HL Deb 22 October 1997 vol 582 cc759-98

5.30 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne rose to call attention to the situation in Northern Ireland; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, there are a number of good reasons for asking your Lordships to consider the situation in Northern Ireland. Not least, we are as it turns out to be fortunate enough to hear maiden speeches from my noble friend Lord Mayhew and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I greatly look forward to hearing both of them, as I am sure the House does. Their experience in parliamentary matters generally, but more particularly in the recent history of the Province of Northern Ireland, will make a considerable contribution to our debates in this House. I wish them good fortune in their maiden voyages.

But there are other reasons, too. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, reproved me during exchanges last Thursday for raising the question of Northern Ireland at all. Your Lordships will recall that he said: Will my noble friend further agree that raising the Question in this manner today—that is, in a questioning manner—might do more harm than good? It is not a questionable matter"— he was referring to the question of consent— it is there, and needs no questioning".—[Official Report, 16/10/97; col. 554.]

For an experienced parliamentarian like the noble Lord, who is vastly respected in both Houses as a believer in parliamentary government, to suggest that a subject of great importance should not be discussed in Parliament when the media in five continents show no such inhibition is a remarkable phenomenon. I hope that the noble Lord has reflected on his position—indeed, I suspect that he may have done since I see that he is due to speak immediately after I sit down. Like everyone else in this House, based on agreeable experience, I greatly look forward to his contribution.

That does not mean that I do not agree with something else that the noble Lord implied in his supplementary question last Thursday. The noble Lord clearly implied that anything we say in this place should not make the search for peace more difficult. I agree with that implication as I am sure does every one of your Lordships.

What debates like this can do is express our support for the search for peace and wish the Government well in their endeavours. That, like the rest of the House, my party does wholeheartedly. Indeed, it would be surprising if we did not, considering the risks that my right honourable friend the former Prime Minister took in initiating and pursuing the policy that this Government have adopted.

However, that equally does not mean that Parliament does not have a duty to examine the way in which the policy is being executed, or that Parliament should not hold the Government to account for their actions—bipartisan policy or not. Indeed, it is incumbent on Parliament to warn the Government if it sees dangers emerging from Ministers' words and actions, just as the present Government did when we were in government and they were in Opposition.

I fear that this Government are already beginning to show that they find another place an inconvenience. It is significant that the Prime Minister confessed to his party faithful in Brighton a few weeks ago that his political hero is Lloyd George. Lloyd George also found another place inconvenient, particularly after the First World War. The Prime Minister has obviously noticed that the Welsh wizard had a plan that nearly succeeded in its object of enabling him to escape the trammels of parliamentary control: he tried to construct a coalition. It was a coalition composed of Lloyd George Liberals and, as he hoped, Tory coalitionists. But he was eventually stymied by the initial meeting of the 1922 Committee. This Prime Minister clearly realises that for the New Labour Party the Liberals are more promising territory for exactly the same ploy. I am sorry that the noble Lord is not in his place and I hope he will forgive my referring to him without warning him, but one has only to listen to the slavish adulation of the Government that your Lordships hear almost every day from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, to understand why.

I therefore make no apology to the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, for returning to the subject of Northern Ireland today, particularly when it must be obvious to the House that, if the Government find another place inconvenient, they find this House convenient for a slightly different reason. They find it convenient to ignore us—as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in a typically elegant and weighty speech. The noble Lord wrapped it up nicely; nevertheless, that is what he meant. The Government find it convenient to ignore us unless the Prime Minister, or indeed as I sometimes feel, the Leader of the House, wants to use us as a straw-man to make the trade union fat boys' flesh creep.

When another place is not sitting, noble Lords might think that this House has a particular responsibility to hold the Government to account as the only sitting House of Parliament. Your Lordships might have expected the Government to keep Parliament informed through the medium of this place on their extraordinary incompetence in the matter of their policy over EMU, whether it be the pronouncements of Chancellor Brown or the pronouncements of the real press chancellor, Mr. Charlie Whelan, and on developments in Northern Ireland, to take but two examples. Instead, by the happy chance of an Opposition Day, it was mere coincidence that your Lordships were able to wrest at least some Members of the Government from the protective, if confusing, shelter of the spin doctors.

As I say, I wish the peace process well, as do all your Lordships—and it is for that reason that I particularly welcomed the full, frank and unequivocal answer from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to my Question last Thursday.

Let me remind your Lordships of the noble Lord's words. He said: My Lords, the Government remain fully committed to the principle of consent in all its aspects, in particular that any change in the status of Northern Ireland should only come about with the consent of a majority of the people there. We regard consent as a guiding principle in the negotiations now taking place in Belfast. We want those negotiations to produce a comprehensive agreement which is supported by unionists and nationalists, which secures consensus among the parties, is endorsed by the Northern Ireland people in a referendum, and is approved by Parliament. We thus remain firmly committed to the triple lock".—[Official Report, 16/10/97; col. 553.] I repeat those remarks because they are important and I welcome them, as I made clear last Thursday. But equally, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to confirm that his words supersede earlier words of his Secretary of State which he spoke to the Belfast Telegraph on 29th August last. If the House will allow me, I shall quote again. The Secretary of State is reported as saying: I understand consent to be that it is that the wishes and support of the people that a conclusion or accommodation or outcome is reached. I don't define it in numbers terms, necessarily. I don't necessarily define it in a functional, geographical sense, because those could change the nature of the outcome as both sides are very fearful. Consent means a willing accommodation. I think there is a willing accommodation for a peaceful outcome by many people in Northern Ireland". Far be it from me in any way to comment on the difference of style between the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and his own Secretary of State. I should hate to do anything which drove any sort of wedge of comparison between the two distinguished Ministers. I am delighted to find that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, lives fully up to the finest language standards current in this House in terms of clarity. The noble Lord is much respected in this House and I can attest from our time in the other place that he was held in affection and respect there. I am sure he would agree with me that any equivocation on what is meant by "consent" will tend to scupper the talks and any hope of a settlement. The noble Lord will be all too well aware that the loyalist community in the Province already harbours the deepest suspicions about Whitehall in general and the Northern Ireland Office in particular. It feels that the British Government machine will do anything in its power to ensure the result it thinks it wants. The community thinks that what the British Government—of either colour—want is, in the loyalist community's terms, a sell-out to Dublin, if necessary by undermining the principle of consent in order to obtain it.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, knows, and I am sure, that those suspicions are wholly unjustified. However, they exist, as the noble Lord has no doubt found during his time in the Northern Ireland Office. I have to say that those suspicions were increased by his right honourable friend's remarks on 29th August which I quoted. I hope that they were allayed by his remarks on Thursday, particularly since they came from him. Nevertheless, I hope that the noble Lord will be able this afternoon to put a little more flesh on the bones of his reply than he had time to do on Thursday.

In their short tenure of office the Government have acquired an unenviable reputation for fixing referendums. It grieves me to say so, but we all know that even if they had conducted the Scottish referendum on an equitable basis, the Scots would almost certainly still have voted yes to both questions. But it is at least arguable—and I say this in the presence of the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal, who is a more recent Welshman than I—that they would not have achieved the result they wanted in Wales. In both cases, they used government resources and taxpayers' money to support their campaign and did their best to exclude the no campaigns completely from equal access to the media. If it had been a general election, they would have probably been accused of breaking electoral law. And in the case of Wales, against the advice of your Lordships' House I note, they held the referendum a week later, hoping that the Scottish result would influence the Welsh to vote yes.

By any standards, it was a shabby performance more reminiscent of pre-Reform Bill politics than today's. It has not increased the Northern Irish majority's trust of this Government's capacity to conduct referendums equitably. It is for this reason, if no other, that it is urgent and essential that the Government should join with Opposition parties to frame rules for the conduct of referendums in general. Perhaps such an attempt would attract the unimpeachable sponsorship of Madam Speaker herself. Were an attempt to produce rules by, say, next spring to be successful, any proposals emerging from the peace talks by, let us say, May could then be submitted to the people of the Province as the second lock in the triple lock mechanism, with at least some of the majority's fears being duly allayed in the Province.

I hope that the noble Lord, when he comes to intervene, can at least express sympathy with this proposal and that the Government can return to this House and another place as soon as possible with suggestions as to how we might proceed with maximum expedition.

I have given one example of how the Government might increase the confidence of the majority in the Province in the peace negotiations and in the mechanisms the Government use to test whether there is consent for their proposals.

I have to say that there is another example of muddle which has undermined confidence in the Government's capacity to handle the Northern Ireland situation. I shall not rehearse the whole unhappy saga of the deal that the Government apparently did with Mr. Irvine over the transfer of Jason Campbell to a gaol in Northern Ireland. Let me pass over the question of whether Mr. Dewar talks to Dr. Mowlam and whether Mr. Blair talks to either of them. The question that arises is simply this. Do the Government believe that any prisoner in a UK gaol is a political prisoner? I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will this afternoon be able to give an unequivocal no to that question.

However, this sorry saga implies that at least some Ministers in the Scottish Office would answer yes instead of no to that question. In his typically courteous response to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, on 16th October, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, reassured this House that there had been no discussion whatsoever between Northern Ireland Office Ministers or any civil servant and any loyalist party about the transfer of Mr. Campbell. But the noble Lord did state that "communication" took place on the subject. I am sure that the whole House would be grateful if the noble Lord were able to assist us further in explaining what the communication was and when it occurred.

Further, if it is true, as was reported, that the Northern Ireland Office applied to the Scottish Office for the transfer of Jason Campbell, will the Minister inform the House on what grounds that application was based? The suggestion that any prisoner should be transferred in the United Kingdom from one jurisdiction to another on the grounds that they have connections with a political group is quite unacceptable. The only criterion for such transfers, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, has in the past related to whether the prisoner concerned had close family connections in the other country. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will make it clear that that policy continues to apply and that no one at any stage in this sorry affair entertained any thought otherwise.

Unless the Government can do that, they are by implication saying that we have political prisoners in the United Kingdom—something on which Scottish Office Ministers, I am sure, on more mature reflection might wish to revise their opinion. This sorry episode is bound too to have an unfortunate effect on confidence in the Government's capacities. Taken in conjunction with the Secretary of State's remarks on 29th August, it produces an unfortunate overall effect.

Nevertheless, the Government face, as we did, a difficult few months in which they will have to convince all of us, notably the people of the Province, that Sinn Fein/IRA will not be allowed to use the threat of a return to violence to overturn the will of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland; in which they will have to ensure that the situation in the Province is represented fairly in the media, particularly, if I may suggest it, in America; and in which they will have to demonstrate their determination to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, since that is what a majority of its people want, including, I venture to suggest, many Roman Catholics. We wish them well in that endeavour, in spite of the strictures in the earlier part of my remarks, and express the wish too that they will take Parliament, including this House, into their confidence in so far as they are able. It would be a change for them on past record, but they might even find some support for their policies here if they did so. I beg to move for Papers.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I note that the terms of the Motion before us are to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland. That is what I wish to do. I have been in this House five years and the way in which we also wander around other issues still surprises me. The noble Viscount suggested that we should consult Madam Speaker. We might consult the noble Lord, Lord Dean, who was a Deputy Speaker. Much of what we say here would be cut short straight away in the other place because we had wandered.

I would like to stick to the Motion that is on the Order Paper. I note that it concerns, the situation in Northern Ireland". I point out that in the difficult area of Northern Ireland there might be a different situation tomorrow. It is not like discussing pensions, where one is discussing a document; one never knows what will happen. The situation in Northern Ireland is much the same as it was a couple of months ago. All the documentation that I have examined in preparation for today came from the previous government that were in office for about 18 years. I do not expect the debate today to range over the three strands that were laid down by the previous government: the constitutional situation in the north, the north/south relationship and the relationship of the government of the south with the Government of this country. We could not possibly do that. I wish to ask a number of questions, one of which relates to consent.

I meant what I said last week, having been associated with Northern Ireland for a long time; I counsel that we choose our words carefully. There are soldiers and policemen on the ground. I discovered that they did not take kindly to clever stuff in the Houses of Parliament. My father was a soldier in Ireland in 1916 and he always said to me: "Watch politicians, they are out for their own clever stuff, they don't care about soldiers on the ground". I do, and I care about the RUC on the ground. That is why I thought the method by which the Question was raised last week was very "Oxford Unionish", jolly funny and a chance to raise the Northern Ireland issue. It is a good time to do so today in a two-and-a-half hour debate. But in this country there will be no banner headlines in tomorrow's press on what we say about Ireland; our comments will go unnoticed. However, in Northern Ireland they will be noticed. What is said here this afternoon will be in all the many newspapers of Northern Ireland and in the south. In Northern Ireland they are not in a happy position. Real politics there concern the Border and the relationship of Sinn Fein with the IRA and the paramilitaries. That is what they talk about. Here our political agenda is laid down by the "Today" programme in the morning and the briefings given by No. 10 to the media, as happens with all governments.

That is why I said what I said last week. I applaud our having the debate today. It gives us a chance to talk about the issues of Northern Ireland as we see them today. Politics in Northern Ireland are for real. They concern the basic issues that have faced the Province for the past 25 years and longer.

I should like to ask about security. In the discussions that are taking place, the Armed Forces of the Crown can never be put under the control of any other government but the Government of the United Kingdom. When I first became involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland there was confusion. There was confusion in 1972 as to whether the devolved government in Northern Ireland controlled the Army. When I asked who decided to introduce internment, the answer came from two wings: the central Government did it; no, they did it. Let us be absolutely clear that security is in the hands of this country. Nothing that comes out of the talks should possibly alter that.

Secondly, although 20 years ago the police were not so independent, they are now completely independent. There must be no question of setting up a police force that is under the control of any political party. The RUC has achieved great things in the past 20 years. It is now one of the best police forces in the United Kingdom and it must remain independent.

As for the speed of change, history looms over everything in Northern Ireland. There are certain things that history teaches us. In 1922 there was a civil war in the south, after the Lloyd George agreement, when there were more casualties than there were during the whole of the time of the British occupation—if such it was. The danger in Northern Ireland is the wrong word and the wrong innuendoes. Agreement could be reached and still there could remain other groups who are involved in the violence. We have to be prepared for that. It will take time for reconciliation and to achieve the kind of thing that we dream of on this side of the water.

As for consent, that is not a new word. It was used by De Valera, by Wilson and in the two Downing Street declarations. It appears all the time. What, in fact, does it mean? In fact, I want to ask what it meant to the Conservative administrations between 1979 and this year. It is not a new use. I have been looking at the papers in the Northern Ireland Office—there they would all be written. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, who will speak today and who, during his tenure of office achieved many things—good and great things in my view—knew what they meant by "consent". So, why is the question asked by a former Member of the Cabinet? Was it not discussed? What does it mean? It cannot mean a numerical figure and that, with 750,001 against 740,009, because there is a majority there is consent. To think of consent purely in numerical terms is a mistake. It cannot be done. It sounds rather like those in Northern Ireland who used to say to me, "The Catholics are outbreeding us. It will get to the pitch when they will have one or two more than we do and then there will be a united Ireland". That is nonsense. The numerical approach to consent cannot possibly stand up at all. What does it mean? What is the situation now in Northern Ireland with regard to consent? I hope that we shall be told what the previous government meant by "consent".

I turn to the situation in relation to politics this side of the water. Before 1914 Ireland dominated politics. The photographs and paintings on the walls just outside the Chamber show it. Ireland dominated British politics. It dominated the situation when the time came for reform of the House of Lords. It has not dominated politics since 1979. My noble friend Lord Callaghan made sure that the Opposition were brought into the discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Whitelaw, led the way when he became Secretary of State. He briefed me completely as to what was going on. I did the same when I became Secretary of State. It is not the normal political approach. It is not like a discussion on economic affairs. One does not come to Parliament to hear a good discussion of economic affairs. One goes somewhere else. It is reduced to over-simplicity. I hope that is the situation in this House, now that the previous government has left office. The situation in Northern Ireland is too serious for party politics.

Our duty is to discuss these issues in a sane and sensible manner. That is what I meant by the approach that was made by the Questions the other day—to have the questions being asked, when all the documents on the table that are being discussed in the talks in Belfast are the same papers, with a different heading, as were there at the time of the previous administration. They would have been approved by the Cabinet.

So, why ask what is going on in Northern Ireland now and say that some great change is taking place and that the Secretary of State, in raising the issue of consent, somehow broke a convention that changed the situation? That was the situation before. There is no need to raise the issue in this way. The situation in Northern Ireland is still fraught. I, for one, rate the chances as not very high.

I believe that what has been done by the Secretaries of State in recent years has been excellent. I have had two disagreements with the Government in the past 20 years. One was over internment, which was an error, and I ended it. The law will now be changed, so that internment cannot return without the matter coming before Parliament. But internment was ended a long time ago. As for political status, I ended political status, which was introduced by the previous administration and was a mistake. Now, we have the matter raised today: is the present new Government going back to political status? Political status ended in 1975. To suggest that the movement of a common criminal—a mistake in my view—was somehow political trading is wrong. One can consult the various Secretaries of State in Northern Ireland regarding what has gone on about the movement of prisoners over the years. There will not be much to report today on Northern Ireland. The talks are where it is all happening. We have to realise that the talks may break down, because they may well do so.

We have not found the key to the door. But I commend what the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, did and what the present Secretary of State is doing. That is the only way through. One cannot sit back. One has to try. I hope that in doing so, we shall not turn to narrow party politics in questioning what is going on.

5.57 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, no fewer than seven of my nine predecessors as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are Members of your Lordships' House. One of the most distinguished has just resumed his seat and I thank him for his kind observations about me. There are others yet of your Lordships who have even greater knowledge of Northern Ireland than they have, let alone than I have. So it is with a totally unfeigned diffidence that I venture to trouble your Lordships at all in this debate with my own pennyworth of reflections. But I do so, sustained by the knowledge of your Lordships' customary kindness on these occasions and also by my own tremendous sense of gratitude for the privilege of having been able to serve for five years as Secretary of State of that most beautiful Province.

It is a great pity that so many people outside political life seem to regard that post as either a poisoned chalice or a one-way ticket to Siberia. I think it is a pity, first, because it is not true but, secondly, because giving currency to that mistake leads to resentment and is bad for confidence in Northern Ireland. As we all know, confidence is in rather short supply in Northern Ireland.

I have never thought of the job like that, which, as things turned out, was rather fortunate for me. I always considered it, as I still do, about the best job in the gift of any Prime Minister, though no doubt five years of doing it is enough in the interests of all concerned. I agree with one of my predecessors, who said to me not long ago, "Once you have held that job, you never get it out of your system". I would add, "You never desire to get it out of your system".

It is important that these things should be publicly said. I have found that in Northern Ireland so many people seem to suffer from a debilitating sense of being unfairly rejected, as though outside their own Province they are somehow seen as beyond redemption. That would be bad enough for anybody and it is certainly bad for them.

I had many saddening things said to me in my time there, but none more sad than the refrain which perennially met me and which I first encountered when on my second day in the Province I was walking on the pavements in central Belfast. Time and again people wistfully said to me, "We are not all bad, you know". Even then I knew how good so many of them were and of course I know that even better today.

But what qualities come to mind? One can take only a few examples: of course their courage, but also their kindliness and their warmth; their generosity, especially to charitable causes, and their hospitality; their family cohesion and their sense of community; their resolution, their humour and their hope. It seems to me to be relevant to any debate on the situation in Northern Ireland that one should call those qualities to mind, while not of course ignoring that there is a darker side as well. They are qualities that have endured and I believe they will continue to endure.

They are part of the situation in Northern Ireland and a major part too. They are the foundation for a better future for Northern Ireland, which is why they are foremost among the reasons that make me sure that in time better things can come for Northern Ireland. By that I mean that the principle of consent, properly understood, will come to be accepted and that the mounting weight of public opinion influenced by those qualities and many others will come to displace violence and the threat of violence as a practicable political weapon in anybody's hands.

We must acknowledge that today things are far from right in Northern Ireland. First, so incomplete is support for the principle of consent that no fewer than 18,000 soldiers are still needed to back up the RUC in upholding the rule of law. There is a substantial contribution from the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, and I pay the most heartfelt tribute to all the security services who serve there. Secondly, hideous, so-called punishment beatings continue, I am told, at the rate of 13, 14 or 15 every month and of course they are wholly political in their purpose. Lastly, in the governance of Northern Ireland the substantial and damaging democratic deficit persists. Those factors oblige us to say "in time". But how much time? Nobody can tell how long it will take for those who balk at it at the moment to accept the principle of consent. That is what it will turn upon.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, spoke in a recent lecture about, the vital importance of human reaction and attitude as the determining factor for the future of Northern Ireland". He said that, it was in the hearts, minds and actions of people that a solution will emerge or be rejected". For what it is worth, I respectfully agree.

I end by mentioning three developments in this context from which in particular we may take heart: first, the burgeoning on the ground of courageous and innovative examples of co-operation between the communities, frequently led by women. It is happening. Secondly, there is the continuing reduction in unemployment, particularly among the long-term unemployed. Lastly, but it perhaps should be first, there is the resumption of the talking process.

The great objective of a settlement founded on consent is now widely owned. People know that it can only be reached by a process of free negotiation; but it must be free. So we can take heart from this; but we must also take care. It is surely uncontroversial to say that the great objective which we share will be reached only if no participant is ever allowed to get away with demanding concessions with the threat of violence in default. The firm rejection, which I anticipate, of any such blackmail will sustain support for the process; it will bolster and underpin confidence and trust and, no less necessary, it will be seen to vindicate the remarkable and admirable courage now being shown by certain other participants.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, it is not only a pleasure, but a very real honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, in his maiden speech. I know your Lordships will agree that it has been a privilege and a pleasure to listen to him.

I have particular affection for him in the contribution that he made, for, though I was not around to become familiar with his academic accolades at college, his experience in national service, his early service in the legal profession or indeed his earlier political career in another place, I had the good fortune to spend some years working with him as he toiled at the Northern Ireland office to try to reach an accommodation in our Province. All the grace and elegance, all the courtesy and responsible public service which we have seen tonight in your Lordships' House demonstrated by his speech, was fully evidenced in all the work that he did in the office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He was and continues to be a man greatly respected, and rightly so.

It is also a great pleasure to note that his partner, not only in marriage but also in political work in Northern Ireland, Lady Mayhew, is here also, for she was singular in her commitment to advancing not only the cause of peace, but also the welfare of women and all who were vulnerable in Northern Ireland. She has therefore gained for herself enormous respect in that regard.

On a personal note I should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for making possible this debate on Northern Ireland this evening and to apologise. I need to return to Northern Ireland this evening and I may not be able to be in your Lordships' House for the full debate.

The noble Viscount is absolutely right when he says that scrutiny of Northern Ireland issues is as necessary as scrutiny of any of the other matters which fall to the responsibility of government. Indeed, one could legitimately make the argument that it was a failure of scrutiny by this House and the other place over many years, after the foundation of Northern Ireland and up to the end of the 1960s, that led to things developing which were totally unsatisfactory and, indeed, in the end to matters breaking down into violence. Therefore it is welcome that this House is giving time and has given time over the past year or so to the scrutiny of these matters. The arrival of the noble Lords, Lord Mayhew and Lord Alton of Liverpool, today further enriches not only the general debate of the House, but also its informedness on Northern Ireland matters. We also have my noble friend Lord Cope, who is a man of great experience in the affairs of Northern Ireland and we welcome him too.

Scrutiny is one thing; the danger is that folk can introduce Northern Ireland matters with reference to matters in other areas. We are unfortunately familiar with the fact that there have been times in the past when parties, indeed in this place, have introduced a Northern Ireland matter as a way of making play on the political stage on this side of the water. That is no more true of British politics than it has been of the politics of the Republic of Ireland, where there is a temptation to raise Northern Ireland matters from a partisan point of view.

I say not in any way that the reference to referendums on this side of the water is to that effect at all. But it is important to point out that there has been widespread agreement by all the participants in the talks that any format of referendum in respect of the talks in Northern Ireland must be agreed upon by the participants in the talks in Northern Ireland, and not be something that should be decided upon or mediated by the Speaker in another place.

For in truth the context in which referendums might be held in Northern Ireland is different from that in other parts of the United Kingdom. One welcomes very strongly the move towards devolution and the results of those referendums and perhaps succeeding referendums. But let us be clear: devolution in Northern Ireland will not be entirely the same matter as devolution in the rest of the United Kingdom. It will have many common factors and the dynamic created towards devolution in the rest of the United Kingdom is welcome as it assists us towards devolution in Northern Ireland. Let us not delude ourselves, however. There is no likelihood of Scotland seeking to have relationships with Scandinavia as a separate matter in the same kind of way perhaps as a Northern Ireland administration will have to have particular relations with the Republic of Ireland.

Perhaps I may turn to the scrutiny of these matters and deal with the issue of prisoners which was raised by the noble Viscount. He is absolutely right. There are not political prisoners in Northern Ireland. But there are, let us be honest, prisoners who are there having committed crimes that were politically motivated. They are crimes no less but they were politically motivated. We delude ourselves if we do not acknowledge that to be the case. How then do we treat such matters? They come before the courts and are exposed to the full rigours of the law. People are appropriately sentenced and committed. However, when we come to deal with them, one of the dangers is that we find political components entering in.

I have to say that the decisions that were made, at least in the first instance, in respect of the particular prisoner to whom the noble Viscount referred, were wrong. They were foolish and ill advised. Some of the transfers which did not take place under the previous administration because of the political views of the previous Home Secretary were every bit as ill advised and every bit as much decided upon by political injunction.

What is it that has really informed the mistakes? It is largely this. People look at the situation in Northern Ireland and decide not what is right to do and then do it but what is some form of balancing act between Unionists and Nationalists. They say, "Here is a procedure which we choose to undertake but the Unionists will not be so pleased about it. So let us do another little thing that perhaps will appease the Unionists." So, for example, we have the North Report producing a set of proposals about parades which we shall discuss in your Lordships' House next week. "The Unionists are not so happy so let us add another little bit about other cultural matters sufficient to confuse the whole matter totally and perhaps render the original sane proposal quite unworkable". Or we have other situations where there is a proposition to come forward but it is seen that Nationalists will not be terribly amenable to it. So, instead of arguing the case through and doing something because it is right, the response is to put in a little something for Nationalists to appease them.

In general, what happens is that one ends up pleasing no one and, worst of all, not even doing what is right. If one goes back to the time when the civil rights marches began, the call by civil rights marchers, including, for example, people like the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, was for British rights for British subjects; for everyone to have the same rights; and for everyone to have respect. What do we find now? Two sets of rights—Unionist rights and Nationalist rights: Protestant rights and Catholic rights; the creation of a form of apartheid, of separate development, which is in no one's interests. I would confess a particular self-interest in that regard as someone who does not want to be pigeon-holed as either a Unionist or a Nationalist but rather a tolerant and pluralist individual who wants to develop a society in which everyone has his place, in which everyone has respect and in which everyone has his rights respected. That is the way forward—not having two sets of rights, forever setting each other apart and forever a matter of dispute as to whose rights are being respected most.

I welcome the scrutiny of this debate because it is a complex and difficult issue. I do not for the moment take quite the low-spirited view that the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, takes, because my own experience of the talks, even over the past couple of weeks, has not been an entirely discouraging one. But there is a talks process involving democratic politicians. If we reach a settlement that is not unanimous but has the overwhelming support of both sides of the community and across the community as a whole—that is not impossible—the question is whether the peace process will hold, an entirely different matter from the talks process.

For the peace process is about those on the extremes who are at best ambivalent about democracy and at worst are only using it to promote some of their own political ends, often with a threat of a return to violence. The question is whether the peace process will hold if the democratic talks process produces its outcome. To that question I cannot give quite such a sanguine response at this point. It lies in the hands of those who may be in the talks but may as yet be only partly constitutional, semi-detached from democracy as it were. This time next year we shall perhaps know better in that regard.

6.16 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I feel especially privileged this afternoon to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, not only because of the memorable speech which he made today but of course because of the distinguished contribution which he made to seeking reconciliation and political progress in Northern Ireland. I am also pleased to follow my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who has made a characteristic contribution to the debate this afternoon in the service of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. In a previous existence it was always a great pleasure to work with him in Northern Ireland. He will know that because of the British-Irish mix in the City of Liverpool, the city from which I come, it is sometimes jokingly referred to as the capital of Ireland.

As a student, elected to its city council in 1972, the council then under the distinguished leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Sefton of Garston, I entered a town hall which still had a sectarian party and a politics where the last vestiges of orange and green rivalries still lingered. In 1979, during a maiden speech in the other place, I reflected on that sectarian past and spoke of the beginning of the constructive, new ecumenical partnership then being forged by the city's two bishops. Last year Archbishop Derek Worlock died, and last month Bishop David Sheppard retired, having made many significant interventions in your Lordships' House. He said he knew it was time to go when, during a parish visit, a youngster asked him if he had ever been interested in cricket.

Enduring though their legacy will be, there has not always been such amity. Forty years earlier, the city's bishops declined to say the Lord's Prayer together. Twenty years before that, the city council, for sectarian reasons, declined to give permission for the construction of the city's Roman Catholic cathedral. The formidable efforts of our two bishops and the Free Church leaders have today made such scandalous sectarianism an impossibility—and their philosophy of "better together" has helped to heal historic divisions.

There are all too obvious parallels and applications in Northern Ireland. Cardinal Cahal Daly, the former Irish Catholic Primate, well understood the nature of sectarianism when he told a meeting which I helped to organise here, three years ago, that, both houses of hate are a plague on our society", and that both sides must abandon any "solution" that implies a victory for either side.

My maiden speech in the other place was made in unusual circumstances. Twenty-four hours before my election Lord Callaghan's Government had been defeated on a confidence Motion and a general election declared. As Members packed their bags and left for the hustings, I had little choice but to risk a maiden within hours of arriving and leaving again. Thankfully, today's debate is being held in less exacting circumstances. But, more poignantly, on the day after my by-election, Mr. Airey Neave was assassinated by the IRA within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. It was an acute reminder to me of the enormities to which ancient hatreds can lead. How right was Liverpool's most famous son, Mr. Gladstone, when he mused, at the time of the defeat of his Home Rule Bill in your Lordships' House, that, the one and only conspicuous failure of our political genius", had been the failure to achieve a political solution in Ireland.

Nearly a century later, in 1985, with the noble Lords, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, I helped to draw up a report on the future of Northern Ireland. We recorded the terrible and pointless waste of life and the disastrous effect on the economy caused by that continued political failure. Since then the toll has risen inexorably. Since 1969, and by September of this year, 3,196 people had died in Northern Ireland. That included 2,247 civilians, and a further 37,617 people had been injured. Life has been lived and lost against the backdrop of more than 35,000 shootings, nearly 10,000 bombs exploded and nearly 20,000 armed robberies. Protection rackets, many involving drugs; so-called "punishment beatings"; intimidation and expulsions have disfigured life in Northern Ireland. These have gone on unabated even while the talks have continued at Stormont. Between June and September of this year the Northern Ireland Housing Executive had to rehouse 132 families ordered off their estates by paramilitaries seeking to assert their authority. In Gostin Street, Belfast, a man was recently held down and his fingers on both hands smashed with a hammer. Ten days ago, in the Grosvenor Road area, an 18 year-old man was shot in the legs. Last month, a mixed-marriage family was forced to leave Craigavon with their children aged 11 weeks and 20 months. Such intolerable behaviour should have no place in a democratic society. This blatant intimidation certainly has nothing to do with the rule of law.

An end to this catalogue of violence remains the elusive prize which will reward the patience and perseverance of those constructively engaged in the present negotiations. For their original act of courage, Mr. John Major, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, Mr. Albert Reynolds, along with all those of Northern Ireland's political and religious leaders who continue to take risks for peace, deserve our unqualified praise and unambiguous support.

I could think of no more appropriate debate in which to venture to take the risk of making a maiden speech. My own mother is an Irish speaker from the famine lands of the West of Ireland. My late father was a Desert Rat and my uncle lost his life serving in the RAF. Along with my own children, I have both British and Irish passports. Why? Because love of country need not imply a hatred of another country. In common with millions of others who draw on the diversity and strength of the British and Irish traditions, I would add my voice as an encouragement to the Government as they painstakingly work for an end to sectarianism and an end to the violence in Northern Ireland. I thank the Members of this House for listening to me with such courtesy.

6.23 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the House is most fortunate to have the noble Lord, Lord Alton, among us. I believe that he has a special third passport here. His first speech has certainly whetted our appetite. It was full of generous indignation and real knowledge. He already knows so much, which is going to be immensely valuable to this House, including his ecumenical experience, if I may call it that, from his Liverpool roots. One has to remember that when he entered the other place in 1979 he was the youngest MP to be elected. Possibly he may not be our youngest Peer. But he is certainly going to bring energy, enterprise and a generous courage to our debates. I believe that we are most fortunate to have him among us. We warmly welcome him.

I feel diffident about speaking not only after hearing the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but also two distinguished Secretaries of State. I greatly admired the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, as we all did.

It would be wrong at so early a stage in the talks to abandon hope of a successful outcome. It is certainly right, now that all political parties right across the spectrum in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein/IRA, are there, to give them a chance to work out something. However, I believe that we need to consider what the game plan will be if the ceasefire should end, as I sadly believe that it will. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed out, we are talking about two different things—the talks and the peace process.

The IRA has already said that it does not consider itself bound by Sinn Fein's acceptance of the Mitchell principles. Sinn Fein has said that its agenda is "Brits out, and a United Ireland". The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has said that, a settlement is to be negotiated between the parties based on consent"; and that, Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority here wish"; to which Mr. McGuinness's reply was that he hoped that the Prime Minister would be the last British Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Those points of view are difficult to reconcile. Gerry Adams said in 1995 that Sinn Fein's strategy, must be based on the widely accepted view that there can be no internal solution"; and Sinn Fein has long argued that the vote of the majority is an unacceptable veto. Decommissioning means for Sinn Fein/IRA that the British must give up their arms and go; and a Sinn Fein discussion paper in 1996 called for the disbandment of the RUC and its replacement by an all-Ireland police service. As we all know, the IRA will not contemplate giving up one ounce of Semtex at any time. All that does not augur well.

But is it right that we should tacitly assume that only talks which carry Sinn Fein with them are of any value? Is there not some mileage in building as strong a consensus as possible on a series of practical issues between the parties who represent the non-violent majority (and who include many nationalists) and who wish to remain part of the United Kingdom? Most, if not all, would welcome more cross-Border co-operation between north and south—such ventures as the new offshore oil exploration initiative involving Harland and Wolff, the University of Cork and Queen's, Belfast. And most want more practical grass roots co-operation within Northern Ireland, and of course the ability to attract investment.

But these people need confidence-building measures from the two governments as much, if not more, than Sinn Fein/IRA which seems to be getting the lion's share so far. Unionists and moderate, non-violent nationalists need reassurance that the whole process is not to become a mechanism for buying off, or at least constantly placating, Sinn Fein/IRA, not because it has more than a minority political constituency but because it is the political face of the IRA. The recent report of an intention to include questions of cultural identity in the legislation on parades is perhaps an encouraging signal, and the Irish Government's confirmation this week that Articles 2 and 3 will indeed be up for discussion during the substantive negotiations is another, though I found the phrase, as part of balanced constitutional change", ambiguous and not entirely reassuring.

The next few months will be taxing for all concerned, and it is never helpful in long and delicate negotiations to keep pulling up the plants to see how they are growing. But I do suggest that the full IRA/Sinn Fein agenda is simply not negotiable if the differences between it and the other democratically mandated parties are to be, in the words of the joint statement of December 1993, negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means". Perhaps, therefore, even more energetic efforts to build the confidence of those parties are needed now rather than next May to ensure that they all stay at the table and work out something other than the Sinn Fein/IRA agenda. Who knows, even some of Sinn Fein might join in. The IRA will in any case make its own decisions and follow its own agenda. It is perfectly accustomed to moving from the political phase to armed struggle and back again.

In the wake of the devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales it is, I suggest, even more important to repeat yet once more, loud and clear, the Prime Minister's unequivocal commitment in his statement of 16th May in Belfast that, Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority here wish". That must be unequivocal. His speech of 25th June enlarged on that with its references to devolution in Northern Ireland and to an elected assembly, but it repeated his commitment to the triple lock. We must hold him to that.

Nevertheless, there is a general tendency to blame the majority parties, especially the Unionists, for any difficulties in the talks, and that will increase as Sinn Fein/IRA finds it harder to obscure the stark fact of its non-negotiable agenda. It will do a Drumcree if it can, and it will be of the greatest importance for the truth to be kept steadfastly in view. The publication of the aide-mémoire sent by the Government to Sinn Fein on 13th June was an excellent example of making sure that the truth about what was said was published and could not be invented by Sinn Fein.

Of course the Unionists will be difficult; but no one should expect turkeys to vote for Christmas, and these turkeys speak for very many citizens of Northern Ireland whose future is at stake. They speak for many more than just the Unionists. As has been said, we should take great care not to put people into separate boxes. There is a large majority in Northern Ireland who wish for peace; there is a very small minority who have the power, unfortunately, to refuse that peace, but we should not confuse them. This could be a valuable debate and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranborne for initiating it. I have been particularly privileged to hear from two previous Secretaries of State and from our other new Peer.

6.31 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and to compliment her on her understanding remarks. Time restrictions inevitably prevent me from paying adequate tribute to the two former Secretaries of State who have spoken and to their good ladies who made more of a contribution to the Province than they themselves probably realised at the time or since.

Last week, on 16th October, on the initiative of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, who has provided us with another opportunity today, we had exchanges on the principle of consent and there was agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, when. with his years of experience behind him, he declared that consent is not a questionable matter. That view was reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, who has just spoken.

It follows that the principle of consent must not be qualified or muddled by tortuous forms of words. Whatever other items might be included in a referendum, perhaps in the form, "Do you agree or disagree with Section 4(4)(2) of the agreement?", which would not convey very much to the average elector, a clear-cut question ought to be asked also—namely, "To which nation do you wish to belong?"—because the answer to that question will place all other issues in their proper context.

This debate enables your Lordships' House to caution against the current use of a foolish exhortation which runs, "Do get around the table and find a solution which will end terrorism". "Getting round the table" is not a new phrase—it sounds good when applied to world-wide trouble spots, but it seldom works because its very appeal to the news industry always results in the participants being launched on what I have frequently called a "high wire act"—thus making it virtually impossible to secure agreement. So our hearts must go out to those like the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who are required to perform in the glare of the spotlights.

But even if by some miracle a solution were found in the Stormont talks, an even greater miracle would be required to bring terrorism to an end, because terrorists deal in absolutes not compromises. When it becomes apparent that no government anywhere in the western world can ignore the principle of consent and immediately concede terrorist demands for the ultimate, the killing will be resumed by the main terrorist body or one of its sub-contractors.

In a perverse way, terrorist reaction is being made more likely by a Northern Ireland Office speciality not invented by this Government—termed "confidence building measures" which in reality and in plain English are concessions to terrorists designed to keep them on board the "peace process", which itself is an American invention exported to various parts of the world with equally varying success.

But confidence building concessions are not a harmless pastime; they are a deadly, dangerous miscalculation for they convince terrorists that force, or even the near threat of force, is certain to gain objectives which no democratic system could deliver, even if it so wished. But perhaps I misjudge the British and Irish Governments. Perhaps having completed phase one of the confidence-building concessions to terrorists, they are about to introduce a phase two of benign confidence building measures designed to restore the confidence of all the law-abiding people, Protestant, Catholic and people of no faith, in Northern Ireland and for that matter in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I assume that the Northern Ireland ministerial team will have prepared an impressive catalogue of balancing measures overdue for over a quarter of a century, perhaps beginning with a modest updating of administrative mechanisms in line with the other three parts of the United Kingdom. These and other updatings do not in any way relate to what is condemned as an internal settlement, which seems to be the unforgivable crime, for these would be of real, immediate benefit to people of all shades of opinion. They would do something far more important also; they would provide the only real lasting foundation for stability.

This past week we have been confronted with a most serious and most urgent development. I refer to the appalling spectacle of editors of certain Dublin newspapers being tempted with free offers of classified documents from the files of the Irish Department of External Affairs. I have discovered that many of those confidential files originated in the Joint British-Irish Secretariat. Some of those already examined contained sensitive security information which could not be disclosed, and never was disclosed, even to senior Privy Counsellors, except those in the need-to-know category. Such is the treacherous nature of some in the Joint Secretariat that United Kingdom national security information is now being peddled in the backstreets of Dublin and at least four files have been passed direct to the IRA Army Council.

I do not attach blame to the Minister nor to his colleagues, but as one whose duty involved access in former times to secret information for over 15 years, I now have a duty to warn your Lordships of what is referred to in our Writ of Summons as "dangers impending" as a consequence of those continuing disclosures and that the Prime Minister, who bears the burden of national security, be respectfully requested to withdraw the British element from the Joint Secretariat with immediate effect.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for initiating this debate and for his helpful and constructive expression of interest in Irish affairs. The timing of this debate is useful at the commencement of this Session of this Parliament.

There have been 11 Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland since the abolition of the Stormont Parliament in 1972 and the passing of the Northern Ireland Act in July 1974. Several noble Lords have held positions as democratically elected government Ministers or other positions relating to Northern Ireland during these past 25 years. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees mentioned certain strains upon family life and how Ministers have to take decisions. I recall two Ministers with whom I was acquainted. I was present when one was informed of the shooting and death of his security officer, and the other of a similar occurrence. One came from the Conservative ranks and the other from the Labour ranks. I mention this because Labour and Conservative are both naturally human at heart and both can reflect the serious issues they are called upon to deal with and the spontaneity; that they may have to react under tremendous pressure has to be really understood to be appreciated.

The present position is that terrorists and other misguided people are still taking wild action against efforts to establish law and order. There are blatant attacks intended to destroy the fabric of democracy and parliamentary principles. Today, even after some 27 years of blatant abuse and attacks designed to destroy parliamentary democratic procedures, there still exist deep divisions and bitter sectarianism. The ugly no-go peace lines, the awful fear of favourably agreeing to middle ground and lawful measures, are borne with serious consequences. Those who seek to build bridges to peace and prosperity are victims and often suffer bodily attack. Even the stigmatised areas in the divided community areas are riddled with vandalism and dereliction. Children and families suffer. Those who seek to uphold law and order are constantly under attack.

It is against that background that we have the new ceasefire and that the inter-party peace talks are taking place. Those talks are now in their fourth meeting at the Castle Building in Belfast and they are under considerable strain. I think we should bear with the situation and let the talks proceed without any political interference from outside or demands for more public statements of progress. It is to these talks that the many peaceable people look for hope, peace and progress—peaceable people in Northern Ireland, Britain, the Republic of Ireland, the United States and other countries. It is hoped that a new democratic government process may be established: that a consensus may be found to give a sound basis for lasting peace.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, made mention of the method by which this is to proceed and I think note must be taken of it. How can this House of Lords, this Westminster Parliament, this United Kingdom Government help towards a peaceful democratic outcome of these talks? I am glad to say that over the past 27 years there has been an understanding, democratic bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland affairs, both in this House and in another place. I would certainly hope that that approach would be upheld in the letter as well as in the normal acknowledgement of the processes.

There is no personal kudos, there is no party political gain to be attained on a singular point-scoring basis. The United Kingdom Government are still responsible for the day-to-day ongoing efforts in Northern Ireland. These cover all facets of life in the Province: security, law and order, economic development, health, education and family life in general. These must proceed along the normal parliamentary process and it is important that we establish the ways and methods by which they should proceed. The talks may go on at another level. The well established legislative and administrative arrangements and procedures for upholding these democratic objectives are well known: we have parliamentary debates, we have Question Time, we have the Northern Ireland Special Committee, we have other special committees dealing with parish affairs. There is the Northern Ireland Forum which I think sometimes ought to be consulted on certain matters, and there is also the Anglo-Irish Inter-Party Group.

I think it is the duty and responsibility of Members of this House and Members of another place to appreciate that they have not only the responsibility but are committed by oath to uphold the good government of the nation, and it is important that we look at that in the light of what has been asked for. We have been asked at times to sever the links with Britain—that the British and Irish nations must be separated. There has been no thought about the 2 million first-generation Irish people, from Northern Ireland and from Southern Ireland, who still hold positions in Britain. What is to happen to them? Have they been consulted? It is the duty of all Members of the House of Lords, and particularly of Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in Britain, to acknowledge the tremendous strain that is being placed upon those people in many ways; they are being asked to give up of their own free will homes and opportunities for education and employment that they have established here.

I also feel that a word should be said about the creeping method of the condominium type of rule that now exists in Northern Ireland. It is the result of international agreement and the Anglo-Irish Agreement; but the establishment of the Maryfield has, I believe, dealt a terrible blow to the Northern Ireland Civil Service and to its methods of doing work. I know that they may not measure up to some of the British civil servants in Northern Ireland Office who have an ethos and a way of explaining things, and they do not require civil servants from the Irish Republic. I wish to see a united Ireland, a united people of Ireland, united by heart and mind not simply by the movement of a line on a map.

This debate has been useful. I hope that the bipartisan approach will continue to have a worthwhile effect in Northern Ireland.

6.47 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, I too believe that we should be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for introducing this debate. The situation in Northern Ireland is important and if anything can come out of this debate which will help to bring peace to Northern Ireland, it will be good.

It is unfortunate, but a fact, that after three years of effort by governments to progress the peace process, distrust and fear throughout Northern Ireland are now worse than they have ever been and tension is high. I believe it is important to look at the reasons for this because, if the reasons can be defined, perhaps something can be done. Sinn Fein/IRA in its ceasefire mode has been working hard to prevent the communities coming together. It has worked to bring them into conflict and this work has been effective—for instance, the Garvaghy Road, Drumcree problem. Mr. Adams has said that it took them two years to get the Garvaghy Road residents to act as Sinn Fein wanted. They put in an outsider, a convicted terrorist, to organise the residents and persuade them to object to every parade and never to compromise.

Sinn Fein has made great efforts to encourage nationalist-minded people to have unrealistic expectations and demands. The increasing number of protest parades is evidence of that. If the talks lead to a settlement, this will not stop because the objective of Sinn Fein will remain. They will still want to prove that the Province is ungovernable as the next stop before they get the Brits out. That does not help community relations. That fact must be recognised and taken account of.

Almost as serious is the effect of both governments' determination to bring Sinn Fein into the talks by making concession after concession to terrorists. The people of Northern Ireland and the security forces have opposed terrorism for 27 years. They have suffered ethnic cleansing in the west, indiscriminate bombings and unspeakable atrocities. Loyalist paramilitaries have reacted and made things worse, but now, with concession after concession to Sinn Fein/IRA, everyone can see that violence pays.

In Northern Ireland, an integral part of the UK, we have the extraordinary situation where our neighbour state has a constitution which requires its government to work to take over Northern Ireland as part of its territory. That is unfriendly to say the least. They have been allowed, by the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to interfere in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. It has a large establishment—Maryfield, near Belfast—which is staffed by officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs who have direct access to Northern Ireland Office officials on classified matters. They now regard it as their right to appoint a proportion of members to our public bodies and boards. They can veto a candidate of whom they do not approve. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Blease, said about the effect that that has had on our own civil servants, whose decisions have been questioned and overridden by officials from Dublin.

In the past few days we have had the release of classified documents in Dublin to which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred. It is no surprise for that to happen in the political community in Dublin. We in Northern Ireland—citizens of the UK—are told nothing about the extent of the involvement of the Government of the Republic in our affairs. Some things come to light occasionally, but there is evidence of much more. Is it any wonder that the majority in Northern Ireland who wish to remain in the UK are fearful of the future and are becoming distrustful of governments?

The Secretary of State has talked about confidence-building measures. So far they have been in the form of concessions to Sinn Fein. If the Government wish to give some confidence to the majority who support the Union, they will call a halt to the interference in Northern Ireland affairs by the Republic of Ireland and will exert positive pressure to have Articles 2 and 3 removed from its constitution. Only then can Strand 2 talks on North/South relationships begin properly with equal parties working to develop relationships for mutual benefit.

How about the Government seeking some advice from people in Northern Ireland instead of consorting with a foreign state? Have the Government thought of that? Perhaps the Minister will be able to allay some of the fears which are so widespread in Northern Ireland.

I wish to mention something which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Armagh, the noble Lord, Lord Eames, said yesterday in Northern Ireland. He was commenting upon the absence of trust which separates the people and communities in Northern Ireland. I shall paraphrase. He said that we would only have peace when that feeling of separation had been overcome and people settled down to live together. He said that a settlement in the peace process alone would not be enough. He emphasised that that would take time and much care. He felt that more open government was necessary and important. I believe that he is correct. A settlement reached in the talks will not of itself bring peace. Peace will come only when we have mutual trust and a will to live together. That is why today's debate is so important.

6.55 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I imagine that every former Minister making his or her first speech from the Back Benches must feel a degree of sadness. Mine has been much leavened by hearing the maiden speeches of my noble friend Lord Mayhew and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I hope that the noble Lord will participate in many future Northern Ireland debates. Brilliant though the speech of my noble friend Lord Mayhew was, how much more interesting would it have been had he been able to include parts which can never be made public.

I congratulate my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition on calling the debate. I have never before seen such an illustrious list of speakers on a Northern Ireland issue or such a full House, although it is not such a capacity audience as Scottish devolution attracts. Were the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to walk into the Chamber, he would be somewhat surprised by the number of people here. I should like to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to him and to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for the courtesy that they always showed to me and the Government while I was in office.

It may be appropriate for me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cooke. He is one of Northern Ireland's businessmen. He is one of those responsible for the growth of the Northern Ireland economy and the happy situation which the Government inherited. How much better could the position be were there to be a termination of violence.

When I looked at the list of speakers for the debate, I assumed that everyone would talk about politics. That is important, but it is long term. In the meantime, the majority of people get up every morning and get on with their lives. They should not be neglected while the talks continue. The confidence building must include them. They must have the confidence that their children will continue to have a good education and that they and their families will be well served by Northern Ireland's good health service.

That confidence must currently be in doubt after the announcement made with so much vigour of the extra £300 million going to the NHS. That is not that much money for the health service. The result is that £17 million will go to Scotland while only £5 million is going to Northern Ireland, where it is acknowledged that the people's health is unfortunately worse than anywhere else in the UK. There are many battles to be fought there.

Many people are in work. There are more people in work than ever before. That is good news. Unemployment continues to fall. I ask the Minister to look at how many prospective jobs are tied up in the planning process, to recognise that a second ceasefire cannot be as trusted as the first, and that the need to find inward investment is imperative for the majority of people living in Northern Ireland.

If we stay out of the European single currency, or continue to confuse people about our position, Northern Ireland will be one of the earliest and worst sufferers. It is very easy for inward investors, looking at the North, to go South. Large amounts of money and attractive tax incentives are offered. Despite that, the people who have been working in the North have attracted inward investment. I ask the Government, please, not to make it more difficult for them. Northern Ireland is a gateway to Europe, but it has to be a continuous path. With 1.6 million people, no one can live on a domestic market; exports are lifeblood. A strong pound will stop the flow, however competitive the companies—and I assure your Lordships that they are.

I note increasing conversation about cross-border executive agencies and I ask for the Minister's views on the current situation. Does he really believe that they are of economic benefit? Are they not another political sop? Why put costs and bureaucracy on to something which already occurs? It has been made to happen by the people. The trade unions have worked cross-border for many years. The CBI works shoulder to shoulder on many occasions with its southern counterpart. The Ulster Farmers' Union works with its colleagues in the South. Young people easily cross the border at weekends and voluntary bodies work together. It is important that those activities are not slowed down by the bureaucracy and the establishment of bodies which, as I see it, will produce no benefit.

Is it not time that costs and bureaucracy were examined? The Government have found out the hard way—though we could have shared the knowledge with them—that there is never enough money to do all that needs to be done. Why does Northern Ireland need more bodies and more officials than Greater Manchester? The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, questioned that in a previous debate. Also, what is the situation as regards public appointments? Is it changing and are we bringing forward more people? Of course we all support Nolan and Peach, but women, young people and minority representatives need nurturing and they are, not surprisingly, nervous when often the independent member of a panel is a former civil servant and the line of appeal is to the Permanent Secretary. We need to see increased representation of all parts of the community at all levels. Sometimes we ask the impossible; we ask people to be responsible without giving them responsibility.

There are many success stories in the Northern Ireland economy, all based on the excellent workforce and particularly highlighted by reinvestment. However, they receive little coverage. That is why I criticise the visit of the Prime Minister to Northern Ireland. Once again we saw world-wide coverage of heightened tempers and clashes, which fortunately are not the norm and hopefully not the future. And I must disagree with the Northern Ireland Office spokesmen who apparently said that the Northern Ireland Office does not see the Connswater visit as a PR disaster. One must have sympathy with the Secretary of State, who works so tirelessly for peace in the Province, if that is the support she is receiving. One must feel sympathy, too, as regards the internal leaks she has suffered and even more sympathy following the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, which send a chill to the stomach.

Too often Northern Ireland argues for special treatment and sectors of Whitehall fail to distinguish between GB and UK. As the talks continue, important as they are, it must be remembered that the Province is part of the United Kingdom and, more importantly, it is one of the outstanding parts.

7.4 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I rise to speak in the debate precisely because I have never been involved in any Northern Ireland business, nor have I ever lived there. It is important that the debate on Northern Ireland does not become restricted only to people who speak on the subject. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, we should not go with the GB/UK divide but take the view that the Northern Ireland question is important to us all and that if we have a view we should express it.

I am grateful to the noble Viscount for introducing the debate. It has also been an occasion of two very good maiden speeches, in addition to many others. I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. I have been to Northern Ireland many times and have pleasant memories of working with both universities in Belfast. On every occasion I have had a good time. The people are good and friendly; they are also most worried that the mainland will forget them. They want us to discuss the problems as often as we can, because one of the worst things would be that they were forgotten. That was the feeling some years ago and now there is no such danger because a process is in place.

I do not wish to make a long speech because I want to leave time for other Members. One of the most difficult problems in Northern Ireland—as it is in Kashmir, Cyprus or Palestine—is that history is the enemy of the future. As soon as you go there you are classified by your religion and your origins. I first went there 27 years ago and it was a happy occasion because I was about to be offered a professorship at the University of Ulster. I put it to the vice-chancellor that I had just come out of LSE student troubles with my name emblazoned across many newspapers for revolutionary activities and asked whether I would settle down or get into trouble. He was Australian. He said, "No, not at all. I always use a simple rule. Whenever I give a party I invite equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, except that with the Protestants you must be very careful to balance the Presbyterians and Anglicans". At that point I decide that I should not go there, which was a mistake.

I wish to urge on my noble friend Lord Dubs, who knows my views, a belief that we have not used sufficiently in this battle the non-Christian population of the United Kingdom. There are people who are neither Catholics nor Protestants, but who know a great deal about peace and reconciliation. They have different histories of quarrels and battles and have learnt different lessons. It is time that we took advantage of the Jews, the Moslems, the Hindus and the Buddhists. After all, if we are to be a multi-racial society we should exploit the advantage which that gives in relation to this difficult problem.

7.8 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, in this timed debate I wish to deal only with two issues. The first is the illogical nature of the way in which Northern Ireland is being governed. We have a list of civil servants from the Irish Republic stationed in Belfast who should be acting impartially. However, Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution dictate that they should take us over. It is hard for anyone to be impartial when he has territorial ambitions over the part of the world in respect of which he is supposed to be impartial. Now we have the latest statement from Mr. Andrews, the Foreign Secretary of the Irish Republic. He was recently reported to have said: As the negotiations progress we will discuss proposals for change in the Irish constitution as a part both of balanced constitutional change"— whatever that means— and of an overall agreement". In other words, they are once again putting off facing up to the question of acknowledging British territory to which they are not entitled and which is in contravention of the rules of the European Community where it is laid down that one country in the European Union is not allowed to seek to take over part of the territory of any other country. But that does not seem to worry them in the slightest.

It is difficult to know, even if they do declare that they will do away with that part of the constitution, how long that is likely to last because early on, after the 1920 Act, a boundary commission was established. There was a leak of the report to the effect that Northern Ireland was to be given part of east Donegal and part of north Monaghan. They immediately rushed across to London and the tripartite agreement of 1925 was entered into in which the Irish Free State, as it was then, acknowledged British sovereignty over the six counties of Northern Ireland. They even went as far as taking the matter to Geneva and having it registered as an international treaty. A few years later they produced a constitution and completely disregarded their obligations under that agreement.

At Sunningdale, once again, they recognised our existence but that has not lasted very long. So what confidence can we have in them if they say once again that they are prepared to recognise us?

Also, a great deal of harm has been done as a result of the notorious Anglo-Irish Agreement, for which the present Government bear no blame. As I have said already, we have Republican civil servants in Belfast. Apparently, their document security is very poor because documents are being leaked all over the place. One of the latest leaks published in the newspapers was in relation to a senior civil servant going to see Mrs. Rogers, a prominent member of the SDLP with a list, described as the six-monthly list, of public appointments to ask who she wished to have appointed. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, that those bodies should be even-handed and should represent all sections of the community. To take the list to one party only and ask it who it wishes to have appointed is not the way to achieve evenhandedness. That destroys completely any possible confidence that there can be in that administration. It is so completely unfair to have those secret negotiations, about which we find out what is going on from time to time only because there is a leak. It is about time that they were above board and that the minutes were published of discussions between the Northern Ireland civil servants and those people from the Irish Republic; otherwise, secrecy in what is supposed to be a democracy leads only to ill will and difficulties of all kinds.

In fact, the same Mr. Andrews, talking about another document that was leaked to a newspaper, which apparently refused to publish it, said: If the Anglo-Irish documents had been published they would have endangered lives". It makes one wonder what was in them if that is how he sums up the matter. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, referred to that perverted idea of political crimes. It is a fairly degraded sense of politics to describe as a political crime a horrible murder whereby a young man had his throat cut because he had on the wrong football jersey.

Therefore, let us try to have some agreement between the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland and forget about trying to placate terrorists and people who never will be placated. They will only want more. I believe that it is time that we had a more realistic approach to the governing of Northern Ireland.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, may I first take a moment to commend the two quite outstanding maiden speeches that we heard this evening. Next, I should like to try to reinforce a couple of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell.

From time to time, one sees the Guardian or, occasionally, the Independent reporting with weary exasperation that unionists are complaining yet again about Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, as if taking offence at Articles 2 and 3 is yet another eccentricity peculiar to those tiresome unionists. In reality, every thinking individual in England, Scotland and Wales ought also to voice their distaste with the irredentist and therefore hostile claims contained in those articles. But most fail to do so for one of two reasons. If they are well to the left of the political spectrum, they instinctively and automatically take the line, "British patriotism is bad; all other patriotism is good", as they always do.

In contrast, the moderate left, the centre and the right hold fast to the unspoken establishment convention that Irish governments, uniquely among all the governments of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, should be virtually immune from criticism. I suspect that that is largely because the establishment subconsciously regards the Irish as prickly, touchy, volatile adolescents who are ready to explode at the slightest provocation and who must therefore be treated with kid gloves.

The Irish have little respect for that approach but being only human, they naturally take full advantage of it. I contend that the Irish of today are overwhelmingly mature, responsible adults, fully capable of taking criticism on the chin when it is justified, as it certainly is in this case. Yes, the Irish Constitution has been in existence for 60 years and Articles 2 and 3 could perhaps be tolerated reluctantly so long as there was not the slightest attempt to assert those claims in practice.

But the deplorable Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, much regretted in retrospect by our then Prime Minister, as I understand it, changed everything. The moment the Republic was granted powers over the north, those articles should have been revoked or at least drastically altered. They should not be used cynically as a bargaining counter in the present negotiations and it should not be left to the main unionist party to say as much.

Very commendably, the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, said in a speech on 16th May at the Royal Ulster Agricultural Show that it would be a helpful confidence-building measure if the Irish Constitution could be changed in advance of any settlement, to which one can only add, "Hear, hear". That message should be hammered home time and time again by the Government and, indeed, by Opposition Spokesmen.

That brings us to another aspect of the principle of consent. Up until the early 1980s, I think that it is fair to say that British Government policy, irrespective of which political party was in power, was broadly to try to foster an Ulster identity, an Ulster patriotism, if you like, based on the fact that Ulster Protestants differ quite a lot from Protestants in Scotland and the north of England and that Ulster Catholics differ quite a lot from Catholics in the south of Ireland. That may have been an uphill task but it was certainly not an ignoble strategy, far from it. The policy was reversed almost overnight in the early 1980s for reasons one can only guess. "There are two totally different cultural identities and two totally different cultural allegiances" became the buzz phrase followed by, "and never the twain shall meet".

Ignoring totally the existence of the party of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice-the Alliance Party—all Roman Catholics were deemed to be automatically anti-British, Gaelic speaking and fervent republicans who dream day and night of a united Ireland and, with rather more accuracy, all Protestants were deemed to be unionists, English speaking, pro-monarchy, and so on. Politics now became a matter of an elaborate checks and balances, designed to give each supposed cultural group equal validity and respect. Those who wished to destroy the state, provided that they did so peacefully, were deemed to be every bit as admirable as those who wished to preserve it. Total impartiality was the order of the day and Ministers of the Crown were actively discouraged from openly supporting the union.

By way of compensation, it seemed to be generally agreed that no constitutional change should take place without substantial support from each community. However, that safeguard has frequently been undermined by fudging—whether deliberate or accidental I really do not know. The requirement for the consent of "the" majority is often replaced by the requirement for the consent of "a" majority. The substitution of the indefinite for the definite article makes all the difference in the world.

Let us suppose that as a result of a few more IRA bombs in the City of London and elsewhere on the mainland—thus utilising part of the vast stockpile of weapons and ammunition given to the IRA by Colonel Gaddafi—massive pressure was brought to bear on the British Government to accept a settlement which was almost wholly favourable to nationalist aspirations and which, moreover, gave the Irish Government vastly more powers than they already possess. The unionist parties would resist to the utmost but the Government would almost certainly insist on a referendum—a referendum in which, for example, 98 per cent. of nationalists might vote in favour of an agreement, while only 13 per cent. of unionists would do so—mainly business people, perhaps sick and tired of their businesses being bombed or burnt to the ground and prepared to sacrifice their principles for a quiet life. That voting pattern could theoretically produce a tiny overall majority of 50.1 per cent. or 50.2 per cent. In favour of drastic constitutional change. That would happen against the passionate opposition of seven out of eight unionists. Such a situation would be neither fair nor conducive to peace whether in the short or long term.

Can we be assured, first, that any referendum results will be announced on a constituency-by-constituency basis so that any one-sided voting pattern such as the one that I described will become clear and be capable of being acted upon? Secondly, can we be assured that any referendum will be merely advisory and not binding upon the Government?

7.24 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I shall only take a few minutes with what I have to say. I had intended to speak at greater length but, unfortunately, I had other commitments this evening. In the four minutes that are at my disposal I should like to say that the situation in Northern Ireland now—that is, all the turmoil, the fears and suspicions that are raised—is all about legislation which was introduced by the Tory government. I have in mind the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the framework document and the Anglo-Irish Declaration. So one cannot claim from the Government side of the House that it was all one way or the other.

I have sat in both Houses since 1966 debating Northern Ireland. Therefore, I hope that I shall be regarded as non-partisan—that is, being neither on the Conservative nor on the Labour side. My main interest has always been Northern Ireland. I believe that I am the only Member present in the Chamber this evening who took part in the Sunningdale agreement negotiated under the Conservative government of the time. I said then just after it, I say it now and, indeed, I will say it tomorrow: the best and most hopeful agreement that ever came to the Northern Ireland conflict was the Sunningdale agreement, especially Article 1 which dealt with the internal situation.

I have always believed—and will continue to believe—that the internal solution between unionists and nationalists, Catholics and Protestants, in Northern Ireland was achievable. It was the second strand which made provision for relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The power-sharing executive of Northern Ireland, which I believe was one of the most hopeful and constructive political movements ever, was all brought crashing to an end because of Article 2; namely, what they now call "strand 2". I can only live in hope—and I stand here in the depths of despair—because I believe that there are awful similarities with the situation at present. I believe that strand 2 will perish again as it did in 1974. Awful nationalistic pressures will be applied to force the Northern Ireland people into constructing some sort of agreement between north and south which will be entirely unacceptable to them.

I see that I have only one minute left to speak. Perhaps I may make a plea to the originator of the debate and to my noble friend to take something out of the Northern Ireland vocabulary: "confidence-building measures". In the vocabulary of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, the phrase "confidence-building measures" means transferring murderers and prisoners from one gaol in Britain to another place and letting them out. They say that all that is done in the name of building confidence in those people who are now taking part in the Northern Ireland political process. They may be giving confidence to those people who have killed and murdered over the years, but they are certainly not giving confidence to the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.

Because of a construed or mis-construed policy under the Conservative Government, people who had been killing and murdering over many years were brought in and are now going into the Stormont talks. They have been seen walking in and out of No. 10 Downing Street under both governments. I urge the present Government and those who have initiated tonight's debate to take into account the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland—that is, both Catholics and Protestants—who feel sickened to the stomach at seeing people who have been guilty of murder now going into talks, allegedly to instil confidence into the political process of Northern Ireland. I hope that the Government will take that fact into consideration.

7.28 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying what a great and unexpected pleasure it is to find myself following the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and to see him back in his place well restored and in characteristically vigorous voice. Although the noble Lord's warnings are gloomy ones, we all recognise his experience and respect it. Indeed, we would do well to heed what he has said.

I should also like to thank the noble Viscount for introducing tonight's debate and for having the idea that we should spend substantial time in this House discussing the situation in Northern Ireland. The quality of tonight's contributions is sufficient evidence of the wisdom of that course. With that acute historical sense of his, the noble Viscount led us down some fascinating byways. However, I was slightly puzzled as to why he wanted to remind us of the heavy price that poor Mr. Lloyd George had to pay for relying on the Conservative Party, but no doubt he had his reasons for talking about that. He also at one point wished the Government well. I absolutely accept his sincerity, as I know what a pillar of a cross-party approach he has been, but the terms in which he wished the Government well made me think for their sake that I hope he never wishes them ill.

As several speakers have mentioned, we have heard two absolutely outstanding maiden speeches this evening. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, showed the characteristic generosity of spirit and integrity of approach which made him such an outstanding Secretary of State and which I am sure will make him a great contributor to your Lordships' House. I say to my old friend David Alton that I remember the Edge Hill by-election as if it were yesterday, although he does not look a day older. It is extremely good to see him in this House. He brought to his speech that passion and commitment which all who know and respect him expect of him. I hope that we shall hear from him often in your Lordships' House .

There have been many outstanding speeches this evening but I wish to dwell for a moment on that of the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, with whom I have had the pleasure of working from these Benches for some years. She is right to remind us that under all the political froth and the deeply felt history there is an important reality in Northern Ireland which is to improve the strength of the Northern Ireland economy and to make it less dependent and less suckling on the teat of Government. It needs to be made more entrepreneurial to attract more inward investment into Northern Ireland. Her efforts in that respect will bear fruit over a long time. As the Government pursue—as they have to—their political agenda, I hope that they do not lose sight of that equally important economic development agenda to which the noble Baroness made such a notable contribution.

It is difficult to obtain from such a varied debate a clear sense of themes. However, I believe that three "Cs" have preoccupied us this evening: the first is consent; the second is compromise and the third is confidence building. Those three items have featured in many of your Lordships' speeches. On the matter of consent I venture one or two thoughts of my own. One meaning of consent that we are in danger of losing is the crucial and, in the United Kingdom, unique notion that we are saying to the people of Northern Ireland that they have self-determination and that it is up to them to determine their future. This has been the rock on which the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document have been built.

When we talk of consent let us remember that it is ultimately the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. I am extremely sceptical that it is possible to have consent which includes all the parties to the talks. Is it possible to imagine that there is a version of the future of the Province to which both Gerry Adams and Dr. Paisley sign up? That is not easy to imagine. In fact if we had such a formula, by definition it would be superficial and meaningless and without content. Therefore the crucial point about the consent formula is one that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, identified in a Starred Question which the noble Viscount asked in this House last week; namely, that consent does not have to embrace all the parties to the talks. When the noble Lord replies to the debate, I should be grateful if he could reiterate that crucial point. He mentioned it the other day but it cannot be too clearly established in the Province and in the wider world, not least in the United States. It is extremely important that in any agreement we get the main constitutional Unionist and Nationalist traditions. That is the crucial point of consent. Everything beyond that is a bonus. However, in straining for the bonus, let us not lose sight of the main prize.

A point on which I strongly agree with the noble Viscount is the rules for referendums. It is no longer good enough to treat referendums as an ad hoc administrative measure. A commission was set up by the constitution unit on which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and I served, together with Mr John Whittingdale from the Conservative Party, in which it was suggested that there should be rules for referendums. It is desirable that there should be such rules in the public interest, including, crucially, rules on the question of representation of contrary views on the main issue.

I turn to the question of compromise. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has just mentioned power sharing. That absolutely depends on compromise. I know that in some circles compromise is a dirty word but these talks will go nowhere unless the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP come to them with the intention to compromise; in other words, to abandon previous fixed positions and move towards each other in such a way that it is possible to share power and possible at long weary last for the two main traditions to confront the fact that they have to share the same geographical space and co-exist successfully. I believe that demands a move from the questions of process—which have endlessly preoccupied the early skirmishing of the talks—to questions of substance. Your Lordships have referred several times to what is the nature of the all-Ireland element—the so-called Strand 2. There must be room for compromise and movement on that. It is unwise to make over-ambitious plans for the nature of the all-Ireland body. As several noble Lords have said, that may become an impediment to a sensible agreement. I am not saying that there should not be institutions and methods of co-operating within the island of Ireland—of course there should—but to place too much weight on the bridge of this small vessel may sink it.

I now turn to the question of confidence building. It is absolutely essential that confidence building measures are addressed to the people of Northern Ireland and not exclusively to the more extreme representatives of the former—we hope they are former—military wings of the two sides in the conflict. I believe that the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland has been severely dented. Confidence building measures are the key requirement now. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, was quite right to refer to administrative progress. That must be possible. I am extremely sceptical of the doctrine which has held us up for so long; namely, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Most people would recognise that that no longer serves any commercial or political negotiations. One builds incrementally on progress. However, it is extremely difficult to do that if all the pieces are held up in the air until the last possible moment.

Finally, on the matter of confidence building, it would be helpful if the new Irish Foreign Minister, Mr. Andrews, whom we welcome back to that position, were to clarify in a helpful way the circumstances in which Articles 2 and 3 will be laid on the table, as they must if these negotiations are to be successful beyond the table. I hope that the Government keep their nerve and keep their eye on what matters, which is a strong relationship between London and Dublin and a growing accommodation between those who are capable of agreeing, rather than the will-o'-the-wisp of unanimity. Then we shall be justified in being slightly more optimistic than the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, allowed himself to be.

7.40 p.m.

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

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking those who have made such valuable and important contributions to this debate. I am conscious that in this House there is a wealth of experience and knowledge of Northern Ireland, much of which was assembled this evening.

I was particularly pleased to hear the excellent maiden speeches by both noble Lords whom I knew well when I was with them in the other place. I am well aware that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has an enormous level of commitment to a number of important causes. I look forward to hearing more from him as the years go by. As regards the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, we jousted occasionally in the other place. I know what an enormous contribution the noble Lord made towards Northern Ireland and I shall refer to it shortly.

I am most grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for providing the House and myself with an opportunity to expand on some of the key issues and on some of the positive things that have happened over the past six months. Let us remember that the IRA cease-fire has been renewed; and the Loyalist cease-fire has remained in place. For the people of Northern Ireland that is already a tangible benefit. It is beginning to change their lives, and that is surely important.

The stage was set, in many respects, by the previous Government, and by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, in particular. When in Opposition we gave the previous Government our support through our agreed bilateral approach and we are grateful for support in the same manner now.

But of course peace and prosperity are interlinked, as the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, mentioned in her important contribution. The Secretary of State and her ministerial team are working hard on both fronts. The Northern Ireland economic indicators are presently very positive. It is worth reminding the House of some of the key figures. Employment levels, with over 585,000 persons in employment in June 1997, are the highest on record. Unemployment at 7.7 per cent. of the workforce (in September 1997) is at its lowest level for 17 years. Over the year manufacturing output has increased by 4.7 per cent. Manufacturing exports, at £3.1 billion (1995–96), represent an 18 per cent. annual growth rate. During the financial year 1996–97 Northern Ireland attracted 11 new inward investments and 24 existing overseas companies announced expansion—representing investment of £190 million and 4,641 jobs promoted. The figures are technical; but to the people of Northern Ireland they represent jobs and hope.

The efforts of the people of Northern Ireland have been the key to generating these successes. With long-term stability, their efforts will generate even greater rewards. It is our aim to do all that we possibly can to make that possible.

A number of specific questions were asked during the debate, including questions about the talks. It is a great achievement to have reached the present stage of the talks. We now have an inclusive process in which all strands of opinion in Northern Ireland are participating or entitled to take part. Since 7th October they have been addressing the key issues relevant to a future settlement. They are doing so in a constructive and businesslike way.

It has taken courage and vision to get us there. We have seen those qualities from political leaders in Northern Ireland. They are the qualities conspicuously shown by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and his colleagues in the far-sighted policies that they have pursued in recent years with our support.

The talks give an opportunity to bring about peace and stability with the promise of a happier and more prosperous future for all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. We firmly believe that a settlement can be achieved within the target that we have set of concluding by next May. We in this Government are all determined to see that the moment is seized. We shall do everything in our power to facilitate progress in the talks. It is, however, the participants as a whole who must find a settlement. The critical hurdle is the reaching of agreement among the parties.

We shall submit any outcome to a referendum. We are acutely conscious of the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland to which the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, drew attention. No one believes that direct rule is a satisfactory form of government. As in the rest of the UK, we are committed to increasing accountability in government; and as we move towards devolved structures in Scotland and Wales, the current system of administration in Northern Ireland appears all the more starkly inappropriate. Finding arrangements by which elected representatives in Northern Ireland can administer affairs there is one of the key challenges that will face the talks.

I now turn to some of the specific points raised. There were many, and I shall try to do justice to them; however, noble Lords will understand that the time constraint means that I shall have to give fairly cursory answers.

I shall deal first with the question of prisoners. I assure the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that there are no political prisoners in the United Kingdom. Those who commit acts of terrorism are lawfully convicted and sentenced under the criminal law. They neither deserve, nor are they accorded, any special status.

As regards the issue of Jason Campbell, in his application for transfer, Jason Campbell claimed family ties in Northern Ireland. On subsequent investigation it was discovered that those family ties did not exist and the transfer was accordingly refused. That was a correct decision. The purposes of transfer are to assist prisoners to retain links with their families, wherever those prisoners are and from whichever part of the United Kingdom they come, and to prepare prisoners for release.

The noble Viscount asked about communication between the Government and the Loyalist parties in relation to the application for transfer by Jason Campbell. As was widely reported, Jason Campbell's name was included in a list passed to the Government by a representative of the PUP. That was the extent of any communication. There was no discussion or negotiation.

I now turn to the question of consent raised by many noble Lords. The Government are pursuing and want to achieve the widest measure of agreement to, and full-hearted endorsement of, a settlement. There must, as a minimum, be sufficient consensus achieved in the talks that they have the support of parties representing a majority of each of the two traditions in Northern Ireland. That outcome would then be put to a referendum. We would not take any outcome forward without the support in that referendum of the majority of people voting in Northern Ireland. That is the clear policy, as I said in answer to a Question last week. It remains the answer today. And of course the final outcome would have to pass through Parliament.

Perhaps I may refer to another point made in the opening speech. It is vital that talks take place in an atmosphere of peace, free from all threats of violence. Sinn Fein have signed up to the Mitchell principles, which commit them to exclusively peaceful methods and to abide by the terms of any agreement. We shall hold Sinn Fein to that commitment.

The noble Viscount asked another question about a referendum. If I understood him correctly, he suggested that there should be the same rules for referenda in all parts of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is that in fact the Opposition's policy? We shall address the precise way in which the referendum is to be held nearer the time when the talks have made some progress. It is too early yet to enter into such specific points.

My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees made a number of important points based on his great experience of Northern Ireland. I take one particular theme; namely, that we must choose our words very carefully. Even though it is possible to speak in generalisations and make statements here in this House, in Northern Ireland we must expect those words to be scrutinised in meticulous detail. That is why it is important to be absolutely careful that the words we use are exactly the words that we mean to use and no other.

I turn to the very interesting contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew. He drew attention to the increasing role of women in community activities in Northern Ireland. Over the past few months I have seen that particular phenomenon at first hand. While I am on the subject, perhaps I may pay tribute to the excellent work carried out by Lady Mayhew in encouraging such activities. I have heard it said in Northern Ireland, in relation to the time when the noble Lord was Secretary of State there, that people were getting two Secretaries of State for the price of one.

It is a regret that women are under-represented in political life in Northern Ireland, although we now have the welcome participation of the Women's Coalition in the talks. I should like to see a wider representation of women in political affairs in Northern Ireland at every level. Indeed, I should like to see a wider representation of women in all activities in Northern Ireland. I hope that over the fullness of time we shall get nearer to achieving that outcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, paid tribute to the security forces, and I fully endorse that tribute. I believe that the police, the RUC and the Army have played a valiant and difficult role over many years and it is right that their steadfastness and dedication should be fully appreciated and respected by this House.

A number of speakers referred to punishment attacks. I take this opportunity to condemn absolutely what are called punishment beatings and shootings. They are outrageous and cannot be justified in any civilised society. The RUC remains the only legitimate law enforcement agency in Northern Ireland and no group or individual has the right to take the law into his or her own hands by meting out these barbaric assaults. There have been 45 punishment beatings and shootings since the cease-fire on 20th July: far too many. Every one of those is to be condemned, although the figure is lower than it has been. I should like to see every one of them stopped, there should be no punishment beatings or shootings.

The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, talked, as did many others, about confidence-building measures. He emphasised the importance of the Government doing what is right rather than seeking a balance between giving concessions to Nationalists and Unionists. The noble Lord is absolutely correct, the role of government is to govern fairly and see that we can win the trust and confidence of all the people. It is vitally important that confidence building is seen as something of importance to all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. It would be wrong to think of it in terms of a shopping list put forward by one side to the exclusion of another. The Government want to win the trust and confidence of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland by clearly being seen to be fair and even-handed to everyone. I believe that that is what we have been.

A question was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, about what would happen if the IRA ceasefire were to break down. As I said earlier, Sinn Fein are committed; they are in the talks because they have given an undertaking, through the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire. They have signed up to the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence and we expect Sinn Fein and the IRA to honour those undertakings. If the undertakings are dishonoured, then they cannot remain in the talks.

The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, made a number of important points in his speech from his wealth of experience in Northern Ireland. He talked about the leaks that had emanated partly from Dublin. This Government deplore leaks as such. They are not helpful and can only serve to undermine trust. We have an extremely good working relationship with the Irish Government and are absolutely confident that the leaks will not affect that good relationship. However, I shall pass on to my colleagues the noble Lord's fears about the contents of the papers which were referred to. The matter of the leaks themselves is for the Irish Government to investigate and I understand that they have instigated a criminal investigation. It is therefore not appropriate for me to speak any further.

Another point made concerns the secretariat at Maryfield. I hope that if the noble Lord has any information to support his accusations, he will pass them on to me as soon as possible. I hope that he will write either to me or to the Secretary of State or even the Prime Minister, so that we may assess the implications. The secretariat at Maryfield exists to exchange information. Some of it is sensitive and necessarily so in our joint attempts to resist terrorist crime. There is a good record of exchanges, despite the recent leaks, and we have no reason to believe that the channel has been compromised.

I believe that there are too many misconceptions circulating about the intergovernmental conference, the secretariat of the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference at Maryfield. I am certain that it does not have the malign characteristics which some speeches tonight suggested. There are many instances of good co-operation—for example, on security—between the two governments through the secretariat. I hope that we can demystify the secretariat, as it were, and therefore alleviate the fears that apparently surround its work. It is, of course, open for the talks process to propose new approaches in Anglo-Irish relations and we shall look forward to the discussions.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, also talked about the role of the Irish Government and referred to appointments being made, as did some other Members of the House. It is certainly open to the Irish Government to determine how to identify candidates whom they wish to put forward for consideration for appointments. It is also open to anyone to put themselves or any other person forward as candidates for public appointments. Let me emphasise that public appointments in Northern Ireland, as with everywhere else in the United Kingdom, are made on merit. There is no question of Irish officials overruling our own officials on the matter. The Nolan principles apply and we are meticulously careful in how we select appointments. I know that, when appointments have come to me, on occasions the Irish Government have put forward names and I have treated those names on their merits, not because of the source from which they came.

The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, made a number of comments about the National Health Service. We have increased the amount of money going to the health service, both nationally and to Northern Ireland. The additional £5 million funding which she spoke of was Northern Ireland's proportionate share of the additional £300 million made available across the whole of the UK. However, in addition to that, my honourable colleague Tony Worthington, the Minister, also announced a further £7 million for 1997–98, to tackle pressures in relation to waiting lists and community care. We will continue to pursue our reform agenda on this. I have already referred to the economic issues and I agree with the noble Baroness on how important they are.

As regards Articles 2 and 3, I understand that following the morning session of talks on Monday, Mr. Andrews, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, indicated that as the negotiations progressed the Irish Government would discuss proposals for a change in the Irish constitution as part of balanced constitutional change and overall agreement. There is a willingness there to which I pay tribute.

I am running out of time and am conscious that there are a number of specific issues with which I should have liked to have dealt. However, in conclusion, I repeat that the Government remain fully committed to the principle of consent, in the terms in which I described it today and last week. Any change in the status of Northern Ireland will only come about with the consent of the majority of the people there.

As I said in this House last week, what we seek from the talks is a comprehensive settlement which secures consensus among the parties, can be endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum and is approved by Parliament. That is our policy and I look forward to a positive outcome of the talks.

7.59 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have made so many distinguished contributions to our debate. I am especially grateful, though not surprised by it, for the generous and comprehensive way in which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, answered the debate.

On the question of holding referendums and the mechanisms for doing so, I was grateful for the interest expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. I can assure the Minister that, heartened by the noble Lord's interest, we shall return to the subject in greater detail. I hope that he will be able to help us in that regard.

Let me just add how extremely pleased I was to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, particularly as one who voted against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in another place. His intervention made it perfectly clear that the habit of intervening occasionally in the gap is well justified in your Lordships' House. I was also delighted to hear the two most distinguished maiden speeches, one from my noble friend Lord Mayhew and the other from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I do not have the time to praise either of those speeches in the way that they deserve. I simply say to my noble friend Lord Mayhew that I personally have been extraordinarily grateful to him for his tolerance of me as a colleague during some years in the last Government. He knows how grateful I ought to be for that.

The only question that I ask the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is whether he is not betraying his Liberal principles, or at least his Liberal origins. I always thought that the greatest living son of Liverpool was Tommie Smith.

I have come to the end of my allotted time. I am grateful to all those who took part in this debate. With your Lordships' permission, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.