Gonzo has already picked up on the statements by the UPRG representatives, and others, as they emerged, through the front door, from the meeting with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern at Castle Buildings yesterday, but there are a couple of points to be made about what was reported and what was being said elsewhere that are worth looking at in relation to the putative Plan B.When I noted the meeting yesterday the BBC report carried the comments of their Home Affairs correspondent Vincent Kearney, quoting Irish government sources to report that the leaders of the UDA would also be in attendance – you can still view the quotes here.. however subsequent BBC reports indicate only in the intro that they were present, while RTÉ, on the other hand, has not mentioned them at all. That doesn’t mean that those individuals were not present, in fact, the emphatic statements issued after the meeting suggest that they were either there in person, or were aware of exactly what was being said during the meeting. Of course, while the charges of membership of the UDA remains against others, the actual presence of the leadership of that group in Castle Buildings is unlikely to be acknowledged publicly.
The subsequent reports, as noted by Gonzo, focused on the apparent distancing of the UDA from the DUP.
But it’s the reported comments on the possibility of joint authority that interested me – as noted here.
The Ulster Political Research Group said Mr Ahern told them there would be no joint-governmental authority over NI if Stormont was not reconvened.
Some commenters here have sought to suggest that Bertie Ahern was pulling a fast one, telling the UDA and the UPRG what they wanted to hear.. and while I wouldn’t be surprised if Bertie was doing that in most circumstances I find it difficult to see the logic of such an approach in this particular instance. After all, the form of the joint stewardship is to be worked out by the end of December – should the November deadline come to nought. It will, at that point, become clearer whether An Taoiseach was playing fast and loose with the real intentions of the British and Irish governments.
More than that, there is the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill currently winding its way through parliament. As Gonzo has pointed out, there was an amendment passed last night to further restrict the governments ability to pass unamended Orders in Council. If, or rather when, that becomes law the possibility of the kind of joint authority envisaged by some becomes less of a real threat and more a distant memory.
There were also comments made during the debate in the Lords on that amendment which emphasise, and clarify, the nature of the joint stewardship being proposed, as stated by Lord Rooker the governments NI spokesman in the Lords on 13th July[scroll down].
13 July 2006 : Column 894
Lord Rooker: .. We have looked at the amendment, and I have had brief discussions during the week. If it were carried, we could not, for a start, use the Grand Committee process. We could not use the Grand Committee process in this House to discuss the draft of an amendment because it is rigidly organised to allow debate only on non-controversial matters and does not allow for changes or amendments. That does not apply to every order; many orders could be considered there. However, those orders could not go to a Grand Committee. They would have to be considered on the Floor of the House. We have to find ways of dealing with this—ways that have not been found in all the years since the Stormont Parliament was first set aside.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith, talked about a failsafe. I say with due respect that, because we are serious about the date of 24 November, a failsafe will have to be seriously and urgently considered after that date. We do not want to do so beforehand, for the reasons I have explained.
I shall briefly address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney; it is not the first time that he has made it, and I made sure that those responsible for the issues were made fully aware of his point when he first made it. The tune changed slightly. It is not envisaged—it was never part of the plan—that the Government of the Republic of Ireland will in any way, shape or form be involved in the administration of Northern Ireland. We have no mandate as a Government for that and do not seek it, but I and colleagues have pointed out that the cross-border issues do not go away, given all the pressures of the economy and the position of the island of Ireland within both Europe and the world economy. For example, we have had questions in the House recently about a common corporation tax on the island of Ireland, specific to businesses both north and south. They can make a case that it ought to be different from Great Britain. That pressure comes not because of political forces, but because of the economic changes in the world. I am not saying that it will happen, but there will be areas of co-operation. Part of the Bill creates a wholesale electricity market; that is part of those pressures.[added emphasis]
I was going to mention the subject of yesterday earlier, and have just been reminded of it; I was obviously not there. Yesterday was the most peaceful 12 July for 30 years. In fact, it was the first time in30 years that the Army was not deployed on 12 July. That is absolutely fantastic. I am still doing duty weekends in Northern Ireland, and I have seen the collection of the bonfires ready and all the paraphernalia that goes on which people want to celebrate. I know what has happened in the past as a result of that, whether it is hotheads or others just out to cause trouble. The atmosphere that we have at the moment, when 2006 is the first time in 30 years that the Army is not out on the street on the major holiday, has to be of major significance.
The noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, made a point about flags; I cannot respond to it in detail. I look on it as maybe positive that other flags were used rather than the flags of the past, although I take the serious point—the implication of what he said—that the loyalist paramilitaries are keeping their arms ready to fight British soldiers. That threat is the implication of not disarming; he agrees. It is outrageous. We want them disarmed like the others. There is no excuse for the paramilitaries to keep their weapons. There is no selling out, to use the terms that people have used in the past. The Government of the Republic will not be involved in the administration and governance of Northern Ireland, but there will be north-south co-operation as there are areas of co-operation east-west, such as the health service. Citizens of the Republic can go into hospitals in Northern Ireland, particularly the north-west, where the hospitals are closer to them than those in the south. I am sure that such good areas of co-operation will continue.
That does not mean to say that the Government of the Republic will be involved in the administration of Northern Ireland. That is not a plan B. However, it is a natural consequence that if there is not a Northern Ireland Assembly, we as the UK Government will not mind the shop. We will push forward areas of reform—of public administration and of other areas in Northern Ireland—and, where it suits us both, particularly in economic co-operation, it makes sense to have those arrangements. However, that can in no way be construed as the Government of the south having a role as a threat over the non-Assembly. If the Assembly were up and running, I suspect that the same thing would happen, because the economic forces would drive north and south to do such things on a joint basis.
There were some other amendments tabled, and withdrawn, and you can view some of them here
One of the interesting ones related to the oath of office and the rule of law, amendment 11, scroll down to 13 July 2006 : Column 886
.. although the debate ended with the amendment being withdrawn, the possiblity of it being tabled again remains.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has said. I do not believe that on this occasion my amendment would interfere at all with the pledge of office—I had dropped that amendment. This amendment is purely to make obvious failure to support of the rule of law, the judicial processes and the PSNI a reason for the removal of a Minister.
I felt that the Minister had some sympathy with that. His explanation of Section 4 of the 2005 Act was something that I had not heard before and need to brush up on; in fairness to him and other noble Lords, I should research it a little more. I think that the Government know what we are after here. However, there may be a way in which we can between now and Third Reading bring some provisions of Section 4 to the fore and strengthen the Bill.
As I said in my opening remarks, this is something that could be enacted only by the Assembly and which would require cross-community agreement because of the way in which voting takes place in the Assembly. So I shall do some research and probably bring back the amendment at Third Reading, but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.