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Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for setting out in his usual clear and forthright manner the details of this short Bill and the context in which the Government are introducing it.

Let me begin by making it quite clear that the Opposition support the Bill. We have had our differences with the Government over the years on their conduct of certain aspects of the peace process in Northern Ireland but today we share their objectives in wishing this initiative through to a successful conclusion.
 
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Devolution has now been suspended since October 2002—itself the fourth suspension since 1999. Yet the Assembly has continued to cost the taxpayer more than £80 million per annum simply to maintain it. As the Government have made clear, it is not sustainable to go on like this—paying Assembly Members' salaries for a job of work that they are no longer carrying out. That is the reality.

So, like the Government and all the main parties in Northern Ireland, we want to see a democratically accountable devolved government functioning in Northern Ireland. We want to see decisions over the issues that affect people's daily lives taken by locally elected politicians in the Assembly rather than through the unsatisfactory procedures of direct rule that we struggle with here at Westminster. We want to see politicians from both the main traditions working together for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland.

In all of this we are at one with the Government. We look forward to the Assembly's recall on 15 May, and, if it proves impossible to elect an executive within six weeks—the most likely scenario—I hope that one can be formed by 24 November. But let us not delude ourselves about the obstacles that still have to be overcome. Judging by the statements of the Prime Minister and Bertie Ahern, they have come to the conclusion that the only remaining obstacle to devolution is the Democratic Unionist Party's unwillingness to share power with Sinn Fein. In other words, they seem satisfied that Sinn Fein has now taken all the steps required of it to warrant, under its mandate, a place in the government of Northern Ireland.

I have to say to the Minister and Her Majesty's Government that this is most definitely not how the matter is seen by the majority of people of Northern Ireland—not just the DUP but across the broader unionist community. Distrust of the republican movement—Sinn Fein and its IRA associates—remains widespread and deep.

Of course, a great deal of progress has been made over the past year. This was acknowledged by the DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, in an important speech to the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Killarney last week. The IRA's statement last July formally ending its armed campaign was hugely significant and welcome, as, I believe, was the act of decommissioning that took place in September. Gerry Adams has made it clear that the "war"—in the sense of seeking to achieve a united Ireland through violence—is over. The Independent Monitoring Commission's 10th report was published on Wednesday. Again, many of its conclusions were encouraging—a sign that republicans are moving in the right direction.

But, for many people in Northern Ireland the question marks remain. There is the legacy of 30 years of appalling and savage terrorism. Anyone who lives in Northern Ireland knows somebody or a family, from both the unionist and nationalist traditions, who have been affected by or suffered from IRA terrorism.
 
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So let us not underestimate what we are asking unionists in Northern Ireland to do when we ask them to enter government with Sinn Fein. And we should not be surprised if the community is hardly falling over itself to embrace Sinn Fein simply on the basis of one IMC report—welcome as it is—that gives the IRA a cleaner, though by no means a completely clean, bill of health.

Just before Easter the Garda intercepted a lorry carrying €300,000 of stolen vodka and three known members of the IRA were arrested, one of whom was released early under the terms of the Belfast agreement. This prompted the Justice Minister in the Republic of Ireland to assert:

We agree with that assessment.

Both the IMC and the Secretary of State indicate that in recent months the IRA has sought to prevent its members engaging in illegal activities. Indeed, the Secretary of State has said that the IRA is "cracking down" on members—whatever that means in practice. It used to mean knee-capping and worse. So we are right to be hopeful but, at the same time, cautious.

Then there is the issue of policing. Sinn Fein still refuses to support the PSNI. In the words of the IMC, this is,

To my mind it is simply inconceivable that a party can take up seats in any devolved government in the United Kingdom without supporting the police, the courts and the rule of law. So Her Majesty's Government must accept that this issue has to be resolved before an executive can be formed. Without it, any chance of meeting the November deadline will be very small indeed.

There is, of course, a simple test of whether the Government now accept the republican movement's bona fides. If they believe that the IRA is permanently and irreversibly committed to peaceful and democratic means then presumably there is no longer any justification for IRA membership being a criminal offence. If the IRA no longer represents a terrorist threat, then presumably the Government will remove it from the list of terrorist organisations in Schedule 1 to the Terrorism Act. Would it not look rather odd in November to ask unionists to form a government with Sinn Fein, when that party remains inextricably linked to an organisation that is still proscribed under the Terrorism Act?

Looking ahead to the recall of the Assembly itself, the Government have said that it will be able to debate the issues likely to face an incoming executive, such as education and local government reform. The Secretary of State in the other place pledged to take the Assembly's views into account. Surely, the Government should go further than that. My honorable friend David Lidington, the Shadow Secretary of State in the other place, suggested at the weekend that the Government should have a freeze on
 
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such controversial pieces of legislation until after the 24 November deadline, or at least until such time as it becomes clear whether or not an executive will be formed. Will the Minister look seriously at that suggestion? It would be a travesty if the Assembly came to an agreement on issues in the coming weeks only for the Government to ride roughshod over its views.

In the sad event of devolution not being possible by 24 November—I have asked this question before and have had a satisfactory answer but I will ask it once more—will the noble Lord reaffirm that plan B does not involve any move towards joint authority between London and Dublin over Northern Ireland? Welcome as co-operation on a range of matters is between two states that share a common land border, the internal governance of Northern Ireland is and will remain a matter for Her Majesty's Government alone, accountable to this Parliament. That is a very important message to reiterate across the country and particulary the Province.

We have come a long way in Northern Ireland over the past 15 years. For most people, life has improved immeasurably and I readily acknowledge that. I want nothing less than for Northern Ireland to be a peaceful, stable and prosperous part of the United Kingdom. We still have some way to go, however, and we should be in no doubt about that. We wish the Government well but are clear that devolution on an inclusive basis will happen only when all parties seeking ministerial positions subscribe to the same democratic values. It is against this background that my party shall support the Bill before your Lordships' House this afternoon.

4.54 pm

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister, who with his usual prescience has already answered some of the questions I was going to put to him. I hope that my remarks will be a little more optimistic than those we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. When we responded to the Minister's Statement last week we gave a general welcome to the Bill before us today. It is good to see that there is a now a clear target set down in legislation for the restoration of the Assembly. I know that all noble Lords will agree that the people of Northern Ireland are best served by their local politicians making decisions on local issues. That is vital. Those issues include, as we heard from the Minister, education, the provision of local transport, healthcare and encouraging the economy. All of those ought to be made accountable to the very people who will be affected by the decisions that are taken. It is fervently to be hoped that this government initiative will succeed in restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland and that the Assembly will become a permanent and secure institution.

However, there are huge difficulties to overcome before we can reach that point. I sincerely hope that the Government will face up to and address those difficulties, as I believe they will, in the coming weeks and months. We have said before and must reiterate
 
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that there remains a fundamental and deep mistrust between the political parties. Indeed, at last week's meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, to which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred, we heard in graphic detail just how polarised those parties now are—far worse than we had been led to believe. Therefore, this cannot be a quick-fix solution.

We have always called for inclusive, round-table talks between all political parties in Northern Ireland. That is the only way in which a lasting settlement can be achieved. Will the Minister therefore now give us a categoric commitment that all the parties will be involved in the negotiations towards a settlement? It must be clear to the Government just how necessary this now is. Far too often in recent years, initiatives have failed when secret deals with two parties have failed; that is not a recipe for long-term working together in a devolved government. If the Government want to achieve a lasting settlement, as we all know they do, they must ensure that all the parties work together to achieve it. If they do not do so, I fear that they will find themselves with another temporary deal which will ultimately come unstuck.

We on these Benches welcomed the IRA's statement in July last year and its subsequent acts of decommissioning. The subsequent IMC reports have served to reassure us that the terrorist threat from the IRA has now diminished. We also welcomed the last IMC report—the 10th—which was published last week, and its assessment that the IRA is committed to a peaceful path. It was indeed good news to learn that in the period covered by that report there were no shootings or paramilitary attacks attributable to the IRA. We have always deplored such horrific acts in a democratic society and we are indeed hopeful that these barbaric practices are now at an end.

We remain deeply troubled that some IRA members are still engaged in a substantial level of criminal activity. The IMC believes that some members, including some senior members, are still involved in crimes such as money laundering and smuggling. We hear that the leadership of the IRA is encouraging members to refrain from taking part in such acts of criminality. Nevertheless, it is still a very worrying state of affairs. It is essential that IRA members demonstrate their commitment to the rule of law and immediately stop all forms of criminal activity. If this does not become a reality, we are in danger of seeing the whole process of normalisation undermined by these individuals.

We fully support the excellent work of the Organised Crime Task Force, but it seems to have scarcely scratched the surface. Does the Minister agree that if Sinn Fein were to join the Northern Ireland Policing Board and give its unequivocal support to the police and the criminal justice system, that would greatly assist the people of Northern Ireland in believing statements from the IRA or Sinn Fein that they are opposed to any form of criminal behaviour?

Further, do the Government accept that changes are necessary to the structures and working of the Good Friday agreement and the 1998 Act? I know that the
 
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Government will be aware of the difficulties posed by the system of designations in the past. Can the Minister assure the House that if such changes are deemed to be necessary before the Assembly is able to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister there will be adequate time for the House to debate them?

I now turn to the specifics of the Bill. I have a number of questions about its operation but I know that the Minister will be pleased that they are few. He may also be aware that these Benches have already tabled some amendments, through which we hope to have a full and considered discussion in Committee on the various points that I will raise briefly today.

Our primary concern is about the ability of the Assembly to act in relation to areas on which the Government legislated during suspension of the Assembly. I am happy to hear the Minister confirm that the Assembly can amend or repeal any Orders in Council which were passed in Westminster since October 2002. He is quite right: when this was debated in the other place, the Minister there gave an assurance that the Assembly could do what it liked when the powers were restored. At that time he did not explain the meaning of some of the sub-paragraphs of Schedule 2 so I am grateful to the Minister for having reassured us that the Assembly, when it is up and running, will be able to amend or repeal Orders in Council. Perhaps it would be better to discuss that matter in Committee if there are any other points to make concerning Schedule 2. Does the Minister accept that it would be wise to put on hold until after the 24 November deadline some of the more contentious and controversial policy decisions that the Government are proposing to put before Parliament?

We agree with the Government that if a restoration order is made before the deadline set out in the Bill, it would make sense to postpone the date of the next Assembly elections until May 2008. We also agree with the Government's analysis that this will give the Assembly time to bed down and tackle some of the very real issues that face Northern Ireland before the Assembly is dissolved and the parties have to face the electorate again.

It is therefore with pleasure that these Benches note that a firm date has been proposed in the Bill. We have always been against the setting of election dates by order. We are pleased that the merits of such a proposal can be discussed and debated before the whole House. We are also happy about the provision which would allow the Minister to set an election date in the future if the Assembly is not restored in the autumn. Although it is to be hoped that there will not be any need for this provision, we accept the Government's reasoning that there should be the ability to recall the Assembly and hold an election at some time in the future.

Finally, we hope that in Committee the Government will be able to give us a detailed explanation of the purposes of Clauses 3 and 4 and how they envisage them being used. I reiterate that we welcome the Bill before us today and we hope that after three and a half years of suspension this initiative will lead to devolved and stable government in Northern Ireland.
 
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5.03 pm


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