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Ending Suspension

Part of Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 8th February 2000.

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Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross UUP, East Londonderry 8:45 pm, 8th February 2000

Perfectly correct, but that view seems to have vanished into the past. The SDLP, it seems, wants to forget about that. All it wants now is an ounce of Semtex left at the door—token decommissioning. We were told that at the weekend. It is not sufficient for the people of Northern Ireland and certainly not sufficient for the Unionist party. Its position is perfectly clear. After this time, there must be a massive giving up of weapons and explosives—the means of violence and war.

During the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who has just left his place, I referred to the Secretary of State's words on 3 February, when he was very precise about his intentions. He said that he would not be suspending the agreement—that it would remain intact, as would the consequences of its creation and all its actions.

I am not clear how the Secretary of State intends to proceed with the review. The Belfast agreement contains three conditions under which a review can take place. [Interruption.] I understand that the two Ministers on the Front Bench know all about this and do not have to listen. I would like to know which of those three conditions applies in this instance. The agreement states, first: Each institution may, at any time, review any problems that may arise in its operation and, where no other institution is affected, take remedial action in consultation as necessary with the relevant Government or Governments. It will be for each institution to determine its own procedures for review. Under that procedure, the Assembly can take its own decisions and talk only to the Governments as necessary. I assume that the institutions mentioned refer to the two Governments and the Assembly, rather than to the various bodies which flow from the operation of the Assembly.

The second set of circumstances is: If there are difficulties in the operation of a particular institution, which have implications for another institution, they may review their operations separately and jointly and agree on remedial action to be taken under their respective authorities. That would seem to involve a combination of institutions, all having to take separate reviews—followed by a joint review—and then agreeing. That is rather complicated, and I cannot see it meeting with much success if what the Secretary of State said about the frailty of the process and the structure is accurate. A structure that cannot stand another election and still survive has a mighty poor chance of surviving into adulthood.

The third set of circumstances is: If difficulties arise which require remedial action across the range of institutions, or otherwise require amendment of the British-Irish Agreement or relevant legislation, the process of review will fall to the two Governments in consultation with the parties in the Assembly. Each Government will be responsible for action in its own jurisdiction. In this case, the two Governments have to take the lead and then consult with the parties in the Assembly. They do not have to get the parties in the Assembly to agree with them—they can go ahead in any case.

Which of those courses of action—or which combination of them—applies in this case? It might be difficult to have a combination, and it may have to be one. What criteria will the Secretary of State use to make up his mind? When he does make up his mind, will he tell the House which set of criteria he is taking into account and applying? When the review is set up, can we be told what items it will look at? How are the decisions within the review to be reached? Who will make the decisions? What evidence or reasons will be published so people understand what is going on?

Clause 3(2)—which refers to the restoration, as it were—gives the impression that the Secretary of State should not be involved in the review because, if he were, he would have to be not only the investigator and the chairman, but the jury and the judge in regard to whether or not he would restore the Assembly to operation. In those circumstances, we need to know the evidence. We need to know who will chair the review. We need to know the criteria, and the task that the review is being given.

The only reason for this debate is the refusal of the terrorist organisations to hand over their weapons—their firearms and their other means of murdering, blackmailing and intimidating the law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland, and of this wider nation. If we are to go beyond the weaponry, we must be told why, what steps are to be taken into account and what is to be reviewed in the next few weeks.