Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is clutching at straws, and I can understand why. The statement of the IRA is not incompatible with the position that it will give up its arms when the British Army--the army of the United Kingdom--is disarmed in Northern Ireland and has left. That is what the IRA is saying in that statement; nothing more except to provide--shall I say?--hope to people like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in order that it may continue to take us down the road of granting concessions while it gives nothing back.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not trying to take anyone down a road; I am only trying to make a speech giving my own views based on some experience of Northern Ireland. I did not say that I was certain that the statement meant anything, only that it was possible. We need to look at what is going on. In his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, did state that perhaps we should spend our time today considering

9 Feb 2000 : Column 695

the views of the various parties in Northern Ireland. For that reason, I took him at his word and have done what he urged us to do.

This is my tentative conclusion. By no means am I certain that I am right, but there is some supporting evidence here. I believe that the leadership of Sinn Fein feels that there are more political dividends to be gained if it pursues the political option of seeking to increase its political support in Northern Ireland in the nationalist community and in winning a few TDs in the Republic. In this House I do not need to develop the benefits that would accrue to republicanism if it were able to do that. However, provided that it is done using peaceful democratic means--we may not share the objectives--we could agree on the methods used. I believe that there is some indication that that is a part of Sinn Fein's agenda.

I listened to parts of yesterday's debate in the other place. I know that Seamus Mallon does not want suspension to take place, although I would argue that, if the Executive collapsed, that would be a worse outcome for the future of the peace process than if we implement this legislation, because at least we shall keep the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in place. By doing that we shall be in a much better position to resume the review and the negotiations to get the mechanisms re-established as soon as possible.

I should like to say for the sake of those in Sinn Fein who attack this Government's record by suggesting that we have not played our part by the Good Friday agreement, that I believe that we have. We have introduced human rights legislation, the Equality Commission and we have tackled the difficult question of the RUC--perhaps not to everyone's liking, but we have certainly grasped that problem. The review of criminal justice will shortly be completed. We have reduced the military presence on the streets and there are now fewer troops in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, we helped to put the Executive in place, along with the north/south bodies, the Council of the Isles and the implementation bodies.

Above all, there is the question of prisoner releases, to which the noble Lord referred. That has been a painful and difficult issue for many people here, and, goodness me, so much more difficult for the people of Northern Ireland. They may be related to or friends of victims of the people who have been released. We received much opposition in this House, but we had to argue--certainly, I argued when I had some responsibility for these matters--that we should to do that because, difficult as it was, it was the price of achieving a peaceful settlement.

However, I say to the republicans in Northern Ireland that under the Good Friday agreement there was no starting date for prisoner releases, no starting date for dealing with the question of the RUC, no starting date for reducing the number of troops in Northern Ireland and no starting date for the criminal justice review. We, the Government, started all that. Therefore, when they say that in the Good Friday agreement there was no starting date for

9 Feb 2000 : Column 696

decommissioning, certainly, there was not. However, in terms of good faith and building up trust, it was clear that that was a proper expectation, and we achieved many difficult things. Therefore, it is reasonable for the Government to say, "Why can't you do your difficult things as well?" That, after all, is what we urged should happen. It has not happened yet, but perhaps it is still possible in the last few hours.

I talked to a person from the nationalist area of Belfast only the other day. He said to me, "People there are saying that decommissioning will happen sooner or later. Why not now?" Whether or not that is typical of the views of the community, I do not know. However, that was a view which was put to me.

Perhaps I may spend a moment or two discussing the way forward. I believe that it is important--and other Members of this House have said so, too--that we ensure that the process of trying to achieve the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement continues. We must encourage all the parties to meet the challenge of getting the Executive and the Assembly up and running again and the Good Friday agreement implemented in totality as soon as possible. I appeal to all the parties in Northern Ireland to enter into that review process as soon as possible because we must protect the many gains of the Good Friday agreement on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. There are gains; we must protect those and move forward.

Therefore, I urge that the talks should begin as soon as possible and that the close co-operation between the British and Irish Governments, to which the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, referred, should continue and form the basis of the move forward. I believe that the Good Friday agreement is the best--indeed, the only--assurance of permanent peace in Northern Ireland. We need the Good Friday agreement, devolution and decommissioning to happen. That must be the main aim of the Government in Northern Ireland over the coming period because the people of Northern Ireland deserve no less from us.

5.22 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh: My Lords, we have heard some important and powerful contributions this afternoon which, I am sure, will be listened to and read with great interest. They have been most helpful in this difficult position in which we find ourselves.

I believe that we have no alternative to this Bill, for reasons that have been explained. However, unfortunately the suspension on Friday must take place so that the structure of the Executive can remain intact and, it is hoped, be reinvigorated after a short delay. It has been remarkable and pleasing to us all to see how well the Executive has got up and running, even for a short time, and how Ministers have shown the value of local control of Northern Ireland departments. For 30 years, we have existed in a democratic vacuum in Northern Ireland. As the years have gone by, the absence of local input has become increasingly obvious. Two months of devolved

9 Feb 2000 : Column 697

government have made clear how much there is to be done and how important it is that the Assembly and Executive are re-formed as soon as possible.

Even in a short time, devolution has shown that Unionists can work well with SDLP colleagues, and vice versa. However, I am not so sure about the members of Sinn Fein. They have had a political agenda of their own; for example, it is not helpful to order that the Union flag is not to be flown on the buildings of the Sinn Fein Minister's department.

I believe that devolution, in itself, was remarkable because we appeared to have reached an impasse in the late autumn. However, thanks to Senator Mitchell's intervention, the possibility--"opportunity" is perhaps too strong a word--which David Trimble grabbed showed that he had very great courage in jumping first and testing just how valid was the IRA's intention to decommission.

However, the problem which we now face goes back to the Good Friday agreement. That agreement does not require Sinn Fein/IRA to decommission. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, spelled that out in detail. Immediately the agreement was published, that vital flaw was seen and recognised, and various promises were made that the difficulties would be overcome. I need not go into the detail of that, but this basic fudge has had serious effects on people's feelings in Northern Ireland. There are now few people who trust the Government, and our new Secretary of State, Mr Mandelson, has a mountain to climb before people begin to believe what Ministers say. He has started very well; he has spoken very clearly in the other place, and I wish him well.

That lack of confidence is compounded by something else. For five or six years, governments have largely disregarded the majority in Northern Ireland who are proud to be citizens of the United Kingdom. Governments have offered Sinn Fein/IRA--clearly, a terrorist organisation--one inducement after another in the hope that that would persuade it to give up bombing and murdering and to destroy its weapons. Sinn Fein/IRA has pocketed each gift without a "thank-you" and has demanded more. When will government realise that that policy does not work?

The declared intention of changing the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is an insult which, to many people, is unbearable. It will not make any difference as to how Sinn Fein behaves towards our police service, whose duty it is to uphold law and order. Sinn Fein will not accept any police service, no matter what it is called. The intention has been to find a title which will be acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland, but it will not be acceptable to them. It is ironic that the only title which is acceptable to the majority in Northern Ireland is "the Royal Ulster Constabulary".

As a consequence of that and similar issues, the thoughts and feelings of peace-loving citizens of every type and creed are in turmoil--a mixture of anguish and confusion. My noble friend Lord Eames referred to that and I can only confirm that I believe that to be one of the problems. It is important that efforts be made to allow people to think clearly, and I hope that

9 Feb 2000 : Column 698

we now have an opportunity to do that. I beg government to realise that all the presents and inducements in the world will not persuade Sinn Fein to decommission. There are said to be only 200 or 300 hardcore republican terrorists in the island of Ireland. To suggest that there is not another way to deal with them is, I believe, absurd.

In recent months it has been suggested that we are now at peace in Northern Ireland. Yes, we have been spared widespread bombing and indiscriminate shooting, but there are many areas in our cities and towns which are controlled either by Sinn Fein or by so-called "Protestant paramilitaries". In Sinn Fein-controlled areas, there is clearly a plan to retain control of the areas in order to prove that Northern Ireland is ungovernable. We must remember that Sinn Fein/IRA's declared objection is unchanged, and they have said that themselves: to get the Brits out and to have the whole of Ireland governed by Sinn Fein. Recently, Mr Adams projected that that would be achieved by 2016.

In those areas, intimidation, beatings, torture and expulsions continue on a daily basis. Witnesses dare not go to the police because they know what will happen to them if they do. To bring law and order to those areas will be a difficult job which will take years. But until it is achieved, we shall not have real peace in Northern Ireland.

For some people to suggest, as they have, that this suspension will lead to a break-down and that it will take a generation to recover the situation is, I believe, quite untrue. We now have capable, courageous politicians in Northern Ireland. In addition, there are many wonderful men and women who work night and day for peace and to bring people together. Things need not slip back and, with a little clear thinking, could move forward quickly.

I have noticed that there is still a thought that the IRA will decommission. I have lived a lifetime in Northern Ireland and have had all too frequent experiences of and acquaintanceships with the IRA. I believe firmly that it will never decommission on its own. We must face up to that. There are, perhaps, only 100 or so people but the belief is in their bones that they are the rightful army of the Republic of Ireland. That is their belief and they do not recognise that they are in any way defeated. That is a real problem. I do not believe that the IRA will decommission of its own will. It will make all sorts of statements, as it has done, but it has never said that it will decommission. We must take account of that.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I suppose that by now, we should be used to the good days and the bad days of Ulster politics but, somehow, one never does quite get used to it.

I agree with all other noble Lords who have spoken that this is a sad day and we have had a sombre debate. But like everybody else, we support this Bill in the circumstances which face us. Nobody explained the sadness of the day more movingly than the noble Lord, Lord Eames.

9 Feb 2000 : Column 699

However, there is a wise political saying that things are never quite as bad and never quite as good as they seem at the time. Of all the areas of politics, that has proved particularly true of Ulster and I hope that it proves to be so again.

As has also been said, in any negotiation one must try to understand all the parties to the negotiation in order to see how progress can be made. Several speakers have attempted to unravel that. There has been a particular concentration on the Provisional IRA. That is not because we do not all recognise, as we do, the importance of the so-called loyalist paramilitaries as well as the Provisional IRA but because the loyalist paramilitaries have apparently said that they will decommission provided that the Provisional IRA does so. That is a long-standing position. It has not just arisen in recent months. So, naturally, attention has been on the Provisional IRA.

It seems that there are many in Sinn Fein/IRA who now believe, quite accurately in my view, that violence has not worked and will not work. The people of Northern Ireland and Great Britain have amply demonstrated their robustness in the face of terror over a very long time.

My noble friend Lord Tebbit asked about the intentions of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein tells us that it is separate from the IRA. That is an important element of its argument. But if that is so, why can Sinn Fein not tell us what it thinks about whether the Provisional IRA should decommission?

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, read a passage from the Belfast agreement and I wish to read two other sentences from the same page of the decommissioning section. In paragraph 1 it states:


    "Participants recall their agreement ... on 24 September 1997 'that the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation'".

Paragraph 3 begins by stating:


    "All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations".

Sinn Fein agreed to that. It agreed to the whole agreement even if it is said that the IRA did not. I should add that I do not believe that any of us saw that as a total solution to the violence. I remember remarking to your Lordships' House that, among other things, fertiliser cannot be decommissioned, quite apart from the fact that other arms can always be procured. We all know, as Irish history tells us, that breakaway groups are extremely likely to emerge--I put it no stronger--in the situation that we face.

Of course, the importance of decommissioning lies not only in the contribution it can make to security problems but also in the signal that it sends that democracy has been accepted as the way in which this matter should be taken further forward.

But this Bill shows that concessions made by democracy in the course of the implementation of the agreement can be suspended. It provides for the suspension of a large part of what was agreed at that time. I hope that the Minister will not mind me remarking that a large part of his speech was word for

9 Feb 2000 : Column 700

word the same as that of the Secretary of State. Of course, we should have been critical had it been too different. But the noble and learned Lord said that all parts of the Belfast agreement have been moving forward except for decommissioning. It seems to me to follow that all parts of the agreement should be at least subject to the possibility of the same pause that is provided for the Executive and the Assembly by this Bill.

If one side of the agreement is not to work out--notably, decommissioning--then the other parts of the deal will certainly need rethinking very soon. After all, we were assured repeatedly at the time we discussed the measure to release the prisoners that released prisoners could be recalled to prison. We did not think that that would be easy, but we were assured that that could happen if the rest of the agreement did not go forward, as it apparently is not doing.

Sinn Fein says that the guns are silent and also that the IRA has not yet failed to decommission because we have not yet reached 22nd May. But, as has been said by a number of noble Lords in the course of the debate, apparently, it has not even started to make clear commitments about the process.

It is not entirely true that the guns have been silent. For example, we know that the IRA is held responsible for five murders since the Good Friday agreement. That is slightly fewer than the loyalists, who are held responsible for five murders and in addition the murders of the three Quinn children who were tragically killed. For shootings and mutilations, the score is slightly higher on the loyalist side but it is much the same. There have been beatings and mutilations and 749 people have been exiled by the IRA since the Good Friday agreement; a similar number have been exiled by the loyalists. Two thousand and seventeen families have been rehoused due to intimidation either by the IRA or the so-called loyalist terrorists since the Good Friday agreement.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, said, all this is about control of certain areas within Ulster. I believe that it is also about the preservation of the financial rackets which I have long believed are part of the momentum of the Troubles, and they need to be tackled accordingly.

A few moments ago I said that the decommissioning has not started at all, even in the form of commitments, but we cannot be sure about that because most of us have not seen the de Chastelain report. It is a pity that we have not seen it, not least because that inevitably leads to speculation as to what is in the report and why it is that we cannot be told what is in it. I do not want anything to be published that may be security sensitive--I would never call for that--but I believe that that causes a difficulty for the House. We have also had hints of another report by the general. It may help if the Minister can tell the House something about that this evening.

The really sad point is that in other respects there has been great progress. In local government and elsewhere people are working together. Several noble Lords have made that point so I do not need to dwell on it.

9 Feb 2000 : Column 701

Meanwhile the Bill provides for the possible reintroduction of direct rule. I have had some experience of direct rule, as your Lordships know, and I believe that direct rule is benevolent dictatorship. I like to think that we managed to provide--I do not make a party point as I believe this is a view held across the board--good government, but it was dictatorship and again it will be, if only temporarily, a form of dictatorship. It certainly damaged the political life of Northern Ireland no end.

If direct rule returns, I hope that it will be for as short a time as possible. We want to see a return to devolution as soon as possible. We also hope that the pause will be used positively for the redevelopment of devolution and democracy. As the noble Lord, Lord Eames, said, the doors remain open. I am sure that they will.

Meanwhile with this Bill we are almost signing a blank cheque on the basis of a report that we have not seen. We are trusting the Government and I believe that we are right to do so in this difficult situation. I hope that there is sufficient momentum in the massive desire for peace of practically everybody in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom that this is a pause and not a full stop. In Northern Irish matters hope is always essential.

5.43 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to a thorough and well-informed debate. Listening to the debate it is obvious that many of your Lordships have a great deal of experience from a whole series of angles of Northern Ireland politics. Over many years noble Lords have lived through the highs and lows of the political process in Northern Ireland and understand the bitter disappointment of the people of Northern Ireland when set-backs occur.

It is patently clear that I am not alone in saying that I wish this Bill did not need to be brought before the House today. We all want to see a peaceful and lasting solution to the problems that have beset the people of Northern Ireland for so long. None of us wants the political process, which has advanced further than many thought possible in recent years, to lose momentum.

We believe that the Good Friday agreement provides the only viable basis for progress and we are saddened by the prospect that a lack of cross-community confidence in the institutions may require their temporary suspension. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want the agreement to work. They want local politicians to take responsibility for local decisions. Many noble Lords referred to the quality of local decision making. They have been encouraged by the professionalism, energy and commitment shown by the new Northern Ireland Ministers. They want this to continue, and so do I.

There can be no doubt that the agreement remains the best option for the creation of a new society based on consensus and the peaceful, democratic expression of political aims. I believe that this piece of legislation

9 Feb 2000 : Column 702

before the House today, regrettable though it may be, will provide a means to keep that goal in our sights. It has not been drafted in response to pressure from one party and it will not be triggered because of a potential resignation or a back-room deal. It has been introduced because we recognise that the institutions cannot survive if they fail to command cross-party and cross-community support and confidence. If that confidence does not exist, the Assembly and all the other institutions will collapse in disarray. We would be left with chaos in the short term and little hope in the long term. That would be a tragedy for all the people of Ireland.

Instead, suspension, if that is necessary, will afford a breathing space by providing for a pause in the operation of the institutions. It will enable us to carry out a review and to provide a context in which it is possible for all parties to focus their energies on moving forward together. It will also serve to protect the integrity of the agreement. It will make it clear that the agreement is a complete package. All of its various parts must be implemented in order for it to retain the support and confidence of the people and parties across Northern Ireland.

Because that has not yet been the case, because there is still a crucial component of the agreement where little substantive progress has yet been made, that confidence is fast ebbing away. If clear and credible progress is not made within the next few days, there can be little doubt that we must act and the institutions must be suspended. Neither I, nor my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson in another place could have been much clearer on that point.

I turn to deal with specific points raised in the course of the debate. First, a number of noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned the position of the Irish Government. The Government are in daily, if not hourly, contact with the Irish Government. We want to see the closest co-operation continue whatever setbacks we face.

Our first and shared aim is to see whether a basis can yet be found, even at this eleventh hour, on which the institutions can continue to operate with cross-community support. The only basis for continuation of the institutions is cross-community confidence. Without some significant and substantive change in current circumstances that will ebb away fast. Clearly, if there is no such improvement made quickly, both governments face very tough decisions.

I cannot answer for the Irish Government. I do not want to say anything that may prejudice their and our efforts to find a satisfactory way forward. However, the position of the British Government is clear. We have a duty to act, to preserve good government for all the people of Northern Ireland. If, because cross-community confidence has gone, the new institutions are on the point of collapse, we shall act to make alternative arrangements for good government in Northern Ireland and to preserve the institutions so that as quickly as possible their operation can be restored.

9 Feb 2000 : Column 703

Inevitably that will have implications for the north-south institutions, as is recognised in the agreement, which states that the functioning of the assembly and the north-south council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other. We shall need to make provision, in consultation with the Irish Government, for the practicalities as far as the north-south bodies are concerned. The clear principle underlying the agreement on which we shall act is that all those institutions are interlocking and interdependent.

Secondly, many noble Lords referred to the non-publication of the de Chastelain report, dated 31st January. Last Thursday, in a Statement made in another place, my right honourable friend Mr Mandelson gave a full account of the contents of the report. He said yesterday in another place,


    "no further useful purpose is served by publishing the report because it does not contain additional information, other than that which I have already given the House, that would inform the House".--[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/00; col. 128.]

He added,


    "in the event of a further report being delivered to the two Governments by General de Chastelain, we shall publish both so that they can be seen alongside each other".--[Col. 129.]

In relation to the contents of the report he said,


    "In summary, General de Chastelain and his colleagues reported that, as far as the IRA is concerned, to date they had received no information from the IRA as to when decommissioning will start".--[Col. 128.]

Bearing in mind that the report is to the two governments, they are agreed that its usefulness to the House will arise in the event of a further report being issued by the decommissioning commission. In those circumstances my right honourable friend said he would judge it appropriate and necessary to publish both the original and further report but only at that stage. In those circumstances, I ask the House to accept the judgment of my right honourable friend.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page