HL Deb 28 July 1982 vol 434 cc287-90

7 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Day of Election) Order, which was laid before this House on 14th July, be approved. The draft order which, if approved, will be made under Section 27(7) of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, appoints Wednesday, 20th October, as the date on which the election to a new Northern Ireland Assembly will be held. The Assembly was dissolved with effect from 28th March 1975 under Section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

The proposed election to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be fresh in the minds of your Lordships who have so recently discussed, and given their approval to, what is now the Northern Ireland Act 1982. The scope of the present draft order is very narrow—it simply appoints the date of the election to the Assembly. The House will be in no doubt about the Government's commitment to offering the people of Northern Ireland a framework for political progress and your Lordships will, I am sure, agree that to proceed to an early election to an Assembly is the right course. I am convinced that there is an expectation of, and a desire for, progress in Northern Ireland, and after much speculation about how the act will work, surely there is nothing to be gained by delay in putting its provisions into effect by electing an Assembly at the earliest reasonable opportunity.

We believe that the date chosen, 20th October, allows sufficient time for the chief electoral officer and his staff to prepare for the election, and for the Northern Ireland parties to campaign effectively after the holiday season, while at the same time the date avoids the oncoming winter period, with its limited daylight hours, and weather, and possible security problems in consequence. The election will take place on a Wednesday—like local elections in Northern Ireland—so that the counting of votes, which inevitably will be a lengthy process in the larger constituencies, can be completed before the weekend. The order setting out the election timetable and the rules for the conduct of the election, which is subject to negative resolution, will be made shortly, thus giving the electoral staff and the parties plenty of time for preparation. I commend the draft order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th July be approved.—(The Earl of Gowrie.)

Lord Blease

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl the Minister for explaining to the House the general outline and details of the order. In welcoming the order, I note that it was debated at some length in another place on Monday last, 26th July. As one who has actively participated in the political life of Northern Ireland for almost 50 years, I am pleased that there now appears to be concern expressed and debated by Northern Ireland political parties and politicians about upholding and supporting the principles of parliamentary democracy. I consider that this is a pleasant change, for I can recall the great hostility and vigorous resistance shown by some Northern Ireland politicians towards the labour and trade union campaign for changes in the Northern Ireland local government franchise and for the adoption of the Westminster principle of one man, one vote.

However, I agree with the noble Earl that there is an expectation of, and a desire for, an early election for the Assembly to be held, and I believe that that expectation and desire are based on the reasons stated by him in regard to timing. Indeed, I would go further. I would say that if ever there was a time when Northern Ireland needed friends and understanding, that time is now. I would hope that in the forthcoming election for a Northern Ireland Assembly citizens from all walks of life, and from the various interests in the Province, will offer themselves as candidates for the new Assembly.

I believe that the political and economic issues confronting the Northern Ireland people require that the electorate should be given a real opportunity to decide who should genuinely represent them in the new Assembly.

I note what the noble Earl the Minister has stated in the House on a previous occasion, and what has been repeated in another place, about the current review of the criteria for disqualification from the United Kingdom Parliament, and that the findings of the review should have a close link with the criteria for the Assembly. I support the view that we should await the outcome of the review before deciding any changes concerning the Assembly.

There is just one point that I should like to put to the Minister. I understand that the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly election will be held under the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 and the Polling Schemes Regulations 1972. I hope that I am right in that assumption, and I think that this is an appropriate occasion on which I should put this question to the Minister. Will the Minister give an undertaking that every possible facility and opportunity are given to provide adequate and suitable siting of polling stations to ensure reasonable access to all wishing to record their vote? I believe that there are 545 separate premises designated by the chief electoral officer in his report for the period ended 31st March 1981. Perhaps since that date a few adjustments in the siting arrangements are necessary. With those remarks I certainly welcome and support the proposal for an election to be held for the new Assembly.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl for introducing the order fairly briefly, and once again I congratulate him on slipping from Bill to order and back to Bill with such apparent ease. The order is consequential upon the passage of the Northern Ireland Bill which we supported, and the arrangements seem entirely satisfactory to us. I would say that my party, and I am authorised by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, to add the SDP, support the Government in the order.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I, too, should like very briefly to support what has been said. There can be no doubt that those of us who have supported the principle of the Assembly can do no other than support the arrangements and decisions made about the election. I think it very important that there has been no postponement. On the one hand people have expected the election and have made preparations for it, and postponement could only have encouraged the forces of disruption in the feeling that they had succeeded in what, tragically, they have already started to try to do.

I should like to make just one point in support of what my noble friend has said regarding the one problem that has posed itself in the context of the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act. This matter has already been raised, and the Minister gave us to understand that the criteria would be examined and that there would be a report on it. One can only stress the importance of the fact that the future of the Assembly depends on there being strong cross-community support for the election, and it would seem too tragic if there were an obstacle and an excuse were given to certain people—

Lord Blease

An excuse, an excuse.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

Not to participate in the election, and therefore the future were undermined. So I would implore the Minister to do whatever he can to find a way around this predicament. It is a question not just of the anomalies in the Disqualification Act, but also the results that will arise from the disqualification of certain people. So much is in the balance, and I hope that a way can be found to get around the problem.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am extremely gratified by the response of the two noble Lords and the noble Baroness who have spoken, and I should like to offer my thanks to them. I should like to answer in reverse order the two points that have been made to me. Obviously I am very much seized of the problem which the noble Baroness has outlined. But it is difficult to alter primary legislation in respect of individual cases and for individual activities, whether successful or unsuccessful, that are still somewhat hypothetical. I do not think that quite enough people appreciate that the parliamentary machinery is very cumbersome and parliamentary timetables are inevitably very crowded. However, I shall consider the point. I would perhaps prefer to direct the noble Baroness's attention to the very wise words uttered by her noble friend Lord Blease from the Labour Benches, expressing the hope that those who stand for the Assembly, or who freely chose to stand, will exercise choice in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. That would seem to me to be where, perhaps, I should leave the point for the moment.

On the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, the Assembly Election Rules, which will form the second Schedule to the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Order 1982, which my right honourable friend is making, will provide for the chief electoral officer, who is an independent official, to provide a sufficient number of polling stations for the election. The chief electoral officer will, as he has had to do in other Northern Ireland elections, devise a polling station scheme for the Province which strikes a balance between making polling stations readily available to all electors in the Province, as the noble Lord, Lord Blease, quite fairly wanted, while taking into account, of course, the resources available to the security forces in order to give adequate protection to polling stations at the same time.

It is a sad and inevitable fact that the path to political progress and free choice in Northern Ireland is very easily interrupted by violent activities. It is all the more essential that people be as protected from these as best they can be, and that the purpose of the community as a whole is not deflected in any way in response to the men of violence. But I will take the point that the noble Lord has made and will refer it to the chief electoral officer, and I am sure he will do his best.

On Question, Motion agreed to.