Why the Northern Ireland Troubles and Reconciliation Bill Should Not Proceed And Should First Be Sent To The Northern Ireland Assembly – Once It Is Reconstituted – For Consideration – Second Reading Debate

Nov 24, 2022 | News

Why the Northern Ireland Troubles and Reconciliation Bill Should Not Proceed And Should First Be Sent To The Northern Ireland Assembly – Once It Is Reconstituted – For Consideration – Second Reading Debate

9.06pm November 24th 2022

Lord Alton of Liverpool 


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My Lords, my noble friend Lady O’Loan provided an analysis of the Bill in granular detail. We have heard remarkable speeches from Members of all sides of your Lordships’ House and particularly from Northern Ireland. We have heard from noble Lords, and will hear from others, who have held high office in Northern Ireland. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames said that he was glad that some who are not from Northern Ireland spoke in the debate. We just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and before her from the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. Now, I hope the House will listen to a few words from me.

For the best part of two decades, I represented a constituency in the city of Liverpool, which some wags refer to as the other capital of Ireland. Liverpool has a history of sectarianism but, in recent times, it has a different story to tell of reconciliation. My friend the sculptor Stephen Broadbent made a remarkable statue called the “Reconciliation Triangle” and two more, one in Glasgow and one in Belfast. Why did we do that? It was to explain something of the tarnished divisions that had disfigured the stories of our and other people’s cities. It was an attempt to understand one another’s stories and to stand in each other’s shoes.

My interest in British-Irish affairs has its antecedents in my origins, as is the case with thousands of people who live on this side of the Irish Sea. My father was one of five brothers who served in the Armed Forces in the Second World War. One was in the Royal Air Force and was killed. My grandfather served in the First World War, but my mother was from a Gaeltacht, an Irish-speaking area, in the west of Ireland. Irish was her first language. Growing up in family that had to live across the religious divide and across different traditions, I had some experience of the way in which it would take several decades for the old prejudices of the early 1950s to dissipate.

The need for reconciliation was also something I saw throughout my years as a city councillor and as a Member of Parliament for the city of Liverpool, when sectarianism was still part of its politics. It took patience, time and commitment to make progress. Some called it the “Mersey miracle”.

In the 1980s, as Irish affairs spokesman in the House of Commons for the SDP-Liberal Alliance, I worked on the alliance report What Future for Northern Ireland?with the late Baroness Shirley Williams of Crosby and the late Lords, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge and Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine—the conqueror of Everest. We travelled together to Northern Ireland in the course of preparing that report. In it, in 1985, we were unanimous in trenchantly advancing the arguments for devolution and power-sharing. That is the issue I most want to talk about in my brief intervention.

In a leading article in 1985, the Irish Times said that the report was

“one of the most important documents published on the Anglo-Irish question in recent years … it shows signs of hard work, rigorous thinking, and a commendable attempt at objective analysis. The report set out in detail how power sharing could work and was forthright in defence of civil rights and the rule of law including the conduct of justice.”

We published that report believing that power-sharing and devolution were the only way we would ensure that the hopes, fears and aspirations of both parts of the community could be met. Short-circuiting devolution and power-sharing by pushing on with yet another Westminster Bill is simply disempowering of devolution. It is emasculating of power-sharing. It is disrespectful of opinion in Northern Ireland and those represented, most especially the victims who should be at the heart of the Bill. I strongly believe that there should be no Committee stage of the Bill until the Assembly in Northern Ireland is restored, and until it has first considered this Bill, providing for the pause that my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames mentioned in his earlier remarks. Bypassing Northern Ireland does not represent progress: it is retrograde and unwise, and fundamentally diminishes the principle of devolution.

In introducing the Bill today, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, in his candid, measured and very honest remarks said that you cannot force through reconciliation via legislation. But that is exactly what we are in danger of being asked to do. It is why the Commissioner for Victims and Survivors has asked us to reject these proposals. It is not just the use of the word “reconciliation”; even the words “Northern Ireland” are inadequate and insufficient. They do not recognise the nature and extent of what are also euphemistically called “the Troubles” in its title. God knows that, at its worst, the hatred and violence that we have been recalling today disfigured, maimed and caused extraordinary suffering and anguish throughout these islands.

Some 3,720 people were killed as a result of the conflict and 47,541 were injured. There were 36,923 shootings and 16,209 bombings. Who will ever forget Bloody Sunday in 1972 or the Enniskillen Poppy Day massacre in 1987? As the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, rightly reminded us, there are still those who glorify violence and those who perpetrate it. Yes, the Bill is entitled the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill, but the ramifications and consequences of three decades of unspeakable violence have been felt by individuals, families and communities way beyond Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords will recall the deaths, injuries, and millions of pounds’ worth of damage in 1996 at Canary Wharf and in the Manchester shopping precinct, or the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s attempt in 1984 to murder the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and members of her Cabinet at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Five were left dead and 31 injured, among them our noble friend Lord Tebbit and his wife Margaret, who was left paralysed from the chest down. I am privileged to share an office with the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, who has been here for most of this debate today; of course, an attempt was made on his life, too, in 1972. The noble Lord, Lord Caine, referred to the death of Ian Gow, with whom I served in another place, but in 1979, just 24 hours after I was elected to the House of Commons for that Liverpool division, Airey Neave, the shadow spokesman for Northern Ireland, was murdered here, within these precincts, when a bomb was fixed underneath his car by the INLA.

In my maiden speeches in both Houses, I reflected on the futility and unacceptability of such violence and was able to point to long, and ultimately successful, attempts in Liverpool to lay to rest sectarian ghosts and learn the art of respecting difference. It was why, on taking up my responsibilities as a spokesman, I spent a lot of time with Northern Ireland MPs, whom I enormously admire for their commitment to finding non-violent ways forward. I echo something that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said earlier when he referred to his visit to Crossmaglen. It was a place I visited with Seamus Mallon, the SDLP MP for Newry and Armagh, who played such an important part with John Hume and David Trimble in bringing about the Good Friday agreement.

The defining moment for me—and, I suspect, for John Major, when he was Prime Minister—came in February 1993, when we both attended the funeral of the boys murdered in Warrington after the Provisional IRA left bombs in the high street. Fifty-four were injured and a 3 year-old and a 12 year-old boy, Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, were killed. Out of that tragedy, Tim’s father created a peace initiative to promote greater understanding among all communities affected by conflict and to deepen understanding between Great Britain and Ireland. Out of it also came new initiatives from Sir John Major, on which Tony Blair was able to build after 1997.

Not all of us will be able to find it in our hearts to seek reconciliation, or offer forgiveness like Gordon Wilson did in the aftermath of the murder of his daughter at Enniskillen—or, for that matter, like Her late Majesty did in 2011 when she set aside the 1979 murder of the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, to seek with President Mary McAleese a different context for our future relationships. No Act of Parliament could have legislated for that, and no Act of Parliament will ever be able to legislate for reconciliation or forgiveness.

That is why I believe that issues such as those contained in the Bill should first be debated in Northern Ireland and that its elected representatives should be given the first say in what should happen next. It is simply not good enough for Westminster to emasculate devolution, as it is inclined to do, by taking to itself decisions which were intended to be settled by Stormont. The continuation of that process will destroy devolution, not expedite its restoration. As the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, said, we need to tread with great care and re-engage the institutions of Northern Ireland.

I have just one more thing to add. If this Bill goes further, I think many of us will feel forced to table amendments and, in effect, oppose it. That is not in anybody’s interest at this time. I recall the way in which leaders from both parties in both Houses worked with one another to bring about the Good Friday agreement. This is a moment to stop and to exercise some wisdom, rather than try to rush pell-mell with legislation which, as we have heard today, is resisted by people right across the divide. It might be, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, that this is not something about which the detail is agreed. People are opposed to it. We have to work with the grain. That requires us to endeavour to work with those in Northern Ireland by giving them the first say and to work for the restoration of the institutions there before pressing on with this legislation.


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