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Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 7 May 1998

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6 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Dubs.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Skelmersdale) in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Disqualification]:

moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 2, line 28, leave out subsection (2).
The noble Lord said: During the Second Reading debate yesterday, the Minister was kind enough to refer to this amendment. I am grateful to him. My motive was not to enable Her Majesty's Lieutenants to stand for the assembly but to discover why such a provision was necessary in the Bill. Perhaps I may ask whether such a disqualification section has been employed in regard to any previous body. If the answer is yes, it still remains a curious device.

The Minister stated yesterday that the duties of Lords-Lieutenants specifically exclude them from holding a political post or engaging in political activities in certain areas; and I agree. But as the Lord-Lieutenant is appointed by the Sovereign, his duties are surely outlined in some detail by the Sovereign. Therefore the restriction is already in force. Why is it necessary for a government department to seek parliamentary approval for a disqualification already provided by the Crown, and which the Sovereign herself is quite capable of enforcing without reference to Parliament?

I am sure that the Minister will have reflected on this matter overnight. I welcome his conclusions. I beg to move.

I support the amendment, but in doing so I declare an interest—indeed, it is my argument. I did not see the amendment until today so I have not undertaken a great deal of research. However, if my memory serves me correctly, my late father represented East Belfast as an elected Member of the Stormont Parliament, later became a Cabinet Minister, later still became a Member of the Senate, and, finally, was Speaker of the Senate in Stormont until such time as it was prorogued. If my memory serves me correctly, throughout that time he was Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant for the City of Belfast. The noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, indicates to me that my memory is correct. That may be a precedent which contradicts the Bill.

Clause 4 sets out the disqualification from membership of the assembly. As in the rest of the United Kingdom, it disqualifies Lord-Lieutenants and Lieutenants from representing their county or county-borough in a political post, in this case, the assembly. This amendment would change the legislation to provide for Lord-Lieutenants to stand in the assembly if they so wished.

Perhaps I may refer to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. It is my understanding that the prohibition is applicable to each particular piece of legislation, so there would be separate legislation debarring Lords-Lieutenants from standing for the House of Commons, and so on. That is why we need similar legislation in this instance.

I think that this is an undesirable amendment for the following reason. The Lord-Lieutenant is Her Majesty's representative in a particular county. I quote from the duties of Lord-Lieutenants:
"In particular, he should keep in mind that, as Her Majesty's representative, he should stand aloof from politics in his county and should not, therefore, take part in political activities in his county or hold office in political party organisations in his county."
There is of course no prohibition on a Lord-Lieutenant standing in the assembly elections for any Northern Ireland constituency outside his own county or county borough. But to compromise the integrity of the Lords-Lieutenants in Northern Ireland as well as to provide an unwelcome precedent for the rest of the United Kingdom by accepting this amendment would be extremely undesirable.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, for having given me notice of his question. He referred to the situation as regards his father. We are talking about provisions for the assembly which are the same as for the House of Commons. It seems sensible to have the same provisions. Therefore, even if historically there were a different practice, it seems proper that Lords-Lieutenants should be constrained in the way that I have suggested is proper.

I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment; and, if he has any friends who are Lords-Lieutenants who wish to stand for election elsewhere than in their own counties or county boroughs, to urge them to do so.

I do not imagine that there will be a great rush of nominees for that particular post. However, I wish to confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said about the distinguished services rendered to the whole of the United Kingdom by his late father. He served with distinction in all those positions to which the noble Lord referred. I wish to state that sincerely.

In a sense the Minister has confirmed my suspicions that the restrictions on the behaviour and eligibility of Her Majesty's Lords-Lieutenants and Lieutenants are already in being, and probably enforced for all I know by the Crown. I am still not clear why Parliament is being asked to replicate, or perhaps override, instructions which will have already been given, fairly firmly I imagine, by Her Majesty.

However, I have taken note of what has been said. I hope that further consideration will be given at some future stage to what appears to be a rather confused arrangement. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clauses 5 to 9 agreed to.

Schedule [The Assembly]:

had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 2:

Page 4, line 4, leave out from beginning to ("as") and insert ("The first meeting shall be held at such time and place").
Page 4, line 5, at end insert ("and subsequent meetings at such times and places as the Assembly decides").
The noble Lord said: In view of the Minister's helpful reassurances yesterday, I shall not move Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 5.

[ Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 4, line 13, at end insert—
("Conditions of holding office
. No person shall hold any office in the Assembly if he belongs to a party which—
  • (a) is attached to a proscribed organisation which is listed in Schedule 2 to the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 and which—
  • (i) has not declared, and is not honouring, a permanent and total cessation of violence,
  • (ii) has not surrendered its illegal weaponry, and
  • (iii) has not dismantled its paramilitary structure; and
  • (b) has not made an unequivocal declaration of its acceptance of the six principles contained in the Report of the International Commission on Decommissioning, which establish a commitment to—
  • (i) employ exclusively peaceful means; and
  • (ii) abide by the democratic process.").
  • The noble Lord said: All who were present for our debate yesterday will remember that a common theme ran through many, if not all, of the speeches; namely, the need for effective decommissioning to ensure the workability of the proposals, and even the initial assembly.

    The Minister reminded us of the Prime Minister's undertaking, given some four weeks ago (at col. 661 of Hansard), that if, during the course of the first six months of the shadow assembly, or even the assembly itself, those provisions were shown to be ineffective, the Government would support changes to the provisions to enable them to be more effective.

    However, the six-month timescale has been to a great extent shortened by the declaration last week of the IRA ruling out any possibility of the disarming of their war machine, and by this week's statement that the IRA will permit those of its members who are also members of Sinn Fein to serve in the assembly.

    So we have the benefit of two declarations of intent from the IRA: first, that the IRA will serve in the assembly; and secondly, a declaration of no intention to leave the guns outside the assembly. Thus, the IRA have rendered obsolete the Prime Minister's trial period of six months. We can take that as being over and done with. We now know for certain that the present provisions have already been shown to be ineffective. As from this day, the Government are duty bound, in the words of the Prime Minister, to "support changes".

    Some may find the Prime Minister's words,
    "The Government will support changes",
    rather puzzling. However, being of a charitable nature, I shall not quibble over the Prime Minister's statement, but shall modestly cast myself in the role of initiator of a proposal which the Government can then support.

    My Amendment No. 4 therefore launches the initiative, which I expect the Government to support, in line with the Prime Minister's undertaking, which undertaking simply requires to be updated in line with the two very clear declarations of intent by the IRA. I beg to move.

    I was one of those who spoke yesterday on the lines indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. It will therefore come as no surprise that I support the principle behind the amendment. At the risk of repeating the remarks I made then, I strongly believe that no one who belongs to an armed conspiracy to subvert the state has any place in a democratic government of that state. That is the principle which is at stake here.

    While that debate was taking place in this Chamber, in another place the Prime Minister agreed that prisoner releases should be linked in legislation to the decommissioning of arms. I take the same view, as does the amendment, in relation to membership of the executive and decommissioning.

    I have two difficulties with the amendment. First, the drafting is not very happy. I refer in particular to the first main line of the amendment; namely,
    "No person shall hold any office in the Assembly if he belongs to … a proscribed organisation".
    I am not quite sure who is covered by the phrase,
    "hold any office in the Assembly".
    It is the habit in this Parliament that a reference to those who are Officers of the House normally means the Clerks, Black Rod, the Serjeant-at-Arms and the others who help us with our work but are not Members of either another place or this House. I am not quite sure what would be meant in law by the phrase, "in the Assembly".

    It is clear what the noble Lord means (and what 1 mean). The reference is to those who become members of the executive. They will be members of the assembly first, and then members of the executive—as First Minister, Deputy First Minister or one of the other Ministers. However, I am not sure that the phrase used in the amendment actually covers that.

    The second difficulty is that the amendment will fit more happily into the Bill that we are promised on the main constitution. That, after all, will be the Bill setting up the executive, and it will create the posts to which we refer; namely, First Minister and the others. It seems to me that an amendment of this character would be better inserted into that Bill. However, I support the principle that lies behind the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux.

    6.15 p.m.

    I have a good deal of sympathy with the reasons advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, for tabling this amendment. Secondly, those who involve themselves with, support, or give any succour or credence to those involved in paramilitary organisations cannot be accepted as those who should properly hold government office at any level. Indeed, one would not really want to see such people involved in democratic life.

    In Northern Ireland it has been the case that, for many years, we have had to work with politicians of more than one strain and from more than one side of the community, as local government councillors, indeed as chairmen and deputy chairmen of committees in local government. That has been despite the fact that the previous administration introduced legislation requiring that everyone standing for local government office should sign a declaration against violence. People have happily signed, but to our certain knowledge have continued to support those who have used violence. So, for me, there is a very real problem—one that I share with the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux—in relation to the facts of life in Northern Ireland in political terms.

    I have a number of problems with this particular amendment, on this particular point, in this particular Bill. First, the noble Lord said that the whole question of how the republican movement might operate over the next six months has been foreshortened by the announcements from the IRA, and indeed the republican movement generally, over recent days. In that, he may be absolutely correct. We are not to know.

    Yet I should not feel happy to allow the republican movement off the hook, as it were. A referendum has not yet taken place involving people throughout the island of Ireland stating their case clearly. If the people of Ireland, north and south, on 22nd May—as I fully expect—give their assent in a referendum, the moral pressure on republicans in particular, though not exclusively republicans, to set aside the ways of violence and to accept this agreement in its totality will be enormous. I believe that all those Members of this House and another place, and all those members of the houses in Dublin also, and all those involved in responsible politics and the community as a whole, should use the result which I fully expect to see in the referendum on 22nd May to put pressure on all republicans, loyalists and those of whatever shade of opinion, to put away violence and all its trappings for good. Therefore, I am reticent about accepting the suggestion from the noble Lord, albeit that it may be correct in the fullness of time. I am reticent about simply accepting at this point that there is no possibility of any changes being made.

    I ask noble Lords to note that the terms of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, do not state that there should be a start on decommissioning or a commencement of the dismantling of the paramilitary structure, but rather that the whole business should be completed. On the first day of a cease-fire, I expect no one to be shot; but I do not expect the whole paraphernalia of a terrorist structure built up over 30 years to be dissolved. However, 12 months or 24 months down the line, I do expect a great deal more.

    It may be unlikely; however, were it to be the case that on 22nd May there was a positive result, and if by the end of the month there were some indications of a positive kind that republicans and loyalists were prepared to make some movement; and by the end of June, July or August a real dismantling of the terrorist structures was beginning to take place although that process would not be completed, I should not only welcome it but I should feel that some kind of positive response should be forthcoming.

    Under the terms of the noble Lord's amendment, it is not just executive positions that may be closed to all those from, for example, a republican or indeed a loyalist background, but all positions of office in the assembly. The Bill is merely an enabling Bill; it does not set down all the officers of whom we are speaking. It may or may not involve the kinds of officers referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cope; it may simply refer to all those who are elected officials and who hold chairmanships or deputy chairmanships of committees, as well as those who hold positions in the executive.

    There was a tacit acceptance by all those who adhered to the agreement following the talks—unionists, nationalists, members of the Alliance Party, and all—that the fundamental problem concerned people involved with violence holding positions as Ministers. There was a general acceptance that, as in local government, people might hold positions as chairmen or deputy chairmen of committees. Under the terms of the noble Lord's amendment, there could be a situation where, for example, a republican might be denied the opportunity to be the deputy chairman of a house committee looking after the members' dining room. However reasonable it might seem on this side of the water to say that no one involved in violence should play any part in the assembly, it would be an anomaly in terms of how we have to conduct business in Northern Ireland. It would be seen not as an accepting of republicans into the democratic fold but rather a cutting back on the privileges they already enjoy in other areas of politics in Northern Ireland. It would be seen as counter-productive.

    We shall have a full opportunity to address these matters when the settlement Bill comes to us. That will be a major piece of legislation. Those from Northern Ireland will have to crave the indulgence of your Lordships' House as we proceed with what will be a difficult and complicated piece of legislation. At least it will come at a point when we shall know the result of the referendum and shall know better how republicans and loyalists intend to conduct themselves. At that point it may be possible to bring forward in another way some of the sentiments behind the noble Lord's amendment and to look at them in a more considered fashion. At this point, bearing in mind the timing, the technical detail and the question of the appropriateness of this enabling Bill, I respectfully call upon Members of the Committee to set aside the amendment while valuing the clear moral imperative which drove the noble Lord to propose it. Not only do we appreciate his integrity in doing so; many of us share the sentiments which motivated him.

    I too support the principle of the amendment and would ask the Minister whether it is not more or less in line with what the Prime Minister promised sceptical teenagers in Belfast yesterday, as many of us will have seen on BBC television news programmes.

    Anyone with a Northern Ireland background will understand the reasoning which prompted the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, to propose the amendment. It shows clearly what we all know to exist in Northern Ireland: a lack of trust. Even though an agreement has been reached, a great deal of distrust and suspicion still exists between the two main communities in Northern Ireland.

    When I saw reference in the Mitchell principles to decommissioning, I realised, as anyone who knows the history of Northern Ireland would, just how impossible that would be. It has never happened before in Irish history. Uprisings and armed violence have stopped or faded away and the arms left to rust. There was a campaign of violence in Northern Ireland between 1956 and 1962. When the official IRA, as it then was, called off its campaign, it did not decommission. The arms were left to rust. When the split between the official IRA and the provisional IRA took place in 1970, members of the official IRA were called "rusty guns" in a derisory way by the provisionals because they had let their guns rust and allegedly did not have them to hand to defend the Catholic people when the troubles broke out in 1969 and 1970.

    After our debate yesterday, I went home and racked my brains to try to think of any possible steps which could be taken by any one of the parties to the agreement in order to bring about a little trust in the opposing community. If the IRA is told by the British Government or the Irish Government that it has to decommission, that is tantamount to saying that it has to surrender. No one in Irish political history has ever surrendered. They may have called off their campaigns throughout the ages, but none of them ever surrendered. Indeed, it is on record that when the first Dail, the Irish Parliament, took place following a civil war, elected members went in with their guns in their pockets.

    In view of what I heard yesterday on television, though I have not yet read about it, I believe that if the IRA is sincere in wishing to abide by the principles in the agreement it has been very mischievous in saying that it will permit its members to take their seats in a newly created assembly. That is bound to create mistrust among the people of Northern Ireland.

    However, it must be said that not every member of Sinn Fein has given allegiance to that party because they believe in the armed struggles. Many nationalists have given their votes and support to Sinn Fein for economic reasons and because they believed that Sinn Fein would provide the best public representatives in certain areas. That is certainly the case in West Belfast where, whatever one may think of it politically, Sinn Fein has proved to be a party which looks after the interests of the people who vote for it. Not everyone who votes for Sinn Fein supports a re-emergence of violence.

    The main ex-terrorist parties who supported the agreement are the UDA, the UVF and Sinn Fein. The IRA has now said that it has called off its campaign. Would it not be possible for the political representatives of the UDA, the UVF and the IRA—namely, Sinn Fein—to get together and agree on what gestures could be made, however small, in relation to decommissioning? I believe that the three ex-terrorist organisations which were represented in the talks and will be represented in the new assembly could make a tremendous gesture towards the people of Northern Ireland by coming together. After all, they met in the talks and have had discussions at local authority level in Northern Ireland. If they were to meet, that would isolate the LVF, which was not party to the agreement, the INLA and other fringe organisations. It would be a very important step forward in relation to decommissioning if those organisations—the people who were using the guns—were to come to an agreement and say, "We are not going to use guns any more."

    6.30 p.m.

    Perhaps I can be of help to my noble friend Lord Cope, who was puzzled by the words "holding office".

    In the United Kingdom generally people who hold office are appointed by the person emerging as the winner of a general election. That occurs mainly in the other place. However, in the assembly the places of authority will be allocated mainly by the assembly. I understand also that two officers of the House will be appointed by the Secretary of State. In my view, therefore, the term "holding office" probably embraces all of those.

    I am reluctant to divide the Committee in view of the sympathetic support shown for the general thrust of my amendment and also in view of the sympathetic support from the Minister which may be forthcoming in the near future. Therefore, because of what I believe to be the position of others in places of high authority and the assurance that we will be able to come back to this topic when we come to consider another Bill, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    [ Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

    Schedule agreed to.

    House resumed: Bill reported without amendment:

    Report received.

    Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 30th April), Bill read a third time.

    My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

    I did not have a chance to respond to the arguments put forward in relation to Amendment No. 4, so perhaps I may say a brief word in that regard.

    The House listens with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux. He brings great experience of Northern Ireland to bear on our debates. He was the leader of the main political party in Northern Ireland and what he says is always of importance to us.

    In a sense, we have already moved beyond the amendment and I believe that I put the Government's position clearly in the debate on Second Reading yesterday. I do not want to trespass further on the time of the House by going over the same arguments. However, I listened with interest also to the noble Lord, Lord Cope. As his friends in the other place said, this issue is one with which they would like to deal when the settlement Bill comes later, rather than during debate on this Bill.

    The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made the important point that a "Yes" vote in the referendum is likely to change the mood in Northern Ireland such that things will become possible which perhaps today are not possible. I agree that there is an importance in all this and I take to heart the important contribution of my noble friend Lord Fitt.

    I thank all Members of the House for enabling this Bill to go through quickly. The reasons for haste are well understood, but I appreciate the way in which all Members who took part in the debate contributed to a rapid outcome so that we can have the Bill on the statute book quickly. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

    Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Dubs.)

    On Question, Bill passed.