HL Deb 22 March 2000 vol 611 cc341-73

7.4 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

rose to call attention to the intrinsic issues in Northern Ireland; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, for too long our debates on Northern Ireland have necessarily concerned the latest phase in the political struggle orchestrated by Sinn Fein/IRA. Martin McGuinness said in 1995 that the IRA's agenda was to end British rule in the North and to secure national self-determination for the people of Northern Ireland. Ever since it has summarily ignored the choice of the majority through the ballot box to remain in the United Kingdom. The British Government, according to him, had been dragged into the peace process initiated by the IRA. The IRA document Tactical Use of Armed Struggle (known as TUAS) had been launched the year before. It made it clear that the peace process had been embarked upon as a tactical expedient because it offered for the time being a better method of achieving the IRA's objective of a 32-county republic.

A return to violence was never ruled out. We should never forget that peace is not, for the IRA, the object of the peace process, just as solving issues of arms is IRA-speak for British arms, not theirs, and just as the much-vaunted offer in the second de Chastelain report that the IRA would, consider how to out arms and explosives beyond use in the context of the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and in the context of the removal of the causes of conflict", means, in IRA-speak, only the withdrawal of the British Army, the disarming and abolition of the RUC and the dismantling of all legislation or judicial procedures, such as the Diplock courts, which could in any way threaten the power of the IRA.

The IRA has now secured much: the release of prisoners; a substantial withdrawal of the Army; and a government commitment to legislate for changes in the RUC. Even under the Belfast agreement, that should be implemented only in a normal situation which simply does not obtain. Changes in the counterterrorism legislation are next on the IRA's agenda, and government cc nsultation on this has begun. Fortunately, Mr Justice Rowe's latest report of February of this year says robustly that there is a continuing need for the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to which I shall return.

I wanted this House to address the intrinsic issues in Northern Ireland. These are only too often obscured and not debated because we are caught up in the latest phase of the IRA's political agenda rather than that of the people of Northern Ireland. I shall say only one last word on that. We must not forget that the IRA has never committed itself to decommissioning; it has merely used a code which, in IRA-speak, applies solely to the British Army and the RUC but which we, from Senator Mitchell to the British and Irish Governments, have clutched at as referring to the IRA. That has suited the IRA very well and allowed everyone to ignore the evidence cited by the Rowe report of continued weapons and arms training, recruitment, the purchase of arms, the targeting of objectives—also on the mainland—and to attribute it all to a few so-called breakaway groups.

The IRA representative is said to have told the de Chastelain commission that only all the members of the Army Council could authorise decommissioning and they had not been asked to do so. Not least, the IRA statement of 2nd February this year said categorically, after its representative had met General de Chastelain over a period of some two months, that, The IRA have never entered into any agreement or undertaking or understanding at any time whatsoever on any aspect of decommissioning". Could that be clearer?

I make that point only because I believe that the Government now need to let the whole question lie fallow and simply forget about both decommissioning and those aspects of the so-called peace process which are still on the agenda of Sinn Fein/IRA (one of whose short-term objectives is undoubtedly to split the Unionists). Let the Secretary of State, with the active support of the two Governments, now concentrate on improving the quality of life of the people of Northern Ireland—the economy, agriculture and education—and specifically the people's right, too long ignored, to live peacefully in the United Kingdom, which by a large majority they chose to do. That means that the Government must concentrate on securing proper policing and doing something about those activities of the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries which are criminal and can in no way be justified or presented as part of a noble political struggle or a defence of "their people" against the enemy: the state.

The IRA likes to compare itself to the ANC in South Africa. I believe that Mandela would have been profoundly shocked to find the brave soldiers of the IRA beating teenagers with iron bars for private grudges, running criminal extortion operations and protection rackets and exiling whole families from their homeland. That was done by the ANC's adversary, the South African state. There is a culture of loyalty which prevents members of the republican or loyalist communities from co-operating with the police when murder has been committed, since fear of "execution" as an informer is a strong element. But, surely, it is indefensible that Martin McGuinness flatly refused to urge those whom both the RUC and the Garda need to testify against the Omagh bombers to come forward. It is a sad fact that the legislation that this House passed after Omagh has proved powerless to deliver known murderers to justice.

I believe that for the present the chief task of the Government should be to do everything possible to support and strengthen the RUC to enable it to act as normal police would act on the mainland to bring criminals (not freedom fighters) to justice. Sinn Fein/IRA, and indeed the Irish Government, should be challenged to say where they stand on each instance of paramilitary violence or criminality and, above all, on the question of the exiling of whole families.

Sir Kenneth Bloomfield's 1998 report on victims quoted the Cost Of The Troubles study (COTT). This reported in 1997 that 53 per cent of the dead in the Troubles since 1969 were civilians; 87 per cent of the total were killed by paramilitaries (59 per cent by republicans; 28 per cent by loyalists) and 37 per cent were under 24 years old; 89 of these were 14 years old and under, and of the under-18s the IRA killed by far the largest number. But perhaps the most telling statistic is that if the UK with its population of 58 million had experienced the same deaths pro rata compared with Northern Ireland's 1.6 million, the figure would have been over 130,000 people dead.

That is only the dead. What of those who have been maimed for life in punishment beatings and shootings (quite apart from 45 more murders in the period between the signing of the Belfast agreement and August last year)? In those few months there have been 105 shootings, 135 beatings and, most terrible of all in its lasting effect on whole groups of people, 440 people sent into permanent exile overnight. That figure is now estimated to have risen to nearer 1,000. What happens? Someone offends a paramilitary or is suspected of being dissident in some way, or perhaps a social nuisance to the community. He or she and the whole family are given a few hours' notice to quit their homes, their jobs, possibly elderly relations in hospital, and their friends, and leave Northern Ireland, never to return on pain of death. If they come to England, as most do, they will be jobless, homeless and without friends, especially as they may not be considered persona grata by whatever Irish community there is where they settle. They will, in any case, be still in fear. This traumatic experience has been happening to very many bewildered and terrified families for years now. These are our people, expelled from another part of the UK by the fiat of the paramilitaries, and yet I have heard no word of protest from the many generous and liberal-minded people in this country who care about Rwanda, Burundi and the Roma.

The shocking thing is that those people have no redress and no protection from the state because successive governments have accepted supinely that the paramilitaries must be allowed, in a phrase attributed, I hope wrongly, to the last Secretary of State, to conduct their own internal housekeeping. So no one can go to the police, willing as they would be to help, and no one can claim the protection of the law for themselves and the hapless children and old people who may also be included in their exile.

It was on St Patrick's day this year that the press reported that the IRA, after a lull (for it can turn off the tap whenever it wishes) had resumed the savage punishment attacks, and I have little doubt that the exiles will be stepped up too. The only proper course for a Government who honour human rights is to strengthen the mandate of the RUC in the communities at present dominated by the thugs. We are told that it is part of the strategy of the Belfast agreement to return to normal security arrangements compatible with a normal, peaceful society—just what the people thought they had voted for—and under the human rights section of the agreement we are told that all the parties affirm the right freely to choose one's place of residence and the right to freedom from sectarian harassment.

To achieve that, the first task of our Government must surely be to assert and back up the right of the RUC to operate freely, to forbid no-go areas, and to punish wherever they can be identified those paramilitary elements who are running protection and extortion rackets and other criminal profit-making activities, including counterfeiting. Did not the Prime Minister tell the United Nations in September 1998 that terrorists should have no hiding place and no opportunities to raise funds (which hardly squares, incidentally, with recent moves to allow Sinn Fein to raise funds abroad)? After Omagh the Prime Minister said that we must fight terrorism vigorously wherever it appears while holding fast to the rule of law. We can move towards fulfilling the commitment made to the people, both then and in the agreement, by conducting an all-out and serious drive to assert the rule of law through the presence of the RUC and through immediate action to arrest and punish paramilitary violence. (It was good to see, incidentally, that a released prisoner who took part in terrorist activity recently had his licence revoked).

We shall be told that no member of the community will dare to identify those responsible. That may well be true if the crime is murder, but there have been brave men and women—among them Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT); and some months ago a 14 year-old girl who spoke out against the brutal beating of her young brother—who would, if they felt something would be done, take risks to identify the violent men publicly. But they must be sure that something will be done. It is difficult to see how the Dublin Government, Ted Kennedy or even Gerry Adams could attack the enforcement of the protection every citizen is entitled to have from the law—and the police, and no-one else, constitute the proper arm of the law in a normal society.

It is not enough to pay graceful tribute to the RUC, rather like putting flowers on a grave. Let us instead give those brave men and women in the RUC all the real support necessary for them to break the power of the paramilitaries to punish and brutalise their own communities. It will be to our lasting shame if we do not.

The other issue which concerns me is the role and responsibility of the Irish Government who have presumed to try to negotiate with the IRA on the withdrawal of British troops and have attacked the right of those troops to be stationed on British soil. Does it occur to the Dublin Government, who seem to believe the Belfast agreement gives them the right of decision within Northern Ireland but no responsibilities, that they, a so-called friendly government, a partner in the peace process and a fellow member of the European Union, are providing a safe haven for armed and violent men who are flouting the will of the people as shown in the ballot box both North and South, and who are conducting a war using the Republic as a safe base? When the IRA launches its next campaign for the abolition of the Diplock courts will the Dublin Government be abandoning its own special Diplock-type courts and its own prevention of terrorism legislation? I think not.

The IRA is unelected and has no mandate, but it has an agenda which will sooner or later constitute a threat to the Government of Ireland. Today our people are under daily threat and theirs are not, but that will not always be true. When the IRA resumes its war mode, will the Irish Government allow hot pursuit? We are all gratefully aware of the effective and professional cooperation that exists between the Gardai and the RUC, but it is time the Irish Government faced the fact that the British Government's duty is to protect their citizens and that the Irish cannot enjoy power in the partnership without responsibility.

The ill-fated and disgraceful treaty with the IRA over the return with full amnesty, of the bodies of those it murdered secured much favourable publicity for the caring IRA, but only three bodies for the grieving families. It demonstrated, however, that only the Gardai were to be allowed by the IRA to take part in the operation. If the Irish Government wish to be seen as a serious and responsible partner in the peace process, why, instead of acting as the IRA's spokesman on too many occasions, do they not bring pressure to bear on the IRA so that the perpetrators of the Omagh bombing may be brought to trial and witness borne against them? The bombers are, after all, supposed not to be from the Provisional IRA but from one of those famous breakaway groups. If the Irish Government would exert their influence responsibly in these issues the power of both governments to enforce the Belfast agreement would surely be enhanced and the political process justified.

I beg to move for Papers.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, for introducing this subject today. We share at least one characteristic in both debates today: we deserve a medal for our hard work, if nothing else.

As regards description, I agree with much that the noble Baroness said. However, I shall disagree on interpretation. I speak only for myself, and no one else. However, I recall about 30 years ago I was offered a chair in economics in the new University of Ulster. I asked the vice-chancellor whether I should have difficulty not only as an Asian but as a man given to some rebellious tendencies. He said, "Oh no, there is no problem living here". He was an Australian actually. He then said, "Whenever I give a party, I invite equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants. Of course, with Protestants, you have to be careful to invite equal numbers of Anglicans and Presbyterians". I decided that I could not live there.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but is not a united kingdom. It is John Bull's other island. I have said in many debates in your Lordships' House that the dilemma we face is that, while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom juridically, historically and politically its status is not exactly like that of Wales or of Scotland. People may pretend that it is not, but it is still what I have called before a post-colonial situation. That situation has not been resolved.

In the early 1960s, when I was in the United States, the IRA was a joke. No one took the IRA seriously. It had almost dissolved itself. How did the IRA revive itself? How did the Provisional IRA come about? The Provisional IRA did not come about from a vacuum. It came about from the realities of the way in which power was handled by the majority community in Northern Ireland. That history—all of Ireland is about history—did not do justice to the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland did not behave like a part of the United Kingdom through those 50 years. Therefore, as the noble Baroness knows better than I do, there was a civil rights movement, there was a revival of the IRA and we have had nothing but trouble for the past 32 years.

We cannot forget this simple fact. It is a divided community; it is a community in which the majority in the North is a minority in the island and the minority in the North is a majority in the island. That is where the whole majority-minority question becomes rather peculiar. I was brought up in India on the nationalist version of Irish history. I was brought up to believe that the partition was wrong and that the six counties should never have been given away. I have learnt better since. I have learnt the subtleties of history. But a generation of people not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic and in the United States believes that version of Irish history. Half of Boston believes that version.

The tricky problem is that the intrinsic issue of Northern Ireland is the very peculiar constitutional status of Northern Ireland, Successive governments, of both parties, have failed to see—no, that is too arrogant—have somehow not been able to appreciate the peculiar quasi-constitutional character of Northern Ireland. Decommissioning is just the latest part of the problem. As I have said before in your Lordships' House, the IRA is not a thing; it is an idea. When one goes away, another will be born. There will be the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA and so on. It is hard to know how one can convince the minority community in Northern Ireland, especially the totality of minorities in Northern Ireland, that it is in their interest to stay on the peaceful side of the constitutional arrangements rather than not. While there is even a minority of a minority still convinced—and there is—that there is an El Dorado somewhere else of a 32-county government, there will be Continuity IRA, Real IRA and so on.

The question is very much a political question: what can we do? The Good Friday agreement came the nearest that anything has come so far. In a previous debate on Northern Ireland I asked the Minister whether he was aware of an interpretation of the Good Friday agreement—that it was a treaty, an international treaty. Very often, in many post-colonial situations, a former terrorist body becomes part of the constitutional process. In this case, it is Sinn Fein, which is only an agent, and a not very good agent, of the IRA. If this is an international treaty, we have to be careful in taking unilateral action as a UK government without consultation with the government of the Republic as well as other signatories. Of course, as the sovereign power we are entirely entitled to do what we like—to restore the RUC and not submit to the IRA—but that is not the politics of the situation. Here is a case in which neither side has won and neither side has lost. That is what is peculiar about it.

I know that that is not a comfortable thing to say. I certainly do not know where we go from here. I believe that the intrinsic issue in Northern Ireland will stay historical and political and that it will take a great deal of tolerance and many negotiations before a settlement is reached.

7.25 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, I wish to declare an interest in Northern Ireland. I was born and brought up on the shores of Belfast Lough and, apart from some years at school over here and also when in the Navy during the war, I have lived my whole working life in Northern Ireland. With family and grandchildren in Northern Ireland, I am very, very interested in its future.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, on initiating this debate. We have had many debates on Northern Ireland but I do not think that we have had one on the matters of intrinsic importance. There are many of course—the economy, industry, agriculture, health and others—but I wish to speak only about one. I call it "Terrorism Stage 2". But, first, I must say a little about what I call "Stage 1" to show how different it is from Stage 2.

I have a very early memory concerning the IRA. I must have been four or five and we were motoring home on a Sunday afternoon through York Street in Belfast when my father ordered me to lie on the floor of the car because there were snipers about. Fortunately, they took Sunday afternoon off. There has been no difficulty in keeping in touch with the IRA in later years as there have been several occasions on which they became active and had to be interned by the North or South or both. Throughout the years, and now, the IRA believes itself to be the only legitimate army in Ireland, with a duty to break the British connection with the North and unite the island of Ireland.

During the 1970s the IRA made very determined attempts to terrorise the people of Northern Ireland and to destroy the economy. It bombed power generating stations and power lines, it murdered people in hotels, restaurants or public houses. It seemed to enjoy murdering members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the security forces. It particularly targeted any member of the police whom it knew to be a Roman Catholic. The outstanding memory of those years was the determination of everyone, other than terrorists, to defeat the IRA and to remain part of the United Kingdom. No one was going to let those crazed people get away with it, and that included Roman Catholics. We were not a divided community.

None of us will ever forget the bravery and, after a difficult start, the efficiency of the RUC, supported by the Army. But for them, many, many more would have died. In those years, my office was in Belfast and it was astonishing the confidence that we all had in the RUC almost to smell out bombs and to clear the area at risk. I saw them at work almost daily and it was remarkable the speed with which they diverted traffic and cleared everyone out of the relevant shops or offices, after which the bomb disposal experts got to work. These brave men appeared to find their work so fascinating that they ignored the risks, sometimes, tragically, to their disadvantage.

What infuriated people most during those years was that we all knew that the IRA could be shut down in a period of weeks if the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, had been a friendly neighbour. The Republic defended its borders almost aggressively and if a policeman or soldier stepped across it, even by accident, it became an international incident. But the IRA, provided that they did not shoot members of the Garda Siochana and had safe houses and bomb and ammunition dumps, were not disturbed. The garda were not permitted to harass them or report what they knew. However, to do them justice, they passed useful information to the RUC.

The IRA were permitted to train in well known areas and terrorists were able to cross the border to murder farmers in Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone who were known to be Protestant. No wonder the security forces closed all minor roads and set up watch towers. Sir Norman Stronge, Speaker of the House of Commons at Stormont, and his son were murdered in their home at Tynan, County Armagh, and their house was burnt down. At their funeral, the rector of that small parish told us that he had buried 20 of his parishioners who had been murdered by the IRA.

The IRA developed skills and resourcefulness. When a particular attack was rebuffed it would try something else. It had plenty of time; it was not being stopped. In the 1980s, the IRA learnt that one bomb in London was worth 100 in Northern Ireland and it worked to develop the capability to plant such bombs.

Then followed the Anglo/Irish agreement and other agreements and declarations. The peace process began to develop and that culminated in the Good Friday agreement, which granted Sinn Fein/IRA almost everything it wanted. In exchange, the Republic has withdrawn Articles 2 and 3 from its constitution. Sinn Fein/IRA for its part has given nothing. It has said that it has no intention of decommissioning and that its objective remains unchanged.

In pursuance of that, Sinn Fein/IRA has recently increased its areas of control in many towns and cities. Other areas are being controlled by so-called Protestant paramilitaries. And each one is as evil as the other. Threats, beatings, banishment, torture and murders are their tools and their use remains unchecked in these areas. Law and order is nonexistent. Witnesses will not come forward because, quite understandably, they are afraid. Fear is the predominant emotion.

The bosses in these areas are running Mafia-like operations; racketeering of all kinds and drug running is increasing. The effect on young people is frightening. In some places, drugged sweets are being offered to school children. I learnt that in the town of Ballymena, a town of perhaps 60,000, 1,500 citizens are drug addicts.

If action is not taken quickly, these young people will grow up without any moral standards and will drift into violence of one kind or another. The police are almost powerless. If they attempt to tackle the problem inside these areas, they are accused of harassment. When listening to the radio yesterday, I heard a very articulate man, who was obviously dedicated to helping young people, pleading for help. Frustration at the inability to do anything to prevent horrific social problems for tomorrow is leading to widespread worry and almost despair.

What I hope is that we shall not delay acting. By now, we should know the consequences of delaying at Stage 1, the open bombing and shooting. We have something much more sinister to deal with. It is different from that of past years when the community was openly attacked. In the eyes of many, many people, the peace process in its present form has failed and it makes no attempt to deal with the sinister and, I believe in the long term, more dangerous problem. Despair is not good for morale.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that this a timed debate. We do not have extra time and if every noble Lord takes as much time as the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, the Minister will have no time to reply.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, I apologise, I shall finish in 10 seconds. I beg the Secretary of State to spend more time in Northern Ireland listening to people in order to find out the seriousness of the problem and to develop and implement a plan to deal with it. At present, we are a very, very long way from peace.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth for giving us another opportunity to discuss the issues that arise in Northern Ireland. Events there move fast and not always in propitious directions. I hope that it is not presumptuous to suppose that, by debating them frequently, your Lordships' House can make a modest but helpful contribution.

I share the admiration for the RUC that was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh. I shall not follow him in the further parts of his speech because I want to return, I hope not tediously, to something which I have said previously but which I hope bears repetition. It is that I have never forgotten how in my early days in Northern Ireland time and again I was told by people, "We're not all bad, you know". I thought that so poignant and sad because I already knew how good so many people were, and are, on all sides of the communities.

I thought then that I understood the reason and I think now that I understand it. There is a feeling that in the eyes of the world everyone living in Northern Ireland is somehow tarred with the same brush. It was the brush of hideous cruelties and oppressions, such as those we have heard about tonight. It was also the brush of extremism which made any return to devolved government seem very far away.

There was a feeling that, although it was a travesty—not all people were like that, only a tiny minority—it was impossible to dislodge it. That gave rise to a feeling of hopelessness and of a kind of collective shame. I found that very sad and, worse, dangerous for all the reactive reasons which are so obvious that they do not need spelling out tonight. I knew that there was nothing naturally inherent in the people of Northern Ireland which made it impossible for them to be accorded the right to rule themselves politically as do people in this country and in the Republic. I knew that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with them which somehow made it necessary to deploy four times the number of police that would be normal for a population of that size and to back them up by 12 battalions of troops. Yet those people appeared to be viewed as though they were caught in a prison; one constructed in the past and largely of the past.

I turn to what I regard as the most important intrinsic issue. I soon came to the conclusion that, above all, what was needed was the construction of a system whereby Northern Ireland and all its people were again given the right and the ability to govern themselves politically within a framework which would be fair to the minorities so that they would not permanently be subordinated on important matters. I believed that that was the key which could unlock the prison.

The challenge for everyone's ingenuity was to find a way which would be generally acceptable and fair. I believed that if that could be devised and could win acceptance, and could be implemented and seen to work, collective self-confidence would be restored; that what is today called "self-esteem" would burgeon (I do not deride that or diminish its importance); and with it would come a belief that it was possible to build for a better future. I am sure that meeting that challenge remains the principal intrinsic issue for Northern Ireland today.

It seems to me that the great achievement of the Northern Ireland agreement and of the subsequent agreement that culminated in Senator Mitchell's review was that they enabled devolved government to be put in place. As a concept, it was, as it were, called down from the higher atmospheres of rhetoric and established on the ground. That is not a reference to the high wire act so widely condemned by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead. However, something that hitherto had been only rhetorical was made manifest on the ground. Scepticism was at least to that limited extent confounded.

Although that represents an enormous advance, and the agreement was in place and had started to work in a manner that in many ways was seen to be acceptable, as we now all know, it has had to be suspended for reasons that we also know too well. The task now is to consider how, with general acceptability, it is to be brought back into operation and seen to work in accordance with the principles of a free democracy.

It is impossible for us on this side of the water to know where the limits of acceptability lie. It is wrong for those of us on this side of the water who do not have to live there, like other noble Lords who are present in this Chamber, to say where they should lie. One thing is certain: the limits have been taken further in the direction of tolerance by most Unionists than until recently would have seemed possible.

I believe that the political risks taken by Mr Trimble have been as well judged as they have been brave; and they have been brave indeed. I believe that he enabled a boost to confidence to be given, the benefits of which I have already tried to summarise. I believe that he deserves once more to face down his critics, and I hope that he does so.

Nevertheless, there must be limits to what is acceptable. At the root of the issue is the principle and truth that democratic government can work only if there is confidence that no party will look to supplement the force of its arguments with the force of its comrades' arms. It is well worth spelling out why. I believe that the reason is because compromise will otherwise either be dictated by fear of violence or will be perceived to be dictated by fear of violence. The first can never be tolerated in a democracy and either case will give rise to the destruction of confidence in democratic government.

Therefore, a very difficult and delicate task faces us. However, the Government must also remember the duty, already alluded to tonight, to defend the people for whom they have responsibility. In those circumstances, it must be right for the Secretary of State, as he has said he will, to take his security advice from his principal advisers—the Chief Constable and the GOC.

Given the undiminished capability of the paramilitaries and terrorists to wreak the kind of damage with which we are all too familiar, not only in Northern Ireland but in London, Manchester and elsewhere, and noting that in the past three weeks alone three major attacks by the IRA or by so-called "dissident" groups have been forestalled by the RUC, the task now is to sustain the ability of the RUC to cope. I believe that the Government have a very delicate task. I salute the courage of those who take responsibility in Northern Ireland, and, again, I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to discuss these matters, no matter how rapidly.

7.43 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Baroness for bringing about this debate. I must apologise to her and to the Minister in that I am booked on the last possible flight this evening and, sadly, it will not wait for me.

We are all aware that the overriding issues in the Province today are the development of the political situation, or the stalemate of it, and the security situation. However, although they have a detrimental influence on every day-to-day part of our life in the Province, I wish to talk about other matters. I must declare an interest in that I farm in a small way; I run a tourism business and I am linked to a hospital trust.

I should like to talk for a few moments about the rural areas of the Province and, in particular, those areas close to the Border with the Republic. Where I live in Fermanagh, we are in a unique position: the United Kingdom is on the fringe of the European Union; Northern Ireland is on the fringe of the United Kingdom; and we in Fermanagh and Tyrone are on the fringe of Northern Ireland. In addition, Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom which has a land border with a euro-based economy. Therefore, the economic pressures which are felt in Great Britain when trading with the Continent are multiplied greatly in the Province with its land border with the Republic.

Everyone in Fermanagh can drive or walk across the Border within about half-an-hour. We do not need to buy a ferry, air or Eurostar ticket to do so, and we can shop as easily North or South of the Border. The differential between the pound sterling and the Irish punt is now, or was yesterday, between 24 and 27 per cent, depending on whether one is buying or selling.

In Northern Ireland, 35 per cent of the population of 1.6 million lives in rural areas. In Fermanagh, 70 per cent of a population of 55,000 is rural-based and the population density is only 29 people per square kilometre, which is one-quarter of the Northern Ireland average.

Agriculture is the basis of our economy and the depression in that industry is causing more hardship than in other areas of the United Kingdom. The reasons have been well debated here and I shall not go into them in detail. The most significant is that prior to five years ago 80 per cent of agricultural produce was exported from the Province. Therefore, the effects on the industry—in relation to cattle, pigs and sheep, especially—are devastating to the local economy. In addition, the land border with the weak euro ensures that we suffer to a greater extent.

If that was the only problem, there might be some hope. However, there are now additional problems for local businesses and the economy. The textile industry, with firms such as Desmonds and Adria, are laying off employees and closing some of their factories, not only in the rest of the Province but also in Fermanagh. This month, the only meat processing plant of any size in Fermanagh closed with the loss of 200 jobs. The Erne Hospital, a major employer, is due for relocation, almost certainly outside the county.

Therefore, what are we left with? Agriculture and other businesses in the county are either very small or are micro-sized enterprises. However, the present situation is hitting them even harder due to their lack of mobility and, above all, the nearness of a weak euro-based economy I believe in the European Union open market and I am a member of your Lordships' Select Committee on European affairs. I accept that the weakness of the euro is outside the control of our Government. However, in certain areas where they do control matters, our Government's policies are having a devastating effect. Road fuel and transport policy is the most damaging for the incomes in the Province, and for the Border areas in particular.

The most critical factor in this sector is taxation, and I must say that I do not wish to see precise harmonisation of EU taxes. However, the Government have created such a disparity between fuel prices, North of the Border compared with the South, that it is affecting everyone every day in those areas. I take diesel as an example. It costs 74p or 75p a litre in Fermanagh. A few minutes away, it costs as little as 60 Irish pence a litre; that is, about 48 English pence—one-third cheaper. For those who can reclaim VAT in the Republic, where it is 21 per cent, another 4 per cent is recoverable over and above our 17.5 per cent VAT in the North.

Noble Lords must believe me when I say that the majority of people in Fermanagh and West Tyrone fill up in the Republic. Visiting there more often, they see that goods are cheaper in punts. Therefore, naturally they begin to do their shopping there. The effect is this: in Enniskillen, for example, 19 miles from the Border, fuel sales are down 50 per cent, which is making the garages unviable. Closer to the Border, sales are virtually nil. I believe that in Strabane, where there are 20,000 people, (here is only one filling station left selling fuel. In Enniskillen, high street shopping turnover is down by up to 50 per cent. The Southern Ireland shopper, who was frequently with us, is now rare. The locals have begun to shop South of the Border.

Our road haulage industry is on its knees. Last year, the Chancellor increased HGV road tax to over £5,000 while it is 1,000 punts or £750 sterling in the South. Many hauliers have reregistered their lorries South of the Border. The Republic has stopped, or is in the process of stopping, that practice, which leaves their haulage firms with the most incredible cost advantage.

Yesterday, the Chancellor reduced that tax bill by £1,800 per vehicle but that will have no effect in Northern Ireland where it is still four times more expensive. The Government must look at that issue to see whether they cannot be of some help.

The Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, complain that in rural society there is not enough diversification into, for example, tourism. Tourism, with which I am involved, is an important business in Fermanagh. As it is a land of lakes and beautiful countryside, that is not surprising. However, the differential between the currencies North and South has resulted in a fall of business in vital sectors—hire cruisers, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and so on.

The Government can do much to help. They can halt the removal of health service jobs and leave the hospital where it is. They removed the rates office from Fermanagh. They should be locating more of that type of service in the county, away from the cities. I ask them to look again at the taxes levied on road haulage and fuel. They should support the agriculture industry to a greater extent.

To sum it up, the Government should show mare support for rural society in the United Kingdom as a whole and in particular in Northern Ireland where we are heading for a close-to-Border commercial desert.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, there must be some weird influence at hand in that, first, I am very high on the list of speakers, and, secondly, I am speaking between two men who come from that wonderful county of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Park for giving us the opportunity to speak on such a wide-ranging debate. Normally, when we say that something is "wide ranging", it is a veiled hint that the speaker has digressed in three dimensions all over the world. But today the noble Baroness has given us the opportunity to speak about "the intrinsic issues".

I wish the noble Viscount who has just spoken a swift and safe return to County Fermanagh. I hope that he will give my best wishes to such friends as I have there among the farming community after what went on in 1984 and 1985. I ask everyone who reads the debate to note in particular the remarks of my noble friend Lady Park. She has enormous wisdom, and there is the occasional chuckle, but I hope that the words she spoke are read and digested north and south of the border as well as across the Atlantic and elsewhere.

Is there anything new this evening? I first remember taking an interest in Northern Ireland in 1968. Indeed, in my office I have a copy of the Cameron report in which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in an earlier incarnation, was mentioned in all sorts of aspects. From 1972 my first eight speeches in your Lordships' House were made on the subject of Northern Ireland. I hope that they were as brief as I intend to be this evening.

But, good heavens, in 1984 the Prime Minister asked me to serve in Northern Ireland. I did that. I became very heavily involved with commerce and that number one industry in Northern Ireland—agriculture—and perhaps a little less with tourism.

Your Lordships will be aware that one must spend time as the duty Minister in Northern Ireland. During my first weekend there, at half past eight in the morning, a taxi driver was murdered, shot dead with a revolver in the markets in east Belfast. At nine o'clock, two RUC men were blown up in a car bomb in a culvert at Camloch. At two o'clock in the afternoon, two British soldiers were blown up—happily, one survived—at Enniskillen. That was my first weekend in Northern Ireland. As a young Minister, it was an example of what can happen.

I had the honour to serve three Secretaries of State. The first was my noble friend Lord Prior. A year before I got there, he had had to cope with the enormous drama and feelings aroused by the hunger strikes. As regards my second and third Secretaries of State, one had a great hand in creating while the third created and had to implement the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 which, once again, aroused enormous feelings among the loyalists, one side of the community, in Northern Ireland.

As a junior Minister, it seemed to me that there was a noticeable improvement in relations on the ministerial side when I met my colleagues from south of the border and also in relation to security. Major events took place in 1992 and in 1999 there was the Good Friday agreement. I may take a leaf out of the book of the proverbial Chinese gentleman who, when asked what he felt about the French Revolution, said, "It is too early to say". But wearing my hat as an accountant from Scotland, I worry that one or two aspects of the 1999 Good Friday agreement might not have been tied up quite perfectly. In my career in your Lordships' House and in Northern Ireland, there were bloomers everywhere, but I wonder whether decommissioning may be a slightly weak point among the enormous successes achieved throughout 1999.

Two aspects of the Good Friday agreement have been laid out beautifully by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew; namely, those of trust and confidence. I stress that those cannot be implanted, imposed or imported. They must be earned. We forget that at our peril.

My noble friend Lady Park and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew have said everything that I could have said about the Royal Ulster Constabulary. But I have spoken to five or six Members of your Lordships' House—none of whom is speaking tonight—about two programmes which I happened to see on Channel 4 on a Saturday evening about the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Some of what I saw in those programmes was bizarre but much of it was realistic. Indeed, some words of the Chief Constable were extremely optimistic. He stressed that he could not wait to get back to what he described as "proper policing".

I pause and wonder whether some of those who wish to have political input into the putative possible police committees might bear in mind the wise words of my noble friend Lady Park. Do they really want to have an Irish version of the Tonton Macoute; that is, police only coming into the locality of which you approve. I really do wonder about that.

I conclude by concentrating on commerce and the industry which was so ably supported by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. Perhaps I may take a few moments to compliment the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on the job he has done. I preceded him many years ago but I salute him as a Minister in your Lordships' House and I salute him also for what he has done for agriculture in the years that he has served.

I had a number of opportunities to go abroad representing—if you can call it that—the Northern Ireland agriculture industry. I went twice to the world's biggest food fair in Cologne. I went to Strasbourg, to Lille and to Paris. On each occasion, I was briefed by the wonderful press departments of the Department of Agriculture and the Northern Ireland Office. I was told that I would have to cope with the press.

I tried my best at the foreign languages. I went off to a language school which can be found in London and polished up my German and French. I managed to hammer home one particular simple message which was what many people might see through the printed and electronic media in Northern Ireland. I referred to the moon. I made no snide jokes about the full moon or anything like that. But I said that there is a dark side and a light side. Alas, the media and headline writers like to go for the dark side. Quite rightly, many of my noble friends and those speaking about Northern Ireland concentrate on the difficult side. I concentrated on the light side—the wonderful success of agriculture, food and tourism in Northern Ireland. Everywhere I went—Cologne, Lille, Strasbourg and Paris—people applauded. Both foreigners and Northern Irish said, "Thank you very much".

I believe that, although we consider it too early to comment on such matters, the success of any agreement that we have seen will be due entirely to the people of Northern Ireland. I have met many; in fact, very many, who were not of my religious persuasion, let alone of my political outlook, who might wish to have done me some bodily harm—grievous or not—in my career. But the process and progress belong to the people of Northern Ireland. I beg all friends of Northern Ireland here, in the south, and all over the world, to be patient. It is too early to say. I salute each and every one of my friends there, including Big Hector and all those in County Fermanagh.

8 p.m.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, for selecting the topic of Northern Ireland for tonight's debate.

In common with the vast majority of people in the Province, I am disappointed that the Executive is no longer in place because one party has not played its part in the arrangements flowing from the Good Friday agreement. It is to be hoped that in the very near-ish future, Sinn Fein/IRA will play its part and make a start to decommissioning its guns and explosives.

I identify with much that has been said tonight about the security and political situation, but the government of the Province must go on. Decisions must be taken to allow all sectors of life to proceed. I fully understand the difficulties with which the Government are faced at this stage. But a position of no decisions being taken on key issues of policy would be unfair and disloyal to the good citizens of Northern Ireland who are entitled to effective government.

I intend to restrict myself tonight to only a few areas of activity. I refer first to public transport. The railway system in Northern Ireland is in bad shape, with out-of-date rolling stock and poorly maintained lines providing a less than adequate service on all routes except the Dublin line. I acknowledge that NIR has a dedicated staff and management, but it cannot operate without a fair share of financial support. The amount of public money spent on public transport is considerably less than for other parts of the United Kingdom. I cannot understand why. Do we need less transport per head of population than other areas? We are being urged to leave our cars and travel by public transport; but what public transport!

In a Written Answer on 8th March I was told that the reason for the difference in spending on public transport in Northern Ireland from other parts of the United Kingdom was because it was afforded a lower relative priority in Northern Ireland. I knew that. That is why I asked the Question. I am only a new boy here, but in my opinion, the Answer that I received was not good enough. I lay no blame on the Minister, who is in a difficult position. I should like to place on record, however, that if I am not satisfied with any answer, I shall pursue that issue with extreme vigour.

Northern Ireland needs government by people responsible to the public, either through a local assembly or through this building. We shall no longer stand for edicts from civil servants who believe that they can do a soft-shoe shuffle around questions which they are not prepared to answer. I should like to hear a confirmation that the Government are committed to maintaining the present railway network in Northern Ireland. I should like to be told the date of completion of modernisation of the central station and the commencement date for the relaying of the railway line between Belfast and Bangor.

I should he pleased also to receive an explanation as to the lower level of expenditure on public transport in Northern Ireland and what steps the Government propose to take to bring spending there up to the same level as that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will Northern Ireland's railways be treated in the same way as any other railway company in the UK and be allowed to replace its ageing rolling stock by leasing new ones; if not, why not?

I turn now to the issue of air transport. The Republic of Ireland Government have long recognised the value of a strong international airport to the economic growth of that country. The attraction for inward investors and tourists to a country with numerous direct international links is evident. Air transport in Northern Ireland is unable to compete on a level playing pitch so long as we continue to suffer from the unfavourable currency rate with our neighbouring state—a point to which the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, referred—and the absence of passenger levies charged by that government. That was highlighted yesterday by the Chancellor, with the exemptions for the Highlands and Islands.

Belfast International Airport is recognised as the major gateway to Northern Ireland. It is the only airport in Northern Ireland with the capacity to cope with the growth anticipated in air transport. Its owners, TBI plc, have made a major structural investment in its future. Do the Government recognise the importance of Belfast International Airport to Northern Ireland? Do they recognise the need to support not only its growth, but also its efforts to market Northern Ireland to international airlines in order to attract more direct international routes? Do they further recognise the threat that Dublin International Airport poses to our transport industry infrastructure? What measures do they propose to take to support private enterprise in its ability to compete on behalf of Northern Ireland?

While discussing transport, I should like to support the appeal from the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, concerning the difficulties in the Border area. I know only too well of those difficulties and I concur with every word the noble Viscount said. I, too, look to the Government for encouragement on the issue.

Finally, I wish to raise another topic. Before I do so, I should declare an interest. I am on the register of Members' interests as the chairman of a PR company. I should like to discuss the activities of Groundwork Northern Ireland, which is a client of that company. I am not, and never have been, involved in any of its activities. However, I was consulted by its representatives as a Member of your Lordships' House. I believe that I have taken the correct course of action in making that point. Groundwork is an important organisation which helps in many socially difficult areas. It is one of over 40 trusts operating throughout the United Kingdom. All of those trusts, with the exception of Groundwork Northern Ireland, receive central government support. Will the Government give an assurance that that inequitable position will be urgently addressed?

Given that Groundwork Northern Ireland works to the heart of the government agenda of targeting social need and promoting community relations, do not the Government agree that the Department of Social Development in Northern Ireland should form a closer strategic liaison with Groundwork Northern Ireland to maximise public and private funding in addressing those key policy issues? For some months it has been aware of the imminent publication of the government strategy on the regeneration of Northern Ireland. Will the Government say exactly when it wall be outlined and give the time-frame for the resultant consultation process? Will the Government give an assurance that Groundwork Northern Ireland will be involved in that consultation process? I look forward to favourable responses to those points.

8.7 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, it is rare in this House, or indeed, in the Commons, to find someone with the dedication of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, who has shown a genuine, sincere interest in the fortunes of the decent people of Northern Ireland. Long may she continue to do so. I agree with almost every word she says and yet I find myself in agreement with my noble friend Lord Desai. There has not been a decade in Northern Ireland since the creation of the state in which there has not been violence. That was the case during the 1920s and 1930s. Even during the war raids in the 1940s there were a few incidents. In the 1950s the IRA began a campaign in a small way which ended in 1962. It recommenced later that year and continued during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

One must, therefore, with my noble friend Lord Desai ask why those eruptions of violence have taken place. Why have they been allowed to continue? Why has the nationalist community to a certain extent—sometimes greater, sometimes lesser—given support to the men of violence? As my noble friend Lord Desai described it—and I have done so many times during my political career—we have always referred to the unnatural constitutional position of Northern Ireland as a double-minority system. The Catholics in Northern Ireland are in the minority; in the Republic of Ireland they are in the majority. The unionists are in the majority in Northern Ireland and they certainly do not want to become a minority in the Republic of Ireland. That is the immovable object and the irresistible force. The tribal conflict that was created in 1922 is as endemic today as it was then.

I listened to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough. This remark may seem disjointed but I know that he has a plane to catch. The noble Viscount lives in Fermanagh and he spoke of the economic issues there. Many people from his own county of Fermanagh regularly travel over the border to buy cheap diesel, or cheap petrol, or cheap goods and do all their shopping in the Republic. How many of those people are loyalists? How many of those people are Protestants who pay lip-service to the state of Northern Ireland, and yet quite happily travel down the road to the Republic to shop with their nationalist political enemies?

There is no clear-cut case. This morning I read in the newspaper about David Irvine, a spokesman for one of the loyalist paramilitaries, who has just returned from America. When he was photographed at Heathrow he said that his visit had been a waste of time. I could have told him that before he left. I fail to understand why all the paramilitary spokesmen, nationalist spokesmen and some constitutional unionists feel that they have to go to America or have to run in and out of Downing Street. One of the worst things that this Prime Minister has done is to open up the door of Downing Street to let in Tom, Dick and Harry—political pygmies and nonentities in Northern Ireland. All of a sudden they turn up in Downing Street.

The problems of Northern Ireland will not be settled in Downing Street or in Washington. They will be settled in Northern Ireland. With the coming into being of the Executive, I have seen some signs. I believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, although admittedly the tunnel is very long. I have seen some dramatic changes. Whoever would have forecast that Sinn Fein, the blood brother of the IRA, would stand outside unionist headquarters demonstrating for a return of the Executive? At one time one could never have envisaged that in a lifetime. To me that indicates that Sinn Fein, if it can break away from the dictates and the stranglehold of the IRA, will be quite happy to take part in the return of a Northern Ireland Executive. I plead with Sinn Fein to break away from the stranglehold in which it is held.

Since the outbreak of the Troubles, the Northern Ireland Government or the British Government have tried to govern under the rule of law. In doing so, hundreds of terrorists have been let off the hook. Even the most moderate of unionist members see that they are faced with a pan-nationalist opposition. The nationalists in Northern Ireland are supported by the Catholics, Sinn Fein, the IRA, Irish America and indeed, to some extent, some spokesmen in this House. So the unionists feel that their backs are against the wall and that they have to fight to continue with their existence. Every unionist whom I know is not a bigot, is not anti-Catholic, but they are Northern Ireland people and they want to continue to remain so.

The noble Baroness said something that struck me. The more I think of it the more annoyed I become. Consider all the concessions that have been made to the men of violence, both loyalists and republicans. By the way, the loyalists do not have to make any excuses as they just say, "We will not do anything until the IRA jumps first". They do not have to make excuses to guarantee their own position. They say that it is all up to the IRA.

Many noble Lords will remember the emotional debate we had in the House on the disappeared. We even had a very close vote on it. The IRA indicated that it would disclose the whereabouts of those whom they had so brutally murdered. Three bodies were found. The rest have been forgotten about by everyone, except their relatives. I found it very disheartening to read the words of Pat Byrne, the Garda Commissioner in the Republic, who said that we shall never get the evidence to bring the perpetrators of the Omagh atrocity before the courts. What does that do to the morale of people in Northern Ireland?

I realise that we are restricted by time, but I hope that, because of this debate, people in Northern Ireland will see that sooner or later they will have to take their future into their own hands. The matter cannot be settled in Washington or in London. People who live in Northern Ireland and raise their families there will have to bring violence to an end.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am extremely grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has given us the opportunity to debate this subject. Clearly, she has instigated a lively discussion.

I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Fitt in his place after his illness. He seems to have lost none of his energy, clarity and perspicacity as a result of that illness. I am delighted to be able to follow him. I look forward to many more contributions from him.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, commented on the need for decisions in Northern Ireland. Watching the matter from some distance with interest, I believe that a lot of decisions are being made by the ministerial team in Northern Ireland. I could list many things that I have picked up as taking place there. I believe that the three Ministers can hold the fort there for a lot longer before some of the criticisms that he made would really apply, but no doubt the Minister will answer that.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for his comments. Some years behind him, I followed in his footsteps in Northern Ireland, where his reputation still prevailed. People talked warmly and affectionately of the time when he was responsible for agriculture. I shall not embarrass him further by saying more about that.

This is a serious debate. The prognosis is gloomy if we believe that the IRA is as it always has been, if we believe that, it has not changed one iota, if we believe that Sinn Fein has not changed one iota, and that what it says about the peace process is a cover-up. I believe that some speeches in the debate have gone close to saying just that.

I believe that those organisations have changed, not as much as I would have liked them to change, not in all respects, but I believe that there has been a change in the attitude of at least some members of Sinn Fein. Because of that change, I am more optimistic than has appeared from the contributions of some noble Lords.

Of course, the problems ultimately have to be solved in Northern Ireland. It is up to the parties in Northern Ireland, and, with the assistance of this Government and the assistance of the Irish Government, some progress will again be possible. It will be difficult, but we have to assume that people can change and that organisations can change. We have to put them to the test to see how much change has taken place in their attitudes.

I believe that over the past two years there has been a lot of movement, both on the unionist side and on the nationalist and republican side. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has given some examples of that. We have seen the unionists make enormous concessions in terms of their earlier position. Not only has the SDLP moved, but I believe that Sinn Fein has moved as well. After all, it has accepted the principle of consent; it has accepted an assembly in Northern Ireland; it has seen the removal of Articles 2 and 3 from the Irish constitution; and it has accepted power-sharing. I am not saying that the unionists have not made equally important concessions, but it is right that we should recognise that Sinn Fein has as well.

What I believe needs to be examined is that all the parties in Northern Ireland have very little room for manoeuvre, whether we consider the Unionists, the SDLP or Sinn Fein. But if there is to be a breakthrough and the assembly is to he restored, flexibility will have to be exercised within that narrow margin for manoeuvre and there will have to be some new approaches.

I fully accept that, if progress is to be made, David Trimble and his party need to receive better assurances than they have had so far. David Trimble has shown courage and has made brave statements even over the past few days. But he needs stronger assurances than he has yet been given, and I cannot believe that Sinn Fein does not understand that. Of course, I do not know whether Sinn Fein will ever say, in so many words, "The war is over", however much one would like that to happen. I hope that, at least, Sinn Fein and the IRA will be able to give a positive indication of the change that some noble Lords have referred to in our debate tonight.

Having set up the Assembly last December, without, as had previously been requested, putting the question of arms right up front, I do not think that that demand can be met within the framework of the Good Friday agreement. However, I believe that David Trimble is entitled to rather more than he has achieved so far.

As I said in an earlier debate, I still believe that Gerry Adams has taken the position that he would like devolution to take place and that he would like to see decommissioning become an early part of that process. I know that David Trimble faces a difficult challenge at the Ulster Unionist Council, which meets this Saturday. As I understand it, a motion has been tabled on the future of the RUC. However, whatever has been said about the RUC—and I pay enormous tribute to its bravery, courage and sacrifice—I hope that such a motion has not been included to make the tasks that David Trimble must undertake to achieve the reestablishment of the assembly more difficult. While it is not for this House to comment on motions tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party at its conference this weekend, I fear that it might box him in. I hope that that will not happen.

Why am I optimistic? I believe that the Good Friday agreement has demonstrated some important successes so far. It has shown that the parties can agree and work together. It has also shown that there is enormous public support for peace and for local ministers working in a local assembly. We have seen that the assembly can work well. This Government have made difficult decisions about prisoner releases. The Patten Report is controversial about the future of the RUC, but I believe that it represents a way forward. A review of criminal justice is to be published shortly. Enormous progress has been made as regards equality and human rights. Furthermore, we now have the lowest Army presence for 30 years.

How do we move forward? We can move forward by fostering good and close relationships between the British Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland. We must keep up the pressure on all the politicians involved to ensure that they talk to each other. We must not allow a vacuum to develop which the men of violence can then fill. As a Government, we must continue to implement our parts of the Good Friday agreement and we should not take decisions that will make it harder for the assembly to be restored. If security considerations allow, it would be desirable to lower troop levels even further.

Most important, however, is that all parties should make it clear that they understand each other's problems instead of constantly attacking one another. Each party must demonstrate a level of understanding of the difficulties faced by the other parties. I am particularly fond of the phrase, "All parties must stretch their own constituencies". Finally, there needs to be respect for the fact that both traditions in Northern Ireland are valid. If, as a Government, we continue to take that position, I believe that the assembly can be restored.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, for introducing this debate, I must confess that I was rather baffled when I saw the word "intrinsic" in the title. That is because Northern Ireland is an extremely complex milieu, where it is difficult to disentangle the kaleidoscope of issues that shape it and to establish which are intrinsic and which are not. That is to say, it is difficult to distinguish the general factors which are common to all such divided societies from the specific ones which are unique to Northern Ireland.

There is a tendency for some commentators to suggest that all the problems in Northern Ireland are unique and that the situation there cannot be compared with elsewhere. I venture to say that the region shares a number of common features with, for example, the Basque region in Spain, parts of the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, East Timor, parts of Africa and the Middle East. Those are all areas of communal division. It is important to appreciate this comparative perspective. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, has mentioned many of the atrocities committed in Northern Ireland that are also a commonplace elsewhere. I could attempt to enumerate the features that are common to all divided societies, but this evening noble Lords are invited to address those that seem to be sui generis.

Foremost—this is what I wish to focus on—is the nature of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland. This point has been mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Fitt. Essentially, the problem is a political one. Added to the factionalism between and sometimes, more importantly, within the two communities, has been the deadening effect of 30 years of direct rule. In my view, this has led to a profound distortion of the political system. The lack of a devolved and representative administration meant that, in practice, the policy-making vacuum was filled by a concordat, forged between the voluntary sector and the regional civil service, and left largely undisturbed by a succession of grateful Ministers from Westminster who had formal, but often largely nominal, responsibilities, with the notable exceptions of security and Anglo-Irish relations.

Over time, this concordat became formalised into a myriad of quangos, community partnership boards and such like agencies. The consequential interlocking web of public, private, voluntary and state interfaces constituted a nomenklatura which effectively initiated and implemented public policy. Looking back, it was probably as good a system as could be contrived and it had some notable successes, including the creation of the Housing Executive, which allocated public housing on a fair, non-sectarian basis, and also the introduction of fair employment policies at the workplace.

But direct rule did, as in some ways it was meant to, have a distorting and deadening effect on the development of a more democratic and accountable system of government and a more normal and authentic political process. The Westminster MPs elected from Northern Ireland were almost wholly detached from the policy-making process, apart from lobbying on behalf of their constituencies.

The legacy of direct rule is one of the contributing reasons why it has been so difficult to implement the Belfast agreement, and its reimposition after a mere nine weeks of devolved government, if it endures for much longer, will only further exacerbate the problem. In most western democracies, there is a growing gap between the elected and their increasingly disaffected electorates. That is true in Northern Ireland, but with one very great difference. Whereas in most of the western world, it is the voters who have abdicated from the political process—as ever-lowering turn-outs at elections have shown—in Northern Ireland it has been the reverse. With a few notable exceptions, it is the political class that has walked away from the bulk of its voters, who register high turn-outs, despite going to the polls much more frequently than Great Britain. There is no voter fatigue.

Too many of the politicians, it seems, prefer to be influenced by small, more extreme factions rather than the burgeoning moderate opinion shown in the referendum majority in favour of the Belfast agreement and subsequent opinion polls. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, once famously remarked of her deputy, the late Lord Whitelaw, that every government, "needed a Willie". She was referring to his powers of negotiation and reconciliation. Mr David Trimble's parliamentary colleagues include two "Willies" whose negative antics are the complete reverse of the benign influences exercised by Lord Whitelaw, as I am sure Mr Trimble would agree.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, the majority of the people want peace, a devolved, power-sharing executive and an elected assembly, which they want restored as quickly as possible. That requires Sinn Fein to stop "playing games with arms" as President Clinton advised it last week in Washington; and the joint leadership of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon must be resumed. That is what these Benches and all people of goodwill pray for.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Park for so nobly and ably leading this debate, especially as I know that she spoke in the previous debate as well.

We have had either active terrorism or some form of artificial ceasefire for around 30 years. I remember Belfast well in the 1970s. I remember leaving my office to go to a meeting in the town, not knowing what time I would arrive there (or indeed whether I would ever arrive there), with a map permanently running in the back of my head of the alternative routes that I could take to reach my destination.

I can remember the day that a roof tiler was shot while working on a roof at the bottom of Shankhill Road, and I had the problem of replacing the roofers within a week or so. I made a clandestine date with one of the UVF heavies in Wilton Street. I remember as chairman of the Building Material Producers Association receiving 10 telephone calls from members one morning, all of whom had received black mask cards—the IRA's form of threat. Two of those died within the year from having defied that threat.

During those years, 3,330 or so people died and over 48,000 were seriolsly injured. For what? Thanks to the courage and stubbornness of the population, and the bravery and professionalism of our police and security forces, terrorism in Northern Ireland has achieved absolutely nothing, with possibly one exception; that is, as pointed out by my noble friend Lady Park and the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, it has created a climate in which crimes such as drug smuggling, extortion and other unpleasant forms of criminology can survive—and survive well. Thirty years ago they did not exist. Furthermore, if the peace process does not lead to the reinstatement of democracy and power sharing, it too will have achieved nothing.

Does Sinn Fein not recognise that the only way forward is the ballot box? Does it not see what is on offer in return for decommissioning? Will it really resort again to the bomb and the bullet? Will it or will it not? There is no doubt what the population wants; my noble friend Lady Park made that very clear. The population of Northern Ireland wants a return to democracy; to local politicians governing local people on local affairs. The people want an end to violence and paramilitary domination of specific areas of our Province where the police cannot police and people cannot speak their mind as they wish.

John Bruton points out in an article in the online Telegraph: While Dublin and London must lead, they must not fall into the trap of taking responsibility for the action of others. The obligation on the two Governments to be seen to do 'something' does not include changing policy just because paramilitaries refuse to change things". By staying silent, the paramilitaries are getting others to float possible concessions to them, which shifts the goalposts without bringing a breakthrough—clearly demonstrated on occasions. There is no obligation on either government to change the ball park because paramilitaries will not decommission.

I submit that too many concessions have already been given. The present Secretary of State inherited a hand devoid of trumps and discards; they had all been played by his predecessor. The Secretary of State must now continue, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made clear, to press Sinn Fein/IRA for a commitment to, and a process and programme for, decommissioning.

Mr Mitchel McLaughlin stated recently in response to David Trimble in Washington that, stating that the war is over is beyond Sinn Fein's power to give a commitment on". That shows clearly that it is the military or IRA wing of the Republican movement, not Sinn Fein the politicians, which is in control. Sinn Fein has to realise that if it wishes to exert influence through the democratic process, it must find a way of leading the Republican movement into the 21st century and away from the primitive methods of previous generations. It must face the decommissioning process head on and do what is necessary. It must understand, as has already been said today, that a relationship not built on trust and truth is worthless.

The Irish Government have changed their position with monotonous regularity over recent weeks from strong support for the decommissioning position tacit support for the Sinn Fein position, including some adverse comments in relation to the happenings in South Armagh and our own forces. One of the facts of life in Dublin is that Sinn Fein is likely to win enough seats in the Dial to claim to hold the balance of power in a coalition with Fianna Fail after the next general election in the Republic. What will be the attitude in Dublin when Mr Ahern is asked to accept Sinn Fein/IRA into government while it still controls an illegal army? How will they live with two armies? Will the Irish accept a member of a known terrorist organisation as a member of their own government? I doubt it. In that case, why should we?

Has Mr Adams explored the real options with his hard-line colleagues? I doubt it. If there is to be no decommissioning in the near future, other ways of expanding the democratic process must be explored, including a reorganisation of local government and possibly the exclusion of Sinn Fein from mainstream politics and the Executive. However, while there is no Executive, problems arise with the running of the economy and administration. In the Financial Times supplement yesterday, Sir George Quigley and Sir David Fell both indicated to John Murray Brown that the business community is resigned to another period of political stalemate. That is a dangerous situation for us to be in.

We have seen Harland & Wolff s attempt to win the liner. We received an anonymous letter, about which my right honourable friend Andrew Mackay wrote to the Secretary of State and copied the Prime Minister. He said: I also have detailed information that despite Harland & Wolff advising the Government as far back as October/November 1999 of the type of support required, your limited offers of assistance were late which confirms that the quote from the Chairman last week of 'too little too late' [was accurate]". We cannot survive. We have a precarious economy. It needs day-to-day management by politicians linked to this place if they are not to be set up in Stormont. What happened to the sale of Belfast Harbour, when £70 million was supposed to go into the infrastructure, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Laird? What is happening to ensure that our agriculture industry does not disappear down the Suwannee, as talked about by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough? I want confirmation that that is being properly looked after.

In the days before devolution there was a Secretary of State, four Ministers and only six departments. Today we have a Secretary of State, two Ministers and 10 departments of bureaucracy. I understand the Government's concern about sending out the wrong message. But that was four weeks ago. That was before Harland & Wolff; before the closing of factories in Derry. Time marches on.

Finally, I should just like to make clear some key points to establish where my party stands. We share the Government's view that the best way ahead—indeed, the only way—is to preserve the agreement. It is fundamentally wrong in a democracy to expect democratic politicians to remain in government with representatives of fully-armed terrorists. Decommissioning must take place: we believe that it is wrong to proceed with the early release of terrorist prisoners until such time. We believe that any changes to security must only ever be made commensurate with the level of the terrorist threat. They must never be introduced for political reasons, but only on the advice of the Secretary of State's principal security advisers—the Chief Constable of the RUC and the General Officer Commanding.

The Conservative Party believes that there is no justification for changing the name of the RUC. The Patten report gives no reason for doing so; that is because such reasons do not exist. We do not believe that the time is right to make cuts in the strength and capability of the police, or to abolish the full-time reserve. We remain hugely sceptical about the creation of the new district partnership policing boards based on the district council areas. There should be no question of members of Sinn Fein taking seats on the Policing Board without decommissioning, and no question of that board being set up at all while the Executive remains suspended.

However, we share the goal of building a police service that is generally representative of the community. We believe that the greatest contribution to achieving this and for transforming the policing environment in Northern Ireland would be a genuine end to terrorism, and decommissioning. That is the most important change that both the RUC and the rest of us require.

8.41 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in what has been a very interesting, informative and wide-ranging debate. I should also like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, for introducing it. I shall, of course, endeavour to answer as many points as I possibly can, and will write to noble Lords if I am unable to do so. The nature of this debate was brought out by all noble Lords who spoke in terms of the range of issues that were covered. I have in mind, in particular, the need for respect for both traditions that was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lord Desai and, indeed, by my noble friend Lord Fitt, who I am delighted to welcome back.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Dubs that we must build sincere and lasting respect in Northern Ireland for both traditions. The parties to the Good Friday agreement committed themselves to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland between North and South and between these islands. The Government remain firmly of the view that tolerance and mutual respect are central to lasting peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. We shall do all that we can to build tolerance and mutual respect.

The speeches of noble Lords tonight demonstrated that the perceptions of historical issues can, and do, vary. In response to my noble friend Lord Desai, and in support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, perhaps I may underline recognition of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland want peace. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, made that very clear in his contribution.

My noble friend Lord Desai and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, touched on the comparisons and possible comparisons with countries in other parts of the world. The Government's answer is that the Good Friday agreement, as many noble Lords recognised tonight, addresses precisely the constitutional issues that have been the source of such conflict in Northern Ireland in the past. It represents agreement by the Northern Ireland political parties and the British and Irish Governments. It enshrines the principle of consent whereby Northern Ireland remains a part of the UK for as long as the majority make that choice. It recognises fundamentally the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, as long as the majority of people wish it to remain so.

The agreement enshrines a further number of very important principles of equality, fairness and parity of esteem. These, too, lie at the heart of a lasting, settlement for Northern Ireland. In response to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, I can say that the agreement sets out a political settlement that the Assembly and the Executive supported; indeed, it has been supported by all the pro-agreement parties from both sides of the political and religious divide. For the first time we have consensus on how Northern Ireland should be governed. The Government remain steadfast in their belief that the Good Friday agreement represents the best way forward. They are supported in this by the pro-agreement parties.

My noble friend Lord Desai raised the issue of the status of the Good Friday agreement. The Government have developed an unprecedented level of co-operation with the Irish Government in reaching, and seeking to implement, the Good Friday agreement. We fully recognise that the agreement and its institutions are underpinned by international treaty. The Government's action in suspending the devolved assembly was, therefore, not taken lightly. It was only taken when it became absolutely clear that it was the only way to prevent the permanent collapse of the institutions and to protect good governance in Northern Ireland.

As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, recognised, suspension was a step that the Government took with great sadness. But it is now time to look to the future. We are now entering into a consultation process. Over the coming weeks, the British and Irish Governments will hold a series of bilateral and round-table meetings with all the political parties. This process will have a single purpose: to rebuild consensus on a clear and unambiguous basis and to revive the institutions as quickly as possible on the basis of cross-community participation.

The agreement has already made a palpable difference to life in Northern Ireland. It created the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission to drive out discrimination and intolerance in all areas of public life. It has set in train the reform of policing and criminal justice—changes which are justified in their own right and which will be pursued, even though the political institutions are suspended. We have also made significant progress on normalisation. In the past week the Chief Constable announced that, fir the first time since 1969, there will be no Army battalion on tour in Belfast. We hope to take further steps in due course.

I cannot agree with my noble friend Lord Fitt that the visit to Washington and its involvement in these matters was a waste of time. It is important to ensure the continuation of political engagement. No one expected the consultations in Washington to resolve the current difficulties, but they are part of a process of discussions in which all parties must be involved.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, referred to the importance of economic development. The political progress has also had enormous economic benefits. At the time of devolution investment was up and unemployment was down. Time and time again business leaders tell us that if Northern Ireland is to take its place on the world stage—its rightful place—we must, first, sort out the political differences. There can be no doubt that the agreement remains our best option for the creation of a new society based on consensus and the peaceful democratic expression of political aims. We shall work tirelessly with parties and the Irish Government to ensure that we achieve the twin goals of devolution and decommissioning.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, referred to the issue of cease-fires. We welcome a series of successful police operations demonstrating our commitment to providing security for all the people of Northern Ireland. The security forces continue to thwart attempts by dissident paramilitaries to destroy the peace process.

The noble Baroness also referred to paramilitary attacks. The Government continue utterly to condemn acts of this nature; they are totally unacceptable. Those who have the power should use their influence over the perpetrators of these attacks to bring them to a halt. The Government will continue to pursue the ending of these attacks and will fully support the RUC in its efforts to do so. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, that during 1999 there were 206 paramilitary-style attacks; 138 by loyalists and 68 by republicans. So far this year, as of 19th March, there have been 44, 32 of which are attributed to loyalists—16 shootings and 16 assaults—and 12 of which are attributed to republicans—five shootings and seven assaults. I agree with the noble Lord that prosecutions are extremely difficult to secure as victims are reluctant to co-operate with the police. However, we remain absolutely committed to tackling this problem and will continue to maintain that support.

The noble Lords, Lord Cooke and Lord Glentoran, mentioned drugs misuse. While the problem of drugs misuse in Northern Ireland, particularly of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, has not reached the levels experienced in other parts of the UK, the Government are not complacent. The total of £5.5 million of new money allocated to support our new drugs strategy published in August last year, and support for 16 projects at a new cost of £2 million, will be part of our attempt to resolve this problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, were absolutely right to identify that trust and confidence are an essential foundation for progress and stability. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the noble Lords, Lord Laird and Lord Glentoran, referred to decommissioning. The Government's view is that substantive progress needs to be made now; otherwise, cross-community confidence cannot be sustained.

I make it absolutely clear to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that we shall take no risks with the lives of the people of Northern Ireland and there will he no reduction in security until it is safe to do so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, referred to the Patten proposals. The Government's decisions announced in Parliament on 19th January offer all the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity of a new beginning to policing. The Patten proposals offer the police the opportunity to develop in a way that they have wanted for years. Indeed, many of the proposals were contained in the Chief Constable's fundamental review of policing. The sacrifices made by members of the RUC will never be forgotten, and have been recognised by the Government. The best memorial to those sacrifices would be a service policing a new peaceful society with the consent and support of the people.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, mentioned the Omagh bombing. The Government are committed to bringing those responsible for that atrocity to justice. Substantial resources have been committed by both police services and co-operation is unprecedented in this regard. Every possible line of inquiry continues to be explored. Some 74 persons have been arrested within the two jurisdictions and two persons have been charged. The investigation remains open and the police will continue to pursue those responsible in order to bring them to justice.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred to the post-Omagh legislation being powerless to bring perpetrators to justice. The Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act, enacted following an emergency Sitting of Parliament, was a firm and proportionate response to the threat posed by dissident paramilitary organisations. The legislation pushed the criminal law to its very limits in order to try to bring those responsible for this awful atrocity to justice. The fact that it has not been used to date is not a legitimate argument against the legislation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, referred to the role of the Republic of Ireland. We totally repudiate the suggestion that the Republic of Ireland is a safe haven for terrorists. The Irish Government have shown themselves to be committed to the ending of terrorism and have been rigorous in pursuing terrorists within the territory of the Republic. Members of their police service have also been killed by terrorists while carrying out their duties. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in paying tribute to their sacrifice, just as we pay tribute to the sacrifice and professionalism of the RUC.

I agree with the noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Lyell and Lord Smith of Clifton, that peace is not just for the IRA but for all the people of Northern Ireland. The Government, with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland parties, are striving to secure that lasting peace. We believe that it is essential that the agreement is implemented in full. That means securing decommissioning as well as devolution. In the mean time we remain committed to ensuring the safety of the people of Northern Ireland.

I join with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, in paying tribute to Mr Trimble. I am happy to agree that he has shown tremendous courage and leadership in bringing his party into government, and great skill as First Minister in trying to make that government a success. His commitment to the Good Friday agreement is beyond doubt. We shall need his strength and determination to keep this process moving.

I am sure that noble Lords will wish to join with me in paying tribute to the courage and dedication of those from both traditions who have shown enormous determination in spite of discouragement and sometimes personal risk to achieve lasting peace for the people of Northern Ireland.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, mentioned agriculture in Northern Ireland. The Government fully recognise the important role that the agricultural industry plays in Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas such as Fermanagh. We are committed to the industry and supporting farmers in all areas of the United Kingdom through their difficulties. The assistance package announced by the Agriculture Minister in September 1999 provided Northern Ireland farmers with £8.5 million additional funding. The Government acknowledged the specific issue of, and problems being faced by, industries such as road haulage. The Chancellor's announcement of a reduction in road tax for large lorries is an example of the imaginative approach we take on these issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, mentioned Harland and Wolff. We understand the disappointment felt when Harland and Wolff did not secure the order to build Queen Mary II. I assure the House that Ministers and departments in Northern Ireland and London worked hard and made strenuous efforts in support of Harland and Wolff s bid to win that contract. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that there was nothing further that the Government could do.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, also raised the issue of the Belfast Harbour sale. Officials are collating data to assist in evaluating the two principal options: transfer to the private sector or retention of trust status in the public sector. This will he used to inform the decision-making process in due course.

I should also say to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that Sinn Fein has to accept that it must deliver on commitments if it is to benefit from devolution. None of the pro-agreement parties are in any doubt that decommissioning is of central importance. It is essential that we should be able to have confidence in assurances that guns are silent and will remain so. I can assure the noble Lord that Sinn Fein is under no illusion about the importance of decommissioning, not only to Unionists but to everyone in Northern Ireland.

We hope to return as soon as possible to normal operation of the devolved institutions. It is sensible, therefore, in the meantime, to maintain the present number of 12 departments. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, sought an assurance that during suspension work is being progressed by Northern Ireland Ministers and that decisions are being made. I can give him that assurance. A range of decisions has been taken since suspension. I should like to write to him on the detailed points that he has raised because I am conscious of the time.

The Government fully recognise the importance of Belfast international airport and the importance of transport between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world generally. We shall continue to look for ways of improving transport within Northern Ireland.

This has been a wide-ranging debate which has covered a variety of important issues intrinsic to Northern Ireland. The experiences of some noble Lords are tragic and deeply moving—for example, those recounted by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. The views expressed reflected a diversity of experience and opinion. While I cannot agree with all the points made during the debate, I acknowledge the commitment of those who have spoken. I am sure that we all wish for a lasting peace.

9.2 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the hour is late and another debate awaits. I shall say only a warm thank you to every noble Lord who has taken part in the debate. It would be invidious to identify anyone; everyone made a valuable contribution. I should like particularly to thank the Minister for the trouble that she took to respond to the debate in such a meticulous way. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.