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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend. The noble Viscount knows that these Benches support all the efforts that the Government are making through the Secretary of State and his team in an impossibly difficult situation. We congratulate them when they succeed and commiserate with them when they fail. However, consensus on ends cannot entirely preclude criticism and comment on detailed means.

The electoral system seems to be a real hotchpotch. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, it bears some signs of haste. My fear is that, like any project designed to have something for everyone, it may end up pleasing no one rather than representing what we all know is important in Northern Ireland; namely, the maximum point of compromise.

I particularly regret, given that the main representation that the system will produce comes from 18 five-member constituencies, that the Government did not choose to use the single transferable vote in those constituencies. That would have given the voters a chance to get in on the process, to express a preference between those in favour of peace and those less in favour of peace and to distinguish between people as well as between parties.

I saw some fairly confused and bemused looks around the House as the noble Viscount explained the system. I hope noble Lords understand that this is a classic party list system vote, where the only vote that the voters from Northern Ireland will be able to make is for a party, albeit the parties themselves will put a list of candidates in each constituency. I put some emphasis on that point because I feel it is extremely important that the Government, having set their hand to the plough of getting the public of Northern Ireland to be involved in

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the process as well as the parties, should do everything that they can to maximise vote of participation and ownership of the elections.

I have one or two other questions. The forum which seems to be created by this procedure lives a curious kind of half life, does it not? It is not a legislature. I imagine that the choice of the word "forum" was considered rather like the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in the Irish Republic. Who decides the agenda of the forum and who will chair it? Where will it be? We know that that is an important issue in Northern Ireland. What is the so-called one-way valve which links the negotiations to the forum? How will that work?

With regard to the negotiations themselves, the issue that most concerns your Lordships is, I feel, the potential representation of Sinn Fein. The Prime Minister's Statement seems to indicate on page 5 that the only condition for participation by Sinn Fein is that there should again be a ceasefire. Of course there should be a ceasefire. We all want, expect and must see that. But what other conditions apply? Perhaps I am asking an obvious question but I should be grateful for an answer: does Sinn Fein have to take part in the elections? Does it only enter into the negotiations if it has taken part in the elections? As well as undertaking a ceasefire, standing for election and being elected, does it also have to adhere immediately at the first meeting to the Mitchell principles and put decommissioning on the agenda? If it does not, is it then asked to leave the room? I am very unclear about that and many people would like to know the answer.

I mentioned the importance of involving the people of Northern Ireland in the process as the main justification for going down the election route, as, incidentally, it would be for a referendum. It is extremely important that the Government commit themselves and the Northern Ireland Office to a campaign, first, to get voter registration. In some parts of Northern Ireland, voter registration is extremely low. The precedent set by the Home Office of direct door-to-door canvassing would be perfectly possible. Even when there has been a voter registration drive, they should go on from that to run a campaign to get the people of Northern Ireland to turn out and express their wishes, to vote for peace and progress in Northern Ireland. If we are to take the gamble that, in a sense, that stratagem represents of engaging--as the framework document envisages with a referendum and this process does through elections--the people of Northern Ireland, may we encourage them to turn out and make the elections a success?

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for the spirit in which they approached what the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, rightly described as an extremely delicate process. In no way do I take amiss the fact that both noble Lords asked a series of extremely pertinent questions. I have to say to the House that I shall not be able to give a clear answer to all those questions. I suspect that neither noble Lord would expect me to do so at this stage. However, I shall endeavour to do my best. As I said, I want to emphasise my own personal gratitude and that of Her Majesty's

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Government for the extraordinarily co-operative spirit that both Opposition parties have shown during this difficult and tortuous time.

Both noble Lords asked about what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, described as the "opaque" nature of the proposals, referring particularly, as did the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, to the nature of the election. I had considerable sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, when he said that the list system tends to distinguish between people and parties in favour of parties. I yield to no one in my strong feeling that one of the glories of the British electoral system is that it maintains a direct link between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituency. Those who have had the honour to represent constituencies realise the enormous value of that link.

Nevertheless, in this case we were presented with a difficulty. Since it was clearly impossible for a genuine compromise to be reached as the result of the negotiations between 4th and 13th March, as foreseen in the Statement that I repeated in the House the last time that we addressed this question, the Government had to make a judgment about the system which, in their opinion, was most likely to achieve the primary purpose: a series of elections which they hoped, whatever their reservations, would encourage all the parties in Northern Ireland and particularly the main parties to participate in; and once they had participated, to take part in the forum.

We do not know--I would be foolish to assert otherwise--whether we have achieved our primary objective. I hope that by the end of this afternoon we shall have a clearer idea as to whether or not our judgment proved correct. I can only hope that, in spite of the reservations which I am sure virtually every party will have and indeed the Government have about the system we propose, everybody will recognise that this is the "least bad" in the circumstances. I am certain that were I standing anywhere other than at this Dispatch Box or were my right honourable friend standing anywhere other than at the Dispatch Box in the other place, neither of us would quarrel with the fact that the system we propose is not perfect. However, any other system would have its own drawback.

I hope the House will forgive me if my answer is somewhat longer than usual. Both noble Lords asked a series of extremely important questions which deserve a full answer. One of the advantages of the system is, above all, that each person will vote only once on one piece of paper. The process of voting is therefore simple. That is a considerable advantage. What is rather less simple is the allocation of seats which must be made as a result of the voting system. The allocating of seats, as a result of the fractions that will result, is still the subject of discussion.

Noble Lords will be aware, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, with his party's well-known addiction to various forms of proportional representation, that there are a large number of recognised systems for allocating seats under a constituency list method. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that we examined those systems with

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some care in order to try to satisfy ourselves that they are workable and fair. However, we have not made a final decision on which method to use. We should like to hear representations from individual parties before we bring forward definite proposals in the Bill. A number of possibilities exist, though I shall spare your Lordships the details. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, in particular will be familiar with the Hare system, the Droop system and the d'Hondt system. I shall be happy to discuss those with him and perhaps take his advice outside your Lordships' House.

I cannot say that the elective process will definitely lead to negotiations. What is absolutely certain is that we and the Republic of Ireland Government are determined to drive this process forward. In order for it to work we must do our best to ensure that the various parties take part in it. It is for them to choose. The elections will take place on or around 30th May subject to the appropriate legislation gaining parliamentary approval and thereafter the negotiations will begin on schedule on 10th June.

Both noble Lords wanted to know how the forum will work. In a sense the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was right when he said that the answers had not yet been thought through. That is, at least in part, deliberate. The forum itself will have the ability to establish committees, as has been set out in the draft guideline document--it is very much a consultation document--issued to the leaders of the main parties last weekend. I do not know whether either noble Lord has had the chance to study that document. If they have, they will no doubt have noted that, particularly in its revised form, paragraph 19, though not specific, conveys the sort of function anticipated for the forum. Paragraph 19 states:

    "The Forum will have the ability to establish committees to consider specific issues within its remit such as social and economic questions, cross-community reconciliation, equity of treatment and aspects of human rights. There will be a requirement that the membership and chairmanship of committees be allocated on a proportional basis reflecting party strengths in the Forum. The Forum or its committees will also be enabled to conduct hearings at which public submissions could be made by relevant bodies and individuals such as community, voluntary, women's and youth groups, trade unions, business and professional organisations, the Churches, academics and others. Any negotiation, any discussion, studies or reports of the Forum could inform the negotiating process which could commission such work. This or any other interaction between the Forum and the negotiating process which might be proposed by participants in the negotiations and which might be of benefit in developing agreement will be by agreement among the participants in the negotiating process and at their instigation".

I am aware that that is not a prescription to be imposed on the forum by the Government. I suggest that that in itself is a strength. If the forum can take that guidance and translate it at its own initiative into working practices, the forum will be much more able to develop a force of its own rather than relying on imposition from Her Majesty's Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, asked about negotiations and whether they would still be in the three-stranded form. The answer is "yes". In relation to the assurance that he asked for, that we would have available before Easter a draft of the proposed legislation, I shall do my best to make sure that the draft

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is available as soon as is practicable and I shall need to investigate when that date will be. However, we are extremely anxious to share what is proposed on a bipartisan-tripartisan basis in both Houses of Parliament and will be anxious to take both Houses into our confidence as soon as is practicable.

The noble Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Holme of Cheltenham, asked a key question in relation to the role of Sinn Fein and its associates, the IRA. I do not believe that I have heard any dissent from any of the Unionist parties in this regard; if it wishes, Sinn Fein can take part in the elections. We would encourage it to do so. In view of its past record, it would do nothing but good for it to expose itself to the rigour of electoral politics. I hope that it will not duck that challenge. If it does, we can draw our own conclusions.

Thereafter, like everybody else, Sinn Fein can nominate negotiating teams from the membership of the forum in order to begin discussions. In order for it to be able to enter the negotiating chamber at all, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, Sinn Fein will need to have ensured, if it is within its power, an unequivocal renewal of the ceasefire. If the IRA has not renewed that ceasefire, Sinn Fein will not be allowed into the negotiating chamber.

A question still hangs in the air from both noble Lords. We took a chance last time round that the ceasefire was permanent. We made an assumption-- I believe we used the word "working" assumption--that, since no bombs had gone off, that ceasefire was permanent. We were cruelly deceived and disappointed. We have to ask ourselves what the IRA can do to convince us, if there is to be a renewed ceasefire, that this time they mean it. The answer must come at the very beginning of talks, of negotiations, and when that comes we will expect every party to sign up, in exactly the same terms, to the six Mitchell principles. If any party refuses to do that--and your Lordships will remember that the Mitchell principles are very specific--then there is no question but that that party will be shown the door. They also, in the words of the communique, as part of the first item on the agenda, have to address the question of the mechanics of parallel decommissioning as set out in paragraph 34 of the Mitchell Report.

We will see whether that happens, but I would also like to remind your Lordships that it is not only bombs, bullets and murder that is at stake here. Any party that is committed to peaceful means does not need the paramilitary organisation which enables a terrorist organisation to exist; and we must remember that that paramilitary organisation, during the period of the ceasefire, has not only not been demolished, it has been enhanced. That is something which we would do well to remember in the coming critical days and weeks.

I am well aware that I have trespassed on your Lordships' patience for rather longer than, perhaps, I had any right to, but I would like to take note particularly of the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for a voter registration drive. I would very much like to communicate his suggestion to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I am sure he will treat it with the seriousness which it deserves.

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4.12 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, first, I would like to thank the Leader of the House for his explanations so far. One point on which I was not quite clear was at what stage the IRA and Sinn Fein must declare a ceasefire. Is it right that they must declare the ceasefire directly before the talks or directly before the election? If it may be as late as after the election and they are allowed to the polls, this means that we are permitting an election to occur under the intimidation of the terrorist organisations whilst they are not in a ceasefire mode. That, I believe, could be very dangerous indeed.

Whatever his answer may be, either that they must declare it before the election or that they must declare it before the talks, how soon before? If it is before the election, do they have to declare it before the ballot sheets are printed because, if so, there must be a time given. If they do not, then their party would appear on the ballot sheet and one would get destroyed votes as a result, if those votes count for nothing. If it is before the talks, may they continue bombing up until 9th June, if the talks are on the 10th, and then declare a ceasefire and walk through the doors?

This is all very important because, if we look at what the IRA has done over a number of years, when deadlines like this have occurred they have tried to get to the very doors and, if possible, ambush the other parties by persuading the Government to give way slightly on something--for instance, any one of the Mitchell Report requirements--in order for the Unionist parties or other parties to then boycott the talks. Sinn Fein will then say: "We are ready to talk, and it is the Unionists who have destroyed it."

I accept what the Leader of the House said, that the parties would have to sign up to the six requirements in the Mitchell Report. Are these requirements, one by one, to be signed up, or is the Mitchell Report to be signed in totality? If it is only piece by piece, there may be a chance--I would hope not--that the Government might allow one or two of the lesser ones not to be signed up to, and that would put the Unionists out of it. I think that these are important points, and I hope he will be able to answer them.

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