Adjournment (Christmas)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:49 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth , Belfast South 5:49 pm, 19th December 1990

Our constituents will be glad to hear that hon. Members agree with them on occasion. If they think that it is a holiday, let them bask in the summertime of Christmas discontent.

The right hon. Members for Shropshire, North (M r. Biffen) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) did not give me a great deal of hope that my points will be answered tonight, but I shall press them none the less. The House will well understand that during Advent—the season in which we turn our thoughts to hopes of peace and festivity—the people of Northern Ireland will be focusing their thoughts on the security situation, but it is not to that point that I wish to direct my attention. The Leader of the House will not be at all surprised if I bring before the House the problem of the non-establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee.

I recognise that descendents of Herod Agrippa abound in Northern Ireland; in that part of the nation, the slaughter of the innocents tragically continues unabated. While others say that a security situation cannot be found, I claim that a security solution alone cannot be found and that we must have a political solution. If we are to find that solution and for the good governance of Northern Ireland, we need a Select Committee, even if that is only one aspect of the political solution.

For 50 years, Northern Ireland had a devolved regional Parliament, given to it and kept at arm's length by this House. We were unaware of what was going on in Northern Ireland. The day-to-day responsibilities of Northern Ireland were not the affairs of this Parliament. In my view, no matter how wisely that Parliament may have governed, that was a mistake. But for the past 18 years, an even greater mistake has been made to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland. Irrespective of the wisdom, integrity and ability—or otherwise—of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, scrutiny of the expenditure policy and administration of the Northern Ireland Office and its associated public bodies has been hopelessly inadequate.

The role of local government has been reduced to a charade. That has encouraged councillors to spend their time on business not strictly pertaining to local government, not to mention their limited role in the supervision of parks, leisure facilities, cemeteries and refuse collection.

I have tried unsuccessfully to find out why successive Governments have failed to abide by the rules of the House which require scrutiny by Select Committees of major Government Departments. Northern Ireland Members are willing to serve and, unlike others, have not objected to Members for English constituencies sitting on a Northern Ireland Select Committee.

In 1978, the Procedure Committee recommended that there should be a Northern Ireland Select Committee and the 1979 Conservative manifesto—the basis of the Government's mandate—contained a pledge to move forward in restoring democracy to Northern Ireland. This year, the Procedure Committee again sought to set up a Select Committee.

I can understand the Northern Ireland Office, or indeed any Government Department, being glad not to have a Select Committee breathing down its neck, but that does not excuse the House for not establishing such a Committee.

The former Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland rejected the instructions of the Procedure Committee as "inopportune" at a time of sensitive negotiations. Likewise, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who rarely graces this place with his presence, opposed it. I cannot understand why any negotiations should impede the ability of this House to scrutinise a Department of Government. The clue to such opposition is perhaps to be found in the reported remark of an official to the late Airey Neave to the effect that the Government could not deliver on the 1979 manifesto because of a commitment given to Dublin. What was that commitment, who gave it and with what authority?

As far as I can see, the tardiness in establishing the Committee has nothing to do with the possibility of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Unless such a Government were given independent status, there must be a role for the House in scrutinising the affairs of the Northern Ireland Office.

Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no suggestion that the Northern Ireland Office will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. That means that unless we are to send Northern Ireland into limbo—as we did in 1921—there must be scrutiny by the House of Commons. At the very least, such scrutiny would still be required in respect of reserved matters, even if transferred matters went back to a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

The recent report of the Select Committee on the Environment reinforces the need for such a Committee. It recommended that another quango should be set up to look after environmental issues in Northern Ireland. Who will supervise that quango? Those appointed by a Department whose affairs are not scrutinised by the House.

The establishment of a Select Committee is long overdue. There must be no more hastening slowly by a Government who appear to drift rather than direct on Northern Ireland matters. In my opinion, such a move would be a clear signal to those who practise the politics of violence that they cannot succeed. In a democracy, the Government must hearken to and heed the voice of the ballot box. They dare not continue to dance to the whine of the bullet and the blast of the bomb. Politics must prevail so that semtex cannot succeed.