My Lords, the Government's reason for introducing the Disqualifications Bill is to reflect the special relationship that exists between the United Kingdom and Ireland since the coming into force of the British-Irish agreement. As such, it has been welcomed by the Irish Government. In drawing up the legislation, the Government have taken into account the views of all the parties--unionist, nationalist and republican.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for going considerably further than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, went the other day in Committee. He said that it was inappropriate to give such an answer. What has changed since then, that the Minister has been able to be more open?
My Lords, my response reflects exactly the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, on Monday, when we had the pleasant experience of discussing the detail of that Bill.
My Lords, can the Minister give a single example from anywhere else in the Commonwealth or the rest of the world in which members of one sovereign Parliament have sat simultaneously as members of another country's sovereign Parliament? Is it not the case that the Bill is opposed by the First Minister of Northern Ireland, has been criticised in the Irish press and is not welcomed by many Members of the Dail? The only reason for its introduction is that Sinn Fein has argued that all 18 Northern Ireland Members ought simultaneously to be Members of the House of Commons and of the Dail. It is not just the Bill that is disgraceful, but the Government's refusal to be frank about its purpose.
My Lords, we have been entirely frank. We have made it plain that we believe that the Bill is justified on its merits and in its own terms. We believe that it could do a great deal of good in strengthening the close historical and cultural ties between our country and Ireland. For those reasons it is a very sensible measure. Talking of popular and unpopular measures, on Monday the noble Lord was kind enough to admit:
"I must confess that I introduced many measures for which there was no demand--indeed, there was positive opposition!".--[Official Report, 6/11/00; col. 1333.]
It is for the Government to decide whether something is right. That is what we have done.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that when my party, the Ulster Unionist Party, was consulted, we replied that we were definitely not in favour of the Bill? Will he take my assurance that when we independently consulted the major political parties in the south of Ireland, we did not find one which was interested in the measure or supported the Bill? Is it not a fact that the only party that organises in both Northern Ireland and southern Ireland--Sinn Fein/IRA--is the only party that supports the measure? If so, why?
My Lords, I thought that I had made it plain in my opening Answer that we consulted the Irish Government and that they had commented favourably on the measure. The views of other parties are no doubt a matter for public record. We have listened carefully to the views offered by the official Ulster Unionist Party. They have been reflected in amendments that we have already passed to the Bill.
My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which dealt with the main measures for devolution under the Good Friday agreement, made provision for joint membership of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Senate in Dublin? I took that Bill through and I was not aware of any significant body of opposition to the measure, even though the issue of principle is very similar to that in the Disqualifications Bill.
My Lords, that is exactly the case. We are extending the principle, which, in fairness, was rather more limited in the 1998 Act. That Act enabled joint membership of the Irish Senate and the Northern Ireland Assembly. My noble friend is right to say that the provision was passed without much controversy or discussion and it is now embodied in Section 36(5) of that Act. It was not resisted by either House.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a difference between membership of a second sovereign Parliament and membership of a subsidiary Assembly? Will he confirm that the Disqualifications Bill was the result of a secret agreement between Sinn Fein/Provisional IRA and the Prime Minister, at which Sinn Fein undertook not to object to the Prime Minister's famous five hand-written pledges, given on the day before the referendum, in exchange for the later introduction of the Bill? Incidentally, those five pledges have not been honoured in any case.
My Lords, the noble Viscount has embroidered history, as far as I understand it. The Bill stands on its own merits. The aim is to improve, strengthen and deepen the quality of our relationship with Ireland. I believe that it will make a significant contribution towards that end. That is why I believe that it is entirely justified. We should concentrate on the future and the positive improvements that we can continue to make to strengthen the existing peace agreement.
My Lords, we are in the 24th minute. We have spent a good deal of time on this Question. In courtesy to the last questioner, I believe that we should move on.