Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Blood: My Lords, I rise to speak in favour of the order. I shall comment in a moment on what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, but I want first to register an interest. I am one of the founder members of the Women's Coalition, to which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred. While I was listening to the noble Lord, I thought that we might appoint him treasurer because he said that getting money is no problem. I can tell him that, from the point of view of the Women's Coalition, it is a big problem.

When we set up the Women's Coalition, we tried to bring together a cross-community group of men and women, believe it or not, to look at setting up a political party that would present an agreed agenda. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said that he was in Northern Ireland last week and another noble Lord said that he had also been over. I live in Northern Ireland. I live in Belfast. I live in the Shankhill Road in Belfast, and I can tell the House that intimidation is rife. You would be intimidated for a lot less than getting a donation from a foreign donor. I can be intimidated for getting down to my car at the wrong time of the day.

What are the facts of life in Northern Ireland? For a long time, politics has not been at the centre of thinking for ordinary people. People decided that they wanted to do something about it. It was not the easiest of projects to put together. You are putting together a group of people from both sides of the community in order to organise themselves into a political party. It was not the easiest of projects, but it has been achieved by the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and by the Alliance Party. It is possible.

However, as noble Lords will know, putting together any kind of project takes funding. It takes funding to have full-time staff, to equip offices, to hold meetings and to deal with correspondence. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I am sure that in the early days the SDLP had that problem. The party would have looked for someone to support it. When a small party like the Women's Coalition decides to get going, where does it get the means to do it? Where does it get

15 Feb 2001 : Column 352

the funds to do it? Various methods of funding have to be looked at. Funding has to be sought. I say right now that such means of funding should be transparent. The Women's Coalition believes that funding should be transparent to all and that a proper audit trail should be in place for public scrutiny. We have never done any differently.

A small party like the Women's Coalition does not have access to funding from trade union members or to funding from private business. Many businesses would shy away from giving support to a political party within Northern Ireland. Noble Lords who have served in Northern Ireland know that to be a fact of life. Even if such funding were possible, it has to be remembered that Northern Ireland is a very small place. We have a plethora of political parties seeking funding. Therefore, we have to find ways of getting funding through other channels.

I have to say at this point that the Women's Coalition owes a debt of gratitude to the people of the Republic of Ireland. They funded us very generously to help us to get started. If the order were to fall today, where would such funding come from? I understand that noble Lords have been talking about the large parties. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, referred to the Official Unionist Party and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred to the SDLP. They are large parties. They have a great deal of money and can fund themselves. But I am talking about small groups of people who want to change the political way forward in Northern Ireland. They are tired of confrontational and megaphone diplomacy and want to get away from that. They want to fight elections. How do we do that? Do we go along to the SDLP or the Official Unionists and say, "We hear you have a load of money. Give us some"? We would not get it.

I find myself in a bind. I am not opposed to the amendment. I understand what the amendment seeks and would not disagree with it. I have already said that any funding for political parties in Northern Ireland should be scrutinised. But if the order were to fall today, small groups like the Women's Coalition would find it hard to survive, let alone grow. That is what we are after. We are trying to make the organisation grow.

I listened carefully to what was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and other noble Lords. I understand that those who support the amendment seek in some way to starve funds from the like of Sinn Fein. Noble Lords need to reflect carefully on whether that would be achieved. I have to tell the House that it would not be so. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has already said that these people would find another way of bringing in the money. If the order is not passed, the Women's Coalition and parties like it will suffer the most. That would do immense damage to a great many people in Northern Ireland who are seeking to get away from

15 Feb 2001 : Column 353

confrontational politics. I ask noble Lords to think very deeply about this matter and I urge the House to support the order.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, we have just hear a powerful speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Blood. It is a great pleasure to speak after her in the debate.

In reluctantly accepting the need for this order to be passed unamended, we are acknowledging the reality that Northern Ireland's political system has not yet reached the point where all desirable legislative provisions can apply. This is regrettable but it is a fact.

The noble and learned Lord the Minister has already presented the case for why Northern Ireland should be exempted from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act in two main respects: that the names of donors to political parties need not be disclosed, and that the Northern Ireland political parties may receive funds from overseas.

The first exemption is required because of the need for anonymity where intimidation or worse are still ever present. Until the political life of Northern Ireland becomes more peaceful, the rules applying in Britain should not be enforced in Northern Ireland. Moreover, there is the additional fact that the professional classes have all but forsaken participation in political life and the prospect of the public disclosure of donations to political parties would be a further disincentive to any political involvement on their part. That would be regrettable; there is more than enough alienation from politics as it is.

As to allowing foreign donations, again, this is to accept the reality of the situation. As the Minister has pointed out, Sinn Fein operates as a political party both in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent it from moving its funds across the border between the two jurisdictions. I should declare an interest at this point as a board member of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. During the elections to the assembly, we gave donations to all the parties described by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, as the "centre parties". I can tell noble Lords from experience--I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that I did not go over simply for lunch; I stayed for eight years in another capacity and I did not enjoy free transport or any other such benefits--that the political parties in Northern Ireland are chronically underfunded in comparison with their British counterparts. To that end, I endorse entirely what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blood. If ever there was a case for the state funding of political parties, surely it is Northern Ireland. But that discussion is for another day.

Along with all Members of this House, we on these Benches would like to see political parties in Northern Ireland regulated in precisely the same way as political parties in Britain--as the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, seeks to achieve. But it is premature to attempt to do that now, which is why we shall oppose the amendment. However, no one would wish to see this disapplication order enforced if

15 Feb 2001 : Column 354

circumstances change for the better and it could be cancelled ahead of the time period of four years within which it is set to operate in the first instance. To that end, I was pleased to hear the noble and learned Lord say that if conditions were to become favourable, the Government would review the operation of the order with a view to rescinding it before four years had passed. Would he be willing to say that he would go further and undertake formally to look at the continuing need for the order after it has been in operation for two years? If such an assurance could be given, we on these Benches would support even more strongly the approval of this order.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I greatly respect all that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, and I understand her problems. Unfortunately, however, the party that is likely to gain the most from this will be Sinn Fein/IRA. It has the biggest sums coming in and, sadly, the most desperate plans to fund. It is the political wing of an armed paramilitary organisation.

What has been its record since the Belfast agreement? We have released all the IRA prisoners, reduced Army numbers and virtually destroyed the RUC, the police force which has saved countless lives and lost many of its own. What has Sinn Fein/IRA done, except to ask for more? We were told that the restructuring of the police as the result of the Patten report was to open the door to Catholics so as to achieve fair representation in the police force and thus gain the confidence of the Republican community. Everyone but those serving on the Patten commission knew that the reason why so few Catholics served in the RUC was that their lives and those of their families were at risk from Sinn Fein/IRA if they joined.

Once the Bill was passed and a 50 per cent quota was assured, we asked the Minister a question. Would Sinn Fein/IRA and, indeed, the SDLP and the Church tell Catholics that they could now join without fear? The Government maintained a touching faith that this would happen. We knew that it would not. Sinn Fein/IRA and, I am sorry to say, the SDLP are now demanding more powers for the police board, the abolition of the Special Branch--incidentally, our chief protection against bombs on the mainland--and the inclusion of paramilitaries released from prison in the district policing partnerships. Once again, we would be putting the Kray brothers in to police the criminals.

Sinn Fein/IRA promised to divulge the whereabouts of nine of the disappeared, whom they had murdered. Only three bodies were produced, but the IRA secured splendid media coverage for its caring attitude. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have refused to encourage those who have come forward as witnesses to the Omagh bombing because they do not recognise British justice. Why then, are they causing us to spend upwards of 30 million so far on the Bloody Sunday inquiry?

15 Feb 2001 : Column 355

I am weary of telling the House about the beatings and the exiles that Sinn Fein/IRA, as well as the Loyalists, continue to carry out on their own people. It was described only recently as "paramilitary domestic housekeeping". If this were happening in England, would it be tolerated? Of course not. In the Belfast agreement, and over and over again since, the Government have ignored the IRA when it told the truth--i.e. that it would never decommission its arms--and believed it when it spoke with a forked tongue.

How many times have we explained in this House that when the IRA says that it will "consider how to put arms and explosives beyond use in the context of the removal of the causes of conflict", what it really means is the total removal of British forces and the destruction of the RUC as preconditions for something which it never intends to do? It has said again and again that it will never decommission. The ridiculous so-called "confidence-building measure" of allowing two middle-aged politicians--not soldiers and certainly not General de Chastelain--to take a look in the dead of night at arms which they will be wholly unable to identify, is another indication of the contempt in which it holds us and mirrors how deeply Mitchel McLaughlin holds us in contempt. Only yesterday he told the Bloody Sunday inquiry that he had absolutely no idea whether Mr McGuinness was a member of the IRA.

Whenever the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister go to Northern Ireland, we know that more concessions will be made, but never by the IRA. General de Chastelain's report published in December 2000 states clearly that the IRA representative has not gone near the commission. For that reason, it is difficult to understand, other than perhaps through thought transference, how the IRA could say, on 5th December, that it has not broken contact with the commission. It has not been seen near the commission.

The commission believes it to be crucial to secure substantial engagement with representatives from the IRA--as it has had with the Loyalists--as soon as possible if it is to meet the June 2001 deadline. That will never happen. I can tell noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government will make more concessions, but the IRA will do absolutely nothing but ask for even more. In the meantime, it is achieving all of its objectives.

According to the Irish Times of 13th February, by this summer, the RUC will have lost one-half of its senior management. Some 51 of those officers are taking early redundancy and, indeed, have already left. One-half of the detective branch will have left by the summer. This is affecting not only the RUC; senior Garda officers are now alarmed at the reduction of strength and effectiveness of policing in Northern Ireland. Morale is collapsing. The Garda has stated that there will be a major deficit of policing in the North. The Irish people and the Dublin Government should be worrying about that as well, but of course we are not worrying about it.

15 Feb 2001 : Column 356

All this is the work of Sinn Fein/IRA. It cannot be right, on top of everything else that it has received, to give it the ability to raise limitless foreign funds without control. I fully accept that it is difficult to police, but we have done it on other occasions. Why cannot we do it now? I do not know of any other political party which conducts its canvassing by breaking the limbs of young boys and girls with iron bars. If this order goes through, it will send a terrible message of appeasement and sheer stupidity.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page