I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill provides for deferment of the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly that were due to be held on
I have already set out in my statements of
The paragraph says:
"We need to see an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots. Moreover, the practice of exiling must come to an end and the exiled must feel free to return in safety. Similarly, sectarian attacks and intimidation directed at vulnerable communities must cease."
Nothing is clearer than paragraph 13 and that statement, which defines in detail what is meant by paramilitary activity.
The IRA statements that were published last week and the clarifications offered by the president of Sinn Fein were significant developments but, taken together, they do not give the clarity that is needed in response to the single question: will there be an immediate end to all paramilitary activity? That lack of clarity is very damaging. A very broad range of opinion in the UK, in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere has found the statements of the republican movement lacking the assurance that it is legitimate to demand in a democratic and civilised society.
Our central goal is to make the Good Friday agreement work. At the heart of that agreement, which the vast majority of the House supported at the time and which a vast majority continue to support, was a commitment to pursuing political goals by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. It is self-evident that, after five years of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called "creative ambiguity", we now need clarity if the institutions are to work.
We did not have that clarity. Consequently, we believe that the institutions would not work. The election would not have given us government as envisaged in the agreement, and so it was to defend the agreement that, with a very heavy heart, we decided that a deferment was necessary. I would not pretend for one second to the House that it was an easy decision; it was not. However, I believe that it was the right decision.
The Secretary of State has been very clear in defining the non-violent democratic activities to which we expect the republican movement to adhere. Does he therefore agree that it would be wrong and undemocratic for the Provisional IRA to carry out any action against an informer who has been in its military organisation in the past 30 years and who, at present, may feel under great threat from its execution squads?
The hon. Gentleman must have someone in mind. I assure him that none of the attacks made on whatever persons in Northern Ireland can be justified. No attack on anybody in whatever circumstances is justifiable. It would be condemned by all of us in the House.
Let me recall how the agreement came about. It was the product of several decades of political activity, and many Members of the House spent many months—indeed, years—in arranging political activities so that we could come to an agreement as we did in 1998. However, effectively there was intensive negotiation in 1997 and 1998. The agreement held the promise of a final transition from deep-rooted community conflict and the plague of terrorism to a normal and peaceful society.
The key characteristic of the system of government that the agreement established was the institutionalisation of cross-community partnership. Many different features of the agreement are valued by different people in Northern Ireland, but I believe that that feature inspired the electorate of Northern Ireland to vote by 77.1 per cent. in favour of the agreement. The prospect of an agreed future in place of division and conflict enthused many people on both sides of the community. That promise still leads a majority of people on both sides of the community to say that they still want the agreement to work, which was shown by a poll in the Belfast Telegraph in February, to which 60 per cent. of the respondents were Protestants.
The mechanics of such institutionalised partnership government are different from the system in the House or the institutions in any other democracy that I know. Nearly all elections to such institutions yield a government, even if time is required to build a coalition. Cross-community government, as we all know, is different. It depends on widespread willingness to participate, and that is dependent on trust. That trust was lost last October when we had to suspend the institutions.
As Mr. Trimble said last week, an election now would not be an election to the institutions prescribed by the agreement because those institutions would not work. It would be an election to a set of non-functional institutions. Had we held such an election and then lifted suspension, we could well have faced administrative chaos and further early elections. Far from democracy being enhanced, it would have been undermined. That would not protect the agreement. All hon. Members who support the agreement must ask themselves whether holding an election now would represent a step toward its long-term success.
I do remember that, because I was involved in trying to bring the institutions back together during at least half of those months. The difference lies in what I said earlier. The reasons why we were in difficulty during those early months are not as stark as the reasons why we are in difficulty today. The Prime Minister's speech in Belfast in October 2002 was echoed and agreed by the Taoiseach. He said that we had reached a "fork in the road" and that after five years, there must be an end to paramilitary activity, although there might have been creative ambiguity for some years before. The world has changed in five years and people have lost patience with continued paramilitary activity, which is why trust was lost in October 2002.
My hon. Friend was right to imply that we can experience a long and involved process. He will recall that just after 5.30 pm on the Good Friday in 1998 when Senator George Mitchell said that the agreement had been approved, one of the first things that he said was that we were at the beginning of the difficulties, rather than the end of them. He said that a bumpy road would be ahead of us. Of course we knew that, but everything depends on how big the bumps are. Some institutions can survive specific difficulties. However, he knows that the Assembly will operate properly only within the terms of the Belfast agreement that allow for proper power sharing throughout the community, which were approved in the referendum.
I am interested in what the Secretary of State says about the postponement of the elections, but will he explain how postponing elections will assist the development of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, since those who did not want the Assembly in the first place do not want the elections to be held and, indeed, have a vested interest in ensuring the breakdown of the Good Friday agreement?
There are certainly people—I shall refer to them in a second—who do not, and never did, agree with the Belfast agreement. They have sincere reasons for that position, and they were explained to the electorate when the referendum was called. However, the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted in favour of the Belfast agreement in the referendum, as did the majority of people in the Republic of Ireland.
Time does change things, as I hear the hon. Gentleman say, and that is precisely the point that I am making: times have changed over the past five years and we can no longer tolerate continued paramilitary activity. Such activity must stop so that trust and confidence may be built up among politicians in Northern Ireland.
If it is the demands of the Belfast agreement that prevent the restoration of a devolved and democratic Government in Northern Ireland, is it possible that it is the demands of the agreement that are at fault?
That is possible, but I do not think that it is the case. The hon. Gentleman knows that the nature of the Assembly that was suspended and eventually dissolved is different from that of any other Assembly in the United Kingdom. The Assembly is based on complicated and sophisticated rules of cross-community voting to ensure that nationalists and Unionists feel comfortable and able to accept it. It is a very special institution and, as I have said, it is not the same as the Assembly in Cardiff or the Parliament in Edinburgh.
The Assembly is an integral part of the Good Friday agreement and those who were involved in drawing up the agreement will remember that during the strand 1 talks, which I had the honour of chairing, we spent month after month working out the intricate rules and regulations on cross-community activity and the sharing of power and responsibilities that were necessary to keep the Assembly going. If the Assembly had not had those special rules and had become an ordinary Assembly like any other in the United Kingdom, the Belfast agreement would not have worked. I do not believe for a second that the Assembly would be accepted across the board in Northern Ireland unless everyone in Northern Ireland who wanted the agreement accepted that it is very special and different.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will put me right on that and tell me that other views are held in Northern Ireland about the nature of the Assembly. Those views are sincerely held and may be debated, but they are not compatible with the Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State talks about the nature of the agreement and the institutions set up under it and thus the need for Unionist as well as nationalist support. How does he respond to the assertion that the majority of Unionists do not support the implementation of the Belfast agreement? He should refer not to the referendum results but to the more recent results of the general election to this House. A clear two thirds of the Unionists elected were opposed to the agreement. How can the right hon. Gentleman sustain the notion that the Belfast agreement is the only way forward given that, although it clearly has the support of nationalists and republicans, it does not have the support of a clear majority of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland?
How can that be reconciled with the point that I made earlier? An opinion poll held more recently than those elections showed that people want the Belfast agreement to work. People want a peace process and a political process to work. The way in which the Belfast agreement works could be changed, and the hon. Gentleman knows that paragraph 8 of the agreement provides for the parties represented in the Assembly—including his—to sit around a table and determine how best to improve on practices used for the last four or five years. I do not suggest for a second that the agreement is static, but it is the only basis on which we may move the process forward. I cannot conceive of an Assembly in Belfast that did not allow the power sharing that the present agreement allows being workable. That is why the Government's decision last week was still, nevertheless, a difficult one. Last week, it was argued that, with an election campaign out of the way, dialogue and compromise would be easier for those involved. That is not manifestly an unreasonable point of view, but on the basis of what we have heard in recent exchanges—including in the House in the last fortnight—I cannot believe that that is the reality. An election held now, in the conditions created by the uncertainty surrounding the commitments, would simply have polarised opinion further and made it much more difficult to get the institutions up and running again.
The other point is that the Good Friday agreement also refers to the other institutions of Government—the machinery north-south, east-west—and other issues that are interconnected. When people voted for the agreement, they voted for a host of different things, some of which were unpalatable to some and more palatable to others. What it has done, however, is to produce peace for five years, and no one—but no one—could underestimate the significance of that.
Has there not always been a lot of antagonism towards power sharing? Is that not why the original concept of power sharing rightly produced by the Conservative Government in the early 1970s—the Sunningdale agreement—was destroyed on the ground? We have undoubtedly improved on that agreement, but power sharing has always been opposed by a powerful section of the Unionist forces.
That may well have been the case, but I am sure that the parties, even the party represented by Rev. Ian Paisley, would agree that in the years of devolution since the Good Friday agreement was signed, the institutions that it established—in particular, the Assembly—were institutions in which all Unionist parties in Northern Ireland were willing to discuss with nationalists and, indeed, republicans, decisions that affected all the people of Northern Ireland.
I am not saying for one second that everyone agreed with the Good Friday agreement, because people evidently did not. However, devolution worked and Ministers in the Executive came from the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party. All those parties, representing the broad spectrum of Unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland, worked to bring benefits to all the people of Northern Ireland. I am convinced that that was the case. I am not saying that it was always the happiest of families, but it never is. It is clear from events in the House today that we are not always a happy family here and sometimes disagree, but there is no question in my mind but that the people in Northern Ireland valued devolution because local Ministers made decisions for local people and were locally accountable.
Some people, of course, do not want the agreement to succeed. I do not agree with them, but nor do I believe that their outlook is widely shared in the House. I am proud to defend the agreement and the benefits it has brought to Northern Ireland. It is not possible to argue that Northern Ireland was a better place before the agreement. Let us consider the economic benefits. We have 100,000 new jobs since the agreement's conclusion and the lowest levels of unemployment since 1975; and manufacturing output is up 15 per cent., compared with a fall elsewhere in the UK. Most of all, people are not being killed as they were when the conflict was raging.
Of course, the situation is far from perfect. There is still criminality, including much violent criminality. In particular, the threat of paramilitarism looms. To cite one instance, all of us would deplore the attacks on the offices of democratically elected politicians from whatever party. Nevertheless, grave though some of the problems that still trouble us are, there is no doubt that the picture has greatly improved since, and directly because of, the Good Friday agreement.
The Secretary of State commented on Northern Ireland's economy. As one who spent several days as a private citizen in Northern Ireland over Easter, I was reminded of what a beautiful country it is. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that enough is being done to promote tourism there?
We must do as much as we can to develop tourism. There is no doubt in my mind that it has improved over the past few years compared with 10 years ago. The work that the Assembly did through its Ministers encouraged tourism in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree that it is well worth visiting. There are great examples of geographical, topographical and geological places that we need to sell as well as we possibly can. The Giant's Causeway is one of the greatest sights that can be seen. All those places are there to be promoted, but that is best done in the context of peace. Tourism was not developed for 30 years because people were frightened to go to Northern Ireland to see what it had to offer. There is enormous potential for tourism right across the board, in the countryside, in the cities and the towns and on the coast—
There is a net gain. That is the point that I am making. [Interruption.] Obviously, I do not have the figures and the detail with me, but the hon. Lady knows as well as I do that Northern Ireland has the fastest growing economy of all the regions and nations in the UK. [Interruption.] Perhaps she has the figures.
As Secretary of State for Wales, I had the benefit of seeing what happened in Wales. As a member of the Government, I have had the opportunity to see what has happened in the English regions and Scotland. Despite the setbacks, the fastest growing economy in the UK is in Northern Ireland. I do not underestimate the problems of redundancies in parts of Northern Ireland, but I am sure that the hon. Lady would be the first to say that over the past five years Northern Ireland has been a better place in which to live than it was 10 years ago.
I am perplexed by the comments by Mrs. Robinson. I know that her party takes a cynical view of the agreement, but is there any evidence to suggest that jobs—other than those directly associated with terrorism—have been lost as a direct result of the benefits of the agreement?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Tourism Ireland, one of the cross-border bodies established by the Good Friday agreement, is responsible for marketing the whole of Ireland to tourists? Will he also confirm that Tourism Ireland is without the political direction that it was designed to receive? Indeed, the 600 people who work in various cross-border bodies are also without the indigenous political direction that they were designed to receive. When we talk about tourism and job creation, will the Secretary of State explain that there is a dynamic within the cross-border arrangements for job creation on a massive scale?
There is no doubt in my mind that tourists want to come to the island of Ireland. Traditionally, many more have visited the Republic. I am glad that thousands more are now coming to Northern Ireland as a consequence of visiting the island of Ireland.
The Secretary of State paints a rosy picture of the Northern Ireland economy. The other economy that is prospering in Northern Ireland is the black economy. While the extortion and smuggling propagated by the paramilitary organisations continue apace, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there can never be full completion until fundraising is added to the list that he outlines time and time again in talking about completion by Sinn Fein-IRA or, indeed, any other paramilitary organisation?
There is nothing wrong with fundraising—it is the nature of the fundraising that matters. None the less, I agree with the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
We shall pursue the continuing implementation of the Belfast agreement. The joint declaration sets out a programme of reform in line with the agreement that benefits everyone in Northern Ireland. We shall proceed with a number of the proposals in the joint declaration in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. There are very important proposals relating to security normalisation. Some of them can be achieved only in the event of steps taken by others: they rely on the creation of a new security context. Obviously, they must wait.
On the joint declaration, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that both Governments believe, with huge regret, that it represents the right way forward? Is not the publication of the joint declaration an important reason why we should reluctantly accept this difficult decision?
The joint declaration is the result of almost seven months of discussion and negotiation. It represents a shared understanding between the Governments and the pro-agreement parties that this was the best way forward. Even though we did not agree on elections, relations between the British and Irish Governments remain robust and firm. Without that good relationship, we could not make the progress that is necessary.
I ask again: what indications has the Secretary of State been given by the Ulster Unionist party that the joint declaration is a shared understanding of the way forward?
That was not a bad try. The hon. Gentleman tried it last Tuesday, and given that he has asked the same question, I will give him the same answer. The declaration is a shared understanding among those who negotiated and discussed these matters at Hillsborough and elsewhere. It is up to the individual political parties in Northern Ireland through their own mechanisms to decide how best to deal with these matters. Let me again emphasise the fact that the joint declaration is one document, but there are two others. The hon. Gentleman's party did not like the one that deals with on-the-runs, so it was not a shared understanding between that party and the Governments. Sinn Fein did not like the other document, which referred to the monitoring body and the verification procedures and sanctions; again, the two Governments decided to put it forward.
Some, including the hon. Gentleman, have suggested that the declaration is a charter of concessions to one side. I do not believe that—nor do I think that such an assertion is supported by the facts. Proper policing, justice, rights and equality are fundamental to everybody, whatever side they belong to, in a modern democratic society. The joint declaration includes an end to all paramilitary activity and sets out an extensive catalogue, which I have already quoted, of activities that must cease. It includes plans for an independent body for monitoring conformity with commitments in the agreement and the declaration, in particular the monitoring of paramilitary activity. We shall bring forward early legislation in that respect—legislation for which we shall have more time—that also covers the means for giving effect to the body's findings.
The further implementation of the agreement is not about concessions to one interest or the other. It is designed to reassure all parties that in due course they can go into elections confident that the institutions are being restored on a stable, long term, basis. What we need now is the continuation of political dialogue. It is essential that we continue to work vigorously and without any loss of momentum to resolve our difficulties. It is also important that we do not lose focus. A great many issues have stood in the way of political progress in the past, but we are now essentially down to two: trust about the use of exclusively peaceful means and about the stability of the institutions. We will work with all the parties and the Irish Government, with our intention being to hold an election in the autumn.
The burden of the Secretary of State's argument is that the IRA might not step up to the mark in terms of a full commitment to non-violence. If the sanctions that he mentioned worked, why would he stop an election when he could have dealt with the IRA through the sanctions process? Is that not an admission on his part that the sanctions were hopeless?
But the sanctions that are to be proposed as a consequence of the joint declaration are new ones, which would have to be—indeed, will be—legislated for in this House of Commons. That will take time. My argument is that it is a pointless exercise electing people to a suspended Assembly which, if it is restored, will not produce a Government in the context of the Belfast agreement. That is the heart of the matter. Why is the Assembly suspended? Because of a lack of confidence and trust. Why are confidence and trust lacking? Because of continued paramilitary activity. We must address the paramilitary activity in order to restore the trust needed to restore the institutions and hold elections to them.
If we had an Executive in operation and the new sanctions process—the four-person sanctions committee—was operating in law, and if the activities of the Provisional IRA in Colombia were repeated, and Castlereagh happened again, and Stormontgate happened again, would that lead to the automatic expulsion of Sinn Fein from the Executive?
No doubt the hon. Gentleman has read the joint declaration and the annexe to it and has seen the proposal for a gradation of offences, so that the most serious—I do not underestimate the seriousness of the matters he mentions—would be referred in the first instance to the Assembly itself. Decisions would then have to be taken, because the finger would have been pointed by the verification body at the offence in question. No such monitoring body exists at present. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the existence of that body will be an extra protection for those who want to ensure that the institutions are safeguarded.
Conscious of the time, I turn to the provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 provides for the setting of a new election date. We hope, as we have said, that it will be possible to hold an election by the autumn, but the Bill sets no fixed date. In our view, setting dates alone will not advance the process—instead, it risks impaling the process on a hook and inhibiting sensible discussion. I know that some hon. Members feel strongly that the Bill should contain a date for the election, but I think that that is much more likely to lead to polarisation and the striking of positions than to a willingness to find accommodations and reach out to others.
The Secretary of State will notice from the amendment paper that a common purpose of all the political parties represented in this House is to ensure that the Bill contains a sunset clause, in part to focus the minds of all the parties—with a small "p" and with a large "p"—on the need to reach a resolution. In the event of a failure to do so, it would be appropriate for him to return to the House with new policies and perhaps new legislation, but the Bill should contain a sunset clause—some statement of a date by which either elections must be held, or the Secretary of State must make a fresh statement to the House and start again. It is absurd to leave the matter open. Does he have an open mind on the possibility of inserting a sunset clause?
I am certainly happy to listen to the points that my hon. Friend makes and which may well be made later in the course of the debate, but I have to tell him that the Government's preferred option is to ensure that we are able to call elections as soon as possible—in the autumn. He wants to know what will happen in the event of that not happening. I shall reflect on the points that he and others make during the course of the debate.
If the Secretary of State is arguing so strongly now that there should be no date for the next election put into the provisions of the proposed legislation, does he not admit that all the arguments that he advanced only a few weeks ago in favour of a precise date,
I would not say that they are completely invalid, because I think that some progress was made during the course of the past few weeks. For example, we had an IRA statement, which was more transparent and discussed and debated than any other such statement that we have heard. Secondly, only two of the answers to the questions of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the IRA were satisfactory. In my view, the third answer was completely unsatisfactory. However, there was some progress. The hon. Gentleman is right to say, of course, that there was insufficient progress. That did not work. That is why there is a danger in putting in a date. We need some flexibility if we are able to go into the talks to ensure that we get the institutions up and running.
I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to Rev. Ian Paisley, who referred to the cancellation of elections, that I hope that the Bill as I have described it, and the points that I am making, will ensure that that is not the case, and that there will not be a cancellation. It is a postponement; it is a deferment. It is our intention and desire that elections will be held in the autumn.
I shall move to the clauses, because perhaps they will add to the points that I am making.
The argument that my right hon. Friend seems to be developing is that it is not possible to fix a date for the next election because we must establish that trust is recreated, if that is the word. I asked earlier, without response, by whom and by what criteria that trust is to be measured. Is that the Government, the right hon. Gentleman's office or individual parties? If it is individual parties, is not the right hon. Gentleman creating an unending veto to a party that does not want to participate in elections?
No, I am not. As we have said many times in this place, the veto can easily be exercised by anybody in the Belfast agreement. That lies at the heart of the suspension. It was not the fact that the Social Democratic and Labour party or the Ulster Unionist party did not agree. It was the fact that confidence collapsed because of continued paramilitary activity.
The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do. If I may say so, he spoke eloquently some weeks ago at Prime Minister's Question Time about what was happening in his constituency, when he asked that very question. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows more than most in this place about the difficulties to which I am pointing. Although it is possible to say that this party or that party will not engage in the Assembly, at the end of the day every party has a right when it comes to whether or not it wants to engage in the political process, including forming part of the Executive.
I want—it is what everyone is looking forward to—to find a solution so that all parties can live together to make the Executive and the Assembly work. That will be the thrust of our negotiations and discussions in the months ahead.
The right hon. Gentleman is certainly correct to state that any party can withhold its consent and participation. The point that I am making is whether any party has the right to prevent other parties participating and agreeing.
No party is doing that anyway. At the basis of all of this is the fact that we must see an end to paramilitary activity. We can have our debates and discussions about whether a party should have done this or that, but we know what has caused the difficulty. Everybody in Northern Ireland understands that paramilitary activity must come to an end now. We have had five years during which it has been given that chance. Until it comes to an end, there cannot be trust. Some progress has been made over the past number of months, but we need some more time. It is the timing that we are buying between now and the autumn to ensure that the negotiations go forward, that we can sit around the table and discuss these matters and that we can resolve the problem of activity and set up the institutions.
Clause 2 annuls steps taken towards
Clause 3 provides for reimbursement of moneys spent both by the political parties and individual candidates in preparation for the elections scheduled for
The Bill gives me the power to make payments. I will do so in line with a scheme that will be developed by the Electoral Commission. I am grateful to the commission for its willingness to assist us in that task. These proposals are not about the Government subsidising Northern Ireland political parties. They recognise that participating in the democratic process costs money. It is necessary in the wider public interest to postpone the election due on
We also have to deal with difficult questions about the people who operated the institutions in Northern Ireland, and often worked extremely hard for the successes of devolved government that we saw for a period of two years. We cannot avoid the fact that the Assembly is devolved, nor seek to perpetuate the Assembly. However, we hope that those who have been Members, many of them new to public life in Northern Ireland, and who have often made great sacrifices to take part in the political process, will want to remain in democratic politics, and to continue representing the interests of those who were their constituents.
We have concluded that it is right to pay a continuing salary, rather than a resettlement allowance.
I will, but I shall finish the point before the hon. Gentleman intervenes on me. He may be able to taunt me for a bit longer.
It would not be acceptable either for the salary to be at the rate payable before the election, or that it should last indefinitely.
Clause 4 gives me the power to fix salaries and allowances, but we shall consult all the parties in Northern Ireland on the detail over the next week or so. In the light of our belief that the previous rates would not be at all appropriate in the new circumstances, we shall review the situation in six months.
This is purely a housekeeping matter. It appears that the Secretary of State is proposing that Assembly Members who were elected in 1998 and those who were substituted since then should, in relation to remuneration, be treated as if they were still Assembly Members. Do they have any other rights? Are they allowed to continue to refer to themselves as Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly after the Assembly has been dissolved? Can they use the facilities at Stormont? What is the Secretary of State proposing?
I shall come to one or two of those points, if the hon. Gentleman allows me to do so. First, I shall make a general point. As the hon. Gentleman knows—he has been a Member of this place for a very long time—when the House is dissolved, Members of Parliament cease to be Members of the House and cannot continue to use the title MP, but they still get paid. [Interruption.] I understand the point that is being made. That is not for six months. However, Members of this place get paid and they are entitled to use their constituency offices in the pursuance of the best interests of their constituents. At the same time, they would be contesting the election. I know that there is a difference between that and what we are now proposing. That is why I am proposing to pay a reduced allowance but to talk to the parties about what they think should happen. That includes, of course, the hon. Gentleman's party.
My right hon. Friend has said that he will consult on what remuneration should be during the duration. I do not mean this facetiously, but he is forgetting about the House of Commons. In my view, we have a right to approve a settlement. After all, the House agrees ultimately the recommendations of independent bodies in respect of their pay and remuneration. It seems not unreasonable that whatever proposals my right hon. Friend makes should be the subject of affirmative resolution in the House of Commons.
I am not sure about that. When I was Minister of State, Northern Ireland, I remember meeting some of the Members who are now in the Chamber to talk about various matters of remuneration. Under the powers given to the Secretary of State, and therefore to me as Minister of State, we were able to vary and waiver the amount paid. I am not saying that we should be paying full salaries or the salaries that Members have been receiving over the past number of months. It is incumbent on me to consult all the parties in Northern Ireland—after all, some of them may disagree with me—and that consultation will take place. No one, of course, is obliged to take the allowance.
There is a slight problem, as many people who want to stand will have taken holiday leave for an election that will not now take place. The payment gives a clear advantage to incumbents, who will now have a period of whatever length to carry on propagating the need for them to be returned to the Assembly. The ordinary individual or Ulster person standing for election, however, will be at a disadvantage, as they will not be paid and will have lost out. Having taken holiday leave now, they may be in an inconvenient position when an election is held because they may not be able to take time off to stand.
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but he knows that we get paid too, even if the period is much shorter. We, too, have advantages as incumbents because we get paid, unlike the political opponents who stand against us. However, I think that the House will accept—and I may be speaking against myself here—that Assembly Members in Northern Ireland are in their current position because of a decision taken by the Government with the approval of Parliament. It is not because of anything they have done. Every single Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly expected an election to take place, and ordered his or her life accordingly. It is important to understand that difference when considering our decision to move the election date and its implications for those who have decided to stand for political office in Northern Ireland. However, I take the points made by my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay and Mr. Shepherd. We are looking carefully at the position, and shall certainly review it regularly.
I should like to follow up the good point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd. What would the Secretary of State say to people who have resigned from their profession to stand in elections that have now been indefinitely postponed, subject to review? What will they do for the next few months, as postponement could go on longer than the Secretary of State expects, and they are without compensation of any sort?
If someone resigns from their job before they are elected, they make that decision for themselves but, frankly, to do so is to take the electorate for granted. However, there is a difference between a candidate who gives up their job in the hope of winning and someone who has been an Assembly Member for four years and expected the election to be held on a certain date.
My right hon. Friend referred to something equivalent to a resettlement allowance given to Members of Parliament who stand down or lose their seat after an election, but can he give us an assurance that if there is an extended period of payment for former Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it will be taken into consideration when any future resettlement payments are made? There should not be a bottomless pit of payments to non-elected politicians for a considerable period.
People cannot do both things—they must make up their mind whether to stand or not. If a Member of the Assembly has told the relevant authorities that they do not propose to stand for re-election, there is provision for resettlement, as there is in the House. I looked at the question of having a one-off payment rather than a salary, albeit reduced, for Assembly Members, but I thought that that would give the distinct impression that were closing down the Assembly. We are not doing that—we expect an Assembly to be elected again in the autumn.
My right hon. Friend referred to constituency offices so what will happen with allowances for Assembly Members for office costs during suspension? Would those allowances be included in remuneration and, as the election period is prolonged, what safeguards can be built in to make sure that offices are not turned into electoral offices for Members who wish to be re-elected?
The same rules apply to us. Our own constituency offices are used for parliamentary purposes, not electoral ones. However, I am about to come on to that very matter, which was also raised by Mr. Robinson en passant.
We will pay a limited office cost allowance to enable a presence in constituency offices to be retained. I acknowledge the need for the parties, with a return to devolution in prospect, to maintain a modest core of support officials at Stormont. Clause 5(6) therefore permits me also to continue to pay party allowances. Again, those allowances will be based on consultations that I propose to hold with the parties this week and next. The rest of clause 5 makes technical provision consequential on a prolonged dissolution. Clause 6 is designed to permit changes in electoral law necessary to ensure the successful running of the election. Of course, the power could be exercised only in line with the provisions of the Bill. For example, an autumn election would coincide with the annual canvass. At present, the chief electoral officer is required to publish the new register on
That is the detail of the Bill. Although it defers an election, it is intended to advance the day when we can restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, and proceed to complete the implementation of the agreement. Political leaders on all sides in Northern Ireland have worked very hard to make the advances that we have seen in the past six months. We must continue that work with even greater energy. The prize of a truly peaceful and co-operative future for Northern Ireland is close at hand, and we must not give up now. I commend the Bill to the House.
I am afraid that I must start by reminding the Secretary of State and, indeed, the House that the situation we now face is quite unnecessary. The confusion and mess now confronting us could have been avoided if the Government had adopted a proposal that I put to them last July. I suggested that the House should take powers to enable the Secretary of State—at the time, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor—to exclude from the Executive any party either in breach of its obligations under the Belfast agreement and the ceasefire or in concert with persons so in breach.
I made that proposal because, as I told the Government last July, they had not responded to successive, extremely grave breaches of the agreement and ceasefire by Sinn Fein-IRA, so it was sadly inevitable that there would be another. Of course, I did not predict Stormontgate, but I was convinced that the mistaken policy of non-response would, regrettably, encourage future breaches. I told the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor from the Dispatch Box that we should take powers to provide for that so that if such a crisis arose the Secretary of State could use those powers to exclude that party from the Executive. The Assembly, of course, could carry on, and the Executive would carry on without the party in breach.
Had the Government adopted that proposal, they would have had that weapon in their armoury when Stormontgate duly occurred in October. It would have been possible not to ask the Assembly for a decision—basically, the Social Democratic and Labour party had to bear the onus of the decision to exclude Sinn Fein. The Secretary of State would have had the power to exclude parties from the Executive and could have used it. Sinn Fein would have been excluded back in October, and the Assembly and Executive would have carried on without it. Instead of spending a lot of time negotiating the conditions under which the Assembly could be reinstated or Assembly elections take place, we would be negotiating with Sinn Fein the basis on which it could be allowed to return to the Executive.
The fact that my idea made a lot of sense has now been proven or at least acknowledged by both Governments, as it is in the joint declaration. They have taken on board the need to provide for discipline in the peace process and the power of exclusion that I proposed last year. Sadly, I must remind the Secretary of State that if the Government had adopted last year the powers that we were prepared to give them very rapidly, none of this evil would have occurred.
Before I go any further, I shall cite something that the Prime Minister said only last Wednesday—not very long ago. I shall quote him in full without any deletions or manipulation of the text, which often happens when quotes are thrown at us. I quote the Prime Minister straight, from column 690 last Wednesday at Prime Minister's questions. He said:
"I assure my hon. Friend that we work on our own account and also inside the European Union to promote democracy, good governance and civil rights. It is worth pointing out that, just in the past year or so, there have been elections in Yemen, Bahrain and Morocco, and a referendum has been held in Qatar to approve the new constitution. There are also forthcoming parliamentary elections in Jordan. There is, therefore, a continuing programme of work happening. We and our European partners will do everything that we can to shape the emergence of democracy in the Arab world and to support it, although ultimately these decisions must be for the Arab people themselves."—[Hansard, 7 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 690.]
The Prime Minister evidently preaches very different principles abroad from those that he lives by at home. Doubtless, the rulers of the countries that he cited last week could find many reasons—good reasons to them, no doubt—why elections there should be cancelled or postponed, but if they cancelled or postponed them, the Prime Minister would apparently disapprove. He has no such compunction about cancelling elections in Northern Ireland. He can say about the middle east that
"ultimately these decisions must be for the Arab people themselves", but he does not appear to believe that democratic decisions in Northern Ireland can equally safely be left to the people themselves.
The levity and high-handedness with which the elections in Northern Ireland have been called off is not the only affront to the traditions of our parliamentary democracy that the House has had to face today. There are two further affronts. The first is that, although there was no proper consultation in the House before the Government took the decision—none at all with the Opposition or with most of the Northern Ireland parties, and judging by the evident ignorance of the Leader of the House at business questions less than an hour before the announcement, no consultation within the Government either; and we heard much about the charade of Cabinet government from Clare Short earlier this afternoon—the decision was clearly negotiated privately, in secret, over I do not know how long in advance, with the Irish Government. Indeed, it was traded with the Irish Government, and we know the price, or at least part of the price: the dismantling of the two towers in Armagh. No doubt more of the price will be uncovered in the coming weeks.
The decision was not merely negotiated in secret with the Irish Government— it was announced by the Irish Minister of Justice, Michael McDowell. There could be no more dramatic illustration of what so-called direct rule actually means under this Government. It is diarchy, or to use the term often used in the island of Ireland, joint authority. Like so much else with this Government, it is diarchy by stealth. No one can have any illusion about that. Important decisions are taken in concert with Dublin. Nobody at Westminster is consulted at all. We are presented with a fait accompli.
Then there is the unseemly haste with which the Government are trying to force the Bill down the throat of Parliament, publishing the Bill on Friday when the House was not sitting, and expecting us to digest it, to consult—for the Opposition believe that consultation is an essential element of good legislation, even if the Government do not—to draft and table amendments, and to give the Bill all the parliamentary consideration it deserves in the course of one day, now reduced to the course of half a day by the manipulation to which I referred.
We had no opportunity to do so. The hon. Gentleman must know that Parliament was not sitting on Friday, when the Bill was published. I did not see the programme motion until this morning. I have not had any conversations with the Government nor, as far as I know, have they made any attempt to consult us, either on the programme motion or on the substance of the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has been very critical of any consultation between the two sovereign Governments. Is it not a fact that the Anglo-Irish agreement, signed when Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister, first started the process of involving the Republic in matters concerning Northern Ireland, and hence was the reason Ian Gow resigned from the Government?
One of the things that I resent most about the Government is their stealthiness. There is no openness about what they intend to do. If they acknowledged that they were planning to run Northern Ireland in concert with the Irish Republic—in co-dominion with the Irish Republic—we could discuss that. But they do not do that. They try to conceal it. That is what I particularly resent. Clearly, it makes sense to have as co-operative a relationship with the Irish Republic as we can in respect of Northern Ireland. I have always been a great supporter of that, but I resent the fact that highly controversial decisions are being imposed on the House by the means that I described, having already been negotiated in private with the Irish Government.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he confirm two things to the House—first, that he had, by arrangement made between him and the Secretary of State, a draft of the Bill on Thursday, and that there is not one comma of difference between the draft that he was given and the Bill that was published? Secondly, the hon. Gentleman must have made a mistake when he told my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay that he knew nothing about timetabling. He raised the issue with me in the House on Thursday evening, in the presence of other Members.
Indeed, I received a copy of the draft Bill, but I did not get a copy of the timetable motion. I have just said in the House and I repeat that the first time that I saw the timetable motion was this morning in the Order Paper. Secondly, I raised with the hon. Gentleman the matter of timetabling, and what is more, I have protested several times to the hon. Gentleman and to the Secretary of State about their proposals to postpone elections in Northern Ireland, but I have never been consulted. Consultation means going to the Opposition and saying, "What do you think? Before we take a decision, we would like to hear your view." That process has never been undertaken by the Government: never with us and never, I believe, with the majority of the Northern Ireland parties. I have been very clear and definitive on that, and I now move on.
Let us get to the real reason why the Government seek to postpone or cancel the elections. The statements made by the Secretary of State on
In March, instead of asking for an exceptional one-month extension to enable all parties to respond to Hillsborough, the Government could have said that there would be no elections unless Sinn Fein complied. That would have been an entirely different Bill to bring before the House in March, but that was not the Bill that the Government introduced in March.
The only change over the past few weeks is a positive change. On two important items, Sinn Fein-IRA have clarified their intentions in the way demanded and accepted by the Government. We can argue about how positive that is and how near we are to complete fulfilment of the agreement by Sinn Fein-IRA, but indubitably it is a positive step, so it makes no sense to say that elections could have taken place when the situation was worse, when Sinn Fein-IRA had done less to comply, and that they should now be punished for making at least two clarifications out of three.
Is it not always helpful to encourage a sinner to repent? As my hon. Friend says, for a long time the Opposition have complained that the agreement has not been fulfilled in full, particularly by the paramilitaries. Now we have a Secretary of State who is demanding that they fulfil their obligations, and rightly in my view has postponed the elections, and I think that the Opposition should support the Government in that.
In dealing with Sinn Fein-IRA, my tactic, which I have always defended from the Dispatch Box, and which seems universally valid in dealing with such situations, is that if people do the right thing, they should be rewarded. If they make a step forward, a step forward should be made to them. If they do the wrong thing—for example, if they breach their obligations under an agreement—some sanction should be taken. They should not be given new concessions. The Government's attitude for most of the past few years has been the exact reverse. When Sinn Fein-IRA have not done what was required under the agreement, they have scratched around for new concessions to offer them, and that has been a disastrous policy. I am sorry to say that it is the policy that the Government seem to be reverting to, offering the destruction of the two observation towers in south Armagh, despite the fact that we still have no comprehensive agreement.
I shall not give way at the moment. It is the fault of the Government whom he supports that we have so little time for today's debate, and if he suffers from his Government's decision, he must complain directly to those on his own Front Bench.
Whatever brought about last week's sudden panic by the Government, it was assuredly nothing said or done by Sinn Fein-IRA. In any case, as I have said many times, it would have been as senseless as it is unjust to punish everyone in Northern Ireland for the failings of one party.
What exactly was the reason for this extraordinary last-minute reversal if it was not to punish Sinn Fein-IRA? Was it because, as the Secretary of State perhaps rather hastily said on
"Everyone has a veto in the . . . process."—[Hansard, 1 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 465.]?
I am glad to say that he did not repeat that today, but surely he cannot have meant that in any democratic process any one party can at any time veto scheduled elections taking place at the end of a parliamentary mandate? What an extraordinary idea that is. No form of representative Government could be run on that principle. Anyone who thought that he might do worse in new elections would simply veto them until he thought that he could do better. We would never have elections at all on that principle anywhere. Someone would always have an incentive to veto them. We need a better explanation than that.
I think that the Government themselves recognise that neither of those two hasty explanations, delivered on that day of panic,
"What sense would it have made to proceed if, at the beginning of the election campaign, as it was, we knew precisely that it would have been impossible to have set up an Assembly that could have produced an Executive? What would have been the point of that?"
Bizarrely, he then added:
"In exactly the same way, what would be the point of returning Members to this House of Commons when we knew that could never produce a Government?"
I shall not hold the right hon. Gentleman to that second statement. We can all reach for a false argument or a mistaken simile under pressure.
I have a lot of sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman, who is an honest man and a genuine democrat, and knows and cares about the people of Northern Ireland, but who finds himself in the position of having to defend a thoroughly misconceived policy imposed on him by the Prime Minister, so I shall not allege that he has some secret ambition to carry out a coup before the next election. However, I do take seriously the main thrust of his comments, which means—it is a serious matter—that the election is to be cancelled because
"we knew precisely that it would have been impossible to have set up an Assembly that could have produced an Executive."—[Hansard, 6 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 648.]
Let us consider that explanation, because several questions arise from it. The obvious one is: how could the Government possibly have known "precisely" the outcome of the elections? It reminds me of Nikita Kruschev's famous remark that the trouble with bourgeois elections is that one never knows what the result will be. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman meant that he knew "precisely" that Sinn Fein could never serve on the Executive because they would not comply with the agreement or complete their clarification of the three points. That is a very different thing. As I have said many times, there is no reason to deny everyone else the right to a democratic election and to a devolved government because one particular party is misbehaving.But how could the Government have known that "precisely" either?
As I said on Tuesday, there are at least two plausible reasons why Sinn Fein might have been deliberately holding back from completion before the elections. First, they might have wanted to provide for possible new negotiations with whatever combination of other political forces might emerge after the election. Secondly, they might have thought that whatever they did no Unionist leader would be likely to announce that he was satisfied with those statements while still in the throes of an election contest, so they might well have held back.
Of course, there can be no precision about those hypotheses either. In both cases we are speculating. But I think that on reflection the right hon. Gentleman will concede that what he meant was that there was a risk of a combination of forces emerging that would make it more difficult to bring the peace process to a successful conclusion. But risk is a very different thing from certainty, from precision. It makes no sense to trade a risk of something bad happening for a greater risk of something bad happening. It makes even less sense to trade a risk of something bad happening for the certainty of that happening. I fear, as I shall now show, that that is precisely—if I may use that term strictly for a moment—what the Government have done.
If the Bill passes today, I put it to the Government that there are two logical possibilities. Either elections will genuinely be postponed—the right hon. Gentleman said on
Let us take the first of those two logical possibilities. If the decision was to postpone, that is only a rational decision to take—given for the sake of this argument that the Government have no constitutional or moral scruples about doing that—if there is a reasonable assumption that the result will be more desirable, more favourable for the peace process, at the later date, perhaps the autumn, when the elections do take place. But nothing that the Government have said this afternoon or at any other time provides the slightest basis for assuming anything of the kind, and I challenge the right hon. Gentleman now to rise at the Dispatch Box and tell me on what ground he assumes that elections in a few months' time, or at any other time that he may care to name, would have a result more favourable for the peace process than elections held on
Surely the setting aside of the constitutional rules will itself, in so far as it has any impact, weaken the credibility of devolution—it can hardly strengthen it—and strengthen parties who have opposed that decision, not weaken them. In other words, the Government's own intervention can hardly be productive in their own terms, and may very likely be counterproductive, and there is no reason why any of the other variables should have changed at all between now and whenever an election takes place.In short, the Government, if they postpone, will have exchanged a risk of things going wrong, as they see it, for a greater risk of things going wrong. That is not good logic and it is not good policy. On the other hand, if the shelving of elections continues indefinitely, at a certain point, it must clearly result in the end of devolution—the complete abandonment, not the temporary setting aside, of the whole structure of devolution set out in the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In short, in order to avoid the risk of failure, the Government would have brought about the certainty of failure and the definitive collapse of devolution. That is even worse logic and even worse policy.
Of course, one may argue about how long a postponement would need to be in order to become a cancellation and constitute the end of the process. In normal circumstances, it might be difficult to give a precise answer to that question, but it can be said without hesitation that the longer a democratic process remains in abeyance, the more public confidence in it is eroded and the greater the danger of people abandoning hope or ceasing to believe in it altogether.
In this case, however, a crucial and precise date is on the horizon. Paragraph 8 of the final section of the Belfast agreement provides for a review four years after the commencement of the devolved institutions. Let me read to the House the relevant passage:
"In addition, the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation."
I am not sure that the Government recalled that very important provision of the agreement before they took their hasty decision, so I shall, if I may, repeat that quotation:
"In addition, the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation."
My logic is obviously so compelling that I have carried the hon. Gentleman with me. He has filled in the next line in the equation. He is absolutely right, as the review is an important—indeed, an essential—part of the Belfast process. It is a milestone in the process, or road map, for those who like to use the modish phrase. The process cannot proceed if that review is removed; it will have no route to proceed past that point.
The removal of any element of such an agreement, except with the agreement of all parties, will invalidate the rest of it. That is the law of all treaties, agreements and contractual obligations. What is more, even if all the parties were agreeable, the sort of review process that is envisaged could not occur if no Assembly was in place. That is exactly the point on which Rev. Ian Paisley picked up. In such circumstances, there would be no such thing as "Assembly parties". The individuals and parties not represented here would merely be private citizens speaking for themselves alone. They would have no democratic mandate whatever for the purpose of taking part in a review or anything else.
Thus the provision that the "Assembly parties" would summon the review together with the two Governments would be physically impossible to implement. Could the term be changed—I anticipate the thoughts in the Secretary of State's mind—to "Westminster parties"? That would disfranchise many people in Northern Ireland, but most importantly, it would amount to renegotiation of the agreement—something that the Government have always said is impossible and would be tantamount to the failure of the agreement. That is the Government's judgment and those are their words. What that means is simple and should be very sobering in the Government's own terms: unless the Assembly is restored by
It will now be clear to the House that the Government have made a catastrophic mistake. As a failure of practical judgment, it is on a par with the mistake of releasing all the prisoners without securing any decommissioning in return. In their contemptuous disregard for democratic norms and electoral laws, that mistake is in a class quite of its own.
What should the Opposition do about that? Clearly, we dissociate ourselves entirely from this lamentable shambles. Many people, including many of my hon. Friends, will say that we can do that most obviously by voting against the Bill here and in another place. That would indeed be the most obvious thing to do and I appreciate the strong feelings of those of my hon. Friends whom I know are looking to me to urge them to do just that. Indeed, I share those strong feelings, but the Conservative party is a responsible Opposition. We never fail to take account of the practical consequences of our actions and never vote except when we genuinely wish for the consequences that will flow from that vote if it is successful.
So I must ask myself what will happen if we defeat the Bill today or in another place. I fear that that can only make even worse the disaster of an aborted election. Some people would claim that they had lost campaigning time or not secured campaign funds that would otherwise have been available to them because of the uncertainty involved. Some people would no doubt argue, truly or otherwise, that they would have put in nomination papers but for the Government's announcement last week. They would say that it was not their fault, as they took the Government's announcement seriously. Of course, the chaos that ensues will be entirely the fault of the Government. One thing is clear: we will not now be able to have a fair, democratic election on
That is the position of the Conservative Opposition and I hope and believe that it will be the position of others who are equally offended and horrified by what the Government have done and equally sad about the consequences for the peace process of this ill-conceived initiative, but are as concerned as we are to ensure that we do not have in Northern Ireland an election of which all of us would be thoroughly ashamed.
I was about to finish my speech, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I wish to explain to him why I make this exception. I am extremely sorry that I did not comment in the House about the attack on his advice centre and office at the time when it occurred, but I am afraid that I did not know about it on whichever day it happened. When I referred earlier to Members of the House from all three Northern Ireland parties represented here today having often suffered attacks on their homes and families, he was one of those whom I had in mind, especially in respect of the particularly appalling attack on a child.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman about the consequences of a defeat of the Bill? Would not those disadvantaged by such an outcome have disadvantaged themselves by taking the advice of the Secretary of State and, for example, not lodging nomination papers? That would be their fault, as people should await the outcome of the democratic vote in Parliament and not listen only to the Secretary of State. People should wait to hear the voice of Parliament and its decision, rather than that of a Minister.
The hon. Gentleman has a good intellectual and moral argument. As I have said, I take that view very seriously indeed. He is right. Incidentally, the Conservative party, whose members believe in observing the law as it is, not as it was or might be if we can change it, has of course put in its nomination papers, paid deposits and so forth. We have proceeded on that basis. It is very important for the reputation of this country's democracy, of which we are proud and to which many people around the world have always looked with admiration, that as far as possible we do not have an election if we can see that it will be a shambles.
The hon. Gentleman knows how controversial everything is in Northern Ireland and I am sure that he can see the scope that would arise for people to say, "I have been unfairly treated and disadvantaged." They would say, "Well, of course, if this had been a decent, proper election I would have won or done well, but I've been done down because of the shambles." I cannot, on reflection, recommend the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to my colleagues, much as I understand the force of his argument and the considerations that will be in the minds of many other hon. Members.
We have tabled an amendment that would ensure that there is indeed an election later this year. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if we reach that stage I may catch your eye so that it is selected. The Liberal Democrats' amendment is very much along the same lines, with a difference of a couple of weeks in the maximum time allowed. We are being slightly more generous to the Government than the Liberal Democrats in that we are giving them another two weeks. If theirs is the amendment that you choose to put to the vote, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it, because the central principle is that this must be a postponement, not a cancellation. It is a regrettable shelving of the democratic process in Northern Ireland, and a thoroughly unjustified one, but it must not be something that is even worse than that.
As the Secretary of State will know, I wrote to the Prime Minister on
Cancelling the elections—until there is a date, we must assume that they are postponed indefinitely—is the wrong way to deal with the situation. It sends exactly the wrong message about making politics work. It appears to reject what all the commentators agree is the most significant forward movement by the IRA towards the exclusive use of peaceful and democratic means. It creates a break in the process of implementation that will leave a dangerous political vacuum during the traditionally tense marching season in the coming summer. Political vacuum incites violent alternatives. The Government are seen as fiddling the timing of an election to get the results that they want and as bending the rules to meet the short-term electoral needs of Mr. Trimble.
The Ulster Unionists argue that an election should not be held because it will not result in the formation of an Executive, but that is not the purpose of this election. Its purpose is to renew democratic mandates, not to elect an Executive. I referred earlier, in my intervention on the Secretary of State, to the precedent of not electing an Executive. There were 15 months of negotiation before we had the Executive.
This is the second time that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the so-called 15-month delay. In fact, 12 of those months were occupied by the inevitable and necessary transitional arrangements that had to be made, but there had been an election to an Assembly. As matters stand at the moment, there is no Assembly.
My hon. Friend is in danger of falling into exactly the same misunderstanding of the Secretary of State's speech as Mr. Davies. At no stage have the Government made any argument—and at no stage have I heard the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, privately or publicly, make any argument—that relates to the outcome of elections. It is about whether the trust and confidence is there to restore the institutions. If my hon. Friend would address himself to that, we would all be debating the same issue.
I understand my hon. Friend's point. I shall come to it in a moment, when I shall perhaps take another intervention.
The significant point is that the Government's decision means that we will have politicians arguing without a renewed mandate after a long period of time. Cancelling the elections undermines those nationalists who believe in the primacy of politics. It strengthens rejectionists of all shades and gives them a veto on the forward movement of the process. The Government's decision is dangerous and reckless, and they should, even at this late date, step back.
The Prime Minister has spoken of the need for clarity to promote confidence and build trust. I agree with that. So let us have some clarity in this Chamber. Let us forget the word play, the sophistry and the spin. In paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, the British and Irish Governments restate their long-standing determination that paramilitarism and sectarian violence will be brought to an end— and, indeed, should be brought to an end. Nobody can disagree with that.
When the IRA made its statement, the Governments acknowledged significant progress but said they were not satisfied. The Prime Minister asked three blunt questions to clarify the republican response. The republicans said that they thought that the IRA's answers were perfectly clear, but the Sinn Fein leader responded to the Prime Minister and expanded on the three questions. According to most commentators, the Prime Minister was satisfied on two counts, but thought that the third answer stopped short. Sinn Fein was told that agreement was "within a whisker", but the Governments wanted a "will" instead of a "should". Mr. Adams came back with the missing word and, according to his own account, the IRA was poised to seal the deal by putting a large quantity of munitions beyond use—except that that did not happen. Instead, the elections were halted in mid-track and the process was thrown into crisis. The Ulster Unionist party, whose members told us at every opportunity that the IRA and Sinn Fein were one and the same, suddenly decided that Mr. Gerry Adams' interpretation of the IRA statement was not good enough—that he could speak only for Sinn Fein. Now, we discover from the IRA that its position is accurately reflected by Mr. Adams.
So where do the Government stand? On whether the IRA is committed to decommissioning its weapons, they say: the IRA says that it
"has clearly stated its willingness to proceed with the implementation of a process to put arms beyond use at the earliest opportunity . . . Obviously this is not about putting some arms beyond use. It is about all arms."
On whether the war is over, they say that the IRA says:
"If the two Governments and all the parties fulfil their commitments this will provide the basis for the complete and final closure of the conflict."
On whether the IRA will end paramilitary activity, they say:
"The IRA leadership has stated its determination to ensure that its activities will be consistent with its resolve to see the complete and final closure of the conflict".
It has also been said:
"The IRA statement is a statement of completely peaceful intent . . . Its logic is that there will be no activities inconsistent with that."
There is a long way to go from the words to bringing about a verifiable end to targeting, intelligence gathering, punishment beatings, military training, arms procurement and all other manifestations of paramilitary activity. However, that is precisely why the two Governments have drawn up their joint declaration, which proposes to establish safeguards and assurance mechanisms to ensure compliance and build trust. Sinn Fein does not like or want that, but it has not said that it will not enter an Executive because of it.
The mechanism to which the Governments and most of the parties agreed was established through negotiation, not cancelling elections. The question is not therefore whether the Government accept the IRA's statement, but what undertakings they have received that, whatever the IRA or Sinn Fein say, the Ulster Unionist party is prepared to contest the election on the basis of taking its seats in a power-sharing Executive as prescribed by the Good Friday agreement. When has it said that? Would it have been said before the proposed date of the elections?
Where do we go from here? The two Prime Ministers have met and reaffirmed that the Good Friday agreement is not open for renegotiation. That is right and proper. They have published a joint declaration and stated their commitment to push firmly ahead with implementing measures that flow from the Good Friday agreement and are not contingent on any other development. Progress can and must be made on security normalisation, policing and justice, rights and equality. Forward movement is the best defence against the approaching political vacuum.
Details of the measures that are needed to complete the process of devolution must be worked through. I am in favour of pressing ahead with the discussion on a Bill of rights and an all-Ireland charter. I am in favour of transferring responsibility for policing and justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly and for that to be negotiated as a proposal that will follow elections. I would go further and revisit the whole range of reserved and excepted matters with a view to extending the process.
I should like more progress on cross-border matters and to re-examine the neglected east-west dimension to find new methods of increasing participation. I should like Unionist representation on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. The obstacle to developing all those aims and the brake on such progress is the delay in holding elections.
There can be no formal review of the Good Friday agreement this side of the elections. For that reason, the democratic mandate of parties involved in negotiations must be renewed. I disagree with the postponement in principle, but if the Government are set on that course, we must ensure minimum damage by setting a new date as early as is feasibly possible. Without the anchor of democratic legitimacy, the Good Friday agreement will drift on to the rocks and might end up a wreck. I believe that none of us wants that.
As others have observed, we are considering a Bill on Northern Ireland elections for the second time in eight weeks. First, I want briefly to examine the Government's conduct. Since the completion of the Belfast agreement, the Government have rightly placed great stress on the necessity for bipartisanship and partnership in dealing with Northern Ireland matters. My party has always been keen to participate in that process.
Hon. Members will remember that when the matter was discussed on
"Although we are not pleased about the change, we understand it, but if that date were to change after such an assurance were given, Ministers and the Government would begin to lose the confidence of the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps of the House in general."—[Hansard, 17 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 661.]
The Under-Secretary replied:
"let me say to all who have sought clarification that the people of Northern Ireland will have a chance to deliver their verdict on
"I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire for his support, even if that, too, was conditional. I hope that my earlier answer about the election date has matured the conditionality of his contribution."—[Hansard, 17 March 2003; Vol. 401 c.691-694.]
As one member of the Law Society of Scotland to another—[Interruption.] As one failed member of the Law Society of Society to another, I appreciate that there is some ambiguity in the Under-Secretary's words, but on any reasonable construction, he gave us the guarantee that we sought.
In that context, the Government's actions on
I believe that the decision is wrong for all sorts of reasons. The Secretary of State said that the "people" had lost patience and that "people" wanted the peace process to work. I lost count of the number of references to people and what they wanted. How does one determine what the people want in such circumstances? An election should be held to allow the people to speak through the ballot box. I cannot understand the logic of the Secretary of State's position when he says that he is promoting what the people want but denies them the opportunity to express that.
The Secretary of State is right to regret the lack of clarity that led to the postponement of elections. However, I do not understand how we achieve clarity by removing the impetus created by the immediacy and pressure of an election campaign. It is a logical non-sequitur. Postponement is bad strategically for the peace process because in removing the impetus of the election campaign, the Secretary of State takes the heat off the paramilitaries, especially the IRA.
Postponing the elections is also bad for elected politics in Northern Ireland. I get the clear impression from the time that I have spent there that the Assembly has run its course and that the democratic mandate must be renewed to give further legitimacy to its pronouncements. That can only be done through further elections.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford also referred to the need for a paragraph 8 review—an important part of the agreement—which should be held by
It is our view that the Government have lost their place badly here. The reason for that is that they now seem to view the peace process as a game to be played between the political parties. That ignores, or perhaps forgets, the context in which the whole process started. That context was one in which the overwhelming will of ordinary people in Northern Ireland was for a peaceful, normal existence. They had got sick and fed up with living under the shadow of violence and they wanted peace. Cancelling the elections removes the people from that process. If the Government were to continue with elections and if the verdict were one that they might regard as being unhelpful, that could only be a challenge to the parties in Northern Ireland to say to the people that they were prepared to find some solution. It should not be the job of Government to second-guess the outcome of elections before deciding to go ahead with them.
The hon. Gentleman keeps raising the question of why the Government postponed the election for some indefinite period. Is he aware, as I am, that the polling—perhaps the Minister might pay attention to this question—carried out privately by the Northern Ireland Office proved that an immediate election would put a majority of Unionists into the Assembly who were not satisfied with the present implementation of the agreement, and who would force the Government to negotiate something better for the people of Northern Ireland?
I fear that the hon. Gentleman perhaps overstates the case when he says that polling "proved" the case one way or the other. There are some very disappointed and redundant politicians in Scotland this week who thought that the security of their future had been proved by opinion polls, but when the actual poll—the one in the ballot box—came to pass, a very different verdict was delivered.
I will not name them, but none of them was a Liberal Democrat, I am pleased to say.
Is the hon. Gentleman taking into account what was found out recently when an opinion poll went against Government thinking and pressure was put on people not to release those figures? When the figures were released, the majority against the agreement was watered down to make it more acceptable to the people who wanted a particular result. I do not know whether that happens in Scotland, but it happens in Northern Ireland.
All of which surely makes it more important that we have an election, which is the definitive poll—the one with which there really is no argument.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford has referred to the fact that chaos would ensue if we did not now cancel or postpone the elections. I have said that I am broadly in agreement with that. I take the view, however, that the Bill is far too broad in its compass. The Government have shown that they are not particularly well equipped in their adherence to deadlines when such deadlines are in place in primary legislation. I have no confidence that they will improve their performance in any way if one removes the compulsitor of a fixed date. That is why, later this evening, I hope to press to a vote in Committee an amendment tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik.
That amendment would put a fixed date into the legislation. That is where the Government have an opportunity to redeem themselves from their earlier poor performance in relation to the lack of consultation. I shall listen to the Minister's reply, and hope to hear some sign that he will listen to votes here, and possibly in the other place, where the Government do not have the same overwhelming majority.
If there is another deferment to a fixed date, what certainty do we have that that date will be met? Is it not dangerous if we have fixed dates that are unrealistic? The hon. Gentleman spent the beginning of his speech talking about the fact that we now had to deal with a situation in which we had a deferral to a fixed date that proved unworkable. What guarantee do we have that another fixed date would be any more likely to work than the one we have already had?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is no such guarantee. It is infinitely preferable, however, that such a decision should be made in this Chamber, rather than in someone's office in the Northern Ireland Office. That is a fundamental basic principle of democracy, from which we should not be departing. Further to that, all I seek to do is to hold the Government to their own aspiration when they say that they hope that the election will be in the autumn, by fixing a date in October. If that is a genuine aspiration on the Government's part, they should have no problem putting their money where their mouth is, and fixing a date, rather than being vague.
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest, and I very much agree with it. Does he recall that the Secretary of State this afternoon put it even more strongly than saying "hoped for"? He said that he intended that there would be an election in the autumn, which surely makes it even less likely that the Government, if they thought about the matter sensibly for more than a few minutes, would want to resist the hon. Gentleman's amendment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and his argument has a great deal of force. I thought in passing that the Government have found themselves in difficulties in the past, caught between their policy pledges on one hand, and their aspirations and wishes on the other. I would not want to pursue them too vigorously on that point tonight.
If I may draw my remarks to a conclusion while I still have some voice to do so, the remainder of the Bill is unexceptionable, in my view. It is proper and decent that measures should be put in place for Assembly Members and their staff to have some degree of certainty. Although I would enter the obvious caveat that we await the details of that provision, I have little quibble with it. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about clause 6, whose compass seems to have been drawn exceptionally wide. That perhaps shows a certain degree of nervousness on the Government's part, and that they have introduced the legislation in haste. I hope that it will not be a case of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.
I have a divided mind in relation to some of the elements that we are debating tonight. I abhor a political vacuum. I learned that lesson a considerable period of time ago, after the fall of the then Sunningdale Executive, which was followed by the Northern Ireland convention. I was arrogant enough to make a substantial bet with a journalist that within three months, Humpty Dumpty would be put together again. Thirty years later, the process of doing that began. For that reason, I am almost paranoid about vacuums in a political process.
There is another reason why I have a divided mind. I listened intently to the Prime Minister at his press conference and to the Secretary of State on two occasions here in the House, and they made what seem to be compelling arguments in relation to what can only be described as the salvation of the agreement in electoral terms. I have to ask myself, given the arguments that they have made: what does the Prime Minister see in relation to the immediate future in the north of Ireland that the rest of us may not see? What insight has he that has prompted him not just to postpone an election, which of itself is a fundamental decision, but to bring about the first significant disagreement between him and the Taoiseach on an issue that is of constitutional importance to the Government of the Republic of Ireland? What has led him to act in a way that is contrary to the wishes of all the political parties in the north of Ireland, except, I understand—possibly, maybe—the Ulster Unionist party? In effect, that takes a political process that can survive only on activity and its own dynamism and parks it, stalls it or immobilises it, call it what you like, when it should be challenged to face the problems in front of it.
The problems that the Prime Minister himself foresaw should be faced rather than parked, and the problems that may arise from the political process—they may arise, as there is no such certainty whatever—should be faced down. The only basis on which they can be faced down is proceeding with an election and getting the mandate for the support for the agreement. I believe that, for those reasons, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State did not make the decision lightly. I have seen them in action at close hand on the issue, and I commend them for the time and effort that they have put into trying to solve this problem. I bow to no one in my admiration for what they are doing and for what they have tried to do. All the more reason, then, to try to probe the Government's mind in relation to the decision. In an attempt to do that, I must ask five questions, some of which are fairly easy and others of which are difficult. I believe that they must be answered, and I shall now talk about the first.
Having posed in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration the questions to the IRA as to its future activities, the two Governments required direct answers. They wanted absolute clarity, not creative or selective ambiguity, and the IRA was asked to say that there will be no more punishment beatings, no more targeting, no more intelligence gathering, no more procurement of weapons and no more enforcement of exile.
Those seem to me to be questions that, in their bluntness, could and should be answered by those who are not involved in violence and who, a matter of weeks previously, showed their abhorrence of war in Iraq, yet they refused to step to the mark in relation to things that affect the community in which we live. Punishment beatings are not carried out on people from other parts of the island. They are carried out on people in the same street, in the same townland and in the same parish.
The refusal to give those answers has been one of the core problems. It has been and could be argued that there are forms of words that, if one wanted to pass and analyse them in certain directions, might lead to a conclusion, but the difficulties of Northern Ireland will be solved not by forms of words, but by the understanding that when people say that a war is over—I believe that it has been over this past seven or eight years—they also say that the attendant elements of war, such as keeping control of a community through punishment beatings, are over as well.
I couple policing with that, too. I was rather surprised in the last policing debate on the Floor of the House, when, despite probing, I got little indication that participation in the Policing Board would be, in effect, one requirement for the type of new beginning that is required. So be it. The time will come when that is faced, but I say to the republican movement in terms of the IRA and Sinn Fein, "Look what you have done. You have done what one of the parties sitting opposite has failed to do. You have done what the anti-agreement parties could not possibly do. You have created, or possibly recreated, an apolitical situation in the north of Ireland." I hope that it is proud of what it has done. I believe that the community that we all represent deserves better than to have its political process dealt away in terms of paramilitary requirements by paramilitary people.
In relation to that, I must ask whether come October—come the autumn—the approach will have changed and whether the process, including all the forms of words, will recommence. Will we go again for clarity or the studied, creative ambiguity? It will be interesting to see, but surely the experience has been that things are never done the same way twice. Once we have looked at that and asked that question, we have the right to ask what happens in September, October or whenever that period may be.
The second question is one that I would dearly like to have answered, because then I would be able to make up my mind as to the insights that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State may have had. If the IRA had said that there would be no more of the activities in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, would the Ulster Unionist party have agreed the joint declaration? I do not know the answer to that, although I would dearly love to know it. Maybe we will get an answer at some stage tonight. [Interruption.]
I address this remark to Mr. Donaldson: it is not becoming of any person in a political party to stab his own party in the back on such issues—not just tonight, but on previous occasions. The question has to be asked and answered. Had the IRA stepped up to the mark, would the joint declaration have been accepted and supported by the Ulster Unionist party? I have no doubt that there are those in that party who would have done that, but I have no doubt whatever that there are others—at least four are sitting here—who would not.
We must look carefully at what we are talking about here: on the basis of the IRA announcing an end to those activities, would the Ulster Unionist party have gone into an election on a pro-agreement platform? It is crucial that we know that, because some people have legitimate doubts. In those circumstances, would the Ulster Unionist party announce an end to the stop-go politics that in effect reduced the operation of Executive decisions in the past five years to 18 months? There have been suspensions, refusals to work with the north-south bodies, postponements and excuses. It is fitting to remember that the first suspensions were determined by Mr. Mandelson, and the reason he gave was that it was to save the agreement. That very same reason has now been given by the Government for the postponement of these elections.
I would like to be convinced that the Ulster Unionist party and those involved with it would proactively support the agreement, which they signed, in this House, in their central council and on the doorsteps in an election. That is crucial not just from a nationalist perspective, but from the perspective of Unionists who want leadership.
The Ulster Unionist Council will speak in its own time and in a clear voice on behalf of the Unionist people. Would the hon. Gentleman put a question to his own party and add to the knowledge of the House and the people of Northern Ireland? If the IRA does not disband, end all its activities and become a normal, democratic party, will the SDLP ever separate from Sinn Fein within the nationalist-republican community and co-operate with other democrats in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that there was a Good Friday agreement, that it was based on the d'Hondt system, that his party is part of that d'Hondt system, that his party helped to agree that d'Hondt system, and that the d'Hondt system is based on inclusion not exclusion. He has tried to make a point of this many times. He would be better employed supporting his own party and the efforts of those in his party who have shown great courage in trying to deal with this matter, rather than going round with a dagger behind their backs at every opportunity.
Should not those such as David Burnside show the same courage as my hon. Friend and his colleagues, who over the years during the IRA terror stood up to the bullying, intimidation and threat to life and never once gave in to the terrorist elements who wanted to force Northern Ireland into the Republic without the agreement of the majority?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I have referred to the political vacuum. I know what it is for 30 odd years to try to keep a political process going without a forum, without status, and without the means of the political process at our disposal. During those 30 years, we never bowed to the pressures from people in the republican movement who wanted and still want to do us the greatest damage that they possibly can.
We want an election. The pundits tell us that we would lose seats and that we would be overtaken. I can tell hon. Members and the pundits that that will change, whatever happens to the political process in an election. One of the groupings that this postponement suits best is not the Ulster Unionist party but Sinn Fein. It gives Sinn Fein breathing space and time between its own failures and an election to regroup so as to manipulate the situation. A section of Unionism—I am not sure which party those people belong to—is trying to create circumstances that are favourable to Sinn Fein.
The hon. Gentleman said that the Belfast agreement was about inclusion, and he referred to the d'Hondt system. Coming from where he comes from in terms of support for the Belfast agreement, does he accept that it was always argued—indeed, it is explicit in the agreement—that parties should be excluded if they are not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means? Surely the question from David Burnside that he failed to answer deserves a response.
The answer is clear. The Secretary of State, at any given moment in time, has the facility and the power to have a motion brought to the Assembly, just as the leader of the Ulster Unionist party has the facility to do that.
The hon. Gentleman exercised it for publicity reasons. For five years he has done nothing but give more publicity to the people whom he is trying to exclude. That is the reality that the hon. Gentleman should consider.
The third question that I believe should be asked is: will the two Governments jointly recognise that there are faults on more than one side? In the early part of the debate, specifically the Secretary of State's contribution, there was no recognition that there are faults on more than one side. Will the methodology for negotiations continue? Will the Governments continue to show the indulgence that has been shown not to those who properly honour their commitments and the agreement, but to those who break their commitments? There is a feeling in the political process that unless we transgress we will get nowhere. It is akin to the statement that was made to us as a political party when we were told, "You know your problem is that you don't have guns. If you had guns, you would be in a better way politically." That was not said by someone from the heartland of south Armagh, but by the Prime Minister, who lives in Downing street and who has been dealing with this process. I am making a serious point. I saw this when I was in office, and I see it now. A political party such as ours, which plays by the rules and does not transgress, is disadvantaged. I put it to the two Governments that it is time they examined their own methodology, stopped coddling those who break all the rules and made them face up to a different approach as to how we go forward.
I hope that when it comes the autumn and when we get to the next election, as I hope we will, the two Governments will introduce a degree of collectivity into their approach—a collectivity that is not based on discussions with parties separately so that no one knows what has been discussed or agreed. In the past seven months, there was no collectivity in any of the decisions made. How can we have a strong political process when parties are encouraged to act individually, not collectively?
The fourth question is this. If all the things in paragraph 13 are done in October, so much the better—well and good. But if that does not happen, if the worst fears become a reality, if there are no elections in the autumn and if there is no sign of the kind of movement on all sides that is required, what will the Government do?
I suggest that the Government have agreed what they will do. It is called the joint declaration, and I suggest that they go and do it, because they have not just political authority but, in the event of the political parties' failure to secure the necessary type of agreement, moral authority. Moreover, institutional arrangements enable it to be done. It would be better if the political parties themselves made the advances, but if the choice is between parking the political process and allowing all the elements that are necessary in the joint declaration to remain, I believe that the Governments have only one option: to implement the joint declaration.
Finally, there is the fifth question. It is eminently possible that some parties have decided not to negotiate before an election in September, October or whenever it takes place. Some may well be here. Some may well have decided not to negotiate until after the election. Where does that leave the postponement? The question must be considered carefully. At least two parties I can think of would find such a tactic very tempting. The Government must ensure that in no circumstances can negotiations be postponed until after an election in an attempt to garner the best result.
Let me say this to the DUP. I want it to be an active, organic party in the political process, rather than one that takes the goodies on offer while accepting no collective responsibility for the process. I say that genuinely, because I believe that the more inclusive its politics are, the stronger and better it will be. I say it because I want people to be involved, not excluded, as David Burnside suggested earlier.
Let me end with this appeal. The DUP is a strong political party, strong enough and courageous enough to abandon a position that is in fact apolitical, and will not deliver for the north of Ireland or its members' constituents in the way that it would like. I ask it to join the other political parties in ensuring that this autumn sees a fully fledged working of the Anglo-Irish agreement, including it as well as the other parties.
I apologise to those who speak after me. I fear that duties elsewhere in the House will take me away.
Reference has been made to the fact that this is the second time in a couple of months that the Government have come to the House to make changes to arrangements in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately I was not present when the first such change was debated, but I have looked at the reports of previous debates, and I rather regret that I was not here on that occasion. I want to say something about the Bill that postponed the election until the 29th, and what was said by Mr. Robinson at the time.
Referring to the discussions in Hillsborough at the beginning of March, the hon. Gentleman said:
"The UUP advanced the argument that there should be a delay in the poll, and that there should be a one-year postponement of the election. The morning of the first day, the UUP leader went in and argued for a one-year postponement of the elections. By the end of the day, he was falling back on an argument to put them off until October—he would have been satisfied with a delay over the summer. By the time the meeting finished, and he left early, he was satisfied with a delay of four weeks. Some people say that if he had stayed any longer we would be out campaigning now."—[Hansard, 17 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 672.]
That is good knockabout stuff, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Belfast, East enjoyed saying it. Let me say this to him with all seriousness, however, and I want him to listen carefully. There is not a single word of truth in any of it. The next time he feels like repeating those sentiments, he should bear in mind what I have said tonight. If, knowing the truth, he proceeds to say something that is not accurate, there is a term that will clearly apply.
Let me make another thing clear—[Interruption.]
I want to make something else clear, which refers to comments from the same quarter. My colleagues and I have no fear of an election or of its result. [Laughter.] Indeed, I am confident that when the result emerged some of the laughter we are hearing would be wiped away. I am confident that we would make gains and take seats that some of the Members sitting on my left currently occupy.
I will make my points, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope to make them without interruption.
We were confident about our campaign. The start of the DUP's campaign featured plenty of signs of panic. I am sure that if it had continued in that vein, my predictions would have come true. I will not go into the mistakes that it made during its campaign, because I hope very much that it repeats them when the election comes, and there is no doubt that we will benefit from them.
Mr. Mallon asked five questions. I repeated one of them again and again during the past couple of months, in the run-up to the Government's decision, and I will do so again. The important question, which had to be answered, was this: how would the Assembly discharge its functions? How would it work?
The Assembly was suspended on
The issue is there largely because the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was not clearly thought out, and, as I said in the timetable debate, there is an inconsistency between it and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Had the 1998 Act not made express reference to an election on
On that first postponement and the circumstances that gave rise to it—it may be of interest to the Members to my left to listen carefully again to this point—the reason for the four-week suspension and the four-week postponement in the earlier legislation was that a party at the discussions in Hillsborough said that it needed four weeks to consult its members in order to deliver the actions that would enable suspension to end. It was not my party that said that. We all know which party it was. The request in effect for the postponement of the election came from Sinn Fein, which said that it needed those weeks in which to consult its party, so that it could come forward with genuine acts of completion.
I remember pointing out to my colleagues that the postponement, which was to give Sinn Fein time to do what we all knew was necessary, would have certain implications if it failed to do that; that logic was there, too. Indeed, one thing that Members should bear in mind when they look at recent actions is that, in a sense, republicans, and others besides just republicans, were using the issue of elections to delegitimise suspension, to try to find a way around suspension and to force resumption in circumstances that would be advantageous to them. That explains why republicans ran down the clock, went past the last minute and then came forward with a statement that was clearly inadequate, bowling it short again in the hope that, by that time, the Governments would be so desperate that they would grab at an inadequate arrangement. The republicans' aim was to force resumption without their having to give up all forms of paramilitary activity.
That is the subtext of what has been happening over the past number of weeks and I am glad that the Government did not allow republicans to succeed in that manoeuvre. I regret the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin was taken in by it. I confine my criticism there to the DFA and I have good reason for confining it to that. As I say, I am glad that the Government stood firm on that and did not let republicans manoeuvre them out of suspension, because that essentially was the issue.
The question is: what do we do from here? It is very well to argue, as some of my colleagues have, for the option of looking at some form of exclusion. We argued against suspension in October. We argued that the Governments should do what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said—that the Secretary of State should send a motion to the Assembly. It was at that time that the argument that Mr. Davies advanced—of the Government taking on themselves powers to deal with the situation—was most apt, and perhaps that is where we look in terms of the future. It is perfectly right to argue for developing those new powers and for that form of exclusion if republicans will not do the necessary acts of completion. The reality is that to press for an election while the Assembly is suspended is to do the work of Sinn Fein-IRA. I am afraid that some Unionists are being blinded by their own personal ambition, their desire to get back into office and to continue to share power with Sinn Fein, not realising that they are doing the work of the republican movement.
My final query is to the Government: how do they plan to bring about an ending of suspension in circumstances that will enable the Assembly to function properly? It is all very well for Government to say and to give the hope that, somehow in a month or two or whatever it may be, we will be able to come back and to proceed in the way we all want to, but the Government must think seriously about how they are going to do it. There is something that they should consider and move forward. The Secretary of State has touched on it this evening. That is, to go to those measures for monitoring of paramilitary activity, for having appropriate remedies and sanctions for that and to bring those forward as rapidly as possible. Therein lies the lever that we need to move the republican movement that bit further.
My preference in these matters, as always, is to see the political process in Northern Ireland function, and to see the agreement fully implemented and operating on the basis of the principles that we agreed, the most important of which is, of course, that it operate by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Exclusion is a second best but it is preferable to the situation that we are in now. I rather suspect that, were the Government to bring forward those provisions, including the new power for Her Majesty's Government to act, that would be the lever that made republicans face up to the reality that they have to move, and I hope the Government will do that before the autumn comes and before we have to come back to this issue again.
No one is likely to be happy that the situation remains unsettled in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, I believe that in the circumstances the Bill is right. I have been from the start an ardent supporter of the Good Friday agreement. It is, in my view, the fairest way for the Province to be governed on behalf of both communities. I have said before that if the people on the mainland had had the opportunity—I am not saying that they should have had it—to vote on the Good Friday agreement, the majority in favour would have been even greater than in the Irish Republic. That point should not be overlooked by Unionists, whether they are for or against the agreement.
We cannot compare the situation with which we are faced with the other devolved institutions that have been set up since 1997. No one would ever imagine a Minister proposing the postponement of elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the London Assembly. It is as unlikely to happen as any attempt to extend in peacetime the powers of this Parliament. We know that to be the position. However, the situation in Northern Ireland is unique within the United Kingdom, although, sadly, not in the wider world, with two very divided communities with a long history, going back two or three centuries, of antagonism, suspicion, bloodshed and mutual distrust. That is why it is so important to have all-inclusive, power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland.
When I was out of the House in between seats, my view on the Sunningdale agreement, negotiated by the Conservative Government of Edward Heath, was that it was the right approach. Some who opposed such power sharing later came to the view that, in different circumstances, it was right to have such power sharing as in the Good Friday agreement, but the Sunningdale agreement was destroyed on the ground and we know what happened in the years that followed.
I hope that the leader of the DUP will recognise that what I am now going to say is nothing personal. He has been in the House long enough. I do not wish to make any personal remarks, but he has said repeatedly that he is totally opposed to the Good Friday agreement and that his party is so opposed that no matter what Sinn Fein does or does not do, it will never go into Government with Sinn Fein. That has been the position that he has adopted, although a representative of his party was in the Executive when it was functioning. In this unsettled situation, an election that produced complete deadlock would satisfy only those who are determined to destroy the agreement.
I do not know what the outcome of any election would be. We have been told by Mr. Trimble, who leads for the main Unionist party, that he was confident that his party would do well. No one can predict election results, but if there were an election result that meant that the DUP was the largest party on one side and Sinn Fein on the other side, we know that there would be complete deadlock. That is precisely the position that those who are opposed to the agreement want to produce. I do not want that position to arise and, although I do not like elections being postponed and I accept that there is a good argument for saying that they should not be postponed, I would rather the measure went through so as to save the agreement. I hope that in so arguing I am not being anti-democratic. [Laughter.] I would say that my track record demonstrates that I am certainly not anti-democratic.
The republican movement has gone a long way towards accepting that its perfectly legitimate overall objective of a united Ireland can come only through the use of constitutional and democratic means. One of course wishes that that had been the policy of the republican movement from the very beginning. A lot of bloodshed on both sides would have been prevented.
I repeat a point that has been made previously. Sinn Fein has accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. As we know, over the years, it totally denied that. It said that Northern Ireland was a statelet and that Ireland had no right to be divided. Sinn Fein took no account of the majority view in Northern Ireland. That has changed and I welcome that, as I am sure everyone does. It is part of democracy to accept the wishes of the majority.Arising from the Good Friday agreement, articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which laid claim to Northern Ireland, have also gone following a referendum in the Republic.
Having rightly gone so far, the republican leadership is now required to declare that all forms of paramilitary activity and violence will cease. That is not asking too much. It should take the final step. Although Sinn Fein denies that it is directly involved, the activities that have been carried out by the IRA since the Good Friday agreement—the punishment beatings, the hooliganism and the other activities that in no way can be equated with the actions of a democratic party—are totally unacceptable. One can understand the feelings of those Unionists who are in favour of the Good Friday agreement, but who take the view that, in those circumstances, it is not possible for the agreement to be fully implemented. Although this possibility does not arise because of the arithmetic in the Irish Republic, the Taoiseach has said that he would not be willing to enter into an agreement with Sinn Fein as long as that party was associated with a republican organisation—the IRA—that carried out the activities that I have just mentioned.
I hope that we can get the agreement working once again and that elections can take place this year and will not be indefinitely postponed, although much of the responsibility for that lies with the IRA. We know that the majority of Unionist Members elected to the House are opposed to the agreement.
I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. However, I hope that those Unionists who are in favour of the agreement have the necessary courage to argue for the agreement and to explain why it has been of the benefit that it undoubtedly has been. The Secretary of State has produced on several occasions figures for the number of people who are alive who would not have been if it had not been for the agreement and also for the upturn in the economy and the jobs that have been created. They are all substantial gains for the people of Northern Ireland. That is why I believe it necessary for those Unionists to have the courage to overcome the hostility not only of the DUP—in no circumstances would it be in favour of the agreement—but inside the Ulster Unionist party. They should argue the point at branch level and at every level up to the executive to demonstrate that they believe in the agreement. They should not be on the defensive and, whatever the difficulties may be, they should explain that the agreement is good for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman has gone to considerable lengths to establish what the Unionist Members of the House who are in favour of the agreement should do. However, he also accepted that a majority of them are against the agreement. If he accepts that, why can he not accept that that is the will of the Unionist community and the way in which it sees the agreement?
The DUP takes a position and it will serve no purpose for me to repeat it. However, the Ulster Unionist party is in favour of the agreement. As I have said, the hostility within that party must be overcome. After all, other political parties—my party and the Conservative party—have all had internal battles in our day. If we believe in a certain view and think that it is in the best interests not only of our party but of the country as a whole, we have to argue our case.
It is not for me to say this, because I was on the other side of the argument when the Prime Minister took a view about clause IV and public ownership. He believed that it was necessary to change that clause and, at the time, I believed that he was wrong. However, he argued his point of view against a great deal of hostility inside the party and he won the day. That is my point to those who are in favour of the agreement.
I think that I am probably the best example on the Unionist Benches tonight. I voted for the agreement, but you are asking me to campaign as an Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament who voted for the agreement. How can you expect me, as someone who feels conned by the agreement—
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman asked Members like me to campaign for the agreement at branch level. Does he not understand that that is impossible when we feel that we were conned by the accompanying promises from the Prime Minister? The hon. Gentleman must know that, as we have repeated the point many times in the House. Sinn Fein has not gone down the democratic route and we will not sit in government with a terrorist, military and criminal organisation. It would be dishonest of us to look the electorate in the face and to campaign on behalf of the agreement as it now stands.
I do not believe that that is the view of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. He speaks with greater authority on behalf of his party than the hon. Gentleman. There was no conning, and the very fact that the Bill is being introduced now demonstrates the commitment of the Government, together with the Irish Government—they are both sovereign Governments—that all forms of paramilitary activity by the IRA must cease absolutely.
I put it to the hon. Gentleman that words from the IRA will be no more acceptable to the leader of my party than they would be to me and other Unionists in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman must exhort Sinn Fein-IRA to demonstrate their commitment visibly as well as by declaring that the war is over. We must see the decommissioning and the destruction of the weapons and explosives that have been used against us for 30 years.
Of course no one argues with that, and the IRA must demonstrate such action on the ground along the lines that the hon. Gentleman pointed out. I want that to happen. If one drew up a list of hon. Members who have least defended the IRA's activities in any way, I would be very high on that list along with Northern Ireland Members. I doubt whether I would be challenged in any way for the years and years in which I have demonstrated my total opposition to all forms of terrorist activity. If I may reminisce, when I met the top leadership of Sinn Fein 20 years ago this September, I said that no British Government would ever give up Northern Ireland, irrespective of any terror applied, because Northern Ireland could not be given up against the wishes of the majority of the people.
If the IRA demonstrate what the hon. Gentleman and I want to see, I would expect him to argue for the agreement, to defend the agreement and to make the point with which I started and conclude my speech: the fairest way to govern Northern Ireland is through power sharing or inclusive government. That is the only way in which Northern Ireland can be governed in a democratically acceptable way.
It is always a pleasure to follow David Winnick. He speaks a lot of sense on Northern Ireland—if not necessarily, in my view, on everything else. I have considerable sympathy with his support of the Bill.
We should go back a little and remind ourselves of why the Executive ended: because Sinn Fein-IRA failed to fulfil their part of the Belfast agreement. The situation came to a head when it was discovered that members of Sinn Fein-IRA had infiltrated Stormont. Mr. Trimble rightly refused to continue to serve as First Minister, which is why the impasse occurred.
In parentheses, it is worth reminding ourselves that the new Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, apologised to Sinn Fein-IRA for the way in which their members were arrested in Stormont for what most of us would consider to be a serious offence. That situation is in marked contrast with what recently happened to Liam Clarke, the distinguished journalist of The Sunday Times who, with his wife and eight-year-old daughter, was woken up by armed police officers at 2 am. He had his study door smashed down although he could provide a key and was held in custody for 23 hours. I hope that the Secretary of State will make a statement—although clearly not tonight—on that disgraceful episode, which has brought the police force in Northern Ireland, and the rule of law in our country, hugely into disrepute. However, I think that I am straying out of order because that is not directly relevant to the Bill.
The Secretary of State will recall from his time as Minister of State for Northern Ireland that, although I have always been passionately in favour of the Belfast agreement, I have been critical of the Government at times because they have not fully implemented it. In fact, he and the hon. Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)—I much admired his brave speech—and for Walsall, North have accused me of not always adopting a bipartisan approach on Northern Ireland. When I was shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I always said that if I did not think that the Government were right, I reserved the right not to support them and to criticise and disagree with them. I am sure that my successor also reserves that right.
My principal concern has always been that the men of violence, whether so-called loyalist or republican, have all too often got away with it. They have not ended their violence by any stretch of the imagination. As Mr. Beggs said in a pertinent intervention, words are not enough; there must be action. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Walsall, North confirmed that that is the case.
We need action: the end to punishment beatings, the end to intimidation and extortion, the end to the surveillance of possible targets and the decommissioning of all illegally held arms and explosives. Some, but not quite all, of the Secretary of State's predecessors, especially the first Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, have come close to adopting a policy of appeasement. Had they stood up to the men of violence, we would not be having this debate and the Executive would not have been suspended.
As I said when I intervened on my successor as shadow Secretary of State, I believe that when sinners have repented, they must be much encouraged. The Secretary of State has made absolutely the right decision. He said that the decision was difficult. It must have been. No democrat or Parliament loosely and without careful consideration postpones or cancels an election, but the decision was right. Many Conservative Members strongly support the Secretary of State, contrary to the impression that may have been given by my Front-Bench spokesman. Many of those people have great experience of Northern Ireland and have held ministerial office there.
It is important to stand firm. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann was correct, as he so often is, when he said that IRA-Sinn Fein had played their normal clever game. They had given a little, which looked quite good, but it was nowhere near enough. To have succumbed to them by allowing the elections to go ahead and the Executive to be formed again would have been an absolute and complete disaster.
If I may say to Mr. Davies, it is a little naive to think that when IRA-Sinn Fein make tiny concessions after doing so little for so long that somehow they should be rewarded, which is what he suggested the Secretary of State should do. I think the opposite and am anxious for the right hon. Gentleman to introduce legislation to allow him and his Government to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive if the IRA fails to fulfil all its obligations under the agreement. If that were introduced in the summer, there would be a real possibility of elections taking place in the autumn. I think that Sinn Fein-IRA realise that the Government are serious, which is why I am anxious to back the Government tonight. Only by pursuing that route will we see a distinct change of attitude from Sinn Fein-IRA.
I wish the Government well and will support them in the Division Lobby. It is essential that the House send a clear message to the men of violence by voting by a large majority to suspend the elections for the reasons outlined by the Secretary of State.
It is right in such a Second Reading debate for members of the parties with a primary interest in Northern Ireland to paint the backdrop to how we got to this position, but I want to address the precise contents of the Bill and its glaring omissions.
The first omission is that there is no time limit. Various people, including members of the Democratic Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party, and my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara, have tabled amendments that would ensure that the elections take place within a certain period of time. The alternative was to include a clause to ensure that the Act expired if the problem was not resolved. If the Bill reaches the statute book, it is important that it is not open ended. It should not lay there in perpetuity. It needs an end.
If the Government think that the elections have failed or should not proceed, it is incumbent on them to come to the House of Commons to explain why and to propose how we move on. Everyone needs an opportunity to discuss how we should proceed—whether the d'Hondt system should continue for the Assembly and Executive, or whether one of the parties should be excluded, for example. The important thing is that the House is reported to and we make the decision in quality time, which we are being denied this evening.
I hope that consideration will be given, either in the winding-up speech or in another place, to including an element in the Bill to ensure that it expires if the objectives that the Secretary of State wants to achieve are not resolved in the autumn. The autumn can be compared to a long piece of elastic. It needs a definite end, and that end should be stated in the Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that brings me to other matters dealt with in clauses 3 and 4, wham bang in the middle of the Bill. The Secretary of State said that he wanted to facilitate the political parties' having some resources during the period of interregnum. I am happy about that, provided that we know what the ground rules are. Apparently, the Electoral Commission is to be invited to make recommendations to the Secretary of State, who will make a scheme; but the scheme is then his property, and that seems wrong. As a matter of principle, the scheme should be brought to the House of Commons for approval. Why should it not be? Surely it is appropriate that we have the opportunity to discuss it in relation to the funding of political parties. I see that Rev. Martin Smyth wishes to intervene again. I will give way, but I wish to develop my point.
May I press the hon. Gentleman on that point? One reason for continuing to support the parties is that they will consider ways to bring the Assembly back into being—but will they be doing that all the time? Furthermore, will not candidates who have given notice that they wish to stand and who will have to carry on their own work without such remuneration be put at an unfair disadvantage?
Indeed, and I intend to discuss the positions of candidates and existing Members—or perhaps I should say resurrected Members. Clause 4 is a resurrection clause: in resurrecting from death to life in excess of 100 people it achieves something that was not achieved even in the Bible. If we had more time, we could explore the fact that that resurrection clause brings back to life those who are politically dead.
I do not want to be deflected from the subject of the resources for political parties provided for under Clause 3. The House of Commons should approve the scheme because we are the custodians of the public purse. We have to ensure that the ground rules are applied equally to all political parties. We also have to ensure that there is no abuse and prevent abuse arising. To buttress my point, let me give one illustration. I have seen a letter not from a malevolent MLA but from someone who used the Stormont free post to encourage people to sign on to the electoral register. We all want people in Northern Ireland to sign on to the electoral register, but my impression is that using the free post to promote that was contrary to the rules. I do not use that example to complain about that person: I think that they were filled with the best possible motives—but I do not think that that is what the free post was for. Earlier, the Secretary of State said from a sedentary position that Stormont MLAs' free post would not continue, but he did not tell us precisely what other arrangements would be made. We should be told, and that is why the scheme should be examined by the House of Commons.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South mentioned those who seek election to the Assembly and existing Members of it. I am perturbed by the fact that all the political parties in the Assembly have MLAs who consciously want to give up—they do not want to go on. They include the Presiding Officer Lord Alderdice, Sir John Gorman, and Brid Rodgers, the Social Democratic and Labour party Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development. A number of people across the political spectrum want to finish, but under the Bill they have no alternative but to continue—they are to be resurrected from the dead whether they like it or not.
What is more, the Bill contains no provision for such people to resign. Under the 1998 legislation, MLAs wishing to resign have to submit their resignation to the Presiding Officer. The Bill, however, does not resurrect the Presiding Officer—the office does not exist. That shows why we wanted a Committee stage on the Bill. It is an important matter of principle that those who do not want to take the new, albeit reduced, salary and do not want to fulfil the functions of a resurrected MLA should be able to decline to do so. Presumably, although the Secretary of State has not declared on this point, allowing them to do so would give the political parties the opportunity to replace them. What is to happen to those filling casual vacancies during the interregnum? Unhappily, some could be deceased. Would they be succeeded under the existing system, or would their place expire? We have a right to be told, and that is not happening at present.
I am not unsympathetic towards the salaries of resurrected MLAs, but I was surprised that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State brushed aside my intervention earlier. Perhaps I did not make myself fully understood. It seems right, however, that whatever remuneration and resources are made available to them should be subject to parliamentary approval. What is wrong with that, especially given that the Bill might be passed open-ended without a conclusion clause?
It is worth considering that those people will be paid and will have their offices in the high street. I have told the House that I am not bursting into tears over that; I am not opposed to that approach in principle. Indeed, they should have something to do. There is a small provision in clause 5 whereby we in the House will be the only people who can refer matters to the Northern Ireland ombudsman. Why cannot the resurrected MLAs still have that function? People will enter their high street offices to complain. I have been into MLAs' offices to listen to people. They have come in and said, "I want you to tell that Tony Blair about this and that." They raise the war of Iraq with MLAs. Occasionally, however, they raise issues relating to maladministration or the Departments of the Northern Ireland Office. During the interregnum, surely MLAs who have no other function should be empowered, along with Members of this place, to refer matters of complaint to the Northern Ireland ombudsman.
Finally, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reflect on clause 6. It is drawn extremely widely in a way that can be described only as potentially open to abuse. The Bill is hurried and I have to say that it is ill thought out. I have tried to demonstrate in the past few minutes that it is not comprehensive. Reluctantly, however, I would sign up to the fact that he needs a power, apparently, to alter anything in the Act of Parliament that he has forgotten about or has not anticipated. That is basically what clause 6 does. It says that that procedure will be subject to the affirmative resolutions of both Houses of Parliament. I accept that, albeit reluctantly.
Clause 6 also provides, however, that if that is not expedient the procedure does not have to have the affirmative resolutions of both Houses of Parliament. The Bill as drafted allows a Secretary of State to alter by statutory instrument, without reference to Parliament, any aspect of the Bill. He can add, retract or amend after Royal Assent. That makes a mockery of our law-making process. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Mr. Browne, tells that that is not the case. I would like him to justify that. Surely our purpose is to scrutinise legislation, which is precisely what we are not doing this evening. We are giving the Secretary of State a blank cheque to do anything within the long title, if the Bill becomes an Act, without further reference to Parliament. I find that repugnant.
We are told that the House of Lords may have longer than us to consider this matter. That is breathtakingly arrogant. I hope that the other place will consider some of these issues and improve the Bill. Better still, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, with some humility, or the junior Minister, will at least say that those of us who have raised points such as those that I have set out will consider them overnight and invite their supporters in the House of Lords to introduce amendments to what is a wholly inadequate and rather shabby Bill.
I wish to put on record my utter condemnation of the behaviour of Mr. Trimble this evening. It flew in the face of all the laws and characteristics of this debating Chamber, and I have been here for more than 30 years. I refer to the way in which he attacked my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson and then told the House that he was leaving immediately. He refused to give way—he refused to accept interventions, then fled the House. The Holy Book saith:
"The wicked flee when no man pursueth".
That is how the right hon. Gentleman fled the House. Such conduct is a disgrace, and people in Northern Ireland will be saddened that a representative from Northern Ireland should act in that way. Strong attacks are made in this House, but if you are not prepared to take the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. I have taken a lot of heat in the House, with almost every Member yelling at me and getting to their feet to shut me up, but I will continue to make my points. I regret that David Winnick is not in the Chamber, as I would like to tell him that no parliamentary Chamber will make me sit down with the representatives of a movement founded on murder, bloodshed and the most criminal of acts. No Parliament has the right to tell a man he must sit in government with such a person. I have the right to say who I will sit in government with.
I do not run from the people—I go and fight every election. My record stands above that of any other politician, whether in the United Kingdom or in Northern Ireland. I have the best voting record, and have had the best support throughout Northern Ireland. I fight my corner and make my speeches, but if I am attacked, I listen and reply. I trust that I give as good as I get, but that is for the people to decide. The behaviour of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party in telling the House that he was sorry that he was not here a fortnight ago, then taking the opportunity to attack the integrity and trustworthiness of a colleague of mine in the House without giving way or providing any opportunity for interventions is to be condemned. The House would say exactly the same if any other Member of Parliament behaved like that.
I do not want to be distracted, but it has been said that the right hon. Gentleman has a good record. Consider that when he was reselected for the seat that he is to fight, he did not win the first vote—another Unionist did. He nearly lost his seat in the last Westminster election, and may do so at the next one. No one should be deceived by his pretence that he is in control of the situation. I noticed that he did not say in the House what mistakes we made in the general election—our best yet, as we returned more Members than ever to the House. Happy mistakes! I hope that we will make a few more in the next election and achieve similar results. Those matters should therefore be laid to rest.
Before Mr. Trimble scurried out of the Chamber, he made a prophecy that the Ulster Unionist party would sweep all before it in the election. He was not worried about it, and was content that the UUP would win. Does my hon. Friend recall that the right hon. Gentleman said before the Westminster election of 2001 that his party would increase the number of its members returned to the House? He predicted that there would be 10 of them sitting on this Bench. Would my hon. Friend care to count them?
Order. Before Rev. Ian Paisley responds, let me say that it might be as well if we moved on to the contents of the Bill. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but it would be a good idea if we moved on to the Bill.
All I can say is that the people of Northern Ireland will give their verdict, if they get a chance. It is clear from the discussions tonight that Government Members well know that the Government have acted in order to save the scalp of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. The ordinary people of Northern Ireland have a deep hatred of, and are not prepared to sit down with, murderers—those who murdered their own co-religionists—but the ordinary people will have their say, and loudly.
I am not giving way, as it is five minutes to 9. I am the leader of the second largest Northern Ireland party in the House and I have been called almost at the end of the debate.
I am sorry, but I am not giving way. The hon. Gentleman will have to contain himself for once.
Let me tell the House that this matter is not about postponing the election. I noticed that many speakers used the word that I used in the first part of the debate—cancelling. This is a cancellation. If it were a postponement, we could have autumn defined. I ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who comes from Wales, a beautiful Principality that I dearly love, when autumn starts and ends in Wales. Perhaps at the end of the debate he will do so through the mouth of the Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office, who comes from Scotland. Then, I, an ignorant man from Ulster, will know when autumn starts and ends. The Secretary of State need not smile; he should tell us. The one thing that worries me is the idea that the position has to be clear. Clear to whom?
The IRA has carried on its ravaging without apology. I read a statement the other day made by its deputy leader, Mr. McGuinness, who said that the IRA had no apology to make for the stand that it had taken historically in Northern Ireland and throughout Ireland. There was no sorrow in the hearts of IRA members for their own co-religionists who had suffered seriously at their hands.
I think of the broken-hearted mother in the city of Londonderry who asked Mr. McGuinness whether her boy could come home. That was Mr. Hegarty, and Mr. McGuinness told the mother, "Bring him home. Let him call on me, and all will be well". Mr. Hegarty came home, called on the gentleman concerned—I am sorry to use that term to describe such a brutal man—and in a few days, Hegarty's body was found. The man who told his mother to bring him home had killed him. He came home to die.
The House asks me to sit down with that man in government. We will not sit down with him. Let me tell the hon. Member for Walsall, North that members of the Democratic Unionist party never sat down at any time in the Northern Ireland Executive. We did not attend it.
I am sorry that Mr. Mallon is not present. He has gone. I am sorry that he made an appeal for me to change. He was the very man in the Assembly who worked to put the Democratic Unionist Members out of Government. He joined the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to call them rogues, who should be thrown out. There he stands tonight, his hair as silvery and his tongue as golden as ever, pleading with me to join them. We will not be going that way. The House should realise that if we are to have democratic government, the Government must be chosen by the people. People cannot be nominated to such a Government; the voice of the people must be heard.
When the election was postponed from
I smiled when the hon. Member for Walsall, North—I am glad he is back in the Chamber—said that he was a good democrat, and I do not doubt that. But when General Pinochet cancelled the elections in Chile in 1973, he was not a good democrat. When General Abacha of Nigeria suspended elections in June 1993, fearing that his opponents would win, he was not a good democrat. The President of Sri Lanka postponed elections in August 1998. Perhaps Northern Ireland is best likened to the Ivory Coast, where the general stepped in to stop the election campaign in October 2000 and took control of the main vote counting centre. The Secretary of State has taken over the electoral offices and has told everyone: no elections.
Ulster people should be allowed to exercise their franchise. The SDLP—with which I have had many differences—believes that there should be voting. Even the IRA-Sinn Fein—I give them no credit whatever—say that they are for elections. The only person who has set himself against the elections is the person who fled from the House in confusion tonight. He does not want the elections. He does not want them because he does not like what will happen at those elections. Everyone knows it. The dogs in the street know what has happened. It is the fundamental right of the people to pass judgment. One cannot force people to pass judgment against their will. The people will vote. They will want to vote.
It is a sad reflection that Members should appeal to Unionists to go out and sell something that the Unionist population abominate. They abominate it because they did not vote for a referendum on the agreement. Many of the people who voted in that election never read the agreement. They voted because of graffiti written on the wall by the Prime Minister—promises that there would be no gunmen in Government. "Guns or Government" was the slogan that Mr. Trimble used. We were promised that there would be no amnesties and that things would be different, and our people went out and voted. They voted because they believed in what the Prime Minister said. But they do not believe him today.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman should read the report submitted by the Chief Constable, a copy of which I gave to the Prime Minister. That document, which is in the Library, sets out the present records of killings, murders, break-ins and the activity of the IRA. It shows that such violence has increased not by 5 or 10 per cent., but by more than 100 per cent. in some cases. Every day when I turn on my wireless at 7 o'clock in the morning, all I hear is a record of the butchering, rioting, bombing and attacks on old people in their houses all around the city. That is what is happening.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Pages 46 and 47 of the House of Commons research paper show the increase in violence that has occurred. Any hon. Member is free to look at the document and see that 5,200 people were injured in the five years before the agreement in connection with civil disturbances, while 6,400 have been injured in the five years since. The number of casualties resulting from paramilitary attacks has increased from 1,092 to 1,335.
I recommend the Library research paper to the hon. Member for Walsall, North. I trust that he will read it. The Prime Minister and Secretary of State tell us that things are better, but they are not. Certainly, there has never been such ill feeling in areas where we see the ravages of the IRA even on its own co-religionists. Where the IRA rules, no one is allowed to dissent in any way, no matter who they are. If they dissent from it, beatings will take place. We see hideous photographs of people who have been beaten at night and had their eyes pulled and almost gouged out. These things are happening all the time and we need to face up to that.
We need to have the election because the people have to express their will. I do not agree that terrorists would fill any vacuum because of an election. I believe that an election would be the best thing, as people would say, "I will register in the ballot, quietly and in secret, what I think of what is happening in Northern Ireland." Surely, this House should be prepared to listen to that voice. It should not suspend the election and take away the people's right to express their will.
Unionists will not be pushed over and this House needs to learn that. We are asking for nothing but what applies in any other part of this United Kingdom—the freedom to elect our own representatives in a democratic way. I resent our being told that Northern Ireland is entirely different. If that is so, why is not the same thing said about the Irish Republic? Some 10 per cent of its population were Protestants when the border was drawn in the 1920s. How many Protestants are in the south of Ireland today? More than 70 per cent. of the Protestants have been eliminated. Only 2.5 to 3 per cent. of the population are Protestants in the whole of the Irish Republic.
What is happening around the borders? We are told that the agreement is a great thing—
No. I gave way to the hon. Member for Walsall, North because I had attacked what he said about me and I felt that that was my business. He attacked me in a nice, polite way.
That is right.
What about the agreement? The document should be called "British Ulster Hanged, Drawn and Quartered". All the facts that it contains about life on the border should be studied. The other day, I was on the border, and I saw the turrets that people are busy dismantling. When I said to the police, "If the Army is withdrawn from this area, can you do the policing?", they said, "Certainly not. We will be on little islands and there will be no way out for any of us. We cannot police this area without the help of the Army." People complain about the noise of helicopters, so there is even talk about not using them. Those helicopters carry the midden rubbish to the dumps because it cannot be carried along the roads in those parts of the border. The situation will be opened up without any support or protection for the people of those areas.
The joint declaration specifies that not only will the towers go, but there will be no helicopter surveillance, which is the only form of aerial surveillance of areas where terrorist activity remains intact.
Helicopters will only be allowed to fly for training purposes. That is in the Government's own document, and that is what we are being asked to sign up to. There should be no dismantling of security; people should be protected until the IRA and all those who carry arms and destroy, maim and kill are dealt with by the law. When the law rules, when all men are equal under the law and when all men are equally subject to the law, then one can talk about normalisation. There cannot be normalisation while such things are happening every day of every month of every year. That is what this House needs to face up to.
I regret that tonight we are putting our hands to the basic principle of democracy—that is, that people have a right to state the Government they want and who they want to represent them. Hon. Members should remember that this is a democratic House and that they would want their people to have the same right to send representatives to it. I say this to the Government: the sooner we have this election, the better; you will not change the feelings of the people; and if the situation goes on and on as it is, instead of betterment, a worse situation will arise. I pray Almighty God that that will not happen in a country that has taken such a whipping from terrorism and the IRA down these long years of weary murders and awful war.
I am happy to follow Rev. Ian Paisley. I disagree with a substantial amount of his speech, but not with the importance that he places on elections. We are indeed being asked to take a serious step, because elections and the establishment of the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland lie at the heart of the Good Friday agreement, which was supported by the majority of people in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, elections give legitimacy to the representatives who sit in this House or in the Assembly. The whole of the Good Friday agreement is nothing unless elections to the devolved Assembly can be made to work. It is also part of democracy, if we agree with those elections, that those elected should treat each other in a normal way in the belief that legitimacy applies to each and every person, assuming that they are elected honestly without any kind of fraud.
I believe that the Good Friday agreement was a special document. Last week, I visited an exhibition at the Beaconsfield art gallery, where a sculpture of the Good Friday agreement reached all around the wall. I thought that that made the agreement significant in the same way, one could say, as the Bayeux tapestry made 1066 an important date in our history—I am a mediaeval historian. Another example is the way in which the freedom charter was displayed on posters during the South African elections.
Hon. Members must not underestimate the need for normality in Northern Ireland. It is not like Sheffield; it does not currently have a normal society. Let us consider the Stevens inquiry and the revelations in today's papers. There is no such focus in Sheffield, which I represent. However, such events do happen in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In Sheffield, elected members of a council do not refuse to shake hands. When I served on a council, I could not stand the sight of many of my elected colleagues, but I did not deny their right to be there. I shook hands with them and talked to them properly. In Belfast, the walls in working-class areas glorify armed conflict. Guns are not painted all over walls in working-class areas in Sheffield. Northern Ireland badly needs to restore normality to its society.
None to my knowledge, but that is the difference. The Good Friday agreement speaks of bringing normality to an area of the United Kingdom that was dogged by violence and community antagonism, governed by guns and private armies. The negotiations and the vote in the referendum were about that. The vote led the way forward to elections and democracy. We are therefore considering a serious step today. Nobody can totally avoid the blame for the current position.
I want to focus on two matters on which progress must be made in the summer. I agree with colleagues of all parties who believe that we should not contemplate cancellation or indefinite postponement of elections. There is therefore much to do. Two main issues have led to a breakdown of trust to the extent that the Assembly and the Executive cannot be made to work.
It is inexcusable for a political party to refuse to agree to a civil police force for its communities. Paramilitary activity and the rough justice meted out by people who claim to be community leaders in charge of their communities continue. A decision must be made about that. My hon. Friend Mr. Mallon and the SDLP made such a decision when they supported the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. Would it be accepted if Sinn Fein TDs in the Dail said that they would not accept the authority of the Gardai because they had their own ways of managing in their constituencies? It would not. There also has to be recognition by every party on the Unionist side that when a democratic Assembly is elected again, an established Government will be formed. People will work together, sit down together, vote together and form a Government together. But unless those things happen, the summer will have been wasted.
My hon. Friend the Minister needs to take it on board that, in the discussions that take place, the demoralisation needs to be acknowledged of many Assembly Members who have thrown their time, their careers and their lives into making the Assembly work. They need to have that demoralisation lifted, and I appreciate the measures in the Bill that will do that. Furthermore, discussions should also be held with the smaller parties that have perhaps been left out of the proper working of the Assembly by the two—well, four, really—major parties, which have taken the lion's share of the ministerial appointments. Those smaller parties must be allowed to have their voices heard, because in many cases they represent the voice of communities that also feel demoralised that they and their political parties are unable to establish a Government in Northern Ireland that works.
I am very reluctant to agree to the deferral of the elections. I think that it represents a serious step backwards, but I will go along with the Government tonight. They have held discussions with the parties in favour of the agreement and with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to ensure that the steps that need to be taken in the summer will be worked on in such a way that democracy can be restored. I reaffirm my concern, however, that if people say, "Oh well, we will wait until the autumn" and do not face up to the real difficulties that affect the normal political and social life in Northern Ireland, we will be in a difficult position—or an even more difficult position—in the autumn. If Rev. Ian Paisley is correct in saying that levels of violence were lower before the agreement, should we go back to direct rule and get rid of the Assembly altogether? That is not what was voted for in the referendums on one of the most important agreements on Northern Ireland ever to be negotiated in this Parliament by any Government.
Just over a week ago, I handed in my nomination papers to be a candidate in the Assembly elections, as did other right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House. I am opposed to what the Government are doing tonight. I believe that the decision to postpone, delay or cancel—however we wish to describe it—the elections is a blow to the democratic process in Northern Ireland. There is no way of glossing over that; it is the reality.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a number of members of his party have been pleading with the Government to call off the election? The adviser to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, Steven King, has publicly done so. The former Minister in charge of the economy in Northern Ireland, Sir Reg Empey, has pleaded with the Government to call off the election, as has Paul Bew, another adviser to the Ulster Unionist party. One of the supporters of Mr. Trimble, Billy Armstrong, who is the Assembly Member for Mid Ulster, has also pleaded with the Government to do so.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Ulster Unionist party took no decision on postponing the elections, and those individuals speak as individuals. They do not speak for the Ulster Unionist party on that issue. Whatever the views of individual members, whether it be the leader of the party or otherwise, let me say that the party collectively took no such decision and that many of us who were seeking to stand were happy and wanted the elections to go forward, because we believe in democracy.
There is an important issue here, which I know many Members of the House will share. We are told that the election has been postponed because the IRA failed to make the commitments necessary to have the political institutions reinstated and the suspension of the Assembly lifted. Let us think about that for a moment. The Assembly was suspended because of the activities of the IRA—the break-in at Castlereagh police station; Colombia, where some of its members were engaged in international terrorism; and Stormont-gate, which involved the IRA targeting Unionist representatives such as me, the leader of my party, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party and others in the House.
All those things, as well as the gun running from Florida, led to a collapse in confidence and a breach in trust, and the Government suspended the Assembly because of IRA activity. Therefore, we—the people in Northern Ireland and their political representatives—were denied our local devolved Assembly because of the IRA. All the political parties were punished, and the Democratic Unionists, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were removed from office because one party was in default, but now the Government have taken it a step further. They have decided to postpone the elections because the IRA has failed to come up with a form of words that would satisfy the Prime Minister.
I ask the question, who governs Northern Ireland—the IRA army council or the Prime Minister? It seems that the IRA army council determines whether we have an Assembly and the IRA army council determines whether we have elections. For 30 years, the same IRA bombed, shot, murdered and maimed, but the elections went ahead and the democratic process was protected.
Those of us who represent the democratic parties show much courage. Tonight, people have called for courage in the House. It takes courage to be an elected representative in Northern Ireland. We kept the political process alive and we kept the process of elections going year after year after year, but now we are told that there has been so much progress in Northern Ireland that, for the first time in the history of this conflict, the Government have postponed the elections because of an illegal terrorist organisation. This is progress. Well, I am not sure that it is, and the Government should reflect on that.
I join other Members tonight who are arguing that the date for the election should be set in the legislation. Otherwise, the Government will be saying to the IRA army council, "You will decide when we go to the country and when we have elections to the Assembly."
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even worse than that? With the messages coming from the British Government and the Irish Government that many aspects of the joint declaration will be implemented irrespective of the election, Sinn Fein-IRA will once again get their wish list from the Governments.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Indeed, Mr. Mallon went further. He recommended, as a recipe for political stability in Northern Ireland, that the Government should set a deadline by which the IRA would make a statement, which, presumably, would be sufficient to allow the elections to proceed; but what does the hon. Gentleman suggest we do if the IRA does not deliver and does not bring peace and an end to its violence? Does he suggest that we reward it for its intransigence by fully implementing this declaration? If he has read the document he will understand that it gives Sinn Fein-IRA many things that are supposedly dependent on their making the statement that he suggests may not be made, and then elections would not proceed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for again drawing attention to his party's position on the joint declaration. Now that he has the Floor, will he state emphatically whether he, as a member of the Ulster Unionist party, supports the joint declaration? If the IRA were to come up to the mark on paragraph 13, would he fight an election on the basis of the declaration? It is for the hon. Gentleman now to answer that question once and for all.
That is not the most difficult question that I have ever been asked. I have made my position on the joint declaration absolutely clear. I will be straight with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he would expect me to do nothing else. I believe that the joint declaration does not provide a basis for the way forward in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that a form of words from the IRA is sufficient. I echo what my hon. Friend Mr. Beggs said earlier in the debate. Words from the IRA will never be enough.
I remind the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh that on
"the IRA leadership will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use. We will do it in such a way as to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others and ensure maximum public confidence."
Those were the words of the IRA in 2000, but since then it has been gunrunning from Florida, engaging in international terrorism in Colombia, breaking into police stations at Castlereagh, spying on the Government and targeting Unionist politicians. The hon. Gentleman asks me to accept the word of the IRA as the bona fide of the republican movement. I am afraid that he needs to understand that Unionists will not just accept the word of the IRA. We need to see that that organisation has come to an end, has disbanded and disarmed. When the Irish Prime Minister was asked during the general election last year whether he would have Sinn Fein in a coalition Government, he said, "No, not until the IRA has disbanded."
I am not asking the hon. Gentleman to believe anything that the IRA says. I am asking him to believe what his leader said on the Floor of the House and to support his party's official position on the document known as the joint declaration. Does he believe what his leader says, or does he not?
The hon. Gentleman will probably not need reminding that the position of the Ulster Unionist party on the joint declaration will not be made by any individual. It will be for the Ulster Unionist Council alone to determine this party's attitude to the joint declaration. Whatever the Secretary of State may think about those involved in negotiations at Hillsborough, it will be the Ulster Unionist Council that will determine whether the Ulster Unionist party supports the joint declaration. For my part—I can only speak for myself until such time as the council makes that decision—I will not be supporting the joint declaration as a basis for going forward in Northern Ireland. I believe that, as ever, it is unbalanced and offers the republican movement things that go against the judicial process. The provisions for on-the-runs, although not part of the joint declaration, are part of the package. We are told that it is a package. I believe that the proposals for on-the-runs will enable some of the most notorious IRA terrorists to return to Northern Ireland without having to serve a single day in prison for the crimes that they have committed. That is a corruption of justice.
We hear people talk about peace with justice. I do not see peace with justice in this document. I see other things in this document that are premature as regards security. They are included not out of security considerations, but for political expediency, just as the two watchtowers were removed earlier this week for political expediency. I believe, too, that the proposals for sanctions in the agreement between the British and Irish Governments are woefully inadequate. Writing in the newsletter at the weekend, the Unionist columnist Alex Kane described them as a waste of time, and so they are.
The four-person monitoring body proposed by the Government raises further serious issues relating to the agreement. During negotiation of the agreement, it was made absolutely clear in strand 1 that the Irish Government should have no role in the internal workings of the Assembly. I well remember one of my colleagues, Sir Reg Impey—until recently Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment—saying that strand 1 must be hermetically sealed. If this proposal proceeds, however, the seal will be broken. A representative of the Irish Government will sit on the monitoring body—a body that will have significant influence over the workings of the Assembly, will be able to investigate the actions of any member or party in the Assembly, and will be able to consider a wide range of issues including whether a party is fundamentally in breach of the requirement in the declaration of support for the agreement. That covers virtually every aspect of the agreement.
For the first time the Irish Government, through their representative, will have a real say in the internal workings, functions and operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In my opinion that constitutes a breach of the agreement, and I do not believe that any Unionist should support the Irish Government's having such a say in the Assembly.
For those reasons alone, I do not believe that the joint declaration provides a basis for an advance in the political process, and I am confident that the Ulster Unionist Council will make that clear when it makes a decision.
Is the hon. Gentleman telling me that the leader of his party sat through seven months of negotiations that produced a document called the joint declaration which he did not see?
The Government should be clear about this. The Ulster Unionist party leadership and corporate body do not move from one council resolution to the next. We are linked to the Ramada hotel Ulster Unionist Council meeting that took place before Christmas. Before the party and its leadership can do anything, the Ulster Unionist Council will have to be called and to endorse the new policy position.
That is true. The policy of the Ulster Unionist party remains that adopted unanimously at the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on
When I spoke earlier, I asked a question. I asked the same question last week. If the IRA had said that it would stop all the activities specified in paragraph 13, would the Ulster Unionist party have gone ahead with the election on that basis? I still do not have an answer to that. Would the hon. Member like to give an answer on behalf of himself, or perhaps on behalf of his party, the ruling council of his party or whoever it may be in the Stalinist way that it does business?
The Ulster Unionist party is most certainly not Stalinist. It is the most democratic party when it comes to our decision-making processes. We are open. Everyone can see how we do our business and the decisions that are taken, but let me answer the hon. Member's question. The answer is very simple. I believe that the elections should have gone ahead in any event. I was not waiting for the IRA to come up with some form of words. I was not waiting for the IRA to cease doing anything. The elections should have gone ahead in any event. They should go ahead at the earliest opportunity, regardless of what the IRA says or does, because it is fundamentally my view that the IRA should not be given a veto over the democratic process in Northern Ireland, which is precisely what the Government have given it.
The Secretary of State tells us that he cannot give the date for the next election precisely for the reason that he does not know when the IRA will come up with a form of words that will satisfy the Government. In other words, the IRA army council has a veto over the election in Northern Ireland. I cannot believe that that represents progress. However, I suspect that the Secretary of State will have some time to wait. I am not sure how relevant the answer is to the question from Rev. Ian Paisley about when autumn begins. I think that we are in for a long autumn before we get the clarity from the IRA that the Secretary of State hopes for.
When I read the statement that was drafted by the IRA on
We probably cannot now proceed with the election on
Some people say, "An election to what?" We had elections in 1998 to a shadow Assembly. We had elections in 1996 to a forum. Nothing in the rulebook says that elections can take place only if they are to the kind of Assembly that operated post-devolution in Northern Ireland.
A review of the agreement is due. I would like it to go way beyond a review because I believe, as I did in 1998 when I voted against the agreement, that it is fundamentally flawed. Until those flaws are addressed, we will not see the kind of political progress, political stability and real and lasting peace in Northern Ireland that we all want to see.
Sometimes, those of us on this side of the House are accused by other hon. Members of not wanting to see political progress, of wanting to wreck everything, of not believing in peace. That could not be further from the truth. I have two young children and I grew up in what was known as the "troubles". My family were very much involved with the security forces and I have seen personally and in my community the grief that violence brings. Other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have seen that. I do not want my children to grow up in such a society. I want them to enjoy life just like children throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. I want the people whom I represent in the constituency of Lagan Valley to have the same future in the same kind of society and community as those in the constituency of Helen Jackson.
To achieve that, we have to make the progress that we are not seeing at the moment. I do not believe that the Government's tactics and approach will bring that about. Unfortunately, the IRA responds to pressure; it does not respond to concessions in terms of bringing about the real changes that we want in Northern Ireland. We have had the concessions process and it has not worked. The Secretary of State needs to send out the clearest message that we will move on.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh failed to respond to the question posed by my hon. Friend David Burnside, and it is a question to which Unionists want to know the answer. If Sinn Fein-IRA does not deliver on the actions and the words that will see a real end to violence in Northern Ireland, is his party saying that Northern Ireland will for ever be consigned to a process of direct rule and that there are no circumstances in which there can be a devolved Administration? His party needs to think about that, because I am not convinced that the IRA will deliver the progress that will see the reinstatement of the political institutions in the form that the Government expect.
The position that the hon. Gentleman has presented to the House on behalf of himself and some of his party will not demand of the IRA that it meet the requirements of paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. In effect, he is saying that, even if those requirements are met, he and many of his colleagues will still oppose the agreement and its inclusive nature. Surely that will strangle the approach that he is talking about and do so in a way that is detrimental to the political process for everybody.
Let me make it absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman that I am not against the principle of inclusivity. However, inclusivity must be based on something. When his party, my party and the Democratic Unionist party were involved in political negotiations, we signed up to the principles of democracy and non-violence. That was to be the basis for inclusivity. The republican party—Sinn Fein-IRA—has not lived up to those principles, and the hon. Gentleman accepts that. If it fails to live up to those principles, inclusivity and the involvement of Sinn Fein-IRA is not possible.
That then gives rise to the question that I posed earlier and to which the hon. Gentleman, once again, failed to respond. Is his party prepared to consider circumstances in which it will sit in government with Unionists and democratic parties and exclude those who have failed to make the commitment until such time as they do? Otherwise we simply suspend the democratic process in Northern Ireland, cancel the elections and we will not have an Assembly. We will then have what the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier—an apolitical vacuum. My suggestion is not a recipe for a vacuum, but his way forward is. If he believes that imposing the joint declaration is the way towards political stability, he is sadly mistaken. In the same way that the imposition of the Anglo-Irish agreement did not achieve political stability in Northern Ireland, nor will the imposition of the joint declaration.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether my party would effectively tear up the Good Friday agreement in certain circumstances. I suggest to him that the part of his party to which he belongs at any given moment in time should put it to the IRA in such a way that if there were an election somewhere down the line, the electorate could see clearly who reneged and who did not. That is why his position effectively lets the IRA off the hook in many ways.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that he has made many times in the Chamber, and he has been wrong many times.
The Belfast agreement provides for exclusion. I do not ask the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh to tear up the agreement by asking him to accept the principle of exclusion because he signed up to that when he supported the agreement. There is a provision for exclusion in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Indeed, I remember that he once made a promise that if Mr. Trimble would go into government with Sinn Fein, he would personally guarantee that if the IRA had not decommissioned within a defined time, the Social Democratic and Labour party would vote to exclude it from government.
Exclusion is already provided for, but Unionist Members need to know whether the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and his party will support that if the IRA fails to come up to the mark. We have not heard the answer to that question and I suspect that we will not receive it this evening.
The hon. Gentleman has alighted on an important issue but, as so often happens in Northern Ireland debates, his pertinent question will be responded to by another question. Does he agree that it is one thing to expect the SDLP to take explicit responsibility for excluding Sinn Fein or any other recalcitrant party from an Executive, but another thing altogether for the SDLP and other parties to accept that the Government should have the right to exclude such a recalcitrant party? That is the power that I have urged the Government to take and I offered our support for it last July. If we had that power and if the Government had used it, we would have been able to avoid the present crisis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He might be aware that the Government already have the power to refer any party to the Assembly that they believe to be in breach of its obligations. The Government have not used that power in Northern Ireland during the past five years. Despite all the activities, including IRA cease-fire breaches and even espionage against the Northern Ireland Office, the Government failed to make a move or to table an exclusion motion. What confidence can we have that even if the Government had the power that the hon. Gentleman proposes, they would ever utilise it? I would support them if they took that power, but I have little confidence that they would use it. In the end, the decision will come down to the parties in the Assembly and to whether the SDLP is prepared to work with Unionists in such a situation.
These are serious issues. I regret that the House does not have more time to consider the Bill in detail—we should have that time. We are being denied elections and the right to scrutinise the Bill much more effectively. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is unhappy with the length of time for which I have spoken but I remind him that he spoke for an hour and that the Government have curtailed the debate. They set the guillotine and created the timetable, and they have denied elected representatives the proper opportunity to scrutinise the Bill, which is highly regrettable. 9.54 pm
Time is limited, and I shall not trespass too much on what is left of it.
I listened intently to the contributions, not least to Mr. Donaldson. Rather gloomily, I agree with him about a long autumn and direct rule. I am far from enthusiastic about continuing government by Order in Council. My hon. Friend Mr. Davies rightly said that the logical conclusion of the Conservative party voting against Second Reading would be to wish an Assembly election on
Tonight's proceedings are a monumental indictment of the Government's attitude to the House of Commons. The absence of a Committee stage is a disgrace. It has been a bad day for the Government—a bad 10 days, in fact. In the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, we hope for better things, but it is not with overwhelming optimism.
Like Mr. Taylor, I, too, listened with care to the debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he would reflect on the contributions, which we will, of course, do. I will include in that reflection the comments by Rev. Ian Paisley, who described me as the wee Scottish man.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (David Winnick) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) for their support. They are ever present in debates on Northern Ireland and speak with some knowledge and understanding of the situation there. I understand their reluctance, and the reluctance of other hon. Members, to support the Bill because of the difficulty that all democrats have with postponing elections. To the extent that my hon. Friends supported the Government, I thank them for that.
I commend my hon. Friend Mr. Mallon on his analysis of what is needed to restore trust and confidence in the peace and political processes in Northern Ireland. I will read with care his comments in the Official Report tomorrow, but I clearly understood him to go well beyond a form of words in what he said at the beginning of his speech. To that extent, he hit the nail on the head.
I thank Mr. Mackay for his understanding and support of the strategy adopted by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. I also thank him for his pledge of support for the Government in the Lobby if it comes to that. To paraphrase him, he said that many of his Conservative colleagues support the view that my right hon. Friends have made the right decision. I know from my conversations that he is right about that, too.
I was disappointed by the contribution of Mr. Davies. Before the debate, I reminded myself of his contribution to the debate on
The hon. Gentleman was so caught up in his flawed analysis of the Government's strategy that he did not once mention the effect of continuing paramilitary activity on trust and confidence in Northern Ireland. That was my most significant disappointment with his contribution. I was also slightly disappointed that Mr. Carmichael did not mention it, although he was right to remind me of my contribution to the debate on
I do not have time to do justice to the contributions, but I want to put it on the record for those who read the debate in future that life is better in Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland because of the Belfast agreement. To take statistics of violence—
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].
NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY (ELECTIONS AND PERIODS OF SUSPENSION) BILL [MONEY]
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—
(a) any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State under the Act,
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment.—[Mr. Caplin.]
Question agreed to.
Bill immediately considered in Committee, pursuant to Order [this day].