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Northern Ireland Bill

3.19 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Dubs.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Status of Northern Ireland]:

Lord Monson moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 13, after ("shall") insert (", subject to subsection (3),").

The noble Lord said: I should first point out that there is a mistake in the grouping. Amendment No. 2 should not be grouped with Amendments Nos. 1 and 3; it stands

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separately. I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 3 to which Amendment No. 1 is a paving amendment. Ever since 1972 successive British governments, be they Labour or Conservative, have decreed that straightforward majority rule will no longer do.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I apologise for interrupting the noble Lord. It is impossible for Ministers to hear what is being said when noble Lords are speaking when leaving the Chamber.

Lord Monson: Perhaps I should start again. With the leave of the Committee, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 3 to which Amendment No. 1 is a paving amendment. Ever since 1972 successive British governments, whether Conservative or Labour, have decreed that straightforward majority rule in Northern Ireland will no longer do; nor will majority votes on most issues henceforth be regarded as conclusive. Every abortive assembly and proposed constitutional arrangement since then has had elaborate checks and balances incorporated to ensure that minorities have substantial blocking powers at their disposal.

The Good Friday agreement takes matters much further. For better or worse, it positively institutionalises the notion that Northern Ireland is composed of two utterly distinct and separate communities and lays down that virtually no new legislative steps, however trivial, may be taken without the support of the majority of each of the two communities through the medium of their elected representatives. This principle runs like a golden thread through the 83 clauses of the Bill but with one vital exception. It fails to embrace Clause 1, which covers the most important issue of all: nationality and national identity. On this issue, as matters stand, all that will be needed to detach the Province from the United Kingdom and annex it to the Republic of Ireland is a 50.001 per cent. vote in favour, possibly on a low turn-out, with no real guarantee against personation and intimidation and no evidence whatsoever of cross-community support. Therefore, demographic changes could lead to the Province being incorporated into the Republic against the fervent wish of every single member of one of the two communities.

When similar objections regarding border polls have been raised before there have been two responses. The first is, "Well, we will keep our options open and cross that bridge when we come to it. After all, a border poll is indicative or advisory rather than binding". However, Clause 1 is drawn specifically so as to exclude any procrastination or fudge. The second response goes something like, "When it comes to the crunch many Republicans and Nationalists will be reluctant to leave the United Kingdom after all, mainly for financial considerations". Really? Lavish EU subsidies mean that the south is now very much richer than it used to be. More importantly, if one had predicted a dozen years ago that within five years the "evil empire" (the Soviet empire) would collapse and all the countries of eastern and central Europe and most of Soviet Asia would be free, and that within a little over five years apartheid would collapse, with hardly a shot being fired, and a

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multi-racial government would be elected on the basis of universal suffrage, people would have regarded one as stark raving mad. Yet both of those events have occurred. The attitudes and patterns of five or 10 years ago are no guide to what may happen five or 10 years hence.

In a nutshell, the provisions of Clause 1 as drafted are both unfair and very unwise. I deal first with unwisdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, pointed out in an article that I quoted at Second Reading, to try to push 1 million people into another state against their will is dangerous folly. Even the possibility of it would make them much more edgy and volatile in the next few tricky years than would otherwise be the case. Considerations of this kind lead wise governments to stipulate that where strong resistance is anticipated a majority of well over 50 per cent. of those voting must be obtained before major constitutional, or quasi-constitutional, change is set in train. Examples are the Scottish devolution proposals of 1979 and the Belgian referendum of 1950.

Our spiritual leaders take the same line. Although obviously there is no question whatever of bloodshed or even the mildest fisticuffs, so strong is resistance in some quarters to the Anglican-Methodist unity proposals that the established Church has decreed that unity must be delayed until 75 per cent. of the Synod votes in favour of it. So far this has not happened.

I remind the Committee that five-sixths of the island of Ireland is available to those who wish, as is their right, to spurn everything British. Is it not only fair for the remaining one-sixth of the island to continue to be a haven for those who wish to remain British and live in a British environment until such time, if it ever comes, as half of them change their mind? There is nothing remotely extreme or radical about these amendments. On the contrary, they remove an anomaly and bring the clause into line with the worthy and fair-minded principles of bi-communal consent which underpin the rest of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: As the Committee begins its deliberations on the very large number of amendments from all parts of the House perhaps I may be forgiven for taking a moment to express congratulations to Mr. Trimble and Mr. Hume on the award to them of the Nobel peace prize. The efforts of both well deserve the award of that prize and it is symbolic of the efforts of many other people as well. One can only hope, as Mr. Trimble has himself pointed out, that it does not turn out to be a premature award.

The Government have proposed over 200 amendments. They include a number of new delegated powers and alterations to the existing delegated powers in the Bill. Therefore, I took the liberty to suggest a day or two ago to the noble Lord the Minister that the amendments should be seen by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee in addition to its report on the Bill as it stands. These are sweeping amendments which include new order-making powers and should be looked at so that noble Lords can have the benefit of the advice of that committee at least in the later stage of their debates.

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I turn to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and the other two amendments grouped with it. I very much sympathise with the efforts of the noble Lord to get a triple lock on the potentially momentous change in the status of Northern Ireland. The three parts of the lock are: the people of Northern Ireland and the referendum referred to in the Bill; the United Kingdom Parliament, which is also referred to in the Bill; and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Unfortunately, this is not what the agreement says. We have been told frequently and have come to accept that it is extremely difficult to vary the agreement, which is complicated and has involved long negotiations with many people over a number of years, even if we wished to do so in a small way. This is not a small change but a big change. Therefore, it is difficult to support the amendment at this stage much as one may wish to do so.

Lord Monson: I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I said earlier--probably no one heard because of the mass exodus--that Amendment No. 2 had been wrongly grouped with Amendments Nos. 1 and 3. I intend to move that amendment separately. Amendment No. 2 should be grouped with Amendment No. 225.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: In that case I shall reserve my remarks on Amendment No. 2 to a subsequent point and conclude there.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: I should like to support this amendment strongly. We have to remember that the IRA spokesman, speaking in Dublin in early September just before the recall of Parliament, said, after confirming that there would be no decommissioning and refusing to say that the war was over:

    "If the objective conditions exist for violent conflict, then such conflict will occur".
That is IRA speak for "we haven't gone away". They said that though they were concerned at the slow pace of movement, they were confident they would achieve their objective--a united and independent Ireland.

Martin McGuinness told the BBC today that the decommissioning issue was entirely a matter for General John de Chastelain; that Sinn Fein-IRA made their position clear at the talks; that decommissioning was not part of the peace process and only the Unionists were trying retrospectively to make it a precondition. He said that he would, far from talking to the Prime Minister about decommissioning, be telling him that the agreement was in default by four months.

Against that background of arrogant intransigence-- which he can afford since the IRA have their prisoners out now--it seems to me that it is more than ever necessary for the Governments to offer all the strong reassurance they can to the people of Northern Ireland that they are sticking to the agreement. Part of that would be for the Irish Government to act at once to

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enact the necessary legislation to abrogate Articles 1 and 2 of their constitution. The agreement expressly requires each government to notify the other of:

    "the completion of the requirements for entry into force of this agreement. This agreement shall enter into force on the date of the receipt of the later of the two notifications".

It is up to the Government of the Republic of Ireland to ensure that there will be no delay. But, more than that, it is essential to reassure the Assembly, and particularly the Unionists, that they have so acted given Sinn Fein-IRA's somewhat triumphalist behaviour and their glaring lack of good faith over ending punishment beatings and their failure to give any hope, even now, to the families of the disappeared. Those are actions well within the power of Sinn Fein-IRA, whatever they may say about having no arms themselves to decommission.

I am, incidentally, concerned about the meaning of two sections of Article 3 in the agreement which appear on page 4. What extra-territorial jurisdiction is in question, and why will subsection 5, though to be omitted, still have the force of law?

Unless David Trimble can point to the fact that the Irish Government are not only fully and formally accepting Northern Ireland's decision to choose to stay in the UK but have relinquished the claim which would require a united Ireland, I do not see how he can hope to carry the majority of people in Northern Ireland with him in whatever action he deems necessary to create an assembly visibly committed to peace, giving the necessary proof of commitment and spelling out that we are at present talking of two separate entities: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as part of the UK by its own choice. Sinn Fein-IRA must not be allowed to fudge this, nor to put through a major constitutional decision without clear thinking about what we and they are doing.

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