HC Deb 23 April 1996 vol 276 cc285-338
Mr. McGrady

I beg to move amendment No. 61, in page 7, line 38, leave out 'elected by the members' and insert 'appointed by the members from within their own number in accordance with the Rules of Procedure'.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 60, in page 7, line 38, leave out 'election' and insert 'appointment'.

No. 174, in page 7, line 39, leave out 'member' and insert 'High Court Judge'.

No. 72, in page 7, line 39, at end insert 'from amongst the delegates of the party with the most delegates.'.

No. 57, in page 8, line 19, leave out 'election' and insert 'appointment'.

Mr. McGrady

Amendment No. 60 is a necessary corollary to amendment No. 61. I shall also speak to amendment No. 57.

The amendment is simple and clear and relates to how the first chairman of the forum should be appointed. As the appointment will be the first exercise by the forum, we should like to think that it will be a matter for consultation and consensus and that the elective process of a majority decision, whether weighted or not, would not be a good inaugural activity for the forum. The procedure which we suggest has been used in other quarters, and we simply ask that the forum should be able to appoint rather than elect the chairman.

Furthermore, the amendment states that the chairperson shall be appointed by the members from within their own number in accordance with the Rules of Procedure". We want the forum to illustrate some consensus in its first activity. The amendment contains nothing more significant or hidden than the simple desire and wish that the parties attending the forum, by consensus, give the chairmanship to the person—man or woman—whom they feel will best serve their purposes with equity and justice.

Consequential to that is amendment No. 57, which refers to procedures under paragraph 4, where the word "election" appears. Simply to be consistent, we ask that the word "appointment" be substituted for "election".

The proposals are straightforward and simple. My party and I hope that they will show the good will and consensus that we sincerely hope will exist in the forum during its first activity. If that is accomplished and successful, it will augur well for the forum's subsequent proceedings

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Amendment No. 61 concerns the election of the forum's chairman. I concur with what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has said about the desirability of achieving consensus in the forum's affairs. The amendments in the name of his leader, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), would amend paragraph 1(2) of schedule 2 so that, in place of the reference to the chairman of the forum being elected by its members, the Bill would speak of him or her being appointed by members from within their own number and in accordance with the rules of procedure. We have little difficulty with most of the thinking underlying the amendments. As we have said, we envisage the forum operating on the basis of broad consensus and we would welcome it if it were possible to arrive at a decision about the choice of a chairman by that means, without a vote.

It is clear from the drafting of paragraph 3(1) of the schedule that, in all it does, the forum will need to conduct itself in accordance with the rules of procedure. Those rules have not yet been considered and the definitive set is, of course, for the forum to determine, again by weighted majority and with the Secretary of State's agreement. As to the chairman coming from among the members of the forum, we have always envisaged that he would.

I hope therefore that I have been able to give some assurance to the hon. Member for South Down and his colleagues. I cannot accept the amendment and the others related to it as the substitution of "appointment" for "election" of the chairman is potentially troublesome because of its ambiguity. Courts might strive to discover a meaning that might be some distance away from what the hon. Gentleman intends.

The Bill provides election by the 75 per cent. criterion, which is an efficient way to choose the chairman and, we hope, a procedure that will encourage parties to work together to look for consensus. That concludes what I need to say on the group of amendments.

Mr. William Ross

Surely it does not, because amendment No. 174 seems to take care of all the difficulties at which we might be looking. Surely a High Court judge would be a reasonable person to be appointed to run the show until a chairman was elected. In similar situations in councils, on occasion the procedure is for the clerk of the council to take the chair until such time as the members nominate and elect a chairman or mayor.

The duties laid on the person nominated by the Secretary of State will be of short duration and will be very light. In those circumstances, surely the Secretary of State could find a judge to take a day off from the courts. With the ending of terrorism, I suspect that the judges have rather more time on their hands than previously. One of them could go to Castle buildings, or wherever the meetings take place, until this little task is carried out

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. He is quite right and I should have dealt with that. The hon. Gentleman proposes that a High Court judge should be appointed as the interim chairman. The interim appointment is a stopgap. We hope that it will be possible for the forum, at an early stage and preferably by consensus, to reach a decision on the appointment of the chairman.

Again, as one would expect, there is obvious attraction in the amendment because of the impartiality and even-handedness that such an appointment would guarantee. However, in a sense, it is a little opprobrious to suggest that those qualities could not be found in a member of the forum. I believe that they could. I remember what was said yesterday about our late colleague, Sir James Kilfedder.

I have said that we envisage this as a stopgap appointment and I do not believe that we need to look beyond the forum. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see the force of what I have said. I do not believe that the Committee should wish to see in the Bill a specific requirement for a specific category of non-member chairman to be selected in the interim. I regret that I cannot accept the amendment

Mr. Ross

I can conceive—

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. Is the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) intervening or has the Secretary of State finished?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I thought that it was an intervention, Miss Fookes

Mr. Ross

The Secretary of State is extremely kind to allow me to intervene in the closing seconds of his remarks.

It is conceivable that the vote of the member appointed from the forum would make the difference between 75 and 74 per cent. In those circumstances, it could be difficult if he had to cast his vote, possibly for himself. Would it not be wise in those circumstances to have an outsider?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hear what the hon. Gentleman said, but I regret that I do not find it sufficiently persuasive.

Amendment No. 72, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), requires that the interim chairman should be a member of the largest party in the forum. Again, I see the force of that argument, and I do not doubt that good candidates would be available. However, at what may be a sensitive period, albeit, I hope, a short one, we believe that the Secretary of State should be free to choose whomever in the forum seems best suited in the circumstances. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press his amendment

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

The official Opposition have a great deal of sympathy with the spirit of amendments Nos. 60 and 61 in trying to establish a set of rules by consensus, not majoritarianism, and based on consultation, as the hon. Member for South Down described. The difficulty which we perceive is that the Secretary of State has to set out the rules of procedure while the people concerned agree their own rules of procedure, so he will be giving them a set parameters beforehand with which to work.

On the amendments, it might be helpful if the Committee was assured that the initial rules set up and the actual rules of procedure of the forum will be based on the principle of consensus and consultation, rather than on majoritarianism

Mr. Wilshire

I had intended—

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. Wilshire

Such little cameos make me proud to be British. Although I realise that I should not comment on people who sit upstairs, it is perhaps such things that make our procedures quite incomprehensible. It is rather lucky that not many people witnessed the farce which we have just enjoyed.

I had intended to keep Trappist vows on the fact that I had tabled amendment No. 72, but since my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State referred to it, I feel rather obliged to say that, on mature reflection, I wish that I had not.

Mr. McGrady

I should like to respond to the Secretary of State's comments. I accept the sincerity of his wish that consensus should be the forum's modus operandi and that the first example of that should be the appointment of the chairman. He said, however, that there was some difficulty from his point of view with the logistics because the forum would not at that stage have adopted its rules of procedure. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) said, subsequent paragraphs show that the Secretary of State will be presenting the first set of rules of procedure for the forum's first day of business. It would therefore be entirely within his competence to adopt the letter and sentiment of amendments Nos. 60 and 61, to which he has—if not legally, certainly spiritually—acquiesced. It would be quite in order for him to include in those rules of procedure the appointment of a chairman by consensus.

It is unfortunate that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) is disjointed in relation to this debate, because it favours consensus in the rules of procedure on which the forum will act. It is entirely within the ambit of the current powers of the Secretary of State in preparing his pro forma rules of procedure to say that the appointment should be by consensus rather than an election by majoritarian process

Rev. Martin Smyth

May I probe a statement that the Secretary of State made earlier? I may have misheard him, but I gathered that he intended to nominate or appoint the first chairman, to get the forum moving, and I got the impression that the chairman would be chosen from among the elected members. Would it not be better to follow the tradition of the House and its Committees and allow the clerk of the forum—I take it that somebody will be there to keep a record—to be the person who presides while the forum elects or appoints its chairman, rather than the Secretary of State's making an appointment that might colour what the forum did thereafter?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Paragraph 1(2) provides that "The chairman shall be elected by the members, but until the first election has taken place he shall be a member nominated by the Secretary of State. I have been responding to amendment No. 174, tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry to the effect that that should not happen, and that the chairman should be a High Court judge instead. The Bill provides for the chairman to be a member of the forum

Mr. John D. Taylor

May I recommend a European practice for the first session of the new forum? Far from the Secretary of State's taking upon himself the responsibility of selecting the chairman of the forum, the forum could appoint the eldest elected member as the chairman. Until the stage when the forum proceeds to elect its own chairman, the eldest member—[Interruption.] No, I think that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) would qualify before me. Until the forum elected its own chairman, following European practice, the eldest member would remain the chairman.

I was astounded by what was said by the hon. Member for South Down—the constituency neighbouring mine. We are talking about an electoral process in which the people of Northern Ireland, through the ballot, will express their opinion and elect their representatives to a forum, yet the hon. Gentleman denigrated the electoral process. He said that he was against elections and wanted someone to be selected rather than elected.

How do we select a chairman of a forum? At the end of the day, the chairman must be elected by the people who represent the electorate of Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for South Down must accept that, in the context of the United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is a part, the Irish community within Northern Ireland, which he represents, is a minority community. The hon. Gentleman certainly has a positive contribution to make, but it is a minority contribution, and he must accept his position within the state of Northern Ireland

Mr. McGrady

Surely that is a gross misinterpretation of what I said. I suggested that the chairman of the forum be appointed from among the elected members of the forum

Mr. Taylor

I challenge the hon. Gentleman to explain the difference between being appointed by the elected members of the forum and being elected by the members of the forum

Mr. McGrady


Amendment negatived

Mr. Trimble

I beg to move amendment No. 64, in page 8, line 2, leave out from 'be' to end of line 3 and insert 'on 6th June 1996'

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 78, in page 8, line 3, at end insert 'which shall be no later than eight weeks from the date of the election'

No. 138, in page 8, line 3, at end insert 'within 7 days of the declaration of the result of the election held under the provisions of this Act.'

No. 53, in page 8, line 4, after 'times', insert 'and locations'

No. 54, in page 8, line 5, after 'forum', insert 'but shall not take place until after the negotiations mentioned in section 1 have commenced.'

No. 59, in page 8, line 5, after 'forum', insert 'according to the Rules of Procedure'

No. 62, in page 8, line 6, after 'meet', insert 'in plenary session'

No. 25, in page 8, line 8, leave out 'may' and insert 'are intended to'

No. 63, in page 8, line 9, at end insert 'in plenary session'

No. 69, in page 8, line 9, at end insert 'but the Secretary of State shall not prevent the holding of a meeting for more than eight consecutive weeks.'

No. 65, in page 8, line 9, at end insert— '(3A) The proceedings of the forum shall be in public and appropriate provision shall be made for the public to be able to observe its proceedings and for the broadcasting of those proceedings.'

No. 167, in page 8, line 9, at end insert— '(3A) There shall be appropriate provision for members of the public and the media to observe, publish, broadcast and televise the proceedings of the Forum.'

A manuscript amendment, in page 8, line 3, at end insert—

'() The time decided under sub-paragraph (1) shall be—

  1. (a) after the commencement of negotiations within section 2, and
  2. 291
  3. (b) within, or as soon as possible after the expiry of, the period of four weeks beginning with the date of the poll in the elections.'.

Mr. Trimble

I shall also deal with our amendments Nos. 62, 63 and 65.

Amendment No. 64 relates to the first meeting of the forum. Under the paragraph 2 of schedule 2, the Secretary of State has discretion about when the meeting will take place. The amendment would preserve some discretion for him in that he could choose at which time it met on 6 June but would ensure that the forum meets on that date. The object is to ensure that it meets before the beginning of the negotiations on 10 June.

We are electing people to a body called a forum from which the negotiators will be drawn. There is a sequence there, and it is appropriate that we should respect it and follow it through. Consequently, I was very disappointed by the Secretary of State's manuscript amendment, which shows that he intends to prevent the forum from meeting for up to four weeks after the election and ensure that it meets after the opening of negotiations. I have two observations on that.

In the previous debate, there were references to consensus. I know of no discussions between the Secretary of State and any of my hon. Friends about when the meeting should take place. He has made no attempt to seek agreement. There is no element of consensus about the way in which he is proceeding. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) is no longer in her place as she referred at great length to the need to proceed by consensus. I am sorry that she is not here to argue for consensus on this issue, which would give her the opportunity to show that she is not entirely one-sided. The matter should have been discussed with the parties. It is not sensible for the Secretary of State to proceed in this way.

Secondly, the Secretary of State's high-handed actions will be counterproductive—of that he can be sure. It is foolish of him to start this process in a way that will make it less likely to begin in a good atmosphere. That is what his action has done. He has ensured that there will be anger in our party about the beginning of negotiations. He could have operated in a way that would have been conducive to a good meeting. I should have liked the negotiations to begin in a constructive spirit but that will be difficult in view of the way that he is behaving

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman jumping to conclusions on this matter in so adverse a way. It was made clear on Second Reading that we proposed that the forum should meet after the opening meeting of the negotiations. In response to an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne that it should meet no later than eight weeks after the date of the poll, I have sought in my manuscript amendment—which the hon. Gentleman has seen because it is in the Vote Office—to halve that time. It is not a question, as I shall make clear when I have the opportunity, of postponing it for four weeks but that any postponement shall be until no later than four weeks thereafter. I shall have an opportunity to develop that, but it does not bear the adverse interpretation that the hon. Gentleman is putting on it. I thought that the sooner that I made that clear, the better

Mr. Trimble

I shall listen to what the Secretary of State has to say, but meanwhile I stand by everything that I have said. I find this behaviour offensive. The Secretary of State says that it is proposed that it will be done. He should not consider that he can just propose such matters. We are not operating in a colonial atmosphere. He should operate through due consultation with the parties in an attempt to achieve agreement with them. This process, whether in the negotiations or in the forum, will not be successful unless a serious effort is made to achieve agreement. On this matter, no effort has been made. That is not the way in which we should proceed. I shall listen with care to what the Secretary of State has to say in order to recover from the serious error that I consider that he has made.

My amendments Nos. 62 and 63 make what I hope the Secretary of State will recognise is a sensible adjustment to the provision in paragraph 2(3) of schedule 2, which deals with the relationship between the forum and the negotiations. That paragraph seems likely to lead to the frustration or stultification of the forum. My amendments to ensure that they do not both meet when they are in plenary session are designed to enable them to operate in a flexible way with regard to bilateral committees in the negotiations and in the forum.

My amendment No. 167 relates to the proceedings of the forum being held in public, with appropriate provision for publicity, something to which I hope that the Secretary of State will be agreeable, whether in the terms of the amendment or by making the necessary facilities available as and when the forum meets

10.15 pm
Mr. Wilshire

I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 78 and 69 in my name. I had not quite anticipated that I would be speaking to them after the hon. Member for Upper Bann had made some serious points about the lead amendment, which in many ways follows on from my two amendments.

Amendments Nos. 78 and 69 arise from the fact that I read the Bill with great care and noted that nowhere did it say that the forum had to meet and that the Secretary of State was seeking to take powers to suspend meetings of the forum for an indefinite period. I have made it clear in the past two days that I approach a fair amount of the legislation with a degree of suspicion. It seemed sensible to require the Secretary of State to convene a meeting of the forum and to limit the length of time during which he could suspend.

I freely admit that I plucked the period of eight weeks out of the air. It seemed to me that one had to say something. I offer no particular justification for eight weeks or any other period. The motive behind both my amendments is to limit the Secretary of State's power and enable the people of Northern Ireland, having elected people, to know that those people can meet on their behalf within a reasonable time.

Given the happenings of yesterday, I am sure that hon. Members can imagine my joy when I went into the Vote Office this morning and noted that the Government had tabled amendments to my amendments, the effect of which was to suggest that at least two of my amendments were to be accepted. My joy was unbridled. I had spent an entire day losing absolutely everything, only to discover that at last something had been offered in my direction. Not only had it been offered, but my eight weeks had been improved to four weeks. I thought that at last Wilshire was making some progress until I was asked for a little chat and told that perhaps it was not quite so simple after all, that Parliamentary Counsel had been let loose on my layman's drafting and that an alternative manuscript might be necessary. Nevertheless, my amendments, or the spirit of them, were to be accepted..

The only question that I had the I shall repeat now, because I should like to have the explanation put into the record in a way that we can all understand. As I suggested eight weeks and when I came in this morning the Secretary of State was suggesting four weeks, why do we now have a manuscript amendment which confirms four weeks but says in paragraph (b): or as soon as possible after the expiry of, the period of four weeks"? Due to my suspicious frame of mind, I am a little nervous that we may have a watering down of an absolute four weeks to four weeks or thereabouts. Earlier today, I was told why it was necessary to put in "or as soon after", but as I am a layman I could not quite grasp it. I should therefore be grateful if it could be further explained to me.

At the risk of being churlish, and in the hope that I can say all that I wish in one contribution, there are those who would say that having got at least two concessions I should be grateful and call it a day. However, I shall risk yet more criticism and say that I am afraid that these small concessions cannot disguise the intransigence that a lot of hon. Members ran into yesterday when we discussed far more fundamental points about the Bill than whether it should be four weeks or eight weeks or for how long we should suspend meetings.

However welcome the two concessions may be, they do not override my concern at the refusal to put into writing the informal reassurances that we have been given. Every time hon. Members have asked that it be confirmed that the Government will stand firm, there has always been a reason why the amendments indicating that they should stand firm should not be rejected.

The two welcome small concessions do not override my deep concern at the repeated indications yesterday that the Government are still not ready to say that they are prepared to stand up to Dublin as it continues to make demand after demand. All of those amendments—which are far more important than these—were accepted.

Above all else, despite however welcome these two amendments are, nowhere in the debate yesterday—or on any other occasion that I have raised these matters—were the Government willing to accept an amendment which signals with total clarity that terrorists will not be allowed to bomb the Government into submission. They are the amendments that I would like to be welcoming. Nevertheless, I welcome the two concessions that have been made.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I speak to amendments Nos. 138 and 25, which are in my name. The first amendment deals with a matter just referred to by the hon. Member for Spelthorne—namely, how soon after the election it is appropriate for the forum to meet. I am quite content with the terms of the amendment of the hon. Member for Upper Bann to have a precise date and I am also quite content with the date that he has suggested.

However, I have allowed a little more flexibility and said that the forum should meet within seven days so that no precise date would have to be set so far in advance. I have made it clear that within a short period of people being elected to the forum they should sit down in the forum. That is something that the Secretary of State should have permitted. The terminology that he used was a little vague. First, there was reference to four weeks and now it might be more than four weeks—no one can be quite sure exactly how long it may be.

Let us look at this in terms of the period of time that we are talking about. Four weeks from 30 May—the result probably being known on 1 June—would take us to the beginning of July and a little longer may take us to 11 or 12 July. What other good ideas does the Secretary of State have for the opening day of the forum? The proposals put forward by the Ulster Unionist party and my party would be the most appropriate in the circumstances. I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider them at this stage.

Amendment No. 25 also deals with the word "may", but it has been dealt with slightly differently by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim and me. It relates to the Secretary of State's powers to determine that it would not be appropriate for the forum to meet if there are to be meetings of the negotiations. Schedule 2, paragraph 2(3) says that if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, it would not be appropriate for the forum to meet because negotiations within section 2 may take place", the Secretary of State could inform the chairman of the forum that the forum should not meet. There may be negotiations every day of the week so, effectively, that provision makes it possible that the forum would never meet. To sharpen the paragraph slightly, amendment No. 25 would insert the words "are intended to" instead of the word "may" so that, if it is specifically intended for the negotiating teams to meet, the Secretary of State would be empowered to exercise the power that he has under this provision.

It would be useful for the Secretary of State to clarify, so that we all have it on the record, that we are not talking about two political parties meeting in a bilateral forum, or even about three parties meeting. I presume that the reference in the Bill means that we are talking about what might be described as plenary sessions of the negotiating teams. It is important that we have that on the record, so that there is no doubt afterwards.

Mr. McGrady

Dame Janet, I do not intend to press amendment No. 59, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends.

Rev. Ian Paisley

We see in the proposals before us another attack on the forum. I was reading in Hansard of 24 January 1996 that the Prime Minister, replying to the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, had some interesting things to say about the forum. I was not in the House the day he made that statement, but he said: I see the election providing a pool of representatives from which party delegations to the talks could be drawn, and a means to index the strength of the parties' delegations in the talks process. Apart from that, of course, I see the election providing, by weighted majority vote, an initial mechanism for testing widespread acceptability within Northern Ireland of the outcome of any talks process."—[Official Report, 24 January 1996; Vol. 270, c. 357] The Prime Minister promised us that that is what the forum was to be. Amendments were moved in an attempt to establish the promise made, but they were rejected by the Government.

On 21 March 1996, the Prime Minister said: The legislation that will bring the forum about will also provide for the forum to be able to conduct hearings at which public submissions by relevant bodies or individuals can be made."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 498.] There is no such provision in the Bill. We are told that there is nothing to prohibit it, but we were told that it would be legislated for—that it would be provided—and there is no provision.

Now we have another attack on the forum. We are told that it can be elected and people drawn from it can be on the negotiating body, but that the forum itself will not meet for four weeks or perhaps more after its election. We know that we can get a date of 10 June, and that that must be kept at all costs because it was agreed with Dublin, to placate the IRA and get things moving. There is no suggestion of a date of 10 June or as near to it as we can get. Another attack has been launched to postpone the meeting of the forum. I suggest to the House—I support the comments of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—that we are witnessing more and more opposition from those who initially launched a vicious attack against the very idea of elections and a forum. We now have a new parliamentary procedure: it is called consensus. We do not take any votes; we simply have consensus. We would wait a long time to achieve consensus in this place—not one Bill or Order in Council would be passed.

10.30 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if a majority of people were to express their willingness to leave the United Kingdom and join some form of all-Ireland body, they would do so by a majority of 50 per cent. plus one and not by consensus?

Rev. Ian Paisley

If it is a one-way street to a republic, there will be majority of one and 50 per cent., but any decision to remain within the United Kingdom will be attacked because there has been no consensus. That is the way it works.

The forum will mirror the thinking of the people of Northern Ireland in a unique way because of the strange manner of electing candidates and topping up election results. Perhaps the Government are making preparations for an election that they expect to lose: if they were to introduce the Northern Ireland system here, they could remain in power by topping up from another list and increasing their numbers..

What is it all about? It is an attack on the forum. If the Secretary of State thinks that the forum will be his puppet—to be stopped when he stops it and to go when he wants it to—he will be strangely surprised. The forum will not fill that role. Those who do not agree with my political views will not be kicked around either—the Secretary of State may find them even more intransigent than I am.

Mr. Wilshire

Having listened to the remarks of the hon. Gentleman and of the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I am feeling extremely guilty, as I started the hare. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that my amendment limits the obstruction to eight weeks or to four weeks and that without it there would perhaps never be a meeting? It may be an advantage rather than an obstruction.

Rev. Ian paisley

We do not blame the hon. Gentleman at all. We welcome his amendments and we are very glad that he squeezed the Secretary of State to agree to four weeks. However, he has himself underscored the fact that his joy turned to grief and pain when he noticed that the wording referred to four weeks or soon after that, which could mean 12 July or black Saturday—most hon. Members will now know what that is. Anyone who wishes to know can seek out the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) who will be able to tell them, as an imperial grandmaster of that particular organisation.

The hon. Gentleman should be happy with his great accomplishment. I hope that the four weeks will be enforced. However, I do not think that the Prime Minister should tell us that the forum is a mechanism for testing widespread acceptability within Northern Ireland of the outcome of any talks process".—[Official Report, 24 January 1996; Vol. 270, c. 357.] That idea was voted down yesterday. I do not think that he should say that the legislation will also provide for the forum to conduct hearings at which public submissions by relevant bodies … can be made".—[Official Report, 12 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 498.] We know that the legislation does not provide for that. Again, we see the forum being de-horned.

Mr. Illsley

I wish to speak specifically to amendments Nos. 53 and 54. We believe strongly that the meetings of the forum should not take place until after the negotiations have commenced. I am sorry that certain hon. Members appear to consider that an attack on the forum, but in our view the purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the negotiations: hence its title. The negotiations should therefore be given precedence over the meetings of the forum.

All hon. Members who have attended these debates have heard expressed the fear that the possibility of a forum, assembly or convention could be considered as a return to a Stormont-type situation, with legislative or administrative powers. Those fears have been allayed by comments in Committee, but it is clear that Unionist members would like to see the forum upgraded or enhanced, and given precedence over the negotiations.

We maintain that the purpose of the Bill is to facilitate elections that will provide delegates to the negotiations. The purpose of the Bill is not to facilitate delegates to the forum, and the negotiations should take precedence.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Member appreciate that, for negotiations to take place, there has to be a willingness on the part of representatives of the major party and the majority in Northern Ireland to take part? If their noses are constantly being rubbed in the dirt and their aspirations constantly denigrated, that may not create an atmosphere conducive to those negotiations taking place in a spirit that will produce the possibility of a result.

Mr. Illsley

Of course I accept that negotiations have to take place with all the parties represented around the table. That is the whole basis of the elections and the Bill. For the hon. and learned Gentleman to say that aspirations are being denigrated simply because the date of negotiations will take precedence over the date of the meetings of the forum is to over-egg the pudding.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I can follow the hon. Gentleman's argument that he sees the start of the negotiations as a priority, but is there anything inconsistent between that view and also arguing that, immediately afterwards, all the delegates should be called to the forum? The suggestion that the delegates can be held out for four weeks or more is what is causing concern. That meeting should surely be much more prompt.

Mr. Illsley

I do not have any problem with that. Amendments Nos. 69 and 78, about eight and four weeks, were tabled by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who has readily accepted the blame for starting the hare running. I have no problem with the forum commencing as soon as possible after the negotiations have commenced. I am sure that the Secretary of State or the Minister of State will be able to give some reassurance that the Government will seek to have meetings of the forum as soon as possible after negotiations have commenced.

As I have said, we feel that the purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the negotiations, and the impression should not be given that the negotiations will be subordinate to the forum. The forum must be given its due weight in the Bill, but it should not take precedence over the negotiations which are the main purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Trimble

I can tell the hon. Member—this is not a question, it is a statement—that this process has two tracks to it. While we agree that the forum will not take precedence over the negotiations or determine the outcome, as the Bill provides, we will certainly not agree to the forum being sidelined in the way that he appears to wish.

Mr. Illsley

Again, I wish to place it on record that the Opposition do not see the forum as being sidelined. If the hon. Gentleman were to read our original amendment, which has been badly drafted, he would see that our purpose was simply to ensure that the negotiations began before the forum, and not to sideline, lessen or diminish the forum in any way. The negotiations will take precedence, and that is the reason for the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does the hon. Gentleman see the forum as an initial mechanism for testing widespread acceptability within Northern Ireland of the outcome of the talks process by these negotiations?

Mr. Illsley

No. I see the forum as it is explained in the Bill—as a mechanism for promoting dialogue while the negotiations are taking place. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is again quoting the comments of the Prime Minister, to which he referred earlier. The forum is part of the Bill, with the Bill facilitating the negotiations and the forum running alongside them promoting that dialogue and expressing the views.

As a consequence, we cannot support the amendments which set a date for the forum which predates the negotiations. Therefore, we cannot support amendments Nos. 64 and 138, which set a date which predates 10 June.

Amendment No. 54 has been incorporated into a manuscript amendment, with which the Opposition agree. That manuscript amendment also takes into account the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Spelthorne. Unfortunately, amendment No. 54 was wrongly drafted, but it called for the first meeting of the forum to be at a time after negotiations had commenced. However, the manuscript amendment incorporates amendment No. 54, and we are happy to support it.

We are concerned that the manuscript amendment has a time limit of four weeks, and the hon. Member for Spelthorne, in his sorrow at having his amendment carved up, made the point that the manuscript amendment says: after the expiry of, the period of four weeks We are concerned that any further slippage there would lead to some criticism that the forum is being delayed by too long a period, and hope, as I said earlier, that the Secretary of State will give an assurance that the forum could commence as soon as possible after negotiations have started.

Amendment No. 53 in the names of my hon. Friends refers to the locations of the meetings of the forum. We strongly believe that the forum should be allowed, once it sets its own rules of procedure and with the authority of the Secretary of State, to meet in whatever locations it chooses. It would benefit from being able to move to other locations if necessary to take evidence; to make it easier for the forum to obtain the views of the people of Northern Ireland, lobbying associations or anyone else who wishes to contribute to it.

We are somewhat concerned about amendments Nos. 62 and 63, concerning plenary sessions. If they are accepted, we hope that meetings of the committees of the forum, not the meetings of the plenary sessions, will not interfere with negotiations, in the hope that those negotiations will be able to progress without being hindered by meetings of the forum and the duplication of members meeting in either body.

10.45 pm
Sir Patrick Mayhew

I begin by responding to amendment No. 25, which was spoken to by the hon. Members for East Londonderry and for North Antrim. Amendment No. 25 would amend paragraph 2(3) of schedule 2 so that the Secretary of State's powers to notify dates on which the forum might not meet would apply only to those when the negotiations are intended to take place, rather than when they "may" take place. I have thought about this carefully; I understand the reasons why the amendment was tabled, and I am happy to say that I am able, on behalf of the Government, to accept it.

Having said that, I can now offer further reassurance. For my part, I am very much looking forward to meetings of the forum. I believe that the forum itself has extremely important work to do, and I think that it is an innovation that is much to be welcomed and admired. It could play an important and valuable complementary role in relation to the main negotiating process.

Part of the importance of the forum as we see it is that it will give the ordinary people of Northern Ireland a role to play in the process of developing dialogue and the mutual understanding which could contribute to the search for a lasting political accommodation and a permanent peace. There is no question of the Government wishing to sideline it; the Government are responsible for bringing forward legislation to create it.

The elections themselves will give the people of Northern Ireland an opportunity to express their views on who they want to represent them in the negotiations and in the forum. Beyond that, we believe that the forum should operate in a way that would provide an on-going mechanism for securing and channelling the views of the people of Northern Ireland on the issues that the forum will be considering.

I see a primary function of the forum as conducting hearings at which public submissions could be made by community, voluntary, women's and youth groups, trade unions, business, professional organisations, the Churches, academics and others. The submissions and any subsequent consideration of them will undoubtedly inform those members of the forum who are their parties' delegates to the negotiations, but they will also, in themselves, serve to stimulate further public debate in Northern Ireland and promote that dialogue and greater mutual understanding which we all want.

I believe that that will help to create a more positive and receptive climate for the negotiations themselves, even though the latter may well need, for obvious reasons, to be conducted on a more confidential and less public basis. We welcome and support the idea that the forum might hold hearings in a range of different venues throughout Northern Ireland, to give members of the public there a greater opportunity to contribute and attend.

That is the position from which the Government start when considering the issues raised by this group of amendments. We want to take whatever steps are possible to help the forum be successful in gathering and reflecting a wide range of perspectives on the situation in Northern Ireland and stimulating public attention on the issues that will be under consideration. In principle, we agree that the forum's proceedings should not be held in private, that there should be reasonable access for members of the public, and that there should be facilities to broadcast or otherwise disseminate reports of the forum's proceedings.

The forum will not, however, be a parliamentary assembly in the normal sense, and we consider that it would not be appropriate to give it all the trappings of such a body. Subject to that, the Government intend to enter discussions with the parties likely to be represented in the forum about the level of facilities, the type of premises and the number of staff that the Secretary of State would, under paragraph 6 of the schedule, make available to the forum.

Consistent with our general approach to the forum, the Government would like to facilitate the early launch of the forum and sensible forward planning of forum business. That would enable it to plan and organise public hearings of the sort that I have mentioned, and generally to map out a sensible programme of work. After that preamble, I deal now with the detail of the other amendments.

Amendments Nos. 64, 78 and 138 relate to the first day of the meeting of the forum. Paragraph 2 of schedule 2 leaves it to the Secretary of State to decide that day, subsequent meetings being at times of the forum's own choosing, subject to the calendar of the negotiations. The hon. Members for Upper Bann, for North Antrim and for Belfast, East all seek that it should be in the week following the election, although my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne is content that it should be not later than eight weeks from the date of the election.

Mr. Wilshire

May I put it gently to my right hon. and learned Friend that to say that I am content with a period of eight weeks is rather overstating the case? I was seeking to make it impossible for the intervening period to exceed eight weeks, but I think that "within a week" would have been much more realistic.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I accept that. The same goes for another amendment, to which I shall turn shortly and which sets a limit or extremity.

We envisage the forum's making an early start; we do not intend to delay. We expect it to begin its work long before the end of the eight-week period that my hon. Friend has in mind—as an extremity or limit. Equally, as I said on Second Reading, we do not envisage its meeting before 10 June. That date has long been set for the opening of negotiations. It is bound to be an extremely busy period, and it is not in the general interests of the Bill's provisions for the forum to meet before then.

I understand the reasons that have led hon. Members to support amendments calling for the opening meeting to be held before the start of negotiations. As I said yesterday, the Bill is intended to provide a gateway to negotiations: that is reflected in its title. The primacy lies in the negotiations.

That is not in any way to denigrate, undermine, sideline or reduce the importance that—as I have said—we attach to the forum's functions, but the Government believe that the negotiations should carry primacy. Consequently, we believe that the negotiations should open, and that the forum should meet as soon thereafter as practicable. As I have said, I want that to be delayed no longer than is necessary, and a sensible date to be fixed in the light of the progress of the negotiations.

The manuscript amendment seeks to reflect the spirit of amendments Nos. 78 and 54. I am sympathetic to both, but I must make two comments. I feel that amendment No. 78, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne, allows an unnecessarily wide discretion. I do not contemplate a delay of anything like eight weeks before the forum meets; I should like four weeks to be regarded as the maximum, and the manuscript amendment says as much. I stress that I envisage the forum's meeting well within four weeks.

As for amendment No. 54, tabled by Opposition Members, we have made it clear that we do not envisage the forum's meeting before the start of the negotiations. In fact, the amendment refers to the second meeting's taking place after the start of the negotiations, but that is a mistake.

I am sympathetic to that amendment, and my manuscript amendment brings it together with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. The effect is to add a new sub-paragraph (2) to paragraph 2 of schedule 2. It places two conditions on me—that, when I set the time for the forum's first meeting, it should be after the start of the negotiations, and that, consistent with that, it should be as soon as possible after the elections, within a limit of four weeks.

If, for some unforeseen reason, the start of the negotiations was delayed, the forum's first meeting would also be delayed. That is a remote contingency, and we see no reason to believe that it will arise, but it accounts for the language that my hon. Friend questioned.

It follows from what I have said that we cannot commend amendments Nos. 64 and 138. Amendment No. 53 proposes that meetings of the forum should be held at locations, as well as times, decided by its members. That logically raises a question on which we have yet to reach final decisions. They will be subject to consultation about where the forum's main base should be. Castle buildings in Belfast is an obvious choice with a number of attractions, but we shall need to reflect further on that, in particular in relation to the desirability of having the public there.

We shall, of course, welcome views about the possibility of the forum or its committees venturing away from the home base occasionally. We canvassed that in the consultation paper that we issued earlier in the year, and had it in mind in preparing the Bill.

The Bill simply requires the Secretary of State to provide for the forum the use of premises, but we are ready to contemplate that, for example, in the course of hearing from different interests, a committee of the forum may wish to venture away from the Belfast. In that case, arrangements might be made for it to make use of premises elsewhere. That might be of great value in permitting the widest range of views to be accessible to the forum.

That possibility is best dealt with by leaving the Bill as it is, subject to the assurance that I have given that we are ready to contemplate such hearings being held outside Belfast occasionally. As the hon. Member for Upper Bann said on Second Reading, there is a question of resources. The Secretary of State bears responsibility for them, and it would not be right for decisions about their use to be entirely out of his hands. On the understanding that we shall be ready to facilitate hearings away from the forum's home base occasionally, I hope that hon. Members will be willing to withdraw the amendments.

Amendments Nos. 54, 59, 62, 25, 63 and 69 bear on paragraphs 2(2) and 2(3) of the schedule, and concern the times when the forum may meet. Amendment No. 54 is overtaken by our manuscript amendment. Amendment No. 62 was moved by the hon. Member for Upper Bann and seeks to have the provisions of paragraph 2(3) for excluding concurrent meetings of the negotiations and the forum apply only to forum plenary meetings. I think that the intention is that the meetings of forum committees would not be governed by the terms of any notification by the Secretary of State.

The amendment is unnecessary. I am advised that, on a proper construction, paragraph 2(3) applies only to plenary meetings of the forum and not to committees. However, the meeting times of committees will fall to be regulated by rules of procedure. The Government's starting point on this question is that it would be generally undesirable for there to be significant negotiation and forum business concurrently. That has a number of disadvantages. In particular, it could create serious difficulties for negotiating team members, who might find that they had two commitments at the same time. In some circumstances, concurrent meetings might be no less undesirable in the case of a forum committee.

These matters are being debated in a Committee of the whole House, and it would be possible to envisage a committee of the whole forum. A meeting of such a committee would clearly raise the same sort of questions as a plenary meeting of the forum. However, we recognise that such a bar might occasionally be unhelpful to all concerned. We can discuss these matters when the rules of procedure are formulated. For the present, I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the amendment may be regarded as unnecessary.

Amendment No. 63 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne. It would confine the making of notification to times when the negotiations were being held in plenary meetings. There may be a misunderstanding here. Most of the negotiations are intended to take place in strands which are not, in the conception of the ground rules set out in the command paper, plenaries. Strict plenaries may not be very frequent, so the amendment would deprive paragraph 2(3) of most of its potential effect. I hope that my hon. Friend will be assured by that.

Amendment No. 69 would amend paragraph 2(3), so that the Secretary of State had no power to prevent the holding of forum meetings for more than eight weeks. I have dealt with that. The amendment would prevent us from taking actions that in any event we would not consider taking. We see the forum proceeding in parallel with the negotiations, albeit concurrent sittings. We do not envisage any occasion to freeze out a block of time of anything approaching eight weeks.

Mr. Wilshire

When my right hon and learned Friend spoke to amendment No. 63, he ascribed it to me. It is not my amendment, and I have no comment to make on it. I am not clear on what he said about amendment No. 69. I had the impression that he felt that he had dealt with it, but he proposes an amendment to it, and it relates to an entirely different issue from that of the manuscript amendment. It is about the first meeting of the forum. Can I take it, therefore, that he still accepts amendment No. 69, and is seeking to improve on it?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

The Government's position is expressed in the manuscript amendment, which I have dealt with, and I have explained the reasons for that.

Amendment No. 65 would insert a new sub-paragraph after paragraph 2(3) of schedule 2 requiring that the forum should be held in public, with a public gallery and facilities for broadcasting. Amendment No. 167 is to similar effect.

We have listened with care to the views expressed about the value of publicity for the forum's proceedings by way of broadcasting and so on. I emphasise that there is potentially considerable scope for the forum to provide a valuable platform for wider participation in the debate on how greater understanding and greater confidence are to be built throughout the community in Northern Ireland. It is clear that that purpose cannot be achieved unless the forum's proceedings are publicised and put within the reach of the man in the street.

Therefore, substantially, we are at one with the thinking of hon. Members who have moved the amendments, within the limits of practicality. Just how fully we will be able to give effect to what they say will depend on the accommodation that we find for the forum. I have said that our consideration of that is proceeding, and that we are open to views about it. There are serious problems about Castle buildings. Equally, we share the views that have been expressed, and we think that it is important that there should be such publicity.

Those are the assurances that I am able to give. They are substantial and important. In the circumstances at present, it is as far as I am able to go. I hope that that may practically and constructively inform the course that hon. Members will take.

11 pm

Mr. Trimble

The Secretary of State tried to offer an assurance that this part of the legislation, which we consider to be of no little importance, will still have some meaningful operational existence. He did so by reading a summary of how the forum might operate in terms of providing an opportunity for the public to be involved in the process and of the way in which it could take evidence from interested groups in the community and develop a dialogue on relevant issues. We have mentioned those things before and we view them as an important part of the forum.

As I listened to the Secretary of State read that section of his speech, I wondered whether his mind was really engaged in what he was reading and saying. He does not seem to appreciate that, if dialogue and understanding are to develop—that will be essential if the negotiations are to prosper—and if there is to be that opportunity to involve the public and the thinking of other community members to inform the atmosphere and the context within which the negotiations take place, it is essential that the discussion and dialogue happen before the matters to which they might relate are dealt with in negotiations.

A simple mistake has been made here which should not be made. It confuses precedence in terms of importance with priority in time. Just because a discussion or hearings take place in the forum, or forum meetings take place before the negotiations, that does not mean that we are according precedence in terms of importance to the forum as against the negotiations. The fact that one is before the other is not significant in terms of which we regard as the more important activity. If we get it the wrong way round in our time sequence, we are destroying what could be a fruitful operation. There is substance in what the Secretary of State read out, although he did not seem to be thinking about it. I want to ensure that that substance is achieved.

We all hope that the negotiations will occur in a fruitful and positive atmosphere, but the amendment that the Secretary of State has tabled will have the contrary effect. I think that when he received instructions from Dublin to move that amendment, he should have thought about it and spoken to them and the rest of us before accepting it.

Mr. Wilshire

I apologise for labouring a point that I raised in an intervention, but I regret that I am still not clear about exactly what is being proposed for my amendments.

Amendment No. 78 deals specifically with paragraph 2(1) of schedule 2. My proposal is that the first meeting of the forum should take place within eight weeks. The Government originally tabled an amendment proposing four weeks. We now have a manuscript amendment which relates specifically to paragraph 2(1), which is about the first meeting. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that the manuscript amendment relates to the first meeting of the forum.

Amendment No. 69 deals with paragraph 2(3), which as I understand it, is not covered by the manuscript amendment. I contend that my second amendment raises an entirely different issue—the power of the Secretary of State to suspend subsequent meetings after the first meeting. We have on the amendment paper a Government amendment that is not affected by the manuscript amendment. Earlier today, the Government were willing to table an amendment to my amendment in respect of the power to suspend subsequent meetings. Nothing that I have heard has brought my second issue within the ambit of the manuscript amendment. Is my right hon. and learned Friend still willing to accept my second amendment, which covers subsequent meetings, and does he still intend to proceed with his amendment to my amendment, which is not covered by the manuscript amendment? That is an important point.

Sir Patrick Mayhew

Let me make things clear, as I do not think that I have done so. I have tabled an amendment which would set the upper limit at four weeks, which I would consider to be the absolute outside of the sort of delay that we would contemplate. That is in connection with what I was talking about earlier. Subject to that, I accept amendment No. 69. I believe that that deals with what my hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. Wilshire

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for accepting my second amendment, and in the same spirit, I will accept his amendment to my second amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Manuscript amendment made: in page 8, line 3 at end insert—

'() The time decided under sub-paragraph (1) shall be—

  1. (a) after the commencement of negotiations within section 2, and
  2. (b) within, or as soon as possible after the expiry of, the period of four weeks beginning with the date of the poll in the elections.'.—[Sir Patrick Mayhew.]

Amendment made: No. 25, in schedule 2, page 8, line 8, leave out 'may' and insert 'are intended to'.—[Mr. Peter Robinson.]

Amendment proposed: No. 69, in schedule 2, page 8, line 9, at end insert 'but the Secretary of State shall not prevent the holding of a meeting for more than eight consecutive weeks.'.—[Mr. Wilshire.]

Amendment made to the proposed amendment: (a), in line 2, leave out 'eight' and insert 'four'.—[Sir Patrick Mayhew.]

Amendment, as amended, agreed to.

Mr. Peter Robinson

I beg to move amendment No. 139, in page 8, line 13, leave out 'and approved by the Secretary of State.'

The First Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 58, in page 8, line 15, after 'quorum', insert 'and the requirement that decisions of the forum on the subject matter of its deliberations shall have the support of a clear majority of members of parties representing respectively the nationalist and unionist communities as defined in accordance with paragraph 24 of Command Paper 3232'.

No. 55, in page 8, line 18, at end insert— '(4) In exercising his functions under sub-paragraphs (1) and (3) above, the Secretary of State shall make every effort to secure that the rules of procedure of the forum facilitate the promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus across the communities in Northern Ireland.'.

No. 56, in page 8, line 23, leave out 'on a vote by at least 75 per cent. of those voting' and insert 'by a clear majority of members of parties representing respectively the nationalist and unionist communities as defined in accordance with paragraph 24 of Command Paper 3232'.

No. 71, in page 8, line 23, leave out '75' and insert '67'.

No. 175, in page 8, line 23, leave out '75' and insert '60'.

No. 66, in page 8, line 27, leave out from 'defamation' to the end of line.

Mr. Robinson

The amendment addresses the pervasive powers of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in almost every area of activity relating to the forum. The forum is being asked to undertake a simple task. There have been a number of bodies in Northern Ireland in the past, and none of them has had any real difficulties in agreeing its rules and procedures. I recall that a task was undertaken under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim on an earlier occasion and, with all the parties present, was passed without any great difficulty.

The Secretary of State's approval of the work carried out by the democratically elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland in the forum is quite unnecessary. What factors will be informing his approval? What exactly are the criteria that will determine whether he approves the rules of procedure? Can he envisage the problems that would be created if the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland were to agree rules of procedure of which he did not approve?

I would not have balked if the Secretary of State had recognised that some degree of weighting was required for the rules to be passed by the forum, but he does not go down that road. He wants to take for himself the power to approve or reject those rules. It is neither sensible nor comfortable for the Secretary of State to hold those powers. It would be better to leave it to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, and I trust that the Secretary of State will recognise the wisdom of that.

Mr. McGrady

If amendment No. 58 were accepted, paragraph 3(2) would read: The rules of procedure of the forum shall include provision for a quorum, and the requirement that decisions of the forum and the subject matter of its deliberations shall have the support of a clear majority of members of parties representing respectively the nationalist and unionist communities as defined in accordance with paragraph 24 of Command Paper 3232. To be consistent with that, if amendment No. 56, the second amendment that we have tabled, were accepted, paragraph 4(b), which relates to the election or removal of a chairman or the alteration of the rules of procedure, would read: it is approved by a clear majority of members of parties representing respectively the nationalist and unionist communities as defined in accordance with paragraph 24 of Command Paper 3232. The amendments are in partnership and deal again with the question of consensus. You may have noticed, Sir Geoffrey, that on many amendments dealing with the elections and the forum, it has been a theme of my party that the concept of consensus be at the forefront of our deliberations on all such matters.

There is a temptation to argue that a weighted majority of 75 per cent. is some sort of panacea, or a substitute for a consensus, but unless there is consensus among the representatives of both broad communities in Northern Ireland, there will be no real consensus, and no matter how high a percentage is achieved in terms of the majority ruling, it simply will not work.

Our amendments would create the ethos necessary for a successful conclusion to the negotiations that will run alongside the forum. As there is consensus on the Committee between the Government and the Opposition, it would be appropriate if that element of consensus could also be applied to the deliberations that we hope to have in the negotiations and the forum.

11.15 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson

As he attempts to persuade the Committee to support his amendment, the hon. Gentleman will see that some of us might have some difficulty in recognising its terms, because it would require a majority of both the Unionist and the nationalist community representatives. It has already been suggested that the representatives of the nationalist community who stand under the label of Sinn Fein will not take their seats in the forum, and that would reduce the number of elected representatives from the nationalist community who would be there. Is the hon. Gentleman telling the Committee that those people intend to be present in the forum? Without their presence, the amendment would have no meaning.

Mr. McGrady

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I recognise the path down which he is trying to lead me. I am simply attempting to ensure that those who attend the forum, whoever they may be and from whatever party they may come, will deal one with another on the basis of consent and consensus, not on the basis of majoritarian rule. It is most important that the concept of majoritarian rule be eliminated as far as possible. No weighted majority of 75 per cent.—or, indeed, of any other ad hoc fraction or percentage—should be applied to the deliberations of the forum.

I support the amendments on behalf of my party, not with any intention of curtailing or restricting anything, but simply according to the fundamental principle that consensus in a debate that aims to find a solution is the only way in which we can move forward. In that very simple way, I commend both amendments to the Committee.

Mr. Robert McCartney

In responding to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), I must say something about the concepts of majoritarianism and consensus. "Majoritarianism" seems to be a denigrating reference to the democratic principle that in any body in which there is a difference of opinion, matters are usually decided by a majority of those present. However, it is recognised that in some circumstances the issues to be determined are so grave and significant that it is necessary to have more than a bare majority. I think that the constitution of the United States of America may be changed by a majority of 75 per cent. That figure is reckoned to be a significant loading of a simple majority in such circumstances.

I am somewhat bemused by the concept of consensus. I know the phrase from my experience of the law, where the parties to a contract are said to require a consensus ad idem, so that they are thinking about the same thing when they arrive at the subject matter of their contract. However, the way in which the hon. Member for South Down uses the word "consensus" suggests that nothing can be agreed unless the tiniest minority accepts it. That is a dog-in-the-manger's charter. People could sit there and as long as they did not participate in the magical process of consensus, nothing could be done. If we are to be honoured in the negotiating process by the presence of Sinn Fein, the magical process of consensus would render invalid any conclusion reached by those present if it insisted on its primary ideas of Brits out and self-determination on an all-Ireland basis.

Mr. McGrady

I do not want to delay the Committee by reading it all, but paragraph 24 of the ground rules, to which the amendment refers, states: 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. That is my definition of consensus, as referred to in the amendments.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful for that clarification, but the hon. Gentleman used the term "a clear majority". I should have thought that 75 per cent. was a clear majority, but that is the majority to which he appears to take exception. When is a clear majority not a clear majority? He and his party would undoubtedly claim, if 50 per cent. plus one of the people could be made to favour a united Ireland, that on the basis of the Anglo-Irish agreement legislation should immediately be put in train to ship everyone in Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into a united Ireland. Would we hear any talk in those circumstances about this wonderful concept of consensus? I fear not.

Mr. William Ross

I was hoping that the hon. and learned Gentleman would draw the Committee's attention to the recent vote on the proposed break-up of Canada and how small a majority it took to prevent that. We are talking about the possibility of breaking up the United Kingdom. He may care to follow that line of reasoning.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

The other term that is now bandied about as a term of abuse is majoritarianism. In so far as it is in political usage, that word applies to a majority that governs, or attempts to govern, without any concern for the constitutional, legal or human rights of minorities. When it is used in contradistinction to democratic majority government, it generally carries that suggestion. The hon. Member for South Down uses it with less discipline. Majoritarianism simply means the ordinary democratic practice of giving significant attention to the wishes of a majority. The House should look carefully at apparently reasonable terms such as "consensus" and "majoritarianism".

Rev. Ian Paisley

I have been following the hon. and learned Gentleman carefully. When the Prime Minister, whom one would think would know what his Government were doing, replied to the Leader of the Opposition, he said: Apart from that, of course, I see the election providing, by weighted majority vote, an initial mechanism for testing widespread acceptability within Northern Ireland of the outcome of any talks process."—[Official Report, 24 January 1996; Vol. 270, c. 357.] The Prime Minister said that that majority, which would be a clear majority if it was weighted, was sufficient, but when we come into the realm of consensus, we do not know anything. We are just told, "Let us have consensus." We cannot get consensus if one party says, "We are not having it." That can be a tiny party, but it still can break the consensus.

Mr. McCartney

The hon. Gentleman is correct in his interpretation. The idea of a weighted majority is to provide some sort of mechanism to ensure that a minority is protected. It seems that, in this case, the Bill suggests a majority of 75 per cent. The fact that that is niggled at gives an idea of what is likely to occur when a consensus, according to the definition of the hon. Member for South Down, is ultimately sought in any negotiations.

Mr. Worthington

I shall speak to amendment No. 55, which has been tabled in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself.

We should like to make our contribution on the role of the forum through its rules of procedure. We have no doubt that the forum could be valuable. It could be extremely useful, but it will be so only if it is not a threatening place; if it is not about victories and defeats. What we are about is setting up negotiations and alongside them a forum whereby people can broaden their understanding. We are not setting up a political decision-making place, but something which, as the Prime Minister said, has as its nearest equivalent the forum for peace and reconciliation that has been meeting in Dublin. This forum will have a democratic underpinning, in that the way in which the people will get to the forum will be through an election process.

Our model for the rules of procedure is very much like that which the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned, which has been agreed between the Governments and is in paragraph 24 of the Command Paper. The forum is also a form of peace talks. It is not about political decision making. It is about broadening dialogue, understanding and consensus. Paragraph 24 says: 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. That seems to us to have a great deal of virtue and value to it. It says that what we are doing in the negotiations at the outset is seeking consensus that will lead to a long-lasting agreement. At this stage, we believe that everything—whether in the forum or in the peace talks—should be about seeking consensus, dialogue and understanding. We believe that if paragraph 24 is good enough for the negotiations, it is good enough for the forum.

11.30 pm

It is important that we have such a framework, such an inclusive mechanism, if the forum is to attract and to hold all parties. It must be remembered that membership of the forum is voluntary. It is important that the forum be seen as being valuable for everyone who attends it. That has been one of the successes of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. People were sceptical of that forum to start with, but those who attended it found it to be valuable and they sought a broad consensus across the communities—and we should be seeking that as well.

On checking with the lawyers about tabling an amendment on this matter, we found that we would be faced with technical problems in relation to embracing the words in paragraph 24, and that what was good enough for a Command Paper was not good enough for a piece of legislation. Perhaps the Minister can explain that in his reply. We found that if we wanted to have any success in tabling an amendment on the rules of the procedure, we could not use the original words without the lawyers objecting to the form of them.

Mr. McGrady

There is already a precedent in clause 2, which states: The negotiations mentioned in section 1 are the negotiations referred to in Command Paper 3232 presented to Parliament on 16th April 1996. If it is possible to have the Command Paper mentioned in one part of the Bill, surely it is appropriate and logical to have it mentioned in another part of the Bill. I am not a legal person, and I may stand corrected.

Mr. Worthington

It takes one to know one—I am not a legal person either. We believe that there would be problems in putting forward paragraph 24 in that way and having it accepted by the Government as legislatively pure. We are seeking an overarching principle which governs the rules of procedure, which inspires the forum, and which tells it the grounds on which the Secretary of State will approve the rules of procedure. The rules of procedure that are derived from the forum have to go to the Secretary of State for approval.

Our amendment tries to provide the Secretary of State and the forum with the principles on which the rules of procedure would be approved. That is why we have put it forward in this way. The Secretary of State is given the duty to make every effort to secure that the rules of procedure of the forum facilitate the promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus across the communities in Northern Ireland. If the forum is to have the rules approved by the Secretary of State, it must pursue that route. It is a question of style. On Second Reading, I said that at this stage of its political development, the forum should be pursuing a Select Committee style in the way that it operates, rather than the style that we are using tonight. The forum has to draw up the rules of procedure, and it must know that they will be approved only if they meet this yardstick. The Secretary of State has to draw up the first guidelines.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I understand what the hon. Gentleman means when he talks about Select Committee style, but on occasions Select Committees divide, and sometimes there is a difference of one vote.

Mr. Worthington

Yes. The hon. Gentleman has been a long-standing member of a Select Committee of the House and, if that Select Committee is like most Select Committees, most of its reports have been unanimous. Does he agree?

Rev. Martin Smyth

Yes, most of them. Nevertheless, Select Committees do divide regularly and one cannot always obtain consensus; allowance must be made for that.

Mr. Worthington

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in Select Committees miracles are frequently achieved which would not be anticipated at the outset of the investigation. We are simply saying that people should enter the forum in the frame of mind in which people enter Select Committee.

The point I was making before I took that valuable intervention was that the Secretary of State must draw up the first guidelines. Obviously, if the amendment is accepted, he must follow his own guidelines of seeking to promote "dialogue, understanding and consensus"—the mandate that is given by our amendment.

The forum will have a year of guaranteed life, to the end of May 1997, after which the Secretary of State may extend it for a further year. When it starts, it will have less than a year of guaranteed life. It would be unprecedented—the evidence of this evening bears that out—if the Northern Ireland forum were simply to meet and say, "We agree on the rules of procedure, " so there may be more than one or two months in which the forum seeks to approve its rules of procedure, although it would be simplest, if the Secretary of State got it right, for the forum to adopt those rules of procedure.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The first Northern Ireland Assembly and the second Northern Ireland Assembly—with more power than the forum that we are discussing—and the Constitutional Convention established their rules and procedures in about 10 days. If they could do so, surely this forum can establish its rules and procedures—which will be simpler than full parliamentary rules and procedures—in 10 days. Moreover, the Minister concerned called the leaders of the parties together before each assembly met and said, "Let us look at some rules for the first day so that, at the first meeting, we can have something on board to keep us right for the first day's proceedings." Can that be done again?

Mr. Worthington

I am inspired by the hon. Gentleman's words, and look forward to him pulling off another miracle. I look forward to him rising to that challenge, so that within 10 days of the forum being established, it comes forward with rules of procedure that facilitate dialogue, understanding and consensus.

This issue is crucial to the success of the forum. Unless a broad consensus is pursued, the forum will not work. A forum at which everyone is not present is unbalanced and will not succeed. If everyone came to that forum using those guidelines, those rules of procedure, the forum could contribute a great deal.

Mr. William Ross

I shall speak on one amendment standing in my name and one standing in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann and myself.

I listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). He proposed apple pie and motherhood and we moved through pious hope back into the age of miracles. It gives me hope that anything is possible, not only in Northern Ireland, but in the House. We might even see hon. Members on the two Front Benches agreeing on the things that divide them before we are much older if this goes on—but I would not hold my breath.

Before we go too far down that road, perhaps we should pour a bucket of cold reality over ourselves. We did not arrive at the concept—as espoused by the SDLP and others—of support by a clear majority in each community overnight or by accident. I am sure that we recall when votes were taken in Northern Ireland on the basis of a simple majority—and the House still holds with that principle. We then witnessed the erosion of Unionist power through changes in the electoral system designed to break up the "Unionist monolith"—they were the words used in this place. That did not work, and now the Government have thrust upon us a monstrous system of government. It was certainly not suggested by anyone in Northern Ireland and it is not acceptable to anyone there, as the Minister well knows.

We have seen the slow shift from a simple majority to a weighted majority of 60 per cent., 65 per cent. and now 75 per cent. The step beyond that is a majority in both communities. We have come a long way, yet people are asking for still more. If we debate the matter in a year or two, they will demand a majority of 90 per cent. plus a clear majority across the communities.

The effect of the 75 per cent. figure is that the gunmen will have to be brought on board in order to achieve it. That is the intention of the proposal—we should not run away from that simple, clear fact. We are not talking about enabling parties that are democratic in attitude and in practice to take decisions; we are talking about satisfying the gunmen. In the past 25 years, it has been my experience that the gunman adopts a very simple approach: "Do what I tell you, or I will kill you,"—and he will. Once Parliament and this country understand that, they will adopt the same jaundiced view of the 75 per cent. that I have. That is why my amendment No. 175 proposes 60 per cent., which would allow majority decisions to be taken without forcing the democratic parties to bow to the gunmen and appeal to their non-existent better nature. I ask the Government to respond to that proposition.

According to the heading, this group of amendments involves three different issues: procedure, privilege and valid decisions. I draw the Committee's attention to amendment No. 66, which reads: Schedule 2, page 8, line 27, leave out from 'defamation' to the end of the line". The amendment would omit from schedule 2 the words: unless it is proved to have been made with malice". I know that there are many lawyers in this place and that they love words that they can twist and make money from. Every lawyer must have pricked up his ears at those words.

I imagine that it is extremely difficult to prove malice. In the light of that and the fact that I do not wish to see endless court cases involving members of the forum defending themselves against allegations of malice—we are not told whether it is personal or political malice, or malice in general—we have tabled that sensible and reasonable amendment, which omits the offending words. If the Minister wishes them to remain, he should tell us why. I do not believe that that restriction applies to utterances made in this place or in the previous bodies set up in Northern Ireland. It is a simple and acceptable amendment, and I have great pleasure in commending it to the Committee. I hope that the Minister will shorten the proceedings by accepting it and by taking on board my comments about weighted majorities.

11.45 pm
Mr. Soley

I hope to persuade the Minister to proceed along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), because amendments Nos. 58, 55 and 56 would take us where I thought the Government wanted to go. The Minister will recall that, when the Prime Minister made the statement in the House about the proposal to set up the elections and the forum, he responded positively to my request that the body should, to a considerable extent, mirror the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin. It was recognised that that forum had made significant progress in trying to understand the needs, fears and anxieties of the two communities represented in the north of Ireland, as well as addressing other issues. I understand that that forum did that and proceeded without votes, so I am not convinced that there is a good argument for votes in the forum under the Bill.

If we want to encourage discussion—I hope that the forum will not only encourage discussion but take evidence from different groups in Northern Ireland—the forum will work better without votes. We should give the people of Northern Ireland a voice in the forum, rather as we might do here in Select Committees or in Special Standing Committees, and enable people to give evidence to it, because that could be very valuable and would help to cross some of the divides in Northern Ireland.

The problem of votes is the 70 per cent. problem which has been mentioned by several Unionist Members. I believe that it is clear that we need to work by consensus in Northern Ireland. It is perhaps necessary to say that again, because it is not always accepted by some of the Unionist Members, but I believe it is accepted by the vast majority of other right hon. and hon. Members. We require consensus, not because we are following some grand principle of democracy in a precise design in Northern Ireland but because we recognise that in Northern Ireland—as I said in an earlier speech—the political system has broken down. When political systems break down, people turn to violence.

At the moment, the level of violence in Northern Ireland is lower than it has been for some 25 years. That does not justify the level of violence that exists, but the level is lower than it has been for the past 25 years. It would be encouraging if we could keep it that way, and that is why we want people talking to rather than killing each other. That is what we are about when we debate the Bill. We are here tonight to pass what is, by any definition, an extraordinary piece of legislation, precisely because the system in Northern Ireland has broken down. That is why we have direct rule, and if we did not we would all be at home tucked up in bed, as we know. But because the political system has broken down, we are looking for different methods from those normally applied in a parliamentary system.

If we proceed along the lines suggested in amendments Nos. 55, 56 and 58, we could take out the contention caused by voting and we could proceed by consensus. It is also very important for the Bill to contain some recognition, as the Command Paper does—it is spelt out clearly in the Command Paper—that when decisions have to be made, especially on key issues, they should be by a majority of those representing the nationalist community and a majority of those representing the Unionist community. In that way, we could get around the problem, which one of the Unionist Members feared, that any little party, Unionist or republican, could veto progress. A little party could not veto progress because, as the Command Paper rightly points out, there would have to be a majority of both Unionists and nationalists. If we put that in the Bill and knock out the requirement for voting, we have the possibility of a forum that mirrors the one that took place in Dublin, which was very successful.

Such a forum would not threaten anyone or cause the fears that exist in Northern Ireland among Unionists and republicans alike and, above all, it would recognise the problem—which we all face, whether we are Northern Ireland Members or not—that Northern Ireland is a divided community. Until we can find a political system that works in Northern Ireland and represents the needs of both the majority and the minority communities, the system will continue to fail. If we do not want to lurch back into the extreme forms of violence that have been suffered by both the Unionist and republican communities, and suffered at the hands of Unionists and republicans alike, we have a serious duty to address the problem.

The amendments do that. They take out the problems of voting, some of which have been picked up by Unionist Members concerned about the figure of 70 per cent., or by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), who has just suggested a figure of 60 per cent., and put in a consensus way of working which mirrors the forum, which was the Prime Minister's intention, and also put in the safeguard of a majority of representatives from the nationalist and Unionist communities.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

To come back to reality, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that when Sinn Fein-IRA took part in the forum for peace and reconciliation in Dublin, surrounded by all its natural friends and associates within the nationalist community, it was unable to reach a consensus. How realistic is it then to expect that consensus can be reached within Northern Ireland?

Mr. Soley

No one has claimed, least of all me, that this is a quick and easy solution to the problems of Northern Ireland. What I am saying—the alternative which is being suggested by the Unionists—is that it is very unrealistic to suggest that we can just go back to something that existed before the breakdown of the Northern Ireland political system. If we do not accept that—this is something which we must all address—we are saying that we are prepared to go back to the violence in Northern Ireland as it has been during the past 25 years. Frankly, we are not prepared to do that.

As I said earlier, the reason why the Labour and Tory parties are closer to each other on that issue than they are to either of the Unionist parties in the House, and the reason why the British and Irish Governments are so close, is that we are determined not to go back to that violence. After a period of benign neglect of Northern Ireland, which broke down in 1969, we lurched into a period of crisis management under successive Governments. Only when we had the Anglo-Irish Agreement did we have a policy which we began to follow through which has its logical consequence in the Bill. We now have policies which we are following jointly with the Irish Government and we are being realistic and saying that, if we do not want to go back to violence, if we do not want people in Northern Ireland to go back to killing each other, and we do not, we must get them talking to each other. The Government are attempting to get them talking to each other.

What we are suggesting, through the amendments, is that we do not fall into the trap of having a dispute about voting levels—70 or 60 per cent.—that we work on the basis of consensus and, that where it is necessary for decisions to be taken, they are taken, as is clearly set out in the Command Paper, by a majority of representatives from the republican and Unionist communities.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about the Anglo-Irish Agreement. If the Anglo-Irish Agreement was such a wonderful thing, as he thinks it was, and was bringing us away from partition to paradise, why are we having this forum? We are told that the forum is to seek a way away from the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to get—I quote—a "broader" agreement under which people can work. If the agreement was such a wonderful panacea for our ills, why should we want anything broader?

Mr. Soley

I do not want to rehearse whether the Anglo-Irish Agreement was wonderful. I do not claim that it was wonderful. I actually said that there was a change from a policy of crisis management to a policy whereby the British Government—Labour and Tory—have been prepared to work with the Irish Government in solving what is essentially a joint problem and in helping the two divided communities in Northern Ireland to come together in a political system that works. That is why we are here.

I know that Unionist members do not like that, but it is important to understand that, in my judgment, no British Government will ever go back to the old Stormont Government. They will never allow that to happen. If that is the case, unless the Unionists are prepared to live with the idea of direct rule for ever, which is not exactly a desirable way of running Northern Ireland, we must come up with a workable solution in Northern Ireland.

A workable solution means compromise and talks between the Unionist and nationalist communities. The necessary structure is there, and the Government have today moved a considerable way towards it. I am urging the Secretary of State to move towards a more sophisticated version of it, despite the fact that I seem to be having a debate with the Unionist parties. Let us get rid of the voting aspect of the structure, which is divisive—even the Unionists are disputing the 70 per cent., 60 per cent. or 50 per cent. Figure—and proceed by consensus. Where that does not happen, we should proceed on the basis of the support of a majority of the representatives of nationalists and a majority of the representatives of the Unionists. That is the way forward, and I strongly recommend it.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The fact is that the House said that it would do away with Stormont and it did so—I was here when it happened. I said that what had existed before was a Sunday school picnic and that we would now experience the real thing. The then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), said that I was speaking nonsense. He should look at what has happened since then: more people were killed in a week than were killed under 50 years of so-called Unionist misrule. Indeed, more people were killed in a few hours than were killed in the entire 50 years.

Parliament should consider what it has done in Northern Ireland. It says that it is working realistically, but was the Anglo-Irish Agreement brought about by consensus? It is ridiculous to hear in this place that the Anglo-Irish Agreement represents the first time that we escaped crisis management. In fact, it launched the greatest divide seen in Northern Ireland for many years. It polarised all parts of the community. Even the leader of the SDLP at the time said that the British Government must face down the Unionists. In other words, consensus means facing down the Unionists.

What of the fact that the great Anglo-Irish Agreement was found to be a complete failure? The Government then moved to the Downing street declaration, which also failed. It produced nothing. They then moved to the framework document and thought that the Unionists would sit down and negotiate themselves out of the United Kingdom and into a united Ireland. That failed, too. They then said that there would have to be all-party talks, but they failed. Finally, the Government turned back to the only thing to which a democracy can return—the granite rock of having an election and letting the people speak.

Some hon. Members do not like the fact that we are to have an election. They are going so to rig the elected body that it is not even to be allowed to prepare its own rules by the use of a vote. The first assembly voted on the rules; the second assembly voted on the rules; and the convention voted on the rules. I was on all those bodies and on every rules committee.

On important matters we could have a weighted majority. If people are afraid about some issue, I should be happy to say the measure will not be passed. If there is great controversy, let us have a requirement for 75 per cent. approval. That is reasonable. I sit in the Strasbourg assembly where some votes involve a weighted majority. There is nothing undemocratic about those votes, but they relate to specific issues.

If hon. Members think that the elected representatives of Northern Ireland do not have enough wit to sit down and draw up a few rules and regulations, but that we need a long debate because those representatives are ignorant and must be guided by their parent's big cane and must be called into the back room by the Secretary of State, I have to tell them that that is not the way to work with people.

Parliament should let the Northern Ireland representatives draw up their own rules and get on with their business. For hon. Members to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they can have no votes but must reach consensus on everything is ridiculous and is no way to proceed. The House of Commons, which took it on itself to do away with the structures of government in Northern Ireland, has sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

Let us face it: there is to be an election. People will be elected, and they will have views. They will know the situation: they will have lived with it and suffered with it. Surely those people will know how to make progress, and how to draw up a few rules for the running of a forum. I do not see any great obstacle, and I am amazed that the Committee has spent so long discussing something that should not present an obstacle to anyone.

12 midnight

Mr. McNamara

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) explained the nature of Northern Ireland society very well. It is a divided society, and, moreover, one in which large elements peacefully challenge the legitimacy of the very state itself, and its right to exist in its present form. We are trying to establish institutions that will reconcile the interests of those who look to Westminster for support and encouragement, and those who look to Dublin.

The problem is the lack of conviction in Northern Ireland society that legitimate ideas and aspirations—even from the foundation of the statelet—were being recognised by the Government and the institutions of the day. We as a society, and we as a House, are not working on the basis of a simple majority decision. We know what the result would be if there were simple majority decisions in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that the majority do not have rights and must be subservient to the minority, but it does mean that the rights and aspirations of the minority must also be recognised, and that the minority must not be overpowered by the majority.

In establishing the forum, we intended to create a body in which no one would feel under threat. People would be able to have their say on matters on which it was agreed that they should have a say, and would not feel that, under rules or procedures, they would be gagged or bullied or that decisions would be made that—even if they had no legislative, administrative or executive effect—nevertheless prejudiced their position. That is why Labour amendment No. 55—which I understand the Government may view sympathetically—is so important, although it is not the amendment that I would have tabled; I would have tabled an amendment more in line with the proposals of my hon. Friends in the SDLP. I do not understand, and have yet to hear the Government explain coherently, why it is possible to refer to Command Paper 3232 in clause 2 but not in schedule 2.

The Labour amendment applies not only to the rules that will be drawn up by the forum as such but to the rules that the Secretary of State will introduce, under which the forum will first meet. It is therefore of the utmost importance for us to understand what "consensus" means in the amendment. Do the Government accept that, broadly, it is the same as the concept in paragraph 24 of the Command Paper? If so, we shall have framed regulations that will enable all the participants in the forum to express opinions without fear or favour and without the fear of bullying, and to know that the conclusions that result will be supported by the majority in each community. Such conclusions are likely to be accepted, carried through and supported by the whole community and not just by majorities in each section of it. That is the way to go forward.

We are not debating a British, Westminster situation. Everybody does not say, "Yes, we accept the rules of the game and the present nature of the state." It is a different situation altogether. I am worried by the suggestion that some rules may be changed by a majority of 75 per cent. voting for that. The reason for that concern is that if a grouping on either side—probably, although not necessarily, on the nationalist side—has sufficient numbers and decides, for whatever reason, to boycott the assembly, there will not be a block of 25 per cent. of the votes to prevent the evils that I spoke about earlier.

It may be argued that in such circumstances the Secretary of State, who must approve the rules, could veto it, but the damage would have been done, and we must seek to avoid that. I hope that, in responding to the debate, the Minister of State will explain how the Secretary of State will draw up the rules. Will he start with a consensus rule similar to that in the White Paper with the same purpose, push and ideas as that advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith? If there is such a rule, we can have some confidence in the forum, which I have never regarded as being important. However, if it is to go ahead it should have fair rules which are properly drawn up and in which people can have confidence.

If people feel that in one way or another their position is likely to be abused in the forum, they are not likely to attend and we may end up in the situation that pertained in the earlier assembly. That would be the worst of all possible worlds.

Mr. Ancram

This has been a useful and full debate. I will take the Committee through the amendments and give the Government's view. Amendment No. 139 was moved by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and seeks to omit the last seven words from paragraph 3(1) of the schedule. That would remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to approve the rules of procedure determined by the members of the forum". We all hope that, as far as possible, the forum should not only regulate its own procedure but should operate under a broad consensus. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) made a powerful plea for the forum to operate in that way. Of course there are difficulties about making the right provision to enable that to happen. A balance has to be struck. For example, it would not be right to prescribe unanimity so that one member could derail proceedings.

Plainly, the rules of procedure will be important. The requirement for the approval of the Secretary of State for them is a valuable safeguard that should not be dispensed with. In the light of that, the Government cannot accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 58 was from a different direction. As I have said, I have taken careful note of what has been said about the importance of the forum operating, if at all possible, on the basis of consensus and agreement between the parties that will constitute it. I gladly reiterate that we believe that that is the right principle and that the rules of procedure could have a significant role to play in helping the parties to work together to develop the dialogue and understanding that is part of the forum's purpose.

It is also clear, however, that the effectiveness of the rules in bringing about the right consensual spirit will depend on the parties' willingness to work together. To foster co-operation, it may not be right to lay down a highly formalised framework at the start. There could be a danger that rules that are viewed as too prescriptive could have the opposite effect of that intended, perhaps requiring parties to focus more on what divides them than on what they have in common. There is therefore a danger that, in specifying the need for particular majorities to enable the forum to determine its business, amendment No. 58 might build in an element of confrontation which could otherwise be avoided.

In that matter, I have considerable sympathy with the point made on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), who said: The rules of procedure … cannot be about majorities and minorities."—[Official Report, 18 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 928.] He went on to say that they must be about the construction of dialogue, understanding and consensus throughout the communities.

I accept, of course, that the test that amendment No. 58 is seeking to import to the forum reflects that set out for the negotiations in the Command Paper. I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) that, earlier in these deliberations, I mentioned that phrases such as Unionist and nationalist do not necessarily have a legal status and that the application and interpretation of such phrases could cause all sorts of problems. The fact that the Bill refers to the Command Paper does not mean that it adopts everything in the paper as part of statute.

It is not certain anyway that what is appropriate for the negotiations, with their smaller numbers and ground rules, which have already been published, would be appropriate for the forum. It is worth reminding hon. Members that the ground rules make it clear that, although they set out the general area within which agreement, we hope, will be found: The rules for establishing sufficient consensus will be agreed in advance of negotiations by the participants". It is also worth recollecting that, even within those rules, there are different ways in which their purpose could be met. That must be a matter for discussion between the parties before they come to an agreement as to how, for instance, a qualification such as a clear majority in both the unionist and nationalist communities might be measured within the negotiating process. It is important, therefore, that we do not feel that, because something may be appropriate in principle in one area, it should be adopted lock, stock and barrel in another. I cannot accept the amendment of the hon. Member for South Down, but I appreciate his point. We will reflect on how that might be dealt with in the rules of procedure.

The Bill already provides that, to be settled, the rules of procedure must be approved by a vote of 75 per cent. of those voting and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie would, in effect, place a duty on my right hon. and learned Friend, in exercising the functions of drawing up the initial rules and approving any subsequent set submitted by the forum, to make every effort to secure that the rules should facilitate the promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus throughout the communities in Northern Ireland.

In the light of our view that consensus in desirable in the working of the forum and that those other elements are already part of the forum's purpose—I am pleased to hear the clear importance that other hon. Members attach to those—in the interests of maximising the chances of all parties working together constructively in the forum, I am willing to accept the amendment and the duty that it carries.

Obviously, at this stage it is too early for me to say how exactly we shall discharge the duty or how the rules will, in the event, be framed to promote dialogue, understanding and consensus, but I can say that, in approaching the duty, we will take careful account of what has been said during the debate and aim to consult the parties not only on the extent and nature of the initial rules that we shall make, but on the provision that, in the parties' views, should be made in the rules to facilitate that promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus, therefore looking for the positive side of it, which should characterise both the forum and the negotiations.

Mr. Trimble

I find the Minister's decision to accept the amendment interesting, and possibly fruitful. As I understand it, in framing the initial rules that will operate before the forum draws up its own rules, the Secretary of State will be imposing upon himself a duty to facilitate understanding and consensus. Am I to take it from this that in drawing up those rules the Secretary of State has imposed upon himself a duty to consult and to seek agreement with the people who will be members of the forum? That will mark a significant change of approach in the way in which the Secretary of State has handled matters in connection with the Bill, and we welcome that.

12.15 am
Mr. Ancram

Obviously, if one is to set up procedures and rules that are to work on the basis of consensus, one wishes to carry with one those who will be operating them. That is why I repeat that it will be our aim to consult the parties not only on the extent and nature of the initial rules, but on the provision that should be made in the rules to facilitate the promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus. I repeat that, because in all our debates we have the negative and the positive. When talking about consensus, I am looking for positive contributions as well as contributions of concern.

Mr. McNamara

I am not trying to be clever, but what do the Government and the Minister define as consensus?

Mr. Ancram

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is not trying to be clever, but he is trying to pre-empt what, in the ground rules, is to be left for discussion with the parties. Essentially, if the hon. Gentleman looks again—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wishes to hear the answer having asked the question; if he does, perhaps he will do me the courtesy of listening. In paragraph 24 of the ground rules, the hon. Gentleman will see that the parties will have to get together before the negotiations to agree on how that sufficiency of consensus will operate. It is right, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, that in looking for agreements the parties should be consulted and that we do not lay down hard and fast rules at this time.

Mr. Soley

I am grateful for the Minister's response generally, but can he tell me whether my suggestion that the forum should be able to take evidence will be considered? There are many groups from both sides of the community in Northern Ireland who have many useful things to say and enable people to cross the divide that has been so destructive in the past.

Mr. Ancram

I am sorry that I did not respond to that part of the hon. Gentleman's comments. In the debate on the previous set of amendments, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that he saw that as being a major purpose of the forum. We have looked closely at the lesson of certain elements of the forum in Dublin in terms of the valuable work that this forum will be able to do.

Amendment No. 56 focuses on paragraph 4(b) of schedule 2. It would require that a vote under that paragraph on the election or removal of a chairman and the approval or amendment of the rules of procedure should be reached not by 75 per cent. of those voting, as the Bill provides now, but once again in accordance with the procedure defined in paragraph 24 of the ground rules for negotiations. I hope that hon. Members will have heard what I have said about that and that they will accept that in the light of what I have said, particularly about amendment No. 55, the amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment No. 175 was tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). He was seeking to substitute the figure 60 for 75. No numerical test can be a guarantee of broad consensus unless it is set high. I think that there would be at least a good chance that approval by 75 per cent. of those voting could represent such a consensus. Obviously that cannot be said for a figure that is very much lower, as in the amendment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that we cannot accept it.

Amendment No. 66 concerns privilege in actions for defamation. The Bill will provide such privilege in respect of statements by forum members, but not where the allegedly defamatory statement is proved to have been made with malice. The amendment would protect such malicious statements with the rest.

We very carefully considered the question of privilege in relation to defamation. There is a strong argument that in a body such as the forum, which is concerned with dialogue and understanding, it is any way incumbent on the participants to avoid potentially defamatory statements. After all, we are seeking to encourage constructive contributions aimed at the furtherance of agreement between the communities in Northern Ireland. I would hope, therefore, that conflictual language would be avoided.

That being so, it can be argued that any sort of privilege in defamation is out of place. On the other hand, it is true that a number of bodies have such immunity in the interests of members speaking freely. We saw some force in that argument in relation to the forum. It did not seem to us appropriate to grant the full range of privilege in respect of defamation that applies in this House. The forum has, after all, neither the oversight nor the legislative responsibilities that we have here.

The limited sort of privilege that we propose has analogies in local government. For the reasons that I have given, to do with the fact that the forum is the sort of body in which we believe members should anyway be especially on their guard against defamatory language, we do not believe that we should go further, and in particular, we do not think that we should be involved in protecting defamatory statements that are found to be malicious. I cannot accept the amendment.

Mr. William Ross

The House does not have very many thugs and murderers on its Benches, but I rather expect that we shall find a number of them in the assembly. Are we to he told that we are being defamatory if we draw attention to their history? In the light of that, the Minister should reconsider what has he has just said.

Mr. Ancram

From what the hon. Gentleman has said, I am not so optimistic as I was about the frame of mind with which he will enter the forum. The forum presents the opportunity for all parties to look constructively at how actively it can promote dialogue and understanding. What the hon. Gentleman has just said does not sound very consistent with that aim. I can only say that I hope that the absence of the protection for which the hon. Gentleman is looking might be an incentive for him to move in that direction.

Mr. Trimble

I am sorry that the stomach of my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) is of a rather delicate nature and not so robust as the Minister's in this matter. In this context the word "malice" is used with a special meaning. It does not mean malice as it is used in ordinary language. The amendment's objective is simply to give the opportunity for free speech to occur in the forum. Although we know that the forum is limited, its operations are more analogous to that of a convention, or the assembly that was operated between 1982 and 1985 when it had no powers. I think that those bodies had the protection and privilege that applies to such a deliberative body. It is simply a matter of free speech.

Mr. Ancram

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I did say that there were certain other precedents, and I can make them available to him if he wishes. Whatever construction one puts on the word "malice", I should have thought that it was not consistent with the purposes that we have set out for the forum, which I understood that he had also agreed. It is for that reason that we provide protection, but that protection is limited. For that reason, I cannot accept the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 55, in page 8, line 18, at end insert— '(4) In exercising his functions under sub-paragraphs (1) and (3) above, the Secretary of State shall make every effort to secure that the rules of procedure of the forum facilitate the promotion of dialogue, understanding and consensus across the communities in Northern Ireland.'.—[Mr. Worthington.]

Mr. Peter Robinson

I beg to move amendment No. 140, in page 8, line 30, leave out 'as he thinks appropriate' and insert 'as required by the forum for the proper exercise of its functions.'.

I can see that several hon. Members are beginning to get weary, so I shall not talk for long. There are several hours still to spend on Report, and a few more hours after that for Third Reading, so I do not want to delay the Committee unduly on the amendment. It is a probing amendment because, judging by the Secretary of State's amendment and the date given for the election, the forum will probably be sitting within two months.

Forum members will come together to deliberate on the issues in two months' time; yet we do not know where they will meet, or what services will be available. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether we shall be able to use the valuable services of someone experienced, such as Mr. John Kennedy, the clerk of the assembly? What staff will be made available? Will they be drawn from Maryfield, or perhaps Stormont? What is in the Secretary of State's mind? He has told us nothing about any of those questions, many of which will make a great deal of difference to the participants.

At an earlier stage, the Secretary of State—or possibly the Minister—suggested that the buildings at Stormont castle would be available, and said that he was looking for suggestions. Does the Northern Ireland Office not have alternatives that it is prepared to share with the Committee, even at this late stage? The harbour commissioners' building has been mentioned, and so has Queen's university. What options will the Secretary of State or the Minister offer for the venue and home of the new forum?

The Secretary of State has a definite time, a definite place and a definite purpose for the negotiating teams, but everything about the forum is vague. Perhaps that depicts graphically the way in which the Secretary of State deals with elected representatives—those who want to be based in a democratic society, as opposed to those whom he can cobble together in a corner and push in a particular direction, or perhaps allow them to push him.

I hope that when the Minister or the Secretary of State responds he will have some positive details to give the Committee, so that those who may be thinking of taking part in the elections will know what is planned for them.

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman has moved an important amendment. However, many of the questions that he asked were dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State earlier.

Mr. Robinson


Mr. Ancram

When he made it clear that the castle buildings were there and available. However, in terms of the sort of service that people want the forum to perform, those buildings may be regarded as inadequate, in which case we want to hear representations on the subject.

We fully intend that the forum should enjoy facilities appropriate to the proper exercise of its functions. We have discussed several of those functions this evening, and we are giving much thought to precisely what they should be. Opinions vary on what would be appropriate in the circumstances, and we have heard a number of other suggestions tonight.

The problem with the amendment is that it does not say who will decide what is appropriate for the proper exercise of the forum's functions. The matter cannot be left unspecified because my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is ultimately responsible to the House for the use of resources. Ultimately, the decision on what is appropriate must be left to him. Of course, he will be very willing to listen to the views of hon. Members.

I hope that in the consultations that we shall need to have on this there will not be serious disagreements. In view of the circumstances at this time, it would not be right to press the amendment and I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will seek leave to withdraw it. If he will not, I shall have to advise my hon. Friends to vote against it.

Amendment negatived.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Bill reported, with amendments; considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.-—[Sir Patrick Mayhew.]

12.30 am
Sir Patrick Mayhew

Despite the speed with which the Bill has been taken through House, it has been subjected to sustained and detailed scrutiny and has been improved as a result. I believe that that scrutiny has been well merited. I pay tribute to all those on both sides of the House who contributed to our debates in Committee. I cannot reflect upon unanimity, or even a broad consensus, on many of the issues that were raised, but I fully recognise that they were all motivated by a desire to improve the prospects for securing a long-term political settlement and, ultimately, peace in Northern Ireland. Of course, there are many differing views about how that should be achieved. Those who hold them feel strongly that their particular route forward is the right one. Given the importance of the matter for the lives and well-being of the people of Northern Ireland, they are right to feel strongly about it and to press their case as forcefully and effectively as they have.

However, the overall goal is shared and I hope that we can now leave behind any adversarial feelings that may have been engendered in Committee and look forward positively together to a renewal of the talks process through the complementary mechanisms of the negotiations and the forum—they are complementary—and the elections, which will be a prelude to both. The Bill is aptly entitled the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Bill. It provides a gateway. It is intended to be a gateway and provides the only available gateway to those negotiations. I am grateful for the way in which matters have been addressed.

12.33 am
Mr. McNamara

I did not vote for the Bill and I have not voted in any of its proceedings. In many ways, I regard it as a facade introduced by a weak Government in an attempt to extend their life. It may take forward the peace process in Northern Ireland, but it is 18 months too late. The opportunities that were created by the ceasefires were wasted by the Government.

I hope that it will be possible for the talks to go forward on the suggested date, 10 June. I hope that innumerable fresh hurdles will not be raised to postpone decisions or to prevent matters from being discussed. I hope that, bearing in mind what we have heard during the proceedings on the Bill and some of the matters raised in the White Paper, there will not be one insuperable obstacle at the start which will prevent any other matters from being discussed because if that happens, we shall be right back to where we were before the legislation was introduced.

12.34 am
Mr. Wilshire

I echo the thanks to all concerned. On Second Reading, I welcomed the principle of holding elections because elections let the people decide who speaks for them and will provide the democratic mandate for the various parties. I also said that there was much in the detail of the Bill that we should worry about and that significant changes in detail were needed. A number of amendments were tabled, some of which were technical and some of which dealt with fundamental issues. In the event, the past two days have not turned out as I and, I suspect, some others, hoped. Some of the technical amendments have been accepted and I am sure that everyone welcomes that. I welcome the fact that almost all the deliberations have been conducted in good humour and have been constructive.

However, I regret to have to say at the end of these two days that absolutely nothing of real substance has been changed by our deliberations. Every attempt to ensure that the new ceasefire, which is agreed to be essential, is declared permanent has been rejected. Every attempt to get the requirement to "address" Mitchell turned into a requirement to sign up to it has been rejected and every attempt to limit Dublin to a proper relationship between two sovereign Governments has been rejected. On a number of other important matters, no progress has been made.

Although I still remain keen to see the elections take place and I welcome them, I regret having to say at the end of our consideration of the Bill that the door still remains wide open to more concessions to Dublin, more appeasement of Sinn Fein-IRA and more neglect of the Unionist majority. Elections are real progress, but the Government's stance is as depressing as ever.

12.37 am
Dr. Hendron

I was pleased that the Secretary of State and his Minister placed much emphasis on the importance of the all-party talks rather than that of the forum. In making that point, I do not in any way belittle the points made by others about the forum. I fully understand why the forum is wanted. My party has felt from the beginning that it was not necessary, but it will be a fact of life, so there is no point in going backwards.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said that some stomachs would be turned among those people who went into the forum because gunmen or former gunmen would be there. The whole point of all-party talks and the political process is to take the gun out of Irish politics permanently. It is not just the turning of stomachs but the slaughter of our people that has taken place over so many years.

The Secretary of State emphasised the fact that the functions of the forum would be deliberative. I have been present for most of the debate today and yesterday and, as I understand it, no amendments which were intended to upgrade the forum or make it more significant were accepted.

From my party's point of view, the big date is 10 June for the all-party talks. The Mitchell principles—which have been mentioned over and over again—are not preconditions; they are to do with democracy. I agree with the hon. Members who have said that anyone who really intends to make this process work should have no difficulty in accepting the Mitchell principles because they are about democracy.

My party will enter into the talks on 10 June in good faith. We are aware, as is every hon. Member, that we are divided by history. As a nationalist, I emphasise the fact that some people believe—I am thinking mainly of Irish Americans—that the Protestant Unionist people are blow-ins of the last century. However, they have been here in this country—at least in Ireland—longer than the white star of the United States of America has been there. Obviously, I could develop that point at great length.

Reference has been made to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and questions asked as to whether it worked. The exercise that we are now going through is leading to all-party talks and, hopefully, the promise will be fulfilled. We are replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with another agreement—a broad agreement between the two communities. As one who participated in, totally supported and still supports, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, I have no difficulty in saying that there was no consultation with the representatives of the Unionist people. That was wrong.

To say that the agreement did not work is untrue. The agreement was to do with equality between two communities, between two traditions. If one reads the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the various aspects of it and looks at what has happened, one cannot blame those who brought forward the agreement for the terrible violence that took place on our streets. When two Governments form an agreement, paramilitary people do not say, "That is the answer—we will now lay down our guns". That is absolute nonsense. One cannot say that the agreement did not work.

I conclude on a point that I have raised with the Secretary of State in the past. Yesterday the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) referred to young people getting their names on the register. I do not see that as a major problem. However, what is a problem is the fact that thousands of votes are stolen in every election in Northern Ireland. The votes are stolen mainly by one political group: Sinn Fein. Some years ago, the stealing of votes was an elementary thing, but now it is done professionally.

Driver's licences and medical cards are not proof of identity, and I made this point to the Secretary of State some weeks ago. Today, in the Irish Independent, a newspaper published in Dublin, there is a column on the fact that driver's licences are being produced in Dublin by some renegade organisation and being sold at quite a considerable profit. It is very easy to produce these documents. Any hon. Member could use another hon. Member's medical card as a means of identity—it does not prove identity at all. I have seen many medical cards—as I am a member of the medical profession, it is something that I know about.

In my constituency of Belfast, West personating agents—including people representing me or my colleagues or representatives of any other party—are not allowed to look at documents. When someone presents a document—be it a medical card or a driver's licence—we do not have the authority to look at it. If I am a candidate, I do not have the power to see whether it is a genuine medical card.

I am talking about people voting not once or twice, but 10 or 20 times from 7 am until 10 pm. I appeal to the Secretary of State—as I have done before; and I appreciate that efforts have been made in the past—on this issue. I hope that I am not being arrogant in making the point that medical cards and driver's licences came about over the years through steps taken by me in approaching the Government. I need not go into all that, but that point can be proven without difficulty.

I ask for something to be done between now and the election. One system uses what I believe is an ultra-violet light, under which the voter places a hand. Although that system does not identify the person, it ensures that the person votes only once. I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker. that, in my territory, even if the wrong person votes, the fact that they vote only once means something.

I am sorry for taking up so much time. As I said, we shall enter the all-party talks in good faith. My party will not take a decision for a little while. I leave that issue to my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady).

12.44 am
Mr. Peter Robinson

Hon. Members might want to keep in mind the fact that the gangsters referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron) are the type of gangsters that the Secretary of State has been falling over backwards to involve in the talks process. Those are the people who organise the young fellows to impersonate voters to steal people's votes. The House apparently believes that it is productive to involve such people in the talks process. Those are the people whom the Secretary of State attempts to accommodate and the Government want to elevate.

Now that the House has heard the mild views of the hon. Member for Belfast, West—Madam Deputy Speaker, if he had the time, he could have described to you much more of his experience of what he has to face in west Belfast from that so-called party—we need to concern ourselves with the nature of the Bill as a whole.

Disappointingly—but not surprisingly—the Secretary of State, having given the House a clear undertaking that he would go away and consult and having said that, on that basis, parties should withdraw amendments that they had tabled relating to the list because on Report he would report his conclusions to the House, did nothing of the sort. Even on this Third Reading, he has done nothing of the sort.

It shows how much trust we can have in the Secretary of State when, in the space of a few hours, he makes a commitment to the House, breaches that commitment and does not follow it through. What faith can we or anyone in Northern Ireland have in a Secretary of State who makes such a commitment and breaks it in so cavalier a fashion?

Of course, we have no doubt about what the conclusion is, because the Secretary of State had the decency to whisper it to us. He does not allow the Democratic Unionist party to be on the ballot paper in the manner that the Democratic Unionist party chooses. One political party may have its leader specified on the ballot paper, but not this political party, because the Secretary of State wants to discriminate against it.

There are laws in Northern Ireland about discrimination and about the behaviour of a Minister, and the House may not have the last word on all those issues. It certainly will not have the last word on one issue at least, because the people of Northern Ireland will have the last word.

I look forward to the day when the Secretary of State visits my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim or me and says, "If you would be prepared to change one wee word in this document, it would be very helpful" and I will remind the Secretary of State how helpful he was today when we wanted one wee word changed in a document and he was not prepared to budge. He made no attempt to reach a consensus or to bring parties along with him.

I want to place it clearly on the record that we satisfied the requirements that the Government specified in exactly the same way as the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) did, and that we will fulfil our obligations in exactly the same way as he did. The Minister made it clear that, because the hon. and learned Gentleman had responded in the way that he had, his party's name and his Christian name and surname were put on the list in the way that he required. Different criteria apply to the hon. and learned Member for North Down and to my party. The Government have treated the democratic parties shabbily by not allowing them to describe themselves on the list in the manner that suits them.

In the past 36 hours, we have attempted to inject some degree of democracy into flawed legislation. We attempted to introduce some democracy into the work of the forum, whose role the Secretary of State intends to diminish. We attempted to increase the responsibility of its representatives and their role vis á vis the negotiating teams. However, our every attempt was rejected by the Secretary of State. Let us be honest: he was prepared to accept only those minor amendments that did little more than change the punctuation in the Bill. He turned down all amendments of any substance.

The strength of the arguments was of no consequence because the Bill was agreed beforehand. Minor alterations could be made so long as they did not affect the agreement that allowed the Bill to be brought before the House. With whom did the Secretary of State agree the contents of the Bill? Everyone knows that he agreed the process with Dublin from the communiqué on. No doubt it was Dublin that would not allow the name of the Democratic Unionist party to be changed—everything that the Secretary of State does must meet with the approval of Dublin.

It is a disgrace that the Government of the United Kingdom must toady to the demands of the IRA, by providing it with the date of the commencement of talks and the contents of the Command Paper, and to the demands of Dublin, by agreeing the wording of the Bill. The Government will derive little credit from the way in which they have conducted the proceedings of the House in the past few hours. There will be regret in Northern Ireland that the Government have decided to bulldoze the Bill through the House without making any changes that are meaningful to the people of Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the people will decide. Although the Secretary of State may manipulate the Bill on the basis of his dealings with Dublin, he will not be able to manipulate the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

12.51 am
Ms Mowlam

The Bill, which we support this morning, has the chance to set in train events that offer the first real hope of meaningful all-party negotiations since the IRA ceasefire in August 1994. Tragically, that ceasefire is no longer in place—it was broken on 9 February by a wanton act of violence which threatened to tear the peace process apart.

With the Bill, the House has shown that we will not be diverted from the path of peace by such acts. With talks in sight and a clear route to the table marked out, there is no excuse for the IRA not to restore its ceasefire. We support those who have worked so hard since 9 February to ensure that the ceasefire is retained among loyalist groups. That work must continue.

Elections will be held on 30 May and talks will start on 10 June—after that, the route is much less clear. The issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons will have to be addressed in line with the communiqué of 28 February and the Mitchell report. That is a crucial part of building the trust and confidence—which clearly have some way to go—that have been sought throughout the peace process. Also crucial to building that trust and confidence, as the ground rules document says, is the need for all parties to be assured that a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered. To that effect, we fully support the two Governments in strongly commending the joint framework document as the basis for negotiations.

During the passage of the Bill, the Secretary of State has accepted a number of amendments from hon. Members on both sides of the House. We welcome in particular the amendments that addressed the question of the forum's procedures and dealt with the relationship between the forum and the negotiations, and their timing. We believe that that provides crucial reassurances to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State's acceptance of our amendment No. 55 should provide important assurances for both communities, especially the nationalist community, that their views will not be overridden, but that the focus and culture of the forum will be to seek consensus across the communities. Word to that effect will now be in the Bill, thanks to our amendment. We are grateful to the Secretary of State and to the Minister for offering reassurances on those points and on how consultations with the different parties on the rules of procedure will continue, based on consensus, dialogue and understanding.

The passage of the Bill in the past two days has been at times chaotic and confusing. It may not be the best legislation that the House has produced, but in terms of the time constraints, it is the best that we have managed. We wish to add our thanks to those who have serviced the House during the past 36 hours when we have sat so late. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) was not able to be with us. We have missed his contribution and wish him a speedy recovery.

We believe that the Bill will bring about change. It will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the parties to negotiate a new future for the people of Northern Ireland, of the island of Ireland and of these islands.

12.55 am
Rev. Ian Paisley

I wish to make some remarks on the Bill and how it came to be put before us. We remember that the Prime Minister made it clear from the Dispatch Box that a door to proper negotiations should be opened. Negotiations had been going on behind closed doors, mainly with those who were responsible for bombing, killing and other atrocities. The general public never knew what happened behind those closed doors—what deals were brokered or what promises and assurances were given.

We saw those who were closely associated with vicious acts of terrorism and murder being given offices in the Stormont complex. Their leaders had separate offices and facilities and the members had separate offices and facilities, including members of IRA-Sinn Fein, who have never denounced any act of violence and whose leader refused to condemn, even slightly, the Canary wharf bomb. That leader was installed in the Stormont complex, with his name on the door as president of Sinn Fein and paid for by taxpayers' money.

I resent what was said from the Opposition Front Bench earlier, calling the loyalist groups Protestant gunmen. They are not Protestant gunmen; they are so-called loyalist gunmen. If I talked about the Roman Catholic IRA in the House, I would be shouted at from all quarters, but the Opposition are quite prepared to take the name of Protestantism and use it as a label.

Ms Mowlam

I did not.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Your deputy did that today at the Dispatch Box. That is a very serious matter as far as I am concerned. If one body can be described in one way, others should be able to describe other bodies in a similar way. I remember that when I was a young Member of the House, 20 years ago, I tried to table a motion that mentioned the Roman Catholic IRA. The Clerk told me that he could not accept that, so I took in a motion that Mr. Fitt had tabled that mentioned the Protestant UVF. I asked the Clerk about that and he said that he would have to see Mr. Fitt and get it changed.

The House must realise that it should be fair and even-handed to all parties in the dispute. Of course, even this debate has not been even-handed. The Prime Minister came to the House and said that we will have an election. Of course, that was bitterly and scurrilously opposed by Dick Spring and his ilk in Dublin, who said all manner of things about elections, as if the people of Northern Ireland were not fit to have an election. We were told that an election would only exacerbate the situation, that it would divide the community and that we could not reach a consensus. What happened? The Prime Minister persisted with the idea that we should have an election.

As I have said, on 24 January the Prime Minister intimated to the House, in reply to the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, that he would call for the election. The leader of the Liberal party, the Leader of the official Opposition and other leaders went with him on the proposal. The Prime Minister said: As for the election and the purposes for which it could be used, I see it being used to determine which parties would participate in the talks, and to give each party with elected representation a fresh electoral mandate—testing the extent of its democratic support in current circumstances. I see the election providing a pool of representatives from which party delegations to the talks could be drawn, and a means to index the strength of the parties' delegations in the talks process. He went on: Apart from that, of course"— those were his words— I see the election providing, by weighted majority vote, an initial mechanism for testing widespread acceptability within Northern Ireland of the outcome of any talks process."—[Official Report, 24 January 1996; Vol. 270, c. 357.] That particular proposition was vigorously attacked in the House and amendments were tabled to try to bring about what the Prime Minister promised the people of Northern Ireland at the Dispatch Box would be the result of the election. Those amendments were rejected by the Government whom he leads.

As I have already pointed out, the Prime Minister made another statement to the House on 21 March. He said: The legislation will also provide"— I stress, "provide"— for the forum to be able to conduct hearings at which public submissions by relevant bodies or individuals can be made."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 498.] There is no such provision. I ask the Government to show me one line of a firm provision. In fact, the Government say that they can do it, but there is no legislative power for them to do it. If that is challenged by those in the forum who do not like the forum and want to have it destroyed, what will the Government do?

A provision should have been written into the Bill giving the forum the power to conduct hearings at which public submissions by relevant bodies or individuals could be made. But those two things went by the board. Why? Because of the power of a foreign Government, the Government of the Irish Republic, who leant on the Government and said, "No, you can't do these things." Nor can they when the Dublin Government take it into their head that such things cannot be done.

We have heard great praise of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I was amazed by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Dr. Hendron), who told us that it was a success. If the Anglo-Irish Agreement brought about what everyone seems to want and was a success, why are we here? But it did not bring that about. It could not bring it about. Now it is said that we need a wider agreement. Why, if it was a success?

That agreement was supposed to be the basis of a success. The two Governments would, for the first time, sit round the table, there would be no megaphone diplomacy, they would have a love-in every month and all would go well. But it did not. Then the Government said that they must do something more and we had talks. Those talks came to an end. Who brought them to an end? The Unionists? No. The other representatives from Northern Ireland? No. The southern Government brought them to an end. The southern Government agreed that there would be no Anglo-Irish conference while those talks were going.

On two occasions, the Irish Government decided that they would bring the talks to an end. Why? Because they were not comfortable at those talks. What were they not comfortable about? They were not comfortable about articles 2 and 3 which, at the beginning of the talks, they told us they would address—the same word that has been used before—in such a way that the Unionists would be amazed at how far they would go. They said that their generosity would amaze us. When the matter was first raised at the talks, the representatives of the Dublin Government told us that the best day's work that De Valera ever did was to write articles 2 and 3 into the constitution of the Irish Republic and that they would not budge an inch. Some Unionists—not of my party—went to Dublin to see whether it would help to talk there. When they returned, I asked Sir Ninian Stephen what happened. He said that they got nothing officially or unofficially. I see the leader of the UUP—the party involved—nodding his head. Nothing was gained.

Articles 2 and 3 lay claim to Northern Ireland. They not only lay claim to Northern Ireland but are now buttressed by a finding in the Irish High Court that they are a constitutional imperative for every Minister who takes office in the south of Ireland. Thus, claiming our territory is their objective.

When one of the member states takes on the presidency of the European Union, it is a custom for that member state to play host to all the ambassadors in its capital cities. Some time ago, the United Kingdom held that presidency and the procedure started. A meeting was held in London which all the ambassadors, including the Irish ambassador, attended. There were then meetings in Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the same happened.

Then there was a meeting in Belfast at Hillsborough house. When we arrived, I asked whether all the ambassadors were there. I was told that they were not. The Irish ambassador had said that it was highly insulting for the British to have a meeting in Northern Ireland, because the only people who could really invite ambassadors from other EU countries would be the Irish ambassador and the Irish authorities. The Irish therefore boycotted the meeting. That is why, when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, the Irish Government did not sign the same document but had to have a special one—an agreement between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom with no mention of Great Britain or Northern Ireland. Why was that? It was because of articles 2 and 3.

The Berlin wall in my country is made of articles 2 and 3, built and buttressed by the Dublin authorities. It is illegal. It is a long time since we heard it said at the Dispatch Box that it was illegal, but one Minister did say it.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is straying from the purpose of Third Reading which, I remind him, is to discuss the contents of the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Bill concerns the future of Northern Ireland as directed by the two Governments. I am dealing with one Government who originated the sort of legislation that we are debating. I am trying to highlight the motivation of that Government. Surely I am entitled so to do when that Government have set themselves against the very basis of the status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom.

I am trying to point out that the Bill has on it the shadow of the Irish Republic—not only its shadow but its marks and diktats. It aims to further the interests of the Irish Republic, to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and put it under Dublin rule. That is clear from every step that has been taken in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing street declaration and the framework document. As anyone who has read the framework document will see, there is only one option in it—to go down the road to Dublin.

Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution are repugnant to us. They are illegal, as Ministers have said at the Dispatch Box—although they do not like to be reminded of that. Not only are they illegal; they are immoral and criminal. The IRA, and all republican terrorists, have hidden behind the place of refuge provided by those articles. They have killed people, and then said that they are political killers.

Today and yesterday, attempts were made here to destroy the forum. The Prime Minister told us that it would be very important: he told us that it would not only supply the negotiators but serve as an initial mechanism to test what they were doing. Speaker after speaker has said that the negotiations are all-important. Why must they start on 10 June? Why is the forum to meet a month, or more than a month, after its election? The IRA has set no date for the forum, but the IRA and the Dublin Government certainly set a date for the negotiations to start. They are to start on 10 June: that is the date that we are working towards.

That is why we are here at such a late hour. That is why we have we have debated the Bill for so many hours, but so quickly. We are aiming for a deadline that was set by IRA-Sinn Fein. We do not know whether IRA-Sinn Fein will sign up to the principles, but Mr. Adams told the people of Northern Ireland last weekend that even if its members were not permitted to go they would be there, because they had a mandate. They would ensure that a republican consensus—he used the word "consensus" too—would be the agenda, and he would also ensure the ending of British rule in Northern Ireland.

It is not Members of Parliament who keep us in the United Kingdom. Some of the treatment that we have received in the House of Commons has been nauseating. We are members of the United Kingdom because of our birth and heritage, and our heartfelt loyalty to the principles of democracy as upheld in the history of our nation and the House of Commons, not as a result of any outside force.

Many of my political opponents in the House, with whom I have had great differences, have at least stood up and said, "Let us have a bit of fairness, " but the Government could not be fair. Of course it was all right to give in to the SDLP, because Dublin would be happy about that. In fact, I am glad that that happened: the SDLP had a right to ask for the initial letters of its name to be included. It should not have had to argue.

The Minister said at the outset that he recognised the existence of strong feeling and would give in to it, but when I asked him to say the same in regard to an amendment, he would not. He would not put it to us. Why not? I am a democrat. There are some aspects of democracy that we do not like, but must accept. I would have accepted that amendment, but it was not put to us. It is not on the record of the House that the Secretary of State met the other party leaders. We do not know what the other party leaders said to him. They have not harmed me or my party, but the people of Northern Ireland are already enraged. They say, "Of course, there is always a bias, but it is for nationalism and for Roman Catholics. When it comes to Ulster Protestantism, they will make sure that it will be discriminated against. We have been feeling it." That is the reaction that the Government have brought on themselves.

The Minister with responsibility for political affairs may laugh as much as he likes, but it will be no laughing matter when he returns to Northern Ireland to fulfil some of his engagements and is faced with what he did today in the House. Let us at least have fair play. Justice was not seen to be done today, and well the Minister and every right-thinking hon. Member knows it. Ulster will know it; the election will be set on fire by this very issue and the Government will be responsible for kindling that fire.

The Government have not heard the end of the matter. They can get out of this by at least granting in another place what should be given. What are we asking for? We are asking that any party can put what it likes in its description. One of the parties already has the name of its leader on the paper. Why cannot I as the leader of my party or any other leader put our name on the paper? That is not a big demand, but of course it will not be granted because of the Ulster Democratic party's strength of feeling against this whole conspiracy to sell our Province out to Dublin.

One of the strongest condemnations of the Bill came from the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) who said that here we have Dublin's hand and the power and the voice of Dublin, and that his Government were prepared to heed that voice. Let it be. The people of Northern Ireland will have their election. In spite of all the opposition they will cast their votes, but I see little hope of the Government even listening to that election voice because, as a former Northern Ireland Minister told us, "It does not matter how you vote; we will not pay heed to your vote anyway." But the vote of the people will be decisive and its impact will result in a turning of the tide at last in our Province that has seen all the tragedy, all the agony, all the bloodletting, and all the tears and sorrows of the past years. I trust that the Government will think again and at least do what is right and honourable towards my party.

1.17 am
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Over the past couple of days we have spent about 19 hours in Committee considering the Bill. That is a reasonable period of time, but it is not excessive for the matters that are in the Bill. The record of the names of those who have spoken and for how long will show that in most of the debates the longest contributions were made by Government Front-Bench spokesmen, which is as it should be because the object of the exercise is to probe the Government's position, and that is what hon. Members from various parties have done over these two days.

I think that I am also correct in saying that in Committee the Government made some seven or eight concessions in terms of accepting Opposition amendments, in addition to a couple of Government amendments. In the circumstances, that is probably more than par for the course. It is fair to observe, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) observed, that most of those amendments are comparatively minor. Some of them are a bit more substantial, but perhaps more important than the amendments is the fact that we have had the opportunity to probe some of the more obscure passages in the Bill and have had some Government undertakings about its operation, which I hope will be helpful.

None the less, we send from the House a deeply flawed Bill. It is flawed partly through the unwise decision to depart from normal electoral practice and to adopt a novel procedure, and partly through the difficulties that have flowed from that, which have been reflected in the speech that we have just heard.

The Bill is also flawed in that, for political reasons, unadvisedly, in its drafting and presentation, there has been a concerted effort to overemphasise one of the two tracks. That is a misjudgment on the part of the people who have advised that action. I realise that Ministers are not free agents in the matter. They are constrained by the agreements that have been mentioned in the earlier speeches and by the realities of the forces that are acting on them, both outside and inside the Chamber. The balance, however, has not been a wise one: it has not been struck in the right place.

Looking forward to the Bill's operation in May and June, the job that lies before the parties in Northern Ireland is to make an effort to overcome the flaws in this process. Whether we can succeed remains to be seen, but we will endeavour to do that. We will, however, have to overcome some of the obstacles. I hope that, in our efforts to do so, there will be a ready response from other parties in Northern Ireland.

Some of the deepest flaws are in the so-called ground rules. I noticed the virtual quotation that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) used in her speech when she referred to the need to assure people that there would be a genuine negotiations process on matters of concern to them—which I believe is a rough paraphrase of paragraph 13 of the ground rules paper. I know that, in making that comment, the hon. Lady had her mind focused on the concerns and interests of nationalists, as has been her practice in the past two days. I find that statement in the ground rules deeply ironic from my point of view, and from that of the Unionists—not just my colleagues on this Bench, but elsewhere.

One of the most striking features of the ground rules is a determined effort, primarily by the Government, to exclude us—by which I mean all the Northern Ireland parties—from any negotiations on an issue which for us, the Unionists, is the primary concern in the operation: to replace the flawed instruments of Government under which we suffer and, primarily, to replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Government appear determined to exclude us from that negotiation. That runs counter to the clear statement in the ground rules that the Governments must give the parties concerned an assurance that a genuine process of negotiation has been offered. I look forward, when the time comes, to the Government making the necessary adjustments in their approach to give us a genuine opportunity to discuss the issues.

None the less, the elections will, I trust, take place—if matters go as we expect they will in another place. The two bodies will meet, unfortunately not in the right order, but we will overcome the difficulties that that will cause us. In those bodies, if the parties concerned take their places, as I hope that they will, all the people who have been elected to the forum will have their mandate willingly recognised, especially those who have a genuine mandate. The 20 extra members who have got there despite the operation of the electoral system will have to put up with getting reminders from time to time of the absence of any democratic basis for their presence, but we will tolerate them as well. I hope, however, that the parties will enter into both aspects of the process, because the two relate to each other, and that they will do so in a positive way.

The opportunity exists here for us to carry the process forward—to use the cliché again. We are looking forward to the opportunity to construct new institutions of government and to provide for a more secure future on a better democratic basis than we have had in the past. The opportunity exists to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland and to give them the future that they deserve.

When complaining about some aspects of the Bill, the hon. Member for Belfast, East said that the people of Northern Ireland will have the last word. I think that they will also have the first word. They will speak before others. On 30 May, the people of Northern Ireland will speak and, before any negotiations begin or any debates occur, we shall have heard their voice. I know that that voice will indicate clearly for what there is or is not consent. That will provide a basis on which we can proceed.

There is another aspect of the election that I would like to leave with hon. Members. The assumption exists in a number of quarters that any votes cast in the future will be on predictable lines. I hope that that is not so, because through the electoral process the opportunity exists for the people of Northern Ireland to send a message to all those involved in politics. We have talked about how the forum can be a way in which the public can be involved and so, more directly, can the elections. The opportunity is there for the people of Northern Ireland to send a message.

It has been a commonplace statement during the past 18 months that the people of Northern Ireland have welcomed the relative absence of violence and that they want to see real peace restored. On 30 May, the opportunity will exist for the people to send a message about that and to show by the way in which they vote that they are turning their back on those who have endorsed and tolerated violence and that they are going to support those constitutional parties that are prepared to carry the process forward, if necessary without those who cannot give the necessary commitments about peace and non-violence which will be required at the outset. That is the opportunity for all of us in Northern Ireland and I hope that on 30 May that opportunity will be taken and that we shall have a sound foundation on which to proceed.

1.22 am
Mr. McGrady

I do not intend to delay the House for long at this late hour, but when listening to the contributions to the debate one can only be struck by the fact that the genesis of the reasons for the legislation seems to have been lost entirely. The title of the Bill brings us back to reality—Northern Ireland's entry to negotiations.

It was the inability of certain parties in Northern Ireland to enter into negotiations during 18 months of peace that has precipitated the legislation. During those 18 months, which some have called the wasted months in Northern Ireland, no negotiation or movement of any nature took place. There were two main reasons for that. The first was Sinn Fein's ambivalent attitude to violence and its refusal to issue a firm condemnation of the use and pursuit of violence for political purposes. Secondly, the preconditions of the two Unionist parties included a requirement for a renewal of their elected mandate and a forum.

One can forgive a party for wanting reassurance about its position and strength within our community, but we have had 21 elections in 20 years and, with a variation of 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. in any direction, any of us in the House could predict the strength of the mandate that we shall receive, hopefully on 10 June if we all participate in the elections. So it was not a real requirement, and from where we stood it was a blocking mechanism.

Within four hours of the Mitchell report being announced, before anyone had time to consider the implications, before Sinn Fein particularly, to whom it was addressed, could digest and perhaps make a more positive response, it was announced in the House that elections would take place. That entirely diverted attention away from the Mitchell requirements regarding the abjuring of violence and towards the election process, letting Sinn Fein, the loyalist paramilitaries and others off the hook.

Members of my party and I were opposed to elections not because we are opposed to elections—we have fought them all. And we were against a forum not because we oppose a forum to which people can make submissions of their attitudes and aspirations. We were against elections and a forum because they were simply delaying tactics. Legislation for elections and a forum is not a prerequisite to negotiations, but it is now deemed to be and is treated as such. Fair enough—that is where we are at. We feared and still fear—the atmosphere tonight in the House does not in any way allay our fears—that the election process will exacerbate the differences and push people into manifesto stances that will make it more difficult for all of us to arrive at consensus in the negotiations on 10 June.

The Bill is certainly flawed in many respects. Our amendments had one main theme: to try to ensure that, whatever mechanisms were used, both the negotiations and the forum were based on the broadest possible consensus, which is stated, as I have said several times, in paragraph 24 of Command Paper 3232. That is the only way in which we can resolve the problem.

We seem to have forgotten what the problem is. It is the constant recurrence of violence over decades and centuries in our community. People are taking guns and explosives to try to resolve political problems. That is what negotiations are about. They are not about who wins elections or thumping one's chest and saying, "I did better than the other fellow; I got two more points in an election." Some of the arguments put today were party ego trips about who would do best at the election. That result will make no difference to whether we can resolve the problems of violence and form institutions that will copper fasten an agreed peace and remove violence and the gun from Irish politics from here on. That is the only objective that my party has had in all the proceedings.

If we could sacrifice our political existence for that objective to come about, we would do it willingly in the morning and retire to whatever alternative occupations we might be able to pick up. We are not looking for political advantage. We will certainly strive to get the maximum support, because in that way we can illustrate the support for the consensus politics that we are trying to promote and have tried to promote in the 25 years since the party was formed. All that we are about is getting to the negotiating table.

The ramifications and controversy of the past couple of days have been merely to enable us to get to a conference which, at the end of the day, will not take real cognisance of whether parties got 50 per cent. or 5 per cent. at the election. Negotiators will be representing a viewpoint. If the Bill's intention is in some way to insinuate that a weight of voting can impose a solution on a divided community without the reasonable consensus of the majority and the minority, we are all indulging in a pipe dream. That is what I fear may be happening with the diversion that appears to be taking place, as we forecast it would, because of the acquiescence in the idea that an election and a forum are needed in order to achieve the negotiations. Although the two arrangements will now run parallel, they are not necessarily—and need not necessarily have been—complementary.

All that I can say on behalf of my party is that presumably the Bill will pass into law—good or bad, warts and all, as we say at home. We shall try to ensure that the best possible environment is created to allow the negotiations to start and to evolve in a meaningful way towards the final resolution of the endemic violence, and towards the institutions on which I hope that we can agree, which will copper-fasten the continuance of the peace for which both communities yearn so much, and for which they have suffered so much over many years—not only for the past 25 years, but for generation after generation. My wish and my hope is that our generation can put a stop to that suffering.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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