Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Tebbit: I always have some concern when powers granted to Ministers are put into commission in any way that makes them subject to authorities outside the House. I am not making a European point—we know all about that—but speak in this narrower context. To help me decide on my attitude towards the amendments, will the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, tell me whether there are any powers that the Secretary of State may today use unilaterally—in any circumstances—which he might be restrained from using under the Bill? Are there any powers that the Secretary of State would be granted by the Bill which he could, similarly, be restrained from using because of the activity or non-activity of the commission?

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I shall try to set an example in brevity. I cannot help feeling—and regretting—that Her Majesty's Government have strayed such a long way from the view of a distinguished Labour Prime Minister, the late Harold Wilson, who declared that the governance of Northern Ireland was a matter for the Parliament of the United Kingdom alone.

Lord Fitt: I said at Second Reading that I had reservations about denuding the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of his powers. I can put pointed questions to the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council. The four main political parties in Northern Ireland were involved in the discussions that led to the introduction of the Bill. Can the noble and learned Lord tell us which of those parties agreed with the legislation and which vehemently opposed it? I was not at the meetings, but I feel certain that the Democratic Unionist Party, the Official Unionist Party and the Alliance Party—if it was there—would have had reservations about the Bill but would have gone some way to support it. Sinn Fein has already indicated that it will not touch the Bill with a bargepole and that it does not want such legislation on the statute book in any shape or form. Why are we writing into the Bill all sorts of safeguards to enable Sinn Fein to disregard the Bill as a whole? That is exactly what we are doing. I have great reservations about that.

I was in the Northern Ireland Parliament for many years. Sinn Fein will laugh at the idea that someone might be suspended for two weeks, a month or six weeks. It is not like what happens at the other end of this building when Mr Speaker suspends a Member for a day or two days—a week, maybe—for being unruly.

15 Sept 2003 : Column 673

In Northern Ireland, it is more serious. First, on what ground could a Member of the Assembly be suspended? Will it be that he is not fully in support of the campaign to end violence? Will words be part of the infringement of the regulations? In Northern Ireland, words can be lethal and have been lethal over the past 30 years. It is not only the gunman who pulls the trigger or the person who lays the bomb who are guilty of violence: it is the people who point the gun in a particular direction and influence the mentality of the young men who join paramilitary organisations. Words can be lethal.

Let me put that into words. What will happen if a member of Sinn Fein, the republican party, who is also a member of the Executive in Northern Ireland, makes a highly inflammatory speech at a republican commemoration, of which they have many during the 365 days of the year? Such a person might make a highly inflammatory speech at, say, a Wolfe Tone commemoration—the main one at which such speeches are made—that could push another young fellow from the back streets of Belfast into taking up the gun or the bomb and supporting his cause by violence. What will happen to the person who made that speech? Will the monitoring commission say, "We regard that speech as incitement to hatred and an incitement to violence? How long should we suspend the speaker for? A fortnight? Three weeks? A year?". Sinn Fein will not take that seriously and will make the same sort of incitement speeches at every IRA commemoration during the year. I find that difficult to accept.

I wish that I could say that I was 101 per cent behind the Bill and would go through the Lobby in support of it—but I have deep reservations about it. The situation would not be any better than it was before the suspension of the Assembly. It was obvious that no political party in the Assembly was going to vote for the suspension of another, given the existence of the two tribes. The SDLP were not going to vote for the exclusion of Sinn Fein. The official Unionist Party would not vote for the exclusion of the DUP, and so on.

We are no further forward than before we were faced with this legislation, which I would not like to see go through and for people to laugh at it. I said recently that it is like a sticking plaster covering a sore; I am certainly of that opinion. In the final analysis, it should be as the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, said, and he was right to quote from Harold Wilson. At a time of much political and violent turbulence in Northern Ireland, Harold Wilson spoke to me in the Tea Room. He said that they can say what they like, but Northern Ireland is governed under Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. There have been many political changes and international treaties, but I believe that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should maintain or allocate to himself the criterion that he will be the one who decides which political

15 Sept 2003 : Column 674

party or political personality should be suspended from the Assembly because of their non-support for a non-violent society in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: I support the proposal. I cannot help feeling that the Government ought not to have any difficulty in accepting it. The noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council referred me to the agreement. I refer him to Article 7 of that agreement, which refers to the commission recommending action. Clearly in other parts of the agreement, it is there to monitor, to observe, to make reports and to recommend.

We are worrying about who has the executive power—an unfettered executive power. That must be the Secretary of State, who, among other things, could balance issues arising from the report on the question of paramilitary activity against the requirement of security normalisation—on which we shall undoubtedly be pressed again and again by Sinn Fein to act. I cannot help feeling that the agreement makes it perfectly plain that the monitoring commission—infinitely valuable though it will be because it is impartial, detached, and not involved—nevertheless is an advisory commission and not an executive one. That is the point we must stick to.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I recognise that these amendments are generally put forward or supported by supporters of the agreement and in the spirit of making it work more effectively. I did not mean to cause lasting damage to the reputation of my noble friend Lord Maginnis by accusing him of being statesmanlike.

I do not think that the contended-for effect would be brought about. The question has been put—not in these words but by necessary implication, certainly by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, and the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth—about whether these are ideal solutions. In his brief and telling intervention, the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, made, I think, essentially the same point. I do not pretend that these are ideal solutions because I do not know of any solutions which are ideal in the context of Northern Ireland. They are the best that we can achieve. That is a very important prize.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked: what does the present Bill do? On various occasions, it has been suggested that it constrains the range of powers available to deal with breaches of fundamental agreement commitments, such as a return to paramilitary activity. I think that that was the specific point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. That is not so. The existing powers available in those cases remain intact. The Assembly retains its powers of exclusion under Section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, although it will be given the ability to make those powers more flexible and supplemented by a range of other measures.

Under that section, the Secretary of State can still require the Assembly to consider a resolution to exclude a party or individual, whether or not there is

15 Sept 2003 : Column 675

an IMC report. It is true that he must have regard to such a report, if there is one, before he exercises that power. But that is stating the obvious; it would be quite extraordinary if he did not do so. I underline to your Lordships that the Secretary of State's powers are extended. He can cause the Assembly to consider resolutions for reducing pay or allowances or for marking the Assembly's censure.

Your Lordships have referred to a power by which the Secretary of State may bring about exclusion or other consequences, as envisaged in the Hillsborough proposals. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is right. It is a constrained power, but it is a new power. It is a strong power intended to be available as a last resort if other mechanisms fail. I think that I indicated on Friday last—but I repeat—the steps envisaged. If there is an IMC report, there would be a range of discussions which would, in particular, involve the Implementation Group of pro-agreement parties.

It is explicit in the Bill that there must have been an unsuccessful attempt in the Assembly to take steps in the light of that report. Where there is a failure to take steps, it would be for the British Government, in consultation with the Irish Government and the political parties, to resolve the matter in a manner consistent with the report of the IMC. So the reserve power is intended to be just that: a power of last resort.

Where there has been a report of the IMC with recommendations for action, and other avenues have led to no resolution of the issue, it would be our intention that this power would be exercised in a manner consistent with the IMC recommendations. We would seek to give effect to that faithfully, with the approval of this House and another place. But I repeat: we are constraining no existing power. We are providing for a means where there is an independent body of very high quality, repute and expertise, to give conclusions which it offers to the Assembly. If the Assembly fails, the Secretary of State has that reserve power.

If we get to that situation, we shall be in a very serious position indeed. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, has correctly said on many occasions that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to seek to control their own affairs. We ought to trust them to do the best they can, of their own accord, to resolve these matters. Quite often the complaint that I hear in Northern Ireland, which may have more than a grain of truth in it, is that the British Government constantly interfere too much, despite apparently having given power to Northern Ireland for locally elected representatives to discharge their own functions. The Minister should not be the first resort. If we are going to entrust power to an Assembly, we must trust that Assembly.

In principle, I do not think that the argument of sovereignty bites. Quite often, in giving powers to Ministers, Parliament imposes conditions—very often strict conditions—on their exercise. These amendments go too far. If we take this route, there is a serious danger

15 Sept 2003 : Column 676

of undermining the worth, the virtue and the perceived value of the commission. I invite your Lordships not to do so.

If an unconstrained power of exclusion was given to the Secretary of State, that would be a substantial departure from the 1998 agreement in one of its most sensitive areas. I am not using this in a pejorative sense, but I sympathise with the compromise sought by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, who spoke of constraints of time. I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which it would be possible for the Secretary of State to find himself in a position to conclude that that was a correct way forward.

I know that noble Lords are doubtful about this approach. All I would say is that on the many occasions we have very fully debated the affairs of Northern Ireland, what I regard as the overwhelming majority of your Lordships have constantly made the point that you cannot seek to be a functioning member of the Assembly or the Executive in Northern Ireland while at the same time holding on to paramilitary activity. Time and time again noble Lords have said that there are many good and decent people in Northern Ireland who are concerned about this. The Bill provides a legitimate and proportionate response to those legitimate questions.

No one would suggest that those on the international monitoring commission are anything other than first rate. We know their names, their backgrounds and their CVs. The commission is a very useful addition to the armoury required in Northern Ireland eventually to bring about what we all wish for; namely, a decent, democratic, orderly and stable society. I should have thought that your Lordships would welcome this response from the Government because it chimes entirely with the spirit of what has been said in the past.

I am going to suggest to your Lordships that none of these proposals is accepted because they all share the central defect. Certainly I shall advise my colleagues to vote against them. However, finally I turn to the specific questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, about who agreed and disagreed to these proposals. We had hoped and still do hope that the Hillsborough proposals as a whole would command broad support. We did not take specific votes either generally or on individual elements of the package. Sinn Fein will not be able to ignore the IMC. Potentially its reports may lead to the severest sanctions.

The noble Lord also asked about incendiary speeches. It seems to me that, within the discretion and judgment of the IMC, the kind of activity referred to by the noble Lord is certainly activity that would be relevant and within the commission's remit. It would have to come to a conclusion on whether the sanctions under Article 4 should bite.

I have taken a little time to respond because of the seriousness of these matters. This is a large grouping of amendments and noble Lords have put different degrees of emphasis on different aspects. However, my position is that I am not able to accept any of the

15 Sept 2003 : Column 677

amendments. Should noble Lords require or be willing to receive any advice, then my advice is to vote against them.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page