|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Glentoran: I should like to add my voice to the debate. I am not speaking from the Front Bench, but I am the Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. We do not see a need to differentiate once again between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. We do not feel it necessary for the Government to complicate the issue of the funding of political parties with the amendments.
The provisions will cause confusion. They are already sending the wrong messages and giving one party in particular, Sinn Fein, which is probably the richest party in Ireland, an even greater advantage over other parties in the democratic processes, such as they are.
Devolution is working in Northern Ireland and I can see no reason why the amendments should be necessary now, let alone for an open-ended period. I should like a clear explanation from the Minister of why the Government feel that Sinn Fein needs special help to keep its coffers full.
Lord Goodhart: I do not wish to repeat the substance of what I said during the earlier debate, but I should like to emphasise one point. If the Government intend to proceed with Clause 65 in an amended form, they will get stronger support if they insert a statutory provision that no order made under that section could last for more than four years. Any order would therefore have to be renewed within the normal electoral cycle.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: We have already had the debate and, like the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I am reluctant to rehearse old territory, although I do not want to belittle the concerns that have just been expressed.
I reiterate that the exemption is not about favouring a particular party in Northern Ireland or in Ireland as a whole in any way, shape or form. It is not about helping Sinn Fein--far from it. As I said when we debated the amendments, the Government have made it patently clear over the past two years that we seek the development of more normalised politics in Northern Ireland.
We would be foolish to ignore the special factors that exist in Northern Ireland. Although the peace process has made tremendous progress over the past few years, we have to recognise that normal political rules do not yet apply. We hope that there will come a time when they do. That is why we have said that we want the situation to be reviewed.
Perhaps I should try to respond positively to the suggestion that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made. We are ready to consider it between now and Report and shall do so. I can give the noble Lord no commitment, but it is certainly a matter we need to review. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, mentioned the possibility of a sunset clause. That is something to which we need to pay close attention.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, mentioned the criteria by which we might decide whether a state of normality in politics had been reached in Northern Ireland. Standing here today at the Dispatch Box, it is difficult for me to describe what that might be. But obviously there must be continued improvement in the strength of the political institutions, increased levels of participation and a further retreat from violence as a means of resolving political differences. I do not believe that violence can ever resolve political differences. Strong political institutions and effective political parties are required in Northern Ireland, and that is what we seek in the Bill. Clearly, a decision on whether normalisation had been reached would be for the government of the day working with all the political interests and, not least, the elected Assembly of Northern Ireland.
A particular question was asked about referendum campaigns. The Bill deals with donations to parties; it does not deal with the purposes for which those donations are required or are to be used. We shall have a debate on donations for referendums. I suggest that we tackle those issues when we come to them and when we consider Amendment No. 234YHA later this evening.
I understand the strength of the views expressed about these matters and I recognise their importance. They are difficult issues but we seek to resolve them. We hope that over time they can be resolved and also that we can move to a happy situation where the normal rules of political engagement in the United Kingdom apply to Northern Ireland.
Lord Glentoran: Before the noble Lord sits down, if he is unable to answer me now, I wonder whether he will write to me to explain exactly what is so different about the electoral processes in Northern Ireland compared to those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Is it not a straight negotiating point between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and people involved in the paramilitaries in maintaining the peace process? If it is, perhaps the Minister would also be good enough to include that, if not now, then in the letter to me.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am always ready to correspond with noble Lords, as many Members of the Committee will be aware. However, we have set out our position, and this amendment is not concerned with negotiations. I believe that it recognises, as did the Neill committee, the political realities that exist in Northern Ireland, and we are trying to deal with those. That is the heart and source of the argument. Of
Viscount Astor: The Minister answered helpfully the questions about the political situation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we welcome his commitment to consider either a sunset clause or a limit on the exemption. I asked the noble Lord a specific question about whether Northern Ireland political parties can use the foreign money which they obtain. Members of the Committee will remember that English parties will not be able to receive such money in the way that, for example, Sinn Fein can. Can the money be used for English referendums? It seems to me that, under the Bill, a Northern Ireland party, for example, although prevented from using the money in an English election, could use it for a referendum.
The Minister said that we shall be discussing referendums later in the course of the Bill. I accept that. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he will consider the position before we reach the amendment concerning referendums. Perhaps he will either come back to me with a reply later this evening or write to me. We should like an assurance from the Minister that what we see as a possible loophole does not exist. Alternatively, we should like an assurance from the Government that, if there is a loophole, they will consider whether they can tighten up the situation. If it suits the Minister, I shall be happy to leave this matter until later in today's proceedings.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I like to be straight with your Lordships' House. The information I have from officials is that Northern Ireland parties can use the fruits of money raised abroad in a UK referendum. That may well present difficulties. Obviously we need to keep the matter closely under review and I shall give it further consideration. I believe that the noble Viscount has raised a useful point on which we shall reflect further.
("( ) An order under subsection (1) may provide for any specified provisions of this Part to apply, in connection with any provision made by the order in pursuance of paragraph (a) or (b) of that subsection, with such modifications as may be specified.").
Page 41, line 43, at end insert--
("( ) Each order under subsection (1) shall be so made as to--
(a) apply to every Northern Ireland party, and
(b) make the same provision with respect to every such party.").
Page 41, line 43, at end insert--
("( ) Where--
(a) at a time when any order is in force under subsection (1) a donation is received by a registered party which is registered in the Great Britain register, and
(b) the order provides for this subsection to apply to any such donation,
section 49(2)(c) shall have effect in relation to the donation as if it referred only to a registered party which is registered in that register.").
Page 42, line 1, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert--
("(2) In this section--
"Northern Ireland party" means a party registered in the Northern Ireland register;
"specified" means specified in an order under subsection (1).").