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12.27 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I too am pleased to have the opportunity to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to his place on the Front Bench. I congratulate him on his appointment and express delight that, when commenting on it, he used the word "privilege". I believe that it is a privilege to hold that position for Northern Ireland and I was delighted to hear that he felt so too. If I must hand on the baton, though I have a feeling that it was snatched from my hands, I do so with much pleasure, passing it into a safe pair of hands. Already I must congratulate him on his influence because, as noble Lords sitting alongside him will understand, to do Northern Ireland business before noon verges on the miraculous.

I hope that the noble Lord will have better success than I did in ensuring that his colleagues understand what a much harder task it is to be the Lords' Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. There will be few occasions when we discuss business for which the noble Lord is responsible, and there will be many times when it will be other Ministers' business. Also, I suspect, with the not insignificant majority of his party in the other place, there will be times when he will have to make the journey backwards and forwards while his other colleagues are--I believe the term is "slipped". I hope that he will ensure that they recognise the task that he is undertaking. I have discovered in the past fortnight that while actors out of work rest, Ministers out of work sleep. Nevertheless, the post gives to the occupant a great sense of enjoyment.

I praise the speech just made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. It has always been a pleasure to have more voices from Northern Ireland participating in Northern Ireland debates. I and, I am sure, the House look forward to welcoming a new voice in the near future, when the former Leader of the Unionist Party joins us.

I am delighted to welcome the return of the forum. I had the task of standing it down and did so reluctantly. I wondered whether legislation was necessary to set it up, stand it down and set it up again when the talks did not need that. But it had to be stood down by legislative necessity and needed to be brought back quickly. I am sure that the House understands that that turn of speed was necessary for that matter. I am glad to see that the Prime Minister is driving a train in Northern Ireland which is rather slower than the bullet speed at which the Chancellor is driving his train. It always seems to me to be useful that trains should stop to pick up passengers, and perhaps the Chancellor might consider that.

In supporting the return of the forum I praise its chairman, who has carried out his job with enormous patience and much humour. There are a number of jobs in Northern Ireland which one would be grateful not to have; I suspect that chairman of the forum is one of them. The current applicant has not made that obvious.

I praise the forum without the pessimism shown by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. It is an ideal opportunity for new players to gain experience for the exercise of responsibility that must come. I support all noble Lords in their view that the sooner we can dispose of a

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democratic deficit the better. For instance, "Making Belfast Work" is the job of the city council, not the Government.

I join other noble Lords also in asking the Government to do everything they can to encourage the SDLP to return to the forum. It will bring enormous benefit. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who asked for a timetable; my sympathies are more with the Secretary of State's expression that timetables can so easily become hurdles that one then has to move. I fear that there are many areas in Northern Ireland where people will use paint brushes that only paint into corners, and the fewer there are of those, the better.

I commend the useful work I saw of the committees of the forum, which gave members the opportunity to explore in detail the activities of specific areas. I wonder what the noble Lord's view would be on their request for Ministers to attend and discuss the policies with them. I look forward to his response. I share too the view of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that it is an expensive exercise; no one would deny that. Perhaps the noble Lord will consider persuading his colleagues to look at the question of those facilities being made available to voluntary groups when possible. They were refurbished at considerable expense and there are times when, for voluntary groups, they would provide a useful meeting place.

In the new forum I hope that the long-standing politicians will show a more welcoming attitude to members of the Women's Coalition than has been the case in the past. If this Government intend to try to take the "Yah-boo" out of the other place, perhaps they would also concentrate on taking the "Yah-boo" out of the forum. The lack of courtesy that has been shown brings peace no nearer and the previous silence of women's voices on the political scene could be one of the problems. I suspect that the women are underwhelmed by the success that the men have had in the past in achieving peace.

I look forward very much indeed to working with the noble Lord; I welcome his instatement into the Northern Ireland Office. I offer a warm welcome for the reinstatement of the forum. I echo the views of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that the warmth in this House for Northern Ireland is second to none. I have appreciated the bipartisan approach expressed in past years and I hope that that will be something the noble Lord will feel also.

12.35 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank all Members of the House who expressed their good wishes to me. I find it an exciting opportunity. I love the people of Northern Ireland; they are extremely warm, helpful and supportive. I have met many of them in the past two-and-a-half weeks. The people of Northern Ireland have one characteristic among many which is endearing; that is, they are extremely helpful in coming forward to give me lots of advice as to how I should do my job--a characteristic I notice shared by all Members of this House who have spoken in the debate this morning.

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I appreciate that many Members of this House know a great deal about Northern Ireland and have made positive contributions and suggestions.

I welcome also the fact that the Prime Minister's speech at the Balmoral Show was so widely welcomed. It sets a clear pattern as to how this Government will move forward in Northern Ireland and I appreciate the helpful comments many Members made about the details of the speech.

I turn to some of the specific points raised this morning. First, I turn to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. She made a brief point about the outlook of Sinn Fein. I am sure many other noble Lords will have sympathy for the points that were made. Nevertheless, we must be careful that in this debate we do not enter into the substance of the talks which are to follow. Some of the points made in the debate are matters of substance for the talks. It would be improper for me today to involve myself in details when they are clearly being left to the participants to resolve in the talks which start next month.

We want the talks to be inclusive. They have to be achieved within the criteria that the law lays down, including an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire. I am sure that the points made by the noble Baroness will be included in the substantive agenda of the talks that will then follow.

I turn to the question of SDLP participation in the forum. As your Lordships know, the forum will have an important role to play in promoting dialogue and mutual understanding in Northern Ireland. SDLP participation would certainly enhance the forum's ability to discharge that role. The Government would like to see the widest possible participation in the forum and seek to encourage that. Ultimately, it is a matter for each of the parties to decide as to whether or not they will enter the forum. But your Lordships will appreciate also that the decision by an individual party not to participate in the forum, has no bearing on its eligibility to participate in the multi-party negotiations. I hope that that will be helpful.

A suggestion was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, that the facilities used on occasion by the forum should be made available to voluntary groups on other occasions. I shall look into that. I have met a number of voluntary organisations at work in Northern Ireland. They consist of committed and energetic individuals. I have a great deal of sympathy for the voluntary sector going back over the many years of my involvement with it in England and I shall certainly look into the suggestion to see whether there is any way in which the facilities could be made available.

My noble friend Lord Fitt knows a great deal about Northern Ireland and hopes that I shall leave my job as quickly as possible. I understand the spirit in which he made that remark and in that sense I agree. On the other hand, I also hold responsibilities for both the environment and agriculture in Northern Ireland and those responsibilities will continue even if we move towards a peaceful conclusion on other matters in Northern Ireland, which must remain the main priority at this present time.

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The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, urged me to read the Hayes Report. I shall do that. I put it in my briefcase this morning to read over the coming weekend. He asked a question to which he said he has not had an answer. He asked about an increase in the powers of local authorities in Northern Ireland. We have no doubt about the desirability of increasing the responsibilities discharged in Northern Ireland by people responsible to the electorate there. That will be a key focus of discussion in the multi-party talks. It is very likely that the enhancement of local government powers will be one of the issues addressed. However, as the noble Lord also knows very well, the question raises very strong feelings on both sides and has to be approached delicately. I suspect he will say that, as usual, he has not had an answer to his question. But, at this stage, I think that is the best I can do.

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