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Lord Newby: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the EU presidency project, which involves 200 NGOs and deals with a number of pressing development issues, has been a great success? Will he consider extending the life of some of the issues being considered under that project beyond the term of our presidency of the EU?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, part of this Government's approach to the EU presidency has been the involvement of NGOs and representatives of civic society generally in European issues, including in particular development and environmental issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and I made a press announcement today on a people's summit bringing together some of those NGOs immediately before the Cardiff summit. We hope that that initiative will in some form be carried forward into subsequent presidencies.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, yes. In respect of most Questions which my noble friend and I have answered on development issues, we have always stressed the important role of the private sector and private investment in the development strategy. Part of the financial flow of that is being covered by some of the ethical investment institutions.
The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, before the commencement of business, I take the opportunity to inform the House that I am to make an official visit to Washington DC on Monday 11th May and Tuesday 12th May 1998. In addition, I will be hosting a luncheon on behalf of Her Majesty's Government for the Prime Minister of Jamaica on Thursday 14th May 1998. Accordingly, I trust that the House will grant me leave of absence on both those occasions.
Two weeks ago this House debated the referendum order which will enable the people of Northern Ireland to give their judgment on the multi-party agreement reached last month in the referendum to be held in another two weeks' time. I was grateful to your Lordships then for your generous support of the order and of the agreement.
Everyone in the House that evening recognised the historic nature of the agreement which offers the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity they have not had in a generation to take responsibility for their own future and start to build a peaceful democracy based on consent.
When I introduced the referendum order, I referred to the "triple lock" through which the consent of the Northern Ireland people to the agreement will be reached. The first part of the lock is the support of the parties, which is largely coming together. The second is the support of the people through the referendum, and the omens there are looking good. The third is the support of Parliament. This needs to be given in stages. It started with the referendum order and works through this elections Bill to the final main constitutional settlement.
If the people of Northern Ireland show in the forthcoming referendum that they support the agreement, the next step for them is to elect the new assembly envisaged in the agreement. And that is what the Bill before your Lordships' House today is about. The Bill seeks to embody a small part of the multi-party agreement. It may be helpful if I remind your Lordships briefly what the Bill says in relation to the assembly.
It provides for an assembly of 108 members elected on the single transferable vote system, with six members being returned for each of the constituencies which return MPs to Westminster. It stipulates that ultimately the assembly shall have full executive and legislative powers over devolved matters. It recognises however that the assembly will not be in a position to assume full powers straightaway. It therefore provides for an interim "shadow" period during which the assembly will--and I quote from paragraph 35 of Strand 1 of the agreement--
In order to regulate and provide for it in its early days, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be taking powers to designate the first presiding officer, make standing orders and set salaries and allowances for members. These provisions are contained in the schedule to the Bill. They will come into effect without parliamentary scrutiny and I highlight them now because amendments have been put down which indicate some concern about the extent of the Secretary of State's power to direct the assembly's affairs.
I said that I should like to touch on some amendments which have been tabled because I think they reflect a misunderstanding of the provisions contained in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has tabled amendments to paragraph 1 of the schedule which would enable the assembly rather than the Secretary of State to direct the time and place of the assembly's sitting after its first meeting. But the only reason that the Bill provides that the Secretary of State should retain control over meeting times and places is that the shadow assembly, unlike the full assembly, will not have a permanent home and it will be for the Secretary of State to provide premises and staff. She cannot simply hand over responsibility for premises under her control to the assembly and cannot guarantee, in a period when a lot of reorganisation will be taking place, that the assembly can always meet at the same place. But she will discuss options with the political parties and do her best to ensure that accommodation satisfactory to everyone can be found and that the assembly can meet when it wishes.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, has also proposed amendments which would enable the assembly in effect to amend the standing orders which will be determined by the Secretary of State for the shadow period, as long as the amendments have cross-community support. Again, it may look as though the Bill gives the Secretary of State too much power here. Is it not reasonable, your Lordships may ask, for the assembly to decide its own standing orders at the earliest possible date? It is; and it will be one of the main tasks in the shadow period to do just that. But it will be a considerable task which will take time, and while it is debating its own future standing orders, it will do so under the Secretary of State's temporary standing orders, about which again the parties will have been consulted and which of course the Secretary of State will consider amending if there is a cross-community request that she should. There is nothing in the Bill as it stands to prevent her doing so.
I repeat my assurances that the Secretary of State's wide powers in this Bill are temporary; will only be used after consultation; and will exist only to make life easier for the assembly in its early days. They have no other
I turn now to the other main provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 is a straightforward embodiment of the agreement, providing for the establishment of an assembly with the number of seats--108--set out in the agreement.
the multi-party agreement. The Secretary of State is given a power to refer specific matters to the assembly, in particular ones arising from the agreement. Those she might refer include the assembly's final standing orders, to be agreed on a cross-community basis; various aspects of the machinery of government under devolution, including the number and structure of departments; and, thirdly, the preparations envisaged under paragraphs 7 and 8 of the agreement for the British-Irish Council and for north-south activity. The shadow north/south council will have the task of identifying at least six implementation bodies which will be established by the time the full settlement legislation is enacted. Before referring matters, the Secretary of State would consult so far as possible before exercising her powers and seek always to act in the spirit of the agreement.
Clause 2 provides for elections to be held on 25th June. But that will happen only if Clause 2(1) is brought into effect, and Clause 8 makes clear that the Secretary of State may set a date for that to happen only if there has been a positive result in the referendum. The election will be by single transferable vote, which has been used in Northern Ireland for many years and was specifically endorsed in the multi-party agreement. Six members will be returned from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. The franchise reflects that used in local elections. Again, these are specific provisions in the agreement.
We shall be making detailed technical provision for the election in an order which will come before this House on 18th May. Disqualification from membership of the assembly is largely the same as that in the House of Commons. However, Peers and European Union citizens will also be allowed to sit, as will members of the Senate of the Republic of Ireland. Distinguished people from Northern Ireland have served in the Irish Senate and I believe that dual membership is a means by which understanding between the two parts of the island can be further developed.
The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, seeks to end the disqualification provisions in relation to Clause 4 to enable a Lord Lieutenant or Lieutenant to represent the county or county borough for which he holds office. I am afraid that that is just not possible. The Lord Lieutenant is the representative of Her Majesty the Queen in his county or county borough and his duties specifically exclude him from holding a political post or engaging in political activities there. However, there is nothing to stop the Lord Lieutenant from standing for elections outside his county or county borough.
Those are the main features of our Bill. I repeat that it is a short-term measure and that more detailed constitutional legislation to complete the implementation of the multi-party agreement will follow. This is just a beginning, but an essential one. I hope that your Lordships will support it without reservation.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I must apologise for missing the first minute of the Minister's speech. For reasons with which we are familiar, the Northern Ireland Act 1974 introduced direct rule over Northern Ireland from Westminster. In my opinion, for what it is worth, that was justified and necessary at the time. But those arrangements were intended only to be temporary in character, and for this reason: that they left Northern Ireland with less democratic responsibility and accountability than any other part of the United Kingdom.
I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that it is a matter of deep regret that it has taken nearly a quarter of a century for agreement to be reached sufficient to enable government of that character--local accountability--to be established in Northern Ireland as, I am certain, we all hope that it will be. It is to be regretted because direct rule, as it were, set the whole tone for politics in Northern Ireland. I believe it is fair to say that there has been a thoroughly negative tone, for reasons which are readily understood. It has been unduly negative and pessimistic and damagingly so. I believe one can say that it has enhanced a certain propensity in some quarters of Northern Ireland to expect or to see the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. However, more importantly, I believe that it has discouraged--because it has denied them opportunity--those who might reasonably and normally wish to take on local democratic responsibilities. They have not been offered any prospect of achieving local democratic power. They have been offered no prospect of gaining that, save to the extent that is enjoyed and exercised in England at parish council level. Real power has been vested in the Secretary of State.
All this is what led me on my first utterance as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, if I may be allowed to recall it briefly, to say that I wanted to get rid of most of my powers and to return them to the people; and that the government would, therefore, work to help the people of Northern Ireland find a fair and sustainable basis upon which that could be achieved. All the more welcome, therefore, are the provisions for a new Northern Ireland assembly in the agreement reached in the multi-party talks on 9th April, which the provisions of this Bill now seek to implement.
The remit of the new assembly will cover all the responsibilities of the six government departments in Northern Ireland and the assembly will support an executive committee led by an elected First Minister.
With the exception of the provision for prisoners, which I believe is a matter for another day--at least I shall treat it as such--I see no danger in the terms of the agreement, provided that they are properly understood. However, I do see danger in how the Government may be tempted to interpret and apply it under pressure: and that danger relates to Sinn Fein. The parties represented in the assembly will nominate committee chairs and Ministers according to the strength of their own representation. It is readily foreseeable that Sinn Fein can be expected to take up one or more of those positions. It is here that I want to offer a warning to the Government.
Paragraph 25 of the agreement rightly states in Strand 1 that those who hold office should use only democratic and non-violent means, and that those who do not should be excluded or removed from office. Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA, inextricably linked to it. Yet, last week, the IRA announced that it will do no decommissioning of its illegally held arms. The influence which illegal armaments can exert is surely not limited to firing or exploding them: it extends to the threat to fire or explode them, and that threat does not have to be explicit for it to do its work. What is its work? Surely the work in this context is to secure from constitutional parties, in or out of the executive committee, concessions which they might not otherwise have made. That is the purpose.
It was one thing, albeit an uncomfortable one, to say that membership of the talks was compatible with some decommissioning taking place in parallel with those talks. It is surely quite another thing, and different in principle, to say that you may participate in the government of Northern Ireland--that is, the fruits of those talks which are now concluded--while refusing to give up the means of bringing illegal pressure to bear on your colleagues and fellow Ministers.
I ask: can there be good reason for failing to draw the final line here? If the Government draw it here, then Sinn Fein will surely be seen to have excluded itself from an honourable role in the government of Northern Ireland. Its exclusion will be seen to have been its work. I give way to the noble Earl.
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