HL Deb 09 March 1999 vol 598 cc193-201

7.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order provides the statutory underpinning for the six implementation bodies which the Fist and Deputy First Ministers agreed on 18th December and which were reported to the Assembly on 18th January and 15th February. The bodies relate to inland waterways, food safety, trade and business development, special EU programmes, language, and aquaculture and marine matters. They will be established by treaty made between the British and Irish Governments. The treaty was signed in Dublin yesterday by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Irish Foreign Minister. It will take effect when my right honourable friend authorises the transfer of powers to the new Assembly. A copy of the treaty is at Schedule 1 to the order.

Your Lordships will recall that under the terms of the Good Friday agreement the two governments were required to make all the necessary legislative and other enabling preparations to ensure that the initial implementation bodies function at the time of the inception of the British-Irish agreement and the transfer of powers. This order, and the treaty, will allow the Government to meet that commitment.

The House will also be aware that in January my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced her intention to ensure that all the necessary legislative and other preparations for devolution were completed by 10th March. Again, this legislation is timed to allow the Government to deliver on that commitment.

On the issue of timing, I should like to apologise to the House for the uncertainty surrounding the bringing forward of this order. I am aware that your Lordships have had less time than usual to prepare for tonight's debate. As I hope the House will understand, however, the timing was dependent on negotiations which were only brought to a conclusion over the weekend.

I do not want to take up too much of the House's time with my introductory remarks. In particular, I do not think I need trouble the House with lengthy explanations about the various implementation bodies, details of which are contained in the articles and schedules to the order. Instead, I have arranged for an explanatory note to be placed in the Library of the House. Otherwise I would explain only that the order and its associated schedules deal with important matters as to how the various bodies will be structured and how they will operate, including their functions, annual reports and accounts, grants, accountability, finance and staffing.

There are two other points that I wish to emphasise. First, the order reflects the agreement reached between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Irish Government about how the bodies should operate. The order and the treaty are the outcome of detailed discussions over recent weeks and represent the practical way forward for the agreement reached on 18th December. After devolution the British Government will, of course, have no role in the day-to-day operation of these bodies.

Secondly, I have already mentioned the timing of today's debate; it will allow the Government to meet their commitment to complete the necessary legislative preparations for devolution by tomorrow, 10th March. This was an important target date. This date was set back in January so as to ensure that we maintained maximum momentum behind the agreement. If your Lordships approve the order today, the legislative preparations for devolution will be complete. This will therefore be an important part of the process, as was recognised by the Front Bench spokesman for the official Opposition during yesterday's debate in another place.

The leader of the Ulster Unionists also described the order as, a significant step forward in the implementation of the agreement". My right honourable friend the Secretary of State had also hoped that 10th March could be the day when she would authorise the transfer of powers to the Assembly. Under Section 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 she is empowered to do that if it appears to her that, sufficient progress has been made in implementing the Belfast Agreement". Regrettably, she concluded yesterday that that was not the case. As your Lordships will be aware, my right honourable friend announced that 10th March would not be the best time to run d'Hondt and thus appoint the executive.

During recent consultations with the parties, she had heard differing views: some wanted the running of d'Hondt to be delayed; others wanted it to go ahead immediately. All those who support the agreement remain committed to achieving full implementation of all its aspects as quickly as possible. All said they wanted to move forward on an inclusive basis. But, in the light of the differing views expressed, my right honourable friend concluded that if the d'Hondt procedure were to be run tomorrow it would not produce an effective Executive on which both communities would be represented. Some parties feared that running d'Hondt at that time might collapse the process.

In announcing her judgment, the Secretary of State also said that the decision could not be put off indefinitely. She therefore announced that she would be calling a meeting of the Assembly for the purposes of running the d'Hondt procedure no later than the week beginning 29th March; that is the week of Good Friday. This will give the parties the time and space to find a way forward. Many will be visiting the United States. There will be opportunities to build confidence and talk informally together, ready for an intensive round of discussions when they return to Belfast.

As my right honourable friend acknowledged, yesterday's announcement was disappointing. But, at the same time, with determination and courage on all sides, it is still possible to take the next steps to bring the agreement to fruition. We will be working closely with the Irish Government and all other supporters of the agreement to find a constructive way forward.

It is against this background that we are considering this order today. It will complete the legislative preparations for the new institutions under the agreement. The implementation bodies will, of course, operate fully in accordance with the terms of the agreement. This is spelt out in the treaty. Ministers in the North/South Ministerial Council responsible for the various bodies—or any additional bodies that they may decide to establish by agreement in future—will be fully accountable to the Assembly and Oireachtas.

Mechanisms to ensure proper accountability and transparency were included in the Northern Ireland Act last year. These include the requirement that the Executive Committee and the Assembly should be notified of the dates and agendas for meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. And, of course, Northern Ireland Ministers will be accountable to the Assembly for their actions in the North/South Ministerial Council in the same way as they will be for their other responsibilities. By law, Assembly Ministers participating in the North/South Ministerial Council will be required to act in accordance with decisions of the Assembly or the Executive Committee.

Northern Ireland Ministers will also require Assembly approval of any decisions that go beyond their defined authority; and any agreement in the North/South Ministerial Council which requires new legislation will require the support of the Assembly. Also, no agreement to establish a new implementation body can come into operation without the specific approval of the Assembly.

What we have here, therefore, is a balanced package of measures to enhance North/South co-operation. The bodies will operate in a clear framework of democratic accountability, as defined in the agreement, supporting legislation and the procedures of the Assembly. These bodies, and any further bodies that may be agreed in the North/South Ministerial Council, will provide a foundation for close co-operation between the Northern Ireland administration and the Irish Government.

This order provides the statutory basis for the six agreed implementation bodies and is an important part of the path to peace in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved. —(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I wish to congratulate the Government, Ministers and their officials on what must have been an extremely intense period of work which was very detailed, very delicate and very sensitive. It was carried out, as we learn, during negotiations, or reflecting negotiations, that extended even to two days ago. The First Minister designate and the Deputy First Minister—who, as we have just heard from the Minister, played an important part in the negotiations with the Irish Government—also deserve our congratulations. In consequence, they have all met the deadline established in the agreement for putting in place the legislative framework that underpins or supports devolution.

It was important that they should do that. It was important that the governments should show that they left nothing for later completion, not least so that Republicans should have no arguable case for claiming that either government had dragged their feet in implementing their part of the agreement.

Whatever one may think about the influence of mutilation or so-called "punishment attacks"—one is glad to note that they at least appear to have abated—by common consent one overwhelming element of the agreement remains unimplemented; that is, of course, the obligation on the paramilitaries to decommission. In the context of the Assembly we are concerned notably with Sinn Fein and the IRA. In that regard there has been a failure to decommission arms and explosives, and a failure even to commence the process. The argument is well understood—too well understood—and rehearsed and needs no lengthy exposition. I notice that in another place someone vividly encapsulated it yesterday by saying that one cannot claim to be a legislator in a democracy during the day and a field marshal at night. The reason is surely this: people cannot be expected to sit down and share legislative tasks and risk being told that they only yielded a point in an argument out of a fear that carefully retained weapons may be used. Indeed, there may well be a temptation to yield to such a threat. The Assembly must be rooted in confidence. The Assembly would not hold the confidence of the public were there to be any weakening on that point.

Out of one's intense desire to see the agreement fully implemented and put in place and to see things moving on to completion, there is a risk of feeling that, because this is a single point—it may be described as a small point in volume terms—the issue can be fudged. I suggest that is not the way in which this issue should be regarded. Its importance is not proportionate to the text that it takes up in the agreement.

Although the Secretary of State put back the deadline for summoning the Assembly for the implementation of the running of the d'Hondt procedure until the week beginning 29th March and one must respect her judgment, Republicans must know—not least because of the stand taken and stuck to by the Taoiseach—that on this there is no more "give" to be had. There is no more movement—and, my goodness, there has been plenty—to be had from those representing Unionists in Northern Ireland. Nor, I judge, is there any movement from the two governments.

I look back over the years and note in particular the extraordinary progress of a political character that has been made in Northern Ireland and pay full tribute to the present Government's substantial part in it. However, I feel that it has been progress of greater political value to nationalists than to Unionists. It seems not only astonishing but also, I fear, deeply suspicious that it can be put to the hazard in this way. We all share in the intense hope to which the Minister referred that, in the breathing space the Secretary of State has accorded to the parties, the Republicans will do what from all sides—east, west and internationally—they are being urged to do.

Meanwhile, when we are looking at the provenance of these new bodies, it is proper to recall not just the courage of Mr. Trimble and Mr. Mallon but also the earlier far-sightedness of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, who saw the value of Dublin and Belfast making common cause in areas of common interest—there are so many of them. He also saw the soothing value, if I may put it in that way, of putting north-south co-operation in the context of a geographically wider British-Irish relationship and the importance of making any new co-operative bodies accountable both to an assembly in the north and to the Oireachtas in the south. The noble Lord—it is only because of the shortage of notice that he is not in his place—and in part the previous administration were perhaps before their time in that regard. But I believe that we can all take much satisfaction from the arrangements that are before us today.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the order and also for the background to it that he gave the House. I am extremely glad that it has been made possible to complete all the necessary arrangements by the required date. I accept the Minister's apologies and I agree that it was necessary to move quickly. The order certainly has been on or off. The disadvantage of moving quickly is that it is difficult to have full consultation on matters such as the lighthouse authorities which Mr. Trimble mentioned in another place last night. However, we need to strike a balance between the need to consult and the need to have the order in place today. I note that page 39 of the order, which covers lighthouses, refers to the need for further legislation. I hope that it will be possible to have full consultation beforehand.

Noble Lords will recognise that the order very nearly completes the jigsaw of implementing the Belfast agreement in full. We should leave no excuse for paramilitaries not to decommission. I am grateful for the comments of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew on that point. Almost all parties to the agreement have met their obligations. They have all acted in good faith and the Secretary of State has bent over backwards to accommodate them. All parties have worked tirelessly, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew observed, but one piece of the jigsaw is missing. I refer to decommissioning. It has to happen and it has to happen soon.

I agree with the Minister's comments about starting the d'Hondt process. There would be no point in starting the process if we knew that it could not work.

We welcome the order. The Minister mentioned the need to maintain momentum. I totally agree with that. I hope that we can get the last piece of the Belfast agreement in place, and quickly.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, our new Front Bench spokesman, my noble friend Lord Redesdale, had, unfortunately, when the debate was announced, already arranged to be in the Province. While that might seem to be a good illustration of the pulling power of the soon-to-be-devolved responsibilities envisaged in the order and the diminishing power of Westminster, I can assure your Lordships that that is not the case. It was merely the unfortunate shortness of time in the announcement of the debate. It has fallen to me to present the Liberal Democrat response to the order.

I reaffirm that we on these Benches remain fully committed to the Good Friday agreement. Although the process of implementing the agreement was never going to be easy, implementing it remains by far and away the best hope for continued progress in Northern Ireland. Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, we regret that so little has been done on the decommissioning issue and that it has been necessary to postpone the calling day for the new Assembly. Nevertheless, we wholly endorse the actions of the Secretary of State and hope that they may prove to be fruitful in this respect. Likewise, we wholeheartedly support the order, which descends directly from the Good Friday agreement.

I should like to pay tribute to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland for managing to reach agreement on the number and form of the six new bodies described in the order. Given the political pressures they have been under, and continue to be under, that was no mean feat. Coming as it did just before Christmas, its announcement was inevitably lost in the celebration of Christmas. That was a shame. The British and Irish governments also deserve praise for their part in facilitating the agreement, and in particular for fleshing out of what was a broad accord into the detailed proposals we have before us today. It is testimony to the diligence of those who have sought to detail every part of the agreement on the six bodies that we have such a volume of paper to support the order. However, it is the details that will determine the success or otherwise of the arrangements.

I should like to raise two small points relating to the bodies established by the order. First, with regard to the funding of the bodies, the order empowers the new Northern Ireland assembly to determine how much money it wishes to allocate to the new bodies. That is subject to the constraint set out on page 11 of the order that the bodies shall be funded in accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday agreement on the basis that they constitute a necessary public function. While that constraint is encouraging, it does not close off the possibility that funding for one or more of these bodies could become lopsided, with more coming from the government of the Republic than from the Assembly in Belfast, or vice versa. If funding were to become uneven in that way, it could influence the way in which the bodies operate and, perhaps more to the point, raise fears that it might do so. That, in turn, could retard seriously the effectiveness of the bodies. The best way to avoid that potential problem would be for the Belfast Assembly and the Dublin Government to agree that funding for the bodies should be split evenly between them. I welcome any comments on that suggestion that the Minister might have or any thoughts on his part as to how it is envisaged that the burden of funding the new bodies should fall between the two authorities.

Secondly, I have a specific point about the new body set up to deal with the special EU programmes. The United Kingdom has a relatively poor record within Europe of taking up what is ours as of right. Opportunities to make the best of EU funding programmes have frequently been lost because the British Government have been unwilling to put up matching funds. These matching funds are often necessary before European moneys can be allocated. Consequently, no investment has occurred. With the role of procuring special funds from Europe being devolved to this all-Ireland body, it may be that the problem could get worse as the London Government are distanced further from the process. The further away they are in bureaucratic terms, the less committed London may become.

If that were to happen, it could be very unfortunate indeed. I do not need to explain how vital some of the EU special funding programmes are to Northern Ireland. I should therefore welcome an assurance from the Minister that every effort will be made to ensure that, where matching funds are required before a programme can commence, they will be made available when necessary.

The order before the House is testimony to the fine working relationship that has developed between the British and Irish governments. I hope that the new bodies established by the order will benefit similarly from such a happy working relationship, both between the Belfast executive and the Irish Government and in themselves. They are an important beginning in establishing new relationships between North and South. From these Benches we wish them well.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful for the support that has come from the speakers in this debate. The Government welcome the positive comments made.

Perhaps I may make a few brief observations. I very much agree with many of the remarks made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. In so far as the Government have been successful in our policies in Northern Ireland, we have built on foundations to which the noble and learned Lord himself made a significant contribution. That has to be acknowledged. When we took office, much of the groundwork had already been prepared; the noble and learned Lord had been assiduous in doing that.

I understand and sympathise with the noble and learned Lord's comments about the need to meet deadlines. The experience of the Good Friday agreement and the various negotiations that took place indicated that setting Northern Ireland politicians deadlines means that they are more likely to reach agreement than if one gives them all the time in the world to negotiate. It was with that type of discipline in mind that the Secretary of State set one deadline—that was not possible; but that is why she set another deadline of about three weeks' time. It clears the mind and is a helpful way of encouraging local politicians in Northern Ireland to move forward from the position in which they now find themselves.

I very much agree with the noble and learned Lord about the enormous contribution made to the process by both the First Minister designate and the Deputy First Minister designate, and over many years by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. I am sorry that the noble Lord was not able to be present this evening. I also agree that fudging is not a helpful way forward. It will be very much up to the local parties in Northern Ireland to move forward. However, I believe that they understand the need to do so in a clear-cut manner.

I wish to comment about paramilitary attacks and beatings. Such attacks are appalling. The noble and learned Lord said that they had abated somewhat, and I believe that they have. However, as I said on an earlier occasion, one paramilitary beating, shooting or mutilation is one too many. None of us can be relaxed, and I know that the noble and learned Lord certainly is not while there are any such incidents at all, even though some abatement is clearly to be welcomed.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked about the Commissioners of Irish Lights. It is a matter in which I understand the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is also interested. Perhaps I may briefly explain the position. First, I warmly acknowledge the work that the Commissioners of Irish Lights have put in over the years. They have put in a great deal of work, and it has been very successful. I pay tribute to them.

The new Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission will become the general lighthouse authority for the whole of the island of Ireland. The change will require changes to the Merchant Shipping Act to make the body the lights authority. The lights function of the new body will continue to be funded by the General Lighthouse Fund. It will, however, take some time to prepare the necessary new financial arrangements and to consult the various interests before bringing forward legislation. The commissioners will be fully consulted and their experience will be invaluable in developing the new arrangements.

The treaty and the draft order provide for enabling arrangements to be drawn up before the date of devolution or as soon as possible thereafter. I should like to say that that can be done within a week or two, but it is likely to take some months for these steps to be taken and the Commissioners of Irish Lights will remain the lights authority in the meantime. The new body will have two agencies; one for loughs, dealing with Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough, and one for lights. The existing staff of the Commissioners of Irish Lights will transfer to the new body and all their rights will be protected. The chief executive at the time of the transfer will be the chief executive of the lights agency. None of this, however, will happen until the Merchant Shipping Act is amended by primary legislation at Westminster. Clearly, there will then be an opportunity for consultation in the process of reaching that legislative stage. I hope that the noble Lord is reasonably reassured by that.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I am reassured. I thank the Minister.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, perhaps I may now turn to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. She asked two specific questions. The first related to the funding of the implementation bodies. In the end it will be a matter for the two governments. It could be unbalanced as between the Northern Ireland and the Republic administrations. It may be that the best way, as the noble Baroness suggested, is that the funding should be split equally.

Initial funding for the first year will be a matter for the British and Irish Governments. Thereafter it will be a matter for the Northern Ireland administration, on the one hand, and the Irish Government, on the other, to decide on the amount and split of the funding. I hope that the various parties concerned will take note of the points made by the noble Baroness. It is clearly important that these bodies should have a sound and equitable funding basis.

The noble Baroness also asked about EU funding. She made one or two points which go rather wide of the order regarding the Government's approach to funding. I am not sure that I agree with her; however, perhaps we may leave that debate for another day. As regards EU funding in the context of this debate, it is essentially a matter for the two national governments. Both Governments, and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, are presently negotiating with Europe to obtain the best deal for Northern Ireland. Additionality will therefore depend on the shape of the final programme. I could throw in words such as "Objective 1", "peace and reconciliation money" and so on. We do not know what will be the outcome of the negotiations. However, I take the noble Baroness's point that it is important for Northern Ireland, as indeed it is for the UK as a whole, that maximum benefit is gained from EU money. Indeed, the fact that an implementation body has been set up on this particular point makes it clear that both Northern Ireland politicians and politicians in the Republic regard the issue as important.

I repeat my thanks for the support that we have received. This is an important step on the way to long-term and permanent peace in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.