§ Mr. William Ross
I beg to move amendment No. 128, in clause 4, page 2, line 12, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.
§ The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Janet Fookes)
With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 84, in clause 4, page 2, line 13, leave out 'views' and insert 'consent'.
No. 125, in clause 4, page 2, line 14, leave out second 'Northern Ireland' and insert'the constitutional status of Northern Ireland resulting from these negotiations, or any agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, and the result of any such referendum shall be binding upon Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom.'.
No. 83, in clause 4, page 2, line 14, at end insert—'(1A) If any outcome of the negotiations provided for in this Act does not receive the support, in a referendum, of a majority of those entitled to vote it shall not be proceeded with.'.No. 100, in clause 4, page 2, line 14, at end insert— 128(1A) The Secretary of State shall consult the Government of the Republic of Ireland on the wording and timing of any referendum on constitutional proposals affecting the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.'.
§ Mr. Ross
Amendment No. 128 centres on the use of the word "shall". You will be aware, Dame Janet, of the earlier debate on whether we should use the word "shall" or the word "may". At that time, the Minister seemed to have some objection to "shall". The word appears six times on page 2 of the Bill, most of them in the top quarter of the page, so I do not understand the antipathy towards a simple word that can mean so much. The Minister knows that the use of the word "shall" would strengthen his hand in this context.
The inclusion of the word "shall" would leave the Secretary of State with no option—he could not be pressured to refrain from having a referendum for the purpose of obtaining the views of the people of Northern Ireland. I would have thought that that was a very good thing.
There will be those who will say to the Secretary of State, "Oh no, we are very much against a referendum. You really cannot do that." He would have Dublin knocking the door down to try to stop a referendum under certain circumstances. The SDLP, Sinn Fein, the IRA, old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and heaven knows who would try to stop a referendum if they thought it suited their purpose, which is of course to ensure that Northern Ireland is taken out of the United Kingdom. Anything that would keep Northern Ireland in would of course he met with objection.
If one reads the amendment in conjunction with the second amendment in the group that I have tabled, No. 125, it is perfectly plain that I am concerned that, every time the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was perceived by the Unionist population to be under threat, there would have to be a referendum before any of the proposed changes could be brought into operation.
I do not see how on earth the Secretary of State could or should resist the amendments. After all, if such provisions had been in place in 1985, all the concerns expressed by the Unionist population over the agreement of that year could have been very rapidly disposed of by reference to the population, and the Secretary of State would not be in the position he is in today, of having to jump to the demands of Dublin.
The Dublin Government would not have an input into the government of Northern Ireland, and they would not on a daily basis, as Mr. Bruton told us in a recent speech, be in a position to make use of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. A referendum in Northern Ireland would have rapidly disposed of the whole monstrous edifice.
I do not see why the Secretary of State should not agree to my very simple propositions. All I am asking is that, if the people of Northern Ireland believe that a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is resulting from the negotiations, there should be a referendum that would be binding on Her Majesty's Government. In other words, we are asking the Government to put into print what they say will happen—if there is a referendum, they will take note of it. In that context, "take note" means that they will accept the result.
129 I should have thought that, in those circumstances, the Government should be willing not only to accept the amendments but would leap in exclamations of joy to thank me for tabling them. [Laughter.] I do not know why there is such hilarity on the Labour Front Bench when they say that they accept the Government's point of view. That is what we were told.
If the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) does not watch out, his head will fall off. The Labour Front-Bench team have been telling us all evening that they agree totally with the Government on this issue. [HON. MEMBERS: "New Labour."' New Labour is new in some respects, but certain little rumblings of old Labour are still around. That is a matter for the Labour party; we are not concerned with it. All we are concerned with is gaining the support of the Labour Front-Bench team for the improvements to the Bill that I am proposing. I see no good reason why the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) and her hon. Friends should not support me.
We are told that the Government want to ensure that they have the support of the people of Northern Ireland and that they want to keep the United Kingdom intact. They have not shown much sign of supporting those of us who are trying to do so, but that is what they tell us. Here is an opportunity for them to put down a marker for the whole world and say that they are prepared to go along with the will of the people of Northern Ireland when it comes to its constitutional status. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will rapidly rise and agree to accept my modest recommendation.
We in Northern Ireland are very familiar with the Government and the Irish nationalist parties talking about demands for change as if all the changes that have been made in Northern Ireland since 1968–69 have been brought about purely to improve the administration in Northern Ireland, to improve the security of the people of Northern Ireland—with about 3, 000 dead, the policy does not seem to have been all that successful—and to promote dialogue, understanding, consensus, fairness and peace in the Province.
One of the SDLP Members told us earlier that we were divided by history. I thought that we were divided not so much by history as by the question of which nation we wished to belong to—the constitutional issue. I have to say yet again that, in the light of all that has happened so far, my proposal seems a sensible route. The Committee should think of the confidence that my proposal would build in the people of Northern Ireland. They would be aware that, by an Act of Parliament, they would certainly be able to state their opinion of proposed changes. The door would be opened, as the Minister said earlier.
§ Mr. Ross
A window of opportunity, as my hon. Friend says.
My proposal would protect the constitutional position of the country, which would take a load off the Government's shoulders. They could say to the Americans, the Irish Republic, Europe and any country in the world, "Look, here the people of Northern Ireland have stated their opinion. We have to abide by the principle of democracy in Northern Ireland. We are very happy to accept that opinion."
130 There is therefore no good reason for the Government not to take my view on board and act on it. The reality is, of course, that the Government have other pressures on them. However, they should show a bit of manhood, stand on their own feet and defend the unity of the kingdom, because we all want to live in the kingdom.
I believe that when the Government consider my brief remarks with the care they deserve, the Minister will hop up to say that he thinks my proposal a wonderful idea. However, Mr. Bruton has not been very helpful in this regard. He is clearly intent on making further changes in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. He said in a recent speech that the Irish Government had been given the right, under the 1985 agreement, to put forward views and proposals. They have been doing that daily ever since. He also said, yet again, that work was needed to get a settlement on the basis of the joint framework document.
Even Ministers and Labour Front-Bench Members understand that that view of the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic is not acceptable to the Unionist population of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I wonder whether it is acceptable to a wider community—what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) was fond of describing as the greater number in Northern Ireland. I believe that that greater number, which extends beyond traditional Unionist opinion, would also view with a measure of alarm the possibility of going into an all-Ireland republic. Those people were not all that anxious, therefore, to have the joint framework imposed on them.
I believe that the various proposals we have made to get such agreements put to the people and to stop the Government overriding the desires of the greatest number would be a step forward, and would inspire confidence among the people of Northern Ireland. They would take away the fear, distrust and lack of faith in the Government's good intentions. There would be a remarkable improvement in atmosphere in Northern Ireland, and all sorts of good things could flow from the change I propose.
The truth is, as the Secretary of State knows, that the people of Northern Ireland perceive that endless concessions are being made to the gunmen.
They believe that, instead of ruling according to the desires of the greater number in the population, the Government have accorded far too much influence, to put it no higher than that, to those who have tried hard to effect change by the use of weaponry, explosives and violence, or by suppression, or both, and who claim every concession as a surrender to their policy of violence.
I see that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) has rejoined us. I believe that he understands the problems we see, although, sadly, he is one of those who does not believe in the unity of the United Kingdom, because he—
The Second Deputy Chairman
Order. This is no doubt most interesting and entertaining, but can the hon. Gentleman tell me what it has to do with his amendment?
§ Mr. Ross
Actually, Dame Janet, I had moved somewhat from my own amendment to discuss amendment No. 100, which the hon. Member for Falkirk, West hopes to move if he catches your eye in a few minutes' time. He demands:The Secretary of State shall consult the Government of the Republic of Ireland on the wording and timing of any referendum on constitutional proposals affecting the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.That is an interesting proposition.
§ Mr. Ross
It is an interesting proposition, but I do not think it is needed. Surely we are told by Mr. Bruton that, since 1985, the Irish Government have constantly been consulted on a daily basis. Are we to believe that they are not consulted on those issues, and that in the past ten and a half years there has ever been a time when the Government of the Irish Republic have not raised the constitutional position of Northern Ireland?
The proposition by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West is unnecessary. It is redundant, because what the hon. Gentleman wants is already happening, and we are trying to ensure that it stops happening. We want the Secretary of State to consult not only the Unionist population—the greater number in Northern Ireland—but the people of Northern Ireland.
Surely the electorate of Northern Ireland should be allowed to pronounce on such matters. As I have said, if that happened, a burden would be lifted from the Government's shoulders. They are loth to transfer the responsibility for things going wrong on to the shoulders of the Unionists. Perhaps they would find it easier, wiser and more defensible to transfer that burden to the shoulders of the people of Northern Ireland—a burden that that electorate would joyfully accept, because it would mean that they could protect the position that they enjoy within the kingdom.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I want to speak to the two amendments in my name, Nos. 83 and 84. Amendment No. 83 seeks to make it clear that the Government could not proceed with any decision emerging from talks unless a majority of the people supported it in a referendum within Northern Ireland. That is a variation on amendment No. 125.
Amendment No. 84 seeks to make it clear that the purpose of a referendum is to obtain not simply the views of the people of Northern Ireland but their consent.
Amendment No. 83 takes up something that we discussed in slightly more general terms earlier—the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Minister kindly made it clear that there would have to be consent from the majority in Northern Ireland. 132 That has been talked about in the past. Having said that earlier today, I am asking him to put it in writing so that we have in the Bill what we are repeatedly told informally is the case. As my amendment merely confirms what the Government have already said, I assume that they will not find it difficult to accept.
The Government make much of the triple lock. Some of us are not so sure how secure it is, but they tell us that it is vital and that the people of Northern Ireland must agree. The amendment says that if they do not agree, the proposalsshall not be proceeded with".If the Government are willing to say that, let them do so, but I draw my right hon. Friend the Minister's attention to my amendment's detailed wording. It defines "majority" as beinga majority of those entitled to vote",not a straightforward majority of those who happen to turn up on a wet Thursday afternoon. There is a precedent for that in other referendums that have been held in the United Kingdom to determine the future relationship of a part of the Union with the whole. The Government should make it clear that they accept that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland means a majority of those entitled to vote doing so.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
My hon. Friend may have glanced at clause 4(6), which we shall debate later. He may not have noticed that it states:Nothing in this section shall be construed as authorising the Secretary of State to direct the holding of a poll otherwise than in accordance with Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 in relation to"—and this is the important bit—the matters dealt with in section 1 of that Act.Section 1 of that Act states:It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland remains part of Her Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom, and it is hereby affirmed that in no event will Northern Ireland or any part of it cease to be part of Her Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland".It is a strange anomaly that clause 4(1) refers toobtaining the views of the people of Northern Ireland on any matter relating to Northern Irelandbut that clause 4(6)—
The Second Deputy Chairman
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but interventions should be brief, as I have had occasion to say before. If he wants to make such a complicated and lengthy point, he should try to catch my eye to make a separate speech.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I understand your point, Dame Janet, but I found my hon. Friend's intervention interesting and helpful. I consider myself told off for not reading that part of the 1973 Act as he did. His intervention provides with me with another argument. If my amendments say only what already exists in other legislation, it is sensible for the Government to accept that the Bill should be changed to bring it into line with what he described.
Amendment No. 84 goes beyond simply seeking the views of the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that we should confirm in writing tonight that the purpose of the 133 exercise is what the Government have repeatedly said informally—that we are seeking consent. Let us put that into writing for the avoidance of all doubt.
So that I do not have to speak again during this short debate, I must assume that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) will speak to amendment No. 100, which suggests that there should be formal consultation with a foreign Government about the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. The decision by a sovereign Parliament to hold a referendum within its territory is a matter for that country alone. To suggest that a foreign Government, be it the Republic of Ireland, Peru, or wherever, should have a formal status in the process of the House deciding to hold a referendum on a particular date and what wording to put to its citizens and to no others is utterly unacceptable. I hope that the House will have no part of the amendment that I suspect will be moved.
I realise that there is an overlap and that the Republic may want to hold its own referendum. There may be some need for an informal chat over a pint of Guinness, or whatever these people do on such occasions. But it would be an impertinence for us to interfere formally in what is decided in Dublin, just as it is an impertinence for them to interfere in the internal matters of this sovereign nation.
Once again, I am pleading with my right hon. and hon. Friends not simply to come up with soothing words when they respond to my points and, having said all those things all over again, to say, "No. We can't accept these amendments either." My right hon. and hon. Friends may find my amendments unnecessary, but that is not the point. I would be grateful to hear—if it can be argued—why my amendments are wrong, not why they might be inconvenient to the Government.
I consider that, by accepting the amendments, the Government will prove beyond all doubt that they are willing to stand by their informal words. They will show that they are willing to help their friends on the Back Benches. I urge them, therefore, to accept the amendments. It is one way of making speedier progress tonight.
§ Mr. Canavan
My amendment No. 100 would impose on the Secretary of State a statutory obligation toconsult the Government of the Republic of Ireland on the wording and timing of any referendum on constitutional proposals affecting the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.I emphasise that we are talking not simply of a new internal constitutional arrangement in Northern Ireland, or the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. My amendment refers toconstitutional proposals affecting the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.It is only fair and democratic, therefore, that that new constitutional package, defining a new relationship between all the peoples of the island of Ireland, should be put to a democratic test throughout the entire island, rather than just one part of it.
My amendment places a statutory obligation on the Government to implement paragraph 26 of the White Paper, Cm 3232, which states:Both Governments respectively reaffirm their intention that the outcome of negotiations will be submitted for public approval by referendums"—134 I always thought that the plural of referendum was referenda, but it says referendums—in Ireland—North and South—before being submitted to their respective Parliaments for ratification and the earliest possible implementation.It would make good sense, therefore, for there to be consultation between both Governments, so that they could agree on exactly the same form of wording to be put to their peoples. There may well be some advantage in holding the referenda on the same day. Those could all be matters for consultation.
The Republic of Ireland has a longer history of referenda than we have. I understand that it must hold a referendum if it amends its constitution. Whatever referendum is put to the people of the Republic of Ireland may be one that is required by its constitution, so the wording would perhaps not be exactly the same. The wording of part of the constitutional package may be the same, but if it involves a constitutional amendment in the Republic of Ireland, the British Government obviously would not want to include that in the wording of the referendum put to the people of Northern Ireland. Those matters are all points for consultation. They are important and there is merit in making the wording on the relationship between the peoples of Ireland as similar as possible in the two referenda.
Mr. John D. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman continually refers to the peoples of Ireland, but of course he will recall that any referendum could well apply to the peoples of these islands. Part of the negotiations will be about the relationship between the peoples of these islands, as paragraph 1 of Command Paper 3232 says. It is not simply the peoples of the island of Ireland. It is the peoples of these islands.
§ Mr. Canavan
Clause 4 of the Bill refers toobtaining the views of the people of Northern Ireland on any matter relating to Northern Ireland.The Bill will have no jurisdiction in the Republic of Ireland, so if we are to put into effect paragraph 26 of the White Paper it makes sense to have statutory consultation between both Governments on the content and timing of the referendum. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point that there may well be a case for extending some form of consultative referendum to all the people of the United Kingdom. I know that some hon. Members take that view on constitutional matters, but if one examines the agreements that have been signed recently by both Governments on the right of self-determination and the definition of consent, it is clear that it will be sufficient to confine the democratic test to the entire island of Ireland.
I commend my amendment to the House.
§ Mr. Cash
I think that I have made my point already, thanks to your indulgence, Dame Janet, in an intervention that I made earlier. There is a potentially serious point here. It is the inconsistency and perhaps even conflict between clause 4(1), which refers to the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and the requirements in clause 4(6), which deal with the question of consent by reference to section 1 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) has made an important point in amendment No. 84. I suspect that it would be extremely 135 undesirable to find that someone attempted to upset the arrangements that have been made in pursuance of those sections if there were an inconsistency—and there clearly is between the words "views" and "consent"—that led them to say that it was ultra vires or in some way out of order.
I simply say to the Minister that this looks to be a point that could be taken on Report. It looks as though my hon. Friend has a serious point with respect to amendment 84. Therefore, this matter ought to be looked at again.
§ Mr. Corbyn
I put on record my support for amendment No. 100, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). If there is no consultation with the Government of the Republic of Ireland on the wording, timing and content of the referendum proposals, it is very unlikely that there will be a successful outcome from the peace talks—and we want them to come to a successful conclusion.
I fail to see why there should be any objection to consulting the Government of the Republic when it is obvious that the whole problem with Ireland is the division, the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland and the future of the six counties. Holding a referendum with similar questions—multiple choice questions that include the same options within them on both sides of the border—seems to me to be the best way to bring this to a successful conclusion.
The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West and said what about a referendum in the rest of the United Kingdom, or perhaps he said that there should not be one in the rest of the United Kingdom. Essentially, the issue has to be resolved by the peoples of Ireland as a whole and that can bring about a permanent peace. If he is serious about a referendum in the whole of the United Kingdom, he might find that the result will be that Britain should not be so involved in Northern Ireland or perhaps not involved at all. I am not so sure that a referendum would bring him the result that he would like to see.
That is not the content of the amendment that has been put down in our names. We are saying that the Secretary of State, before presenting any referendum questions to the people of Northern Ireland, should, as a matter of requirement, talk to the Government of the Republic of Ireland in the hope and expectation that a similarly worded referendum could take place on the other side of the border.
§ Mr. Illsley
The Opposition would like some clarification of the amendments and of clause 4. We take the view of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) that clause 4(6) prevents the Secretary of State from holding a referendum on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland unless it is in accordance with the Northern Ireland (Constitution) Act 1973. Therefore, we look on the holding of referendums under clause 4 as giving the Secretary of State the opportunity to hold referendums periodically in Northern Ireland on topics other than the issue of constitutional change.
Perhaps the Minister could clarify that and tell us the purpose of clause 4. We look on it not as a clause which authorises a referendum on the constitutional future of 136 Northern Ireland arising out of those negotiations, but as one which gives the Secretary of State the power to hold a referendum on issues that may arise from time to time—perhaps on the use of violence, as was suggested by the SDLP recently.
We regard some of the amendments that have been moved as unnecessary and others as unworkable. Inserting the word "shall" in the first line of clause 4 would require the Secretary of State to hold referendums from time to time regardless of whether there was an issue on which to hold one. I cannot envisage circumstances in which there would be no issue on which to hold a referendum. Nevertheless, amendment No. 128 would place a duty on the Secretary of State to hold referendums periodically, and we see no need for continually holding referendums.
Obviously, the most important referendum to be held in relation to Northern Ireland would come under the provisions of clause 4(6). The issue is that of obtaining the consent rather than the views of the people of Northern Ireland. The issue of consent brings us back to subsection (6). As we see it, clause 4 is intended for the Secretary of State to obtain the views of the people of Northern Ireland on specific subjects. If the word "consent" is written into clause 4, the Secretary of State will be under a duty to hold referendums in Northern Ireland, each of which is to give consent, and issues may be put to a referendum that do not require the consent of the people of Northern Ireland but simply an expression of their view.
I refer back to the subject raised by the SDLP when it said that perhaps the issue of the use of violence or whatever might be put to a referendum in Northern Ireland. That does not require the issue of consent to be agreed on; it simply means that the people of Northern Ireland can express their view.
The issue of consent in any respect has been laid to rest by both Government and Opposition; both have committed themselves repeatedly to the view that no constitutional change will take place in Northern Ireland unless it is with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland expressed through a referendum. I regard that as being enshrined in the various documents that the Government have produced in the past, and it is not relevant to clause 4.
Worryingly, amendment No. 125 would give a duty or a power to hold referendums on any agreement between the Government and the Irish Republic. I read that to mean that we might hold a referendum in Northern Ireland on the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and we could be bogged down in holding a referendum on agreements or treaties that have been in position for the past 10 years and whether they are agreed. It will not take the process forward if we begin to look backwards rather than forwards to the negotiations.
Amendment No. 125 would also limit referendums to constitutional issues, which I do not envisage as the remit of clause 4. I hope that the Minister will respond on that point and confirm that clause 4 is simply to obtain expressions of the will of the people of Northern Ireland rather than their consent on major constitutional issues.
We cannot agree with an amendment that would make the results of any referendum binding on the Government. It is a well-known rule of the House that Parliament cannot bind its successors. It would not be right or proper 137 for the Government to enshrine in legislation here the fact that they would hold referendums to be binding on themselves and any future Government.
Amendment No. 83, tabled by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), also refers to clause 4. He wishes the decision in a referendum to be taken on a majority of those entitled to vote, rather than the majority of those people voting. We cannot agree with the fact that abstentions will be counted as people voting against in any such referendum.
§ Mr. Trimble
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on this point. We are reaching a crucial moment in defining a central part of Labour party policy with reference to what might happen after the next general election. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) draws its inspiration from the legislation of the last Labour Government in the Scotland Act 1978 and the Wales Act 1978. In view of the Labour party's proposal to introduce within its first year in Government legislation regarding devolution in Scotland, is the hon. Gentleman announcing that there will be no referendum along the same lines as provided for by the last Labour Government? It is a crucial issue.
§ Mr. Illsley
The circumstances in Northern Ireland are unique. A Labour Government would not conduct a referendum along the lines of the previous legislation as suggested by the hon. Gentleman. We do not agree that the decision should be taken on the basis of the majority of people entitled to vote.
As to amendment No. 100 moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), we tend to agree with earlier comments that perhaps it is not necessary in view of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the on-going consultation between the Irish and the British Governments on Northern Ireland issues. We assume—perhaps the Minister will confirm our view—that the Irish Government will be consulted about the wording of any referendum question on constitutional issues.
I see no reason why the Irish Government should be consulted under clause 4, unless border issues or constitutional matters were involved. Under clause 4—which is not related to constitutional issues or to the outcome of negotiations—there is less need to consult the Irish Government. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point in due course.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
In talking about referendums and constitutional issues, we are on very important ground and we must tread carefully. I hope that the Government do not intend to change the firm commitment made by successive Governments—both Labour and Conservative—that Northern Ireland's position as an integral part of the United Kingdom will not be altered except by referendum in which the people have the right to give their verdict. That point must be underscored over and over again.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
The people of Northern Ireland. That is a law of the Parliament as supported by the hon. Gentleman's party
138 Conditions in Northern Ireland are difficult at present and it ill behoves anyone in this place to say that we wish to undermine Northern Ireland's position as an integral part of the United Kingdom. In so doing, they do a grave disservice to the people of Northern Ireland. I simply reiterate that it is a very serious matter.
The Government of the Irish Republic would resent this place interfering in the constitutional matters that they intended to put to their people. The criminal and immoral articles 2 and 3—behind which the IRA has hidden for years and which the chief court of the south has underscored—must be changed. No British Government would be allowed to interfere in any referendum held by the Irish Government, so no one should interfere in the UK Government's plans for an integral part of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Robert McCartney
The question of referendums and of consent involves the fundamental constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. It has been accepted by both the Government and the Opposition as far back as 1972, in the Downing street declaration, in the Anglo-Irish Agreement and more recently, that there would be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom without the consent of a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland. That is the fundamental principle of consent which has been accepted by the Dublin Government, by the parties of constitutional nationalism and by the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin. It has been accepted by all those other than Sinn Fein-IRA and the parties and groups dedicated to attaining political objectives by violent means.
That element of consent must be totally distinguished from the question of receiving the views of the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum about the outcome, in this context, of any package or agreement arrived at by negotiations in the negotiating body that is being organised. The two issues are very distinct, and that should always be borne in mind. As the hon. Member for North Antrim pointed out, it would seriously undermine the whole basis on which any pro-Union party in Northern Ireland would enter any negotiations if there was the slightest suggestion that that guarantee would be interfered with in any way. I speak for myself as an independent, but I am sure that I reflect the views of all pro-Union parties in the House. No one will go into those or any other negotiations against a background of that constitutional guarantee being in any wise called in question.
A distinction must be drawn between the proposals for a referendum before us and the proposals in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. They are two completely different issues. The referendums to which the amendments refer would be, I assume, only about such matters as may evolve from any negotiations. In no manner can they affect the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, because if they do that will be the death knell of any prospect of any success whatever emerging from the negotiations that follow the Bill.
§ Mr. Cash
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree with the point that I have made that the inconsistency 139 between clause 4(1) and 4(6) must be resolved? We cannot have a situation in which section 1 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 requires consent but clause 4(1) of the Bill requires merely the expression of views. Must not that be resolved and, therefore, must we not look, as a matter of critical importance and for the very reason the hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned—the death knell of the negotiations—look to the Minister to try to resolve that problem?
§ Mr. McCartney
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman has said, because under the present proposals any party can raise any issue that it wishes. That would entitle Sinn Fein, if it participates, or the SDLP or any other nationalist party to raise the constitutional issue in the course of the negotiations.
Some people think that it should be a precondition for any party entering the negotiations that it should accept that constitutional principle, which has been accepted by everyone else. Indeed, many think that the only reason why that acceptance is not a precondition is that, if it were made a precondition, the only party which does not accept it—Sinn Fein—would not turn up for or participate in the negotiations. Since the Government's fundamental objective is so clearly to have Sinn Fein at the talks, it is necessary to make every conceivable concession to Sinn Fein, including that of the guarantee of the Union. That is why it is not a precondition, and that is why—as the hon. Member for North Antrim, pointed out—it is so important to resolve an anomaly that will otherwise inevitably lead to difficulty.
§ Mr. Ancram
Until the last few moments of his speech, I thought that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) was delivering my reply for me rather well, but I am afraid that in that final part he diverted from it slightly.
Subsection (6) deals with the fears of both the hon. and learned Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Antrim, making it clear in relation to the constitutional guarantee that nothing in the clause will alter the effect of schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.
§ Mr. Ancram
I shall come to that. It is an important point.
Let me repeat that the constitutional guarantee is protected under subsection (6). That is why it is there.
Speaking to amendment No. 100, the hon. Member for Falkirk, West began to undermine his own argument about the language that he wanted to be replicated in the two referendums, realising that the purpose of the referendums might be somewhat different. I am not sure whether he was present earlier, when we discussed referendums; if he was, he will have heard me make it clear that they are two separate referendums in two 140 separate jurisdictions, and that—for the very reasons that he gave in relation to the Irish constitution—their specific purposes could well be different.
A process that will involve consultation in the reaching of agreement between a series of parties—including the two Governments—will obviously involve some consultation about the purpose of the two referendums, but I see no point in putting that in statute any more than I see any point in putting in statute the need for me to consult the hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Member for North Antrim—although I would certainly feel the need to consult them on an essential matter such as this.
§ Mr. Canavan
The Minister says that he and the Secretary of State are committed to continuing consultations, but they may not be in power when the referendum is held.
§ Mr. Ancram
I am interested to learn that other parties may not believe in consultation, given that we are discussing the reaching of agreement through negotiations. Negotiations tend to require consultation between those who are holding them. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows of another means of negotiating which I have yet to discover; no doubt he will enlighten me one day.
I agree with much that was said by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). If his purpose was to protect the situation spelt out in section 1 of the 1973 Act, however, the amendment is unnecessary: that matter is covered in subsection (6). The 1973 Act states:in no event will Northern Ireland or any part of it cease to be a part of Her Majesty's dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent"—I stress the word consent—of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1".The protection is firmly there and, as the hon. and learned Member for North Down pointed out, it is not just there in the Act; it has been accepted in many different forms, such as the Downing street declaration and the forum in Dublin. Consent is an essential part of that protection, and it is underwritten. Far from protecting, the amendment might become unduly restrictive because it refers to any agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom and that of the Irish Republic.
Although the amendment may be intended to cover matters such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the variation in agreements between the two Governments can be considerable. Some of them have nothing to do with Northern Ireland, and it would obviously be wrong—and certainly not the intention—to make agreements between the two Governments which have nothing to do with Northern Ireland subject to a referendum in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. William Ross
The present legislation is merely permissive—the word "may" is used. I was trying to make it binding on the Government to hold a referendum if concern was being expressed in Northern Ireland. The Minister is correct in terms of the words on the amendment paper, but in the light of his expanded 141 remarks I would be perfectly happy to table another amendment on Report to allay the concerns that he has expressed.
§ Mr. Ancram
I must develop my reply further. By tabling his amendment, the hon. Gentleman is saying thatThe Secretary of State shall, from time to time by order direct the holding of a referendum for the purpose of obtaining the views of the people of Northern Ireland on any matter relating to Northern Ireland.The hon. Gentleman is making that mandatory without explaining its purpose and in what circumstances he expects the measure to be applied. I sympathise with many of his arguments, but his amendment is not only flawed but unnecessary. I suspect that his main concern is to ensure that the constitutional guarantee is protected, and I can give him that firm assurance.
I shall now deal with the amendments that were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, to whom I listened carefully. The word "views" is used in clause 4 (1) because, while a referendum under the clause might be held to assess agreement or consent, and that would be set out in the question, a referendum might be held on a matter that was not suitable for such a response. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) suggested a question that might be part of a referendum to be held simultaneously with the election. In declaratory questions, consent would not be an issue, whereas the views of the people of Northern Ireland would. Where agreement or consent is required, that has to be made clear in the question, and the form of the question would ensure that consent was a factor.
I listened to my hon. Friends the Members for Spelthorne and for Stafford (Mr. Cash). None of us is trying to avoid the question of consent because we have made it clear that any outcome of negotiations can proceed only if it has the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. If a question were framed in relation to the outcome of negotiations, it would have to cover that point or it would not match the firm commitment that has been given many times.
My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne made much of the amendment's request that the referendum should receive the support of the majority of people who are entitled to vote. In the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly drew our attention, "consent" is the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll. It would be strange if a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland could be secured by a majority of those voting in a poll when a higher threshold would be required for the implementation of any agreed outcome of negotiations. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said that we should be consistent. I take his words seriously, and I suggest that, in the context of the 1973 Act and the Bill, consistency is important.
§ Mr. Cash
I am glad that my right hon. Friend says that there should be consistency and that that is important. All I am saying is that it would be important also to have a period of reflection between now and Report to make certain that there is no inconsistency. Clearly, there are two conflicting provisions—one in the 1973 Act and the other in the Bill—with respect to the point that I have made already. If that is so, and it turned out that the 142 Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was not authorised to make the order in the terms prescribed under the Bill, that would cause considerable disquiet. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend simply to give an assurance that, between now and Report, he will consider the matter and, furthermore, if necessary, table an amendment on Report.
§ Mr. Ancram
I certainly give an undertaking that I shall consider the matter, but, in the light of what I said, I would not expect to find that inconsistency.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson
Why does the right hon. Gentleman distinguish between the requirement to have a simple majority as the view or consent of the people of Northern Ireland as expressed in a referendum and the much higher requirement for a majority in both communities for propositions in the Command Paper?
§ Mr. Ancram
I think that the hon. Gentleman realises that the referendum is there to test the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland. We have been through that in some detail. It is part of the triple lock. We have talked about the way in which agreement is come to in negotiations, which is obviously a different matter, but it is important that, in terms of the two pieces of legislation, the proportion of voting required is consistent. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne will withdraw his amendment.
§ Mr. Wilshire
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way before he finally sits down. He has raised an important point about amendment No. 83 and I accept the contradiction between the two pieces of legislation. He has not, however, dealt with the spirit of amendment No. 83, if it did not have that defective point about a majority of people entitled to vote. Is he willing to reflect on the spirit of my amendment to find out whether he can find a form of words that will write in the respect for the consent of the majority, however he tries to define it, either before Report or when the Bill is before another place, in which case it may be possible to make progress?
§ Mr. Ancram
Again, I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said, but in moving in that direction, there is an inevitable restriction of what referendums can be used for in this context. That must be taken into account, especially in the light of the fact that representations have been made that there may be occasions when referendums would be a useful way of assessing people's views rather than necessarily always having to seek consent on a particular issue. Given what I have said, I hope that he will withdraw his amendments.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. Trimble
I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 2, line 20, at end insert—'(a) setting out the wording of the question to be put;'.
The Second Deputy Chairman
With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 126, in page 2, line 21, leave out'as to the persons entitled to vote'
and insert, 143'that the persons entitled to vote shall be those on the current register of electors for parliamentary elections.'.
No. 86, in page 2, line 25, leave out subsection (4).
§ Mr. Trimble
This is a simple amendment and a simple issue. I hope that we will have a straightforward answer. The amendment would require that the order that is to be made under clause 4 with regard to the conduct of the referendum contains the wording of the question that is to be put in the referendum. The order must be approved by a resolution of the House—an excellent provision: it is right that, before a referendum takes place, there should be parliamentary approval.
It would be improper for the House to be asked to approve any referendum when it is not aware of the wording that is to be put to the electorate.
There is an interesting analogy with polls under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. Schedule 1 of that Act, which is referred to in clause 4(6), sets out the statutory form of wording. It is not a matter of an order made under the Act; it is set out in primary legislation. It is therefore not asking too much to ensure that we have the exact wording in the secondary legislation providing for the referendum.
§ Mr. Cash
I shall ask one simple question. Is there the slightest possibility in the mind of the Secretary of State or of any Ministers that a referendum held under clause 4(6) could deal with questions relating to the treaty on European union? It is clear that the intention is to confine the provision to Northern Ireland, but clause 4(1) states that a referendum can be held to obtain the views onany matter relating to Northern Ireland.Furthermore, having read schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, it seems that it is just possible that a referendum dealing with questions relating to the treaty on European union could be held at the same time or separately.
I want it on the record that I have raised this issue but, most emphatically, that the possibility of a referendum relating to the treaty on European union being held under this provision is ruled out.
§ Mr. Canavan
I shall speak briefly to amendment No. 86, which is a probing amendment. It would delete subsection (4) of clause 4. Subsection (4) states:Where an order under subsection (1) applies an enactment which empowers a person or body to make any provision or to do anything it may modify that enactment by substituting the Secretary of State for that person or body.What on earth is the point of giving a person or a body the powers to do something presumably concerned with the organisation of a referendum but, at the same time, saying that the Secretary of State may act instead of that person or body and take over the powers of that body or person? What are the circumstances in which the Secretary of State envisages giving powers for the holding of a referendum to a person or body but then taking them back and using them himself?
§ Mr. William Ross
Amendment No. 126, which stands in my name, is merely a probing amendment. Later in the Bill, the Government state that people on the local election register will be eligible to vote, whereas I suggest in the amendment that the Government should use the 144 parliamentary register. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain why the Government have chosen one register rather than another. We should be aware that, in Northern Ireland, there is considerable interest in who votes in a particular election, and the reason why the Government have chosen the parliamentary register will be of great interest to many people.
I wholly support amendment No. 31, which demands the setting out of the question to be put in a referendum. Over the years we have become familiar with how words can be twisted and how questions can be construed in different ways because of the ambiguous language that is used. I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand that, in such an important matter, absolute precision of language is needed so that folk are under no illusions about what they are voting for and so that there is no doubt in their minds as to the question that they are being asked. The Government should accept this simple and straightforward amendment because it is central to the whole referendum question. If it is not accepted, there will be grave suspicion that, somewhere along the line, someone will try to use vague, woolly wording, which would be totally unacceptable to the people of Northern Ireland, especially those on this Bench.
§ Mr. Dowd
We may get through this batch of amendments in record time, certainly compared with the proceedings heretofore.
I know that on Second Reading the Minister went through the point that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has just made. He quoted the figures involved and the differences between the registers. The Secretary of State also addressed the point in his Second Reading speech. We understood the numbers, but I do not think that we elucidated precisely the reason for the preference. If the Secretary of State reiterated it now, I am sure that it would allay the qualms of the hon. Member for East Londonderry.
To reiterate the query raised my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), under clause 4(4) it looks as if the Secretary of State can assume powers from other individuals. We would like to know in what circumstances that would take effect and to what purpose.
On amendment No. 31, the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) about the wording of any referendum that may be held is extremely valid. The notable referendums on the border in 1971 and the European Community in 1975 were introduced through primary legislation and went through the normal processes in the House. The opportunity was therefore given to hon. Members to amend the question therein. Under subsection (4), not only would the question to be put be implemented by secondary legislation, under which, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann says, Members would not have the chance to reconsider or amend the wording, but there would not even be an opportunity to know what the question was.
If an order were laid before the House that maintained that a referendum would be held but the question was not set out in it, would it be laid before the question had been decided or would it be passed and the question decided subsequently? Under either of those two permutations, what process of consultation would the Government undertake in attempting to determine the precise wording of the referendum question?
145 The hon. Member for East Londonderry said that words are important. They clearly are. The answer to referendums across the world—we are not that used to them here in the United Kingdom—has often been almost totally determined by the question asked. The question of the words to be put on any ballot paper is critical.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I shall first deal with amendment No. 31. The question that I have been asked is simply whether the order will contain the words of the question. The answer is yes, it should do. I am advised that under the existing wording in the Bill it would be so required, but in case there is any doubt, I am very happy to accept the amendment. So that is that out of the way. I am glad that the hon. Member for Upper Bann was sitting comfortably.
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
I must have shaken the hon. Gentleman. I am coming to his amendment; I cannot do quite the same in respect of him. On amendment No. 126, I can understand the hon. Gentleman's case that there is no real need for the Secretary of State to have discretion in the area and that it would be as well to put the issue beyond doubt on the face of the Bill. However, the provision is common. Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 also confers such a discretion on the Secretary of State in respect of border polls.
The House of Commons would have the opportunity to vote down any order under clause 4(2) that applied any improper franchise for any referendum. The hon. Member for East Londonderry asked why a selection was made of the parliamentary franchise. We went into this on Second Reading. There is a very slight difference—about 70—in the number of electors. The difference is accounted for by the fact that the parliamentary franchise includes 79 registered overseas voters, but excludes nine peers resident in Northern Ireland, which seems rather a pity. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?] Exactly. Why?
In principle, it might be thought more appropriate for the franchise for any referendum to reflect the potential implications for local residents. On that basis, the local government register rather than the parliamentary franchise would be more appropriate, which perhaps illustrates the value of leaving the issue to be dealt with by order rather than on the face of the Bill.
I can also accept amendment No. 86, tabled by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West. Subsection (4) was put in as a safety net, but as the drafting of the elections order has proceeded, it has become clear that it is unnecessary. I do not wish to prolong matters at this stage of the evening. Two out of three is not bad.
§ The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. Is the Secretary of State giving way?
§ Sir Patrick Mayhew
If I may have the indulgence of the Committee, I shall answer my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). My hon. Friend asked whether clause 4 would enable the Secretary of State to hold a referendum on any matter, including a single currency or any matter connected to the European Union. The strict answer to that is yes, as drafted, it would. It would have to be said that such a matter would be a matter relating to Northern Ireland. However, the power is time limited, expiring in May 1999, and the power to direct a referendum rests with the Secretary of State. I am in no position to give any binding undertaking, but I can give a very firm expectation that a referendum, if any, connected with any European matter would be introduced on a United Kingdom basis and not on a Northern Ireland-only basis.
§ Mr. Canavan
I thank the Secretary of State for accepting my amendment. I hope that it is a portent of things to come.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Amendment made: No. 86, in page 2, line 25, leave out subsection (4).—[Mr. Canavan.]
§ Mr. Ancram
The hon. Gentleman inspired me by his remarks about being productive. It may help him to know that, although there is nothing untoward about subsection (5), it is clear from the Second Reading debate that there is a broad and possibly sufficient consensus ranged against it. I am prepared to accept the amendment.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.