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Lord Carter: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to noble Lords for the way that they have received the Motion. I should like to thank the Opposition Chief Whip for his kind words. I am not sure why the good will and co-operation has to be concerned only with the early days of this Session. I certainly intend to see that that continues right through the Session. I should also like to take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who congratulated me and wished me well. I am a little concerned about the number of noble Lords opposite who have said they are delighted that I am the Chief Whip. However, I am extremely grateful for all the good wishes that I have received and for the way in which this Motion has been agreed to. As regards the question of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, on the appointment of the JCSI, discussions are proceeding through the usual channels as a matter of priority.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Public Service

Lord Carter: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal, I beg to move the second Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

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Moved, That it is desirable that a Select Committee be appointed to consider the present condition and future development of the Public Service in Great Britain with particular regard to the effectiveness of recent and continuing changes and their impact on standards of conduct and service in the public interest.--(Lord Carter.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act 1996 (Revival of Section 3) Order 1997

11.40 a.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th May be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I go into the details of this draft order I hope I may say what a privilege it was for me to have been asked by the Prime Minister to serve as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Denton. She is held in high esteem in Northern Ireland. It is difficult for me to follow the high standards that she has set.

I turn to the draft order we are considering today. It would bring back into existence the forum for the discussion of issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding that was established by the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc.) Act last year. The forum, as your Lordships know, is not a part of the talks themselves, and the Act makes clear it has no authority over them; but it was envisaged it could play a useful role complementary to the talks in the pursuit of political advance. It was open to all the delegates returned in the elections that were held in connection with the establishment of the talks.

The forum was suspended by order in March, following debates in this House and another place, because the then Secretary of State concluded that the Northern Ireland multi-party talks, which agreed on 5th March to break until 3rd June, were in the terms of the Act, suspended: and he was therefore under a legal duty under the 1996 Act to suspend the forum as well.

The talks will return on 3rd June, and it is right that we respect the original plan, and revive the forum. We hope to be able to achieve that by 3rd June although the Whitsun recess and the pressure of other business in the other place may make that difficult. In fact the forum will not be able to meet on 3rd or 4th June, because the talks will be in session then. But it will be free to meet after that. The forum's remit, relating to the promotion of dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland, is self-evidently central to political advance in Northern Ireland. If the forum were to concentrate its attention on that role, it could have a real chance to be a positive force in the pursuit of a settlement in Northern Ireland.

The promotion of dialogue and understanding, with which the forum is concerned, will be of the greatest importance in coming months. We are determined to do

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all we can to inject a new dynamic into the pursuit of a political settlement in Northern Ireland. That applies to the whole Government, from the Prime Minister down: our commitment is evident from the fact that he has in his first two weeks in office visited Northern Ireland, made a major speech there, and met the leaders of the main political parties, as well as the Taoiseach and Tanaiste.

The central focus of the effort to move matters forward must be the talks. That means doing all we can to get the talks over the hurdle of decommissioning and into the discussion of the substantive issues that need to be resolved if there is to be a hope of a more stable and prosperous future for the people of Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland had high hopes of the talks process: and it was clear that the stagnation that ensued caused dismay there. But hopes are still cherished that, with the elections out of the way, the process could become fruitful. I believe people in Northern Ireland will expect their representatives, as well as the Government, to bend every effort to secure all possible advance.

I should say one word about Sinn Fein in the talks process. We want them in the talks, because that would open the way towards the widest possible agreement to a settlement. We have also made it crystal clear what must be done to secure their invitation: there must be an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire, which is clearly reflected in deeds as well as words. But if that does not happen, we are fully determined to proceed without them. The Prime Minister made that clear last week: as he put it, the settlement train is leaving, we want Sinn Fein on board but it will leave anyway. So that our position is clear to Sinn Fein, and so that we can better assess their readiness to commit themselves to peaceful politics alone, officials yesterday met representatives of Sinn Fein.

We believed it was very important to the success of the political process of which the talks, and indeed the forum, are a part to make absolutely clear the position of the Government on key areas of policy in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister set out many of these in his speech on 16th May. In particular he made clear our complete commitment to the principle of consent. Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom so long as that is the wish of a majority of its people. There can be no change in its status without the clear and formal consent of a majority. Within that context we are looking for a political settlement that is widely acceptable in the community in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be a place where all traditions can feel equally at home. The confidence of both traditions--I stress both--must be reinforced. We have outlined a number of areas in which we think that can be done.

It is for the people of Northern Ireland to work out arrangements for their own future within those guiding principles. Nothing will be imposed. The Government's agenda is entirely on the table; nothing is hidden. We aim at the greatest transparency to avoid the suspicions that have bedevilled political advance in the past. I am glad to put forward this order to revive the forum because I believe it has potentially an important role

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in the pursuit of political progress. It is an institution particularly valued by Unionist participants in the talks, and it is important that we ensure its revival at an early date. I commend the draft order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15th May be approved.--(Lord Dubs.)

11.47 a.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I begin, after welcoming the Minister most warmly to his new post, by commending to all who care about Northern Ireland the full text of the Prime Minister's speech on 16th May. It includes a generous tribute to John Major and sets out with heartening clarity and firmness his Government's commitment to the principle of consent, saying clearly that his agenda is not a united Ireland and that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for so long as a majority there so wishes. It gives full support to the police and promises that both police and Armed Forces will continue to bring their full weight to bear on the men of violence. He puts the blame fair and square on Sinn Fein/IRA for excluding themselves from the talks by renewing the campaign for violence. All this is most reassuring, as is the fact that his decision to allow talks between Sinn Fein/IRA and officials is both to explain our position and to assess whether they are genuinely ready to give up violence. He has said that it is not about negotiating the terms of the ceasefire. It is to be hoped that Sinn Fein/IRA will not be let off the hook but will be required to come clean about their true position.

All that is admirable. I hope, however, that the Prime Minister will, with the new Secretary of State, look very carefully at the record of the talks with officials and ensure that Sinn Fein/IRA are asked some tough questions. Everyone has leaned over backwards to accommodate them. What will they do, representing only 17-18 per cent. of the total vote in Northern Ireland, to meet the proper concerns of the 82 per cent. already represented at the multi-party talks, and the concerns of the two Governments?

The IRA ceasefire is only the beginning. Sinn Fein/IRA then expect to be allowed into the talks without preconditions. They expect a time frame to be set for negotiations--why?--and they expect confidence-building measures on such issues as prisoners, and the "reform" of the RUC. They also expect decommissioning to be dealt with, not before but in parallel with, the talks--I believe that arrangements for this are already in hand as a result of the talks.

Martin McGuinness told the BBC last week that,

    "If it were established that Sinn Fein/IRA could join multi-party peace talks, then we might have a case to put persuasively to the IRA for a new ceasefire".
This statement, coupled with his initial churlish and hostile response to the Prime Minister's speech, with its references to the militaristic agenda of the British Government, and the statement that he was "not at all impressed", is typical of the arrogance of the Sinn Fein position.

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I hope very much that since these talks evidently carry in Sinn Fein/IRA eyes no obligation to offer anything themselves, they might be asked in some detail what confidence-building measures they will offer: for instance, the end of punishment beatings, and exclusions of their own people; the end of protection rackets; the end of violence and the planning of violence; and, not least, the details of where the bodies of their past victims are buried--something grieving families have long wanted and been refused. Their agenda is, as they have repeatedly said, Brits out and a United Ireland. It is difficult to see how this could be negotiable in talks, although we must undoubtedly offer them the opportunity. Indeed, one fears that their purpose in entering the talks might be to destabilise them rather than to reach any agreed conclusions.

Furthermore, Gerry Adams has added in the past that Sinn Fein seeks the transformation of all Irish society, not only in the occupied areas, but throughout the whole of Ireland. Sinn Fein/IRA command only 2 per cent. of the vote in the Republic of Ireland, and some 18 per cent. in the North, yet they expect to push this through while at the same time rejecting the right of the 82 per cent. in the North to have a voice on the specious grounds that,

    "negotiations need to take place in a climate where no section of our people holds an undemocratic power of veto".
That is what, in Sinn Fein-speak, a majority vote is. Sinn Fein's inclusion of decommissioning on the topics for discussion is aimed, incidentally, at requiring the Armed Forces to leave Northern Ireland or give up their weapons. Gerry Adams has declared roundly in the past that the IRA will never give up a single weapon, and we have all been told that this is a cult issue which has to be accepted. Reform of the RUC means, in Sinn Fein-speak (according to a Sinn Fein document of 1995) the abolition of the RUC and Special Branch and the creation instead of a People's Police for the nationalist areas--jobs for the IRA.

I raise these questions because I hope they will be specifically raised in the talks with officials and the answers fully reported to Ministers. Sinn Fein must not be allowed to destabilise the current talks if it has no serious negotiable agenda to offer once it is included. I do not for a moment suggest that it should not be included if it meets the condition set of a full and verifiable ceasefire. The talks are getting somewhere, very slowly, and the next step could be for the 82 per cent. there represented to go on to discuss socio-economic policies and a strategy for inward investment, as the Unionists have suggested. The Forum, whose renewal we are considering today, is a promising place for people of differing views to come together. People have had a taste of peace and they like it. I firmly believe that, whatever happens about Sinn Fein/IRA and the talks, if the new Secretary of State follows her present line and, as my noble friend Lord Brookeborough recently urged, gives more power back to the district councils, the grassroots revolution which has been bringing people together to work for peaceful,

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practical, pragmatic aims could gather momentum. That is wholly in accord with the Government's plan for Northern Ireland as formulated in the gracious Speech.

Let the main talks reconvene. Let the parties there represented go on working together. Do not let it all be blown off course and destabilised by Sinn Fein/IRA, which are much more interested in disinformation, media-speak, and their own agenda than in the rebuilding of real bridges.

I hope, too, that as confidence-building measures are being considered, the new Irish Government once elected can be reminded that a move to review Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution could also be a powerful reassurance for the Protestant community, and could go far to advance real confidence in, and support for, various initiatives in cross-border co-operation between two separate countries with real common interests. It seems to me that that is the nub of the matter.

Finally, I should like to welcome most warmly the clear statement in Washington of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that the present talks will continue and no new or different initiative for talks will be contemplated. The problems of Northern Ireland are nothing if not complex. I believe that Senator Mitchell and his co-chairmen are a wise team. Let us stay with them and with the Mitchell Principles.

11.55 a.m.

Lord Fitt: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Dubs on his appointment to the Northern Ireland office. In doing so, I should like him to make preparation for leaving that job as quickly as possible because it is my fervent hope--a hope that I trust will be realised--that by the end of this Parliament agreement will have been found in Northern Ireland so that it will be unnecessary to place orders such as this before the House.

Within five years we shall enter a new millennium. I have used the word "fervent" and I have used it advisedly because I realise that many difficulties and obstacles have to be overcome before we can find political agreement in Northern Ireland. Only this morning, with the help of the noble Lord, Lord Blease, I read a report of the debates in the Northern Ireland Forum as at present constituted. It makes very dispiriting reading.

When we first promulgated legislation to bring the forum into existence, I think that my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees and myself expressed reservations. We did not believe that it was necessary. We have been told this morning that it is a fact. But one must be guided by past experience in relation to forums, assemblies and congregations in Northern Ireland.

In 1982 in the wake of the hunger strike in Northern Ireland, the then Secretary of State, Lord Prior, brought into being an assembly in Northern Ireland. It was to bring about something called rolling devolution. If agreement could be found among the various political parties in that rolling devolution assembly, it would have been quite acceptable to any government on this side of the water. However, immediately after those elections took place in 1982, Sinn Fein won seats.

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It won them in the emotional atmosphere which existed in the wake of the hunger strikes of 1981. Sinn Fein said, "We shall not attend this assembly". Much to my amazement, and indeed despair, the SDLP said exactly the same. It said, "We shall not attend either". I believe that the death knell for that rolling devolution assembly was the refusal by major political parties and interests in Northern Ireland to accept what, after all, was a democratically elected institution. The assembly and indeed this forum have been elected by the people of Northern Ireland. I never had much faith in the forum but the Government insisted that it should be brought into being.

I refer to this as the Lazarus debate because we are seeking to bring back into life something that is already dead. It was killed by the non-attendance and withdrawal of the SDLP and Sinn Fein. We have already had the experience of the 1982 assembly. It staggered on, month after month, reflecting only one point of view--the Unionist point of view, and the Democratic Unionist point of view. I do not believe that any reason could be expected to be found in such an assembly.

In the Prime Minister's speech of 16th May he gave an undertaking to the majority in Northern Ireland that there would be no change in the constitution of Northern Ireland. We are having all these new aphorisms. He said that there would be a settlement train. If one looks back in Irish history one finds anecdotes about the way in which Northern Ireland will be governed. One cannot have a settlement train unless the vast majority of the parties are on that train in order to reach a destination which, it is to be hoped, will be peace.

We are bringing the forum back into operation. I make an appeal. I do not suppose that it will be listened to, from my experience in Northern Ireland. I make an appeal that the SDLP and all the other elected representatives take up their seats in that forum. We must face the fact that there is a majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland, and there will be a majority of Unionists elected to that forum. There were 10 Unionists elected to Westminster in the recent election. So however we may try to evade the issue, we are faced with the fact that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are Unionist. The SDLP cannot say, as they seemed to be saying when the forum was first brought into being, "We're not going there because they're all Unionists"; and Sinn Fein said much the same. You will never reach any agreement if you do not sit down and have dialogue with people whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. It is only by doing that that you have any hope of bringing about agreement in Northern Ireland.

One of the favourite phrases of the leader of the SDLP when I read what he says and see him on television, and one on which he lays great emphasis, is, "agreement, agreement, agreement". Agreement cannot be reached if people will not sit down and talk to their political opponents. My plea is that all political representatives attend the reconstituted forum.

We are told that the forum can have no effect on the talks. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has more experience as he has been involved in the main talks

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which have been taking place in Northern Ireland. The Government have made great concessions to Sinn Fein and seem intent on trying to get them involved in the talks. I am not too sure how successful they will be. However, if Sinn Fein is admitted to the talks there is a strong possibility that some sections of the more extreme Unionist Party will walk out--so Sinn Fein may be included but a certain section of the Unionists will not be there. I make the same appeal to them as I made to my former colleagues in the SDLP. Unionists and Democratic Unionists will have to sit down at some point with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The electors gave 127,000 votes to Sinn Fein candidates in the recent Westminster election. In Sinn Fein they took a seat from my former party, the SDLP.

I have been a bitter opponent of Sinn Fein since it first entered the Northern Ireland political arena. But whether we like it or not, it is a fact of life. During the recent election we heard the Prime Minister of the Republic, the Prime Minister of Britain and various other speakers in Northern Ireland, telling the Northern Ireland electorate that if they voted for Sinn Fein they were voting for murder and violence. The people to whom they were talking do not seem to have paid much attention to that plea. Are we now in the position of saying that 127,000 people voted for a continuation of violence? Did they vote for the campaign so tragically waged by the IRA over the past 25 years? I should like to think that is not the case. I should like to think that Sinn Fein received its support from many sources in Northern Ireland and not particularly in support of Ireland. I say very little in support of Sinn Fein, but it does have good public representatives. Its public representatives in the various councils throughout Northern Ireland work assiduously. I believe that is one of the reasons why Sinn Fein received a larger vote than was expected.

Yesterday afternoon, local government elections were held; the count is going on at the moment. I am quite certain that Sinn Fein will have gained other seats. If Sinn Fein can sit on local authorities in Northern Ireland with the DUP, the extreme Unionist party, the official Unionist Party, the Alliance party and all the other independents, then all the parties could reciprocate; they could return to the forum.

No one can guarantee the forum any success. I just read the reports of the debates that took place there, and they provide no reason to be optimistic. However, the forum presents an opportunity. Incidentally, it represents a large financial expense for the British taxpayer; we are not getting it for nothing. I hope that every effort will be made to bring all parties into the forum, so that the people who live, breathe, work and die in Northern Ireland will be able to reach some agreement which will make it unnecessary for this House to debate such orders as this in the future.

12.5 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that the forum has a much better chance of success than the talks process itself, simply because it is open to every elected member of it to come to the forum and engage in discussions; whereas there

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are many more difficulties in the peace talks in achieving the objective that the noble Lord and I would dearly love to see achieved.

I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, most warmly on acquiring what I believe is by far the best job in government. Unlike a London-based Minister, he will find that his senior Ministers are far too busy with matters of politics, security and overall finance to interfere very much with the way he and his permanent secretaries run the sub-departments in which he serves. He will already have found that Northern Ireland is different, in both a constitutional and a political way, to any other part of the United Kingdom.

In his contribution to the debate on the gracious Speech on Monday, my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, who, alas, cannot be here today, quoted from the recent Hayes Report on the Northern Ireland Civil Service. That showed very clearly the difference in the constitutional position. Even if the noble Lord the Minister has no time to read the report itself, I urge him to look at the second half of my noble friend's speech on Monday. He will find that the department and not the Minister is subject to judicial review or any other legal proceedings. He may find that comforting. People are always saying that Northern Ireland is run by civil servants, and there is more than an element of truth in that. As the report says,

    "In common parlance they"--
that is, Ministers--

    "are described as 'Minister for' but it is not always understood that this is a courtesy title".
I leave the matter there.

The important point that needs to be made is that it is an undesirable facet of what we call "direct rule" that everything that happens in the departments of Environment, Health and Social Services, Education and to an extent Economic Development is done by a mixture of civil servants and quangos. All the best people are not budding politicians wanting to go into local, and ultimately provincial or even national politics. They go into either quangos or the Civil Service. Where is the next generation of Members of Parliament of the quality and training that the Province's electorate deserve to come from?

I asked that question as a Minister. I received no reply. I have asked it as a Back-Bencher in debates answered by my successors. I received no reply then either. I ask it again today. I expect no reply. I genuinely believe that there is no satisfactory answer that could be given to this conundrum.

But as my noble friend Lady Park identified, the problem is soluble. It is soluble in a way that should appeal to this Government, because it involves devolution--not in the grand, broadbrush way that is planned for Scotland, but by slowly devolving individual facets of the Northern Ireland Office to the existing local authorities, which do practically nothing--the three R's as they are called across the water. I call them LCT--litter, cemeteries and tourism. I am probably being slightly unfair, but as the noble Lord will, I am sure, already have discovered, it is a

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demonstrable fact that local government has the very minimum of powers in Northern Ireland. There is no earthly reason why education or planning, great chunks of environment, housing for example, social services and health, should not be the remit of local councils under a strong but possibly slimmed down Northern Ireland Office at Stormont--or indeed, Stormont itself.

In his much to be quoted and very well received speech last week--except, as my noble friend Lady Park said, by Mr. McGuiness--the Prime Minister said:

    "There may be only one chance given to a new government to offer a way forward",
in what he called a fragile and fraught situation. He was of course speaking in the context of a resumption of the talks. He is spot on in his thinking, as I am sure everyone will acknowledge. He went on to say realistically that governments are not new for ever. You can say that again, my Lords! Governments are given honeymoon periods when they are new and again when they are in office, when there is a new Prime Minister. We saw the latter when my right honourable friend Mr. Major became Prime Minister. Honeymoons though do not last; some are long, some are short but nothing lasts for ever.

In Northern Ireland, in particular, the situation is constantly changing. It is not the same as it was in 1969: successive governments and chief constables of the RUC have seen to that. Nor today is it the same as in 1979 or even in 1989. One thing that I have identified that has changed in the fairly recent past is that people on the ground, while being grateful for what the Northern Ireland Office has achieved in the past 25 years or so, now want to manage more of their own affairs.

I am sure that that will become blindingly clear in the context of the revived forum which is the subject of today's debate. Even though the people elected their Members of Parliament on 1st May, there seems to me to be a growing disparity between the electorate and the MPs. I believe that the latter are hankering after a revived Stormont, perhaps with slightly different powers--what in other words I have just called devolution on a grand scale. As the Minister goes round the Province and talks to ordinary people, not the higher grades of the Civil Service or the members of quango boards, he will find that at a local level people do get on and do function as a local entity. In Derry and in Fermanagh, in Tyrone and in County Down, people of all backgrounds, however they vote, get together for the common good. And it works. It works in the charities, it works in all kinds of local associations up and down the Province. It works too with the volunteer and poorly paid helpers in the social services. It would be a risk to give them more power, of course it would.

Back to the Prime Minister. He said:

    "There are times when to calculate the risks too greatly is to do nothing. There are times too when a political leader must follow his instinct about what is right and fair".
What I want him and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to do is to follow the instincts of my noble friends Lady Park and Lord Brookeborough as well as my instincts. If they do, they will find that it can

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be done easily and quickly and that it need not be done all at once. Nor need it interfere with the resumption of talks which we would all welcome.

Naturally this order will sail through both Houses--and so it should. The long-term aim is a final solution, but I venture to suggest that it will be a long time coming, notwithstanding what Mr. McGuinness was reported as saying earlier this week, that one of his conditions is that the talks should finish within six or nine months of starting, should he attend, if only because the participants are great talkers and great arguers. A consensus, even if Sinn Fein eventually comes to the table, is a long way off. I should like to use this opportunity to deliver a message: "Please, Prime Minister, don't waste your honeymoon. The lives of everybody in Northern Ireland will continue to be the poorer if you do".

12.13 p.m.

Lord McConnell: My Lords, since I am speaking in the gap, I shall be brief. However, I could not let the opportunity pass without publicly congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We are glad to see him in the Northern Ireland Office and I am sure that he will carry out his duties with the greatest efficiency.

I was glad that the Prime Minister stated that he is prepared to go ahead without agreement from Sinn Fein/IRA. For far too long, things have been held up by the previous government pandering to the IRA, to try to entice them to come and talk. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, if they did get talks, their aim would be more likely to try to disrupt the talks rather than to reach agreement. I welcome the Prime Minister's statement.

We must also be careful not to have any tampering with the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The objections raised by Sinn Fein have nothing to do with the individual religious or political beliefs of individual members. Why they are against the RUC is because it has been so effective in dealing with the IRA attempts at murder and destabilisation of all kinds. They would like the police to be people who would not be too hard on them and not frustrate their plans in the way that the RUC has managed to do.

12.15 p.m.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to congratulate and pass on good wishes to the Minister on his appointment. I know that we can look forward to the same kind of courtesy, candour and commitment which so characterised the tenure of his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Denton. We appreciated her work very greatly and know that we can look forward to similar good relations and sterling work with the new Minister and new Government.

One of the things I am sure the Minister will find in Northern Ireland is that our difficulties bring out both the best and the worst in all who participate. As we turn to this piece of legislation, I fear that in some aspects it has brought out the worst in people. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, pointed out that I am a member of the forum and there could be little greater contrast between the

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dignity and respect with which the affairs of this House are conducted and the affairs of the forum. It was only within a few days of its commencement that relationships began to run into great difficulties. It is important to point out that although we had been successful in persuading the SDLP to participate in the elected body--the first time that that had been possible in over 20 years--within just a few days of the commencement of that body, Unionist politicians found themselves getting in a great state about whether the Union flag was flying in the chamber, outside the chamber or not at all. Along with the whole run-up to the Drumcree business, repeated last summer, it led to the SDLP withdrawing. Whether it was for a good reason or a good excuse may be another matter, but there is no doubt that it was a tragedy that the SDLP chose to withdraw. Neither the Unionists nor the SDLP distinguished themselves.

If we reflect on some of the events in another part of this building, it is notable that representatives of the Republican movement of Sinn Fein were elected to that forum--a forum where they did not need in any fashion to sign an oath of allegiance or declare anything that they would find objectionable. However, Unionists had accepted that their attendance and participation would be entirely appropriate, given that they were already participating in local authorities. But the representatives chose not to come where they could come and to come here where they could not. One must therefore regard with some scepticism the bona fides of those who would claim to be nothing other than the due representatives of their people. In all those problems in Northern Ireland, one must be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

When it comes to the other side of matters, I have been remarking on the unsavoury presentation that one finds with elected representatives in Northern Ireland but good has been brought out. One of the great goods brought out in this House and the other place was that the previous government had such overwhelming support from both Opposition parties in all they tried to do constructively in Northern Ireland. It must be said that the former Prime Minister, Mr. Major, put in an enormous effort and received enormous support from the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. That shows that the best can also be brought out. I trust that that kind of bipartisan or tripartisan approach will be continued in the new dispensation.

It has started well. Mr. Blair delivered himself of a particularly fine speech in Belfast. When he did so, I note that he paid due tribute to his predecessor. It was not a matter of feeling that once in government one must always criticise those who are now in Opposition. If they did good things then, that should be supported. That was a good tenor on which to embark upon the next phase of the peace process in Northern Ireland and an instruction. It was an example of how it would be better that politics were conducted at home in my part of the world.

Having said that, I think it would not be unfair of me to point out that there are three or four elements in the conduct of the peace process during the period of the

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forum and the talks where the previous Government perhaps may offer a lesson in what not to do. I trust that the new Government may learn from them.

The first concerns the matter of openness. When Mr. Blair came over, he advised the people of Northern Ireland that he intended to instruct officials to meet with Sinn Fein. One could not help but be reminded of the fact that the previous Government had maintained that there was no way that they would have talks with Sinn Fein officials and that such discussions had not been taking place, but that subsequently it emerged that there had been such discussions. Whatever one thinks about such meetings, it is always advisable to be open with the people about the fact that they are being held. Even if people disagree with you, it is infinitely preferable to having them distrust you. I praise the new Government for taking the line that, when they were doing something, whether or not it was very pleasing, they would at least be open about it. That improves trust, even if everyone does not agree.

Secondly, I welcome a sense of realism that is being brought in. I have found it difficult to understand over the years when it has repeatedly been said that everything is on the table, when I and the people of Northern Ireland know perfectly well that everything is not on the table. There is no prospect of an agreed move to a united Ireland and no prospect of an agreed move to integration with the rest of the United Kingdom. We all know that. When it was repeatedly said that everything was on the table, it only made people believe that there was no honesty and realism in the minds of those who made the comments. So I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is setting up a realistic framework and making clear that what we are indeed talking about is some form of agreed power-sharing devolution with protection for minorities and that Northern Ireland remains within the UK for so long as the majority of people want, but there also have to be constructive practical and probably, indeed, institutional relations with the rest of the island because we share so much together. It is a recognition too of the aspirations of the nationalist minority. So I believe that that realism is very important.

The third important matter is that we must see a timescale. One of the impressive facts about our colleagues in South Africa who made such remarkable progress is that they set themselves a timetable and worked to it. In the legislation that we are considering this morning, there is a timetable of 12 months. I appeal to the Government to see that as the outside limit within which there can be discussions. One might very well say that after so many hundreds of years of disagreement, surely a month here or there is not important. That is not the point. We all know what we have to deal upon; we all know what the outcome needs to be if there is truly any commitment of the parties to achieving anything. It can be done within that time. If not, it were better that we know that the parties are not going to agree with each other. Then it becomes the responsibility of the British Government in particular but in co-operation with the Irish Government to move ahead with whatever is appropriate.

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In that regard I caution the Government a little against declaring that they are never prepared to put anything in place unless everybody agrees to it. That is simply a recipe for nothing ever being put in place. Previous governments found themselves putting things in place and congratulating themselves afterwards. I caution the Government against saying that they will never put anything in place without everyone's agreement.

Finally, I comment on the question of fairness. There has sometimes been a tendency from outside to say that fairness is basically a matter of doing the same for one side as is done for the other. It does not matter much what is done, so long as it is done for both sides. It may be a balance of imperfections but, so long as it is a balance, that is all that is needed. That may sometimes mean that so long as you are criticised as heavily by one side as the other, you can be satisfied with your performance. I do not believe that that is the way to go. I believe that one sets down fundamental principles, adheres to them and applies them to everyone.

One classic and perhaps the key and fundamental example of that is the mixing of democracy and violence. The strategy of the Armalite and the ballot paper is not one that we can subscribe to, connive at or accept. When it is clear that that is being done by the Republican Movement, it is absolutely right that we make clear that there is a price for being involved in democracy. There are rules. One of them is that violence and the threat of violence is not mixed with democracy and the ballot box. But we cannot make fish of one and flesh of another.

If that is the case--it is rightly so that it is the case with the Republican Movement--we must apply exactly the same rules to anyone else, and particularly the Loyalists. We must be honest with ourselves. They may claim that there has been a ceasefire and that their ceasefire is intact. But it is increasingly a threadbare ceasefire, if it exists at all. The chief constable--a very fine man indeed and we are fortunate to have him--has made it clear that all the elements of the combined Loyalist military command, in their own individual fashion, have breached the ceasefire. It is no matter then that the CLMC itself claims that its ceasefire is intact.

I do not make such an appeal in order to drive anyone out of talks. I make it so that when we start the talks on 3rd June we shall emphasise to those who are there, as much as to those who wish to be there but are not, that we must all abide by those fundamental principles. If it is said that the Republican Movement must have a ceasefire in word and in deed, we similarly must make a demand on the Loyalists that words are simply not enough and that ill deeds will also be judged against them.

I wish the Minister well. I wish the new Government well. I wish the forum well, though I have some foreboding about having to sit through its sessions, as some noble Lords will understand and appreciate. I look forward to the Minister's comments and replies.

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