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Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Desai, for giving way. He might have gone on to say that a further difficulty is that if the legislation is used, when the Assembly and Executive are restored, the procedure for re-electing the First and Deputy First Ministers will be precisely the same; and the odds are that they will be precisely the same Ministers, which means that it will be impossible to restore the Assembly and the Executive unless in the mean time there has been a real change over the decommissioning of arms.

Lord Desai: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. I agree with him and I want to deal with that issue.

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I want to raise the problem of the constitutionality of the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, addressed the problem, but I want my noble friend to confirm that it is the case. In last Saturday's Irish Times, my colleague, Professor Brendan O'Leary, wrote an article in which he raised doubts on this score. I am not a constitutional expert, but he is. Therefore, I quote from what he wrote:

    "In effect the Good Friday agreement made Northern Ireland into a 'federacy'--a self-governing unit whose constitution could not be unilaterally altered by the Westminster Parliament without the consent of the devolved Assembly. For the UK Parliament to assume that right of suspension would be consistent with the agreement only if it were to be supported by the Assembly through cross-community consent procedures".

I have quoted that passage because I should like my noble and learned friend to say that my colleague is wrong.

The relevant point is that when we passed the Act in 1998 we also repealed Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. I have heard that that is what gave north and south Ireland a right to self-determination. No one else has raised the issue and it would be good to have clarification of it.

There is another issue in relation to the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers. I am told that it is contained in the Good Friday agreement. My colleague states in his article:

    "However, within the letter and procedures of the 1998 Act, agreed by the parties as the UK enactment of the Good Friday agreement, the Assembly can propose, by weighted majority, any intra vires amendment to the procedure for electing the First and Deputy First Minister, which could then be sent to Westminster for ratification".

That refers to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. Politically, it would be impossible to get two different First and Deputy First Ministers, but there is a great deal of ambiguity about what is and is not possible under the agreement. After all, the Good Friday agreement is an international treaty; it is not a piece of UK legislation. Therefore, if we do not fulfil the obligations perhaps we can be taken to some European court or other. It would be bad luck indeed if that happened at this stage.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: My Lords, I share the disappointment expressed by other noble Lords at the developments that have made it necessary for the Government to introduce the Bill. I wish that I could say that I was as surprised as I am disappointed. An hour or so ago, a noble Lord with whom I have in the past worked on Irish matters said to me, "We have been here before". Well, not quite here perhaps, but brought up short by similar set-backs.

We are told by the IRA that the problem of decommissioning can be resolved, but not on British or Unionist terms. I suppose that that means on IRA terms. But we are not told what the terms would be. Any agreement must involve give and take on all sides. It may be literally true, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, that there has never been a clear and formal

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commitment on the part of the PIRA to decommission arms or explosives. But we have been allowed--I might almost say "encouraged"--to hope and believe that as part of the peace process there might at least be a measure of decommissioning in the time-scale of the Belfast agreement and what developed from it. As that is not to be the case, the course which the Government now propose is, as one noble Lord said, the least worse course open to them.

I am attracted by the notion that, even if it is necessary to suspend the new institutions, we should keep discussion going and keep the doors open, as the noble Lord, Lord Eames, said. Whether that can be done by keeping on the move in shadow form the institutions that have been suspended, I do not know. I rather doubt it.

However, on that score, I want to add one comment. The past 15 years, since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough, have seen a great and growing improvement in the trust and confidence that persists between the British and Irish Governments. We have had much less megaphone diplomacy and much more serious and business-like discussion, if need be in private. I hope that I may be forgiven for believing that that improvement was one of the results of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985; both of the agreement itself and of the process of discussion and negotiation that led up to it.

If the new institutions in Northern Ireland, and between the two parts of Ireland and within the British Isles as a whole, now have to be suspended, it will be of the first importance that that growth of confidence, trust and co-operation between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland should not be imperilled or impaired. That it should be maintained and improved is, and will continue to be, an indispensable element not only in resolving the present impasse but also in developing longer-term solutions to the problems of Northern Ireland.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that it will continue to be the care and object of Her Majesty's Government to make sure that their relationship with the Irish Government is not allowed to deteriorate as a result of suspension, but will be confirmed and strengthened.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I share in the sadness that this legislation is necessary, the more so as it contrasts with the hopes and excitement that some of us felt last December when devolution took place. That sense of hope and excitement was clearly marked in Northern Ireland, where most people felt that a new era had begun. For the two months of devolution, we have been able to watch the new Assembly at work and the new Executive has, by and large, functioned reasonably well. Furthermore, we have seen politics in Northern Ireland move forward to discussing the kind of issues that are the stuff of real day-to-day democratic politics. Whether that is the crisis in Northern Ireland agriculture or the location of a

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maternity hospital in Belfast, these are real and proper political issues. They represent a move towards democracy.

That is why the disappointment today is much more palpable because we have been able to see that the new institutions can work. We have seen the north/south bodies work, and yet, here we are, faced with the bitter pill that, overall, all parts of the Good Friday agreement have not come about. Nevertheless, I share the hope expressed by my noble friend Lord Fitt that, even at this late stage, with only a couple of days to go, might it not be possible for the IRA to decommission some of their store of weapons and explosives? If they were to do so, the whole situation in Northern Ireland would yet again be transformed.

Life today for the people of Northern Ireland is immeasurably better than it was several years ago. There is peace; it may not be total security, but there is a measure of peace. We can see more prosperity. As the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, pointed out, all over Ireland we can see better co-operation across the political divide at the local authority level. Positive works of co-operation are taking place in local partnerships. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, mentioned Belfast City Council as an example of one local authority, but of course there have been many others.

The noble Lord also touched on local government reform. I agree with him that that reform is necessary. However, I am not sure that now is the right time to embark upon it. I had always hoped that the new Assembly and Executive would seize this issue and make progress on it. Certainly it is a matter that, sooner or later, must be addressed.

Over the years I have tried to understand the position of at least some of the main parties in Northern Ireland. One conclusion I have come to is that most of them have very little margin for manoeuvre, when one takes into account the constraints under which they operate. Certainly I am convinced that David Trimble, who has shown enormous courage in the moves that he has made, does not have much more margin for manoeuvre over and above what he has already done. I do not believe that he would have been able to set up the Executive through the support of his Ulster Unionist Council without agreeing that there would a further meeting of the EUC--the one that is to take place on Saturday--nor indeed without the draft letter of resignation that he has penned.

Over my time in Northern Ireland I often heard members of Sinn Fein saying that David Trimble must face down the Unionists; that was the phrase they used. On the few occasions that I entered into discussions on this, I would say that David Trimble had moved as far as he could--although that is not a phrase that I particularly like to use. Last November he then moved even a little further. He did so publicly. We know what is going on in the Ulster Unionist Party. It is public and out in the open, as it should be with a proper democratic party. For that reason, we can make our own judgment about how little room for manoeuvre is available to David Trimble.

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Last November David Trimble stated that he would be prepared to jump first, provided that the IRA jumped afterwards. As I understand it, he made it clear that he would not have long, after jumping first, before the IRA would need to jump, otherwise he would not be able to hold his position. Indeed, sadly, that has proved to be the case. The question that we should now ask is: why did the IRA not jump when it knew the position he was in and knew the basis upon which the Assembly set up the Executive?

Personally, I believe that the leadership of Sinn Fein does want decommissioning; or at least I think that I believe that. I am not certain because we do not know. Such discussions are not held in public, unlike those of the other parties in Northern Ireland. But I think that there is at least a chance that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would like to see decommissioning come about. However, they have not managed to secure support for that within the Sinn Fein/IRA organisation.

I have heard senior members of Sinn Fein state in public meetings that they personally believe that decommissioning must take place. Indeed, perhaps I may refer to the IRA statement published a few days ago. Some parts of that statement are unhappy and uncompromising, but I should like to quote a few lines from the end:

    "We recognise that the issue of arms needs to be dealt with in an acceptable way and this is a necessary objective of a genuine peace process.

    For that reason, we support efforts to secure the resolution of the arms issue. The peace process is under no threat from the IRA".

If that means anything, I believe that it means that the IRA has moved on the position it held some time ago. How much it might mean, I cannot say, because there are certain enigmatic phrases in the statement. However, I believe there to be an element of movement, or otherwise what do the words,

    "the issue of arms needs to be dealt with",

mean? That must mean something different from the present position.

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