Lord Trimble of Lisnargarvey - Maiden Speech to the House of Lords

My Lords, I feel that I should say a few words in explanation of the haste with which I am making this speech. There are two reasons. The first is that, as my noble friend Lord Maginnis has pointed out, a number of extremely important issues concerning Northern Ireland are coming up in which I wish to participate fully. But there is a second and more trivial reason, which is that I could not resist the temptation of repeating in this House my record in another place, where I made my maiden speech the day after I took my seat. Having said that, may I say that I am delighted to be here and that I have been quite overwhelmed by the warmth and kindness so many have extended to me on my arrival. There is no doubt that this is a kinder, gentler place.

I have no doubt, however, of the wealth of talent and experience that exists collectively among your Lordships, of the opportunities here to influence the public debate and, on occasions, to make a real change to the legislation that comes before us. I had the pleasure of sitting through that happening earlier this evening. Of course it is not entirely the fault of colleagues in another place that Parliament has become less effective. Big majorities are not good for Parliament, and the way in which the number and the range of issues in public debate have diminished has also had an effect. Changes in procedures have tipped the balance against effective scrutiny. Here I am thinking particularly of automatic guillotines and the changed hours of sitting that have taken place elsewhere. All that has made the work of this House more significant and I look forward to participating in debates and votes that really matter.

Tonight we are considering the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. There are so many matters in it on which one could comment, many of them mentioned by other noble Lords, but I should like to focus on one main issue and to raise a query on another. The query relates to a disturbing story in the press yesterday with regard to political fund raising. The story suggested that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is pressing the US Government to allow leading members of Sinn Fein to raise funds in the United States. If this is true, it would undermine the admirable position that the United States Government have adopted. It would also be contrary to the basic principles of the 2000 Act on political donations. I hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to comment on this matter.

The main issue I wish to touch on has been raised already—that is, the question of devolution. This is clearly still the Government’s policy, as evidenced by this Bill, the speech we have heard today and the current recall of the Assembly at Stormont. In principle, I welcome the recall. Giving politicians a status as elected Assembly Members without also giving them responsibilities is bad in principle and bad in practice. In saying that, I make no reflection on individual Assembly Members, of which I am one. But the existence of a notional Assembly which discharges no function could not be continued.

The problem comes with the way in which one defines the objectives and their priorities at the moment. Is the primary objective to re-establish an Executive—preferably on an inclusive basis—or is the objective to have in Northern Ireland a society which functions normally? Eight years ago we began what we hoped would be a fairly rapid transition to normality and we created an inclusive Executive to facilitate and accelerate that transition. Enormous progress was made. But it is equally clear that the transition was not and still has not been completed.

It was in October 2002 that the Prime Minister, in what is probably still the best speech he has made on the matter, called for the completion of that transition. The chief outstanding matter, of course, is policing. What is outstanding is not the devolution of policing—which was scarcely mentioned in the Belfast agreement back in April 1998—but the acceptance of the present policing arrangements, which have been put in place with much heart-searching and no little amount of pain to unionists and the police family in the years since 1998, and that acceptance has been clearly demonstrated by real support for the police.

I hope leaders of the republican movement realise the need to move rapidly and decisively on this issue. I hope they recall the promise they made to my party in May 2000 when they said that they would act,

“in a way that would maximise public confidence”.

I think they know that the great failing in the years after that date was in not building that confidence in those with whom they must have wanted to build a relationship.

I hope the Government are holding clearly to the principles set out in the Belfast harbour office speech back in 2002 and that their priority is to put in place a normally functioning society in Northern Ireland as a means to create an inclusive administration which can then, perhaps at a later date, enhance devolution in the way that this Bill foreshadows.

I put matters in this way not to create more obstacles—for I have in recent years put in a huge effort to see all the main sections of our society working together, and that is still my aim—but because I know the problems and I want to see them overcome. I know how important it is to stick clearly to the fundamental principles of the agreement, which are in turn the basic principles of democracy, non-violence and social cohesion.

(June 7th, 2006)

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