HL Deb 30 November 2004 vol 667 cc378-81

2.52 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in negotiations on the proposal that the Irish Government should take over responsibility for funding aids to navigation in Irish territorial waters.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, the provision of aids to navigation around the British Isles is funded by light dues levied on shipping using ports in Britain and Ireland, but the Irish Government also make a direct contribution in recognition of the shortfall in revenues collected at Irish ports compared with UK ports. We are working with the Irish Government to address more fully that shortfall and are pressing for formal negotiations to commence in the new year.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, which is much the same as he gave me a year ago in his excellent maiden speech—but nothing much will change on this issue. Will he join me in congratulating the government of the Republic of Ireland on avoiding paying for 80 years the full costs of maintaining their lighthouses? Is it not about time that they paid the full cost? Perhaps the answer is to give them 12 months' notice and say, "Right, in a year's time you are on your own; you pay or the lights go out".

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I remember the occasion of my maiden speech very well for obvious reasons. At the time it was impressed on me that the problem had been going on for something like 300 years, so it is quite a relief to know that it is only 80 years. During this calendar year, there have been two meetings, on 26 April and 14 October, with officials from the Department for Transport on the issue. We are pressing the matter and Her Majesty's Ambassador in Ireland has also been pressing it with the Irish authorities. We believe that there are hopeful signs of more substantive negotiations between the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office on our side and the Irish Government on the other side beginning in the new year. I cannot congratulate the Irish Republic. We are keen to see it pay the full amount that is due.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, can the Minister say whether pressure is being brought to bear on the Irish Government through these negotiations to ensure that the lights on the Irish side are being automated at the same rate as they are on this side? Bearing in mind that there is no incentive on the Irish Government, can the negotiations be given at least a bit of an edge in that direction?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I can assure the House that we are trying to ensure right around the whole of the British Isles that there is an absolutely up-to-date and optimal security regime in place in all lighthouses. A good deal of investment is taking place in the Republic in that respect as well as off our shores. While some of those changes are relatively expensive, it is believed, with good reason, that the savings that will be made and the security that will be enhanced will make those investments very worth while.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the arrangements with France have worked profitably for many years as far as Britain and France are concerned? What chance is there of that position being replicated in relation to Ireland?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I recognise that those arrangements have worked well with France. Many of them have dealt with traffic separation of ships rather than simply the provision of lighthouses. The critical issue in relation to the Republic of Ireland and the whole of the island of Ireland is to ensure that navigational aids are part of a coherent system. It is greatly to our benefit if they are part of a coherent system.

The reason for the delay is not tardiness. I hope that that will be recognised in the House. The transfer of the functions in respect of this safety issue are to a new all-Irish body, the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, which was established under the Good Friday agreement. Some of the arrangements under the Good Friday agreement have not come forward as quickly as we had hoped for the reasons that everyone knows. That is why the formal discussion has not taken place.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, will the Minister be reassured that we on these Benches appreciate the Government's position at this important and delicate time for Ireland, both north and south? We are aware that the matter, which has been the subject of detailed negotiations, cannot finally be resolved, as the Minister has said, until devolution is restored. We look to a speedy solution thereafter.

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, because he has hit the nail on the head. That is the real position. As soon as we can make progress, which we really desire to do, we shall proceed.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, can my noble friend say why we waited until the Good Friday agreement came about to arrange this matter? Can we also send a message to the Irish Government that we want the matter settled speedily, otherwise the lights might just go out?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, there is not much fear of the lights going out—a phrase that seems to come up in all kinds of contexts in this House. I do not believe that people are about to place shipping or the lives of people on the sea at hazard. I cannot believe that that would happen. Until 1998, good progress was made in the discussions and everyone felt that they would come to a conclusion. We all know, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, kindly pointed out a moment ago, why there has been a pause. We hope that the pause will not be too long and that the problem will be resolved.

Lord MacKenzie of Culkein

My Lords, as a former serving lighthouse keeper, and for Latin scholars, I can tell the House that the motto of the Irish Lighthouse Service is In salutem omnium—for the safety of all. Does the Minister agree that, at this delicate time of trying to reinstate devolved government in Northern Ireland, it would not be right to cause difficulties with a friendly government in the Irish Republic and it certainly would not be in the interests of mariners if the lights were to go out?

Lord Triesman

My Lords, I could put the matter no better myself.