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As some Members of Committee may be aware, I am currently chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest political party in Northern Ireland. Thus I could argue that we need the most funds of all parties for politics in Northern Ireland. With local council, local assembly, Westminster and European elections, plus referenda, Northern Ireland parties are forced to go to the electorate more often than the remainder of the United Kingdom. Politics and political activity cost more to fund proportionally in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I should be the last person in the Committee to seek to curtail political donations.
I should like to address two very important questions: first, why should Northern Ireland be treated differently from any other part of the United Kingdom; and, secondly, what are the implications of such a course of action?
I am very concerned that the amendment appears to differentiate between one integral part of the United Kingdom and the remainder. It provides for one set of arrangements for England, Scotland and Wales and then treats Northern Ireland separately. That simply cannot be right.
The citizens of Northern Ireland elect Members to another place in exactly the same manner as their fellow citizens in England, Scotland and Wales. They are governed by the same Government as their fellow citizens in England, Scotland and Wales. Why,
I know I am not alone in wondering why the effect of this amendment will be to permit political parties in Northern Ireland to do things which in England, Scotland and Wales would bring prosecution and retribution in the courts. The Government claim to be trying to get rid of even the faintest trace of fraud and corruption from the electoral process, an aim which I and my party wholeheartedly endorse. Yet proposals deemed good enough for political parties in England, Scotland and Wales are somehow unnecessary or unsuitable for political parties in another part of the Kingdom--in Northern Ireland.
I do not wish to appear cynical--perish the thought--but a cynical observer might be moved to remark that the only reason for treating Northern Ireland differently from the remainder of the United Kingdom is to accommodate a certain political party operating in Northern Ireland; namely, Sinn Fein/IRA. If the Government are to permit foreign donations to political parties in Northern Ireland, they must be aware that such a measure will benefit Sinn Fein/IRA above all other parties, for it is Sinn Fein/IRA which raises a vast proportion of its funding abroad, most notably in the United States of America. The effect will therefore be that, courtesy of the British Government, Sinn Fein/IRA will have an unfair electoral advantage.
This particular measure will be of no help to the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Alliance Party or even the SDLP. It is scarcely credible that it is the Government's deliberate plan that Northern Ireland should be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom in order to accommodate Sinn Fein/IRA. But even if that is not the intention, it will certainly be the effect.
Another implication which follows from this is that once the principle of treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom in electoral terms has been established, there is a danger that a twin-track democracy could become a triple-track democracy, or even worse, if arguments were to be advanced for separate treatment for England, Scotland or Wales, thereby leading to further fragmentation of the United Kingdom.
In conclusion, therefore, I must oppose this amendment on the grounds that it does not treat all parts of the United Kingdom equally and sets a dangerous precedent for the future well-being of democracy in a politically unified United Kingdom.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: In putting forward these amendments--52 in all--the Minister referred to two major parts of what he is seeking to achieve. On the first, we have just heard an interesting and important speech from the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. I look
The concession which allows the Green Party and the Green Party of Scotland to be separate, and to work that way--which is clearly a matter of equity and not of particular concession--is an important one and we are very grateful for it. Later, we shall come to a question that has been touched on by the Minister; namely, the great strain that will be placed on small parties in terms of fulfilling the Bill's provisions on monetary returns and the work of treasurers. That difficulty will have to be faced up to, and I hope that we shall be able to put forward amendments to change the Bill as drafted. In the meantime, I thank the Government for this concession to the Green Party, the Scottish Green Party and any other party that finds itself in the same position.
Lord Glentoran: I hate to bring a serious note of dissent into the cosy atmosphere set up by my noble friend Lord Mackay and others, but this is a serious political amendment. First, I wonder why it comes at this stage of the Bill as a government amendment. Why was it not in the Bill as originally drafted? Why was it not given the openness of debate in the House of Commons and the press comment that would follow? That is typical of this Government.
Secondly, I support the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, in his view that the provision sends the wrong messages. Is the Home Office really talking to the Northern Ireland Office? We do not have joined-up government; of course we do not. One bit does one thing, one bit continues to do another and each suits itself. I give those in the Northern Ireland Office some credit. Things are not going too well for them and they might feel some comfort at receiving a little credit from this side of the Committee. Anyone in the Northern Ireland Office who has any sense knows that it is nonsense to send this kind of message to the majority of people in Northern Ireland. They do not want to be seen as different from the inhabitants of England, Scotland and Wales.
I live in Northern Ireland. We are British people, we are part of the United Kingdom, with our representatives in Westminster. When it comes to elections and the treatment of political parties we do not want to be treated differently. I find it almost offensive that the Government should think of doing so. They are doing this for one reason only that I can think of; namely, to kowtow to another sovereign government; namely, the Government of the Republic of Ireland.
Lord Goodhart: This group of amendments is very large and diverse. That has caused me a good deal of difficulty in speaking to it. I have two matters to deal with, one being the question of Northern Ireland. The other is entirely different: it is relatively minor and, I hope, totally unlike Northern Ireland, relatively uncontroversial.
Perhaps I may refer first to Northern Ireland. I speak as a member of the Neill committee. We took a great deal of evidence on this matter. We held hearings in Belfast at which we heard the views expressed of most of the major parties in Northern Ireland but not of Sinn Fein or the Democratic Unionists.
We were persuaded that Northern Ireland was in a different situation from that which prevailed in Great Britain. There are, and always have been, a number of differences. For example, if one looks back at the period 1921 to 1972, Northern Ireland then had a devolved government with very extensive powers which no other part of the United Kingdom enjoyed. Northern Ireland also has an entirely different party structure. In addition, a significant minority of the people of Northern Ireland, perhaps 40 per cent, regard themselves as primarily citizens of a different country and not the United Kingdom. That is different from the position in Scotland where everybody regards themselves as Scottish, although there may be differences of opinion as to whether they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.
It is not only a question of Northern Ireland being different from Great Britain. More importantly, the Republic of Ireland is different from other countries which we would regard as foreign. Undoubtedly, Ireland has special status. It is a country whose citizens are entitled to enter the United Kingdom without passports. More particularly, Section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949 provides:
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