We have no present plans to reform the general structure of local government in Northern Ireland. However, we remain ready to consider any proposals for transferring political power and responsibility to locally elected representatives in Northern Ireland on a basis that would be likely to prove widely acceptable and which guaranteed fair and equitable treatment for everyone in the local authority area.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he take this opportunity to clarify the role of the local government boundary commissioner, whose appointment was announced yesterday? There is some confusion in Northern Ireland. Is the boundary commissioner's role simply to amend the boundaries of existing wards or can he vary the number of wards within each district council; and is there any prospect of an increase or decrease in the number of Northern Ireland district councils before the next local government elections?
It is for the local government commissioner—under statutes with which he is familiar and according to which he must operate—to hold consultations and then to make recommendations. He makes those recommendations within the legal structures that govern his appointment.
When examining the position of local government in Northern Ireland, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the evidence that we on the mainland will also be examining the structure of local government? There may now be a possibility of removing some of the anomalies in this unitary Parliament, in the constitution and in the United Kingdom, and this may be the time to set about making such changes.
I hear what my hon. Friends says and I acknowledge his consistent interest in these matters. He will be aware, however, that the structure and powers of local government in Northern Ireland are considerably different from those pertaining in Great Britain. The linkage that I think that my hon. Friend's question implied, therefore, does not necessarily hold.
Does the Minister agree that democracy in local government was dealt a great blow at the city hall in Belfast last week, when members of the minority party were refused the right to speak on substantive matters? Does he accept that the committee system continues to preclude them from participation and does he agree that that puts back the day when reorganisation—if it can be called that—can be contemplated? Does he further agree that any such reorganisation would be part of the ongoing inter-party negotiations that are now in progress under the directorship of the Secretary of State?
I am happy to be able to say that I bear no responsibility whatever for the behaviour of Belfast city councillors. I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that certain people were prohibited from speaking, but it may be the case.
If we are to give more power to local authorities, it must be done, as I said, on a basis that is widely acceptable and ensures fair and equitable treatment for all in the local council area. It is clear that that is not the case in all areas of the Province at present. The ability to make progress, as the hon. Gentleman implies, lies very much in the hands of individual councils.
The views represented by Sinn Fein are not views that either the hon. Gentleman or I would wish to endorse in any way, or to be associated with. About 10 per cent. of the electorate of Northern Ireland vote for Sinn Fein candidates. As for the activities relating to Sinn Fein, at least some are in the process of being considered in the Committee stage of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.