HL Deb 22 July 1982 vol 433 cc979-92

3.40 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Monson moved the amendment: After Clause 5, insert the following new clause:

("Status of Northern Ireland not to be changed unless widely accepted throughout community.

.In section 1 of the Constitution Act, at the end there shall be inserted the words "and unless each House of Parliament is satisfied that any such alteration in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is likely to be widely accepted throughout the community".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the amendment in my name and that of the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard. This is a more modest and I hope, therefore, more widely acceptable version—widely acceptable throughout the House—of the amendment I moved at Committee, and which was designed to ensure that Northern Ireland does not cease to be part of Her Majesty's dominions or of the United Kingdom: unless each House of Parliament is satisfied that any such alteration in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is likely to be widely accepted throughout the community". Your Lordships will be aware that this formula is used throughout the Bill and has been widely welcomed.

In his moderate and courteous criticisms of my amendment two days ago, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, suggested that there were good grounds for applying the widespread acceptance criterion to the Assembly but not to the question of the border poll, because he maintained that the first issue was a matter for the Assembly and the second issue was purely a Westminster one. With respect, that is a legalistic and not a realistic argument. After all, precisely the same people are involved in both cases; the people, all the people of Northern Ireland, and their future.

What is more, to be accurate the United Kingdom Parliament is involved in both instances where devolution is concerned and where the border poll is concerned, and in each case when a vote or referendum has taken place, or whatever, the United Kingdom Parliament, each House of Parliament, has to approve whatever step is taken by order. If widespread consent is deemed to be needed for minor changes in administration and peoples' way of life, one would think it 20 times more important to have widespread cross-community consent for anything so cataclysmic as expulsion of part of the United Kingdom from the United Kingdom. After all, it was the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, himself who described it in col. 796 as, a massive central constitutional issue …".

In my Committee stage amendment I cited a number of respectable precedents for requiring a majority of more than 50 per cent. for major changes of a constitutional, or quasi constitutional, nature both in the United Kingdom and in other countries. I might indeed have gone on to mention the Anglican-Methodist unity proposals which were, I think, put forward about 12 years ago. So controversial did these appear to a number of Anglicans that the Church of England deemed that before such proposals went through a majority of three to one, or 75 per cent., in favour would be necessary. As we know, the proposals failed to gather the requisite amount of support and did not go through.

However, having said this and having studied what other noble Lords said at Committee stage I decided that it would be right to drop the 70 per cent. hurdle even though I must stress that this appears elsewhere in the Bill, notably in Clause 1, and has never come in for any criticism on that score. The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, himself said at column 785 that the 70 per cent. proviso was a trigger mechanism. Of course he was using the phrase "trigger mechanism" in a strictly non-military sense. But I fear that any fixed percentage proposed, be it 50 per cent., as it is at present, or 60 per cent. or 70 per cent., might lead to trigger mechanisms of a very different nature coming to the fore if percentage be the only criterion adopted as such. That is why I decided to drop the percentage requirements because surely the important thing is widespread consent right across the whole political spectrum throughout the whold community. If that can be achieved, then the precise percentage voting for change of national status, provided it is at least 50 per cent., would seem relatively unimportant.

It seemed to me in the debate the day before yesterday that the Government tacitly accepted this. The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, assured us that the 50 per cent. rule, or 50.1 per cent. rule to be more accurate, in the referendum was merely a bottom line, or sine qua non, and implied that if such a low majority were achieved in a border poll this would not necessarily be the end of the story, and Parliament might decide not to expel the province from the Kingdom. I think that the Government recognised the danger not only to us in the United Kingdom but also to the Republic, and I mentioned that whatever they might say in public most people in private would be horrified if a situation such as I have described did in fact occur. There would be danger to us and to the Republic if opposition to expulsion from the United Kingdom among one section—and one majorsection—only of the community happened to be unanimous.

Therefore, I believe that what is now hinted at only obliquely—and that is what I deduce the Government are doing—should be spelt out so as to reassure people who fear that they might become outnumbered, just as the Roman Catholics in the Lebanon, ironically enough, started to become outnumbered a couple of decades ago, and which was the basis for the appalling civil war which occurred in the mid-1970s. The Palestinians were blamed for this but in actual fact the Palestinians were no more than a catalyst, the spark, that set off the tinder that was already in existence.

I believe that what is now hinted at obliquely should be spelt out so as to reassure people who fear that they may become outnumbered and have their way of life, their national status and identity, changed totally against their united opposition. I believe that this is a modest and moderate amendment, and I hope that it will be accepted. I beg to move.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I should like to support this amendment. It is a mild amendment and I cannot understand that the Government should have any objection to it. In elections, and especially in Northern Ireland, you can perhaps get sometimes a little intimidation. Perhaps "little" is too small a word to use. Therefore, it is essential that this amendment is included in the Bill.

I can see no reason why it cannot be included. I should have thought that it would be in the interests of Dublin and the southern Irish Government to be quite certain that, if there is a constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland, inasmuch as it was such a big change the North of Ireland would decide to go into the South of Ireland, the southern Irish Government would want to be sure that it was a really widely accepted voice. What they do not want—I have heard many responsible people in the South of Ireland say this—if you ever have a united Ireland, is a large number of disgruntled northerners to be in their midst. I ask the Government seriously to consider this amendment, for personally I can see no harm in it.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, while not supporting this amendment at this time I would like to pursue the question of the guarantee. Having read the Official Report a number of times under my noble friend's instructions, I am still not fully satisfied with the Government's attitude towards the unity of the United Kingdom. On Second Reading my noble friend said: "Northern Ireland … will remain so until its inhabitants freely determine otherwise".—[Official Report, 8/7/82; col. 904.] To my mind, this is a fairly sinister word which does not appear in the actual wording of the Act; because "until" means there is a finality about it and that conditions will definitely apply so that eventually the people of Northern Ireland will be made to, juggled into, or slipped into the position of wishing to change. We then come to the Committee stage. I feel very strongly about this question of the unity of the United Kingdom. We have not taken a neutral stand on Scottish nationalism. We have taken a very strong stand there, saying that unity of Great Britain is extremely important; and action, sentiment, warmth and everything is expressed on all sides to show there ought to be actual unity.

In the Committee stage on the question of the continued unity of the United Kingdom my noble friend said: It is not that the Government are not enthusiastic … but there is an inconsistency surely in resting your policy … on the principle of self-determination … and then, as it were, trying to load the question in such a way that goes against the principles of self-determination ".—[Official Report, 20/7/82; col. 798.] With that I am entirely in agreement, but I went on to ask whether the Government did not feel it was their duty in governing Northern Ireland to make clear that it was their intention to do so in such a way that all people, regardless of creed, colour, religion or anything else wished to remain within the United Kingdom because the unity of the United Kingdom as such, its strategic importance and every other factor is very important. I believe that is a principle of the Conservative Party.

I go further on this because on 25th February my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said, in answer to a Question from Mr. Marlow: We should seek to show that there are great advantages for all the people of Northern Ireland in remaining part of the United Kingdom".—[Official Report, (Commons) 25/2/82; col. 972.] That, I believe, is the correct position, but when I pressed the noble Earl I could not get him to say that, because there are two issues. One is the unity of the United Kingdom, which I believe to be vital. The second is to demonstrate to the people of Northern Ireland—all the people of Northern Ireland—the advantages of being in the United Kingdom as such. That is why I am speaking on the amendment.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Gowrie)

My Lords, I am very happy to stand corrected by my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, and to qualify what I said, admittedly and in fairness to myself in a slightly different context and at an earlier stage, by saying that of course no change would be made without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland; and as I said at the same stage also to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, even if there were to be the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to a constitutional change, that constitutional change would have to pass through both Houses of the British Parliament.

I am also quite happy to agree with my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard that very few people in my experience in the Irish Republic would wish the unity of the island, even if there were to be a narrow majority in its favour in the North, if a substantial minority were to be opposed to it, and likely to be violently opposed to it. That is certainly my experience of the Irish Republic; but, as I also explained at some length in response to an almost identical amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, during the Committee stage, there are many reasons why it would be wrong, both absolutely and in the context of this particular Bill, to amend Section 1 of the Constitution Act in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is proposing. The Bill before the House envisages a system of government based ultimately on the Northern Ireland Constitution Act. Of course, the Bill makes changes to that Act, for it reflects an altogether different approach to the devolution of legislative and executive powers, and a different approach to the formation of a Northern Ireland Administration. But much in the earlier Act will remain unaffected by the present Bill, including certain key constitutional provisions.

One of these provisions, the biggest key of all, is the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's position as a constituent part of the United Kingdom remains as in Section 1 of the Constitution Act; and as your Lordships know, this section provides that there can be no change in that status without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a border poll, and there can be periodic polls at intervals of not less than 10 years. The section is, therefore, one of the fundamental premises on which the Government's approach in this Bill is based. It is not affected by the Bill but it is everywhere presupposed by it. As I said at another stage, it is part of the framework in which everything else, including the detailed administrative arrangements proposed in this Bill which I outlined earlier, is set. Given the nature and purposes of the Bill we believe that it would be wrong in principle as well as highly imprudent in practice to seek to modify Section 1 to deal with hypothetical circumstances which may never arise, or which may arise in wholly different circumstances from any that we can presently envisage.

Dealing with the "imprudent in practice" point, I would commend to your Lordships the words of my noble friend Lord Vaizey on this subject at Committee stage. My noble friend concluded that it would be: most unwise at this particular juncture, in a Bill dealing essentially with the problems of the local jurisdiction of the Province and not with United Kingdom-wide provision, to start initiating what amounts to a major constitutional change in the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, 20/7182; col. 796.] And "in" in that connection would mean, I believe, within the United Kingdom. Of course, I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Monson, fears that great harm would result from a change in the constitutional status of the Province that did not command widespread acceptance throughout the community, and I share that fear. I understand why he accordingly seeks to apply Section 1 of the 1973 Act, a requirement upon which the Government have insisted, in a different context, in the present Bill. The tests imposed in this Bill for any proposed arrangements for devolution are designed to ensure that any such arrangements enjoy widespread cross-community support.

It is, as I have said on many occasions, a fact of political life in Northern Ireland that without such support no system of Government or political progress can be stable or durable; but the question of a test for proposals for devolution within a part of the United Kingdom is surely quite different in conception from the issue of whether a region should remain as it is. There seems to me no merit whatsoever in linking the two, and there is the grave demerit that linking the two may excite people into believing, particularly in the Province, that the two are linked. That point was made, I believe, by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, most eloquently at the Committee stage. To do so would only suggest, surely, that the Government were having second thoughts about the whole constitutional base of Northern Ireland's role within the United Kingdom. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has repeatedly made clear—and I refer my noble friend Lord Brookeborough to his remarks in this context—this is not, of course, the case. I therefore urge the House not to seek to alter a provision of the 1973 Act that is well understood, whose alteration would cause a great deal of excitement and anxiety and which is, in our judgment and in the judgment of most people in the Province, in no current need whatever of revision.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I really do not understand how a modest suffix tagged on to the end of Section 1 of the 1973 Act could cause great excitement and anxiety, underlining, as it does, what most people know to be true in their hearts anyway. What the noble Earl seems to be saying is that because no such provision existed in the 1973 Act, it should not come in now because this Bill bears so many resemblances to that Act. I agree with him that it would have been better, if change were to be made, that it had been made in 1973.

There is absolutely no reason why the noble Earl should be aware of this fact, but I have been interested in this matter for a long time and have spoken and written about it on a number of occasions over the past 10 to 12 years. This Bill, with its reiterated emphasis on the desirability, indeed need, for widespread acceptance throughout the whole community before any major and irrevocable steps are taken which would affect people's future, seems an ideal vehicle for putting these ideas into practice, given that the Long Title of the Bill permits amendments to the 1973 Act. What is more, I believe it is a question of honour. Massive concessions have been made to the Republican ideal, in the sense that Republicans are now being told in so many words that there is not the slightest moral obligation on them to give any loyalty to their country and its Head of State. Few corresponding concessions seem to have been made to those who might loosely be described as unionists. I can only speak for myself, of course, and not for other noble Lords, but I believe it is a matter of honour and I feel unable to withdraw the amendment.

On Question, amendment negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended (pursuant to resolution of July 21):

4.3 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. In doing so, I wish first to express the gratitude of Her Majesty's Government to your Lordships' House in facilitating the passage of the Bill on to the statute book before the Summer Recess.

During the last three weeks we have had the opportunity to consider, first, the fundamental principles which form the Government's policy in regard to Northern Ireland and, secondly, to scrutinise in more detail the provisions of the Bill which, as your Lordships know, seeks to give effect only to those proposals in the recent White Paper which require legislation. Our policy is in essence very simple and, I believe, realistic, and I am glad to be able to record here the overwhelming parliamentary support which we have received both in another place and in your Lordships' House.

The policy represents, in the Government's view, the best chance of making political progress in Northern Ireland by doing no more than to take full account of the political realities there. I return once again to the essential fact that no amount of rhetoric or wishful thinking can change the fact that in Northern Ireland there is a fundamental divide between two communities, two traditions, each with its distinct identity and aspirations. It is because the Government recognise, as they must, that the existence of these two traditions lies at the heart of nearly all political difficulties within the Province, that the Bill seeks to do no more than provide a framework within which a new and more fruitful life in political terms can develop in the Province, but develop only if and when the people of Northern Ireland are prepared to take up the opportunities which the Bill gives them.

The Government must also recognise that, unless the people of Northern Ireland, through their elected representatives, can work out the necessary arrangements, there is in the long run little possibility of viable political institutions being established there which can command the allegiance of men and women of goodwill on both sides of this fundamental divide. It is that need which best removes from men of violence whatever hope they may have of profiting from circumstances of continued political instability.

Let me, therefore, briefly remind your Lordships of what the Bill does and does not do. It does not impose devolution. That is not within our power, nor I believe within the power of anyone else. But the Bill allows the Northern Ireland Assembly to make proposals for any reasonable arrangements for the exercise of powers available for devolution. The Assembly could advance to full devolution in one move or in stages. The essential criterion is simple. It is that the proposals must command widespread acceptance throughout both communities. I do not need to remind your Lordships why, without such acceptance, no durable institutions are likely to develop.

The Bill also recognises that movement to this goal may be very slow indeed, and I certainly recognise that any movement will not be easy. That is one reason why the Bill will enable the Assembly, before any forms of devolution take place, to have immediately a constructive, deliberate and advisory role which will provide a valuable new input into the operation of direct rule. That is the valuable secondary effect of this legislation, and that is why I have tried to describe it as really being a Direct Rule (Improvement) Bill.

For the first time for many years, a locally elected Assembly will be able to speak with knowledge and authority about Northern Ireland affairs and subject my colleagues and myself, or our successors, to an appropriate and informed scrutiny. The Government also hope that the mere act of discharging these functions will at least accustom the various groups in the Assembly to get into the habit of working together in the common interest, and accustom the electorate of Northern Ireland to putting pressure on their representatives to work together in the common interest.

The Bill is also designed to secure such goals without requiring any group or individual to renounce or compromise deeply held political convictions, whether these should be attachment to Northern Ireland's position as a constituent part of the United Kingdom or an attachment to a united Ireland. To ask people to give up either aspiration is altogether to misunderstand the permanent nature of the divide in Northern Ireland.

The Bill leaves this Parliament not simply as the ultimate guarantor of the rights and liberties of all the people of Northern Ireland, but also as the ultimate arbiter of whether proposals for devolution do in fact command the widespread acceptance throughout the community which I mentioned earlier. In the end, therefore, I think we are concerned with only one thing: government by consent and how it can be improved and ultimately achieved in Northern Ireland.

I hope that on other occasions I have explained sufficiently why the full administrative integration of Northern Ireland with Great Britain would be quite unacceptable to the majority within the nationalist community, and why long memories and lingering suspicions—whether or not they were initially justified—would render divisive indeed attempts to increase powers of local government, unless of course they also were to achieve widespread consent across the community. If such were not achieved, peace and stability would be obstructed, and further understanding and co-operation delayed.

I also hope that I have explained why there can be no question whatsoever of any change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom unless that should be the freely-expressed wish of the majority of the Northern Ireland people. To proceed on any other basis would be wrong in principle and disastrous in practice.

I have to say that I do not believe that time is on our side in Northern Ireland. The intractable problems which continue to beset the Province—violence, unemployment, a fearsome economic decline—will not be eased by postponing the day when the inhabitants of the Province begin together the hard and slow task of political reconstruction, and try to reconcile that with the equally hard and slow mutual accommodations that will inevitably be involved. Therefore, the sooner that the necessary political movement begins, the better. I say that not simply because I believe that the rest of the United Kingdom, which—as in this terrible week I hardly need to remind the House—has shared, and continues to share, Northern Ireland's suffering, expects no less, but also because it is in the long-term best interests of the people of Northern Ireland to begin the task.

The rewards of the kind of co-operation between the various groups in Northern Ireland which we are seeking to promote could be immense. They include peace, stability, and the full development of Northern Ireland's great human and economic potential. They include also the potential for greater understanding and co-operation with the Irish Republic, which, in terms of its own political life and development, is very much affected by the situation in Northern Ireland, and whose shared interests in combating the men of violence must, I believe, be acknowledged.

The proposals that we are making may need 20 or 30 years to mature, or to take hold. Northern Ireland is not a place which is easily adaptable to the timescale of British politics. The fundamental divide is, in British terms, of ancient origin, and it will need a long time to heal, or to become obscured. Therefore all policy in respect of Northern Ireland needs modesty, tenacity, low expectation and patience, and those who seek to change policy by violent means should certainly appreciate that. This modest enabling Bill tries only to open the door on a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland and their neighbours. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(The Earl of Gowrie.)

4.14 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, the House will be grateful for, and will welcome, the remarks of the noble Earl the Minister. During the Second Reading of the Bill I spoke of the crucial importance of the proposed measures to the people of Northern Ireland. I stated that I am convinced that the Bill is an honest attempt, and represents an honest approach by the Government, to break the logjam of polarised politics in the Province, and that I believe that the Bill could help the Northern Ireland community by affording them an opportunity to have some powers within the context of United Kingdom parliamentary democracy to decide their own destiny. That is still my position, and I wish to thank the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, for the meticulous, forthright and understanding way in which he has dealt with the Bill and the matters that have arisen during debate in this House.

As a citizen of Northern Ireland, and as Opposition spokesman in this House on Northern Ireland affairs, I wish to convey to all noble Lords who took part in the debate my sincere appreciation of their interest and their thoughtful approaches to the deep-seated and emotional matters concerning Irish affairs. Many of us in the House realise how difficult it is to speak without emotion on the sensitive, deep-seated affairs of Northern Ireland that have existed for such a long time, and bearing that in mind the remarks of noble Lords are most heartily appreciated.

I feel that I can say that the debate in this House was conducted in a spirit that was above any doctrinaire or narrow, partisan attitude. I consider that we in this House have tried to look at the future and to provide a basis for practical co-operation in Northern Ireland, so that the elected representatives of the people can produce suitable leadership towards achieving peace, wellbeing and general prosperity. Effective solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland might hurt some people in their personal political stances, but I believe that given goodwill, the measures in the Bill can succeed in providing stepping-stones to the way ahead. Without good will, neither this Bill, nor indeed any other proposed democratic measures, stand a chance. We on these Benches give the Bill our earnest support.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, this Northern Ireland Bill has been unamended in your Lordships' House. We on these Benches welcomed it at Second Reading, and I now repeat that we wish it, and the people of Northern Ireland, well. Explanatory memoranda have suggested little certainty, but much possibility, as the noble Earl has today so graphically reminded us—for which I, too, thank him. I quote the memoranda: A new Northern Ireland Assembly, and a Northern Ireland administration answerable to it can resume legislative and executive functions". Further, There can be either partial or full devolution", just as, The system of government will be based on the Constitution Act of 1973. There can be periodic plebiscites at intervals of not less than 10 years". In short, it is possible for an Assembly to move to full devolution through partial devolution, but, even while it does not have any legislative function, we agree that it will still have an important function at that stage. I quote again: From its inception it will have scrutinising, deliberative and consultative functions in the transferred ' field … and a committee corresponding to each Northern Ireland department". Furthermore, and very importantly, the Secretary of State will be able to refer matters to the Assembly and consult it about matters concerning the Province.

This is a challenge to the people of Northern Ireland to take greater responsibilities for their own affairs. The world will look on with interest to see their response. I sincerely hope that the Northern Ireland Act of 1982 will prove a landmark of real progress in the history of Ulster.

4.19 p.m.

Lord Vaizey

My Lords, I should like, very briefly, to welcome the Bill. No matter how difficult, attempts must be made to see that the government of Northern Ireland proceeds from its present impasse, and I believe that the Bill certainly offers the best opportunity in this decade for a substantial measure of progress to take place. I should like, very briefly, to make only two observations, which I think are fair. Neither Stormont, nor local government in Northern Ireland, has in fact quite deserved the terms in which it has been painted. When I was an academic I had occasion to look closely at one major aspect of government and local government in Northern Ireland. I found that the level and quality of provision in Northern Ireland was certainly as good as, if not better than, anything else in the Kingdom—and was certainly better than that which prevailed in the Republic at that time—for both the Protestant community and the nationalists. It would be unfortunate if that particular poor reputation were automatically tied around the neck of representative institutions in the North. Personally I hope that, as the new representative institutions come into being, they will be able to achieve as high a standard of provision as prevailed before direct rule was undertaken.

Of course, in one respect Stormont and local government did fail—there was an obvious failure in the lack of participation of the nationalist community—but it would be wrong that the blame for that should attach only to the unionists. I do not want to lengthen my speech by dealing with history, but we have to remember that for many years the nationalists boycotted the Northern institutions; and, moreover, that the war itself, in which, for better or for worse, the South decided to be neutral, was a major and traumatic event in the history of the relationships between the two parts of Ireland.

Secondly—this is my last point—I should like to express my sympathy with what my noble friend Lord Brookeborough has said. I absolutely agree with my noble friend on the Front Bench that Ministers must adopt a policy of neutrality in any electoral process or any referendum process in the North between the nationalists and the unionists, because it is vital that elections in this country should be seen to be fairly conducted. But members of the Government are members of the United Kingdom Government, and as such it must necessarily be a fundamental point that they believe that the United Kingdom Government is the preferred form of government for all parts of the United Kingdom. After all, nobody would serve in a Republican Cabinet in Dublin who thought that independence in the South was fundamentally a mistake—and there are a number of people in the South who do think that.

I think members of the United Kingdom Government ought to speak up in favour of the United Kingdom; and, in all fairness to my noble friend on the Front Bench and to my right honourable friend in another place, they have spoken up in support of the United Kingdom. Indeed, my noble friend did so again this afternoon. But I think it is vital for Members of Parliament here and in another place to support my noble friend and my right honourable friend in the belief that the United Kingdom can and does offer the kind of Government which will suit both communities in the North.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I am afraid I missed his earlier remarks and it may be that he answered my point, but surely he is not saying that it is the duty of every member of the Government here to rule out the idea of a United Ireland as an ideal aspiration?

Lord Vaizey

Yes, my Lords, I think I would, if you served in a Conservative Cabinet. Of course, I am not quite sure what the present state of the noble Lord's party may be, or which sector he belongs to. He may well be a militant. I have just reviewed one of his books, in which he speaks in favourable terms of all Members of your Lordships' House, and particularly all sections of the Labour Party. But I quite honestly feel that if you serve in a Conservative and Unionist Cabinet, and as a Minister of State or Under-Secretary in a Conservative and Unionist Cabinet, it would be two-faced to say that you did not support the nation of the United Kingdom. That does not mean to say that you have always to serve in the United Kingdom Government—it is a free option; you can refuse to accept the Prime Minister's invitation, I assume—but, personally, I would take that to be a matter of conscience.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, it seems to me that we have had Second Reading speeches at every stage of this Bill. I will spare the House and say that on these Benches we are solidly behind the Government in their attempt to take a step forward, and we hope the passing of this Bill will help them.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I should like to give the Bill my best wishes. I hope that the Assembly will not turn into a talking shop, because as far as I see it the representatives will be surely more like delegates, and we do not want the British Government to become their Aunt Sally. I hope that will not happen, and I wish this Bill well. I would also hope that when the Assembly is formed they will themselves set up a committee to keep in close touch with Dublin regarding trade, economics, tourism and all these other questions, because I am sure that that will help to bring about good relations with the South. That is all I have to say, but I wish it well.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend on the way he has conducted this Bill; and, while I do not agree that it is in fact a good thing, like everybody else, and not for the first time, I shall do my very best to see that it works as well as it possibly can.

Lord Monson

My Lords, may I say how regrettable it is that there have been such short intervals between the later stages of the Bill. As almost invariably happens, this has led to problems. I have in mind, for example, the excellent amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ellenborough, in Committee, notably his first amendment, which would have empowered the Assembly, subject to the most stringent safeguards, to assume local government powers. It became quite clear after reading Tuesday's Hansard last night—and few of us had the time to do so before yesterday evening—that the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, the official Opposition, the SDP and the Liberals all misunderstood that amendment. They all seemed to be under the impression that it would impose local government powers upon the Assembly, and upon a possibly unwilling Province. Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, himself used the word "impose" at col. 769.

The reality was that there could be no question of imposing anything. The amendment was entirely permissive. There could have been no question of local government powers being granted unless, first of all, there appeared to be massive support for such proposals among the Northern Ireland electorate or their representatives; and, secondly, unless each House of Parliament acknowledged that support and agreed to the granting of such powers. If we had had the normal intervals between stages, we might have been able to meet in private the noble Lords who were suspicious of the amendment and convince them of its harmlessness and its considerable potential merit, and things might be different today. However, there is nothing more that can be done about this now.

It would be churlish for those of us who have not cared for this Bill either in principle or in detail to do anything now other than to wish it well and hope that our fears turn out to be unfounded. I should like to congratulate the noble Earl on the adept and elegant way in which he has piloted this Bill through the House. I should like to congratulate him, too, on his frankness and honesty. When, for certainly the third or fourth time this month, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked the noble Earl and the Government to come out more warmly and more enthusiastically in favour of the Union, the noble Earl finally replied in col. 798 (I paraphrase him) that it would be perfectly all right for an individual to speak warmly and enthusiastically for the Union and it would be quite all right for a political party in a non-governmental capacity to do so, but it would be quite improper for a British Government to do so since they believe in self-determination and to come out in favour of the Union would be taking sides and would be loading the question. As I said, I have to congratulate the noble Earl on his candour.

What is now evident is that, so far as one small area of the United Kingdom is concerned, with its well-established and internationally recognised boundaries, the British Government of today feel that it is improper to express the normal partisan pride and support that Governments normally do express about their own territory. Instead, they regard themselves as an impartial referee holding the ring without fear or favour between two contending factions. This clarifies a great deal of what has hitherto been obscure, and I am grateful to the noble Earl.

Lord Ellenborough

My Lords, perhaps I should make a very brief intervention, which I trust will not be a Second Reading speech. I, too, should like to thank my noble friend Lord Gowrie for replying so fully and carefully, and with such patience, to the many points made. I must apologise to him that I was unavoidably called out of the Chamber when he was speaking a few moments ago, and I hope I have not missed anything of very great importance. I can only hope that if this experiment is not seen to be producing worthwhile results over a reasonable period, and if the Assembly is seen to be degenerating into a sort of talking shop, then the Government are not going to fool around and the Assembly will be wound up decisively and not allowed to drag on. Obviously, political uncertainty and hesitation in Northern Ireland will hinder the fight against terrorism and hinder investment. I have a feeling that those who directly rule in Northern Ireland could yet be surprised by the reaction of those who are directly ruled. By this I mean that when the full implications of future devolution are made clear—and I know that this is not a devolution Bill but devolution is going to come if the Act progresses—and the risks involved are more generally realised, it might be that direct rule, which, I think, everybody agrees is everybody's second choice at the moment, might become everybody's first choice. That might turn out to include the majority of both sections of the community. It will need to be a rather more positive form of direct rule, eventually, with more local democracy, more imagination and more commitment on the part of the Government.

As my noble friend is aware, I am an unrepentant unionist and opposed to devolution in principle because of the danger involved of implementing fragmentary devolution for just one part of what, in legislative terms, is a unitary state. I have tried to point out the dangers in the Second Reading debate and in Committee as did my honourable friends in another place. No matter how different is Northern Ireland from Scotland and Wales—and it is different—any new Parliament formed will not be similar to the old Stormont. We are in a different ball game now. Constitutional questions, which became known as the West Lothian conundrum, which were so highlighted during the debates on Scottish and Welsh devolution have been quite brushed aside in these debates on the proposed eventual devolution for Northern Ireland.

My noble friend has not answered the West Lothian problem. I do not ask him to do so now because there is no answer to it. But the trouble will come when we have a Government at Westminster whose existence hangs upon the 17 votes of the Northern Ireland Members. Then it will be argued, "Why should they decide the fate of our Government when they have an effective Parliament and Government of their own?" It is this which will undermine the effectiveness of the Northern Ireland Members in another place and will be detrimental to the unity of the Kingdom. I do not think that the potential dangers to the unity of the Kingdom is appreciated as a result of this Bill's proposals. I only trust that the people of Ulster will have the good sense to see that, and I predict that the views of the few today may well become the views of the many tomorrow.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, it gives me pleasure to be able to end our proceedings on this Bill by actually agreeing with my noble friend Lord Ellen-borough. Of course, there will be no devolution unless the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives want it. If they do want it, then I would suggest to my noble friend that there would be little danger in giving it to them. Direct rule goes on because the people of Northern Ireland are a constituent part of the United Kingdom. Until they determine otherwise or the United Kingdom Parliament accepts their ruling in determining otherwise, I see no reason why they should not have an input of a serious constitutional kind into the affairs of the United Kingdom as a whole. That seems to me to answer the problems of the West Lothian question.

Could I say to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that at Second Reading I gave notice that there would be a long pause between Second Reading and Committee stage and inevitably that would mean that the Report and Third Reading stage would have to be concertina-ed because we are dealing with enabling legislation, including the enabling legislation for elections to proceed. Finally, can I say to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, who praised with faint damns (I think) what he thought my somewhat dubious candour, that I, like all other Ministers in successive British Governments, am bound by the Constitutional Act 1973 and the remarks that I made should be seen in the light of the fact that that Act is still very much on the statute book.

I am grateful to the House for having given these proposals, modest and enabling as they are, a fair wind. Our main concern now must be a hope that the people of Northern Ireland find them suitable, are able to take them up, and able to try to make the slow, painful and awful frustrating movement towards greater peace and stability. Upon that we are all united in wishing them well. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed.