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Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointed Day) Order 1999

3.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th November be approved.--(Lord Dubs.)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointed Day) Order 1999, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th November, be approved.

I believe that this debate is a great occasion for Northern Ireland, in a week which will see enormous change for the better in that Province. For the past 30 years, Northern Ireland has been known throughout the world as a place of conflict, of deep-rooted division, prejudice and sectarian violence. That is changing, and today we take another step along the road to peace and a new partnership.

The Good Friday agreement reached on 10th April last year in Belfast is the solid foundation for that partnership, and the appointment of new Assembly Ministers last night is a further expression of the desire

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of the Northern Ireland political parties to build upon it. The people of Northern Ireland can look forward to the new century with fresh hope and confidence, and to the opportunity to build a stable and prosperous future.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has now determined, as he is required to do by Section 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, that sufficient progress has been made to set the date for the devolution of power to the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is therefore my very great privilege to present to the House an order which will bring into effect devolution for Northern Ireland, based on the Good Friday agreement. This order specifies 2nd December as the day on which devolution will take place in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will also bring into effect, by a separate order, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Commencement NI) Order, the remaining provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. From midnight tomorrow night power over a wide range of matters will be transferred to new Northern Ireland Ministers, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Secretary of State today signed two orders which established the ten new departments of the Assembly and transferred functions to them. The orders will come into force tomorrow. The departments will deal with matters such as health, education and training, agriculture, social and regional development, environment, trade, culture, arts and leisure. They will be led by the ten new Northern Ireland Assembly Ministers elected at Stormont yesterday. From Thursday the Assembly will be able to legislate freely on these areas of responsibility enabling people to make decisions, in partnership, about the administration of public services in Northern Ireland. Consequently, I will no longer have the responsibility of bringing legislation in these areas before this House.

Some areas of responsibility, for example policing, parades, prisons and criminal justice will, for the time being, remain reserved matters and the responsibility of the Secretary of State.

A new British-Irish Treaty will come into force on the same day, which will bring into being significant new North-South institutions, in place and functioning from 2nd December. And, most fundamentally of all, we shall have a settlement of the constitutional argument that has been at the root of the conflict in Northern Ireland: a settlement which provides for the question to be decided according to the principle of consent.

This principle does not require anyone to give up their legitimate political aspirations about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, but places the decision on Northern Ireland's future firmly in the hands of the people who live there.

Devolution on 2nd December will allow Northern Ireland to follow Scotland and Wales along the path to accountable regional government. It has taken longer than we hoped, but devolution is now finally in sight. Yesterday the Northern Ireland Assembly took

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another step on that path. Those Ministers appointed yesterday represent both main traditions in Northern Ireland; five are Unionist and five are Nationalist. I am sure the House will join me in wishing them all well in their task of managing the new Northern Ireland departments.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Dubs: My Lords, also on 2nd December, the new British-Irish agreement will also come into effect, following an exchange of notifications between the Governments. There will be a new North-South Ministerial Council and six new implementation bodies to handle specified North-South matters accountable to the Dail and the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Irish Government will immediately make a declaration that will bring into effect the amendments to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and our own amendments to the law on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will also come into force. The principle of consent will therefore be enshrined in the constitutional law of both countries.

Working together has been the key to securing the Good Friday agreement and to resolving the difficulties in its implementation. The fact that I am able to bring this order before the House today represents a real political achievement by the political leaders and parties in Northern Ireland. A year ago, some of those leaders would not meet, let alone co-operate in finding a way forward for Northern Ireland; yet in the recent review of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, they met face to face, debated and negotiated intensively for 11 weeks.

The debates were friendly, and issues were often argued with conviction, but they were also, at the end of the day, real political negotiations between responsible politicians whose first concern was to find the best way forward for Northern Ireland. The new and better relationships between those political leaders show how much has changed for the better in Northern Ireland, and demonstrates that politics works; violence does not.

I know that there are those in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, including possibly some in this House, who remain sceptical. There is particular scepticism about decommissioning and concern about what the Government will do if it does not happen. I believe that it will happen. We have said throughout that we want devolution and decommissioning and we hold to that view. That is why the Secretary of State has said, publicly and in another place, that if there is default either in operating the devolved institutions or in decommissioning, the new institutions will be suspended. We shall ensure that no one profits by default.

If the institutions are suspended, our objective would be to restore the situation as quickly as possible, guided by the Good Friday agreement. During a period of suspension, direct rule would have to resume, but we would operate it sensibly, taking into

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account the views of the parties. But I believe that this will not be necessary. I believe that we have the support and good will of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland to make devolution work. Let us give it a chance. I hope that, whatever their misgivings, people, whether members of the public or political representatives, will now join in operating the new institutions for the common benefit.

Many people deserve gratitude for their part in creating this new opportunity for Northern Ireland. We must, first and foremost, acknowledge the vision and courage of the political leaders in Northern Ireland who have taken great risks to come this far. I believe that history will vindicate their judgment and their commitment. David Trimble has achieved for Unionism the approval of the Irish territorial claim, being sought by Unionists. As First Minister in the Assembly, he will continue to lead Unionism in the new devolved administration. Seamus Mallon rightly deserves the office of Deputy First Minister and will bring to that job the same qualities of vision and practical wisdom he demonstrated as leader of the SDLP negotiating team. John Hume has worked tirelessly to remove violence from Northern Ireland politics, and has seen that achieved in the Good Friday agreement. Gerry Adams, with political courage, has brought republicanism into inclusive power-sharing government and deserves credit for his effective leadership in achieving this.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have both invested enormous time and effort in resolving the political problems of Northern Ireland, and their close working relationship has been an important factor in our success. President Clinton, too, has provided unfailing support and assistance throughout the process. His involvement has been invaluable.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the contributions made by the previous Prime Minister and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.

Most of all, we owe an enormous debt to Senator Mitchell, who agreed to take on the role of independent facilitator for the review of the implementation of the agreement. Senator Mitchell brought infinite patience, wisdom, determination and political skill, and it is due largely to his energy and commitment that I am able today to tell the House that devolution for Northern Ireland will at last become a reality and that the other aspects of the agreement will proceed. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our gratitude for his dedicated effort on our behalf. With the permission of the House, I should like to extend the gratitude to his wife Heather and young son Andrew, who have had to endure his absence in our service, often at short notice and great inconvenience, over a very long period.

Finally, perhaps I may make special mention of the Secretary of State and his predecessor, Mo Mowlam. Both have worked tirelessly to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and have endured much frustration and political criticism. This Thursday, 2nd December, will see their efforts crowned with success.

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I can tell the House that if the order is approved tonight in this House and in another place, Her Majesty has agreed to hold a special Privy Council tomorrow when the order may be made.

Northern Ireland's history, although a short span of years, is not short of political events. Many of them will be familiar to this House. This order, although one of the shorter pieces of legislation I have brought to the House, marks one of the most significant of all these. It represents the triumph of normal democratic politics over violence as a means of accommodating different traditions and viewpoints in Northern Ireland; a new commitment, entrenched in the pledge of office taken by the new Northern Ireland Ministers, to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods.

There will of course be difficulties ahead. However, I am confident that the political representatives in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, working together, will overcome them and deliver peace and prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that this House will join me in wishing the new administration in Northern Ireland every success as it takes on its new responsibilities. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 29th November be approved.--(Lord Dubs.)

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