HL Deb 26 June 1989 vol 509 cc539-54

6.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the fifteenth occasion on which your Lordships have been asked to renew direct rule for Northern Ireland. Direct rule was always intended to be, by its nature, temporary. Your Lordships might feel that 15 years does not have a very temporary ring about it; and I agree. However, the Government still want to see direct rule replaced with better, more accountable local arrangements. That is what most people in Northern Ireland also want to see. Sadly, however, the conditions for returning powers to local institutions have not yet been achieved and that provides the need for the order before the House this evening.

Direct rule was introduced because existing local institutions had been found wanting. The Government's responsibility under direct rule must continue to be, as it always has been, to provide good government—or at least the best government which direct rule can provide. That is what we have sought to do.

Good government is a proper end in itself, but it also has its part to play in maintaining security. It does so by undermining the claim, which is always spurious, that terrorism in the Province is a response to legitimate social or political grievance. We aim, therefore, to ensure coherent and consistent government across the full range of economic, social, political and civil matters. I think that we can say, without being unduly immodest, that we can be quite proud of our progress in some of those fields.

For example, standards of public housing and health care have greatly improved. Health and personal social services expenditure has increased by over £168 million (nearly 24 per cent.) in real terms in the past decade. Spending on education has increased by £112 million (16 per cent.) over the same period. Noble Lords will be aware that over recent months we have formulated some major reforms in the field of education and hope to lay legislation before your Lordships soon. The reforms encompass the additional support we are giving for integrated education.

The city of Belfast has had a massive injection of resources; £55 million was recently allocated under its regeneration programme. Current and programmed private sector investment in the city centre now totals no less than £450 million. Nor are we neglecting the needs of other centres of population.

Economic recovery is in progress throughout Northern Ireland. The Government have provided more than £240 million in the current financial year, 1989–90, for industrial development and support sources. International confidence in the Province has been demonstrated by the new investment by Montupet and Daewoo. Closer to home, the Department of Social Services in Great Britain is relocating 350 jobs to Belfast and, we hope for more such jobs. As regards my own department, agriculture, farming income has risen by 6 per cent. between 1987 and 1988. Marks and Spencer has opened a huge new branch at Sprucefield, on a very busy route —the junction of the Al road to Dublin and Newry and the motorway to the west of the Province. In addition, Debenham's has an enormous new facility at Castle Court in the city centre. That gives some indication of the spirit and commercial health in the Province. It is spread fairly widely throughout the Province.

Even more significantly, perhaps, over the past few months we have been able to offer new help to two of Northern Ireland's enterprises. We believe that they can only find a secure future outside the public sector. I refer to the privatisation plans for Shorts and for Harland and Wolff. We have concluded heads of agreement for the sale of Short Brothers to Bombardier Inc. of Canada with a substantial investment of Government funds to give the company every chance of a better future. We have also signed heads of agreement for the sale of Harland and Wolff to a management/employee buy-out team backed by two of Mr. Fred Olsen's companies.

That demonstrates that there is encouraging news on the economic front. Furthermore, in the past year the Industrial Development Board and the Local Enterprise Development Unit have promoted almost 11,000 new jobs. Unemployment, which is currently at 15.5 per cent., is still too high. However, it has been on a downward trend for the past two years. Seasonally adjusted, unemployment now stands at its lowest level for more than five years. At the end of March this year there were an estimated 29,000 persons benefiting from special employment and training measures.

Local business has also been encouraged to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the single European market. Companies are developing the skills necessary to compete in Europe, and the European Community funded Star programme will give Northern Ireland the telecommunications infrastructure it needs for efficient communications on a European and global scale.

Moving from the economy, I should like to remind the House that over the past two years the two Governments have continued their work under the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In particular, they have recently completed their review of the workings of the conference. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has published a record of developments since the conference first met. Those who criticise the agreement find it hard to demonstrate any harm which the working of the conference has done to them or to others in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, there is nothing in the recently completed review that can be regarded as an obstacle to political dialogue.

Nor can the critics turn their backs on the progress that has been made in improving security co-operation between our two countries. The agreement has helped to establish a much better relationship between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Garda. Cross-border security co-operation has received regular and intensive consideration within the framework of the conference. Both Governments have recently endorsed a future programme of work between the two police forces to develop that co-ordination and to increase their effectiveness in combating terrorism.

Sadly, it remains true that terrorism lies at the heart of many of the problems of Northern Ireland. Those young and misguided people who involve themselves in terrorism can never overcome a balanced policy such as the Government are pursuing which addresses the political, economic, social and security aspects of Northern Ireland's problems.

The Government are determined that the terrorists will not win. We shall be tough where we have to be. But the strength of our security policy is that it is founded on principle and on justice under the law. We fight terrorism within the law because there is no other way in which a democratic society can fight it. But our success depends on public support for the security forces. They earn our undying respect and gratitude by continuing to do a very difficult job with great courage and professionalism.

We also have in place a range of measures designed to reinforce mutual confidence in the security forces and the community. First, we have improved procedures for handling complaints against the police. Secondly, there is the policy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary accompanying army patrols whenever possible. Thirdly, there is a code of conduct for RUC officers. Fourthly, there are new army procedures to ensure that, where possible, allegations by the public of misbehaviour by the security forces will be resolved with a response within three to four weeks. In the pipeline we have the draft Police and Criminal Evidence Order, which introduces new safeguards for persons who are detained for police questioning. It also includes a statutory requirement for the police to liaise with the local community. We keep under continuous review the number and nature of allegations of misbehaviour by members of the security forces.

While our policies in all these fields are to our credit, I believe that we cannot be satisfied that it should be necessary to ask your Lordships today to renew the arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland by direct rule for a further year. Despite all that it has achieved for the Province, direct rule is not, and never has been, the best option for governing Northern Ireland. Its problems cannot be settled without the fuller involvement of the elected, constitutional representatives of both communities. Their fuller involvement would make a major contribution to the process of peace and reconciliation.

The Government believe that any solution to the apparent political stalemate in Northern Ireland must lie, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in another place as recently as last Thursday, not in new structures, let alone in blueprints, but first of all in a willingness to discuss and to seek to accommodate different views. We can make progress only through dialogue.

In February of this year, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State invited the constitutional political parties and others to explore, with Ministers, the possibilities for progress. In a speech in East Belfast on 14th February of this year, he said: I hope that everybody who should respond will do so. Anybody can refuse, but that would be a great pity. It won't hurt me, as the Government will clearly carry on discharging its duty to the best of its ability, as it has done in recent years. What such a refusal would do would be to damage the Province, and deny the people the constructive leadership they deserve. Those were words spoken by my right honourable friend in February of this year. I believe that they are ever more valuable and relevant today when we discuss what progress we believe should be made in discussions with the constitutional political leaders in the Province.

Some discussions have been taking place with individuals and groups from both sides of the community, but what we want to see now is discussion between elected representatives about issues of government. We want to see discussion with Ministers. I should stress that our doors are open. What is now required is the will of local politicians to make progress together, among themselves and with us.

We know that it can be done, and the Northern Ireland electorate knows that it can be done. The results of the local government elections suggested that the electorate had little enthusiasm for those who advocate a violent or triumphalist approach. That message seemed extremely clear. Northern Ireland's political leaders simply must not fail their voters. The vast majority of people, on both sides of the community, are looking for progress through constitutional and democratic means. I want to stress this point: there are simply no issues that cannot be raised. Common ground can be found between the parties and the Government will consider any ideas that have a chance of working. If elected representatives do not come forward to represent their constituents in that way, can we be surprised if disillusion encourages the opportunists to reach for a gun or a bomb?

The terrorist can bring only tragedy to the community. Time can fade the memory for those who are not personally involved in some of these terrible incidents, but the families do not forget. Let us take some examples: 19 year-old Joanne Reilly, who was murdered by a 1,3501b no-warning bomb; David Braniff, a grandfather in his sixties, who was murdered in front of his wife while saying his prayers; 13 year-old Emma Donnelly who was blown up while she sat beside her grandfather, who was also murdered, in his car, at the wrong time in the wrong place; eight young men, all private soldiers belonging to the Royal Anglian Regiment, were blown to pieces by a bomb as they returned from leave to duty in Northern Ireland; and this very weekend, Liam McKee, a part-time barman in his local pub, was shot dead in his mother's home, right in front of her.

It is against that background that we look to the leaders of the long-suffering and courageous Northern Ireland people. If they can show a determination to seek together a way forward, all the people of Northern Ireland will benefit. That could also mean that the Government would not have to come on many more occasions to ask your Lordships, as I must do this evening, to approve the renewal of provisions to continue direct rule in Northern Ireland for a further year. My Lords, I commend the order to your Lordships, and I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th June be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

6.30 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we have been reminded that about this time of year for the last 15 years Northern Ireland Ministers come to Parliament seeking approval for the renewal of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 for a further 12 months. As the noble Lord explained so clearly, it was that Act of 1974 which imposed direct rule on the Province but purely as a temporary measure to meet an urgent situation. I apologise if I now repeat the primary defects of direct rule; I am sure that they will be referred to again. It substituted unamendable Orders in Council for primary legislation and therefore denied an effective role to the elected representatives in moulding legislation for the Province. It handed to the Secretary of State the sweeping powers of a colonial governor, albeit a benevolent governor. Clearly direct rule is second-best government. That is why the Act must be renewed annually until a long-term solution is worked out. But when will that be?

In a powerful speech the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, surveyed the situation as it has developed over the last 12 months. As I listened to him I had the impression at first that he was saying that, although security is still a matter of top priority and the work of the security forces is as unremitting as ever, the level of community violence is being contained. However, listening to his closing remarks, that may be an oversimplification on my part.

I also had the impression that the Government are encouraged to believe that the economy is doing well. Harland and Wolff and Shorts have been saved and the Minister points out that the infrastructure is being strengthened substantially. However, when my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton speaks to the appropriation order, which is the next business before the House, he will look at the evidence against the background of the chronic weakness of the Northern Ireland economy and the high unemployment rate of 15.5 per cent. which the Minister confirmed. It is our impression that a feeling of deprivation and hopelessness is still a fact of life for many of the citizens of the Province.

When the Minister took stock of the political situation in the Province, I had the impression that the difficulties are as great as ever and that there is a very long way to go. Usually in this debate—at least in recent years—the Minister has been persuaded on the evidence to offer a few words of modest optimism about the political prospect. I have reread the Hansard debates of the last few years and found that, four years ago, the House was told that the Government had found among the main constitutional parties a cautious willingness to talk and perhaps to move.

Two years ago the noble Lord informed us that, The party leaders are, we believe, also seeking a way forward through dialogue … We therefore welcome the willingness of the Unionist leaders to enter into discussions, which will need to be tentative and exploratory, without prejudice and without preconditions".—[Official Report, 9/7/87; col. 810.] However, today that optimism, modest though it was, appears to be missing from the Minister's speech. That to me is the most significant part of it. Indeed, the Secretary of State was moved to declare in another place last Thursday that progress had been virtually non-existent in the political arena.

The inability of the constitutional political parties in Northern Ireland to make progress towards common ground means that the Act of 1974 will continue to hold the field. That result is not only unsatisfactory in itself; it also helps to erode confidence in the future of the Province. It seems to me that it was not entirely surprising that politicians of quality and potential are opting out of direct involvement in the political life of Northern Ireland. That is another depressing aspect of the scene, on which I am sure that my noble friend Lord Fitt can speak with feeling and authority. Indeed, we discussed it only a day or two ago. The need for political progress among the main constitutional parties stands very high in any list of priorities if direct rule is not to become normal rule.

The Minister referred to the talks that were launched last February. Some of us are left wondering whether the Secretary of State should have given firmer leadership in those talks which began last February and have continued over recent months. They were left to a junior Minister at the Northern Ireland Office. As I understand it, the talks did not prosper. We all appreciate that every Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has an enormous burden on his shoulders. However, it seems to many of us, without any disrespect to the Minister involved, that that delicate task should not have been entrusted to an Under-Secretary. That is our judgment. Perhaps I may slip in two questions about these talks. Can we be told why they were thwarted, or is that confidential information? And are we correct in concluding that nothing was achieved by them?

Looking a little further afield, and following the survey of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, we on these Benches are gratified that, although the relations between the two governments were heavily strained during the year, the review of the working of the intergovernmental conference has been successfully completed. The noble Lord was right. Those who claim that the conference has no achievements to its credit should read the comprehensive review document that is available in the Library. I believe it to be an excellent document and it records the successes of the intergovernmental conference. Indeed, on my count the conference can take credit for at least a dozen major initiatives during the last three years. The review also points to the broad areas where there could be improved co-operation between the two governments in the future. These clearly are the areas where it would make sense to plan for the whole of the island.

We are glad that both governments have taken the point that the public should be made far more fully aware of the business transacted and to be transacted by the conference. We believe that it has suffered because of excessive secrecy in the past—a point that has often been made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. However, it seems to me that this point has now been taken on board and it has been accepted that it should be varied.

The Government's problem with the intergovernmental conference is the opposition of the Unionists to the concept, as well as the operation, of the intergovernmental conference. Sadly, this opposition remains unresolved, although even among Unionists there may be differences of view by now. If procedures can be worked out which will enable members of the Unionist Party to make a contribution to the operation of the conference, we would hope that they would think again about their stand. We believe that they should. We believe that they have a special responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland to do so.

Before ending, I have a few words of appreciation and praise for the men and women throughout the Province who are working very hard indeed to improve community relations and to build bridges. To my knowledge they are supported in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, by my noble friend Lord Blease and no doubt by all Northern Ireland Members of this House. I cannot resist pointing out to the House that two educational workers involved in programmes of education for community relations and mutual understanding have been awarded the Kohl Education Foundation, International Peace Prize. They were recently in Chicago to receive the prize. They are Carmel Heaney of the Corrymeela Community and Norman Richardson of the Irish Council of Churches. We were all delighted that the St. Louise's Comprehensive School—the largest comprehensive school in Europe, situated on the Falls Road—had been awarded the Jerwood 0Award of £50,000. As I understand it, this award is considered to be the Nobel Prize in the education world. When the gifted and brave school principal, Sister Genevieve, received the prize from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, she observed compellingly, We believe with all our hearts that when young people begin to think that the insane violence on the streets will end, they will learn to think rather than shoot, think rather than yell and start rioting". Those are the words of the principal.

It would be immensely reassuring if the Minister could tell the House that the pattern which has been created by Sister Genevieve and her staff is also seen to be emerging in a substantial number of schools in the Province and that it is being actively and fully encouraged by the Department of Education. As I understand it, the vehicle is there in Circular 1982/21. If such schools could have an immediate impact on their communities, we believe that there would be valid grounds for some optimism as we renew the Act of 1974 for the 15th occasion.

Lord Ritchie of Dundee

My Lords, I was not expecting to have to speak on this subject, on which I am extremely inexpert. However, I can but raise one or two points as a lay member of the public.

I should like to thank the Minister for his clear and comprehensive exposition of the order as I know is his custom. However, there are two matters on which I should be very grateful to hear a little more from him. The first was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. It concerns activities in schools. It seems to me that the state of affairs in Northern Ireland must to a considerable extent depend upon the indoctrination of children with prejudice from a young age. If only that could be broken down in inter-sectarian, inter-school and cross-border activities it would be a great help. If the young are not got at by prejudice they will not develop it on their own. It is adults who are the cause of prejudice in the young. There must also be a considerable element of vendetta presented to the young by the adults.

The other point I should like to raise with the Minister concerns the impression that I have as a lay member of the public. The only thing that the average member of the public ever hears about Northern Ireland is the terrorist versus the anti-terrorist issue and the support which the Government hope to receive from the public for their policy. I feel that the basic issues of why we are there and what we are trying to do should be made clearer to the public. I do not believe that the average ignorant member of the public, of which I am one, hears enough about that. I should be grateful to hear from the Minister any views that he has and any encouragement that he may give to the idea that the general issues could be more clearly presented to the comparatively uninformed. Those few words are all I have to say.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, if we look back over the past 20 years to the major elements of legislation under which Northern Ireland has been governed, it will be seen that quite a number of Acts of Parliament were promulgated by a Labour Government. In the 1970s the major 1973 and 1974 Acts, the prevention of terrorism and emergency provisions, and so on, were put through both Houses with an element of goodwill from the Government and the Opposition. I believe that that is the only way to try to grapple with the very difficult problem of Northern Ireland.

When the Secretary of State put forward this order in another place he referred to remarks which had been made by the shadow Secretary of State the previous year. He had criticised direct rule which he described as patronising, undemocratic, unaccountable, remote and inefficient and which, he said, had gone on for too long. That was met by a response from the honourable Member for Northampton who said, "Hear, hear".

The Secretary of State could have gone on to say that even with all the imperfections that had been levelled at it the present system was the only means of governing Northern Ireland in the present atmosphere and in the present circumstances. Both communities in Northern Ireland, the majority Unionist and the minority Nationalist, are prepared to accept, albeit unwillingly, the continuation of direct rule because their leaders cannot find a way of bringing about a devolved government in Northern Ireland.

I was not very hopeful of the Anglo-Irish Agreement having any great impact in Northern Ireland. Sadly, I see my fears, suspicions and misgivings all too readily vindicated. It has already been said in another place that the Unionist party in Northern Ireland and the Unionist majority through its leaders will not talk about a devolved government while the Anglo-Irish Agreement is in existence. The majority of the population in Northern Ireland, the Nationalists, will not talk about the possibility of a devolved government if the Anglo-Irish Agreement is not in existence.

With some experience of Northern Ireland and with some experience of the personalities involved, I believe that the attitude as expressed by the various leaders is something of a red herring. I am honestly convinced now that neither the majority community nor the minority community wishes to bring about a devolved government in Northern Ireland. We attempted it. The noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, when he took office in 1979, attempted to create political discussions and negotiations which would lead to a devolved government. That was five or six years in advance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. There was no Anglo-Irish Agreement that could have been held up as a reason for not having discussions in 1979. But the other side of the community, the Nationalist side, said that it would not enter into any discussions unless there was an Irish dimension. A bout of talks was held over a number of months and absolutely nothing came of them.

When the noble Lord, Lord Prior, took office in 1982 he did what we are now asking the Government and political leaders in Northern Ireland to accept—the bringing about of a devolved assembly. The Nationalist party at that time ignored and rejected the Assembly. The SDLP, supported by Sinn Fein, boycotted the Assembly because it thought that the basis on which it was built would not cater for its political aspirations. The Assembly staggered on for two or three years, supported by all sections of Unionism, the Alliance party and the Workers party, but the attitude of the major Nationalist party was highly predictable and it came to an end.

Since the death of that Assembly both Houses in this building have appealed to Northern Ireland leaders to do what they can to bring about a devolved assembly. One of the most instructive things seen over past months has been an attempt by certain members in both the major communities, Mr. Peter Robinson from the DUP, Mr. Austen Currie from the SDLP, Mr. Gordon Mawhinney from the Alliance party and Mr. Jack Allen from the Official Unionist party, who attended a conference in Germany. It was not a terribly high-powered conference; they were under no compulsion to agree to anything. But they found agreement on the necessity to reinstitute political structures in Northern Ireland. What happened when they came back to Belfast? The four of them were totally rejected by the leaders of their own parties, totally cast aside. That caused me bitter regret. As a former leader of the SDLP I know Austen Currie to be one of the most sincere, honest and dedicated politicians in Northern Ireland. He was rejected by his leader, Mr. John Hume of the SDLP, because he was trying to find a means by which devolved government could be brought about in Northern Ireland.

It is instructive to look at all the circumstances in relation to what has now become known as the Duisburg conference. As I found throughout my years in Northern Ireland, decisions which are taken in one year seem right in the circumstances: five or 10 years later they are seen to have been a great mistake. For example, the Labour Government in the late 1970s, in their attempts to remain in power, had a very difficult time. They had an arrangement with the Unionist party in another place. It was because of the blackmailing tactics used by the Unionist party that the decision was taken to step up a Speaker's conference. It would pontificate and eventually come up with the idea that Northern Ireland should have 17 constituencies instead of 12. I was always of the opinion that if one party—be it one side or the other—held all 17 seats that would still not make for peace in Northern Ireland. Peace must and can only be found in Belfast and the other parts of the six counties of Northern Ireland.

What happened as a result of that decision? First the SDLP won three seats under the rearranged boundaries. I believe that the SDLP is quite happy with those seats. It would like to have Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Mid Ulster but with the existence of Sinn Fein it is highly unlikely that it will ever win those seats. Therefore, the decision that was taken to placate the Unionists has led to the position where the SDLP is quite happy with its three parliamentary seats in Westminster and does not wish to bring about any devolved government.

Secondly, the Labour Government—I take some credit for my endeavours at that time—created three seats for Europe under a system of proportional representation rejected for all other parts of the United Kingdom. This meant that two Unionists and one Nationalist would be virtually guaranteed seats in the European Parliament. Again, that makes the leadership of those parties quite happy. The leadership of the Unionist party, under the honourable Member for North Antrim, and the leadership of the Nationalists under John Hume, are happy with two seats; one in Europe and one in another place.

There is absolutely no incentive for either of the two leaders to engage in talks or negotiations leading to the creation of a devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. They are quite happy because there are 17 elected representatives in the UK Parliament. One representative does not attend but the other 16 take their seats and participate in the affairs at Westminster.

In any great political debates which take place in Northern Ireland the spotlight of the television cameras and newspaper reporters are focused on those 17 elected representatives. If there were to be a recreated Stormont that media spotlight would be immediately focused there and the Stormont elected representatives would be running down the Ormeau road to talk on the BBC and Ulster Television news and network. There is absolutely no incentive. We continue to try to make ourselves believe that there is a valid reason why there cannot be inter-party discussions with the intention of bringing about a devolved government in Northern Ireland. The fact is that the leaders do not want that.

The only two political parties in Northern Ireland who have shown an interest in bringing together the two communities have been the Alliance and the small Workers' parties. There are some serious and dedicated men in both parties. As has been said by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies, it is a sad commentary that men of the calibre of Austen Currie and John Cushnahan recognised that never in their lifetimes would there be created structures in Northern Ireland which they could attend. They eventually realised that there was no hope of political progress in Northern Ireland and there were no seats to which they could be elected. They took the big decision, pulled up their roots and went to the Republic of Ireland. Fortunately, the two of them have been elected.

It is a big step for an Irishman in the North to take in leaving Northern Ireland and going South. It is as big a step as it would be for an Irishman living in Belfast to come to this country or to go to Tibet. However, it was a decision that they had to take. I feel saddened that Austen Currie has left Northern Ireland because it can ill afford to lose men of such calibre.

I remember when the Act was introduced. We were told in the corridors and through the usual channels that it would last only a year or two at the most. All the temporary legislation has become permanent. In introducing the legislation the Minister said that he was glad to come to the Dispatch Box and say that there had been no murders in the previous four weeks. The Loyalist murder gangs made sure that that statement: could not be repeated because they murdered Liam McKee the next day.

I believe that a great responsibility now rests on the shoulders of the senior elected representatives in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that they can continue to listen to the persecution complex which they push, blaming everyone for their evils. They will not legislate or make it easy for us because, as I have repeatedly said, the solution to the Northern Ireland problem cannot be found in London, Dublin or Washington. It must be found in Belfast.

Fifteen years ago I never thought that I would be standing, particularly in this House, listening to a further promulgation of this order. I recognise that it has many defects. But with the defects that it may have it is the best and only solution that will be accepted reluctantly by both communities in Northern Ireland. It behoves all sections of elected representatives and political figures in this House to support the Government in attempting to govern Northern Ireland in the interests of all its people and to ensure that the men of terror are erased from society in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, it is with great ignorance that I should like to ask the Minister one question on the subject. It is in connection with shared schools and the education of Protestant and Catholic children together. I realise that it is a delicate question to ask the Minister, but I understand that when it was first attempted some years ago great difficulties arose because of the attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In some cases they refused to confirm Catholic children who had attended shared schools. It is probably too simple to put the matter in this way and I do so only because I am ignorant. It has always appeared to me that in the long run shared schools can provide at least a useful stepping stone towards peace in the next generation, if not in this. What is the present position? Is it easier to have shared schools? What is the attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, because obviously that is of great importance if the system is to develop?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this apparently innocuous order. It comes to this House at least once a year and this is the sixth occasion on which I have had the honour to present it.

I am grateful for the intervention of the noble Baroness. It is the fourth time on which I can remember her attending and asking questions on matters of general interest in Northern Ireland. I shall reply to her as far as I am able and as far as is tactful. Although I am of a particular religious persuasion it would be wilful of me to attempt to interpret the feelings, thoughts or practices of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. However, I shall do my best, if not on my feet then later in writing.

I believe that we are all particularly grateful for the opening comments of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. He was concerned that there were too many orders and not enough Bills. I believe that he is quite right. That tends to be the overall feeling of the Government and indeed has been the feeling of your Lordships for perhaps as long as 15 years. However, I was most interested in one or two of his ideas, particularly as regards my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I believe that the noble Lord said that he has almost colonial powers. Whatever powers my right honourable friend has, I hope that he uses them in a wise and reasonable way.

I believe that the noble Lord and all your Lordships will appreciate that Northern Ireland is absolutelty unique. All of us who have some responsibility in the Province learn more the longer we serve there. We are very grateful for the noble Lord's kind words about the documents which we published following the review of the workings of the intergovernmental conference. I am afraid that I do not necessarily agree with him about the political scene in Northern Ireland, but of course one man's view may not necessarily be the view of one's neighbour as regards the shifting scenes. However, I assure the noble Lord, and indeed your Lordships, that my right honourable friend takes a particularly close and personal interest in the prospect for political progress and he has taken a very close interest in the discussions which have taken place.

The noble Lord asked one or two questions about the tactics for those talks. Without fear of reproach, I believe that we may call them the "Mawhinney round". It is reasonable for my right honourable friend to deploy his ministerial forces as best he can and the talks carried out by my honourable friend the Member for Peterborough have been very fruitful and much appreciated.

The discussions carried on by my honourable friend have not been thwarted—which was the theme suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. They are certainly continuing quietly and in confidence. I am sure that all of your Lordships would agree that that is an essential requisite of any talks in Northern Ireland. We always hear a great deal in the quasi-tabloid press about megaphone diplomacy. Many of your Lordships will know that one or two of the political leaders in Northern Ireland are not known for understanding the "piano" end of the pianoforte and tend to use the other end. Certainly even those political leaders are able to speak and have discussions with my honourable friend, as well as with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, but in confidence. We hope that others will come forward to talk to Ministers. Certainly we do not forget that until recently politicians in Northern Ireland were preoccupied with the district council elections, and, indeed, some have been very much preoccupied with the European elections. However, that period is now over and I have no doubt that those discussions will continue.

Those of your Lordships who study activities in Northern Ireland will know that summer is high. Certainly as regards agriculture, people's minds are turning to the peak of summer work. Of course there is also a unique phenomenon in Northern Ireland which is known as the marching season. Therefore, political discussions will continue during this period of the year, but those discussions may or may not be coloured by various activities taking place during the summer season.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, was rather concerned about some of the legislative procedures. Of course, as a method of legislating, Orders in Council are unsatisfactory. It is for that reason that existing procedures provide for very extensive consultation in Northern Ireland on most orders—I hope on all orders—and certainly, if desired, for debate in the Northern Ireland committee, which provides a focus in another place for further discussion of these measures. However, I appreciate and take on board the difficulties presented by unamendable Orders in Council. That is why I and my colleagues in another place have offered, and indeed still offer, to talk about any of these issues with all interested parties in Northern Ireland and elsewhere and to consider all suggestions, which we believe in the main will be constructive.

The noble Lord also raised questions about the economy and Harland and Wolff. I believe that he said that there was still a feeling of what he called "deprivation and hopelessness". I am sure he meant that in a constructive sense. Perhaps I may just take one aspect, as it will affect many people in Northern Ireland whom I believe the noble Lord had in mind. Unfitness levels in housing in Northern Ireland—these are unfitness levels universal throughout the United Kingdom—have fallen from 14 per cent. in 1979 to just over half that in 1987. The urgent waiting list for the housing executive has been reduced by a half since 1981. We have a long way to go, but financial investments and other efforts in that sphere mean that we are not losing the battle. I hope that the people whom the noble Lord had in mind appreciate that, although they may believe that there is a great deal more to be done, which we accept.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked about talks. As I said in my opening remarks, progress in those political talks can come only if the parties are prepared to discuss a way forward in a flexible manner and with a degree of determination in order to reach an agreement. We are always ready to play our part, but I believe that many of the discussions need to be conducted in confidence.

Occasionally I have thought that there is an element of the great ceremony which takes place in Luxembourg, known as the Echternach wine dance, where they take three paces forward and two back and the dance takes all day. Of course in the history of Northern Ireland that is a twinkling of an eyelid, but I believe that progress is being made and that is the only way to do it.

The noble Lord concluded his remarks with his views on community relations. Once again I wish to add my praise to his for Sister Genevieve and her 2,500 pupils at St. Louise's Comprehensive, and we should not forget the teachers and staff at that excellent school. There is no lack of effort and encouragement from the Department of Education, as well as from my right honourable friend the Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made one or two notable comments, perhaps in a note of pessimism. However, the Government will continue discussions in the way that we feel will bring about some progress in this approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Ritchie, raised two points with which I have a great deal of sympathy. His remarks no doubt strike a chord with many people in Northern Ireland and certainly with my honourable friend responsible for education, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. I will pass on his comments. If I can produce a reply from my honourable friend, I shall write to the noble Lord.

The remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, will be read with great interest by politicians both here and in. Northern Ireland. It is unlike him to have such gloomy conclusions. But he is always realistic and I am sure he will agree that, if the political leaders are not interested in devolution, as he set out, we should be most interested to learn what they do want. That is the rationale behind our continuing discussions. Certainly the political leaders in Northern Ireland have told us—and it is on record—that they are interested in devolution. They are also interested in political progress. The third side of the triangle appears to be their interest in talking together. But we should like to hear directly from both sides of the community and their political leaders. We believe that the best way forward is to allow these discussions to continue in confidence and discretion.

The noble Baroness referred to integrated schools. This subject is very much in our minds. However, parents certainly have a strong say in how schools should be run in Northern Ireland. I do not want to suggest what is in the minds of the Roman Catholic hierarchy or to delve into it. I recall reading some of the comments mentioned by the noble Baroness about one member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and his views on whether some children attending an integrated school should or should not receive the sacrament of confirmation. I have only seen what I suspect the noble Baroness has seen. I have read one or two other views but I have nothing concrete to go on. If I can adduce something which I can release to her in reasonable confidence I shall certainly do that.

As far as I am aware, there are seven maintained integrated schools in Northern Ireland. There is of course one well known college for older boys—Lagan College. These seven schools receive the vast bulk of their financing from government sources. That is a start. However, integrated schools and integrated education must be at the will of the parents. Seven schools is no mean start and we shall have to see how far that will proceed.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, is it not the case that more and more parents belonging to both traditions are anxious that their children should have access to integrated education?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, that is true, but it is a somewhat slower process than might be thought when the noble Lord says "more and more". If the number of schools I have mentioned were to double over the next two or three years, that could be seen as progress, but we have to take each step as it comes. I certainly know that my honourable friend responsible for education has made this a high priority.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned seven schools. What sort of percentage of children does that represent? Are we referring to 2 per cent., 15 per cent. or what?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness. I believe that the figure is in the region of 2 per cent. but it might be more. My accountancy training does not assist me too much on the total population of schools in Northern Ireland in regard to primary, infant, secondary and up to sixth form colleges. I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness with a figure for the number of pupils and in percentage terms accurate to one decimal place. As I said, Lagan College is the one well-known example for Belfast.

I have been much encouraged by the remarks made by your Lordships and I am grateful for the support that has been given not just to me but to the programme that we have set out in this order. I would be the first to say, for the sixth time, that this order is not perfect but for the reasons given in my opening remarks we believe that it is the best vehicle that we have at present. For that reason I commend it to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.