HL Deb 19 March 2003 vol 646 cc254-64

3.49 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Most yn)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. As your Lordships know, the Government were obliged to suspend devolved government on 15th October last year, in the aftermath of concern about continuing paramilitary activity. Obviously there had been a breakdown of trust on both sides of the community which made the effective functioning of devolved government impossible at that time.

Since then both governments have engaged with the parties—more importantly. the parties have engaged with each other—in trying to promote a step forward; that is, the restoration of the devolved Assembly and the implementation of the rest of the Belfast agreement.

At the recent meetings at Hillsborough, we believe that the two governments and the pro-agreement parties arrived at a shared understanding of how we could move forward to a lasting and durable settlement. The key issues are not secret. At their core is an end to paramilitarism and the stability of the institutions. It may be that great—we shall see—even historic progress was made in the Hillsborough talks. The ball is now in the parties' court. They need time to reflect on the issue with their colleagues. Realistically, that period of reflection could not be fruitful if the election date remains at 1st May. That would mean dissolution of the Assembly and the election campaign getting underway in two days' time. We concluded, therefore, that we should postpone the election for a period of 28 days, in order to give time for that further reflection.

I turn briefly to the provisions of the Bill as it contains only two clauses, the second of which is the Title. It provides for the postponement of the election date for 28 days to 29th May and for dissolution on 28th April. There is therefore a marginal reduction of the formal election timetable from 25 days to 20 days. That will not affect other aspects of the timetable, such as deadlines for applications for absent votes, which will be carefully scrutinised.

The Bill also includes technical provisions to take account of the impact on expenditure limits of moving the election. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

3.51 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for outlining, in his usual brief and succinct manner, the provisions of this two-clause Bill before the House today.

Let me make one thing clear at the outset: we do not like the postponement of elections and we do not approach this measure lightly. Extending deadlines is, as a matter of principle, a bad thing. It devalues the significance or importance of deadlines in the future. It encourages people to believe that all deadlines are negotiable rather than real. That is even more the case when the deadline we are considering is for an election, the date of which is already set out in law. So the Bill before the House today is not something with which we are comfortable—and not for the first time in Northern Ireland affairs.

The Lord Privy Seal outlined the significant amount of progress made in the talks at Hillsborough a fortnight ago. More importantly, the private briefings which I and others of your Lordships have had with the Secretary of State and the Lord Privy Seal—for which I am most grateful—lead me to believe that there is a genuine possibility that a deal can be done and the political institutions at Stormont restored.

It is on the basis of giving any emerging deal a chance, and the fact that the delay is only for four weeks, that the Official Opposition is not opposing the Bill. We are also clear that this will be the only occasion on which we shall accept such a postponement. This must be a one off. We cannot keep on postponing elections indefinitely just because they become an inconvenience. Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly must take place on 29th May 2003, whatever situation we might be in.

It is worth reminding ourselves why the Bill has become necessary. Just under five years ago on Good Friday, the Belfast agreement was hailed across the world—although I accept not by the DUP and some of the smaller unionist parties—as representing a new beginning for Northern Ireland. It was meant to offer, after 30 years of the most savage and evil terrorist onslaught, a genuine and lasting peace and real political stability. It was regarded as nothing less than an historic opportunity to draw a line under the past and provide the basis for a better future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

I can assure her Majesty's Government that the Conservative Party continues to believe that the agreement remains the best vehicle for achieving those objectives. Despite the suspensions and some technical problems, the devolved institutions have generally worked quite well. The principle of consent to any change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the Union is more widely accepted than ever before. The security situation has improved beyond recognition.

Yet, for all that, confidence in the agreement has steadily declined over the past five years, despite the fact that most people, including unionists, still want it to work. It is not difficult to see why that has happened. At the heart of the agreement, as the noble and learned Lord said, for all the complex drafting and so-called constructive ambiguities, there was a fairly straightforward deal: in return for the establishment of an inclusive government and cross-border institutions, in addition to a series of internal reforms within Northern Ireland, there would be an end to all forms of paramilitary violence. In other words, the war would be over.

Unfortunately, neither peace nor the agreement have been delivered because one party has been in serial breach of its obligations under the agreement. That party is of course Sinn Fein/IRA. We have had the Florida gun-running; Colombia; the Castlereagh break-in; targeting and recruitment; beatings, shootings and murder; the orchestration of street violence; the failure to meet decommissioning deadlines; and the Stormontgate spy ring at the heart of government. Those are all breaches of the ceasefire—although not accepted as such by Her Majesty's Government—and the agreement.

The main responsibility for making progress now rests with those who have so far been responsible for frustrating it. We now need what have become known as "acts of completion" and we need to be clear what those acts arc. There must be certainty beyond doubt that the IRA's war really is over. There must be complete decommissioning of all illegal arms and explosives, verified by General de Chastelain and carried out in a manner designed "to maximise public confidence", as the IRA itself promised as long ago as May 2000. There must be an end to all forms of paramilitary activity. And there must be clear evidence of disbandment as verified by the new monitoring body of the kind that has been mentioned in newspaper reports over the past few days.

To coin a phrase—the IRA really has to go away. Only then can we reasonably expect the Executive and Assembly to be up and running, carrying out its full range of functions. In other words—as the Government must make clear—everything has to be contingent and conditional on what the republican movement actually delivers and not what it promises. There must be no question of the Government reverting to their previous, failed and highly dangerous tactic of offering up unilateral concessions in advance and getting nothing in return. We have consistently urged the Government to work towards a comprehensive settlement, with clear linkages and sanctions for those who are in breach of their obligations. Instead they have relied on side deals and what the Prime Minister himself described in Belfast last October as "inch-by-inch" negotiations.

Now, at long last, and after much urging by us, Her Majesty's Government finally appear to have seen sense. The shared understanding that the Prime Minister and Mr Ahern intend to present in a few weeks' time looks as though it is a genuine attempt to secure that comprehensive settlement, leading to the full implementation of the agreement, for which we have been calling. If that is now the Government's approach they will have our full support. However, should Her Majesty's Government revert to their policy of offering up concessions in advance, before the completion of decommissioning and an end to all paramilitary activity, they will forfeit our support.

There has been much discussion of the issue of sanctions, but if parties fulfil their obligations, the sanctions will not be used and the issue becomes irrelevant. According to seemingly well-sourced reports, the Government will replace the suspension power with an independent monitoring body that can make a determination to the Secretary of State, who would then have available to him a range of sanctions, including being able to suspend Ministers or a party from the Executive.

That is a power that the Conservative Party has been urging on the Secretary of State since the summer of 2001. It is more than nine years since the Conservative government, along with the then Irish Government, published the historic Downing Street declaration that in some ways marked the formal launch of what has become known as the peace process; and it is nearly live years since the Belfast agreement held out the prospect of a peaceful, stable and prosperous future for all the people of Northern Ireland. Now is surely the time to make the final moves on the basis for which the people voted in 1998.

A return to the sterile and stale politics of the past is as unthinkable as a return to violence and terror. The days of an armed peace are over. The only way to go is forward. The time has come to take the final steps to implement the agreement. As the only intention behind the Bill is to facilitate that process by delaying the Assembly elections for four weeks, we support the Bill.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord for his introduction to the Bill. I shall echo what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said at the outset of his speech. I, too, emphasise that we accept the change of date of election to the Assembly with considerable reluctance. It should be a firmly entrenched principle that fixed election dates should be tampered with only in the most extreme cases. In one sense, postponing the date by four weeks is neither there nor there, but it is a most unfortunate precedent, which I trust will not have to be employed again.

Principle apart, I wonder whether the short delay is prudent. Sticking to 1st May may have concentrated the minds of the parties involved rather more than they have been. After all, there has been more than enough slippage and delay in implementing the Belfast agreement. If a four-week delay in elections facilitates the restoration of a necessary minimum of trust, we will not oppose that change of date, but elections must definitely be held on 29th May next. I was glad that that was confirmed by the Government when the Bill was considered two days ago in another place.

The Government's view is that they will be able to publish a more or less agreed statement on how the peace process can be advanced in early April. It is vital that on that occasion there is no fudging or equivocation on the part of any of the self-proclaimed pro-agreement parties. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on that.

That means that the agreed package can be advanced only if the requisite acts of completion have occurred. Will the Government publish the package if they have not? I certainly predict that, without acts of completion, further consideration of the proposed police Bill will be placed in jeopardy.

Further, what precisely is to be done about problems of fugitives, or on-the-runs? What process is likely to be devised to deal with that thorny issue? Separate, but not altogether unrelated, is the problem of those who have been exiled by paramilitaries and forced to move away from Northern Ireland. What plans are afoot to allow those exiles to return and be permitted to live in peace and tranquillity? What guarantees can they be given?

Finally, and equally important in restoring trust, can the noble and learned Lord tell us how the Government propose to deal with the question of community relations? Northern Ireland is a divided society. That was demonstrated again by the violence in north and east Belfast during the weekend. Society in Northern Ireland is perhaps more segregated now than it was before the Good Friday agreement was signed. There is a deep-seated lack of trust, and the continued sectarianism and segregation poses the greatest of threats to the peace process.

What are the Government doing to deal with that fundamental problem'? What are they doing actively to encourage de-segregation and promote integration within all aspects of society?

Although somewhat sceptical about the value of the four-week delay to elections to the Assembly, we on these Benches hope, for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland, that an agreed package will be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, and that the requisite acts of completion will have taken place. But, if there is no general agreement, we are strongly of the view that elections must be held on 29th May. Let the people of Northern Ireland speak, and let there be a return to devolved government for the region.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, it is unfortunate that we are today debating a Bill that ought not to have been necessary. As has been said, its effect will be to delay the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly by four weeks. In theory, that should not have too detrimental an effect on the democratic process in the Province. In reality, that will probably be the case. However, the message and impression that that delay sends out is a bad one for Northern Ireland. It suggests to the world yet again that Northern Ireland is a place apart within the United Kingdom.

On 1st May, when voters in Great Britain go to the polls to cast their ballots in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local authorities, the people of Northern Ireland will be staying at home. That is a most disheartening state of affairs. I very much hope that such a situation never arises again.

So why is the delay necessary? Because, once again, the political process in Northern Ireland is in a state of paralysis while we wait for Sinn Fein/IRA finally to fulfil its commitments under the Belfast agreement. For almost five years, the republican movement has pontificated, postured and, on many occasions, strayed back to its old habits.

I reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said: the latest suspension of the Province's devolved government came about following the discovery of the Sinn Fein/IRA-led spy ring at Stormont. Previous to that, we had the IRA break-in at Castlereagh police station; the arrest of three republicans in Colombia suspected of training FARC rebels; and charges of IRA gun-running from Florida. There have also been other incidents, of which many of your Lordships who do not come from Northern Ireland may not even be aware. Does that catalogue of illegality really prove the commitment of Sinn Fein/IRA to purely peaceful and democratic methods? I fear and think not.

Until now, we have had two acts of decommissioning from the IRA. We in the Ulster Unionist Party welcomed both. But still the republican movement could not help but go back to its old ways of murder, maiming and deception. Is it any wonder that the confidence of the unionist population in the Belfast agreement is at an all-time low? For the situation to be rectified and for the agreement itself to be saved, we need—to use our Prime Minster's phrase—final acts of completion from republicans. For unionists, that means an effective end to the IRA and all its evil ways.

It appears that the delay of the date for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is meant to give Sinn Fein/ IRA an opportunity to prove to its doubters that it is moving towards that goal. Neither noble Lords nor I have any way of knowing whether it is likely to happen. I sincerely hope that it will. But, if it does not, the republican movement will have only itself to blame if the Belfast agreement collapses or, if the SDLP can summon the moral and political courage, the other political parties decide to move on without Sinn Fein.

I assure noble Lords that the Ulster Unionist Party was geared up for an election on 1st May and is very disappointed about the delay. When the elections take place on 29th May, I am sure that the fine array of Ulster Unionist candidates selected will do well for the proud party that they, and I, represent. I only hope that, by that time, their wait and that of the voters of Northern Ireland will not have been in vain.

To conclude, although the details of the recent discussions at Hillsborough will not be published until the beginning of next month, we are already aware from media reports that Sinn Fein/IRA's biggest difficulty seems to be with the sanctions that would be imposed on any party found to operate outside the terms of the Belfast agreement. Surely, if Sinn Fein/ IRA is serious about turning its back on its evil ways of the past, it has nothing to fear from sanctions? Indeed, it should welcome them, given that it continues to accuse my party and the British Government of being in breach of our obligations. If the republican movement continues to oppose sanctions, we can only conclude that it believes it will fall foul of them at some point. This scenario does not bode well for the future; nor does it instil much confidence in the Government's decision to bring the Bill before your Lordships' House today.

4.12 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, most noble Lords with any experience of Northern Ireland would not want to oppose this Bill because they believe that it is an attempt to bring democracy back into Northern Ireland. I am sure that, like myself, many noble Lords have many misgivings about the present state of politics in Northern Ireland. Noble Lords who attended meetings with the Leader of the House will be aware that I have expressed misgivings that we are to have elections now. Talks took place at Hillsborough between the political parties in Northern Ireland, in which the Government of the Republic were involved. We are told that everyone left those talks with "a shared understanding"—no one really knows. Many phrases that emerge from Northern Ireland negotiations leave us as wise as ever.

As I said then, decommissioning is the main issue to be resolved in Northern Ireland. Nobody in Northern Ireland, including the Catholic community, believes that the two acts of decommissioning that took place were in any way effective. Some very funny cartoons appeared in the press at the time. If General John de Chastelain, who lives in Canada, reads a column in the Irish Times saying that "P O'Neill" has issued a statement, he takes a plane to Northern Ireland for talks about decommissioning. That has happened twice.

I wish to know what was decommissioned, as do the people in Northern Ireland: how many guns, how many pounds or tons of Semtex? We do not know. If there is to be decommissioning, it must be visible. The public in Northern Ireland must see it, either through observers or on television. It occurred to me when I came into the House earlier that, now that Hans Blix has been relieved of his responsibilities in Iraq, he might find useful employment in Crossmaglen. We do not know whether the IRA is prepared to engage in decommissioning. That is one big problem that we will have to get over.

The other problem is on-the-runs. They say that in Northern Ireland we are very good at creating acronyms for different organisations. The term ODCs was used to describe ordinary decent criminals as distinct from paramilitaries. ODCs were just robbers who did not have guns. On-the-runs will be a big problem. I have just left a meeting in the Moses Room under the very able chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, at which many well-intentioned people discussed the problems of exiled people and what we should do with them. But it is legislation that will grapple with the problem, not those well-intentioned people. We cannot divorce the problem of exiles from all the other problems.

Noble Lords will remember the emotional debate that took place in this House about the "Disappeared", who were murdered by the IRA. The IRA undertook to indicate where the bodies could be found but quickly stopped after the first were located. Is there any way of making the IRA live up to the promises that it then made, as a result of which legislation was pushed through the House to absolutely no effect?

I had intended to ask this question at the meeting that I attended earlier, and, I will probably do so later: what do we do about exiles who also happen to be on the run? What about John White, the murderer who, with many of his cohorts, was chased out of Northern Ireland by the faction of the UDA led by Johnny Adair? Allegedly, he now lives in Scotland; but I hear that he is living in London. Is he to be treated as an exile or as an on-the-run chased out of Northern Ireland by a branch of a paramilitary organisation?

It is obvious from the debate in another place on Monday evening that many issues must be resolved before we can ever hope to get the Assembly up and working again. I said then to the Secretary of State that, unless those problems are resolved, it would be useless to bring the Assembly back into operation because all those troubles would be brought hack on to its Floor.

More than all the political parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein desperately wants the Assembly brought back again, because it gives it respectability and two Ministers in government. It wants the Assembly brought back as much as I did in 1974 at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement. Now is the time—perhaps the only time in recent years—when the British Government can tell Sinn Fein/IRA that the Assembly will not be brought back unless it fulfils the obligations that I mentioned. In the 10 years since the emergence of Sinn Fein, Unionists have had to make the concessions; Sinn Fein can make them now. If it wants to engage in politics in Northern Ireland, it should be prepared to make some of the concessions that I mentioned. The debate on Monday evening showed that there is still much work to be done before we can find agreement.

Will the statement by the Irish and British Governments on 29th March or at the beginning of April be the last line in these negotiations? Will it be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis? Will the Irish Government, the British Government and, somewhere on the fringes, the Americans have agreed the outcome of the discussions that began in Hillsborough? Unless we find agreement before the elections, all the political parties in Northern Ireland will put forward their own agenda on the hustings. That will do nothing for peace in Northern Ireland. Unless we find a moduos operandi to resolve the problems before there is an election, that election will be worse than useless.

I support the postponement of the election. However, I do so with the proviso that both Governments and all the political parties in Northern Ireland should realise that bringing back that parliament is contingent on finding agreement among themselves.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, this is my first debate on the more general issues relating to Northern Ireland, as distinct from the debates on policing issues, for which many of your Lordships will remember me—perhaps not always fondly. I want to express my great affection for Northern Ireland and my commitment to do all that I can to help promote the peace that is so urgently needed.

It is with great reluctance that we on these Benches, like other noble Lords, accept the need for the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton made clear, we regard any interference with the normal democratic process as a serious matter. The decision to postpone the date of the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland must not be taken lightly. We are disappointed that it has not been possible, since the Assembly was suspended last October, for the parties and the Governments to finalise a package that would have enabled the Assembly to be reinstated.

At the time, we called upon the Government to convene all-party, round-table talks immediately. Perhaps, if more progress had been made earlier, there would have been no need for the Bill before us today. That said, we are reassured by the comments of the honourable Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. Des Browne, that it was a short, defined postponement and that there would not be any further changes to the date of the Assembly elections. The Explanatory Notes for the Bill helpfully remind us that the provisions apply to the ordinary general election poll on 29th May and not to any subsequent election. That is helpful. It denotes the fact that these are special circumstances and shows that in no way is it intended to use the postponement as a precedent for the future.

There has been a great deal of discussion, not least in the media, of the content of the package that the two Governments have proposed to the parties in Northern Ireland. My noble friend spoke of some of our concerns, but I must stress again the issue of on-the-runs, to which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, also referred. A general amnesty for those who are on the run from justice is not acceptable. There must be a judicial element to any proposals to deal with the issue. Release must be on licence; justice must be seen to be done; and the concerns of victims must be properly addressed.

It has been said here and in another place that the end of paramilitarism and the acts of completion of which the Prime Minister has spoken are fundamental to making progress and to the prospects of the parties accepting the package that the Governments have proposed. That does not just mean decommissioning: it means an end to punishment attacks and intimidation and the lifting of the threat to those who have been exiled from their home by the paramilitaries. That is the over-arching context in which we must take the peace process forward. It is vital that we now see an end to all paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than an imperfect peace. I sincerely hope that, in the near future, we shall see real peace. It is long overdue. This short Bill deals with complex issues, but we fervently hope that the delay of four weeks will bring the big prize. If it does, it will have been worth it.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who participated in the debate. It is a short Bill, as we have all recognised, but we all know that what is proposed has many ramifications.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, first identified and expressed a principle that was assented to by all who spoke subsequently and with which I agree entirely. He said that no one wished as a matter of principle that the elections should be postponed. In a sense, as the noble Lord rightly said, the point is not the period of 28 days but postponement as a principle. I agree with all of your Lordships, all of whom concurred with that.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, spoke with his usual generosity of the benefit of private briefings. This Secretary of State and, before him, Dr Reid have always been willing to attend regular meetings at which there are, I think that it is fair to say, full and candid exchanges of views. I hope that, as the Secretary of State said, we can arrange another one in the next week or two. All noble Lords who spoke attend those briefings, and they are not a one-way street. The Secretary of State and I find the diversity of views expressed extremely helpful. The noble Lord also said that his party's view remained that the Belfast agreement, fully implemented, was the best hope for the future of Northern Ireland. I agree with that.

I shall not return to the question of postponement, as all of your Lordships are in agreement on it. However, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked specific questions about on-the-runs and fugitives. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked whether a particular individual, John White, would be an on-the-run or an enforced exile. That would depend on his circumstances. My recollection is that he has already been convicted, served his sentence and been allowed out, so he would not qualify as an on-the-run for that offence, although he might, in some circumstances, I suppose, qualify as an enforced exile. Life's irony being limitless, it seems to have been his own disenchanted colleagues who invited him to take up residence in Scotland, rather than remain in Belfast.

The question of the on-the-runs is important. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, spoke of it. There will have to be a formal process, but it would be more appropriate if I did not go into possible details at this stage. As all noble Lords who spoke reminded us, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State said that they hoped to publish the package in early April, which is very close now.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. asked some pointed questions about the future more generally, to which I am happy to respond. Last Friday, I had the great benefit and privilege of visiting the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. The director, Avila Kilmurray—an extremely impressive woman, if I may say so—spoke of work falling into the categories that the noble Lord identified. Almost at random, I can list the following: work with marginalised young people—that is critically important—and with victims of the Troubles; neighbourhood regeneration in disadvantaged urban communities; work with women; work on the reintegration of politically motivated former prisoners—the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt; rural development, which, as the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Rogan, have reminded us many times in Grand Committee, should not be overlooked; peace building through community arts and culture; development work in areas of weak infrastructure; social justice and human rights work; and investing in health in disadvantaged communities. That is just a sample of a wide spectrum. If all those programmes are successful—even in part—it will offer some comfort for the future.

I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Fitt that decommissioning is of critical importance. None of the parties is in the slightest doubt about that.

In conclusion, I revert to what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said at the outset; it certainly chimed in my mind. He said that he thought that there was a genuine possibility. For myself, I must say that never, in the many years in which I have had a connection with Northern Ireland affairs, have I been in such a cautiously optimistic mood. I think that the time when the tide will turn is now.

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

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