HC Deb 14 June 1973 vol 857 cc1821-5
Captain Orr

I beg to move Amendment No. 9, in page 1, line 17, leave out it appears to the Secretary of State that

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this we are to take the following amendments:

No. 10, in page 1, line 19, leave out 'satisfactory'.

No. 11, in page 2, line 1, leave out 'that'.

No. 12, in page 2, leave out lines 2 to 5 and insert: 'is likely to command the support of a majority in the Assembly'. No. 13, in page 2, line 3, after 'Assembly', insert: '(on principles set out in the standing order)'. No. 14, in page 2, line 3, after 'Assembly', insert: ' which shall be not less than 60 per cent. of the members thereof,'. No. 15, in page 2, line 6, leave out from beginning to 'shall' in line 8 and insert 'the Secretary of State'.

No. 31, in Clause 25, page 17, line 24, leave out 'and'.

No. 32, in page 17, line 26, at end insert: 'and (d) for a procedure by which a broadly based Executive shall be appointed'.

Captain Orr

The effect of this group of amendments would be to remove the discretion of the Secretary of State in the matter of the devolution of powers. If the various amendments were accepted, the subsection would read: If it appears to the Secretary of State— (a) that the Northern Ireland Assembly … has made provision by its standing orders for various purposes and (b) hat a Northern Ireland Executive can be formed which is likely to command the support of a majority in the Assembly". The real effect of the amendments would be to remove what, without being offensive, I think I can describe as the extraordinary verbiage at the top of page 2. On Second Reading a lot was said about the meaningless nature of those words.

As the Bill is drafted, before a Northern Ireland Executive can be formed, and thus before any of the powers can be devolved upon the new Assembly—in other words, before Part II of the Bill can come into being at all—the Secretary of State has to be satisfied that an Executive can be formed which having regard to the support it commands in the Assembly and to the electorate on which that support is based, is likely to be widely accepted throughout the community, and that having regard to those matters there is a reasonable basis for the establishment in Northern Ireland of Government by consent. I do not want, at this stage at any rate, once again to labour the arguments which I advanced on Second Reading about the highly unsatisfactory nature of that piece of drafting. The words which I am seeking to remove are, in a way, the essence of the unworkability of the whole scheme.

I have a feeling that the only way in which one can overcome the difficulty is to go back to the concept that whatever Executive transpires, it is based on the simple parliamentary test that it commands the support of a majority of the elected Members. I cannot see how or why we can or should depart from that principle. We have already put through this House the Bill enabling the Assembly to be set up and an election will shortly take place at which the people of Northern Ireland will express their views about which party they prefer. Candidates will be voted upon, and in due time the Assembly will meet.

Under the present scheme, the Assembly will then proceed to make the proper provisions by means of its standing orders. Then, before the Secretary of State can devolve any powers upon it, and even before an Executive can be formed, he has to be satisfied about these vague subjective phrases. We do not really know what they mean. As the clause is drafted, it is left to the Secretary of State to form the Executive. Although he is told to have regard to certain things, he could try to form an Executive from people from differing parties who had put totally opposite points of view before the electorate, and he would then invite the Assembly to support that form of Executive. This is a total departure from anything which has been done in any other form of government that I know of within the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is not because of some strange perversity in the Ulster character that this will not work. It would not work if we tried to impose it upon the government of London.

Mr. Kilfedder

It does not work even in the Labour Party.

Mr. Whitelaw

It worked in the war.

Captain Orr

Ah, yes, it worked because the will was there.

Mr. Whitelaw


Captain Orr

Yes, but for a common purpose, because the nation itself was threatened during the war. My right hon. Friend has made exactly the point. What was it that kept the Unionist Party in Ulster together for so long? It was precisely because our part of the nation was threatened. The Unionist Party was a coalition. During the war, as my right hon. Friend suggested, we had a coalition Government—of course, because there was an overwhelming threat and people at that time sank their differences about how the nation should be governed to the overriding necessity of preserving the nation itself.

What we are dealing with here is a situation in which a part of the nation is threatened but, instead of seeking a coalition of those who are determined to defend the integrity of the nation, it would appear that my right hon. Friend is trying to force a coalition between those who wish to defend the integrity of the nation and those who wish to undermine its integrity. All I am saying is that any scheme based upon that proposition has failure built into it. It is not because the Ulster people are in some way perverse that it will fail. It is because it is an impossibility.

What I suggest at this stage of the argument is that what one has to try to do when Northern Ireland goes to the poll and elects its representatives is to apply one simple test of the executive authority upon which the powers are devolved: will it command the support of the majority of the elected representatives? If it fails to do that, it can be dismissed.

It is a simple proposition. To me it is so self-evident that I cannot at this stage think of any other argument to support it, until I hear justification for doing something else. We may argue it later, but it would be helpful if at some stage my right hon. Friend would indicate his own thinking on the matter, because there is obscurity in the clause as drafted and it is difficult to think what arguments could possibly be advanced to support it. Thus I prefer to reserve what else I have to say until I hear those arguments.

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.

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