HL Deb 22 February 1995 vol 561 cc1127-40

3.41 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on Northern Ireland. The Statement reads as follows:

"Almost every day brings new evidence of the benefits of peace. The conditions taken for granted elsewhere in the United Kingdom are gradually returning. But a return to normal life in Northern Ireland requires much more than just a paramilitary ceasefire, important though that step is. It requires a permanent end to violence, and it requires a balanced political settlement under which all parts of the community can live alongside each other without fear or antagonism.

"That is the purpose of the talks process started in 1991. We need to seek new arrangements for the internal government of Northern Ireland, and for the relationships between north and south and between the two governments.

"The British Government have discussed these matters at length with the Northern Ireland political parties and with the Irish Government. I should like to pay tribute to the role played by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and my right honourable friend the Minister of State. Today we have published proposals in two framework documents, copies of which have been placed in the Library.

"Let me make clear from the outset that nothing in these documents will be imposed. The aim is to assist discussion and negotiation with the parties in Northern Ireland. It is not an immutable blueprint.

"I urge all honourable Members, and people across Northern Ireland, to read the documents carefully. The proposals in them have been the subject of a number of leaks and misrepresentations which have resurrected old fears. When people study the documents they should see that those fears are unfounded. They will see that these proposals are based throughout on the principle of consent. It is made absolutely clear that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom for so long as that is the wish of the people of Northern Ireland. I am a unionist who wants peace for all the people of the union. I cherish Northern Ireland's role within the union. I have no intention whatever of letting that role change unless it is the democratic wish of the people of Northern Ireland to do so.

"Let me turn to the documents published today. I will begin with strand 1, which sets out the Government's ideas for restoring local democracy in Northern Ireland as part of a full political settlement. This paper has been prepared after consultation and talks with the main political parties in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government played no part in its formulation.

"The circumstances in Northern Ireland are unique within the United Kingdom, as has long been recognised. There are two traditions with very different political aspirations. What is needed is a structure of government that combines democratic legitimacy with a system of checks and balances. This calls for mechanisms different from those appropriate in the rest of the United Kingdom.

"It was these historical differences which meant that until 1972 there was a Northern Ireland Assembly with a wide range of functions. But since then those functions have been the direct responsibility of central government unlike elsewhere in the United Kingdom where many of them are carried out by elected local authorities. In Northern Ireland local accountability has been lost and political talent unused.

"That is why the Government are now putting forward plans for a new elected assembly there with responsibilities over a range of subjects at least as wide as in 1972. The proposals envisage that the assembly might have a single chamber of about 90 members elected for a four or five-year term. To reflect the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, they would be elected by a form of proportional representation. Where appropriate, decisions in the assembly would be taken by a weighted majority.

"There would be a system of committees to oversee the work of the Northern Ireland departments. And there would be a separate panel elected from across the whole of Northern Ireland with a consultative, monitoring and representational role.

"The new assembly would not have tax-raising powers and would receive its funding from central government. It would have legislative powers for the functions transferred to it, though it would be for consideration whether it would assume legislative powers from day one or whether such responsibility would be transferred progressively.

"The assembly would have responsibility for functions that are, in many cases, devolved to local government elsewhere in the United Kingdom, including education and housing. Policing and security matters would, however, remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government and of this Parliament, at least for so long as the terrorist threat makes the active support of the Army necessary.

"I now turn to strand 2, the arrangements for north/south co-operation. We have today published a joint framework document which has been agreed with the Irish Government. This sets out a series of proposals as a basis for discussion.

"One crucial component is that, as part of an overall agreement, the Irish Government have committed themselves to introducing and supporting proposals to amend Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution. These amendments would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. Paragraph 21 of the joint framework document spells out that they would, 'demonstrably be such that no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland contrary to the will of a majority of its people is asserted'. That intention is unambiguous and was reaffirmed by the Taoiseach this morning.

"For their part the British Government would in these circumstances enshrine in our legislation the principle that Northern Ireland's future should reflect the wishes of its people. This would be done either by amending existing legislation or by introducing new legislation. This would not affect the United Kingdom's sovereignty over Northern Ireland, which could only be changed by further primary legislation.

"The joint framework document also sets out proposals for a new north/south body which could carry out a range of consultative, harmonising or executive functions. It would not have free-standing authority: it would be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to the Irish Parliament respectively. The Northern Ireland members of the body would be drawn from relevant elected heads of department from the Northern Ireland Assembly, and would naturally reflect policies determined by the assembly.

"Fears have been expressed that this body would in effect give the Irish Government joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland. That is emphatically not the case. It is a proposal for co-operation by agreement between Northern Ireland's representatives and their counterparts in the Republic. Decisions in the body could be taken only where there was agreement north and south. There is no question of a majority out-voting a minority. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament would each therefore have an absolute safeguard against proposals it did not approve of.

"The north/south body would be established by legislation in this Parliament and in the Irish Parliament. It would discharge or oversee only such functions as were designated for it. There is no predetermined list of those functions. That would be decided only after discussion and agreement with the political parties in Northern Ireland. And it would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament to decide whether any additional functions should subsequently be designated.

"The document also sets out how European Community programmes might be handled in a north/south body. It envisages that the north/south body would be responsible for implementing and managing those programmes which are explicitly designed on a cross-border or island-wide basis. There are currently very few such programmes. Otherwise, the north/south body would have primarily an advisory role.

"The House will wish to be reassured that responsibility for determining policy towards the European Union, and for representing Northern Ireland in the European Union, would remain as now with the United Kingdom Government.

"Let me now turn to strand 3 where the joint framework document sets out proposals for future relations between the British and Irish governments. These envisage that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be replaced by a new agreement between the two governments. As now, there would be a continuing intergovernmental conference with a permanent secretariat. The IGC would be the forum in which the two governments would jointly keep the new arrangements under review.

"It would be open to either government to bring up concerns about breaches of the new arrangements and to discuss how they might be resolved. This is the so-called 'default mechanism'. But there is no question of this process giving the Irish Government the right to take action in respect of the internal government of Northern Ireland. The framework document explicitly sets out: `There would be no derogation from the sovereignty of either Government; each will retain responsibility for the decisions and administration of Government within its own jurisdiction.' "As I have emphasised, these documents are intended as a contribution to the talks process. They set out ideas that the Government believe represent a balanced and realistic way forward that could command support across a wide political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

"The next step will be for further negotiations to take place with the political parties in Northern Ireland. In those negotiations, others will be free to put forward their own proposals. I very much hope that everyone will agree to negotiate seriously. There is too much at stake for any group to stand aside from the talks.

"If agreement is reached in those negotiations, the outcome will be put for approval to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum. I should equally make clear that there is no question of putting proposals to a referendum before there is agreement among the main political parties.

"There is a triple safeguard against any proposals being imposed on Northern Ireland. First, any proposals must command the support of the political parties in Northern Ireland; secondly, any proposals must then be approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum; and, thirdly, any necessary legislation must be passed by this Parliament. This provides a triple lock designed to ensure that nothing is implemented without consent.

"The prize from a successful outcome to the peace process is immense. We want to see the people of Northern Ireland permanently free from the fear of terrorist violence. We want to see institutions that reflect the different traditions in Northern Ireland in a manner acceptable to all. And we want to enshrine the principle, both north and south, that no change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position can take place without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

"I believe these documents make an important contribution to that process, and I commend them to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. I welcome the publication of the new framework for agreement document which concerns the future relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic and between the United Kingdom and the Republic. The Labour Party also welcomes the publication of the strand 1 document which relates to a structure of internal devolution for Northern Ireland. The publication of those documents represents an important further initiative in terms of promoting a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland. In effect they constitute a significant framework for developing the peace process. We wholeheartedly support that process which offers the best opportunity for restoring peace in Northern Ireland and ending the tragic cycle of sectarian violence which has cost so many lives.

In this context, the Labour Party reiterates its support for the Downing Street declaration. We also believe in the need for a consensual approach as the best means of securing a peace settlement. We recognise that any constitutional changes emerging from this process must have the support of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Such an approach, in our view, is vital to the whole future of Northern Ireland itself.

It is therefore essential that all the political parties in Northern Ireland participate in the peace process. Perhaps the Minister will confirm whether other documents produced by other parties will be now considered as part of that process. It would also be helpful if he could provide further details on how the proposed north/south body will work.

If I may say so, it is a little disingenuous of the Prime Minister merely to say on, I think, page seven of the Statement that these documents are a contribution to the talks. With respect, the framework set out in the documents is rather more than just a contribution to the talks. It sets out the way in which both governments see the future developing; and it sets out a framework within which they hope that that future can be safeguarded.

As I understand it, three bodies will be set up as a result. First, there is the internal assembly inside Northern Ireland itself, about which I shall have one or two words to say in a moment. Secondly, there is the north/south forum which is a totally new institution. Thirdly, there is the intergovernmental conference which is in existence but seems likely, from the terms of the document, to be somewhat beefed up over its present constitution and possibly given further functions. We support that as a framework. However, it is important that we should be clear as to precisely what it is that the two governments are recommending.

As regards the first—namely, the assembly—I should like the Lord Privy Seal to give further information as to how the panel will work. As I understand it—based upon sight of the documents only within the past few hours—parallel with the assembly itself there is to be a panel of three wise men. It is said that they will be elected. I am not quite sure how they will be elected, whether it is to be a political election, whether they are to emerge from the political parties, what their constituency will be, and the precise way in which they will be elected. And perhaps much more important, nor am I clear as to precisely what their functions will be. Are they longstops to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly does not do things which the Government—or I suppose one should say governments—would find too outrageous and which would not fit in with the rest of the framework? It is important that that part of the Government's thinking is exposed a little more. Frankly, I do not quite understand what the object of the exercise is, nor who those people will be. I do not understand precisely what they will do, nor how it fits in with the rest of the process.

One might have different views on the details of the assembly. One can discuss the length of term for which it is elected, the manner of the election, the size, and the functions the assembly will have. Those are all important matters but matters of relative detail which should not deter us from expressing our broad support for the thrust of the document.

I turn to the north/south forum, perhaps the single most important element of the whole package. The Lord Privy Seal will, I am sure, confirm what the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions: the three elements are to be seen as a package. In other words, the three institutions are to be created as part of the framework as a whole. It is not a matter of saying, "We agree with points one and two but we are not prepared to have three".

The north/south forum will have three functions, as I understand it: it will be consultative; it will harmonise; and it will be executive. Reading the documents, my impression is that it will be rather more than just a consultative institution, representatives who sit on it being drawn from the assembly in Northern Ireland and the parliament in the south.

From paragraph 32 of the document it is clear that in terms of harmonisation the powers envisaged for the north/south forum are great. I wonder whether your Lordships will allow me to quote from paragraph 29 which says that, in respect of these designated responsibilities there would be…an obligation on both sides"— this is the obligation— to use their best endeavours to reach agreement on a common policy and to make determined efforts to overcome any obstacles in the way of that objective, even though its implementation might be undertaken by the two administrations separately". By way of illustration, the kind of policies that will be considered are enumerated: aspects of agriculture and fisheries, industrial development, consumer affairs, transport, energy, trade, health, social welfare, education and economic policy. It is the whole range of governmental activities on both sides of the border. Again, as I understand it, the north/south forum will be there to try to harmonise policies between what goes on in the north and what goes on in the Republic. Not only do I not object to that, but it seems to me that it would be a fruitful way forward. So far as we are concerned, the institution of the north/south forum is something that we support. However, I do not quite understand how the forum fits into the framework of the assembly in the north and the Dublin Parliament in the south. At some stage in the document, it is said almost that the parliaments on either side shall have a veto on what the north/south forum does. I wonder whether the Lord Privy Seal could expand on the way in which they intermesh constitutionally.

The Minister also referred to important constitutional developments. Perhaps he could clarify the precise nature of the constitutional changes which will be required, both in this country and in the Republic, to give effect to the proposals. I wonder whether the measures required would include, for example, a Bill of Rights, or whether that is something which the Government have considered and already rejected.

I have concentrated, I hope not overmuch, on the details because it is in the details that this type of proposal and suggestion will succeed or fail. We hope that it will succeed. But it is important that the Government and those people who have to make it succeed are clear about exactly what they are being asked to do.

I believe that the framework announced by the Government in the developing peace process provides the people of Northern Ireland with real hope that an end to sectarian conflict may finally be within sight. It is now up to the political parties in Northern Ireland to develop the process in a constructive manner and to secure a political framework which has the support of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. So far as we on this side of the House are concerned, we support the efforts that the Government are now making.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, my object today is to support the Prime Minister. I congratulate him on the consistency, courage and conviction with which he has pursued his Irish policy. I cannot refrain from saying that if he had shown the same qualities in other aspects of policy, he, the Government and the country might be in a better position today. But those are matters for other occasions; let there be no carping today. I only hope that the Prime Minister's initiative meets with the success that it deserves.

I shall ask only one question and add two comments. First, on page 7 of the Statement it is stated that there will be, no question of putting proposals to a referendum before there is agreement among the main political parties". Can the Lord Privy Seal clarify how far the adjective "main" extends in that context?

Secondly, I turn to the comments. First, no one should look for differences between us and the Government on the issue. There are differences of emphasis but they are small. My second comment is that perhaps it would be appropriate for those who are keen to unfurl the banner of unionism to appreciate that the word is meaningless and perverse unless there is some outside body of opinion with which one wishes to be united; and that implies a decent respect for the views of Her Majesty's Government and all parties in Great Britain. I hope that the policy and initiatives which have been taken meet with the success that we all wish for them.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sure that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will welcome the wholehearted support which the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Jenkins, have shown for the documents which he launched today in Belfast. I shall ensure that my right honourable friend is made aware of the terms in which they have welcomed his and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland's initiative.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, in particular remarked—although he did not use the phrase, I am sure that he would not dissent from it—that the devil would be in the detail. I do not believe that any noble Lords would dissent from that sentiment. The support that he expressed in particular for a consensual approach and for the importance of ensuring majority support in the Province is one that I particularly welcome. He asked whether other documents would be considered. I assume that he meant documents produced in particular by constitutional parties within the Province. The answer to that is an unequivocal yes.

The noble Lord also asked how the north/south body would work. Underlying this whole document, and indeed my right honourable friend's presentation of it, is the word "consent". It is a sentiment that the noble Lord himself identified. There can be no question that, although it would be highly unconvincing to deny that the British Government feel bound to commend this document for consideration, particularly after two years' negotiation with the Government of the Republic, to all the parties in Northern Ireland, nevertheless Her Majesty's Government clearly recognise that there is no part of these proposed documents (either Part I or Part II) which is not open to negotiation by the parties concerned. Therefore, the nature of the north/south body in particular and the mechanics by which it would operate are merely suggested. In that context the list that the noble Lord read out of possible subjects for the north/south body to concern itself with was, as it were, a shopping-list. It would be for negotiation to determine whether those subjects would be suitable or acceptable; whether they should be fewer in number to begin with and added to; or, indeed, whether they should be reduced. I am sorry that I cannot be more specific to the noble Lord. But I am sure that he will appreciate that it is very much in the spirit of the document to make it clear that these are no more than suggestions.

As regards the assembly, the noble Lord asked me how the panel would be elected. With the permission of the House, I refer him to paragraphs 18 and 19 of Part I of the first document. I appreciate that the noble Lord cannot have had time to do anything more than glance at the document, which was inevitable under the circumstances of today. But I am sure that in both paragraphs he will see that there is a fairly general suggestion for the nature of the work of the panel. Later, on page 9, it is clearly set out that the panel would be elected by proportional representation and could intervene and act as a facilitator in matters of interest in order to balance the activities of the assembly. These matters are necessarily general at the moment. It is important, if this is to work, as the noble Lord said, that the general sentiments should be backed by rather more specific agreements as time goes on. I think Her Majesty's Government would recognise that if it were left at this rather vague stage we would lay ourselves open to all sorts of difficulties.

The noble Lord also asked me in particular about a Bill of Rights. In Part II of the document he will see at paragraphs 50 and 51 a reference to the question of a guarantee of fundamental human rights and a comprehensive protection; and that that particular paragraph states that each government, will discuss and seek agreement with the relevant political parties in Northern Ireland as to what rights should be specified and how they might best be further protected, having regard to each Government's overall responsibilities including its international obligations". Paragraph 51 specifies that, both Governments would encourage democratic representatives from both jurisdictions in Ireland to adopt a Charter or Covenant, which might reflect and endorse agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in Ireland", and it specifies what those rights might be.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, also expressed support in a manner which my right honourable friend will be very pleased to receive. He asked me in particular which main parties would constitute the effective bar under what has come to be known as the "first lock". At the moment, those are the principal constitutional parties which have renounced violence. As the noble Lord will be aware, they at the moment include the two principal unionist parties, the Alliance Party and the SDLP. It is open, of course, to Sinn Fein to join that number if there is to be a successful outcome to the exploratory, and possibly subsequently substantial, talks which we hope will follow from the existing talks at Stormont. I am sure that the noble Lord would agree with me that it would be wholly inappropriate for Sinn Fein to take part in those talks until it had firmly shown itself to be committed to the democratic process and not the path of violence.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I have listened to many Statements over many years in which we have endeavoured from this side of the water to put forward solutions to the problems that exist in Northern Ireland. I do not think that any previous document has gone as far to reconcile for rational purposes the different aspirations of the people of Ireland, north and south, as this document does. Indeed, I would go further. Although the noble Viscount the Leader of the House asked that the document should be read carefully, perhaps I may be allowed to say on a first, quick reading of it that this is the most thorough and thoughtful document that has been put forward for consideration by the people of Northern Ireland as well as those of the south since the 1921 treaty. It deserves the fullest consideration by all those who are involved.

In adding congratulations to those that have already been expressed, we ought also to say that Mr. Dick Spring has made a most constructive series of proposals. There is no doubt that what is said in this document represents a tremendous leap forward for the people and the government both in Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. Mr. Spring is to be congratulated, too, on the way in which he has conducted his part in these negotiations.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I should like to add one more point and ask one question. The point is this. I say to the people of Northern Ireland that if these proposals are considered carefully, I hazard a guess—I would go so far as to say —that most citizens of Great Britain on this side of the water would support them as the most rational way forward while protecting the aspirations of all the parties concerned in this matter. I hope that they will be considered in that light.

Can the Minister say whether the Government have any view about what they mean by a "majority" of the people? We have seen some unfortunate examples of what "majority" can mean, especially in the region of devolution. It would be interesting to know whether the Government have formed any view in that regard.

Finally, though it is no doubt of great concern to us all and we are right to ask questions about the matter, the most important thing we can do now is not to stir the waters. We must allow the parties to get on with the detailed negotiations of this matter and trust that they will come to a solution. I believe that it will be in both their interests if that solution is based on the broad outline of the paper.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the House always listens with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. I do not say that in any spirit of oleaginousness, but particularly in view of the fact that he was Home Secretary at the beginning of the troubles and therefore at that time had responsibility for the Province. His period as a statesman spanned the latest period of the Irish tragedy and I hear what he said in relation to the role of the Irish Foreign Minister in this matter. I am sure that the House will have noted it also. I note too the clear diagnosis he gave as to the views of the inhabitants of Great Britain regarding this difficult problem. I certainly support the view that they are impatient of any impediment that may be put in the way of peace.

The noble Lord asked me to give a closer definition of "majority". He implied that that is sometimes a rather more delicate matter than perhaps would seem evident to men of good .will at first blush. Perhaps the easiest way I can expand on that is to use the phrase that became current in the Province during the course of the negotiations; that is, "the greatest number". How that phrase is defined and how the powers of the greatest number are interpreted will be at least as important as the expression, the "majority" or "the greatest number".

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend convey to the Prime Minister the congratulations of many of us in this House on a considerable and what may well be an historic achievement? Can he say whether the improvement expected to be brought about in the situation in Northern Ireland will enable there to be some withdrawal of our forces from the Province?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, again, I am sure that my right honourable friend will be grateful for my noble friend's congratulations. I should emphasise that the diagnosis of the level of security forces needed for the Province is one that is left to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who acts exclusively on the advice of the commander-in-chief and the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I should emphasise also—and I am grateful to my noble friend for giving me the opportunity to do so—that the considerations which motivate my right honourable friend in coming to his conclusions are purely those of security. To the greatest degree possible the security of the inhabitants of the Province should be protected and no low-down political considerations—if I can put it that way—should play a part in his coming to that judgment.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, like other speakers today I congratulate the Government and wish them well. I say that not simply because I believe it, but also because, if one looks outside in the corridors of this building, this House in particular of the two Houses has been convulsed on the Irish question at times when political partisanship took over from the needs of Ireland. One must never allow that to happen again.

Is the Minister aware that in the face of history the best thing we can do is simply to wish the people of Northern Ireland and the two sovereign governments well and to hope? There has been hope before on many occasions. There was Sunningdale; it failed. There were the elections to a convention; they failed. I rehearse those and others simply because good intentions are not enough. Northern Ireland is a place apart. That is not always understood in Dublin and certainly not in London. The best thing we can do is let the people of Northern Ireland and their political representatives talk. My advice is that we should not rush the situation. This is an excellent document but we must give it time to sink in and not expect quick results.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the House rightly listens to all former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland with keen attention, the noble Lord in particular. But the difficult part now begins.

I have no doubt that the publication of the document will be greeted in certain quarters with acute disappointment. But whatever views may be expressed, those who are outraged by its contents should approach the talks in a thoroughly constructive frame of mind. They should be prepared to negotiate with Her Majesty's Government in a way which does not put them in the wrong should the talks fail. That is a matter of crucial importance for our friends in the Province. I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to say so.

Lord Colnbrook

My Lords, I add my congratulations to those already expressed to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This is a remarkable occasion. We are assembled here today with Northern Ireland having been at peace for six months and before us a proposal agreed between the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic. There seems a good chance —I put it no higher—that the political parties in Northern Ireland will sit down and think about it.

I know how painstaking a job it must have been to bring the parties to the present position. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, and others who say that this is the moment to let the parties get on with it. However, I have two questions. First, can I take it that the Government do not expect the proposals in the paper to happen? The paper is a framework for discussion. Am I right in supposing that the Government have produced what are actually ideas? Some people speak of them as though they are set in concrete. But they are not. They are ideas. It is my guess that what finally emerges will not accord exactly with what is contained in the document. I hope that the Government understand that and are prepared to accept such an outcome.

Secondly, my noble friend spoke about the triple lock—approval by the parties, the people and Parliament. Is it envisaged that it will happen in that order? If it does, and if a scheme is agreed by the political parties and then by a referendum in Northern Ireland, Parliament will not be able to do much about it, will it? It will have to accept it. Will there be an opportunity for Parliament to say, "Look, you political parties in Northern Ireland have produced a scheme, but we are not sure that we like it very much". I do not know whether that has been thought of. I shall be grateful for my noble friend's observations.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, my noble friend asks two very important and pertinent questions. We do not necessarily expect it to happen like that. It is perfectly possible that it will not happen at all. The subtitle of the document reads: A shared understanding between the British and Irish Governments to assist discussion and negotiation involving the Northern Ireland parties". Therefore, my noble friend is right in his supposition. As regards the order of the so-called triple lock, I say to my noble friend that the order is perfectly clear; namely, parties, people and Parliament. It will be for Parliament to judge—if and when we get there—how it wishes to value the opinions of both the parties and the people as expressed in the second part of the lock, the referendum.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I want only a minute. I apologise to the noble Viscount for missing the opening minute of his remarks. Like others, I welcome the document and its production. I congratulate all those concerned. A great wealth of knowledge has gone into the background of its preparation.

I have one or two reservations. I have not had a chance to study the document, but I read the part which states: The Irish Government will introduce and support proposals for change in the Irish Constitution so that there is, no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland". That appears under "A New Framework for Agreement". We all know that this idea has been pushed around. It is almost put forward as a panacea that if the south gives up or reneges on Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, that will solve the problem. That was never the problem and it has never been quoted as such. What has always been stated as the problem is Section 75 of the 1920 Act which gives Britain complete jurisdiction over the six counties in the Province of Ulster.

Another part of the document states that, the British Government will propose changes to its constitutional legislation, so as to incorporate a commitment to continuing willingness and so forth. It does not say, "So that there is no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction". If we are to start on a level playing field, would it not be better if the offer to adjust the Irish constitution to withdraw territorial claims was matched by withdrawing Section 75 which has always been the cause of the trouble? If that section were withdrawn from the 1920 Act we could probably get down to a level discussion straightaway.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, before I try to answer the substance of the noble Lord's question, I emphasise what my right honourable friend has continually emphasised since the beginning of the negotiations. The overwhelming majority of the population of the Province wish to remain members of the United Kingdom. It is in that context that the Government are approaching this extremely difficult and contentious question.

As regards the specifics of the noble Lord's question, paragraph 20 of the joint framework document addresses that particular part of the problem. It is perfectly possible that the section of the 1920 Act to which the noble Lord refers can come into play and be altered. But I emphasise the answer which I gave to my noble friend Lord Colnbrook a moment ago. This is the beginning of what could be highly complex negotiations in which everything is up for negotiation. It is perfectly possible that that matter can be an element of it. I am sure that the negotiators will note what the noble Lord said.

The Marquess of Salisbury

My Lords, I ask my noble kinsman two questions. Am I correct in assuming that further progress on these proposals is dependent on the Eire Government taking the necessary legal action to abolish their claim to Northern Ireland? Do Her Majesty's Government still accept the answer given to me on 23rd June 1994 that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely relieved to be able to say to my noble kinsman that the answer to both his questions is yes.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the Minister convey my own modest congratulations to the Prime Minister and the Government on what looks like a most extraordinary breakthrough in this agonising situation? Perhaps I may ask him a question which arises from something which the Minister said and from something which was said from the Benches behind him. The Minister said that the IRA had to be firmly committed to the democratic process before any further serious steps can be taken. He was then asked about the possible withdrawal of security forces from Northern Ireland. These seem to me to be two matters which come together as regards the continued possession by the IRA of considerable stockpiles of explosives and firearms. I am not going to ask the Minister at what stage this matter will be addressed because that clearly would be a foolish thing to do at this stage of the process. Does he agree that there is no balance here? The question of the possession of arms and ammunition by the IRA is not to be equated with the presence of the security forces and the Army. Does the Minister agree that some idea of total demilitarisation is a fallacy and that there is no question of moral equivalence being accepted here?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I am delighted to be able to give him the reassurance that he needs. It is a most important question and I am delighted to be able to answer it in the way I hope he would expect.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, the Minister referred to an overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Does that indicate in a referendum anything different from a simple majority of those taking part in it?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the terms of the referendum still have to be determined. The noble Lord will be as aware as I am that in referenda the question is as important in obtaining a result as anything else. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to wait until, we hope, a position is reached where a referendum can be undertaken.

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