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My Lords, I rise in this debate on the gracious Speech aware of the new political time in which we now exist. We in Northern Ireland have put our political process through contortions in the past decade. Included in that is the requirement for people to sit beside those with whom they never expected to work.
Devolution has meant that the issues which I can raise in your Lordships' House are limited. However, I have a few areas of concern which are appropriate.
Once I worked in a bank. The period was the 1960s and into the 1970s, and my role was very humble. The position of the banks today is very different. The staff rewards may be enhanced, but regard for them in society has been diminished. I wish to bring to Her Majesty's Government's notice the case of the successor bank to the one in which I was employed at the start of my career.
First Trust Bank is today a subsidiary of the Dublin-based AIB Group. AIB was born in 1966 with the merger of a number of banks that had a presence throughout the island of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, although long-standing, the new bank's coverage was a minor part of the banking scene. In 1991, AIB acquired TSB Northern Ireland. The move created First Trust Bank, which then became a major player. This gave AIB a comprehensive network throughout the island of Ireland, which was its stated objective. To many, the Dublin-based AIB was regarded as an Irish nationalist bank. Now, because of the financial mess that AIB has created for itself, it has placed First Trust up for sale.
For many unionists, this is very interesting. It is increasingly clear that the Irish business establishment accepts the concept of the Belfast agreement of 1998 by underlining that there are two separate countries with their own national identities and economic systems on the island of Ireland. AIB proposes to confine itself to the Irish Republic and to be rid of its United Kingdom connections, even on the island. Of further interest to unionists is that the move underlines the permanence of the border. It also shows, when times are tough, how quickly the Irish are willing to abandon anything in Northern Ireland. AIB is a lesson to unionists.
However, there are a number of critical areas of which I would like HMG to be aware. AIB is rushing to raise capital with asset sales and so avoid potential nationalisation by the Irish Government. However, the interests of its Northern Ireland customers, its staff and its pensioners must be protected. Constituent parts of First Trust have traded locally for almost 200 years. It is clear that as a result of the bank being put on the market, its local staff, at all levels, are demoralised and disillusioned by the way in which they have been betrayed. This low morale, coupled with a lack of leadership from AIB, has been apparent to the customer base, which has been very poorly treated over the past 18 months. Information is difficult to obtain and is often not correct. A once helpful bank has turned into a nightmare for customers. I am hurt that an institution for which I have some loyalty is now the object of ridicule and gossip at dinner parties and other such gatherings. Good will takes a long time to build but only a few disastrous months to disappear.
I ask the Government to ensure that whatever body scrutinises the banking sector in the future, First Trust customers and their interests are monitored. It is also vital that its existing staff and pensioners, of whom I am not one, have their rights and entitlements protected. This is an issue in which I propose to take a careful interest and will, no doubt, return to many times in the future.
Legislation concerning the method of selection of the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland is also a matter for this Parliament. May I suggest that there is a need for consideration of the democratic understanding for such posts? Speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly on
"It is imperative that the A5 road project go ahead. I understand that some landowners will have concerns, but they will have opportunities to make enquiries and raise those concerns. However, let nobody be in any doubt whatsoever that those two vital projects-the Belfast to Larne project and the Aughnacloy to the north-west gateway project-will go ahead".
That is from the Official Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The concerns that landowners have in the case of the A5 are full scale and important. Farms in fertile areas, listed buildings, habitats for wildlife and homes are to be destroyed, and the official process of planning and environmental assessment will count for nought, according to Mr McGuinness. "Be under no doubt the project will go ahead", he told the Assembly. There was no mention of the statutory planning process. This may be the kind of democratic process that Sinn Fein thinks it has signed up to, but it will not be tolerated by the ordinary people of the area.
I agree with the new Government's decision to cut down on the use of consultants. I would also ask that they examine the quality of some of their work in future before engagement. I am concerned with the work undertaken in the area of environmental assessment.
Earlier this week, central government asked the Northern Ireland Executive to cut £128 million from their budget. It is fair for us to play our part in the overall savings required by the nation. However, the loss of fuel and cigarette tax collections as a result of activity in south Armagh is calculated to be well in excess of that amount every year. In south Armagh, under new leadership, the republican movement has changed from fuel laundering to importation from the Irish Republic and the collection of VAT on both sides of the frontier. Careful organisation has made this trade, and that of bulk loads of cigarettes, very profitable. I ask the Government to clamp down on this activity and, in doing so, reduce the national deficit.
Like many in our country, I am intrigued by the coalition which forms the Government. The interaction between the two leaders seems to have sparked a public mood. This is one of those times when we all must work together to put our nation back on the tracks again. If we do not, the next generations will not forgive us.