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Between now and March—and well beyond, we have no doubt—there will be challenges that some will call a crisis. The media will try to strike divisions where they do not exist, but there will be challenges. Those can be overcome if everyone delivers on their commitments. Just last week, the cutting-edge travel guide, Lonely Planet, said that Northern Ireland was one of the must-see destinations for tourists. The guide said that Northern Ireland is,

There could be no greater incentive for the parties in Northern Ireland to be an active part of that. This is their opportunity: they can be. Indeed, the House trusts that they will be. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House.

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

3.48 pm

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for setting out the context of the Bill in his usual clear and forthright style. I will be relatively brief at this the Second Reading stage of the Bill. However, we will go into more detail on one or two contentious issues in Committee. We are showing our support for the Bill by agreeing to set aside our usual objections to pushing through legislation of this kind in a single day in order to facilitate a process on which the Government are clearly embarked and which we support.

The title of the Bill makes it clear that the Bill’s purpose is to give effect to changes in the so-called St Andrews agreement, announced by the British and Irish Governments on 13 October, which will require legislation. I am not sure how much agreement there really was in that agreement, but we will find out in the next few days.

That agreement set out a timetable for the restoration of power-sharing devolution in Northern Ireland, with in effect a new deadline of 26 March 2007. However, as the Minister pointed out, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein must indicate this Friday—the day after tomorrow—whom they would nominate for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That will be followed by an election on 7 March.

We support devolution. We want the institutions to be restored. We have had enough experience, not least in recent weeks, of the inadequacies with which Northern Ireland business is conducted at Westminster, by no fault of government, noble Lords or officials. No one disputes the fact that it would be infinitely better for Northern Ireland if devolved legislation was debated and passed at Stormont. However, if devolution is not to be, we must change the Westminster/Northern Ireland process. Let us all pray that we do not get to that point. However, there is more to it than that.

I believe that the economy would be better served by having a local Administration in Northern Ireland who would be better able to respond to the needs and concerns of local businesses. A local Administration would present a new, forward-looking and optimistic

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face of Northern Ireland to the outside world, helping it in the global battle to attract inward investment. A local Administration would be better able to tackle some of Northern Ireland’s deep-seated social problems, such as social exclusion and sectarianism, much more effectively than they could ever be tackled under direct rule. They would in many respects set the seal on the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland in the past 15 years. But—there is always a “but” in Northern Ireland—we in the Conservative Party are clear that stable and durable devolution can be restored only if all parties that aspire to join the Government of Northern Ireland play by and observe the same democratic rules. That means supporting the police, the courts and the rule of law unequivocally. We all know that currently only one party—Sinn Fein—refuses to do any of these things. This must change.

Support for the police, the courts and the rule of law is a basic requirement of any citizen, let alone of someone who aspires to be a Minister in any democracy. We cannot tolerate a lower standard of conduct in Northern Ireland than we would in any other part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, would be tolerated in the Republic of Ireland. Clause 7 amends the pledge of office to include a reference to upholding the rule of law and supporting policing. We welcome these changes, which closely resemble something that I sought to achieve when the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was before your Lordships’ House and which the Minister rejected. But although the pledge is undoubtedly important, actions on the ground are just as important, if not more so. After all, it was de Valera who, when entering the Dail, justified taking the oath of allegiance by dismissing it as an irrelevance. There must be no question of a repeat of history whereby Sinn Fein Ministers take this new pledge on 26 March and subsequently dismiss it as an irrelevance.

Support for the police has to mean encouraging people from republican communities to report crime. It has to mean giving evidence and co-operating with investigations. It has to mean encouraging young republicans to join the PSNI. After all, it is what increasing numbers of people in nationalist parts of Northern Ireland—places like west Belfast and south Armagh—are now demanding. They want real policing in their areas, something which I know the PSNI is delivering with increasing acceptance and success—for which all credit is due. It is about time Sinn Fein caught up.

It does not mean that there cannot be constructive criticism of the police force by Sinn Fein or by other parties for that matter. That is part of living in a free and democratic society in which the police are accountable to those whom they serve, but it does mean accepting that the authority exercised by the PSNI and the Northern Ireland courts is legitimate.

Unfortunately, support for the police and the timing of the Sinn Fein conference or ard fheis is the one element missing from the timetable set out in the St Andrews agreement. So if we are to move beyond this Friday to the elections on 7 March and the eventual devolution of power on 26 March, we need to see the Sinn Fein ard fheis take place soon, and take a clear

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decision in favour of the police. Without wishing to introduce yet another deadline or seeking to tie Her Majesty’s Government’s hands, I would have thought that progress has to be made by the time the Assembly is dissolved on 30 January and the election campaign begins. Given that Christmas comes in between, that is not very far ahead. I certainly cannot see any unionist going into an election on the basis of a Sinn Fein promise or as the prelude to a further round of negotiations. In fact, I cannot see Her Majesty’s Government agreeing with that either. If Sinn Fein does not deliver, it would be as well not to have an election at all. It is, after all, supposed to be an electoral endorsement, not an election for more process.

What is the delay? In 2004 in the draft comprehensive agreement, Sinn Fein signed up to an aspirational date for the devolution of policing and justice powers. The draft comprehensive agreement said that the Government anticipated Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board at the point at which legislation to pave the way for the devolution of policing and justice gained Royal Assent. That legislation, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, gained Royal Assent in July this year, and noble Lords will recall how insistent the Government were that they needed this legislation before the Summer Recess. Well, we are still waiting for Sinn Fein.

If republicans do what is required of them, I am in no doubt that, painful as it will be for many people who have suffered butchery at the hands of the IRA, the DUP would be doing the right thing in entering a power-sharing Government. From my conversations with the right honourable Member for North Antrim, Dr Paisley, and other members of the DUP, I believe that is what he and his party will do. But there has to be delivery from Sinn Fein: no more ambiguity, no more conditions and no more promises of action that does not happen.

We will give this Bill a fair passage as we understand the significance of it gaining Royal Assent tomorrow in preparation for what might happen on Friday. As we move into Committee there are, as I said earlier, a number of points which I and other noble Lords on these and the Cross Benches will wish to explore. But I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is left in no doubt of the seriousness with which we approach the policing issue. It must be resolved, and in the way that I have set out today.

3.59 pm

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing this Bill. I must apologise to noble Lords in advance because if the Second Reading is not completed by 5.15 pm, I shall have to leave for medical tests that cannot be postponed. My noble friend Lady Harris will then lead from these Benches and deal with all the remaining stages of the Bill.

This flawed Bill accurately reflects the character of the politics of Northern Ireland. It is but a fig leaf to camouflage the almost irreconcilable elements at work. Whether it will provide a foundation for an operating, representative and democratic system of devolved government—as all people of good will would wish—is extremely doubtful. This wretched

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Bill comprises the wish list of DUP demands and a corresponding Sinn Fein wish list. Where the two conflict, it is either silent or offers a fudge. The idea that the Bill is based on robust principles which, taken together, facilitate the creation of a power-sharing Executive, as it should be, is far from the truth. Rather, it is a patchwork of cobbled-together partisan clamourings with a touch of half-baked Northern Ireland Office ingenuity.

Perhaps, given the nature of Northern Ireland politics, the Bill is all that can be achieved by way of implementing the 1998 Belfast agreement, which is a very sad comment on the situation. Even so, there can be no guarantee that Stormont and its devolutionary settlement can be restored by March 2007 as the Bill anticipates. I have frequently lauded the energy, imagination and persistence of both the UK and Irish Governments, but the Bill is a poor reward for their efforts.

While I have commended the Government’s previous efforts to bring about a restoration of devolution, their determination has flagged noticeably in recent weeks. I would remind your Lordships that 24 November was to have been a firm deadline, after which, if no cross-party agreement had been reached, the salaries and expenses of MLAs would cease. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were quite unequivocal about this. Now that deadline will pass and the parties have until March to make their minds up. As my honourable friend the Member for Montgomeryshire repeatedly stressed yesterday, allowing deadlines to continue to slip in this way severely undermines the Government’s credibility and their influence in negotiations.

Yesterday’s debate in another place, which passed all stages of the Bill, accurately reflected the widespread unease in most sections of the House which the Bill has aroused. It was accepted with much misgiving, as it will probably be in your Lordships’ House today.

The Bill has many problematic features. I shall confine my remarks to four by way of illustration. First, regarding the district policing partnerships, while it is essential, of course, to have Sinn Fein’s full political participation on them, this should not be at the expense of the existing independent members. DPPs will become totally politicised, and that is not good for the health of civic society.

Secondly, the 11-plus tests will now be abolished but with no provision for a common Northern Ireland set of protocols for selection by secondary schools. There is thus a great risk of schools adopting their own individual methods, which will make for chaos. The Bill should impose a duty on the Executive to devise a central system of selection to be mandatory on all schools.

Thirdly, the Bill should not require the Executive to foster either the Irish language or Ulster Scots. It is an issue which ought properly to be left to the Executive and the Assembly to determine. Westminster should resist legislating on this at the behest of Sinn Fein and the DUP and leave them to progress the matter in the Assembly.

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Fourthly, it appears that if the move towards restoring devolution is further stalled, the Secretary of State can call an abrupt halt to the process and dissolve the Assembly. He will be able to do this by statutory instrument without having to seek affirmative parliamentary approval. This is a draconian constitutional power. If such an eventuality arises, will the Minister assure me that the Secretary of State will make a Statement in Parliament outlining his reasons in order that we may have a debate?

These Benches will be tabling amendments reflecting many of the Liberal Democrats’ misgivings. At this late stage, we can hope only that wiser counsels will prevail in the two larger parties in Northern Ireland—the DUP and Sinn Fein—so that devolution may be restored in spring 2007. No one should hold their breath. The portents are frankly not good, and it is a case of fingers crossed.

4.05 pm

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I feel that I approach the Bill in much the same temper as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton; I have mixed views about it. It contains, as we shall see later in the day, some clauses and provisions that are plain bad. Others are there, I think, largely as window dressing to enable a certain party to try to cover its tracks as it executes a not-very-elegant U-turn. Some of them are quite unnecessary because most of the material in the Bill on ministerial accountability just reflects the practice that occurred under the first Assembly and the provisions of the revised ministerial code which, but for a little embarrassment that I was under at the time, would have been published long before the suspension of the Assembly. However, that is a matter to which I shall return.

While I have mixed feelings about the Bill, its substance is the Belfast agreement and its procedures try to implement that agreement. Consequently, I will adopt, so far as I can, a positive approach towards the Bill and will seek to amend but not oppose it.

The big question is whether it will work. Already some of the portents are not good. The original timetable has slipped; there was to be an absolute deadline at the end of this week, but that has melted away. We have other deadlines, explicit and inferential, in the Bill, but the fact that one has melted away will only encourage those who think that they can drive through the others as well. I suspect that some of the boisterousness—some of the cockiness, I should say—that we saw in the other place last night reflects the views of that party—I refer, of course, to the Democratic Unionist Party—that it has been successful in defeating one deadline and will be able to deal with another one again.

However, again and again in its contributions last night and in previous weeks and months, that party has declared its present commitment to power sharing, and to power sharing with republicans. It no longer has a principled objection to it; it is simply a matter of when republicans will do what everybody knows republicans must do—to move on the policing issue—and then the problem will be solved. This is light years away from the historic position of the

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Democratic Unionist Party, a position it took until not that long ago. In its movement in recent years, there are matters which will encourage us as well.

If I am concerned about the timetable, I am even more concerned about the fundamental mistake the Government are making. They are not putting, they are not seen to be putting, and I do not think they are privately putting, any significant pressure on republicans to move. They have been too indulgent of republicans over the past years. That is the reason we have had repeated crises; it is the fundamental reason why the Assembly collapsed just over four years ago; and it is why the prospects are not good now. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, drew attention to the need for republicans to move in supporting policing. It is essential not only that they move but that they do so wholeheartedly to indicate their full support for the existing policing arrangements.

We must bear in mind what has happened in Northern Ireland in recent years. Put simply, eight years ago a majority of unionists—a narrow one, admittedly, but a majority—decided to give republicans a chance. Fairly soon afterwards, they felt that their generous gesture was cast back in their face by the behaviour of republicans and their failure to honour their obligations under the agreement. This culminated not only in the events which led to the suspension of the Assembly, but also to those of December 2004, where we saw the clearest demonstration of republican involvement in criminality. And what was the Government’s response to that? They quite happily opened the door of 10 Downing Street a few weeks later to let in the robbers’ political leaders for a chat, and they repeatedly declared that the republicans were still an essential part of the process.

That failure by the Government to police and uphold the basic principles of the agreement has produced considerable revulsion among the greater number of people in Northern Ireland, and quite naturally so. They are not in any mood to see republicans back in the centre of things, especially moving towards taking some influence or control over policing. The only thing that will change their mood is if republicans now move on policing and do so in such a way as to completely change the atmosphere. The holding-back by republicans over recent weeks and months of what they know in their hearts is necessary only reinforces the suspicion among most unionists that republicans are not being genuine. They have to move and they have to move quickly. The Government have to do what is necessary to make them move. Their current approach will not work. It is commonplace for commentators to say that deadlines do not work and that republicans do not move under pressure, but the truth of the matter is that republicans move only under pressure. They would never have started decommissioning but for the pressure which we brought to bear on them. They would never have moved even to endorse the Assembly but for the pressure which the Government brought to bear on them back in 1998. I give the Government credit for the pressure that they then brought to bear on republicans, just as I am criticising them for having failed to do that in recent years. So it

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is essential that republicans move and move quickly. For that to happen, they will have to be put under pressure.

Mr Hain virtually said in another place yesterday that they would have to move by January. That has been echoed here today and amendments to which we shall come this evening would compel them to do so. I very much hope that the House is prepared to accept them.

Other matters in the Bill give us concern. Perhaps our greatest concern is about a last-minute change which was made to the legislation. It virtually ensures that, if something is not done, the election will be a disaster. I shall speak more about that change when we come to it, but, put simply, it will enable the DUP to go around Northern Ireland saying, “You must vote for us or you’ll get a Sinn Fein First Minister” and, at the same time, enable republicans to go around Northern Ireland and say to nationalists, “If you vote for us, you will get a republican First Minister”. The product of such a campaign can obviously be seen. It would not have happened but for a clause which slipped into the Bill at the last minute. I have no doubt that it slipped in because it suited both the DUP and Sinn Fein, and possibly because this was the only element of agreement that the Government could see between those two parties and so they grabbed it. However, they should have thought first before grabbing it because its consequences will be grim. As things stand at the moment, we face the prospect of a deadlocked Assembly.

My colleague, the Member for North Down, reminded the Government in another place last night that the Prime Minister made a promise to the people of Northern Ireland on 6 April: that, whatever else happened, there would not be another election to a deadlocked Assembly. Despite the fact that it was only in April that that Statement was jointly made by the Prime Minister and Mr Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, that promise has been broken. The breach of that promise is in this Bill. We should look at that carefully in Committee.

One should get an agreement first and then proceed. That should have happened and it should happen now. The truth is that we do not have an agreement. The Minister concluded by saying that it is up to the parties to deliver on their commitments. He was echoing the words of Mr Hain in another place yesterday. What commitments? There was no agreement at St Andrews. There was an agreement between Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, but who else was party to it? As far as I can see, no one was. I am not aware of any commitment that has been made, certainly not publicly, by the DUP or Sinn Fein, so what commitments are there? I would be delighted if I could be shown to be wrong in this matter because it seems that rather than knowing that there are commitments—and the Minister referred to a need to know—the Government are proceeding on optimistic assumptions that are unlikely to be fulfilled in the event. So I am concerned about the next few weeks and months.

To end on a slightly more positive note, there are consolations in the present situation. Neither of the principal parties—Sinn Fein and the DUP—is seeking

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any other objectives. The DUP once wanted to smash the agreement and replace it by a new agreement; now it is just tinkering with procedures to give itself face savers but not pursuing any other objective. Republicans are not pursuing any other objective either, as they know that their ambitions, which they pursued by such violent means over the years, cannot be realised and that they have to make do with the political process. They are not going anywhere else. We now have parties which are moving along a road hesitantly—but both moving along the same road—which will lead to the implementation of the agreement. I am confident that sooner or later the process is going to work, although as this Bill is currently drafted it will be later rather than sooner.

4.16 pm

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, it is an enormous encouragement to hear in the last words of the noble Lord’s speech that he is confident that sooner or later—it may be in a matter of years or it may be less—this process is going to work. Nothing could bring greater solace to those who love Ireland and who want an end to the miseries that have characterised the history of Northern Ireland for so long.

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