Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


1BLord Cope of Berkeley rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered No. 1A, leave out "not".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 1B standing in my name to insist on your Lordships' Amendment No. 1.

It remains our view that this is a dangerous Bill for Northern Ireland and for the rest of the United Kingdom. That is well known to your Lordships. I do not propose again to detail all the arguments, although I shall touch on some points. It was made clear by the noble and learned Lord that the question for consideration today is not only about the dangers of the Bill but also about your Lordships' House insisting on the amendment. Whatever may happen in the future, this House reflects the decisions taken last year on its membership. Its powers are settled in the Parliament Acts. There is no doubt that we are legally entitled to insist on this amendment. Whether or not we should do so is a matter of judgment. That is partly a question of the effects of the Bill but also a question of the nature of the Bill. There can be no question but that this is a constitutional Bill.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the question as to who sits in the legislature of any country is clearly a constitutional matter of the highest importance. I do not profess to be an expert on international constitutions, but I have never heard of a country with a written constitution that does not, among other things, fix who sits in the legislature. It is also a normal feature of written constitutions to fix more elaborate methods than mere legislation to ensure wide support for changing the constitution--so-called entrenched provisions. For example, the Irish constitution provides, among other things, for a referendum on a change to the constitution.

Presumably, the House of Commons also agrees that this is a constitutional measure, as the Committee stage was held on the Floor of the House and not in the usual Standing Committee. Many people believe that this House has a special responsibility in respect of constitutional Bills. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said so only yesterday in another debate.

Furthermore, the Bill was not in the Government's manifesto--

Lord Richard: My Lords, I do not believe that I said that. I recollect that the point I sought to make was

30 Nov 2000 : Column 1476

that the only circumstance in which it would ever be justifiable for this House to insist on an amendment would be one which raised a grave constitutional issue. I do not believe I ever said that I thought this House had a special responsibility for constitutional matters.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I have the words in front of me. The noble Lord spoke about a major constitutional issue being at stake. I hope that I did not misrepresent him--if I did, I apologise. However, he certainly made the point that there was a difference between some constitutional issues and other issues when it came to the use of our powers. I am grateful to the noble Lord for indicating his agreement to that.

Apart from that, the Bill was not in the Government's manifesto. It was not in the Belfast agreement which on other occasions we have been told to follow word by word, almost slavishly. It was not in the British/Irish agreement. It was not even in the Queen's speech last year. It was introduced as a matter of great urgency--so it was said at the time--into another place, all stages being taken on 24th and 25th January. It was not discussed again by another place until a few hours ago, when it was discussed for three hours under a guillotine.

In those circumstances, we are not only entitled to insist on our amendment but have a duty to judge carefully whether the Bill is in the national interest. It is our view that it is not. If the Bill were carried, the principal beneficiary would be Sinn Fein/IRA. Few people, if any, will want to sit in both Parliaments at the same time. However, Sinn Fein would be able to try to have people elected simultaneously for both United Kingdom constituencies and Dail seats, not to take advantage of the seat in Westminster--we know that it spurns doing so--but in order to claim to represent parts of the United Kingdom in Dublin in the Dail. That would be most damaging to the United Kingdom.

The argument also used by Ministers concerns the peace process, good will and so forth. The right honourable Mr Howarth, the Northern Ireland Minister, speaking in the debate in another place not long ago, referred to the warmth of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic. He indicated that it was like the Commonwealth, which it left 50 years ago, and greater than with any other European Union country, even those which have been our allies in peace and in war. Even the Prime Minister yesterday referred to the Commonwealth analogy in reply to the right honourable Mr Trimble.

Therefore, I make no apology for repeating that the Commonwealth comparison is rubbish. No Commonwealth MP has ever sat in Westminster at the same time and in practice none will ever do so. The Minister gave up using that argument long ago in our debates in this House; and quite rightly, too, because it was exploded. I am shocked that no one has told the Prime Minister what a bogus argument it is.

The fact is that no one can legally represent two different constituencies at the same time in the House of Commons. No one can sit in this House and in

30 Nov 2000 : Column 1477

another place. This Bill provides a right for Irish citizens to represent two different constituencies in two different sovereign Parliaments whose national interests sometimes differ. The noble and learned Lord said a few moments ago that we had our separate interests. Of course we want good relations with the Republic and its government, but we have our separate interests. The two Parliaments also have separate interests, and no man can serve two masters.

I emphasise "Irish citizens" because no one who is not an Irish citizen can sit in the Dail. As far as I am aware, there is no proposal by the Irish Government or anybody else to alter the Republic's constitution to allow us to sit in the Irish Parliament. There is no reciprocation at all from the Irish Government or Sinn Fein. All that the Irish Government have said this week while this matter has been coming to the boil is that they will not support Catholics joining the Northern Ireland police service. There is not much good will in that. We believe that this is a one-sided Bill in which we should not acquiesce.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1A, leave out "not".--(Lord Cope of Berkeley.)

Lord Rogan: My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment. By now all noble Lords are aware of the issues which surround the Bill. It is yet to be confirmed to me, and to the satisfaction of others in this House, who exactly demanded this shameful measure of constitutional reform. However, one does not require the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Morse to infer from the consequences of this Bill who demanded it: plainly and simply, it was Sinn Fein. That is the only party to benefit from the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said, this measure is not part of the Belfast agreement which is the basis for constitutional reform in Northern Ireland. An agreement that we cannot cherry pick appears to be the very document to which the Government can attach other measures.

In another place this very afternoon the Minister defended this measure on the grounds that it was consistent with the Belfast agreement. I should like to correct that error. The Belfast agreement is founded on consensus which clearly this measure does not have. A belated and half-hearted statement of support by the SDLP should not be interpreted as anything other than that. It is not an indication that that party supported this measure at the outset, merely that the SDLP was pressurised either by the Government or Sinn Fein to make some kind of statement of support.

There is no support by parliamentarians in the Republic of Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has told this House on more than one occasion of the lack of support by parliamentarians in the Republic of Ireland. No reciprocal measure is to be introduced in the Republic of Ireland. Should Members of the legislature of the Republic of Ireland be able to sit in

30 Nov 2000 : Column 1478

another place, or in the Northern Ireland Assembly, if Members of the United Kingdom legislature are unable to sit in Dublin? That is not correct.

When I refer to Members of the United Kingdom legislature I mean all of them; but only MPs from Northern Ireland constituencies, not from the mainland, may be permitted to sit in the Irish Parliament. Is the Minister aware that the Government of the Republic of Ireland, even if they wanted to reciprocate--I believe that they do not--are unable to do so without reforming their constitution? Further, they cannot do that without a referendum on an amendment to the Republic's constitution. Indeed, I believe that the Irish Government are not minded to amend their constitution. But then the Irish Government are not permitting Sinn Fein/IRA to dictate to them on this issue of constitutional reform.

Here in the United Kingdom we can amend our constitution without a referendum. We can amend our constitution by passing a Bill such as this.

We are under a duty to consider carefully the Bill as it amends our constitution. But we are not under a duty to please and placate Sinn Fein at every juncture. If anything, the Disqualifications Bill should actually disqualify persons from membership of another sovereign parliament and ours. It should remove the anomaly of the Commonwealth parliaments, not add to that anomaly by including the Republic of Ireland.

If countries with which the United Kingdom has special relationships are to receive favourable amendments to our constitution, which will be next? The United States, with which we have a special relationship, left the Commonwealth in 1776. Will it be next to have its disqualification removed? Or is that conditional on Sinn Fein demanding it? I urge and plead with noble Lords to accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and bury this constitutional monstrosity.

5 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, as has been apparent from the previous two contributions, those noble Lords opposed to Amendment No. 1 tend to couch their strict constructionalist rather black-lettered legalistic arguments in somewhat apocalyptic terms with warnings of dire consequences. It is their view that not only the hallowed canons of constitutionalism are being contravened, but, worse, the floodgates are being opened to the most rampant forms of Irish nationalism. Such argumentation is all rather too far-fetched.

It is that sort of mindset which ferments disunity within the ranks of unionism and inhibits the development of a more positive and modern interpretation of unionism that is congruent with contemporary realities and attempts to make the Belfast agreement work.

Those noble Lords who support Amendment No. 1 believe that positive benefits may ensue from having one or two representatives who hold seats in Dublin, London or Belfast. That point was made by my noble

30 Nov 2000 : Column 1479

friend Lord Shutt of Greetland on Report. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan said, we should seek reciprocity from Dublin in that regard.

Some element of cross membership may be beneficial and may help to melt the somewhat frozen attitudes that either end of the dialectical spectrum invariably characterise our debates on Northern Ireland. It is time that that the era of old men in bowler hats, collarettes and long johns is consigned to the museum of political history. For that reason the Liberal Democrats support the Commons amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page