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Orders of the Day — Disqualifications Bill

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 24th January 2000.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 3:43 pm, 24th January 2000

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill, inter alia, changes the anomaly created by section 36(5) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which permits a member of the Irish Senate to be a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but not of any other United Kingdom legislature. It replaces that provision with measures that will bring about a broader and closer relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole and the Irish Republic, by treating Northern Ireland as any other part of the United Kingdom.

The Bill ends the prohibition against members of the Irish legislature—that is, of both the Dail and the Senate—being a member of any legislature in the United Kingdom. They will therefore be permitted to be Members of this House, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill will place the Irish Republic in a position broadly similar to that of Commonwealth countries, whose legislators have been able to join legislatures here. It is a small step towards creating a closer relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole and the Irish Republic.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

The Minister seeks to draw a parallel between the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries, but Commonwealth countries have Her Majesty the Queen as their head of state.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

No, that is wrong. Two thirds of them do not.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Most of them do. In any case, an hon. Member in this House is required to take the Oath of Allegiance. The Bill covers people who, being representatives of foreign countries, cannot take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. Moreover, the south of Ireland is a republic. Is not the Bill therefore creating a huge anomaly?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will deal shortly with the issue of European and Commonwealth countries, but primarily as this applies to the latter. It is true that some Commonwealth countries are republics.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education)

Before the Bill's publication, how many representations in its support did the hon. Gentleman receive, when, and from whom?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

There have been discussions on this, but we shall be listening closely to what is said in this debate and as the Bill proceeds through the House. There have been discussions with various representatives—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"]. I refer to the Government, the Irish Government and others. I hope that the Bill will command a great deal of support in the House.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I nevertheless hope that we can convince Opposition Members that this is a worthwhile Bill.

This country has a number of special relationships with other countries—with the United States, for example, on security, with the Commonwealth, of course, with other members of the European Union, and also with the Irish Republic, with which we are working to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

Our relationships with the Irish Republic are special in geographical terms, given the sheer proximity of the two countries, as islands off the European mainland. We have historic links, for better or worse. Our economic links are strong. We have cultural links—millions of British people were born in the Republic, or their parents were born there, or their ancestry is Irish, whether from the north or south.

For its own political reasons, the Republic left the Commonwealth. That did not end its special relationship, but it made it more difficult to facilitate the recognition of certain links. If the Republic had not left the Commonwealth, some of the changes in the Bill might not be necessary.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

May I just say before I give way to the hon. Gentleman that this will be the third occasion on which I have done given way? I propose to make some progress after the hon. Gentleman has made his point, because I hope that this will not be too long a debate.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As he predicates his argument on the relationship between the Irish Government and this Government, I wonder whether he has had any representations from the Fianna Fail party, Fine Gael, the Irish Labour party or the Democratic Left, expressing an ambition to have a dual mandate? Or is this measure purely a concession to be enamelled on the side of the Good Friday agreement and to facilitate only and exclusively Sinn Fein-IRA?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I propose to discuss some of these issues as we progress. However, let me make it clear that we have had some discussions with the Irish Government, which I hope reflect some of the views of various parties in the Republic.

The Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement. It is not directly linked to it, but is a separate measure. The Bill, recognises, however, that there is a special relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole— I emphasise that phrase—and the Republic. It puts members of the Irish legislature in a position similar to those of Commonwealth legislatures.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

This will be the fourth occasion on which I have done so, and it will, I hope, be the last.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. This is quite a sensitive matter, and I want to be clear in my mind. My hon. Friend says that unlike certain other countries, Ireland is not a Commonwealth member and chose not to be a one—it was not driven out. Is he saying that a special category will be created for non-Commonwealth countries enabling them to have dual mandates?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am spelling out for my hon. Friend and for the rest of the House the view that, due to various reasons that I have set out, there is a special relationship not only with the United States, the Commonwealth and other members of the EU, but with the Republic of Ireland. We need not labour that point too much; it is clear that we have geographical, economic, cultural relationships—indeed all sorts of relationship—on which we must ensure that we build. That point is fairly straightforward.

All the measure does is put members of the Irish legislature in a position similar to that of members of Commonwealth legislatures. There is little real change in principle. Members of legislatures of the Republic of Bangladesh, the Kingdom of Brunei, the Republic of Uganda, Canada, Australia or Tonga can be members of legislatures in this country. However, at present legislators from the Irish Republic are in a different position.

Members of the Irish Senate can be Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but there are restrictions on their membership of other legislatures in the United Kingdom. The Bill would end that anomaly. In future, the same rules as apply to Northern Ireland would apply to all the United Kingdom.

For many years, Irish citizens have shared with Commonwealth citizens the right to vote in British elections. They have been able both to stand for and to vote in elections to the House of Commons, but there is one significant difference in their treatment. Under current law, members of Commonwealth legislatures—unlike members of foreign legislatures—can become Members of this House, but Members of both Houses of the Irish Parliament cannot, even though all other Irish citizens can do so.

Section 36(5) of the 1998 Act was the unique exception; that provision can now be repealed by clause 3. The Bill does not single out Northern Ireland for special treatment; Northern Ireland is treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. As part of the process—

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall not give way at the moment.

As part of the process of building on the special relationship, the restrictions on Members of the Dail—the lower Irish House—will be ended. In regularising relationships, it is difficult to argue that the Senate should be treated differently from the Dail. The measure will merely put members of the Irish legislature on the same footing as members of Commonwealth legislatures. It rightly reflects the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole and the Irish Republic.

The importance of keeping electoral law in good order was illustrated in 1982. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), before he was elected to the House, was disqualified from the then Northern Ireland Assembly because he had been appointed to the Irish Senate by the Taoiseach. That outcome was controversial at the time. It would now be out of step with the transformed political landscape in Northern Ireland and with relationships between the two countries.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman towards the end of my speech. I have given way on many occasions and I want to make some progress. I want to make several points.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

In particular, the establishment of the new institutions provided for in the Good Friday agreement makes the measure timely. The agreement gave a new shape to all these relationships, and created a new architecture of institutional links throughout these islands. Those links respect the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, but provide a framework for practical co-operation between the United Kingdom, the devolved bodies and Ireland.

When devolution and the new institutions came into force on 2 December last year, the Irish Government repealed the longstanding territorial claim over Northern Ireland in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. That makes it clear that a united Ireland can be achieved only with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland. With the principle of consent at the heart of the new constitutional settlement, there is a solid basis for a closer relationship between our two countries.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The Bill is just one example of that closer relationship. However, it is built on the firm foundation of the principle of consent that is central to the Good Friday agreement, and which was enshrined in law through the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and reinforced by international treaty. It cannot be undermined. There is no question of the Bill being the means to achieving Irish unification by the back door; that is not its objective, nor will it be its consequence.

The Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement, but it is consistent with it. Separate development of direct interparliamentary links between the various legislatures was envisaged at the time of the Good Friday agreement.

As a further positive—if relatively minor—measure which can help to improve relationships between our two countries, I welcome the Bill, and hope that hon. Members will feel that they can do so too.

I shall now give way to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). Then I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has been asking me to give way, and then I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Then I shall make progress.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates Conservative, East Hampshire

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have to take him back a bit, because I wanted to question him on a specific point that he made. He said that he was putting the Northern Ireland Assembly on the same basis as all the other institutions of the United Kingdom, but that is fundamentally to miss a point. There are only two sovereign institutions in these islands—the Parliament here and the Parliament in Dublin. The others are subordinate to one of those sovereign Parliaments. By changing that rule, the hon. Gentleman is allowing people to join two different sovereign Parliaments with two different aims in mind, so there is a major conflict of loyalty.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

One of the issues that I proposed to discuss in due course was the issue of conflict of loyalties, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that at the moment it is possible for a person who is a member of a legislature in Brunei or Bangladesh to be a member of this legislature, so it is already, in a sense, within our law; but perhaps I may discuss that in due course.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman has given us an account of the precedents and legal background, and the House is grateful for that, but he has not told us the motive behind the Bill. I believe that hon. Members would like to know why we are being asked to address this matter now. Where does the pressure come from? Why are we being asked to do it?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I think that I have indicated that we have now, as a result of the changes that have taken place and the relationship that has developed over recent years, been able to put behind us, to some extent, some of the difficulties that had arisen between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. It is time to build a sounder basis to our institutional relationships and to provide a basis on which we can proceed, as two islands just off the mainland of Europe, with many common links, historical and otherwise, between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic—a basis for ensuring that those closer links are given some institutional background. I believe that that explains this fairly modest Bill, and I hope that hon. Members will find it satisfactory.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will not give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I promised to give way next to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I do not know whether the Minister's notes encompass this point, but is he mindful of the fact that, between the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the passage by the Attlee Government of legislation consequent upon the Costello Government's declaring the Irish Republic in the late 1940s, it was wholly possible for people to sit in two legislatures? Indeed, Eamon de Valera was elected to the Northern Irish House of Commons after the establishment of the Irish Free State; that was perfectly acceptable then.

Surely the Minister should rely on the argument that the 1949 legislation created a new inconsistency, in that it extended and continued the right of Irish Republic citizens to vote in our elections and to stand for election to Westminster, but drew a distinction between Ireland and most citizens of the emerging Commonwealth. Coincidentally, as Ireland left the Commonwealth, India came in as its first republic. We should bear it in mind that the majority of states in the Commonwealth are now republics, so the arguments used by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) are wholly bogus.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Most of my hon. Friend's points are quite right. There are a number of historical reasons why we created what is, in effect, an anomaly. The anomaly is that we have a special and unique institutional arrangement whereby Members of the Irish Senate can become Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are best placed to ensure that we regularise the relationship between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom by providing that members of the Irish legislature can be members of any legislature in the United Kingdom. That is the view that the Government have taken, but those Members who wish to take a different view can do so.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

The Minister told the House that, although the Bill was not part of the Good Friday agreement, it was envisaged at the time of the agreement that it would be introduced. Can he point to any on-the-record statement to support that view? Was anything ever said at the time of the Good Friday agreement to the effect that this measure would be taken?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The right hon. and learned Gentleman obviously misheard me. I did not say that the Bill's introduction was envisaged at the time of the Good Friday agreement—I did not say that at all. Let me make it clear that the Bill arose after the Good Friday agreement. It is not directly linked to the agreement except in the sense that, following a number of changes that took place both before and after the agreement, relations between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom as a whole developed and got stronger, closer and better. We now need to ensure that we deal with anomalies in our legislation. The Bill happens to relate to one of them and we are proceeding to deal with it.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, so this is the last time I propose to do so.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

I am grateful to the Minister but—if I dare—may I try to persuade him not to cease to give way? He may learn from those of us who are slightly closer to the coalface than he is.

Will the Minister clarify one point? He says that he wants to remove anomalies. Will a Member of the Irish Dail be able to be a Member of the two other subordinate Assemblies—those in Scotland and in Wales? That point is not yet clear.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I said at the start of my speech—I have the note in front of me so I can quote it—that the Bill would cover the House, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I know that the hon. Gentleman has—to use his own phrase—been close to the coalface for a long time and that he has dealt with many difficult issues. I always listen to him with great care, but it is important to create a situation in which, as far as possible, we consider the United Kingdom as a whole— which we are doing—and remove the unique position in respect of the north alone.

We should also deal with another anomaly whereby the Senate has been treated differently from the Dail. Once we recognise that they are anomalies and deal with them, we will be better placed. Much as I respect the hon. Gentleman's views on many of these issues, I hope that we shall be able to convince him not only that the proposal is the right thing to do, but that this is the right time to do it.

Some would argue, for example, that the Bill's timing is wrong and that it should perhaps be linked to decommissioning. May I deal with that argument? We are at one on the importance of decommissioning. All parties are now agreed that decommissioning is an essential part of the process, that it should begin as soon as possible and that it is for the de Chastelain commission to deal with precisely how and when. The commission has said that it will issue a report in January. That will be of great importance. The future of the Good Friday agreement is obviously linked to its performance, which includes issues of decommissioning. However, the Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement and should be seen and treated separately. We agree on the objective of decommissioning, but frankly, I do not think that the Bill provides the means for advancing it.

I recognise, for example, that Sinn Fein should not benefit politically if the IRA defaults on decommissioning, but the benefit conferred by this Bill falls to all Members of the Dail. As a result of the Bill, any member could also stand for election to this House. There are 130 Members of the Dail, of whom just one is a Sinn Fein TD. We should not assume that Sinn Fein members are the only ones with an interest in pursuing politics both north and south of the border.

In the past, a number of individuals from the broad nationalist tradition have pursued such an interest. For example, Austin Currie, a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, is now a Fine Gael TD, and John Cushnahan, a former member of the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, is also now a Fine Gael TD. As we know, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, before being elected to this House, was a member of the Irish Senate, and Conor Cruise O'Brien, a distinguished former Irish Minister, chose to stand in 1996 in Northern Ireland as a member of the party of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney)—the United Kingdom Unionist party.

I quote those examples to demonstrate that the pool of individuals who might have an interest in benefiting from the Bill goes far wider than Sinn Fein, and we must be clear about that. We must also remember that Sinn Fein is the minority nationalist party in the north and that, in the south, at the last general election, it secured just 1 per cent. of the vote. To suggest, therefore, that the wide pool of potential beneficiaries should be denied the sensible treatment that is already available to members of Commonwealth legislatures, simply because Sinn Fein members would be such beneficiaries, is unfair and out of proportion.

If the issue is to be linked with something else, the right and better link is with the resolution of the overall constitutional issues between our countries. Until those were resolved, there was always, understandably, a question mark over whether it was truly possible to have the closest of relationships with the Irish Republic, as symbolised by this type of measure.

That issue has, to some extent, been resolved by the Good Friday agreement—negotiated between all parties and the two Governments—and the referendum that followed, in which the people of the Irish Republic overwhelmingly endorsed changes to the Irish constitution to place consent at the heart of their aspiration for a united Ireland. Most importantly, on 2 December, those constitutional changes, along with corresponding changes in British constitutional law, were brought into effect, in parallel with the devolution of power and the establishment of the Good Friday institutions.

With the agreement on consent now in force and new articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution in effect and capable of being changed again only by another referendum, regardless of developments under the rest of the Good Friday agreement, the Government believe that the way is clear for this Bill. Over many years, we have developed close working relationships with the Irish Government, but with agreement now in force between us on constitutional issues, the way is clear for the formalisation of that relationship. To some extent, the Bill provides some basis for that.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister has been full in his explanation, but will he deal with two matters that have not been dealt with? First, is it right to conclude that the Bill has a purely Irish genesis and is not part of any wider review of whether there should be a dual mandate between other legislatures and ours, or of whether one should have to be qualified by residence to stand for a legislature? Secondly, if the Bill does have only an Irish background in recent history, when did the matter first come to Ministers' attention as a proposal for legislative consideration?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The relationship between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom is in many ways special. I think that I have outlined the reasons for that, so I shall not rehearse those points.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Go on, give us the reasons again.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I thought that I had already described them. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to go through my whole speech again, I suppose that, notwithstanding the time and the nature of the debate, I could oblige him—although I do not think it necessary.

The issue arose after the Good Friday agreement was made, during further discussions between the two Governments. It was one of the issues on which we felt helpful progress could be made. I shall, as agreed, give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North and then deal with the other point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the most encouraging features of the past 15 years has been the better relationship at ministerial and parliamentary level between Britain and the Republic of Ireland—in spite of the opposition of a few, although not the majority of, Opposition Members? Does not the Bill strengthen that relationship and remove one or two anomalies, and is it not therefore to be warmly welcomed?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I agree that the Bill will remove some of the anomalies and that it is to be welcomed.

I did not respond to one point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey: whether the Bill is part of a wider process. It is part of the development of a special relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole and the Republic of Ireland. We do not therefore envisage extending its provisions to other countries that are not members of the Commonwealth. The Bill signals a recognition that, on certain issues, we have particular relationships with other countries and international organisations, including the United States, the European Union, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. It is right that we should ensure that we properly recognise such relationships.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

No—I must conclude my speech.

I recognise that there are concerns about conflicts of interest, but the holding of dual mandates does not, in itself, represent a conflict of interest or make it impossible for such elected representatives to carry out their duties effectively. Several hon. Members here today are also members of devolved legislatures in the United Kingdom.

The position of Ministers who take Executive decisions differs from that of Back Benchers who participate and press points in two different legislatures. Ministers must be in a position to take into account the best interests of people in the jurisdiction they govern. That might not be possible if a Minister is also a Minister in another sovereign country. Conflicts of interest might arise, or be thought to arise. That is why clause 2 prohibits Ministers of the Irish Government from taking up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In addition, the clause states that a junior Minister, First Minister or Deputy First Minister of the Assembly would have to resign his or her position in the Assembly Executive before becoming a Minister in the Irish Government.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Yes, because the hon. Gentleman has not yet intervened. However, it will be the last time I give way.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

The Minister said earlier that Members of Parliament could also be elected to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. However, the Bill does not bar them from becoming Ministers in those devolved Administrations. Why not?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

That is one of the issues that can be discussed in Committee. Following representations of which the hon. Gentleman is, no doubt, aware, it was argued that, because it might give rise to concern in Northern Ireland, that issue should be specifically addressed in legislation. It has been addressed in clause 2. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied that we are listening to representations from all parties.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The Bill is modest, but worth while. It makes no dramatic changes, but simply extends to the Irish legislature existing provisions that permit members of Commonwealth legislatures to become Members of Parliament. That is in line with a wide range of special provisions in electoral law covering Ireland and Commonwealth countries. The Bill builds on the existing provision allowing Members of the Irish Senate to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and extends it to other UK legislatures and to Members of the Irish Dail.

The Bill provides a further example of the development of mutually beneficial relationships between our two countries and throughout these islands—relationships that are now based firmly on the principle of consent. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for raising the matter in this way, but I think that I am justified in so doing because the Minister failed to give way to me. Have you received any representations from the Government to suggest that they are contemplating a change in the Oath that is taken by hon. Members?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

No, I have received no such indication from the Government at any time.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 4:15 pm, 24th January 2000

As we recognise that the aim of the Bill is to build on what has already been achieved in Northern Ireland, we will not oppose its Second Reading. However, there are issues that the Opposition hope the Minister will help to resolve, either today or during succeeding stages of the Bill's consideration. We are in no doubt that the Bill has serious implications. That is why we have tabled an amendment for the Committee stage, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) will move. We shall also support two amendments in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

Before turning to our reservations, I want to join the Minister in welcoming the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past few years. It represents a real step forward in its sadly troubled history. After all the horrors of the past 30 years of the troubles, marked as they have been by truly wicked and vile atrocities, we all hope that, at long last, Northern Ireland is looking forward to a new era of peace and stability. It should be one in which political differences are resolved by dialogue rather than by violence, and in which everybody accepts that the future of Northern Ireland must be determined by democracy and consent, not by gun and bomb.

No one on either side of the House should underestimate the leadership, courage and vision that has been shown by many politicians from Northern Ireland, including the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), in negotiating the Good Friday agreement and in bringing us to the current position. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and to Lord Mayhew of Twysden for their contributions.

As the Minister said, we accept that there is a seeming discrepancy: although both Irish and Commonwealth citizens may vote in United Kingdom elections, provided that they fulfil the relevant residency requirements, members of Commonwealth legislatures may sit in the House but members of the Irish legislature may not. However, we must be careful that in resolving that seeming anomaly we do not create others.

Although members of Commonwealth legislatures are entitled to sit in the House, there are obvious difficulties for members with an allegiance to one country sitting in a Parliament where they are required to declare an allegiance to another country. Our safeguard is the Oath, which has always applied. Every Member of the House, regardless of origin, must take the Oath. No Member taking the Oath should put the interests of another country first.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend is relying on the precedent created in favour of members of Commonwealth legislatures. Does she understand and agree that many of us, if we were considering this matter afresh, would not wish to give those members a right to sit in this place because of the conflict of interest?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I recognise that. My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. However, we cannot rewrite history; we must start from where we are. I am trying to address the issue in the context of where we are.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I invite the House, including the right hon. Lady, to pause for a moment. I have no difficulty with the Oath, but others clearly do. It appears that we forget that mandates come from the people. I have always thought it odd that we should decide who should be eligible to represent people. Surely it is a fundamental point of democracy that people are entitled to choose the good, the bad, the indifferent, the republican or the monarchist—it is a matter for the people. If someone receives a mandate from the electorate, in my view he is entitled to serve in this legislature or any other to which his mandate sends him.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. When hon. Members participate in running a country or in scrutinising its running, they must, first and foremost, have allegiance to that country. The Oath has solved the problem of serving two masters and the attendant conflict of interest.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The Bill does not affect the Oath and the Government have no plans to change it.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I recognise the phrase "have no plans"; I know it of old. I ask the Minister to go a little further. Will he give a cast iron, on-the-record guarantee that the Government will never, under any circumstances, propose or support a move to abandon or amend the Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The right hon. Lady knows perfectly well that no Parliament can bind another. That is constitutional basics.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I shall be happy to accept an assurance that merely binds the current Government.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The right hon. Lady will have to accept the assurance that has been given. I have clearly indicated the Government's view. The right hon. Lady may use phrases such as "have no plans" in a disingenuous or misleading way, but the Government do not.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

The Minister has given a wonderful hostage to fortune, which we have all heard. I take it that he is not prepared to give a cast iron, on-the-record guarantee that the Government will never, under any circumstances, propose or support a move to abandon or amend the Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. Hon. Members should note that carefully in the context of this measure and, perhaps, in others that we may consider.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

I have noted the Minister's reluctance to give such a guarantee. However, given the stress that my right hon. Friend placed on the importance of the Oath as a guarantee, is she not developing a powerful case for voting against the measure on Second Reading?

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

No. My hon. Friend has been here long enough to know that Second Reading is a means of moving to further, detailed discussions of the Bill, including probing matters further and debating amendments. It would be odd to rule out further stages of the Bill.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and then to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. Lady's comments imply that the Conservative party believes that the rewording of the Oath should never be considered. A Member of Parliament who is not from Northern Ireland said to me the other day that the current Oath does not accommodate hon. Members who have been properly elected, but have republican views or sympathies. Does the right hon. Lady claim that those who are properly elected should be prevented from taking their places because they did not agree to, or stand on a platform of allegiance to a monarch? Such people respect monarchs, but believe that their allegiance is not to them, but to the people who elected them, and to the Parliament of the country where they were elected.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

When we talk about "Her Majesty's Government" and "Her Majesty's Opposition", we do not use the terms lightly. They have a clear constitutional implication. I hope that all Opposition Members would oppose any suggestion of watering down the Oath of Allegiance.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the extraordinary parliamentary philosophy that she outlined a moment ago? Apparently, we no longer oppose Bills on Second Reading because we want to consider them later in detail. Surely it is possible—and in the case of this measure, proper—to oppose a Bill in principle when it would affect so significantly the relationship between this legislature and others.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I was not setting out a general principle that Second Readings should never be opposed. If a principle is overriding, Second Readings will be opposed. I am anxious to build on the developments in Northern Ireland, although not at any price—I shall discuss that in a moment—and therefore we shall not oppose Second Reading. Perhaps I can make progress with the reservations that we have about the Bill.

The Minister will be aware of the deep unease in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, which Conservative Members share, that despite moves that have been made—not least the early release of more than 300 terrorist prisoners—there has as yet been no decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by those paramilitary organisations that signed up to the Good Friday agreement. Our view, therefore, is that the Bill should not take effect unless there has been substantial and verifiable decommissioning. Our amendment—which, if selected, we shall press to a vote in Committee tomorrow—reflects that.

As part of the Mitchell review, General de Chastelain must report on progress by the end of this month. Of course, we hope and pray that he will be able to report that decommissioning by the paramilitaries has begun, but if not, and if that process is stalled, nobody should be in any doubt as to where the responsibility lies—not with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann or other constitutional politicians, who have done everything that has been asked of them, but with the paramilitaries and their political representatives, who have not.

Without a start to credible decommissioning, the Bill will be seen as yet another example of all take and no give by the paramilitaries. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has tabled an amendment that would ensure that the Bill, if enacted, would not come into force until there was substantial progress on decommissioning, verified by the de Chastelain commission.

Although the Republic of Ireland has not been a member of the Commonwealth since 1949, we accept that that does not detract from the fact that it has a unique historical relationship with the United Kingdom, which has been set out across the years and is explicitly recognised in legislation. Section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949, which was passed when the then Irish Free State declared itself a republic outside the Commonwealth, clearly says that notwithstanding that the Republic of Ireland is not part of His Majesty's dominions, the Republic of Ireland is not a foreign country". That has been manifested in many different ways over the years, not least the co-operation between the British and Irish Governments on Northern Ireland in recent years.

Many of the old antagonisms that used to cloud British-Irish relations have given way to a more constructive partnership. A great advantage of the Good Friday agreement is the opportunity it creates to build on that, especially now that the offensive territorial claim over Northern Ireland in the Irish constitution has at long last gone. The British-Irish agreement, which came into force last month, introduced new and closer ties throughout these islands through the British-Irish Council. Like the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, we view it as a significant development that should facilitate closer co-operation on a range of issues, without in any way undermining sovereignty.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 enabled Members of the Irish Senate to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the Minister pointed out. That dealt effectively with the situation that occurred in 1982 when the current Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland was disqualified from the then Assembly because he was serving in the Senate. That Act did not include Members of the Dail. Clause 2 of the Bill rectifies that and removes the prohibition on sitting in the Assembly that applies to members of one half of the Irish legislature. The Opposition do not oppose that, but we recognise that it is important that there is a prohibition on the appointment of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive who are also Ministers in the Government of the Irish Republic, as there clearly could be conflict of interest in the exercise of Executive power. I am grateful that the Government recognise that, too.

We believe that the Bill should go further, however, and also state that a Member of the Irish Parliament, should he be appointed a Minister, should at that point be disqualified from the Assembly and from Westminster. Therefore, we shall support the amendment to that effect in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

The Opposition are committed to the establishment of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement and the devolution of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have provided a real basis for such a lasting peace. Therefore, we shall not divide the House on Second Reading. However, I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Government to take into account the progress made on decommissioning before bringing the Bill into force, to guarantee the continuation of the Oath in its present form and to accept that Ministers of other Governments should not sit in this House.

We strongly support the Good Friday agreement, but that agreement must be implemented in full—in all its parts and by everyone. It is our strong view that all parties must fulfil all their obligations. Only when that happens can we really start to believe that the paramilitaries are truly committed to democratic and peaceful means and that a lasting peace can be established.

We shall therefore give the Bill a fair passage to its next stages, but I hope that, between now and tomorrow, when those stages commence in the House, the Minister will carefully consider what I have asked for and will respond positively.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich 4:31 pm, 24th January 2000

I am somewhat bemused. I had hoped that, in the discussion of the reasons for Her Majesty's Government proposing what is a constitutional change, there would be a clear explanation of the situation, not only as it exists, but as it will exist after the passing of the law. I regret to say that I am more confused now than I was when I entered the Chamber.

I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I would say this to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary: constitutional change needs to be carefully thought out, and its implications carefully examined. I understand the desire to normalise relationships with Ireland, particularly in the light of the advances that are being made and the desire to have stability and change in Northern Ireland. However, to deal with one anomaly by creating a dozen others does not seem altogether an admirable solution. I would have been happier had my hon. Friend, whom I know to be not only a sterling member of the Front Bench, but an honest and straightforward one, been able to assure me that various qualifications would have been automatically written in at this point—not later, but at this point.

Will it be necessary to have the same qualifications of residency? Are the same responsibilities to be put upon the people who are involved and who could benefit from the legislation? Will the constraints that we have in relation to this Chamber be the same after the Bill has been passed?

Because of the historical accident that Irish citizens can not only vote but take part in local government and in our system of elections, I understand why it is felt that Ireland has a different relationship. But the reality is that it is outwith the Commonwealth; it is not on a par with Commonwealth countries. I must ask my hon. Friend whether this will not be used as a precedent for other non-Commonwealth countries in the future. I could understand if, in seeking to tidy up legislation, one came here and said that it was no longer sensible for other Commonwealth representatives to have the right to sit here, but that does not seem to be the case. What we are doing today seems, if well intentioned, ill-researched. It may even be somewhat wider in its context and somewhat more immediate in its results than Her Majesty's Government may have considered.

These days, I suppose that I could be said to represent the forces of conservatism, although I discover that my position within the Labour party seems to sway from side to side—not because of anything that I do, but because others take a different view of where I stand. However, I am really rather discomfited by the suggestions that have been made today, and even more discomfited by the fact that I see no one on the Government Benches questioning them. We may discuss constitutional change, but I believe that the right to sit in the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom is one of the most important rights of a citizen. It carries with it responsibilities and duties. The Oath of Allegiance is not to a particular person: it is to our head of state. We must never lose sight of that fact, whatever people may think about our system.

I have difficulty with the measure; we have not been given a full explanation of the need for it. Its implications are much more wide ranging than my hon. Friend suggested, and I could not support it in the Lobby.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe 4:35 pm, 24th January 2000

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), especially as, on this occasion, I agree with much of what she said. I seek the indulgence of the House for my absence during the wind-up speeches, depending on when they take place. I have a long-standing speaking engagement in Cambridge this evening, which I am honour bound to keep.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be back to vote, I hope.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

I hope so, but it depends on when the vote takes place.

I believe that the Bill is wrong in principle. Underlying the Disqualification Act 1975, which this Bill amends, and all previous disqualification legislation is the principle that an hon. Member should be free from possible conflicts of interest that might distract his behaviour as an independent member of the legislature and his freedom to represent the best interests of his constituents. As the Library note puts it, this House-based objective has been historically the basis of the great majority of disqualifications. It is a principle previously accepted as self-evident.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, in that case, it would be necessary to abolish the right of members of one European Union state to stand for the European Parliament in another, as Lord Steel did a few years ago when he stood in Italy as a candidate for the European Parliament?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

It is possible to have more than one view on that, but I do not think that that follows from what I have argued because the European Parliament is not a sovereign Parliament. The essence of my argument has to do with the sovereignty of this Parliament and that of the Republic of Ireland.

The principle to which I have referred is reinforced by the Oath of Allegiance. I, for one, do not understand how it is possible to be loyal to that Oath and to serve loyally in another sovereign Parliament. No one should expect that to be possible. We are not concerned with a problem of terminological inconvenience. At the very core of the responsibility of a Member of Parliament is his duty to promote the interests of the country of whose Parliament he is a Member. No two countries have interests that are always identical. Whenever those interests diverge, a member of the legislature in both countries is faced with precisely the type of conflict of interest that it is the purpose of the Disqualification Act 1975 to prevent.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Although, unlike my right hon. and learned Friend, I should like the Oath to be changed, it none the less focuses on the nature of the duty owed. The duty owed by any hon. Member in this House is a duty to the interests of this country.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely correct. That is precisely the point.

The divergence of interests between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland has been and remains conspicuous. In this country's hour of greatest peril 60 years ago, the Irish state stood apart. To this day, the Republic of Ireland continues to stand apart from the military alliance that has done so much to preserve peace over the past 50 years. It is not a member of NATO; it is neutral.

The Irish Republic is part of European economic and monetary union. No one can seriously doubt that the interests of a country that is a member of that union and those of a country that is not cannot be identical. To state those differences is merely to set out a series of facts. They are indisputable.

We have before us legislation that is wrong in principle. Indeed, the error of that principle seems to be recognised in the legislation itself. Clause 2 provides that no one should be a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive if he is a Minister of the Government of Ireland. That can be only because the Government themselves recognise that to hold ministerial office in both Administrations would be to fall foul of the very conflict of interests to which I have referred.

Ministers nod, but this was the thinnest part of the justification advanced by the Under-Secretary of State. The responsibilities and loyalties of a Minister to the country that he serves are in every material respect identical to those of a member of the legislature. The fact that in one case the responsibility is Executive, while in the other it is legislative, is utterly immaterial in relation to the principle that is involved

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

Indeed it is.

The only argument that has been advanced in support of the Bill, either explicitly or implicitly, is that it would further the peace process; but it has been acknowledged that nothing in the Good Friday agreement requires this step to be taken. Indeed, it has been forcefully argued that pressing on with the measure in the absence of a consensus for it is itself a breach of the Good Friday agreement. In any event, it can hardly be argued that those who are most likely to benefit from the legislation—I agree that they are not the only ones—have been so punctilious in their observance of the provisions of the agreement as to justify these further concessions.

Finally, I want to deal briefly with the claim that all that the legislation achieves is the putting of the Republic of Ireland on the same footing as member states of the Commonwealth. I do not regard that as a convincing argument. It is easy to see why in 1957, just a dozen years after the end of the second world war, special provision was made in the House of Commons Disqualification Act of that year for Commonwealth member states. At that time, there was indeed a greater identity of interest between those countries and the United Kingdom than existed between the United Kingdom and almost every other country, or than exists now between the United Kingdom and other countries of the Commonwealth.

I personally greatly value our Commonwealth links and want them to be strengthened, but I believe that, for the reasons of principle that I have given, the Commonwealth exemption from the provisions of the 1957 Act can no longer be justified. It is that exemption that is the anomaly. Far from being extended, as the legislation would provide, it should be removed.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Let me see if I have understood the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. He does not believe that the Commonwealth should have the rights that it had throughout 18 years of Conservative Government, including the period during which he was responsible for these constitutional issues as Home Secretary and did nothing about them. He believes that this is a fundamental matter of principle, but he cannot be bothered to be here this evening to vote against it.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

The Minister may yet be disappointed in his expectation—it rather depends when the vote takes place. Perhaps he should not take too much comfort from what I said.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. I also believe that no one can serve two masters. Is it possible to be elected to this Parliament from any part of the United Kingdom, or from anywhere else, without being on the electoral register within the UK?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe

That question raises different points and considerations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not follow him down that path.

If we in the House are careless of principle, we will forfeit our right to the confidence of our constituents. The Bill is wrong in principle, it is not justified by any worthwhile practical consideration and it should be rejected by the House.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 4:45 pm, 24th January 2000

Most of us can unite on one thing: it is bewildering that people could even contemplate having two mandates, but there are plenty of precedents for that. I notice that no one has advanced the view that, as a general principle, the right to two mandates should not exist. Indeed, two hon. Members whom I greatly respect—they are almost universally respected in the House—the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), have three mandates each. They are supermen. They have seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the House of Commons and the European Parliament.

Why do I refer to that? It comes back to my intervention. It is for the electorate to decide whether having more than one mandate is appropriate; it is not a matter for us.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I give way to Grantham and then Hampshire.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

It is Sleaford and North Hykeham, but no matter.

On disqualification, there are two points. One is time: whether a person has the time to be in two or three places. I agree that that depends on the constituency in question. The other is conflict of interest, which is a matter not for the association or constituency, but for the House.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I promise to come to that point because it is important. I am just into my speech and I do not want to detain the House, but I will come to that.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates Conservative, East Hampshire

I defer to the hon. Gentleman when he says that it is all right for a Member to serve in any number of Assemblies so long as it is all right with the constituents, provided that national conflict of interest does not arise. That is the point that the Minister did not deal with. To be a Member of the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly is fine as it is part of the UK. To be a Member also of the European Parliament is fine, too: that is just a supranational assembly. It is when we come to this sovereign Parliament and the one in Dublin that a conflict arises. That is what the Bill allows for, which is wrong in principle.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

It might surprise the two Members who have intervened on me, but I listen to colleagues' speeches. That was precisely the point that was raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I intend to come to that, if they could be patient for a moment. I am speaking without notes, which I know many hon. Members do, as I want to develop a certain thought process.

Having made the point that it is for the people to decide who their Members of Parliament, MEPs, Deputies and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly should be, I want to move to another point—

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I will for the last time.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Will the hon. Gentleman cast his mind back to when his Government, his party and, I guess, he himself supported the closed-list approach to the European elections? In what sense does he think the electorate had a choice in who represented them in those elections?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman. I should have thought that he would have known that, as a democrat, I very much opposed the closed-list system.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I will have to look it up in Hansard, but, for the record, I think that the system is wrong. It is a big digression from the Bill, but I say unashamedly that the electoral system chosen for the European Parliament was perverse. It was not democratic in the way that I would have liked it to have been when it reached the statute book. I hope that we shall revisit the issue before the next European elections.

The second point that I want to make has not been touched on yet in the debate, but is an underlying theme. It is time that the Irish Republic came back into the Commonwealth. If one paused to think about it, one would realise that, in 1948–49, one reason why the Costello Government left the Commonwealth was that the Commonwealth had not yet accepted, as a general principle, the idea of accepting republics as members.

The irony was that, as the Irish Republic formally left the Commonwealth, almost simultaneously, the first departure from the principle that the United Kingdom monarch should automatically be the head of state of a Commonwealth country occurred with the entry of India, as a republic, to the Commonwealth. As I have already said, an overwhelming majority of Commonwealth countries are republics. Had that been the case in the 1940s, I am sure that the Irish Republic would not have left the Commonwealth.

Legislation in the late 1940s was intended to recognise that there was something very special about Ireland—our close cultural bonds with it, the fact that many citizens of the Irish Republic fought on behalf of the United Kingdom in the second world war and that, in the first world war, many gave gallant service on the western front. In the late 1940s, people were very much alive to those issues, and Parliament's intention was demonstrably to recognise our special historical, cultural and geographical ties with the Republic. Consequently, special provisions were made to give citizens of the Republic voting rights and the right to stand for the United Kingdom Parliament.

I think and hope that, at some stage, the Republic will think about rejoining the Commonwealth. Although I appreciate that it is probably not best for this place to prompt it, I hope that countries such as South Africa, Canada and New Zealand will take the initiative of inviting the Irish Republic back into the Commonwealth. We should also bear in mind—I hope that our debate might be read elsewhere—that it is no longer the British Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth. It is a mutual and shared organisation.

The Irish Republic has a very great tradition and proud record of peacekeeping and humanitarian work, and it would be a natural leading member of the Commonwealth. I hope that, in the coming months, the issue of rejoining will be considered by the Dail and the Government of the Irish Republic.

In earlier interventions, hon. Members raised the issue of members of a legislature who are not loyal to the state in which the legislature of which they are members is located. I ask them to pause and think about the troubled parts of Europe and the representatives of national minorities and communities who are not happy about serving in the geographical jurisdiction of the country in which they are located, but who are none the less prepared to serve in those countries' legislatures. They are not terrorists. Those representatives will also have to accept the terms of their legislatures' oath of office, although it is unlikely that such an oath would be offensive to them.

Surely all hon. Members would encourage those representatives to serve in those legislatures. It is odd that we do not encourage people to serve in our legislatures, even if those people might find unpalatable the constitutional arrangements in which the legislatures operate. If the arguments propounded by the right hon. and learned Members for Folkestone and Hythe and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) were adopted elsewhere in Europe, it would intensify the unhappy situation in so many European countries.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, and there is some substance to it. However, does he agree that, in many of the countries of Europe, the difficulty of concentrating on loyalty has been recognised and that, very often, the result is much greater devolution and federal constitutions that are designed to deal with the concept of divided loyalty?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Yes. However, the situation in the United Kingdom is dynamic, and—although the British isles are not a federation—there have been many recent developments. We should not consider the provisions in isolation. We now have, for example, the Council of the Isles.

In many parts of Europe, there are not adequate federal arrangements. In their speeches, the right hon. and learned Members for Sleaford and North Hykeham and for Folkestone and Hythe and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made the point that people might serve in a legislature although all their beliefs run counter to the principle of doing so. I regret that the people who wrote the Minister's brief were not astute on Irish history. Otherwise, Eamon de Valera would have been mentioned, as he was elected to the House of Commons in Northern Ireland after the constitution of the Irish Free State, and was also elected to the Dail. He could have been elected to the British House of Commons until the Costello Government declared the Republic in the late 1940s.

When the Irish Free State was set up in 1922, the Irish Senate had Members of the British Parliament sitting in it. They were Unionists who did not like the creation of the Irish Free State. Admittedly, they were not elected Members of the House of Commons, but they were Members of the House of Lords. They carried on their mandate to sit in the House of Lords in the British Parliament until they died. The Irish peerage carried on until they expired, so there was a dual mandate in reverse. Those people were there because they had resisted the creation of the Irish Free State and because, quite rightly, it was a way of representing Unionist interests in the 26 counties. They did that very well.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is refreshing our memory of history, and I recognise his point about South Down. However, how long were those people kept in the Irish Senate thereafter? The hon. Gentleman referred to them as dying here. Am I right that the understanding that there would be Unionist representatives in Dail Eireann was not maintained?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

In those days, it was possible for a Unionist to get elected to Dail Eireann because there was not separate citizenship. I stress that those concerned did serve in the Senate. I regret the impact of the constitutional amendments in the 1930s, which abolished the Irish Senate as set up under legislation in the 1920s. However, the principle was there.

I draw the House's attention to that point in response to the right hon. and learned Members for Folkestone and Hythe and for Sleaford and North Hykeham, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. In fairness, they were unaware that this Parliament had provided for that matter in those circumstances.

A colleague told me not to dwell on the Oath. The Oath does not present difficulties to me personally. However, we should facilitate people in taking their place within a legislature. If they are disbarred solely on a formulation of words that is very important to those who consider the Oath important but not to those who do not, that will contravene the European convention on human rights.

In looking at the tragedy of Ireland and the missed opportunities, one must look at the Oath, which kept the Republican party out of the Dail for 10 to 12 years after the creation of the Free State. That was a great tragedy. How did they overcome it? Those who value the Oath must think that the formulation whereby the problem was overcome was the worst possible scenario. De Valera led his deputies into Dail Eireann after they had been disbarred having consistently refused to take the Oath. Eventually he said, "This is a formula", and signed the register. That was seen as the way round the problem. I happen to know that some hon. Members here have mentally poached that formula when they have signed after our general elections. Openly, some people elected to the Scottish Parliament used the same formulation.

That debases the Oath. An oath should be something with which everyone is comfortable. Perhaps we all do not even need to take the same oath—there could be a degree of choice. For the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to challenge the Minister to say that he will never contemplate a change in the wording of the Oath seems to reinforce some of the great mistakes that were made in the previous century in relation to Ireland. There must be fresh thinking: members of one United Kingdom legislature should not be disbarred from serving because of a formulation of words.

Only exceptional people will want to take advantage of this Bill when it is enacted. However, its presence on the statute book could benefit the United Kingdom and all its people. After all, Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, appointed Dame Lydia Dunn, a member of the Hong Kong legislature, to the House of Lords. That appointment was a recognition of the lady's work, but it was also expeditious for the United Kingdom to send a signal to the people of Hong Kong that they had not been forgotten. The appointment was therefore an important shibboleth and was expedient at the time.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I have the greatest admiration for my hon. Friend, but does he accept that the Hong Kong Executive could not in any way be said to be the sovereign Government of the people of the Republic of China? Although it might have been possible to argue that Hong Kong, as the only democracy in the state of China, could and should have been that sovereign Government, it was not.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

No, but my point is that it was expedient for the United Kingdom to have that facility on the statute book.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

That is not comparable with the Bill.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

My hon. and very good Friend and I will have to disagree. I believe that the two sets of circumstances are parallel. There are good reasons why the same facility should exist for the electorates of Northern Ireland—to whom the Bill primarily relates—and for those of the rest of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:02 pm, 24th January 2000

When I take constituents on tours of the House, I am often asked about the early days of women's suffrage. One of the bits of history that I tell them as a matter of interest is that the first woman to be elected to this Parliament was a Sinn Fein representative from the St. Patrick's area in Dublin. She never took her seat in the United Kingdom Parliament, but the story disabuses people of the conventional, history-book belief that Lady Astor was the first woman to be elected to this place.

Although this Bill is small in size, it opens a set of big related issues. The Liberal Democrat party is a United Kingdom party, but more in practice a Great Britain party, so it is especially sensitive to the needs of people in Northern Ireland, to whom the Bill has most relevance.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he may go quite a long way towards agreeing with what I say.

The Bill is about the rights of the people of Ireland—particularly the rights of a small group of those people—in the United Kingdom and its Parliament. Essentially, it is about the rights of representation, in the United Kingdom Parliament and other UK Assemblies, of representatives elected to the Parliament of Ireland. This is something of a paradox.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

What the hon. Gentleman says applies the other way around, too.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall come to that in a second.

The question of reciprocity arises from the basic proposition.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Bill rests on two narrow proposals. Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill's Second Reading, as do the Conservatives, but we are worried about how the Government have introduced it to Parliament. The approach adopted by the Government does not seem to be the most appropriate.

The relationship that the United Kingdom has with Ireland is different from any other that it has. It is not the same as our relationship with Commonwealth countries, any other European Union country or any other country—[Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but there are far too many sedentary comments in the House this afternoon, and they do not assist the debate.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is noteworthy that, in our legislation, Ireland is not categorised as an alien country. That is because of our strong historical connections. As we see whenever we are in Central Lobby, Ireland is one country within the United Kingdom until the independence of Ireland; it then became a Republic after the war, at the end of the 1940s. The relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland is unique, and legislation that affects it will, and should, be considered separately from legislation in relation to every other country.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

The hon. Gentleman said that Ireland's position is to do with our long historic relationship. In a sense, that is right, but it is also a result of Acts of this Parliament. That is the point.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right: the historical relationship has resulted in particular Acts of Parliament that have governed our relationship.

The Government have chosen—that is why I asked the Minister the question—to come to the House with a proposal that is specific to the United Kingdom-Irish relationship. I want to make a few comments on that, although I shall shortly be discussing the fact that we have missed an opportunity. There is a wider set of issues to do not just with disqualification from being elected to Parliament, but with the links between Members of Parliament and other Assemblies—the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) rightly called them subordinate Assemblies—including the European Parliament, which is not a full sovereign Parliament in that sense of the word. In addition, dual mandates and conflicts of interest have not been addressed. It is also a pity to have this debate before having the even wider debate, which is particularly topical given last week's report by the Wakeham commission on the House of Lords, and the opportunities that that presents.

Let me deal first with the Bill and the two narrow points that it contains. Let me say to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who is no longer in her place, that if we accept that the Bill presents to our Parliament an issue on the rights of the Irish people and people elected to the Irish Parliament—the Senate and the Dail—it is wrong to tie the Bill to issues of decommissioning, however much we share the view expressed most frequently by Members on the Ulster Unionist and the other Northern Ireland Benches that we desperately want decommissioning to take place and to be seen to be taking place. I advanced that case in a question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland only last week. The rights of citizens should not depend on other processes that will be arbitrated on by an independent body. It muddies the water to link those issues.

Although the Minister did not say it directly, the obvious conclusion is that the Bill arises from discussions after the Good Friday agreement. The point must have been raised—perhaps someone in the Government said it to someone in the Irish Government, or vice versa, or perhaps it came from the Northern Ireland Office—about correcting this one constitutional anomaly, and the Government must have decided to legislate.

It would have taken some of the heat out of the issue if the Bill had awaited the conclusion of the commission in Ireland, which is inquiring into the composition of the Irish Parliament. I gather, from prior knowledge and from the Library's briefing note, that it is due to report early this year.

It would have been logical, and would have been good as cement for relations in the UK-Irish axis, for there to have been simultaneous consideration—as simultaneous as it can ever be—in this Parliament and the Irish Parliament of proposals that might have ensured that there were no anomalies. We should have preferred that and we regret that it has not happened.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I will on this occasion, but I do not want to do so too often. I have not forgotten my promise to give way to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne).

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he made a highly pertinent point. Does he agree that, despite the Government's disavowal of a linkage between the Bill and the process of decommissioning, it is not outwith the bounds of possibility that they are fervently hoping that the passage of the Bill—to which some Members object—will itself facilitate the decommissioning for which we all hope?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am sure that there is a hope that the Bill will act as a bit of an encouragement to—let us be direct—Sinn Fein to be more co-operative. That is a perfectly reasonable interpretation. However, we should not legislate to change constitutional arrangements by considering only the foreground, without thinking about the hinterland. The Bill has a hinterland—of Irish and United Kingdom constitutional change and of UK constitutional reform—and our criticism is that both should have been considered before we reached this stage.

I have no inside information, but I take it as read that the Bill would not have been presented, had the Irish Parliament not changed the Irish constitution to remove Ireland's claim to the six counties.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

That was in the 1948 legislation.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Indeed. The legislation dated from the 1940s. The Government would not have been able to sustain the proposition in the measure if the right remained for people in the Irish Senate and the Dail to make a claim for the six counties. I assume that that change was a precondition. The matter shows the link between the constitutional settlements in each country, which is why we think that the wider issues should have been considered.

I have some further constitutional points to make. The first is that the measure raises an issue that is relevant to all constitutional debate, and was referred to by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Whatever we think about the dual mandate—a live issue on which we should hold a debate, because although electors can choose, we may want to reconsider the matter in the light of the number of opportunities that there are to do so—the Bill raises a separate issue, which has rightly been described as the conflict of interests.

For example, if a citizen of Ireland represents Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Assembly or, more important, in the UK Parliament, but also represents in the Irish Parliament another place in Ireland from which he or she comes, there may be times when there is a conflict of interest. The two parties, the groupings or the two legislatures to which that person would belong would be institutions of different sovereign countries and they could take different positions. That cannot be avoided. To say that there will not be a conflict of interests seems to be a naive denial of reality. Of course, people would have views on which they stood for election and would take those views into each Parliament, but there is bound to be—between each forum—some conflict of interest.

In the light of that point, it is right that the Bill includes a provision that one cannot serve as a Minister in both Irish and Northern Ireland Governments—that goes at least half way. The logic is that people would probably realise that they also should not serve as any sort of Minister in either country's national Government—in any of its Assemblies or Parliaments—but that point should also be provided for in the measure.

The second issue is whether—

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which has not escaped the notice of Ulster Unionist Members. During the Falklands war, there were very different opinions in the House and the Dail. What would happen to a Member who was sitting in both places in such circumstances?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question. Logically, the same person would express the same view in both places—

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is sometimes astute, but that remark is neither astute nor helpful in a debate such as this. I am always willing to defend the Liberal Democrats, but this is a debate about serious matters, and party political sniping is not appropriate.

Logically, the same person would adopt the same position in both legislatures, but it is true that a person cannot possibly serve in two Administrations with differing views where, by definition, that person will be one among many.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates Conservative, East Hampshire

The logic of that is that the Bill should be amended now, so that, if one takes office in either sovereign Parliament, one is disqualified even from membership of the other one.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I would go along with the hon. Gentleman that far: we should have been given a proposition that holding office in government, in either Ireland or the United Kingdom, disqualifies a person from holding office in the other Government at the same time. We could debate whether it is proper to be in both legislatures and a member of the Administration in one. I believe that it could be justified, because the conflict of interests is less. I have just flagged that up. I have gone a long way with the hon. Gentleman. By definition, different interests are served by the Parliament of Ireland and the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Let us not be dishonest when we legislate in this way.

That leads me to my last constitutional points. It would have been better if we had approached the issue by considering whether, in 1999, when the Bill was introduced, or 2000, when it is being debated by Parliament, it is still sensible to argue that someone who is a member of one sovereign country's legislature should be allowed to be a member of another sovereign country's legislature. I am the most ardent fan of the Commonwealth, but it seems to me that it is perfectly proper for Commonwealth heads of government to hold a debate at their conference on whether it is reasonable for people to be entitled to be in two legislatures at once. I do not believe that it is. It is no longer logical, even if it was; I know that it dates back several decades.

Another question that cries out for ministerial consideration—which is why I raised the question with the Minister—is whether it is logical for there to be no residence requirements to stand for election to a legislature, even though there are such requirements to vote. Under the Bill, as under existing law, a Commonwealth legislative member and a Member of the Senate of Ireland can stand for election, in the first case to the United Kingdom Parliament and in the second case to the Northern Ireland Assembly, without having a residential qualification in the United Kingdom. We should address that question. I believe that most of us, and most of the electorate, would say that, whatever one's citizenship and nationality, residency should be a precondition for standing for the Parliament of a sovereign country.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

When we consider the issue of people representing electorates in different sovereign countries, presumably the key question is, would there be a conflict of loyalty between supporting the rights of one set of electors and supporting those of another set of electors? To take an example, although not on all fours with this, a former right hon. Member of the House, Sir David Steel, sought to represent a French constituency[Interruption.]—an Italian constituency, in a different sovereign country, representing electors in that country, yet also sought to represent persons in Scotland. How does the hon. Gentleman resolve that issue?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall give the Minister the answer, but it raises another constitutional question. Elections to the European Parliament are fought by parties that operate across the European Union. I remember the debates, and Lord Steel wanted to show that he was standing not for an Italian party, but for a European-wide party that represented the Liberal view across Europe. The Minister may or may not agree with the decision, but that was the reason. The question of whether and in what circumstances citizens of one country should be able to stand for the sovereign legislature of another should be considered. I exempt the European Parliament from that consideration, because it is not a sovereign legislature in the same sense as the Dail or the United Kingdom Parliament.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No, because the hon. Gentleman has been rude. Therefore, he does not deserve an intervention.

It is right for the Bill to correct the anomaly of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which gave Members of the Irish Senate, but not Members of the Dail, the right to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although I know that each group is elected differently and has a different role and composition, it is proper for the Bill to remove that anomaly.

Whatever the merit of its two individual proposals, the Bill is sadly the latest example of the Government not thinking constitutional reform through wholesale, but coming at it piecemeal. They legislated for a Scottish Parliament and we welcomed that. However, that was done separately from the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government then legislated for London government, and they may or may not legislate for regional government in England. They think about electoral reform for the House of Commons, but they do not think at the same time about what they will do for the Lords, and when they think about what to do with the Lords, they do not consider how it relates to the House of Commons. The whole thing is a muddle. Although people sometimes criticise Liberal Democrats for having an over-excessive interest in constitutional reform, we can never be criticised for not having at least thought through a coherent package.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Whatever colleagues think about our conclusions, we at least have a coherent view of the whole. For example, we have long argued that the existence of a Scottish Parliament means that there should be fewer Members from Scotland in the House. That view is taken by my Scottish colleagues, as well as by the others. However, the Government have not thought things through and that is why they are in difficulty today.

The Oath was mentioned. Although this Bill is not about the Oath, it is wrong to think that an oath issue does not exist. However, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald should recognise that some Members of the House, who are not from Northern Ireland, take the view—it is not a party view—that reform of the constitution should involve a reconsideration of the Oath. For example, we might change the Oath so that it is one of allegiance to the country, the constitution and the rights of our citizens and not to the person of the monarch, however much we respect her or her successors.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

This is, indeed, the Bradlaugh point. No matter what part of the United Kingdom they come from, republicans may stand for and be elected to Parliament. If the electors want them here, they should be able to attend and should not be precluded from taking their places because they cannot take an oath.

We shall vote for the Bill's Second Reading because it is clearly right to correct the anomalies on two narrow points. We must resolve the discrepancy between Members of the Senate and the Dail and properly consider the issue of the United Kingdom's special relationship with Ireland. We have reciprocal voting rights and, by tradition, Members from Ireland and the Commonwealth have had certain rights in some of our legislatures. This correction must be taken forward. However, we regret that the Bill was not introduced more in parallel with the proposals of the Government of Ireland and with greater constitutional thought about disqualification, the arrangements for the United Kingdom Parliament and its subsidiary Parliaments and Assemblies and the better governance of all the Parliaments in the United Kingdom and in Ireland.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry 5:25 pm, 24th January 2000

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), for he made a very interesting speech. Indeed, he made a number of interesting points last week on the Representation of the People Bill. However, if he gets round to writing anything into the Oath about the constitution, he will find that not only Irish nationalists but Scottish and Welsh nationalists will not sign up to it. He better get that through his head before he goes down that dangerous road.

The Minister was asked to whom the Government talked, but we did not get many sensible words out of him or any hard information in reply. He cannot rely on the matter being forgotten on Report. Given what has been said so far on both sides of the House, it is foolish and quite wrong to go ahead with the Bill's remaining stages tomorrow. Comments have already shown how much is hidden in this tiny Bill. People need more time to consider it, what has been said and what amendments should be tabled. The more that folk in this House look at the Bill, the more questions will be actively raised in their heads.

The Minister said that, as a result of the Bill, persons could be elected to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Be that as it may, there is nothing, so far as I can see—he was not able to answer the point when I put it to him—that will bar persons from the Irish Republic who are elected to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly from assuming ministerial posts in such bodies. I do not think that the Scots and the Welsh would be very happy about that. Perhaps he has made a mistake and it is not possible for such people to stand for those institutions. I have no doubt that that issue will be explored tomorrow.

It has become perfectly clear to me as the debate has developed that the Bill is not the product of long and careful thought. It is nothing more than a hasty cobbling together—a product more or less out of the blue. We are therefore entitled to ask serious questions about why it has been introduced at this stage and in such a form. Its implications have not been thought through.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made an excellent speech, raising the sort of questions that the late Enoch Powell used to raise. We shall hear much more of that because such questions underlie an awful lot of what this nation is and how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who has left the Chamber, talked about the interim arrangements that were made for Unionist representation in the Dail Eireann. He did not seem to be aware that it was possible at that time for a Unionist to get elected in a number of areas in the border counties, and even in Dublin—not under the Unionist name, although everybody in the Irish Republic knew who such candidates were. Through border changes and the redrawing of boundaries, Unionists or anyone of that political complexion were very soon prevented from being elected. I think that the last place to fall was Donegal. In fact, the last Protestant councillor in Donegal had his electorate cut in half by the last boundary change. So, if the hon. Gentleman expects good will just because of pious hopes expressed in this House, he had better think again.

The hon. Gentleman also drew attention to the fact that people could be elected to the Dail, yet that is plainly an empty symbol. There are enough people of nationalist Irish descent, or who were born in the Irish Republic but live on this side of the Irish sea, to elect a member of Dail Eireann to this House, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, there is not a snowball's chance of any Member of Parliament, other than a well-known Irish nationalist or Irish republican, ever being elected to the Dail.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Is there not a legal impediment as well? My understanding is that it is a condition of being elected to the Dail that the person in question is an Irish citizen.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

There is that legal impediment, but one need only look at its football team to see how widely the definition of a citizen of the Republic of Ireland can be spread.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

No, it would not include the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He is a generation—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) must not make his arguments from a sedentary position.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

I repent in sackcloth and ashes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having been carried away by an interesting side issue.

In many ways, this House of representatives of the people of the United Kingdom is the very heart and soul of the nation. As such, its duty is to preserve the national interest and to provide for the welfare of all its citizens. That welfare is not merely economic; it extends both to the freedoms that all want to enjoy and to the responsibilities that many do not want to acknowledge but that we as citizens accept and enjoy. All nations have a unique perception of themselves and of the values that are commonly accepted by the citizens of the state as underpinning our entire attitude to life.

Although we can understand the desires and hopes of the people of other nations, we in this House are in no way bound to accept or promote their vision of the world, especially when it impinges on our economic and constitutional interests. In other words, our objective must be to ensure that the Queen's writ runs, that the Queen's law is observed and that the Queen's peace is kept throughout the United Kingdom. That is a large part of what it means to be a citizen of the United Kingdom.

That means that, at the end of the day, Members of Parliament have to decide whether they serve the people and interests of the United Kingdom or whether they have another vision that serves the people and interests of another state. Attempting to serve both will result in the exclusion of at least some constituents, not in all being served comprehensively and wholeheartedly.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

In the spirit of inquiry, may I ask whether I am right in assuming that one who enters the Dail has to take an oath—that there is some declaration or requirement that means that election in Ireland carries certain obligations, just as the Oath taken by representatives in this country entails some obligation?

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

I shall address that point later in another context. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that any Minister in the Dail and the President of the Republic of Ireland must take an oath to uphold the constitution of that state. That is their first duty. If a person who had taken that oath were to be asked to serve in another legislature, there would be an immediate and deep conflict of interest. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said, it is not possible for a man to serve two masters, for, as the good book puts it, either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will cleave to the one and despise the other. That was true 2000 years ago, when the words were first uttered, and it is true today in terms of national loyalties.

We have recognised that some nations and their nationals have, as it were, a family relationship with us in a shared history and a shared view of some or all of our constitutional standards and of our legal framework, which we gave to countries that were outwith the old British or Anglo-European context. That relationship still subsists via the Commonwealth, so Commonwealth citizens can be elected to this place. That privilege has been extended to citizens of the Irish Republic despite the fact that it decided of its own volition to part from this nation and follow another course.

It is clear beyond any doubt that when committed Irish nationalists decided to take their place in a United Kingdom legislature, they did not do so on the same basis as I did. One of them, whose name has already been mentioned, has reached a position of some prominence in the Irish Republic. When asked about taking the Oath when he was a member of the Stormont Parliament, he replied that he had taken the Oath with a mental reservation. That reservation was not spelled out but his response could mean only that he had uttered the words of the Oath without the slightest intention of abiding by their plain meaning. He was prepared to work to a different agenda from that implied by the commitment that the Oath contained.

Hitherto, the Sinn Fein-IRA organisation has flatly refused even to follow that course of action in regard to United Kingdom institutions, with the exception of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its members will not take the Oath or make the affirmation in this place. They stand outside but still claim, perhaps for financial reasons or to rub the House's nose in it, the benefits that flow from being elected here, without accepting any of the responsibilities that attach to the position that they occupy.

These people have entered the Northern Ireland Assembly. They have said that they can abide by the wording of that Oath and that they can justify their position. I believe that they do that as a means to an end. Hence their insistence that the Belfast agreement is not the final settlement but only a means to their final objective. I assume that they are even more comfortable with the undertaking that is required in the Dail, given that they now sit in that legislature as well.

It is against that background that the Bill must be viewed. In it, we are opening the way to those who sit in the governing legislature of an avowedly foreign and different state also to sit in our legislature and to legislate for the people of the United Kingdom. The Minister's position is very different. However, what applies to the Minister applies to the newest Back-Bench Member as well. Back Benchers also legislate by their support for or opposition to a legislature. Therefore, the conflict of interest, which is real and deep, remains. It cannot be avoided.

Until recently, the Irish Republic claimed the territory of Northern Ireland, a part of this kingdom. Its High Court said that that objective was a constitutional imperative. I am referring to the outcome of the McGimpsey case. I cannot say what the recent changes have done to that court's ruling in that instance. However, it is plain to me that the territorial claim has been superseded by a claim to rule over people.

As I have already said, in addition the Bill will allow Members of the Dail, if elected, to rule over the citizens of Northern Ireland. Does anyone think that in such circumstances they will do anything other than pursue their objective of a united Ireland? One of the parties whose members will be able to take advantage of a dual mandate will be Sinn Fein-IRA. It is plain that these people have not the slightest intention of becoming a normal political party. They cling to their weapons and to their military wing like a clam to a rock. There is no display of good faith. The Government are introducing the Bill because they see it as another inducement to the IRA to become democrats and abandon violence. That is the real reason for it. Anything else that has been said amounts to a thin smokescreen.

The idea of changing the rules relating to the facilities of the House for the two Sinn Fein persons elected falls into the same category. The change in regard to the Irish Senate and Members of it was made purely and simply for the benefit of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon).

I am not clear about whether a candidate for the House of Commons has to be on the electoral register here. We are told that one can sit in the legislature of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and heaven knows where and be a Member of Parliament here. However, when we find how far a legislator from one of those countries would have to travel home for the weekend, the physical obstacles render it impossible.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The hon. Gentleman expressed anxiety in both an intervention and his speech about a residential qualification for standing for the House. There is no residential qualification, but hon. Members must be United Kingdom, Commonwealth or Irish citizens, or have been born here.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

Members do not even have to be electors here. That point was made earlier. I am not sure whether their sponsors have to be electors—

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

The Minister indicates that the sponsors have to be electors, but not the candidates, who can come from anywhere. That is somewhat daft.

A litany of similar great and small concessions have been made to the IRA in recent weeks, to try to persuade it to divest itself of its weaponry and become a normal political party. Such actions are to no avail, because the IRA's overriding imperative is to dismember the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The Government provide a disincentive.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry

My hon. Friend is right. The Government's actions convince us that no matter what the IRA says or does, its demands will be met and it will have to pay nothing in return.

The Belfast agreement was supposed to bury old arguments about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. I never believed that that would happen. However, those who believed that will find that the Bill will reignite the flames. No Government have been behind in their willingness to listen to and act upon the opinions of the IRA and its fellow travellers, but the current Government, more than most, have been willing to listen to those whose views are congenial to them. I have been a Member of Parliament since February 1974, and have witnessed a consistent refusal to listen to voices that proclaim a different message. Given that the consequences have so often proved those voices correct, why do the Government refuse to learn?

When hard questions were asked last week—including one by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), who is not a member of my party—they were not answered. Instead of a reasoned reply, he received an attempt at abuse. That is not good enough. What will happen when the current raft of concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA have been pocketed? What will be the next step? It will not be giving up weapons or acceptance of United Kingdom institutions, but further demands, which will be backed by the unspoken threat of violence. Having paid danegeld for so many years, and having strengthened the IRA's power and influence by their previous actions, the Government are perceived as the softest of soft touches. One cannot get rid of violence by encouraging it. It is time that not only the Government but all parties in the House learned that.

The Bill is a foolish little measure, from which evil consequences will flow. It should be rejected, and I shall vote against it this evening.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates Conservative, East Hampshire 5:44 pm, 24th January 2000

My remarks will be much shorter than intended because, in a thoughtful contribution, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), made many of the points that I wanted to make, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I shall not repeat them, or dance any longer on the head of the constitutional pin around which we have been revolving. However, when I intervened in the Minister's speech, he did not answer my question about acknowledging the difference between a sovereign and a subordinate Parliament.

I have no difficulty with the concept that one can sit in the Irish Senate and the Northern Ireland Assembly. If one can do that, one should also be allowed to sit in the Dail and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The inability to do so is an obvious anomaly, which should be put right. That is a different proposition from having a seat in a sovereign Parliament with one set of allegiances, one set of priorities and one constitution and having a seat in another that has demonstrably different ones. That is the point.

The Minister said that all the United Kingdom Parliaments and Assemblies were to be treated the same. With respect, they are not the same. There is one sovereign Parliament in the United Kingdom, and it is not in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast—it is here. That is a fundamental difference and a fundamental change that the Government are seeking to make in the Bill. In a Second Reading debate one has to ask oneself, "Why this Bill now?" Have there been demands for it from the House? None that I have heard. Have there been demands from Dublin? Not that I have heard. Have there been demands from our Unionist friends? Not that we have heard. The demands have come from one source, and one source only: Sinn Fein. It has asked that that change be made and been granted the concession. It was not in the Good Friday agreement and not offered, but asked for.

Why has Sinn Fein done this? It has had all the concessions that were in the Good Friday agreement. We have already acted not only to the letter of that agreement, but in the spirit of it. We have given way again and again and again, but still Sinn Fein asks for more because it has a card that it steadfastly refuses to play—the decommissioning card. I would not want the Bill to be linked to decommissioning because that would not make any sense. It is either right or not right to make the change. My view is that it is not right and that it should not be a condition, but that is another matter and no doubt I shall find myself in a minority. The concession should not have been offered until Sinn Fein had shown itself ready to sit in either Parliament, never mind both. That is what has gone wrong.

I acknowledge that current Home Office and Northern Ireland Office Ministers were not in their jobs when the process started; they leapt on to a moving train. Two years ago the view was, "Let's get on with it. Let's give them everything they want so that if it goes wrong we cannot be held to blame." I can understand that, although I do not agree with it, but there should have come a time at which someone said, "Hang on. We have taken part in what they call demilitarisation and we call reduction, taken three battalions of troops out of the place and cut patrolling by two thirds, all within the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday agreement. We have done more. We have closed down Castlereagh and demolished the security institutions, but not one response has come from them—just more demands." Surely we in the House, above all places, have learned that meeting demands from such people simply feeds their desire to increase those demands.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The hon. Gentleman's argument is based on the premise that those who will benefit from the change are exclusively members of Sinn Fein. I made it clear in my opening speech that others—perhaps some in the nationalist community and others, and I identified some—who are not members of Sinn Fein have already said that they might want to have a standing in the Irish Republic and perhaps also in Northern Ireland. He has not dealt with that point.

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates Conservative, East Hampshire

I thought that I had dealt with that at the beginning of my speech by saying that I have no objection whatever to any interrelationship between the Northern Ireland Assembly and any part of the Irish Government—be it the Oireachtas, local government or anything else—but I have a principled objection to a person sitting in two sovereign Parliaments.

Photo of Mr William Thompson Mr William Thompson UUP, West Tyrone

If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to allow people from the Irish Republic to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, is he equally prepared to allow them to sit in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?

Photo of Michael Mates Michael Mates Conservative, East Hampshire

That is an interesting point, which involves the lesson about legislating in haste. I imagine that the Home Office is beavering away hard to try to put that right before tomorrow, when the Bill is in Committee. It appears that that is not allowed. If so, that goes against what the Under-Secretary says. However, I do not want to follow that point.

The point that I want to make, which is why it is offensive for the Government to have brought forward the Bill at this time, regardless of its principles, is that it is there at the demand of two individuals who have been elected to the House—the hon. Members for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams)—but who clearly have no allegiance to this place or its institutions, the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, or Her Majesty the Queen to whom they refuse to swear an Oath. They have said all along, so I am not libelling them by saying this, that they wanted this part of the United Kingdom destroyed; they wanted themselves taken out of it—aspirations, yes, but aspirations backed by force, no. They are the people who still decline to remove the one obstacle to a proper democratic process—the decommissioning of arms. They are now trying to wash their hands of it. They say that they do not belong to the IRA. What I want to know is when they left. They never told us that. I have tried to persuade journalists to ask them the question, but they seem reluctant to do so because they want to obtain more interviews.

We are talking about two leaders of a political party in Northern Ireland who have been elected to the House who owe loyalty to neither the House nor the country, and who now want to retain their membership of the House and to have membership of another sovereign Parliament to which they would owe some form of allegiance, although I imagine that the Irish Government are not entirely happy about having Sinn Fein infiltration from wherever it comes. The Government are doing this, and this is the perverse part, not because a majority of the people in Northern Ireland want this to happen, not even because the minority want it to happen—Sinn Fein represents a minority of the minority community, 15 per cent., yet all their demands are being met—so that the killing stops.

When the Minister replies will he say why—I ask with tongue slightly in cheek—he has not put 1p on income tax and devoted that to education? That is what a minority of 15 per cent. in Britain voted for at the last election. The Liberal Democrat's policy was to put 1p on tax for education. Have the Government done that? Of course not. A minority asked for it and that is not the way in which one governs in a democracy. But everything that this minority has asked for has been given to it on the basis that perhaps it will stop the killing, and it has it in its power to do so. I would only say, as I have said to the Government before, that the more they appease these people the greater will be their demands. At some stage the Government will have to stop the appeasement.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 5:53 pm, 24th January 2000

If the House be divided, I shall vote against the Bill because it is wrong in principle. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and others have identified the inevitability of there being a conflict of interest. The Bill entrenches that dilemma in legislation and is flawed on that basis alone.

When hon. Members come to this House they take an Oath. I, unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), would be willing to see the Oath changed because it does not accurately express our duties. The duties of a Member of Parliament include a duty to one's conscience, to God if one be Christian, and to one's country. It may be that to focus on the person of the monarch is a way of expressing that to some hon. Members, and I am content with that. But I recognise that for many hon. Members the Oath does not accurately reflect their sense of obligation, and that strains the language. If one has an Oath which inevitably strains the language, one tends to deprive it of its meaning. I should therefore like to see the Oath changed.

Whatever the form of the Oath, the substance is the same—namely, that our obligation is to our country, our conscience, God and our constituents. The plain fact is that if one represents a constituency in another country as well as a constituency in this country, one has a divided loyalty and cannot properly fulfil one's obligations to both. That is a conclusive argument.

I am well aware—the Minister made the point fairly—that there is a precedent: the legislatures of the Commonwealth. I suspect that the reasons for that exemption are entirely historical. Were we to start again, we would not give such an exemption. In truth, those countries frequently have interests which are diverse from our own. One merely has to think of the agriculture of Australia and New Zealand to see that, or their differing defence concepts, or, in the case of the Caribbean countries, trade, debt and aid. If one wants to be more precise, one thinks in terms of the Indian subcontinent and Kashmir, where there is a clear difference between, for example, the attitudes of the peoples of India and our own. So it is difficult, even within the Commonwealth, for people to serve two masters if they are members of a legislature.

That can be tested in another way. What if we were to propose that members of the EU legislatures were to be Members of the House. I would not be described as a Europhobe, but it would be bizarre if a member of the French, German or Spanish Parliaments was also a member of this Parliament. In the case of Spain, there is the disagreement over Gibraltar. In the case of Germany and France there are serious differences of opinion on agriculture, enlargement, monetary union and the concept of the EU. In the case of Italy, there is the difference of opinion on structural funds. It would be impossible for a member of one of those Parliaments faithfully and properly to discharge his or her obligations to the domestic legislature and to this one.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I have listened carefully to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but the difference between members of EU parliamentary legislatures being elected to this House and members of Dail Eireann also being Members of the House if Commons is that the first scenario just will not happen because it is inconceivable that anyone could be so elected, while the second is highly probable. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been very fair and he has said some sensible things about the Oath, but if constituents desire to sit in both places, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman might consider perverse, that is nevertheless their desire, and that should be paramount.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman, but not entirely. A number of objections can be raised in the context of a conflict of interest, which are properly left to the constituency or to the association—for example, whether an individual Member of Parliament will have sufficient time fully to perform the functions of a Member in this House and somewhere else as well. But a different point arises when one comes to matters of principle, because that is something on which this House should decide.

The hon. Gentleman made the perfectly fair point that, while it may be likely that persons from Ireland would wish to be Members of this House, it is unlikely that people from countries far away would wish to be so, for practical reasons—

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Or to be elected. But we run the risk of creating a precedent. In the course of this debate we have referred to precedent. The Minister will forgive me, but the only argument that he has really advanced is one of precedent—the Commonwealth countries. But if we pass the Bill, we shall create a new precedent, and it is one that EU countries will be able to assert against us. If we say of Irish citizens that they are entitled to be a Member of both Houses, how can we in conscience deny that to members of the French Parliament, or wherever? There is no distinction of principle. We are creating a precedent that is capable of further extension.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that there is any difference in principle between representing two constituencies in different Parliaments and representing two constituencies in the same Parliament?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

That thought had not occurred to me: my hon. Friend is ingenious. It is difficult to draw a distinction, but I should like to reflect on the point further before being asked to give a conclusive view.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman was asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) about someone representing two constituencies. The practical and most immediate issue is someone standing in the same place for the legislatures of two countries, so as to represent a part of Northern Ireland in this Parliament and in the Irish Parliament. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give his views on that, because it is the central issue addressed by the Bill?

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I shall decline that invitation, but I will go back to my hon. Friend's question. There is a difference between the scenarios that he outlined. It would be offensive for a Member of Parliament to represent two constituencies in one country.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I know that it is not allowed, but it would be offensive. We are talking about principle, not law. It would be difficult to do, but I wonder how offensive it would be, because there would not be a conflict of loyalty to the state. There would be a conflict of loyalty as between constituents, but the obligation to the state would be the same. If that MP represented two constituencies in different countries, he would have a conflict of loyalty as between the states.

With Ireland—as with every other country, whether in the Commonwealth, the European Union or elsewhere—we have major differences of policy objective. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe reminded us, serious constitutional and defence issues have separated us and Ireland in the past. Let us hope that they do not occur again in the future, but we cannot exclude that possibility. However, there are still differences: Ireland has special interests on agriculture and fishery policy, and it is committed to the single currency.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should not turn away from the Chair.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

All those differences of interest are on matters of some importance. There is a difference of attitude between the Government, the Parliament and the people of Ireland and ourselves, and we should keep that in mind.

I listened carefully to the Minister's speech. I asked myself—and, indeed, him—what the motive behind the Bill was, and I could not identify it. I am sure that it has to do with the wishes of Sinn Fein. I suspect that it has to do with the wishes of Sinn Fein to build up a representation both in the Dail and in Westminster.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), I do not think the time is right—it may never be right—for us to accommodate the wishes of Sinn Fein. If it were fully involved in decommissioning, and if we could be certain of a settled peace in Northern Ireland, one might be willing to consider the matter further, but now is not the time. I have heard no arguments from the Minister as to why we should consider this matter today and urgently again tomorrow.

In the end, we are dealing with a matter of principle, and I think the principle is conclusive. I hope that the House will divide on this matter, and I shall vote against the Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 6:04 pm, 24th January 2000

I am more than usually pleased to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) because, as in so many areas, I agree with him completely. I shall join him in the Lobby if I have the opportunity to vote against the Bill.

The Bill has already been described as offensive and dangerous. I agree with both descriptions. I want to follow the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), but in a slightly different way, and expand it.

To my mind, the Bill is, as much as anything, about the concept of nationhood, which many people feel is old-fashioned and even redundant, and to which the Government pay increasingly scant regard. However, the Bill, small and limited in scope though it may be, makes an important statement about nationhood and its irrelevance, and we would be irresponsible to ignore that.

In a democratic political system, surely the legislature, the process of election to that legislature and the people who have the honour to serve in it are as much a statement of nationhood, national identity and loyalty as anything else. Hon. Members need not believe me about that: they merely have to ask the Irish. The Irish have the good sense to have written into their law the requirement that to be a Member of their legislature one has to be an Irish citizen. That strikes me as admirable, sensible, correct and reasonable.

We are saying—it has been said many times in the debate and is partly a result of history—that membership of this national legislature should be open to different people, many of whom have no loyalty to or identity with this country of ours. That is a serious decision for us to make, and it is one of the decisions that we are being asked to make in the Bill. That is why I oppose it.

I agree with the Irish. They are right and entitled to say that, as a matter of national identity, only their citizens should serve in their legislature. I believe that the same should apply to our legislature, because I value our national identity and nationhood and believe that it is of great importance. We are talking here about no less than an absolute principle.

Then we have the matter of the conflict of loyalty. Many right hon. and hon. Members have raised the issue of whether it is likely or possible that someone could serve at one and the same time in the legislatures of two separate sovereign nations, such as the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. That is a matter of belief, experience and observation. I want to say a few words about my own observations.

I am in the slightly unusual position of having had the honour to serve in the European Parliament, when I had the opportunity to work alongside Irish MEPs. I was also for many years a member of the Council of Ministers of the European Union, when I was able to observe members of the Irish Government and their attitude to matters European and to the United Kingdom. I was also able to observe at fairly close quarters—closer than I would have liked—Irish Commissioners discharging their duties in the European Union, particularly with regard to the United Kingdom. I rarely saw much identity of interest or loyalty on the part of Irish citizens—be they MEPs, members of the Council of Ministers, or Irish Commissioners—with regard to the United Kingdom. I venture to say that I consistently saw the opposite.

I have no complaint about that. Irish politicians, be they elected to the European Parliament, Ministers in the Council of Ministers or Commissioners for the time being, have the right to represent the loyalties that are important to them.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

And the duty, as my right hon. and learned Friend says. I admire and respect that, but let no one tell me that there would not be serious conflicts of loyalty and interest were those Irish politicians ever to be allowed to come to this legislature. It is in the nature of things that different countries and nations have, from time to time, different interests that give rise to conflicting loyalties. That is the way the world has developed.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be careful when drawing distinctions such as this. I had an honoured father-in-law who served in the British Army in the first world war, who was trained by British citizens as a doctor, and who lived in London throughout his career as an Irish citizen. There was no doubt about his loyalty to the people whom he served, or about the idea that he would give up any understanding of his Irish status. There is a strong distinction to be drawn; however, it should be drawn not between Irish citizenship and the commitment of Irish citizens to the places where they live and work, but between Irish citizenship and being elected to this place.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The hon. Lady is of course right.

I speak as I find, and I deliberately said at the outset that these were the results of my own experience, over the past 20 years or so, of working in close proximity with Irish politicians in very different political contexts. My experience leads me to conclude that it is extremely unlikely that such people would find it difficult to reconcile their natural and, in many ways, admirable loyalty to their Irish connections with any connections that they might have in the United Kingdom, were the Bill—wrongly, in my view—to be become law.

Let me add in passing that the same might well be said to apply to many, if not most, Commonwealth countries. When I had the honour to visit Australia recently, I was able to hear some of its debate about the possibility of a republic there. It is obvious, and very natural, that Commonwealth countries, in their maturity, see the world in a very different way from how they might have seen it when the Commonwealth was at its strongest, 50 or more years ago.

The other matter that has been mentioned—although not as often as might have been expected in a debate such as this—is reciprocity. As I have said, I oppose the Bill in principle, but it could just possibly be argued that the case might be advanced if various nations—sovereign states—agreed that there should be a reciprocal arrangement whereby people elected to one Parliament could simultaneously be elected to another. Some people might well accept that, although I would not. Yet again, however—as has emerged during the debate—our Irish friends have had the good sense not to offer reciprocity.

This is a one-way process. What we are expected to do—expected by the Government to do—is agree to make an enormous concession, in allowing the possibility that people from another country, with very different interests, will be able to serve in our legislature, while no reciprocal arrangement exists for us to serve in the Irish legislature. I think that on this occasion the Irish have got it right, and the Government have got it completely wrong. We find ourselves in a bizarre position: it appears that another Government—the Government of another country—see this legislature much more clearly than do our own Government. I consider that unacceptable.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education)

Would it not have been considerate and, arguably, helpful to our deliberations if the Government had given some indication this afternoon that they had vigorously and consistently, over a period, pressed the Irish Government to offer reciprocity? Should we not take it that, as the Government have given no such indication, there has been no such pressure?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I think that the murkiest aspect of today's debate has been the Government's motivation. Time and again, Members have pressed Ministers on why they have presented the Bill to us now; but, having sat through the entire debate, I have heard no satisfactory answer. It is most peculiar that a Government should present such a controversial measure—a measure that will alter our constitutional arrangements—and fail to offer not just a convincing argument, but any argument at all.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My right hon. Friend's argument is reinforced by the fact that we are debating Second Reading today and will complete the Committee stage tomorrow. The Government are trekking through the Bill with remarkable speed.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I deprecate that, and I think that it leads us to feel yet more suspicion about what on earth is going on. I suspect, sadly, that this is part of the recent development in which we as a nation, and the Government, are being taken for a ride and being made to look like mugs.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

I apologise for arriving late.

Given the history of the Irish question, is it not perverse that Parliament should now be invited to enable politicians from the Irish Republic to regain the opportunity to take seats here? Irish republicans fought hard to break away from Great Britain, thus severing their relationship with it in this context, and depriving themselves of that opportunity and that right. It could be said, of course, that at that time many parliamentarians were quite pleased that Irish representation had ended.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

It has been pointed out today that it was the Irish who opted no longer to be members of the Commonwealth. It could be said that, if the Irish decided to reapply for membership of the Commonwealth, they would automatically be given this privilege as long as we continued to extend it to Commonwealth members. I have my doubts about that, but at the very least, such a gesture on the part of the Irish would be important. I suspect, however, that it will not be forthcoming.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I proposed a return to the United Kingdom in Dublin in the early 1970s, because I believed that there was a federation and a relationship. The right hon. Gentleman, however, may be unfair to Ministers in saying that they have not said what lies behind the Bill. Last week, there was an exchange between Lord Mayhew and Lord Molyneaux in the other place. We talk of mountain climbers; it seems that some folk have been negotiating behind the Government's back.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is always a distinct possibility. In normal circumstances, we are told about transparency, accountability and open government, but it appears that the opposite phenomenon is operating in this case. We are being told nothing of what is going on, which, regrettably, means that we shall become even more suspicious about the motivation.

As has been said, so far we have seen the release of a large number of extraordinarily unpleasant and violent prisoners into the community, all in the name of the peace process. We have seen supporters of terrorism being invited into our institutions of government in part of the United Kingdom. We have seen no moves whatever towards decommissioning. It would appear that now, as part of the further process, we are being asked to see a subversion of our legislature. I wonder where this process will end.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

Is not the Bill just the latest obscene landmark in a process that ostensibly began as a peace process, but long ago became, in reality, a sordid, shabby process of appeasement that should therefore be rejected?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend gives his own powerful description of the process. I am saying that, to date, it appears that all the concessions have been made on one side. As far as I am aware, the terrorists and their friends have done nothing to reciprocate.

This is another example of something that is not being held back—something that could not be used as a bargaining counter, if that is the nature of the process—but is being given freely, unless we are told otherwise by the Government. Perhaps the Minister will put our minds at rest. Perhaps, in the interests of open government, he will be able to reassure us that none of this is the case. However, I can only speak as I have been able to find so far.

Having sat through the debate and listened carefully to every word, I have not yet heard why the Government are trying to push through a controversial Bill with such indecent haste—trying to push it through the House of Commons in two days—despite the many flaws that have been identified today. Most Members would normally consider that unacceptable, but on this occasion it seems to be happening with very little protest.

At every level, therefore, the Bill is unacceptable. It is unacceptable in principle. Its provisions are unacceptable and the way it is being pushed through the House of Commons is unacceptable. I hope that, when we come to the end of the debate, we will have a chance to vote on it because I am keen to be able to express my vote in the Lobby.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone 6:20 pm, 24th January 2000

I hope that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will not think me patronising if I say that her contribution should be read by every Member before deciding how to vote on Second Reading and throughout the Bill's passage through the House. Having heard the sound argument that has been advanced again and again against the Bill, with all its flaws, I cannot for the life of me understand why everyone who feels like that is not prepared to vote on Second Reading to halt what is an obscenity. It has been helpful that hon. Members have spoken out, because, when I share their views, it will not be seen as xenophobia on the part of Ulster Unionists.

I have spent my political life seeking reconciliation and accommodation between the major traditions in Northern Ireland and hoping against hope that we could have the sort of respect between the two political entities on the island of Ireland—Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic—that would allow us to co-operate at every level: social, economic and political. However, it is utter and complete nonsense to create difficulty and conflict by expecting people to have primary loyalty to two separate sovereign Parliaments

Even after listening to the Minister, we do not know what the Bill is about. Everything that he has stated has been in generic terms. We have been told nothing specific that will help us to decide what the Government are getting at. Therefore, it is right that we should put our own interpretation on the Bill. We had no answers from the Minister; I certainly had no answer when I asked him about the discussions that he mentioned, when they took place, and who they involved. One might have thought that as the Bill deals with the relationship between the devolved Parliament in Stormont and the sovereign Parliament in Dublin my party would have been consulted and alerted to the Government's thinking, yet no mention was made of it until the decision was complete, the water was over the dam and the Bill was ready for debate.

In fact, it is worse than that. For years, there has been a feeling that the major parties in Great Britain—the Labour party, for example—should consider organising and fighting elections in Northern Ireland. The opportunity has been there all that time, but what has the Labour party done? It has eschewed the concept of being a party of the United Kingdom, putting responsibility—directly, in Northern Ireland's case—into the hands of a republican party, the Social Democratic and Labour party. Having eschewed the right to stand in Northern Ireland, where is the logic in the Labour party seeking, through its huge majority in this place, to impose a situation in which republican parties can sit in our devolved Assembly at Stormont?

Of course, we have to ask—again, without much hope of a response—whether there has been any indication that Fianna Fail, the largest party in the republic, Fine Gael, the Democratic Left or the Irish Labour party want to field candidates in Northern Ireland or here? I have no doubt about the matter. On Thursday and Friday last week, I was in Dublin and I discussed the Bill with journalists, with business and professional people of considerable repute, with senior Back-Bench politicians—including those who have the task of looking at constitutional issues—and with the most senior members of political parties there. Not one of them was familiar with the implications of what is being visited on us today. There was surprise.

I put my case to those people. Right hon. and hon. Members know that I am not a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but I said to those people, "If I were a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Minister for Economic Development, but also the Teachda Dala for, say, County Meath and sat in the Dail, and an overseas company was coming to Ireland with 500 high-tech jobs, as Minister I would obviously have a responsibility to seek to site that development in a Northern Ireland constituency—but as TD for County Meath, would I not have a responsibility to ensure that the development was sited in that constituency, if that was the alternative site looked at by the investors?"

Each and every one of the people to whom I put that scenario agreed that it was nonsense and that there was a huge conflict of interest that should be considered not only in constitutional terms —constitutional issues are important—but in practical terms. They agreed that there were issues that could not be reconciled within the Bill.

It appears that the vast majority of hon. Members have no stomach for the Bill. It also appears from my 48 hours in Dublin last week that people there have neither interest in nor stomach for it—so why are the Government introducing it? That has been defined clearly tonight—it is being done, and in haste, because the Government do not properly recognise the view of those who came to an agreement more than a year ago and who had that agreement endorsed north and south, or the attitude of those who voted for our view.

Two people in particular—members of a minority party, Messrs Adams and McGuinness—are holding the Government and the Northern Ireland Office to ransom. The task that is being undertaken in this place is to find a way to placate them within a time scale that will not allow anyone to say, "The poor Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is responsible for the fact that guns and bombs have not been decommissioned." That is the terror that is being visited upon the Secretary of State. Am I right to fear that the Prime Minister has not only created this Bill, but visited on us other aberrations that have no basis in common sense or national interest?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does my colleague the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) believe that if this dreadful Bill were passed—which, with the Government's majority, it may well be—there would be any stomach in Ireland for offering a reciprocal arrangement so that hon. Members could offer themselves for election to its legislature?

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The right hon. Gentleman knows that—although it is not, and will not be my choice—as a British citizen living in Northern Ireland I am eligible to sit in the Dail.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Certainly, the right hon. Gentleman is not so entitled. Also, there certainly would be no stomach for permitting him to sit in the Dail. He misses my point if he does not recognise that, even if the opportunity to stand for election to the Irish legislature were available, there would be no possibility of him or me being elected to it. The Irish know one thing—and I admire them for it—and that is national interest.

The House of Commons is considering the Terrorism Bill in Committee. I shall not digress and deal with that Bill, except to say that it is a hotch-potch. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) knows all about that Bill. It has been designed not in the national interest, but to serve as a catch-all. It does not define "terrorist" in terms of our constitution and government, as it should do. That Bill is all over the place, which is exactly what is happening in the Disqualifications Bill. Someone has examined the situation in Northern Ireland and noticed that Sinn Fein is still dissatisfied with and reluctant to accept the accommodation and opportunity that many hon. Members—who are subject to great criticism from some their supporters—have provided for its members, which would allow them to move from violence to a democratic mode. Dublin knows very little or nothing about the Disqualifications Bill. It is surprised by it. As I said, Ministers cannot tell me whom they consulted on the Bill.

I am pleased that some hon. Members, other than Ulster Unionists, are alert to the problem that may arise with the Oath. They are wise to be alert to the issue—not that the Oath seems to matter a great deal. The Oath, which is supposed to be taken by every elected Member, was not taken by two Members who represent Sinn Fein. What did the Government decide to do about that? They decided to turn tradition on its head. Rather than saying, "If you take the Oath and become Members of Parliament, you will be entitled to the privileges of the House", Ministers accepted the Sinn Fein argument that one has a mandate if one is elected to the House.

On being elected to the House, most hon. Members do not say that they have a mandate. After our election to this place, we say that we have not a mandate, but a massive responsibility, which we meet from the moment we enter the House by taking the Oath or affirming. Thereafter, the privileges of this place are accorded to us. It was quite scandalous that the Government considered usurping the traditional right of Madam Speaker to protect the interests of all hon. Members, and using their 170 majority to do so. I am only pleased that the weight of private opinion reverberating through this place caused the Government to delay a decision on whether to table such a motion.

Today, the House again has the opportunity to make the Government realise that the interests of those whom we represent must dominate—not the interests of those who have no time for, loyalty to, or sense of responsibility towards whatever part of the United Kingdom they represent.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire 6:37 pm, 24th January 2000

We have had a very interesting, serious and thoughtful debate. I hope that the Minister will have taken very firmly on board the remarks of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) on the Oath and the granting of facilities to those who have not taken the Oath. I make it absolutely plain, beyond any equivocation or doubt, that the Opposition could not support such a move unless and until the peace process had been totally honoured—and I mean that totally honoured—by those who are rather holding us to ransom.

I tell the Under-Secretary of State—who, like me, has heard every speech in the debate—that it is a pity—and this is meant in no critical sense of the two Ministers—that today's debate on the Disqualifications Bill was not introduced by the Home Secretary and defended in reply by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Bill proposes taking extremely serious action. Although, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made clear, our intention is not to vote against the Government in the Lobby today, it is certainly our intention to seek to have the Bill suitably amended before it is enacted.

I also hope that the Minister—who has heard not a single enthusiastic speech in favour of the Bill from either side of the House—

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

What about the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

That speech was tempered by the statement of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that he thought that Ireland should again become a member of the Commonwealth. His speech was not an unthinking endorsement of the Government's Bill; indeed, there has been no such speech by any hon. Member on either side of the House.

Even at this late stage, I hope that the Minister will think carefully about coming back to the House tomorrow with this Bill. It would be better if we had a little longer to reflect, to table amendments and to deal with the remaining stages a few days later than tomorrow. The Minister may say that agreements have been entered into, but the debate has been listened to by Opposition Members who have made extremely thoughtful and serious speeches.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I want to endorse the hon. Gentleman's view. Others, as well as his colleagues, have made representations that, given the controversial nature of the Bill, it would be quite wrong to have its Second Reading on one day, followed by the remaining stages the next day. We associate ourselves strongly with that view.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who made a thoughtful and constructive speech. What has come out of the debate, from all speakers, is that this is not the easy issue that the Minister claimed it to be when he opened the debate.

We accept that there are anomalies within any constitution. We accept, for instance, that in the British Nationality Act 1981 we specifically reiterated the right of members of Commonwealth legislatures to sit here as well. All of my hon. Friends who have spoken and were in the House at the time will have done as I am certain I did, and voted in support of that Act. Today's debate has shown the deep unease—voiced briefly, but most eloquently, by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—about conflicting loyalties and how one can be a member of two Assemblies.

The other message that has come across clearly and forcefully has been that if we are to move as proposed, reciprocity ought to be a requirement. If we have a little longer before the remaining stages, amendments could be tabled to underline that point, so that our friends in the Republic of Ireland—and they are our friends—would understand that that is the feeling of the House. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said that constitutional amendments might be needed, and perhaps that should be seriously contemplated.

The other point that has come out of almost every speech is why now? The Bill is premature. Although the Minister will doubtless repudiate what I am about to say, many Opposition Members feel that there is a great deal in what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They said that it would appear that this place is acting at the behest of two people who have been elected to it, but have never been prepared to act responsibly as Members of Parliament. They have never been prepared to take the Oath or to affirm. They have never urged their friends, allies and colleagues in the IRA to begin the decommissioning process.

It perturbs many Opposition Members to see people being released from jail who are guilty of the most heinous crimes. It made me feel a little uneasy—to put it extremely mildly—to see Mr. Adams delivering the eulogy and carrying the coffin at an IRA funeral this weekend. All of those things are very much taken to heart by Opposition Members—and, I am sure, by the Minister and many Labour Members.

We are not happy that to move the Bill quickly towards the statute book before decommissioning has begun and before we have had the first report from General de Chastelain to tell us that it is properly under way. However, the Opposition are so committed to the peace process and to the work done by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), by my noble Friend Lord Mayhew and by the Prime Minister and other Labour Ministers, that we will not oppose Second Reading.

It would be in the interests of everyone who truly wants a peaceful Northern Ireland and proper constitutional arrangements to be developed between the Republic of Ireland and this country if the Bill were to be put on the back burner for a little while. There is no reason why that should not happen. There is no reason why we should not have more time to table amendments. There is no reason why there should not be some detailed consultation.

I was somewhat concerned to learn from the speeches of Ulster Unionist Members that there had not been a great deal of consultation with them before the Bill was introduced. There should have been. There has not been the cross-party accord that should lie behind the Bill if it is to have the cross-party support that the Government, understandably, want it to have and which we really want to give it because of our commitment to a peace process that has been developed on an all-party basis.

I know that the Under-Secretary is anxious to answer all the questions raised in the debate. I promised to cut short my remarks so that he would have longer to reply. I hope that he will deal with every question and that he will face them all fairly and squarely. Above all, I hope that he will give two undertakings to this House. The first was given equivocally by the Minister—that is, that we believe in the paramount importance of the Oath and we are not prepared to connive at any arrangement that would circumvent it. The other is that Ministers will go away, talk to the Government's business managers and consider putting off the remaining stages beyond tomorrow.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 6:46 pm, 24th January 2000

This has been a good debate, in which strongly held views have been put strongly and any doubts that people may have have been covered.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) should not labour under the delusion that the Bill is the product of some arrangement between Ministers and Sinn Fein. Representations were made by the Irish Government—whether they communicated with the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) is another matter. [Interruption.] I can assure the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone that I will refer to him later. Certainly there were discussions between this Government and the Irish Government.

Another point is that there was consultation about the Bill. I do not know how far down the chain of command of the Ulster Unionist party that consultation went, but it is precisely as a result of that consultation that clause 2 is now in the Bill. Clause 2 would not have figured in the Bill as originally envisaged.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I appreciate the point that the Minister has just made, and I understand that there might have been consultations a fortnight ago. However, a fortnight ago in this place, I asked why we were rushing the Committee the day after the Second Reading of this important Bill. I regret that minority rights have not always been defended, even in this House.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

It was precisely because there was consultation that we felt it not unreasonable to have a tight timetable. Although individual members of different parties have expressed strong reservations, there has been an agreement that Second Reading would be uncontested by the Opposition. Normally, that gives reason to believe that it is reasonable to have a fairly short time scale.

On the question of whether the Bill is being hurried, it was published before Christmas. Anyone with concerns or reservations has had plenty of time to consider the Bill in detail and table appropriate amendments.

I shall cover first the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). One reason for that is that, as many hon. Members noted, she set the tone of the debate. However, a second reason is that I hold my hon. Friend in very high regard indeed, for reasons that are known only to her and to me. Had it not been for her, I should not have become a Member of the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich asked a prescient question when she asked why the Bill was being introduced. As she rightly noted, the circumstances are not precisely the same as those involving the Commonwealth. However, a variety of arrangements exist between the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday agreement. Those arrangements include the implementation bodies covering issues such as inland waterways, food safety, trade and business developments, special European Union programmes, the Irish language and Ulster Scots, and aquaculture.

Photo of Mr Ken Maginnis Mr Ken Maginnis UUP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The Under-Secretary of State was at pains to tell us that the proposal had nothing to do with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Is the Minister now agreeing with my earlier suggestion that the Bill has been enamelled on to the agreement?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I shall come to that precise point, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. Not for one moment am I saying that the Bill arises out of the Good Friday agreement. It does not, but as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary explained, the arrangements between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and this House—and the Government—are unique and different. Our response to the agreement must reflect that. The argument is about context rather than precise linkage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) raised the issue of whether the Republic of Ireland should be invited to join the Commonwealth. It would be foolhardy of me to get involved in that debate today. In the long term, it is a matter for the Irish people and Government to decide. However, I am sure that the House will agree with my hon. Friend that, regardless of the links between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland, very strong ties of kinship exist between people from Ireland in general. I speak for my own family in that regard: our ties to Ireland go back a long way, but they exist none the less. That makes a difference to the relationship between our countries.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is no longer in the Chamber. That is unfortunate, as I wanted to address her directly. She made a helpful and responsible speech, and raised a couple of issues that should be answered. First, she spoke about the need to consider the link between the Bill and decommissioning. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) said that that linkage should not be made, and I strongly agree. It would be inappropriate to make that link, as I hope the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and her supporters will understand. Decommissioning is an important element in the Good Friday agreement, but the agreement must stand as a separate issue.

The Good Friday agreement makes the link, and the matter should be viewed in that context. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has stated that any default on decommissioning reported by General de Chastelain would have serious consequences. It is important to keep that uppermost in our minds when we consider the various linkages with the Good Friday agreement.

I shall deal with the second point made by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald in my response to the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. He and others—including the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) —asked about the conflicts of interest that would be incurred by a person who sat in two legislatures and who was a Minister in the Government attached to one of those legislatures. That is an important point and I listened to the argument very carefully.

I have not had the opportunity of studying the amendment on that subject tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will study it overnight with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I cannot give a firm commitment on the amendment, especially as I have not seen it, but we shall reflect carefully on the issues raised in this debate.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

No, as I have still to respond to some participants in the debate.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone also asked about the Oath. That is an important matter, and one that has been raised repeatedly. The Bill does not change the Oath of Allegiance. The Government do not intend to change it; we are not talking to anyone or consulting with anyone about the possibility of changing it.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked for a absolute commitment on the issue. She served with some distinction in the previous Government, and she knows that no Government can give cast-iron guarantees of that kind. However, it would be wrong for anyone to think that a change in the Oath is in prospect. It is not around the corner, nor around any corner that I can foresee.

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone knows that I hold him in high regard, as do many of my colleagues. We should not forget that matters of identity, allegiance and loyalty have been at the heart of divisions in Northern Ireland for a long time. I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree with that. That history has been discussed many times in this debate already, so I shall not rehearse it. However, I merely observe that, in Northern Ireland, there is no such thing as a yes-no, black-and-white issue. We are dealing with complex matters that have to be discussed.

Many people in Northern Ireland think of themselves as British, as they are, but many also think of themselves as Irish. By reason of their birth in Northern Ireland, they are entitled to Irish citizenship. Asked—in relation to sports, culture or politics, for instance—whether they think of themselves as Irish or British, people will give many different answers. I am pleased at the arrival in the Chamber of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, as he will know exactly what I mean.

The Government take such matters very seriously, and I have given a clear undertaking that we will reflect overnight on the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 300, Noes 17.

Division No. 34][6.59 pm
AYES
Abbott, Ms DianeClelland, David
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Clwyd, Ann
Alexander, DouglasCoaker, Vernon
Allen, GrahamCohen, Harry
Ashton, JoeColman, Tony
Atkins, CharlotteCook, Frank (Stockton N)
Austin, JohnCooper, Yvette
Ballard, JackieCorbett, Robin
Banks, TonyCorbyn, Jeremy
Barnes, HarryCorston, Jean
Battle, JohnCotter, Brian
Bayley, HughCousins, Jim
Beard, NigelCranston, Ross
Beith, Rt Hon A JCrausby, David
Bell, Martin (Tatton)Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)Dalyell, Tam
Bennett, Andrew FDarvill, Keith
Benton, JoeDavey, Edward (Kingston)
Bermingham, GeraldDavey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Berry, RogerDavidson, Ian
Best, HaroldDavies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Betts, CliveDavies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Blears, Ms HazelDawson, Hilton
Blizzard, BobDean, Mrs Janet
Boateng, Rt Hon PaulDismore, Andrew
Borrow, DavidDobbin, Jim
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Donohoe, Brian H
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Doran, Frank
Bradshaw, BenDowd, Jim
Breed, ColinDrew, David
Brinton, Mrs HelenEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Browne, DesmondEfford, Clive
Burden, RichardEllman, Mrs Louise
Burgon, ColinEnnis, Jeff
Butler, Mrs ChristineFearn, Ronnie
Caborn, Rt Hon RichardField, Rt Hon Frank
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Fisher, Mark
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flint, Caroline
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Follett, Barbara
Campbell-Savours, DaleFoster, Rt Hon Derek
Casale, RogerFoster, Don (Bath)
Cawsey, IanFoster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Chaytor, DavidFoulkes, George
Chidgey, DavidGalloway, George
Clapham, MichaelGapes, Mike
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)George, Andrew (St Ives)
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Gerrard, Neil
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Gibson, Dr Ian
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Godsiff, Roger
Goggins, PaulMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Golding, Mrs LlinMarshall-Andrews, Robert
Gordon, Mrs EileenMartlew, Eric
Grant, BernieMaxton, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Grocott, BruceMeale, Alan
Grogan, JohnMerron, Gillian
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Heal, Mrs SylviaMiller, Andrew
Healey, JohnMitchell, Austin
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)Moffatt, Laura
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hepburn, StephenMoran, Ms Margaret
Heppell, JohnMorgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Hill, KeithMorley, Elliot
Hinchliffe, DavidMorris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hood, Jimmy
Hope, PhilMountford, Kali
Hopkins, KelvinMudie, George
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Mullin, Chris
Howells, Dr KimMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hoyle, LindsayMurphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)Oaten, Mark
Humble, Mrs JoanO'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Hurst, AlanO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Hutton, JohnOlner, Bill
Iddon, Dr BrianO'Neill, Martin
Illsley, EricPalmer, Dr Nick
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Pearson, Ian
Jenkins, BrianPendry, Tom
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)Perham, Ms Linda
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)Plaskitt, James
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Pond, Chris
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldPope, Greg
Keeble, Ms SallyPowell, Sir Raymond
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kelly, Ms RuthPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kemp, FraserPrimarolo, Dawn
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Purchase, Ken
Kidney, DavidQuinn, Lawrie
Kilfoyle, PeterRadice, Rt Hon Giles
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Raynsford, Nick
Kirkwood, ArchyReed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Kumar, Dr AshokReid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Laxton, BobRendel, David
Lepper, DavidRoche, Mrs Barbara
Leslie, ChristopherRogers, Allan
Levitt, TomRooker, Rt Hon Jeff
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Rooney, Terry
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs HelenRowlands, Ted
Linton, MartinRoy, Frank
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)Ruddock, Joan
McCabe, SteveRussell, Bob (Colchester)
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Sanders, Adrian
McDonagh, SiobhainSavidge, Malcolm
Macdonald, CalumSawford, Phil
McDonnell, JohnSedgemore, Brian
McIsaac, ShonaShaw, Jonathan
McKenna, Mrs RosemarySheerman, Barry
Mackinlay, AndrewSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McNulty, TonyShort, Rt Hon Clare
MacShane, DenisSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Mactaggart, FionaSingh, Marsha
McWalter, TonySkinner, Dennis
McWilliam, JohnSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Mahon, Mrs AliceSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Mallaber, JudySmith, John (Glamorgan)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)Snape, Peter
Southworth, Ms HelenTurner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Spellar, JohnTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Squire, Ms RachelTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Starkey, Dr PhyllisTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Stevenson, GeorgeWalley, Ms Joan
Stewart, David (Inverness E)Ward, Ms Claire
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)Wareing, Robert N
Stinchcombe, PaulWatts, David
Stoate, Dr HowardWhite, Brian
Straw, Rt Hon JackWhitehead, Dr Alan
Stuart, Ms GiselaWicks, Malcolm
Stunell, AndrewWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)Wills, Michael
Winnick, David
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)Wise, Audrey
Taylor, David (NW Leics)Wood, Mike
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)Woodward, Shaun
Timms, StephenWorthington, Tony
Todd, MarkWright Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Trickett, JonTellers for the Ayes:
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)Mr. David Jamieson.
NOES
Cash, WilliamRoss, William (E Lond'y)
Donaldson, JeffreySwayne, Desmond
Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterThompson, William
Gill, ChristopherTrimble, Rt Hon David
Gorman, Mrs TeresaViggers, Peter
Hogg, Rt Hon DouglasWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Hunter, AndrewTellers for the Noes:
Maginnis, KenRev. Martin Smyth and
Mates, MichaelMr. Eric Forth.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills),That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. George Howarth.]Question agreed to.
Committee tomorrow.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you will have heard during the debate, concerns were expressed that the Committee will sit tomorrow when Second Reading was only today. Can you advise us whether there are procedures whereby we might adjourn the Committee stage beyond tomorrow, so that colleagues inside and outside the Chamber have a chance to read the Second Reading debate?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

In the House, we take one day at a time. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could consider that matter tomorrow. The Bill is committed to Committee tomorrow.