Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999

7.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order provides the statutory underpinning for the six implementation bodies which the Fist and Deputy First Ministers agreed on 18th December and which were reported to the Assembly on 18th January and 15th February. The bodies relate to inland waterways, food safety, trade and business development, special EU programmes, language, and aquaculture and marine matters. They will be established by treaty made between the British and Irish Governments. The treaty was signed in Dublin yesterday by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Irish Foreign Minister. It will take effect when my right honourable friend authorises the transfer of powers to the new Assembly. A copy of the treaty is at Schedule 1 to the order.

Your Lordships will recall that under the terms of the Good Friday agreement the two governments were required to make all the necessary legislative and other enabling preparations to ensure that the initial implementation bodies function at the time of the inception of the British-Irish agreement and the transfer of powers. This order, and the treaty, will allow the Government to meet that commitment.

The House will also be aware that in January my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced her intention to ensure that all the necessary legislative and other preparations for devolution were completed by 10th March. Again, this legislation is timed to allow the Government to deliver on that commitment.

On the issue of timing, I should like to apologise to the House for the uncertainty surrounding the bringing forward of this order. I am aware that your Lordships

9 Mar 1999 : Column 194

have had less time than usual to prepare for tonight's debate. As I hope the House will understand, however, the timing was dependent on negotiations which were only brought to a conclusion over the weekend.

I do not want to take up too much of the House's time with my introductory remarks. In particular, I do not think I need trouble the House with lengthy explanations about the various implementation bodies, details of which are contained in the articles and schedules to the order. Instead, I have arranged for an explanatory note to be placed in the Library of the House. Otherwise I would explain only that the order and its associated schedules deal with important matters as to how the various bodies will be structured and how they will operate, including their functions, annual reports and accounts, grants, accountability, finance and staffing.

There are two other points that I wish to emphasise. First, the order reflects the agreement reached between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Irish Government about how the bodies should operate. The order and the treaty are the outcome of detailed discussions over recent weeks and represent the practical way forward for the agreement reached on 18th December. After devolution the British Government will, of course, have no role in the day-to-day operation of these bodies.

Secondly, I have already mentioned the timing of today's debate; it will allow the Government to meet their commitment to complete the necessary legislative preparations for devolution by tomorrow, 10th March. This was an important target date. This date was set back in January so as to ensure that we maintained maximum momentum behind the agreement. If your Lordships approve the order today, the legislative preparations for devolution will be complete. This will therefore be an important part of the process, as was recognised by the Front Bench spokesman for the official Opposition during yesterday's debate in another place.

The leader of the Ulster Unionists also described the order as,

    "a significant step forward in the implementation of the agreement".

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State had also hoped that 10th March could be the day when she would authorise the transfer of powers to the Assembly. Under Section 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1988 she is empowered to do that if it appears to her that,

    "sufficient progress has been made in implementing the Belfast Agreement".
Regrettably, she concluded yesterday that that was not the case. As your Lordships will be aware, my right honourable friend announced that 10th March would not be the best time to run d'Hondt and thus appoint the executive.

During recent consultations with the parties, she had heard differing views: some wanted the running of d'Hondt to be delayed; others wanted it to go ahead immediately. All those who support the agreement remain committed to achieving full implementation of all its aspects as quickly as possible. All said they wanted to move forward on an inclusive basis. But, in the light of the differing views expressed, my right

9 Mar 1999 : Column 195

honourable friend concluded that if the d'Hondt procedure were to be run tomorrow it would not produce an effective Executive on which both communities would be represented. Some parties feared that running d'Hondt at that time might collapse the process.

In announcing her judgment, the Secretary of State also said that the decision could not be put off indefinitely. She therefore announced that she would be calling a meeting of the Assembly for the purposes of running the d'Hondt procedure no later than the week beginning 29th March; that is the week of Good Friday. This will give the parties the time and space to find a way forward. Many will be visiting the United States. There will be opportunities to build confidence and talk informally together, ready for an intensive round of discussions when they return to Belfast.

As my right honourable friend acknowledged, yesterday's announcement was disappointing. But, at the same time, with determination and courage on all sides, it is still possible to take the next steps to bring the agreement to fruition. We will be working closely with the Irish Government and all other supporters of the agreement to find a constructive way forward.

It is against this background that we are considering this order today. It will complete the legislative preparations for the new institutions under the agreement. The implementation bodies will, of course, operate fully in accordance with the terms of the agreement. This is spelt out in the treaty. Ministers in the North/South Ministerial Council responsible for the various bodies--or any additional bodies that they may decide to establish by agreement in future--will be fully accountable to the Assembly and Oireachtas.

Mechanisms to ensure proper accountability and transparency were included in the Northern Ireland Act last year. These include the requirement that the Executive Committee and the Assembly should be notified of the dates and agendas for meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. And, of course, Northern Ireland Ministers will be accountable to the Assembly for their actions in the North/South Ministerial Council in the same way as they will be for their other responsibilities. By law, Assembly Ministers participating in the North/South Ministerial Council will be required to act in accordance with decisions of the Assembly or the Executive Committee.

Northern Ireland Ministers will also require Assembly approval of any decisions that go beyond their defined authority; and any agreement in the North/South Ministerial Council which requires new legislation will require the support of the Assembly. Also, no agreement to establish a new implementation body can come into operation without the specific approval of the Assembly.

What we have here, therefore, is a balanced package of measures to enhance North/South co-operation. The bodies will operate in a clear framework of democratic accountability, as defined in the agreement, supporting legislation and the procedures of the Assembly. These bodies, and any further bodies that may be agreed in the North/South Ministerial Council, will provide a foundation for close co-operation between the Northern Ireland administration and the Irish Government.

9 Mar 1999 : Column 196

This order provides the statutory basis for the six agreed implementation bodies and is an important part of the path to peace in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8th March be approved.--(Lord Dubs.)

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I wish to congratulate the Government, Ministers and their officials on what must have been an extremely intense period of work which was very detailed, very delicate and very sensitive. It was carried out, as we learn, during negotiations, or reflecting negotiations, that extended even to two days ago. The First Minister designate and the Deputy First Minister--who, as we have just heard from the Minister, played an important part in the negotiations with the Irish Government--also deserve our congratulations. In consequence, they have all met the deadline established in the agreement for putting in place the legislative framework that underpins or supports devolution.

It was important that they should do that. It was important that the governments should show that they left nothing for later completion, not least so that Republicans should have no arguable case for claiming that either government had dragged their feet in implementing their part of the agreement.

Whatever one may think about the influence of mutilation or so-called "punishment attacks"--one is glad to note that they at least appear to have abated--by common consent one overwhelming element of the agreement remains unimplemented; that is, of course, the obligation on the paramilitaries to decommission. In the context of the Assembly we are concerned notably with Sinn Fein and the IRA. In that regard there has been a failure to decommission arms and explosives, and a failure even to commence the process. The argument is well understood--too well understood--and rehearsed and needs no lengthy exposition. I notice that in another place someone vividly encapsulated it yesterday by saying that one cannot claim to be a legislator in a democracy during the day and a field marshal at night. The reason is surely this: people cannot be expected to sit down and share legislative tasks and risk being told that they only yielded a point in an argument out of a fear that carefully retained weapons may be used. Indeed, there may well be a temptation to yield to such a threat. The Assembly must be rooted in confidence. The Assembly would not hold the confidence of the public were there to be any weakening on that point.

Out of one's intense desire to see the agreement fully implemented and put in place and to see things moving on to completion, there is a risk of feeling that, because this is a single point--it may be described as a small point in volume terms--the issue can be fudged. I suggest that is not the way in which this issue should be regarded. Its importance is not proportionate to the text that it takes up in the agreement.

Although the Secretary of State put back the deadline for summoning the Assembly for the implementation of the running of the d'Hondt procedure until the week

9 Mar 1999 : Column 197

beginning 29th March and one must respect her judgment, Republicans must know--not least because of the stand taken and stuck to by the Taoiseach--that on this there is no more "give" to be had. There is no more movement--and, my goodness, there has been plenty--to be had from those representing Unionists in Northern Ireland. Nor, I judge, is there any movement from the two governments.

I look back over the years and note in particular the extraordinary progress of a political character that has been made in Northern Ireland and pay full tribute to the present Government's substantial part in it. However, I feel that it has been progress of greater political value to nationalists than to Unionists. It seems not only astonishing but also, I fear, deeply suspicious that it can be put to the hazard in this way. We all share in the intense hope to which the Minister referred that, in the breathing space the Secretary of State has accorded to the parties, the Republicans will do what from all sides--east, west and internationally--they are being urged to do.

Meanwhile, when we are looking at the provenance of these new bodies, it is proper to recall not just the courage of Mr. Trimble and Mr. Mallon but also the earlier far-sightedness of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, who saw the value of Dublin and Belfast making common cause in areas of common interest--there are so many of them. He also saw the soothing value, if I may put it in that way, of putting north-south co-operation in the context of a geographically wider British-Irish relationship and the importance of making any new co-operative bodies accountable both to an assembly in the north and to the Oireachtas in the south. The noble Lord--it is only because of the shortage of notice that he is not in his place--and in part the previous administration were perhaps before their time in that regard. But I believe that we can all take much satisfaction from the arrangements that are before us today.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page