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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, can the Minister explain why this morning it was necessary to introduce a new Standing Order that would inevitably result in turning the procedures of the Assembly into a farce? Will the Minister accept that it was the Secretary of State's action in introducing that order that made it impossible for the Alliance Party, which is totally committed to making progress under the Good Friday agreement, to put forward the nominations for ministerial appointments? Will the Government make a commitment that in future their actions will be designed to assist those seeking to work constructively to implement the agreement, rather than chasing after those who are creating difficulties for the process?

After the extremely regrettable resignation of the Deputy First Minister, what is the status of Mr Trimble, the First Minister? Under what process will the elections

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take place in the next six weeks? The Statement referred to there being no alternative to going forward. We very much hope that in the autumn that will be the case.

As has been mentioned, this is not a time for point-scoring by political parties. However, as a commitment was made yesterday by the Opposition spokesman during the debate that the bipartisan agreement still holds, would the Minister agree that statements made in another place should be backed by actions?

3.55 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, has spoken in support of Seamus Mallon. I totally agree with the noble Lord. I believe that Seamus Mallon has played--and will continue to play--a leading part in developing the peace process in Northern Ireland. I am sure that he will soon be back in a key position to take that process further. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord in regard to the Good Friday agreement.

I am not convinced that there would have been any material difference in the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party if the amendments had been passed. The Ulster Unionist Party was aware of what was happening and made the decision in terms of what it wanted to do last night and today.

Decommissioning continues to be a key obligation under the Good Friday agreement. Of course, we want that to happen as soon as possible. The relations between our Prime Minister and the Taoiseach continue to be excellent. They work in close co-operation, as evidenced by the fact that next week the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister will meet to discuss how the review, to which I referred earlier when quoting the Statement of the Secretary of State, should be conducted.

As regards whether July was a good time for this process, we have had, mercifully, a very peaceful couple of weekends. Therefore, the conditions in Northern Ireland were propitious for moving forward. I do not believe that July was a bad time at all for such matters. I believe that the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say, "Let's get on with it", otherwise the proceedings would have dragged on and on. Alas, at the moment we have not been able to conclude matters as we had hoped.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, whom I thank for his support, asked about the Standing Order. We and the parties want an inclusive government in Northern Ireland. The parties reaffirmed that in the first of the three principles agreed on 25th June. The Secretary of State, therefore, made an amendment to Standing Orders, stating that Ministers designate, appointed under the d'Hondt procedure, could continue to hold office only if the persons appointed included three designated nationalists and three designated unionists. That would not have happened under the procedures this morning when Ministers of only two parties--none of the unionist parties--were appointed under the d'Hondt procedure. The effect of the change to Standing Orders was to nullify those appointments. That is regrettable but, in the circumstances, inevitable and necessary.

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I do not think that I can comment on the views of the Alliance Party. That party must speak for itself. It must say what it feels about the situation, although my understanding of what was said this morning in the Assembly by the leader of the Alliance Party suggests that that party would not have appointed a minister anyway. That may simply be my interpretation. Of course, the Government will emphatically go on working with and supporting the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly those that support the Good Friday agreement.

3.59 p.m.

Lord Fitt: My Lords, I had hoped that we would today be discussing the amendments which were allegedly going to come from the other side of the building. I had seriously hoped that we would find some agreement with those amendments, which would have prevented the catastrophic events that happened in Northern Ireland earlier today.

I watched the television coverage of the opening of the Assembly and its eventual suspension. I must say that I felt very sad to see the passions and recriminations that have been unleashed because of the decision to abolish the Assembly. I am also saddened by what has been said about my former colleague, Seamus Mallon. I know that he has worked tirelessly to do everything that he could.

However, in all seriousness, I have something to say to my noble friend the Minister. In the Statement that he has just repeated, he said:

    "There is still a wide measure of agreement on the issues which have divided people in the past".

He then listed some of those issues, one of which was,

    "the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms in a manner determined by an independent commission, and the eventual normalisation of society".

It was the one issue of decommissioning which brought this whole process to an end. There was never any agreement on that issue since the agreement was signed. I cannot see how the Secretary of State can say that there has been a "wide measure of agreement".

When the review takes place, that is the one issue which should be tackled head on because, without resolving the issue on decommissioning, there will no hope of any progress, even after such a review.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I certainly agree that decommissioning is a crucial issue in terms of developing the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, when the Prime Minister spent five days in Northern Ireland, together with the Taoiseach, discussing the matter with the parties, it is my understanding that all the main parties agreed with the principle of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. That is certainly the basis on which the review will take place. Clearly, we must wait the outcome of the review to see how the parties respond to those discussions.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, in view of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, I wonder

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whether the Minister could help the House and tell us whether the Prime Minister contacted the Taoiseach during the course of yesterday and shared with him the contents of the three amendments which, apparently, the Prime Minister was suggesting at a certain stage--the text of which I do not think has been made available to the House. If he did contact the Taoiseach and discuss the content of the amendments with Dublin, can the Minister tell us what reaction the Prime Minister received?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am very sorry, but I cannot help the noble Viscount. I know that the Prime Minister has been in touch with the Taoiseach frequently, just as his staff have been touch with the staff of the Taoiseach in recent days. However, I cannot say whether the specific amendments were discussed and I certainly cannot say what the response of the Taoiseach was in that situation.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn: Does my noble friend the Minister accept that there is a total sense of desolation among most of us in the House that this great opportunity has been lost? When planning future relationships, will my noble friend bear in mind--and ask the House to do likewise--that all the violence has not come from one side, and that it is not helping the decommissioning process to assume that it has? For example, is my noble friend aware of the figures that I have obtained from the Northern Ireland Office which show that, since the Good Friday agreement, there have been 51 shootings by Loyalists compared to 41 shootings by Republicans and 124 terrorist activities by the Loyalists compared to 65 by the Republicans--in fact, half? I do not in any way seek to condone violence by either side; but, please, can we avoid hysteria and get this into proper balance?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the question she has asked and for the points she has made. Yes, there has been a level of violence by paramilitary organisations and it has been somewhat greater by Loyalist paramilitary organisations in the recent past than by Republican paramilitary organisations. Of course, all that should stop on both sides.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, one can well understand the frustration felt by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and, indeed, by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who has been so patient with us in recent weeks. Indeed, all of them have sacrificed a good deal of their collective time on these very difficult discussions. To avoid a repetition of this collapse, could we all, quietly and soberly, give consideration to a more modest beginning next time--something perhaps akin to the Wales pattern? Then, in due course, we could perhaps add on a legislative tier. However, at all costs, I emphasise that we must seek to avoid top-heavy legislative structures because they always have an in-built self-destruct system.

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