HL Deb 25 April 1996 vol 571 cc1275-330

Second Reading debate resumed.

4.58 p.m.

Lord McConnell

My Lords, first, I should like to deal with the fact that this Bill is going through all its stages today in this House. Comment was made on Tuesday and we should be wary of a precedent of this nature.

We are told that there is a great rush, but why is that so? It is because the Government have already announced when the elections are to be held. That seems to me to be putting things completely the wrong way round. The Government should allow both Houses to fulfil their proper function by considering the legislation before they embark on an election as a result of it. I feel that we are being treated in a very off-hand way in being asked to take all stages of the Bill today. That reflects on the duty and precedent of this House to act as a revising Chamber. But that has been done and I suppose we must go ahead and accept it.

The suggestion for an election came from the Ulster Unionists, but we have in mind a proper election based on normal British democratic principles and not the peculiarity which, as far as I know, has no constitutional precedent and which I believe has many flaws. I gather that that view is shared by other parties.

The Bill tries to influence the result of the election. There is a list system. That has been tried in other places. Perhaps we can let that pass. However, to state that the 10 parties which gain the highest number of votes should each be given two extra seats is a somewhat peculiar method of conducting what is meant to be a democratic election. That means, of course, that a party which receives I per cent., or .01 per cent. of the vote, will get two seats if that party is in the tenth highest position. That might be quite easy to attain when one considers the list of parties which are being admitted to this election. I must say that I have never heard of the No Going Back party before. I do not know whether other noble Lords are familiar with it. I shall not weary the House by reading out the list but it contains all sorts of names of parties which have not seen the light of day previously.

I particularly object to the second party on the list, the British Ulster Unionist Party, which has suddenly sprung up. It may well be inspired by what happened to the Liberal Democrats a while back in an election when a candidate stood as a Literal Democrat and managed to split the vote. I consider that the object of this party being included in the list is to confuse electors in the hope that the unionist vote will be split by some electors voting for this party thinking that it is the normal Ulster Unionist Party. For that reason I have tabled an amendment to delete that party's name.

Another party in the list is the UK Unionist Party. The name of that party's leader is also included in the list. That is not the case with any of the other parties. There should be consistency; either the names of the parties alone are included, or the parties' leaders are included also. However, one should not include the name of a party's leader in some cases but not in others.

As far as I am aware, there is no provision for deposits. Anyone can stand for election without even putting down a £5 note. It has been a long upheld principle of our electoral system that one excludes frivolous candidates by obliging them to put down a deposit. However, that principle seems to have been completely ignored. Nor indeed do I know how many assentors a party or candidate must have to be able to stand for election. It certainly would be a prudent measure to have a substantial number of assentors—say 20 or 30—to sign the nomination paper before the party was considered to have sufficient backing to stand as a legitimate party.

Command Paper 3232 states in its final paragraph, Both Governments respectively reaffirm their intention that the outcome of negotiations will be submitted for public approval by referendums in Ireland—North and South—before being submitted to their respective Parliaments for ratification and the earliest possible implementation". I take it that the proper names of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are not used because the Government of the Republic do not recognise the existence of Northern Ireland, and that is why this peculiar terminology of "Ireland North and South" is included. I know that the Republic of Ireland does not recognise the existence of Northern Ireland but it is being asked to take part in deciding how that part of the United Kingdom will be governed in the future. The Republic of Ireland has, of course, recognised Northern Ireland's existence several times in the past. I refer to the tripartite agreement of 1925, of which it was so proud that it registered it with the League of Nations. I refer also to Sunningdale. Nevertheless the Republic still does not make any move to change Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution. One might well ask whether the referendum in the Irish Republic will include asking for consent from the voters for the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution, which in any event is contrary to the principles of its membership of the European Union. One member of that Union is not entitled to make territorial claims on another member.

There has been talk about the reinstatement of the ceasefire. It is important that there should be a permanent cessation of violence and that weapons should be handed over. However, one must be careful about terminology and not talk about going back to the recent ceasefire during which, although there were fewer explosions and fewer murders—although there were some—there were still punishment beatings, intimidation and all the Mafia-type organisations. We have to be clear that we shall not just go back to a ceasefire of that nature which is only a partial one, and, if weapons are still kept, it is presumably only a temporary one.

The final paragraph of Command Paper 3232 states that the agreement will be submitted to a referendum in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Does that mean that if an agreement is reached in Northern Ireland between the parties in Northern Ireland the Republican electorate will have a veto? Will it have to be approved by the electorate of the Irish Republic before it is put to this Parliament? Perhaps the noble Baroness can help me on that. Paragraph 4 of the command paper refers to the possibility of a new Anglo-Irish agreement. The previous one has been bad enough and has resulted in enough difficulty of various kinds. We must ensure that if there is a new agreement it is a better and more democratic one than the one we have.

Nevertheless, whatever the imperfections and flaws of this Bill, the Ulster Unionist Party will fight this election. We wish the Government every success in bringing about a situation in which there will be genuine agreement despite all the imperfections of the Bill. I hope that if we get together in the spirit of good will we might be able to achieve that.

5.10 p.m.

The Duke of Abercorn

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, for despite the breakdown of the ceasefire, and the widespread reservations of the political parties towards the proposed negotiations and forum, I remain confident that there is now a real opportunity—possibly the best in a generation—to reach a stable settlement in Northern Ireland and among the people of these islands. Thus, the proposed negotiations and forum could indeed prove both opportune and an important juncture on the journey towards a final settlement.

There is an inevitable feeling of uncertainty, indeed despondence, following the breakdown of the ceasefire. However, there are many internal and external factors which would suggest that Northern Ireland politicians have a real opportunity to reach a stable settlement. Thus, I hope and trust that those who are elected will regard the proceedings as an opportunity and not as a threat.

My guarded optimism lies in the growing realism of the Northern Ireland situation that is being generated both internally and externally. The vast majority of the population in Northern Ireland regardless of cultural background desire, indeed demand, three criteria: a permanent ceasefire; realistic political dialogue; and a stable settlement. In the context of the western world, those aspirations are both rational and realistic.

Externally, there is a sea change of opinion towards Northern Ireland. I believe that the Irish Republic is now firmly living in the post-Haughey era, for the Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton, has time and again demonstrated real sensitivity and understanding of the problems of Northern Ireland. I should like to quote from his Washington speech made last month at an Irish-American dinner. He said: Recent opinion polls in Ireland indicate a profound and historic shift in how Irish people approach the problem of Northern Ireland. No longer do they see it as a simple contest between Irish Nationalism and British Imperialism. There are 900,000 Unionists living in Ireland for 12 generations who regard themselves as British, and all the Semtex in the world will not change their minds. Those 900,000 people are the British presence in Ireland. They have been in Ireland for 12 generations". I believe that this House endorses those sentiments.

Moreover, I believe that the events of the past two years may have altered fundamentally the Irish-American perspective on Northern Ireland and brought an understanding of the hope and aspirations of both communities.

Again, at this critical time, Northern Ireland is extremely fortunate in the total commitment, patience, endurance and competence of the Prime Minister, Sir Patrick Mayhew and Mr. Ancram, in their constant quest for a stable settlement, and by placing Northern Ireland firmly at the top of the political agenda, while my noble friend Lady Denton is for ever travelling the world in her endeavours to bring employment, and thus hope, to our country, with very tangible results.

With this background of growing realism and goodwill towards the Province, those elected on 30th May can approach their task with neither the same degree of threat nor of suspicion as in the past.

There are, of course, two fundamental principles which must be accepted as a pre-requisite for a successful settlement when negotiations finally take place: first, that the future of the Union with Great Britain is in no way undermined or eroded; and, secondly, that the Catholic community is no longer perceived to be on the periphery of society in Northern Ireland but has the full opportunity of belonging to, and being, an integral part of society. I am not advocating integration of the two cultures, but integration of opportunity and involvement—nothing more, nothing less.

During the past 25 years, real progress has been achieved in this direction, and I have witnessed numerous incidents of the by-product of equality of treatment.

My concern for the retention of the Union is not based on a selfish, cultural or traditional basis, but on the conviction that it is in the best interests of the great majority of the population. Indeed, recent surveys and polls have shown time and again that that strong desire has received growing support in all parts of the community. In fact unionism (with a small "u") is year by year finding broader and more concrete support.

While there will never be a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland unless the long-standing fears and suspicions of the unionists are treated seriously, sensitively and with understanding, I must remind those, like myself, who support the Union that British citizenship is not only a birthright, but also involves responsibility. It is similar to any other form of inheritance. It can be preserved for future generations or only too easily squandered.

Again, we in Northern Ireland are not the only part of the United Kingdom where it is the clear responsibility of the majority to accommodate the feelings and aspirations of the minority. Moreover, one or two analysts indicate that by the year 2040 approximately, the two communities will be of the same population. Thus the future of the Province will not be determined on crude cultural arithmetic, but on the quality of life, tolerance, opportunity and, above all, on political maturity.

Therefore, there is a real danger of squandering our future if we persist with the politics of division which are totally redundant in today's climate and which will undoubtedly alienate the next generation, and again play directly into the hands of terrorism and its equally evil propaganda.

This community, which has suffered so much for so long through the futility of gun politics, now desperately needs political vision and courage from the two communities which have already demonstrated so effectively their remarkable physical and moral courage during the past 25 years. Thus, despite the complexity of this Bill, I fully support its aspirations and objectives.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I wish the Bill well in the tradition of bipartisanship which was first developed by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, a quarter of a century ago. He played a major part in bringing in all the political parties and involving us in information which would not normally be readily available. I do so with all the qualifications given by my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn and the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. If there are issues about which we disagree, it is our job to make them clear.

Unlike the noble Duke, the Duke of Abercorn, I hold no great hope for the immediate future. I hope that I am wrong. The negotiations may not begin. The talks may break down. There is no easy road. I sometimes think that we do harm to ourselves by wishing for too much instead of taking matters slowly. When something occurs which looks like a breakdown, we feel that all is lost. It is not lost. It is that we have hoped for too much. All the emotion that is expressed for peace in Northern Ireland sometimes seems to augur well for the future, but such emotion rarely translates itself into new political movement.

There is much criticism of the politicians in Northern Ireland, in which I play no part. They are much closer to their electorate than Members of Parliament are on this side of the water, and certainly closer than are most noble Lords. Northern Ireland is a divided society—although I have no doubt that that is changing. So would a united Ireland be a divided society, born out of a civil war? All the time that I was engaged with Northern Ireland affairs, I was concerned to make sure that another real civil war did not break out in Northern Ireland. If the British Army were not there, there is the danger that a civil war would occur very quickly. The British Army has played a pivotal role in Northern Ireland in keeping the peace in those areas where the RUC, in those days at any rate, was unable to go.

My aim is to raise some of the issues that concern me. I was about to say, very pitifully, "To what effect? Who would take any notice?" Then I saw the former Secretary of State sitting on the Bench opposite and the Minister of State. You could not wish for two better people to listen to whatever arguments are put forward. I take this opportunity to say that in the past two or three years (as Secretaries of State have done before with their Ministers) they have played a major role in bringing the process along in the hope all the time that something would come out of the discussions taking place. It has been done very well. I do not say that in any patronising fashion.

I have met the IRA twice. I can remember only one thing about the meeting in England. One chap said he was the "Attorney-General" of the IRA. When we had finished talking he said: "You are worse than Whitelaw", so I did not get very far. The next time, we met in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I had read enough history to know that being in Phoenix Park at night did not augur very well. My officials held running talks with the IRA during a ceasefire. I presume that my papers on those talks, which are locked up somewhere, ought to be available to the existing Government. I do not suggest that they will contribute to any success, but at least we have been through the rounds before and the account is there.

To turn to the mode of elections, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Holme, I am not worried that they are not based on STV. The noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, introduced STV, and I played a marginal part in Opposition. The noble Lord was right. For obvious reasons, we need a different system now for a situation that is temporary, to enable small parties to take part and, mainly, to bring the Protestant paramilitaries into the game, as they do not do well in elections. If the process succeeds, a great deal of legislation will be required in the other place and in this Chamber. We shall then have to put our minds to achieving legislation that will stand the test of time.

I note that "delegates" are to be elected. I have pondered what that means. Members of Parliament and ourselves are certainly not delegates. They will not be Members of Parliament or members of a legislative assembly which is what, technically, the old Stormont was. Do the nominating representatives of the parties need to be members of the forum? Can anybody be a nominating representative? On the long list of parties that have been thrown up, there is a "Labour" party. It has nothing to do with the Labour Party. The "Conservative Party" does have something to do with the Conservative Party, whatever it is. But does the nominating representative of a party have to be a member of the forum?

I should like to spend a few minutes on the forum itself. In 1975, I set up a convention, which met twice. I had the good sense—often I did not have good sense—to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lowry, to be the chairman, with the permission of the Lord Chancellor. He played a major part in keeping that convention on the right road for the greater part of a year. Very few others could have done that. I am sure that he is not offering to do it again! "Any old chairman" would not be able to do it. When the time comes to choose a chairman, it cannot be anybody. The matter will have to be given very careful thought.

Clause 3(3) states: the forum shall not have any legislative, executive or administrative functions, or any power to determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations mentioned in section 1". I understand that sometimes the representatives will not be meeting. I suggest it will be very difficult to keep them out of Castle Buildings. They may not be meeting formally, but they will be there. Radio and television will be there. It will make Palace Green across the way (as was until a few weeks ago) look like a tea party compared to what will happen. They will all be there. The press lobby will be there on the steps of Castle Buildings or Stormont. There will be chit-chat on chat shows on BBC and ITV and Radio Telefís Éireann. Everybody will be talking. They will all claim that they know what is going on. I look forward to that forum. I shall set aside time every night to watch what goes on.

I am glad that a forum is being set up; but it will not be like the appointed forum in Dublin. It will be something on its own. It will be interesting to watch. No responsibilities, and no administrative functions! People can say what they like. In my time, and that of the noble Viscount, a list was held by the Press Association in the other place called the "BF list". It was a list of Members who would quote on anything. They would stand up on any subject at all. It did not matter whether they knew anything about it. You could ring them up in the middle of the night and they would give a quote on any matter from Abyssinia to Croatia—on any matter at all. Nothing was too much for them. I suggest that the forum that we are to have will be rather similar. I wish the Government the very best of luck in dealing with it. It will need a very good chairman to keep the forum in hand.

To turn to the matter of salary, I note that it will be in the form of an "allowance". In other words, it will be rather like the allowance paid to Members of this place: it will be paid when members turn up. For the convention, we paid a salary. When the first convention was ended—it was later recalled—there were grumbles that the pay had stopped. Although they were not Members of Parliament, they claimed travelling allowances as if they were Members of Parliament. When we decided to end it, because the end had come, the Irish Government made representations. They said, "Keep them going. Pay them. It is better to have them talking up at Stormont than wandering around Northern Ireland". So, for a matter of weeks, until the Treasury got rather cross, we paid people for doing precious little. It was in a good cause: it was to keep people both quiet and talking! I wish the Government well with the forum.

As for the referendum, I have just one question: who will draw up the question? That will present a real difficulty. I offer a paper, a few pages in a recent issue of The House Magazine, by Professor Norton, of Hull. He examined the arguments for and against a referendum. He made the point that there is a difference between a referendum and a plebiscite. I note that he gives the result of the plebiscite, the Border poll, in which my noble friend played a part in 1971, which was set up by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. I seem to remember that my noble friend abstained. The SDLP did not play any part. The result was quite clear: "Yes", 600,000; "No", 6,000; and the rest did not turn up. So you never know what will happen in a referendum.

As to the negotiations, I do not know. All I can say is that when the discussions were taking place in the ceasefire of 1975, everybody in Belfast seemed to think that they had been at the negotiations. All sorts of comments appeared in the local papers. People stated that they had said this, that and the other when they were nowhere near the discussions. The imagination runs riot. There will be difficulty in regard to the negotiations. Indeed, those negotiations were with officials, who were under strict control as to what they should say. Sometimes in negotiations one has to think the impossible.

I did not like the TV programme last night to which the noble Lord referred. It was one-sided. What I did not like was that two Ministers who left the Irish Government a year ago revealed what had taken place in the discussions. They revealed what the Prime Minister had said and his attitude of mind. There is a warning there for those who take part in the negotiations: they should be careful what they say, since within a year or two it will all be out in the open. One dare not say, "Perhaps we could go in this direction", because in 18 months' time the story will be that that is the direction in which one wanted to go. True negotiations mean thinking the impossible. The British Government will have to watch the situation very carefully.

I want to make only one point on the decommissioning of weapons. At Hammersmith Bridge last night 30 lbs of Semtex were found. That was a far bigger bomb than the one in Docklands. If it had gone off, it would have blown the bridge to smithereens. What does the IRA have to do to put itself out of the democratic process? We have not reached the 30th yet. That question applies to other groups in Northern Ireland as well. The decommissioning will be extremely difficult and we will need all the help we can get from the American Government.

I am concerned about the party list—for one reason: in 1968 the Government of the time, of which I was a junior Minister, decided that prospective candidates in elections could put the names of their parties on the ballot paper. When we came to translate it into action, the chairman of the Conservative Party, Dick Sharples, came to see me. He said, "I have a problem. The Conservative Party does not exist. There is no such thing as the Conservative Party. There is the National Union; there is this, that and the other and there are the constituency parties". In the end, we had to stop our idea of registration and let all parties use their own nomenclature because if it had gone wrong we would have had to go to the courts. That is the reason we went in that direction and not in the direction of registration.

When I look at the list available now, I see all sorts of trouble ahead. I hope our lawyers are looking carefully at what will happen after the elections. There have been a number of cases, one of which affected the Liberals recently, and there could be a good many more. However, I hope all goes well.

My extract from the documents also states that the, Taoiseach confirmed that all-party negotiations will be convened on Monday 10 June 1996 following intensive consultations with the relevant political parties and the completion of a broadly acceptable elective process. Following consultation with the political parties this paper sets out the best judgement of the two Governments on the most suitable and broadly acceptable ground rules for the basis, participation, structure, format and agenda of all-party negotiations". I wish them well. But it is not going to be easy and it is better to fear that they all might fail than to pretend that there is a great chance of success; there is not.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Cooke of Islandreagh

My Lords, I listened with care to what the noble Baroness had to say in her introduction of the Bill. She added important information that was new to us.

I welcome this Bill in that it is the necessary and important introduction to all-party talks which are to commence on 10th June, which is not far away. After many years of talking about talks it is very good news that they will commence at last and I earnestly hope that the talks will lead to growing confidence and mutual trust, which in turn can lead to an understanding of how the communities in Northern Ireland can live together in peace and reasonable harmony.

As to the Bill itself, I do not want to say very much. The procedures and rules for the election to the forum are confused and complicated. They have been described as a dog's breakfast but I would hesitate before offering the canine equivalent to my dog.

New rules never before used in an election have been devised. We have to vote for a party whereas we are accustomed to voting for people whom we know. The major parties will have no name attached and yet the smallest, which few people have ever heard of, will have a name attached. I heard on the way into the Chamber that an amendment was accepted in the other place which will allow Mr. Hume's name to be attached to the SDLP, but that Dr. Paisley's name was not to be attached to his party. I hope that that is untrue. If it is so, it will cause unnecessary trouble and much alarm.

The smallest parties will be entitled to submit candidates in each of the 18 constituencies without even being asked for a deposit. Apart from complicating the voting paper, the postage and printing will be a substantial cost to government. I hope that all the complexity and confusion will not deter people from voting. A low poll would fail to indicate the true measure of support for the leading parties and that, after all, is the object of the exercise.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, in what he had to say in encouraging the Government to publicise this election and do their utmost to see that there is a high percentage poll. That is extremely important.

There is universal agreement in all parties that the forum should not have any statutory or legislative powers. But why try to write it off as a body of no significance? Much could come from their deliberations if carefully handled. And to delay even a meeting until after the negotiations have commenced is presumably a sop to Sinn Fein which has said that it will not sit in the forum because there will be a unionist majority.

In the passage of this Bill in another place it was made clear by the Government that amendments of significance would not be accepted. That is doubtless possible because of the bipartisan approach, which is to be welcomed. There is not much we can do about the Bill in this House as we have undertaken to complete all stages today. This unseemly speed is required to meet the set date of 10th June. That date was set by the Government, no doubt pressurised by Dublin in the vain hope that it would encourage another ceasefire and avoid the threat of further bombing. We should recognise that the haste with this Bill is due to the threat of terrorism.

I find myself more alarmed and more concerned after reading Command Paper 3232, which sets out the ground rules for substantive all-party negotiations. It shows how far the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have gone to accept what is, in effect, partnership with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to decide on the future arrangements for Northern Ireland. For the majority who support the Union that is not acceptable. We would expect our Government to do whatever is necessary in support of their sovereign territory.

I believe it is worthwhile to consider for a moment what shape the talks might take. The Government, quite properly, have done their utmost to ensure that all parties with a significant backing will take part in the talks. Special efforts have been made to persuade Sinn Fein to take part and concession after concession has been made in an effort to bring it in. I regret to say that it is the view of almost everyone in Northern Ireland who takes an interest in these affairs that violence has been proved to pay. That is most unfortunate. I hope that no more concessions are made that will give that appearance.

I had thought to spend a few moments considering the possible ways in which the talks might develop. But the bomb under Hammersmith Bridge last night set the scene. Thirty pounds of Semtex in the capital of the United Kingdom: how can the IRA declare an acceptable ceasefire before the talks and let Sinn Fein in on them? I fear that that is that as regards Sinn Fein and the IRA making any acceptable moves. The enormity of such an attempt is quite mind boggling.

It will make it extremely difficult, if we have continuing violence on this scale, for the participants and negotiators in the talks to settle down in the atmosphere which will be necessary to look seriously at the future of Northern Ireland. We require some peace in the community and with high tension it will be difficult. Nevertheless, I trust that the negotiations will be a success. However, if the IRA carries on with the scale of violence of which we had an example last night, I trust that the Government, together with the Government of the Republic of Ireland, will seriously and in a determined manner set about dealing with the IRA. We cannot permit, and no community should have to suffer, the effects of terrorism as we have done in Northern Ireland for 25 years. Serious and determined efforts must be made to take them out if they should carry on.

Nothing I have said in this Bill prevents me from wishing it well and also wishing all those involved a successful outcome from the talks which will follow.

5.41 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it is axiomatic that noble Lords who do not live in Northern Ireland cannot speak with the same authority in Northern Ireland debates as those who do. Nonetheless, as a Northern Ireland layman, as perhaps I can describe myself, I welcome this Bill, strange—to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn,—though I find certain parts of it. It can hardly be called an example of the Government's step-by-step approach to policy in Northern Ireland. Rather, it is micron by micron—and thank heavens, say I.

The history of the relationship between governments in London and the politicians in Northern Ireland over the first 17 years or so of direct rule has been damned by both rush and imposition. Not so over the last few years. This Government have done something that is totally praiseworthy in my book. They have learnt from the mistakes of their predecessors that unless you get the Province's population on side there will be anger and resentment, foot dragging and non-co-operation. This Bill, though, is just the opposite. It is all about getting people on to the same side. It provides, first, for elections to a body whose sole role, as I understand it, is to enter into negotiations for a political settlement in Northern Ireland—the end of which my noble friend Lady Denton spoke.

Secondly, it provides for those who are elected to that body to go on into a forum with wider drawing power—I believe it will, for example, meet in public—which is to be a deliberative body considering anything that the negotiating body asks it to consider. Presumably it is also permitted to consider items on its own initiative. I hope my noble friend will tell us the kind of subjects the Government expect it to cover in its stated objective of promoting dialogue and mutual understanding within Northern Ireland. It is clear that it is to debate and disseminate messages. What will they be, I wonder? I am also disposed to ponder the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, of keeping the parties both quiet and talking.

I find this a politically brave Bill. Although as a result of their talks with the individual parties so far the Government probably know what cannot happen, I do not believe that the Government can possibly know what will happen—either as a result of discussions in the negotiating body or in the deliberations of the forum.

Much has been heard both in this House today and in another place of the method of election to the negotiating body. I too, as I said, find it strange. Of course it is not ideal. It is peculiar to Northern Ireland, decided upon as a result of two factors. The first is the Government's desire for the electorate to have the opportunity to vote for all the recognisable political parties involved, however small they may be. The second is that in discussions the Government have had to settle for second best—the highest common factor of the wishes of the parties in the Province. At one point it looked as though the fledgling Conservative Party in Northern Ireland was not to be on the list. We now find it in Part II of Schedule 1. That omission would have been a glaring error. Of course there was a reason—not a very good one, but a reason nonetheless—for excluding it, and that was that the Government which, of course, at this juncture are a Conservative government and are a party to the negotiations, could represent their views. My short time in the Province taught me some time ago that the people of Northern Ireland just would not believe it, however true it was. There is a history of lack of confidence and a depth of mistrust of governments in Whitehall however much the work of individual Ministers in the Province is appreciated. This appreciation, by the way, is very rarely shown while they are in office. It only becomes apparent after they have left Northern Ireland.

That said, I am delighted that the Government have come to the right decision. But it is not that which has excited so much comment. It is the method of election. Just now we heard it described as a dog's breakfast by the noble Lord, Lord Cooke; and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, thought the method chosen inadequate. No one in this Chamber would disagree with them. In a perfect world we would all have a totally different form of PR. But alas, we do not live in a perfect world. All we can hope for is what I have called the highest common factor, and that is precisely what we have in the Bill.

I described this Bill as politically brave. There is another reason why it is so. There is a history in the island of Ireland of something that I do not recall ever happening this side of the water, though no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong. It is this. It is not unknown for people to be elected to a political body with the express intention of never appearing, never taking their seat. Although the Bill minimises the likelihood of this happening, simply because of proportional representation, it does not, it cannot, rule it out completely. If that happens there will be views left unstated at the negotiating table and any form of final agreement at that table would be very difficult indeed to sell to the people of Northern Ireland. Of course, you must try, and the only way that has a chance is a referendum—a long-standing promise of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister—the legislative appearance of which I welcome unreservedly.

Lastly, there is, I am afraid, a much more likely, a much more real reason for people being elected and then not turning up at this particular negotiating table. The Bill states quite clearly that any party on the list, and therefore any individual on the slate, presumably proposed for the elections by the party leaders—whom the Bill, for some obscure reason, calls nominating representatives—can be elected. As of this moment, however, it is by no means clear that they will automatically go on from there to the negotiating table. That is because Clause 3 provides, in essence, that the Secretary of State will veto their attendance if they do not sign up to democratic principles and the renunciation of violence. We all know what this means. Sinn Fein in particular, and the loyalist parties with links to paramilitaries cannot be at the negotiations unless they sign up to those very basic tenets.

Recent history has shown us that they are all capable of doing so. The IRA's 17 month ceasefire proved to the world that that was so. The tragedy of the Canary Wharf bombing that brought it to an end was not only that two people were killed and millions of pounds' worth of damage done to property, horrific though that undoubtedly is, but that Sinn Fein,—the IRA—have not learnt the political lessons that I referred to too long ago: namely, that you cannot rush things in Northern Ireland, especially political development.

The negotiations will take place with or without Sinn Fein. Unless that party signs up at the very beginning, the outcome shows very little sign of being acceptable in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein must know that. I read Martin McGuinness's comments rather differently from the noble Lord, Lord Holme. It is my view that if a ceasefire comes it will come with very little, if any, forewarning. I hope and pray that Sinn Fein really wants a political settlement in the Province and that it will declare a new and unequivocal ceasefire, notwithstanding last night's bomb.

The Government are bravely pursuing a course which is beset with uncertainty. I am sure in my own mind that this is the right way forward in the circumstances. I wish both the Bill and them God speed.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I think I must be constitutionally distrustful of authority and leaders. One of the purposes of my contribution today is to try and play a positive role and be supportive where I think it is warranted. I would like to say at this Second Reading debate a few words on the timing, the bipartisanship and the broad thrust of the Bill.

On the timing, we are, in fact, considering this Bill at a great rush. Those of your Lordships who, I am sure, are assiduous with your paperwork will have struggled to read through Hansard of the other place to get a flavour of the debate and the detail considered there in preparation for today. To have less than 24 hours to consider that, formulate amendments and so on is not easy. Some of us have done our best. However, in considering the debates of the other place, I was reassured on two counts. First, there was considerable debate; and, secondly, a number of amendments were accepted by the Government.

I now turn to the bipartisan approach adopted by the Official Opposition with regard to the Government's handling of what is generally termed the Northern Ireland peace process. On the one hand, it provides great strength in terms of the ability of the Government to say there is no strong body of opinion with a different attitude to theirs and therefore there is no point in waiting for a change of government. However, it also carries risks in the sense that the normal procedures operating in Parliament of the Official Opposition challenging the Government and requiring the Government to argue their position strongly and to win those arguments are not apparent. As a result, the responsibility on Back-Benchers becomes more important. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and myself fall into the category of those wanting to look closely at the Government's proposals and wishing to put forward sensible amendments which are of positive support to the Government rather than being unfriendly.

It would appear that we are asked to engage in two contradictory operations. On the one hand, we are setting up an electoral system designed to ensure that small political parties achieve some electoral legitimacy. On the other hand, a hurdle is thrown up in Clause 2(3), which refers to the Command Paper. The one saving grace is that the responsibility for determining whether that hurdle has been surmounted is in the hands of the Secretary of State. We can only trust in his good judgment to ensure that all the players at the negotiating table who need to be there are allowed to be there.

There are a number of matters of detail to which I have tabled amendments. It is probably better to leave those for the Committee stage. However, I would raise one specific issue with of the Minister. Can the Government confirm that they will be receptive to amendments if the case is made for them and that they will ensure there is adequate time for scrutiny in this place so that, if necessary, should the wording need to be changed, amendments can be brought forward at Report stage or Third Reading? Will there be a window of opportunity in which to take the Bill back to the other place should it be amended in this place without running into the constraints of time required to get the Bill through to ensure that the electoral process can be undertaken? I am confident that the Government will be able to give that assurance.

5.54 p.m.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I had thought that I was rising to speak as an ordinary person from Northern Ireland. As my noble friend said that she has never found an ordinary person and failed to elaborate on that point, I think that we in Northern Ireland must think that we are extraordinary and probably of above average intelligence and ability. I shall leave that for now. Perhaps my noble friend would like to explain her point later.

In rising to support the Bill, I, too, would add my thanks to my noble friend the Minister for her explanation of it, justifying the system which will be used to elect the forum. I accept that the reasons for the Government choosing this system are as equally justified as they would have been for any other biased and weighted system. Because of the required result of returning a forum that does not reflect accurately the voting pattern of the electorate, any system—be it a list or otherwise—incorporating a bias would be open to criticism. Therefore, the Government have achieved something in that everyone is equally unhappy. Perhaps that is the best way under the circumstances. I mean that sincerely.

I shall not go over all the comments that have been made about the number of parties and so on, but I should like to add just a couple of points. The party list is very confusing, as we have heard. When the list is drawn up on the ballot paper, perhaps the existing recognised parties should be listed in alphabetical order at the top of it so that people can more easily find the party for which they would normally vote and then, should they decide that they do not wish to do that, they can see whether they can find some other configuration on the following sheet or in the file presented. That would be helpful even though our intelligence is not in doubt.

I support the feelings about deposits. Deposits ensure serious commitment. If there is any worry about the parties not having enough money—the parties we are concerned about are the pro-terrorist parties—noble Lords should rest assured that the IRA has raised plenty of money in America. As I understand it, that money can be used for that kind of thing. It may not have escaped your Lordships' notice that the loyalists produced a quick £1 million the other day. So perhaps it would not be wrong to demand a considerable deposit.

I am inclined to support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in respect of decommissioning. However, looking a little closer at it and taking it one stage further, if it is agreed in the early stages that there should be decommissioning, where is the legislation to enable it to occur? Even if it were to be done by order, it would take some time. I suggest that if, in the negotiations, we get to the point of decommissioning, it should happen immediately. Even an order would take some time to prepare. It could be done by an Act with everything left out except for the date that it starts. It is not frivolous to say that at the moment we are not allowed on main roads with a loaded shotgun. We are going to have to look at allowing people to drive down the main road with everything from machine guns to rocket launchers. Legislation must be there or else people will be committing a criminal act against the firearms legislation as it currently stands. That is an important point.

I am not quite sure what is happening about forensic testing. I know that terrorists do not want it. It is generally accepted that forensic testing should not go as far as linking an individual with a weapon. Forensic testing is now such that that can be done a very long time after someone has handled a weapon. However, in the verification of decommissioning, can we not have forensic testing to reassure ourselves which weapons were used in shootings? We would then know the proportion that has been handed in. We shall not know whether we have all the weapons that were in store and had never been used, but at least someone can sit down and say, "Listen, you have told us that you handed them in, but you have not handed in the weapon for this and that". That is perfectly feasible. We are not talking about linking a weapon to an individual. I would like to see a move on that or at least some reassurance.

The aim of the election to the forum is to get responsible people to stand. We are not electing MPs, county councillors, leading Orangemen or, for that matter, leading members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. We are trying to elect negotiators whom I hope will be intelligent, working people. But the Government have not yet said what the commitment is for the forum or, indeed, for the negotiators. When will the forum sit? We have some idea when the negotiating team will sit, but how often will it sit and where, and how much will its members be paid? We have already heard something about that from the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees. Will they get holidays?

The people of Northern Ireland have no idea what the Government will be asking the delegates to do, so how can we ask people who are doing responsible jobs to be prepared to sign up to be elected to something that might require one day in a month, five days a week or whatever? I simply do not understand why the Government will not come clean and tell us what is required of that forum once it first sits. I understand that it may be for some time. People must know—and they have a right to know. I am quite sure that noble Lords will agree that they cannot give a commitment without knowing more. Incidentally, on that score, there are now a couple of groups of people who have never been interested in politics until now. They are younger, business people who realise that—although they may not want to be actively involved—politics and decisions taken in Westminster and elsewhere do affect their businesses, not from the point of view of the border with the south of Ireland, but on the world stage. They are becoming more interested. Unless the Government move on this, they are not going to gain any advantage whatsoever from that.

I do not want to labour the point as regards a ceasefire, but I must support those who say that it must be absolute and so on. Turning to that and to the six principles of the Mitchell Report, I know that many people in Northern Ireland want to know at what stage and at what minute that should take place. Is it when they are going through the door that they have to hold up their hand and swear to those principles? Are they to sign a sheet of paper? Do they sit down and someone asks them questions, or do they just mumble "Yes", which I suggest would not be enough? I cannot remember which noble Lord mentioned the first two days for decommissioning to be addressed. There will not be two days. That matter should be addressed at a given point and then everybody will be aware of it. The Government must tell the average person in Northern Ireland who would like to know that.

This Bill will work. It will produce a forum. There is no doubt about it. But the next stage of the negotiations may be a little more difficult. We have heard about some of the possible results, but I want to refer to one of them: let us say that Sinn Fein and the IRA call a permanent ceasefire. That would perhaps be a miracle, but it would be a most amazing and wonderful thing if they did, and that would be a complete success. However, there may be no ceasefire and then Sinn Fein and the IRA will not be included. Sadly, we shall then be open to continued terrorism.

The last alternative about which I wish to warn the Government is the worst scenario of all. It is that Sinn Fein and the IRA achieve what they are now running around to achieve like chickens trying to get out of a hutch. They are trying to find a way of ensuring that the unionists will be right. Many people here will accept that they will be right. They hope that the unionists will find that they cannot go to the talks because something has been given by the Government. I am not asking for reassurance because they have already said it.

Sinn Fein and the IRA are trying to find a way in which the Government will either dilute the Mitchell principles or say that the ceasefire is fine if they wake up at eight o'clock on the morning of the 10th and it is there. If they can do that, the only people at the gates for those talks will be the IRA and Sinn Fein. They will then have a PR coup like the one they had immediately after the ceasefire had broken down when they turned up at the gates of Stormont with television cameras everywhere. But no one in the Government or in the NIO had the wit to realise that that was one of the options open to the IRA. To be honest, the matter was very incompetently handled. I should like some reassurance from the Minister that this time they are thinking about that possible scenario because that is the worst of all possibilities. Nobody minds Sinn Fein/IRA being there if they give all the necessary reassurances, but do we want it splashed all over the world's papers that they have got there, but that the unionists and the peaceful people of the SDLP refuse to sit down with them because something has occurred somewhere? The Government should do a bit of lateral thinking beforehand.

Before I sit down, I should like to make a very quick comment about last night's bomb at Hammersmith, which I find rather troubling. This morning I heard on the radio that only the detonator had gone off. I ask my noble friend the Minister why this information is in the public domain. I simply do not understand. Are we providing an instructional-type of debriefing for the terrorists? In Northern Ireland, in similar circumstances, that information is highly confidential, if not secret. Such information must not be announced. I am not suggesting that they have done this, but if people within the police or ATO staff are giving information to the press, they should cease to do so; and if they are not talking, there must be a problem with the operation of the incident control. The cordon is too narrow and the cameras are watching the situation with their big lenses. One should not forget that terrorist sympathisers are nearly always there. They are watching what is going on so that they can catch the ATO, or whoever, the next time round.

This is very important. Whatever the reason for this, it is thoroughly bad practice and nearing incompetence. It can only lead to a greater chance of death and injury the next time round. Will my noble friend convey this message through the right channels? This is not the first time, because we have heard something similar as regards another bomb. It is absolutely vital. No family which loses a member in a subsequent bombing will thank this lapse of security on someone's part, albeit that it is the Government's responsibility.

I sincerely hope that this Bill will be the enabling legislation for a peaceful conclusion to such issues. I know it may be difficult to perceive, but we all live in hope.

6.8 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I am very conscious this evening that there are two ex-Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland in your Lordships' House. The noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, fought so fearlessly and valiantly to bring about an executive in Northern Ireland. I shall continue to believe to my dying day that that was the best political hope of my lifetime. He brought the executive into being against a great deal of opposition. My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, unfortunately, had to sign the documents which brought about its demise.

Now we are engaged in another exercise to see if it is possible to bring about political change in Northern Ireland. Again, I am conscious of every election since I first became interested in politics. Even before that, when the Northern Ireland state was set up, the mode of election was the single transferable vote (STV). The Unionist party, which came into being in 1922 at Stormont, was frightened that the Catholic minority was too big—it was 35 per cent.—and that it might become bigger. The electoral system was changed.

As the years passed boundaries were subject to gerrymandering and rigging. Local government votes were denied to people on the ground that they did not pay rates or have property in certain areas. That was the one big factor that led to the beginning of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Anyone who can remember those days will recall the signs that all of us carried—I carried them—saying "One man, one vote". That became a great rallying cry.

Against the wishes of many in his own party, my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, who was then Home Secretary, introduced another mode of election. We reverted to the single transferable vote for European elections. It was not accepted in the United Kingdom but it was for elections in Northern Ireland.

Over the past 50 years there has been a continual change in modes of election. Without wishing to criticise the Government, the mode that has been thought up for the forum is the most bizarre I have seen in my political life. Anyone who listened to or read the reports of the proceedings in the House of Commons on Monday and Tuesday of this week will be in no doubt of the massive confusion among Members of Parliament and, consequently, the electors of Northern Ireland. It may be for the best of reasons that the Government have sought to bring a forum into being. However, to bring in a forum and to say that from it will emerge men and women of integrity who will concentrate on bringing about peace in Northern Ireland is totally unrealistic. Those elected to the forum will have been elected on party tickets. The SDLP will have its members, the Official Unionists will have theirs, and so on. The personnel have not changed. I would have thought it better to stick to the STV system in which the names of the candidates are put on the ballot paper.

The people of Northern Ireland are not fools. They are able to detect who is a moderate, who is engaged in the search for peace, who is engaged in the search for party political advantage, and who is engaged in the politics of superiority over political opponents. As it is, people will go in and cast one vote. The leaders of the parties involved in the election, most of whom are in another part of this building, will nominate as their delegates to the negotiating process those who will agree with them. Within every party—the SDLP, the Official Unionist party, the DUP and so on—there are different categories of personnel. Within the ranks of my former party there are very green nationalists who under no circumstances will begin to understand—nor do they want to understand—the views of the Official Unionists or the Protestant population of Northern Ireland. There are others within that party who are more considerate and who, like me, will go out of their way to reach an accommodation with the majority population in Northern Ireland.

In the past two days we have heard an awful lot about the nomenclature of political parties. When the SDLP was formed I had great difficulty arriving at the name, Social Democratic and Labour Party. Two people, myself and Paddy Devlin, wanted it to be a labour party. Others, led by John Hume, did not want any name that contained "labour" or "socialist", but they wanted a socialist democratic party. There were four of them and two of us. That was how the name SDLP was arrived at. I was interested to sit in the Gallery of the other place to hear John Hume and his colleagues demand that SDLP be put on the ballot paper.

This is not the best way for people in Northern Ireland to vote for a party. I believe that there is a big responsibility on the Government to talk to party leaders to ensure that the best people are at the beginning of the search for peace and not those seeking their own party political ends. Elections in Northern Ireland can be lethal. Many people have been killed and injured during the course of elections since 1922. This is not the best way to bring about a forum that can contribute to the search for peace.

My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees has today demonstrated that there can be a good deal of humour in Northern Ireland, allied to all the tragedy. One of the most humorous matters I have come across is the list of parties in Northern Ireland. I do not know whether many of your Lordships have read the list. The political parties seeking seats in the forum are the Communist Party of Ireland, the Conservative Party, the Democratic Left, the Democratic Partnership, the Democratic Unionist—DUP, the Green Party, Independent Chambers, the Independent Democratic Unionist Party, Independent Kerr, Independent McCaffrey, Independent McGrath, Independent McMullan, Independent Sinclair, Independent Templeton and Labour. I do not know what kind of Labour Party that is. The next one is the Natural Law Party. If your Lordships have 10 minutes to spare I suggest a reading of the Official Report to see what happened in the other place on Tuesday. I refer to the speech of Mr. Peter Robinson, Member of Parliament for East Belfast. I refer to the derisory way in which he was able to take apart the Natural Law Party which was engaged in yogic flying. That is certainly a criterion for getting into the forum in Northern Ireland!

The next party on the list is the No Going Back Party. I understand that that is a misprint; it should be the No Going Forward Party. The remainder are the Northern Ireland Party (NIP)—whatever that is—the Northern Ireland Womens' Coalition, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the UK Unionist Party—Robert McCartney, the Ulster Christian Democrat Party, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), Ulster Independence, Ulster's Independent Voice, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Workers' Party. Does anyone seriously believe that that list of parties can contribute in any way to bringing peace to Northern Ireland? I am reminded that there are two others on the list, the Alliance Party and the British Ulster Unionist Party.

I have fought many elections in Northern Ireland. When you fill in your nomination paper and hand it to the returning officer he will query it. If he thinks that there is something wrong with it he will not accept it and you will not be part of the election. I have a quote from a speech by the Secretary of State. He was asked how all of the names of the parties got into the schedule. He said that they had written to him and told him that they were political parties. How naïve is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to believe that. Is he absolutely stupid to accept a list of names of parties which were non-existent before it was announced that they had to be political parties? He is either absolutely stupid or very naïve. I very much hope that it is the latter. If I were living in a constituency in Northern Ireland I would not wish to be represented by the Natural Law Party or any of the other loony tunes which will be involved in the election contest. The Government should have consulted those people who were really intent on bringing about peace rather than accept this list of names.

There is a serious aspect. The DUP, led by Dr. Ian Paisley, has been in existence in Northern Ireland for many years. I totally disagreed for many years, and will continue to disagree, with Dr. Paisley's assessment of what is right for Northern Ireland. But all parties in Northern Ireland—I have quoted some of them—who believe in the link with England have to have "Unionist" in their names.

That is the one thing they have in common. We have the Progressive Unionist Party, the popular Unionists and the independent Unionists. They have one thing in common. The unionists determine that they give their allegiance to the maintenance of the link with Britain.

What I am about to say to the Minister is very serious. The Protestants in Northern Ireland—the loyalists—do not vote for gunmen. The whole history of Northern Ireland shows that the loyalist population does not vote for murderers or convicted criminals. I am sorry to have to say this, but it is not the same of the nationalist population. Time and time again, the nationalist population has voted for released terrorists, whether or not they have been murderers. It votes for people who have been sentenced for terrorist or criminal acts. The Protestant population does not do that.

Two new political parties have emerged over the past one or two years. They are the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party. They have within their ranks men who have been convicted of murder and serious terrorist crimes. One of them is a Mr. John White who is the spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party. He killed my close friend, Senator Paddy Wilson. He has served his time in prison. He has now made a breakthrough. He has his briefcase and is taken by the hand into the Northern Ireland Office. I bitterly resent that. But the Northern Ireland Office seems to be pulling out every stop in the business to get people like him elected as delegates. It has done everything it can. In fact the Secretary of State said, "Let us see what happens. The purpose of this is to secure that those who will not get a large vote by reason of small but significant support will not be excluded from participation." Those people will not get votes from the loyalist population. But the Secretary of State wants to get them into the negotiating chamber. That is a very dangerous road to travel.

I attended the other place the other day. I have just read out the name of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. We had some trouble getting that name at the inception of the party. That is the way the party was listed. But the SDLP said that that was not enough. It wanted the initials SDLP included on the ballot paper. I listened to what my noble friend Lord Cooke said. I shall explain to him what happened.

The ballot paper was to show the Social Democratic and Labour Party. But the party wanted the initials SDLP added. It fought its corner ferociously at the other end of the building. The Minister of State, Lord Ancram, agreed to accept an amendment and include the initials SDLP on the ballot paper. But the DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party), for quite obvious reasons, wanted the name of its leader on the ballot paper to differentiate it from one of the fringe loyalist parties called the UDP (the Ulster Democratic Paper). There was a danger that votes could be cast the wrong way. But the Minister fiercely resisted putting Ian Paisley's name on the ballot paper. The name of Robert McCartney of the United Kingdom Unionist Party is on the ballot paper. It is only fair, as the Minister agreed to have the SDLP and Robert McCartney on the ballot paper and in order to dissipate the confusion that could exist with UDPs, DUPs and all the other parties with Unionist in the title, to have Ian Paisley's name on the ballot paper. That is only right.

The Secretary of State should have another look at these bogus parties to make sure that they are not included in any election material. It is said that the top 10 parties will have extra delegates. There is a loyalist called David Ervine who may get a seat in a Province-wide vote in Northern Ireland. I have seen him on television. He speaks a great deal of sense. I wish that he had been in politics many years ago.

I disagree with what was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, about the bomb found at Hammersmith Bridge yesterday. The police and the Government were right to let the public in this country know what would have happened if that 30 pounds of semtex had caught. It would have blown the bridge and everywhere in the vicinity to smithereens. Just think of the carnage that would have brought to that part of London! I believe that it was the IRA and Sinn Fein saying, "We don't want anything to do with your assembly." It is either that or Sinn Fein did not know, once again, that the IRA was going to create such havoc and murder.

The personnel who take part in the forum will be all-important. That has already been alluded to by my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees who knows Northern Ireland. Those elected to the forum must be given something to do. You cannot take them there on one day and say, "We'll come back in a fortnight's time." The very fact that they will be elected on 30th May but will not meet until a month after the negotiations have been taken place is, in a way, pushing them aside and saying, "Well, we have got you here, but we are not going to listen to what you've got to say." My noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees was right when he said that those people will not take it lightly. They will not go away; they will be in through the gates of Stormont; they will insist on using the catering facilities in Stormont. For some, whom I know, the catering facilities will include the bar. The phones will be running red hot from the bar in Stormont to all their favourite journalists so that they can leak stories to them. I have experience of that. Some people may remember the famous Northern Ireland journalist, W. D. Flackes. He was famous because everyone leaked stories to him. I used to leak stories to John Wallace of the Belfast Telegraph. If it came to leaking stories here, I would leaked stories to Dessie McCartan. We all have our favourite journalists to whom we can leak stories. That will happen in Northern Ireland unless we are sure what duties will be given to the forum and how they will be handled.

I cannot say that I welcome the Bill. The Minister knows that the Bill will leave this House as it came in. She will not accept any amendments. She can kick it through without the help of the Minister of State, as happened to her colleague in another place. She can do it all herself, because in half an hour we shall have someone making a speech who will apologise for detaining the House at a late hour. It becomes a late hour here at about 10 minutes to seven in the evening. The Bill will go through the House as it is. I can but wish it well. The Government should have consulted more before they thought of this bizarre and disastrous form of elections. I only hope that we emerge from the process an awful lot better than I think we will.

6.28 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, after that rich dose of realism, I hardly dare proceed, but I regard the Bill as the necessary gateway to the all-party talks as well as to the forum which, as my noble friend the Minister has pointed out, will be flexible, and will allow a wide range of people to say what they think. It is the result of the hard work, courage and unvarying commitment of the Prime Minister and the Ministers concerned, including my noble friend Lady Denton of Wakefield. We should not, however, attempt to fudge the difficulties.

It is well that Sinn Fein has recognised that it cannot afford, in the US context, to refuse to take part in the elections. It is fortunate also that the hard facts of the ballot box will probably demonstrate that Sinn Fein is, and has always been, a minority party—as it happens, both in North and South—whose power and credibility rest on the support of a small group of unelected and faceless men with guns and semtex. They should not be allowed to speak for those Nationalists in Northern Ireland—and they are the majority in that group—who are prepared, given the experience of the past months, to fight their corner for the democratic process alone, and, as the framework document said, enjoy the right to aspire to a sovereign united Ireland achieved by peaceful means and through agreement". I emphasise that because I believe that we must be ready to stand firm if and when the IRA does make a tactical, not a strategic, decision to declare a ceasefire on the eve of the talks. Sinn Fein/IRA must not then be allowed to enter the talks on that basis alone: it must be required to sign up unequivocally to the renunciation of violence, the acceptance of democratic decisions democratically arrived at, and the discussion of the modalities of decommissioning early in the process. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that we should certainly be ready with some concrete modalities to discuss.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, put the position on the talks admirably. I entirely support everything that he said. Martin McGuinness is quoted in The Times today as saying on the BBC's Northern Ireland "Newsline" on 24th April that the ceasefire of August 1994 had never been permanent. It was, he said, a complete cessation which could have been made permanent only through dialogue between the Government and all political parties". As Sinn Fein/IRA also described the Unionists' majority vote in Northern Ireland as a Unionist veto and will accept no vetoes, no preconditions, it is clear enough that it will be essential for us to insist on the conditions of participation set out in the Ground Rules.

At present it seems that Sinn Fein/IRA's preferred tactic could well be, after sending some of their favourite messages in the form of bombs, to destabilise the talks. They can do that by calling another cessation, followed by Sinn Fein refusing to make the necessary commitments to qualify to join the talks. Both governments will then be blamed for excluding them. On the other hand, if the two governments attempted to admit them anyway on the grounds that the talks would be meaningless without them, the Unionists and, indeed, all in Northern Ireland, including many Nationalists who are not ready to negotiate with a violent minority, would be justified in boycotting the talks. Then they would be blamed for frustrating the peaceful aspirations of Sinn Fein/IRA.

Meanwhile, the "Dispatches" programme on television last night, to which reference has already been made, has made its own contribution to the destabilisation process. There were always parts of the framework document which could be considered weighted in favour of a united Ireland, or, at the very least, of the weakening of Northern Ireland's links with the UK. It is not reassuring, as the programme claimed with supporting interviews from the ineffable Albert Reynolds—the Willy Claes of Dublin—and other Irish personalities involved, that the key parts of the framework document were written by Gerry Adams, John Hume and Charles Haughey and, of course, Martin McGuinness and that this interesting quartet (and Albert Reynolds) actually negotiated the ceasefire with the IRA.

It is interesting that Albert Reynolds managed to condemn HMG for presuming to have undisclosed talks with the IRA while claiming all the credit for his own equally secret proceedings. It is to say the least unusual for someone purporting to be a responsible statesman to show parts of the text of letters he received from another on very delicate matters of state on television, and can hardly promote a climate of trust for the future. No doubt that was part of the intention.

Fortunately, the present Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton, is a very different man as the unremitting attacks on him by Gerry Adams have confirmed, quite apart from his own recognition that the Unionists, too, are, a part of the Irish nation". That, incidentally, is also a quotation from David O'Connell. It will be vital for Mr. Bruton to be seen to maintain his open-minded approach, as there are serious and disturbing ambiguities in the Ground Rules; for example, paragraphs 23 and 24, which make me uneasy. It is unfortunate that nothing is ever heard now about the original Dublin commitment to propose the abandonment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which lay claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has its own special rich and valuable identity. I deeply deprecate any formula on consensus, for instance, which may open the way to giving Dublin an effective veto in Northern Ireland affairs, and notably on its wish to remain part of the United Kingdom.

It may be argued, if and when the IRA moves, that the statesmanlike thing is to be flexible and, therefore, to call Sinn Fein/IRA into the talks on the basis of another cessation of violence alone, without commitment to the Mitchell principles. That way lies danger. Not only will the Unionists and the Loyalist paramilitaries feel betrayed and boycott the talks, so that in the efforts to placate the minority we could have lost the peaceful majority, but we shall also devalue the whole process and people will cease to believe in it. No one respects appeasement.

We are in a position of relative strength if we can keep our nerve, but part of that strength must consist in recognising that Sinn Fein/IRA want something which they know quite well they can never secure by political negotiation—a United Ireland on their terms and the denial of the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future. Hence their interest, as they are not prepared to compromise and get a little less, is to describe a majority vote as a veto, and to destabilise the political process, whether through a political phase of struggle (the achievement of international respectability which they successfully won in the months after the ceasefire) or through the violence which is their preferred mode of operation.

The IRA sharks have so far swum successfully and comfortably in a warm nationalist sea. Let us hope that they will now be left gasping on the shore as the Nationalists abandon them in favour of using the democratic process. Our policy must be to listen to, and act with, those Nationalists, not Sinn Fein/IRA. I believe too, finally, that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, was right to urge that we must be seen to make any reasonable concession, such as a move for Patrick Kelly. But would it not be reasonable to couple that with a public requirement on Sinn Fein/IRA to tell the families of those whom they murdered where their bodies lie? They have obdurately refused to do so thus far. Last of all, I feel that the Government may be in need of a seriously good public relations person.

6.37 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I have often stood at this Dispatch Box during the past two years and said how grateful I was for the commitment of noble Lords to the progress of peace in Northern Ireland. I repeat that today with great sincerity because I believe that the speeches we have heard this afternoon indicate how much people are concerned that we should go forward. Of course, there has been much emphasis on the difficulties. I can assure the House that the Government do not underestimate them for one minute. However, noble Lords have given us their best wishes in working against possibly impossible odds and having to produce miracles. I thank all speakers in that respect.

It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, said, a late hour for Northern Ireland business; indeed, it is an exceptionally early hour. I am delighted that, on this occasion, there have been more than the usual number of noble Lords in the Chamber for the discussion of Northern Ireland. That is much appreciated. I shall try to answer all the matters raised. But, obviously, we shall return to some when discussing amendments. As always, I shall ensure that I follow up any points.

I should perhaps explain to the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, that no amendment or suggestion from this House is ever ignored. I can assure the noble Lord that there is every opportunity on this occasion to send an amended Bill back to the other place. Indeed, it would have been extremely out of order for there to be anything else but that possibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, opened the debate and I should like to thank him, as ever, for his assistance and for the bipartisan approach which helps us in working towards a peaceful process. I hope that the House appreciates that the Government take every possible opportunity to consult with the party opposite, to discuss matters with noble Lords and to inform them on all occasions. I should confirm that the bipartisan approach of the Opposition Benches has never been seen on this side of the House as slavish. We appreciate their commitment to building a future for Northern Ireland.

I should like to confirm loudly and clearly that the forum will not meet before the negotiators meet and it will be entirely deliberative. The noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord Williams, are both well versed in the opening stage of negotiations and the role of the Mitchell principles of democracy and non-violence and the proposals for decommissioning. I should like to take this opportunity to point out that the Mitchell principles also include an end to punishment beatings, and that is something which must always be remembered and honoured.

The noble Lords also mentioned the prior need for a restored ceasefire. The Bill makes clear that the Secretary of State will not invite to the negotiations any party which has been successful in the elections but which does not meet the requirements set out in paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Command Paper. In the case of Sinn Fein, that means that there has to be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. The two Governments are agreed on this point and will decide on whether the requirement has been met in the light of all the circumstances if and when the IRA makes an announcement.

There is a further agreement between the Governments on the arrangements for the beginning of negotiations. This is also set out in the Command Paper and is vitally important. When negotiations start, every participating party will need to make clear its total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence as set out in paragraph 20 of the Mitchell Report.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked what would happen if there should be a change of mind. I assure him that, were there to be a change of mind on commitment to Mitchell, whichever party did that would be out and no longer part of the negotiations. It is an absolutely essential commitment.

All parties will also be required at that stage to address the Mitchell proposals for decommissioning. It is quite clear that progress on this issue will be crucial to the success of the negotiations, and there will be consultation with the participants as to how this process will be managed. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, mentioned, there are alternatives here and the Government will be considering carefully now how to proceed. What is absolutely clear is that the substantial agenda of work on the Mitchell proposals on decommissioning cannot be ducked or left to the end of the negotiations.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also asked whether there will be a new Mitchell Commission. I would remind him that the Government accepted the recommendation in paragraph 40 of the Mitchell Report that there should be an independent commission acceptable to all the parties to oversee the decommissioning process. The precise arrangements for that will be addressed in the negotiations.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also raised the matter of Mr. Kelly. That is a matter for the Home Secretary, but I shall make certain that his attention is drawn to the concerns of the noble Lord. I share wholeheartedly the view of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that if this opportunity now offered in Northern Ireland is missed it may he a very long time before we can bring hope and vision back to the agenda.

I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for his valued support for the Bill and for all the work he does in Northern Ireland. We believe that the White House helpers he identified are playing a very important part now. The message we were getting in Washington a month ago that there is no place for people who use violence gets stronger and stronger, and we must be very grateful for that friendship, which is obviously going to be of value.

The noble Lord raised the question of fraud in elections. Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland saying "Vote early and vote often" is not always a matter of humour. I assure him that we are aware of the great need for intense scrutiny in this area and we shall ensure that that happens. The questions of identity and the requirement to prove it are already in the hands of the electors.

Both noble Lords drew attention to the report of the scrutiny committee. The Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 is a precedent, and that is understood by the parties and people in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly Act also enables an order to set the franchise for elections. The Bill provides for this part of the exercise by order subject to affirmative resolution. I stress that the power is strictly time limited, ending in May 1999. I doubt that we would disagree that this is not the most desirable way in which to legislate in any circumstances, but there are very special circumstances in Northern Ireland and we try to accelerate the fulfilment of a hope as much as possible.

We were asked about making sure that people vote in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's electoral registration is the highest in the United Kingdom, running routinely in excess of 90 per cent., according to the Chief Electoral Officer's statistics. This very high figure is probably due to two reasons. First, Northern Ireland's electoral registration process does not depend on a postal return; instead, the completed forms are collected by personal canvassers at each household. Secondly, the Chief Electoral Officer is empowered to undertake a process of continuous registration. As the election in Northern Ireland has been so widely publicised over the last couple of months—sometimes in support, sometimes against—I believe that all those who are eligible and who would wish to vote have had ample opportunity to arrange matters. However, we will most certainly continue to focus resources on making sure that those votes are used.

The Northern Ireland Office has already issued a leaflet to Northern Ireland's 590,000 households, which is to be delivered by the Post Office during this week and next. This alerts the electorate to those who are eligible to vote in the 30th May elections and the possible need to apply for a postal or proxy vote. It also reminds people of the need to produce their identity document. Shortly before election day, we will undertake a second leaflet drop to all households, which will reiterate eligibility to vote, explain how to vote on this occasion, mention how the vote will work and repeat the need for a specified identity document. Additionally, there will be an advertising campaign in the media. Details of that are being worked on at the moment. As both noble Lords are frequent visitors to the Province, they will have noticed, I am sure, that the Northern Ireland Office is not unfamiliar with television as an advertising medium.

The timetable for the publication of the Bill was very compressed. It is important that we keep this process moving. My noble friend Lord Brookeborough, asked about holidays. People take their own holidays; we do not set holiday timetables in many instances. It was important that we moved before the summer and, in the case of Northern Ireland, before certain conspicuous dates in July. Therefore, we introduced the Bill as fast as we could. It was also the result of intense consultation with the Northern Ireland parties. I apologise to the noble Lords who found that the timetable put them under pressure. We published a draft Bill as soon as we were able and we sent it, together with the Command Paper, to all those parties named in the schedule. We appreciate that we sometimes ask more of noble Lords than we should, but we hope that it is recognised that it is in relation to a cause with which we are all concerned.

There has been some discussion, although perhaps not as intense as that in another place, of the form of parties' names on the list. A great deal of consultation took place. A paper published on 1st April set out the form which the Government proposed to adopt. Many parties, including the DUP, responded. The schedule adopts a style which the parties indicated they wanted.

It is true that the DUP suggested that the names of party leaders should also appear. That view was not supported by other parties. I should tell the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that that included the Ulster Unionist Party; it did not make that request. We are trying to achieve, with some difficulty, a sense of consensus. We shall not be able to please everybody. My noble friend Lord Brookeborough will understand the sense of things being extraordinary in Northern Ireland. He will recognise that sometimes government success depends on upsetting everybody. However, we shall work hard to make progress.

Noble Lords expressed concern about decommissioning. There will be legislation which we are working hard to draft. There are obviously problems on which we wish to consult but we shall bring forward that legislation as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also gave his good wishes, and I thank him for that. I assure him yet again that there is no intention whatever, and never will be, of treating this House in an offhand way. I find that totally impossible to accept. But we have had to ask for help and support.

The system of election has been used in many countries. We looked at the case for assentors but that is not really made out. It creates an additional process which would be time-consuming and which would hit hardest the smaller parties which obviously have less-practised party support systems.

I hope the House will recognise that we are trying to create a body which will be as representative as possible. Sometimes it may look as though that is not the case, but I hope that it may prove to be different. It will indeed prove to be different from what has happened in the past, and I hope that that will be the way forward.

I was grateful to my noble friend the Duke of Abercorn for his optimistic view, which I share. I do not believe that you can put back in the bottle that which got out in the 18 months of ceasefire. So many people recognised that there is an alternative and more attractive way of life. Messages went out to the world on the economic value of that. I believe that we can build and make progress but it will be difficult. However, it is achievable.

I thank my noble friend for his tribute to my colleagues who have worked tirelessly and who have offered consultation on all occasions. The Taoiseach, John Bruton, has made it absolutely clear that violence has no part in the future. Again, that is extremely helpful in getting across to people for whom the Hammersmith incident would indicate that they have deaf ears that there can be no doubt that that message is sent from all quarters. My noble friend Lord Brookeborough referred to information about that incident. I shall bring my noble friend's comments to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. It is important that the message should be conveyed that this was no small calling card but a major tragedy from which we were all extremely fortunate to escape.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I fully appreciate that, but I felt that too much information was revealed as to why it failed.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that clarification. It is extremely sad that those who live in Northern Ireland understand all too well the dangers of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, mentioned the extremely practical issues we face. He knows well the capacity of Northern Ireland politicians to brief on every possible subject. We are well aware that this seems to be the decade of the leak. We shall take great care to ensure that there is confidentiality where such confidentiality is needed to make progress.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Cooke, that the names will be displayed clearly for people to see when they are voting. That is extremely important. The need for speed does not demonstrate that we have moved without thinking or caring about particular interests. We have moved quickly in order to keep progress going and to build on all that has happened. We must try to ensure that the efforts towards progress made by so many people are not wasted.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, queried the regional list. The Government believe that it is vital that the negotiations to begin on 10th June should be as representative as possible. The electorate must be given full opportunity to have its voice heard. The negotiations and provisions for constituency and regional lists recognise the importance that we place on the process being as representative as possible.

Provisions for regional delegates are included in the Bill in order to recognise the fact that some parties may secure a reasonably high degree of support in a small number of constituencies but have insufficient votes to gain a seat at that level. Alternatively, a party may receive a modicum of support across Northern Ireland as a whole and yet may not be rewarded with any constituency seat. The provision enabling the election of regional delegates rewards the fact that support for that party is evident. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that we should not seek to exclude the wishes of the voters, the people out there. The people who will finally choose those who are to take part in the negotiations are the people of Northern Ireland and not the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked about nominated representatives. They do not have to be elected delegates. Their role begins before the election. They could be party officials, if the party wished. In most cases, it will be the party leader but that is a matter of choice for the parties themselves.

The Government will frame a referendum question—a question on the outcome of the negotiations—and it seems sensible to consult with other participants in the process. The question would be included in an order which would be subject to affirmative resolution in your Lordships' House and in another place.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, that the two governments have made clear that the outcome of negotiations will be submitted for public approval by a referendum in Northern Ireland and in the Republic before it is submitted to the respective parliaments. We find it inconceivable that an outcome achieving broad agreement in Northern Ireland would be rejected by a referendum in the Republic of Ireland. It is worth reminding the House that in the joint declaration, the Taoiseach referred to Northern Ireland at a number of points. It is wrong to suggest that that is not the case. My noble friend Lord Brookeborough asked about detailed arrangements for the forum. These are set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill. The first meeting of the forum will be at a time decided by the Secretary of State which will be after the start of negotiations and within four weeks from the election date. The Secretary of State has said that he expects the first meeting to occur well within that period. Thereafter the forum will determine its own times for meetings, save that it will not meet when, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, that would not be appropriate because negotiations are intended to take place.

In respect of publicity for the forum, it is certainly the Government's intention that the deliberations of the forum should be accessible to members of the public. The whole purpose of the forum is to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. We hope that it will serve to promote wider public debate. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said that he would support the idea of the forum holding hearings at various centres throughout Northern Ireland to facilitate public access and input. My right honourable friend will be discussing with the parties the practical options for broadcasting.

In respect of pay, my right honourable friend the Minister of State wrote to the parties last week to set out our preliminary thinking. We expect to pay allowances to delegates for attendance at either a forum or for the purpose of the negotiations, and travel and subsistence allowance, including for support staff, and research grants. We have invited comments on what would be the appropriate level of research grant to make available to the parties. This would all be in line with the payments made to the parties in the previous talks in 1991 and 1992.

My noble friend also referred to the need to recognise that much progress has been made in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, as always, brings information—and, for me, education—to any debate in this House. I do not believe that the Government could have consulted more. We have consulted non-stop day and night. He had only to look at the pure weariness of my colleagues on occasions to see that that was so. The noble Lord recognised that it is easy to joke about the list of parties. I assume that that was not a subtle filibuster. I stress again that we wish it to be all-inclusive. I was surprised that the noble Lord did not hesitate when he read out the name of the Northern Ireland Womens Coalition. That was a fairly unique name to come across.

I stress that the people who will elect the parties will be the people of Northern Ireland. My noble friend Lady Park properly drew attention to the rights of the peaceful people of Northern Ireland. I assure the House that the Government recognise that. The Government believe that the elective process can build confidence. If horses had been prepared to come to water before without an election, there would not have been an election. We are trying to find a way forward. Not only does the elective process build confidence; it also provides a clear and direct route to all-party negotiations. It is the gateway to peace and the chance of achieving a lasting settlement. I hope that noble Lords will today send a clear signal of support for this democratic process.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I hope she can assist as regards the specific question I asked about the Reverend Paisley's position. My understanding is that the Secretary of State in another place said that the Government would reconsider the description of Mr. Paisley's party. I do not hold a brief for Mr. Paisley or for his party except that they are entitled to even-handed treatment. Further, is the Minister able to indicate, in response to the question that I asked—the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, asked a question along the same lines—that precise arrangements relating to parallel decommissioning will be available for consideration by the parties before 10th June? If I may say so without presumption, we share the view that that may be critical to the question of whether Sinn Fein will be in a position—a ceasefire having been called—to join in the negotiations.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in another place that he would consult on the question of names on the list, in particular at the request of the DUP. I assure the noble Lord that that occurred in another place. It was discovered that there was not a consensus among the parties and that other parties did not wish it. The matter was put to a vote and a decision was made. As I said, the question of bringing forward decommissioning will be discussed with all parties. I do not have precise information as regards the timetable but I shall make sure that the noble Lord receives it as soon as possible.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 23rd April), House resolved into Committee.


Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [The negotiations]:

Lord Monkswell moved Amendment No. 1:

  1. Clause 2 772 words
  2. cc1308-12
  3. Clause 4 2,164 words
  4. cc1312-25
  5. Clause 5 6,609 words
  6. cc1325-30
  7. Schedule 2 2,682 words
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