HL Deb 06 April 2004 vol 659 cc1766-73

2.16 p.m.

Baroness Amos rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4 March be approved.

The noble Baroness said

My Lords, on 15 October 2002, Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 came into force, thereby suspending devolved government in Northern Ireland. Under paragraph 1 of the schedule to that Act, there is a power to legislate by Order in Council. That power was limited for the first six months of suspension, but can be extended for a period of six months at a time. The House agreed an extension of these powers for a second period of six months in September last year. This third order provides for a further renewal of these powers—for six months from 14 April 2004.

They are a regrettable necessity given the suspension arrangements. The Government—with the Irish Government and political parties in Northern Ireland—have been working hard since suspension first came about to restore the devolved institution. These efforts have not yet met with success. Nevertheless, we remain committed to securing the restoration of devolved government on a stable and inclusive basis. As soon as we have achieved this, the powers we are renewing today—with the other powers relating to devolution—will revert to the devolved Assembly and Northern Ireland Ministers.

In the mean time, the order we are considering today is, as I said, a regrettable necessity. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4 March be approved.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for bringing the order today. I am afraid I totally agree with her. There really can be no arguments against today's order. Those who follow Northern Ireland affairs will be only too aware that there has been considerable activity in recent weeks within the Northern Ireland portfolio and within the Province of Northern Ireland, but ending with little progress—and possibly even with some regression.

We have had continued reports of paramilitary activities, both from loyalists and the IRA, balanced about one-on-one every week. We have had the pain of the awful mistake—which I referred to last time I was at the Dispatch Box—about Weston Park and the reporting of Cory, which is not going to solve anything. The Chief Constable made it quite clear that he does not have the resources to do retrospective investigations. The Government have now set up at least three—likely to be four—public inquiries into the three/four murders investigated by Cory. Frankly, we are in a fairly unpleasant, unstable and difficult situation.

We hope that the Independent Monitoring Commission is going to report very soon. I had hoped that it would have reported before we finished today—before Easter—with pressure from this side and, I believe, from the Secretary of State. It has been asked to bring its reporting forward more and more. He is still pressuring it to come forward with its latest reports, hut, sadly, I do not expect any good news.

However, let us not forget the bottom line: the reason we are here is because Sinn Fein/IRA have not yet shown sufficient courage to condemn their paramilitary colleagues to history—and, for me, the dustbin—and to join the democratic process. Her Majesty's Government must understand the depth of cynicism within that organisation and cease to use verbiage, appeasement and negotiation, and really start to toughen up on Sinn Fein/IRA so that we can have a devolved government once again in Northern Ireland.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for introducing this order. All sides of the House will be disappointed that, yet again, we are debating the further suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Along with two other noble Lords, I visited Stormont yesterday: it was gloomily empty, and that was an accurate reflection of the current state of Northern Ireland politics.

The torpor of politics, of course, contrasts starkly with the buoyancy of the economy there. The fact that the polity and the economy are so out of balance is very unhealthy for the condition of civic society in the long run—and we are clearly in the long run.

The Assembly has now been suspended for 18 months, and there is little prospect of its being reconvened in the near future. There is meant to be an ongoing review of the Belfast agreement, but it seems to be a desultory process. Discussions between the two Governments and the political parties have so far yielded little by way of substantive progress. Yesterday, the consensus seemed to be that nothing would happen until after the European and local elections in June; then, the marching season would be upon us, so there was little prospect of forward movement towards the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly until September. Then. it was pointed out that the spectre of a United Kingdom general election could put further negotiations on the long finger, as they say in Northern Ireland. It is an all too likely prospect and one that means, effectively, that there will be no return to devolved government in the foreseeable future, which nobody wants.

The intransigence of Sinn Fein in refusing to repudiate categorically republican paramilitary activity and the inability of the Unionist parties to constrain loyalist paramilitary activity mean that direct rule from London, in conjunction with Dublin, will remain the system of governance for Northern Ireland. In effect, that means Civil Service rule, with the minimum scrutiny and public accountability.

If direct rule is to be prolonged, a better system of Westminster scrutiny of Northern Ireland legislation than the one that obtains must be instituted. Little attention is given to Northern Ireland matters in another place, and the situation is not much better in this House. Does the Minister accept that a more formalised system must be adopted, consisting of regular sittings in Grand Committee, rather than the sporadic ad hoc sittings that are the current practice? For example, we spent little over an hour considering the annual budget for Northern Ireland, whereas the subject merited a debate lasting over one or two days and only after enough time had been made available for the budget to be adequately analysed before it was debated. The treatment accorded to the budget this year was purely perfunctory. That is not good enough.

In addition to more regular and systematic use of the Grand Committee system, time must be found—say, every three months—for a general debate on the situation in Northern Ireland. As it is, we must exploit such limited opportunities as arise after Statements or when orders such as this come up to make some general observations, as I am now doing. The Statement on the Cory report last Thursday vividly illustrated the time constraints imposed on an important subject. I asked then whether your Lordships would have a further opportunity to discuss the report and the wider issues of policing and security but was told that it was a matter for the usual channels. Again, that is not good enough. The usual channels need to exercise collective intelligence and imagination with regard to Northern Ireland business.

A month or so ago, there was a report in the Irish Times on an address given by the Secretary of State in a Dublin cathedral. He was reported as saying that the future of the peace process and the Belfast agreement lay in the power of prayer. That says a lot about the strength of his faith, of which I am jealous. However, as a plan B, it is rather more deficient. Following the report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, due to be published at the end of this month, both Governments, together with America, must renew pressure for the IRA to dissociate itself completely from republican paramilitaries. Sinn Fein must be made to realise that, especially in the current struggle against global terrorism, paramilitary activity of the kind that it has previously endorsed is totally unacceptable

With a heavy heart and bordering on despair, we will support the approval of the order.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I must make a point that refers directly to something that the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said. The Conservative Party has given over one of its debates—on Wednesday 28 April—to discuss Northern Ireland.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, it gives me no great pleasure to address your Lordships this afternoon. I have no doubt that all will share my sense of sadness and deep regret that devolved government is not up and running in Northern Ireland and that an extension of the lengthy period of suspension and direct rule is once again necessary. However, government must continue. In the absence of a Northern Ireland executive, there are many issues that we must attend to, given the collapse of the devolved administration.

The vacuum created by the discovery of a republican spy ring at Stormont and the IRA's continued terrorist activity both at home and in the Americas must not detract from the positive work that has been undertaken since the signing of the Belfast agreement in 1998.

Much has been done to remove the curse of paramilitarism and sectarianism from Ulster society; to tackle racism and improve relations with the minority communities; to address economic inequality; to improve our services' infrastructure; to attract inward investment; and to maintain the excellent employment figures that the Province now has.

A major consultation document was launched recently entitled A Shared Future, which aims to improve relationships in Northern Ireland. We know only too well what relationships need improving in our Province.

However, I would like to draw the attention of the House to a new problem that we are now faced with in Northern Ireland: the dramatic rise of race crime and organised attempts to intimidate members of our minority communities out of the province. These communities—Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi and others—involve people who have lived in Northern Ireland alongside other communities throughout the years of our troubles, violence and terrorism. These people are being targeted by thugs for no other reason than the colour of their skin.

Your Lordships may be aware that just last week the home of two Filipino couples in the Killicomaine estate in Portadown was attacked, not just once but twice. The motive was undoubtedly racist, and, understandably, the couples are considering moving out. These attacks are totally unacceptable. These women have been working as qualified nurses in the nearby Craigavon hospital, helping the National Health Service and valiantly contributing to the needs and welfare of their neighbours in Northern Ireland. They should be treated with the respect that they deserve, but never should have to feel unsafe or insecure in their own homes.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has called on the UK Government to take urgent action to ensure the safety and protection of Filipino nationals and bring the perpetrators of this violence and thuggery to justice. The Philippine Foreign Secretary, Mr Delia Domingo Albert, referring to this latest incident, said: These attacks against our nationals areunacceptable. They live and work in peace and harmony and make meaningful contributions to their respective communities. They deserve the full protection of the authorities of the host government". Along I am sure with everybody in this House, I fully concur with those comments.

As an Ulsterman, a man proud of his homeland, and as vice-chairman of the British-Philippine All Party Parliamentary Group, I am disappointed and, indeed, frankly embarrassed, that the Philippine Government should feel the need to issue such statements.

When did we become content to see Northern Ireland viewed as a cruel and uninviting place for ethnic minorities to live? What happened to our world-renowned friendliness, our caring nature and our generosity of spirit?

The Government recently announced that £500,000 has been secured for the improvement of relations with minority groups in Northern Ireland. I would like to know exactly how this money is going to be spent; what consultation process is going to take place with community leaders; and, most importantly, if the Government will give a commitment that this is not a one-off grant. This money should be renewable, to ensure that any new programme of can take root, and have the financial security to have a long-term impact.

My colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party and I would like to see these issues addressed in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, and perhaps the noble Baroness could indicate whether this is on the Government's forthcoming agenda or not, and if not, why not?

Turning to the political process and the recent talks in Hillsborough, I wish to stress the detrimental effect this period of suspension is having on the institutions and the integrity of the Belfast agreement. Given that the Prime Minister has waited a year and a half since the suspension of the Assembly, can the noble Baroness shed light on what progress has been recently made and what the Government intend to do about the new June deadline?

We simply cannot carry on with Sinn Fein half in and half out of the democratic loop. The consequence of doing so is that the true democrats continually carry the can and pay the political price for the IRA's broken promises. It cannot come as a surprise to anyone that Northern Ireland's electorate has become exasperated by Sinn Fein's broken promises, by Sinn Fein's manipulation of the Belfast agreement and by the British Government's consistent reluctance to punish it for failing to meet its obligations under that agreement.

My colleagues and I met our obligations under that agreement, as did the SDLP and most of the other signatories. There are two reasons for this continued period of suspension: first, devolution has failed because Sinn Fein has refused to make the transition from a terrorist organisation to a fully democratic political party. Secondly, the Government—my Government—have consistently failed to live up to their commitment to punish it should it not do so. Devolved government in Northern Ireland will simply not work in the absence of this pressure.

Sinn Fein will not democratise out of the kindness of its heart. The incentive for it to do so can come only from the British and Irish Governments, so the sooner they get on with providing it, the better it will be for Northern Ireland.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I had not intended to speak but I should like to add a couple of points. First, I welcome the debate that we will have on 28 April, when we can say much more. Secondly, I declare an interest because I am on the Policing Board. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned the Independent Monitoring Commission. We should not hold our breath on that; the Chief Constable has said quite clearly a couple of times in the past two or three weeks that the IRA is and continues to be involved in present activities, and is ready and prepared to take the issue further.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that it was regrettable that Sinn Fein had not condemned other activities going on at present. In the light of its recent full-page advertisements in America against the police and against people joining the police, I agree with the noble Lord that this will be a long-term affair. That is very sad for all of us. In the light of that, I support the order, but regretfully.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and share their regret that we are having to take this order through the House. I shall try to deal with the specific points that have been raised. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has had to return to Grand Committee—he has carried out the remarkable feat of being in two places at once.

The noble Lord commented in particular on the raft of issues that we are addressing in Northern Ireland at present. I agree that these are difficult times. However, let me say in response to the noble Lord and also in response to the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Smith and Lord Rogan, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, that the Prime Minister and the Government have made it absolutely clear that we need to see a complete, total and definitive end to paramilitary activity. The Government's message could not have been clearer and we have also made it clear that we need to see a willingness that everyone will be able to share power once we resolve the question of paramilitarism.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, with the Taoiseach, went to Northern Ireland and engaged in further talks. That level of intensive activity will continue. In an attempt to break the deadlock, we are engaged in a process of making absolutely clear to the parties what is necessary for a return to devolution. However, I share the regret that noble Lords have expressed this afternoon.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised the issue of the time available to discuss Northern Ireland issues. I believe that the Government have taken every opportunity to make such time available. As the noble Lord will know, I have continued the tradition established by my predecessor of bringing Peers with an interest in Northern Ireland together with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss these issues in an informal way. I hope that Members of this House feel that they have a degree of access to my right honourable friend that would not otherwise be available.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, there is a world of difference between those informal consultations and discussions, which are very valuable for putting matters in context, and the formal machinery by which we consider Northern Ireland business. There is a feeling in Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland business is getting rather short shrift in terms of Westminster scrutiny. That was the point to which I wanted to draw attention.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, and I was coming on to those other points. I have made it absolutely clear that the special Grand Committee procedure which we have put in place for Northern Ireland is available to us. Indeed, I have written to noble Lords with an interest in Northern Ireland to set out the issues that we will be considering in the next few months, although other issues will be added to that. All noble Lords know that there is pressure on time in the Chamber. We will have to negotiate through the usual channels to ensure that Northern Ireland issues are considered. I repeat, however, that the accent has to be on finding ways of resuming devolution quickly, not preparing ourselves for a long period of direct rule.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, expressed concern about the increase in race crime and the safety and protection of Filipino nationals in Northern Ireland. I absolutely agree that those attacks are totally unacceptable. He is quite right that we have published a community relations consultation document entitled A Shared Future. Eliminating sectarianism, tackling racism and building trust between and within communities in Northern Ireland remain key priorities for the Government. As part of that process, we are resolved to tackle issues of racial equality by developing a race equality strategy for Northern Ireland which aims to eliminate racial discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and increase participation of ethnic minorities in social, public, economic and cultural life.

If I may, I shall write to the noble Lord on his specific questions about how the £500,000 which has been allocated will be spent. He particularly wanted to know whether there would be a consultation process and what would be the longer-term impact of the grant.

I think that I have already addressed the issues raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, in my general remarks. However, I entirely agree with him that we want to see an inclusive process for policing and security issues in Northern Ireland. That is why we have said time and again to Sinn Fein that they should take up their places on the Policing Board.

On Question, Motion agreed to.