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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this group of amendments would give the Northern Ireland Assembly a sayindeed, the final sayin bringing the Northern Ireland provisions of the Bill into effect. Amendments Nos. 6 and 196 amount to a sunrise clause on Part 4 of the Bill. I am delighted that these amendments have been co-signed by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who, as we all acknowledge, is a great authority in this House on the Northern Ireland issue.
I also have some knowledge of the Province. It is out of concern for the opinions that I know are held by the great majority of the people of Northern Ireland that these amendments have been tabled. It is obvious to everyone, except perhaps to government Ministers, that there is strong opposition to the Bill from people throughout Northern Ireland. That is a view that transcends the tradition of the Catholic/Protestant divide and the political Unionist/nationalist divide.
What is especially shocking about the Government's decision to impose civil partnerships in the Province is that they are daring to do so while the Assembly is suspended. At the very time when they should be exercising the greatest restraint, it seems that Ministers are desperate to put a highly controversial issue on to the statute book before the Assembly reconvenes. I may be unduly suspicious but it seems to me that the Government see the suspension of the Assembly as a heaven-sent opportunity to impose on the Province legislation that the Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland would never accept. My amendments would give the Assembly the final say.
The commencement order to bring the Northern Ireland part of the Bill into effect would have to be approved by resolution of the Assembly. Clearly and unhappily, we do not know when the Assembly will be reconvened, but Northern Ireland's politicians should have the chance to debate these measures. That means waiting until the current impasse is resolved and if it does approve the provisions, so be it.
In the early part of this year, the Government carried out a two-month consultation period in Northern Ireland by comparison with a three-month consultation period in England and Wales. Of the respondents to the Northern Ireland consultation, 86 per cent opposed the plan. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, commented in Grand Committee that he thought that the number of responses was small. In fact, if one compares the number with the responses to the England and Wales consultation, which I notice lasted a month longer, the proportion of the Northern Ireland population who responded was more than four times greater than that in England and Wales.
Lord Alli: My Lords, the noble Baroness may recall that my substantive point on the consultation process was not the small number of responses, but I asked the Minister whether there was evidence of an organised letter-writing campaign. She referred the matter to her department and I believe that the response circulated was that there was indeed evidence of an organised
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letter-writing campaign to that consultation process, which threw up, I suspect, the result that the noble Baroness is discussing.
Lord Alli: My Lords, that was not for me to ask. I simply asked about Northern Ireland as that was a substantial issue facing the Grand Committee and appeared to be one of the major building blocks in the argument of the noble Baroness as to why the legislation should not apply to Northern Ireland.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, has not listened to the main problem that I have with this legislation, which is that it will be railroaded through Northern Ireland at a time when the Assembly is suspended. I do not believe that any Member of your Lordships' House does not recognise how sensitive the suspension of the Assembly is at the moment. We all want the Assembly to be reinstated. We want to see peace in Northern Ireland and we should not introduce legislation that could be difficult at a time when the Assembly is suspended. That is the major plank of my argument. If the noble Lord had listened to me earlier, he would have heard me stress that fact.
Of course, we do not need government consultation to tell us that the people of Northern Ireland are more conservative and more religious than those on the mainland. I suspect that that is one of the reasons why there was such overwhelming feeling against the Bill. In the England and Wales consultation process, 83 per cent of the people were in favour of the Bill. At the time, government Ministers trumpeted that to the press and said that it reflected "overwhelming public support". When the Northern Ireland consultation showed 86 per cent opposition to the Bill, suddenly public opinion became irrelevant to the Government. No government Ministers trumpeted that fact.
The recent census shows that there were only 288 same-sex couple households in Northern Ireland. If the Government are right that only 5 per cent of same-sex couples will avail themselves of civil partnerships, Ministers want to railroad the Bill through the Assembly to change the whole of family law in the Province for the sake of 15 same-sex couples.
I firmly believe that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their views; they are entitled to be listened to by the Government. At the moment they have no means of expressing their views to the Assembly about this highly controversial issue. Surely that is undemocratic, unfair and unjust.
The Government may resent the fact that most politicians in the Province do not support gay rights, but if they believe in devolved government they must accept the views of that devolved government. The Scottish Parliament had the opportunity to debate
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these provisions when it passed a Sewel Motion on 3 June. Northern Ireland's politicians should be given the same opportunity. I beg to move.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, the Bill is not about economics, whatever anyone may say, it is about human rights and justice. Gay people in Northern Ireland suffer more than usual from prejudice. They are as entitled as anyone else in what is still a United Kingdom to have their human rights protected.
I hear from the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association that it would feel extremely bitter if such people were to be excluded from a Bill which would acknowledge that there were and should be particular human rights in the rest of the United Kingdom and they were denied them.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, this issue caused a great deal of heat and perhaps not very much light in Grand Committee. We take the view that this Parliament is now responsible for the government of Northern Ireland because the Assembly has been suspended. In that case we have to take the decision whether these rights should be extended to people who live in Northern Ireland in the same way as they are extended to those who live in Great Britain.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. It seems to me that so long as we are responsible for human rights in Northern Ireland we cannot give rights to citizens this side of the Irish Channel which we do not extend to citizens who live in Northern Ireland. Therefore, in our view the amendment is misguided and we shall oppose it.
Lord Alli: My Lords, without rehearsing our debates in Grand Committee, the arguments of the noble Baroness boil down into two major areas. First, there are not very many gay people in Northern Ireland anyway so why should we do this? She said in Grand Committee that there were only 238 couples in the census and therefore she did not see why the legislation should apply to Northern Ireland.
The second objection of the noble Baroness essentially seems to be that because Northern Ireland can unite around a common cause of prejudice against gay people perhaps we might absent them from this particular case. We have had two notable speeches in the previous debatethat of the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, who is now in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord Fittand have listened once again to people talking about unnatural sexual acts and the hijacking of the word "gay".
In the Northern Ireland context, I would say that this piece of legislation is probably needed more than in any other place. It will allow people who wish to register their civil partnerships to stand up and have protection in a way they do not at the moment. So the debate we witnessed less than two hours ago probably reinforces the need for this legislation more than anything else I have heard in the House.
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