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Lord Laird: My Lords, is the provision for this mentioned in the Good Friday agreement?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is not.

When devolution and the other new institutions came into force on 2nd December last year, the Irish Government also repealed the longstanding territorial claim over Northern Ireland in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. This makes clear that a united Ireland can only be achieved with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland. With the principle of

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consent at the heart of the new constitutional settlement, there is a solid basis for a close relationship between our two countries and the principles within it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I hope the Minister will forgive my ignorance, but will a Member of the House of Commons be able to stand for election to the Dail as well?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Yes, my Lords, but that is a matter for southern Irish law and not a matter for this Bill.

This Bill is just one example of that close relationship. While itself not a commitment in the Good Friday agreement, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, it is consistent with it.

The Good Friday agreement has given new shape to the British-Irish relationship and created a new architecture of institutional links throughout these islands; links that respect the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom but provide a framework for practical co-operation between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government through the North-South Ministerial Council and in the British Irish Council between all of the UK devolved administrations and the British and Irish Governments. These arrangements recognise and build on the very special relationship that exists between the people of Britain and Ireland.

This closeness has been further illustrated by the way in which the British and Irish Governments have worked together since the devolved institutions were suspended on 11th February to their restoration on 29th May. I am convinced that we would not have got the process back on track so soon had it not been for the way in which our two governments have co-operated and persevered together, and on all levels.

I recognise that there may be some concerns about conflicts of interest. I do not believe that the holding of dual electoral mandates in itself necessarily represents a conflict of interest or makes it impossible for such elected representatives to carry out their duties effectively. It may do, but that must be for the electorate to decide and we should be wary of stepping in to pre-empt their decision.

I accept that the situation of Ministers taking executive decisions is different from that of Back-Benchers participating in two different legislatures. Ministers must be in a position to take into account the best interests of those in the jurisdiction they are governing and must be seen to do so. That may not always be obvious if a Minister is also a Minister in another sovereign country. Whether or not conflicts of interest actually arise, it is important to avoid any perception that such conflicts could exist.

That is why Clause 2 of the Bill prohibits Ministers of the Irish Government from taking up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In addition, it states that a Minister, junior Minister, First Minister or Deputy First Minister of the Assembly would have to resign their position in the Assembly executive upon becoming a Minister of the Irish Government.

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In conclusion, as is right for a Bill affecting the membership of the House of Commons, it was extensively debated in the other place. In total, some 27 hours were devoted to it on the Floor of the House of Commons, including one overnight sitting. So I hope that noble Lords will accept that it has been extensively and carefully scrutinised by the Chamber which will be affected by it. As I have said, this Bill does not, of course, affect the membership of this House.

It is a modest Bill. It does not make any dramatic changes. It simply extends to the Irish legislature existing provisions which already permit Members of a number of legislatures outside the UK to take seats in the House of Commons. It builds on the existing provision allowing Members of the Irish Senate to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly and extends this to the House of Commons and the UK devolved legislatures and to Members of the Irish Dail.

It is a further example of the development of mutually beneficial relationships between our two countries and throughout these islands, relationships which are now based firmly on the principle of consent. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

11.15 p.m.

Lord Rogan : My Lords, as I was preparing to speak to the Disqualifications Bill I was puzzled. I am even more puzzled by the remarks of the Government Chief Whip as he pleaded--that is the correct word--that the debate take place tonight. Why in the past 10 days was he asked to ensure that the Bill was read a second time before the Recess? Why was it so important to so do? What did he mean when he said it affected the current choreography in Northern Ireland? Why the urgency? Who is applying the pressure? Why the sudden speed?

I do not take the opinion that this is a modest Bill; I do not take the opinion that this is a minor Bill. It has a fundamental application and effect on the constitution. It is curious to find the Bill before us at this time. As has been mentioned, it was last debated in another place in January of this year, more than six months ago. Questions were asked in another place at that time. It was asked: why is this Bill being introduced? Why so urgently? No satisfactory explanation was provided. The question "Why is this Bill being introduced?" is still pertinent. A related question now is why is this Bill being brought before your Lordships after lying dormant for six months.

Of course Bills do not immediately come before us after Report stage in another place, but a six-month lapse is surely unusual. Indeed, it is so unusual that this situation has aroused suspicion. That suspicion is enhanced by the manner in which the Second Reading, Committee and Report stages of the Bill in another place were hurriedly driven through. Such haste in procedure is used normally only when emergency legislation is under consideration. This is clearly not emergency legislation; as I said, it is a measure of constitutional reform.

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Perhaps this suspicion is unfounded and the Government will be able to put minds at ease. The Government could begin to deal with some of those concerns by telling the House why this Bill was introduced in the first place. Who was consulted by the Government before this measure was introduced? Why was the Bill rushed through another place in a manner usually reserved for emergency legislation? Is this measure a one-off, as it were, or is it a part of a wider review of the matter of disqualification? And, especially, why, after lying dormant for six months, is this Bill before the House tonight?

I feel that I can perhaps suggest some answers to these questions. It is my firm belief that this measure has been brought forward in response to a demand from Sinn Fein/IRA. This measure formed no part of the 1998 Belfast agreement. Furthermore, let no one be in any doubt, this legislative proposal is not based on consensus; there has, in fact, been an absence of consultation. In short, we are faced with a constitutional measure that did not feature in the Belfast agreement and about which there is little or no consensus. I suggest that this is wholly unreasonable.

Let us pause for a moment to consider the purpose of the Bill. It has a clear purpose: to permit persons simultaneously to be a Member here in the sovereign Parliament of Westminster, in Dublin in the sovereign Parliament of the Republic of Ireland, and in Belfast in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. That is not the same as being a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and here at Westminster; nor is it the same as being a Member at Westminster and at the European Parliament. The Northern Ireland Assembly is a devolved assembly and the European Parliament is a supranational assembly. Neither are sovereign parliaments. Yet both Westminster and the Dublin Parliament are sovereign parliaments. Being a Member of a number of different assemblies and a single sovereign parliament does not pose the same problems as does being a Member of more than one sovereign parliament.

A conflict of interests and duties is inevitable for Members of more than one sovereign parliament. Although two nations may share many interests, no two nations are always going to have the same interests. The Bill not only allows for a person to be a Member of the Irish Dail, at Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it also permits a person to be a Minister or junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and a Member of the Dail. However, it does not allow a person to be appointed First Minister, Deputy First Minister or any other Minister or junior Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly if that person is a Minister in the Government of Ireland. Should not that prohibition apply to junior Ministers in the Republic of Ireland as it does to junior Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly?

If a Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland is not permitted to be a Minister or junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, why should a Minister or junior Minister in the Northern

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Ireland Assembly be permitted to be a junior Minister in the Government of the Republic of Ireland? Again, I fear that such inconsistency and lack of reciprocity serves only to enhance suspicion of the Bill.

The Government of the Republic of Ireland do not appear to be interested in enacting any similar measure to permit Members at Westminster--all Members at Westminster, not just those who are considered Irish citizens by the Republic's constitution--to be able to serve in the Irish Parliament. The Government of the Republic of Ireland plan no reciprocal measure. Indeed, I am led to believe that many parliamentarians in the Irish Parliament feel uneasy about that measure. That measure of constitutional reform creates as many anomalies as it removes. It serves no logical purpose unless one is a Sinn Fein Member at Westminster who wishes to be involved in the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

There is no logic in accommodating a constitutional reform on which there is a lack of consensus, which formed no part of the Belfast agreement, which is designed for the sole benefit of one political party, and which is not even desired by many parliamentarians in the Republic of Ireland, the only other potential beneficiaries.

11.23 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, in the interests of brevity and in view of the late hour, I will not attempt to repeat the arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, has put forward regarding the inconsistencies of the Bill. Perhaps I may just say that I agree with a number of his remarks.

I made it clear in a previous intervention that I thought it was inappropriate for the House to be discussing a constitutional measure, however small, at this late hour of the night, particularly in view of the developing role of your Lordships' House, as underlined by the Wakeham report, as a constitutional longstop. It is unfortunate--to say the least--that the Government have seen fit to bring this piece of legislation forward in the way that they have. Indeed, when asked--I hope the noble and learned Lord the Minister feels politely--why it was necessary to introduce the legislation now, no satisfactory answer was given. I can only speculate that there was a TD who had ambitions--


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