Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord McConnell: My Lords, I would like to commence by adding to the congratulations that have been offered to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, on his very fine maiden speech. I have known him for many years and I am quite convinced that he will be a valuable addition to this House.

I also welcome the Minister on his appointment to the Northern Ireland Office. We wish him well and we will do our best to help him along in a difficult job.

I support what the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, said about restoration of democracy to local government. At the moment local government is completely undemocratic. Powers that in the rest of the United Kingdom are carried out by local authorities are in Northern Ireland carried out by civil servants and quangos nominated by the Government. There has been another year of substandard administration which, although said to be temporary, has lasted for 25 years. It is time that government took the initiative and introduced democracy into local government. That measure would not be precluded by the talks going on at the moment. It is independent of the issue of the constitutional framework and is largely an administrative matter, but it would be a great advancement to have a little bit of democracy even in local government.

I deplore the continuing offering of enticements to the IRA/Sinn Fein. I had hoped that this Government would discontinue the kind of appeasement that was carried out by their predecessors for so many years without any success. There is now talk about a ceasefire for six months that has got to be permanent, lasting indefinitely into the future. It goes against common sense to say: "You can keep your arms in the meantime, during the period of the ceasefire". If the ceasefire is permanent and genuine why do they need to keep their arms if they are not going to use them in the future?

3 Jul 1997 : Column 382

At a recent trial a few days ago of six terrorists who plotted to blow up electricity power stations in the south east of England it was said that preparations for the plot began during the IRA's last ceasefire. That shows how genuine the ceasefire was and casts considerable doubt on any announcement of another ceasefire. It is difficult to see how in six week the Government can be satisfied that the ceasefire is genuine.

The future of Northern Ireland should be decided by genuinely law abiding people of all religions and political parties in Northern Ireland, without interference from the government of the Irish Republic. Recently, their Prime Minister made a speech which was anything but helpful. It would be better if the Ulster people were left to decide their future. Of course, it goes back to the notorious Anglo-Irish agreement. We cannot blame the present Government--it was introduced by the previous government--but it causes a great deal of dissent and ill will. The representatives of that government are bound by their constitution to seek territorial gain in the form of taking over Northern Ireland and incorporating it into the Irish Republic. That is contrary to the principles of the European Union, where one member country is not allowed to have ambitions over the territory of another. But that seems to be conveniently forgotten.

Finally, I wish to hear the Minister comment on the Grand Committee that has been established in another place. I understand that the mechanism has been set up and I shall be interested to know when it will get down to work and become effective.

8.42 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh: My Lords, the House does not generally encourage successive speakers to congratulate a maiden speaker, but tonight we have had an exception, in that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, has great experience of the affairs of Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that he will be a great asset to this House and I welcome him most heartily.

No doubt it will seem strange to people at home that I wish to speak in support of an extension of direct rule in Northern Ireland, but in the short term there is no alternative. During 23 years of direct rule under the Northern Ireland Act 1974 the citizens of Northern Ireland have become increasingly disenchanted with this form of democratic government. Northern Ireland is a democratic desert without equal in Europe and probably far beyond.

We are effectively being governed by a self-perpetuating Civil Service, responsible only to the Secretary of State. Members of our hospital and education boards and other quangos are selected by civil servants with a strong input and de facto power of veto by the government of the Republic of Ireland. Only 3 per cent. of public expenditure in Northern Ireland is under the democratic control of local authorities. This situation is not the fault of the Civil Service which, with some exceptions, is staffed by excellent, capable and responsible people. It is as a consequence of this Act and the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 that a department of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is a legal entity and under direct rule it is under the direction and control of the Secretary of State.

3 Jul 1997 : Column 383

We have a situation where Ministers are appointed to Northern Ireland departments, come over at great personal effort and work very hard. It has been generally assumed that each Minister is responsible for his or her department. However, as the Hayes review has pointed out, the title "Minister" is merely a courtesy title. The role of a Minister in Northern Ireland is not that of a Minister of the department concerned. It is more than a little odd that the duties and responsibilities of a Minister of the department in Northern Ireland is in no way related to that of a Minister in Great Britain.

Throughout the 23 years of direct rule it has been obvious that progress towards democracy should begin by transferring additional duties to local authorities. At present, their duties are almost derisory. The councils have been responsible for library boards and refuse collection but little else. Most local authorities have shown that elected councillors can and do work together for the common good, so why not give them more responsibility? Successive Secretaries of State have been requested to move in that direction and have been pleaded with, but without result. With each year that passes the absence of democratic input into the major departments has become more obvious. Decisions have become more arbitrary and less attention is seemingly paid to the interests and needs of those affected.

It is significant that all the speakers tonight have focused on the absence of local democracy and, so far as I am concerned, there has been no collusion in notes. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, this is the basic building block of a stable society. One of the difficulties is that we have not had a stable society and the fact that we have not had local democracy has been a contributory factor. There should be no delay and I hope that our new Government will give urgent attention to the matter. They should not consider having to wait until a grand solution may be reached.

Terrorism and civil unrest is uppermost in everyone's mind particularly at the present time. I need not go into the detail of what is to happen in the next few days, which is worrying people, because it has been spoken of already. The feeling everywhere is that we have had to put up with terrorism in Northern Ireland for far too long and that it must be resolved soon. The Prime Minister has understood that and has given Sinn Fein/IRA a last chance to reject violence and to enter talks. He has put a date on the start of the talks with or without Sinn Fein and he has put a date on the end of the talks. Those dates must be kept.

I wonder whether the Government are aware of the worries and fears of the pro-Union majority which, as was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, is about 80 per cent? There are fears about what could happen in the coming months. The reason for such fears is that recently Sinn Fein has gained one concession after another and the belief is that more attention is paid to the demands of terrorists than is paid to the rights of law abiding people. Everyone hopes that Sinn Fein will become a democratic party and that the IRA will reject violence for ever. But as yet, Sinn Fein shows no sign that it even understands what democracy is.

3 Jul 1997 : Column 384

It is generally thought, or people have been led to believe, that talks have only to commence and that once engaged in substantive talks agreement will be reached and all will be well. There is a need for a little realism. Unless Sinn Fein changes its spots entirely, there is no chance that agreement will be reached in all-party talks. Sinn Fein continues to say that its objective is unchanged and will remain unchanged. The first stage of that is to bring about a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. If Sinn Fein engages in talks it will demand constitutional change, it will demand reorganisation of the RUC in a way which will allow it to control what it claims to be its areas. Unionists will not be able to agree, and the talks will end in deadlock.

The Government then intend to make proposals for a government of Northern Ireland which will be put to a referendum. Here lies the danger. Will the Government, when they are considering plans for the future of Northern Ireland next year, discover that, if Sinn Fein is not satisfied and return to the Armalites, they will be under pressure to perhaps fudge the issue? Will the Government try to split the difference between the opposing parties? Will they go down the route of the framework document and more to wrap it up in a way which they think will get Unionists to accept a referendum which will offer peace at a price or a resumption of violence?

This is not a hypothetical question. The batch of Northern Ireland graduates finishing university last week are making up their minds about their careers. They are asking their parents what is the future of Northern Ireland. If the parents who have spoken to me are typical, these young people want to stay in Northern Ireland but wonder if it makes sense to do so. Parents can do no more than say that they cannot see beyond the end of the talks, which they believe will end in disagreement. This is a tragic situation. I hope that the Government realise that we are time limited and that they will keep to the programme that they have set.

There have been encouraging signs. The Prime Minister's speech in Belfast on 16th May was excellent, straightforward and reassuring. The Secretary of State has spoken plainly and clearly. She has been doing her very best to see that the weekend programme will go well and without violence. The Minister of State's statement in this mornings News Letter was also positive and straightforward.

If the Government can move from statements of intent to achievement of their objectives in the next year of the Northern Ireland Act 1974, we shall have much to thank them for.

8.52 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the clear and helpful way in which he presented this order and I welcome him from these Benches. He probably realises that he has joined a rather special club. It is an unusual club; it is exclusive, not very numerous and it meets at rather curious times. It has rather ascetic habits--it always meets in the dinner hour--but it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity.

3 Jul 1997 : Column 385

That has been very evident this evening, especially in the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. Among his wise words one of the wisest was his tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Denton. What she managed to achieve in her time working with the former Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was remarkable in moving Northern Ireland from an economy which was over corporatist, over stateist and over dependent on public funds towards a more robust economy, driven by private enterprise and inward investment. She made a major contribution in that respect and, if it is not impertinent from these Benches, I suggest that the Government should try and find some way of making use of her experience in the future.

Just as I think the economy of Northern Ireland needs to move on from paternalism and dependence, so, as many Lords have said, does the politics of Northern Ireland need to move on from the bizarre way in which the Province is governed. We meet at strange times in this House to discuss orders which, for the most part, deal with matters that should be decided in Northern Ireland by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. This is not healthy for Northern Ireland society. It produces dependence. If people do not grapple with decisions; if they do not have to deal with the bread and butter of politics but are confined to the pulpit of rhetoric, it produces what my noble friend Lord Alderdice referred to as irresponsibility.

In that respect I welcome the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and other noble Lords who referred to the need to start to give back to local government in Northern Ireland some of the powers that local government exercises in other parts of the United Kingdom. But I would make two caveats. The first is that that should not be used as a pretext for doing nothing else. It should not be made a step which is precedent to doing all the other things that need to be done to transform politics in Northern Ireland. The second caveat is that, given the bumpy history of local government in Northern Ireland, that would happen best in a context where rights and mutual reciprocity between the two major communities were better established. But, with those two caveats, I agree wholeheartedly with the need to strengthen local government in Northern Ireland.

As to the current situation--which the Minister will accept is not a happy one--it is right to pay tribute to both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for their remarkable efforts since the new Government assumed office in trying to bring about progress, both in the talks and on the question of marches.

Much emphasis has been put on this last-ditch attempt to get Sinn Fein into the talks. The Government could hardly have made the conditions for Sinn Fein's participation clearer. They certainly could not make them any more generous. There is no latitude there; they have gone as far as any government can or should go in terms of trying to persuade Sinn Fein to participate. I hope that is clear and I would welcome the Minister's reassurance when he replies that there can be no teasing out by Sinn Fein of further negotiations, even if it comes

3 Jul 1997 : Column 386

under the guise of clarification. Sinn Fein has to make up its mind. I am not optimistic that it will make up its mind.

If it does not it is extremely important that the Government's initiative places extra responsibilities upon the constitutional parties--particularly upon the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party--to prove that talks between peaceful constitutional parties can be constructive and can make progress. That duty will be much heavier upon them if the terrorists do not give up their ways of violence and come to the table.

As to the marches and the marching season, the Secretary of State has been tireless but clearly now the situation is not promising. I suspect that the attitude of the Garvaghy Road residents has not been helped by the reported words of the new Taoiseach. I hope that he was misquoted, as he said he was, because this is a time when it is extremely important that the two Governments hold together. I hope that proves to be the case over the coming months.

I have one final word on a subject which the Minister's predecessor the noble Baroness, Lady Denton, heard from me on several occasions, the question of integrated education. Integrated education has a particularly important part to play in the political process in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister assure me in his reply that the Government are committed to doing all they can to promote and finance integrated education in the Province?

I was slightly disconcerted by the words of his colleague in another place, Mr. Worthington, the other day who seemed to imply a rather lukewarm support, where enthusiasm and commitment from the Government would be appropriate and help to advance the progress in the Province for which we all devoutly hope.

8.59 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure to be able to put on record my welcome to your Lordships' House for the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. The noble Lord said that he had much to learn. However, I believe that his speech tonight showed that this House has much to learn from him. I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks; indeed, I value greatly the hands of friendship that were offered to me during my three-and-a-half years in Northern Ireland. I thank, too, the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for his kindness. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than leaving Northern Ireland with more people in work than ever before. That justified every ounce of jet lag that seemed to dominate my life in those years.

However, I must apologise in advance to the noble Lord for the further confusion that we will cause him when we return to the Benches opposite. It is a somewhat unusual situation to stand at this Dispatch Box with one's former Secretary of State sitting behind. Indeed, we all look forward very much to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Mayhew in due course. One of the most pleasurable aspects about tonight's debate is the fact that there were more speeches from Members of this House whose homes are

3 Jul 1997 : Column 387

in Northern Ireland than any others. That is both important and to be praised. Indeed, I hope that it will continue.

It gave me no pleasure to bring forward this order to your Lordships' House in 1995 and 1996. Twenty-three years is a long time for temporary powers, as many other speakers have said. However, I was pleased to hear recently reports of the Minister's speech to local government chief executives in which he said that the Government will be trying to ensure that locally elected representatives are more involved in strategy, planning and participation activities in Northern Ireland. It is difficult, if not impossible, to ask people to be responsible without giving them responsibility.

This is a difficult time in Northern Ireland; indeed, there can be no underestimating that fact. Every remark made now brings a retort and probably a consequence. I shall, therefore, restrict myself to wishing all those involved in trying to ensure a weekend without violence the success that they deserve. In particular, I should like to praise the energy and outstanding efforts made by the Secretary of State in that area and to offer the Government our full support from these Benches for the order.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I should like to thank all Members of the House for their contributions to the debate and indeed for the support that many speakers gave to the task facing the Government and the statements that we have made. I should like, first, to pay a particular compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, on his maiden speech. The noble Lord and I were in the other place together, although he was there a lot longer than I was. We got to know each other well and I have an enormous respect for his qualities of leadership, for his party and for his enormous knowledge of Northern Ireland, together with the great contribution that he has made to United Kingdom politics as regards Northern Ireland and other issues over many years. It is an enormous pleasure for me to see him in this House. I know that the noble Lord will add significantly to the understanding and knowledge of Northern Ireland held in this House. I genuinely look forward to the many contributions that I expect he will make to debates on Northern Ireland and other issues in the years to come.

Many specific points were made this evening. I shall do my best to deal with as many of them as I possibly can in the time available to me. I shall begin with the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. He made a particular suggestion which I believe to be of interest. I shall draw that suggestion to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I refer to the noble Lord's suggestion about briefings in the context of the intergovernmental conference. I cannot foresee any particular difficulty about resuming the practice which occurred in the past of briefing Northern Ireland party leaders on such meetings. However, we must consider the practicalities of discussing the agenda

3 Jul 1997 : Column 388

in advance. Nevertheless, I thank the noble Lord for his suggestions. We shall see what we can do to take that particular one further.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, offered me his best wishes for which I am grateful. Like other speakers, he referred to the powers of district councils, to which I shall refer later. However, I should like to take issue with the noble Viscount about some of the remarks he made about John Hume. I have known John Hume for some years and I believe that he has a clear commitment to a peaceful and democratic settlement for Northern Ireland. I believe that that is well known to this House. It is also known how hard he works to that objective and I believe that he deserves our full respect in those efforts.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also offered me his support, for which I am grateful. He, too, referred to district councils and, as I said, I shall return to them later. The noble Lord also implied that some enticements were being offered to IRA-Sinn Fein. I would say emphatically that that is not the case. The Government have made their position absolutely clear from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State onwards. It is a clear commitment: everything is above board. The Prime Minister made it clear that there were initially to be talks between officials and Sinn Fein about the peace process. Those talks have now stopped and I can assure the noble Lord that everything we are doing is open for him and other people to see. Indeed, we are doing nothing in any way behind people's backs and I do not believe that any enticements are being offered to Sinn Fein. We want a fully accountable talks process but only one with parties which are wholly committed to a peaceful and democratic approach. Sinn Fein cannot join the talks without an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire. That is clear; that is known; and there can be no ambiguity or misunderstanding about it.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also talked about Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Government have agreed to put this matter to a referendum in their country in the context of a final settlement in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister has of course pointed to the benefits which would flow from earlier movement on that issue. That is where the matter stands and again the Government's position is quite clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Cooke, referred to the responsibility of Ministers, and particularly junior Ministers. He suggested that their position was somewhat different from those representing departments for Great Britain. I do not think the noble Lord was right in suggesting that the role of a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office is any different from that of a Minister in a Great Britain department. The fact that powers are given to Secretaries of State in Great Britain and to the departments in Northern Ireland is, I believe, quite irrelevant as the Northern Ireland departments operate under the direction and control of the Secretary of State. In both cases junior ministers have no separate statutory existence but operate with full delegated authority from the relevant Secretary of State.

3 Jul 1997 : Column 389

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about integrated education and the Government's position on that. Let me say that the Government remain committed to integrated education and will continue to support and facilitate the future development of this sector in partnership with all interested parties. The integrated sector is small in Northern Ireland and of course there have been some disappointments on the path to achieving more integration in schools. Clearly any further expansion of the integrated sector must take into account both demands made by parents for integrated education for their children and the limits imposed by what can be afforded. There is a balance to be struck here, and my noble friend the Minister for education for Northern Ireland will be seeking, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education and other interested bodies, how best to achieve this. I think that is about as far as I can probably take it on this occasion, but the commitment on the part of the Government is there, as I have stated it.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, also mentioned teasing out developments in connection with Sinn Fein. The position is quite clear and the Government have made clear to everybody where we stand regarding the entry of Sinn Fein into the talks. It knows what it has to do and it is up to Sinn Fein to respond if it will, but there is no more discussion or negotiation on offer to it. It has been told what the position is and we await its response. I hope that the response will be positive and that there will be a ceasefire, but we must wait on developments.

Many of your Lordships asked about local government and the powers relating to district councils. I have sympathy with the views that have been expressed by noble Lords, but I am sure it will be appreciated that there are difficulties. We have already moved some way. The noble Baroness, Lady Denton, referred to a speech I made recently to the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Conference in Belfast on 17th June. I talked there about establishing a framework for helping to develop the existing role of district councils in Northern Ireland. Some of the announcements that I made will need to be worked upon in the coming months.

To summarise some of those matters, I mentioned that the Government were considering how to give councils a power of general competence to allow them to do what they consider appropriate in the interests of districts and their people. That was in our manifesto and we want to give effect to it, but we are considering the details. I should like to strengthen the consultative role of district councils, for example, by the establishment of a planning advisory body to give councillors a role in advising the department on strategic planning policy.

I should like to look at proposals to improve consultation with councils on individual planning applications. There are to be regular ministerial visits to councils to hear their views, and I have committed myself to visiting every one of the district councils in Northern Ireland in the near future. These and other approaches will be there to help to give those who are elected to district councils a more important role and a feeling that they have more oversight of what is happening in their areas and more chance to influence

3 Jul 1997 : Column 390

it. I appreciate that that may not go as far as some of your Lordships might like, but let me remind the House of this: going further can be achieved only through the medium of political talks. I believe that is the right way forward. Otherwise we might be seen to be pre-empting the talks process by making other decisions. That would not be a proper way of giving the process the right authority to move forward.

We have had a good discussion and a good debate. Of course Northern Ireland is poised particularly for this coming weekend; and we can only hope that sense will prevail. I am grateful to noble Lords who have paid tribute to the enormous efforts my noble friend the Secretary of State has made in seeking to bring the parties together and to get agreement as regards the marches that are to take place. We can only hope that her efforts will be successful in the event. But we all know how critical this coming weekend will be for the people of Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I believe that if we can establish peace in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland stands on the brink of enormous economic success. I believe that Northern Ireland would take off economically and show economic growth as fast as any other part of the European Union. There is an awful lot at stake. I believe that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland fully understand that and are desperately anxious for peace.

I again thank noble Lords who contributed to the debate for their comments. I believe that I have dealt with all the points of detail. I understand the reservations about the measure. The structure of direct rule must remain in place. I therefore commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page