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I was rather thrown by the noble Lord's second point. Perhaps I might compliment him on his diligent research in identifying the island of Sark as being the key issue which will implicitly suggest that the Government have changed their policies on wider matters. The Government have not changed their policy on wider matters, but I take note of his point about the way in which the Channel Islands are to be represented. Clearly, there will be a fuller opportunity to debate the matter in some of the legislation which will be laid before the House in the not too distant future. I hope that the noble Lord will keep his point in mind and I shall do some homework on the issue.
I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. I take his point that there is a need to keep the momentum going. We fully appreciate that and, assuming that everything goes well, we wish to keep the momentum going until the assembly takes over the responsibilities, with Northern Ireland Ministers taking charge of the local departments. We believe that if delays are too long there is too much opportunity for mischief makers to fill the gaps. We wish to move as quickly as possible.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for stating that, while we must ensure that the House examines all legislative proposals thoroughly and properly, some will need to be expedited. If the House is able to do so, that will be of great benefit to the people of Northern Ireland in these important constitutional developments.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, then asked a number of specific and complicated questions about the referendum and the publicity measures which the various parties might use to put forward their points of view. I am grateful for the points that he made. I should like him to accept that our approach to the free mailings for each of the 10 parties is unusual. However, I argue that the circumstances of the referendum are unusual, too. The key point is that some of the parties which I trust will support the referendum may do so for different reasons. It would be difficult for them to agree on the wording of a leaflet which will reflect their different reasons for supporting the referendum in such a way as to make coherent sense.
One has only to look at the various parties which I trust will support the referendum to see that they have different arguments. They are using those arguments in the press and it would be too difficult to have in Northern Ireland the approach that we used during the referendum on the common market, when there was a coalition supporting the "yes" vote and a coalition supporting the "no" vote. I believe that in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland that would be difficult. All the parties may wish to put their own stamp on their argument for supporting the referendum or for opposing it.
I appreciate the difficulty and that the situation is unusual. But it is different and I believe that the argument that I have put forward explains why we believe that our approach is more appropriate than that suggested by the noble Lord. We would not believe it proper through publicity material to force different parties to put their points of view in one leaflet.
It will be up to each party to decide upon its policy and how to put it forward in the leaflet. It will be up to each party to decide what to put in the leaflet. The Government do not feel that they can compel a party to say unequivocally "yes" or "no". A party may wish to hedge its bets. I hope that it will not, but if it wishes to do so it will be difficult in legislation or in these procedures to compel it to say "yes" or "no" if it wishes to be less specific in describing its position. It is best to let the parties get on with it, but to give them an opportunity to have a free mail shot, hoping that they will use it sensibly, until the referendum is upon us.
Radio and television time is a matter for the broadcasting authorities. We have no plans as regards the allocation of air time. As regards newspapers, as always, it will up to journalists to decide how to cover the issues and the arguments put forward by the various parties. The Government wish to ensure maximum public awareness of the referendum and of the need to vote, whichever way members of the public choose. We wish to ensure that the referendum has a high profile and to use whatever powers we can to encourage people to play their part in it. I am pleased to say that, judging by the Northern Ireland newspapers and television programmes and discussions with ordinary people in Northern Ireland, there appears to be a high level of awareness of the issue. I do not believe that many people will reach polling day without an awareness of it. I thank the noble Lord for making those points.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the spirit of my noble friend Lord Alderdice, I accept the persuasive nature of what he is saying, but perhaps I might press him on a specific point. While I accept that the parties will send out a mailing by the Post Office and that one cannot force them to declare which way they will vote, is there any obligation on the parties to produce a leaflet about the referendum rather than one simply extolling their own virtues for the subsequent assembly election?
The noble Baroness, Lady Park, wants to be sure that people are aware of the issues. She wondered whether there could be a child's guide to simplify the matter. I understand her reasons for asking that but the answer must be no. The reason is that every dot and comma, every word and phrase in the agreement was the result of long negotiations. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, spent many sleepless nights, particularly in the last couple of days up to Good Friday, and he is nodding which suggests that he agrees. It would be playing with fire for anybody, least of all the Government and the Northern Ireland Office, to summarise that document in simple language--I wish it were simple language--without incurring the wrath of at least some of the participants who almost shed blood and certainly spent many hours wording it in the form in which it is now worded. The motive is fine but I do not believe that we dare do it. I am sure that the noble Baroness will understand that.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and, indeed, other noble Lords, for their support for the Government's endeavours in this regard. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked how the results of the referendum will be presented. I believe that they will be presented as he would wish them to be. We shall publish only aggregate results. They will not be divided by parliamentary constituencies or sub-divisions of the whole of Northern Ireland. There will simply be a global figure given for the whole of Northern Ireland.
I turn to the other points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He is a better judge of the faith which the people of Northern Ireland have in their politicians. It is not for me to comment on that except to say that I believe that they have quite a lot of faith in the noble Lord and his contribution in achieving this agreement. That is fairly widely accepted, as it is in relation to some other politicians who are widely credited with having played a very positive part in achieving the agreement.
I take the noble Lord's point that this time the strength is that there was proper and full consultation. All the political parties were involved. The agreement has credibility because the people of Northern Ireland
I repeat my thanks to the noble Lord for saying that we shall have a very heavy legislative programme before us as a result of the agreement, assuming that there is a positive outcome to the referendum on 22nd May. That will be quite a burden on this House and, indeed, on the other place. I do not for a moment wish noble Lords to skimp on their scrutiny of legislation. Equally, it will be of some urgency to get the legislation through quickly, especially the Bill on elections which is in another place at this moment. I hope that your Lordships will appreciate the need to make rapid progress on some of those measures. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his contribution.