HL Deb 30 November 1999 vol 607 cc723-52

3.15 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 29th November be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointed Day) Order 1999, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th November, be approved.

I believe that this debate is a great occasion for Northern Ireland, in a week which will see enormous change for the better in that Province. For the past 30 years, Northern Ireland has been known throughout the world as a place of conflict, of deep-rooted division, prejudice and sectarian violence. That is changing, and today we take another step along the road to peace and a new partnership.

The Good Friday agreement reached on 10th April last year in Belfast is the solid foundation for that partnership, and the appointment of new Assembly Ministers last night is a further expression of the desire of the Northern Ireland political parties to build upon it. The people of Northern Ireland can look forward to the new century with fresh hope and confidence, and to the opportunity to build a stable and prosperous future.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has now determined, as he is required to do by Section 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, that sufficient progress has been made to set the date for the devolution of power to the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is therefore my very great privilege to present to the House an order which will bring into effect devolution for Northern Ireland, based on the Good Friday agreement. This order specifies 2nd December as the day on which devolution will take place in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will also bring into effect, by a separate order, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Commencement NI) Order, the remaining provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. From midnight tomorrow night power over a wide range of matters will be transferred to new Northern Ireland Ministers, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Secretary of State today signed two orders which established the ten new departments of the Assembly and transferred functions to them. The orders will come into force tomorrow. The departments will deal with matters such as health, education and training, agriculture, social and regional development, environment, trade, culture, arts and leisure. They will be led by the ten new Northern Ireland Assembly Ministers elected at Stormont yesterday. From Thursday the Assembly will be able to legislate freely on these areas of responsibility enabling people to make decisions, in partnership, about the administration of public services in Northern Ireland. Consequently, I will no longer have the responsibility of bringing legislation in these areas before this House.

Some areas of responsibility, for example policing, parades, prisons and criminal justice will, for the time being, remain reserved matters and the responsibility of the Secretary of State.

A new British-Irish Treaty will come into force on the same day, which will bring into being significant new North-South institutions, in place and functioning from 2nd December. And, most fundamentally of all, we shall have a settlement of the constitutional argument that has been at the root of the conflict in Northern Ireland: a settlement which provides for the question to be decided according to the principle of consent.

This principle does not require anyone to give up their legitimate political aspirations about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, but places the decision on Northern Ireland's future firmly in the hands of the people who live there.

Devolution on 2nd December will allow Northern Ireland to follow Scotland and Wales along the path to accountable regional government. It has taken longer than we hoped, but devolution is now finally in sight. Yesterday the Northern Ireland Assembly took another step on that path. Those Ministers appointed yesterday represent both main traditions in Northern Ireland; five are Unionist and five are Nationalist. I am sure the House will join me in wishing them all well in their task of managing the new Northern Ireland departments.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Dubs

My Lords, also on 2nd December, the new British-Irish agreement will also come into effect, following an exchange of notifications between the Governments. There will be a new North-South Ministerial Council and six new implementation bodies to handle specified North-South matters accountable to the Dail and the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Irish Government will immediately make a declaration that will bring into effect the amendments to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and our own amendments to the law on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will also come into force. The principle of consent will therefore be enshrined in the constitutional law of both countries.

Working together has been the key to securing the Good Friday agreement and to resolving the difficulties in its implementation. The fact that I am able to bring this order before the House today represents a real political achievement by the political leaders and parties in Northern Ireland. A year ago, some of those leaders would not meet, let alone co-operate in finding a way forward for Northern Ireland; yet in the recent review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, they met face to face, debated and negotiated intensively for 11 weeks.

The debates were friendly, and issues were often argued with conviction, but they were also, at the end of the day, real political negotiations between responsible politicians whose first concern was to find the best way forward for Northern Ireland. The new and better relationships between those political leaders show how much has changed for the better in Northern Ireland, and demonstrates that politics works; violence does not.

I know that there are those in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, including possibly some in this House, who remain sceptical. There is particular scepticism about decommissioning and concern about what the Government will do if it does not happen. I believe that it will happen. We have said throughout that we want devolution and decommissioning and we hold to that view. That is why the Secretary of State has said, publicly and in another place, that if there is default either in operating the devolved institutions or in decommissioning, the new institutions will be suspended. We shall ensure that no one profits by default.

If the institutions are suspended, our objective would be to restore the situation as quickly as possible, guided by the Good Friday agreement. During a period of suspension, direct rule would have to resume, but we would operate it sensibly, taking into account the views of the parties. But I believe that this will not be necessary. I believe that we have the support and good will of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland to make devolution work. Let us give it a chance. I hope that, whatever their misgivings, people, whether members of the public or political representatives, will now join in operating the new institutions for the common benefit.

Many people deserve gratitude for their part in creating this new opportunity for Northern Ireland. We must, first and foremost, acknowledge the vision and courage of the political leaders in Northern Ireland who have taken great risks to come this far. I believe that history will vindicate their judgment and their commitment. David Trimble has achieved for Unionism the approval of the Irish territorial claim, being sought by Unionists. As First Minister in the Assembly, he will continue to lead Unionism in the new devolved administration. Seamus Mallon rightly deserves the office of Deputy First Minister and will bring to that job the same qualities of vision and practical wisdom he demonstrated as leader of the SDLP negotiating team. John Hume has worked tirelessly to remove violence from Northern Ireland politics, and has seen that achieved in the Good Friday agreement. Gerry Adams, with political courage, has brought republicanism into inclusive power-sharing government and deserves credit for his effective leadership in achieving this.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have both invested enormous time and effort in resolving the political problems of Northern Ireland, and their close working relationship has been an important factor in our success. President Clinton, too, has provided unfailing support and assistance throughout the process. His involvement has been invaluable.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions made by the previous Prime Minister and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.

Most of all, we owe an enormous debt to Senator Mitchell, who agreed to take on the role of independent facilitator for the review of the implementation of the agreement. Senator Mitchell brought infinite patience, wisdom, determination and political skill, and it is due largely to his energy and commitment that I am able today to tell the House that devolution for Northern Ireland will at last become a reality and that the other aspects of the agreement will proceed. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our gratitude for his dedicated effort on our behalf. With the permission of the House, I should like to extend the gratitude to his wife Heather and young son Andrew, who have had to endure his absence in our service, often at short notice and great inconvenience, over a very long period.

Finally, perhaps I may make special mention of the Secretary of State and his predecessor, Mo Mowlam. Both have worked tirelessly to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and have endured much frustration and political criticism. This Thursday, 2nd December, will see their efforts crowned with success.

I can tell the House that if the order is approved tonight in this House and in another place, Her Majesty has agreed to hold a special Privy Council tomorrow when the order may be made.

Northern Ireland's history, although a short span of years, is not short of political events. Many of them will be familiar to this House. This order, although one of the shorter pieces of legislation I have brought to the House, marks one of the most significant of all these. It represents the triumph of normal democratic politics over violence as a means of accommodating different traditions and viewpoints in Northern Ireland; a new commitment, entrenched in the pledge of office taken by the new Northern Ireland Ministers, to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods.

There will of course be difficulties ahead. However, I am confident that the political representatives in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, working together, will overcome them and deliver peace and prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that this House will join me in wishing the new administration in Northern Ireland every success as it takes on its new responsibilities. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th November be approved.—(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I sincerely thank the Minister for moving this historic order. Today, we are taking another momentous step forward down the road to the culmination of the peace process in Northern Ireland, which was started by my right honourable friend John Major many years ago. Thanks to the patience and dexterity of Senator Mitchell, the support of President Clinton, various Prime Ministers and the determined courage and leadership of David Trimble and other party leaders, a political balance has been reached which allows the setting up of the Northern Ireland Executive and the devolution of power to the Province.

However, this is not the end of the process but, I suggest, the end only of phase one; and I am not convinced that the most difficult phase has yet been completed. David Trimble and the Unionists have jumped, but will Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams decommission? I suggest that the world is watching and waiting—hopefully. It is now for the British and Irish Governments to ensure that the decommissioning of all paramilitaries takes place as soon as possible.

The Conservative Party strongly supports the Belfast agreement, which we see as offering the best chance for lasting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. We have always made it clear that we want to see the agreement, which builds on a process we started in government, implemented in full. As a result, we warmly welcome the order. It finally brings to an end the system of direct rule from Westminster and once again enables Northern Ireland's priorities to be determined by locally elected representatives. In short, it returns the democratic principle to the people of Northern Ireland.

We now look forward to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, including the establishment of an inclusive, devolved government and the decommissioning of all illegally-held arms and explosives by May 2000.

The Conservative Party continues to believe that it is fundamentally wrong for democrats to be expected to sit in government with representatives of fully-armed terrorist groups. However, as my right honourable friend William Hague made clear in the debate on the Queen's Speech, we have always said that we could accept, the formation of an inclusive Executive alongside the beginning of a credible and verifiable process of decommissioning, leading to complete decommissioning by May 2000 in accordance with the Belfast Agreement".—[Official Report, Commons, 17/11/99; col. 17.] We believe that the statements made by the Northern Ireland parties and the Provisional IRA now offer the prospect of achieving the twin goals of decommissioning and devolution. In our view the formation of the Executive and the beginning of the process of decommissioning should begin virtually simultaneously.

However, there is a note of caution. The terrorist threat has not yet gone away and organised crime flourishes under cover of the various paramilitaries. A high level of security, policing and vigilance must remain in the Province, and, I suggest, on the mainland, despite the political problems that that may create. We must hope that Sinn Fein will encourage its constituents to support the forces of law and order in the Province for which it now shares responsibility in government.

I do not wish today to anticipate the debate on the Patten report, except to say that while many of the recommendations are not in dispute, there are some which are—such as the cap badge insignia and the name, to which we would not have recommended changes. However, there is a third category which, in our opinion, it would be dangerous folly to consider before there is a lasting peace. Those familiar with the report will know what those are and will be glad to hear that I do not intend to enunciate them today. We sincerely hope, however, that the Minister will reassure the House that the Patten report will be treated with the utmost sensitivity and caution. I suggest that the two fundamentals to be addressed are the need to maintain control of law and order and the need to win the support of the republican community to support the forces of law and order of the Province.

We passionately want the process to succeed and agree with the Secretary of State that we should be preparing for success not failure. However, in the event of any terrorist not delivering, we believe that the Secretary of State should give his full backing to the First Minister, David Trimble. Mr Mandelson told the House of Commons on 22nd November that, if there is default, either in implementing decommissioning, or indeed for that matter devolution, it is understood that the two Governments, British and Irish, will take the steps necessary to cease immediately the operation of the institutions—the Executive, the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, the Civic Forum and the north-south implementation bodies".—[Official Report, Commons, 22/11/99; col. 346.] We believe that in that situation the democratic process should not he allowed to cease and that the democrats should not be made to suffer. Will the Minister assure the House that that is the Government's intention?

In summary, we support the bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland; we support the Good Friday agreement; we support the Government's decision to devolve power to the Northern Ireland Assembly; and, while we support the Secretary of State's approach to the default mechanism, we ask him to ensure that in the event of a default—from wherever it may come—it will not be the democrats who suffer.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I rise on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to express our full support for the order and for the process which it implements. I should like greatly to join the tributes given already to Senator Mitchell and to the political leaders in Belfast, at Westminster, in Dublin and in the USA. I add one name to those already mentioned; that is, my noble friend Lord Alderdice, who is now the presiding officer of the Assembly. His Alliance Party is unfortunately not represented in the Executive, but it has for many years been a quiet and effective voice for peace, justice and sanity amid the fury and the shouting.

This is not an occasion for celebration. The time for celebration will come if and when we are ever able to get rid of the Byzantine complexities of Part III of the Northern Ireland Act and allow an executive to be formed on a more usual basis such as we know in this country. However, if this is not an occasion for celebration, it is certainly one for relief: relief that the peace process has got as far as it has in its voyage and has escaped the rocks which could so easily have smashed it. It is an occasion also for hope; hope that the process will continue and that the Act will provide and prove to provide a workable solution which will lead ultimately to the end not only of the violence which has scarred both Northern Ireland and Great Britain for the past 30 years but an end also to the hatreds which have divided Northern Ireland for four centuries.

Some concern has been felt about the holding of important offices by Martin McGuinness, in the case of the education department, and Peter Robinson in the case of the Department for Regional Development. I hope that the Minister will be able to say which checks and balances are in position to allay people's fears about actions by Ministers representing parties whose views are highly controversial. For example, is it correct that a cross-community committee will work with each Minister and that such a committee will have to approve secondary legislation? That is one matter on which I hope that we shall be able to obtain clarification. Broadly, we believe that these provisions are to be greatly welcomed as a step, and perhaps a crucial step, although clearly not the final step, towards a final settlement of the problems of that unhappy Province.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I, too, welcome this order and the constitutional changes that it brings to our Province. We are where we are today as a result of the courage and the amazing efforts of successive governments. I, too, wish to pay tribute to past governments, the present Government, Secretaries of State and the people of Northern Ireland. I pay tribute not least to Mr Mandelson, David Trimble and those who supported him last Saturday, which was all important. It is now up to Sinn Fein/IRA to come up with the goods—namely, decommissioning. It is wrong to dwell on that matter at this moment. Suffice to say that it is as easy for them to give up weapons as it is for them to refuse, and they should get on with it.

It is not only the Unionist politicians who have had to swallow the unpalatable and concede principle time and time again while Sinn Fein/IRA concede nothing. No one should underestimate what the ordinary people of the Province have had to put up with for so long. In addition, we now have Martin McGuinness as Minister of Education. It is often said, and it is right and true to say, that our future lies in the hands of the younger generation. Imagine the effect in Great Britain if such a post in Westminster were to be held by a terrorist godfather who has yet to prove that he has turned away from his past.

That is only one example among many of the extraordinary courage and trust being shown by the citizens of the Province in their fervent hope of a peaceful future. Remember that the loyalist and republican terrorists are only on ceasefire; they are not yet at peace for ever.

The future will be a difficult and hard road. I should like to mention one of the key issues which will affect how the future develops. In order to move forward we need to maintain a peaceful environment, although we must remember one essential fact: the terrorists still exist. Some observe the ceasefire and some do not; some are mainstream and some are dissidents.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Viscount. Does he agree that in recent times more Catholics have been killed by Protestants than Protestants have been killed by Catholics?

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl knows better than I. I do not have the facts at my fingertips.

We know the potential of the mainstream terrorists, but we must realise the potential of the dissidents. They are more sophisticated than they have ever been and in my view they are as strong in numbers as they were in 1972, the early days of the campaign. Your Lordships can see the potential problem, even if the mainstream on both sides decommission. What stands between us and catastrophe is the RUC, backed up by other security forces in the North and South of Ireland.

I congratulate the RUC on the award of the George Cross. That is a tremendous tribute to the outstanding service of members both past and present. I declare an interest in that my mother and elder sister were among the first to join the Women's Police Reserves.

Everyone knows something about the Patten report on policing in Northern Ireland. I do not want to go into it in great depth, but perhaps I can put a few things into perspective. First, Sinn Fein/IRA have demanded the dismantling of the RUC. Is that a surprise? If one asked the criminal underworld in any part of Great Britain for an opinion on their local police force, it would not be difficult to guess what their answer would be.

Secondly, there is the possibility of the change of name, badge and the times when the flag may be flown. Taken as a whole, changes of the kind suggested will simply lower the morale and operational efficiency to combat the known terrorist threat, let alone the everyday crime and law and order issues that continue at present and will continue even if there is peace.

Will such matters help recruitment? I think not. Even without those changes, recruitment from the Nationalist community is already rising at a remarkable speed. The percentage of Roman Catholics applying to join the RUC in the last competition—apparently it is called a competition—was 22.3 per cent. The competition is not yet complete so we do not know how many will get through, but in my opinion the Roman Catholic police officers in Northern Ireland are among the very best. I have no doubt that many of them will get through.

What is wrong with the word "Royal"? The Royal Victoria Hospital is in Nationalist West Belfast and is known, affectionately, by the Nationalists as "the Royal". There are many other examples. In Dublin the Royal Dublin Society is the largest and most respected cultural society in the republic. The RNLI operates in waters both North and South. The badge already contains the Irish harp and the shamrock. Nationalists, other than the extreme, are relatively happy with the Union flag. For your interest, the genuine calls to the RUC for help from Nationalist areas have increased dramatically: Newry, up 24 per cent; Waterside, up 22.7 per cent; and Woodburn, up 12.6 per cent. Those are examples of what the peace process is beginning to yield without the dismantling of the RUC. On those issues I ask the Government to halt the pandering to the violent, terrorist and criminal underworld.

There are those who say that we cannot cherry-pick at the report. However, the parts of the report that are not so good must be dropped or amended. I have three important general points to make on the recommendations in the body of the Patten report. First, in 1995 the Chief Constable of the RUC instigated a review and I believe that over 100 of the recommendations from that review are his or emanate from the police themselves.

Secondly, some recommendations have been shown not to work elsewhere in the United Kingdom. An example is the limit of tenure in certain posts such as Special Branch. On 21st October this year the last Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police said, in a speech to the Police Federation, that the tenure policy had not worked. I quote from the Mail on Sunday of 21st November: Scotland Yard's new Commissioner John Stevens is to scrap the controversial policy blamed for plunging standards among detectives. The 'tenure' scheme, which forces specialist police officers to change jobs every few years, was introduced by Sir Paul Condon but it will be seen as the biggest mistake in his seven years as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police". I do not damn him for that. Sir Paul Condon admitted that to the Police Federation, so the view is not just that of the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Thirdly, every change costs money. Among such costs would be new uniforms at £3 million and replacing armoured vehicles with new civilian standard vehicles at £13 million. From where will that money come? Is the Treasury ready to put it forward? Now is not the time to discuss the detail. No doubt we shall have a debate later. I ask the Government not to be too hasty in their implementation of all the Patten reforms.

In conclusion, I support the order and wish our Assembly and new Executive well in the future.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I share to the full the evident feeling with which the Minister introduced this order. He introduced it in words that were characteristically generous towards his predecessors.

From the beginning of direct rule in Northern Ireland it has been the hope and the ambition of succeeding administrations that democratic, devolved government would be restored, but restored only on terms that were fair and just to everybody living in the Province.

For long periods of time that elusive objective seemed remote indeed. Now we have an agreement which represents not so much a step as an enormous leap towards that objective. I want to express my gratitude for and admiration of the way in which it has been prepared and for the courage with which it has been executed.

It is a leap which has saved the people of Northern Ireland, for a short time at least, from a poisonous political stalemate. It offers them an enormous opportunity. Of course, it is not without risk. I believe that the risks are manageable and justified. The potential gains are enormous, not least in the development of cross-border organisations.

I have felt that surely it must make sense to make common cause in areas where there is an undoubted common interest. I believe that, as that process develops—it has already been established in some instances—it will have an important effect on the development of confidence.

In my humble opinion Mr David Trimble has shown himself equal to the most testing demands of leadership. The Secretary of State, building upon and fortified no doubt by the Good Friday agreement that was achieved in his predecessor's time, has firmly, perceptively and constructively rekindled confidence and the willingness and readiness in others to take risks. I gladly pay tribute to him for that.

I cannot know, but perhaps the greatest part in this momentous development has been played by that extraordinary man, Senator Mitchell. I warmly endorse what has already been said about him. He thought he had taken on a three-month task, but he stayed with it for five years. I hope that in future, when people are tempted into a generic denunciation of the motives of all politicians, they will remember George Mitchell and desist.

If this leap of faith had to be taken, and if devolved government had to be shared with Sinn Fein in today's dangerously unsatisfactory circumstances, I can see that it was necessary that a final decision by the Ulster Unionist Party should be postponed. But I have no doubt that the spirit and the intent of the Good Friday agreement require at the very least an immediate start to the decommissioning of arms to the independent commission headed by General de Chastelain. If that unprecedented act of faith were to be spurned, then the whole world would know where the responsibility for the result lay and would recognise the true character of those carrying that responsibility.

I wish God speed to the arrangements which this order will set in place. But as I do so I cannot avoid reflecting on how much they will owe to the RUC's heroically staunch resistance to violence and terror over all these years. As the Minister said, it has been shown that politics work and violence does not. It was the RUC in the main, though not exclusively, which created the circumstances in which politics have been able to show that they work. The RUC was always in the front line, upholding the law to which it too was always subject; and it acted for all the people in Northern Ireland. It is important that its sacrifice and achievement shall never be seen to be devalued in the days which lie ahead.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, this is a great day in the history of both Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. I speak as someone whose home is in County Westmeath, southern Ireland, but I wear an Irish Rugby Union tie given to me by an Ulster Protestant. When I was Leader of this House I went to Lansdowne Road and saw a United Ireland team play England. I cheered for Ireland. It was said, "You cannot do that. You are paid by the Brits." I said, "No, I am afraid I am Irish." So I speak as an Irishman.

It is a great day. There are a number of heroes, not least the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, who did wonderful work for peace in Northern Ireland. But the highest praise goes to the Prime Minister. I am not always uncritical of this Government, although I am a loyal and obsequious supporter. This is his finest achievement. No one but Tony Blair could have brought it off, though Mo Mowlam, Peter Mandelson and others have done much of the work. Above all, when I pray about all this—and I pray about it constantly—I pray for Mr Trimble. I do not know him, but his task has been the hardest of all. I therefore salute him and the many others concerned.

When all that is said and done, this is a great opportunity. People say how marvellous it is for Mr Trimble to be sitting down with a representative of terror. I read a book on the Irish treaty of 1921. It said that when Michael Collins, who became what they liked to call a great "terrorist" leader, came to Downing Street with a delegation, it was doubtful whether the British delegation would shake hands with him. Lloyd George solved the problem by shaking hands himself with the Irish delegation and introducing its members to the others.

Those were the tensions at that time. Southern Ireland has been a colossal success by any possible standard. When I was a boy the children attending the school in front of our house were in rags; now their standard of life has risen to that of the British. It has been a wonderful achievement and I look forward to similar success for Northern Ireland.

We hear a great deal about decommissioning. There was reference by the speaker for the Opposition to decommissioning all round. There is to be pressure on the IRA to give up some of its arms; I hope that it succeeds. But is any pressure being placed on the Protestants to give up their arms? They have just as many. I leave that question with the Minister.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, showed characteristic courage in mentioning the place of prayer in his own participation and concern in this process. I want to add that many people on both sides have prayed for peace. The Church and many outside the Church will be committed to continuing to pray for the new arrangements as they have prayed for peace up to this point.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, this is either a great day for the future of the Province of Northern Ireland, for the island of Ireland and for the United Kingdom, or it is a tragedy. If it turns out to be a great day, we can look forward at long last, as many speakers have said, to a period of peace and prosperity after 800 years of agony, of which the past 30 have been a leitmotiv behind the political lives of every Member of your Lordships' House.

As we all recognise, this agreement is an enormous prize and one emphatically worth taking risks for. It has been made clear during the course of today's contributions that risks have been taken everywhere; no more perhaps than by the Ulster Unionist Party. Like other noble Lords, I pay tribute to Mr David Trimble for his outstanding courage and leadership.

The biggest risk that all of us are taking in supporting the order today—it is certainly one that I support—is that terrorists on both sides, in spite of all that has happened over the past few years, are still prepared to hold the Armalite and Semtex in reserve in case they cannot achieve their objectives through the ballot box alone. It is "belt and braces" of a particularly horrific kind which all those who take part in the political day-to-day lives of this country do not even begin to think is an option open to the rest of us. The least we can ask is that those taking part in parliamentary government in the Province for the first time should abjure that option if we are to look them in the face and deal with them on equal terms in our political day-to-day transactions.

If decommissioning does not take place; if a timetable is not established and adhered to; and if the process is not certified as being complete by General de Chastelain by the May deadline, today will turn out not to have been a great day in the history of our country and of Ireland, but to have been a tragedy, not least because we will once again have raised expectations in the hearts of the people of the Province only for them to be dashed. I am therefore wholly in agreement with those noble Lords who have made it plain that the matter now rests firmly in the hands of terrorist organisations on both sides of the sectarian divide, and in particular with IRA/Sinn Fein. If they do indeed show that they have given up the Armalite in favour of the ballot box, we will welcome them unreservedly into the councils of the devolved Assembly; if they do not, then those who have said that the risk was not worth taking will have been tragically vindicated.

I hope that the Minister, who has always been extremely patient in his dealings with the House on Northern Ireland matters, can give us an undertaking in his reply that, if the paramilitaries do not begin to decommission according to a timetable established by General de Chastelain, the Government will not yield to what I am sure would be an overwhelming temptation to try to appease a little more and to stretch the elastic of tolerance a little further. They have asked an enormous amount of those of us who have always doubted whether in fact the paramilitaries on both sides really intended to give up their weapons and abide by the same political rules as the best of us. If they fail to do so this time, unless the Government support those who have taken the risks that all of us have recognised this afternoon, surely they will letting us and the system down—a system by which we hope that everyone will abide. If they do that, I hope that they will also recognise that there is a possibility that the risks we are all taking this afternoon will not be seen in the event to be justified.

If that tragically turns out to be so, I trust that the Minister will also be able to give us an assurance that, until decommissioning has taken place and the paramilitary organisations on both sides are seen to have given up the option of the Armalite in favour of the ballot box, the security services both here and in the Province will be kept in a finely-honed state of repair so that they are able to counter what will, unfortunately, certainly turn out to be a resurgence of the terror that we all fear.

In that respect, I also hope that the Minister will be able to give an assurance that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was awarded the George Cross—so richly earned, we all agree—will continue to be recognised as the first line of defence against terrorists on both sides of the sectarian divide, not only for those in the Province but also for those of us on this side of the water. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be able to repeat the undertakings given by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State in that respect, which were quoted by my noble friend Lord Glentoran.

This could be a great day. With the benefit of hindsight in six months' time, I hope that it will indeed have turned out to be so. If so, no one will be more delighted than I finally to pay tribute to all those who played such a part in taking the risks which brought about that success.

4 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I add my voice to the words of welcome and support that have been expressed for this order, so excellently introduced by my noble friend the Minister. A new page in the troubled history of Northern Ireland was vividly presented yesterday and has been suitably processed in this House today. In searching for, strengthening and establishing a democratic political framework suitable for the situation in Northern Ireland, this order now seeks to provide the elements that will regularise the situation. In that framework, elected representatives of the Assembly may promote, uphold and effectively pursue policies and programmes for social justice and equitable human relationships.

There are now some 21 Peers in this House who have, over the past 30 years, held and experienced ministerial office in Northern Ireland. We heard earlier from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, about his experience. I wholeheartedly support and welcome the words with which he presented the framework for this piece of legislation. At this time, it is invaluable for us to understand that we in party politics—that is, assuming that we are all involved in the political arena—are not suitable for presenting the forms of reconciliation that are necessary in an ecclesiastical framework. I hope that we are engaged in the role of providing accommodation for the building of co-operation between political organisations; in other words, building on the establishment of a framework of co-operation, which can progressively bring about new understandings in political life.

The framework in this particular order is restricted to the situation in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly will not be dealing with many of the matters that have been mentioned here today. During the initial proceedings of the Assembly yesterday, I feel sure that noble Lords will have noted that the Presiding Officer, Lord Alderdice, conducted the business with studied expertise, understanding and much sensitivity. His name has already been mentioned, but I believe that he undertook an outstanding piece of work yesterday in reconciling—if that is the proper word to use in such a situation—the various interests involved in those discussions.

We should also note that there are many effective, trained and knowledgeable civil servants and other personnel who are available to undertake the duties of the devolved Assembly. The matters devolved to the Assembly and the procedures for implementation have been set out in strict terms. Issues arising from the Patten report and various other matters will be debated at Westminster in due course. They will not be allowed to present themselves, in the first instance, during the Assembly's discussions. Finally, I join other noble Lords in giving this order suit able support.

Lord Renton

My Lords, should we not gratefully acknowledge the encouragement and support given by the Government of the Republic of Ireland in this matter? Indeed, does the Minister agree that, without their help, this agreement would not have been achieved and that decommissioning can succeed only with their co-operation?

Lord Laird

M y Lords, I am delighted to be able to support this order today. I am from Belfast and I have been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party for 35 years. I have spent all my life living in the Province and have many relations there. I should like to underline the remarks that have been made in the House this afternoon about the turmoil inside the Unionist community that has been caused in the past few months, especially in the past few days, by the very difficult and courageous decision that Mr Trimble and his official Unionist Party have taken.

As I said, I have been a member of the UUP for 35 years. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the turmoil and the difficulty that has been caused. I have lived through arid witnessed sights that I would not wish to describe to anyone in this House. I have lost work colleagues, relations, friends and next-door neighbours in tragic circumstances. Yet it is to the great credit of the party to which I belong, and to the inspirational leadership of David Trimble, that we have reached the position in which we find ourselves today.

I should like to think that Her Majesty's Government will recognise fully the courageous stand taken by Mr Trimble. I hope that they will also recognise that as regards anything that is likely to happen in the future if Mr Trimble's courageous stand is not matched by terrorists of all hues over the next few months, those of us who believe in the democratic process and have striven hard to return Northern Ireland to the democratic rails and to get that society back on the rails should not be penalised in some way. I support and identify with those noble Lords who have said that it is important that those democrats do not pay the penalty for the failure of terrorists to decommission.

I also identify with the tributes that have been paid to those noble Lords who have played a role in the affairs of Northern Ireland over the past 25 years. In that regard I do not wish to leave out the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, whom I am glad to see present today. The noble Lord played a significant role in the affairs of Northern Ireland at a difficult time. He performed his task tremendously well in difficult circumstances.

I also wish to pay tribute to the Minister, who is, and will be for the next few hours, an extremely good Minister who has been well received in Northern Ireland. Yesterday I heard an agriculture correspondent on a local radio station describe the Minister as a very popular Minister. I wonder how many agriculture Ministers can be described as popular in the current climate! That is a tribute to the noble Lord. I ask the House to recognise the role that he has played and his popularity. We are excited at the prospect of having affairs in Northern Ireland back in our own hands but there is a sadness at losing old friends such as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.

I wish to underline the remarks that have been made about the Patten report and the difficulties that may lie ahead if the totality of that report is implemented with regard to the police force. This could constitute a major problem which could stand in the way of the future development of Northern Ireland. Again refer to the turmoil in which the Loyalist and Unionist community has found itself over the past few months. We do not wish to push those good people, to whom I belong, any further through unnecessary, ill calculated and ill judged reforms on important aspects of policing in Northern Ireland.

We all appreciate that the days ahead will be difficult. We are only at the start of a long and turbulent voyage. However, there is much goodwill. I appreciate the remarks that noble Lords have made about the future. I wish the process well and I shall certainly support the order.

4.15 p.m.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, I believe that the whole House will be extremely grateful for the words of the noble Lord who has just spoken on behalf of the Ulster Unionists. They are typical of the constructive part the Ulster Unionists have played at this crucial time.

We have heard mentioned the prayers of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and of the right reverend Prelate. One should always be grateful for prayers and I hope that they will include me in them. However, I hope that I may suggest a subject for more general prayer; namely, one of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. I refer to hope. There has been so much gloom and caution expressed in this debate. However, this is a great day for Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom. It is a great day for the Republic.

Of course it is not the end of the novel, but it is the end of a splendid and hopeful chapter. Without this chapter the story could not possibly have gone on. The event which has taken place yesterday and today represents not merely the best chance of having peace and justice in Ireland for 30 years but the best chance since the settlement of 1922. There has never been a moment like this. Although there has been a Stormont in the past, it has been a Stormont composed of a majority imposing their will on the minority. This is a very different kind of Stormont. It is an amazing achievement and one which we should welcome.

I speak as an old-fashioned Tory, Catholic, Unionist. I can make that plain without fear because as a breed we are practically extinct. I have taken the keenest interest in the Irish question. I was sent by Mr Heath to Long Kesh in 1973 to see the conditions there and to report back to him. The lesson I learnt from that visit was that this was not primarily a religious struggle. The religious labels were there but this was a racial struggle between two different sets of people struggling for a piece of territory and with one set not willing to allow for the difficulties which existed and with the other set not willing to afford justice to the minority. As a result of the breakdown between Mr Heath and Mr Faulkner, Stormont was abolished. I thought that was an error then and it is not with hindsight that I say that I think it is an error now.

But now we have a new start. Of course there will be difficulties. There will be difficulties all the time. There is a great cultural difficulty which we should not forget; namely—if I may put it in this way—the English can remember nothing and the Irish can forget nothing. How does one get out of that impasse? The only way to get out of it and to move forward is to have hope in the future. That is why I reiterate the need for hope at this junction in our affairs.

Many have contributed to this process and many have sacrificed their lives. The noble Lord who represents the Ulster Unionists referred to that in his moving speech. People from every side have made the supreme sacrifice. They should never be forgotten, but we do them no service unless we are prepared to use their memory to advance, not to bear resentment and grudges. Forgiveness is a difficult thing. It is difficult, above all, for those who have suffered wrong.

Different Prime Ministers have played different parts in this process. Let us not forget the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, who sent the British troops into Northern Ireland. What was the purpose of that? It was to protect the Northern Ireland Catholics from intolerable threats and dangers. That was his contribution and it was a real contribution, although it brought other problems in its wake.

My right honourable friends Mr Heath and Mr Major have both given of their best in this effort. They have been able to carry the torch—as in a relay race—that bit further forward. The present Prime Minister, Mr Blair, has made his contribution to this process. I shall not mince my words. I shall say what I believe; namely, that no other Prime Minister has shown such dedication, spent so much time and tried so hard over a long period to bring the parties together. He has given the matter a priority that we have not seen a Prime Minister give it since the times of Mr Gladstone. That is the historical truth of the matter.

A noble Lord

That is a bit over the top.

Lord St John of Fawsley

My Lords, it may be a bit over the top—but it is better to be over the top than under the bottom.

I want also to pay tribute to Mr Trimble and Mr Adams. They have done something extremely difficult; they have transcended the sectarianism of their own followers. One can transcend other people's sectarianism easily enough. But when they are the people on whose support one relies, that is a true test of statesmanship.

I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lord Glentoran reiterate the bipartisan nature of support in the House for the policy on Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party is under a moral and political obligation to maintain that bipartisan support. He did so nobly, as did my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew, who knows more from experience about this subject than most Members of the House, including myself.

Bipartisanship does not rule out the possibility of criticism; it does not rule out the right to advise, the right to warn and the right to delay, if necessary. But it does rule out irresponsibility, carping, mean-mindedness and any desire to exploit the situation for partisan purposes. To play an effective part in this process requires from the Opposition a certain generosity of spirit. The debate has shown that that generosity of spirit is there. It will be fully needed if we are to resolve the challenges and gain the great prizes now within our grasp.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned bipartisanship. Full praise should be given to the late Lord Whitelaw who started the process from 1972 onwards. We all learned from him and the process has gone on ever since. He should not be forgotten.

The noble Lord also referred to the question of whether it was a religious battle in Northern Ireland. When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I gave a dinner party for Conor Cruise O'Brien and invited a number of people. A lady at the table asked him, "Is it a religious question, Mr O'Brien?". I think he taught in Belfast before the war. He replied "When I taught, there was a blues team and a greens team. One of the greens players, the Catholic players, fell in the penalty area and writhed like Lawrence Olivier. The crowd shouted from the stand 'Send him to Lourdes. Send him to Lourdes-. He then said, "No, it is not a religious problem."

Congratulations have been widely and freely given—as they should be—to all those who have been involved in the Northern Ireland question over the years. I place particular emphasis on the part played by Northern Ireland politicians. At times they were infuriating. Sometimes we asked ourselves, "What do they want?" But they lived in an area where they needed a police guard, where their homes needed a police guard, where they were met off an aeroplane by armed policemen. It should not be forgotten that they live a different political life from most of us on this side of the water.

We have been in this position once before—at Sunningdale in December 1973—when a devolved administration came into effect. My noble friend was a deputy leader at that time. However, it failed. It failed because the party of Mr Brian Faulkner—who also showed great courage—deserted it. Mr Trimble last week very much reversed that development against Brian Faulkner. When I first got to Northern Ireland there was a violence campaign in Belfast. The place was aflame every night. There was also the Ulster workers' strike, which showed what a divided part of the United Kingdom Northern Ireland was. Anyway, the Sunningdale Executive collapsed.

I have often thought about what we should learn from that time of devolved administration. Perhaps two points should be taken into account. I am not denying the greatness of today, but there is the question of money. As my noble friend will remember, it is easy enough for people to sit around—not a coalition, but a Cabinet table—and talk about money they do not have to provide and to devise schemes without thinking of the wherewithal to provide for them. Money does not grow on trees—and money was beginning to be a problem. It needs wise politicians and skilled civil servants to get over that hurdle. This is not a coalition. We are not forming a coalition government in Northern Ireland—I will come to that in a moment—and government will not be easy. It easy to stand in front of a television camera and be feted, but the actual day-to-day administration is a difficult task.

After the Ulster workers' strike in 1974, it required only an Order in Council by the Westminster Parliament to end the power-sharing executive. I believe it requires more than that now. If the arrangements in Northern Ireland are to be ended, it will require primary legislation on the Floors of both Houses. Perhaps my noble friend will confirm whether I am right in that belief. One never knows what will happen in the months ahead.

As to the question of a Secretary of State, we need a Secretary of State to deal with the responsibilities of Northern Ireland. One of the failures in the past has been that for 50 years Northern Ireland worked to a small general department in the Home Office. It will require a Secretary of State to deal with reserved matters, not a Secretary of State shared with Scotland and with Wales.

There are problems are ahead. Today and the rest of the week will be great for Northern Ireland. We must all do our best to help in every possible way. I congratulate the present Government and Mr Major and his Secretary of State. It is all of a one. There are times in the political scene when we are gloomy and think of all the things that can go wrong. Let us not think of the things that may go wrong. Let us think of what might happen and let us congratulate ourselves on a good day.

Lord Elton

My Lords, in a notable speech—which was not too far over the top—my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley rightly said that the confrontation is not a religious one. It is a racial, tribal confrontation. However, there are areas where the religious and tribal boundaries coincide quite importantly. One of those areas is in education. It is now 20 years and six months since I found myself sitting at one end of a table with Humphrey Atkins, as he then was, at the other end dishing out ministerial jobs in Northern Ireland. The very last one to be called was education. I was a teacher and it was given to me.

Yesterday, in the Assembly, I understand that the various ministerial responsibilities were dished out, and very nearly the last one was education. There was a qualified teacher there but the post was given to Mr Martin McGuinness. Whatever the reason for that choice, it will be thought to have been intended to be a signal.

Further on in his speech, my noble friend said that while bipartisanship restricted one in various ways, it did allow one to warn and to advise. With great humility, I should like to do that in this context. If this frail craft is to succeed, we have to wish all the crew the best that they can possibly have, and we have to support them. If the crew want it to succeed, they should listen to what help we can give.

My perception of an incoming Minister for Education in Northern Ireland is that he or she is regarded with the deepest suspicion by all people who do not share precisely his or her background. I believe that it took me between 18 months and two years to convince the Roman Catholic hierarchy that I was not secretly in the business of seeking to dismantle their control of their section of education. At the time that was furthest from my thoughts.

If my, I hope, fairly gentle exterior and modest past were sufficient to alarm that experienced and elderly community, think what the effect of the appointment of Mr Martin McGuinness must do to the confidence of the parents of Protestant children in Protestant schools, whether secular or otherwise. With great diffidence, I offer to Mr McGuinness the advice that if he wants to play a constructive role in the building of a self-confident and democratically governed Northern Ireland, it will take a great effort of persuasion and some kind of significant gesture on his part to show that his heart really is on the side of the children of all backgrounds. They are the future, and I believe their parents think that they are at risk. After all, the parents are the electorate and it is they who, in the end, will have the say on what happens. Therefore, it is down to Mr McGuinness, as it is down to other members of the Executive, to convince those of other persuasions that they are unquestionably intent on the benefit of all members of the society which they govern and of children of all persuasions.

I am sorry to have broken nearly 20 years' silence on this subject but it seemed to me too important to let the opportunity pass.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, no one who has not suffered 30 years of murder, mutilation, bombing, arson and intimidation has any right to criticise those who have so suffered and who now opt for peace at almost any price. No doubt those of us on this side of the water would act in much the same way if we had the misfortune to find ourselves in a similar position. That was indeed the case in 1938 when the people of Britain as a whole had the horrors of the Great War still etched deeply into their minds. Let us hope that the euphoria of 1999 is not dashed as was that of 1938.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, last week in this House the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in his capacity as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, invited me to go there yesterday because of the connotations between the setting up of the executive yesterday and the setting up of the executive on 1st January 1974. I did so, and I am glad that I did. For me, yesterday was a day laden with emotion from the time that I entered the Assembly until I left yesterday evening.

I recall vividly that on 1st January 1974 when I became a member of the Sunningdale Executive I believed that I had reached the apex of my political career. I had striven over many years to bring together the warring factions in Northern Ireland—the unionists and nationalists. On that day, I believed that I had achieved that ambition. For the next five months, every day was a horror to me. It was not only the Ulster workers' strikes which brought the Sunningdale Executive to an end; they were ably aided and abetted by the IRA, some of whose members spoke in Stormont yesterday afternoon.

I remember in February 1974 coming along Donegall Place and Royal Avenue. During the lifetime of the executive, a bomb went off in a taxi and killed people at the bottom of Divis Street. A crowd immediately gathered. When they saw me, they said, "You said that this would all stop if the executive came into being—if we agreed with what you did." I could give them no answer. From then on, we had the Ulster workers' strike led by some very distinguished people.

Yesterday, I congratulated David Trimble on the courage he showed last Saturday. Had David Trimble not been successful in bringing his party with him last Saturday morning, the whole experience of the past two or three years of negotiations would have toppled in on him. His party and the people of Northern Ireland would have been subjected to a criticism untold and unheard of before. Very courageously, he brought his party with him, enabling the debate to take place here today on the devolution of power. However, in 1974 David Trimble was opposed to the Sunningdale executive; Bill Craig was opposed to the Sunningdale executive; and Ian Paisley was opposed to the Sunningdale executive, as he is opposed to this Executive.

However, this time there is a difference. In 1974, for the first time, there existed in these islands the concept of power-sharing, which no one before had ever thought possible, between the main parties, Conservative and Labour, with the adversarial system of "You win one time, you lose the next." Sunningdale was a very noble experiment under the tutelage of the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and the Secretary of State, Willy Whitelaw.

I now want to express some optimism. At that time, the concept of trying to bring together different factions was a new one. We tried, despite the terrible, turbulent history of religious and warring divisions. And we were very nearly successful. During the five months we sat in the executive—the Unionists from Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party and the SDLP—I discovered that every day we found something on which we could agree. Every day we sat there as Northern Ireland people—as Ulster men—and we tried our damnedest to find agreement, while outside the bombs were going off on the Upper Newtownards Road and all over Northern Ireland. It was an impossible task. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and I sensed it on the Labour Benches. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees was the Secretary of State. It was the first time they had been faced with such opposition. And it was called the Ulster workers' strike. It was not the Ulster workers' strike; it was a fascist strike, led by fascists and supported by fascists and by loyalist and IRA murder gangs. It was not carried out by workers. Yet my colleagues in the other part of this building, as Members of Parliament, were taken in. Even trade unionists in Britain said to me, "But they are Ulster workers. We cannot be seen to be opposing the Ulster workers." I remember very well when the then leader of the trade union movement was brought over to Northern Ireland to tell them it was not a workers' strike. He received a very hostile reception at the Queen's Bridge in Northern Ireland.

This time is different. There are four parties. Four parties will make it more difficult to find agreement. However, yesterday I went into the Members' bar, the Members' tea rooms and the committee rooms where I saw Sinn Fein people talking with official Unionists; I saw Alliance people supporting the re-election of Seamus Mallon as deputy chief. I questioned many of them and came away with the distinct impression that they would fight tenaciously to keep the Executive in existence. The difference is that when Brian Faulkner met with violent opposition, he did not have anyone to support him. This time the Executive has the support of the British Government, the Irish Government, Irish America and the President of the United States. All those people have contributed over many years to bring this Executive into existence.

I said yesterday in a TV broadcast—and I hope that I did not offend too many people—that I have found it very difficult over the past two or three years to agree with legislation in this House which actually made my stomach churn: the release of murderers, the release of prisoners, and concession after concession made to paramilitary organisations.

I well remember the debate on the crisis that has arisen in relation to the return of the bodies of the disappeared, when I supported the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. We very nearly carried a vote in the House. No one talks any more about the disappeared, but it is still a burning issue to those who have lost their loved ones. I said yesterday on two or three occasions, and I say it again in this House, that a book entitled Lost Lives has been written by four distinguished journalists in Northern Ireland. It illustrates in great detail every murder that has taken place in Northern Ireland since the onset of the present troubles. It sets out who the people were, their religion, their marital status and the effect of the murders on the wider community from which they came.

I particularly interested myself in the murders that took place after the breakdown of the Sunningdale executive in May 1974. I was able to say yesterday—and many people supported me—that all those deaths were totally unnecessary. People were going into the Executive yesterday and they could have had exactly the same thing 25 years ago. Instead we have had the terrible tragedy of all those deaths. I do not think that those in the Executive will allow that to happen again. I have the distinct impression—and there are some in the Executive with whom I have never had any political relationship—that they will go in there and do everything they can to make it work.

I left Northern Ireland this morning. I know that great fear and suspicion exists there about some of the appointments made yesterday. It seems out of this world that Martin McGuinness is Minister of Education in Northern Ireland. I know that there is now great fear within the Protestant community. But let me say this—and I do not speak lightly in support of terrorists. I do not believe that Martin McGuinness would discriminate in any way in favour of any religious sect in Northern Ireland. I believe that he will accept his responsibility. I cannot see him discriminating against Protestants. The whole Northern Ireland community, Catholic and Protestant, would rise up in anger if he attempted to do so. But I do not believe that he will do so.

Therefore, I say that we could have had this 25 years ago. We have it now. It has the support of major political parties and four different governments. I believe that it will work. At the time of the 1974 executive no one ever mentioned the word "millennium". We certainly did not hear about websites and e-mail. The world has advanced tremendously since then. I regarded 1st January 1974 as the most important political day in the millennium of Northern Ireland. That has been superseded by yesterday. All I can do is to call in as much support as I can from everyone of good will to wish Northern Ireland into the new millennium when we will all try our damnedest to forget what has happened to us through so many years.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I shall be very brief, but I was forestalled by the noble Lord on the Cross-Benches in saying how much we owe to the noble Lord the Minister for his integrity, decency, care, patience and good humour. I do not think that he has had nearly enough credit.

That said, I am afraid that I am going to be a little Cassandra-like, although I passionately want to believe that the Executive will work. I think that it has a much better chance than before. But we have to remember that for the IRA decommissioning means the weakening and destruction of the Armed Forces and the police. It does not put the same meaning on the word as we do. The Belfast agreement expressly refers to the decommissioning of illegally held arms in the possession of paramilitary groups. The previous Secretary of State refused to negotiate the release of prisoners against the beginning of decommissioning, and so I feel sure that the present Secretary of State will be equally clear that the IRA must not be allowed to try to trade giving up some arms for troop withdrawals and for the weakening of the security apparatus before Northern Ireland enjoys the hoped for normal, peaceful society which was also foreseen in the Belfast agreement. Under the terms of the agreement decommissioning by the paramilitaries—I mean all paramilitaries—must be non-negotiable. We are perhaps deceiving ourselves in thinking that because it is going to be handled, as far as concerns the procedures, by General de Chastelain, that will be the end of the story. There is bound to be pressure for negotiation and horse trading behind the scenes.

I have a second point. Although the end of the review and consultation period for the Patten report is due only at the end of November, and as we may not discuss it for some time, we must make sure that we hold our horses on any decisions, particularly on any proposal either to weaken the capacity of the RUC to protect the security of the realm or to devolve responsibility for policing and justice issues. I should be interested to know the status of the Irish Government on that. To whom are they intending to devolve control of the Gardi? It would he a fatal mistake to take or promise any action which could at this delicate moment encourage the IRA, like Oliver, to ask for more.

I remember the disgraceful Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill and I think about the three bodies—there were only three—that were yielded up. I know, too, many victims on both sides of the political spectrum. They all long for the end of paramilitary violence in their communities—right down in the street and in their homes. That has mysteriously ceased lately. The tap was turned off at the time of the election. The tap seems to have been turned off by both sets of paramilitaries recently. So it proves that it can be done. I hope therefore that at this crucial political moment we shall see that tap turned off finally. There is no excuse for it. It seems to me that we are in honour bound to consider the interests of the people right down at the bottom of the heap. Having said that, I passionately hope that we shall be having good news this year and next.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, virtually everything that I wanted to say has been said by one or other speaker on all sides of the House. Therefore, I shall not detain the House for more than a very few minutes except to say that it is my belief that Mr Trimble's actions on Saturday constituted a very brave act indeed. He and his party have delivered their side of the deal secured by Senator Mitchell. But as I understand the matter, the Sinn Fein/IRA part of the bargain is to deliver a member of the IRA to liaise with General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission—no more, no less. I believe that that will happen and in the next few weeks. Up to now the Government's target has been to get Stormont up and running. They will achieve that this week—and all credit to them and all the parties in Northern Ireland.

It has been a long and hard road with, as we have seen, many tortuous twists and turns. But that is as nothing compared with the future. Of course I wish everyone involved the best, but I have to agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew that the assembly, which starts business on Thursday, is on approval from the Ulster Unionist Council. I am very much afraid that we have not seen the last of these orders under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I rise to give the order full support and to join other noble Lords in paying tribute to all those who have participated in this process, going back many, many years. I pay tribute to the noble Lord the Minister for the hours of time that he has given in his job as Minister in Northern Ireland and for the way in which he has dealt with all of us who have had our anxieties on the way. I pay tribute to him also for the way in which he has come to the Dispatch Box on so many occasions and informed the House of the present situation.

I was returning from a conference in Birmingham on Saturday when the news came through that the Ulster Unionists had taken their decision to trigger the process today. The order is before us in the House today because of a great leap of faith that had already been taken by Mr Trimble. That was followed by him persuading his colleagues at that meeting on Saturday that this was a leap of faith worth taking and that the risks involved were worth facing.

We should not underestimate what happened that day. Those of us who are seasoned observers of the Irish scene know full well that predominantly two reasons made possible that vote on Saturday. The first reason was the promise that was given by Mr Trimble himself that unless there is measurable progress towards decommissioning, which is the key to success in what is happening today, his letter of resignation—already written and sealed—will be activated. He gave his colleagues that promise that that is what he would do.

The second reason that persuaded his colleagues to support him so wholeheartedly on that day was the promise given by the Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, who in fact said that he would stand and support Mr Trimble if he should have to activate his resignation letter. Similar promises were given following the Good Friday agreement by the Prime Minister personally. That was what secured the vote in the referendum of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not believe that the people of Northern Ireland will forgive lightly if they are let down following not only the promise by the Unionists to support the setting up of the institutions, the Assembly and the Executive, but if they are let down also by the one factor which will make sense of what is happening today; that is, progress towards decommissioning.

I want to ask a straightforward question of the Minister, and I know that he will answer it unequivocally. The question is: will the Secretary of State stand shoulder to shoulder with Mr Trimble, who has acted with great courage, if by February there is no measurable progress towards decommissioning?

The only other point I want to make concerns default. I understand now, because of the way in which this whole legislation is working—both the Act of Parliament and the order that is before the House today—that should one or more paramilitary organisations default on decommissioning, all the institutions have to be stood down. The noble Lord the Minister will know that I have some reservations about that, but I accept it because that is where we are. However, I also want to say to the Minister that I do not believe that the innocent should suffer. It is absolutely right to say that no one should profit from defaulting on progress towards decommissioning, but neither should innocent people suffer. I should like to have some assurance from the Minister that should there be defaulting by one or more of the paramilitaries, causing almost simultaneously the standing down of the institutions—which has to happen because of the way in which the legislation will work—those who are innocent will find themselves being invited to re-establish an assembly and an executive that will continue to rule, parochially and locally, in Northern Ireland.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I welcome the order and join others in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Dubs. I want to say just one thing, which is that although we all wish that decommissioning will proceed as promised, we also know from the history of Northern Ireland that the IRA, as a concept, is a slippery and dynamic thing. There will be other IRAs, even if this one decommissions. The most difficult thing for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the other politicians to ascertain will be whether the IRA is decommissioning and the Real IRA is not decommissioning. I believe that the major danger is not going to be IRA/Sinn Fein but a new dissident faction that could arise whose members will continue to be terrorists. I think it will take great courage on behalf of everyone to be able to say that the more the small element can be isolated and the Assembly can be kept, the better will be the chance of finally seeking an end to the entire culture of violence in Northern Ireland.

Lord Annan

My Lords, perhaps I may re-emphasise what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has just said. Decommissioning is a very, very tricky business indeed. Let us not forget that in 19.21 when the Irish Free State was set up there was no question of decommissioning. This was accepted by Mr Lloyd George and his government. Of course, it was absurd to think that Michael Collins could form a government without arms, because immediately he did, he was, as we all know, opposed by Mr de Valera. The civil war in Ireland which then began did not end until Mr de Valera's followers were driven into the hills and, in the end, submitted. Even then, they never signed anything about decommissioning.

All I am saying is this: decommissioning is something which I very much hope will not prove to be the sticking point. It must be something which is faced with a flexible understanding of history and of possibilities.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am most grateful for what I believe is the unanimous support of all those who have spoken for what the Government have put before the House today. Admittedly, that support was sometimes couched in terms indicating some qualifications; nevertheless, I am grateful for the welcome that the Government have received for their proposal from all sides of the House.

Perhaps I may first deal with the question of the Patten report, not because it was the only issue, but because it has been mentioned so frequently. I should like to deal with that first and then deal with the other points that have been made in the debate. Concerns about the Patten report were mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Laird, the noble and learned Lord, Lo rd Mayhew, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, together with many other speakers. Of course the Government fully appreciate the sensitivities surrounding the report and we shall handle all such views and concerns very sensitively.

The maintenance of law and order must remain a priority. We shall take account of the prevailing security situation when considering the implementation of some of the recommendations in the report which deal with the level of policing and so on. The Secretary of State will be guided, as always, as was the previous Secretary of State, by the advice given by the Chief Constable, among others. We shall consider the comments made about the Patten Report. We have been listening to views right up to today, and the Secretary of State has said that he will, following the end of this month, let his views be known as soon as possible. Of course, he will take into account the comments made by many people, including those made by Members of your Lordships' House. I can give your Lordships that assurance.

We are delighted that Her Majesty has thought fit to give her recent award to the RUC: a very well-deserved award. I should like to endorse once more the many comments made over many years about the bravery of the RUC during the past 30 years; the number of lives of R UC officers that have been lost and the number of its officers who have been injured, some of whom are living to this day with very serious injuries indeed. That is right, and it is right that this should go on the record at a time when the RUC is obviously sensitive and concerned about what may happen in terms of the Patten proposals.

Let me now deal with some of the more specific points that have been made during the debate. A number of noble Lords asked about the possibility of default, whether in the implementation of decommissioning or on devolution. I can give my assurance to the House that those who default will not profit from that default. The Secretary of State has set out what we will do by way of suspending the institutions in the event of any default. He went on to say that the Government will take the legislative action necessary to do so as soon as it becomes apparent that this is required. I am happy to repeat that assurance.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, asked about possible checks and balances. I believe that he referred in particular to checks and balances as regards action by either DUP or Sinn Fein Ministers. Of course DUP and Sinn Fein Ministers are members of the Executive and yesterday all of them took a pledge of office. That pledge included a number of requirements. I shall mention three of them: first, to participate with colleagues in the preparation of a programme for government; secondly, to operate within the framework of that programme when agreed within the Executive Committee and endorsed by the Assembly; and, thirdly, to support, and to act in accordance with all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly. I hope that that will give some assurance to the noble Lord and to other Members of the House who queried whether the Executive would have powers over decisions by individual Ministers. Clearly, the Executive has not yet begun to operate so we shall have to wait and see how it works, but I hope that those assurances will satisfy the concerns expressed by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord also asked about the committee structure. There is to be a committee structure in the Assembly with one committee corresponding to each of the 10 government departments. The chair of each committee will be a member of a different political party from that of the Minister. That will provide an element of checks and balances in the way those procedures will operate.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked a number of questions about the Patten Report and the RUC. I believe that I have dealt with most of the points that he raised. I thank once again the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for the tribute he paid to the Government and others for the work that we have done, and I shall reciprocate by paying tribute to him for the work he carried out when he was Secretary of State and on which we have built. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord on the need for a quick start to decommissioning. Senator Mitchell has said that the process should begin with the appointment of authorised representatives on 2nd December. I look forward to that taking place and to rapid progress thereafter. I have full confidence in General de Chastelain and the decommissioning commission which has the responsibility of overseeing this process, including arrangements for the timing of actual decommissioning with the authorised representatives. Furthermore, the independent commission will also report at intervals on the progress being made in the process.

My noble friend Lord Longford asked about decommissioning by loyalist paramilitary organisations. I can confirm to my noble friend that, in the report of the international body on decommissioning, Senator Mitchell spoke of mutual decommissioning. That is what we want to see. An obligation to decommission has been placed on all paramilitary organisations, be they republican or loyalist.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, sought an undertaking that the Government will not appease terrorists if they do not give up their arms. I believe that I made it clear in my speech, and the Secretary of State has done so in another place, that no one who defaults on decommissioning will profit from it. I am happy to repeat that undertaking. I will also repeat the undertaking I gave a few moments ago on the state of readiness of the security forces; namely, that the security of Northern Ireland and of its people remains our primary concern and responsibility. Any changes in security arrangements will reflect improvements when they occur in the security situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred to the contribution of the Irish Government. I am happy to join the noble Lord in commending the role of the Irish Government in securing the agreement and the positive outcome of the review. For many years we have worked very closely indeed with the Irish Government and I do not think that the Good Friday agreement or what has happened more recently would have been achieved without such very close co-operation between the two governments. It is widely recognised that the Irish Government have helped to underpin the way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, made several important comments, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that the crucial element in the settlement is the way that it provides for the expression of cross-community consent to ensure consensus and to guarantee that the minority has a say in the way in which Northern Ireland is governed. In effect, we shall see power sharing and a new partnership. That underpins both the Good Friday agreement and the way forward.

My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees asked what would be needed to collapse the institutions of the agreement if that should prove necessary. Such a move would require primary legislation. On 22nd November the Secretary of State said in another place that both the British and Irish Governments would take the necessary steps to ensure that the operation of these institutions ceases should that be necessary. It would require legislation and action by treaty on the part of both governments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred to the IRA interpretation of decommissioning. That may be what that organisation says on occasion, but that is not what is set down in the Good Friday agreement, which confines itself to the decommissioning of illegally held arms by paramilitary organisations. Decommissioning is not negotiable. It is an essential part of the agreement and we are not prepared to compromise on it. Decommissioning must happen. At the end of the review recently carried out by Senator George Mitchell, Sinn Fein declared that decommissioning was essential and the IRA stated that it would appoint a representative to discuss with the decommissioning commission how this should be brought about. All parties are clear that the discussions will concern paramilitary arms. I see that that is well understood by General de Chastelain and his commission. Indeed, General de Chastelain's remit is to deal only with illegally held weapons. I hope that that will reassure the noble Baroness.

I believe that I have dealt with the specific points raised in our debate and I should now like to make a few general concluding remarks. I agree that David Trimble has shown enormous courage. He has had to deal with very difficult situations and he has brought forward the entire process. I should like to endorse the many tributes that have been paid to him today for the courage he has shown. I also thank noble Lords who have said kind things about me. We do our best and I am grateful for the comments that have been made. I must say that I feel that this might be almost an epitaph. I missed the comment about agriculture that was made on the radio, and I am amazed that anyone could make such a comment. Farmers in Northern Ireland have faced great difficulties.

I should like to respond to a comment made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield on the part played by the Churches. I agree that all the Churches have played an important part in the peace process and it is right that we should express our gratitude to them for their efforts.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute not just to the big names but also to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. Over the past 30 years they have borne an enormously difficult and heavy burden. Despite that, they have shown a resilience and a positive approach and a welcome for the peace process. That, in turn, has stimulated the politicians to move forward, as they did the other day. I should like to end by paying tribute to the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. The Government will not let those people down.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Bach

My Lords, before we move to the Statement on the beef on the bone ban, I should like to take this opportunity to remind the House that the Companion indicates that discussion on a Statement should be confined to brief comments and questions for clarification. Peers who speak at length do so at the expense of other noble Lords.