HC Deb 22 April 1996 vol 276 cc90-127
Mr. William Ross

I beg to move amendment No. 114, in page 2, line 3, after 'Ireland', insert 'and an accurate record of such deliberations shall be published and their recommendations made available to the negotiating teams and to the Secretary of State.'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 3, in page 2, line 4, after 'shall' insert 'primarily'.

No. 5, in page 2, line 4, leave out 'only' and insert 'but it may, after deliberation, come to a resolution on any matter and may determine the level of support which exists for any proposal submitted by any of the participants in the negotiations'. No. 113, in page 2, line 4, after 'only', insert 'but it may make recommendations to the negotiating teams and to the Secretary of State.'. No. 29, in page 2, line 6, leave out from 'functions' to end of line 7.

No. 75, in page 2, line 6, after first 'or', insert '(subject to the provisions of paragraph 3A of Schedule 2) '. No. 4, in page 2, line 6, leave out 'course or outcome' and insert 'or course'.

No. 112, in page 2, line 7, after 'I', insert 'but that it may debate any area currently the subject of negotiations and it shall deliberate on any report produced by the negotiations.'. No. 102, in page 2, line 8, leave out subsection (4)

No. 6, in page 2, line 8, leave out 'if' and insert 'when'.

No. 28, in page 2, line 8, leave out ', in accordance with any rules of procedure adopted by them, '. No. 90, in page 2, line 9, leave out 'refer any matter to the forum' and insert 'decide to consult the forum on any matter.'. No. 7, in page 2, line 9, leave out from 'forum' to end of line 10 and insert 'it shall consider such matters and determine the level of support which exists for any agreement reached by the participants in the negotiations'. No. 91, in page 2, line 10, after 'matter', insert 'but any such consideration shall be deliberative only and shall not in any way determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiating.'. No. 8, in page 2, line 11, at end add— '(6)—'No agreement shall be reached by the participants in the negotiations unless it is tested to measure its level of support in the forum and shall not be considered to have reached sufficient consensus as referred to in Command Paper 3232 unless it is approved on a vote by at least 75 per cent of those voting.'. No. 68, in schedule 2, page 8, line 18, at end insert— '3A. The forum shall elect the independent chairperson referred to in paragraph 20 of Command Paper 3232.'.

Mr. Ross

The intention here is to ensure that, when we have the election to the forum and go to the trouble and expense of proposing candidates, of selecting them and of putting their parties through all the traumas associated with an election, the people who are elected have a job to do. I and, I think, any sensible person believe that people are elected not in a vacuum, but to do a job. Under the Bill, only a small number of the people who are elected will be given a job of any real significance.

The mass of members elected to the forum will be called together only as and when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland decides to do so or when something is referred to them by the negotiators. That is wrong. The forum is much the larger body of opinion. The people on it will represent directly the electorate and will have gone there to put the electorate's view.

I and my colleagues have total confidence in the leader of our party. We know his ability in advancing the party's views, but no matter how sensible his and other negotiators' views, other people will have been elected. Many of them will wish to have their opinion listened to. People who have voted for the party in their constituency will wish to know that the people for whom they have voted have the right to speak on their behalf. All that this group of amendments tries to do is to ensure that those people will be able to do just that.

In amendment No. 114, I specifically ask that an accurate record of such deliberations be published. When we come into the House tomorrow morning, we will be able to pick up Hansard, which will give an almost verbatim report—certainly a report that gives the sense of all that has been said in the Chamber today. As we all know, on many occasions, exchanges in this place are heated. At times, one does not hear every syllable that is uttered and it is difficult to unravel the obscure and ambiguous language that is such a characteristic of the Northern Ireland Office and its Ministers. We have had quite an exhibition of that this afternoon. Time and again, we have had to go back to the Ministry.

Mr. Ancram

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ross

The Minister shakes his head. That shows simply that he is not aware of the reality of what he has uttered and the lack of precision and accuracy that we find in what he says. We would like, therefore, to read as soon as possible exactly what everyone has said and what people have thought so that we understand precisely what they were getting at and can question and probe.

We are dealing not with a small matter of a law that might be changed next year, or perhaps in a few months' time, but with the future existence of the United Kingdom as we know it and Northern Ireland's place within the UK. Surely, therefore, it is only right that the people who are elected to negotiate and to speak on behalf of Northern Ireland's electorate should have the opportunity to make their voice heard and that everyone should have the opportunity to read what their representatives have said. That is a reasonable view.

I make the general case. No doubt it will be followed up by my right hon. and hon. Friends and others. We are simply saying to the Government: "Let us have the opportunity to make our points, to keep a clear record and, in future years, to be able to know what was said on the electorate's behalf by their representatives."

Unfortunately, throughout the passage of the Bill, a clear effort has been made to limit the forum to ensure that it can do little or nothing and that those who are elected to it are deliberately bypassed and deprived of any power, authority or capacity to extend the debate on the needs of Northern Ireland's people. For example, think what a rich day the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who speaks for the Social Democratic and Labour party, would have had discussing bovine spongiform encephalopathy if the forum had been allowed to debate such a subject and of the wonderful opportunity that he would have had to debate the difficulties that the hospitals in his constituency have encountered, which he has tried to make clear, but which he could have made clear with even greater force within the smaller group in Northern Ireland.

A body will be elected that will represent all Northern Ireland's people in a way that has never been attempted before. This unique, novel formula is intended to ensure that even the teeniest group in the community will have its voice—and what do we find? The representatives are to be elected and then gagged. They will not be able to make their views clear or do the job that the electorate expect them to do. That is wrong.

In my efforts to extend the body's remit to ensure that it can do those things, that it can debate and call to account, as far as possible, in its limited way, the Minister of the Crown, I should have thought that I was doing something that everyone who believes in democracy in this place would have applauded, but what do I find? I fear that, yet again, the Government will resist my reasonable points. It is plain that the electorate will not understand the deliberate limiting or gagging of elected representatives. They will say to those folk, "What about the slates that have blown off my house?" The reply will be, "You could go to your councillor or your Member of Parliament, " which is not satisfactory.

In this series of modest proposals, I am opening the door—not very wide; it is just a small crack—so that the representatives will have the opportunity to expand the role that the Government intend to allow them. I am not in favour of electing a body and then bypassing it. As I said, the negotiators form a very small team. They cannot possibly think of everything or deal with every jot and tittle and might therefore be very happy to have a bit of extra help. Amendment No. 112 would allow just that.

8.30 pm

I appreciate that one or two others are trying to reach the same end by slightly different means. I do not object to that. None of us manages to get our amendments as precise and accurate as we would like to think we do, and some people may accomplish the task rather more neatly than I have done. I welcome that, but I have made an effort. However, I do object to amendment No. 102, tabled by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), who was so helpful in the previous debate. Now, he is trying to gag the forum completely, which is completely unacceptable.

The amendments are an effort to introduce an incentive for people to stand for the body; they are also an attempt to probe exactly what the Government are trying to do by limiting the forum.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 3, 5, 4, 6, 7 and 8, which deal with the forum. If amendments Nos. 3 and 5 were accepted, they would cause clause 3(2) to read as follows: The functions of the forum shall primarily be deliberative but it may, after deliberation, come to a resolution on any matter and may determine the level of support which exists for any proposal submitted by any of the participants in the negotiations".

Amendment No. 4 would cause clause 3(3) to read: Accordingly the forum shall not have any legislative, executive or administrative functions, "— I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) notes that carefully, because it seems that the nationalists are fearful, but we are stressing that the forum will not have any legislative, executive or administrative functions— or any power to determine the conduct or course of the negotiations mentioned in section 1. Amendment No. 6 would cause subsection (4) to read: But when, in accordance with any rules of procedure adopted by them, the participants in the negotiations refer any matter to the forum". Amendment No. 7 would then cause some words to be omitted and the following to be added: it shall consider such matters and determine the level of support which exists for any agreement reached by the participants in the negotiations". Amendment No. 8 would add a sixth subsection, which would read: No agreement shall be reached by the participants in the negotiations unless it is tested to measure its level of support in the forum and shall not be considered to have reached sufficient consensus as referred to in Command Paper 3232 unless it is approved on a vote by at least 75 per cent of those voting. It is very strange that the Government have been prepared to allow self-appointed people to carry on negotiations, some of whom have never been elected to any body in Northern Ireland, and that for a period—stretching now to about two years—the Government have appointed rooms for and put the names of the leaders of these groups on the doors at Stormont and held secretive meetings with them. No one knows what was said to them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, some of those people are now saying that promises were made to them by the Government which the Government have not kept. Some are saying that conditions are now asked of them which were not asked of them previously. The Minister of State has been photographed with these people from time to time. Although some of them have not been elected to any body in Northern Ireland, long talks have been held with them. We have been privileged outside the remit of the talks to listen to them on the steps of Stormont or at press conferences telling us the types of things being discussed.

We receive letters from a Mr. Spring from Dublin, telling us that we will now be permitted to pass some sort of judgment on a paper that he submits to us—perhaps we would like to come to talk to him. In fact, he says that he did not know why the leader of the Ulster Unionist party did not go to have a nice chat with him. He has never said that I could have a nice chat with him, but at least he said that the leader of the UUP could do so.

That is not the way to negotiate the future of any country. If hon. Members think that the Ulster people are so dumb that they are prepared to put up with such treatment and be dealt with as if they had no real say in the future of our Province, they had better be disillusioned once and for all.

Some hon. Members think that they know what is good for Northern Ireland, but one has only to look back over their record since they took over direct rule. They blamed the Unionists for 50 years of bad rule in Northern Ireland. Certainly, they have not come very far because the other day I heard a republican saying that things were worse than ever. He said that there was now more discrimination, unequal treatment and terrible indignity suffered by the republican people than ever before. Some people will never be satisfied. If the apostle Paul introduced heaven to Northern Ireland, some would think that heaven was purgatory or some worse place.

I recently read a history of the House and the debates on nationalism in it. It made very interesting reading. One need only change the names to have the same hurling of contempt on all British rule in the island of Ireland. Things have not really changed, but we are now told that we are to have people elected to a body.

We are told that there is to be an election. People were at first to be elected to a body, but that body has become a forum. I always thought that a forum was a place where people exchanged views and came to a resolution about what they thought should happen. However, we are to have a forum that cannot come to any decision. It is supposed to encourage dialogue but not to come to any decisions.

I wonder how the House responded to the slip of the tongue made by the Secretary of State when he said the negotiating body would come "down" from the forum. Evidently, on that occasion, he thought that the forum was higher than the negotiating body. So it is, because if we did not have a forum we could not have a negotiating body.

Some parties are not going to get six people on to that forum. In fact, they will get nobody elected by direct vote of the people. If they are fortunate to squeeze into the first 10 parties, they will of course be given two representatives who will be able to attend the forum. They can bring who they like with them. Since the IRA has been taking members of its supreme command to the talks that have taken place at Stormont, one wonders what sort of characters will be pushed into the talks, which we, as good democrats, are supposed to support and in which we are supposed to have deliberations with such people. Every effort has been made to destroy the forum that was to be appointed as the place where the people of Northern Ireland would have an opportunity to express in public what they hoped would be achieved for them.

Where did that attack commence? It commenced with IRA-Sinn Fein, which told us that there should be no election. I do not wonder why a terrorist organisation such as IRA-Sinn Fein would not want an election. It is not difficult to find an answer to that when one considers the way in which it has crucified its own co-religionists and carried out such desperate beatings in its own areas. I would not think that a person going around on behalf of IRA-Sinn Fein would be too well received in some homes in Northern Ireland.

IRA-Sinn Fein said, "No election, " and then said that there should definitely be no forum. It will probably try to bypass the forum, for in the forum it would have to talk directly to and engage in debate with the grass-roots representatives of all the Protestant people. It would not be sitting in the cosy company of the two Governments, who for so long have conceded and conceded. Our Government published a book that told of about 100 concessions that they have made to the IRA. Not one concession was made by the IRA to them.

The attack was joined by the Dublin Government. Mr. Spring said, "We do not need elections, " although it is no part of his jurisdiction. He said, "There is to be no election and there is to be no forum. We should go direct to the negotiating table." The SDLP also took that attitude, although I must say to it that at least the parties of Northern Ireland have had talks together and, although there is a great divide between us, at least we came to some broad agreements on things relevant to an election being held. A degree of democracy prevailed so that we could have a conversation and put our views forcefully to one another. Those meetings were not a cosy little chat, because we all have strong views, which we put and discussed. We agreed to disagree, but at least we made considerable progress.

The best way in which to have negotiations in Northern Ireland is in an ad hoc way, when parties that choose to talk come together and start negotiating. I hope that, when the procedure has got under way, that is the way in which we shall proceed. An effort is still being made, however, by many to dehorn the procedure completely.

8.45 pm

I apologise to the Labour Front-Bench team because I should have said that its members, too, were not keen on the forum. When I spoke to their spokesperson, they felt that the forum should be elected, but then they thought that the forum should be forgotten and that they should go immediately to negotiations. I do not want them to feel that I did not praise them for joining the rest. I would not like them to think that their opinions were rejected and not listened to.

So there was all that conspiracy, saying, "Do not let the Ulster people have a forum; do not let them express themselves in that forum; do not let any democracy prevail; do your best to silence them, they should not be heard anyway." When the House takes that viewpoint—the words of the Secretary of State tonight have been heard in Northern Ireland—the people in Northern Ireland feel that a dark cloud has descended, and that the road to elections and a democratic voice of the people being heard will be bound by rules and regulations.

One matter that concerns me greatly is that the Government will not take responsibility to deal with those who violate what we are told are the first principles of getting to the table. I do not know what happens when those negotiators meet. The night before we have read in the press some of the things that they have said about the future of Northern Ireland. We have heard Mr. McGuinness say that they have nothing more to give—not that they ever gave anything—but murder and mayhem and that it is up to the Unionists to give. I wonder what they want us to give. I think that they want us to surrender to a united Ireland.

After that, the same thing would happen as happened in the south of Ireland. When the line was drawn, 10 per cent. of the entire population of the Irish Republic was Protestant. Today, only 2.5 per cent. of the population is Protestant, which means that 80 per cent. of the Protestant population of the south of Ireland have disappeared. [Interruption.] The Labour Front-Bench team can argue what they like, but that is a fact. One need only talk to people in the south of Ireland to discover how the land has been denuded of the Protestant population.

I heard Gerry Adams say, "We have to get the Brits out. There can be no more British rule. That is what we are going to talk about in the talks." I always thought that nothing could be done to the constitution of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom until we had a referendum, but, evidently, now there is a republican consensus. We heard Mr. Ahern on the same track last night in Dublin. He was praising the IRA leadership and castigating Mr. Bruton because he did not invite Gerry Adams to discuss the breakdown of the ceasefire with him, as if the Taoiseach should have immediately consulted Gerry Adams and asked him to explain why the ceasefire had broken down. Those are all the things that are happening in the environment that surrounds the coming election.

Are we to have a body that can express the views of the people of Northern Ireland or not? How far are those views to be expressed? Will this body have any power at all to impress on those who are ceded from it to be negotiators or is it to have none?

Will the people of Northern Ireland be taken into account? They certainly cannot be taken into account by the negotiators because, we are told, they will negotiate three days a week. I had a letter from the Secretary of State this morning in which he said that there would be negotiating three days a week. If three days a week are spent negotiating, how shall we meet representatives of the Churches, of the trade unions and of all the other people who want to talk to us? That will be impossible.

We should remember that there could be as many as 70 people at the table in the negotiations, and perhaps even more. One can understand how large the room will have to be and one can understand what a folly it will be when 70 people are sitting around the table trying to negotiate. That will be impossible.

I believe that there should be committees in the forum and I believe that the committees could do a useful job in sounding out the views of various people and reporting those views to the negotiators who will be speaking for them. That matter needs to be taken care of. However, in the letter I received from the Secretary of State this morning, I was told that the forum may meet just once a week. How can the forum possibly do a useful task when there are official meetings of the negotiators? The Dublin Government will be able to say, "We must have an official meeting of the negotiators." That will mean that the forum in Northern Ireland will have to quit its work.

I would like the Secretary of State and the Minister to tell us how the system will work. How can we have committees of the forum in session which suddenly have to stop their work because there are going to be negotiations? Does the Secretary of State envisage that the negotiations will be held as the previous negotiations were held and that all the parties concerned will be round the table? We shall have to wait long hours until the Irish delegation gets to the meeting. Having sat and kicked our heels for at least an hour until the Irish Government get there, we shall have to wait until matters proceed on a grace and favour basis.

We must discover what opportunities the forum will have. People will stand for election. What do the leaders of the parties tell those people? Do they tell them, "Well, you will have a job of work to do"? Alternatively, do they tell them, "You are very nice; give up your job"? I know a young man who wanted to stand for my party. He told his boss, who said, "Well, I think you would be better resigning your job." I would have thought that the Secretary of State should at least say that he wants people from all walks of life in the negotiations. Industry should be exhorted to let off from their work those who want to stand and to be elected so that they can make a contribution to the future of our Province. That should be done immediately.

Unlike some of the other leaders, I now have all my candidates in place, so I am not pushed for time. However, it was a difficult task to ask people to stand for a forum when no one knew what the forum was or even if it was going to exist. I am sure that any person in politics will understand how difficult it is at times to get good candidates to stand, especially if they do not know what they are standing for, what remuneration they will get or what will happen to them after they are elected. There is a great difficulty.

We agree that the functions of the forum should be primarily deliberative, although it should have other functions as well. We agree that the forum should have no legislative, executive or administrative functions. We are fully agreed on that and I do not think that any of the major parties desires anything else for the forum. However, we believe that those who are doing the negotiations—the leaders of the parties—should be able to test some of the things that are being discussed in that forum to see whether they have real support across the divide. It would be a useful function—a litmus test—to see exactly how the forum would respond to certain propositions. You should be well assured, Dame Janet, that if the proposals could not get past the forum, they would never succeed in a referendum of all the people of Northern Ireland. Anyone who thinks otherwise should think again.

The argument is posed, "What if there was a majority of Unionists?" The forum will certainly not have 75 per cent. of Unionists; that is one thing that will not happen. We have, therefore, included that figure in the amendment. There would have to be a broad consensus and every representative section would have to agree with the outcome in some way.

Under the rules of procedure, the forum could take up certain matters and discuss them. Added to that, we would want to see that the forum had the useful role of looking at the overall package. I suggest to the Committee that that would, indeed, be a useful role for the forum. Members of the forum will not, of course, be at the negotiations; they will not determine the course of those negotiations or their conduct. That will be for the negotiators themselves to decide.

However, members of the forum will have influence in the outcome because they will have the opportunity to discuss the agreement, some agreement or a little agreement, whichever has been achieved. They will be able to look at that and discuss it, not behind closed doors, but in full public view so that all the people of Northern Ireland can understand what is happening and what the proposals on the table are. They would be able to understand what people were arguing about at Stormont, and what arguments the parties were putting forward to try to secure a future for our people and our families, for our children and our children's children.

The House would do well to ensure that the forum could do useful and rewarding work, and that those people could have a real say in shaping the future. Who are those people? They are people who are willing to make a sacrifice, because the remuneration offered is small, and some of them will have to leave their jobs and lose their pay.

Some of them will also put at risk their prospects of getting back into employment afterwards, because politicians are not the most likely people to get jobs in Northern Ireland. Former Members of Parliament find it easier to take early retirement than to get a job, and Members of the Stormont Assembly found it difficult to be re-employed. So here we have people who are prepared to make a sacrifice to do a reasonable job of work for the future of Northern Ireland. The House should encourage them in that role.

Again I stress the fact that we are not asking for executive, legislative or administrative functions. I do not want people to say, "You just want to turn the forum into a new Stormont." We want nothing of the sort. It should be the objective of the talks to bring about a situation in which we could have a real Assembly in Northern Ireland, with real powers to deal with the bread-and-butter issues that are important to all the people of Northern Ireland. But that must come after the negotiations, not during the negotiations, and we want to make that fact perfectly clear.

I have said to the candidates who will run for my party, "Do not think that you are MPs in embryo; you are only delegates to a forum. Your constituency does not really matter, because you will be elected to an all-Ulster body, and your job is to do the things that will help us as we seek to find a way forward for Northern Ireland now."

I commend the amendments to the House, including that moved by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). The forum deserves to have a certain job of work to do. I believe that people who work together get to know one another, and if that happens, at least there will be some cement in the society that they hope will benefit from their contribution.

9 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I declare an interest, in that I was born and bred in Dublin, and I come from a family that has lived in Ireland for centuries. Probably my first memory is of Dublin during the war, when the bombs were falling, and my second memory is of the stories told me by my grandfather, who was involved in 1916. My father woke on Easter day 1916 to see that his Easter egg had been hit by a bullet in the first moments of the rising. He never found out whether it was an English or an Irish bullet.

Eighty years later, we have an opportunity to turn back the clock for once, and to begin to think afresh. Are we to continue to fight the wars of 80 years ago and of 180 years ago, and even those of the 13th and 14th century—the time when my family first went to Ireland? Or shall we, as surely we must, begin to think about how we can take things forward?

This is probably the first time during the 13 years that I have been in the House that I have spoken on Irish matters in the Chamber. I have put my name to two of the amendments in the group, including that relating to the chairperson of the forum, and how that person should be appointed, because it seems to me that the forum, with all its faults, failings and limitations, represents a step forward, at long last. The differing views—they are numerous, and let us not underestimate them—will be aired, fully and frankly, I hope.

I take on board many of the fears and worries expressed by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). Those fears and worries are realistic, because everything always takes place against the background of what happened yesterday, of the memories we all have, and of what we were taught as children about what happened in the past. However, there has to come a time when we put those memories behind us and think forward to the Ireland that we want to emerge.

I am not so conceited as to say that I have a solution of any sort. With the Irish, of both north and south, a little humility might not be bad thing. We should all accept that things have happened in history of which none of us is proud. Attitudes have been taken and deeds done which none of us can justify in the modern world.

I will keep my plea to the Government and the forum short, because one of the disadvantages of being an Irishman is that one can speak for ever and a day. We are well used to that; it is one of our great failings.

Mr. William Ross

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman. He used a phrase that people should reflect on. He said that things that happened long ago would not be acceptable when viewed in the light of the modern world. That, however, is not the point of history. Many things have happened in the history of all nations that are not acceptable in a modern light. Indeed, there are things happening today—certainly, things have happened in our lifetimes—that are not acceptable, but they still happen.

Some of what was done in the past, by all nations, was done in the light of those people's view of the circumstances of the time and of the dangers in which they perceived themselves to be. I do not know whether that helps the hon. Gentleman, but it is dangerous to judge the past with modern views and 20:20 hindsight. That is never helpful.

Mr. Bermingham

The hon. Gentleman goes down the path that I seek to go down. The things that happened 50, 60 or 70 years ago, happened in the context of their time. The people involved, whether they were right or wrong by the standards or lights of others, believed that they were right. When we consider the situation now, we have to ask ourselves how to go forward. Of course injustices have been done on all sides over the centuries, but that is all I ask of the forum, in which I shall have no vote and play no part, because I do not live in Northern Ireland.

People will have to make sacrifices, from whatever quarter of the political spectrum they come. The hon. Member for North Antrim is right; one has to give up things when one takes part in public life. Whether one is a parish or district councillor or plays any other role in public life, we should not forget that those roles entail sacrifice.

Those who will play their part in the forum will make sacrifices. They may lose their jobs or their friends—people may disagree with their participation in the body—but they will make the sacrifice and play their part. From whatever part of the political spectrum they come, I hope that they will make their points forcefully and well, but in the spirit of looking to tomorrow. That leads me to my amendments, which deal with who is to be the independent chairman of the forum.

Should we look to the party that has the most seats? I believe that that would set the forum back. If we looked to someone in the forum, that would, in its way, set the body back. That is why my amendments talk of an independent chairman. I do not envy the person who will chair the body. It will probably be the most nightmarish task. There will be many conflicting factions and disputes. There is so much at stake that the person who performs that function must be someone who has the respect of the forum as a whole.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman carefully. The only time that I had the opportunity to talk about these matters outside the House with him, we had an interesting and helpful discussion. His argument was made to us in respect of the Prior assembly. Who would we get to chair that assembly? Who could control the people attending it? We got one of ourselves, the late Sir James Kilfedder.

When the election was being fought, no one would have said that he would have been the ideal man to chair it, but all parties that sat under him thought that he did well. They did not always agree with what he did. I did not agree with him when he threw out some of my members and rebuked me for saying things that, had I said them in this House, would have been ruled in order. But that assembly did well under his chairmanship.

I am not so sanguine as to think that, when we get all these people together, there will not be someone among them able to manage the chair of the assembly. I think that it would be—

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt, but I gave a warning earlier about interventions being shorter. I call the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham).

Mr. Bermingham

I take on board what the hon. Member for North Antrim says. I was listening with interest to his intervention, because I thought that he was coming round to my way of thinking.

The forum itself may throw up the person, and we were given a classic example there—someone who will command respect. One might find what I would call the independent chairman from within the forum. One might find him or her from without. I speak in the singular, rather than taking the politically correct stance of using the word "person", for which I apologise. "Chairperson" is a phrase of which I am not particularly fond, but be that as it may.

The outcome must be that the person commands respect. That person will have a formidable task on his or her hands. He or she must reflect the confidence of the forum. If that is achieved, and this is why the amendment stands in the way it does, in my view—it is a purely personal view—it would be the first step forward. One would then have an organisation that had someone it respected to command the way in which it was run.

I have listened carefully to hon. Members speaking to the other amendments in the group and I believe that the forum should not be merely an idle ship. It should play an important part, and be able to discuss a number of matters. I am not suggesting that it should have legislative, executive or any other powers, but it is an opportunity for people to discuss and debate various aspects of life in Northern Ireland to their mutual advantage. I do not know what will come from such discussions. Perhaps when people talk, ideas begin to flow, seeds are sown and new ideas grow. Like Mark Antony at the funeral of Julius Caesar, I have come not to praise the forum, merely to wish it well.

I sink back into my own Irish history, strongly urging on the Secretary of State the concept of an independent chairperson for the forum.

Mr. Trimble

I endorse much of what the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) said. I agree that the forum offers an important opportunity—a valuable opportunity for the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to debate, discuss and take evidence and to carry the debate forward positively. I am sure that the decision about electing a chairman, which will have to be carried out through the weighted majority of 75 per cent., will ensure a degree of independence. It will be interesting to see whether we manage to find the appropriate chairman from within the personnel of the forum. That remains to be seen.

Like the hon. Members for North Antrim and for St. Helens, South, I am anxious to ensure that the forum has the opportunity to engage in wide debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East tabled amendments that refer to the ability of the forum to debate and make recommendations. The reason for tabling such amendments is the apparently restrictive wording in clause 3.

I take the view that the words in clause 3 do not restrict the forum's ability to debate any issue that it regards as relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland. If that rubric of promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland gives the forum the opportunity to discuss any issue it considers to be relevant to those broad considerations, I am sure the forum will think that there is a wide range of matters that could be discussed.

That phrase will, of course, also cover all the matters that may arise in the negotiations, because it is inconceivable that there could be matters in the negotiation track that are not relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding". I take that broad phrase as giving the forum the opportunity to discuss anything that might be regarded as relevant to this process. If the forum discusses such matters, those discussions might or might not—depending on how they proceed—come to a conclusion, and might or might not result in reports or recommendations.

9.15 pm
Mr. William Ross

My hon. Friend has pointed out that, under the amendments we are discussing, it would presumably be possible for the forum to discuss almost anything. But schedule 2 says: 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. I fear that that brake could be used by the Secretary of State to gag the forum.

Mr. Trimble

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's concern, to which I should respond by making two points. First, amendments have been tabled which would clarify the matter, which we shall discuss when we reach that schedule. A second and more general point—it may be more relevant in practice—is that, as the Minister said earlier this evening, the conduct of the negotiations will be for the parties themselves.

If the Secretary of State was minded to use that provision in a manner that would be unduly restrictive of the forum's operation, there is a very simple remedy in the parties' hands. I imagine that a sufficient number of people will be engaged in the talks who are committed to the forum's success to ensure that meetings will not be held in a manner that would frustrate the forum's operation. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) that this is a matter in which the remedy is in our hands, and we can exercise it should the need arise.

It will be possible for the forum to discuss matters and for those discussions to conclude in whatever manner the forum decides, subject to whatever rules of procedure the forum may adopt. That reference to rules and procedure of course carries with it built-in safeguards, which are spelt out in greater detail in schedule 2. If the debates and discussions in the forum result in any form of conclusion, it will be entirely open to the parties engaged in the negotiations to refer to those matters.

This process and this legislation, in trying to separate negotiations from the forum, are flying a little against the reality that the same people from the same parties will be present in the forum and in the negotiations, and that some interaction will be inevitable.

I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 28 and 29. Amendment No. 29 proposes to delete the second half of clause 3(3). I do not think that the second half of clause 3(3) says anything at all. The beginning of clause 3(3) states: the forum shall not have any legislative, executive or administrative functions". If it does not have any executive or administrative functions, it obviously does not have the power to determine anything in relation to the negotiations or to anything else.

The words in the second half of clause 3(3) are redundant and do not say or do anything because the forum does not have an executive or administrative function. The forum does not have power, and those words are unnecessary to the meaning. I understand that those words have been put into the Bill to meet the paranoia shown by certain parties about the forum, but one must make the point that the words are devoid of content.

Dr. Joe Hendron (Belfast, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman answer this question for me? In Northern Ireland we are divided by history. I can understand the amendments that have been moved today to strengthen the concept of a forum. I agree with some of the points that have been made, but others do not agree. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, within the broad nationalist community in the north of Ireland—I am not talking about paramilitary people—there is apprehension about the forum, and that it would be even greater if some of the amendments were carried? The apprehension relates to the fear of the old Stormont coming back at some stage in the future.

Mr. Trimble

I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. He will have noted that, in referring to clause 3(3), I quoted with approval the statement that the forum would not have any legislative, administrative or executive functions. No effort is being made in this debate to amend that part of subsection (3) or to give the forum a function or power to determine. I understand the concern, and I understand that the additional words to which I have referred have been included as a result of that concern. I merely point out that the additional words in subsection (3) add nothing to what is already in the first half of subsection (3). That should give the hon. Gentleman adequate assurance.

Amendment No. 28 seeks to delete some words from clause 3(4). The reason why it has been tabled—I should be grateful for the Minister's response on this point—is that I find the reference to the rules of procedure to be adopted by parties to the negotiations somewhat curious in view of the detailed set of ground rules that have been formulated. I wonder what else there is, and what is meant by the reference to the rules of procedure. I should be grateful if the Minister would elucidate that.

Mr. McNamara

Listening to the speeches of the hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) rekindled my fears about the purpose that the forum might pursue if the amendments were accepted. I cannot help feeling that it is a little naive of the hon. Member for Upper Bann to believe that, merely because the forum will not have any legislative, administrative or executive functions, the rest of the clause is redundant.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Antrim have said that the forum will make recommendations, come to conclusions and suggest things that should or should not happen. Indeed, the hon. Member for Upper Bann suggested that the forum could discuss almost anything under the heading of promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland. It is a broad definition. The lines he sought to draw between what might be discussed in the negotiations and what might be discussed in the forum were very blurred—indeed, positively overlapping. Therefore, I should like to have some clarity from the Minister.

The Minister will recall that matters relating to the negotiations may be referred to the forum under clause 3(4) if the parties to the negotiations are agreeable. The only reference we have to the rules of the negotiations and of the business committee is what we find in paragraph 24 of the Command Paper. I shall read what is contained in brackets: 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.

They are the rules that are being laid down for the negotiations to take place. I take it from that that, with regard to clause 3(4), no decision will be taken to refer anything to the forum—unless by the parties to the negotiations—unless it has passed the hurdle that it will be supported by a clear majority in both the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland. Am Ito take it from that that they mean in terms of Northern Ireland—the representatives so elected to the forum by the communities in Northern Ireland—and that it will be the parties that have been elected and the negotiators who will decide when that is to happen?

If that is the case—although I regard the forum as something of a nonsense—if that power lies with the parties to the negotiations, my fears and those of my hon. Friends might be assuaged to a degree. However, if that is not the case, what we have created is a forum that will discuss all manner of things, that will be able to come to conclusions and that will have things referred to it from the negotiations, which it will seek to debate.

After the framework document, we wanted to have negotiating parties and negotiations rather than going into the election. We wanted the negotiators to have the ability to sit and negotiate without fearing that they had to look over their shoulders all the time to other people in another assembly who would be passing judgment, day in, day out, on the process of the negotiations. There might be cries of betrayal. We wanted to have negotiations before the elections to prevent that from happening—to come to some agreement and then ask the people of Northern Ireland to accept it or to reject it in a referendum as laid down in the framework document.

However, here we have the parties elected with a forum. If that all-embracing phrase in paragraph 24 relates to what can or cannot be said and debated in the forum on the recommendation of the negotiating parties, that is fine. However, if the argument were to be adopted that negotiations were likely to be conducted under rules and procedure for the negotiating parties—as they are to be for the rules of negotiations for the forum—that would be a dangerous matter.

Mr. Robert McCartney

It would be of some assistance if all hon. Members realised that the purpose of the legislation is essentially to have a set of negotiators going about the business of trying to arrive at a consensus about the best way that a peaceful and, hopefully, permanent settlement can be achieved for the people of Northern Ireland.

However, such a settlement—first, if it is to be achieved and, secondly, if it is to receive the democratic endorsement of those for whose benefit it is alleged to have been put in place—must have validation. There is no point in a set of secret negotiations taking place and a package being produced like a rabbit from a hat and placed before the people of Northern Ireland, who have not been made conscious and made aware in general terms of what those pledged to negotiate on their behalf have in mind.

9.30 pm

The fears of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and of some parties representing minority interests in the House are unjustified. If any package is to be approved in a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland, it is much more likely to receive the endorsement of the people in a referendum if they have previously been made aware in some form of plenary session of what those negotiating on their behalf have arrived at, and if those elected—the parties in and the delegates appointed by the electoral process—have had an opportunity to see it and endorse it.

It is pointless for the negotiators to present a package to an elected body in the forum for approval unless they present it to that body with a recommendation that the package should be endorsed and validated by the delegates in the forum.

It is extremely unlikely that, in the absence of agreement within the negotiating teams, anything would see the light of day before the delegates in a plenary session of the forum. Every advantage would therefore be obtained by permitting the delegates, in a plenary session in the forum, to consider and examine and endorse the package that their negotiators have arrived at before it is unleashed on the general population in the form of a referendum.

Given that the negotiators who will provide the peace package to the general body in a plenary session were delegates appointed from all the members that have been chosen for the forum, it is very unlikely that they would take back to the forum in plenary session something that they could not endorse whole-heartedly and recommend for validation to that forum in plenary session.

That point was taken up on Second Reading. The example was given of the discussions that took place at Sunningdale in the early 1970s, when, as a result of a great deal of pressure—a great deal, I may say, of bullying by members of Her Majesty's Government—the late Brian Faulkner took back to Northern Ireland a deal, the Sunningdale agreement, which the pro-Union negotiators had accepted. Because there had been no validation by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives generally, he failed to sell that peace package, as it then was, to the pro-Union constituency in Northern Ireland.

It therefore behoves the House, when considering the powers to be given to the forum, to think positively about what the forum can do to enhance, not hinder, the endorsement of a peace package or settlement arrived at by the negotiators. There would be absolutely no point in the negotiators arriving at an agreement in secret if that agreement were not approved of by most of the delegates, and, as a result, caused a substantial division among those who were supposed to recommend it to the constituency of Northern Ireland in a referendum.

Therefore, those who labour under the misapprehension that we should give the forum powers other than those of a total cipher should think again: they may be formulating not a policy for achieving the acceptance of a negotiated peace, but a mode of operations that will militate against it.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

This is the first contribution from the Social Democratic and Labour party Benches in today's very long debate as my amendments were not selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means. However, it is appropriate that I should speak on behalf of my party about the forum question.

The purpose of the legislation is to facilitate negotiations and their successful outcome. We have not had negotiations. The legislation proposing elections and a forum is before us now because the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland simply refused to participate in such negotiations until they received assurances that, first, there would be an election that would confirm their electoral mandate for the 21st time in 20 years; and, secondly, that the forum would be appointed and granted the powers under clause 3, as amended.

The legislation makes provision for elections which would provide negotiators who would engage in talks and try to resolve the tremendous differences affecting all of the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of their political beliefs or community affiliations. We believe that the elections could prove divisive. Elections, by their very nature, are confrontational—we fight elections—while negotiations strive for consensus: they are the antithesis of elections. Yet elections and negotiations are married in this document—and so be it.

The forum suggestion causes great concern in the community and among that part of the electorate that supports me and my party. We have seen many assemblies and forums over the years, all of which have failed. I have listened to the assurances given during today's debate by the leader of the Ulster Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and others. Such assurances are hollow when viewed against the backdrop of the amendments that have been proposed to clauses 2 and 3—all of which are designed to enhance the authoriry of the forum while, at the same time, diminishing and restricting the authority of the negotiating table and team. The powers drain from one to the other.

We fear that constant debate in a public forum will, as has occurred in the past—we are not looking into a crystal ball; we are drawing on experiences—lead to extreme debate and hot words, which often cannot be withdrawn. We are afraid that the negotiators will be pressurised into abandoning the necessary consensus and compromise for which they should strive.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. McGrady

This is my first contribution and I wish to develop my argument. The purpose of the negotiating team is to try to obtain consensus across very difficult strands of disagreement. We have been accused of being undemocratic because we do not support the concept of the forum. The forum is not a body that is designed to engage in democratic debate. That is not what it is about. The election is designed primarily to provide negotiators and to give confidence to the parties that need such confidence. With manifestos endorsed, the parties can come to the negotiating table to draw out a conclusion. To say that it is undemocratic to wish not to diminish that role is not a reasonable argument.

The other argument made against our opposition to the forum is that community groups and various people could come to the forum and make presentations. There is nothing to stop such people and community groups presenting their evidence directly to the negotiators, and not at third hand.

Mr. Maginnis

Is not the hon. Member manufacturing an argument that is without real substance? Does he not recall that during the 1992 negotiations, when only the negotiators were around the table, an impasse was reached again and again? Those of us who endeavoured, by putting substantive documents on the table, to move forward were thwarted because there was a totally opposite reaction to what we were trying to achieve. Does the hon. Member understand that—as well as having the purpose that was outlined by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney)—the forum can indeed be a constant conduit to the public, who need to understand what is happening, rather than be taken by surprise at the end of the process? When there is a confrontation or an impasse, not on a point but on assertions made on a particular point, a committee of the forum could take that away and discuss it and take evidence about the issue.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would draw breath. Interventions should be under a minute and the hon. Gentleman has been going for a minute and a quarter.

Mr. Maginnis

On a point of order, Mr. Morris. I thought that in Committee it was possible to make a point in some detail, as distinct from during Second Reading. I understand the rules of the House and I take your point, but surely I am entitled to wind up very briefly. I beg your indulgence.

The Chairman

Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman had only just started, so I am not sure about winding up. The hon. Gentleman may, of course, make his own speech, but interventions—in the 22 years that I have been in the House—have always been of short duration and usually involve just one question.

Mr. McGrady

I must confess that the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's intervention has now escaped me, but I believe that before he intervened I was dealing with the perception of democracy in terms of the forum. We are told that it is to be a non-executive assembly that could have certain parliamentary attributes: that it could, for example, shadow a local government department.

Mr. Peter Robinson

We have not been told that.

Mr. McGrady

During Thursday's debate, the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party suggested that a sub-committee could be formed to deal with matters involving local government in Northern Ireland.

9.45 pm
Mr. Robinson

The hon. Gentleman should obtain a copy of Hansard and read what my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim, (Rev. Ian Paisley) actually said. He said that, in the case of many subjects, the forum would be able to assist by taking representations from the public—from interested groups, for example—compiling a report and sending it to the negotiating teams, thus providing them with background information. One subject that he mentioned was local government in Northern Ireland. He merely said that the forum could consider the future of local government, and possible proposals for changes in its operation.

Mr. McGrady

That is the very point that I am making. The proposal is to establish sub-committees to deal with a variety of matters concerning all aspects of life in Northern Ireland: that has been suggested time and again today.

Mr. William Ross

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McGrady

Not now.

We fear that the amendments will distract people from the kernel of the legislation, which is the need to give the negotiators the best possible opportunity of bringing about a successful outcome. We should all strive to do that, rather than create obstacles that might enable a competing body—perhaps in the same building and during the same week, or even the same day—to prevent the negotiating team from engaging in proper debate. That may suggest that we do not want people's views to be heard, but nothing could be further from the truth. As I have said, it would surely be better for representations to be made directly to the negotiators than to be conveyed through the conduit of public debate in a forum.

Our other fear in regard to the forum is the possibility of "majoritarian" decisions. If we have learnt anything in Northern Ireland, it is that nothing can be achieved without consensus. The definition of consensus is fairly well illustrated in paragraph 24 of Command Paper 3232, which was quoted earlier. It refers not to majoritarian decisions, but to a consensus among the representatives of the main traditions or communities. That is what consensus means in Northern Ireland, and that is what we must strive for, no matter how difficult it may be.

All the amendments that we have discussed have focused on a strengthening and broadening of the forum's functions and the creation of a non-executive assembly. That is the political objective of the Ulster Unionists, who long ago abandoned the idea of an executive assembly. They are now integrationists rather than devolutionists, and one of their prime aims has been achieved before the negotiations have even begun. We have grave concerns about the remit of the forum, and the extension of that remit even beyond what is contained in paragraph 3, which we oppose in general terms.

Mr. Canavan

I should like to speak briefly to amendments Nos. 102, 90 and 91 which stand in my name.

When the Government first mentioned a proposal to hold elections as their response to the report of the Mitchell commission, there was widespread concern, particularly among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, although not confined to it, that those elections might lead to the resurrection of some kind of Stormont Parliament. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) say that that was not the intention of the Unionist proposal for elections. It is certainly not provided for in the Bill, but I think that the hon. Gentleman insinuated that perhaps it was a stepping stone that could lead to some form of Parliament with legislative powers.

The Committee is aware of the detestation of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland for the Stormont Parliament and majority rule under which the winner took all and the minority was discriminated against for decades. I hope that the Secretary of State agrees that the clock must never be turned back to that. The fears that were expressed about the resurrection of some kind of Stormont Parliament were understandable, bearing in mind that the idea for the elections was a response to the Mitchell commission report. But the elections were not Mitchell's idea: it was a Unionist idea that was adopted by the Government and did not have consensus—broad support among the communities in Northern Ireland. Apparently it had support from within only one community.

The Government eventually got the message about nationalist fears and came up with these proposals, through which they seem to be trying to emphasise the few, if any, powers that the elected body will have. Instead of calling it a Parliament, an assembly or even a convention, they are calling it a forum.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the view that this forum should have no legislative or administrative powers had nothing to do with the Government? From day one of the proposals, the view of the pro-Union parties was that such a forum should have no administrative or legislative powers. Not just the Government but the pro-Union parties, my own included, advocated that long before there were any such Government proposals. It is not a creature of their imagination but of the pro-Union people.

Mr. Canavan

The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot say that it has nothing to do with the Government. They have drafted the Bill, which explicitly states that the forum will have no legislative, economic or administrative functions. In statements, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have emphasised that the forum is completely separate from the negotiating body. Clause 3(2) states: The functions of the forum shall be deliberative only. That is fair enough. Subsection 3 states: Accordingly 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. Subsection (3), however, is qualified by subsection (4), which says: 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. There is no need for subsection (4). When replying to the debate, will the Secretary of State say why the Government considered it essential to include that subsection?

Amendment No. 102, which I tabled, proposes the deletion of subsection (4) because it seems to give some qualification to the absence of legislative, executive or administrative functions and of powers to determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations mentioned earlier in the clause. What is the need for such qualification? There is no need and therefore I propose that the subsection be deleted.

If that is not acceptable to the Government, will they consider my alternative: amendments Nos. 90 and 91? Instead of the negotiating body being able to refer any matter to the forum, if there is to be any relationship between that body and the forum, it should be purely consultative rather than involve reference. If one body refers something to another body, I take it that that means that the other body can take decisions on the matter. If I refer something to the Secretary of State, that is more or less passing the decision to him, but if I consult him, that is a different matter. My choice of words—namely, consultation rather than reference—would be preferable if the Secretary of State wants to emphasise the fact that the forum will not have executive decision-making powers.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the possibility of a constitutional package, as it were, being referred to the forum and to the forum being allowed to express a view on such a package before it goes to the people by way of a referendum. That would not be a good idea. It is almost certain that there will be an in-built Unionist majority in the forum. The White Paper says that it will be necessary or at least desirable to have agreement to proposals in both communities. Ultimately, what is important is not whether a new constitutional package has the agreement of this strange body that has been elected by the most bizarre electoral system to come before the House and by probably one of the most bizarre electoral systems in the world. What is far more important than any approval or disapproval by such a body is that any new constitutional package is tested directly by the people by way of referendum both north and south of the border.

No doubt we will come to the wording and timing of referendums, but, at this stage, the Secretary of State should make it clear that the forum will have no veto on any new constitutional proposal, that it will not have any authoritative say on the matter and that, ultimately, if we are true democrats, we should be saying, "Let the people of Ireland decide."

Mr. Maginnis

I am pleased to have the opportunity to pursue the issue that I endeavoured to raise earlier. It relates to the impression that we gain from listening to the hon. Members for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) that there is something wrong which needs to be remedied about the fact that a substantial majority of the people of Northern Ireland happen to be Unionists.

We are hearing that anything that gives that section of our society which is Unionist the opportunity to deliberate—

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report progress.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), That, at this day's sitting, the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Brandreth.]

Question agreed to.

Again considered in Committee.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Maginnis

Mr. Morris, I shall not dare ask what time we stop for breakfast.

I was about to say that if we ask the people of Northern Ireland to elect a forum—the Government are imposing on us a forum comprising 20 more than we expected—if we elect 110 people, it must surely be proper and a matter of courtesy and respect to the people of Northern Ireland who elect that forum to ensure that it has a job to do.

Mr. McGrady


Mr. Maginnis

I shall give way in a moment.

The point is that we shall take 50 or 60 members of that forum, put them into a room and call them negotiators. They will be called the constructive element. Left behind will be the other 50 or 60 who were elected in exactly the same way but who will be regarded as the destructive element. Yet the negotiators and members of the forum who are left behind will all be members of the same political parties.

The difficulty that we experienced in 1992—a matter that I raised earlier and that I shall not go into in any great detail—was the reluctance on the part of negotiators to deal with substantive issues. They wanted to make demands and they wanted a positive response to those demands, but there were counter-demands from the other side of the table. In fact, there were times when my party was not quite sure what the demands being made by the party of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) really were. We certainly had no idea in the strand 2 element what the demands coming from Dublin were.

All we knew was that the Dublin delegation sitting around the table appeared to be little more than boot boys for the SDLP. When members of that delegation tried to speak or dared to move too far forward, they were quickly hushed by the leader of the SDLP. Eventually, the whole thing began to crumble. Nothing substantive was discussed. Our document to provide a bill of rights was on the table, which would have reassured the nationalist community to whom the hon. Member for South Down referred. Yet that document—the Secretary of State knows this because he was there—was never picked up, opened or debated.

There would be an opportunity when there was an impasse between two elements at the negotiations, when one side was making a statement and another was making a directly contrary statement and there was no possibility of a resolution, to refer the issue to the forum and ask that an element of that forum sitting in committee take whatever evidence it might deem reasonable from whatever body it deemed reasonable and try to bring forward a factual report that could be reintroduced into the negotiations with a view to moving things forward and giving the two irreconcilable elements something to get their teeth into. As I said earlier, we are talking not only about the people in the forum but about how those who sent them there understand what is going on.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) referred to the Sunningdale agreement. Although many of us would still be unhappy with elements of that agreement, with hindsight we would consider that some of them might have been helpful if they had been more fully understood by the people out in the country. But the people did not understand; they were suspicious because the deal was done behind closed doors.

Having listened to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), it appears that he is seeking a veto for the nationalist community so that under subsection (4) nothing can be referred to the forum. He has demanded that if some party to the negotiations wants to refer a matter to the forum, and the Secretary of State is inclined to agree that the matter could usefully be considered by the forum, it cannot be considered unless there is substantial—I think that that was the term that he used—agreement on both sides of the negotiating table.

That means that those who want to stifle democratic debate are able to veto the movement of anything from the negotiating chamber to the forum. I hope that the Secretary of State is not going to tell us tonight that he will assent to that attitude being adopted in the negotiating chamber, because that in itself will cause the process to crumble through distrust and frustration more quickly than anything else.

I wonder whether the crux of the matter in terms of the difficulties that the Secretary of State and Ministers appear to have is the fact that although the Secretary of State is supposedly answerable to the House, he is inhibited by what is coming out of Dublin as instructions and what emanates from the Anglo-Irish agreement. Is that not the millstone that is around the Secretary of State's neck? He cannot come here tonight a free man who is able to speak openly on behalf of the Government. Rather, he must try to recall what his civil servants have been telling him will please or displease Dublin.

Is it not a reality that we have a de facto joint authority when it comes to decision-making about how we move the real political process forward in Northern Ireland? I believe that it is, and I think that every one of my colleagues believes that it is. I think that there is hardly a Unionist in Northern Ireland who does not believe that that is what inhibits the Secretary of State. That is why we do not have, for example, a straightforward election, as I said on Second Reading, with people electing people who will be answerable to people. Instead, we are asking people to commit themselves narrowly and conclusively to a political party and trying to create a basis which, I can tell the hon. Member for South Down, is not what my party wanted.

On that point, we need to know tonight whether the Secretary of State and the Government have the freedom to allow the people of Northern Ireland to explore every opportunity that needs to be explored if we are to find a solution—

The Chairman

Order. Not under this amendment.

Mr. Maginnis

Under clause 3(4), there will be—

The Chairman

Order. There are many aspects to the Bill, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his last few remarks. I draw his attention to the fact that we are discussing amendment No. 114 and those grouped with it. I should be grateful if he would return to that.

Mr. Maginnis

I am grateful to you, Mr. Morris, for assisting me once again. I will leave the Secretary of State to answer the point. Does he have the freedom to allow the electorate of Northern Ireland to have their views properly reflected in the forum? That is the question he must answer.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I appreciate that the hour is getting late, so my contribution will be brief. I wonder whether my electorate, who give me a majority of almost 23, 000, are leaning on their snooker cues this evening avidly listening to every word we are saying. I rather doubt it. They are, however, fortunate in having a Member of Parliament who takes some interest in matters in Northern Ireland, even if they do not.

I have listened to almost all the debate so far, and I am convinced that my original view was right, that we should not have started from that point, and that the whole process was absolutely unnecessary. If the Government had had the perspicacity to grapple with the Mitchell committee report when the Prime Minister was first given it, we might not have been debating the Bill this evening.

Alas, as so often happens, that is all water under the bridge, and we are debating a Bill which has been given a Second Reading and therefore has the authority of the House conferred on the principles contained within it. Had it not been a constitutional Bill, it would have been taken in a Standing Committee upstairs, but because it is constitutional it is being taken on the Floor of the House, as is right.

Whether the Bill is being taken on the Floor or in Standing Committee upstairs, however, what we as elected Members are doing, as I so often say both to Conservative Members and to my hon. Friends, is making the law. This evening we are making the law of the United Kingdom, so we had better be pretty clear about what we are doing and what we are legislating for.

10.15 pm

We are legislating to create an assembly, a forum—clause 3, which we are now discussing, refers to that, Mr. Morris—and my problems with the forum are summed up by the following questions. What is it supposed to do? What are its terms of reference? My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) read out part of clause 3 earlier. Subsection (2) says: The functions of the forum shall be deliberative only. Great—that says a lot. What is "deliberative only" supposed to mean? What is the forum supposed to deliberate on? What are its terms of reference? What can it discuss and what can it not discuss? What will be the parameters of those discussions?

Even schedule 2 does not tell us much more about what the functions of the forum are. A forum that will bring people together where they can genuinely, peacefully and intelligently discuss the current problems of Northern Ireland seems like a good idea. But there must be ground rules and parameters. There must be terms of reference defining what the forum is supposed to be about.

Apart from my hon. Friends from the Social Democratic and Labour party, I am probably the only person in the Chamber tonight who was present at, and spoke at, the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin, which was set up by the Dublin Government under Albert Reynolds. I found the terms of reference of that forum, and its deliberations, very useful. It involved people of violently differing views, who none the less came together in Dublin castle under the chairmanship of Judge McGuinness, and had some very positive deliberative sessions.

The amendment moved by the hon. Member for East Londonderry is about producing records of the forum. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the forum for peace and reconciliation arrived at certain conclusions and published its recommendations, although those were not binding on the Irish Government, and certainly not on the British Government.

One of the recommendations was that everybody concerned with the process should sign up to consent. The only people who did not sign up, and who were therefore outwith the nationalist consensus in the island of Ireland, were Sinn Fein. Why cannot we have something like that in the proposed forum's proceedings? If the forum is going to happen—as I have said, I would not have started from there—the terms of reference must be decided. Why should not the Government consider what they should be? I cited the example of the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin because it came to those conclusions. If we are to have a forum, the Minister who replies should be more explicit—again, I stress that we are writing the law—about its terms of reference, its parameters of debate and what it can do. We all know what it cannot do.

The Chairman

On the parameters of the debate, we are discussing amendment No. 114. While the hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, most of it would be more appropriate to the clause stand part debate.

Mr. Stott

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Morris. I was about to conclude. I was in my peroration when you kindly brought me back to order. I was going so well that I thought I would give it a final shot. Everyone has been saying what the forum cannot do. It cannot legislate or have any influence on the negotiating teams; it cannot do this, that or the other. We want to know what it can do.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Over the past half hour, I have listened to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) agonise over how he might explain why the SDLP could support and take part in a non-elected forum in the Irish Republic but would not take part in an elected forum in Northern Ireland. I do not think that he convinced the House that he had a realistic solution to that conundrum. It is clear that he is still struggling with it himself.

I listened to the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) build up straw men so that he could knock them down. The idea of having, as part of the process, a forum with legislative, administrative or executive authority, was never in any of our dreams. It was not part of the process that we envisaged. It would not be the sort of process that would be likely to succeed and get the result that all the people of Northern Ireland want.

The process is undoubtedly capable of ending with an agreement that would give Northern Ireland a form of government that would include a legislative, executive and administrative structure, but that would come out of agreement under the process, not from the process itself. If I take anything from what the hon. Member for South Down said, it is that his party—and to this extent I can understand where he is coming from—does not want to concede by way of process what it would not wish to concede as part of the negotiations. If that is his argument, he must remember that Unionists could equally say that there are many parts of the process, taken as a whole, that would have the same effect for them if they believed that, by accepting something as part of the process, they were giving a nod and a wink that it would be acceptable as part of an overall settlement. He should not be nervous about accepting as part of the process something that he may want to improve as part of the settlement as a whole.

Our amendments are not intended to undermine the negotiating process. Not one of them undermines that process. First, they attempt to elicit some information from the Government as to what the forum will do—in the way that the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) was attempting to do. The position is as vague as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

The fact that the forum's role is to be "deliberative only" gives no clear sign of whether it will even be able to vote on issues. If it is able only to deliberate, will it be able to resolve any issues? If it has resolved a matter, will it be able to pass on that resolution to others? Is it entitled to produce a report and, if it is, can it hand it on to others, whether the Secretary of State or the negotiating participants? None of that is clear on the basis of the one clause, which gives little information about the forum. Indeed, the clause that deals with the forum tells us what it cannot do as opposed to what it can.

When the Government respond to this group of amendments, can they say whether the forum will be allowed to arrive at decisions and transmit them to others? Will there be any limit on what it can deliberate on and what it can send by way of resolution to the negotiating teams and the Secretary of State?

Today, we received a communication from the Minister with responsibility for the talks process, which gave some indication of the work of the forum. He said that it might meet once in the week. That seems to be a further attempt on the Government's part to diminish its role. Perhaps the Minister can say during this debate whether any limits will be imposed, other than those set down in the clause, which suggest that, if negotiations are taking place at a plenary level—I assume that that is what he means by it—the Secretary of State will tell the chairman of the forum that it would not be appropriate for it to meet. Other than the limitation imposed by that clause, can the forum choose when to meet? It is important for us to know to what extent the Secretary of State is going to neuter and limit its role in all those matters.

It is in the interests of the negotiators, who will be drawn from the same parties that will be present in the forum, to get work done for them there. The hon. Member for South Down said that there was nothing to stop the good and the wise giving their evidence to the negotiators. I dread to think what will happen if the negotiating teams act as a forum and take evidence of that kind. It would clearly not be appropriate; nor is that a body that has any democratic weight to take such evidence. I trust, therefore, that we will be clear that all the work of taking evidence from the general public—whether from interest groups or others—will be done by the forum.

No hon. Member should be concerned that the forum will have that sole task, because all those in the negotiations are entitled—wearing their forum hats—to be present during that sort of session. I trust that we were not given an indication that the SDLP will confine itself to the work of the negotiating process and not go into the forum—almost obeying what Sinn Fein is requiring. That would be an unwise step. I do not believe that the community that the SDLP represents in Northern Ireland will restrict itself by not giving evidence to the forum in such sessions.

It would be a shame if the SDLP was not part of the forum, just as it was a shame that it boycotted the last assembly, in which we took evidence from groups within the nationalist community which came to assist the work of the assembly. The SDLP could not carry its community with it. I suggest that the very same thing will happen this time round. If the party turns its back on the forum, its community will not do so, but will come and give evidence. The SDLP would do well not to commit itself to a course of action similar to that of Sinn Fein—of boycotting the forum.

10.30 pm

Sinn Fein, from its tactical point of view, would be making a grave mistake if it boycotted the forum, which might be the only place where it will be entitled to go under the legislation. It would not be prohibited from going into the forum and expressing views, but it might be prohibited from entering the negotiating process. Perhaps Sinn Fein is beginning to take account of that and regrets some of the remarks that its spokesmen have been making.

I trust that we shall have a full answer from the Minister when he replies to all the issues that have been raised. It is essential that, at this stage—rather than some time after the election—those who will be part of the forum learn from the Government what they will be elected to. It is not outrageous to suggest that the Government should tell them what they will do after they are elected, particularly if they are to give up their job to go into this worthwhile venture. It is not going over the top to ask the Government to tell them that they might have a particular role during the next year or two.

Mr. Ancram

I think I can say with some feeling that we have had a full and interesting debate on this topic, which has ranged widely over the variety of amendments before us and occasionally, as you have pointed out, Mr. Morris, a little more widely than that. I shall try to remain within the rules of order in replying to the debate, but there may be occasions when, in doing so, I have to be cautious not to go beyond the parameters of the amendments.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked some important questions, but by and large they related to schedule 2, with which we shall deal later. He will see that the times of meetings of the forum will be determined by the members of the forum, subject to one qualification with which I am sure that we shall deal in depth when we come to it. He will also see that schedule 2(3) says that the proceedings of the forum shall be conducted in accordance with rules of procedure determined by the members of the forum and approved by the Secretary of State. I am not trying to avoid answering the hon. Gentleman's question—that is a relevant question to ask—but it is right to pursue it in the context of schedule 2, when we shall consider the details of the way in which the forum will work. However, there is no doubt that tonight's debate has been useful to the extent that it has, I hope, made it clear beyond doubt that what the forum is not is a Stormont or a legislative body and that it does not bear resemblance to the forums of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, we have gone to great lengths in the Bill to ensure that we have in the statute a number of statements that show firmly that the extent of the capabilities of the forum are rightly limited. Several of those limits have been mentioned tonight and I shall deal with them in my reply.

It is important that we remember that the purpose of the forum, as set out in clause 3, is to promote dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland and that many of the fears that have been expressed would run contrary to that purpose. It is right to examine those fears in the light of the purpose of the clause, which is the promotion of dialogue and understanding by deliberative action only.

It is difficult to reply to a debate of this length in any consistent form, but I shall try to reply to the amendments, and I hope to pick up on the points that were made as I go through. I hope that hon. Members will feel that I reply fully to the debate.

Some two hours ago, we started with the amendment of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross)—amendment No. 114—which requires that an accurate record of the deliberations of the forum be published and that its recommendations be made available to the negotiating teams and to the Secretary of State. That was a good place to start, because it reminded the Committee that it is the Government's intention that the forum should be a public body and that its work should be widely known. We believe that to be part of its fulfilling its purpose of promoting dialogue and understanding, so it is implicit in the nature of its functions. I do not say this facetiously—the point has been raised in seriousness; the forum is not there to promote dissent and mistrust. We have to look at the ways in which it can promote dialogue and understanding.

Public access to the information that comes out of the forum is, therefore, important. We hope that its work will be widely reported. We hope that constructive conclusions, which we believe can emerge from it, will be helpful in the climate in which the political process is proceeding.

There is no doubt that, in the nature of things, the work of the forum will be accessible to the negotiating teams, for the reason that the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) gave—that the members of the forum will, in part, be part of the negotiating teams. What is available to the members of the forum will, by natural means, be available to the negotiating teams. The Secretary of State also features in the amendment; he will take the closest interest in the work of the forum.

We will have to give thought to the way in which the forum's proceedings should be recorded and disseminated. What is required is a means of publication that is accessible to a broad audience and best calculated to promote further constructive thought. We have considerable sympathy, therefore, with the proposition set out in the amendment, but statutory provision is not required. I believe that, in matters of detail such as this, we should avoid committing ourselves by statutory formulations that may embody unnecessary rigidities. Although I accept the purpose behind the hon. Member's amendment, I cannot recommend that it be approved by the Committee.

Mr. William Ross

If the Minister accepts the purpose of the amendment, how does he intend to fulfil it so that a transcript is available to those involved in the forum and the negotiations, and to members of the general public who have a great interest in these matters?

Mr. Ancram

As I have said, these are matters of detail that will require consideration to establish the best way. At this stage, it is not a good idea to try to set such things in statute or to take a hard and fast position. I hope that I have suggested to the hon. Gentleman that his purpose and mine are alike and that we can work together to consider ways in which this purpose might be fulfilled in practice.

Mr. Bermingham

Select Committees of the House are recorded by reporters and the Chamber and legislative Committees are recorded by Hansard. Should not the same happen to the forum?

Mr. Ancram

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's amendment is looking for wider and further dissemination of material. I do not know how many people read Hansard, other than hon. Members. This is an area of importance and I think that we should give it due consideration, but it is not a matter that we would want to set down in statute—which is what an amendment to a Bill is intended to do.

Mr. Ross

The Minister says that he does not know how many people read Hansard. He has a lot of civil servants working for him, so it should not be too much of a problem for him to find out.

Mr. Ancram

I think that the hon. Gentleman has missed the point that I was making. He and I share the view that the deliberations of the forum should get the widest possible circulation.

Rev. Ian Paisley

If the forum wanted to have its words recorded, would the Minister oppose it, or say that it could?

Mr. Ancram

I would not oppose it. I want the best way to be found of achieving the purpose that the hon. Member for East Londonderry set out, which appears to be the common purpose in the House. We want to consider that. It is a practical issue, not a matter for statute.

Mr. Robert McCartney

indicated assent.

Mr. Ancram

I see the hon. and learned Member for North Down nodding. I think he accepts that it is a matter that will require consideration.

Mr. McCartney

It is a matter of administrative minutiae.

Mr. Ancram

It is a matter, as the hon. and learned Gentleman says, of minutiae—

Mr. Ross

Of important minutiae.

Mr. Ancram


Amendments Nos. 3 and 5, tabled by the hon. Members for North Antrim and for Belfast, East, tie in with amendments Nos. 4, 6, 7 and 8, which would add to the forum's functions that of, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East put it on Second Reading, a testing ground for proposals generated in the negotiations. I take it from the remarks that have been made that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues envisage the forum's having a role at a fairly early stage in the process, acting as a filter to assess the likely level of support for emerging propositions. I take it that that would be the purpose of what he set out.

I believe that that is an unnecessary elaboration of the negotiating process. That development of the role of the forum would interfere with what I believe is the helpful work that the forum will be able to do if it sticks to the remit envisaged for it in the Bill. It is unnecessary in practical terms because the participants in the negotiations, being drawn from all parts of the community—indeed, being themselves forum members—will have a clear idea of acceptability, and they will agree nothing that does not have a wide measure of acceptability. Indeed, in his Second Reading speech, the hon. Member for Upper Bann—on 18 April at column 878—graphically made the point that there would be a commonality of view between the negotiators and the forum because the same parties are represented in both. I feel that the over-elaboration that is proposed is unnecessary.

The proposal is also unnecessary as a safeguard because we have made it clear that any proposals emerging from the negotiations must be subject to testing. As I said earlier, the testing is, first, the agreement of the parties in the negotiations, secondly, the agreement in a referendum in Northern Ireland and, thirdly, agreement by this Parliament. The safeguards that were mentioned tonight are already in place and do not need to be extended.

Mr. Robinson

Might the most appropriate way of testing the measure of support for a proposition be to test it in the forum?

Mr. Ancram

It is within the negotiators' capability to decide that that should be done if they feel that it would be helpful. Several important questions were asked about that issue, and I shall discuss it in due course.

The amendments would be unhelpful in relation to the forum, because we have made it clear from the outset that the forum will be independent of the negotiations and will not interfere in the conduct of the negotiations; that was made explicit in our announcement on 21 March 1996. It would not be helpful, therefore, for the forum to cover the same ground as the negotiations or to keep them under review.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the Minister intend that, as a result of this legislation, any agreement arrived at by the negotiators will be produced like a rabbit from a hat and presented to the people of Northern Ireland in the form of a referendum? Or will there be a mode, other than the forum, of communicating to them in broad terms, before it is presented in the form of a referendum, what the negotiators—presumably after a long period of gestation—have produced?

Mr. Ancram

It is for the negotiators to decide—I shall return to that subject later. If the negotiators feel that it is useful to refer such an overall proposition to the forum, they will be able to do so. The hon. Gentleman's question can be answered only, in a sense, by saying that if the negotiators feel that that aids the process, that is available to them so to do.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The Minister said that the forum should have no power to determine the conduct or course of the negotiations. We have accepted that in our amendment; we are not arguing about that. We say only that the outcome of the negotiations should at least be tested in a forum of all the people of Northern Ireland. What is wrong with that? Is the forum meant to be a mirror of Northern Ireland, or is it not intended to be a representative authority?

Mr. Ancram

The forum may be used in that way if the negotiators so wish. I shall not be pressed into responding to that point before I am ready to do so in dealing with the amendments.

Hon. Members from all parties have made it clear that they agree with the Government that the forum should not have executive, legislative and administrative powers and should not be in a position, as the Bill states, to determine the conduct and the course of the negotiations. I shall come in due course to the question of determining the outcome.

10.45 pm
Mr. John D. Taylor

Does the Minister understand the concerns of the main Unionist parties in Northern Ireland? They are anxious that, as the negotiations proceed, there should be a sounding of their progress within a forum that reflects public opinion in Northern Ireland.

In such a forum, the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party between them could probably win 50 per cent. of the vote in Northern Ireland. However, the negotiating body is so rigged that only 20 per cent. of those at the negotiating table would represent the DUP and the Ulster Unionist party. Therefore, the negotiating table would not reflect opinion in Northern Ireland in any democratic sense. That is why we want to have a sounding of public opinion as the negotiations proceed; otherwise, we shall end up with a negotiating conclusion that does not command support throughout Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ancram

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's fears—many fears are expressed to me as I exercise my responsibilities. However, we must explore whether those fears are real. The likelihood of misunderstanding between those who will be involved in negotiations and in the forum is remote. The hon. Member for Upper Bann has said: 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?"—[Official Report, 18 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 878.] I think that it is reasonable to adopt the view that if parties are involved in both channels, they will not adopt different positions in each. A strange idea has been advanced tonight that somehow parties could negotiate in a vacuum, without reference to the wishes of their supporters or members. All negotiations will be informed by the views of the parties—it was ever thus and it will be ever thus.

Mr. McGrady

The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) raised the point to which the Minister responded by saying that it would be appropriate for the forum to give piecemeal approval to negotiators. First, is that not impractical if negotiations are to continue; and, secondly, is it not in direct contravention of the inter-party agreement of March 1991—to which I understand that all parties still subscribe—which states that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed?

Mr. Ancram

I shall not be drawn into another debate. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the ground rules Command Paper, he will see that that principle still applies. However, he will see also that, because of the lessons learned from previous negotiations, it is now possible, subject to that principle, for the negotiations to proceed on the assumption of contingent agreement on any individual aspect of the negotiations". That is the basis in the ground rule paper, which is the subject of agreement between the two Governments. In the end, this process—again, I do not want to be driven to make this point early in my remarks—will depend on agreement. It always has and it always will. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's fears are unreal.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Will the Minister make it clear to the Committee that both Unionist parties have made representations to him and told him that we did not accept that nothing would be agreed until everything was agreed? We also said that we had nothing to do with anything that was done at the other talks because the southern Government brought them to an end. They brought them to an end, not us. We are not tied by anything that was done at the other talks.

Mr. Ancram

I am afraid that I strayed slightly previously and mentioned that paragraph. I am now well away from the amendments with which I should be dealing. If I may, I will answer the hon. Gentleman at another time on that subject.

I have outlined the constructive work that we envisage the forum doing, including exploring a wider range of ideas, drawing on a wider range of contributors and hearing people from the community who do not have an opportunity, in the conventional structure, to put their views, which may contain seeds of worthwhile advance. That is the way in which the forum can make a distinctive contribution. The role envisaged in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Antrim is a long way from that and would mark a diversion that would detract from the rationale of the forum as established by the Bill. I invite the Committee not to approve the amendments.

Amendment No. 113, tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, would alter clause 3(2) so that the forum might make recommendations to the negotiating teams and the Secretary of State. As I said earlier on a previous amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman, we envisage that the forum's deliberations and conclusions will be publicly available. We hope that the forum sittings will draw in ideas and that the publication of the record of its work will generate fresh ones. But as I have said—it is made absolutely clear in the Bill—we intend that the forum will be independent of the negotiations and will not interfere in their conduct. I cannot accept the amendment and I also recommend opposition to amendment No. 112.

Mr. William Ross

The Minister has told us that the same people will be involved, that everybody will know what is going on and that therefore we will not need publication of the material in any cohesive fashion. He then turned round and told us that we will have two totally separate and different bodies. Did the Minister draw that conjunction of ideas from the relationship that exists between the IRA and Sinn Fein? It seems to me that, if the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked, the forum and the negotiators are equally inextricably linked.

Mr. Ancram

I do not think that I used the words "separate bodies". I said that the functions of the forum and of the negotiators should remain independent, and I believe that is right if they are to succeed.

Amendment No. 29, tabled by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, would excise the last element of clause 3(3) and would remove the reference to the forum having no power to determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations". The hon. Gentleman's argument was that those words were not necessary, because they were already covered. The hon. Gentleman will have heard during the debate that that is a matter of concern, and the words have been included by us to put the matter beyond doubt. It is right, in the interest of those who have expressed that fear, that the words remain. They express beyond doubt the fact, which the hon. Gentleman accepted, that—because of its deliberative function—the forum would not have the power to decide or determine the outcome of the negotiations. It is right that those words are there and make that clear beyond peradventure.

Amendment No. 102 was tabled by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). It would omit the negotiators' power of reference in clause 3(4). I was a little confused by the hon. Gentleman's argument. It is important to realise that the only way in which a reference can be made is at the instigation not of the forum but of the negotiators. I shall come back to that point and explain it in more detail.

The hon. Gentleman said that any consideration arising from any reference should be deliberative. I read his amendment carefully; if he now reads the Bill and notes the restriction preventing the forum's functions from being other than deliberative, he will recognise that that is already the case.

We believe that clause 3(4), which has attracted some comment, is well judged. In the announcement on 21 March, we referred to the possibility of the forum's being commissioned by the negotiators to examine particular questions. I consider that a useful power, permitting the development of a creative approach to problems that would be less likely to arise in the more intense atmosphere of negotiation.

The last part of clause 3(4) is included out of caution. There must be no room for doubt that the negotiators can commission such work, despite the drafting of clause 3(3); but there is no suggestion that the forum will be more than deliberative on such occasions, or that it will be able to determine the negotiations' conduct, course or outcome. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the subsection be omitted is therefore unnecessary.

Mr. Canavan

Subsection (4) states that the negotiators may refer any matter to the forum, but the Minister has said that, even if a matter is referred to the forum, it will not have any decision-making powers. That is a contradiction in terms. As the Bill stands, there is nothing to stop the negotiators referring any matter to the forum, including the content of all or part of the negotiations, and, if that happens, the forum can then make a decision. If that is an incorrect interpretation of subsection (4), would it not be better to replace the word "refer" with the word "consultation" to describe the interaction between the forum and the negotiating body?

Mr. Ancram

I think that the hon. Gentleman's view arises from a misunderstanding. It is for the negotiators to decide what is referred to the forum, and for what purpose. For that reason, if a reference is made, it should not be thought that anything in the Bill—as opposed to the ground rules that will inform the way in which the reference can be made—prevents consideration of a matter referred by the negotiators. The purpose of clause 3(4) is to ensure that that cannot happen.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised the question of the rules of procedure adopted in clause 3(4), which relate to the rules of procedure for the negotiations. Comments were made about that, not least by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Before turning to paragraph 24 of the ground rules, I shall refer the Committee to paragraph 7, which states: The conduct of the negotiations will be exclusively a matter for those involved in the negotiations. Any reference to, or interaction with, the forum to be convened following the elective process…may take place solely by agreement among the negotiating teams to this effect and only at their formal instigation. Surely that makes it clear that any reference from the negotiators to the forum, and any consideration in the forum of matters referred to it, will take place with agreement among the negotiating teams and at their formal instigation.

The hon. Gentleman asked, in effect, what agreement amounted to. Like one or two other hon. Members, he referred to paragraph 24 of the Command Paper, which sets out what the two Governments believe to be the way to seek a sufficiency of consensus. It states that the rules will have to be agreed by the participants in advance of the negotiations. Those rules apply not just to one type of agreement but to agreements throughout the negotiating process. From that, it is clear that the rules that apply in other areas of the negotiating process will also apply to an agreement that could lead to a reference from the negotiations to the forum. As the Command Paper says, that matter must be decided by the participants in the talks in advance of the talks starting. It would be strange if I were to say that I could give a definition of the form of the agreement before it has been discussed by the participants.

11 pm

Mr. McNamara

Paragraph 24 states that the rules will ensure that any decision taken will be supported by a clear majority in both the unionist and nationalist communities". Is "a clear majority" in both communities the underlying principle?

Mr. Ancram

That is the principle that the two Governments have set as the basis for agreement, but it is important to remember that the paragraph states that the matter is for agreement between the participants. Hon. Members have said many times in the debate that the negotiators are the masters of their own procedure. That is the only way in which such negotiations can operate. Therefore, agreement will be reached by the participants before the negotiations start, and that will operate in this area and in others.

Mr. McNamara

I am sorry if I am being obtuse about this matter. The Minister says that the participants must agree on their rules of procedure. The paragraph states that if they cannot "achieve unanimity", or presumably a little less than that, what is agreed will have to be supported by a majority representing each community—that is, a majority of the Unionists and a majority of the nationalists must agree on the rules. Is that right?

Mr. Ancram

That is what the paragraph states, and it also states that any such agreement has to be reached by the parties in advance of the negotiations. The hon. Gentleman must not ask me to pre-empt an essential part of the way in which the negotiating process will operate, which will be by the agreement of the parties.

Mr. Maginnis

Has the Minister allowed himself to be backed into a corner by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) or perhaps, as I suggested earlier, by the Dublin influence? Does he agree that what he has just conceded puts in the hands of those who want to destroy the forum a veto that cannot be overcome?

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman was in the last talks. Any process that works by agreement has to have the agreement of those who are in the process. Anybody who disagrees will obviously affect the ability to secure agreement, whether it is on a matter such as the one that we are discussing or on other matters in the negotiations.

Mr. Maginnis


Mr. Ancram

I want to clarify this important matter. It strikes me when listening to such debates that each side is saying that it will be blocked by the other operating a veto. I like to think that both aspects of the process on which we are embarking, the negotiations and the forum, will be taken up by the parties in a constructive and positive manner, first, to try to promote dialogue and understanding and, secondly, to come to an agreement. If the processes are embarked on in that manner, the fears that have been expressed, some of them understandable, will not be realised.

Mr. John D. Taylor

I have a question that flows from what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said. When it is said that a matter has to be agreed by a majority of the Unionist and nationalist negotiating groups in the talks, how do we know who is Unionist and who is nationalist? If No Going Back is at the negotiations, will it be considered Unionist or nationalist? What about Ulster Independence? Will it be considered Unionist or nationalist?

Mr. Ancram

The right hon. Gentleman has opened an interesting path of discussion, down which I will not be drawn tonight; when suggestions were made that the ground rules should be made part of statute, how those positions might be defined in law was a matter of consideration.

We have made a balanced and constructive proposition in clause 3. Listening to the fears of both sides, I suspect that the balance is more central than I thought. The clause threatens no one. It provides the ability to open a new dimension in terms of promoting dialogue and understanding in Northern Ireland. It can give Northern Ireland's people a platform that they have not had in previous negotiations. The clause is right.

Mr. Bermingham

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ancram

I am sorry that I have not been able to recommend acceptance of any amendments and I hope that the Committee will now be able to proceed.

Ms Mowlam

I shall be brief. Front-Bench Labour Members have waited a number of hours and listened to the debate because we think that this group of amendments is important in relation to how the forum functions. We are keen to ensure that it can stimulate trust and confidence and that it works towards mutual agreement, greater dialogue and understanding. Therefore, many of the amendments have a bearing on that.

During the debate, it has been fascinating to note that, on one side, people are arguing strongly that the forum will develop into an assembly—that is their fear—and that, on the other, there is the opposite view that it will not be strong enough to represent people's views. Both arguments have been fully played out.

In moving amendments, many hon. Members have given voice to our basic concern. Hon. Members on both sides of the House tried to assuage the nationalist fear that the forum would take on powers greater than the ones in the Bill. Many hon. Members tried hard to reassure the nationalist community that that would not happen. The difficulty is that some of the amendments do the opposite. Let me refer to just two specific ones to make the point.

Amendment No. 29, moved by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), clearly retains in clause 3(3) the specific details that the forum shall not have any legislative, executive or administrative functions", defining it by default. The amendment, however, cuts out any power to determine the conduct, course or outcome of the negotiations", stimulating the nationalist community's fears that the relationship between the negotiations and the forum will be strengthened.

Similarly, in speaking to an amendment, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) advanced a persuasive argument about how the forum could be a useful sounding board for ideas discussed in the negotiations, but that would just be a repetitive act: the issues concerned will already have been discussed in the negotiations. We will not go into great detail here, because we are concerned about how the forum's procedures will work; that is covered in schedule 2. We will hold our major point and amendment to the debate on that schedule because that is crucial to how the forum will work.

Mr. Bermingham

I am disappointed that, having made probably my maiden speech on Ireland and raised matters of great concern to me, the Minister had the discourtesy of not giving way when I wanted to ask him merely whether he took on board the concept of an independent chairman. If history has taught me anything, it is this lesson: unless we have independent chairmen—people who are prepared to listen to all sides—no Irish problem is ever solved.

Ms Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that the Minister heard that point. In the debate on schedule 2, we will be able to return to it, because the schedule gives us an opportunity to discuss the nature not just of the chairman, but of the procedures. The point can then be re-emphasised.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Has the hon. Lady taken on board the Minister's remark about there being no danger to any of the parties? However, there is a danger to the whole process. Hitherto, we have been dealing with widespread consent throughout the community. Tonight we have heard an interesting and novel idea. To illustrate it using the Parliament in which we are sitting, we should have to have the majority of Conservatives and the majority of Labour Members agreeing to get anything passed. That is the novel suggestion being made tonight. We have to look again at the question of the process, rather than the parties, being endangered.

Ms Mowlam

The process would be in danger if we allowed ourselves to lose the focus from the negotiations, which are, after all, the end product we are trying to reach. It is important that the forum does not engage in the negotiations, but remains independent. In that way, which may not be exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman meant it, there is a danger of the process getting into difficulty if the forum's role is changed considerably.

When we debate schedule 2, some difficult matters need to be dealt with regarding how, in relation to paragraph 24 of the Command Paper, a majority of both communities is translated into the workings of the forum if there are, on the one hand, the two majorities—as the Minister outlined—and, on the other, hon. Members themselves. There could be a potential conflict which, when we debate schedule 2, I am sure the Minister will cover in more detail.

We believe that the forum should be a deliberative body that encourages an exchange of views and dialogue, which listens to people, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has said repeatedly—

Mr. Peter Robinson


Ms Mowlam

And as he is about to say again.

Mr. Robinson

I want to deal with a point that the hon. Lady made earlier—that the role of the forum should be to deliberate. I wonder whether the official Opposition, if they were in government, would put any restrictions on what the forum could deliberate.

Ms Mowlam

As the hon. Gentleman will know from reading clause 3, the role of the forum is to discuss issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland. That sets the forum's parameters, and I am sure that hon. Members who potentially have the opportunity to be members of it will be able to define what they believe would promote dialogue and understanding.

Some of the amendments may not be very helpful in promoting dialogue and understanding. It is important to build consensus and agreement, not put in place systems that would further entrench and reinforce divisions rather than build agreement.

We will oppose many of the amendments if they are pressed to a Division, because, in the end, they lose sight of the purpose of the elections, which is to move towards participation in the negotiations.

Amendment negatived.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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