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Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

Brought from the Commons; read a first time.

Then, Standing Order 47 having been dispensed with:

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I know that noble Lords will have followed closely the events of this week in Northern Ireland, and I shall not detain the House with a long speech as we have much to get through this evening. This is an historic week for Northern Ireland. When the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party sat alongside the leader of Sinn Fein in the Parliament Buildings at Stormont yesterday, they took Northern Ireland closer to a final political settlement than anyone has ever before thought possible.

The first Member of Parliament who came into my office when I became a Minister at MAFF 10 years ago was Ian Paisley, who came in about the beef-on-the-bone ban and its effect on Northern Ireland farmers. He came to see if he could get an exemption for them. The first time I had contact with Gerry Adams was when I was a Home Office Minister and Sinn Fein was sponsoring orphans from the Balkans so that they could have respite in Northern Ireland. There were problems with visas and passports. The point is that my first contacts with them were on bread-and-butter issues that looked forward rather than backwards. On my evidence, and that of everyone who has contact since yesterday, we can believe that they will work together for the people of Northern Ireland. We can put our trust in them to deliver on 8 May.

The pictures made clear that this is the time for Northern Ireland to move forward. Anyone who has a cursory look at the media and the reporting of yesterday will see that there is no question about that. We want a Northern Ireland where locally accountable politicians take responsibility for the future and work for the common good without sacrificing principle or integrity. That is far better than direct rule Ministers who are, at best, second best.

I do not need to remind the House of the tortured history of Northern Ireland over the past four decades. However, Northern Ireland is no longer known to the world as a bad news story and has not been for some time. Anyone who looks at the investment and the cranes around Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast, can see that. The security situation has been transformed. The IRA has declared its war over and decommissioned its weapons. Sinn Fein has committed to active support of the police and criminal justice institutions. There has been a new beginning to policing and the rule of law that stretches right across the communities.

While referring to policing, I shall briefly answer one of the points made during this afternoon’s debate. I do not want to recite that debate, but if that order had not gone through, there would have been a serious problem because competitions for the police are not in discrete blocks. I was aware of that, but I did not want to interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, at the time. Today, we are still recruiting from competition 8, yet there have been 12 competitions. People join only as other people leave, retire or whatever. All that would have stopped dead if the order had not gone through. It is not the case that we could have waited until the next competition and then looked at it.

The final piece in the jigsaw is long-term political stability, which has proved to be elusive. There have been numerous attempts by Governments of both Administrations. We pay tribute to all Ministers of both parties who have participated over the years in public and behind closed doors and who have worked together to broker a deal that would stick. We also pay tribute to our colleagues in the Irish Government.

In our view, the best, and possibly last, hope in the foreseeable future to bring about a deal came after the talks at St Andrews last October. The St Andrews agreement, with its twin pillars of support for policing and the commitment to share power, provided the basis for a lasting settlement. Last November, we made it clear during the passage of St Andrews legislation that if a power-sharing Executive did not result, it would be a considerable time—we said from both Dispatch Boxes that it would be about three years—before an opportunity like it might come round again, quite simply because we thought that the parties themselves would never agree a way forward on their own.

The Government have been delighted to have to revise that view in the light of the extraordinary events over the past few days. The House will recall that the legislation set in statute the date for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland; it was 26 March, that is, yesterday. The legislation was explicit: if an Executive was not formed on that date, the Assembly would dissolve. Everyone knew the position when the election was held on 7 March.

This is a very tiny Bill that does a very simple thing: in effect, it turns the clock back. On Sunday, the Secretary of State signed an instrument that, in effect, brought in devolution yesterday. We have had devolution in Northern Ireland yesterday and today, but no Ministers—no direct rule Ministers and no local Ministers. The Bill turns the clock back by restoring direct rule and recreating the Transitional Assembly, which will last until 8 May. At a time before 8 May, the Secretary of State will sign another instrument bringing in devolved government. That is the situation we have been in in the past couple of days. It is not generally accepted, appreciated or reported by the press because it is quite technical and relates to the way that the legislation was drafted.

When the election was held on 7 March, everybody knew what the situation was. If we had not had that confidence, there would have been dissolution. We made that absolutely clear, so we, and everybody else, are delighted that agreement has been reached by the parties, which is much better than if it was imposed by the Government, Parliament or anybody else. It is a freely entered-into agreement. For the first time ever, a consensus has formed around an agreed way forward. That has to be the best possible approach.

There were those who said we were bluffing, that deadlines come and go and if we got close enough to a deal, extra time would be claimed, but it is not quite like that. The legal situation was set in motion. In fact, if we do not get Royal Assent on the Bill before midnight tonight, the whole thing is scuppered anyway, simply because of the legislation in November. So the situation was quite serious.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made it clear that there would be no extension to the deadline in the absence of an agreed way forward brought to us by the parties. They were faced with a hard choice, whatever anybody likes to say. That was the choice. It is incredible and very good that they have agreed to make that choice together. We were twice asked by the DUP to extend the deadline, but it was told no because we could not credibly come back without an agreement. The situation would have been fatuous. It had happened before. We were not prepared to come back to Parliament and ask for more time unless the DUP could persuade the other parties that there was a credible reason for doing so. That is the position that we have now reached. We believe that we saw an historic agreement yesterday, the significance of which cannot be overestimated. For that reason the Bill, which moves the date of restoration of devolution to 8 May, is before the House today. Both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein have agreed on that date. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has agreed to their request and, indeed, I ask for the support of the House.

We have reached a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. There are many here and in the other place, from both sides of the House, who have played a part over the years. I could not possibly read out the whole list. But, given his presence here, we must pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who is in the Chamber tonight and who will make a contribution. Of course I include those on the Benches opposite and former Secretaries of State who are present who have gone through this process with our support. We have reached the point where we can all share in the success. It is not locked down; it will be locked down on 8 May. But when parties come to the negotiating table and leave it, each of them taking something away that it wanted, that is success. The language of victory and defeat disappears. They each have a share of the success. That is the way forward and how we can now proceed to a genuine solution. That is where we are today, which is a tribute to all those who have been concerned with the process.

As people have said in the other place—most of which debate I have actually listened to—there is a lot of hard pounding to do in the future. It will not be easy, grappling with the Northern Ireland budget and the complexities of the other arrangements. Clearly, delegations will visit the Treasury, and they will find out about working with it as some of us have to do anyway—there is nothing for free. Nevertheless, locally accountable politicians will be doing it and not direct-rule Ministers. That must be the best way forward.

We pay tribute to the political parties. The fact that this week’s agreement was brokered by the parties rather than enforced by the Governments ourselves and the Irish Government is testament to their commitment. They now have the opportunity to discharge their responsibilities to their voters, and, above all, to do it in their own way. That is as it should be. To hasten that day, I commend the Bill to the House.

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

My Lords, my party’s views in the debate will be expressed shortly by my noble friend Lord Glentoran, who has spent so much time on the Front Bench on our behalf in recent years and on these matters.

My remarks will be brief and personal, and will dwell on the occasion and the fact of the Bill rather than its content and detail. But a decade and three-quarters of my life, or just under a quarter of my whole life, have been devoted to the issues of which this Bill is, at least at the moment, the culmination. I have done so either directly as Secretary of State, at an oblique distance as chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, at a further distance still as a Back-Bench member of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body or as an occasional attendee at the British Irish Association, most recently last year—quite apart from attendance in your Lordships’ House. Yesterday is too remarkable a development for a bystander to let it pass by on the other side.

I feel that the more vividly since of the 15 Secretaries of States over the past 35 years, I believe I am the only one to have had a significant admixture of Ulster blood, in the proper provincial use of that geographical adjective. Like the Brookes of Fermanagh, my branch of the family also came from Cheshire and settled in Cavan, which was not a county in the Jamesian settlement, at about the same time as the Brookes of Fermanagh moved. The first MP out of six from my family to sit in this Parliament in the past 175 years was elected MP for Armagh at the election which immediately followed the Great Reform Bill.

As I said once at a great Ulster Defence Regiment dinner, if my paternal great grandfather—one of three great grandparents to have been born in the Province—had not left his rope business in Belfast in the 19th century to help his sick business partner in Birkenhead, I might well have spent the early years of the Troubles serving in the UDR. But I suppose this historic infusion of blood did at least immunise me from the Whitehall charge of going native.

Yesterday was a remarkable day. The same could not necessarily be said of all the stages over the past 17 or 20 years that led up to it, and things happened in that period which of course one would rather had not happened, but this is not the time certainly for a bystander to air recriminations. Those will be matters for historians to dissect. The purpose was to reach a democratic decision. In more ways than one, that has been achieved. The people have spoken and the politicians have listened.

As the first Viscount Slim—and it is a pleasure to see the second Viscount, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, in the Chamber tonight—says again and again in his remarkable book Defeat into Victory, no news is ever as good or as bad as it first appears. In the past 20 or, indeed, 30 years, his words have been a comfort in bad times, but they are just as true in good ones, and we have to seize the day, again in more ways than one.

It is a matter of encouragement, at least to me, that in the days of the earlier Executive, at the departmental level—in other words, below the level of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who will speak shortly, and to whom we continue to owe so much—the political commentators in the Province spoke most warmly of the discharge of departmental responsibilities by the honourable Members for Belfast East and Mid Ulster, with Mr Empey, as he then was, not far behind. We wish them well on behalf of all of us, and especially on behalf of the Province.

I have never met Mr Adams. I hope that I shall not embarrass either the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, or, indeed, the Member for North Antrim if I say I have always had affection for him and confidence that in any ultimate test he would do the right thing for the Province. Of course reserved responsibilities remain with Her Majesty’s Government and this Parliament, and we shall remain vigilant. It is, however, best that devolved powers are exercised locally, rather than from hence, especially in the present configuration of the kingdom.

It is also encouraging, in the context of the responsibilities that we exercise on behalf of the long-suffering taxpayers of Great Britain—they are sustaining a public sector in the Province which is disproportionately dominant—that those aspects of Northern Ireland affairs which relate to health in the private sector have not seen political objection in the Province since 1998 to the integration of the all-Ireland economy; indeed, particularly in tax terms, the opposite. I hope that, however great the temptation to mulct the British taxpayer, at least as much energy and imagination within the new Administration will go into expanding the private sector and towards the objective that the Province will achieve the self-respect of standing, in due course, on its own feet.

That is quite enough from me, particularly if the Bill has to be through by midnight.

My Lords, it is amazing what a good night’s sleep can do to restore equilibrium. Yesterday, I was deeply disappointed with the Government, but for a specific reason. For months now, they have been telling us that 26 March—yesterday—was absolutely the final day for the two major parties in Northern Ireland to come together and form a Government. Let me, gently, remind the Minister of what he said only last week, when we were debating the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2007—an order, incidentally, that allows direct rule from here. Despite my asking why we were debating it then and not waiting until we knew the outcome of yesterday’s meeting, we were told by the Minister:

“It looks like a contradiction or Plan B, but it is not. We do not have a Plan B: it is devolution or dissolution on Monday. We are at a crucial point in the political process in Northern Ireland and minds are focused on the deadline for the restoration of devolved government on Monday of next week. There are no obstacles in the way of the formation of a power-sharing Executive on 26 March”.

He went on:

“We fully expect that devolution will be restored next Monday, 26 March, which would cause the power to legislate by order to fall away anyway ... If failure occurs, however, the Government will be left with no alternative but to proceed to direct rule, and the Secretary of State has made it clear that that would be for years rather than months”.—[Official Report, 20/3/07; col. GC 182.]

Then he told us that,

“there would be insufficient time to lay and pass an order before the Easter Recess. We cannot take a risk on leaving that until after next Monday. Believe you me, the best brains in the Government—which do not include me—and the Northern Ireland Office have thought long and hard about this. It looks like a plan B, but it is not. There is no plan B. We expect devolution to be back next Monday. However, we have to prepare a contingency. We could not automatically assume that in the few days at the end of next week, with the Budget debate and everything else, we could get both Houses of Parliament to pass what would look like unthought-out emergency legislation. That is not what this is; we have thought about it. Purely as a contingency, we are bringing forward this order. We hope and trust, of course, that it will never be operated and that the devolved powers will return to Stormont and a devolved Assembly some time during the hours of 26 March”.—[Official Report, 20/3/07; col. GC 183.]

Today, after that good night's sleep, I have pondered on the outcome of soundings from within Northern Ireland and the general feeling is one of great relief and anticipation that in six weeks’ time a deal will be done between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. Of course there is still deep disappointment and frustration that the deadline set down in the emergency legislation that we passed back in November was not achieved yesterday. We are now faced with more emergency legislation, but the promise—the absolute cast-iron promise—from the DUP that it will go into a power-sharing arrangement in order to govern Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein in six weeks’ time on 8 May.

Are there to be any more slippages of dates? Are the Government absolutely committed to that date and will they assure the House that if a deal is not forthcoming, they will immediately revert to their earlier promise and move to direct rule from Westminster? I just want to be sure that another promise might be forthcoming.

None of us wants to return to direct rule, which is why we will support the Bill today, but there really must be an end to the posturing and obfuscation. The Government have given in on this occasion, as they have on so many others when dates have been promised and deadlines not met. Of course we recognise, as the Minister rightly outlined, how very much has been achieved in Northern Ireland, especially since November, and then in January, when Sinn Fein’s ard fheis gave its support to policing structures there. For a number of years now, I have urged Sinn Fein to take part in policing matters, to become members of the policing board and to encourage its supporters to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I am absolutely delighted that it has now agreed to do so.

There was much comment yesterday on the historic nature of the meeting between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. I hope it was what it appeared—their body language told a rather different story—but let us be hopeful on that score. It is up to them now to rise to the challenge; and it is up to others, including our sister party, the Alliance Party, to hold them to account and to provide constructive criticism where and when appropriate.

Much will need to be done in the next six weeks and discussions will have to be ongoing between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Treasury about a financial package. Any new money must be used to maximum effect. Simply providing cash to allow new devolved Ministers to avoid taking some tough decisions or to provide them with the ability to have some early headline-grabbing successes would be a mistake. Simply applying the money to the existing patterns of service would be a waste.

Any new money should follow the concept of “invest to save”. It must be linked to changes in the way that Northern Ireland is run. We have long advocated integrated education in Northern Ireland as a means to bringing an end to sectarianism. The £1 billion that is wasted every year on managing a divided society could be better spent providing schools where working together across all communities is a norm and a wonderfully refreshing change from what is on offer now. Quality public services need addressing too, so that the whole community can benefit from them.

Finally, we have been very supportive of the Government over the years in their dealings and successes in Northern Ireland. Although the delay is unfortunate—and it is still unclear to me why there is such a delay—we will always support devolution and we trust that this time it will truly happen. We have always wanted a genuine, stable and sustainable power-sharing Government, support and respect for the rule of law and, finally, the creation of a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

My Lords, it is quite understandable, after the language that was used over the past few weeks by the Government with regard to deadlines, that people want to reflect, as the noble Baroness has done, on the slippage, or apparent slippage, of those deadlines. But it is probably fairer to stand back from that and bear in mind that the Government, starting at the midpoint of last year, endeavoured to put into place a process that would compel the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein to take decisions. That is what has happened.

I was not at all surprised to see the language beginning to appear from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the weekend in which he said, “If the parties agree on something, that is a different situation”. Even if the Secretary of State had not used that language and had gone into yesterday firmly adhering to his deadline but then discovered that the DUP and Sinn Fein had made an agreement between them and came to the British Government saying, “We have agreed a different way of doing things”, I do not think that the Government could or should have held out against that. At the end of the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, it is desirable for these things to be done by local people. That was always preferred.

Throughout this process—and even before—it has been the explicit or implicit position of the British Government that if the parties in Northern Ireland come to an agreement, no Government here would stand in their way. So although it is natural to reflect on how the deadlines have worked, it is natural for the Government to say that, at the end of the day, the process that they put in place worked. That is not unfair.

What happened yesterday looks as though it will complete the transition that was started nine years ago. It looks as though it will finally implement the Belfast agreement. That is a good thing; I welcome that. It is essentially the same article that we dealt with nine years ago. It has been modified in some ways and I could discuss the merits of those modifications, but that is not relevant here tonight. The process will also evolve, but we now have the prospect, within a few weeks, of the institutions that were created so many years ago and have gone through such vicissitudes settling down and bedding in. That is a good thing and those who have done it to serve to be congratulated on having done so. I do that and I look forward to that.

When we started nine years ago, we had a very different political situation. We had one significant bloc of opinion representing nearly half, as of then, of unionist opinion that was firmly opposed to the agreement. We had a very significant bloc of nationalist opinion that acquiesced to the agreement. It must never be forgotten that on 10 April 1998, Sinn Fein did not support the agreement. It acquiesced to it. It is difficult to identify the precise point at which it firmly endorsed it. Its position was ambiguous. Over the years in between, both those parties have discovered that they have nowhere else to go and that no other option is available to them. With greater or lesser degrees of reluctance or enthusiasm, they are now embracing the path forward. That transition, that development within those parties and for different people within them, has been at a different rate.

I listened to some of the debate in the other place today and it is clear to me that some Members representing the DUP are still in the process of evolving. I trust that they will move in such a way that by 8 May things will run smoothly. There have been problems: I see that there has been a resignation from the ranks of the DUP during the day. Although I disagree with Mr Allister and what he has done, at least he had the integrity to resign. I wish that I had had to deal with more people with similar integrity, but I shall not go into that.

The next question is: will this work? So far as 8 May is concerned, the answer is very probably yes. Although there was still some conditionality in the language used in the other place earlier today, the resolutions that were passed and the statements that were made yesterday had very little conditionality in them. Those who think that something will happen in the next few weeks to derail the process will be disappointed. My feeling is that the leadership of both parties will be determined to ensure that things progress smoothly in the next few weeks.

Thereafter, will it work? Will there be problems? There are people here who have plenty of experience of running single-party Governments, which they know is not easy. Running coalition Governments is a bit more complicated. Running a compulsory coalition Government is even more complicated, particularly one in which the numbers are such that, even though there are slight differences, the parties have no alternative but to agree. Sometimes securing that agreement can take a long time. Sometimes it is not easy to secure.

However, that reflects the reality of society in Northern Ireland, which has two blocks of opinion within it. In the past, there has been insufficient confidence for political institutions to be stable and to work well. I hope that they will be stable and work well in the future. There will be difficulties running it, but we need not be too concerned about the internal problems that there may be in an Executive and between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I rather suspect that, after the initial shock, people will find that they can work together, and indeed will probably do so better than they currently expect. The real problems will be not so much yesterday’s issues, but issues of a different nature. During the Assembly election campaign, it was interesting how much time was taken up talking about those issues that must be dealt with in the future.

Northern Ireland did not have Thatcherism; Thatcherism never really reached Northern Ireland at all. New Labour has not reached Northern Ireland. The attempts made under Thatcherism and new Labour to modernise public services were not made in Northern Ireland. Our public sector is in considerable difficulties. I am thinking not only of the problems of underinvestment in infrastructure, although they are significant. We still have a public system that operates from a 1970s outlook and on a 1970s model. Those of us who served in the Executive in Northern Ireland from 1999 to 2002 had the opportunity only to start to get some idea of the extent of the problem. I suggest to the DUP that it must ensure that officials dig up for it the needs and effectiveness evaluations that we put in place for certain departments. Those exercises were not completed; they were only just started. They are only just starting to scratch the surface, and they will be a good starting point for moving further.

I discovered when speaking to a direct rule Minister a couple of years after the reintroduction of direct rule in 2002 that the officials had told him that the needs and effectiveness evaluations had been completed. I am sure that the official system was quite happy to bury those exercises, but it is necessary to go back to them. The challenge is to try to modernise public services. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is quite right, and I am sure that other Members will make it again.

People may well want the Government to give the new Executive a good financial start, but the fact is that public expenditure in Northern Ireland is massively greater than in any other part of the UK. Yes, there are problems, but we are no longer at the bottom of the league tables for employment and GDP. We have improved. Other parts of the UK are not as well off as Northern Ireland, and there is a limit to the extent to which the begging bowl can be used. Yes, there may be an opportunity to deal with those problems now, but the real challenge of dealing with them will come in the next few years. The new Administration will have to grapple with the problems of modernising public services as this Government and previous Governments have had to grapple with them.

I hope that that will help to reconnect politics in Northern Ireland with national politics. The disconnect that has taken place over the years between the political processes there and in the rest of the United Kingdom has not served us well. I speak here as an Ulster Unionist. It is desirable for us to reconnect with national politics, because, at the end of the day, as was said, there are reserved matters that just happen to touch on the most important aspects of public services; namely, taxation and decisions on taxation and on public expenditure generally. The local Administration will be able to operate only within the context of the decisions that are taken here on taxation in public expenditure.

I am sorry that I spent a little more time on that aspect of the future, but that is the aspect of the future that society in Northern Ireland is increasingly focusing on and which Northern Ireland’s politicians will have to focus on. Some sections of the community and some politicians may still be thinking more about yesterday’s issues, but they are yesterday’s issues. It is necessary to move on. Yesterday, I saw people’s willingness to move into a different dispensation. It will not be easy. There will be problems and hang-ups, but there are those who are moving in that direction, and the further and the faster they move, the more they will be supported by society and the easier they will find it to be.

My Lords, I hope that I might take two minutes to speak in the gap. We have just heard a most heartening and realistic speech from the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who deserves a great deal of credit, and has been given it, for the events of yesterday, which we celebrate today. He paid a cruel price for having been right at the right time when too many of his friends were wrong at the wrong time.

I support the Bill with relief and admiration. I do so because direct rule is not second best; it is first worst. It induces in what I might call the political class a norm of destructive cynicism, and in my experience it induces among everyday people a sense of shame that for some reason they cannot be allowed to govern themselves. One of the saddest things ever said to me, repeatedly, in Northern Ireland was: “We are not all bad, you know”. I knew, of course, how good so very many of them are.

Ministers who have given such determined help to the achievement of this agreement deserve very warm congratulations. They have helped political leaders to come to terms together, which is something that we have been waiting for for a very long time. Those who participated in yesterday’s agreement also deserve congratulations, and I wish them great strength in resisting the lure of backsliding in the weeks and months ahead. Above all, I congratulate the people of Northern Ireland on the very real prospect of once again regaining control of their own lives.

My Lords, by the leave of the House, I shall make a few comments on the Bill. First, I welcome it enthusiastically. It has been said that yesterday was an historic day. That is a dangerous term. It was certainly a remarkable day, but you never take anything for granted in Northern Ireland, and we must wait another few years and then look back before deciding whether it was in fact an historic day. It really is the Belfast agreement with some minor changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said. I am glad to hear praise for the leadership at the time of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble; he negotiated the Belfast agreement together with Sir Reg Empey, the present leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and me. I am glad to see it reaching the stage that it did yesterday.

The Government were quite right to extend the date until May—the basis of this Bill—for if the DUP and Sinn Fein had reached an agreement, it would have been outrageous for the Government to have rejected it. We should not be criticising the Government in any way for extending that date.

Yesterday was remarkable, as I say. Those of us who listened to the live broadcast by Dr Paisley from the DUP and Mr Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein were quite amazed at the words we heard: they were both statesmanlike in their own particular ways. For those of us who come from Ulster, it was particularly interesting and welcome that both of them invoked the will of God. I say this as one who suffered from the IRA—shot 10 times through my body—and I listened to people on Radio Ulster at 12 o’clock today, many of whose families had suffered deaths and injuries through the IRA. Most of them welcomed what happened yesterday; I underline that myself.

As always in Northern Ireland, there are one or two doubts in one’s mind. The English press told us that Sinn Fein was supporting the PSNI—well, not absolutely: there were conditions, which we will have to watch. It is certainly supporting the PSNI in civic policing, be it burglary, drunken driving or what have you, but there is still a cloud over its position on security and terrorism. Just two weeks ago during the recent election campaign in Northern Ireland, one successful Sinn Fein MLA, Ms Gildernew, the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said that if she saw the Real IRA running around with guns and bombs, she would not bring it to the attention of the PSNI. That worries us, as in the end it could undermine the success of what was achieved yesterday.

Sinn Fein has accepted its position in a Stormont Assembly within the United Kingdom. While it does not support Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, it has now accepted it. In turn, as things develop in Northern Ireland and relations improve between it and the Republic—and between the Republic and the United Kingdom—I hope that the Dublin Government will move further toward accepting the realisation that more than 1 million people on the island of Ireland are British. A lot more has to be done by Dublin to accept and recognise that position.

This Bill restores direct rule for a limited period. I assume that it means that those of us who have been asking questions in the absence of devolution in Northern Ireland will still have the facility over the next few weeks to keep troubling Ministers on its internal affairs. Therefore, to be brief, I commend this Bill to the House and thank the Government for their response.

My Lords, I intervene briefly in the gap simply to add my congratulations to the Government on their achievement. With my noble friend Lord Brooke and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew behind me, we represent 12 years of Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish agreement was signed within perhaps two weeks or a month of my arrival, starting a process that did not have universal admiration at the time but, I dare to suggest, made some contribution towards it. If the principle is of consent and that violence must now be put aside, with matters now being for the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland, that is the right basis.

I pay tribute to the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble; I also recall John Hume, at the time of the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement, standing up and saying that it was now a matter of Irishmen persuading Irishmen. When I heard Mr Mitchel McLaughlin echoing those exact words yesterday, I thought that the message might at last have got through. I understand entirely what the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, said: there are very many bruised and damaged minds and bodies, and sorrows, in Northern Ireland. One of the most moving occasions for any Secretary of State is to go to the annual meeting of the RUC widows, and to remember all those who gave their service. This is a time to remember all those who stood against the terrorism that was trying to over-ride democracy at that time, whether it is the RUC, the Army or the resolute people of all communities in Northern Ireland; they deserve credit for the position that we have now reached.

On the economic problems that Northern Ireland may face, it would be a pretty daunted Treasury Minister or senior official who meets the First and Deputy Minister coming through the door to argue the case. That will be a pretty challenging occasion, of a kind that I should think they will not have experienced before. Northern Ireland may not do badly.

I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, that this is not a time for nitpicking arguments about what happened to the dates; what matters is what happened. We have all longed for that for all those years; if this is the final achievement of it, in spite of all the pitfalls and problems that undoubtedly lie ahead, this is a milestone—and I congratulate the Government, who are now in a position to try to take the next step forward.

My Lords, I am sure that this House will understand how delighted I am at the events that have taken place in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain over the past days. I am not unaware of the difficulties that lie ahead of us in Northern Ireland, nor am I unaware of the barriers that are still before us. Yet barriers can be surmounted, hills can be climbed and rivers can be crossed with good will and the help of God, as we look to Him for guidance.

The electors of Northern Ireland have spoken. It was no easy thing for the leader of my party to sit so close to a man who was the head of one of the most evil terrorist organisations known in the world, offering to share power with him in the future Government. I cannot forget the legacy that the IRA has left behind it, not only in Northern Ireland but in southern Ireland and in this country. Looking across the Chamber, I see the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in his place and I think of him and others who, like him, have been left with loved ones maimed physically and mentally. Only those who suffer in such a way know what that is, and understand truly the depths and degradation, and the suffering and anguish, which families go through as a result of terrorism. No one who has tried to detract from our stand, saying that we should not do what we are doing, ever brought an alternative to us. We asked for an alternative that they could offer us, and we would gladly have taken it, but no alternative was forthcoming.

Sinn Fein has come to the negotiating table with a lot of baggage, which has to be dealt with bit by bit. When I look at families who have been devastated, with the bodies still not returned to their parents or loved ones, it fills me with great grief and not a little anger. I think of families where little ones have had their mother or father taken from them and where the bodies are not as yet recovered. I think of the gallant forces of law and order—the RUC, the RUC Reserve, the UDR and all the other Army forces that have taken their stand to help us in Northern Ireland—and of the missing members in their ranks. We cannot forget that sorrow and we would be wrong to do so, because a nation or a country that forgets its past commits national suicide, which we cannot do.

I thank those who have spoken. I thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for his kind remarks. I also thank the noble Lords, Lord King, Lord Trimble and Lord Kilclooney, and others who have spoken in favour of what is taking place. I trust and pray the days that lie ahead will be days of humility and progress when we will see something done for the betterment of all our people and for what we ask for ourselves. What I ask for my grandchildren, I ask for every grandchild in Northern Ireland and in this United Kingdom. I think also about the soldiers of Great Britain who went to Northern Ireland and lost their lives, and about their families. It is inadvertent if I have left anyone out of my thanks, but I thank the House tonight for its indulgence, and I support this Bill.

My Lords, I hope I will be forgiven for stretching the concept of “in the gap” a little, but we are dealing with legislation in a rather unusual way. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, personally for what she said, but I thank her far more on behalf of all the victims of the past 30 to 40 years. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, I will not crow about a missed deadline. It is not worth mentioning in the context of all that has happened.

I would like particularly to express my thanks—and, I think, the thanks of all noble Lords—to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for the way in which he has always handled these extremely difficult affairs, both when he was a Minister in the department and, perhaps in an even more difficult role, when he has not been quite so deeply involved but has always had to carry the can for whatever has been done. I am personally grateful to him and I am sure that the House is too.

My Lords, I simply want to express my hope—against my judgment in many ways—that the new system of what I cannot call “power sharing” but I would call “power division”, which we see coming into force in Northern Ireland, will deliver a peaceful and prosperous future to that Province. It deserves it.

The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said that he could not quite put his finger on the moment when the IRA/Sinn Fein endorsed the Good Friday agreement. Nor can I. I am not sure that the finger has yet been found that could be put on that moment. Perhaps it is in the future. We will hope so.

It is a pity that we now expect to see those who should have been tried for conspiracy to murder taking office as Ministers in a Government in this United Kingdom. But, as the House knows, I hold some curious, old fashioned opinions about these matters, and I hope I will be forgiven for that. So tonight, I suppose, with those words, I am the ghost at the feast. I devoutly hope that I will be seen as the ghost of Ulster past and not of Ulster to come.

My Lords, I should like to make some brief comments on the events that have happened in Northern Ireland. I suspect that this House will have gathered from those who have spoken that there is no euphoria about what has taken place. All the emotive words have been used; I will not try to add to them. The dictionary has been exhausted in trying to capture the events of yesterday.

I want to say very sincerely that, as I look around this House, I see people who have been direct victims of the horrendous 35 years that Northern Ireland has had to come through. When I was but a boy—I was not very big; noble Lords might say that nothing has changed in that respect—I remember very vividly the news breaking that the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, had been shot and was fighting for his life. John Taylor, as he was then, comes from a different party from me, but I well remember that he was then a Minister in the former Stormont Parliament. I thought to myself, “Where are we going?”. Little did I realise that we would have to come through 35 to 40 years of sectarian terror, which would be waged in a most ruthless way by the most sophisticated terrorist organisation of anywhere in the western world. But we had to go through it.

The people of Northern Ireland are very resilient. They had to be, because what was imposed on them made things difficult. I want to say in this House today that all the suffering was not confined to one section of the community. Both communities suffered severely at the hands of ruthless people.

If noble Lords feel that I am not euphoric or dancing in the aisles, you will understand why. I know, from bitter experience, the legacy that has been left behind. I could challenge anyone within the sound of my voice today to come to Northern Ireland and find a family who has remained untouched by what has been called the Troubles. There would be a lot of searching and I suspect that no family would be found. All our families have been touched, some of them directly. In my family, I remember the day I got the phone call. What was his occupation? He was a mere lorry driver, whose vehicle had a bomb planted in it and he was blown on to the street. There he lay like a dog.

Let us hope that we are moving on. It has been said that we are in for a battle a day. I suspect that that is right, but I hope the battle a day will be a different battle a day, and that the battles will be fought in the chambers of power where we will debate our differences and agonise over them in that way, rather than by the bomb, the gun and the bullet.

My Lords, this legislation, true to form, has characteristic high drama and is emergency legislation. We all know that we would not have expected anything else. We also have a mutation in the concept of the gap, which I hope will not be taken as a precedent. I do not wish to introduce a sour note but I very much regret the delay to 8 May. I can find no convincing reason for that. I ponder whether it is just that the political parties in Northern Ireland cannot give up their addiction for always ratcheting up demands at the 11th hour. We must also brace ourselves for more ratcheting up between now and 8 May. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, warned against the rattling of collecting boxes, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble.

We hope that events will pan out as planned. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, produced a catalogue of problems that will beset the new Executive and Assembly, and rightly pointed out that these will be quite different in character from those he faced when he was the First Minister. I also endorse the warnings given by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in this regard: the future will be very different in detail and substance from that which went before.

It is also right to acknowledge the parts played over the years by the leading political actors in Northern Ireland, London, Dublin and Washington. Senator Mitchell played a seminal role, as did President Clinton. Given the composition of this House and its political bias, no one has mentioned another significant act, so I shall raise it. I refer to the Hume-Adams talks which played a profound role in initiating the debate and dialogue in Northern Ireland for the better. We should acknowledge that, though I doubt if many others will.

There will be bumpy times ahead, to be sure, but we must hope that they do not destabilise devolution. We wish Northern Ireland well after 8 May.

My Lords, I am delighted that what has happened has happened. In my contribution to the debate held some four or five weeks ago by the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, I outlined what I believed would happen and I am happy to tell your Lordships that what I said then is almost exactly what has taken place. I also asked that those in power—the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister—would continue to be patient and steadfast and keep their nerve. That they have done, and we are where we are today.

It has been a long, long battle. When the peace process actually began, I am not quite sure. But I am certain that pretty well everyone in the Chamber will have a different opinion about it. For myself, I believe one of the basics came about when my noble friend Lord Brooke was the Secretary of State—here I thank him for his kind words—and I was able to bring the International Tall Ships’ Race to Belfast. In 1991 some 72 vessels from the world’s tall ship fleet came to Belfast Docks—before the peace process had got under way and long before the Good Friday agreement. What happened during those days was quite staggering. Sectarianism was forgotten. On the night of the fireworks the docks were so overcrowded that I had to stand on the gates and, with a manual loudhailer, try to persuade people to go home. They would not go home and they blocked the streets, for those who know it, all the way to the Albert Clock. But nobody was hurt, there were no fights, and the chief executive of the city bus company rang me the next day to tell me that the last bus had got home at three o’clock in the morning with no damage to any vehicles. That is my memory of where some of this comes from.

Behind all this, there has been a fantastic amount of work and a huge amount of courage on behalf of politicians, officials, the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, the President of the United States, Senator Mitchell and many, many others in the Irish, British and American Governments. And do not let us forget the key people in our own Ulster political life: the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, Sir Reg Empey and his colleagues, Dr Ian Paisley and his team, Peter Robinson and all of them. I can tell your Lordships that I have shaken Adams’s hand. It was not a pleasant experience for me because I have lived in Northern Ireland since 1970 and have been to the funerals of my friends, as have the rest of us. I am very admiring of Ian, if I can be that familiar in your Lordships’ House, for having taken his team to where it is now. It is a tremendous gesture.

But he is only just starting down the road. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, outlined a number of the practicalities facing the new Stormont Government, including a reasonably strong economy under the circumstances, but one that is totally top-heavy with government sponsorship, staff and civil servants. The infrastructure is badly in need of an overhaul, starved as it has been of investment cash for 15 to 20 years. However, that is not the main difficulty to be faced. The main difficulty they face is to work as a team. I have forgotten who said, “I wonder if it will work? I hope it will work”. My Lords, it has to work. There is no doubt about that. These politicians, Mr Adams and Dr Paisley, owe it to everyone I have mentioned, not just the people of Ulster. They also owe it to everyone who died for us in the battles. God help them if they fail; I hope they go to where they deserve to go. They must not fail. I wish them luck. As will all noble Lords, I will give them all the support I can. Those noble Lords who pray, pray now. Those who do not, just hope. This is the start of a great road forward, but do not let there be any room for complacency.

My Lords, on behalf of the Government, I am extremely grateful for all the contributions to the debate. It has been an experience with six speakers in the gap. I shall remember that when I become a Back Bencher one day. I often have to remind colleagues that the composition of this place is such that as a Minister you are facing people who have been there: former Secretaries of State and Ministers in Northern Ireland, and those of long standing like the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney. One has to be very careful. Indeed, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that I am, frankly, humbled by his remarks and deeply grateful to him. Almost two years ago he set me a test. I do not say I have passed it, but I am on the way. For that, I am grateful. I can assure him that when being briefed by officials in Northern Ireland, on many occasions one of them will say, “And by the way, we’ve got to think about dealing with Lord Tebbit”. I can assure him that that is the case.

I am not going to comment on all that has been said, but towards the end of his speech the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, made a central point which has been repeated by other noble Lords: the shape of the economy in Northern Ireland is unsustainable because the public sector is actually squeezing out the private sector. I have seen examples of enterprise being stifled. Although the public sector needs to be supported, some major changes will have to take place. The economy has been extremely successful, but there will have to be changes to modernise it.

I am very grateful, as I think the whole House is, for the content and tone of the speech we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. To the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, I say yes, it will be possible in the mean time to keep asking the questions about roadworks and all the other kinds of issues. I get them not necessarily from him but from other noble Lords. Until direct rule ceases, we are responsible and accountable for everything in Northern Ireland. Soon I hope we will not be; after 8 May, we will probably not be. The noble Lord, Lord King, hit the nail on the head when he talked about Treasury officials— although I do not think he talked about tremors—who are usually so tough with the rest of Whitehall. It is a different bag of chips they are going to face now, and one would expect them to act accordingly.

I am very grateful overall. There is such a wealth of experience in this House; Members who have lived through all this and been part of the success. One has to think about the past and no one will forget it, but, as has been said, people have come to the table and gone away with a piece of success. No one is talking about failure. That is the road to the future and to success. I commend the Bill to the House.

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 during pleasure until 8.35 pm. The House will then resume for the remaining stages of the Bill. I apologise for not being a severe Whip in the gap. I felt that this was not the occasion.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.20 to 8.35 pm.]

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

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

House in Committee accordingly.

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

I understand that no amendments have been set down to the Bill, and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. With the agreement of the Committee, I will now put the Question that I report the Bill to the House without amendment.

Bill reported without amendment.

House resumed; Report received.

Bill read a third time, and passed.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn. The House will sit for Royal Assent at 9.10 pm.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.38 pm to 9.10 pm.]