Thursday, 28 November 2002
British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill, 2002: Committee and Remaining Stages.
One of the bodies mentioned is the Food Safety Promotion Board which will now come under the aegis of the Minister for Health and Children. Presumably the board will also deal with agriculture related matters. Why is the Minister for Agriculture and Food not referred to in subsection (2)(b) which states that particular function will come under the Minister for Health and Children? Why is the Minister for Agriculture and Food excluded?
We are moving a little ahead of ourselves. On the earlier question, I can now confirm that it is the intention of the Government that the Bill, once enacted, shall expire upon restoration of the Assembly. The Bill provides that an expiry order is to be made as soon as practicable following restoration of the Assembly. At the same time the Government will notify the British Government of the completion of the requirement for termination of the supplementary Agreement. It is intended that the expiry order provided for in the Bill and the termination notification of the supplementary Agreement will be made as close together in time as possible. Separate provision for each is purely a matter of mechanism.
The Oireachtas is now being asked to provide this temporary measure. When the Assembly is up and running again, this Bill, presumably, will expire and we will revert to the original 1998 legislation. Why is it the case that the Dáil and the Seanad will not be part of that process as against the Taoiseach?
I can confirm that there is a precedent in this case. The Bill is a temporary and remedial measure to get us over some of the practical difficulties posed by the suspension. It serves its purpose and will allow the North-South bodies to continue to operate in a meaningful way pending the restoration of the institutions in the North and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which remains the will of the overwhelming majority of the people. There is a precedent, therefore, for this course of action.
Question put and agreed to.
Sections 3 and 4 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 5 stand part of the Bill."
Senator Ryan asked if there was any precedent for British authority in this jurisdiction. There is. A large part of the Foyle comes within our jurisdiction. The Foyle Fisheries Commission, which was established in 1952, is a joint authority mechanism.
—were jointly administered until this new dispensation. There were a number of other orders also on which there was joint administration since 1922, of which one of the more obscure of was the Office of Ulster Arms, which operated out of Dublin Castle, a rather interesting departure in the context of two sovereign Governments, yet it was a throwback to the 16th and 17th centuries. For the information of the House, a book on the subject was published last week which might be of interest to Members because we debated this issue under the Cultural Institutions Act in 1996 or 1997. While there have been several precedents, therefore, perhaps the Minister of State will elaborate a little on the matter.
Both of my colleagues are historically correct. On the agriculture question, the Food Safety Authority comes under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children, but there is a great deal of co-operation at agriculture ministerial level also.
Question put and agreed to.
Section 6 agreed to.
Question proposed: "That section 7 stand part of the Bill."
I referred to this point in my remarks. Subsection (4)(b) concerns the date on which the Bill will, in effect, become redundant. It states that the day fixed under paragraph (a) shall be the earliest practicable day after the termination of the Agreement in accordance with its terms on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Let us consider the scenario I mentioned. If we have Assembly elections on 1 May and the Assembly reconvenes a short time afterwards but does not elect a new Executive, is it the case that the Bill automatically falls, even though there is not an Executive to appoint a North-South Ministerial Council?
Would the Minister of State agree it is vitally important that the institutions are restored as quickly as possible to avoid difficulty, as Senator Hayes and the Leader of the House will agree was outlined in some detail at the recent British-Irish Interparliamentary Body discussions in Manchester on Monday? I understand the date of 1 May is set by legislation and cannot be changed by regulation other than by an amending Act. In the event of there being a vacuum right up to and including 1 May and if the voters of Northern Ireland are faced with the scenario that there has not been a prior restoration of the Assembly and a new Executive, there is a very real danger that the voters of Northern Ireland will not be asked to vote on what would be in normal circumstances the performance of an outgoing administration but rather will be asked to vote on extremes and there may be a polarisation in politics which would not be helpful for the long-term good of the people of all the island and of good relations between Britain and Ireland. This point was raised and debated by parliamentarians from both sides of the Irish Sea.
I am sure the Minister of State will avail of the opportunity to reiterate that there will be a redoubling of efforts to ensure that the Executive and the Assembly are restored well in advance of 1 May otherwise there is a very real danger that the centre will not hold and there may be a total polarisation of politics which will set back the process by decades.
Perhaps I misunderstand. There will be elections in May and an Assembly will be formed but there is no agreement on the formation of an Executive. In that scenario does the Bill fall? From my reading of it I believe it does because it says:
(b) The day fixed under paragraph (a) shall be the earliest practicable day after the termination of the Agreement in accordance with its terms on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Why does the Bill say "the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly"? Would it not be more logical to assume that it is the restoration of the Executive because it is the Executive, under the jurisdiction of the Assembly, that appoints Ministers to the North-South Ministerial Council who then represent the Assembly on the Council? Does the Minister of State understand my point?
I seek clarification of the Schedule of the Bill under the heading
2. In the Implementation Bodies Agreement:
(b) any reference to the Assembly shall be read as a reference to the United Kingdom Parliament.
Does it suggest that if the Executive is not restored all the powers contained in the Implementation Agreement will revert to the Parliament of the United Kingdom? It would be useful if the Minister of State could clarify this point.
I know I am jumping ahead but can the Minister of State add anything to the reference in paragraph 2(b) of the Schedule that any reference to the Assembly shall be read as a reference to the United Kingdom Parliament? Is that then by inference that the United Kingdom Parliament has overall sovereignty in relation to these matters? It says in paragraph 2(b) that any reference to the Assembly shall be read as a reference to the United Kingdom Parliament. Would that cover the point being made by Senator Hayes?
I suppose the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, would keep a watch on the matter and the Taoiseach would decide the opportune point to expire the Bill in consultation with Mr. Blair.
Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Schedule be the Schedule to the Bill."
It shall terminate, following restoration of the Assembly, upon receipt of the later of two notifications, the one to state that the requirements for termination of this Agreement so far as the Government of Ireland is concerned have been completed and the other to state that the requirements for the termination of this Agreement so far as the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is concerned have been completed.
I have a funny feeling of a bit of circular reasoning here. The reasons the Agreement would be terminated are still not clear to me. Senator Brian Hayes has done his best to extract them but they are still not clear to me. It seems that there is a possibility of an institutional hiatus similar to the one we have now where the restoration of the Assembly, it appears, necessitates the termination of this Agreement. As Senator Hayes has said so well, we could have an Assembly, and there is nothing here to exclude it, which sat into a situation of total wrangle for six months or longer or where various combinations vetoed everything remembering the weighted majorities they need. Is this a receipe for allowing wreckers in the Assembly to wreck these cross-Border Implementation Bodies and the Council? With the restoration of an Assembly they could then decide to be awkward and prevent any further progress. The Assembly would be there but there would be no Executive. The logical consequence is that if the Assembly fails to elect an Executive, the British Government will probably suspend it again. It could be suspended and implemented—
The point under discussion is a tiding over mechanism until the institutions can be restored. Although the North-South Ministerial Council is no longer in existence, or at least is in suspension, it would be difficult to get anybody to work in them if there is a stop-go situation. I wish to use this opportunity to express my support for all the people who work in these Implementation Bodies under quite difficult political circumstances. It is stated in the preamble to the Agreement that all the institutions are interdependent and it is probably the case that it might be difficult – I do not want to predetermine it – to keep the implementation bodies going indefinitely without the other institutions in the Agreement. As long as there is a reasonable prospect of a restoration within a reasonable period of time, this is an appropriate mechanism and I take it, even from the relative lack of political controversy about it, there is tacit consent at any rate to that by all the parties in Northern Ireland.
I thank Members for their salient questions. The requirement for the terms of determination is the making of the expiry order by the Taoiseach. Obviously, that would only be done after the restoration of the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council. If the Assembly comes back and cannot elect an Executive, it will be suspended again.
That is the point. That is where the wrangling would come in and the Bill would stay in place. In a way, that makes sense of the earlier discussion we had on why the power lay with the Taoiseach; he needs that power if a scenario such as that outlined by Senator Brian Hayes came about.
What the Minister of State said is logical. He said that if the Assembly is elected, whatever its configuration, and cannot appoint an Executive, it will be suspended. We do not have any power in respect of the suspension of the Assembly. In the Agreement, it is a matter for the British Government. There is not tacit acceptance of that in the letter in the Schedule from His Excellency to the Minister. This has been a point of contention in the past. One will recall that the Irish Government has taken a separate view to the British Government in relation to the suspension mode but let us be clear about this in law. The matter of suspension is within the jurisdiction of the British Government and not within the jurisdiction of this Parliament or our Executive. I make the point not to be difficult but to stress again that we have no power in respect of suspension which has been a hugely contentious matter between our Governments on the two occasions it has been suspended.
I wish to add clarification to what Senator Brian Hayes said. There is a legal grey area, to put it at its mildest, in our interpretation of to what degree exercise of the power of suspension is compatible with the operation of an international agreement. We have decided, while entirely reserving our legal position on that, to be reasonably pragmatic in practice in the interests of the Agreement and its survival.
I know the Minister of State is going to Belfast but I thank him for coming to the House for the despatch we gave to the Bill. Of course, there are questions – it so interesting and the issue is so lively. Given what we know of the issue, we wished to give full expression to any concerns we had. In general, we want a speedy expiration of the said Bill.
Legislation has never gone through the House which I wished would expire quickly – it is quite peculiar. I reiterate – I must be alone in this – that I regard the Bill as quite profound in terms of how it defines relationships between ourselves and the United Kingdom. It is a lot more than a technical Bill. As I said on Second Stage, the Bill has quite profound implications which I support.
I thank Members for their contributions. They delved, as the Seanad always does, into possible areas at which we will have to look in the future. The main focus of the discussion was that we need to get on with the talks today. I thank Members for their support for what we will do today. The coming weeks and months give us an opportunity to ensure the peace process continues. Many individuals have put much work into this process. At the last meeting a number of people referred to what is happening in places like the Middle East where the absence of dialogue has led to a horrific situation. Somebody suggested that if people only realised that if they started to talk, hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved. We realise the importance of the work we are doing.
I thank Members for their contributions and will keep in close contact with them.
Question put and agreed to.