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Lord Fitt: My Lords, I indicated to the Government that I wanted to say a few words at this stage. I do not intend to go into any great detail. I have had the experience of the "treble"--of seeing three governments in Northern Ireland abolished. In 1972, I saw the wiping out of the Stormont parliament, which had been created in 1920. In 1974, I was there when the Sunningdale executive was wiped out. I then saw the abolition of the convention a few years later. Now, I am witnessing the current events.

All noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have expressed a great deal of regret. No one in this House seeks with any enthusiasm the passage of this legislation. I do so very reluctantly. But some things should be pointed out. A great deal of criticism has rightly been levelled at Sinn Fein/IRA and their refusal to decommission their arms. But when the review takes place--and I hope that it will be successful--as much consideration and pressure should be applied to the UFF, the UVF and the other loyalist so-called paramilitaries who also have a large number of lethal arms at their disposal.

During the suspension, we are asking the IRA to decommission. The IRA are the Irish Republican Army. Without arms, they are nothing. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) is nothing without its murderous weapons. The only reason that the LVF and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) have any legitimacy in their own minds is that they have lethal arms at their disposal by which they threaten to murder those who disagree with them. So when the review takes place, the same pressure should be applied to all those organisations. If the IRA does decommission, then there will be no need: it will be voting itself out of existence. What is an army without arms? So the IRA must face the consequences--as we must. If it hands in its arms, as I passionately advise it to do, there will be no need for an Irish Republican Army. The same applies to the UVF and the other so-called "loyalist" organisations.

I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, will have made many friends among Northern Ireland Assembly members by querying their salaries. I know how sensitive the matter can be, and has been every time there has been an abolition order.

I should like to ask an important question. During the suspension, when no meetings will be allowed at Stormont--there will be no committees--will members of the legislative assembly be able to attend as individuals? They have offices there, with their computers, word processors and various writing facilities. Will they be able to use the facilities in the building?

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We all know the symbolism of the Stormont building. In my mind I have a clear picture of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness being held outside the building before they were elected as MLAs. I can readily foresee that the symbolism of the building will be used by MLAs of different political persuasions to put forward their particular point of view.

An editorial in the Irish Times fully expresses my wish and my sentiments at this time. It was written last year, not last week. The final paragraph states:

    "The core of the decommissioning issue is no different today from what it was six months ago. No democratic system can function while some participants reserve the right indefinitely to fall back upon violence and maintain an armed force to do so. The IRA and Sinn Fein do not appear to accept this and believe they can force those who are fully-committed democrats to bend to their will".

That last sentence is of great import to everyone at this time.

    "It would be unthinkable that the Belfast Agreement, with all it represents, should founder. But that would be a lesser price to pay than embracing the corruption which would be implicit in a surrender to such demands".

That speaks for the vast majority of people in the island of Ireland.

Lord Patten: My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. We all listen carefully to what he has to say. How true his words were about the critical importance of decommissioning. For it is arms that confer legitimacy on terrorists on either side of the political divide, whether the possession of the pike in the thatch in the 18th century or the Armalite in the loft in the 21st century. The noble Lord's remarks and those of the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, should be listened to with great care.

I must apologise as I, too, was unable to be present for the Second Reading debate. The same kind of inescapable duties kept me away from this House. I shall not detain your Lordships long in this debate, except to say that I hope that we shall indeed have good fortune in the next few days. If we do not, I hope that there will be a period of reflection which may lead to good fortune and the restoration of the arrangements which many in this House wish to see.

I urge upon Her Majesty's Government that, during that period of reflection, they look and think hard about whatever Plan B it may be necessary to bring back to this House and to another place, perhaps in a few months' time. I believe that it will very soon become clear that such a plan may be necessary. I look for reassurances from the Minister that the Government are prepared to take into account the sad possibility that such a Plan B may be necessary. I agree entirely with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden that we must travel with hope, but this House, as well as the Government, must also travel with realism.

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5 p.m.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, for his observations about keeping doors open and other modes of talking. It is nice to have confirmation of what I sought to say both yesterday and today from someone who bore principal responsibility for these matters for a number of years.

This situation places a considerable responsibility on organisations such as the British-Irish Association, the Irish Association, Queen's University, Corrymeela Community and others, who did a great deal over many years to keep some kind of political dialogue going, to do the same if, as looks likely, the institutions find themselves in a state of suspension.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: My Lords, I refer very briefly to the routine extension of an order providing an arms amnesty to be debated by another place on Monday. In my view, there would be misunderstanding if that debate were regarded as in any way linked to our exchanges this afternoon.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, we have had a long debate on this important issue. We must not lose sight of the fact that a great deal was achieved under the Good Friday agreement. The issue of decommissioning is one area in which there has been no progress at all. The people of Northern Ireland have gained much from the agreement, and we should audit what has been achieved: an inclusive power-sharing government; cross-border implementation bodies; a North-South Ministerial Council; a British-Irish Council; very importantly, the only human rights commission within these islands; the opportunity to have a police service that has the trust and respect of all; and a significant reduction in the number of troops on the streets. Substantial moves have been made towards the establishment of a normal society.

The Assembly had a long--far too long--period of gestation. In its brief period of effective operation it has proved that it can work well for all the people of Northern Ireland, and we have much to lose if it collapses altogether. Therefore, we believe that immediately all parties in Northern Ireland must come together to resolve the situation. The Bill allows the parties some breathing space to ensure that that task can be carried out quickly and to the satisfaction of all concerned. As I said yesterday, it takes time to build up an institution; it takes a matter of hours to finish it. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, gave testimony to the number of institutions that he had seen come and go. It is vitally important that we do not allow the suspension to go on for too long and that we restore full power to the Assembly as speedily as possible.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, this debate illustrates that your Lordships' House is at one in supporting the Bill, with some provisos. Warnings have been given to Her Majesty's Government. However, we are all still hopeful that miracles will happen and that suspension will not be necessary. I restate the stance of my party. We believe in the Belfast agreement and in the need for

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the IRA to disarm. We also believe that everything humanly possible must be done to keep the Executive together. We hope that Her Majesty's Government will have the courage, skill, luck and good fortune to do that which we all know is necessary.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their co-operation in allowing all stages of the Bill to take place in this House in the course of two days. In particular, I thank the Front Benches of the two parties opposite. The House is practically united in the views expressed over the past two days. We face a very serious situation in Northern Ireland this week. The Bill before the House is one that none of us would have chosen to consider, let alone bring into effect, but there is a serious risk that cross-community confidence in the institutions will diminish to the point where those institutions are in danger of collapse. The Government cannot stand idly by and watch; they must take urgent action to ensure that they have the necessary powers so that the continuing good governance of Northern Ireland is safeguarded.

All in this House want the agreement to succeed and every aspect of it to be implemented in full. We want to see devolution and decommissioning--both are voluntary aspects of the agreement but both are essential--take place. We want to see substantive progress being made on decommissioning immediately. If that progress does not materialise the Government recognise the need to take action to safeguard the institutions. The Bill provides a breathing space for the parties to come together to review the current situation and resolve the very real problems which exist. It is pause or bust. That is potentially the only choice which lies before us. If that situation is reached I do not believe that it is a choice at all. We cannot allow the institutions to perish; there is too much at stake. A pause will at least preserve the institutions and enable us to focus all our efforts on finding a way forward. All of us want to see the Good Friday agreement succeed: there will never be a better agreement. It is for that reason that the House supports the Bill.

I conclude briefly by referring to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux of Killead. Next week a draft order under the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act is to come before this House and another place. The effect of it is to extend the amnesty period during which decommissioning can take place under the Act until 23rd May 2000. The draft order will be subject to full and open debate here and in another place. It would be wrong for me to pre-empt that debate, save to say that the order is essential in order that decommissioning can take place within the time-frame set out in the Good Friday agreement. That is what we all want to see.

On Question, Bill passed.

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