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

If people want to engage in undemocratic practices in the House or anywhere else, it is no good asking me to defend them. The Government have said and the House has said that it is perfectly legal for members of this political party to stand and—whether one likes it or not, and most people do not—if they are elected they are entitled to be treated exactly the same as everybody else, because if they are not treated the same as everybody else they are given propaganda victories right, left and centre. That is giving one's own definition of democracy, by excluding people who are elected by the people. That is far more dangerous because the erosion of democracy is what gives justification to men of violence.

The Government have said that they will not talk to these people. How many times in a year is it likely that a deputation from a council that includes members of Sinn Fein would want to talk to a Minster? It would certainly not be very many. What has happened because of all this hullabaloo is that Sinn Fein has been let off the hook of its own contradictions. It is pretending to be working for the welfare of people, jobs and better living conditions, while its military wing is blowing up factories. Everything that intelligent politicians who want to oppose it are trying to do is thwarted by people trying to make political martyrs out of Sinn Fein by refusing to talk to its members. The Government will not talk to Sinn Fein, but their agents will talk to an IRA man or a UVF man who has been guilty of serious offences and they will bribe him to uphold the legal system. It is a policy designed to give propaganda victories to the people whom they claim to want to smash.

The marching season is upon us again—a time when in Northern Ireland the temperature always seems to rise. If people in Northern Ireland want to keep marching back towards 1690, I do not have any great quarrel with them. They are entitled to march when and where they like provided that their marching is not triumphalist and is not designed to give offence and to go through areas where it gives positive offence. There are some areas in Northern Ireland where the marching is a simple coat-trailing exercise, which is likely to lead to violence. I have raised these matters with the Secretary of State and the Minister and some indications have recently been given that a more common-sense approach to the routes of these marches might be adopted in order to prevent community conflict and to avoid giving the opportunity for men of violence to take advantage of tense situation.

We hear Opposition Members saying that they will resist with every means at their disposal any decision to re-route, for example, a march at Portadown where the other routes on offer are more direct to their ultimate destination than the coat-trailing one, which goes through a small Catholic area.

I have gone on at length about recent events, but what is the lesson that we draw from all this? This is very clear to anybody who thinks about it. The political parties in Northern Ireland cannot and will not agree in the context of Northern Ireland. That is the lesson. Nothing has changed electorally during the past 60 years. They cannot possibly agree in that context because the problem is not about relations within Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State referred to the fact that my party does not sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have given reasons for that time and time again. Recent events have underlined the integrity of my party's position. This House, through the Government, indicated that it wanted, yet again, to pursue devolution based on cross-community agreement — understood by most people to mean the sharing of power and responsibility between the two communities. My party has never had any objection to that as a form of government. We believe that working together is the only way to break down barriers between people who are deeply divided. The experience of working together for the common good is the only long-term, slow process that will break down the barriers. We have said that repeatedly.

However, as we know from our experience and the experience of local councils and the Assembly, the two parties in this House which are supposed to share power with us have repeatedly said publicly, honestly, forthrightly and without equivocation that there are no circumstances in which they will share responsibility with My minute intelligence draws a conclusion from that—that I should be wasting my time and a great deal of public money in the Northern Ireland Assembly trying to prove that those parties do not mean what they say. If they want to tell me now—and I will happily give way—that they will share power with the SDLP, I would welcome that; but they will not. Therefore, the conclusion can be only that the Northern Ireland Assembly will not reach agreement. It is costing a great deal of taxpayers' money to keep the Assembly in being. My party could do a smash-and-grab raid tomorrow. It could pop into the Assembly, sign on, collect £750,000 in salaries and allowances and then give it to charity. We do not do that.

We have said from the beginning that there have been a series of attempts to solve the Irish problem, but they have all been British initiatives. We have had majority rule. If I had been the leader of a party that ruled a piece of earth for 60 years, and ended up in the mess in which Northern Ireland is today, I would not be standing in this House giving anybody advice on how to rule it in future. There have been power-sharing attempts, and the House has heard my comments on that. There has also been direct rule. They have all been British initiatives, and none of them has provided peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

When we said that the Northern Ireland Assembly would not work, we asked why. Our answer—I invite anyone to challenge it—is that the relationship of conflict is not a relationship between people in an artificial entity called Northern Ireland; it is a relationship of conflict between the people of Ireland and between the people of both islands. It is only in the framework of the problem that we can provide a solution. It involves interlocking relationships.

Britain and Ireland have failed to sort out their relationships. They pushed them into a corner called Northern Ireland and left them to fester. We are now facing the consequences of that. Until we go back into the wider framework and get fresh air into the situation we will not break down the barriers and build the structures that will allow us to grow together at our own speed.

The New Ireland Forum was an attempt by one of the parties to reassess its attitude [Laughter.] I say to the laughing hon. Member for Antrim, North that the position in Northern Ireland today obtains because our attitudes have brought us here—his, mine, the IRA's, the British Government's, the Irish Government's and everyone else's. If we do not have the good sense to ask ourselves what in our attitudes has brought us here, and be prepared to reassess those attitudes, we are going nowhere other than to total conflict.

The hon. Gentleman may sneer at the efforts of the New Ireland Forum, but at least it was an effort by the representatives of 80 per cent. of the people of Ireland. It was the first Irish initiative since partition and it laid on the table our analysis of the problem. We invited people round the table to discuss that analysis with us, but we are still waiting for them to accept. We welcome the fact that the Government took up the offer of the Irish Government to discuss that document. The discussions are continuing. I wish them success, and I believe that that wish would be shared by the vast majority of the people of both Islands. I hear many pessimistic noises these days, but I wish to end with one thought: a series of British initiatives has failed to solve the Irish problem. It is about time that we listened to an Irish initiative.