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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I try to be tolerant if something is mentioned briefly in passing, but it is less easy to be tolerant when it is expanded on at some length.

Mr. Robinson: I am sure that the message has been left with the Labour party. I trust that we shall see the necessary legislative change for the entry conditions of parties to the talks process.

In relation to the Grand Committee, I am somewhat concerned that the Labour party suggests that the motion will not close the issue, that Labour will revisit it. It almost sounded as though it would be part of some negotiation after the election, and that Labour would then suggest that the proposals would change unless various principles that Labour may lay down were accepted by the parties. I hope that, at the end of the debate, we shall have a clearer statement from the Labour party that it will accept the judgment of the House tonight in relation to the Grand Committee and that it will not seek to change the decision of the House if Labour is elected in May.

I have no argument with the Secretary of State about the various functions that he gives the Grand Committee, save that, in his communication of 27 February to party leaders, he said that, in addition to the initial functions that he considered for the Grand Committee, he was to include the power that it should be possible on a Government motion for a draft Northern Ireland Order or for an Order in Council itself to be referred to the Grand Committee instead of going to a Standing Committee or being taken on the Floor of the House.

I am concerned that that could allow a Government to put all Northern Ireland orders into a Grand Committee and that they would never be considered on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Secretary of State will give us an assurance that that is not the position, but his communication of 27 February certainly makes it clear that consideration in a Grand Committee would be instead of consideration on the Floor of the House. It would not be helpful to Northern Ireland for the business of Northern Ireland to be shunted into a siding. We should have time to raise on the Floor of the House matters of importance to the people of Northern Ireland.

It is sad that members of the Grand Committee for Northern Ireland who represent Northern Ireland will be a minority. That is not the position on the Scottish Grand Committee. If one wanders into that Committee, one will not see a majority of Englishmen and women--the same

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applies to the Welsh Grand Committee--but the poor Ulster people will be in the minority on the Grand Committee for Northern Ireland. The Government have deliberately designed it so that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland are in a minority on the Grand Committee. That is a mistake, and shows that the Government are not prepared to leave the field open for the views of the people of Northern Ireland to be expressed.

I noticed that, in the debate on the Scottish Grand Committee and the proposals for constitutional change in Scotland, the Labour party's view was that the Committee would be much like a travelling circus, a toothless talking shop and a platform for Ministers, who would use it to launch various proposals up and down the country.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): The hon. Gentleman is right. That is precisely how the Secretary of State for Scotland has exploited the Scottish Grand Committee for his own purposes. It was a travelling press show for him and his fellow Ministers.

Mr. Robinson: The great difficulty is that it would be hard, even for the Labour party if it were in the same position as the Secretary of State for Scotland, to resist the temptation to use the Grand Committee as a platform. If a Grand Committee is to mean anything, it is to get the views of Back Benchers as well as the Government on various issues. If allocations of time allow it to be hogged by the Secretary of State and his Ministers instead of allowing the views of representatives of the area to be heard, it will not assist us one bit.

I was disappointed that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not advocate a Grand Committee for Northern Ireland using the same arguments as were advanced for Scotland. In the document containing proposals on a Scottish Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Scotland said:

I did not hear the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland using such terminology. He went on to say:

    "What the people of Scotland want is Government close to them, Government listening to them, and above all, Government accountable to them."

The Secretary of State cannot say that, because the Government are totally unaccountable in Northern Ireland. There is no representation in Northern Ireland by the Conservative party, nor will there be any by the Labour party.

The Secretary of State has let down the people of Northern Ireland. He could have said that this proposal was to strengthen the Union, but he chose not to say that. He did not follow the line of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Perhaps the people of Scotland are more loved by the Government than the people of Northern Ireland. Perhaps we are children of a lesser god in the eyes of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He does not use the same arguments in relation to the Province.

I am sure that we all wish the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland well in his new life as he leaves the House and parts from us. He had this opportunity, which is probably the last time that he will deal with Northern Ireland business, to set out clearly his views, and the views of the Government, on maintaining the Union with Northern Ireland, and to say that he saw a Grand

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Committee as part of that scheme. Unlike the Secretary of State for Scotland, he chose not to do that. I wonder whether the Government do not believe the argument that they advanced for Scotland, or whether they do not want the Union to be maintained in Northern Ireland.

8.14 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the legislation. I shall try to stick closely to the terms of the order, because I began to wonder whether some folk had been given the wrong speech, as they were dealing with later orders. I welcome the proposal, because it has taken a long time coming. The process began when Lord Glenamara was responsible for these matters in the House. It is fascinating to discover that it has taken all these years to come to fruition.

I thought that there was perhaps a problem of gestation and that we were trying to outdo the elephant, which is the land mammal with the longest gestation period. I was advised today that the blue whale is the water mammal with the longest gestation period, so perhaps we have been at sea for a long time about Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State spoke about diversity when he referred to the Grand Committee. In a sense, British politics is all about diversity, as we come together to argue, debate, try to understand and reach conclusions. I welcome the fact that we have travelled along this road, as the Secretary of State outlined in his introduction. It has taken many years to reach this stage.

The Secretary of State apologised for the absence of the Leader of the House. I want to express my thanks to the Leader of the House, who, in the past few months, has been assiduous in seeking to make progress towards this hour. He has been considerate and helpful. We now discover that others have begun to recognise that the Grand Committee has a role to play in making up part of the democratic deficit.

I say bluntly that the Grand Committee should not be viewed merely as a means of making up the democratic deficit or plugging a gap until an understanding is reached whereby the people of Northern Ireland will have a greater say in matters affecting their everyday lives. In my judgment, there will always be a time when a Grand Committee for Northern Ireland is needed to deal with issues that will never be devolved to Northern Ireland.

I am convinced that a large number of the problems that arose in 1968 would never have arisen if more people in the House had been aware of the overall situation there. We should bear it in mind that the Foreign Office represents Northern Ireland abroad, as it does the rest of the United Kingdom. Defence issues will not be devolved to a Northern Ireland Assembly. There may be moments when it will be important for the Grand Committee to bring Ministers of the Crown before it to deal with issues relevant to Northern Ireland. So it will not be merely a stop-gap, and I welcome that.

Some people have opposed the establishment of a Grand Committee for Northern Ireland. Some have argued for parity of esteem in Northern Ireland. We welcome the fact that we have moved in the positive direction of parity of esteem between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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There is another reason why I believe that such action is necessary. Those who remember the debates on broadcasting that have taken place here will remember my raising the problem of regional broadcasting. We were given to understand then that the regions would report to the regions what Members representing those regions were doing in the House, but that has not been done to any great effect in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many Northern Ireland newspapers concentrate on local disagreements and squabbles, rather than reporting the positive contributions that have been made here for the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland. The fact that a Grand Committee can meet in Northern Ireland from time to time is a positive development.

I was interested to note that the main daily paper in Northern Ireland prefaced a report about the tabling of the legislation with a headline referring to "plans for a mini-Westminster to meet in Northern Ireland". I know that others have debated other issues, but, given that tonight we are debating the main theme of the motion, I welcome it and trust that it will be implemented in the near future.

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