Second reading of the Northen Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill

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Lord Trimble: While I have mixed feelings about the Bill, its substance is the Belfast Agreement and its procedures try to implement that agreement.

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

However, again and again in its contributions last night and in previous weeks and months, that party has declared its present commitment to power sharing, and to power sharing with republicans. It no longer has a principled objection to it; it is simply a matter of when republicans will do what everybody knows republicans must do.

This is light years away from the historic position of the Democratic Unionist Party.

If I am concerned about the timetable, I am even more concerned about the fundamental mistake the Government are making. They are not putting, they are not seen to be putting, and I do not think they are privately putting, any significant pressure on republicans to move. They have been too indulgent of republicans over the past years. That is the reason we have had repeated crises; it is the fundamental reason why the Assembly collapsed just over four years ago; and it is why the prospects are not good now.

We must bear in mind what has happened in Northern Ireland in recent years. Put simply, eight years ago a majority of unionists—a narrow one, admittedly, but a majority—decided to give republicans a chance. Fairly soon afterwards, they felt that their generous gesture was cast back in their face by the behaviour of republicans and their failure to honour their obligations under the agreement. This culminated not only in the events which led to the suspension of the Assembly, but also to those of December 2004, where we see saw the clearest demonstration of republican involvement in criminality. And what was the Government’s response to that? They quite happily opened the door of10 Downing Street a few weeks later to let in the robbers’ political leaders for a chat, and they repeatedly declared that the republicans were still an essential part of the process.

That failure by the Government to police and uphold the basic principles of the agreement has produced considerable revulsion among the greater number of people in Northern Ireland, and quite naturally so. They are not in any mood to see republicans back in the centre of things, especially moving towards taking some influence or control over policing. The only thing that will change their mood is if republicans now move on policing and do so in such a way as to completely change the atmosphere. The holding-back by republicans over recent weeks and months of what they know in their hearts is necessary only reinforces the suspicion among most unionists that republicans are not being genuine.

The Government have to do what is necessary to make them move. It is commonplace for commentators to say that deadlines do not work and that republicans do not move under pressure, but the truth of the matter is that republicans move only under pressure. They would never have started decommissioning but for the pressure which we brought to bear on them. They would never have moved even to endorse the Assembly but for the pressure which the Government brought to bear on them back in 1998. I give the Government credit for the pressure that they then brought to bear on republicans, just as I am criticising them for having failed to do that in recent years.

(November 22nd, 2006)

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