Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, on a point or order, the noble Lord is speaking in the gap. The convention is that the speech should take four minutes. In the last debate, the noble Lord intervened although not having attended for much of it. Although the noble Lord is a distinguished parliamentarian, he is fairly new to your Lordships' House. I respectfully remind him of our conventions.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I am extremely sorry if I have offended against any convention. It is only because of the strength of my feeling about the measure. I assure the noble Lord that I shall wind up my remarks quickly.

It is a significant measure. I deeply fear that it is part of an appeasement process that I think is getting out of hand and which we shall come to rue in later stages.

11.47 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, there are two equally legitimate views on the Bill. Indeed, there is a third; namely, the awful hour at which we are discussing it. I believe that most Members of your Lordships' House will agree with that third view.

Of the first two, on the one hand it can be argued that a national legislature is one of the defining landmarks of a state and should in no way be diluted by allowing Members of other national legislatures to belong concurrently to our Parliament. That is the traditional view.

On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has argued, one can recognise that the principle has already been breached since Members of Commonwealth legislatures can stand for election to the House of Commons, or appointment to this House which has happened in at least one case. Furthermore, it can be added that if the Council of the Isles, created as a result of the Belfast agreement, develops into a

27 Jul 2000 : Column 717

significant institution in due course, as many of us hope that it will, there is something to be said for an element of interchange and cross-fertilisation between Members of the various parliaments and assemblies of these islands which the Bill provides. In practice, of course, few politicians will attempt to avail themselves of this, as in the case of the Commonwealth. But in its own modest way it will serve as a symbol of the growing amity and co-operation between the peoples who populate this archipelago in the north west of the European continent. On the whole, we on these Benches believe that the second argument is the more compelling in the light of recent developments.

11.50 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, as is already clear, we on these Benches do not like this Bill. It seems to us a very sinister Bill and was not part of the Good Friday agreement. My noble friend Lord Cranborne spoke of the change in the balance of power in the Dublin Government, a point I have been making for some time. It is a likely occurrence.

It is also likely that Sinn Fein will win the West Tyrone election and the same person may well win the seat in Donegal. I am full of suspicion about what is behind the Bill. My criticism of the Government's approach to Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement has been consistent: there has been too much appeasement. In the days of Kevin McNamara and the right honourable Dr Mowlam there was a clear, well known republican ambition. Since the present Secretary of State has been in place, that has been slightly less obvious, except when the Prime Minister and Mr Ahern get together at regular intervals.

The Bill was driven through the other place in the middle of the night, in an all-night sitting. It is presented to us almost in a crisis situation when we know that there is no crisis.

The Chief Whip told us that he was urgently asked by the Secretary of State, the right honourable Peter Mandelson, to get the Bill through this stage before the Recess. What is it about the Bill that is all of a sudden so special? The Minister presented it as a tidying-up measure. It is no such thing; it is a clear initiative being driven for a given purpose. That is quite clear, but we do not know what the initiative is. It has clearly happened on a steady stealth-by-stealth basis; that is the republicanisation, the unification, of Ireland. That is how the people in Northern Ireland see it and at this hour of the night, as one of them, that is how I see it.

The Bill is being used as a bargaining tool for something in return. The trouble with such bargains is that we have never seen evidence of anything in return. The noble Lord, Lord Laird, made the point that if the Republic is so anxious to have Members of the Dail serving in our Parliament and with the same rights as other Commonwealth citizens, why does it not rejoin the Commonwealth? During the past year or so, I have spoken to Members of the Dail several times and there

27 Jul 2000 : Column 718

was no antipathy towards that suggestion. In fact, it was thought to be a realistic possibility and I see the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, nodding.

I return to the Bill and ask what is behind it. Furthermore, as an aside, I ask how many Members of Commonwealth Parliaments have at the same time been Members of another place. I am sure that at some stage the Minister or his officials will have an answer to that question--in writing will do but it would be nice to have it tonight.

I saw the Bill a year ago when it went into the other place. I remember it collapsing and the fact that it did not come to this House because the Executive fell. It was my impression and that of members of my party that the Bill would never see the light of day again; would that it had not. We are very suspicious of the Bill. We shall continue to probe it and to resist it at every stage of its passage.

11.54 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, under the circumstances and given the lateness of the hour, this has been a very lively debate, and an interesting one at that. A number of points have been made, perhaps with a better temper than one might have expected under the circumstances. I shall endeavour to respond to those points, raised quite properly.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and perhaps also the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, posed the first and most important question with regard to the haste, and yet the slowness, with which this legislation has been brought forward. Listening to their comments and observations, it struck me that the Government would have been damned if we had brought back the Bill quickly and now we have been damned for taking our time.

However, I believe that we should remind ourselves that the Bill was published before Christmas last year and the commitment therefore made. It is important to know that that commitment meant that all stages were completed in another place. The delay between the completion of those stages and the Second Reading of the Bill in this House tonight was due to the intervening uncertainty with regard to the Assembly and its suspension and restoration in recent months--as recently as 29th May. Because of that, the time between the Bill being committed in another place and its introduction here is explained in good measure. This is the Second Reading. After the Recess there will be plenty of opportunity to consider the Bill at length and with no particular urgency.

As to the question of consultation, which the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, raised quite properly, as I said, the Bill was published before Christmas 1999 and the normal opportunities for representation and scrutiny clearly have applied. As the noble Lord will know, one of the Bill's three clauses was inserted in another place at the express request of his own party. Clearly, some consultation had been undertaken to achieve that particular objective.

Understandably, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, also made the point that the Government were attempting to rush the Bill through the Commons. Following the

27 Jul 2000 : Column 719

establishment of the devolved institutions in December last year, we believed that it was important to maintain momentum by pursuing vigorously all outstanding measures relating to the political settlement. At that stage we had witnessed swift progress on the constitutional provisions contained in the agreement, the establishment of an inclusive, power-sharing, devolved Assembly, the amendments to the Irish constitution renouncing Ireland's long-standing territorial claim over Northern Ireland, and the establishment of the cross-Border shared institutions. Proceeding quickly with this Bill was simply a part of the momentum to move forward more rapidly. However, there was no intention to push through the Bill with undue haste.

By that stage, Section 36(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 had already amended the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975 to enable a Member of the Irish Senate to take a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That amendment had been accepted by both Houses without controversy. We had no reason to believe that extending the same principle in the Disqualifications Bill would elicit such a vastly different response. I believe that that was a reasonable position for us to adopt.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, asked why, if the Bill was urgent, its Lords stages were delayed for six months. He wanted to know the rationale behind that. Simply, it was not considered appropriate to proceed with the Bill while, as I said earlier, there was a degree of uncertainty surrounding the future of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. I am sure that most Members of your Lordships' House agree with that. However, now that the institutions are restored--on a firm basis, as I think most of us would agree--it is entirely reasonable that we should continue, particularly as the relationship between the British and Irish Governments proved to be as constructive and positive as ever during the brief period of suspension.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, made a further point about junior Ministers in the Dail being able to take up a ministerial position in the Northern Ireland Assembly--or at least I think that that was his point. The intention of the Bill is not to enable junior Ministers in the Dail to take up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That needs to be plainly understood.

The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, asked us why we were so keen to take Second Reading now. I think that I covered that in answering the earlier point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. The noble Viscount also asked whether there would be changes to the oath of allegiance. That is not part of the Bill. We do not intend to interfere with oaths of allegiance. Oaths that are taken in other Parliaments are not a matter for us and could never properly be considered as such.

The noble Viscount also talked about dual mandates and conflicts of interest. There are other ways of looking at those issues. It is already possible in Commonwealth legislatures to join two different sovereign Parliaments. That much is understood. Holding a dual mandate does not necessarily result in

27 Jul 2000 : Column 720

a conflict of interest or of loyalty. We have dealt with the problem of ministerial conflicts of interest by inserting an exclusion in Clause 2. Several Members of another place are also Members of devolved legislatures and at least one is also a Member of the European Parliament. There are Members of your Lordships' House who are Members of the European Parliament. However, those in the Executive who make decisions need to avoid possible conflicts of interest. That is why the Bill constrains Ministers.

I do not believe that Northern Ireland has been singled out for special treatment. It is being treated as part of the United Kingdom.

Some have suggested that the purpose of the Bill is to achieve a united Ireland by uniting the two legislatures. That is not our intention. The Good Friday agreement, the Northern Ireland Act and the British-Irish agreement all make it clear that the decision on whether to pursue a united Ireland depends on the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The Bill will in no way circumvent that. It gives Irish citizens rights that are already accorded to Commonwealth nations, just as they enjoy other significant electoral rights enjoyed by Commonwealth citizens. That is a recognition of the close political ties between the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page