§ 6.34 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Lyell)
My Lords, I beg to move, that the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill makes three important changes to the law concerning elections to, and the conduct of business by, elected authorities in Northern Ireland. The common thread of these proposals is a concern for the proper functioning of Northern Ireland's district councils, and of any future Assembly. The Bill seeks to address the problems which have arisen from the presence in council chambers in Northern Ireland of those who openly express their support for proscribed organisations and terrorism.
I shall briefly address my remarks to the declaration against terrorism which some have described as the heart of the Bill. The other two proposals, however, are important in their own right. Perhaps I may first take noble Lords through the change to the local government franchise. The Bill amends the franchise for district council elections in Northern Ireland so as to bring it broadly into line with the franchise for elections to the House of Commons in Northern Ireland. I say "broadly" because there are two exceptions. Those of your Lordships who are qualified in any way will continue, as now, to be able to vote in district council elections 1715 in Northern Ireland. And overseas electors will, as at present, be unable to vote in local government elections, as is the case in Great Britain.
The changes that I am proposing will enfranchise, for district council elections in Northern Ireland, about 10,500 people.These are the so-called "I" for the "Imperial" Parliament voters. They are at present unable to vote in district council elections. These voters—described as the "I" voters—are people who under 1962 legislation for Northern Ireland fail to meet the special nationality and residence qualifications laid down for district council elections. The 1962 legislation in general confines the right to vote to Commonwealth citizens who were either born in Northern Ireland or have resided in the United Kingdom for the whole of the seven years preceding the qualifying date for registration. Citizens of the Irish Republic who are not also Commonwealth citizens, and British citizens who do not meet the residence requirement, have thus been excluded from voting at district council elections.
Similar retrictions on voting in Assembly elections have already been removed by the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections (Amendment) Order 1986. The remaining restrictions are perceived as discriminating against those who consider themselves of Irish identity in Northern Ireland, though non-nationalists may also, of course, be affected. It is for that reason that the Bill will remove a long standing grievance.
The Bill also reforms and strengthens the law on disqualification for council office following a criminal conviction. The present law disqualifies anyone who has within the previous five years been convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three months or more. This period of five years' disqualification is fixed. It bears no relationship to the seriousness of the offence.
One feature of the present law is that, where someone remains in prison for more than five years after the date of conviction, he is eligible to stand as a councillor immediately upon discharge from prison. It is also possible for someone to stand for election as a councillor while still in prison. The Bill before us this evening will correct both those anomalies. The Bill will link the period of disqualification to the length of the time actually served in prison. Persons sentenced to periods of imprisonment of three months or more will in future be disqualified while actually imprisoned, and for five years from the day on which they leave prison.
Perhaps I may now turn to the central provisions of the Bill. I think that noble Lords would wish me to do so. These central provisions will require candidates, at district council andAssembly elections in Northern Ireland, to declare that they will not express support for, or approval of, terrorism and proscribed organisations in Northern Ireland. They also provide means whereby the declaration can be enforced.
I believe that it is common ground among almost all those involved in local government in Northern Ireland that a serious problem exists there.There are councillors who while holding elected office are prepared to voice public support for acts of terrorism 1716 or proscribed organisations. Their expressions of support have had a most disruptive effect on the workings of local government in Northern Ireland.
The Government's view is that there is a vital point of principle at stake here. It is incompatible with elected office in a democratic body such as a district council for its members to give support to policies of violence—policies which may, as they have, disrupt the operation of the council, threaten the whole principle of democratic elections and constitute a grave threat to the lives of councillors and council employees.
The declaration provides a framework within which open support for proscribed organisations or acts of terrorism by councillors can be restrained. It thus contributes, we believe, to the future political stability of the district councils. Whether that framework is used and how it is used must depend upon decisions made by district councillors themselves.
The Government do not believe that the declaration will be a panacea for all the problems of local government. However it will provide for the first time to the great majority of responsible councillors and electors a remedy against expressions of support for or approval of proscribed organisations and acts of terrorism by those with whom they have to share a council chamber.
If advocates of violence choose cynically to sign the declaration, as they may, they will be bound by it and can be recalled to their responsibilities as councillors. Even if the declaration does nothing more than restrain the utterances of those people, it will still have made an important contribution to preventing evil men from promoting their cause and exploiting the democratic process in order to do so.
To impose a requirement for a declaration against terrorism is of course a serious step. We are proposing it after careful thought and wide consultation. We have taken account of all the views expressed following the Government's discussion paper, Elected Representatives and the Democratic Process in Northern Ireland, which was published 18 months ago. We believe that it is the minimum necessary response to the present situation in some district councils in Northern Ireland. In particular, we have amended the terms of the declaration in response to criticism that it would be one-sided if it referred to support only for proscribed organisations and not to terrorism more generally. The declaration now refers to acts of terrorism also.
We have also had argued that the Government should take a different course. Arguments have been raised that Sinn Fein should be proscribed. It remains our policy to proscribe only those organisations which are primarily and actively involved in the commission of terrorist acts. We keep the status of a number of organisations, including Sinn Fein, under review against that criterion.
But proscription of Sinn Fein would leave it open to councillors, who were not avowed members of Sinn Fein, to continue to express support for terrorism. In other words, even if Sinn Fein were proscribed, the declaration would still be needed.
1717 Nor do the Government believe that the problem can he defined so narrowly. Our proposal is not—I stress this once again—aimed at Sinn Fein alone. The declaration covers all those who express support for proscribed organisations and terrorism, from whichever side of the political spectrum they come.
It has also been argued that the Government should do nothing—that we should simply ignore the problem. I do not believe that to be a tenable proposition. The threat to local democracy in Northern Ireland is a serious one which raises an important point of principle. Expressions of support for or approval of terrorism are simply not compatible with participation in the democratic process. I cannot reiterate that too strongly. Doing nothing about the present situation is not an option in the Government's view.
I take your Lordships briefly through the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 sets out the new franchise for district council elections in Northern Ireland. It follows in all essential matters, the terms of Section 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which defines the franchise for parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland. It replaces the old law, which is repealed by Clause 11 and Schedule 3 of the Bill.
Clause 2 applies with some modifications the registration provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to Northern Ireland district council elections. It will have the effect of abolishing two anomalous features of the district council franchise. These are the right to vote enjoyed by convicted prisoners and by certain patients compulsorily detained in mental institutions or who are unable to make a patients' declaration. In both respects Clause 2 will bring the district council franchise into line with that for another place and with the local government franchise in Great Britain.
Clauses 3 and 5 provide for the declaration against terrorism to be made by candidates at, respectively, district council and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. Clause 4 provides for a similar declaration to be made by candidates co-opted to fill casual vacancies on district councils. Clause 6 defines the behaviour which will constitute a breach of the declaration.
Clause 7 sets out the enforcement mechanism, which will be an application to the High Court for a determination that the declaration has been breached. This clause also defines the persons enabled to apply for a determination. In respect of a councillor, these are the council itself, other members of the council or electors of the council. In respect of Assembly members, they are other members of the Assembly or electors of the Assembly constituency concerned.
Clause 8 sets out the consequences of a determination by the High Court that a declaration has been breached. The councillor or Assembly member to whom the determination applies will be disqualified for both council and Assembly office for a period of five years from the date of the determination. Clause 9 strengthens the existing law on disqualification for council office following a criminal conviction.
1718 Clauses 10 to 13 deal with minor and technical matters; they include transitional provisions designed to ensure that newly enfranchised persons will be able to vote at the local elections on 17th May 1989 even though they may not at that time be registered as local electors. Taken together, the Bill's provisions seek to create and promote better conditions in local government in Northern Ireland.
Finally, I draw your Lordships' attention to a separate but related set of proposals which also reflect our concern for the future health of local government in Northern Ireland. Last year the Government published a consultative paper on local government. This contains proposals about the handling of council business, inlcuding the creation of an agreed set of standing orders, greater prominence for a code of conduct for councillors and powers to restrict improper or unlawful actions or decisions by councils, we have sought comment by 1st March 1989 on this consultative paper.
These proposals, which draw on recommendations made for the conduct of councils in Great Britain, could equally be of great importance to the future health of local government in Northern Ireland. They should be set alongside the other measures we are proposing in this Bill.
I believe that this Bill can and will make a significant contribution to the future of local government in Northern Ireland. In that spirit, I commend it to your Lordships.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lyell.)
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I apologise to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for not being in my place for the first two minutes of his speech. My colleagues know that I had miscalculated the pace at which the Committee was proceeding. I apologise to him. At the same time I thank him for taking us through the provisions of this short but important Bill and for drawing our attention to its two central proposals: the extension of the franchise for district council elections and the requirement that district council and Assembly candidates must sign a declaration (statutorily expressed as a "declaration against terrorism") that they will not by word or deed express support for proscribed organisations or acts of terrorism.
There is no disagreement about the first objective. The Bill will remedy an anomalous position which has lasted for far too long. However, there is no agreement about the second. In our view, it is the Bill's principal proposal. There are doubts and difficulties and there is opposition to the new statutory declaration against terrorism which is found in the Bill. That is why I shall concentrate on that part of the Bill.
In another place the Minister described the requirement for a declaration as being "blunt and simple". There can be no doubt about that. But are bluntness and simplicity relevant or proper tests? We believe that the cases where a blunt and simple precept turns out in practice to be fair are probably extremely rare.
1719 I suggest to the House that in coming to a view about the merits of the new statutory declaration we must answer three questions. First, is it sound in principle? Secondly, if it is sound in principle, is it workable? Thirdly, does public policy in Northern Ireland demand that a statutory declaration be in place? I shall consider those three tests in turn.
Armed struggle and democracy are the two means of achieving political change in a modern society. But so long as a party takes part in the political process—which itself allows for a high order of freedom of speech, free assembly, freedom to organise opposition to the government of the day and free elections—I believe that that party cannot at the same time seek to achieve its political aims by the use of violence. The two means—the Armalite and the ballot paper—are mutually incompatible.
On the other hand, I accept the fact that it can be argued that the declaration against terrorism can be seen as an exercise in censorship and can be opposed on that ground. Our answer to the first question is in the affirmative; it is sound in principle.
I turn to the second test. Is the declaration provided for in the Bill workable in the turbulent circumstances of Northern Ireland? Normally a person who makes a written declaration intends to be bound by it. However, there is virtual certainty that some of those who will sign a statutory declaration against terrorism will do so with no intention of abiding by it. They will sign it and disregard it.
A fortnight ago a Sinn Fein conference resolved that:we would not allow any British-inspired oath or pledge to prevent Sinn Fein representing its electorate in local councils".The Government would be unwise to underestimate the determination which emerges in that resolution. So how will the new law be enforced? Therein lies a major difficulty.
In his press statement of 24th November the Minister simply asserted that "it will be enforceable". But will it? The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, has explained that the Bill leaves the matter to the individual council, its member or members or to an elector living in the district to initiate the High Court proceedings. Those proceedings will attract the spotlight of publicity. Surely it is unrealistic to expect the individual citizen in Londonderry or anywhere else in Northern Ireland, or local councils, to commence private action in the High Court and be exposed to the risk of intimidation and violence.
The jury system in Northern Ireland ceased to function in respect of terrorist offences because members of the jury feared intimidation and violence. Surely it cannot be sensible to ignore that experience. If enforcement of the new law is an important objective of government policy, we say that it is for the Government to initiate the proceedings rather than leave that to the individual citizen. The Government should not seek to pass the buck. For that reason we shall consider carefully in Committee whether such proceedings should be commenced by the Attorney-General. He appears to be the best officer to initiate the proceedings. I believe that he is the officer who brings proceedings for contempt of court.
1720 Assuming that we arrive at the door of the court, there will then arise the all-important question of proof. Where the councillor has been silent and the applicant to the High Court places reliance on his conduct as evidence that he is in support of the use of violence for political ends—a conduct such as silence—will it be necessary in such a situation to show that the councillor knew or should have known that his conduct (possibly his silence) amounted to a breach of declaration? Is there to be any defence available to a respondent councillor? Will a distinction be drawn between a councillor who knowingly and wilfully breaches the terms of his declaration and another councillor who in the heat of the moment impulsively, or in consequence, or as a result of provocation or pressure in an inflammatory council chamber, breaches the terms of his declaration? Or is the five years' disqualification to attach to all breaches of the declaration?
On the other hand, the term "use of violence for political ends" is a wide phrase which could catch the marginal scene of the trade unionist using force on a picket line during the course of a campaign in favour of or in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Is that intended? At best, the phrase, "use of violence to achieve political ends" leaves considerable discretion to the courts. Will the Minister explain to the House whether that is intended and whether the implied uncertainty is required. I trust that I have shown that there are many difficulties in giving an affirmative answer to the question of whether the statutory declaration against terrorism found in this Bill is workable.
Perhaps I may turn briefly to my third question. Does public policy in Northern Ireland demand the declaration? Many people consider that it will be counterproductive and that the Government are handing a propaganda weapon to the men of violence and in particular to the IRA. Of course we accept that it is for the Government to decide what are the demands of public policy, but it has not gone unnoticed that the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland, a body appointed by the Secretary of State to advise him on the issues of human rights in Northern Ireland, advised that the requirement of a statutory declaration against terrorism would:be a mistake of major proportion",and that it would make the situation in Northern Ireland worse rather than better. That was the message from the Standing Advisory Commission to the Secretary of State in the course of the consultations. The Minister told the House that the Secretary of State took on board many of the representations made to him. Did he take any account of the advice of' the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland? If not, can the Minister tell us why that advice was rejected?
Therefore, there are powerful arguments against the use of the declaration on the grounds of public policy. It appears to us that to reject the advice of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights at least carries with it risks which are not acceptable to us.
1721 We appreciate that the Government are under pressure to be seen to do something about terrorism in the turbulent Province and we appreciate that terrorism is the most feared contemporary activity. However, for the reasons which I have given, we do not consider that this part of the Bill is workable. Nevertheless, we are presented with a Bill and a declaration against terrorism and it behoves us in this House to seek to improve, where possible, the provisions of this Bill, and we shall return in Committee to attend to that task.
§ 7.3 p.m.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, as your Lordships will be aware, from these Benches your Lordships would normally be listening to my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge who, with his long experience, is able to speak with much more authority than I on all subjects connected with Northern Ireland. That would have been so particularly in respect of this Bill. Unfortunately my noble friend is in bed with flu. It is with some trepidation that I have replaced him. Perhaps I may seek the indulgence of your Lordships and the Minister if the debate should continue beyond eight o'clock; I have a long standing engagement and must leave.
I am sure that my noble friend Lord Donaldson and all those who sit on these Benches would say that we approve of the Bill although, like others, we also see the defects. However, we do not see any reason for not welcoming a further attempt by the Government to combat, if it is possible to combat in this sad Province, terrorist violence. Indeed, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Donaldson would wish me to say, we have particular reason to abhor violence in Northern Ireland because in recent times your Lordships' House has welcomed with pride two widows of men assassinated as a result of violence. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, who is no stranger to the threat of cowardly violence, and we have also sustained the sad loss of the late distinguished Lord Mountbatten who was the victim of a further cowardly act of terrorism. Therefore, in this House we are fully aware that the situation has to be dealt with somehow, even if our efforts are often inadequate.
Perhaps I may turn to the benefits of the Bill. Its central part seems to be the declaration but I take on board other important changes; namely, the change in the franchise to conform with other parts of the United Kingdom so that those who have lived for three months in the Province have the right to vote. And, of course, there is the amendment to the disqualification period.
We must however question how the declaration will work. Even though one accepts that the attempt to prohibit by statute the approval of acts of violence and terrorism is necessary, it is difficult to know how that will work. I am sure that the Minister will be able to answer our questions. Of course, it is inevitable that at an early stage someone will break the promise to abide by the declaration. It is difficult to see who will benefit from that. Will the terrorist benefit from the propaganda caused by the breaking of the declaration? On the other hand, will it be of 1722 propaganda value to the Government that the declaration has been broken in that way? Does the Minister feel that it will result in a spate of by-elections with all the attendant publicity and propaganda? Who will that benefit?
A further defect in the Bill troubles me. A candidate will have at his disposal during the election period rhetoric that will obviously include elements of violence, condoning violence and so on. When elected he comes under the restrictions of the declaration he has signed. It seems to me that there will obviously be a temptation to break the declaration because he will have been elected on the basis of what he has promised to the electorate. In the event of his producing a violent programme, it will not be a great surprise if he breaks the declaration which he has signed. That seems to be a defect.
Another defect concerns the question of who will bring cases against the breakers of the declaration. Will there not be an enormous fear of intimidation, which I believe the noble Lord who preceded me mentioned? Will it not be difficult for individuals to bring applications to the High Court which may put them, if not into the limelight, then into the line of the terrorist bullet? Is there not a possibility of having an official way—perhaps through the AttorneyGeneral—of bringing actions on breaking the declaration which does not leave the onus on individuals who may be intimidated and deflected from their intention? That seems to be a defect, or possible defect, in the Bill.
Having said all that, I believe that I represent the views of all those who sit on these Benches in wishing the Government well with this measure; but I shall be most interested, as will other noble Lords, to hear the Minister's views.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, as I have already told the Minister, I must first apologise to him and to the House that owing to a dinner engagement I may possibly have to leave before the end of the debate.
First, 1 am glad that this is a Bill which can be amended in this House and that it is not an order which cannot. For that we must all be grateful. Although I understand what the Government are seeking to do in Clauses 3 to 9, I am not at all sure that they are going the right way about it, at any rate so far as concerns the proposed declaration against terrorism. It is about that that I want to say a few words.
When we debated the Government Motion on broadcasting and terrorism on 8th December last I welcomed the Government's action but suggested that the Government's attitude to Sinn Fein was illogical because although the Government refused to talk to members of Sinn Fein they nevertheless allowed them to stand at elections. Nothing illustrates that illogicality better than this Bill.
The Government presumably will not speak to Sinn Fein because it is, to a large extent, just another face of the IRA and therefore an organisation engaged in murder. I think that the Government are right not to do so, but in taking, as they do, the view that this is not a respectable organisation to which 1723 Ministers should speak surely it follows that it ought to be proscribed and not allowed to take part as such in the normal democratic political process. There was a perfect opportunity for doing that after Enniskillen but it was missed.
I do not think for one moment that our European partners would contemplate allowing the Baader-Meinhoff gang, the Red Brigades, ETA or Action Directe to stand at elections. If Ministers will not speak to Sinn Fein why should we ask councillors in 16 councils in Northern Ireland to sit down with them? Can we imagine having a group of terrorists sitting, perhaps where the bishops usually sit, and taking part in our debate?
The Government have themselves told us that of 58 Sinn Fein councillors, 11 have been convicted of terrorist-type offences, three others have faced or are facing charges and six others have received convictions for scheduled offences. That shows clearly what sort of people they are. The Secretary of State said in another place that there is now an unacceptable situation. I am sure that is right. However, I think that the situation will go on being unacceptable unless the Government can nerve themselves to grasp the nettle and ban Sinn Fein itself. So long, at any rate, as we have proportional representation in Northern Ireland—another of the aspects that keep it separate from Great Britain, wrongly in my view—the election of Sinn Fein councillors seems likely to continue.
I note that the Government consulted widely before introducing this Bill. I will say in passing that that is in marked contrast to the total lack of consultation before the signing of the Anglo-lrish Agreement. However, what the Government have come up with seems unlikely to work. I do not like to see Her Majesty's Government putting forward legislation that is not going to be effective. It seems to me that although the intentions of the Bill are good, there are grave flaws in it—notably, the weakness of the declaration itself, presenting apparently no problems to Sinn Fein, which has said that its members will subscribe to it. Surely it should be worded so that they specifically have to come out against the IRA. Wording could be added to apply to others covered by this Bill.
The breaching of the declaration is not to be made a criminal offence or enforced by the Government but merely a civil question which can be raised only by a restricted group of councillors or electors at their own cost and at their own risk following a complex procedure. I cannot believe that that is right. Apparently it will not apply during elections, when candidates can say what they like. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said that the Opposition will look carefully in Committee at the question of enforcement of this declaration. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, also expressed doubts.
What worries me about proposals like this is their feebleness. We all know what happens when a schoolmaster or schoolmistress cannot keep order in class. The children instantly know that there is no effective authority. The class becomes unruly and the smaller children are bullied. I am afraid that 1724 Northern Ireland Ministers are too often like that teacher—Sinn Fein members know that they can take all sorts of liberties, and they do. I look forward to the day when the Government will take a brisker and more determined line.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Viscount Brookeborough
My Lords, I welcome the Government's intention in producing this Bill, even if it has taken 20 years of violence before any government have seen fit to do so. I am of course specifically referring to the declaration against violence. I also support the penalties which can be imposed on a person proved to be in breach of the declaration.
However, as the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, pointed out, the time at which this takes effect is at present incorrect in that as a candidate a man can say what he wishes. It is not until he takes his seat in the chamber on the ticket of violence that he can be taken to task. I cannot see why the Government have considered that to be the correct time to bring it in. Most people would hold the view that from the moment a candidate declares himself interested in standing as a public representative he should be bound by that declaration against terrorism.
I question whether this Bill provides the necessary mechanism for producing the required result. First, I find a great fault in the wording of the declaration in Schedule 2, Parts I and II, both of which have paragraphs (a). It states:any organisation that is for the time being a proscribed organisation specified in Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978".We in Northern Ireland know perfectly well the views that the terrorist organisations on both sides of the community have of the EPA. It has never made any difference to what they have tried to do and they have no respect for it. Therefore, referring to it in this Bill will have little meaning or effect and may negate the value of their declaration.
With the present wording a person having made the declaration can sidestep questioning by his supporters on the subject by being vague or claiming ignorance of the EPA. If asked, he can say that he did not sign anything which said, "I will not by word or deed express support for or approval of," for example, the IRA, the UDF or any other organisation. They must be listed by name. It is true that he may have signed a sheet referring to such organisations, but the actual names were not that piece of paper.
In order for the declaration to have any real meaning the names of proscribed organisations must be there. A person having signed it can hardly say that he did not mean it or that he was unaware that such an organisation was included. Clause 7 indicates that a breach of the terms of this declaration would be a civil rather than a criminal offence. That is ridiculous. Terrorism is a criminal offence and not a civil one. Therefore any support shown for it must also be a criminal offence.
Let there be no ambiguity on this issue. This proposed legislation is neither for the convenience nor the protection of the individual. It is urgently 1725 required in order to protect and maintain those electoral processes on which our democratic system of government is founded. It is a primary duty of government to sustain this for the benefit of everyone. No government should contemplate any abdication of that responsibility There should be no problem. All they have to do is to make a breach of this declaration a criminal offence. Should the Government not take this advice, I ask my noble friend to ask the Secretary of State to look closely at Clause 7(2).
As it stands, the persons who may apply to the High Court for a determination of a breach of this declaration as listed are such as to make the whole thing unworkable. In less serious circumstances it might be almost laughable. Quite clearly, a person supporting terrorism will not do so in front of any of those mentioned in subsection (2); namely, the district council, a member of that council or an elector of that council. However, he can say what he likes provided none of these people is present.
For example, a Sinn Fein councillor can tell his supporters at a meeting whatever he likes because only his supporters will be present. It is unlikely that an SDLP or Unionist supporter will be at the meeting or, for instance, at a terrorist funeral. In addition, guest speakers from other areas are almost immune. For example, if a Sinn Fein councillor from Belfast comes to speak in Fermanagh, under Clause 7(2) only a person or persons from his electorate or council can take him to court. Those persons from Belfast who oppose violence are not going to go anywhere to listen to such people as Gerry Adams and other promoters of violence.
What does the Government really expect law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland to do? They seem to think that we have nothing else to do but to do their job for them—to attempt to eradicate support for violence. I wonder how long it will be before the first person to initiate court proceedings is shot. Such action will put these people in the same position as those who help to build security force bases and government buildings. We know what has happened to many of them. They may be murdered and the Government will be responsible because they have not made this a criminal offence.
Incidentally, who is to finance the multitude of court cases? Rather more important, where are all the judges going to come from? Our court system is already very pressed. I say to my noble friend that the part of this Bill dealing with the declaration against terrorism will have to be looked at again if it is to achieve any measure of success. Your Lordships should note the motion passed at the recent Sinn Fein Ard Fheis as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. Surely this fact alone indicates that the declaration against terrorism has not been given the legal backing that is necessary to make this part of the Bill a success.
I support the intention of the Government, but let us not be under any misapprehension. Sinn Fein and other terrorist organisations have already seen their way round it. I beg my noble friend to have it looked at again.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, 35 years ago this year when I fought my first local government election in Belfast, the first document that was handed to me when I attended at the City Hall for my nomination papers was an adjoining one. It was a document that professed loyalty to Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors. That had absolutely nothing to do with local government. It was a device used by the Unionist government of Northern Ireland to exclude political opponents or people who were non-Unionists. Before one got a job with the Belfast Corporation or with the Belfast Civil Service, be it as a bus driver, bus conductor, gravedigger, porter or attendant, one had to profess this oath of loyalty to the Queen. Incidentally, the Queen was not the important concern in this oath. It was meant to exclude non-Unionists from getting employment within the Civil Service and local authorities in Northern Ireland.
Such a measure created great resentment among the minority population, including myself. I was certainly no terrorist; I was anti-Unionist. I had Republican ideals but I was not violently anti-monarchist. But I recoiled at having to sign that document. That was the way in which the minority community in Northern Ireland was excluded from taking up employment. Oaths, declarations and covenants have had a very turbulent history throughout Ireland. One has only to think of the signing in blood of the covenant in 1912. One also remembers the oaths that were taken even within recent years on hillsides in County Antrim and of people swearing fidelity to one cause or another.
Before the Government embark on legislation such as this I hope that they are aware of all the implications and the symbolism entailed in promulgating it. I began my consideration of this Bill by asking whether it was necessary and would it be effective. I believe it was necessary to do something to show the revulsion that every civilised person who lives in these islands felt at the way in which Sinn Fein and IRA public representatives were parading their loyalty to mass murderers.
I remember my blood boiling or running cold when just after the Enniskillen murders the chairman of Fermanagh County Council, in front of our eyes on television, refused to condemn those who had perpetrated that terrible act. Later on he said that he supported the right of the IRA to carry on its armed struggle. That was the most evident case that we saw. There have been other cases where Sinn Fein spokesmen have been involved throughout Northern Ireland.
Over the past few weeks I have listened to and read about people in another place and outside it who are opposed to this Bill. As I listened to them I almost felt that they were drawing up an agenda on which Sinn Fein could act if and when this Bill became law. I do not believe that it is any part of the function of people who believe in democracy to draw up scenarios that will make it easier for Sinn Fein and terrorists to bypass the democratic process.
How did Sinn Fein get into this position. In the years in which I was an elected representative in 1727 Northern Ireland I was always opposed by Sinn Fein Republicans under another name. They never called themselves Sinn Fein but they fought me under another guise in all my elections. They got nowhere. In many elections they lost their deposits. When I left the SDLP and gave up the leadership of that party in 1979, Sinn Fein launched a series of brutal assaults on the tribal emotions of the Catholic nationalist population in Northern Ireland by way of the Maze protest, the dirty protest and, eventually the terribly tragic hunger strike.
I must say that the party which I formerly led made it easy for Sinn Fein in those troubled times. After the result of the hunger strike, Sinn Fein had found a constituency in 1981. Sinn Fein then entered into the political arena though not at the behest of the Government. It has been said recently that the Government invited Sinn Fein to enter into democratic politics and that now they are trying to make it difficult for Sinn Fein. I do not think that was so. Sinn Fein entered the election after having, as I said, pulled the emotions of the Irish people apart during those years and gained a constituency throughout Ireland.
In 1981 they had their first electoral victory when Bobby Sands was elected to Fermanagh and SouthTyrone because the SDLP refused to fight that constituency. In 1982, they put forward candidates for the Northern Ireland Assembly. In the atmosphere that was then prevailing they gained five seats and proceeded to wreck the Assembly and to prevent any hope there ever was of the Assembly being able to function. Again, unfortunately, the party which I had led, the SDLP, followed suit with Sinn Fein and refused to attend the Assembly, which led to its ultimate destruction. In 1985, Sinn Fein fought and gained 57 of the 58 seats in the local government elections, still trading on the emotions that had been generated because of the hunger strike.
I have fought Unionists all my political life, but I must say that I can sympathise with them when they are forced to sit in council chambers with people whom they know are engaged with the IRA in waging a war which is almost a war of genocide against the Unionist population in Northern Ireland, particularly when the Government say, "We aren't going to speak to these murderers or representatives of murderers. We will not contaminate ourselves by recognising them as democratically elected representatives", yet at the same time stand by and overlook or oversee Unionist members being forced to sit alongside Sinn Fein members whom they know have been involved in acts of awful terrorism.
That is why I can see why Unionist Members from Northern Ireland voted against this Bill on Third Reading in another place. They felt that it was totally unfair that an elected representative, a councillor, who would be a member of a local authority, would have to lay a complaint against a Sinn Fein councillor who broke the law. That is totally unfair. That is why we do not have juries in Northern Ireland. That is why some politicians in Northern Ireland who have the courage to speak out still have to be protected by the police and by other members of the security forces.
1728 I cannot see the SDLP, under any circumstances, laying a complaint against Sinn Fein, because I am ever mindful of the fact, with many years of political experience behind me, that we are only a few months away from local government elections and under the PR system which we have in Northern Ireland there will be transfers from Sinn Fein to the SDLP, and the other way round, in local government seats. Those councillors could determine in many local district areas who will be the elected representatives. The same thing will happen in the European elections.
So on the purely tribal response Sinn Fein will not be brought to court by the actions of any member of the SDLP. That means that it will have to be a Unionist who lays the complaint against the Sinn Fein councillor. In those circumstances the Unionist councillor would be in real, extreme danger and it would be totally unfair of the Government to place that councillor in that position.
Let us, for example, see what would happen. Let us suppose that there is a meeting of the Belfast City Council as it is now, and it is broadcast on the radio just as this House and another place can be. The Sinn Fein councillor, in the course of making a speech, in some way transgresses his oath or the declaration which he has signed and it is heard on the radio by all the people of Northern Ireland. Nobody has the temerity to lay a complaint against him. No Unionist councillor will put himself in the firing line.
It is incumbent upon anyone in those circumstances to lay a complaint. Even though the whole of Northern Ireland may have heard the breaking of the declaration, who will lay a complaint if those mentioned in Clause 7 refuse to do so? In such circumstances, it would be the duty of the Government to lay such a complaint and that will have to be clear before the Bill leaves this House.
There are other arguments which I have heard used. Every time someone opposes legislation directed at Sinn Fein, the great word used is "counter-productive". Everything is going to be counter-productive. First, they say that Sinn Fein will sign the oath and disregard it. This is to the disadvantage of Sinn Fein, because I remember in 1983 when Sinn Fein referred to me they had a great slogan on their bills, "Vote for principled leadership." They still use that slogan in all their elections—"Vote for principled leadership." In other words, they do not sign declarations or take oaths to foreign governments, to Unionists in Northern Ireland or to any British institution in Northern Ireland. They quite conveniently forget that now. Sinn Fein will take an oath anywhere, so long as it will help to propel them along the road to victory in their political ambitions.
The other argument is that it will be a great propaganda gift to them that in America, in Europe and on the international scene people are offended that Britain, the oppressor, has sunk to imposing this declaration on people who want to stand for local government. Is that really so? I do not see that happening. This has already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Moran. Germany has had its experience with Baader Meinhof. Certainly Germany is not going to be critical of Britain for seeking to 1729 force people to sign a declaration against violence before they enter into local government.
We saw what the Belgians did in the Patrick Ryan case. They were so scared of Irish terrorists going to Belgium that they very conveniently got rid of Patrick Ryan. We saw within recent days the same sort of behaviour from the Dutch and Belgian governments. So those countries are not unaware of the danger that terrorism can be to them.
In America, even the most rabid supporter of Sinn Fein, Noraid, will not get any sympathy running up and down the streets or avenues of New York or Boston saying "Look at how my Irish compatriots are being oppressed." The American from the Middle West will ask, "How are they being oppressed?" and he will be told, "They are being asked to sign a document saying that they will not murder or kill people." I can imagine the American from the Middle West saying, "That does not look like oppression to me." So the international antagonism which would allegedly be created against this country because of its attempts to stop violent men from parading their violence in the council chambers of Northern Ireland is terribly exaggerated.
I am not too sure whether this legislation will work. I should dearly like to see it working. But there is not only the violence of the IRA; there are other organisations. Another man was murdered by a Loyalist paramilitary organisation on the streets of Belfast today, in Smithfield. I suppose that those who murdered him would claim that they were fighting for the rights of Ulster against the rights of the IRA. Whatever they may think, it was still another totally unjustifiable terrorist murder.
I do not believe that this Bill should in any way be seen as being purely and simply an attack on Sinn Fein. I think that Sinn Fein itself has generated this Bill. If you look back quickly through 1987, as well as Enniskillen we had the Fun Run in Lisburn where six soldiers were killed, and the killing of eight soldiers and all the other injuries at Ballygawley. We had the terrible and brutal murder of the two corporals in West Belfast that we all saw on television. It is sheer, blatant, brutal acts of terrorism such as this which are being committed and being supported by Sinn Fein—because, make no mistake, Sinn Fein and the IRA are the same thing.
I read that one of my former colleagues in another place had said that it is possible that someone may be wanting to fight an election on a Sinn Fein ticket and he may be opposed to violence. That is not so. Every Sinn Fein candidate who stands at the polls must have the sanction and support of the IRA. The IRA are not going to stand back and let a Sinn Fein councillor whom they have doubts about be elected when at some time in the future he may condemn some of the atrocities in which they have been engaging.
I should like to see this Bill strengthened so that it takes into account all paramilitary organisations engaged in acts of violence. The Government should shoulder the responsibility, and not put any other councillor, member of a local authority or elector in an area in danger. It has been said again that those people would he frightened, and that they would be 1730 fearful of laying information against a councllor who had transgressed. That is true. That is how the Mafia was born, bred and continues to exist in the United States and in other parts of the world.
I do not suppose that many of your Lordships would he aware of the fact that when the Mafia first started in New York it started off as an organisation that was allegedly fighting against Italian oppression in Sicily. We see how they masqueraded under that banner and the terrible acts of violence, murder, threats and intimidation that they have been carrying out until 1989.
I wish this Bill well. I would not want it to leave this House exactly as we see it this evening. I want to see it strengthened, and I want to see responsibility accepted where that responsibility should be. The Government should accept the responsibility for laying actions before the courts against those whom they consider have breached the oath that they have signed.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, I too should like to apologise to the House for not being in my place when the Minister rose to speak. I also wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for his reasoned introduction of the Bill into this House and for circulating yesterday the helpful notes on clauses. I should also like to thank my noble friend, Lord Prys-Davies, and other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. Their speeches have been thoughtful and sensitive about the awkward and critical issues that arise from this Bill.
Local government should have an important role in the democratic life of Northern Ireland. The functions of district councils provide for a wide range of local services which can greatly help to meet the needs for local community well-being. I am sure we all agree that these district council functions should be carried out effectively and equitably. Also the elected representatives, the councillors, must ensure that the procedures and practices are operated by all in sensible and stable ways; in ways that are responsive to local needs and are widely accepted across the political spectrum in the Province for the common good.
There can be no doubt that local government in Northern Ireland is in serious disarray. Many of the 26 district councils in the Province are struggling against warring factions in council chambers. Some district council meetings have become cockpits of highly charged sectarian bitterness and narrow party political attitudes. Local council business is delayed and frustrated. Primacy is given to party political and personal advantage when active solutions to community problems are relegated to propaganda statements. Local government officials and staff work under great strain in efforts to uphold and provide the necessary local services urgently required by citizens.
In this continuing climate of critical turmoil, central government and the Northern Ireland Ministers would be failing in their duty and responsibility if parliamentary measures were not taken to try to bring about constructive change in Northern Ireland local government democracy and its general effectiveness.
1731 As the Minister said in his opening speech, there are two direct measures that the Government and the Northern Ireland Office are currently promoting to bring about constructive and democratic change. This Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Bill is one, and the other is the Northern Ireland local government consultative paper designed to revise the code of local government conduct which was adopted by Northern Ireland district councils in 1976.
Along with the Minister I agree that the local government consultative paper is an important part of the efforts to obtain the satisfactory working of local government and is closely related to the legislative measures we are debating this evening. However, the Minister has already stated that the views on this local government consultative paper are still to be collated, and I shall confine my remarks—important as they are when they are concerned with the consultative document—to the matters now before us in this House.
I have not been a member of a local government body. Some 40 years ago I stood unsuccessfully as a Northern Ireland Labour Party candidate on two occasions. However, my trade union work brought me into close contact with councillors and local government work in Northern Ireland. I was a member of the Macrory review body, the report of which brought about the major changes in Northern Ireland local government in 1970.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, whom we shall hear when I sit down, have both had practical experience as elected members of district councils in Northern Ireland. I welcome the views that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has already forcefully put forward about this Bill, and I am sure that other noble Lords will join me in listening with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, has to say about this legislation.
It is important, however, to distinguish between action against terrorism and legislative measures designed to prevent the use of terrorism for the purpose of parliamentary or local government elections. There are two distinct features in this. One must go on in its own particular manner with the security forces. This Bill deals with the rights of government to ask from elected representatives certain standards of conduct and behaviour in the community.
The stated purpose of the legislation proposed in the Bill is to prevent politically motivated terrorism. Every aspect of the measures before us must surely be earnestly considered as to the adequacy of the measures to control terrorism as a political force and to strenghten the democratic processes at local government level. I may say at this stage that I, along with other noble Lords and all reasonable citizens in Northern Ireland, am totally opposed to all forms of politically motivated terrorism. If we have reservations about the Bill, it is not because we do not wish to have strong measures to deal with terrorists and their ways of creating fear or of putting people into positions of power at local government level. But the Bill as presently worded fails to measure up to the stated objectives and expectations.
1732 The measures proposed in Clauses 3, 4, 6 and 7 are ill-defined, difficult to administer and dangerous to implement. My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and others have dealt at length with detailed aspects of the matters contained in the clauses. On Second Reading I do not intend to discuss the detailed wording of the clauses. There will be an opportunity in Committee.
In general terms I suggest that the introduction of new measures in the Bill is in the main unnecessary. The proposed new law is unnecessary because under Section 21 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978, amplified by Section 9 of the 1987 Act of the same name and mirrored by Section 10 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984, it is already an offence to solicit or invite support for a proscribed organisation, to make any kind of contribution to the resources of a proscribed organisation or to assist in the arrangement of any meeting knowing that the meeting is to support a proscribed organisation. The maximum penalty for this offence is 10 years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Furthermore, by Article 9 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 it is also an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour if it is likely that hatred will thereby be stirred up or fear aroused. The maximum penalty is two years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
I speak in the debate as a lay person. It must surely be possible for existing legislation to be incorporated in local government anti-violence control measures. It is not beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen to do something along these lines to meet the situation in Northern Ireland. If we are to have a declaration enshrined in the Bill, would not the proposed declaration be strengthened by the inclusion of the words,repudiate acts of terrorism for political ends"?In conclusion I quote from the editorial of the Belfast Telegraph of 27th January 1989. It deals with the dangerous problems of implementation and enforcement of the proposed legislation:The Secretary of State, Mr. King, has described the Bill obliging newly-elected councillors to take an anti-violence oath as 'modest,' and so it is. It is a genuine attempt to provide some redress for those who have to sit alongside people who refuse to condemn murder, but it fails on several counts. It allows candidates for parties like Sinn Fein to stand on such a platform and then, having been elected, to be challenged in the courts. But instead of the State, which has to cope with the violence, prosecuting such elected councillors, it has offloaded the responsibility to ordinary citizens, or councils. The cost, in terms of litigation and risk to life and limb, will be borne by individuals or ratepayers, rather than by the State".The editorial continues:The best that could be hoped for would have been that councillors would have regarded the new law as the Government's way of offering them tangible assistance against those who support violence. But if the councillors themselves have to initiate court action—and bear the costs—the support is so weak that it is of little value".Those are strong words which have been re-echoed in almost every speech tonight against the measures that the Government propose in the Bill.
The Government, Mr. King and his ministerial colleagues I am sure have been genuine in introducing the Bill with every good intention for local government democracy and the general wellbeing of Northern Ireland people. I seriously doubt 1733 the source and wisdom of those who have prompted, devised and framed the legislation.
Local government in Northern Ireland is in need of radical overhaul. The Minister has confirmed that there were considerable consultations throughout the Province and representations made to government concerning the proposed form of the legislation. However, from consultations that I have had with elected councillors of various parties in Northern Ireland, I doubt very much that specific questions relating to revisions in the Bill have been put to the representatives. We are all interested in ensuring that democracy should prevail in Northern Ireland and that local councillors should have the right to work for the people. We are against terrorism. I doubt whether that form of consultation has been put before the people in the manner in which it should have been. A poll of elected local government representatives and all district council officials I am sure would reveal serious doubts on the Bill. I join with other noble Lords in saying that we would like radical changes to the Bill before it leaves the House.
§ 7.57 p.m.
My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has put the Bill to us. I am sure that he will have assimilated the mood of the House from the comprehensive speeches that noble Lords have made following his introduction. So comprehensive have they been that there remains little to be said. However, looking at the Bill in order of its clauses, perhaps I may touch on one or two points briefly.
To take first Clause 1(1), I realise that there is need for consistency in elections to the imperial Parliament, the Assembly or the local councils. I wondered why three months' residence was selected as a criterion for qualification to vote. I should be interested to know the definition of "residence". Does it mean that one has to own a house or have a permanent tenancy of a house, or can one be staying with one's uncle for three months?
As for Clauses 3, 4, 5 and 6 coupled with Schedule 2, I am not happy about those either. Other noble Lords have expressed their unease about this because there is no problem about signing a declaration when one is standing as a candidate and then avoiding any explicit support expressed in public in favour of proscribed organisations or terrorist activity. Noble Lords will surely have noticed how Sinn Fein invariably refers to the Provisional IRA at arm's length. It says, "I imagine the IRA is doing this, that or the other for such and such a reason", and it always dissociates itself in that way. Like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I should be interested to know how one can get proof that the offence had been committed.
Further, if there is difficulty in discriminating between Sinn Fein and the IRA, is it not equally difficult to discriminate between the Ulster Defence Association and any of the noms de plume which it chooses to use—whether it be the Ulster Freedom Fighters, or any other? If that is the case, how do Her Majesty's Government view the UDA by comparison with Sinn Fein? Quite frankly I am afraid that both those organisations will laugh at this measure. They 1734 will quite happily sign the declaration if they wish to stand as candidates in an election and make jolly certain that they do not infringe it.
As regards Clause 7, I am afraid that that does worry me most considerably, as it quite obviously worried other noble Lords. Why should it be left to the councillor, the elector or the council to bring a civil action if it is felt that the declaration which has been made has been breached? Why should it not be the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the Attorney-General?
Have Her Majesty's Government not thought of the risk to which the complainant would be exposing himself or herself—as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said—quite apart from the risk of intimidation? However personally courageous the complainant may be, that person must think of his family, his shop, his farm, or whatever it may be. I am surprised that Her Majesty's Government do not seem to have thought the matter through.
Do the Government really think that the friends of the councillor who has expressed support for terrorism are going to turn all nice once a complaint has been raised and lay a complaint to the High Court against that councillor who has expressed an opinion in favour of a proscribed organisation or of terrorism? Quite frankly, I cannot understand Her Majesty's Government's thinking in that respect.
If a councillor were suspected of abusing his or her position so as to misappropriate public funds to his or her advantage, would it be up to a fellow councillor, or to a member of the public, to bring a High Court or civil action? Would not the police be brought in? If that is the case surely when it comes to the very much more serious issue of supporting violence or terrorism it should not be left to an individual to have to bring a civil case. As another noble Lord asked, who will meet the cost of the action? I know from bitter experience how costly civil cases can be and how easy it is to cripple the person who is bringing the civil case by stage-managing one adjournment after another. Each time the case comes before the court there are more legal fees to be paid. Invariably, the only party which ever wins such a case is the legal profession. Naturally I speak with due respect to any noble and learned Lords who may be present in the Chamber this evening; but, it is the individual who brings the case who has his money at stake and, moreover, legal aid is by no means as easy to get as it is sometimes cracked up to be.
I must say that I think that other noble Lords have covered the situation most admirably. However, I should just like to say this to the Minister He knows me well enough to know that it is not in my nature to be rude, and I will certainly not be rude to him personally. However, with all due respect, in my view the Bill as it stands at present is a half-hearted effort and it is half-baked. Indeed, I think that we shall need to have another very careful look at it in Committee.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, I should like to say just a few words on this subject. I must first apologise for not putting my name down on the list of speakers. I was not intending to speak because of the lateness of 1735 the hour, and I was going to clear the matter with the Minister first, but I am prompted to rise to my feet mainly because of a remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. Nevertheless, I shall speak for no more than two minutes.
I think that the noble Lord was worried about the definition of "terrorism" contained in Part II of Schedule 2, and that is a matter which worries me equally. In my view it is a very poor definition of the word. The definition is:Violence for political ends".As the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, rightly said, that could extend to someone who manifested a minor degree of violence on a picket line, or even to someone who threw a punch on the spur of the moment at an election meeting. I do not think that that is what the Government have in mind.
Therefore perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, whether there is any need to define terrorism. Indeed, we do not normally define words in a statute; they normally speak for themselves, and we all know what terrorism is. However, if it is considered necessary to define terrorism, then why not use the very much better definition which is to be found—as I have just ascertained during the past 15 minutes—in the Collins Dictionary, which reads:The systematic use of violence and intimidation"?Indeed, it was the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, who drew attention to the possibility of intimidation, which is just as dangerous as violence. Or perhaps, alternatively, we could use the definition to be found in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which is,The practice of using terror-inspiring methods of securing political ends".
§ 8.6 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I am indeed glad to have the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. I should like to begin by acknowledging the fact that the Minister and his colleagues have a superhuman task in addressing themselves to the problems, not only those in Northern Ireland but also, in this instance, those involved in bringing forward some form of law and order inside council chambers, which is the genesis of the Bill.
I can recall, for instance, when my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and I visited Northern Ireland—which was not too long ago—being aghast, while standing on the steps of one town hall, when I was told, "Well, that is precisely where the Secretary of State was struck down by a councillor from that council chamber". I can also recall being told by the Lord Mayor of the town that there was sitting in the council chamber, as a councillor, a man who had previously been imprisoned for acts of violence and terrorism against the town hall itself.
We have heard the evidence from those who live in Northern Ireland and those who love their country and the democratic institution. Yet they are able to tell us tales of what goes on in that democracy which, quite frankly, are unbelievable to those like myself who served many years on a local council. Indeed, there are many others here from what one might call the mainland.
1736 Those of us who do not live in Northern Ireland are under no illusion about the quite unique situation and the appalling size of the problems, to the extent that my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies said that we from these Benches will certainly not oppose the Bill. However, we shall be in the business, as will other noble Lords, of seeking to alter the legislation. I do not know whether the Minister will think that we wish to alter it radically, but we want to see the Bill improved because we want to see local government work; we want to see democracy work in Northern Ireland. We acknowledge the fact that the Government have some responsibilities and that they have sought to discharge those responsibilities by bringing forward the Bill. We wish to say at once that we appreciate the genuineness and sincerity of the Minister and his colleagues in so doing.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, with all his experience and all his doubts about the Bill, nevertheless said, "I wish this Bill well". We also wish the Bill well in the context of trying to improve the atmosphere in Northern Ireland. The Bill's principal purpose is to introduce a declaration against terrorism by candidates in time for this year's Northern Ireland local elections. The opportunity is also being taken to remove anomalies in the electoral law and to change the disqualification rules for elected office following conviction for criminal offence.
We cavil a little about the first and third points. The electoral law anomaly is that citizens of the Republic of Ireland who have taken up residence in Northern Ireland since the passing of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962 can vote in Westminster parliamentary elections and, since 1986, Northern Ireland Assembly elections, but cannot vote in Northern Ireland district council elections. That matter is taken care of. We will consider those matters most carefully. The Bill's prime objective is the attempt to outlaw terrorism. We shall spend much of our time considering the declaration against terrorism.
We are intrigued by the fact that although the Bill relates strictly to local government elections in Northern Ireland, we are talking about people who, as a result of their own declarations and words, are described as terrorists and who, if they fall within the definitions contained within the Bill, will be disqualified. Some people, however, are not disqualified from standing for election to other forums; for example, the European Assembly or the British Parliament. The Bill deals with local elections and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Terrorists can be candidates for other elected bodies but they will be excluded in Northern Ireland. How does the Minister rationalise the attempt that is being made in the Bill with regard to the man or the woman in a local council chamber in Northern Ireland when that same man or woman, with the same views and declared purposes, will be treated differently elsewhere? The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, made a sensible speech. He asked how the Bill would work. No one in the House doubts the Government's good intentions, but how will the Bill work?
I wonder how many of your Lordships will cavil at the possible scenario that I wish to describe. 1737Stage one: As the new legal bar on councillors does not affect those contesting elections, Sinn Fein candidates are free to say what they like during the campaign. They are also free in this period from the government's media ban. So they say what they like as freely as they like and as many get elected as possible.
Stage two: Sinn Fein councillors sign the declaration, with their fingers crossed
. Stage three: Announcing they have defeated the efforts of the colonial power to ban them, Sinn Fein councillors take their seats on behalf of the free people who elected them.
Stage four: After the publicity surrounding stages one, two and three has died down, selected Sinn Fein councillors in areas where there is a nationalist majority on the electorial roll begin to make provocative statements in the chambers which clearly break the law.
Stage five: Loyalists take Sinn Fein members to court and, after extensive legal wrangles which attract worldwide publicity, the councillors are deprived of their seats.
Stage six: By-elections are fought and won by Sinn Fein councillors. The SDLP does not contest for fear of being labelled pro-British and the new councillors are returned triumphantly to the chambers at the head of torchlight processsions. They make ringing speeches about having overcome, on behalf of the Risen People, the anti-democratic efforts of the colonial power to deny the people's will.
Stage seven: The unseated Sinn Fein councillors go to the USA on a fundraising tour.
Stage eight: As soon as the maximum publicity from stages five to seven is exhausted, the newly-elected councillors repeat stage four". That of course is to make a noise in the chambers.Stage nine: Frustrated and furious loyalists demand the government end this charade by banning Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein challenges the government to act in this colonial and undemocratic fashion.
Stage ten: This is the government's move. Either it goes down the road of even more repressive legislation or it tamely abandons the Elected Authorities Act. The winner of the game"— which is what we are playing—is the player who can predict which move the government will make".The Minister may feel that that scenario is farfetched but I believe that there are elements of truth in it. That scenario was from a journal called Fortnight, which is not unknown to the Minister. That journal printed that possible scenario. It is clearly biased. That is the kind of scenario that could unfold over the coming months. The Minister must address himself seriously to the disrepute into which he and his colleagues will fall if, having produced a worthwhile piece of legisation, they see it rubbished by those who try to make a charade of it and use it as a weapon.
The Minister must help the House and say that it will be possible to look at the position of an individual who will literally—I carefully repeat the words of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt—be putting not only his physical being but his life on the line. We know the situation in Northern Ireland. We know about the Diplock courts. We know the incredible situation which exists in which people cannot do what they can here—exercise their right to stand up and make accusations—because their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and neighbours have been murdered merely because they have, as it were, put the finger on a transgressor. The Minister must address himself to that problem and also to the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath.
Why is it not possible for servants of the Crown, in one capacity or another, to exercise in this instance the powers that they use when dealing with other transgressions? Reference has been made to the 1738 police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, but there are others.
It will be distasteful and unworkable if the Government merely say to the people of Northern Ireland, "Here is a piece of legislation which is designed to stop anarchy inside council chambers, and, by the way, all you have to do is to put the finger on those who are doing it". The Minister knows that that will not happen. In that case, why does he not work with the people who know Northern Ireland better than I do to produce a form of words which will go some way towards bringing about that which the Minister and his colleagues want?
My noble friend Lord Prys-Davies made a constructive speech. He asked who would lay the charge and therefore receive public opprobrium, and possibly more than that, and he looked closely at the defence of provocation. It is a defence of—I use clumsy words—an emotional spasm whereby someone breaks the letter of the law but in defence can plead that he never intended to. It may be a genuine defence. I am talking about discretion and the use of a sensible interpretation.
We on this side of the House, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, wish the Bill well. We want to see it work, but we cannot see how it will work to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland unless it is changed.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, everyone who has been in your Lordships' House and all who study and listen to or even see what goes on here, and who have an interest in democracy and above all in what goes on in district and local councils in Northern Ireland, will have been most heartened by the interest, the close attention and, if I may say this, the charm with which everyone has made their remarks.
I believe that the debate has been instructive, worth while and in many cases fascinating for me and for all of us. If I may take individuals, none have been more interesting than the noble Lords, Lord Fitt and Lord Dunleath. As the noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, knows, he could never, either in your Lordships' House or anywhere else, utter one word which would ruffle me or my colleagues in any way. I seem to remember that when I held different positions from the one I now hold the noble Lord was speaking on such matters with eloquence and charm, 15, 16 and even 20 years ago.
Perhaps I may wind up the debate on the Bill this evening and try to cover the general points. I shall attempt to take on board and answer most of the points raised by your Lordships. However I shall be forgiven if I leave some of the more detailed answers to a later stage. I do not wish to spoil a concise and excellent debate.
We are always most grateful for the presence of my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, as a Fermanagh man, in your Lordships' House, contributing on what we call GB business. I and all noble Lords welcome him taking such an interest in affairs in your Lordships' House. Everyone who has spoken on the Bill this evening expressed reservations to a greater or lesser degree about the declaration and the clauses in 1739 the Bill dealing with the declaration against terrorism. Most noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Graham, who wound up for his party, would concede that the problem in local government in Northern Ireland is real. Given the existence and starkness of the problem, I do not think there can be any justification for a policy of inactivity, let alone by a government. At least for better or worse we shall try the effect of the declaration before we pronounce solemnly on it.
The declaration has been portrayed, and not necessarily entirely in your Lordships' House, as a forthright measure. But no one who supports the democratic process, above all in local councils in Northern Ireland, let alone in a reconstituted Assembly, should have the slightest difficulty in signing the declaration. Your Lordships have expressed the hypothesis that Sinn Fein's candidates might sign the declaration. That is entirely up to them. But we must all remember—and this will not escape the notice of all candidates, including Sinn Fein—that anyone who signs that declaration will be bound by it should he or she be elected. Any person elected will be liable to five years' disqualification from office if they breach the declaration that they have solemnly signed.
It is no part of the purpose of the Government or anyone else to prevent anybody from standing for office. In the Bill we seek to ensure that those who are elected to office behave and conduct themselves in a manner which befits elected representatives. I have statements which have been made in and outside council chambers by elected representatives of one party or another which besmirch the concept of democracy in Northern Ireland. We have vast evidence of the breaches of good behaviour and of the manner in which people should conduct themselves.
I wish to stress something which I think has been agreed by all of us, that participation in the democratic process brings with it the obligation not to support the subversion of that process. That is the core of the declaration in the Bill. The Bill itself embodies that simple principle and I think it is accepted by all of your Lordships. But no one should give credence in any way to the idea that Sinn Fein or anyone else will be martyred or harmed by signing the declaration.
A thread which has persisted through the debate on the Bill this evening is who should bring the actions which we might see in the case of a breach of the declaration, above all under Clauses 7 and 8. The point was raised most forcibly by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and my noble friend Lord Brookeborough among others. If I have missed anybody, I am sure they will forgive me. These two noble Lords argued that the Bill should be enforced by actions brought by the Attorney-General. I wish to stress tonight that the Government do not believe that this avenue would be appropriate for that purpose. The position of the Attorney-General is a little more complex, but in the context of Northern Ireland perception is important. This would be perceived as the British Government taking an overbearing attitude in the internal affairs of councils. The result of the Attorney-General taking 1740 action would lead to misunderstanding and false propaganda. We do not believe that that is necessarily the correct way to clamp down on expressions of support for violence.
On a parallel line, we might consider a criminal case brought by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That was also stressed by my noble friend Lord Brookeborough as well as by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. We do not believe it appropriate to create a new criminal offence which would be committed only by a narrow class of person, councillors and hypothetical Assembly members in the hypothetical future. The sanction for the breach of the declaration that we have in the Bill is the loss of office. Criminal enforcement would imply the use of fines or imprisonment. Dealing with the particular offence of the expression of support for violence, those do not seem apt. If we take one example of election petitions, much electoral law is enforced by civil process and in this case we think that is the appropriate precedent.
Another major and important thread which has wound itself right through the debate and which we take very seriously is the case which was put eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. It dealt with intimidation. We believe that intimidation is a concept which might and can occur all over the world, but we are talking tonight of Northern Ireland and intimidation in particular of applicants under the Bill. There is a possible risk—I put it no higher than that—of the intimidation of applicants or of witnesses in civil cases for breach of the terms of the declaration. That is what we have before us this evening.
However, intimidation in the first instance is a matter for the police. Providing for actions to be brought by the Attorney-General or the Director of Public Prosecutions would not solve the problem, and your Lordships believe it is a problem. As is permitted in the Bill, even if a public body such as the council were to bring actions—as your Lordships will note, district councils are included in the list of those who are permitted and able to bring actions—whatever the case in which one is bringing actions, there will be a need for the witnesses to come forward and give evidence. Where there are witnesses, there is still the overweening problem of possible, putative and as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, knows, in many cases vicious intimidation. The witnesses are the people who will be most vulnerable to intimidation. However, while witnesses may be few, there is no upper limit to the number of applicants in any action. That is as much as I would want to say, and indeed as much as your Lordships would want me to say, about intimidation tonight. We can and should cover that matter at a later stage. We could go on for a very long time, but I do not think we would necessarily get much further.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to the views of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights. The commission argued for a new broad criminal offence for supporting terrorism. That offence could be committed by anyone, not just by district councillors or Assembly members. For some of the reasons that I have already given, we do not think that it is necessary to go so far, let alone to 1741 invoke the criminal law, to deal with this one particular problem in councils.
I shall try to take on board some of the points that have been raised by your Lordships. I shall deal with some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, whom I and all of your Lordships will thank for the close interest he has taken in the Bill and for the succinct way he put his three major points. The declaration on intimidation, just like the criminal law, will be effective only if people are prepared to come forward and spell out exactly what they heard or saw. I think people are prepared to stand up to those who come out and publicly support the methods of terror used by various groups in Northern Ireland. Your Lordships will know that there is ample evidence of an enormous number of people who have shown both courage and resilience in supporting the system of civil justice in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised the question of a silent councillor who did not express his sympathy with his fellow councillors. Silence would not by itself constitute a breach of the declaration, which would have been signed by the councillor when he was standing as a candidate for election. But of course in the final event it would be for a court to consider all the relevant behaviour of the councillor or Assembly member alleged to have breached his declaration. The terms of the declaration do not apply just to the spoken word but to written words also. Your Lordships will find that is the case in the Bill. The Bill mentions breaches as a result of a display of written material and other behaviour. I hope that goes some part of the way to answering the question raised by the noble Lord.
The noble Lord also mentioned the interesting aspect of trade union disputes and demonstrations as well as violence or conduct which some of us might not regard as entirely democratic and which can take place when sundry persons express their views on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The definition of terrorism as violence for political ends is used in at least two other pieces of legislation. So far it has not presented any difficulties of interpretation for the courts.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also mentioned the interesting and hypothetical case of a member of a trade union involved in what might be seen as violence on a picket line or who might be demonstrating against an Anglo-Irish agreement. That may or may not result in a breach of the declaration. It would depend on two factors: first of all, whether the court was satisfied that the violence was for political ends rather than for some other purpose, and, secondly, on whether any councillor or Assembly man expressed support for or approval of the particular actions taken by the councillor concerned. We do not see that that need cause undue difficulty for the court, which will be the final arbiter. It is the behaviour and not necessarily the motive which would be the main factor to be considered by the courts. The decision would be entirely up to the court.
The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, raised one rather complex point as regards who would benefit from breaches of the declaration. I think noble Lords 1742 will forgive me if I communicate with the noble Viscount in writing before the next stage of the Bill, because this is a rather complicated matter and I do not wish to go down too detailed a path this evening.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, was kind enough to warn me that he would have to absent himself from the debate at a later stage. The noble Lords, Lord Moran and Lord Blease, referred to a repudiation of violence. As we see it, there is no way in which one could enforce repudiation of violence because that covers considerably more than we have in the Bill this evening. I promise that I shall take on board in detail exactly what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, at a later stage. But I shall just say this evening that the Government do not believe that the law should impose obligations upon councillors and putative Assembly members which we believe could not be enforced. We believe enforcement must come first. The Bill certainly provides a mechanism for enforcement in the area we are discussing this evening, but the idea of repudiation goes too wide. I do not want to go too far down that path this evening.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland—my noble friend is the only one of that trio who is still here, so I hope he will bear with me—expressed a doubt about the application of the declaration. I stress that the declaration does not apply until the councillor is elected and declared as the member elected to serve for that particular constituency or area in that particular council. There are three factors here.
First, the Government believe that is right in principle that at election time no more restraints than are absolutely necessary should be placed on the freedom of expression of candidates. Secondly, in practice the sanction for breach of the terms of a declaration is disqualification for council and Assembly office. Thirdly—this again concerns the practical level—there is nothing to prevent a candidate doing or saying what he likes, with attendant publicity, before he signs the declaration. We consider that the declaration should only apply once a person has been elected and for the term of office for which he is elected. I hope that my noble friend will be able to content himself with that this evening. We shall certainly return to this matter at a later stage.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, also raised the putative case of councillors from far away in Northern Ireland coming to speak and make tendentious and appalling remarks in County Fermanagh. That was the place given as an example by my noble friend. But we have been stressing that actions can be brought, no matter where the breach occurs. My noble friend can refer to that point in Clause 6(3)(b). So that provision need not necessarily apply just in County Fermanagh. As the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, a breach could occur outside the United Kingdom. The provision applies anywhere in the world. But the point here is that the applicant need not have heard the breach himself. The only thing the applicant needs to do is to satisfy the court that a breach occurred. That may of course require a witness or witnesses to be produced.
1743 I am advised that such witnesses need not be among those listed in Clause 7(2), which deals with elections to the district council or Assembly constituency.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, did I understand the Minister to say that any person could apply to the court for a declaration that a councillor is in breach of a declaration against terrorism? Are not the proceedings confined to a council, a member of the council or a member of the electorate of that particular council, so that a person from Belfast could not apply for an order against a councillor from Londonderry who has spoken in Londonderry or anywhere else in Northern Ireland?
§ Lord Lyell
My Lords, I think that the noble Lord is referring to Clause 7. I referred to the "witness or witnesses" to be produced. I think that we could discuss that further at a later stage. As a non-lawyer I yield to the noble Lord, who is learned in the law. I promise to come back to the matter, but perhaps for this evening we could take it that witnesses and applicants may not necessarily be the same. On the face of it what the noble Lord says is correct. But the witnesses who persuade the courts that a breach has occurred would not necessarily fall within the parameters of Clause 7(1) or (2).
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred to the oath of allegiance, as did the noble Lord, Lord Graham. The oath of allegiance which was required in Northern Ireland in many circumstances prior to 1973 was not in any way connected with the proposed declaration against terrorism by candidates in local or Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, pointed out, the pre-1973 oath caused great offence to many nationalists in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Dunleath, raised a very interesting question about the three-month residence requirement referred to in Clause 1. The three-month residence requirement was introduced by the Ireland Act 1949 to prevent persons living in the Republic registering as electors in Northern Ireland on the strength, to take a crazy example, of an overnight visit to a relative living in Northern Ireland. We have taken the same requirement. It has worked since 1949. We think that it is a reasonable parameter and that is the reason for it being in the Bill before us.
I can advise the noble Lord that ownership of property is not a requirement for registration as an elector. Residence is determined in accordance with 1744 the principles laid down in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. If any further information is required perhaps I can leave that until a later stage.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham for his concluding remarks. I was reminded of my English studies many years ago about Lars Porsena of Clusium and how,the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer",because last Thursday the noble Lord spoke on one particular topic and here he is making very kind and helpful remarks about what is, on the face of it, quite a technical and complicated Northern Ireland Bill. We admire his tenacity and the perspicacity with which he spoke.
The noble Lord asked me a question about candidates for local elections or for the Assembly signing the declaration. I stress that a candidate who is successfully elected and declared to serve as a Member of Parliament and sit in the other place must, like all of your Lordships, take the oath of allegiance. I hope that that will make it clear to the noble Lord that there is an oath of allegiance which represents a similar bar to persons who for various reasons could not take that oath of allegiance. The oath works in just the same way as the declaration will work in relation to local government in Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord described a fascinating scenario. It may surprise him that I have read the said magazine. I do not know which game was referred to. I ask him to consult Clause 6(3)(b) where he will find the words "or elsewhere".
In conclusion, I hope that I have not taken up too much of your Lordships' time. We shall have a learned and interesting debate in Committee. The Bill before us is a genuine attempt to improve the attitude and tenor of local government in Northern Ireland. It embodies the very simple principle, which is fundamental to democracy, that an elected representative should not express support for the activities of those who seek to destroy that very democracy. No true democrat, in your Lordships' House let alone outside it, would object to that principle. I believe that the Bill deserves the support of your Lordships. I commend it to your Lordships.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
§ House adjourned at fifteen minutes before nine o'clock.