HL Deb 25 April 1996 vol 571 cc1325-30

14 Page 7, line 37, after ("time") insert ("and place")

The noble Lord said: I trust that it will be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 15 and manuscript Amendments Nos. 17 and 18. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, may find it inappropriate for there to be amendments to the Bill today. I suspect that he finds manuscript amendments even more inappropriate. That is one of the reasons why I am wrapping them altogether. Be that as it may, I have to disagree with him. It is the duty of Members of this place to probe the Government, and to do all in their power to guard against the dangers that they see in their proposed legislative action.

I turn now to the amendments. It is clear from Schedule 2 that meetings of the forum will be at a time to be decided by the Secretary of State. However, we know little about the place. My amendments are designed, first, to probe where that place might be. It must be somewhere big enough to hold the delegates, the public and the press, because we have heard that this is a widely representative body. I should be unhappy about Castle Buildings or the Parliament Buildings at Stormont. They are not merely too small; they have unhappy memories for many of the people of Northern Ireland. It is also likely that the forum will want to move from place to place to disseminate the negotiating body's views to the widest possible audience. Indeed, we had intimations of that earlier today. It may also wish to have sub-committees meeting in various parts of the Province.

It is clear that the Secretary of State will have to provide those venues in the same way as he provides the staff and other facilities. It is equally clear that the members of the forum will have ideas of their own about where they wish to meet. So Amendment No. 15 provides for agreement between the forum and the Secretary of State as to where that should be.

In his role as facilitator, the Secretary of State should bend over backwards to accede to the wishes of the chairman of the forum in that respect. If I can persuade my noble friend to give a commitment that that will happen, I shall not need to pursue any of these amendments. I do not have to remind the Committee that although we all hope that meetings of the forum will be held in safe and secure surroundings, we must guard against the opposite. It is not unknown for meetings in Northern Ireland to have to be moved at short notice. They are cancelled only as a last resort.

I thought originally that there was a lacuna in the Bill, and that the Secretary of State was not empowered to choose the place of the meetings. However, it was pointed out to me that the last paragraph of Schedule 2 did just what I feared it did not; namely, allow the Secretary of State to provide the place or places. However, nowhere in the schedule does it say that he must consult the chairman of the forum. It is that assurance that I am seeking from my noble friend. I beg to move.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing forward these amendments. We are at one with the spirit of them. We agree that the place where the forum meets should not be fixed once and for all. But, as my noble friend has identified, paragraph 6 of Schedule 2 provides for that situation. It clearly gives authority for the forum's main base to move.

As was made clear by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place, final decisions are still to be reached on where that base should be. Because of the unfortunate fire in Parliament Buildings they are not a possibility. Castle Buildings in Belfast is a strong contender, but the Secretary of State has undertaken that there will be consultation.

The Secretary of State indicated also that he was ready to contemplate the possibility of the forum, or, perhaps more probably, its committees, venturing away from that base; for example, to conduct hearings. It would be his duty to see that premises were provided elsewhere.

Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 would delete references to the Secretary of State providing the facilities, but we believe it appropriate that the responsibility should rest with him. There is a question of accountability for resources here, which I am sure my noble friend well understands. I repeat that we shall consult fully on these matters. I hope that that reassures my noble friend about the concerns that his amendments raise.

Lord Skelmersdale

I am grateful to my noble friend. At this late hour I shall not argue with her about what my final manuscript amendment means, but I am afraid that she and her advisers have it slightly wrong, because the Secretary of State would continue to have the authority to provide and pay for all those things that she has just described. Be that as it may, I am grateful for the assurance on consultation for which I asked. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Lord Holme of Cheltenham moved Amendment No. 16: 16 Page 8, line 27, leave out ("75 per cent. of those voting") and insert ("80 per cent. of those voting or 80 representatives, whichever is the lower")

The noble Lord said

In view of the lateness of the hour I shall be brief, but this is an important point. The memorandum circulated by the Government on 21st March in association with the Prime Minister's Statement in the other place stated that decision-making in the Forum will be required to proceed by broad consensus". It is commonly accepted by Members of this place, most commentators, and certainly most unionist politicians that there can be no return to majority rule.

The ground rules for the all-party negotiations provide for decision making on the grounds of consensus: Unanimity [will be] within minimal limits and will, in all cases, ensure that any decision taken will be supported by a clear majority in both the Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland". Surely that reason should apply a fortiori in the forum. In a nutshell, the problem is that the forum will reflect the status of the parties. We must assume that the majority, as has been the case for a long time in Northern Ireland, will tend to belong to the unionist community and the minority to the nationalist community. In the case of this body, that would be somewhat compounded by the additional 20 seats for the 10 largest parties of which only two can properly be described as nationalist. Therefore, the proportion of seats gained by the SDLP and Sinn Fein will fall somewhere short of the proportion of the electorate who vote for them. We could have a situation where 30 per cent. or less of the seats in the forum go to nationalist parties.

If Sinn Fein boycotts, as at present seems likely, or walks out of the forum, is it not possible that the SDLP will have too few seats as enunciated in the Bill at present to form the sort of blocking minority which is essential to maintain the consensus between the two communities? Therefore, although this may seem a rather narrow matter of marginal adjustment of numbers, it bears on the whole essential basis of progress in Northern Ireland, for which the forum surely must be symbolic, that the two communities themselves must be in a state of consensual agreement on something as important as the election of the chairman. I believe that it is an important concern if the process is to commend itself to the Government of Ireland and to the nationalist community. I hope that the Minister will be able to address the amendment when she replies. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

If we were talking about any more than a deliberative body, I would be forced to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme. However, looking at paragraph 4 of Schedule 2, it is clear that what we are talking about is either, the election or removal of a chairman or the adoption or alteration of rules of procedure". We are not actually talking about any substantive discussions which may or may not lead to a vote. If we were talking about that, then, yes, I would most certainly agree with the noble Lord.

Lord Fitt

We have been told both here and in the other place that the forum will be a gathering of people which is predestined to bring about a sort of consensus. I did not interrupt the Minister earlier when she was being very laudatory about the forum in Dublin. Any attempt to equate that forum in Dublin and the one in Northern Ireland is totally innocuous. I say that because the Dublin forum was not elected; its members were appointed. It was a nationalist forum because very few unionists attended and they did not have votes. However, when they eventually came to a conclusion, Sinn Fein was unable to agree in that atmosphere.

As regard the situation just outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Holme, it is highly likely that Sinn Fein will not attend the forum. In fact, I believe that the bomb under Hammersmith Bridge will determine that it will not be there. Again, that may bring about a situation where the SDLP may also not be present. Indeed, we may have a re-run of the 1982 rolling assembly of Jim Prior when Sinn Finn was first elected in the aftermath of the death of the 10 hunger strikers. Sinn Fein said then, "We are not going there", and, then, the SDLP said the same.

It is possible, should Sinn Fein determine not to go, that the SDLP may not feel inclined to do so on its own. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme. It is only right that some criteria should be brought about to ensure that the deliberations of the forum are truly representative of a body that is determined to bring about consensus in Northern Ireland.

Lord Monkswell

This is probably the last debate in today's deliberations. I must admit that I am rather concerned about the tenor of it in the sense that the formulation of the amendment seems to pre-suppose that there will be an antagonism between the unionists and the republican communities in Northern Ireland for ever and ever, and that we must find some mechanism to ensure that the majority does not oppress the minority. Surely we should be aiming our sights a little higher. If that is the basis on which the last debate on this Bill is conducted, I really despair.

When she responds to the amendment, I hope that the Minister will be able to engender some hope, enthusiasm and belief that the situation that has pertained in Northern Ireland—namely, the schism between the two groups in the community—should be ended. It is to be hoped that we can build a better future where everyone, not just within Northern Ireland but also those living north and south of the border and in Ireland and Great Britain, can live in peace together and work together to secure a better future for all of us.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

I thank the noble Lord for explaining the amendment. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. We are talking about a matter of considerable importance in the Bill. Indeed, the arrangements were extensively debated in another place. I believe that the Bill, especially as amended in the other place, represents a proper balance in a very sensitive area. Perhaps I may explain why.

The amendment would substitute a threshold of the lower of 80 per cent., or 80 members. Eighty members would equate to a little under 73 per cent. if all 110 voted, but the smaller numbers would quickly become a higher threshold than the Bill at present requires. Of course, we hope that people will participate, but the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, is right to say that we must always recognise the fact that that is their choice, not our rule.

We have said that we see the forum operating by broad consensus. That was made very clear in the debates in another place. It is particularly crucial as respects the rules of procedure. The voting threshold set in the Bill is important here. A numerical threshold cannot of itself, however, be a guarantee of such broad consensus in all circumstances unless it is set at a very high level. In that case a reasonable measure of consensus across representatives of the two communities might fail to meet the threshold. We have to legislate for realism.

Because such a numerical threshold is not a guarantee of broad consensus we have added other safeguards. The Secretary of State must, under paragraph 3(1) of Schedule 2, approve rules of procedure that the forum puts forward. By an amendment put forward in another place by the Official Opposition, which became paragraph 3(4) of the schedule, in exercising his function of approving such rules as well as putting forward the set by which the forum is to operate at the start, the Secretary of State is required to make every effort to secure that the rules facilitate the promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus across the communities in Northern Ireland.

I hope that that explanation illustrates to the noble Lord that we are not unaware of the difficulties in this area. We have tried to take every possible means to ensure that the forum will operate to the benefit of all. I cannot agree with my noble friend that it is not important, because the election of the chairman is important. As the provisions were amended in another place, I do not believe, with enormous respect, that the noble Lord's amendment would necessarily be an improvement.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I thank the noble Baroness for her reply and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, for his qualified support. I agree with the noble Baroness. In a closely contested and potentially difficult atmosphere the appointment of a chairman is really quite important. As one very often finds in all sorts of spheres—not just in Northern Ireland—it is potentially significant. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, who is a voice for what is the minority community in Northern Ireland, which will be particularly sensitive to the need to get the consensus to which the noble Baroness referred. If I may say so to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, of course all of us want a Northern Ireland in which there is no antagonism, but we would not be here and we would not be spending this time and taking this care if there were not antagonism there. There is antagonism; there is a history of antagonism. That is what we all have to deal with as intelligently as we can.

I shall withdraw the amendment in a moment. I know that the Government are sensitive to what I have been talking about. They will have to be— will have to continue to be so all the way through this process on this particular point. For the nationalist community, North and South, it is of desperate importance that the balance should be right. Before I withdraw the amendment, as the Report stage may prove to be relatively short and formal, perhaps I may thank the noble Baroness very much for her care and courtesy throughout the past five hours. It is always a pleasure to be working with her and never more so than today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 not moved.]

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.

Bill read a third time, and passed.

Back to