'A Guide to the Convention Report' by the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) (1975)
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UNITED ULSTER UNIONIST COUNCIL (U.U.U.C)
The Convention’s Task
The task committed to the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention was defined in the Northern Ireland Act 1974 (ch. 28, s.2(1) & (2)) in these words:-
"There shall be elected and held in Northern Ireland a Convention for the purpose of considering what provision for the government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there.
The Composition of the Convention
Although the Act became law in July, 1974, elections for the Convention were not held until May, 1975. This long delay had the adverse effect of causing much debate to take place outside the Convention, and before it met, which ought to have taken place in it; and this in turn led to what many felt was too high a degree of prior commitment by the various participating parties. On the other hand it was impossible for an election to be held without the electorate being given some indication of the intentions with which the parties and candidates would enter the Convention.
The 78 members of the Convention were made up as follows. Three parties and one Independent member made up a coalition under the United Ulster Unionist Council. The Ulster Unionist Party gained 19 seats, the Vanguard Unionist Party 14 seats, and the Democratic Unionist Party 12 seats, with one seat going to an Independent, making 46 seats, or 47 counting another sympathetic Independent member outside the coalition. Those 47 members comprised 60.3 per cent, of the whole membership of the Convention.
The Alliance Party gained 8 seats, the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland 5 seats, and the Northern Ireland Labour Party one seat, making a group of 14 members, comprising 17.9 per cent, of the total membership.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party was the only party understood to advocate Northern Ireland’s ultimate incorporation within the Irish Republic. It gained 17 seats, or 21.8 per cent. of the whole membership.
Deliberations and Debates
The first meeting of the Convention was held on 8th May, 1975, with the Rt. Hon. Sir Robert Lowry, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, in the chair. Early sessions were devoted to establishing rules of procedure. Then a resolution was adopted in which the whole Convention committed itself to "devising a system of government for Northern Ireland which will have the most widespread acceptance throughout the community". General debates on this and on a motion dealing with human social and economic problems, and one on the effect of the security situation upon the work of the Convention, gave opportunities to members to define their attitudes towards many aspects of government. On the structure of government many constructive proposals were elaborated and much negotiation took place between parties during a long summer recess.
In September it was resolved that "the Convention reports progress" and "believes that it would be appropriate to draft a report" and accordingly asked that parties should "table their proposals for the government of Northern Ireland". Six sets of proposals were presented, from the United Ulster Unionist Coalition, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party, the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and the Ulster Dominion Group which had split off from the Vanguard Party. The Chairman’s office drew up a summary of these proposals, showing the attitudes taken by the various parties to eleven major constitutional issues. This summary, together with the proposals presented by the parties, is printed with the published Report. (As appendix 7).
The various proposals were debated at some length, and a Report was drawn up and adopted by majority vote. On 7th November the Convention voted to have this Report presented to the Secretary of State.
The Report as Published
The Report passed through three printings, and the third and final version was that presented to the Secretary of State and to Parliament. As well as the text of the Report adopted by the Convention (pages 1-43) there was published with it much other material. This includes the election manifestos of the various participating parties, the policy documents which they presented to the Convention, a summary of the proceedings of each session of the Convention, the draft reports produced by the various parties, and the text of a draft constitution bill. The Draft Constitution Bill was settled by Counsel who was briefed to indicate how statutory effect could be given to the conclusions of the Convention so as to facilitate and expedite the consideration of these conclusions in a form to which Ministers and M.Ps. are accustomed. By its very nature the Bill is more specific that the Report itself, but it does embody the intentions and conclusions agreed. The Convention resolved, without division, to include the Draft Bill as an appendix.
The important part of the published material is the actual text of the Report which the Convention adopted, amounting to 43 pages out of the 200 pages which make up the whole publication. This is the Convention’s response to the duty laid upon it by the Government in the Northern Ireland Act 1974, to consider "what provision for the government of Northern Ireland is likely to command the most widespread acceptance throughout the community there".
It is the majority Report of the whole Convention, and it is improper to represent it as the Report only of those parties who comprised the majority. Study of the extensive material printed with the Report will show that views expressed by other parties were in many cases taken into account and their proposals in certain cases embodied in the scheme adopted by the majority. The text of the Report is in harmony with the election ‘manifesto originally put out by the majority parties, but it also shows that their ideas went through a considerable process of evolution before becoming finalised in the Report. Where there were differences of opinion, an attempt is made in the body of the Report to summarise the views of dissenting groups, and the policy documents and manifestos of all parties are printed in the additional material that is published with the Report.
The verbatim reports of the proceedings and debates during the thirty sessions of the Convention are published separately and run to 918 pages, and these also provide a record of every proposal and point of view that found expression in the Convention.
The conclusions reached by the Convention are presented in a list in Pan IV of the Report. In the body of the Report, reasons are given why these particular proposals for government were preferred by the Convention to certain other proposals: and all these issues were, of course, dealt with in the debates.
Central Institutions of Government
All parties represented in the Convention desired to see Northern Ireland given devolved government within the United Kingdom, with the sole exception of a member who broke with former party affiliations to represent the Ulster Dominion Group. seeking for Northern Ireland dominion status as a member of the Commonwealth.
The Convention concluded that Northern Ireland should be administered by an elected Parliament with only one chamber and having not less than 78 and not more than 100 members. who should be British citizens. Preference is expressed for one uniform voting system throughout the United Kingdom, but, as the existing British system does not provide proportionality between votes cast for different parties and the relative strength given to those parties in the legislature, it is recommended that the voting method should be either the single transferable vote system of proportional representation or a modified list system.
The Parliament of Northern Ireland should have an executive to consist of a cabinet of not more than eight members. The Queen should be represented by a Governor, and there should be a Privy Council of Northern Ireland in which places should he offered to leading members of major opposition parties.
The powers devolved to the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland should be broadly similar to those conferred by the Government of Ireland Act 1920 upon the former government of Northern Ireland; but there should be greater freedom to deal with local economic and social problems and decide priorities with respect to these. This would involve greater provision than in the past for divergence from the rest of the United Kingdom in spending policy and also greater local freedom in taxation. The Parliament of Northern Ireland should be free to legislate on matters concerning its own franchise.
While the power of the United Kingdom Parliament should remain undiminished over all matters in Northern Ireland, there should be some form of protective guarantee against sudden arbitrary suspension or changes in the Northern Ireland constitution being effected without Northern Ireland concurrence. There should also be a Bill of Rights and Duties, preferably for the United Kingdom as a whole
At the same time the number of Northern Ireland members of the United Kingdom Parliament ought to be increased to between 20 and 24 so that the province may be represented at Westminster on a proportion to its population comparable with that of the other regions of the United Kingdom.
Composition of Government
While these conclusions indicate the central features of government as envisaged by the Convention, those central institutions are to be oriented to respond to the several criteria indicated by the British Government in its White Paper. Of these criteria the one which has required the most sensitive and detailed consideration has been that of providing for participation or power-sharing.
Considerable space is given in the Report to a discussion of the various views and possibilities with respect to this. The first question was whether the element of power-sharing and all-party involvement could be at the cabinet or executive level, as was suggested by several parties.
If there was to be power-sharing at cabinet level, there are two ways in which it could be brought about. Either it could come about voluntarily, through an electoral or inter-party agreement, leading to a coalition government, just as coalition governments have sometimes come into being at Westminster and in other countries. Or it could be an imposed coalition. brought about as a built-in feature of government, either through some form of legislative guarantee or definition or through the intervention of a constituted authority, such as the Secretary of State, as in 1973.
Voluntary coalition is and has to be a normal possibility of democratic government; and since there has been some break-up of older party structures in Ulster, it has become a much more likely possibility than it was in the past, since no one political party now seems capable of securing an over-all majority. The feasibility of any voluntary coalition has always to depend upon the attitude of the electorate as reflected in the composition of the legislature. Convention members fully accepted the general principle of the possibility of a voluntary coalition coming into existence in various circumstances; but they also appreciated that what is voluntary has to be truly voluntary and cannot be successfully achieved by some arrangement that is covertly compulsory.
On the other hand, any form of imposed or legislatively guaranteed coalition was rejected. Points made in the Report are that such a coalition would destroy the essential principle of collective responsibility in government, that it could put government at odds with the electorate and legislature to such an extent as to bring government to a standstill through deadlock, and that, in the Ulster setting, it would institutionalise in a permanent form existing party-political and sectarian allegiances and divisions, frustrating any movement towards development and change.
Several of the participating parties in the Convention favoured some form of coalition government. Thus the S.D.L.P. held that power-sharing required that "all parties with significant representation in the Northern Ireland Parliament will share in government". But the majority of Convention members clearly did not feel that they were being presented with any practical scheme by which this could be achieved without running into the sort of difficulties that have been summarised in the preceding paragraph.
A special difficulty was widely felt to be the fact that Ulster politics are not concerned wholly with internal issues but are deeply involved in the question of the maintenance of the Union or the incorporation of Northern Ireland in the Irish Republic. Many members of the Convention made it clear that they themselves would not be prepared to participate in or support a coalition which contained persons whose long-term aim was to end the Union and bring Northern Ireland into a different allegiance. This had particular reference to the S.D.L.P. In the words of the Report, "The recent past is too vivid with memories of members who are now in the leadership of S.D.L.P. working to destroy the former Government of Northern Ireland to allow any real confidence in sharing with them at this level".
So far as imposed power-sharing at cabinet level was concerned, the Convention reported the conclusion "that no country ought to be forced to have in its cabinet any person whose political philosophy and attitudes have revealed his opposition to the very existence of that State".
Members of the Convention had been given literature describing cabinet power-sharing devices used in countries with separate language groups; but, although Westminster politicians had kept referring to "two communities" in Ulster on the assumed basis of an identity of religious with political affiliations, this simplistic view clearly lacks a solid foundation in fact or the kind of reality which could make possible any legal definition of such communities. The opening historical paragraphs of the Report note that a Government command paper (Cmnd. 5851) of 1975 showed that in all the Northern Ireland general elections from 1929 to 1969 the average vote for Nationalist and Republican candidates was only 14.6 per cent. of the whole; so that, even if it is assumed that all who thus voted were Roman Catholics, it would show that only two-fifths of the Roman Catholic vote was at that time positively oriented in that way. Both U.U.U.C. and S.D.L.P. speakers in the Convention rejected the expression "two communities" and preferred to talk of sections of one community.
It was decided, therefore, that the method of forming a government ought to be the same as that followed at Westminster. This method creates a live relationship between cabinet and electorate, makes coalitions possible when appropriate, and precludes deadlocks.
Power-Sharing and Participation
While the Convention thus preferred the traditional way of forming a government, it was widely appreciated that a greatly broadened degree of responsible participation of all parties in decision-making and the work of government is desirable. To achieve this, it was proposed that a large measure of what used to be cabinet responsibility and power of decision and supervision should be devolved to the floor of the house and shared at that level in a new way.
It was decided that, covering each department of government, there should be a departmental committee of eight or ten backbenchers drawn equally from government and opposition supporters. Each of these committees would undertake for its department the work normally done at Westminster by the Public Accounts, Consolidated Bills and Subordinate Legislation Committees. They would have power to scrutinise all the activities of their departments, require the production of papers and documents, send for persons (including Ministers), conduct hearings in private or in public, examine proposed new legislation, hold hearings on it and report to the legislature.
Safeguards to protect national security, impose time limits and otherwise prevent committees from becoming a filibustering device or source of delay would be embodied in Standing Orders to be negotiated. There should be a Rules Committee drawn from the whole House.
The chairmen of committees would be appointed so that not less than half would be members of opposition parties, and they ought to be adequately paid. Information and research facilities ought to be provided for committees not only through their departments, but through an enlarged parliamentary library, ultimately under the control of the Speaker.
In adopting this committee system, the Convention was evidently aware of the advantages and also certain shortcomings of the committee system in the American Congress.. Members were also aware that various Committee systems had already been advocated by most of the parties participating in the Convention and had, in particular, been very favourably received by several members now prominent in the S.D.L.P. when a less expanded form of committee was first mentioned in the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1971. The system now proposed is also entirely British in its character and tradition, since it represents a logical expansion of a system already in existence at Westminster. If adopted in the form outlined in the Report, it would present every party and individual in the legislature with wider opportunities for participating in decision-making and influencing legislation and administration than are available in the legislature of any democratic country.
It is clearly indicated in the Report that Northern Ireland interests ought to be more directly and consistently represented and cared for in the external relations of the United Kingdom, particularly with respect to the E.E.C.
The main question of external affairs that was considered was naturally that of relations with the Irish Republic. Here it was felt that the Republic’s claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland and the extent to which the Republic’s territory had latterly been used as a base for attack upon Northern Ireland create serious obstacles which require time for their elimination. There was a clear wish in all quarters in the Convention for the creation of friendly and constructive relations with the Republic, and favourable reference was made to some examples of useful co-operation in the past. It was felt that future good relations would be hindered rather than helped by any imposed structure of institutionalised relationship, such as the Council of Ireland projected at the Sunningdale Conference of 1973. A major step towards good relations would be the establishment of a Northern Ireland government capable of initiating and guiding co-operation.
The conclusions of the Convention were, therefore, "that external relations should be the responsibility of the government at Westminster in consultation with the Government of Northern Ireland" and "that good neighbourly relations should be welcomed but, that imposed institutionalised associations with the Republic of Ireland should be rejected",
Summing-Up and Final Advice
Winding up its report, the Convention paid high tribute to the wisdom and helpfulness of its Chairman, Sir Robert Lowry.
The Report draws attention to the wide degree of similarity and consensus to be found among the proposals brought forward by the various parties. It notes:-
"that the Convention debates showed the wide areas of agreement that exist between the Northern Ireland political parties. The most important is that all significant groups wish a devolved administration within the United Kingdom to be re-established. Nearly all groups favour a unicameral legislature. There is general agreement that in some form or other any new system should provide for greater participation by representatives of the Northern Ireland minority and for a Bill of Rights. There is broad agreement that a devolved government should be free to choose priorities within its overall resources - United Kingdom and local. None of the groups favoured the 1973 arrangements under which the Secretary of State had a responsibility for the composition of the Northern Ireland executive, and under which the executive had not control over the R.U.C. The debates on economic and social problems showed a further measure of agreement on policy between the parties on these issues.
And then comes this final advice to the Government:
"Accordingly this Convention concludes that Her Majesty’s Government should make all haste to end the political vacuum, defeat terrorism, and, recognising the political realities, restore devolved government to Northern Ireland: in the interim the Convention should continue in being as a representative forum of the people of Northern Ireland until the administration is formed, and tender advice to the Secretary of State".
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