|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Laird: My Lords, I have no difficulty in supporting the order. I prefer the concept of an impartial commission looking after this type of activity rather than it being open to political pressure. There is nothing more unattractive in society than a lynch mob, which may be organised through the local tabloid press which is on the case of some unfortunate person. I am satisfied with the concept of an impartial body. I am pleased to hear that membership will last for five years. How many commissioners are there likely to be? I support the order.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to noble Lords for their support for the order. I was asked how many commissioners there will be. The answer is 15 to 20 depending on business.
The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order is necessary to ensure that the mechanisms are in place to permit elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly to take place. The order provides for the conduct of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is being laid at this time purely as a precautionary measure. It is essential, in order to keep open the option of elections if the Assembly fails to elect new First and Deputy First Ministers within six weeks. But that does not indicate the Government's intention, nor commit the Government or the parties to this particular course of action. It is too early yet to say what will happen. This is contingency planning. All our focus is on intensive discussions with the parties and the Irish Government to carry forward the implementation of the Good Friday agreement.
The content of the order, which of course complies with the European Convention on Human Rights, is made under the powers of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We are required to lay this draft instrument as the original order, the new Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 1998, provided only for the original Assembly elections. This order now replaces the one made in 1998 and falls broadly in line with its provisions.
There is one notable change. The timetable for Assembly elections will, in future, be based on a 25 day timetable rather than 19 days, as was set for the 1998 elections. Twenty-five days is more usual for PR(STV) elections in Northern Ireland, being the timetable also used for district council elections. Some minor modifications have also been made in respect of the changes which have been brought about by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000 and the Representation of the People Act 2000. These relate primarily to the control of donations to candidates and the rules concerning the description in nominations and the ballot paper.
As I have mentioned, the 1998 order provided only for the elections which took place that year in forming the new Northern Ireland Assembly. The provisions of this order provide for the conduct for all future elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Assembly elections are scheduled to take place in 2003 and the Government planned to introduce these measures at some point prior to those taking place. However, due to the recent developments in the political situation in Northern Ireland it has become a necessity to lay the order before the House now.
Perhaps I may explain why it is so essential that the order is needed at this time. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the recent resignation of the First Minister means that the Deputy First Minister automatically ceases to hold office at the same time. In those circumstances, the 1998 Act provides that the Assembly must hold an election to fill those vacancies within six weeks. It is hoped that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be successful in electing a new First and Deputy First Minister but should it not, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is then required to exercise his statutory duty in calling fresh Assembly elections. This order ensures that elections to the Assembly could be called if required and is fundamental to keeping this option open.
Noble Lords will note that I speak of an option. At this crucial time in the peace process in Northern Ireland, it is important that we keep all the options laid down in the 1998 Act open to us. It does not force either the Government or the political parties of Northern Ireland into one particular course of action or assume that the search for a new First and Deputy First Minister will be unsuccessful.
Intensive talks with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government are, as noble Lords know, taking place this week. It is hoped that these talks can pave the way forward in our continuing efforts to implement fully the terms of the Good Friday agreement. However, we must ensure, whether for now or for the future, that the procedures are in place for holding future elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I commend the order to the House.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, while we accept that this order is necessary for the reasons pointed out by the Minister--namely, in order to be able to hold fresh elections to the Assembly in 2003--this order is being taken early in this Parliament because of the situation pertaining in Northern Ireland today. Noble Lords will know that it is extremely serious. I understand that two alternatives face the Government: if no agreement is reached tomorrow or over the coming few weeks--the final date is 11th August--the first is to call fresh elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, while the second is to suspend the Assembly and reinstitute direct rule.
I have given the Minister prior notice that I should like to be reassured that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, should he wish to do so, currently holds the power to suspend all those governances that would need to be suspended without the need to lay orders either in this House or in the other place. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be good enough to give me that assurance before we adjourn for the Summer Recess.
Matters are moving on in Northern Ireland. The situation is serious and it has changed considerably since the House returned. I hope that noble Lords will not think that I am out of order if I state that we have requested, through the usual channels, an opportunity to debate the situation in Northern Ireland before the Summer Recess. Noble Lords on this side of the House feel that a debate is necessary and would be extremely helpful. We have held a number of excellent, passionate, learned and intelligent debates on Northern Ireland in this House. I hope that we shall be allowed to hold another.
Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, this order is necessary but regrettable. It is necessary if the current talks conducted by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach with the Northern Ireland political parties break down. We all hope fervently that that will not be the outcome and that prudence and common sense will prevail. If the negotiations collapse, Northern Ireland will be on the brink of returning to the politics of the preposterous. Other options will then have to be considered.
The institutions created by the Belfast agreement have been suspended once and, in principle, could be suspended again. That particular option did not resolve the fundamental rift that is the root of the problem, and there is no reason to believe that the outcome would be any different if suspension were to be tried again.
That leaves only one other feasible option--to dissolve the Assembly and to call for new elections to it. That is why we are considering the order that has been laid before your Lordships' House today. The risk is that the election may reflect the polarisation that has occurred in the recent general election. The one reason for optimism that this may not be the case in a new Assembly election, is that the voting system--STV--being proportional, gives a much fairer chance
In the meantime, as the noble and learned Lord has pointed out, contingency plans have to be made in order to cope with a situation which few wish to see come about. Of course, new Assembly elections may well not do the trick. If that happens, as I said the last time we suspended the Assembly, the likely outcome will be the imposition of direct rule run by a de facto condominium comprising the British and Irish Governments.