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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I apologise for intervening. I did not understand the question of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, to be, "Why are the Government introducing the Bill today?" but, "Why is it happening at this particular time?" So I think that the noble Viscount is talking about two different things. For the record, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, nodded when I said that.
Perhaps I may ask a slightly different question. Why is it so important that we should consider the Second Reading of the Bill now? Is it important that the Bill should become law? If so, why? Is it so important that we should be asked to rush it through in this way without an adequate explanation? Who is it designed to help? I assume that it is designed to help, above all, certain nationalist or republican people in Northern Ireland who have ambitions to become TDs. Those of us who have recently visited Dublin will, without question, have noticed the extreme nervousness with which members of the Dublin Government are viewing their next general election. The nightmare they are facing is that enough Sinn Fein TDs will be elected to the Dail next time round to hold the balance of power between the two parties.
I can only assume that we are about to face the curious prospect that a number of people represented at the very least in the Northern Ireland Assembly will also be members of the Dail and will therefore be able to pursue through parliamentary means what a number of people on this side of the water and indeed in Northern Ireland itself see administratively, which is the beginnings of joint administrative authority in the Province, and that that is being pursued as a form of joint legislative authority as well. Whatever the protestations of Ministers may be in that respect, that is the only explanation which fits the very curious set of facts that your Lordships have managed to identify.
It is clear that Members of the other place who are also members of Sinn Fein are not able to take their seats at the moment because they refuse to take the Oath. I hope and believe that the Government will not change the nature of the Oath for another place. The oath represents a clear commitment on the part of Members of another place to the polity which we all attempt to serve. We well know that Sinn Fein represents a tradition entirely inimical to the polity which we all attempt to serve. It is therefore entirely proper that if they do not wish to take that oath they should not have the right to serve in a Parliament whose main objective is to promote the welfare and interests of that polity.
That brings me to the other curiosity in this very curious piece of legislation. How is it possible for a member of the Dail--I have no idea what Oath members of the Dail have to take but I imagine that they have to make some kind of affirmation of loyalty to the Republic of Ireland--to contemplate becoming a Member of another place where an affirmation or an Oath of loyalty to our polity has to be taken? How is that conflict to be resolved? If I understood the noble and learned Lord the Minister correctly, he suggested that it was up to the individual concerned. After all, we are not talking about Ministers here. However, surely it is up to this Parliament to decide whether it wants Members with divided loyalties? I am well aware that Members of Commonwealth countries may be presented with the same difficulty, but I suggest that, in an imperfect world, at least they are members of an organisation of nation states which has a historic link
I hope that I have made it clear that this is a Bill which seems not nearly as simple or as innocuous as the noble and learned Lord made out during his characteristically soothing remarks. I feel that we have not yet been given a remotely convincing explanation of why we are in such a hurry and why the Bill must be given a Second Reading at this late hour and at this particular point in the parliamentary cycle.
I feel equally that what the Bill seeks to do is constitutionally unsound and something that this House would do well to consider in prime time rather than at this late hour. I hope that the noble Lord who is due to reply to the debate will be able to give slightly more convincing answers to both of those points. If he cannot do that, I shall be strongly tempted to suggest to the House that we should divide on Second Reading.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, the House is ill advised to discuss any subject at this time of night, but in so far as we are sitting, I see no reason why we should not be discussing this Bill. The world outside of this place thinks that we are ridiculous to sit as late as we do, but that applies to our business generally rather than only to this Bill.
Given that we have the same relationship with Commonwealth countries--that is, the same ability for Commonwealth parliamentarians to sit in our Parliament as is being suggested here for the Republic of Ireland--we are not seeking to do anything dramatically new. Moreover, as a country we have closer relationships with the Republic of Ireland than we do with many Commonwealth countries. Those relationships are based on proximity, a common land border, common languages and many other shared traditions.
Above all, however, those relationships have been developed and enhanced through the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Government of the Republic played a leading part in helping to achieve the Good Friday agreement. As a consequence of that agreement, the relationships have intensified. We now have the North-South Ministerial Council which also forges closer links between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Taking all of those factors into account, I do not believe that this is a drastic departure from precedent. This is a modest and reasonable Bill and one which common sense suggests that we should adopt.
To my knowledge, the only individual who might fall into the category covered by the Bill is Seamus Mallon, who, I understand, might have become a Senator in Dublin but was prevented from doing so because he is a Member of the House of Commons. It is not a question of Sinn Fein as regards past precedent; it is Seamus Mallon. There may be others, but I do not think that it matters too much. In any case,
Lord Laird: My Lords, I have been given a singular honour tonight. Not on every occasion is one given the opportunity to rise to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who had a distinguished career as a Northern Ireland Office Minister.
However, I too find the whole business of the Bill very curious. To an extent, I believe that the Government Chief Whip let the cat out of the bag when he spoke of "choreographing" and "timetabling". This measure does not form a part of the Good Friday agreement. I believe that noble Lords are agreed on that point. This measure is an additional element. I shall give way.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the noble Lord has the advantage on me. Obviously, I am not familiar with the details of the situation in Northern Ireland. But, as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, when I am asked by a Secretary of State who is familiar with the situation if I will use my best endeavours to see that a Bill receives a Second Reading according to a certain timetable, namely before the Summer Recess, all I can do as Chief Whip is do my best to achieve that.
Lord Laird: My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's clarification of that point. But I merely make the point that the word "choreographing" in the Northern Ireland context has a slightly different meaning.
Lord Laird: My Lords, the hour is late. I agree with my noble friend Lord Rogan, whose speech outlined our major objections to the Bill. I can find no demand for it. I understand that there is possibly one person who would like the Bill passed for his own personal political objectives. That seems to me a poor reason to bring the Bill forward in this rather strange way after it has lain dormant on a shelf somewhere for six months, having been first rushed through the other place.
The Good Friday agreement talks about parity of esteem. It talks about the concept of equality. We were told afterwards by many sections, including the Dublin government, "You cannot cherry-pick the Belfast agreement". I am prepared to accept that. But sometimes it might be thought that some people get slightly more parity than others. It is not a case of this not being a part of the Belfast agreement. This is additional to the Belfast agreement. This is something to suit the political agenda of some people in Northern Ireland who can make their demands in a slightly more threatening way than others.
If there is such a desire on the part of the two governments to look again at relationships, what representations have this Government made, for instance, to the Government of the Irish Republic concerning those people who live in the Republic but consider themselves to be members of the pro-British community?
I should like to know who wants this Bill. The question has been asked many times tonight. If either of the two noble Lords on the Front Bench wish to answer that question now, I am prepared to give way so that we can discuss it. Who asked for this Bill? Who wants the Bill? Who benefits from the Bill? Do they accept the point that there seems to be slightly more parity for one section of the community than for the other?
As a Unionist, I am prepared to work the Good Friday agreement. I am prepared not to cherry-pick it; I am prepared to do it all. But I have not gone back with a shopping list. I am prepared to take the hit of being a chairman of a cross-Border implementation body. That is not something that we did not want. We did not ask for it; we did not seek it--but if it is part of the agreement, we will do it. But we have not gone back with another shopping list. Why is there more parity for some people than for others? I cannot find any answers. Shall I give way and allow the Minister to respond? I thought that I was about to receive an answer but I was not.
We should like to understand the political objectives of the Bill, where the demand for it comes from and the speed of it. I am prepared to accept that earlier the word "choreography" was used incorrectly. What is the objective of this Bill, who wants it and why do we have it before us today? Does the noble and learned Lord accept that in the delicate balance--even the choreography--in Northern Ireland, this kind of skewing of parity is noticed and has an impact? Perhaps the Government are prepared to explain the reason, even if it is unpalatable to us, why this Bill is before the House tonight; or maybe as chairman of a cross-Border implementation body I should now start to develop my own shopping list of matters additional to the Good Friday agreement.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, I followed the progress of this Bill in the House of Commons and was extremely interested in it when it was first introduced. I have been waiting, waiting and waiting for the Bill to appear in your Lordships' House. For a long time the Bill appeared to have been dropped, just as the arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly
I accept that there are matters about which we are not entitled to ask, but this is a very far-reaching measure. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is a very skilled parliamentarian and is expert at telling us that things are not very significant and must be taken step by step. We must not worry about the next step until it arrives. For example, we have perfect freedom of action to consider whether the Oath to the House of Commons is to be altered. There is no need to consider it now; it can be dealt with later.
With the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lord, in no way whatsoever can this Bill be presented as a mere administrative tidying up or, in a practical sense, a measure to put us on the same footing as Commonwealth countries. It is not practical for someone to sit at the same time in the House of Commons and the Parliament of the Seychelles, the Lower House in Australia or the Lower House in India. When I was a Member of another place I should have loved to sit also in the Indian Parliament, but that is not a practical proposition and I do not believe that anyone has ever sought to propose it. In the context of Northern Ireland it is, however, a practical proposition. What we are doing for Northern Ireland is to make a reality of something that has never been a practical possibility for other Commonwealth countries.
This may be a practical possibility for other European countries. The very arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the closeness of our relations with Europe could also be advanced as a reason why perhaps there should be membership of the French Assemblee and the House of Commons at the same time. It is perfectly clear that, step by step, this measure is tied to the peace process.
I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was being a little simplistic when he said that there had been great consultation on this matter in the House of Commons. (I do not know whether I may have the attention of the Minister at some point.) It was some consultation. The Government tried to sneak it into the House of Commons late at night. The other place sat all night because there was uproar in a certain section of the Conservative Party. That was not voluntary consultation or close scrutiny; it was the House of Commons being very angry, puzzled and mystified by why and how the measure was being introduced. The question remains: why is this being introduced?
The Minister referred to the distinction between Ministers and Back-Benchers. A Minister in the Irish Government could not be a Member of the House of Commons at the same time. He said that it posed a clear conflict of interest. But does not a similar conflict also arise with a Back-Bencher in both parliaments? They are both sovereign parliaments. In both parliaments one has to swear an Oath. One represents constituents in sovereign parliaments in different
My noble friend Lord Cranborne referred to the conflict between the two Oaths. No doubt we shall be told by the Minister that the Oath is another matter; that we must take each step at its time; that there is no need to make a decision and that no decision is being proposed about the Oath. But we know what will happen. After the measure is implemented there will be proposals relating to the Oath at a later stage.
I was unsure whether, in reply to my question, the Minister said that there would be, or there were, reciprocal arrangements in Ireland. The noble Lord who spoke later implied that perhaps measures would not be taken. I should be grateful if the Minister will clarify whether further measures are required or whether they exist in law already.
These proposals were not included in the Good Friday agreement. I do not accept that it is a modest measure. It is a mystery why it was dropped, as it was, for several months and then rushed in at this stage.
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