HL Deb 31 January 2005 vol 669 cc63-92

6.21 p.m.

Baroness Amos

rose to move, That this House takes note of developments in Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, there have been a number of developments in Northern Ireland in recent weeks that are of significant interest.

Although we failed to achieve a political settlement in the intensive discussions that took place following the Leeds Castle conference in September, there was a palpable sense of optimism before Christmas, based on the huge progress that had been made towards that goal. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister gave expression to that optimism when he spoke in Belfast on 8 December. Since then, that optimism has evaporated. The robbery of the Northern Bank, carried out by the Provisional IRA before Christmas, has, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, seriously damaged the political process and the prospects for the early return of devolved government.

Today's debate needs to be put in context. There has been significant progress in Northern Ireland in the past decade, particularly since the Belfast agreement. At the height of the troubles, the death toll was a staggering 470. Many thought that the situation in Northern Ireland would never improve; that the levels of violence we saw on the streets and on our television screens would never abate; and that the tensions between sections of the community were incapable of healing. We have come a long way since those dark days. The problem has not completely gone away—the four deaths last year were four too many—but the contrast is very telling.

The improvement owes much to the series of political initiatives that successive governments in Northern Ireland have taken to bring together political parties of all traditions with a view to reaching agreement on a peaceful and democratic future. Noble Lords on all Benches have played their part in these. Most significantly, the all-party negotiations—started in 1996 by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and continued by the present Government resulted, on Good Friday 1998, in the Belfast agreement: a framework for devolved government in Northern Ireland, based on a secure constitutional position that respected the views of all sections of the community.

The impact of that changed climate is not only felt in political circles but is instrumental in Northern Ireland's economic prosperity and growth. There is a positive story to tell. Although Northern Ireland has seen a decline in the traditional heavy industries of the past, the growth of hi-tech industries in the Province has more than made up for that loss. Northern Ireland has seen an increase in manufacturing output of 13 per cent, with productivity growing by 37 per cent over the same period. Unemployment has halved over the past decade, with last year seeing the numbers claiming benefit in Northern Ireland at the lowest level since 1971. Northern Ireland's popularity as a tourist destination continues to increase, with more than 2 million visitors arriving last year—25 per cent more people than live in Northern Ireland. The revenue generated from that sector. over £300 million, is an important factor in sustaining the economy, particularly in rural areas.

Although Northern Ireland still has challenges, the House will recognise how important those developments are in helping society there leave behind its troubled past. Although there have been difficulties, tensions and interruptions, there is no doubt that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement have proved their worth. Local politicians dealing with local issues is the right way forward for Northern Ireland.

Sadly, it is now nearly two and a half years since the suspension of the devolved institutions, following an earlier series of incidents, responsibility for which lay with the Provisional IRA. During that time, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, and others, have worked tirelessly with the parties in Northern Ireland to try to find a way through the impasse to allow the Assembly to be restored once more. That brings me back to the developments of recent weeks, when we have seen hope rise and plummet dramatically.

We seemed close to achieving the important goal of a restored Assembly in Northern Ireland, based on co-operation and power-sharing, in December last year. The texts published by the British and Irish Governments set out an important series of commitments and statements that it had been hoped would be made in the event of an agreement, paving the way for early restoration. They were also unambiguous in making clear, as the Government have done consistently, that if a political settlement is to be reached, all illegal activity must come to an end.

If the improvements already achieved in Northern Ireland are to be secured for the long term, it is vital that paramilitaries, and the violence and criminality associated with them. come to an end. That is important not only to build the trust necessary for democratic politics to work but also to enable all the people of Northern Ireland to go about their business freely with the protection of the rule of law.

If the paramilitaries on both sides and the political parties associated with them want to participate in Northern Ireland's future, tough decisions and unambiguous responses are needed from them. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, people must decide whether they are part of the democratic process or not. The decision is simple, and the time to take that decision is fast running out.

The immediate issue is what response the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein will make to the calls from both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to abandon all their terrorist and criminal activity. I know that noble Lords are interested in the next report from the Independent Monitoring Commission. We expect to receive an IMC report on recent paramilitary activity early next week.

The Government want to see inclusive power-sharing institutions operating in Northern Ireland, as was envisaged by the Belfast agreement; that remains our ultimate goal. But the agreement also envisaged an end to paramilitary activity. If that continues, and the paramilitaries refuse to abandon violence and criminality, the two Governments would, reluctantly, have to consider an alternative approach.

My right honourable friend has put those points in the starkest terms to the leadership of Sinn Fein. They cannot take their seats in the government of Northern Ireland if the IRA continues with its terrorist and criminal activities.

There has been major progress in Northern Ireland in recent years, and I know that we all hope to see continued economic and social progress. But we are some way from being able to predict a date for the re-establishment of an inclusive, power-sharing executive. I have made clear where, in the Government's view, the responsibility for that lies. This Government and the Irish Government are not giving up on that goal.

Before I finish. I would like to take this opportunity to mention a forthcoming development to protect the integrity of the Northern Ireland electoral system. The Government will shortly introduce the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill which will have the purpose of retrospectively reinstating those eligible individuals resident in Northern Ireland who were on the electoral register last September but did not re-register during the annual canvass last autumn. The Bill will also reinstate the carry-forward, on a temporary basis, to take effect following the annual canvass this autumn. This will have the effect of keeping those individuals who are currently registered, but who do not re-register this autumn, on the register for a further 12 months.

It is essential that the register is both accurate and comprehensive. The Bill will address this problem on a temporary basis until we have finalised and implemented a new electoral registration process for Northern Ireland.

I end by restating the Government's commitment to restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. There have been meetings involving my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and parties in Northern Ireland to review the position. The Taoiseach and Irish Ministers have been conducting their own meetings and the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will meet tomorrow.

I do not hold out the prospect of early progress, but I want to assure the House that we shall continue to work in close partnership with the Irish Government to ensure a stable, peaceful and exclusively democratic future for Northern Ireland.

Moved, That this House takes note of developments in Northern Ireland.—(Baroness Amos.)

6.31 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, perhaps I may first address the comments of the Lord President about the forthcoming electoral Bill. We on this side of the House understand that this Bill is forthcoming, but we obviously cannot make any decisions or agreements about it until my honourable friend David Lidington, the shadow Secretary of State, and others have had a chance to study it and to be briefed on it. So I acknowledge that the Bill is on its way, but the Government should not make any assumptions about Her Majesty's Opposition's views on it.

This debate comes against a backdrop of almost complete political paralysis in Northern Ireland, as just outlined by the noble Baroness, and. I am afraid, against a backdrop of seriously disquieting reports in both the London press yesterday and the News Letter in Belfast today concerning the probability or likelihood of the IRA going back to war.

We are approaching the seventh anniversary of the Belfast agreement. There is no devolved government at Stormont. The people of Northern Ireland are governed, as they have been for virtually all of the period since 1972, by direct rule from Westminster. In the seven years since the agreement, devolved government has operated for only some 27 months. There have been four suspensions, the latest in October 2002—more than two years ago.

In that time, of course, the political landscape has shifted, brought about in some part by the polarisation of the electorate in the November 2003 Assembly elections towards the two extreme parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein. This was entirely predictable and was caused in large measure by the constant interference in the negotiation process by Downing Street and the Irish Government, linked to their refusal to believe that terrorists are criminals and that leopards never change their spots. It resulted in the upstaging of David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party and the moderate nationalist party, the SDLP. The strong middle ground is now very much weakened.

Before Christmas, the Prime Minister told us that we were "tantalisingly close" to reaching a comprehensive agreement between the two extremist parties that would have seen devolved government restored. Few of us believed him, but many of us hoped for the impossible dream: Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams shaking hands and sharing power in Northern Ireland with the IRA gone away.

Regrettably, it was not to be. First, the IRA refused to allow any visual evidence of arms decommissioning—a happening which is absolutely vital if confidence is to be restored across the community in Northern Ireland and the electorate is to believe that arms have indeed been put beyond use and the IRA taken out of the political equation. Then, the £26.5 million bank heist, as it is known, took place in Belfast. As the Chief Constable, the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and many others have made absolutely clear, that was the work of the Provisional IRA.

The only people who deny it are members of the republican movement—Sinn Fein and the IRA. Indeed, I was invited by Sinn Fein to meet and listen to Mr Adams and Mr McGuiness in Committee Room 13 last Thursday. I have to say that, in the face of those lined up against them, their denials have more than a hollow ring. I only hope that, by now, reality and common sense have arrived in 10 Downing Street.

The draft IRA statement which appeared in the outline agreement in December was widely welcomed as an important step forward. It referred to the organisation moving into a "new mode". At the time, my honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State was, I think, the only person who asked whether this, and the promises not to engage in any activity that might endanger any new agreement, included an end to organised crime.

The IRA gave us its answer to that question on 20 December in the vaults of the Northern Bank. As Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, rightly pointed out, senior Sinn Fein figures must have known about this operation while they were involved in a negotiation that would have seen them take up ministerial posts in the Government of Northern Ireland.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, once again, we have all been taken for one gigantic ride by Sinn Fein/IRA. Where do we go from here, now that the task has been made infinitely more difficult? In this context, I am critical of the way in which the Government have responded to the heist. I appreciate that the Prime Minister made some tough-sounding statements when he met Sinn Fein last week. The problem is that he has made similar statements before and then nothing happens. Far too often, Mr Blair is all talk. By meeting Sinn Fein at Chequers, he sent out the wrong signal. Sinn Fein will see this as business as usual.

There can be no question in the foreseeable future of Sinn Fein taking up posts in the Northern Ireland Government. More than ever, it has to demonstrate in words and deeds that it has severed all links with paramilitary and other forms of criminality. I was pleased to hear similar words from the Lord President.

As my party has stated on many occasions, the same principles that the Taoiseach applies in Dublin must apply also in Belfast. Sinn Fein must complete the transition from terror to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. By all means, we should let the Secretary of State and his Ministers meet Sinn Fein on the basis of their electoral mandate, but until Sinn Fein clearly demonstrates that it is breaking its links with crime, that should be as far as it goes. Continued high-profile access to the Prime Minister for a party which remains inextricably linked with armed criminals is not only wrong but insulting to those other parties, including democratic nationalists, that are committed to pursuing their objectives by exclusively peaceful means.

At the same time, I am not alone in finding it reprehensible that the Prime Minister's chief of staff should be personally negotiating a reported £70 million "retraining" package for members of the UDA—a kind of "New Deal for the UDA". It is not surprising that many people in Northern Ireland think that Her Majesty's Government will buy peace at any price.

Our preferred option remains an inclusive settlement based on the Belfast agreement, but, at the moment, that simply does not look to be a runner. It was the Prime Minister who said before the Leeds Castle talks in September that if there was no agreement, we would have to look at other possible ways forward. There is no agreement, and the Government must begin to consider alternative ways forward.

If Northern Ireland is to be governed under direct rule, direct rule Ministers must be made more accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. There are a number of ways in which that could be done. There is the idea of a consultative Assembly. which would scrutinise the work of the NIO Ministers and the Northern Ireland departments. There is the corporate Assembly model suggested by the DUP. There are proposals by the SDLP for the British and Irish Governments to appoint heads of the Northern Ireland departments. Some have also suggested that the democratic parties move ahead without Sinn Fein and form a voluntary coalition at Stormont. Some of those ideas are obviously more practicable and worthy of more serious scrutiny than others.

I am increasingly attracted to the local government option where power-sharing between the parties has been an established fact for 20 years. I would urge the Government to press ahead with the reform of public administration, so that whatever emerges at Stormont—on a regional level—the people of Northern Ireland can exercise a greater degree of control over their own affairs at a local level.

Northern Ireland has too many local authorities with too few powers. We should be looking for fewer councils with greater powers. That would not preclude—nor is it intended to preclude—a return to full-scale devolution at Stormont, but it would introduce at least some much needed accountability in how services are delivered under direct rule.

Most people do not believe that there will be any progress before the general election which is expected in May. After that election, I naturally hope that another government will be in charge of Northern Ireland. Whoever is elected should not allow the intransigence of one party to have a veto on moving the political processes forward.

By all means let us pursue an inclusive and comprehensive agreement, but that will only occur when all parties accept the same democratic standards. Until then, local government might prove to be what the late Ian Gow used to describe as, the least dangerous and most hopeful way forward".—[Official Report. Commons, 5/4/90; col. 1334.]

6.42 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, this is a very timely debate for two reasons: first, the House does not have enough opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland in general; and, secondly—which will be my focus as it was basically for the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran—the disruption to the restoration of a devolved Assembly and power-sharing executive that resulted from the £26 million robbery from the Northern Bank.

In the Chief Constable's judgment, as has been said, the Provisional IRA was responsible for that heist. Given the inextricable link between the IRA and Sinn Fein, both the local political parties in Northern Ireland and the two Governments in Dublin and Westminster have concluded that further progress on devolution is not possible until Sinn Fein and the IRA cease from all legal activities.

As other noble Lords have said, until punishment beatings, intimidation, extortion and robberies cease, and until there is a full decommissioning of IRA arms and an unequivocal commitment to employ only democratic means by Sinn Fein, the process is at a standstill.

The fact that the Irish Government fully endorse the Chief Constable's judgment adds immensely to their credibility. Furthermore, the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland—be they republican, nationalist, Unionist, Alliance or of no party persuasion—overwhelmingly believe that the IRA carried out that outrageous theft.

The political parties, however, disagree on what should now happen. Predictably, both Unionist parties want to see the Executive restored, but with Sinn Fein excluded. That also seems to be the official policy of the Conservative Party. Indeed, Mr Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, is reported to have threatened exclusion when he met Mr Adams at Chequers last Friday. In my view, that is a very unlikely prospect because it is not practical politics.

For a start, although the SDLP is near-apoplectic about the latest antics of the IRA, it is politically impossible for it to go along with the exclusion of Sinn Fein from a reconstituted executive. The same applies to the Dublin Government. While the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern, has lambasted Sinn Fein in terms far stronger than anyone else and has made his exasperation very clear, he, too, at this point, could not agree to any exclusion of Sinn Fein from a newly formed executive. The situation would have to worsen very much more than it has for that to be an option. If things did deteriorate any further, it would be a purely academic argument. There would be absolutely no possibility of the devolved institutions being restored.

In some ways, the present impasse suits the DUP. Even before the bank robbery, it seemed to be playing for time and agreeing to nothing until after the UK general election. It hoped to consolidate its position at the expense of the UUP. Similarly, Sinn Fein aspired to make further gains at the expense of the SDLP. Both outcomes, it has to be said, remain likely possibilities. Thus, the Westminster election will be a rerun of the November 2003 Assembly election—only more so. The polarisation of Northern Ireland politics will be even greater. That is not an outcome that I particularly desire, but it is the most likely and we must face the reality of the situation.

While the robbery was the precipitating cause of the present impasse, the prospects for the resumption of talks were not looking good before the bank raid. As I remarked in the House just before Christmas, Mañana politics were in full swing and, accordingly, political progress was painfully slow. It is unlikely that Mr Ian Paisley would have agreed to work with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing executive in the coming months, even if, as he demanded, satisfactory photographic evidence of arms decommissioning had been forthcoming. On past form, he would have found other reasons for further delay. I am trying to say that while the prevailing situation is worse than before the bank raid, it is so only in degree. Its fundamental character has not changed.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said that the question before us now is: what can practically be done? Plan A has been stopped in its tracks. The two Governments have repeatedly stated that there is no plan B. All that we have therefore is a stalled plan A. If plan A is to have any prospect of being revived at a later stage, it has to be parked for a year.

A 12-month interim plan has to be substituted and accepted by all the political parties, which, of course, will not be easy. But some initiative of that kind is vital to maintain momentum and safeguard the prospect of fully implementing the Belfast agreement in the not too distant future.

The proposition of an interim plan, as I have outlined, revolves around the Assembly being reconvened as soon as possible—say, immediately after the UK general election in May at the latest. It will elect a presiding officer and its primary task should be to act as a pre-legislative scrutiny body for all Northern Ireland legislation, which is considerable while direct rule obtains.

Such work would be of great value in two respects. First, it would assist this House and another place by indicating what the elected representatives thought about new policy proposals and it would assist in holding Westminster Ministers more fully to account. There would also be an authentic and representative Northern Irish voice added to our deliberations, which is so obviously lacking now.

Secondly, 12 months of exercising that important scrutiny function would constitute a major confidence-building measure. It would demonstrate that the parties could work together at least at that level. It would also provide a reasonable period during which Sinn Fein would have a further opportunity to demonstrate its full acceptance of the principles of liberal democracy and its total commitment to the decommissioning of the IRA's weapons stocks.

The political parties should be told in no uncertain manner that unless they agree to such an interim plan or something like it, the pay and allowances of MLAs will stop within the next three months. Without an interim plan, the political prospects for Northern Ireland are very bleak indeed. Paying £500,000 a month to keep Stormont and its habitués in limbo cannot continue. A proactive step of the kind that I have outlined is a necessary prerequisite if plan A is ever to have a remote chance of being revived. I would ask the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council to respond to the suggestion of an interim plan. If the Government disagree, what new initiatives will they take to get the show back on the road? Repeating what we have attempted before is all very well, but time is so critical that we must have a new set of initiatives to get things back into reasonable shape.

At the outset I predicted that the suspension of the Assembly would be a very long one, and so it has proved. New elections to it were postponed for far too long and I urged for them to be called in June 2003 at the latest. After they were eventually held in the following November, I warned that if agreement could not be reached to restore the devolved institutions within the year, the likelihood of devolution would be postponed for another generation. We are perilously close to that eventuality. If the process cannot be resuscitated, direct rule will continue, but not in the form of the status quo ante of the Belfast agreement. As I have said before, it will take the form of a de facto London/Dublin condominium, pace the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. That is not what Members on these Benches wish to see. We would much prefer Northern Ireland to develop into a fully mature and devolved liberal democracy. But a condominium will be the likely result unless a new initiative is taken now along the lines that I have suggested.

Finally, I turn to the question raised by the Lord President of the Council on updating and improving the electoral register. We will have to look at this very closely indeed when the Bill comes before us. The reasons will have to be extremely cogent and safeguards to ensure against personation will have to be watertight.

6.51 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I listened carefully to what was said by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. Once again I have heard the repeated mantra: there can be no place for a political party in Northern Ireland which has the support of a paramilitary organisation, and therefore it cannot have any say in the governance of Northern Ireland. I first heard those words in 1970 when the first British soldier was killed not far from where I live. That marked the onset of the present campaign by the IRA.

I have heard it said since by a number of Prime Ministers at the Dispatch Box: Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan, John Major and the current Prime Minister. All used almost exactly the same words: "We cannot tolerate a situation where Sinn Fein, which is inextricably linked to the IRA, can have either a place or a say in the governance of Northern Ireland".

All I can do is ask the question that I have put so many times in both Houses: when will the Government see that they have come to the end of the road—that there are no further concessions to be made? The robbery of the Northern Bank was so appalling, in particular the ill treatment of two employees, that one would have thought that that would be the end of the road. The Government would now say. "We can no longer have any political dealings with you". When speaking this afternoon, the noble Baroness did not, as we say in Northern Ireland, put her tooth in it when she said that the bank robbery was carried out by the IRA. I suppose that she has some evidence for saying so, as has Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach in the Republic. I believe that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has evidence for saying so.

I shall not say what John Hume and some other compatriots are saying—"Let us see that evidence". Perhaps at some point in the future there will be evidence. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, when I say that I found it very distasteful and repugnant when the first thing we read in the press after the bank robbery was that Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, had been taken to Chequers for an hour-long discussion with the Prime Minister. It does not take the Prime Minister an hour to say to the leader of Sinn Fein, "If you carry on your association with the IRA and all its extremities, we cannot have any further dealings with you".

Rumours are circulating in Northern Ireland that there is a split in the Provisional IRA. Does the noble Baroness have any indication of that, or of how deep it is? Some are saying that Martin McGuinness knew that the bank robbery was going to take place, but did not tell Gerry Adams because he would not have supported it. I do not believe any of it. I believe that the IRA is the IRA and I believe that Continuity IRA and Real IRA are all of the same ilk. They were all generated by the Provisional IRA, which has carried out such murder and mayhem in Northern Ireland.

Now we are in a position where I keep asking the question, not only in this House, but also in my conscience in the dead of night: when will the Prime Minister be driven to the conclusion that he cannot reach an accommodation with the IRA as it is presently constituted? The IRA feels that if it keeps going the way it is, it will gain seats in the Republic at the next election. It will become part of the government of the Republic of Ireland. I hesitate to say this, but a month after the bank robbery there are people in Northern Ireland who have forgotten all about it. If you talk about it, they say, "Ah, but that was a month ago". The people of Northern Ireland are prepared to accept anything that will stop the gunmen roaming our streets.

I may again disagree with some of my noble friends when I say that there is no great clamour for a return to devolved government in Stormont. I hesitate to say that because people might point the finger at me. But I go there every week and talk to many people. One fellow has repeatedly told me, "As long as I get my giro every Friday, I don't care if there is never a return to Stormont". But for the elected politicians—the extremists in the DUP and the extremists in Sinn Fein, and the beleaguered ones in the official Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP—Stormont is all they have to live on. Naturally they will demand that Northern Ireland be given back devolution in which there is a role for them to play. I believe that the recent bank robbery was a kick in the teeth to both Prime Ministers, the Taoiseach and Tony Blair. The IRA had been promising that it would give up criminality and that it was prepared to go along with the wishes of Irish people both north and south of the border who voted with their feet in support of the 1998 Good Friday agreement. All those people are now being told. "Even though you voted for that, times have changed".

I heard my noble friend say this afternoon something that I have heard many times before: "Things are not as bad as they used to be. There is peace, but it is an imperfect peace. You should be grateful for small mercies". An awful lot of people in Northern Ireland are not grateful for small mercies. They want to see a total end to the criminality of the IRA. I have said before in debates in this House that people do not see the significance of that on estates like Ballymurphy or in Crossmaglen.

After the bank raid, the RUC had what it thought was information and went into the republican quarter of Ballymurphy to carry out a search. Within five minutes, the IRA was able to mobilise a crowd and to persuade it to have a war with the RUC men and their vehicles. The IRA can switch on a crowd which supports its activities but it cannot switch it off so easily. However, it still maintains the reach and ability to switch a crowd on and off when it appears that the forces of law and order are about to apprehend its members.

Do the Minister and Tony Blair have any idea when it will be possible for the forces of law and order—namely, the police—to go into the kind of estates I have described which are under the complete domination of the IRA? Far from having gone away, the IRA is still there and in total and absolute control of such areas. Its members are carrying out criminal activities if and when it suits them to do so.

As I said, I have heard a succession of Prime Ministers speak about what the IRA will have to do. I refer to paragraph 13 of the joint declaration from Hillsborough. When the Prime Minister spoke at the Customs House in Belfast, he said that paragraph 13 should be implemented in all its aspects and that criminality must be given up for good before there could be any hope of Sinn Fein—the inextricably linked political wing of the IRA—being given a part of any prominence in the Northern Ireland government.

I deeply regret having to say that, at the moment, I do not see any circumstances emerging where Sinn Fein and the IRA will give up their use of weapons and criminality until they have achieved what they want to achieve politically—and that is further influence, not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic as well.

7.2 p.m.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I want to say something about what the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has said but, before I do so, I want to say something a little more optimistic.

On the Friday before last I was in Cookstown. I had been asked to open an integrated primary school called Phoenix. It was a wonderful occasion. There had been an advertisement in the local papers and some parents had got together. I talked to them—they were mainly women—and they said that they had expected some doctors and lawyers to be present to help to get the thing going but they did not show up. So we had to do it ourselves. They had set up this small school—such schools, of course, start from small beginnings—and both communities were there. Members of the Catholic Church, priests and clergymen of various faiths were all there. This represented to me the optimistic side of Northern Ireland; the side where people were coming together because they wanted the best for the next generation and for that generation to live in harmony with each other.

I cannot accept what the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said about being at the end of the road. That is too pessimistic a view when you consider the spirit of the people of Northern Ireland and the fact that the vast majority of them believe that life is better. Of course they detest the criminality that is seen there, but their quality of life is immeasurably better than it was. Although one death is too many, the number of people killed has fallen way below the numbers of earlier years. The PSNI has not used any baton rounds for two-and-a-half years; the marching season was less tense last year at Drumcree than in previous years. Maybe it will not last, but fundamentally progress has been made. It would be a tragedy if we were to throw it away and say "There is nothing to be done. We simply cannot continue".

That is why I believe most emphatically that the Prime Minister was absolutely right to meet Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. It would be awful if the British Government said "We are not going to talk to you again. There is no hope. We are not going to talk any more". That would be a sign of total failure and abdication and it would be letting down the many people of Northern Ireland who expect and hope for better things.

I was as disappointed as anyone when I heard the news of the Northern Bank robbery. It was a blow to the process in which many of us have believed totally for a number of years. It has set back the cause of a proper, peaceful future for Northern Ireland not, I hope, for too long but for some time to come.

We are looking for ways forward. I believe, for example, that the PSNI, with its mixed recruitment, has done very well. I have on two occasions been to Garnerville, the police training centre, and met some of the new recruits. They have impressed me by their ability, their intelligence, their understanding of the context in which they will operate and the way in which they are investing their futures in a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. A lot of good things have happened and it would be a retrograde step if we were to give up.

The co-operation between the British and Irish Governments is as sound as it ever was. That surely is a basis for saying "Yes, we have got to move forward". I am sure that the Prime Minister said exactly what he believed when he met the members of Sinn Fein. I am sure that they are under no illusions as I believe they heard the same message from the Taoiseach a week or so earlier. So it is up to them to respond and to indicate that they will bring criminality to an end because they are as opposed to it as anyone else in Northern Ireland and as we are in this House.

I have considered with interest the various suggestions for the way forward. I am not clear that a local government solution of the kind proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is the way forward. I do not quite see how it would work. I believe that some of the nationalist parties would not be happy about it. I shall have to discuss it with him in more detail to have a better understanding of what he means.

I have discussed with the SDLP and heard with interest its suggestion that the Assembly should be restored but that instead of Ministers there should be civic administrators. Again, I am not sure whether other parties will accept that. But no doubt my right honourable friend Paul Murphy will be discussing that and other suggestions with the various parties.

I welcome what my noble friend said about forthcoming legislation in regard to the electoral registers. Many people have been concerned that a number of voters have disappeared off registers. If we are to have a political process of integrity, it must be based on all people entitled to vote being able to vote, on having the right to vote and not somehow being missed off the registers. Without wishing to widen the debate too much, I have heard some of my friends in the SDLP say that they are very worried about the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections in Northern Ireland because they reflect such a polarising of society that the result will not be helpful to the peace process. It is rather late in the day to suggest that we should have a different system of elections for the Westminster Parliament in Northern Ireland only, particularly as that would open the door to people who want different systems here. I do not believe the Government would welcome that, nor would I expect them to. I simply make the point that the result of the parliamentary election in Northern Ireland, if it is to be this year, will not reflect fairly the voting inclinations because, on a winner-takes-all system, some of the parties will be seriously disadvantaged in the situation that exists there.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said that there was no wish in Northern Ireland for a return to Stormont. I do not believe that is the case. The situation may be influenced by the fact that things are not going too badly now and so they have nothing to lose, but I simply do not believe that that is the case. As democrats we surely have to say that it is right that politicians elected locally in Northern Ireland, and accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, should be responsible for making decisions that affect the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. That proposition cannot be gainsaid, and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, would not wish to go so far as to say that there should never be a return to Stormont.

It is a difficult time, particularly for the Government, but I have confidence that my right honourable friend Paul Murphy will do the best he can to see Northern Ireland and the whole of the country through what will be a very difficult period. I remain hopeful that the Good Friday agreement still represents the right way forward, and I remain hopeful that, in the fullness of time, that is where Northern Ireland will find its peaceful future.

7.10 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, the IRA, as Gerry Adams once famously said, has not gone away. It is, however, deeply reassuring that both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have publicly attributed the Northern Bank robbery to Sinn Fein/IRA. Unfortunately, this means that Sinn Fein will have an immense war chest when it comes to an election and, indeed, the money to buy influence to protect the paramilitaries. Meanwhile, it is not unlikely that Sinn Fein/IRA will continue to misjudge the real commitment of both governments to the Belfast agreement and to disregard the law in their dealings with their communities by continuing to flout that law and, at the same time, to deny that Sinn Fein has anything to do with the decisions of the Provisional IRA.

The IRA has never wavered from its view of itself as a noble instrument of violence. It continues to recruit and train new levies, and continues to use its bully boys to control the nationalist community through violence and intimidation and to fund the IRA through a wide range of criminal activities including smuggling petrol, tobacco, DVDs—you name it. I hope very much that the Government will give yet more support to the two new entities which have begun to identify and attack—and, I hope, will eventually destroy—the power of the paramilitaries.

The big change in the past year has been the establishment of the admirable Independent Monitoring Commission and the equally excellent Organised Crime Task Force, soon to be joined by the Assets Recovery Agency.

The latest report of the monitoring commission makes the vital point that there must, in all future dealings with paramilitaries, be an end to deference. Any semblance of legitimacy must be denied to them. They have no right to be treated as a kind of surrogate police. Public sector organisations must stop directing people at risk to the paramilitaries to solve social problems because of their power in the community. I believe that the Government are still far too concerned to bring Sinn Fein/IRA into the police force in the PSNI in the hope that they will then begin to allow the police to operate normally within the community. Mr Adams confirmed in my presence as recently as last week that he did not, and would never, recognise British justice, which he described as an oxymoron.

If Sinn Fein/IRA were to join the police force, where nationalists are surely already adequately represented by the SDLP, does anyone think that any part of the Special Branch would survive to provide the professional access needed, with that of the Garda, to identify the purely criminal activities of the PIRA paramilitaries? It is relevant that the Northern Ireland conference report says that, incidentally, 73 per cent of Protestants and 62 per cent of Catholics feel confident about the fairness of the criminal justice system. Some 84 per cent of Protestants and 71 per cent of Catholics believe that the courts treat equally Catholics and Protestants accused of committing non-terrorist offences.

The most important policy decision the Government can take—and I hope that they have taken it—is first to withdraw from the paramilitaries their mystic halo of resistance, and treat them as the common criminals they are. They can no longer claim to exist to protect their people against the security forces. Next the Government need to make it clear to all that the law can be, as the Independent Monitoring Commission says, legitimately enforced only by duly appointed and accountable law enforcement officers or institutions". I add here my equally strong condemnation of the idea put out recently by the Progressive Unionist Party that punishment beatings of suspected criminals and anti-social elements are demanded by the working classes in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that that is true, and it certainly should not be put forward as a policy.

It is curious that in a recent NIO paper, however, Perceptions of and concern about crime in Northern Ireland, the threat to members of the community, whether from exile or so-called punishment beatings by the paramilitaries, is simply not mentioned. The crime rate statistics—car theft, racial violence, and so on—are compared with the relevant statistics in the rest of the UK, where there is no paramilitary control of crime. But the whole problem and tragedy in Northern Ireland is that crime has become the virtually exclusive business of the paramilitaries—like the Mafia.

I hope that HMG will rule out as they seem to be doing, any question of considering devolution—I would have said elections as well, but I suppose they cannot do anything about that—until the power of the paramilitaries as a criminal organisation has been severely curtailed. The country needs to know that organised crime by the paramilitaries is a major threat to the economic as well as the social well-being of Northern Ireland, where 140 out of 230 organised criminal gangs have paramilitary links. Thus, a high proportion of the most serious criminals—more than 40 per cent—are, to quote the commission, associated with terrorism, with an organisational structure and discipline, and the experience of planning, learning and conducting sophisticated clandestine operations, methods of handling money"— bogus charities are among those methods— and with traditions of extreme violence". If we tackle that, we shall get somewhere with the eventual political need, and end up with something with which everyone can agree.

Exiling continues, and the latest form of punishment beating is to tie the victim's hands together and shoot him or her through the hands. But the most insidious threat to any hope of ending the paramilitary grip on society is the continuing atmosphere of threat and intimidation in almost every aspect of life. Nobody dares talk to the press; the press do not talk—nobody talks. Little shopkeepers suffer with the rest. Those who are thought likely to speak out are routinely threatened with death or reprisals against family members or businesses.

Large groups of thugs convey this message. They routinely terrorise the population simply to protect their criminal activities and secure what the Jamaican Yardies would call respect. Now the IRA itself, smarting under the setback it has encountered, thanks to the firm response of both governments, is almost certainly going to set up a campaign of threats. I am not sure that it will be more than that, but it could be. It is more than ever important to be seen to treat their bullies on the streets as the criminals they are, rather than as brave members of an entirely bogus resistance.

I believe that no time should be lost in recognising two things. First, Sinn Fein/IRA's activities have created a serious threat to the economy, as well as to society. The Treasury must surely have a view on this—it is usually pretty hot on that sort of thing. Secondly, there is a very real danger that the restorative justice groups, valuable as they are to some, risk, to quote the monitoring report, allowing paramilitary groups to exercise influence under a more benign label than in the past. These groups may well be able to end the role paramilitaries play in the local communities, and I hope they will, but again, they must never be a cover for the exercise of paramilitary influence, and they must be a means for freeing people from the paramilitaries, not preserving them. Tolerance is a fine thing, but not if it can be manipulated, and it has been.

The two governments have been clear-sighted and realistic so far. That, in itself, is likely to encourage the people of Northern Ireland. The governments must not, however, back down and accept yet more meaningless formulae when there is a very simple sine qua non. No more violence, no more intimidation, no more crime, no more corrupt manipulation of the election process, using a combination of intimidation and ill-gotten gains.

Let us give the Organised Crime Task Force time and support. If their targets are purely criminal, no one can object. If those targets have a political agenda, then their political masters are not fit to participate in government and must not be allowed to do so.

It may be said, finally, that an angry and humiliated IRA may threaten to return to violence against the organs of the state rather than against the community. HMG may come to regret their intentions to withdraw troops from Northern Ireland who may yet be needed to support the police. If the IRA does turn to action, we shall see Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness complaining that HMG have made it impossible for them to exercise their benign influence or supporting the IRA. They are, as we all know, part of that body. I also agree warmly with the fact that all the sub-IRAs would not exist were it not for the Provisional IRA finding that useful. In that case, what is the value of Sinn Fein/IRA to the peace process? Let us concentrate on destroying the paramilitaries' power base, not for their politics, but as criminals. I believe that we shall have the Dublin Government with us. Let us forget the whole decommissioning process for the moment unless ordnance officers from the US and Canadian armies, as provided in the original Act, are present to verify and certify the destruction of the arms. If we do not have that expert coverage, we may as well not go through that process again.

7.20 p.m.

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, the previous debate we had on Northern Ireland was held in April last year. Sadly we appear to be no closer to a solution to the restoration of the Assembly than we were then. My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton has already reminded us that when he spoke in that debate, he accurately predicted: Were there not to be a restoration, the pattern of Northern Ireland government would be that which now obtains". He added: the price to be paid will be a much less direct, less publicly accountable system and little effective input from the citizens of Northern Ireland on how they are governed or, more accurately, administered".—[Official Report, 28/4/04: col. 846.] My noble friend then proposed a solution to that impasse, which he has reiterated today, and with which I wholeheartedly agree. Unless something dramatic is done soon, we shall remain hanging in this suspended state indefinitely. That will be catastrophic for the people of Northern Ireland who are looking to the politicians to come up with some sort of solution, and we could do no better than get Northern Ireland politicians engaged as quickly as possible in some of the scrutiny to which we are put and on matters about which they are so much more knowledgeable.

My interest, as always, is very much in the policing of Northern Ireland. I declare my former chairmanship of a—albeit English—police authority for a number of years. I believe that this is one of the key areas in creating a more peaceful and law abiding society for its citizens.

Obviously the recent Northern bank robbery and the statement by the Chief Constable have resulted in another crisis in the peace process. My colleagues have raised concerns about how far Northern Ireland still is from a normal, democratic society where the police service of the state is recognised on every street and by everyone as legitimate. Apart from the damage to the peace process, the robbery has served to highlight some fundamental problems that still exist in Northern Ireland.

I sincerely hope that the PSNI is successful in catching those responsible for the robbery. I know that both the British and Irish Governments, and the Chief Constable, are determined to do so. We cannot underestimate the enormity of the task facing the police. To secure a criminal conviction the police need either high-quality forensic evidence that is sufficient to assure them that the suspects actually committed the crime, or witnesses who are willing to testify. The latter may be the more difficult to find. The grim reality is that many parts of Northern Ireland are still controlled by the paramilitaries—notably the IRA, as we have heard. They have ways of making people remain silent.

We have made huge strides in reforming the police in Northern Ireland, and I know that officers are working extremely hard to gain the trust of all sections of the community. But miracles cannot be achieved overnight. We must ask whether there is anything more that we can do to help the process.

As I said, we know that great progress has been made in many areas. Most categories of recorded crime are down—dramatically so in some areas. But there is also the never-ending fear of what I call low-level criminality. Of course, it is not a low level to those who are its victims. To them it is still horrendous and perpetrated by thugs and criminals who aim to hold society in thrall to their own brutish and perhaps political ends.

The level of this criminality can be so high that one wonders what the word "ceasefire" means. It will be interesting to hear what the Leader of the House thinks it means following the Northern Bank robbery. In their excellent book, An Alphabetical Listing of Word, Name and Place in Northern Ireland and the Living Language of Conflict, Seamus Dunn and Helen Dawson define "ceasefire" as a cessation of violence or a truce—not bombing police stations, not shooting at the military, not perpetrating atrocities in England. Perhaps that is the definition that most paramilitaries recognise. Their continued use of violence creates just as much fear and causes just as much anxiety as it ever did before both sides of the conflict decided to use the word "ceasefire" so casually.

The Government have never categorically stated what constitutes a ceasefire, or indeed a breach of it. The closest we have is paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration, but we know that that has not been applied as rigorously by the Government as it might have been.

Being engaged in the totality of politics in Northern Ireland—which means taking a place in all its political institutions, and most definitely includes the Policing Board, district policing partnerships, community safety partnerships and so on—is one of the most important steps to ensuring a secure and settled future for its people. There are many excellent examples of how those partnerships and institutions are fulfilling their obligations and cracking down on crime. They deserve our support and encouragement. For example, the Northern Ireland Organised Crime Task Force has identified 230 Northern Ireland-based organised crime gangs. It states that the majority of the top-level groups that are known to them are either associated with or controlled by loyalist or republican paramilitaries. It has had some notable hits from the seizure of illegal fuel to tackling drug trafficking on a massive scale. The PSNI, too, has been active in all areas of Northern Ireland, leading house raids that have resulted in a number of people being arrested for crimes such as possessing illegal and imitation firearms, detecting offences of money laundering and the seizure of large quantities of drugs, smuggled cigarettes and the counterfeiting of CDs, DVDs, clothing and such like. As I said, its current work gathering evidence on the perpetrators of the Northern bank raid will be absolutely crucial to the future of the peace process. It is also crucial that arrests are made quickly.

The Oversight Commissioner, Al Hutchinson, in his report number 12, dated December 2004, was warm in his praise of the efforts being made. In the introduction he states: The degree of change already accomplished over a relatively short period, from the Autumn of 2001 to the Autumn of 2004, is both remarkable and unparalleled in the history of democratic policing reform. It must be remembered that over this difficult and challenging period, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was still required to provide an effective policing service and had to ensure community safety against a backdrop of security, crime and other concerns". He added: Credit is also due to the many young people of Northern Ireland, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who continue to demonstrate their ability to move toward peace and stability by applying to join the Police Service, with over 38,000 applications having been received by the Police Service since 2001". There are, however, some areas of concern in his report—notably the need to refresh policing with the community, which was felt to have lost some of its initiative, and the fact that not everyone is committed to supporting the police and police institutions. There is concern about the experience of officers, many of whom are relatively new in post. But there are positive signs, too, that community policing training is having beneficial results and will regain its momentum to ensure that communities are policed appropriately.

One of the areas that vexed me when I had some responsibility for it was seeing how far devolved budgets to DCU commanders would filter down and how many initiatives would be allowed locally. It seems that the same applies in Northern Ireland. I hope that commanders will be given the freedom to operate their areas within the overall policing plan to the extent that the Oversight Commissioner wishes to see.

I turn now to domestic violence and hate crime. We find that domestic violence accounts for one third of all violent reported crime and averages 40 reported incidents a day—a horrific number. Some progress is being made by the police in a number of initiatives, one of which is printing and distributing beer mats to licensed premises where such incidents are prevalent, giving potential victims contact numbers to enable them to report the crime. I understand that a number of areas are undertaking this project and we shall watch the results with interest to see whether incidents are indeed decreasing.

On hate crime, the police have launched a poster campaign to raise awareness of this particularly depressing crime. Provisional figures show that around 530 incidents were reported between April and December last year—up 184 from the same period in the previous year. In that total there were 444 racial incidents and 73 homophobic incidents, both categories being up substantially on the previous year.

Can the Leader of the House tell us whether she feels that the police have sufficient resources to undertake sufficient training to fulfil those difficult and specialist roles while at the same time trying to combat the sophisticated and menacing threat of the organised crime gangs? These issues will not go away until there is some form of normality in the political processes in Northern Ireland. I would suggest that this means much better representation of women on the wider political scene. It is extraordinary that while they have some representation on police hoards and the like, they have little in the wider considerations of Northern Ireland politics. Sadly, this appears to run across all political parties and needs to be remedied.

I can do no better than end my remarks by making one last quotation—and this from my noble friend Lord Alderdice, again speaking in the previous debate we had on Northern Ireland matters: We must ensure that the boundaries of proper acceptable behaviour are the price of peace. We must be clear about that. It is not possible to have peace, stability and reconciliation unless everyone abides by the same reasonable and proper rules".—[Official Report, 28/4/04; cols. 827–828.] It really is time to make some decisions—and quickly.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Laird

My Lords, I am, of course, grateful for the opportunity to speak tonight on the issue of the Government's plans to address the impasse in Northern Ireland's political process. I do, however, feel that this is perhaps an untimely debate since the Government's reaction to the Northern Bank heist has indicated that their plan in Northern Ireland is to carry on regardless. In other words, there is no concrete plan to deal with those who have been blamed for creating this deadlock by this British Government, their security services, their counterparts in the Irish Republic, and the Irish Government themselves.

I would like to know of the noble Baroness the Lord President if she would comment on reports in the Sunday Independent of yesterday that the Republic's Government had been briefed that the IRA was preparing for a return to war. It had agreed to re-arm, recruit, retrain and seek targets at a meeting during the time when Messrs Adams and McGuinness were discussing political progress with both Prime Ministers last November and December. Will she indicate if the same briefing was available to Her Majesty's Government?

In an ideal world, the electorate would punish non-constitutional or non-democratic parties for failing to deliver on their manifesto commitments. They would punish them for failing to uphold the offices of state to which they had aspired on the basis of a pledge to engage fully in democratic politics. Sadly. Northern Ireland is not an ideal world. So, in the absence of a democratic party system where political elites engage on the basis of the principles of democracy and accountability that are the norm in the rest of the UK, the gauntlet falls to the Government to uphold those standards. It falls to the Government to punish parties whose democratic credentials are not worth the paper they are written on, in order to protect the democratic rights of the people of Northern Ireland, as they would in any other part of the United Kingdom.

What this means is that if the two governments find that having led the horse to water, spoon fed it with sugar lumps along the way, rested, pampered and addressed its every whim and the animal still refuses to drink, the Government must either seek alternative methods to motivate the beast or buy another horse. I am, of course, speaking about Sinn Fein—a party that has clearly indicated, by its complicity in the bank robbery and, by absolving itself of any political or civic responsibility for this crime, that it, (a) believes that it can act with impunity from the rule of law that applies to everyone else, and (b) that it holds the two governments and the Belfast agreement in utter contempt. Why else, when under pressure finally fully to deliver on decommissioning, would it choose to send a signal of paramilitary might to the two governments? We all remember Adams' veiled threat that the, IRA haven't gone away you know". The Northern Bank robbery is clearly saying exactly the same thing, only this time in actions rather than in words.

I want to take this opportunity tonight to make the most serious of points, and I sincerely hope that the Government will reflect on what I am about to say. If the political process continues to be poisoned by the political expediency and duplicity that have marked the past six years, of which devolution has been operational only for around 22 months, the democratic foundations that the Belfast agreement established will be permanently impaired. By having a two-tier system of government-party relations in Northern Ireland the Government are in danger themselves of becoming blemished by the non-democratic practices of those parties they seek to transform into constitutional entities. By this I mean that since the signing of the Belfast agreement, the British and Irish Governments have, on the one hand dealt with Northern Ireland's democratic parties as they would any other small United Kingdom parties, while, on the other, they have treated those who are wedded to violence and criminality in a fashion that sends law-abiding citizens a very dangerous signal—that under the Government's current political administration Sinn Fein/IRA are above the law.

The Government have a moral and political imperative, as constitutionally entrenched in the Belfast agreement, to live up to their commitments under that accord. The Government have to date failed to do just that and, as such, the integrity of the agreement is now at stake. The Government must decide which holds primacy in their policy objectives—keeping Sinn Fein in the process and maintaining the silence of IRA guns at any cost, or moving forward the transition process of establishing devolution as the normal mode of administration in Northern Ireland with or without parties that do not accept and adhere to the principles and practices of parliamentary democracy.

I return to the word "duplicity". We Ulster people are straight talkers and expect that everyone means exactly what they say. Unfortunately, the people with whom I identify, the Ulster Scots, and myself have been at the wrong end of much spinning and duplicitous behaviour in recent years.

Much of this activity is to support the Irish Government's desire to hold up the cultural revival that is Ulster Scots. In the case of the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure in recent weeks there has been leaking of incorrect information aimed at damaging the Ulster-Scots Agency and myself. I know who the official was who organised the leak of information to the Belfast Telegraph. He is quite new to the department. He knows that I am aware of his activities and he has since emphasised regret to other officials for his actions, which are more in keeping with the NIO.

I turn to the cross-Border implementation bodies set up as a result of the Belfast agreement. Let us face facts. In any assessment of the political activities in Northern Ireland, the implementation bodies have been a failure. Even officials who support the concept cannot point to any benefit for the Province that would not have occurred under normal co-operation.

Duplicity is all around the cross-Border scene. I know many very good civil servants who seek to do their best for all sections on the island of Ireland and I salute them. But there are some on the Irish side who work in senior positions in the North-South Ministerial Secretariat who encouraged me to my face but who worked hard against me when my back was turned. I have many documented cases but will deal only with one now. A senior Irish official gave an interview to the Sunday Times while on a mobile phone in the Dublin area. She attacked the Ulster-Scots Agency for not sticking to a language agenda as Dublin would have preferred. Her words are quoted in the Sunday Times of 13 June last year.

The more interesting activity that this lady was involved in was the organisation of resources for loyalist paramilitary support groups. Irish taxpayers were funding, for example, a seminar to tell loyalist groups how to conduct themselves in public and in the media.

According to a document numbered 2230–04, all this activity was at the behest of the President of Eire, Mary McAleese. Also this activity, which has the support of the Irish Prime Minister's department and the Dublin Department of Foreign Affairs, included meetings to discuss resources. The Government are now reported to be offering the loyalist groups £70 million to community capacity build. A senior Northern Ireland official reported his nervousness about the McAleese initiative, and his enforced involvement in it, in a document dated 30 June 2004. He pointed out to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister that, the secretariat did not prove overly supportive when the Ulster Scots Agency was trying to develop its community capacity building initiatives, but seemed happy to take unilateral action in that field at the behest of the Irish". He is confirming there that £600,000 was removed from the Ulster Scots requested budget 2004 to please the Irish. This was money earmarked on a smaller scale for exactly that which was offered to the paramilitaries.

To put the record straight, those of us who are not Irish but Ulster Scots had £600,000 disallowed, while the loyalist groups were offered £70 million following the McAleese initiative. It seems to many of us that if you are not Irish little or no resources are available to you at the behest of the Irish Government. However, if you are prepared to play ball with the Irish and do as they ask, the sky is the limit. One of the most disturbing sides of this issue is the part played by some senior Northern Ireland civil servants. At all costs, they support the Irish view on all issues.

In the case of Waterways Ireland, low standards of government have crept in and taken root. I have raised before the issue of staff bullying, mismanagement and the use of incorrect procedures for recruitment. The chief executive was complained against on a charge of bullying by 20 senior members of staff, yet the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure is content to allow an internal inquiry supervised by the chief executive to hear the complaints of bullying against him. This is not, and cannot be, justice, and it will not be accepted by anyone involved. The chief executive, Mr Martin, has broken the law in Northern Ireland by his refusals to operate an open competition for senior posts. What steps did DCAL take to correct that position? None. Is Mr Martin correct in the opinion that he seems to have that he has immunity from the government in the Republic and can do as he likes?

Cross-Border bodies are a failure, and a costly one at that. If there is not devolved government they must go. What is the Government's position? Wasting money with no result is bad government, and it must stop.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Steinberg

My Lords, I wish to declare an interest—I have an account in the Northern Bank in Belfast.

I feel considerably proud and comfortable to engage in a debate concerning the welfare and the future wellbeing of the land of my birth, Northern Ireland. However, I do not feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Having lived there for the first forty years of my life, and leaving because of the Troubles, I feel competent to deal with one of the latest chapters in its turbulent history. My noble friend Lord Glentoran gave a succinct opening to this debate, for which we are all grateful. Without going into a lot of background, it is unlikely that a new Northern Ireland Assembly will see the light of day any time soon, and it is probable that a period of a year or years may elapse before conditions are right for a return to matters reserved for a Northern Ireland Assembly.

It has been obvious throughout the background to this debate that there has been a lack of trust, and that lack of trust is even greater now than previously. It matters not that the IRA denies any involvement in the bank robbery, nor does it matter that the police believe that they did it; what matters is that there has been a complete breakdown in trust between Unionists and republicans. How long it will take to repair this breakdown is anybody's guess—I am opting for some considerable time. What happens in the mean time is the thrust of my comments. There are many matters that need to be handled with extreme care. It is like walking over eggshells and trying not to break them.

I have always been concerned at the cost of government, and it truly does cost a lot of money to run Northern Ireland. Whether such sums are justified in total is another matter, but I will refer to a number of charges that seem high. As someone from Belfast, I have always been conscious of those people who say, "Northern Ireland is too expensive; why do we continue to support it in the way we do?" Not all of the spending is justified, though I realise that the Government tread a very narrow line. There must be a clear form of ministerial accountability, which is lacking at present. I sympathise with the Government in their desire to return to a devolved administration for Northern Ireland, and this latest attempt looked like achieving success up until the last moment.

What do we need? University top-up fees is one thing to be dealt with; academic selection is another, and the retention of grammar schools is another. Underlying all of these is considerable waste. As best as I can see, general administration costs have risen 23 per cent in the past three years, but much more worrying is that the costs of consultants is up a whopping 75 per cent since the date of the Belfast agreement in 1998. I would have thought that with the Government's 30-year close involvement in Northern Ireland the need for consultants should have disappeared.

I confess that I am an amateur when it comes to running governments and departments, but I consider myself a professional when it comes to looking at costs and hoping to cut waste and excess. I would not dream of putting myself in the same category as David James, nor would I expect to save £35 billion, but as a long-established businessman I can see areas where costs can be cut, and nowhere better to start with than the employment of consultants. Provisional amounts spent on consultants since April 2001 by a number of departments have risen from £11.1 million in 2001 to £15.2 million. I will not list them all for the sake of brevity, but the Minister will be aware of her Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Glentoran. That really concerns me, because having been in business for practically 50 years, I have always been aware that consultants charge a lot and you do not get a great deal of benefit from them.

One of my early business experiments was when consultants approached me to save money in the operation of my business. They suggested a capital sum and a weekly payment for the job, which they expected to take three months. When I recovered from the shock, I sent them packing. All that they had told us was already being practised by us. What checks are done before consultants are appointed? Are the jobs tendered for? Is the responsibility for engaging the consultants down to the Northern Ireland department? What benefit, if any, is achieved from spending money on consultants? I refer, of course, to greater efficiency and to cheaper costs.

Another interesting statistic covers the number of people employed in the Northern Ireland Office. Those total 216,000 working in the public sector, which is nearly 32 per cent of all employee jobs. Obviously in the future, that dependence should reduce to something like the national average, but it will take time. That is why it is so important for new industries to be set up in Northern Ireland, which still has a high level of unemployment, and therefore a labour force ready for work.

I now turn to another area of expenditure. I fully support the rehabilitation of prisoners, irrespective of the crimes they have committed. Many prisoners reform themselves while in detention, and many come out having become religious. That is good news, and the Government are to be commended for their efforts in the area. However, there is a better way for the distribution of funds to help reformed or reforming ex-prisoners. I am worried, and noble Lords should be worried, to see such a long list of support for a variety of ex-prisoner organisations. The noble Baroness again supplied the figure that there are 91 separate bodies, all being supported.

What checks are made on those groups? I am sure that the vast majority spend the money wisely, but there must be some whose credentials are a bit shaky. Who visits them, and how many are turned down for the very reason I have mentioned; namely, that they do not satisfy proper inquiries? I have a solution which I commend to this House, which would place all the groups under one umbrella organisation—the Northern Ireland Association for Care and Resettlement of Offenders. Then we could be sure that reports were properly completed, and of whether some of those groups duplicate similar work. I know that it is a sensitive area, and I am sure that there are some doubts, so would it not be better that NIACRO overlooked and oversaw all those groups? I am sure that some moneys would be saved, and that those groups genuinely requiring help might have greater funding made available.

I shall go back to my earlier remarks. We feel that more care can be taken in the spending of government money. The absence of a proper assembly in Northern Ireland, together with its history, makes our plea one for better accounting, better reporting and ministerial accountability, the spending of less money, and the provision of better security. Interestingly, those are the kind of policies that we are recommending from this side of the House.

Northern Ireland is still a difficult patient and still requires careful nursing, with the convalescence period likely to be long. With clear objectives and a curtailment on budgets, it can all come good in the end, but we need patience, and we do not need to keep throwing large amounts of money at it. Yes, trust is in short supply. What we all must do is to back the Government in making tough decisions for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland. Having spent the best years of my life in Northern Ireland, I am sincerely concerned to see that we all help it to reach normality as quickly as possible. That means stopping intimidation, protection rackets and punishment beatings. Northern Ireland now has a huge drug problem, to which terrorists have turned. Put simply, there are a lot of gangsters ruining people's lives. I commend a careful interest in what I have said, and I hope and pray that normality returns to Northern Ireland as soon as ever possible.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I shall intervene in the gap with proper brevity and proper diffidence after so remarkable a speech. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who said that we must not conclude that we have reached the end of the political road. There may be other roads—we have heard some outlined tonight—but it is by far the best road. My fear is that the Government will, by jettisoning the means to keep it open, secure that that road becomes closed. That would be a disaster.

The Government must surely now guard against the possibility that the IRA will resort once again to major violence. There are people who say that that would be so much against its interests that its members could not be such fools as to do it. I point to, most recently, the bank raid, condemned throughout the world, and to many atrocities over years past, all of which were bitterly condemned and could not have advanced the IRA's political objectives by one inch. None the less, that factor failed to deter it. With reluctance, we must conclude that it is sensibly foreseeable that the IRA will once again—for whatever misguided, let alone wicked, reason—go back to major violence.

Therefore, I must return to a matter concerning the future of Northern Ireland that I have already twice, if not three times, raised in this Chamber with the noble Baroness, Lady Amos. The Government have calculated the need for troops in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the basis that the very welcome progress made politically over the past few years is a fixture and that, if there is to be any change, it will be for the better. Three battalions have now been withdrawn—or perhaps have only been earmarked for withdrawal—not for reallocation elsewhere, but for disbandment.

I conclude that there can be no sensible answer to the question of from where the support for the police is to come if the situation gets worse and violence of a major kind returns, because there is no reserve. The Army is fully committed, and we have already heard that there are no plans to reduce in the foreseeable future—certainly in the medium term—the commitments to which it is already subject. If the situation got worse in the way which we should foresee, from where is that support for the police in maintaining order going to come? I ask that question again tonight, and I hope that I shall be third time lucky. I hope that the noble Baroness will confirm that the Government would not decide to be deflected from their stated policy in the peace process, for fear that they could not cope with the shattering by the IRA of what passes for peace at present.

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in tonight's debate, which reflects the interest, knowledge and expertise in this House on Northern Ireland. It has been a very sober debate, although my noble friend Lord Dubs struck a note of optimism, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, considered that the Government should stick to our plans with respect to coming to an inclusive arrangement in Northern Ireland as per the Belfast agreement.

We all know that peace processes are difficult. We have to demonstrate patience and clarity about our bottom line, and we need to be robust. The Government have demonstrated that. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, made it clear that Sinn Fein needed to demonstrate that it had severed all links with terrorism and criminality. The Government have always made that clear, which is why I was somewhat disappointed in the views that he expressed with reference to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. My right honourable friend has worked tirelessly to bring about a solution in Northern Ireland, and will of course continue to do that.

The noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Laird, mentioned the press article about a £70 million retraining package for the UDA. This is utter press speculation. The Government have neither offered nor been asked for such a package. It is not something of which I am aware at all.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of accountability. When we last debated Northern Ireland I made clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was examining proposals to him with respect to accountability. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, referred to the need for a 12-month interim plan and his proposals for reconvening the Assembly for some form of pre-legislative scrutiny. The noble Lord has made such proposals before. I recognise that we need to find some way to move matters forward, but it is important that the parties will need to agree. In light of the noble Lord's analysis, I hope that he will recognise the difficulties associated with reaching agreement on that.

Accountability was also raised by my noble friend Lord Dubs and the noble Lords, Lord Steinberg and Lord Glentoran. We are committed to looking at how best to configure arrangements in Northern Ireland to provide an effective and efficient means of delivering and accounting for local services. The review of public administration aims to do just that. Regarding the next steps, with direct rule the most likely option for the foreseeable future, we will need to consider ways of enhancing its operation in the interim.

I have heard the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, and my noble friend Lord Dubs regarding the electoral register Bill. Once the Bill is published, noble Lords will have an opportunity to examine it in detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked when the Government would come to the end of the road. I hope that the House will agree that we do not wish to reach a situation where the Government say that they have come to the end of the road. We need to work to find a solution. We cannot just give up. The people of Northern Ireland deserve more than that—I agree in that respect with my noble friend Lord Dubs—and that is why we are looking at a range of options.

The noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Glentoran, mentioned the importance of the way forward being an inclusive settlement as a preferred option. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked for consideration of devolution to be ruled out until the power of the paramilitaries has been curtailed. The Belfast agreement is about an inclusive process, hut, as I made clear in my opening speech, if paramilitaries refuse to abandon violence and criminality, we will have to consider an alternative approach, albeit reluctantly.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, also raised the important issue of support for policing. Of course we must move towards a position where the Police Service of Northern Ireland can carry out its functions in all areas in Northern Ireland. The Patten commission was clear that support for policing was essential. Police reform on its own will take us only so far. The police should and must enjoy political support if they are to be able to police effectively across Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Dubs asked whether we should examine a system of election to Westminster in Northern Ireland other than first past the post. I know that my noble friend does not expect me to agree to that tonight. I saw the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, nodding in agreement and I was sure that the Liberal Democrats would agree with his proposal and, indeed, would wish to push the Government to apply any such different system to outside Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, asked the Government to give more support to the IMC, the Organised Crime Task Force and the Assets Recovery Agency when it is established. I confirm to the noble Baroness that we will give continued support and I agree that the law can be enforced only by law enforcement officers. The noble Baroness raised the question of the value of Sinn Fein/IRA to the peace process. We indicated in the Belfast agreement the importance of moving towards some kind of inclusive solution. That is the Government's preferred option but we would have to look, very reluctantly, at alternatives, if we are unable to resolve the current situation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, focused her remarks on policing, particularly in Northern Ireland. I agree with her that we need to recognise the difficult context in which the police operate in Northern Ireland and it is important to create a more law-abiding culture for Northern Ireland's citizens. Regarding the Northern Bank robbery, the PSNI is undertaking a major investigation into the kidnap, hostage-taking and bank robbery. Over 45 detectives are involved. Over 200 interviews are planned or have taken place and 600 actions have been logged. The investigation team has complete access to all relevant intelligence, which is a clear benefit from the integration of Special Branch and CID. The Organised Crime Task Force's armed robbery expert group is looking urgently at the lessons to be learned from the robbery. The banks and other major financial institutions already meet regularly with the police to discuss crime prevention.

The noble Baroness also asked me a question that I have been asked a number of times across this Dispatch Box regarding the meaning of "ceasefire". I hope that I am giving exactly the same answer as I have given in the past—that is, the Secretary of State is obliged to keep under review whether groups are maintaining a ceasefire, and that is a judgment taken in the round.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, also raised the issue of domestic violence and hate crime. She reminded the House of the difficulties of these issues in the Northern Ireland community and asked specifically about resources for training. Resources for training to tackle race hate and domestic violence are, of course, a matter of prioritisation for the Chief Constable within the priorities set for the PSNI by the Policing Board. However, if I can add anything about the nature of the training and how it is carried out, I shall write to the noble Baroness.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked whether I had any information about reports that the IRA is preparing for a return to war. I recognise that there is speculation in the press about the possibility of a split in the republican movement or a return to war by the IRA. I am not aware of any substantive information to support those rumours and must conclude that it is simply speculation without foundation.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of North/South bodies. I am aware of the noble Lord's concerns about this matter as we have been in correspondence on it. The noble Lord will know that at present the North/ South bodies are maintained on a care and maintenance basis. The bodies are subject to a full and rigorous audit by the Comptrollers and Auditors General in each jurisdiction. With regard to the individual case raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, he will understand that I cannot address individual cases across the Dispatch Box. The noble Lord has asked me Written Questions on this matter and I have responded.

The noble Lord, Lord Steinberg, was concerned about the cost of government and the need to justify its spending. In particular, he raised the issue of consultant spending. Just today, I have signed a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on the matter, but I say to the noble Lord, Lord Steinberg, that consultants can add value by bringing in external expertise. It would he poor value for money for departments to recruit and retain highly specialised staff whose contribution was not needed on a permanent or ongoing basis.

Of course, as with all public expenditure, it is essential that the use of consultants is properly managed and controlled. Departments must make best use of existing resources and do all that is possible to ensure that consultancy is used economically and effectively. The skills provided by external consultants are often required only on an occasional basis, and so it would not represent value for money to employ staff as full-time civil servants to deliver those services.

The noble Lord also asked me about the oversight of ex-prisoner organisations. I am aware that a range of new oversight and inspection arrangements is in place following the Criminal Justice Review to ensure the smooth running of, and accountability for, all aspects of the justice system. With respect to the application of that to community and nongovernmental organisations operating in this area, if I may, I shall write to the noble Lord if I am able to find any other information.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, again raised with me the issue of troop withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Clearly the noble and learned Lord has not found satisfactory the answers that I have given him across the Dispatch Box. I say again that, for operational reasons, decisions on the deployment of troops are taken by the Chief Constable and the Army. The level of support is kept under constant review and nothing is done to affect the Army's capacity to provide the level of support required by the police.

I recognise that the noble and learned Lord is asking me about this matter in the context of what may or may not happen in Northern Ireland at some time in the future on the basis of the point that we have reached in our negotiations. I can only say what I have said on previous occasions—that is, decisions on troop withdrawal have been taken with the full knowledge of, and following consultation with, the police services and other security services in Northern Ireland. We remain confident that the support and resources needed exist in Northern Ireland. If, however, there comes a point in the future when we need to review that, we shall of course do so. But, in the current situation, we consider the decisions that we have taken to be fair.

I hope that that addresses the points made. It has been an important debate. I am aware that noble Lords feel that we have insufficient time to address these issues in the Chamber and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and to other noble Lords for drawing to my attention the need to have tonight's debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes after eight o'clock.