§ 3.33 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William Whitelaw)
Mr. Speaker, I will, with permission, make a statement. The Government have today published a White Paper setting out constitutional proposals for Northern Ireland. I will not today take the House through our proposals in detail, especially as I understand that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agrees that there should be an opportunity for an early debate.
The Government propose to present to Parliament as soon as possible a Bill which will provide for a restoration of elected institutions in Northern Ireland to which a wide range of governmental powers will be devolved. There will be a single-chamber Assembly of about 80 members elected on this occasion by the single transferable vote method of proportional representation applied to the 12 Westminster constituencies. The Office 239 of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will continue and, as well as bearing responsibility for those services reserved to him, he will represent Northern Ireland's interests in the United Kingdom Cabinet.
The Northern Ireland Executive will be formed from the Assembly and discussions will be put in hand immediately by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with the party leaders in the newly-elected Assembly on how this will be done. But the Government have decided that the Executive cannot henceforward be based on any single party if that party draws it support and its elected representation virtually entirely from only one section of a divided community.
When the Government are satisfied that this condition can be met and that the system will be worked by those concerned, Parliament will be asked to approve the devolution of extensive law-making and executive powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
There will, however, be a range of matters which will be excluded from the legislative competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the present security situation there will be no devolution of responsibilities within the area of law and order. Arrangements will be made for the Northern Ireland Executive to be consulted on law and order matters, and for the involvement of elected representatives from the Assembly and from district councils.
The heads of departments in the Executive will also be chairmen of functional committees whose membership will, so far as possible, reflect party strengths in the Assembly. No new law or policy will be proposed unless the appropriate committees have been consulted.
The White Paper proposes a charter of human rights for Northern Ireland. Central and local government and statutory boards will be debarred from any legislative and executive action of a discriminatory nature. In addition, a Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights will be set up to co-ordinate the activities of all agencies working in this field, both in the public and private sector.
240 A Bill will in due course be brought before Parliament to deal with job discrimination on religious or political grounds in the private sector following the recommendations of a Northern Ireland Working Party including both sides of industry.
The Government reaffirm the pledge that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as that is the wish of the majority of its people and this declaration will form part of the constitutional Bill.
The Government favour the formation of a Council of Ireland but this must be achieved by consent. Therefore, following the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Government propose to invite representatives of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic of Ireland to a conference to discuss three inter-related problems. These are the acceptance of the present status of Northern Ireland and of the possibility— which would have to be compatible with the principle of consent—of subsequent changes in that status; effective consultation and co-operation in Ireland for the benefit of the North and South alike; and the provision of a firm basis for concerted governmental and community action against terrorist organisations. The Northern Ireland Assembly will thereby have an opportunity to play a full part in devising the form of any such council.
The introduction of new institutions in Northern Ireland must be accompanied by progress in the economic sphere. The Government will judge the financial needs of Northern Ireland so as to accomplish as quickly as possible the task of reconstruction; create a sound basis for the economy; and work progressively towards the achievement in Northern Ireland of those standards of living, employment and social conditions which prevail in Great Britain. When the new institutions in Northern Ireland have been formed, the Government propose to discuss with them how they can exercise, within prescribed limits, a large measure of freedom of decision as regards financial priorities and policies.
In putting forward these proposals, the Government recognise that there is no more urgent task than to bring violence to an end. They will take all steps which are necessary. As part of this task Parliament 241 will shortly be asked to approve legislation to combat terrorism more effectively. This legislation will give effect to the recommendations of the Diplock Commission and will repeal the Special Powers Act, re-enacting only those measures which are still essential. The Government propose that this legislation should operate only in an emergency and should be subject to the approval of Parliament.
These are the Government's proposals. Under them Northern Ireland will continue to have a greater degree of self-government than any other part of the United Kingdom. Both the majority and minority communities will have an opportunity to play a full part in dealing with issues and procedures of crucial domestic importance to Northern Ireland.
The proposed settlement is devised for the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole. It cannot meet all the wishes of any one section of the community. It requires the co-operation of all the people of Northern Ireland.
A heavy responsibility now rests upon their leaders. There can be no excuse for withdrawal of co-operation or resort to violence. The many problems of Northern Ireland cannot be solved by Government alone but the proposed settlement, given good will, will provide a fair and reasonable basis for progress.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
The House will be aware that Labour Members have been pressing for the publication of the White Paper both for itself and in the context of the border poll. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, consequently, that we welcome the publication of the White Paper? We have expressed positive views on many matters in the White Paper—for example, on forms of proportional representation, on power sharing, on the vital need to end the Special Powers Act, and on the all-Ireland dimension and on economic affairs. Nevertheless, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we would all be wise to follow the advice of the trade unions of Northern Ireland and of the Council of Churches to consider carefully the words of the White Paper before giving our firm views? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] On the all-Ireland dimension, are not all the indications that the Government of the Republic wish to co-operate? Is there any indica- 242 tion, however, that the Government of the Republic will recognise the three objectives of the discussion paper, particularly the acceptance of the present status of Northern Ireland?
With regard to the changes proposed in the existing government of Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State convey to the Governor and his wife our thanks for a job done well and with courage?
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the White Paper would indicate that, apart from the firearms licensing order which is outstanding for discussion, there are five pieces of legislation which will come before us? These are the following: renewal of the Temporary Provisions Act; Diplock and the ending of the Special Powers Act; the constitutional Bill; the jobs discrimination Bill; and the order removing existing discrimination laws and the laws of allegiance.
On behalf of the Opposition I should like to make it clear that we shall scrutinise these measures carefully and critically with one supreme aim, namely to have Assembly elections at an early date. In our view, there should be June elections in which all can participate. And should not all those who aspire to leadership speak clearly against violence and concentrate their minds on Assembly elections?
We believe in a political solution for Northern Ireland. But will the Secretary of State assure the House that if there is any attempt, from any source, to erect road blocks and in any other way to attempt to bring the Province to its knees, the security forces will act firmly? In any event the restoration of law and order and the whole question of the police will be vital subjects to discuss in the months to come.
Is it not the case that the approach of most of us in this House has been based on a belief in the strength of the forces of moderation? Only the people of Northern Ireland can tell us whether this belief is well-founded. The Government must provide the means for them to speak soon—in June. In making their choice the people and the leaders of Northern Ireland must face up to the consequences of their response. It is a choice perhaps between co-operation and bloodshed. Is 243 it not the case that if there is no co-operation there will have to be in the end, whether we like it or not, a radical reappraisal of Government policy?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for the way in which he put his questions. I strongly agree with him that it would be most helpful if everyone were to follow the advice of Church leaders, many political leaders and trade union leaders who have urged everybody in Northern Ireland to read the White Paper carefully and not to be swayed into making instant comment or wild allegations. I hope that advice will be followed.
The hon. Gentleman referred to co-operation with the Republic of Ireland. It is true that in Northern Ireland all the political parties in one way or another wish to see increased co-operation, mainly through a Council of Ireland. On his side, Mr. Cosgrave has recently talked of the need for reconciliation and pacification. I believe that in those two moods we shall be able to lay the basis for future co-operation.
As for the legislative proposals to which the hon. Gentleman referred, subject to final checking I think that he was absolutely correct in what he said.
As for the need to have Assembly elections soon, I strongly endorse that view. It would be most desirable to have these elections at an early date because until they have been held it is difficult to tell exactly the strength of the different feelings in Northern Ireland. When we may have them will depend on many factors —not least the time it takes to get through this House the legislation on which any future elections have to be based.
On the question of violence, I can assure hon. Gentlemen and the House that, as I said in my statement, there can be no excuse for violence of any sort arising out of the publication of the White Paper. But if there is violence, from whatever side it may come, it will be met by the firmest possible action by the security forces.
§ Captain Orr
Is my right hon. Friend aware that although I accept and endorse what he said about the making of instant comment, I believe that it would be wrong to leave the House under any illusion that the White Paper would be 244 totally acceptable to the majority in Ulster. None the less, we intend to carry out the full consultative process and to use the democratic process. We do not believe that there is anything in the White Paper to justify any resort to violence. We shall seek to use the procedures of this House to change the Government's mind in those respects in which we disapprove.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am extremely grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), particularly for his strong condemnation of any thought of resort to violence. On his first point, I said in my statement that the Government proposals are unlikely to be totally acceptable to any section of opinion in Northern Ireland. It is inevitable that there has to be compromise and goodwill if any such plans for the future are to work. I hope that on this occasion everybody in Northern Ireland will look to the future and forget some of the grievances and prejudices of the past, for it is only by looking to the future that any system of co-operation and of government can hope to work.
§ Mr. Rose
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from one who has pressed successive Governments on the question of Northern Ireland that his constitutional proposals deserve careful and sympathetic consideration, and that that consideration must be conducted in an atmosphere free from intimidation or violence from whatever source? Could he assist me on two matters? The first relates to the question of discrimination. Does he intend to set up a board, analogous to the Race Relations Board in this country, to deal with allegations of discrimination, and do his constitutional proposals mean that at last we in this country will be able to sign the European Covention of Human Rights in its entirety?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said. I think that I should bring out in more detail in debate the exact position of our proposed charter of human rights. It is not quite analogous with the Race Relations Board. I hope the House will read carefully the encouraging letter which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, as chairman of the working party representing both sides of industry, has sent me showing the results of his discussions 245 with both sides of industry. We believe that work on this front is very important and that if we can build on the proposals of both sides of industry in Northern Ireland this will be a fruitful way of proceeding.
§ Mr. Stratton Mills
Is my right hon. Friend aware that those who have the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland at heart will look carefully and constructively at these proposals, which are essentially set in a United Kingdom context? Is he further aware that, speaking for myself, I believe that it is right to proceed on the basis of power sharing at executive level, although we shall need to look in detail at the proposals? May I ask my right hon. Friend not to close his mind to the point about full and adequate representation for Northern Ireland in this House, bearing in mind that the average Northern Ireland constituency contains 85,000 persons as against 54,000 for Scotland and Wales and 64,000 for the United Kingdom as as whole? Is he aware that it is surely right for there to be a recognition in this document that the Council of Ireland can be established only on the basis of consent and on the basis of a recognition of the current Northern Ireland situation?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. The Government have set out their views and beliefs on power sharing and I am pleased that my hon. Friend agrees with them. I accept at once that it is a difficult concept to develop and that there will be many who will say that it cannot work. I and the Government as a whole are convinced that it can and will work, given good will on both sides. That is undoubtedly what is needed. Dealing with my hon. Friend's point about representation at Westminster, he must appreciate that we are devolving a wide range of governmental powers to the new Northern Ireland Assembly and that, in those circumstances, Northern Ireland will have a far greater degree of self-government than any other part of the United Kingdom. The point about the Council of Ireland was covered in the White Paper and in my statement.
§ Miss Devlin
With respect to the Church and the State, I am sure that the House will agree that when Church and State stand shoulder to shoulder and ask 246 that people read the White Paper with great care and consideration they can rest assured that the working-class will do just that. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when Church and State stand shoulder to shoulder on an issue as important as this there are bound to be 151 loopholes in the White Paper about which the working class will have to be very careful? There is one question I want to raise, while maintaining my own views on the introduction of the White Paper. It concerns Paragraph 118, the latter part of which speaks of:those small but dangerous minorities which would seek to impose their views by violence and coercion,The next bit is the interesting bit. It goes on,which cannot, therefore, be allowed to participate in working institutions they wish to destroy.Since I have never made any secret in this House about my position and my intention to destroy the capitalist system and yet am allowed to sit in this House, does this mean that members of either wing of the Republican movement, whose avowed aim is to end British intervention in Ireland, will not be allowed to contest elections at either local government or Assembly level? If not what does it mean?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
The simple point I would make in reply to the hon. Lady— without prejudging who may or may not decide to participate in local government or other elections—is that the important thing in the context of Northern Ireland, which she must face, is that people who are determined to have resort to violence to press their views cannot at the same time expect to take part in constitutional developments.
§ Sir Gilbert Longden
Is my right hon. Friend aware that he and his Ministerial colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office have earned the gratitude of the whole of the United Kingdom for the courage, wisdom and patience which they have displayed over the last 12 months? Is he further aware that our devout hope and prayer is that these proposals will lead to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am obviously grateful for what my hon. Friend said. If I 247 do not deserve it, I certainly feel that it is deserved by my other Ministers. I devoutly hope that, while they may be argued about and while we can discuss them at length, the proposals will form the basis for a genuine new start and advance in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Thorpe
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us believe that the best service that could be rendered to Ireland is to suspend detailed judgment until we have given careful consideration to the White Paper? After a first reading, may I ask whether it is fair to say that, perhaps for the first time, moderates in Northern Ireland, who may well have differing objectives but who have in common a belief in democratic processes, may have a chance to appreciate that they are in the majority and will thereby have the chance to take responsibility for the affairs of Northern Ireland? Is he aware that if that is the case, these people will have the wholehearted support of this House and that, conversely, those who indulge in non-co-operation and violence will be condemned not only by this House but by people throughout the whole of the United Kingdom?
On a more personal basis, is he aware that, subject to a detailed consideration of the White Paper, we recognise the painstaking and impartial approach which he has shown in these matters as an honest broker and we would wish to recognise that on this occasion? Finally, is he aware that there is nothing that this House would want more than that perhaps one of the most agonising and at times shameful chapters in the history of this country should give way to a period of peace and tolerance which would be in the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom and particularly of the people of Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said. I have no doubt that these proposals do represent a chance for moderate opinion and for those people who wish to work together for the good of the whole community in Northern Ireland. We in the rest of the United Kingdom are entitled to point out that we have been prepared to give them, as is their right as citizens of the 248 United Kingdom, our men and our money in their support. That we believe to be right. We also believe that they have their obligations and that one of those is to seek to work together for the future. It is only in that way that Northern Ireland can possibly have both the peace and the prosperity which the vast majority of its citizens so greatly deserve.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that across a very wide section of Loyalist groups in Northern Ireland there has been an acceptance of the fact that this White Paper should be carefully studied and that those who represent organisations and bodies with which this House might totally disagree have bound themselves not to take any hasty decision on this White Paper? Surely this should be welcomed by all sections of the House and we should be glad that people are moving away from street confrontation and are prepared to take part in political discussions and to discuss this White Paper.
Is he aware that the people of Northern Ireland will be sad that they are to lose the Governor of Northern Ireland? May I take this opportunity of paying a very since tribute to Lord Grey and his wife on behalf of the Province of Northern Ireland? Let me say as a mild criticism that there would be no tears shed if the right hon. Gentleman had axed the whole Northern Ireland Privy Council but there will be tears shed because the Governor of Northern Ireland is going. How will the right hon. Gentleman carry on the anomaly of a Privy Council which will have no power whatever in Northern Ireland?
I do not want to make any quick decisions on this White Paper but there is one matter which should be stressed. There is a list of obligations on page 5, one of which says that it is an obligation of the people of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom to respect the decisions of the Crown in Parliament. Surely it should also be an obligation on this Parliament to see that the people of Northern Ireland are fully represented in this House? Since it seems that full parliamentary representation will not be obtained in the Assembly, is it not right that such representation should be given in this House?
249 hon. Member for what he said about the need to study the White Paper carefully, and indeed to promote political discussion as opposed to politics on the street. What he said was extremly helpful and is greatly welcomed.
I also greatly welcome his reference to the present Governor of Northern Ireland, Lord Grey, and to Lady Grey. This gives me the opportunity personally to say that I have received from both Lord and Lady Grey during the last year, when I have lived with them at Hillsborough, utmost kindness and also a great deal of help and support without which I do not feel that the job we have done could possibly have been achieved. I am grateful to be able to pay that tribute.
As to representation at Westminster, I contend that, with the large measure of devolution of powers that we propose, Northern Ireland is well represented at Westminster. I rather suspect that that is something with which the hon. Member will agree.
§ Mr. McManus
Will the right hon. Gentleman answer a few preliminary questions? Will he agree that the present nature of the RUC lies very near to the heart of the problem in Northern Ireland and that, far from being strengthened, this force and equipment needs to be completely reformed and restructured if it is ever to be accepted as a police force? Will he further accept that internment without trial also lies very near to the problem and that until it is ended, or seems to be ending, the proposals in the White Paper cannot hope to be entirely successful? Finally, will he accept that his retreat from the definition of the Irish dimension which he mentioned might be interpreted by the minority in Northern Ireland as a studied insult to their feelings and aspirations?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
On the hon. Member's first point about the Royal Ulster Constabulary, I do not wish to get into discussion of detail in these matters except to say that the acceptance of the work of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is absolutely vital to any future possible success in Northern Ireland, because it is necessary over a period of time to build up the police and therefore to reduce the number of soldiers we have to have in Northern Ireland. That is extremely 250 important. Therefore I welcome any constructive suggestions by which we can strengthen the work of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
On the second point, I claim that the Detention of Terrorists Order, which was accepted by Lord Diplock as necessary in present circumstances—and, indeed, commended by many emminent legal authorities in another place—is different in kind from internment in that it no longer represents the signature of a political member of an executive, but gives the opportunity for those who go before the Commissioners to argue their case with a right of appeal and so to be judged in, I believe, a far better legal framework than under internment. I therefore regard it as different.
As to the hon. Member's reference to a retreat, I regret that because there has been no retreat.
§ Mr. Deedes
Is it not clear that much remains to be decided and will depend on the outcome of the forthcoming General Election in Northern Ireland, including the crucial point of who will share power on the Executive? Will it not be a good thing for all parties in Northern Ireland to bear that prospect in mind?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I agree with my right hon Friend. I believe that it is a crucial part of our proposals that it must be right to give those who are elected to the new Assembly a chance to work together. Until they are elected, it is difficult to know exactly to whom we are talking and who will have that opportunity. That makes the elections extremely important. It also makes it important for all those who may have doubts about matters of power-sharing in the future to appreciate that the first thing to do is to fight the election, then come to the Assembly and, at that stage, if they have doubts to voice them properly.
§ Mr. Harold Wilson
First, on the reference made by hon. Members on both sides of the House to His Excellency the Governor and the Governor's Lady, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that all of us wish to be associated with what has been said? In view of the great record of public service by Lord Grey, both in Northern Ireland and for decades before, should the Government decide that any action on their part is due to honour or 251 pay tribute or in any way to make provision for the Governor on his retirement, they will have the full support, I am sure, of the whole House.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that our decision this afternoon to desist from making instant comments, or proposing amendments to particular paragraphs of this White Paper, stems from a recognition that it must be the responsibility of the Government to put forward these proposals—and only the Government? Is he aware that we recognise that this White Paper is their conception of a balanced and fair package after very great consideration and consultation and that it must now be for the people of Northern Ireland to form their own view without any steering or guidance from us in this House at this time, and that the first preoccupation of all of us must be the avoidance of violence and the furthering of a settlement based, as religious leaders on both sides of the water have pleaded, on reconciliation and mutual tolerance?
Is he aware that in our view, in putting forward this document, the right hon. Gentleman has the right to commend it for careful consideration by all sections of opinion, the more so in that the White Paper itself—and this can be too easily disregarded—provides machinery and proposals for change in the White Paper provisions by consent, and above all, by consultation with a new and elected Assembly —an Assembly which will provide the most up-to-date and authoritative measure of what belief, what attitudes and what principles are genuinely representative not of extremist factions in Northern Ireland but of the people as a whole? Because of that provision for change after consultation with the Assembly, the right hon. Gentleman in our view has all the more reason to ask for patience and full consideration by the people of Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said, particularly in view of the fact that among many other preoccupations he has taken a very special interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I am very grateful for what he said about the Governor. Some of the right hon. Gentleman's further proposals go far wider than my responsibilities, but I know that they have been 252 listened to by those who have those responsibilities. As to proposals about change and the need for patience, I think this is absolutely right and I very much hope that it will be followed.