HL Deb 11 February 1987 vol 484 cc716-36

7.48 p.m.

Lord Hylton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have studied Report No. 72 from the Minority Rights Group Co-Existence in Some Plural European Societies and whether they find it a helpful contribution to dialogue and co-existence within Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this question concerns co-existence. Co-existence is something which we all desire but need to strive for with all the effort and intelligence we can command. This is true whether in the East-West context, or in parts of Europe such as Northern Ireland or the Basque country, and even in some plural areas of contemporary England. My task tonight is to sketch in the background to the report which we are considering and to outline its content and indicate its main relevance to Northern Ireland. I should like to say how grateful I am to all noble Lords taking part in this debate. I am sure they will develop its themes and I look forward to the Government's reply.

The report came about at the request of the Churches Project on Human Rights and Responsibilities in the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland. The report was published in November, 1986. On the other hand the project itself expects to unveil its own longer text before the end of this year. I should like to thank the Minority Rights Group for reminding us that human rights problems are potentially soluble. It has done so by giving us some significant examples of ethnically or religiously divided societies where civil wars once prevailed, or which plagued international statesmen and disrupted relationships between neighbouring states, but which now enjoy amicable inter-group relationships.

The report contains five case studies. The first two, by Professor Antony Alcock of the University of Ulster, survey particular local situations: the South Tyrol (or Alto Adige as the Italians call it) and the Swedes in Finland, with particular reference to the Aland Islands. The remaining three studies consider the recent political culture of Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. These three countries have had complex and chequered histories and have suffered from the interference of more powerful neighbours. Their societies, though divided by language, religion and ethnic factors, nevertheless show how coexistence can flourish when it is actively sought and is buttressed by appropriate institutions.

Let us look in greater detail at the first two cases that I have mentioned. After 1918, the South Tyrol was detached from Austria and given to Italy, despite the existence of an overwhelming majority of German-speaking inhabitants. The fascist government later set out to Italianise the province to the detriment of the German-speaking Tyrolese. In 1946 the Italian and Austrian leaders, De Gasperi and Gruber, reached an agreement to improve the situation. The ultimate future of the province however remained in doubt until 1955 when it was settled by the Austrian peace treaty. The area remained in Italy, but with a local constitution drawn up with very little local consultation and only nominal devolution of powers.

The discontent of the Tyrolese expressed itself in terrorism, which continued for 15 years until 1970. It was ended by a new Italian-Austrian package agreement of 1969 followed by an improved local constitution with effective safeguards for minorities, including both the Tyrolese minority in Italy and the Italian minority in the South Tyrol.

Turning now to Finland, we note that this is a new country dating from 1919. Swedes make up 6 or 7 per cent. of the population. The Swedish and Finnish languages enjoy equal rights and the resident Swedes look on themselves as co-founders of modern Finland. This helpful climate made for a relatively easy solution to the problem of the Aland Islands, with the help of the League of Nations. The islands lie between Finland and Sweden where the Baltic Sea leads into the Gulf of Bothnia. Their population is about 22,000 and is 95 per cent. Swedish.

What happened there was that in 1921 Sweden withdrew its claim to sovereignty, and at the same time Finland agreed to preserve the Swedish language, culture, traditions and character of the islands. The agreement was reflected in the local constitution of 1922 which was revised in 1951. This provides for a generous measure of local autonomy.

I suggest that Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands are only indirectly relevant to Northern Ireland. They provide examples of tolerance, compromise and pluralism. On the other hand, the South Tyrol and the Aland Islands are, I believe, directly relevant. Why should this be true of two such distant and remote corners of Europe? I shall attempt to explain. The fact that satisfactory solutions were reached depended much on the wisdom of Austria and Sweden and on the enlightened co-operation of Italy and Finland. Austria accepted the international frontier as drawn after the First World War and confirmed in 1955. Sweden renounced its claim to sovereignty. In return, Italy and Finland provided acceptable local constitutions with autonomy and protection for minorities. In each case what Professor Alcock calls the "territorial destiny" of the area had to be settled before appropriate arrangements could be made for its inhabitants.

What, then, is the territorial destiny of Northern Ireland? In theory it is part of the United Kingdom, with or without devolution. Nevertheless, as Professor Bernard Crick has pointed out, the British citizenship of its inhabitants is conditional upon the continued and expressed desire of the Northern Ireland electorate to remain part of the United Kingdom. This conditional—one might almost say provisional—status came in with the Ireland Act 1949 and was repeated in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The uncertainty is reflected in Article 2 of the 1937 constitution of the Irish Republic, which baldly claims sovereignty over all 32 counties of the island of Ireland. This claim led directly to attempts in the Republic to have the Sunningdale Agreement ruled unconstitutional and to the mild degree of ambiguity present in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and in particular to the different headings of the official text which were widely commented on at the time.

The practical consequences of such uncertainty are, alas, that the fears and "siege mentality" of the Unionist community are greatly encouraged. For instance, it becomes possible for Unionists to refer to the Republic as a hostile alien state. Terrorists, on the other hand, are encouraged to think that eventually "our day will come", either through the weariness of some future British Government or perhaps through the emigration of many Unionists. The British and Irish guarantees, far from making Unionists intransigent, actually make them very insecure.

Here, I wish to welcome in the warmest possible way the discussion paper called Common Sense, published at the end of January by the Ulster Political Research Group. It is a real contribution to dialogue and coexistence. The document says: At present Northern Ireland exists and is a part of the United Kingdom. This situation may not be the wholehearted wish of everyone in the province, but must be recognised to be the wish of most".

That is an excellent starting point, and the authors of the document opt to remain within the United Kingdom instead of choosing independence, as was the case in their earlier pamphlet of 1979 entitled Beyond the Religious Divide. Unfortunately, the authors do not remove all uncertainty, because they allow for the possibility of a 66 per cent. majority changing the status of Northern Ireland and rewriting its proposed written constitution. In spite of this, they have contributed something really worthwhile to internal dialogue, and one can only urge the other parties to be equally constructive.

We can rejoice that all the major political parties in Britain and Ireland are committed to the principle of consent within Northern Ireland and of agreement between the two sovereign governments. This was clear as long ago as the time of Sunningdale. It was reinforced by the communiqués issued in December 1980 after Mr. Haughey had met Mrs. Thatcher and again in November 1981 when Dr. FitzGerald met our Prime Minister. In the debate of 19th November 1985 in the Dail on the Anglo-Irish agreement Mr. Desmond, then Minister of Health, quoted Professor Kevin Boyle as follows: Irish Governments have always behaved internationally on the basis that our supposed claim to Northern Ireland was in reality an aspiration of the nation to be united and not an assertion that this State claimed Northern Ireland as part of its territory, which in some way was illegally occupied by a foreign state. Articles 2 and 3 concern the political theory that the Irish nation should be united some day. They do not represent a claim to the territory of Northern Ireland".

This view was expressed in practice in 1925 when Mr. Cosgrave and the Government of the Irish Free State recognised Northern Ireland in an agreement registered at the League of Nations. It was expressed again by the Fianna Fail Government which signed the 1973 Treaty of Accession to the European Communities and accepted without reservation that Britain signed on behalf of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, these finer points are not generally known to Unionists. They, like me, tend to think that constitutions should deal in facts and not in aspirations and political theories. We all have to accept that consent for change in the status of Northern Ireland does not now exist and is most unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. This, I suggest, is realism in Ireland just as much as in Britain.

I now ask Her Majesty's Government: do they agree that uncertainty exists in Northern Ireland and elsewhere? Do they accept that uncertainty is what destabilises things and prevents internal agreement? Will they work towards a known, definite, certain, unconditional territorial destiny for Northern Ireland within the recognised international frontier? Such a course will demand exceptional wisdom and forbearance from the people and Government of the Republic of Ireland. It will have to be a co-operative venture—I cannot emphaise that too much—but once clarity has been achieved, fears will subside and it will become possible to work out the appropriate measures to ensure local autonomy, both cultural and political, together with the necessary protection for minorities.

I plead in support paragraph 618 of the report on minorities made in 1977 to the United Nations by Signor Francesco Capotorti. He wrote: History shows that the minority problem can poison international relations. However, with the new standards set by the United Nations in the framework of human rights, minority groups can now play a positive part in international relations. When their rights are guaranteed and fully respected, minority groups can serve as a link between States … and thus help strengthen co-operation and peaceful relations between the countries concerned … The Special Rapporteur strongly believes that bilateral agreements dealng with minority rights, especially between neighbouring countries, would be extremely useful. It must be stressed, however, that co-operation with regard to the rights of memberss of minority groups should be based on mutual respect for the principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States concerned and non-interference in their internal affairs".

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down after his extremely interesting and well-researched speech, I wonder whether he can clarify one point. He said that in theory Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Would he not agree that in statute law dating back over many decades, Northern Ireland is also an unequivocal part of the United Kingdom?

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I do not intend to enter into debate with the noble Lord. What I suggest with all the strength at my command is that there is an excessive degree of uncertainty about the future.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Coleraine

My Lords, I believe that we are all extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for giving us the opportunity this evening to discuss this more than interesting report.

Mr. Paul Sieghart, in the afterword to the report, claims that the report, shows clearly that all the classical divisions between majorities and minorities are potentially bridgeable. It is his emphasis in the report on the word "all" that I am reflecting. This is in my view an optimistic opinion in relation to Northern Ireland. My conclusions, on the strength of my reading of the report and the case studies in it, are that the claim is not altogether proved. I will come to my reasons for giving the conclusions of the report less than total acceptance. I should like to start by saying how very valuable I found my reading of these five case studies, drawn as they are from Western European experience, demonstrating how people of different backgrounds—whether of religion, culture, language or nationality in the broadest sense—thrown together by accident of history, have learned to co-exist without the need to redraw national boundaries. There are lessons to be learned as to the way to bring harmony to disharmonious situations and as to pitfalls to be avoided.

I am firmly convinced that in a generalised way, provided more damage and distress will be caused by redrawing frontiers which history has handed down to us than by retaining the status quo, it is better for frontiers to remain undisturbed. Nevertheless, a wise majority in a plural society will make absolutely certain that the minority are afforded special consideration, rights and respect.

The report draws attention to five countries where the story seems to be, "Happy ending, so far". I propose to speak about the South Tyrol because in the history of the South Tyrol over the past 70 years I see the closest similarities to the Northern Irish predicament. It seems to me that this view is shared by the editors of the report and Professor Alcock, because the South Tyrol case study is placed first and dealt with at greatest length, and has the most boldly presented conclusions.

I consider that the most important element present both in the Northern Irish and the South Tyrol situation is the presence of the aspiration of the minority in question to be united with a motherland on the other side of a national frontier. This element, as the noble Lord has pointed out, is largely absent in the cases of the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and the Swedes of mainland Finland. It is present in the case of the Finnish Aland Islands alone, but here under 30,000 Swedes are involved, separated by some 40 miles of sea and nearly 200 years of history from their Swedish motherland, and there seem to be other good reasons why these Swedes should be satisfied with the status quo. Thus I see that the Aland Islands throw no great light on the present Northern Ireland problem.

The South Tyrol, in the words of Professor Alcock, contains one of the richest stores of information in the world on the issues involved in dealing with the problems of divided communities. The area contains a number of lessons for Northern Ireland, some very important, some less relevant. That is his claim, and it is with two of his lessons that I should like to deal.

The first lesson that Professor Alcock draws—and he refers to it as the "decisive lesson"—is that peaceful inter-community relations can only be carried out within a stable political framework. This seems uncontroversial enough, but when we examine more closely what he means in the Irish context it seems clear that by a "stable political framework" he implies that both Westminster and Dublin should guarantee the permanence of the present frontier between North and South; in particular, it suggests that Parliament's declaration to the Protestants that the present frontier will last unless and until the majority in Northern Ireland decide otherwise is seen as unfortunate and unsafe. This is certainly a view with which one may sympathise—even share—but it seems to me that he recommends not just the withdrawing of the declaration; he goes further. What he implies is that the word to be used to the minority is "never", and I do not believe that that is a word that we should be wise to utter.

Professor Alcock argues that, because the Catholic minority have these aspirations, power sharing is out of the question. He writes it is clearly absurd, if not dishonest, to share power within a political framework when it is the avowed intention of one of the parties sharing that power to do away with the framework within which that power is shared". He also sympathises with those who justified discrimination in jobs and houses by asking why the benefits of the state should be extended to those who have wished for, and often sought, the abolition of that state.

I find this lesson and these conclusions not altogether helpful. The thrust of his argument it seems to me is directly against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. My submission would be that the aspirations of the minority community, including aspirations to a different political destiny, must continue to be respected, and I hope that my noble friend the Minister will reiterate the Government's determination to stand by the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in this respect.

The other lesson that Professor Alcock draws, and to which I would refer, is his fourth. It is that those Irish nationalists are wrong who claim that Ireland should be united for the geographical reason that Ireland is an island and that its people, by a large majority, want unification. It could be that the argument is wrong but not, I would say, for the reasons that Professor Alcock gives.

His argument seems to be that at the Treaty of Versailles the frontiers of Europe were wrongly drawn in the case of the South Tyrol because the South Tyrol was seen as part of the Italian "island", being separated from Austria by mountains instead of the sea, sharing with Italy a Mediterranean flora and also forming part of a geographical entity with the Trentino, an Italian-speaking part of the Austro-Hungarian empire about whose incorporation in the Italian state no doubts are expressed.

He implies that the South Tyrol should have gone to Austria. I would not quarrel with that judgment. Nor do I need to refer to the other reasons for Italy's annexation of the South Tyrol. But he writes: The consequences of transferring territory on the basis of geography rather than democracy were cultural genocide, international tension, terrorism, economic sabotage, and more than six decades of inter-community tension which has not entirely died down". He asks: In Italian terms, has it been worth it? My submission about all this is that the conclusions as to Ireland do not follow from the premises. The references to geography do not seem to me to answer the Irish nationalist argument. The references to democracy seem to me to beg numerous questions. I am not for one moment putting a case for a united Ireland, but there is no sense that I can see in which the unification of Ireland, either now or had it taken place at the time of partition, could be said to be on all fours with the incorporation of Bolzano into Italy. I see no sense in which the Irish can be said to have been saved by partition from the troubles which beset the inhabitants of Bolzano.

The principal point to be made against Professor Alcock's analysis at this point, it seems to me, is the simple one that the German-speaking minority were a local numerical majority in Bolzano, so that it was possible to establish local autonomy for them. In the case of the United Kingdom the minority with whom we are concerned are, within their own local area, a numerical minority. They do not have the possibilities which were open to the German-speaking inhabitants of Bolzano.

What seems to me to be the lesson to be drawn from the history of Bolzano and of the other case studies is that the Irish question does not fit neatly into any of these moulds. In my view the present political settlement and the state of affairs in Northern Ireland are inherently more than unstable. The old remedies, canvassed at length in this report, are good, but they are not sufficient. New and radical constitutional openings have to be sought, and in the Anglo-Irish Agreement we have one such new opening.

Those within the Province who oppose the agreement—and I know how many they are and how sincerely they do so—must realise that they dig their own graves by distancing themselves from us in the way that they do. What they are now doing is insisting that they too are a minority within the United Kingdom. I believe it to be plain that a situation where the Northern Irish Catholics are a local minority within a Protestant population who are determined themselves to be a minority within the United Kingdom is too inherently unstable to survive. I shall be very interested to hear the views of my noble friend the Minister on this report.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I am doubly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for raising this matter; first because I think that it is good that he has given a chance for your Lordships' House to discuss these reports, and, secondly, because I am an ex-chairman of a minority rights group, and I am grateful to him for the publicity he has given to them. I should like to emphasise that this debate, as I understand it, is not about Northern Ireland but about the possible relevance of certain reports about other minorities in Europe to the situation in Ireland. If it were about Northern Ireland, I would hardly dare to intervene because I do not claim to be any expert on that matter.

It seems to me that there are two general points to be made about these reports. The first is that each minority situation differs from the other, and there is very little to be gained by studying the situation in the Aland Islands if you are dealing with Northern Ireland. Secondly, the reports leave out of account the growth of terrorism. We now have terrorism all over Europe which has, so to speak, latched on to minority problems, but which in many regards is simply an expression of thuggism which has taken up minorities while, really, it wishes to destroy any form of law and order whatever, and is not particularly interested in their grievance.

I should also like to say what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine; a man of great wisdom, as one would expect having known his father, with whom I spent at least two very enjoyable weeks going around the southern hemisphere. I agreed with a great deal of what he said.

The only report which seems to me to have direct relevance to Northern Ireland is the one on the Tyrol. The lessons I draw from that are, first, that one should, if possible, avoid getting into these situations. As the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, said, the situation after the 1918 war was quite indefensible by any principles which were supposed to govern the peace.

I do not want to pursue this matter, but there is a slight danger that you may get into difficulties in Scotland. The Labour Party has had an overwhelming majority in Scotland for some time and looks like increasing it. Unless some notice is taken of this in the general government of the British Isles, I can conceive of a situation in which there may be difficulties.

However, I pass from that to my second point, which is in relation to the Tyrol. It is made clear that an acceptable solution was only found when the parties accepted that the future was settled; that it was going to remain a part of Italy. In Northern Ireland—I speak very much subject to correction by leading experts such as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt—it seems to me that there is still ambiguity about the future.

It is said that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom until any plebiscite or referendum decides that it might go to Ireland. So long as there is this slight uncertainty, then of course the more violent elements have a reason for continuing. On the other hand, we have the southern Ireland constitution which still claims Northern Ireland as part of its domain.

I do not say that this is right, and I have crept very delicately, I may say. But the right lesson apparently to be drawn from the Tyrol is that the British should say quite firmly that Northern Ireland is to remain part of the United Kingdom, and a whole part; that it is going to elect Members to Parliament commensurate with its rights; and that it is on a par with any other part of the United Kingdom.

Once that is done, you begin to make special provision for the rights of minorities. You follow up the Anglo-Irish Agreement on consultation, which I regard as important, and possibly you have plebiscites in some of the border areas and allow those wishing to go to the Free State to go to the Free State if they vote that way. But there is no more talk of further plebiscites deciding whether it shall remain part of the United Kingdom, and, if possible, we should dissuade the southern Irish from claiming it as part of their domain.

I am sure that this is unacceptable and I do not put it forward from that point of view. But the lesson of these reports is that so long as the parties concerned, the Austrians and the Italians, allowed for some possibility of the situation in the South Tyrol altering, so long terrorism and unrest continued. But once it was accepted that it would remain part of Italy, then it was possible to devise all sorts of power sharing and all sorts of protection for the rights of minorities, and the situation was accepted. I do not know whether that could happen in Ireland, but it seems to me to be the conclusion of these reports in so far as they have any relevance to Northern Ireland.

We appear to have tried devolution which I supported. I supported the Prior recommendations for Northern Ireland, but they do not appear to have worked. Therefore, I am coming round to the belief that, rather like Solomon's judgment, something rather fiercer must be said. So far as I can see, the only thing that can be said, again reverting to the Tyrol, is that it should be a part, a whole part, a normal part of the United Kingdom. Then we can get round to making suitable arrangements for the minorities.

8.21 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, in all the years that I have been a Member of either House, I have always been struck by how very far, in debating or taking decisions on Ireland, either the Republic of Ireland, the island of Ireland or Northern Ireland, from reality we always seem to be. I am not too sure how to explain this, but I think it takes one to be Irish, to live in Northern Ireland, to represent a Northern Irish constituency or to have been born and reared in the Irish Republic before one can feel all the emotions attached to the problems of the relationship between Britain and Ireland.

There are always the polite circumstances in which one congratulates the proposer of whatever the subject is. I have read each and every report that has been promulgated by the Minority Rights Group. But, as has been said in different ways by the noble Lords, Lord Coleraine and Lord Grimond, there is no way of comparing the Irish situation with what pertains in Sweden, in Belgium, in France, in Italy and the South Tyrol. They are all part of the one land mass of Europe. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are part of the one land mass that is the island of Ireland. Those other disputes that have taken place over many centuries are not about the constitutional issue of the existence of the state. They may be religious disputes or they may be disputes about ethnic cultures or many other factors, but there is no way that the people of Belgium want to become part of France or the people of France want to become part of Spain. We have already seen many difficulties in relation to the Common Market negotiations or to the people of the South Tyrol. None of those disputes is about changing the constitutional position of the country in which it began. I have read all those reports. In fact at the beginning of all the reports issued by the Minority Rights Group there is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. The authors go through all 30 of the articles. The last, Article 30, states: Nothing in this declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.". The other 29 articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in Northern Ireland all contradicted by Article 30, because in the state of Northern Ireland as it is presently governed by the British Government, the denial of jury rights, the institution of Diplock Courts, the existence of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act and the existence of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act all contravene Article 30 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

But when we talk about individuals, any person or group, then we have to think of the paramilitary organisations, both those on the so-called Irish Nationalist side and those on the so-called Loyalist side. These people do not only infringe human rights, but they take away the most basic of all human rights; they take away the life of the individual who is opposed to their particular creed. If they do not take away his life, they take away his limbs. All the atrocities committed in Northern Ireland are in total contradiction of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, in introducing this discussion tonight asked us to consider what has happened in Spain, Germany and France to see whether in some way what has happened there could be made applicable to Northern Ireland. I say to him with the greatest respect that this cannot be. I have already referred to all those other disputes which have taken place on the great land mass of Europe. Ireland is an island. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, a few moments ago saying that the minority in Northern Ireland refused to accept certain provisions for the state that were set out by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.

In Northern Ireland we have two minorities: we have the double minority syndrome. In Northern Ireland we have the Unionist majority within the context of the Six Counties who would become a minority in the context of a united Ireland. We have the minority within the context of Northern Ireland who would form part of the majority in a united Ireland. Thus there is a terrible conflict of the irresistible force and the immovable object. Where does one begin to apply the arguments we have heard advanced here tonight? The one main conflict in Northern Ireland is not about speaking Irish, it is not about singing Eireann songs, it is not about whether one is a Catholic and attends Mass on a Sunday or about being a Protestant and going to some form of Protestant form of worship in Northern Ireland. The basic conflict in the context of Northern Ireland is: do you accept the validity of this state? Do you accept the constitutional position that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and that the Republic of Ireland is a foreign country?

So we come to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I believe that that agreement has been promulgated with the best of intentions to allow the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland to live under their basic human rights and freedoms and to apply the same principle to the majority in Northern Ireland. But then you come to the conflict. I have lived there and I do not view the Northern Ireland situation with the same tranquillity. I know the passions that are there in Northern Ireland, where the Protestants, ethnic, Unionist, "Plantation" —and I hope that word is not taken as being offensive—say, "We are part of Britain and part of the United Kingdom", and where 40 per cent. of the population in Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority, say, "This is our island; you were brought here in the 16th and 17th centuries and therefore you have no right to dictate the future progress of this country."

It may be that if you had a 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. minority in Northern Ireland they would be very easy to deal with. You could afford to be generous because that minority would never be any real danger to the majority. But where you have a 35 per cent. or 40 per cent. minority all the seeds of conflict are sown. It is totally unreal to ask, in this House or in any other place, that the normal minority human rights and social justice provisions be set into such a conflict.

I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has been motivated by the very highest ideals. I have known him for many years—indeed, long before I became a Member of your Lordships' House—but what he is asking, and indeed what the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, has been asking, is that the minority in Northern Ireland of 35 to 40 per cent. accept the boundaries of the present state. That is what the noble Lords are asking.

Given Irish history and Irish emotionalism, that is something which they will never do. Even though the Anglo-Irish Agreement is allegedly down the road, the minority of the people of Northern Ireland will not accept it. They may for public relations reasons appear to accept it, but I am one of the minority in Northern Ireland. There is no way that the 40 per cent. Irish nationalist minority in Northern Ireland are ever going to say, "Yes, we have given up our allegiance. We are prepared to accept the boundaries. We shall not continue to yearn for or strive for a united Ireland". Once they take that attitude—which is a legitimate one, particularly in an atmosphere such as there is—it immediately brings a response from the Northern Ireland Unionist, who is totally opposed to that belief in the minority community.

Here we have the conflict between the two communities. The Northern Ireland majority are not going to agree to any concessions which will make it easier for their political opponents to take them out of the Northern Ireland state. The political and religious minority in Northern Ireland are not going to agree to any solutions that may be brought forward which will make them a permanent part of the partitioned state of the six counties of Northern Ireland.

As I say, here we have the conflict. It is not about speaking Irish, Dutch, Walloon or French. It is about the existence or the non-existence of the Northern Ireland state. What this House is trying to do—and we have been trying to do it for many years, if not indeed for many centuries—is to establish the relationships between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I should like to think, but I am realist enough not to believe, that some of the ideals which have been promulgated tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, could be realised by seeing what has been happening in other ethnic or religiously divided communities and applying them to Northern Ireland. But I have lived most of my life in Belfast, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has lived in a rarefied atmosphere very far removed from all the emotions which exist in Northern Ireland. I should love to think that I could go to Belfast next week and tell them that the UDA document which was issued last week and which is an advance is worthy of discussion. I am the first to recognise that any political discussion or assessment in Northern Ireland, from whichever community it may emerge, is worthy of discussion. I quite agree on that; but I would be less than optimistic of its eventual success.

This debate is certainly worth while and I understand the reasons which have motivated the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. But the situation in Ireland and in Northern Ireland is totally unlike the document which has formed the basis of this discussion, Report No. 72. As I say, I have read these reports over many, many years. I only wish that all those people who are so honestly and ideologically motivated and who have produced the reports could give me hope of just a little step ahead to solve the problem of Northern Ireland. It is terribly sad to say it, but the document which has prompted this debate is totally irrelevant to Northern Ireland.

8.37 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, at the outset I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for having given us the opportunity for this debate tonight. I am also sure that the Minority Rights Group and the authors of Report No. 72 are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for the debate.

Those of us who regularly address ourselves to debates on Northern Ireland affairs know that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has always broadened the basis of our discussions of Northern Ireland affairs with his own personal view of the problems and the way they can be overcome, and with his breadth of vision. His speech tonight has been in line with the contributions for which he is noted in your Lordships' House.

The report is not a sensational document: it was never meant to be a sensational document. Throughout its 18 pages it is informative, sometimes challenging and sometimes awkward. But I believe that it is illuminating in some of its paragraphs for those who seek to bridge the divisions within divided communities.

We are reminded that there are divided communities in other parts of Europe which manage to live side by side in peace. The South Tyrol, which is 66 per cent. German speaking and 30 per cent. Italian speaking, has been given very full treatment in the report; and a number of noble Lords have concentrated on the lessons to be learned from the South Tyrol.

Then the authors have dealt with the position of the Swedish-speaking community in Finland and on the Aland Islands, but admittedly 95 per cent. of the community on the Finnish Aland Islands are Swedes and they really constitute one community. Therefore, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, that that particular lesson is not very relevant in the context of Northern Ireland. The authors have gone on to trace the history of the linguistic situation in Belgium and the position of the minorities in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Again, I did not find the lessons from those communities very relevant to Northern Ireland which is the problem on our doorstep.

From the case material, primarily from South Tyrol and to a lesser extent from the Swedish community in Finland, the authors have drawn about half-a-dozen specific lessons of varying degrees of relevance to Northern Ireland, and I propose to touch briefly upon the three main lessons. The first is the need for certainty about a territory's destiny. This appears to be the central lesson from the experience of South Tyrol and the authors come back to this lesson on more than one occasion in their report. It has been heavily underlined tonight by the noble Lords, Lord Hylton, Lord Coleraine and Lord Grimond.

But if this conclusion is true, then it seems to leave us with a problem because the territorial destiny of Northern Ireland is surrounded by uncertainty or—to use the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond—ambiguity. If the lesson is valid, are we therefore to conclude that the absence of certainty of territorial destiny will defeat any substantial movement towards bridging the division in Northern Ireland, or do we say that this is not proven? Or can one compensate in another way for the absence of certainty of territorial destiny?

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Coleraine, that our hope must be that, given the co-operation and co-ordination between London and Dublin which was promised in the Hillsborough agreement—and that is the co-operation and co-ordination which was totally lacking for almost 65 years after 1921—and given other initiatives, time may modify the central lesson which the authors are drawing from South Tyrol.

The second main lesson is the necessity for a method of decision-making which ensures that there are built-in safeguards for the minority, either by giving the minority a veto or by ensuring that a majority decision which discriminates against the minority is subject to judicial review. I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, was rather pessimistic about the possibility of building such a structure in Northern Ireland. But I doubt whether this lesson can be bettered at this stage particularly when it is accepted by people in Northern Ireland that the Province cannot go back to the pre-November 1985 position. There must be a reasonable alternative. That is the clear impression that I formed when I was in Northern Ireland last September.

There is a third main conclusion if we accept the core of this report. That is the message that human rights problems are potentially soluble and that it is not a waste of time or of resources to seek to tackle them and to build bridges. It seems to me that that is the message which is worthy of repetition in your Lordships' House. So this lesson gives us hope that the immense difficulties of Northern Ireland—and we acknowledge that they are immense—will be overcome before we are worn out. And sometimes I detect a note of despair in some speeches in your Lordships' House.

It is right to remind ourselves that in the concluding paragraphs the authors of the report acknowledge that the divided community of Northern Ireland, like the divided community of the Basque country, is different from the communities which they have studied in this report. Therefore, we cannot be expected to draw a simple comparison with the divided communities in North-West and Central Europe. The problems of Northern Ireland are more complex and are larger. In Northern Ireland we have a major conflict of nationalities amalgamated with a passionate conflict of religions. My noble friends Lord Fitt and Lord Blease always remind us that the bleeding wounds of this conflict have been visible for centuries.

I was not surprised to read that the historian Liam de Paor concludes in his book The Peoples of Ireland published last year that by 1922 Northern Ireland had become—and these are his words—"an impossibly divided community." We cannot ignore that conclusion. So, never ignoring this historical dimension and never overlooking a certain fatalism about the quality of mind of some of the leaders of both traditions, particularly the religious leaders of both traditions—a fatalism which reminds me sometimes of the words of Patrick Pearse—there yet emerges within Northern Ireland itself, if only occasionally, a hopeful message and an illuminating flash of light as from a lighthouse.

That beings me to the constructive proposal published by the Ulster Defence Association on 29th January last, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and others. In essence, the statement calls for discussions, for a constitutional conference, with a view to establishing a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly with guarantees for the minority community and a Bill of Rights. This is an advancement and it is very much in line, as we have seen, with one of the major lessons identified in the report.

We must all think it significant that this proposal has been advanced by the UDA, which has hundreds of members serving life sentences for violence in the Province, and which has been so consistently hostile towards the minority Catholic nationalist community. So the proposal, if the UDA can deliver it, could he a span in the bridge which has to be built between the two communities in Northern Ireland leading to co-operation, reconciliation, peace and justice.

I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord the Minister has to say to the House in response to the report. How do the Government approach the lesson of territorial destiny? Do they believe that, in the circumstances of Northern Ireland, we can compensate for the absence of certainty of territorial destiny? Many of us, including very many outside your Lordships' House, will be interested in the Government's response to the UDA initiative. Can the Minister give an indication of government thinking? What conditions must be satisfied before the Government consider that a proposal offers a real way forward? Indeed, do the Government have confidence in the ability and skill of the UDA to undertake the major task of gaining popular support for the proposal?

Finally, I should again like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for the short debate tonight and also to thank the Minority Rights Group for its interest in the problems of dividend communities.

8.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I believe that your Lordships will agree with me that we should first offer our congratulations and our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who in a very thoughtful and fascinating speech has given us yet another opportunity to consider some of the vast number of problems of Northern Ireland. I shall try to answer as many as I can of the points raised by the noble Lord. I think I may call the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, a serious student of those problems, as are other noble Lords. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Coleraine produced a thoughtful study of some aspects of the report. However, even with these serious studies of the subject, a mere Scot like myself could only attempt to answer some of the questions.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, touched upon the history of these problems. They go back much more than a mere 70 years, much further back than the problems of the South Tyrol and the Aland Islands. As every nationalist says in Northern Ireland, the problems go back 700 years. And yet, it is a mere 15 or 16 months since the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed at Hillsborough.

If I may return to the very interesting debate that we have had this evening, we of course started from the position of the international context which is set out in the report of the Minority Rights Group. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and other noble Lords who have spoken this evening have reminded us, however intractable the problems facing the people of Northern Ireland may be, they are not wholly unique. For my own part, I read with the greatest interest the report of the Minority Rights Group. It is a praiseworthy attempt to draw a number of international parallels to the situation in Northern Ireland. I think your Lordships would agree that the report is a serious study and that the remarks made this evening also fall into that category. Any serious study which is directed at helping to bring about peace and stability in Northern Ireland is most warmly welcomed by the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, admirably summarised the main elements and indeed the conclusion of the report. I agree with him that the examples of the South Tyrol and the Aland Islands are the most interesting in the context of Northern Ireland. Of course there were other lessons to be learnt from the other three examples in the report. I found the report's discussion of all these problems most interesting. I give an undertaking to your Lordships that I shall be studying the bibliography. I am pleased that Professor Alcock will not be too far from my place of work and I may be able to pursue further studies.

Perhaps I may make two points at the outset this evening. The first is that in both the South Tyrol and the Aland Islands the problems seem to have involved linguistic minorities. As as been pointed out by your Lordships and stressed by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, many members of the nationalist minority community regard the Irish language as an important part of their cultural heritage. I stress that the Government recognise that worthy aspiration.

At the same time I think your Lordships will agree that almost everyone in Northern Ireland speaks English as their mother tongue. If we then go back to the elaborate arrangements which have been made and which exist in the South Tyrol for ensuring harmony between language groups (and possibly also cultural groups), these arrangements may not be necessary in this respect for Northern Ireland. The whole dimension of the problem as it applies throughout the history of what was the South Tyrol does not exist to the same extent in Northern Ireland. It may exist in some aspects but it does not exist in others, which may be the most important aspects.

The second point I wish to make at the outset so far as the report is concerned is that the positions of the South Tyrol and the Aland Islands, as part of Italy and Finland respectively, are guaranteed by international treaty. Your Lordships will see that on pages 5 and 9 in the report. The report argues, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, stressed in his remarks, that certainty about the future exists in these two areas which does not exist in Northern Ireland. I think that point was also the first point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

So far as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is concerned, I may begin to diverge a little from his remarks this evening. The whole approach of the Government to the vast range of problems of Northern Ireland rests on the principle that Northern Ireland should not leave the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. That point has been—I shall not say hammered home. It has been reiterated in forceful style by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. The principle is also written into Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which says that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish for no change in the status of Northern Ireland. Unless the people of Northern Ireland are about to change their minds—and I see no sign of that—then there is no uncertainty and none is likely to arise.

So far as the report is concerned, I believe that we also have to recognise that Northern Ireland's problems are very much its own problems. There are many problems and the history and situation of Northern Ireland is unique. Comparisons with other international situations, as we have in the report, are most interesting and illuminating. They give great grounds for education. However, I do not think they suggest any one, two, three or four blueprints for solutions. So far as the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, are concerned, I believe that that was the main thrust of his dissertation on the report this evening.

As regards Northern Ireland, let us not forget that few societies have been divided for so long, so deeply or on such fundamental principles. I do not think that any other community mentioned in the report before us has been subjected to a terrorist campaign of such intensity as that which the people of Northern Ireland have endured for many years. I see the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, nodding. We admire his courage and the courage of everyone in Northern Ireland who attempts to lead what we would see as a normal life in the situation in which they find themselves. This point was clearly brought out by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, and I took his remarks on board so far as that point was concerned.

Let us not forget that campaign of terror and the climate of hatred in Northern Ireland which the terrorist campaign has spawned. These matters go a long way towards making the underlying problems of Northern Ireland much more difficult and ensuring that they will take a much longer time to tackle. Terrorism and the lack of political consensus combine to worsen the economic situation.

The economic situation was clearly illustrated in Professor Alcock's report as far as the South Tyrol is concerned. Economic difficulties feed terrorism and they go on to feed political instability. It is the interlocking of Northern Ireland's political, security and economic problems, which though separate are related, that makes them so difficult to alleviate. They distinguish Northern Ireland from the five examples covered in the report.

The solution to the problems of Northern Ireland lie with the people of Northern Ireland themselves. An improvement in their situation depends crucially upon their own efforts; the efforts of every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland and in particular the efforts of their elected politicians. If the people of Northern Ireland are to solve their problems they need the help and the sympathy of this Parliament and of the United Kingdom Government at every stage.

The report which we are debating tonight is a helpful reminder that the people of Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands have all found broadly satisfactory solutions to the problems of their divided or fragmented societies. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, these problems are soluble given good will and a readiness to accommodate others—though whether those two qualities are available in sufficient quantities in Northern Ireland is a matter for debate. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has given his opinion and my noble friend Lord Coleraine will also have his thoughts on that.

The Government's objective in Northern Ireland remains the creation of a peaceful and stable society in which individuals may live free from violence and the creation of institutions with which members of both the majority and minority communities can identify. That sounds a mere aspiration, but it is one that this Government seek most warmly. Of course we hope that the people as a whole will have confidence in and support the arrangements by which they are governed.

I should like to touch briefly on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. We believe that the agreement is an essential part of that reconciliation which will come about in Northern Ireland but only when the two sides of the community achieve sufficient mutual respect and make sufficient mutual accommodation to participate a little more creatively in the public life of Northern Ireland. We hope that the Anglo-Irish Agreement provides a mechanism for that to come about. The aim of the agreement is to recognise the rights and identity of all the people of Northern Ireland and to respect the aspirations of each community.

It is worth stressing to both communities in Northern Ireland that the agreement offers the commitment in Article 1 that the status of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of a majority of people there. It is also worth stressing that the Irish Government have not before in their history given such an undertaking in what is an internationally binding document. I venture to suggest that the reassurances which they have given establish a new degree of certainty about the future of Northern Ireland. I say a degree of certainty because nothing can be cast-iron or 100 per cent., certainly with the history of Northern Ireland.

Your Lordships will be aware of the fairly brief history of the agreement. Of course it has met with a hostile reaction in many quarters in Northern Ireland. We deeply regret that so far the Unionist parties have chosen not to take up the opportunities for discussions and forward movement which are open to them. I again stress that the Government have repeatedly made clear that they are willing to participate in a round-table conference about devolution. I think the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, was hinting at devolution, but as a Scot I noted what he said about my own homeland. I do not attempt to bring in any similarity between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made clear that his door is open to the Unionist parties on any matter which is of concern to them. We have added that we would be prepared to operate the agreement sensitively in the interest of encouraging such talks. I think your Lordships will agree that it is a matter of the greatest regret that the Unionist parties have chosen not to take up those offers.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt—in fact most noble Lords—mentioned the UDA document entitled Common Sense. That is of course a weird but most interesting title emanating from such a source, but we live in hope. The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Prys-Davies, made reference to that document. The Government's policy is to seek a form of devolved government in Northern Ireland which will be widely acceptable in the sense of being acceptable to both communities.

In so far as this solution advocates the creation of a form of devolved administration operating on a consensus basis, the document Common Sense is consistent with the Government's policy, but I note two elements. The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has pointed out that these proposals are irrelevant; and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party said that they amount to an enforced power-sharing and that they are unacceptable to him. To paraphrase the words of one well known lady, "They would, wouldn't they?". Certainly we find that this document is of considerable interest.

I probably could cover a fairly wide spectrum of the problems of Northern Ireland but your Lordships would not wish me to go too wide this evening. I shall try to restrict my remarks to answering the questions raised. I hope I have covered some of the main problems.

I turn briefly to the comments of my noble friend Lord Coleraine. It is interesting that he found a note of optimism in the report. I was interested in his thoughts on the boundary of Northern Ireland in relation to that of the South Tyrol. The boundary of the South Tyrol—which was in Austria and is now in Italy—had been drawn, I think, in 1918 and eventually seems to have been settled in 1969 or even 1972. However, as far as the South Tyrol is concerned I agree—and there seems to be a firm guarantee—that the boundaries are indeed settled by international agreement.

I heard my noble friend mention the Treaty of Versailles and I was thinking of the historical point. From my elementary studies of this subject some years ago, I seem to remember that there was a Treaty of St. Germain but I think that it was the Versailles Conference; that is what they call it. No doubt we can discuss that at a later stage. So far as I am aware, the treaty of St. Germain dealt with arrangements between Austria and the allies, but I certainly know that the report points out that the Versailles Conference dealt with the setting up of what is now the South Tyrol.

We are very grateful for the personal interest of the noble Lord, Lord Grimond. Indeed, his name appears en grand titre in front of the MRG report. We are very grateful that he has come here this evening. Certainly in your Lordships' House nobody need fear giving vent to his thoughts on the problems of Northern Ireland, because this House particularly values intelligent discussion, if I may put it that way, especially such as that which we have had this evening. Above all we value the remarks that have been made on the subject this evening by the noble Lord. As brought out in the report, he stressed that each minority is different, and he emphasised the problem of terrorism. I enjoyed what I might call his "Irishism". When we look at the history of Ireland and the present situation perhaps we should not start from that point. However, the situation in Northern Ireland is a fact and we must try to deal with it as best we can. I reiterate once again that Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement emphasises that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and of course that rests on the principle of consent.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, suggested that there was no sensationalism in the documents and the report before us, and that indeed they were illuminating. I found them very much so. The noble Lord covered various points respecting the South Tyrol, including the certainty about the border, and giving the minority a guaranteed part in the decision-making. I shall not continue speaking for too long this evening about how this will apply in Northern Ireland. However, I take on board the fact that the problems of human rights are potentially soluble. I give him that guarantee. We also agree with the noble Lord, and are continually attempting to see what can be done to take the rougher edges off the problems of human rights in Northern Ireland which were so clearly described by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt.

As regards Northern Ireland and the report that is before us, political stability is essential to the future of Northern Ireland because it helps both to isolate the terrorists and to further economic development. In turn, these two processes will reinforce one another. Political stability can be brought about only by a form of government for Northern Ireland that is widely acceptable there. Any constitutional devices that are designed to secure the interests of one or another group within that devolved government will be of interest in so far as they may assist the parties to reach agreement or indeed agree on any arrangements which may be widely acceptable.

The report of the Minority Rights Group suggests a number of such constitutional devices and how they might apply to Northern Ireland. They are all of great interest and we shall certainly study them. I hope that they will also be studied carefully by the parties in Northern Ireland to see to what extent, if at all, they might meet the needs of those parties.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene to ask the Minister a question in relation to the UDA document. However, I assure him at the outset that I have absolutely no contact with it, except for having had posted to me, as have others, its document labelled Common Sense. Do the Minister and the Government consider that this document is worthy of discussion? Will Ministers be prepared to discuss with representatives of the UDA?

Let me say at the outset that I have the greatest reservations about members of the UDA because of their past history, but if the elected leaders—the Official Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and other elected leaders—are not taking part in discussions, do the Minister and the Government consider it an advance that an organisation in Northern Ireland that is allegedly claiming to represent many people there has put forward such views? Are the Government prepared to meet not only the UDA but others who appear to have constructive views on the solution of the Northern Ireland problem?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord has asked me five supplementary questions. I shall try to be brief and say that we are interested in the Common Sense report. I do not think that the noble Lord would expect me to commit the Government to go any further than to take what I call a passive interest—not even an active interest. We shall acknowledge receipt of this document and that we have seen it—indeed it has been widely published—but nothing more. Certainly I shall not dabble in questions of the paramilitaries, the UDA or anything else.

The minority group report suggests a number of devices. The Government will take careful note of them. I repeat that in the last analysis those ideas are of value only so far as they enable the elected representatives of Northern Ireland (that should cover at least three of the questions asked by the noble Lord in his intervention) to reach agreement among themselves. The phrase "among themselves" is of particular relevance. They must agree a form of government which will be widely accepted in Northern Ireland. We want to bend our efforts towards that objective. I assure the noble Lord that the Government will continue to do so with patience and, above all, determination.