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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it is well known that the British Government strongly support the Belfast agreement and wish to see it work. Following the conclusion of that agreement, the British/Irish agreement was made in 1998 and that put on a formal basis links between Ireland and the United Kingdom governments. Included in that agreement were new institutions to build on and develop the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, which is close and mutually beneficial.
Essential and crucial to this new spirit of co-operation and the foundation of the new relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland was the recognition by the Irish Government and all the parties to the Belfast agreement of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom--the principle of consent. In the case of the Irish Government, acceptance of that principle led them to commit themselves in the British/Irish agreement to changes in their constitution to the territorial claim to Northern Ireland so long objected to by Unionists. The Irish Government sought approval for these constitutional changes in a referendum held on 22nd May 1998, which demonstrated overwhelming support for the Belfast agreement and for the proposed constitutional changes. The changes to the Irish constitution took effect on 2nd December with the coming into effect of the British/Irish agreement and devolution in Northern Ireland.
The constitutional changes made by the Irish Government are historic and irreversible. They represent the giving up of what has always been regarded in Ireland as very important constitutional provisions. They were given up in recognition of the new relationship between the two countries. It is in that context that we believe it appropriate to recognise the very close relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, which is much strengthened and deepened by the new British/Irish agreement and by the Belfast agreement itself.
When the Irish constitutional changes took effect on 2nd December, we believed it only right to follow those changes by removing in this Bill one of the last distinctions made in domestic legislation between Ireland and those other countries with which we have an equally warm and special relationship through the Commonwealth.
I have tried to emphasise on every occasion the very strong relationship that now exists between the two countries. We very strongly believe that placing Irish citizens in the same favoured position as Commonwealth citizens will benefit that relationship both by building good will and by demonstrating the Government's commitment to build on the Belfast agreement in the spirit of co-operation of that agreement. I believe that that will greatly benefit the political process and I cannot accept that it means in any way that the independence of the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the constitutional position of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland will be in any way undermined.
I emphasise that the purpose of this Bill is not to bring about Irish integration by the back-door. The place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom is confirmed by the Belfast agreement, the British/Irish agreement and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We already have many mechanisms in place, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, specifically identified in her speech, for North-South and East-West co-operation. This Bill brings the people of Ireland into line with the people of Commonwealth countries with whom we have similar links.
In answer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, whether I accept that a Sinn Fein candidate could be elected both to the Dail and Westminster, the answer is yes, he could in theory, as a result of this Bill. As to whether he would be able to speak for his United Kingdom constituents in the Dail and his Irish constituents in the United Kingdom, the answer is no. He would speak for the constituents for whom he had been elected in the appropriate legislature. That is the constitutional position as a result of this Bill.
This Bill came about for the reasons I have given. I earnestly ask Members of the House to consider the Bill on its merits in the context of the Belfast agreement rather than in the context of the various theories which have been proposed in the course of this debate. I earnestly ask Members of the House to reject the amendment.
Lord Eden of Winton: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord able to respond to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and others; namely, to what extent has there been a demand, a campaign or a request for this legislation in the Irish Republic?
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, would he care to reflect for a moment that real progress has been possible in the past 15 years because, when his party were in opposition, it quite properly gave full support to the previous government and that progress has been made since this Government came to power because Her Majesty's Opposition have given them great support? If bipartisanship were to break down and we were to begin questioning every single detail of every single Bill in a hostile way, that would undermine the progress that has been made.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I fully recognise the significance of bipartisan support for many aspects of the progress that has been made in the peace process in Northern Ireland. I would very much regret it if such bipartisanship broke down. Perhaps I may make one further point. The SDLP also supports this Bill.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, we support the Belfast agreement and we have done so consistently, as the House knows. We support the new Anglo-Irish agreements which have been referred to. But this is a sinister clause in a sinister Bill. I seek the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.