HL Deb 09 December 2004 vol 667 cc1017-28

1.40 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"Yesterday my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister travelled to Belfast to publish an important set of documents: their proposals for a comprehensive agreement in relation to the political process in Northern Ireland. I want to explain to the House the background and the significance of these proposals.

"Just over a year ago, the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly changed the political landscape. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party became the leading parties of their respective communities. At the time, there was much speculation that bringing these two parties to agreement together would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. In the months since the election, our efforts have been dedicated to building the trust and confidence necessary to enable these parties to lead an inclusive and stable executive.

"In February, we began a review of the Good Friday agreement involving all the parties. We spent many months discussing possible changes and improvements to the operation of the political institutions. In June, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met the political parties at Lancaster House and identified four areas that needed resolution to enable devolution to be restored in Northern Ireland.

"First, there had to be a complete and decisive end to paramilitary activity by the IRA; secondly, the process of decommissioning illegal weapons had to be completed within a clear timescale; thirdly, in this context, Unionist parties must agree to operate the power-sharing institutions in a stable and sustained fashion; and, finally, we had to create the conditions in which all parts of the community in Northern Ireland could support and participate in policing.

"The documents published yesterday, copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, represent a series of statements which would have been published in sequence by the governments and the other relevant organisations if there had been an overall agreement.

"These proposals include commitments in the form of a statement from the IRA that the causes of the conflict would be removed by the implementation of this agreement and that IRA paramilitary activity would cease immediately and definitively, and that decommissioning of IRA weapons would be completed by the end of December this year under the supervision of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I shall return to the issue of decommissioning later.

"There were further commitments to the effect that, after a period during which the good faith of the earlier commitments had been demonstrated, an inclusive power-sharing executive would be established in March 2005. That restoration would take place on the basis of agreed changes to the operation of the institutions under strands 1 to 3 of the 1998 agreement.

"Finally, the proposed agreement sets out a timescale in which republicans would support policing and the policing structures established under the Good Friday agreement in the context of the devolution of policing and justice powers, as envisaged by the agreement.

"Any observer of the political process since 1998 will recognise how significant and substantial is the progress represented by these commitments. Before I turn to the outstanding area where agreement has not yet been reached, I want to pay tribute to all of those involved. The leaderships of the DUP and Sinn Fein have negotiated tirelessly and in good faith. I have no doubt that they want to reach a final accommodation. I also want to pay tribute to the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, the Alliance and the PUP, all of which have made essential contributions and without which the progress we have already seen in Northern Ireland would not have been achieved. As always, our partnership with the Irish Government has been close and decisive in driving this process forward. The progress of recent months owes much to the energy and determination of officials of both governments.

"But the House will know that, despite this remarkable progress, there remains an outstanding issue that could not be resolved; that is, the transparency with which the decommissioning process should be carried out. This issue will be very familiar to right honourable and honourable Members who have followed the twists and turns of recent years. They will understand the significance of the promise of a completion of IRA decommissioning by the end of the year. But both governments also recognise that public confidence in the process is critical to the success of any settlement and to the wider political stability of Northern Ireland.

"For that reason, the governments set out in the documents published yesterday a proposal that we regard as a fair compromise. Under that proposal, set out in Annex D to the document, photographs of weapons to be decommissioned would be shown privately to political parties in January and would be published at the time that the executive came to be established in March. We believed that this proposal should be acceptable to all.

"I would have liked to be telling the House today that a final, comprehensive settlement had been reached that would enable devolved government to be restored. That is the shared aim of all parties in this House and, more importantly, the firm desire of the whole community in Northern Ireland. Despite the efforts of so many, and the remarkable progress made, we are not quite there yet and that announcement will have to wait a little longer.

"But I am absolutely convinced that the day when the final piece of the jigsaw can be put in place is not far off. I remain optimistic that we will be able to resolve the outstanding issues and to restore devolution. We have published the proposals now so that the people of Northern Ireland can discuss and debate the issues.

"The governments will continue to press forward so that the remaining gap can be bridged. To that end, I will be meeting the Irish Foreign Minister and we will both engage jointly with the parties next week. There will also be a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference on Thursday 16 December. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will have the opportunity to meet again at the European Council the following day.

"The outstanding issue is about more than photographs. It is about confidence and trust between the parties. We will strive to encourage and build that trust. I know that in these efforts to move on from the legacy of the past, I can rely on the support and goodwill of the whole House. Anyone who has followed the political process in Northern Ireland over the past number of years will appreciate that yesterday was a very significant milestone in that journey towards lasting peace and stability".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

1.36 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for repeating the Statement of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I am also grateful to her and her team for allowing me early sight of the contents of the Statement.

I share the Government's disappointment, but I must say that I am not surprised because it seems to me, even at this stage, that the IRA has moved very little, if any, further forward since the Trimble/Blair/ Ahern debacle at Hillsborough some time ago. I wonder whether the Government think that they have. Does the noble Baroness agree that the prime obstacle to an agreement and to an enduring political settlement remains the refusal of republicans to show openly that they have completed their transition from terrorism and physical force into a political movement that campaigns to achieve its objectives exclusively through democratic and peaceful means?

Surely, the significant issues today revolve around matters not mentioned in the Statement, for example, the treatment of "on the runs" and Her Majesty's Government's interpretation of republican statements published yesterday in the governmental proposals. In particular, I am referring to policing and disarming. I wonder why Her Majesty's Government believe that the IRA really is prepared to disarm, when it knows that this is pointless without tangible photographic proof. The IRA is not prepared to allow this proof to be made public. Is this one more round of the blame game, I wonder? I sincerely hope not.

Will the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal confirm that photographic evidence of decommissioning is seen by both governments as essential to the solution? Will she say what discussions, if any, have taken place with the IRA in this regard?

I hope that the noble Baroness has seen that the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney, said that it would be wrong of anyone to assume that this was just about photographs, and that that was the only outstanding issue. I wonder what are the other issues on which there was no agreement.

Both yesterday's draft IRA statement and the actual statement published today talk rather vaguely about the IRA instructing its members not to engage in any activity that might endanger a new agreement. Is it Her Majesty's Government's clear and unequivocal understanding that that means all the activities set out in paragraph 13 of last year's declaration, including beatings, shootings, intimidation, racketeering and organised crime? Is it also the Secretary of State's clear and unequivocal understanding that, when the IRA talks about moving into a new mode, that means the effective standing down of the organisation and that it will no longer engage in recruitment, training or targeting?

This morning's IRA statement, which I hope the noble Baroness has had an opportunity to see, says that photographs "were never possible". Can the noble Baroness explain on what basis the documents published yesterday included reference to photographs as part of the process?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that, once the necessary legislation was passed, Sinn Fein would recommend support for the police and take its seats on the Policing Board. Republican statements say nothing of the sort. They merely commit Sinn Fein to holding a meeting to consider its position. How firm are the promises that have been given to Her Majesty's Government that the republican movement really will accept the police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland?

Finally, will the noble Baroness confirm that, until and unless weapons have been put beyond use and all forms of paramilitary activity have ceased, we will not, in this House, be asked to legislate on either the "on the runs" or "security normalisation"?

1.52 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, we welcome the progress that has been achieved. I pay tribute to the patience and perseverance of both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. It has been a very long marathon for them. It is unfortunate that they have not quite got there, but we wish them Godspeed. Mr Ahern and Mr Blair deserve our thanks for what has been achieved so far.

That said, this is yet another phase in the politics of exasperation—so near but yet so far. It is possible that agreement will not be concluded in the immediate future. Even if it is, it may not be sustainable in the long term. We hope that that is not the case but, given the history of Northern Ireland, we must be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that there is an absence of any reference to "on the runs". That will have to be articulated in the near future.

More specifically, I have a question for the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council. The Committee of the Centre is now to be placed on a statutory basis, which we welcome. Was it the intention that the committee would be able to scrutinise all actions of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister or merely the functions falling under its current remit?

I should like some clarification about paragraph 14 of annexe B. Is it the Government's intention that candidates should declare their community designation before election to the Assembly? We would have great concerns at any move further to entrench sectarianism in that way.

We also welcome the proposals on the secretariat of the British-Irish Council and the east/west parliamentary framework. We hope that that will help to further good relations between all the parliaments in these islands. As a member of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body, I know the potential that is there; we hope that it would also mean that Unionists would feel able to participate in the work of that body. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, would agree with me on that.

Overall, so far so good. We have an exasperating few weeks ahead, but we hope that a lasting conclusion can be reached.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness the Lord President for my misnomers.

1.55 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—we are all having fun and games with titles and designations today.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, for his opening remarks, particularly his tribute to the patience and perseverance of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. It has been a long marathon. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that yesterday was disappointing, but it is important that we concentrate on how far we have come. Reading through the documents and thinking about where we were such a short time ago, we must recognise that both sides have come a long way and that their leaderships have made a great effort to reach the remarkable degree of agreement that is evident in the documents published yesterday.

There are honest differences of opinion, and we have to continue to try to resolve them. It is not about apportioning blame but continuing with the process. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with the Foreign Minister from Ireland, will hold a meeting with the parties next Wednesday. The intergovernmental conference will take place next Thursday, and there will be a further opportunity for the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to meet towards the end of next week.

The issue is transparency; as I said in the Statement, it is about trust and confidence. That is the context in which we are looking at this one final issue. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will forgive me if I do not go into detail on the content of the negotiations that have got us to this point. We have got to a very important point; we feel strongly that the two Governments proposed a sensible compromise yesterday on transparency and on photographs. We will continue discussions with the parties to try to resolve that.

On the specific question of the conditional aspects of the Joint Declaration, the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, raised the issues of on the runs and security normalisation. Those matters are in the context of acts of completion. That is what was agreed; that remains the position. So there will be no movement on those conditional aspects of the Joint Declaration until we see acts of completion. I am happy to repeat that.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked me some specific questions. I have the answer to them in my hand, but I cannot read the official's handwriting, so I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I write to him on those points.

A Noble Lord

In your own handwriting?

Baroness Amos

Absolutely, my Lords. I think that my noble friend will try to help me out.

Regarding the further question of decommissioning, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, to look again at Annex C(5), which was the proposed statement from the IRA, where it states that it will: in this new context, conclude the process to completely and verifiably put all its arms beyond use. Accordingly the IRA leadership has agreed with the IICD to complete this process in a way which further enhances public confidence and to conclude this by the end of December". That is an incredibly important statement. Indeed, if the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, looks at the statement that it was proposed that the IICD should make, the transparency issues and the issue of verification are very important within that, too.

I am hanging on, just in case I receive some clarification on that particular point.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the information on timing. Does she think that the IRA's statement this morning in any way contradicts paragraph (5), or clarifies it from the IRA's angle?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we want to work with the statements that were agreed as part of this process and that is precisely why we published the document yesterday. It is very important for everyone to see how far we have come towards agreeing on these issues. There are some 22 pages. There is agreement on just about everything bar that one issue of transparency and photographs. That is why I wish to stick with these documents and the compromise that we have reached on the issue of photographs, whereby the photographs would be taken at the point at which the arms were decommissioned but not published until such time as the Executive was up and running.

Perhaps I may answer the question asked by the noble Lord. Lord Smith of Clifton. The issues would come before the House in the event that we reached full agreement, because a Bill would be necessary to give effect to institutional changes. That addresses the noble Lord's points with respect to the committee scrutinising all aspects of the work of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, before the Minister sits down—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps I should explain to the noble Lord that Back-Benchers can ask individual questions and have them answered.

2.3 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

My Lords, we all like to see progress in Northern Ireland, particularly those of us who have lived and worked there on the political scene for many years. Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness about proposals by the British and Irish Governments for changes in Strands Two and Three institutions following the review found in Annex B. Can she clarify whether what appears to me to be significant embellishment of the North-South Ministerial Council is likely to usurp the integrity of the Northern Ireland Assembly? Has there been agreement by the main Northern Ireland political parties to the proposals, particularly those in paragraphs 6 to 9 in Annex B?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, will know that when we moved into this process, following the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, it became clear that we would have to tweak the agreement in some way, particularly as the DUP was not party to that agreement. That is reflected in this document. In no way is there any intention to usurp the authority or the integrity of the Assembly. While I cannot speak for the Northern Ireland parties, I am absolutely sure that they would not sign up to anything which they thought would usurp the authority of that assembly. I hope that the noble Lord will feel confident that we have ensured that we consult the political parties in Northern Ireland, because it is important that all the parties are on board.

Lord Dykes

My Lords, I am grateful for the guidance given by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. Returning to transparency and photographs, does the Lord President of the Council agree that—bearing in mind that such an enormous prize is at stake and that there is such huge goodwill, both among the British public in general and the overwhelming majority of the public in Northern Ireland, who are so anxious to see a proper agreement concluded after so much human effort and many hours spent on it—if anything went against that, and if the decommissioning authority were to be content in the coming weeks with the proposed compromise suggestions on transparency, if anyone were to oppose that thereafter, it would be a heavy burden on any particular entity or group?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we all recognise that the issue of transparency and, indeed, photographs has been part of the negotiations over many, many months. We proposed a compromise. Noble Lords will know that that compromise was not accepted. We intend to continue to try to move forward on that particular issue. I feel strongly, given how far we have come, that there must be room for manoeuvre on that issue. We will seek to find that room. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be engaging with the Irish Foreign Minister in discussions with the parties next week. We will continue this process. We have to remain hopeful, given how very far we have come.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the Leader of the House will be aware that she is engaged in, we hope, the closing stages of a process that has lasted an incredibly long time. It involved my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, who was here earlier and is unfortunately not able to be here now. At the earliest stages I was involved myself in that process. That shows how long this matter has taken.

I well recall a meeting of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body over in Church House at the time of the meeting between Albert Reynolds and John Major, in which the first outline of the agreement was discussed. There seemed to be a general atmosphere of goodwill, until suddenly the matter of decommissioning was discussed. It seemed obvious to every British Member of Parliament and to the TDs from the Dail that that was a total failure to understand the history of Ireland and a deliberate attempt to frustrate the process by raising a difficult issue.

As she is familiar with this process, does the Minister agree that it does not matter whether the Governments can cobble together a deal or whether political leaders can be persuaded finally to sign up to it on ambivalent statements; it depends on whether it commands the trust of the people in Northern Ireland of both communities?

Having read this document, admittedly only briefly, and having heard my noble friend Lord Glentoran comment on the IRA statement of this morning, it is clear that there are uncertainties in this document that will obviously still not yet command full trust. Representations are being made to the IRA on behalf of the Sinn Fein leadership regarding policing, without any statements on what happens if the IRA does not agree or applies further conditions. It is easy to raise all the difficulties, but there is much ground still to be covered. Because trust is so important, we can take all the photographs that we like of verifiable decommissioning of weapons, but the other word in the Statement to which the Lord President attached great importance is not just "verifiably" but "completely". There must be trust, which will not be verifiable in any obvious sense, that there has been complete decommissioning of all arms that the IRA may possess.

All of us who have lived with the process for as long as it has gone on wish it well and hope that there will be the trust, but obviously some important issues must still be addressed. Important consideration must be given to the deep concerns of both communities.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, has been involved in the process much longer than I have. I pay tribute not only to his work but to that of many noble Lords on his side of the House who have been involved in the process for a very long time, in this House and the other place. We have built on that work.

The noble Lord is right that trust and confidence are an issue. The response of the people of Northern Ireland will be very important in the process. We all agree that the people of Northern Ireland want peace. I have visited Northern Ireland and seen the tremendous difference made to some communities there. Those communities want the continuance of that degree of security and stability that they are beginning to see.

What happens on the ground as a result of the process will be a huge motivator in pushing the political parties to work for greater security and stability in Northern Ireland. I recognise the noble Lord's points, but we must also recognise the push that will come from the people of Northern Ireland themselves once—I hope that it is once—we get past this further hurdle of transparency.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I, too, have read with great interest and respect the proposals of the two Governments. I am as sorry as anyone that no decision has been reached. However, the IRA is very good at pushing us to the edge, and it will go on doing so if it can. In Annex C, it states: all IRA volunteers have been given specific instructions not to engage in any activity which might thereby endanger the new agreement". That suggests that it is still a pretty active force.

In Annex D, it is proposed that two clergymen be nominated to see the decommissioning of arms. If noble Lords will forgive me for suggesting it, I cannot understand why the commission has never adopted the provision made in the original legislation that two ordnance officers from the American and Canadian armies should be present because they would know what they were seeing. With respect, I do not think that even the most intelligent clergyman is likely to be able to recognise exactly how much Semtex he is looking at or whether he is looking at a rocket launcher.

I hope that it is noted that Annex F, a Sinn Fein statement on policing, says that Sinn Fein does not intend to discuss the issue until the legislation is enacted. It always wants its part of the agreement first. Although I absolutely agree that it is vital that Northern Ireland should not continue in the present situation, the Government are right not to accept any solution that does not convince the ordinary man in the street that the IRA has not only given up its arms but stopped using them to threaten and kill people.

One of the great things that the Government have done, which I greatly respect, is the setting up of the Independent Monitoring Commission and the organisation to combat crime. Together those two measures have done more than anything else in the past year to show that the Government are really facing up to what people and the economy suffer from the paramilitaries. I hope that they will be urged to act even further, because I still believe that the IRA is bluffing. It is communist-trained, and communists' notion of negotiation is to ask for what they want and to give absolutely nothing in return for as long as they can get away with it. So, please, be tough as well as compassionate.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I listened carefully to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. I do not think that she asked me a specific question. I agree with her that there are issues of trust and confidence. I thank her for her comments on the institutions that we have set up in the past year, including the IMC. In response to her points on the document, she will understand that I cannot negotiate across the Dispatch Box, particularly on issues on which we have spent weeks negotiating.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council for repeating the Statement—we received a copy of it just before she delivered it—and for publishing the documents. The Government should be given great credit for publishing the documents last night.

Further to the contribution of my noble friend Lady Park, it is difficult to formulate a question. I shall try to form a question from the comments that I wish to make, but I ask for the patience of the House for just a minute or two. Could we have a different format in which to discuss the documents, if we do not get what I hope will be a Christmas agreement following a Good Friday agreement? That looks very hopeful. Is it possible to get time to flesh out the points in the documents, because there are deep concerns?

On a personal note, I was going to say that an agreement was so near yet so far, but I do not believe that: it is so very near. I am sad but not despairing. Further to the remarks of my noble friend Lady Park, does the noble Baroness believe the determination by the IICD that the presence as observers during the process of two clergymen nominated by the two Governments, following appropriate consultation, would be worthwhile? I am concerned after hearing my noble friend's points about a clergyman's ability to recognise Semtex, rocket launchers and so on.

Secondly, is there any way in which we could try to ease the humiliation felt by the IRA or Sinn Fein because of photographs? Thirdly, I suggest to the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council that, although we are very grateful for the patience and perseverance of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, thanks should be also given to the officials for their energy and determination. They so seldom get public recognition for their tireless efforts in this regard.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. I agree with her remarks about the officials. That is why tribute was paid in the Statement not only to our Government's officials but also those of the Irish Government. They have worked tirelessly in this process.

The issues of transparency, the IICD and photographs will be the subject of the ongoing discussions, so it would be inappropriate for me to say at this point exactly what the end process of the discussions will look like. The end process would have to be agreed. That will partly be as a result of the discussions that my right honourable friend and the Irish Foreign Minister will have with the political parties next Wednesday.

I hope that I can help the noble Baroness in her request for a discussion of the outstanding issues in the documents and an opportunity to flesh out the points in them. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already indicated that he would like to come to this House to give an informal briefing to Peers with an interest, in the way that we have done in the past. He wishes to do that before we break for Christmas. We have just agreed a date; I will get in touch with all Peers on that.