HL Deb 30 November 2000 vol 619 cc1473-5

1 Clause 1, leave out Clause 1

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

1A Because it is appropriate to remove the disqualification for membership of the House of Commons and Northern Ireland Assembly of members of the legislature of Ireland (the Oireachtas).

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A.

The Disqualifications Bill is back before this House today following the decision by the other place to reject your Lordships' amendment to leave out Clause 1. The Government resisted this amendment in the other place and were supported in that position by 338 votes to 129—a large and conclusive majority.

The elected Chamber of this Parliament has now clearly indicated its wishes with regard to this Bill and I hope that your Lordships will recognise the legitimacy of that view and respect the wishes of the House on which this Bill will have a bearing. Before asking this House to indicate whether or not it intends to insist on its original amendment, I should like to use this opportunity once again, briefly, to set out the Government's position in relation to the Bill in the hope that at this late stage, now that the other place has given its opinion on the matter, your Lordships will be persuaded against insisting on the original amendment to remove Clause 1 from the Bill.

Perhaps I can take head on two arguments made in earlier debates. One is that this Bill is not wanted by anyone other than Sinn Fein; the other is the claim that we are engaged in an unjustified and discreditable attempt to appease republicans who have yet to abandon violence unequivocally.

I take the first argument. The Bill has the support of the SDLP which has courageously stood up for constitutional nationalist principles for many years. I know that my noble friend Lord Fitt takes a different view of the matter from his former colleagues in the SDLP. But that is their considered position and it is right that the House should give due weight to it.

The Bill also has the wholehearted support of the Irish Government. I urge the House to reflect on the contribution which successive Dublin governments have made to the peace process over the past few years. We have our separate interests. There have been and will continue to be occasions when we disagree. But when we can proceed together on an agreed basis, we should do so, for that is in the best interests of sustaining confidence in the political process, not only in Northern Ireland, but also throughout these islands. That relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom was proved in the negotiations which resulted in the Belfast agreement. It was the British and Irish Governments working together with the parties which made it possible to reach agreement. Throughout the difficult process which led to that agreement, and subsequently when we experienced setbacks in the full implementation of the agreement, the Irish Government were key players in bringing the political process back on track, sometimes at substantial cost and in the face of personal tragedy.

Our relationship with Ireland has been strengthened not only by the Belfast agreement, but also by the British-Irish agreement which replaced the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Under the new agreement, the Irish Government fulfilled their commitment to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, a move supported by 94 per cent of their electorate.

This Bill also has the support of a number of the smaller parties in Northern Ireland, including the Alliance Party and the Women's Coalition, neither of which could, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as fellow travellers of the republican movement. The crucial point is that it reflects the Government's view of what, in a modest way, will help to break down some of the old barriers that were necessary for as long as the Republic maintained a constitutional claim to a part of the United Kingdom but are no longer justified in the light of the new situation created by the Belfast agreement.

I turn to the second argument that this is somehow part of an appeasement process. I recognise that assurances from me to the contrary will fail to persuade those noble Lords who are disposed to believe the worst. However, I ask how it can possibly be regarded as appeasement of the paramilitaries when the effect of the Bill is to increase the opportunity to pursue legitimate political objectives through properly elected legislative bodies. If someone is able to persuade the electorate of a constituency in Northern Ireland and of a constituency in the Republic to send him or her to represent them both in Dublin and Belfast, or in Dublin and London, or any combination of the three, do we need to prohibit that by law? That is the effect of the restrictions in the present Disqualifications Act. In the Government's view, those restrictions no longer serve any useful purpose.

Democracy is not something about which we need to be frugal or grudging in these islands. It is for the people to decide who they wish to represent them in their elected assemblies and parliaments. Let us give them the most generous possible choice and place no unnecessary barriers in their way. In a modest way, this Bill increases that choice. The House of Commons has confirmed that it wishes the old restrictions on its membership and that of the Northern Ireland Assembly to be lifted. I urge the House not to insist on an amendment which, by completely undermining this Bill, would be contrary to the new spirit of British/Irish relations, which we should all be committed to nurturing.

I should like to mention that the Liberal Democrats have consistently supported this Bill, believing it to represent a modest contribution to the peace process.

We are grateful for that. They have made points about the process by which the Bill has progressed through Parliament. This is not the place to defend that process. However, we believe that the benefit of the Bill is worthwhile.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numberered 1A.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)