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House of Lords

Thursday, 4th May 2000.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bradford.

Sinn Fein and the Peace Process

Baroness Seccombe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In light of the revelations at the Saville inquiry about Mr Martin McGuinness and the decisions of Sinn Fein at its annual conference, how they see the role of Sinn Fein in the future of the peace process.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, allegations made to the Saville inquiry are for the inquiry to consider. In signing up to the Belfast agreement, Sinn Fein committed itself to using exclusively peaceful methods in pursuit of its political goals. So long as it remains committed to exclusively peaceful methods, the Government will continue to work with Sinn Fein to achieve the full implementation of the agreement.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Perhaps I may press her on one point. Assuming that Her Majesty's Government believe that Sinn Fein and the IRA are one and the same, do the Government stand by repeated statements by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that there will be no devolution to include Sinn Fein unless there has been decommissioning?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we all want to see decommissioning. The Government's position is that we will work with the Irish Government and with all parties to achieve the objectives and the implementation in full of all parts of the Good Friday agreement.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the two Prime Ministers are meeting this evening or tomorrow in Belfast? Does she agree that the negotiations are going through a very sensitive stage and that it is important that they are conducted discreetly and privately, and not through megaphone diplomacy?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. The Prime Minister is travelling to Belfast this afternoon to have meetings with the Irish Prime Minister and the political parties there. It is intended that the meetings will continue tomorrow. As my noble friend said, at such a sensitive

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time I know that no noble Lords would want to discuss matters which could in any way jeopardise these delicate negotiations.

Lord Renton: My Lords, would not Sinn Fein carry much more weight, in the short term and the long term, if it were to renounce the IRA?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, I must reaffirm the statement that I made in response to my noble friend Lord Dubs. The agreement and the parties to it remain committed to peaceful means to secure democratic objectives.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, Mr Mandelson was reported this week as having pointed out on the "Today" programme that decommissioning was an issue placed on the agenda by the previous Conservative government. He went on to say that it was in a sense ironic that this "key obstacle", as he described it, had not been introduced by either unionists or republicans. If I may ask the noble Baroness this question in no way through a megaphone, what does she think was the point of that observation? Did it presage a sliding away from the present Government's own insistence on decommissioning, and also from Labour's earlier unqualified endorsement of that requirement when in opposition?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the statement referred to by the noble and learned Lord was one in which a view was being expressed with regard to the historical context of developments. I know that the noble and learned Lord is at one with the Government in seeking to ensure that the negotiations that are taking place today and tomorrow have the very best chance of achieving the objective. The Government have not changed their position on any of the items that are included in the Good Friday agreement.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I have listened to what the noble Baroness has said; however, I should like to have the matter clarified once and for all. Do Her Majesty's Government believe that it is right in any democracy that parties should be admitted into government while they are still inextricably linked to a highly armed terrorist organisation? Would not any proposal to admit Sinn Fein into government without a commitment from the IRA to decommission its illegal arms and explosives represent a total debasing of our democracy?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, when they voted for the Good Friday agreement, the people of Northern Ireland voted for genuinely inclusive government. We remain committed to that. The Government's view remains absolutely clear: we must move forward on all aspects of the agreement.

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Decommissioning remains an essential part of the peace process. We shall continue to work for its implementation in full.

House of Lords: Standards of Conduct

3.12 p.m.

Lord St John of Fawsley asked the Leader of the House:

    What action she has taken in relation to the proposed inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life into standards of conduct in the House of Lords.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will not regard the following Answer as a rather mundane list of activities.

Following an initial approach from the noble Lord, Lord Neill, about his plans to fulfil the long-standing commitment to undertake this inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, I welcomed that approach and the inquiry; a welcome, I am glad to say, that was echoed by the Leaders of the Opposition parties when the noble Lord, Lord Neill, approached them.

I have also consulted the House authorities on procedural matters, as I informed the House I would do on 13th March. The advice I have received has confirmed that there is no formal action that I could or should take at this stage. Informally, I have held discussions with colleagues on these Benches. I have also this week held a very useful meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Rodgers.

Lord St John of Fawsley: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal for that comprehensive reply. Can the noble Baroness allow herself to bring in the Procedure Committee in some way which is fully in accordance with precedent? Can she confirm that when these matters come to be decided the decision will be taken by the House as a whole, it is to be hoped free from the imposition of any whips, pressures from the noble Baroness, my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, or for that matter the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, and his Committee on Standards in Public Life?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am happy to confirm that once the Neill Committee has reported there will be responsibility to consider any report or recommendation that he and his committee may make and to act upon it in any way the House wishes. At that time I will do everything I can to facilitate the House's consideration of the committee's report, whatever form such consideration takes. Once that moment is reached, it will be a question for discussion in detail by the usual channels.

The Duke of Norfolk: My Lords, what form will this discussion take? Shall we all be interviewed

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individually about our past? Some of us have held commissions in the Army. I believe that it could be a terrible waste of money and effort. If anyone is worthy of being interviewed--mine has been an ordinary life--I am among the first to be willing to be interviewed; but what is the purpose of it all?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, the purpose of it all was well set out in the original work done in 1994 when the original committee was set up under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nolan. The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has now succeeded to chairmanship of that committee. I understand that some of the detailed questions would more properly be put to the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, and his colleagues. However, I am sure that the noble Duke is aware that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, has circulated already a programme of the way in which he intends to conduct the inquiry. He has invited every Member of your Lordships' House, if they so wish, to submit written evidence to him. I also understand from the informal discussions I have had with the noble Lord that he will invite some Members of your Lordships' House to give oral evidence if they wish to do so. There is no obligation on anyone to take part.

Lord Peston: My Lords, I speak as someone who is as sensitive as anyone to the rights and privileges of your Lordships' House. (I am still somewhat amazed that I am a Member of it, but that is by the way.) While asserting that we have the final say in the way in which we conduct our affairs, is it not wholly reasonable to ask the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and his committee to be the body which considers these matters? That still leaves us able to choose what we do including, I assume, asking the Procedure Committee to consider the matter after the committee has reported.

It seems to me--am I not right?--that what we propose is the right way forward. We should not be fussing about the issue as long as we can decide what we want to do, as the Minister confirms.

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