§ 3 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
615 Two weeks ago this House debated the referendum order which will enable the people of Northern Ireland to give their judgment on the multi-party agreement reached last month in the referendum to be held in another two weeks' time. I was grateful to your Lordships then for your generous support of the order and of the agreement.
Everyone in the House that evening recognised the historic nature of the agreement which offers the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity they have not had in a generation to take responsibility for their own future and start to build a peaceful democracy based on consent.
When I introduced the referendum order, I referred to the "triple lock" through which the consent of the Northern Ireland people to the agreement will be reached. The first part of the lock is the support of the parties, which is largely coming together. The second is the support of the people through the referendum, and the omens there are looking good. The third is the support of Parliament. This needs to be given in stages. It started with the referendum order and works through this elections Bill to the final main constitutional settlement.
If the people of Northern Ireland show in the forthcoming referendum that they support the agreement, the next step for them is to elect the new assembly envisaged in the agreement. And that is what the Bill before your Lordships' House today is about. The Bill seeks to embody a small part of the multi-party agreement. It may be helpful if I remind your Lordships briefly what the Bill says in relation to the assembly.
It provides for an assembly of 108 members elected on the single transferable vote system, with six members being returned for each of the constituencies which return MPs to Westminster. It stipulates that ultimately the assembly shall have full executive and legislative powers over devolved matters. It recognises however that the assembly will not be in a position to assume full powers straightaway. It therefore provides for an interim "shadow" period during which the assembly will—and I quote from paragraph 35 of Strand 1 of the agreement—resolve its standing orders and working practices and make preparations for the effective functioning of the Assembly, the British-Irish Council and the North/South Ministerial Council and associated implementation bodies".The purpose of this Bill is to bring the shadow assembly into effective operation.
In order to regulate and provide for it in its early days, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be taking powers to designate the first presiding officer, make standing orders and set salaries and allowances for members. These provisions are contained in the schedule to the Bill. They will come into effect without parliamentary scrutiny and I highlight them now because amendments have been put down which indicate some concern about the extent of the Secretary of State's power to direct the assembly's affairs.
I want to touch briefly on these amendments, if your Lordships will permit me, but first I want to give a general reassurance. The Secretary of State's wide 616 order-making powers are given because they are necessary. The assembly must have a basic framework within which to work from day one and this is the most practical way of providing it. The alternatives are either for the assembly to start work without any form of organisation or rules whatsoever, which I hope the House will agree would be something of a hindrance for members, or for Parliament to spend time scrutinising a set of temporary regulations which will shortly be replaced by another set over which it will have no authority because it will be determined by the new assembly. The Secretary of State will be consulting the Northern Ireland political parties and reaching agreement with them as far as possible before taking any decisions. So her directive powers will be exercised in the spirit of the agreement. They will also be shortlived. They will only have effect until the main settlement legislation comes into force and the assembly takes full control over its own internal arrangements.
I said that I should like to touch on some amendments which have been tabled because I think they reflect a misunderstanding of the provisions contained in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has tabled amendments to paragraph 1 of the schedule which would enable the assembly rather than the Secretary of State to direct the time and place of the assembly's sitting after its first meeting. But the only reason that the Bill provides that the Secretary of State should retain control over meeting times and places is that the shadow assembly, unlike the full assembly, will not have a permanent home and it will be for the Secretary of State to provide premises and staff. She cannot simply hand over responsibility for premises under her control to the assembly and cannot guarantee, in a period when a lot of reorganisation will be taking place, that the assembly can always meet at the same place. But she will discuss options with the political parties and do her best to ensure that accommodation satisfactory to everyone can be found and that the assembly can meet when it wishes.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has also proposed amendments which would enable the assembly in effect to amend the standing orders which will be determined by the Secretary of State for the shadow period, as long as the amendments have cross-community support. Again, it may look as though the Bill gives the Secretary of State too much power here. Is it not reasonable, your Lordships may ask, for the assembly to decide its own standing orders at the earliest possible date? It is; and it will be one of the main tasks in the shadow period to do just that. But it will be a considerable task which will take time, and while it is debating its own future standing orders, it will do so under the Secretary of State's temporary standing orders, about which again the parties will have been consulted and which of course the Secretary of State will consider amending if there is a cross-community request that she should. There is nothing in the Bill as it stands to prevent her doing so.
I repeat my assurances that the Secretary of State's wide powers in this Bill are temporary; will only be used after consultation; and will exist only to make life easier for the assembly in its early days. They have no other 617 purpose. I hope that your Lordships will accept my assurances and not seek to unravel the schedule to the Bill.
I turn now to the other main provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 is a straightforward embodiment of the agreement, providing for the establishment of an assembly with the number of seats—108—set out in the agreement.
Clause 1 formally states the purpose of the assembly in the shadow phrase; that is,taking part in preparations to give effect to",the multi-party agreement. The Secretary of State is given a power to refer specific matters to the assembly, in particular ones arising from the agreement. Those she might refer include the assembly's final standing orders, to be agreed on a cross-community basis; various aspects of the machinery of government under devolution, including the number and structure of departments; and, thirdly, the preparations envisaged under paragraphs 7 and 8 of the agreement for the British-Irish Council and for north-south activity. The shadow north/south council will have the task of identifying at least six implementation bodies which will be established by the time the full settlement legislation is enacted. Before referring matters, the Secretary of State would consult so far as possible before exercising her powers and seek always to act in the spirit of the agreement.
Clause 2 provides for elections to be held on 25th June. But that will happen only if Clause 2(1) is brought into effect, and Clause 8 makes clear that the Secretary of State may set a date for that to happen only if there has been a positive result in the referendum. The election will be by single transferable vote, which has been used in Northern Ireland for many years and was specifically endorsed in the multi-party agreement. Six members will be returned from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. The franchise reflects that used in local elections. Again, these are specific provisions in the agreement.
We shall be making detailed technical provision for the election in an order which will come before this House on 18th May. Disqualification from membership of the assembly is largely the same as that in the House of Commons. However, Peers and European Union citizens will also be allowed to sit, as will members of the Senate of the Republic of Ireland. Distinguished people from Northern Ireland have served in the Irish Senate and I believe that dual membership is a means by which understanding between the two parts of the island can be further developed.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, seeks to end the disqualification provisions in relation to Clause 4 to enable a Lord Lieutenant or Lieutenant to represent the county or county borough for which he holds office. I am afraid that that is just not possible. The Lord Lieutenant is the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in his county or county borough and his duties specifically exclude him from holding a political post or engaging in political activities there. However, there is nothing to stop the Lord Lieutenant from standing for elections outside his county or county borough.
618 Those are the main features of our Bill. I repeat that it is a short-term measure and that more detailed constitutional legislation to complete the implementation of the multi-party agreement will follow. This is just a beginning, but an essential one. I hope that your Lordships will support it without reservation.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dubs.)
§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew of Twysden
My Lords, I must apologise for missing the first minute of the Minister's speech. For reasons with which we are familiar, the Northern Ireland Act 1974 introduced direct rule over Northern Ireland from Westminster. In my opinion, for what it is worth, that was justified and necessary at the time. But those arrangements were intended only to be temporary in character, and for this reason: that they left Northern Ireland with less democratic responsibility and accountability than any other part of the United Kingdom.
I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that it is a matter of deep regret that it has taken nearly a quarter of a century for agreement to be reached sufficient to enable government of that character—local accountability—to be established in Northern Ireland as, I am certain, we all hope that it will be. It is to be regretted because direct rule, as it were, set the whole tone for politics in Northern Ireland. I believe it is fair to say that there has been a thoroughly negative tone, for reasons which are readily understood. It has been unduly negative and pessimistic and damagingly so. I believe one can say that it has enhanced a certain propensity in some quarters of Northern Ireland to expect or to see the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. However, more importantly, I believe that it has discouraged—because it has denied them opportunity—those who might reasonably and normally wish to take on local democratic responsibilities. They have not been offered any prospect of achieving local democratic power. They have been offered no prospect of gaining that, save to the extent that is enjoyed and exercised in England at parish council level. Real power has been vested in the Secretary of State.
All this is what led me on my first utterance as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, if I may be allowed to recall it briefly, to say that I wanted to get rid of most of my powers and to return them to the people; and that the government would, therefore, work to help the people of Northern Ireland find a fair and sustainable basis upon which that could be achieved. All the more welcome, therefore, are the provisions for a new Northern Ireland assembly in the agreement reached in the multi-party talks on 9th April, which the provisions of this Bill now seek to implement.
The remit of the new assembly will cover all the responsibilities of the six government departments in Northern Ireland and the assembly will support an executive committee led by an elected First Minister.
To reach an agreement on this after so long, together with agreement on the interlocking Strands 2 and 3, is, I believe, an achievement of the first order. I think that 619 warm congratulations are deserved by my courageous successor and by the Prime Minister. Although the framework documents of February 1995 prepared by the two governments can be discerned in this agreement, as may also be the contingent agreement reached on Strand 1 in 1992, what is new is an overall accord across all three strands. I believe that Mr. Trimble is right to say that the Union is left the stronger by reason of this. I am glad of that for my own part. If I may say so, he, too, is to be congratulated on holding out for that and on judging courageously his own stance in the negotiations producing the agreement.
With the exception of the provision for prisoners, which I believe is a matter for another day—at least I shall treat it as such—I see no danger in the terms of the agreement, provided that they are properly understood. However, I do see danger in how the Government may be tempted to interpret and apply it under pressure: and that danger relates to Sinn Fein. The parties represented in the assembly will nominate committee chairs and Ministers according to the strength of their own representation. It is readily foreseeable that Sinn Fein can be expected to take up one or more of those positions. It is here that I want to offer a warning to the Government.
Paragraph 25 of the agreement rightly states in Strand 1 that those who hold office should use only democratic and non-violent means, and that those who do not should be excluded or removed from office. Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA, inextricably linked to it. Yet, last week, the IRA announced that it will do no decommissioning of its illegally held arms. The influence which illegal armaments can exert is surely not limited to firing or exploding them: it extends to the threat to fire or explode them, and that threat does not have to be explicit for it to do its work. What is its work? Surely the work in this context is to secure from constitutional parties, in or out of the executive committee, concessions which they might not otherwise have made. That is the purpose.
It was one thing, albeit an uncomfortable one, to say that membership of the talks was compatible with some decommissioning taking place in parallel with those talks. It is surely quite another thing, and different in principle, to say that you may participate in the government of Northern Ireland—that is, the fruits of those talks which are now concluded—while refusing to give up the means of bringing illegal pressure to bear on your colleagues and fellow Ministers.
I ask: can there be good reason for failing to draw the final line here? If the Government draw it here, then Sinn Fein will surely be seen to have excluded itself from an honourable role in the government of Northern Ireland. Its exclusion will be seen to have been its work. I give way to the noble Earl.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord apply the same, obviously sensible, doctrine to the representatives of Protestant paramilitary bodies?
§ Lord Mayhew of Twysden
Certainly, my Lords; I have never in five years made any distinction whatever 620 in the evil of violence, or the threat of violence, exerted by anyone for whatever political purpose. But the position of the parties is not, alas, the same. However, I hope that it will become the same. I have also considered whether or not there is a point of principle which distinguishes what we are talking about here and participation in local councils. I believe that there is, albeit that it is a point of principle deriving from the greatly enhanced scale of the jurisdiction of the executive.
If that final line is not drawn, I ask: can any of us be confident that the executive will be formed, or that this great opportunity afforded by this agreement will not perish? I hope that the Government will therefore be explicit in that regard. With that sole warning, and the reserve that I have mentioned about prisoners, I warmly endorse this Bill. I fervently hope that the whole talks package, and those who made it, will, on 22nd May, be rewarded with a resounding yes.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. He was characteristically generous when he congratulated the Government on what he called an achievement of the first order. I am sure the whole House recognises that his painstaking contribution to that achievement was also of the first order. We thank him for it.
This Bill received the unqualified support of these Benches. I hope that the Bill is passed with all due dispatch not only because it is necessary to ensure efficient assembly elections in June, but also as a signal to the citizens of Northern Ireland—wrestling with their momentous decision in the referendum—that both Chambers of Parliament are willing them towards a positive result and trying to facilitate the future democratic government of Northern Ireland. What we are engaged in over these months is a step-by-step process which can be negatively phrased as the "triple lock", but let us try to express it positively. The Good Friday settlement built on the work of previous British and Irish governments and of the parties in Northern Ireland which have contributed positively—not all of them have done so, but fortunately the majority have—to the settlement. We all have high hopes for the referendum to be held on 22nd May. It will be important to have a large majority in favour if it is to carry the moral conviction to say to those who for so many years have preferred violence that they no longer have any pretext of legitimacy whatsoever.
Then there are the assembly elections for which we are discussing the mechanism this afternoon. The Government, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have repeatedly made the point—rightly in my view—that that is where the whole thing begins to move on from elections to a process of co-operative government. We cannot call it power sharing because that has unfortunate historical associations in Northern Ireland but we can, and should, call it responsibility sharing—sharing responsibility for the peaceful administration of Northern Ireland like any other part of 621 the United Kingdom, instead of its being a place alone and a place of concern to its fellow citizens on the mainland.
I was struck by the use of the word "responsibility" by the Minister when he introduced the Bill. That is the key to the matter. We must move on from a deal achieved through negotiation to governing in co-operation, with the six departments moving over. As one who for some years in this House has dealt with the minutiae of life in Northern Ireland in a succession of orders of breathtaking parochialism, I must say how refreshing it will be that in the future those matters will be dealt with by the people of Northern Ireland. That is where they should be dealt with. We need to hope for a move on from the culture of dependence—I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, implied that—and recrimination to one of shared responsibility for the future. We need less "pulpit" politics and more practical politics in Northern Ireland. We need less fire and brimstone and a little more bread and butter, day-to-day, pavement politics—the kind of routine that builds a civic culture, a sense of responsibility and a shared commitment to the future.
As we approach the referendum I wonder whether I am alone in detecting some ambivalence—particularly on the part of the DUP and other notable "nay sayers" in Northern Ireland—on the referendum, the assembly that will follow and the process of government. Are they saying no to the elections? I think not; I think they will contest the elections. Are they saying no to possible ministerial jobs? I think not; indeed I hope not. Much as I deplore their negativism now, much as I hope they will be roundly defeated in the referendum, and much as I hope that all sensible Unionists will back Mr. Trimble, so I hope that the "nay sayers" will move on from the indulgence of protest to the responsibilities of power once the assembly comes into being.
I shall say a few words about the election system. Noble Lords would perhaps expect these Benches to take particular pleasure in the fact that the elections comprise a system which is familiar in Northern Ireland; namely, the single transferable vote and multi-member constituencies of six. I doubt whether in such an enlightened House noble Lords hold the view that proportional representation is too complicated. However, over the years it does not seem to have presented the slightest problem to the people of Northern Ireland who are now well used to it and use it with great facility to achieve the ends they want. We now have a Scottish Bill, a Welsh Bill and a European elections Bill. We are now contemplating the use of the proportional representation system for London. That will bring pluralism and diversity into legislatures of one kind or another. That is greatly needed in Northern Ireland as the Northern Ireland parliament will need not simply the traditional representatives of the two communities but good representation for those who want to strike out on a different and totally non-sectarian path, such as the Alliance Party, of which my noble friend Lord Alderdice is the leader.
622 I have one or two questions for the Government. What are the Government's intentions as regards the difficult matter of by-elections? Is it the Government's firm intention that any replacement will have to be nominated by the party whose member is deceased to enable the community balance to be maintained? The Bill seems to imply that that is an issue which has not yet been settled. I should be interested to know the Government's views on that. That matter cannot be long delayed as there may be by-elections shortly after the establishment of the shadow assembly. I was glad to hear the Minister's comments on the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Cope. I was rather sympathetic to the spirit of those amendments. Without the Minister's explanation I should have been inclined to support them. Much of his argument rested on the shadow assembly. When he replies to the debate I hope he will spell out the time, terms and conditions on which a shadow assembly ceases to be shadow and becomes substantive. That would be of value to the House.
The Minister talked about temporary measures. We in Parliament should be cautious as regards those. I seem to remember that the Official Secrets Act was introduced during the First World War as a temporary measure. When we use the word "temporary" we should recognise that things often last a little longer than originally intended. My next question bears on the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. Will the Minister reiterate that no member of a party which is refusing to decommission and has not turned its back on violence—even if that person is elected a member of the assembly—can serve as a Minister? It would be useful for the House to hear his confirmation in terms that that is the Government's view.
I believe that there will be three difficult months ahead. There will be parades, the referendum and the elections. There are those who not just by word—from whom we hear with tiresome regularity—hut by deed want to wreck the settlement. During that period, even if reforms are contemplated-I am glad to hear that Mr. Christopher Patten may assist in that—it is vital that the RUC, which is doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances, is seen to have the total confidence of Her Majesty's Government.
§ 3.28 p.m.
§ Lord Dunleath
My Lords, it is with much trepidation and not a little diffidence that I rise for the first time in your Lordships' House this afternoon. Since taking my seat some two months ago, I have been fortunate enough to attend on a number of occasions. Whilst this was mainly when Northern Ireland business was being conducted, I was also present for part of the Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill and for the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, on the Strategic Defence Review of the reserve forces. On that last occasion it was a happy coincidence to be able to hear the maiden speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Stair, and the noble Lord, Lord Glanusk. On each occasion I have been struck by the depth of knowledge and sheer wealth of experience displayed in your 623 Lordships' House. May I offer my thanks for all the help and guidance given to me by noble Lords, the Officers of the House and others.
I must declare an interest in the business before us today. I was born in Belfast and am now involved in our fairly extensive farming operations in County Down. I have also run a significant tourism operation in County Fermanagh and carried out tourism related consultancy work for the National Trust and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and thus can fully appreciate the benefits of a peace dividend.
However, for 20 years I lived and worked in England and believe that I can appreciate many of the views held on Northern Ireland by those living on this side of the water. As a firm believer in the Union, so long as that is the wish of the majority in Northern Ireland, at times I felt as if I was trying to defend the indefensible. Attempts by the United Kingdom Government to move the political process forward in Northern Ireland often resulted in legislation that was unpalatable for the Unionist community. In consequence, their reaction often appeared to be negative and I cannot begin to imagine the frustration and despair that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, must have experienced in his long and distinguished career in another place. On the other hand, I think it could be said that the Nationalist politicians were rather better at getting their PR act together and at gaining sympathy. Certainly, they were experts at "spin", long before it was adopted by New Labour.
However, the situation is very different today, in that we have an agreement that has been discussed fully and which will, I am sure, have the support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Many tributes have already been paid to those who have been involved in this process. I would add just one, to David Trimble, for the courage and vision that he has shown. I hope that all members of the Ulster Unionist Party will rally behind him and campaign for a yes vote in the forthcoming referendum.
Turning to today's Bill, I should like to thank the Minister for the clear and concise way that he has set out its objectives. I am mindful also of the exhortation that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made during the Third Reading of the Northern Ireland Negotiations (Referendum) Order about a fortnight ago. At that time he urged that today's matters, and I quote,may be scrutinised properly, but that they may not be obstructed any more than is appropriate or necessary".—[Official Report, 22/4/98; col. 1234.]I am wholly mindful of that but would like to raise three points, all relating to the conduct of the election itself on polling day, 25th June 1998. These can be summarised as the three I's—impersonation, intimidation and information.
There has been a long tradition of impersonation and malpractice at elections in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I can remember that when I first voted in a Westminster election in County Fermanagh in 1970 the catchphrase was, "Vote early and vote often". Sadly, I do not believe that this problem has gone away. Certainly, there was much discussion in the Province about it after last May's general election. I have looked at the results from the 624 18 Westminster constituencies and would mention briefly the following. The average turnout across Northern Ireland was 67.5 per cent. but in West Belfast, which returned Gerry Adams, it was 74.3 per cent.; in West Tyrone, which had a strong Sinn Fein vote, it was 79.6 per cent. and in Mid-Ulster, which returned Martin McGuinness, it was a staggering 86 per cent. It may be that the electorate in these constituencies are very keen voters, but I find that somewhat hard to believe. This matter has been raised in another place but I hope that Her Majesty's Government will do all in their power to ensure a scrupulously fair election, to include the arrangements for postal votes, and to afford whatever protection and resources that are necessary to the officials manning the polling stations.
I turn next to intimidation. My late father died on 3rd May last year so I was able to vote in the 1997 general election. At the time we lived near Bangor and our local polling station was at the Kilcooley primary school. When we arrived by car at approximately seven o'clock in the evening we found it almost impossible to drive into the school grounds, due to a crowd of a dozen or more men, purporting to represent one of the fringe Loyalist parties, being gathered outside the gates. I discussed this with the police officers on duty at the polling station, who regretted this situation but said that there was nothing they could do as the mob were outside the private school grounds and on the public highway. It is not hard to imagine the impact that these people would have had on voters struggling to get through on foot—certainly their presence had nothing to do with telling as is generally accepted.
More recently I witnessed disgraceful scenes when the entrance to the Stormont Estate was blockaded by supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party on Maundy Thursday evening, after delegates from that party were refused admission to the talks at Castle Buildings. The bankruptcy of that party's policies can be illustrated by the fact that all the protesters could shout at journalists, delegates and others trying to get in was, "Go back to Dublin", leading to one Scandinavian journalist plaintively to cry, "Why should I want to go to Dublin; the talks are at Stormont". I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance that Her Majesty's Government will ensure that the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has all the powers and support required to ensure that the electorate may vote without hindrance or intimidation.
Finally, I should like to comment on information. Following on from what we all believe will be a resounding "Yes" vote in the referendum, it is to be hoped that the majority of voters will then wish to support candidates who are in favour of the agreement and thus be committed to the success of the new Northern Ireland Assembly at the elections on 25th June. However, this may well be confusing. The Northern Ireland electorate have long been used to ballot papers containing the names of a plethora of candidates, representing all sorts of parties and interests. On this occasion it is probable that some of the Ulster Unionist candidates will support the agreement whereas others may be against. The position of Sinn Fein and a number of other parties is still unclear. While the IRA is 625 apparently now prepared to allow Sinn Fein members to take their seats in the assembly, their pronouncement upon decommissioning, or rather the lack of it, the car bomb in Lisburn that was thankfully defused and the mortar attack upon Grosvenor Road RUC station do not help. Therefore, I would ask whether the Minister could look into the possibility that all candidates' names on the ballot paper, as well as showing the party that they represent, might also indicate that they either support or reject the agreement.
I am conscious that a maiden speech is not the occasion to raise matters that may be contentious. If I have done so, I crave your Lordships' indulgence, but my overriding desire is that this important forthcoming election is, and is seen to be, conducted with absolute integrity. While no one would argue that the future it promises will be perfect for anybody, the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want a continuation of the horrors of the past 30 years and they fully appreciate that there is no other alternative.
§ 3.37 p.m.
§ Lord Sheppard of Liverpool
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on his maiden speech. I know that I do so on behalf of noble Lords all around the House. It is healthy for the House to hear a voice from the green fields of County Down—the voice of someone speaking from the heart and very much committed to life in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord spoke of his interests in farming and tourism. I understand that his three children are all at school in Northern Ireland. He bears a Northern Irish title created in 1892. His family of Mulholland built successful businesses first in cotton mills and later in linen mills. The first Lord Dunleath was Conservative MP for Downpatrick. My own private research has discovered a little more—an enthusiasm for steam engines and (what could be more evidence of a well rounded life?) a member of the MCC. We congratulate the noble Lord warmly on his maiden speech and hope to hear often from him again.
Speaking of maiden speeches, I know that there have been discussions of high protocol which have concluded that I am not expected to make a maiden speech, having done so 18 years ago. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, claims to have made no less than three maiden speeches. I have no wish to rival that, but I do want to take the opportunity of this first speech in a new role to thank noble Lords most warmly for the very generous welcome back that I have received from all sides.
I join with others in saluting those who have persevered in the peace process: the Prime Minister of Britain; the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland; the Secretary of State; and not least the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. That salute goes especially to the leaders in Northern Ireland who are risking the loss of their base by putting their name to language like "parity of esteem" between two communities.
We have often heard politicians blamed for the continuing divisions in Northern Ireland. Now politicians have put themselves on the line and those who have long 626 expressed their desire for peace will have the chance to play their part. The single transferable vote makes it possible for minorities to be represented. But turning the agreement into active reconciliation will call for courage and perseverance at every level. This week's news that the Protestant co-leader of the Women's Coalition, Pearl Sagar, had to move house because of intimidation shows the cost that some have to pay for peace. The elections are an important step towards the people of Northern Ireland taking responsibility for their governance, and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, told us, getting rid of the negative approach.
I wish to say something about the role of the Churches in Northern Ireland. Our critics have been inclined to ask whether religion is part of the answer or part of the problem. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, mentioned, "pulpit politics" have sometimes been very destructive. We are not asking for Protestants or Catholics to be indifferent to their faith convictions. I rejoiced in the partnership I had with the late Derek Worlock, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool; but neither of us was indifferent to the strongly held beliefs we each possessed. There were important pieces of Christian doctrine and practice about which we disagreed. But we held the central truths of the faith in common. I suppose it would be right to say that we both accepted that there is such a thing as a "hierarchy of truths." Not all were worth going to the stake for, or to the barricades. Not all were of such importance that they should divide us.
Derek Worlock and I visited Northern Ireland together on a number of public occasions. We were among those who formed a small group calling ourselves the NorthWest Triangle. It brought together Church leaders from Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool. We believed that our cities had much in common; we valued greatly meeting with our opposite numbers from Roman Catholic, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist and Anglican traditions for 24 hours twice each year. I came to respect the Belfast Church leaders. I discovered that they knew each other much better than the public would have imagined; and I came to admire their courage on many occasions.
At one of those meetings in Belfast, the home team led some reflections on the Troubles. Dr. John Dunlop, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, introduced the study. We were given copies of a publication entitled Sectarianism. It had been produced for the Irish Inter-Church Meeting. I have turned back to it on a number of occasions. I spoke a day or two ago to the noble Lord, Lord Eames, who greatly regrets not being able to be in your Lordships' House for this debate. He told me that the report still stands up. He turns to it frequently; so too, he says, does Cardinal Daly. The report moved me deeply as it spelled out the long, grinding process needed to change the attitudes which reinforce sectarianism. I quote from it words for all of us, for all of us find prejudices about the "others" lurking in our minds:Are we prepared to exercise the utmost care and circumspection in the way we present our views of the 'other' to our children? Are we prepared to challenge our friends, neighbours, family when they express sectarian views in our company? Are we prepared to develop a relentless and courageous sensitivity to the God-created 627 humanity of 'THE OTHER', whether he/she be Catholic or Protestant? This has to be the work of the sincere peacemaker. It starts with me. Bitter words build walls of hate. I am accountable for the bitter word said today, repeated tomorrow by my children".I have been challenged also by a book written by the Rector of Liverpool, Canon Nicholas Frayling, Pardon and Peace. He argues that we English are accountable too—for the contemptuous word that we perhaps speak when we suggest that all that is needed is to bang unreasonable Irish heads together. He shows how our forebears were responsible for introducing the Protestant community into the North of Ireland. When we see them struggling with fear that any change can only mean loss, we have an obligation to stand in their shoes and understand. It is a proper part of the agreement that the British Government give a clear undertaking that the Protestant community will not have to face its fears alone.
Agreeing to "parity of esteem", to use the language of the Good Friday agreement, is not arguing for indifference to the truths and traditions Christians count dear. If we go right back to the Gospels and ask how we see Jesus treating the others, we see him repeatedly reaching out, for example, to Samaritans who were regarded as heretics by his own people. Indeed he earned the hostility of his own people because they thought he cared more for others than for his own. Once, indeed, they accused him of being a Samaritan. Peacemakers in Ireland know that sort of experience all too well. Community leaders are warned not to get too far ahead of the troops.
That is a warning to take seriously. Yet sometimes risks have to be taken for the greater good. In January this year, the 30-year rule meant that papers were released about Liverpool's history showing that questions were asked in 1968 about a possible invitation to Royalty or to the Pope to come to Liverpool to be present at the consecration of the new Roman Catholic cathedral. We read that Harold Wilson, Prime Minister and a local MP, strongly argued that the risk of upsetting a fragile accommodation was too great and that neither Pope nor Royalty should he invited.
Seeing that, I recalled my first months in Liverpool only seven years later. I asked advice in a number of quarters about pushing forward ecumenical co-operation. Each time the answer was, "Do be careful. Things have calmed down recently. Don't rock the boat." I thought hard about that advice, coming as it did from people I respected. But it seemed to me that the time had come for bolder steps and I decided to set aside the advice. Derek Worlock came as Roman Catholic Archbishop a few months later. Once we had started to work closely together, with increasingly strong support from the great majority in both communities, I discovered that he had been through an identical process and had also decided to set aside the advice.
I salute those political leaders who have listened and worked through long nights, and especially those who risk receiving flak, and much worse, from within their own party. I pray that all those who have longed for peace will turn out to vote and then commit themselves to the long, exhausting slog of breaking down the barriers that separate them from the others.
§ 3.48 p.m.
The Duke of Abercorn
My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on a memorable, excellent speech made with remarkable, indeed enviable, confidence and sincerity.
It is indeed a very pleasant experience to partake in this debate on the Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill against a background of cautious but realistic optimism. I should also like to be associated with the well earned tributes paid to those remarkable, resilient personalities who over a long period have edged Northern Ireland towards this historic agreement. Apart from the very real political courage and leadership displayed by the politicians involved in the talks, I am equally impressed by the genuine global concern for a peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
However, we in Northern Ireland must realise and accept that the Province cannot be isolated from mainstream world opinion, and that Northern Ireland is now a global issue. This situation has, of course, both positive and negative potentials. I am convinced that if the agreement allowing this Bill to be implemented receives a majority verdict from the people of Northern Ireland on 22nd May and is made to work, then the peace dividend in employment creation, through inward investment in particular, will be very substantial.
However, if we should decide to remain in our psychological trenches and allow this agreement to fail, the downside potential is equally immense, with an almost inevitable mood of, "a plague on all their houses". Northern Ireland could then be almost totally ignored and isolated from new investment. The political consequences could be equally severe.
While the world awaits the verdict of Northern Ireland on this agreement, I believe that the people of the Province should examine and consider the agreement as a whole, and not just extract from the document, in isolation, that which inflames our emotions and traditions. Since many of the people of Northern Ireland were not prepared for a successful outcome to the negotiations resulting in this Bill, I strongly believe that the electorate, when judging the merits of the agreement, do not wish to be pressurised from outside, but left alone to make their own decision. To date, opponents of this Bill have failed to put forward any rational, viable or indeed acceptable alternative to these proposals, which I believe provide the chance of a generation to break away from the past.
I welcome the proposal in the Bill to establish an assembly in Northern Ireland. Although direct rule has proved an effective necessity, the administrative problems are considerable, with Northern Ireland Ministers constantly crossing the Irish Sea, rather like human ping-pong balls, yet displaying remarkable endurance and no sign whatsoever of metal fatigue.
Since 1972, every Northern Ireland Minister without exception has demonstrated deep concern and respect for the Province and, since departing from our shores, these expressions never diminish. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, definitely fulfils that role. Thankfully, he is certainly still onshore on the other side of the Irish Sea.
629 However, direct rule has invariably resulted in a political vacuum in Northern Ireland, with our elected politicians having no opportunity to be directly involved with the administration of the Province. Again, local council powers are extremely limited. This situation has caused political apathy and a lack of focus on the crucial issues facing our daily lives—in other words, bread-and-butter issues. If we are to achieve peace, and that all-important political stability, then a Northern Ireland elected spokesman will be the most effective voice abroad in persuading mobile investment that we have at long last turned the corner.
The real plague that has afflicted the Province ever since its foundation is undoubtedly insecurity, which is shared equally by both communities. The agreement, resulting in this Bill, has provided a workable foundation on which to build a thoroughly fair, peaceful and secure society, for the agreement has realistically addressed the insecurity felt, and indeed experienced, by the two communities.
The Catholic community, through the proposed assembly and the British Irish Council, will have the transparent opportunity of fully belonging to and being an integral part of Northern Ireland society, for in order to achieve the type of society set out in the agreement, Catholic participation in opportunity and involvement is crucial and fundamentally important.
I also believe that Senator Mitchell has fully addressed the genuine long-standing fears and suspicions of the Unionists with both reality and insight, for this agreement will strengthen the Union and create a far more durable union with Great Britain.
If this agreement should be enacted in law, the people of Northern Ireland will, for the first time, be in control of their constitutional destiny and not be subjected to any pressure whatsoever from Washington, Westminster or indeed Dublin.
I do hope and trust that in future Dublin can demonstrate a more mature approach towards Northern Ireland, which is indeed the common code of behaviour throughout the European Union, particularly following the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, for in the border areas where I come from, where undoubted genocide has taken place over the past 30 years, there is a distinct feeling that, at times of tension and tragedy, the situation has not been helped by Dublin.
Living in a border area, I am only too aware of, and sensitive to, the 30 long years of accumulated hurt, pain and grievance within the Protestant community; for I have, over this long period of time, attended many, many tragic funerals of gallant policemen and soldiers. However, I do not believe that the Peace Agreement should indicate that their lives have been given in vain, since their remarkable courage, and that of their former colleagues, combined with the consistent, granite-like resilience of all decent people in Northern Ireland, have achieved this agreement.
Although the first cease-fire brought great relief and an easing of appalling tension, combined with natural suspicion, it did not produce the change in realities of a 630 new political environment or the almost total longing for peace, both of which are so apparent today. However, that invaluable "window of peace" demonstrated only too clearly—particularly to the younger generation—that in most parts of Northern Ireland the quality of life has been absent as enjoyed by the rest of the United Kingdom during the past 30 years.
On an economic front, the violence has resulted in Northern Ireland becoming one of the poorest parts of the United Kingdom, with the largest numbers on benefit and the highest prevalence of low pay. Therefore, economic and industrial revival, providing all-important employment, must be prioritised with political reconstruction, both of which can be achieved only through permanent peace. For far too long Northern Ireland has been left out in the cold in achieving its fair share of inward investment. I am fully confident that this situation can, and will, be reversed.
I fully share the widespread concern regarding the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the proposed independent commission, for there is no doubt whatsoever that, time and again, that most brave, committed and professional police force has alone maintained that wafer-thin line between democracy and anarchy. However, the most virulent and sustained propaganda war has in no way diminished or tarnished the Royal Ulster Constabulary's unique record of service to the community as a whole, which will surely stand the test of any commission scrutiny. Furthermore, I firmly believe that we, the people of Northern Ireland, have failed the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary by not resolving our own divisions and finding an acceptable way forward, while this Bill at long last offers a realistic answer. The Bill offers Northern Ireland politicians the opportunity of taking on far more responsibility, thereby removing unwanted and uncalled-for pressure from the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Although there are obvious uncertainties and inevitable danger signals ahead, I believe that there is now a unique opportunity to break with the past. It would be a total tragedy for present and future generations were this opportunity to be squandered. I fully endorse the Bill.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Lord Molyneaux of Killead
My Lords, the Bill does not deal with the powers of the proposed assembly. It was rumoured that the assembly was to have legislative powers. In my humble view, that would clearly be unwise for such a large, cumbersome body. If the Government adhere to the far too large membership of 108, they might consider restricting the powers to legislation at secondary level, not primary level where collective responsibility would be unworkable and perpetual instability would be forever with us.
When this measure was proceeding through another place on a rather truncated timetable of one day, the point was made with considerable force that, although defects were then identified, there would be no proper provision for amendments to be moved or accepted. Your Lordships are in a much more fortunate position 631 today and tomorrow. It may be that the Government accept that, although some Members of another place have had opportunities to debate issues in the agreement over the past two years, with a very few exceptions your Lordships were deprived of that inspiring experience.
I know that the Minister is always prepared to listen and, within the constraints of his office, do his best to assist in remedying defects where they exist. I therefore trust that he will, as usual, respond favourably, perhaps at a convenient time in the Committee stage, to suggestions for improving the draft before us.
I imagine that the Secretary of State probably regrets her exhortation to people to read the agreement, which was posted to every household. The disadvantage has been that, as the 65 pages were read, acquiescence has decreased on the same scale. That was perhaps not the fault of the Secretary of State but a result of the tortuous language employed by the bureaucrats. As the agreement is the parent of the Bill, we are debating the measure against a background of hostility and suspicion which was not so evident when the Bill was considered in another place some two weeks ago. It follows that there are serious doubts about the working of the assembly, and no one should deny that.
One glaring defect is its sheer size. I understand that the Scottish parliament will have 129 members, the Welsh assembly will have 60 and Northern Ireland, with a much smaller population than Wales, will have 108. I can understand the Government's eagerness to enlist as many diverse and perverse elements as possible. I do not subscribe to the unworthy suggestion that the members will all be brought there to be bribed; I know that that would not be considered by Her Majesty's Government.
A membership of 108 creates an enormous financial burden with regard to personal protection for many of the members. Only this morning the IRA announced that IRA members, using Sinn Fein as a cover name, may take their places in the assembly. As the IRA declared a few days ago that they had no intention of terminating their capacity to make war, we shall be confronted with the nightmare situation described by Mr. John Hume some months ago of sitting at a table side by side with terrorists with—to use his words—guns on the table, under the table or outside the door. I share his very serious reservations.
This situation clearly establishes that the position has been transformed since the Bill passed through all its stages in another place. We shall therefore need to consider carefully in Committee the inclusion of effective measures to cope with the kind of situation which I have outlined and which Mr. Hume first mentioned some two or three months ago. I hope that we shall turn our minds to that, particularly having regard to the views expressed on that point from all parts of the House.
Over recent years, under successive governments—and probably unknown to governments—a directive on the following lines was brought into being:We cannot in the short term concede the demands of the IRA/Sinn Fein hut we will supply the mechanism to deliver them".632 I repeat that that formula was probably not known to governments, and may still not be known to governments, but adherence to the plan has produced results. That explains why the IRA does not accept the Belfast document as a settlement. For them it is a conveyor belt which must be kept moving. It increases their determination to retain their command structure and their weaponry, not for prestige purposes, not through some kind of pride or sentiment, but simply because it feels that it is necessary to retain its capacity to resort to violence at a time of its own choosing, or even, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, said, to threaten a resumption, which in times past has produced rich dividends. Depend upon it, my Lords, the IRA brigade commanders are poised and ready to provide the necessary lubrication to the conveyor belt if it should appear to be slowing up.
Unless the authors of the Good Friday document are prepared to preside over the extermination of democracy, a start must be made on dismantling that monstrous conveyor belt, which was designed and intended to deliver concessions to violent and criminal organisations and which, unless it is put out of commission, would be disastrous to the interests of the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland: Protestant and Catholic, and of no faith at all, God help them.
If, for one reason or another, the structures created in the Bill come unstuck, we should not despair, because we can grasp for that which is within our reach. I refer to the Wales Bill, which is not very far removed from the concept outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, on which perhaps I claim the part of listener in his early days. I am sure that he shares my conviction that such a course, although modest in scale—and maybe all the more workable because it is modest—would have succeeded. Something like the Wales Bill began back in 1976. I was criticised for launching that initiative. It was endorsed by no fewer than 14 million United Kingdom electors in 1979, but it was then obscured by bureaucrats for nearly 20 years. It is now restored to former glory in the current Wales Bill. My final word is this: be of good cheer because, should it prove necessary, there is an alternative.
§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield
My Lords, there are many Members of this Chamber whom one would not wish to follow, but, when it comes to Northern Ireland business, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, must be top of the list. I am relieved to find that he shares many of my thoughts and concerns.
Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord the Minister that very little of the discussion concerns the Bill that he has brought to the House. But I would remind him that this is Northern Ireland business!
I should like to express delight that we have got to this stage and to praise all those involved in the process. There are times when depression must have hung over everyone, but they kept on going. It may be that they kept on too tightly at the end; perhaps, if there had been a little more time, some of the remaining question-marks 633 might have been argued out. But that is not a criticism; it is done. I suspect that the feeling of the whole House is that the vote should be "Yes", because this is the opportunity to go forward.
One of the good news stories coming out of Northern Ireland at the moment is that the councils appear to be voting "Yes". That may be more representative of the people than any of the national politicians' views. This is the first time that the people of Northern Ireland can express true feelings without putting their heads above the parapet. People have shown excessive courage in challenging some of the threats, but to be able to offer to people the chance to show what they really feel without putting their families at risk is a real achievement. I hope that they will be able to sort out the confusion of what they are voting "Yes" for. It is a document that was apparently agreed on Good Friday but argued over ever since with one party still having to declare its intention, though fortunately there can be optimism about that.
Is decommissioning likely or unlikely? Unless one of the ways of decommissioning is to leave mortar tubes outside the RUC station that was under attack, I suspect not. That indicated a continuation of the violence. We are told that instructions were given to Sinn Fein from the IRA on taking their seats, yet those two organisations are reputed to have no links. We are told that there are to be no political prisoners, yet those being transferred to Port Laoise are not those who committed crimes of passion or fraud; nor are the two guardsmen, in prison in Northern Ireland for doing their job—with a tragic consequence—being transferred to Great Britain.
Even with all that confusion, the election and a "Yes" vote are the only way forward. We must remember that violence continues and undoubtedly will continue. Am I alone in wondering why strong paramilitary organisations on both sides cannot control fringe units? I continue to find that strange. If they wished to do so, I believe that they would have the means, yet it is said. "Not ours". I doubt that.
One area which has recently been made even more fraught with difficulty is the need for the Parades Commission to make decisions almost weekly on the ability of parades to go through. Did no one look at the calendar when the report was due? Was it not planned that it would come forward at the most critical time in Northern Ireland's future? With an instruction from the Prime Minister as to what it can and cannot do, it appears that it can no longer be called independent. There are serious problems ahead on that horizon.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, and I rarely share views on electoral procedure. But the inclusiveness of those at the talks for the past month has been part of the success of the negotiations and I hope that that inclusiveness will continue. I praise those organisations which are funding the campaign for the "Yes" vote. Without it there will be even less likelihood of getting all those who represent new communities to the table.
One of the specific points in the Bill is the need for 125 more public servants. We have more public servants in Northern Ireland per capita than anywhere else. Why 634 cannot some of them be transferred instead of creating 125 more new posts? I doubt that it comes under the welfare-to-work category.
One of the difficulties in getting this far has, without doubt, been the number of leaks emanating from the Northern Ireland Office. They have been dangerous; they have been disruptive. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what action has been taken to prevent their recurrence. Will the Minister join me in expressing distaste at the article in the Sunday Times by a previously senior civil servant attacking the Secretary of State from privileged information. The only thing that cheers me is that he appears to have shot himself in the foot in a way that the paramilitaries might admire.
The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, made a splendid maiden speech. He brought to the discussion one particularly important point. There is no doubt that the "Vote often and vote early" message has worked in the past in many areas. It is important that the proxies and overall identification are validated. One can go as 10 different people with correct documentation—they have been seen on mantlepieces, to be picked up when one gets back to the room. I was grateful to hear the noble Lord draw attention to that.
The Bill has got us further than ever before. Whatever we say today the decision is now in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. That is as it should be. One hopes that the people, given responsibility, will behave responsibly.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord McConnell
My Lords, no one is more eager than I am to see peace in Northern Ireland. But in examining this or any other provision we must be careful to see that it produces the result that we wish to produce; in other words, peace.
I am glad to see the removal of what has been called the "democratic deficit" in Northern Ireland. In the past few years it has been very much ruled by civil servants. I have nothing against civil servants, but they do not have the contacts with ordinary people in the way an elected Minister has. I refer not only to our own civil servants but to civil servants in the Irish Republic who have been imported into Northern Ireland.
The local authorities have little power; most of it has been stripped from them, and a great deal of government is done by quangos. They consist of unelected people—people chosen by the Government to do what they want them to do. I feel therefore that we should proceed with extreme caution. I have no objection whatever to sharing power with law-abiding nationalists. We may have different ideas and different aims, but we are civilised people and can get on perfectly well together. However, when it comes to terrorists, that is a different matter.
There has been a great deal of talk about decommissioning over the past few years. On every occasion when Sinn Fein rejected it the Government said, "All right, do not bother. We will see what happens in the future". They have not stood their ground and insisted on decommissioning. Unless they do that, it will be a bleak future.
635 There has been talk of political prisoners. Maze men are vicious criminals and to debase the word "political" by applying it to them is ridiculous. I was asked by the noble Earl, Lord Longford—he is not in his place to interrupt me as he usually does—whether I made any distinction between the three or four lots of terrorists. I do not. They are all terrorists to me, no matter what they believe they represent. In most cases they represent very few people. The idea that they should be released within two years is absurd. Taking this side of the Irish Sea, we are talking of people like the Brighton bombers, one of whom was described by a judge in England as a man of extreme cruelty and inhumanity. He is one of those—and there are many others like him—whom it is proposed to release on the public. Noble Lords can imagine the feelings of the wives and families of the victims of these men when they hear that such men are going to be released. If they say, "I shall not do it again", one simply has to take their word for it.
Another matter that should be dealt with is election fraud. The Select Committee in the other place found that it existed in an extensive way in a recent election in Northern Ireland. There is little sense in having a plebescite or a referendum if something is not going to be done about fraud in the polling booth.
Finally, perhaps I may join in the tributes paid to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The less they are tampered with the better. Of course, Sinn Fein and the IRA do not like the RUC because they are the people who have stopped many of the atrocities of the IRA and therefore they would like to see them done away with because they get in the way. But we need them to get in the way of the terrorists.
With those reservations, I wish the Government well in their attempts to bring about peace in Northern Ireland.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I, too, would like to congratulate the Minister and all those who have been involved on bringing the Northern Ireland situation to its present state. Some time back I pressed the Minister to persuade the Government to continue to push and promote a yes vote in Northern Ireland. I am delighted that the Prime Minister and the right honourable Mr. Major are indeed doing that together. It is great to see spin and all the modern techniques being put to good, sound, positive use for a change. I am very much a yes voter. I believe very sincerely in such a vote, but I am not complacent or confident that we shall get the right sort of yes vote yet in Northern Ireland. There is a lot more promotion and work to be done. The Orange Order is meeting the Prime Minister today and I have not heard the outcome. But do not let us fool ourselves. They represent a pretty solid phalanx of the Orange and Unionist vote.
I also wonder whether the opportunities created by these changes will all be good. Some certainly will, but there will be many difficulties. In campaigning for a yes vote, I hope that we shall really be able to take the opportunity once and for all to dump the negative rhetoric of the Reverend Ian, the leader of the DUP. 636 That started over 30 years ago and some of the blame for our present situation might well be laid at the door of the negative rhetoric at the time of Terence O'Neill's premiership in Stormont.
However, let us move forward to one or two other matters. I am delighted that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, made the point strongly about a return to democracy. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, spoke about temporary things. In 1974 direct rule was a temporary happening and, 20-odd years later, we still have it. But at last I believe we have an opportunity, if it is handled correctly, to see democracy creep back into Ulster politics. I do not believe that it will come with a big bang because there are too many inhibitions. The local authorities need more power to give it a firm base. They need more strength. They have been working together with Sinn Fein, the nationalists and unionists. They understand how to operate the democratic system within Northern Ireland. It has yet to be proven whether the new assembly will grasp that ability.
Like many other noble Lords, I am concerned about a yes vote and the election that follows. Its outcome is seriously important. I do not believe that the electorate yet fully understand how the new assembly and all that is involved in the Bill and expected from it, will work. Do the electorate realise that the management and control of the power for running the country will depend totally not only on their vote, but on their understanding of working with other parties? Will the unionist groups understand that they really will have to work together? Do those groups and others understand the relationships between the SDLP and Sinn Fein? That is very important. Do we understand it? I am not sure that I do.
Last, but by no means least, there is the great problem which most noble Lords have mentioned this afternoon; namely, decommissioning. I cannot see how democracy can work in a newly elected assembly while the balance of power—assuming that that is the way it goes—is held on the fringes by the gunmen. The situation could well turn out that way in the vote for the assembly, with the balance of power being held on the fringes by the smaller parties with the guns.
I am not euphoric about this. I believe strongly in a yes vote and in the return of democracy. I sincerely hope that all those concerned in implementing it and taking responsibility within it, including Her Majesty's Government and the noble Lord, will be able to see us through onto a road which is considerably better than the road we are on now.
Perhaps I may mention the RUC. Where will we be once the assembly is in place? As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said, there will still be terrorists. We shall need a police force which is confident, capable and professional. We cannot begin rebuilding a police force at this juncture. Timing is important in so many things.
Adding to the complication, we have murderers being released from prison. I know Ulstermen, as do many noble Lords in this House, and they can be very single-minded in revenge. I am sure that there are many prisoners in the Maze, in Dublin, and in prisons in England who will have one objective when they come out, and that is to get the man who put them in. I beg 637 the noble Lord and the Government to pay due attention to that and not to do too much too soon. I have great faith in the right honourable Chris Patten who has been put in charge of the commission. I strongly support him. But we must beware of revenge as well. I strongly endorse this Bill and I wish all those concerned every success in the future.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, in the last months of 1973, as the Member of Parliament for West Belfast, I took part in many debates at the other end of this building. They concluded in the setting up of a Northern Ireland assembly. I remember the euphoric atmosphere which persisted at that time in the creation of the assembly. But I also remember, five months later, the terrible despair that overtook Northern Ireland when that assembly was brought to an end. We had hoped then at the Sunningdale conference that we were bringing about an assembly that would be representative of the true traditions as they were then recognised in Northern Ireland. I can admit now that we did not take into account the fringe terrorist organisations, the loyalists, Sinn Fein and the IRA. They are now included and perhaps that may—I just say perhaps—lead to success in the assembly.
When I read the debates and the press reports emanating from Northern Ireland, I see a whole new set of words now being brought to bear in connection with this election: "inclusivity", "proportionality" and "parity of esteem". They are words that are not normally used in elections on this side of the water but obviously they are of great importance in Northern Ireland. I again find myself in some agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, on the number of people to be elected to the assembly: 108. As I say, I had experience of the negotiations which led to Sunningdale. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has first-hand experience of the negotiations which led to the adoption of this particular number.
I should like to have been a fly on the wall and to have heard what was happening during those negotiations. I believe they have been justified on the ground of inclusivity, whatever that may mean; but where does inclusivity start and where does it end? How was the figure of 108 members arrived at? Would 118 members have included more? Would 128 members have included more? Would 148 members have included all the drunks in Royal Avenue—because they need some representation? In fact I think there are more drunks in Northern Ireland than there are terrorists. So where do you stop when you come to this "inclusivity"? I do not know, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who took part in these negotiations, will be able to tell us how this figure was arrived at.
As I say, there are 108 members and they will be elected. I think we can predict almost with certainty that there will be a great diversity of political opinion elected to that assembly. The same thing happened in 1973. On this occasion we will have representatives of loyalists, of Sinn Fein and of other parties. Will they be going 638 into that assembly with the intention of trying to arrange political structures which will last longer than five months, which will last into the future and bring about stability in Northern Ireland politics?
I recall the first five months of the 1974 assembly in Northern Ireland and there were some times when the floor of that assembly looked more like Madison Square Garden. There were people fighting; there were fist fights right across the table and there were elected members standing on the table in front of the Speaker—and they were people who had been elected. However, I think they had been elected with the intention, given the terms of their election literature, of bringing that assembly down—and they certainly succeeded.
I would appeal to members who may be of that way of thinking now. That assembly was brought to an end in May 1974, and where have we been ever since? We have lived through all those years of despair, murder and political degradation, where Northern Ireland was not like any other part of the United Kingdom. Under direct rule, political figures in Northern Ireland were able to send over deputations to Westminster to campaign for an increase in money for health, welfare, housing and unemployment. They did not have to accept responsibility. They were able to point the finger at whatever government were in power at Westminster and to blame it all on them. I know from my own experience in 1974 that the people who constituted that executive—the Alliance, the SDLP and Brian Faulkner's Unionist Party—were prepared to accept those responsibilities.
There was one issue which brought Sunningdale to an end, and I recognised it in fact at Sunningdale. That was the very contentious issue of cross-border relations. That assembly, I have said ever since, could have lasted and the unionist majority would have accepted power sharing because they realised that the old system had gone and no longer could Northern Ireland remain as a one-party state. However, it was the cross-border submissions in the Sunningdale agreement regarding that assembly which scared the living daylights out of the unionists. They felt that the concessions which were asked to be made led down a road to a united Ireland. They saw any interference by the South in the North as being a step towards joint rule and eventually to Irish unity. I saw that myself at the time but it was an integral part of the SDLP's negotiations that they must have it.
In fact I have said in your Lordships' House so for many years that if these discussions which have been brought to a successful conclusion were to break down they would break down on the cross-border institutions. I am delighted to say that I have been proved wrong. They have settled cross-border institutions, but the big thing about it is that the Northern Ireland assembly will have the complete say as to whether or not they are made to work. Under Sunningdale they did not work like that and the assembly in Northern Ireland did not have that authority. So that is one great big obstacle out of the way.
Again, like almost every speaker in your Lordships' House, Members in another place and the people on the streets of Northern Ireland, I have many reservations about this agreement. I find it very difficult personally 639 to accept the fact that people who have carried out the most heinous crimes, including murder, in Northern Ireland have now been given a promise that they will be released. I personally find that very objectionable but I have to ask myself whether I cannot now put aside my objections for the better good of Northern Ireland. I am prepared to do that. Indeed, I am hoping and expecting the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, to tell the House of his experiences in the negotiations.
Some of the people who took part in those negotiations were terrorists and I believe that some of them will never reform. But there are others who I believe have reformed, and from press and television reports I see that Mr. David Irvine of the Unionist Party speaks great common sense in the present Northern Ireland situation. I may have said before that my only regret is that he and others like him were not around in politics when we were trying to create cross-community politics in Northern Ireland earlier. Those people may bring sense to the deliberations which are going to take place in Northern Ireland.
As to the RUC, I remember very well in my young days looking at them and seeing them as being the militant arm of Northern Ireland unionism, and there is no doubt that by some of their actions they proved that they were anti-minority and pro-majority. They were sectarian in their political approach but I say here without fear of contradiction that the RUC has changed dramatically from what it was in those days. I know many of its members, and indeed last week I felt very emotional when I looked at two pages of the Daily Telegraph, which had photographs of the 289 RUC men who had been brutally murdered by terrorist gangs. By the way, if you listen to the voice of unionism, everyone will say that they were killed by the IRA, but some of those RUC men were murdered by loyalist terrorists as well. There were 289 mentioned and I knew 43 of them. If it affected me like that, how must it have affected their relatives, the bereaved, the fathers, mothers, sons, brothers and sisters of those men who gave their all in an attempt to hold Northern Ireland together? I repeat what I said last week: had it not been for the RUC we would have been discussing in Northern Ireland total and absolute anarchy, with many many more people dead than there have been.
At the moment there is great fear in the ranks of the RUC because they have been told from all kinds of conflicting sources that there is going to be a great reduction in their ranks. One can understand that. If there is peace in Northern Ireland, we will not need between 3,000 and 4,000 policemen to guard RUC stations against attacks by terrorists, so there are bound to be reductions in the force. In 1968–69, the Northern Ireland government were unable to hold the ring in the face of the civil rights marches because there were only 3,000 members of the RUC. There are now 13,000. It was necessary then to increase the number because had that force not been increased, Northern Ireland would have disappeared for ever from the political equation of these islands. So I urge the Minister to be very sensitive in any dealings that he may be having with the RUC.
640 Although I live here in England, I visit Northern Ireland frequently. When I am not there, I run up a big telephone bill—at the expense of the House of Lords! Many people have spoken to me about the talks. During the final weeks leading up to the conclusion of the talks, the UDA and the UVF murdered three people and they were excluded from the talks for three weeks. Following that, Sinn Fein/IRA murdered two people and they were excluded from the talks for two weeks. To most people in Northern Ireland, that seemed an awful decision. It seemed that one death equalled one week's suspension. None of the murderers has yet been convicted, and the relatives of the victims are calling out to high heaven for justice; and I support them.
Those are my reservations. However, like everyone else who has spoken so far, I wish the assembly well. I know that there will be great difficulties in making it work as a political institution. Perhaps I may refer to my experience in 1974 in the five months of that executive. I was able to speak to unionists, people diametrically opposed to every political concept that I have ever held. We were all able to see what was meant by "taking responsibility". We recognised that we could all act in the interests of our own constituencies and thereby in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland.
This morning I spoke to a trade unionist from Northern Ireland, my noble friend Lord Blease who cannot be here today because he is not very well. He said, "When you are speaking in the debate, tell them to forget about nationalism and unionism and about Catholicism and Protestantism. Tell them that the big thing that we need in Northern Ireland is for people to take responsibility for housing, unemployment, jobs and all the things that are necessary to bring about a decent standard of life in Northern Ireland". My noble friend did not have to make that telephone call to me this morning; we have known each other through the trade union movement for many years. However, those are the facts of life now facing people in Northern Ireland.
I realise that the referendum will be tremendously difficult. Incidentally, I remember David Trimble wrecking Sunningdale. When he was a member of the Vanguard Party, he was a protester at Sunningdale and brought the process there to an end. I am delighted that he has seen sense since those days and that he took the courageous step of engaging in the talks. I believe that in the referendum that is about to take place it is imperative that the unionist voice is loudly heard. It has to be loudly heard because if the idea of an assembly is carried by 65 or 70 per cent. of the voters, most of whom are Sinn Fein and SDLP voters, that result will be quickly analysed in Northern Ireland—we in Northern Ireland are no fools when it comes to analysing election results—and it will then be found that only a minority of unionists voted for the referendum. That would seriously weaken David Trimble's voice and unionism. I believe that the vast majority of unionists should accord their "Yes" votes for the minority political parties in Northern Ireland.
It is important that an overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland should stand back and look at the despair and tragedy of not only the past 30 years, 641 but also of all the decades and centuries before, and recognise that the assembly could take us a step further towards a brighter future for Northern Ireland.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, it is always impossible, alas, to come anywhere near to matching the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. As usual, I agree with a great deal of what he has said. First, I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for having missed his opening speech. A combination of container lorries and dustcarts does not exactly help the flow of London's traffic.
Your Lordships will be glad to hear that a heavy cold and sore throat oblige me to concentrate mainly on this short Bill, but one general observation might be in order first. Chairman Mao famously declared,Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun".The truth of that maxim has been amply demonstrated over the past years, and in particular over past months. Power grows out of the barrel of a gun—and it grows even faster out of a stockpile of semtex. The cave-in over decommissioning, and the lavish attention given to Loyalist paramilitaries who represent a tiny part of the Unionist community demonstrate that, if nothing else does.
I turn now to the Bill. Yesterday evening we debated the Fireworks Bill in Committee. Speaker after speaker—notably, noble and learned Lords on the Conservative Benches—castigated that Bill for its proliferation of Henry VIII clauses and subsections but, compared to this Bill, the Fireworks Bill is the very model of the supremacy of primary legislation. Clause 2(5)(b) permits the Secretary of State to "make provision about deposits". An assembly of some sort has surely been on the cards for several months. Even if its precise make-up was in the balance until a very late stage, it must have been obvious that candidates would need to put up a deposit, as candidates in United Kingdom elections always do. Why was not the precise amount stated on the face of the Bill?
One then notices that paragraph 1 of the schedule states:Meetings shall be held at such times and places as the Secretary of State directs".Is not that just a trifle colonialist?
One of the most important features of the assembly or its successor does not appear on the face of the Bill. I refer to the requirement that no new legislation should pass unless it has the support of at least 40 per cent. of the representatives of each community, however one defines the word "community". That is seen as an important safeguard of the rights of each community. I have no objection to that safeguard. I think it is a very good safeguard: but no such safeguard exists under the agreement in connection with the most important decision of all, that on citizenship or nationhood. Whereas no law can come into force which provides, for example, for the introduction of cycle lanes on certain urban roads or for the improved teaching of mathematics in primary schools without the support 642 of the representatives of at least 40 per cent. of each community, the Province could be detached from the United Kingdom and annexed to the Irish Republic against the wishes of every single Unionist, given a continuation of current demographic trends.
Whenever I speak in private to those who are more expert on Northern Ireland than I, they say, "Yes, you are absolutely right in theory but, in practice, we can be pretty certain that when it comes to the crunch a number of Catholics will get cold feet about going into the Republic". However, I would argue first that past trends may not continue, particularly if the Republic becomes more prosperous, and secondly, and more importantly, that that is putting cynicism before principle. I contend that our laws should be based on morality in preference to realpolitik and that it would be immoral for the Republic to swallow up Northern Ireland without the consent of at least a substantial proportion of each community. For that reason, if I lived in Northern Ireland—I do not—I doubt very much whether I could vote for the agreement as it stands.
§ 4.49 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, my main purpose is to urge that in the coming days any further confidence-building measures should be directed towards reassuring the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, rather than Sinn Fein/IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries. I do not distinguish between Sinn Fein/IRA and the so-called break-away groups because the latter, given their regular access to relatively sophisticated weapons and professional expertise, are almost certainly no more than a convenient disavowable device. My chief concerns are in the areas of security and the future role of the Armed Forces and the RUC and whether there is to be real reciprocity of action by the Irish Government in that area.
How do we reconcile the commitment under "Prisoners" that,Prisoners affiliated to organisations which have not established or are not maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire will not benefit from the arrangements",with the Dublin Government's recent release of a number of IRA prisoners, two only yesterday? It will be said that the IRA has not broken its ceasefire, but its so-called break-away groups have done so recently and quite often; and the IRA's unequivocal refusal made before the talks and maintained after the agreement to consider decommissioning must surely be regarded as relevant. I hope that Her Majesty's Government link the release of prisoners with decommissioning. I do not believe that the Irish Government's action, even if it is probably part of a campaign to obtain a "yes" in their referendum very properly, is consonant with the section of the agreement dealing with prisoners that I have quoted.
Another issue of great and mutual concern to the people of Northern Ireland is the policy on the future of the RUC and policing generally. We must await the outcome of the review of the commission—I welcome the fact that Mr. Chris Patten is to head it—on the future of the RUC, but there are aspects of the agreement that 643 are disturbing. The RUC has been in the front line of an unrelenting war for a long time. The reason why thus far Catholics have been so under-represented on the force is the systematic threats and intimidation by the IRA. That has been the lot of any Catholics who have dared to join. Their families have suffered the same threats. This is not the fault of the force. Nor is it the fault of the RUC that there are large no-go areas where it may not operate. It would have been difficult for it to establish good community relations in those areas.
Finally, the RUC is armed because, unlike the police in the rest of the UK, it is operating daily in a war created by the paramilitaries. Until the threat goes and the nationalist attitude to the police changes, references in the agreement under paragraph 2 of "Policing and Justice" to "a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole … routinely unarmed" and, in Annexe A, to the police operating "within a clear framework of accountability to the law and the community they serve" and "arrangements enabling local people, and their political representatives … to establish publicly policing priorities and influence policing policies", all imply that the RUC could and should have achieved that position. But the fact is that the IRA and the paramilitaries together call the tune. The IRA has said many times that it wants a people's police and meanwhile arrogates quasi-police powers to itself, such as the recent knee-capping of a 79 year-old pensioner, who proved to be the wrong man but who will nevertheless spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. That is the IRA's version of maintaining law and order.
If it is true that HMG are preparing a package to enable RUC officers, regardless of length of service, to retire early on favourable terms and with enhanced pensions, that is obviously good planning, but it must not be taken as an indication that they are about to be required to make such decisions very soon. The situation is not such that they can properly do so. I hope that HMG are intent on recognising and reinforcing the standing of the forces of law and order, not diminishing it, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, has said.
Incidentally, does the reference to,structured co-operation between the criminal justice agencies in both parts of the island",include a real commitment to extradition by the Dublin Government? I believe that HMG must be very cautious about the degree to which they appear to recognise and promote the Irish Government's power to be consulted about non-devolved aspects of government. That sends very disturbing messages to many in Northern Ireland. It is difficult to reconcile the duty of the Westminster Parliament under strand one of the agreement to legislate for non-devolved issues, of which security is one, with, first, paragraph 5 of strand three that,In recognition of the Irish Government's special interest in Northern Ireland … there will be regular … meetings of the [intergovernmental] Conference concerned with non-devolved [NI] matters, on which the Irish Government may put forward … proposals".644 These matters concern in particular,Rights, justice, prisons and policing in Northern Ireland (unless and until responsibility is devolved to a Northern Ireland administration)".I recognise that many of the changes that may be expected to emerge from the various reviews and commissions are good. It is absolutely right that the Catholic population should be able to relate to, trust and work within the police force, but it is the IRA that has been and perhaps will continue to be the obstacle. It is also sensible to promote a great deal of cross-border activity, but I urge the Government to direct far more of their efforts towards reassuring the general public in Northern Ireland, first that if they vote "yes" they will be treated as full members of the United Kingdom, not as an embarrassing appendage, and next that there will not be a politicised police force and, although its assembly will have real powers, security will remain the responsibility of Westminster.
Meanwhile, the test of our own commitment to fair dealing is likely to be the enforcement of the required commitment to non-violence, including decommissioning, for all members of the assembly, difficult though I recognise that to be. As the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has pointed out, Sinn Fein can no longer get away with claiming that it has nothing to do with the IRA while resting its claim to be a serious political factor precisely on its relationship with that body. The IRA itself has apparently declared today that members of Sinn Fein who are also members of the IRA will be allowed to stand for election to the assembly. It is very difficult to see how it will work with the Sinn Fein half of a delegate committing himself to a peaceful and democratic approach while his IRA half must refuse to give up any arms now or in the future. That will be a real dilemma for everybody, including the people concerned. Fortunately, I hope that there will be many Catholics in that assembly who have no such affiliations and will make it work.
Like all noble Lords I believe that this agreement must be made to work with or without Sinn Fein. It is the best hope for the future. But, if it is to stick, the just anxieties of the ordinary people, Catholic and Protestant, especially on the issue of law and order, must be given greater weight in the coming days than the insatiable demands of the IRA and the Irish Government, who have their own agenda.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Lord Cooke of Islandreagh
My Lords, only a few weeks ago I did not believe that this Bill would come before us today because I felt that there was little prospect that agreement would be reached in the talks which had the deadline of 9th April. The fact that an agreement was reached is much to the credit of all concerned, from the contributions of the Prime Ministers, which were very significant, to the efforts made by the members of the negotiating team. That remarkable effort should be applauded.
The agreement points the way forward to the restoration of local democracy in Northern Ireland, which is desperately needed. It makes clear beyond all doubt that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom so long as the people of Northern 645 Ireland wish it. Although I have reservations about some elements of the agreement, I accept it as a whole and wish it Godspeed. I sincerely hope that in the referendum to be held on 22nd May it will be passed by a substantial majority of each section of the community. It is important that it should be passed by each section of the community.
Many excellent points have been made by noble Lords who have spoken today. I wholeheartedly agree with most of them. I was struck in particular by the maiden speech from the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, in which he pointed to the problems which he called the "three I's"; that is, when voting in Northern Ireland, information, intimidation and impersonation. It is most important that there is none of that in the forthcoming election.
The Bill before us makes no mention of procedure for nomination or reference to any other election for which the method of nomination would be similar. Will a deposit be required? Will a candidate have to make reference to his party? Much confusion and faulty voting can arise if there is a long list of candidates in a constituency and no mention of party.
Clause 4 of the Bill specifies a number of somewhat technical reasons for disqualification. As it stands, there will be no objection to a member of the IRA or UVF standing for the assembly. I also note with concern that individual members of the assembly are not required to subscribe to the Mitchell principles. Surely a declaration to this effect should be included with each candidate's nomination paper.
It would not be surprising perhaps if elementary matters such as this were omitted from the agreement, which was put together by able people but suffering from serious loss of sleep. This House would never agree to pass all stages of a complex Bill in a continuous sitting of 30 hours or more, for very good reason.
I do note that in the agreement (Clause 36) there is provision for a review of arrangements, including details of electoral arrangements and of the assembly's procedures. Could the signatories to the agreement, if they are to deal with it, be called together now to consider the electoral arrangements and to consider the defects which I have described? This leads me on to what may well be an even greater problem. The agreement assumes that cease-fires will be complete and unequivocal. Unfortunately, that is not so. Terrorist violence still continues and the IRA has declared that it will not surrender arms.
If Sinn Fein should put forward candidates for the assembly it is quite possible that by the d'Hondt system we may have a member of Sinn Fein as a shadow Minister of a department a few days later. Will this be acceptable to the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland and democratic members of the assembly? It may be difficult to remove a Minister from office in accordance with the not very specific Clause 25 of the agreement.
646 Can the Minister give assurance that my concerns are unnecessary? My reading of the agreement suggests that no changes can be made to any matter covered in the agreement by this Parliament, but only by reconvening the signatories to the agreement. Is this correct?
There are other matters which are the responsibility of government. Government have insisted for several years that there must be decommissioning, which is now more necessary than ever. What is to be done about it in view of the IRA statement? It must be faced up to and resolved, not just fudged.
Premature release of prisoners in the Republic of Ireland during the past few days has caused dismay. According to the agreement, accelerated release of prisoners cannot start until cease-fires are complete and unequivocal. There must be no fudging of that requirement.
The assembly can and I hope will serve Northern Ireland well by bringing democracy to the Province's affairs, but this will only happen when members of the assembly begin to trust each other and work together. It will be a great pity if the matters I have outlined should prevent that happening.
The agreement is only the first step in a long process towards what I hope will be thriving local democracy and an end to sectarianism. The Bill is a small but necessary step and I support it.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, who speaks with great authority on these matters, as have other speakers. Everyone will have their favourites, but for me the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Sheppard, will stay longest in my memory. Perhaps I am a little biased because they are personal friends. However, no one can accuse me of sectarian bias because they represent denominations of all kinds.
I wish to speak differently from the way in which I have spoken on recent occasions. I am afraid that I have found it my painful duty to make sharp comments about the Government's penal record, which causes so much distress for all those who care about the issue. However, I am happy to say that today I have become an unequivocal loyal supporter of the Government. I can see relief passing across the face of the Minister. With all my heart, I congratulate all those concerned, the Prime Minister, the Irish Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam and everyone else. I am happy that Mr. David Trimble and Mr. John Hume have been nominated for the Nobel prize and I hope that they will get it. It is delightful for me to be on the right side—or the Left side—for once.
There are many noble Lords from various parts of Northern Ireland in this House. They have one thing in common: I hope that they will all call themselves Irish. Long before the present Prime Minister and most of those present were born—I am not sure about the Minister—in the 1930s when I was writing a book, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, who I interviewed, offered me a glass of whiskey. He insisted, "It is Irish whiskey. Remember that it is Irish 647 whiskey". I do not know whether the Craigs were connected with whiskey, but it was indubitably Irish whiskey. I am sure that all Irishmen, north and south, call themselves Irish. If anyone doubts that, let them go to Landsdowne Road when Ireland is playing Scotland, Wales or England and they will have no doubt about the truth of what I have said.
I wrote a book entitled Peace by Ordeal; the story of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. I persuade myself that it is still a standard text. It was a remarkable event. It was signed in the small hours in the morning in a hectic atmosphere. I believe that the parallel will not be seen.
Many good things followed from that event. Today, southern Ireland is a prosperous state. When I was a boy in County Westmeath the Catholic children came to school in bare feet and rags. The Protestant children were better off. I suppose that few people will remember those days. Later when I was chairman of the National Bank, which operated in England and in the north and south of Ireland, the standard of living in southern Ireland was considered to be half that of England. Now the standard of life in southern Ireland is said to be up to that of England. That is a remarkable development. Therefore, one must agree that the treaty which set up the so-called Free State was a success. It was also a tragic success. Inevitably, it seems, there was civil war, which lasted for many years. However, I do not believe that that will happen on this occasion.
I wish to emphasise that in my experience Protestant and Catholic communities are fiercely suspicious of each other and terrible things happen as a result. But in my lifetime there have been innumerable friendships between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and much inter-marriage.
Perhaps 30 years ago I founded a centre for homeless young people in London. The first two social workers were a Protestant girl and a Catholic girl, both from Queen's. They became great friends. When the Protestant girl went back to Lurgan in Northern Ireland, the Catholic girl was her sole bridesmaid in Lurgan, a town divided between Protestants and Catholics. I went along as chairman of the centre. The father of the bride gave me this Irish Rugby Union tie. He was an Irish Protestant farmer. I have worn the tie ever since.
It is no good saying that friendships cannot exist. Nobody who knows Northern Ireland, as so many noble Lords do here, would say that for a moment. One can look beyond that too. At about the same time, I undertook research into the history and circumstances in Northern Ireland. I had a very gifted young research assistant, the Catholic daughter of a doctor in Lurgan. She went on to marry Mr. Cook, who became Lord Mayor of Belfast. She became the Catholic Lady Mayoress of Belfast. These things happened then and will go on happening. But the suspicions remain.
Nevertheless, I believe that this agreement will do much to undermine those suspicions in the long run. Why do I believe that this agreement will work better and produce less tragedy than that of 1921? There is one simple reason for that. The treaty of 1921 was signed by Irish delegates in London without reference back to Dublin, without reference back to their own Cabinet or 648 Mr. de Valera. I am afraid that that led inevitably to civil war. This time, to his great credit, Mr. Trimble has agreed to the new agreement and has secured a large majority among the Unionists. That is a much more hopeful sign.
I turn to the Sunningdale Agreement, which in my eyes will always be associated with the late Mr. Faulkner but also with our much admired friend, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. That could have worked. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, gave his own explanation, but in my eyes it was undermined by the Ulster Unionist workers strike. I am afraid that that was due to the fact that Mr. Faulkner had not secured the full support of the Unionists to that agreement. This time, Mr. Trimble has secured the support of the Ulster Unionists, so I am much more hopeful. I am more hopeful about the situation in Northern Ireland today than I have been since 1974.
We look to the immediate future. My noble friend Lord Callaghan said something painfully true some time ago when he visited Northern Ireland as Home Secretary. People asked him to sum up the situation and he said, "Too many guns". Of course, there are too many guns there now. There are still half-a-dozen military bodies. People in England cannot imagine the idea of having paramilitary bodies at all in a civilised country. There are too many guns, but the guns are not all on one side, very much not. People in England today think of the IRA as the enemy, but they would not think that if they were Irish Catholics, who may not be favourable towards the IRA as such but they fear the Protestants, who have far more arms than they have. At least two Protestant paramilitary bodies have not yet assented to the agreement.
Years ago—and this may surprise noble Lords—I spent a night as a guest of the leader of the UVF (the Ulster Volunteer Force). I came to have a great respect for him. Later he was assassinated in front of his delightful wife, which was utterly tragic. But he was involved with a body which was itself very much involved with assassination. Therefore, I am afraid that this is not a one-way issue.
When I stayed with that man, I remember that he showed me a picture of Carson, who, after all, took a lead in bringing the guns into Ireland before the first war. He hoped that I knew Carson. He and his friends—and I saw a number of them that night—still worshipped Carson, the man who brought the guns into Ireland. Therefore, the problem is two-sided. Do not let us treat it as a one-sided affair.
I am extremely hopeful, although this settlement will not solve all the problems. On the one hand, we have people like Mr. Trimble who look forward to supporting and strengthening the Union, as has been suggested by more than one noble Lord. On the other hand, there are those who hope that it will lead to a united Ireland—Mr. John Hume, Mr. Adams and myself. But that is politics. You cannot expect Members of Parliament to agree, whether they be Tories, Liberal or Labour, about what is their vision. There will be different visions. But through working together and power-sharing, there will be a spirit of fellowship. Whatever the future holds, this Government in particular and the Irish Government, and all those concerned, and perhaps most of all the Prime 649 Minister, deserve the utmost credit for making it possible for that new spirit of fellowship to arise and for a new dawn to emerge in Northern Ireland.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Rathcavan
My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford. It is a privilege also for us to hear from someone who—if I have done my arithmetic right—was a young adult at the time when the 1921 treaty was signed. Let us hope that this agreement will provide a better future than did the 1921 treaty. I suggest that the whiskey that James Craig offered to the noble Earl must have been Old Bushmills, distilled in Northern Ireland. I also add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, on his splendid maiden speech.
Like most people who live in Northern Ireland, I welcome a further step introduced by this Bill towards a return to normal political life, an opportunity for locally-elected people again to be involved in the administration of the Province. Over a period of 10 years to 1996, I was chairman of two government bodies in Northern Ireland involved with tourism and airports. I was reporting to and responsible to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, who usually represented remote constituencies in Great Britain, or noble Lords who sat in this House. Some, although perhaps not all, were of the highest quality and I would put the noble Lord, Lord Cope, when he was in the other place, in that category. From what I hear, the Minister is also as highly regarded.
But after nearly 25 years, this Bill at last fills our democratic deficit and will give local politicians the opportunity to hold ministerial positions in a new Northern Ireland administration. I believe that the responsibilities that go with that will have a positive effect on local politics.
This Bill is the first step in creating a shadow assembly before the major constitutional Bill which will be needed to transfer the administrative powers to a full assembly. But neither of those assemblies will thrive unless the agreement receives a resounding endorsement in the referendum on 22nd May. A majority of more than 50 or 60 per cent. will not be enough in my view. To make this process of a return to democratic politics succeed, we need a majority of more than 70 per cent. I hope and pray that the electorate in Northern Ireland will seize this last chance and will cast what will be the most important vote which they will probably ever cast in their lives in a positive way.
Those who consider a "No" vote are hopelessly blinkered to the opportunities that the agreement opens up for the next generation. A "No" vote will mean "no" to new inward investment; "no" to new jobs; "no" to a potential boom in tourism; "no" to all the new economic opportunities which will present themselves; "no" to all the economic and fiscal packages which may result from a resounding "Yes" vote.
Northern Ireland is not very high on the current economic matrix of these islands; in fact, it is probably to be found at the bottom. Noble Lords who are familiar 650 with Scotland, or with any region in England, would be surprised at how far our infrastructure has fallen behind, especially in the border areas. Terrorism has fed off economic disadvantage and high levels of unemployment. With a return to economic normality, the new investment and the new jobs which are within our grasp will be the cement of a new peace.
I believe that the agreement will also strengthen the Union at the same time. The principle of consent to the people of Northern Ireland to decide our future is at last unquestioned by the overwhelming majority and all parties involved. The Anglo-Irish Agreement and its Dublin-staffed secretariat in Belfast will go, so will the claim on Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution of the Republic.
However, the agreement also has some very green passages in it which have, unfortunately, raised emotions, prejudices and fears. I know people who have never before been politically awake who have become incensed about the prisoner issue; concerned about the future of the RUC and the absence of any clear plans for decommissioning; and infuriated about the possibility that those who may still be involved at some level with terrorist activities may hold office in the new full assembly. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a further reassurance today that that cannot and will not happen.
These serious issues will and must be challenged at later stages in this legislative process. In the meantime, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office will not lose any opportunity during the next two weeks to reassure those who have doubts and to get on the front foot and be positive about the economic advantages. I support the Bill as a further step on the long path back towards a new political future.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord Alderdice
My Lords, it has often been said that politics is not an exact science—and of course that is true—and that prediction in politics is a particularly hazardous occupation. Therefore, although I would commit myself with others in Northern Ireland to do our best to make the agreement work, I hesitate to say much more than that about the future. However, if one looks back through history, that is not only a much more accurate occupation but it is also a much more appealing one for people from Ireland as a whole.
If noble Lords will permit me, I should like to make one or two references to what we might learn from our previous experiences in trying to address problems in the whole of Ireland. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned the attempt in 1921. His experience and knowledge of such matters are quite unsurpassed. However, the comment that I should like to make about that particular effort is that perhaps the difficulties that it faced as time went on were to be found not so much in the agreement itself but in the fact that many aspects of it were not followed through. For example, the proportional form of electoral system, which would have guaranteed minorities a better and greater involvement in the old Stormont Parliament, were set 651 aside. Education, which was to have been undertaken on an integrated basis, was increasingly done through religious division. Moreover, the council of Ireland, which was going to ensure that there would be co-operation between north and south, never actually came into being.
In fact, north and south moved further and further apart as the south increasingly sought not only for independence but also, when it came to the 1937 constitution, to remove itself from other sorts of relations with the north and with the rest of these islands by removing itself from the Commonwealth and by actually placing a jurisdictional claim through Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution. It seems to me that these and many other matters helped to ensure that the efforts made in 1921 were not able to be successful.
From those events we can surely take it that the package as a whole is critically important when one comes to an agreement. What we are considering today is only one very small part of the package; indeed, it is not even the package which refers to the assembly. It is merely an enabling Bill designed to ensure that the elections to a new assembly can come quickly after a referendum and before what those in your Lordships' House, and more particularly those at home, have come to refer to as the "marching season". That is never a particularly good time for bringing people together or for focusing their minds in a calm way on how they might vote with the best interests of the future at heart.
We have before us an enabling Bill and I shall seek to refer to that fact. But let us remember that the package as a whole is important. If the effort in 1921 failed, it did so, at least in part, because the package as a whole was not able to be sustained. It is also the case that 1921 failed because the people in the north and in the south grew apart from each other, rather than maintaining, building and developing their relations. In this package as a whole, noble Lords will be familiar with the fact that we have found a way—contrary to all expectations, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said—to address the north/south relationship in such a fashion that everyone feels that his rights are protected. Indeed, economic, social, environmental and cultural development can take place in the interests of all the people of Ireland, both north and south.
It was said only a few weeks ago in your Lordships' House that it would be hard to believe that agreement could be fashioned so as to bring such matters together. Those who felt that way in this House were not alone; indeed, according to an opinion poll taken barely two months ago, 87 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland said that they hoped there would be an agreement but that no agreement would be reached. However, an agreement has been reached and it has addressed a number of elements. I have referred to some of them, but there are more.
Perhaps I may move on to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, who has much experience in such matters, especially in the later years—and I speak in terms of your Lordships' House in that respect—around the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. The noble Lord referred to the problems of Sunningdale. There were of 652 course a number of problems there. There was the question of power-sharing in the north/south dimension. However, there was another matter; namely, whether the people as a whole had had their chance to have their say. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, also referred to that, especially in relation to the people of Ireland and, indeed, the people of the Republic. We have learnt from that.
This time, before legislation becomes operative, before there is an assembly, before elections are held and before north/south bodies are established, the people will have their say; that is, all the people of Ireland, both north and south. They will do so separately, but under the same package and on the same day. I believe that that will make it difficult for those who purport to represent the interests of the people of Ireland as a whole to gainsay the word of the people of Ireland. This is not way back in 1918: it is now in 1998. Indeed, those who often purport to represent the views of the people of Ulster—or, more properly, the people of Northern Ireland—will surely have to recognise that when the people of the Province speak clearly, as I believe they will, we must all accept it and work it to the best of our ability as democrats.
There are also other lessons that we have learnt from 1974, and from the next effort in 1985. Indeed, let us remember that attempt to bring people together. I think it was felt by the British and Irish Governments that those of us who lived in Northern Ireland were such a troublesome crowd that the only way that an agreement could possibly be reached was to shut us all out and have the sane and civilised representatives of the two governments reaching an agreement—which they did. But to what effect? It did not resolve the problem. It is true to say that we may be prickly, difficult and truculent. I can say that, but perhaps noble Lords could not possibly comment. We know it to be the truth. But, if we are not there, it simply will not work.
This time all the parties were able to be represented. The fact that some of them chose to leave the table when the going got rough and leave their people unrepresented says more for their lack of courage and commitment to the process than for any lack in the process itself. All of us have reached this agreement, not just the two governments. We seek now to put some of it into operation in this enabling Bill.
I shall not refer to some of the difficult and contentious issues such as prisoners, policing and other such matters. I do not do so because I do not deem them contentious; they are. They are extremely difficult matters, but there will be other times when it will be appropriate to address those matters. I shall try to restrict myself to the Bill itself. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, tempts me into anecdotes about the talks process. No doubt there will be opportunities to talk about that in another place and at another time. Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, made reference to numbers and why there should be so many representatives in an assembly. There is the matter of inclusivity and so on, but I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for whom I have enormous affection, that I am afraid he bears some considerable responsibility for this matter.
653 The reason there will be 108 members is that there will be six members for each of the 18 Northern Ireland Westminster constituencies. One of the noble Lord's greatest achievements in another place was to increase the number of Northern Ireland constituency MPs. That was a tremendous achievement. If I recall correctly, he increased the figure from 11 or 12 to 17. Since then, of course, it has been increased to 18 because of population changes. We were left with no option but to follow the lead of the noble Lord and stick with that number of constituencies—unwieldy though it may be—and have six members for each. Indeed the initial proposal was for five from the Ulster Unionist, SDLP and Alliance, but we were prevailed upon to be a little more broad minded and flexible. That is why the calculation had to be five times 18 or six times 18; it could not be anything else. The figure had to be either 90 or 108.
The noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, expressed concern about 125 new public servants. However, none of the many bodies that we have such as health and social services boards, education and library boards and so on need continue if we have an assembly of duly elected representatives who can take on these responsibilities directly. I hope that over a period of time we can slim down the number of public representatives when we have an assembly that takes responsibility for such matters. I must declare an interest at this point because noble Lords are aware that Peers may stand for a Northern Ireland assembly. Despite the many attractions of working in your Lordships' House, a compulsion has come upon me to divide my time and to seek election to a Northern Ireland assembly.
At this point I refer to the excellent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. It is a great delight to all of us in Northern Ireland that a Dunleath voice is again to be heard in your Lordships' House. His voice is articulate, anti-sectarian, robust in its delivery and intelligent in its content. Those are entirely the things we have come to associate with the House of Dunleath. The noble Lord's predecessor was a good friend to many of us. It is a great delight to see the noble Lord in this House. We all look forward to hearing further contributions from him. I cannot say whether the noble Lord will follow his predecessor, who also sought election in Northern Ireland and was the deputy speaker of the last assembly between 1982 and 1986. The noble Lord shakes his head. I understand his reservations in these matters. Nevertheless his maiden speech was a triumph and we appreciate it greatly.
Your Lordships' House has Members who are resident outside the United Kingdom. Indeed, some are resident in the Republic of Ireland. This Bill makes it clear that representatives elected to a Northern Ireland assembly will not, as in previous times, be denied the possibility of serving in Seanad Eire Ann. This agreement is not merely concerned with resolving the problems within Northern Ireland. It is not solely concerned with repairing the damage that partition did to relationships between north and south. It is concerned with beginning to repair many of the damaged relationships throughout these islands which resulted from the events of 1920 and 1921. People may be able 654 to come together as parliamentarians with differing and diverse responsibilities but they may also be able to come together as people whose relationships were never completely severed. Over the next few years—God be pleased$—those relationships may begin to be repaired and built upon for the betterment of all of us. I shall say more about that when we discuss some of the other proposals in the agreement.
I wish to make one or two further brief comments. First, I refer to the decision of the Secretary of State on the presiding officer. I seek some reassurance from the Minister that when the Secretary of State considers such an appointment—as she will properly do—and the appointment of a deputy, that will be carried out on the basis of consultation with the parties. It may be difficult to make changes once such a person is appointed because of the agreement and the level of consensus that will be required. We already have experience of this in the Northern Ireland Forum. I cast no aspersions on the individual who was presiding officer there. I seek assurance that any such appointments and any such decisions—which necessarily lie in the hands of the Secretary of State until the substantive assembly is in place—will be carried out with full consultation with the parties.
As regards the referendum, I said at the beginning of my speech that it was dangerous to make predictions and that that was a hazardous occupation in politics. That is the case but I am galvanised to reassure your Lordships that there will be a positive result in this election. I do not say that because of opinion polls, although they are positive, and not merely because of the many people who approach one in the street and point out that this process with all its difficulties is one that they want to succeed. I say this because local government, council after council, are saying yes to the agreement. Belfast City Council has said no since 1985, but only last night it said yes to the agreement. Ballymeena Council, the heart of conservative Unionism, said yes last night, as have Carrickfergus Council, Larne Council, Strabane, Omagh, Ards and Lisburn. Many of these places are represented by Unionist MPs in the other place who are taking a somewhat divergent view from those closest to the people at local government level.
I am encouraged enormously by that situation, but we need more than a majority not only to reassure all areas of the community but also because that will tell the men of violence north and south of the border, from whatever community they come, "Your time is past; your input is finished; your contribution was malign, but it is over". In the words of another gentleman who knows more about these things than I, we want to be able to say, "They have gone away, you know, and they are not coming back". I beg noble Lords to support the Bill.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, this has been a most thoughtful debate and, on balance, a hopeful one too. It has been enlightened particularly by the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, and by the speech—which was not a maiden speech—of the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, who is now 655 temporal. The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, spoke of the deep knowledge which he has found in this House. That has been well displayed this afternoon. It was also clear from what he said that he will add to our collective store of knowledge. I hope that he will long be able to contribute to debates in your Lordships' House even though he is an hereditary Peer.
This Bill is, of course, the start of the implementation of the agreement arrived at with such difficulty over a long period by the people to whom tribute has rightly been paid. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, was one of them. He has told us that he will stand for the assembly. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether he could also contribute to debates here. However, given the strength of his contribution to debates in this House while struggling night and day, on occasion, to reach this agreement, I do not think that his input into this House will he diminished even if he were to be elected to the assembly, as I hope he will be. I have rather lost track of whether the agreement is now officially described as the Belfast Agreement—as it was in the White Paper—the Stormont Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement. But either way this agreement is, as it were, the architect's plans of a new constitutional structure for Northern Ireland.
This is the first of several Bills. It provides for the selection of the people to start the building. The two later Bills we are promised, on prisons and on the constitution, will put the new edifice into position. These two later Bills are the important ones which will require careful consideration in Parliament, for once the structure is complete, the people of Northern Ireland will have to live in it. We, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, have the ultimate responsibility to consider those Bills in due course. Today we have to deal with this preliminary legislation, but we have also to see it in its context, as the debate has done this afternoon.
The Bill is contingent on a majority of yes votes being cast in the referendum. Without such a vote neither the Bill nor the agreement will come into force. This referendum is important because it involves the people and because success in this whole enterprise will depend not only on the actual structure that is set in place, but on the willingness of sufficient people in Northern Ireland to make it work. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, drew our attention to the fact that that aspect is of the first importance and contrasts with 1921 which he so memorably chronicled in Peace by Ordeal, as well as Sunningdale and 1985.
At this stage it is useless to speculate on the result of that vote, but we can hope for a solid yes vote. Like other people, I do not like some of the features of the agreement. I hate the idea of releasing early those who have been convicted of terrible crimes, whether in pursuit of Republican or Loyalist views. I hate the symbolism of it even more than I fear its practical security consequences to which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, drew our attention.
I therefore sympathise particularly with the emotions of the victims which the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, mentioned. I have found two differing emotions among victims. One is, as I said the other day in your 656 Lordships' House, that the prisoners should rot in hell for as long as possible; but the other is that no one else should have to suffer as those victims have done with the loss of their loved ones. Therefore, it is important that peace should come about.
Much as I hate what is proposed for the prisoners, I recognise that if we are to make progress there needs to be a deal, which, of its nature, probably will not be entirely acceptable to anybody. But after so much talking and negotiating I think this has to be the best deal that is likely to be available.
I also firmly believe that direct rule has gone on for too long for the health of democracy in the Province. Everyone there has for decades been in permanent opposition, in permanently negative mode, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew expressed it at the start of the debate.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, for his remarks about those of us who served there. I think it is and has been a benevolent dictatorship, an excellent form of government for a period. But, as we all know, the difficulty with benevolent dictatorship is the re-entry problem, and that is what we now face.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland's political and civic life has been horribly damaged, as has its economic life and its standard of living. My noble friend the Duke of Abercorn reminded us of that in a notable speech, and it was reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan. And all that, of course, is on top of the loss of life. I never forget that during my time in the other place as an MP, four MPs were murdered by terrorists. Two of them were particular friends of mine. So I hope for a yes vote.
I hope that the politicians of the Province can start, through this assembly, to play a constructive part in governing the people of the Province. But those who do play such a part must clearly do so as democrats. If they or their friends still have their weapons ready, democracy will not work. That is the link between decommissioning and seats on the executive. We all know that even if there is substantial decommissioning many weapons will still exist or can be bought. No one can decommission fertiliser. So that will not be the end of the problem.
No one who belongs to an armed conspiracy to subvert the state has any place in a democratic government or, to put it in Northern Ireland terms, no one who belongs to a political movement linked to still armed terrorists can join the executive. If the PIRA does not give up its weapons, provisional Sinn Fein should not sit on the executive. Exactly the same applies to the Loyalist paramilitaries at the other end. Both the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and my noble friend Baroness Park drew attention to the IRA's statement this morning which emphasises that point. I therefore agree strongly with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew, who put this point more eloquently than I can. I realise that it is argued that the sections of the agreement dealing with decommissioning and prisoner release are in separate parts of the agreement. But the Government and everyone else connected with it have stressed that the agreement can only be accepted or rejected in full.
657 There is also an inextricable link between decommissioning of weapons and the release of prisoners. If the organisations to which the prisoners belong stand ready and equipped to rearm them, terrorist prisoners should not receive early release, even on licence. It takes a great deal of dangerous work and skilled effort to convict someone of terrorist crimes in Northern Ireland because of the intimidation and the genuine fear of jurors, potential witnesses and informants, as well as the carefully taught and fiercely policed resistance of terrorist suspects to police interviews and the systematically drilled destruction of forensic evidence.
The early release of prisoners is an issue of the highest emotional and political significance to me and many others, just as the issue of decommissioning of weapons is to Sinn Fein/IRA. If both sides can get over their particular stumbling block, perhaps progress towards peace can be made. But, as I said earlier, it will not be total peace. The RUC—the finest counter-terrorist police force anywhere—will still be required.
I welcome the appointment of Chris Patten to chair the police commission. I do not mind the Government making use of Conservatives in this way. It seems to me wise to use the best and most experienced talents. I did not serve with Mr. Patten in the Northern Ireland Office, but I did in other capacities. I have the highest respect for his ability and integrity; and I believe that the RUC deserves the best. Many noble Lords this afternoon have paid tribute to the RUC and none more powerfully than the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I support all those tributes. It, above all others, has made it possible for democracy to get this far and it has more of the same to do yet, for we all know that not all the terrorists will give up at either end of the spectrum. Even if all the terrorists gave up pursuing by terror their political ends, they will not easily give up the rackets which provide their comforts. So the RUC must remain an effective force.
I spoke of the Bill following the terms of the Good Friday agreement but in some small respects it does not exactly do so. One variation is something that I think we should expect from this Government as a more or less knee-jerk presentational reaction. According to the Bill, the assembly is to be called the New Northern Ireland Assembly. My assumption is that that was inserted as a default when the draft was passed through the government spin doctor's computer. So far as I can see, the word "new" does not appear in the agreement in relation to the title of the assembly.
However, another change is more significant. In view of the short timescale between Second Reading and the remaining stages of the Bill, the Minister mentioned the amendments which I tabled in an attempt to bring the Bill back into line with the agreement. The agreement provides for the assembly to decide where and when it should meet, and to settle its own standing orders. I do not think that that is surprising; it is quite right. But what is odd is that the Bill provides for the Secretary of State to be the sole decider of these matters as long as the Bill remains in force—which is indefinite in the Bill, although it is expected to be only a year or 658 so. I therefore suggested amendments to give the Secretary of State power to fix these issues for the first meeting so as to get the assembly going—I think that that is sensible—but thereafter I would expect the assembly to be in charge of its own meeting arrangements and standing orders.
The Minister quoted paragraph 35 on page 9 of the agreement under the heading Transitional Arrangements. It states:The Assembly will meet first for the purpose of organisation, without legislative or executive powers to resolve its standing orders and working practices and make preparations",and so on. The agreement is precise about the standing orders. I do not know what "working practices" mean if they do not include the time and place of meeting. But the assurances that the Minister gave at the start of the debate—that the powers are only temporary and will be used in full consultation—are obviously important. I shall consider them overnight and look again at the amendments, if I may.
The main purpose of the Bill is to provide for elections by what is loosely described as proportional representation. I wish finally to say a few words on that. The Bill proposes one version of so-called proportional representation. It is not truly proportional. A fully proportional system is used in Northern Ireland for the European Parliament. But I know of only one country where full proportional representation is used for the national parliament, and that is Israel. I believe that it has been very damaging there and never more so than now. Last weekend, The Sunday Times, like other papers, had an article looking back over Israel's 50-year history. Its man had interviewed, among others, the former Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, one of the men who came closest to reconciling Israel and its neighbours. The article contained an interesting passage about its fully proportional representation which I think is worth quoting. Shimon Peres said:The electoral system is the greatest mistake we ever committed. Ben-Gurion wanted to change it. He was much impressed by the British system of 2 or 3 parties. But we had a party system before we had a state, and some of those parties had their own armed forces. We had to get rid of the military splinter groups, but the cost will be terrible. It's a democratic catastrophe. It's not a functioning system. They will have to change it sooner or later".
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord; I am grateful to him for giving way. I do not wish to distract him from the Middle East, but I am sure he is aware that the voting system used in Northern Ireland for the European elections is the same as the one proposed for the new assembly elections. That is, the single transferable vote in a multi-member constituency.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, I do not wish to continue too long about the Middle East. However, the point about the European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland is that it is one single constituency for the whole of the Province.
The system in the Bill has been chosen because it is thought likely to produce the result that we all want: that which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, described as having diverse and perverse representation. I thought 659 that that was a good description. But it is what we all want. The agreement provides for the electoral system to be reviewed after what is described as a specified period. The period is not specified anywhere in the Bill, or, as far as I can see, in the agreement. But the electoral system in the Bill is a different system from that chosen for Scotland or Wales. It is different again from the system chosen in Great Britain for the European Parliament. Perhaps in due course the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, will recommend one of those systems, or perhaps another one altogether, for another place.
There is no principle underlying all this, only the hope in each case that the electoral result will be what the architects of the system desire. However, I accept the need for diverse and perverse representation to be provided in the Northern Ireland assembly; and, given that the system has some familiarity, I think it is right that that system should be used today. However, no one should interpret that as support for the use of the various so-called proportional systems elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
But this is not the end of the matter. The assembly—if it comes about, as we hope—will have an incredibly difficult time. I suspect that we shall have a difficult time in trying to set it on its course in later Bills. However, there is no doubt that this Bill is right; and we wish the assembly and the Bill well.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, the debate this afternoon has understandably ranged widely. The agreement reached in Belfast last month, and the government legislation which arises out of it, are inevitably compromises which by their nature cannot give everything to everyone. We understand the concerns that people have about aspects of the Bill. But we had to move rapidly and this is an important step on the way to achieving the aims that we all wish to achieve for Northern Ireland.
I think that the House today has been tolerant and understanding of the situation. I am grateful for the support that the Bill has received from all sides of the House. I believe that the support was unanimous. Everyone who spoke gave support, albeit with some qualifications, for what the Government seek to do. I hope that we can take the Committee stage in a similarly constructive manner and put the Bill onto the statute book within the next couple of days.
Many detailed points have been raised. However, they are points of considerable importance, and I may be a little longer in responding to the debate earlier than I would have wished to be. I hope that noble Lords will bear with me on that because the issues are crucially important to the future of Northern Ireland and indeed to the future of the whole of the United Kingdom.
Two main issues were referred to by many noble Lords. One was decommissioning. The other was the RUC. Of course many noble Lords also referred to matters which we shall be able to consider in more detail when we deal with later legislation; namely, prisoners, and the large constitutional or settlement Bill which will put in place the new arrangements. Therefore I do not 660 wish to spend too much time on the longer-term issues which will come again before the House because we shall have ample time to consider them in detail. But I believe that the decommissioning issue is crucial and, given that almost every noble Lord referred to it, it is proper that I should spend a little time responding to the points made.
Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the parties to the Belfast agreement reaffirmed their commitment, as one of the Mitchell principles, to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They confirmed their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the independent commission and to use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the agreement being endorsed in referendums north and south. Those commitments are welcome and worth while, and we expect them to be honoured. Any party committing itself to support the agreement must be deemed to take on those commitments as well.
More generally, the agreement is a package. It represents a finely struck balance between conflicting viewpoints. None of the parties to the agreement is entirely happy with every aspect of it, but all must accept that the only way forward is to implement the whole package. Unless every aspect of the deal is followed through, the political consensus which the agreement was able to establish could fall apart, leaving everyone worse off.
The decommissioning of illegal weapons, even the modest beginning of such a process, would be an enormously significant and positive confidence building measure. Ordinary decent people on both sides of the community need to be relieved of the burden of fear and intimidation which Loyalist and Republican paramilitary organisations have imposed on them; and will feel more comfortable about moving forward to accept and implement the agreement if there is real evidence of commitment to exclusively peaceful means. I appeal to all those in possession of such weapons to make the necessary move and help build that wider public confidence.
An initial, highly desirable step would be the nomination of a representative from each paramilitary organisation to enter into discussions with the independent commission. One paramilitary organisation associated with a party to the negotiations has nominated such a representative: the others should follow suit. Any other paramilitary organisation wishing to consider decommissioning should also be encouraged to nominate a representative.
As to the holding of ministerial office in the assembly, it is a key part of the agreement that such posts should be shared out on a proportional basis. Equally, there is a requirement on those taking shadow office when the assembly first meets to affirm their commitment to non-violence and to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and their opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose; and to work in good faith to bring the new arrangements into being.
661 The agreement also provides a mechanism, set out in paragraph 25 on pages 7 and 8 of Command Paper 3883, through which those who do not use only democratic, non-violent means can be excluded or removed from office by a cross-community vote in the assembly. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has given an assurance that if, during the course of the first six months of the shadow assembly or the assembly itself, these provisions are shown to be ineffective, the Government will support changes to those provisions to enable them to be made properly effective. I am happy to reaffirm that commitment.
It would be a travesty of democracy if representatives of a party associated with a paramilitary organisation were members of the assembly executive committee at a time when it had become clear that any cease-fire by that paramilitary organisation had been a purely tactical manoeuvre and that organisation continued to engage in or to threaten terrorism.
The key point is that political parties associated with paramilitary organisations should be able to inspire in the other parties sufficient confidence to enable them to work constructively together. The decommissioning of illegal weapons held by associated paramilitary organisations would be the natural and obvious way to build confidence in such parties' commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of pursuing political objectives. But circumstances can change; other ways of demonstrating that commitment or at least reducing the suspicion and concern of other political parties may be found. At the end of the day the various parties will either have sufficient confidence in each other to work this agreement or they will not; it stands the best chance of working if all the elements of the agreement are implemented in full; and history will judge harshly those who provided the obstacle to a peaceful and settled future for Northern Ireland.
I now turn to the other broad theme running through the contributions to this debate. It concerns the RUC. I say without hesitation that Northern Ireland has for many years owed a great debt to the RUC, and so indeed has the whole of the United Kingdom. We have come to depend heavily on the RUC. I believe that your Lordships would agree. The sacrifices made by the RUC are recognised in the agreement. It is important that in the terms of the agreement we have a police service which can enjoy widespread support and be seen to be an integral part of the community as a whole. Pointing the way towards that is a challenging task of the Independent Commission on Policing. I very much welcome the support from many noble Lords, which is extremely useful, for its prospective chairman. The RUC will remain a very important contributor to the society in Northern Ireland. It has nothing to fear from the work of the independent commission. I give your Lordships total assurance on that point.
Perhaps I may now deal with a number of specific points made during the debate. First, I wish to pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. He was generous in recognising the part played by others. However, it has to be placed on record that he played an important part in the proceedings and events in Northern 662 Ireland which led to the outcome on Good Friday in Belfast. The noble and learned Lord's part should be recognised for its importance—as I believe it is recognised in this House—in Northern Ireland, and indeed in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Of course we agree entirely that direct rule diminished the capabilities of local politicians in Northern Ireland to exercise democratic power. It is a gap that we want to fill. That is why we are moving quickly with this measure, which will be the first stage in handing power back to local politicians.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked a number of questions. He asked in particular about by-elections and how replacements would be made. We have not yet held the elections for the assembly; we are still consulting the political parties in Northern Ireland on that matter, and different models are being proposed. We hope to be able to announce the outcome of those consultations shortly.
The noble Lord also asked when the shadow assembly would become substantial. It will of course require the settlement Bill, which will be placed before this House later this year, to make the shadow assembly into a substantial assembly. I hope that the shadow assembly will cease to exist and be replaced by the assembly early next year. I do not want to be more specific, because the legislation to achieve that end will be quite substantial. I cannot fully predict how quickly noble Lords and Members of the other place will respond to the extra burden placed upon them. However, I can give the noble Lord complete assurance that "temporary" in this case is "temporary". We intend to move forward very quickly. Assuming that the referendum decision is a clear "Yes", we shall tend to move forward very quickly with other measures to put the new arrangements in place. I give the noble Lord complete assurance that "temporary" is certainly "temporary".
I now pay tribute to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. It was a pleasure to hear. It was informed, clear and interesting, and made a positive contribution to the debate. Along with other Members of the House, I look forward to further contributions from the noble Lord. He speaks with a knowledge and authority that will help in our deliberations.
The noble Lord asked a number of questions. He asked first about personation. Clearly, that has been a problem in Northern Ireland for some time, and the Government are determined to act on the matter. We have already taken steps for the referendum—for example, increasing the scrutiny period for absent voting applications to 14 days, so as to give the chief electoral officer more time in which to stamp out abuse. The elections order under this Bill will apply that longer scrutiny period. It will also tighten up arrangements for absent voting on medical grounds, which has been one of the alleged abuses in the system in Northern Ireland. The Government's election review is due to report later in the summer. It will point the way to further steps for ensuring that elections are fair and democratic.
I am grateful for the points made by the noble Lord as regards intimidation. It is a serious offence under electoral law. I am sure that the police will have 663 everyone's support in any action they take to prevent examples of this type of unlawful activity. The eyes of the world will be on the election in Northern Ireland. I hope that anyone seeking to intimidate voters will be seen to do their cause far more harm than good.
The noble Lord also asked whether ballot papers could indicate whether the member of the party concerned supported or opposed the agreement. I think he was referring to individual candidates and not the party as a whole. That would be a significant departure from usual practice. We leave it to the parties and the candidates to describe themselves and present their policies at election time. It would be very difficult to depart from that arrangement in Northern Ireland. Most parties make it clear where they stand, and I am sure they will do so. I am sure that individual candidates will also make their position clear. Indeed, to judge by the Northern Ireland newspapers recently, they are making their position abundantly clear. I do not believe that voters in Northern Ireland will be in any doubt as to where an individual candidate stands as regards his or her support for or opposition to the agreement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, asked a number of questions. She asked about the Parades Commission. I am sure that noble Lords will realise that the commission has recently faced extremely difficult tasks. The North Report recommended that the commission should issue a non-binding initial view on a series of contested parades. That recommendation attracted considerable support, both here and in another place. The commission recognised the political sensitivities to which such an initial view might give rise, particularly at the present time. It postponed issuing its view once to prevent an adverse impact on the Stormont talks. The Prime Minister wrote to the chairman of the Parades Commission suggesting that an initial view could sensibly be postponed, given the political circumstances, but the chairman of the commission, Alistair Graham, was free to accept or reject that advice. He is entirely independent in his role as chairman of the commission. That he chose to accept the advice in this instance is to be welcomed. I believe that everyone in the House appreciates the difficulties that the parades issue raises in Northern Ireland and the very difficult tasks that the Parades Commission has in exercising its role in an independent fashion. I am sure that the commission will have widespread support.
The noble Baroness also referred to the 125 extra public servants. These are the extra posts which are necessary for the new assembly. It may well be that other posts will disappear in the process. If we can make savings by releasing other people, of course we shall do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to election regulations. It is standard practice for such details to be set out in secondary legislation rather than cluttering up primary legislation with them. The elections order, which will follow shortly, will contain provisions on such matters as deposits. Your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate these matters in detail.
My noble and right reverend friend Lord Sheppard made an interesting contribution on the role of the Churches. He set a very optimistic and helpful tone for 664 the way in which Northern Ireland is moving forward. I hope that people in Northern Ireland will follow it. It was helpful for him to put on record the views that he expressed.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, also made a helpful contribution. I am grateful to him for his positive comments, including those relating to the economic boom that will follow in Northern Ireland once there is a prolonged period of peace. He spoke about the need to look at the agreement as a whole, and I very much welcome that. I hope I have given him some assurance as regards his comments about the RUC. I made my comments earlier because I believe what he said was important in relation to the need for widespread confidence in the RUC and any changes that may take place.
I now turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. He suggested that the assembly should have lesser powers. That may be his view, but we are talking about the agreement as a whole, and we have to abide by the decision made by the parties to the agreement. He suggested that the assembly might be too large. I think we had the answer to that from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who blamed the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for the size of the assembly. I do not wish to become involved in the argument, except to say that we have an assembly of a certain size and I believe that the people of Northern Ireland will want to make it work. It was again a compromise between different views and pressures. It will ensure that minority views in the community may have the chance to have a political voice.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, for having to leave the Chamber for a time when he spoke, but I was given the gist of his comments. He felt that civil servants were too powerful, and he was concerned about the role of quangos, a concern which I share. We shall have to see how the new assembly will deal with a number of quangos. In my experience, civil servants in Northern Ireland have behaved in an excellent and supportive manner. I have no quarrel with the broad generality of civil servants.
The noble Lord was also concerned about the use of the word "political". We say that criminals are criminals. Paramilitary organisations may have political motives, but that does not make them political in any way. I do not like the way in which the word "political" is used by some people to justify their actions. People with political motives who behave in a criminal way are criminals; that is the be-all and end-all of it.
The noble Lord also referred to electoral fraud, on which I have already commented.
The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was helpful and supportive in urging a "Yes" vote. I believe that I have dealt with the other points he made.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made a very important point when he said that he had put aside his reservations about prisoners for the greater good of Northern Ireland. I believe that that probably characterises the views of many noble Lords. Whatever reservations we have, we have put them aside for the greater good of Northern Ireland in order to have a proper outcome.
665 I take the point made by the noble Lord about the appallingly large number of members of the RUC who have given their lives over the past 30 years. I note his comment about the photographs which appeared recently in the Daily Telegraph.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked whether the agreement could be changed only by reconvening the participants. The key features of the agreement must come before your Lordships and the other place for consideration, and further legislation will follow. But I believe that we must respect the fact that this agreement has achieved support across communities in Northern Ireland, as I hope will be evidenced by the result of the referendum to be held shortly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, said that it was important that we should reassure ordinary people. Yes, that is absolutely vital. We must give assurance to the ordinary people in Northern Ireland that they will have a better and more secure future, free from threats of violence. The Government and, I hope, all the political parties in Northern Ireland will seek to give that reassurance.
I reject the idea that there are no-go areas for the RUC. There may be areas that are more difficult than others to police, but I do not believe that there are any no-go areas. The RUC is responsible for law and order throughout all parts of Northern Ireland. We certainly do not want a political police force. That would be anathema to people here and in Northern Ireland.
The noble Baroness asked about the difficulties that have existed in the past in relation to extradition from the Irish Republic. I recognise that that has been a problem, but the situation has been transformed in recent years. I can assure noble Lords that there will be the utmost co-operation in defeating those forces which seek to use terrorism to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland. In that context, I am sure that noble Lords will welcome the splendid work of the Garda in recent weeks in foiling a series of potentially deadly terrorist attacks. They have been particularly successful in recent weeks and many lives have been saved as a result.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, asked about qualifications for members of the assembly or whether any members would be disqualified. Those connected with serving a sentence of more than one year are disqualified, though sometimes the problem is obtaining the evidence to secure a conviction. Membership of the IRA and the LVF is illegal and therefore that would be another element leading to disqualification.
I welcome the contribution from my noble friend Lord Longford. He speaks with a history of many years' knowledge of Northern Ireland and, indeed, I believe he has been there more than any of us. I welcome his support for the Government's proposals in this respect.
I return to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, in relation to why we are calling it the "new" assembly. It was not New Labour, spin doctors 666 or anything like that; it is a much more prosaic explanation. There is already statutory provision for an assembly—the one set up in 1973. That provision must remain until this assembly assumes full powers because the 1973 legislation underpins the directorial powers. The name therefore came from officials rather than from any of the Labour Party's spin doctors. To make a distinction between the former assembly and the new one, we simply added the word "new".
I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, that a "No" vote would have appalling consequences for Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, speaks from the experience of being in the talks and having spent many hours and days—it probably seems like years—in helping to achieve the agreement that was obtained. I welcome his positive contributions, not only today but on other occasions. If I can avoid being partisan, I am sure that the voters of Northern Ireland will see to it that his merits are rewarded in the elections that follow—though perhaps I have gone a bit further than I should have done.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that he would sleep on the point in relation to the amendments he tabled as to whether he wants to move them. I hope that he sleeps well. I hear what he says about the single transferable vote and the system of PR. But that system has been agreed in Northern Ireland; it is what the parties to the agreement wanted and we must accept their wishes. However, in one phrase he summed up the debate and the Government's view: whatever its defects, this is the best deal that is available; and therefore I commend it to the House.
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way and also for his comprehensive reply to a full debate. However, will he comment on my question as to what action has been taken to prevent any more disruptive leaks from the Northern Ireland Office?
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. I missed that point when I was going through the various comments.
It is difficult to identify people who make leaks and there have been a number of damaging leaks over the years—some recently—from the Northern Ireland Office which seem to be calculated to undermine the very process that we have been discussing today. It is hard to identify people. Measures have been taken to seek to identify the sources of the leaks and to prevent their recurrence in the future. We have tightened up. However, it is impossible to run a system without a number of officials having access to papers. If one of them chooses to be so disloyal as to leak information, it cannot always be prevented. However, we are doing our best in that direction.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.