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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Although I am addressing your Lordships from this Front Bench, I am not speaking as a Front Bencher as this is partly a matter of conscience. Does the noble Lord--with whom I disagree on almost everything that he says--realise that there is one strong argument in favour of what he is saying, which is provided by human rights legislation and the very international human rights that he has been criticising? If the Scottish parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly are bound by the human rights convention, they cannot pass legislation that violates the right to life--any more than they could pass legislation that violates the right of respect for family life. The courts will balance the two rights sensibly, in a way that the noble Lord would disagree with but which will ensure a fair balance between our abortion laws and the convention rights. Given that national minimum standard of human rights, it is a bit strange that we are not devolving power to the Northern Ireland Assembly or Scottish parliament, as we have the full protection of the human rights Act. Does not that powerful point support the noble Lords argument even though I disagree with his opposition to abortion law?
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am extremely grateful. Such advice would be expensive were I to ask for it in another capacity. I am grateful for that free advice from the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Although it is seductive, I prefer to place my trust in politicians rather than lawyers or judges--be they most elevated--in
When the Minister responds, perhaps he will say whether any consideration has been given to consistency between north and south, as to the Irish border. If the laws in Northern Ireland were changed by Westminster without the consent of Northern Ireland politicians, they would be opposed to those that apply south of the Irish border. If the sentiments in the Secretary of State's letter concerning Scotland and north and south of that border are logical, there would be some logic also in keeping the laws as they are north and south of the Irish border. I shall be interested to know whether any discussions have taken place with the Minister's Irish counterparts on that question.
There is a deep-rooted determined and often well-financed campaign to extend those laws and the culture that they represent to every part of these islands and beyond. In its most shameful excesses, that campaign involves the financing of forced abortion or forced sterilisation of women in China in pursuit of the one-child policy, which is financed by British taxpayers. It is a new form of colonialism dressed up in the rhetoric of choice, individualism and human rights. About £10 million has been provided in the case of China alone. That deserves to be exposed, thwarted, and adequately and properly discussed.
I hope that between now and Committee stage, the Government will reflect on those questions and return to their earlier policy, which was adumbrated by the Secretary of State in the letter to which I alluded-- a policy that allows mature people in the north of Ireland to be culturally different should they so please and to make up their own minds about the grown-up questions that Westminster has no business reserving to itself. Ultimately it is a matter of trust. The Government should not underestimate the controversy and mistrust that their decision to reserve the matter to Westminster will undoubtedly create in the north of Ireland.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I shall not follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, except to say that I have always believed and respected the fact that in matters of conscience thoughts deliver at different rates in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that few people would have thought one year ago that we would be where we are today. I never thought that the day would come so soon when a Bill would be introduced to either House to provide for the repatriation of what are now central Government powers to an elected Assembly in the Province. I salute everyone, great and small, who has worked to bring that about--not least the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The noble Lord is not in his place but he is in the Chamber, just. I hope that before long, the noble Lord will chair something else with me, other than the hot seat of answering Northern Ireland debates, which I have done in the past. Some 30 years ago, my job was Zambianised. The logical conclusion from my reading of the Northern Ireland Bill is that the noble Lord's job will be Ulsterised.
When an operative Assembly will be set up remains a moot point even now. That is recognised in Clause 3, which says that the Assembly is not to come into effect on Royal Assent or even two or three months later, which is the norm in our legislation, but on production of a draft Order in Council when
I did not speak to any noble Lord resident in Northern Ireland before entering the Chamber this afternoon, but during the Summer Recess I spoke to many people who live and work in Northern Ireland. Some of them feel that they have been rushed into what they see as an uncertain political future. One thing that experience has taught me and probably most people who have served in Northern Ireland, is that the people of the Province hate to be rushed. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, gave the impression that the people I describe are not representative, but are in a minority. Nevertheless, that minority exists and their voice deserves to be heard. I intended to devote much of my speech to that point but it has been hammered over and again by so many noble Lords that I will resist that temptation.
Another fear that must be allayed as a result of the Bill has been alluded to by my noble friend Lady Denton. Clause 59 lists a disparate group of bodies that will all be subsumed under that clause by a new body, to be named the Equality Commission. Again, as I understand it, they are to be reserved matters, although that is not totally clear from a reading of the Bill. If I am right, that is good in relation to the Fair Employment Commission for Northern Ireland because that is one of the props of stability in Northern Ireland. So that is a worry which has been expressed very forcefully this afternoon. The commission is longstanding and has done excellent work. The other three bodies are more recent but they are settling down and becoming respected in the Province. But they are, to say the least, an eclectic bunch of bodies.
I agree with the worries expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. Racial equality and disability do not strike me as particularly happy bedfellows although one could, and the Minister probably will, make an argument for combining the Fair Employment Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission with the Disability Council.
But where does the Commission for Racial Equality come in? After all, its work is more social and legal than work-related and is to do with the hearts and minds of the populace absorbing, for example, ethnic Chinese and immigrants originating from the Indian sub-continent, many of whom will of course be self-employed. Will any of the former discrete bodies lose out? I note that the Bill gaily states that the Equality Commission shall:
Who is to have the judgment of Solomon in deciding that it is fair? What is to be the procedure if that unnamed judge decides that it is not fair? Will the commissioners or chairman be sacked? What will happen? If representatives of just one of those bodies had come to see me, I might have dismissed that as special pleading. But as two came to see me, I believe that they have real fears. When they said that the consultation had not been of the quality which one normally expects of proposed legislation in Northern Ireland, probably because there was so much other consultation going on at the same time, I began to sit up and take notice.
On my reading of the Bill, I cannot see whether that new commission just happens as a result of Royal Assent or whether it will be created by order. Is the timetable realistic? I can see a political imperative but not a need for undue haste. I ask that the Minister, in the later stages of the Bill, will explain to all and sundry--and more importantly in the Province itself--just what is involved. I borrow a thought from one of my interlocutors: how does the cleaning lady get recompense for the ill done to her? That was a point raised very clearly from the Liberal Benches.
I hope that I have not sounded too gloomy this evening. If so, my defence is that I have been reaffirming to the House what some people in Northern Ireland have been thinking. They very rarely talk about it among themselves, and certainly not in public places, for fear of who may be listening. But they are remarkably free with their thoughts to comparative or even total strangers.
I was told an illuminating story the other day of an Englishman on business who had never before been to the Province. On the drive from Aldergrove, he asked his driver to explain just what was going on in Northern Ireland and what was the background. Needless to say, the driver never drew breath throughout the 20 minute journey. The explanation finished with the words, "We never talk about that here to anyone but it is good to put my thoughts into words". How desperately sad that is. In Northern Ireland we desperately need free expression without the threat of terrorism. I only hope that this Bill and
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, at this late stage, everything has been said, and some of it said many times over. I was going to speak on just two parts of the Bill, the second part being Clause 6 and all the human rights issues which have been covered so well by the noble Lords, Lord Desai, Lord Lester, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and others. I am sure that the Minister has taken on board what has been said in relation to human rights. However, I have been briefed thoroughly by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, with which I was closely involved and of which my wife was a director in Northern Ireland for many years. I am told that the disability community is not comfortable with the present arrangements in Clause 6 and feels that discrimination on grounds of disability should be at least equal to political and religious discrimination. They wonder where the Disability Discrimination Act, which still stands on both sides of the water, fits in.
With regard to the situation as a whole, I welcome the Bill tremendously. If it ever reaches the statute book, which I sincerely hope it will, it will fill a democratic void which has existed in Northern Ireland for far too long. The Bill is not perfect, but it will fill the void.
There is more to be done. I believe that, to a large extent, the work has really been undertaken within the local authorities, which have learned to work together. Sinn Fein, SDLP and all the parties have worked to bring about the wishes of the electorate, although those matters may be rather small on a global scale. Do not let us forget that or ignore it. We must build on it. I believe that the assembly is still very frail. There is too much, both in Dublin and in Westminster, of implementation at all costs. America, Dublin and London must make this happen together and they must get it right at the right speed.
David Trimble is in an unbelievably difficult position at present. We all know where the problem lies: it lies with Sinn Fein. It lies with Sinn Fein because its members are pretending that they are no longer anything to do with the Provisional IRA. We all know that to be lies. They are pretending because they cannot deliver what they know, and what we all know, is vital to the success of this Bill and the assembly--decommissioning. They are unable to do it. I believe that they are finding it almost impossible. I do not know how it will be delivered. However, I am absolutely certain that, if the Assembly is to work and if this Bill is to be meaningful and to last, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister must interpret Clause 23, which refers to exclusions, as we all know they should. Under Clause 23, Sinn Fein should not be admitted to the Assembly today. It should not be admitted until decommissioning has started clearly and strongly and until we all know
Lord Monson: My Lords, it is probably due to the torrent of legislation pouring through Parliament in the past couple of years, quite a lot of it relating to Northern Ireland, that the media have by and large failed to notice the enormous significance of this particular Bill, because as the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Cooke, have reminded us, this is a major and, in some respects, revolutionary measure. Among other things, it repeals the Government of Ireland Act which has been in force for 78 years. It provides a government and quasi-parliament containing inter-communal checks and balances surpassing in complexity those in force in Cyprus between 1960 and 1974 and those in force in Lebanon until the outbreak of the long civil war in 1975. Whether or not that is a good omen, we shall know in due course.
Before turning to the most important features of the Bill, perhaps I may touch briefly upon two other points. Although the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, was somewhat critical, most noble Lords seem to consider that Part VI dealing with human rights is extremely thorough and comprehensive. Yet the Good Friday agreement imposes no duty upon the Republic of Ireland to introduce soon comparable legislation south of the Border. I merely draw that omission to your Lordships' attention.
Secondly, it is curious and alarming that throughout the Bill the Government abandoned the time-honoured and legally correct designation "Republic of Ireland" in favour of simply "Ireland", thereby--unintentionally I am sure--lending some weight to irredentist claims in Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution (articles which have not yet been modified or repealed, as far as I am aware).
I now revert to the general constitutional principles. It is fair to say--noble Lords with more experience of the Province than I will correct me if I am wrong--that one of the aims of British policy after the dissolution of Stormont, under both Labour and Conservative governments (even if not vigorously pursued) was to encourage a sense of common Ulster identity, building on the fact that most people in the Province feel themselves to be distinct both from the people on the mainland and from the people in the south of Ireland. It was hoped that that might help to blur, to some extent, religious and other differences, and of course the encouragement of integrated schools was part and parcel of all that. The increasing profile of the Alliance Party was another feature of that period.
It was an uphill task but by no means an ignoble one. It held out the prospect of at least partial success. However, in around 1982 (for reasons at which one can guess but which need not be gone into here) that "policy"--if such it can be termed--was reversed almost overnight. Suddenly the accepted wisdom was that Northern Ireland contains two totally different and
There was a substantial element of truth in that contention, but it was not the whole truth. The trouble was that it positively encouraged age-old separatist tendencies and animosities which were never far below the surface and in many cases very much on the surface. Another consequence was that it positively encouraged those of the nationalist community to become "greener" than they had been 10 or 15 years earlier--I do not mean "green" in the environmental sense.
Some noble Lords may remember that, soon after the outbreak of the troubles in the early 1970s, Bernadette Devlin (no less) declared that she did not mind under which flag she lived; her concern was for better housing, job opportunities, education and so forth for the minority community. As a result of the reversal of policy in the early 1980s, the Anglo-Irish agreement which inexorably followed and all the subsequent developments which flowed from that, it is inconceivable that any latter-day Bernadette Devlin would declare that she was quite happy to live under the Union flag in perpetuity provided certain injustices, as she perceived them, had been rectified.
Since 1985 (perhaps earlier) the minority community as a whole has been positively discouraged from flirting with the notion that, under the right conditions, they could become as loyal to Britain and her institutions as most of the 1 million-plus Irish people living on the British mainland already are.
Nevertheless, for better or worse, we are now stuck with the consequences of reinforcing and formalising the concept of two distinct communities unable ever to share the common national loyalty. In the light of that, most of the provisions in Clause 4 and Parts II and IV of the Bill which require evidence of cross-community support for any legislation which is the slightest bit contentious, make perfect sense. However, that brings us to a moral flaw at the heart of the Bill, touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke.
The Bill deems it to be right and proper for no changes whatever to be made to laws governing health, education, housing, roads, sport, the arts and so forth without the indirect consent of a majority of the people in each community, provided that just under 28 per cent. of the Assembly Members demand such safeguards; that is to say, the safeguards of bi-communal approval. Yet on what is to most people (excluding the super-rich who jet from one tax haven to another) the most important issue of all--their nationality and sense of identity--the Bill deems it right and proper in Clause 1 to enable the most drastic change to be made without any requirement for bi-communal support, not even token bi-communal support. Given the continuation of demographic trends, the people of Northern Ireland could wake up one morning to find their nationality and all that goes with it altered irrevocably by a "yes" vote of 50.01 per cent. coming entirely from one community, with a 49.99 per cent. "no" vote coming entirely from the other community. That is what I mean by "moral flaw"; apart from which, in practical terms, such an event would lead to violence on a scale not yet experienced.
We are constantly enjoined by nationalists and republicans to think in "all-Ireland" terms, and that I am happy to do. Let us remind ourselves that 83.25 per cent. of the island of Ireland is available to those who detest Britain and all things British. Within that five-sixths of the island they can be as non-British and indeed anti-British as they like. That is their right and one can have no objection to it. Surely, therefore, the worthy consensus principles enshrined in the rest of the Bill should properly be extended to the Bill in its entirety. The remaining one-sixth of the island of Ireland should remain a haven for those wishing to retain their British nationality, laws and customs and their British connections (which go back several centuries before 1801) unless a majority of the elected representatives representing each of the two communities vote otherwise.
The Marquess of Donegall: My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships because I had assumed, quite wrongly, that the establishment of the Patten Commission on the Royal Ulster Constabulary would form part of the Bill. It was a foolish assumption, as the commission is already sitting. It is not mentioned at all and the Bill is not yet law.
I had intended to address your Lordships on the commission and its likely effect on the morale and efficiency of the RUC. What I was going to say would be irrelevant to the debate and therefore I shall not say it. I repeat my apology.
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