Clause 2 — Selection of persons to be Ministers on restoration of devolved government

Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 27th April 2006.

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Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 1 in page 2, line 10, at end insert—

'(4A) Condition 4 is that parliament has legislated to give effect to any changes necessary to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in order to allow conditions 1 to 3 to have effect.'.

No. 14, in page 2, line 10, at end insert—

'(4A) Condition 4 is that the IMC shall have reported that they believe that no paramilitary, criminal or other illegal activity is being carried out by or on behalf of the Provisional IRA.'.

No. 11, in schedule 3, page 9, line 4, leave out paragraph 4.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

We had a wide debate on the previous group of amendments and we now come to a group of amendments tabled mostly by my party. The purpose of the amendments is to allow the selection of a First Minister, Deputy First Minister and other Ministers, under the arrangements set out in schedule 2, if necessary after the deadline of 24 November 2006. As the legislation is currently drafted, the procedure can no longer be used after the deadline. That is because of the provisions of clause 2(1)(b) and schedule 3(4). Under the Bill as it stands, the only way to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and to select other Ministers, will be under the arrangements in the 1998 Act, or as it may be amended in the autumn.

Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 do not take away the capacity of the Secretary of State to take any action on 24 November, but merely leave options open that may be more appropriate if progress cannot be made by that date but could be made by May 2007. The amendments simply give the Secretary of State options, rather than closing them down or forcing him to come to the House at another stage with new legislation. We have had enough experience recently of new legislation dealing with Northern Ireland and Members would not be terribly pleased if we had to go through the whole process again.

If it is not possible to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly before 24 November but proves possible thereafter—a circumstance that is catered for in the measure—the many logistical arrangements may mean that it will be easier to make progress on the basis of the Secretary of State's standing orders than on the basis of the Northern Ireland Act. In that event, no Speaker would be elected—the role would have to be re-signed and those in power in 2003 would return to office on restoration. If the Assembly was restored and a First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not be elected, the countdown to an election would begin, despite the Secretary of State's saying that there would be no new elections to the institutions.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

As there are parties who want to construe the DUP as having ulterior motives, it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman took this opportunity to put on the record that changing the date is not because the DUP wants to maintain a talking shop on the hill at Stormont.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am happy to say once again, as most of my hon. Friends said yesterday on Second Reading, that of course we are not in the business of trying to create or maintain a talking shop. Indeed, if amendment No. 6 is pushed to a Division, we shall go into the Lobby to support it. We have always wanted the Assembly that is to be created to have the maximum authority and power and there have been some useful suggestions for making direct rule more accountable in the interim period. That would be sensible and I think that view is shared by parties in Northern Ireland.

We want to take account of the reality spelled out yesterday. When we reach the last week of November, the IRA and Sinn Fein may not have done everything necessary to make them acceptable as members of a Northern Ireland Executive. Let us be frank. Given the findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission report and the current circumstances, it will require a major step change in the provisionals' current attitude to criminality and other things that disqualify them from office to enable them to meet that deadline—although who knows what might happen? My party leader has already told us that he believes in miracles. Given his theological position, no one should be surprised at that statement. I believe in miracles, too—I share many of my right hon. Friend's theological positions as well as his political one.

The provisional movement has let us down many times in the past, however, and it has a fair way to go to convince people that it now has a purely democratic and peaceful methodology. It also has a considerable way to go on policing, as we all know. In the Secretary of State's comments in this place and outside over the past few days, he has referred to policing only in the context of the devolution of policing and justice powers. However, as I said in my contribution to the British-Irish interparliamentary body in Killarney, it is essential to recognise that for members of any party to exercise power as Ministers in any part of the United Kingdom it is extremely important not only that they support the police but that they urge their supporters and the community at large to give information to the police. They should not be half-hearted or equivocal about that matter. That extremely important issue cannot be ducked, set aside or ignored. So those in the provisional movement must deal with lots of issues. They are the ones who are holding up progress and who apparently stand in the way of the restoration of the Executive—not the DUP or the Unionist population.

Amendment No. 14 would add a requirement to clause 2 that must be met before the Assembly can be restored. A number of conditions are set down in the Bill that must be met before a restoration order can be made, but amendment No. 14 would have the effect of adding the condition that the IMC must have reported that

"no paramilitary, criminal or other illegal activity is being carried out by or on behalf of the Provisional IRA."

Of course, we all know, given the political reality of the situation, what the circumstances must be, but as well as understanding that, it is important that the Bill refers to the outstanding issue of the day, which must be dealt with before the Executive can be restored. It is not just simply a matter of the parties getting together to elect a First Minister and appointing other Ministers; it is the central issue: whether or not Sinn Fein and the IRA have committed themselves to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. I believe that the Bill should refer to that condition, as well as it just being understood as a political necessity. That is the purpose of putting that condition in the Bill.

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate on this group of amendments, he will seriously consider the matters that we have proposed—I emphasise what has been said by my hon. Friends—in the sense that we want to see this process work. We want to see it deliver. We want to see the restoration of devolution, but we want to see it restored in the right circumstances and in the right conditions.

We do not believe in the use of an arbitrary deadline set down by the Government that may not be met, not as a result of any unwillingness on the part of Unionists or any other democratic party to play their role in devolution, but because of the failure of the republican movement to measure up to what needs to be done. It would be entirely wrong then to see the whole edifice of devolution crash down and for the people of Northern Ireland to suffer in those circumstances. I believe that it is absolutely essential that we should try to maintain the momentum and to try to restore to Northern Ireland the maximum degree of devolution that can be possibly attained in those circumstances.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 4:30 pm, 27th April 2006

I rise to speak to amendment No. 1, in my name and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Reid, which is essentially a probing amendment. We are concerned whether there will be enough time for Parliament to legislate to bring into effect any change to the workings of the Assembly that might be needed before a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister can be elected. We would like the Government to assure us that there will be proper time for Parliament to consider the implications of any change to the workings of the Assembly. That is particularly important, as it is the duty of the two Governments—the one here and the one in Dublin—in conjunction with the Assembly, to review and report on the operation of the Assembly. Colleagues will remember that section 11 of the Good Friday agreement spelt that out very specifically under the heading of "Validation, Implementation and Review". I quote paragraph 8, which states:

"Notwithstanding the above, each institution will publish an annual report on its operations. 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."

As Ministers know, I was very dissatisfied with the Government's tardiness in conducting that kind of review. The Alliance party was assured that a review would take place. There was enormous obfuscation and delay, prior to the appointment of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, Mr. Hanson. In the end, the work that has taken place has not really addressed some of the core issues—for example, the question of political designation. I covered that in an earlier speech and do not need to repeat my criticisms now. Amendment No. 1 asks the Government to make clear how they see the progress towards making sure that sensible changes can be introduced before the First and Deputy First Ministers are elected, without the sham and farce of redesignation being forced on Alliance party members or anybody else.

I will comment briefly on the other amendments. It seems that amendments Nos. 10 and 11 both seek to remove the deadline from the Bill. If I understand things correctly, that would mean that the proposal for an interim Assembly in the Bill could carry on indefinitely, which is not a good idea. My judgment is that the 24 November deadline is necessary to resolve which way we are going to go with Northern Ireland politics.

I am more sympathetic to amendment No. 14. It is clear that we all want to see the end of criminality, in all its forms—not just the so-called politically motivated paramilitary activity. I am encouraged by what the Independent Monitoring Commission has said in its most recent assessment of the matter—the 10th report. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about amendment No. 14, because surely it contains a reasonable expectation.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I would like to contribute briefly to the debate on amendments Nos. 10 and 14, in particular. I can see the benefit of having an end-date in place. It does tend to concentrate the mind. However, as Lembit Öpik said yesterday, quite correctly, we have seen so many deadlines come and go in Northern Ireland. I suppose I have to question whether there can be any confidence in the idea that this is a real deadline. I understand fully, and take completely at face value, the assurances that the Secretary of State gave yesterday that it is a deadline, but there are ways of setting further deadlines and still retaining this one. Things can be fudged in one way or another.

I also take the point made yesterday by my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, who has been present for virtually all the debate—he has just left his place for a moment. If we get to, say, 20 November and we are almost there, but not quite, is it right to let the whole thing fall? That is a powerful point. Although I can see the point of a deadline, I think that, on balance, the argument put forward by Mr. Dodds carries a lot of weight and we will therefore support the Democratic Unionist party if the matter is pressed to a vote.

Amendment No. 14 is difficult to disagree with. The Government have set so much store by what the IMC is saying.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am a little surprised by what I think that the hon. Gentleman just said. He said that he would support the removal of the deadlines, if that was pushed to a vote. I am not quite sure why he would do that because, although I am pretty sceptical about the Government's willingness to hold to a deadline, I am absolutely certain that the absence of a deadline would guarantee that we will live with this halfway house of an Assembly for the rest of our natural lives.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The hon. Gentleman was rather scathing about deadlines himself yesterday. I have every respect for this Parliament—I am sure that hon. Members share that view. I have come into the Chamber—in the case not only of this Bill, but the previous Bill relating to Northern Ireland—undecided on how to vote on a number of issues and I have listened to the arguments. Parliament is at its best when hon. Members do that and are not necessarily whipped into one line or another. [Interruption.] The Minister is laughing, but I make no apology for listening to the debate, which I am sure that he does regularly. I am not entirely convinced that we are right to support the DUP on amendment No. 10, but having listened to the arguments made by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), we will, on balance, do so.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that his vote is negotiable, so perhaps I can persuade him to swing back towards the case for deadlines. The inference from what he says is that a Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would not impose a deadline on the interim Assembly. That worries me, so I ask him to think about it. Is he really saying that the antidote to flexible deadlines is no deadline at all? It is my judgment that any Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have to impose a deadline to get a resolution of the situation.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The hon. Gentleman asks me to speculate about what we would do in government. It is not that far off, so we will have to face up to those questions, but we are not quite there yet. I want to move on from this point because there are other things to discuss, but I will not dodge the hon. Gentleman's question. If he is asking whether no deadline is better than a deadline that is all over the place, I would suggest that it probably is.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the amendment would not take away the deadline because the Secretary of State would still be able to remove salaries and stop the Assembly from meeting? However, it would mean that the fall-back position would be much softer than the hard landing with a crash and the complete end of everything that would be effect of the Bill.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I am persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's eloquence. He made the important point earlier that if we were almost to reach the deadline, surely it would be better to let the Assembly to continue to run for a while—at least we would have something—than to get rid of everything. That could lead to full devolution more quickly than would otherwise be the case, so, on balance, we will support the DUP if the amendment is pressed to a Division.

The Government set a good deal of store by what the IMC says and I understand why the Secretary of State quoted from the report extensively yesterday. I would be surprised if the Government opposed amendment No. 14. I accept that the IMC cannot dictate what we do in the House because that is up to hon. Members. However, I also accept that there are worries among the Unionist parties and, probably, the SDLP about going into government with people who have not fully given up violence. It does no one on the Unionist side, including me, any good to pretend that there was no good news in yesterday's report—no one has suggested that—but it does the Government no good to pretend that the whole report represented a clean bill of health. I quoted at length yesterday the parts of the report that said that senior members of the IRA were still involved in criminality and cited specific expulsions that were still being carried out by the IRA. That was all in the report as well as the good news, so if we are to accept the IMC report, we must accept the whole report. I thus have a lot of sympathy with amendment No. 14, too.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I intend to be brief. I am not quite as vociferous, or windy, as some of my colleagues and hon. Members on the other side of the Chamber.

Clause 2 provides that if three conditions are met the Secretary of State will make an order of restoration. The conditions are that a First Minister and Deputy First Minister are elected, that persons are nominated as Ministers, and that each of them takes a pledge of office. I am deeply worried about amendment No. 10, because it would make the Assembly open-ended. The Assembly should not be open-ended because that would undermine the concentrated effort that is required to get devolution back in place.

I note that DUP colleagues have claimed that the Bill means that the 1998 agreement is dead. That is an exaggerated notion of their mandate. We all have mandates and we can all count numbers, but the place to exercise the mandate and count the numbers is on the Floor of the Assembly when it is reconvened.

We oppose any aspect or concept of a shadow, powerless Assembly, because that could last for ever. The deadline is an essential backstop position, which concentrates minds and gets things done.

I fear that amendment No. 1 would set the precondition for restoration whereby Westminster has to legislate for changes to get the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister elected and an Executive formed. There is nothing wrong with the terms and the details that we worked out in 1998; nor was there anything wrong with the agreement reached in 1998. What was wrong was that a number of the parties failed to honour and implement their responsibilities in 1998 and subsequently. I shall not point fingers. Everyone knows who the wrecking parties were, and it was not the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists. Frankly, the problem had nothing to do with the institutions, the regulations, the Standing Orders and the concepts. Rather, it was the outright refusal by the provos to destroy their weapons. To some extent, that was supplemented, aided and abetted by the refusal by some Unionist politicians to share power.

It would be a profound mistake to make changes to the agreement, or the 1998 Act that flowed from the agreement, a precondition for restoration. Of course, improvements can be made to the working institutions. Improvements can always be made and development can always take place. We gave a long list of improvements that we wanted to see at the conference at Leeds castle two years ago. All of them were consistent with the Good Friday agreement. However, such matters need to be worked out on the Floor of the Assembly or on the margins of Assembly meetings, and between the parties involved. I am worried that my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik, who has always been a good friend and a good supporter of peace and progress in Northern Ireland, has taken up the position set out in amendment No. 1. However, we will have a chance to discuss that later.

I am also deeply concerned about amendment No. 14. Frankly, for the reasons that I outlined, it is unnecessary and irrelevant. The terms will not have been met if we are depending on the IMC. We do not need to hang ourselves on the amendment. I outlined the terms for electing a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, and for each of them taking the pledge. It appears that the DUP cannot trust itself and will not participate, but we cannot meet the primary conditions of clause 2 without its support. So why do we need an amendment, as a belt-and-braces operation, to ensure that if one of them strays a wee bit, he is pulled back? It is a sort of choke lead.

The DUP is trying to pass the buck for taking up its position. If it has issues with which it wants to deal, let us do that face on, eyeball to eyeball, and, in a gentlemanly fashion, sort them out. We do not need the amendment. Again, the substance of it should be dealt with on the Floor of the Assembly. The amendment makes unreasonable demands and tries to remove the independence of the IMC, an independent body, and suck it in as a partisan political player. We are the political players. Let us sort out the issues.

The amendment also places a loaded gun, so to speak, in the hands of a handful of rogue provos in various places around the country, with the result that half a dozen people can prevent any progress from being made by carrying out systematic disruption that causes the IMC to report negatively on one small case. I do not wish to delay the Committee further. My colleagues and I are opposed to the amendments for the reasons that I have outlined.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 4:45 pm, 27th April 2006

I support the amendments tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend Rev. Ian Paisley and my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson.

I can assure Dr. McDonnell that the DUP is confident of its position and will remain so. As for being afraid to sit down and talk to the SDLP, we are more than happy to do that at any time. I remind the hon. Gentleman that for years SDLP members ran to the Irish Government with every problem that they had and every issue that they wanted resolved. Off they went to Dublin to get it fixed by the Irish Government, so we will take no lectures from the SDLP about sitting down with our compatriots in Northern Ireland to try to resolve issues.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Will the hon. Gentleman please explain what he found wrong with our talking to the Irish Government? We have been a consensus-building party for 30 years. I am witnessing the transition from a wrecking party to a party that is trying to be semi-constructive. The Democratic Unionists were in Killarney last weekend. They have been running up and down to Dublin.

The First Deputy Chairman:

Order. I ask all hon. Members to direct their comments to the amendments before the Committee.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

We will certainly do that, Mrs. Heal.

On amendment No. 10 and the deadline, I welcome what Mr. Robertson said. I congratulate him on his excellent contribution to our debates and on the job that he is doing on the Front Bench for the loyal Opposition. I can tell him that he is held in high esteem in Northern Ireland. He is right about the deadline. The history of the process is littered with the wreckage of deadlines that were passed. Even the Belfast agreement set deadlines for decommissioning and other things, and we saw the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries drive a coach and horses through those deadlines.

My difficulty is that the current position does not give the Secretary of State sufficient flexibility in circumstances where real progress has been made, but we have not quite got there in terms of what is required from the IRA to end criminality and paramilitarism. Are the Government seriously suggesting that in circumstances where we had another IMC report that indicated progress but concluded that some level of activity was continuing, they would pull the plug on the entire process?

Mark Durkan is right. They would be pulling the plug on the Belfast agreement and all that goes with it. He argued that that would be welcomed by Democratic Unionists. We have proposed changes to the institutions. We tabled the amendment to bring about changes to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to ensure the effective and efficient operation of the institutions, and especially to ensure proper lines of accountability.

Let us be clear. Our motivation is to ensure that we get it absolutely right. We do not want, as has been suggested by some Members, to delay the establishment of devolution in Northern Ireland indefinitely. Our party is a devolutionist party, and it believes in a local Government in Northern Ireland. As I said earlier, we would gladly form an Executive today with the democratic parties in the Assembly, including the Social Democratic and Labour party. We have clearly stated that, but we have a difficulty with Sinn Fein—a potential member of a future Executive—given its links with the IRA and ongoing IRA criminality. That is a major problem for us, together with the fact that Sinn Fein does not support the police and the rule of law. Those issues must be resolved.

Let me make it clear that indefinite direct rule is not in our interests or the interests of the people whom we represent. Nor are we interested in being part of an assembly that merely discusses issues and does not ever reach the point of forming an Executive. In amendment No. 10, we do not seek an open-ended scenario in which we simply delay, procrastinate and spin things out for years to come. We are realistic: we know that that will not be allowed to happen. However, the amendment gives us a little more flexibility in the process if progress is made by 24 November, enabling the Secretary of State to keep things going for a further period. The basic concept of the Assembly in the format proposed by the Government is to engage people in issues to help to build trust. That is important, but the exchanges across the Chamber this afternoon demonstrate that it is not just a matter of building trust between our party and the republican elements in our society.

Without doubt, there are many issues at the moment, and Unionists have very little trust in Sinn Fein's position. It is clear from the comments of SDLP Members that they do not trust the DUP's bona fides or our position. We are equally disappointed by their approach to the political process in recent years. At times, they try to out-Sinn Fein Sinn Fein; at times, they take a position that is so hard-line and tough that it makes Gerry Adams look like a poodle. That is unhelpful, and they have refused to contemplate sharing power with Unionists unless their big brothers in Sinn Fein are at their side. I wish that the SDLP would learn to stand on its own two feet. Instead of hiding behind the Irish Government and Sinn Fein, it should rely on its own strength and consider serving in government with Unionists. However, I have said enough about the issue.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party

The hon. Gentleman has forgotten that we adopted a clear position on policing. Our position on the Policing Board was not defined or confined by Sinn Fein or anyone else.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I accept that, and I applaud the position that the SDLP took after many years of refusing to support the police and refusing to take up seats on the Police Authority. Finally, after 30 years, it pressed its agenda and was able to wring out substantial changes to policing in Northern Ireland. It decided that it was going to support the police, which we welcome. However, I am not talking about policing but about the formation of an Executive or a Government for the people of Northern Ireland. I regret very much the fact that the SDLP has not had the courage to step out and do with an Executive what it was prepared to do with the Policing Board.

I do not accept the distinction between the operation of the Policing Board and the operation of an Executive in Northern Ireland. If the SDLP is prepared to serve with Unionists on a Policing Board and take responsibility for one of the most important issues in Northern Ireland, why on earth can it not do that with us on education, health, roads, housing, planning and all the matters that affect the people whom we represent? I would like that to happen, and I await the day when there is genuine power sharing in Down council, so that the DUP can finally get a look-in and secure a senior appointment. It would be nice to see the SDLP exercising real power sharing in places such as Down district, but we are patient and will wait for that day. Perhaps Down district will be able to match what happens in neighbouring Lisburn, the city that I represent, in terms of the parity that we give to the SDLP. Of the 30 councillors on Lisburn council, only three—or 10 per cent.—belong to the SDLP.

The First Deputy Chairman:

Order. Interesting though that may be, it is not relevant to the amendment.

Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I suppose that I was expanding the point a little, Mrs. Heal, but we live and travel in hope that we will get the House's support for the amendment. We are trying to be constructive: we want to ensure that we make progress but with a helpful degree of flexibility.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I begin by thanking Mr. Dodds for stepping in to move the amendment on behalf of Rev. Ian Paisley and Mr. Robinson.

We have been debating three issues in connection with the amendment. The first has to do with the deadline at the end of the period proposed in the Bill, and the second relates to the approach adopted by the provisional IRA and others to arms decommissioning and criminality. Thirdly, we debated the issues raised in amendment No. 1, in the name of Lembit Öpik. I shall deal with each matter in turn.

My first remarks are directed to the hon. Members for Belfast, North and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), and to Mr. Robertson, who speaks for the official Opposition on these matters. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that he and the Government as a whole are committed, for clear and appropriate reasons, to setting a deadline for the Bill.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Minister says that the Government are committed to the deadline, but reports in the media and elsewhere suggest that it is really the Dublin Government who are pushing it, at the behest of some parties. Will he comment on that? Are not the Government here more open minded about the matter than he is trying to suggest?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State were present in Armagh on 6 April, as were the Taoiseach and I, when these proposals—for this Bill and to restore the Assembly—were brought forward. The Government of the Irish Republic and the British Government are unanimous about the need to include a deadline in this Bill.

From my perspective, I do not think it appropriate for the people of Northern Ireland to expect that the process will remain open-ended for ever. We have to set a deadline, for a variety of reasons. First, it puts on the parties involved the pressure that must be applied if we are to resolve the question of the Assembly. Secondly, the Assembly elections in May next year are rushing towards us. These things tend to go quickly, and even the hon. Members for Belfast, North, for Lagan Valley and for Tewkesbury must recognise that it is impractical and impossible to ask the people of Northern Ireland to vote again for an Assembly that does not sit, and for Members who do not participate in their legislative functions, even though they maintain their strong constituency roles.

For those reasons, we need to set a deadline, and we have picked 25 November. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury said that he will support the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Belfast, North, but that would remove the deadline from the Bill completely. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and my hon. Friend Dr. McDonnell have explained, the absence of a deadline would leave us with an open-ended commitment, with the result that there would be no pressure on the parties to resolve the key issues.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Does the Minister agree that the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Dodds still pertains? If the Government want to exert pressure, they retain the power—notwithstanding the amendment—to cease at a stroke all allowances and salaries paid to all Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the Minister wants pressure, that pressure can be applied at any time between now and 24 November, and beyond.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The Government will look at exercising that pressure and that power. However, I cannot accept the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Belfast, North because we believe that we must implement a deadline for the resolution of the Executive election for the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The deadline has been implemented so that we can secure that election in a reasonable time before 25 November and do what everyone who has spoken on both days of this debate wants to do, which is to take power from the British Government and give it back to the hon. Member for Belfast, North and his colleagues in Northern Ireland. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South that no deadline would mean an open-ended commitment. The deadline is not a threat, and it reflects the political reality of the situation.

I recognise that DUP Members and Lady Hermon need to have trust in the republican movement that paramilitary activity and criminality have ceased, which is key to their entering the Assembly. I pay tribute to Mr. Campbell, who clearly expressed that point on Second Reading. I understand that an end to paramilitary activity, criminality and the possession of arms by the IRA is central to entry into the Assembly for the DUP.

As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury recognised, progress has been made, and I shall pick a few quotes from yesterday's IMC report to illustrate that point. Paragraph 2.13 states:

"It remains our absolutely clear view that the PIRA leadership has committed itself to following a peaceful path . . . We have noted the remarks by Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin" that

"the war is over and that the movement is committed to the alternative political path."

Paragraph 2.14 states that

"the leadership is engaged in a challenging task in ensuring full compliance with this strategy".

Paragraph 2.15 makes a key point:

"We are not aware of current terrorist, paramilitary or violent activity sanctioned by the leadership. We have had no indications in the last three months of training, engineering activity, recent recruitment or targeting for the purposes of attack."

Finally, paragraph 2.16 states:

"We have found signs that PIRA continues to seek to stop criminal activity by its members and to prevent them from engaging in it."

I recognise that until those matters are fully resolved, DUP Members will have difficulty in entering the Assembly, and I also recognise that the key to their entering the Assembly is the IMC report that will be introduced in October and November this year. However, I cannot support putting that point as a precondition in Bill in the manner suggested by the hon. Member for Belfast, North.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

It would do Conservative Members no good to deny the significant progress in the IMC report, but it does the Government no good to quote selectively, which the Minister has done again. I shall give him the sentence immediately before his final quote:

"We also believe that in a separate incident PIRA itself may have been associated with the forced departure of somebody from the area where he lived."

That is the second of two quotes in paragraph 2.15 about continued expulsions by the IRA. As the Minister knows, other parts of the IMC report mention senior members of the IRA who are involved in criminality. It does not do either side any good to quote selectively.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

The hon. Gentleman and I have had a good relationship in the time that we have shadowed each other, and he knows that I do not share his view that I am trying to quote selectively. I recognise that there is still work to be done by the Provisional IRA, but I say to him genuinely and honestly that I believe in the IMC report, and my understanding is that the Provisional IRA leadership are now committed to a political, peaceful role for their ends.

The task for the next few months is to secure that response by all members of the organisation in all parts of Northern Ireland. The IMC report in October or November this year will be critical to the judgments made by hon. Members. I hope that they can have sufficient confidence to go into the Assembly during May on that basis, but I recognise that they probably will not for the reason that the right hon. Member for North Antrim gave yesterday—namely, that the conditions are not right. However, I do not believe that including such provisions in the Bill will assist in making those conditions right. The IMC report is vital in this respect.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Does the Minister accept that it is not sufficient merely for the IMC to say that criminality and so on has ceased, but that there is also a need for those who wish to be involved in the Assembly to give full and unequivocal support to the police? It is a case not only of stopping carrying out criminal activities, but of supporting those who are trying to deal with criminality.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Absolutely; I agree 110 per cent. with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to the day when Sinn Fein Members—and SDLP Members—take their places on the Policing Board. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that adherence to the rule of law is fundamental to the operation of a democratic society and that support for the police in operating in that legislative framework is important. When we debated the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, we discussed the way in which we can, I hope, devolve policing and criminal justice in due course. I understand where hon. Members want to get to, how they want to get there, and the barriers that prevent them from participating in the Assembly, but putting in a legislative framework will not meet that objective. They need certain conditions to be met in order for their confidence to be restored and for their trust in the process to go forward. That is self-evident from their speeches yesterday and today.

I do not believe that amendment No. 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, would add anything to the Bill. I hope that I say that in a helpful mode. Leaving aside the slight oddity of one Bill binding this House to the passing of a further Bill, I cannot see how the amendment would have any practical effect, because the Bill already sets three conditions that must be met before devolution can be restored.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned redesignation and the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We have acknowledged that several parties have major concerns about institutional matters that they want to be addressed before the restoration of the Assembly. I am happy to have discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland, including the hon. Gentleman's sister party, the Alliance party. We will talk to David Ford and other colleagues to see whether we can get accommodation and agreement between his sister party and the other parties that are represented in the Assembly. That is essential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already dealt with this point. By definition, the conditions will not be met until legislation is in place.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am grateful to the Minister for giving the answer for which I was looking. The amendment was merely a probing amendment. Can he confirm that he will be willing to have such meetings with parties that are willing to make that contribution within, say, the next eight weeks? I ask for that because it has taken us a very long time to get from the original correspondence to a situation where the Government are expressly accepting that some things may need to change.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 5:15 pm, 27th April 2006

I am happy to have discussions with the parties. I would not wish, for my benefit, to put a time scale on them at this stage—contradictory as that may seem. The hon. Gentleman knows that as well as dealing with legislation and other matters, we are running Departments in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office therefore has a heavy work load. I will consider the issues and we will hold discussions. However, on the basis of those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press his amendment No. 1 to a Division.

I am grateful for the debate, which was helpful, but I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, North will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have listened carefully to the Minister's response. I am grateful for his recognition that the IMC report shows work in progress by the IRA. When we listened to some press reports and comments before it was released, it appeared to some of us that there was an attempt to spin it to suggest that no Unionist could now use the IRA as an excuse in the context of restoring devolved Government. Mr. Robertson was right to say that it is essential to examine the IMC report carefully in the round.

It is clear that progress has been made. As we said yesterday, we believe that the Democratic Unionist party can claim much credit for that. Before our position became the dominant one in Unionism, there was a view that the way to get the IRA away from violence was to bring it in and let the violence, drug dealing, intimidation and racketeering continue because being in government and having access to power would gradually wean it from all that. In fact, it had power and continued with its violence, racketeering and so on. We have made it clear that there must be an end to all that before the IRA can access power or authority. That strategy is working. Let us continue to keep up the pressure.

The Minister signally failed to answer the question of what was so magical about the deadline of 24 November. He did not provide one reason or argument to persuade people that the process would be complete by 24 November. No one can say when it will be completed. We all hope and pray, for the good of the people of Northern Ireland, that it will be completed sooner rather than later, but how have the Government arrived at the date of 24 November? No one can say that the IRA will have completed the transformation by that date. We therefore believe that it is wrong to pull down the curtain on the prospects of restoring devolution simply because the IRA may not have fulfilled the necessary conditions to allow Sinn Fein to be part of an Executive in Northern Ireland.

The debate has been useful and we shall not press amendment No. 14 to a Division. Although we believe that it would be useful to include such a provision in the Bill, and we will take account of it along with several other issues when those matters are decided, we will not press it today. However, we shall press amendment No. 10, which covers the deadline, to a Division, for the reasons that I have enunciated. I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and his colleagues. We hope that as many hon. Members as possible can join us in the Lobby.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 64, Noes 256.

Division number 218 Orders of the Day — Northern Ireland Bill — Clause 2 — Selection of persons to be Ministers on restoration of devolved government

Aye: 64 MPs

No: 256 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.