Comments on the Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission Etc.) Bill, 2003.

Since receiving a copy of this Bill together with explanatory notes I have been trying to fathom out how it will work, or translate into understandable language, from the obscurantist type of phraseology in which bills are written.
The foreword says its purpose is –

To make provision in connection with the establishment under international law of an independent commission with monitoring functions in relation to Northern Ireland; to make provision about exclusion from Ministerial office in Northern ireland; to make provision about reduction of remuneration of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly; to make provision about reduction of financial assistance under the Financial Assistance for Political Parties Act (Northern Ireland) 2000; to make provision about censure resolutions of the Northern Ireland Assembly; and for connected purposes.

The Bill, it is claimed, reflects an Agreement on Monitoring and Compliance, between the British and irish Governments, published on May 1st 2003, following discussions between them and political leaders at Hillsborough in the spring of that year, which was then placed in the libraries of both Houses of the British Parliament – aimed, it was said, to lay the basis for a return to devolved government as per the Belfast Agreement (1998).
As that agreement (10 April 1998) about which I have previously written, was not only between Northern Ireland’s political parties (with the exception of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Robert McCartney’s UK Party) but was also between two sovereign governments, it was registered as an international treaty. It was put into effect and law via the Northern Ireland Act 1998, following referendums approving its content held separately in both jurisdictions.
There is provision in the agreement for a review, but when difficulties arose – and the Assembly was twice suspended by the British Government: twelve months now since the second suspension – the Prime Minister Tony Blair, in answer to questions in the House of Commons, said that there would be no review.
When one examines the detail of the Monitoring Bill and the purposes outlined in its foreword, although confined to the issues surrounding the implementation and operation of the Belfast Agreement, it amounts in fact to additions and amendments to the Act of 1998 and to its alteration as an international treaty. In my view, therefore, it must in fact be an actual review. Indeed, it is an agreement between the two governments only, for although discussions did take place with Northern Ireland political parties, no consensus was achieved and no agreement with them was reached.
I understand that a statement has been issued by the Ulster Unionist Party saying that they have not accepted the Joint Statement by the British and Irish Governments (I presume the one on September 4th 2003) on the Draft Treaty made publicly available by both parliaments but not yet formally available at the time of writing (19 October). I assume that in the British case it will await the Royal Assent and the Monitoring Bill’s passing into law before it is notified.
In view of the fact that the main aim of the Bill is to effect the exclusion from government of largely Republican members of the Assembly or their party if they, individually or collectively are considered to have violated the pledge to use only democratic political means to advance their policies it seems strange that the Ulster Unionist Party made the statement I mentioned previously.
It may be that the Irish Government being a party to the proposals might be resented still by the unionist electorate. However, the Belfast Agreement having provided for cross border cooperation, approved by the 1998 referendums and ratified as an international treaty, there is no other choice.
The leaders of Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party have recently been meeting on a frequent and regular basis, and they have also been meeting with the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach trying to reach an accommodation which would make it possible to hold Assembly elections. Straws have been blowing in the wind and hopes circulating that some progress has been made.
When questioned in the House of Commons on Wednesday 15th October about when a date might be set for the Northern Ireland Assembly election, Prime Minister Blair said that the matter was under consideration and that he hoped to be able to make a statement soon.
The Ulster Unionist Party’s annual conference took place on Saturday 18th October and some statements from its leader, David Trimble, suggest that he would support an early date for the election without a specific statement that the IRA was being disbanded provided that Sinn Féin could get an assurance from them that paramilitary activities would cease and indeed be ended soon.
He has had criticism at the conference from his dissidents, led by Jeffrey Donaldson, and, if he has managed to face them down and is prepared to argue his case before the electorate at the hustings, there might soon be a fixed date before Christmas.
It may be that having read the Monitoring Bill, which lays down voting changes in the Assembly and the conditions providing for the removal of ministers and Assembly members who breach the pledge to refrain from other than democratic procedures and activities, he has more than just a promise from a Prime Minister in the legislation but a guarantee of adherence to that pledge from the signatories to the Belfast Agreement.
Trimble can see that the Bill gives power to the Secretary of State via a Monitoring Commission of four independent members. There will be two appointed by the British Government (one of these from Northern Ireland), one appointed by the Irish Government and one from the USA who will be jointly appointed by the British and Irish governments.
This independent commission will deal with the complaints, will inform the Secretary of State of their findings and will make recommendations to be placed before the Assembly. The voting procedures and the support required for implementation are laid down in the Bill.
It is very difficult to convey every detail of this Bill and the subsequent Act for it has to be read in conjunction with the Belfast Agreement itself as laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Explanatory Notes and any governmental statements during the legislative process.
Any report from the commission either collectively or from individual members of that body has to be sent to both houses of the British Parliament. I see no reference to the Irish Parliament but I would expect that they would be given a copy.
While the Assembly itself will be involved in approving or otherwise the implementation of any recommendation (the voting procedures are part of the Bill) because the Commission reports to the Secretary of State the resolutions will be put before them by whoever holds that office.
This Monitoring Bill is a catch all sort of document concerning the activities of Assembly ministers, members and parties but it is not a restriction on nor a part of the Peace Process though if it is sufficient to effect a return to devolved government it will assist it by making politics work.

Short Postscript

A historical first has been achieved. Secretary of State Paul Murphy has addressed the annual conference of the Ulster Unionist Party where he stressed the importance and the necessity of the Belfast Agreement for the future of Northern ireland.
If the impossible (or thought to be so) were achieved and Gerry Adams and David Trimble have come to terms, then if, depending on the results of an election, they could serve together in an administration within the terms of the Belfast Agreement and the Monitoring Bill as presented, we could see an end to the Long War (dissidents excepted) and decommissioning achieved.
Fingers and other limbs crossed…!

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 19 October, 2003.

Samuel H. Boyd