern Ireland have been told repeatedly how British we are. We have been told by no less a person than the Prime Minister that we are as British as Finchley. I would venture to suggest that if what is happening on the streets of Northern Ireland were happening in Finchley, if 2,500 people had lost their lives in political violence, 20,000 had been maimed and there were unemployment of 20 per cent. concentrated in the areas from which the violence was emanating, there might be one or two more Members of Parliament present to discuss the matter this evening. It is difficult for me to take seriously the political parties in this island when they tell me that they think we are as British as they are and when there is this sort of attendance in the Chamber to debate what is the most serious human problem facing the peoples of these islands.

It is difficult for me also, therefore, to take seriously the views expressed by the Government this evening when it is quite clear that the party that supports them does not have any great concern, interest or, indeed, care—I think that is a fair charge to make—bout what is happening in Northern Ireland. There are 12 Members representing Britain and present in the Chamber. Five of them have to be present. I think that is a sufficient commentary on their attitude towards and concern for the problems that we face.

The Secretary of State's remarks tended to repeat what we have heard so often. The more things change the more they remain the same. The Secretary of State indicated that successive Governments have tried repeatedly to put forward proposals for a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, again with the implication that they are the harassed arbiters between the warring factions that inhabit the north of Ireland. There was no sign of what I feel would be necessary after 13 years of failure to provide peace and stability. There was no sign of a radical reassessment of attitudes or of approaches.

The forces that make political progress almost impossible in Northern Ireland today have not changed. They have not changed throughout the 13 years; they have not changed throughout this century; they are identical. The democratic process was interrupted in Ireland, as I have often said in the House, in 1912 when the House, which opposed the rule of law—a rule of law based on the sovereignty of this Parliament—surrendered to threats of Ulster Unionists against the decision to grant home rule to the island of Ireland. Unionists learned from that and they have never forgotten, and they have been repeating in the past week to the Secretary of State that, if one threatens a British Government with the dire consequences of their action, the British Government will back off. Others too learned that if one succeeds by democratic methods the name of the game is changed and physical force is the only answer to our problems.

Those two forces—those who threaten force and those who use force—had their positions reinforced by the experience of 1974 which still dominates much of the thinking in Northern Ireland today. Those two forces are still the forces that prevent the development of the political and democratic process in Northern Ireland. They feed off one another. In a recent election we witnessed them feeding off one another. We had the spectacle of Members opposite holding an election press conference with sledgehammers over their shoulders saying, "We will smash Sinn Fein." One does not need two political thoughts to rub together in one's head to realise that that kind of approach breeds support for the people that one alleges will be smashed. Extremism breeds extremism. The killing by the Provisional IRA, which is part of Sinn Fein, feeds the fears and the centre tends to fall apart.

After the elections we found that the same extremists were breeding the same extremism. The recent local government elections results were not unusual. They demonstrated that nothing ever changes in Northern Ireland elections. The election results in my city were identical with the election results in 1933. In 1981 the local government election results showed that 21 per cent. of the people in Northern Ireland voted for candidates who were described as "others" and that 17·5 per cent. voted for SDLP candidates. In 1985, 11·8 per cent. of the people voted for Sinn Fein and 9·2 per cent voted for others. The total is exactly 21 per cent. A total of 17·8 per cent. of the people voted for my party. The Sinn Fein vote was slightly less than in recent elections. There is nothing new about the results; have reached the ceiling and we know what it is. It is good to know exactly where one stands.

The reaction was a propaganda victory. It appeared that Sinn Fein had won the election. Those people say that they speak and act in the name of the people of Ireland, but 11 per cent. of the vote does not give one the right to speak and act in the name of the people of Ireland. And 3 per cent. of the vote this week in the Republic does not give them the right to speak and act in the name of the people of Ireland, particularly when they kill fellow Irishmen in Northern Ireland. Every democrat should stand up and say that, instead of behaving at local council meetings in a way that gives credibility to and provides propaganda for those one claims one wants to smash.

What do councillors say at local council meetings? They say that they will not recognise the presence of Sinn Fein councillors. There is nothing new about that. Everybody thinks that they say that just because it is Sinn Fein, but they have been saying that to the representatives of the SDLP for years. The Unionists in Northern Ireland have conceded not one iota to SDLP representatives. The deputy leader of my party has been a member of Armagh council for 12 years. During that period he has not even been nominated for membership of a committee; nor has any SDLP councillor held senior office in any council in which the Unionists have a major say. That has to be contrasted with the performance of my party when it had a majority on the council. Not a single committee place on Belfast city council has been given to any representative of the non-Unionist community. Craigavon decided that it would give complete council powers to a council committee. The membership of that committee excludes everybody who is not a Unionist. Talk about democracy!