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Saturday, 1 February, 2003, 10:54 GMT
NI may benefit from reformed Lords
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport

On Tuesday, MPs get a chance to vote on whether Westminster's second chamber should be appointed or elected.

The pomp and circumstance of the House of Lords might seem a world away from the gritty realities of politics in Northern Ireland, but the debate over reforming the Lords could have implications for the balance of representation between nationalists and unionists at Westminster.

The reason, of course, is that most nationalists are reluctant to accept a title as a British Lord.

It smacks too much of patronage.

Even thinking about taking an OBE has proved a risky business in the past for SDLP councillors.

Lord Fitt, founder member of the nationalist SDLP
Lord Fitt: Only nationalist peer from Northern Ireland

When the party's founding member Gerry Fitt accepted his peerage graffiti deriding him appeared on the walls of west Belfast within 24 hours.

For that reason, Lord Fitt remains the nearest to a nationalist the House of Lords has got - and that's not very close given the rift between him and his former party.

The majority of the Northern Ireland peers are Ulster Unionists, with a smattering of independents, Liberal Democrats and Labour. The DUP, much to their annoyance, don't have any Lords.

Given the overwhelming government majority in the Commons, the Lords is sometimes referred to as the real opposition at Westminster.

So, from time to time its deliberations are relevant to the peace process.

This week, for instance, the Conservatives hailed an amendment introduced during the Third Reading of the Police Bill in the Lords as an important government concession.

Back burner

Moreover, the strong Unionist and Conservative sentiment in the Lords has frightened ministers off introducing measures which they fear might be shot down.

The prime example is legislation regarding 'on the run paramilitaries'.

The government conceded this in principle at Weston Park.

But it has put it on the back burner, in part because of the fervent opposition it would be likely to face in the House of Lords.

Baroness May Blood
Baroness Blood: Favours an elected second chamber to bring the Lords closer to the people

Some local peers - like the Shankill community activist Baroness Blood - favour an elected second chamber in order to bring the Lords closer to the people.

Others - like the Ulster Unionist Lord Laird - argue that creating another elected chamber would cause friction with the Commons and could dry up the pool of expertise now available in the Lords.

Both bemoan the fact that the much derided intake of 'people's peers' wasn't used to recruit another Northern Ireland Catholic to the Upper House.

Although Tony Blair has come down in favour of an appointed second chamber, some local MPs believe the most likely option is a hybrid solution.

That would include a mixture of appointed and elected members.

Whatever the outcome, remodelling the second chamber could provide a chance for the lack of representation of sections of Northern Ireland society to be addressed.

Sinn Fein may still choose to be abstentionist, as they do in the Commons.

But if its members are called, say, senators, rather than lords, the whiff of patronage might be removed.

That should make it easier to persuade the broader nationalist community to get involved.

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis





See also:

22 Jan 03 | N Ireland
17 Jan 03 | N Ireland
10 Jan 03 | N Ireland
07 Dec 02 | N Ireland
01 Dec 02 | N Ireland
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