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Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2005

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2005

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6.56 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3 February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order's effect is to extend the power to legislate on Northern Ireland matters by Order in Council for a further six months; that is, until 14 October 2005. Your Lordships have already agreed four times to the extension of this power originally set out in the Northern Ireland Act 2000 since the suspension of devolution in October 2002. Many of your Lordships will recognise such a debate being a familiar feature of the annual direct rule renewal debates prior to 1999. I am sure that we will deeply regret that such debates are not consigned to history.

As noble Lords will recall, when the Government last renewed this power, there was a sense of optimism among those involved in the peace process. There had been significant progress in intensive negotiations at Leeds Castle. The momentum continued through the following months, culminating in the publication in December of the package of proposals for a comprehensive agreement.

The proposals demonstrated substantial progress and agreement on a wide range of issues. As noble Lords are aware, the significant progress made last year has been deeply damaged by the Northern Bank raid at the end of December. Both the Chief Constable and the Independent Monitoring Commission have said that it was carried out by the Provisional IRA. The commission's fourth report, published earlier this month, concluded that Sinn Fein must bear its share of responsibility.

I recognise the strength of feeling across the House on these issues. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in condemning the continued paramilitary and criminal activity that is the obstacle now to a lasting and durable settlement in Northern Ireland. I can assure the House that we will continue to work closely with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland parties to do everything we can to restore stable and inclusive devolved government to Northern Ireland based on exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I realise that governing Northern Ireland by Order in Council is not where any of us would wish to be, but until such time as devolution is restored it is a necessity. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3 February be approved [9th Report from the Joint Committee].(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing forward the order. She is right that we are all sad and sorry that it is necessary and the number of times that it has had to be renewed. I wonder optimistically if perhaps the reason that we are where we are now will evolve into being the bursting of the abscess that has been the core of evil hidden under a cloak of parliamentary and pseudo-politics. We can only hope that from this low point we can move forward to better things. I support the order.

I thank the Minister for explaining the purposes of the order, which is becoming a tedious and monotonous regular feature of the business of your Lordships' House. We are frustrated that two and a half years after the Assembly was suspended, there is still no prospect of restoring devolution to Northern Ireland and I am afraid that we are in for a protracted period of direct rule.

The current situation of putting through significant and substantial legislation for Northern Ireland by order in a couple of hours is not sustainable. Tonight is symptomatic of that. We are considering four orders, time is getting on, there is tremendous pressure to speed things up and it is a bad way of treating Northern Ireland business. As I have said before, particularly in the light of this protracted period of direct rule, we must have a better and different system of doing things. The Government must apply their minds to making alternative arrangements.

The noble Baroness said, "We have no alternative but to do this by order". I said recently in your Lordships' House that orders are unsatisfactory because they are basically anti-democratic. You have to let the Government have their way. I have given notice before and I give it again: we will start opposing orders because, if they are not amenable to amendment, there will be occasions when it may be necessary to oppose them.

Will the Government provide more notice before such orders are discussed? It is unrealistic to expect everyone involved in Northern Ireland business to get their heads around complex legislation such as the budget in a couple of days. After all, much of the legislation that comes to us by order is not secondary legislation or short regulations; they are, to all intents and purposes, Bills.

Do the Government accept, therefore, that this is an unacceptable way to keep legislating for Northern Ireland? Frankly, it is insulting to the people of Northern Ireland that this House decides on important matters of public policy, on the real bread and butter issues of Northern Ireland that hold society together, with perhaps only an hour's discussion. It is lucky to have even that in many cases.

Will the Government agree that legislating for Northern Ireland is not a part-time job? Would the Government consider providing a dedicated Northern Ireland Minister for the House of Lords, as we had before devolution? It would go some way to assist the workings of this House if we had someone operating in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, did before devolution.

What talks are the Government having with political parties in Northern Ireland to move the process forward? What options are the Government discussing with them? I accept that inevitably, with yet another election and in the marching season, there are few windows of opportunity of, dare I say it, normalcy in Northern Ireland to have such discussions. It is not a normal type of place. But are they giving any consideration to restoring the scrutiny committees of the Assembly to allow them to look at legislation and make recommendations and amendments before they come to Parliament? It would be extremely helpful if your Lordships had some guidance from the local leaders in Northern Ireland on the various orders that come before us.

Are the Government considering whether it would be possible to restore the Assembly and devolve power to it without including Sinn Fein in the executive? That may become an option—the longer that Sinn Fein makes no public declaration that it is divorcing itself from its paramilitary wing, the longer it will exclude itself. We hope that that does not happen and that it can make such a declaration, but, as has been said, why should the other political parties be put in baulk as a result of Sinn Fein's current position?

The current situation is unacceptable and has been going on for far too long. The Government must apply their minds to putting in place an effective method of scrutinising legislation for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for outlining the order. We have reached a turning point in Northern Ireland's political process and if the situation is not urgently addressed, the great momentum for democratic government that the signing of the Belfast agreement epitomised may be lost.

We have heard such rhetoric before. The two governments, however, are at a fork in the road where they must now take the necessary decisions and painful steps to ensure that the integrity of the process is not irreparably damaged. The vacuum at the heart of the process is a direct result of the actions of one political party and the two governments' refusal to treat it in accordance with democratic standards. I am, of course, speaking of Sinn Fein. The Government must now decide, finally, what measures they will bring to bear on Sinn Fein to ensure an end to the duality of its paramilitary/political existence that has strangled the atmosphere for peaceful coexistence over the past six years. That transition period is well and truly over. The crux of the matter is that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland expect a level playing field in political life. They expect parties to be treated equally, but certainly do not expect parties that are up to their necks in criminality and brutal murder to be given a set of rules to play because of their special needs.

The recent sickening murder of Robert McCartney was reminiscent of the acts of savagery carried out by the Shankill butchers in the 1970s. Gerry Adams informs us that Mr McCartney's murderers will face IRA expulsion. The Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, announced yesterday that that was not good enough. Perhaps Sinn Fein will heed his advice and hand them over to the police. However, I doubt it. Today, Mr Adams's colleagues in Belfast City Council would not support a motion calling on the public to go forward with information to the police.

My colleagues and I have been calling for the exclusion of Sinn Fein from any prospective executive should the Government recall the Assembly not because we do not want a political process that includes republicans to succeed. Our conduct to date indicates the exact opposite. We have called for their exclusion simply because it is untenable for the Government to limp on through the elections, dragging the republican movement behind it, in the hope that the same paradoxical political fix between the DUP and Sinn Fein that failed last Christmas will work again next autumn. The premise of such thinking can only be that any short-term formula can acceptably be enforced on the people of Northern Ireland to keep the Belfast agreement alive and Sinn Fein included. This will not work.

It strikes me as extremely ironic when I hear people in Britain talk about the continuing intolerance of the two communities in Northern Ireland. Yet the two Governments have repeatedly asked the people in Northern Ireland to tolerate a political formula that they would never dream of accepting themselves, never mind imposing on the people of Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. Sharing power with a party that robs banks, murders people, runs international crime syndicates and rules its own community through intimidation is not an acceptable option for the democratic population of Northern Ireland.

Last week the Prime Minister said that:
"The overwhelming view now in the whole of the island of Ireland, north and south, is there cannot be a place for Sinn Fein in an inclusive government in Northern Ireland unless there is a complete end to all forms of paramilitary activity and criminality by the IRA".
This has been the overwhelming view of the vast majority of people, north and south, since the beginning of the process. In response to a question from my colleague, the honourable Member for South Antrim, during Prime Minister's Questions last Wednesday, the Prime Minister said:
"Unified pressure from north and south is now necessary to ensure that we either manage to get a way forward involving all political parties, or find a different way forward".—[Official Report, Commons, 23/2/05; col. 307.]
Can the Government enlighten us about what that united pressure will amount to? How will it differ from the Government's strategy to date? What form will the different way forward take? My fear is the two Governments will continue to do what they have done since 1998, and that is to punish the democrats collectively with Sinn Fein for fear that those who threaten the democratic process with violence might slip out of the political loop. That is again a formula that has borne no fruit. It simply suggests that the two Governments have little faith in the political process in Northern Ireland. This is a message that has clearly not been lost on Sinn Fein/IRA.

Tonight we are discussing the continuation of direct rule. That is fine, but there are some issues that we must consider as well. One is the failure of the cross-border bodies to be of any assistance to the general community in Northern Ireland. They simply act on behalf of the Irish Government. In effect, we have joint authority in the areas where there is cross-border activity.

In the case of Waterways Ireland—which I have raised in this Chamber before—the post of director of marketing and communications was not filled by open competition and is not made amenable to the law of the United Kingdom, although the post is located in Enniskillen in County Fermanagh. This issue has been covered up time and again at the behest of the Dublin Government through the North/South Ministerial Council.

I asked a Written Question recently about the employment law to which the posts of directors of Waterways Ireland are subject if they are based at the headquarters in County Fermanagh. I received the most unacceptable Answer, which stated:
"Employment in the post of directors of Waterways Ireland is likely to be subject to the law of the United Kingdom".—[Official Report, 24/2/05; col. WA 218.]
It is "likely" to be subject to the law of the United Kingdom.

These posts are in a part of the United Kingdom, but there is no open competition for them, nor for promotion. A director of marketing and communications was appointed. Now, I have been in that industry for more than 30 years. I am one of two visiting professors of that subject in the United Kingdom. I was denied the right to apply for a job in Waterways Ireland. That is not the sort of legislation that we have in Northern Ireland. It is not the sort of legislation we want in Northern Ireland. We have legislation that covers open competition and allows for no discrimination in employment on any basis. Yet these practices, which may be acceptable in the Irish Republic, are now taking place as a result of the cross-border bodies.

It has been covered up by the North/South Ministerial Council, which has wiped its hands clean of this appointment. Yet, for example, on 14 April 2003, it confirmed the appointment of the chief executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency. But I could find no such confirmation for the director of marketing and communications for Waterways Ireland, who was appointed from a shortlist of one, with no experience of waterways and very little experience of marketing and communications. He was, as I have told this House before, a fixer for Charlie Haughey in the Fianna Fail office in Dublin. Do we want that sort of southern Irish governance creeping into Northern Ireland, as we saw in the cross-border bodies? That is not what I signed up for.

On the subject of cross-border bodies, I shall make a point about an activity that has gone on in Middletown, where it is proposed that there should be a centre for autistic children. I totally accept that it is required and, as I am dyslexic, I am very interested in extra teaching resources for disabled kids. But in Middletown, at the behest of the southern Government working through the North/South Ministerial Council, Her Majesty's Government have provided money to buy a convent and a chapel. Part of the area will be used for a special needs school and the convent and the chapel will be leased back to the church at a nominal rent. I am not against the convent, the chapel or schools for autistic children. But there must be a lot of public property in Northern Ireland that is not currently being used for education. What was the selection process for Middletown? What was the selection process for this cross-border body?

It is time that we looked at these cross-border bodies, which should not exist without devolution. Tonight, we are discussing direct rule and we should be looking at these bodies, which should not exist with direct rule. I want to know why Her Majesty's Government bailed out a religious order in Middletown with government money, why they bought property that they did not need and are now seeking to let back to a church. None of this is what I voted for when I voted for the Belfast agreement.

7.15 p.m.

My Lords, this order extends the Order in Council for another six months, for the obvious reason that devolution has not taken place on the basis of the Belfast agreement, nor is it likely to. That is the problem. I agree with the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats that direct rule will be required for a very long period in the present circumstances.

The situation on the ground in Northern Ireland is deteriorating. One can sense that as one moves around Northern Ireland. Bitterness is increasing. Sinn Fein/IRA are active on the ground in criminality and terrorism. Only 10 days ago, the leader of Sinn Fein/IRA, Mr Gerry Adams, led a paramilitary parade through the town of Strabane with republican flags and men in party uniform and black caps. No one took any action. The Government did not condemn it; the police did not take any action. That kind of flaunting of republicanism by Mr Gerry Adams, supported by his paramilitaries, is damaging the good atmosphere that had been developed in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Belfast agreement.

When this order states that the Order in Council will be extended until October this year, does that means that the Assembly will remain in existence for another six months? People will reach that conclusion. As one who negotiated and signed the Belfast agreement, I do not believe that it is possible any longer to have a fully inclusive executive at Stormont. Such damage has been done in the past few months that the idea of unionists joining with Mr Gerry Adams in an executive is beyond my imagination.

We had a very promising interview last weekend by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Mr Paisley, on Dublin radio, of all places, in which he said that he would share in government with Sinn Fein/IRA, irrespective of what had taken place in the past, if it abandoned criminality and carried out decommissioning that is visible to the public. Well, we live in hope, but I doubt whether that will happen.

I have to join with the Liberal Democrats in saying that the Government must come forward with new proposals for legislation in Northern Ireland.

I am a little surprised at the explanatory document which says that there will not be much public interest in this particular measure. There is a lot of public criticism in Northern Ireland at the lack of ability to amend legislation affecting Northern Ireland that is pushed through by Order in Council and cannot be amended. I think that the Official Opposition should take the issue more seriously. They should begin to say, "We are going to oppose this strongly if it comes up again".

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Other noble Lords and Government Ministers will know that the Official Opposition, at times with the Liberal Democrats and at times on our own, have worked extremely hard with whatever means we know to try to improve the situation that the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, is talking about. I ask him to think about maybe correcting his last statement.

My Lords, I am interested in the explanation given, but I am comforted more by what the Liberal Democrats said—that in future they will actually oppose these Orders in Council and not simply criticise them and then not oppose them. I believe that the time has come when Orders in Council must be opposed in Parliament.

My final point is that the Assembly has now been elected for 18 months. You cannot go on for ever retaining an Assembly, Members of the Legislative Assembly and heads, with salaries and expenses. The Assembly has been heavily criticised by the public in Northern Ireland. I have defended it up to now. But the time is running out, I have to say, if you do not use the elected Assembly for some purpose in, for example, scrutinising the legislation before it is approved in this Parliament, because it will not have legislative powers. Some formula must be developed over the next six months whereby the elected MLAs will scrutinise legislation and then come here with their recommendation. If that does not happen I fear that in six months' time the Assembly itself will have to be closed down as well.

My Lords, I first place on record that there is no pressure on any noble Lord to speed things up tonight. It has just gone 20 past 7. I am sorry if the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, perceived that there was. It most certainly is not the case.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is fully aware and shares the concerns about the process that we use for accountability and detailed scrutiny of issues. Our ultimate goal remains the restoration of the Assembly, so that Ministers in their power-sharing executive can take responsibility for local issues, being held to account by locally elected politicians.

Equally, we are committed to looking at how best to configure arrangements in Northern Ireland to provide an effective and efficient means of delivering and accounting for local services. The review of public administration aims to do that.

We recognise and share the view all noble Lords expressed on the need to look at how local accountability under the present system of direct rule can be strengthened. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is currently doing that. I urge noble Lords with detailed views to write to my right honourable friend expressing them. We take very seriously the need to think creatively and imaginatively about how to configure arrangements in Northern Ireland to provide an effective and efficient means of providing that local accountability.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked about the period over which the order is provided for. The period provided for in the order is six months. Therefore, the period will expire, as the noble Lord recognised, on 14 October 2005, or earlier if devolved government is restored.

The noble Lord raised the issue of how much longer. We recognise that we were close to a political deal last December, although not close enough. The present arrangements, including for MLAs' salaries and allowances, were appropriate while progress was being made. We are now reviewing these and other issues with the political parties. We will not make any snap decision on salaries until this process has been completed.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Laird, the Chief Constable has stated that PIRA currently retains the capability to return to terrorism. He has also said that he thinks it is unlikely that it will actually return to that point. But we shall keep the level of threat under review, as we do with all terrorist organisations, and will respond appropriately to any change. We sincerely hope that no terrorist group currently on ceasefire will increase the level of violence in which it is involved. That is in no one's interest.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, referred to how much longer can we go on and asked why we cannot look at a different way of setting up the Assembly. We know that all noble Lords appreciate that we really must ensure that any Assembly is representative and is cross-community. Therefore, we will work towards that.

The Secretary of State made it clear in his Statement that long-term stability in Northern Ireland could not come about if we focus on exclusion. That objective requires inclusion. Dialogue with Sinn Fein must continue to see how that long-term goal can be achieved. Nothing is ruled in or out at this point.

I echo the statement made by the Reverend Ian Paisley—which the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, recognised-that when we are in a situation where people are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and they have a mandate, then we must be prepared to talk to them.

Following the suspension of the Assembly in October 2002, the North/South Ministerial Council agreed that policies and actions relating to the implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland would be taken by the two governments. These policies and actions were confined to those already agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, asked me many detailed questions regarding the waterways. As he acknowledged, he has had a great deal of correspondence from the Lord President. who unfortunately is not able to be here tonight. The decision to locate the headquarters for Waterways Ireland in Enniskillen was made by the North/South Ministerial Council on 13 December 1999. The staff at Waterways Ireland have been in inappropriate accommodation for four years in the expectation that the council's decision to create a new headquarters in Enniskillen would relieve accommodation problems.

In July 2004 the Secretary of State concluded that giving effect to the council's decision is a matter of care and maintenance. That project is now proceeding.

The noble Lord puts me in some difficulty. I shall answer in as detailed a way as is appropriate in dealing with an individual in an individual appointment. The post of director of corporate services designate was filled by an officer on secondment from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. His period of secondment has now ended. He has returned to his parent department. He was not removed from his post in Waterways Ireland. While he was offered and accepted the post of director of corporate services following open competition, he did not take up the post.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I am not sure what has happened here. I did not raise the issue of the location of Waterways Ireland in Enniskillen. I said it was a fact that the headquarters is in Enniskillen, so therefore, as part of the United Kingdom, one has to assume that the legislation for people who work in Enniskillen is UK legislation. Will the Minister confirm that?

I did not talk about the director of corporate services, but about the director of marketing and communications—a totally different post. I will deal with the question of the director of corporate services on another day. With respect to your Lordships' House, this is not the issue I raised.

My Lords, the sum total of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Laird, create an impression that positions were not being filled correctly in that organisation.

My Lords, I wonder if I could be helpful on this matter, without concentrating on the individual involved. We do not simply use the United Kingdom's employment legislation—there is separate legislation for Northern Ireland, which includes fair employment legislation. I will not ask the Minister for a reply now, but perhaps she could let me know in writing if the fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland applies to all employees within these north-south bodies.

My Lords, I would be delighted to do exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, asked.

The noble Lord, Lord Laird, also referred to the issue of witnesses assisting the police with the McCartney investigation. We emphasise the Government's commitment to ensuring that witnesses should be able to give evidence without fear, and we encourage those with any information to come forward and give it to the police. I do not want to get involved in commenting on the specifics of the investigation, for reasons I know noble Lords will find self-evident.

The Secretary of State has been meeting with Northern Ireland parties to find out their views. Our goal remains the restoration of an inclusive power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, and we shall not abandon our commitment to that.

I conclude by echoing the words referred to by the noble Lord. Lord Kilclooney. The reverend Ian Paisley said,
"I have made it clear that, as a democrat, if people turn up with a mandate, and if that mandate does not depend on criminality, does not depend on armed revolt and rebellion … I would face up to the fact that I would have to do business with them."
That is an unexceptionable position to be in. I am sure that in approving this order tonight, as I hope noble Lords will, we can work together to try and find a better way to work until we are in a position where the order is not essential.

I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, has asked me detailed questions with regard to a particular post. I am aware of the fact, and I have copies of the copious responses to the detailed questions put by the noble Lord. I am not in any way seeking to tell the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, that I want to be hasty about this, but I suspect that noble Lords would prefer that I wrote rather than read out all that correspondence. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.