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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Once again we are bringing Northern Ireland legislation before your Lordships with little respect for the usual timetables. Let me acknowledge at the start the inconvenience to your Lordships in this. It is justifiable only when we consider what is at stake. As the Prime Minister has said, we have here the best hope for peace in Northern Ireland in a generation, but that prospect cannot be expected to last indefinitely. If momentum is not maintained, the process risks falling apart. That is why such a demanding timescale was set by the Prime Minister and Taoiseach in their statement of 2nd July, which is scheduled to the Bill, and that is the timescale within which the Bill has had to be prepared and put to your Lordships.

What the statement and this Bill are about is giving effect to the Good Friday agreement. Whatever we do, we have to remain consistent with that agreement. We cannot dictate in this House or in another place that particular political arrangements will operate in

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Northern Ireland. They will operate only by the consent of political representatives in each community there. The Good Friday agreement represented, after decades of negotiation, a basis for such consent. There is no alternative basis in view. That is why we have to work within the agreement.

What the Bill aims to do is give both communities confidence that they can move forward by providing that, if their fears come to pass and a key player defaults on commitments, they will end up, through suspension, in no worse position than they are in now and that the default and the defaulter will be clearly identified. A review, involving the two governments and the Northern Ireland parties, must then agree how to put the arrangements back together again.

We are fully aware, of course, of the reservations that the Bill has engendered. We have heard them in Northern Ireland and we heard them expressed, often with passion, in another place last night. We put forward the arrangements that appear in the Bill because they seemed to us to be the best formulation we could arrive at to meet the mistrust and reservations on both sides of the community--and I emphasise to your Lordships that there are concerns on both sides. However, we claim no monopoly on wisdom. We are reflecting carefully on what was said in another place and we will reflect on what your Lordships say. If it is possible to improve the Bill, consistent with the Good Friday agreement, we will of course do so.

We have come a very long way in Northern Ireland since Good Friday 1998; we should not let ourselves think that all has been deadlock. Parties are now engaging with each other far more closely than before. There are welcome signs of closer engagement elsewhere in the community, too. That has been reflected in the dialogue and restraint on marches, which has meant that the grave disturbances of recent years have, mercifully, not been repeated this year. I think we should pay tribute to the efforts that the Orange Order, with the residents' groups, has made to ensure that the marches have so far passed off relatively peacefully.

On the substance of the political dispute, we are narrowing the gap all the time. However, we have not bridged it. With the passage of time, mistrust in both communities grows--both over the formation of a genuinely inclusive executive and over decommissioning. That is why it is urgent to achieve progress now.

The latest discussions began in Belfast on 25th June when three key principles were agreed: that an inclusive executive should be formed exercising devolved powers; that all paramilitary arms should be decommissioned by May 2000; and that the decommissioning should be carried out in a manner determined by the Independent Commission on Decommissioning under General John de Chastelain.

On 2nd July, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach put forward new proposals based on those agreed principles. Under the proposals, the d'Hondt process to nominate Ministers in a new Northern Ireland executive should be run tomorrow. We should bring before your Lordships on Friday an order to bring about devolution. Devolution of powers would take effect from

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18th July--that is, Sunday. General de Chastelain's commission would then set out the steps required and the modalities for achieving by May next year total decommissioning by all paramilitary groups. Within days of devolution, the process of decommissioning is to begin as specified by the commission. There should be a start to actual decommissioning within a few weeks. The commission is due to report progress in September, December and May, but it could make other reports if commitments were not being fulfilled. If there were a default at the beginning of the timetable, the commission could make a report without delay.

We have to underpin these arrangements with guarantees, and that is what the Bill does. It cannot give what some would see as ideal guarantees because they are not attainable. It does all that is practicably possible to ensure that no-one is worse off than they are now because of a failure by someone else to honour their commitments. Under the Bill, if commitments are breached, either on decommissioning or on devolution, the institutions set up by the agreement will be suspended.

Therefore, the Bill responds to the Unionist need for certainty that they will not have to sit in an executive with others if commitments on decommissioning and the sequence that I have set out are not met. However, it also responds to the need of nationalists and republicans for certainty that there really will be an inclusive administration. As a result of the way in which the Bill is structured, the failure to honour commitments is clearly identified--there will be no doubt who is responsible, which is fundamental to the overall approach. I will touch on the key points of the failsafe in the Bill.

Clause 1 of the Bill provides for the automatic and immediate suspension of the operation of the institutions established under the agreement if either decommissioning or devolution commitments are not met. In the case of decommissioning, the trigger is a report from the decommissioning commission that there has been a failure to meet a commitment or to take a step that it has laid down. The effect of suspension is that the Assembly will no longer be able to legislate or to meet, apart from specific circumstances for which the Bill provides. Northern Ireland Ministers will cease to hold office and all legislative and executive functions during the suspension period will revert to Westminster, just as under direct rule.

The North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will cease to function under the terms of a supplementary treaty between the two governments. The draft treaty is available in the Library of the House. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will remain in place, but without the participation of Northern Ireland Ministers. A review, under the terms of the Belfast agreement, will begin as soon as practicable after the suspension, as set out in Clause 1(4).

Clause 2 deals with the period of the suspension and the procedure for bringing it to an end. Clause 3 requires two meetings of the Assembly to be called during the suspension period. The first would be within seven days

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of suspension, without taking a vote. The second would be within seven days of the end of the review when the Assembly would debate the outcome of the review and vote on any proposed action. Clause 4 lays down what would happen when devolved government was restored once the suspension was lifted.

Clause 5 deals with the six north-south implementation bodies that will come into being at the point of devolution. Since these bodies will have continuing administrative functions, it would not be practicable to freeze them immediately. However, during the suspension, the governments will not confer any new functions or policy directions on the bodies, nor will they establish new bodies. The draft treaty makes clear that the two governments will agree new arrangements to transfer the bodies' functions to the relevant departments in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic within a maximum of four months unless the suspension is ended. The Bill reflects that in a statutory duty on the Secretary of State.

The Bill is not a perfect solution. But it seems to us the best approach available in the circumstances. There are a number of issues that worry many in Northern Ireland, in another place and no doubt among your Lordships, and I should like to turn to those.

First, there is the issue of exclusion from ministerial office. The Bill means that if anyone fails to meet their commitments on either decommissioning or devolution the executive will not continue. That is categorical, automatic and immediate. I acknowledge that this is hard on the parties which are not in default. But it is wrong to portray it as a punishment; they are no worse off than they are now.

What we cannot do is form a new executive ourselves. As I have said, the devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland are only possible with a sufficient measure of consent between the parties. That is why we cannot prescribe automatic exclusion, which is inconsistent with the agreement. There would be no basis under the Good Friday agreement for continuing unless an executive, with representatives of both communities, could be formed.

The Bill remits the question of what to do after a suspension to a review, as prescribed in the Good Friday agreement. And the assembly finally decides the exclusion question. The meeting which the Bill requires after the review would be able to take the necessary action. In the end, whichever approach we adopt, everything turns on the same question--whether the parties themselves, on both sides of the community, are willing to go ahead without a party that has failed to honour its commitments. Realistically, any arrangements for devolution in Northern Ireland need support from the major parties on both sides of the community.

On a timetable for decommissioning, which is another understandable concern of many people, the agreement is absolutely clear. The Independent Commission on

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Decommissioning under General de Chastelain is given a key role. In its report of 2nd July, it said that it is,

    "prepared to define a timetable for decommissioning of arms by the main paramilitary groups",

and that such groups,

    "will be expected to adhere to it to ensure completion by 22 May 2000".

Thirdly, I know how difficult the issue of prisoners is for many people. The release scheme itself was for many the most unpalatable part of the agreement last April. Those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists, in Northern Ireland, in Great Britain, indeed among your Lordships, may feel this more than anyone. But again we must come back to the Good Friday agreement. Under the agreement, release of prisoners is linked to the maintenance of paramilitary ceasefires. This is reflected in the terms of the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998. The Act provides that one of the factors the Secretary of State must take into account in judging whether ceasefires have been maintained is whether organisations benefiting are "co-operating fully" with the decommissioning commission.

The Secretary of State said yesterday--at col. 180 of the Official Report--that in the overall judgments she must make about whether the ceasefires are holding, she would pay increasingly close attention to the extent to which an organisation was co-operating with the commission. The test would become tougher as time went on.

It may be helpful to the House if I add a point which arose during Question Time in another place. It was raised by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Government have listened carefully to the debate in the other place yesterday, especially to the valuable contribution made to that debate by the right honourable Members for Upper Bann and for Huntingdon. The Government are considering making a series of amendments to the legislation in the light of what those two speeches contained. We shall be bringing forward those amendments in time for the debate tomorrow. I hope that is helpful to your Lordships.

We all recognise the difficulties the Northern Ireland parties face in moving forward from the present position. We have tried to give them as much comfort as we can in the Bill. We have not made it entirely easy for them, because we cannot. We cannot guarantee a smooth ride for everyone who fulfils their commitments if the process goes ahead now. But let us reflect on the advances decommissioning will bring. We will have all the Good Friday agreement institutions, and people in Northern Ireland will together take control of their affairs. We shall also have the constitutional changes, British and Irish; the principle of consent will be written into our law, and in the Irish Constitution, where it replaces the old Articles 2 and 3; and we shall have an expectation of decommissioning, which must very quickly be fulfilled.

There is a risk of failure. But we have provided what guarantees we could, and they are substantial ones. Suspension may seem harsh, but an innocent party is no worse off after a default on commitments by someone else

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than now. And the consequences of not moving forward to devolution on this basis seem to us to be far worse. It would mean there is no prospect of decommissioning; direct rule continues; the constitutional changes are not made; and the coming together we have seen in Northern Ireland in the past two years, admittedly still imperfect, risks breaking apart.

That is not an inviting outlook. The Bill offers the chance of something far better. In the worst case, it risks no worse than we have now, but success means putting Northern Ireland on to a new and better path that so many people have sought for so long. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Dubs.)

3.26 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear and explicit description of the Bill and I welcome his statement, reflecting what the Prime Minister said in the other place, that the Government are seriously considering a series of amendments. In the light of that, I sincerely hope that some of what I am about to say will be redundant by tomorrow night.

In opening, I wish to make it clear that this party shares the Government's objectives and is still very much part of the bipartisan agreement, as was made clear by my right honourable friend Mr Mackay in another place several times last night. However, we have always reserved the right, as the Official Opposition, to criticise the Government when we thought that they were getting it wrong. There were some parts of the Good Friday agreement that we found unpalatable, as did many other noble Lords and people in the country; the early release of prisoners being one. But we supported and congratulated the Prime Minister on his commitment and achievement there.

Since the Good Friday agreement, the Government have followed a different route from that which we would have taken. Nevertheless we still support the Government, despite--the noble Lord also referred to an improvement in this--the Secretary of State's determination to continue using her "Nelsonian" eye when appraising continuing violence in relation to the cessation of prisoner releases. I am glad that she will toughen up on that.

Today might have been a day of rejoicing for all who have been involved in Northern Ireland affairs over the past 30 years, including 1.5 million of my fellow countrymen. But alas I fear that the Bill before us will fail the test of time unless it is very significantly changed. Why do I say that? The Bill had to address the most difficult problem of all to come out of the Good Friday agreement and the ongoing peace process: decommissioning and devolution of power. As I have said before in the House, Ulster people deserve a return to democracy. They want a devolved parliament, but not at any cost. The Bill is supposed to deliver that.

Democracy is about elected government without guns. Sinn Fein/IRA has been successful in the use of the bomb and the ballot box. That strategy must be stopped, and we cannot condone the Government's

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insistence, which I hope is weakening, that David Trimble and the Unionist Party and other democratic parties must sit down with Sinn Fein before a single commitment to decommissioning has been made by any of the paramilitaries.

The Bill is the product of a less successful hot-housing set of negotiations at Stormont, led by the Prime Minister, with his colleague the Taoiseach to hand. The Prime Minister was weary after Kosovo and became more so as the negotiations dragged on. His determination, commitment and stamina were truly remarkable, and we thank him for them.

However, the truth about those sessions is that even the Prime Minister, with all his negotiating skills, was unable to move Sinn Fein on decommissioning. In order for devolution to work successfully, all parties concerned must be equal. The democrats must be safeguarded from the private armies. The Prime Minister has promised on several occasions--in the other place, at Stormont, on television and in newspaper articles--that he would not expect the Democrats in the Northern Ireland Assembly to share power with parties still backed by fully armed private armies. He has also promised that the Bill will provide a cast-iron fail-safe against that happening. I suggest that at this moment this Bill does no such thing.

We have repeatedly asked--and I take this opportunity again to thank the noble Lord and his colleagues for their courtesy in giving us the opportunity to comment on the Bill before it was printed and to discuss it with their officials--for only three points, with which my right honourable friend attempted to amend the Bill in another place last night. They are: a clear and transparent timetable during which period decommissioning has to take place, with automatic suspension if these obligations are not fulfilled; a clause which would automatically require the assembly to debate the exclusion of Sinn Fein in the event of the IRA refusing to decommission its arms and explosives; and a halt to the early release of terrorist prisoners if any of the paramilitaries--republican or loyalist--fail to decommission. I hope that some of that will be coming forward tomorrow in amendments hinted at by the noble Lord the Minister.

The fact that the Government were unable to accept any of those amendments last night makes me very suspicious and wonder why. If any of them had been accepted, I wonder who would have left the party.

The Bill, while legislating for decommissioning, delegates to General de Chastelain's independent commission the decision-making process. It does not even today provide a start date for the trigger mechanisms, let alone a programme that it can be judged against objectively; there are no benchmarks in the Bill or even attached to it in a schedule. What is more, that international commission is not open to judicial review.

The Bill provides no method whereby the Democratic parties, if they so decide, can, for example, continue the devolved process with the SDLP and without Sinn Fein. That seems very hard on the Democrats and the democratic process. Why should not Mr Hume and the SDLP feel a little of the pressure that Mr Trimble has been feeling for a year and a bit?

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The Bill provides no sanctions or incentives for the loyalist paramilitaries to decommission, with the deterrent of prisoner releases. Again, why should the republicans be penalised in this, if there is absolutely no incentive or sanction in the Bill to persuade Loyalist paramilitaries to decommission?

Despite these criticisms, we still want to see inclusive, devolved government in Northern Ireland. We will continue to support the Government in their marathon efforts to bring about decommissioning. But, although we will not vote against the Bill tonight, we will continue to try to persuade the Government of their duty to support the democratic principle against terrorism; and remind the Prime Minister that he cannot off-load his Government's responsibilities onto an independent commission, as he appears to be doing here: he appears to be using General de Chastelain's independent commission as sole arbiter of the start, the progress and the finality of the decommissioning process. This is a highly political process and that is not the place where these decisions and this responsibility should ultimately lie. I believe that too much is being asked of this fine military gentleman, and that the Bill provides no safeguards. It is open to fudge and needs seriously amending. We on this side of the House will shortly be putting down amendments which we hope to debate tomorrow.

3.35 p.m.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord the Minister, Lord Dubs, and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, have paid tribute to those in all the democratic parties who have laboured mightily over at least three years to produce a devolved structure of governance of great promise, widely supported and solidly based as we hoped it would be. The general aim was that such a permanent and enduring structure would provide a meaningful role for all the truly democratic parties, depending, of course, on the ballot box alone and not augmented, as other organisations are, by the Armalite.

But this wholly destructive Bill, a Bill of 10 pages, obliterates all that we thought we had achieved. The bulldozer is specified at the very beginning, in the Long Title, and in Schedule 2, which records that the two Governments have agreed to:

    "suspend the operation of the institutions set up by the Agreement"--

the Good Friday agreement. The Long Title states that the Bill is to,

    "Make provision for the suspension in certain circumstances of devolved government in Northern Ireland".

In the light of that sentence, perhaps the title of the Bill should have been "An Act of Vandalism".

The last occasion on which the Parliament of the United Kingdom so indulged itself was in 1972, when it suspended and within a year obliterated the Stormont devolved government and parliament, all in one day. So there is a precedent for what we are doing now.

Twenty-seven years on, we are today invited to approve the mechanism to suspend Stormont's successor even before its first formal meeting. The

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Secretary of State said in another place that the Bill is therefore an insurance policy. I fail to see the logic of that. The suspension contained in the Bill is fragile, flawed and unfair. Those very serious defects spring from the fact that the Bill destroys the concept of a coalition as most of us understand it, which normally would permit any element to withdraw, or even disqualify itself, without endangering the coalition as a whole. The Bill clearly specifies that if any maverick party or group were to be automatically suspended or to withdraw then, in other words, the innocent and the guilty would be equally punished. I am afraid that the Government in certain times of irresponsibility have seemed to lean towards penalising the innocent.

This calls to mind that little jingle:

    "The rain, it raineth on the just

And also on the unjust fella: But chiefly on the just, because The unjust steals the just's umbrella". David Trimble might feel a bit like that.

There is ample evidence, too, that spin doctors are beavering away under that guideline. Already David Trimble, leader of my party, who has made 15 concessions in 15 months and who has endangered his leadership position within the party, is being cast in the role of the villain of the piece, while Mr Adams can apparently not even spell the little word "Yes".

Clause 1 of the Bill contains a truly breathtaking provision to initiate a review, not just of the procedures up to now but of the agreement itself. In effect, it seems to be providing for a post-mortem before the death of the new government. That can hardly be regarded as a "confidence-building measure"--a phrase so much beloved of the Northern Ireland Office in the past year or so.

We understand that the review body will consist of the two governments, the White House (when it has time) and the Northern Ireland parties. So I suppose we can only hope that, if all of those diverse bodies can be herded into a compound and starved of sleep for days and nights on end, somehow or other they will manage to invent at least a few promising new phrases.

Yesterday in another place the Secretary of State stated that the nationalists, republicans and Unionists require certainty, and then went on to add that this Bill provides that certainty. I agree that they deserve certainty and therefore it would be sensible and constructive not to make the suspension order today. I simply do not understand why senior Ministers keep quoting phrases like, "Give peace a chance" and "move to a secure future" on the very day when we have a self-destruct Bill before us. Another phrase is, "We will never know whether terrorists will disarm if we refuse to put them to the test"; that has been current this past week.

That latter sentence compels me to deal, regretfully, with a very sensitive subject. It may be defensible to tell the general public that they will never know whether or not terrorists will disarm unless we put them to the test. But senior Ministers are not in that category; they are not the general public. They know the answer to that

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question already. For example, they know that the IRA brigade in the southern areas of Northern Ireland has already made its decision--though they have not announced it--to reject decommissioning now and at any time in the future. As most noble Lords know, members of that brigade of the provisional IRA are not defectors; they are not break-away mavericks; they are the most dominant element in the terrorist operations in relation to Northern Ireland and even England.

I said that senior Ministers are aware of that decision, but it is possible I was being unfair to them. It is just possible that crucial information is being withheld from senior Ministers. I know from long experience since 1972 that there are examples where former Ministers found that certain intelligence services had their own separate agendas, even in the political and constitutional fields. In times past I have known the same intelligence sources to ask their CIA counterparts' question: "Shall we tell the President?".

I cannot believe that senior Ministers in Her Majesty's Government would be taking such hideous risks for peace and stability if they had in their possession information to which others already had access. They may therefore feel it prudent to take a raincheck before incurring any further risks, and thus perhaps even at this late stage of this legislation, prevent terrorists from doing lasting damage to all the achievements to which the Minister paid tribute.

3.43 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, and I shall never forget, for my part, that it was he who, for the first time for several years, led his party's negotiating team down to Dublin in the talks in 1992. That was an act of imagination and courage with which I associate the noble Lord. I always felt it was a thousand pities that those talks came to an end at the time and for the reason that they did.

However, I respectfully differ from him in the suggestion he made that the security forces, any of them, would wilfully conceal material from the government of the day. My experience--for what it is worth--leads me to be confident that there is no risk of that.

It is easy to understand and to sympathise with the fact that the Government are feeling something near desperation in that this settlement, for which they have laboured for so long and with such commitment, now seems so tantalisingly close and yet remains at great risk. They laboured long and not without substantial success, the most recent of which is the Drumcree experience of which, in my time, I have vivid memories and experience.

This Bill is evidence of the Government's understandable desperation and merits close attention. In these circumstances there must be a great temptation to apply yet further pressure to the only quarter in which such pressure has yielded positive results since the Good Friday agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, referred to the concessions made by Mr. Trimble. It is a pity that the Bill as at present constructed seeks to apply yet further pressure on the Ulster Unionists led by

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Mr. Trimble, who is self-evidently at risk as has already been suggested. The concessions he made and the courage and imagination he demonstrated are factors which in my time I would have laid long odds against and they are greatly to his credit. It is therefore dangerous to apply further pressure in that quarter.

The pressure seems to be to go one step further; that is, sit down in the Executive with the representatives of Sinn Fein, never mind that the IRA has not decommissioned or even said that it will decommission to any great extent. That is the pressure that is being exerted, even though the IRA--as Her Majesty's Government acknowledge--is the terrorist organisation to which Sinn Fein is inextricably linked.

Yet the IRA has fiercely--and it must be said successfully--defended its arsenals and kept them intact. The IRA has demanded its place in the democratic executive while remaining backed by every item of weaponry and its massive destructive force.

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