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I cannot say that I welcome the Bill in that its cause is most unwelcome. However, having said that, I welcome it in the sense that it deals with a most unwelcome problem. The Government had little alternative and they are right to bring it forward.
My noble friend Lord Glentoran is right. The cause of the problem is Sinn Fein/IRA. It is a pity that the Government did not take powers to exclude the IRA's spokesmen from Government and allow the elections and devolved government to go ahead.
Many years ago the late Iain Macleod, when referring to a Labour Chancellor who brought forward a Budget which did not raise taxation as much as normal, said that one should welcome even a one-legged Father Christmas. It is in the same spirit that I offer my salutations to the Secretary of State, Mr Murphy, who has at least drawn a line over which he says he will not be dragged by the IRA; a line over which he says he will drag the IRA. I hope that he stands by that. It is a most welcome change.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said that in Northern Ireland there is no trust between the nationalist and unionist communities. That is certainly true. I welcome the glimmer of a sign that there is now no longer much trust between the Government and the IRAfor the IRA has certainly betrayed the trust in which the Government engaged with it.
Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, I declare an interest as an endangered species. I am the only Member of your Lordships' House who is fighting the present election in Northern Ireland as a properly nominated candidate, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, having decided not to stand again.
I am not, of course, the only person nominated in Northern Ireland. I hold before me the nominations of some 200 people who are presently legally nominated as candidates in the elections which the Bill, if approved, will suspend. Those candidates come not only from my own party, the Ulster Unionist Party, but also from the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the DUP, independents and candidates from minority parties. In other words, right across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland there was interest in getting involved in the elections of 29th May. Then, for reasons that I still do not really understand, the Government have decided to suspend those elections.
I agree with those who have said that the proceedings in another place were an abomination. I wish to place on record my appreciation that the Leader of the House has decided that, first, we should have two days to debate the Bill in your Lordships' House; and, secondly, that he has already responded to some of the points made in another place and brought forward amendments. We appreciate that. However, the Bill itself is deplorable.
It represents, of course, another stage in the sad history of the island in which I live; an island which has been troubled since the Irish invaded our island of Scotia many, many years ago. They drove the Scotis out across the water and created a new land called Scotland, which got its name from the Scotis who lived in Scotia. The Irish then changed the name to Hibernia and so the troubles went through the centuries. In the 17th century, the Scots returned to Northern Irelandto what was then Ulsterand created a British majority in what is now Northern Ireland. I am a member of one of those original Scots families who returned to the parish of Kilclooney in South Armagh which is, to this day, a Scottish settlement.
Then we had partition. The great problem in Northern Ireland was how the British majority in Northern Ireland could accommodate and work with the Irish minority who remained in Northern Ireland. Strangely enough, Northern Ireland is becoming more British by the day, as a considerable number of people are moving from Britain to Northern Ireland to live because they assume that the quality of life there is now better than in many other parts of the United Kingdom. I noticed in the recent census in Northern Ireland that almost 10 per cent of people in Antrim
The great challenge to us, the British majority, was to accommodate this Irish minority in Northern Ireland. As one of the three negotiators for the Ulster Unionist Party who brought about the Belfast agreement, I believed we had an answer which would have made a success of devolution in Northern Ireland, given us the advantage of having local Ministers deciding on local issues and involved Catholics, Protestants, atheists, Unionists, nationalists and republicans in the government of Northern Ireland.
The Government, the Prime Minister, my own party and others, sold the idea of the Belfast agreement in that referendum as a basis for peace in Northern Ireland and, above all, the end of paramilitary and terrorist activity in Northern Ireland. But I am sad to say that five years later, that is not the case. Paramilitarism on both sides, loyalist as well as republican, exists today in Northern Ireland and, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, there is no trust between the British majority and the Irish minority communities in Northern Ireland. Why is that? It is because the IRA has simply failed to respond to the challenge from the Prime Minister, the Government, the Irish Government, the SDLP and the Unionists. It has failed to say, "The war is over". That is necessary for trust to begin to be restored in Northern Ireland.
The IRA has been condemned for this failure by the Dublin and Westminster Governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland. What has been the response of our own Government? Has it been to impose sanctions against Sinn Fein/IRA? No. They have proposals for further concessions to Irish nationalism within Northern Ireland. In this context, I was very interested in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I recommend that people give some thought to the schedule and timetable that he recommended rather than what is in the Bill. I am one of those who believe that the election should have been held on 29th May. People have been nominated, deposits have been made, 200 candidates are in the field. By the end of this week, they will no longer be candidates.
Alongside the Bill there is the joint declaration from the two Governments. It is proposed to implement much of the declaration without any prior response from Sinn Fein/IRAyet again a concession. The Government move ahead even though Sinn Fein/IRA have not responded to the requirements that the Government have laid down. I regret to say that in proceeding with the implementation of this declaration without any movement by Sinn Fein/IRA, the Government will further erode Unionist support for devolution in Northern Ireland and especially for the Belfast agreement. I say that as one of the authors of that agreement. I know how our people in Northern Ireland think and I know that this will be resented strongly by the majority community in Northern Ireland.
One of the other proposals is the monitoring of parties and individual members of the Assembly. Notice the word "parties". Will the Lord Privy Seal let us know whether, in that declarationI know it is not part of the Bill but it was issued in parallel with the Billthe word "parties" includes the IRA or is it yet another word game in which it only means Sinn Fein? If it only means Sinn Fein, we have lost the argument yet again, and the monitoring committee will not be effective. It is supposed to be an independent monitoring body, but it is not a United Kingdom monitoring body. It includes a representative from republican Irelandfrom the Republic of Ireland. That is a total denial of the basis on which we reached agreement on the Belfast agreement.
Those involved in the Belfast agreement and those who know what was in it will recall that there were three strands. In strand 1, the Dublin representatives were excluded, kept outside the building. They were not allowed to take part in any matter affecting strand 1, which was devolution at Stormont. Yet what are the Government agreeing to now? They are agreeing to Dublin being involved in strand 1, in the Stormont Assembly and its operation. That is a rejection of one of the principles of the Belfast agreement which the people supported in the referendum. Yet again, that will damage support for what the Government are trying to achieve.
On the rejection of Dublin's involvement in devolution and Stormont, I want in passing to mention the recent comments by the Prime Minister of Southern Ireland, Mr Bertie Ahern, in his public attack on the leader of my party, Mr David Trimble, last week. That, yet again, is a damaging intervention by Dublin which has not helped the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. Mr Ahern should not be involving himself in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland and he should not be attacking the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on the role he plays at Stormont. Megaphone politics were supposed to end with the signing of the Belfast agreement. Sadly, Dublin seems to be resuming them.
I have one or two questions for the Lord Privy Seal. I refer first to Clause 2. After the Assembly was suspended, we were told that it would probably be to the autumnnow it appears to be 31st December. How does that work with the review of the Belfast agreement? When will that review begin? When is it likely to end? Is it really advisable to have an election before the review has been completed? How can you fight an election to a devolved Assembly when that Assembly will be reviewed and changed shortly after the election? We need to know more clearly how these dates work with each other.
Clause 3 contains the proposal to compensate parties and candidates for expenditure on the present election campaign. Of course expenditure has been considerable. Printing work has been done and election broadcasts have gone out on the BBC. The whole election machinery has been going ahead in Northern Ireland, and it is quite incredible that we are now suspending it. So I agree that there has been expenditure and that it should be compensated.
Clause 4 is more controversial. As I have already declared an interest, I shall speak on it openly. The clause deals with the question of remuneration and payments to staff. The provisions in the original Bill on remuneration were ridiculous. Obviously, it is right that the salary should be reduced for MLAs, but the idea that that should have gone on indefinitely until there was an election was quite unbelievable. Now I assume that it will proceed only until the 31st December this year.
I agree that there should be a significant decrease in the salaries of former MLAs. However, as Members of your Lordships' House will understand, some MLAs were not going to stand again in this election. What is their position? Are they to get a renewal of a salary until the end of December this year, even though they are not to be candidatesor does the provision apply only to those who intend to be candidates? How is that matter to be cleared up?
I am much more sympathetic on the subject of office cost allowances. First, Members have staff, who are important to the officers, the service and to the electorate in all 18 constituencies. I refer to the staff for all parties and for all former Members of the Legislative Assembly. However, those staff have contracts; they are not like MLAs, who are elected one day and rejected at the next election, the next day. The staff are different: they are employed, have contracts and will have the right to redundancy payments. If the delay in the election lasts until the end of December, it might be wiser to retain the staff rather than get involved in labour or employment legislation or contests about what redundancy payments should be paid. A multitude of problems need to be addressed before any decision is made on the payment of staff.
To overcome the various problems that could arise with MLAs, I should have preferred a resettlement allowance for all MLAs and to forget about any salaries hereon in, depending on what happens next year and whether there is an election.
Finally, I want to ask a question about the Northern Ireland Policing Board, on which I presently serve. Incidentally, the political members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board are not the ones who have been asking for increased expenses. They do not get expensesit is the other members who have been demanding it. I read in newspapers in Belfast this week that all the members of the board were looking for increased payments, but the political members do not get payments. What is their position?
When the Assembly was suspended, the Government introduced new rules whereby MLAs in the suspended Assembly could continue their membership of the Northern Ireland Policing Board as if they were still MLAs. However, we are now in a different situation because it is not just a suspended Assemblyit is a dissolved Assembly. Since the dissolution, what is the position of the former MLAs who presently serve on the Northern Ireland Policing Board?
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, this is a Bill that no one with the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart wanted to see. However, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, it is not a wretched Bill. It is a sad Bill, but it is evidence of a commitment to the future of Northern Ireland.
The Belfast agreement raised expectations, and to give in at this stage would be tantamount to giving up. It is obvious that neither the UK nor the Irish government wanted to make last week's announcement of the suspension of the election for the Assembly. It was, indeed, a bitter blow to all who have worked so hard for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, stated that the Taoiseach did not want suspension: but no one wanted suspension. However, the Taoiseach stood firmly by as one with the Prime Minister, and both were resolute that the conditions for the removal of suspension had not been met. Let us not forget that the joint declaration by the British and Irish governments describes how the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to live in a society that is,
The "wants" described in the joint agreement might seem a wholly unobtainable wish list if one still thinks of Northern Ireland as a place where almost none of those aspirations were met in the past 34 yearsor, indeed, the past 83 years, or even since the Battle of the Boyne in the 17th century. As an aside, I relish the historic review of the whole history of Northern Ireland offered us by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. However, when he said that the major problem facing the British in Northern Ireland after partition was how they would deal with the minority, he should probably have looked over the border. In my lifetime, there has never been a problem with the Irish in the Republic dealing with the British minorityat least, not according to my mother, who was British.
Huge strides have been made in the past five years, although "strides" is probably not the right description. Agonising, tiny steps have been made by successive governments and by the people of Northern Ireland themselves. Too often we look for and find the bad things; on the other side of the scale, there has been a huge improvement in almost every area of political, social and economic life in the Province. However, good news does not make the news.
Recent dialogues have led to much of the wish list that I mentioned being in the grasp of Northern Ireland. At its simplest, the main remaining obstacle that needed to be overcome was the commitment to bringing an end to paramilitarism and violence. Of course, that is a tall order. Nobody ever expected it to be easy, but both governments demanded that it should be delivered. Sinn Fein/IRA gave a strong impression that it would be delivered, and there was certainly no indication that it would not be delivered. At the very last moment, we were all let down. The question must be asked, "Can they deliver, or are they unable to do so?"
The significance of the inability to deliver cannot be underestimated. A vacuum exists; politics goes out the window; and the bounce in the step vanishes. Paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, quoted by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal, makes it crystal clear what was required. It was not achieved and I personally believe that until it is, the suspension of the Assembly is inevitable. Above all, trust has to be present, real and apparent in Northern Ireland. How can there be trust if Sinn Fein/IRA will not commit to cease immediately all paramilitary activity?
If the sanction of no Assemblyand that is what it is, a sanctionis given up, what incentive is there for Sinn Fein/IRA to cease their murderous, terrifying activities? They would win on all sides and be seen to win and the hopes of long-term peace and stability would vanish. They need to be confronted by the reality that they cannot expect to be partners in peace while still running their gangs involved in violence and intimidation of the most horrific kind, not to mention racketeering and smuggling.
We have come so far. We cannot throw away five years of painstaking discussion, consultation, bridge-building and trust generation. The prize is too important. I implore those who feel that we should "give in" to "get a grip". If we told Sinn Fein/IRA that we were prepared to put off elections for a few weeks or a few months they would just play along with the rest of us as they have done until now. A firm hand is needed. It has been shown and it needs to continue to be shown.
I realise that it is relatively easy for me to say all of this here in the confines of Westminster, a world away from the streets of Belfast. I realise also that the power to call elections is a significant one, and I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised the feeling, both here in your Lordships House and in another place, that the power to call an election should be subject to further scrutiny by Parliament. I certainly
We were told last week that it is the Government's expressed wish that there should be a sufficient rebuilding of trust by the autumn for an election to be held then. But if there is not, then surely it is right that we should have further opportunity to debate these issues when the moment comes. As the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, mentioned, we were also promised a review in the autumn. I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal whether it will be possible to have the review if the elections have not taken place.
I make a strong plea that, in the interim, every effort should be made to implement as much as possible of the joint declaration in those areas not dependent on the delivery of the commitment by Sinn Fein/IRAnamely, in the area of human rights, policing and normalisationin effect carrying on with as much of the reform agenda as possible. In that way there will be a visible sign that our determination to achieve the goal of peace and stability is still on course. The thugs must not prevail. Such determination could, at best, put more pressure on Sinn Fein/IRA from whatever wavering support they might have. We are almost there. We must wish all the parties involved all success and continue to give support. I certainly give support to the Bill.
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