HL Deb 13 May 2003 vol 648 cc133-64

3.5 p.m.

Brought from the Commons on Monday last and printed pursuant to Standing Order 51, and read a first time.

Then, Standing Order 47 having been dispensed with:

Lord Williams of Mostyn

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

The Bill, as your Lordships will know, provides for the deferment of elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly that were due to be held on 29th May. We believe that deferring elections should be done only in exceptional circumstances. However, it is clear that this is the course of action most likely to sustain the Belfast agreement and to restore the devolved institutions.

On 6th May I set out the advances that we, the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, have made over the six months following the suspension of devolved government in October last year. We arrived at a comprehensive set of proposals for full implementation of the agreement, which were published on 1st May in the form of a joint declaration, together with two further texts on monitoring and on the question of on-the-run terrorist suspects. Paragraph 13 of that joint declaration states: We need to see an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots. Moreover, the practice of exiling must come to an end and the exiled must feel free to return in safety. Similarly, sectarian attacks and intimidation directed at vulnerable communities must cease". The IRA published statements last week. The clarifications offered by the President of Sinn Fein were significant developments, but were not sufficient. They did not give the clarity needed in response to the single crucial question: will there be an immediate end to all paramilitary activity? We judge that lack of clarity to be a fundamental obstacle to the operation of the Good Friday agreement.

In order for Northern Ireland institutions to work there must be a widespread willingness to participate. That is itself dependent on trust. That trust was fractured last October. Until there is clarity that trust will not fully be rebuilt or regained.

Without that trust an election would not be an election to the institutions prescribed by the agreement because those institutions would not work. It would have been an election to a set of non-functioning institutions. There would have been administrative chaos and early further elections.

I turn briefly to the provisions of the Bill. Clause I provides for the setting of a new election date. We hope that it will be possible to hold an election by the autumn. A number of noble Lords and speakers in the Commons yesterday have expressed concerns that the Bill sets no fixed date for an election and that the power for the Secretary of State to set a further date is not limited in time.

In our view, which I have expressed to your Lordships on earlier occasions, to set an election date now would not advance the process. It would risk impaling it on a hook. We believe that is more likely to lead to polarisation rather than a willingness to make accommodations and reach compromises.

I am grateful to the Delegated Powers Committee and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, for the speed with which it was able to consider the Bill and also to deliver its report.

There were two aspects about which the committee were troubled. The first was that there was no time limit—what might be described as a quasi-sunrise clause. The Secretary of State and I obviously listened carefully to what the report stated and what was said in the House of Commons. We think that those are legitimate concerns.

Accordingly, I shall propose an amendment—which I hope, will commend itself to your Lordships—by way of a new clause. It will provide—I think that I paraphrase fairly that the power to call an election shall fall if not exercised before 31st December this year. That period can be extended only for a period of up to six months and those renewals would have to be by affirmative order in both Houses. I hope that we have honourably met the concerns referred to in the House of Commons and also particularised in the report of as the Delegated Powers Committee. I should add that I am especially grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, for our helpful private discussions, which enabled us to arrive at what I hope is a reasonable outcome.

A further question, which is also mentioned in the committee's report, is that of the mechanism by which the Secretary of State's power to call elections should be operated. I approach the matter in this way: one understands the concerns about Henry VIII powers of any sort. On one analysis, that would not be removing a right from the citizen—which is the real vice of Henry VIII clauses. In fact, it would be restoring to our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland their democratic right to have an election to the Assembly.

So on one basis, our first view is sustainable. However, I think that your Lordships know that there has not been an occasion on which I have had anything to do with a Bill when I have wanted to go against the recommendations of the committee. Accordingly, the second amendment that I have proposed for consideration in Committee tomorrow is to the effect that there should be a draft affirmative procedure whereby the Secretary of State could make the order but, if it were not approved within 28 days—fewer than the usual 40; I hope that my judgment is right on that—the order would fall.

I therefore hope that we have now been able to meet your Lordships' concerns as I anticipated them, and as they have been expressed to me in conversation by a number of your Lordships. The amendments have now been tabled—I think that they were tabled about three minutes ago—so your Lordships will be able to read them in ample time for consideration before Committee tomorrow, but I think that I have paraphrased them accurately.

Having set out my intention to meet those concerns, perhaps I may continue. Clause 2 annuls steps taken towards the 29th May elections and provides for return of deposits. Clause 3 provides for reimbursement of money spent both by political parties and individual candidates in preparation for the scheduled elections.

A widely expressed view, not least within your Lordships' House, has been that Northern Ireland political parties and individuals ought to be reimbursed for genuine expenditure related to the election campaign. The Secretary of State therefore has power to make such payments. He intends to do so in line with a scheme to be developed by the Electoral Commission.

There have also been difficult questions about those who operated the institutions in Northern Ireland and often worked extremely hard for the successes of devolved government that we saw for a period of two years. Again, I know that your Lordships—in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain raised that in earlier discussions. We cannot avoid the fact that the Assembly is dissolved, but we hope that those who have been Members, many of them, gratifyingly, new to public life in Northern Ireland and who have often made great sacrifices in order to take part in the political process, will want to remain in democratic politics and to continue to represent the interests of those who were their constituents.

We therefore believe that it is right to pay a continuing salary, rather than a resettlement allowance. But it would not be acceptable either for the salary to be at the rate payable before the election, or for it to last indefinitely. Clause 4 therefore gives the Secretary of State power to fix salaries and allowances. We intend to consult on the detail during the next week or so, but in the light of our belief that the previous rates would not be appropriate in the new circumstances. We intend to review those levels in six months.

We also intend to pay a limited office cost allowance, to enable some degree of presence to be retained in constituency offices. I also acknowledge the need for the parties, with a return to devolution in prospect, to maintain a modest core of support officials at Stormont. Clause 5(6) therefore allows the Secretary of State to continue to pay party allowances. Again, we intend to consult during the next week on those. The rest of Clause 5 contains technical provision.

Clause 6 is designed to permit changes in electoral law necessary to ensure the successful running of the election. That power could be exercised only in line with the Bill's provisions. To take an example, an autumn election would coincide with the annual canvass. At present, the Chief Electoral Officer, who, with his staff, has discharged his duties with great professionalism, is required to publish the new register on 1st December. It is sensible to make provision to delay that slightly if it proves necessary.

Obviously, that is not a step that the Government have taken lightly, but it is the only proper course if we are to remove violence from Northern Ireland's society for good and move forward on the basis of inclusive, democratic government.

I hope that I have summarised the Bill to your Lordships' satisfaction. It was a difficult decision for the Secretary of State to make, which was not entirely without controversy. I know that your Lordships have previously expressed concerns, and I hope that the form of the Bill, but especially that of the proposed amendments, meets those legitimate concerns. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

3.16 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for explaining to the House the provisions of the Bill in his customary, clear style; but perhaps more so for his courtesy and openness in the discussions that colleagues and I have held with him during the past week or so about Northern Ireland matters, and the Bill in particular.

Sadly, that stands in contrast to the total discourtesy with which the Government treated the House of Commons yesterday. In railroading the Bill through on a guillotine, the Government ensured that there was no Committee stage, no Report stage and no Third Reading. No time at all was allowed to discuss amendments to the Bill in another place. All I can say is: thank God for your Lordships' House.

That is an outrageous way for the Government to treat Parliament but, regrettably, as some of us know only too well, typical of the arrogance and highhandedness—I go so far as to say contempt for Parliament—that we saw yesterday in another place. Let us hope that there will soon be change. I suggest that your Lordships would not tolerate that once, let alone regularly.

As the noble and learned Lord made clear, the Bill is straightforward. Its purpose is to postpone indefinitely the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly that were due to take place on 29th May. Of course, that follows the legislation in March postponing the original date for elections, 1st May, as prescribed by Section 31 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Before I comment on the Bill and my party's attitude towards it, it is worth reminding the House exactly why we are here at all. The noble and learned Lord has covered some of this ground. At the beginning of March, intensive discussions took place at Hillsborough Castle between the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland, along with the United Kingdom and Irish Governments. The purpose was, of course, to try to find a basis for restoring the devolved institutions that the then Secretary of State had been forced to suspend last October as a result of the activities of Sinn Fein/IRA, which have become known as Stormontgate. Stormontgate was the culmination of a series of breaches that included Florida gun-running, Colombia, Castlereagh and ongoing paramilitary activities such as shootings, beatings and so on.

When the Hillsborough talks concluded, the Government were optimistic that a "shared understanding" had been reached on a number of issues, such as the future stability of the devolved institutions, policing, security normalisation, human rights, so-called "on-the-runs" and, of course, future IRA activity.

It was then envisaged that after a short period of internal discussion and consideration within the parties, the British and Irish Governments would publish their joint declaration setting out how they intended to implement all the outstanding elements of the Belfast agreement. Crucially, at around the same time, the IRA was to issue a statement in which it was widely anticipated—I shared some of that optimism from this Dispatch Box at that time—that it would commit to completing decommissioning and ending paramilitary activity and would declare that the so-called "war" was over. It was, of course, to facilitate that process that Parliament agreed to the first suspension of the elections in March.

However, as we approached the deadline for the dissolution of the Assembly it became clear that the IRA statement. which was shown privately to the British and Irish Governments, fell way short of what is required. I have to tell your Lordships that subsequent publication of that statement, and the attempted clarifications by Gerry Adams, have totally vindicated that judgment.

For all the IRA-speak about not engaging in activities that are inconsistent with the peace process and the Belfast agreement, there is still no commitment to end the shootings, the beatings, the exiling of people from their homes and other forms of paramilitary activity. There is not even an acknowledgement that the full implementation of the agreement means the closure of the conflict. As Mr Adams's response to the Prime Minister revealingly stated, full implementation of the agreement will provide only a basis for the closure of the conflict.

That inevitably begs the question: just when will closure occur? The suspicion has to be, judging by Mr Adams's answers to the Prime Minister's questions, that closure will occur only when all republican objectives have been achieved, up to and including a united Ireland. I hope that I am wrong because if that is the case the process will be condemned to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Once again, all of us have been let down by the republican movement. It still refuses to end the ambiguity over the commitment to what the agreement calls exclusively democratic and peaceful means.

Five years after the agreement was made in Belfast there can simply be no justification for being what the Prime Minister described as, half in and half out". of the process. We need to be certain that decommissioning is going to be completed. We need to be certain that all paramilitary activity will cease. And we need to be certain that the conflict is once and for all at an end. Until all of those things happen, it is difficult to see how the executive can be re-established on the same inclusive basis as before.

That does not, however, mean that we agree entirely with what the Government are doing today. At the time of that first suspension, we made it clear that we regarded it as a one-off and not as something that we could support a second time. I said that myself from this Dispatch Box. It is not my intention to go over all the arguments again but that fundamentally remains our position.

We do not sit comfortably with Bills to postpone elections in a part of the United Kingdom. In our view, the Government should have held elections, called the Assembly and seen if an executive could be formed. At the same time, they should have taken the power—as we have been urging for two years—here at Westminster to enable the Secretary of State to exclude from the executive any party that is in default of the agreement or the ceasefire. That would enable an executive to be formed without Sinn Fein until such time as the IRA actually does what is required and engages in what the Government call "acts of completion".

That said, we will not oppose the Bill today. Given the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves, if we were to defeat the Bill it would plunge Northern Ireland into further chaos by forcing an election in a little over two weeks' time for which nominations have closed and for which the parties are not prepared. It is not the function of your Lordships' House deliberately to go around creating chaos and I do not intend to go down that path.

However, I listened with interest to what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal said about the amendments that the Government have tabled for tomorrow's Committee stage. They seem to go quite a long way towards helping our problems with the Bill. As he knows, one of our chief concerns has been the open-ended nature of the Bill and the arbitrary powers it hands to the Secretary of State. Those concerns are obviously shared by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, as the noble and learned Lord said. I sincerely hope that the two amendments will satisfy members of that committee and those in my party—and perhaps those in the Liberal Democrat Party.

The Lord Privy Seal has now suggested that if an election has not been held by 31st December the legislation will fall and that if the Government want to extend it they must come hack to Parliament with an affirmative resolution. That is a very sound proposition.

This is obviously a Bill that none of us wanted and do not pass with any pleasure. Yet, as I have set out, the circumstances that have brought it about are entirely the fault of the republicans, who still seem to think that democracy is compatible with the retention of a private army. It is not. Until they understand that, there should be no place for them in ministerial offices in Northern Ireland. On that point, I hope that the Government and the Opposition are totally at one.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for his explanation of the Bill but I must say that it is a wretched and quite unnecessary measure. It is true that the failure of Sinn Fein to answer the Prime Minister's third question unambiguously was and remains a major problem. But it should not have been used as the excuse by the Government to call off the Assembly elections that were due on the 29th of this month.

Whatever the intense frustration and exasperation provoked by Sinn Fein's lack of candour, shared by all people of good will, that should not have been allowed to trigger the precipitous decision to cancel the elections. The decision is one that no party on the island of Ireland has endorsed, save for the UUP, and, to judge from last night's debate in another place, even its ranks are divided. That debate, frankly, was shambolic, acrimonious and severely truncated; it was not a good parliamentary occasion.

Even the Taoiseach disagreed and publicly expressed the view that the elections should have proceeded as planned. The truth is that the speed with which the decision was made and the abrupt change of direction caught almost everyone by surprise, including, I suggest, key members of the Cabinet. It was utterly baffling in view of the Government's repeated assurances that elections would be held at the end of May at the latest. There must be a better reason for thisvolte facethan has so far been given. There appears to have been a sudden rush of blood to the head for the Government to abandon their undertaking in that unilateral manner. One cannot avoid the suspicion that an element of what might be called "Baghdad bounce" had suddenly penetrated the collective psyche of No. 10.

It is amazing that no other option appears to have been considered or even given a moment's thought. Instead, the Government borrowed yet again from the repertoire of Thatcherism: they deployed the TINA tactic. Stating that there is no alternative is simply government by assertion. It is the direct antithesis of democratic dialogue, still less does it encourage the maintenance of bipartisanship. Miss Clare Short's strictures on the style and stance of the Government are amply validated by the Government's inconsistency over the Assembly elections.

As I said a week ago, there was at least one other option that should have been explored and, preferably, adopted. The elections should have gone ahead, not least to renew the mandate of the Assembly and its Members. If, say, after a month, the parties in the Assembly could not agree to form the executive, the Assembly would be given the task of reviewing the workings of the Belfast agreement. Such a review—to include the two governments—is, in any case, due by December. There are three precedents for adopting such a deliberative process: the Constitutional Convention of 1975, the Northern Ireland Forum of 1996 and the discussions over many months by the first Assembly prior to the formation of the executive.

As it is, we are where we are: left with this wretched Bill. As almost everyone from all parts of Westminster noted when the Bill appeared, it contained an extremely serious flaw: the calling of any future elections was left completely open-ended. There must be a specific end-date for the governments and parties to work towards. As I said last week, amañanapolicy is totally inappropriate for the circumstances of Northern Ireland. The momentum must be quickly restored and then maintained.

As accurately reported in last Saturday'sFinancial Times, I have every intention of tabling a sunset clause amendment to the Bill, first, to hasten the call of elections, and, secondly, to ensure regular parliamentary monitoring of the process. We cannot give a blank cheque to the Secretary of State, which, in reality, means leaving it to No. 10 to call the shots. In that regard the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and I are as one.

I was very relieved, therefore, to hear from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal that the Government have reconsidered their policy, and that he is to table amendments to that effect. I notice that, when the Secretary of State said that he hoped that elections would be held in the autumn, he was careful not to specify the year. It is to be hoped that the proposed amendment will increase the chances of elections taking place this year. If it proves necessary to review the election provisions in the Bill by affirmative order, can the Minister give an assurance that it will be done on the Floor of the Chamber in another place and not in Standing Committee? That is an essential requirement in our view.

A further cause of concern arises from an article in last Thursday'sIrish Independent. David Trimble is reported as saying that, in his view, it may not be possible to revive the devolved institutions later in the year because Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness might not be able to "muster sufficient authority" to persuade the IRA to move. Such observations are not helpful at this time; they simply up the ante. Does that not reveal an attitude that poses the question whether any future assurance from Sinn Fein, whatever it said, would prove acceptable to the UUP leader? I should like an assurance from the noble and learned Lord that, if the two governments found acceptable a future statement on all acts of completion, they would disallow any UUP veto.

On other features of the Bill, Clause 3 provides for the reimbursement of expenses already incurred by political parties and individual candidates in anticipation of a May election. That is right and proper, but I advise a very strict invigilation of claims. Quick reimbursement, which is also needed, may not be easily compatible with the need to closely audit claims. What is the timescale for the Electoral Commission to deal with the matter, and when will it be expected to report?

Clause 4 concerns the very difficult issue of continuing payments to Members of the Assembly. That is especially difficult as MLAs now have no mandate. Last October, when Stormont was suspended, a small reduction of salaries was made. The Secretary of State undertook to review the matter before last Christmas. Apparently, he did, but it was not reported to the House that he had decided against any further reduction. I have heard him say that it is necessary to sustain the political class in Northern Ireland. I suppose that some sort of case can be made for that; but it is highly debatable at what rate and for how long that can happen.

The noble and learned Lord said today, and the Secretary of State said last night, that they intend to consult the Northern Ireland parties on the issue. With the best will in the world, they will not be the most objective contributors to any such negotiations. Can the noble and learned Lord say whether the parties in Westminster will also he consulted before a decision is made? In that regard. I commend the wise words of David Ford. the Alliance Party leader, who said last week: '"It appears that the Government is proposing to keep former MLAs in suspended animation and pay them a salary. This could only be justified if it were for a short time until an election date is defined in law … if not. the Government should make payments in line with a redundancy package. There is no justification for extended payments if devolution is not on the way back. I conclude by reiterating that bipartisanship—or should I say tripartisanship?—on Northern Ireland can work only if is nurtured by consultation before decisions are taken. Issues of national security apart, there should he no case for precipitate, unilateral decisions of the kind that led to this wretched Bill.

Let us hope for a quick resumption of the electoral process. which is the only democratic way forward. I fear that, if elections do not take place this year, the devolved institutions will, to all intents and purposes, be dead in the water. With a very heavy heart, Liberal Democrats will support the passage of the Bill if it is satisfactorily amended on the lines outlined by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, the Government will find my verdict on the Bill more charitable than that of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. We must be grateful that the Asquith government in 1914 postponed further consideration of Home Rule developments and legislation until the Great War was over. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, which published its 20th report of this Session on this Bill, to which all speakers have already referred.

I wish to carry out some small pieces of ground-clearing. I read the whole report of the Commons debate yesterday. As is characteristic of debates on Northern Ireland affairs, it was both vigorous and wide-ranging. As my noble friend Lord Glentoran intimated, I, too, regret that, under the new Commons procedure there was no time for remaining stages after Second Reading, especially a Committee stage.

Chronologically earlier, in Manchester last year and in Kilkenny at the end of March this year. I attended the plenary sessions of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. On both occasions, we debated the political situation at the time with our Irish colleagues. Having consistently believed that the elections should be postponed if Sinn Fein's attitude to the use of violence was not clarified beyond peradventure, my own position has been steady throughout. I have followed the conspiratorial arguments about the potential results of the elections, and why people might change the dates because of them. I was not convinced by those arguments—and I said so in Manchester—on the grounds that, at some stage in Northern Ireland's evolution, the DUP and Sinn Fein could become the dominant parties in the Assembly. It would be better to face that dilemma as soon as it arrived, however early that might be, not least since it might well be unexpectedly productive.

Returning briefly to the 1998 referendum, Labour Back-Bench Members of Parliament taking part in the referendum campaign—obviously, in support of a "Yes" vote—signalled to No. 10 that unless the Prime Minister became directly involved in the campaign it was conceivable that, among Unionists at any rate, the referendum would not be carried. The Belfast agreement was founded on non-violent agreement. But the road map for securing that, whether with or without Ordnance Survey churches, which are always important in the Northern Irish landscape, was a little less explicit on how transition and de-escalation would occur. It was therefore no surprise to some of us that the Prime Minister was unable to deliver on one of his five hand-written points—the one on decommissioning—that were issued at the time of the referendum, because the agreement did not afford him adequate leverage to achieve that.

There have been intelligence rumours in the past five years—I have not been in receipt of official intelligence for more than a decade—about the discussion going on between the IRA and Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness. The implication of those rumours was that the IRA army council was prepared to allow Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness to conduct their political initiatives and experiments, provided that decommissioning was not pressed in the council itself. Of course, there was external pressure on Sinn Fein concerning decommissioning, and there was that important episode a year or two back, when even theBoston Heraldwithdrew its support from Sinn Fein because it was behaving so obdurately about decommissioning. In turn, that made the IRA realise that it had to change its position, at least to some degree.

There was, however, less pressure, other than that mounted by individual Members of your Lordships' House and of another place—I cite particularly my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth and Mr Harry Barnes from another place—on the issue of paramilitary beatings and exilings. In the previous Parliament, a report on the subject was published by a Select Committee in another place, which I chaired. We published that report on paramilitaries sending fellow citizens into exile, but the fact remains that it has been a relatively low-key issue in the past four or five years, other than the work done by the two parliamentary champions whom I mentioned. I acknowledge that paramilitary activity of that sort happens on both sides of the community, but I have heard a Sinn Fein spokesman say that the issue is one for the community at large, even though the legal process by which people are sent into exile takes the form of kangaroo courts.

I can remember one of our earlier debates on the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and I discussed his belief that the gun had disappeared from Northern Ireland affairs. I had to disabuse him by referring to the statistics. The valuable and timeous document that has been produced by the Commons Library to accompany the Bill gives evidence of growing activity in the past live years, even by comparison with the previous five years, during not all of which a ceasefire applied in Northern Ireland. The issue remains a live One.

I have not seen the final verdict on who was responsible for the break-in at Castlereagh police station—there is an irony that that police station shares its name with the Irish peer who provided the political leadership to get through Metternich's statesmanlike constitutional proposals at the Congress of Vienna, which effectively provided Europe with a hundred years of peace—but, before that event and before Stormontgate, to which my noble friend Lord Glentoran referred, there was no clear sign that a line in the sand would be drawn with regard to the commitment of Sinn Fein/IRA to non-violence. A new situation was created by those episodes.

As I said at a late hour in your Lordships' House last Tuesday, the position of both Governments, in insisting on a comprehensive commitment, was a good product to arise from a bad business. I supported the principle of the Bill, although I am, of course, conscious that the question of the on-the-runs still lies ahead of us.

The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, at whose deliberations I was present, raised the two issues set out and explained in its report. The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House indicated the Government's attitude to those recommendations. I applaud the Government's reaction to the first recommendation, to which the Minister spoke and which my noble friend Lord Glentoran welcomed. I am, at this juncture, more uneasy about the response to the second recommendation. We will have to see the detail and the rationale in Committee tomorrow.

As one who once held office in the Northern Ireland Office, I realise that the two observations by the Select Committee were liable to make the Government's life and tasks more difficult. I am not insensitive to how difficult their life and tasks already were in such matters. However, Parliament has a role in the constitutional evolution of the case. The significance of the rule of law and of parliamentary scrutiny has been rendered more salient by the Stevens report, to which there was reference at Starred Questions an hour or so ago. Whatever additional inconvenience the Select Committee has created for the Government was justified, in the interests of transparency.

In my time as a Northern Ireland Minister, the cruces of public immunity certificates with security implications always required and warranted close attention and scrutiny. Those hours of internal debate were just as necessary to the rule of law and its application to human rights as the extra hurdles that the Select Committee put down yesterday. I look forward to the remaining stages of the Bill, for which my general support in principle is unstinting.

My noble friend Lord Glentoran was not wholly precise about the Official Opposition's attitude to the Government's second concession on the Select Committee's report. As I say, I remain uneasy about the detail of the latter concession, but that is tomorrow's business.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, it is with great regret that we find ourselves in this position today. We are debating a further postponement of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Although not personally seeking office, I was very much looking forward to the buzz and excitement of an election campaign and to canvassing across Northern Ireland with my party colleagues. The Government, however, had adequate warning that this situation would arise, yet they chose to make a decision at the latest possible moment, causing tremendous confusion among candidates and the electorate in Northern Ireland at large.

The crucial point to remember in all of this is that we have been denied the opportunity for one reason and one reason only: the continued refusal of the IRA to declare that its war is over and to stand down as an active paramilitary organisation. I shall put it another way. We face the continued refusal of Sinn Fein/IRA to turn their back on terrorism once and for all—to lay down their weapons, to stop sanctioning punishment beatings, issuing threats, intelligence gathering and all forms of paramilitary activity—and enter fully into the democratic process. The Government asked for a clear and unambiguous statement from the IRA to that effect. They had to go back repeatedly and ask for clarity. None, however, was forthcoming. That is why we are here today and not in the throes of an election campaign in Northern Ireland.

The Assembly was suspended on 15th October 2002. Again, I remind noble Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, did, that that suspension followed the discovery of an IRA spy-ring at the centre of the Northern Ireland Office. The institution, therefore, technically does not exist at present. To hold elections to the suspended Assembly, is, as my party leader David Trimble spelt out in another place yesterday, to do the work of Sinn Fein/IRA.

Electing representatives to the Assembly would, in the event of its restoration, allow Sinn Fein to take their seats once again with little or no incentive to put pressure on Sinn Fein/IRA to deliver the necessary acts of completion. Without such acts, there would be no prospect of an executive being re-constituted and, in all likelihood, devolution in Northern Ireland would effectively be at an end. The work of the Government and their Irish counterparts—of all the parties involved in the negotiations over the past six months—would have been in vain. That is how grave the current situation is.

I, and my Ulster Unionist Party colleagues, would, of course, prefer to see the political process in Northern Ireland functioning. We want to see the Belfast agreement implemented in full and the institutions up and running and fully operational. But we want to see all this achieved by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. We simply cannot have a situation where one party, Sinn Fein/IRA. is able to hold the democratic process to ransom, as it has done for far too long. I regret the fact that this legislation has been deemed necessary, but without it I fear that the consequences might well have been worse.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for responding so quickly to the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, of which I declare that I am a member, and also for taking the trouble to send to those of us whom he could reach copies of the draft amendments. I am not sure that I am able to curtail what I had thought I might impose upon your Lordships in this speech in consequence of the amendment that deals with the subordinate legislation by which the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State shall be able to specify the renewed date for the elections.

That is because I am not sure—I would welcome the earliest opportunity to learn from the noble and learned Lord—whether this actually permits the Secretary of State to make an order which would take effect and be able to be acted upon so that an election would take place before Parliament would have an opportunity to decide whether to give its approval. I shall come to that in a moment, but I do not think that it is improper to deal with this, although we shall be dealing with it tomorrow, because it is fairly crucial.

By way of introduction, I warmly agree with the attitude taken by the Government to the inadequate response of the IRA to the questions that were put. Simplicity and unambiguity are certainly required. At least on one of the three questions perhaps the most important—which the Prime Minister has put, that is wholly lacking. Therefore, I entirely agree that the Government have been justified in the course that they have taken in seeking to bypass or nullify the statutory requirement for an election on 29th May.

The original suspension was rightly done by way of primary legislation. When I looked at the Bill I was therefore particularly perturbed to see that the Government were proposing, not just by secondary legislation or delegated legislation but by delegated legislation with no parliamentary control over it whatever, to enable the Secretary of State to restore the elections, restore the institutions and fix the date for the elections. It was that which motivated the report of the Select Committee yesterday.

I had at first thought when the noble and learned Lord was explaining the amendments half an hour ago that the mischief which the Select Committee perceived would be wholly remedied by the draft amendment. That mischief was this: that Parliament would not be able to express its opinion and would not be able to test the political development upon which the Secretary of State would have relied in order to reach the conclusion that elections could now be held. There would have had to be a reversal of the attitude of the IRA. It would have to have provided not only words but, as the Secretary of State said in his Statement on 6th May, deeds as well.

I believe that Parliament rightly would expect—certainly should expect—to test the Government's interpretation and assessment of those words and deeds to establish whether they justified and gave rise to the confidence among the people of Northern Ireland that is rightly said to be the test. I also think that it might look fairly odd to quite a large number of people in Northern Ireland if the Westminster Parliament was to wash its hands of the issue of whether devolved government was to be restored to Northern Ireland by agreeing to deprive itself of any control over the relevant order.

I am concerned about the text of the draft amendment. It seems to me—I am indeed open to correction of course. as always, on matters of procedure—that it would be open to the Secretary' of State to make his order on, say, 28th July, when we are in Recess, to specify a date for an election—say, 20 or 24 days or whatever it might be—before the House returns on 8th September with an opportunity to give or withhold its approval. If that were the case, of course the mischief would not be remedied at all.

I am hoping that the noble and learned Lord can give either an explanation that shows I have been completely wrong—which would not surprise me—or, in the alternative, that he can give an undertaking that the Government would not act in such a manner as to deprive both Houses of the ability to express their view before the campaign for elections were to commence. That is the point. I am fortified in this by going back to the 2002 Act whereby the restorative orders had to be by affirmative resolution before they could take effect. Perhaps that is not a particularly coherent speech but I hope that I have made clear the character of my anxieties.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, when the Northern Ireland Executive was suspended and we realised that we were going to have legislation such as this before this House, it was known that it would be a very acrimonious debate. It was known that there were very bitter feelings among the political parties in Northern Ireland. On realising this, one would have thought that the Government would have done whatever they could to pour oil on troubled water and make the situation a little more acceptable. But yesterday they did exactly the opposite.

In the House of Commons yesterday, the Government took a decision to limit the debate by way of a guillotine Motion whereby the elected representatives from Northern Ireland were limited to a debate of three or four hours. We, the unelected House, were given today and tomorrow to debate the ramifications of this Bill.

Anyone who knows anything about politics in Northern Ireland would and should have known that this would cause tremendous difficulty in Northern Ireland. The Government were very foolish. There was no need for a Statement on Iraq yesterday. That took up quite a lot of time. I left this House yesterday and watched the proceedings of another place on the Parliamentary Channel. I thought that possibly I could see the debate as it took place through the eyes of people in the United Kingdom, who are not very involved with Northern Ireland. As 1 watched the debate, I became very depressed, as I am sure did anyone else watching in the United Kingdom.

During the debate. it became very evident that aside from the debate taking place between nationalism and unionism—between Seamus Mallon of the SDLP and the various sections of unionism—that there was a war going on between the forces of unionism—between the DUP and the UUP. They are fighting tenaciously for every single vote at any future election. On the nationalist side, although the Sinn Fein Members were not there in person to put forward their case, the SDLP put it forward for them.

Two questions were hurled across the Floor repeatedly yesterday by the SDLP and the Unionist parties. Seamus Mallon of the SDLP asked Jeffrey Donaldson, the Member for Lagan Valley, whether the Unionist Party would be prepared to sit with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland if, for example, the IRA issued a statement saying that it was prepared to comply with paragraph 13, wherein the Government were demanding that it cease all violent activities. There was no answer to that question. The answer should have been a resounding "Yes".

Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking for the mainstream of the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland—although I do not know whether he really does so—then asked Seamus Mallon the following: "If we did have a power sharing arrangement and the IRA still maintained its violent activities, would you then vote for its suspension from the executive?". Seamus Mallon could not answer that question either. although again there should have been a resounding "Yes". If those two questions had been answered with a "Yes'', then perhaps the Assembly would not have been abolished.

I can understand the dilemma in which the Government find themselves. The questions are all about trust, but from what we heard in the House of Commons debate yesterday, anything but trust was being discussed. In fact it was made quite clear that at present there is no possibility of trust existing between the political parties.

In justification of the abolition of the Assembly and the suspension of the elections, the Government said that they did it to save the Good Friday agreement. Let us take a moment to analyse that statement. The Government suspended the Assembly and the political parties in Northern Ireland, saying that it was necessary to do so in order to save the Good Friday agreement. Does it mean that, if elections had been held in Northern Ireland and the outcome of those elections had resulted in a majority for Sinn Fein and a majority for the Democratic Unionist Party, that that would have meant the end of the agreement? Possibly it would have meant that, although I cannot be sure. 1 t may be that the majority nationalist party, in the form of Sinn Fein, and the majority unionist party, in the form of the DUP, could have reached an accommodation that the existing political parties have been unable to achieve.

Should we now have an election to an Assembly, wherein there is no executive, and after the elections to that Assembly, could we reach an accommodation that would lead to the installation of an executive? Again I shall repeat what I heard yesterday: I am not optimistic that that could be done.

There is talk once again of a political vacuum and how dangerous the situation is when there is a vacuum in Northern Ireland. We have to have an election and people must be brought back into the Assembly at all costs. I have been in this place long enough to recall the debates held in the House of Commons. When Northern Ireland was set up it was given Stormont. In the Stormont parliament, there were 52 seats, along with 12 parliamentary seats here in Westminster. When Stormont was abolished in 1972, it was felt that since there was no longer a local parliament or executive, the number of Westminster seats would have to be increased. A Speaker's Conference was held, at which I took a view that did not agree with that held by everyone else; namely, that an increase in the number of parliamentary seats at Westminster would not decrease the problems of Northern Ireland. By the conclusion of the convention in 1976, the seats had increased to 18.

Was that a political vacuum? At the time, people did not believe that there was any kind of political vacuum, because they had secured an increase from 12 seats to 18 seats at Westminster, while Stormont with its 52 seats was no longer in place. At this point I am going to say something that will probably get me into deep, deep trouble in Northern Ireland. When the legislation was being debated in this House, I was in my place beside the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He asked me, "How many seats are they going to have in the new Assembly?". I said that there would be 108 seats. "How did they arrive at that figure?", he asked. "When you were there, the chamber had only 52 seats". I replied, "It has all changed over there, with 18 constituencies, each having six MLAs". "By the time they're all in there", he said, "it'll take all the Semtex in the IRA's armoury to get them out". There is some truth in that.

Out of all the political parties, including the SDLP, the DUP and the UUP, Sinn Fein most desperately wants to get back into the executive, because it will aid its claim that it is acting as a legislator and playing its part in the effort to lead to a united Ireland.

How can Sinn Fein get back? As I have recently commented in private to a number of noble Lords, in paragraph 13 the Government have made it clear that there are certain conditions that Sinn Fein must fulfil: an end to violence, an end to shootings and an end to targeting. If Sinn Fein wants to get back into the legislative Assembly, one would have thought that it would not find it too difficult to comply with paragraph 13. I said then and I say again now: I hope that the Government will not back down from paragraph 13. Along with thousands of people in Northern Ireland, I remember listening with great hope to the Prime Minister's speech made last October in the Custom House in Belfast. He said that there had to be acts of completion. Sinn Fein will have to comply with paragraph 13.

Turning to the Policing Board. there are further ramifications in regard to the agreement. The Government have made every attempt to force or cajole Sinn Fein into taking up its seats on the board. I do not think that that will be an easy undertaking. I recall saying a few months ago in this House that Sinn Fein is in control of certain areas of Northern Ireland, such as Ballymurphy. Turf Lodge in Belfast and South Down. Once Sinn Fein takes up its seats on the Policing Board, it would in effect be giving up control of those areas, which at the moment are in its grip. Are the Government insisting on that demand before Sinn Fein can join the executive? If so, it will result in a long-drawn-out argument.

Sinn Fein is the only party in Northern Ireland that says it does not want sanctions. It does not want to be told, via a committee set up to monitor levels of violence, that it could be thrown out if the IRA decides to engage in a campaign of violence. If such a monitoring committee is established, then it will be made up from the Irish Government, the British Government, the Assembly and possibly someone from America. However, we shall have to be careful about the political allegiances of those serving on the committee. If a member of that committee has any kind of allegiance to the SDLP, then under no circumstances will he vote for the exclusion of Sinn Fein, even if it has been engaged in violence. That is because Sinn Fein and the SDLP are in the nationalist camp. If the committee has a member from the unionist majority, then he will probably want to go hell for leather to exclude any Sinn Fein representatives. Thus there are many obstacles to be overcome.

As soon as the Government suspended the Assembly, Sinn Fein issued a statement to say that it would call off its discussions with General de Chastelain; in other words, it would not carry on with decommissioning. What does that mean? It means that Sinn Fein is going to hold on to its arms for some future date and circumstance in which those arms may have to be used. In any language, that is a threat. Sinn Fein is threatening that it will hold on to its arms in order to defeat the government.

I do not know whether the Government will engage in discussions with Sinn Fein between now and the autumn. As someone suggested in another place yesterday, it will not be autumn; it has already been extended until the end of the year. Some people think that it will be July/August or August/September, but it is now not until the end of the year.

I desperately want to see a resurrection of a democratic Assembly in which all the political parties are represented—but only by democratically elected politicians without private armies to bolster them if they do not get their own way. I am not optimistic that that will happen, but I desperately hope that it will.

I understand why the Government suspended the Assembly. From what I saw on television yesterday and from what I hear when I go to Belfast at weekends, the existing atmosphere will not allow the two major communities to come together. I will not vote against the Government on this. They were right to do what they did in very difficult circumstances—but I regret that they had to do so.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, as ever, one learns more about Northern Ireland from listening to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, than one does from many other sources.

I underline what has been said already by other noble Lords, particularly in regard to the regrets that many of us have over the manner in which the legislation was handled in another place. When Clare Short read inHansardyesterday's proceedings in the House of Commons on the Northern Ireland Bill, she must have looked back to what she said in her resignation statement about the growing authoritarianism and the contempt in which the Prime Minister holds the House of Commons and reckoned that she had been well and truly borne out in a matter of a few hours.

I noticed that the Secretary of State spoke for 52 minutes and the spokesman for the Opposition for, I think. 46 minutes. That contrasts rather well with our experience here. But I do not think that the shortness of the speeches in your Lordships' House indicates any lessening of content compared with those made in another place.

When the noble and learned Lord announced the amendments that he hopes to bring forward tomorrow, he was conceding with grace what should have been conceded with grace yesterday in another place. It is most regrettable that the concessions were not made there. Fine, it underlines that, as the House of Commons seems to get worse in its consideration of such matters, we manage to maintain some standards, but overall in the reputation of Parliament it is regrettable that those decisions were not announced yesterday.

I welcome the sunrise clause. I am still puzzled about the affirmative order and the 28 days, as I am about one other aspect of Clause 6. I hope that this is not too much of a Committee point and that the noble and learned Lord will be able to comment on it. I notice that according to subsection (1), the Secretary of State may by order make—and there is there a misprint in the Bill—by statutory instrument such modifications of other Acts as he needs. Subsection (5) states: An order under subsection (1) may not be made unless a draft of the order has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament Subsection (6) states: Subsection (5) does not apply to an order under subsection (1) if the order declares that the Secretary of State considers it to be expedient for the order to be made without the approval mentioned in that subsection". What exactly are the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might consider it expedient not to comply with subsection (1)? What will be the implications of that? In particular, how will it relate to the ability of the Government to call an election during the period before an order has been approved by the House? This is the point to which my noble and learned friend Lord Howe referred.

Noble Lords

Lord Mayhew.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

No such luck.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, how right you are. One thing that does not improve when one comes to this House is one's memory for names—at least mine does not.

I cannot say that I welcome the Bill in that its cause is most unwelcome. However, having said that, I welcome it in the sense that it deals with a most unwelcome problem. The Government had little alternative and they are right to bring it forward.

My noble friend Lord Glentoran is right. The cause of the problem is Sinn Fein/IRA. It is a pity that the Government did not take powers to exclude the IRA's spokesmen from Government and allow the elections and devolved government to go ahead.

Many years ago the late fain Macleod, when referring to a Labour Chancellor who brought forward a Budget which did not raise taxation as much as normal, said that one should welcome even a one-legged Father Christmas. It is in the same spirit that I offer my salutations to the Secretary of State, Mr Murphy, who has at least drawn a line over which he says he will not be dragged by the IRA; a line over which he says he will drag the IRA. I hope that he stands by that. It is a most welcome change.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said that in Northern Ireland there is no trust between the nationalist and unionist communities. That is certainly true. I welcome the glimmer of a sign that there is now no longer much trust between the Government and the IRA—for the IRA has certainly betrayed the trust in which the Government engaged with it.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Kilclooney

My Lords, I declare an interest as an endangered species. I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who is fighting the present election in Northern Ireland as a properly nominated candidate, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, having decided not to stand again.

I am not, of course, the only person nominated in Northern Ireland. I hold before me the nominations of some 200 people who are presently legally nominated as candidates in the elections which the Bill, if approved, will suspend. Those candidates come not only from my own party, the Ulster Unionist Party, but also from the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the DUP, independents and candidates from minority parties. In other words, right across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland there was interest in getting involved in the elections of 29th May. Then, for reasons that I still do not really understand, the Government have decided to suspend those elections.

I agree with those who have said that the proceedings in another place were an abomination. I wish to place on record my appreciation that the Leader of the House has decided that, first, we should have two days to debate the Bill in your Lordships' House; and, secondly, that he has already responded to some of the points made in another place and brought forward amendments. We appreciate that. However, the Bill itself is deplorable.

It represents, of course, another stage in the sad history of the island in which I live; an island which has been troubled since the Irish invaded our island of Scotia many, many years ago. They drove the Scotis out across the water and created a new land called Scotland, which got its name from the Scotis who lived in Scotia. The Irish then changed the name to Hibernia and so the troubles went through the centuries. In the 17th century, the Scots returned to Northern Ireland—to what was then Ulster—and created a British majority in what is now Northern Ireland. I am a member of one of those original Scots families who returned to the parish of Kilclooney in South Armagh which is, to this day, a Scottish settlement.

Then we had partition. The great problem in Northern Ireland was how the British majority in Northern Ireland could accommodate and work with the Irish minority who remained in Northern Ireland. Strangely enough, Northern Ireland is becoming more British by the day, as a considerable number of people are moving from Britain to Northern Ireland to live because they assume that the quality of life there is now better than in many other parts of the United Kingdom. I noticed in the recent census in Northern Ireland that almost 10 per cent of people in Antrim town were born in Great Britain and not Northern Ireland. Even in my own constituency of Strangford in Newtownards, some 7 per cent of people were born in Great Britain and not in Newtownards or, indeed, Northern Ireland.

The great challenge to us, the British majority, was to accommodate this Irish minority in Northern Ireland. As one of the three negotiators for the Ulster Unionist Party who brought about the Belfast agreement, I believed we had an answer which would have made a success of devolution in Northern Ireland, given us the advantage of having local Ministers deciding on local issues and involved Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Unionists, nationalists and republicans in the government of Northern Ireland.

The Government, the Prime Minister, my own party and others, sold the idea of the Belfast agreement in that referendum as a basis for peace in Northern Ireland and, above all, the end of paramilitary and terrorist activity in Northern Ireland. But I am sad to say that five years later, that is not the case. Paramilitarism on both sides, loyalist as well as republican, exists today in Northern Ireland and, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, there is no trust between the British majority and the Irish minority communities in Northern Ireland. Why is that? It is because the IRA has simply failed to respond to the challenge from the Prime Minister, the Government, the Irish Government, the SDLP and the Unionists. It has failed to say, "The war is over". That is necessary for trust to begin to be restored in Northern Ireland.

The IRA has been condemned for this failure by the Dublin and Westminster Governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland. What has been the response of our own Government? Has it been to impose sanctions against Sinn Fein/IRA? No. They have proposals for further concessions to Irish nationalism within Northern Ireland. In this context, I was very interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I recommend that people give some thought to the schedule and timetable that he recommended rather than what is in the Bill. I am one of those who believe that the election should have been held on 29th May. People have been nominated, deposits have been made, 200 candidates are in the field. By the end of this week, they will no longer be candidates.

Alongside the Bill there is the joint declaration from the two Governments. It is proposed to implement much of the declaration without any prior response from Sinn Fein/IRA—yet again a concession. The Government move ahead even though Sinn Fein/IRA have not responded to the requirements that the Government have laid down. I regret to say that in proceeding with the implementation of this declaration without any movement by Sinn Fein/IRA, the Government will further erode Unionist support for devolution in Northern Ireland and especially for the Belfast agreement. I say that as one of the authors of that agreement. I know how our people in Northern Ireland think and I know that this will be resented strongly by the majority community in Northern Ireland.

One of the other proposals is the monitoring of parties and individual members of the Assembly. Notice the word "parties". Will the Lord Privy Seal let us know whether, in that declaration—I know it is not part of the Bill but it was issued in parallel with the Bill—the word "parties" includes the IRA or is it yet another word game in which it only means Sinn Fein? If it only means Sinn Fein, we have lost the argument yet again, and the monitoring committee will not be effective. It is supposed to be an independent monitoring body, but it is not a United Kingdom monitoring body. It includes a representative from republican Ireland—from the Republic of Ireland. That is a total denial of the basis on which we reached agreement on the Belfast agreement.

Those involved in the Belfast agreement and those who know what was in it will recall that there were three strands. In strand 1, the Dublin representatives were excluded, kept outside the building. They were not allowed to take part in any matter affecting strand 1, which was devolution at Stormont. Yet what are the Government agreeing to now? They are agreeing to Dublin being involved in strand 1, in the Stormont Assembly and its operation. That is a rejection of one of the principles of the Belfast agreement which the people supported in the referendum. Yet again, that will damage support for what the Government are trying to achieve.

On the rejection of Dublin's involvement in devolution and Stormont, I want in passing to mention the recent comments by the Prime Minister of Southern Ireland, Mr Bertie Ahern, in his public attack on the leader of my party, Mr David Trimble, last week. That, yet again, is a damaging intervention by Dublin which has not helped the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. Mr Ahern should not be involving himself in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland and he should not be attacking the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on the role he plays at Stormont. Megaphone politics were supposed to end with the signing of the Belfast agreement. Sadly, Dublin seems to be resuming them.

I have one or two questions for the Lord Privy Seal. I refer first to Clause 2. After the Assembly was suspended, we were told that it would probably be to the autumn—now it appears to be 31st December. How does that work with the review of the Belfast agreement? When will that review begin? When is it likely to end? Is it really advisable to have an election before the review has been completed? How can you fight an election to a devolved Assembly when that Assembly will be reviewed and changed shortly after the election? We need to know more clearly how these dates work with each other.

Clause 3 contains the proposal to compensate parties and candidates for expenditure on the present election campaign. Of course expenditure has been considerable. Printing work has been done and election broadcasts have gone out on the BBC. The whole election machinery has been going ahead in Northern Ireland, and it is quite incredible that we are now suspending it. So I agree that there has been expenditure and that it should be compensated.

Clause 4 is more controversial. As I have already declared an interest, I shall speak on it openly. The clause deals with the question of remuneration and payments to staff. The provisions in the original Bill on remuneration were ridiculous. Obviously, it is right that the salary should be reduced for MLAs, but the idea that that should have gone on indefinitely until there was an election was quite unbelievable. Now I assume that it will proceed only until the 31st December this year.

I agree that there should be a significant decrease in the salaries of former MLAs. However, as Members of your Lordships' House will understand, some MLAs were not going to stand again in this election. What is their position? Are they to get a renewal of a salary until the end of December this year, even though they are not to be candidates—or does the provision apply only to those who intend to be candidates? How is that matter to be cleared up?

I am much more sympathetic on the subject of office cost allowances. First, Members have staff, who are important to the officers, the service and to the electorate in all 18 constituencies. I refer to the staff for all parties and for all former Members of the Legislative Assembly. However, those staff have contracts; they are not like MLAs, who are elected one day and rejected at the next election, the next day. The staff are different: they are employed, have contracts and will have the right to redundancy payments. If the delay in the election lasts until the end of December, it might be wiser to retain the staff rather than get involved in labour or employment legislation or contests about what redundancy payments should be paid. A multitude of problems need to be addressed before any decision is made on the payment of staff.

To overcome the various problems that could arise with MLAs, I should have preferred a resettlement allowance for all MLAs and to forget about any salaries hereon in, depending on what happens next year and whether there is an election.

Finally, I want to ask a question about the Northern Ireland Policing Board, on which I presently serve. Incidentally, the political members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board are not the ones who have been asking for increased expenses. They do not get expenses—it is the other members who have been demanding it. I read in newspapers in Belfast this week that all the members of the board were looking for increased payments, but the political members do not get payments. What is their position?

When the Assembly was suspended, the Government introduced new rules whereby MLAs in the suspended Assembly could continue their membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board as if they were still MLAs. However, we are now in a different situation because it is not just a suspended Assembly—it is a dissolved Assembly. Since the dissolution, what is the position of the former MLAs who presently serve on the Northern Ireland Policing Board?

I must conclude by saying that I am very pessimistic about the present situation. I see no possibility of devolution in Northern Ireland this year if IRA/Sinn Fein do not come out openly and say, "The war is over". Getting an agreement is very problematical in any case, because of the oncoming review of the Belfast agreement that will take place this autumn. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I would love to see devolution succeeding in Northern Ireland, and that is why I supported the Belfast agreement. However, the way in which things have developed and the intransigence of IRA/Sinn Fein mean that it is very unlikely that there will be devolution for many years to come in Northern Ireland, and that we will therefore resort to British rule from London of that part of the United Kingdom.

4.34 p.m.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, this is a Bill that no one with the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart wanted to see. However, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, it is not a wretched Bill. It is a sad Bill, but it is evidence of a commitment to the future of Northern Ireland.

The Belfast agreement raised expectations, and to give in at this stage would be tantamount to giving up. It is obvious that neither the UK nor the Irish government wanted to make last week's announcement of the suspension of the election for the Assembly. It was, indeed, a bitter blow to all who have worked so hard for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, stated that the Taoiseach did not want suspension: but no one wanted suspension. However, the Taoiseach stood firmly by as one with the Prime Minister, and both were resolute that the conditions for the removal of suspension had not been met. Let us not forget that the joint declaration by the British and Irish governments describes how the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to live in a society that is, normal, peaceful and secure; is inclusive of all its members, irrespective of their religious, political or cultural affiliations: demonstrates equality of opportunity and full respect". I shall not repeat what paragraph 3 of the joint declaration goes on to say. But it bears reading, or rereading, by all with an interest in Northern Ireland. It expresses what so many people want and what so many people have worked for tirelessly in the past five years, and even before the Belfast agreement.

The "wants" described in the joint agreement might seem a wholly unobtainable wish list if one still thinks of Northern Ireland as a place where almost none of those aspirations were met in the past 34 years—or, indeed, the past 83 years, or even since the Battle of the Boyne in the 17th century. As an aside, I relish the historic review of the whole history of Northern Ireland offered us by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. However, when he said that the major problem facing the British in Northern Ireland after partition was how they would deal with the minority, he should probably have looked over the border. In my lifetime, there has never been a problem with the Irish in the Republic dealing with the British minority—at least, riot according to my mother, who was British.

Huge strides have been made in the past five years, although "strides" is probably not the right description. Agonising, tiny steps have been made by successive governments and by the people of Northern Ireland themselves. Too often we look for and find the bad things; on the other side of the scale, there has been a huge improvement in almost every area of political, social and economic life in the Province. However, good news does not make the news.

Recent dialogues have led to much of the wish list that I mentioned being in the grasp of Northern Ireland. At its simplest, the main remaining obstacle that needed to be overcome was the commitment to bringing an end to paramilitarism and violence. Of course, that is a tall order. Nobody ever expected it to be easy, but both governments demanded that it should be delivered. Sinn Fein/IRA gave a strong impression that it would be delivered, and there was certainly no indication that it would not be delivered. At the very last moment, we were all let down. The question must be asked, "Can they deliver, or are they unable to do so?"

The significance of the inability to deliver cannot be underestimated. A vacuum exists; politics goes out the window; and the bounce in the step vanishes. Paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, quoted by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal, makes it crystal clear what was required. It was not achieved and I personally believe that until it is, the suspension of the Assembly is inevitable. Above all, trust has to be present, real and apparent in Northern Ireland. How can there be trust if Sinn Fein/IRA will not commit to cease immediately all paramilitary activity?

If the sanction of no Assembly—and that is what it is, a sanction—is given up, what incentive is there for Sinn Fein/IRA to cease their murderous, terrifying activities? They would win on all sides and be seen to win and the hopes of long-term peace and stability would vanish. They need to be confronted by the reality that they cannot expect to be partners in peace while still running their gangs involved in violence and intimidation of the most horrific kind, not to mention racketeering and smuggling.

We have come so far. We cannot throw away five years of painstaking discussion, consultation, bridge-building and trust generation. The prize is too important. I implore those who feel that we should "give in" to "get a grip". If we told Sinn Fein/IRA that we were prepared to put off elections for a few weeks or a few months they would just play along with the rest of us as they have done until now. A firm hand is needed. It has been shown and it needs to continue to be shown.

I realise that it is relatively easy for me to say all of this here in the confines of Westminster, a world away from the streets of Belfast. I realise also that the power to call elections is a significant one, and I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised the feeling, both here in your Lordships House and in another place. that the power to call an election should be subject to further scrutiny by Parliament. I certainly subscribe to the proposal that the Government should return to Parliament to seek an extension of the power if it is not exercised by the end of this year.

We were told last week that it is the Government's expressed wish that there should be a sufficient rebuilding of trust by the autumn for an election to be held then. But if there is not, then surely it is right that we should have further opportunity to debate these issues when the moment comes. As the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, mentioned, we were also promised a review in the autumn. I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal whether it will be possible to have the review if the elections have not taken place.

I make a strong plea that, in the interim, every effort should be made to implement as much as possible of the joint declaration in those areas not dependent on the delivery of the commitment by Sinn Fein/IRA—namely, in the area of human rights, policing and normalisation—in effect carrying on with as much of the reform agenda as possible. In that way there will be a visible sign that our determination to achieve the goal of peace and stability is still on course. The thugs must not prevail. Such determination could, at best, put more pressure on Sinn Fein/IRA from whatever wavering support they might have. We are almost there. We must wish all the parties involved all success and continue to give support. I certainly give support to the Bill.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, is she aware that notwithstanding the happily favourable experiences of her mother, academic research has recently revealed that 34 per cent of the minority population south of the border, amounting to almost 104,000 people, were driven out of the south between 1918 and 1924? It was ethnic cleansing, in other words. I should be happy to give her chapter and verse if she is interested.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I should be very grateful to see that academic research. I thank the noble Lord.

4.44 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I had not considered speaking, but there are a couple of things I should like to say in the gap. The requirement for this Bill is a sad state of affairs, and the debate has been extremely gloomy. Perhaps that should not be so, but it is difficult to see how we can move forward. However, two factors offer a glimmer of hope. First, the Prime Minister, the Government and the government of the Republic have finally stood firm. Paragraph 13 lays it out. It seems to me that for the first time they have accepted in writing that the full scope of paramilitary activities must stop. Previously—all too often for those of us living there—the demands from government seemed to be a cessation of the violent activities, the shootings and the bombings. Paragraph 13, however, itemises all the activities in addition to violence which have continued over the past few years while Sinn Fein/IRA have gained concession after concession. It is very welcome. The Government have to stand fast on paragraphs 12 to 17.

The second glimmer of light comes out of the delay of the election, sad as that may be. It is this. Day by day, people in the Province and worldwide are learning and accepting to a far greater extent that we are where we are now as a result of the intransigence of Sinn Fein/ IRA. The blame is beginning to land in the right place and there is more recognition of it daily. We should not be ashamed of that. Even round the Province, many people are not saying, "Why have the Government done this? We should not have this". Some of those whom one might expect to make such remarks are not doing so. Instead they are asking, "What are Sinn Fein/IRA doing? Why have they not come up with the goods?".

As a result, if Sinn Fein/IRA do not come clean on those paragraphs and we have to have an election in the future—and I hope that we do—it will be far more acceptable to the world at large, to the people of this country and to the people in the north and the south of Ireland to have an election and, if necessary, to exclude Sinn Fein/IRA from the executive.

4.46 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I was hoping that in concluding this debate I would be able to say that the debate had not ranged any further back than this century. But then we had the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. Unusually in Northern Ireland debates, however, the discussion has been largely about the Bill before us. The noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said that this was to be a deferment in exceptional circumstances. I think that all who have spoken have expressed regret about the deferment of the election. My noble friend was more robust in his regret than many. Nevertheless, everyone has regretted this deferment.

Several noble Lords referred to the guillotine issue in the Commons and to how the Bill was not dealt with last night to the satisfaction of many Members of another place. I have been asked to raise an issue with the noble and learned Lord. Reference has already been made to whether an affirmative resolution will be presented to the Commons. Perhaps because of yesterday's events, those in another place wish to be clear that the matter will be dealt with on the Floor of the House and not in a committee room. I have no idea whether the noble and learned Lord can deal with that point, but, after yesterday's events, those in another place are keen to have an answer.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred to the conflicts within unionism. I am very much in favour of political parties being a broad church, but I cannot believe that having two tendencies within the Unionist Party is helping to resolve the issues. The word "trust" has been mentioned by so many speakers, but I worry about the level of trust between even the tendencies.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, referred to the fact that 10 per cent of people now living in Northern Ireland were horn in Britain. I thought that it was a good point in that it shows that people have the confidence to go and live in Northern Ireland and that there has been a relative peace in the past five years for them to enjoy. I understand his concern about the staff of Assembly Members, and his point about the Police Authority representatives appointed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the authority is dear to him and to other Members of your Lordships' House, it would not be surprising to learn that, during its five years of operation, the Assembly has also made several other appointments to various other bodies. Therefore, although the Policing Board point may be particularly important to the noble Lord, there is also the whole issue of appointments by an Assembly that is now to be stood down.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, made a useful contribution. She gave us an insight into the feelings of those with a British background—certainly those who presently live in the Republic of Ireland.

An election gives a renewed legitimacy and a forum for discussion. Everyone here is regretting this move. We want to see a situation where such a election can take place. Three words have been mentioned many times: clarity, trust, confidence—and, I would hope, honesty. Is it only Mr Blair's famous third question? If that is so, can there be clarity that that third question is the one to be answered to satisfaction?

Mr Trimble's reported comments as to whether Sinn Fein or the IRA can be trusted seem to suggest another problem. Clarity as to the way out of the impasse will be an important position for the Government to take. Noble Lords on these Benches look forward to an early announcement of an election, so that there can be renewed legitimacy and a proper forum for discussion in Northern Ireland.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, your Lordships will know that I have led a hitherto entirely blameless life. I am grateful for the confirmation from the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, for those words. However, some noble Lords are not in that category; indeed, some were formerly Members of the House of Commons. It is true that the ameliorative and civilising effects of membership of this House, as t he noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, sometimes take a Kittle while to produce demonstrable results. So noble Lords with those previous convictions know that the House of Commons is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

My work—in so far as I have any useful, detectable function—is to attend to the interests of this House. I have to make sure that we have plenty of time for debate and, if the Government intend to make amendments. I must give as early notice and have as full a consultation process as possible.

Many questions were asked about what will happen in the House of Commons in the foreseeable—or, indeed, not foreseeable—future. I do not know. With the best will in the world, it is not really my business to try to impose conditions on an elected Chamber—at the moment.

I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, coming as I do from a small country far away that has been subject to a succession of alien invasions, many of them by English speakers. All noble Lords were correct to say that this was a reluctant judgment, but it was a necessary one. I believe that it was a judgment due in duty and in scruple to our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked about the sunset clause. I have already said that how the House of Commons deals with that is entirely a matter for the House of Commons. I take the noble Lord's point about scrutiny of expenditure. I know the Secretary of State has this very much in mind. The noble Lord also asked for the end date of the consultation process. My advice is that that will be 12th June, which will give a reasonable, but not extravagant, opportunity.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked about the Policing Board. The membership of the board is not affected by the dissolution of the Assembly. It is only the restoration of devolved government that will affect that membership. In the citation that he gave, the noble Lord also asked a question about parties. The monitoring body will have its remit in respect of paramilitary activity and as regards claims that parties from the Assembly have failed in their obligations. The body will be independent. I know that the noble Lord is displeased about its membership. However, I put that to one side because it seems to me that we shall not persuade each other of the virtue of our respective positions.

The links between Sinn Fein and the IRA are widely spoken of, not least in this House. It will be a matter for the body to come to its judgment about whether any paramilitary activity is properly to be attributed to a political party—which, of course, the IRA is not. I daresay that we shall deal more fully with that question when the legislation comes forward. The Government have indicated that the monitoring body will require a specific Act, as, indeed, will the question of those accused of various offences who are currently on the run.

The noble Lord also asked about MLAs who plan to retire from politics. If one such MLA was intending, or proposing, to retire from political life after 29th May and gave that notice, we would consider sympathetically the question of the resettlement grant mentioned by the noble Lord. It is important to have consultations; but, equally, the Secretary of State said—I repeat this on his behalf—that we are talking about consultations in the next week or so. Therefore, they should not be long, drawn-out processes.

The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked questions about the review. In principle, as both speakers said, it ought to begin on the fourth anniversary of devolution in December. As noble Lords will know, the agreement does not set an end date. If, unfortunately, there has been no election by that time—our hope and our purpose is to have one before then—we shall have to consult all the parties to see how we can take the review forward, not least bearing in mind the difficulties identified by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked about Clause 6. Essentially, this provision is intended to permit amendments to the electoral law. The most obvious example is to be found in subsection (2), which parallels the power to call an election in advance of approval. Some amendments to the law may be necessary for the holding of an early election. It is right to say that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee—as always, I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, in his place—put its mind to these questions. One finds evidence of that under the rubric "The Delegated Powers" in its 20th report. With the exception of the two that I have dealt with—I hope, eventually, to the satisfaction of your Lordships—in paragraph 3 the committee specifically says: The other delegations in the bill are, in our view, both appropriate and subject to an appropriate level of parliamentary activity". I was certainly heartened by that.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, asked about the consequences of the amendment that I have already tabled in my name and hope to discuss in Committee. The noble and learned Lord is quite right. It would be possible for the Secretary of State to come to a conclusion to call an election, but if there is no approval within 28 days by both Houses of Parliament that decision would fall.

The noble and learned Lord also raised the question of recesses or adjournments of either House. One finds that dealt with in subsection (2D) of my amendment, which states: In calculating the period of 28 days … no account is to be taken of any time during which Parliament is dissolved or prorogued or during which both Houses are adjourned for more than four days". I hope that that is a partial answer to the question. I accept the noble and learned Lord's observation that this is a Committee point, and one to which we shall return in more detail tomorrow. However, I did not wish to appear discourteous in not replying immediately to the question about a possible lengthy period of time when Parliament was not sitting.

I cannot give the noble and learned Lord a specific undertaking in the terms requested. However, I can say that we have no wish to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny. As I outlined in my opening remarks, it would have been possible for us to go to for a generally conventional period like 40 days, but I felt strongly that that would not be pleasing to your Lordships. Therefore, we looked at 28 days: but that is a maximum. I cannot give undertakings, but it would not be honourable to go against what I had said in determining the timetable. The noble and learned Lord was not only Attorney-General but Secretary of State, so he will know much better than I do that, in Northern Ireland, if agreement miraculously arises, it is very often important to move promptly, before that agreement evanesces as soon as the sun rises. I hope that what I have indicated is the Government's attitude will therefore be satisfactory when we come to look at the matter in more detail tomorrow.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will understand that this is an example of the old adage that hard cases make bad law. Although we would not think for a moment that the provision would be abused, I do not like to think of someone coming along the road in some years, saying, "Well, there's a precedent", and introducing a similar clause into another Bill.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are ample precedents. When the noble Lord was in government, I am sure that he never even dreamt of putting his hand to such a thing. The procedure is actually called the draft affirmative order procedure. I shall develop another observation made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. Under the Northern Ireland Act 2000, suspension and restoration orders are exercisable and were exercised last October in advance of parliamentary approval.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, is correct. Other things being equal, we ought to do our utmost to have as full parliamentary scrutiny as possible. Casting no clouts at the House of Commons, I think that we can say without unduly unctuous self-congratulation that, in the Northern Ireland context, we rightly spend a good deal of time and trouble on discussing such difficult matters.

I think that I have dealt with the specific questions. I shall come back for one moment to explain the rationale, which we originally had by way of analysis, that the affirmative procedure was not necessary to reinstate elections. That was because we were returning to the citizens of Northern Ireland something taken away from them. The normal criticism of government and delegated powers on a Henry VIII basis is that one is taking things away from the individual. That was our stance, and I do not think that it was illegitimate. Having had many representations from noble Lords around the Chamber, I thought it reasonable to come to that conclusion.

It is true that the concessions might have been made late last evening in the House of Commons, but noble Lords will concur that we have a much more civilised atmosphere in which to have rational debate. I know that that comment will not appear inHansard. We have drafted rather quickly, and full tribute goes to parliamentary counsel and the officials in the Northern Ireland Office, because we had to work quite hard to get the provisions in appropriate form.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I indicated that I was uneasy about the second amendment. My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew, and subsequently my noble friend Lord Tebbit, were much more explicit. Am I correct in understanding from the answer that the Minister gave to my noble and learned friend that the election could almost be concluded before Parliament had the opportunity of passing the affirmative resolution? That was fundamentally what caused the unease in the Select Committee.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly that is theoretically possible, although the margin—28 days—would be very tight. However, I would not regard it as a proper way of conducting ourselves if the Secretary of State made an order and, on the 27th day, with the election campaign having virtually concluded itself, then came to Parliament. That would not be a proper way to approach matters.

I constantly remind myself and my colleagues that resolutions may well go through the House of Commons with a large majority, but the recent death rate in this House means that I now have 27 per cent of the available votes, not 28 per cent. If principle does not work, arithmetic may do. However late it was, noble Lords could reject something. I am not inviting them to do so, but if they thought that the behaviour of the Government had not been decent and honourable, they have the sanction. I do not think that we shall come to such apocalyptic days, because there is no purpose in our volunteering to come forward with amendments if then we do not abide by their decency and spirit.

A number of noble Lords said that the elections had been put off until 31st December. No, my Lords, no. They must occur before 31st December. We would prefer the autumn, if possible. The Government will not have the open-ended mandate, as it were, identified by the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, because there will have to be an extension of up to but not exceeding six months, and that will have to be by affirmative procedure of both Houses.

By and large I hate to be optimistic, but I detect a vague feeling of agreement. On that basis, I shall sit down.

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