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Northern Ireland

3.41 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on Northern Ireland. The Statement reads as follows:

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    "I now turn to strand 2, the arrangements for north/south co-operation. We have today published a joint framework document which has been agreed with the Irish Government. This sets out a series of proposals as a basis for discussion.

    "One crucial component is that, as part of an overall agreement, the Irish Government have committed themselves to introducing and supporting proposals to amend Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution. These amendments would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland. Paragraph 21 of the joint framework document spells out that they would,

    'demonstrably be such that no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland contrary to the will of a majority of its people is asserted'.

That intention is unambiguous and was reaffirmed by the Taoiseach this morning.

    "For their part the British Government would in these circumstances enshrine in our legislation the principle that Northern Ireland's future should reflect the wishes of its people. This would be done either by amending existing legislation or by introducing new legislation. This would not affect the United Kingdom's sovereignty over Northern Ireland, which could only be changed by further primary legislation.

    "The joint framework document also sets out proposals for a new north/south body which could carry out a range of consultative, harmonising or executive functions. It would not have free-standing authority: it would be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly and to the Irish Parliament respectively. The Northern Ireland members of the body would be drawn from relevant elected heads of department from the Northern Ireland Assembly, and would naturally reflect policies determined by the assembly.

    "Fears have been expressed that this body would in effect give the Irish Government joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland. That is emphatically not the case. It is a proposal for co-operation by agreement between Northern Ireland's representatives and their counterparts in the Republic. Decisions in the body could be taken only where there was agreement north and south. There is no question of a majority out-voting a minority. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament would each therefore have an absolute safeguard against proposals it did not approve of.

    "The north/south body would be established by legislation in this Parliament and in the Irish Parliament. It would discharge or oversee only such functions as were designated for it. There is no predetermined list of those functions. That would be decided only after discussion and agreement with the political parties in Northern Ireland. And it would be for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Parliament to decide whether any additional functions should subsequently be designated.

    "The document also sets out how European Community programmes might be handled in a north/south body. It envisages that the north/south

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    body would be responsible for implementing and managing those programmes which are explicitly designed on a cross-border or island-wide basis. There are currently very few such programmes. Otherwise, the north/south body would have primarily an advisory role.

    "The House will wish to be reassured that responsibility for determining policy towards the European Union, and for representing Northern Ireland in the European Union, would remain as now with the United Kingdom Government.

    "Let me now turn to strand 3 where the joint framework document sets out proposals for future relations between the British and Irish governments. These envisage that the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be replaced by a new agreement between the two governments. As now, there would be a continuing intergovernmental conference with a permanent secretariat. The IGC would be the forum in which the two governments would jointly keep the new arrangements under review.

    "It would be open to either government to bring up concerns about breaches of the new arrangements and to discuss how they might be resolved. This is the so-called 'default mechanism'. But there is no question of this process giving the Irish Government the right to take action in respect of the internal government of Northern Ireland. The framework document explicitly sets out:

    'There would be no derogation from the sovereignty of either Government; each will retain responsibility for the decisions and administration of Government within its own jurisdiction.'

    "As I have emphasised, these documents are intended as a contribution to the talks process. They set out ideas that the Government believe represent a balanced and realistic way forward that could command support across a wide political spectrum in Northern Ireland.

    "The next step will be for further negotiations to take place with the political parties in Northern Ireland. In those negotiations, others will be free to put forward their own proposals. I very much hope that everyone will agree to negotiate seriously. There is too much at stake for any group to stand aside from the talks.

    "If agreement is reached in those negotiations, the outcome will be put for approval to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum. I should equally make clear that there is no question of putting proposals to a referendum before there is agreement among the main political parties.

    "There is a triple safeguard against any proposals being imposed on Northern Ireland. First, any proposals must command the support of the political parties in Northern Ireland; secondly, any proposals must then be approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum; and, thirdly, any necessary legislation must be passed by this Parliament. This provides a triple lock designed to ensure that nothing is implemented without consent.

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    "The prize from a successful outcome to the peace process is immense. We want to see the people of Northern Ireland permanently free from the fear of terrorist violence. We want to see institutions that reflect the different traditions in Northern Ireland in a manner acceptable to all. And we want to enshrine the principle, both north and south, that no change in Northern Ireland's constitutional position can take place without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.

    "I believe these documents make an important contribution to that process, and I commend them to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. I welcome the publication of the new framework for agreement document which concerns the future relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic and between the United Kingdom and the Republic. The Labour Party also welcomes the publication of the strand 1 document which relates to a structure of internal devolution for Northern Ireland. The publication of those documents represents an important further initiative in terms of promoting a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland. In effect they constitute a significant framework for developing the peace process. We wholeheartedly support that process which offers the best opportunity for restoring peace in Northern Ireland and ending the tragic cycle of sectarian violence which has cost so many lives.

In this context, the Labour Party reiterates its support for the Downing Street declaration. We also believe in the need for a consensual approach as the best means of securing a peace settlement. We recognise that any constitutional changes emerging from this process must have the support of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Such an approach, in our view, is vital to the whole future of Northern Ireland itself.

It is therefore essential that all the political parties in Northern Ireland participate in the peace process. Perhaps the Minister will confirm whether other documents produced by other parties will be now considered as part of that process. It would also be helpful if he could provide further details on how the proposed north/south body will work.

If I may say so, it is a little disingenuous of the Prime Minister merely to say on, I think, page seven of the Statement that these documents are a contribution to the talks. With respect, the framework set out in the documents is rather more than just a contribution to the talks. It sets out the way in which both governments see the future developing; and it sets out a framework within which they hope that that future can be safeguarded.

As I understand it, three bodies will be set up as a result. First, there is the internal assembly inside Northern Ireland itself, about which I shall have one or two words to say in a moment. Secondly, there is the

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north/south forum which is a totally new institution. Thirdly, there is the intergovernmental conference which is in existence but seems likely, from the terms of the document, to be somewhat beefed up over its present constitution and possibly given further functions. We support that as a framework. However, it is important that we should be clear as to precisely what it is that the two governments are recommending.

As regards the first—namely, the assembly—I should like the Lord Privy Seal to give further information as to how the panel will work. As I understand it—based upon sight of the documents only within the past few hours—parallel with the assembly itself there is to be a panel of three wise men. It is said that they will be elected. I am not quite sure how they will be elected, whether it is to be a political election, whether they are to emerge from the political parties, what their constituency will be, and the precise way in which they will be elected. And perhaps much more important, nor am I clear as to precisely what their functions will be. Are they longstops to ensure that the Northern Ireland Assembly does not do things which the Government—or I suppose one should say governments—would find too outrageous and which would not fit in with the rest of the framework? It is important that that part of the Government's thinking is exposed a little more. Frankly, I do not quite understand what the object of the exercise is, nor who those people will be. I do not understand precisely what they will do, nor how it fits in with the rest of the process.

One might have different views on the details of the assembly. One can discuss the length of term for which it is elected, the manner of the election, the size, and the functions the assembly will have. Those are all important matters but matters of relative detail which should not deter us from expressing our broad support for the thrust of the document.

I turn to the north/south forum, perhaps the single most important element of the whole package. The Lord Privy Seal will, I am sure, confirm what the Prime Minister has said on a number of occasions: the three elements are to be seen as a package. In other words, the three institutions are to be created as part of the framework as a whole. It is not a matter of saying, "We agree with points one and two but we are not prepared to have three".

The north/south forum will have three functions, as I understand it: it will be consultative; it will harmonise; and it will be executive. Reading the documents, my impression is that it will be rather more than just a consultative institution, representatives who sit on it being drawn from the assembly in Northern Ireland and the parliament in the south.

From paragraph 32 of the document it is clear that in terms of harmonisation the powers envisaged for the north/south forum are great. I wonder whether your Lordships will allow me to quote from paragraph 29 which says that,

    "in respect of these designated responsibilities there would be ... an obligation on both sides"—

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this is the obligation—

    "to use their best endeavours to reach agreement on a common policy and to make determined efforts to overcome any obstacles in the way of that objective, even though its implementation might be undertaken by the two administrations separately".

By way of illustration, the kind of policies that will be considered are enumerated: aspects of agriculture and fisheries, industrial development, consumer affairs, transport, energy, trade, health, social welfare, education and economic policy. It is the whole range of governmental activities on both sides of the border. Again, as I understand it, the north/south forum will be there to try to harmonise policies between what goes on in the north and what goes on in the Republic. Not only do I not object to that, but it seems to me that it would be a fruitful way forward. So far as we are concerned, the institution of the north/south forum is something that we support. However, I do not quite understand how the forum fits into the framework of the assembly in the north and the Dublin Parliament in the south. At some stage in the document, it is said almost that the parliaments on either side shall have a veto on what the north/south forum does. I wonder whether the Lord Privy Seal could expand on the way in which they intermesh constitutionally.

The Minister also referred to important constitutional developments. Perhaps he could clarify the precise nature of the constitutional changes which will be required, both in this country and in the Republic, to give effect to the proposals. I wonder whether the measures required would include, for example, a Bill of Rights, or whether that is something which the Government have considered and already rejected.

I have concentrated, I hope not overmuch, on the details because it is in the details that this type of proposal and suggestion will succeed or fail. We hope that it will succeed. But it is important that the Government and those people who have to make it succeed are clear about exactly what they are being asked to do.

I believe that the framework announced by the Government in the developing peace process provides the people of Northern Ireland with real hope that an end to sectarian conflict may finally be within sight. It is now up to the political parties in Northern Ireland to develop the process in a constructive manner and to secure a political framework which has the support of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. So far as we on this side of the House are concerned, we support the efforts that the Government are now making.

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