Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Garnier: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to test him a little further on the matter? There will be five commissioners. I want to know, so that I can understand the thrust of the amendments, what is meant by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), or what he understands the hon. Member for North Down to mean, in the Northern Irish context, by ''ethnicity''. There is a confusion, perhaps a deliberate one, between sectarianism and ethnicity. Can the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is a noted explainer of these matters, help me?

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Lembit Öpik: Probably not. No, I can—that was a cheeky one-liner. Of course I can help the hon. and learned Gentleman. His question is fair. I assume that he has no difficulty in understanding the amendment's reference to gender balance—

Mr. Garnier: Not in all circumstances.

Lembit Öpik: But in most circumstances. I shall try to help the hon. and learned Gentleman by describing how I see the amendment. It is designed to create a clear distinction between what ''representative'' has tended to mean in the past in Northern Ireland legislation, and what it should mean now and in future. In the past, ''representative'' conventionally referred to the distinction between Unionist and nationalist. It was a binary distinction. Introducing ethnicity and gender means that consideration would be given not only to that sectarian distinction. The hon. and learned Gentleman will recall that I used the example of the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, which does not regard itself as being rooted in either of those traditional positions.

I shall give an example of the use of the word ''ethnicity''—if the hon. and learned Gentleman has a better one, I should be happy to hear it—to highlight the fact that we must not enshrine that old binary divide in legislation, which by definition should be about justice and equality.

Lady Hermon: I want to clarify what the hon. Gentleman means by ''ethnicity''. We have a large Chinese community in Northern Ireland of between 8,000 and 9,000 people. They make a tremendous contribution, quietly and discreetly, but it is not recognised. I would like them to be included in the commission. That is one example of who I have mind.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has caught my eye, Mr. Pike, so I shall give way to him.

Mr. Mallon: The hon. Member for North Down said that ethnicity is never recognised. It has been for the past three years, because when the First Minister or Deputy First Minister had to make appointments, ethnicity was recognised at every opportunity. I am pleased to put that on record.

Lembit Öpik: The point has been well made. What is interesting about the hon. Gentleman's intervention is that the word ''ethnicity'' has currency and meaning in Northern Ireland. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister evidently operated on the basis that it was an important consideration.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): With respect to my hon. and learned Friend, I thought that the explanation of ''ethnicity'' given by the hon. Member for North Down was clearer than his, but it was a reference to only one ethnic group. If I recall it correctly, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire's definition was, ''it is not bi-polar, and if you have a better word I am happy to use it.'' As we do not know what it is that he is trying to describe, that will be difficult.

Lembit Öpik: The staggering clarity of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) leaves me in silent awe. Having accepted the example of the

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Chinese community, which is substantial, I assume that my earlier example of the Estonian community did not count because there were not enough Estonians to qualify.

Mr. Blunt: On the Estonian community, it was Harold Macmillan who complained about Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet that it had more Estonian members than old Etonians.

Lembit Öpik: That was worth it because, at the risk of digressing further, The Irish Times once said that people who live in glasnost should not throw Estonians. I apologise to the Committee for having allowed that slight digression.

What we are discussing is not a moot issue but an important point that will have practical consequences. Using the 20-year test that we have discussed before, it is clear that if, in 20 years' time if there is a dispute and the existing definition remains in place, people will say that the Good Friday agreement is about sectarianism. Right or not, that is what the Good Friday agreement implies.

Mr. Mallon: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He uses the words ''sectarianism'' and ''ethnicity''. Does he regard sectarianism in the north of Ireland as a political or a religious factor? If it is regarded as a political factor, that has an ethnic root. He uses the words ethnicity and sectarianism at the same time, but the distinction between them goes to the heart of the point that he is trying to make.

3.45 pm

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am sometimes guilty of being a little sloppy about interchanging those words, and he is right to highlight that. He pointed out the absolute importance of the definition of the words that we use in Bills, especially those about justice. That needs no further clarification from me, were I capable of providing it.

For once, I feel that I have gone on a little longer than I ought to have done. The hon. Members for Newry and Armagh and for North Down have clearly made the point. If the Government resist the amendment and we vote on it, the Liberal Democrats will feel entitled to support it.

Mr. Garnier: I hope that the Minister will resist the amendment. It may have been moved with good intentions and a better understanding of the sociological, cultural and political difficulties that have historically affected Northern Ireland than I can bring to bear, but we must be careful of linguistic confusion. In many discussions in this and other Committees, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has provided light, as opposed to heat, but I fear that he has fallen into some error.

On the simple grounds of numerical representation, I urge the Government to reject the amendment. The hon. Member for North Down said that there were 8,000 or so Chinese people in Northern Ireland, and I am sure that she is right. If so, they can under no circumstances represent 20 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland. Let us pursue that example. It would be impossible for the appointers of the commission to do as the amendment asks and ensure

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that the members of the commission are representative of the ethnicity of Northern Ireland. To extend the point to its silliest, someone is either one of those 8,000 Chinese people or not. No man or woman on the commission can be representative of the percentage of the population of Northern Ireland made up of those 8,000 people.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): That argument works only if there were to be five members on the commission in perpetuity. There can be combinations of different numbers of members at different stages, so it will be possible to have percentage representation for different groups that operate under it.

Mr. Garnier: I accept that we are presented with the problem of the word ''representative'', which is used in subsection (6). We are all supposed to represent our constituents, but under no circumstances can I be representative of them all. We simply have to do our best.

I do not want to labour the point. The amendment is well intentioned—I do not mean that in a belittling sense—and I am sure that it has caught the attention of those who will have to make the decision. However, I genuinely fear that it would be unworkable and make the work of the appointers almost impossible.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry): I come to the subject from a community that has often been overlooked in appointments to non-departmental public bodies. My community sees itself as unrepresented on a variety of bodies, so I have considerable sympathy with the rationale that underlies the amendment. Like other hon. Members, I have considered the practicalities if the amendment were to be agreed to. Bearing in mind the size of the commission, if it were to be reasonably representative in terms of gender, one would expect there to be three females and two males, one of whom would be from an ethnic minority. If not, it would be open season for those who would argue that no reasonable attempt had been made to obtain three females and two males, one of whom happened to be from an ethnic minority in Northern Ireland. That would present major difficulties and make the task even harder. Therefore, while it is a bit bland to say that the body as a corporate entity has to be representative of the community in Northern Ireland, that is more workable than the words in the amendment.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Down; the amendment has proved to be a gateway to an interesting and important discussion. I shall concentrate my remarks on the amendment and on the arguments that I deployed, perhaps unconvincingly, on 31 January, reported at column 78 of the Official Report.

I shall resist the amendment—and therefore expect there to be a vote on it—so let me explain why. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her researches, in particular those in relation to the Lord Chief Justice's decision. I do not want to get into a discussion that might be illuminating for the lawyers present about how persuasive or binding that decision might be. I accept that it is a persuasive decision; it

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should instruct the Government's consideration of these matters. That decision was made in the context of parades in Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady is right to say that the expression ''representative of the community in Northern Ireland'' will, if the Bill becomes law, be interpreted in the context in which it operates.

The Government's view is that, in setting up a commission, they should keep under review the law that applies to all the people of Northern Ireland. That is not a restricted context—it is a very broad one—so my argument is that the definitions of ''representative'' and ''community'' will not be restricted to those that applied in the ruling of the Lord Chief Justice.

My second point is that the Government's position is clear. The concept of representativeness covers the issues that the hon. Lady seeks to include. I get the sense from the Committee, and from my experience in Northern Ireland, that the growing practice of requiring such bodies to be representative is welcomed in all parts of the community. It generates hot debates about whether, when people are appointed, they are representative, but nobody attacks the principle.

There must be some understanding that the ability of those appointing individuals to such bodies will be limited by the number of people to be on the body. There is a growing acceptance that not all bodies in Northern Ireland should be so extensive and unmanageable as to reflect everybody's wishes and definitions of ''representative''. There is also a restriction on who applies for the jobs and who is qualified to do the jobs, as we have discussed under other clauses. With all those caveats, I gather that there is a growing acceptance and approval of the phraseology and approach to the appointment to bodies in Northern Ireland.

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Prepared 7 February 2002