Part of Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 11th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 11th March 2009

I declare an interest: I am, as the Government know, doing work in Northern Ireland on their behalf in seeking to reach an accommodation between the various sections of the Northern Ireland community on the issue of parades in the long term.

I listened to the Minister's response in the debate earlier this week on the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton in Amendments 2 and 5. I was disappointed and concerned to hear the Minister's defence as to why he did not wish to respond to the substance of the two amendments. As I recall it, the Minister said that this safeguard was built into the Good Friday agreement so that there would be a counter-balance of veto between the nationalist and the unionist sides. But surely we have moved beyond the conditions of the Good Friday agreement—we would not have this legislation before us if we had not—into a rather more mature situation in Northern Ireland, where those who determine what goes on are not only those representing the nationalist and unionist sides but also others who declare themselves on neither side. Surely that is what we wish to see grow.

Future Ministers of justice very likely may come from the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which does not declare itself as part of the nationalist or unionist side but sees itself as representing all of Northern Ireland and what you might call the broader civil society of Northern Ireland which we would wish to see established. It is curious, therefore, that the Government are proposing that we should allow such Ministers of justice to be dismissed by what would basically be a vote of the two sectarian parties of Northern Ireland. That would be folly. It also does not respond to the conditions we see developing in Northern Ireland, thanks in large measure to this Government's courageous moves, and that is not wise. It does not respond to the present circumstances.

It was right in the context of the Good Friday agreement that we should ignore this third quotient of Northern Ireland; that in order to prevent and stop the Troubles we should place this counterbalancing power in the hands of those who see themselves as representing either the nationalists or the loyalists. That was right for that moment, but surely it is not right for this moment. It was right for that moment that those who regarded themselves as being out of the nationalist/loyalist division should be essentially weightless, but surely they should not be weightless now. To allow a justice Minister, who for very good reasons will probably come from a party that is neither nationalist nor loyalist, to be dismissed by a conspiracy between the nationalists and loyalists who dominate is folly of the highest order.

Imagine a situation where you have a justice Minister from the Alliance Party presiding over a corruption investigation into the Executive, made up necessarily of both nationalists and loyalists. Under these provisions, it would be open to both of those parties to dismiss the justice Minister without it having anything to do with the preservation of the ethnic balance of Northern Ireland but simply because it was politically convenient to do so. Is that the kind of circumstance the Government wish to promote? This provision is like asking a domestic cat to preside over the administration of justice between two tigers on the basis that the tigers have an absolute right to eat it whenever they conclude it is convenient to do so. Who would take such a job under such provisions? More importantly, who could do a good job, in those circumstances, under such provisions? This is not to respond to the movement made by Northern Ireland, to the present climate or to the requirement to bring in others into the Government of Ireland—not just nationalists and loyalists. It is absolutely not to respond to creating appropriate conditions in which a Minister of justice could do their job effectively.