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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Lord cannot have read his own Bill. It goes much further than the Neill committee report that he has just read out. It is not a case of electors in the Republic of Ireland being allowed to donate to Northern Irish parties, but of foreign donors being allowed to donate. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out under the 1949 Act, "foreign donors" does not mean the Republic of Ireland, but, quite bluntly, it means America. The noble Lord will have to address that matter if he wishes to convince us of the merits of his argument.
This has been a long debate. That is the Government's position. We accept that there are special circumstances in Ireland. The legislation attempts to reflect that. While I understand the questions and some of the difficulties posed in the debate, I invite noble Lords to accept that point at least. Having made those comments, I commend the amendments, in general, to the House.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: No, I do not think that we can leave it like that. I ask the Minister for the third time: will he justify the departure from the suggestion of the Neill committee that special circumstances in Ireland meant that donations could be received by parties in Northern Ireland from citizens of the Republic of Ireland? That is what it states in Recommendation 29.
Am I wrong about the Bill? Does it not go as far as I have said? Or am I right to assert that in fact the Bill states that foreign donations--donations that do not come from the Republic of Ireland--can be made to a Northern Ireland party? Frankly, if I am wrong and that is not what it states in the Bill, then let us hear the correction from the Minister now. We would all be very relieved.
However, I do not think that I am wrong. The exemption is for Northern Ireland parties; namely, for Sinn Fein/IRA, although the Minister has not addressed or confirmed that. However, I do not believe that he can give even one other example of another Irish political party that receives donations from outside the island of Ireland. Let us put the matter in those terms. It comes down to this: can he at least justify the exception to be made for one Northern Ireland party from the rule that exempts all the legitimate, democratic, non-violent political parties in the United Kingdom from foreign donations? Will he address the point that I made about Scotland? No, he absolutely ignored it. If he does not have an answer, then he simply ignores the question.
Lord Molyneaux of Killead: Perhaps I may confirm that my noble friend Lord Rogan and I are not in any way opposed to contributions made by citizens of the Irish Republic to parties either here in Great Britain or in Northern Ireland. What concerns us--and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has made this point clearly over and over again--is not a question of only £100,000 here or there. We are discussing the millions of pounds that come from sympathisers of the IRA in America.
If anyone doubts the willingness of Irish-American citizens to donate, look at the reports coming today from Washington. A trial has begun concerning 100 new weapons that had been purchased for the IRA
We are not in any way unwilling to help to facilitate citizens of the Irish Republic either as regards their voting rights here in the United Kingdom or as regards financial contributions either from them or to them.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Again I shall return to the point I made that we are giving effect to the report of the Neill committee. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is right to refer to Recommendation 29. When he spoke earlier in this debate, he appeared to accept that. Even if he did not like what it might then necessarily facilitate, he accepted that that was the case.
The issue is simply this: we accept that we are giving rise to a situation in Northern Ireland which is less than we would like to see. It must be acknowledged that it is not perfect. Nevertheless, it is the case that Northern Ireland parties will undoubtedly benefit from donations made by citizens of the Republic of Ireland. Having accepted that, clearly there are some difficulties, but that is the basis on which these amendments have been tabled. They are not designed peculiarly to benefit one party. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that they will benefit more than one party. The noble Lord himself referred to the SDLP and he should expect that to be the case.
This is a difficult situation, but I believe that we must deal with it practically and pragmatically. That is what we are trying to do at this point in this legislation. I understand completely the fervour and determination of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord and others, but we have got to deal with real politics, not politics as perhaps we would like them to be.
We see this as part of a process. At the end of that process and over time we can expect to see the situation change in Northern Ireland. At that point we shall review this exemption. That is what we must look to in the longer term.
Lord Goodhart: Before the noble Lord sits down, can he clarify the effect of the amendments on the Bill? As I understand it, under Clause 65 there is an unrestricted power for the Secretary of State to enlarge the category of permissible donors, which could therefore go beyond those who are resident citizens of the Irish Republic. Is there anything in the amendments which enlarges that further, or is the issue really about Clause 65?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My understanding is as the noble Lord explains it. I shall go away and look again at the effect of the clause and the amendments together and advise the noble Lord and other Members of the Committee accordingly.
The Minister must not just pray me in aid. I said that I could understand the argument in relation to the Republic of Ireland, although I felt a more elegant solution would be to allow all British parties to accept donations from electors in the Republic of Ireland. That at least would not be building this Chinese wall, if I may call it that, down the Irish Sea.
But we come back to the point the Minister has not answered. Is that what the Government are going to do? Are they going to say that any foreigner--that means a citizen of the United States, let me be exact about to whom we are referring--will not be able to donate to an organised party? If the Minister can say that a citizen of the United States will not be able to give a donation to an organised party, we will all go home at least a little happier.
But I do not believe the Government can say that. Unless it has changed, government policy was that Sinn Fein needed the money it received from America. That is what this is all about. If it is not, I am sure we shall all be pleased to be told. If, in fact, as a result of this debate, people in North America are unable to give money to political parties in Northern Ireland, we shall have made more progress today than I would ever have thought possible at three o'clock this afternoon.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord is pushing me further and further on this point. I fully understand that. I should love to be able to give the cast-iron assurance he seeks. But there is no practical way I can do that.
Of course it would be preferable if we could stop donations from the United States flowing into Northern Ireland via the Republic. Of course we all want and seek to see that. But no one can make that promise absolutely from the Dispatch Box; it is not possible to do so.
I fully understand the strength of the point being made. But the intention is to exempt Northern Ireland parties from the provisions of Part IV as a whole, and they may not be subject to the ban on foreign donations. The order will apply for four years, certainly in the first instance. I hope that that explanation takes us somewhat further. It is something to which we can return on Clause 65.
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