HL Deb 09 February 2000 vol 609 cc664-704

3.10 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Northern Ireland Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I also inform your Lordships that a revised speakers' list for the Bill is now available. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, will speak after the noble Lord, Lord Eames.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is a Bill that the Government had hoped not to have to introduce. Even at this stage we hope that it will prove unnecessary to implement it.

Last Thursday, my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson made a Statement in another place in response to the latest report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. He said then that, if further information came to light which rendered his Statement out of date, he would inform the House. Intensive discussions continue and there remains the possibility of a further report by General de Chastelain and his colleagues.

At the moment there has been no further substantive progress to report. Therefore, it is necessary to put this legislation in place so that, if it remains necessary because cross-community confidence is collapsing, we can create a pause in the operation of Northern Ireland's devolved political institutions from the end of this week.

There is no doubt that the necessary cross-community consensus has been severely dented by the absence of credible progress on decommissioning; indeed, the absence even of an unequivocal commitment to decommission or a specific timeframe in which it will occur.

On every other front the Good Friday agreement has brought a better way of life for the population as a whole than Northern Ireland has ever had before. It has brought an inclusive Executive, responsible to a locally elected Assembly. There are no longer any outsiders—no more second-class citizens—in Northern Ireland's administration. It places the principle of consent at the very heart of the Northern Ireland constitution and the Irish constitution has been amended to reflect that. It has enabled serious and practical North-South co-operation to proceed to the benefit of all parts of the island. It has strengthened ties within the United Kingdom and has built a new and vigorous relationship with the rest of the island of Ireland.

The devolved institutions are functioning effectively, proving that local minds are best applied to local problems. The new Ministers are working together in good faith, in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. They are working co-operatively with their counter parts in Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. The vigour that they have applied to their new responsibilities proves conclusively that self-rule is far and away the best form of government for Northern Ireland alongside all the new institutions, and we must spare no effort to ensure their long-term survival.

But the Good Friday agreement is a finely-judged deal. Every detail, every word is there for a reason and contributes to its overall balance. That is why every part of the agreement has either been implemented, is in the process of being implemented, or a plan exists to implement it in the near future. Along with the new Executive, North-South ministerial and implementation bodies have been set up. Human Rights and Equality Commissions have been established. Reform of policing and criminal justice is moving forward. Prisoner releases are continuing, causing understandable anguish among victims' families. The normalisation of security arrangements grows as the threat subsides.

All those things are happening, and much else besides. They are all necessary to build confidence in the peace process. But confidence-building is not a one-way street. Members of both traditions need to feel that their commitment is being reciprocated and right now that confidence has slumped. Actual, verifiable decommissioning is vital if we are to retain the faith of all parties in the agreement, not just by the IRA but by all the paramilitary organisations.

In December last year, George Mitchell celebrated the success of his review of the agreement. He said: I believe that the basis now exists for devolution to occur, for the institutions to be established, and for decommissioning to take place as soon as possible". He concluded: there is no other way forward". He was right.

Against that background, Ulster Unionists always made it clear that, if there were no progress on decommissioning by the end of January, it would be very difficult for them to remain in the Executive. No commitments or guarantees were made on the other side. Indeed, Sinn Fein made it clear that premature public deadlines made its task harder. But it does not help to accuse others of acting in bad faith. Nobody has a monopoly of good intentions in this situation. None the less, it was made clear to all those involved in the Mitchell review that substantive, tangible progress in decommissioning would be needed to sustain Unionist commitment to the Executive beyond the end of January.

It is not simply the continued absence of actual decommissioning that is causing the current difficulty. It is the uncertainty about whether decommissioning will ever happen and, if so, when, and on what terms—not British terms, or Unionist terms, but any terms. All that remains unclear despite the availability of the de Chastelain commission to take matters forward.

Of course, the Government welcome the fact that the Provisional IRA's guns are silent. Their ceasefire during the past two and a half years has been an indispensable condition for politics to work. The Government welcome their expressed desire far a "permanent peace". The absence of the word "permanent" was once an insuperable obstacle. Now it has been surmounted. If the war is over, why do arms need to be retained? If violence is a thing of the past, why cannot weapons of violence be put permanently beyond use? I know of no section of Nationalist opinion, anywhere, that disagrees with that sentiment.

Of course, anything that smacks of surrender is unjustified, but any cause that unites the Irish Government, the American Government, editorial writers in Dublin, Cork, Boston, Washington and New York, the leadership and rank and file of the SDLP together with public opinion in the North and South of Ireland cannot, surely, be wrong. Yet, as things stand at present, a way forward eludes us.

As my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson said last week in his Statement in another place, because of these circumstances the cross-community support necessary for the institutions to operate is fast ebbing away. We hope that the circumstances will yet change, but that requires clarity over whether decommissioning will happen, how and when. Without such clarity, we believe that the current loss of cross-community confidence is so serious that the Executive would simply fall apart. Where that is clearly foreseeable, we must ensure that good government for all the people of Northern Ireland continues.

We are not faced with a choice between suspension and imperfect continuation of the Executive. It is pause or bust. It is in no one's interest for these fragile institutions to be allowed to shatter irreversibly, simply because it is too hard or too painful to take the necessary action to forestall this now. Delay will not buy us time. It will only make the landing harder, unless between now and the end of the week a substantial turn-around of events occurs and we have answers to the essential decommissioning questions: whether and when?

A pause will preserve the institutions. It will allow all our efforts to focus on finding a way forward, through a review; a way—we hope quickly—to restore the institutions and make progress on decommissioning and all other aspects of the agreement. This Bill, therefore, enables what I hope, if it proves necessary, will be the temporary return of direct rule.

Under Clause 1, while the institutions, including the Executive, are on hold neither the Assembly nor its committees will meet. All Northern Ireland Ministers and the chairmen and deputy chairmen of statutory committees will cease to hold office. But under Clause 3 all Ministers, and other office holders who lost office, who are still eligible are automatically re-appointed to their previous office when the institutions are restored. Clause 2 allows the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a restoration order to end the suspension, taking into account the outcome of the review.

The schedule sets out that executive responsibility will return to the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland departments acting under the direction of the Secretary of State. Legislation that would normally be made by the Assembly will be made by Order in Council approved by Parliament. A restoration order—and its revocation—under Clause 7 must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.

Clause 5 requires the Secretary of State to return the functions of the implementation bodies to the relevant Northern Ireland departments, in line with arrangements agreed with the Irish Government. This reflects the underlying principle of the agreement that all those institutions are interlocking and interdependent.

These are serious steps, but steps which, in the absence of any progress, will preserve the institutions from collapse and enable us to revive them at the earliest possible date.

The bomb attack in Fermanagh on Sunday reminds us that there are still people who prefer violence and chaos to peace and stability. My sympathy goes out to all those in Irvinestown whose property has been destroyed and whose peace has been shattered.

These futile, cowardly assaults on the overwhelming will of the people are what the Good Friday agreement sought to end. It is the duty of the British and Irish Governments and of the political parties to deliver their will and put this process back on track. There will never be a better agreement than this one. With this Bill, the Government are moving to guard its integrity and the confidence of all sides in it. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

3.21 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I begin by associating this side of the House, and my party in particular, with the remarks of the Minister in relation to the bomb in Irvinestown. Sadly, executive or no executive, we shall still have to live with those maverick actions for some years to come. Those who live in Northern Ireland are well aware of that.

Dealing with this Bill and making decisions on it is rather more difficult than one might have thought. The whole basis of decommissioning depends on General de Chastelain. He reported to the Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, and also to the Irish Government. But we in this Parliament have not had sight of that report; we do not know what it says. We were given a great deal of sound and objective information by the Secretary of State. But the fact that it has not been presented to Parliament leads to speculation as to what it may contain that is so negative that we are not allowed to see it. That tactic is perhaps not the right one.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on that when he sums up, but tell us also a little more in relation to the attitude of the Irish Government to this Bill and its consequences. Apart from that, it is clear, as my right honourable friend made clear in the other place, that this party associates itself with the Government in bringing this Bill forward.

It is a sad day for the people of Northern Ireland because, after around 30 years, they had democracy back. They were being governed by their locally elected representatives. If we believe all that we are told I read most of the local press on most days—that was working in a sound and robust way. That stands to end. They were also living normal lives. People were crossing peace lines, even to work. Children and others were running about their normal business without the fear of a bomb round the corner or a sniper hitting their parents or somebody else. In other words, peace appeared to be reigning in most parts of the Province. Life was much more difficult in certain corners of Belfast and certain parts of Armagh. However, as has been made clear by the Minister, life was better than it had been for a long time in the Province. The need to end the executive is extremely sad.

Why are we here? For one reason and one reason only. The Good Friday agreement has been going very well. As the Secretary of State said in the other place, it has been fulfilled and followed in every way except one; that is, in relation to decommissioning. The people of Northern Ireland, this Government, this Parliament and the Dail have been badly let down by the provisional IRA and Sinn Fein.

The First Minister, Mr David Trimble, was courageous enough with his colleagues to jump first. Regrettably, the IRA has so far failed to follow. The Unionist Party made clear at the time that it could not sustain the position of power sharing with Sinn Fein fully armed. How could it? How can there be a democratic government with one party holding weapons under the table? Zero hour is now nigh and the Government's options are few. They have played most of their trump cards, though I hope not all. They stand to lose everything by standing by while David Trimble and the whole executive fall apart because he is forced to resign by his colleagues, or play for time and another breathing space by suspending the executive, thereby freezing the situation in a timeframe while others can think and negotiations continue.

We on this side of the House have said for some time that we support suspension if there is not a satisfactory report from General de Chastelain by the end of the week—I am nervous about Clause 9 of the Bill in that regard. We support the Government's efforts to bring the peace process on track again, and we support the Bill, though we regret the need for it.

If the Government decide to suspend the executive or are forced temporarily to do so—I hope only temporarily because perhaps decommissioning is coming forward—it may be time for a rethink; perhaps a look back in history. What is Sinn Fein's long-term objective? It is, of course, a united Ireland. Why has it changed? The IRA was founded around 1867 in support of the Irish Republican Brotherhood with the objective of putting the Brits out of Ireland. Its first insurrection failed. It was reconstituted for the 1916 Easter uprising. In 1919 it was officially recognised by Dail Eireann as the army of the Irish Republic. Between 1919 and now the IRA has been alternately linked to and divorced from both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein and it has been both inside and outside of constitutional politics. It negotiated alliances on the back of prisoner releases as long ago as 1926. Nothing in its history is new. However, it never disarmed; never gave up its objective of a united Ireland under Republicans. Why should it now disarm and accept ministerial posts in one of Her Majesty's Governments on a permanent, constitutional basis?

We have to find an alternative to Sinn Fein/IRA as representatives of the nationalist people. Perhaps the time has come—I hope this will be taken in the positive spirit in which it is meant—for Sinn Fein to find a way to disassociate itself from the IRA violence and guns and fully join in the democratic process. A new way must be found. The people of Northern Ireland, nationalists and Unionists, have a right to democratic government; to be governed by their own elected representatives. They want it and are enjoying it. While we sincerely hope that it will not be necessary to use the powers in this Bill, we support the Government in introducing it and look forward, if it has to be actioned, to the day that democracy can be returned to Ireland.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we on these Benches wish to be associated with the Minister's sentiments regarding the people of Irvinestown and the atrocity that they suffered a couple of weeks ago.

It will generally be agreed that this is yet another very disappointing and sad moment for Northern Ireland and for the vast majority of its people. It is, alas, not unique. Over the years they have been forced to experience many such moments when setbacks have triumphed over progress that had been made towards an enduring, peaceful settlement. Having come so far in achieving that goal, the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly, as proposed in the Bill—after all, they have only been fully operational for eight weeks or so—is a terrible blow to those whose hopes had been raised that a more normal, democratic and inclusive system of devolved government was well on the way to becoming established.

The present impasse is all the more dismaying in view of the Herculean efforts made at all levels. The unstinting energies applied by the Prime Minister, the Taioseach and the President of the United States are unprecedented. Successive Secretaries of State have been equally assiduous in persuading all sides to collaborate. Individual political leaders in Northern Ireland, I think it is fair to say, have strained every muscle to keep the show on the road and to maintain the necessary momentum. In the event, the point has been reached, alas, where all those efforts risk being in vain.

The suspension of the Executive and the Assembly and the consequential reimposition of direct rule are a massive step backwards and one fraught with dangers. The recent history of Northern Ireland cruelly reveals that progressive initiatives, once they falter, are never resuscitated. That is the real challenge for the immediate future. By one means or another—and it will not be easy—dialogue and contacts must be maintained by the main political actors so that history is not allowed monotonously to repeat itself. We must all hope that the suspension is of short duration.

It is vital, above all, if the proposed suspension is to have any chance of being speedily revoked, that Northern Ireland does not lapse back into the habit of intransigent, zero-sum posturings that masqueraded as politics for far too long. They must not be restored to their full futility.

Having lived in Northern Ireland for most of the 1990s, I can readily appreciate the exasperation felt by the unionist community on the one hand and, on the other, the fear among the nationalist community that many of their aims, such as the cross-border institutions, are now at risk. Above all, I recognise and share the dismay of most ordinary people in Northern Ireland that further progress at this stage does not seem possible.

However, we are where we are. Unionist opinion has reached breaking point. Almost everyone of good will and a fair mind, including the three most closely involved heads of government, agree that the time has come for the IRA to make a positive and substantive move towards decommissioning its weaponry if the Belfast agreement is to be implemented. The initiative now rests squarely with the IRA and its protagonists.

Accordingly, we on these Benches will support, albeit with a heavy heart, the proposals outlined by the Government in this Bill. In the current circumstances, as has often been remarked, suspension is the least worst option available. However, we hope that the reimposition of direct rule will be done with a light touch and that it will not be of the somewhat heavy-handed character that previously obtained. That will require all the imagination, ingenuity and dexterity with which the present Secretary of State is credited. In the Bill he has left himself with a good deal of flexibility and room for manoeuvre. We wish him well in his endeavours.

3.33 p.m.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, it is indeed a sad day for us today as we face the enactment of this legislation. In his speech, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, referred to the damage that is being done by the uncertainty about the intentions of the IRA on decommissioning. Would that there was any uncertainty! I suspect that it is because there is no uncertainty about those intentions that this Government, who were once committed to a freedom of information Act and to open government, are refusing to let us see the most important piece of information—intelligence—which would help us to judge these matters today; namely, the de Chastelain report.

It seems quite extraordinary to me that we should be asked to make judgments on this legislation and on the intentions of Her Majesty's Government while we are denied that information. Is it that the report is too optimistic and that we might get carried away and say, "Oh, the Government do not need this Bill; it's all going to come right"? Alternatively, is it so darkly pessimistic that the Government feel that it would cast a pall over our discussions and possibly tend to make us be more extreme than we hope is necessary in our reactions?

I suppose the shortest and, in some ways, the most effective speech that I could make on this subject today would be merely to say, "I told you so", because I did; and so did many others. But, sadly, the Government would not listen. For a start, had they listened to what some of us were telling them when the original Northern Ireland legislation setting up these institutions was enacted, they would have put into it the provisions that we are now being asked to make today. This Bill would then have been unnecessary. But at that time we were told that there had been "seismic shifts" in the attitude of the IRA. It is rare indeed to find a seismic shift that has done nothing whatever to alter the landscape all these months afterwards.

It is commonly held, and often said, that it is the IRA which has now precipitated this crisis by breaking its undertakings on decommissioning. Although it is absolutely certain that the crisis has been brought about by the refusal of terrorists in general—most notably the IRA—to give up their arms, it has to be said, as we must recollect, that the IRA has broken no promises whatever. It never promised to disarm; it never has; and, indeed, in the very recent past, it has made it plain that it will not do so. Perhaps that is why we are not to see the report. Nor is it customary for victorious armies to give up their guns. It was not the IRA but the Prime Minister who made the promise to the people of Northern Ireland that there would be disarmament if they voted for the Belfast agreement. It is his promise that has been broken, not the promises of the IRA.

The tragedy is that during the past two years the Government have deliberately and remorselessly thrown away every high card in their negotiating pack. Prisoners have been released; Sinn Fein is in government; and the RUC is to be dismembered. So let us not just blame the IRA for doing what comes naturally to it—what, in its own words, it "does best". We should blame those who have let the IRA get away with it.

Snatching back devolved government is surely more likely to be damaging than if devolved government had never been granted at all until there was clear evidence that the IRA was willing to disarm. There is one party that is, happily, not represented in this House and that is Sinn Fein. What we should perhaps be discussing today is: what are the intentions of Sinn Fein? Do members of Sinn Fein intend to divorce themselves from their army and behave as though they were democratic politicians? Alternatively, do they intend to sweat this one out reckoning that, on past form, it is the Government who will blink first and it is they who will profit once again by their association with a murderous, terrorist army?

3.39 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, this is the second time I have sat through a debate to bring about suspension of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. In 1974 I was part of that executive and my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees was the Secretary of State who signed the suspension order. That executive was brought to an end because of a campaign of violence by both loyalist and IRA elements. They brought that courageous experiment in devolution to an end after a short period of five months. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, delved a little into Irish history. I want to take some time drawing parallels between what happened at the time I have mentioned and what is happening now.

During the five months of the existence of the executive, the SDLP—the party of which I was leader—insisted on what it called the Council of Ireland, the Irish dimension. It was that element in the Sunningdale Agreement which brought the bitterness of the unionist population onto the streets. I am quite certain that the unionist population would have accepted the power-sharing element, but under no circumstances would they accept the Council of Ireland proposals which they saw as an element on the road to an Irish republic and the beginning of joint authority.

Incidentally, just before the downfall of that executive, we in the SDLP realised that we would not get everything we had demanded by way of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and we attempted to take it in stages. However, by that time, it was too late; the unionist population were totally opposed to the continuation of the executive. Today there are similar elements. The IRA believes that it can insist on its demands—namely, no decommissioning—and that at the end of the day it will get its way.

I have sat here over the past few years watching—sometimes with great anxiety—the concessions made to the IRA. Time and again I have viewed with awe the number of concessions that have been made, notably the release of prisoners. There are now 300 people roaming the streets of Northern Ireland who were sentenced to terms of imprisonment for murder. They have now been released. The Patten commission was established at the behest of the IRA and nationalism. The IRA has given absolutely nothing in return. The Unionist population view this as a step-by-step process until the IRA achieves all its demands.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned the beginning of the IRA. I shall develop that further. The IRA claims that its authority stems from the Easter rebellion of 1916 and the subsequent massive vote it received—from which it obtained 72 seats—as a consequence of the tide of emotion which swept Ireland after the First World War. The IRA claims that the mandate it received then still exists and that it is the sole spokesman for the people of the Irish nation.

However, everyone realises that the mandate given then to the IRA exists no longer. The only mandate which the IRA—and everyone else—has now is the Good Friday agreement. That agreement constituted a departure from previously held tribal loyalties. It was overwhelmingly voted for by means of a referendum throughout the island of Ireland. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman said, throughout the world it is recognised as the only element which can bring about peace in Ireland.

I wish to quote from two newspapers. The Irish News states: According to the IRA, the decommissioning crisis can be resolved but not on British or unionist terms". There is no mention of the aspirations of the Irish people. The Irish people have demanded decommissioning as an attempt to bring about some form of normality in Northern Ireland. The IRA cannot claim to speak on behalf of the Irish people.

An even more pungent comment—I quote it bearing in mind the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—from the Irish Times states: The leader of the Ulster Unionists, Mr David Trimble, has issued an appeal to Sinn Féin to join in eleventh-hour talks. Mr Mitchel McLaughlin declares that his party will camp out all night if necessary to try to find a way forward. It is, perhaps, remotely possible that some formula will be found in the next 48 hours. … There must be no doubt as to where responsibility for delay—it is premature to speak of failure—is to be placed. The Provisional IRA has not only refused to begin the process of decommissioning its weapons. It has not only refused to discuss a timetable for decommissioning". That editorial was not written last week but on 8th March of last year, Nothing has changed. The IRA is determined that it will not decommission. One has only to recall the words of Mr Gerry Adams on "Newsnight" yesterday evening when he made it quite clear that the IRA would not decommission.

We are now into the "blame game". Who is to blame for the present position? In my mind there is absolutely no doubt that the blame for the present situation lies with the IRA. The British Independent newspaper states: Mr Adams will persuade no reasonable person that the Ulster Unionist Party is responsible for the suspension which now seems inevitable". Sinn Fein gave to understand in negotiating the Good Friday agreement that the IRA would begin to disarm. Unionist opinion, quite reasonably, cannot tolerate dealing with it any longer in the absence of decommissioning. Sinn Fein says that it wanted to take a part in the government of Northern Ireland. That was one of its demands. It said that if it obtained that, it would stop the campaign of violence.

As one from a different political background I must say that David Trimble has shown tremendous courage in what he has tried to do with the Unionist population in Northern Ireland. Reluctantly, but realising everything that was at stake, he decided last November to enter a power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein almost certainly had given an undertaking to General de Chastelain that if the power-sharing functions were established it would begin the process of decommissioning. David Trimble's party rightly viewed his attitude with deep suspicion. He wrote a letter stating that if IRA/Sinn Fein did not decommission he would resign. That was a courageous thing for him to do at that time. It led to the formation of the power-sharing Executive. I believe that the power-sharing Executive worked well and that its Sinn Fein members worked well within it. I have no doubt that given time, and with decommissioning out of the way, there would be effective, cross-party government in Northern Ireland, which would include Sinn Fein.

However, as I say, the IRA has not given anything in return. It has clearly stated that there will be no decommissioning. In that situation David Trimble cannot continue to be First Minister. Yesterday I listened to the debate in the other place. Members said that they were opposed to the suspension, but that if there was no suspension there was no chance of decommissioning. If David Trimble is forced to resign, the whole Executive will collapse and in the next quarter of a century there will be no hope—this occurred with the previous suspension—of resurrecting political institutions in Northern Ireland which have the support of the majority.

So one has to take a chance. Those who are opposed to suspension must be asked these questions: "Do you want David Trimble to resign? Do you want that resignation to bring about the downfall and the total collapse of the present institution? Or is it better to have a temporary suspension in order that, with the help of God, the Executive may return in far less time than it took to resurrect the previous one?"

We are at a time of crisis in Northern Ireland. As much as I do not want to be seen supporting the suspension of the power-sharing Executive, I believe that that is the only course left open to us Very reluctantly, the Government and the overwhelming majority of the Irish people want to see the Assembly, after a short period of suspension, return again in its present entity, with cross-party support, including Sinn Fein. From my knowledge of Northern Ireland, I would plead with Sinn Fein to do something within the next 48 hours which will possibly keep that Executive in existence.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, it is common ground that it is enormously disappointing that the very difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland have made it necessary for the Government to present this Bill to Parliament. But I am bound to accept—I do so with gratitude—that every effort has been made by the Government—indeed, by the two Governments and by the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland—to try to avert the position in which we are now.

Sadly, the decommissioning of weapons remains an unresolved issue. Given that fact, given Mr Trimble's post-dated letter of resignation from his office of Chief Minister, and given the absence of decommissioning, the Government were faced with a heavy responsibility—indeed, an appalling responsibility.

Although I am nervous about the full consequences of this very important Bill—it has been rushed through Parliament and there may be consequences that we cannot foresee—none the less, there is common ground that this is the best way forward, and possibly the only way forward.

I join with others, again in gratitude, in noting that Mr Trimble, in good faith, made a brave decision and took a courageous step when in November or December last he entered into a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein representatives without prior decommissioning by the IRA. But there is also the other side. I, for my part, think that Mr Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership believe, in good faith, that they too have fulfilled their promises to the extent that it is within their power to do so.

I share the widespread concern that the IRA has not started the process of decommissioning. I welcome its recent statement, to which the Minister referred, expressing its desire for a permanent peace. It is more encouraging than its earlier statements, but the statement lacks precision and clarity about whether the IRA will decommission, when it will decommission and upon whose terms it will decommission.

However, one question still worries me. Given the history of the IRA, and given the history of the anti-colonial struggle in Ireland over centuries, is it possible that the demand that the IRA should yield up its arms—and that is what decommissioning means—has brought it to a threshold which it finds extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cross, at least today? If that is so—and only time will tell—that is an important issue that will not go away.

The Minister has explained very clearly that the effect of this Bill is to empower the Secretary of State to suspend devolved government. It does not abolish devolved government; the Good Friday agreement is not falling apart; suspension is not irreversible. That is why we are heartened by Clause 2 of the Bill. Under that clause the Secretary of State is to institute, As soon as is reasonably practicable after suspension begins, a review under the review section of the Belfast agreement. After taking account of the results of the review, he may restore devolved government, subject, of course, to parliamentary approval.

When my noble friend comes to reply to the debate, can he explain precisely what will be reviewed? Can he also give the slightest hint of the maximum period over which the review is to be conducted and who will conduct it?

Even if suspension comes into force during the course of the next few days, the search for a solution to the difficulties will, and must, go on. One must hope that suspension will not erode confidence in the democratic process but, rather, that it will provide a powerful incentive for all concerned to get on with the task of creating the conditions for restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland as quickly as possible.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, it gives me no pleasure as an Ulster Unionist to rise in support of this Bill today.

I know that many noble Lords will not have had an opportunity to visit the Northern Ireland Assembly. While differences between Members of that Assembly are so great as to make the differences in your Lordships' House pale into insignificance, one could be forgiven for thinking over there that one was in any other parliamentary assembly in these islands. There is robust debate—yes, of course there is—but there is also a commitment, evident on all sides, to encouraging the kind of economic redevelopment, regeneration and social inclusion that Northern Ireland so desperately needs.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships one example. Last week, the Ulster Farmers Union—traditionally seen as the voice predominantly, but not exclusively, of Protestant farmers—held a rally at Stormont to draw attention to the crisis in agriculture—a crisis, I might add, which is having more severe repercussions in Northern Ireland than in any other region of this Kingdom. There were cheers for the Unionist speakers, of course. But there were cheers also for Mr Gerry McHugh, the Sinn Fein agriculture spokesman. Things have certainly changed in the Province—and changed for the better.

Going about my business, I detect no willingness whatever in any section of the community to return to the position that we were in two years ago, let alone in the darkest days of the troubles. Northern Ireland's new Executive and democratic institutions have begun to show signs of working despite those who would gladly see them collapse. But Stormont is not like any other parliament. One of the parties in the Executive has a standing army. Two Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive are inextricably linked with the Provisional IRA. While I support the Bill, it would be folly to pretend that the prospect of the new institutions in Northern Ireland going into suspension for an indeterminate period does not concern Unionists, just as it also concerns nationalists.

While suspension is without doubt not the outcome we would have wanted, it is not the end of the world. I welcome the kind words that noble Lords have said about my party and my party leader. I especially welcome the kind words that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said about my party and the risk that we undoubtedly took to make the agreement work. Of course, it would have been far preferable for Sinn Fein/IRA to have followed the lead my friend, the right honourable Member for Upper Bann, gave and for them also to have taken with us a risk for peace. Even in the past 20 short weeks, significant progress has been made. The basic framework of a settlement—power-sharing devolution within the United Kingdom with a North-South dimension—has been vindicated. No convincing alternatives have been presented.

There is a new optimism on the streets of Belfast and in the countryside of Northern Ireland. Above all, lives have been saved. I even detect some progress from that most intractable of organisations, the IRA. Certainly its oratory has changed. Back in 1996, just after the Canary Wharf tragedy, its position was that, There will be no decommissioning either through the front or the back doors. This is an unrealistic and unrealisable demand which simply won't be met. As I stand here today, that has been replaced at least by a softer-sounding commitment that the peace process is under no threat from the IRA.

However, the option of a return to war remains very real. Even the test set by Northern Ireland's nationalist Deputy First Minister—a commitment to decommissioning and a start date—still shows no signs of being satisfied. Even that would still be some way away from the understandings given last November to a start to actual dismantling of the structures of terrorism.

If the peace process is to succeed, it requires all of us to set aside traditional assumptions and ways of thinking. Even those who have committed the vilest acts must be given a chance to show that they have changed their ways. They have been given that chance. Almost as soon as the review of the Belfast agreement conducted by Senator George Mitchell was completed, two Sinn Fein spokesmen, Mr Pat Doherty and Mr Martin Ferris, were convincing their supporters in America that no commitment to decommissioning had been given. One assumes that they believed that even if the Unionists raised decommissioning again, Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Irish Republic would cave in to the implicit threat of renewed violence.

It pleases me to see, therefore, that there is a determination on both sides of the Irish Sea that this issue be resolved once and for all. I trust that that pleasure will not turn into pain if that determination weakens in any way. The prospect of the only decommissioning occurring being that of the Northern Ireland Executive and the North-South and east-west institutions appals every section of opinion, including, I believe, many Sinn Fein supporters.

The pretence that the agreement did not require the weapons of war to be put aside has been shown to be just that—a mere pretence. While Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland both face confidently into a new future based on mutually beneficial co-operation and partnership, the people of the island of Ireland are being held to ransom by a small nucleus of militants who cannot accept the loss of status that decommissioning involves. I am glad that the decision to suspend the institutions if there was a default by the IRA was endorsed by the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, on 23rd November 1999 in Dail Eireann. If the institutions are suspended, no one can predict with confidence when they will be revived. If trust it will not be for long.

However, for once, the paths of expediency and morality have converged. Once suspended, the chances of Mr Adams persuading his militants that the Sinn Fein Ministers can be reinstated without decommissioning occurring are nil. At the same time, weakness from Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government at this stage would have convinced the militants that London and Dublin are open to bullying and threats. Mr Adams's job would be made all the harder, given that the process cannot succeed without unionist involvement. Support for the Belfast agreement has already fallen within the Unionist community. Be assured that any attempt to proceed again on the basis of vague statements will not carry majority support.

Even as this legislation comes to its final stages, we must not give up hope that the republicans will rescue the situation. Mr Adams must know that decommissioning is a necessary and inevitable part of the process of making peace. By supporting the Bill today, we can send a powerful message to the republican movement that all the people of Northern Ireland cannot be expected to endure what the Taoiseach called an "armed peace". I trust it will receive support from all sides of the House.

4.7 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I too strongly support the Bill as a necessity and the only way of preserving the progress so far of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. I endorse the comments made with reference to the fact that we do not have the de Chastelain report to read. I join others in asking the Minister why that is so.

The vast majority—that is to say, everyone except those inextricably linked with terrorism—will be deeply saddened and devastated when our devolved administration is suspended. The sole reason for that is, of course, the lack of decommissioning at this stage. The reasons we are given are incomprehensible even to those of us who live in Northern Ireland. The danger, threat and ability to blackmail as a result of the retention of illegal weapons and explosives has been brought into reality too many times, including the tragedy of the Omagh bomb and, to prove that that was not the end of it, the bomb in Irvinestown a few miles from my home on Sunday evening. It was incredibly lucky that no one was hurt in that attack.

The requirement for decommissioning, which is at the base of the matter, is incumbent on all groups, whether they be so-called loyalist or Republican, within the Good Friday agreement. I should like to remind your Lordships why it is primarily the intransigence of Sinn Fein/IRA that has brought us to this sad day.

Sinn Fein is the only party which is inextricably linked with a terrorist group and which has a place on the Northern Ireland Executive. Therefore, it is Sinn Fein/IRA alone who can enable the immense effort, compromise and courage of others to bear fruit at this time. It is only they who seem determined to destroy the progress and hopes of so many, despite their protestations otherwise. Sinn Fein says that it did not agree in the Good Friday agreement to decommission any weapons. However, it did agree to paragraph 3 on decommissioning on page 20 of the agreement. It says: They also confirm their intention"— as did everyone else— to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement". That is what brings us to the date of 22nd May of this year. The key words in the agreement are "to work constructively" and "to use any influence". It is for everyone, including the two governments, to investigate and question rigorously whether or not Sinn Fein has carried out its commitment.

Let us look at the practicalities. Sinn Fein includes many members of the IRA and a few who have been members of the IRA Army Council. They know where many of the arms dumps are, or at least where they were until they were conveniently moved. I believe that, due to the sophistication of these hides, many of the weapons are still where they were when these Sinn Fein personalities were active members. However, can the Minister confirm whether or not any member of Sinn Fein has discussed these locations with the independent commission? Would that not constitute the very minimum of commitment required under the Good Friday agreement? Can the Minister tell us whether the commission has been shown the location of a single bunker or long-term store, albeit empty? I believe that the answer to that is "No", and that Sinn Fein has failed in every respect on decommissioning.

Although it has condemned in public the perpetrators of the Irvinestown bomb, it does not help in any way in discovering the recent origins of the explosives that were used. The perpetrators, we are told, are a splinter group—originally members of the IRA known to the Army Council. The explosives would have been held by the IRA until recently. Is this total lack of co-operation from these people acceptable when they say that they have embraced the democratic process and sit on the Executive? They will have to do better than that.

The Government have paid a high price and the people of Northern Ireland a higher one: immunity, prisoner releases, reduced military activity, and so on; and devolution and seats on the Executive. Sinn Fein has brought nothing with it. That is why this very sad day has come about. Incidentally, can the Minister tell us what the status of the prisoners released on licence will be if the entire Good Friday agreement falls apart?

With reference to decommissioning, my Lords, you may think that I oversimplify it all. I beg you to understand that I do not. Having been a member of the security forces for many years and having studied the modus operandi of the terrorists in depth, I know how quickly they can produce weapons should a target present itself. It is measured in hours, not weeks, months and years. If Sinn Fein lived up to its signed-up commitment, it could start decommissioning before the Bill completes its passage. It is to be hoped that the efforts being made by the Taoiseach and by the Prime Minister might enable that to happen. But I can assure your Lordships that it is feasible in the time-scale—before tomorrow evening.

I should like to ask the Minister two short questions. First, on the Good Friday agreement, in paragraph 3 on decommissioning, which I have already read out, the date given for completion is two years after the referendum, which gives us the date of 22nd May. If that fails to occur, can the review change that date? Is it empowered to do so?

Secondly, Clause 2 of the Bill states that if suspension takes place prior to a restoration order, the Secretary of State must take into account the results of the review. If decommissioning starts, how long will the review take and will all the parties have to sign up to it? Discussions may be used by many to hinder the progress and delay it. What is the possible time-scale and how will the Government get round this? Should decommissioning start—that is the last hurdle—between the suspension and 22nd May, can a review be avoided?

I support this Bill most strongly, but hope that even at this late stage its enactment might be avoided by some movement from the intransigent parties.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I believe Sinn Fein/IRA have claimed that the Government's proposal to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive is unlawful. That this was, however, implicit in the agreement is evident in the validation and review provision in paragraph 7, which states: If difficulties arise which require remedial action across the range of institutions, or otherwise require amendment of the British-Irish Agreement or relevant legislation, the process of review will fall to the two Governments in consultation with the parties in the Assembly. Each Government will be responsible for action in its own jurisdiction". The two governments, in their July 1999 statement, "The Way Forward", drew on this in what they described as a fail-safe clause, under which they undertook that, in accordance with the review provisions of the agreement, if commitments under that agreement were not met, either in relation to decommissioning or devolution, they would automatically and with immediate effect suspend the operation of the institutions set up by the agreement. The statement went on to say, in relation to decommissioning, that this action must be taken on receipt of a report at any time where the commitments now being entered into, or steps which are automatically laid down by the de Chastelain commission, are not fulfilled in accordance with the Good Friday agreement. The British Government would legislate to that effect.

For the first time, Sinn Fein/IRA were presented with a clear warning that it was time for them to act or to lose the major political advantages they had gained—and they were many. On 17th November the IRA said that it would appoint a representative to talk to General de Chastelain and his commission. By 5th December both the IRA and, incidentally, the Ulster Freedom Fighters had appointed representatives. On 10th December General de Chastelain reported that, initial contacts provide the basis for an assessment that decommissioning will occur". So far, so good. Meanwhile, on 22nd November, the Secretary of State, noting the IRA's statement that it was committed unequivocally to the "search for freedom, justice and peace in Ireland", noting also both Sinn Fein/IRA's acceptance that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process, to be brought about under the aegis of the commission, and the IRA's acknowledgement of the Sinn Fein leadership, had accepted Senator Mitchell's belief that a basis did exist for devolution to occur, for the institutions to be established and for decommissioning to take place as soon as possible. That was the build-up. Not least, the Unionists had courageously decided to jump first and enabled devolution to occur on the clear understanding that that would open the way for voluntary decommissioning by the IRA. But the IRA has become accustomed to getting away with statements—with words and not actions—and, moreover, statements which mean one thing to them and another to the ordinary man. It has not been accustomed to having its bluff called.

It must be said, however, that it has never at any time said that it would decommission. It even reinforced that in recent statements in the United States. The fault has lain with those who wished to believe that it had. Incidentally, the infamous bargain struck for it in the location of victims' remains Act, which produced only three bodies in return for total amnesty for murderers of many more, is an example. On this occasion, as so often before, it thought that they could get away with doing no serious business whatever with the de Chastelain commission. I am only amazed that anyone thought that it would.

The report has not been published, and I deplore that. It was, however, possibly because, according to the IRA's own statement of 2nd February, it has, never entered into any agreement or undertaking or understanding at any time whatsoever on any aspect of decommissioning". That could hardly be clearer. It seems to have thought that it was having those discussions, to help move the political situation out of a vacuum very generous! Its representative passed his time, according to its own statement, stressing that we are totally committed to the peace process, that the IRA wants a permanent peace, that the IRA guns are silent, and that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA". That is what the unfortunate general seems to have been listening to for quite a long time, one assumes. Clearly, it has not, according to its own statement, discussed in the three meetings that have taken place the modalities, the timing or anything else practical at all.

It is significant that another IRA statement says, The issue of arms needs to be dealt with m an acceptable way, and this is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process. For that reason we support it to secure the resolution of the arms issue". The issue of arms is IRA-speak for demilitarisation of our forces, the removal of the legitimate Armed Forces and the disarming and disbandment of the RUC. That is what it means to them. Gerry Adams knows that, and knew it when the review was taking place.

The terms of decommissioning are so far absolutely non-threatening: those handing in arms benefit by an amnesty which has been extended year by year since the 1997 Act. Indeed, an order of 1999 extended the current amnesty until 24th February 2000—a fact of which I imagine the IRA will not be unaware. They will know, too, that as the decommissioning commission report of July 1999 states, in an annex, the 1997 decommissioning Acts in both the UK and Ireland specified, that methods and manners (schemes) to be used for decommissioning require the destruction of the arms being decommissioned". I have gone into such detail because two significant things have now happened. The first is that Mr Seamus Mallon, leader of the SDLP and therefore a respected voice for the large Catholic and not necessarily republican community, has put the two questions that the IRA has never yet been asked to answer: "Will you decommission?" and, "If so, when?".

Some have argued that the IRA can go right up to the wire and make no decision until 22nd May, two years after the conclusion of the agreement. Sinn Fein/IRA are already arguing that the deadline should be two years after the institutions are in place and working. But the crucial questions which all those people in Northern Ireland and the Republic who voted for peace in 1998 (71 per cent of the 81 per cent turn-out in the North, 94 per cent of the 56 per cent turn-out in the South) are asking those two questions. What is stopping Sinn Fein/IRA from answering? And how, incidentally, do the IRA reconcile its claim in their latest statement that, the peace process is under no threat from the IRA", and that its guns have been silent, with the importation from the US last year, and no doubt before, of significant quantities of machine- and hand-guns, not by the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA but, according to the Gardai, by the Provisional IRA (PIRA), whose local leaders have been telling the rank and file that these were new weapons to replace the old. I say nothing of the separate issue of continuing violence towards their its communities.

It is in any case fairly irrelevant whether it is the PIRA, the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA, since there can be no doubt that the army council would never have tolerated the existence and operations of those groups if they were not serving the interests of the Provisional IRA. They are very useful and will be deployed to threaten us; and they can then be disowned.

I spoke of two significant events. The second was the fact that the Government, and this Secretary of State in particular, are now confronting Sinn Fein/IRA and calling their bluff. They are not sheltering behind the Unionists, and they are at long last representing the large majority who do not want to live in a most fragile peace courtesy of Sinn Fein/IRA. Of course it is a risky policy, and Sinn Fein/IRA will make, and no doubt carry out, many dire threats, such as Gerry Adams's latest threat that this will make the IRA break off talks with the commission. So what? It has not discussed anything but its own agenda, which is not to give an inch.

There will be dangerous times ahead, and the maverick element in Unionism could still, alas, present problems, as could the loyalist paramilitaries. The Irish Government will want very badly to appease Sinn Fein/IRA for internal political reasons—and I fear that we may be trying to do so to some extent through the disqualification Bill and in possible legislation to allow Sinn Fein to raise funds abroad. The Bloody Sunday inquiry opens in Londonderry next month, to add to the possible flashpoints.

I strongly urge the Secretary of State—who has understood so well that the IRA, like any other negotiator, knows when it has met someone prepared to call its bluff—not to forget even now the need for confidence building in the wider community. It is not only Protestant Unionists who feel that this is not the time to make changes in the RUC, whose courage and professionalism we shall need more than ever, nor to consider tacit deals which might be proposed to equate paramilitary arms with those of the regular forces and lower our defences. Any move towards trying to find ways to please the IRA will only confuse the issue and weaken the Government's case. I beg them not to appease.

I believe that the Executive is strong enough to resume its work in due course, without loss of effectiveness, when the conditions are right and that, meanwhile, much can be done at local level. I hope that Northern Ireland Ministers will associate appropriate members of the Executive with the practical work, if that is possible.

After the commitments made, we have no choice but to suspend the process now. The Secretary of State has shown both courage and resolution, and I have confidence that the two governments will now find ways to enable the IRA to enter the real world, without, however, confusing that with further appeasement. I think we all recognise that there will be a dangerous period of uncertainty—and of course we may not solve the problem—but any other course than the one taken would have been far more dangerous. Meanwhile, it is not yet time for so-called normalisation. The IRA has not gone away.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Eames

My Lords, like many who have lived and worked in Northern Ireland for most of their lifetime, I find a mixture of emotions as I address the Bill. First, I find sadness that, after so much suffering in the Province, a period that appeared to offer the promise of hope appears to have been eroded. I find disappointment because the efforts of two governments and politicians, many of whom have shown exemplary courage, appear to have produced stalemate. I find frustration because the political process has been unable to produce fresh stability and hope for a long-suffering community. Above all, I find a sense of sorrow—for Unionists and Protestants, nationalists and Roman Catholics, who in overwhelming numbers trusted. Today they question whether that trust has been returned.

As a churchman of no party political allegiance who has ministered through 30 years of violence, death and destruction and who has seen the depths of loss suffered by so many families because of terrorism, I see the necessity of the Bill as a sharp reminder of reality. That reality is that the long, long journey to political stability in Northern Ireland has reached a point of sober reflection. Far from being the end of a journey in which so much has been invested, we have reached the point where a basic question has to be faced—but faced not through language of condemnation, victory or surrender, but with a realism born of experience. To me, that basic question is: how can we remove the negative, destructive and life-threatening forces from society and make political progress without losing all that has been gained in the past few years?

As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, reminded us, much has been achieved, but beyond that progress, and even the Bill we are now considering, the one element that we have failed to achieve in Northern Ireland is the total removal of the instruments of destruction. They hang over us like a sword and appear from time to time in varying intensity. But they have a definite link with the two elements that must be stressed in the sense of reality: fear and trust. Even now, fear and trust go hand in hand in the Province. Until we build trust between and within communities and among individuals there is a continuing danger that these weapons—the subject of the decommissioning debate—will be used. Above all else, that is what brings us to this moment.

Beyond the established political realities for Unionists and republicans, we must remember the important moral issues as we address the Bill. If we are to see its implementation by the Secretary of State in the next few days I urge the Minister and, through him, the Government and all parties here and in Northern Ireland to do all they can to keep open the doors of dialogue. From my point of view, and I believe many others, the real risk is that if the Bill is implemented in the next 48 hours or so there will be a sense of déjà) vu and, with the lifting of pressure, the negative issues on all sides of our community, which have been so detrimental to party political progress, will come into full play. I beg both the Government and this House to recognise that that is the biggest single danger to be faced, not only during the further review, but when this Bill, with its consequences, is implemented.

It would be very easy to close the door and walk away from discussion in the weeks ahead. Such action would be disastrous for us all. The door must stay open. If we are to have any real hope for the future, neither a return to direct rule nor real or imaginary excuses by any politician or party in Northern Ireland to withdraw into the perceived comfort of political closets will achieve anything. If we are to find democracy, shared responsibility, leadership and communal decency, all instruments of destruction and death must be removed from the scene once and for all. Too many lives have been lost for us to have any doubt in our minds that the removal of such instruments, whether in republican or—let us not forget—loyalist hands, would be a major step in building up the confidence and trust to which I have referred.

I recognise the difficulties that so-called decommissioning presents to both communities. I also recognise that there are times when we dwell in a fairytale world in which decommissioning appears to be the last obstacle to he removed. Let us be honest about: there are many elements of the armaments in Northern Ireland which could be replaced in less than 24 hours. Let us be honest about the existence of Semtex and the use made of agricultural fertilisers. That is not the point. As I travel between here and Northern Ireland and listen to debates in this House, I sense an unreality about decommissioning. We seek the decommissioning of a mindset, attitude and feeling on the part of some that as long as they possess these weapons they can get their way. That is immoral, undemocratic and, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, reminds us constantly in this House, one of the greatest underlying causes of mistrust and fear.

At the moment, within the Unionist as well as the republican community there is great confusion of thought. We are told that those in the republican community do not trust their Unionist neighbours. I make no apology for saying that within the Unionist community there is a deep and palpable desire for lasting peace and stability, but also a feeling that the pace and cost to them of the political peace process has resulted it a hardening of attitude to decommissioning. Whether we like it or not, that reaction is summed up in the perception that it has had to give, give and give again without achieving what it wants most: the removal of weapons.

Those are just a few of the realities that underlie the debate on the Bill. But those realities cannot be divorced from this debate or any review that follows in the days ahead. I refer to Clause 2 which bears the description "Ending suspension". As we debate this Bill, let none of us forget that if there is not a continuation of dialogue and a recognition of the cost of political failure in lives and destruction, Northern Ireland will face years of continuing danger and erosion. I genuinely believe that there is a will to progress in both communities, and the people of Northern Ireland of all shades of opinion deserve it. The Churches are ready and willing to play their part in practical ways. I pray God that we shall all find new courage and trust to see a way forward together.

4.37 p.m.

Lord Molyneux of Killead

My Lords, I am greatly relieved to follow my noble friend Lord Eames the most reverend Primate of All Ireland. In that role he is responsible for my spiritual well-being but cannot be held accountable for my words and actions in the temporal sphere, and for that he must be very thankful.

I intend to be brief because much has already been said. In any case, I have tabled amendments for the remaining stages of the Bill tomorrow which I hope will also be constructive and brief. I support the Bill for two reasons. First, if the Bill is speedily implemented, it will protect the United Kingdom from censure, and possibly expulsion, from the European Union. The EU is now threatening Austria because 27 per cent of its electorate voted for the Freedom Party which does not contain convicted terrorists or rely on a terrorist wing. That is the situation as I understand it. In comparison, Her Majesty's Government have placed in government—we all share in this responsibility—those whose record is plain to see. For some reason, the Foreign Secretary has ignored the highly dangerous position in which Britain finds itself. None the less, the Bill will remove that fault, provided it is implemented speedily.

My second reason for supporting the Bill is that it protects David Trimble from a very great peril. It has already been said—I join in the tribute to Mr David Trimble—that in the Mitchell review last autumn it was clearly agreed, without any fanfare of trumpets, that someone should blink first. By that, it meant the two main protagonists, David Trimble and Mr Adams. That was refined subtly to a further demand that some one should jump first. That David Trimble did—not in the recent few weeks but as far back as the end of November—by simply putting in a sealed letter the date by which he felt that he could sustain his position no longer if his jumping first had not been followed by that which Mr Adams implicitly agreed to do: to jump as well.

So noble Lords can be forgiven for resenting the treatment meted out by the Northern Ireland Office. I exonerate all the Ministers because they are not entirely masters in their own house. That department makes a practice of prematurely producing legislation in advance of what one might term reasonable proof that its exotic schemes are likely to survive the test of constitutional realism. It has become standard practice to dash ahead of mature consideration and hope that wishing will make the matter come true. That procedure worked originally two years ago when the Belfast agreement was endorsed by a population stampeded and bewildered by a propaganda campaign which would have reduced Dr Goebbels to the role of tea boy.

It is not surprising that the thousands of "Yes" voters now feel embittered by false promises made at the highest level and never delivered. It is inevitable that all the spin doctoring and brainwashing should produce a swings-and-roundabouts attitude even at collective party leadership level. Hence the demeaning impact upon the Parliament of the United Kingdom, this House and another place. Your Lordships will remember the year 1998 when we in this House were stopped in our tracks from considering a major Northern Ireland Bill because the Secretary of State had acted in contradiction of the department's decision 24 hours earlier. It has to be accepted that such behaviour is bound to damage the standing of governments and of Parliament itself.

Having made mention of those examples of the unworkability of schemes in general, it is surely now in the national interest to examine the problems which were apparently unforeseen. In all three regions—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—there was much rejoicing over the phrase "power back to our own hands". Two years on, local leaders are judged not on their ability to exercise the power delivered back into their hands, but (to use an ominous phrase used in all three regions of the United Kingdom), "to stand up to London". That means to stand up to the policies of the supreme sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, and in particular to the Treasury.

As regards Northern Ireland, there will be much bleating about the vacuum. But with 30 years' experience behind me I propose with great respect and in all humility an effective remedy. I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Eames: that dialogue must be kept going. But dialogue is very different from a form of scaled-down or upgraded Mitchell review. We need an upgrading of local government. That was promised over 20 years ago and rejected or sabotaged in the early 1980s on the ground that "it was not enough", although it had been endorsed a few weeks earlier by 14.5 million of the United Kingdom electorate. Yet still "it was not enough".

I know that the proposal was not enough for the ambitions of the Northern Ireland Office and its big brothers in the Foreign Office. For them there is no scope for international summits in doing something modest and workable. It is dreary stuff; it is not of interest to the press, television, and so on. We have been restricted to high-wire acts without even a safety net. But a remarkable scene has developed in Northern Ireland. The noble Lords, Lord Eames and Lord Fitt, touched on this issue. Local councils have made great progress despite the fact that they were deprived of much of their power—I have to admit by my own party, no doubt with my support in the early 1970s. But they have clawed back power which they were never meant to have. They are exercising that power in the best interests of the entire community.

I give noble Lords one example of a neighbouring council with an Ulster Unionist majority. It can outvote all the other parties put together. It has chosen as its mayor a Catholic from the SDLP Party. Not only did it give him a term for the sake of it; it re-elected him for the current year because it admired the way he was guiding the council with the full support of all but one tiny party, the identity of which noble Lords can guess.

However, perhaps most significant is the Belfast City Council which is only one step down from the Assembly. There, one has representatives of all the parties, including Sinn Fein, and others, so-called loyalist paramilitaries, sitting round the council table. Because they respect the wishes of the electorate who sent them there, they co-operate in the best interest of the entire community. My noble friend Lord Rogan is under their jurisdiction in the sense that he is a resident and a ratepayer. But that is a burden we all have to bear!

Let us give Belfast City Council—the largest one—and its fellow councillors in every other area a further range of responsibilities. I shall be rash and guarantee that within one year we shall see a transformed Northern Ireland. But we shall not achieve that if we go for yet another Mitchell review, the high-wire act, television cameras on the lawn, with journalists buttonholing all the participants as they enter and leave the council locality, and setting one side against the other. We need quiet, calm deliberation; trusting each other. Let there be private talk but, whatever else we do, let us make certain that we give real substance to that new spirit to which every speaker has subscribed. It does not owe everything to the Good Friday agreement. It was taking place long before that. Let us make certain that that is now underpinned and made to stick.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I share the sadness that has been expressed at the perceived need for the Bill before us today. That sadness is a little mitigated by one small item of good news: that the Springfield Road campus for university and further education is now, at last after many years, to go ahead. I know that local people on either side of the peace line have been widely and deeply consulted about that project. It has generated a great deal of worthwhile cross-community collaborative work.

I welcome the fact that this Bill provides for a restoration order. Like the two previous speakers from these Benches, I plead as strongly as I can for the maintenance in Northern Ireland of all possible channels for political dialogue. I should like to mention a few of them. First, the Executive is still in existence today, as I understand it. Could it not continue in shadow form during whatever interim period we may be facing? Secondly, the Assembly has been elected and set up at considerable public expense. Could it not continue in a consultative, if not a legislative, mode? It may be that the Assembly will have to be called something else. Perhaps it might be renamed the "Convention"; I know not.

There is so much that it could usefully discuss. For example, there is the reform of the criminal justice in Northern Ireland; the prevention of crime; and the development of restorative justice at local level. Those are issues in which I have a personal interest. Could it not also discuss the future of policing, which is another urgent and serious question? Could it not take much further than hitherto the accountability of the many quangos?

The cross-border bodies have been mentioned already. I hope and pray that the essence of their work will be continued by whatever means. They are important, possibly vital, bodies. It is most desirable that there should be no break in the continuity of that kind of work. The Belfast agreement provided for something called the Civic Forum, drawn partly from voluntary organisations and other bodies. As far as I know, it has not yet started work. I believe that it could have a role in developing and strengthening civil society.

As the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, mentioned, there are the district and city councils, particularly those, as he indicated, which have developed varying degrees of power-sharing among their political parties and membership. Surely ways could be found to enable them to undertake greater responsibilities.

What is the alternative if ways of continuing political dialogue are not found? In that case I believe that those outside politics, the splinter groups who have always rejected agreement, and the political parties who have not signed up to the Belfast agreement or who wish to see major changes and revisions, are the kind of people who will benefit. That would be most unsatisfactory.

I make two other points. I hope that ways and means will be found for having available conflict resolution processes to deal with the most contentious issues that exist in Northern Ireland. I mention one; namely, the routing of those marches on which agreement cannot be easily or readily found. By conflict resolution processes, I mean independent processes professionally assisted by qualified people. Methods of these kinds can lead to shared analysis and to problem-solving approaches.

Finally, I strongly support all that my noble friend Lord Eames said about the importance of building trust, the role of the Churches in helping to achieve that, and about building peace at every level of society. I am sure that he is only too willing to give a strong lead with a view to having all the Churches working in the same direction. I trust that this can happen.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, this is a sad, but not unforeseen, event. On the last occasion we spoke on this subject my noble friend Lord Dubs did himself out of a job while moving an order. I remember saying that if the IRA decommissioned there would be other IRAs. It is the nature of the IRA to have different incarnations. Last Sunday we saw that another splinter group has become active.

There has always been a difficulty to which I have alluded before. The central difficulty is that we have both a post-colonial situation and one within the jurisdiction of a sovereign country. History hangs on that question, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies spoke about the anti-colonial struggle and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, spoke about a victorious army. I do not believe that the IRA is a victorious army; it is an undefeated one. That is one difference.

On the one hand we have a settlement within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom Parliament and on the other we have a kind of hangover from an old colonial struggle. That makes it very difficult to grasp the IRA situation properly. As already stated, the IRA was not part of the Good Friday agreement. I do not condone what it does. As also stated, it never promised to decommission. A number of leading people, responsible politicians on all sides, thought they understood there was a promise to decommission. As recently as last November David Trimble thought he had an understanding of some sort. It defies all the knowledge of history which these leading figures must have. An army which decommissions ceases to exist. The IRA would have to wind up if it decommissioned. I hoped that it would. But because that was never explicit we have now reached a situation where the present period of devolution has lasted for a shorter period than that of 25 years ago. I never thought that that would be the case.

We have to do what we have to do. There is no escape from that. There have been various hopeful suggestions which I wish to emphasise. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, says that across Northern Ireland there are examples of co-operative power-sharing between the various factions. The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, is unfortunately not in her place. I remember her saying in a previous discussion that we have practical experience. It is a very healthy sign that that has not been marred by the high theatricals at top-level negotiations.

I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said. I was going to say it myself, but he took my point. I hope that, either officially under Clause 2 of the Bill or unofficially, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will keep some form of Assembly and Executive going, perhaps in a shadow form or as a review body. It should not be dismantled, although it could be stripped of its powers.

However, there is a difficulty because Clause 1(3) states: Neither the Assembly nor any committee of the Assembly is to hold a meeting or conduct any business". That is unnecessary and I wish it was not in the Bill. I can see that under subsection (2)— No Act is to be passed by the Assembly"— it can meet every day to discuss issues, but it just will not have any legislative powers. I wonder whether it is a little too strong.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for giving way. He might have gone on to say that a further difficulty is that if the legislation is used, when the Assembly and Executive are restored, the procedure for re-electing the First and Deputy First Ministers will be precisely the same; and the odds are that they will be precisely the same Ministers, which means that it will be impossible to restore the Assembly and the Executive unless in the mean time there has been a real change over the decommissioning of arms.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. I agree with him and I want to deal with that issue. I want to raise the problem of the constitutionality of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, addressed the problem, but I want my noble friend to confirm that it is the case. In last Saturday's Irish Times, my colleague, Professor Brendan O'Leary, wrote an article in which he raised doubts on this score. I am not a constitutional expert, but he is. Therefore, I quote from what he wrote: In effect the Good Friday agreement made Northern Ireland into a 'federacy'—a self-governing unit whose constitution could not be unilaterally altered by the Westminster Parliament without the consent of the devolved Assembly. For the UK Parliament to assume that right of suspension would be consistent with the agreement only if it were to be supported by the Assembly through cross-community consent procedures". I have quoted that passage because I should like my noble and learned friend to say that my colleague is wrong.

The relevant point is that when we passed the Act in 1998 we also repealed Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. I have heard that that is what gave north and south Ireland a right to self-determination. No one else has raised the issue and it would be good to have clarification of it.

There is another issue in relation to the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers. I am told that it is contained in the Good Friday agreement. My colleague states in his article: However, within the letter and procedures of the 1998 Act, agreed by the parties as the UK enactment of the Good Friday agreement, the Assembly can propose, by weighted majority, any intro vires amendment to the procedure for electing the First and Deputy First Minister, which could then be sent to Westminster for ratification". That refers to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. Politically, it would be impossible to get two different First and Deputy First Ministers, but there is a great deal of ambiguity about what is and is not possible under the agreement. After all, the Good Friday agreement is an international treaty; it is not a piece of UK legislation. Therefore, if we do not fulfil the obligations perhaps we can be taken to some European court or other. It would be bad luck indeed if that happened at this stage.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster

My Lords, I share the disappointment expressed by other noble Lords at the developments that have made it necessary for the Government to introduce the Bill. I wish that I could say that I was as surprised as I am disappointed. An hour or so ago, a noble Lord with whom I have in the past worked on Irish matters said to me, "We have been here before". Well, not quite here perhaps, but brought up short by similar set-backs.

We are told by the IRA that the problem of decommissioning can be resolved, but not on British or Unionist terms. I suppose that that means on IRA terms. But we are not told what the terms would be. Any agreement must involve give and take on all sides. It may be literally true, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, that there has never been a clear and formal commitment on the part of the PIRA to decommission arms or explosives. But we have been allowed—I might almost say "encouraged"—to hope and believe that as part of the peace process there might at least be a measure of decommissioning in the time-scale of the Belfast agreement and what developed from it. As that is not to be the case, the course which the Government now propose is, as one noble Lord said, the least worse course open to them.

I am attracted by the notion that, even if it is necessary to suspend the new institutions, we should keep discussion going and keep the doors open, as the noble Lord, Lord Eames, said. Whether that can be done by keeping on the move in shadow form the institutions that have been suspended, I do not know. I rather doubt it.

However, on that score, I want to add one comment. The past 15 years, since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough, have seen a great and growing improvement in the trust and confidence that persists between the British and Irish Governments. We have had much less megaphone diplomacy and much more serious and business-like discussion, if need be in private. I hope that I may be forgiven for believing that that improvement was one of the results of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985; both of the agreement itself and of the process of discussion and negotiation that led up to it.

If the new institutions in Northern Ireland, and between the two parts of Ireland and within the British Isles as a whole, now have to be suspended, it will be of the first importance that that growth of confidence, trust and co-operation between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland should not be imperilled or impaired. That it should be maintained and improved is, and will continue to be, an indispensable element not only in resolving the present impasse but also in developing longer-term solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that it will continue to be the care and object of Her Majesty's Government to make sure that their relationship with the Irish Government is not allowed to deteriorate as a result of suspension, but will be confirmed and strengthened.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I share in the sadness that this legislation is necessary, the more so as it contrasts with the hopes and excitement that some of us felt last December when devolution took place. That sense of hope and excitement was clearly marked in Northern Ireland, where most people felt that a new era had begun. For the two months of devolution, we have been able to watch the new Assembly at work and the new Executive has, by and large, functioned reasonably well. Furthermore, we have seen politics in Northern Ireland move forward to discussing the kind of issues that are the stuff of real day-to-day democratic politics. Whether that is the crisis in Northern Ireland agriculture or the location of a maternity hospital in Belfast, these are real and proper political issues. They represent a move towards democracy.

That is why the disappointment today is much more palpable because we have been able to see that the new institutions can work. We have seen the north/south bodies work, and yet, here we are, faced with the bitter pill that, overall, all parts of the Good Friday agreement have not come about. Nevertheless, I share the hope expressed by my noble friend Lord Fitt that, even at this late stage, with only a couple of days to go, might it not be possible for the IRA to decommission some of their store of weapons and explosives? If they were to do so, the whole situation in Northern Ireland would yet again be transformed.

Life today for the people of Northern Ireland is immeasurably better than it was several years ago. There is peace; it may not be total security, but there is a measure of peace. We can see more prosperity. As the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, pointed out, all over Ireland we can see better co-operation across the political divide at the local authority level. Positive works of co-operation are taking place in local partnerships. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, mentioned Belfast City Council as an example of one local authority, but of course there have been many others.

The noble Lord also touched on local government reform. I agree with him that that reform is necessary. However, I am not sure that now is the right time to embark upon it. I had always hoped that the new Assembly and Executive would seize this issue and make progress en it. Certainly it is a matter that, sooner or later, must be addressed.

Over the years I have tried to understand the position of at least some of the main parties in Northern Ireland. One conclusion I have come to is that most of them have very little margin for manoeuvre, when one takes into account the constraints under which they operate. Certainly I am convinced that David Trimble, who has shown enormous courage in the moves that he has made, does not have much more margin for manoeuvre over and above what he has already done. I do not believe that he would have been able to set up the Executive through the support of his Ulster Unionist Council without agreeing that there would a further meeting of the EUC—the one that is to take place on Saturday—nor indeed without the draft letter of resignation that he has penned.

Over my time in Northern Ireland I often heard members of Sinn Fein saying that David Trimble must face down the Unionists; that was the phrase they used. On the few occasions that I entered into discussions on this, I would say that David Trimble had moved as far as he could—although that is not a phrase that I particularly like to use. Last November he then moved even a little further. He did so publicly. We know what is going on in the Ulster Unionist Party. It is public and out in the open, as it should be with a proper democratic party. For that reason, we can make our own judgment about how little room for manoeuvre is available to David Trimble.

Last November David Trimble stated that he would be prepared to jump first, provided that the IRA jumped afterwards. As I understand it, he made it clear that he would not have long, after jumping first, before the IRA would need to jump, otherwise he would not be able to hold his position. Indeed, sadly, that has proved to be the case. The question that we should now ask is: why did the IRA not jump when it knew the position he was in and knew the basis upon which the Assembly set up the Executive?

Personally, I believe that the leadership of Sinn Fein does want decommissioning; or at least I think that I believe that. I am not certain because we do not know. Such discussions are not held in public, unlike those of the other parties in Northern Ireland. But I think that there is at least a chance that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would like to see decommissioning come about. However, they have not managed to secure support for that within the Sinn Fein/IRA organisation.

I have heard senior members of Sinn Fein state in public meetings that they personally believe that decommissioning must take place. Indeed, perhaps I may refer to the IRA statement published a few days ago. Some parts of that statement are unhappy and uncompromising, but I should like to quote a few lines from the end: We recognise that the issue of arms needs to be dealt with in an acceptable way and this is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process. For that reason, we support efforts to secure the resolution of the arms issue. The peace process is under no threat from the IRA If that means anything, I believe that it means that the IRA has moved on the position it held some time ago. How much it might mean, I cannot say, because there are certain enigmatic phrases in the statement. However, I believe there to be an element of movement, or otherwise what do the words, the issue of arms needs to be dealt with", mean? That must mean something different from the present position.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is clutching at straws, and I can understand why. The statement of the IRA is not incompatible with the position that it will give up its arms when the British Army—the army of the United Kingdom—is disarmed in Northern Ireland and has left. That is what the IRA is saying in that statement; nothing more except to provide—shall I say?—hope to people like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in order that it may continue to take us down the road of granting concessions while it gives nothing back.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am not trying to take anyone down a road; I am only trying to make a speech giving my own views based on some experience of Northern Ireland. I did not say that I was certain that the statement meant anything, only that it was possible. We need to look at what is going on. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, did state that perhaps we should spend our time today considering the views of the various parties in Northern Ireland. For that reason, I took him at his word and have done what he urged us to do.

This is my tentative conclusion. By no means am I certain that I am right, but there is some supporting evidence here. I believe that the leadership of Sinn Fein feels that there are more political dividends to be gained if it pursues the political option of seeking to increase its political support in Northern Ireland in the nationalist community and in winning a few TDs in the Republic. In this House I do not need to develop the benefits that would accrue to republicanism if it were able to do that. However, provided that it is done using peaceful democratic means—we may not share the objectives—we could agree on the methods used. I believe that there is some indication that that is a part of Sinn Fein's agenda.

I listened to parts of yesterday's debate in the other place. I know that Seamus Mallon does not want suspension to take place, although I would argue that, if the Executive collapsed, that would be a worse outcome for the future of the peace process than if we implement this legislation, because at least we shall keep the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place. By doing that we shall be in a much better position to resume the review and the negotiations to get the mechanisms re-established as soon as possible.

I should like to say for the sake of those in Sinn Fein who attack this Government's record by suggesting that we have not played our part by the Good Friday agreement, that I believe that we have. We have introduced human rights legislation, the Equality Commission and we have tackled the difficult question of the RUC—perhaps not to everyone's liking, but we have certainly grasped that problem. The review of criminal justice will shortly be completed. We have reduced the military presence on the streets and there are now fewer troops in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, we helped to put the Executive in place, along with the north/south bodies, the Council of the Isles and the implementation bodies.

Above all, there is the question of prisoner releases, to which the noble Lord referred. That has been a painful and difficult issue for many people here, and, goodness me, so much more difficult for the people of Northern Ireland. They may be related to or friends of victims of the people who have been released. We received much opposition in this House, but we had to argue—certainly, I argued when I had some responsibility for these matters—that we should to do that because, difficult as it was, it was the price of achieving a peaceful settlement.

However, I say to the republicans in Northern Ireland that under the Good Friday agreement there was no starting date for prisoner releases, no starting date for dealing with the question of the RUC, no starting date for reducing the number of troops in Northern Ireland and no starting date for the criminal justice review. We, the Government, started all that. Therefore, when they say that in the Good Friday agreement there was no starting date for decommissioning, certainly, there was not. However, in terms of good faith and building up trust, it was clear that that was a proper expectation, and we achieved many difficult things. Therefore, it is reasonable for the Government to say, "Why can't you do your difficult things as well?" That, after all, is what we urged should happen. It has not happened yet, but perhaps it is still possible in the last few hours.

I talked to a person from the nationalist area of Belfast only the other day. He said to me, "People there are saying that decommissioning will happen sooner or later. Why not now?" Whether or not that is typical of the views of the community, I do not know. However, that was a view which was put to me.

Perhaps I may spend a moment or two discussing the way forward. I believe that it is important—and other Members of this House have said so, too—that we ensure that the process of trying to achieve the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement continues. We must encourage all the parties to meet the challenge of getting the Executive and the Assembly up and running again and the Good Friday agreement implemented in totality as soon as possible. I appeal to all the parties in Northern Ireland to enter into that review process as soon as possible because we must protect the many gains of the Good Friday agreement on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. There are gains; we must protect those and move forward.

Therefore, I urge that the talks should begin as soon as possible and that the close co-operation between the British and Irish Governments, to which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, referred, should continue and form the basis of the move forward. I believe that the Good Friday agreement is the best—indeed, the only—assurance of permanent peace in Northern Ireland. We need the Good Friday agreement, devolution and decommissioning to happen. That must be the main aim of the Government in Northern Ireland over the coming period because the people of Northern Ireland deserve no less from us.

5.22 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, we have heard some important and powerful contributions this afternoon which, I am sure, will be listened to and read with great interest. They have been most helpful in this difficult position in which we find ourselves.

I believe that we have no alternative to this Bill, for reasons that have been explained. However, unfortunately the suspension on Friday must take place so that the structure of the Executive can remain intact and, it is hoped, be reinvigorated after a short delay. It has been remarkable and pleasing to us all to see how well the Executive has got up and running, even for a short time, and how Ministers have shown the value of local control of Northern Ireland departments. For 30 years, we have existed in a democratic vacuum in Northern Ireland. As the years have gone by, the absence of local input has become increasingly obvious. Two months of devolved government have made clear how much there is to be done and how important it is that the Assembly and Executive are re-formed as soon as possible.

Even in a short time, devolution has shown that Unionists can work well with SDLP colleagues, and vice versa. However, I am not so sure about the members of Sinn Fein. They have had a political agenda of their own; for example, it is not helpful to order that the Union flag is not to be flown on the buildings of the Sinn Fein Minister's department.

I believe that devolution, in itself, was remarkable because we appeared to have reached an impasse in the late autumn. However, thanks to Senator Mitchell's intervention, the possibility—"opportunity" is perhaps too strong a word—which David Trimble grabbed showed that he had very great courage in jumping first and testing just how valid was the IRA's intention to decommission.

However, the problem which we now face goes back to the Good Friday agreement. That agreement does not require Sinn Fein/IRA to decommission. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, spelled that out in detail. Immediately the agreement was published, that vital flaw was seen and recognised, and various promises were made that the difficulties would be overcome. I need not go into the detail of that, but this basic fudge has had serious effects on people's feelings in Northern Ireland. There are now few people who trust the Government, and our new Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, has a mountain to climb before people begin to believe what Ministers say. He has started very well; he has spoken very clearly in the other place, and I wish him well.

That lack of confidence is compounded by something else. For five or six years, governments have largely disregarded the majority in Northern Ireland who are proud to be citizens of the United Kingdom. Governments have offered Sinn Fein/IRA—clearly, a terrorist organisation—one inducement after another in the hope that that would persuade it to give up bombing and murdering and to destroy its weapons. Sinn Fein/IRA has pocketed each gift without a "thank-you" and has demanded more. When will government realise that that policy does not work?

The declared intention of changing the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is an insult which, to many people, is unbearable. It will not make any difference as to how Sinn Fein behaves towards our police service, whose duty it is to uphold law and order. Sinn Fein will not accept any police service, no matter what it is called. The intention has been to find a title which will be acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland, but it will not be acceptable to them. It is ironic that the only title which is acceptable to the majority in Northern Ireland is "the Royal Ulster Constabulary".

As a consequence of that and similar issues, the thoughts and feelings of peace-loving citizens of every type and creed are in turmoil—a mixture of anguish and confusion. My noble friend Lord Eames referred to that and I can only confirm that I believe that to be one of the problems. It is important that efforts be made to allow people to think clearly, and I hope that we now have an opportunity to do that. I beg government to realise that all the presents and inducements in the world will not persuade Sinn Fein to decommission. There are said to be only 200 or 300 hardcore republican terrorists in the island of Ireland. To suggest that there is not another way to deal with them is, I believe, absurd.

In recent months it has been suggested that we are now at peace in Northern Ireland. Yes, we have been spared widespread bombing and indiscriminate shooting, but there are many areas in our cities, and towns which are controlled either by Sinn Fein or by so-called "Protestant paramilitaries". In Sinn Fein-controlled areas, there is clearly a plan to retain control of the areas in order to prove that Northern Ireland is ungovernable. We must remember that Sinn Fein/IRA's declared objection is unchanged, and they have said that themselves: to get the Brits out and to have the whole of Ireland governed by Sinn Fein. Recently, Mr Adams projected that that would he achieved by 2016.

In those areas, intimidation, beatings, torture and expulsions continue on a daily basis. Witnesses dare not go to the police because they know what will happen to them if they do. To bring law and order to those areas will be a difficult job which will take years. But until it is achieved, we shall not have real peace in Northern Ireland.

For some people to suggest, as they have, that this suspension will lead to a break-down and that it will take a generation to recover the situation is, I believe, quite untrue. We now have capable, courageous politicians in Northern Ireland. In addition, there are many wonderful men and women who work night and day for peace and to bring people together. Things need not slip back and, with a little clear thinking, could move forward quickly.

I have noticed that there is still a thought that the IRA will decommission. I have lived a lifetime in Northern Ireland and have had all too frequent experiences of and acquaintanceships with the IRA. I believe firmly that it will never decommission on its own. We must face up to that. There are, perhaps, only 100 or so people but the belief is in their bones that they are the rightful army of the Republic of Ireland. That is their belief and they do not recognise that they are in any way defeated. That is a real problem. I do not believe that the IRA will decommission of its own will. It will make all sorts of statements, as it has done, but it has never said that it will decommission. We must take account of that.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I suppose that by now, we should be used to the good days and the bad days of Ulster politics but, somehow, one never does quite get used to it.

I agree with all other noble Lords who have spoken that this is a sad day and we have had a sombre debate. But like everybody else, we support this Bill in the circumstances which face us. Nobody explained the sadness of the day more movingly than the noble Lord, Lord Eames.

However, there is a wise political saying that things are never quite as bad and never quite as good as they seem at the time. Of all the areas of politics, that has proved particularly true of Ulster and I hope that it proves to be so again.

As has also been said, in any negotiation one must try to understand all the parties to the negotiation in order to see how progress can be made. Several speakers have attempted to unravel that. There has been a particular concentration on the Provisional IRA. That is not because we do not all recognise, as we do, the importance of the so-called loyalist paramilitaries as well as the Provisional IRA but because the loyalist paramilitaries have apparently said that they will decommission provided that the Provisional IRA does so. That is a long-standing position. It has not just arisen in recent months. So, naturally, attention has been on the Provisional IRA.

It seems that there are many in Sinn Fein/IRA who now believe, quite accurately in my view, that violence has not worked and will not work. The people of Northern Ireland and Great Britain have amply demonstrated their robustness in the face of terror over a very long time.

My noble friend Lord Tebbit asked about the intentions of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein tells us that it is separate from the IRA. That is an important element of its argument. But if that is so, why can Sinn Fein not tell us what it thinks about whether the Provisional IRA should decommission?

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, read a passage from the Belfast agreement and I wish to read two other sentences from the same page of the decommissioning section. In paragraph 1 it states: Participants recall their agreement …on 24 September 1997 'that the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation'". Paragraph 3 begins by stating: All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations". Sinn Fein agreed to that. It agreed to the whole agreement even if it is said that the IRA did not. I should add that I do not believe that any of us saw that as a total solution to the violence. I remember remarking to your Lordships' House that, among other things, fertiliser cannot be decommissioned, quite apart from the fact that other arms can always be procured. We all know, as Irish history tells us, that breakaway groups are extremely likely to emerge—I put it no stronger—in the situation that we face.

Of course, the importance of decommissioning lies not only in the contribution it can make to security problems but also in the signal that it sends that democracy has been accepted as the way in which this matter should be taken further forward.

But this Bill shows that concessions made by democracy in the course of the implementation of the agreement can be suspended. It provides for the suspension of a large part of what was agreed at that time. I hope that the Minister will not mind me remarking that a large part of his speech was word for word the same as that of the Secretary of State. Of course, we should have been critical had it been too different. But the noble and learned Lord said that all parts of the Belfast agreement have been moving forward except for decommissioning. It seems to me to follow that all parts of the agreement should be at least subject to the possibility of the same pause that is provided for the Executive and the Assembly by this Bill.

If one side of the agreement is not to work out—notably, decommissioning—then the other parts of the deal will certainly need rethinking very soon. After all, we were assured repeatedly at the time we discussed the measure to release the prisoners that released prisoners could be recalled to prison. We did not think that that would be easy, but we were assured that that could happen if the rest of the agreement did not go forward, as it apparently is not doing.

Sinn Fein says that the guns are silent and also that the IRA has not yet failed to decommission because we have not yet reached 22nd May. But, as has been said by a number of noble Lords in the course of the debate, apparently, it has not even started to make clear commitments about the process.

It is not entirely true that the guns have been silent. For example, we know that the IRA is held responsible for five murders since the Good Friday agreement. That is slightly fewer than the loyalists, who are held responsible for five murders and in addition the murders of the three Quinn children who were tragically killed. For shootings and mutilations, the score is slightly higher on the loyalist side but it is much the same. There have been beatings and mutilations and 749 people have been exiled by the IRA since the Good Friday agreement; a similar number have been exiled by the loyalists. Two thousand and seventeen families have been rehoused due to intimidation either by the IRA or the so-called loyalist terrorists since the Good Friday agreement.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, said, all this is about control of certain areas within Ulster. I believe that it is also about the preservation of the financial rackets which I have long believed are part of the momentum of the Troubles, and they need to be tackled accordingly.

A few moments ago I said that the decommissioning has not started at all, even in the form of commitments, but we cannot be sure about that because most of us have not seen the de Chastelain report. It is a pity that we have not seen it, not least because that inevitably leads to speculation as to what is in the report and why it is that we cannot be told what is in it. I do not want anything to be published that may be security sensitive—I would never call for that—but I believe that that causes a difficulty for the House. We have also had hints of another report by the general. It may help if the Minister can tell the House something about that this evening.

The really sad point is that in other respects there has been great progress. In local government and elsewhere people are working together. Several noble Lords have made that point so I do not need to dwell on it.

Meanwhile the Bill provides for the possible reintroduction of direct rule. I have had some experience of direct rule, as your Lordships know, and I believe that direct rule is benevolent dictatorship. I like to think that we managed to provide—I do not make a party point as I believe this is a view held across the board—good government, but it was dictatorship and again it will be, if only temporarily, a form of dictatorship. It certainly damaged the political life of Northern Ireland no end.

If direct rule returns, I hope that it will be for as short a time as possible. We want to see a return to devolution as soon as possible. We also hope that the pause will be used positively for the redevelopment of devolution and democracy. As the noble Lord, Lord Eames, said, the doors remain open. I am sure that they will.

Meanwhile with this Bill we are almost signing a blank cheque on the basis of a report that we have not seen. We are trusting the Government and I believe that we are right to do so in this difficult situation. I hope that there is sufficient momentum in the massive desire for peace of practically everybody in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom that this is a pause and not a full stop. In Northern Irish matters hope is always essential.

5.43 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to a thorough and well-informed debate. Listening to the debate it is obvious that many of your Lordships have a great deal of experience from a whole series of angles of Northern Ireland politics. Over many years noble Lords have lived through the highs and lows of the political process in Northern Ireland and understand the bitter disappointment of the people of Northern Ireland when set-backs occur.

It is patently clear that I am not alone in saying that I wish this Bill did not need to be brought before the House today. We all want to see a peaceful and lasting solution to the problems that have beset the people of Northern Ireland for so long. None of us wants the political process, which has advanced further than many thought possible in recent years, to lose momentum.

We believe that the Good Friday agreement provides the only viable basis for progress and we are saddened by the prospect that a lack of cross-community confidence in the institutions may require their temporary suspension. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want the agreement to work. They want local politicians to take responsibility for local decisions. Many noble Lords referred to the quality of local decision making. They have been encouraged by the professionalism, energy and commitment shown by the new Northern Ireland Ministers. They want this to continue, and so do I.

There can be no doubt that the agreement remains the best option for the creation of a new society based on consensus and the peaceful, democratic expression of political aims. I believe that this piece of legislation before the House today, regrettable though it may be, will provide a means to keep that goal in our sights. It has not been drafted in response to pressure from one party and it will not be triggered because of a potential resignation or a back-room deal. It has been introduced because we recognise that the institutions cannot survive if they fail to command cross-party and cross-community support and confidence. If that confidence does not exist, the Assembly and all the other institutions will collapse in disarray. We would be left with chaos in the short term and little hope in the long term. That would be a tragedy for all the people of Ireland.

Instead, suspension, if that is necessary, will afford a breathing space by providing for a pause in the operation of the institutions. It will enable us to carry out a review and to provide a context in which it is possible for all parties to focus their energies on moving forward together. It will also serve to protect the integrity of the agreement. It will make it clear that the agreement is a complete package. All of its various parts must be implemented in order for it to retain the support and confidence of the people and parties across Northern Ireland.

Because that has not yet been the case, because there is still a crucial component of the agreement where little substantive progress has yet been made, that confidence is fast ebbing away. If clear and credible progress is not made within the next few days, there can be little doubt that we must act and the institutions must be suspended. Neither I, nor my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson in another place could have been much clearer on that point.

I turn to deal with specific points raised in the course of the debate. First, a number of noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord. Lord Glentoran, mentioned the position of the Irish Government. The Government are in daily, if not hourly, contact with the Irish Government. We want to see the closest co-operation continue whatever setbacks we face.

Our first and shared aim is to see whether a basis can yet be found, even at this eleventh hour, on which the institutions can continue to operate with cross-community support. The only basis for continuation of the institutions is cross-community confidence. Without some significant and substantive change in current circumstances that will ebb away fast. Clearly, if there is no such improvement made quickly, both governments face very tough decisions.

I cannot answer for the Irish Government. I do not want to say anything that may prejudice their and our efforts to find a satisfactory way forward. However, the position of the British Government is clear. We have a duty to act, to preserve good government for all the people of Northern Ireland. If, because cross-community confidence has gone, the new institutions are on the point of collapse, we shall act to make alternative arrangements for good government in Northern Ireland and to preserve the institutions so that as quickly as possible their operation can be restored.

Inevitably that will have implications for the north-south institutions, as is recognised in the agreement, which states that the functioning of the assembly and the north-south council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other. We shall need to make provision, in consultation with the Irish Government, for the practicalities as far as the north-south bodies are concerned. The clear principle underlying the agreement on which we shall act is that all those institutions are interlocking and interdependent.

Secondly, many noble Lords referred to the non-publication of the de Chastelain report, dated 31st January. Last Thursday, in a Statement made in another place, my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson gave a full account of the contents of the report. He said yesterday in another place, no further useful purpose is served by publishing the report because it does not contain additional information, other than that which I have already given the House, that would inform the House".—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/00; col. 128.] He added, in the event of a further report being delivered to the two Governments by General de Chastelain, we shall publish both so that they can be seen alongside each other".—[Col. 129.] In relation to the contents of the report he said, In summary, General de Chastelain and his colleagues reported that, as far as the IRA is concerned, to date they had received no information from the IRA as to when decommissioning will start".—[Col. 128.] Bearing in mind that the report is to the two governments, they are agreed that its usefulness to the House will arise in the event of a further report being issued by the decommissioning commission. In those circumstances my right honourable friend said he would judge it appropriate and necessary to publish both the original and further report but only at that stage. In those circumstances, I ask the House to accept the judgment of my right honourable friend.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but what he said leaves me even more puzzled. If the Secretary of State told us everything that is in the report fully, frankly and openly, what is there that prevents him from publishing it? What is the damage in publishing the report if there is nothing in it beyond what we have already been told?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the judgment is that at this stage publishing the report would not materially assist the peace process, and I ask noble Lords to accept that judgment.

I was asked a number of questions in relation to the review referred to in the legislation. First, it will be a review under the validation implementation part of the Good Friday agreement. The timescale of the review will ultimately be a matter for the parties. It is they who must work together to find an agreed way forward. Our hope is that a solution will be found quickly enabling institutions to be restored as soon as possible. The Bill before the House requires steps to be taken as soon as is reasonably practicable after a suspension to initiate a review. I am obviously not in a position today to say who the chairman of any such review may be.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said that the promise in relation to decommissioning was given not by Sinn Fein, not by the IRA, but by the Prime Minister. It was not the Prime Minister who said that decommissioning should and would happen; it was the Good Friday agreement. The agreement says, All participants [including Sinn Fein] reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations". That is what the agreement required. That is what the people of Ireland, north and south, voted for. That is why clear and credible progress of decommissioning is essential to restore confidence in the devolved institutions.

The question was asked as to whether it was possible to move this Bill without the consent of the Assembly. I can assure my noble friend Lord Desai that it is perfectly constitutionally proper to do that.

A number of noble Lords, in particular my noble friend Lord Desai and the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, asked why the Assembly cannot continue meeting in shadow form but still talking. As most noble Lords recognise, the effect of Clause 1 of the Bill prevents the Assembly from meeting or conducting any business during a suspension. That means that it will not be able to function in a shadow or consultative mode. The Bill is not about providing an alternative role for the Assembly; it is about providing a complete breathing space in order for people to focus their energies on resolving the current difficulties. Of course Assembly members will continue to hold their position and still be able to make representations on behalf of their constituencies. Similarly, it will be open to the Government to consult with any individuals or parties on any matter, but not meet in the formal setting of the Assembly.

I hope that I have dealt with all of the main points raised in the course of this debate. I express my gratitude on behalf of the Government for the broad measure of support for the promotion of this Bill in another place and here today. Once again, I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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