I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has one simple overriding purpose—to implement the Belfast agreement. The agreement was negotiated by the Northern Ireland parties and agreed on Good Friday. It was supported by more than 71 per cent. of voters in Northern Ireland in the referendum on 22 May. The Bill represents the triple lock—people, parties and now Parliament.
Despite all the achievements of recent months, years of division in Northern Ireland cannot be overcome at a stroke. We have been reminded of the human cost of such divisions in recent weeks. The dispute over the parade at Drumcree and the violence that surrounded it has left a dark, sad cloud hanging over Northern Ireland. The funerals of the three boys—Mark, Richard and Jason—and the anguish of their family are terrible reminders of the hatred and division that lurk not far away from all the hope and expectation that we have for the future. We have recently been reminded of that by yet another appalling murder—that of Andrew Kearney—but the Good Friday agreement showed that, despite divisions, the parties and people of Northern Ireland can agree and can find an accommodation between their different views and beliefs and begin to chart a non-violent route into the future.
The Bill is all about implementing the agreement in full. We have had to fill in a number of practical gaps that were left by the agreement. In doing that, we have had the benefit of consultations with all the Northern Ireland parties. It is crucial that the momentum of the talks, the agreement, the referendum, the elections is maintained.
The agreement sets a tough timetable. The Bill has been prepared in record time, and I should like to express my appreciation to the civil servants who have worked so hard and to both Houses for facilitating the programme for the Bill when there are so many other important matters to be addressed.
There will, no doubt, need to be Government amendments to the Bill, mainly as a result of the urgency with which it has been prepared. As with previous legislation under the agreement, we will be flexible and sympathetic to other amendments intended to improve the way in which the Bill reflects what is in the agreement. However, I repeat what I have said in the House before; we cannot rewrite the agreement.
The agreement and the Bill look forward to a new future for Northern Ireland where all relationships are based on consent and mutual respect; where the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders take responsibility for their own government and their future; where government is an exercise not in domination, but in partnership; where all parts of the community work together to solve problems that affect everyone and where all the people—north and south on the island of Ireland and, indeed, among all these islands—can work together for the mutual benefit of all.
The Bill implements the agreement. It is a substantial piece of legislation, and I should like to highlight some of its main features. The first two clauses rightly put the principle of consent at the forefront of the Bill. Whether Northern Ireland is to remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. The key principle of consent is enshrined in the Bill and has been endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of Northern Ireland and of the Republic.
Clause 3 provides for devolution once
sufficient progress has been made in implementing the Belfast Agreement".
That is a judgment for the Secretary of State. In making it, I shall consider whether the Assembly, in its shadow phase, has made the necessary preparations; that all the necessary Ministers have been selected; that the north-south ministerial council and the British-Irish Council have met in shadow form; and that the initial six cross-border implementation bodies have been identified so that they can function from the day the powers are transferred.
The Assembly has already made a start. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have been elected and have been tasked by the Assembly to come forward over the summer with proposals on much of the preparatory work. Our aim is to achieve the transfer of powers early in 1999. Clause 4 deals with subject matters that may be devolved to the Assembly. Excepted matters, in schedule 2, cannot be devolved. They concern, for example, the Crown, foreign affairs, defence and national security. Reserved matters in schedule 3 will initially remain the responsibility of the UK Government, but can be devolved in future by Order in Council if the Assembly so wishes.
My right hon. Friend has come to the question of reserved powers. Could any of the Bill's provisions affect the right of this House to impose the provisions of the Abortion Act 1967 on Northern Ireland, to ask questions about abortion in Northern Ireland or to debate abortion in relation to Northern Ireland?
The question of abortion will be a reserved power and therefore remains part of provisions with which the House will continue to deal. We are considering talking to groups about the issue, about which many in the House feel strongly. As my hon. Friend knows, no party in Northern Ireland would support the 1967 Act. At this time of transition, however, there may be a case for clarifying inconsistencies in the legal and medical positions. Due to the universal view that the Act should not apply in Northern Ireland, with which I disagree, we would need careful consultation with the parties.
As I understand it, the legislation does not apply or belong to Northern Ireland; it is not on the Northern Ireland statute book. As such powers will partly be transferred to the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland, they will become the responsibility of Northern Ireland. It would be very wrong if, in the transfer of powers, anyone in this House removed the right of Northern Ireland people to make their own decision on the matter.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. From my preparation for the debate, I understand that the power is potentially a reserved one, even though—he is absolutely right—the 1967 Act does not apply. Given that it is a reserved power, the House will still have an opportunity to debate the matter. I was making clear the position of political parties in Northern Ireland.
I was under the impression that the matter would be transferred; it comes under the powers to be transferred to Northern Ireland Departments. Is the right hon. Lady saying that there will be exceptions to the transfer of powers that were transferred under previous legislation to a previous assembly? Is she saying that the House will retain this once transferred power?
I see many hon. Members nodding. Normally, the subject would be considered a health issue. From my preparation, I understand that the matter concerns a right; it is a reserved matter. I shall correct myself later if I am wrong and the power is to be transferred. A note from my experts says that the matter is reserved because it is part of criminal law and therefore must remain reserved. I see the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) nodding; I was correct, thank goodness.
Other reserved matters include those concerning criminal justice, policing and prisons. The outcome of the two reviews into policing and criminal justice will obviously be an important part of any future transfer of reserved powers. Everything else is a transferred matter. That means that the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Department will be transferred to the new Northern Ireland Ministers.
Clause 4(5) defines "cross-community support" as it is defined in the agreement. Where key interests of either community are at stake, a requirement for cross-community support ensures that the Assembly will operate by partnership between the two main parts of the community.
Part II provides for the Assembly to make laws for Northern Ireland. Clause 6 borrows from the Scotland Bill, placing limits on the Assembly's legislative competence. The courts—ultimately the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—are to rule on whether the Assembly has stepped outside its legislative competence.
Many of us have received a letter from Joan Smyth, the chair and chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, in which she claims
The proposal for the statutory obligations does not meet the commitments made in Paragraph 3 of the Agreement
and that that will not lead to effective sexual equality. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her earlier offer to look sympathetically at amendments that seek to strengthen the Bill, and draw to her attention the EOC's claim.
Schedules 8 and 9 refer specifically to the matter. I am well aware of the concern that the EOC has expressed about the Equality Commission. The EOC outlined two or three specific problems. I hope that, when we consider schedules 8 and 9, my hon. Friend will see that we have taken those problems into account. The EOC was concerned about the hierarchy of rights and that, of the seven or eight inequalities listed, gender, race and disability would be too far down the agenda. We have answered concerns about functions and finance in the schedules. We have said that the Equality Commission would be structured by the chief executives of the four existing relevant commissions and by four representatives from the fields of inequality, sexual orientation, age and dependency. As I said, we are very flexible on amendments. We are listening to what people are saying and I believe that the specific criticism in the letter is addressed in the schedules.
Part III provides for the new executive authorities in Northern Ireland to be drawn from the Assembly. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) on their election as First Minister and Deputy First Minister designate. It is expected that, in September, on the back of their proposals on the number and allocation of portfolios, the other Northern Ireland Ministers will be selected using the d'Hondt procedure that is set out in clause 15.
Clause 14 says that if either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister resigns or vacates office, the other office is also deemed void. I do not wish such a situation on anybody, but there must be provision for an interregnum in the case of a bereavement or a resignation outside the political arena. Hours can be critical in Northern Ireland. We must make provision for continuity of office.
The Standing Orders being drawn up will address that. The Bill provides for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to work in unison when possible, because that is the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, but we do not expect them both to fall under a bus. We are well aware of how clause 14 could be interpreted, so we are considering that in the Standing Orders.
The Secretary of State used the phrase "in unison". Why do we need constant use of the word jointly in the Bill? Does that not tie issues too tightly? What would happen in Scotland if the Labour party and the Scottish National party were tied together and had to work jointly? It is a recipe for disaster.
I use the word in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, which is for parties of both communities to work together by consent when possible. If there are inconsistencies with the Good Friday agreement, we shall look at them. The comparison with Scotland does not hold completely, because there are differences in structures between Scottish devolution and what is being proposed for Northern Ireland. For example, there is to be a Cabinet Government in Scotland.
Clause 16 permits the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to make up the Executive Committee for the Assembly. Before each Minister takes up office, he or she must take the pledge of office, which is reproduced in full in schedule 5 and in the agreement. It includes a
commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means",
to discharge in good faith all the duties of office
and an undertaking
to support, and act in accordance with, all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly".
Clause 22 provides for each Northern Ireland Minister to be advised and assisted by a Committee of the Assembly, as the agreement says. It is fundamental to the Belfast agreement that the opportunities for a new future rest on people using only non-violent and democratic means to achieve their political objectives.
The Secretary of State made a passing reference at the start of her speech to the murder yesterday, in tragic circumstances, of Mr. Andrew Kearney. She may also be aware of the IRA beating of Mr. Vincent McKenna on the Ormeau road, who identified three of his attackers as senior members of the IRA. She will be aware that the family of Mr. Andrew Kearney have said that they believe that the IRA murdered him. In view of that evidence of breaches of the IRA ceasefire, is the Secretary of State convinced that the provisions of the Bill are adequate to ensure that organisations with political representatives in the Assembly can be held to account for their on-going violence on the streets and that such people can and will be excluded from holding ministerial office?
I am convinced that the Bill is adequate. The Assembly will make the final decision. The hon. Gentleman refers to evidence in relation to the appalling murder of Mr. Kearney. I have yet to see evidence. As I have made clear on many occasions, when we get evidence, we shall make a judgment, as is our duty, and make recommendations to the Assembly on the basis of that.
Every time I have been asked that, I have said that I believe that to be the case. I shall make a judgment in the round based on the four factors that the Prime Minister outlined: a commitment to non-violence; the use of peaceful means only; no use of proxy groups; and no use of violent methods of any kind. I shall make a recommendation to the Assembly on that basis. The decision to act will rest with the Assembly.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Unless the whole gamut of a detailed court procedure is followed, it seems probable that all the Secretary of State's assessments of evidence will be political decisions rather than decisions based on hard evidence. I note the speed with which the Government ascribe to the Orange Order, of which I am not a member, complicity in the murders in Ballymoney, but their reluctance to make similar condemnation of IRA murders.
As I have said many times before, I shall look at the evidence and make a judgment, as the Good Friday agreement provides. I have never said that the Orangemen were to blame for the violence in Drumcree. I said in the House just a week ago that I was deeply concerned that they were being used by people who did not support the agreement, but who were intent on destroying it. The television pictures showed a line of Orangemen, behind whom were other people, among whom there was shooting and blast bombs. Those other people made a big difference to what was going on. I did not directly blame many of the Orangemen who, as I have said many times, were badly served by others who came out to support them.
I appreciate the Secretary of State's giving way, because I realise that she wants to move on. There has been an admission in The Irish Times by the Continuity Army Council that it was responsible for incendiary devices that destroyed a property in north Belfast, leaving 40 people unemployed. The Chief Constable's certificate has not been issued on the grounds that there is not enough evidence. What constitutes evidence, given that The Irish Times has the code word from the Continuity Army Council?
I shall look at all the evidence that comes to me from security sources and the RUC. I shall make a judgment based on the four criteria. I cannot make a judgment based on reports in The Irish Times or any other newspaper. I shall deal with the facts because, as we all know, newspapers sometimes write a story that we do not think is a fair representation. I shall stick to the facts as they come to me.
I am sorry. I have been reasonable in giving way.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that the use of the twin tactics of the ballot box and the Armalite is unacceptable. He said:
There can be no fudge between democracy and terror.
The agreement states that clearly. Paragraph 25 of strand 1 says:
An individual may be removed from office following a decision of the Assembly taken on a cross-community basis, if (s)he loses the confidence of the Assembly, voting on a cross-community basis, for failure to meet his or her responsibilities including, inter alia,
those set out in the Pledge of Office. Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office under these provisions.
Clause 23 gives effect to those arrangements.
No, I want to make progress. I do apologise.
Decisions on exclusion from ministerial office lie with the Assembly. That is what the agreement says. Ministers are chosen to serve the Assembly. The agreement says that a Minister can be removed from office for any failure to meet his or her responsibilities, including failure to co-operate properly with the institutions being set up by the agreement.
Clause 23(6) allows me to inform the Assembly if I think it should consider whether an individual or party is not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means and so should be excluded. We will use the four Balmoral criteria to make the assessment—the criteria appear in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, which we debated in the House a couple of weeks ago.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that if the arrangements prove ineffective during the first six months of the life of the shadow Assembly or the full Assembly, we will support changes to make them more effective.
Part IV of the Bill is concerned with the elections and procedures of the Assembly.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), gave an undertaking to the Standing Committee on the Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill that this Bill would deal with arrangements for filling casual vacancies for the Assembly. Some of us had tabled amendments to avert the need for by-elections. However, clause 27 of this Bill contains exactly the same procedure as was in the Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill; the matter is left up in the air. It is not unreasonable to think that Ministers should have come here with specific proposals on filling casual vacancies. That has not been done.
We have included in the Bill a number of amendments suggested by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we are considering others. I said that we would table other amendments later. I hope that my hon. Friend will have a little patience on that matter.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for eventually giving way to me. Can she show us where in the Bill it states that anybody can be excluded from taking up office because they have not given their commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means? The Bill shows how they can be removed from office. Can they be stopped from taking up office?
Yes. Clause 23 contains the exclusion from office provisions, which include a person who has not signed up to peaceful and democratic ways forward. If a person is part of the Assembly, he or she will be part of a party that has signed up to peaceful, non-violent ways forward. If he or she moves into office, but does not fulfil the pledge of office, he or she will—if the Assembly so chooses—be excluded. If that commitment is not given, they cannot take up office, as in clause 23(1).
Clause 34 provides for "petitions of concern", as in the agreement. If 30 Members of the Assembly request it, any vote in the Assembly can be required to have cross-community support, so either community can ensure that, in the future, its fundamental interests are protected. The key decisions of the Assembly will be taken on a partnership basis.
Part V makes financial provision. The intention is that the transferred matters in Northern Ireland should continue to be funded on the basis of the Barnett formula. Within that, in future, the Northern Ireland Administration will have the freedom to determine its own expenditure priorities.
Part VI provides further protection for human rights and equality of opportunity—again, reflecting the provisions in the agreement. The new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be a more powerful and wide-ranging body than the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, which it replaces. The new commission will be independent of government. It has a wide remit
to keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness in Northern Ireland of law and practice relating to the protection of human rights".
The commission will automatically receive every Bill introduced into the Assembly, so that it can, if it wishes, scrutinise it for compatibility with human rights. The commission will provide advice both to me and to Ministers in the Assembly, both at our request and at its own initiative. In particular, one of its first tasks will be to look at the scope for defining rights over and above those in the European convention on human rights to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Such rights could constitute a future Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Under clause 56, the commission has the power to assist individuals in proceedings in the courts where issues of human rights arise.
Clause 59 establishes the Equality Commission. On 10 July, I announced the outcome of the Government's consultation on the proposals. Following that consultation, we have—as I stated earlier—sought to protect the importance of gender, race and disability within a single commission.
Clause 61 places a statutory duty on the public sector to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in all areas of its operations.
Clause 65 provides for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to make preparations for the establishment of the civic forum. Those will then need to be approved by the Assembly.
Finally, clauses 66 and 67 deal with the roles of Northern Ireland Ministers at meetings of the various bodies under strands 2 and 3 of the Belfast agreement. That wider framework of relationships is fundamental to the success of the Assembly and of the agreement as a whole. All are mutually interdependent. None can successfully function without the others.
Clause 68 reflects paragraph 9 of strand 2 of the agreement. By 31 October, the shadow north-south ministerial council is to agree six areas where future north-south co-operation will take place through agreed implementation bodies on a cross-border or all-Ireland basis. Once agreed, I can confer powers and functions on such bodies under clause 68. That will enable me to meet the commitment in paragraph 10 of strand 2 to make the necessary preparations to ensure that these bodies function at the time of the transfer of powers.
The Bill makes a further important step in implementing the Belfast agreement. Since the agreement was reached on Good Friday, it has been endorsed by a referendum on 22 May; elections were held on 25 June for the Assembly; the Assembly had its first meeting on 1 July and elected the First Minister and Deputy First Minister; the Policing Commission has begun its work; the review of criminal justice is under way; the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill is under consideration in Parliament; and decommissioning schemes have been introduced.
The Bill paves the way for the transfer of powers to locally elected politicians from early next year. It is essential that all aspects of the agreement move forward together in parallel and that all parties honour the commitments they have made. Unless they do that, the agreement will not work.
On 10 April, thanks to the courage and determination of the Northern Ireland talks parties, the people of Northern Ireland began an historic journey towards a new future. The Bill is another crucial milestone along the way. It is Parliament's opportunity to show solidarity and support for the people of Northern Ireland and to take forward their democratic wish.
As such, I commend the Bill to the House.
First, I thank the Secretary of State for allowing us to see an early draft of the Bill and allowing us to comment on it—an opportunity which, I gather, was given to every party in the House. Secondly, I thank her and her parliamentary colleagues for allowing the House to table amendments to the Bill at an earlier stage than would usually be the case. That will give the House a greater opportunity to consider amendments carefully before the Committee stage, which starts on Wednesday. I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out the main provisions of the Bill—a Bill which, I believe, is warmly welcomed throughout Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
On behalf of the Opposition, I offer sincere congratulations to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) on their election as First Minister and Deputy First Minister designate in the Assembly. They both played a crucial role in negotiating the Belfast agreement. Both showed steely determination to make progress when it might have been an easier and safer option to take refuge in some of the slogans and entrenched positions of the past. The relationship between them will, in many respects, be the axis that binds together the Executive, and with it many of the hopes and aspirations for the future.
No one underestimates the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead, not least the formation of a Northern Ireland Executive. I believe, however, that we can all take encouragement from the statesmanlike way in which the First Minister and his deputy have worked together to defuse the situation at Drumcree in recent days, and to ensure that it has not escalated out of control. That augurs well for the future. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing the two of them well in the trying times ahead.
The Bill gives legislative effect to those parts of the Belfast agreement that establish the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider that, ever since the demise of Stormont in 1972 and the power-sharing Executive in 1974, it has been the objective of all Governments to end direct rule and to re-establish devolved institutions of government on a basis that can command widespread support throughout the community. To say that it has proved extremely difficult to achieve is something of an understatement.
Following one of the golden rules of politics, legislation that was originally intended to be temporary—the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974—has assumed an air of permanence. Every year since 1974, successive Secretaries of State have come to the House to renew the Act, and to express the hope that it will be the last time that they must do so.
High-profile initiatives have come and gone—the constitutional convention in 1975, the Atkins round table talks in 1980 and Lord Prior's "rolling devolution" assembly from 1982 to 1986. Finally, the painstaking efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), continued by Lord Mayhew, paved the way for the successes that have so far been achieved and the Bill that we are discussing today.
However, we should not underestimate the achievements of direct rule. It is, as I know the Secretary of State will acknowledge, a fair, efficient and effective method of government. Under successive Secretaries of State, progress has been made on several fronts. However, few people have ever regarded it as anything but second best as a form of government: however wisely the current Secretary of State and her predecessors have administered the Province, direct rule has suffered from a number of crucial defects.
Under direct rule, the Secretary of State and her colleagues administer the six separate Northern Ireland Departments. Legislation on "transferred" matters is often made by Order in Council rather than by Bill; I believe that the previous Government made some progress in that area. No Minister who has served in the Northern Ireland Office since 1972 has ever sat for a Northern Ireland constituency. The Secretary of State and her colleagues exercise a range of powers which, anywhere else in the United Kingdom, would be exercised at local level. That has created in Northern Ireland a democratic deficit, in which Northern Ireland's elected representatives have been unable to decide the priorities for Northern Ireland and to be answerable to the electorate there.
That, in turn, has fostered in Northern Ireland an engrained culture of political opposition. Despite the establishment of a Select Committee of the House—I pay tribute to the work that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has done—that cannot be a substitute for the proper scrutiny of legislation that will be provided by the Assembly; nor can the work of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee.
The biggest challenges that lie ahead—I say this constructively—will be for Northern Ireland's politicians to break free from the culture of opposition and to be responsible for shaping policies on such matters as health, education, industrial development and, of course, the environment.
The Bill will finally bring to an end the anomaly of direct rule. That will be good for the administration of Northern Ireland, for the political life of Northern Ireland and for democracy. The Assembly will also serve a wider political purpose. It will bring politicians from the two traditions together, uniting—we hope—to work for the good of Northern Ireland and its people. Nothing will better demonstrate the determination of Ulster's political representatives to make a reality of the new beginning than the relationship that the Belfast agreement represents.
Let us be clear in our minds that the new Assembly is not a return to the Stormont period. It is not a return to the era of political institutions being operated by, and having the allegiance of, only one section of the community; and it is not an instrument for the dominance of one community over another. One of the great virtues of the Assembly—and a source of real hope—is that, unlike its predecessors, it should be able to command the allegiance and support of all the major traditions in Northern Ireland—Unionists, nationalists and those who do not wish to be classified by such labels.
The Assembly will give to those parties that have clearly and unequivocally renounced violence—and by their words and deeds proved that to be the case—the share in the government and administration of the Province that their political mandate warrants. There will be important safeguards for the passage of legislation; minimum thresholds of support by the Unionist and nationalist blocs will be required. The Bill also contains significant protection for minorities and human rights. All that should be welcomed throughout Northern Ireland.
However, the Assembly will work firmly—and I believe securely—within the United Kingdom. It is not an Assembly which undermines the Union.
The retention of the office of Secretary of State is especially important, providing a vital link between Northern Ireland and Westminster, and exercising significant powers in relation to the Assembly and control over excepted matters. We are also adamant that the House should continue to take a close interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland. We should not repeat the mistakes of the Stormont period, when the House effectively turned its back on Stormont and the Province. There must be in Northern Ireland, as much as in Scotland and Wales, the strongest possible relationship between Westminster and the devolved institutions.
Northern Ireland will continue to be represented in this Parliament. Clause 5(6) of the Bill—reflecting paragraph 34 of the agreement—makes it clear that the establishment of the Assembly
does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Northern Ireland.
The Bill repeals the Government of Ireland Act 1920. We have no problem with that. Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom is guaranteed by the Act of Union of 1800, which is unaffected by anything in the agreement or in the Bill. It is now more firmly established than ever before that there will be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people who live there.
For the first time since the tripartite agreement signed by Baldwin, Craig and Cosgrave in 1925, the Irish Government will recognise Northern Ireland as a legitimate political entity and a legitimate part of the United Kingdom. In recognition of that unassailable fact, the Irish territorial claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland has been amended.
Against that background, we can be comfortable with the arrangements for the north-south ministerial council, service on which will be a statutory requirement for any Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. The agreement identifies a number of sensible areas of competence for the north-south body where co-operation could bring benefits to both parts of the island.
None of that undermines the sovereignty of the United Kingdom or implies some kind of slippery slope towards a united Ireland. There are clear lines of accountability back to the Assembly. On this subject, I can do no better than to quote the words of the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland—a figure revered to this day by many Unionists—James Craig, when he said:
the North and South have got to live together as neighbours and the prosperity of Northern Ireland does undoubtedly affect the prosperity of the South of Ireland.
So it is for the Government of the South and the Government of the North, to turn their hands rather from the matters which may have divided them in the past, to concentrate on the matters which really affect the welfare of the people in their own area with a view that the whole of Ireland, and not one part of it, may be prosperous.
Those words were spoken in 1926—significantly, just after the tripartite agreement had recognised the border between north and south. Later events, as we know, ensured that the co-operation envisaged by Craig sadly did not occur. However, I believe that the new political dispensation, the Belfast agreement and the changes that have been made in the Republic, allow us to fulfil Craig's vision and to embark on a new period of constructive co-operation between north and south.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the tripartite agreement of 1925 was effectively rejected by the 1937 constitution of the Republic of Ireland, and all the wise things that Craigavon said were abandoned? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that what he said was inaccurate?
I said clearly that, regrettably, events led to that not happening. I also said clearly that the constitution of the Republic of Ireland has been changed to take into account the fact that the Republic no longer has a constitutional claim on the north. The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) cannot ignore that, much as he may wish to do so, politically.
I shall return to my speech, as I know that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
We welcome the establishment of the British-Irish council, an idea that owes its origins in no small part to the work of my late colleague, Sir John Biggs-Davison.
For all those reasons, the Opposition support the Bill, and if necessary will support it in the Division Lobby this evening. We do not believe, however, that it is perfect in every respect. There are genuine concerns on two particular issues—the release of prisoners, and the entry into the government of Northern Ireland of the political representatives of those organisations that have yet to establish a commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful methods.
We agree with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that there can be no compromise between democracy and terrorism. Furthermore, there can be no question of any organisation wielding—if I may paraphrase Danny Morrison's famous remark—Executive power in one hand and an Armalite in the other. In that context, we strongly support the fact that all Ministers will have to make a pledge of office setting out their opposition to violence, and to comply with the ministerial code of conduct.
We also support the provisions of the legislation that require Members of the Assembly serving as shadow Ministers during the transitional period to affirm their commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and their opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose. We trust that any party breaching those requirements during the transitional period will not serve in the Executive once powers have been devolved to it. However, we continue to find it disturbing that there is no guarantee that Assembly Members will be barred from office unless the organisations with which they are associated are co-operating fully with the decommissioning commission.
The Opposition are not seeking to rewrite the agreement. It was the Prime Minister who saw fit to clarify the Belfast agreement and in so doing to offer a particular interpretation of it, and it was on his interpretation that many of the people of Northern Ireland voted yes in the referendum in May. We ask the Government to make it clear in the legislation that full-co-operation with the decommissioning commission will be a condition of entry into any ministerial position in the Assembly. That is what the people believed was the Government's position at the time of the referendum. They should have the reassurance that it remains the Government's position today.
I conclude by speaking as a Unionist to fellow Unionists in Northern Ireland. The Belfast agreement has been described in some circles as "Sunningdale for slow learners." I do not necessarily agree with that interpretation, but it serves to remind us of the high hopes that many people entertained in 1974. What was then described as a new beginning was brought crashing down in only five months. There are some Unionists today who want to wreck the agreement. In my view, few acts would do more to weaken the Unionist case and undermine the achievements of recent years, especially the almost universal acceptance now of the principle of consent. Few acts would more readily play into the hands of the Unionists' enemies.
To the nationalists I say this: do not reinforce the suspicions of those who would portray the agreement as a Trojan horse to Irish unity by setting impossible demands and setting ambitions for the north-south ministerial council too high.
Finally, on a cautionary note and wishing the Assembly well, let us for once in Northern Ireland learn some of the lessons of history, in order that we are not condemned to repeat its mistakes.
I welcome the Bill, primarily because it provides for the transfer of power to the New Northern Ireland Assembly and ends 26 years of direct rule—26 wasted years, 26 years of bad government and a constant rundown in the quality of the Northern Ireland civil service. It gives to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to turn that back and to put in place better government—government closer to the people and more responsive to their needs. Naturally, we hope that it will succeed.
We hope that the provisions of the Bill will be accompanied by an end to violence, but the present situation gives much cause for concern. We see the attempts at continued violence, mainly from dissident republicans. That is shown in the attempted wave of bombing in London, which was intercepted by the police only a few days ago, for which we are thankful, and shown also in the attempted bombing in Northern Ireland.
A little-remarked feature of the past couple of weeks has been the interception by the police of a 1,400 lb car bomb in Armagh and the defusing of a 500 lb car bomb in Newry. We congratulate the security forces in Northern Ireland and in London and hope that they will continue to succeed, but the frequency with which bombs are coming in from real IRA, continuity IRA, dissident IRA—it does not matter which—is a matter for concern. More effective action is needed on that front.
There is also concern about the actions of some loyalist rejectionists. I shall make a few observations with regard to recent events in Northern Ireland, especially those at Drumcree. If the Garvaghy road residents really supported the agreement with its emphasis on the rights of people to celebrate their identity, they would have withdrawn their objections to Orangemen walking home from church along that road.
If the Parades Commission really supported the new beginning offered by the agreement, it would not have interfered with the right of assembly or freedom of movement. Most Portadown Orangemen were peacefully protesting within the law against what they saw as an injustice, and they have my sympathy, but too many people were exploiting that protest in the attempt to destroy the hopes contained in the agreement and to see violence resumed. They were wrong and they have failed. It is clear that by far the greater number of people in Northern Ireland reject their methods and their objectives. We must recognise that a legitimate sense of grievance remains and must be addressed.
The Assembly is based on the principle of proportionality carried into effect by the d'Hondt formula. While the d'Hondt formula is automatic, there is a condition on its application that is contained in paragraph 25 of the strand 1 section of the agreement and is carried into effect in the Bill by clause 23, which has been referred to already in the debate. That condition involves the commitment to peaceful means and the democratic process. I refer particularly to clause 23(2), which states:
If the Assembly resolves that a political party does not enjoy the confidence of the Assembly…because it is not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means…members of that party shall be excluded".
It is worth drawing attention to the fact that the clause contains the phrase "does not enjoy", so the provision can be exercised ab initio to exclude people from office and not merely remove them once they have entered office.
As things stand, I have no confidence in Sinn Fein's commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful means. Consequently, I would have to act in accordance with clause 23(2) if such a situation were to arise today. Will things change in the future? Essentially, that is in the hands of Sinn Fein. It knows what it must do in order for things to change—we spelled that out in detail in our manifesto for the Assembly elections. It is up to Sinn Fein. So far, it has done nothing positive: it has not even fulfilled the expectations that it created in the media a few weeks ago regarding the disappeared. On the other hand, we have Sinn Fein's negative acts, evidenced by its attempts to exploit tensions over the marches and by beatings. The McKenna attack and the Kearney killing have been mentioned. I believe that the evidence of Mr. McKenna that he recognised and identified some of his assailants is evidence on which the Secretary of State can rely.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend's giving way on that point. As the representative of that constituency, I must put on record the fact that Vincent McKenna is an honourable man with republican views. He began to be disgusted by what was occurring in the community and discovered that the bulk of the community would be happy with an Orange procession along the Ormeau road. He was immediately threatened by the IRA, which has now acted.
My hon. Friend makes his point very effectively.
If the Assembly is to work, it must be based on an effective coalition between us and the SDLP. I have no problem with that concept—indeed, I supported it in the constitutional convention of 1975. At that time, the coalition was to be entered into freely; this time, the coalition is formalised in the agreement and in legislation—particularly with regard to the special voting procedures contained therein.
In principle, those procedures—weighted majorities and special votes with some people identified as nationalist and others as Unionist—are uncomfortable, some would say objectionable, because they enshrine sectarianism in the operations of the Assembly. I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, sufficient confidence will be generated in the Assembly to enable us to move away from those procedures. In any event, there may be a growth in parties that decline to be classified as either nationalist or Unionist. For those reasons, it would have been better if those procedures had been presented in a form that could be amended easily rather than being set in stone. We are uncomfortable with their being set in stone indefinitely.
I shall touch briefly on some important matters in the Bill. The question of the devolution of Executive functions is not handled properly in this draft. In the talks, we proposed a committee system similar to that originally envisaged for Wales. In order to reach agreement with the SDLP, we moved towards a form of Executive. However, that cannot be a Cabinet, because of the absence of collective responsibility, which is a consequence of the d'Hondt formula. Committees have not disappeared; nor have they become merely consultative. The agreement is clear: in addition to a consultative and scrutiny function, the committees will have a role in policy, departmental budgets, the initiation and consideration of primary legislation and the approval of secondary legislation.
Ministers have responsibility for the day-to-day conduct of administration within their areas of responsibility as defined by the Bill and the programme approved by the Assembly as a whole. However, they are clearly not Ministers in the sense understood in this place and in Whitehall. An earlier draft of the Bill about which we were consulted—I appreciate that fact—made the mistake of assuming that Assembly Ministers would be similar to Ministers in Westminster. It vested Executive functions directly in Ministers, as if the delicate balance in the agreement did not exist. That was clearly wrong, and we expressed that view a week ago on 10 July during consultation with the Northern Ireland Office and the SDLP. It was agreed that the draft should be changed.
The current draft in clause 18(3) vests all Executive powers in the First and Deputy First Ministers as if it were a joint presidency. It gives powers to departments and Ministers only to the extent that they approve. That overturns completely the concept of proportionality under d'Hondt, and it seems to run counter to the scheme in the agreement. Looking at the notes on clauses, I was amused to see the claim that the Government were relying on an equivalent clause in the Scotland Bill. That was true of the draft that we considered on 10 July, but it is not true of this clause, which is different.
The solution is simple and can be identified by examining the clauses in the Government of Wales Bill. I suggest that Executive power should be vested in the Assembly as a whole to be devolved by it in accordance with its Standing Orders. That avoids the draftsmen's obvious difficulty and gives flexibility to the Assembly. The scheme envisaged in the agreement may be difficult to work and we will not want to return to this place in order to make minor adjustments. This solution maintains the safeguard for all parties because the approval of Standing Orders is a key decision requiring cross-community agreement.
Clause 18(3) also runs somewhat counter to the agreement in giving power to the First and Deputy First Ministers to determine how functions will be exercised by Departments. That is contrary to the agreement. Incidentally, my role and that of my deputy, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), has been inflated greatly in the drafting of the Bill. The agreement gives comparatively limited functions to the First and Deputy First Ministers and I think that, when faced with difficulties, the draftsmen decided to dump them on us. I am not sure that I appreciate that.
The provisions regarding the north-south ministerial council and the British-Irish Council also appear to be inadequate. The detailed safeguards in the agreement have been omitted entirely. The rather bland references to agreements in clause 66 fail to take into account the fact that those agreements will be treaties in some cases, and the power to make treaties is an accepted matter. Clause 68 is particularly bizarre. It refers to bodies being established and the Secretary of State's opinion with regard to them. Reference is made to paragraph 9(ii) of the multi-party agreement, which points to what happens during the shadow period when, by definition, the Assembly is incapable of establishing any body.
We must redraft those clauses and remember that, anything that the north-south ministerial council can do, the British-Irish Council can do as well. There may be agreements between Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh of which Dublin can also be a part. There is no provision for that in the Bill; nor is there any appropriate provision in the Scottish and Welsh legislation. I hope that the Government will comment on that.
I said at the outset that the Bill provided an end to direct rule. That is what it should do, but clause 72 tries to preserve one of the most offensive aspects of direct rule: the power to enact primary legislation for Northern Ireland by Order in Council. Clearly, that practice should end.
I should also like the Government to reconsider including the Equality Commission in the Bill. That arises not from the agreement—which makes only passing reference to it—but from the quite independent review of fair employment legislation. There was some public consultation on the matter, but it was truncated arbitrarily to enable the Administration to grab what undoubtedly appears to be a convenient legislative vehicle into which the provisions may be stuffed.
I notice that the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and other equivalent bodies are uncomfortable with this. Their opposition may reflect a desire to maintain their own particular empires. We support in principle the concept of a one-stop shop, but we think that we do not have an appropriate legislative vehicle before us. Moreover, the Bill's provisions are drafted as if the Assembly did not exist. Provisions refer in large part to transferred matters. These need to be rethought. The sensible approach is to consider these matters again. The failure to recognise the incipient arrival of the Assembly seems to me, if I may say so, to be the last kick of the ancien regime. I hope that the Bourbons of the Northern Ireland Office are now prepared to learn.
I have to criticise the financial provisions in the Bill. It seems absurd that clause 45 was put into it. The clause tries to preserve the financial scheme of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, and does so in circumstances that are wholly inappropriate. The financial scheme of the 1920 Act was a failure within years of that measure's enactment and it was never applied in practice. Why has the clause been inserted in the Bill?
I appreciate the Government's desire to preserve the substance of the provisions of the 1920 Act while repealing the Act, but in this instance that approach is misconceived. We should have provisions for financial matters that are similar to those for Scotland and Wales. Introducing different financial provisions for Northern Ireland might lead some people to conclude that financial arrangements for Northern Ireland should be different from those for Scotland and Wales. We would be strongly opposed to that. We want the Barnett formula to continue.
Modifying somewhat the terms that I used in the final session of the multi-party talks, we see the agreement as addressing the wounds that have damaged our society, ensuring that our diverse traditions attract respect and, above all, laying the foundations for a healthy, vibrant democracy to replace the stagnation, frustration and powerlessness of the past three years. Of course, we welcome it.
I very much welcome the Bill and the Belfast agreement. I am pleased that, before we break for the summer recess, this necessary legislation will be passed. I am sure that I was not alone in having doubts about whether the talks would succeed. Inevitably with Northern Ireland, there is always some pessimism, which I am sad to say is sometimes well justified. However, I am pleased, as I am sure is the large majority in the House, that agreement was finally reached.
I pay tribute to all those involved—including, of course, the two main parties in Northern Ireland, one representing the main stream of Unionism and the other Irish nationalism. I pay tribute as well to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her team of Ministers.
There was, of course, also the determination of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that there had to be a successful outcome, and by a certain date. As someone who is not always uncritical of the Government, when I praise my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for his efforts and determination, that should not be seen as a sort of ritual slap on the back from a Labour Back Bencher. I cannot imagine that there are many people who are in favour of the agreement who would not equally pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend undertook.
As for the previous Government, I believe that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) tried his very best to reach agreement. I also believe that he was well motivated. He had the full support of the Labour party over Northern Ireland when it was in opposition.
I understand all the reasons why, it was not possible at the time to arrive at the successful outcome on decommissioning, that the right hon. Gentleman wanted. That was unfortunate. However, I am sure, although the right hon. Gentleman is not present in the Chamber today—there is no reason why he should be—the previous Prime Minister fully supports everything said by the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). Whatever may happen with subsequent amendments, there was little, if anything, in the hon. Gentleman's speech with which I could disagree. I hope that such unanimity over the Good Friday agreement will continue.
Sometimes, rather like the pessimism that I had over whether there would be an agreement, I am pessimistic about whether Conservative Back Benchers may force the right hon. Member for Bracknell to a different position. I hope not. As I have said, I hope that the unanimity which we have heard today from the two Front Benches will continue. I do not work on the basis that, when they both agree, that necessarily proves that we are embarking on the wrong course. That is a cynical view. The two Front Benches agreed on the Falklands and Iraq, and few have has suggested that on either issue the large majority in this place was wrong. I certainly do not believe that the Front Benches are wrong in supporting the agreement.
The important issue of decommissioning is, of course, part of the agreement, and it is in the Bill. It will feature in the work of the independent commission. I want decommissioning to take place. There is a responsibility on all paramilitary organisations that support the agreement to undertake the necessary decommissioning. Decommissioning is certainly important, but I have always taken the view that paramilitary organisations that support the agreement should not use arms. I have always seen that as the more important point arising from the political situation.
From the first, I was strenuously opposed to the IRA campaign. Like my Labour colleagues, I condemned on every occasion the crimes and atrocities of the IRA, as well as those of the loyalist gangs on the other side, whatever names they happened to take at any given time.
My constituency is very near Birmingham. We have not forgotten—we are not likely to forget—the terrible crime committed in November 1974, when so many people, half of them under the age of 25, were put to death. As we do not forget what happened in Birmingham and other places on the mainland, such as Warrington, nor can we forget—we have no reason to do so—the crimes committed in Northern Ireland itself, including Enniskillen and other places. Those were crimes against humanity, and they were to be condemned. I am pleased, like my colleagues, that at every opportunity I made my views perfectly clear, in the House and outside.
Even if we leave aside the crimes and atrocities that were committed—I never took the view that they should be—I never accepted politically that it was possible to bring about a united Ireland through terror. It seemed to me from the beginning that the very idea that it was possible to force through by terror tactics a united Ireland against the clear wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland was not on.
In September 1983, 15 years ago, when I was a member of a parliamentary Labour party delegation of the Northern Ireland group, I and other members went to Northern Ireland. We saw whichever political party was willing to see us. When I met the Sinn Fein leadership, like my colleagues, I said that terrorism would not succeed. I said that no British Government would agree to giving in to terror, and that no British Government, in any circumstances, would say, "Regardless of the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland, we are going to abdicate our responsibility."
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, as a result of the Bill, the political representatives who are inextricably linked with the terrorist groups that committed those crimes will be rewarded with places in government under an arrangement which they consider to be transitional on the way to their ultimate objective of a united Ireland?
The hon. and learned Gentleman, deliberately or otherwise, allows himself to be swayed by IRA propaganda. For a quarter of a century and more, the Provisional IRA and, linked to it, Sinn Fein, argued that such terror would achieve a unitary state in Ireland. That has not happened; indeed, groups have broken away from the IRA—the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) referred to them—because they believe that the IRA and Sinn Fein have betrayed the cause, as they would put it. It would be advisable not to accept the propaganda of the IRA or Sinn Fein, which would have us believe that they have achieved a great victory. That is not the case, and the hon. and learned Member knows it.
The Irish Republic's attitude was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bracknell when he spoke about the changes to articles 2 and 3 of the constitution. I welcome those changes, which arise from the Belfast agreement. The Irish Republic, as he will agree, has always been opposed to the IRA campaign of terror and violence, has never questioned in practice the constitutional links between Northern Ireland and this country, and has recognised that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.
The constitution of the Irish Republic has been so changed, and rightly so, and that has been approved in a referendum, as it had to be. That has clearly set out the fact that there can be no change in Northern Ireland's status without the consent of the majority of the people, expressed in the usual constitutional and democratic way. To some extent, that answers the hon. and learned Member for North Down.
Good working relationships between Britain and Ireland are absolutely essential. Time and again, difficulties between the two countries have meant difficulties in Northern Ireland. As the agreement shows in respect of strands 1 and 2, good working relationships are absolutely necessary. To put it mildly, there have been centuries of disquiet and difficulties between Ireland and Britain, but, to a large extent, good working relationships have been established over the past 10 or 15 years. That is highly desirable, and certainly in the interests of Northern Ireland.
I have been involved from the Back Benches in the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body, which was set up eight years ago. It brought together parliamentarians from both countries, and we have established good working relationships. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), my predecessor as chair, who was one of the pioneers in setting up the group. He deserves great praise, and I was pleased to work with him as vice-chair over a number of years.
I do not intend to find out how many members of the body are present. I know that members of it, if my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) is listening, are active in Committee meetings, and do a very useful job.
I want to issue a warning. It was inevitable that elements on the republican side who are opposed to the agreement would be determined to continue to wage a campaign of terror. What the right hon. Member for Upper Bann said about those groups did not surprise me in the least. Those small republican elements are not concerned about democratic elections and could not care less about the referendum result in Northern Ireland or in the Republic.
Such groups believe that they have a dedicated mission to achieve a united Ireland regardless of any mandate from the electorate and they will continue to do what they can to inflict terror—I include the mainland in that—to achieve maximum publicity. The main thing is to ensure that these small republican groups that have broken away from the IRA are as isolated as possible. We should praise the work of the British and Irish security authorities, which made sure that what was likely to have been a devastating attack in London last week did not take place.
Opposition Members who oppose the agreement will, I am sure, accept the will and authority of Parliament, however great their opposition, but there are nevertheless elements on the Unionist side who believe that they can destroy the Belfast agreement by violence of one kind or another. Although I do not blame the Orange Order as such for what happened at Drumcree over the burning to death of three young children—I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about that—it must take some responsibility for what occurred.
The Orange Order knew that the Parades Commission had been set up by Parliament, but totally ignored its recommendation and took no notice of the Chief Constable. Unlike the republican extremists, members of the Orange Order always say that they accept the rule of law and parliamentary democracy, but when an issue goes against them, as at Drumcree, they are not willing to accept the rule of law. What happened there showed that thugs who have no concern for human life were willing to use the protest to take the lives of three innocent children who would not have known the distinction between the Orange Order and the red order.
The protest at Drumcree has come to little; I am pleased about that, but how unfortunate it is that it took the loss of the lives of three young children to bring that about. Surely the lesson for the Orange Order—as for all organisations in Northern Ireland, whether on the Unionist or the nationalist side—is to accept the rule of law and to accept that recommendations should be accepted. I much welcome the agreement and believe that it is a significant way forward for Northern Ireland. I wish it the very best.
Mr. Lembit Ãâpik:
This is a magnificent day for Northern Irish affairs in this Parliament, not only because it marks my formal return to the Floor of the House of Commons following my serious accident about 12 weeks ago, but because it is an opportunity to bring together everything that many of us have strived to achieve. I pay tribute to those who have been Members of Parliament for much longer than I who have worked through the dark times, as well as through these more positive times, to try to achieve a renaissance in Northern Irish politics, which I did not expect this side of the millennium.
This is also an opportunity for us to note that we have too often discussed Northern Ireland in the context of the previous atrocity or outrage or the latest appalling act. Today, we have begun to consider a practical way to end all that, and move Northern Ireland into a fresh century. Of course the deaths of Mark, Richard and Jason were a step back; they showed that many people in Northern Ireland are still confused by the way forward, and that a few people are still willing to resort to violence.
Andrew Kearney's death is further evidence that we still have a long way to go. In some ways, however, the outcome of Drumcree showed that those tensions can be worked through. Despite the difficulties that we witnessed on television and in the fraught efforts of those who sought to achieve a reconciliation in Drumcree, we have moved to the next step in the tortuous and slow process towards a lasting peace.
I pay tribute to the work done by the Secretary of State and her team of Ministers. Watching events from my hospital bed, I was inclined to believe that, given the opportunity of trading places with them, I would choose the continuing hospitality of the national health service.
I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who have been elected to important positions. They have the opportunity—or perhaps the burden—to carry forward some of the most controversial aspects of the important precedent that will mark the effectiveness, or perhaps the ineffectiveness, of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Had I had the opportunity, I would have voted for their election myself.
As this is the Bill's Third Reading—[HON. MEMBERS: "Second Reading."] I stand corrected. I landed on my head in the course of my accident, so I hope that hon. Members will be patient if I make the occasional small error. As this is the Bill's Second Reading, I shall not go into great detail about the amendments that the Liberal Democrats propose, but I am greatly heartened that Ministers intend to listen seriously to any proposals that would enhance the Bill.
We all know why direct rule has been necessary, but we should not let that blinker us to the idiocies to which that has sometime led. I have never pinpointed a farmyard track in the Falkland islands and suggested how it could be re-routed; perhaps the penguins would have a better idea than I in that area. In the same context, I do not see why I should be entitled to legislate or participate in debates in this Chamber on farmyard tracks in a part of Northern Ireland with which I am not familiar, yet that has been the case over the past two decades.
The Bill represents a golden opportunity to end that, by establishing an Assembly to make those decisions in the name of Northern Ireland, not on our behalf but on behalf of local people. The Assembly will work democratically and from an informed standpoint. After all, local people have to live with those decisions, and they are best able to judge whether the decisions have been a success. It has already been said that the Bill contains various insurance policies. Perhaps we should be a little bolder and more willing to delegate responsibilities to an Assembly that ultimately we must trust to carry devolution forward.
Still, it can also be said that the devolution opportunity within the Bill is flexible. The reserved powers provide the House with the chance to delegate more responsibilities to the Assembly as time goes on. I would expect us to default to the assumption that we will hand over more responsibilities as quickly as we can. Incumbent on an Assembly receiving those extra responsibilities is the duty to handle them sensibly.
Although the Bill deals predominantly with strand 1 of the Good Friday agreement, we should not neglect the other parts of the agreement or the process that led us to where we are today. I was glad to hear the positive tones of the Secretary of State's response to a question about strand 2 put by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) last week at Northern Ireland Questions. Incidentally, I am grateful for my hon. Friend's work when he stood in for me during my convalescence. Strand 2 is proceeding apace, and the north-south ministerial council will be in place by 31 October—an appropriate date because I always feared that the bogeyman of Halloween would get us if we did not achieve that deadline.
The British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body has been very effective. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on finally conceding his envy at not yet being on that body. I assure him that many of us will lobby hard to ensure that he joins us one day.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body will probably be laid to rest next year because of the strand 3 agreement, which creates a British-Irish Council made up of representatives of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, this Parliament and the Dail?
It is interesting, albeit frightening as a Member, to think that such a successful body could be wound up, but the hon. Gentleman is right—it is a reasonable possibility. It would be a great loss if its work and the connections that it has built up over the years were to be lost. Perhaps it should be regarded as one of the bodies from which a future body could evolve.
Strand 3, which deals with intergovernmental matters, does not come within the ambit of the Bill. Despite the Bill's emphasis on strand 1, it is the "settlement" Bill that its name implies, because it encompasses all the major issues. The Bill can be dealt with in this House in relation to the Good Friday agreement.
The title "settlement" Bill is particularly appropriate, because we have often been close to a settlement in the past. Progress in Northern Ireland is not new; there was political progress in 1974, 1982 and 1991. The history of progress in Northern Ireland was gathering dust, because each time it was overcome by inertia or negated by regress. Progress in Northern Ireland is as common as Christmas, but settlements are as elusive as Santa Claus. Since my childhood, as I have watched politicians on television, I have been disappointed to see hope, promise and expectation dashed at the last moment. Now, on this occasion, we seem to have overcome many of the hurdles, and moved far further than ever before in my lifetime.
That is the challenge this time. We have had the talks about talks, the elections to talks, the talks themselves, the negotiations, the deal, and the agreement. We then had the success story: the referendum followed by the elections. However, we have yet to settle the final Bill, which must turn the agreement into a settlement. If we do our job well over the next fortnight, the agreement could be transformed into a lasting triumph. If we do not, the good intentions behind the Good Friday agreement may remain just good intentions.
The Liberal Democrats' role during consideration of the Bill is to help to transform the agreement into a settlement, which means ensuring that the spirit and letter of the agreement are translated accurately into legislation. The Bill could be improved in a number of areas, and we shall table a few amendments so that it mirrors the agreement more effectively and clarifies some vagaries that could cause problems if they are not clearly defined now. Although we agree with the majority of the 82 clauses, we shall propose specific amendments in Committee—for example, to clauses 22, 38 and 66. Those amendments will strengthen the settlement, so that everything that has been achieved to date will not be brought down by uncertainty.
We hope that our consistent, constructive contribution will aid the spirit of co-operation that is so often seen in Parliament on Northern Ireland issues. Furthermore, we hope that the Government will accept our proposals in good faith. Our aim throughout will be to help convert the agreement into a rational and reasonable law. I hope that that approach will be taken by all hon. Members, regardless of their party. I appeal to the democratic instinct of those who opposed the Good Friday agreement. It is clear from recent results that the balance of people in Northern Ireland, from all traditions, has been willing to give the new order a chance. It behoves us to honour their aspirations for a lasting settlement.
I have always enjoyed speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. Indeed, it has sometimes struck me that Ministers would be well advised to consider closely the perspectives with which many on the Government Benches disagree, as they unquestionably provide an insight to the attitudes of many people in Northern Ireland. I have great respect for people with whom I have, on occasions, disagreed intensely on Northern Irish affairs, but I do not question for a moment that they represent a significant view that must be taken into account. Their contributions are valid and necessary if a lasting peace is to be achieved.
I trust that even the sceptics among us will want to maximise the Bill's effectiveness. I hope that Conservative Members will participate positively. Some hon. Members may have assiduously opposed the agreement, but my early impression is that they, too, will add value to the debate.
If, like the majority of people in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the mainland of the United Kingdom, we support the agreement, we must understand that it cannot be renegotiated: a deal is a deal. As politicians, we must be particularly conscious of the fact that our word should be our bond. We would not enter into a business contract and expect to renegotiate it unilaterally afterwards, and so it must be with the Good Friday agreement. We would be showing bad faith to all those who voted for it in May if we tried to add conditions in the Bill that were not in the agreement. That is what the enemies of the Bill—those who resort to the use of violence, bombs, guns and coercion—seek to do.
People with strong feelings can still be manipulated by those behind the scenes who do not accept the democratic will. Our challenge is to show that they have no currency in influencing the Northern Ireland agenda. I do not believe that the new decision makers in Northern Ireland or the more established legislators in the Chamber will succumb to those who use violence and non-democratic means to try to destroy or harm the achievements that have so far been made.
There are still tensions: Northern Ireland politics is hot, but it is not burning. The challenge is to turn those tensions into positive energy that can drive Northern Ireland's economy and culture, and repair the damage caused by the hate and the dissonance.
I welcome the urgency with which the Government have introduced the legislation. Parliamentary time is a precious commodity: it converts directly into the political capital on which we all depend for our positions in the House. The urgency with which the Bill has been treated suggests that the good will of the Good Friday agreement is alive and well.
I hope that, in line with that spirit of good will, hon. Members will not clutter this debate or any other stage of the Bill with explanations unrelated to the agreement. I also hope that the Government, in their eagerness to thrust the Bill on to the statute book, do not overlook any important issues raised in the debates. I am glad that the Government will have the summer to reflect on the debate before the Bill is considered in the other place. Urgency is welcome, but cutting corners would be unforgivable.
The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the Bill, and look forward to working with Ministers. Also, we welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to taking a sympathetic and flexible approach to amendments that will improve the Bill.
Finally, I admit that I am surprised we have got this far. At times I have felt positive, and at others I have felt a sense of despair. However, we have made it, and it behoves us all to do what we can to achieve a settlement of which we and Northern Ireland can be proud. We must create something that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland can turn into a living settlement and, above all, that turns the Good Friday agreement into a settlement that in Northern Ireland makes every day a good day in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and other hon. Members for their kind words. I welcome the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire back: it is a pleasure to see him again in one piece, and I am sure that all hon. Members would echo those sentiments.
This is a long, complex, difficult and mould-breaking Bill. It will take us into a new assembly, a new century, a new millennium and, I believe, into a new era of trust and agreement in the north of Ireland. Given its complexity, I thank the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for holding consultations, which were helpful to us. I have no doubt that they were helpful to other parties, and that the Minister will see us again for further consultations, because it appears that they will be needed.
The Secretary of State said that the Government will table amendments. We await those amendments either in this place or in the other place. As the Bill proceeds, clarification will be required.
I have one abiding commitment: the legislation must be based on the letter and the spirit of the agreement that we reached on Good Friday. The Bill must include provision for all the assembly business, for the north-south institutions, the Council of the Isles and for the constitutional commitments and guarantees given. This legislation is not negotiable. Everyone who signed the agreement has a duty not just towards the agreement, but towards the people of Northern Ireland who gave their mandate. It is a duty towards the other parties not present who signed the agreement. I should point out, lest we forget, that another sovereign Government signed the agreement. It is a duty on all of us who signed the agreement and who want to implement it to achieve lasting peace, stability and a new quality of life for everyone. We are the custodians of the agreement. We stand by that agreement in all its manifestations, in its entirety and its integrity.
Implementing the agreement will not be easy, as opinions are divided. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and I have had and will have difficult roles to play. It is not a recipe for disaster, as the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) suggested. I do not see it as a joint presidency, as was implied in another speech. I see it as something much more important. It is an honest attempt by the two communities in the north of Ireland—nationalist and Unionist, Catholic, Protestant, and dissenters—to grapple with the problem that can be dealt with only on the basis of trust and agreement and by working together.
We stand by the agreement and we will stand with the people who have decided, in a referendum and an election, that this is what they want us to do. We shall implement their wishes as expressed in the referendum and in the election with fear of nobody and favour towards no one. I believe that we must proceed on that basis.
Our task will not be easy. We have functions under the agreement and the Bill in relation to the north-south ministerial council, the shape and operation of the new Assembly, a new civic forum, a new Council of the Isles, the designation of departments and the steerage of the creation of a new Executive. That would be almost enough work for a parliamentary Session; indeed, it might be enough for a longer Session. Unfortunately, we must ensure that the business is completed and the necessary proposals are made between now and 14 September, and we shall need the help of the entire community to achieve that. We shall need the help of all our colleagues in the House, as well as the assistance of the civic community in the north of Ireland. I shall return to that later.
We have been through a pretty difficult time—a crucible. I refer to Drumcree and Ballymoney. Like the people of the north of Ireland collectively, we had to go through a pain barrier—and it was certainly painful; but three lessons emerged from it, and we must learn those lessons. First, the issue of marches and parades, counter-marches and counter-demonstrations must be dealt with now, by every sector of our community. It cannot be left until we approach the period next year when marches will take place. The heart of Northern Ireland cannot be made to bleed as it is now, every year, without a solution being reached.
The second lesson is that there are political agendas on both sides. There are street marches, and street protests. That is a fact of life: we must live according to it, and we must be aware of it in all our deliberations.
The third lesson is that we all pay the cost. We are talking about three white coffins coming out of a hearse, and about something in the region of £100 million going down the drain in the last few weeks. It may have been only £80 million or £90 million, or it may indeed have been £100 million. In any event, let each of us think of that in terms of our constituencies. How many schools, how many carers' wages, how many hospitals could have been financed by £100 million? We all pay the cost, so we must all do what we can to prevent such things.
I want to discuss three aspects of the Bill, with which my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) will deal in more detail. First, our party and the nationalist community—in the negotiations, and now—have wanted a legal base for the north-south ministerial council. That will come as no surprise: we all spent two years trying to negotiate it, successfully in the end. Paragraph 1 of strand 2 states, very explicitly:
Under a new British-Irish Agreement dealing with the totality of relationships and related legislation in Westminster and the Oireachtas a North-South Ministerial Council to be established".
I want that to be carried through in the Bill.
In an early draft, there was a paragraph that continued the provisions of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, but it is no longer there. Clause 66 of the Bill requires the First Minister and his deputy to ensure participation in the council, and clause 68 allows the Secretary of State to set up implementation bodies during the period leading up to the transfer of powers; but, following amendments and further explanations, clause 26 of the original draft is no longer there. There may well be an argument that the establishment of the north-south ministerial council derives from an international agreement and not from legislation, but there is surely a requirement for an authoritative description of the council.
Concern has already been expressed about the human rights section of the Bill, and I share some of that concern. Substantial representations have been made. I understand from what the Secretary of State said that amendments will be tabled, and the Government will expand their thinking. I look forward to that happening before we finally decide on our position; but we will table amendments, and will try to ensure that both the spirit and the letter of the agreement underlie that part of the Bill.
Let me now deal with my final area of concern. In fact, "concern" is the wrong word; I consider it important. I believe that we must create a new civic forum. I suppose that many people see that as involving the "great and the good", but that assumption greatly underestimates the potential of the forum. I think that the forum—along with those who, like me, are elected to the assembly—has an opportunity to introduce a new dimension to life in the north of Ireland. I refer to the dimension of communities, and representatives of the various sectors. They will not just observe the political process; they will become, as representatives of a civic forum, a partner in that process, having responsibilities, having influence and being able to grapple with and solve the problems that we face.
I think—I know—that we have an opportunity to do something that is new and is needed: something that can be imaginative, but must deal with enormous problems. I believe that we will achieve that; I also believe that we will achieve it in a spirit, and a way, that will maximise public opinion in the north of Ireland.
The shadow Secretary of State gave advice to both Unionists and nationalists. I would never presume to speak on behalf of any of my Unionist colleagues in the House in regard to the acceptance of advice, but I can speak about what the right hon. Gentleman said about the nationalist community. Slowly, over many years, I have come to believe that each generation has a right and a duty to write its own history—that we cannot bind future generations, any more than we should be bound by the past that has been handed down to us. In that spirit, I believe that the suggestion made by the Secretary of State is right. We will not be bound, in terms of our actions, our imagination or our will to deal with that with which we have to deal.
The Bill fails utterly to live up to the Prime Minister's pledges and promises. At the time of the referendum in Northern Ireland—which has been much talked about this afternoon—we were led to believe that a range of issues would be dealt with properly before terrorist front organisations could be allowed to reap the benefits of the agreement. It has been admitted in the House that those pledges had a great influence on voters. As things stand now, IRA-Sinn Fein will be able to claim all the advantages without having to give up violence, without having to hand over a single bullet or an ounce of Semtex, and without even having to begin the dismantling of its terrorist machine.
The killing in north Belfast yesterday by republicans who are linked to the IRA demonstrates the necessity for this issue to be properly addressed and resolved. Gerry Adams has told us and the city of Belfast that the IRA has not gone away. The threat from other sources has not diminished. I am speaking about loyalist paramilitaries, who are also fronted in the Assembly by political leaders and who pose a real and continuing risk to the entire community. It is interesting to note that it is from their ranks that the police are interrogating people about the tragedy of the murders in Ballymoney. However, that is not given to the public. In other statements, the police are quick to say who they are interrogating and from which side of the community they come, but on this issue there is a wall of silence.
The police issued a statement that three Roman Catholic children had been murdered and they apologised for that statement because the facts were not so. In the home that night there were two Protestants, a man and a woman, and Mrs. Quinn. Three children were being brought up as Protestants, attending the Protestant school and Protestant churches. We know what happened and we know about the insinuations. I hope that no step will be spared and no stone will be unturned until the full truth of what happened in Ballymoney comes out. At the moment, some of those who are identified with the community that endorsed the agreement, who said they were for it and who were represented in the political life that brought about the agreement are being interrogated by the police.
In some respects, the Bill goes further than the agreement. It gives greater powers to Ministers on north-south issues than the agreement envisaged and set down in plain print. One of Irish republicanism's key objectives has been the destruction of the Union that binds Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom. The Bill states that the Government of Ireland Act 1920 must go: it will be abolished by the Bill. The 1920 Act established the supreme authority of the United Kingdom Parliament over Northern Ireland. Some say that the removal of that Act is meaningless, but that ignores the massive effort by the pan-nationalist front to have that Act on the table. In particular, the Dublin Government campaigned to get rid of that legislation.
The Northern Ireland spokesman for the Conservative and Unionist party, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), made some amazing statements at the Dispatch Box. They do not stand up to historical scrutiny, let alone the facts of the matter. We are told that everything in the agreement is balanced. I do not see much balance in the removal of the 1920 Act. I draw to the right hon. Gentleman's attention the fact that other Acts, including the Union with Ireland Act 1800, are to be superseded.
We have been told that Dublin has amended articles 2 and 3 of the Republic of Ireland's constitution. How has it done that? Dublin has amended them by widening its claim, not on territory but on the people who live in that territory. Further, the changes that the south of Ireland says that it will make will be made only if the institutions with executive powers and functions for the whole of Ireland are set up. Until that happens, Dublin has the right not to proceed on the basis of the result of its referendum.
The 1920 Act will be abolished by this House at once, but the Irish legislation allows Dublin to revert to the original constitutional provisions for up to one year later if all-Ireland executive powers are not being implemented. Changes to the Irish Republic's constitution are provisional and conditional, while changes to Ulster's position within the Union are not so. In the referendum campaign, Northern Ireland people were bombarded by a series of promises, pledges and assurances by the Prime Minister and others who were increasingly desperate to persuade people to vote yes. The Bill and the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill show how little regard the Government have paid to the real concerns of the people of Northern Ireland.
People were led to believe that IRA-Sinn Fein would not get into government without giving up violence for good and handing in at least some of their weaponry. The Bill shows that the most that will happen is that if the Secretary of State thinks that the Assembly should debate the removal of individual Ministers or parties from the Executive, she can refer the matter to the Presiding Officer. The crucial factor is that only a vote by Members of the Assembly under the consensus provisions can remove any person or party from office. Do we expect IRA-Sinn Fein to vote themselves out of office?
According to some hon. Members, the election victory was just as great as the one in the referendum. It should be noted that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has 28 votes in the Assembly. Those Unionists who oppose this matter also have 28 votes, and the right hon. Gentleman owes his position to the representatives of two paramilitary organisations. I have already spoken about those people. The House should not think that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister had overwhelming votes because, in the context of the consensus on the Unionist side, the majority was three.
The Bill is unique in its description of the First Minister and the second Minister. They are not first and second: they are co-Ministers. The Bill states:
A reference to—
There are two Prime Ministers—one from the Unionist side and one from the nationalist side. It is helpful that the schedule gives us the definitions of the delegated Ministers and their powers.
shall be construed as a reference to the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly.
The Bill fails to provide adequately for a link between a party and the terrorist organisation that it fronts. Under clause 23, the only link is to a Minister of the party concerned. That gives plenty of loopholes for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to remain in office no matter what atrocities the Irish Republican Army carries out.
The interesting matter raised by Mr. Mallon—[HON. MEMBERS: "The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh."] Pardon me. I should say the second Minister designate of Northern Ireland.
I call it Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) spoke about clause 26, about which I wrote to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister does not usually answer my letters speedily—in fact, he did not bother to answer my last three letters—but he answered that one very quickly. He insisted that the clause did not mean what I thought it meant. I was relieved that it was deleted when the Bill was redrafted, but then I found clause 66, in which the measure is written in another way. Will the Minister explain the difference between the original clause 26 and clause 66? I am glad that the second Minister of Northern Ireland thinks that the measure means what I thought it meant—we seem to be on the same wavelength, and I look forward to seeing the amendment that he says he will table.
The Bill forces Ministers not only to consult other members of a north-south body, but to make arrangements with them on transferred matters. That goes beyond the agreement. The Bill seeks to take apart the structures of the Union; it will put Northern Ireland under increasing influence from the south and will exert increasing pressures to destroy the Union.
The people of Northern Ireland know that. The Unionist people of Northern Ireland know it, as has been demonstrated by the division in the official Unionist party. Hon. Members should not think that they can ignore a substantial section of the community. Just as they cannot ignore the nationalists, they cannot ignore those who are at least 50 per cent. of the Unionist population. Hon. Members must realise that those people, too, have views that must be listened to and respected.
The lady who is the Social Democratic and Labour party Assembly representative for Portadown—
I do not know where she comes from, but I know that she said that those who voted no were outside the pale. "We are the real majority," she said, "and they are really nobodies." The nobodies may have greater influence than hon. Members recognise. I say that those nobodies need to be listened to carefully.
I join in the applause that so many hon. Members have given to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and to all those who took part in the negotiations. I shall not elaborate on that too much, not only to spare their blushes, but because of the pressure of time.
My first point concerns human rights, especially the right to choose an attorney. We have heard bad news from Derry today—Lord Saville has rejected the requests of the families at the tribunal for better legal representation. I believe that that puts the inquiry on to the wrong foot; it will put an enormous amount of work on the lawyers working for the families of the deceased and their dependants.
Yes. I hope that Lord Saville will reconsider his decision.
It is important that the proposed Human Rights Commission should be effective, should be seen to be effective and should be properly respected by the Government of the day. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights was a brilliant body. It produced many fine reports that were strong on analysis and in their conclusions and recommendations, many of which—especially on human rights—were ignored by previous Governments. Sadly, even this Government ignored some of the recommendations on fair employment, which I believe should enjoy a proper status in the new arrangements.
The Human Rights Commission must have adequate powers—indeed, that must apply not only in Northern Ireland, but for the rest of Europe as a whole. At the Heads of Government meeting in Strasbourg, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister signed a document appointing a human rights commissioner for Europe. That was an important step, especially as the commissioner may well recommend that the emerging democracies in central and eastern Europe use a human rights model similar to the one that we are establishing in Northern Ireland. It is important that we get that model right; we do not want to give the emerging democracies the opportunity to say, "They haven't got this in Northern Ireland. If the Brits don't need it, why do we?"
Three improvements must be made to the measures on the commission. First, the Bill should specify that the commission has the right to investigate human rights abuses where appropriate by public inquiry. Secondly,
the commission should have the right to initiate litigation in its own name; clause 57 denies the commission that right, although the Good Friday agreement said that the commission's role would include,
in appropriate cases, bringing court proceedings or providing assistance to individuals doing so".
That was not an either/or choice; the two were seen as complementary. I believe that the commission should be given back the right to bring court proceedings.
Thirdly, the commission is restricted to assisting only those individuals who bring cases under the Human Rights Act. That will—wrongly, in my view—prevent the commission from assisting individuals who want to bring cases with equally significant human rights implications under other legislation, such as cases involving assault in custody.
I know that some hon. Members will argue that the commission should not be able to litigate in its own name as amicus curiae because third-party cases will not apply under the Human Rights Act, but the Home Secretary has indicated that if a human rights commission were to be established for the United Kingdom in parallel to that Act, he would reconsider that restriction. It is of the utmost importance that the Human Rights Commission has that right in Northern Ireland.
I shall deal now with the Equality Commission. I join the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) in wondering why some provisions have been included in the Bill, as there is no need for them. In fact, I wonder whether, as has been suggested, the old regime was throwing in something that would not be properly considered and which would in many ways preserve the status quo.
It is the Equality Commission which has caused the biggest hue and cry in Northern Ireland. Of the 123 submissions made in respect of the White Paper, only 29 supported the single Equality Commission. It is significant that one of them was from the Confederation of British Industry—I do not want to say anything about new Labour, as that would be very wrong of me. It is important to note that all the important institutions—SACHR, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fair Employment Commission, the Disability Council, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the agencies representing ethnic minorities—are against the idea because they believe that it has not been properly thought through.
It is no great matter of principle whether we have one Equality Commission or whether all the commissions remain. It is evident that the Equality Commission has not been properly thought out in terms of its relationship with other agencies, its staff or the money involved, but we shall not have the time to examine it properly. We have six hours next Monday to deal with all the equality issues.
In the past, these matters have taken days to examine in Committee. In addition, there is no need for this provision to be in the Bill. I also wonder whether it has been included as an excuse to avoid including the suggested further fair employment legislation. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bear in mind what the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh said, and ask her to consider whether this provision should be included. We can examine the matter of the Human Rights Commission, but my right hon. Friend should reconsider the single Equality Commission.
Yes, we included it in the Bill in a bit of a rush because it is part of the Good Friday agreement. Not to have included it would have meant that the complaints would have been even greater. Yes, the structures are there, but if my hon. Friend reads the provision more closely, he will find that the four chief executives of the commissions, plus representatives of the other four groups concerned, can shape it as they want. If there is no difficulty with the principle, this provision gives them the opportunity to choose the format with which they can live most easily.
That is being a bit jesuitical, if I may say that. The agreement refers to the British Government considering the matter and undertaking consultation. That consultation was abruptly brought to an end and there was no undertaking by any party to accept the proposal. It was a question of what was noted in the agreement. I urge my right hon. Friend to think again, because I believe it is wrong. I note that my right hon. Friend did not disagree with the notion that the proposal was a way of getting round the need for extra fair employment legislation.
I come now to the policy appraisal and fair treatment agreement and putting it out to private contract or tender under the Equality Commission. Mrs. Joan Smyth, the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said:
The responsibility to bring about equality should lie where the policies are made. And that is within Government".
Again, the Northern Ireland civil service has chickened out, as it has over earlier legislation and as it does all the time because it has always resented this fact. As the Assembly and Government Departments are going to have to consider it, the right place for it to be considered is within government so that decisions are referred to a strong, central body which can decide whether those decisions really meet proper PAFT criteria. Putting the matter at arm's length is a major error.
Finally, I greatly regret clause 79(5) which states:
A certificate purporting to be signed by or on behalf of the Secretary of State and certifying that an act specified in the certificate was done for the purpose of safeguarding national security shall be conclusive evidence that it was done for that purpose.
That is the old clause 42 brought back again, something that we voted against and which we considered very wrong when we were in opposition. Now, we have the judgment in the Tinnelly case in Strasbourg. As I understand it—I was reading it in French, and it is a long time since I did French at school—Tinnelly has been upheld by Strasbourg. The original clause 42 and the current clause 79 are now outwith the convention on human rights to which, as we are told in the agreement and in statute, we should be paying attention. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would examine that point when we come to consider any alterations.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend said that she will be flexible. We have already tabled some amendments, and there will doubtless be more. She has been promised them like confetti at a wedding. It would be wrong to seek to affect the principles of or what is contained in the agreement, but I have to say that where matters are not specifically spelt out in the agreement it seems that the Government have taken the de minimis line rather than looking to expand and be generous.
Human rights issues are going to be important not only for the people of Northern Ireland; how we deal with them will be an example to the rest of Europe and to the emerging democracies. My right hon. Friend has to be bold and not restrict the powers of the various bodies. They must be shown to be open and strong, able to initiate proceedings and investigations and to assist claimants, not merely reacting to propositions put to them.
Like most hon. Members, I support the aims of the Bill and want to see it work. I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State, her Ministers and the Prime Minister and, indeed, to the previous Prime Minister for all the work that went into creating a formidable achievement.
Because of the understandable speed of preparation, some of the arrangements are less than satisfactory from the perspective of public accounting and accountability for United Kingdom taxes. I know that there was some rapid consultation with the Northern Ireland Audit Office in preparation for the Bill, but I do not believe that there was any discussion with the Comptroller and Auditor General for the House who has a locus as we are dealing with UK taxes as much as with Northern Ireland money.
I shall talk briefly about a specific, relatively technical, but important matter—the scrutiny of expenditure in Northern Ireland of UK taxpayers' money under the Bill. If necessary, I shall table amendments in an attempt to correct matters about which I am concerned, but if the Government consider the points that I raise worth while, I should prefer them to introduce amendments.
I am sure that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office will do all they can to help the Government with a difficult, technical, House of Commons matter—although it is not as difficult as what the Secretary of State has already achieved.
Between 1921 and 1972, the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Parliament was funded from the Northern Ireland consolidated fund and scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General, who reported directly to the Accounts Committee of the Northern Ireland Parliament. It was originally envisaged that Northern Ireland would be self-financing, but a series of ad hoc legislative measures provided for extensive subsidies from Westminster without ever correspondingly extending the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee or the National Audit Office.
With suspension of the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1972, the Northern Ireland Audit Office reported to the Westminster Public Accounts Committee.
The current position is that the expenditure of Northern Ireland Departments is voted separately by Parliament on Northern Ireland estimates. The accounts of the Departments and other public sector bodies are audited and scrutinised by the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General, and his reports are laid before the House and taken by the Public Accounts Committee. Currently, the House's Public Accounts Commission determines funding of the Northern Ireland Office.
The essence of the Northern Ireland Bill is to transfer to the new Assembly's Executive from Northern Ireland Office Ministers the responsibility for the Northern Ireland civil service. Because of the Bill, the House will continue to approve supply estimates for the Northern Ireland Office, including the allocation to the Northern Ireland Assembly paid into the Northern Ireland consolidated fund.
The key points about scrutiny and accountability in the Bill are, first, that the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General will lose his statutory powers to report to the Westminster Parliament. Secondly, the House—in the form of the Public Accounts Committee—will lose its powers of overseeing expenditure from the Northern Ireland consolidated fund, which is £7.4 billion, but will keep oversight of law and order expenditure, which is £900 million. Thirdly, the Bill will largely restore for the Northern Ireland Assembly the oversight, audit and scrutiny arrangements that existed before 1972.
The Northern Ireland Bill, like the Scotland Bill, does not give Parliament or the Comptroller and Auditor General any specific powers to receive reports on, or to investigate, the use of public funds once those are transferred to the consolidated fund for Northern Ireland. There is no provision for direct accountability to the House by the accounting officers who will head the Northern Ireland Departments.
The proposed arrangements raise questions about the adequacy of oversight that the House could exercise over United Kingdom taxpayers' money voted for the Northern Ireland consolidated fund. The issues are particularly significant in Northern Ireland, where the proportion of United Kingdom taxpayers' subvention is very high. As the Secretary of State will know, it is about £3 billion in 1997–98—which is almost 40 per cent. of total expenditure of £8.3 billion.
Within Northern Ireland, moneys issued from the consolidated fund will be subject to the Assembly's scrutiny under Northern Ireland legislation—principally the Exchequer and Audit (Northern Ireland) Act 1921 and the Audit (Northern Ireland) order 1987, which provide a framework for estimates, accountability and auditing by the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General that is closely modelled on current United Kingdom practice. The 1987 order particularly ensures independence of the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Northern Ireland Office's powers to undertake value-for-money investigations.
As a result of the overview of the Public Accounts Commission and the Public Accounts Committee, the Northern Ireland Office has developed in parallel with the mainland United Kingdom's National Audit Office. For that, I give my compliments and praise to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), for his work on the Committee.
Therefore, in practice, the devolved Assembly will take over arrangements for accountability that closely follow Westminster practice and for public sector audit that are in line with National Audit Office statements. However, in principle—this is one of the two problems that I wish to raise—any current Northern Ireland legislation relating to the role of Comptroller and Auditor-General could be altered by the Assembly. That arrangement is very different from those for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as in each of those cases scrutiny provisions are written into United Kingdom law.
Therefore—for example—because the independence of the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General is not stated in the Bill as United Kingdom legislation, the Assembly could dilute his independence by amending or repealing a relevant Northern Ireland order. Such a situation is not unusual—it has happened in Denmark, where Governments eroded the power of scrutiny. We will have to think about the possibility of such a situation developing in Northern Ireland not only in the next two years but in the next 20 or 120 years.
Furthermore, although the existence of the Accounts Committee in the previous Northern Ireland Parliament gives us hope that the Assembly will establish a similar committee, there is nothing to compel the Assembly to do so. There is also no precedent for a body equivalent to the Public Accounts Commission to determine funding of the Northern Ireland Audit Office independently of the Executive, as happens in the House.
The absence of any oversight by the United Kingdom Comptroller and Auditor General or the Public Accounts Committee of expenditure by the Northern Ireland Departments raises in this House serious issues of taxation without representation. There must also be concern about whether the brief audit provisions in clause 52 give the same assurance of independence to the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General as the Scotland Bill and Government of Wales Bill give to their respective auditors.
Those matters are particularly important for Northern Ireland for three reasons. First, as I said, the percentage of funding for Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom is almost 40 per cent., which is the highest percentage of any part of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, the history of management of public sector spending in Northern Ireland is not very good. In conversation with me, such management was described by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—I am sure that he will not mind my quoting him—as ghastly. Many management weaknesses have shown up in recent audit reports. Moreover, as the Secretary of State will know better than anyone, there is a history of paramilitary-based fraud in Northern Ireland. We should not expect that fraud or the related pressures to disappear overnight.
Thirdly, as we have seen in other parts of the United Kingdom, problems of waste and corruption are often endemic to authorities that are dominated over a long period either by single parties or by single coalitions. I support the power-sharing arrangements that we are creating for Northern Ireland and yield to no one in my admiration for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Nevertheless, in the scrutiny arrangements that we build into the Bill, we must plan against the very long-term effect of having one coalition in power, which is perfectly possible under the arrangements that we are making.
I therefore ask the Secretary of State to examine two issues. The first is the House's continuing right to knowledge and scrutiny of UK taxpayers' money given to Northern Ireland—even if that is only as a fall-back option for the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General, to give him somewhere to go if things go wrong.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if there is a coalition and no effective opposition within a body such as the Assembly to exercise principles of adversarial scrutiny, his point about accountability and the necessity for some scrutiny by the United Kingdom is all the more valid?
No, I am not giving way, but I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman. The point about our arrangements is that we have a tradition of 130 years of structured scrutiny of the Executive that will not exist there ab initio. We have to ensure—I hope that the Secretary of State will see the reason for doing so—that there is structured scrutiny if, as is possible, there will be a single long-term coalition. In other countries in Europe—Austria comes to mind—extremist parties have developed simply because there has been a single coalition in power which has led to suspicions about how government is run. I should not like the same thing to be visited on Northern Ireland in 20 or 30 years' time.
I should like the Secretary of State, secondly, to examine the possibility of minoring the arrangements that we have discussed for the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office—in the Welsh case, in talking to the National Audit Office beforehand; in the Scottish case, in debate in the House—to guarantee that the independence of appointment, funding, choice of work and dismissal of the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor-General and National Audit Office is written into United Kingdom legislation. If she does that, I shall do all within my power to facilitate the speed of the Bill's passage through the House.
I begin by welcoming the Northern Ireland majority commitment to the Good Friday agreement and by congratulating all those who played a leading role in achieving it. Although I sometimes feel the smallest frisson of disagreement or annoyance with the Government, I take great pleasure in what they have achieved in Northern Ireland.
Only days ago, we had reason to fear that it would all unravel, and that, once again, intransigence would win, so it was heartening that so many in both communities recoiled at the murder of innocent children and at the attacks on the police and the armed forces at Drumcree, declaring that they would have none of it. We owe much to those who have had the courage to stand up to extremists on their own side.
Courage is a much over-used word in politics: it usually means merely having the backbone to disagree with one's own side. The Labour Whips do not kneecap people or carry out politically motivated murders, however. We must put the courage of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the hon. Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and others into its proper context. They showed true courage and played an admirable role, for which the entire British Isles should be grateful. I congratulate the Government on making it clear that they would not give in to extremists on either side.
The behaviour of one party has been less than admirable, however: the Conservatives have created unnecessary difficulties in respect of the Bill. For many years in opposition, Labour stood faithfully by bipartisan policies, but the Conservatives have shown themselves less than willing to fulfil the role that we accepted for so many years.
For some odd reason, the Bill lacks the resonance of the first sentence of the Scotland Bill. I recommend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the inclusion of similar wording. Clause 1 of the Scotland Bill reads:
There shall be a Scottish Parliament".
That simple ringing statement was noted throughout Scotland. A statement such as, "There shall be a Northern Ireland Assembly" might well have a similar effect in Northern Ireland.
Like the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly will have full freedom to legislate on matters that relate to the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Departments. It is interesting to see how often the Bill reflects the legislation relating to Scotland. Scottish Members are glad to have been of service.
The civic forum, which allows more women to participate, is a new development in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that, at long last, some half a dozen women have been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. More women were elected to represent Northern Ireland at that one election than in the entire history of Parliament. Women's voices will also be heard in the civic forum. As a result, social policies in Northern Ireland are likely to reflect more truly the community there, especially on matters of general interest and concern when no sectarian disagreement is involved.
There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly have opened up a new approach to the governance of Northern Ireland. Irish politicians have also mentioned that point.
The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition is also to be congratulated on its contribution to the democratic process, as are the Government on being progressive enough to welcome the idea of the civic forum and establish it in legislation. I also welcome the legal underpinning given to the bodies mentioned in clauses 66 and 67. I have had only brief experience of the British-Irish parliamentary body, but, in a short time, I have seen how well elected representatives from the Republic of Ireland and from the United Kingdom can work together to the benefit of the island of Ireland. I have high hopes of those bodies, and of strand 3 in particular. The assurances that we built into the three strands have played a fundamental part in overcoming doubt and suspicion and making progress.
A thought occurred to me about the strand 3 body, which, through the good grace of the Government, did not specify that Scottish representatives had to be members of the United Kingdom Parliament. It has been accepted as highly appropriate that newly elected Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly should have the right to participate. No one would have objected if the Government had not taken that decision—if they had stipulated membership of the United Kingdom Parliament alone. There is a key point to be made. I am sure that participation of representatives of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly will be very welcome to people in Ireland, particularly because of long-standing historical connections.
It is pity that no Scottish National party Members are present in the Chamber, as I should like to put the point to them. If Scotland separated from the rest of the United Kingdom, it would not necessarily be able to participate in that body. Its role would depend on the terms of whatever agreement had been reached in respect of its separation from the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not think that the majority of people in Scotland want to say goodbye to having any influence on events in Northern Ireland. As no SNP Member is present, we cannot find out whether the SNP has a policy on that, or whether it has been trashed on the internet in recent weeks.
I do not believe that the equal opportunities provisions were added to the Bill as an afterthought. I am pleased that our progressive Government realise that equal opportunities are a major aspect of our lives and have written that principle into the Bill. When I saw the White Paper and the list of ways in which discrimination would be unlawful, I used it to improve the Scottish legislation.
Scotland does not have a separate equal opportunities commission, but it will continue to have an EOC office relating to United Kingdom legislation. There is much to be thought through as to what should happen in Northern Ireland. Unnecessary difficulties could be created by the existence of separate legislation on equal opportunities in different parts of the United Kingdom. I should like Northern Ireland to have the same degree of autonomy that we have in Scotland, so I shall follow the debate with interest, and may sign some of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). The important principle is that there should be autonomy in practice which might lead to universality in legislation.
Finally, I should mention the inclusion of the European convention on human rights, which was particularly welcomed by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg a few months ago. COE members representing 40 European states welcomed it, because the entire process devised to achieve a way forward for Northern Ireland could be a useful guide to resolving conflicts in other parts of Europe. The progress that we are making tonight will not only affect Northern Ireland but may provide lessons for other parts of the world. For that reason, it is all the more welcome.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) spoke of courage. She congratulated the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) on their courage. Without in any way attempting to detract from their contributions, may I say that it is easier to be courageous when one has the big battalions on one's side and enjoys the plaudits of all the major parties in the House? Everyone—particularly politicians—would like to be loved. All would like to be on the side of the angels. All would like to be in favour of peace, justice, goodness, equality, love and hope—all sentiments in which both democrat and dictator have, from time to time, wallowed. Those concepts of false sentiment and cheap emotion are the coin in which too many politicians increasingly deal. It enables them to ignore the real issues, suppress the unpalatable differences and dress everything up in spin and spoof. By the time the electorate wake up to the realities of what really matters, it is too late.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the conduct of the referendum. It was plain that every artifice of government, propaganda, pressure, money and control of the media was brought to bear on the people of Northern in order to obtain the yes vote that was obtained. Indeed, the propaganda in which the Government engaged would instantly have been declared unlawful in the other part of Ireland. Legislation in the Republic provides that, on any referendum issue, both sides of the debate must be fairly and adequately reported. That did not occur in Northern Ireland, where the yes campaign was supported in 70 per cent. of coverage on Ulster Television and the BBC, and in 71 per cent. of coverage in the three major local papers, the Belfast Telegraph, the News Letter and the Irish News. Curiously, that almost exactly reflects the results subsequently obtained in the referendum.
No; with respect, I do not think that it does anything of the kind. As I have said, such imbalanced reporting would have been unlawful in the Irish Republic, which has rather more experience of referendums than we do.
During my entire professional and political life, I have been dedicated to the principles of democracy, equality and justice, which I have endeavoured to serve. I loathe and detest any violence that serves any political end; I have condemned it unequivocally. During the 14 months that my party spent in the negotiations, I refused to have any dealings at all with representatives of loyalist paramilitary parties, who were present on the basis that they were representative of armed organisations. I made it clear that, regardless of whether Sinn Fein was ever admitted, I would not enter into substantive negotiations with any party—loyalist or otherwise—that was a front organisations for terrorist groups that retained arms. My position, and that of my party, has always been entirely consistent.
It has been suggested by some hon. Members who have spoken in the debate that the Belfast agreement and the Bill are triumphs of democracy over terror. I believe that they are nothing of the kind. They represent the appeasement of terror—not just by the present Government but by successive British Administrations. They represent allowing those in Sinn Fein who have fronted an organisation that has murdered, maimed and pillaged both communities in Northern Ireland for 30 years to enter government, while, at the same time, permitting the IRA to retain all its weaponry and explosives.
Any suggestion that the IRA will decommission over the next two years is a myth. The IRA will not decommission and Sinn Fein will not call on it to do so. All that the agreement and the Bill that reflects it do is to call on parties that front paramilitary organisations to use such influence as they may have to persuade those organisations to decommission.
It is said that it does not really matter whether such organisations decommission, as long as they do not utilise their arms and explosives. The continued ownership and possession of such arms and explosives is an on-going form of political leverage to ensure that those who would use violence obtain their ultimate objectives. It is not without significance that Sinn Fein—or Sinn Fein-IRA, since, in the words of the Secretary of State, they are inextricably linked—views the agreement and the Bill that gives effect to it as purely a transitional phase. En route to what? En route to its ultimate objective of an united Ireland.
Much has been made of the principle of consent. It is said that, because clause 1 suggests that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom until the majority decides otherwise, the constitutional future of the citizens of Northern Ireland in the UK is in some way guaranteed. That is far from being so. As far back as September 1988, in the most comprehensive and detailed statement of Labour party policy on Northern Ireland that has ever been made, the whole score for both the agreement and the Bill was written. A process of creating institutions that would first allow consultation, then harmonisation, then full Executive powers to cross-border or all-Ireland bodies was envisaged.
It was accepted by the creators of that policy—one of the signatories being the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—that there could be no immediate disengagement from Northern Ireland, which was the real object of party policy. The policy had to be conducted by such a method that there would be
no sudden withdrawal which might make disengagement impossible".
It was, and is, necessary to establish a series of institutions—under the Bill, the institutions are the north-south ministerial council and the all-Ireland implementation bodies—that create, perhaps on the European model, a functionally and factually united Ireland over a period of time. That explains why Sinn Fein-IRA openly expressed the view that the arrangements are transitional. There will come a time when, if such institutions expand, and are dynamic, as proposed in the framework document, Ireland will be factually and functionally united. At that point, the question of consent will arise—but consent to what? It will simply be consent that has become either inevitable or unnecessary: a consent to the formal transfer of the legal sovereignty of Northern Ireland to a united Ireland.
Is the gist of the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument that the Government are really engaged in a sinister plot—clearly with the Opposition's support—to bring about a united Ireland by one means or another? Does he think that that is the objective of the legislation?
Yes indeed. Why should anyone be aghast at my suggesting that? The Labour party policy document, which was signed by the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who was then the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and countersigned by the present Secretary of State, states exactly that. The object of Labour party policy was to disengage from Northern Ireland and to create a united Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman does not possess a copy of that comprehensive statement of Labour party policy, I shall provide him with one.
Hon. Members talk about the protection provided by the need for consent. There is no protection in that, because the agreement provides for institutions that will circumnavigate such a principle of consent and allow only for a consent to the formal transfer of legal sovereignty. That dichotomy between the institutions required to obtain factual and functional consent and legal sovereignty is also spelled out in that party policy document. Mr. Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, hailed the document as the only way forward. It explicitly set out a policy whose elements can be identified in the framework document and, more effectively, in the agreement and the Bill. I am not suggesting that off my own bat. It is for the Government to show that their proposals are significantly different from what they set out in their detailed and comprehensive policy document on Northern Ireland in September 1988. The facts are there for all to see.
Sinn Fein-IRA are one of the strong parties in the yes camp. Their endorsement of the agreement was heartily supported at the Ard Fheis when the agreement was put for approval. Speaker after speaker at the Ard Fheis said that the document was a transitional agreement and that they should advance on the political front, but should retain all their weapons, and certainly should not give up the threat of armed terror, particularly on the mainland, which had been such an effective weapon in advancing their political cause.
Those people, who are inextricably bound up with the IRA—that means that Sinn Fein can never be separated from the IRA—are to be entitled under the d'Hondt rule to two seats as Ministers in any proposed Government. They merely have to sign up to the democratic principles of non-violence. They will have no problem with that, because they will simply say, "We are not the IRA. We have no weapons. We are a party with an electoral mandate." They have said that all their political life. Everyone knows that they are synonymous in personnel, political objectives and policy.
Since 10 April, when the agreement was signed, Sinn Fein-IRA have been actively involved in acts of terror. In the communities that they exclusively control, they have been kneecapping—
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, together with other Ministers at the Northern Ireland Office, on their achievement in bringing the process as far as they have. I also congratulate and commend the courage of hon. Members and others who helped to forge the agreement. Bearing in mind the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on having been able to move on from 1988 and helping to forge a new consent-based solution.
However, my loudest congratulations are for the people of Northern Ireland. On 22 May, a majority of 71 per cent. of them supported the Belfast agreement. On 25 June, 74 per cent. of them voted for candidates seeking a pro-agreement mandate. With those votes, the people of Northern Ireland changed the political landscape of the Province for ever.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when introducing the Bill, in passing the Bill and devolving power to an assembly of Northern Ireland politicians, this Parliament will merely be setting up the necessary legislative framework to give expression to the desire of the people of Northern Ireland. That is a good enough reason to welcome the Bill, but there are others.
The strength of the Belfast agreement lies in its recognition of the value of diversity. Paragraph 1 of strand 1 says:
This agreement provides for a democratically elected Assembly in Northern Ireland which is inclusive in its membership
and is able
subject to safeguards to protect the rights and interests of all sides of the community.
The morning after the Assembly election count was completed, The News Letter confirmed in its page one view how successfully that objective had been achieved, describing the elected Assembly as
a democratic institution so broad in its diversity that it should become the envy of the world and a model for other divided communities to follow.
If that achievement is to be maintained, we must learn lessons from the past. A principal lesson from the past 25 years in Northern Ireland is that, in a divided society, if democratic institutions lack the necessary safeguards to ensure the participation of all sections in the decision-making processes, they will fail and the initiative will pass to undemocratic forces. For that reason, among others, the parties to the Belfast agreement placed great store on the importance of safeguards, setting them out in paragraph 5 of strand 1.
The achievement of those who forged the Belfast agreement will be lost if the Bill does not put in place the necessary safeguards to protect the new democratic institutions of Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, her colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office and those who serve them have ensured that the Bill does so. A principal safeguard is the requirement that key decisions of the Assembly are taken on a cross-community basis. The parties to the Belfast agreement reached consensus on the definition of a "cross-community basis". That phraseology translates into "cross-community support" in the Bill, but the definition remains the same.
The Bill sets alternative quotas for measuring cross-community support. Those quotas will apply to, among others, the election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the passing of a resolution by the Assembly that a reserved matter should become a transferred matter or vice versa, the number and functions of Ministers and, in clause 34, the majority required for an issue that has generated a petition of concern from 30 or more Members.
The imposition of quotas on the democratic process can be a device to deny the will of the majority. That happened when the 40 per cent. hurdle was insinuated into the referendum on the Scotland Act 1978. That was a wrecking device designed to thwart the will of the Scottish people, and it succeeded. However, the measure of cross-community support in the Bill has come from the political representatives of the Northern Ireland people and, importantly, has been overwhelmingly endorsed in a referendum held on a simple majority basis, although the yes vote in the referendum would have satisfied the cross-community support test.
As important as cross-community support is the safeguard of a comprehensive commitment to human rights and the equality agenda, also included in the Belfast agreement. All who have a commitment to the protection of human rights and to equality of opportunity will welcome the new institutions set forth in the Belfast agreement and legislated for in the Bill.
The incorporation of the European convention on human rights in the law of the United Kingdom was a clear commitment of the Labour party at the general election. The Human Rights Bill will work best in conjunction with a human rights commission with powers and statutory responsibilities, such as those set out in part VI of the Bill.
On Second Reading of the Human Rights Bill, I argued for a human rights commission for the UK for that very reason. I argued that there was a need for a commission to promote ideas of human rights and to help promote the development of a human rights culture. Consequently, I welcome the setting up of a commission in Northern Ireland and hope that it will act as a catalyst for setting up a similar body in Britain.
There are those who will argue that the last thing Northern Ireland needs is another unelected quango. However, for a human rights commission to perform its necessary functions in Northern Ireland, it must be independent of both the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly, since part of its function is to ensure compliance by both of them with human rights legislation. I have reservations about the lack of transparency in the appointments process as set out in clause 54, but we will no doubt return to that matter in Committee.
For the reasons I have articulated—and because I am also persuaded by the arguments in the document "Creating an Effective Human Rights Commission for Northern Ireland" by Brice Dickson of the university of Ulster—I welcome the provisions in the Bill. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I welcome the establishment of the Equality Commission and the attendant imposition of a duty to promote equality of opportunity on certain public authorities, while outlawing discrimination by other public authorities.
I draw the attention of Ministers to the differing descriptive definitions of public authorities in clauses 61 and 62. Clause 61 requires public authorities to "promote equality of opportunity", whereas clause 62 sets out where it would be unlawful to discriminate. I see no reason to have differing definitions of public authority in the clauses, and would welcome an explanation on the divergence.
In the long term—and like some of the parties who responded to the White Paper on the subject—I favour incorporation in the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission itself of all the functions and duties to promote and police the equality agenda. I also hope that a Minister for equality will be appointed by the Assembly.
Those are long-term goals and, in the meantime, I believe that the aggregation of expertise and experience and the pooling of the resources of the four existing equality bodies in one significant commission will enhance the equality agenda in Northern Ireland.
The lack of confidence in the institutions of Northern Ireland has its roots, to some degree, in a perception of inequality by a significant part of the community. The Equality Commission legislated for in the Bill, and reflective of yet another safeguard from the Belfast agreement, will give significant weight to the equality agenda in Northern Ireland and will go a long way towards helping to sustain the confidence of that part of the community in the process of political reform.
For those reasons—unlike the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—I argue that the rightful place for the provisions is in the Bill. I am supported in that by the provisions of the Belfast agreement. I draw the attention of those hon. Members who doubt that the proper place for such legislation is in the Bill to strand 1, paragraph 5(e) of the Belfast agreement which sets as one of the safeguards for the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland
an Equality Commission to monitor a statutory obligation to promote equality of opportunity".
There is no better place than the Bill for that.
I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State to one matter that is troubling me. There may be a simple answer. Under head 10 of schedule 5 to the Scotland Bill, broadcasting—and, in particular, the British Broadcasting Corporation—is listed among the matters reserved to the UK Parliament. In my hurried examination of the Northern Ireland Bill, I cannot see whether broadcasting—and, in particular, the BBC—has been reserved to the UK Parliament. It may be reserved, but I should welcome a statement on how that will be achieved, as it is not obvious in the Bill.
I ask about broadcasting in particular because the matter created some controversy in Scotland. There were those who wanted to get their hands on the BBC; I have no doubt that there are those in Northern Ireland who want to do that, too. For consistency of devolution, that issue should be addressed.
I remind the House that, in supporting the Belfast agreement and in electing the Members of the Assembly, the voters of Northern Ireland formed an historic alliance between Catholic and Protestant and nationalist and Unionist peoples. We should not forget that they did so to bring stability and lasting peace to their community. We must not let them down, and we will not be doing so by passing the Bill.
I am a Unionist who believes in Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom, and believes that the people of Northern Ireland—Roman Catholic and Protestant—would be best served in matters of equality and justice by the United Kingdom Parliament remaining in charge of all affairs within Northern Ireland. None the less, I recognise that the policy of the Government is to proceed with devolution throughout the United Kingdom—to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, perhaps, to the regions of England. We must fit in to the overall plan for the UK.
I served in many of the various devolved institutions in Northern Ireland—in the Parliament from 1965 to 1972, the subsequent first Assembly, the constitutional convention and then the second Assembly, which collapsed in 1986 following the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Yet again, we have another attempt at devolution in Northern Ireland. From my experiences in those four previous devolved institutions at Stormont, I fear that some of the weaknesses that were inherent in them and brought about their collapse exist yet again in this somewhat tortuous formula for the return of devolution to Northern Ireland.
It is a tortuous formula and a complicated Bill. None the less, the Belfast agreement—its proper name—has been welcomed throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, where it was approved in the Assembly of the Council of Europe. It has been welcomed throughout the United States. It was supported in a referendum in Northern Ireland and in the elections for the new Assembly. Indeed, the empty Press Gallery throughout this debate leads one to assume that the journalists have concluded that the Belfast agreement is safe and home.
That is not the case. There was considerable support for the Belfast agreement; it has slipped considerably in recent weeks—let us not pretend otherwise. To do so is to deceive the House and the wider public. Why has that support slipped? It is not because of the terrible deaths of the three children at Ballymoney. It is not because of the impasse at Garvaghy road, Drumcree. It is because one participant in the agreement is not honouring what the agreement was intended to achieve.
When the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) spoke today, I was surprised that, although he mentioned Drumcree and Ballymoney, he never once mentioned how the IRA is breaching the terms of the Belfast agreement, and is doing so in his own constituency. A 1,400 lb bomb near Armagh city luckily did not get into the centre of the city at the weekend because the vehicle carrying it got a flat tyre. A 600 lb bomb at Newry courthouse in the hon. Gentleman's constituency was luckily defused by the security forces.
In Newton Hamilton in the hon. Gentleman's constituency recently, dozens of Roman Catholic and Protestant businesses and homes were destroyed by a 1,000 Ib IRA bomb. At the weekend, a Roman Catholic was murdered by Provisional IRA, or so it was stated. A man was badly beaten up by the IRA—a Mr. Kearney, a Republican from the Ormeau road, who would have died had the RUC not arrived in time.
Today, all hon. Members have received a faxed letter from Families Against Intimidation and Terror—which is not a pro-Unionist organisation, I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That letter says:
The current Bill makes no reference to paramilitary violence being a bar to membership of the Assembly Executive which effectively means that Sinn Fein Ministers only need to say they are opposed to violence to stay in office while the IRA continue to be involved in violence.
There is a major problem.
Undoubtedly, the Belfast agreement was a setback for Provisional Sinn Fein—the IRA. They said that they would not agree to anything unless it was a united Ireland. Well, there is no united Ireland. They said that they would not agree to the removal of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and the territorial claim of the south of Ireland over Northern Ireland. Well, the people of the south of Ireland have now agreed to remove the territorial claim. Then Sinn Fein said that it would never go into an assembly at Stormont. Well, some of its members were elected to the Assembly, and they are there now; they attended the first meeting. There has been progress on that front.
Moreover, clause 1 says:
It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland".
Clause 5(6) says:
This section does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Northern Ireland.
That is the exact guarantee that the Scotland Bill will give the people of Scotland when it becomes law. There is progress, therefore, on constitutional matters.
Subsections (10) and (13) of clause 15 state that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister can also hold ministerial offices. Rightly, Members of Parliament who are Members of the Assembly have had great deductions from their salary. I am assuming that a First Minister or Deputy First Minister, if he is also a Minister, does not take both salaries.
I come to the key issue of the removal of Ministers from office, to which clause 23 applies—especially subsection (8). The clause says that Ministers must be exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means. The Dublin Prime Minister has said that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked together. Today, the Secretary of State confirmed that that was her position [Interruption.]—she is nodding yet again—in reply to a question that I asked at the start of the debate. However, she then passed the buck. She said, "But the removal of Ministers is not really for me; it is for the Members of the Assembly." Of course Sinn Fein—the IRA—will not expel its own members. No way.
Where does the SDLP stand on that issue? That is the point on which we need clarification. That will be the turning point for the success or failure of the Belfast agreement. It is time that we teased the SDLP out into the open, to give assurances to the people of Northern Ireland that it is fully committed to peaceful and democratic means, and that it accepts that Sinn Fein and the IRA are inextricably linked together. We want to hear the SDLP using the same phrase as our Secretary of State used today, and as the Dublin Prime Minister has used several times. Once we hear that from the SDLP, we shall proceed to obtain other assurances.
On clause 56, I warn against too freely giving financial aid for legal advice and support on human rights issues. When I was a member of Castlereagh borough council, the Fair Employment Commission handed out money left, right and centre to people to enable them to claim compensation. There was one case that we knew that the claimant had no chance of winning; the council fought it and won. However, although we won the case, we had to pay the legal expenses and then charge the ratepayers for them. A borough council may do that, but private individuals cannot afford to fight. They cannot pass on the charge to ratepayers; they must pay themselves. Often, an organisation, especially an employer, accused of discrimination will settle a case for a small amount of compensation instead of fighting it, although it may not have been guilty of discrimination.
Interestingly, although the Bill provides funding for the north-south ministerial council, it does not even allocate any money for the British-Irish council, which is of much greater importance to most people in Northern Ireland. It is not mentioned. Strangely enough, although the Assembly is setting up a seminar on all kinds of issues—such as human rights, the administration of various Government Departments, and the north-south ministerial council—there is no seminar on how the British-Irish council would work. Incidentally, has anyone ever told the Governments of the Isle of Man, Jersey or Guernsey that they are involved in the British-Irish council? Perhaps, if they have been told, the Minister will tell us the response of those three Governments.
Finally, I want to make a quick point on a constituency matter. Schedule 2 says that Crown property is an excepted matter. As I understand it, the foreshore of Strangford lough is Crown property. It comprises a major part of my constituency. Is it an excepted matter? Does that mean that we cannot discuss Strangford lough in the Assembly? That is an important issue for me as a local constituency Member, and for my colleague, the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who represents Strangford village but not the rest of Strangford lough.
I have supported the Belfast agreement, although I have had doubts about some of the issues. As this is a Second Reading debate, I shall support the Bill in principle tonight, but there is no guarantee that I shall support it on Third Reading unless we receive further assurances on the key issue of the exclusion of people who are inextricably linked to paramilitary organisations when such paramilitary organisations are still carrying out murders and bombings.
Not only can the Secretary of State help on that matter as amendments to the Bill are debated, but the SDLP—to which she passed the buck earlier this afternoon—must clarify its position, because in the Assembly, by cross-voting, the majority of the nationalists must vote for the expulsion of such people if that expulsion is to take place, and we must have some assurance from the SDLP that it will do so.
I am very pleased indeed to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. Anyone who knows my track record concerning Northern Ireland and the whole island of Ireland will know that I am delighted by the Bill. It may be one of the most significant pieces of legislation that I have had to deal with; it is certainly one of the most significant that I have ever spoken on.
Some of the speeches have not encouraged my hopes as much as they might have, but the Bill has every hope, when it becomes an Act, of ending one of the saddest legacies of the history of these islands. We must make it work. There must be a constructive approach. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and I agree on many things—if we leave Ireland out, on most things—but, with respect to him, we must not score points, however robustly. We must do the constructive job that he did at Stormont to bring about the Belfast agreement.
We are not out of the wood yet. Anyone who has had anything to do with the agreement—not least the Secretary of State, who has done a marvellous job—knows that we are living on a knife-edge in every respect. The agreement creates an enormous opportunity, but it also creates the dangers of failure and having to start all over again.
We can make the agreement work only if we get together. In Northern Ireland—with all respect to Northern Irish Members who are present—that is starting to happen. I welcome the tone of the speeches of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Both speeches were constructive. Each patently took into consideration the agenda of the other community. That is what all this is about, and will increasingly be about. The 71 per cent. vote in the referendum was a vote of both communities. The cross-voting in the election on preferences was again of both communities. That is enormously significant.
We must get the act together on the mainland as well as in Northern Ireland. I especially welcome the tone of the speech by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), who adopted the right approach on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition.
All of us can and should take some of the credit for making the agreement succeed. Once or twice, I have trembled for the bipartisan policy, not least on the Opposition's vote on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill, about which I shall say nothing now. It is essential that the bipartisan policy remains and is strengthened.
The full weight of all the political parties in the House, as has been apparent the speeches today, must be behind the Bill, pushing it through to become an Act, and making the Act work. The record of the Conservative party in government in recent years shows that it has been far from ever playing the Orange card again. It brought about the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The efforts of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) started a process that has been ably continued by the present Government. If we all get behind it, it can succeed.
As hon. Members will realise, I am telescoping my speech so that others may speak. On constitutional structures, I shall deal with the parliamentary aspect, which has been referred to in other speeches, but perhaps not in as much detail as I am qualified to speak of the workings of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body, which has been of great use.
With reference to the parliamentary aspects of the Bill, strand 1 gives us the Assembly, which is a vital component that fits in with United Kingdom constitutional development. Strand 2 makes provision for a new parliamentary forum from the Assembly and the Oireachtas. That introduces another parliamentary aspect, which may initially lead to some confusion.
Strand 3 establishes the British-Irish council, which involves not the institutions with primary responsibility, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel islands—it is high time that there was an institution that brought them into the picture—and others, if appropriate, as well as representatives of the United Kingdom and Irish Governments. By definition, the task of the British-Irish council is consultative. No doubt it will be a useful body, although it may be somewhat bland in decision making.
Strand 3 also sets up the British-Irish intergovernmental conference. There is no parliamentary shadow at that level. The Belfast agreement states:
The elected institutions of the members will be encouraged to develop interparliamentary links, perhaps building on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body.
That provides a link between the two sovereign Parliaments. We shall no doubt return to these matters in Committee. There is a need to think through the concept of parliamentary links under strand 3. There must not be too many bodies, but they must cover all aspects, allowing sovereign Parliaments to question sovereign governments.
On the release of prisoners and decommissioning, from the remarks that we have heard about clause 23 and other clauses there is no doubt those will form a considerable part of our debate. I shall lay out some general points.
It is fundamental to the peace process that it seeks to contain and bring the extremes into an accepted constitutional system. That system will succeed only if the extremes are within it. They are in it at present because there are no absolute preconditions. They will not be able to remain within it if unrealistic conditions are set for decommissioning or the release of prisoners.
Those two issues are complementary. Prisoner release has enormous significance on both sides of the sectarian fence. It will do more than anything to signify the end of war, which will help to deliver the real decommissioning that we all want. I believe that it will come, but it would be counter-productive to try to achieve too much too soon.
Let us all—the whole House—unite behind this worthy Bill, get it through and grant peace to the island of Ireland, a peace which has been too long delayed and is much deserved.
When the Secretary of State introduced the Bill to the House, she said that it was the Government's intention to put into legislative form the agreement reached on 10 April. It is worth the time of the House to consider how closely that has been done, and to use a few tests to determine whether it has been done properly.
This is the first major debate that we have had on Northern Ireland since the Assembly election—the last major debate was on the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill. I remember being told by many hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Prime Minister had played a key role in securing a yes vote in the referendum, and that that yes vote had produced a positive result in both the Unionist and nationalist communities.
We were told that a majority of nationalists and a majority of Unionists had voted yes. I made it clear that, statistically, it was obvious to anyone who knew Northern Ireland that a majority of Unionists had voted no. So that there is no doubt, I place it on the record now that the results of the Assembly election proved my case, and clearly show that the majority of Unionists are against the Belfast agreement. The majority of Members returned for the Unionist tradition are against the agreement. The majority of votes cast were cast for Unionist candidates who were against the agreement.
When the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) says that there was a substantial body of opinion in Northern Ireland against the agreement, that represents an overwhelming majority of his constituency, and a majority of the Unionist community, where he rightly says support for the agreement is decreasing as the days and weeks go past. He would know that better than most, as deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist party.
The right hon. Gentleman will have read in the newspapers recently that even one of his party's Assembly Members admitted that, although she had voted yes in the referendum, if she were asked to vote again today she would vote no to the agreement. She was not counted as one of the Assembly Members who would vote against the inclusion of Sinn Fein-IRA activists in a Government of Northern Ireland, and executive powers for an all-Ireland body.
That is the backcloth against which the House should consider the future of the Belfast agreement. The test that we should use is the commitment given by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the First Minister designate of Northern Ireland to the people of Northern Ireland in relation to what the agreement meant. They were vociferous at the time of the referendum. The Prime Minister made it abundantly clear on 6 May in the House of Commons that substantial decommissioning was required before sentenced prisoners could be released or Sinn Fein-IRA personnel could be in government.
In his Hillsborough speech, the Prime Minister went into great detail about the criteria that would have to be met before the Provisional IRA representatives, or representatives of any loyalist paramilitary organisation—although that does not arise, because they were roundly rejected by the Unionist electorate—could get into government.
In an interview with Des McCartan of the Belfast Telegraph, the Prime Minister was asked:
How can you guarantee there won't be people in the Assembly who, by others' perception, are linked to the men of violence?
The Prime Minister replied:
Because the agreement provides very clearly that people can be removed or excluded from office, if they are pursuing non-democratic or violent measures.
When he came over the Northern Ireland and gave his five pledges, one of them clearly stated that those who used or threatened violence would be excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland. In the Belfast News Letter of 14 May, the Prime Minister said:
People need to know that, if they are sitting down in the room of the executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly with other people then they are not sitting there with the guns under the table, outside the door and all the rest of it… That can't happen and we must make it absolutely clear that that can't happen.
I suspect that we are about to see whether it can or cannot happen.
I am sorry that the First Minister designate is not in the Chamber, as I should like him to show where in the Bill is the commitment that he gave the people of Northern Ireland on 9 May. In an article in the Belfast News Letter, he said:
I think the unionist community has confidence in itself. We have the capacity ourselves"—
that is, the Unionist community—
to exclude Sinn Fein from office, if we so wish, because we are going to have a majority in the Assembly, now that is clearly going to be the case. Why then should people worry what an Assembly
will do if they are going to have the majority in it? The Agreement itself is absolutely clear that only people who have a genuine commitment to peaceful means and a democratic process can accept office. Those words were fudged in the past, but they were fudged by governments. It's not going to be a question for Government in the future, it's going to be a question for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
Where in the Bill is the right hon. Gentleman's commitment that Unionists can exclude Sinn Fein from government? He knows that there is no such provision in the Bill—and I suspect that he knew as much when he wrote the article. One of his colleagues got very hairy-chested about the matter. The Ulster Unionist party member David McNarry vowed that Unionists would not back down on the handover of weapons before Sinn Fein could take up positions in the Assembly. Mr. McNarry, who stood with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann at Castle Buildings after the agreement was signed, said:
We are not going to be softies on this issue.
Those commitments stated that there had to be decommissioning before Sinn Fein got into government. They declared that Sinn Fein could not get into government if it did not renounce violence for good. There is no such provision in the Bill. The only provisions in the Bill are either that Sinn Fein will put up its hands and surrender, saying, "No, we cannot take the pledge of office, because it requires us to have given up violence for good"; or that the Assembly will take a political vote that puts Sinn Fein out of, or excludes it from, office. On that basis, Sinn Fein would have to vote itself out of, or exclude itself from, office, or the SDLP would have to do it. Can anyone honestly see the SDLP voting to put Sinn Fein out of the Government of Northern Ireland? I do not think that that is a remote possibility.
In a previous debate on the sentences legislation, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made it clear that he wanted the Executive to be inclusive, and that no preconditions should be set down in terms of membership of that Executive. As far as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the First Minister designate of Northern Ireland are concerned, their pledges have not been honoured in the Bill. They have once again betrayed the people of Northern Ireland.
Apart from there being no effective means of excluding or removing people from the Government of Northern Ireland, another promise was made to the people of the Province. They were told in clear terms by both the Prime Minister and the First Minister designate that the north-south body would be accountable to the Assembly. I challenge the Government to show where the Bill states that the north-south body or the implementation bodies will be subject to the will of the Assembly.
There was considerable discussion about clause 26 in the draft legislation. I noticed hon. Members around the Chamber looking with some bewilderment at clause 26 of the present Bill, but, of course, the original clause is not there. Clause 26 of the draft Bill stated:
A Minister or Northern Ireland department may…consult on any matter with any authority in Ireland…enter into agreements or arrangements with any such authority in respect of any transferred matter".
We made it clear to the draftsmen that that went well beyond even the scope of the agreement. The clause gave power directly to Ministers to enter into arrangements and agreements with their counterparts in the Irish Republic
or with any authority in the Irish Republic. Ministers would not be accountable to the Assembly or their Executive colleagues.
I believe that the work of the north-south body and the implementation bodies should be subject to the will of the Assembly, but it is not under this Bill. It is essential that those bodies are brought under the Assembly's authority.
The wording of clause 66 in the current legislation is almost identical to that of the old clause 26. It uses the same words, with a slightly different introduction regarding participation. The Minister must—not only for my edification but for the benefit of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, who is concerned that clause 26 has disappeared—tell us what the effect of clause 66 will be. Under that clause, can a Minister make an agreement or arrangement—albeit one that does not require legislative input—with his counterpart in the Irish Republic without the north-south body's being aware of it or the Assembly's approving of it? That is a simple question, and I hope that the Minister will respond before the debate concludes.
Hon. Members referred to several matters in relation to Northern Ireland's constitutional position, which is outlined principally in the Bill's opening clauses. It is very clear that, far from the Bill's leaving Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom, it introduces a transitional state. The Bill moves Northern Ireland from its full and rightful place within the United Kingdom out on to a limb; it is being pushed towards an all-Ireland state. That is undoubtedly the Bill's political intention, and I believe that its provisions will encourage that eventuality.
As far as the Union with Ireland Act 1800 is concerned, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann told us at the time of the referendum that it would be unaffected. That was clearly a misleading statement. Clause 2 makes it very clear that the Act is affected: it is superseded by this Bill. That is the whole import of clause 2.
Clause 1 makes it clear that the Secretary of State may call a poll if she believes that people might wish to leave the United Kingdom and form a united Ireland.
Why should going into a united Ireland be the only option for which the House would legislate? Is the House taking upon itself the right to say, "We shall divorce Northern Ireland and at the same time tell the people of Northern Ireland with whom they will have to live"? That seems an outrageous proposition for the Government to put forward.
If the Government are saying that if the people of Northern Ireland want to leave the United Kingdom, they will make the necessary arrangements for them to do so, they are entitled to do so. However, they are not entitled to say, "If the only option is to go into a united Ireland, you can go in that direction, but anything else is outside the ambit of what the House is prepared to legislate for." The House does not have a right to say to the people of Northern Ireland, "We shall allow you to leave the United Kingdom but only if you go into a united Ireland," and allow them to do so only by simple majority voting in a poll.
When voting is referred to elsewhere in the Bill, we find references to cross-community voting, consensus voting and parallel voting. Those are the requirements. However, when it comes to leaving the United Kingdom, a simple majority of one will be sufficient, thank you very much.
It seems outrageous that everyday decisions must be made on the basis of consensus because it is believed that consensus is required in a community as divided as Northern Ireland, but the most major and fundamental change in the life of the people of Northern Ireland—taking Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into a united Ireland—can take place by means of a simple vote. That is an absurdity: I trust that the Government will examine the amendments that are tabled on that issue, and allow either a weighted vote, as is done in many constitutional votes throughout the world, or a cross-community vote in the Assembly before a poll can be called under schedule 1.
On moving the Second Reading, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that this was an historic Bill. I think that that is a true description of it. The Bill will lead to statute law that will embrace and embody an historic agreement, which I call the Good Friday agreement, which was so painstakingly constructed line by line over two difficult and demanding years.
However, the tenor of the terms of that agreement took much longer to develop and evolve, to identify the problems that we faced and the solutions that might apply to them, and to establish a consensus on the relationships that must be addressed within the north of Ireland, within Ireland, and within the east and west.
The agreement is soundly founded on the pillars of non-violence, equality of treatment and esteem, full participation by the greatest cross-section of the people's representatives and a sound endorsement by the vast majority of the people of Ireland, north and south.
I hope that the Bill will enable the two communities in Northern Ireland to work in harmony together for the greater good, without the fear of domination or the fear of total victory by one side over the other. It is my hope that, by this working together, we in Northern Ireland can evolve to a normal democratic society that is free of violence, intimidation and sectarianism.
My party, by its strict adherence to only democratic and peaceful methods of political persuasion, has clearly illustrated the utter futility of violence and coercion. My response to the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who is not in his place, is that the history of my party clearly illustrates its total abhorrence of violence from any quarter. The guarantees that the hon. and learned Gentleman and others have mentioned that are required from my party were fully implemented when it signed the Good Friday agreement, which itself is an eschewing of any attempt to use violence, or the threat of violence, for the pursuance of a political objective. The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned many events that seemed to prove that certain parties to the agreement were thwarting or violating their commitment to the agreement.
I am not privy to the intimacies and nuances that construct the IRA, but I understand, as an outsider, that many of the bombings and atrocities that have been referred to were conducted by the very people who are trying to bring down the agreement, who call themselves the Continuity IRA or some other such name. As a lay person in that context, I do not accept that there is collusion between the two. There may be, but I can make a judgment only from where I stand.
The coercion and the violence pursued by others have been at great cost to human life, limb and property. It has left us a legacy of great personal tragedies and trauma, which will take many years to assuage. The violence of loyalist and republican paramilitaries was the greatest single hindrance to finding an accommodation between the communities to enable us to move forward.
The coming together in the Assembly of a wide spectrum of political representatives—an executive and administrative Assembly for the people of Northern Ireland, with its north-south and east-west dimensions—is the vehicle by which we can learn to work, to live and to evolve socially and politically together. The struggle towards that consensus has been difficult amid violence, which touched almost every family, and sectarianism, which poisoned nearly every relationship.
It has now been clearly shown that violence in Ireland can achieve nothing in political terms or in respect of political advancement, and that it was an obstacle to agreement. Unfortunately, individuals and small groups will think that there is a future for the use of violence, but we, as a community that is knitting together, can eschew those people and deal with them as we evolve into political maturity.
The acceptance of the validity of divergent political aspirations and the holding of each in equal esteem will enable us to set aside the constitutional debate as the primary matter of our political debate. Although the constitutional aspirations of all will always remain a valid and laudable objective, the way is clear for much more meaningful dialogue about economic development, social care and the evolution of our society into more normal forms of democracy and relationships. The expansion of our horizons beyond the Six Counties to the whole of Ireland through north-south and intergovernmental administerial bodies, and their further expansion to the Council of the Isles and to western Europe, will enable us to progress more comprehensively and cohesively to the development of the new society to which I have referred.
It is important to consider the Good Friday agreement and the Bill not as a solution but as the beginning of a process to address the problems that have dogged us for so long. We in Northern Ireland are being given the opportunity to address our economic and social ills by ourselves and to participate in the broader outreaches of our relationships within the island and with our neighbours.
That new beginning is an opportunity for us all, but it is also a challenge for us all. I hope that those who oppose, find fault with and, indeed, in many ways fear the agreement will give it a fair trial, because it is the will of the people of Northern Ireland, and the will of the people of the Republic of Ireland, that it be given a fair trial. Many assets and advantages can be obtained through the agreement and working together for the common good of north and south.
The Bill translates as best it can the delicate and intricate agreements of the three relationships in the Good Friday agreement. Many aspects of the Bill require further teasing out and, like other hon. Members, I note the Secretary of State's intention to listen carefully and with a sympathetic ear to what has been said, and to table amendments to the Bill, if that is appropriate and necessary.
Valid concerns have been expressed by the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Committee on the Administration of Justice about the human rights clauses of the Bill; they must be listened to, and those fears must be addressed in dealing with the component parts of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Groups dealing with equality of opportunity, gender equality and disability legislation feel threatened by embodiment in the greater umbrella of the Equality Commission. If the Secretary of State, as she hinted at the Dispatch Box in answer to a question, could produce amendments that would ensure that those separate and distinct executive functions of the Equality Commission could be seen to be self-standing, that would go a long way towards addressing those concerns.
My party welcomes the Bill as an expression of many years of labour, endeavour and suffering. Members of my party have been the victims of the violence which we are accused of insidiously or half-heartedly supporting. No other party in the north of Ireland has evolved from a non-violent origin. Those who try, by snide innuendo, to attribute to my party support, tacit or otherwise, for violence do us and the community that we represent a grave injustice.
We have struggled hard over many years in difficult circumstances to keep burning the light of democracy and persuasion which are the only way forward in Ireland. Indeed, we would go so far as to claim that our single-track mindedness has enabled us to persuade people who had taken violence as a way forward to see that it was not in their interests, or the interests of the people whom they were supposed to represent, and that the only way to make progress as a society in Ireland was through the democratic process. I resent being classified as a fellow traveller of violence.
My party will support the Bill. We cannot tonight go into the details of the amendments that we shall table, but I hope that, at the end of the long sittings that we shall have over the next two weeks, the Bill will give full expression to the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland, which were expressed clearly in the referendum, despite what was said to the contrary.
I am one of the Northern Ireland Members who voted against the agreement. On the constitutional issues, as a Unionist I support the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland because it is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of their religion or political affiliation. In social and economic terms, Northern Ireland is better off within the United Kingdom. I was born a British citizen, and I want to remain one.
How does the Bill strengthen my British citizenship? I believe that it weakens my position as a British citizen by placing a question mark over it. Clause 1 provides for a poll to be held, at the whim of the Secretary of State, to determine whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join a united Ireland. As the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, the only alternative that we are given to remaining within the United Kingdom is to be part of a united Ireland. There are other options that the people of Northern Ireland could pursue, but the Bill contains no provision for the Secretary of State to take those into account. It simply confers on the Secretary of State the right at any time to hold a poll if he or she believes that a majority would vote in favour of a united Ireland. That is significant. Why does a united Ireland appear to be the only alternative to remaining within the United Kingdom? Could it be that this process is designed gradually to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom? That question must be answered.
Many Unionists are wrongly accused of being paranoid about a united Ireland. I do not believe that a united Ireland is feasible from an economic or social perspective. The United Kingdom is a multicultural, multi-ethnic society and can best accommodate the cultural differences and the diversity of identities that exist in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that a united Ireland could ever accommodate that diversity of culture and identity. Based on what I read in the Bill, I believe that there is an agenda on which a united Ireland is the only alternative to remaining part of the United Kingdom. That must be challenged.
I welcome the establishment of an Assembly. Unionists have long strived for that, because we wanted the restoration of proper, local, democratic government on a par with other parts of the United Kingdom, which we have not had in Northern Ireland since 1972. However, I am concerned about the manner of the Assembly. I am afraid that it will be hamstrung by the enormous number of checks and balances that have been built into the system. There is a real danger that the Assembly will get—to use local parlance—bogged down with those checks and balances.
Unfortunately, the degree and extent of those checks and balances militate against the building of trust between the two traditions in Northern Ireland. They build into the system the notion that Unionists and nationalists are distinct and different. The voting strengths in the Assembly will be perpetuated, and the divisions in Northern Ireland will continue in perpetuity because of those checks and balances. Is that the way we should go? Will those checks and balances lead to a healthy, proper democracy in the Assembly?
My most major concern is that people who are linked to terrorist organisations will become Ministers in the government of Northern Ireland. The prospect of the representatives of Sinn Fein-IRA holding ministerial positions in the government of Northern Ireland is an affront to democracy. Sinn Fein-IRA have not wholly embraced the democratic process. They are not fully committed to exclusively peaceful means.
I shall refer to two incidents that occurred at the weekend, when the IRA were supposed to be under a ceasefire. The family of Mr. Andrew Kearney are in no doubt—even if the Secretary of State is—about who murdered him. They say that it was the IRA who murdered him, as does the organisation Families Against Intimidation and Terror, but the Secretary of State has to wait for the evidence. It is a pity that she did not wait for the evidence on the murders of the Quinn family in Ballymoney before she and others pointed the finger and demonised the Orange institution. I condemned those murders in the House last week: they were tragic and despicable murders, as was the murder of Mr. Kearney. The political representatives of the IRA, who are accused of murdering Mr. Kearney by his family and by Families Against Intimidation and Terror may soon become Ministers in the government of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Vincent McKenna was assaulted on the Ormeau road. He was prepared, from a republican perspective, to put his head above the parapet and criticise Sinn Fein. His reward was to be beaten up by an IRA gang. The Secretary of State wants evidence. Is Mr. McKenna's evidence not good enough? He says that he recognised some of his assailants as senior members of the IRA. Is that not evidence on which the Secretary of State could base her conclusions about the IRA's commitment to exclusively peaceful means?
The reality is that there is no effective means by which Sinn Fein-IRA will be prevented from taking up a ministerial position in Northern Ireland in a few weeks' time. That is a major deficiency in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) said, the Government have failed to provide an effective mechanism to exclude from the holding of office—not just to remove from office—those who have not committed themselves to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The evidence exists that the IRA is not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, in the terms of the Bill, if the Unionists were not prepared to vote in cross-community terms, this House—and others—would immediately accuse them of being those who had brought the Bill to an end, rather than the terrorists who have been trying to do that all along?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but the test will soon come. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who is not present now, said that no one could question the commitment of the SDLP to peaceful means. We shall see. Soon, the SDLP will be required to vote on whether Sinn Fein-IRA should hold ministerial positions. We shall then see whether the SDLP is prepared to demonstrate the fulness of its commitment. In my opinion, Sinn Fein-IRA is not fit to hold government office in Northern Ireland.
The Bill proposes that a north-south ministerial council be established, because that was part of the agreement. The establishment of the council provides for co-operation between the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government.
I have some anxieties about the ministerial council. I do not see in the Bill the kind of accountability that we were promised. We were told that the council would be fully accountable to the Northern Ireland assembly, but I do not see that explicitly expressed in the Bill in the way in which I, along with others—including colleagues who are members of the assembly—would like it to be expressed. I think that the Government will have to examine the whole question of accountability.
Many share my fear that Irish nationalists hope to use the north-south ministerial council as a means of creating an all-Ireland dimension that will be about the creation of an all-Ireland Government, through the harmonisation of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic and through the creation of all-Ireland executive bodies. That is what these so-called implementation bodies are: they are all-Ireland executive bodies. They will be given power by this Parliament to exercise power and authority over the whole of the island of Ireland. Those who have said that there are not all-Ireland bodies with executive powers need to read the Bill, and need to understand that there is provision for the creation of all-Ireland bodies with executive powers. I have no doubt that Irish nationalists will want the process to be accelerated to the point at which we have, in effect, an all-Ireland Government.
Clause 68 provides for the Secretary of State to empower the implementation bodies, but one wonders what will happen if the assembly collapses. Will the implementation bodies be disbanded or prorogued, or will they continue to exist? The agreement provides for the assembly and the north-south ministerial council to be totally interdependent—one cannot operate without the other—but what of the implementation bodies? Can the implementation bodies operate if the assembly collapses? We need to know, but the Bill does not spell it out. The real reason for the Assembly and the north-south ministerial council being interdependent is so that Unionists will have to acquiesce in the evolution of an all-Ireland Government if they are to retain their positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I have concerns about the Bill which carry over from my concerns about the agreement. I make it quite clear that my view, which is shared by many of my colleagues, is that, as democrats, we will not countenance the holding of ministerial office in the government of Northern Ireland by those who are linked to terrorist organisations that continue to be responsible for murder and violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. We will not support that, and I hope that the Government will step back, look at the Bill and ensure that terrorists and their political representatives do not become Ministers in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) puts a perfectly legitimate Unionist case for strengthening the United Kingdom, but, with respect, he overlooks profound constitutional change throughout the United Kingdom. The UK has changed, largely as a result of the Scottish referendum decision on 11 September last year and the Welsh referendum. In terms of constitutional reform, this will prove to be a remarkable year in parliamentary history.
I offer my sincere compliments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to her ministerial colleagues and to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I gratefully acknowledge the small number of Northern Ireland political representatives who have sought to bring about constitutional reform through peaceable and democratic principles and methods.
The Secretary of State said that the Bill is a constitutional milestone, but that is an understatement. She is aware of my view that the Assembly should be housed in a new building. We in Scotland are to have a new Scottish Parliament which will result from an international architectural competition. I thought that the model that was presented by a Scots firm should have won the competition, but the Secretary of State for Scotland and his estimable colleagues chose a firm of Spanish architects.
Hon. Members have spoken about a future debate between the United Kingdom and a united Ireland. Perhaps that debate will focus on the issue of federalism versus a united Ireland. In Scotland, the more intelligent elements of the chattering classes are debating federalism versus separatism. Matters are changing dramatically. The Northern Ireland Bill, with the Scottish and Welsh legislation, will have profound intended and unintended consequences. For example, the House will experience considerable change over the next year. I assume that Grand Committees and some Select Committees and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland questions will disappear. This House will pass no Northern Ireland, Scottish or Welsh legislation and eventually, whether some of us like it or not, as a result of such constitutional reform, we shall have to discuss a reduction in the number of Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish Members.
No. I have waited too long to make a speech of a few minutes. The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me on this occasion. I usually give way to the charming fellow.
In the years ahead, we shall not be able to duck a debate on such reductions.
I have reservations about a number of clauses. For example, clause 10 states that the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland will refer conflicts between the Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. When we debated the Scotland Bill, I suggested that there should be a national constitutional court made up of representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. That idea was dismissed, but I still believe that it is worth arguing for.
Clause 27—about which I completely disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)—allows for vacancies in the Assembly to be filled through by-elections, substitutes or any
other method…as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
I long to see a Northern Ireland Assembly, a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly discussing and legislating on everyday matters. As in other assemblies and Parliaments, vacancies should be filled only through by-elections. I disagree with the idea that substitutes should be found to fill vacancies.
Clause 62—I have made known my views on this—should be extended to include other forms of discrimination. It mentions only religious belief or political opinion, but I believe that that definition must be widened. Part VII deals with the creation of a British-Irish council. Despite what has been said, that council must eventually lead to the demise of the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body.
I think that we are on something of a constitutional helter-skelter, and I am delighted to support the Bill, just as I was to support the Scotland and Government of Wales Bills. I have some reservations, but the United Kingdom will never be the same—and thank heavens for that.
I begin by reiterating the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) in congratulating both the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) on their election—or selection—as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the incipient Assembly.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire Mr. Öpik)—unfortunately, he is no longer in the Chamber—on his return to the Opposition Benches. He was much missed in Committee considerations of Northern Ireland business, and it is good to see him back more or less in one piece. He said—it may have been a throwaway comment—that he hoped that the Conservatives would participate constructively. The Government have admitted that the Bill was prepared in record time. It is not a Scotland Bill mark II or even a Government of Wales Bill mark II; it is unique, not least because Northern Ireland had a Parliament for almost 50 years. I reiterate the Conservative party's support for the agreement. Conservative Members want the Assembly to work, and to work well, but a rushed Bill will always have defects and difficulties, and the duty of the House is to ensure proper scrutiny, especially when legislation has had to be put together in such a limited time.
Many hon. Members have alluded to the difficulties in the detail. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, like other hon. Members, queried clause 66, which deals with the establishment of the north-south ministerial council and the British-Irish council. He questioned whether the wording of the Bill was true to earlier agreed drafts in the talks process leading to the Belfast agreement. The hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) challenged clause 23, which deals with the exclusion of Ministers. They pointed to an interpretation whereby the clause could exclude Ministers only once they were in place, and could not prevent them from taking up their posts at the outset.
Furthermore, we heard from the Secretary of State's own lips—I wrote this down at the time and hope that it is accurate according to Hansard—that the Bill was needed, among other things, to fill a number of "practical gaps" in the agreement. I trust that that was not a slip of the tongue, because I agree with those sentiments whole-heartedly. No agreement can hope to cover all the practical aspects of making it work on the ground. Many of them will, by their very nature, be legalistic. They need to be specific, incapable of misinterpretation, and clear to all parties to the agreement. That should be the aim of the House and those of us who have elected to scrutinise the Bill.
We welcome the Secretary of State's admission at the outset that the Bill is not yet finalised and that the Government are open to constructive amendments. I give an assurance from the Opposition Benches that that is our intention. I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.
The relationship that is crucial to the success of the Assembly under strand 1 was referred to by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh; it is the Ulster Unionist-SDLP axis. I have seen it working for many years in Northern Ireland, particularly at local council level. Both sides of the community—nationalist and Unionist—have worked together in community groups and on partnership boards, particularly the one in Londonderry and the one in Belfast, so I have no qualms about believing that the two political parties can work together at the higher level of the new Assembly.
I should think that the objective of all Governments since 1974 has been to end the direct rule that was implemented at that time. I should say that direct rule itself has achieved several things: it has been fair; it has been efficient, in the main; and it has been an effective method of government. I do not agree with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann who referred to bad government and to the running down of the civil service during the period of direct rule.
Of course, there were defects. Much of the legislation was passed by Order in Council, which did not enable local Members of Parliament to have much of a say. Also, Ministers were often not local. Indeed, I was accused of being a carpetbagger when I first arrived in Northern Ireland. Ministers in Northern Ireland have considerable power, but little direct accountability is seen on the ground. There is no local government in Northern Ireland on the level that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom. All this leads to a democratic deficit. It is the aim of the agreement and of the Bill, which seeks to give a legal framework to that agreement, to put right that democratic deficit.
We have tabled some 39 amendments to date, and one new clause. There will no doubt be more. Indeed, many have been promised in this debate. There have been numerous hurdles on the way to a settlement in Northern Ireland, beginning, as many have said today, with the work done by the previous Conservative Government and culminating in the Belfast agreement and the referendum. Each new hurdle seems to loom larger.
We now have the critical responsibility of ensuring that the legal framework on which the successful working of the Northern Ireland Assembly, among other things, will rest, is written in an unambiguous and unequivocal way that is understood and accepted by everyone who is wholly committed to peaceful means and the democratic process. It is indeed a mammoth undertaking, and we need to get it right.
I trust that the Government will realise that those sentiments are what lay behind the Opposition's stance on the Bill. If a constructive approach is being invited, the Government will not find Opposition Members backward in coming forward.
I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). As he said, in the next fortnight, we will be considering amendments to the Bill, in Committee, on Report, and in the other place.
This Bill is very different in its conception and in the approach taken to it by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is based squarely on, and incorporates, the agreement. It has been endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland: we hope, therefore, that it incorporates not only the words but the spirit of the agreement.
As events have happened in record time—the agreement was reached in April; the referendum was held in May; elections to the Assembly and its first meeting occurred in June and July—the Bill, which has more than 80 clauses and many schedules, will inevitably have to be amended. The Government will not only have to pass their own amendments: we will have to take into account sensible amendments made by the official Opposition and by hon. Members from other parties, particularly those representing Northern Ireland.
At the beginning of this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) raised the issue of by-elections and substitutes. Although I shall return to that issue in Committee, I can tell him now that the House and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agreed that substitutes rather than by-elections represented the proper way of dealing with vacancies, as that system will maintain the Assembly's balance. There may indeed be a case for by-elections—for example, if no substitutes are offered, or if substitutes refuse to take seats—when vacancies have to be filled. By-elections may be held in such cases. We will also have to take into account the Registration of Political Parties Bill. Moreover, paragraph 6 of schedule 14 to the Northern Ireland Bill will ensure that orders that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may have to produce will remain in force after devolution.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) made a very interesting and useful speech. He said that the House should keep a close interest in Northern Ireland—and, of course, we shall. He also raised a matter of concern to himself and the Conservative party—removal and exclusion from ministerial office in Northern Ireland. On Thursday, there will be considerable debate on that matter. However, for now, I shall say simply that the agreement essentially says that the Assembly will decide whether Ministers should be excluded from office. It seems to be clear that that is what both the agreement and the Bill say. Several hon. Members have raised that issue.
We will have to examine the pledge of office—which mentions non-violence—and ways in which the Assembly itself can deal with matters on cross-community votes. We will have also to consider the points that the Prime Minister made in Balmoral, outside Belfast, which are included in the Bill, and, in forming a judgment and informing the Assembly's presiding officer, my right hon. Friend will have to take into account whether she thinks that those matters have been breached. We will have a full-scale debate on those matters on Thursday, when I am sure other points will be made.
I particularly agreed with the right hon. Member for Bracknell when he said that the principle of consent is uppermost in the Bill. At its very start, the Bill refers to the fact that only the majority of the people Northern Ireland, by consent, will decide their fate. It is so important that that principle is mentioned at the very start of the Bill, incorporating the agreement itself.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) made an interesting and important speech in his new capacity as First Minister for Northern Ireland. He made detailed references to the executive powers in the Bill, particularly those in clause 18. I can tell him that they relate only to the prerogative and other powers that are vested in Her Majesty and exercised by the First Minister and his deputy. They may be exercised through the Department, but most ministerial powers are vested in statute and are not affected by the clause. We shall, however, consider the matter further in Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman referred—as did other hon. Members—to clauses 66 to 68 and the relationship between the Assembly and the north-south ministerial council. As he knows, the initial implementation bodies are to be agreed in a shadow north-south ministerial council. They will be established by formal agreement between the two Governments with legislation by order under clause 68. After devolution, the Assembly will have full power to enter into further agreements by virtue of schedule 2(3)(b). Any legislative or financial consequences of such agreements must have the agreement of the Assembly. Ministers are bound by the pledge of office to act in accordance with any decisions of the Executive Committee. No laws can be passed and no money can be spent by the Assembly on matters regarding the affairs of the north-south ministerial council unless the Assembly is in agreement. Again, I am sure that we will consider that in further detail in Committee.
I have sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's point about Orders in Council, as would any democrat. However, there are difficulties regarding business in the House that we have to consider in the next few weeks. Inevitably, the amount of business involving Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be less than it was before devolution, but we shall have to consider the matter. I know that, for many years, the right hon. Gentleman and others have made the point that Orders in Council, which are unamendable, are not as good as ordinary Bills which have to undergo the full legislative process.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the vexed issue of the Equality Commission, which has raised its head across the Floor of the House today. We shall look particularly at his point regarding the absence of reference to the relationship between the Assembly and the Equality Commission. There may well be a department for equality, but whatever the circumstances, there is a relationship, and it needs to be examined. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about the one-stop shop. It makes sense for those who are troubled by matters with which the Equality Commission deals—equal opportunities for women, matters concerning disabled people, fair employment or whatever—to be able to consult one umbrella organisation to find out how they are affected as individuals and beyond that.
A number of hon. Members have said that the structures that incorporate the Equality Commission and other bodies should not disappear completely, but I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has found a compromise between an Equality Commission and the other directorates. That is another matter to be considered later.
We shall consider carefully the points made by the right hon. Gentleman in respect of the financial provisions. There is no intention of moving away from the Barnett formula for Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, but we need to examine the matter further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) raised a number of issues. I pay tribute to his work as chairman of the British-Irish Parliamentary Body. I am sure that no hon. Member can match his condemnation of terrorism. He made a significant speech. We certainly have to consider carefully what happens to the British-Irish Inter-parliamentary Body once the Assembly has taken on its full powers. I believe that it will have an enhanced role in another capacity, so we shall have to wait to see how it operates.
We are pleased to see the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) back in the House discussing Northern Ireland matters. He was quite right to say that the Bill gives the people of Northern Ireland a golden opportunity to govern themselves.
I agree that we will have the summer months to reflect on possible improvements to the Bill. I should emphasise that, owing to the gap between the consideration of the Bill in this House and in the other place, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, ministerial colleagues and I will have an opportunity to consult political parties, particularly those in Northern Ireland, as well as others represented in the House and other bodies, on where we go on issues of controversy and concern.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) also spoke in a different capacity—as Deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, for what I suspect was the first time. We all agreed with him when he said that we are entering a new era of trust and agreement. He was right to say that he, and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the First Minister, represent the two main traditions in Northern Ireland. He also rightly pointed to their enormous work load over the next few months and weeks. They are charged by the Assembly with producing reports on departmental portfolios and the north-south ministerial council by 14 September.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh highlighted the human and financial cost of the past few weeks. He also made specific reference to clause 66, which has replaced clause 26. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) raised the same issue. I should like to deal with both their points. The north-south ministerial council is to be formally established under the British-Irish agreement by an exchange of notes between the two Governments. The Bill provides the necessary legislative basis for the ministerial council to operate. Schedule 2 confers full powers on the Assembly and Northern Ireland Ministers to enter arrangements and agreement with the Irish Government. The draft clause 26, to which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh referred, re-enacted section 12 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, but, on further reflection, it was felt that clause 66 more properly reflected the agreement. Indeed, it allows only agreements in the context of the north-south ministerial council.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh was right to point out—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara)—what he thought were several omissions on human rights. The agreement is silent on some aspects of the Human Rights Commission, such as the right to call witnesses in evidence. It is certainly the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consult Northern Ireland parties further during the next two months precisely because the agreement is not clear on the issue.
We all agree entirely with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that the civic forum should play a vital role in the new process. I know that he and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann are charged with establishing guidelines on how it should operate.
The hon. Member for North Antrim spoke of the removal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It is replaced by clause 1, which accentuates and emphasises the principle of consent. The hon. Gentleman knows that articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution have changed, too. I covered earlier his point about clauses 26 and 66.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North raised the issue of the Equality Commission, to which I have already referred. The Fair Employment Commission and the bodies that represent voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland are very much in favour of an Equality Commission. We believe that the four chief executives of the current commissions can shape the structure of the new commission to such an extent that we can arrive at a sensible compromise. I agree with my hon. Friend on the need to consider clause 79 in the light of the Tinnelly case.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who is Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, made a very useful and important speech. He rightly referred to the financial aspects of the Bill and the need for proper scrutiny of spending, the need to combat fraud and corruption and the need for the House to be able properly to oversee Northern Ireland expenditure. He made comparisons with Scotland and Wales. We have taken considerable note of what he said. He can rest assured that, in Committee and beyond, we shall be taking the matters very seriously into account and will come back to him on them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) welcomed the measures on equality and made a useful comparison with Scotland. She is a great supporter of the political developments in Northern Ireland in recent months.
The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) referred to my party's 1988 policy document on Northern Ireland. He and I have discussed the issue many times. I suspect that we shall continue to disagree, but I assure him that our policy has changed. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister were responsible for that change. A glance at the relevant documents shows considerable differences between our policy then and our policy now on issues such as agreement by consent in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Scotland—[HON MEMBERS: "Kilmarnock and Loudoun."] I was out of the Chamber at the time. I have "My hon. Friend for Des Browne" written here, which is not right either. He made some important points. He asked why clauses 61 and 62 were different. We have had a look at that and we are not quite sure ourselves, so we shall come back to him on the reasons, particularly for the differences between the 1973 Act and clause 61. His points on human rights and equality have been taken into account. He also raised schedule 5 to the Scotland Bill. As for Scotland, broadcasting is reserved to the United Kingdom Parliament, as laid out in paragraph 25 of schedule 3.
The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) made a number of interesting points. We shall take most of them into account. He is right that the Human Rights Commission must look at its budget carefully and spend the money as wisely as possible. Spending on the British-Irish council will be a matter for the two Governments. We do not think that that will require a great deal of money, but legislation will not be necessary. I hope to meet representatives from Jersey, the Isle of Man and Guernsey this week. I am sure that I shall find time in my busy diary to do so, perhaps in their respective islands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) also referred to British-Irish relations. We shall take his points into account. I pay tribute to his long involvement in relations between this country and the Republic of Ireland.
I did not agree with most of what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, but he never expected me to. He will have an opportunity to raise the issues about which he spoke, particularly clause 23, on Thursday.
The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) talked about consent. I do not agree with his interpretation of the agreement. The Assembly has checks and balances and we shall consider the issue as we progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) made several useful and important points, as did the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. We shall deal with those in Committee.
The past two weeks have seen some horrific events in Northern Ireland, with many despairing of the future. However, the will for change is too strong to go back to those conflicts and terrible tensions of the past 30 years. The people in Northern Ireland have voted for a new political landscape. The agreement was based fairly and squarely on an agreement that the parties forged—not the Irish Government or the British Government, but the Northern Ireland political parties. That is the strength of the agreement, allowing communities to work together and laying down sensible co-operation arrangements between both parts of the island and between the two islands, tackling the great issues of human rights and equality.
Above all, the Bill gives back to all the people of Northern Ireland the right to govern themselves, and now in a way that respects both traditions. The Assembly is up and running, and the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are in office. We pay tribute to them for the wisdom and leadership that they have shown. They, like us, know that the agreement represents the hope and aspirations of all those in Northern Ireland who yearn for peace and stability for the generations to come.
I unreservedly and enthusiastically commend the Bill to the House.
|Division No. 340]||[9.59 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Ainger, Nick||Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Dalyell, Tam|
|Allan, Richard||Darling, Rt Hon Alistair|
|Allen, Graham||Darvill, Keith|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Davey, Edward (Kingston)|
|Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)||Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Davidson, Ian|
|Ashton, Joe||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Atkins, Charlotte||Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)|
|Baker, Norman||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)|
|Banks, Tony||Dawson, Hilton|
|Barron, Kevin||Denham, John|
|Battle, John||Dewar, Rt Hon Donald|
|Bayley, Hugh||Dobbin, Jim|
|Beard, Nigel||Dobson, Rt Hon Frank|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Doran, Frank|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Dowd, Jim|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth|
|Benton, Joe||Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)|
|Berry, Roger||Edwards, Huw|
|Blackman, Liz||Efford, Clive|
|Blears, Ms Hazel||Ellman, Mrs Louise|
|Blizzard, Bob||Ennis, Jeff|
|Blunkett, Rt Hon David||Ewing, Mrs Margaret|
|Boateng, Paul||Fatchett, Derek|
|Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)||Fearn, Ronnie|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Field, Rt Hon Frank|
|Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)||Fitzpatrick, Jim|
|Bradshaw, Ben||Fitzsimons, Lorna|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Follett, Barbara|
|Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E)||Foster, Rt Hon Derek|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)||Fyfe, Maria|
|Browne, Desmond||Gapes, Mike|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Gardiner, Barry|
|Burnett, John||George, Bruce (Walsall S)|
|Byers, Stephen||Gerrard, Neil|
|Caborn, Richard||Gibson, Dr Ian|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||Gilroy, Mrs Linda|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Godman, Dr Norman A|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Godsiff, Roger|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Goggins, Paul|
|Cann, Jamie||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Caplin, Ivor||Gorrie, Donald|
|Caton, Martin||Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Clapham, Michael||Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Hall, Patrick (Bedford)|
|Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)||Hanson, David|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)||Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)|
|Clelland, David||Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)|
|Coaker, Vernon||Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)|
|Coffey, Ms Ann||Hepburn, Stephen|
|Cohen, Harry||Hesford, Stephen|
|Colman, Tony||Hewitt, Ms Patricia|
|Connarty, Michael||Hill, Keith|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Hinchliffe, David|
|Corbett, Robin||Hoey, Kate|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Home Robertson, John|
|Corston, Ms Jean||Hood, Jimmy|
|Cotter, Brian||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Cox, Tom||Hopkins, Kelvin|
|Crausby, David||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Cryer, John (Hornchurch)||Howells, Dr Kim|
|Cummings, John||Hoyle Lindsay|
|Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)|
|Hutton, John||Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)|
|Iddon, Dr Brian||Morley, Elliot|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)||Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)||Moss, Malcolm|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie|
|Jenkins, Brian||Mudie, George|
|Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)||Mullin, Chris|
|Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)||Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)|
|Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)|
|Jones, Helen (Warrington N)||Naysmith, Dr Doug|
|Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)||Norris, Dan|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Jowell, Ms Tessa||O'Hara, Eddie|
|Keeble, Ms Sally||O'Neill, Martin|
|Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)||Öpik, Lembit|
|Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)||Organ, Mrs Diana|
|Kemp, Fraser||Palmer, Dr Nick|
|Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)||Pendry, Tom|
|Khabra, Piara S||Perham, Ms Linda|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Pickles, Eric|
|King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)||Pickthall, Colin|
|Kirkbride, Miss Julie||Pike, Peter L|
|Kumar, Dr Ashok||Plaskitt, James|
|Laxton, Bob||Pond, Chris|
|Lepper, David||Pope, Greg|
|Levitt, Tom||Pound, Stephen|
|Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)||Powell, Sir Raymond|
|Lewis, Terry (Worsley)||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Liddell, Mrs Helen||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Livingstone, Ken||Purchase, Ken|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)||Quinn, Lawrie|
|Lock, David||Radice, Giles|
|Love, Andrew||Rammell, Bill|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Rapson, Syd|
|McCabe, Steve||Raynsford, Nick|
|McCafferty, Ms Chris||Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)|
|McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)||Rendel, David|
|McDonagh, Siobhain||Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)|
|McFall, John||Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)|
|McGrady, Eddie||Roche, Mrs Barbara|
|McGuire, Mrs Anne||Rogers, Allan|
|McIsaac, Shona||Rooker, Jeff|
|MacKay, Andrew||Rooney, Terry|
|McKenna, Mrs Rosemary||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Rowlands, Ted|
|McLeish, Henry||Ruane, Chris|
|McNamara, Kevin||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|McNulty, Tony||Russell, Bob (Colchester)|
|MacShane, Denis||Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)|
|Mactaggart, Fiona||Ryan, Ms Joan|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Savidge, Malcolm|
|Mallaber, Judy||Sawford, Phil|
|Mallon, Seamus||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Maples, John||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Marek, Dr John||Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)|
|Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)||Singh, Marsha|
|Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Marshall-Andrews, Robert||Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)|
|Maxton, John||Smith, John (Glamorgan)|
|Meacher, Rt Hon Michael||Snape, Peter|
|Meale, Alan||Soley, Clive|
|Merron, Gillian||Southworth, Ms Helen|
|Michael, Alun||Spellar, John|
|Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Milburn, Alan||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Miller, Andrew||Stevenson, George|
|Mitchell, Austin||Stoate, Dr Howard|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin|
|Straw, Rt Hon Jack||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Stringer, Graham||Wallace, James|
|Stuart, Ms Gisela||Ward, Ms Claire|
|Stunell, Andrew||Wareing, Robert N|
|Sutcliffe, Gerry||Watts, David|
|Swinney, John||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)||Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)||Willis, Phil|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Wilson, Brian|
|Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)||Winnick, David|
|Tipping, Paddy||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Todd, Mark||Wise, Audrey|
|Touhig, Don||Wood, Mike|
|Trimble, Rt Hon David||Worthington, Tony|
|Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)||Wray, James|
|Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)||Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Tyler, Paul||Mr. Clive Betts and|
|Vaz, Keith||Mr. David Jamieson.|
|Beggs, Roy||Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)|
|Donaldson, Jeffrey||Ross, William (E Lond'y)|
|Gray, James||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|McCartney, Robert (N Down)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|McIntosh, Miss Anne||Rev. Ian Paisley and|
|Mr. Peter Robinson.|