Debate on the Address
Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, in this somewhat sombre debate there is a great richness of contributors and a considerable richness of maiden speeches. At the commencement of my own remarks, I make particular reference to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Patel of Bradford, and welcome him as another mental health professional to work in your Lordships' House. I also refer to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont. His territorial designation refers to the townland just beside Knock, which is the territorial designation associated with my own title. He and I were elected representatives for the same multi-member constituency, Victoria, and served on opposite benches in Belfast City Hall for some eight years. During all that time, despite what noble Lords might think of the politics of Northern Ireland, while we differed on many matters of politics, I always found him courteous, proper, conscientious and considerate; he was a model to many of his colleagues. It was no surprise that he became Lord Mayor of Belfast, an office that he served with great distinction, and that he now finds himself in your Lordships' House; I welcome him. I know that he will share with me the hope that even this week we will take another step along the road and that some of Northern Ireland's business will move away from your Lordships' House and the Palace of Westminster and back to Stormont and Parliament Buildings where his colleagues and others with whom they differ enormously may come together to share power and responsibility for the people of Northern Ireland and their affairs.
There are many things in the gracious Speech to which I am tempted to refer. Given my professional background, you will not be surprised to know that I look with some interest and not a little concern to the latest incarnation of the Mental Health Bill, which will come to your Lordships' House rather soon.
Even in the realm of foreign affairs, on which today's debate is founded, I find myself initially tempted to speak to a matter that we have discussed before: the withdrawal of Her Majesty's Government's real interest and political involvement in Latin America. Offices of the British Council and DfID are closing in a number of countries and our investment there is disappearing at a time when a malign populism—I refer to the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and to many others—is demonstrating that in that region we should be involving, not withdrawing, ourselves. Others—perhaps most notably Beijing—are following the area with great interest and investing political and capital means in order to extend their influence in a part of the world that they know to be significant and important, while we allow our relationships to wither on the vine.
I cannot but focus my attention on matters in the Middle East. Whatever other difficulties there are, the difficulties there are currently poisoning global relationships. It is a matter of the most profound concern to us all. When I found myself at home wondering how we could address our own difficulties, there was much talk of policing, internment without trial—we called it "executive detention" in those days—the use of the Army and so on. After a few years—the noble Lords, Lord Hurd and Lord King of Bridgwater, will remember this very well, as they had responsibilities as Secretaries of State—senior British military officers came out in public and said that there is no military solution to these problems; there is a military contribution but there is no military solution because these are political problems.
I am reminded by the passionate speeches of the two noble Lords that the problems that we are dealing with in the Middle East are not problems of crime, security and terrorist violence; those are there and they are problems, but they are also symptoms of the underlying difficulties and sometimes they are reactions to some of our ill advised military adventures. The problems underlying them are political problems. They are not going to be resolved without being addressed politically. What does politics involve? It involves engaging in difficult meetings, conversations and discussions, sometimes at a distance or at arm's length and sometimes at close quarters with precisely the people with whom you have the deepest disagreements. Politics is not simply about meeting those you agree with; that is pleasant and proper, but it does not address the problems.
I am very much reminded of my early experiences of going to west Belfast to meet with Mr Gerry Adams and the loyalists at times when it was not fashionable and there was no serious peace process. Recently, I was reminded of it again. Given what I have lived through—we have now come to a later stage of our process—I am convinced that, in a fundamental human sense, we have the same kind of problem in the Middle East and, for the past couple of years, I have made it my business to go there to meet with Hamas, Hezbollah and a number of the politicians in the region. That has almost been nostalgic for me because I felt exactly the same kinds of things. People are talking in a serious way about the difficulties with which their people have to live and the possibilities of some kind of engagement and negotiation. Before the south Lebanon war, Hezbollah was asking, "How do we deal with weapons? How did you decommission weapons in Northern Ireland? What was necessary to achieve that?" Of course, since the recent Lebanese war, all that is kicked into the long grass for the present. Until Hezbollah feels a sense of security, why would it start to decommission its massive number of weapons? But at least it was interested in talking about it.
Hamas was talking about a long-term "hudna"—a ceasefire. Noble Lords will remember how we talked about cessations of violence, what they meant in Northern Ireland and how long they would be for. Hamas was talking about 25 or 30 years of ceasefire in order to give an opportunity for a long-term process of discussion towards peace and finding a way of living together. Of course, there are profound suspicions, and properly so. There are no angels on one side or the other, but there are no devils either. There are human beings with their own fears, ambitions, needs and concerns. Of course, our approach must be to ensure that the people of Israel can live in peace and security in their own place. But that applies not a whit less to the Palestinians.
In that whole region, we need to find a way that does not involve a quartet from outside going in and telling that part of the world how to live. We need to construct an inclusive, semi-permanent conference table at which these issues can be addressed. We heard reference to the European Union. Whatever the European Union is, it was not fundamentally put in place for economics. It was to deal with the aftermath of two world wars. It is and was meant to be a semi-permanent, inclusive conference table, which we sometimes forget. We must work to try to achieve the same thing for the Middle East.
Recently, when I met the Syrian Foreign Minister in Damascus, I found that he is looking for an opportunity to help us to deal with the problems not just in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon, but also in Iraq. The solution lies not in finding a cover for our nakedness in retreat militarily, but in taking a step forward to find political ways in which we can construct a process through which we can deal with all these issues—not by coming in as outsiders to threaten, much less by undermining our own allies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan by stoking up the fires of fundamentalism through our foolishness, but by finding an institutional, structured, inclusive, semi-permanent opportunity for people to talk about the problems rather than to kill each other because of the differences.