HL Deb 29 June 2000 vol 614 cc1150-7

7. 49 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 5th June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committed].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in moving this order I shall also speak to the second order standing in my name on the Order Paper. These orders were laid before the House on 5th June. Both orders cease to have effect if they are not approved by resolution of each House of Parliament within 40 days of their being laid. I am seeking the approval of this House today. Approval was sought and granted in another place last week.

Under powers conferred by Section 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 2000, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000 repeals Section 1 of the 2000 Act, thereby lifting the suspension of the operation of the devolved institutions.

Almost exactly one month ago, on 29th May, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland signed the restoration order which returned devolution to Northern Ireland, bringing about the end of the period of suspension. From midnight the members of the Northern Ireland Executive Committee automatically resumed their posts. Salaries and allowances were returned to their pre-suspension levels and all of the committees of the Assembly were once again able to meet.

The first plenary meeting of the Assembly was held the following week. These early meetings have shown that members are keen to get down to business, dealing with the real bread and butter issues which affect everyone in Northern Ireland including economic, social and regional development, health and education. The brief period of suspension has done nothing to diminish their energy or enthusiasm or their commitment to work diligently for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that this House will join me in wishing them every success, both now and in the future, in building the future prosperity of Northern Ireland for the good of all of its people.

The second order before this House, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2000, has been made by the Secretary of State to ensure that actions taken by him under powers granted to him during suspension by the Northern Ireland Act 2000, cannot be annulled or revoked by the Assembly. These actions would include, for example, the Secretary of State's determination to reduce salaries and allowances for the duration of the suspension period.

I by no means wish to suggest that Assembly members would have contemplated retrospectively awarding themselves full salaries and allowances for that period. However, it would be seriously remiss of any government not cover all eventualities in this way, under the law.

The modification order also ensures that orders in council made by the Secretary of State under the schedule to the 2000 Act during suspension are not affected by restoration. This ensures that the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 cannot be revised or annulled by the Assembly.

As noble Lords will no doubt keenly remember, this House approved the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointed Day) Order 1999 in November of last year, bringing devolved government to Northern Ireland for the first time in almost 30 years.

It was a momentous occasion; namely, the return of power to the people of Northern Ireland. We all hoped and prayed that Northern Ireland was finally entering a new era of democratic and locally accountable devolved government, where disputes were aired in the debating chamber and not on the streets. But it was not to be, at least not yet. However, I do not believe that the optimism we felt at that time was misplaced.

We had come a very long way and the sight of historically opposed parties facing each other for the first time both across the Assembly chamber and across the Executive Committee table only served to underscore this. Indeed, the Assembly and Executive Committee quickly settled down to the serious business of government and showed early on that they were prepared to work together for the good of the community as a whole.

Devolution proved not only to be popular but also to be effective. It was consequently hugely disappointing for everyone to see the devolved institutions suspended so soon. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place stressed from the outset that the suspension of the institutions was a temporary measure only, designed to save them from a collapse which would have been far more damaging. He made clear that the Government's unswerving commitment would be to work to bring about the restoration of the institutions at the earliest possible opportunity and on a lasting basis and to tackle head on those issues which had led to the decline in confidence and consequent suspension in the first place. I am delighted to be before noble Lords today with these two orders to help this commitment to become a reality.

I believe that we have succeeded in returning confidence that devolution is here to stay and that we can move forward in implementing all the other aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. Many people have worked tirelessly to bring this about. The Northern Ireland political parties and the two governments put in enormous time and effort to reach agreement on the way forward.

The personal involvement of the Taoiseach and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister demonstrated the importance that we and the Irish Government attach to securing the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland. The Irish Government worked closely with us at every level throughout this process. Their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to implementing that political settlement is beyond doubt. Their contribution has been invaluable.

The determination of the pro-agreement parties to fulfil their commitments under the Good Friday Agreement has also been crucial in bringing about the right circumstances for the restoration of devolution. Throughout the process the pro-agreement parties maintained their commitment to forging a better future for Northern Ireland, to removing the guns from politics and establishing a lasting and peaceful political settlement for the people of Northern Ireland.

The commitment made by the IRA in its statement of 6th May to put its arms completely and verifiably beyond use was undoubtedly significant, as was the signalling of their good intent in offering an early confidence building measure. The House will be aware that this commitment to initiating confidence building has now been honoured.

On Sunday, President Ahtisaari and Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed by the two governments as independent inspectors, reported to the Decommissioning Commission that they had successfully completed the initial inspection of several weapons dumps. They confirmed that they were shown a substantial quantity of IRA arms and explosives and they were able to verify that these weapons were safely stored and could not be used without their detection. I will repeat just one short significant quote from their report. It is that the confidence-building measure is, a genuine effort by the IRA to advance the peace process".

Cyril Ramaphosa and President Ahtisaari are wholly independent and highly respected. Their reputation is such that we cannot fail to recognise the significance of this statement and take great encouragement from it. That said, I do not pretend that this is the end of the process. The confidence-building measure is no substitute for decommissioning. The IRA has promised to initiate a process of putting IRA weapons completely and verifiably beyond use and as a start to the decommissioning process it has now re-engaged with the Decommissioning Commission.

The signs are good. These first steps are encouraging and significant. However, we cannot afford to become complacent. The removal of all arms and explosives from Northern Ireland for good is of paramount importance to this Government and will remain so. Nevertheless, it is clear that we now have words and deeds to illustrate the IRA's commitment to peaceful means and to putting their arms beyond use. In turn, the two governments have made a commitment that the agreement will be implemented in full and we are moving as fast as we can to achieve that.

The draft orders before the House today represent a triumph of democratic politics over the politics of fear, violence and intimidation. But there will be more hard work ahead. Of course there will be arguments and disputes between the parties in the Assembly but that is the stuff of politics. A debating chamber or committee room, as this House knows, is precisely the place where such disputes should take place.

More seriously, just last week we had further evidence of the continuing threat from dissident Republican terrorists. The UFF statement showed that at least one of the loyalist ceasefires cannot be taken for granted, and we are already experiencing a rise in tension as the marching season begins. Members of the House will agree with me that violence, from either side, will achieve nothing: only politics works.

The Good Friday Agreement and devolution have shown that it is possible for all shades of political opinion to work together to forge a better future for all of the people of Northern Ireland. Political leaders in Northern Ireland are committed to this, and so is the Government. That is why these orders are important.

Restoration of the devolved institutions promises a lasting political settlement for Northern Ireland based on the principles set out in the Good Friday Agreement; consent, equality and parity of esteem. I commend these orders to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, as regards the first order, it is most welcome: the second is most prudent. I associate myself with all the remarks that the Minister expressed.

8 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I shall save my fire for the Second Reading of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, but I have three points to raise now. When we come to Second Reading I would like an explanation of the statement made by the two special representatives whom the Minister has mentioned. They said that they had ensured that weapons and explosives could not be used without their detection. Who are "they", the inspectors or the IRA? If they are the former, how could they ensure that? Did they place devices? No doubt, we shall be told that those are deeply secret matters, to be revealed only, if at all, to the de Chastelain commission.

As I know of no evidence that either of the inspectors has any military experience, it is not unreasonable to inquire how they—if "they" means the inspectors— were able to assess the quality and state of the arms, and yet more impressive, to ensure that they cannot be used without detection. If "they" means the Provisional IRA, I am less reassured. Presumably, Mr Galvin, who has recently addressed a dissident splinter group of the IRA in Northern Ireland, and his audience will not be able mysteriously to acquire some of the IRA's remaining dumps, the ones that the inspectors did not see.

I have two other points. The first is to establish whether it is explicitly accepted that after this "confidence building measure", which I nevertheless welcome, we cannot expect the IRA to proceed with any actual decommissioning until Her Majesty's Government have delivered the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and withdrawn a substantial further number of troops. It would be nice to know whether there is an implicit, underlying understanding of that sort.

Even the Patten report, in theory, accepted that the implementation of its salient recommendations, in the Belfast agreement, was intended to take place only when the security situation had changed significantly and that it was intended to regulate policing in a peaceful society. I hope that that will be remembered when we come to be asked to implement the Bill, although I recognise that naturally the legislation has to be agreed. However, timing is a separate issue.

Well before then, I hope that we shall have been told what is the Government's notion of generous severance pay. The exchange earlier today on the issue of pensions and compensation did not encourage me. If there is to be a fresh start, surely it should be on the basis of a generous and fair settlement of the debts of the past. Not a few of the RUC officers who were murdered were very young men—perhaps 24 or 26 years-old. They had had no time to build up a serious pension. Their wives and children live on to a life of poverty and trauma, as do many of the disabled who survived. I hope that the Treasury is making provision for a proper settlement and that it will not conclude that nothing can be done because it has not been included in the spending round.

Meanwhile, I am glad that the Assembly is back at work. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to suspend it when he did. I also believe that we should not have seen the IRA make the gestures that it has made without his firm readiness to call their bluff.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing these orders before the House. It is worth reflecting that when David Trimble took the courageous decision last November to enter the Northern Ireland Executive, and to sit in government with Sinn Fein, he did so on the clear understanding that decommissioning would soon follow. He made it clear at the time that without decommissioning it would be impossible to sustain the Executive beyond February.

Regrettably, decommissioning did not follow. As General de Chastelain's report said, not only had no decommissioning taken place by the end of January, but there was no prospect of any taking place in the near future, despite the clear commitment in the Belfast agreement for decommissioning to have been completed by 22nd May 2000. On that basis the Secretary of State had no choice but to face the collapse of the Executive, with little prospect of it coming back, or to suspend the institutions in the hope that sufficient confidence could be established to enable them to be restored in the future.

That is why we had no hesitation in supporting the Government on the Northern Ireland Bill when it was brought before Parliament in February, giving the Secretary of State the power to suspend and why we were convinced, at that time, that the Secretary of State was absolutely correct to suspend the institutions and re-impose direct rule on 11th February. We always hoped that the renewal of direct rule would be short-lived. It is a profoundly regrettable and undemocratic way of governing Northern Ireland. The first time I said that was in my maiden speech about five years ago.

Before devolved government could be restored there had to be assurances, or at the very least confidence within the unionist community, that Sinn Fein/IRA were at long last to deliver on their obligations under the Belfast agreement to decommission their illegally-held arms and explosives. In that context, the IRA's statement of 6th May marked a significant development. I believe for the first time in the history of the IRA it committed itself to a process that would lead to its arms being put "completely and verifiably beyond use". They also committed themselves to restoring their links with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning headed by General de Chastelain and they promised, as a confidence building measure, to open up some arms dumps for inspection by independent third parties.

While, as I have said, that was significant, the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionists sought certain assurances before Mr Trimble and his colleagues could return to the Executive. Specifically for us, those included, first, a guarantee from the Secretary of State that no deals had been done with any of the parties or with Dublin that in the event of another default by the IRA he would not use the power to suspend the institutions. In our view, that power is essential for it remains fundamentally wrong to expect democrats to sit in government with representatives of a fully-armed terrorist organisation for anything other than a transitional period. Secondly, they included an assurance that the Union flag would be the only flag flown from government buildings on appointed days and that the Secretary of State would, for all practical purposes, be treated like any other part of the United Kingdom. Thirdly, and crucially, an assurance was sought that the opening up of arms dumps was only a first step and that the decommissioning of illegal arms and explosives must follow. We were pleased that the Prime Minister gave such a commitment in the other place on 17th May.

With those assurances, we supported Mr Trimble in his decision to ask the Ulster Unionist Council to endorse a return to the Executive at the meeting in Belfast on 27th May. The council backed him, and therefore the Secretary of State was able to make the restoration order that we are now debating.

Welcome as the restoration of devolved government is, it is vital that we do not forget that the Ulster Unionist Council backed Mr Trimble by only the narrowest of margins—53 per cent to 47 per cent. The closeness of the vote reflects anxieties that are prevalent throughout the unionist community in Northern Ireland today, in particular at the opening of the marching season. I was there yesterday and there is a great deal of sensitivity, cautious worry and concern. Many people see a process in which for unionists it has been all take and no give by republicans. They see wicked and evil terrorists released from prison early; they see the RUC stripped of its name and symbols; and they see members of Sinn Fein in government without even a start to any IRA decommissioning. As Mr Trimble has said, the Ulster Unionists, in backing a return to devolved government, have stretched themselves to the limit. They can literally go no further. It is now more vital than ever, if the process is to succeed and as we all hope, the Belfast agreement is to be implemented in full, that republicans deliver.

In that context the announcement on Monday that the IRA had opened up one of its dumps for inspection by Mr Ramaphosa and Mr Ahtisaari was encouraging. But, as the Prime Minister has rightly pointed out, on its own that is not enough. Decommissioning must follow. Arms must be put completely and verifiably beyond use. We all hope that that will happen. We all hope that devolution works. But unless actual decommissioning begins to happen, then welcome as this order is, I fear that it may not be too long before we are again debating a suspension of devolved government and the renewal of direct rule. That would be a tragedy for Northern Ireland. It would be a tragedy for all the people in Northern Ireland and it would put to waste the huge amount of time, patience and loss of life that has been expended on what is known as the Northern Ireland problem. But if it does not happen, there will be no doubt as to who is to blame. I have no problems in supporting the Minister in this order.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful for the support for these orders from all sides of the House. Perhaps I can deal with the three specific questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Park.

First, the noble Baroness sought an explanation of some of the comments made by President Ahtisaari and Mr Ramaphosa. They confirmed, first, that weapons and explosives are safely and adequately stored; secondly, that the bunkers will be sealed and the weapons cannot be used without the knowledge of the two independent assessors; thirdly, arrangements will be made for inspection every few months. I cannot go into more precise details, nor would I want to; it would be a standing invitation to dissident groups. The last thing anybody wants is for weapons to fall into the wrong hands. I did not understand the noble Baroness to be pressing me, at least at this stage; she said she was saving her fire for the Patten Bill. Therefore I shall neither go any further nor give any undertaking to write.

Secondly, the noble Baroness asked whether there was any underlying understanding or arrangement that no further decommissioning would take place until the Patten Bill was passed and there had been a further reduction in troop levels in Northern Ireland. There is no such understanding. There is no understanding connecting the Patten Bill or troop reductions and further steps in relation to decommissioning. The decommissioning process is back on track. The IRA has resumed contact with the independent International Commission on Decommissioning. It is possible to say that it will set out the modalities, including the timetable. But I can assure the noble Baroness that there is no undertaking on the lines she indicated.

Finally, the noble Baroness referred to the position of a number of members of the RUC who died at a particularly young age as a result of the terrorist activity as they were fighting during the time of the troubles. She hoped that there would be proper compensation and severance pay. In fact, coincidentally, there was a Question about that earlier in the day and I dealt in some detail with those issues.

I indicated that there was no present proposal to review either the levels of pension or levels of compensation. But I referred to the fact that the Patten report recommended that a fund be set up. The Government accept that recommendation and that fund will be available by the spring of next year. I cannot say how it will be dealt with, but we shall be addressing the position of the widows and disabled who have been affected by terrorism.

I hope that answers all the questions. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.