Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Ending Suspension

Part of Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 8th February 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 9:46 pm, 8th February 2000

No, I am sorry, I shall make my speech. The hon. Gentleman has had his time.

It is striking that right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate were overwhelmingly positive. They wanted the agreement to succeed. They were not interested in playing some ridiculous, destructive blame game. We can agree thus far. However, we must consider what we should do now that decommissioning has not begun, and what the Ulster Unionists should do in its absence. Most Ulster Unionists are running on empty because of the disappointing lack of progress. Consequently, the Executive is close to collapse, in a matter not of weeks but, tragically, of days. What is the right course of action?

There are no easy options for anyone. Some are marginally less disagreeable than others. Several hon. Members who contributed to today's debate suggested that the Government are motivated simply by a desire to head off a Unionist veto or to deal with Unionist blackmail, and that our actions are determined by a metaphorical Unionist gun, which is pointing at our heads. That is not true. We face a complicated, real-life political predicament, and we must deal with it. People have genuine attitudes and prejudices; they have become genuinely exhausted and despair of the situation. We must face that reality and work out a response to it that preserves our achievements, saves what has been created and ensures the endurance of the possibility that the institutions and the very important Executive will flourish permanently. I am firmly set on that course, not on some short-term manoeuvre or tactics that will simply tide us over the next day or two.

We are not considering any individual. We are not trying to save the skin of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), although his skin is pretty valuable, and worth saving if we can. I believe that because he has shown admirable leadership of his party; because we would never have formed the Executive and set up the institutions without him; because he has a great deal of leadership left in him; and because, if he relinquished the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party, I would fear for the consequences for Northern Ireland, given his likely replacement.

We are not considering going back to the bad old days of Stormont, and government by one side of the community. We shall not do that now, later or at any time. Under no circumstances or terms will we entertain for one moment a reversion to that form of government in Northern Ireland.

I appeal to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to whatever extent they found the attitudes of some Ulster Unionist Members who contributed to the debate lacking, not to take a similarly one-sided view in their analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland. The new institutions in Northern Ireland cannot function with the support and confidence of one tradition alone. The new Executive needs two legs to walk on. At the moment, one leg is badly disabled and out of action. I do not think that the Unionist leg is out of action permanently, but it is dragging its foot slightly lamely as a result of a collapse in confidence following Unionist disappointment over the lack of decommissioning since the Executive was set up. I regret that and wish things were different. If I were a doctor with a miracle remedy at my disposal, I would apply it to that Unionist leg and hope for an immediate or overnight cure, but I am afraid that one is not available to me.

There is still a chance that we can repair what has gone wrong before the weekend, which I entirely accept is the next watershed that we face. I appeal to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann not to despair and not to turn off, but to remain open to new ideas and new proposals that might yet be canvassed in the coming days and to keep the channels open. We will need all his strength and energy during the review if we are to succeed in resurrecting the Executive and the institutions, should it prove painfully necessary to implement the Bill before the weekend.

I say to my hon. Friends from the Social Democratic and Labour party that I understand only too well why they feel that the option of suspension—putting the Executive and the other institutions on hold—is so very painful. The nationalist people whom they represent in Northern Ireland have been shut out of government for so long through no fault of their own, so it is deeply disappointing—almost too much to bear—to have staked their claim in the ground of the new Executive only to have it so cruelly removed after only eight weeks. I fully understand and deeply sympathise. If I could do anything to avoid that, I would do it. If there is anything that the Government, together with the Irish Government, can do before the end of the week to avoid that, we shall do it.

I understand why the prospect of returning to direct rule is so unattractive and so disagreeable, but, although this may be unfair, perhaps it is all right for the SDLP to indulge itself somewhat by not facing up to the harsh and unpalatable reality of what we have to do. For others, I am afraid that there is no alternative to the heavy lifting that we have to undertake and no alternative to putting the institutions on hold to create a pause to give us time—a breathing space—so that we can work hard with it and with others to resurrect that which we hold so dear.