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Lord Elton: My Lords, in a notable speech--which was not too far over the top--my noble friend Lord St John of Fawsley rightly said that the confrontation is not a religious one. It is a racial, tribal confrontation. However, there are areas where the religious and tribal boundaries coincide quite importantly. One of those areas is in education. It is now 20 years and six months since I found myself sitting at one end of a table with Humphrey Atkins, as he then was, at the other end dishing out ministerial jobs in Northern Ireland. The very last one to be called was education. I was a teacher and it was given to me.
Yesterday, in the Assembly, I understand that the various ministerial responsibilities were dished out, and very nearly the last one was education. There was a qualified teacher there but the post was given to Mr Martin McGuinness. Whatever the reason for that choice, it will be thought to have been intended to be a signal.
Further on in his speech, my noble friend said that while bipartisanship restricted one in various ways, it did allow one to warn and to advise. With great humility, I should like to do that in this context. If this frail craft is to succeed, we have to wish all the crew the best that they can possibly have, and we have to support them. If the crew want it to succeed, they should listen to what help we can give.
My perception of an incoming Minister for Education in Northern Ireland is that he or she is regarded with the deepest suspicion by all people who do not share precisely his or her background. I believe that it took me between 18 months and two years to convince the Roman Catholic hierarchy that I was not secretly in the business of seeking to dismantle their control of their section of education. At the time that was furthest from my thoughts.
If my, I hope, fairly gentle exterior and modest past were sufficient to alarm that experienced and elderly community, think what the effect of the appointment of Mr Martin McGuinness must do to the confidence of the parents of Protestant children in Protestant schools, whether secular or otherwise. With great diffidence, I offer to Mr McGuinness the advice that if he wants to play a constructive role in the building of a self-confident and democratically governed Northern Ireland, it will take a great effort of persuasion and some kind of significant gesture on his part to show that his heart really is on the side of the children of all backgrounds. They are the future, and I believe their parents think that they are at risk. After all, the parents are the electorate and it is they who, in the end, will have the say on what happens. Therefore, it is down to Mr McGuinness, as it is down to other members of the Executive, to convince those of other persuasions that they are unquestionably intent on the benefit of all members of the society which they govern and of children of all persuasions.
Lord Monson: My Lords, no one who has not suffered 30 years of murder, mutilation, bombing, arson and intimidation has any right to criticise those who have so suffered and who now opt for peace at almost any price. No doubt those of us on this side of the water would act in much the same way if we had the misfortune to find ourselves in a similar position. That was indeed the case in 1938 when the people of Britain as a whole had the horrors of the Great War still etched deeply into their minds. Let us hope that the euphoria of 1999 is not dashed as was that of 1938.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, last week in this House the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in his capacity as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, invited me to go there yesterday because of the connotations between the setting up of the executive yesterday and the setting up of the executive on 1st January 1974. I did so, and I am glad that I did. For me, yesterday was a day laden with emotion from the time that I entered the Assembly until I left yesterday evening.
I recall vividly that on 1st January 1974 when I became a member of the Sunningdale Executive I believed that I had reached the apex of my political career. I had striven over many years to bring together the warring factions in Northern Ireland--the unionists and nationalists. On that day, I believed that I had achieved that ambition. For the next five months, every day was a horror to me. It was not only the Ulster workers' strikes which brought the Sunningdale Executive to an end; they were ably aided and abetted by the IRA, some of whose members spoke in Stormont yesterday afternoon.
I remember in February 1974 coming along Donegall Place and Royal Avenue. During the lifetime of the executive, a bomb went off in a taxi and killed people at the bottom of Divis Street. A crowd immediately gathered. When they saw me, they said, "You said that this would all stop if the executive came into being--if we agreed with what you did." I could give them no answer. From then on, we had the Ulster workers' strike led by some very distinguished people.
Yesterday, I congratulated David Trimble on the courage he showed last Saturday. Had David Trimble not been successful in bringing his party with him last Saturday morning, the whole experience of the past two or three years of negotiations would have toppled in on him. His party and the people of Northern Ireland would have been subjected to a criticism untold and unheard of before. Very courageously, he brought his party with him, enabling the debate to take place here today on the devolution of power. However, in 1974 David Trimble was opposed to the Sunningdale executive; Bill Craig was opposed to the Sunningdale executive; and Ian Paisley was opposed to the Sunningdale executive, as he is opposed to this Executive.
However, this time there is a difference. In 1974, for the first time, there existed in these islands the concept of power-sharing, which no one before had ever thought possible, between the main parties, Conservative and Labour, with the adversarial system of "You win one time, you lose the next." Sunningdale was a very noble experiment under the tutelage of the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and the Secretary of State, Willy Whitelaw.
I now want to express some optimism. At that time, the concept of trying to bring together different factions was a new one. We tried, despite the terrible, turbulent history of religious and warring divisions. And we were very nearly successful. During the five months we sat in the executive--the Unionists from Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party and the SDLP--I discovered that every day we found something on which we could agree. Every day we sat there as Northern Ireland people--as Ulster men--and we tried our damnedest to find agreement, while outside the bombs were going off on the Upper Newtownards Road and all over Northern Ireland. It was an impossible task. The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and I sensed it on the Labour Benches. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees was the Secretary of State. It was the first time they had been faced with such opposition. And it was called the Ulster workers' strike. It was not the Ulster workers' strike; it was a fascist strike, led by fascists and supported by fascists and by loyalist and IRA murder gangs. It was not carried out by workers. Yet my colleagues in the other part of this building, as Members of Parliament, were taken in. Even trade unionists in Britain said to me, "But they are Ulster workers. We cannot be seen to be opposing the Ulster workers." I remember very well when the then leader of the trade union movement was brought over to Northern Ireland to tell them it was not a workers' strike. He received a very hostile reception at the Queen's Bridge in Northern Ireland.
This time is different. There are four parties. Four parties will make it more difficult to find agreement. However, yesterday I went into the Members' bar, the Members' tea rooms and the committee rooms where I saw Sinn Fein people talking with official Unionists; I saw Alliance people supporting the re-election of Seamus Mallon as deputy chief. I questioned many of them and came away with the distinct impression that they would fight tenaciously to keep the Executive in existence. The difference is that when Brian Faulkner met with violent opposition, he did not have anyone to support him. This time the Executive has the support of the British Government, the Irish Government, Irish America and the President of the United States. All those people have contributed over many years to bring this Executive into existence.
I said yesterday in a TV broadcast--and I hope that I did not offend too many people--that I have found it very difficult over the past two or three years to agree with legislation in this House which actually made my stomach churn: the release of murderers, the release of prisoners, and concession after concession made to paramilitary organisations.
I well remember the debate on the crisis that has arisen in relation to the return of the bodies of the disappeared, when I supported the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. We very nearly carried a vote in the House. No one talks any more about the disappeared, but it is still a burning issue to those who have lost their loved ones. I said yesterday on two or three occasions, and I say it again in this House, that a book entitled Lost Lives has been written by four distinguished journalists in Northern Ireland. It illustrates in great detail every murder that has taken place in Northern Ireland since the onset of the present troubles. It sets out who the people were, their religion, their marital status and the effect of the murders on the wider community from which they came.
I particularly interested myself in the murders that took place after the breakdown of the Sunningdale executive in May 1974. I was able to say yesterday--and many people supported me--that all those deaths were totally unnecessary. People were going into the Executive yesterday and they could have had exactly the same thing 25 years ago. Instead we have had the terrible tragedy of all those deaths. I do not think that those in the Executive will allow that to happen again. I have the distinct impression--and there are some in the Executive with whom I have never had any political relationship--that they will go in there and do everything they can to make it work.
I left Northern Ireland this morning. I know that great fear and suspicion exists there about some of the appointments made yesterday. It seems out of this world that Martin McGuinness is Minister of Education in Northern Ireland. I know that there is now great fear within the Protestant community. But let me say this--and I do not speak lightly in support of terrorists. I do not believe that Martin McGuinness would discriminate in any way in favour of any religious sect in Northern Ireland. I believe that he will accept his responsibility. I cannot see him discriminating against Protestants. The whole Northern Ireland community, Catholic and Protestant, would rise up in anger if he attempted to do so. But I do not believe that he will do so.
Therefore, I say that we could have had this 25 years ago. We have it now. It has the support of major political parties and four different governments. I believe that it will work. At the time of the 1974 executive no one ever mentioned the word "millennium". We certainly did not hear about websites and e-mail. The world has advanced tremendously since then. I regarded 1st January 1974 as the most important political day in the millennium of Northern Ireland. That has been superseded by yesterday. All I can do is to call in as much support as I can from everyone of good will to wish Northern Ireland into the new millennium when we will all try our damnedest to forget what has happened to us through so many years.
That said, I am afraid that I am going to be a little Cassandra-like, although I passionately want to believe that the Executive will work. I think that it has a much better chance than before. But we have to remember that for the IRA decommissioning means the weakening and destruction of the Armed Forces and the police. It does not put the same meaning on the word as we do. The Belfast agreement expressly refers to the decommissioning of illegally held arms in the possession of paramilitary groups. The previous Secretary of State refused to negotiate the release of prisoners against the beginning of decommissioning, and so I feel sure that the present Secretary of State will be equally clear that the IRA must not be allowed to try to trade giving up some arms for troop withdrawals and for the weakening of the security apparatus before Northern Ireland enjoys the hoped for normal, peaceful society which was also foreseen in the Belfast agreement. Under the terms of the agreement decommissioning by the paramilitaries-- I mean all paramilitaries--must be non-negotiable. We are perhaps deceiving ourselves in thinking that because it is going to be handled, as far as concerns the procedures, by General de Chastelain, that will be the end of the story. There is bound to be pressure for negotiation and horse trading behind the scenes.
I have a second point. Although the end of the review and consultation period for the Patten report is due only at the end of November, and as we may not discuss it for some time, we must make sure that we hold our horses on any decisions, particularly on any proposal either to weaken the capacity of the RUC to protect the security of the realm or to devolve responsibility for policing and justice issues. I should be interested to know the status of the Irish Government on that. To whom are they intending to devolve control of the Gardi? It would be a fatal mistake to take or promise any action which could at this delicate moment encourage the IRA, like Oliver, to ask for more.
I remember the disgraceful Northern Ireland (Location of Victims' Remains) Bill and I think about the three bodies--there were only three--that were yielded up. I know, too, many victims on both sides of the political spectrum. They all long for the end of paramilitary violence in their communities--right down in the street and in their homes. That has mysteriously ceased lately. The tap was turned off at the time of the election. The tap seems to have been turned off by both sets of paramilitaries recently. So it proves that it can be done. I hope therefore that at this crucial political moment we shall see that tap turned off finally. There is no excuse for it. It seems to me that we are in honour bound to consider the interests of the people right down at the bottom of the heap. Having said that, I passionately hope that we shall be having good news this year and next.
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