[Sylvia Heal in the Chair] — Clause 1 — Dates Of Election, Etc

Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:52 pm on 17 March 2003.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 7:52, 17 March 2003

I beg to move manuscript amendment No. 1, in line 2, to leave out from the beginning to the word "in" in line 13 and insert—

"In Section 31 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998".

It will assist the House if I say that I do not intend to speak for more than a couple of minutes on the amendment—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—although if I were encouraged, that might change.

The amendment was covered to some extent on Second Reading. Having spoken for three quarters of an hour in that debate, I do not need to add many points. The effect of the amendment would be to have an election on 1 May, as provided in the original 1998 legislation and in the order put forward by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he was required by legal action to do so. There should be no further delay to the election. The people should have the opportunity to speak.

The reality is that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister are attempting, once again, to cobble together an agreement that has clearly failed. It has gone from crisis to crisis. It has collapsed on four occasions, it has been attended by all sorts of violence and the misbehaviour of the Provisional IRA, and it is abundantly clear that the Secretary of State will not be able to obtain a stable political structure from the existing Belfast agreement. It was Einstein who once defined insanity as endlessly doing the same thing and hoping for a different result. That seems to be the Government's intention. They continue to repeat the same mistakes that they have made before and hope that things will turn out all right. They will not turn out all right, because a new agreement is needed. I hope that the election will allow us to reach a situation in which we can have negotiations for a new agreement that will enjoy the support of not only nationalists in Northern Ireland but the Unionist community as well.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The House has already heard from my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik that we generally support the Bill, so it will come as little surprise that we are opposed to the amendment. We oppose it for two reasons. First, it does not add anything to the Bill. Secondly, as the Minister said earlier, it is a wrecking amendment, although it would not actually wreck the Bill. Clause 1(3) would still categorically state that the date of the election would be 29 May 2003. All the amendment would do is add further confusion and provide work for the courts when the inevitable challenge is brought by the Democratic Unionist party.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

As Mr. Carmichael has just said, the amendment is designed to wreck the Bill by removing the provisions that would revoke the order that sets the election day for 1 May and amend the legislation to set a new election date of 29 May. In moving the amendment, Mr. Robinson did not pretend that it was anything else. It might even qualify as a reasoned amendment on Second Reading.

It will be obvious that the Government cannot accept the amendment. Postponement is not a step that the Government propose lightly, but we believe that there is a chance of a real breakthrough that will give the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to vote for an Assembly ready to take up powers again. That chance should not be missed, and I submit to the House that it will be missed unless we have this window of opportunity. We cannot allow the Bill to be wrecked in this fashion.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I regret that the Government wish to resile from a date that was set by them in the legislation, and later confirmed by an order by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, simply for political purposes. People should not attempt to manipulate elections and the electoral process for party political reasons. The election date was set by the Government and should not be manipulated by them. I trust that hon. Members will consider the matter and join us in the Lobby on that issue.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 368.

Division number 115 Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill — [Sylvia Heal in the Chair] — Clause 1 — Dates Of Election, Etc

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 368 MPs

No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Jane Kennedy.]

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party 8:12, 17 March 2003

All I say on behalf of the electors whom I represent is roll on 29 May. Let us have the result of the election and let the House take proper democratic note of the same.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 8:13, 17 March 2003

The Minister heard the earlier debate. It is vital that the Government define acts of completion. They must also ensure that there is parity of treatment in terms of information for Northern Ireland parties.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

The House will now be suspended for 10 minutes. The Division bell will ring for three minutes before we commence the statements.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—