With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally. Since 2002, for reasons that the whole House knows, that has not been possible. However, our commitment remains absolutely clear: the Government believe that 2006 can be the year for restoration of the Assembly and will work to that end as a matter of utmost priority.
My predecessors have all referred to critical times for Northern Ireland, and there have been many, but this year is indeed critical, especially for the Northern Ireland political parties and specifically for Assembly Members. For them, 2006 is a make-or-break year.
If no restoration of the Assembly is in prospect, two stark realities have to be faced. First, public resentment in Northern Ireland continues to build at the continued payment to Assembly Members of salaries and allowances that total on average £85,000 per member while Stormont stands idle. Since it was suspended in October 2002, the Assembly has cost £78 million to maintain.
Countless times, voters in Northern Ireland have asked me, "How long can this go on?" I want to tell the House today that it will not go on for many months more. Furthermore, no Northern Ireland political leader has disagreed with me that it would be traducing democracy to have elections for the second time to an Assembly that does not exist. Elections are due in May 2007. For them to be meaningful, we must have an Assembly that exercises its full responsibilities. We therefore need to make progress urgently. We cannot let things drift.
Members of the Legislative Assembly were elected to be active members of a legislative Assembly, working for their constituents in that Assembly. They have a duty to do so. I want to see them discharging their responsibilities to their electors to govern on the shared basis that the voters of Northern Ireland gave them a mandate for in the 1998 referendum. Of course, that means building greater trust to deliver on commitments already made on all sides.
Unionists and nationalists need to know that republicans are committed to exclusively lawful means. They need to know that all paramilitary activity, including criminality, has ended. The Independent Monitoring Commission is the body that will make that assessment. They also need to know that there is unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and for the rule of law. And republicans and nationalists have to know that unionists are fully committed to fair and equitable power sharing. But if people are serious about seeing a shared future based on fairness and equality, they must persuade each other of that. I am therefore asking each of the political parties to agree on dates in early February for substantial discussions with the British and Irish Governments, to give their views on the way forward to restore the political institutions. The Prime Minister, together with the Taoiseach, will be closely involved with developments during the year.
I also wish to inform the House about the Government's intentions as regards the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. When I moved its Second Reading on
The Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill is a challenge to everyone to look to the future, and not to be trapped in the past. That challenge remains. But, as I told the House then, I did not bring forward the Bill with a spring in my step, because I knew how hard it was for those thousands of victims who had lost so much. I knew that introducing the legislation would be difficult and uncomfortable, and I neither sought nor expected the sympathy of the House for that.
Members of the House, particularly those from Northern Ireland, expressed their opposition to the Bill with great power and passion. In detailed discussion in Committee over many hours—I think it was 27 hours—those concerns were amplified with real commitment by Members across the Committee. That passion was expressed no less powerfully outside the House in meetings that I and my hon. Friend, the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, had with victims' groups. In response to the arguments put to us in Committee, we have been drafting wide-ranging amendments to the Bill, including amendments to ensure that defendants would have to appear before the special tribunal. We were also giving serious consideration to a time limit for the scheme.
The Government still feel that it was right to introduce this legislation, not least to honour the commitment made publicly by both the British and Irish Governments in 2003, a commitment that was a key building block in the process that saw the IRA end its armed campaign. The Government could have proceeded with the Bill when the issue was first raised seven years ago. We could have done so when the joint declaration was made in 2003. We did not do so, however, because the IRA had not delivered on its promise to end its war. We waited until that happened.
Every Northern Ireland party vigorously opposed the Bill, bar Sinn Fein. Now Sinn Fein opposes it, because it refuses to accept that the legislation should apply to members of the security forces charged with terrorism-related offences. To exclude from the provisions of the Bill any members of the security forces who might have been involved in such offences would have been not only illogical but indefensible, and we would not do it. Closure on the past cannot be one-sided. That was, and is, non-negotiable.
The process would have made people accountable for their past actions through the special tribunal before being released on licence. Sinn Fein has now said that any republican potentially covered by the legislation should have nothing to do with it. But if no one went through the process, victims who would have suffered the pain of having to come to terms with the legislation would have done so for nothing. That is unacceptable, and I am therefore withdrawing the Bill.
When I introduced the Bill, I said that I would not presume to tell any victims that they must draw a line under the past, but the Government still believe that the anomaly will need to be faced at some stage as part of the process of moving forward. It is regrettable that Northern Ireland is not yet ready to do that. We will reflect carefully over the coming months on how to make progress in the context of dealing with the legacy of the past. We will not rush to conclusions and I will take stock in the autumn. In reflecting, we will be mindful of the views of all the political parties, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, victims' groups and others.
We are approaching the endgame of a long period of transition that began with the ceasefire of the early 1990s. As I have said before, the endgame in conflict transformation is often the hardest part, and so it has proved in this case, but 2006 can and must be a year of historic progress in Northern Ireland. It must be a year in which we see a devolved, power-sharing executive of local politicians making the decisions that affect the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland. That goal should unite all Members of the House.
In withdrawing the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, the Secretary of State has done the right thing, and I am happy to give his decision an unqualified welcome. It is good for the House that the Government have decided to join the cross-party consensus which, of course, extended to many Labour Members as well as members of all Opposition parties.
I hope that as the Secretary of State reflects on the way forward, he will take account of the position of those who were exiled from Northern Ireland by the threats of paramilitary organisations. I ask him above all to have at the forefront of his thoughts the interests of victims of the troubles and their families and to agree that, if there is to be a hope of reconciliation, particularly when we are asking so much of those who have lost members of their families to terrorism, there must be telling of the truth, not just a partial account of the truth, and some justice must be applied to those who were responsible for the violence of the past, even if that justice is largely symbolic. There must be both truth and justice if we are to have a chance of reconciliation.
As for the proposed all-party talks—or, rather, talks between the Governments and the various Northern Ireland parties—we have consistently supported efforts to achieve devolution. I want the institutions up and running again. Decisions that directly affect the lives of people in Northern Ireland ought to be made by locally elected representatives who are accountable to the people of the Province, not by the Order-in-Council procedure here, which is profoundly unsatisfactory and, frankly, pretty undemocratic.
I hope that the Secretary of State's talks succeed, but does he agree that their success will depend crucially on two things? As he suggested, they will depend on the rebuilding of trust between parties and between communities—a trust that will have been fractured over the past year by incidents such as the robbery of the Northern bank and the murder of Robert McCartney, and the subsequent treatment of members of his family. Does he agree that trust is unlikely to be rebuilt quickly, or on the basis of a single favourable report from the Independent Monitoring Commission?
I want to make it clear that we Conservatives welcome the changes that the republican movement has made and announced, particularly those announced during the latter part of 2005, but we also want to see clear evidence that that change is both permanent and irreversible. Above all, does the Secretary of State agree that our hopes of success in the talks and the political process depend fundamentally on an end to criminality in all its forms, and on full support being given to the police, the courts and the rule of law by every political party that aspires to serve in government in Northern Ireland?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments and I am very grateful for them. I agree that the decision that I have taken—it was not an easy decision—is good for the House. My hon. Friend the Minister of State listened for 27 hours to the very powerful points made in Committee by those who were seeking amendments, so to that extent, we have listened to the House and reflected its views.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about exiles. We expect from republicans and loyalists an end to the obnoxious activity of exiling, and that their communities start behaving in a different way. One problem is that there is a need for a change of culture, which, as he knows, is not easy to bring about even in years, let alone in the few months in which we need to make progress.
I always did, as he rightly insisted that we do, listen to victims. Indeed, just before Christmas, the Prime Minister and I met a delegation, including parents, from the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Widows Association. It was a very moving meeting and they made some very powerful points. I hope that they will feel reassured by the decision that I have taken today.
The hon. Gentleman put the point well—I shall read his words in Hansard very carefully—when he said that we have to see some justice done for the past, even if it may have to be symbolic. He is pitching to exactly the right part of the problem that we need to resolve. In effect, he made the point that I made earlier: we have to find closure on the past not by denying it, but by allowing Northern Ireland to move forward in such a way that people feel that justice has been done, but they are not dealing with offences that could involve events that took place 30 or even 40 years ago by the time they come to court and in a sense feel that they can be dealt with in exactly the same way today, when the IRA war, in its own words, is over, compared with what was the case at the time.
I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the discussions that we are about to undertake. I hope that, in the spirit of consensus that we are seeking to work toward—I am grateful for that, too—he will encourage all political parties to behave responsibly and to take part responsibly in those discussions. I agree with him that decisions are best taken in Northern Ireland by elected representatives, which is what we both want to achieve. I also agree that the situation depends on building trust. I should point out to my friends in the Democratic Unionist party in particular that they are entitled to feel suspicious. They got very close to doing something very difficult—reaching agreement in the latter part of 2004, only to discover, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Northern bank robbery and the McCartney murder.
As the hon. Gentleman also said, to be absolutely fair, events have changed the situation very significantly since then. The IRA's statement and the decommissioning that followed are of historic significance, as he pointed out. I also accept that we cannot build trust on the basis of a single report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which is due in early February. On the other hand, if that report shows a sea change, we are entitled to expect a responsible response from all the political parties. I further agree that we have to see an end to criminality, and that Sinn Fein—along with all political parties, loyalist groups and others—needs to sign up to the rule of law and policing. That is absolutely essential.
In respect of policing, I visited south Armagh over the Christmas recess and discovered that many residents in republican communities such as Crossmaglen now approach the police about burglaries, youth yobbery and other problems with which we are all familiar in our own communities. Such problems are starting to arise in the more normal conditions that now prevail across Northern Ireland. I hope that there will be full co-operation with the police, especially from Sinn Fein councillors and Members of the Legislative Assembly. It is their duty to co-operate, but it beats me how on earth they can expect to take part in an Assembly—and even to hold ministerial office—when they do not even talk to the police.
I add my welcome to the Secretary of State's candid announcement, and the fact that he chose today to share the Government's intentions with us. From the first part of his statement, it is clear that he regards May 2007 as something of a deadline. Does he agree that there have been rumblings of discontent for a long time now about the cost of the Assembly and the salaries that are being paid when there is no visible return in terms of an operational democratic structure? However, does he accept that many Assembly Members have acted in good faith throughout and done their very best to ensure a functioning Assembly?
What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the good are not punished for their loyalty to the process? Will he make sure that there is a degree of discrimination in the Government's approach and that a distinction is made between those who have acted in good faith, in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and those who have sought to resist the operation of the Assembly? I am sure that he will agree that it is not reasonable to punish those who throughout have done their best, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, to maintain a bipartisan agreement.
I turn now to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has sensed and heard the resentment and opposition from all sides to that proposal. Is not this only the second time in the past few years that there has been collective opposition to Northern Ireland legislation introduced by the Government? That collective opposition has been so considerable that all the Northern Ireland parties, including Sinn Fein, have opposed the Bill, as have all the Opposition parties on the UK mainland. Does he recall that the other legislation to arouse such opposition was the Bill to introduce student tuition fees? On that occasion, the Government lost a vote on these premises but nevertheless forced the introduction of the proposals. Will he accept my gratitude for the fact that, this time, he and the Government have heeded the many criticisms and amendments put forward in the Standing Committee considering the offences Bill?
My party concurs with Mr. Lidington in that we will not make mileage out of this decision. The Government have done the right thing, and we recognise that there must be some sort of resolution to the problem. On behalf of all Liberal Democrat Members, I thank the Secretary of State for his announcement. On this occasion, the Government have listened, and acted maturely.
After that, what can I do but thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks? I do so in all sincerity: he and I are in the same position on this matter, and always have been. He has played an honourable and responsible role in seeking to make progress in Northern Ireland.
Lembit Öpik is right to say that the Government have listened to the House in respect of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. Equally, the Bill was passed by a comfortable majority on Second Reading. There were 44 Divisions in Committee, and none was lost—[Laughter.] I say that because withdrawing the Bill is the right thing to do, as the hon. Gentleman freely said. However, I want to make it clear that I am not withdrawing it because the Government did not command a majority and were unable to get it through the House. I think that we could have got it through, with amendments of the sort that we were planning.
The hon. Gentleman agrees with that. He spoke about the political process, but May 2007 is not a deadline, as we have to make progress this year. An election in early May 2007 cannot be postponed a matter of weeks beforehand. He is right to say that we cannot elect people to an Assembly that does not exist and that the public in Northern Ireland would not stand for that. Moreover, as I said in my statement, we cannot continue to pay the salaries and allowances of people who are not prepared to take their legislative responsibilities seriously.
The hon. Gentleman said that many Assembly Members—I assume that he was referring to those in the Alliance party—have struggled all through the past few years to try and get—
I say to my friends in the Democratic Unionist party that it is right to recognise that people in certain parties have sought honourably to get the political process up and running. The Alliance is one of those parties.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke about discrimination, but I do not think that that would be possible. I think that all Members of the Legislative Assembly act in good faith, to use his phrase. I would not want to be the arbiter of who does and who does not act in that way, especially when it came to deciding whether salaries and allowances should be withdrawn. If Members of the Legislative Assembly are not willing to do their jobs in the Assembly, there is no point in going on as we are.
Assembly Members from all parties write to me, so I know that many of them do a job in their constituencies. However, their constituents elected them to take their responsibilities as legislators seriously, and the point is that they are not doing so. I welcome what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said and look forward to working with him over the coming months.
The statement by the Secretary of State covers two main areas and my remarks will relate to both. First, he said that he hopes that talks will be held and asked party leaders to agree to dates in early February. I can assure him that my party has no problem about his preferred dates and that we will take part in a sensible and meaningful way, but I hope that he will ensure that we will not have to continue our grand tour of various stately homes in Great Britain.
Will the Secretary of State also consider setting a date for restoration of the Assembly? Instead of making flaky threats about withdrawing salaries if progress is not made by the summer, he should tell us by what date the Government want the Assembly to be restored. It was the Government, and not the Members of the Legislative Assembly, who suspended the Assembly: they did so because of the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons and its decision to continue its activity. The IRA's refusal to decommission gave other parties an effective veto on Northern Ireland's political institutions. Now that that problem has been dealt with, that veto should be deemed to have expired and the Government should make it clear that we are on a countdown to restoration.
Secondly, the Secretary of State announced the withdrawal of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. I join other hon. Members in welcoming that, although my welcome is not unqualified, as I am concerned that some of the right hon. Gentleman's other remarks imply that the proposals might be recycled in another form. I hope that he will confirm that the Bill truly has been abandoned, and not merely parked until another time, because it does not deal with the past in the way that he suggested.
The House will recall that, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State referred to the example of South Africa. However, the key phrase in the foreword to the South African legislation was that the past should be left behind "on a moral basis". There was nothing moral about the Bill, nor about the way that it was introduced. It would have built a moral vacuum, a legal quicksand—
Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman some leeway, but the Secretary of State has made a statement. Several supplementary questions have been put to him, so I think that we will leave the hon. Gentleman's contribution at that.
First, I can respond to the final point made by Mark Durkan by saying that I am grateful for his welcome for the withdrawal of the Bill. I assure him that there is no intention to recycle it, but the anomaly associated with the on-the-runs and those who might be prosecuted as a result of historic or current inquiries persists. That is true whether the people involved were in the security forces or belonged to paramilitary groups. That anomaly will continue to throw up many problems and issues over the coming years. We can either accept that, or we can find a legislative vehicle to resolve the matter. I want people to pause for reflection, and there is no question of our just recycling the Bill. It should not be on the agenda for the next months, at any rate.
I am grateful that the SDLP will be willing, as it has always been, to participate in political negotiations. Indeed, it has been pressing for them. I agree that, in my hon. Friend's inimitable phrase, there should be no grand tour of stately homes. We might come to my own one at Hillsborough once or twice—
The Chairman of the Select Committee agrees. I was privileged to have him and his Committee for dinner before Christmas.
On the point made by my hon. Friend Mark Durkan about setting a date to restore institutions, I do not think that that can simply be done unilaterally. We have to proceed carefully, but he is right that we are on countdown. May 2007 is a deadline, but it means that we have to proceed this year and to get the Assembly up and running. We are in the countdown period, but I do not want to set an arbitrary date as that could cause the sort of problems from which it is difficult to emerge.
It is helpful that the Secretary of State has set out his stall today. I welcome some of his comments, and my colleagues and I particularly agree that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, although we would enter the caveat that it must be governed by those committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
It is not unreasonable of the Secretary of State to recognise that it would be unconscionable to hold an election to an Assembly that has not met over the past four years. Nor do we have many misgivings about ending the salaries of Assembly Members if progress cannot be made, although, to be consistent, I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to give the House an assurance that if Sinn Fein is not doing its job in this House, he will never consider paying allowances to its Members of this place.
I very much welcome the withdrawal of the OTR Bill; it was the right step for the Secretary of State to take. It is welcome to all the Opposition parties, who have worked collectively and very well on the issue. I am glad the decision was taken here in the democratic Chamber rather than being forced on the Government in another place.
Finally, while the DUP wants real progress on devolution in Northern Ireland, there has to be some reality in the Government's thinking. It is not always possible to complete a journey in one step. Would it not be sensible for the Government to recognise the limitations imposed by the fact that trust is the most essential ingredient in forming any Cabinet? That trust, at present, simply does not exist. Trust is not based on a calendar; it must be built up over time. Is it not possible to consider taking a first step on the road to executive devolution by having a non-executive form in which people can start to build trust and in which the credentials of Sinn Fein and the IRA can be tested?
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said, which was in the spirit of the mood of the House. Since he has agreed with the point I made about 2007, I have to agree with him. There is no difference between us in saying it would be—although I hesitate to use the term—a kind of farce for democracy to go through a process of electing people to a body that does not exist.
I note that the hon. Gentleman has no misgivings about salaries and allowances, which covers Members' advice centres and all the rest. I am not suggesting that because I want to hold a sword of Damocles over MLAs. I am doing it because it is logical and what the public want. The public want MLAs to do their jobs, and the hon. Gentleman is indicating, I think, that he senses that they may be right.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about the Bill. Implicit in what he said was the fact that many fierce words were expressed in Committee over many days. What struck me, however, and what the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Mr. Hanson, reported to me—I pay tribute to the great sensitivity with which my hon. Friend dealt with matters in Committee, and I sense that the House agrees with me on that—was the role played by the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and, indeed, the official Opposition, despite the fact—
And the Liberal Democrats, of course. Leaderless as they may be, I still have to pay tribute to them.
The point is that the Committee showed Parliament at its best. People had fierce disagreements but were able to treat each other with respect, and Mr. Robinson and his colleagues certainly behaved in exactly that way.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about wanting real progress on devolution. That was an important statement from the Deputy Leader of the DUP, and I know that he means it. He is entitled to say that there has to be a reality check, and I understand why he says it. I note carefully what he said about the problems of taking just one step. He asked whether there could be some non-executive precursor to power sharing, to build trust. I await proposals from him and his party and from other parties. I am not keen on the idea of an Assembly prior to a power-sharing Executive. I would like to act in the way provided for by the Good Friday agreement. If, however, there were all-party consent, which it would be the duty of the DUP to seek, along with other parties, and if people came to me with a model that others would support, that would be an interesting proposition, which we could talk about after the IMC report in early February.
I commend the Minister for having the honesty to recognise that the Bill had become unworkable and for being prepared to withdraw it. It is obvious from what he has said that he has spent considerable time talking not just to the politicians of Northern Ireland, but to the people on the streets from all communities. What are his assessments of opinion on the street about restoring the Assembly and of all-community support for policing in Northern Ireland?
There is virtually universal support for all-community policing in Northern Ireland, even in republican communities and even if republican leaders have not yet signed up to it. On restoring a power-sharing Government, feelings are, to be perfectly frank, ambivalent, according to where people stand politically and what experience they have had in the past. That is reflected, for example, in the difference of opinion expressed by my hon. Friend Mark Durkan and Mr. Robinson.
I join my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington in congratulating the Secretary of State on withdrawing the Bill. I and many others felt very strongly about it. I have served in Northern Ireland, and many have to live in that environment. It was a pernicious measure, and I am glad that he has seen the light.
I was concerned, however, that it took Sinn Fein to decide the fate of the Bill, not those who have taken their places here and legitimately argued their case. I hope that that will not occur ever again.
If the Secretary of State ever thinks of bringing back the Bill, or anything like it, he should learn from the South African experience. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to say that we cannot have peace without justice, and making people confront the victims of their actions is absolutely vital if we are to have any closure. We must not have the process that the Secretary of State proposed, which would have allowed those people to escape and never have to face up to what they did.
I do not accept that the Bill was pernicious. We were drafting amendments on the subject of people appearing in court, and I listened to what was said in Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned South Africa. Despite the fact that—according to my calculations—more than five times as many people were killed during the bitter years of apartheid as were killed during the troubles in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that Nelson Mandela spent 10,000 days of his life in prison, leaving his family bereft, and experienced the killing of many of his close comrades, he was able to build trust and to forgive, although not forget. That is the point that I ask all politicians, parties and people of Northern Ireland to learn from: it is the only way forward.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on withdrawing the Bill, which caused all of us a lot of stress. I am heartened by its withdrawal and grateful that he took that wise step.
I agree that it is not credible to sustain the payment of Assembly Members indefinitely. We all accept that, but we would like responsibility to be placed where it belongs. I shall not try to defend the indefensible, but responsibility for whether payment was made falls within the remit of the Secretary of State. A previous Secretary of State decided that on suspension 75 per cent. of salaries would be paid.
The Secretary of State mentioned the figure of £85,000 per Assembly Member, but, if taken out of context, that could be misconstrued and even seen by many as disingenuous. The salary of an Assembly Member is about £30,000 and the rest goes on expenses and maintaining a constituency service. Many Members of the Assembly, from all parties, work very hard as constituency representatives, trying to maintain public involvement in and engagement with the evolving new democratic process. That is important. Many colleagues maintain offices and staff and I know one colleague who tries to run three offices and three members of staff from expenses in a difficult constituency in which he is trying to build hope, trust and confidence in democracy. I urge the Secretary of State—
Order. May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman? I know that he is new, and I do not like to interrupt new Members, but during a statement one supplementary only should be asked. I give a little elbow room to the Front Bencher from every party, which I have already done. Perhaps the Secretary of State could now answer the hon. Gentleman's points.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman saying that it is not credible to continue paying people who will not fulfil their legislative responsibilities. The figure I gave includes a £32,000 salary and £48,000, which is the maximum claimable for office costs, to provide the service to constituents that MLAs almost universally provide with great diligence. The figure of £85,000 is an average figure given to me by the relevant Department that works to me. I accept that many people do work very hard.
In adding my welcome for the statement, especially the withdrawal of the Bill, may I ask the Secretary of State for an assurance that if he is minded to produce new—not recycled—legislation, it will be committed to pre-legislative scrutiny, possibly to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, as suggested by the Committee?
I do not have any plans for recycling the Bill or for early legislation. We need to cool the issue down. As I said in my statement, I hope that next year—or whenever the hon. Gentleman feels it is appropriate—the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will look into the past in that context. I cannot give a commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny at the moment, because I do not have any plans to bring back a Bill, but I have always been a big fan of it. Such legislation could be a good candidate if some future Secretary of State or even I were to introduce a Bill on the basis of consent.
Will the Secretary of State be more specific about what date the Assembly might be re-established? The intentions are fine, but we need to be more specific about when it will happen in order to hasten any negotiations that take place. In the light of the Bill's withdrawal, is he satisfied that the Belfast agreement is being adhered to and is still fully supported by the Government? His defence of the original measure was that it was part of the Belfast agreement, so the issue will have to be returned to at some point.
I made it clear that we will have to return to the issue if we are to resolve the anomaly that I described. To that extent, I am honouring the Good Friday agreement. I introduced the Bill in good faith in response to commitments made by both Governments in 2003. One of the parties to those commitments has now reneged on its support for the Bill and it should ask itself some questions before we start down the road that my hon. Friend suggests.
I am delighted and I am unanimous—which is one of the benefits of being on my own—in my welcome for the Secretary of State's courageous announcement that he will look at the salaries and allowances of Assembly Members. I believe passionately in devolved government in Scotland and Wales, and particularly in Northern Ireland, but it has been very offensive to many constituents, some of whom are waiting for hip and knee replacements, to see salaries and allowances being paid to MLAs. I also welcome the withdrawal of the OTRs Bill.
One little outstanding matter needs to be clarified. Is it true that the Lord Chief Justice and other members of the Northern Ireland judiciary were opposed to operating the OTRs Bill and that that was one of the prime reasons why the parallel structure had to be put in place?
I cannot comment on that last point and I do not think that the hon. Lady would think it proper for me to do so. Despite the fact that she speaks for one unanimously, I think that she speaks for many more, as does her party in Northern Ireland, and I am grateful for her remarks. I am also grateful for her support on salaries and allowances for MLAs.
On the issue of withdrawal of the Bill, my right hon. Friend will know that I supported it in the optimistic hope that it would bring about peace and reconciliation. I spoke to him yesterday about the families bereaved by the McGurk's bar bombing—the victims included my grandmother's youngest brother, whom we fondly called Uncle Philly—who hoped that the Bill might provide some way to bring to some form of justice the people who carried out that bombing. Robert Campbell, a member of a loyalist paramilitary organisation, admitted to driving the car, but the two men who placed the bomb have never been named. We understand from the families' campaign, run by Patricia Irvine and others, that the names of those two men are somewhere in the files of the Northern Ireland Office or the Police Service. Where do the families go now for justice, because without some form of restorative justice the two men will never be named?
My hon. Friend has mentioned to me the case involving his relative and it is a very serious one. I think that it might be best if he wrote to the Chief Constable, because the historic inquiries team could look into the case and see how we proceed.
I share the universal welcome for the withdrawal of the Bill, but is it not a sad state of affairs that it appears that Sinn Fein-IRA are still driving so many decisions behind the scenes, by either withholding or giving support? The Secretary of State may ask why Sinn Fein-IRA still withhold support from the police and will not deal with the exiles matter, but is it not because they are looking for further concessions before they agree? Will he make certain that there are no further concessions?
There can be no further concessions because there is only one way to resolve the matter, and that is by legislation. To be perfectly frank, when Sinn Fein came to me on
I join my hon. Friends and other colleagues in welcoming the withdrawal of the OTR Bill. It is a victory, albeit belated, for common sense and morality and, not least, for the victims. Let us face it; they have had little enough to cheer throughout the entire sorry process.
Will the Secretary of State accept that democratic parties in Northern Ireland have been willing to get down to work in the Assembly but that, over years, the Government have prevented the Assembly from meeting and proceeding, because they wanted to ensure that the only way forward was the insertion of Sinn Fein, even with its criminality and paramilitarism, at the heart of government? Will not the real test for the Secretary of State come in April, not the summer? Will he really suggest to the House that Sinn Fein Members should have all their allowances restored in this place, when they do not attend the Chamber and fulfil their duties?
That is a matter for the House, but in respect of Sinn Fein's allowances in the Assembly, they will be treated like everybody else and every other party. I do not want to withdraw salaries and allowances, but if circumstances force it Sinn Fein will have them withdrawn as well.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point that the Government prevented the Assembly from sitting. We must have all-party agreement for the Assembly to sit. In response to the interesting and quite significant point made by his colleague, Mr. Robinson, I said that we await proposals from the DUP and we shall want to see whether they have support from other parties. Then we can make progress.
We should not forget that the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill was introduced under the auspices of Sinn Fein's demands and we now hear that it was withdrawn after Sinn Fein's demands. After all the warm words we have heard, the Government have yet to admit that they never actually conceded any of the amendments drafted by all parties in the Committee. Will not the Secretary of State recognise that Sinn Fein-IRA have been pulling the strings from the very beginning of the process, and will he confirm that, following the meeting on
The hon. Gentleman's intervention does not reflect the spirit of the House this afternoon. As a member of the Committee, he knows that my hon. Friend the Minister indicated that we would accept the proposed amendments, including the one proposing that defendants had to sit in court. As I said, when Sinn Fein first came to me to say that it no longer supported the Bill, my inclination was to tell it to get lost, because we would continue with it anyway in spite of its point of view—as my hon. Friend will confirm, because we both discussed the matter. We were considering other amendments, including the reduction of the qualifying period under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 from two to nought years. We were looking at various things, but having listened to the views expressed in the House there seemed no point in proceeding to set up legislation that would not be used by people to cure the anomaly that it was designed to cure. That was the reason.
I welcome the decision taken on the Floor of this elected Chamber—a decision that the Government had, morally, no choice but to make.
I remind the Secretary of State and other Members that last May there were elections in Northern Ireland and the overwhelming majority of Unionists rejected the iniquitous Belfast agreement. That is why nine DUP Members and only one Ulster Unionist are sitting on these Benches. The on-the-runs measure was not part of that agreement, but a side deal entered into by the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party and Sinn Fein-IRA, with a little help from the Ulster Unionist party. Will the Secretary of State, as he has indicated, meet the victims of the La Mon House atrocity, for which Gerry Adams was arrested and questioned at the time? The Secretary of State is right: he should be listening to the voices of victims—
My hon. Friend the Minister and I have received delegations, quite properly, from many victims' groups, from all parties and individual groups. We shall continue to listen to them. Mrs. Robinson may want to contact our office as one of my ministerial team will indeed be happy to receive such a delegation.
The Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged in the past that without the contribution of members of the security services and the armed forces, any calling-off of the IRA's so-called war might never have happened. Where does the withdrawal of the Bill leave members of the armed forces who carried out their orders, sometimes with explicit ministerial permission, but who might be hauled into court as a result of the so-called historic review process?
The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, puts a pertinent question. One of the reasons that we felt that the legislation was needed was precisely to address the past. A member of the security forces may have acted in the name of the Crown, unlawfully, as they should not have done, and perhaps committed a murder, as they should not have done. Justice should prevail, but we could see them serving a lengthy prison sentence, while paramilitary prisoners who had not served their full sentence were let out on licence under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. The hon. Gentleman rightly identifies that as one of the anomalies that we sought to address in the Bill.
As I said in my statement and during Northern Ireland questions, those issues will not go away; they will have to be resolved in some fashion and from what Mr. Lidington, the Conservative spokesman, has said, I think that he agrees with that in principle. After a period of reflection, we might want to see whether we can find a way forward based on consensus.
Last week, I stood with families of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre in south Armagh as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of that atrocity. They will join many families of victims across Northern Ireland in welcoming the Secretary of State's decision. Is not it time that we put the victims and not the perpetrators at the centre of the process? The Government's agenda should be to accommodate not the perpetrators but the needs of the victims. In that context, will the Secretary of State consider giving a role to the interim victims commissioner in finding the way forward?
Mrs. Bertha McDougall is a very able woman. She has a big task on her plate and I expect her report at the end of the year. She is welcome to look at the issue, but she has many other things to do. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that victims should be right at the centre of the process. A delegation from the RUC widows association went with me to see the Prime Minister about their concerns and their deep anger about the Bill—there is no point in disguising that. The hon. Gentleman will understand the irony in the fact that just before Christmas I met a delegation from Sinn Fein of victims of the security forces—they claimed—who felt equally angry that those people were unpunished. There is a unity of anger on behalf of victims, quite understandably. If I were in that predicament, I might feel exactly the same. There is unity of anger across the community divide. The point is: how do we resolve it? How do we get the anger out and restore normality and consensus? That is the objective that we all share.
Obviously, our primary concern has been the needs and worries of victims, but may I give a perspective as an ex-member of the security forces who spent several years in Northern Ireland? What I and other people in my position found so offensive about the Bill is the degree of equivalence that it gave current and former members of security forces and terrorists. If the Secretary of State undertakes this process in future, will he consider the fact that, when we in the House send troops or ask the police to play a role in such a difficult environment, we are sometimes asking a nearly impossible thing? An 18-year-old soldier, Private Ian Thain, in the sister regiment to the one in which I served was convicted of murder in the 1980s, when he had to take an instant decision but took the wrong one. There must be an understanding that what we are asking the security forces to do in those circumstances is incredibly difficult. There must be that caveat if the Secretary of State or the Government wish to take this matter further.
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a very important part of the Bill—as I said in response to the hon. Member for Aylesbury—but we cannot have one-sided justice. Those in Sinn Fein wanted one-sided justice. They did not want the security forces to be covered by the Bill, but I insisted that they should be, and then what transpired, transpired. Equally, I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says about a degree of equivalence. What we are trying to do is to draw a line under the past. If people committed criminal offences, even as members of the security forces—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the difficult circumstances, the instant decisions and all the rest of it—and although they might have acted in good faith, some would say that they must account for that. Under the Bill, that would have applied to former terrorists as well. As part of the process of bringing Northern Ireland together to face the future together, we must have some give and take; otherwise, we will find that one set of victims are passionately angry and that the others are reconciled. That cannot be the basis on which to proceed.
As one of many Opposition Members who was genuinely angered by the introduction of the Bill, may I genuinely welcome the Secretary of State's decision to withdraw it, which will be as popular with victims' families and the military as it has been throughout the House this afternoon? He has eventually done the right thing. May I press him on the talks? Does he accept that the history of our nation, not least of the House itself, demonstrates time and again that appeasement does not work? Will he bear that in mind in the inevitable brokering role that he will undertake on behalf of the British Government when all parties are brought around the table to try to find a way forward?
May I, first, thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the withdrawal of the Bill? I am not so sure that all members of the military will be cheering in the streets, because the very few of them who may be convicted of offences in the future will have no protection as a result of the withdrawal of the Bill. However, I caution him about using terms such as "appeasement". That is the language of the past. The Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher and certainly under John Major, to give them their due, started the process of talking to republicans and negotiating with the IRA. He may call that appeasement, but it has produced the circumstances in which the IRA has now given up its war and the negotiations that followed. Northern Ireland is now more stable, more peaceful and has more prosperity and more jobs than ever before in its history, and the hon. Gentleman ought to give some credit to the Governments and politicians who have shown courage in bringing that about.
May I pay tribute to the Minister of State, who conducted himself with dignity and honour in Committee? I did not realise that 27 hours were spent in Committee—I thought that it was perhaps a bit longer than that—but I am pleased that the Government have finally adhered to all the arguments advanced in Committee.
The Secretary of State referred to South Africa. I bow to his senior knowledge on the subject. I visited the place very recently and learned about the truth and reconciliation process, and it is clear that there was some form of closure for the victims. I am afraid that the Bill did not go anywhere near that for the victims in Northern Ireland: all it provided was simply a get-out-of-jail-free card for the terrorists themselves.How does all this leave the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which I understand has cost the taxpayer about £300 million?
I do not think that that is the cost, but the Bloody Sunday inquiry must proceed—of course, it must—as must other inquiries. I agree that my hon. Friend the Minister of State behaved with dignity and honour. Many of those who passionately opposed the Bill have echoed that. The hon. Gentleman must take account of the South African situation, where people suffered many times more than even during the darkest times in Northern Ireland and in greater numbers. They have found a way to reconcile their past together, and it has involved forgiveness and coming together, which must occur in Northern Ireland, too.
May I also welcome the Secretary of State's change of heart? Regardless of the route to his conversion, we all welcome the fact that he is now doing the right thing, as he describes it. Of course, for people in Northern Ireland, the right thing would have been never to introduce the Bill in the first place. Does he know whether the Irish Government intend to withdraw their proposals for on-the-runs in their jurisdiction? Will he indicate whether or not it will be a requirement for participation in the Government of Northern Ireland that, to use his own words, there is unequivocal support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the rule of law?
I was not trying to set a new precondition for anything; I was just saying that, to govern effectively and for self-government to operate effectively, elected representatives and, indeed, Ministers must respect the rule of law. We must have that and, indeed, great progress has been made in that direction.
As for the Irish Government, I was talking to the Irish Foreign Minister yesterday and discussing these matters. I speak for a number of different responsibilities in the House, but one of them is not the Irish Government.