I have not had any talks with the leaders of the Official Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party on the status of the agreement. However, I am aware of their concerns and remain ready to discuss those with them at any time. I regularly discuss issues related to the agreement at the request of leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party and the alliance party.
Will the Secretary of State make it clear to the leaders of the Unionist parties that whatever the outcome of the impending Irish elections he will proceed with the repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act? Does he agree that the Unionist leaders are doing a disservice to the Unionist community in the North and that they have nothing to gain by their policy of non-co-operation or by awaiting the outcome of the next election in this country?
I certainly endorse the hon. Gentleman's latter remarks. The recent poll showed that, far from being any advantage to the interests of the Union, the antics of the Unionist parties have damaged the cause that they seek to espouse, for which I have made clear my support. We issued a consultation document on the flags and emblems issue in a draft public order order and we are considering the responses to that. We hope to lay an order before the House shortly, when the House will see the decisions that we have reached.
To avoid any misunderstandings, will my right hon. Friend stress to Unionist leaders that any possible renegotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement by an incoming Haughey Government will achieve as much as Harold Wilson's renegotiations of the terms of entry into the Common Market—in other words, not a row of beans?
We have made it clear that we stand by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I shall not go further than that because I am aware that there is an electoral contest elsewhere and anything that I say can be taken down and used in evidence against me.
If and when the Secretary of State meets leaders of Ulster unionism, will he bear in mind that the only real conclusion from the petition that they are today presenting at Buckingham palace is that three quarters of the population of Northern Ireland did not sign it? Will he also bear in mind that when those leaders presume to speak on behalf of the people in the north of Ireland they speak only on behalf of one quarter of the population?
I am sure that the House will appreciate that revelation. The blinding mathematical insight that if one third signed the petition, two thirds did not, can be accepted by all without dispute, but I understand the hon. Gentleman's point.
Does my right hon. Friend think that when the Taoiseach said recently that
the agreement is already making Unionists think in ways in which they had never thought before",
he had in mind such an unprecedented event as the presentation of a mammoth petition to the Queen? When that petition is remitted by Her Majesty to her principal Secretary of State, will he give it due consideration and weigh fairly the arguments for a referendum in the Province?
I understand that the petition has been delivered to Buckingham palace today. It will be for Her Majesty to decide whether, in accordance with normal constitutional practice, it should be referred to me as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In the meantime, it would be inappropriate for me to comment.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House his view of the importance that Unionist leaders in the north of Ireland attach to the erroneous impression that if there were a balanced Parliament after the general election any of the parties would renegotiate the Anglo-Irish Agreement? How much importance does he attach to Mr. Haughey's recent comment that he would be prepared to renegotiate article 1?
On the latter point, I do not wish to say more than I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). I made it clear that we stand by the Anglo-Irish Agreement and we would look to continue to operate it whoever forms a Government in the Republic. If there were to he any change, that would be for others, not the Government. We have made it clear that we stand absolutely by the agreement.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's opening comments. In that respect, I am mindful of the vote of this House and of the overwhelming support of both Houses of Parliament of this United Kingdom in the verdict that they gave. No sane person can draw from that any possible idea that somehow any future balance or situation in the House will improve on the present situation.
Does my right hon. Friend recall the words of the 1979 Conservative manifesto, which said that in the absence of devolved government we would seek to set up a regional council or councils with widely devolved powers? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has not excluded from his consideration a return to the policy upon which he and I fought the 1979 election?
The world has moved on from that position. What I would make clear—obviously, this was the first ambition of my right hon. Friend, one of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who did not feel able to proceed further in that direction-is that I welcome from whatever quarter, and certainly and obviously expect from my hon. Friend, constructive suggestions of a way forward that can actually offer some hope, and it is interesting to note that, in contrast with certain of the political leaders, there are others within the the Province who are now turning their minds to what the sensible way forward would be. There have to be sensible discussions. I made absolutely clear on behalf of the Government that the sooner that those can start, the better.
Despite the condition that the Ulster Defence Association appears to have attached to its recent proposals that the agreement be suspended—the right hon. Gentleman has rightly assured the House that that is out of the question— will the Secretary of State nevertheless bear in mind the suggestion of the alliance party leader in Northern Ireland that a round table conference of all parties should be pursued as soon as the present impasse ceases? Will the right hon. Gentleman watch for such an opportunity?
I do not want to get hooked on any particular formula or format, but it is sensible that discussions should take place. There is no point in waiting. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) made that clear. It is desirable that we should proceed to discussions. I am conscious that the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman referred, among others, whatever their background, is trying to address, in one respect, the future organisation in the Province.
Is not the agreement completely one-sided and biased against the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland? Was not an important quid pro quo for the agreement the undertaking that the Irish Republic would join the convention for the suppression of terrorism? Does my right hon. Friend agree that after 15 months nothing has been (lone that we have seen the demise of another Government and that the convention still has not been ratified? Why does my right hon. Friend allow the breaking of that promise?
My hon. Friend is entirely incorrect. The convention has not only been ratified but it has been carried through both Houses of the Irish Parliament, so his allegation is unfair. I know that my hon. Friend wants to see improvement, as everyone does, but why does he not come off the debating points and look at the real issue? We are now getting a degree of co-operation on extradition which was entirely missing a while back. I hope that my hon. Friend will look fairly at these issues and not make incorrect claims but recognise that there has been genuine improvement.
Will the Secretary of State try to persuade the Unionist leaders that even if a referendum were held it would, at most, only tell us what we already know—that is, which side is in the majority? Democracy is about finding ways in which majorities and minorities can live together, discuss their differences and build on what they have in common. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the Unionist leaders that that would be a more attractive approach if they want a better press in England?
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments. Democracy is not about the rule of the majority. It is about the position of and proper respect for the interests of the minority. I shall not comment further, because I do not wish to pre-empt Her Majesty's decision on the treatment of the referendum question, but the Government's general attitude to the principle of referendum is no secret.