I beg to move, That—
Ever since the onset of direct rule in 1972, successive Governments have been aware of the democratic deficit in the arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland. That is why we place so much importance on the multi-party talks that have been going on in Belfast over the past nine months. The future well-being of Northern Ireland requires that, as part of a comprehensive settlement based upon consent, progress is made in restoring democratic accountability in the Province.
We do not, however, have to wait for what we all hope will be a successful outcome to the talks process before anything can be done. The present arrangements in Parliament for scrutinising the affairs of Northern Ireland can be improved at once. Over the years, a number of such improvements have already been made. For example, we established the Northern Ireland Committee in 1975. Since 1976, we have published Northern Ireland Orders in Council in draft. The purpose has been to give right hon. and hon. Members, as well as other interested persons and bodies, the opportunity to comment on the legislation and to propose changes before the House is asked to approve the order.
Then, in 1994, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was established so as to secure proper scrutiny by the House of the departments for which I am responsible. I am sure that all agree that it has since proved itself well, producing a number of valuable reports. It was at that time that the Northern Ireland Committee was renamed the Northern Ireland Grand Committee.
It was with the same motivation that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last October his intention to introduce the changes detailed in the motion. As he explained in that speech, Scottish and Welsh Members had recently been given greater ability to question Ministers, and my right hon. Friend wished to extend that same facility to Northern Ireland.
In October 1996, I wrote to the leaders of the Northern Ireland parties represented at Westminster, and to the Opposition parties, explaining how this might be done, and seeking views. There is still some diversity of view on our proposals, but the Government believe that we should now move forward with changes that will bring an immediate benefit to the governance of Northern Ireland.
I shall outline the principal changes briefly. Northern Ireland Office Ministers would in future make the public expenditure survey statement for Northern Ireland to the Grand Committee, in place of the current briefing arrangements. Northern Ireland Office Ministers, including any Minister in another place, would make statements and take questions in Committee on a regular basis. Cabinet and other departmental Ministers whose responsibilities extend to Northern Ireland would be able to make statements before the Grand Committee, and be questioned on them. It is intended, subject to a suitable venue or venues being identified, that some Grand Committee meetings should be held in a Northern Ireland venue.
Greater use would be made of the existing power to hold debates, both general in character and to consider specific proposals for draft Orders in Council. Those meetings which are held under the existing Standing Orders always prove valuable. It should also be possible on a Government motion for draft Northern Ireland orders and Orders in Council to be referred to the Grand Committee, instead of to a Standing Committee, or be taken on the Floor of the House, as at present.
The Northern Ireland Grand Committee would be able, on a Government motion, to consider certain Bills relating exclusively to Northern Ireland. In effect, this would be in the form of Second and Third Reading debates. There would finally also be provision for half-hour Adjournment debates at the end of Grand Committee meetings. Those changes would bring the Northern Ireland Grand Committee broadly into line with the Scottish and Welsh equivalents.
I shall not be recommending any changes to the membership of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, which will remain as now—that is, all Northern Ireland Members, plus up to 25 others. Nor am I proposing a set number of meetings. I shall, however, be recommending that the quorum be reduced from 14 to 10. That last point is to bring the Northern Ireland Grand Committee more into line with the Welsh and Scottish equivalents.
The changes that we are proposing are entirely without prejudice to any developments that there may be in the multi-party negotiations or to the future relationship between any new political institutions in Northern Ireland and the Westminster Parliament. Of course, in the event of future devolution of functions to local representatives, there will be a corresponding diminution in the role of the Grand Committee.
The changes will self-evidently enable the Grand Committee to examine Government policy in greater detail. That is a good thing. They will valuably allow members of the Committee to bring to bear their own detailed and local knowledge of Northern Ireland matters. The measures will significantly improve the accountability of government under the circumstances of direct rule. They will provide new opportunities for right hon. and hon. Members to undertake detailed scrutiny of the Government's policy and performance in Northern Ireland. I commend the motion to the House.
The Northern Ireland Grand Committee, as it is now known, was set up in 1975 following the establishment of direct rule and the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The Secretary of State has outlined the Committee's history since then.
Direct rule is without doubt an imperfect and unsatisfactory situation. Legislation for Northern Ireland is largely enacted by Orders in Council, which cannot be amended and are not subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. There was a 50 per cent. increase in the number of such orders between 1994 and 1996. The system of direct rule is the status quo. On basic principles of democracy and accountability, that is not acceptable.
As I have said many times, change is necessary. There are two basic routes for change—one is by direct Government action and the other is by local consent and agreement. Achieving local consent and agreement is the task of the two Governments and the parties in the talks. Those talks are designed to address relationships within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and between Britain and Ireland.
Progress since last June has been slow and immensely frustrating at times, but we should not underestimate what has been achieved by agreement on independent international chairs, on rules of procedure and on the agenda for the talks. There is something to build on when talks resume.
In our view, a way forward on decommissioning has to be found on the basis of the Mitchell report. We hope that all parties will use the time between now and 3 June to develop their thinking on this and offer ways forward out of the current blockage. If we are elected, we shall immediately invite the parties at the talks to discuss the matter with us on a bilateral basis. We want to see a fully inclusive talks process, but if the talks are to succeed, everyone must be fully committed to the democratic process and to peaceful methods. Sinn Fein and the IRA can demonstrate that commitment by calling an unequivocal ceasefire and showing by their actions that they mean it. They should do so immediately. If they do not, we shall go forward in the talks without them.
In government, we shall put all our energies into the process that I have outlined—both within and outside the talks—in working to build confidence between the communities to create fertile ground for compromise and agreement. Trust and confidence between the parties and the communities that they represent must grow to enable real progress to be made.
Direct government action to improve accountability and transparency in Northern Ireland should be sets within the context of greater confidence building. We want to find the best ways to help include local people in debating issues, in holding government to account and in taking part in the decision-making process. The lack of local input into decision making in Northern Ireland is a problem for both communities.
We understand the desire for changes to the Grand Committee. We welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that they are proposed without prejudice to developments in the talks. We would also welcome his assurance that, while he is proposing to enable the Grand Committee to debate legislation on a Government order, the decision making—any votes on that legislation—will continue to be taken on the Floor of the House. Extending the use of the Grand Committee would create more opportunities for debate, as has the establishment of the Northern Ireland forum.
If Labour is successful in the forthcoming election, we shall immediately begin to examine how those mechanisms work alongside others in improving openness and democratic accountability across the board in Northern Ireland. Although we shall ensure that this legislation passes through the House today, we reserve the right to look again at the proposals after the election in that broader context. We understand why there is support for the measure, but the proposals have been drawn up in haste in the dying days of a Parliament, and, given the importance of this issue to both communities in Northern Ireland, it would be irresponsible of us not to give a commitment to look at them afresh when a new Parliament begins.
I agree with the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), the Opposition spokesperson, that direct rule is totally unsatisfactory. Those of us who have been in the House for many years will agree that it is unsatisfactory to Northern Ireland Members that we are able to table amendments to proposed legislation for England, Scotland and Wales but are unable to table amendments to measures that relate to our constituencies in Northern Ireland. It is unsatisfactory that we have only an hour and a half—tonight's timetable is not unique to Northern Ireland Members—to deal with the most complicated and heavy orders.
A few months ago, a licensing order came before the House. Indeed, two orders were brought before the House on the same night. Hundreds of pages of detailed legislation were pushed through in an hour and a half. That is a totally unsatisfactory way to conduct business. Therefore, the ability of a Grand Committee to consider detailed and weighty matters and for us to have the opportunity at least to make our arguments to the Government about legislation must be welcomed.
Anything that makes a Government more accountable for their actions is an improvement, but I would not like to leave the House with the impression that a Grand Committee will be a panacea in terms of the restoration of democracy in Northern Ireland. It is right that Northern Ireland should have such a Committee, not just because Scotland and Wales do, but because we have a better case than Scotland and Wales because of the deficit in local government democracy in Northern Ireland and the few powers that exist for local authorities there.
The hon. Lady referred to the Labour party's manifesto position on Northern Ireland. That requires a response. According to Labour, the issue of decommissioning is holding back the talks process. In a sense that is true, but there is something much more fundamentally flawed about the present talks process, because it is designed to bring into the democratic process those who have not yet accepted the principles of the democratic process; those who would bypass the principles of democracy, even those enshrined in the international report. The issue of decommissioning is central to that, because it is the desire of some parties—the Social Democratic and Labour party being one—that people should have entrance to the talks process and still hold on to their weapons while they sit around the negotiating table.
My party has made its position clear. We accept the Mitchell principles but we do not accept the Mitchell report. The Labour party says that it does. It should reconsider, because the report is based upon a faulty premise. The Mitchell team felt and believed—no doubt those in it were convinced by the Government and others—that there was a permanent cessation of violence on the part of the Provisional IRA. In the belief that there was a permanent cessation of violence, the Mitchell team made the proposals that are contained in the report.
We all know—some of us knew at the time, but others will understand by now—that it was a phoney cessation of violence, a tactical cessation, a manoeuvre by the Provisional IRA in an attempt to extract concessions. Therefore, it would be very dangerous if any Government attempted to accept principles enshrined in an international body's report which made a judgment based on proven false principles. The Labour party would do well to go back to the drawing board before it simply picks up an international body's report that was based on an incorrect judgment of what the IRA's position was.
I hope that it was not a slip of the tongue by the Labour spokesperson, but I noted that she said that Labour would require an unequivocal ceasefire before the IRA could enter the talks process. I am looking to see whether I get a shake or nod of the head from her, but Hansard will show that that was the terminology that she used. I am delighted at that. That, of course, is different from the present Government's position. The Government's position and the position in the ground rules document is that they require an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994.
There is a clear distinction between those two positions. The Government want an unequivocal restoration of a failed, phoney ceasefire. I am glad that the Government who we may have after 1 May are now saying that we want not an unequivocal restoration of a failed ceasefire but an unequivocal ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire, a complete ceasefire, a universal ceasefire, one that is totally unequivocal. I hope that the Labour party will see the distinction between those two statements. It will, of course, require from the hon. Lady a change in legislation, because the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 refers to command 3232 which enshrines the principle of an unequivocal restoration—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I assumed that he was making a broad introduction to the subject, but we are debating the Grand Committee. I rather think that the hon. Gentleman is speaking to a later order.
I am sure that the message has been left with the Labour party. I trust that we shall see the necessary legislative change for the entry conditions of parties to the talks process.
In relation to the Grand Committee, I am somewhat concerned that the Labour party suggests that the motion will not close the issue, that Labour will revisit it. It almost sounded as though it would be part of some negotiation after the election, and that Labour would then suggest that the proposals would change unless various principles that Labour may lay down were accepted by the parties. I hope that, at the end of the debate, we shall have a clearer statement from the Labour party that it will accept the judgment of the House tonight in relation to the Grand Committee and that it will not seek to change the decision of the House if Labour is elected in May.
I have no argument with the Secretary of State about the various functions that he gives the Grand Committee, save that, in his communication of 27 February to party leaders, he said that, in addition to the initial functions that he considered for the Grand Committee, he was to include the power that it should be possible on a Government motion for a draft Northern Ireland Order or for an Order in Council itself to be referred to the Grand Committee instead of going to a Standing Committee or being taken on the Floor of the House.
I am concerned that that could allow a Government to put all Northern Ireland orders into a Grand Committee and that they would never be considered on the Floor of the House. I hope that the Secretary of State will give us an assurance that that is not the position, but his communication of 27 February certainly makes it clear that consideration in a Grand Committee would be instead of consideration on the Floor of the House. It would not be helpful to Northern Ireland for the business of Northern Ireland to be shunted into a siding. We should have time to raise on the Floor of the House matters of importance to the people of Northern Ireland.
It is sad that members of the Grand Committee for Northern Ireland who represent Northern Ireland will be a minority. That is not the position on the Scottish Grand Committee. If one wanders into that Committee, one will not see a majority of Englishmen and women—the same applies to the Welsh Grand Committee—but the poor Ulster people will be in the minority on the Grand Committee for Northern Ireland. The Government have deliberately designed it so that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland are in a minority on the Grand Committee. That is a mistake, and shows that the Government are not prepared to leave the field open for the views of the people of Northern Ireland to be expressed.
I noticed that, in the debate on the Scottish Grand Committee and the proposals for constitutional change in Scotland, the Labour party's view was that the Committee would be much like a travelling circus, a toothless talking shop and a platform for Ministers, who would use it to launch various proposals up and down the country.
The great difficulty is that it would be hard, even for the Labour party if it were in the same position as the Secretary of State for Scotland, to resist the temptation to use the Grand Committee as a platform. If a Grand Committee is to mean anything, it is to get the views of Back Benchers as well as the Government on various issues. If allocations of time allow it to be hogged by the Secretary of State and his Ministers instead of allowing the views of representatives of the area to be heard, it will not assist us one bit.
I was disappointed that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland did not advocate a Grand Committee for Northern Ireland using the same arguments as were advanced for Scotland. In the document containing proposals on a Scottish Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Scotland said:
The Government stand four-square behind the Union".
I did not hear the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland using such terminology. He went on to say:
What the people of Scotland want is Government close to them, Government listening to them, and above all, Government accountable to them.
The Secretary of State cannot say that, because the Government are totally unaccountable in Northern Ireland. There is no representation in Northern Ireland by the Conservative party, nor will there be any by the Labour party.
The Secretary of State has let down the people of Northern Ireland. He could have said that this proposal was to strengthen the Union, but he chose not to say that. He did not follow the line of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Perhaps the people of Scotland are more loved by the Government than the people of Northern Ireland. Perhaps we are children of a lesser god in the eyes of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He does not use the same arguments in relation to the Province.
I am sure that we all wish the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland well in his new life as he leaves the House and parts from us. He had this opportunity, which is probably the last time that he will deal with Northern Ireland business, to set out clearly his views, and the views of the Government, on maintaining the Union with Northern Ireland, and to say that he saw a Grand Committee as part of that scheme. Unlike the Secretary of State for Scotland, he chose not to do that. I wonder whether the Government do not believe the argument that they advanced for Scotland, or whether they do not want the Union to be maintained in Northern Ireland.
I welcome the legislation. I shall try to stick closely to the terms of the order, because I began to wonder whether some folk had been given the wrong speech, as they were dealing with later orders. I welcome the proposal, because it has taken a long time coming. The process began when Lord Glenamara was responsible for these matters in the House. It is fascinating to discover that it has taken all these years to come to fruition.
I thought that there was perhaps a problem of gestation and that we were trying to outdo the elephant, which is the land mammal with the longest gestation period. I was advised today that the blue whale is the water mammal with the longest gestation period, so perhaps we have been at sea for a long time about Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State spoke about diversity when he referred to the Grand Committee. In a sense, British politics is all about diversity, as we come together to argue, debate, try to understand and reach conclusions. I welcome the fact that we have travelled along this road, as the Secretary of State outlined in his introduction. It has taken many years to reach this stage.
The Secretary of State apologised for the absence of the Leader of the House. I want to express my thanks to the Leader of the House, who, in the past few months, has been assiduous in seeking to make progress towards this hour. He has been considerate and helpful. We now discover that others have begun to recognise that the Grand Committee has a role to play in making up part of the democratic deficit.
I say bluntly that the Grand Committee should not be viewed merely as a means of making up the democratic deficit or plugging a gap until an understanding is reached whereby the people of Northern Ireland will have a greater say in matters affecting their everyday lives. In my judgment, there will always be a time when a Grand Committee for Northern Ireland is needed to deal with issues that will never be devolved to Northern Ireland.
I am convinced that a large number of the problems that arose in 1968 would never have arisen if more people in the House had been aware of the overall situation there. We should bear it in mind that the Foreign Office represents Northern Ireland abroad, as it does the rest of the United Kingdom. Defence issues will not be devolved to a Northern Ireland Assembly. There may be moments when it will be important for the Grand Committee to bring Ministers of the Crown before it to deal with issues relevant to Northern Ireland. So it will not be merely a stop-gap, and I welcome that.
Some people have opposed the establishment of a Grand Committee for Northern Ireland. Some have argued for parity of esteem in Northern Ireland. We welcome the fact that we have moved in the positive direction of parity of esteem between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is another reason why I believe that such action is necessary. Those who remember the debates on broadcasting that have taken place here will remember my raising the problem of regional broadcasting. We were given to understand then that the regions would report to the regions what Members representing those regions were doing in the House, but that has not been done to any great effect in Northern Ireland. Indeed, many Northern Ireland newspapers concentrate on local disagreements and squabbles, rather than reporting the positive contributions that have been made here for the well-being of the people of Northern Ireland. The fact that a Grand Committee can meet in Northern Ireland from time to time is a positive development.
I was interested to note that the main daily paper in Northern Ireland prefaced a report about the tabling of the legislation with a headline referring to "plans for a mini-Westminster to meet in Northern Ireland". I know that others have debated other issues, but, given that tonight we are debating the main theme of the motion, I welcome it and trust that it will be implemented in the near future.
When the Secretary of State introduced the motion, he invited us to approve it on a number of grounds. Let me paraphrase what he said. He wished to address the democratic deficit, and he wished to approve the participation of Northern Ireland politicians and representatives in the decision-making process. Those are laudable sentiments, and it is hard to argue against them—except when they are placed against the practicality of what has happened, and is happening.
It is difficult to conceive of a conversion to the body that we discussing. This is the last gasp of a Government who have exercised a system for more than 18 years, and who have made this move only in the dying moments of what is probably their last Parliament. So much for the concern that they have expressed.
It was suggested that we should approve the motion because it would involve Northern Ireland politicians much more than heretofore. That is true; but Northern Ireland politicians have been involved in many serious policy matters, and have addressed those matters, not just individually but jointly—and, on almost every occasion, their unanimity has been rejected by the Government. So much for addressing the democratic deficit. We have seen that over the years, and particularly in recent years, when our health and social services system has been attacked by Tory party policy, and when our education system has been attacked. As often as not, when parties throughout the community asked for change, they were ignored. Unfortunately, therefore, I do not accept the Government's deathbed conversion to the principle of addressing the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland.
Let me digress for a moment. It has been said that the democratic deficit can be observed in local government. Why? Because of the abuse of powers, which, to some extent, is still going on. It is not as bad as it was, because there is much cross-party, cross-community co-operation, based primarily on the principles established by the SDLP—which we called power sharing in 1972, all of 25 years ago. Although that theory of partnership was rejected out of hand as being impractical, it has permeated much of local government—although there are notable exceptions.
So we have had 18 years during which the democratic deficit could be addressed. Let me speak bluntly. The announcement at the Tory party conference on 11 October that Northern Ireland was to be given a Grand Committee was seen by the nationalist community as just another sop or pay-off to the Ulster Unionists for helping the Government in the House. It was as simple as that, and that perception remains today. It may be argued that the perception is wrong, but it is there.
The point has been emphasised time and again in connection with other matters over the past 12 months, in particular. That was the perception back in 1994, when the Select Committee was established. Early in 1996, elections were held under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996: they were not really necessary for the negotiations, but were held at the behest of, primarily, the Unionist parties. On each of those occasions, the nationalist community saw its parity being destroyed or, at the minimum, held in much less esteem than that of the Unionists.
The same theme has continued throughout the present Administration, for many years. One of the main reasons why my party objects to the Grand Committee—in addition to what I have already said—is that it was always acknowledged that the real solution to the problem of Northern Ireland was representatives of the two communities getting together and arriving at a means whereby Northern Ireland could be best administered. Every time a little piece is taken out of that jigsaw, the need to reach such a compromise is weakened.
No doubt the same will be reflected in the establishment of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, when it is established. We see the Grand Committee as another degradation of the parity of esteem—the esteem in which nationalists were supposed to be held by both Governments.
I should also like to know whether consultations took place on the international scene under national agreements, on whether the Grand Committee should be part of the administration of Northern Ireland. We see this as anti-nationalist legislation.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that this sovereign Parliament, dealing with one of its regions in setting up a Committee with parity with those of Wales and Scotland, should discuss the matter with the southern Ireland Government, and that that Government's OK should be given before this Government can set up the Committee?
I am not saying that that Government must be consulted to the point at which their agreement must be obtained. I am saying that, if there is to be agreement between the two Governments, the Dublin Government must be consulted. I do not know whether they were consulted and what their opinion was; perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us whether consultations took place under the international agreement, and what the consequences were if they did.
As I have said, we see this as a degradation of the vitality that must be preserved in the inter-party talks. If everything is already agreed to, there is no push, no initiative and no drive to reach an arrangement with opposite political numbers. That is what we have been trying to do in the 25 years since the establishment of direct rule. It is for those reasons that my party has been against the formation of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and has consistently stated that that is our position. It remains so tonight.
Before I sit down, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say to the Secretary of State that, despite what I have said in terms of his propositions, personally, we wish him all the best on his retirement. I have no doubt that his very many talents will be put to good use in some other place. Thank you.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) in the general thrust of his argument, but I too would like to join him in paying my compliment to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for his efforts in Northern Ireland. Certainly he started off with very high hopes and, with the Prime Minister, achieved a great deal in the Downing street declaration and in the framework document. It is sad that those matters have not come to earlier and quicker fruition. We can perhaps argue about the reasons for that on other occasions, but it is right that the Secretary of State's efforts should be acknowledged. He must to a certain degree feel disappointment that so many of those high hopes have not been realised, as he would have hoped.
One of the reasons for that is the matter that we are debating today. We have seen the last cheque being cashed for keeping a discredited and faltering Government in power in the past two or three years. The votes of the Ulster Unionists have been purchased. We have seen that happening, first, with the Maastricht debate and, immediately after that, with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. We saw it in the altering of the legislation so that we had fewer orders for Northern Ireland and more British legislation covering the rest of Northern Ireland—that was another demand.
We saw it in the establishment and acceptance of the Unionist agenda. The price that had to be paid for getting Unionists into talks was the mini-general election in Northern Ireland for the establishment of the forum for the establishment of the talks. That again was their price, and it kept a faltering, staggering Government in operation. However, it achieved on the other side a continuous feeling that its interests were being downgraded. There was no parity of esteem on the Select Committee, on the legislation and on the negotiations for entry into talks. All those things were done against the express wishes of the minority party in Northern Ireland. If that is true, we have to be very suspicious about what has been happening today.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether he would want to include in his condemnation of the present Government, condemnation of the Wilson Government and particularly the then Leader of the House, Ted Short, who took the initial steps in forming the Northern Ireland Committee. That progressed to the later stage of the Grand Committee and to the final third stage tonight under another Government. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman would want to record, because I know that he is basically a fair man, his condemnation of the Callaghan Government, which he supported, in granting Northern Ireland free and equal representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. I think fair dos for all three Governments.
I am quite happy to say that I did disagree with my then right hon. Friend, Lord Callaghan. The right hon. Gentleman will remember, because he was in the House at the time, that I voted against the extra seats—the price that was demanded of the then Prime Minister Callaghan to keep him in power. I remember that I warned him. I said that, as long as he paid the Danegeld, he would never get rid of the Dane. When hon. Members did not get their gas pipeline, they brought Callaghan down. I remember that that was the majority of their votes, so this is nothing fresh to me. I know where the Ulster Unionists stand and where they are coming from.
Sit down for a moment.
I thought that it was a little disingenuous of the Secretary of State to say that this matter in no way prejudices the three-stranded talks and that those talks will continue onwards. That is completely incorrect. This is a complete alteration of the playing field in relation to strand 1 of the talks, which deal with internal relations in Northern Ireland. It creates a situation where there are no pressures in any way on the majority parties in Northern Ireland to come to any agreement. They were able to spin out the Brooke talks. They spun out the Maple talks and the Mitchell talks. They did it very cleverly from their point of view; I understand that.
As the right hon. Gentleman says, they were expert, and no one was more expert than him, whether it was the size of the table, where we met, what the agenda would be, or whether we would sit down under the leader of a foreign Government. It went on and on. The talks were spun out, as they have continued to be. When the majority parties got into difficulties, bingo, out of the air, they produced decommissioning, so we understand their tactics and the way in which they have dealt with it. That is why this is a bad idea. The pressures for getting a settlement in Northern Ireland are reduced that much by this proposal.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way because I know that he does believe in the facts and the element of truth, which is on the record, and that he would not want to mislead the House. Does he agree that, when on their last legs, the Callaghan Government were supported by two Ulster Unionists, who fondly believed that they might have got a gas pipeline, but it was his colleague, the former hon. Member for Belfast, West, now Lord Fitt, and the absentee who came to abstain in person, Frank Maguire, the then hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who brought down the Government?
If the majority of the Ulster Unionists, who had been so obsequious to Callaghan while they were getting their extra seats and their other stuff, had voted with the Labour Government, they would not have been brought down.
We also knew how my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had treated Mr. Maguire and Mr. Fitt. We also knew what was going on in Castlereagh and in the Bennett inquiry. We knew how we had used those people, with the Liberals, to maintain the Government. Then, when the Liberals left us, they were discarded like an old pair of gloves in favour of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) and his friends.
We know exactly what went on then. That is why we are saying that the present development represents a weakening of the position.
The hon. Gentleman is becoming something of a revisionist. May I take him back to his earlier comments, when he said, gesticulating to give greater effect to his words, that the Unionists grasped the issue of decommissioning out of the air. Would he like to reflect on that comment, given the fact that the Unionists were required not simply by necessity but by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Dublin Prime Minister, who said that the issue had to be addressed at the start of the process? Under the instructions of his friend the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, as well as those of our own Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Unionists were required to do that.
Oh no, it was not. That was not quite the case.
I shall finish on the following point. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), who will soon be the Secretary of State, was correct to say that all matters involving forums, Grand Committees and so on will have to be considered again. It is absolutely wrong that a great constitutional principle such as we are now establishing should be dealt with on the penultimate day of a Parliament, without proper consultation or examination, and without considering all the ramifications of what is being done.
The Government are paying their debt. I understand that—but one thing is more important. In a few weeks' time the British people will pay their debt to the Government, and we will not see much more of that Government.
We have listened to a most interesting speech by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). In one amazing part of it he said that we were subjecting the Northern Ireland people to British legislation. I happen to be part of the United Kingdom, and this is the United Kingdom Parliament.
We do not want Irish republican legislation. We do not want anyone interfering in Northern Ireland's internal affairs. We want to be ruled by this Parliament, which is constituted to rule us. It is utter nonsense for any Member of the House to say that it is a sort of disgrace that British legislation techniques are being brought in to rule us. That sort of speech, instead of forwarding good relations, puts them back and back.
All citizens of this kingdom have a right to protest against laws they do not agree with. If they are wrong, the law can take its course. It has taken its course with me on three occasions, when they locked me behind bars, to the hon. Gentleman's delight— [Interruption.] Yes, to his delight and celebration. I remember some of the things he said at the time.
Let me make it clear to the House that Ulster— Northern Ireland—is part of the United Kingdom, and that this is the United Kingdom Parliament. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North made it clear—or perhaps it was his friend across the Gangway, the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady)—that the southern Government should be consulted about what we are doing tonight.
What are we doing tonight, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I do not want to make you restless, so I emphasise the fact that we are dealing with House business—the business of Committees in the British House of Commons for this United Kingdom of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is the concern of no one but the House.
The House alone can appoint its Committees, and it is outrageous for Members of that House to suggest that a foreign Government should now be able to put their hand into the Chamber and dictate to it whether we should appoint a Committee to look after the business of citizens of the United Kingdom. Would we have liked France telling us that we could not have a Grand Committee for Scotland, because France and Scotland were always very close? Are we saying that Spain should look after Welsh people and should decide whether we have a Welsh Grand Committee? This matter goes to the very heart of our situation. People say that we antagonise one part of the population of Northern Ireland if this Parliament does its duty, but this Parliament has not been doing its duty with regard to Northern Ireland for years. Would we be talking about a democratic deficit if we had been doing our duty?
The people of Northern Ireland have no real authority in local government, planning, education, health and social services and the bread and butter issues. The Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland told us that he was going to abolish the five education boards, but when we all went to see the Prime Minister, he put up his hands and surrendered. He said the Government would not do away with the boards—that is on the record. I said that it was a good thing for a Prime Minister to surrender to a Unionist, while the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) said that it was a bad thing. Is that the way Northern Ireland is to be ruled?
Is it good government when the Minister responsible for education goes against everybody? He thought that because the Social Democratic and Labour party was not in the forum, it would not associate with us on this issue, but there are schools in the areas represented by the SDLP, and it knew what was happening. There was unity. That controversy did damage, and we do not know to this day how much was spent in all the Minister's investigations into trying to introduce a three-board rule, which has something to do with Drumcree, and nothing to do with anything else.
We have not had good government in Northern Ireland because this House has not been acting in the way it should. We had the same controversy about the number of seats in this House when we had 12 seats. I heard the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) say that we had a fair proportion, but we have nothing of the kind. In proportion to the population and size of Scotland, according to the Library we should have 22 seats, but we received only 17. We were undersold by the British Government, who would not give us our entitlement. Some say that the Government are now paying us off, but it is a poor pay-off.
Elements of the Committee in Northern Ireland will be entirely different from the Scottish Grand Committee. In a document we presented many years ago to the Prime Minister—some Ulster Unionists rapped us for it—we said that we should have a proper Grand Committee and Select Committee to look after the business of Northern Ireland. I do not know whether the hon. Member for South Down is making it up, but in the appointment of the members of a Select Committee, how did the nationalist population not receive parity of esteem? It received the same number of members, in proportion, as other parties. It was entitled to only one member of that Committee, and it got one member. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Hansard reports, he will see that he referred to parity of esteem on the Select Committee.
Let me make clear that anything this House does to give us the government to which we are entitled as part of the United Kingdom will be opposed by nationalists— that can be expected. Everything is considered as some sort of a pay-off. It is a pity that this Parliament did not listen to representatives from Northern Ireland years ago, and set up a Grand Committee and a Select Committee. At least then we would not have had that faux pas over the five boards; at least we would have been getting somewhere with the good government of Northern Ireland.
The Labour party spokesman briefly mentioned decommissioning. The talks could have covered decommissioning, but by a vote of this Government, the southern Government and the Social Democratic and Labour party, we were not allowed to discuss that matter or vote on it, so do not blame the Unionists for that.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North who used to sit on the Labour Front Bench but has gone backwards and higher, tells us that we stopped the Brooke talks and the second part of the talks. We did nothing of the kind. The Irish Government brought them to a halt by calling an Anglo-Irish meeting, having agreed that there would be no Anglo-Irish conferences during the talks. On two occasions, the Irish Government called such meetings—and now we are blamed in this House for stopping the talks. Why does that man not go to Dublin and blame those who did stop the talks? We will be blamed for everything. The framework document is on the table and is the policy of the two Governments. Their agenda is a united Ireland—at the talks. Are we expected, as Unionists, to go there, bow the knee to them, and say yes?
I do not know what the policy of the next Government will be. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) said that she is looking forward to an unequivocal ceasefire. So am I, because we did not have one. We had a farce. Look at the people who were crucified, who were beaten up, who were shot and who were destroyed, and it is all coming back again. A ceasefire ought to be a ceasefire.
We do not want the restoration of the unequivocal ceasefire of the past, for it was not unequivocal. We want an unequivocal ceasefire, so that all the belligerence stops and does so in such a way that we know that it has stopped. How does it stop in such a way? When the weapons that can break the peace are surrendered.
One can have Sinn Fein at the table, and I believe that it will declare a ceasefire—it is coming and I think that the Labour Government will accept it. Perhaps before the end of May, they will say that Sinn Fein will be at the table.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is going wide of the subject of the Grand Committee. It would help our procedures if he could get back to the matter in question.
In closing my remarks on that subject, I simply state that my party will not be at any such talks. Let me make it clear to the House and to the world; we will not be sitting down with those who have guns in their hands and are committing crime in the Province.
We are going to have this Grand Committee, and I wonder why it is not in the pattern of the other two Grand Committees for other parts of the United Kingdom. I want to know why a majority of Ulster Members cannot be on the Committee. Will the Whips whip their parties to reject what the Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionists, the SDLP and other representatives of Northern Ireland agree on together? The Whips will always have the power to destroy any agreement that the Committee arrives at.
The Grand Committee should be representative. I do not look forward to the Secretary of State presiding in Belfast and making it a press conference, as has happened in Scotland, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said—even if it is the hon. Member for Redcar. It is interesting that the proposed 20-minute rule—20 minutes for the Government and 20 minutes for the other leaders—has been forgotten, so that Government members of the Committee can go on and on and then have their press conference afterwards. [Interruption.]
This is the last night of debate on Northern Ireland, and at five minutes to 9 the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) wants to shut us up. Is that what he will do when he comes to Northern Ireland? The Northern Ireland people will teach him a lesson. We need to have our say; we sat here all day, and the business did not proceed according to the Order Paper; other hon. Members went on and on, yet when I speak for 10 minutes I am effectively asked to sit down. I will not be put down.
All I want to say at the end of this debate—we have two others coming—is that it is a pity that the House did not frame the Committee as the other Grand Committees were framed; at least then we would have had a chance to make it work better for the people of Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, as it will be a Committee of the House, Northern Ireland Members will do their best to get the best out of it for the people we represent.
My deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), offered the Secretary of State good wishes for the life that he was going to. I do not know whether he was proposing a life in time or a life in eternity, but I remember an old Scottish minister who never wished his congregation a happy new year, but always a happy eternity. I wish the present Secretary of State a happy eternity.
The Secretary of State made great play of the word "equivalent" in his opening statement, comparing the Scottish Grand Committee with the proposed rules for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. His equivalence did not stretch to the Tory party conference last year, when the Secretary of State for Scotland had the St. Andrew's flag on the stage and joined hands with the Secretary of State for Wales with the Welsh flag, and a glaring absentee was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so I can see where the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) is coming from when he challenges the Secretary of State's Unionism.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made the point, rightly I think, that many people, if not the majority, will regard the Northern Ireland Grand Committee as a good debating forum for people debating issues in Northern Ireland, because we all know that Northern Ireland affairs are not given enough time on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) mentioned the equivalent Scottish Grand Committee. He was absolutely right about how that Committee has been abused. The Secretary of State for Scotland said at the time of that Committee's inception that there would be plenty of time for Back Benchers to have their say, but we have ended up with a situation in which the Secretary of State and other Ministers at the Scottish Office hog the time. We came to an agreement that there would be 20 minutes for the Front Benches, but at the most recent meeting the Secretary of State blatantly ignored it, despite my repeated request that he honour the convention.
Northern Ireland Members should be careful: if by some fluke the Conservatives win the general election, they could use and abuse the Northern Ireland Grand Committee as they have abused the Scottish Grand Committee. If we win the election, my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will never be guilty of such an abuse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Scottish Members are not exactly the most docile, either. I assure him that it is difficult to follow the rules of the House. The Scottish Grand Committee has had the rolling travelling show of press conferences and stunt spending announcements by the Scottish Office. Those would have happened anyway, but they were packaged for announcement in the Committee. Northern Ireland Members should not expect too much from the changed Northern Ireland Grand Committee. It will have powers not of decision, but only of dealing with Adjournment votes.
It is disgraceful that, at the tail end of this Parliament, rushed proposals have been put before the House. My hon. Friends the Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) talked about a Unionist pay-off. I would not use such language, but our Unionist colleagues should take account of the fact that, thanks to the cack-handedness of the Government, there is a perception that deals have been made.
I support the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), who said that Labour will reconsider the proposals. The hon. Member for Belfast, East declared that tonight's decision should be game, set and match and that nothing should be re-examined. I do not agree. It is reasonable to look at Northern Ireland from a fresh Labour Government point of view and see how the Committee would be set in place with other arrangements. There is a place for the Committee, which can be a good debating chamber if it is used properly. If the Conservatives get in again, that will not happen.
I welcome the proposal to re-examine the workings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. I assure all Northern Ireland Members that the Labour party will approach it with the benefit of our experience in the Scottish Grand Committee. When Northern Ireland Members say that they would not allow it to be abused, I assure them that Scottish Labour Members would not stand for any abuse either. However, I certainly do not expect any abuse from my hon. Friends.
There is one thing about which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), and it may be the only thing: it is wrong to introduce this measure at the end of 18 years of Conservative government. However, it is wrong because it should have been introduced long ago. The democratic deficit in Northern Ireland is the big argument for the measure.
In the last Parliament, we had a three-hour Order in Council debate on the equivalent for Northern Ireland of the Education Reform Act 1988. It had 187 clauses and schedules and had to be debated in 180 minutes. It was not a repeat of the legislation for Britain because education in Northern Ireland differs in some characteristics from education in Britain. In the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, it should have had the fullest possible discussion. That democratic deficit is the reason for a Grand Committee, irrespective of arguments about the details.
There are bad arguments and bad reasons for establishing such bodies. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North pushed the negative aspects and suggested why it was in some people's interest to put them forward. However, the democratic argument gives good, strong and solid reasons for adopting the measure. Everyone who votes for the measure will not vote for a good and solid reason. People will have their own agenda, their own position and their own interests. However, as democrats we should be concerned to establish the right type of arrangements.
The Government's failure to establish a Northern Ireland Select Committee was rectified only recently. It seems to me that a Select Committee should be attached to each Department of state. It was disgraceful that there was no Select Committee for Northern Ireland. The Select Committee is separate from considerations about talks, the future of Northern Ireland and constitutional change. It deals with the current position and bread-and-butter policy issues for the people of Northern Ireland. All the bodies that have been established in connection with Northern Ireland should operate.
The Northern Ireland Select Committee deals not with constitutional matters, security or wider matters but with social and economic affairs. Although alterations could be made in its operation, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee should continue to sit. The Northern Ireland forum has passed resolutions that I see as progressive, but to which Ulster Unionists on both sides of the House have not always adhered in debates in the Chamber. The forum has passed grand resolutions on setting up a commission on disability, water privatisation and other matters. I only wish that the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein would involve themselves in discussions in the forum, so that their influence could come out.
Then there is another body. The British-Irish parliamentary body deals with a host of bread-and-butter issues. It produces reports. It does not interfere with the sovereignty of the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom. The separate Administrations have to decide how to respond to its proposals. It is a valuable body; it allows the sharing of ideas and helps developments to take place. Unfortunately, there are vacancies for Unionists on the parliamentary body. Unionists should be involved in that body, as the nationalist and Republican community should be involved in the Northern Ireland forum.
The Select Committee, the Grand Committee, the forum and the British-Irish parliamentary body provide valuable cross-fertilisation of ideas. To say that they are just talking shops does not decry their position. What is required is discussion of matters of daily concern in people's lives and the sharing of experiences. People find sometimes that they have far more in common than things that come between them.
I have been impressed in the House by how often, on Northern Ireland issues in the Grand Committee and elsewhere, the divisions on constitutional and security issues just disappear and there is considerable cross-party unity. For example, in the debates on student loans, speeches were made by Northern Ireland Members on both sides of the House which set out a position that could almost have been Labour's position. The same position ran across the political spectrum within Northern Ireland on that issue.
The opportunity for people to meet and discuss matters and for some to hop from one body to another, carry their own ideas across and influence matters, and to learn from the procedures of those bodies is invaluable. I am not against our looking again at the arrangements, but I am against our destroying the principles of the bodies that have been established unless something entirely different comes out of the talks which could then lead to an adjustment and a different framework.
With the leave of the House, I shall wind up for the Opposition very briefly. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) made his usual clear and positive contribution to the debate, and I reinforce his remarks about the British-Irish body, which is something at which we will want to look in future. His comments were constructive and were made in the face of some of this evening's more interesting contributions.
I also wish to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) about the history of local government in Northern Ireland, which is a terribly important subject. We must never forget the sectarianism that functioned at local government level in the past and that persists in some areas. Equally, it would be helpful to acknowledge those local government bodies that have improved and in which cross-party work takes place. They represent a far more positive experience.
I also want to throw into the pot the local authority partnerships and the 26 district councils, where, with European money, work of a positive nature is being done across the divide, not only by local politicians, but by community groups, businesses and trade unions. Those experiences should not be lost. I accept the logic of the hon. Gentleman's comment that, if we take part of the jigsaw outside the talks process, we begin to weaken the talks process, but it is important to look at how we can begin to build trust and confidence in areas around the talks process in the hope of moving it forward.
The contributions from many hon. Members reinforced the view expressed by Labour Members on the need to revisit the issue of improving accountability and transparency across the board in Northern Ireland. We are intent on doing that and I hope that, to some extent, that answers the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). Hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening—especially my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy)—have reinforced our view that we should look at the history of the Scottish Grand Committee, because there may be positive lessons for a potential Northern Ireland Grand Committee.
Labour will not divide the House on this motion. We have said many times that it is important that we should let the measure through. However, we shall review it, if we are given the chance in government.
I must begin a short winding-up speech by thanking those right hon. and hon. Members who have expressed kind wishes for what has been described as my after-life. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) wished me a happy eternity, which good wishes I gratefully acknowledge and reciprocate. Kind suggestions were made as to how I might employ myself; the only plan that I have made is to buy a horse, and now that there is no concern about a by-election, that will cause no anxiety to anybody.
This has been a valuable debate, and I welcome the Opposition's support for the motion. A number of general points have been made: first, that it is a good idea, but it comes at the wrong time; secondly, that it is a good idea, but the Committee is wrongly constituted; thirdly, that it is a bad idea, primarily because Unionists seem to want it, nevertheless we favour accountability; fourthly, that it is a bad idea because it is a pay-off, the last cashing of a cheque; and, fifthly, that it is a bad idea because it will prejudice the outcome of the talks. I should like briefly to deal with some—although probably not all—of those points.
In respect of the argument that it is a good idea but the wrong time, I should like to point out that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the measure back in October. Thereafter, within a few days, I wrote to party leaders asking for their views and saying that it would be nice if we could introduce the measure with the support of everybody. It is enough to say that some were more prompt than others in responding. Nevertheless, here we are, and if it is a good idea then it is never too late to introduce it.
To the assertion that it is some sort of pay-off, I say, well, big deal—the number of times we have had the Ulster Unionists voting against us does not suggest that we have received good value for money. I hope that the House will look at the proposal on its merits and will see it for what it is intended to be—an enhancement of accountability. The first thing I said when I got to Northern Ireland, nearly five years ago, was that I wanted to get rid of direct rule. The sort of responsibilities and powers I have are absurd—absolutely ridiculous. I want locally elected people to take responsibility for some necessarily rather hard decisions.
As for the argument that the Grand Committee is a bad idea because Unionists want it, it seems an odd way of forming one's opinion to decide that, if someone else wants something, it must be bad.
I want to make a serious point about the constitution of the Committee. We have endeavoured to make it a practical Committee. If it was limited to Ulster Members only, it would be a much smaller Committee than either of the other two Grand Committees, and it is of course a part of our belief in the Union in the House that so many hon. and right hon. Members who are not Ulster Members take a close interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. I therefore consider it reasonable that that composition should pertain.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked whether, in a letter that I wrote on 27 February, I was saying that we intended to pass all Northern Ireland legislation through the Grand Committee. Certainly not. He will see that in that letter I said that it should also be possible on a Government motion for draft Northern Ireland orders and Orders in Council to be referred to the Grand Committee. It is simply to enhance that as a possibility that we make this proposal.
In the time available, I cannot sensibly do anything much more than to say this about an important point in conclusion. It has been said—with sincerity, I am sure— that the proposal is bad because it will take away some of the drive for that comprehensive settlement which it is the object of the talks process to help the people of Northern Ireland secure.
I see no case for that whatever. Here is something that mitigates one of the worst consequences of direct rule— what we call the democratic deficit. It is entirely without prejudice to what we are seeking to do in that talks process. The Grand Committee will not have legislative capacity; in all probability, it will be used primarily for non-controversial Bills. It will have no power to amend. It is completely different from what we are seeking to achieve in this context in the talks process.
I very much hope that, after an interesting debate, we can proceed, and that the motion will be carried. I commend it to the House.