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Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission etc.) Bill [HL]

1.31 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

On 1st May, in the light of discussions with parties at Hillsborough, three documents were published which set out what we saw as the way forward. As your Lordships know, the May elections that were intended to be held in Northern Ireland were postponed. There was no prospect, without cross-community support, of the institutions being able to be returned on a stable and inclusive footing.

Since then, much work has been done with a view to setting in place conditions for progress, and in particular elections as soon as possible to stable devolved institutions. With our colleagues in the Irish Government, we have pledged to continue the implementation of the Good Friday agreement,

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including those elements of the Hillsborough package that are not conditional on an end to paramilitary activity.

One key element of the proposals, as noble Lords know, is the subject of the Bill, which was described in the agreement on monitoring and compliance published with the joint declaration. It was agreed at Hillsborough to establish an independent body to monitor commitments given in respect of paramilitary activity and the stability of the institutions, and the progress of any programme of further security normalisation undertaken by the British Government. We believe very firmly that there are compelling reasons to press on now with the establishment of the regime for monitoring and promoting compliance with commitments. The scheme will have an important role in sustaining the confidence that is needed for politics to work in Northern Ireland in the longer term. The establishment of the international commission cannot of itself create that confidence.

I should say a word or two about the role of the independent monitoring commission. It will be set up by an agreement between the British and Irish Governments. That is because it is there to make assessments about fundamental requirements of the Good Friday agreement to which we are both parties, and because such an agreement allows the commission to report on activity in relation to Northern Ireland in both British and Irish jurisdictions.

The draft agreement has been made available to your Lordships. We intend that it should be signed and formally ratified following the appropriate procedures here and in the Dail. As noble Lords have seen, it sets out the functions of the commission and the requirements placed on it in line with the text agreed between the two governments at Hillsborough.

The provisions of the Bill relate in part to practical arrangements for establishing the commission which need to be enshrined in legislation. The main objective is to set in place the other element of the Hillsborough package in relation to the monitoring, by amending the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to provide the necessary powers for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the British Government to respond to the commission's recommendations.

There are four members of the commission, two appointed by Her Majesty's Government—one of whom is from Northern Ireland—one appointed by the Irish Government, and one appointed by the two governments but on the nomination of the United States Government. Your Lordships know the names and, I think, the history, experience and expertise of those four persons. We have been extremely fortunate in securing the services of such highly qualified and respected persons.

In line with the Hillsborough scheme, the body will have three functions, the first of which is to examine and report on paramilitary activity. Its remit covers every aspect of such activity, including all those set out in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. We undertake to provide the commission with all the support that we

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can in this but of course the body, being independent, will reach its own conclusions. It will have a remit to consider progress with security normalisation. That also is for many in Northern Ireland a key element of the Good Friday agreement. I believe that we have so far done all that we sensibly and prudently could, commensurate with the security position, to give effect to our commitment.

As noble Lords know, we were prepared to go ahead with a substantial programme of security normalisation in the event that necessary commitments were made on an end to paramilitary activity, and in the light of our continuing assessment of the threat. Many of your Lordships—in fact, I think that it is the unanimous view, and I express it fairly—feel that one cannot expect to have the fruits of democratic elections and the benefits of democracy while continuing behind the scenes and in the shadows with paramilitary activity. Noble Lords—not least the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, whom we are all very pleased to see back in her place to assist us today—have made that plain on many occasions.

The international agreement makes it clear that the commission cannot begin to monitor a programme of security normalisation until it is set under way by the British Government. That will not take place until satisfactory commitments have been given on an end to paramilitary activity. However, the commission will, at the request of Her Majesty's Government, be able to prepare an account of normalisation activity that has taken place in recent years. We intend to ask it to begin work on that at an early stage, alongside the vital task of reviewing paramilitary activity.

The body will further be responsible for investigating conduct in the political field. As I said a moment ago, that is regarded as an important guarantee of political stability. So if allegations are made by an Assembly party that another party or a Minister is in breach of commitments in the pledge of office, the commission may investigate those complaints.

I need to make it plain that we have been careful in drawing up the international agreement not to breach the convention that the operations of the internal institutions of Northern Ireland, established in strand one of the Good Friday agreement, are an internal matter for the United Kingdom. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, particularly urged that view to me in our conversations before the publication of the agreement, and I hope that he is reassured by looking at Articles 6.2 and 10.1.a of the agreement, which make it plain that strand one matters are to be dealt with as I have indicated. I was grateful to him for expressing his views so vigorously to me. The agreement therefore fully respects that position.

Complaints made to the commission concerning the operation in the internal institutions of Northern Ireland will be considered only—I repeat—by those two members of the commission appointed by the British Government. The other two members will not be concerned with those matters at any stage of their consideration.

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In respect of both paramilitary activity and investigations into political breaches, the commission—or in some instances, as I said, the two British members—will be required to report its findings, and, where it considers it appropriate, to recommend what measures it envisages that the Assembly might consider taking in response to those findings. Again, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, urged on me some time ago that it needed to be plain that the commission was purely advisory. Your Lordships will see that that is the position, and I am again grateful for his giving his thoughts to me.

In advance of formal ratification of the international agreement, we anticipate that the commission will want to meet to plan its work ahead.

I now turn briefly to the Bill. The first three clauses concern themselves with a number of practical aspects of the commission's establishment and requirements relating to its reports. Clause 1 gives the Secretary of State powers to confer immunity from suit and legal process on the body—essential to guard against the disclosure through court proceedings of sensitive information it has received in confidence—and to fund the body. Clause 2 places on the commission a duty in carrying out its functions not to do anything that might prejudice national security, put life at risk or prejudice legal proceedings. Clause 3 places a duty on the Secretary of State to lay a copy of the IMC reports before Parliament.

Clauses 4 to 8 are concerned with amendments to the regime set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for the Assembly to take measures against individual Ministers or parties whom it does not believe are committed to peaceful or democratic means, or any other terms of the pledge of office.

The Hillsborough text made it plain that there would be a broader range of measures available to the Assembly than in the existing Act. It also described a range of discussions in the light of any finding by the IMC that a party or Assembly member was in breach and recommending consequential measures. Those discussions would involve the implementation group, of which the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland are members. If the group recommended that a Motion should be put before the Assembly for the taking of such measures, the Secretary of State would exercise his powers requiring the Motion to be moved.

Accordingly, provision is made for the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to be amended to give the Assembly powers to exclude individual Ministers or Assembly parties from holding ministerial office in Northern Ireland for a range of periods, of between three and 12 and six and 12 months respectively, rather than the 12 months which was the only option under the 1998 Act. They would also be able to withhold pay and party allowances and pass Motions of censure. Provision is further made to allow the Assembly to extend the duration of such measures.

In taking any of these steps, the Assembly would, as with exclusion Motions now, need to make its decisions with cross-community support. We believe

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that that is right, and consistent with the Good Friday agreement: these are decisions that may be absolutely fundamental to the future of the devolved system.

The Hillsborough text made it plain that where an Assembly Motion following an IMC report had failed to achieve cross-community support, or the implementation group had failed to agree any course of action, it would be for the British Government, in consultation with the Irish Government and the parties, to resolve the matter in a manner consistent with the report of the commission.

Therefore, the Secretary of State will have the power to impose exclusions and reductions in pay and party allowances of the same order as those available to the Assembly. That power becomes available to the Secretary of State only in the event that the IMC has recommended that a particular type of measure be taken, and the Assembly has attempted, but failed, to impose such a measure by cross-community vote. The exercise of the power would be discretionary. I should underline that, as the Hillsborough text makes clear, we would of course consult the Irish Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, in considering the exercise of that power.

We believe that this approach is the right one. I hope it will commend itself to your Lordships on the basis that Northern Ireland politicians should have the chance to manage their own affairs. It has been a long time—many of us think, unfortunately, too long a time—and there is a serious dangerous danger, many of us would feel across the Benches in this House, that people will become accustomed in Northern Ireland to a situation where they do not have the powers of a devolved Assembly. That would be a great misfortune. The Secretary of State's powers are cast deliberately as a last resort to deal with a situation which we all hope will not arise.

Clause 9 provides that the Secretary of State's powers of direction should be subject to the draft affirmative procedure, with urgency procedure available should circumstances require it. Not for the first time, I am very grateful to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, chaired so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. The committee has discharged its duties with immaculate speed and efficiency. Your Lordships will have seen the statement, but I draw it formally to your attention, in terms. The committee states:

    "There is nothing in the delegated powers in this Bill to which the Committee wishes to draw the attention of the House".

So that august and respected committee is content with the scheme that we have put forward, in so far as it was within its remit to comment. The clause also makes provision to deal with the effects if Parliament were subsequently to vote down a direction given under the urgency provisions. The intention is to restore, as far as possible, the position that existed before the direction was given. Clause 10 provides a power for the Secretary of State to repeal those elements of the Bill contingent on the existence of the IMC at the point at which that body is wound up.

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Perhaps inevitably, the Bill looks slightly complex. We have all fallen into the habit of producing legislation which in these circumstances inevitably refers to other items of legislation—which is why I have attempted to outline the scheme in the way that I have.

The purpose is quite straightforward. We want to meet our Hillsborough commitment to putting in place the IMC. We want to expand the range of measures available to the Assembly and the Secretary of State to respond to its recommendations. What we are looking for is the generation of the necessary prerequisite trust and confidence for the early elections which I know we all want to see. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

1.44 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I find myself in a very unaccustomed place on the list of speakers. I thank the noble and learned Lord formally for his kind words. Although I have been greatly reassured by what he has just said, I apologise for the fact, and I hope that the House will forgive me, that I shall still say what I had intended to say. Some of it may sound a little curmudgeonly, but it cannot be said too often.

I have lost count of the special commissions which have been spawned in Northern Ireland in the past five years. Without gathering together all the relevant documents (the Lord President of the Council has done that for us as well)—the agreement establishing the monitoring commission; the agreement between the British and Irish Governments of April 2003 (and the proposals promising legislation in relating to the on-the-runs which appeared with it); and the Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments, also in April 2003—it is impossible to understand the full significance of this Bill, which all these months later is being rushed through the House in two days, and at such short notice that many noble Lords with a proper and natural interest in the issue cannot be present.

I am heartened, as we all must be, that the commission's functions are to include monitoring activity by paramilitary groups, as set out in Clause 1(1)(a), although large sections of it seem to deal rather with the very nebulous prospect of getting a political group to agree that it has failed to honour the Belfast agreement.

I am much less happy that in regard to the other function, set out in Clause 1(1)(b)—monitoring security normalisation—no hint is given that action on Clause 1(1)(b) must depend on results from Clause 1(1)(a). I recognise, however, that the Government, in their earlier statements on acts of completion have made that clear—but it could have been made clearer still. The agreement does indeed discuss briefly the acts of completion without which it will not be possible to restore the devolved institutions. It also mentions the

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evils of paramilitarism, sectarian violence and criminality, intimidation and the practice of exiling members of the community. I hope that Her Majesty's Government remember that Martin McGuinness publicly stated, earlier this year, that the return of exiles—as distinct of course from the on-the-runs who are to be provided for—is not acceptable to Sinn Fein.

Whereas these issues are quite briefly discussed and no precise targets are set for action, the agreement has a detailed three-page annexe on security normalisation. In that annexe, on the basis,

    "of the historic leap forward by the IRA"—

presumably this refers to its derisory dealing with the decommissioning commission—the monitoring commission is to monitor security normalisation which will virtually eliminate the power of the police and the Armed Forces to protect the community. Dates are set for this: so much by the end of 2003—only three months off—another tranche by 2004, and another by 2005. Yet we still have so-called dissident groups actively preparing to attack the state and the community. No such precise timetable or targets are proposed for the paramilitaries and the sectarian thugs, who both fund their political masters by their criminal activities and act for them politically. Equally, there are many further concessions, none to the advantage of the ordinary man in the street who is a victim, in the fields of justice and,

    "a human rights culture in the criminal rights system in Northern Ireland"—

code, I suggest, for abolishing, for instance, the Diplock courts.

I very much hope that we can do something to ensure that while the commission may propose, it will be the Secretary of State, who is ultimately responsible for law, order, justice and the protection of the public, who disposes.

I hope, too, that throughout the Bill every effort will be made to ensure that normalisation follows, not precedes, the acts of completion. We are entitled to expect lasting and tangible proof that men, women and children will no longer be at the mercy of the party thugs of whichever persuasion without being able to appeal to the state for effective protection, that they should not be required to live their lives among drug dealers, and that decent citizens can join the new police force without being threatened with death and, not least, can bear witness without fear against such men as Martin McGuinness—as they dare not do now.

My other concern is where the commission will get its information. It can usefully learn from the excellent work of the Organised Crime Task Force, and I can see that that is an excellent precedent to set. But how in practice are these four commissioners to learn what is going on on the streets of Belfast in terms of intimidation, beatings, etc? Are they expecting people to come and tell them? If the police cannot get victims to talk or to go to court in their own defence, will the commission be able to do so? Will steps be taken to ensure that, as has happened in the field of so-called restorative justice, and indeed at Stormont, the commission's own staff is not infiltrated by members

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of the IRA? Remember, the IRA are past masters at entryism and have penetrated and manipulated several of the many well-meaning, and very well-funded, organisations set up to help victims.

I should like to see some amendments to the Bill which would have the effect of ensuring that security normalisation comes after, not before, tangible proof that Sinn Fein/IRA for one no longer have any links with, or political control over, the PIRA thugs on the streets and will actually behave like good citizens and enable the police to operate against them for their criminal rather than any political activity. The end of drugs and corruption would save a lot of money for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Further, if Sinn Fein/IRA are genuinely concerned to dissociate themselves from the so-called dissident groups, the Real and Continuity IRA, they should recognise that normalisation cannot proceed too fast. I here interject that we have had reassurances on that from the noble and learned Lord. However, I do not place much faith in the possibility that Sinn Fein/IRA will see it in that way. Both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, when the people of Omagh appealed to them after the atrocity there, said that the PIRA was not involved, and the people thought that they might therefore be prepared to let it be known in the republican community that witnesses could safely speak. They refused to do that on the grounds that they did not recognise British justice or British courts. Interestingly, though, they have been quite happy for us to spend over 90 million so far on the Savile inquiry, which presumably is in a British court.

I welcome the fact that this Bill offers a way to monitor and report the scandal of sectarian violence and what it is costing the country and the people, but I neither wish it to become yet another source of reports and a substitute for action, nor do I wish it to be invested with powers which should be those of the Secretary of State. There is in Article V an ominous parallel with what is going on in the draft EU convention in that an international body without accountability could derogate from the power and responsibility of an elected Minister of the Crown.

If this commission is given proper powers to establish the facts and report them, but the action is taken by Her Majesty's Government, then that is good news. In the light of the noble and learned Lord's speech, I am reassured on that issue.

I look forward to the first report from an interesting group of commissioners and wish them well. Not least, I hope that the Government will keep their nerve and take no action, even in the face of the need to get on with elections, on any recommendations relating to normalisation which have been recommended before action is taken on acts of completion.

1.52 p.m.

Lord Fitt: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has given expression to many of the reservations which I hold in relation to the Bill. I certainly support the Bill, but I want to be fully assured that it will be an effective instrument in monitoring the activities of paramilitary organisations.

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I remember the debates in this House on the decommissioning measures, which were set up under the decommissioning commission with General de Chastelain as its head. He was supposed to look into the decommissioning that was taking place with the paramilitaries and then report back. I do not exaggerate in saying that many people in Northern Ireland right across the communities—loyalists and nationalists but certainly not republicans—stand back and wonder just how effective that commission has been in the decommissioning which the IRA is allegedly carrying out.

It seems to me and to many people to whom I have spoken during the past two months in Northern Ireland that no one knows what the commission has been doing. No one knows how often it has met or what it has discussed. Then we read in a local newspaper that P O'Neill of the IRA has issued some statement in relation to decommissioning and that General de Chastelain has flown in from Canada to sit on the decommissioning commission and give his opinion on what has been happening.

That is not good enough for Northern Ireland. One hopes that such commissions, which have been set up in an attempt to deal with the terrorism that has taken place over the past 30 years, will in some way be effective. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, questioned the remit of the new commission that is to be set up. First, it is a monitoring commission. How will it monitor what it has allegedly been given the power to monitor? Will it wait until a report appears in the Irish News or the Newsletter that a person has been found in a back entry with his kneecaps blown off; or that there is an internecine war between different factions of the loyalists or the IRA? How will it receive the information which will enable it to give an opinion on what it has been given the power to do?

Will it be able to co-operate with the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland? Without the commission being able to co-operate with people on the ground, who see and know what is happening with the paramilitaries, it might not be able to give an opinion that will be fully acceptable to the community in Northern Ireland. That is a big question that must be answered before the conclusion of these debates. How will the commission monitor the activities of paramilitary organisations? What powers will it be given?

One can envisage the situation. If the commission gives an opinion that is contrary to the wishes of the paramilitary organisations, the next thing we will see will be another inquiry—and we have already had the experience of the Bloody Sunday inquiry. Unless specific powers are given to the commission which will enable us to determine what it will do and which route it will go down to monitor the activities of the paramilitaries, people will have less faith than they are entitled to have.

I continually read in the newspapers here that meetings have taken place in Downing Street with representatives of paramilitary organisations. The elected representatives in Northern Ireland—and I am

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conscious that we in this House are not elected—must read in the newspapers the Government's ideas on bringing the legislation to the House. This is so important that it must not be seen to be sticking plaster over a gaping wound in Northern Ireland.

If we are to be totally honest and do away with all the complex wording that has been referred to by the Lord Privy Seal, I will say that the legislation has been necessary to assure the Unionist population that the activities of the IRA are coming to an end. Without legislation such as this, the Unionist population in Northern Ireland would never have entertained the idea of returning to an Assembly which we hope will be recreated in the near future. So the legislation has been put forward in order to assure the Unionists that the Government are fully behind and understand their reservations.

The Lord Privy Seal also mentioned paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration. To me, that is the most important paragraph in the declaration. It states in understandable terms which cannot be contradicted that unless the acts of completion are brought about by the paramilitary organisations—it does not refer specifically to the IRA because one must be always conscious of the fact that in the background there are other loyalist organisations—there is no hope of Stormont being reassembled. I have said at many private meetings and elsewhere that unless paragraph 13 is fully implemented and accepted by the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, no further legislation should be brought here to recreate Stormont. Stormont should not be recreated unless paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration is fully implemented.

I turn to another important point. There is a nationalist community and a Unionist community. Sinn Fein is on one side with the SDLP and, on the other, the DUP and the official Unionist Party. As has been said many times here and at the other end of the building, politics being what they are, none of those parties will vote for the exclusion of another party because they are looking over their shoulders all the time at their electors. I have said many times and I repeat: there is never any possibility of the SDLP voting to exclude Sinn Fein. Its members are aware that an election is coming up and both parties are competing for the nationalist vote.

Therefore, I say to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—whoever he may be—that if, in the final analysis, having received information from the monitoring commission, it is necessary to exclude any individual or party from the recreated Stormont Assembly, it is important that that power should lie with him. He should not be dependent on the ramifications from, or the advice that he will be given by, political parties in Northern Ireland. I believe it is far more important for the paramilitaries to recognise that, if it has to be taken—one hopes that it does not—such a decision will be taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

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Therefore, I support the Bill, and I do not believe that anyone in this House will reject its provisions. We want to see any steps—no matter how tentatively taken—which can lead to a resumption of devolution in Northern Ireland. I believe it is up to the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland—the Unionists and the republicans—to take this legislation as opening up for them an opportunity to keep their rightful place as elected representatives in a devolved government in Northern Ireland.

2.2 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, first, I welcome the Bill as a necessary, and perhaps overdue, step towards, it is hoped, stabilising the new democratic procedures and processes in Northern Ireland.

It might have been hoped that such provisions as are contained within the Bill would not have been necessary. But most of us recognise that it is virtually impossible to divorce—overnight, so to speak—from their past and from the malign influences that still exist those who have been terrorists and associated with terrorism for 30 years.

That is one sad reality. There are also those of zealous political outlook who say that that risk should not have been created in the first place. But, if we adopt this self-righteous stance, how can we ever expect to break the cycle of reliance on violence?

In Northern Ireland, we failed 40 years ago. That was not the fault of Unionism alone, despite its self-satisfaction that nationalists were boycotting the institutions of government and that they could get on with matters unhindered. Nor was it solely northern nationalists, with their sense of being a "discarded rump" after the treaty. But we have all paid the price for mistrust and disaffection.

Today, we are where we are—with, potentially, Northern Ireland's future in the hands of its elected representatives. But that is not enough. "Transition" must be set about by such practices as will ensure the emergence of a community prepared to accommodate, respect and safeguard all our civic rights and cultural traditions.

That is why the Bill is necessary. Violence in Northern Ireland did not abate until world opinion understood that, however it had been portrayed, 30 years of bloodshed was unjustified. Hence, I expect a monitoring commission to counter locally, nationally and internationally the danger that our new democratic processes may be distorted and corrupted by those who are new to democratic procedures, by those who misunderstand or by those who are maligned.

The commission must also contend with those who, flaunting unachievable political wish-lists, want us to disregard reality, demographic trends and the potential for greater tragedy, should we fail to put reliance on violence behind us. The objective is to build truly democratic structures. The monitoring commission's task will not be easy.

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I now turn briefly to the relationship between government and the monitoring commission. I acknowledge the wise advice that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, have given in this respect. I am, in common with most of my colleagues, against the modern tendency that implies that a quango is the answer to every problem we face. I am someone who believes that, while it can contribute to solutions, committee consideration can also be a hindrance to effective decision-making.

In other words, this commission must not usurp the power and authority of government, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or Parliament. I refer to Clause 5, concerning the Secretary of State's powers in relation to exclusion, Clause 6 in relation to reduction of remuneration, and Clause 7, which concerns resolutions and the reduction of financial assistance to political parties.

In that respect, the Ulster Unionist Party will table amendments to make it more certain that, while the work of the commission will be appreciated, respected and considered carefully, decisions by the Secretary of State will not become solely conditional on the temper of the commission.

The existence of a genuine power to enable the Secretary of State to deal with any contingency will be a necessary step towards building confidence among Unionists. They have risked much and, without that confidence, there will be little hope of progress in the near future.

I hope that in Committee and on Report I shall have the opportunity to enlarge on that point, and I intend to table appropriate amendments. I shall be attempting not to change the spirit of the Bill, which I welcome, but to ensure only that the democratic procedures of Parliament and of government are not constrained.

2.8 p.m.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, I thank the Lord President of the Council for introducing the Bill. Once again, he makes what is a particularly controversial issue appear somewhat innocuous. We must remind ourselves why we are in this position today. It is simply because the Assembly, the devolved institution at Stormont, has not been sitting for almost one year. Politics has not been working in Northern Ireland. Why? Because terrorists have continued to be active and the existing procedures for the expulsion of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have failed. That meant that the present Assembly of Northern Ireland lost the confidence of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.

So the Bill is today a measure by the Government to try to overcome the failures of their previous proposals. The Lord President of the Council made it clear that today's Bill is based upon the talks in Hillsborough in April 2003. Although the word "spin" is now removed from the vocabulary of Her Majesty's Government, he did somewhat skilfully imply that as well as the two governments, the other political parties were involved in the proposals published in May 2003.

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He is right; the parties were consulted, but the document which emerged, the British/Irish agreement, in May 2003 was an agreement between two sovereign governments and did not have the approval of the Ulster Unionist Party, nor its representatives at those talks at Hillsborough. If it had, why then was the Ulster Unionist Party, like the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, endeavouring to have those proposals changed throughout the past few months? They have been changed and progress has been made.

We now have a Bill before us about the suspension or expulsion of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly or—the Liberal Democrats may be particularly interested in this—the reduction in salaries of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those three measures are in the Bill, but the Bill itself is not the most important issue. It is the background that brings about the need for the Bill which is the divisive issue in Northern Ireland today. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned, we have only two or three Back-Benchers participating in this late Friday afternoon debate. However, the Bill, and the reasons for it, is one of the most divisive issues in Northern Ireland today. There may be little interest here but there is substantial interest right across Northern Ireland in all communities.

Sometimes I think that Parliament is out of touch with reality in Northern Ireland. I fear I have expressed that previously. I warned a year ago in this House that the Northern Ireland Assembly would probably collapse, and it did. I am afraid that the present Bill is somewhat misleading. I was one of those three Members of the Ulster Unionist Party who negotiated the Belfast agreement in 1998. As the Lord President of the Council said, there were three strands: strand one, strand two, and strand three. The Bill relates to strand one.

In the talks at Stormont in 1998, the southern Irish Government were totally excluded from all talks relating to strand one. They were not allowed in the room. Strand one was primarily a matter between Her Majesty's Government and the Northern Ireland political parties—Sinn Fein, SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party or whatever—because we were discussing the creation of an elected body within the United Kingdom, of no concern to foreign people, be they in the United States, the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere.

Then we had the document in May 2003, which clearly stated that this independent international commission would be appointed by both Her Majesty's Government and the Dublin Government and that at the conclusion of its work the British Government—in other words, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—in consultation with the Irish Government, would resolve any matter consistent with the recommendation of the independent monitoring body.

Have things really changed? Not really, because when one reads the speech of the Lord President of the Council one sees that he precisely confirmed that the

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Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was not really independent because he would take no action without prior consultation with the Irish Government.

So there still remains this proviso that Her Majesty's Government are not sovereign on this issue. But the legislation will proceed through this Parliament, on the recommendation of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, only after consultation with the Irish Government. To that extent the Irish Government remain involved in strand one of the Belfast agreement of 1998. Therefore, this is a clear breach of the agreement which we worked so hard to establish in 1998.

I can go further, and this is what really concerns me. It has been stated by Her Majesty's Government, during the past few weeks since these documents were made available, that in fact the Secretary of State will have the final say; he is totally independent; and that he will not be subject to anyone else's influence. I have already pointed out how the Lord President of the Council himself has confirmed that the Secretary of State can act only after consultation with the Irish Government. But I go further and refer to the Explanatory Notes that accompany this Bill. Paragraph 23 provides that,

    "the Secretary of State may only exercise his power to exclude if: the Commission"—

this is the commission comprising foreigners as well as two British members—

    "makes a report under the terms of the Treaty which contains a recommendation about the steps that the Assembly might consider taking".

Incidentally Ireland and America were the two countries that gave most financial support to Irish terrorism throughout 30 years—the Americans more so than the Irish indeed—until 9/11 2000. The four representatives will make a recommendation and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is restricted in his freedom to act. He must act in accordance with the recommendations of that commission.

I believe that the Bill is a breach of the Belfast agreement of 1998. Yet again it involves the rather clumsy requirements of cross-community support which were the reason why the existing provisions failed. I fear that I am one of those who reflect a broad view across Northern Ireland who feel that this Bill is unnecessary; that the way forward was for Her Majesty's Government to exercise sovereign authority over the United Kingdom; and for the Secretary of State to be free to make his own decisions about the suitability of persons in a Northern Ireland Assembly on the advice of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. In fact I believe this to be somewhat of a slap of the face of the police in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State will not be acting upon their advice, but the advice of a commission comprising people from other countries. Therefore, with regret, I oppose the Bill.

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2.18 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council for his characteristically instructive introduction to this Second Reading. I endorse his welcome back of the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, to her usual place and with her vigorous thought.

The Bill is essentially yet another confidence-building measure that is seemingly necessary as a prelude to calling elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly this autumn. We welcome the creation of the Monitoring Commission and, equally importantly, the announcement of the appointment of the four commissioners. By background and experience, as the Minister said, they comprise a high-quality blend of skills that will be necessary to give the commission the right kind of authority and respect to execute its tasks effectively.

In an ideal world of course we would all hope that it would have a very light agenda indeed. However, if there is a serious crisis over the behaviour or beliefs of a member of the Assembly or any political party group within the Assembly, it will be reassuring to know that this will be investigated by such distinguished commissioners. I congratulate the Government on acquiring their services. I would make only one qualification, which is that gender balance seems to be totally absent!

I very much welcome the fact that the independent monitoring commission is to work,

    "with a view to promoting the transition to a peaceful society and stable and inclusive devolved government in Northern Ireland".

That, of course, is its very raison d'entre. It is an extensive remit to monitor the activity of paramilitary groups both on a regular basis and, if necessary, on an ad hoc basis if requested by the two Governments or if the commission itself decides it would be appropriate so to do.

I notice that in the draft agreement between the two Governments, it is stated that the commission will produce its regular reports every six months, but that desirable provision does not appear in the Bill. Will the noble and learned Lord please explain the reasons for that omission?

The commission is also charged with the duty to invigilate the extent and rate of progress of security normalisation, which was an integral element in the Good Friday Agreement. Thus, the Unionist community can be reassured that paramilitary activity and any connection with political activity will be subject to constant scrutiny, while the nationalist community can be assured that security normalisation will be constantly examined in equal measure.

I shall probably be prefacing remarks to be made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, when I say that there is also a lacuna in the Bill regarding both the budget and the methodology of the monitoring commission. Other noble Lords have referred to that. As to costs, I appreciate that it is difficult to be precise because they will depend on its workload. That means that it is difficult to estimate an upper limit. But could the noble and learned Lord provide some forecast of the

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minimum costs that will be incurred even if, as we all hope, it will not have much, if anything, to do? That is to say, what will be the tick-over costs on a care and maintenance basis?

The second question is: how is it envisaged that the commission will go about its work? Other noble Lords have raised that question. What staff will it have at its disposal? It would be helpful to have some elucidation of how the commission will operate.

In broadly welcoming the Bill, as we on these Benches do, we want to ensure that the functions and standing of the commission set out in the Bill are in no degree compromised. As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, amendments may be tabled by other parties seeking further to strengthen the powers of the Secretary of State and his freedom to act. The Liberal Democrats will oppose any such amendments if they are pressed to a Division. Such amendments would go far too far, in our view, and would seriously undermine the role of the monitoring commission.

However, we recognise that there is something of a gap in the Bill as it stands that needs to be plugged in order fully to ensure confidence in the proposals. We can envisage that in exceptional circumstances speedy action will be required. Accordingly, I have tabled an amendment that would authorise the Secretary of State temporarily to suspend a Minister or junior Minister for up to two weeks. In that period, it is to be assumed, either the commission or the Assembly, or both, would have sufficient time to consider the matter.

If such a decision to suspend a Minister or junior Minister is made by the Secretary of State, it will be immediately laid before Parliament for consideration by both Houses. In the unlikely event that the commission was unable to report because of internal disagreement or some other reason, and that the Assembly was unable to attract sufficient cross-community support to pass a resolution, the issue would revert to the Secretary of State, as provided for under the Bill as drafted. We believe that that amendment should satisfy any remaining doubts about effectively and speedily dealing with a serious breach of a ministerial pledge to forsake all violent activity and to be committed to peaceful and democratic means for resolving disputes.

Finally, the reason that we are considering this Bill so hastily is because it would greatly assist in the process of holding elections to the Assembly as soon as possible, and not later than the end of the year, 2003. That is vital if a return to devolved democratic government is to come about. There cannot be further delay. As I have warned before in your Lordships' House, any more procrastination is highly likely to be fatal to the re-establishment of devolved democratic government. On almost all occasions, the Liberal Democrats have supported fully the Government's endeavours in Northern Ireland. In the case of postponing elections to the Assembly, we have done so with extreme reluctance.

Echoing remarks made by my honourable friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland in another place, if a decision is made to postpone elections still further, we

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could not support it, except in circumstances that are extremely difficult to imagine at this stage. Elections must be held and mandates renewed. It was good to read press reports this morning that satisfactory progress is being made and that there are now grounds for optimism that Assembly elections will be held in the near future. The passage of the Bill will facilitate the calling of those elections.

2.25 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council for his very generous help and support in finding out more about the Bill in early August, when it was first discussed by the Whips. I ask him to convey my thanks to officials in the Northern Ireland Office who at times had my rather irate and impatient voice on the other end of the telephone trying to find out more about this mysterious Bill, which was printed only on Tuesday. I also thank the noble and learned Lord for setting out the main provisions of the Bill in the way that he did and the context in which it has been introduced to your Lordships' House.

For the Opposition, that context is very clear. Despite somewhat heightened expectations of a breakthrough in March and April, it is the almost complete paralysis in the political process in Northern Ireland since the then Secretary of State was forced to suspend devolution following the Stormontgate crisis nearly a year ago. That paralysis was reflected in the Government's decision to postpone the Assembly elections originally scheduled to be held on 1st May this year. First, they were put back a month and then indefinitely when it became clear by mid-April that a basis for restoring the Assembly had not been found.

I know that it is the Government's stated intention to hold the elections some time this autumn. We hope that that remains their position and that they will take place. It is both depressing and highly regrettable that, five and a half years after the Belfast agreement was signed to near-universal acclaim, we must debate yet another piece of Northern Ireland legislation designed to breathe life back into the Province's political process.

Since the referendum on the agreement in May 1998, we have lurched from crisis to crisis, with the result that we have had longer periods of direct rule from Westminster than we have had devolved government at Stormont. It is all the more tragic when one considers that during the periods when devolution has operated for any length of time—as it did between November 2001 and October 2002—it has generally been considered a success.

Like the Government, therefore, we are anxious to see devolution restored at the earliest opportunity. Given the difficulties we have experienced since 1998, however, we must ask whether the Belfast agreement remains the only, or indeed the best, means of achieving that.

The Conservative Party believes that the agreement continues to offer the best means of delivering the stable, peaceful and prosperous future that the

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overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland want. But it will deliver only if we return to the agreement that the people of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic voted to endorse in 1998, not the one that is constantly being reinterpreted. It will succeed only if there is an end to the policy of one-sided concessions, sometimes even involving measures not in the agreement at all. That has characterised the approach of Her Majesty's Government since 1998. This was classically illustrated at Weston Park in 2001 and again at Hillsborough in March when concessions on watchtowers were given without any movement from republicans in return.

At the heart of the agreement was a basic deal: in return for an end to paramilitarism and a commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, inclusive power-sharing institutions with a cross-border element would be established. That was certainly the basis on which the Prime Minister sold the agreement back in 1998. However, it has not yet happened. Paramilitary activity of the kind set out in paragraph 13 of the British/Irish joint declaration to which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred, remains an almost daily feature of life for people in many parts of Northern Ireland. As a result, the trust and confidence that is absolutely crucial if this process is going to succeed is at its lowest possible ebb.

The Government claim that the Bill before the House this afternoon is one of the steps designed to rebuild trust and confidence, paving the way for elections and the re-establishment of the institutions. Yet it is clear that the Bill would not be necessary at all had the republican movement—Sinn Fein/IRA—fulfilled its obligations under the agreement and honoured the commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. Instead of that, we have had the paramilitary activities that we all understand so well, plus the Stormontgate spy ring at the heart of government, and only two acts of decommissioning. That is despite the fact that decommissioning was supposed to have been completed by May 2000—three and a half years ago.

Let us be clear. It is the republican movement that aspires to be a part of the government of Northern Ireland while retaining a private army. It is the republican movement that refuses to take what the Prime Minister called the fork in the road away from violence to the one marked democracy, and it is the leader of that movement, Gerry Adams, who still refuses to answer satisfactorily the question put to him by the Prime Minister, who asked, "In the context of the full implementation of the agreement will all forms of paramilitary activity end?"

Until we have a clear and unambiguous answer to that question, rather than the ritual republican torturing of the English language, the prospects of restoring devolved government, at least one that includes Sinn Fein, is remote. Unionists will continue to refuse to share power with a party that still refuses to abide by the same basic democratic rules as everybody else. In my view they would be right.

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That leads me directly to the Bill itself. We do not oppose the establishment of an advisory commission to cast an independent eye over breaches of the agreement in general and the paramilitaries in particular. Indeed, there have been times over the past five years when we have been exasperated by the unwillingness of the Government to take action—especially where Sinn Fein is concerned. Nor have we been entirely happy with the one blunt instrument at the disposal of the Government to deal with successive crises—the Northern Ireland Act 2000, or the so-called Mandelson Act, by which devolution is suspended.

Noble Lords will recall the then Secretary of State, John Reid, in his Statement of July 2002, in which he promised that any further breaches of the ceasefire would be followed by effective sanctions. Of course when the Stormontgate crisis followed in October, he did no such thing. He took the easy option and simply invoked the 2000 Act, suspending the institutions and thereby punishing the innocent along with the guilty. That episode also highlighted the weakness of the existing exclusion mechanism contained in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Under that legislation an individual or party can only be excluded from office following a vote supported by majorities of both designated unionists and nationalists in the Assembly. In our view it has always been an unlikely prospect that the SDLP would side with unionists to expel or exclude Sinn Fein from office—a point clearly made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, this afternoon.

It is for those reasons that the Opposition, along with the Ulster Unionists, have called, since at least 2001, for the Secretary of State to take on the power here at Westminster to exclude any party or individual in breach of the agreement. That followed a commitment given by the Prime Minister in a letter to David Trimble on Good Friday 1998, in which he said that, if the existing exclusion mechanism were ineffective, he—the Prime Minister—would review the situation.

Given that background, the Opposition should be welcoming the Bill, as it provides the Secretary of State with the power for which we have called. Yet, as drafted, the Bill is seriously defective. Under the Bill, the Secretary of State will be able to exercise the power only if that has been specifically recommended by the independent commission, certainly not on his own initiative. That is unacceptable. It compromises the freedom of action of the Secretary of State and, effectively, hands the trigger mechanism to exclude an individual or party from a devolved legislature in the United Kingdom to two members of the commission, neither of whom is accountable to the Assembly or to Parliament. Noble Lords will be aware that the international agreement states that only the two members appointed by the British Government can take any part in recommendations affecting strand one.

The Secretary of State should have freedom of action. He should, of course, take into account the reports of the commission but, ultimately, it should be for him to decide whether the recommendations of the commission are, in certain cases, too weak or, in other

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cases, too strong. The Secretary of State, who is accountable to this Parliament, should take those decisions. That is why we have tabled amendments to that affect for the Committee and Report stages. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, referred to those amendments, and noble Lords will understand that we have also discussed them outside the House, as we have done with the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council.

I wish to raise briefly one or two other issues, some of which were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Fitt, and by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth. Can the noble and learned Lord give us some indication of the expected cost of the commission? What permanent staff is it likely to have? Can he say more about how the commission will compile its reports? Will it, for example, have access to national intelligence? If not, how credible will be the information on which it bases its recommendations? What relationship will the commission have with the Chief Constable, the GOC, the head of the Garda Siochana and others in the intelligence world? Finally, I thank the noble and learned Lord for placing it firmly on record that there were no circumstances in which the representatives from Dublin and Washington would be involved in so-called strand one matters relating to the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

It ought to have been a Bill to which the Opposition could give their full-hearted support. On the surface, it does something for which we have called. Regrettably, though, the Government have missed an opportunity, possibly because of their attempts to pacify republicans by binding the hands of the Secretary of State. For the reasons that I have explained, the Opposition cannot back the Bill in its present form. We hope, though, that, during the remaining stages, the Government will listen to our reasoned arguments and amendments, so that we can send a Bill to the other place that has the backing of all parts of the House.

2.39 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for the scrutiny given to the Bill. It would not be fair to say that we have rushed our consideration of it. Obviously, a good deal of informed scrutiny has been expressed by your Lordships. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, said that this was yet another commission, which is true. I am sure that most of us long for a life without advisory commissions. As we all know, patience in Northern Ireland is not simply a virtue, it is a necessary duty.

I take issue with the noble Baroness's comment that there is nothing in the Bill, proposals or draft international agreement that would be to the advantage of the man in the street. I respectfully dissent. It is designed to produce for the man in the street exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said is wanted; namely, order, stability and security in a civil society.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Lords, Lord Fitt, Lord Kilclooney, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord

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Glentoran, asked a number of precise questions about the flow of information to the IMC; it will be open and accessible to all interested parties. As I said in my opening, the two governments are clear that it must be provided with the information it needs to do its work.

There is no question of a slap in the face for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. I remind your Lordships that the Chief Constable—this was raised specifically—remains and will remain the principal security advisor to the Secretary of State. Therefore, the IMC will have access to the Chief Constable and any reports which he thinks appropriate. Incidentally, I do not think that it would be appropriate, if this is what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, intended, that a police service should be making recommendations or decisions about the functions of an assembly. That would be inappropriate in a democratic society, but he must have his appropriate input.

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