My speech in Bangor, Co. Down, on 9 January addressed the possibilities and prospects of transferring some degree of political power, authority and responsibility to politicians in Northern Ireland. There has been widespread reaction, none of it wholly unfavourable.
Much now depends on the willingness and ability of local politicians to find a way forward together. The Government are ready to help in any way they can to bring about talks between the parties. The next step is likely to be further discussions between the Government and the parties.
When my right hon. Friend looks at the new map of Europe, does he see any evidence that direct rule satisfies the needs of the people for democratic and popular government? Does he agree that the legitimate ambitions of peoples and nations to regain their institutions is important and that the closer Governments are to the people that they serve, the more economic, accountable and responsive they will be? Does he recognise that those are rhetorical questions—
I recognise that my hon. Friend's questions are rhetorical. Recently the Irish Times carried a cartoon, half of which was devoted to a crowd in eastern Europe saying to someone on a balcony, "Negotiate, Power to the people, Elections, Freedom." In the Northern Ireland version, I appeared to resemble the person on the balcony. I was saying the same things, but the crowd was saying nothing. I look forward to a reply.
Does the Secretary of State agree that matters in Northern Ireland are not helped by the obdurate behaviour of Allan Dukes and Fine Gael? That questionable behaviour brought about the cancellation of yesterday's Intergovernmental Conference. What further steps is he taking in the presentation of his case for devolution, in the light of the recent findings of the Belfast Telegraph-BBC "Newsnight" survey which showed that only 21 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland have any faith in a power-sharing arrangement? Will he give some sustenance to his colleagues in the Scottish Office on the principle of political devolution?
The hon. Gentleman may not have meant to refer to the British isles, but, as he knows, conversations are going on about whether further powers may be transferred.
I was not joking when I said that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and I agree that we need appropriate constitutional arrangements in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have been exploring with politicians and parties in Northern Ireland how there might be a transfer of power and responsibility. In my speech in Bangor I simply gave what I thought was the considered view of the parties to whom we have spoken.
With regard to the Secretary of State's request to the parties of Northern Ireland today, will he confirm that on each occasion that I and my SDLP colleagues have met the right hon. Gentleman we have made unequivocally clear, without preconditions, our willingness to engage in talks on any subject with all the parties in Northern Ireland, and that further to that, in order to meet the express sensitivities of the Unionist parties, we are willing to seek with them an agreement which, by addressing all the dimensions of the problem, would transcend in importance any previous agreement ever made?
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said, save to say that saying that his position was wholly without preconditions might be overstating it a little.
I commend my right hon. Friend on his speech in my constituency. As the leader of one of Northern Ireland political parties, I am willing to participate in the talks that my right hon. Friend has mentioned and to sit at the table for as long as is necessary to produce. if possible, some constitutional progress, and I urge all leaders of constitutional parties to participate in those talks.
As I said when I had the pleasure of visiting the hon. Gentleman's constituency and welcoming him in the audience, I was delighted to be there, and I welcome the letter that he has since written to me stating his willingness to participate.