Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 6:00 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, I support the position which the Government have put to the House tonight. I do so recalling my maiden speech in this House. I said that I came from a mixed marriage of a Catholic and a Protestant. My late mother was from the west of Ireland and was an Irish speaker. On my father's side, my uncle died when serving in the RAF and my father served in the 8th Army. I said that you did not have to hate one country because you loved another. The dilemma for the nationalist community in Northern Ireland is learning to love their police force; learning to like and love the institutions in Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, described.

In another place, I readily rose to support the then Northern Ireland Secretary, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. He performed an enormous service in bringing about reconciliation and progress in the north of Ireland and I rarely found myself in disagreement with him. However, I believe that on balance the expectation has been raised through Patten that there will be a change in name and ethos in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and that if that is not now delivered it will in turn endanger the peace process.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord that the position of David Trimble is crucial and that your Lordships and another place must do nothing whatever to undermine his position. He is crucial to facilitating the process. I also agreed with the noble and learned Lord that we must learn to place ourselves in the shoes of those on the other side of the community. After 70 years of, certainly perceived, discrimination and prejudice in Northern Ireland, it has been difficult for nationalists to make a transition and to understand that there is fear, but uncertainty, in the unionist community and that they must make that transition.

In 1985 I served as a member of the then Liberal/SDP Alliance commission which examined the politics of Northern Ireland. Another member of the group was the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who had given distinguished service to the British military, had climbed Everest and had also written a significant report on the reform of the UDR. Lord Donaldson was also a member of the group. He had been a Minister in a previous Labour government and had served in Northern Ireland. We were given wide access to all the senior figures in the RUC and the military in Northern Ireland. Time and again, while we were able to see the work that was being done we could see the need for change. Even at that time our recommendations called for a change in the name of the RUC.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, rightly told your Lordships, the number of applicants rose after the cease-fire but has since ebbed away, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, described. However, approximately 93 per cent of the RUC remains Protestant, despite the fact that in the general demography of the population of Northern Ireland 40 per cent are Catholic.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said that many other institutions have the prefix "Royal" in their name and he gave as an example the Royal Yacht Club. However, I put it no higher than that to equate a yacht club with the police force in Northern Ireland is to misunderstand the depth of feeling. I do not believe that that will help to dispel the mistrust which many people in the north of Ireland still feel.

When I was in the Province last week, I made a point of speaking to a number of people in the nationalist community and in the Catholic hierarchy. I read the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and felt that a number of points should be pursued. People in the nationalist community reiterated the kind of points made by the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard, in his first-class address in Committee. They said that the RUC did not represent or protect them and still believed that there was some collusion with Protestant paramilitaries. They still talked about the killings. They referred to the lawyer Rosemary Nelson, who was blown up as she drove to work last year, and said that despite all of the representations to provide her with greater protection none had been given.

Despite the bravery which the RUC has undoubtedly shown, not least at Drumcree and on many other occasions, and its commitment to duty and professionalism, the perception of that community is all. Until that changes it is difficult to see how we shall secure the four points referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, in Committee: political control, management, composition and conduct. It is difficult to see how one can properly and adequately bring those four points into perspective and ensure that the concerns which have always been raised become matters of the past.