HL Deb 16 October 2003 vol 653 cc1100-2

3.24 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether elections will be called to the Northern Ireland Assembly, in view of the shortage of time now available to the Secretary of State in which to announce a date for such elections.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, as the Prime Minister said yesterday in another place, we accept that elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly should go ahead, but it is much better that they do so on a basis which offers a real prospect of resumed devolved government. Intensive discussions have been continuing between the Government and political parties with that object in view.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I am slightly disappointed because statements by the Government are beginning to get all the credibility of a Billy Bunter postal order. Does the Minister agree that procrastination of this kind is now leading to a very serious loss of momentum in the political process in Northern Ireland, not least as permanent staff are leaving Stormont because of the hiatus? Does she also agree, as the Government espouse, that elections really must be held in the very near future?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I think the noble Lord will accept that this is a very sensitive time with respect to the discussions in Northern Ireland. We want to see Assembly elections go ahead as soon as possible, but it is much better that those elections go ahead on a basis which offers a real prospect of resumed devolved government. That is why intensive discussions have been continuing between the British and Irish Governments and the political parties. That is our objective.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, can the Lord President of the Council tell the House what progress has been made in the work of the Monitoring Commission, which was set up, as I understand it, to secure the acts of completion on both sides, which were regarded at that time as a prerequisite of any return to government by the Assembly?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, work is ongoing with respect to the Monitoring Commission. The noble Baroness will know that the political parties in Northern Ireland have had differing views on this issue. I shall check the latest position, and will write to the noble Baroness if there have been any improvements to the Answer that I have given.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, given the importance of these decisions, particularly in regard to the dates of the election—which, after all, I need not remind your Lordships were decided by this House— would it not have been prudent to have invited all the political parties in Northern Ireland to join in, and not just two of them, given that one of the partners in the discussion is a sovereign independent nation?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point. We stay in touch with a range of political opinion. The SDLP met with the Prime Minister last week. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saw a range of pro-agreement parties during the past week. I must say that it is right that we should try to facilitate the process of building trust and confidence and in particular an end of paramilitary activity. Our efforts are directed towards that.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I, and certainly my party, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, and the Government that elections must happen. If they do not happen soon there may never be elections for devolution again. What kind of programme do the Government have? Are they thinking of having elections and maybe not summoning the Assembly until Sinn Fein/IRA has delivered? The Prime Minister, my party, the Ulster Unionist Party and others have demanded that before Sinn Fein is admitted into the Executive, it must deliver that which we all understand as total decommissioning and a total end of the war. Perhaps the noble Baroness can help me on that issue.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord will understand if I am not able to answer directly the question with respect to a programme and to give details of it. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said on Monday that we believe that the omens for progress are good. We will continue to work towards the goal of elections to restored institutions. Intensive discussions are happening to deliver that end. I am sure that the House will understand that I cannot speculate further on the potential timing of an election while we are at such a sensitive stage of discussion.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, does the Leader of the House agree that it is essential that all paramilitary groups disarm and cease using terror tactics?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, we have been working towards ensuring that paramilitary groups give up their weapons. That is a key part of our strategy.