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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord; I am grateful to him for giving way. I do not wish to distract him from the Middle East, but I am sure he is aware that the voting system used in Northern Ireland for the European elections is the same as the one proposed for the new assembly elections. That is, the single transferable vote in a multi-member constituency.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I do not wish to continue too long about the Middle East. However, the point about the European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland is that it is one single constituency for the whole of the Province.
The system in the Bill has been chosen because it is thought likely to produce the result that we all want: that which the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, described as having diverse and perverse representation. I thought
There is no principle underlying all this, only the hope in each case that the electoral result will be what the architects of the system desire. However, I accept the need for diverse and perverse representation to be provided in the Northern Ireland assembly; and, given that the system has some familiarity, I think it is right that that system should be used today. However, no one should interpret that as support for the use of the various so-called proportional systems elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
But this is not the end of the matter. The assembly--if it comes about, as we hope--will have an incredibly difficult time. I suspect that we shall have a difficult time in trying to set it on its course in later Bills. However, there is no doubt that this Bill is right; and we wish the assembly and the Bill well.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, the debate this afternoon has understandably ranged widely. The agreement reached in Belfast last month, and the government legislation which arises out of it, are inevitably compromises which by their nature cannot give everything to everyone. We understand the concerns that people have about aspects of the Bill. But we had to move rapidly and this is an important step on the way to achieving the aims that we all wish to achieve for Northern Ireland.
I think that the House today has been tolerant and understanding of the situation. I am grateful for the support that the Bill has received from all sides of the House. I believe that the support was unanimous. Everyone who spoke gave support, albeit with some qualifications, for what the Government seek to do. I hope that we can take the Committee stage in a similarly constructive manner and put the Bill onto the statute book within the next couple of days.
Many detailed points have been raised. However, they are points of considerable importance, and I may be a little longer in responding to the debate earlier than I would have wished to be. I hope that noble Lords will bear with me on that because the issues are crucially important to the future of Northern Ireland and indeed to the future of the whole of the United Kingdom.
Two main issues were referred to by many noble Lords. One was decommissioning. The other was the RUC. Of course many noble Lords also referred to matters which we shall be able to consider in more detail when we deal with later legislation; namely, prisoners, and the large constitutional or settlement Bill which will put in place the new arrangements. Therefore I do not
Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the parties to the Belfast agreement reaffirmed their commitment, as one of the Mitchell principles, to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They confirmed their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the independent commission and to use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years of the agreement being endorsed in referendums north and south. Those commitments are welcome and worth while, and we expect them to be honoured. Any party committing itself to support the agreement must be deemed to take on those commitments as well.
More generally, the agreement is a package. It represents a finely struck balance between conflicting viewpoints. None of the parties to the agreement is entirely happy with every aspect of it, but all must accept that the only way forward is to implement the whole package. Unless every aspect of the deal is followed through, the political consensus which the agreement was able to establish could fall apart, leaving everyone worse off.
The decommissioning of illegal weapons, even the modest beginning of such a process, would be an enormously significant and positive confidence building measure. Ordinary decent people on both sides of the community need to be relieved of the burden of fear and intimidation which Loyalist and Republican paramilitary organisations have imposed on them; and will feel more comfortable about moving forward to accept and implement the agreement if there is real evidence of commitment to exclusively peaceful means. I appeal to all those in possession of such weapons to make the necessary move and help build that wider public confidence.
An initial, highly desirable step would be the nomination of a representative from each paramilitary organisation to enter into discussions with the independent commission. One paramilitary organisation associated with a party to the negotiations has nominated such a representative: the others should follow suit. Any other paramilitary organisation wishing to consider decommissioning should also be encouraged to nominate a representative.
As to the holding of ministerial office in the assembly, it is a key part of the agreement that such posts should be shared out on a proportional basis. Equally, there is a requirement on those taking shadow office when the assembly first meets to affirm their commitment to non-violence and to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and their opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose; and to work in good faith to bring the new arrangements into being.
The agreement also provides a mechanism, set out in paragraph 25 on pages 7 and 8 of Command Paper 3883, through which those who do not use only democratic, non-violent means can be excluded or removed from office by a cross-community vote in the assembly. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has given an assurance that if, during the course of the first six months of the shadow assembly or the assembly itself, these provisions are shown to be ineffective, the Government will support changes to those provisions to enable them to be made properly effective. I am happy to reaffirm that commitment.
It would be a travesty of democracy if representatives of a party associated with a paramilitary organisation were members of the assembly executive committee at a time when it had become clear that any cease-fire by that paramilitary organisation had been a purely tactical manoeuvre and that organisation continued to engage in or to threaten terrorism.
The key point is that political parties associated with paramilitary organisations should be able to inspire in the other parties sufficient confidence to enable them to work constructively together. The decommissioning of illegal weapons held by associated paramilitary organisations would be the natural and obvious way to build confidence in such parties' commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of pursuing political objectives. But circumstances can change; other ways of demonstrating that commitment or at least reducing the suspicion and concern of other political parties may be found. At the end of the day the various parties will either have sufficient confidence in each other to work this agreement or they will not; it stands the best chance of working if all the elements of the agreement are implemented in full; and history will judge harshly those who provided the obstacle to a peaceful and settled future for Northern Ireland.
I now turn to the other broad theme running through the contributions to this debate. It concerns the RUC. I say without hesitation that Northern Ireland has for many years owed a great debt to the RUC, and so indeed has the whole of the United Kingdom. We have come to depend heavily on the RUC. I believe that your Lordships would agree. The sacrifices made by the RUC are recognised in the agreement. It is important that in the terms of the agreement we have a police service which can enjoy widespread support and be seen to be an integral part of the community as a whole. Pointing the way towards that is a challenging task of the Independent Commission on Policing. I very much welcome the support from many noble Lords, which is extremely useful, for its prospective chairman. The RUC will remain a very important contributor to the society in Northern Ireland. It has nothing to fear from the work of the independent commission. I give your Lordships total assurance on that point.
Perhaps I may now deal with a number of specific points made during the debate. First, I wish to pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. He was generous in recognising the part played by others. However, it has to be placed on record that he played an important part in the proceedings and events in Northern
Of course we agree entirely that direct rule diminished the capabilities of local politicians in Northern Ireland to exercise democratic power. It is a gap that we want to fill. That is why we are moving quickly with this measure, which will be the first stage in handing power back to local politicians.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked a number of questions. He asked in particular about by-elections and how replacements would be made. We have not yet held the elections for the assembly; we are still consulting the political parties in Northern Ireland on that matter, and different models are being proposed. We hope to be able to announce the outcome of those consultations shortly.
The noble Lord also asked when the shadow assembly would become substantial. It will of course require the settlement Bill, which will be placed before this House later this year, to make the shadow assembly into a substantial assembly. I hope that the shadow assembly will cease to exist and be replaced by the assembly early next year. I do not want to be more specific, because the legislation to achieve that end will be quite substantial. I cannot fully predict how quickly noble Lords and Members of the other place will respond to the extra burden placed upon them. However, I can give the noble Lord complete assurance that "temporary" in this case is "temporary". We intend to move forward very quickly. Assuming that the referendum decision is a clear "Yes", we shall tend to move forward very quickly with other measures to put the new arrangements in place. I give the noble Lord complete assurance that "temporary" is certainly "temporary".
I now pay tribute to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath. It was a pleasure to hear. It was informed, clear and interesting, and made a positive contribution to the debate. Along with other Members of the House, I look forward to further contributions from the noble Lord. He speaks with a knowledge and authority that will help in our deliberations.
The noble Lord asked a number of questions. He asked first about personation. Clearly, that has been a problem in Northern Ireland for some time, and the Government are determined to act on the matter. We have already taken steps for the referendum--for example, increasing the scrutiny period for absent voting applications to 14 days, so as to give the chief electoral officer more time in which to stamp out abuse. The elections order under this Bill will apply that longer scrutiny period. It will also tighten up arrangements for absent voting on medical grounds, which has been one of the alleged abuses in the system in Northern Ireland. The Government's election review is due to report later in the summer. It will point the way to further steps for ensuring that elections are fair and democratic.
The noble Lord also asked whether ballot papers could indicate whether the member of the party concerned supported or opposed the agreement. I think he was referring to individual candidates and not the party as a whole. That would be a significant departure from usual practice. We leave it to the parties and the candidates to describe themselves and present their policies at election time. It would be very difficult to depart from that arrangement in Northern Ireland. Most parties make it clear where they stand, and I am sure they will do so. I am sure that individual candidates will also make their position clear. Indeed, to judge by the Northern Ireland newspapers recently, they are making their position abundantly clear. I do not believe that voters in Northern Ireland will be in any doubt as to where an individual candidate stands as regards his or her support for or opposition to the agreement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, asked a number of questions. She asked about the Parades Commission. I am sure that noble Lords will realise that the commission has recently faced extremely difficult tasks. The North Report recommended that the commission should issue a non-binding initial view on a series of contested parades. That recommendation attracted considerable support, both here and in another place. The commission recognised the political sensitivities to which such an initial view might give rise, particularly at the present time. It postponed issuing its view once to prevent an adverse impact on the Stormont talks. The Prime Minister wrote to the chairman of the Parades Commission suggesting that an initial view could sensibly be postponed, given the political circumstances, but the chairman of the commission, Alistair Graham, was free to accept or reject that advice. He is entirely independent in his role as chairman of the commission. That he chose to accept the advice in this instance is to be welcomed. I believe that everyone in the House appreciates the difficulties that the parades issue raises in Northern Ireland and the very difficult tasks that the Parades Commission has in exercising its role in an independent fashion. I am sure that the commission will have widespread support.
The noble Baroness also referred to the 125 extra public servants. These are the extra posts which are necessary for the new assembly. It may well be that other posts will disappear in the process. If we can make savings by releasing other people, of course we shall do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, referred to election regulations. It is standard practice for such details to be set out in secondary legislation rather than cluttering up primary legislation with them. The elections order, which will follow shortly, will contain provisions on such matters as deposits. Your Lordships will have an opportunity to debate these matters in detail.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, also made a helpful contribution. I am grateful to him for his positive comments, including those relating to the economic boom that will follow in Northern Ireland once there is a prolonged period of peace. He spoke about the need to look at the agreement as a whole, and I very much welcome that. I hope I have given him some assurance as regards his comments about the RUC. I made my comments earlier because I believe what he said was important in relation to the need for widespread confidence in the RUC and any changes that may take place.
I now turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. He suggested that the assembly should have lesser powers. That may be his view, but we are talking about the agreement as a whole, and we have to abide by the decision made by the parties to the agreement. He suggested that the assembly might be too large. I think we had the answer to that from the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who blamed the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for the size of the assembly. I do not wish to become involved in the argument, except to say that we have an assembly of a certain size and I believe that the people of Northern Ireland will want to make it work. It was again a compromise between different views and pressures. It will ensure that minority views in the community may have the chance to have a political voice.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, for having to leave the Chamber for a time when he spoke, but I was given the gist of his comments. He felt that civil servants were too powerful, and he was concerned about the role of quangos, a concern which I share. We shall have to see how the new assembly will deal with a number of quangos. In my experience, civil servants in Northern Ireland have behaved in an excellent and supportive manner. I have no quarrel with the broad generality of civil servants.
The noble Lord was also concerned about the use of the word "political". We say that criminals are criminals. Paramilitary organisations may have political motives, but that does not make them political in any way. I do not like the way in which the word "political" is used by some people to justify their actions. People with political motives who behave in a criminal way are criminals; that is the be-all and end-all of it.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made a very important point when he said that he had put aside his reservations about prisoners for the greater good of Northern Ireland. I believe that that probably characterises the views of many noble Lords. Whatever reservations we have, we have put them aside for the greater good of Northern Ireland in order to have a proper outcome.
I take the point made by the noble Lord about the appallingly large number of members of the RUC who have given their lives over the past 30 years. I note his comment about the photographs which appeared recently in the Daily Telegraph.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked whether the agreement could be changed only by reconvening the participants. The key features of the agreement must come before your Lordships and the other place for consideration, and further legislation will follow. But I believe that we must respect the fact that this agreement has achieved support across communities in Northern Ireland, as I hope will be evidenced by the result of the referendum to be held shortly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, said that it was important that we should reassure ordinary people. Yes, that is absolutely vital. We must give assurance to the ordinary people in Northern Ireland that they will have a better and more secure future, free from threats of violence. The Government and, I hope, all the political parties in Northern Ireland will seek to give that reassurance.
I reject the idea that there are no-go areas for the RUC. There may be areas that are more difficult than others to police, but I do not believe that there are any no-go areas. The RUC is responsible for law and order throughout all parts of Northern Ireland. We certainly do not want a political police force. That would be anathema to people here and in Northern Ireland.
The noble Baroness asked about the difficulties that have existed in the past in relation to extradition from the Irish Republic. I recognise that that has been a problem, but the situation has been transformed in recent years. I can assure noble Lords that there will be the utmost co-operation in defeating those forces which seek to use terrorism to achieve political ends in Northern Ireland. In that context, I am sure that noble Lords will welcome the splendid work of the Garda in recent weeks in foiling a series of potentially deadly terrorist attacks. They have been particularly successful in recent weeks and many lives have been saved as a result.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, asked about qualifications for members of the assembly or whether any members would be disqualified. Those connected with serving a sentence of more than one year are disqualified, though sometimes the problem is obtaining the evidence to secure a conviction. Membership of the IRA and the LVF is illegal and therefore that would be another element leading to disqualification.
I welcome the contribution from my noble friend Lord Longford. He speaks with a history of many years' knowledge of Northern Ireland and, indeed, I believe he has been there more than any of us. I welcome his support for the Government's proposals in this respect.
I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rathcavan, that a "No" vote would have appalling consequences for Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, speaks from the experience of being in the talks and having spent many hours and days--it probably seems like years--in helping to achieve the agreement that was obtained. I welcome his positive contributions, not only today but on other occasions. If I can avoid being partisan, I am sure that the voters of Northern Ireland will see to it that his merits are rewarded in the elections that follow--though perhaps I have gone a bit further than I should have done.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that he would sleep on the point in relation to the amendments he tabled as to whether he wants to move them. I hope that he sleeps well. I hear what he says about the single transferable vote and the system of PR. But that system has been agreed in Northern Ireland; it is what the parties to the agreement wanted and we must accept their wishes. However, in one phrase he summed up the debate and the Government's view: whatever its defects, this is the best deal that is available; and therefore I commend it to the House.
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