HL Deb 22 April 1998 vol 588 cc1227-38

7.55 p.m.

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

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th April be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order provides for a referendum to be held in Northern Ireland on the outcome of the multi-party talks. Peace in Northern Ireland has to be founded on a new political settlement. That settlement was achieved at the comprehensive political agreement reached in Belfast on Good Friday this year.

This Government believe that the agreement represents a successful conclusion to the multi-party talks. We believe that it offers real hope for the people of Northern Ireland to move beyond the past into a new political landscape where gains for one side do not need to be achieved at the expense of the other.

What is most important about the agreement is that it was reached by the parties freely because they recognised it was both in their individual interests and in the interests of Northern Ireland generally.

At the very beginning of the talks process, both we and the previous government made clear our commitment to the principle of consent. No agreement can hope to succeed unless it reflects the will of the people of Northern Ireland. This consent needs to be achieved through the so-called "triple lock". This means, first, the support of the Northern Ireland parties; secondly, the support of the people of Northern Ireland voting through a referendum; and, thirdly, the support of Parliament.

It is through this triple lock that we can be sure that the agreement represents the future that everyone wants—that it is a way forward for the government of Northern Ireland that commands cross-community support.

The agreement, if ratified by the people, will mean that Northern Ireland will have its own unique form of government, one which will give the people of Northern Ireland a greater say in the running of its affairs, just as devolution will mean that the people of Wales and Scotland will have a greater say in issues which directly affect them. Every home in Northern Ireland has been sent a copy of the agreement. Everyone will have the opportunity to scrutinise it. The referendum order allows us to put this vital question to the people. Without it, the people of Northern Ireland could not make their voice heard on what was achieved by their representatives at Castle Buildings.

As the Secretary of State said in her Statement on the agreement to another place on Monday, the decisive judgment must come from the people whose daily lives will be directly affected by it.

The vires for this order were provided by Section 4 of the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996. The legislation determining how and when the referendum will be held—that is, this order—is straightforward and clear. Indeed, most of it is standard material.

Article 3 of the order provides that a referendum shall be held on Friday 22nd May between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Article 4 sets out who is entitled to vote in the election; they will be those who have been entered on the electoral register of parliamentary electors in Northern Ireland, excluding overseas voters but including Peers, as noble Lords from Northern Ireland will be glad to hear.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has already expressed her gratitude to all those who made the agreement possible. This includes many people abroad, including many of Northern Irish origin.

In reaching a decision on this key issue, however, we believe that the most straightforward and fair method of determining the will of the people of Northern Ireland is for the vote to be given to those with an immediate stake in Northern Ireland; that is, those currently living there.

Article 5 provides for the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to be the counting officer and to certify the results of the referendum.

Article 6, with Schedules 2 and 3, provides for the application and modification of various parts of electoral legislation dealing with voting offences, secrecy, postal and proxy votes, and so on. All are essential for the running of any election. Schedule 1 shows the form of the ballot paper and the question that will be asked in the referendum itself. Command paper 3883 refers to the agreement as published.

In the past the Government have benefited from cross-party support on Northern Ireland issues. I hope that noble Lords will also feel able to support the order. It is the people of Northern Ireland who must decide their future and this order will enable them to do so. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th April be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Dubs.)

8 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, on behalf of my party, and no doubt many others, I support the principle of consent. It is right that the referendum should take place, and the 22nd May appears to be as good a date as any other. I have one serious question and one small point on the order. The question is the one that I asked on Monday when the House dealt with the Statement. I pointed out that there were in existence various letters, for example between the Prime Minister and Mr. Trimble, which explained and expanded upon various matters in the agreement. Those letters have received some publicity in the newspapers and I believe that they should be formally and properly published in an official document.

On Monday the Minister spoke about placing that correspondence in the Libraries of both Houses, which is helpful to Members. However, that is of no use to electors who are not Peers or MPs. This important decision is for electors, not Parliament. That is the point of it. Therefore, the electors must know what the agreement means and the spin that has been put upon it (to use a modern phrase) by the Prime Minister. The Minister promised that he would look sympathetically at the request. Can he report on that matter this evening?

The small point that I seek to make is different. Nevertheless, it may be of interest to your Lordships' House. The agreement provides among other things for a British-Irish council consisting of representatives of executive bodies from the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The larger Channel Islands have elected parliaments and executives within them. However, the executive in the Island of Sark is headed by an hereditary seigneur. I think that the Labour Government is to be applauded for creating by this legislation a hereditary right for the Seigneur to sit on the British-Irish council in perpetuity. I congratulate the Labour Party on this move and hope that it indicates a change of heart on other matters.

8.2 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for introducing the order. To pick up the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, it is perhaps a shame that this right is not to be vested in the Dame rather than the Seigneur of Sark. That would at least be a gesture towards political correctness on the part of the Government. There is nothing like a dame.

From these Benches I am glad to record our pleasure at an agreement on which the people of Northern Ireland, including Peers, can express their views. I am glad that it is to happen on 22nd May. Time is of the essence. There is a tide in the affairs of men which means that this is better dealt with sooner than later. The noble Lord may recall that the other day I defined the situation as a state of precarious momentum. It is important to keep the momentum going. We on these Benches are glad to facilitate the passage of the order.

However, there is one rather curious feature of the order that I should like to explore briefly. The Government appear to believe that fundamentally a referendum is a party issue when it comes to the question of publicity. In this country, and I believe abroad, referendums have not in the past been party matters. Your Lordships will recall that the European referendum and the first and second Scottish and Welsh referendums have all been characterised by cross-party coalitions for and against the question posed in the particular referendum. I should say in parenthesis that I believe the question to be the right one. But in referendums people from various parties have always come together in combinations for and against. That is probably how it should be in a democracy. One cannot confine large issues like referendums within the narrow confines of party.

As we approach this referendum in Northern Ireland it appears that some of the leading figures in the Ulster Unionist Party are to campaign against a "yes" vote. They were much in force in another place this afternoon. In Northern Ireland we still do not know what members of Sinn Fein will do. I believe that more than one view will be expressed by leaders of that party during the course of the referendum.

Section 91 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which is referred to in Schedule 2 to the order, deals with parliamentary candidates and entitles them to free delivery of one postal communication. That is something to which we are very much accustomed in this country, Parliamentary candidates can send out a postal communication. The Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 which set up the forum transferred the right of parliamentary candidates to send out a free postal communication to nominated representatives of parties, for example, party leaders or—to be more accurate—whoever the Secretary of State thought the party leaders were. Therefore the party leaders in the forum elections were entitled to send out an electoral communication. I believe that that was a rather shorthand and slovenly way to proceed but it made some kind of sense since the forum elections were party led.

However, we are dealing here with 10 parties represented in the forum, and under the order each is entitled to send out a piece of paper presumably arguing for a "yes" or "no" vote.

The main communication that electors will receive is 10 pieces of paper. I should like to ask some questions about that. I have already identified that the parties may not be agreed, but let us assume that, as with the Ulster Unionists, the majority of the party make the decision for the party. That still does not answer a number of questions. First, does a given party in terms of the postal communication have to recommend a "yes" or "no" vote or can it chose to devote the whole of it to justifying its inability to make up its mind?

Further, can a party conscious of the assembly elections which follow very shortly after the referendum devote the whole of its leaflet to extolling its virtues and not even mention the referendum if it chooses not to do so? If so, why is the Post Office giving free delivery? As a practical question, will voters not become fed up if they receive 10 leaflets on the same subject from the various parties in Northern Ireland?

That raises a very curious anomaly in this measure. What allocation of television and radio time of a public service nature will be made for the "yes" and "no" campaigners to make their case in Northern Ireland? If there is to be any such allocation will it be made on a party basis, in which case the same kinds of questions that I have just raised in relation to postal communications will apply?

How do the Government envisage broadcasters will carry out their statutory duties of balance and fairness in the context of the referendum? Does the Northern Ireland Office have plans to distribute any other publicity material over and above the distribution of the agreement to which the Minister referred? Finally, will anyone anywhere, if this is a party occasion—I deplore that fact because I believe that it is a cross-party occasion—be required to account for his expenditure on publicity in the referendum? I may appear to be making an issue of this, but I believe that the Government should think the matter through a little further.

I warmly commend a paper entitled The Conduct of Referendums produced before the last election by the Constitution Unit under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Nairn. When he was at the Home Office at the time of the European referendum, he made a rather better fist of the question of publicity for the two sides of the argument than the Government have made here. I should say parenthetically that it was a body of which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and I were members. I commend it to the Government, because although these may seem to be marginal issues in this important historical moment, if the referendum is to be the success that at least I and my noble friends from these Benches hope it will be, it is important that it is, in every way, seen to be fair.

8.10 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I had asked permission to speak in the gap, but the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, has asked the questions that I wanted to ask. All the same, I should like to ask whether it is likely to be easy to conduct a referendum when the people voting in it will be voting on only, Do you support the agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland as set out in Command Paper 3883? I know that it has been sent to everyone, but I should like to have some assurance that there will be a "child's guide" available at the polling station or nearby. Otherwise it will be a difficult issue.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, for various reasons I was unable to speak on the Statement on Monday. I should like to say how much I applaud all the work that has been done on the agreement and the result of it. The point has already been made that what matters is the general agreement of the people who live in Northern Ireland, and who are therefore entitled to vote, before we can go forward. It is the only agreement that we have. As the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, momentum is of the essence. That said, it is right that there should be the opportunity for those people who want to promote opposition to do just that. That is healthy for democracy as a whole.

Lastly, I am delighted that we are unlikely to have a situation such as pertained in the referendum on Wales where it will be known—I hope that the Minister can confirm this—that various electoral areas voted in a particular way. As I understand the order, there will be a global figure for yes and for no. As I said, I hope for the sake of all the people in Northern Ireland that it will be yes.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I believe that I can say, without much contradiction, that scarcely can an order have come before your Lordships' House which has been so long in the making, as it were, which is of greater moment and which is of less controversy. In many ways its preparation goes back to July of 1987 when the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and Dr Ian Paisley went to the then Secretary of State, Tom King, and requested him to consider the possibility of an alternative to and a replacement for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which at that stage was almost two years old.

During subsequent years there were extensive talks about talks. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, will recall in March 1991 an agreement being reached on a three-stranded process of negotiation. However, in good Presbyterian ceremonial fashion not only were there three strands to the negotiations—some of us who have been at this for most of the time now dream in three strands—there were three components to the lock, as the Minister has said: first, the parties would have to agree—there was much speculation about what might be done if the parties did not agree; secondly, the people would have to agree; and then of course Parliament would have to pass all the necessary measures.

Even three or four weeks before last Good Friday, when the BBC did an opinion poll in Northern Ireland, 87 per cent. of the people said that they did not believe that the politicians would reach an agreement. Such is the low esteem in which politicians in Northern Ireland are held by their people that they did not believe, with all the effort that had been put in, with all the political capital that had been expended, that there would be an agreement. In some sense hanging my head in personal shame and in shame for my colleagues, I have to say that our people were justified in having so little faith, because we had, for more than a generation, failed repeatedly to reach the agreement that I believe our people wanted us to reach.

They said, "Put them to the table. Make them talk the matter out", but they did not believe that agreement would be reached. There were times—even 10 or 15 minutes before the end of that process—when one could not have been certain that agreement was for sure going to be reached; but it has been reached. What has been striking is that once people got over their astonishment that an agreement had been reached—some of them are still getting over that astonishment—and people began to study the agreement, they began to say, "It is much the best that could be achieved". It is not perfect. No agreement is. There are difficulties about it. But it is not only the only thing that is on offer, it is the best that could reasonably have been achieved.

So, when we come to the question of a referendum, we come to something of great importance. If there was a weakness in the noble attempt that was made in 1973 at Sunningdale to reach an agreement, it was that the people were not directly consulted at the time on the question. There have been times when people have pointed out the weaknesses of the 1985 agreement—the weakness that the parties in Northern Ireland were not involved in reaching it; the weakness that the parties and the politicians in Northern Ireland were not involved in its implementation; but there is no doubt that the greatest weakness of all was that it never became an agreement which was welcomed by the majority of people across the community.

This agreement has the capacity to be different because the people will have their say. I want briefly, but earnestly and sincerely, to pay tribute to all those who have been involved in achieving it. Its strength and its success lie in the fact that it is not the prerogative of any one government; of any one party; of any one Prime Minister; of any one polity; of any one political movement. It has been in the making through the tenure, certainly, of John Major and now Tony Blair; of Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern in the Republic of Ireland; of various different parties and political leaders; and, of course, the presidency of Mr. Clinton made its own contribution.

This is a process bigger than party, people, or government; it is a process of great strength and opportunity. Coming as it does so close to the Millennium, its meaning is not lost on the people of Northern Ireland: we can start not just this decade or this century, but in the truly historic fashion of the length of our problem, start a new millennium in a different way from the way we have conducted much of the past millennium.

Perhaps I may make one other remark. It is to beg something which I know is in the traditions of your Lordships' House. Because this is a complex agreement, and because we are trying to ensure that it comes into operation as soon as possible, there will be not just the two orders that are before your Lordships tonight: a number of other pieces of legislation will be coming forward. Some of them will be substantial, as will be the Bill to put a new assembly and all its accoutrements in place; some of them needing to move through fairly quickly. For example, if we are to have elections on 25th June—I am assuming, and I think that I am right to assume, that the referendum will be passed solidly—to a new assembly, and to have it done before the marching season—I do not need to tell noble Lords how reasonable a thing that is to do—an enabling Bill will have to come before your Lordships' House presently.

I make just one appeal. Your Lordships have a hugely important scrutiny role. Since I have been privileged to come to your Lordships' House I have come to appreciate deeply the valuable role in that that your Lordships' House plays. These are unusual pieces of legislation, because they come out of inter-party and inter-governmental agreement, reached over a long time around the table in Northern Ireland. I appeal for the indulgence of your Lordships' House, that these matters may be scrutinised properly, but that they may not be obstructed any more than is appropriate or necessary. I say that not because I believe that there will be tedium in this House, but because I unfortunately know that there are likely to be those who will use the opportunities proffered by another place to create difficulties, even difficulties for their own parties.

I am sure that I can depend upon the good nature and constructiveness of your Lordships' House to ensure that matters will proceed thoroughly and properly, but speedily, so that the agreement may come into place. Perhaps the result will be that your Lordships' House will increasingly be relieved of Northern Ireland business as Northern Ireland people undertake it in a new assembly and in new relations between North and South and East and West and among all the people of these islands. I heartily support the order. I congratulate the Government and we look forward to its fulfilment.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. Perhaps I might deal briefly with all the points that have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the important correspondence between the Prime Minister and other Ministers and key politicians in Northern Ireland. I must repeat what I said on Monday. We see these exchanges as being private communications between participants in the process. It would not normally be the practice to place such correspondence in the Libraries or to publish such correspondence to the wider world. However, some of the content has already been made public and there has been much public comment and discussion. As I said on Monday, we will look sympathetically at the request in order to see what might be done. I will include the request that the documents should be published for the wider world, not merely placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I cannot yet respond to the question, but we will do so as soon as we are able.

I was rather thrown by the noble Lord's second point. Perhaps I might compliment him on his diligent research in identifying the island of Sark as being the key issue which will implicitly suggest that the Government have changed their policies on wider matters. The Government have not changed their policy on wider matters, but I take note of his point about the way in which the Channel Islands are to be represented. Clearly, there will be a fuller opportunity to debate the matter in some of the legislation which will be laid before the House in the not too distant future. I hope that the noble Lord will keep his point in mind and I shall do some homework on the issue.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. I take his point that there is a need to keep the momentum going. We fully appreciate that and, assuming that everything goes well, we wish to keep the momentum going until the assembly takes over the responsibilities, with Northern Ireland Ministers taking charge of the local departments. We believe that if delays are too long there is too much opportunity for mischief makers to fill the gaps. We wish to move as quickly as possible.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for stating that, while we must ensure that the House examines all legislative proposals thoroughly and properly, some will need to be expedited. If the House is able to do so, that will be of great benefit to the people of Northern Ireland in these important constitutional developments.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, then asked a number of specific and complicated questions about the referendum and the publicity measures which the various parties might use to put forward their points of view. I am grateful for the points that he made. I should like him to accept that our approach to the free mailings for each of the 10 parties is unusual. However, I argue that the circumstances of the referendum are unusual, too. The key point is that some of the parties which I trust will support the referendum may do so for different reasons. It would be difficult for them to agree on the wording of a leaflet which will reflect their different reasons for supporting the referendum in such a way as to make coherent sense.

One has only to look at the various parties which I trust will support the referendum to see that they have different arguments. They are using those arguments in the press and it would be too difficult to have in Northern Ireland the approach that we used during the referendum on the common market, when there was a coalition supporting the "yes" vote and a coalition supporting the "no" vote. I believe that in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland that would be difficult. All the parties may wish to put their own stamp on their argument for supporting the referendum or for opposing it.

I appreciate the difficulty and that the situation is unusual. But it is different and I believe that the argument that I have put forward explains why we believe that our approach is more appropriate than that suggested by the noble Lord. We would not believe it proper through publicity material to force different parties to put their points of view in one leaflet.

It will be up to each party to decide upon its policy and how to put it forward in the leaflet. It will be up to each party to decide what to put in the leaflet. The Government do not feel that they can compel a party to say unequivocally "yes" or "no". A party may wish to hedge its bets. I hope that it will not, but if it wishes to do so it will be difficult in legislation or in these procedures to compel it to say "yes" or "no" if it wishes to be less specific in describing its position. It is best to let the parties get on with it, but to give them an opportunity to have a free mail shot, hoping that they will use it sensibly, until the referendum is upon us.

Radio and television time is a matter for the broadcasting authorities. We have no plans as regards the allocation of air time. As regards newspapers, as always, it will up to journalists to decide how to cover the issues and the arguments put forward by the various parties. The Government wish to ensure maximum public awareness of the referendum and of the need to vote, whichever way members of the public choose. We wish to ensure that the referendum has a high profile and to use whatever powers we can to encourage people to play their part in it. I am pleased to say that, judging by the Northern Ireland newspapers and television programmes and discussions with ordinary people in Northern Ireland, there appears to be a high level of awareness of the issue. I do not believe that many people will reach polling day without an awareness of it. I thank the noble Lord for making those points.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the spirit of my noble friend Lord Alderdice, I accept the persuasive nature of what he is saying, but perhaps I might press him on a specific point. While I accept that the parties will send out a mailing by the Post Office and that one cannot force them to declare which way they will vote, is there any obligation on the parties to produce a leaflet about the referendum rather than one simply extolling their own virtues for the subsequent assembly election?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, the answer to that question is no. It would be difficult to provide a legislative basis for allowing parties to use the free leaflet to put forward their views in the referendum but forbid them from using it to make other political points which might seem to us to be unrelated to the referendum. It would be difficult to argue that any political point made by a Northern Ireland party did not have a link with the referendum. It would be just too difficult to do that. I applaud the noble Lord's motives in raising the issue. However, I believe that it would defeat the skill of the parliamentary draftsman to do justice to the point which he has made. We had better leave the parties to it, for the reasons I have stated.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, wants to be sure that people are aware of the issues. She wondered whether there could be a child's guide to simplify the matter. I understand her reasons for asking that but the answer must be no. The reason is that every dot and comma, every word and phrase in the agreement was the result of long negotiations. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spent many sleepless nights, particularly in the last couple of days up to Good Friday, and he is nodding which suggests that he agrees. It would be playing with fire for anybody, least of all the Government and the Northern Ireland Office, to summarise that document in simple language—I wish it were simple language—without incurring the wrath of at least some of the participants who almost shed blood and certainly spent many hours wording it in the form in which it is now worded. The motive is fine but I do not believe that we dare do it. I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and, indeed, other noble Lords, for their support for the Government's endeavours in this regard. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked how the results of the referendum will be presented. I believe that they will be presented as he would wish them to be. We shall publish only aggregate results. They will not be divided by parliamentary constituencies or sub-divisions of the whole of Northern Ireland. There will simply be a global figure given for the whole of Northern Ireland.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that because I repeat that nobody wants to see a situation such as we have been arguing about over the Principality of Wales.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I shall keep clear of Wales, but I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord. There will simply be one global figure.

I turn to the other points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He is a better judge of the faith which the people of Northern Ireland have in their politicians. It is not for me to comment on that except to say that I believe that they have quite a lot of faith in the noble Lord and his contribution in achieving this agreement. That is fairly widely accepted, as it is in relation to some other politicians who are widely credited with having played a very positive part in achieving the agreement.

I take the noble Lord's point that this time the strength is that there was proper and full consultation. All the political parties were involved. The agreement has credibility because the people of Northern Ireland are supporting it. The process, long as it was, has helped to ensure public support for what has happened. We shall see, when the referendum takes place.

I repeat my thanks to the noble Lord for saying that we shall have a very heavy legislative programme before us as a result of the agreement, assuming that there is a positive outcome to the referendum on 22nd May. That will be quite a burden on this House and, indeed, on the other place. I do not for a moment wish noble Lords to skimp on their scrutiny of legislation. Equally, it will be of some urgency to get the legislation through quickly, especially the Bill on elections which is in another place at this moment. I hope that your Lordships will appreciate the need to make rapid progress on some of those measures. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his contribution.

On Question, Motion agreed to.