Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, when last we discussed the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 15th October, I predicted that it was likely to last for a long period. Nothing that has happened in the past three weeks inclines me to alter that forecast. The interim has, it is true, offered some signs for optimism. The Prime Minister's speech went down reasonably well in the circumstances, and Mr Gerry Adams's responses to it have been relatively measured. Against those two reasons for mild optimism, there have been several setbacks to progress. The IRA formally severed links with General de Chastelain; loyalist paramilitary thugs continue with the most appalling punishment attacks, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, observed; and the

6 Nov 2002 : Column 726

dissension within Official Unionism has delivered some rebuffs to its leader, Mr David Trimble. Of those bad omens, the most depressing, in a way, is the last. It reveals that the attitude of the Ulster Unionist Party is hardening and is likely to be more negative.

On 15th October, I remarked that, if progress towards the restoration of the Assembly were not made and elections to it were postponed beyond May, the Assembly would probably not be restored in the foreseeable future. In that event, I said, a London-Dublin condominium would provide the de facto government of Northern Ireland and, increasingly, the de jure government. The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, misunderstood my words and said that I was calling for a condominium: I certainly was not. I said that, if the negotiations failed, such a condominium would be the inevitable result. I also said that the elections scheduled for May should be held whatever the state of the negotiations. The people's voice should be the final arbitrator, if all else fails. If that means that the outcome is that the DUP and Sinn Fein become the two main parties in the Assembly, so be it.

The Minister stated on 15th October that the May elections stood. I am worried by the use of the verb "to stand" in that context; it is a rather weak one. As some of your Lordships may have experienced, someone can be standing one day and legless the next. The Liberal Democrats are firmly committed to elections in May, if not before. Can the Minister give an undertaking that they will take place, come what may?

Finally, I return to the issue of how much longer the Government will agree to the continuation of salaries and other perquisites of Members of the Assembly, which is of relevance to the modification Order before the House. When I suggested stopping payment for the duration of the suspension, I was upbraided by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, who said that the dedication of all politicians in Northern Ireland was such that they could not be bought. I agree with that: I was not seeking to buy them in any way. On the contrary, I am sure that they would not want to be paid while the Assembly is suspended. When will the Government announce a date for considering salary payments? It should be before Parliament rises for Christmas.

Reluctantly, we accept the need for the orders, and we support their passage.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Rogan: My Lords, the orders before us today have been brought forward as a direct result of the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This should be—and no doubt is—a matter of regret to us all. However, that suspension need not have happened.

Last week we learnt from Mr Mark Durkan, the leader of the SDLP and former Deputy First Minister, that the Prime Minister had told him there were grounds to exclude Sinn Fein from the Northern Ireland Executive, thus avoiding any need for suspension. Indeed, in an interview with BBC Radio

6 Nov 2002 : Column 727

Ulster's "Inside Politics" programme, Mr Durkan claimed that Mr Blair also tried and failed to persuade him to support a motion in the Assembly to this end.

Your Lordships will recall the background to the current crisis in Northern Ireland. In the wake of alleged republican involvement in gun running from Florida, in training FARC rebels in Colombia, in a break-in at Castlereagh police station and a litany of violent and criminal activities in various locations across Northern Ireland, we then discovered that Sinn Fein/IRA had been involved in a long-running and sophisticated spying operation directed against the Northern Ireland Office including the private office of the Secretary of State himself.

As soon as the spy ring was uncovered, it quickly became clear that Sinn Fein/IRA's place at the heart of the government of Northern Ireland was untenable. However, it should not have been left to the then First Minister, Mr David Trimble, together with his Ulster Unionist colleagues in the Assembly to, in effect, force the British Government's hand.

Following a meeting at Downing Street, Mr Trimble let it be known that he had told the Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State, Dr John Reid, that they had a week to bring forward a motion for debate by the Assembly to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive. A failure to do so would lead to the resignation of Mr Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Ministers. As we now know, the Government decided to take a very different route by suspending the Assembly and the other institutions created as a result of the Belfast agreement. If ever there was a case of punishing the innocent along with the guilty, this was it.

Not only did the Government decide to act contrary to the advice of Ulster Unionists by deciding to take the option of suspension; they acted against the wishes of the Alliance Party which also argued that Sinn Fein Ministers should be excluded from office. This is why Mr Durkan's comments are so important. In revealing that Mr Blair himself had been contemplating following this course of action, Mr Durkan in effect confirmed that the suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland came about at the behest of the SDLP. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal can expand on this in his reply.

The noble and learned Lord may also wish to reflect on the reasons why, given that the SDLP was refusing to support an exclusion motion, to which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, alluded, the Government did not decide to bring forward legislation giving themselves the power to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive. Since we now know that Mr Blair believed there were grounds for exclusion, was it a neglect of responsibility—or perhaps even a loss of nerve—which led him not to do so?

The SDLP has long argued for the resurrection of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. But, given such an executive and the chance to keep it in existence, it could not summon the moral courage to do so. I find that difficult to fathom. Much is made—quite rightly, given that they are one and the same—of

6 Nov 2002 : Column 728

Sinn Fein's links with the IRA. However, perhaps not so much is made of the SDLP's relationship with Sinn Fein.

I believe that it is time for us—and, more importantly, the SDLP itself—to re-evaluate those relationships. The consequence of the SDLP's decision to press for and achieve the suspension of the institutions is that it has presented the IRA with a veto on its future. Surely that is an irresponsible way for a democratic political party to behave.

It is important that devolved government is restored to Northern Ireland as soon as practicable. Devolution was a great success. People liked it and they wanted it to continue. The obvious question for us now is how it might be restored. The idea of a further act of IRA decommissioning has been suggested, but I am afraid that that would no longer be all that is required; indeed it falls far short. Something of much greater significance is needed. We need to see an end to the IRA.

Last week Mr Martin McGuinness said publicly that his "war with the British is over". That statement is to be welcomed. But we need to hear that the war of every other IRA member is over and we need to see evidence that this is the case. In other words, the IRA itself must be stood down.

In concluding my remarks it would be remiss if I did not refer to the increasingly barbaric acts of violence being carried out by so-called loyalists. Noble Lords will, like me, have read with horror over the weekend about the crucifixion of a young Catholic man by loyalists in Belfast. Those of us who have lived in Northern Ireland all our lives and have been involved in Northern Ireland politics for most of our lives would tend to regard ourselves as fairly shock-proof. But every so often something happens which makes us realise that we are not as shock-proof as we thought. That barbaric act was such an incident.

Loyalist paramilitaries must be dealt with, but they must be dealt with by the legitimate forces of law and order, not by the illegitimate force of the IRA; in other words, the activities of loyalists should not be used by the IRA as a reason for continuing its existence.

I want to see devolution restored to Northern Ireland. But this time it must be for keeps. It must be given permanence. I regret that these orders had to be brought forward and I greatly hope that, when devolved government returns to the Province, we will never again have to debate their like in this House.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, these Benches support the orders placed before us by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal. We stress what has been said already: the return of direct rule is a regrettable necessity, but we recognise that any immediately available alternative would have been worse.

It is important in this atmosphere—I use that word advisedly—to keep a sense of perspective. It is important to note that what has happened is not surprising, although regrettable. No one who knows Northern Ireland could ever have thought that the

6 Nov 2002 : Column 729

Good Friday agreement would lead immediately to an Easter in which the solution of all problems was somehow realised.

I quote from a recent publication's jacket cover a remark by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the Archbishop of Armagh: "Reconciliation cannot be enforced". Meanwhile, we need to do everything we can to develop institutions, conventions and opportunities that promote confidence-building and enable all these heart-rending places to have a voice that is heard.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Fitt: My Lords, no one in your Lordships' House would take objection to the presentation of the order. It is deeply regrettable; we could preface our remarks by saying, "Here we go again". This is the fourth time we have seen the transfer of powers to Northern Ireland and back here again.

We are facing a tremendous difficulty in Northern Ireland. Unless we see the realities and unrealities of the situation, we may never be in the position of trying to bring about a resolution of the conflict. I wanted to see devolution in Northern Ireland. I supported devolution while at all times at the back of my mind I realised that built into the Good Friday agreement were all the reasons why it should fail. The agreement was built on a Catholic and Protestant head count; a nationalist and a Unionist head count. Once sectarianism had been built into the agreement, all the MLAs and politicians who were elected to the Stormont Assembly would have to pay attention to what type of votes were sending them there.

Politicians in Northern Ireland are like politicians everywhere; they have to take into account all the reasons why a certain section of the electorate votes for them. In Northern Ireland, it has ever been so since the 1920 partition. One section of the community voted against partition and will never accept it; the other section of the community voted for it and want it to remain.

Have we done anything by way of the Good Friday agreement to do away with that formidable division? I do not think that we have. The one thing which the Unionists allegedly obtained—it has been continuously referred to since the Good Friday agreement—is that the Irish Government took Articles 2 and 3 out of their constitution and substituted for them the principle of consent. The Unionists were told that nothing could change in Northern Ireland unless they gave consent to it.

That did not have to be written into the agreement and it was no great favour or concession given to the Unionists because Northern Ireland could never be united without the consent of the Unionists, whether it was written down on paper or not. Although the Dublin Government gave up their claim to the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland under Articles 2 and 3, that should never have been implemented either, outside a civil war in Ireland or the Irish Republic sending up troops into Northern Ireland. So there

6 Nov 2002 : Column 730

were two so-called concessions—one to the Unionists and one to Irish nationalism—and neither of them were worth the paper on which they were written.

However, during the past two or three years we have seen various Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have to say that some of them were carrying out a difficult and unique job in the circumstances and were being very successful. That goes for the DUP Ministers, who allegedly did not recognise the Assembly. Some of them were the best Ministers we had in Northern Ireland. I find it difficult but I must say in all honesty that I believe that Peter Robinson was one of the best Ministers we had. The other Members for Derry were also good Ministers. Whether I dislike and sometimes detest the activities of Sinn Fein, I think their Ministers were acting responsibly too.

All those people were in place because they had a mandate from the Northern Ireland electorate. Sinn Fein and the SDLP would say, "You can't exclude us. No matter our inextricable links with the IRA, so many thousands of people voted for us". Under the arrangements that were made for the elections, they were entitled to have their places within the ministry.

The Unionist party—which Unionist party are we talking about? There are three or four unionist parties in Northern Ireland which disagree in a family way with each other, but they are under one tribe. So we have two tribes in Northern Ireland; some of them may be disparate and fight among themselves but there is the Catholic nationalist tribe.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and I agree wholeheartedly with what he says about the conversation which allegedly took place with the Leader of the SDLP, the Deputy First Minister, who gained the impression that the Prime Minister, in circumstances in which he could rely on the support of the SDLP, would have been prepared to exclude Sinn Fein from the Assembly because of its links with the IRA. From what I heard, the Leader of the SDLP said that he could not give him that guarantee.

Therefore, however much the SDLP might disagree with Sinn Fein and its links with terrorist organisations, there was no way that it would vote for its exclusion from the Assembly. So there we have it in clear black and white. There will always be an alliance between the nationalists—there is no way that any section of nationalism will run away from Sinn Fein. The same thing happens on the other side of the fence.

I was sorry that the former Northern Ireland Secretary, Dr John Reid, left when he did. In a short conversation I had with him in the company of other noble Lords, I sincerely felt that he had a grasp of the Northern Ireland situation. He represented a Scottish constituency and was aware of the sectarian divisions that had taken place in Scotland. I had intended to have further discussions with him but within a week it was announced that he had left Northern Ireland. He recognised the serious divisions that exist.

Now we are in the position of asking: do we bring back the Assembly? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, and I do not believe that the

6 Nov 2002 : Column 731

Assembly will come back in a short time. I believe that it is very much on the back burner. The reason that it is on the back burner is that the elected representatives, the MLAs in Northern Ireland, cannot find agreement to bring about the restoration of the Assembly.

The mandate which the MLA representatives have had in Northern Ireland was due to run out on 1st May next year. Do we have that election or are we frightened of the results? Do we say that Sinn Fein may become the majority nationalist party and that Democratic Unionists may become the majority Unionist party and that we will not abide by that conclusion of the electorate?

Where does that put us? Where does that put the argument for democracy in Northern Ireland? Democracy is allegedly brought about by the will of the people and if a majority of the nationalist population in Northern Ireland want to vote for Sinn Fein and a majority of the Unionists want to vote for the Democratic Unionist Party, who are we to say that they should not do so? That would be the will of the electorate. Therefore, if we say that we are not going to have elections, we are saying, sotto voce, that we are not going to have democracy. That is what we are saying.

I realise the tremendous difficulty which now faces this Government. I say that even though the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, may disagree with me, I speak from experience. I have had nearly 40 years in politics in Stormont, in local government and the rest. If those MLAs are kept on pay in Northern Ireland, if they are given recognition as public representatives and the longer they are able to go to Stormont and use whatever facilities are available, they will not mind how long the suspension takes because they are being given all the credit for being elected representatives. I went through that myself. I know exactly how I felt and I know exactly how they feel. It means that there is no impetus, no pushing by those MLAs to do what they can to bring about a quick resolution of the conflict. So do we have an election in May next year? Even though I might be frightened of the outcome, I believe that there should be an election next year, whatever the will of the Northern Ireland electorate.

Over the years, I have said to many of my colleagues that it is a tragedy that there is no Labour Party in Northern Ireland. At the moment, there is the SDLP, but that set of initials does not mean very much to anyone with a socialist conscience. As I said to Dr John Reid when I last spoke to him, if a candidate with a socialist conscience and Labour principles were to stand for election to the Assembly—whenever that election may take place—some wise people might depart from their tribes and vote for him and elect him as a Labour candidate. He would then go to Stormont and people there would ask him, "Are you a nationalist or a unionist?" He would say, "I am neither. I am a Labour man". They would then say, "Well, you cannot come in here. We do not allow Labour people in here. We allow only nationalists or unionists". Does not that show how in-built are the divisions? We cannot have there the kind of normal politics that are recognised in this part of the world.

6 Nov 2002 : Column 732

I am glad that the Lord Privy Seal has retained the Northern Ireland portfolio because he is readily approachable and understands Northern Ireland. I hope to have further discussions with him.

No one can object to this order, but if we are to bring about the restoration of the Assembly it must be in a way in which there is no danger of it falling apart again. It must be built constructively and steadily so that there is no danger of your Lordships having to come back to this issue again.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, referred to decommissioning. That is no longer an issue in Northern Ireland. No one ever believed in decommissioning anyway. Someone must have said that someone had spoken to General de Chastelain and then he said that he saw a gun, but the Unionist Party never believed that any significant amount of arms had been decommissioned. The latest IRA gesture of saying, "We are going away in a huff now. You took away our Assembly so we are not going to talk to General de Chastelain", did not have any effect at all. The world has progressed far since decommissioning became an issue.

So decommissioning is no longer an issue, but all kinds of other structures must be thought of, brought about and voted on. They must be there and put into place with the assurance that when the Northern Ireland Assembly again comes into operation it will not be brought down on a sectarian headcount.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page