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Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for moving the order and for clearly explaining to your Lordships its purpose. From the beginning, this side of the House has supported the election and wishes to support the Government in all they are doing to make these elections more straightforward, honest and peaceful than perhaps some have been in the past.

The date was clearly explained by the noble Baroness. We are completely happy with it. On the question of altering the date of the new register, that clearly does not interfere with the election. When I first read the order I though that it might. It does not because the register would not have been produced anyway until 1st December. That clearly is a good decision.

The access of the commissioners to the polling stations seems ultra sensible and indeed very necessary.

I have one or two questions. I do not wish to get involved in anything to do with the election. First, I should like the noble Baroness to assure the House that all those measures enacted in what is now known as the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 are up and running and that we can look forward to a more honest, straightforward and trustworthy result than perhaps we have been used to in Northern Ireland elections.

I sound one perhaps salutary note. This is an election to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is as far as it goes. It is the Government's desire and our desire on this side of the House that, after the election, the Government will be able to reinstate the various institutions associated with Stormont and the agreement. But we should not kid ourselves. This is by no means a certainty. The IRA still have to do one or two things before all those institutions can be set up.

My party and I sincerely hope that that will happen in due course. We sincerely hope that we will have good, fair and well attended elections. By "well attended", I mean that there will be a good poll and a good turnout from the population of Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that after these elections we

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can see devolved government in all its states, with all the institutions up and running and in full swing. I support the Government's orders.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I too thank the Minister for introducing these very important orders. Perhaps I may say with the greatest of respect that the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council should have introduced them, given their huge symbolic and substantive significance to Northern Ireland. I trust that this is not an augury of things to come. I do not believe that the late and very lamented Lord Williams of Mostyn would have missed this trick.

Today the "sage of Ulster" in his weekly column in the Irish Independent presented a pessimistic scenario regarding the Assembly elections. Dr Maurice Hayes predicted a low turn out, which would be quite unprecedented: Northern Ireland traditionally has high levels of voter turnout. This is not surprising perhaps, given the suspension of the Assembly for over a year. What was particularly debilitating was the decision—for no good reason as it turned out—not to hold the elections last May when they were due. The past six months have not merely been a waste of time, but have contributed to a loss of political momentum and will have fostered a great apathy and indeed some cynicism among the electorate.

The election campaign is under way and the people will make their choice. When the Assembly reconvenes, London and Dublin would be well advised to stand back and play a very modest role, leaving it to the parties to form an executive. It is up to the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. If they fail to form a power-sharing executive—and I predict that this will take many months—in the end there will be a return to direct rule. But not as before. Does the Minister agree that the status quo ante is not an option? As I have said before, it will be direct rule, run by London in very close partnership with Dublin. In effect, a condominium. I say that to Ulster Unionist colleagues. No one with any democratic spirit will like that, and it is up to the newly elected Assembly to hammer out an agreement by which an executive can be resumed.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I too am very grateful to the Minister. If I appear to be slightly critical—not of her but of the legislation—the purpose is to allow her to provide reassurance and explanation, because there is a degree of confusion on the ground.

It may be that there is some compelling reason for Parliament giving retrospective approval to many of these instruments. I concede that the practice of retrospective approval is not entirely novel or unusual; for example, in matters such as road traffic, speed limits or pub closing hours.

However, running through these orders is the notion that the candidate is required to conform to the provisions, so that they can appear on ballot papers and on lists of candidates. I assume that that authorisation may be a mere technicality, but I am not certain that that is understood. I was canvassed this

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morning by a candidate. I teased him by asking, "What are your credentials? I mean, are you a candidate?" "Oh, yes"—he said—"I am a proper candidate". I asked, "Well, how is it that their Lordships' House tonight is going to approve the procedure and the lists to which you are referring?" He was stumped for an answer. I did not indicate which way I was going to vote. I just left him to mull that one over.

It does no service to democracy to imply or suggest that the validity of candidates is dependent upon your Lordships giving or withholding approval tonight. What is the electorate to make of candidates canvassing last week and today, who have every reason to believe that they are validly nominated, when Parliament is only now—and presumably the other place has yet to tackle this issue—getting around to making these candidates honest men and women?

In one of the orders there appears to be a let out for someone not yet validly nominated, but enabled to declare himself or herself nominated. It is a kind of a do-it-yourself device in one of the clauses. It is in paragraph 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications No. 2) Order 2003. I wonder whether this has anything to do with the departure from the established practice. It confers on the candidate that,

    "if on or before that date he is declared by himself or others to be a candidate at the election".

I am uncertain that that sits tidily with the Representation of the People Acts as I used to know them when I was a humble election agent aware of all the pitfalls.

Your Lordships will know that respect for democracy is already at a low ebb—mainly, but not only, in Northern Ireland. The perception is that conjuring tricks make too much impact on the body politic, especially in Northern Ireland. I assume that the Government share my view that democracy has just about survived a pretty fierce battering in recent months. Her Majesty's Government and Parliament must resolve to put an end to what the electorate already regard as a bit of sharp practice. A return to respect for democracy and democratic principles is urgently needed if we are to avoid further loss of faith in electoral verdicts and, as has already been said, look forward hopefully to the future after the election to establishing workable devolved government in Northern Ireland.

On those grounds, I beg all concerned to remember that after four weeks of confusion in Northern Ireland, democracy there is a tender plant.

8 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree that the degree of trust in the future that electors feel when they go to elections is important. I therefore return to the issue of decommissioning. The Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and Mr Trimble were clearly expecting that hard facts and figures would be given by the commission on the latest quantity and nature of the arms supposed to

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have been put beyond use. But in the event, General de Chastelain said that under the agreement with the IRA he was committed to give no detail either publicly or, as it turned out, even to the two Prime Ministers.

However, the decommissioning scheme based on the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, states at paragraph 26:

    "Disclosure of information received by the Commission may occur where disclosure is necessary . . . for reasons of public safety"—

I should have thought that that would apply given the present situation in Northern Ireland—or,

    "to fulfil the Commission's duty to report to the two Governments".

In August 2001, it was the commission, announcing the putting of some arms beyond use, that said without giving any detail that it was,

    "satisfied that it would not further the process of putting arms beyond use to provide further details of that event".

That was a unilateral decision by the commission; it was not based on the legislation. That is one more example of the commission—unwittingly and for entirely honourable but, I think, innocent motives—following the IRA's agenda.

I raise that point because it concerns the issue of trust. The Government are still free to advance that matter and insist that something should be said. It makes nonsense of the whole issue of decommissioning if people cannot know what is the outcome. The Government believe in transparency, and I respect that. They owe it to the people about to vote using their legislation to say exactly what was decommissioned and how often the commission carries out the duty placed on it by the legislation to inspect all the arms caches that it has been shown.

That is one issue. The other is that on 3rd November, Mr Adams said in New York:

    "anti-Agreement Unionists must accept an all-Ireland agenda if they want to see the return of devolved Government".

That is a formidable threat, and a clear one. He continued:

    "Efforts to restore the institutions of the Agreement must proceed urgently after the election".

I can agree warmly with that; I hope that the Government do too.

My last question has been posed in a general way by my noble friend Lord Glentoran: has the machinery to ensure against vote-rigging that was planned almost two years ago—the computerised method—been put in place? Is it working? The last time we asked about that we were told that it required testing and was not quite ready. I should be reassured to know whether it is now ready and able to work.

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