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The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order is a simple and straightforward instrument. It is a necessary consequence of the ending of the multi-party talks and indeed fulfils a statutory obligation. Its purpose is to dissolve the Northern Ireland Forum, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is obliged to do under Section 7(4) of the 1996 Act once the talks have concluded.
The forum was established as a counterpart of the talks, not as a permanent institution, a fact reflected in the statutory duty now to wind it up. It was composed of all 110 people returned at the elections of 30th May 1996, from among whom delegates to the talks were selected. It had a responsibility in respect of issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding.
As your Lordships know, the talks did conclude, with most welcome success, on Friday 10th April. The referendum order we have just considered is one consequence of that success. If the outcome of the referendum is positive, we shall shortly have a new elected body in Northern Ireland--the assembly provided for in the agreement. Its establishment and election is the purpose of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill, currently in another place, which your Lordships will shortly consider. If the order is agreed by both Houses, the last meeting of the forum will take place this Friday. As it happens, I am due to address it on that occasion.
The forum's history has been brief and in some ways controversial. Yet I think that it will in future be seen to have had positive aspects, and to have been in some respect a useful precursor of the new assembly, though very different in its function.
I think we should celebrate every positive step that has been taken on the road to the agreement reached on 10th April: and the forum saw some such steps. Many of the people involved in its work tried hard to canvass a wide spread of opinion about issues which they examined and in doing so I think they were genuinely able to start working together and to develop a real understanding of and respect of one another's views. If they can take that learning with them to the assembly, that will be an achievement of the forum. More generally the forum has given people the experience of debate over a wide range of government issues and enabled them to look in detail at specific areas of administration and problems within them.
Having expressed my appreciation for what the forum has done, I suggest we are now obliged to lay it to rest. The people of Northern Ireland are moving on to new opportunities and challenges. This House must do all it can to help them on their way and to contribute in whatever measure it can to a lasting peace. I beg to move.
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