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Lord Laird: My Lords, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to several issues regarding the orders before us today.

We must all bear in mind that when the Assembly election was postponed in May, the Secretary of State insisted that we needed to see acts of completion. The Prime Minister himself made that clear in October

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2002. That leads one to wonder exactly what acts of completion have taken place recently that would encourage and provide a foundation for the calling of the Assembly election on the 26th November.

Does the noble Baroness accept that the 26th November is merely a date that has been set for an election? The reality is that suspension has not been lifted from the Assembly. As such, can we take it that the Government are still insistent on there being transparent acts of completion before the suspension of the Assembly can be lifted and the executive re-established?

Secondly, I draw the attention of the noble Baroness to the rather odd sequencing of events of Tuesday 21st October concerning transparent acts of completion. The date for the election was announced at 7 a.m.—rather earlier than we had been led to expect. Moreover, we had been led to expect that General de Chastelain would have been able to provide considerably more detail about the IRA's act of decommissioning than he did later that afternoon. There was no transparency, no clarity, and no itinerary of weapons. As a result, confidence in the process was severely diminished. It was that which led the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party to, in his words, put the process on hold.

The Government, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, chose to waive the only leverage still available to them that would have helped to ensure the transparency we all sought. They chose to make the order for the elections to proceed. The Government had the opportunity to pull this process back to ensure that confidence and clarity were injected.

I do not want noble Lords to misinterpret my words as a statement against the elections. I and my party very much want power to be returned to the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, your Lordships must remember that while we are holding elections to the Assembly in a few weeks, the immediate re-establishment of the power-sharing institutions is not in fact guaranteed. Noble Lords must appreciate the potential for the Government's gamble to fail and for electoral results not to be favourable for the resumption of devolved administration.

All we have at present is an election date. Suspension has not been lifted. Can the noble Baroness tell us now whether suspension will be lifted once the votes have been counted? If we fail to retrieve the situation soon, we could find ourselves back in this House and another place in, say, six months' time, once again looking at orders such as those before us.

The noble Baroness must be very aware of the questions that I am raising, yet I ask her once again: why did the Government leave the fulfilment of Sinn Fein's obligations to carry out transparent acts of completion to chance, when they could have taken the initiative by insisting on the transparency that they insisted was a prerequisite for holding Assembly elections?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I was saddened, unusually, by the comments of the noble

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Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I assure him that I have deputised—I hope, satisfactorily—for previous holders of the office that the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, now holds. I assure the noble Lord that the noble Baroness is fulfilling another important duty.

I thank all noble Lords for expressing support for the orders. I shall deal, first, with the issues that all noble Lords raised to some degree. We consider that the statements by the leader of Sinn Fein and by the IRA were major steps and confirmed commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The act of decommissioning overseen was very welcome; however, unfortunately, as noble Lords have recognised, it did not achieve the public confidence necessary. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and others referred to that. We now have the Independent Monitoring Commission to give an independent and authoritative view on whether commitments are being upheld to ensure that the promise of a full and final closure of the conflict is a reality.

Noble Lords asked whether the lack of revelation of the detail of the decommissioning process was proper. It is for the IICD acting as an independent body to account for its actions, but we believe that General de Chastelain and his colleagues have acted throughout with integrity and professionalism. We have no reason to doubt that they have acted in line with their obligations.

In response to the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton, Lord Laird, Lord Glentoran, and others, after the election, the British and Irish Governments will work with the parties to resolve the outstanding issues as quickly as possible to enable devolved government to be restored to the people of Northern Ireland. We intend to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as there is a realistic prospect of an inclusive executive being formed. We remain committed to the Belfast agreement as the only way forward for inclusive political progress. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said in another place, we will make proposals for the conduct of the review of the operation of the agreement before the end of the year. But the fundamental principles of the agreement are not a matter for negotiation.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked whether we agreed that there should be a condominium between London and Dublin if we have to return to direct rule. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, also touched on that issue. Naturally, the Government share the noble Lord's hope that it will be possible to restore devolved government quickly. It would not be proper for me to speculate in detail during the election campaign on what will take place in hypothetical scenarios. The Government remain committed to the agreement as the only sustainable basis for progress in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it would be appropriate to note at this stage that I am being extremely careful in the light of the fact that we are in an election period.

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The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked about the electoral registration computer system. The requirements of the new electoral register led to the installation of a new 1.5 million computer system in the summer of 2002. It has already proven to be successful in handling the requirements of the new legislation and producing the register on time. The system, which has introduced several security checks, has the capacity to reduce the likelihood of electoral fraud to an absolute minimum.

The new registration system necessitated a move to individual registration and away from household registration. In effect, it doubled the number of forms needed—from 650,000 household forms to 1.2 million individual forms. I hope that that answers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I hope that the figures are correct; if there is a problem, I will speak to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith of Clifton, afterwards.

To a certain extent, all noble Lords echoed the sadness that the Government share. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, that democracy is always to be treated as a tender plant, particularly in these circumstances. The noble Lord asked me about people declaring themselves candidates. Section 118A of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which the order modifies, refers to the possibility of a person declaring himself a candidate.

The noble Lord also commented on the date. I can assure him that the orders were agreed in the other place on 29th October through the urgency procedure. The noble Lord may have further detailed questions. Like him, I was an election agent many years ago, and I would never dare to answer a question off the cuff, lest the noble Lord be dissatisfied. It is complicated law, as all noble Lords taking part in the debate would agree.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I must say that in no way was I casting aspersions on her. As always, she has done a thoroughly competent job introducing Northern Ireland business. I am sure that the noble Baroness the Lord President of the Council has a heavy diary, but I just think that her advisers missed a trick tonight.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I do not think that that needs a comment from me at this stage. I join all noble Lords who have expressed strong support for the proper conduct of the democratic process in Northern Ireland. I join all noble Lords in hoping that the result of the election will lead to the possibility of an urgent return to the full implementation of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2003

8.17 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Act 2003 (Consequential Modifications) Order 2003

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton : My Lords, I beg to move the third Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 22nd October be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


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