My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, I wanted to report to the House at the earliest opportunity on the agreement reached between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Hillsborough Castle, and which we and the Irish Government fully support. Their agreement will lead to the completion of devolution of power to Northern Ireland. I will also report on the accompanying arrangements that Parliament will need to make to enable devolution to be completed.
I am making this Statement conscious that General de Chastelain has today announced that the INLA, responsible for more than 110 deaths during the Troubles, and the official IRA, have decommissioned their weapons. The House will want to record our thanks to the international commission, which has overseen decommissioning by the UDA, UVF, PIRA and now INLA and the official IRA, as part of the process of moving Northern Ireland from violence to peace.
In 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland opened a new chapter in the peace process. The St Andrews agreement marked the next step forward. Now we have reached a significant and defining moment. Each of the Northern Ireland agreements since 1998 has had a different basis on which it was reached. The Good Friday agreement was an agreement between the participants to the talks, including the two Governments. St Andrews was an agreement between the two Governments, later endorsed by the parties through their participation in the newly-elected Assembly. The Hillsborough Castle agreement—the final stage of the journey to completing devolution—was reached between the two parties which were the largest in the Assembly following the 2007 elections. It was the outcome of many hours of talks, consultations and plenary meetings involving all the Assembly parties. We should be in no doubt about its significance. Without this agreement the work done at St Andrews and Belfast could not have been moved forward. Without the completion of devolution the whole process of devolution and the peace process itself would be at risk, so this agreement is essential to securing the future, because in turn it will bring stability, investment and jobs.
For decades, conflicts over institutions have dominated the politics of Northern Ireland. Even in the past two years a failure to agree on the devolution of policing and justice has cast a shadow over Northern Ireland’s politics. When the cross-community vote takes place on 9 March and the parties request the transfer of powers, Northern Ireland’s politicians will have, by 12 April, full control over their Government and be able to focus on the economy, jobs, housing, public services and, of course, policing and justice. With this agreement, communities once locked in the most bitter of struggles are choosing to be bound together in a shared future, with a common destiny, and it must be in a spirit of partnership.
None of this could have been achieved without working closely with the Irish Government, and I pay tribute to Brian Cowen; the Irish Foreign Minister, Michael Martin; and to the Taoiseach’s predecessors, Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds. Nor could it have been achieved without the continued and unstinting support of the American Government and Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. I especially want to thank Secretary of State Clinton for her generous support.
This agreement is the conclusion of a process, and the House will want to record its thanks for the work of Tony Blair, and before him John Major. The House will want to thank previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. I want to record my personal thanks to them and to the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and his Minister the right honourable Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East for the time they spent in detailed negotiations and for their patience, resilience and wisdom.
Two weeks ago, the Taoiseach and I joined the parties for part of their negotiations in Hillsborough. There has been comment about the amount of time needed to reach this agreement. We should recognise that the talks were demanding because they went to the very core of Northern Ireland’s shared future. But implicit in the agreement now reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP, and there for all to support, is an even greater prize: that the parties together seize this opportunity to build a new trust in a fresh spirit of respect, co-operation and understanding. It is my view that this agreement represents a reasonable concord for all to be able to put difference to one side and enter in a spirit of good will to a better shared future.
There were four crucial breakthroughs. First, the parties have resolved the outstanding issues on the transfer of policing and justice powers and agreed a timetable for the completion of this final stage of devolution. Following community consultation, the First and Deputy First Ministers will jointly table a resolution seeking a transfer of policing and justice powers by means of a cross-community vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 9 March—four weeks tomorrow—for devolution to occur on 12 April. Then Parliament will be asked to approve the necessary transfer orders so that devolution can occur on 12 April.
Secondly, the parties have agreed how the devolution of policing and justice will work in practice and in particular how the relationship between the Justice Minister and Executive will work.
Thirdly, the parties have committed to a new and improved framework for regulating and adjudicating on parades which will maximise cross-community support. At its core is a commitment to ensuring local dialogue, transparency and mediation, as well as specific proposals for dealing with contentious parades. The First and Deputy First Ministers will set up a co-chaired working group to take forward this work with legislation on the agreed outcomes completed in the Northern Ireland Assembly before the end of this year.
Fourthly, this agreement also proposes to address how devolved government could work better in Northern Ireland. In the talks, all the parties raised the issue of the need for greater efficiency and transparency and also the need for greater inclusiveness. It is clear from the agreement that this was firmly recognised. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have therefore proposed three very important working groups at Executive level, to begin work immediately. I am pleased that the First Minister is in the House today as we discuss this.
The first group will look at how the Executive might function better and how delivery might be improved, and two further working groups will deal with all outstanding Executive business and make recommendations on how progress can be made on all outstanding matters from the St Andrews agreement.
The House will know that last October I sent to all party leaders in Northern Ireland my proposals for a financial settlement—worth an additional £800 million to underpin the new department of justice—available only if and when the parties decided to take the historic step of requesting the transfer of powers of policing and justice. All the details of this have been studied by the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.
The financial settlement will ensure stability for the new department, enabling it to deal with those issues outstanding from the Troubles and current security needs. I am sure that it is the wish of the House to ensure that in reaching such an agreement the new department has the resources to complete the Patten proposals on policing and meet the unique pressure of Northern Ireland’s past and present security needs.
Taken together, these parts of the agreement will lead to a better functioning Northern Ireland Executive who are better able to focus on growth, jobs, public services and of course law and order. I believe our duty now is to do all we can to encourage the parties to support and give effect to this agreement.
Subject to the cross-community vote on 9 March, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have now agreed to support an accelerated passage for the budget Bill and any related Assembly steps to ensure devolution of powers by 12 April.
Too many lives have been lost in Northern Ireland. Just a few weeks ago, dissident republicans tried to murder a police officer, Constable Heffron. They did not succeed, but he was very badly injured. There have been significantly more attacks in the past 12 months than in any recent year. Indeed, the House will record with sadness the murders just 12 months ago of two brave young British soldiers. On 9 March last year, criminals also murdered a brave PSNI officer, Stephen Carroll.
The IMC report at the end of last year was clear: early devolution would be a potent intervention on the activity of the dissidents. So the decisions made in the past few days are the most powerful signal we can send to those who choose violence over politics. I hope that the whole House will join me in sending an unequivocal message to those who would defy the will of the people: that the politics of peaceful change must irrevocably succeed in Northern Ireland and it must overcome whatever obstacles are put in its way.
The next stage is to show that this new stability can bring results in jobs and prosperity. So I am grateful that Secretary of State Clinton has immediately announced her invitation to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to meet her and the US economic envoy, Declan Kelly, to see how together the UK, Irish and American Governments can accelerate all options for encouraging new inward investment into Northern Ireland.
The peace process has taken men and women of courage who were prepared to set the past aside in the service of the future. The peace of Northern Ireland and its future stability ask that we put the interests of all its people above the interests of party. We have a proud record in this House of all-party support. Today it is important that we support not only the principle but also the dates in the agreement. Upon all of that falls the responsibility to make this work. Together we should complete the process of giving the government of Northern Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland. With policing and justice in the hands of the Northern Ireland Executive, the future of Northern Ireland is finally and truly in the hands of its people. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating that welcome Statement. Once again, its length and language show the personal hand of the Prime Minister, and for once I do not offer that as any criticism. The Prime Minister has clearly felt and lived up to a high sense of duty that transcends party allegiance, as did the Taoiseach and the Northern Ireland politicians involved. Everyone in the House would thank him and them for that, as will the patient, good people of Northern Ireland.
We all hope that this latest agreement will be another step on the road to a secure peace under the rule of an impartial and independently executed law. It has been a long road. The opening pages of the Statement said a new world began in 1998. I was therefore glad to hear glancing references not only to Mr Blair but also to Sir John Major. After the brutal blows handed to my party by IRA and INLA terrorism, still so painfully remembered today, it was not an easy choice to make. However, it was the right choice to make to try and take the Armalite out of Ulster politics. I welcome further decommissioning by the INLA and the official IRA.
We support devolution in Northern Ireland, and so we also welcome this agreement between Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. We support the principle of policing and justice powers being devolved to Stormont. That is why, as my right honourable friend Mr Cameron earlier told another place, we backed legislation last year, and why we will honour the financial package in the agreement. Our prime objective will always be a peaceful, prosperous and stable Northern Ireland in which all parts of the community share.
However, amid the optimism surrounding this agreement we need a cold, open-eyed realism. Can the noble Baroness tell us whether there has been any progress in getting the Real and Continuity IRA to lay down arms? In fact, is there hope that this agreement will change that? How many of the so-called dissident republicans referred to in the Statement are in arms? We have come a long way, but as the noble Baroness said, the cowardly attack on Constable Heffron last month shows that real dangers endure.
Can the noble Baroness answer several specific questions? First, is there any significance in the change from the phrase “operational independence” of the police to “operational responsibility”? Secondly, the agreement proposes the transfer of police and justice powers on 12 April. Under the current law, the department of justice in Northern Ireland, which will be responsible for these matters, will be dissolved on 1 May 2012 unless there is agreement on a replacement. Is there a risk of another set of very difficult negotiations unless this is resolved now?
Thirdly, the Parades Commission has just three weeks from 9 February to agree its proposals. Will the vote on policing and justice powers in the Assembly on 9 March go ahead even if that deadline is not met? Fourthly, the First and Deputy First Ministers are to examine unimplemented elements of the St Andrews agreement. What issues will that cover? Fifthly, last week’s agreement is between just two of the four parties at Stormont. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that no specific concerns have been raised by any other parties?
Finally, there are several reports of other agreements not included in the formal text. Will the noble Baroness clarify whether these exist; and, if they do, will she undertake to lay a document before the House? In fact, if the noble Baroness would prefer to respond to any of my questions by letter, I would be happy to receive it.
The devolution of policing and justice is something that we have to get right. Without the impartial and fearless rule of law, there is no true freedom. We hope now that the politicians of Northern Ireland will focus on the issues that people care about most: health, housing, schools, jobs and social deprivation. We should all pray that we will see a return to normal, democratic, devolved politics in a long-tormented Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made in another place by the Prime Minister. There will be relief that the Hillsborough talks have led to an agreement; but much remains to be done. The excruciatingly protracted nature of the negotiations does not augur well for future progress towards achieving a mature civil society and a fully functioning democratic polity. That will take decades. Northern Ireland remains a divided society, fractured on sectarian lines. One precondition for further progress is for the unionist community to come together to form a united, coherent and moderate political organisation. Continuing triangulation between the various unionist factions will risk the strangulation of Northern Ireland politics.
As the Hillsborough agreement recognises, the Executive must become more effective and assume collective responsibility for their actions. This is vital for the successful management of a divided society, which can then cease to rely, as it has for the past dozen years, on the de facto Dublin-London condominium. Tensions are best managed locally, but that requires a properly functioning Executive.
In the much longer run, we must hope that conditions will permit the creation of “normal” politics, based on differences of ideas and programmes rather than sectarian interests. That is a distant dream, and doubtless there will be many setbacks on the way; but an immediate obstacle has now been cleared with the transfer of responsibility for policing and justice from London to Belfast, and we wish the proposed Minister of Justice good fortune in setting up and exercising this vitally important office.
The transfer marks an irrevocable step—I stress that. The status quo ante can never be restored, whatever the circumstances. If the devolutionary settlement now formally completed breaks down, the likely solution will be some sort of mandated territory administered by the European Union or by a de jure London-Dublin condominium. Such a prospect should concentrate minds on striving to create a democratic polity, a mature civil society and a prosperous economy for Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, that must be the hope of all of us in your Lordships’ House. We on these Benches welcome the agreement.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the warm welcome for the Statement from noble Lords opposite. It is a pleasure and privilege to repeat this Statement, knowing that truly it has bipartisan support. That is a mark of all the negotiations that have taken place, not just since 1998, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, also during earlier Conservative Administrations. We have come a long way: we all recognise that today.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about decommissioning. We have come a long way on decommissioning and the agreement sends a clear message to the men of violence that politics, not violence, is the way in which conflicts are to be resolved. It is hoped that the people who still have their arms will listen to that message and that they will decommission. However, to date there is no news of the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA decommissioning.
As for the operational independence of the police, the operational independence of the chief constable will continue to be enshrined in legislation. So nothing should be read into the terminology within the agreement on that front.
The noble Lord asked about the risk of more difficult negotiations in 2012. The agreement last week at Hillsborough marks a new phase in Northern Ireland politics. I believe that the agreement provides a very firm basis for addressing all outstanding issues and demonstrates the desire and capacity of all parties to work together on difficult issues in a spirit of co-operation. One of the working parties announced in the agreement is specifically looking at outstanding issues from the St Andrews agreement, and I am sure that it will consider all outstanding issues.
I am also very grateful for the welcome from the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton. He is right to say that although it is an enormous relief that the agreement has been reached, there is much more to be done. There has indeed been a fractured society in Northern Ireland for many years, but there appears to be a real will—not just on behalf of politicians but on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland—to move forward together. The noble Lord rightly said that everyone feels that the Executive must become more effective. That is why the agreement encompasses a working group which we hope will be chaired jointly by Sir Reg Empey, who has particular concerns about these issues, and Margaret Ritchie, whom we must congratulate as the new leader of the SDLP.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Clifton, we believe that normal politics is what everybody in Northern Ireland desires and is striving for, and that we must look forward to a healthy democratic polity and a mature civil society.
My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I am always extremely reluctant to bring a discordant note to your Lordships’ House. However, what has been widely acclaimed as an historic agreement is somewhat less—indeed, it is not that. The document given to us this afternoon has neither signature nor ownership and at best it can be considered only as a starting point for negotiations in the future. I am extremely saddened that my Government endeavour to mislead the electorate of Northern Ireland and indeed your Lordships in this House about the significance of this two-party arrangement.
My Lords, perhaps I was using my words without due consideration. All parties were invited to participate in round tables and to make their views known. It is now for the parties to take this forward. The Government are not imposing anything on the people of Northern Ireland or their politicians. This agreement came out of the people of Northern Ireland and we believe that is how it should be taken forward.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that on what is a good day for Northern Ireland we should not forget the important part played in the process by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and the Ulster Unionist Party, and indeed by John Hume, Seamus Mallon and the SDLP? Without their brave contributions throughout the peace process we would not have got to where we are today.
Finally, we have established a very good relationship between Britain and the Government of Ireland. Does my noble friend agree that it is absolutely essential that we continue to work at that relationship, which has been a basis not only for peace in Northern Ireland but for good relationships between this country and Dublin?
My Lords, I will take the last point first. Yes, the agreement was reached—it marked a very good relationship between the two Governments, and I am confident that that will continue—and, yes, perhaps I was remiss earlier in not acknowledging the enormous role played by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, in ensuring that ultimately this agreement could be reached.
I should have stressed in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, that the talks were open and inclusive and that all parties had the opportunity to be fully involved.
My Lords, I would like to think that, in the briefing material available to the Leader of the House, there is a reference to the wise words of Seamus Mallon that were uttered in a debate in the other place in reply to my having called for the devolution of policing and justice. He said that for that to happen, the Northern Ireland Executive would have to show that the Assembly is robust and durable. Does the noble Baroness not agree that he was quite right to identify those requirements, but that unfortunately the present Executive have shown a woeful inability over the past few years to agree on almost anything, and that if this is going to work they will have to find in themselves characteristics that have not so far been in evidence?
My Lords, I have no doubt that Seamus Mallon, whose party, I understand, welcomed the agreement today, is right that the Assembly should be robust. However, that is precisely why part of the agreement was to establish the working party, which I am sure will ensure that the working methods and various other issues pertaining to the Executive are changed and that we have a robust Executive who can take the Northern Ireland Assembly forward so that it well represents its people not just in the devolution of policing but in jobs, housing and all the other things that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.
My Lords, I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s Statement today and thank the Leader of the House for addressing us this afternoon. Before I proceed further, I draw the House’s attention to the fact that I am a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for the East Belfast constituency.
The agreement that was announced at Hillsborough Castle on Friday represents the successful conclusion of a long and arduous negotiating process. Although there were numerous dark days and false dawns, the determination of my party to succeed never wavered, and the perseverance of our negotiators has achieved a deal that we can recommend with confidence to the people of Northern Ireland. Indeed, we will consult the community in the next few weeks. In particular, I pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of my party leader, who, despite personal difficulties, devoted himself unstintingly to the task of achieving a successful outcome to the negotiations.
This agreement not only represents an appropriate resolution of the problem of devolving policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but reflects the strong public desire for cross-community co-operation through the successful functioning and development of the devolved institutions. The agreement was made in Ulster with the agreement of most political parties, and it provides a solid framework for the devolution of policing and justice powers while at the same time resolving the parading issue that had the potential to frustrate progress in the future. It is regrettable that not all parties have seen fit to participate fully in the negotiating process. Indeed, at least one party has to date refused to support the agreement that was arrived at. It must be hoped that the party concerned will be made aware of the serious damage to the peace process that its continued obstinacy may cause, and that wiser counsel will prevail.
My Lords, I would also like to mark the determination of the noble Lord’s party, but especially that of its leader, Peter Robinson, who clearly did a splendid job in very difficult circumstances. I also agree with the noble Lord that there is strong public desire for cross-party co-operation in Northern Ireland.
I should like to ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for reassurance on one topic which has not really been covered in the Statement—I realise that it lies slightly outside. The Continuity IRA and the Real IRA—the dissidents—are definitely providing a greater risk and threat than they previously have. There is, according to the police, a haemorrhaging of people from the old IRA and therefore the technology that they use. The munitions that they have been using lately show that quite clearly.
In Northern Ireland, we have quite a large part of the security services from this country, and that has not been devolved. We would like to hear an assurance that that effort will not ease up as a result of the success of this agreement. We must also remember that more recently, the information that has been given on various incidents has been from the Republic; the incidents we have had no lead in to have been planned in the north. Therefore, I think that we have a right to ask for increased security, and for reassurances that those services will not be devolved.
My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, makes an extremely important point. The Government completely recognise the need for the national security services to remain in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, they have recently enhanced allocations. I assure the noble Lord that the national security service in Northern Ireland will continue to be properly funded so that it can properly defend the interests of the people there.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader for bringing us this Statement, and place on record the thanks of the people of Northern Ireland to the two Prime Ministers who gave up their time freely to deal with our issues. It is a good day for Northern Ireland that we have agreement, even in a document. So from that point of view, Friday was good. However, confusion reigns in Northern Ireland. Listening to the media from Friday to today, most people out there do not understand what is going on. I have heard a lot about community confidence. Will the noble Baroness say how the general public will know what is going to happen in the future?
My Lords, that is a very good point. I am sorry that I cannot tell my noble friend exactly what will happen to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are properly informed not just of the agreement, but the process which will now be undertaken. I completely agree that communication is now of the essence in ensuring that the people of Northern Ireland are taken with the politicians of Northern Ireland on the journey into this exciting new future. I will come back to my noble friend in writing if I may, and will place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Statement begins with a reference to the decommissioning of the INLA. A few weeks ago, I was one of the two independent observers at the decommissioning of the weapons of the largest loyalist paramilitary organisation, the UDA. Does the Leader agree with me that one of the real tests now for the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland is to address the fact that, in the areas from which the UDA and other loyalist paramilitary organisations drew their strength, there is widespread alienation from the political process? I believe it is now incumbent on the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to address that alienation and to find ways in which the vacuum, which has been welcomed but which was caused by the decommissioning to which I have referred, can be addressed. Does the Leader agree with me that that will be a priority for the devolved Administration?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble and right reverend Lord for the extraordinary work that he has been doing on decommissioning. I certainly agree that the Executive and the Assembly have a huge role to play in ensuring that that alienation from the political system or the vacuum is filled not by violence but by proper political activities or proper engagement with the people of Northern Ireland. In taking this last step towards devolution, the Executive and Assembly can now focus on the issues of real importance to the people of Northern Ireland, such as jobs and housing, as well as political engagement. That will assist in ensuring that the vacuum is not filled by violence.
My Lords, I, too, welcome this agreement. It is important to place on record the fact that the agreement was made between two parties and that the other parties had no sight of it until after it was agreed. It is also important to say that it is an agreement to think about agreeing because it is contingent upon the workings of a number of working groups which will be established in the future. It is enormously important that this House recognises the significance of the appointment of a justice Minister in Northern Ireland and the method by which that justice Minister is appointed; it is not the product of effective gerrymandering.
My Lords, I recognise the wise words of the noble Baroness and the fact that the agreement was reached ultimately by two parties. As I said earlier, we believe that the talks were open and inclusive. It was for other parties to be involved if they so wished. I fully agree with what the noble Baroness says about the justice Minister. That is a huge step forward.
My Lords, it is not widely known that General de Chastelain, before he became the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff, kept wicket for Fettes. In that capacity he has been a perfectly admirable longstop in the years since the Belfast agreement. What will happen to the international commission in the future?
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness for not being here on time. That was due to a transport delay.
Having worked shoulder to shoulder with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, in 1998, I am hugely disappointed to see this arrangement—it is certainly not an agreement—impacting on the future of Northern Ireland and to find that, again and again, the St. Andrews arrangement has been used to divert and distort what we worked very hard to achieve in 1998. There is the idea that somehow we can cut a Minister of Justice out of the hedge, rather than use the processes that were agreed in 1998; there is the idea that the leader of the SDLP and the leader of my party can somehow be instructed to chair a working group without ever having been involved, at any stage, in the Hillsborough talks—not even having seen a piece of paper with a proposal on it. There is the fact that the piece of paper that we talk about today is totally anonymous—it does not have a signature or a name. This is not an agreement—it is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland and I feel it is an insult to Members of this House to have it sold as an agreement. Nothing is a greater insult to this House.
Does the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland know something we do not know about the processes that were put in place to examine certain allegations against the First Minister that were carried on a BBC programme? This effusive response by the Secretary of State is not acceptable.
My Lords, I recognise the deep concern that the noble Lord expresses but I have to refute some of the arguments he made. This was not an agreement made by two Governments; it was an agreement made by two parties—the party of the First Minister and the party of the Deputy First Minister—in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is regrettable that the Ulster Unionist Party was absent for a large part of the time but, as I understand it, that was a matter for the Ulster Unionist Party itself. I should also say that the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was not instructed to chair the working party: he has been invited to chair the working party. We very much hope that he will take up that invitation. In repeating this Statement I am not trying to sell the agreement; I am trying to inform noble Lords of the agreement and of where we are vis-à-vis the agreement, which has support on most Benches in this House.
Finally, on the position of the Justice Minister, the Assembly decided late last year in the Bill to create a department of justice that, given the special sensitivities of the post, the appointment of the Justice Minister should be made by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. This is nothing to do with the agreement going behind or beyond the St Andrews agreement. It is following on a decision made by the Assembly last year.