HL Deb 15 July 1999 vol 604 cc548-58

3.44 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"Madam Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on Northern Ireland. I start by paying tribute to the contribution made by the Deputy First Minister designate, the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh. Although his skills and oratory will be absent from the Assembly, they will not be absent from this House.

"On 2nd July, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister proposed, with the Taoiseach, a way forward to implement the Good Friday agreement—a way forward to secure both devolution and decommissioning, with a clear failsafe for both.

"This morning, as proposed on 2nd July, the Assembly met to select the departmental ministers to take office on devolution. Devolution would have followed on Sunday. The decommissioning process would then have begun within a period specified by the decommissioning commission—as General de Chastelain said on 2nd July, "literally within a couple of days". Actual decommissioning would then have followed to a timetable laid down by the commission—within weeks.

"If commitments on devolution or decommissioning had not taken place, there was a failsafe: parties would not have been expected to continue in government with those in default.

"As the House will know, the Ulster Unionist Party, Democratic Unionist Party and the Alliance Party chose this morning not to nominate any member to ministerial office. All parties have agreed on the principle, under the Good Friday agreement, of an inclusive Executive exercising devolved powers. With the UUP not nominating Ministers, it was clear beyond doubt that such an inclusive Executive could not he formed.

"I therefore acted immediately to undo the appointment of Ministers designate, since the requirement for a cross-community Executive had not been met. I will now take steps, with the Irish Government, to institute a formal review under the Good Friday agreement. Discussions will continue. My right honourable friend the Member for Torfaen and I will continue to be available to all the parties.

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minster will meet the Taoiseach next week to discuss the arrangements, agenda and time-scale for the review. It will take place under paragraph 4 of the review section of the agreement and will involve the relevant parties. It will not be a review of the agreement itself but of its implementation. I expect the review to get under way after the main holiday season. People are tired and need a break.

"Earlier this week the House debated the Northern Ireland Bill, which creates the failsafe envisaged under the way forward proposals. We judged that it would help to reassure unionists and nationalists—but particularly unionists—that we were serious about the failsafe if we published the Bill and demonstrated that it was on its way to becoming law.

"I am grateful to the House for considering the Bill at such speed on Tuesday. We will not withdraw it, because it may well be that a failsafe on those lines will he necessary to underpin whatever way forward is eventually agreed. But the Bill will now not proceed on the emergency timetable this afternoon in the other place.

"I still believe that the way forward proposed by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach is a balanced approach that could have succeeded, but I do not seek to blame any party in the House this afternoon. The last thing that the people of Northern Ireland need now is an outbreak of recriminations. I believe that all those who supported the agreement when it was made genuinely want to see it implemented.

"The reality is that we either move forward together or we do not move forward at all. Today is a setback. It would be foolish to deny that, but it would be even more foolish to conclude that the Good Friday agreement cannot continue. Apart from those who have always opposed the agreement, no one is seriously suggesting an alternative way forward. There is still a wide measure of agreement on the issues that have divided people in the past: on the resolution of the fundamental constitutional question on the basis of consent; on a fully inclusive form of government, with both communities represented; on a fair and just society in which both traditions are respected and rights are safeguarded; on the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms in a manner determined by an independent commission; and the eventual normalisation of society.

"That is in my opinion a massive consensus which was inconceivable before the Good Friday agreement and which puts today's set-back—very serious as it is—in perspective.

"Most of all, I place my faith in the people of Northern Ireland. Over this summer, at the beginning of the parades period, in both communities, they have shown that the very strongest of disagreements can be expressed peacefully. For their sake, we, the Irish Government and all the Northern Ireland parties must not be disheartened. We must continue to work to implement the agreement the people have approved."

That concludes the Statement. With the leave of the House, I want to add my personal appreciation to your Lordships for the speed with which you were willing to deal with the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill yesterday.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in another place.

This is a sad day, but not one for recriminations and party politics. The day is made even sadder by the resignation of Mr Seamus Mallon of the SDLP. He was the Deputy First Minister. His resignation automatically triggers the resignation of the First Minister. The house is coming down further, which is very sad. I seriously regret Mr Seamus Mallon's decision. He has been a brave and hard-working member of the peace-seeking team. I hope that he will not stay on the touch-lines for too long.

As I made clear yesterday at the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill, my party still supports the Good Friday agreement and our bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland problem. However, I want to ask the Minister a few questions. Will he agree that, had some of the amendments tabled for debate today which were tabled in another place by my right honourable friend Mr Mackay or perhaps some of the amendments drawn up by the Government, which I have not yet seen, been accepted, we may not be where we are now?

Does the Minister agree that the heart of the problem lies in decommissioning by all the paramilitary groups? The problem is getting the bomb and the gun out of Irish politics. Will the Minister also agree that David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party have done all that could be expected of them? Can he confirm that the Prime Minister still stands firm in his stated belief that democrats cannot be expected to sit down with terrorists? Will the Minister comment on Dublin's role in the situation, and on where the Taoiseach stands on the vexed question of the Sinn Fein and the IRA being two sides of the same coin?

My right honourable friend Mr Peter Brooke in another place said that the time had come to steady the bus and keep cool. This is a sad day for Ulster, for the people of Ulster and for all those who have worked so hard to bring peace to my troubled homeland.

Perhaps I may suggest that today is not a day for political point-scoring or for apportioning blame, but for the serious work to begin again in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Government will agree that with hindsight the week of 12th July should not have been the first choice for negotiations of this nature. The summer months in Ulster are notoriously volatile. We understand that the Prime Minister has problems in another part of Europe which have caused significant interruption. Let us hope that in the cool of the autumn, patience, reason and good sense will lead us to the solution that is wanted by all.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, it is most regrettable that the whole process fell today. That was clearly brought about by the refusal of the Unionist Party to carry out its obligations under the Good Friday agreement in relation to the appointment of Ministers.

Noble Lords


Lord Redesdale

My Lords, can the Minister explain why this morning it was necessary to introduce a new Standing Order that would inevitably result in turning the procedures of the Assembly into a farce? Will the Minister accept that it was the Secretary of State's action in introducing that order that made it impossible for the Alliance Party, which is totally committed to making progress under the Good Friday agreement, to put forward the nominations for ministerial appointments? Will the Government make a commitment that in future their actions will be designed to assist those seeking to work constructively to implement the agreement, rather than chasing after those who are creating difficulties for the process?

After the extremely regrettable resignation of the Deputy First Minister, what is the status of Mr Trimble, the First Minister? Under what process will the elections take place in the next six weeks? The Statement referred to there being no alternative to going forward. We very much hope that in the autumn that will be the case.

As has been mentioned, this is not a time for point-scoring by political parties. However, as a commitment was made yesterday by the Opposition spokesman during the debate that the bipartisan agreement still holds, would the Minister agree that statements made in another place should he backed by actions?

3.55 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has spoken in support of Seamus Mallon. I totally agree with the noble Lord. I believe that Seamus Mallon has played—and will continue to play—a leading part in developing the peace process in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he will soon be back in a key position to take that process further. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord in regard to the Good Friday agreement.

I am not convinced that there would have been any material difference in the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party if the amendments had been passed. The Ulster Unionist Party was aware of what was happening and made the decision in terms of what it wanted to do last night and today.

Decommissioning continues to be a key obligation under the Good Friday agreement. Of course, we want that to happen as soon as possible. The relations between our Prime Minister and the Taoiseach continue to be excellent. They work in close co-operation, as evidenced by the fact that next week the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister will meet to discuss how the review, to which I referred earlier when quoting the Statement of the Secretary of State, should be conducted.

As regards whether July was a good time for this process, we have had, mercifully, a very peaceful couple of weekends. Therefore, the conditions in Northern Ireland were propitious for moving forward. I do not believe that July was a bad time at all for such matters. I believe that the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say, "Let's get on with it", otherwise the proceedings would have dragged on and on. Alas, at the moment we have not been able to conclude matters as we had hoped.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, whom I thank for his support, asked about the Standing Order. We and the parties want an inclusive government in Northern Ireland. The parties reaffirmed that in the first of the three principles agreed on 25th June. The Secretary of State, therefore, made an amendment to Standing Orders, stating that Ministers designate, appointed under the d'Hondt procedure, could continue to hold office only if the persons appointed included three designated nationalists and three designated unionists. That would not have happened under the procedures this morning when Ministers of only two parties—none of the unionist parties—were appointed under the d'Hondt procedure. The effect of the change to Standing Orders was to nullify those appointments. That is regrettable but, in the circumstances, inevitable and necessary.

I do not think that I can comment on the views of the Alliance Party. That party must speak for itself. It must say what it feels about the situation, although my understanding of what was said this morning in the Assembly by the leader of the Alliance Party suggests that that party would not have appointed a minister anyway. That may simply be my interpretation. Of course, the Government will emphatically go on working with and supporting the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly those that support the Good Friday agreement.

3.59 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I had hoped that we would today be discussing the amendments which were allegedly going to come from the other side of the building. I had seriously hoped that we would find some agreement with those amendments, which would have prevented the catastrophic events that happened in Northern Ireland earlier today.

I watched the television coverage of the opening of the Assembly and its eventual suspension. I must say that I felt very sad to see the passions and recriminations that have been unleashed because of the decision to abolish the Assembly. I am also saddened by what has been said about my former colleague, Seamus Mallon. I know that he has worked tirelessly to do everything that he could.

However, in all seriousness, I have something to say to my noble friend the Minister. In the Statement that he has just repeated, he said: There is still a wide measure of agreement on the issues which have divided people in the past". He then listed some of those issues, one of which was, the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms in a manner determined by an independent commission, and the eventual normalisation of society". It was the one issue of decommissioning which brought this whole process to an end. There was never any agreement on that issue since the agreement was signed. I cannot see how the Secretary of State can say that there has been a "wide measure of agreement".

When the review takes place, that is the one issue which should be tackled head on because, without resolving the issue on decommissioning, there will no hope of any progress, even after such a review.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I certainly agree that decommissioning is a crucial issue in terms of developing the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, when the Prime Minister spent five days in Northern Ireland, together with the Taoiseach, discussing the matter with the parties, it is my understanding that all the main parties agreed with the principle of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. That is certainly the basis on which the review will take place. Clearly, we must wait the outcome of the review to see how the parties respond to those discussions.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, in view of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, I wonder whether the Minister could help the House and tell us whether the Prime Minister contacted the Taoiseach during the course of yesterday and shared with him the contents of the three amendments which, apparently, the Prime Minister was suggesting at a certain stage—the text of which I do not think has been made available to the House. If he did contact the Taoiseach and discuss the content of the amendments with Dublin, can the Minister tell us what reaction the Prime Minister received?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am very sorry, but I cannot help the noble Viscount. I know that the Prime Minister has been in touch with the Taoiseach frequently, just as his staff have been touch with the staff of the Taoiseach in recent days. However, I cannot say whether the specific amendments were discussed and I certainly cannot say what the response of the Taoiseach was in that situation.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Does my noble friend the Minister accept that there is a total sense of desolation among most of us in the House that this great opportunity has been lost? When planning future relationships, will my noble friend bear in mind—and ask the House to do likewise—that all the violence has not come from one side, and that it is not helping the decommissioning process to assume that it has? For example, is my noble friend aware of the figures that I have obtained from the Northern Ireland Office which show that, since the Good Friday agreement, there have been 51 shootings by Loyalists compared to 41 shootings by Republicans and 124 terrorist activities by the Loyalists compared to 65 by the Republicans—in fact, half? I do not in any way seek to condone violence by either side; but, please, can we avoid hysteria and get this into proper balance?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the question she has asked and for the points she has made. Yes, there has been a level of violence by paramilitary organisations and it has been somewhat greater by Loyalist paramilitary organisations in the recent past than by Republican paramilitary organisations. Of course, all that should stop on both sides.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, one can well understand the frustration felt by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and, indeed, by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has been so patient with us in recent weeks. Indeed, all of them have sacrificed a good deal of their collective time on these very difficult discussions. To avoid a repetition of this collapse, could we all, quietly and soberly, give consideration to a more modest beginning next time—something perhaps akin to the Wales pattern? Then, in due course, we could perhaps add on a legislative tier. However, at all costs, I emphasise that we must seek to avoid top-heavy legislative structures because they always have an in-built self-destruct system.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am sure that the parties in Northern Ireland will take note of what the noble Lord has said. However, the Good Friday agreement was not something in the gift of the Government or determined by the Government alone; it was the result of long negotiations and was agreed by most of the parties in Northern Ireland. Clearly, the review will involve all the parties in the Assembly in Northern Ireland and we must wait to see the outcome. I am certainly in favour of a quiet and sober approach.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I think that it is reasonable to say that, right from the beginning, this decommissioning issue has been the bugbear. For understandable reasons, people thought that we would solve the easy questions first. That is a very human reaction. The issue of decommissioning has been rearing its ugly head and it is getting bigger and bigger; indeed, it has now brought the process to a halt. Surely the difference between Protestant violence and Catholic violence, for want of better phrases—no one condemns either more than I so—is that the people who represented the Republican violence in the Assembly were not prepared to accept decommissioning. They had to do that. If the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, or myself were serving as local authority councillors, we would not want to sit down with people who have guns. It is impossible; you cannot ask people to do so. That has been visible for a long time. Therefore, when we go forward, can we make absolutely certain that no one comes into such an assembly without saying, "I give up guns. Here are the guns that I hold illegally"? Without that, it is not going to work.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, in the complications of the peace process in Northern Ireland, it is of course understandable that the parties would move, first, to deal with the easy questions. That was not a bad thing because it led to the development of trust. Certainly, the trust in Northern Ireland between the parties and the communities is, I suggest, much better than it was at the beginning of the peace process started by the government, of whom the noble Earl was a member—

Noble Lords


Lord Dubs

My Lords, perhaps I have, inadvertently, promoted the noble Earl; I meant to say that he was a supporter of that government.

Without any equivocation, I can say that it is an obligation on all the paramilitary parties that they should decommission. That is a clear obligation under the Good Friday agreement, and they will have to do so.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords—

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government now recognise that there is no such thing as "failsafe" in Northern Ireland? Can he tell us whether future plans will be based on that? In addition, there is much conversation about the fact that democrats cannot sit down with people who have guns. However, people in almost all the local councils in Northern Ireland have been doing this for some time. Can the Minister tell us what the difference is, other than the glory, if it applies to Stormont?

In his speech, although not in the Statement that he repeated, the Minister said that he was sure that Seamus Mallon would be back soon. Does he have any facts to confirm that belief?

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her three questions. I expressed the hope that Seamus Mallon would be back soon because of the contribution that he has made and the enormous contribution that I am sure he will continue to make to the peace process in Northern Ireland. My remarks were not based on fact, but on hope.

As regards a failsafe measure, we intend to consider the Northern Ireland Bill that we discussed yesterday and come back to it at the appropriate time. In so far as the noble Baroness used the word "failsafe" to apply to that Bill, we believe that it may still have a part to play in the future movement towards a devolved Assembly on the lines of the debate that we had yesterday.

As regards the noble Baroness's final point, which I think is an important one, I believe that in about 20 of the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland, Unionist politicians and Sinn Fein politicians sit together. They have been elected together and they sit together along with members of the SDLP and other parties. The question that the noble Baroness asked is not only one for me but for the politicians in Northern Ireland. The fact is that there has been good co-operation across the board on many district councils in Northern Ireland. In a symbolic way, that augurs well for the future of the peace process—if I can utter a word of optimism on a somewhat depressing day.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Denton. I did not see that her hand was raised. We are all delighted to see her here and to hear her speak. I wonder whether noble Lords opposite realise how heartened we were on this side of the House when on the Front Bench the bipartisanship towards this thorny question was revealed firmly and with no doubt. I wonder too—I say this without making any political point whatsoever—how difficult it was, after hearing that statement, to note that every speech that was made from the Official Opposition Benches criticised the Bill and supported in great measure the point of view of the Unionist parties. It can only be helpful for me not to say any more about that.

However, I express with great humility the hope that we manage to resurrect the peace process with the full help of the Official Opposition, and welcome anything that they can do to assist, whether by supporting our view or by all parties coming together in Northern Ireland, without, as I say, giving them the opportunity to say that there is a division between the Government and the Opposition.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. This is not the day for recriminations or apportioning blame. I think that we had a clear statement yesterday from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, the Official Opposition Front Bench speaker. He affirmed completely the continuation of a bipartisan policy. That is important and I was delighted to hear him reaffirm that. If we play party politics here, we damage peace in Northern Ireland. It is on that basis that the Labour Party supported the Conservative government in their policies in Northern Ireland. I am grateful that the noble Lord has confirmed that the Opposition will from now on do likewise.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree very much with what the noble Lord has just said. But at the risk of being misinterpreted by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, I have three real regrets, not recriminations. The first one is that the villains of the piece, who ought to be central to our concerns, are the paramilitaries and the dogged refusal of Sinn Fein/IRA to give a public commitment on decommissioning. My second regret is that much of the blame is being laid personally at the door of Mr Trimble and more generally with his colleagues in the Unionist Party. I believe that our fire ought to be preserved for the paramilitaries. Thirdly, I think that it is a great pity that we were not given an opportunity to see the amendments, preferably at the stage when the Bill was in the Commons, because I believe that might have made a great difference to the outcome and that today might have been very different.

My specific questions follow on from the remarks of my noble friend Lord Cranborne. If the Minister is unable to tell us whether the amendments were seen by, and discussed with, the Taoiseach, will he tell us whether they appeared in print anywhere; and if they did, was Mr Trimble allowed to see them in order to strengthen his hand to argue for the safeguards that he wanted inside the Bill so that this process could proceed in a positive way? That would have strengthened his hand when he met his colleagues last night.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, as regards the amendments, the Government were working on them until pretty late yesterday, but at that point it was clear that they would be inappropriate for today because of developments in Belfast. Hence they were not brought forward. I am afraid that I do not know whether they were discussed in detail with David Trimble. I think that he was well aware of the thrust of the Government's thinking. We could not have brought the amendments forward on the day that the other place debated the Bill because they arose directly from speeches made by the right honourable Member for Huntingdon and the right honourable Member for Upper Bann. Their two speeches were particularly influential and we sought to devise amendments which would reflect at least some of the comments made in those speeches. Therefore, I think that the noble Baroness will appreciate why it would have been difficult for us to move faster than we were setting out to do.

As regards blame, I have not blamed anyone. I have not blamed any of the politicians in Northern Ireland. I certainly do not blame Mr Trimble. I think that he has been a brave man. He has been helpful in the peace process and I very much hope that he will be able to continue to help in the peace process and move it forward. I certainly express my appreciation for what he has attempted to do over recent years.

As regards the paramilitaries, of course people who use guns and bombs against innocent people are to be condemned absolutely. We have lost no opportunity to condemn the paramilitaries on both sides. But the point of the peace process is precisely to persuade the paramilitaries to have a cease-fire. Most of the paramilitary organisations are on cease-fire. I have no reason to think that they will not continue to be on cease-fire. Some of the paramilitary organisations are not on cease-fire at present. I very much hope that they will decide to adopt a cease-fire because that is the best context in which we can move forward with the peace process, move forward with setting up the Assembly, and move forward with decommissioning.

I add one further point on the amendments. The Prime Minister described the amendments in general terms during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday in the other place. Therefore, Mr Trimble was aware in broad terms of what was intended.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister very quietly remind all participants to the situation that, in this as in other attempts to settle with terrorism, peace has a price? That price may be unpalatable. The decision to refuse to pay it may be legitimate, but it too carries consequences. Will he ask all concerned to think of those consequences very carefully and then think again?

Lord Dubs

Yes, my Lords. I agree with what the noble Earl has said. We always made it clear that the peace process would be difficult, that we would be asking a great deal of all the participants. We accept that it will go on being difficult, and we shall go on asking a great deal of all the participants, in the fervent hope that they will take the noble Earl's point and move forward for the greater good of all the people of Northern Ireland.