The Business Committee has agreed that Members will be called to speak to the motion according to the usual conventions and that the first round of speeches will be limited to 15 minutes, with subsequent Members being allowed 10 minutes. The debate will continue until all Members who have indicated that they wish to speak have been called to do so. I intend to send a copy of the Official Report of the debate to the Secretary of State.
That the Assembly notes the work of the Committee on the Preparation for Government and the report on Institutional Issues. — [The Secretary of State.]
I begin — and I am almost embarrassed to do so, because it sounds like a ritual — by expressing our appreciation to the officials and to all those who serviced the Committee on the Preparation for Government (PFG). However, it is not a ritual, because those Members who gave up their summer to sit on the PFG Committee will recognise that the staff may not have anticipated that they would be spending the summer months on the preparation of so many reports, of which the ‘Report on Institutional Issues’ is one.
It has been no small task for them to distil the key conclusions from such a volume of work. However, we have a report, which may be purchased for 36-odd quid. That price is bound to ensure that it will be on the best-sellers list before Christmas; it is something that everyone will want to read.
The members of the Committee on the Preparation for Government at least had in common the fact that they wanted devolution in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly there was suspicion about the motives of one group or another — all of us had vested interests. What deters people from making essential changes is the protection offered by the Belfast Agreement. To some, it is as though it was written by the hand of God, and departure from it would be sinful. To some, making an adverse comment on the Belfast Agreement is like insulting their wives. In fact, one would probably get off with insulting their wives a lot easier than one would with making some adverse comment about the Belfast Agreement.
That is particularly true of the SDLP. The notion that the Belfast Agreement was imperfect, or that there is something faulty, or lacking, in the structures that the agreement created, is met with incredulity on its part. That party had better face up to the reality that the agreement has failed. The structures set up by the Belfast Agreement have collapsed. The fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for so long demonstrates that failure. Denial will not resolve the issue. All parties must be candid and realise that change is necessary.
Some of us are reluctant to say: “We told you so”, but nonetheless: we did. The DUP pointed out fundamental faults at an early stage; we said that changes were needed for to bring about stability, accountability, effectiveness and efficiency. By their very nature, coalitions are difficult creatures, and mandatory coalitions all the more so. I will return to that point later, if time allows. The kind of mandatory coalition that is a part of the existing structures is not a democratic form of government. By the nature of mandatory coalition, the Government do not change. There may be some variance in the quota that each party might have, but the shape of the Government does not change, and voters do not get what they want. Under mandatory coalition, candidates do not win from voters a mandate for certain things to happen and, once elected, implement that programme. Rather, mandatory coalition always works to the lowest common denominator. Whatever views the electorate may hold on issues, it cannot make the necessary changes.
I recall being told in television studios by other politicians and reporters that the Belfast Agreement was here to stay, that there would be no changes to it and that there could be no alterations in its institutions. No one, we were told, would negotiate with the DUP. Now people complain that the DUP is not negotiating with them. This report is evidence of a broad view that change is needed. Some progress has been made, to the extent that people now recognise that progress can be made and that the structures set up under the Belfast Agreement are far from perfect.
The key issues raised in the report show that the chief faults relate principally to accountability. There is no more fundamental issue than that of accountability.
Of all the issues in a democracy, accountability is chief. It goes to the very heart of the democratic system — the responsiveness of the Assembly and the Executive to the people, and the collectivity of an Executive. Some Members of this Assembly have had experience of the previous Assembly; no one who had that experience could fail to recognise — at least in their heart, if they cannot admit it publicly — that the process did not work and needed to be changed. There were instances when ministerial decisions were taken that did not have the support of the relevant departmental Committee, the Executive or the Assembly. Such a situation cannot arise in a democracy — there must be a higher degree of accountability.
The DUP’s view of accountability is different from that of the SDLP. Over the years, it has transpired that, to the SDLP, accountability is more a matter of answerability — the ability of people to ask questions of a Minister. However, accountability goes beyond that. It allows an Assembly to call a Minister to account and say that the Minister’s view is not that of the Assembly or of the community. As far as the Assembly and democracy are concerned, that is a most fundamental issue.
The report by the PFG Committee dealing with institutional issues recognised that some fundamental changes were therefore required. Although other parties were not willing to put their hands up and say that those changes were deal-breakers for them, the DUP had no reluctance in saying that those changes were so fundamental that they must be dealt with before devolution could be restored.
A series of other important issues was raised, but they never became deal-breakers. Nonetheless, we recognised that they must be addressed. The Committee identified a swathe of issues that it believed a new Assembly could address, but which were not so urgent that they needed to be dealt with at the pre-devolution stage. Therefore, a series of agreements is mentioned in the report, limited though they may be. There are also matters that have not been agreed, but which can be dealt with by an Assembly in due course. Then there are further matters that have not been agreed but which must be agreed before devolution can be restored. I hope that that section will be considered when the parties go to St Andrews.
I hope that the Secretary of State and the draftsmen in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) or beyond have been following the work of the Preparation for Government Committee and have considered the issues from the comprehensive agreement that were flagged up. I do not know whether we will receive a report from them by the time we get to St Andrews; it would be most helpful if we could. Those issues clearly have to be dealt with, if not at St Andrews, then in the weeks, months and, perhaps, years that follow, depending on whether progress can be made.
The next issue on which I want to comment is the election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The comprehensive agreement proposes one way of dealing with that matter, although some people — particularly in the SDLP — believe that the purpose of that proposal was to deny them membership of an Executive. I do not think that we ever received a satisfactory answer from the SDLP as to why it would want to be part of an Executive for which it was not prepared to vote. I still await a response to that. However, there cannot be a mandatory and automatic system for the election of Ministers but not a mandatory and automatic system for the election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The SDLP cannot duck that issue; it must be one or the other.
The issue of the election of a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister should be put in bold relief, considering the difficulties that the previous Assembly experienced with simple matters such as the appointment of a Speaker. We went through the first mandate without reaching agreement on the appointment of a Speaker, yet now there is an expectation that Members will simply put up their hands to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister. There were difficulties in the previous Assembly when the SDLP was the lead nationalist party, and there may be greater problems now, given the Assembly’s present numerical make-up.
A mandatory coalition lies at the heart of the problem. The Democratic Unionist Party published a document entitled ‘Devolution Now’, in which it stated its preference for a voluntary coalition. That preference was not simply a method of avoiding some unpalatable choices. The DUP recognised that, if one cannot have a majority Government made up of one’s own party, a strong and stable Government must be made up of like-minded people, who substantively agree on policy and other issues, working together. That is the reality.
However, a voluntary coalition can also pose difficulties, as can be seen in the Republic of Ireland. A mandatory coalition would be a more difficult proposition, even if all the parties were to proceed on the basis that they trusted each other’s bona fides.
I would be grateful if the Member were to answer a succinct question in his three remaining minutes. Is the DUP in favour of an acceptable mandatory coalition, or is it, like Jim Allister, against such a coalition under any circumstances, of which Mr McCartney was given an assurance? I ask the Member to clarify whether the answer is yes or no.
If I ever thought that it were possible to get a yes or a no answer from the Member who has just spoken, I would ask many a question. Usually he gives such woolly and convoluted responses that it is difficult to get an answer. He may have been better not asking the question but listening to the rest of my comments on the matter.
The difficulty, therefore, is greater if one attempts to form a mandatory coalition with those who have a murky history. Mandatory coalitions around the world have only occurred in exceptional circumstances. Perhaps such a coalition was justified in South Africa where a Government of reconciliation was formed, through the Government of National Unity (GNU), to bind the nation together as it came out of conflict. It was also justified during war years when, again, it was necessary to bring people together. In all those circumstances, mandatory coalitions were temporary.
During the Committee’s deliberations, DUP representatives recognised that, if there were a mandatory coalition, which is not this party’s preference, it should be temporary, and that structures should be put in place to change that into a more democratic, responsive form of government.
We have yet to get any certainty about that, but it is an essential ingredient. In my speech yesterday, I outlined that it is necessary to ensure that, in the next couple of weeks, we do not impose on the people of Northern Ireland and on future generations a system of government that is inherently undemocratic. I put it to the SDLP, because the offer still stands today, that there is an alternative. The alternative is a voluntary coalition in which those who believe in democratic values come together. The offer is still open to the SDLP if it is prepared to accept it.
I welcome the report and the final PFG Committee debate, although we may have others on upcoming reports of the economic challenges subgroup.
I thank the Chairmen for their independent stance, the Committee staff for their hard work and my party colleagues for giving up their summer to beaver away on the Committee.
It is worth noting again that this was the first time in Northern Ireland’s history that members of all five main political parties sat in a room together to discuss the key issues that prevent there being a Government here. In most cases, the parties operated in good faith. Sinn Féin, however, was objectionable at the end; perhaps that is in its rebellious nature. Useful work has been done, as can be seen in the substantial reports and is backed up in Hansard. Agreement has been reached on some issues, others have been parked for decision from the Assembly, when it is up and running, and some are deal-breakers that will be debated in Scotland.
Most of the issues that are raised in the report were raised during the reviews of 2002 and 2004. Everyone has understood for some time that the Belfast Agreement was not perfect and that there are areas that need improvement — with regard to effectiveness and efficiency — and tweaking. My party’s point of view is that the Belfast Agreement has never been sacrosanct. Its key tenets were right and still hold, but certain issues need to be improved. Many of those issues reappeared in the comprehensive agreement. The DUP likes to believe that it invented some of them, but that is not correct; most of those issues were raised during the reviews of 2002 and 2004.
Despite what Mr Robinson has said, I believe that the parties will be discussing the Belfast Agreement in Scotland. It will be the core element of a settlement in Northern Ireland. A few skirts may need to be put onto it in order to hide the DUP’s embarrassment at its acceptance of the comprehensive agreement and its efforts to persuade its backwoodsmen that it is correct. In essence, it is the same as the Belfast Agreement. The Ulster Unionists will help the DUP as best it can to get over its embarrassment on that issue.
Does the Member agree that the DUP has done more than just buy into the Belfast Agreement since December 2004? Rather than merely considering an all-Ireland civic forum and an all-Ireland parliamentary forum, the DUP members of the Executive were committed to supporting such bodies.
I thank my hon Friend for his intervention. The comprehensive agreement contains many strange proposals, one of which is the proposal for the election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. That was a vital issue during negotiations on the original agreement, because there was no trust. It was decided that the essential nature of the office was a joint one and that its job would be to co-ordinate issues. From that office would come the nominations for North/South bodies, so that there would always be agreement between the communities as to who should attend. It is fair to acknowledge that there were difficulties between the personalities involved. However, the essence of the office itself was right, and continues to be so.
Clearly, DUP members were going to have difficulty with putting up their hands for a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister — perhaps even Mr McGuinness. The cunning plan that the DUP devised in the comprehensive agreement was that the largest party from the largest denomination would select the First Minister and the largest party from the second largest denomination would select the Deputy First Minister. Afterwards, d’Hondt would take effect and there would be rounds of votes. Therefore, instead of voting for one Sinn Féin Minister, the DUP would be quite happy to vote for five others. That is fine as long as it saves the DUP’s embarrassment for reverting to the Belfast Agreement.
It is most gratifying to see that clause disappear off the radar, because it would have been strange for the DUP to have thrown out the SDLP and Ulster Unionists and remained in Government with Sinn Féin by itself.
Madam Speaker, I am having trouble with some burbling to my left. We seem to have — [Interruption.]
As can be seen from the series of Hansard reports of Committee meetings, several further interesting matters were introduced. Although they do not appear in the main body of the report, Hansard shows that the DUP is trying, as far as I can gather, to separate the roles of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Not only is the DUP trying to separate the roles in the voting system, but it has also expressed the view that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister need neither meet nor appear in public together.
Another suggestion was to divide the Office of the First Minster and the Deputy First Minister, thereby giving the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister separate roles within that Department. Constant attempts are being made to divide those two posts and to interfere with the joint nature of the office. The attempt to remove the central safeguard of the Belfast Agreement, which is the joint nature of that office, presents a big problem for my party and, I suspect, for others.
There is a clear need for accountability. However, it is odd that red herrings are constantly being thrown about how Ministers in the first Assembly were not accountable. Two particular examples involved the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Ms de Brún closing the Jubilee maternity unit and Mr McGuinness writing off the selection procedure.
People do not understand how those two things happened, but it is quite simple. The case involving Ms de Brún came about because, between November 1999 and April 2000, there was no Programme for Government and no agreed system as to what should be done. In the melee, the Minister was able to get away with the closure, despite the fact that there was no agreement in the Executive with her action. After 1 April 2000, a Minister could not have got away with that.
Mr McGuinness’s slaughtering of the grammar school system was a fit of pique on leaving office. Had the Assembly not been suspended in October 2000, it would have been impossible for Mr McGuinness to do that; he would never have got it through the Assembly or the Executive.
Perhaps the Member will inform the House who was responsible for the suspension of the Assembly from 1999 to 2000. My recollection is that it was the then leader of his party, who was disappointed —
The responsibility for that clearly lay with Sinn Féin, which was being silly about the entire process. It was not possible to continue in Government with Sinn Féin adopting such an approach. However, that does not take away from the fact that had the Assembly survived, under the rules in place at that time, Martin McGuinness would not have been able to act as he did. It is odd that the direct rule Ministers and civil servants proceeded with an issue that four of the parties would not have supported on the Floor of the House. They proceeded and have since continued with ending the selection procedure, leading to potential chaos in November.
At the end of the report, there is a substantial and useful body of work on the ministerial code. The code was in draft form in 2000 and 2001, and the Committee managed to dig out subsequent amendments. The report contains the up-to-date draft ministerial code, which includes the modifications. The Secretary of State has tasked the PFG Committee to produce an agreed ministerial code in October. It would be encouraging to ensure that there are safeguards and accountability within the Executive.
Mr Robinson knows that we are discussing whether some parts of that need to be included along with the Pledge of Office and other matters in legislation. However, that will be a matter for the PFG Committee when it discusses the substantive issues.
I wish to deal briefly with North/South bodies. As Mr Nesbitt said, the DUP consented to all sorts of additional North/South bodies, such as civic forums, in the comprehensive agreement. Also included in the PFG report is an SDLP document entitled ‘North South Makes Sense’. During the negotiations for the Belfast Agreement, the North/South issue was very difficult, but unionists recognised that nationalists needed some expression of their Irishness. So in strand one we had the Assembly in Northern Ireland, and in strand two we had agreed North/South bodies. It was clear to everyone that those areas were agreed and made sense to everyone — the Republic and ourselves — and that they were controlled, in that we had six bodies and six areas of co-operation.
Unfortunately, we discovered shortly after suspension that the Governments and the Civil Service did not see it like that, and were attempting to go forward with the North/South bodies and allow them to operate and expand. We managed to stop that, and they remain on a care and maintenance basis. However, one can see from the comprehensive agreement that attempts have been made to expand those bodies dramatically, and that concerns us.
It is unfortunate that there is the suggestion that “Plan B” — should the Assembly fall and be removed — will involve “North/Southery” continuing apace and expanding. That was not the deal. The framework document of 1994 fell because it gave Sinn Féin and the SDLP the ability to bring down the Northern Ireland Assembly and expand North/South issues: it was stopped at that stage. The agreement was absolutely clear; there is a clear link between strand one and strand two — if one goes, the other goes too. Broad unionism will be extremely exercised if we end up in November with the Assembly being brought down while North/South issues continue.
That is a matter for the DUP to consider when it begins to look at making a deal. The review of public administration has the potential to re-partition Northern Ireland, and broad unionism will not forgive the party that sits back and watches that happen. Likewise, some steps need to be taken as part of the agreement. The DUP keeps telling us every two minutes that it is the lead party in unionism and is therefore responsible for unionism. It has a responsibility for doing something to make sure that “North/Southery” does not continue at an advanced pace after November. I support the report.
I would like to express my appreciation, as others have done, to the staff who serviced the PFG Committee throughout its deliberations, and on institutional issues in particular. In a perverse way, I enjoyed many of the encounters in the Committee. I am not suggesting that we should continue in the same vein all the time, but nonetheless there was an element of satisfaction to be gained from participation in it.
We would all agree that the devil is in the detail. This report is about detail; the detailed procedures that would guide us in an Assembly, its Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), the British-Irish Council (BIC) and so on. Because the devil is in the detail, it is important to get those details right, not just to the satisfaction of one party, but to the satisfaction of all. That means that we have to continue to work hard to achieve the necessary compromises.
Before we can successfully address the details that remain to be resolved, we need to know that our work will not be in vain. Much has been made of the allegation this morning of the difficulties that existed throughout 1999 to 2002 with the Executive, the Assembly and so on. However, it is important to recall that difficulties with the operational procedures of our institutions were not the cause of suspension; rather the failure to meet more fundamental commitments.
Addressing those details in the PFG Committee dealing with institutional issues should not impose obstacles to restoration. Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement made provision for reviewing procedures in an orderly and regular manner, and there is little doubt that we would have engaged in that process had suspension not occurred. During the PFG Committee meetings, I recall making the point that the SDLP regards the Good Friday Agreement — like other constitutional and political agreements — as a living process. That process must learn from experience and make changes where necessary, and if significant change is determined by our experience, I hope that we will agree to make that change.
The SDLP has never adopted the head-in-the-sand attitude alleged by Peter Robinson earlier. I challenge him to cull the reports of the Committee and point to where we adopted a negative, no-change attitude towards the operational procedures of the institutions established by the agreement. The SDLP adopted a positive approach and will continue to adopt a positive approach where the lessons learned suggest that it should.
If we do not know whether our institutions will be restored, there is little point in torturing ourselves about the election procedures for a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, much less with the numerous procedural issues that would be contained in the ministerial code, or with how to achieve greater accountability and efficiency in our political institutions.
The essential challenge before us over the next few weeks — and particularly during our talks in Scotland next week — will be to convince ourselves that we can restore the Assembly and all the other institutions. If we can succeed in that, there will be an unavoidable imperative to resolve the outstanding operational details enumerated in this report. The greatest challenge that we have to face with our restored institutions will be to breathe a new sense of self-respect among ourselves so that we can work together and begin to put the pain of the past behind us. We need to build a society that shares a collective sense of responsibility for taking decisions that will be to the mutual benefit of all: not a society that operates in two separate domains where each section glowers enviously at the other side; where what one side gets is jealously measured against what the other side does or does not get; and where sectarian interests and attitudes — and not co-operation — rule.
Putting the pain of the past behind us will not be easy, and we will never be able to do that completely. However, to help with that, we can cease to allow the past to dictate the future, colour our relationships and determine that we can behave only as we did in the past.
I believe that that is what most people who wish us success in our talks want to see happen. If we can convince ourselves that we will restore our political institutions and face the challenges of building a new society, we can turn to the operational details that are discussed in the report. However, we should bear in mind that, since much of the clamour for change to the operational details comes from the assertion that neither the Executive or the Assembly worked and that much of the fault for that lay with the procedures — the rules and regulations that governed the operation of all the institutions — some people have an impression that the power-sharing Government was a failure. I reject that analysis as over-simplistic. Yes, lessons can be drawn from that experience, and we would be foolish to ignore them.
The SDLP acknowledges that changes for the better can be made to how we make decisions and to how we operate the institutions. We submitted detailed recommendations and suggestions to improve the workings of our institutions. However, against the backdrop of ongoing attacks on the Good Friday Agreement and crises that arose from a failure to meet commitments on decommissioning, all of which were constant threats to the institutions’ stability, the Assembly and its Executive functioned, as did the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. Decisions were taken to the mutual benefit of all, and, indeed, the basis for further progress was being laid.
Although we accept that some operational changes are required, those changes should not imply fundamental change to the Good Friday Agreement. They cannot be used as a cloak to save party blushes or, worse still, to allow for vetoes, unnecessary exclusions and impediments to the smooth operation of any of the institutions.
The changes to be made to the operation of our institutions must better enable, not inhibit, joint leadership and co-responsibility at the levels of Executive and First Minister and Deputy First Minister. To call for collective responsibility yet not look for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to exhibit collective responsibility would be a contradiction. To call for greater ministerial accountability that would inhibit Ministers’ leadership role would also be contradictory. To call for greater accountability on North/South matters that would unnecessarily impede decision-making on developments that would benefit people in both parts of Ireland would, likewise, be contradictory and counterproductive.
If there is a genuine desire to make our institutions more efficient, more effective, more accountable and less cumbersome, the details that must be resolved will be resolved without great difficulty. However, if the motive is to inhibit, to curtail or to set boundaries to what is possible and desirable, resolution will not be easy. Indeed, it may prove impossible, so we must be clear about where we are heading. The big picture must be resolved, and resolved quickly. We require clarity and commitment on working in genuine partnership in all our institutions. Clarity and commitment are needed on policing, on upholding the rule of law and on putting criminality, in all its forms, completely outside the political realm.
Let us grasp the opportunity; let us restore hope as we move to restore our institutions. Difficult as it may be to imagine how we can work together against the history of division and violence to which we have all contributed in one form or another, let us have the courage to take the steps that will enable us to do so.
Finally, and in anticipation of next week’s talks, I offer a rare, or even unique, compliment to the DUP for having invited Archbishop Brady to a meeting next week. I do not know whether Dr Paisley regards the meeting as being between Old Testament and New Testament prophets. However he regards it, we hope that it will be fruitful and set a positive tone at the beginning of the week in which we are to meet in Scotland. I hope that it will make a major contribution to the healing process that I hope Scotland will expedite and that it will help to ensure the restoration of our institutions.
Madam Speaker, I beg indulgence for the hesitations during my speech, which were due to my cold.
I will take the advice of the leader of the SDLP and not say how much I enjoyed the meetings of the Preparation for Government Committee in the hope that that will protect me from Dr Farren’s cold or possibly from a more serious illness higher up the body.
I join Peter Robinson, Seán Farren and Alan McFarland in the opening ritual that has marked all these debates: expressing our thanks to the Committee Chairpersons, the Committee staff, the other support staff in the secretariat, the doorkeepers and even the catering staff in ensuring that we got the work done through the summer. I suspect that without the significant support of our staff, the Committee would not have managed to produce its three reports.
One of the embarrassing things for me — although perhaps less embarrassing for him since he has left the Chamber — is the number of occasions on which I found myself agreeing with Peter Robinson. In case that is excessively embarrassing for members of the DUP —
Peter Robinson referred to other parties not being prepared to set preconditions. Let me make it clear where the Alliance Party starts: we did not enter the PFG Committee with a set of preconditions; we were not there to set obstacles to progress. What we did during the work of the Committee — and will continue to do today; at St Andrews; and right up to 24 November — is to highlight issues that we believe will require attention if stable, durable and sustainable institutions are to be restored.
Those issues may not be preconditions; it may be entirely possible that the quick fix that was attempted in December 2004 may be cobbled together between the two largest parties and the two Governments. However, we do not believe that such a proposal would provide the people of Northern Ireland with the stability that they expect and deserve and which they have a right to see us working for. We are not interested in a quick fix, because we do not believe that it would provide long-term government. We must deal with the fundamental issues that have shown the flaws in the working of the agreement.
There is a danger. Look at the Governments’ last attempt: the so-called comprehensive agreement was comprehensive neither in the people who were involved in it nor in the issues that it covered; at the end of the day, it was not even agreed by the two parties involved. It was a good example of Orwellian doublespeak. The so-called comprehensive agreement was an attempt to address short-term problems without making any real effort to tackle the long-term underlying difficulties. The Alliance Party will not take part in that, because we are not interested in a superficial process that could lead to breakdown in six months’ or a year’s time. This is the opportunity to get things right.
Alan McFarland said earlier that everybody agrees that the agreement must be modified, and he is right. The problem is that some people respond to such a statement by saying that they do not agree and that they are working under the terms of the agreement; other people respond by saying that they are not, in fact, modifying the agreement. In practical terms, that is what the Preparation for Government Committee has been doing over the summer.
It is important that the flaws in the agreement are considered. The final document was cobbled together in the last few days of negotiations, and there are problems with some of the operational details. There were major problems with the agreement’s implementation. Changes in the balance of power do not make the Good Friday Agreement “mark I” — the original agreement — workable or easy to operate.
We must deal with problems such as the institutionalisation of sectarianism, which is evident in the current working of the agreement. The current arrangements mean that there is a politics of “them and us” rather than that of a shared future, which is stated Government policy. We must ensure that there is a system that rewards accommodation rather than grandstanding, so that we do not find ourselves in a position of intra-communal outbidding, in which those who bid loudest are rewarded. Over recent years, organisations such as the Policing Board, which is based on simple, straightforward integration, have worked best.
Some of our difficulties stem from the fact that people have different understandings of power sharing. Dividing up power and giving some power to individual parties, so that they have a major say on some areas of Government work and very little say on others, amounts not to power sharing but to power division. That is what we had, intermittently, from 1999 onwards; some Members have already referred to the problems that that created. All sections of the community have an interest in all the outworkings of government. We do not need power division; we need genuine power sharing, accommodation and the promotion of an enhanced sense of collective responsibility, even if we cannot have collective responsibility as that would be understood in London, Dublin or Edinburgh. If we do not reach that point, the chances of achieving worthwhile government in this Assembly by 24 November are extremely remote.
It will come as no surprise to the House, Madam Speaker, that I wish to dwell on the issue of the voting system in the Chamber and the operation of designations. Seán Farren was almost right when he said that the problems that we have experienced since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement were not connected to the operations of the Assembly but concerned a lack of faith on matters beyond the Assembly. However, there were major operational problems in the Assembly in November 2001. Under the rules of that time, we were incapable of electing a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, until I, along with my colleague Sean Neeson and the then deputy leader of the Alliance Party, played games with the rules of the Assembly for 22 minutes. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system in which those kinds of games can be played in order to establish an Executive.
Although the DUP comes from a different perspective — and its members have still not forgiven the Alliance Party — I welcome the fact that that party acknowledges that we need a different voting system. We need a voting system that does not institutionalise divisions that result in some MLAs’ votes being worth less than others and, therefore, result in their constituents being worth less than other constituents. We need a voting system that can adjust to changing demographics and that does not allow minorities to hold up business completely and hold the Assembly to ransom. Unless we move towards the type of system that exists in other legislatures — such as a simple weighted majority — we will never move on from the problems that were exposed in the Chamber in November 2001. If the current voting system remains, we will remain hostages to fortune.
I welcome the DUP’s recognition of the virtues of weighted majority — at least as Peter Robinson proposed it in the PFG Committee — as a possible third method for carrying a cross-community vote. I regret that I never found out the Ulster Unionist Party’s view on that during all of the discussions. I regret also that the attitude of both nationalist parties seemed to follow St Augustine — they wanted to be non-sectarian, but the time was not quite right.
There has to be a time when it is right to move away from sectarianism in our society. There has to be a time when it is right to say that we are working to build a united community and a shared future, and to get away from the divisions of the past. If this is not the opportunity to do it, then I suspect that nationalists will be telling us in thirty years that the time is still not quite right.
We ought to be grasping this opportunity so that we can at least run different systems in parallel as a precursor to moving on. In practice, a weighted majority of 67% would have carried virtually every cross-community vote — there was only one vote during the entire workings of the first Assembly that would have required a higher percentage. In both votes in November 2001 the David Trimble/Mark Durkan ticket achieved more than 70% of votes in the Assembly. There is absolutely no reason why we should stick to our divisive, sectarian and outmoded system; we must move away from it.
Allied to that system is the way in which the Executive is formed. We have seen so many examples of the problems associated with mandatory coalition — in particular, a coalition in which there is almost no collectivity whatsoever. It may be that a ministerial code will address the issue slightly, but if we continue to operate on the basis that silos are acceptable and that Ministers do not have to work together, we will continue to suggest that some issues are only of concern in some areas, and others elsewhere.
As it happens, one of the examples cited has been the decision on the siting of maternity services in Belfast. Based on the medical opinion I read, I voted in support of the Minister. However, in many cases, people made their decisions on the basis that the Jubilee Maternity Hospital was in south Belfast and the Royal Maternity Hospital was in west Belfast — that was the only issue for them. If the Assembly is to take decisions based on what is worthwhile and not on the basis of sectarianism, then we need an Executive that works collectively, considers matters properly, takes account of issues at the Executive table and comes back to the Assembly with a united voice.
I thank the hon Member for giving way. Does he accept that the Health Committee, when discussing the siting of maternity services, comprised members from beyond south and west Belfast? Their view was not shared by the hon Member or the Sinn Féin Minister.
I accept that the unionist majority on that Committee — and one Member who was not a unionist, but who represented South Belfast — took a different view from that of the Minister. I repeat that I, along with the Minister, was working on the basis of the medical advice that was given. However, this was a classic example of how politics was played out between a Minister and a Committee, rather than a sensible, coherent decision being taken within an Executive in which there was collectivity. Collectivity was sadly lacking.
I noted with some amusement that when I questioned the Secretary of State at the British-Irish Association in Oxford about collectivity in the Executive — and as he has released his text, I think that I can comment on his answer to me — he said that he wanted to see circumstances in which there would be an Executive on the same basis as that in Dublin, which is a voluntary coalition operating on the basis that a programme for Government is agreed before a Cabinet is formed.
There are real lessons about good governance that we need to follow, because inclusion in governance does not necessarily mean inclusion in the Executive for all parties at all times. Unless we can establish appropriate roles for the Executive, the Assembly and its Committees to work for the good of all our people, rather than run sectarian dogfights over every available issue, we will not move the situation forward.
Part of that improved collectivity was shown in the so-called comprehensive agreement, when the idea — although not the one that the Alliance Party had put forward at Leeds Castle — arose for a collective validation of the Executive. In common with Peter Robinson, I cannot see why anyone would want to be a member of an Executive in which he or she had no confidence. That view would have been more strongly expressed had it not come from someone who was himself a Minister without sitting in the Executive. The behaviour of the DUP in the first Assembly proves the point that it now tries to make: that an Executive in which people have confidence and work together is an absolute necessity.
We must move away from how things previously operated, and that includes running the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister as a single Department. That failed. The offices of the First Minister and of the Deputy First Minister are as far apart as it is possible to be in this Building, and that is not an example of how collectivity should operate. However, it is an example of what must be done to redress the problems of sectarianism in the voting system, and in the Executive and its relationship with the Assembly. Those points must be addressed over the next seven weeks.
I welcome the opportunity to speak today. The importance of this debate lies not only in the report, but in the process that accompanied and produced it. The real significance is not as much in who sat around the table, but in what was discussed. In the area of institutional issues, in particular, we saw a breakthrough.
Today, the question is not whether there can be changes to the Belfast Agreement, but what changes are in the interests of good government in Northern Ireland.
In the draft proposals for a comprehensive agreement, both Governments accepted that the Belfast Agreement was not set in stone. Considerable progress was made, and that must be the basis for legislation this autumn. The work of the PFG Committee has resulted in a greater understanding of where each party stands and why. The absence of Sinn Féin from this debate is, once again, evidence of its lack of good faith in the process, and — whatever the true reason for that absence — it makes restoration more difficult.
The Committee covered a huge amount of material and addressed a significant number of issues. That preparatory work will act as a useful resource in the future.
The work of the Committee marks an acceptance that things must change. No longer can people live in a 1998 time warp. Circumstances have changed, and the institutions must change accordingly. For years, many people claimed that the Belfast Agreement was effectively written on tablets of stone and could not be changed. The work of the Committee ended that myth.
I remember being told on many occasions between 1998 and the autumn of 2004 that the Belfast Agreement was it — take it or leave it. It was as if the verdict of those who had cast their votes in 1998 had been frozen in time, never to be changed. It is now clear that the Belfast Agreement can, must and will be changed. Political and electoral realities meant that “no change” was never a suitable position and, although only a limited amount was agreed around the PFG table, the fact that discussion was taking place indicated that the issue was no longer closed.
Fidelity to every dot and comma of the Belfast Agreement is political dogma and not common sense; the world has moved on. It was not a credible position in 1998, and it is a ludicrous one today. Who could expect the DUP to sign up in 2006 to arrangements that it rejected in 1998? The issue of changes to the institutions was one of the main sticking points of the talks at Leeds Castle.
Nationalists have seen the DUP’s attempts to bring about changes to the Belfast Agreement as somehow being an attack on their role in helping to govern Northern Ireland. That has never been the case, as our many manifestos and policy documents of recent years have demonstrated. As a result of their attitude, nationalists have used the Belfast Agreement as a comfort blanket when they should have been questioning what actually needed to be changed. Surely what is important is that we find arrangements that unionist and nationalist communities feel able to support. Given the DUP’s position, who today can say that the unionist community supports the current institutional arrangements?
As for the SDLP argument that the institutional arrangements did not lead to suspension and should therefore not prevent restoration, that party should remember that the DUP was not the largest unionist party during the lifespan of the previous Assembly. I assure Members that had we been the largest party, the unamended institutions as then existed would never have got off the ground.
The Secretary of State indicated previously that the Government will introduce a Bill to change the institutions. We welcome that, and I look forward to seeing it. The other parties should see that as an opportunity for them and not as a threat to their positions. No one can seriously argue that, during the lifespan of the first Assembly, the institutions functioned as well as they should. Even within the constraints of an enforced multi-party coalition, things could be done much better.
For years we have been pointing out the fundamental flaws of the Belfast Agreement. Those include: the lack of accountability; the lack of effective decision-making; inefficiency; and the instability that exists in our community. Those issues should be of concern not only to the DUP but to all parties that are interested in good government. If people are interested in that, how can a system in which there is no collective responsibility be appropriate? If people are interested in safeguards for each community, how can they allow Members to redesignate with the sole purpose of frustrating those safeguards? If people are interested in accountability, how is it appropriate for Ministers to be free to make major decisions, given that they were appointed on the basis of a ministerial selection system that is no more predictable than picking names out of a hat?
The report is a welcome step in bringing about change to the institutions. The next stages of that process will be the negotiations in Scotland and the publication of the Bill that will detail the proposed changes. That will be a key test for the Government to deliver on the promise that they made previously on the institutional changes that the DUP requires. I hope that that is not seen as simply a victory for the DUP but as an arrangement that will ensure the better functioning of the Assembly.
Although some changes are now essential to allow the Assembly to be restored, the new Assembly will also have a great deal to do in its consideration of how it and the Executive operate. That process can best take place away from the atmosphere and attitudes that are often adopted in political negotiations. Unless there is long-term consensus that we are prepared to amend and review the institutional arrangements, our system will not be as effective as it should. We must incorporate provisions to allow agreed change and to meet the changing circumstances, and we must base those on experience. That is one way to avoid another breakdown.
Natural evolution has been a characteristic of the British constitution throughout the ages, and it has served our country well. It would be as absurd for every detail of how government worked a century ago to remain frozen in aspic as it would be to pretend that the arrangements that were reached in 1998 are incapable of change.
To achieve that change, some parties will have to face the reality that things have altered and that they will need to move with the times. I hope that we start to see changes in attitude in the next few weeks. If we do, and the appropriate alterations are made, resolution of this issue will no longer impede the return of devolution.
One could say that making an agreement is one thing but making it stick is another. Like many in the Chamber, I have been involved in several talks processes that failed to make an agreement. Those talks mirrored each of the failures that occurred from the 1970s and 1980s through to the 1990s.
Therefore, when the Belfast Agreement — or the Good Friday Agreement, as it is commonly called — eventually came about, I suppose that it was obvious that it would contain many compromises. However, discussions in the PFG Committee have shown that parties have moved on. We had the Belfast Agreement, then we got the comprehensive agreement, and now we have the PFG Committee’s report.
This debate concerns the Belfast Agreement, and I listened to Mrs Robinson state that it is not about DUP victories. It is about the agreement’s capacity for review, and, as Seán Farren put it, we have seen changes to operational details. The DUP is on record as saying that the fundamentals of the agreement do not contradict the party’s fundamental principles.
What has the report achieved? Although it includes a number of sensible changes, many of them were, in fact, banked before the PFG Committee was formed. Indeed, many of those changes were banked before the comprehensive agreement was drawn up. The key issue is getting an agreement that people are prepared to make work, and where there is a will, there is a way. If we really want to, we can make the changes work. Therein lies the fundamental question about the agreement, because, although the DUP said that it opposed the agreement, it worked it by taking its ministerial places and missing certain opportunities to pull down the structures during key votes.
My argument, as far as Sinn Féin is concerned, is that that party did not exactly play the game; republicans did not play the game. They did not honour what it was understood that they were going to honour. They did not do what we understood that they were going to do, and, on three occasions, the process collapsed. Therefore, therein lies the question. Because the DUP is the lead party, if, as Mrs Robinson said, this report is a breakthrough and the key test, the DUP must answer the question through its actions at the talks. A successful outcome at the talks would mean that the agreement, with the reviews and changes, would fly.
What are the essentials of the agreement? They are devolution through power sharing, weighted majority voting and the use of the d’Hondt mechanism to share out ministerial posts. All those feature in strand one of the agreement. Such an approach results in a mandatory coalition, with Sinn Féin in Government. That would be the logical outworking of a successful talks process in Scotland that meets the 24 November deadline. We have been told that that deadline is set in stone, but, of course, we all have our doubts.
Successful talks are key. Unionists want Stormont back. Northern Ireland is a unionist creation, so it is up to unionists to make Northern Ireland work. The Ulster Unionist Party sees Stormont, with limited self-government in the United Kingdom, as a key part of making Northern Ireland work, along with considering the mistakes of the past and ensuring that everyone has given his or her assent. That was the origin of the strand one model, imperfect as it is.
Another factor to be considered is strand two, which deals with the North/South bodies. There were six implementation bodies and six consultative bodies. Is that to change? No, it is not. The British-Irish Council recognises the common polity of the British Isles, because it includes the Irish Republic in the grouping of the other Governments in the United Kingdom. Is that arrangement to change? No, it is not.
Therefore, although we could talk all day — and the public, like most of us, are sick talking about the details of agreements — the key issue is whether we can get the agreement to fly. The key to doing that is to achieve a breakthrough in the talks, and that means that the DUP must accept Sinn Féin’s being in Government. That is what we are talking about. Gregory Campbell talked about Sinn Féin showing repentance. That appeared to be his test. This morning, it was reported that Jeffrey Donaldson said that Sinn Féin in Government could be considered if it dismantled the command structures of the IRA, and the Assembly has debated criminality and decommissioning. However, the Assembly will fly only on the basis of a mandatory coalition. That is the only way in which this will work.
If the DUP is not up for that, or, to put it another way, if Sinn Féin is not prepared to meet the DUP test, the Assembly cannot work — and it does not matter how many changes are made to the Belfast Agreement or to the comprehensive agreement. This is not about operational details; it is about what we were talking about before.
As far as the comprehensive agreement is concerned — and I have flagged this up before — there is agreement on the modalities of the devolution of policing and justice. In principle, we all agree that that should happen; we all agree that there are ways that it can be done; and we have all agreed, more or less, the methodology. In the comprehensive agreement, the British Government gave an undertaking that they would work to promote the necessary confidence to allow a vote to take place within two years to bring about the devolution of policing and justice, but it seems to me that that is a step that the people of Northern Ireland, or certainly the unionist community, are not ready to take.
These changes are operational not fundamental. The only way that the Belfast Agreement will work is by making it work, and these are aids to making it work. The question is whether, at the talks, Sinn Féin and the DUP will come back to something like the comprehensive agreement position, which effectively allowed for the Assembly to be back in place with the DUP and Sinn Féin.
The DUP alone is in a position to answer that question. I do not expect it to give an answer, but if one looks at the history of the three failures that the Ulster Unionists had with Sinn Féin, a key factor has to be the need for an insurance policy, which was, of course, the suspension legislation — the Northern Ireland Act 2000 — that allowed us an exit when necessary.
A key issue now is about getting rid of the suspension legislation. If the DUP were to jump when Sinn Féin shows repentance, without that legislation it would be locked into either a sticking-it-out, or scorched-earth, policy.
Although the basis may be there — and Mrs Robinson may see a breakthrough and want us not to view this as a DUP victory — the questions answered at the talks, and later, will determine whether anyone can talk about a DUP victory.
For the past eight years, the people of Northern Ireland have been subjected to highs and lows and gains and deficits in the political process.
The process has been punctuated by hope and expectancy when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and subsequently endorsed by referenda on the island of Ireland in May 1998. That hope was further emphasised when the Executive, which included DUP Ministers, was established in December 1999. The agreement provided the framework for future political institutions and developments based on the concepts of inclusivity, working together, respect for difference, equality and partnership. Most importantly, it provided safeguards and mechanisms to ensure that both traditions worked together and were treated equally in the institutions of government. Such provisions need to be sustained and protected, and the agreement is the only recipe that provides for the protection of all within the institutions of government.
So far this morning we have been subjected to the doctrinal contributions of the DUP. I hope that, over the coming weeks, that party will create opportunities not obstacles along with Sinn Féin for an accommodation upon which the institutions could be restored, providing hope and opportunity for everyone in the North of Ireland.
The hope that we recognised so clearly in 1998, which characterised the endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement, was quickly replaced by sorrow, anger, despair and a sense of weariness in the community.
When unionists were slow to act as persuaders for the agreement, that was because the IRA refused to decommission — it only did so last year — and Sinn Féin, sadly absent once again, refused to commit to a peaceful society, to policing structures and to an end to criminality. Those outside influences led to the suspension of the institutions in October 2002.
Those institutions did work, and we have already had evidence of that in this debate. Next week we will all have an opportunity to restore hope and confidence in the process through a commitment to democratic values, equality and a willingness to work all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, which have the necessary ingredients for both traditions, unionist and nationalist, to work in Government for the betterment of us all and for future generations.
We in the SDLP hope that all those who have caused problems and impediments to the process will now say goodbye to violence, terror, criminality, supremacy and sectarianism, and embrace difference, policing and a lawful society. We also hope that they will agree to work all the institutions of government, including the North/South and British-Irish institutions.
Momentum in the economy; the need to address and reduce economic inactivity; the skills deficit that we have heard so much about; the need to locate inward investment and business development in areas where there is an adequate pool of skills but an inadequate level of investment; the urgent need to address regional inequalities; deprivation and disadvantage — all those issues demand the immediate restoration of the political institutions. They need hope to replace sorrow and despair.
Communities throughout Northern Ireland are looking for hope and for collective responsibility on our part. They do not want to be subjected to punitive measures from direct-rule Ministers. At a recent evidence session of the economic challenges subgroup, the leader of the Northern Ireland Business Alliance stated unequivocally that the restoration of the political institutions and devolution were necessary prerequisites for confidence and growth in the community. Political stability, devolution and a subscription to all the institutions will give a significant impetus to economic growth in the North of Ireland and assist in the further development of economic co-operation and development on the island of Ireland.
Constant delays and hospital waiting lists for elective and non-elective surgery demand a radical re-examination of the Health Service. That can only come about through the restoration of the political institutions — with local people at the helm giving local solutions.
Cutbacks in education services that have a severe impact on children demand a children- and education-focused agenda, which can only be delivered by those who appreciate, empathise with, and understand the situation. That is why local people need to be at the helm, making decisions on education through the restoration of the institutions.
There needs to be an emphasis on the provision of economic infrastructure, and on an all-island approach to that provision, to ensure opportunities for all. We need an all-Ireland infrastructure and transportation body so that networks — whether they be ports, airports, roads or railways — are linked to provide greater opportunity and greater wealth in local areas. There also needs to be an emphasis on the construction of roads that will contribute to the local economy and remove bottlenecks and delays in town centres. This will require imaginative solutions by those who understand and care about the future growth of our economy and about people. Only we can deliver that, because direct-rule Ministers do not really understand our needs or our past and current problems.
There can be no à la carte approach to the working of the institutions or to the agreement. Each of us must subscribe to the full menu, and we must work to ensure the full restoration of the institutions on this island, including the Assembly, the Executive and the North/South, and British-Irish, institutions.
The SDLP has never opposed working for better efficiencies or better effectiveness. We will not be found wanting, but we want an accommodation that works well for the people of this island. My message to the DUP and Sinn Féin, on behalf of the SDLP, is: please do not create further impediments; please do not create further obstacles; seize the opportunities that are available to us now and create a better future for everyone on this island.
As I travelled here this morning, I heard a blast from the past, Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey, speaking on the radio. He took the title of Lisnagarvey, even though the only time that he stood for election there, in a council election in the 1970s, he was roundly defeated. It was perhaps somewhat ironic that he should have taken that title, but, in some respects, it is not surprising.
Lord Trimble said that the DUP did not have the moral courage to do a deal before 24 November. The DUP has the moral courage to do a deal; whether it can be done by 24 November remains to be seen. However, we will not listen to lectures from Lord Trimble about moral courage, because he allowed the most immoral measures of all, including the release of paramilitary prisoners without any deal on decommissioning.
The DUP will respond to deeds, not deadlines. We will ensure that when we do a deal we will get it right. That deal will not be like the Belfast Agreement, which David Trimble believed to be the best deal, but which did not work and collapsed three times.
I have no doubt that there is a public desire for devolution but, more importantly, there is a public demand for resolution. There is a difference between bringing about a deal and bringing about a resolution to the difficulties in Northern Ireland. The Belfast-Agreement brigade is living in denial if it believes that no changes will be made. The SDLP — certainly in the run-up to the comprehensive agreement — tried to portray the Belfast Agreement as an infallible, sacrosanct document, indeed as a Holy Grail. However, it appears that, during the deliberations of the PFG Committee, it recoiled from that position to some extent, although Margaret Ritchie seemed to be going back into pre-comprehensive agreement mode in her speech.
There are substantial differences between the positions of the DUP and the Ulster Unionists.
Does the Member not agree that the entire agenda of the PFG Committee dealing with institutional matters was structured around the basic framework of the Good Friday Agreement? Page six of the report lists the issues requiring resolution — the deal-breakers — only one of which requires explicit change to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. Talk about fundamental changes to the Good Friday Agreement is so much hot air.
Does my colleague agree that, even using the logic of the Member for North Antrim, one of the major issues that still needs to be addressed is accountability, and that changes in accountability mechanisms will fundamentally change the agreement?
I was coming to that point. Fundamental changes are required. The ‘Report on Institutional Issues’ does not stand in isolation from the other reports that the PFG Committee produced. Each of those reports requires fundamental changes to be made before agreement can be reached.
The Ulster Unionist Party considers it acceptable to have unreconstructed terrorists in Government, but the DUP’s position is that paramilitary organisations must be completely disbanded. The Ulster Unionist Party is content for Members to be Ministers by day and terrorists by night, but the DUP says that terrorism must become a thing of the past. The Ulster Unionist Party is content for ministerial accountability to be considered unacceptable, but the DUP’s position is that Ministers must be accountable to the Assembly and the Executive. The Ulster Unionist Party is content that North/South bodies be unaccountable, but the DUP’s position is that any decisions taken must be accountable to the Assembly and the Executive. The Ulster Unionist Party is content for Ministers to be opposed to policing and justice, but the DUP’s position is that support for policing and justice is a prerequisite for any party to be in Government.
I do not know from where the Member is coming, but the DUP is certainly not living in any wonderland. It is a historical fact that, when the Ulster Unionists were in Government with Sinn Féin in the previous Assembly, Martin McGuinness was taking unaccountable decisions. At the same time, he did not accept the principles of policing and justice, and terrorist activity was taking place.
The DUP will insist on forcing Sinn Féin to divest itself of paramilitarism and to become a wholly democratic party as prerequisites for entering any Government. That is only one aspect of bringing about a political agreement in Northern Ireland. The other aspect is to bring about fundamental change to the agreement, and that must be made before a new Government is established in Northern Ireland. Those fundamentals will bring proper accountability to the House — something that did not exist in the previous Assembly but that must exist in any new Government.
I want to make some comments on the three strands to the agreement based on what is contained in the report. Eight years on from the Belfast Agreement, it is clear that reform is necessary, but the record of time has in no way suggested that the agreement should or could be “smashed” — to use a term used by a party down the Chamber some years ago.
The record of recent years — particularly after the publication of the comprehensive agreement, which has been frequently cited this morning and afternoon — suggests that any so-called fair deal will be a fairly similar deal to the broad structure that was outlined in 1998.
On that basis, I will consider — in reverse order — aspects of the three strands. Crucially, strand three gives institutional recognition to the importance of the east-west relationship between these islands. There have been powerful movements of population back and forth over the centuries, as well as in recent decades. There have also been extensive trade flows between this island and the neighbouring island of Great Britain, and, very often, there has been a shared history.
The report rightly suggests that the British-Irish Council should be given greater recognition through, for example, the creation of an independent and separate secretariat similar to the secretariat that has been working in Armagh to the North/South Ministerial Council.
By implication the report suggests that there should have been — and that, if there is restoration, there should in the future be — a greater equality in number and frequency of meetings between the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
On strand two — the North/South aspect — the Committee agreed, sensibly, that there should be regular appearances before the relevant Assembly departmental Committees by the chief executives and chairmen of the North/South implementation bodies. It is important to add that there was no obstacle to that under the 1999-2002 dispensation, although it does not seem to have happened.
The 1998 agreement stated, crucially, that all three strands were interdependent. The successful operation of the North/South aspect was dependent upon having the Northern Ireland Assembly in place and operational. The former Northern Ireland Office Minister for Political Development, Mr Paul Murphy MP, speaking in the House of Commons on 8 March 1999, went further. He said emphatically that were there no Assembly, there would not, and should not, be a North/South aspect or implementation bodies.
Does the Member agree that if this Assembly collapses after 24 November, the North/South bodies must automatically come down in accordance with the terms of the agreement, and that the British Government would have to enact new and intricate legislation to resurrect them? Such legislation would have to go through the House of Commons.
I thank the Member for North Down for his intervention. He makes my point for me. I am arguing that any attempt to keep North/South bodies operating after 24 November — assuming that things in this Assembly come to a complete stop — would be contrary to both the spirit of the agreement and the letter of the Minister’s speech on 8 March 1999. In that context, the Ulster Unionist Party views with great concern what has been emerging from recent meetings, particularly the July meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The communiqué issued after that meeting strongly suggested a ramping up of the entire North/South process, notwithstanding what might happen to this Assembly.
My party has never been against North/South co-operation per se. We accepted the North/South aspect both in 1998 and in its outworking in the subsequent agreement of 1999. However, it has to be subject to two clear tests. First, it must work to the mutual advantage of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and secondly, it must be accountable to representatives elected locally in Northern Ireland.
Members should note the economic evidence suggesting that the economies either side of the Irish border are already highly integrated and co-operating to a substantial degree. The Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation — the southern Irish equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry — reported this year that the volume of road traffic across the border in both directions is already the same as that between Scotland and England, although both those countries obviously have much larger populations.
Strand one relates to the Assembly and so forth. President Abraham Lincoln of the United States, in describing his approach to politics, once said that he would appeal to:
“the better angels of our nature”.
Members of the Committee on the Preparation for Government are to be commended for working to the better angels of their nature, rather than pursuing narrow personal vested interests, on several occasions.
Some of the recommendations reflect the public interest rather than the interest of particular MLAs —for example, the recommendation that we should move towards ending multiple mandates and the recommendation that we should reduce the number of MLAs from 108. That number seems anomalous when compared to the 129 Members in the Scottish Parliament and the 60 Members in the National Assembly for Wales. The report necessarily allows for a degree of elasticity regarding the timescales for implementation of those two recommendations, but it is important that they have been proposed.
The Committee was also right to suggest that, in due course, there should be a thoroughgoing review of the distribution of the functions of the 11 existing Departments, which would obviously include the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
Some Members may find my final point a little esoteric, but it is worth noting. The Committee endorses the single transferable vote (STV) system. The Hansard report of 7 August 2006 shows that the PFG Committee considered the voting system at about 3.30 pm in the afternoon, thus it is entirely understandable that there was not a full debate on rival voting systems and psephological considerations.
It may well be that the STV system is the only system that can provide broad proportionality between votes cast and representatives who are finally elected. However, it is worth putting on record that, several years ago, Democratic Dialogue — a group with which I do not always agree — suggested that consideration be given to the so-called alternative voting system. It was used for many years in England and Scotland, until, I think, the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Democratic Dialogue argued that, in the context of Northern Ireland, the STV system does not give candidates an adequate incentive to reach out beyond what might be narrowly defined as their own communal constituency. However, it suggested that the alternative voting system could do just that.
We should also note that a number of commentators have argued that the STV system in the Irish Republic has led to excessive political pork-barrelling there. Such activity always occurs, but it occurs to an even greater extent in multi-member constituencies, and it is a waste of public funds.
I support the motion.
This debate is about institutions. The institution under which these debates take place is a monster. It is a farce and a puppet: the Speaker puts forward motions that are determined by the Secretary of State, and our Standing Orders are determined by the Secretary of State. Members come here to utilise a very limited opportunity to speak about matters that concern us.
However, we must not forget the underlying lack of democracy in this institution. To a great extent, it mirrors the underlying lack of democracy that has always existed in the political Caliban called the Belfast Agreement and the Assembly that it spawned. Almost every single principle of representative democracy, as understood throughout the civilised world, has been violated by the terms of the Belfast Agreement and the subsequent settlement. Can Members think of any place in the world where there would be enforced mandatory power sharing between the representatives of democratic parties and a party that several Prime Ministers and umpteen Secretaries of State have described as inextricably bound up with a terrorist organisation? Yet, those were the principles that the Belfast Agreement gave us.
It was born out of deceit and ambiguity. Everyone said that the agreement was the product of constructive ambiguity. One high cleric in the Roman Catholic Church said that the agreement was wonderful, as there was enough ambiguity in it for everyone. Yet, four or five years later, the blessed Tony Blair told us in one of his peripatetic speeches in Belfast that ambiguity while once our friend was now our enemy. How is that for a piece of Jesuitical reasoning?
From day one, I said that the Assembly and its Executive had no collective responsibility. All the major parties were represented in the Executive, so there was no opposition except that which was offered by the Alliance Party, myself and the other smaller parties. I also said that Ministers in turn became hares or hounds. Given the absence of any form of collective responsibility, a Minister from one party became the hare and the other Ministers became the hounds that harried. It was a joke.
An election is a basic principle of democracy that enables people to remove one Government from office to bring in another, but that is not so under the Belfast Agreement, because, broadly speaking, each election would return the same parties. There would perhaps be a Minister less in one group, but, essentially, they would be representatives from the same parties. Those parties would appoint their Ministers, and they would be responsible only to the party that elected them, not to the Assembly or to the people. There was ongoing stagnation, because it was never intended that the Assembly would develop into a working democratic body: it was simply to continue as an ongoing sop to unionists, while the mechanisms of North/South bodies gradually developed into a factually United Ireland. I pointed that out time and again, and the Assembly never did anything, because it was under the control of the British Treasury at all times.
Turning to another aspect of democratic institutions, we are told that we should have an enforced mandatory coalition in the Executive.
No, I will not give way at the moment.
That was the d’Hondt system. In fairness to the DUP, its 2005 General Election manifesto stated that it would not enter into any form of mandatory coalition under d’Hondt or any other similar method in the foreseeable future. That position was also outlined by Mr Allister the DUP MEP in this morning’s edition of the ‘News Letter’. However, that is rather different from the suggestion made by Peter Robinson this morning and in his speech yesterday that, for a time — albeit limited — there may be an acceptance of a mandatory coalition while it developed into, at some future unspecified date, something that represented normal democracy. That is similar to being slightly pregnant or “slightly constitutional”. Can one be slightly in favour, even for a limited time, of a mandatory coalition with people whom one has, quite properly, for decades condemned as the representatives of terrorism in the hope that they may become reformed? The fundamental principle of a mandatory coalition is wrong.
The DUP is correct to offer the SDLP, fellow democrats, an opportunity to enter into a voluntary coalition. Indeed, if the NIO is to be believed, Sinn Féin/IRA has undergone a Damascene conversion and soon will appear robed in pure white as a fitting partner in any democratic process. That being the case, why is it necessary to have a mandatory coalition of any kind? If Sinn Féin will observe the principles of democracy, accept the views of the electorate and no longer resort to violence or the threat of violence, what is to be feared by the normal principles of democratic government?
Why should any party — minority or otherwise — be entitled to places in Government as of right? After the last election, the Conservative Party had a huge number of Members of Parliament, and probably it will have more after the next election. However, if it is not the majority party, or one of a coalition of parties that share the same view, it is not entitled to a single place in the Government. Yet a party that has seven or more Members in an Assembly of 108 is entitled to a place in the Executive simply on the basis of d’Hondt. The whole procedure is patently ludicrous and it is a violation of all commonly understood principles of democracy.
During the past two months, there has been discussion on the minutiae of how the monster is to be restored in some attenuated form. This is a typical example of the elephant-in-the-drawing-room scenario, in which everybody walks around talking about every other matter, such as the Dresden china in the china cabinet, ignoring the fact that there is a bloody great elephant in the middle of the room. The elephant of democracy must be addressed.
I add my commendation to that of Members who thanked the staff who served the Committee diligently throughout the summer. Some Members referred to the PFG Committee as though they felt that to serve on it was more than just honourable, but a wonderful experience. Some went further and said that it was a joy and a privilege to see the historic event of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s being together in the same room. I do not know where those people have been. Some of us have been in elected forums with members of Sinn Féin for 25 years. If that party continues to adhere to criminality, violence and terror, the DUP will ignore it for the next 25 years as it has done for the past 25 years. However, if Sinn Féin departs from those activities, that will herald a new beginning that the DUP will look forward to if and when it comes.
Some people have short memories and want to imply that that there has been a historic departure from past practices.
If the hon Member will give me a chance to get started, I will happily give way to him at some point. If he does not mind, I want to get into first gear and on my way.
The issue of accountability has seized the attention of many Members, today and on previous occasions. Some Members, particularly those from the Ulster Unionist Party, have concentrated their fire on the 1998 agreement. In their eyes, it appears that the DUP has signed up to that agreement after it has undergone a little tweaking. They referred to some changes that may be agreed in the near future, or remain outstanding, as being the essence of such tweaking.
Ministers in the previous Assembly were unaccountable, as outlined by my hon Friend the Member for East Belfast Mr Robinson. They could put forward their views to the Assembly and even to the Committees that shadowed their respective Departments. Having outlined what they intended to do and listened to any objections from the Floor of the Assembly and from the relevant Committee, Ministers could go away and do as they pleased. That could, and did, happen for the duration of the previous Assembly.
If the DUP is successful, that will change. In future, as in the past, Ministers will have to come before the Assembly and Committees to put forward their views. However, in whatever way can be agreed, they must bring the support of the Assembly with them. The Ulster Unionist Party may say that that is tweaking, but it is much more than that — it goes to the core of accountability and democracy in this place.
If, under —
I am afraid that the Member will have to join the queue. If I am allowed to develop my theme, I will give way to him and to the other hon Member Mr Nesbitt in a moment.
There is a similar issue of accountability in relation to North/South issues. Under the old regime, Ministers decided, in conjunction with their counterparts from the Irish Republic, what they wanted to do. They then merely informed the Assembly of their intentions. Ministers answered questions but would not change anything, no matter what the view of the Assembly was. A move to a situation wherein Ministers, whether in the Irish Republic or in Northern Ireland, must go back to their respective Parliament or Assembly and seek the endorsement of the elected representatives is not mere tweaking; it goes to the core of accountability.
I am not sure whether the hon Member still wants me to give way.
Mr Campbell has moved on from the point on which I wanted him to give way. He referred to interchanges between the DUP and Sinn Féin that had perhaps not taken place before. Having previously refused to sit in the same television studio as Sinn Féin, the DUP clearly changed its position and agreed to do so. Is it correct that the reason given by the DUP for that was that the BBC had not provided money for separate studios? Is that a fallacious statement from the DUP?
I thank the Member for making an incorrect point. The DUP has never said that the decision had anything to do with money. It said that the provision for separate studios would not continue. Whether the DUP sits in the same studio, council chamber, Assembly Chamber or parliamentary chamber, it will not change its attitude to those who advocate criminality, terror and violence. The DUP will continue to confront and oppose those people, whether they are in the same studio or a separate one.
I am glad that the hon Member, from a sedentary position, has raised the issue of the Policing Board. I have never rationalised any repentant terrorist joining the police, and I am pleased that the hon Member has given me the opportunity to put that on the record.
Indeed, his colleague, the Member for East Belfast, Mr Copeland —
I am sorry, Madam Speaker.
Mr Copeland followed me on that programme and never raised the issue. Had I even contemplated that, I am sure that Mr Copeland would have been the first to jump on the bandwagon; the fact that he did not proves that I did not contemplate it. I know that Alban Maginness wants me to give way, and I will be happy to do that.
We have continually raised the matter of the number of offices that would exist under a new devolved structure. They need to be cost-effective. It is absurd that there was a Department of Education and a Department of Further and Higher Education. It is even more absurd that there was a Department of the Environment and a Department for Regional Development — one Department was responsible for planning issues in a wider corporate sense and the other was responsible for the day-to-day minutiae of such applications. The number of Departments can and ought to be reduced. If we are serious about making government cost effective, we should be considering the number of Departments.
Mr Campbell described the Executive as a mandatory Executive. In fact, the DUP joined it voluntarily, and Mr Campbell joined it voluntarily as a Minister. It highlights Mr Robert McCartney’s point in relation to what Jim Allister says in today’s ‘News Letter’. Does Jim Allister’s position faithfully reflect DUP policy or does Peter Robinson’s position in the Assembly today reflect the genuine DUP position?
I never cease to be amazed at the extent to which the SDLP tries to imply that there is a fundamental division in our party. I will discuss what used to be the case and what I hope will be the case under a new regime. The issue ought to be clear: of course it is a mandatory coalition. There is no option but to be a partner in a coalition, and voluntary coalition is out of the question — and it is out of the question because Mr Maginness’s party has put it out of the equation. It has explicitly said time and time again that —
I am afraid that your time is up, Mr Campbell. [Interruption.]
Order. As Members know, the Business Committee has arranged to meet at lunchtime today. I propose therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 12.33 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair) —
The PFG Committee report on institutional issues suggests that nationalists require cross-border bodies to reinforce the Irish dimension of Stormont. While there is no doubt that anything that helps to soften the history of this place is helpful, it should not be assumed by any unionist that the sole purpose for wanting cross-border bodies is a comfort blanket for being Irish — far from it. It is not helpful that that angle is constantly used by unionists to undermine the existence of cross-border bodies dealing with real issues that affect the everyday lives of people on both parts of this island.
It would be helpful if there were a greater sense of maturity among unionists, and less scaremongering about the perceived threat of cross-border bodies. We need to take cross-border co-operation away from the bogeyman syndrome and begin explaining to people just how necessary those institutions are if, as Mr McGimpsey claims, we are to reach a potential market of 60 million people in the United Kingdom and 400 million in the European Union as a whole.
Trade between the North and South is increasing, but it is only a fraction of what it should be. The aggregate trade from Ireland as a whole could be vastly increased if we had an end to the obstacles that stand in the way as a direct result of partition.
Whatever Members’ views, partition has been a costly experience, and everyone is the poorer for it. Although I have never been in the camp that believed that it could be ended by force, everything possible must be done to address the serious impediments partition imposes, North and South. Indeed, it has been a miracle that the Republic has managed to achieve so much over the past 20 years. However, that advantage will not be around for much longer, as the rest of Europe pulls down the barriers that have kept countries apart, inefficient and uneconomic.
The world is moving on at a pace unthinkable a decade ago. Who would have believed that the border that split Cyprus for 32 years is now open, with plans to create more openings? I am not suggesting that the Greeks and Turks now love each other — far from it — but, even in the troubled history of that place, there is a recognition that partition is a serious impediment to free trade and, consequently, to economic prosperity.
In our case, Waterways Ireland has provided the platform to develop rivers North and South, and here in the North there is everything to gain from that. In my constituency of East Derry, preparation is well advanced for transforming the River Bann from a drainage system out of Lough Neagh to a tourist Mecca equal to the River Shannon. Much of the work is already in place, but investment from the private sector is essential. That will not happen in a disjointed way, but under the stewardship of Waterways Ireland, which is a splendid cross-border body that has been impeded in the most disgraceful way since the suspension of the last Assembly. By putting the work of Waterways Ireland on a care-and-maintenance basis, purely for political expediency, unionists have well and truly made our people suffer.
The Coleraine office of Tourism Ireland has brought new meaning to international tourism, but sadly there is still begrudgery among unionists about its achievement. Do they ever stop to think why there are so many cars with Republic of Ireland registrations touring our beauty spots? Many of those cars have been hired in the Republic by tourists who would never have ventured into the North in the past, either because they were too scared or because they were simply not aware that the place existed.
The report suggests that the foot-and-mouth disease crisis could have been handled without a cross-border body dealing with animal health; that, surely, cannot be a serious argument.
The development of cross-border institutions is necessary and is not a threat. Take for example the vexed question of road safety. Is anyone suggesting that there would be no gains to be made through increased co-operation in practical matters such as harmonisation of laws relating to offenders who exploit the border to speed, drink and drive, and generally add to the mayhem? I think not.
Perhaps the fact that somewhere in the region of 500 people are slaughtered on the roads on both sides of the border each year is a good argument for giving the recently constituted Road Safety Authority (RSA) an increased cross-border role. I am pleased that representatives of that body are in Belfast today with the PSNI and others involved in road safety. The Road Safety Council of Northern Ireland, a voluntary body, has one full-time employee and one part-time employee. The RSA has 309 full-time staff addressing the serious issues that are making Ireland, North and South, one of the worst countries in the European Union for death and serious injury on the roads.
Part of the solution to improve road safety is, of course, better and safer roads and, if I may say so, better railways, airports and seaports. Surely it makes sense to do this on a shared basis, with the Republic of Ireland making a contribution to the development of City of Derry Airport, for example. Surely it would make very good sense to have an all-island strategy on railways, with the Republic again contributing to building a decent service between Belfast and Derry on the same principles as applied to the airport. How could the European Union say no to chipping in on what would effectively be a trans-European initiative?
Unionists have had their guarantees that the constitutional position of the North will not be changed without agreement — in the 1998 referendum, this was recognised by citizens North and South for the first time. It is therefore a bit rich for unionists to continue standing in the way of practical co-operation on an endless list of issues that promote economic well-being, better educational opportunities, animal health and, in the longer term, new enlightenment that will make the border a thing of the past — by agreement, of course. I appeal especially to the DUP to ensure that the talks in Scotland are successful in the days ahead.
This important debate is the last in the series under the auspices of the PFG Committee. I endorse the remarks of other Members — the almost obligatory, yet sincere remarks — and thank the officials involved in the Committee. I also commend your role, Mr Deputy Speaker, and that of your erstwhile colleague, the Member for Mid Ulster Mr Molloy, for so efficiently and impartially chairing the Committee. [Interruption.]
Yes, I am conscious of not wanting to go overboard.
I want to express yet again my disgust at the non-appearance of Sinn Féin. It is unsatisfactory and expresses political cynicism in the most extreme form. Sinn Féin would do well to reflect on the responsibilities that it will have in the coming days, particularly in respect of the rule of law, as we enter an important phase for the future of this Assembly and that of a possible devolved Administration.
The Committee has looked at the three strands. We looked at the workings of the Assembly, and it is my clear view that the work done by the PFG Committee amounted to a review of the workings of the Belfast Agreement. The DUP may not like to imagine it in those terms, but it is the overall framework of the Belfast Agreement that is being modified, changed or slightly amended. That general and basic framework is still in place. Sensible changes to the working of the Assembly can and should be made. However, they should not be made out of political convenience or to save political face or give political cover. I say that particularly to members of the DUP.
An interesting point about strand one issues has emerged overnight in the press: there is a clear difference of opinion among senior figures in the upper echelons of the Democratic Unionist Party. Unfortunately, the deputy leader of the DUP is not in his place this afternoon, but in press reports he has indicated that:
“while mandatory coalition would never be my party’s preference,” it might be accepted
“in very exceptional circumstances.”
In Ballynahinch, Mr James Allister, an MEP and senior DUP party figure, said:
“Little wonder d’Hondt is not used anywhere else in the world as a means of selecting a government. Also, little wonder, the Northern Ireland electorate so strongly endorsed the 2005 DUP manifesto which declared inclusive mandatory coalition government under d’Hondt as ‘out of the question’.”
Jim finished by saying:
“And, so it should remain.”
In the House, we have been told on many occasions that the DUP speaks for unionism. My question is: who speaks for the DUP?
Members of the Ulster Unionist Party know what it is like to cope with internal differences, so I have some sympathy for the deputy leader of the DUP. We wish him well as he considers those issues.
The UUP welcomes aspects of the report. All the political parties appear to agree that, at some stage, dual and triple mandates will no longer be allowed. That is an interesting issue, particularly for the DUP.
Executive accountability is important, and collective responsibility goes to the heart of this issue. Members of the previous Assembly know that it had no collective responsibility. The four parties that made up the rainbow coalition faced in four different directions on most issues. The UUP hopes that, either through the negotiations in Scotland or the ensuing talks, something can be done to resolve that issue so that we can move forward on a proper basis.
I listened carefully to Mr Dallat as he spoke about strand two issues. Strand two issues have always been problematic, not because of the concept or an unwillingness or lack of effort from unionists to engage in a meaningful relationship with the Irish Republic for mutual benefit — there is no problem with that. The problem is that there has been an insatiable greed and an absolute desire, especially from the SDLP and others, to pursue North/South issues too far. We should learn from the mistakes of the past. The SDLP’s insistence on pursuing North/South ministerial links and creating institutions that unionists were not, and will not be, comfortable with undid the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and led to severe problems with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. I want to highlight that as a possible issue that the SDLP and republicans will have to take seriously.
I am almost out of time, and still have a little more ground to cover. As regards strand three issues, the Ulster Unionist Party would like to see expansion. A proper secretariat and work programme would be very good to have if the institutions get up and running. We are also interested in the concept of a new Council of the Isles. It will be important to establish and maintain links with the rest of the British Isles and the United Kingdom. Who knows — at some future date, it may well be that the Republic of Ireland may wish to rejoin the Commonwealth.
I conclude by saying that there is much work to be done. The work carried out by the PFG Committee was useful, but it amounted to a review of the workings of the Belfast Agreement. The exchanges were useful. Although engagement was limited, it was real, and it is to be welcomed. We look towards St Andrews and we hope that the parties will address seriously all the issues that have yet to be resolved.
I want to make a statement. I want to say something that is loud, clear, unambiguous and not open to interpretation — and I will say it slowly, so that even Danny Kennedy will understand what it means.
The Belfast Agreement is dead: it was killed by the people of Northern Ireland in the last two elections. It is dead and buried because it was a bad deal for the majority of people in Northern Ireland. It was a rotten deal as far as unionists were concerned, and it was a bad deal for everyone. The only way that we will get a better future is for everyone in Northern Ireland to agree on the way forward. It is unfortunate that the Belfast Agreement failed miserably to win the support of the unionist people.
If anyone on the Benches opposite disagrees with my assertion that the Belfast Agreement is dead, then I would like to know why they have sat since July on a Committee that has agreed change upon change to the Belfast Agreement. The ‘Report on Institutional Issues’ documents in detail the numerous changes that must be put in place before all of the parties in this Chamber — and even those who have not bothered to come here — can come to any agreement that is acceptable. That is a fact.
The precious Belfast Agreement that many hold out hope of reviving is dead and buried; it is over, and the sooner the other parties recognise that fact and that we must build a new and better agreement, the better. They are the ones who have to get real. Do not cling to the old institutions. Look for something that is better and will work. The Belfast Agreement failed, and we are moving on. The sooner that others move on with us, the better.
I was listening to the radio this morning when a Mr Trimble — whom I have not heard anything about for a long time — made some comments about the Democratic Unionist Party. There he was, Lord Trimble, the noble Member for Upper Bann, saying that the DUP did not have the moral courage to do a deal.
I repeat — loud and clear so that Mr Trimble and others can hear — that when it was necessary, the DUP had the moral courage to say no when it was difficult to do so. When the whole world was against us, we said no because it was the right thing to do. We will have the moral courage and the strength of conviction in bucketloads when we have to say yes. We are a party of conviction that leads its people. We are not a party that believes in “followship”; we believe in real, decisive leadership. When it comes to deciding whether to say yes or no, the DUP will make that difficult decision. That is not demonstrating a lack of moral courage; it is a sign of strength and conviction. It is a sign of a party that is determined to lead its community because it believes in leadership.
Mr Trimble and his party were pushover unionists. They were pushed around by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. They were even pushed around by Gerry Adams. What did Gerry Adams say about Mr Trimble? He said, “Well done, David.” I doubt that Members will ever hear anyone from this party say those words in the Chamber.
That is not a point of order. Perhaps I should speak a little slower so that the Member understands and realises that the debate is about the institution in which we sit, why it is not up and running, and the desire for institutional changes. All of those points are relevant.
Earlier today, some Members heralded the debate as a preamble to the talks to be held in St Andrews. It is good that some groundwork has been done for those talks. However, in recent days, I have wondered whether the correct Prime Minister — or, indeed, correct Prime Ministers — will attend the talks. One of those Prime Ministers is a lame duck, and if the other does not do a good enough job in another place today, he may also be out on his ear. Nonetheless, those talks will go ahead next week in St Andrews.
It is important to have clarity about the obstacles that exist on the road to re-establishing devolution. Let us make it clear: the DUP wants those obstacles out of the way and dealt with so that there can be democracy in Northern Ireland. The obstacles that must be addressed are, for me, institutional, as the report has identified, and, for many, they are ideological.
Furthermore, we must deal with issues that have been identified not only in the Committee report but in other reports that concern the rule of law and support for the courts; the Police Service of Northern Ireland; a proper and adequate financial package for the people of Northern Ireland; and necessary the institutional changes. Those matters deal with the preconditions that every party will bring to the talks in St Andrews, and people should recognise that everyone will take packets of preconditions to those talks.
For the DUP, if the next Assembly is established, it must work. There is no point in having a start-stop Assembly; it must function for everyone, and it must be stable and durable. The problem with the previous Assembly, which collapsed so many times that I lost count, was that it was neither stable nor durable. Frankly, it did not work. A great deal of changes to the Belfast Agreement have been identified in the report; therefore, if we have a new agreement, people will recognise that new institutions must function and function well.
Perhaps if others had been as deliberate as the DUP in their work on those issues we would not be in the business of repairing and rebuilding; we would be sustaining something that works.
From day one of the Committee meetings, Sinn Féin’s activities have indicated that it has not yet crossed the river of no return — it has not yet reached the point of wanting to be ideologically removed from terrorism and pathologically removed from criminality. It must change. The message from this Assembly must go out loud and clear that Sinn Féin is the party that is holding everyone to ransom because it has refused to change.
On one occasion in that Committee Martin McGuinness looked at my colleagues William McCrea, Lord Morrow and at myself and told us that he did not like us and that he would never like us. I am glad to report that encouraging remark. On another occasion he slanderously alleged that certain people were trying to kill him. Of course, once the cloak of privilege was removed and he was challenged on those allegations, he did not have the bottle, the moral courage or the ability to repeat them.
It is easy to conclude that Sinn Féin came to this process to destroy it. It is not interested in building a better tomorrow or a new and better institution. It is not interested because it has had things its own way for too long and because pushovers were prepared to be pushed over by it. Those parties ought to be ashamed of themselves.
In 2002, the DUP published a document called ‘Towards a New Agreement: DUP Analysis Vindicated: A Critical Assessment of the Belfast Agreement Five Years On’. In that document we identified that there had to be institutional changes, that there should be no terrorists in Government and that there should be collective Government responsibility, accountable Departments and a rebalancing of North/South institutions. I am glad to say that at this late stage other parties are coming round to that point of view. We were glad to lead them there, and it is to be hoped that we will persuade them to sign up to it in Scotland.
I concur with the remarks of my hon Friend for North Antrim. I once again remind the House that the Belfast Agreement was not based on democracy; it seemed that the level on which we were to progress was designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The agreement was born in deceit, and I thank God that it has now been buried in disgrace. Even Danny Kennedy, one of the great friends of the Belfast Agreement, said today that it has been altered, modified and changed. Of course, we were told that it could not be changed, modified or altered. The agreement was therefore deemed to be a totally sacrosanct sacred cow that nobody could even look at. I am glad that Danny Kennedy has reached the point of making his confession; it is good for the soul. I am also glad that he now acknowledges that the Belfast Agreement was a deceitful document that did not create the democratic principles on which we could move forward.
He did not succeed.
He could not even say that his constituency is called East Londonderry. He talked about his constituency of “east Derry”. With the greatest respect, he did not stand for “east Derry”; he stood for East Londonderry. That name was in all the election material that was used in the place for which he stood. The Member should be proud of his constituency and be proud of what London has given to it; he should not be ashamed of that.
I read carefully what some of these folks say in the newspapers. For example, Reg Empey interestingly said that when his party goes to Scotland, it will want to know whether the DUP is on for an inclusive democracy, and whether Sinn Féin is on for a lawful society.
In actual fact, when he talks about an inclusive democracy, he, as one of the arch designers of the Belfast Agreement, should be humble, because the agreement was anything but democratic. On three occasions, Sir Reg was happy to include terrorists in Government — people who were inextricably linked to murder gangs — without their having to renounce their terrorism.
So, let us be quite honest, when we talk about inclusive — [Interruption.]
The hon Member Mr McClarty gets excited sometimes, but if he wants to make a speech, I am sure that he will get his 10 minutes. There will be time available to him. However, I do not think that he has put his name down to speak too often in previous debates. He does not seem to have too much to say, other than from a sedentary position.
When he referred to the Belfast Agreement, Sir Reg Empey said that he would consider inclusive democracy. That is interesting, because he is entering into a new mode. He is thinking about democracy. At least that is a step forward, because it was the UUP that insisted that Northern Ireland would have a system of government that was not based on democratic principles. That party insisted that it would not foster links with terrorist organisations.
Sir Reg Empey said also that he would determine whether Sinn Féin supports a lawful society. His party has shared power with Sinn Féin three times. Why did he not determine whether Sinn Féin supported a lawful society on one of those occasions? Why did his party not consider that before it first went into Government with Martin McGuinness, who was a member of the IRA’s Army Council? His party did not look to see whether Sinn Féin was aiming for a lawful society; instead, it became involved with an organisation that was blowing up the people of Northern Ireland. Sir Reg Empey is approaching the situation with a new mind. However, it is a pity that he did not consider Sinn Féin’s credentials on the three previous occasions when the UUP opted to share power with it.
It is interesting to note that Mr Dallat has moved on as well. In one of this morning’s papers, I noticed that he spoke about south-east Antrim: Mr Dallat’s constituency responsibilities seem to cover a wide geographical area. This morning, he said that:
“This UDA gang reckons it can transform itself into a community development body in just five years for a mere £8 million.”
Then he said that:
“Democratic society should make them a counter-offer: desist from crime and rackets and you can stay out of jail.”
That is an interesting statement: if he can say that about the UDA, why not the IRA?
Yes. He is interested in putting the IRA into Government over the people whose relatives they murdered for more than 30 years, and it seems to me that it is one policy for one community and another for the other community.
There is no room for any paramilitary group in this society. There is one legal authority in this country: the forces of the law and the Crown. The rule of law must prevail in every section of the community. The Democratic Unionist Party stands for this: everyone is equal under the law, and everyone is equally subject to the law. Therefore, it is wrong to suggest that if members of the UDA desist, they will stay out of jail. Mr Dallat let them out of jail, because the Belfast Agreement opened the doors of the jails to let out the greatest murderers, who were totally unrepentant. The Belfast Agreement let those people back into society.
There has been much talk about Scotland. There has been an awful lot of hype. People are getting all worked up, and the Governments are trying to tell us what will come out of next week. Well, let me make it abundantly clear: as far as 24 November and Scotland on 13 October, and as far as democracy is concerned, this party will not stand democracy on its head for anyone.
My party is based on democratic principles, and if there are those who think that we will be gulled by Sinn Féin/IRA’s turning on and turning off violence, as and when they like — for example, when Clinton came, the IRA turned off its violence just like that, as quickly as clicking your fingers — they are wrong. Of course, while Clinton was here, the IRA continued to plan future activity, and when he left, it carried on the actions that it knows best.
“We have jumped, you follow.”
As far as we are concerned, the DUP will not jump. If we make a move, it will be based on democratic lines and principles alone. If Sinn Féin/IRA thinks that a devolved Government here would mean the swift transfer of policing and justice powers to the Assembly, it had better wake up and smell the coffee, because I can assure Members that it is living in cloud cuckoo land as far as that is concerned.
Those who sit in this Assembly and those who have power over the people of Northern Ireland must be seen to be wedded solely to the principle of democracy and not to the power of their guns or the thud of their bombs.
That brings me to accountability. The SDLP lectured us about how, when Ministers came back from meetings of the North/South bodies, they condescended to come to the Assembly to allow Members to question them. Of course, the Ministers got up and gave a spiel; they spoke gobbledegook. They did not answer the questions, yet that was accountability. Let me make it abundantly clear: Ministers, irrespective of which party they belong to, must be accountable to the people through the Assembly.
I am glad that there are new converts to that idea — Mr Dallat did not ask for that previously. Martin McGuinness could destroy our education system with the stroke of a pen, but nobody had the power to stop him. The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Barbara Brown, was able to remove maternity services from the City Hospital and place them in west Belfast, and no one could stop her. The Health Committee opposed the move, but it could not stop her. That was totally unaccountable government. There must be accountability, and there must be efficiency. There are too many Departments. The basis of the Belfast Agreement was jobs for the boys and girls, not good government for the people. The DUP stands for efficiency, effective government — and especially democratic government. Unlike other parties, we will accept nothing less.
It is a pleasure to follow my colleagues today. I know that the Member for East Londonderry Mr Dallat would be the first to be on his feet if people were even whispering on this side of the House, yet he is carrying on a monologue from his side of the House. I hope that he will do us the courtesy of listening for a change, although I see that he is tempted once again to speak from a sedentary position. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, in this case.
Mr Paisley Jnr referred earlier to remarks by David Trimble. I was surprised that none of his party colleagues mentioned them, at least in passing. I was delighted to hear him on the radio this morning. We need to hear more from Lord Trimble, and I hope that he continues. To have the previous leader and the possible future leader speak today was wonderful. It showed people here exactly what the Ulster Unionist Party did in the past with the political process and what it is likely to do in the future. I am all for encouraging Lord Trimble to speak out more; it serves to remind people that he has not gone away and that his legacy is still very much part of what is going on. He is still part of the Ulster Unionist Assembly group, so let us hear more of him.
With regard to the current situation, we have the invitation to go to Scotland. The work that has been carried out in the PFG Committee — and I pay tribute to all those involved in producing this report for our consideration — will be the basis of some of the issues to be discussed in Scotland. However, it strikes me as a little odd that the one thing on which there was agreement on all sides of the House was that we should not go to Scotland at all. There was cross-party consensus, which was relayed to the Government, that the discussions should be held in Belfast. It would save hundreds of thousands of pounds, and we have all the necessary facilities here. We have been lectured all summer by Peter Hain about the need for Assembly Members not only to do their job but to be seen to do their job in Stormont.
It strikes me as extremely strange and counterproductive to take everybody over to Scotland at what I imagine will be incredible expense. Yet the Government, who preach about consensus and value for money, and have done all summer, rejected that. So we are off to a good start. If that is the sort of attitude that we are going to get from the Government, some of us who are going to be on the receiving end of the attempts to make us go in certain directions will just take it with a pinch of salt.
We will also look carefully at those other persuaders in society and not just at political persuaders but at persuaders from other fields as well. They give us advice and counsel, and for all of it we are deeply grateful. We will listen to them, but we will judge all of it on the basis of people’s past records. Some of the people who are telling us that things are perfect and that there is no reason not to move forward in a certain direction are exactly the same people who, eight years ago, were telling us to move in a certain direction when it was quite clear that everything was far from right.
Dr Farren, who is not here, talked — I note that a lot of people who take part in debates make their speeches and then disappear, and that is something that needs to be looked at. When one Member comes back on another, the latter is not here to hear the answers given. [Interruption.]
I hear Mr Dallat at it again from a sedentary position, and I think it should be noted that when he ever complains in future about anyone on this side of the House interrupting, he has been at it all afternoon in this way.
I did not make any reference to any particular party, and what I am talking about is the mumbling and sedentary interruptions that are going on. Mr Dallat makes a lot of that in every debate, and he is at it continually today. I think that it is unfair and needs to be pointed out.
Dr Farren — who is not here at his place — said that it was not procedural matters that had led to suspension. It is almost as if those matters, that is the institutional arrangements, do not matter. But, of course, they do.
People have talked about accountability; they have talked about the efficiency of the institutions; they have talked about the way in which things were allowed to happen that should not have been allowed to happen. We have made it absolutely clear in all of our policy documents and election manifestos that this is a key area for us, and now there is an attempt to downplay all of this, that somehow it is tweaking, making small changes or slight amendments and that everybody is operating within the context of the Belfast Agreement. It is as if somehow there has to be some kind of devolution settlement in Belfast and some kind of relationship between the North and the South and that Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom has to be recognised.
Everybody accepted that back in 1990. It was in 1991 when the Brooke talks took off that the strands were developed. Everybody recognises that that is the context and not the Belfast Agreement. Those strands pre-date the Belfast Agreement by many years, but now people are trying to say that if anything is done about devolved arrangements in Belfast, that is the Belfast Agreement. That is not the view that Mr Durkan adopted when he was talking about the comprehensive agreement. On 14 December he said:
“The Irish people may feel a sense of affront, and, dare I say, humiliation that the agreement they approved has been renegotiated behind closed doors.”
More recently he said that Sinn Féin, the Governments and other parties must reject the comprehensive agreement, because it undermines the Belfast Agreement. Well, we cannot have it both ways. He cannot say on the one hand that this all has to be rejected because it undermines the agreement and then, on the other hand, say that there is only minor tweaking and all the rest of it. These are fundamental issues that have to be addressed and will be addressed. No matter about the Committee on the Preparation for Government; no matter about the discussions. We know what sort of legislation is coming, and when we see that legislation, we will see changes to the Belfast Agreement. There will be a different form of devolution from what we had previously. Mr Durkan took a particular view there, and I hope that he has moved on a bit and that he realises that we are in a different situation from what was voted on previously. That will not stand, because it did not withstand the test of democracy or the test of time.
There are several other issues that I would like to address, but I do not have time. One example is North/South bodies. No one today has — or ever had — any difficulty with cross-border bodies that operate for the mutual benefit of people, either in Northern Ireland or in the Irish Republic. However, I picked up on an interesting remark that Mr McFarland made, referring to the need for a North/South dimension because it addressed an Irishness aspect that had to be recognised. He used words to that effect; I will read his comments more carefully in Hansard tomorrow. In my view, we must deal with North/South cross-border bodies on the basis of sensible and practical co-operation, not on the basis of political considerations. We start to go wrong when we state that we need those types of institutions for political reasons.
No. The Member has made his speech. Other members of his party are present and have not spoken, such as Mr McClarty and Mr Beggs. They could speak on this matter after me, and deal with this issue. I look forward to hearing from them, but I will not give up my time.
The desire for North/South bodies for political reasons is fundamentally in error, and that is what is wrong with that approach.
Strand 3 issues — the east-west relationship — must be addressed. Those issues did not emerge in the Belfast Agreement. We are dealing with those matters now, but our recognition of the value of enhancing those arrangements goes way back to 1991. One of the great failings of those who negotiated the Belfast Agreement was the way in which the North/South arrangements were greatly enhanced at the expense — and to the detriment — of east-west relations. That matter must be looked at very carefully.
There are other matters that I would have liked to address, but time beats me. On that note, we look forward to the negotiations in Scotland, but on the basis that whatever form it takes, whether voluntary, mandatory, or whatever, there will be no one in Government who is not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means — unlike what went before.
I do not know whether I will be the last Member ever to speak in the current Assembly, which has existed for the last few years. However, I suppose that the omens are a bit better because at least the Member for South Down is not going to be allowed to be the last Member to speak. He is, as we all know, the political Jonah of institutions in Northern Ireland. In 1992, he was the last Member of the Prior Assembly to speak, and down it went. In the last Assembly, he was the last Member to speak, and down it went. I will not let him intervene at the end of my speech, in case he also casts a jinx on this Assembly.
I make it clear that it is not our wish that this should be the last opportunity for this Assembly to sit, but it will be unless there is movement from the party that is putting up the barriers and the obstacles to the establishment of democratic and stable government in Northern Ireland. I say to the pro-agreement parties that, over the next weeks, they must stop pussyfooting around the sensitivities of Sinn Féin. If these institutions are not to fall, we must collectively bring a dose of reality to the thinking within Sinn Féin. I am afraid that, to date, that record has not been very good.
We have had a debate on policing, and there are two important related issues that must be addressed. First, the attitude of parties in this Assembly towards law and order, the rule of law, and those who have to uphold the rule of law — the police. The SDLP has, on occasion, talked tough and insisted that people should sign up to policing and the rule of law, and should turn their backs on criminality. However, when it has come to making that a condition for sitting in Government, the SDLP has shied away because they know that that is a bar that Sinn Féin cannot and will not clear. Rather than stick to that as a requirement, the SDLP has sought to lower the bar. The SDLP, the British Government and the Irish Government might be prepared to lower that bar. I am not sure where the Ulster Unionist Party stands on that matter at present; some of them do, and some of them do not, want to lower the bar.
The DUP will not be lowering the bar, because we believe that the signing up to policing and justice by all parties is an essential ingredient for a devolved Administration.
The mechanics of the institutions must also be addressed, and that is what the ‘Report on Institutional Issues’ is about. We may well find ourselves in a situation where our Government includes people who distrust one another. It is, therefore, important that safety mechanisms are built into any agreement to ensure that, in the absence of trust, there is at least a mechanism to ensure that Ministers cannot go off and do their own thing, as happened under the Belfast Agreement.
The Member for South Down Margaret Ritchie, who is not in the Chamber, said that the menu is in front of us. She described the Belfast Agreement as a menu to which there can be no à la carte approach. One must eat the lot, or one does not eat any of it.
I have eaten too much of it, and I do not intend to suffer further indigestion by eating parts of the menu that the DUP finds unacceptable. Ms Ritchie has said that the menu is delightful, and she alleges that the institutions worked. The institutions collapsed three times in four years, so that is hardly a good endorsement of what we had under the Belfast Agreement.
If devolution is restored, the DUP will aim to ensure that the devolved Government lasts, is stable, is not stop-go, and is one that gives some degree of certainty. That is why the institutions must be changed.
There has been a huddling together today of some pro-agreement negotiators and those who negotiated the Belfast Agreement. Members including the Member for South Belfast Michael McGimpsey, on this side of the Chamber, and the Member for North Antrim Dr Farren, on the other side of the Chamber, have told us that any recommended changes can be brought about by a simple tinkering with the operation of the agreement. Dr Farren said that the issues to be addressed are all within the agreement.
As the Member for North Belfast has previously told me, the SDLP leader does not share that view. He said that the issues negotiated in the comprehensive agreement undermined the Belfast Agreement. One might ask what issues were addressed in the comprehensive agreement. The issues addressed were: a ministerial code; collective responsibility; ministerial responsibility; the accountability of Ministers on North/South bodies; and the requirement to uphold the rule of law. Strangely, those issues are also included in the list of 20 proposals that were agreed by the PFG Committee on which SDLP members sat.
It is fine with me if the SDLP wants to have some political cover by saying that what is being negotiated is still the agreement. When those issues were negotiated in the comprehensive agreement, the SDLP leader said that it undermined the Belfast Agreement. However, SDLP representatives have sat down with us in the PFG Committee; they have talked about those very issues, and they have agreed that they must be addressed.
Some Members have said that there could be no change to the agreement — however they may wish to present their remarks or dress them up — but the DUP is happy that some issues are being addressed. Those issues must be sorted out if there is to be stable Government in Northern Ireland.
The DUP has the moral courage. However, while we will go into government, certain conditions must be met. If Sinn Féin is to be included in government, it has to do two things. First, it must renounce its criminal past and disassociate itself from criminals; and secondly, it must face up to the issue of policing. If those conditions are met, there will be inclusive government.
To include in government people whom you do not trust, you need such safeguards in place. That is why these changes are essential. They are not, as the Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Kennedy said, simply face-saving changes. They are required in order to ensure the stability of any future institutions. That is why they are so important. These are issues that must be addressed.
The DUP will go to St Andrews with a united voice, although some Members today have tried to imagine that there are splits in the party. Our manifesto commitment was clear: if Sinn Féin did not sign up to policing arrangements and disassociation from criminality, it could not have a place in government; if that changed, the situation could change. If we have to say “No”, we will say “No”. If we have to say “Yes”, we will say “Yes”. However, do not mistake saying “No” for simply going with the flow. We will not go with the flow. It does not matter what kind of pressure is put on us.
People in Northern Ireland deserve workable and sustainable devolved government. They do not deserve a shoddy deal, and they will not be getting one at St Andrews, I can assure them of that.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Assembly notes the work of the Committee on the Preparation for Government and the report on Institutional Issues.