HC Deb 18 April 1996 vol 275 cc851-936

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker

I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

3.55 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill, and the election for which it provides, are a means to an end. Together, they open a gateway into all-party negotiations. It is the only gateway available. I will describe why the Bill is needed.

All-party negotiations, comprehensive in their agenda, inclusive in their composition and successful in their outcome, have for years been the Government's objective. I believe that they have also been the objective of the constitutional political parties of Northern Ireland.

The history and background are well known. To promote negotiations, I know that political risks have been taken by many of Northern Ireland's politicians, sustained by the fervent wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. I am glad to acknowledge that today, and with considerable admiration.

Yet always at the root of the problem has been lack of confidence: lack of confidence that proper negotiations on the way ahead were possible between all democratically mandated parties. That lack of confidence has been built on generations of corrosive mistrust in the intentions of one community towards another, and on 25 years of terrorist activity, fundamentally hostile to democracy and reconciliation.

By proper negotiations, I mean negotiations whose participants all conform to the language used by the two Governments in paragraph 10 of the Downing street declaration made 28 months ago. That language spoke of parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods, and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process. Those, it is said, were the parties that were free to participate fully in democratic politics, and to join in dialogue in due course between the Governments and the political parties on the way ahead.

In a democracy. nobody can be expected to sit down and negotiate politically with people who do not meet those requirements. As to that, there has never been any doubt as to the proper commitment of the two Governments, nor of the parties that represent the overwhelming majority of people on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland.

The House will recall the consistent efforts that have been made to bring such negotiations about. I will not rehearse them now. The Bill, however, offers a new way forward, to bring all parties together in negotiations on 10 June. It was an idea endorsed, as a confidence-building measure, by Mitchell. It was an idea for an elective process, which would give a mandate to participate in all-party negotiations, notwithstanding that prior decommissioning had not begun.

We concluded that that was, in the event, the only available route offering a viable, direct and speedy way into negotiations. So broad proposals were set out in the joint communiqué which followed a meeting between the Prime Minister and Mr. Bruton on 28 February. The Bill stems directly from that communiqué.

I now turn to the Bill and to the Command Paper published with it. The Bill is rightly entitled a Bill for "entry to negotiations". At its centre is a scheme for the elective process to which we committed ourselves in the communiqué of 28 February. Its motive is the creation of a mandate to sit down and negotiate with all parties, and to create thereby in all the parties the confidence to do so.

The Bill itself provides in detail for elections, for a forum, and for referendums. It does not itself provide for negotiations. It is, as I have said, a gateway for negotiations, not a blueprint for them. Therefore, following a useful and constructive process of consultation, we published at the same time a Command Paper setting out the best judgment of the two Governments, who will be participants as appropriate, as to the most suitable and broadly acceptable ground rules for all-party negotiations, beginning on 10 June. The negotiations referred to in the Bill are those described in the Command Paper.

At the outset, we state the purpose of the negotiations: to achieve a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands, and to agree new institutions and structures to take account of the totality of relationships. Any participant in the strand in question, therefore, will be free to raise any aspect of the three relationships, including constitutional issues and any other matter that it considers relevant.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

This is obviously a very important Bill, and it is very important for the people of Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Secretary of State should delay his speech a little, as no hon. Member from the second largest party in Northern Ireland seems to be present.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I propose to proceed with the speech that I have been called on by Madam Speaker to deliver.

I must here make a most important point about participation. I take it from paragraph 9 of the Command Paper. Both Governments are agreed that participation of Sinn Fein in negotiations requires the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. By the IRA terminating its ceasefire, and by its abominable attacks thereafter in London, it has totally excluded itself from political negotiations. I shall return to that.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

My right hon. and learned Friend has stated again that Sinn Fein-IRA will have to reinstate their ceasefire. Will he make it clear that, this time, it will have to be permanent, that it will have to he declared to be permanent and that there must he no weasel words that fall short of saying that they will never ever return to violence?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Governments have agreed that there shall be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994, but there is a difference, and that is the requirement for the removal of the self-imposed exclusion that exists at present on Sinn Fein entering negotiations. What is new is that the Governments also agree—this is set out in the communiqué—that, at the beginning of those negotiations, it, like every other participating party, must make it clear that it is totally and absolutely committed to the six principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the Mitchell report, and at the same time additionally address the proposals made in that report for decommissioning.

Mr. Wilshire

I apologise for pressing this point, but, although my right hon. and learned Friend rehearsed the general terms, he did not address whether or not this time Sinn Fein-IRA will have to make it crystal clear that any ceasefire is permanent, for real and for ever.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I repeat the language of the communiqué and of the two Governments. There must be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. That, in the ordinary English interpretation of the language, means one that admits of no other interpretation. That is the agreement of the two Governments.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I note that the parties listed in the schedule as able to stand in the elections include Sinn Fein, while other Northern Ireland parties which have stood in elections—such as the Workers Socialist party and the Irish Republican Socialist party—are not included. Have they not been prepared to make an unequivocal statement that they are committed to Northern Ireland?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Following the consultation paper, all parties that have asked the Government to include them have been included, along with those listed in the original Government paper. No party that has asked to be included has been excluded.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

As the Secretary of State will realise, this is important to those of us who come from Northern Ireland. How will he decide that the IRA ceasefire—if it comes—is for real, if it comes only a few hours before he calls the meeting on 10 June?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I appreciate the importance of the question, but I think it sensible to view the circumstances that prevail at the relevant time in their entirety. I do not believe that it is possible to give a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question of that kind, or that it would be prudent to do so. I think that the participants will want to take into account all the circumstances that obtain at the relevant time.

Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Can the Secretary of State throw some light on the list in the second part of the schedule? Are all these parties with funny titles of western European origin? Some of us support the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in Eastern Europe, but I had no idea that we had been quite so successful.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman will discover that he has wrought better than he knew, but the organisations that appear in the second part of schedule 1 constitute, for the purposes of the Bill, the parties that will participate in the election.

The agenda for the negotiations will be open, with no outcome either predetermined or excluded in advance. A meaningful and inclusive process of negotiation must be genuinely offered to address the legitimate concerns of all traditions and the need for new political arrangements with which all can identify. That language is taken from the communiqué of 28 February, and we hold to it.

The two Prime Ministers described that as a confidence-building measure, but two other confidence measures were also said to be necessary, and they bear importantly on the process of the negotiations. The Command Paper sets them out, stating: all participants would need to make clear at the beginning of the discussions their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the report of the International Body. They would also need to address, at that stage, its proposals on decommissioning.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

One of the confidence-building measures that are required is that the parties address the principles of the Mitchell commission. What exactly does that mean? It clearly does not mean that they must decommission; it does not imply any executive action on their part. "Addressing" may merely be nodding. Could it be that certain parties could progress through the negotiations having addressed the principles for decommissioning on several occasions, but never having addressed them right to the end?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Gently and in the interests of accuracy I shall correct the hon. and learned Gentleman's nomenclature. There are principles and proposals in the Mitchell report. The principles are those of democracy and non-violence: I think that they are in paragraph 20. Thereafter, there are proposals for decommissioning: they are in paragraph 34, and, I think, in paragraphs 39 to 45.

It will be necessary in relation to the latter, because I think that the hon. and learned Member's question centres on the proposals, for consultation to establish a means by which they are addressed. That can be done in more than one way, but it should be noted that both Governments stand four square on the ground rules in paragraph 12, which I have just read to the House, of the communiqué of 28 February.

Thereafter, those principles must be addressed. "Thereafter" does not mean that that will be done other than at the beginning of the negotiating process. We shall have to secure greater clarity about the way in which that will be implemented, and it is important that the consultation should take place, and should take place soon.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

The Minister spoke about the principles being addressed. Are those to form the first item on the agenda, and must they be overcome, or will they be addressed throughout the negotiations? I am confused by what the Minister said.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Once again, I draw the distinction between the principles and the proposals. The principles are those of democracy and non-violence, and the proposals are about decommissioning. In the words of the communiqué and of the ground rules paper, the decommissioning proposals have to be addressed at the beginning of the negotiations along with the signing up to the principles that I have identified. How that is to be done is a matter for further consultation, and it will ultimately be a matter for agreement between the participants. In the light of the language that was agreed by the two Governments, it would not be sensible for me at this juncture to attempt to be more precise than that. It is a matter for consultation, which needs to take place soon. I have read to the House the passage from paragraph 12 of the communiqué.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State again. He alluded to the section in Cmnd. 3232 which mentions participants in the election making an absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence. Does he not recognise that those have long been a requirement of people who are involved in local government in Northern Ireland, and that that commitment has not been worth the time that it has taken to sign the piece of paper?

Does the Secretary of State recall an incident that affected me, in which a Sinn Fein councillor on Dungannon district council, Martin McCaughey, was conspiring to murder those of us who sat in the council chamber with him? Martin McCaughey was ultimately killed by the security forces as he was about to commit a murder. Is it not time that there was something tangible in terms of these commitments? If that cannot be found, we may finish up with a procedure that is a mockery of democracy.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's experience in the forum that he describes and in many other forums, including the military one in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to him for that. As he says, those who wish to participate in local government have to make a declaration. The principles of democracy and non-violence, which are set out in the Mitchell report and which I shall, if the House permits, read out in a minute in their totality, go much further than that. They must have some significance in addition to what the hon. Gentleman describes, because Sinn Fein has carefully and resolutely refused to sign up to them since Mitchell was published. The Government immediately signified their acceptance of those principles, but Sinn Fein did not, because it found that it would be considerably inconvenient to do so. It should do so at once.

It follows from what the Governments have set out in the passage that I have just read that any participant who refused to sign up in that sense to each of the six Mitchell principles would forfeit the right to continue in negotiations with the Governments, and, in our view, with the democratic political parties.

I think that I am justified in reminding the House of the total and absolute commitments that the joint communiqué requires. They are: to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues; to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations; to agreement that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission; to the renunciation for themselves, and the opposition of any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations; to agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations, and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they disagree; and to urging that "punishment" killings and beatings stop, and taking effective steps to prevent such actions.

Those are the Mitchell principles, which go much further than what is required of those in local government. Much significance can be attached to Sinn Fein's refusal to accept them although they are fundamental—as Mitchell says—to any democratic society.

As the Prime Minister has said, Mitchell's proposals on decommissioning cannot be ducked or left to the end of negotiations. The communiqué stated that these must be addressed also at the beginning of the discussions. As the Prime Minister said in this House: The question of decommissioning must be addressed at the beginning and progress must be made. There must be parallel decommissioning, as the Mitchell principle sets out. As the talks proceed, the decommissioning must proceed in parallel with the talks. The precise manner of that is a matter to be determined at the beginning of the talks."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 505.] How that shall he done must be a matter for further discussions with the participants.

I come now to the detail of the Bill. Clause 1 provides for the holding of an election to provide a pool of delegates. The detailed provision on the election is set out in schedule 1, which will be supplemented by an order to be made under it. The order will be subject to approval in draft after debate in this House and another place, and we envisage it being taken, if the present Bill is approved, in the week beginning 29 April.

Five delegates will be elected from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies by a list system, and a further 20 for Northern Ireland as a whole. As a necessary corollary of the constituency list system, the second part of schedule 1 sets out those who may participate. The list has been drawn up following a consultation exercise. We have taken account of the representations made to us, and have sought to achieve as inclusive a system as is practicable.

It has not been possible to please everybody—indeed, it may not have been possible to please anybody, but that is the nature of the problem with which we are confronted. It is, in our view, the best way forward in what the Prime Minister has described as a unique situation.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is it not strange that a party that might get 15 per cent., 20 per cent. or 30 per cent. of the vote will receive two representatives—the same number as a party that gets 1 per cent. of the vote? How can the Secretary of State describe that as democracy? The party that gets 1 per cent. of the vote might get no one elected to the forum, yet could get two people into the negotiations.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point, and I admit that it is one of the sorenesses.

One of the interesting things about the consultation process was the wide degree of agreement that the smaller parties should find a means by which their voices could be heard in the negotiations. That was widely accepted. Of course, there was great divergence on how that should be achieved and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced earlier, we decided that the best way to do it would be to allow representation on a Northern Ireland-wide basis to the extent of two seats for those parties which are among the top 10 in the aggregate of votes cast for them. We felt that it would not have been right to allow that Northern Ireland-wide constituency basis to be limited to the smaller parties.

Mr.A.J.Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I can save time by putting two points to the Secretary of State. If delegates are being elected in multi-member constituencies of five seats, it would have been better to allow preferential voting, because the single transferable vote system is familiar in the north and the south, and avoids the top-up mechanisms to which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has just referred. Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is important that there should be maximum participation in the elections, and that anything that can be done to maintain voter registration up to the time of the election is important?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Voter registration is important, and we shall be circulating appropriate literature.

I appreciate the point that has been made, and it can be made cogently and strongly. We made it clear that we wanted an election system which commanded the widest possible support. We consulted, and it proved impossible to reach universal agreement on any system, including STV.

I will not take the House's time by going through who wanted what and their views, but in light of the views given to us, we devised the system in the Bill, which seeks to combine some of the virtues of each of the main alternatives put to us and to give the people of Northern Ireland the clearest possible choice in the polling booth. I cannot pretend to expect applause from any quarter, but I hope that it will be sufficient to secure that all parties take their place in the elections.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)


Sir Patrick Mayhew

I must get on.

Much has been said, quite understandably, about the complications involved. It is not complicated for the voter. The voter puts one cross against one party. The problems come for others after that.

Mr. Barnes


Sir Patrick Mayhew

I really must get on, because I know what a bore it is when Front-Bench speakers take too long in opening a debate of this character.

When the election is called, the nominating representative of each party which wishes to stand will submit to the chief electoral officer a list of between two and five candidates for any or all of the constituencies of Northern Ireland, and can also submit a regional list of up to 10 candidates, at least two of whom would be names not on any constituency list. Regional seat allocation will help small parties which secure sufficient Province-wide support but which might fail to secure a seat in a constituency to have a chance to be represented. I am required by clause 5 to identify those nominating representatives, and I shall do that after consultation.

As I have already said, the voter's choice is simple. He or she casts a single vote for a single party. Lists of candidates will be on display, and ballot papers will show party names. It has been suggested that, where a large number of parties appear, there may be scope for confusion. There is force in that suggestion, but there are many competing interests that must be served.

A variety of methods are practised for apportioning seats in countries that regularly conduct elections by party list. None of them appears inherently superior to the others, and, after consultation, we have decided on the system set out in the schedule. It is well recognised, and, I am informed, has been employed in several European countries over the years.

I have already mentioned the aggregation process that will lead to the two additional delegates, and I need not repeat that.

We intend that the disqualification provision for candidates should be the minimum necessary. Only offenders in prison, people detained on account of mental illness and those not of voting age are disqualified by paragraph 17 of the first schedule. The franchise is the same as that for local government elections in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

If the election is to be based on parliamentary constituencies, why is the franchise not based on the parliamentary franchise?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

We thought it desirable to use a local register; that is what we are going to use.

Mr. Taylor


Sir Patrick Mayhew

Because a local representation seems a desirable thing. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to pursue that point, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will deal with it more fully in the wind-up.

Rev. Ian Paisley


Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have already given way twice to the hon. Gentleman, and survived. I am not going to push my luck.

Moving back to the body of the Bill: clause 2 provides for the selection, from among delegates returned, of teams to participate in the negotiations, the proposed ground rules for which are published in the Command Paper. The Bill defines the negotiations by reference to that paper. We want all parties that have shown that they have sufficient electoral support to be involved in the negotiations.

Nevertheless, as both we and the Irish Government have consistently made plain, whether Sinn Fein takes its place in the negotiations is for the republican movement to decide. So that the position is clear, the Bill provides that I shall refrain from inviting nominations from any party where I consider that the requirements in the Command Paper are not met. I shall exercise that discretion, as was stated in the proposals of 21 March, after consultation, as appropriate, with the Irish Government.

Clause 3 speaks for itself. As the Bill itself makes plain, the forum is a deliberative body; it is no sense a legislative or proto-legislative one. Its purpose will be the discussion of issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I have given way frequently—

Mr. Canavan

Not to me, you haven't.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I cannot give way to everyone. The forum has no executive or administrative functions of any sort. Nor has it power to determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations; but it may, by agreement among the participants in the negotiations as determined by their rules of procedures, consider matters referred to it by the negotiators.

Mr. Canavan


Madam Speaker

Order. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he is not giving way.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am sorry; I have given way an awful lot, and now I must get on.

I believe that the forum has a most valuable role, neither threatening nor favouring any part of the community. It offers a new opportunity for people from differing political backgrounds to talk, and to listen to the views of others whom it may invite to address it, in order to promote dialogue and understanding. I believe that the forum offers real opportunities for constructive advance.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am sorry, but I have taken a long time over clause 3, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will permit me to continue. Indeed, I have already been speaking for nearly 35 minutes.

Schedule 2 sets out a number of points about forum procedure. I shall not go through all the detail, but I should recall that the Government have already made clear their view that the forum should proceed by broad consensus. At the start, it will have a set of rules of procedure provided by me. The forum will then be empowered, as is right, to propose its own rules. They must be agreed by at least 75 per cent. of those participating in any vote, and they will then require my approval. The forum is also to elect its own chairman. For that too, a 75 per cent. majority will be required in any vote; until it has made its choice, the chairmanship falls to a member nominated by me.

Mr. McNamara

I am sorry to be so persistent, and I do appreciate the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has given way generously, but he has just raised one of the most controversial areas at stake. I refer to moving away from the criteria in paragraph 24 of the Command Paper—about rules of procedure having to have the support of both communities—and towards a system based on a weighted majority.

Why have the Government departed from what was stipulated in the Command Paper? If, say, the official Unionist party abstained from the forum, its cause might be lost because a 75 per cent. majority could not be reached. We need representation of both communities.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The written statement published after consultation made it clear that we believe that the forum should proceed on the basis of broad consensus. The hon. Gentleman will note in schedule 2 that, when a chairman or when rules of procedure are selected, a majority of 75 per cent. will be required. It will be for the participants to determine what they wish to propose, and for the Secretary of State to determine whether or not to approve the rules.

Clause 4 provides for referendums. Its provisions are broadly cast, sufficiently to permit consultation on any arrangements emerging from the negotiations. Any such proposals for a referendum would need to be approved by Parliament, and there is no encroachment on the provisions for a poll in section 1 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.

After careful consideration, we have concluded that the case has not been made for a referendum to be held at the same time as elections. Clause 6 provides for payment of allowances to delegates for their participation in the negotiations or forum. Clause 7 gives one year as the life of the forum, but it may be continued in effect for a further year by order. It may also be suspended, and the Bill obliges me to provide for the forum to cease if negotiations are concluded or suspended—although it could be brought back into being if they subsequently resumed.

I regret the reasoned amendment. I know that the electoral system proposed in the Bill was not the first choice of any party, but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained, none of the systems put forward by the different parties had the support of major parties representing each of the main communities. The Government have sought to consult on the detail of the scheme, and we are grateful to the various parties for their responses.

In Committee next week, we shall have more opportunity for detailed scrutiny. I accept that the electoral system is novel, but I reject that it will be confusing for the electorate. The voters will simply have to put a cross against the party of their choice—one vote for one party, which seems very simple.

I have spoken of the opportunities that the Bill opens up for the political parties in Northern Ireland, and of the challenges with which it provides them, but I have not yet spoken of one other sector in Northern Ireland—the people. So often in the past, the men and women of Northern Ireland have had no role in the political part of the peace process. Too often, they had simply to stand by and watch, while politicians and Governments talked behind closed doors. For them, the Bill provides the greatest opportunity and challenge.

The Bill, through the election process that it makes possible, changes that previous pattern. It gives the people of Northern Ireland a direct role in setting the negotiations in progress and providing the context and the mandate for them. Above all, that will give them a chance, by the strength of their votes for their chosen parties, to demonstrate the great yearning that exists on the ground to see talks taking place, understanding increased and an acceptable accommodation found. The Bill, for the first time, gives the people of Northern Ireland a voice in that talks process. I believe that they will not waste that chance.

4.32 pm
Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

I endorse the Prime Minister's comments earlier today about last night's bomb. There is no way that parties can bomb their way to the negotiating table—that lesson must be learnt. We all share the view that such actions will not stand in the way of the peace process. The Opposition welcome the package of measures, including the Bill, that is designed to enable negotiations to proceed on 10 June. We are pleased that the Government have come to share our view that it would be unfair to expect the parties in Northern Ireland to make judgments about the Bill without knowing the other proposals on offer. I am pleased that the Secretary of State spent some time this afternoon explaining the Command Paper on the ground rules for negotiations, which covered many of the issues that we consider important—such as decommissioning.

We recognise and support the considerable determination that the Secretary of State has shown in trying to produce a broadly acceptable package. It is widely recognised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's efforts have made a significant contribution to the search for some kind of agreement on the Bill. It was self-evident from the interventions made during the Secretary of State's speech that, as he indicated, it is impossible to please all the people all the time—but the Bill may be the best bet on offer in moving the peace process forward towards the negotiations on 10 June. That is why beginning negotiations on that date is so crucial, and why the elections are so important—I fully accept that they are not ideal—to ensure that the negotiations take place.

Given the opportunity, as we have already seen, many hon. Members would have chosen different routes to arrive at the current position. That fact is recognised in the amendment tabled by the official Unionist party—

Mr. John D. Taylor

Get the name right.

Ms Mowlam

I am sorry—the Ulster Unionist party. I apologise profusely to the right hon. Gentleman for making such a serious error.

The reality is that we are on the road to talks by the method that has been proposed, so it is common sense for us to go down that road. Many pitfalls remain, not the least of which is the danger that the parties will use the election to become entrenched in their positions and to undermine the spirit of compromise and accommodation on which rests the eventual success of the negotiations. That would be regrettable, and the people of Northern Ireland would not thank anyone if the parties took such a stance. We appeal to the parties to think of the future and to embrace this opportunity in the spirit in which it has been presented.

We have supported the Government on Northern Ireland—not only on this Bill—because their approach, as the Bill shows, is based on agreements with the Irish Government: the Downing street declaration and the joint framework document. Our established policy of unity by consent is one option in those documents, and it provides a firm basis on which to build a consensus for a balanced settlement that can command the support and allegiance of both communities. We would try to build that consensus, just as the British and Irish Governments are attempting to do.

There are many anxieties about the influence of the House's political arithmetic. In some senses, those fears are understandable because political arithmetic has so often affected the politics of the island of Ireland and we must do all that we can to stop it happening again. I do not share the view that promises have been made— as many people have suggested in the past 24 hours—but it would perhaps be helpful to the House if the Government and parties made it clear that no deals or pacts have been made.

Bipartisan support means putting peace above party interests, but it does not mean simple acquiesence to whatever the Government say or do. We have had our differences with the Government over the past 18 months. We would have made progress differently in different spheres. Our approach would have included protecting the basic rights of both traditions, a different strategy for training and economic development and having fair employment and fair treatment guarantees in the public and private sectors.

We have also argued for the transfer of prisoners to Ireland—north and south—to ease problems of family contact. In particular, we are aware of the continuing controversy over the case of Patrick Kelly. We know of no reason why he cannot be transferred immediately.

We have proposed changes to improve community identification, which we think could operate in parallel with the Bill. Those changes would be important in building cross-cultural communication and support between the communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has put together a consultation paper on policing, but we have yet to see the Government's contribution to that debate.

Our concrete proposals have greatly helped the process forward and we shall continue that help with constructive yet critical support for the Bill.

Had we shouted some of the differences in approach a little more openly—from the roof-tops, so to speak—it would have signalled to the parties that it might be worth holding back or procrastinating and hoping for a change in Government, although I know that not all the parties would have reacted in such a manner. I believe that such a stance would have been irresponsible, dishonest and in some senses damaging to the peace process. In future, however, as the general election nears, it will obviously be necessary for us to make our views clear in public more often than before.

The proposals in the Bill, and the Command Paper to which it refers, are the product of a long and tortuous process. As the Secretary of State said, we have gone through the Downing street declaration, the joint framework document, the decommissioning issue, the twin-track approach and Senator Mitchell's report. We can go back to the communiqué of 28 February and see how we have arrived at the position that we are in today.

It is clear that at times the Opposition would not have chosen to proceed in precisely the same way as the Government have done, but we are acutely aware of the difficulties that we face. We are equally aware that the only game in town is one that seeks to bring about meaningful negotiations which have a hope of success and to bring a new future based on peace and justice for Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland and these islands as a whole. That is what we want to see and that is why we shall support the Bill today.

At times in this arduous process, the stress has been on bringing the parties in from the fringes; at other times, it has been on building up the centre ground in Northern Ireland. In a sense, the processes that the Bill sets in train will offer an opportunity to do both. However, if Sinn Fein wants to be in the talks to represent its community, the restoration of the IRA ceasefire of August 1994 is essential. The British and Irish Governments are clear on that, and they have our full support. There is no excuse. A meaningful, inclusive process of negotiations is being offered and a date for the talks to begin has now been set.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I thought I heard the hon. Lady say a moment ago that the Labour party would require the restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. The Secretary of State said that he would require the Mitchell principles to be applied. Those are two very different things. Can we be assured that when the hon. Lady referred to the ceasefire of 1994 it was merely a slip of the tongue and that she will not allow Sinn Fein to come into the talks so long as it continues crucifying teenagers on wooden fences?

Ms Mowlam

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. My understanding of what the Secretary of State said this afternoon was that he would require a return to the ceasefire of August 1994. He went on to discuss in some detail the six principles and the proposals of the Mitchell commission. Let me make it clear that we agree with the ground rules for negotiations, which state clearly not only that there must be a return to the August 1994 ceasefire but that the Mitchell principles are an essential part of the process of participation in the negotiations of 10 June.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Much emphasis has been placed both by the hon. Lady and by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on a return to the ceasefire of August 1994, but that ceasefire was patently vulnerable and it failed. So without something much more solid than a failed ceasefire, there can be no prospect of success.

Ms Mowlam

Thank you very much. We have said clearly that the August 1994 ceasefire has to be reinstated and that the Mitchell six principles are an essential part of the development of the negotiations of 10 June. So it is clear that a process is being set in train of which the Mitchell six principles form part. I hope that that answers the hon. and learned Gentleman's question.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The six principles include decommissioning. Is the hon. Lady saying now that as well as accepting the six principles, the IRA must move immediately to decommissioning?

Ms Mowlam

I agree with the Secretary of State's analysis of the statement of August 1994 at the time of the ceasefire and of the Mitchell six principles as the procedure that we follow, as outlined in the ground rules. The statement said that decommissioning had to be addressed. Questions were put to him by hon. Members on both sides of the House who sought to find out the detail and when it would be addressed. He made it clear, and I agree that it is the only way in which we can move forward in any rational way, that the way to proceed was to get to 10 June, put the ground rules document on the table and see where the elected representatives of the Northern Ireland parties can move forward to.

Mr. Wilshire

Would the hon. Lady like to have a go at answering the question that I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State? If the ceasefire is reinstated, does it have to be clearly declared as permanent and for ever before it is accepted as real?

Ms Mowlam

Members of Parliament, the Government and the Opposition have tried with the Bill and the ground rules document to put in place a mechanism to give the process momentum. Having sat through numerous statements to the House by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, the hon. Gentleman knows the difficulties that we have faced in the past 18 months in keeping the peace together and putting momentum back into the peace process. We went through definitions of "permanent" and a host of options. In the August 1994 ceasefire statement, in the ground rules document and in the Mitchell six principles, we have a mechanism and a process by which it is possible to move forward in the negotiations. I have clarified to Unionist Members that it will be for the parties in Northern Ireland to find a mechanism to move forward in negotiations. We think that that is a constructive way forward.

The House could try to define terms and put other statements in place. I hope that we are all engaged, and I perceive that the Bill and the ground rules for the negotiations are engaged, in seeking to provide some parameters to allow the parties in Northern Ireland—at present only those which are constitutionally elected and committed to the democratic process as the way forward—to participate in trying to obtain a settlement with which everyone can live. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) can keep coming back at me, and I shall with pleasure allow him one more intervention, but it is patently obvious from the Secretary of State's response that the hon. Gentleman will not move the process forward by trying to force the Secretary of State, me or any Northern Ireland Member into a definition in the House this afternoon without the benefit of the consultation that the ground rules document will give us the chance to undertake.

Mr. Wilshire

That is the longest way I have ever heard of saying, "No, it does not have to be permanent." So we now know the score. Both the Government and the official Opposition say that another temporary, tactical truce is acceptable and that on that basis they will let Sinn Fein-IRA into the talks. Has it not occurred to the hon. Lady that the talks will not start on that basis?

Ms Mowlam

If the hon. Gentleman wants to interpret comments in a way in which they clearly were not meant, he can do as he wishes and is entitled to do. I give the hon. Gentleman exactly the answer that I gave to his last question. The August 1994 ceasefire statement and the ground rules document address the principles and proposals in the Mitchell report, which addresses many of the questions that are crucial to building the trust and confidence between the parties in Northern Ireland that is needed to move the talks process forward. That is advantageous.

Mr. John D. Taylor

When the hon. Lady says that she will address the principles and the proposals, does she mean that she would implement them?

Ms Mowlam

The word "address"—a verb that has caused great debate and discussion among all of us in the past few months—is included in the principles and the proposals to enable the parties in Northern Ireland to find a mechanism by which "addressing" can take place. As the ground rules for the negotiations make clear, it has to take place at the beginning of the process. "Addressing" is a mechanism which permits the parties to consider these questions. That is what is stated. Those are the parameters that we hope will allow the elected representatives not to ask me the answer, but among themselves to find a mechanism with which they can all agree.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

This is an important point, which has been pursued with both the Government and the Opposition. It may be appropriate to say why the two Governments agreed to the wording in the communiqué and why the opposition agree that there should be an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire. We did not go further forward with the wording precisely because both Governments and both major political parties in the House want negotiations to proceed. We know how to stop the negotiations: it is by putting ever more conditions on them, which would serve the interests only of those in Northern Ireland who want to continue the killing. We are opposed to the killing. That is why that wording was used. That is why the British Government and the Opposition are agreed and why I hope that they will not get trapped into additional factors which would bring chaos to Northern Ireland.

Ms Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful clarification. I have made the point about the August ceasefire clear and I hope—so that the hon. Member for Spelthorne will not misquote my words—that I have also said that any participants who refuse to sign up to the six principles set out in paragraph 20 of the Mitchell report would forfeit their rights to continue in negotiations. I hope that that clarifies that point.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Mowlam

No, I will not take any more interventions. I have debated and discussed the point for some time, as did the Secretary of State, and I hope that that will allow us to move forward in the debate.

The process that the Bill will set up offers the opportunity for us to seek—[Interruption.] Are you very unhappy? Come on then.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Before we proceed, I remind the House that all Members here are hon. Members. Perhaps pronouns could be left outside the Chamber.

Mr. Robinson

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for attempting to keep me happy. Is she aware that in the past few days it has been clearly shown in court that during the ceasefire the London bomber was preparing to cause devastation and death in this capital city? Is that the kind of ceasefire that the hon. Lady wants reinstated?

Ms Mowlam

We all condemn—and have done repeatedly—the murders of than Bashir and John Jefferies at Canary wharf and hope that the future will not see the deaths and injuries that we have seen in the past. A return to the August 1994 ceasefire would allow us to move forward—which is what I hope that everybody wants to do, rather than adding other preconditions to the process.

I wish to address a part of the legislation that the Opposition think is rather controversial, and we seek to amend it. In a speech in Coleraine last November, I said: It may be that some kind of electoral mechanism or index would help to bring all parties into the negotiations, but this must not lead to domination of the negotiations by one community nor be seen as a form of internal settlement. At that time, like many others I was aware of the need to build trust and confidence to bring parties to the table, but the issue of decommissioning was becoming in some senses a logjam to moving the process forward. I was trying to identify an alternative approach.

I envisaged elections being a passport to the negotiations, and nothing more. The Bill, however, in clause 3 and schedule 2, would establish a forum with a deliberative function only and with no legislative, executive or administrative functions. The Opposition have urged that if a forum has to exist, its functions should be clearly subscribed in that way. That is to prevent any forum from becoming a blueprint or pilot for an assembly, which should come about only at the end of the negotiations if agreed as part of a balanced settlement dealing with the totality of relationships. It is also to prevent an elected forum from developing into an alternative negotiating arena.

We are puzzled, therefore, about why it is necessary for the body to have any decision-making powers. For pragmatic reasons, it may be necessary for decisions on the choice of the chair and the adoption of rules of procedure to occur on the basis of a vote. It appears to us, however, if we understand the remit and function of the forum correctly, that beyond those decisions the forum could proceed on a similar basis to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation held in Dublin, in which issues were deliberated, understanding was increased, evidence was heard from outside groups and reports were published. Indeed, on 21 March the Prime Minister agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that the forum will be similar"—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 504.] to that held in Dublin.

It was understood in the Dublin forum that if certain parties did not agree with the final reports, they would simply make their dissent clear by not signing them. Why must the forum in Northern Ireland operate on a different basis, unless its remit is not as we understand it from the Bill? We would welcome clarification from the Secretary of State on that point.

We would also welcome clarification of the process by which the list of parties in schedule 1 was arrived at. The Secretary of State mentioned earlier that parties were included on the list on the basis of complaints from parties that they were not on the initial list. Is there any mechanism for other parties to appeal so that they could be put on the list that is currently printed in schedule 1?

Also under schedule 1, the Secretary of State has the power to make provision by order in the event of an equality of quotients—a tie. Will he tell the House how he intends to make a judgment in that eventuality?

The Bill will give the Secretary of State many discretionary powers in relation to the process. We wish to learn, either later tonight or in the debate next week, how those powers will be exercised. Under schedule 2, there are proposals for the timing of the first meeting of the forum. We should be interested to ascertain how and when the Secretary of State will judge that the first meeting should take place.

The Secretary of State announced today that in his view there was insufficient support for a referendum to be held before or in parallel with the elections. It would be helpful if that position were clarified.

In clause 4, in relation to enactments, it is very unclear what the Secretary of State will be empowered to do. We would welcome clarification on that point and especially on its impact on decisions made in a referendum. Under clause 7, the Secretary of State has the power to restore the forum to life if it has been suspended. Will he assure the House that he would not exercise that power unless negotiations were also under way?

I know that the issue of the under-representation of women in political life in Northern Ireland is close to the hearts of many Members from Northern Ireland. Many of us would like to see greater participation by women. Does the Secretary of State have a view about how parties could be helped or encouraged to include more participation by women in the political process in Northern Ireland, in the list or by other mechanisms?

We also wish to learn how the Secretary of State intends to assist the parties and the public in Northern Ireland with the provision of information and other assistance in the course of the election campaigns. The Secretary of State stated in passing in the House this afternoon that literature would be provided. It would be useful if more information were given about how that process will work.

The issues that I have mentioned, and many others, are unclear from the Bill as it stands. We believe that the House would benefit from further clarification on those points. This is a deeply sensitive period in Northern Ireland. We are now operating against the volatile backdrop of parades and marches. We have proposed that the Secretary of State establish an independent commission to address that issue and to make recommendations to the Chief Constable to aid his decisions on the holding and routeing of marches. I am disappointed that as yet there has been no reaction to that suggestion as it is widely regarded as a sensible and practical step.

We have made it clear that we will support the Bill tonight. Elections in Northern Ireland are now a part of the process and the Government want and need to pass the legislation to make them possible. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has already made it clear that he will not stand in the way of the legislation.

Mr. McNamara

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is in a position to answer the question about the contradiction between paragraph 24 of Cmnd. 3232 and the provisions in schedule 2 to the Bill. Under paragraph 24, as the Minister said earlier in answer to questions, a clear majority is needed in both communities; but schedule 2 contains provisions for a weighted majority.

Ms Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that I made it clear—it may have been missed in the general discussion earlier—that we are concerned that the forum should function as a deliberative body. I talked about how it would gather evidence and I explained in some detail how the mechanisms by which the forum could reach conclusions could be achieved. I hoped that I was making it self-evidently clear that I did not think that a voting mechanism was the way to achieve that. I stated that I thought that there might be a case for that in respect of rules and procedure, but as my hon. Friend suggested, paragraph 24 of the ground rules is in the spirit of what I would like to be the mechanism within the forum for discussion between parties. I hope that that answers his question. I made it clear that we would amend the Bill on that point because it is causing us great concern.

Mr. McNamara

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I am sorry to pursue the point, but the Command Paper states: in all case… any decision taken will be supported by a clear majority in both the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Rules and procedure will determine the agenda. Are we going to support an amendment which embodies the principle contained in the White Paper for those rules and procedures?

Ms Mowlam

I hear what my hon. Friend says and I agree with his point. I do not think that we disagree on this. I said that we need to amend schedule 2 in the spirit of the ground rules document as he quoted it. I hope that in the days ahead we shall be able to consider that.

In conclusion, as I have tried to argue, we agree with the Bill in principle. There are many aspects on which we would like further debate and there are parts that we would like to amend. In the end, however, we welcome the fact that the Government published the Bill, along with the ground rules for negotiations, because that gives most hon. Members a chance to examine in detail what is on offer—what they are buying into. We hope that that will give us a chance to achieve the objective that we all share of starting inclusive, meaningful negotiations on 10 June. Those talks are only the beginning of the real goal of securing through negotiation a new settlement that is balanced and fair and has the support of both communities.

5.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

It would be reasonable to argue that the appearance of this Bill should be regarded as a significant landmark in the process that started with the Downing street declaration, not least because the objective for more than three years has been the establishment of all-party negotiations with the opportunity that that provides for an agreement. One might therefore have expected the launch of the Bill to be accompanied by at least some rejoicing and a sense of achievement. I must confess, however, that that does not appear to have happened. Notwithstanding the tacit support of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), I do not detect much, if any, enthusiasm for the Bill; nor do I detect much enthusiasm among some of those who are likely to take part in the negotiations to start their business.

It is perhaps not difficult to see why. Last night confirmed, on the assumption that it was indeed an IRA bomb, that the Provisionals are very far removed from being committed to exclusively peaceful methods and demonstrated that those who argued that the ceasefire was a de facto ceasefire were wrong. Optimism about the final agreement is in short supply perhaps because areas of disagreement clearly outweigh areas of common ground. Nevertheless, it is right that the process should go on—and right that it should go on without Sinn Fein.

As for the Bill and the elective process forum for discussion that it establishes, I will be brief. During the debate on the merits of the various electoral systems, I argued for an 18-constituency single transferable vote election. That debate is over. It is widely acknowledged that the elective process that the Bill offers is not ideal, but, as we know, none of the favoured options was likely to have commanded widespread support and the Government therefore had no choice but to come forward with an alternative that could lead to meaningful multi-party talks. No one may much like the elective process proposed in the Bill, but it is equally hard to understand how anyone could so dislike it that they would totally reject it, not least because it is the only way on offer that can lead to the desirable objective of extensive negotiations.

The elective process in the Bill can be likened to that freak of nature and extraordinary creature, the duck-billed platypus. Like the platypus, it is a peculiar mixture. Its pedigree is complex, its existence a challenge, it has a strange appearance and some peculiar features. Nevertheless, like the platypus, 1 expect that it will prove extremely functional.

I believe that we can be satisfied that the Bill will effectively achieve its purpose. I have questions, but I am generally satisfied with the provisions for elections, with the prescription for drawing participants for the negotiations from the elected delegates and with the power given to the Secretary of State to hold a referendum.

I welcome the changes in the ground rules that have emerged since the consultation paper of 15 March. Paragraph 4 of that paper corresponds to paragraph 4 of the final draft. I was glad to note that the controversial reference to a new and more broadly based agreement which would develop and extend the Anglo-Irish Agreement has been omitted. Those words pre-empted debate, anticipated a conclusion and were therefore out of place.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the replacement of those words by a eulogy to the framework document is unacceptable, as the framework documents are not acceptable to the community in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hunter

I find it acceptable because it was made clear at the launch of the framework documents and thereafter that they were not inclusive but a suggestion open to debate. Both Governments made it clear that alternative proposals were acceptable. I do not find the reference to the framework document objectionable.

Paragraph 7 of the final draft is also new. It clearly divides the negotiations from the forum. I appreciate that for some participants in the process that is an important point and I have no objection to it being made clear in the ground rules. I am not yet persuaded that those who regard the divide between forum and negotiations as less important can validly object to the divide being made in that way.

Paragraph 16 of the ground rules also appears for the first time in the revised draft. It demands: All participants in the negotiations will take part in good faith, seriously. address all aspects of the agreed agenda, and make every effort to reach agreement. I understand that the Irish Government were anxious that the ground rules should contain that demand and it is surely right and reasonable that it should be included. Above all, it makes nonsense of Sinn Fein's propaganda claim that the Government are not committed to the negotiations.

Greater participation by the political parties in each strand is the common theme to the additions to paragraphs 19, 20 and 21: in strand 1, through being consulted about liaison arrangements; in strand 2, through involvement in drawing up the procedural rules: in strand 3, through consultation, briefing and being able to put forward their views. I regard those alterations as healthy and acceptable. One cannot, however, ignore the related paragraphs 9, 13 and 14, and I share much of the concern that has been expressed by other hon. Members.

I continue to believe that paragraph 9, which deals with the participation of Sinn Fein, could cause difficulties. I listened carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend's comments, which were very reassuring. I hope that we will receive yet further reassurances during the winding-up speech. The day after a bomb has exploded in London, it may seem an academic exercise to express concern about the conditions under which Sinn Fein might be readmitted to negotiations, but there remains the possibility, however remote, that another ceasefire may be declared before 10 June.

We are aware that the ground rules impose as a condition to that readmittance the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of 31 August. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) that that ceasefire was wholly deficient. It was neither complete nor permanent. We have had rehearsed to us many times the fact that during those months the IRA's structures remained in place and that it recruited, trained, targeted and raised money. It also researched and developed home-made weapons and its members threatened, intimidated, tortured and murdered. At face value, it appears that the ground rules suggest that those are the conditions to which the IRA must return, and which are therefore acceptable. That cannot be the case.

Another difficulty is that one can imagine that some participants in the process may be more willing than others to accept the genuineness of a second ceasefire. Then, the problem is who arbitrates in that dispute. That is why I think it is unfortunate that there is not less ambiguity and greater clarity in paragraphs 13 and 14. Yes, the Secretary of State reminded us of the confidence-building measures mentioned in the communiqué of 28 February, and again quoted in the ground rules, but again we come back to the ambiguity of the words "to address" and precisely what that means, as well as the ambiguity in the meaning of the words "in accordance". That uncertainty is disturbing.

If I understood the hon. Member for Redcar correctly, I find it hard to expect at least 10 political parties to come to an agreement on an issue on which two Governments have failed to find agreement. On 21 March, the Prime Minister's reply to the hon. and learned Member for North Down was unambiguous, because he said that there must be parallel decommissioning and that it must proceed in parallel with the talks."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 505.] I hope that that is the case, but I am yet to be convinced that that is the Irish Government's understanding of the ground rules. Nevertheless, I welcome and support the Bill, although I continue to have that major reservation about one aspect of the ground rules.

5.12 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which unnecessarily introduces a wholly novel electoral system which is not properly thought out, contains unfairness and anomalies by introducing bogus political parties while omitting existing political parties and is complicated and designed to confuse the electorate. The main provisions in the Bill are for elections and for a forum, in addition to referendums and negotiations. We welcome the provisions for elections. When I say we welcome them, I am referring, of course, to the genuine, authentic Ulster Unionist party, not the bogus Ulster unionist party that the Secretary of State has included in his Bill. The listing of bogus parties in the Bill is part of the reason why we have tabled the reasoned amendment.

The Government have moved, for the reasons that they have mentioned, to introduce an entirely novel electoral system. They had the choice of two systems on the statute book already, but they moved with great haste to introduce another one. List systems are not unusual—most of Europe votes by list systems—so there are list systems that could have been borrowed and used, but we do not even have a proper list system. I am not thinking in terms of the curious features of constituency lists and regional lists, although I shall refer to them again. The essence of a list system, in whatever variation it is adopted, is that it is a system of voting by reference to parties. If one is voting by reference to parties, one must have a clear legal basis for those parties and a form of regulation of the existence of parties and the use of party names. That is what happens in every other list system in the world where they are operated. There are procedures to regulate parties and the use of party names. That is foreign to British electoral law, which does not recognise the existence of parties. The Government have taken a novel step by moving in that direction; they have done so in a cack-handed and ineffective manner, which will cause difficulties.

It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say that it is simple for the elector to put an X against one name. We already have 30-plus names on the list, and that list may by no means be closed, so we will have the opportunity for confusion, particularly as some of the names used are not familiar even to me and my hon. Friends. They involve things that we have not heard of before. It may be that we have been inattentive and that things have come into existence without our appreciating them.

I was a little confused when I saw the name of the No Going Back group, and wondered whether it was the group with a similar name that exists in the Conservative party. Members of the Liberal Democrat party will appreciate, however, that there is a serious issue involved. If, in the European elections, a significant number of electors—some 10,000 in that case—cast their votes in a way that, in all probability, by far the greater number did not intend because of the similarity of names on a ballot paper that was comparatively short and where the name of the candidate was in clear, bold type and the party name in quite small type, will not the risk of confusion be greater if candidates' names do not appear, although I think that they should, and all we have is a long list of names of parties, many of which will be unfamiliar? That is the problem.

If we are to have a list system, either the Government should introduce a proper statutory scheme for the regulation of parties and the use of party names or, as they said they intended to do when they brought out their first paper, they should have a mechanism to regulate the parties by a statutory list. Having made that suggestion, however, they retreated from it and opened the door to a number of others. The proposed process should be looked at seriously. Because we consider it a matter of considerable importance, we have tabled a reasoned amendment calling for re-examination.

There are a number of possible solutions. I shall not go into all of them now, but the use of deposits could be one way of resolving the problem. When the issue came up originally, it was said that there would be no need for deposits on candidature because there would be statutory regulation of names and only genuine parties would take part. Now, however, independents, or a group of people, who decide to form a political party can put themselves up provided they can find two persons to stand in a particular constituency so as to get them on the constituency list. Those persons will then be entitled to the free postal delivery of election communications. The likelihood is that that will be a considerable temptation—not just to the 30-odd names on the list, but to others as well. It is to restrain people from exploiting the public service in that way that deposits are used in British electoral law. There is every reason to extend the use of deposits to the proposed elections.

Mr. Beith

May I put it to the hon. Gentleman that someone whose intention was to confuse would be ready to raise the money to do so and invent some variant on the Ulster Unionist party just as the variant Literal Democrat was invented by someone who soon found the money for the deposit?

Mr. Trimble

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point and I appreciate that my suggestion is not watertight. We need the procedures that exist in countries that use list systems whereby either only those who have statutorily registered names are used or people can challenge the misuse of a name. There would then be some form of judicial process whereby those matters could be resolved. That would be by far the better way to proceed, but time is short.

Mr. Maginnis

Is it not the case that, as there is a separate election in each constituency, under the right hon. Gentleman's proposal there would be a need for a deposit in each constituency? That would place a considerable burden, over 18 constituencies, on any individual wanting to pervert the course of the election by nominating two people under his name—an independent or whatever it may be—in each constituency.

Mr. Trimble

My hon. Friend's point is well made: these are the ways in which the deposit requirement could be made effective. It is important for us to look at that.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Perverting the election in one constituency could have an impact overall, and it is no more acceptable that someone who can raise a deposit for one of the 18 constituencies should get off in that way, as was the case with the Liberal Democrats. Would it not be better if there were a requirement to have a significant number of assentors to the nomination as well as a deposit? We put that proposal to the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr. Trimble

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion—it is a good idea. They are the sorts of things that should be done. We should be examining ideas of that nature, and the ones that I have mentioned, as a way of restraining the abuse of the system that has been adopted here. I hope that there will be an openness on the part of the Government, come Monday and Tuesday, to look at this seriously.

By putting forward our proposals, we are not trying to wreck the opportunity that exists for the people of Northern Ireland to express their views at the ballot box—we want elections and we want them to take place in a coherent manner and in a way that will reflect the wishes of the people.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the minutiae. Is he aware that, in January, some of us went to observe the elections in Palestine? In the city of Gaza, where I was stationed, the ballot paper contained 92 candidates and people had to make 12 choices. However, 94 per cent. of the people turned out and voted and chose, against many urgings of the large parties, a balanced assembly. Is it not better to focus on enthusing people for the process of democracy so that they choose wisely rather than get involved in the minutiae of one system or another?

Mr. Trimble

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that suggestion and for pointing out how successful the elections were in Palestine. He said that there were 92 names on the ballot paper. I hope that the Government Front Bench listened carefully to what he said. That example shows that it is possible to have a large number of names on a ballot paper, which would enable the provision that we have asked the Government to make—to put the names of candidates on the ballot paper. That would reduce the danger of confusion arising from misleading names. As we are dealing with constituency-based elections—where there will be only up to five names on the list of any one party—it would be possible to put the names of all the candidates standing in that constituency on the ballot paper.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that there is a world of difference between voting in Israel, where the list system and all its refinements has been a feature for some time—

Mr. Beith

The Palestinians had never voted before.

Mr. McCartney

I am speaking about the Israeli elections. As I understand it, they have had a list system.

I shall move on to another point raised by the hon. Gentleman—why there may be some smaller parties that have no political validity and are entirely new. There are some small parties, including my party, that have managed to get someone elected to the House. They are now faced with having to field not one, but two, candidates in every constituency in order to get a Province-wide vote. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that small parties should be penalised and perhaps excluded by reason of a deposit system in every constituency?

Mr. Trimble

I point out to the hon. and learned Gentleman that the example given earlier by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) referred to Palestine, not Israel. In Palestine, they do not have the same experience of using list systems as Israel. Israel is not a good advertisement for list systems because the way the system operates there has not been beneficial to the development of democracy or to the peace process.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the problem for his party. I am happy to distinguish between his position and that of other small parties. My use of the term "bogus parties" was not by any means intended to refer to the hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends. I appreciate that if he wants to field candidates in all the constituencies, he will experience the difficulties that inevitably exist for smaller parties. I was once a member of a small party; and I am familiar with that experience.

We have to have a system that will do something to whittle out those groups that have no real support, particularly as one of the features of the list system—this is something that should be of interest to all hon. Members—is that it will shred the Unionist vote and shred the vote generally. This is exactly the feature that mars Israeli politics.

The single transferable vote system would have allowed people to express preferences and would have allowed votes to consolidate in a way that would have produced a much more coherent result. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said, when and if we get to 10 June and find ourselves with 10-plus parties there, as well as two Governments, it will be much more difficult for the talks to move forward in a positive way, particularly when we bear in mind—as we do—the experience of 1992 when the efforts that we made at that time did not develop in a positive way.

I shall now consider some other areas in which we have reservations about this operation. The Command Paper entitled "Northern Ireland: Ground Rules for Substantive All-Party Negotiations" has been mentioned. I am sorry to see that the preamble contains statements that would mislead people who are ill informed and not familiar with the background. I refer to the phrase "following consultation".

The paper was originally produced with no consultation whatsoever and some small improvements have since been made. However, it still contains a scheme that we do not find acceptable. It is simply wrong to talk about this paper containing a broadly acceptable set of rules. It does not. It is largely a reproduction of the set of rules—in so far as there were rules—that operated in the 1992 inter-party talks and which largely contributed to the failure of the inter-party talks in 1992.

The Secretary of State may recall that the only times when we had any genuine progress in the 1992 talks was when we departed from the rules that are the basis of these rules. I think there lies a lesson that we want to do things better than we did in 1992. We do not want to exclude the consideration of issues. The paranoia that has been displayed by some nationalist politicians on this matter is quite wrong.

We are quite prepared to address the whole range of issues, but we want to do it in a more fruitful way than we did in 1992. This set of ground rules, by leaning so much on the experience of 1992, is likely to be an obstacle, particularly as we find commentators in Dublin stating that these are now immutable and unchangeable. The Secretary of State is shaking his head. I hope that this will be made clear during the debate; we are not dealing with an immutable set of rules, but something that is still open for development and consultation, because we wish to see it develop. We wish to see changes towards the more fruitful ideas that we have explored.

There is reference in the ground rules to the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994. I shall not repeat the points that have been made in this regard as they have so ably been made by other hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Basingstoke and by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) in his intervention. The ceasefire of August 1994 was not a genuine ceasefire. We cannot be content with the restoration of that equivocal operation and the matter must move on to more secure ground as rapidly as possible.

We should focus our attention on paragraph 13 of the Command Paper, which is in fact a paragraph taken from the communiqué issued by the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister on 28 February. It is that joint communiqué that we should regard as the basis on which to strengthen and make genuine the ceasefire. That is the basis on which we should proceed. The quotation, in paragraph 13, of the communiqué is followed by a couple of paragraphs of turbid Anglo-Irishese, which do not add to the paragraph's meaning and are best ignored. We are best concentrating on the communiqué itself. If we follow that course, matters become clear.

There has been much discussion about "address" and what it means, along with other matters of that nature. There was complete lack of clarity in that discussion. The starting point is the beginning of the communiqué, which states that "all participants"—I assume that "all participants" will individually have to indicate their position— would need to make clear at the beginning"— that is unequivocal, because "at the beginning" means at the beginning, and that is the first item— their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence. In my view the key phrase is "total and absolute commitment". That is "total and absolute commitment" to the Mitchell principles, which include the principle of total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations and the renunciation of the use of force, as well as the ending of "'punishment' killings and beatings". That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross).

The Mitchell principles go far beyond the ceasefire of August 1994. It is the Mitchell principles that constitute the key. Similarly, total and absolute commitment to the principles is the key. There must be a procedure, and it must be sorted out well before 10 June. It is not sufficient, as the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) said, to leave matters until 10 June for the participants who then turn up. The result would be a shambles. We need, well before 10 June, to have a clear agreement on how a total and absolute commitment will be expressed. That must be done in clear and unequivocal manner.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Gentleman able to think of any good reason why, in relation to absolute commitment to the principle of democracy in Northern Ireland and the need to address at the same stage decommissioning proposals, the words "need to" should be replaced by "must"?

Mr. Trimble

Is there any difference? I am not sure that there is. The need to make clear … total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy suggests "must". It has to happen. It has to happen in a clear and unequivocal way. To make a total commitment to the principles of non-violence, including the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations, means more than uttering a form of words or signing one's name on a declaration, as is done in local government. It means following that commitment through with actions. That is made clear by the sixth principle, of ending paramilitary killings and beatings. The principles are not merely stated, because they must be followed by action. Therefore, there must be agreement. That is the significance of "address". There must be agreement on how actions will take place.

We must not expect actions to take place instantly. We expect that they will proceed, as the Prime Minister said, alongside talks. However, one expects to see at the beginning, or as the communiqué states, "at that stage", clear commitments on the actions that will follow to demonstrate that there is in truth a total and absolute commitment. It is essential that, well before 10 June, there is a discussion between the constitutional parties and the two Governments on the exact procedures that we shall follow on 10 June so that we can be sure that there is a commitment, that it is given in a clear way and that we do not find things disappearing in a cloud of obfuscation and Anglo-Irishese.

There is certainly one matter that the Governments must address urgently. One of the Mitchell principles is the need for disbandment or decommissioning to take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission. As the Mitchell principles state, that commission must have a clear legal basis. If any decommissioning of weapons is taking place, those who are giving up weapons have to be given a degree of immunity from criminal prosecution for possession of the weapons that they are surrendering. That requires legislation. My colleagues and I have drawn attention to that over a long period.

I understand that the Government have prepared legislation. I would welcome a response when the Minister replies. I was given to believe that it was intended that such proposed legislation would be introduced at the same time as the Bill, and that the two measures would proceed through the House at roughly the same time. Such legislation has not yet appeared. I should like an explanation for the delay.

Similarly, I would welcome an indication of the position on equivalent Irish legislation. If anything, that is more important. If decommissioning is to take place, the bulk of it will take place in the Republic of Ireland. That is where the bulk of the weapons and bombs are. We need to have legislation to enable the international commission to inspect and verify decommissioning and the limited and tightly circumscribed amnesty that will run alongside it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford (Mr. Taylor) and I raised these matters, along with my hon Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), with the Irish Government on 11 March—more than five weeks ago. We underlined the necessity for prompt action by the Irish Government. Since then, we have heard nothing. The Government should tell us this evening what success they have had in encouraging the Irish Government to bring forward the necessary legislation. That legislation must be in place before 10 June so that the commitments and undertakings that must be given on 10 June, along with undertakings relating to parallel decommissioning, are not frustrated.

I hope that there is no thought on the part of people in government that they might let Sinn Fein-IRA off the hook by not having the necessary legislation in place so that decommissioning cannot take place, even if that is what is wanted. I hope that there is no support lurking for that. It will be demonstrated that there is no support for that by bringing forward the necessary legislation as speedily as possible.

Mr. William Ross

My hon. Friend will be well aware that IRA-Sinn Fein say constantly that there must be forensic examination of any weapons that are ever surrendered. Will my hon. Friend dwell for a moment on the reasons for that? Is it that the IRA might be trying to hold back some weapons that have been identified? If it handed over some weapons, it could say, "That is all." If there were to be no forensic examination, there would be no means of identifying the weapons that had been used.

Mr. Trimble

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It will be interesting to hear what the Government have to say. There must be a limited amnesty when it comes to the possession of weapons that are decommissioned—it must be tightly limited. For the reasons that my hon. Friend has set out, we must be careful about conceding to absence of examination. The object of the exercise is to ensure that weapons held by paramilitary organisations are decommissioned and that there is total disarmament of those organisations. The purpose of the verification procedure is to ensure that we achieve that objective. In that context, forensic examination is something that we should bear in mind.

The issue of a forum has given rise to unnecessary controversy. It should not be regarded as controversial. Indeed, it should be understood as a key element that will, I hope, make a fruitful contribution to the process that lies ahead. It is necessary to have a body in which public debate can take place. There will not be confidence in the community in Northern Ireland in a process that operates solely behind closed doors, in secrecy. If confidence is to be built in the community, there has to be a public element, a degree of transparency, which public debate will give.

Furthermore, the public debate itself will be fruitful in terms of possibly changing the approach, or developing the approach, of the participants. The effect of engagement in debate on those who are there is not to be overlooked. That, presumably, is why we treasure this institution. Surely we believe that the debates that we have in the Chamber make a contribution to our own thoughts as well as to the public view. We should not, therefore, treat so dismissively having a similar debating opportunity in Northern Ireland.

It was never part of the intention of my hon. Friends and others who put forward this proposal—we are happy to acknowledge the contribution to the thinking that we have received from others such as the Alliance party and the Democratic Unionist party in this matter—that the body to be created would in some way control and determine the negotiations. I find it amazing that anyone should think that that would be the case. Exactly the same people will be in the forum and in the negotiations. Exactly the same parties will be there. The decisions that are taken by agreement in one will be replicated in the other. If there is agreement in the negotiations, I expect there to be similar agreements in the forum. How could it be otherwise if the same people are in both channels? If there is disagreement in one area, I expect the disagreement will be replicated elsewhere. I cannot envisage that the same people in two channels will instruct themselves in one area how to behave in the other. That is simply not a situation that we need worry about.

I hope that the negotiations will be fruitful. I also hope that the debate in the forum will be fruitful. The additional advantage of the forum is that it can take evidence from the public. It can involve the public in the process. That is something that I hope the public and interest groups in the community in Northern Ireland will do.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

With regard to consulting the public, does the hon. Gentleman expect that the forum will be confined to one location or that it will be a roving commission going from community to community and holding meetings in those different communities?

Mr. Trimble

I very much hope that that option is available to it. Whether it is depends to a certain extent on whether the Secretary of State is prepared to make the resources available for that to happen. I hope that that will involve not just a matter of going within the community in Northern Ireland, but going outside Northern Ireland to take evidence from people elsewhere in the United Kingdom or even in the Republic of Ireland as well. That could be a beneficial exercise and one should not decry the opportunities that are there.

I am happy to see that some commentators in the Dublin press are beginning to appreciate that there may be merit in the operation of the forum. I am thinking of articles in the Irish Independent today by Dr. Maurice Hayes and in The Irish Times by Mary Holland, both of whom are beginning to appreciate that the forum can make a useful contribution. I hope that it will, and I hope that the process on which we are engaged will be moved forward in a positive way, but we must be realistic about it. In being realistic, we must acknowledge that what happened on 9 February and subsequently did happen and has an important bearing on the process.

I appreciate why some hon. Members focus so much on Sinn Fein, but the indisputable evidence is that there is not a commitment to peaceful means within Sinn Fein and the IRA. We have talked about the Mitchell principles. One of the Mitchell principles is to oppose any effort to use force to influence the course of negotiations. What on earth was the bomb of 9 February if it was not an attempt to use force to influence the course of negotiations? What on earth was the bomb in London last night, set off just before this debate, if it was not the use of force as an attempt to influence the course of negotiations?

Let us have no illusions about this. The opportunity is there for Sinn Fein-IRA if they are to have a road-to-Damascus conversion between now and 10 June. If they are to realise the error of their current ways, the opportunity is there, but let us be realistic about it. It would be false to build too many hopes on that. The likelihood is that, when 10 June comes, should Sinn Fein arrive at the talks, which it very well may not, the duty of most of us would probably be to remind it of the need to make this absolute and total commitment to the Mitchell proposals and to ensure that it is shown the door if that is not the case. It will be for Sinn Fein to decide whether it takes that road. The principles are there and it would be quite wrong for us to distort or change them.

There is also a positive opportunity here. During the past 18 months, the refusal of Sinn Fein-IRA to demonstrate good faith prevented any political progress. Their refusal to move on the issue meant that nothing happened. Now, in the future, should they continue to fail to demonstrate good faith, their refusal will affect only their own position. The process is there and can be carried on by the other parties.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

indicated assent.

Mr. Trimble

I am glad to see the Secretary of State nodding in agreement with that. That opportunity is there for those who are committed to democracy and peaceful means. Those who are committed to democracy and peaceful means have an obligation to take this opportunity and to move forward even if it means leaving behind those small groups that are mired in terrorism. That is what we must look forward to in June; to carry forward the process in a way that will benefit the people of Northern Ireland—the 85 to 90 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland who do not support the use of violence and who have enjoyed, yes, the absence or relative absence of violence during the last couple of years and who look forward to the creation of political institutions. That is what we must do. It is the duty of all those who believe in democracy to proceed in that way.

5.46 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

It always amazes me how Members of the House who have never fought an election in Northern Ireland, who visit it only occasionally, know the mind of the people of Northern Ireland. It simply amazes me. If I stood up in the House and told the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) that I knew what her constituents were thinking, she would tell me to get lost, perhaps in stronger language that I would not use in the House. The people of Northern Ireland resent greatly that Members of the House can investigate their minds and their thinking and tell the House authoritatively what they are thinking.

The hon. Lady asked what would be the difference between this forum and the forum in Dublin. The difference is that this will be a democratic forum. People will go not because they were chosen by the Government, but because people made the choice for them to go. That is why. We are talking about democracy. We are not talking about rigged assemblies to obtain the kind of decision that the hon. Lady thinks should be made.

We are also told that the people of Northern Ireland are keen on certain things. The Secretary of State is very good at telling us that in Northern Ireland. We listen to him often and he seems also to get inside the brains of the Ulster people. I remind him that his party ran a candidate in the European Parliament election and he canvassed for her. I beat that candidate by 155,000 votes and she forfeited her deposit, so evidently he did have the mind of the people of Northern Ireland.

There are great differences in the Conservative party. Some members of the Conservative party do not want their candidates to run in this election. I was arguing with its chairman today the right of Conservative party members to run in this election. We welcome the fact, and we hope that they do run. Then I was told by him, "If they do run, they will never get to the negotiating table because we are doing the negotiations." So they will be discriminated against and not get to the negotiating table. So there is one party already outside the negotiations, and that is the Conservative party.

Mr. Wilshire

The hon. Gentleman urged us not to read too much into the minds of the people whom he understands better, but I ask him not to read too much into the comments of individual members of my party, because not necessarily does one person speak for everybody else, not even the chairman.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman includes the chairman and the Secretary of State in that. I shall leave members of the Conservative party to have within their ranks their own debate about that. I welcome the fact that Conservative candidates can stand at the election, but regret that the Labour party, which seems to know about Northern Ireland, will not be fielding candidates.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that it is a rather unfortunate departure from traditional democratic principles when the Secretary of State can decide in advance of an election which parties are allowed to contest it?

Rev. Ian Paisley

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the amendments that my party has tabled, he will have the answer to that point. I hope that he votes for those amendments. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. All the parties in the House and all the parties that were called to the negotiating table made strong representations on various issues that we are not satisfied about. Someone asked how I know. I tested the people of Northern Ireland a little over 18 months ago on the Downing street declaration. I ran an election on it and topped the poll with more than 163,000 votes, so I know something about what people in Northern Ireland think on these issues.

The Bill exposes the Government's view that we must undermine the ordinary elective process and thus weaken real democracy in Northern Ireland. The way forward for Northern Ireland is real democracy. We must not weaken or dilute it, but we must support it and believe in it. I am one who said that we should get as many as possible of the smaller parties to the table, but not by rigging an election. We should get them to the table, if they can make it, by the democratic process. We also put it to the Secretary of State that the number of people contesting the election could be limited simply by asking every candidate wishing to stand to produce at least 200 assentors. If every candidate could get 200 names, they would have at least a little chance.

I put that to one of the smaller parties, and it said: "Would we have to go out and canvass so many names? We couldn't do that. We couldn't get them." In that case, their candidates should not be standing. Look at what those parties will cost the Government, with their manifestos, all delivered free, the printing of ballot papers, and so on. The Government should pay attention to what was said and do something to ease the problem. That does not mean that I am against independents standing, but they should have to put down a deposit.

When the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) stands, he has to put down a deposit. If he goes into another constituency, he has to put down a deposit. There is no easy way in the election, and one must be prepared to lose the deposit. Some good men have lost their deposits in the past and eventually gained an ear in the House. That is the way of democracy, and we must stick to that.

We see in the Bill a rigging of the system. We also see a great conspiracy to weaken the forum when it is elected, and that is a tragedy. I regret what the hon. Member for Redcar said, because the forum will be a marvellous opportunity for the parties in Northern Ireland to express their views in the light of day, not behind closed doors. People could test in public, through debate, what their views were. I have never heard of some of the people on the list. I do not know who they are. I do not know what they are. In fact, they themselves hardly know. The parties just thought of a name and got it in just in time. Now they will be faced with the difficulty of finding two candidates for one constituency. It would be good if they could get together if elected and discuss those matters in public.

Why is the House against a forum that will have an opportunity to discuss in public matters that are important to the people of Northern Ireland? Why does the House want to cast away the opportunity that the forum could give? After all, the people at the negotiating table will be the leaders and representatives of the people in the forum, so there will not be such a great difference between what is said at the negotiating table and what is said in the forum.

If we do not have the forum, the election will be in vain, because we shall be allowed only three negotiators, and three people sitting behind, and that will apply to the small parties as well. Irrespective of whether someone gets 30 per cent. or 15 per cent. of the vote, they are reduced to the size of the smallest party. The only way to balance that democratically is to have the forum and to have it working properly. Why should it not work and vote? What is so wrong with voting? We do it all the time in this House.

Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it would be far better to have a forum/assembly/Stormont that was the result of all-party agreement rather than impose one, when it quite clearly would not have the full confidence of the majority of people in Northern Ireland?

Rev. Ian Paisley

I shall correct the hon. Gentleman. We are not talking about a new Stormont or a new assembly, and neither was anyone who made this proposal. We all said that the forum would not have any legislative or administrative power. It would be the forum in which Ulster people could say what they wanted.

The Government have been meeting representatives of Sinn Fein and the IRA, and the so-called loyalist paramilitary groups, behind closed doors time and again. The ordinary people of Northern Ireland ask, "When are we going to have a say?" The only way in which they can have a say is through the forum. It is their negotiating body, reflecting their views. It is ridiculous for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that we would try to set up some new Stormont in this way. The forum will have no power whatever. We do not want it to have any power. We have made it perfectly clear to our people that they need not look upon themselves as Members of Parliament in embryo. They are nothing of the sort. They are just delegates to their negotiating forum.

Dr. Godman

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the view voiced a few minutes ago by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, that the forum should be given the means to allow it to meet outwith Belfast, elsewhere in the United Kingdom, even in Dublin?

Rev. Ian Paisley

We have said that the forum can meet in any part of the United Kingdom. No doubt, if it wanted to go to Dublin, it would. I would not go with it, by the way, if it did. I think that it is in the ground rules that there is no restriction on where it can meet.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Government supplied the political parties in Northern Ireland with a paper during the consultative process, in which they laid out clearly the role that such a forum would have, and proposed that it would be able to meet in various places and in various forms. I know of no party that has objected to that proposal.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Another proposal was that committees of the forum should sit like Select Committees of this House and investigate problems, which are bound to arise during negotiations. We have a problem at the moment, for example, in local government. Surely there should be a committee to examine local government in Northern Ireland.

We have many problems. The forum should continue with its work, and then feed the results to the negotiators. That, surely, would lead to consensus—the consensus that has already been achieved by committees. There is much work to be done. The main thrust of the policy of both the SDLP and the Dublin Government, however, has been that the forum is not really important. It is a case of telling people, "Stand for election and then go home; we do not want you, and we are sorry that we ever heard of you."

I resent the part of the Bill that refers carefully to making provision for elections in Northern Ireland for the purpose of providing delegates". Why does it not say "for the purpose of electing a forum from which delegates shall be drawn to participate in the negotiations"? The Government want to put the forum down. The trouble is that people fear that there will be a Unionist majority on it—and there will. Most people who are sent to this House, under its own rules, are Unionists; those who do not like that will have to lump it. I once said to Mrs. Thatcher, "You have been elected by the people of the land. Millions hate you, but you are still the Prime Minister. You hate me, but I have been elected by the people, and I will speak for the people." It is not possible to do anything else.

What is wrong with the people of Ulster having their say in an election, and subsequently in debate? They have no powers. They cannot legislate; they can only give an opinion, having established that opinion through select committees. Moreover, there is to be a referendum, so that the result of all the discussions can be put to the people. If that result is not passed by the forum, it will never be passed by the people of Northern Ireland. That is the litmus test. If the result cannot get past the forum, we can forget about it.

If the House is foolish enough to say goodbye to the forum's opinion and call a referendum, and if the result of the discussions is overwhelmingly rejected, we shall find ourselves in an even worse position. Why is the House so adamant about de-horning the forum? It should be able to deliberate and vote. I am glad that it is to be allowed to appoint its own chairman; there was a big fight about that. I think that some Ministers thought that they should chair the forum, but subsequently realised that that was not on, and that we were entitled to choose our own chairman. It would be possible to have weighted majorities. The European Parliament has weighted majorities, and there is nothing undemocratic about that.

I am sorry that the Government wish to neuter the assembly. Clause 1 spells out the purpose of the elections: they are to provide delegates from among whom participants in negotiations may be drawn. It does not, however, spell out the fact that the purpose of the elections is to provide the people of Northern Ireland with a genuine stake in a matter from which they have most to lose or gain.

Clause 2 deals with the first task that must be undertaken immediately after the elections. I note that the Government intend to invite negotiating teams to participate. Where will those teams come from? They will come from the forum—but the forum will not meet. That is the first thing that must happen: the forum must meet, and it must meet before 10 June. It cannot be muzzled; it must be heard, and it will be heard.

Unfortunately, the Government have already fixed the meeting place for the negotiations. They must do that, because they spend so much money on making rules—and on giving Gerry Adams a beautiful suite of offices with his name on the door. Dick Spring has an even bigger suite. He said that his table was not as big as the Secretary of State's, and that there must be equality. I was given a room, which I have never seen; so was my party, and so was the Ulster Unionist party. Stormont used to be anathema to the republicans, but that is no longer the case. There are those wonderful rooms, and the small parties that have told us that they will never give up their weapons—that they will never hand in one gun—are welcome. The leader's name is on the door, and they all sit there in state.

Let me remind the House that the loyalist paramilitaries take the same line as Sinn Fein: they refuse to decommission. I, for one, will not sit down with them until they abide by the Mitchell principles and start handing in the weapons that have committed murder, just like the weapons of Sinn Fein. If hon. Members think that Unionists can be bullied into sitting down with a hunch of gunmen, they had better be disillusioned immediately. We cannot negotiate with those who are killing people and brutalising Northern Ireland.

That is still happening today. I am amazed that the House does not realise what is happening in our Province. A young Roman Catholic boy, Martin Docherty, was actually crucified: spikes were put into his hands and feet, and he was left bleeding by the IRA. Then hon. Members ask me to sit down with the IRA's representatives, and to talk about peace. That cannot be done, and no self-respecting politician will do it.

That is why I have asked the Secretary of State how he will prove that IRA representatives are genuine. Even the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist party said that he was convinced that the ceasefire was real: his gut had told him that. No doubt his stomach has now taught him another lesson—that the ceasefire was not real. The Secretary of State said that he "perceived" that it was real, and was making a working assumption. His working assumption was balderdash; it was not "working" at all. At the very time when he was saying that, churches were being burnt on both sides of the community. Orange halls were being burnt, and the police were being attacked: 590 petrol bombs were thrown at them. Some peace.

Beatings were also being carried out. The House should ensure that no representative sits at the negotiating table until those dreadful beatings have stopped. They are an outrage, but they are happening repeatedly, and not just one side is responsible. This year alone, the loyalists have already carried out 33 punishment beatings and the republicans 45—but they have a room at Stormont with their leader's name on it, and they are sitting negotiating with the Government. What sort of democracy is that? Since the ceasefire, the IRA has carried out more than 210 such attacks, while the loyalists have carried out 125. What about the Lurgan man, Mr. Maguire, who was attacked by the IRA on 12 April? Mr. Maguire, a grandfather, was covered in petrol and then set on fire. We can have nothing to do with people who do those things, or with their spokesmen.

The Secretary of State promised that he would first ask the leaders of all the parties to make a declaration—he was not entering into negotiations—that they were tied to the Mitchell principles, and would proceed to carry them out. The Mitchell programme is decommissioning: the arms must go. What has Martin McGuinness told us? He has said that no gun will ever be surrendered by the IRA, and Gerry Adams has said the same. The Protestant paramilitaries have also said that no guns will be surrendered.

What will the Government do on 10 June? Will they say, "Affirm where you stand," or will they invite everyone to come to the table? There seems to be a difference between what is in the joint communiqué and what the Government are saying. I hope that the worst fears of the Ulster people will not be realised and that the Government will be firm and say that no one can come to the negotiating table until he has signed up to and proved by his actions that he will abide by the principles of the Mitchell report. Only on that basis can there be satisfaction. If there are guns on the table, under the table and outside the door, people cannot negotiate freely, because they will always be under threat.

I hope that we can amend the Bill and put right some matters that are entirely wrong. The Bill cannot ever be perfect, but at least it gives the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to put a mark beside the names of those whom they want to represent them at the table. Some people think that we do not want talks or negotiations. Why should we not? The part of the community that I represent has suffered most. We have a strong case for saying that we must get these talks going and that they must succeed. We have the motivation to get them for our people, but they must be on a proper basis. I have gone to all the talks, even though other parties did not go. I was at the Atkins talks and I went to the assembly when the Ulster Unionists would not. I have tried to put my case.

Mr. John D. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman is wrong: it was the SDLP that boycotted it. We were present.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The right hon. Gentleman's party was out of the assembly twice. It went in and out like a yo-yo. The Ulster Unionists came to the assembly only because a Westminster election had been called. They knew that if they boycotted the assembly, they would not do well in the election.

Rev. Martin Smyth

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One of the assembly's remits was to prepare a report on how Northern Ireland should be governed. Because others were not prepared to do that work, we abstained until they became sensible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair is not adjudicating on any of this.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I do not propose to go into why they did not attend the assembly, but it had nothing to do with what the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has said.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Read the record.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I have read the record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This has nothing to do with the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley

You took the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and it was not made by me.

If the basis of the negotiations is not right, the outcome will not be right. I plead with the House to let the people of Northern Ireland speak. Make the changes that need to be made in the Bill. I hope that the Government will not ramstam the Bill on a guillotine to get it through the House, but that there will be adequate time to discuss it. I emphasise that, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the leader of the Ulster Unionists, also made that point. We are not here to wreck the Bill. We want an election and it was my party that originally proposed one. But it must be on a basis that will lay a foundation not of sand but of rock, so that a solid outcome will result for all the people of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke about the method of the election. I was told by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that if the parties could reach broad agreement about the method of the election, the Government would accept it. I thought that the Government wanted us to do that, so I went to my party's opposite, the SDLP. We had big differences, but we sat down and found that we could bridge the gap by having a list system. We went to all the smaller parties and they also agreed to that, but the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance party said no. We did our best to get broad agreement.

The leader of the Ulster Unionists eulogised the single transferable vote system. I hope that he will suggest STV for elections to this House, because that would enable Unionists to express themselves without splitting the vote and fracturing Unionism. Some seats in Northern Ireland are not fought by the DUP or the Ulster Unionists because if the Unionist vote was divided, the republicans would get the seats. If STV operated for elections to the House, the numbers would be different on both sides.

6.15 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

The legislation is totally unnecessary because it purports to pave the way for all-party negotiations. But such negotiations could and should have started a long time ago, and could have been based on earlier electoral mandates. I am not opposed in principle to elections in Northern Ireland or anywhere else—no democratic politician could oppose elections—but in this instance the Government are putting the cart before the horse by saying that elections should be the passport to all-party negotiations. Elections should be the outcome of all-party negotiations and should be based on a new constitutional framework that has been agreed at all-party negotiations.

The idea for elections did not come from the Mitchell commission. It was an Ulster Unionist idea, and it is therefore understandable that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland fears a resurrection of Stormont and a return to majority rule. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) insisted that he never wanted the forum to have legislative or executive powers. He said that he wanted it to be simply a forum for all the people of Ulster. I am not sure about that, because I see no provision in the Bill for the inclusion of representatives from the people of Cavan, Monaghan or Donegal.

Clause 3(3) states: the forum shall not have any legislative, executive or administrative functions, or any power to determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations mentioned in section 1. That is fair enough, but perhaps the Minister can explain subsection (4): But if, in accordance with any rules of procedure adopted by them, the participants in the negotiations refer any matter to the forum, subsection (3) shall not be taken to prevent the forum from considering that matter.

I hope that, when the Minister replies or in Committee, we shall get a satisfactory explanation of that point. If the forum and the negotiating body are to be separate, we are entitled to a clear commitment that there will be no statutory link between the forum and the negotiations.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

Paragraph 7 of the ground rules papers permits that any reference or interaction with the forum to be convened following the elective process held to determine which parties will participate in the negotiations may take place solely by agreement among the negotiating teams to this effect and only at their formal instigation". At the agreement of the negotiators, a reference can be made to the forum. It would be very wrong if there was a provision in the Bill that prevented the forum from considering that which had been referred to it by agreement following the negotiations under the ground rules.

Mr. Canavan

I understand the Minister's point, but there is a fear that in-built Unionist majorities in the negotiating body and in the forum could be almost tantamount to a Unionist veto if the negotiating body decided under the ground rules to refer something to the forum. We may return to that matter in Committee, but I am not satisfied at this stage with the Minister's response.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has not heard at any time from any pro-Union Member of Parliament in the run-up to this debate any suggestion that there should be a return to a Stormont form of majoritarianism, or any suggestion at any time that any such elected body should have any administrative or legislative powers? If that is the case, is there any foundation for any fear that there will be a return to a Stormont form of administration?

Mr. Canavan

The hon. and learned Gentleman should read in detail the Hansard report of the speech made by the hon. Member for North Antrim, whose position seemed to be that, as there is a Unionist majority, that majority should prevail. That is not my perception of democracy. It is a case not simply of the majority prevailing, but of the majority respecting the rights of minorities within the community. That is the only basis on which any democratic settlement can be reached in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I would like to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the negotiating bodies will not have a Unionist majority, because all parties will go into the negotiations with the same number of people. Unionists will be overwhelmingly in the minority at the negotiating table. That must be said clearly. We are entering into negotiations where the Unionists are in a permanent minority, and they should not be in that position.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, if the Labour party has a majority in this House, it should govern the country. Surely the majority in a democracy must have a special place, although that does not mean that the minority do not have rights.

Mr. Canavan

The hon. Gentleman may be anticipating the results of the elections, which brings me to my next point—the method of the elections. The hon. Gentleman and I might reach at least a partial agreement on this matter.

The Government claim that they consulted all parties, and concluded that they could not please everybody. They have now produced this hotchpotch scheme, and have ended up apparently pleasing nobody. This is probably the first time in UK history that such an electoral system has been tried—it is probably the first time in world history.

The Government are laying themselves open to accusations that they have shifted the goalposts, and not just with regard to the system of elections. For example, they are deciding what is a party, and putting down in statute what constitutes a party. I take the view that any party—however large or small—should be able to contest the elections, but the Government are saying what a party is in the schedule. In addition, the Government are giving the Secretary of State the power to decide who is the leader of that party. I can imagine the derision that would result if the Prime Minister were to be given powers to decide who the Leader of the Opposition was to be.

Mr. Ancram

He might choose the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Canavan

Yes, it might be me.

Mr. Corbyn

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in all previous United Kingdom elections, the candidates have been people who happen to be members of parties, whereas it is now the parties that are contesting the elections—a fundamental change? Is he also aware that the Secretary of State is giving himself powers to exclude equally legitimate political organisations from contesting the elections? What we have here is the introduction into United Kingdom law of a kind of political censorship that has never existed before.

Mr. Canavan

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The Bill is in danger of bringing the United Kingdom's electoral system into disrepute.

About the only positive thing that I can see emerging from the Bill and the White Paper is the firm commitment—I hope it is a firm commitment—to start all-party negotiations on 10 June.

I would also like to refer to paragraph 24 of the White Paper, and the Minister may be able to respond to this point. It says: The negotiations will operate on the basis of consensus … (The rules for establishing sufficient consensus will be agreed in advance of negotiations by the participants and such rules will ensure that any departure from the rule of unanimity is within minimal limits and will, in all cases, ensure that any decision taken will be supported by a clear majority in both the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.) How on earth will it be determined whether a decision is supported by "a clear majority" of the communities? We are entitled to some explanation of that point.

I hope that, despite the Bill, all the relevant parties will get together on 10 June. When I say relevant parties, I mean those parties which accept the six principles of the Mitchell report. Like other hon. Members, I hope that Sinn Fein is able to deliver an absolutely unequivocal ceasefire on the part of the IRA, because it would be a tragedy if the people who vote for Sinn Fein in the elections find themselves disfranchised and not represented at the negotiating table.

Once all the parties get round the table on that basis, I hope that there will be a new constitutional settlement put by way of a referendum not just to the people of Northern Ireland but, in accordance with what has been agreed by both Governments, to an all-Ireland test on both sides of the border. It would be helpful if both referendums were held on the same day.

I hope that what emerges is a new deal for the people of Northern Ireland, and that they can live in peace and harmony while respecting each other's differences in terms of culture and religious beliefs and building meaningful and constructive relationships across the communities and across the border on an all-Ireland basis.

6.29 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Using elections to select negotiating teams has to be right. Permanent peace and justice for all in Northern Ireland will, I suspect, come only through democracy. If the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) will allow me, I will assert some views of the people of Northern Ireland. These views, I believe, have the wholehearted support of the overwhelming majority of those I meet in Northern Ireland, and, if I understand the messages coming from the political parties in Northern Ireland, they have the total support of all the major parties in the Province.

I am totally committed to an exclusively democratic approach to solving the difficulties in Northern Ireland, and it is because of that that I am an enthusiastic supporter of all efforts to press ahead with a real peace process. We must do all we possibly can to hold all-party talks as quickly as possible, for exactly the reasons given earlier by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). It is also for those reasons that I am happy to back this attempt to hold elections. It follows that I am happy to vote for the Bill's Second Reading.

I must offer an apology to the Ulster Unionists on the Opposition Benches because I do not feel able to support their amendment. I believe that we need elections as quickly as possible, and that the best approach is to try to change the detail during the debates next week. There is one other reason why I consider it useful to explain why I will not support them. It does me no harm at all once in a while to take the opportunity of proving that I am my own man, and that I am not an unofficial member of either of the Unionist parties. So I will not be supporting the amendment.

Having said that, I caution the House against believing that the Bill, the elections or the proposed talks will guarantee the permanent peace we want, or justice for all. My reading of the past 18 months suggests that the Bill, the elections and the proposed talks will not achieve what we all want. My reservations about the entire process have been far too well recorded over recent months for me to need to repeat them now. Suffice it to say that my reservations remain, and were well and truly reinforced last night by yet another atrocity in London.

I note, rather surprisingly, that in Northern Ireland and the Republic there are some who are against elections in general and this scheme in particular. The people I have in mind are Sinn Fein-IRA, whose representatives regularly explain that they are against elections. I also have in mind a significant number of Irish Members of Parliament whom I meet in Dublin, who also explain that they are against these elections.

I find it extraordinary when I hear in Dublin that there is a body of opinion in the Republic which considers that "elections are not appropriate in Northern Ireland". All I can say is that such sentiments are deeply damaging and dangerous, and the people concerned should be ashamed of themselves for saying such things.

We are all familiar with Sinn Fein-IRA's regular denunciation of these elections. I can only assume that they are so opposed because they wish to prevent the world from being reminded of how few people vote for Sinn Fein in a secret ballot. They may also be anxious that the world should not be reminded that their power comes from the bullet and the bomb and not from the ballot box.

All I can ask of those who are against elections is: "What are you afraid of? Could it be that you are afraid of democracy? Could it be that you are afraid of the people of Northern Ireland?" I have always believed that the best and really the only test of a true commitment to democracy is one's ability and willingness to accept from the people a verdict with which one does not agree. That is the exact opposite of the message we are receiving from those who oppose the elections.

Although I wholeheartedly welcome the elections and the principles that underpin the Bill, I suspect that it will come as no surprise to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State that I am yet another person with reservations about the detail. I hasten to reassure my hon. Friends from the Whips Office that none of my reservations will bring me remotely close to wanting to oppose the Bill. However, some of my reservations will lead to amendments, and I will probably want to divide the House on Monday or Tuesday next week.

I have two major reservations: the electoral system that is proposed in the Bill and the use of a Command Paper to avoid putting the detail of the negotiations and the process into the Bill. I had hoped that the parties in Northern Ireland would have agreed on the way forward for the electoral system. That would have meant that I would simply have had to support them. I suppose, on reflection, that that was rather too much to hope. Therefore, I have to decide for myself on the best way forward.

I am nervous about extending the precedent of using proportional representation in United Kingdom elections, although I probably concede that we have to on this occasion. I am not persuaded that using individual constituencies is the best approach. I am opposed to any scheme that adds in the unelectable as an afterthought just to make up the numbers.

I sense that all those reservations could have been overcome if we had used a single constituency, because, above all else, that would avoid having to give seats to losers-people who could not get themselves elected by the people of Northern Ireland.

Using a Command Paper to spell out the detail is very worrying. It means that the detail in the paper is not really debatable, and it is certainly not amendable. If anything is undemocratic, I believe that it is that process. That is why I have it in mind to table amendments that will bring into the Bill the detail that is in the Command Paper. We can then have a full debate on the detail, and seek to amend it if we wish to do so.

Happily for hon. Members present today, there is only time for me to mention my four main concerns about the Command Paper. However, I do not want my right hon. and learned Friend and others on the Front Bench to think that I do not have more than four. Monday and Tuesday next week will be the time for that.

Paragraph 4 contains a significant change from the draft, because it now refers to the framework documents. My visits to Northern Ireland leave me in no doubt that the framework documents are totally unacceptable to the majority of those I meet in Northern Ireland. They are seen to this day as a green agenda and a sell-out to Dublin, making a united Ireland unavoidable. The tragedy is that most people on the mainland have long since lost sight of them and believe that they have gone away. To bring them back in this fashion risks ruining any prospect of talks before they even start.

Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will confirm that a clean sheet of paper will start the agenda for the talks, that the only things that will get on to the agenda will be there with the consent of the parties, and that the framework documents will not be pushed on to the agenda because it is what the two Governments want.

Paragraph 9 of the Command Paper refers to the restoration of the Sinn Fein-IRA ceasefire. For the avoidance of doubt, let me repeat what I said in my interventions—that reinstating the previous temporary truce is simply not enough. I asked my right hon. and learned Friend and the Opposition spokesman whether any new ceasefire would have to be permanent. I am willing to give way to them if I misunderstood what I heard, but I noted that neither was prepared to insist that all participants renounce for ever the use of violence if they do not get their own way.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hope that my hon. Friend will not overlook the fact that I have made it clear that, at the very beginning of the negotiations, once a ceasefire has been restored in the terms of August 1994, it will be necessary for Sinn Fein and all other parties to give an absolute commitment to each and every one of the Mitchell commission's principles on democracy and non-violence. Those principles were dwelt on at great length and to great effect by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will not overlook the true effect of that.

Mr. Wilshire

I note what my right hon. and learned Friend says. I think that the record will show that my interpretation was correct. What I have just heard again suggests that the Government will consider allowing into the start of the talks a party that has restored only a temporary truce; only then will there be discussions as to permanence. That confirms my point. The participants will not first be required to renounce violence for ever.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that neither the Secretary of State nor the Opposition spokesman will use the dreaded word "permanent", because they are both well aware that if they use the word there will be no prospect of getting Sinn Fein into the democratic loop of discussions? It may not be wanted, but it will certainly never come in if it is required to give an assurance that it will never return to violence, because violence—in the absence of a real mandate—is the only card it holds.

Mr. Wilshire

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. Unfortunately, far too few people understand that fundamental point. That is why I chose to remind the House of the importance of permanence.

I have never had any doubt—if anyone else has, he should look at the evidence—that Sinn Fein-IRA have, to this day, only one objective. They will use discussion if they believe that that will help them, but if they think that it will not help them, they remain committed to bombing and shooting into submission anyone foolish enough or weak enough to believe that it is possible to humour evil terrorists. That is the message on which the hon. and learned Gentleman and I wholeheartedly agree.

Paragraph 17 refers to the six Mitchell principles, but it stops short of insisting that all participants sign up to all six principles, without exception. It also stops short of insisting that they sign up to them before anything else happens. I am not reassured by the word "addressing". It would be perfectly possible to arrive at the negotiating table every day of the discussions, to say "good morning" to the document containing the principles, and then to carry on. It simply will not do.

I know that some will say that I am attempting to introduce preconditions, but that is a sterile debating point. The fact is that, without a permanent ceasefire and without complete acceptance of the Mitchell principles, there will not be all-party talks. Some will say that I am demanding that Sinn Fein-IRA, or the Protestant paramilitaries for that matter, make a concession. I am not ashamed of that; for the past 18 months, the Government and this House have given concession after concession to the men of violence, and they have yet to concede a single thing. So I am not worried by the accusation that I may be asking for a concession: it is about time there was one.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that the joint communiqué from both Prime Ministers spelled out clearly that there must be more than just an "addressing" of the Mitchell report. It said that the parties were to sign up to the Mitchell report, and deal with decommissioning as well. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a tendency to weaken those requirements in the new structures set forth by the Government.

Mr. Wilshire

That has certainly been my understanding of what has been said time and again, which is why I am deeply suspicious of what I read in the Command Paper. I see no such requirements set out there. I have long since learnt that such omissions are not due to sloppy draftsmanship. I must therefore ask myself why the requirement has been omitted. Hence the need to amend the Bill.

My fourth basic worry arises from paragraph 10, which refers to the validation of any all-party talks by means of a referendum. In rather strange language, this paragraph mentions referendums in Ireland—North and South", not in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Until that is changed, I shall remain deeply suspicious of what is intended. I have been involved long enough to know that every word and phrase in every Northern Ireland document is there for a purpose. I should be most interested to hear my right hon. and learned Friend explain this phrase.

Another worry about paragraph 10 is that it does not commit either Government to accepting the verdict of the people. The Bill and the document merely make provision to ask the people for their views. Nowhere that I can see do they confirm that the assent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland will be binding. That must be put right on Monday and Tuesday of next week. I have, as I said, a number of other reservations too, but they are best left to our detailed discussion on Monday. Both the Bill and the Command Paper need serious clarification next week if they are to be acceptable to us. Much of the detail in the Command Paper must find its way into the Bill itself. I therefore urge the Government to look hard at ways of doing that over the coming weekend.

I also believe that the electoral process proposed is far from ideal, but I am resigned to the fact that we are too far down the road to reverse now. Despite all these reservations, I still believe that democracy offers the only real hope for the future of Northern Ireland. The elections are the essence of the democracy that we want for Northern Ireland, and in that spirit I will be voting for the Bill tonight. I look forward to helping to improve it next week.

6.49 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I apologise to the House and to the Secretary of State for the absence of my colleagues and myself during the opening moments of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's address, but our deputy leader was taken ill. He apologises for not being in the Chamber this afternoon. In that regard, I understand that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) made a critical comment about our absence, but I am sure that she would not have done so if she had been aware of the circumstances.

I speak about the Bill as the representative of the party to which the majority of nationalists living in Northern Ireland give their support and as the representative of a community whose consent to the structures in place over them historically was never asked, earned or given. My colleagues and I have spent a political lifetime combating the violence that flowed from that political failure, due in large measure to the mistakes made over the years around the British Cabinet table and in the House. Our electors have learnt from their particular bitter experience to approach the prospect of legislation by Westminster not with hope but with trepidation.

For more than a year and a half since August 1994 we had an opportunity to approach the negotiation table free from the immediate shadow of violence. The Prime Minister will remember from his reception in the town of Downpatrick in my constituency how much he was then seen as the bearer of hope. Sadly, that hope has dissipated and confidence has gone. I cannot pretend to disentangle the motives that produced so much energy to put the brake on the political momentum that could and should have come from the peace era, but there was a manifest need to build on that momentum and underpin the ceasefires through immediate unconditional negotiations and agreement. I can understand that a Unionist leadership might want to exploit the tactical advantage, but it is their nationalist neighbours, not them, whose aspirations have been denied expression. I understand that the Unionists might be tempted to follow their inherited instinct that the consent of their nationalist neighbours does not matter much. They have successfully shifted the focus of what might feature in the negotiations to whether there should be negotiations at all.

Two parties out of the total number have refused to negotiate, and those two parties are represented in the Chamber this evening. There will be an election involving 33 parties because the British Government were drawn or, for all I know, entered willingly into a Unionist-led agenda. The nationalist community took the message about the Government's priorities and, tragically, the devaluation of the ceasefire became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In striking that note, I do not want to detract from the great importance of the setting of 10 June as a fixed date for all-party talks. I want only to stress how costly has been the delay, and that the wariness and misgivings felt in my community are justified by experience, including our recent experiences. I want to stress also that the preliminaries put between us and that date in the form of the Bill make the task of negotiations more difficult and uncertain than it need have been.

The predictability of Northern Ireland's election results is proverbial. All the serious parties already have mandates. We have had 21 elections in the past 20 years, and we know that elections are deeply polarising in our community and always have been. They are about victory and defeat. An election is fought, but negotiations are about common interests and striving for compromise. However, those two contradictory things have been grouped together in the proposals, only because the Unionists wanted the ritual comfort of confirmation that there is a Unionist majority and a nationalist minority in Northern Ireland, and because the British Government failed to assert leadership in the wider common interest.

As a result, the electors are faced with an election that will distil and combine the worst features of the list and proportional representation cum constituency system. The electorate will have to choose from an array of more than 33 options in a list that reads as though it was concocted on 1 April. The Government's plans also ensure that about 70 people will be involved in each negotiating session. The mind boggles at that concept. Nevertheless, the Social Democratic and Labour party is well used to fighting and winning elections in the most difficult circumstances, and the ballot box has not and will not hold any fears for us. If the negotiations are to be truly meaningful, that unnecessary and exasperating detour may be a price worth paying—provided the negotiations seek a real and permanent solution.

More disturbing, and the part of the Bill about which I have the greatest reservations, are the provisions relating to the proposed forum. We have from the beginning made clear our strenuous opposition to the creation of an elected body within the negotiating process. Our fundamental concern is that no matter how innocuous a proposal might appear on paper, and no matter how circumscribed by legislation, we know historically that reality can be quite different. The history of such initiatives in Northern Ireland gives ample justification for our fears. Each time a consultative assembly has been set up in Northern Ireland, it has inevitably been used as a vehicle for Unionists to assert their dominance. Irrespective of the intention of British Ministers, Dr. Jekyll has the habit of becoming Mr. Hyde. Our anxiety is that a body with an in-built Unionist majority might seek to influence and control the negotiations, even if it is formally prevented from doing so. It could in those circumstances, and given certain events, poison the atmosphere through the adoption of declarations and resolutions, making progress in the real negotiations much more difficult. The negotiating process will be difficult enough without the forum acting as a rival political focus or a counterpoint to negotiation in the search for accommodation. Any hon. Members who think that I am exaggerating should consider previous speakers' comments on the forum. I am glad that the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), is in his place because I want to quote his comments broadcast by RTE yesterday. He said: we went over this on several occasions with Michael Ancram during the course of today. That does not stop the forum putting forward proposals which could be the same as those proposals being considered by the negotiators, and making a view known of those issues. And I'm saying that, from our party's point of view, we would not enter into any agreement, not finalise any agreement in the negotiations, which had not been endorsed by the forum"— there by giving the forum a life and existence that the Bill alleges it will not have.

That attitude has been expressed despite the fact that we anticipate that the outcome of the negotiations will be validated by the referendum. It seems to us that the intent of the two Unionist parties—it has been expressed not only in tonight's debate—is for the forum and not the negotiating table to be the ultimate endorsement of what happens in negotiations.

The Northern Ireland Office paper of 21 March sought to allay such fears, and we understand that was its purpose. The paper said that the forum's purpose would be to promote dialogue and mutual understanding and, most important, that it would be required to proceed on a basis of broad consensus.

The requirement for broad consensus was potentially of great significance. It offered some measure of protection against majoritarian exploitation of the forum. That protection has now entirely disappeared. Schedule 2 to the Bill simply states: The rules of procedure of the forum shall include provision for a quorum. It contains no requirement whatever that the forum must operate on the basis of broad consensus. We believe that there is an urgent need to include a requirement for broad consensus, as specified in paragraph 24 of Cmnd. 3232.

Schedule 2 to the Bill also proposes: A decision on the election or removal of a chairman or the adoption or alteration of rules of procedure shall not be regarded as taken by the members unless—

  1. (a) no member present has objected to it, or
  2. (b) it is approved on a vote by at least 75 per cent. of those voting."
It requires a vote by not 75 per cent. of the membership but by 75 per cent. of those voting.

We were assured that the forum would not be a body with legislative, administrative or executive functions but that it would be a consultative and deliberative body charged with promoting dialogue and mutual understanding. Taking decisions on a majoritarian basis, even on a weighted basis, is surely entirely at variance with the spirit of dialogue and mutual understanding. In its procedures, the forum should practise what it is expected to preach.

What decisions will the forum take on which it should not have to operate on the basis of consensus? What dialogue and mutual understanding will be found by voting down even a quarter of the people engaged in that search for dialogue and understanding? If the negotiations—which will deal with much more difficult and decisive subjects—are to proceed on the basis of consensus, it is hard to understand why the forum should not operate on the same basis.

I almost hesitate to refer to the Dublin forum, which was a non-elected body. In that forum, as many as 13 very diverse delegations managed, with a little common sense and a bit of give and take, to conduct the business of a body that is very similar to the one that has been proposed. The Government recognise that, in certain contexts, consensus is efficient and a necessary element for progress. To prove the point, the White Paper on the European Union states that the Government does not accept that the unanimity provisions for CFSP are a constraint on its development. So let it not be a constraint on the forum's development.

The fundamental error that the Government are making is to apply the logic of a decision-making body or assembly to a body or assembly that is of a quite different character, which will of course heighten concerns that their protestations about the body's nature and functions are not entirely sincere. The importation of majoritarian procedures into a body that is being operated in parallel with the negotiations creates a serious risk that the whole process could be infected or affected by those procedures.

In the interests of the negotiations and of the great goal of peace and agreement, which is the ultimate prize, members of the SDLP seek—despite the extent of our reservations about the elective process—to take a fair and positive view of the overall package that has been presented to us. Should the Bill be enacted unamended, it will be much harder for us to persuade a very suspicious nationalist community that a serious and meaningful process is on offer.

In their communiqué of 20 February, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach agreed that an elective process would have to be broadly acceptable and lead immediately and without further preconditions to the convening of all-party talks". No sooner had the proposal of an election been nailed on the agenda—in a form that cynically devalued any concept of broad acceptability of nationalist views—than we had forced on us the further stage of a proposed forum, which is unwelcome to everyone in the nationalist community and discards the commitment to "consensus" and "broad consensus" that had been flagged in two formal Government papers.

Even if this forum were not a precondition for negotiations—I should expect the Prime Minister, under the terms of the February communiqué, to confirm that it is not—the loss of the element of consensus will damage, perhaps fatally, the capacity of any nationalist leader in Northern Ireland to persuade the nationalist community to view negotiations in a positive light, or other than as a threat or advance instalment of a process aimed at directing the negotiations to a totally and exclusively internal solution. We shall table amendments at the appropriate stage on those key points, but I should like to tell the House now that its decision on this issue will have a very significant symbolic and practical impact on nationalist attitudes to the proposed forum.

On behalf of my party, I welcome the publication of the Bill because it marks a staging post on the route to 10 June. I do not welcome the Bill itself. The process it defines is unnecessary, divisive and deeply flawed. I am confident that the Bill has the potential to cause major difficulties in the future that could prejudice and jeopardise the negotiations' progress. It remains to be seen whether the Government have led us into a long and unnecessary detour or into a quagmire. Nevertheless, despite their strange decision to proceed to negotiations by this twisted and possibly potholed route, we acknowledge that the journey has begun with the Bill's introduction.

A document that is perhaps of greater relevance to the real needs of the situation was published on Tuesday as "Ground Rules for Substantive All-Party Negotiations". It essentially defines the negotiations' scope, purpose and processes. It is vital that the two Governments, acting together, have a common view of the parameters of the negotiations. My party welcomes the fact that, following a period of consultation, the Governments have reached a definitive common judgment on the most suitable and broadly accepted ground rules.

It is reassuring that the ground rules paper is, in most respects, broadly unchanged from the consultation document that was circulated to the parties on 15 March last year. The purpose of negotiations will be to achieve a new beginning for negotiations in Northern Ireland, in the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands. The purpose will also be to agree new institutions and structures to take account of the totality of that relationship. I hope that the three-stranded structure agreed in May 1991, which reflects the equal weight and independent standing of those three relationships, remains in place. Likewise, the vital principle that nothing will be agreed in any strand until everything is agreed in the negotiations as a whole has been preserved. The central role played together by the two Governments in the overall management of the negotiation is also essential.

It is important, however, that paragraph 7 of the paper makes it explicit that the conduct of the negotiations will be exclusively a matter for those involved in them. Any reference to or interaction with the forum may take place solely with the agreement of the negotiating teams to this effect, and only at their formal instigation—and, we hope, on the basis of consensus, as stipulated in paragraph 24 of Cmnd. 3232. It is essential that this necessary separation is preserved and, if possible, strengthened. There can be no breach of the integrity of the ground rules as a package by seeking to process the negotiations through an internalist and majoritarian filter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Of course there can."]

It is also encouraging that the two Governments have included in the ground rules paper an explicit reference to the framework document. This serves to refocus us on the core issues to be resolved in the negotiations. For too long, quibbles over mechanics and technicalities have got in the way of discussions on the real issues. The framework document sets out the broad outline of a possible settlement that nationalists and Unionists could accept as their own.

The four guiding principles in the framework document must underpin any agreement and inform the search for that agreement. [HON. MEMBERS: "Another precondition."] Perhaps hon. Members will agree with them when they hear them. They are as follows: the principle of self-determination set out in the joint document; that the consent of the governed is an essential ingredient for stability in any political arrangement—as we have said often, acceptance by most nationalists of the principle of consent to any change in the status of Northern Ireland does not equate with the acceptance of the status of Northern Ireland itself—[HON. MEMBERS: "A good let-out."]; the necessity that agreement be pursued and established by exclusively democratic, peaceful means without resort to violence or coercion of any nature; and that the new political arrangements must be based on full respect for and protection of the expression of the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland and evenhandedly afford both communities in Northern Ireland parity of esteem and treatment, including equality of opportunity and advantage. [Interruption.] I understand that those four principles are generally accepted by both Unionists and nationalists as a fair way forward, so I cannot understand the sedentary comments of disagreement from behind me.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that people such as me endorse parity of esteem on an individual basis—that is, equality before the law, equality of opportunity and the affording of any civil right on an equal basis to every individual, no matter what his religion or political outlook? That form of parity of esteem is acknowledged in every democratic country, in some by means of a written constitution, but I know of no democratic process whereby the political rights of a minority to determine the political identity of a state—the parity of esteem that the hon. Gentleman claims—is an accepted principle.

Mr. McGrady

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for asking that question. The sum of the individual attitudes is the sum of the attitudes of the community as a whole. He referred to parity of esteem as in some way negating the rights of the majority. That is contrary to what I have just been saying. If he wants me to repeat it, 1 shall say that we endorse the evolution of whatever political outcome we reach by acceptance on the basis of consensus and majority. What is the problem? Back in 1970, long before it became fashionable in the House or in the hon. and learned Gentleman's party or indeed, my previous party, article 4 of my party's constitution accepted that the status of Northern Ireland could not be changed without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland. That is part of my party's constitution.

We believe that no agreement can be achieved or can endure if it does not honour and reflect the vital principles that I have emphasised. A number of important points relating to the negotiations remain to be resolved or filled out. We shall endeavour to ensure that nothing is done that will weaken the negotiating structure set out in the ground rules. We accept that the multiplicity of participants who are likely to be involved may make it necessary on rare occasions—I am cautious on this one—to move away from the rule of total unanimity and towards sufficient consensus. That will be a very difficult area to define. However, it is important that, as signalled in the ground rules paper, the rules for establishing sufficient consensus are clearly agreed in advance and that any decision must have clear majority support in both communities—not cross-party support, but cross-community support within the republican tradition and the Unionist tradition.

The chairmanship of the north-south strand has to be determined. It will be a crucial appointment to confidence in the negotiating process. The SDLP looks forward to the appointment of an experienced, authoritative chairperson of proven integrity and independence of judgment. We feel that what precisely will happen at the opening of the negotiations needs to be fleshed out further, in particular with regard to decommissioning, which has been mentioned many times tonight. The SDLP strongly and unequivocally supports the subscription of all participants to the habitual principles of democracy and non-violence.

The international body's proposal on decommissioning must also be given high priority, as it was envisaged in the communiqué of 28 February and in the ground rules paper. We reiterate once more that the people who most want to see total decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons are the Irish people as a whole. At the same time, if decommissioning is reimported into the negotiations to serve as a road block or obstacle to the discussions on the full agenda of political questions, there will be two certain consequences. First, there will not be serious negotiations and, secondly, there will not be any decommissioning.

Parties that may be tempted to strike postures on the issue of decommissioning should think carefully about what they are doing and what they could condemn the people of Northern Ireland to. The reality is that political progress and progress on decommissioning will proceed in tandem. To seek total satisfaction on decommissioning at the beginning of the negotiations before moving to any other issue would be at variance with the further confidence-building requirement identified by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach when they say: Confidence building would also require that the parties have reassurance that a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered to address the legitimate concerns of both traditions, and the need for new political arrangements with which all can identify. No party can have a veto on the agenda and, as stated in the ground rules paper, all topics must be fully addressed. It is vital, therefore, that the Government live up to their commitments in the ground rules paper with regard to their determination that the structure and process of the negotiations will be used in the most constructive manner possible in the search for that agreement. They will need to match their words with vigorous action in their management of what will inevitably be a tortuous process.

The SDLP's focus is, accordingly, on the negotiations themselves. That is the big picture and the context in which we judge the Bill. It is essential that we move immediately and directly from the elections into negotiations and that those negotiations proceed without direction from or interference or second-guessing by those not involved in the negotiation process or who may wish to deflect the negotiations from their proper purpose.

We disagree with many parts of the Bill. We will table a series of amendments that will show that disagreement. I would like to think that, in the context of what I have said tonight, the Government will consider those amendments, see their validity and accept them as amendments to the Bill in its totality.

7.19 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

This would be a great opportunity to follow the points made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), but given the limited time that I have available I would have no time to make any comments of my own. At the outset, I wish to express—on behalf of my colleagues and, I am sure, everyone in the House—genuine wishes for a full and speedy return to health by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon).

I must tell the hon. Member for South Down that there has never been any unwillingness to enter into negotiations on the part of either of the two Unionist parties that he mentioned. There has been an unwillingness—rightly—to enter into negotiations with those who are terrorists and an unwillingness to find ourselves in a process for which others had set the agenda, which was tilted to allow only one conceivable outcome. It is proper for any responsible political party to ensure that when it enters negotiations, it does so on the basis of a suitable agenda and with those that it is possible to respect as constitutional and legitimate political parties.

The birth of this process comes from the failure of the Government to initiate the process that they had desired through the Anglo-Irish Agreement, on through the Downing street declaration and into the framework document. The Government recognised that they could not, through that process, get the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. After many failures, the Democratic Unionist party directed the attention of the Government to the necessity of imbibing the principle of consent as the core to any successful outcome to any negotiations. Unless that principle of consent is accepted by those who take part in negotiations—principally by the Government—there can never be a successful outcome.

On that basis and foundation, my party put forward a proposal in 1993 for a constitutional convention. I happily claim ownership of that concept. There is nothing to be ashamed of in putting forward a proposal for an elected constitutional convention. Why would any hon. Member of this democratic House think that there was something untoward about such a proposition? Undoubtedly, those who are nationalists do not like anything that reminds them of the awkward fact that there are a lot of Unionists in Northern Ireland, but that is the reality. If it is recognised that government cannot take place without consent, it is necessary to gain the consent of those who are the majority as well as those who are the minority.

We argued to the Government that, through an elected process, negotiations could take place that could test the validity and weight of arguments and whether there was any consensus for any proposals that the negotiators might produce. Some years later, however, the Government have come forward with an emasculated form of convention with a rigged election, a bridled forum and a stacked negotiating process with predetermined ground rules.

I will discuss the election system first. The Government set the criteria. The Prime Minister said in the House that if there was a broadly acceptable electoral process, it would be endorsed by the Government. We set out to meet the criteria that the Prime Minister laid down. In my view, we met those criteria when a Province-wide list system was agreed as the method for going forward.

The Government recognised that there were two main propositions—I emphasise the word two—and they put forward a further consultative paper pointing out that there were two main options: a list system or a single transferable vote system. The parties were asked to choose between those two systems. Overwhelmingly, the parties—those who represented 70 per cent. of the electorate in Northern Ireland at the election—supported the list system. For whatever reason, however—and I do not seek to draw attention to any problems that the Government may have with some of their Back Benchers or the fact that they wanted to bring along parties such as the Ulster Unionist party and the Alliance party—the Government decided to abandon that broad acceptability and turn their back on it. To justify that, the Prime Minister came to the House and said that three systems were being considered, not two. He sought to divide the Social Democratic and Labour party's position from that of my party, but the agreement that we had was for a list system. The other minutiae could have been decided by the Government, but instead of a system that was broadly acceptable they came forward with one that was totally unacceptable to all the parties.

The Government managed to bring together all the worst aspects of each election system and none of the good aspects. It has been said that the process would be the first time perhaps anywhere in the world that such a system was used, and I trust that it will also be the last. To the constituency list has been added a regional list in which no differentiation will be made between those who have substantial support and those who have next to no support at all. That shows that the Government have decided what they would like the results of the election to be and have determined a system that will produce the result that they want.

I understand—more, I agree with—the concerns of the Ulster Unionist party. It has looked at the list and seen the possibility for widespread confusion. Someone could come to the ballot booth, look at one of the names and be justified in believing that he was voting for the Ulster Unionist party as represented in the House when in fact he would be doing nothing of the sort. Anyone who came into the ballot booth might look at the name of the Ulster Democratic party and think that he was voting for the Democratic Unionist party. He might read the name of the Independent Democratic Unionist party and think that he was voting for the Democratic Unionist party. There would be a lot of scope to confuse the electorate.

If there is a long list on the ballot paper—it will be a yard long by the time the process finishes—with names of political parties and independents on it, it is essential that there should be as clear a definition as possible of the parties for which people wish to vote. The Government have no alternative but to allow the political parties to put their names on the ballot paper in the way that they believe will ensure that there is no confusion. The Government must also set in place a system in which an appeal can be made if a political party feels that some other group has come forward with a name that is merely an attempt to steal its clothes and its votes. The Minister must recognise that there is cause to believe that some political parties are named on that list for that very purpose. The Province-wide list should be abolished. If it is not abolished, it should be democratised as far as possible by scaling the number of representatives from it on the basis of the strength of the parties' votes in the constituency lists.

The other element of the process that leaves me less than content is the way in which the Government have dealt with the forum. The hon. Member for South Down referred to comments that I made on Radio Telefis Eireann about the forum. No Bill can be so worded as to guard against the ingenuity of some people and to ensure that democratic principles will ultimately be adhered to.

I make no apology for saying that this elected forum of the people of Northern Ireland should not have a role in determining whether there is sufficient consensus for proposals made by a fixed group of negotiators with no democratic content. They are not there on the basis of the strength of their vote but in the same numbers, whether their vote is large or small. There is clearly a need to ensure that there is a test of the views that the negotiators have expressed and agreed. No one should run away from the fact that the forum should be the litmus test of what the negotiators deem should be the proposals for constitutional change.

Mr. McAvoy

I want to ask a variation of the question that I asked the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) earlier. What confidence does the hon. Gentleman have that that assembly—or forum or Stormont; it is only a name and not a system that I am talking about—would get the confidence of the nationalist community for a consensus on the future of Northern Ireland when every such body has failed in the past?

Mr. Robinson

There has been no body of this sort in the past. The hon. Gentleman is thinking of bodies that have nothing to do with the negotiating process that the House is setting up tonight. This process allows for a primarily deliberative forum, but it would be a testing ground for any proposals that others generate. It will be able to test whether they have sufficient consensus and are therefore likely to pass the ultimate test of a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland. Paragraph 23 of the document produced by the two Governments, quote, unquote, as the hon. Member for South Down mentioned, states: The negotiations will proceed on the principle that nothing will be finally agreed in any strand until everything is agreed in the negotiations as a whole. On Radio Telefis Eireann, I simply said that we would not be satisfied with a final agreement unless we were happy that it would stick in the community. The only way that that can be tested is by finding whether it obtains a sufficient consensus among the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

To bring in the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), we proposed a weighted majority to determine whether there was sufficient consensus. There was not to have been a 50 per cent. plus vote but a requirement that there should be a weighted majority that could not be reached unless there was support from nationalist representatives.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in the past—for example, after the Sunningdale negotiations—the failure of negotiators to consult their constituencies meant that ultimately the package that they had agreed was rejected by the community and that one of the benefits of having the forum consider and validate the proposals of the negotiators would be in avoiding that situation?

Mr. Robinson

Yes. History has perhaps done more to confirm the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments than anything that I might say. If that lesson has not been learnt by now, it never will be. We saw the terrible tragedy of those who believed that they could defy the wishes of the people. They came to agreements in smoke-filled rooms—perhaps their arms were twisted, perhaps promises were made—but they reached agreements for which they could not secure support in their communities.

The forum is a way in which we can test whether something will have sufficient consensus. I know that that is not excluded by the Bill, but I believe that it should be expressly included. There is no threat to the negotiators in that process. I should have thought that having a body which can determine at any stage, on any proposition, the degree of support that might be generated in the community as a whole would be a positive factor on which the negotiators would want to draw. I trust that we shall not end up having a forum and a negotiating process which are locked against each other. They should use each other to further the process and to try to reach agreement.

Mr. McGrady

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the provision in the Bill for a referendum on any agreement would give the ultimate democratic approval and ensure that the people, who are the ultimate arbitrators, have the final say?

Mr. Robinson

It will be the ultimate say, but I am sure that the Government will not be too happy at the prospect of having a multiplicity of referendums at the whim of negotiators who say, "Let's try this one on the people." To have a referendum, the negotiators must be fairly certain that the question that is to be put will get the support of the people. If they are not satisfied about that, or if they are not satisfactorily informed about what the views of the people are likely to be by the forum, the proposition will not be sound. The forum has an excellent role as a litmus test for proposals. If they are to succeed, many of the proposals will have to be novel. That will be essential. If we dredge up the failures of the past, we shall fail again.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Was not this lesson taught to the House after Sunningdale? The Government said that there would never be a referendum and then the Heath Government fell. Mr. Fitt is on record as saying that that was the tragedy. It went to the people and every Opposition Member was wiped out except Gerry Fitt. The united Unionist coalition carried the day. The people spoke and that was the end of the Sunningdale agreement. Everyone argued about whether the people were aware of what was going on. Mr. Faulkner was busy selling it around the country, but he was swept away and became a leader without Indians.

Mr. Robinson

My hon. Friend makes a point similar to that of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). They reinforce the fact that the forum has a meaningful role to play, but that is not its only role. It also has a useful role in terms of informing the negotiators of issues, giving them views after it has met and questioned members of the public, community groups, women's organisations, Churches, trade unions and others on the various subjects with which the negotiators will have to deal. That ensures a grass-roots involvement in the process. I trust that that at least is something in the process that the hon. Member for South Down would welcome.

I trust that the Bill's course will not be marked by the refusal of the Government or of hon. Members to recognise that there is a useful role for the forum and that it should be trusted with the minimal role of expressing its opinion and being able to test the weight of support for various propositions. I fear, however, that the wording—perhaps the number of previous Bills, orders, Command Papers, documents and communiqués that the Government have produced makes me suspicious—in talking about the role of the forum being only deliberative, suggests that it may not even be able to determine the issues that it is to discuss. Rather than saying what the forum is not allowed to do, the Government should give us some indication as to the things that the forum can actually do, so as to ensure that it has a meaningful role.

I have exactly the same fears as those that I believe were expressed by the hon. Member for South Down. When one looks at the list, it is conceivable that at least 76 people will be around the negotiating table. Each of the top 10 parties on the list, according to the Bill, will have three negotiators as well as three people behind them, but the two Governments will have five people behind them. That means that a stadium full of people will be present while a negotiating process is supposed to be going on. Does anyone really believe that with 76 people present there will be meaningful negotiations? Of course not.

We were in a much smaller body during the last talks process and it was not long before we discovered that we had to reduce that body still further. We had not operated that smaller body for a week before we realised that it was far better to get one or two people to go off and talk in the corridor and see what degree of agreement could be reached. Let us not suppose that the proposed body, when it meets collectively, will negotiate. The very most that it can do will be to register what agreements have been reached and to report on what has taken place in terms of the real negotiations—the bilateral, trilateral and other meetings that will take place in the rooms of the negotiating teams.

If the negotiations are to be based on the ground rules that the Government have published in Cmnd. 3232, I believe that they will be far from successful. The Government cannot get away with that one. They cannot come to the House and say that the guidelines are broadly acceptable. Broadly acceptable to whom? The Ulster Unionist party has said that it does not accept them and the Minister knows that my party does not accept them—we have told him that often enough. Some ground rules within the guidelines are totally acceptable, but others are not. It is clear that the first thing that the negotiators will have to do when they meet is to determine the basic ground rules that will govern their proceedings.

Even the ground rules as set out in Cmnd. 3232 leave a great deal of additional work to be carried out. For instance, the most fundamental questions in the ground rules are these. What is consensus, what is sufficient consensus, and what is agreement? And what is the measure of that agreement within the negotiating process? If one cannot agree on what agreement is, there could be major difficulties in the days ahead.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that it is essential that some work is done, perhaps even between the political parties in Northern Ireland before we get to those negotiations, to see if we can reach a consensus on what agreement, consensus and sufficient consensus should mean. The difficulty for me is that painful experience suggests that when we have broad agreement among political parties in Northern Ireland, the Government turn their back on it. Therefore, the Minister reaps what he has sown by his refusal to accept broad agreement when it existed.

The ground rules are being imposed by two Governments, quote unquote, which means that two of the players in the negotiations have met together before the negotiations are to take place, decided what is best for themselves and imposed it on the others. They have ensured that they have ground rules which will lean towards the kind of outcome that they want. They even flagged their desired outcome by saying, "Look, we have signed up to a framework document, boys, and we are almost committed and bound by that: that is the way you should be going." If that is what the Minister thinks, he will be bitterly disillusioned in the meetings that take place after 10 June, because I must tell him and the hon. Member for South Down that Unionists do not see the framework document as the basis for an agreement for the future of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the Government of the Irish Republic.

Let me be clear about this. Unionists want to have a stable means of government for Northern Ireland and they want to have a co-operative and friendly relationship with the Government of the Irish Republic. They trust that the Government of the Irish Republic will face up to what Unionists see as the main obstacle to that: the territorial claim in the Irish Republic's constitution. I can abide by the commitment being sought in paragraph 16 of the ground rules, which asks that all negotiators will take part in good faith and seriously address all aspects of the agreed agenda". It is not in the interests of any Unionist not to take part in the process in good faith. We want to ensure that we have a process that is built upon a sound foundation, which is capable of producing a satisfactory result for all people of Northern Ireland, and one that can generate the necessary support from the people in our community at a referendum afterwards.

The Bill as currently drafted is deficient in many ways. Indeed, it is deficient in so many ways that it will be impossible to vote in support of it tonight. I trust that the Minister will be open enough in Committee on the Bill to recognise that serious concerns must be taken on board. He must recognise that changes can be made to the Bill and that it simply cannot be pushed through the House, even with the use of the guillotine, should the Government decide to use that procedure. That would ignore the wishes of the elected representatives from Northern Ireland.

Changes could be made to the Bill to make its proposals worth while so that the people of Northern Ireland can have faith in them. The onus will be on the Government, however, and we shall see from their behaviour on Monday, when we debate the Bill in Committee, whether they are prepared to make the changes that will make the Bill a worthwhile measure for the people of Northern Ireland.

7.46 pm
Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who has expressed a considered point of view that there is the prospect of genuine dialogue between the parties in Northern Ireland.

I should like to endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam). I should also like to thank and congratulate the Secretary of State and his team on the work they have put into the Bill. In the past, I have had my doubts about the veracity of the Tory party in a general election year, especially given its track record of making deals with the Ulster Unionists to sustain itself. I still support that view, although one cannot condemn without some evidence. I accept that my view, which is based on a suspicion—but founded on history—is, nevertheless, only a suspicion. By presenting the Bill and the ground rules, however, I accept totally the sincerity and genuineness of the Secretary of State and his team. It is clear that they were looking for suggestions and assistance and that they had an open mind about how to proceed in the aftermath of the events in February.

It would be easy to pick holes in the Bill and criticise the logic of certain parts of it. All sorts of phrases have been used to describe the contortions in it. Those very contortions and manoeuvres, which are meant to try to find something acceptable to all parties, reveal the genuineness of the Government's attempt to try to move the process forward. I have no doubt that Monday and Tuesday night will offer an opportunity to try to improve the Bill through amendments designed to tackle those bits about which many of us are not happy. It must be said, however, that the Bill represents a genuine attempt to move forward, and it should be supported.

Although every party, especially those from Northern Ireland, can pick faults with the Bill, surely the facts of life mean that if the Government came up with a set of proposals that were totally acceptable to one of the parties in Northern Ireland, by definition the other parties would not appear at the negotiating table. The Government, by not pleasing everyone, including the Opposition, have certainly shown that they are trying to get people around the negotiating table.

I strongly support, as does the Labour party, the six principles in the Mitchell report. I fully understand the reservations and trepidations of our Northern Ireland colleagues in relation to paramilitary participation and negotiations. I take the point of view, as does the Labour party, that any organisation that signs up to the six principles in the Mitchell commission report and then totally abandons them will lose all credibility and support from within the community that originally supported it.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Sinn Fein-IRA have never had the slightest difficulty in dealing with any lack of credibility from the community generally in relation to their activities? Does he also accept that probably 90 to 95 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland, from both communities, abhors Sinn Fein-IRA activities but that that does not seem to deter events as recent as that of last evening?

Mr. McAvoy

I totally condemn violence in a modern democratic society—there is no excuse for it—but the fact is that X number of people vote for Sinn Fein. I do not like that, but they have the right to do so. We must try to get the political representatives of that section of the voters into the negotiating process—that is what I am supporting, but I am not supporting the inclusion of violence. It is all right to say that they have a record of violence—I fully accept that. That is why I speak with trepidation in front of our Northern Ireland colleagues—they have lived with the situation for the past 25 or 26 years. If we are going to move forward, we have to try to get those people who vote for Sinn Fein to join in the democratic process and not to support a party that condones or supports violence. If we can get Sinn Fein to agree to the six Mitchell principles and then it reneges, the vast majority of people who vote for it will cease to do so—that would destroy its credibility. It has been said that Sinn Fein has no credibility, but that is not quite true.

We know that Sinn Fein has a certain amount of credibility in the international community-I do not agree with it or like it—because it is seen to represent a "victimised" section of the community in Northern Ireland. We should try to move forward and get Sinn Fein there, so long as it accepts the six Mitchell principles. I have no hesitation in saying that if Sinn Fein does not accept that, it is finished.

I thank the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) for his intervention. It illustrated the over-concentration by our Northern Ireland colleagues on the meaning and weight of every single word. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) said that every single word has a nuance and a Northern Ireland context. There is a paranoid suspicion that every single word from the Government is somehow selling Northern Ireland into the hands of the nationalists in Dublin.

It always surprises me—as an outsider looking in—that the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, by the clear definition of number, influence and long history, is a force to be reckoned with. They are there, there are a million of them and they are in a strong position. The Unionist community should show a hand of strength and reconciliation to the nationalist community, not in the terms of master and servant, but from a position of strength. The community is in a position of strength—no one will ever force it out of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic as long as that volume of people are there. I would like to see the Unionist community draw some more self-confidence from within itself and make more gestures towards a nationalist community.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman should realise that, if the majority's voice is not allowed to be heard in a free and democratic vote, suspicion is caused. Look at the history. When were the Unionist people consulted about the Anglo-Irish Agreement, or the Downing street declaration, or even the framework document? I will not sit at a table with a framework document on it and negotiate it. It is a one-way street—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read it—to a united Ireland. I am not going to unite Ireland. It must be understood, therefore, that the people of Northern Ireland are rejecting it because we were to have a referendum every 10 years. That disappeared. Twenty years have gone and we have not had a referendum. If the right of the people to express their wishes is taken away, that will cause them to have suspicions.

Mr. McAvoy

Nothing that I have said would indicate that I am trying to take away anyone's right to vote. Where we are now—with the forum and then the negotiating body—is where we are going, and it encompasses voting. I do not oppose that. I say to the hon. Gentleman—I shall choose my words very carefully—that I think he does not take into account enough the historical and social circumstances that led to the creation of the Northern Ireland state with its almost solidified voting intentions. Having said that, I would like to move on because too often in these debates we start to talk about past events. I hope that I have answered some of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Dr. Godman

I ask my hon. Friend to put to one side our experience of the Scottish travelling circus—the Scottish Grand Committee. Does he support my view that the Bill should be amended in such a way as to enable the forum to meet and convene meetings in various locations?

Mr. McAvoy

Yes, both in the Irish Republic and in other areas of the United Kingdom. I should like there to be a strong and confident assembly, Parliament or whatever it will be called, to go forward in a confident manner to the Irish Republic and deal with the Dublin Government as two Governments within one Ireland—as close neighbours. I think a self-confident community in Northern Ireland would do that.

I share the concern about the proliferation of parties and their names. I usually do not give much sympathy to the Liberal Democrat party, but even I almost feel sorry for it. I understand the problem with the names. I see from the list that there is a party that is just called Labour. There is a genuine debate as to whether the Labour party should become organised in Northern Ireland, but that issue is for a separate debate.

The party called Labour has absolutely nothing to do with the Labour party. If Labour gets a ridiculous vote, no one should claim that the Labour party should not become organised in Northern Ireland. By the same token, if Labour gets a high vote, no one should claim that the Labour party should become organised in Northern Ireland. That is not relevant to the debate because Labour has nothing to do with the Labour party—I make that very clear.

I sympathise with our Unionist colleagues in relation to the parties with minority interests and Unionist names. That will cause confusion. Having recognised those fears and having some knowledge—obviously, not the expert knowledge of some colleagues—of Northern Ireland, I must say that I feel that the electorate will see through what is going on and will make sure that they vote for who they want to vote for. We should not fall into the trap of underestimating the electorate in Northern Ireland, as politicians sometimes do.

I take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East about the forum and the negotiating body. He and our Unionist colleagues should bear in mind—I am trying not to head back to the past—what will happen if the House of Commons solidifies the voting intentions and patterns of Northern Ireland into a negotiating body. There are genuine fears, which I share, that the process will not result in a settlement that will be broadly acceptable to the mass of the people in Northern Ireland. I can understand that some Unionist colleagues may regard that comment as an insult. They may feel that they are not trusted. There is tremendous resentment, which I have picked up, because Unionist colleagues do not feel trusted by the rest of us. That is something with which we have to live; that is where we are.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East and other Unionist Members should understand that the view that I have described is taken with reluctance, but there have been failures; there have been mistakes. We understand that. It is because of previous failures that there has been a failure to arrive at genuine consensus.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, to a large extent, it is the national parties in this place which have contributed to communal politics in Northern Ireland, in so far as someone like me, who supports the socio-economic politics of Labour, and is a British citizen, is incapable of becoming a member of the Labour party? If there is a wish for political miscegenation, it is time that something was done to bring it about.

Mr. McAvoy

New Labour might even reach the far-flung province of Devizes. We never know what will happen.

At the risk of sounding intellectual, we are collectively responsible, in a sense, for all the faults and problems of our society. I think that the Social Democratic and Labour party would accept that. We are all responsible also to ensure that the men and women of violence do not destroy the process that lies before us. In a different context, it seems clear that in Israel and Palestine, the extremists on either side of the conflict are determined to sabotage any chance of peace in the middle east by means of explosions, assassinations, terrorism and violence generally.

We must ensure that we do not overreact to events of the sort that took place last night. It is clear that someone was intent on trying to send a message to the House. The explosion took place fewer than 24 hours before we began consideration of the Bill. It was a disgrace. We should not bow down to the men and women of violence by allowing such an incident to throw us off track.

I admire the Secretary of State for the determined and thorough way in which he has clung on and pursued the peace process. The same can be said for the rest of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's ministerial team. We must ensure that we in this place do not allow the men and women of violence to divert us. There is a rough road ahead. The forum and the negotiating body will be only the start of a long process. I wish the Government well in that respect. I shall support the process that lies ahead. History will judge how we reacted to it. That is not to say that the Bill and the ground rules are perfect. However, they represent the only process in front of us, and I have no hesitation in saying that the process should be supported.

8.3 pm

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

My party and I welcome the concept of elections to a forum from which negotiators will be able to try to bring about solutions to the political problems of Northern Ireland. We cannot, however, ignore the recent past, during which we have endeavoured to negotiate our way through a non-elected body. In 1992, we had the unhappy experience of putting a great deal of effort into negotiations that fell apart because some parties did not have a mandate from the electorate. Many of them were present with another agenda, one entirely different from the main agenda to which my party sought to adhere.

It is no secret that the Social Democratic and Labour party has produced some genuine negotiators, but the SDLP has an autocratic management. The progress that was made for days on end was suddenly undermined when the leader of the SDLP arrived on the scene. We now understand why that happened. There was an entirely different sideshow, of which we were unaware at the time.

The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) was engaged in negotiations with Sinn Fein. Before anyone decides that that is worth defending and that those negotiations brought about a ceasefire that endured for 17 months—we are always happy if there is no violence; when we awake and find that no violence has taken place, it is an occasion on which to thank God—it is now clear, as history has proven, that it was not a genuine ceasefire.

The intentions of the leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle, were no doubt of the utmost integrity, but he let down the peace process that took place in 1994. He did not draw the terrorists into a permanent ceasefire. Instead, he opened a window of opportunity for them to exploit the political situation at the very moment when they, the terrorists, were coming under stress and strain. It was a time when their organisation was leaking and when the rate of attrition by the Royal Ulster Constabulary was the highest that it had ever been. It was a time when the IRA was running out of funds. The window of political opportunity was open.

Bearing in mind what happened last night in London, we see the outcome of negotiations in which those taking part were not directly and specifically mandated by the electorate. I shall return to the significance of what has happened over the past few months, including what happened last night.

My party is disquieted, to put it mildly, by the form of election that the Government have proposed. I seldom agree with the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), but he rightly said that we have never had an election in the United Kingdom based on party names. We have never voted for parties. People in Northern Ireland vote for people. It is people voting for people who sustain democracy. That system makes the process meaningful. It is an approach that creates accountability for us all. Each one of us is accountable to his or her electorate. Our electorates identify with us because they have chosen us as individuals. To ask the electorate to vote for a party is to play into the hands of parties that have an autocratic structure. We all know which those parties are in Northern Ireland. We have heard a Member of one of those parties this evening say that it is not good enough to have the party name, because one must be able to identify the party for the electorate, and ask how it is proposed to identify that specific party for the electorate. A party leader's name will be introduced on the ballot paper.

What is happening is the antithesis of democracy as we know it. It is a slap-happy and shoddy way of dealing with the needs of society in Northern Ireland. It is driving people into particular camps. People are not being given the opportunity to have a second choice. Some people's first choice may be to vote for Ulster Unionism, but their second choice might well be across the traditional divide and a vote for the SDLP, or vice versa. I am sure that that could and should happen, but we do not have that opportunity now. One is asked to stake one's future within a particular camp. One X for a political party. It is wrong.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does my hon. Friend admit that such people will not necessarily be transferring from one party to another, but moving from one candidate to another whom they know?

Mr. Maginnis

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the nature of society in Northern Ireland, despite our long-held distrust, one tradition of the other. The distrust has to do with not knowing who the baddies are within the other tradition, so one damns the other tradition. The ability to vote for a candidate within the single transferable vote system allows an individual the opportunity to pick within another tradition. There is a tendency to vote for one's own as a first choice, but the second choice might be to vote for the decent fellow or lady from the other tradition. We have lost that opportunity.

That is sad when one considers the difficulties that we shall encounter the day and hour that we sit down in the forum. We have the difficulty of whether people standing for election will genuinely eschew violence. What, I wonder, shall we do when a Sinn Fein-IRA candidate—the sort of person whom I mentioned earlier in an intervention—arrives and signs the declaration in private, gives it to the returning officer and says, "I am now a candidate under the Sinn Fein banner"? Or that may be done under the banner of some other paramilitary organisation.

One thing that we must ensure is that the declaration is made not just in private, but in a more public way so that, at the very outset of the operation of the forum, a document is read publicly in a fashion similar to that which occurs in the House when new Members take the oath either by swearing on the Bible or by affirming. If such a document can enshrine the principles that derive from the Mitchell report, there will at least be further evidence for the public at large that the Government are endeavouring to ensure that genuine people are being charged with and made responsible for the negotiations and those things pertaining to negotiations from within the forum.

I talked about the difficulties that we shall encounter. Let us consider for a moment what happened last night. Some people dismiss it almost as a signal. It was more than a signal. IRA-Sinn Fein have discovered that there is nothing for them within the democratic process. They have been wedded for ever, it seems, to the violence that they have perpetrated for 26 years. They have discovered something that rather disconcerts them—that the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the United Kingdom will withstand their violence for as long as they have to. They recognise that Sinn Fein has the support of only 4.8 per cent. of the electorate, because 95 per cent. of the people have not voted for Sinn Fein-IRA. I do not exclude loyalist paramilitaries or their horrible deeds from my criticism, but they have never attracted even 1 per cent. of the support of the total electorate.

The IRA will not win militarily and it must decide whether to continue killing for the sake of killing; whether to continue its violence for the sake of violence. It does not seem to make sense. Therefore, it considers how it can exploit the political scene. That, believe it or not, has been its first and major mistake. The day and hour that it entered the political arena was the beginning of the defeat of the IRA. I do not use the word defeat to incite it to further violence. I know that it can kill tonight or tomorrow night. What I am saying is that it has lost the intellectual and the ideological argument that somehow, from days of yore, motivated its movement.

If that is the case, the IRA has compounded its difficulty by moving into the international arena because, by doing so, it has placed itself under the scrutiny of the international community. What will the international community say if, once again, it moves into a ceasefire insincerely and then backs out into its violence?

The IRA's dilemma is not whether it moves from violence to the democratic process. If that was its problem, it would have been resolved by the setting of the date for all-party talks which it demanded. Once it got that, it realised its true dilemma, which is at what level to pitch its violence today and tomorrow so as to retain some of the sympathy and the folklore that has sustained it from the United States and elsewhere.

That brings us to the real function of the election and the forum. Because, hear what I say, the IRA is defeated. It is finished. It has nothing to offer. It is, therefore, to the constitutional nationalists, more than the Unionists, more than the Government, more than the House, that the responsibility falls. What do they want for Ireland?

We have heard powerful and effective words about how we share the island. It all sounds very good. We have listened to and read over and over the words of the Downing street declaration—the will of the people of Northern Ireland first and foremost; the consent that is necessary. What does it mean if it does not assume some sort of tangible form in respect of the day-to-day affairs of society in Northern Ireland—how an administration can function in order to serve that society more effectively?

As we move into elections, as a Unionist, I feel no sense of shame, of having unnecessarily to humble myself, in appealing to the constitutional nationalist parties throughout Ireland, including the Government in Dublin and all the other constitutional nationalist parties in the Irish Republic, to examine exactly what they mean when they say to us, "We want to be your neighbours. We want to work with you. We recognise the democratic right of the people of Northern Ireland to consent to their own future." Can they show us what they mean by that? Do the Social Democratic and Labour party, a very powerful and influential party in Northern Ireland, and the other constitutional nationalist parties, realise the potential that there is in coming together within a forum?

Can the Secretary of State not see, when he looks at the purpose for which the forum is being elected, that he will deprive society in Northern Ireland of an opportunity to live and work together politically if he restricts the time for which the forum is able to function? I see a contradiction between schedule 2 and clause 3(4) of the Bill, which says: But if, in accordance with any rules and procedure adopted by them,"— the forum— the participants in the negotiations refer any matter to the forum, subsection (3) shall not be taken to prevent the forum from considering that matter. But paragraph 2(3) of schedule 2 says: But the forum shall not meet at any time notified by the Secretary of State to the chairman as being a time when, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, it would not be appropriate for the forum to meet because negotiations within section 2 may take place.

The 60 or 70 people sitting in the forum must not be constrained by the other 50—far too many—who are taking part in negotiations. They must be able to work in committees, to support what is being investigated by the negotiators as a possible way forward. There will be times when the negotiators will run up against difficulties and will want to refer the matter to the forum for investigation, for the taking of evidence. That is an important role, and it will continue to involve those who elect members. There will be a conditioning of our entire society, I hope, for some form of agreement, whereby each tradition will know that it will not get everything that it wants, and that reality need not come as a shock at the end of the process. People need to know what is happening and to have confidence in what is happening as we move through the process.

My final point arises from paragraph 8(2) of schedule 1. Why is T, in the formula for arriving at a quota, the total number of votes given? The total number of votes given is never the number of votes used in arriving at a quota. It is the number of valid votes cast. With our particularly complicated list, on which we shall have to vote if the Bill is passed, there will be an awful lot of spoiled votes. If we take the total votes given, which is what the Secretary of State suggests, the quota will be so high that it will take an inordinate number of counts to elect people. We do not want that.

This election fills me with hope on the one hand and fear and trepidation on the other, because if we—whether it be the SDLP, the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party or people from the multitude of other parties—are to make progress, we must be allowed to do so in our own right and not be constrained by consideration for those who are wedded to violence and who cannot be prised from it.

8.26 pm
Ms Judith Church (Dagenham)

I apologise to the House and to the Secretary of State for missing his speech this afternoon, but I was detained on constituency business.

Having learnt of the ill health of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), I send my best wishes to him, and hope that he will make a speedy return to us. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in that.

We should acknowledge tonight the great toll that the work load in terms of the peace process takes on hon. Members, particularly those from Northern Ireland and those on both Front Benches. [Interruption.] I was not going to propose a pay rise, although I can see that some of my hon. Friends are a bit eager. It is a very heavy work load, and we must congratulate hon. Members on the tremendous progress that is being made, despite the difficulties.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) in supporting the Secretary of State over last night's bombing. We ail agree that such atrocities are as pointless as they are destructive, and they have no place in a civilised debate on the future of Northern Ireland.

The Bill presents us with a concrete opportunity to take the peace process forward and to develop a path to real dialogue between the parties involved. Naturally, we support that aim, and anything that might bring it about. There are, however, a number of areas in the Bill that need clarification.

The first, as a number of hon. Members have said, is the status of the proposed forum. The House and the British people are conscious of the burden of history in Northern Ireland. We are all concerned that the forum should not develop into an assembly controlled by one community, which would serve to divide the peoples of the Province rather than unite them. In that context, we would like more detail on the precise role and function of the forum and how it will work. I know that the way in which it will work will depend on the will, determination and commitment of the forum's members, but, given the number of hon. Members who have raised the issue today, the Minister may wish to tell us a little more.

Secondly, there is the problem referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar—the under-representation of women in Northern Ireland's political life. Of course, that is not peculiar to Northern Ireland; before what I just said is taken up, let me add that only 10 per cent. of Members of Parliament are women. But there are no female Northern Ireland Members, and I believe that only about 10 per cent. of Northern Ireland's councillors are women. We have not achieved equality in councils elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but we are fast approaching that point, and there has been a substantial increase in the number of women who take part in our democratic life at every level.

In the context of the troubles, it is understandable that this issue has not yet achieved any great prominence, but I think that it is an important element of Northern Ireland's political development. If any organisation, state, part of a state or community is to develop politically into a mature democratic forum, every part of the community must be represented. In particular, women need to be represented in our elected bodies.

Mr. Maginnis

I could not agree more. On the basis of the hon. Lady's experience of her party, can she tell us how we might make progress?

Ms Church

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me that. No doubt his question could form the basis of a lengthy debate—but you will be pleased to learn, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have no intention of allowing that to happen.

I know that there is no quick fix, but, given the rate of progress in the House before our party developed strategies to increase the representation of women, it would take us between 250 and 300 years to achieve parity in the House. I do not expect equality of representation in the House to come about in my lifetime—although I intend to live for a long time, despite what some may think or wish—but I hope that we will improve considerably on the current 10 per cent. Of course, much of the problem is caused by the culture of all the political parties.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

What would be the implications if Northern Ireland adopted one of the strategies of the hon. Lady's party for bringing more women to Parliament? Emily's List requires those standing for election to state in writing that they are in favour of abortion.

Ms Church

That is a difficult issue. Anyone wishing to gain sponsorship from Emily's List must make that commitment, but, as the hon. Gentleman must know, that is not the only method that Labour has used to increase the representation of women. For a long time, organisations such as the Northern Ireland Women's European Platform and the Downtown Women's Centre have struggled to deal with the problem of female under-representation, but there has been little public recognition of their work. The presence of the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition on the election lists is welcome, but that must be built on: we must increase the number of women who participate in the Province's political life, as political candidates rather than people who are merely part of the coalition.

A merging process must take place. The Government, and members of all political parties, have a responsibility to ensure that that happens. I know that it is not top of the list of priorities in the peace process, but I feel that, for the sake of the long-term health of Northern Ireland and of democracy in the House of Commons, we need more balanced representation.

My third point, which has already been mentioned, relates to the electoral system that has been chosen for the forum. I agree with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). I have been interested in electoral and constitutional reform for a long time. Last night, the all-party group in favour of constitutional reform held its initial meeting in the House, and I think that those of us who believe that constitutional and electoral reform are an important part of the House's agenda are beginning to act more collectively.

I do not want to make a specific party point, but let me point out that Labour is the only political party in the country that has spent a long time examining electoral systems in general. It set up the Plant commission, which sat for three years and produced a comprehensive review of all the work that had been done on electoral reform. I do not wish to bore for Britain on the issue of electoral systems—perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "bore for the United Kingdom"—but we must have consensus. We must recognise that there is no perfect electoral system. The electoral system that is adopted depends on the functions of the elected body, and on what we wish it to do.

The commission, under the excellent chairmanship of Lord Plant, spent a long time examining all the existing electoral systems around the world. Some of its members went to Germany, and we had representations from Australia, New Zealand, Israel and many other countries whose electoral systems are different from the predominant UK systems—first past the post, and, in Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote.

We did not, of course, have an opportunity to consider the electoral system that the Bill proposes. It is an innovation. We all agreed, however, that it requires some mathematical ability to think through the way in which an electoral system might work. Those who are not of a mathematical bent may be put off by what the formulae in clauses 8 and 9 would mean in practice. A good deal of education will be needed. I am fortunate in having a degree in mathematics, but I have sometimes found the subject difficult, nevertheless.

Three years is a long time in which to examine electoral systems as a member of a commission. We have not that much time in which to decide on the right electoral system for the forum: if it took as long as that, the peace process would be halted for a long period. In a sense, the right electoral system must be plucked out of the air. I do not know whether the Secretary of State will agree with me, but I suspect that the proposal in the Bill has been plucked out of the air; it has certainly not been plucked out of any textbook.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the hon. Lady agree that, as there is so much at stake for all of us in Northern Ireland, within the United Kingdom and within these islands, we should not be made guinea pigs yet again?

Ms Church

When a new system is introduced, somebody has to be the guinea pig. The difficulty is that none of the existing electoral systems, which were clearly considered by the Government, suited the purpose of the forum. Perhaps the Minister will want to speak about that.

"Guinea pigs" is not exactly the right term for the proposed system, which will, I hope, address many concerns. Of course it will not be perfect, but the electoral system matters. One of the dangers in proposing a new system quickly, which is what has happened here, is that it may end up being permanent. The hon. Members for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone spoke about that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) spoke about the Palestinian elections.

We must make progress, and we cannot let the difficulty of arriving at a system hold us back. That does not mean that we should not point out difficulties in trying to explain the system to the electorate. Electoral systems are complicated, and part of political progress must be political education, so that the electorate understands how democracy works. If we do not do that, we have failed.

This is a contentious issue. If it were not, it would not be debated at such length, and I would not have spoken about it as I have. I do not criticise the Government for proposing this electoral system. I have not had time to look closely at it and at the criteria, but I hope that somebody did that before proposing this system in the Bill. The system may not be perfect, but we must ensure that it is as close as we can make it. Some amendment may be needed to achieve that.

Politicians must never forget that the people will ultimately decide on whether the peace process is a success or a failure. As a result of the Bill, they will shortly be given the opportunity to voice their views and to give their consent to the next steps in the process. That is wonderful progress, and, despite some of the criticisms, it will reassure the citizens of Northern Ireland—which is perhaps what they need above all—that the peace process is being moved forward. That will help to allay their concern that the process was not moving as rapidly as it should.

We look forward to continuing progress, so that the cause of peace can be advanced. The Bill should be implemented as quickly as possible. It has maximum support, and we must make sure that elections take place in as peaceful an atmosphere as possible. In the light of last night's event, we must reiterate that the House will not be moved from the path to peace in Northern Ireland. None of us will bow to that sort of pressure, and we reject the people who believe that such pressures are any part of the democratic process. Clearly they are not.

8.43 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

In the lengthy run-up to this debate, there has been much rancour and criticism from all sides in Northern Ireland about the issue of a proposed forum and all-party negotiations. However, noticeable features of the debate have been the measured contributions from hon. Members on all sides, the thought that went into the speeches, and, at times, the good humour. This has been a good launching pad for the electoral process that the people of Ulster are about to enjoy. People in Northern Ireland will at last have the chance to speak, to express their views on Northern Ireland soil.

I join those colleagues who have mentioned the brief illness of my Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). Although he knows that, for obvious reasons, I do not vote for him, he is my Member of Parliament, and on a personal level we have a very good relationship. I wish him a speedy recovery and a quick return to the House. I am disappointed that he is not here for the debate, because, for the past few months, he has been giving good leadership to the nationalist people of Northern Ireland as we try to bring all communities into the political process.

This is an interesting and historical moment for the people of Northern Ireland. We have had 25 years of terrible events and tragedies, from which few families in Northern Ireland have escaped. We want an opportunity to put that in the past and to build a new future, in which everyone in Northern Ireland can enjoy a free, democratic society and the benefits that flow from that.

We in the Ulster Unionist party welcome a Bill that provides for elections in Northern Ireland. We stand firmly behind the principle of consent for the people of Northern Ireland. That principle should be underlined time and again in the debate, because if it is not accepted, the process will fail.

We were disappointed to note that, in the nominated forum in the Republic of Ireland, among the nationalist people of Ireland the principle of consent could not be accepted by all the participating parties. That is a bad omen for what is about to take place in Northern Ireland, and I hope that, when we have our forum, which will have been created by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, we shall have greater success in establishing the principle of consent and of having it accepted by all the participating parties.

In addition to the principle of consent, there is the principle of decommissioning. I was glad to hear the speeches by hon. Members in all parts of the House, but I was disappointed to note that only three Conservative Back Benchers have attended this historic debate on the future of part of the United Kingdom. Only one Conservative member of the Northern Ireland Select Committee was present. That reflects badly on the interests of the Conservative party; and the presence and participation of Labour Members was little better.

However, I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for the way in which he has placed Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda in 10 Downing street. He is the first Prime Minister for many years who has given priority to the difficult issue of politics in Northern Ireland, to the issue of relations within the island of Ireland, and to the totality of the relationship within the British Isles. We should also pay tribute to the Leader of the Opposition for his bipartisan support for the efforts of the Prime Minister, to try to steer us in Northern Ireland into a situation where we can build the foundations upon which there will be lasting peace and reconciliation within our community.

While I am expressing my appreciation of the leaders of both the Conservative and Labour parties, it would be remiss of an Ulster Unionist to ignore the role of the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and, in particular, the present Prime Minister, Mr. Bruton. Although I disagree with his Government's point of view, Mr. Bruton's approach has been measured and reasonable—at times. At other times, we have had to criticise him severely, but it is only fair to place on record the fact that he has been endeavouring to help to create the conditions in which nationalists and Unionists within Northern Ireland can have a better future.

I referred to the tragic years of the troubles, and we later had the ceasefire of 1994. There were those—including the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—who, on a weekly basis, stated that the ceasefire would collapse next weekend, or at Christmas, or at Easter, or new year or any other date they could think of. Nevertheless, the people of Northern Ireland enjoyed peace for almost 18 months.

If the people of Northern Ireland had been given the chance to speak last September—as they now will be—when the idea for elections was first proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), it is likely that the ceasefire would not have collapsed. But people stalled on the electoral process, and the main opposition came from the Dublin Government and the leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). They are partly responsible for contributing to a situation in which—regrettably—the ceasefire in the United Kingdom collapsed.

We must not recriminate about the past, and we welcome the Bill that is now before us. We also have Cmnd. 3232. I want to ask the Secretary of State—or the Minister in his reply—to explain and clarify some queries that I and my colleagues have. Paragraph 1 of Cmnd. 3232 deals with the basis for negotiations, and refers to relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands". That is an important phrase. Paragraph 5, which deals with the structure of negotiations and refers to strands 1, 2 and 3, does not say that strand 3 covers the relationship between the peoples of the islands—rather, it restricts strand 3 to being simply relationships between the two Governments.

There is a big difference between the totality of relationships between the peoples of these islands and the narrower issue of the relationship between the British and Irish Governments. I would like some clarification from the Minister that, in the negotiations that will probably take place from 10 June onwards, we will be able to discuss the totality of the relationships between the peoples of these islands, and not simply how the two Governments will co-operate.

Paragraph 3 says: Any participant in the strand in question will be free to raise any aspect of the three relationships, including constitutional issues". I thought that we had been told by the Secretary of State and by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland that the Republic would have no role whatsoever in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, and would therefore not be participating or involved in the strand 1 talks. What does paragraph 3 mean? It seems to imply that the Dublin Government will have a role—including on constitutional issues—in strand 1. We must have further clarification on that issue, so that my doubts can be pushed to the side.

We in the UUP welcome paragraph 4, which emphasises that both the United Kingdom and southern Irish Governments as signatories of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, reaffirm that they would be prepared to consider a new and more broadly based agreement". We certainly want to see a replacement for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which today—11 years after its imposition on the people of Northern Ireland—is resented as strongly as it has ever been.

Paragraph 18 deals with the format, and states: Negotiations will address all three interlocking sets of relationships as a totality. Negotiations in each of the three interlocking strands will open on the same day and proceed in parallel. It adds that negotiating sessions in different strands will not be held simultaneously.

Does that mean that, on the first day, all three strands will meet one after the other or at the same time? One set of negotiators for a party can hardly attend three sets of negotiations at the same time. On the first day, will we have a strand 1 meeting from 9 am to coffee time, a strand 2 meeting from coffee time to lunchtime and a strand 3 meeting from lunchtime to afternoon tea time?

Mr. Trimble

And the rest of the day off.

Mr. Taylor

Yes. The first day seems slightly confusing, and we need to have greater clarification.

Paragraph 20 refers to negotiations on strand 2, and states: formal meetings will be chaired by an independent Chairperson operating procedural rules, agreed by the participants. The participants will agree the rules, but who will agree on the independent chairperson? Who will recommend that chairperson? How will he be appointed? Are the Government in a position to suggest a name tonight? We have seen names being suggested in Dublin.

I hope that this matter will be left to the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives and negotiators to agree among themselves. But the Minister has a responsibility tonight to define more clearly how that person will be appointed. [Interruption.] It could not be Mr. Dick Spring. I just heard hon. Members on the Labour Front Bench recommending him. I have already defined the standing of that honourable gentleman in Northern Ireland, and I do not think that I should expand on that. I could not consider him to be independent.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Having read the Bill carefully, I am worried that it does not say how the chairman should be appointed. It should be for the forum to appoint the chairman in a general meeting. The Government might take that on board, because those who participate and negotiate should appoint somebody who is not a member of the United Kingdom Government, the Irish Government or a Member from Northern Ireland. It should be somebody who is totally independent, and who comes to it with a fresh mind.

Mr. Taylor

I very much welcome that contribution. It underlines my point that the procedure is not defined with sufficient clarity. We need a genuinely independent chairman who is respected by the elected representatives within the forum.

Paragraph 22 of Cmnd. 3232 refers, rightly, to the business committee. We need some guidance from the Minister about the size of that committee. Will there be one representative from each of the two Governments and one from each of the political parties, or is some other formula being suggested?

Paragraph 23 is a mistake by the Government, repeating that old and failed formula that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That was one of the contributory factors in the collapse of the Brooke all-party talks at Stormont. I regret that one of the reasons for the failure of those talks is being repeated in the Command Paper. I appeal to the Government, even at this late stage, to remove that obstacle to real progress within Northern Ireland.

Paragraph 26 is entitled "Validation". It states that both Governments should reaffirm their intention that the outcome of negotiations will be submitted for public approval by referendums in Ireland—North and South". Can we have confirmation from the Minister that, whether or not there is a referendum in the Republic, the referendum within Northern Ireland will be separate, limited to the people of Northern Ireland and under the legislation of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom?

Clause 4(5) deals with the issue of there being no court. I realise that that refers specifically to referendums. It says: No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the numbers as certified by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland…of any ballot papers counted or answers given in a referendum. If no court is being allowed to interfere, that will be most unusual, because we have electoral courts in all elections in the United Kingdom. It is very odd that there should be a specific exclusion of the court to overrule the chief electoral officer if people wish to challenge any decisions.

Although the clause refers specifically to the referendum, I trust that there is no suggestion that the electoral court will be prevented from overriding the chief electoral officer in the electoral process to the forum. That would be a serious infringement of normal democratic practices.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, although the draftsmen deliberately excluded the question of the border referendum at an earlier stage, they may have been thinking that the result of the referendum would be so overwhelming, like that previous referendum, that no court could overturn it? Having said that, I accept my right hon. Friend's point about the electoral process to the forum.

Mr. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, and for the way in which he has developed the point I was trying to make. We were promised referendums under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, and we did have one. However, since the Unionists won, we have not been allowed to have another one. That is the way that democracy has operated in Northern Ireland since 1972. Any time the Unionists win something, it is immediately dropped and some other attempt is made, where it is hoped that the Unionists will not win.

This Bill is yet another example of that. Its whole thrust is to weaken the unity of the Ulster Unionist people. I assure the Secretary of State that, when the election takes place, the Ulster Unionist people will rise up to a man and to a woman, and there will be one of the biggest turnouts in Northern Ireland's electoral history. There will be a strong Unionist and loyalist mandate, because the people will rejoice at this opportunity to speak—and speak loudly they will.

Mr. Bermingham

One of the grounds on which a ballot should be able to be challenged is that of electoral fraud. We all know about voting from the grave—I say that as a born Dubliner—

Mr. Taylor

So you would know.

Mr. Bermingham

Yes, I know it well enough. That is what worries me about the clause.

Mr. Taylor

I certainly know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. That cannot happen in Northern Ireland, although it still may happen in the Republic. We have strict controls in Northern Ireland; people have to produce one of 10 types of identification document. Some of them include photographs, which is sensible, while others do not, which is not so sensible.

The Government should look again at the whole question of identification on polling day in Northern Ireland elections. Quite often, a married couple will turn up at a polling station. The man has his driving licence, which, in Northern Ireland, carries a photograph, but his wife has forgotten to bring an identification document. So the returning officer tells the wife that she cannot vote, but her husband can—with the result that both of them walk away without voting, because the husband will not vote if his wife is not allowed to. So both votes are lost.

Mr. Beggs

In some parts of Northern Ireland, because of a lack of proper scrutiny within the precincts where voting takes place of those coming in to vote, we cannot be certain that multiple voting by some parties does not take place. Would my right hon. Friend agree with that?

Mr. Taylor

My hon. Friend is correct. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), who is in his place, can confirm what is unfortunately happening in some parts of his constituency.

Clause 5 includes the interesting term "nominating representative". It is said that that means the person who…appears to the Secretary of State to be the leader of the party". So it is not up to members of a party to decide who is their leader; it is the Secretary of State who will decide.

It was the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) who said that the electoral system proposed in this Bill exists nowhere else in the world. First, parties have to be named, and then the Secretary of State decides which ones he will allow to fight the election. There is a rumour in Northern Ireland that President Yeltsin is looking closely at this legislation and is encouraged by it.

I think that the "nominating representative" phraseology has to do with internal Conservative party politics. It is designed to overcome divisions in the Conservative party. That party in Northern Ireland wants to fight the election on a policy opposed to what the Secretary of State stands for. So the Secretary of State is presenting one policy, while Conservative candidates in Northern Ireland present a different one. We therefore do not know who will speak for the Conservatives.

So how do the Government propose to get around this problem? They will let the Conservative party compete in the election, but once it is over, the Secretary of State will decide who will represent the winning Conservative candidates. He will select himself as the possible leader of Conservative members.

Clause 5(1) refers to the person who…appears to the Secretary of State to be the leader of the party or otherwise the most appropriate person to act on behalf of the party for the purposes of this Act. Who does the Secretary of State have in mind as "the most appropriate person" to act for the Conservative party? I suspect that it will not be any Conservative who is elected in Northern Ireland, but that the Secretary of State would prefer to be "the appropriate person".

Rev. Ian Paisley

Surely the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the paper given to us in discussion stated that the chairman of the Conservative party was placed to be the leader. When the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) became the chairman of the Conservative party, we were told that he was the most appropriate person. When I spoke to him today, he said, "They will be able to stand because I will accredit them, but they will not be allowed to negotiate."

Mr. Taylor

This is another one for President Yeltsin. People will be allowed to stand in an election but, once they win, they will not be allowed to participate in the negotiations. The Government must end that scandal, and amend the Bill. There is no way in which we can rig electoral systems in Northern Ireland in such a manner.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's point, but perhaps he is being uncharacteristically judgmental. It may not be a campaign to "dump the doctor", but some of the strange parties that have been brought into existence may not know their leaders. It would be up to the Secretary of State to appoint that person.

Mr. Taylor

The point is well made. We are beginning to see the contradictions in the Bill.

Clause 6 provides for the payment of allowances and the Secretary of State's expenses. Obviously allowances will have to be paid to elected persons, because they are not being elected as parliamentarians, district councillors or members of an assembly. We certainly hope that the people elected will contribute to thoughtful negotiations with skill and ability, and they may come from industry, the professions, or the business or academic world. We hope to attract good-quality candidates who are interested in constitutional issues, not routine parliamentary or district council matters such as the needs of individual constituents. The persons who are elected will have to give up some of their regular work, not to enter a lengthy parliamentary career but for one year—or two years at most. I hope that the Minister will give some guidance on the likely allowances for persons elected to the forum and the negotiating bodies.

We are entering the pre-nomination day period and time is short. The Bill is moving quickly through the House this week and next, and perhaps the Minister can give the date of nomination day. We have heard when the all-party talks will begin and know the date of the election, but I do not recall hearing the date for nomination day. I suspect that, when we know, we will all be shocked at how little time we have to select candidates and complete nomination papers.

Mr. Barnes

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has considered the persons who may stand as candidates. Schedule 1 makes provision for disqualifying certain persons, but it does not state which persons will qualify to stand as candidates. As a candidate can be anyone appointed by the leader of any of the 33 parties, theoretically it would be possible for a Teachta Dála from Dublin, myself or any other hon. Member to be nominated. An amendment is required to stop that happening, and I have just submitted it.

Mr. Taylor

That is a very good point, and no doubt the Minister has heard it and will respond. I trust that the reply will be that candidates must be on the electoral register in Northern Ireland, but we will have to wait and see what he says.

Paragraph 4 of schedule 1 concerns the franchise, which I mentioned in an earlier intervention. I still cannot understand why an election that is based on parliamentary constituencies does not use the criteria for the parliamentary franchise as its basis. According to this system, the election will be based on Westminster constituencies, but we will ignore the Westminster electoral roll and instead use the district council electoral roll. That seems to be a rather peculiar decision, and I should like to know the explanation for it.

Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 is about parties and party lists. Paragraph 6(6) states: A party's regional list must include at least two candidates who are not on a constituency list for the party. There must, again, be some explanation for that peculiar qualification, and I should like to know the Minister's reasoning for including that restriction.

The list of parties in part II of schedule 1 makes very interesting reading, and one could make much play out of it. I shall simply ask the Minister to tell the House how many members there are in the British Ulster Unionist party, how many members there are in the No Going Back party, and when he first heard of those parties. How many members are in the Northern Ireland party—whatever that is—and how many members are in the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition? We require further information on those political parties.

We then come to paragraph 2 of schedule 2, which concerns meetings. Paragraph 2(1) states: The first meeting of the forum shall be at a time decided by the Secretary of State. On the first day, on 10 June, we will have negotiating meetings straight away—strands 1, 2 and 3—but there is no suggestion when the forum might meet. It might meet this Christmas. We require clarification on why no specific date has been stated for the forum. I should have thought that the obvious answer would be for the forum to meet on the first day and for other things to follow from that.

The very last point, paragraph 6 of schedule 2—"Miscellaneous"—states: The Secretary of State shall provide for the forum the services of such staff, the use of such premises and such other facilities as he thinks appropriate. The Secretary of State has told us in this Bill that the negotiating teams will meet at Stormont castle grounds, but he has not told us where the forum will meet. We have heard mention of it going all around the British Isles, but I should like the Government to tell us today where the forum will meet, and to confirm that they have thought this one out and chosen a permanent location for this new Northern Ireland forum for the next two years.

There is a great challenge to all political parties in Northern Ireland—nationalist and Unionist—to practise what they have claimed for so many years. We have had 25 years of violence, and we now have a great opportunity to bring about a negotiated agreement in Northern Ireland that will provide peace, reconciliation and the enjoyment and fulfilment of life for all our people on the basis of consent and the total and absolute rejection of violence. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.

For members of the Ulster Unionist party, this opportunity will secure Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, and will create the conditions in which Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and nationalists, can work together in the administration and good government of Northern Ireland. It will also create the basis for an enhanced relationship between Dublin and Belfast, a development that is much more logical now, 23 years after we joined the European Union.

We in the Ulster Unionist party will oppose the Bill tonight, for the reasons given by other hon. Members. Conservative Members have condemned some aspects of the Bill. Labour Members have criticised it. The Social Democratic and Labour party and the Democratic Unionist party have criticised it. Our challenge goes out to all those who joined with us in criticising the Bill to join us in the Lobby to register our opposition to the Government. However, I emphasise that we in the Ulster Unionist party will be fighting this election. We welcome it, and we ask the people of Northern Ireland to give us a strong mandate, so that we can secure Northern Ireland for generations to come.

9.20 pm
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I find it difficult to follow the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor). He intends to vote against the Bill and rely on the rest of us to vote for it so that he can take part in the elections. I promise him that we shall fulfil his intentions.

Until the moment when he said that he intended to vote against the Bill, I thought that there was a great deal of value in the speech of the right hon. Member for Strangford. He raised many of the serious issues in relation to the Bill, which we shall tackle in Committee. I shall not repeat the points that he made, but he gave a masterly analysis of some of the major points that are in the Bill.

I couple my party with the sentiments of all those who expressed their sadness at the illness of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). We have missed his powerful contribution tonight. We ask those who go to see him in hospital—we hope that it will be a short stay—to convey our good wishes for a speedy recovery. Even if one does not agree with him, he is one of those Members of Parliament whose integrity is appreciated across the House.

The issue tonight is not whether we would start from here. We have to start from here. There is no alternative if we want all-party talks on 10 June. There is little point in talking about the past or how we arrived here. The only way in which we can have all-party talks on 10 June is through the Bill. There is no alternative. That is the central issue. Do we vote for the Bill and have all-party talks on 10 June or vote against it with the clear implication that we do not want all-party talks on 10 June? We may want them at some other time, but it would not be so early as 10 June. That is why we shall support the Bill tonight, although we could add—I may do so myself—to the problems in the Bill.

No one could pretend that the route to the talks has been easy, logical, rational or straightforward, but we are now in a position to open the door to talks through the Bill. We see no point in being critical of past mistakes or wrong turnings. The Mitchell report contains many wise words. One sentence says: If the focus remains on the past, the past will become the future. Those are the words that stick with me. The right hon. Member for Strangford said that there was an opportunity here and that we must put aside the past. That is why, although there have been some recriminations in the debate today, the Opposition's approach rejects recriminations.

We are pleased that in recent weeks the procedures covered by the Bill and the Command Paper have moved in directions of which we have approved. We urge that Mitchell's six principles should be placed on the table at the start of the talks and signed up to by all the participants. Subscribers to peace and democracy will be able to sign up to those principles. The Mitchell report has not been dumped or binned, as was alleged. Those who allege that it has been binned will have most difficulty in facing up to the Mitchell principles. I should like to see them face up to that challenge. We urged that Mitchell's approach to decommissioning should be embraced and followed, and all those who are genuine about abandoning violence will be able to accept that.

We urged the British and Irish Governments to get back together and to act in concert because the peace process moves forward only when that happens. In recent weeks, as the right hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, it has seemed that the two Governments have genuinely worked together in a sense of partnership.

We urged that the electoral process chosen should ensure that the smaller parties—such as the Progressive Unionist party and Ulster Democratic party, which have links with important constituencies—have a place at the negotiating table. The Government have given them that opportunity. That has led to some problems in the electoral process, but we applaud the fact that those parties will have the opportunity to attend the talks. The smaller parties will not have a guaranteed right because they will have to come into the top 10, but they will have the opportunity to be at the talks.

We urged that the whole package should be laid out, not just the Bill for the election process but the ground rules, which are now Cmnd. 3232. We thought that it was important that people should be able to judge the whole scene rather than not know what they were getting into. That has happened.

We urged that the talks and the forum should be separated and that the forum should lose all the connotations of previous majoritarian assemblies. We have moved a long way towards that aim. The forum will be deliberative only and will have no legislative, executive or administrative functions. We believe that the forum could be valuable for building consensus, but that will depend on appropriate rules of procedure. I shall return to that point.

Substantial work remains to be done in Committee. Real progress can be made in Committee, although there is a timetable because the talks must occur on 10 June. The biggest single contribution to the success of 10 June can be made by the IRA with an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire. It is overwhelmingly clear that that is what the overwhelming majority of the people of Northern Ireland, of the Republic and of the United Kingdom want. The IRA has no mandate whatever from anyone for bombing. It is also important that Sinn Fein is at those talks, although progress could be made without it. Sinn Fein and the IRA have what they have always demanded—a date for all-party talks and a comprehensive agenda. There is no excuse for them not to restore the ceasefire, and they must do that. They must also embrace the Mitchell principles, which present no problems to any democratic party or to other nationalists.

In Committee, a number of issues must be addressed. Many hon. Members have commented on the details of the Bill, but I shall not deal with those now. I am sure that the Minister will wish to refer to some of those comments, but he will shortly have two full days in which to respond.

The Government will want to explain to us the principles on which they have constructed the list of parties. That subject is one of those that has caused most concern, because it seems a little arbitrary to say that there will be a list of parties, some people protest and the Government add more parties. That approach will lead to considerable problems, especially when one bears in mind the independents on the list, but if the House and the members of different parties work together in Committee, we could tidy up the Bill considerably. Suggestions have been made for assenters, deposits or other mechanisms that could be used to solve the problem.

We also have the incongruity that some people will be allowed to put their names on the ballot paper, but others will not. I look forward with keen anticipation to dealing with those issues on Monday and Tuesday.

The major issue that confronts us now is the role of the forum and its style of operation. As we heard from the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), the nationalist community has great difficulty, to put it mildly, in envisaging a role for the forum that adds anything to the talks or to the search for a settlement. It will not take part in anything that has elements of Stormont. A body in which people shout or abuse one another will do nothing to build trust, reconciliation and consensus.

During the debate, some hon. Members asked how the House could be against the forum, but if we consider how we conduct our business it is clear that this is not a successful place for constructing consensus. Recently, we have had some success with a dribble of Conservative Members crossing the Floor, but it may take a few more months before they all cross. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), the Chief Whip, is here and I know that he is optimistic about that.

When we want to construct a consensus, we use the Select Committees. Their culture involves an expectation that the members of the Committee, despite coming from different parties and having different views, will try to construct a consensus. That is what the forum is about. There is a role for a forum with terms of reference and procedures that would make it act in the style of a Select Committee.

Mr. Trimble

I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman's points. I take it that he will endorse our suggestion, which we have made regularly in recent months, that the forum should conduct itself analogously to Select Committees by forming committees to take evidence and make factual inquiries on matters relevant to the negotiations to assist the negotiators. Will he join our request to the Government that the committees of the forum should have the powers of Select Committees to summon persons and papers? Those powers would be exercised only to extract information from the Northern Ireland Office that it is jealously refusing to provide.

Mr. Worthington

I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman to a disturbing degree. There is much sense in what he says but he also knows that there is an issue about the rules of procedure. We can construct rules of procedure, such as those that apply in this place, where we normally vote at 10 pm, but that is not a way to construct consensus. There are other rules of procedure whereby the dominant ethos would be the construction of consensus. For the success of the forum, we want—and this will be our challenge in the work that lies ahead—to make sure that its rules and procedures are right. We should be talking not the language of votes and adversarial debate but that of constructing common ground.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The last assembly in Northern Ireland proceeded in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes, with all the parties co-operating in Select Committee fashion to try to reach a consensus on various matters. Surely those rules of procedure, which were tried and have been proved to succeed, would be a good basis for the rules of the forum.

Mr. Worthington

I have to bow to the hon. Gentleman in respect of his knowledge of that time, but I agree with his words and hope that it will be possible to construct rules of procedure that lead to the construction of a consensus.

The forum, with the right rules of procedure, could diminish the most important problem—the absence of trust—and could start the decommissioning of mindsets that Mitchell sought. The rules of procedure therefore cannot be about majorities and minorities. They must be about constructing whole communities and about the construction of dialogue, understanding and consensus across the communities.

I note that the Secretary of State has to approve the rules of procedure of the forum as drawn up by the forum. In Committee, I hope that he will be willing to consider amendments that seek to make it clear that those rules must be constructed with a view to securing assent across the community. I also note that, in reality, the Secretary of State has to construct the first set of rules of procedure for the forum so that it can meet, because without such rules how can the forum come into existence?

Other hon. Members have drawn a parallel with paragraph 24 of the Command Paper, which says of the all-party talks: The negotiations will operate on the basis of consensus…The rules for establishing sufficient consensus will be agreed in advance of negotiations by the participants". We would like that spirit to suffuse the rules of procedure for the forum itself so that it is clear that any decision taken is taken by a clear majority in both the nationalist and Unionist communities in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Trimble

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I apologise for intervening again. Has he considered the effect of the weighted majority provision, which necessarily means, in view of the likely result of the election, that the rules of procedure will be agreed only if assented to by nationalists, or some nationalists at any event, if they take their place at the forum and participate in it? Because it will be necessary to have the assent of some nationalists in order to achieve the 75 per cent. weighted majority, it will inevitably follow that the rules of procedure will contain the element of consensus to which he refers.

Mr. Worthington

As a first basis, one should not say that one is constructing a 75:25 per cent. majority; rather one should be seeking consensus. The great danger is that if one says that the policy is based on that 75:25 per cent., no one will bother to do the hard work that is necessary to construct a consensus. We must do just that.

The Opposition will vote for the Bill, with all its flaws and illogicalities, because it is now the only way in which all-party talks can start on 10 June. It is the only way in which there is hope of the restoration of the ceasefire. We will also vote for it because we are convinced that the people of Northern Ireland want us politicians to rise to the occasion and to take risks for peace. That is the inevitable aim behind the Bill.

I refer again to the remarks of George Mitchell, who spoke about the consensus that existed for peace. He said that members of both traditions may be less far apart on the resolution of their differences than they believe. We must open the door to all-party talks. The Bill provides the key to those talks and that is why we will support it.

9.37 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I thank the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) for his support for the Bill. I also thank Her Majesty's Opposition for the bipartisan approach that they have adopted to this part of policy on Northern Ireland. We all appreciate that when we are dealing with sensitive matters of this kind, the co-operation that we have managed to achieve on that basis has not only been useful in terms of making progress, but has been valued by the community of Northern Ireland.

I start, as others have, by sending through the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) my best wishes and the best wishes of my party to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). We wish him a speedy recovery. Everyone in the House values his contributions, and although we valued that from the hon. Member for South Down tonight, it was not quite the same, if I may say so, as that of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh. I hope that the hon. Member for South Down will pass on the message that we have a great deal of respect and admiration for his hon. Friend, provided that that does not ruin his political reputation in Northern Ireland.

We have had a constructive debate and I have found a lot from which to draw optimism, particularly the fact that despite the inevitable criticism about the detail of the legislation, every party spokesman has underlined his support for the concept of all-party negotiations leading to agreement and settlement. I believe that that bodes well for the process on which we are launching ourselves at the moment.

The debate has been conducted in a serious manner and that fact has sent a message to the men of violence. It has told them that we will not allow violence to detract or distract us from the path of democracy and that no amount of bombing, shooting, punishment beatings, et cetera, will divert hon. Members of the House from pursuing what they believe to be democratically right.

We have had a detailed debate, which I suspect is a good foretaste of the Committee stage. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not deal with every detailed question that has been asked as I am certain that some of them will be asked again on Monday and Tuesday next week and I shall have a chance to deal with them then. I will pick up on two points, however, partly because they interested me in the way that they were posed.

The first was the question that was asked of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) about the reasons for going for the local government franchise rather than a parliamentary franchise. The real difference is that under the parliamentary franchise those from overseas can vote, Peers cannot vote and European citizens cannot vote. Under the local government franchise, Peers can vote—there are nine Peers who will be affected in this way and I believe that they have the right to have a say in the future of Northern Ireland—and European citizens can vote, but those from overseas cannot vote. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would wish to know that as of 29 November 1995 the number of those on the parliamentary franchise was 1,169,423 and that the number of those on the local government franchise was 1,169,353—a difference of 70. I am not sure that that will make a significant difference.

Mr. John D. Taylor

Who are they?

Mr. Ancram

We may have to ask them to carry the identity cards that the right hon. Gentleman talked about. He also referred to the Ulster clause—the clause on which I did not allow the court to intervene. There are Ulster precedents. He said that this seemed to be something totally new and anti-democratic, but I point him to the Referendum Act 1975, section 4; the Scotland Act 1978, schedule 17, paragraph 10; and the Wales Act 1978, schedule 12, paragraph 11. In each of those Acts he will find a precedent.

Mr. Taylor

I know that that specifically referred to the referendum. I wanted an assurance that the electoral court could operate on all other aspects of the election.

Mr. Ancram

The Ulster clause is carefully defined and limited, and I believe that the right hon. Gentleman will find that to be the case.

The hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) raised a number of issues and I shall try to deal with them. She made the point about the importance of encouraging the participation of women in the political process in Northern Ireland, which was repeated by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church). I warmly endorse that sentiment. The political process would benefit from the greater involvement of women. We have included the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition in the list of parties and we are considering what other measures may be possible. I join the hon. Member for Redcar in encouraging the parties to make efforts to secure the greater participation of women and I am sure that they will have a significant role to play in the forum.

The hon. Lady also asked whether there was an appeal mechanism in relation to parties. We have sought to have an inclusive process and we have made considerable efforts to consult in this regard. We extended our list substantially in the light of consultation, taking into account all the representations that we received. Parties that were anxious to participate but were not on our first list had an opportunity to make their views known.

At this stage, it would be impractical to have an appeal mechanism in the Bill because there simply is no time to deal with late applications. However, it would be wrong for me to rule out absolutely any changes to the list because we have the Committee stage of the Bill to come and names could be included at that time. As I have said, there is no time to have a full appeal mechanism.

The hon. Member for Redcar and others asked about clause 7 and the power to revive the forum when it was suspended. The hon. Lady asked me to confirm that the power would not be used when negotiations had ceased or were in suspension. We have always envisaged that negotiations and the forum would run in parallel. The Secretary of State would not, therefore, propose to revive the forum while negotiations were not in progress. If the forum has ceased because, for instance, negotiations have been suspended, and then the negotiations begin again, the forum can be brought back into operation. There is power for that.

The hon. Member for Redcar and the right hon. Member for Strangford asked about the timing of the first meeting of the forum. That is for later consideration. We shall want to take views into account, and I am sure that views will be forthcoming. At this stage we do not envisage a meeting of the forum before 10 June.

The hon. Member for Redcar asked also about the exercise of discretionary powers under the Bill. The Secretary of State would hope to use those powers in a spirit of consultation and in pursuit of general acceptance where possible. On some questions, such as the identity of nominating representatives, we have consulted already in the formal paper.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) referred, first, to party descriptions. I believe that he referred to bogus parties. The consultation paper asked for the names of parties and stated that these would be set out on the ballot paper. We received a number of representations setting out how parties wanted their parties to be described, including those from the hon. Gentleman. It is not for us to decide which party is bogus. I say with some justification that Northern Ireland has some experience of new parties and new combinations of initials, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. The people of Northern Ireland have always shown remarkable good common sense in distinguishing those parties at the ballot box.

I have heard several representations today about deposits. We shall want to receive further representations, and I suspect that they will be made in Committee.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann asked about the ground rules and wanted to know whether they were set in concrete. I know that this is a matter of concern to him. We published a consultation document on the rules on 15 March and we have undertaken detailed consultations with the principal parties on that paper since then. I believe that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Command Paper reflects a number of changes as a result of the consultations. It now represents, as it says, the best judgment of the two Governments on the most suitable and broadly acceptable ground rules for the…negotiations…on 10 June".

It is important to read the Command Paper. It makes it clear that the negotiators are the masters of their own process. There is nothing to prevent the negotiators, by agreement arid consensus, agreeing to operate under different rules of procedure. That has always been so in the way in which these negotiations have proceeded. In the absence of such agreement, I believe that the ground rules should govern the negotiations starting on 10 June.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) rightly said, in his helpful contribution, that the process should be capable of continuing without Sinn Fein if Sinn Fein did not requalify to take part in the process. It is vital—it is common ground between ourselves and the Irish Government—that whatever happens in terms of Sinn Fein becoming part of the process again and the restoration of the ceasefire, if Sinn Fein is not able to become part of that process it cannot be allowed to prevent the process proceeding. Certainly the process will continue. That will happen because it is a democratic process. As I have said, democracy cannot be allowed to be subjected to the whims of violent men.

Mr. Maginnis

The Minister says that he has agreed with the Irish Government that no impediment should be allowed to be placed by Sinn Fein to prevent the talks progressing. Has he received a substantive assurance from the Irish Government that they would take specific steps to inhibit Sinn Fein's activity, should that activity escalate to the detriment of the safety of society in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Ancram

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not the Minister responsible for security, but the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), is sitting beside me and I am sure that he has heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say. But the corollary of saying that violence cannot be allowed to prevail in terms of the democratic process is that where there is such violence it is dealt with.

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way once again, but he cannot pass the burden on to his right hon. Friend on an issue that is central to the chances of success of the negotiating process. I expect a fuller answer than he has given to date.

Mr. Ancram

I can only say that I have every confidence that in the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the Irish Government would be as conscientious in the pursuit of those acts of violence as we ourselves would be. It is a part of the democratic process that violence cannot be allowed to intervene in the proper working of that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke referred to the electoral method as a duck-billed platypus. I am not certain that I can accept that. He went on to say that it was essentially functional. I am told that the duck-billed platypus was not necessarily the most functional of beasts. However, I think that my hon. Friend is right to say that the purpose of the rather strange type of election that we have before us, and on which we have heard many differing comments, is that it is a unique system for a unique and one-off purpose, and we believe that it will achieve that purpose.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised again the question of paragraphs 13 and 14 of the ground rules paper which refer to the opening session—if I can call it that—of the negotiations. He made clear again his view of the need to have discussions on the procedures in relation to the addressing of the Mitchell proposals on decommissioning so that those were clear before 10 June. We share that view and we see the need for urgent consultation on the ways of addressing those proposals and a clear idea of the procedures that will take them forward. That is something that we shall be pursuing.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made a number of points. He made some fairly amusing points about the Conservative party in Northern Ireland and they were reflected later by the right hon. Member for Strangford. I can inform him that the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), will be meeting representatives of the Conservative party Northern Ireland area council in the next few days to discuss the elections and it would be wrong of me before those discussions have taken place to make any further announcements.

I believe that we all share the horror of the hon. Member for North Antrim at some of the actions of violence that we have seen recently in Northern Ireland. They put into perspective the whole question of what is an exclusive commitment to peaceful methods. That is very much in our minds at this moment.

The hon. Member for North Antrim asked where the commitment to the six Mitchell principles would come in. I make it clear that they will come in at the beginning in the sense that nothing else could happen before the total and absolute commitment to the six Mitchell principles has taken place.

The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) made a number of points. In particular, he raised the question of paragraph 24 of the Command Paper and what is meant by consensus. All I can say to him is that that paragraph also indicates that it is for the parties to decide how that will operate. It is not for me to pre-empt the consultations and decisions that participants will make in relation to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) raised a number of other important points. He spoke about the referendums in Ireland, north and south, and asked whether this was an all-Ireland referendum. The words themselves in paragraph 26 make it clear that both Governments reaffirm their intention that the referendums will take place under the jurisdiction of each Government respectively. If there are to be changes in the Irish constitution, which are likely as a result of any agreement, there would have to be a referendum in the Republic, as I understand it, in order to achieve that. With regard to our referendum being under our legislation, I can give my hon. Friend the comfort that the legislation for that referendum is included in the legislation that we are considering.

Mr. Wilshire

Can my right hon. Friend therefore once again confirm that the wording in no way suggests a watering down of the commitment to have a referendum in Northern Ireland and that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland alone must approve that as well as anything else?

Mr. Ancram

I can give my hon. Friend that commitment not only in my own terms but in terms that the Prime Minister has made clear on a number of occasions. I can give my hon. Friend that commitment completely.

I refer briefly to the speech of the hon. Member for South Down. I listened very carefully to what he had to say. I think that he is a little unfair about the forum. I hope that he will reconsider some of what he said, because he has heard hon. Members on both sides of the House talking—perhaps to his surprise—about the value of a forum, which could give a form of public ownership to the wider public in Northern Ireland and allow them, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, the chance to come forward and make their views known.

I say to the hon. Gentleman in all friendliness that he must have had a wry smile on his face when he said that we had been pursuing a Unionist-led agenda, as he will have heard the right hon. Member for Strangford, who is sitting behind him, say that the whole process had been selling out the Unionist parties. If the hon. Gentleman reconsiders, he will probably find that the balance that we have struck is reasonably good.

Mr. McGrady

The Minister suggested that the forum's sole purpose should be to garner the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland. There is nothing whatever to prevent that from being done by a negotiating team without a forum being present. Did he hear some of the remarks made tonight? The suggestion was that we have sub-committees paralleling the Northern Ireland Departments, which is an embryonic assembly in the being. That is the reality of the situation.

Mr. Ancram

I heard many comments on both sides of the House. I am interested in the way in which the forum will operate. I certainly believe that we are setting up a structure through which we can open up to a wider public—out and beyond the politicians who normally exercise it privately among themselves—much of the dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland. I believe that the exercise of that within the forum will prove of benefit.

There are many other points that I would like to have dealt with, and I apologise to hon. Members if I did not reach them, including the detailed points made by the right hon. Member for Strangford. I am certain that he will make some of them in Committee. If he does not, I can assure him that I will get him answers to each of the points that he made.

The fullness of the debate shows the importance of the Bill and the context within which it is before the House. The implications run far wider than the details that are on the face of the Bill, which is before the House urgently because it provides the opening to what I believe is the common aim of all parties in Northern Ireland and the House, and a common desire throughout all parts of the community in Northern Ireland, to see the start, on 10 June, of genuine, comprehensive and inclusive negotiations that are based on democratic principles, with the objective of securing a broadly acceptable settlement for the future of the Province and at the same time create a forum in which dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland can be promoted to best effect.

The Bill in itself cannot achieve those objectives, but it opens the way to the processes by which they can be achieved. It gives the people of Northern Ireland a direct contribution in providing the mandate and the key to make those processes possible. The objectives can be achieved with the good will and determination of all who will be involved in the process. The Bill does not give everyone what they wanted, but it provides the chance and the opening if all participants are prepared to face the challenges and demonstrate the good will and courage of leadership that a successful outcome so badly requires.

Sometimes history faces us with difficult challenges, and this is one of them, but how we respond dictates how we will be judged at the bar of history. I believe that if we pass the Bill, we can show that we have the courage to spit in the face of the bullet and the bomb, and proclaim the supremacy of democratic principles over the men of violence. We can say to them, as was said by the President of the United States, "Your day is over." We can show the political courage to lead by accepting that dialogue must involve some movement on all sides, however difficult that might be. We can do that by demonstrating tonight the courage to endorse this opening to negotiations and to promote the dialogue and understanding which alone can underpin the agreement that we all seek.

It is with confidence that I ask the House to support the Bill tonight.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 7, Noes 154.

Division No. 100] [10.00 pm
Beggs, Roy Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strgfd)
Maginnis, Ken Trimble, David
Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James
Paisley, The Reverend Ian Tellers for the Ayes:
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Mr. William Ross and
Rev. Martin Smyth.
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Allen, Graham Howarth, George (Knowsley North)
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Hoyle, Doug
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Banks, Tony Hunter, Andrew
Barnes, Harry Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Bates, Michael Hutton, John
Battle, John Illsley, Eric
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret Ingram, Adam
Bell, Stuart Jenkin, Bernard
Bellingham, Henry Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Bermingham, Gerald Jones, Lynne (B'ham S 0)
Betts, Clive Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Blunkett, David Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Bowden, Sir Andrew Jowell, Tessa
Bowis, John Keen, Alan
Brandreth, Gyles Kennedy, Jane (L'pool Br'dg'n)
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) King,Rt Hon Tom
Browning, Mrs Angela Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Burns, Simon Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Burt, Alistair Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Byers, Stephen Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Leigh, Edward
Carrington, Matthew Lidington, David
Church, Judith Livingstone, Ken
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann McAvoy, Thomas
Coffey, Ann MacKay, Andrew
Congdon, David Malone, Gerald
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Marek, Dr John
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Cox, Tom Martlew, Eric
Cran, James Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Cummings, John Meale, Alan
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Mellor, Rt Hon David
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Merchant, Piers
Denham, John Michael, Alun
Dewar, Donald Mills, Iain
Dobson, Frank Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Dover, Den Morley, Elliot
Dowd, Jim Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Dunn, Bob Mowlam, Marjorie
Dykes, Hugh Mudie, George
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Murphy, Paul
Fabricant, Michael Nelson, Anthony
Fenner, Dame Peggy Neubert, Sir Michael
Forman, Nigel O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)
Forth, Eric Ottaway, Richard
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Paice, James
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Pope, Greg
French, Douglas Porter, Barry (Wirral S)
Gallie, Phil Porter, David (Waveney)
Godman, Dr Norman A Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Godsiff, Roger Raynsford, Nick
Golding, Mrs Llin Shaw, David (Dover)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Short, Clare
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Soley, Clive
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Spearing, Nigel
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Spencer, Sir Derek
Hain, Peter Spink, Dr Robert
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Harman, Ms Harriet Straw, Jack
Harris, David Streeter, Gary
Haselhurst, Sir Alan Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Heald, Oliver Timms, Stephen
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Townend, John (Bridlington)
Hoon, Geoffrey Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Tracey, Richard Wicks, Malcolm
Trend, Michael Widdecombe, Ann
Twinn, Dr Ian Williams, Alan W. (Carmarthen)
Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold Wilshire, David
Waller, Gary Wolfson, Mark
Walley, Joan Worthington, Tony
Watson, Mike
Wells, Bowen Tellers for the Noes:
Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John Mr. Timothy Wood and
Whittingdale, John Mr. Derek Conway.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 60 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills),

That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Wells.]

Question agreed to.

Committee tomorrow.

  2. c936
  3. PETITION 154 words