Northern Ireland Assembly

– in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 12 June 1986.

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Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 4:02, 12 June 1986

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Under the Northern Ireland Act 1982 the present Assembly has two functions. The first is to consider and report on how a devolved Northern Ireland Administration should be formed. Secondly, the Act requires the Assembly to monitor and report on the policies and activities of the Northern Ireland Departments.

The task of making proposals on devolution was undoubtedly made much more difficult by the regrettable decision of members of the SDLP not to take their seats. The Assembly has not been able to come forward with agreed proposals and there is no present prospect of that occurring. As for the monitoring of the Northern Ireland Departments, the Assembly suspended this work on 5 December. In spite of clear warnings about the threat that this action would pose to the continuation of the Assembly, the Unionist parties have not been prepared to resume this function. As a result, the Alliance party withdrew from the Assembly since it believed that there was no longer any useful role to be played.

On 13 March the Assembly formally resolved not to carry out its monitoring functions, to wind up the Devolution Report Committee, and merely to meet one afternoon a week for a debate on aspects of the Anglo-Irish agreement.

The position, therefore, is that the present Assembly, charged under the Northern Ireland Act 1982 with two important functions, is now discharging neither. As long ago as last December in this House, I warned that if the Assembly continued the suspension of its scrutiny role for long, questions about its future would inevitably arise; and on I May and 19 May I repeated this warning. On 27 May I invited the leaders of the main parties in the Assembly to discuss with me the position of the present Assembly. The leaders of the two main Unionist parties refused even to talk about it. I regret that I have therefore had to reach my decision without hearing their views.

The decision I have now taken is to lay an order today for the Assembly's dissolution under the powers in section 5(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1982. This order will come before the House for debate under the affirmative procedure. In taking this step I would make the following points. The present Assembly would in any case reach the end of its normal life on 20 October. There would then automatically within six weeks be fresh elections for a new Assembly. The effect of this order is not to abolish the legal basis for an Assembly but simply to dissolve the present Assembly and to leave open the date for a new election for a fresh Assembly.

I wish to emphasise to the House that dissolution of the present Assembly in no way conflicts with our desire for devolved government, nor our commitment to the Anglo-Irish agreement. Devolution remains the Government's preferred option, and I hope that we may see a future Assembly playing a responsible and valuable role in the Province. The sooner that happens, the better.

Meanwhile, the Government remain ready to discuss with all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland the best way forward. In particular, I would urge the Unionist parties to return to this House to argue their case and to take up the offer of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to discuss with her the four matters proposed: namely, devolution and the possibility of a round table conference; the future of the Assembly; arrangements for handling Northern Ireland business at Westminster; and new means of consultation between the Government and Unionist leaders.

Only if we are prepared to talk together and discuss these matters can we hope fully to play our separate but complementary roles in building a better future for the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Peter Archer Mr Peter Archer , Warley West

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that his statement will hardly burst on the world as a surprise and will occasion neither joy nor regret? The Assembly was A maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love". As there was no one left who both attended and used it for the purpose for which it was established, it is only seemly that it should be laid to rest in peace, and on another occasion we can pay tribute to those who at least tried.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that missing from his statement is any positive proposal either for the immediate future or for the longer term? As he reminded us, the Assembly, when it functioned, played a role in scrutinising the Northern Ireland policies that came before the House. Has he now grasped that that role must be assumed more effectively by the House? Will he consider how to make greater use of the Northern Ireland Committee? Can he persuade the Government's business managers to treat Northern Ireland business less contemptuously an to arrange debates at less bleak hours?

More importantly, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the people of Northern Ireland will see his statement as pronouncing the obsequies on yet another institution which they were once told offered hope? Where are they now to turn for that?

Will there not be those who seek to represent the expiry of the Assembly as a consequence of the Anglo-Irish agreement? The people of Northern Ireland will consider it worth the price if the agreement makes a measurable contribution to their livelihoods, environment, community services and civil liberties. If those benefits are seen to arise from discussions and co-operation between North and South, Catholic and Protestant, may not the people themselves denounce the bickerings of their politicians?

When the House debates the matter more fully, will the Secretary of State, if he can, give an account of the positive side of the balance sheet, or, if not, give an indication of how long we must wait? If people cry for bread and they are given a stone, can we be surprised if they turn in despair to the demagogues, the bullies and the witch doctors?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is true that my statement can hardly come as a surprise, because I gave the clearest warnings that, if the Assembly did not discharge the functions for which it was set up, its continuation would obviously be brought into question. That is precisely what has happened.

It would be unfortunate if it were not recognised that I regard this very much as a lost opportunity because—certainly in respect of the scrutiny role—there is no doubt that the Assembly and its various committees were doing some useful work. I especially regret that the decision was made to discontinue those responsibilities.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke about the way in which Northern Ireland business is handled in the House. The Government have made clear their readiness to sit down and talk. The Government are often accused of not having enough consultation. I hope that we can sit down with all parties in the House, and with those who ought to be here and are not present in the numbers that they should be, to discuss ways in which we might meet those concerns.

I must correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman in one important aspect. I was in no sense pronouncing obsequies on the Assembly. I was making it clear that this Assembly is no longer fulfilling a useful function, but I hope that it will be possible to see a new Assembly which can move forward on a new basis.

Photo of Mr Julian Amery Mr Julian Amery , Brighton, Pavilion

I hope that I shall not embarrass my right hon. Friend by expressing my support for the decision he has just announced. Would he be gracious enough to acknowledge that a number of his right hon. and hon. Friends kept the House up late at night warning that the Assembly would not work? In saying, "We told you so," may I express the hope that he and his colleagues will pay rather more attention to our views on Northern Ireland policy than they have hitherto?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I hope that I can assure my right hon. Friend that I shall contain my embarrassment at that expression of support. I shall, of course, wish to take his views fully into account with the respect that I know he would wish to receive.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in 1982 the two main Unionist parties, as they were then represented in the I-louse. opposed the legislation establishing this Assembly with all the resources that parliamentary procedure admitted? Will he acknowledge that the judgment of those Conservative Members who supported us in our endeavour to prevent that mistake being made has been validated by the statement he has now found it necessary to make?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. precisely for the reasons I gave in part of my answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer). I think that the Assembly proved that it could discharge a useful role. It is important that people in Northern Ireland should feel that they have much more of an immediate say in the administration of the Province. I say that as somebody who, under the present structure, exercises a degree of power and authority which, in a democracy, raises difficult issues. I would much rather see a situation in which there was greater authority and responsibility for those in the Province. It is unfortunate that the actions of some members of the Unionist parties have prevented the Assembly from discharging its proper functions, but I hope that we will see a day when that can be done.

Photo of Mr John Biggs-Davison Mr John Biggs-Davison , Epping Forest

Since the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament we have had about as many short-lived successive assemblies as in the French revolution. May I ask whether Her Majesty's Government will now declare a moratorium on assemblies and on political initiatives, including the Intergovernmental Conference, and concentrate on the conduct of parliamentary business as befits a Province of the United Kingdom and the good government, administration and local government of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend would not necessarily expect me to agree with all that he has said. However, I welcome the fact that he is prepared to express his view s and argue for them, and I welcome the opportunity, which I have from time to time, to discuss them with him. I hope that he will join me in urging everybody who is interested in the affairs of the Province to come forward and have the confidence to argue their views as well. That must be the right approach, and I hope that the House will support me on that.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

Does my right hon. Friend accept the paradox between his announcement of the suspension, if not the death, of the Assembly, one of the principal tasks of which was to present proposals for devolution for the Province, and the passage in his statement in which he said that the preferred choice of the Government was still devolution? Would he acknowledge that, even if that is the preferred solution of the Government today, he will not exclude from his consideration the fact that we should govern Northern Ireland in the way in which we govern other parts of this kingdom?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That begs many questions which need considerably more discussion. Obviously we would seek to govern Northern Ireland as fairly, equally and impartially as we seek to govern every part of the United Kingdom. However, to suggest that that involves total harmonisation of every structure of government flies in the face of experience and practice of the present situation. What it does emphasise—I say this fairly to my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to him because I know that he disagrees with the policies we have recently pursued and honourably took the course that he did in the matter — is that he is prepared to stand up and argue his views. Above all, at present we need people in Northern Ireland who are prepared to have the courage to argue their case in debate and not to fly from this Chamber. They should be prepared to come here and argue for what they believe is the best way forward. That is what I hope to see, and I know that my hon. Friend will support me on that.

Photo of Mr John Hume Mr John Hume , Foyle

I can hardly shed any tears over the Secretary of State's announcement today, which is long overdue. I simply repeat our willingness as a party to accept his invitation to sit down and discuss with the Unionist parties devolution or any other matter pertaining to peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Since Unionists in Northern Ireland seem to fear the future more than anything else, the SDLP would welcome the opportunity to talk to them and explain and set out in detail its strategy and view of the future. We would like to hear from them what in that strategy in any way threatens the people they represent and we would also like to hear, for a change, their view of the future.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He will have noted in my statement my regret about the previous attitude of the SDLP. Perhaps part of the reason for the statement today goes back to the failure of his party to take part at that time. Therefore, it is certainly an advance in the sense that there might by an opportunity for all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to be prepared to sit down and talk constructively.

To cover a point that perhaps I did not answer in the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), that is perhaps part of the reason why it is worth making a further attempt to try to achieve devolved government.

Photo of Hon. Adam Butler Hon. Adam Butler , Bosworth

Does my right hon. Friend accept, from my experience as a Minister on the receiving end, that the Assembly did some valuable work in fulfilling its scrutinising role? Does he also agree that perhaps the main lesson from the demise of the Assembly is that if there are those who refuse to participate in the constitutional processes available to them, it serves only to give heart and encouragement to the men of violence? As long as the Unionists continue their boycott on similar lines, they will not only do no good to themselves but will push the peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland problem further away.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, especially with his experience of Northern Ireland, for the tribute he paid to the work done by the Assembly in its scrutinising role. It was a great pity that it chose to discontinue that role. I certainly agree that if a vacuum is left because of people's inability to sit down and discuss the problems frankly and openly and try to find a way forward, traditional to our parliamentary democracy, by argument and debate, it will be a dangerous vacuum into which others may walk.

Photo of Mr Stephen Ross Mr Stephen Ross , Isle of Wight

Is the Secretary of State aware that, unlike many Conservative Members who have spoken so far, we share his disappointment at the demise of the Assembly but think that in the circumstances he has taken the right decision? Is he further aware that we share his hope that we will see a new devolved Assembly with all parties of good will serving in it? That is the only way in which the economy of the people of Northern Ireland can he put on better lines. Is not now the time to set up a parliamentary tier between this House and Dublin?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. Some hon. Members seek no initiative, but to preserve the status quo. I find it unsatisfactory to have nothing between the Secretary of State and local authorities, the powers of which are not much in excess of a parish council. [Interruption.] That problem may be tackled in a number of different ways. I make no apology to the House for repeating that what is true, above all, is that we shall not begin to find the best solution unless people are prepared to sit down and talk the problem through. The present position is not a long-term solution. I regret the announcement that I have had to make today, but I hope it may provide the opportunity for discussions to start soon on a better way for the people of Northern Ireland to have more say in the administration of the Province. We are certainly willing to consider ways in which there could be a better interchange with the Republic.

Photo of Mr Michael McNair-Wilson Mr Michael McNair-Wilson , Newbury

Bearing in mind that the chance of the Assembly being revived in the near future is small, is this not the ideal moment to set up the Royal Commission, which should perhaps have been set up in 1980, to consider the structure of local government in Northern Ireland? When considering that, will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that local government in Northern Ireland has always been unequal when compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, and that that way forward would not be obstructed by the road block created by politicians who refuse to get together?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

At present I have no proposals for that particular approach. I would rather see direct discussions taking place. I appreciate that my hon. Friend has once again made a constructive proposal in an attempt to see a way forward in this matter. That must be the right approach. There is a range of different ways. Although I am not instinctively inclined to his suggestion, I recognise that it is a serious proposition.

Photo of Mr Alfred Dubs Mr Alfred Dubs , Battersea

While I understand the reasons for the Secretary of State's statement this afternoon, may I urge him to resist as forcibly as possible the blandishments of Conservative Members below the Gangway, that a do-nothing policy is best for Northern Ireland? What does he intend to do about the Anglo-Irish parliamentary tier? We have raised that matter on many occasions and time and again the Government have said that it is a matter for the House. The right hon. Gentleman knows, and we know, that it not possible for us to make any progress unless he backs that proposal. I urge him to do so and to give us a date when we can get on with the task of establishing the parliamentary tier, which is part of the agreement and is a desirable feature of the relationships between Britain and both parts of Ireland.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I have never regarded any comment from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) as a blandishment. His serious interest in these matters could never be described as such. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want me to give this answer, but the parliamentary tier must be a matter for the House to consider. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has made that position clear.

Photo of Viscount  Cranborne Viscount Cranborne , South Dorset

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the spirit in which the Assembly was introduced to the House was the same spirit in which the Anglo-Irish agreement was introduced? Is there any guarantee that the agreement will not suffer the same fate as the Assembly? Is not a more sensible approach—this has been suggested to my right hon. Friend several times this afternoon — to pursue parliamentary forms of government in Northern Ireland? In that context, will he consider setting up or advising the setting up of a Northern Ireland Grand Committee?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I see no similarity between those two items. These matters can be looked at seriously. We have made clear our willingness to consider the arrangements in the House, but we must also consider the administration of government in the Province. It is a great fallacy to assume that one can simply change the arrangements in this House in isolation, without also considering the arrangements for administration in the Province. At present very little lies between Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office and councils, most of which sadly are not meeting, and which have little more power than parish councils. We must consider the totality of the problem.

Photo of Mr Robert Parry Mr Robert Parry , Liverpool, Riverside

Does the Secretary of State believe that the statement today will help to reduce violence in the Province, bearing in mind that we are now fast approaching the marching season?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is widely recognised in the Province, and by many responsible politicians, that, sadly, the present Assembly is no longer discharging a useful function and that it is not helpful in present circumstances. Many of those who believe in devolution and the concept of an Assembly think that the state of the present Assembly is a positive blockage to considering the form of a new and effective Assembly and how it could work. I hope that that will be recognised. I see no reason why the absence of the Assembly should lead to an increase in tension, especially as it was about to go into recess for the summer.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Budgen Mr Nicholas Budgen , Wolverhampton South West

Will my right hon. Friend undertake to issue a White Paper so that the House may be reassured that the aggressive English liberals in both the Northern Ireland Office and the Foreign Office will not attempt a similar expensive, dangerous and destabilising experiment, at any rate within the next decade?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the typically unpejorative way in which he puts his question. I do not want to issue a White Paper now, precisely because I want first to hear the views of those most involved. Rather than trying to lay down the matter in tablets of stone at this stage, I should like to talk to people and hear their views. In the absence of any contribution from those who have been elected to represent the people in the Province and in their continuing refusal to express any views whatever on behalf of their constituents, we may have to consider a step such as that suggested by my hon. Friend.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Is not the fallacy of the argument advanced by many Conservative Members today that Northern Ireland is just like any other part of the United Kingdom? Was not the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement a recognition by the Government that Northern Ireland is indeed different? It is about time that Conservative Members recognised that position. If the Unionists continue their present tactics of obstruction, boycotting the House, and so on, will not many people come to the same sort of conclusion as that illustrated in the question by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) to the Prime Minister today — namely, that many people will get so fed up with Northern Ireland and its problems and with the refusal of politicians to accept any possible agreement that they will shrug off the problem and conclude, on balance, that there is no positive role for Britain to play?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That would be a tragic and defeatist approach to the genuine problems that exist in Northern Ireland and a betrayal of all those who live there, who are part of the United Kingdom and who are entitled to good government. Obviously, all parts of the United Kingdom are not identical. The many areas, while all being part of the United Kingdom, are different. The arrangements in the House for handling Scottish affairs are different and the arrangements in Northern Ireland are different. I make no apology for emphasising that point.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

I agree with my right hon. Friend that a properly elected democratic Assembly is an essential part of the local government of the Province, but may I ask for his assurance that it is in the best interests of the Union that until civil peace is restored in Northern Ireland, there can be no devolution of responsibility for the enforcement of the law, the administration of justice and the upholding of internal security?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I should like to make it absolutely clear that we support the point made by my hon. Friend. There could clearly be no question of devolution on those matters unless there was a considerable basis of confidence, perhaps at an earlier stage with experience of devolved administration in other areas more traditionally associated with devolved government.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South and Morley

In the face of a divided Northern Ireland, where 2,500 people have died and more than 30,000 have been injured by the violence and where the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act has been in force for 10 or 12 years, does the Secretary of State accept that to continue to talk about devolution is a pipe dream and, equally, to talk about integration is also a pipe dream? If both sides in Northern Ireland will not sit down and talk with the Secretary of State—I wish that they would— they should be asked to sit down together without hon. Members being present and, if nothing results from that—which is likely—we should completely reassess our policy towards Northern Ireland. Perhaps only that thought will concentrate the minds of people in the Province.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The House respects the right hon. Gentleman's considerable experience on these matters. I listened carefully to his comments. He has had experience along this path and knows the difficulties that exist. It might be fair to say that the concentration of minds to which he referred at the end of his question, has followed in part after the Anglo-Irish agreement. In the coming months it might be possible to see more interest in the idea of sitting down and talking.

It is true that those matters upon which agreement could be reached would be removed, and the Anglo-Irish agreement would cease to operate on those points. There is, therefore, clearly an interest among those parties opposed to the Anglo-Irish agreement to see whether certain matters can be removed from the ambit of the agreement.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Waveney

Is my right hon. Friend aware that for those of us who have a deep and abiding commitment to all the people of Northern Ireland, this afternoon's announcement must come as a disappointment? Is he further aware that others, like myself, do not believe that integration is the answer to the problem? In the United Kingdom's interests there must be devolved government some time in Northern Ireland, if not now. The SDLP more than any other party, which has achieved significant success through the Anglo-Irish agreement, should play its part by helping to bring about an Assembly in Northern Ireland. That would be a great advantage to the unionists, because the more the Assembly could do, the less the Anglo-Irish agreement would have to operate. Does that not afford some way forward? Is it not right that the House should always seek some way forward to resolve a problem which is not new, which will not go away, and which it is our duty to solve?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's comments. I share the feeling of sadness at the necessity of having to make the announcement today. I understand that the concept that he launched was well worth pursuing and had shown merit. It was a tragedy that the SDLP did not take part, and that posed difficulties. I know that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hurne) understands why my right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior) made the comments that he did. I hope that the idea launched by my right hon. Friend will be carried forward in a new form in future.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I appreciate the interest of the House in these matters. However, there is pressing business to come. I shall allow questions to continue for another seven minutes, after which we must proceed to the next business. I hope that by then all hon. Members will have been called—if they speak briefly.

Photo of Mr Jerry Hayes Mr Jerry Hayes , Harlow

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that the House has heard some distasteful crowing about his announcement this afternoon? People should be looking to the future. Perhaps this drastic measure—which will be debated on another day — might concentrate the minds of all parties in Northern Ireland and force them to sit down and negotiate. That is the only way to keep the peace in the Province.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is clear that we must make progress. The danger is that people talk in slogans — perhaps I am guilty of this also—about devolution or integration, and they do not consider the problem as a whole — the relationship of this House with the Province and the problems of the Province's administration. We must consider the totality of these problems and find a basis on which we can go forward which will command the widest possible acceptance among people in the Province. We know the difficulties. We realise that so far that has been unachievable. The House must try to find the correct approach. I will try to do that.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge

Does my right hon. Friend accept that by raising even now the spectre of devolution at some future date, he is turning his face away from the only lesson that can be learnt from the inevitable demise of the Assembly—that devolution in Northern Ireland will never work? It will never work because neither the minority community nor a United Kingdom Government will accept that the ballot box in Northern Ireland will always, for the foreseeable future, produce a Unionist majority. Faced with those inevitable facts, can he say whether there is a realistic way forward, other than the integration, on suitable terms, of the Province into the local government and parliamentary structure?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

My hon. Friend glides easily with a wave of the wand from the problems of achieving devolution to integration, as if that was immediately achievable on some acceptable basis. He greatly underestimates the problems that that would pose. I have made it clear, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear to the Unionist leaders, that, while we remain committed to the principle of devolution, we are also prepared to consider the ways in which Northern Ireland business is handled in this House. These matters require serious discussion. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) will lend his shoulder to the wheel and try to get people to join in these discussions.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor , Solihull

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Northern Ireland is to be governed in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom, as many Unionists would urge, one of the first requirements must be to have county councils or a provincial council? Does he accept that he has now abolished the elected Assembly which could have adopted that role? If he were to use the introduction of county councils or provincial government as a point of departure, what guarantee is there that everyone will sit in the chamber?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

That is the point that I was making. My hon. Friend has understood the point that the present Assembly comes to the end of its life on 20 October, at the end of its four-year term. However, it has ceased to discharge the functions for which it was set up. There is no question but that the Assembly could have moved on in the direction that my hon. Friend has mentioned. I hope that we can have discussions to discover whether it is possible to move in any way along the lines that my hon. Friend has described.

Photo of Mr John Stokes Mr John Stokes , Halesowen and Stourbridge

Will my right hon. Friend be assured that, in spite of the natural and inevitable impatience in England about affairs in Ireland, many English people hold the Province in great esteem? They remember its wonderful contribution in both world wars. The English people wish it well. I believe that our best efforts must be directed towards improving parliamentary and local government in the Province, not to have too many new initiatives here.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Everyone who has had the honour to serve in Northern Ireland would share the comments made by my hon. Friend at the start of his question. Our recognition and appreciation of the quality of the overwhelming majority of the people in the Province is completely unquestioned. That is why we are so committed to trying to find the most acceptable way in which to proceed and to give the people of Northern Ireland as substantial a say as we can in their administration.

Photo of Mr Michael Brown Mr Michael Brown , Brigg and Cleethorpes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever our views on the Northern Ireland Assembly previously, the most important conclusion that any hon. Member representing Northern Ireland should draw from today's announcement is that, whatever their views and however aggrieved they may feel, this is now the central forum for political debate?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

One of the comments that may be made about my statement today is that the Government are in some way seeking to choke or close off channels of communication and expression. That charge falls flat when one sees the Benches opposite and realises that one of the most important channels open to anyone in this United Kingdom is this Chamber. Nevertheless, the House is completely neglected and unused by the overwhelming majority of Unionist Members. 'They are abusing district councils at the same time. They are failing to use the channels that are available to them. I very much agree with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Carlisle Mr Kenneth Carlisle , Lincoln

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure of the Assembly is to be regretted, because it provided a local forum in Northern Ireland where the various parties could try to resolve their differences? Does he also agree that no actions or words in this House can thrust peace on Northern Ireland? Does he accept that peace can be achieved in the Province only if all parties there genuinely wish to talk and reach some accord on future life and prosperity there?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that if we are to find a way forward, the people in the Province and their representatives will have to be prepared to come forward and make their contribution.

Photo of Mr Neil Hamilton Mr Neil Hamilton , Tatton

Is if not clear from the SDLP's attitude to the Assembly and a comparison of that attitude with its attitude to the Anglo-Irish agreement that it is prepared to support Government initiatives only when it calculates that they are likely to weaken the Union? That should be enough to make us view with suspicion any initiatives that it supports. Did not my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) put his finger on the central point about experience in Ulster in the past 16 years? The attempt to reconcile two irreconcilable opposites merely by talking will never succeed. The time has come to allay Unionist fears by moving towards proper integration of the Province, ceasing to govern it as a colonial dependency and treating it properly as part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am not sure that an agreement which gets the British Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland to sign an undertaking which was originally given in this House, concerning the rights of the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland, represents consent to the right to dominate. Membership of the United Kingdom is an important safeguard. I do not regard that agreement as weakening the Union in any way. As for integration, I do not have much to add to what I have already said. I am anxious to deal with affairs in the House, and especially to get hon. Members to focus on the real problem of administration in the Province.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important thing is to take the politics of Ireland off the streets and into the debating chamber? I have consistently advocated a Select Committee. That would help. Will my right hon. Friend consider it? In such a forum, members of the SDLP, Unionists and others who represent the rest of the United Kingdom could, in a proper constitutional framework, scrutinise legislation in a calm atmosphere, which would, I hope, enable progress to be made.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I am interested in that suggestion. The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) made just such a one in the debate on the appropriation order earlier this week. I confirm that that is the type of matter that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said we would be prepared to discuss.

Photo of Mr Peter Bruinvels Mr Peter Bruinvels , Leicester East

I accept that the Assembly has been used improperly. It has been used as a political platform against the Anglo-Irish agreement. I have some sympathy with that, but will my right hon. Friend consider the role of the Democratic Unionist party, which has threatened to take politics on to the streets rather than pursue genuine debate? Will he consider the £2·5 million that it costs to run the Assembly? Could it not be better used helping the economy and providing jobs to encourage the people of Northern Ireland who want to remain part of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The Democratic Unionists must answer for their own utterances, but I hope that everybody will show responsibility at a time when problems can easily arise in Northern Ireland. One cannot sit back and do nothing if expenditure is being incurred when none of the functions for which it is authorised are being performed. Bearing in mind the state of the Northern Ireland economy, there are several areas where the money could be much better used.

Photo of Stuart Bell Stuart Bell , Middlesbrough

Does not the fact that the Assembly is now to be dissolved and there is no progress towards devolution mean that there is an added burden on the Anglo-Irish agreement? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, under article 10 of that agreement, there will be a responsibility to promote co-operation between the two parts of Ireland, so there is an additional responsibility on the agreement? Does he also agree that it ill behoves those who do not come to the House to presume that, by their actions in Northern Ireland and laying the Assembly to rest, they can somehow achieve back door integration? Will he confirm that there is nothing mutually exclusive about the Anglo-Irish agreement and round table talks on the future of Northern Ireland without preconditions?

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I believe that talks without preconditions must be the way forward. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that clear. One component of the Anglo-Irish agreement is the opportunity for the minority to be able to advance its views. In no circumstances was the Anglo-Irish agreement intended to supplant the opportunity for the majority view to be taken into account. The present tragedy is that the majority representatives have chosen to switch themselves off.