Northern Ireland

– in the House of Lords at 6:36 pm on 15th October 2002.

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Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 6:36 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House knows, over the past weeks and months the political process in Northern Ireland has encountered increasing difficulties. I do not need to remind the House of the magnitude of the project on which we are embarked in Northern Ireland, nor that in any great historic process of this kind there will be setbacks and difficulties. My sincere hope, therefore, was that we would be able to overcome those challenges in the short term. That is why the Prime Minister and I have had intensive discussions in recent days with the Northern Ireland political parties and the Irish Government. However, it had become clear that an impasse had been reached and that decisive action was needed in order to safeguard the progress made and tackle the remaining challenges.

"Because of the difficulties we have encountered, I yesterday made an order under the Northern Ireland Act 2000 suspending devolved government in Northern Ireland. It came into effect at midnight yesterday.

"The real losers here are the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, those who appreciate and deserve local decisions which affect local people being made by local politicians, not least because the devolved administration has achieved so much on their behalf, and in their interest. I take this opportunity to pay warm tribute to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and his predecessor, and to their ministerial colleagues, for all they have done. I very much hope that the devolved institutions can be restored quickly.

"I would stress that this impasse affects one aspect of the Belfast agreement, albeit an important one. As the joint statement by the Prime Minister yesterday made clear, this Government remain totally committed to the full implementation of the agreement. It has already brought great benefits to the people of Northern Ireland.

"In their statement, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach also recognised that the recent difficulties in Northern Ireland stemmed from a loss of trust on both sides of the community. There has been much apportioning of blame and there is no doubt there is a lack of confidence on both sides of the community. However, at the heart of the recent political difficulties have been concerns about the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means.

"Let us be clear that we have seen violence from all sides of the community, including a campaign, sometimes murderous in its intent and effect, from the so-called loyalist paramilitaries. Let it be quite clear that the Chief Constable and I are combating it and will combat it with all the means at our disposal, wherever it happens, whoever is behind it. We will go wherever the evidence leads. That is why I have recently redoubled our efforts by setting up the new Law and Order Action Group bringing together the key agencies to strengthen our drive against all forms of racketeering and violence, from wherever it may come.

"I have to tell the House that an arrest was made this morning in connection with the shooting of Danny McBrearty in Londonderry on 29th September. Police inquiries are continuing.

"I have absolutely no doubt that episodes such as the trial of republicans in Colombia and the break-in at Castlereagh have seriously damaged confidence in the power-sharing arrangements. It would, of course, be entirely improper to prejudge the outcomes of any cases involving outstanding criminal charges. But it would be naive for any politician to ignore the impact on political and public opinion of the recent charges brought against republicans, including members of Sinn Fein, as a result of the police operation on 4th October.

"Like me, the House will be particularly concerned about the position of prison officers and others and their families, for whose assistance the police have now established a special unit. The Prison Service is working closely with the police and has established a helpline.

"And I say this to the House: there is no authority, no legitimacy, no morality and no political basis for anyone, in today's Northern Ireland, to have recourse to violence or paramilitary activity. Whatever may have happened 30 years ago or 300 years ago, in today's Northern Ireland the path to power through democracy is open to everyone.

"It is also essential, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach noted, that each community has confidence in the commitment of the other to the agreement. That is now our challenge; that is now our task. Yesterday was, not surprisingly, filled with recrimination. Today, we should be about rebuilding. But that rebuilding has to be done on foundations which are firm, sound, and lasting.

"It is against this background that the Prime Minister and Taoiseach said yesterday that,

'it must be clear that the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, which has been ongoing since the Agreement, and indeed before, is being brought to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion'.

They also said:

'It is now essential that the concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means are removed. The time has come for people to clearly choose one track or the other'.

"We face some difficult and challenging weeks ahead of us. Our tasks are threefold. First, we need to move rapidly and decisively from the recent weeks of political uncertainty. I have no doubts that the people of Northern Ireland—who should be always the ones at the front of our minds in all that we are doing—welcome, appreciate and deserve devolved government.

"Like them, I would have much preferred devolved government continuing, with local Ministers making local decisions. But until it can be restored, I and my colleagues will dedicate ourselves to working for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland to the best of our abilities. In the meantime, we will carry on the process of government in Northern Ireland proactively, and in the interests of all of its people.

"This must not be a matter of mere care and maintenance. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland that effective government should be moved forward. We will not duck the difficult issues. And we will be able to build on the progress made by the devolved administration in many areas, taking careful account of the "Programme for Government" and the principles of re-investment and reform on which it is based. I have already met yesterday with the First and Deputy First Ministers.

"The Policing Board is widely agreed to have been one of the finest achievements of the agreement. I want its work to continue. I have invited all the existing board members to continue providing their excellent service to the community. I sincerely hope that they will all accept reappointment.

"In this context, I welcome two members of the ministerial team. I am making available separately the details of ministerial responsibilities under suspension. In broad terms, the Minister of State's additional responsibilities will focus on education and those of the Under-Secretary of State on social issues including health. The portfolios of my honourable friends the Member for Dudley South and the Member for Basildon will centre respectively on economic affairs and environmental issues.

"Secondly, under the terms of the agreement, we need to embark on a process of review. I will be in touch with the parties and the Irish Government about how that should be taken forward. I want to stress that this is an impasse—I hope, short-lived—in one aspect of the agreement. It is not the whole agreement. It is not the whole peace process. We will continue, in co-operation with the parties and our colleagues in the Irish Government, to carry forward that process and the implementation of the agreement.

"Thirdly, we will bend every effort to find a basis on which to bring back the devolved institutions, and as quickly as possible. The role and responsibility of the political parties in achieving this is vital. It is our aim to find a basis on which all the institutions of the agreement can be brought back into operation as soon as possible. The election date scheduled for 1st May stands.

"These three priorities: the good governance of Northern Ireland; carrying forward the agreement; and addressing the present impasse, will inform the approach of the Government over the coming weeks and months. In those tasks we will call upon the co-operation and support of the parties, our colleagues in the Irish Government and those far beyond our shores like the President and people of the United States who have been unstinting in their support.

"For our part, I can promise the House that we will bear ourselves with determination and endurance, because we recognise that the magnitude of the prize we seek is commensurate with the challenges we face.

"We have come an enormous distance in recent years. The peace process and the agreement have increased prosperity, revitalised society, safeguarded rights, and—above all—saved lives. I am determined that these benefits should not be lost, but should increase. The agreement will remain a template for political progress in Northern Ireland. I hope the decision I have explained to the House today creates a breathing space—a chance to gather strength—before that progress moves forward once again".

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative 6:46 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the other place earlier this afternoon. This is undoubtedly a sad day for Northern Ireland. Four and a half years after the signing of the Belfast agreement, with all the hopes and aspirations that surrounded it, devolved government has had to be suspended for a fourth time and direct rule imposed from Westminster.

It is all the more tragic because the political institutions that flowed from the agreement—the Assembly, the Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council—were generally considered to be working well. As someone who lives in the Province I am convinced that devolution, with locally elected politicians taking decisions over local matters, will always be a much more responsive form of government for Northern Ireland than will ever be the case under direct rule.

We hope that this period of direct rule will not only be short but will also be the last. It must be our intention, as the noble and learned Lord said, to return powers to locally elected politicians as soon as is practically possible. However, as things stand today none of us can be confident about when that might be. In the meantime, we trust that the Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, including the two new appointees, will exercise their responsibilities in an impartial and even-handed manner in the interests of all sections of the community.

The House will have noted, perhaps with surprise, that both the new Ministers in the Northern Ireland are from another place. As for as I know this the first time there has been direct rule without a Minister from the House of Lords. Perhaps the Prime Minister considers these two to be far better than anyone available to be appointed from the Government Benches here. I do not know the new Ministers, but I would dispute that conclusion.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

They are both very good.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. The reason why direct rule has had to be re-imposed today is clear. There has been a complete breakdown of trust between the parties that signed the agreement. Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal agree that we are here today entirely because of the republican movement's failure to fulfil its commitments under the Belfast agreement to make the clear and unambiguous transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic politics?

The agreement called for the complete disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. In his speech during the referendum campaign in May 1998 the Prime Minister said that there had to be "progressive abandonment of paramilitary structures". However, since the agreement Sinn Fein has continued to pursue a twin-track policy of serving in government while remaining inextricably linked to the terrorist organisation known as the IRA.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that this is completely unacceptable? Does he also agree that the time has come to operate the same threshold for Sinn Fein's participation in the government of Northern Ireland as the Taoiseach insists on in the Republic of Ireland; namely, no private army?

The catalogue of republican breaches of the ceasefires over the past year is compelling. We had the arrest of three republicans in Colombia suspected of collaborating with the narco-terrorist group FARC; we had the break-in at Castlereagh police station, strongly suspected as being the work of the IRA, which has led to hundreds of people being re-housed across the Province; we had the discovery of target lists of members of my party and updated information on military targets in Great Britain; and we had a summer of street violence in which, according to the police, known republicans—along with loyalists—were among the main protagonists. We have the paramilitary beatings and shootings, the exiling of people from their homes—again carried out on both sides—that are a daily feature of life in parts of Northern Ireland. And, a week last Friday, we had the discovery of a republican spy ring in the heart of government at Stormont. I hope that it is not in Westminster.

Among the documents uncovered in the police raid on Sinn Fein's offices—a party in government—were transcripts of conversations between the British and Irish Governments, the Government and the Northern Ireland parties, and even transcripts of conversations between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that all of this is clearly incompatible with a commitment to what the Belfast agreement calls "exclusively democratic and peaceful means"? If he does, then is it not also the case that by suspending the institutions, and restoring direct rule, the Government are punishing the innocent along with the guilty?

Would not the right response to this crisis have been for the Secretary of State to have fulfilled the commitment he gave to Parliament in July to take action against the one party—Sinn Fein—that is in breach of its obligations? In my party's view, the Secretary of State should have tabled a Motion before the Northern Ireland Assembly this week for the exclusion of Sinn Fein. And had that failed he should have done what we have been urging him to do for a year now and taken powers here at Westminster to exclude any party in breach of the cease-fire and the agreement.

This is a power that we believe should be available to the Secretary of State. Therefore, will the Lord Privy Seal now urge him to take it so that devolved government can be restored with an Executive comprised of those parties, Unionist and nationalist, that are committed to peaceful and democratic politics?

It is clear that the political process in Northern Ireland is in a deep crisis. The next few months will be critical. But we remain committed with the Government to the implementation of the Belfast agreement, and we want to see devolved government re-established on as inclusive a basis as possible. Yet that can be done only on the basis that all parties operate under the same rules and on a level playing field.

There can be no place in a democracy for private armies. Responsibility now rests with those who have for too long been ambiguous in their attitude to violence to make the transition. Otherwise, as things stand, direct rule will, regrettably, be with us for some time to come.

Photo of Lord Smith of Clifton Lord Smith of Clifton Liberal Democrat 6:53 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, I, too, thank the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Secretary of State's Statement.

We have, of course, been here before. The politics of intransigence has triumphed yet again. One wonders whether it will always surface to torpedo the process of Northern Ireland ever becoming a mature and stable democracy. We must always hope and pray that the politics of transcendence, to borrow Professor Paul Arthur's felicitous phrase, may one day allow an enduring democratic system to exist.

History seems to be repeating itself with monotonous and depressing regularity, but it is vital to note that the present crisis is not the same in all respects as that which erupted previously. What occurred in 1999 led to a three-month suspension of the Executive and the Assembly. On that occasion, both institutions were in possession of a relatively fresh mandate from the elections of 1998. Now, by contrast, both have a fast waning mandate that, in the normal course of events, would have been refreshed or changed with the elections that were due next May.

The second difference is that this time the suspension of Stormont is likely to be considerably longer than three months. That means that what is left of the various parties' mandates in practice has now been snuffed out. Therefore, I would argue strongly that unless the Assembly and the Executive can be reconvened within a month—and, as I say, that is very unlikely—all salaries be terminated.

I raised this issue in an amendment that I proposed at the Committee stage of the Northern Ireland Bill 2000. I was given assurances then that salaries would be kept under review by the Secretary of State. This time, I understand, the Executive will lose all their ministerial emoluments, and Assembly members will have token reductions in the already disproportionately inflated salaries they voted themselves with unseemly alacrity.

There is an unanswerable case for terminating their salaries after a month on two grounds: first, one of principle in that they are not doing the business; and, secondly, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland, it is the quickest way to concentrate minds.

Can the noble and learned Lord say what the policy of Her Majesty's Government will be on this issue in the event of a prolonged suspension? It looks as though they may be waiting six months. That, frankly, is far too long.

Another difference between now and two years ago is that the political vacuum created by the suspension of devolution will not lead to a re-imposition of direct rule of the kind that has traditionally obtained. It will not be a return to the status quo pre-1998 as the Unionist opinion fondly hopes. As I have said previously in your Lordships' House, without a speedy restoration of devolution the only practical alternative is some form of condominium arrangement operated between London and Dublin. If that was true earlier, I believe it is much more so now. In the two years that have elapsed, there has been much sensible cross-border collaboration in tourism, waterways, agriculture and in other practical ways.

It is inconceivable that the two governments of the UK and Ireland would allow such constructive activity to be halted or mothballed now. A momentum has been established and the achievements are there to be seen. I predict that what we shall observe is a quickening in the pace of such partnership activity between London and Dublin in the governance of Northern Ireland. The future will be "Maryfield with knobs on", as Dr Maurice Hayes so graphically described it in his column last week in the Irish Independent.

Such a development is inherent in any prolonged suspension of the Assembly and power-sharing Executive. The principle of power sharing is here to stay. If it ceases to be practised via the conduit of the Assembly and the Executive, then it will be carried on by a London/Dublin condominium. I am pleased that that was, to some extent, re-affirmed in the Statement. But I would ask the Leader of the House to be more specific and to give us some details on how he sees this collaboration with Dublin developing.

For some time, perhaps for most of the time since 1998, there has been, what I shall call an implicit prevailing consensus within governing circles at all levels that all was manageable for so long as the UUP and the SDLP held the reins of power in the form of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts. Unfortunately for this view, both parties have been losing their electoral support at an increasing rate to the DUP on the one hand and to Sinn Fein on the other. The so-called middle ground of politics, on which the prevailing consensus relied, has fast been disappearing.

All of this has clearly undermined the rationale of the prevailing consensus which, in recent months, has been valiantly attempting to shore up a false political equilibrium. There have been press reports of late that London and Dublin have been considering prolonging the life of the Assembly beyond its constitutionally prescribed limit, for fear of the likely outcome of the scheduled elections in May. If the press is to be believed, one reason perhaps for supporting suspension now is the rather perverse one that it would at least pre-empt any such gerrymandering. Tinkering with scheduled elections in this way should be unthinkable to any democratically elected government in all contexts, but particularly so in that of Northern Ireland. I trust that the press rumours are totally without foundation. I invite the Leader of the House to say so.

Propping up a false equilibrium is not a viable option in the long run. What is going to happen after next May if Stormont remains suspended? It may be that the London/Dublin condominium will have been reasonably successful and may become entrenched and in some way acceptable to general opinion. Given the zero-sum nature of Northern Irish politics that leads to inevitable impasse too regularly for democracy to prevail, perhaps a condominium arrangement is Pareto-optimal, as the economists say. In other words, there may be enough of a trade-off for there to be something in it for everyone. At a pinch one could live with that.

However, as a passionate believer in representative parliamentary democracy, my preference would be for the restoration of Stormont with fresh elections next May at the latest. If that means the DUP and Sinn Fein become the main parties, so be it. The people will have spoken. They should be given a voice. I do not think it is beyond the bounds of possibility or ingenuity that the DUP and Sinn Fein could contrive a working modus operandi. After all, the day-to-day working of the Executive has not been impeded by widely differing political viewpoints around the table. If such a deal proved to be impossible, the London-Dublin condominium could prevail. Will the Leader of the House confirm unequivocally that elections will take place in May at the latest? The Statement says that they still stand. That is too weak a commitment.

We on the Liberal Democrat benches will support the suspension of devolution with a heavy heart and because it seems to be the only realistic option available at present. But the future may be fraught. Minds must now be concentrated among the parties and between the two Governments in broad and imaginative ways to get devolution back on track.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 7:00 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith, for their comments. In different ways they have both said that, four and a half years on, this is a sad day. It is, but it is a set-back; it is not a catastrophe. It is a blemish; it is not a terminus. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said: devolution will always be the most responsive—and therefore the most appropriate—method for the governance of Northern Ireland.

I must gently chide the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, on one thing, if I may. I think that it is well known to your Lordships that I asked my right honourable friend the Prime Minister if I might speak on Northern Ireland matters in this House. I hope that all of your Lordships—of whom there are many with different views and different backgrounds—with an interest in Northern Ireland feel that we have worked co-operatively together over a long time. I invited my right honourable friend Dr. Reid to allow me to continue to do that work. In no sense has he slighted this House by responding to my invitation. Of course, that may not be entirely to the satisfaction of all of your Lordships, but if blame there is, it is mine, not that of Dr. Reid.

The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, asked what had brought about the suspension. There is no doubt that its proximate cause was the fact of the activity in the Northern Ireland Office and the discovery of what had been taken from there. We must be careful, because several people have been charged—there may be more; I do not know—who are entitled to a trial not bedevilled by allegations or assertions that may be the subject of criminal proceedings.

It is not a landscape wholly painted in sepia tones of gloom. It is as well to remind ourselves that we have all previously agreed that sometimes in Northern Ireland there are the dual disadvantages of too short and too long a memory. Since the peace process started, we have had the lowest troop levels in 30 years and 102 cross-border roads have been opened. Living standards, measured by the number of dwellings, have risen by 6,000 since last year. Jobs rose from 557,000 in June 1994 to 656,000 in June 2002—the highest employment figure on record for June. Unemployment fell by 62 per cent between April 1994 and April 2000. There has been the record of the fastest economic growth in the United Kingdom.

Devolved government has delivered a good deal. Tourism has increased to 1.6 million in 2000, compared to fewer than 500,000 in 1976. There is the new high-speed ferry service to Scotland, the new terminal at Belfast city airport—which is an exceptionally friendly airport that works a good deal better than Heathrow, if I may say so sotto voce. The Belfast-Dublin rail service has been upgraded; the M3 Lagan bridge has been opened, as has the Newry bypass and the new Foyle bridge.

A great success has been the police board. As he said in his Statement, the Secretary of State has asked all 19 members to retake their responsibilities. Two of them have been uncontactable because they are abroad—I do not know whether they have been in Spain. The 17 who have responded have responded positively and will resume their functions.

Those are not bad achievements. Too short a memory? On 24th July, Dr. Reid made it perfectly plain that, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have made plain on innumerable occasions, no one can ride both horses if one is violence and the other is democracy. No Secretary of State could have been plainer than that.

I turn to one or two questions of ignoble detail asked by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. First, he asked: what about the salaries? The Secretary of State has said that salaries will be reduced with effect from next month to the levels that applied before the Assembly took powers. The effect is that salaries will fall by about a quarter. Representatives will for the time being function as constituency representatives and will receive some pay and allowances, but, to take the point made by the noble Lord, the Secretary of State has recognised that that cannot continue without review. If necessary, the Secretary of State will need to review that at the end of the year—which, of course, is not far away.

To state that the May elections still stand is not a weak way to put our position, and I stand by that.

The other questions asked relate to joint rule, to which the noble Lord, Lord Smith referred as the Dublin-Westminster condominium. He is a braver man than I. There is no question of joint rule; it features nowhere in the agreement and is not in the Government's thinking.

We want, after as brief a period of suspension as possible, to return to an Assembly that was working. It was working a good deal better than many of us had expected. It was a salutary, object lesson to go there to see what was happening. It was by no means perfect. I spent a day there during the summer talking to those of reasonably disparate views—starting the day with Mitchel McLauglin and finishing it with the Rev. Dr. Paisley. One way or another, that Assembly was working. We should not be too gloomy.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan UUP 7:07 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Privy Seal, and your Lordships' House of the Statement that he delivered to this House on 24th July at column 409. He said:

"In reviewing the cease-fires, I will give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organisation is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. I say to the House—lest there be any doubt on the matter—that I will not hesitate to use the powers Parliament has given me if the circumstances require it".—[Official Report, 24/7/02; col. 409.]

Given the events of the past two weeks, with the arrest of four Republican activists on suspicion of involvement in spying against the Government—our Government—at the very heart of the Northern Ireland Office, how can the Government justify their failure to exclude Sinn Fein/IRA Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive?

Why have the Government decided, by suspending the political institutions, to punish all of the people of Northern Ireland, rather than those who are at fault? Have the Government considered the possibility that, by taking what some might describe as the easier option, they have risked dealing a final and fatal blow to Unionist confidence in the agreement itself?

On a practical level, as the duration of direct rule is open-ended, can the Government reassure us that the development of various projects, especially capital projects in areas such as health and education, will continue?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords 7:09 pm, 15th October 2002

My Lords, I remember repeating the Statement on 24th July and there have undoubtedly been setbacks since then. Since 1st January 2002, 40 assaults and 47 shootings have been attributed to Republicans. Since the same date, attributable to loyalists have been 77 assaults—almost double that number—and 93 shootings, which is about double that number. So we need here to have a context that is not limited to the failings of one set of law-breakers or another. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, mentioned four-and-half years. It is a long time if you are living somewhere in deeply unsatisfactory circumstances. However, I respectfully point out that it is a short time within which to have accomplished what has undoubtedly been accomplished.

The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, made a very good point in his final remarks. He seeks my assurance that development projects and capital inflows, especially on health and education, will not cease. As my noble friend Lord Graham said, the Secretary of State has chosen two admirable Ministers who are both energetic and committed. Of course we want those capital inflows to continue. But external capital, international capital, will continue to go into Northern Ireland only if there is some prospect of hope towards a resumption of a democratic, devolved assembly. I do not believe that it was the easier option. It was the more scrupulous option. The option that Dr Reid and the Prime Minister took is best calculated to bring about what everyone wants; namely, a developing, increasingly stable democracy in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, I apologise to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House for the fact that I allowed myself to be detained in a Committee Room so that I missed the opening phrases of the Statement. However, I can assure the noble and learned Lord that I have read the Statement from start to finish.

I was delighted that the noble and learned Lord was able to give the House good news from the police authority. That, in itself, is a form of power sharing. However, I regret that the possibility of retaining the substance of power sharing was not grasped. I had hoped that new direct-rule Ministers could have been found from both the Unionist and the nationalist traditions. This might have been accomplished through another place, the European Parliament, or even through your Lordships' House. However, I should like to be more positive than that.

Can the noble and learned Lord give us an assurance that the north-south and east-west dialogue between this country and Ireland and between the North and the South of Ireland will continue at full strength? This is surely the wider context established by the Belfast agreement. It is vital that both dimensions of dialogue should be strengthened. If that can be done, the chance of internal agreement in Northern Ireland will be improved.

I have another thought; namely, that an analytical conflict resolution process facilitated by independent third parties could be helpful. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that such a process could assist the very necessary dialogue across the sectarian interfaces, notably in Belfast? If such a process proved successful there, I believe that it could be applied more widely.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am most obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. Due to time running out, I do not believe that I gave full justice to all the questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for giving me the opportunity to return to those points. I can confirm that we shall continue to work in close co-operation with the Irish Government. Apart from anything else, by virtue of the 2000 Act, taken in conjunction with the Belfast agreement, we shall have to carry out the statutory review in due time in co-operation and partnership with the Government of the Irish Republic. Under suspension, it is clear that there will be no meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. The implementation bodies are not affected by the suspension order. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will continue to work in close co-operation with us and the Irish Government.

We shall look at the institutional formats to which the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred. He spoke about third party intervention, which has occurred in past years and which can be either formal or informal. I have to say that the United States Administration have been extremely helpful. Of course, we have had third party involvement in Northern Ireland over the years; I have in mind, for example, Senator Mitchell.

It is most important for Her Majesty's Government, the Government of the Irish Republic, and the Administration in Washington to continue to work together as closely and as faithfully as possible. However, there comes a time when the institutions in Northern Ireland will have to stand on their own two feet. I still believe that this is not an occasion of deep gloom and pessimism as can be seen if one puts one's mind objectively to the part recitation that I gave of the progress that has been made. That was just a small selection—perhaps 50 per cent—of what I could have recited.

Photo of Lord Fitt Lord Fitt Independent Socialist

My Lords, since the promulgation of the Good Friday agreement in this House I have found myself in a rather difficult position. At all times I should have liked to support the Labour Government in their objective in Northern Ireland; but living in Northern Ireland and being aware of its politics for many decades, I always had sincere doubts as to whether that agreement was ever going to work.

When the Government called upon everyone to vote in the referendum to support the Good Friday agreement, a great friend of mine—a very prominent and eminent trade unionist and historian—wrote a letter to a newspaper in Northern Ireland stating that he could not support the agreement for various reasons, which he then outlined. Over the years since then I have watched the unfolding of the situation in Northern Ireland and my friend has been proved right in every aspect of his objections. The main one being that the Good Friday agreement institutionalises Catholic and Protestant tribes. Where you have a Catholic as opposed to a Protestant tribe, you will never readily find agreement.

The agreement has created two Unionist parties, one more extreme than the other; and it has created two nationalist parties, one more extreme than the other. I have heard it said here today that it would have been possible for the Government to promulgate a motion at the Northern Ireland Assembly calling for the eviction of Sinn Fein because it had been engaged in violence. However, that would never have been passed by the Assembly, because the SDLP (the moderate Catholic party) could not afford to run away and desert the extreme Catholic party.

I know that the Minister, and other spokesmen for the Government, are saying in press releases and so on that we should not indulge in pessimism because the agreement can be resurrected. I have to stand here and tell the Leader of the House that I do not believe that the Good Friday agreement can be resurrected in its present form because the Unionist politicians will be playing to their electorate to get extreme votes and you will have the Catholic electorate—the Catholic MLA.

Here we have a continuation of the most divisive things in Northern Ireland politics. I agree almost line by line with what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. The Government should find the means not to cling tenaciously to an agreement that has so often failed and is doomed to failure; they must try to resurrect some other constitutional means. This one has gone. I believe that it has gone for ever.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I always pay careful attention to what my noble friend Lord Fitt says. I recognise that he has a much greater reservoir of experience and of courageous political activity than any of the rest of us. I approach his comments with, I believe, appropriate regard. My noble friend said that his colleague, the historian, had written a letter to a newspaper giving many reasons why the agreement would fail. One year there were 500 reasons why the agreement must not fail: 500 dead.

This is a difficult time, but it is not a lost time. I turn, for example, to the police service. The PSNI has cross-community support. It has 50:50 recruitment. My noble friend Lord Fitt talked about institutionalised tribes. The board and the Chief Constable have agreed a workforce plan for the next eight to 10 years. There is in existence in Northern Ireland—not, I believe, in the remainder of the United Kingdom—an independent police ombudsman. We have had a review of the criminal justice system. We have had a successful passage of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act. There is an organised crime task force. A single equality commission has been established. Again, I do not think that obtains in the remainder of the United Kingdom.

Enormous steps have been taken. We should not diminish the progress which has been made. It is not perfection. Nevertheless, it is very substantial.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Park, the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, and the noble Lord, Lord Laird, will be able to speak in the time available.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative

My Lords, I was pleased to hear the reference to the arrest of the IRA men who shot, beat and tried to kill Mr O'Breavty when he was driving a busload of pensioners. He was attacked after appealing in vain to Martin McGuinness for help, his nephew having been exiled from Northern Ireland for refusing entry to a bar to Mr McGuinness's son. I hope that Sinn Fein-IRA will be required to end the exile rather than pressing them further on the stale and unprofitable issue of decommissioning.

I realise that we shall have a review. I hope sincerely that that review will address itself to the violence on the streets carried out by the paramilitaries against their own people on both sides. I wish also to be reassured that from now on we shall hear no more about proposals to allow the "on-the-runs" to return to the community.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I shall not comment about the details of the arrest made this morning and about the shooting of Danny O'Breavty. I stress that everyone—whether we like or despise him or her—is entitled to a fair trial in any part of the United Kingdom. What are or are not the facts about the attack on Mr O'Breavty on 29th September must be the subject of an independent inquiry—it is called a police investigation—and then an independent trial of which the judges in Northern Ireland have been exemplars. So I shall not be drawn into that matter. I am sure the noble Baroness will not be displeased at my not going into those details.

In the past, the noble Baroness has asked me frequently about "on-the-runs". That matter will have to be dealt with at some stage and within the law.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, I listened with great disappointment to the Statement repeated by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal. The Government have made the wrong decision. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, they should have continued with devolution in Northern Ireland.

Most people in Northern Ireland support the principle of devolution/administration of Stormont. There will be disappointment at the Government's decision. None the less, the greater number of people in Northern Ireland will welcome the fact that due to the continued activities of Sinn Fein-IRA, inextricably linked as they are, Northern Ireland now returns to direct British rule from London. That will be welcomed throughout Northern Ireland.

The comments of the spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party concerned me in two respects, in particular his implied suggestion that politicians in Northern Ireland can be bought off by salaries and money. That is an insult to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland. It demonstrates a total lack of knowledge of nationalists and Unionists. Their feelings and political opinions are so strong that some have even paid the supreme sacrifice. They are not the kind of people to be bought off by simply doing away with their salaries. You will not solve the problems of Northern Ireland through the salaries of elected representatives.

I was even more concerned at his suggestion that Northern Ireland should cease to be governed as part of the United Kingdom: that the sovereignty of the United Kingdom should cease. I was concerned that the Liberal Democrats now suggest that Northern Ireland should become a condominium, jointly ruled by Dublin and London. I find that most upsetting and I am quite sure that members of the Alliance Party, linked with the Liberal Democrats, will find it equally upsetting. I shall be interested to hear the reaction in Northern Ireland when those comments are heard.

Four years ago, the Prime Minister sent a letter in his own handwriting to the people of Northern Ireland saying that those who were not exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic methods would be excluded from the democratic government of Northern Ireland. Why has the Prime Minister's letter not been honoured?

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I believe that I responded to the question of a condominium as robustly as I possibly could on behalf of the Government, with whose authority I speak. I am grateful for the support from a sedentary position from the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. I agree with him, and as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said, that most people in Northern Ireland would support devolution. I wish to say as strongly as I can that devolution is not abandoned. This is a setback. But I hope that the commitment demonstrated by Dr Reid, and in particular the Prime Minister, over many years is powerful evidence that we want to see a devolved solution.

As Dr Reid said on 24th July, and later, you cannot ride two horses if one is democracy and one is violence. The recent events brought him inevitably, although sadly as he said in the Statement, to the conclusion that there must be a suspension for a time. However, I hope and pray that devolution will be the opportunity that offers itself, and that in the historical context it will be seen as an aberration, not a defeat.

Photo of Lord Laird Lord Laird Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal for repeating the Statement and for his undertaking that there will be a continuance not just of government in Northern Ireland on a care and maintenance basis but also of hard work on many programmes.

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his point about dismissing the concept of a condominium. Perhaps he will consider this irony. We are brought to today's situation by the inactivity of Sinn Fein, the republican party. Yet this House and another place now have a responsibility for and an ability to look into some aspects of policy in the Irish Republic. I am the chairman of a cross-border body. We receive our mandate, funding and direction from the Dail in Dublin and the assembly in Northern Ireland. If the assembly is done away with, we shall receive our funding and direction from this Parliament. So it is interesting to note that, after 80 years, some aspects of policy which are looked after in the cross-border bodies will be answered here by British Ministers at British Dispatch Boxes.

Photo of Lord Williams of Mostyn Lord Williams of Mostyn President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I take the noble Lord's point: that irony is not a commodity in short supply in the recent history of Northern Ireland. I cannot gainsay what the noble Lord said. From my experience of him I know he realises that there is a wider dimension which involves co-operation with the Government of the Republic or possibly institutions in the Republic. I pay tribute to him for that and for the many efforts of the noble Lord and his colleagues who sit in this Chamber. I repeat: this is a disappointment but it is not a fatal blemish.