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Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Of the many Northern Ireland Bills to come before this House over the years, few have been as important as this. It is potentially the most significant for generations. It gives effect to the St Andrews agreement with its twin pillars of power-sharing on a fair and equitable basis and support for policing and the rule of law across the whole community. These twin pillars stand or fall together. This legislation means that the vision set out in the Good Friday agreement can at last be fully realised: a Northern Ireland of equals where political difference can be accommodated, cultural diversity celebrated, division healed and where young people can look forward to a safe, secure and peaceful future.

We are now at the point where we must complete this transition with the local political parties delivering on a stable and lasting political settlement. In Armagh last April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made it clear that 2006 is the year of decision for the political parties in Northern Ireland. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it clear in another place that the political process cannot be allowed to become an end in itself and that politicians could not, and would not, continue to be paid without doing their jobs—as they have been for more than four years—as if there was no tomorrow. Northern Ireland’s public will not tolerate that. They deserve better. The time has come for action on restoring devolution, ending the democratic deficit and closing down direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough for locally accountable, democratic government. This Bill delivers that goal. It is now up to the parties to deliver on their obligations too.

As has been the case throughout this process, little is ever easy or straightforward, and I can understand why the parties might wish to edge forward with caution. In Northern Ireland’s politics, it has always been easier to say no, and always harder to say yes. I know that there are issues on which all sides want reassurance. Where the Government can give reassurance, we will. Where the parties must give reassurance to each other, they should. However, as the Secretary of State said yesterday, there is nothing that cannot be resolved within the timeframe set out in the St Andrews agreement, given the will to do it. I believe that the will is there, and the St Andrews momentum must be maintained to achieve that end.

The timetable for devolution is clear. On 24 November—two days from now—the Assembly will convene, and the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, as the two largest parties, will indicate who the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be come restoration on 26 March next year. This indication will trigger the transitional Assembly, which can then get down to the real work of preparing a programme for government.

In January next year we will have the 13th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission. Significantly, this will be the seventh report since the IRA declared it would end its illegal activity. On 7 March, there will be an election in which the people will speak and on 14 March, members of the Executive will be nominated by the party leaders. On Monday 26 March, power will be devolved and the d'Hondt process of choosing an Executive will run, with Ministers assuming office taking the pledge of office. That will indeed be “democracy day” for Northern Ireland. But the Government are under no illusions. There is still much work to be done. Nobody can be forced into government. The Government cannot force people into government. Neither this House nor the other place can force people into government.

If at any stage between now and 26 March we run out of track then devolution will become dissolution. The clock is stopped; the election scrapped; that is the reality. This is not a threat either from me or the Secretary of State. There would simply be no point in continuing. In that event direct rule and plan B, with even closer co-operation with the Irish Government, will stretch into the foreseeable future. So a choice is to be made by the parties and the people—not next week, not next month, not next year and not the year after that, but now. The imperative is to do it now.

The twin pillars of power sharing and the rule of law are enshrined in the pledge of office that all Ministers must take on 26 March. The pledge of office requires all Ministers to,

“promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future”,

to represent and work for not only those who voted for them and loaned them their mandate, but also for those who did not.

The pledge requires all Ministers to,

“participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council”.

If devolution is to deliver good government, all the institutions of government must function effectively. Any less than a full commitment to that will sell short everyone in Northern Ireland.

The pledge of office also requires Ministers to,

“observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister”.

These are fundamental tenets of power sharing, which go well beyond the symbolism—important though that is—of two different political traditions working together in equality without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

On support for the rule of law, the pledge of office could not be clearer. It states that all Ministers will,

“uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St Andrews Agreement”.

Let me remind the House what paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement, and, indeed, Clause 7(2) of the Bill, says about support for law and order. It states:

“We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board”.

We recognise that the issue of policing has been contentious ever since Northern Ireland came into being, and still more so during the conflict of recent years. But we are in a very different and much better place now. There is no greater example of this than in the transformation that has taken place within the Police Service of Northern Ireland, so ably led by Sir Hugh Orde.

The St Andrews agreement also included a clear commitment, and a target of May 2008, for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the restored Executive. We expect all concerned to take that target seriously. Indeed, the Bill requires the Assembly to report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008 on progress towards the devolution of policing and justice powers.

I want to make clear that, once policing and justice is devolved, there is nothing in the pledge which would remove or unreasonably constrain any future Minister for policing and justice from making any legitimate criticism of the police. After all, proper accountability was central to the Good Friday agreement’s vision for new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland and proper accountability was a core element of the Patten report's recommendations. Proper accountability, which can sometimes include constructive criticism, is essential in delivering the police service that Northern Ireland deserves. There is a world of difference between that and a failure to support Northern Ireland policing and justice institutions.

I remind the House that, this summer, Parliament legislated for devolution of policing and justice. We want to see it delivered so that the whole of Northern Ireland can have better ownership of the rule of law and policing. That is in the interests of everyone. Of course, much of policing has already been devolved and I pay tribute to the work of the Policing Board, the police ombudsman and the district policing partnerships for the role they play in making the Police Service of Northern Ireland more accountable than perhaps any force anywhere else in the world.

The future of devolution in Northern Ireland rests on those twin pillars. If either collapses, the whole edifice collapses. We must know that the parties want to move forward to 26 March on that basis. That is why 24 November, two days from now, is so important. When that deadline was set—well before St Andrews, of course—the Government said that we needed to know by then that a deal was on and that we were on track for a lasting political settlement: devolution. That remains the case.

Without knowing that, there cannot be a transitional Assembly. Without knowing that, there cannot be an election. Without knowing that, there cannot be devolution. The sequence set out in St Andrews will not be set aside. If the Assembly has to be dissolved because we cannot move forward, it will be, but of course we sincerely hope that it does not come to that.

We are conscious that there were a range of views on how the commitment at St Andrews to consult the people should be met. There is a powerful case for a referendum. It has the attraction of being a single-issue question. But if a referendum was held, an election to the Assembly would follow within a year of the new Executive getting down to work. We think that what the newly devolved institutions will need is a prolonged period of stability over their incoming four years. That will allow the MLAs to get on with the business of government on the wide range of challenges that will face them: on education, rates, rural planning, water charges and so on. That is what the people want to see their locally elected politicians taking charge of.

Between now and March—and well beyond, we have no doubt—there will be challenges that some will call a crisis. The media will try to strike divisions where they do not exist, but there will be challenges. Those can be overcome if everyone delivers on their commitments. Just last week, the cutting-edge travel guide, Lonely Planet, said that Northern Ireland was one of the must-see destinations for tourists. The guide said that Northern Ireland is,

“abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating, the economy is thriving and the people, the lifeblood that courses through the country, are in good spirits”.

There could be no greater incentive for the parties in Northern Ireland to be an active part of that. This is their opportunity: they can be. Indeed, the House trusts that they will be. Therefore, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for setting out the context of the Bill in his usual clear and forthright style. I will be relatively brief at this the Second Reading stage of the Bill. However, we will go into more detail on one or two contentious issues in Committee. We are showing our support for the Bill by agreeing to set aside our usual objections to pushing through legislation of this kind in a single day in order to facilitate a process on which the Government are clearly embarked and which we support.

The title of the Bill makes it clear that the Bill’s purpose is to give effect to changes in the so-called St Andrews agreement, announced by the British and Irish Governments on 13 October, which will require legislation. I am not sure how much agreement there really was in that agreement, but we will find out in the next few days.

That agreement set out a timetable for the restoration of power-sharing devolution in Northern Ireland, with in effect a new deadline of 26 March 2007. However, as the Minister pointed out, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein must indicate this Friday—the day after tomorrow—whom they would nominate for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That will be followed by an election on 7 March.

We support devolution. We want the institutions to be restored. We have had enough experience, not least in recent weeks, of the inadequacies with which Northern Ireland business is conducted at Westminster, by no fault of government, noble Lords or officials. No one disputes the fact that it would be infinitely better for Northern Ireland if devolved legislation was debated and passed at Stormont. However, if devolution is not to be, we must change the Westminster/Northern Ireland process. Let us all pray that we do not get to that point. However, there is more to it than that.

I believe that the economy would be better served by having a local Administration in Northern Ireland who would be better able to respond to the needs and concerns of local businesses. A local Administration would present a new, forward-looking and optimistic face of Northern Ireland to the outside world, helping it in the global battle to attract inward investment. A local Administration would be better able to tackle some of Northern Ireland’s deep-seated social problems, such as social exclusion and sectarianism, much more effectively than they could ever be tackled under direct rule. They would in many respects set the seal on the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland in the past 15 years. But—there is always a “but” in Northern Ireland—we in the Conservative Party are clear that stable and durable devolution can be restored only if all parties that aspire to join the Government of Northern Ireland play by and observe the same democratic rules. That means supporting the police, the courts and the rule of law unequivocally. We all know that currently only one party—Sinn Fein—refuses to do any of these things. This must change.

Support for the police, the courts and the rule of law is a basic requirement of any citizen, let alone of someone who aspires to be a Minister in any democracy. We cannot tolerate a lower standard of conduct in Northern Ireland than we would in any other part of the United Kingdom or, indeed, would be tolerated in the Republic of Ireland. Clause 7 amends the pledge of office to include a reference to upholding the rule of law and supporting policing. We welcome these changes, which closely resemble something that I sought to achieve when the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was before your Lordships’ House and which the Minister rejected. But although the pledge is undoubtedly important, actions on the ground are just as important, if not more so. After all, it was de Valera who, when entering the Dail, justified taking the oath of allegiance by dismissing it as an irrelevance. There must be no question of a repeat of history whereby Sinn Fein Ministers take this new pledge on 26 March and subsequently dismiss it as an irrelevance.

Support for the police has to mean encouraging people from republican communities to report crime. It has to mean giving evidence and co-operating with investigations. It has to mean encouraging young republicans to join the PSNI. After all, it is what increasing numbers of people in nationalist parts of Northern Ireland—places like west Belfast and south Armagh—are now demanding. They want real policing in their areas, something which I know the PSNI is delivering with increasing acceptance and success—for which all credit is due. It is about time Sinn Fein caught up.

It does not mean that there cannot be constructive criticism of the police force by Sinn Fein or by other parties for that matter. That is part of living in a free and democratic society in which the police are accountable to those whom they serve, but it does mean accepting that the authority exercised by the PSNI and the Northern Ireland courts is legitimate.

Unfortunately, support for the police and the timing of the Sinn Fein conference or ard fheis is the one element missing from the timetable set out in the St Andrews agreement. So if we are to move beyond this Friday to the elections on 7 March and the eventual devolution of power on 26 March, we need to see the Sinn Fein ard fheis take place soon, and take a clear decision in favour of the police. Without wishing to introduce yet another deadline or seeking to tie Her Majesty’s Government’s hands, I would have thought that progress has to be made by the time the Assembly is dissolved on 30 January and the election campaign begins. Given that Christmas comes in between, that is not very far ahead. I certainly cannot see any unionist going into an election on the basis of a Sinn Fein promise or as the prelude to a further round of negotiations. In fact, I cannot see Her Majesty’s Government agreeing with that either. If Sinn Fein does not deliver, it would be as well not to have an election at all. It is, after all, supposed to be an electoral endorsement, not an election for more process.

What is the delay? In 2004 in the draft comprehensive agreement, Sinn Fein signed up to an aspirational date for the devolution of policing and justice powers. The draft comprehensive agreement said that the Government anticipated Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board at the point at which legislation to pave the way for the devolution of policing and justice gained Royal Assent. That legislation, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, gained Royal Assent in July this year, and noble Lords will recall how insistent the Government were that they needed this legislation before the Summer Recess. Well, we are still waiting for Sinn Fein.

If republicans do what is required of them, I am in no doubt that, painful as it will be for many people who have suffered butchery at the hands of the IRA, the DUP would be doing the right thing in entering a power-sharing Government. From my conversations with the right honourable Member for North Antrim, Dr Paisley, and other members of the DUP, I believe that is what he and his party will do. But there has to be delivery from Sinn Fein: no more ambiguity, no more conditions and no more promises of action that does not happen.

We will give this Bill a fair passage as we understand the significance of it gaining Royal Assent tomorrow in preparation for what might happen on Friday. As we move into Committee there are, as I said earlier, a number of points which I and other noble Lords on these and the Cross Benches will wish to explore. But I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is left in no doubt of the seriousness with which we approach the policing issue. It must be resolved, and in the way that I have set out today.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for introducing this Bill. I must apologise to noble Lords in advance because if the Second Reading is not completed by 5.15 pm, I shall have to leave for medical tests that cannot be postponed. My noble friend Lady Harris will then lead from these Benches and deal with all the remaining stages of the Bill.

This flawed Bill accurately reflects the character of the politics of Northern Ireland. It is but a fig leaf to camouflage the almost irreconcilable elements at work. Whether it will provide a foundation for an operating, representative and democratic system of devolved government—as all people of good will would wish—is extremely doubtful. This wretched Bill comprises the wish list of DUP demands and a corresponding Sinn Fein wish list. Where the two conflict, it is either silent or offers a fudge. The idea that the Bill is based on robust principles which, taken together, facilitate the creation of a power-sharing Executive, as it should be, is far from the truth. Rather, it is a patchwork of cobbled-together partisan clamourings with a touch of half-baked Northern Ireland Office ingenuity.

Perhaps, given the nature of Northern Ireland politics, the Bill is all that can be achieved by way of implementing the 1998 Belfast agreement, which is a very sad comment on the situation. Even so, there can be no guarantee that Stormont and its devolutionary settlement can be restored by March 2007 as the Bill anticipates. I have frequently lauded the energy, imagination and persistence of both the UK and Irish Governments, but the Bill is a poor reward for their efforts.

While I have commended the Government’s previous efforts to bring about a restoration of devolution, their determination has flagged noticeably in recent weeks. I would remind your Lordships that 24 November was to have been a firm deadline, after which, if no cross-party agreement had been reached, the salaries and expenses of MLAs would cease. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were quite unequivocal about this. Now that deadline will pass and the parties have until March to make their minds up. As my honourable friend the Member for Montgomeryshire repeatedly stressed yesterday, allowing deadlines to continue to slip in this way severely undermines the Government’s credibility and their influence in negotiations.

Yesterday’s debate in another place, which passed all stages of the Bill, accurately reflected the widespread unease in most sections of the House which the Bill has aroused. It was accepted with much misgiving, as it will probably be in your Lordships’ House today.

The Bill has many problematic features. I shall confine my remarks to four by way of illustration. First, regarding the district policing partnerships, while it is essential, of course, to have Sinn Fein’s full political participation on them, this should not be at the expense of the existing independent members. DPPs will become totally politicised, and that is not good for the health of civic society.

Secondly, the 11-plus tests will now be abolished but with no provision for a common Northern Ireland set of protocols for selection by secondary schools. There is thus a great risk of schools adopting their own individual methods, which will make for chaos. The Bill should impose a duty on the Executive to devise a central system of selection to be mandatory on all schools.

Thirdly, the Bill should not require the Executive to foster either the Irish language or Ulster Scots. It is an issue which ought properly to be left to the Executive and the Assembly to determine. Westminster should resist legislating on this at the behest of Sinn Fein and the DUP and leave them to progress the matter in the Assembly.

Fourthly, it appears that if the move towards restoring devolution is further stalled, the Secretary of State can call an abrupt halt to the process and dissolve the Assembly. He will be able to do this by statutory instrument without having to seek affirmative parliamentary approval. This is a draconian constitutional power. If such an eventuality arises, will the Minister assure me that the Secretary of State will make a Statement in Parliament outlining his reasons in order that we may have a debate?

These Benches will be tabling amendments reflecting many of the Liberal Democrats’ misgivings. At this late stage, we can hope only that wiser counsels will prevail in the two larger parties in Northern Ireland—the DUP and Sinn Fein—so that devolution may be restored in spring 2007. No one should hold their breath. The portents are frankly not good, and it is a case of fingers crossed.

My Lords, I feel that I approach the Bill in much the same temper as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton; I have mixed views about it. It contains, as we shall see later in the day, some clauses and provisions that are plain bad. Others are there, I think, largely as window dressing to enable a certain party to try to cover its tracks as it executes a not-very-elegant U-turn. Some of them are quite unnecessary because most of the material in the Bill on ministerial accountability just reflects the practice that occurred under the first Assembly and the provisions of the revised ministerial code which, but for a little embarrassment that I was under at the time, would have been published long before the suspension of the Assembly. However, that is a matter to which I shall return.

While I have mixed feelings about the Bill, its substance is the Belfast agreement and its procedures try to implement that agreement. Consequently, I will adopt, so far as I can, a positive approach towards the Bill and will seek to amend but not oppose it.

The big question is whether it will work. Already some of the portents are not good. The original timetable has slipped; there was to be an absolute deadline at the end of this week, but that has melted away. We have other deadlines, explicit and inferential, in the Bill, but the fact that one has melted away will only encourage those who think that they can drive through the others as well. I suspect that some of the boisterousness—some of the cockiness, I should say—that we saw in the other place last night reflects the views of that party—I refer, of course, to the Democratic Unionist Party—that it has been successful in defeating one deadline and will be able to deal with another one again.

However, again and again in its contributions last night and in previous weeks and months, that party has declared its present commitment to power sharing, and to power sharing with republicans. It no longer has a principled objection to it; it is simply a matter of when republicans will do what everybody knows republicans must do—to move on the policing issue—and then the problem will be solved. This is light years away from the historic position of the Democratic Unionist Party, a position it took until not that long ago. In its movement in recent years, there are matters which will encourage us as well.

If I am concerned about the timetable, I am even more concerned about the fundamental mistake the Government are making. They are not putting, they are not seen to be putting, and I do not think they are privately putting, any significant pressure on republicans to move. They have been too indulgent of republicans over the past years. That is the reason we have had repeated crises; it is the fundamental reason why the Assembly collapsed just over four years ago; and it is why the prospects are not good now. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, drew attention to the need for republicans to move in supporting policing. It is essential not only that they move but that they do so wholeheartedly to indicate their full support for the existing policing arrangements.

We must bear in mind what has happened in Northern Ireland in recent years. Put simply, eight years ago a majority of unionists—a narrow one, admittedly, but a majority—decided to give republicans a chance. Fairly soon afterwards, they felt that their generous gesture was cast back in their face by the behaviour of republicans and their failure to honour their obligations under the agreement. This culminated not only in the events which led to the suspension of the Assembly, but also to those of December 2004, where we saw the clearest demonstration of republican involvement in criminality. And what was the Government’s response to that? They quite happily opened the door of 10 Downing Street a few weeks later to let in the robbers’ political leaders for a chat, and they repeatedly declared that the republicans were still an essential part of the process.

That failure by the Government to police and uphold the basic principles of the agreement has produced considerable revulsion among the greater number of people in Northern Ireland, and quite naturally so. They are not in any mood to see republicans back in the centre of things, especially moving towards taking some influence or control over policing. The only thing that will change their mood is if republicans now move on policing and do so in such a way as to completely change the atmosphere. The holding-back by republicans over recent weeks and months of what they know in their hearts is necessary only reinforces the suspicion among most unionists that republicans are not being genuine. They have to move and they have to move quickly. The Government have to do what is necessary to make them move. Their current approach will not work. It is commonplace for commentators to say that deadlines do not work and that republicans do not move under pressure, but the truth of the matter is that republicans move only under pressure. They would never have started decommissioning but for the pressure which we brought to bear on them. They would never have moved even to endorse the Assembly but for the pressure which the Government brought to bear on them back in 1998. I give the Government credit for the pressure that they then brought to bear on republicans, just as I am criticising them for having failed to do that in recent years. So it is essential that republicans move and move quickly. For that to happen, they will have to be put under pressure.

Mr Hain virtually said in another place yesterday that they would have to move by January. That has been echoed here today and amendments to which we shall come this evening would compel them to do so. I very much hope that the House is prepared to accept them.

Other matters in the Bill give us concern. Perhaps our greatest concern is about a last-minute change which was made to the legislation. It virtually ensures that, if something is not done, the election will be a disaster. I shall speak more about that change when we come to it, but, put simply, it will enable the DUP to go around Northern Ireland saying, “You must vote for us or you’ll get a Sinn Fein First Minister” and, at the same time, enable republicans to go around Northern Ireland and say to nationalists, “If you vote for us, you will get a republican First Minister”. The product of such a campaign can obviously be seen. It would not have happened but for a clause which slipped into the Bill at the last minute. I have no doubt that it slipped in because it suited both the DUP and Sinn Fein, and possibly because this was the only element of agreement that the Government could see between those two parties and so they grabbed it. However, they should have thought first before grabbing it because its consequences will be grim. As things stand at the moment, we face the prospect of a deadlocked Assembly.

My colleague, the Member for North Down, reminded the Government in another place last night that the Prime Minister made a promise to the people of Northern Ireland on 6 April: that, whatever else happened, there would not be another election to a deadlocked Assembly. Despite the fact that it was only in April that that Statement was jointly made by the Prime Minister and Mr Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, that promise has been broken. The breach of that promise is in this Bill. We should look at that carefully in Committee.

One should get an agreement first and then proceed. That should have happened and it should happen now. The truth is that we do not have an agreement. The Minister concluded by saying that it is up to the parties to deliver on their commitments. He was echoing the words of Mr Hain in another place yesterday. What commitments? There was no agreement at St Andrews. There was an agreement between Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, but who else was party to it? As far as I can see, no one was. I am not aware of any commitment that has been made, certainly not publicly, by the DUP or Sinn Fein, so what commitments are there? I would be delighted if I could be shown to be wrong in this matter because it seems that rather than knowing that there are commitments—and the Minister referred to a need to know—the Government are proceeding on optimistic assumptions that are unlikely to be fulfilled in the event. So I am concerned about the next few weeks and months.

To end on a slightly more positive note, there are consolations in the present situation. Neither of the principal parties—Sinn Fein and the DUP—is seeking any other objectives. The DUP once wanted to smash the agreement and replace it by a new agreement; now it is just tinkering with procedures to give itself face savers but not pursuing any other objective. Republicans are not pursuing any other objective either, as they know that their ambitions, which they pursued by such violent means over the years, cannot be realised and that they have to make do with the political process. They are not going anywhere else. We now have parties which are moving along a road hesitantly—but both moving along the same road—which will lead to the implementation of the agreement. I am confident that sooner or later the process is going to work, although as this Bill is currently drafted it will be later rather than sooner.

My Lords, it is an enormous encouragement to hear in the last words of the noble Lord’s speech that he is confident that sooner or later—it may be in a matter of years or it may be less—this process is going to work. Nothing could bring greater solace to those who love Ireland and who want an end to the miseries that have characterised the history of Northern Ireland for so long.

I support most of this ingenious and intricate Bill. Although it is generally dangerous to take all stages in one day, I am sure that this House will agree that the case for that is made in the circumstances explained to us by the Secretary of State this afternoon.

In my time as Secretary of State, I came to realise that those with democratic political aspirations in Northern Ireland would ultimately rather share power with one another than go on being ruled from Westminster. I regarded that as the one real beacon of hope, because they were prepared, in principle at any rate, to merge their differences to resume democratic responsibilities for the province—and quite right too. There was a deep sense of shame that, alone in all the areas of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland was unable to govern itself by acceptable standards.

For the constitutional parties it was clear that there had to be an acceptance of basic democratic principles. It was also very clear that while as a Government we could and should help with transition we certainly could not coerce—the very word ought to sound a knell in the history of Ireland. The real question was how our help should be fashioned. The art of the matter seemed to lie in proposals calling for political courage, but not such that leaders would be left by their rank and file to go it alone. Proposals also had to defer to the ingrained penchant for scepticism that one meets so readily in Ireland, north and south, but not so much that no one actually leads forward out of his trench at all. Satisfying both those tests is easier to aspire to than to fulfil. They hold good today as tests, and that is how this Bill should be judged.

The timetable is tight today, so I propose to deal very shortly with matters. Over the nine years since I finished as Secretary of State, I have watched with sympathy and paid tribute to the efforts of my rather numerous successors and to those of the political leaders in the province—and to none more than the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, to whom the people of the United Kingdom as a whole, not only those in Northern Ireland, have come to owe so much. In consequence, as we all recall, for some time Northern Ireland experienced the restoration of a large measure of devolved government. That has been shown to be capable of working. It has also been shown to be incapable of surviving without acceptance by all parties, as a fundamental ground rule, of the rule of law.

Paradoxically our experience is hopeful because, following elections, the leaders of the DUP and of Sinn Fein now face each other across contested ground from which, to a greater or lesser extent, other parties of their respective traditions have been cleared, to put it rather brutally, by the electorate. Of the DUP and Sinn Fein, each wishes to participate in government and knows it cannot do so alone. Each needs its supporters to believe it has kept faith with them, but I suspect each knows also that it has an opportunity that will not recur for a long time.

The temporary impasse we face contains promise and danger in equal measure. The Bill can enhance the promise and mitigate the danger because it prevents doors closing for the time being, while at the same time giving an earnest of the Government’s commitment to what every true democrat wants to see in Northern Ireland. All one’s experience shows how hard it is to reopen a door to negotiations once it has been allowed to close—far harder than it is to find ways, however subtle, that justify keeping it open despite earlier deadlines having passed. If negotiations ultimately come to fruition, no one will mind that they were extended by the use of smoke and mirrors to some extent. If they fail, it will have been worth a try, and direct rule will continue.

I find that the scheme in the present Bill is justified, but there is no scope for any qualification in the Government’s fundamental requirement that Sinn Fein accepts the validity and constitutionality of the PSNI, and that it takes up its responsibilities in relation to it. If that acceptance is ultimately secured, it will have been worth some extra time.

There is one matter on which I disagree strongly with the Bill: the provision to abolish by order selection in Northern Ireland secondary schools in default of agreement. That is wrong in principle and profoundly undemocratic in practice. We shall come to that in Committee. That said, I believe it is enough to say that the Bill deserves its Second Reading, and that I support it.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for explaining the Bill at Second Reading. I want to be brief, to be fair to everyone. What I would like to say has already been said, but it is worth underlining once again the points made by several noble Lords. The most important aspect over the next period is to ensure the unequivocal support for the police and justice by Sinn Fein, the one party that has not signed up to that course of action. The mood in Northern Ireland at the moment has an element of scepticism. Some would say, “If Sinn Fein/IRA wants so much to have policing and justice in Northern Ireland as a devolved power, we have to think carefully about whether we want that as a devolved power”. People tend to think like that in Northern Ireland.

I tend to agree with those noble Lords who have indicated that the timetable may be somewhat tight. In fact, the whole concept of timetables may be a waste of time. If we are to have an election in March, that is when people will, quite naturally, put in their manifestos pledges and undertakings, which may then be difficult to honour a few days later, once they have entered into an Executive. You could find that you have elected people to a deadlocked Assembly. I am not sure if that is what the Government want, but that may be one of the results. We need a period of time—whether it is called sanitisation or proving—to allow Sinn Fein/IRA to sign up and to be seen to have signed up and to prove its credentials. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We cannot once again go back to the situation that we had over four years ago when we kept going in and out of the Executive and of the Assembly because Sinn Fein was not doing what it was supposed to do.

I draw attention to a remark made by the Minister in opening this debate. He made the point that this Bill will lead to equality and total fairness in Northern Ireland. I have certain reservations about that. One of them is an area that was dealt with at St Andrews, although I accept that there was not agreement on it. However, according to the Secretary of State, all parties knew about the inclusion of an Irish language Bill. There are clauses in the Bill that we are discussing today about Irish language and Ulster-Scots language, history and culture. I am extremely concerned that one of the major tenets of the Belfast agreement, which talked about parity of esteem and total equality, has not been kept to in this Bill or in the suggested introduction of an Irish language Bill. There is nothing more likely to define areas in Northern Ireland than having some street signs put up in Irish and English and some just in English. That would be a kind of middle-class way of marking out your territory, which is currently done in working-class areas in Belfast by painting the kerbstones either red, white and blue, or green, white and gold. Do we really want to make middle class and other areas, including commercial areas of cities, cold areas for members of my community by putting signs up in Irish and not giving the same amount of respect to the culture to which people like me belong?

It seems to me that once again we have a situation where whatever Sinn Fein and the SDLP want, they seem to get. I remember a number of instances over recent years when I was seeking small sums of money for the culture from which I come to tidy up local areas, take down pictures of paramilitary people and put up pictures or paintings on walls of icons of Ulster-Scots history, such as David Crockett. That money was refused. We tried to do other things for small amounts of money, including the idea that was approved by most people, except by the Government of course, of producing a film about the Ulster-Scots culture, history and heritage in Irish, to explain our culture to our fellow countrymen and the residents on the island of Ireland. With the exception of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, no organ of the Government would give us any house room, any encouragement, or any funding for what was a very worthwhile project.

Yet here we are again, and the culture from which I come is being sidelined and marginalised. That will cause tremendous discontent back in Northern Ireland. It will be a topic, and a rock on which the boat of this Bill may at some time strike. I am very concerned about this. Will the Minister confirm that the Irish language Bill will be left to the Assembly and that it will not come through this Parliament? There has been some encouragement from the DUP Members of the Assembly, who assure me that it will not get through the Assembly and will not get cross-community support. Will the Minister also confirm that if for any reason there is no Assembly and the election does not take place, that Bill will never see the light of day again?

What is the position on on-the-runs? Was the on-the-run legislation, which was so quickly pulled off the stocks here in this House and in the other place in the earlier part of this year, discussed at St Andrews? If so, what was agreed? Why is the Secretary of State now telling people, particularly in America, that arrangements will be made to sort out on-the-runs?

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt just to knock this one on the head. This, frankly, is so negative it is not true. We have made it abundantly clear that there is no prospect of that Bill ever coming back to this Parliament.

My Lords, I am highly delighted, but the trouble is that we still seem to find instances of the Secretary of State informing people, particularly in America, that this question will be dealt with. I do not know how that can happen without legislation before this House. However, I thoroughly welcome the Minister’s intervention and thank him for it.

In terms of getting the atmosphere right, and bearing in mind some of our recent problems in Northern Ireland regarding the credibility of Ministers, particularly in respect of judicial reviews, I would like the Minister to spell out the purpose of the meeting between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and an all-party delegation from Northern Ireland on the workings of Northern Ireland’s finances over the next four years. A somewhat hyped-up spin was put on suggesting that there was extra money. I am not sure that we want extra money—as an Ulster-Scot, I want to pay my way in every possible way—although I should point out to this Chamber that in the late 19th century and for the most of the first half of the 20th century Northern Ireland was a net contributor to the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, due to its engineering works and other industries.

Having now fallen on hard times, we are entitled to be net takers from the Exchequer. That is fair. I am not putting on a poor-mouth; I want clarification on what was agreed, because it seems to me that all that was agreed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the next four years’ funding, which will obviously be an increase through inflation. That has already been made available not just to the Northern Ireland Office but to six other departments of state. It is not special treatment for Northern Ireland. The trouble is that this spin is put on and it is difficult for people in Northern Ireland to trust what the Government have been saying. Trust is the one thing that has always been lacking in Northern Ireland and neither we, the Government nor anyone else should do anything to diminish the trust of the ordinary voter, the man in the street.

In conclusion, I support the Bill on Second Reading.

My Lords, I shall have some hard words to say about some aspects of government policy. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will understand that that does not affect my respect for him personally. I only wish that the Secretary of State could answer to this House rather than the unfortunate noble Lord, Lord Rooker, being left to carry the can. It should not be thought that I do not applaud and support what has been achieved to end the bombings and shootings, even if not yet the beatings and robberies, in Northern Ireland.

I was fascinated to read in the Daily Telegraph that animal behaviourists have discovered that chickens are not as stupid as we thought. It seems that they are not fooled into believing that something has ceased to exist when it is hidden from them. They know that it is still there but simply hidden. That brings me back to the IRA and why I will not in future pay the Government the compliment of calling them bird-brained.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, reminded us of the amount of fudge that has had to go into persuading both the DUP and IRA/Sinn Fein that their wish lists have been granted, although they were completely and mutually exclusive. Back in the days when I had some experience of industrial relations at grass-roots level, it was always clear to me, when an agreement was drawn up that meant different things to the different parties, that it would be the basis for the next dispute. I fear that that has all too often happened in Northern Ireland.

Today, we are dealing with a Northern Ireland Bill, but our audience will spread well beyond that Province. We have to accept that this Bill is another stage in the relentless march of Sinn Fein/IRA into power in Northern Ireland—power which has been won by bombs and bullets because it could not be won by the ballot alone. As this may be—we hope that it will be—the last piece of Northern Ireland legislation in this House for a while, I hope that I will be forgiven for speaking for slightly longer than I normally do.

It is deplorable that this legislation should be required to complete all its stages in both Houses in about 36 hours chock to chock. I wonder whether we have forgotten that good old parliamentary adage, “Legislate in haste but repent at leisure”. It was only this morning that I saw the report of the proceedings in another place. I hope that most noble Lords have now had a look at those words. I shall not repeat the wise words of Mr Lembit Öpik speaking there yesterday. As the Secretary of State had no answer to the points that he raised, I shall not waste the House’s time by expecting answers here. He spoke out not just as a parliamentarian but as an Ulsterman, so I suppose it was no surprise that he got the brush-off.

When we read the Hansard report of debates on Northern Ireland in the other place, we forget that, as usual, although Sinn Fein/IRA hold seats in that House, its Members never turn up to participate in the enactment of legislation. I suspect that there is a fairly strong message in that for us all.

I know that some will be muttering to themselves that my views on Northern Ireland are distorted by what Sinn Fein/IRA did to my wife. I must say that that annoys me. My views were formed long before 1984. What happened then did not distort but merely informed those views, as did the murders of my friends Airey Neave, the Member for Abingdon, the Reverend Robert Bradford, the Member for Belfast South, Tony Berry, the Member for Southgate, Ian Gow, the Member for Eastbourne, and many others from outside the ranks of parliamentarians.

Those who commissioned, authorised, planned and financed those murders and not hundreds but thousands more are now sanitised—almost sanctified—and are about to be put into office to govern Her Majesty’s subjects in Northern Ireland. This morning the press is expressing its horror at the murder of a politician in Lebanon.

I said that what we say and do here will be heard outside Northern Ireland, and so it will. It will be heard by terrorists worldwide, and there is a lesson that they will learn: if you are dealing with the British Government, bomb and kill, then negotiate. If you do not get what you want, then bomb and kill some more. When you have it almost all, bargain the release of your bombers and killers for a ceasefire. Then threaten more bombing and killing if you do not get even more.

Unlike Alfred the Great’s Anglo-Saxons, Tony Blair’s new Labour pays Danegeld again and again and, as we have heard today, Sinn Fein/IRA is holding back still. Why is it holding back? If it is going to pledge that it will support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the forces of justice, why does it not do that now? Why did it not do it yesterday or last week? Why is it pushing the Government along to slide through one deadline after another? I fear that that is because it asked for something more, and I fear that it will get something more.

Today we face not so much IRA terrorism—one hopes that we will not face that again—but Islamic terrorism. We rightly ask that imams true to the teachings of Islam condemn the terrorists who invoke the name of Islam to justify bombings and murders. On 11 November—perhaps a well chosen day—a newspaper published a picture, which I have here, of Mr Martin McGuinness, who is soon to be a Minister in Northern Ireland if the Government’s plans go ahead, wearing his IRA gunman’s uniform at the funeral of an IRA bomber. It seems that he has graciously given consent to the publication of this picture now, from which we might draw the inference that he thinks his past is no longer a threat to his future.

I come back to the superior intelligence of chickens. Something at that funeral was hidden from the camera, but it was there all right. It was a Roman Catholic priest conducting the burial service for a terrorist being buried on consecrated ground, having been granted a Christian service and absolution. He should have been excommunicated.

I have no animus towards the Catholic Church or faith—would that our bishops defended their faith with such courage as the Catholic Church does—but how do we expect an imam to condemn Islamic terrorists when he sees how Christian priests in a Christian country have sheltered, excused and supported Sinn Fein/IRA terrorists? The Government have done precisely the same.

I was speaking recently to my old friend Robin Chichester-Clark, one time Member for Londonderry, and the last Ulster Unionist to hold office at Westminster, whom a number of noble Lords will have known in the other place. I had the privilege to serve as Robin’s PPS, which is how I became drawn into the politics of Northern Ireland well over 30 years ago. “May be”, opined Robin Chichester-Clark, speaking of Her Majesty’s Ministers, “they are cleverer than we think. The Labour Party has long been in favour of a united Ireland, but the majority in Northern Ireland would not give its consent. But if you can destroy the grammar schools without the consent of the people, if you can impose a catastrophically unfair system of property taxation on them, if you can impose on them a compulsory place in government for Sinn Fein/IRA murderers, perhaps even the staunchest Orangemen will look over the border to a more successful, lower-tax country, without gunmen in the Cabinet, and wonder what loyalty to the Crown has brought to Northern Ireland”. He might have added: if you can impose on them the sexual orientation orders by which it seems a Christian priest would be at risk if he read out 22:5 of Leviticus or 18:22 of the Book of Deuteronomy.

I have two specific questions about the Bill. First, why does it not put funding for the Northern Ireland parties on the same basis as for the political parties in the rest of the United Kingdom? Why is it so essential that money from dubious sources in North America should be allowed to be recycled through the Republic of Ireland into the politics of part of this kingdom? We do not allow it anywhere else. What is so different?

Secondly, how will the Secretary of State know whether the pledges to support the police and justice systems, which we expect may be made, are honest? We must have our doubts. I understand that Mr Adams objects to MI5 operating in Northern Ireland. Must he recant on those remarks? Is it a requirement, understood in the pledge which will have to be made, that references to the police include references to MI5, or will a part of Her Majesty’s kingdom be off limits to MI5? Will the Secretary of State require Sinn Fein/IRA not merely to make an airy pledge, but to remove the bar which they currently have in place on witnesses coming forward to help bring to justice the killers of Omagh and the McCartney killers? If they do not remove that barrier, which currently prevents the prosecution of those responsible, what will happen?

I know—as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, put it to me here the other day—that the people of Northern Ireland now enjoy something nearer to peace and normality than for the past 35 years and more. That is important and I know that, in some quarters, peace counts for more than principle. What is more, peace has brought jobs to Northern Ireland. If devolved government is established there, there will, most importantly, be jobs for politicians. If it is not, then the politicians in Northern Ireland—although happily not in Westminster—will lose their jobs.

Of course we are all in favour of peace, but at what price? Noble Lords in the Government and their right honourable friend the Prime Minister are in favour of peace in Iraq—which is why, I understand, we made war on that country. I have no doubt of their commitment to peace for the Iraqi people, even if they go about it in a funny sort of way. I accept that Ministers may think that the way in which Airey Neave, had he lived, would have gone about securing peace in Northern Ireland, and the way in which I would have gone about it if I had had responsibility, might be different from this Government’s approach. Of course, that would be right.

This Bill will underline the truth of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I hope that I am proved wrong.

My Lords, most of the major points have of course already been brilliantly made by a number of speakers. Nevertheless, I shall refer to a very few.

First, I am concerned—as was the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—that Sinn Fein/IRA, should it take the great leap, will have an immense advantage because of the difference between the electoral funds available to it and those available to the republican SDLP. I hope there will be early legislation to end the advantage enjoyed by Sinn Fein/IRA—if possible, before the next election in Northern Ireland.

I wonder, too, whether we are likely to create a situation in which Sinn Fein/IRA agrees in principle this week to the St Andrews agreement—including, in principle, the pledge of office—but, when it comes to it, refuses on the day of investiture, perhaps basing that on the refusal of those elected to Westminster to take the oath in the House of Commons. They will know that no one will then be able to bring themselves to dismantle the whole Assembly for the sake of, as it will say, a few words. Have we a strategy for that? I contend that it must be required, as the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said, to give some proofs.

Martin McGuinness has said that criminals should be judged by a jury of their peers. That is Sinn Fein/IRA speak, and it means nothing in practice. We need the Government to require an immediate commitment that no obstructions will be placed in the way of the trial for the McCartney murder, nearly two years ago, or the Omagh trial. In that case, although the Real IRA was acknowledged to be the culprit, the PIRA would not allow witnesses to come forward because, as Gerry Adams confirmed in my presence last year, it does not recognise British courts or British justice. A specific commitment on these issues today would make it much more likely that Sinn Fein/IRA would not be able to renege on its pledge of office. Otherwise, I do not believe in it for a moment.

Moreover, it cannot be right for the highest policeman in the land—acting, I am sure, in the cause of peace—to offer to speak about the police to the IRA. It will earn him nothing but contempt from it, and why should it need such a meeting at this stage in the years since the Belfast agreement?

I shall not speak further because we need to get on to the business of today. However, I wish to express my concern about paramilitaries continuing their practice of exiling and persecuting those who cross them and Sinn Fein/IRA’s refusal to allow back people exiled to the UK years ago on the ground that, as Mr McGuinness said, it would not be good for the community—a point of view that apparently in no way conflicts with the IRA’s campaign on behalf of the on-the-runs.

According to the IMC’s latest report, the so-called dissident republican groups continue to recruit, arm and train and remain dangerous and ruthless. The IRA would never tolerate dissidents, but finds it very useful to encourage the myth that those groups are independent. We cannot make any concessions that will weaken or remove the power of the state to contain and counter terror through the law. Incidentally, I hope that thought has been given to the final outcome of the Bloody Sunday inquiry and where decisions on any action it may call for will lie. It should be with HMG and should in no way be exposed to the possible wishes of Sinn Fein/IRA.

I add to what my noble friend Lord Tebbit said to remind the House that many IRA fighters trained with Hezbollah and Mr Gerry Adams made an interesting visit to Palestine about six weeks ago. It would be very interesting to know which friends he was visiting.

My Lords, I had not intended to speak, but I wish to mention two matters. First, as an ex-member of the Policing Board, I reiterate that Sinn Fein’s support for policing and law and order must not be a fudge and must be demonstrated in practical terms. Words are not good enough. People in Northern Ireland ask how, within this timetable, any reasonable person can be persuaded of Sinn Fein’s long-term commitment to policing and law and order. There is no time for it to do so in a practical sense. It can only talk about it between now and then. That is worrying many people in Northern Ireland.

I find it incredible that Clause 15, which is about language, should be in the Bill. I no longer speak for the Policing Board, but I remember, and from its perspective, I find the clause extraordinary. We are piling a lot of effort, legislation and money into two languages that have no bearing on intercommunity relations. In Northern Ireland, as in Great Britain, there are ethnic minorities: Chinese, Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles. In those communities, there are people who do not speak a word of English. Yet each person that this money and legislation is going towards speaks a perfectly normal, common language and they can communicate with each other. In Northern Ireland—it may surprise your Lordships—we have the fastest growing race/hate crime issue. We have large communities in small villages who speak only one language. They import priests so that they can understand church services. I am delighted about that. But what are we doing about funding and legislating for these people? Have we forgotten that there are more communities than the two that refuse to get on with each other for other reasons?

The Government should address that matter. I do not think that this is the place for that clause. Having said that, I support the principle of the Bill, which is to get our Assembly back into operation.

My Lords, I want briefly to follow the noble Viscount on the question of language. In Northern Ireland today the main language is English. The second largest language is Chinese—Mandarin; it is not Irish. More people listed on the census speak Mandarin than speak Irish. The noble Viscount is quite right: minority languages in Northern Ireland should be taken into account.

I totally support the spirit of the Bill. I look forward to the return of devolution at Stormont in Northern Ireland. The Bill is well intentioned. There are obviously many problems. I am quite concerned at the negative approach by many of those who took part in the debate in another place yesterday.

The IRA is fundamental to a solution. Sinn Fein/IRA must accept and support the policing and court systems in Northern Ireland. It must be remembered—and this is the bad news—that the IRA has not gone away. Gerry Adams, no less, has confirmed that. Its full structure is still there. It may have decommissioned some of its armaments but the IRA is still there, and that is a worry for the majority British community in Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein/IRA leadership has been with ETA. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, it has been in Palestine in the past few weeks. Of course we know it was in Columbia. The International Monitoring Commission is not monitoring the IRA’s activities outside the island of Ireland. Will it investigate the presence of the IRA in the guise of NGOs in Iraq training terrorists how to let off bombs through mobile phones to attack the American forces?

My Lords, I gently remind noble Lords that normally it is a courtesy to the House to indicate, when they wish to speak in the gap, that they speak with the leave of the House.

My Lords, I am very grateful for noble Lords’ contributions. Notwithstanding the implied criticism, the searching questions and the doubts that exist, the general theme—I do not want to be misunderstood—has been to support the Bill as far as it goes. The Bill is important—we accept that. Some of the issues raised will be more appropriately dealt with in Committee. That is not a fudge. There are a couple of points I can deal with. Obviously amendments can still be tabled. I want to be as helpful as I can.

I will be very brief about language. There has been an implied comment that this provision has appeared from nowhere. The St Andrews agreement contained a commitment to introduce an Irish language Bill to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language and the Scots language, heritage and culture. So there should not be surprise about this. Work has begun on a consultation paper to be issued before Christmas this year. The consultation will be an open process and the paper is likely to contain a range of options and potential provisions which might be included in the Bill. There will be a period of 12 weeks for interested parties to submit their views. The Government expect to have a detailed policy proposal out by March 2007 and, if possible, preparation of a Bill will commence before the end of March. So there is a Bill round the corner, but a Bill was clearly forecast in the St Andrews agreement.

As ever, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, was very kind and the House listened to him with respect. He said that he had two fundamental questions; I have to say that I counted three. The key one was probably: will the pledge of office apply to MI5? The pledge, as amended by the Bill—in referring to the pledge it is implicit that it is as amended by the Bill, which is a substantial amendment—refers to the support for policing in line with paragraph 6 of the St Andrews agreement, which I read out and which refers to,

“actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions”.

We cannot be clearer than that in today's context.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Is he saying specifically that those words include MI5?

My Lords, I think that it is implied in the legal definition of supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions. If I start to qualify that, one gets into a minefield. That is the clarity of it: referring to,

“supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions”.

We can then have a debate about which are the institutions. We recognise the elephant on the doorstep, but I recognise what are the institutions in terms of criminal justice and policing in this country—our country. That point can be raised in Committee.

My Lords, I have just been given a very good reason, which it is probably more polite not to comment on, why there is no specific mention of MI5. I understand.

My Lords, I do not know whether I gave a good answer or not, then. Obviously, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran.

We can have a detailed debate in Committee; we are not limited in that. I fully accept and confirm once again that, if all this collapses—if there comes a point when it is not worth continuing—that will be recognised and the plug will be pulled. The Secretary of State made that abundantly clear and if anyone wants confirmation of that, I invite them to read what he said in yesterday's Hansard from the other place at cols. 420-21. I do not need to repeat that. The point is that, if the plug gets pulled on the devolution process, our commitment remains that the parliamentary process for dealing with direct rule in respect of Northern Ireland must change. We fully accept that. It is quite unacceptable as it is. In the period up to March, we have no plans for further change but, if the plug is pulled, we will change the parliamentary process in line with the commitments that we have already given.

Of course it would be better for Sinn Fein—I say for Sinn Fein—sooner rather than later to make its position abundantly clear. It is in its interest. It is not for me to lecture to it. It is not helpful to put a date on that. We have set out dates in the Bill: two days’ time; 30 January for the dissolution to start the election process; 7 March for the election; 14 March for the appointment of Ministers; and 26 March for the return of devolution and the pledge of office.

I fully accept many of the points made by and certainly would not seek to argue with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, given his immense experience of being First Minister in Northern Ireland. The process will be watched, it is true. I do not want to get involved in differences between the parties. Many aspects of the Bill have been requested by political parties; that is why the Bill is here in this form. I shall not spell out which parties, but they have all had a finger in the pie. That was made abundantly clear to me by the Secretary of State and was made clear in the other place yesterday.

On the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, we have got to this stage and it is worth trying. This is the final lap. We have made it absolutely clear that if the dates are not met—the first is two days away and to get that far needs just the indication of a nomination—we will have to ask ourselves whether it is worth continuing.

I interrupted the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I must repeatedly make it clear—because, to be honest, words that are said get out there into the media and positions are then changed—that this issue of on-the-runs is not returning. I cannot be clearer than that. We were absolutely clear about that when the legislation was withdrawn. I accept that the Bill was put forward; I am not arguing about that. The position has been made abundantly clear. I cannot get into what other people have said in other countries, because I do not know. I have not discussed this with them. I want to make this absolutely clear so that there is no doubt and no need for amendments on this in Committee; the on-the-runs Bill is not coming back to this Parliament.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way on this matter. I entirely accept his statement that that Bill is not coming back, and for good reasons. It would, however, be helpful if the Minister could allay the concern that arises largely from the letter that the Secretary of State sent to certain persons in North America, in which he said—I think I am quoting him correctly—that the Government were still committed to resolving this issue. He did not say how it would be resolved, but there was some commitment to do so. That is what is generating the concern. I do not know whether the Minister could allay that concern now, but it would be helpful if at some stage he could.

My Lords, I will be more than happy to attempt to do that at some stage, and I will try to do so this evening if I can. The central issue about the Bill itself will not return, but I will seek to allay those concerns if at all possible.

I shall be brief because I can cover some of the points made, particularly about funding, when we discuss the amendments—I believe that some amendments have been tabled that relate to funding. We can then go into some detail. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, asked how the Secretary of State will know whether the pledges are honest. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The pledges must be made. I suspect that they will not be followed by anyone saying that they have said these words but they are worthless. I do not think that anyone will be in that position, but, as I said, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The pledges must be made, and we will reach that point fairly soon if all the other processes are taken in the timetable that we have.

On the meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I will see if I can come back to that in Committee. As I understand it from a meeting that I attended on Monday with the noble Lord, Lord Laird, and the Secretary of State, and from some of the positions taken by the Chancellor in the context of Northern Ireland, the financial structure is quite different in Northern Ireland in terms of the flow of money and the budget arrangements. Certainly those issues were discussed. I am not responsible, and I cannot account for, what might have been reported. The noble Lord mentioned spin. The fact is that we must discuss the economics of Northern Ireland. The economy is very successful, but it is very top-heavy in terms of public expenditure. The balances are on the private sector, which gets snuffed out, and that is no good for the growth of the economy. These issues will certainly have to be addressed by a new Executive anyway, because they will be responsible for the budget and for many awkward, key decisions that must be taken.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, mentioned funds. I will come back to that issue. I cannot add anything to the Secretary of State’s response to her question about the report on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. I understood him to say that it would be at the end of next year. I was not the only one present, but that was what was said.

I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, about other minority languages in Northern Ireland. Anyone who has been there—I flitted in and out of Northern Ireland for 12 months as a direct rule Minister and visited factories and other areas—will be more than aware that the second language in Northern Ireland is certainly not Irish because of the make-up of the people who have come to Northern Ireland to work and support the economy. From that point of view, it is a sign of success.

This Bill delivers a timetable for the arrangements set out in the St Andrews agreement. We will have a transitional assembly, an election in which people can make their views known, the nomination of an Executive, and a stronger and much more comprehensive pledge of office than was the case hitherto, including support for policing and the rule of law as I have set out at some length. There is no doubt about that and I hope it is accepted. Moreover, we will have a restored Northern Ireland Assembly. In short, we will get an input of democracy into Northern Ireland above that which has lasted for 30 years in the area of local government. I pay tribute to the 582 councillors who have been the only vestige of local administration over all that time, notwithstanding the representation at Westminster. They have carried the burden of the democratic process way above and beyond the call of what their powers actually were. Now we want to get the governance of Northern Ireland at the Northern Ireland level by Northern Ireland politicians. That is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve and frankly that is what this Bill will provide.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until 6.10 pm. In moving this Motion, perhaps I may point out that amendments may be tabled until 5.30 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 5.10 to 6.10 pm.]