HL Deb 21 July 2004 vol 664 cc302-9

8.3 p.m.

Baroness Amos rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8 July be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, once again, the absence of a devolved Assembly obliges us to bring before your Lordships provision to extend the power to legislate by Order in Council for Northern Ireland until April 2005. The order would cease to have any effect once devolution was restored. I very much hope that it would not run its full course. There has been much discussion in recent months about arrangements by which stable, inclusive devolved government could be restored in a context where paramilitary activity is entirely ended.

That has been the focus of the review of the operation of the Good Friday agreement and a broader dialogue energetically animated by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, which culminated with discussions at Lancaster House on 25 June. Following those discussions, the Government recognised the constructive spirit in which the parties had approached them. But they also made clear that the effort needed to be stepped up. Intensive political dialogue will resume at the beginning of September.

During suspension of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, we remain committed as a government to providing good governance to the people of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State and his colleagues have taken matters forward in the broad direction set by the devolved executive.

However valiant our efforts to provide good administration in Northern Ireland, by common consent an executive of Ministers drawn from Northern Ireland answerable to the Assembly elected there is better placed to do the job they did between 1999 and 2002 than Ministers answerable here. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, the opportunity must be seized in the dialogue in September to restore devolved government in a context entirely free of paramilitary activity. Drift is not an option.

I hope that this occasion will be the last on which we seek your Lordships' consent to extend these exceptional powers. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8 July be approved [26th Report front the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, again I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for that explanation. I strongly agree with her last sentiments: we, too, hope that this is the last time the Government will need to come to the House for a renewal. I do not intend to go over some of the ground that we have covered on each occasion that an order similar to this has come before your Lordships. But I would like to make a couple of the points that we have been making over the past day or two.

I do not believe that there will be a sudden change of heart and that by October of this year we shall suddenly have devolved government again. That is unreal. We have some serious elections ahead. Political parties are as occupied electioneering as they are negotiating and looking to do deals with each other. Noble Lords will know better than me that running up to an election is not a time when political parties work together—rather the opposite—particularly when we have two parties that are poles apart and at opposite ends of the spectrum.

My purpose in giving that background refers to the debates that we had last night. The noble Baroness the Lord President knows very well from the tone of those debates and from discussions that we have had in private that we on this side of the House feel that the Government cannot go on administering Northern Ireland in the way that now applies. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, made very clear his views, which summed up those of my own and my party very well.

The time has come to face reality, to think laterally, to get a grip and to remember that the people of Northern Ireland deserve respect and democracy. It is not the fault of the majority that they are in this state. It is not their fault that we happen to have the two most powerful parties as the two extreme parties. I believe it is high time that this Government took serious measures to change the process by which the Province is governed until, at some point in the future, we are able to reach joint agreements whereby full devolution can be arrived at.

It saddens me to say that. I know that too often when addressing Northern Ireland affairs I come to this Dispatch Box being pessimistic, and I take no pride in the fact that so far I have been proved right. I wish that it were different. But it is so and it is now time to acknowledge that drift, to use the expression of the noble Baroness, is no longer an option where administration in Northern Ireland is concerned.

I beg the Government to take that seriously. I can assure the noble Baroness that we would like to be party to any initiatives that have been worked on in the review and we will do our best to be supportive and helpful. I have made that clear to the noble Baroness both in private and to my honourable friend in another place, David Lidington.

Let us hope that if the worst happens and in the future we have to face another extension of this order, at least by that time we will have a different system of government as a result of some serious, courageous actions and lateral thinking. In the mean time, I support the order.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her introduction of this order. I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, when he says that the present political impasse is not the fault of the people of Northern Ireland. After all, they did hold an election which created a polarised situation and produced something that has to be dealt with. That should not be taken from them.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, the noble Lord always finds some reason to take issue with me, and I am delighted to hear his opinion.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, logic is on my side tonight, as always.

One way or the other, this should be the last order. It had better be sent up to the polarised politicians of Northern Ireland that this is to be the last order. We cannot go on and on drifting—I too use the word of the noble Baroness.

A month ago the Prime Minister echoed a point I have been making for a long time: that we cannot go on paying the MLAs just for sitting there. I ask the Minister this: if by October nothing happens in a positive way, is it the intention of the Secretary of State to reduce their salaries to nil? I ask that because unless they are doing the work, I do not think that they should get the money. It has been going on for nearly two years and, as the Prime Minister implied, enough is enough.

I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, although with different nuances. While I do not seek an assurance, I would advise the Northern Ireland Office that there had better be a plan B. We saw in Grand Committee yesterday what we have seen previously. Even though we took rather more time than has been the case in the past discussing something as important as the Northern Ireland budget, we still spent less time on it than would be spent by a major local authority in this country—a point often made by my noble friend Lord Shutt. That does no service to the people of Northern Ireland and is totally inadequate in terms of holding Civil Service rule to account. I do not blame civil servants since they have had to pick this up faut de mieux.

I hope that the Northern Ireland Office, with its usual imagination, will be working on a plan B so that, if the worst comes to the worst and a form of direct rule—I do not think that it will be the status quo ante; I have always said that it will be a form of de facto condominium between Westminster and Dublin—is to be continued and imposed because time has run out so far as devolution for this generation is concerned—something I would deeply regret because I want to see the devolved institutions up and running as soon as possible—we shall need an alternative to the present rather ad hoc system.

In looking at that development, noble Lords on these Benches would be happy to be consulted by the Northern Ireland Office as to what form it should take. Moreover, if it is made known that a plan is being worked on, perhaps that will concentrate the minds of the elected Members to the Northern Ireland Assembly to get a move on. The one message that must go out tonight—as it has repeatedly from the Governments of both Ireland and the United Kingdom—is that we must resolve this issue once and for all, one way or the other.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, I should also like to thank the Minister and to express the hope that this is the last occasion on which we discuss such an order in this House. I intend to speak for somewhat longer to this order than was the case for the previous two.

It is almost two years since the devolved institutions were suspended, after the exposure of an IRA spy ring at Stormont. Following that, my party's subsequent attempts to re-establish devolution with republicans were met with gamesmanship and intransigence over the decommissioning issue and reluctance on the Government's part to take any serious steps to pressurise those republicans to honour their commitments under the Belfast agreement. However, as such criticism has constantly fallen upon deaf ears, I am grateful for the opportunity today to make a point that the Government should seriously address.

It appears that the DUP will do a political deal with IRA/Sinn Fein in the autumn. It will be a highly spun revamp of the political partnership that my party engaged in with the SDLP. That suggests to me that the Government have thrown their hands in the air and said, "Well, we almost stabilised things and delivered devolution through the moderate parties. It didn't work. Never mind. Let's keep the peace and give the extremists their share of the cake and see what happens next".

8.15 p.m.

That kind of short-term thinking will lead to further communal polarisation and instability in Northern Ireland. The Government are deluded, if they seriously think that an exclusive deal between the DUP and IRA/Sinn Fein will have a positive effect on the prospects of consolidating devolution.

The year 1998 was not the political endgame that many thought it was. In fact, it was the beginning of a transitory process aimed at establishing firm devolution. That process needed to be nurtured, balanced and managed by the two Governments. The failure of the republicans to engage honestly and with transparency in a democratic sense has resulted in the collapse of that process.

People are now asking why the two Governments sat back and allowed that to happen. I believe that the answer is very simple: the Governments were afraid that Sinn Fein/IRA will carry out its threat and return to violence. That threat has determined the pace of political development in Northern Ireland since 1998 and undermined the hard work that led to the Belfast agreement. In real terms, they have given Sinn Fein/IRA a de facto veto over the democratic process. That is exactly why the unionist community—my community—has lost faith in this process and in the Government's handling of it.

Consequently, we have a situation in Northern Ireland where fear rather than hope is once again the determining factor in how people vote and form their political opinions. One has only to look at last year's Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey to understand that. The results indicate that most Protestants think that nationalists benefited at their expense from the Belfast agreement. Consequently, their disenchantment with the 1998 agreement has steadily increased. There can be no more obvious illustration of this point than the paradoxical finding that, for the first time, more Protestants than Catholics—32 per cent compared with 26 per cent—actually think that a united Ireland is either "quite likely" or "very likely" to happen in the next couple of decades.

There are some very simple reasons for that—namely, the scaremongering and misinformation that has emanated from the DUP since 1998; the fact that Sinn Fein/IRA has got away with and benefited electorally from abandoning its commitment to full decommissioning; and, crucially, the Government's unwillingness to punish it for doing so while those who took risks for peace are constantly let down by the Government for having done so.

When the Belfast agreement was signed in 1998, many people lent it their support because they accepted the word of the Prime Minister when he said that he would make good on his promises: Sinn Fein/IRA would decommission and there would be a level playing field on which devolution could become firmly established in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister will no doubt feel a certain sense of political déjà vu from the echo of this critique. There are always long-term consequences of taking serious constitutional and international decisions based on short-term political goals. I implore him to learn from the mistakes over the past six years because it is not too late to get it right.

The electoral interests of the republican movement must not be allowed to hold our political future to ransom. Should it continue to foster the threat of violence and paramilitarism that hangs over the political process, the two Governments should consider alternative means of consolidating devolution in Northern Ireland.

Lord Eames

My Lords, I do not come to this discussion to represent any particular political philosophy, but from my knowledge of those who are working day and night on the streets and in the towns of Northern Ireland. While I have found a great deal to agree with in what I have listened to in this debate, I ask the Minister to bear in mind that there are two aspects to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

There is the political level, which has engaged most of us in this discussion so far. There is also the attitude of the ordinary men and women on the street in Northern Ireland. What worries and concerns me at this time is not just that we may see one more chapter in the legislative responsibility of this House and the other place for Northern Ireland, but the fact that there is widespread disillusionment with the whole political process because people feel that it is getting absolutely nowhere.

In addition to that, one of the cardinal reasons for that alienation is that people feel that they are getting on with their lives and existence and that what is happening at the level that you, Minister, and others are concerned with, has less relevance to their lives than it had even a few years ago. For that reason, I seriously urge, and join with those who have already urged, Her Majesty's Government to let it be known that there is a plan B. Let it be known that there is an alternative to our situation at the moment, and that we are not going on with the circus of endless talks while the people of Northern Ireland go on with their lives and feel a growing gap with their experience and the experience which is no doubt happening in political circles.

I pay tribute to the efforts of the two governments—the British Government and the Irish Government—and I pay tribute to the respective Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. But I also make a very strong plea, and not from a purely party political stance but from my knowledge over many years of working in this situation. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the need to take on board the fact that once that alienation between what is achievable and what is the reality on the ground becomes wider and the gap widens, we have a very serious problem in Northern Ireland.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I wonder if I might interject at this point, following the most reverend Lord Eames. One of the saddest things that I heard yesterday was the decrying of the Civic Forum, and the idea that it was something that ought not to be continued. Following on from the remarks of the most reverend Lord Eames, not only would I institute the Civic Forum, I would create a multitude of them—for education, health and transport. Indeed, I would have a cross-border civic forum.

If the politicians will not get involved, let the people get involved. I encourage the idea of thinking about a plan B. If we cannot cope with politicians, let us go direct to the people and give them lots of opportunity for involvement.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken have acknowledged the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland. I believe that we would all agree with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that the people of Northern Ireland deserve respect and democracy. That is absolutely what we have been working towards.

I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord Eames when he refers to the two aspects of the peace process—

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I spent some time persuading the Procedure Committee to give the style and dignity to the noble Lord, Lord Eames, of "most reverend", which was otherwise previously given only to the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. We have for the first time in your Lordships' House an active Archbishop, and for the time he is in that role the Procedure Committee agreed that he would be referred to as "most reverend".

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I apologise. I misadvised the noble Baroness the Lord President.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I can apologise on my own behalf. Having checked in the Companion to the Standing Orders, I see that we have got it wrong, so we will change the Standing Orders.

I entirely agree that there are two aspects of the peace progress: the political level and the attitudes on the streets of Northern Ireland. I have listened with a degree of concern to the comments made by noble Lords about the perception that there is now greater marginalisation and a feeling of disillusionment with the peace process. If that is the case, it is a matter of serious concern.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, was concerned that an agreement should not be made between just two parties. I assure the noble Lord that we seek the widest possible measure of inclusion in government. In the review of the operation of the agreement, we have sought to talk to all parties and we shall continue to do that. I acknowledge that there are risks of the communities drawing apart but it is clear that stable, inclusive partnership government is the best way of addressing them in Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will know that the meetings that have been held between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach—and between the parties in Northern Ireland—have been guided by two fundamental objectives: the need to see an end to all forms of paramilitary activity and the imperative of restoring a stable and inclusive devolved government in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. Intensive political dialogue, led by the two Governments, will resume at the beginning of September with the aim of concluding this phase of the process. I recognise that reaching agreement will not be easy but we cannot have further delay because we need to put first the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

There are four key issues that need to be resolved: a definitive and conclusive end to all paramilitary activity; the decommissioning, through the IICD, of all paramilitary weapons on an early time-scale and on a convincing basis; a clear commitment on all sides to the stability of the political institutions and to any changes of their operation agreed within the review; and support for policing from all sides of the community and for an agreed framework for the devolution policing.

There were a number of questions about what happens next and what happens if it does not work. It is our view that we must remain focused on achieving the right outcome. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said at Lancaster House on 25 June, if we find that we cannot make this process work we must conclude that we cannot continue in the way envisaged. The Taoiseach agreed with that view. The negotiations have not been easy but all parties have a shared understanding of the issues and are doing their best to achieve a political settlement. We have urged the parties to maintain their engagement over the summer. We will do all we can to lay the groundwork for success in September.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked specifically about what would happen to MLA salaries. The salaries and allowances are kept under regular review. That means that the Secretary of State will look at them again very closely on the outcome of the political discussions that will follow the summer break.

I recognise the strong feeling around the House that this will be the last time that we have to consider such an order. I share that view. In the discussions that we had in Grand Committee yesterday, I was very conscious of the amount of detail on which we are asking noble Lords to comment. We do not think that this situation is satisfactory. I recognise that noble Lords do not consider that it is satisfactory. We will continue to do all we can to try to work to a situation where we can restore devolved government in Northern Ireland.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.30 to 8.45 p.m.]

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