§ 8.13 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of the Joint Declaration, they intend to act upon any of the suggestions in the recently published Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I put down this Question for debate for two reasons: first, it is a chance to debate the Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland or, as it is very properly entitled, A Citizens' Inquiry. It has been debated in the past six months in the Dail in Dublin and in the European Parliament. But before this evening it has not been debated at Westminster. I am very happy that we have the opportunity to repair that omission.
Secondly, this Question gives the House a chance to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland at what is a very timely moment. Although we deal with a good deal of Northern Ireland legislation in this House, often at this sort of hour of night, we only rarely have the opportunity for a more considered discussion of the continuing crisis in the Province. I am very happy to see from the names of those noble Lords who put their names down to speak this evening that a considerable weight of experience and insight will be available to us. In the three years during which I had the responsibility 1205 to speak from these Benches on Northern Ireland matters, I noticed that whatever Northern Ireland debates may lack in quantity they invariably make up in quality.
I should like to say a few words first about the origins of the Opsahl Report. Torkel Opsahl, who was a distinguished Norwegian human rights lawyer, agreed to chair what was a broadly based and extremely eminent commission which had been established by the independent citizens' group, Initiative '92, to continue and to crystallise the process of public consultation about the future which it had initiated in 1992. There were many good people involved in that process. But I should like to single out for special mention Mr. Robin Wilson, Mr. Andy Pollak and Professor Simon Lee, together with the Joseph Rowntree charitable trust which helped finance their work. Sadly, as some noble Lords may know, Torkel Opsahl died last autumn and has thus been unable to see the effect that his report has had.
For those of us who find that the official political leadership of Northern Ireland is too often populist in appeal and attitudinising in style, it is very good to see genuine civic leadership emerging in Northern Ireland, responsible and far-sighted, drawn from both traditions, and confident enough to take the initiative. Incidentally, I fear that the somewhat cool reception that this report received from Northern Ireland politicians has much to do with some jealousy at this stirring of the grass roots, as with the resolutely ecumenical approach of the commission itself. The commission received 554 written submissions, and it held discussions and hearings all over Northern Ireland.
It is a very difficult report about which to generalise. It is something of a plum pudding of a report; it is stuffed with nuggets of information and insight. I do not pretend to agree with every one of its recommendations, but I agree with its general thrust and I certainly defy anyone who cares seriously about the future of Northern Ireland not to take this work seriously. Certainly for those of us who believe that the creation of a civil society in Northern Ireland, with a less one-dimensional politics, is part of the solution that is needed, this initiative has been very heartening indeed.
One recommendation received a notably chilly response from the Government when the report was published in May last year. It was the recommendation that informal channels of communication should be opened with Sinn Fein with a view to persuading the IRA first to move towards a de-escalation of violence and then eventually to a ceasefire, thus facilitating both a return by Sinn Fein to the fold of constitutionality and participation in talks about the future and a drastic reduction in the level of security forces deployed in Northern Ireland. I think we can all understand better now what was the Government's sensitivity last summer, since it emerges that this is precisely what they themselves had been doing at the relevant time, and indeed subsequently.
I should like to deal with two other specifics from the report. The first I find very useful. I do not know whether other noble Lords who have read the report share this view. The report lists seven notions about the 1206 future of Northern Ireland which it is believed should be discarded by anyone who wants to get anywhere. I shall recite what they are. The seven useless notions, according to the Opsahl Report, are: first, that Northern Ireland is just like every other part of the UK (a useless notion); second, that either community in Northern Ireland would agree to independence (a useless notion); third, that the UK will withdraw under pressure of violence (another useless notion); fourth, that the republic will somehow renounce the aim of Irish unity (another useless notion); fifth, that Irish unity is a realistic prospect in the foreseeable future (another useless notion); sixth, that majority rule could be reinstated in Northern Ireland (a non-starter); and seventh, that the unionist community will accept an administration for Northern Ireland which implies an executive role from someone outside Northern Ireland.
It is useful to accept reality by discarding those notions. That could be a first step on what is a very narrow path out of the ravine. Perhaps I may add one more useless notion of my own; namely, that government in detail from Westminster can be anything more than a short-term expedient. Paternalism does not help people in coming to terms with their own shared reality. If we are to move on from posturing to problem-solving in Northern Ireland, a greater measure of local self-government is essential.
There is one specific Opsahl proposal on which I should like to detain your Lordships for a moment and on which I shall press the noble Baroness hard. I believe that it is crucial to establishing the conditions on which devolved government and executive power sharing could have any chance of working. It is the proposal for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, which features prominently in this report. The suggestion is that it should be a Bill of Rights probably based on the European Convention on Human Rights.
As the Minister will know, that is not a recommendation unique to Opsahl. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights virtually every year from 1977 onwards has been consistent in recommending a Bill of Rights. The year before last, in 1992, it proposed incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights as the way to do it. Interestingly, it proposed that, regardless of what happened in the rest of the United Kingdom. In a society where there is so much division, it is noteworthy that the proposal for a Bill of Rights is one which all parties accept and most parties positively support.
In the light of that, I believe that the inaction of the Government has been baffling. As a long-term advocate of the measure, I have recently been greatly heartened both by the reference of the Irish and British Governments at the time of the Joint Declaration to the need to respect the rights of all in developing ways forward; and by the specific reference of the Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, in his recent speech, two weeks ago to the Birmingham University Debating Society, to the entrenchment of human rights in Northern Ireland as— I am more or less quoting him — perfectly practical and a step forward which could be sensibly envisaged today. That is most encouraging. I hope that when the noble Baroness replies, she will be 1207 able to say whether the Government will at last be able to overcome their fears of setting a precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom— I believe that that is what has inhibited them in advancing the proposal for a Bill of human rights— and whether they can now help by setting what would be a climate of mutual respect for further talks. I ask her to be as specific as possible when she replies to that point.
Finally, I should like to say a few words on the situation as a whole. We have a very healthy tradition of bipartisanship on Northern Ireland matters in this House and in another place. That is right, given the sensitivity of the problems in the Province. But within that spirit of bipartisanship, I fear that in recent months the Government have advanced three steps and retreated two steps. In other words, there has been a small advance, but nothing like the advance that people had been led to expect and hope for.
I believe that it was at the beginning of February — the noble Baroness will know— that the Secretary of State promised that he would put down proposals in two weeks' time. Four weeks have already gone by since he made that commitment. I suggest to her that, with the battle lines being drawn in Northern Ireland for the European elections, we shall see many weary weeks go by before constructive inter-party talks are resumed. The talk of peace before Christmas— it is difficult to remember now— looks more and more like the glitter of discarded decorations and tinsel which I fear it always was.
Perhaps I might venture to give two pieces of advice to the Government in their very great problems of advancing the cause of peace and political progress. First, I believe that they should use the admirable Joint Declaration, which is indeed admirable and has substantially advanced the position of both the British and Irish Governments. But I wonder whether they should use the Joint Declaration as a basis for what I call incremental negotiation and abandon the all-or-nothing approach. The principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed seems to me to be one which makes it almost impossible to achieve any form of progress in Northern Ireland.
The second piece of gratuitous advice which I shall venture to give to the Government is that I believe that the Government should never again get themselves into the position of appearing to put an accommodation with the terrorists as a higher priority than accommodation between the peaceful and constitutional communities of Northern Ireland. I fear that that was a great mistake. The round that we are just leaving has given far too much to Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness without getting anything whatever in return. In the process it has distracted from the real task of making the two communities in Northern Ireland find ways of coming together.
I give that advice, but I recognise that the Government labour hard and we all need patience in this matter. The Opsahl Report is a candle in a dark world. It is yet another demonstration of the most hopeful aspect of what often seems to be an intractably difficult situation. I believe that there is an increasingly robust 1208 determination on the part of the citizens and residents of Northern Ireland to make a better and more sensible future for themselves. In that mood the British Government should build and in that task we must all wish them good fortune.
§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Lord Merlyn-Rees
My Lords, I welcome the debate tonight which takes place at the instigation of the noble Lord, Lord Holme. Picking up his words, we get a great deal of Northern Ireland legislation in this House in the form of orders, all of which are very important, but rarely do we have a chance to look at the broader pattern. However, I could wish, as when we meet in Dublin and London with the Southern Irish politicians, that there were more Unionist politicians of the North present. Without them we get nowhere and without the republicans and nationalists we get nowhere either. We can talk until the cows come home and will not solve the problems of Ireland or Northern Ireland. That does not mean that we should not play our part in the slowly developing process which has gone on for many centuries and particularly in the past 20 years.
Tonight the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, is on one side of the divide, though he manages as always to straddle it, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, whose father and grandfather played such a notable part in Northern Ireland, is on the Unionist side. I want to remind myself that we are asking the Government whether they intend to act upon any of the suggestions in the Opsahl Report. I shall take my cue from that.
The report is a remarkable document. I know well only two members of the commission: Eric Gallagher, a Methodist, who was one of the Feakle ministers of religion who met the IRA in 1974 just before Christmas; and Lucy, Lady Faulkner, who a long time ago was at one time private secretary to Lord Brookeborough. I greatly respect those two people in particular because I know them. As I said, the report is a remarkable document. It is not for immediate action and not in every case for action, but the wisdom of the report is great. It influences and should influence the steps that are to be taken.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, listed what I call the political realities— the substantive proposals— that were put down in Opsahl. I shall not go through them all. I shall pick out those that help my argument. First, majority rule in Northern Ireland in whatever form is not currently a viable proposition. The nationalist community has no obligation to agree to it and has the critical mass to prevent its imposition. The Unionist community would not accept an administration of Northern Ireland that gives an executive role to anyone outside the United Kingdom.
So there are two vetos and whatever arises on this side of the Irish Sea— or St. George's Channel, depending on which community one comes from; they seem to use whichever they want in that respect— we must find an accommodation between them. The statement went on to say that, while Northern Ireland was a constituent part of the United Kingdom, it is not like any other part. Taking that a step forward, one often wonders whether there is a way of drawing more 1209 realistic boundaries so that that statement would not be as true. But there is not. I had in the office an orange and green map made of Northern Ireland with the aid of a computer. It was not a pleasant orange and green with nice lines so that one could redraw the Border, however silly the border turned out to be after the Irish troubles, after the First World War. I remember saying to my noble friend Lord Fitt in the kind of conversation one has, not really meaning it but testing out a discussion, "Why not let County Armagh go into the South?" My noble friend told me in no uncertain terms that that was not on. I must say that I tried it on with a Southern politician who told me what I could do with County Armagh. But that is another matter. There is no simple answer.
In regard to the Joint Declaration, I approve of the statement that there is no selfish, strategic or economic interest. There is certainly no economic interest to the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of value. However, there was a great strategic value in the war. The airfields were a great help in the Battle of the Atlantic, which we nearly lost and about which my noble friend Lord Fitt knows a great deal. There was no strategic advantage in the Cold War, in my view. The submarine base at Londonderry closed a long time ago. The Coastal Command, as it was called, the airfield at Ballykelly, went a long time ago and there was no Cold War value in it despite what people said. The bases had been shut a long time ago and the Ulster workers' strike made sure that a number of them of a supply nature were closed down pretty quickly afterwards because they had been shown to be useless.
The way forward is difficult. It is easy enough to put the sprag in the wheels as to what one can do; but it is difficult. I notice this week that the Unionist Party statement, Blueprint for Stability, made its view clear on the future of Northern Ireland. It wants an internal solution to the Northern Ireland situation. The Irish Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, said no; Mr. John Hume said no. Whether we like it or not the step taken today— a logical step by the Government— to set up a Select Committee makes good sense. The only point is that it is not welcomed by the Nationalist community, certainly at this point of time when the discussions and agreements are yet to be concluded.
Therefore in terms of timing, taking it easy seems to be the best approach until after 9th June. An "incremental" approach is the phrase which was used. It has been tried before; it is a slow step-by-step approach. We must never forget that Dr. Paisley is an extremely powerful man. He gets elected, and with the biggest vote, which is more than the provisional IRA do. We have no representatives in the Irish Doyle, which did have one Member of Parliament at one time. It makes Dr. Paisley a much more powerful, person— because he is an elected representative— than either Sinn Fein or the IRA. There is no way that he will move far and neither will others in Northern Ireland until the European elections are over.
So there are two vetos. I am certainly not suggesting that there is an easy way forward. I found something the other day of which I was previously unaware, though other noble Lords may have come across it before. I was 1210 looking at the new book by Tim Pat Coogan on de Valera. He would not be the least surprised if he ever read what we said here and I regard him as very much a republican sympathiser. In the book on de Valera he raised the question of why de Valera had closed hi. s mind to the needs of the Unionists, given the victory that had been won by the Nationalist Republicans in the South after the First World War. And he told a story. He said that before he finished as President he invited representatives of Erskine Childers' family to his house in Dublin. Erskine Childers had been put to death by the British Government.
De Valera gave a private dinner for the family of Erskine Childers and after the dinner he ordered the servants to leave the room. It was said,Then, alone with the family and speaking with obvious emotion, he told his hearers for the first time that Erskine Childers had written a letter to him on the night before his execution. In it he had warned de Valera that his greatest challenge would be Northern Ireland. Childers had advised him that the Northern Protestants could not be coerced, saying that they were a special people with special fears and ideals which needed to be understood and allowed for. De Valera told his listeners, who included Erskine Childers junior, that he deeply regretted not having followed Childers' advice".However, it is not only that the South ignored for many years the position of the Northern Unionists in that part of Ulster, in the six counties. It is also the other way around. The Unionists forgot the specific position of the Nationalists. So if there are two vetos it will only come from the two vetoers that each understands the position of the other. The fact that de Valera realised too late the position of the Ulster Protestants I hope does not mean that that situation will continue. Reading the Joint Declaration one can see that a great change has taken place in the South at any rate over recent years.
I want to raise just two other issues. On the military side, in terms of the future, I have no doubt that the long-term aim of the Government should be— and I believe still is— to reduce the role of the Army. We have depended on the Army, particularly in the past— not so much now because of the different role of the police. The police force is largely Protestant though in my day it had up to 17 per cent. Catholics in the RUC, as my noble friend Lord Fitt will recall. But the number decreases because of the threats on their lives. Who will join the RUC and then go home to a Catholic area afterwards?
Nevertheless, the police must take over. I can only quote from one section of a White Paper, which I believe was extremely well written. It was written in July 1974 and in it I wrote,The effectiveness of any police service sterns from the fact that it lives within the community which it serves and draws its strength and support from that community".I said further that,Nothing would transform the security situation more quickly than a determination by the whole community to support the Police Service".I said that if that happened it would have an effect on the emergency powers in Northern Ireland, including detention— that went a long time ago— and,It would also enable the Army to make a planned, orderly and progressive reduction in its present commitment and subsequently there would be no need for the Army to become involved again in a policing role".1211 The determinants of that are the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. The IRA could remove the Army from Northern Ireland in six months if it stopped the violence, because the police cannot deal with it by themselves. In that respect I raise one other point. In the summer of last year — time marches on— I went again to the London theatre to see Juno and the Paycock. I had not seen it for years and I looked at it with new eyes. The play showed the violence in the Republic of Ireland after the 26 counties got their independence. The number of casualties was far greater than when the British were there. Civil wars are always bloodier than ordinary wars. That was true of the United States in its civil war. In the play one saw the violence that took place. I believe that if there is to be a political breakthrough in the years ahead the violence will not go away. The violence will still go on afterwards.
My advice to the British Government and to the Irish Government is not for now; but they ought to be talking about what they would both do if the Joint Declaration bears fruit. They would both have to deal with violence because the political ways forward that I hope will come will not prevent the killings by the paramilitaries on both sides. They will go on. The new government in the North, if that is the way it is going to happen, will have to deal with it as well. But they will not be able to deal with it themselves.
I welcome Opsahl. I welcome the Joint Declaration and wish it good fortune in the months ahead. But think always of the unknown situation that may arise. Unknown it may be to us at the moment, but nevertheless, in some form, it will be there. The violence will continue and the job of a government is to deal with it.
§ 8.41 p.m.
§ Viscount Brookeborough
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for giving us the chance to debate recent developments in Northern Ireland. To the two topics mentioned in the Question must be added the Ulster Unionist party's paper Blueprint for Stability, which was launched on Monday.
I should like, first, to look at the Opsahl Report and then come back to the Joint Declaration and the Blueprint for Stability. It is certainly possible to say that the Opsahl Report seems to contain something for everyone but I think that there will be nobody who could accept all the conclusions. They vary from, as can be seen in Chapter 10, paragraph 1.2, a Westminster model government to the endorsement in paragraph 2.2 of a proposal that,the security forces and the IRA each should make exploratory unilateral moves towards reducing the violence".I wonder what the security force chiefs would think of that. It is very naive. Who causes the violence? The security forces have not killed anyone since the declaration was declared. Even the IRA know that if there is a cessation of violence on their part the activities of the security forces will change dramatically. We debate that every year in the emergency provisions.
1212 One of the interesting facts is the number of people from such diverse backgrounds who have contributed to the report. It shows that there is serious peaceful and constructive political awareness in the Province. However, it begs the question: where are some of these people when it comes to social and political activities in Northern Ireland as opposed to putting their views to a commendable but powerless citizen's inquiry? There are many who, it would seem, continue to opt out, and that must change if we are to have a healthy, thriving society.
On page 111 the report talks about the desire for a more accountable government. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us how the Government view this and what if anything they will do to bring it about? On page 112 the report talks about a commission to be set up by the two governments to put forward views. My view is this. Please let us not have another debating forum to bring forward, for the umpteenth time, the same ideas all over again, raising hopes of yet another "peace by Christmas" or some such thing. The two governments are already talking and submissions were requested from the Irish Government last September in connection with Strand 2 talks. Most Northern Ireland parties have put in submissions but it is my understanding that our Government are still waiting for the Irish Government to respond even after the marvellous but fully expected sporting results at the Twickenham summit! Let us finish one thing before we start the next.
I am very happy to see that Opsahl supports changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. Whether that is possible is another matter. As to training of politicians, I am not quite sure, looking at the governments at the moment, which, if any, to use as a role model.
Page 114 of the report deals with my pet subject. I support the point that people and groups should get together to,contribute to an improvement of law and order".Stop shouting from the sidelines and get more involved.
I could go on commenting for hours on the report since it covers 450 pages and contains many other good points on subjects such as human rights and justice. I would, however, make a general point on cross-Border co-operation. Everything which has been said over the past 10 to 20 years would make people believe that there never were any economic or cultural links. That is quite simply not true, although there is, and was always, need for improvement. After all that is one of the main aims of the European Community within its own boundaries.
I should now like to look briefly at the Joint Declaration. Many might say it is a failure and is dead. I do not fully agree. I feel that it has had limited but significant successes but I think that, so far as the IRA is concerned, it may have run its course. It is notable that for the first time an Irish Government have declared their true views of the IRA and they have done this to the world. Worldwide, and especially in America, people can no longer pretend that, by giving money and support to the IRA, they are supporting the aims of the Irish people and the Irish Government. I believe that that is a real achievement, although we continually underestimate the importance of international opinion.
1213 Another success is more directly in relation to the IRA and Sinn Fein Their aim was a united Ireland by any means— and it still is— but because of the Union and the so-called Unionist veto they resorted to the violence, destruction and murdering that we have seen over the past 25 years. Both Prime Ministers have said, and most people— even President Clinton it seems— agree that there is no reason left for the IRA to continue. However, they do continue just as before: there have been more than 40 incidents since the declaration; among them the murdering of two friends of mine, Constables Drew Beacon and Ernie Smith in the local village of Fivemiletown.
I believe that the violence continues for the following reasons. The IRA are terrorists. They are not freedom fighters. They have a stated aim which I believe they thought was almost unobtainable and so they could continue with their main aim forever; racketeering, fraud, protection rackets and every possible way of making huge sums of money illegally. The declaration has wrong-footed Sinn Fein and the IRA by saying that, with reference to an all-one Ireland, both governments will abide by the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. That is not a Unionist veto and Sinn Fein cannot reasonably deny this right which the world applauds. However, it undermines Sinn Fein and the IRA because, regardless of the parties they support, not only do almost 100 per cent. of the people other than Roman Catholics support the Union, but, shock of horrors for the IRA, according to an Irish Times poll done by Coopers & Lybrand as revealed on 3rd December, only 14.7 per cent. of all people support a united Ireland and only 17.7 per cent. support Northern Ireland under joint sovereignty. This is not the first such poll and they all give similar answers. So Sinn Fein and the IRA are left with a heavy democratic defeat or admitting that the real justification for their horrendous activities is lucrative fraud and racketeering. They are now trying to find an aim but there can be no justification for terrorism.
11 wish that they would go down the democratic road and accept the ballot box instead of the Armalite. The key then — and a danger to Sinn Fein as a political movement— would be the SDLP. Should they play their cards right then Sinn Fein would virtually lose all support. However, the SDLP looks not a little split with John Hume getting too close to Dublin and Sinn Fein for many of his party members' liking. John Hume seems to think that the SDLP vote is in support of his all-Ireland Nationalist view when every poll tells a different story. Many people vote for the SDLP on religious grounds or/and because they are socialists. He does not seem to accept that only 32 per cent. of Catholics look to a united Ireland, and that is split between his party and Sinn Fein. Therefore, it is my opinion that Sinn Fein and John Hume's policies cannot survive in the long term.
I have one other point to make about the cessation of violence by the IRA. Shooting and bombing is by far the most tragic activity of terrorism, but it is not the only one, as I have already mentioned. The financial part involves far more time and people in petty and large criminal mafia-style operations. If they were to cease violence an interesting problem would be posed as to 1214 how the lifestyle of those people could change from living on their ill-gotten gains. In addition, in a peaceful environment there would be much more evidence forthcoming to convict them. There is a great deal of pressure from the grass roots. Those people will not want violence committed by others to stop and leave them vulnerable.
I will now turn to the Unionist Blueprint for Stability for just a moment. The first point is that the press have labelled it as pulling the plug on progress. I do not believe that is true. The three-strand circus was terminated by both governments in 1992— not by the Unionists. As far as I am aware, Mr. Molyneaux's party still stands by its undertaking to talk given to the Secretary of State on 26th March 1991. At the moment there are no such talks envisaged and they are still talking to their own government. They will no doubt consider it if and when it arises. The Irish Government are largely to blame for the stalemate, as I have said" for not having tabled their proposals, which everybody is waiting for.
I believe that there is a great deal of common sense in the Blueprint, but I am not going to go into it in detail. Apart from the assembly proposal, which would have a certain amount of opposition, especially from John Hume, who would possibly boycott it, the key to this, as I have said before, is the unfortunate Northern Ireland Act 1974, which, by its annual re-enactment, provides instability. It should be longer term, but that is for another debate.
The value of the remainder of the conclusions is that all the aims are achievable because the structures already exist and the SDLP is already taking part— for example, the local councils and Westminster. Such things as more accountable power to councils and the Select Committee which we have just heard about should work very well. In closing, I ask my noble friend the Minister to respond not only to the Opsahl Report, but perhaps briefly to the Unionist Blueprint.
§ 8.53 p.m.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Holme, is to be commended for bringing the Northern Irish issue once again to the floor of the House. Over many many years there has been a whole series of reports which have sought to inquire into the position in Ireland. They have come forward with recommendations, many of them controversial. But at the end of the day none of those reports or recommendations was accepted by any significant section of the Northern Ireland community. The Irish Forum was accepted by the Nationalists but totally rejected by the Unionists. The Irish Government and the Nationalists in Northern Ireland regarded the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement as a good victory; it was regarded as a terrible defeat for the Unionists in Northern Ireland.
Here we have another report. I am very happy tonight that we have had a speech from a former Secretary of State in Northern Ireland. I believe that there are now eight or nine ex-Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland in this House and when we debate Northern Ireland they are always notable for their absence. It appears that once they leave Northern Ireland they want to forget all about 1215 it. That is why I am so happy to see my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees here this evening. He was there at a very volatile time for Ireland. He will remember that 20 years ago, in March 1974, we read in the press that the Loyalist extremists were getting together to cause an industrial strike which would bring to an end what I regarded as the most hopeful political development since the creation of the Northern Ireland state; namely, the power-sharing executive which we had created in Northern Ireland.
My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees was there. He saw, as I did, all the bitterness, violence and hatred generated by the Sunningdale Agreement. I have never had any doubt in my mind, and to my dying day I shall always cling tenaciously to the belief, that that executive could have remained because the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland, albeit reluctantly, would have accepted power sharing. From the contacts which I had with hundreds of people in the Protestant community, I know that they would have been prepared to share power with the minority population, but under no circumstances were they prepared to accept what was then the Council of Ireland proposal.
Perhaps there was no logical reason for them to take such an attitude. But, in a situation when one's whole way of life, ethos and culture has been thrown into the melting pot, reason does not prevail. Those people were frightened. They were very fearful that the Council of Ireland was the thin end of the wedge which would drive them into an Irish republic. These words were spoken by one of the SDLP assembly men at that time; those who were opposed to the Council of Ireland proposals— namely, Dr. Paisley, Mr. Craig and Harry West (as they were then). They were running up and down having all kinds of meetings in Northern Ireland. They were saying that the Council of Ireland proposals were the thin end of the wedge. Unfortunately, one of the SDLP assembly men went to a students' debate at a university in the Republic. He was challenged by someone in the audience that the Sunningdale Agreement really meant nothing. The actual words he used were, "Do you not realise that the Council of Ireland proposals are the vehicle that will trundle the Unionists into a united Ireland?". When that statement was reported in the Belfast newspapers the next day it in fact signalled the end of the executive.
As I say, since then we have had numerous reports. I was a member of that executive and I again repeat that I am totally convinced that an accommodation can be found in Northern Ireland between the communities— what people call the "internal solution". I would rather have an internal solution which may encounter great difficulties and obstacles in its lifetime than wait for years and years until there is some other development in the cross-Border situation.
I left the SDLP in 1979. I had formed that party. I left it because it was becoming clearly evident to me that that party was more concerned with Irish nationalism than it was with social democratic concepts. When that party was formed it was called, at my insistence, the Social Democratic and Labour Party. I do not believe anyone in these islands now would refer to it as being 1216 social and democratic. It is a constitutional nationalist party. What is worse, it is a constitutional nationalist party which still supports and succours another political party which is not constitutional; namely, Sinn Fein, the spokesmen for the greatest crowd of murderers that we have seen in Irish history.
After I left the SDLP in 1979, the next hope that there could have been to bring the parties together was the assembly created by Jim Prior, who was then Secretary of State and who is now Lord Prior in this House. When the results of the elections were declared we saw for the first time a coalition of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. They said that they were not going to take their seats in that assembly and that they were going to boycott it. So anyone can boycott. People talk now of the Unionist boycott, but the Nationalists have also had a boycott during the past 20 troubled years. That Assembly failed because of the non-participation of the Nationalists in Northern Ireland.
Sometimes I get fed up listening to myself repeating this, but one has only to read Hansard to realise that in 1985 I stood in this House when everyone else except me was saying what a wonderful innovation the Anglo-Irish Agreement was and how it would bring peace to Northern Ireland. The Foreign Office here and those responsible for foreign affairs in Dublin got their embassies to work together. I was inundated with all sorts of congratulatory messages from all over the world, even from darkest Africa and the jungle, telling me what a wonderful thing the Anglo-Irish Agreement was. The only one who did not write to me or congratulate the Government on it was Idi Amin. Everyone told us what a wonderful thing the agreement was, but I stood in this House and said that it was not wonderful at all because I was born and reared in Northern Ireland and I know the feelings of the two communities.
That 1985 measure did more to cause a great division in Ireland than anything else. It totally alienated the majority community. People wondered whether it would help to do away with the alienation of the Catholic Nationalist community, but it alienated a far greater proportion of the people of Northern Ireland.
If we jump over many years, many speeches and, tragically, many deaths in the 10 years from 1982 to 1992, we find that Peter Brooke then became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I do not know how he did it, to whom he listened or what civil servant came up with the phrase, "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". I am inclined to think that it was John Hume. Where in the name of God that came from in relation to Irish politics, I do not know. You do not use that formula. That is a formula that can lead only to the defeat of the whole operation— "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed"— because the Sunningdale Agreement showed us that we could have an agreement and power-sharing in Northern Ireland although we could not agree on Strand 2. By the way, Strand 3 does not really matter. There will be no difficulties between the sovereign Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland. They will have all sorts of happy relations, particularly now that both are members of the European Union. So, there is no difficulty with 1217 that. It is Strand 2 that will cause all the difficulties. It has done so in the past and will undoubtedly do the same again in the future.
I now turn to something that I bitterly resent. I resent it as someone who is involved in politics. I resent it bitterly as an Irishman. I resent it as a Catholic. I resent it as a human being. I refer to the claim that is made by Sinn Fein to speak on behalf of the Nationalist people of Ireland. Sinn Fein gets under 2 per cent. of the total vote in the island of Ireland. It represents no one. Sinn Fein is the spokesmen of a behind-the-scenes organisation which nobody has met: the seven-man Army Council of the IRA. They claim that they are the legitimate government of the people in Ireland, but they have never had any votes. They have never had any support. They refuse to emerge into the daylight to let people see who they are, yet those are the people who are dictating to the whole island of Ireland. They have less than 2 per cent. of the vote.
In 1992, Sinn Fein's well-known spokesman, Gerry Adams, who formerly held the seat of Belfast, West, was defeated in a legitimate democratic contest by Dr. Joe Hendron of the SDLP. I thought that there was a glimmer of hope to be seen when the result of that election was announced. But what did we see arising from that? We saw John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, beginning to have confidential meetings with Gerry Adams, the leader of an organisation that apologises for the most vicious murderers who ever contaminated Irish soil. I bitterly resented that.
However, John Hume can now be credited with the fact that he dragged Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams from the political gutter and put Gerry Adams into a position where he is now claiming some credibility as the leader of an organisation that is seeking peace in the island of Ireland. Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein would have stayed where they should have stayed if it had not been for the intervention of John Hume. So, a constitutional political party is giving support and succour to a party which represents nothing except a seven-man Army Council of the IRA. When people in Ireland see that, they wonder what John Hume is about and what he is trying to do.
Something that has not been mentioned tonight but which has been mentioned since 1992 and particularly in the run-up to the Anglo-Irish Declaration is the question of whether anyone has seen the Hume-Adams document and proposals. What is in it? Why are they so reluctant to make it public so that people in the island of Ireland, the United Kingdom and further afield can see what they were concocting among themselves? I have heard rumours to the effect that the Government have seen the document. I have heard that the Irish Government have seen the document. I have heard that John Hume has the document, as have others. Why not make that document, which has caused such controversy, available so that everyone can see it? I believe that that document has caused more trouble and more bitterness in the island of Ireland than anything else. It has elevated Gerry Adams and given him all sorts of credibility.
Is there anyone here who would not believe that it was John Hume who made representations to the Kennedy family, asking them to make representations to 1218 the President of the United States to allow Gerry Adams into America? He went there proclaiming that he was only there to bring about peace. We saw the hysteria in America. Those people did not even realise what Gerry Adams was doing at home. I believe that it was a particular disservice of John Hume, the alleged leader of a constitutional Nationalist party, to get involved to such an extent.
Since the Downing Street Declaration billions of words have been written and hundreds of television interviews have been given. In some of the television interviews which gave credibility to Sinn Fein and the IRA the interviewers did not acquit themselves very well. It was sickening for me to sit and watch the party which represents murderers proclaiming that it wanted peace.
What is the active position today? The Government should take note of it. Perhaps I may take as an example a newspaper interview that was given by a Sinn Fein activist, as he was called. When interviewers do not want to identify such people they describe them as "a senior member of Sinn Fein" or "a Sinn Fein activist". I have an idea who this particular activist is. A report of the interview appeared in the Irish Times on 25th February and stated:"The key to it all has been calling for clarification. When we call for clarification, we are effectively calling for negotiation. We are asking the British to give us what we want, what they know it will take to end the war— and that is a withdrawal'.".Nothing could be clearer than that. That is what they want. Is it any wonder that that frightens the Unionist majority in Northern Ireland. The newspaper report continued:Although he recognises that Sinn Fein was unlikely to make substantial electoral gains in the Republic, the speaker said that the lifting of Section 31 had helped 'humanise' republicans for southern audiences and was important in terms of the propaganda war".Again, that is explicit and we understand the aims. The report of the interview continues:By 'spinning things out', Republicans had reduced the dramatic impact of the Major-Reynolds initiative … the declaration wasn't 'worth the paper it was written en—.I totally disagree; I believe that the declaration was a result of the two Governments getting together and trying desperately to find a formula which would bring some form of sense into Northern Ireland.
The Government should take note of the most important part of the article, however, which was written by Suzanne Breen. After asking questions, she writes:The republican activist accused the SDLP deputy leader, Mr. Seamus Mallon (who has continuously stressed the similarities between Hume-Adams and Major-Reynolds on self-determination) of 'hampering the peace process' and deeply embarrassing his party leader, Mr. John Hume.The Hume-Adams agreement was between 'Sinn Fein and John Hume, and not Sinn Fein and the SDLP'.".There we have it. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, was right in saying that there is great dissatisfaction in the ranks of the SDLP at what has been happening between John Hume and Sinn Fein IRA.
There are four SDLP Members of Parliament at the other end of this building. They include the MP for South Down, Eddie McGrady, the MP for West Belfast, Joe Hendron, who has been shabbily treated by his own party and is in danger of being defeated by Gerry Adams 1219 come the next election, and Seamus Mallon. Seamus Mallon is a man of great integrity and credibility and he questioned the closeness of the affair between John Hume and Sinn Fein. All three MPs have expressed grave reservations about the conduct of John Hume and Sinn Fein. The Government should ask the SDLP what it sees as the future for Northern Ireland. Is it a constitutional political party? As was said by my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, we are running into a period when we shall fight a European election. What will Sinn Fein and the SDLP say on their election addresses? Surely, they cannot say that they are fighting for different objectives, because they have been so closely aligned during the past two years, and particularly since the announcement of the declaration, that people will find it hard to differentiate between the two. I advise SDLP members to be very careful because Mr. Adams, as the newly-created statesman, may gain extra votes — more votes than John Hume. The election is run on the basis of proportional representation and we may find Gerry Adams in Europe.
That is the position in which we find ourselves. The declaration has been totally and absolutely rejected by Sinn Fein. I agreed wholeheartedly with the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and was able to throw away a whole page of my notes. For all its claims to be a party of freedom fighters, of Irish patriots, Sinn Fein represents gangsters and hoodlums, the scum of the earth in Ireland. Young lads who are in that organisation have been born since the outbreak of the present troubles in 1969. They are engaged in protection rackets, robbery and thieving. Is there any way that Sinn Fein can go to them and say, "We have accepted this declaration"?
Perhaps I may put it even more dramatically. On the other side of the Armargh border there is a one-shot sniper. There are many ideas about who he may be and how he must get paid for being such an accurate sniper. He shoots from the Republic of Ireland, from about a quarter of a mile away, into Northern Ireland. From that distance and with whatever weapon he is using he has killed 10 members of the security forces through the neck and through the head. Can you imagine any member of Sinn Fein saying "This declaration is all right. We will go down to this sniper and say, 'Thank you very much. There is your P45. '"? Does anyone really believe that people who have been engaged in such murder and violence are going to accept the declaration?
On the day that the declaration was announced in this House I deliberately stayed away because I would have said then what I am saying now. I never believed that there was any possibility of Sinn Fein and the IRA accepting that declaration. I can say it now because of the time which has elapsed, and it must be completely obvious to anyone who has any interest in Northern Ireland that Sinn Fein is not a factor in the future of Ireland. Sinn Fein consists of 1.5 or 2 per cent. only.
I am sure that the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, Mr. Reynolds, feels as much despair and disappointment as I do, and as does everyone who seeks peace in Northern Ireland. I believe that there will 1220 have to be a security crackdown both north and south of the border. There must be no bolt-hole for murderers to seek sanctuary and escape justice for what they have done in Northern Ireland. The Government will have to take that as a main reason. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, was totally right in saying that alongside that we must take the declaration as a starting base and build on it gradually. It must be gradual, taking into account all the fears and suspicions that exist in Northern Ireland. We must build on it gradually, but in the name of all that is sensible in Northern Ireland forget about the three-strand approach. The three-strand approach, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, means in effect that nothing will ever be agreed under those parameters.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, in recent speeches this debate has been used as a hook on which to hang various thoughts on the situation as it is and as it might be in Northern Ireland. I should like to return a little closer to the subject of the report, which I welcome, as I welcome anything which adds to Parliament's knowledge of the hopes and fears of people in Northern Ireland.
It is some time since we have had as comprehensive an exposition of these views as can be found in the Opsahl Report. To that extent and on that basis I find it very encouraging. It is a report that should commend itself to members of the Government, not only those in the NIO but those in the Cabinet Office as well. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will be able to say that she and her colleagues have not only read it but that it is informing their thinking on Northern Ireland. As has been pointed out, no one will like all of it and some will not like any of it. The noble Lord may laugh, but nevertheless it is there and I believe that it could well inform their thinking on Northern Ireland.
I am sure that noble Lords will remember what is almost certainly an apocryphal story from the trenches in the First World War. A message was passed by word of mouth down the trenches, "Send reinforcements, we are going to advance". This finally arrived at battalion headquarters as, "Send three-and-fourpence, we are going to a dance". Most views coming into Stormont, and still worse to London, have been through so many hands that it is inevitable that on the way they occasionally become muddled and misconstrued.
We had an example of that the other day on the subject of the IRA apparently wishing to know how to tone down violence. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, referred to that. I am not blaming the middleman, whoever he may be, whether councillor, doctor or priest, or possibly a whole chain of them who make up the conduit, but I believe that this happens and that we should take a report such as this, if not at face value, certainly seriously. We should do more than a little lateral thinking. I do not say that the Opsahl Report contains everything that is sweetness and light, far from it; yet it shows an overwhelming desire for peace and fairness.
I was struck too by the idea of a gradual ratcheting down of violence on all sides, including on the part of 1221 the security forces— although my noble friend Lord Brookeborough seemed antagonistic towards that— and by the idea that there should be training of politicians. I should welcome the views of my noble friend Lady Denton.
At least two parts of the report make depressing reading. The first is Chapter 10. The first substantive part refers to the fact that the commission believes that if the current or resumed round of political talks should fail, the British Government should take various steps. It is almost as though the commission expects the talks to fail. I should not be so sure about that.
The Government have had their ups and downs, but I do not believe that a man who comes away from Maastricht with not one but two derogations is a poor negotiator. He is a man who saw that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was deeply mistrusted by the majority in Northern Ireland and he negotiated the Downing Street declaration late last year. And he made sure that that was accepted in Parliament by the representatives of that majority. He came up with an acceptable form of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Therefore, he is no slouch when it comes to negotiations.
In my time in Northern Ireland there were no formal meetings with Unionist MPs. I was not even allowed to go to a concert at Belfast City Hall, so vehemently did the councillors feel about what they saw as being let down by the Government. "Betrayed by the Foreign Office", is how they expressed it to me. It is ironic that just as I left the MO that opposition was fading. But if my right honourable friend the Prime Minister had got his declaration just slightly wrong, we should have been back in the same soggy morass.
Therefore, I remain hopeful. None of us is close enough to the action to see exactly what is going on, but prejudging that man is best left to the ephemera of the newspapers and not to this House or, indeed, to the other place.
I found depressing also the evidence of Sinn Fein and especially an outsider's view of it given in the last chapter. We read that it was an opportunity for Sinn Fein to propose conciliatory initiatives, but all that emerged was that Northern Ireland could not be made a stable democratic entity and that the solution was an all-inclusive democratic framework. I am not sure how those two sentences can be put together but the members of Sinn Fein achieved that. On being questioned, the commission was answered in slogans rather than by arguments: only the British Government could break the log-jam of Unionists "sitting on their hands"; "Negotiations would bring peace, not peace negotiations". To me, that is the most depressing line of all. They are still stuck in a time warp in what is called, in the horrendous jargon of Northern Ireland, "bombing their way to the conference table".
I am sufficiently charitable— perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, would say that I am green enough— to believe that they are more intelligent than that. But so long as those aphorisms continue to issue from their lips, so long will they be unacceptable to any negotiating table.
My initial reaction to some of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, is to say that if Sinn Fein is irrelevant 1222 to the future of the developments in Northern Ireland in the way that we now see them, so too is the IRA. I really cannot believe that.
There is a third thought running through the report which I find wrong rather than depressing, not only in the report but also in the thinking of commentators on Northern Ireland, including the Government. You would have thought that by now all the politicians, both in Northern Ireland and Westminster, would have reached the conclusion that to have a regional government in Stormont— a phoenix rising from the ashes— was a non-starter. But no; everyone seems to be totally hooked on what the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, described as— although he put a particular gloss on it — a history of failed policies. The noble Lord may be right. There may eventually come a time when an internal solution along the lines of a regional government, whether in Stormont or anywhere else, could come about, but I would venture to suggest that we are miles away from it at the moment. A much more satisfactory development was the announcement today by my right honourable friend Mr. Newton that there would be a debate on the setting up of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland affairs.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, I believe that this is the right approach and it is probably the right time to suggest it. However, a little bird whispered to me that the Labour Party is not happy with this at the moment, and perhaps never will be. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will explain his party's reaction to the proposal when he speaks in a moment.
But of course the report is about lots more than political development, as the conclusions show. It has always seemed to me that as regards the multi— faceted problems of Northern Ireland and doing something about them, it may seem to us that small steps are involved but it is rather like standing under the decaying Gardens of Babylon where at any minute a piece may drop off and knock one flying. The suggestion which is not new— indeed my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross advocated it in his previous report— that terrorist interviews should be televised is a case in point. There is no future in televising them if the pictures will not be seen. There will inevitably be demands for the interviews to be shown at trials' and for them to be viewed by defence lawyers. If the offence was a one-off — as normal offences tend to be on this side of the water — that would not matter. But as the suspects I am discussing are members of a team, the word that a particular police officer was involved, or perhaps that a particular suspect had revealed more than other members of the team wished him to reveal, would result in an almost automatic increase in violence both to the officer and to the suspect, albeit at the expense of civil liberties.
Another aspect that strikes me is the concept of jealousy, and not only that of the Unionists or the SDLP either. For example, the Republic, being a less favoured area, has done well out of the European Community, or the European Union as we should now call it. Hence, the result of the Maastricht referendum in the Republic came as no surprise at all. Northern Ireland on the other 1223 hand, although it is a less favoured area of the United Kingdom, does not have the same advantages of direct funding from the European Union. Everything goes through London, and the United Kingdom as a whole is anything but less favoured. Although considerable extra moneys go from Whitehall to Belfast, based on a complex formula involving morbidity, policing and many other factors, resulting in around 40 per cent. extra in public spending per head higher than in the rest of the country, the additionality rules mean that that expenditure cannot be identified as European Union money. I think the time has come for the Government to find a way round this. That said, I am sure I shall be told that this is yet another chunk dropping from the Hanging Gardens.
The Housing Executive in Northern Ireland has achieved great things for the good of many people all over the Province since its inception. The stock of unfit housing has fallen from just over 14 per cent. in 1979 to under 8.5 per cent. today. The Housing Executive has righted many of the wrongs done to the minority within its sphere of influence. When I first went to Northern Ireland 20 years ago, the Falls Road and its immediate surroundings were a shambles, suffering from years of discrimination and neglect. Today the boot is on the other foot and it is the Shankill Road which is the more depressed of the two. Housing is another area where times have changed and where a different sort of jealousy rears its head.
I could go on referring to each conclusion one by one. However, like my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, I shall resist the temptation to do so at this late hour. I shall contain myself by urging everyone with even the slightest desire to improve the situation in Northern Ireland to read and consider the report, even though they then damn it to Hell and back. I await the force of gravity of my noble friend Lady Denton with more interest than usual.
§ 9.29 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I should like to pay my personal tribute to Professor Opsahl, who died so recently after carrying out this work.
I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for giving us an opportunity to reflect on matters concerning Northern Ireland at rather greater leisure than is normally possible. I feel a sense of something approaching shame that there are so few of us present on these occasions. It is always the same noble Lords. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that of those who have held high office in Northern Ireland only my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees is present, is an extremely good one.
I have tried to put my mind to the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, put down. It is intended to provide an opportunity not for grandiose statements or empty platitudes, but for detailed— and I hope constructive— questioning of what the Government have in mind. It seems to me, and I believe to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that the very least we owe to our colleagues in Northern Ireland is a decent questioning of the Government's intentions. I stress, as 1224 I know the Minister accepts, that this is not done in a partisan way and all of our questions are intended to be helpful.
It seems to us that the real achievement of the report is that it has recorded views from a very wide spectrum of opinion in Northern Ireland, not all of which have been apparent or vocal in political dialogue in the past. That point echoes the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to the subject. I entirely agree with him that there will be no one in this world who agrees with everything that the report offers by way of conclusion and recommendation.
Our stance is that internal settlement of itself is not necessarily the solution to the long-term problems. Although it is relatively recent, the report itself has been partly overtaken by events. It has been overtaken in part by the Joint Declaration. Speaking for myself, whatever one's views about the personalities involved, it is right to recognise and record that both the Taoiseach and the United Kingdom Prime Minister have taken risks, which are signs of courage. Whether their courage is rewarded in the end should not obscure the fact that what they have done has been risky.
What is to become of the three strand policy? On 1st March this year Mr. Molyneaux recorded the view that his party would not engage in three stranded talks because that would be as big a fiasco as it was last time. Dr. Paisley's view is well known, and is to the same effect, but would probably be rather more bluntly expressed.
If Mr. Molyneaux maintains that stance after the European elections and therefore the three strand policy cannot continue, what will the Government's approach be? Our hope would be that no party in Northern Ireland would be able to derail the negotiations and the progress that has been made so far, limited though it has been.
I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said. It seems to me that the specific questions need to be directed at particular conclusions and recommendations. As noble Lords who spoke earlier said, they are fairly limited. The bulk of the report, not surprisingly, is a recitation of submissions, and the recommendations do not start until page 111.
There is a very important question in Conclusion 2.4. That is the recommendation that a Bill of Rights should be incorporated into domestic legislation. It is noteworthy that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have this in common: neither of them has incorporated the European convention into domestic legislation.
In relation to another aspect which has overtaken the Opsahl Report, it is also interesting that earlier this week Mr. Molyneaux, in his blueprint, specifically recommended the introduction of a Bill of Rights into Northern Ireland domestic legislation. It seems to us that its incorporation into Northern Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom, would not be sensible or practical. If a Bill of Rights is to be introduced, it should be introduced for the whole of the United Kingdom. I see great practical and legal difficulties in any other course. Again without being tendentious, we would welcome the Government's views about the recommendation of 1225 the Opsahl Report together with its endorsement— or the arrival at that point by a different route— of Mr. Molyneaux's
If a Bill of Rights were to be incorporated domestically, it gives protection to citizens of various camps. Whatever are the views of the Government in this country, have there been discussions with the Government of the Republic about those matters, in particular on the incorporation of the Bill of Rights? No one expects confidential discussions at this stage to be disclosed. But these are matters of quite broad principle on which we should like answers.
One of the bedevilling features, as we see it, about Northern Ireland is that there is deep suspicion, sometimes well-founded, that negotiations are continuing about people's futures on the basis of subterfuge. I do not wish to put these matters too highly. Are discussions continuing with representatives of Sinn Fein, either directly or indirectly, by people authorised by or on behalf of the British Government? Many people in Northern Ireland suspect that there are. Those suspicions may be ill-founded or well-founded but they do nothing to aid the cause of reconciliation.
Is there a timescale in mind if there is no unambiguous acceptance or rejection by Sinn Fein of the joint declaration? It does not seem to us that those who live in Northern Ireland can be left in limbo for ever. The alternative of all-Ireland unification is not ruled out by the Government of the United Kingdom. It has not been ruled out since November 1990 when Mr. Brooke made the famous statement about no selfish strategic or economic interest. If there were to be all-Ireland unification, on what constitutional basis would that be? There are indications in the Opsahl Report that a federal constitution for a united Ireland needs to be considered. Have the Government been discussing such details with the Government of the Republic?
The answers to those questions are important and may affect the response of those in Northern Ireland from whatever political camp. If there were a united Ireland, has there been discussion about the basis of voting? Should it be proportional representation? Would there be entrenched safeguards in an all-Ireland constitution as well as the incorporation of a Bill of Rights?
I accept that noble Lords opposite may think that those are premature questions. I respectfully do not believe that they are. I am of the view, although I hear dissent from behind me, that those are questions which must be addressed. The issues will not go away, and to pretend that they will does a great disservice to the people of Northern Ireland.
What are the Government's views about the broadcasting ban? I refer to Recommendation 1.5. It is a legitimate view to hold (I hold it myself) that the broadcasting ban on Mr. Adams and his colleagues has played into their hands. It gave Mr. Adams the best propaganda coup and victory on his visit to Washington that he could possibly have looked for.
Paragraph 1.5 of the Opsahl Report recommended that the Irish Government reconsider the broadcasting ban. That has been done. Whatever one's views about 1226 Mr. Adams and his colleagues— again, I hear dissent from behind me, and I dare say that many of the doubts are shared by all of us— is it of ultimate practical benefit to hand him that propaganda weapon on a plate so that he gets away with saying things in interviews time and again which are never effectively challenged? The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred to that. Mr. Adams can go to the United States of America, a country which has entrenched constitutional rights about freedom of speech, and say, as he said time and again, "I am not allowed to be heard in my own country". What is the Government's view on that at this stage?
These are questions of detail, but I hope honouring the spirit of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Holme. On paragraph 2.6, have the Government any view on the Diplock courts, the single non-jury judge? The suggestion there is not to go back to juries, for obvious reasons, but that there should be one or two assessors sitting with the judge in the Diplock courts. What is the Government's view about the recommendations for the improvement of inquest procedures which have undoubtedly— whatever political view one has— caused great distress and concern to a number of people in Northern Ireland with their delays and inefficiencies?
What is the Government's view about paragraph 2.6(d)? It is the suggestion that there should be an independent review commission on exactly the same lines as were recommended in the Royal Commission of the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, on criminal procedure in this country. In effect, the Government have been silent about whether or not England and Wales will have an independent review body. Have they come to a conclusion about Northern Ireland? I take the question of my noble friend Lord Fitt. Have the Government of the United Kingdom seen a document or documents which could fairly be described as the Hume-Adams proposals? If yes, is it to be published?
The question of the Select Committee, it seems to us, needs to be approached with caution. It depends on what will be its composition, which at present is not known to me. I do not think that it is known to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, because he helpfully indicated that there is to be a debate in the other place quite soon about its composition. We wish to see the composition. We would not want it to be a device which would cause further suspicion in certain sections of Northern Ireland, nor would we wish it to be used simply as a device to stall and cause no further progress to be made.
Those are the questions that I have sought to put to the Minister. I repeat that they are not put in any tendentious sense, particularly coming from one who does not live in Northern Ireland and will not collude in the indecency of trying to make things worse there rather than trying to be helpful. Whatever our views and differences, that is the one point that unites us on this occasion: we all have a genuine desire for some improvement for people who have suffered far too much for too long.
§ 9.42 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield)
My Lords, I should like to add my thanks 1227 to those of others to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, for enabling us to debate this extensive and unique report. I also endorse his view that when it comes to Northern Ireland debates what is important is not the quantity but the quality of the participation. I start by expressing my gratitude for the messages of support for the Joint Declaration which I have heard this evening.
The work of the Opsahl Commission has proved valuable in stimulating the submission of views from a wide range of individuals and organisations. The commission itself made a number of recommendations, some controversial, others which have provoked dissenting comment, as tonight's debate reflects. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, the Northern Ireland political parties generally gave the report a cool reception.
The Government believe that the main value of the report lies in the way that it has enlivened and developed informed public debate throughout the community in Northern Ireland and outside. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale will be pleased to know that we believe that it provides an important source of ideas, emanating not only from the commission itself but from the many submissions made to it.
I know that the Secretary of State was pleased to be presented with a copy of the report. He also met members of the commission last November and was interested to hear of the various responses to it. He was then able to explain the state of progress in the political talks at that time— though, as has been said on several occasions tonight, the speed at which those move on means that as soon as one is briefed something else has happened. He also commented on the report in some detail during an Adjournment debate in another place last November. The report was also debated in the Irish Senate, when it provided a platform for a wide-ranging debate on Northern Ireland issues.
The recommendations are not just addressed to government, but also to the Churches, the Northern Ireland political parties, the trade unions and the Irish Government. The viewpoint of Her Majesty's Government is just one among many in this area.
The report's main conclusion is that, if political talks fail, the Government, in consultation with the Irish Government, should establish a commission to study the situation and to make recommendations for further consultation with political parties— and if necessary, directly with the people of Northern Ireland.
On the face of it, that seems a plausible objective. It is, however, premature. The talks process is continuing. Although round table talks have not taken place since November 1992, the talks process has nevertheless continued in the form of private bilateral meetings with the Northern Ireland parties and meetings with the Irish Government. The opinion poll on the Opsahl Commission report showed that the majority questioned in Northern Ireland believed in the importance of the talks; and we shall continue to promote them in every practical way. We are at one with the Irish Government on that. Both governments remain committed to the talks process based on the Statement on 26th March 1991. The Joint Declaration by the Prime Minister and 1228 the Taoiseach set out a balanced statement of principles for the future. The statement complemented and underpinned the talks process, which addresses all the main relationships. It provides a firm foundation for future political development. Only recently, when the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met on 19th February — the meeting that was referred to by my noble friend Lord Brookeborough as the "rugby summit"— they reaffirmed their joint commitment to the talks process.
The Government have noted that the report refers to the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland and to the widespread desire to have a government and administration which is more accountable to the people in Northern Ireland. That view has been expressed to the Government by many people, and it was raised this evening by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. I hope that the noble Lord will be pleased to know, as will my noble friend Lord Brookeborough, that for our part we fully share the desire to see greater responsibility returned to Northern Ireland's own locally elected representatives. That is enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
However, as the report recognises, for any new structures to be both fair and workable, they must command wide support throughout Northern Ireland. That means that all the relevant relationships must be addressed. The best forum for that is a talks process involving the main constitutional parties and the two governments, based on the Statement of the previous Secretary of State on 26th March 1991.
Another recommendation that has been raised this evening is that the Government should open informal discussions with Sinn Fein with a view to persuading the IRA to move towards de-escalation in the level of violence and eventually to a cease-fire. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, pointed to the exchanges between the Government and the IRA last year as evidence that such discussions have already taken place, or that they would be only another small step which a government should be prepared to take.
I must say to noble Lords that that argument is deeply flawed. As my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State said in another place, the Government had a clear duty to respond to the message from the IRA last February that the conflict was over. The consequent exchanges spelt out, as the Downing Street Declaration has done since, that the first step must be a permanent end to violence— not a de-escalation but a complete end. Then and only then can Sinn Fein expect to begin to play a part in the ordinary democratic life of Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the issue of the Government's views on the talks. As my right honourable and learned friend explained in another place on 29th November, while it is useful to have a means of communication by which messages could be exchanged indirectly between the Government and the Provisional movement, such a chain could function only if its secrecy were respected on both sides. Accordingly, we do not propose to divulge any further information about messages sent or received or to comment further 1229 save— I would stress this— to give the assurance that any communications from Her Majesty's Government will be consistent with their publicly stated policies.
The issue of a Bill of Rights which was brought forward by the report has been raised this evening by several noble Lords. Her Majesty's Government take the view that a Bill of Rights falls within the remit of the political talks process. In his speech at Birmingham on 23rd February the Secretary of State said that among the possible features of a political accommodation:there might well be some form of entrenchment of human rights to provide additional built-in safeguards against discrimination and disadvantage. That is widely supported already".Several commentators have recognised that a Bill of Rights is one possible way to strengthen the protection of human rights. It is one of several possibilities. That has been the Government's position throughout the political talks. A Bill of Rights is not the only way to achieve better protection of human rights. Our objective — effective practical measures which build confidence and trust in future political arrangements— means that we must be willing to explore that possibility.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. This is an extremely important point and I want to be sure that I have understood what she said. Am Ito understand that if the talks were to arrive at the view that there should be a Bill of Rights, however expressed— as a charter of rights or the entrenchment of the European Convention on Human Rights into at least Northern Ireland law— if that were a conclusion of the parties to the talks, the Government now have no objection of principle to that and would not stand in its way? Would that be correct?
§ Baroness Denton of Wakefield
Perhaps the noble Lord will let me continue and I shall clarify the Government's view on this matter. As I said, the message of the speech made by my right honourable and learned friend in Birmingham was that some form of entrenchment of human rights is perfectly practicable. A Bill of Rights is one form of entrenchment which is known to raise difficult issues. Nevertheless, we are prepared to examine it as a possibility.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, identified, devising a measure for Northern Ireland alone, especially if it is based on our international obligations, raises further problems. Is it really practicable to create a measure which allowed legislation applying throughout the UK to be challenged in only one part of the UK? More importantly, it is unclear whether a Bill of Rights could effectively be framed for Northern Ireland alone and deal with the full range of human rights issues, many of them covered by Westminster legislation.
Several practical questions need to be answered: in what ways would incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law significantly strengthen existing safeguards against abuses of human rights? In what way would they build confidence in constitutional arrangements?
We may have to devise some additional forms of human rights protection to add to the package of measures that the Government introduced over the 1230 period of direct rule. But the availability on paper of additional legal remedies is of less practical value than the creation of a healthier political system. While acknowledging the value of ideas which will help to build confidence and trust between the political parties, we believe that we are more likely to make effective progress by giving priority to the need for lasting constitutional arrangements being addressed in the context of the political talks involving the two governments and the main constitutional parties. But I hope I have given the noble Lord some reassurance that, as my right honourable and learned friend said, there is a possibility of discussing this issue.
I want to address one other point raised by the noble Lord. He was anxious that my right honourable and learned friend had promised to bring forward proposals to give focus and direction to further talks. I can say to the noble Lord that the Secretary of State recently met the leaders of the three parties who have been engaged in bilateral discussions with the Government and showed them a document containing our ideas across all three strands of the talks process.
Perhaps I may refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, which, as usual, was filled with wisdom and experience. It made me conscious that my direct relationship with Northern Ireland extends to exactly six weeks. I agree with much of what he said regarding policing Northern Ireland and the need for the Armed Forces. The Government would like to see the maximum support for the RUC from all parts of the community. We also look to the day when the violence ends and the current security measures, including the use of the Armed Forces in support of the RUC, become unnecessary. I heard messages of some pessimism from noble Lords as to when the end of that violence could be foreseen. I trust that they will not mind if hope that they are proved wrong in their pessimism.
My noble friend Lord Brookeborough commented on the political proposals that are awaited from the Irish Government. The position is that both governments agreed in September to work on a framework to allow further progress on the talks. Work on that framework is continuing and, following the recent meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, to which the noble Lord referred, it is proceeding with renewed emphasis. Progress will be reviewed at the next intergovernmental conference.
I was delighted to hear my noble friend encourage people in Northern Ireland to become involved in the process of returning to law and order. Perhaps I may add a personal comment that I was extremely impressed by the involvement of the community and the voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland which I believe sets a standard throughout the whole UK as being of great leadership. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, covered the scene as no one else could. In regard to the worry that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, about which the noble Lord, Lord Holme, was also concerned, the Government take the view that it was a sensible maxim to adopt at the time that the talks process began. Whether it will apply to future multilateral talks will be a matter for all those who participate in them.
1231 Perhaps I may also take the opportunity to comment on the Hume-Adams document. The Government have not seen anything purporting to be the Hume-Adams agreement. Noble Lords then raised the question of publication. Publication of any such document would be entirely a matter for those who produced it. But I would stress that we have not seen anything purporting to be that. We have studied carefully what the leader of the UUP said on Monday. His party took the decision to present certain proposals in the Blueprint for Stability. That is a matter for them. One noble Lord raised the fact that there is now an agenda which is based on the European elections. We should bear that in mind. We were very glad that Mr. Molyneaux said on Monday that contact will continue on the same basis as before.
My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale raised the complicated question of European Union funding for the Republic and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has Objective I status and will be receiving about £ 1 billion in structural funds over the period up to 1999. In addition, Northern Ireland receives public expenditure — the subvention— from the United Kingdom Exchequer of £ 2.3 billion for 1992–93, maintaining parity with Great Britain standards for health, education and other public services. As Minister with responsibility for agriculture, it is certainly my intention to make sure that my voice is heard in person in Brussels on behalf of our farmers and our fishermen. I believe it is important— and the Minister of Agriculture agrees— that we should make quite certain that Europe is aware of the needs of Northern Ireland.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked a number of detailed questions about the substance of discussions between Her Majesty's Government and the Irish Government. I stress in answering that I understand the manner and nature of his asking the questions and I accept totally that it is not based on a desire to attack but to deal with the subject in a way that all of us involved in Northern Ireland feel it should be dealt with. By convention, the detail of the discussions is confidential. I would remind the noble Lord of the widespread view that a united Ireland is unlikely for the foreseeable 1232 future. Specifically, I would also answer that it has been reaffirmed by Her Majesty's Government that the broadcasting ban here should be retained. But I note with some sympathy the comments made by your Lordships on the responsibility, or perhaps the lack of it, of some of the interviewers who have participated in interviews with Gerry Adams in the past.
On the three-judge court issue, the Government have said repeatedly as a matter of principle that they do not accept that the standard of justice is lowered in any way because only a single judge is presiding. There is no evidence to suggest that the present system has led to perverse judgments or a lowering of standards.
Many points were raised. We all have reason to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, that the House has found time to discuss and debate issues relating to Northern Ireland in a rather fuller manner than the normal order procedure allows. I have found it valuable as a relatively new Minister. I shall of course look closely at Hansard and shall write as soon as possible to noble Lords on any specifics I have missed.
We all recognise the difficulties in resolving the problems which exist in Northern Ireland. We all have great anxiety and love for the Province. That can probably be said for all Members of your Lordships' House. Northern Ireland has lived in the shadow of terrorism, both Republican and Loyalist, for too long. There is a desire for peace. I was delighted to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, that my visit to Cookstown last night and West Belfast this morning, would not have been possible in his time. That was news that pleased me.
There is also a yearning for political progress. The Opsahl Report provided a valuable contribution to the public debate. This House may be assured that the Government will continue to place Northern Ireland at the head of their priorities. We set no time limit for a solution but we are committed to continuing to work steadily towards our goal of a widely acceptable political accommodation aimed to secure peace and stability which Northern Ireland so truly deserves.
§ House adjourned at six minutes past ten o'clock.