HC Deb 22 April 1998 vol 310 cc847-89

Order for Second Reading read.

5.2 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

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

Today, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and, on Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave the House some details of the overall settlement reached in Castle buildings on Good Friday. Like them, I pay tribute to all those involved, especially the leaders of the political parties and the talks delegates, who spent more than two years arriving at the agreement that was forged and settled just over a week ago. Underpinning the settlement is the principle of consent, and the triple lock of the parties, Parliament and the people is an essential element in the agreement.

Later tonight, we shall consider two orders: the first provides for a referendum on 22 May; the second brings the life of the Northern Ireland forum to an end after it meets for the last time on Friday. The Bill provides for elections to a New Northern Ireland Assembly to be held on 25 June—subject, of course, to a yes vote in the referendum the month before.

We need the Bill now so that the Northern Ireland parties can prepare for the elections in June and engage in the forthcoming referendum campaign. I do not want to go into the details of the previous debate, other than to say that this is only one of two Bills that will deal with the settlement and the agreement.

If on 22 May the people, as I hope, wish and pray they do, say yes to the agreement, the House will be able to consider a much larger Bill—a major constitutional Bill—to implement the entire settlement. The Bill will make necessary legal provision for the setting up of the north-south ministerial council. It will deal with human rights and equality matters. It will deal with the transfer of all six Northern Ireland Departments to the new Administration. It will, in effect—

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Murphy

Of course.

Mr. Robinson

Will the Minister be helpful by giving the House an assurance that there will be no guillotine whatever when that occurs?

Mr. Murphy

It is not my business to speak on behalf of the Leader of the House, but I can say that in recent months the House has met through the night a number of times and given detailed scrutiny to the Welsh and Scottish Bills. I have not the slightest doubt that every opportunity will be given to hon. Members here and the other place to deal effectively and properly with what will be a major constitutional Bill, with similar status to those relating to Wales and Scotland.

Dr. Godman

These are early days and I am trying to be helpful, but if, as I sincerely hope, we get a yes vote on 22 May, will the Secretary of State seriously consider commissioning an international architectural competition for the design of the new assembly building? [Laughter.] I do not know why there is laughter from the Opposition Benches. I remind my hon. Friend that an international competition is now taking place for the design of a Scottish Parliament and that President Clinton and Congress may well offer to contribute to the building of a new Parliament in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Murphy

That is a very interesting idea. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was shadow Heritage Secretary she took a great interest in architectural matters, but I must tell my hon. Friend that the matter will be for the assembly to decide. I know from experience in Wales that these are not easy matters to consider, and I believe that that is a matter for the assembly to consider, when it is set up.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I have read the document, and it tells me that the Secretary of State says where and when the assembly will meet—and yet the hon. Gentleman now tells us that we shall have a choice in the meeting.

Mr. Murphy

The hon. Gentleman should realise that the Bill sets up what we describe as the shadow assembly. If there is an election on 25 June, as a result of a positive vote in the referendum, of course a place must be found immediately for the assembly to meet to conduct its initial business. That is a matter for the Secretary of State, initially, to decide, but the ultimate home of the assembly must be a matter for the assembly itself—as it will be in other parts of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) asked me whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would institute a competition among architects. I can give an absolute assurance that she will not.

The Bill refers to what has been termed strand 1 of the talks and of the settlement, but the agreement is a package, covering relations north and south, relations east and west and other matters. Even without the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, of which we are all aware, the Bill would be in line with the Government's policy on devolution.

It is right and proper that power comes closer to the people of Northern Ireland, in any event; it is right that the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland is addressed, in any event; but it has a special significance in Northern Ireland because I believe the assembly will be a vehicle for change and for reconciliation, as Members of the Assembly will need to work together for the benefit of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland.

For example, positions of executive authority and chairmanships and memberships of committees will be proportional and based on the number of seats that parties win in the election. Key decisions will be taken on a cross-community basis with the need for significant support from both Unionist and nationalist members elected to the body. The most important appointments of the Presiding Officer, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will have to be made precisely through that method.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Can the hon. Gentleman define what constitutes a key decision?

Mr. Murphy

Yes, that is part of the agreement. A key decision will be defined by a substantial minority of Members in the Assembly, triggering the mechanism by which the assembly will examine major decisions such as the election of the Presiding Officer and the Budget. The agreement outlines in some detail a facility, which is also in the major constitutional Bill, that refers precisely to the way in which those key decisions are defined.

The Bill provides for a shadow assembly that will have to make key appointments, draw up Standing Orders and deal with the smooth transfer of power to the new institutions. The shadow Minister will be consulted by my right hon. Friend and my other ministerial colleagues in the next few months.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The Minister has now turned to the shadow assembly. I am sure that he knows that the Bill does not explain how long that assembly will exist and the circumstances in which it will cease to exist. Can the hon. Gentleman inform the House whether the assembly's existence is time limited and what is the mechanism for bringing it to an end?

Mr. Murphy

The assembly, in terms of membership, will be the same when it has transferred to it the major functions of the Northern Ireland Departments that are now in the hands of my right hon. Friend and other Northern Ireland Ministers. The functions of the assembly will change as a result of the major constitutional Bill that the House must consider in some months. This Bill provides for the elections to the assembly and the functions and preparatory work for establishing the assembly.

Mr. Hogg

As I understand it, the Minister is saying that this body, set up initially as a shadow assembly, will become a full assembly in due course. That means that we must focus on the term of election of individual Members. Does the Minister expect that Members elected to the shadow assembly will become Members of the full assembly? Does he expect that there will be an election in the fairly near future when the shadow assembly will become the full assembly?

Mr. Murphy

No. There is precedent in our system of government to allow for that. Hon. Members may recall what happened—it happened to me 20-odd years ago—when local government in England and Wales was reorganised in 1973. Those who were elected served on shadow local authorities for one year and then assumed the full functions on 1 April 1974. Precisely the same thing will occur in this instance. A four-year term is envisaged in the agreement, but the major constitutional Bill will firm up those provisions.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

The agreement appears to provide that one function of the shadow assembly will be to agree the terms and functions of the north-south ministerial council and the extent of the powers and remit of the cross-border implementing bodies. Is there a time limit within which the shadow assembly must make those decisions, bearing in mind that the shadow assembly will fall if it fails to do so?

Mr. Murphy

The limit is imposed on the basis of when the constitutional Bill is enacted by the House of Commons. That will put into legislation the exact time when the functions of the Northern Ireland Departments will be handed over to the new assembly. At that point, the assembly will cease to be a shadow body and the new assembly will take over.

As to the north-south situation, it was a matter of great discussion and negotiation in the last few weeks of the talks that it was important that Members elected to the Northern Ireland assembly should play a major role in determining the sorts of implementation bodies that would result from a north-south ministerial council. It would not be right for Ministers of this Government, with our Irish counterparts, to deal solely with those matters. It is a matter for those who will be elected in Northern Ireland on 25 June, in consultation with my right hon. Friend and other colleagues.

Mr. McCartney

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. With respect, he has not answered my question. The full constitutional Bill that transfers those powers will do so only if the shadow assembly has fulfilled the criteria that will allow a full assembly to come into being—it must agree the terms and functions of the north-south ministerial council and the terms and remit of the implementing bodies. Is there any time limit on the shadow assembly doing so? Bearing in mind the fact that the north-south ministerial council and the assembly are interdependent, the assembly cannot come into being until the shadow assembly takes that decision. When will the shadow assembly take the decision that will allow for the full constitutional Bill to transfer power?

Mr. Murphy

The deadline is set out in strand 2 of the agreement, which states that the implementation body should be agreed by the end of October. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House today that if he felt that events were not progressing properly on the agreement, the Government will examine the matter in six months' time. That is the date that the agreement envisages. I hope that that helps the hon. and learned Gentleman.

The shadow executive committee will meet the Irish Government in the shadow north-south ministerial council and identify about six implementation bodies, which will be set up by the time the new institutions go live.

The Bill is designed to permit the first election to the new assembly and for the assembly then to begin in the roles envisaged for it in its shadow phase. The major Bill, which we shall introduce later this year, will provide for the agreement as a whole and will replace this Bill's provisions for the conduct of the assembly and regulate future elections. This Bill deals only with the immediate future, as I explained earlier.

Clause 1 sets up the new assembly and states its purpose in the shadow phase. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can refer specific matters to the assembly-particularly those arising from the agreement. She might refer matters such as the assembly's final Standing Orders and preparations for the British-Irish council and for north-south activity. The parties in the assembly may also agree a work plan on the key issues. The Government will consult as far as possible before exercising the powers under the Bill, and we shall always seek to act in the spirit of the agreement. The schedule makes further provision for the assembly to get off to an effective start.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The Bill does not require the Presiding Officer to be a Member of the Assembly, but I understand that part of the agreement was that that should be the case. I refer hon. Members to the Hansard of the Northern Ireland assembly created in 1973, where they will see that the best part of a day was spent taking points of order regarding the election of the Presiding Officer. On that occasion, the Secretary of State had designated that the Clerk of the assembly should be the Presiding Officer until that election. If the Secretary of State is to make the appointment and it has to be a Member of the Assembly, I believe that the role should be clear from the beginning. Much time and energy was lost on that point on a previous occasion. Notwithstanding what was intimated to me during the last Division, I believe that there is a case for allowing the initial sittings of the assembly to be presided over by a distinguished former Speaker of the House of Commons or the Canadian or Australian Parliaments to ensure that the assembly is well run. It should not founder over issues regarding new Members who are probably not familiar with Westminster practice or with "Erskine May" procedure.

Mr. Murphy

That prejudges who will be elected to the assembly. I have not the slightest doubt that men and women of considerable ability will be elected to it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consult the parties before she makes her appointment. It is implicit in the agreement, and I am sure in the legislation as well, that that person will have to be elected to the assembly.

The Secretary of State will also provide a first set of Standing Orders to give a framework so that business can start reflecting those aspects in the agreement relevant to the shadow phase.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I am sorry to be pedantic, as my hon. Friend may think, but as we are reaching the new millennium, there should not be much slack marking in the draftsmanship of the Bill.

Clause 1(2)(b) states that the Secretary of State may refer to the assembly such other matters as he thinks fit. It is palpable that the Secretary of State is not a he, but a she. I do not know why we continue to use the male gender in the Bill, particularly when the draft statutory instrument states therefore, in exercise of the power conferred on her", referring to the Secretary of State—her, rather than him. I am sorry to be pedantic, but it bugs me that in the Bill we do not recognise the gender of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Murphy

I take the point. I noticed it myself when I looked at the Bill. While my hon. Friend spoke, I consulted the Secretary of State. In her inimitable way, she said that she was not unduly perturbed by the references.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Nor should the right hon. Lady be perturbed, because under the Interpretation Act 1978, he means she.

Mr. Murphy

I take the point, and it covers any problem that we might have.

Clause 2 provides for elections to be held on 25 June, presuming of course that there has been a positive result in the referendum. As agreed in the talks, the election will be by single transferable vote, which has been used in Northern Ireland for many years for many different sorts of elections, with six Members being returned from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. The franchise reflects that used in local elections.

We will make more detailed provision for the election in an order to come before the House in the next few weeks. One outstanding point that we shall need to resolve in that order is the method of filling vacancies in the assembly's membership. In the multi-party talks, some parties favoured doing that by a system of substitutions to preserve the original party balance; others favoured conventional by-elections. We said that we would consult on this, and we will welcome any comments offered to us in the coming weeks.

Mr. Hogg

This is one of the points that I raised in the previous debate. The impact of clause 3 is not clear to me. Does the Secretary of State propose to deal with vacancies on a case-by-case basis, or to introduce a general regime that will provide either for by-elections or for substitution, to be approved by affirmative procedure? In any event, does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us feel that that is precisely the kind of issue that ought to be determined by the House and which should appear in the Bill?

Mr. Murphy

I partly agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but not wholly. The determination that my right hon. Friend will make will be based on a general principle, not on individual cases?—that would certainly be wrong. The difference between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and me would be on the basis of consultation. The difference between this legislation and the legislation used for Wales and Scotland is that this is firmly rooted in the talks agreement—the settlement. In the course of two years, and especially in the past few weeks and months, the matter has raised its head. There is some disagreement among talks participants, as they were called. My right hon. Friend and I must consult more widely and come back to get the feeling of the House.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is it not a fundamental abuse of the democratic principle if those who have been elected and who, by death or disability, are no longer fulfilling the office to which they were elected are not replaced in exactly the same democratic and electoral manner in which they were originally elected? Is there any room for debate about that?

Mr. Murphy

There certainly is room for debate. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that debate was not to be lost in the talks that we had over all those months and years. He will also know that there are examples in many other countries around the world that operate on a strictly proportional basis where vacancies are filled by substitution according to the parties.

The difference of view lies in the nature of the proportional system. If it is a strictly additional Member system or a list system, substitution is the only way in which vacancies can be filled. The system that we propose is somewhere in the middle and needs proper consultation. That is why we have decided to talk more about the matter. It is not unusual or unprecedented in other democracies in the western world.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the Minister's giving way. Does he accept that under the single transferable vote system in a six-Member constituency, if the person who came in last were to die, a different party could come in by another vote? Is that not one of the issues that must be considered?

Mr. Murphy

Indeed. That is why the matter must be examined in more detail.

Disqualification from membership of the assembly is largely the same as that in the House. Peers and citizens of the European Union will also, however, be allowed to sit, and so will members of the Senate of the Republic of Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland yearn for peace and political stability. The party leaders and the British and Irish Governments, after more than two years of negotiation, have produced a settlement which, if agreed in the referendum, provides the basis for such a peaceful and stable society. The Bill is the beginning of a new era for the people of Northern Ireland who, as they move into the next century, will govern themselves in a new way that embraces the hopes and aspirations of all communities in Northern Ireland. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

5.26 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I confirm what I said at the Dispatch Box on Monday: my party warmly endorses the agreement. We believe that it is only the first stage in a process that we hope will reach a lasting settlement and peace in the Province.

There are already hiccups along the way, and it is regrettable that since the Secretary of State's statement on Monday, Sinn Fein has failed to endorse the agreement, as we thought it had on Good Friday, and that it is apparently advising its supporters to vote yes in the north and no in the south. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and confirms many of our fears about Sinn Fein-IRA. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State will continue to pursue the process and reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. That is the second time he has used the word process. Does he accept that that causes great concern to many people? It was highlighted in an article in The Irish Times yesterday, which stated that the miasma of peace is there to make way for the concept of process. In other words, we are not reaching a settlement; we are at a staging post in the process towards an ultimately united Ireland.

Mr. MacKay

I shall not pursue the line of argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). The process is long, but I hope that it will reach a lasting settlement. I hope that he will not think it insulting if I say that his argument is mere semantics and that there are more important matters to debate today.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Let us debate them.

Mr. MacKay

Turning to debate them, as my hon. Friend desires, I shall say straight away why we warmly support the Bill and why we have facilitated by an earlier vote the timetable motion and the Bill's being brought before the House so rapidly. We are dealing with an important but small measure and there has been a huge amount of misunderstanding outside the House. Regrettably, some of it has been deliberately created by certain hon. Members. The Bill is not the major constitutional measure that will set up the assembly. It is not the legislation that will change the prisoner release policy in the Province. Those are both major measures, and I am confident the Minister of State and the Secretary of State will want the House to give full time to them.

Let us remind people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere clearly, as the Minister did earlier, what the Bill is all about. The Bill will set up elections for the assembly, assuming that there is a yes vote in the referendum. My colleagues and I are strongly in favour of an assembly in Northern Ireland for reasons that I shall outline. The second purpose of the Bill is to set up a shadow assembly in exactly the same way as shadow local authorities were set up in my constituency about two years ago as part of local government reorganisation. This is not the time or place to discuss in any detail the permanent assembly. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said earlier, there are major issues to be discussed in that context, and that is for another day later in the year.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a Bill that sets up a shadow assembly for Northern Ireland—not a local government body—that in due course is to have legislative and executive powers and will have to decide the functions and contents of a north-south ministerial body and the remit of implementation bodies on an all-Ireland basis is in the context of Northern Ireland not a substantial and significant constitutional matter?

Mr. MacKay

The hon. and learned Gentleman is not correct. If I believed that the Bill, in passing through this place at a rapid pace, would set in place the assembly, with all its powers and responsibilities, the Opposition would not have agreed to its going through the House so quickly.

I do not want to repeat entirely what I said earlier, but this is a simple, straightforward Bill which sets up the elections for the assembly and sets up the shadow assembly. There will be a completely separate Bill introduced later. To quote the Minister, it will be a major constitutional Bill. He has given assurances that it will be considered in the same detail as the devolution measures for Scotland and Wales. I welcome that assurance and I expected nothing less. It would be a disgrace if that were not the position. I am satisfied, and I cannot think of any other reasonable Member of this place who will not also be satisfied.

Going back about 10 years to my days as a parliamentary private secretary to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and subsequently as a founder member of the British-Irish parliamentary body, as a Government Whip dealing with the Northern Ireland Office and more recently as the shadow Secretary of State, I have always been privately profoundly uncomfortable with the fact that first-class politicians from both parties have been Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office and have served to the very best of their ability, which has often been considerable ability, yet elected Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies have had no opportunity to have a say in the running of the Province. In other words, there has been no possibility of their being Ministers.

Direct rule has had some obvious benefits. I do not believe that the Province would have been secure without direct rule. I believe that progress to reduce sectarian friction and violence has been considerable because of direct rule and because of successive Administrations of both parties. However, deep down, I guess that nearly all right hon. and hon. Members cannot feel entirely comfortable with the fact that Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland have had no opportunity to be directly involved with the administration of the Province.

Bearing in mind the fact that local parties, for reasons that we know—the arguments have been well rehearsed—have little powers in the Province, that is, to quote the Minister, a democratic deficit. We now have the opportunity, through the agreement, to put that right. One of the most attractive, positive and important elements in the agreement is that we shall have an assembly in Northern Ireland, which in due course will approve ministerial positions and will, I believe, remedy the democratic deficit. I believe that the responsibility of those ministerial positions for many politicians from many parties will have a sobering and positive effect on the politics of the Province. I look forward to that.

It would be wrong of me to give the impression to Ministers that we do not have reservations. Our reservations were made absolutely clear by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition from the Dispatch Box only a couple of hours ago. We were pleased with and gained some confidence from the letter that the Prime Minister wrote to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), but we have not yet seen the letter. It needs to be fully in the public domain. I am not criticising the Secretary of State, but she did indicate that it would be. The right way forward is for all this correspondence, if this has not already been done—I hope that I am now out of date—to be placed in the Library. If that has not been done—I can see the right hon. Lady nodding—it seems that it will be.

It is essential that no Member of the Assembly is promoted to be a Minister if the paramilitaries with which he or she is associated have not substantially decommissioned, or have in any shape or form continued with violence. I hope that there is consent across the Floor of the House that we cannot have such people having executive responsibility in the assembly. It would bring the assembly into disrepute, and I believe that it would bring down the whole process and a lasting settlement.

The Prime Minister's letter gives us some confidence, particularly when we read it in the Library. However, I think that the Minister of State will agree that the letter in itself is not enough. We completely understand that it was not practical to incorporate the letter into the heads of agreement of the Belfast agreement. We do not quibble about that. We are saying that the major constitutional Bill that will set up the assembly must contain appropriate clauses that completely satisfy right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, who I think share the concern that men of violence must not have ministerial responsibility.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Belfast agreement is the document on which we shall have to vote on 22 May—not that document plus the Prime Minister's letters, or an assurance from any Minister in this place? The Belfast agreement is the document. If the Government proceed in the way in which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, the later Bill will not appear until after 22 May. People will not have an opportunity to consider other documents. They will say, "This document came through my door and I have been asked to say yes or no to it." The hon. Gentleman knows that no statement by any Minister can be added to a document that is to be voted on in a referendum.

Mr. MacKay

It was precisely for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition today sought assurances from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time. I am seeking the assurance that in his winding-up speech the Minister will say that that will be covered in the legislation.

Mr. Hogg

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. MacKay

Perhaps I may be allowed to give a comprehensive answer to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

Such assurances will be helpful and will ensure that a substantial number of voters in the Province who have not yet made up their minds will be able to come to a decision.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have an advantage over him in that I have a copy of the letter. I shall pass it to my hon. Friend as long as he assures me that he will hand it back. The problem is that power will rest with the shadow assembly or the assembly, and the Prime Minister's letter merely states that the Government will support changes in the provisions. However, the power to make those changes lies with the assembly and is therefore outwith the Prime Minister's absolute discretion.

Mr. MacKay

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a valid point, and I promise to return the letter to him. His intervention shows why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I seek additional assurances in legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend is a distinguished lawyer and I am sure that he would be much happier if such assurances were in the major constitutional Bill and not at the discretion of the assembly.

Mr. Hogg

I do not wish to tease my hon. Friend, but it would be much nicer if the power were in the Bill that we are debating because we are also concerned with the shadow assembly. However, by agreeing to the timetable we have curtailed our ability to amend the Bill.

Mr. MacKay

I have known my right hon. and learned Friend long enough to know that he is perfectly happy to tease.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

I should like to respond to my right hon. and learned Friend's intervention before giving way again. It is not for the shadow assembly but for the full-blown assembly that is based on the constitutional Bill to decide on Ministers. I am quite happy for that not to be in this Bill as long as it is in the major constitutional Bill.

Mr. Thompson

Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that an agreement has been made and signed? The idea that it can be changed without the agreement of all the parties to it is nonsense. Little pieces of paper flying around are meaningless. The hon. Gentleman is being negligent. To say that the agreement can be changed is nonsense. Those who have signed have made their bed and they have to lie on it.

Mr. MacKay

I do not accept that, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why if he will listen. We want provisions to be incorporated in the later Bill so that what he describes as little bits of paper floating around will be in a Bill.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay

I should like to make a little progress. Those who are trying to intervene have complained that they do not have enough time for debate. I am anxious not to delay the House so that Members from the Province are able to speak fully on Second Reading and later.

I have two comments that go slightly wide of the Bill, but they cover the overall agreement and are important. First, it is essential to ensure that the agreement releases prisoners prematurely only when we are totally satisfied that they have renounced violence and will not commit further crimes. Perhaps more important, we must be satisfied that those with whom they associate have substantially decommissioned and have given up all forms of violence.

Secondly, we do not quibble with the setting up of an independent commission to look at policing in the Province. Far from being a trap, that will be an opportunity for the RUC, which is one of the world's bravest, most sensitive and courageous police forces. It has nothing to hide and much to gain. At times, its enemies have attempted to distort its work, but I am satisfied that the independent commission will be an opportunity to put the record straight once and for all.

On Monday, I said to the Secretary of State that any change must have the consent of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland and the consent of the parties in the House. Most important, it must have the consent of those who maintain the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and we shall watch carefully to ensure that.

Dr. Godman

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's positive comments on the independent commission. It might be well served if it were chaired by a Scots judge.

Mr. MacKay

I was happy with the hon. Gentleman's intervention until I felt that I was being drawn on the second part of it. He and I have had many happy debates over the years and I do not think that he would expect me to comment on his suggestion.

The assembly election presents great opportunities, and I wish the people of the Province well in electing its Members. In due course, the assembly will have real powers and responsibilities which I am sure the Members of the Assembly will discharge to the best of their considerable abilities. This is a positive day for democracy in the United Kingdom.

5.47 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

It will be difficult to consider the Bill in isolation from the other factors in the agreement. I shall try to resist the temptation to stray into other areas, but if I have to do that I shall try to limit it.

I pay tribute to Ministers in both Governments, the chairman of the talks process and all the people in the other parties for their remarkable tenacity and patience in the talks over the past two years. It is sometimes lost on people that the talks process has been going on for two years and did not suddenly start in the past two or three weeks. That important debate was frustrating and tedious and, at times, it did not seem to get very far, but it was essential to the end product. It was essential that, for the first time, people had a really serious political means by which to begin to gain an insight into not just the other person's argument but their own as well. That was crucial.

It was also crucial that relationships were built up over those two years. I believe that those relationships will stand us in good stead as we go into the next part of the process—the momentous time when the assembly and the north-south and east-west bodies have to be set up. I say that because there will be appreciation within the House of the time and effort that were required. It would be the equivalent of sitting on a Standing Committee for two years non-stop. Those of us who have taken part in Standing Committees for a few weeks realise the amount of detail involved. I pay tribute to all those people for their effort.

I believe that this a turning point. I will make no exorbitant claims, but, as I said on Monday, I believe that it was a mighty victory for the political process over violence, for pragmatism over ideologies which have outlasted their time and, above all, for the confidence and hope that exist in the human spirit to deal with problems that seem insurmountable. A combination of all those things should allow us to recognise, irrespective of our views on some parts of it, that what was done was done in a way that will be fundamental.

We are dealing with one part of the strand 1 element of the agreement, which is the legislation to set up an assembly in the north of Ireland. I believe that an assembly in the north of Ireland is essential. Coming from my political perspective, that may sound strange, but I shall explain in terms of that perspective. Irrespective of what the constitutional position would be in Northern Ireland, whether we were talking about the north remaining in its present status or changing status to what is termed a united Ireland—if that ever came about—there would still be a need for a separate body in the north of Ireland to deal with the uniqueness of the north of Ireland. My political perspective does not colour my opinion that an assembly is necessary. I believe that its necessity in either set of circumstances is self-evident.

After the propositions document was issued by the two Governments when, for the first time in the talks process, public reference was made to an assembly, I and others were demonised for agreeing with or purporting to agree with a partitionist settlement. That criticism came in stringent terms from those in the nationalist community, largely represented by Sinn Fein. It showed the steps that had to be taken to gain an acceptance for the idea that the assembly is worth while.

Mr. Robert McCartney

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Sinn Fein, fronting the IRA and exercising the violence that had a precipitating effect on the agreement, has not signed up to the agreement or accepted the principle of consent, such as it is? It has not agreed through its alter ego, the IRA, to decommission a single gun or a single ounce of Semtex. In those circumstances, is it right to say that this agreement heralds the peace that has produced hysteria and euphoria among many uninformed sections of the community, both on the mainland and in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to stray into other considerations. I should like to answer his question, but I will finish the point that I was making.

When I was demonised over the assembly, one of the allegations was that I was giving power back to the Unionists. Another allegation was that it was a partitionist settlement—that it was reinforcing partition—and that the assembly would, in effect, be an old Stormont. One of the great satisfactions I feel is that it does none of those things. If the aim had been to do any of those things, this legislation would not have come out of the talks.

I shall now deal with the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). I note the position of Sinn Fein and have done so for a considerable time. I note also that had its representatives taken their seats in the House today, they would not have been able to give an opinion. I also note that, if they were standing where I am, they could not say, "Yes, we support it" or "No, we do not support it." I have no doubt that there will come a time when not only will Sinn Fein be giving its opinions, but, unless I am sadly mistaken, we will find that it will be claiming enormous credit, even for the vilified assembly. Knowing the organisation as well as I do, I believe that that will happen.

The hon. and learned Member for North Down also referred to decommissioning. That is an area which we will debate in greater depth on another occasion. However, I have a sincere point to put to the main Opposition party. We all remember Washington 3. It took the Conservative Government many years to wriggle around and somehow get away from that precondition. Would it not be tactically wrong, at this stage or any other, to reinvent Washington 3 mark 2 and end up giving not a disadvantage but a negotiating advantage to those who hold the guns and an advantage in terms of public perception?

I make that point because I know of the sensitivities involved in the issue—I share them. I would be wary of giving any tactical advantage on that issue at this stage. We are setting up a democratic institution. The assembly will be democratic because, for the first time, it will provide an opportunity in the north of Ireland for all people, be they nationalists or Unionists, to work together on the basis of consent and to begin to deal with the problems and divisions of history that have caused us so many problems in the past and in the present. Is anyone seriously saying that it is not a good thing that this legislation would provide for nationalism and Unionism to work together in the same assembly, in the same Cabinet, in the same Administration at all levels, so that the strengths of each community can be jointly used by the entire community in a unity of purpose—this is the unity that counts—which will allow us to create something absolutely new in the north of Ireland?

Mr. Robert McCartney

I respect the sincerity with which those latter views are expressed, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that, for nationalism and particularly for Sinn Fein, this agreement is purely transitional—the final objective is a united Ireland? Within an assembly, that will be the objective of pan-nationalism, just as, within the same assembly, the objective of Unionism will be to prevent that from occurring. The assembly will be a constant unstable battle of political attrition that will render the prospects of peace and reconciliation highly unlikely.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. This is a very important debate and I do not wish to stifle the spontaneity of exchanges, but there is also a programme and limited time, therefore, for everyone to make a contribution.

Mr. Mallon

It is no secret to the hon. and learned Member for North Down that I want and demand the right, by peaceful, democratic, political means, to change the status of the north of Ireland. What this agreement does is allow the means whereby, by peaceful means alone, I and others like me can pursue that objective. Can anyone dispute that?

Mr. Peter Robinson

In the Cabinet.

Mr. Mallon

Yes, in the Cabinet, because never again will people who represent the nationalist community come in the tradesmen's entrance in any assembly. Never again are we going to find that we are permanently excluded from influence, power and responsibility at the highest level. Yes, in the Cabinet and, yes, at every level because that is surely what the essence of consent is. Consent is not just a Unionist requirement in constitutional terms. Consent is also there as an important part of the nationalist community's position.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Does that apply to Sinn Fein as well?

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman should talk to Sinn Fein. He has had the opportunity over two years. I will not act as a surrogate to take messages for him. I have no doubt that Sinn Fein will read them, but I take the point that was made, I think sincerely, by the hon. and learned Member for North Down. Every generation has a right to write its own history and no generation has the right to predetermine the future generation's position, in terms either of Unionism or, indeed, of nationalism.

One of the great disservices that has been done to Unionism over the years is that people have tried to impose the past on a changing present and to cater for the future in terms of that antediluvian past. There is the difference. This element of consent does allow people to work in that way—within Northern Ireland, yes; in this Parliament, yes; in the north-south bodies, yes; in the east-west bodies or the council of the isles, yes. Within that, people have a right, and will exercise it, to try to push and to state their political views, while recognising their duty to fulfil the responsibilities in terms of this legislation and agreement.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is that not the very point that has been made repeatedly over the years to Sinn Fein and, indeed, to the IRA? They have a perfectly legitimate political right to argue for a united Ireland, but they do not and will never have a right in law to try to achieve that by terrorism and violence.

Mr. Mallon

I agree with my hon. Friend. That surely is the essence of a democratic process. It rules out for ever any concept of the unification of Ireland by force, which is absolutely unacceptable and wrong. It also rules out for ever any notion that Unionism in any set of circumstances can be defended by force. Consent to that very important principle is a two-way process as well. I hope that that will be honoured in all ways by all those who agree that consent is very valuable.

Inclusivity is the other very important factor. The day the Sunningdale agreement and the arrangements that were set up there fell was one of the saddest of my life. One of the reasons why the agreement fell—there were many—was its lack of inclusivity. There is always a price for inclusivity. The question is: does the net result that is to be gained by it outweigh the price that has to be paid?

In those talks, I found myself sitting beside someone who had murdered the founding member of our party, a close friend of mine—not across the table, but next door. That is difficult for anyone, Unionist or nationalist, but that is what inclusivity means. Inclusivity does not mean that things can be staged. Inclusivity means that if people get the required electoral mandate, they are members of that assembly. What is more, it means that they are members of that Government.

The interesting thing is that not one party in the talks did not adopt and recommend the d'Hondt system of inclusivity, so, when we debate this further down the line, let us remember that that is the system which was recommended by every single political party. It will have its price in terms of sensitivities, but the net gain in terms of the well-being of people—all people—in the north of Ireland will be seen further down the line.

The ethos of political life in Ireland north and south will change substantially. One has to look only at the constitutional change that will be undertaken by the people in the Republic of Ireland when they go to the referendum to see the extent to which a new ethos will be accommodated in Irish political life.

I think that it is there for all of us to make the adjustments. There are things in this that I do not like. There are things in it that I would have preferred otherwise, but we have all got to live with the parts that we do not like for the greater and, indeed, wider good of everyone we represent.

Mr. Stott

My hon. Friends the Members for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and I have been members of the British-Irish inter-parliamentary body for a number of years. It has made remarkable progress in understanding our positions both on the island of Ireland and on Great Britain. There are two empty chairs and those chairs have not been filled by our Unionist colleagues on the Opposition Benches. It is a tragedy that they have not been there over the years to try to facilitate greater understanding between all our parties and our two nations.

Mr. Mallon

In fact, there were three empty chairs. Mine was empty for the last two plenary sessions because the meetings coincided with crucial stages of the talks. We hope to put that right. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps the council of the isles could encourage Unionist members to play their role in an inter-parliamentary body. If my memory serves me right, in 1986 one of the requirements of the Ulster Unionist party's policy was an inter-parliamentary body. Then, the Anglo-Irish Agreement made a subtle mistake—it found that requirement favourable, so the UUP's policy changed. I do not think that this is a matter of principle for any Unionist, but, in pure political tactical terms, it would be the right thing to do.

I welcome the change relating to disqualification. I served in the Seanad Eireann in 1982, but suffered the ignominy of being hauled before the courts and disqualified from the Northern Ireland Assembly. It did not cause me great concern, but it certainly cost me a great deal of money that I could not afford. Eminent lawyers from both north and south were intent on proving that the Republic of Ireland was no longer a member of the Commonwealth. Be that as it may, I am glad, belatedly, to see the provision go, because it would have been out of tune with the actual thinking and ethos of the agreement.

Of course, getting rid of that piece of legislation will be hailed as another notch—I have to be careful with my terminology—another gain by Sinn Fein. I would have to say to Sinn Fein members, as gently as I could, "Sorry, mates—been there, done that, long before you ever thought of it."

My final point relates to the replacement of members, which is a serious issue. The entire proportionality of the assembly, of its committees and, indeed, of its Cabinet could be distorted if the proportionality on which the assembly was set up were disturbed. We can imagine circumstances in which someone could be sitting as a Minister, but a member of his party dies and at the by-election the party is not returned. Can he then continue to sit as a Minister when the proportionality upon which he was appointed has changed? Imagine how difficult it would be in the by-election process when, in effect, all the parties have recommended proportionality. I ask the Minister to consider that point very carefully, because the entire proportional basis for the assembly could be unhinged.

I welcome the Bill. It will be remarkably different; it will be historic in its own right. There will be difficulties—difficulties in the referendum, difficulties in the election, difficulties in setting up the assembly, difficulties in getting it to operate and difficulties in getting the type of mechanics that are required from a standing start. However, it is a good agreement which stands up to scrutiny, so the one thing that is now needed is inspiration. The people of the north of Ireland need to begin to believe that they can—that we all can—solve this problem. They look to the political parties for that inspiration.

Some will cherry-pick, I have no doubt; some will nitpick, I have no doubt; some will try not to pick, and I have no doubt about that either; but do we not all owe it to the people of the north of Ireland, who have lived through a crucible for almost 30 years, to put our nitpicking to one side and to try to inspire them to give the response that I am confident they will give on the day of the referendum and in future months? That is our challenge.

I put it to those who are opposed to the Bill that there is always something bigger than one's own argument; there is always something more important than one's own ideology; there is always something much more fundamentally important than what we think. I make the plea to them, on this occasion, to think of all the people who live in the north of Ireland and the future that they face.

6.15 pm
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I have been in this House for a fair number of years and, during that time, I have seen cross-party support on a few occasions. It has always been the prelude to disaster. It means that the legislation before the House is not examined in detail and that grave errors will not be exposed. Of course, that is not to say that some legislation, such as the poll tax, which received ferocious opposition did not also prove to be a disaster. When all the major parties put their names to the same bit of paper, heaven help us all in the long run.

When such cross-party support is allied to the rapid passage of legislation—in this case, within 24 hours—the probability of disaster is multiplied. I remind the House of one piece of legislation that went through the House in 1972, which removed the Stormont parliamentary system. Ever since, this House has been engaged in one initiative after another in an attempt to replace it, with scant success.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim)

Does my hon. Friend remember the Child Support Agency legislation, which this House enthusiastically passed and now enthusiastically condemns?

Mr. Ross

The House would enthusiastically love to murder that legislation, if only it could think of something to put in its place. No doubt Ministers are beavering away and will come up with something to replace it in due course.

This debate is supposed to be about the principle of the Bill, but, as the Bill will create an assembly in Northern Ireland in line with the agreement signed within the past week, it is inevitable that the whole question of an assembly will intrude into our deliberations. My view of any assembly is that it should be both democratic and able to work efficiently. Quite frankly, when I apply those criteria to the proposed body, I fear that it will not be the success that those who laud it believe it will be. The end result will be very different.

Mr. Robert McCartney

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was present when the House joined together to endorse the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The Conservative Government said that their aim was to strengthen the Union and the Labour Opposition, under Mr. Kinnock, said that it was a step, albeit a small one, in the direction of a united Ireland. The agreement promised peace, stability and reconciliation for everyone, but ended up with hundreds upon hundreds of deaths, mutilations and mass destruction. Are we in for the same thing again as a result of the happy and unctuous togetherness of the House?

Mr. Ross

To that I would add that Baroness Thatcher, who was then Prime Minister, said that she had signed the agreement to stop the violence, but she came very rapidly to understand that that was not just going to happen.

Before the people of Northern Ireland are really in a position to judge whether the assembly will work, they need to have a very clear understanding of what has been agreed by the parties. Even before the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) intervened, it was clear from what we have heard today that those who are pushing the assembly as the way forward certainly have very different ideas, hopes and aspirations as to where it will end up. We all know that the language of the agreement is ambiguous and that one can take any one of half a dozen meanings from it and extend it in any direction.

The agreement sets up an assembly of 108 Members, a north-south ministerial council and implementation bodies. I noticed that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) swiftly skated over what the implementation bodies were, how they were going to operate and whether they would be able to continue to exist if something went wrong with the assembly, although I do not think that they would be needed then as we also have a British-Irish council, which is the Irish way of saying a British Isles council.

There is also to be a British-Irish intergovernmental conference. Some interesting paragraphs in the agreement state that other types of implementation bodies could be created within that between London and Dublin, bypassing the others if they so wished.

Of course, there will also be certain constitutional changes. As far as I can see, the Bill, sadly, does not detail the changes in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, but the agreement makes it plain that in future the Union will be defended only by the votes of the people in a referendum, which is to be held every seven years or thereabouts. I find that very interesting because the legislation that already exists for the specific purpose of providing for border polls to ask exactly the same question stipulates a minimum of 10 years. Why on earth have we departed from the 10-year rule?

I recall from my brief glance through the so-called Mitchell document that it stipulated five years. We have now gone up to seven, but there was no need for that issue to be raised in the agreement at all. The possibility of a having border poll already existed. Indeed, we could have held one next year. It might not have been a bad idea to hold one now so that before people signed up to this agreement, one could find out whether they were prepared to enter a united Ireland or not.

As most of the Unionist population in Northern Ireland are rapidly coming to the conclusion that the agreement drives us down that road, we would have had a very clear answer before we started erecting a house of cards on a sandy foundation. I believe that the existing legislation allowing for polls to ask whether Northern Ireland is part of Her Majesty's dominions or part of the Irish Republic was quite sufficient, and there was no need for the issue to be raised at all.

The Bill also sets out the make-up of the assembly. There are to be 108 Members. Well, there are, I think, 129 in Scotland which has an electorate of nearly 4 million, and there are 60 for Wales, which has an electorate of just over 2 million. It is interesting that the Government have to bribe all the politicians they can in Northern Ireland with the possibility of a seat in order to ensure that a large number of folk will be prepared to support the proposal within the councils of the various parties.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does my hon. Friend agree that even the simplest soul in Northern Ireland realises that this unnecessary and unjustifiable number has been decided on to minimise Ulster Unionist influence?

Mr. Ross

I agree with my hon. Friend as far as he went, but he should have gone on to point out that the real reason for it was to ensure that the maximum number of Sinn Fein and Protestant paramilitary representatives would be elected. That is the reason for six Members per constituency. Many of those people simply could not get elected on the basis of five per constituency.

Of course, we all know that the weird and wonderful electoral system for the Northern Ireland forum that we are going to bring to an end later this evening was not designed to ensure proper or equitable representation. It was designed, created and used to ensure that all the paramilitaries would manage to get people elected. Once elected, they were able to bring in the same number of people as the major parties in Northern Ireland, so each and every one was on the same footing, although, in fact, there was unequal support for them across the community. That is the only reason for the large number of representatives in Northern Ireland.

The number is even more amazing when we find that the very small number of Northern Ireland Ministers claim that they are doing a very good job at present—they must have a very low opinion of the capacities of the people of Northern Ireland if it takes 108 of them to do what five Ministers are doing at the moment.

We know that the Secretary of State and her Ministers have appointed many quangos to do their job for them. They have expended huge sums of public money without any reference to the democratic principle. In any event, there are now going to be 108 representatives, which is absolutely crazy. It becomes even crazier when one remembers that we now have a civic forum comprising the great and good and those appointed from the voluntary sector. We do not know who is appointing them, or on what criteria, how many of them there are or how they will be funded or staffed, but there is no question but that they will be staffed. It will be the super-quango to end all super-quangos, and it will be the new factory of grievances within Northern Ireland to act as a counterbalance to the assembly when it is set up.

Given all the voting systems in the assembly, it is peculiar that it is only on the issue of leaving the United Kingdom that a simple majority—50 per cent. plus 1—is required. On nearly every other issue, a weighted majority is required. I know the agreement says that within the assembly most votes will require a simple majority, but that depends on whether a decision is considered to be a key decision. The truth is that as it takes only 30 members of that assembly to demand a vote on the basis of a decision being a key decision, nearly everything other than the most minor will be treated as a key decision demanding a weighted cross-community vote to carry it.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Would it be accurate to say, as was said to me at the weekend, that for cross-community issues one has to identify oneself as either "Unionist" or "Alliance"? That would mean, for example, that the Alliance party and any other party of such a nature would not have a status equal to that of other parties.

Mr. Ross

My hon. Friend is correct. One will have to wear a little tab saying, "I'm a Unionist, or "I'm a Nationalist", and the Alliance party tab would have to say something like, "I'm in the middle so I don't really count". I do not know how on earth the Alliance people are going to be weighed in the balance. There will have to be two of them on each side to show that the issue in question has cross-community support. Perhaps instead of declaring ourselves as Unionists or nationalists, we will have to say, "I'm a Roman Catholic" or "I'm a Prod", whatever that may mean, or something else. This matter has not been dealt with so far, and it is remarkable that no one has raised it before.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Is not it outrageous that the agreement asks that people tell us who they represent once the election is over? It is only after the election that they have to determine whether they are Unionists or nationalists. In some cases, people will no doubt determine that on the basis of what suits the voting in the assembly that will then be elected.

Mr. Ross

No doubt the hon. Gentleman will want to pursue that point and I certainly hope that he does. He has raised a number of interesting issues that have not yet been resolved.

Let me turn to the method of dismissing the representatives of murder from the Northern Ireland Executive. There is no way in which we can keep them out. After the election there will be a cross-community election to decide on the Presiding Officer and the deputy presiding officer. There will then be another to elect the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. After that, the d'Hondt system of proportional representation will come into play when Members of the Assembly Committees elect Chairmen on the basis of party strength.

The d'Hondt system is automatic and one can predict the result using the numbers in the forum that will come to an end within a few days. There will probably be two SDLP Ministers and almost certainly two Sinn Fein Ministers in the Northern Ireland Government. In other words, terrorist representatives will sit on the Executive at the very heart of the Government of Northern Ireland with full Executive powers to run a Department within the broad-brush principles that have been set out.

Once the terrorists are in place, it will be almost impossible to remove them because that would require a cross-community vote. I cannot envisage the two SDLP representatives in the assembly voting to remove Mr. Adams, regardless of what the IRA is doing outside.

It seems to me from my reading of the document that the party or group to which a political representative belongs is not relevant; it is whether the individual in post has misbehaved or not. Unless the Minister is found wearing a balaclava, holding a smoking gun, with a corpse in front of him and nobody else within 100 yd, he will be safe. It will be impossible to get rid of him and he will be allowed to continue running the schools, the Department of the Environment or deciding where money will go for industrial development in Northern Ireland. It is a crazy system and is a consequence of having an Executive for Northern Ireland. It is a long way from where my party started in the process.

Although the Prime Minister's letter is very well written and carefully crafted, it does not mean as much as a puff of smoke. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) pointed out, he needs the agreement of all parties to the talks before he can make any change—otherwise the whole system will fall.

I listened with care to what has been said and I have set out the position in terms of the expulsion of the spokesmen for murder-not only from the IRA, but perhaps from the Ulster Democratic party or the Progressive Unionist party. The same system applies. The terrorists—along with their colleagues in the SDLP, as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made perfectly clear—are intent on destroying the Union and they will be put in where they can exert the maximum influence to bring that about. It does not seems to be a sensible way to proceed if one is a Unionist. If the Government wanted to retain the unity of the United Kingdom, they should have tried to do something sensible about it.

There is another little problem that we shall come to later, but I hope that, to some extent at least, it will be addressed in the Secretary of State's reply to the debate. I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Ministers will have read the reports of the Select Committee and the Northern Ireland forum on electoral fraud and seen the evidence. The most powerful evidence in that respect did not come from the Democratic Unionist party, the UK Unionist party or the Ulster Unionist party; it came from Mr. Attwood who represents the SDLP on Belfast city council. It was perfectly plain that massive fraud was being committed by Sinn Fein-1RA in creating votes especially in Belfast, mid-Ulster and Armagh.

What are the Secretary of State and the chief electoral officer doing or what have they done to prevent electoral fraud in the referendum? What steps have they taken to identify people? The Secretary of State knows that one organisation in Northern Ireland has the photographs of more than 900,000 citizens and information about them and could print proper identity cards within a week if it were given the go ahead. I shall return to that at a later stage. The right hon. Lady should know to which organisation I refer, as I hope that only one organisation has that many photographs and is perfectly legal, although the Army and the police may also have the same information. That organisation is perfectly capable of doing the job and a few years ago set up a team to look into producing identity cards for the entire United Kingdom. It has the photographs and they could produce the cards within a week or so. Has the Secretary of State taken any steps towards producing proper identification for electoral matters and other matters in Northern Ireland? I am certain that she has not.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does my hon. Friend accept that the excuse that there is not time to change the current legislation is given the lie by the fact that today's legislation will go through in a matter of hours? In other words, legislation dealing with identity can be changed if there is the will to do so.

Mr. Ross

Of course. If that can be done for one measure, it can be done for another. The fact that the authorities have footled around for the past 10 years is a clear indication that no one wants to be the one to do it, as Sinn Fein-IRA benefits most from the fraud that is taking place.

I am also greatly concerned that, despite all the claims that are being made that the Maryfield secretariat is to disappear, it will remain, but in a different room. It is backed up by the ability to create cross-border bodies, regardless of the existence of the assembly, via a mechanism set up in the context of the British-Irish council and the British-Irish intergovernmental conference.

I am a sceptic, and that is how I am described in the Unionist party at the moment. I have heard the term before and have always been proud to wear that label. To me, a sceptic means someone who looks at what the Government are doing and says, "I see their words, but what the blazes are they really up to?" Whenever I ask that question I often do not like the answer. Nor do Ministers like me asking the question.

I have concerns about the legislation and about the power of the Secretary of State in the schedules to the Bill. In my view, the measure has been rushed. We shall return to the amendments later and the legislation will be rammed down the throats of the people of Northern Ireland who will reap the misery that will be caused by this whole miserable affair.

6.37 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

It is always interesting to listen to the deeply sceptical speeches by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). Earlier he spoke about Unionism and the United Kingdom. In a wider context, with regard to the multinational state that we call the United Kingdom, we are taking part in what can be described only as profound and radical constitutional change. What is taking place in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will reshape the United Kingdom. I offered that point to the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), at the time of the framework document. I said that two or three paragraphs in that document referring to a Northern Ireland assembly represented the beginnings of constitutional change.

Speaking as a federalist, I also said in the company of the then Prime Minister at a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee in Dumfries in June 1996, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), now Deputy Speaker, that in my view with regard to constitutional change in the United Kingdom, within 20 years Scotland would be either an independent nation or a constituent nation in a federal Britain. As a federalist, I think that we are heading down the federal road.

I shall be brief, as I know that many hon. Members are anxious to speak. Last week, in an article that I wrote on the peace talks for my local paper, the Greenock Telegraph, I said that I had prayed on Good Friday that the participants would reach a tolerable accommodation—I have no doubt that 1 was in a large congregation in my prayers on that day.

Many of my constituents—I need hardly say this to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) or the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—have deep family ties with the people from both traditions in Northern Ireland, and I know that some of the Unionist Members are regular visitors to my constituency.

We have other ties with Northern Ireland. Not so long ago, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), I came across a platoon of young Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders down on the border. I had the good sense not to talk to them, as I could see that they were nervous—I speak as someone who served his national service with the Royal Military Police. At a guess, Mr. Deputy Speaker, several of those 20 or so young lads would have come from our constituencies, as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders recruit widely in Glasgow and Renfrewshire.

Incidentally, a local Orangeman—Unionist Members will confirm that there are a few Orangemen in Greenock and Inverclyde—reminded me of the words of the Ulster poet, the late John Hewitt, who wrote in one of his poems: Celt, Britain, Roman, Saxon, Dane and Scot Time and this island tied a crazy knot". I see some of the Unionist Members nodding. He also said: This is my country. If my people came from England four centuries ago, the only trace that is left is in my name. That is something which hon. Members who represent mainland Britain constituencies should remember. I have heard absurd people on the extreme left of British politics talk about white settlers in Northern Ireland. I find that disgraceful—the family of one of my best friends in Belfast moved from Scotland in 1612, so has been there a lot longer than many Irish Americans have been in America.

I welcome the Bill, although I have a couple of concerns. On clause 3, I believe that any vacancies in the assembly can be filled only through a by-election—that is the right and proper way in which to fill vacancies in any assembly or Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is sitting immediately in front of me, has some reservations about that, but a by-election is the only truly democratic way in which to fill a vacancy created by the death or retirement—or, dare I say, the imprisonment—of a Member. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take note of that.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in so far as what he says applies to single-Member constituencies, but does he recognise that, under the single transferable vote system, that approach may distort the concept of democracy?

Dr. Godman

I am not so sure about that. I recall that there were two recent by-elections in the Irish Republic, in Limerick and in Dublin. They were won, I am pleased to say—

Mr. Stott

By Labour.

Dr. Godman

By the Irish Labour party—my hon. Friend should be a little more accurate. That may cause problems in the Dail for the Taoiseach, but I do not think that filling vacancies in such a democratic way would cause problems, and I cannot believe that the hon. Member for Belfast, South is arguing that they should be filled in any other way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not labour that point, which is the subject of an amendment that the Chairman of Ways and Means has selected. The House will be able to consider it in greater detail in Committee.

Dr. Godman

I always abide by your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker—some would call it your instruction.

I was not being facetious when I suggested to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), that we consider holding an international architectural competition for the design of a new assembly. I am delighted that the Minister of State, my hon. and old Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), is here, as he may recall that when I suggested a similar idea some six years ago for the design of a Scottish Parliament, my Scottish parliamentary colleagues laughed me out of the building. However, some 90 firms of architects from throughout the world are now keen to secure that commission.

I assure the House that I shall return to this question. I am conscious of the cost of such a project in Northern Ireland, but similar concerns were raised in the House about the design and building of a new Scottish Parliament. I believe that such a project should be seriously considered, to attract the very best international architects. I should be delighted if an architect from Northern Ireland won the competition, but we should throw it wide open, as we did for the design of the national museum of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament. A new assembly in Northern Ireland—

Mr. Peter Robinson

We have already got one.

Dr. Godman

I know there is one already; I am suggesting a new building.

I believe that a substantial yes vote north and south of the border would offer a remarkable future for the people of all of these islands. I have some reservations—I say this as a friend of the people of the Irish Republic—about the fact that two referendums will be held on the same day south of the border, which may cause problems. I cannot believe that Sinn Fein will argue yes in the north and no in the south—that is utterly illogical. Whatever Sinn Fein's reservations, I do not think that it will argue for a no vote in the south.

As I said, we are experiencing a dramatic constitutional change to our multinational state—I say that as some Opposition Members refer to our multinational state as "this country"—and I sincerely hope that we shall end up with a federal system that incorporates Northern Ireland. I believe that the Bill is good; it will open the door to what could be a remarkable, peaceful and stable future for the people of these islands.

6.48 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I am informed that this debate will end at 8.13 pm, so I shall be as brief as possible. If the hand of history is so heavy upon us, as the Prime Minister said, it is strange that the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party and of the Ulster Unionist party are not present. If it is such an important debate, it is strange that those who did so much to get us where we are today are not here to hear and respond to our objections. They should have been here.

It is wrong to say that the ordinary people of Northern Ireland are cherry-picking or nit-picking. Perhaps hon. Members do not care, because they have not been in the midst of the sorrows, as some of us have. I believe not only in sensitivity but in reality.

When considering a document that promises the release of all prisoners, no matter what murders or other crimes they have committed or what sentences they are supposed to serve, it is best for us to mention those who committed crimes on this side of the water, because I know that republicans tell us that there is no justice in the courts of Northern Ireland and they wave aside sentences by saying that there was no jury.

Take Patrick Magee, an IRA bomber who was behind the audacious terrorist outrage in Britain when the Tory conference in Brighton was bombed. His target was the Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher. She escaped, but five people were killed and many were injured. The trial judge handed down eight life sentences and described Magee, now 47, as a man of exceptional cruelty and inhumanity, but in two years he will be out. That is what the document asks us to agree to.

Take Paul Kavanagh, part of the IRA active service unit that targeted London in the month-long campaign in 1981. He was involved in the bombing of Chelsea barracks, in which two people died. When he was convicted in 1985, he was told by the trial judge: It may be that no Home Secretary will ever think it right to release you. Now 42, he is serving five life sentences and was expected to serve at least 35 years; but in two years he, too, will walk the streets free.

The murderers are not only on one side of the fence: Johnny Adair, believed to have organised the shooting of up to 20 people, was gaoled for 16 years in 1995 for being a commander of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. A Belfast court was told that Adair, 33, was sinister, manipulative and dedicated to the cause of naked sectarianism, with a hatred of those whom he regarded as militant republicans. In two years he, too, will walk the streets free.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is legitimate, when assessing such individuals for release, to consider their personal transformation and renunciation of violence, but that the moment one adds into the equation a consideration of whether their former colleagues or their faction are party to an agreement, one admits that they are political prisoners?

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman knows little about what is happening in the gaols of Northern Ireland. I know plenty, as I have been a prison chaplain for years. There is no sign of repentance in the gaols. They are run as academies for terrorism. The slogans are on the wall. When a person is killed outside, the cheers go up in the prisons. I have heard them.

People keep saying that they are sensitive to the fears, but people on both sides of the religious divide who have been robbed of their wives, husbands or children, or who have given their boys in the defence of their country against the so-called Irish Republican Army, say to me, "What did they die for? To have the killers let out because an agreement has been made?"

I do not know how the House can persuade people that that is the way to peace. The people who have put their finger on the agreement have not apologised by any act or word. There are no fruits meet for repentance.

The two Prime Ministers told us that decommissioning would be addressed first of all and that there would be no talks until it was dealt with, but it was put back and back and back. For the 14-odd months that my party and the UK Unionist party were in the talks, it was said that there was no progress, but when we left the talks there was still no progress until almost the last minute. We were not holding back progress: there was no progress for many months after we left.

We told the people of Northern Ireland in our election literature that if the Government did not deliver decommissioning, the terrorists' representatives who came to the table would have a tremendous advantage, because they could say, "If you don't do what we say, we return to violence." There was not a level playing field. We said that if that happened, we would go, and then we were blamed for keeping our pledge to our constituents. I have no apology to make to the House or to anybody for keeping to what I am mandated to do.

It is strange that the majority of Unionist representatives in the House speak today with one mind, despite their differences on other matters. Those who should be here to defend the document are strangely absent.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

This is the second occasion on which the hon. Gentleman has referred to my party leader, John Hume. He may not be aware of the fact, but Mr. Hume was present in our debate on Monday and had to leave for Brussels on urgent business that the hon. Gentleman will be much more aware of than I am. That is where he is today. We hope to be able to represent his views to the House.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On this occasion, I was referring not to Mr. Hume but to the leader of the Ulster Unionist party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps when the hon. Gentlemen refer to any hon. Member, they will mention the constituency rather than the surname.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should have said, "the hon. Member for Foyle".

All I can say is that the debate lacks reality, when those who proclaim the agreement as the best way forward for Northern Ireland cannot come to the House and debate it with us. The same issue is before the forum.

People say that the Democratic Unionists and the United Kingdom Unionists are not prepared to engage Sinn Fein-IRA in debate. My councillors meet them in debate in the local councils all the time. They would not come to the forum because they would not debate on a level playing field. We invited them to come, but they would not. Debating with such figures is not negotiating one's country's future with them. There is a great difference between debating and negotiating, and that needs to be made clear to the House.

This all came to a head when Mr. Mitchell, who was forced on the forum—he was not the elected chairman, as we in the forum were not even allowed to say whether we wanted him; he was pushed on to us—issued a document. Everyone was told that it must not be leaked and that no one else must see it, because the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and Gerry Adams had a document that the people of Northern Ireland had never seen. All this has flowed from that document, and we have been kept blind to it.

We now have a new document; the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) told the people that it was a terrible document and that he could not negotiate on it. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) said that he would not touch it with a 40-ft bargepole because it was so terrible. The Alliance man—we have alliance representatives here—Lord Alderdice, said that he could not agree with it either and told the Prime Minister, "Get over here quickly, or all is lost."

Now, we have been told that there have been radical changes, that sweat was broken, assurances were given and all the promises made and at last a document has been achieved—the agreement—which is the salvation. I happened to get a copy of the document that Mr. Mitchell put out, and I and my friends went through it carefully. There has been no substantive change. In fact, any changes were not for the good of the Unionist people. The one change that stood out was the release of all the prisoners in two years, which was not in the original document. Instead of improving the situation, the new document was worse.

Mr. Forsythe

Does not the hon. Gentleman think it an absolute disgrace that if the murderer of the Roman Catholic gentleman from my constituency, who was sitting outside a Gaelic club when he was murdered, is brought to justice, he will be released in two years, after all the condemnation of that murder?

Rev. Ian Paisley

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows my feelings about that matter.

We are not considering an assembly with any power—it is not something that any Unionist or any real democrat would accept. The schedule to the Bill states: Meetings shall be held at such times and places as the Secretary of State directs. The Secretary of State will say when and where the assembly will meet. If she does not want it to meet, it will not and if she does—this is what the Bill says and what every supporter of the agreement will vote for tonight—the schedule states:

Proceedings shall be conducted in accordance with standing orders. Who makes those standing orders? It is the Secretary of State, and if she does not like what is going on, she can change them at any time. Is that democracy?

The schedule continues: The Secretary of State shall appoint … the initial presiding officer, and … the initial deputy presiding officer. However, they do not even need to be appointed from inside the assembly, as the schedule does not state that they must be appointed from among the elected representatives. Someone could be appointed from outside, as Mr. Mitchell was pushed in from outside. That is what the Bill states. We must immediately ask ourselves whether we can vote for such a document. How could we?

When a Member resigns his seat, how will it be filled? We are not even told. There are arguments for a six-Member constituency. I have been elected to the European Parliament on a single transferable vote. God forbid that anything should happen to the hon. Member for Foyle, but if it did, the Social Democratic and Labour party would not have a seat. I know all about that. We should be told. This should not be airy-fairy. Let us hear what the Government are going to do, but oh no, the Secretary of State is all-powerful.

The schedule also states: References to standing orders are to orders determined by the Secretary of State from time to time and notified to the presiding officer. The Secretary of State could sit in her office and say, "I don't like the way the assembly carried out its business yesterday. Here is a new order. Send that off to the Clerk and call them to order." Is that democracy? If hon. Members think that it is, let them vote for it, but the people of Northern Ireland are aghast.

I could mention many other aspects of the Bill, but we do not have the time to discuss it. In fact, to discuss it in this House is to discuss it with people who are deaf, because they are determined to vote for it. However, I am glad, because no one fought harder than I did to get a referendum. I did not want a referendum in the south of Ireland—that has nothing to do with our position—but I wanted one in the north. Of course, the voting day has been changed. We never vote on a Friday, but we have to vote on the same day as the south, and that is why the day has been changed. We have always voted on a Wednesday for local government and on a Thursday for Parliament, but that has all changed—get it as near as possible to what happens in the south, and then we shall have the vote.

I have one question for the Secretary of State. At the forum, we were told, "It must be consensus. You must have a majority from the Unionist and the nationalist sides of the House or nothing can carry." If it is proven at the election that the majority of the Unionist people say no, what will the Government do?

7.7 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I will take in earnest your warning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about being brief.

Listening to the debate and in particular to the speeches by hon. Members representing the various Unionist parties, one could be very depressed this afternoon about the future for the people of Northern Ireland. The genesis of this simple Bill was the agreement of Good Friday—I mean Good Friday not in a religious but in a political sense. Hon. Members would be misled if they took many of the remarks made this evening to be the attitude of the people of Northern Ireland. I can but remember on the Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday the huge euphoria and the welcome that people, at least in my constituency, gave the agreement, be they Unionist, nationalist or non-committed. Every single one of them without exception said, "Thank God you have got together. We hope that you can make the arrangements," as we have done substantively, "and give us peace for ourselves and for our children." That was the response that I felt, but I have not felt it during the debate—it is as if I am in a foreign clime.

My constituency is roughly evenly divided, and its people represent the aspirations of all the cross-sections in Northern Ireland. Right across the spectrum, from extreme Unionism to extreme nationalism, there was acceptance of the agreement in my constituency, and I believe that that is reflected in many other constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney

On Monday last, I went to the village of Lisbellaw in Fermanagh to address what I was told would be a meeting of 60 people; 450 turned up at the hall, and 80 stood in the doorway for three hours. All were solidly against the agreement.

Mr. McGrady

I do not know whether to thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention, but perhaps the eloquence of his delivery rather than his arguments brought so many people to the hall. That is for the public to decide at a future time.

The Bill is an enabling measure, and it follows the agreement on Good Friday after, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, a gestation period of two wearying and frustrating years. The negativity of Members representing the various Unionist parties does not reflect honestly the feeling of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not dispute their right to promote such an attitude, but they are not conveying to hon. Members the euphoria and hope felt by the people of Northern Ireland on Good Friday.

The agreement on which the Bill is based is founded on equality, respect and fairness. Built into it throughout are mechanisms for the protection of the aspirations of nationalists or of Unionists and for the prevention of one side overriding, outdoing or in some way conning the other. The people will decide on 22 May whether they support the agreement or not. I hope and am convinced that it will be endorsed substantively.

To express the democratic wish about which we hear so much and which is of paramount importance, the Bill will enable that decision to be initially implemented through the creation of the shadow assembly and the corresponding bodies dealing with the north-south and east-west relationships. We in the Social Democratic and Labour party have laboured for over a quarter of a century to bring those concepts together, as we consider them to be the only way in which to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland, to achieve justice and to protect the various aspirations.

A difficult part of the process, which is often forgotten, is the weaning of people away from the gun, the bomb, the bullet, the punishment beatings and the rest of the paraphernalia of violence and into the democratic process. That will not happen overnight. The process will not embrace all the extremes of our society. We should remember the young men who were shot yesterday in Portadown and extend our sympathy to their families. Violence will continue. It cannot be switched off completely, but I hope that it will decrease, and we must bring into the process those who previously espoused violence.

The agreement creates a situation in which we can all express our aspirations and political philosophies and work for them strongly, but where each is protected from the other by its terms. No one—no party or group of parties—will be able to impose his will on another because protections are in place. It will be difficult, but I should love to think that we shall go forward into this new process with such an ethos.

Those who oppose the agreement and are campaigning to reject out of hand all the work that has been done have given no alternative to the people over the past two and a half decades of violence. At least we have addressed in the agreement the problem of relationships in the north of Ireland, and the problem of relationships between north and south and between east and west. If the agreement goes wrong, so be it, but let the people decide on 22 May and 25 June. We should take their word forward and work with it positively rather than negatively. That is the message on which the Bill is based.

I have two comments on the Bill, the first of which concerns numbers in the assembly. The system of six representatives from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies has been portrayed as a bribe or a sop to small parties, but such a sop could have been contrived much more effectively. We want as many aspects of political life in Northern Ireland as possible to be represented in the assembly in a broad democratic process; we want inclusivity. There is no sinister motive and there has been no bribery to make small parties sign up.

My second point relates to substitution for vacancies, about which there has been considerable debate. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has said, in a proportional representation system it is more just in democratic terms to have a replacement process rather than an elective process to fill a vacancy. In any PR electoral system, the majority party would always win a single by-election, which would deny the system's proportionality. It is logical to make arrangements that presume that parties will negotiate and agree to fill vacancies by means other than the election of a single replacement in one constituency.

I affirm once again that the Bill will enable the people of Northern Ireland to have an election—what is wrong with that?—and to establish an assembly, which I hope and pray will make arrangements to take us into the next millennium in peace. I cannot for the life of me think of how anyone could object to those two principles. The agreement gives the people of Northern Ireland the authority to express their opinion in a referendum. If it is successful and there is a yes vote, they will have the democratic right to elect people to represent them in the new process.

7.18 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I shall be brief, because I am humbled, as the representative of the Liberal Democrat party, to listen to so many hon. Members who have such experience of the Province and bring to the debate not simply the past two years but a lifetime of work there.

I apologise to the House, and especially to the Secretary of State, for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), who had an accident in the Easter holiday. He sends his best wishes. He has worked hard to try to get to know what is happening within the Province.

I have sat here for the past three hours, and have become increasingly depressed that what was an historic achievement on Good Friday should very quickly begin to descend back into the old partisan situation. I understand fully where the Unionist Members are coming from. I hope that hon. Members will give them the respect they deserve for their views, but equally I hope that Unionist Members will recognise that they are at a pivotal point in the history of Northern Ireland, and that the way in which they conduct themselves and the views they represent are important to the whole peace process.

It was rather sad that Senator Mitchell came in for criticism. His work as chairman has been remarkable. I pay tribute from the Liberal Democrat Benches to him, and to all those people of whatever persuasion who paid such a high price to come to the agreement on Good Friday. I welcome on behalf of the Liberal Democrats the ringing endorsements of the Irish Parliament yesterday for both the peace settlement and the agreement. We should not underestimate how important it is that the relationship with the Republic remains on the level it is, and how important it is that its people endorse whatever happens under the peace settlement.

On Monday, the Liberal Democrats made clear with our leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), our position on the agreement. I whole-heartedly repeat on behalf of the party our congratulations and endorsement of the agreement. We generally welcome the Bill, but we do not believe that it is simply a procedural matter, as it has been portrayed by some hon. Members today. It is more than that. It is an important next step on the road to peace. It has to be recognised as such, and not seen simply as a small piece of enabling legislation.

My family come from Ireland—from Donegal. I have large contingents in Belfast, Donegal and Limerick. On Good Friday, I rang up a number of my family both in Belfast and in parts of Donegal. There was genuine euphoria both from people who were hard-line republicans and from people who were very much committed to another route. They saw the agreement as a real step on the road to peace.

I have been going over and back to the Province and to the Republic all my life. It is sad that, in the past 25 to 30 years, the hassles that my relatives have had to put up with have been typical of what ordinary families—ordinary working people—have had to put up with to bring up their families and further their careers.

We welcome the Bill, because we must not waste the opportunity. I find it bizarre that hon. Members on the Unionist Bench feel that consensus is somehow not to be trusted, and regard the fact that parties support each other across the Floor of the House as a conspiracy. I find that rather sad. The public not only in Northern Ireland but across the whole of the United Kingdom have begun to abhor the adversarial way in which the political system operates. They want to see more consensus.

On the streets of Belfast, one would find that an awful lot of people want consensus from their politicians rather than seeing them constantly try to pick faults with each other. Yes, they want argument, and they want the principles and practice to be put forward, but they also want to see their politicians make progress, not constantly go back into the past.

There are clearly a number of problems with the agreement. They will have to be hammered out and argued through over the months, indeed the years, to come, but it is the implementation of the agreement that raises the real issues. The agreement relies on good will. Without good will, it has no hope. That good will needs to be buoyant, and to be buoyed up as we move towards the referendum. The referendum is the first test of the will of the people and whether they have the good will to carry things forward.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) was right to say in an intervention that only time would show whether this was a good agreement. It is only in the months, the years, the decades, to come, that, if the agreement is part of a process to bring lasting peace, people will look back, despite their opposition, and say that it was a price worth paying.

I disagreed with the shadow Secretary of State when he said that the legislation set up a shadow assembly which did not have the same significance as the assembly to come. I think that it has perhaps even more significance. What happens in shadow organisations for local authorities and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies—the relationships, commitments and working practices that are built up—frames the future. The Bill is extremely important. Yes, it sets up a shadow authority, but it is important that that works, and that we recognise as the House of Commons that it is an important step.

I do not want to keep the House any longer, because hon. Members wish to make their contributions, but I commend the Bill to the House. Liberal Democrats strongly support the Government's approach, and trust that the Bill will have a successful passage this evening.

7.26 pm
Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

It is a privilege to speak in this debate, and to bring the voice of my constituents here today, but above all it is a joy to see the Bill brought before the House. It is a significant step forward into a new future for people in Northern Ireland.

People in my constituency have a special relationship with the people in Northern Ireland. They have a special reason to share the desire of so many Northern Irish people for a democratic and lasting peace, which this debate represents. The Belfast agreement states: It is recognised that victims have a right to remember as well as to contribute to a changed society. I ask the House to take a moment to remember Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball—two young boys from my constituency. In March 1993, Tim and Jonathan were killed at the hands of the IRA. The IRA had placed bombs in Bridge street in our town centre. The terror of that bombing and the shock and pain of those two deaths had a terrible impact on our local community. The families of Tim and Jonathan still live every day with that pain.

Last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came to Warrington to join the children's families and many other local people. They wanted to remember as well as to look forward. I know that she noticed the grief that many people there still feel. My constituents know that, for the past 30 years, people in Northern Ireland have faced that terror and pain day after day. More than 3,200 people have been killed in those decades. Their families feel the loss, day in and day out.

The agreement clearly states: The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence. That is what I am here to say today on behalf of my constituents. The voice of the victims and the desire of people for peace is being heard in the House this evening, and it will be heard again on 22 May in the referendum. I am confident, because I hear it from my constituents, that the voice will say, "Peace will be a living memorial. We want no more deaths."

My constituents strongly welcome the reaching of an agreement. We in Warrington are already working to play our part and to make a positive contribution to the success of the peace process. We are building an international peace centre, where young people from the north and south of Ireland and the north-west of England can work together in an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding. Reconciliation is part of our responsibility in Warrington, in the north-west and in England. We recognise that, and we accept it.

The Bill begins the implementation of the agreement—the implementation of the steps towards a lasting and democratic peace. It is a radical step forward—an assertion of the power of the ballot box over the bullet and the bomb—and it has not come before time. It offers the people of Northern Ireland the opportunity of a new future for which they have all worked. On behalf of my constituents, especially on behalf of Tim and Jonathan's families, I support the process within the Bill wholeheartedly, and I hope that the whole House will do so.

7.30 pm
Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

I can remember as a boy sitting at home listening to the coronation of our Queen. I can remember the words coming over the radio: "This is London." I was glad that I belonged to a nation like that. I felt proud that I was a member of that nation. I thought that this was a nation that believed in democracy and law and order, and that it would defend its citizens. Like many other people in Northern Ireland, I felt that we were loyal members of the Union.

Then the IRA and violence came along, and I received a rude awakening, because I discovered that the Government and the people I thought would defend Northern Ireland against terrorism were not prepared to do it. Many men and women in Northern Ireland thought, like me, that they should join the security forces and seek to serve in the fight against terrorism. Many of them gave their lives, but we discovered that successive British Governments did not care tuppence about them, and that, at the end of the day, they were only numbers.

The British Government were not prepared to defeat terrorists. Ministers came to the Dispatch Box and said that terrorists would never succeed, that they would always defend us against terrorism, and that those who murdered and killed would be brought to justice; but, at the end of the day, that was nonsense. At the end of the day, they were more concerned about what Europe thought, about what southern Ireland—the Republic of Ireland—thought, and about what America thought. They were far more concerned about that than about the people of Northern Ireland. When the Government found that they were under all that pressure and discovered that they had not the will to defeat terrorism, at the end of the day they negotiated with the terrorists.

That is what happened in Northern Ireland. The Government failed to defeat terrorism, so they decided to appease the terrorists and to talk to them. What we have seen at Stormont in the past few months has been not a peace process, but an appeasement process. Those who were responsible for terrorism have been rewarded.

We have heard all the arguments about decommissioning, but not one weapon has been decommissioned; we have heard all the arguments about how parties must give a commitment to peace, but no commitment has been given. We now find that those who murdered the people of Northern Ireland will be able to get into an assembly and an executive, and use that position to further their aim of a united Ireland. No matter what the Government say, those are the facts of life.

I have over the years been disappointed in the Conservative party—the party which was supposed to be a Unionist party and the party of law and order, but which started the talks. Because the Conservatives started the process, they cannot say anything against it now it has been completed. That is why we have heard the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), agreeing with it tonight. They started it, so they have to agree with it.

I thought that I was a full citizen of the United Kingdom, but I have discovered in the agreement document that I am no longer a full citizen of the United Kingdom. I find that the Government have conceded the self-determination of the people of all the island of Ireland. That is the reality, albeit that I, for a little while, because it is legitimate, because it is my present wish and because it would be wrong to go against it, will simply be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom.

That is a poor Union. I thought that the Union was a family of people sharing common interests, but I now discover that I shall be treated like a scorned wife and got rid of as soon as possible. The agreement shows that the Secretary of State, whoever that will be, will look at every election and dissect every poll so as to determine, as quickly as possible, whether a referendum can be held to put me out of the United Kingdom. That is the situation we face as a result of the agreement.

I am glad that I had nothing to do with the agreement. I am glad to see that the majority of Members of Parliament for the Ulster Unionist party will vote no in the referendum, as will a majority of Unionist Members of Parliament of all parties. Not only that, but I am glad that the Secretary of State has done a good thing in sending the document to every person and home in Northern Ireland—

Mr. Beggs

Almost every one.

Mr. Thompson

—almost every one. The more they read the document, the more they see how little the United Kingdom is mentioned in it, and the more they see how green the document is, the less easily they will be persuaded to vote yes in the referendum.

I trust that the day will come when the people of this land and the Members of this Parliament will recognise that they will never get peace in Northern Ireland through such stupidity. Governments have been trying this sort of stupidity for 25 years, and every time it has been a failure. There is only one way to get peace in Northern Ireland, and that is, first, to treat every citizen of Northern Ireland as an equal citizen within the United Kingdom, and, secondly, to defeat terrorism, wherever it comes from—

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Including the Loyalist Volunteer Force.

Mr. Beggs

Yes, the LVF, too.

Mr. Thompson

Whether it comes from the LVF, the UVF, the UDF any other "F', it is only by defeating terrorism that we will ever have peace in Northern Ireland—when those who have bombs and bullets no longer have the capability to use them to kill and maim.

Last week, the president of Sinn Fein thanked the IRA for its contribution to the peace process. He said: "This is but a phase; it is but another step towards our ultimate aim of a united Ireland." Now this document puts the IRA in power, and enables its members to continue to pursue their devious paths to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. I hope that that aim will be defeated, and that the people of Northern Ireland will again profess that they are full citizens of the United Kingdom, not second-class citizens.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

I speak as someone who grew up in Ulster and wants to support the Union. Do you not realise that comments such as those that were made earlier, and that you are making, do more to undermine the Union than the actions of Sinn Fein? Such comments will undermine support for the Union. You are being counter-productive. You will not achieve the objective that you have set yourself. You are doing the people of Northern Ireland a disservice.

Mr. Thompson

I do not like being compared to Sinn Fein. I am a democrat. I believe in the ballot box, and I shall accept the results of the ballot box and seek to change the result democratically if I do not like it. I am not involved in terrorism or ticking bombs. I am not trying to get my way by violent means.

7.41 pm
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

I suspect that whatever is said here today by the very few Members of Parliament from Northern Ireland will be futile, in the sense that it will not alter a full stop or comma in the proposed legislation. However, I believe that people should appreciate that the agreement is the product of terror. Terror and terrorist violence produced the policy change that led the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) to say, in January 1991, that Britain no longer had any selfish economic or strategic reason or interest for staying in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. McCartney

No. I shall give way in due course. I am simply saying that that was the start of a policy change.

I listened to the touching speech by the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth). She is right about the bomb in Warrington, because that year two bombs, albeit of very different kinds, had a dramatic effect in developing the Conservative Government's policy: the bomb at Warrington and the bomb at the Baltic exchange.

For 25 years, Northern Ireland was a place apart within the United Kingdom. It was a place where terror could be encapsulated in some sort of safety net that, by and large—there were exceptions—protected the rest of the United Kingdom from the level and degree of violence that saturated Northern Ireland.

Bombs like that at Warrington were two a penny in Northern Ireland; they happened regularly. That is not to suggest that the bomb at Warrington was any less poignant than some of the bombs that took many more lives—including those of young children—in Northern Ireland. However, the bomb at Warrington, like the bomb in the Baltic exchange, was on the British mainland. It was not a place to which terrorists could be sent back in an internal exile process—British citizens, sent back to a part of the United Kingdom because that was where wicked terrorists should properly be kept.

Prevention of terrorism legislation was largely for keeping terror in Northern Ireland. As the late Reginald Maudling once said, for 25 years a level of violence, in human and economic terms, was acceptable in Northern Ireland because the British Treasury and the British public could take it—because, after all, these people, these Ulster Defence Regiment men and Royal Ulster Constabulary men, were being murdered in a strange part of the United Kingdom—indeed, a part of the United Kingdom that many citizens of the mainland did not even fully appreciate was part of the United Kingdom.

For reasons that I have given, those two bombs—at Warrington and the Baltic exchange—changed all that. The bomb at the Baltic exchange is said to have cost more than all the damages paid out in Northern Ireland for death, personal injury and property between 1969 and 1992. Violence had reached a level on the British mainland that was, in economic and human terms, a la Warrington, unacceptable for first-class British citizens living on the main land.

Mr. Winnick

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not forget for a moment the 25 people who were butchered in Birmingham, near my constituency, in November 1974. I do not for a moment wish to minimise the violence inflicted on the people of both communities in Northern Ireland—far from it—and I have condemned it on every occasion, but I hope that he will not give the impression that the violence in the United Kingdom started from the terrible tragedies in Warrington and the Baltic exchange. Remember what happened in Birmingham.

Mr. McCartney

I take the hon. Gentleman's point entirely. Indeed, he will recall that I said that the violence was essentially in, but was certainly not confined to, Northern Ireland. However, we are talking about 3,200 dead in Northern Ireland. I entirely accept that 27 in Birmingham was a terrible atrocity. We are talking about 299 members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary—279 of them murdered by the IRA and 11 by associated republican terrorist organisations.

Ms Southworth

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree with my constituents that the time has come to move on, and move forward toward a peaceful settlement?

Mr. McCartney

I think that is a very lofty sentiment, which many people would endorse; but somewhat facile expressions of emotional sentimentality, while perfectly legitimate, do not answer the question in Northern Ireland.

This agreement permits terrorists who have carried out outrageous crimes against humanity in Northern Ireland to be released within two years. It permits those same terrorists to retain every ounce of Semtex and every gun. It does not require any party representing those paramilitary groups to do anything more than use any influence they may"— "may"; my emphasis— have to persuade those groups to give up their guns.

No one who has lived in Northern Ireland and who is intimately familiar with the IRA believes for a second, at any time, that a single gun or a single ounce of Semtex will be decommissioned until the IRA has obtained its ultimate objective of a united Ireland.

I object to the immorality and the injustice that has been done by the release of prisoners in the service of nothing but political expediency. I object to the suggestion that victims can be palmed off with kind words and the promise of a possible memorial in Londonderry. I think that that debases and diminishes their suffering.

It is very easy to travel lightly over another man's wound. It is easy for Members of this House of Commons to say, "Let us put the past behind us." Will it be easy for members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who have given their limbs and their lives in order to place dedicated terrorists behind bars, to see them walking the streets?

Is it justice that those former terrorists may become members of a community police force? I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have read the agreement carefully. I have also listened to the claims of representatives of Sinn Fein; to Mr. Durkin, who is a senior figure in the SDLP; and to Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald, a former Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland. They have all stated that former terrorists will be eligible to serve in some form of acceptable community police service for Northern Ireland. They may all be wrong, but that is the position.

The police force in Northern Ireland is being demoralised by the early release of people that they have risked their lives to put out of society. They will see them walking the streets and possibly operating in a police force, while they see their own forces demoralised—all for the price of an agreement.

After the treaty of Utrecht, the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, said:

They now ring the bells, but they will soon wring their hands. That was the case. We forget the euphoria that greeted Neville Chamberlain in 1938. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) smiles and laughs, but the same sort of euphoria greeted Mr. Chamberlain. People hung out of the windows and cheered because he had the infamous piece of paper that would prevent bombs from falling on London.

This agreement may be a little longer, but it might be no more substantial in preventing the IRA from returning to London and to places such as Canary Wharf, Hammersmith bridge and Heathrow airport when it decides that the political process has, for the present, nothing further to offer it.

I am always amused to some extent when hon. Members who are among the greatest peripatetics in Northern Ireland stand up and tell the House what the people of Northern Ireland want—what their feelings and desires are. I have lived in Northern Ireland, raised a family and carried on a profession in Northern Ireland for 62 years. My understanding and my feelings about what the people of Northern Ireland want bear very little relation to what casual visitors tell me are the feelings of the people of Northern Ireland.

I object to a process whereby, as shadow Secretary of State, the present Secretary of State for Northern Ireland visited the Maze prison on 16 October 1996 and met two people she did not know: Michael and Johnny. She then told a press conference that Michael and Johnny were two of the unsung heroes of the peace process. Guess who Michael and Johnny turned out to be? Johnny was Johnny Adair, who was doing 16 years for organising up to 20 murders of Catholics; and Michael was Michael Stone, another loyalist psychopath. He went to the Milltown cemetery equipped with several revolvers and bombs, and murdered three or four Catholics and wounded many others. He was described as an unsung hero of the peace process.

We now know why those unsung heroes were so much in favour of the peace process—because they were induced and bribed to support it by the promise of early release. Once they are out of prison, they will return to a life that is depicted on the murals in the H blocks, which say, "The only good Catholic is a dead Taig." We are told that those people, upon their release, will say, "I'm finished with violence, and I won't join in any more." If the House believes that, it will believe anything.

Let me say in closing that I am not opposed to peace. [Interruption.] Labour Members may snigger. However, I am opposed to a process and an agreement that I really believe will create in Northern Ireland a state in transit. States in transit all over the world, from Yugoslavia to Lebanon, provide a field day for warring paramilitary groups, who exploit and inflame the communities they claim to represent. I fear that that will be the ultimate legacy of this peace about which there has been so much euphoria, hype and hysteria.

7.55 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I shall be brief. All hon. Members must welcome steps towards peace—several hon. Members have spoken about that—but it is reasonable that people should have questions about it. I support elections and I support the agreement in principle, but we must ask whether we should look for peace at any price. It is important that we do not. If this peace agreement is to work, it must be built on firm foundations, not on sand.

Senator Mitchell should be congratulated and thanked for his work. Can the House recall his principles? I shall remind hon. Members of them. They state: Accordingly, we recommend that the parties to such negotiations affirm their total and absolute commitment to"— among other things— the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations … To urge that 'punishment' killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions. It is painfully obvious that there has been no disarmament and that punishment killings and beatings continue. We should remember that the UDP was expelled briefly from the talks because of its involvement in killings. Earlier this year, Sinn Fein was expelled from the talks for three weeks because of its association with two killings. Three weeks' expulsion from the talks for two lives seems a little cheap. Punishment beatings continue on both sides, but particularly from the IRA. The police and Ministers know that the IRA has been heavily involved in such beatings throughout the talks. Are we being honest? Are the foundations of this agreement firm?

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) started the process of discussions in 1993, we talked about decommissioning all weapons before terrorists would be admitted to the talks. That condition was then reduced to some weapons as a guarantee of good faith. No weapons have been handed in so far, and the talks have finished. We are voting today on elections in Northern Ireland. Do we expect to see weapons handed in immediately after those elections? When will the decommissioning process begin?

We have heard that IRA murderers and other prisoners will be set free. We must ask what message that sends to those who intend to continue with terrorism—because some may. We must remember that they are not political prisoners: they are criminals, gangsters, hoodlums, extortionists, racketeers and drug dealers. They are rightly sentenced, and every hon. Member has condemned the crimes with which they are associated. What conditions will be imposed upon them, and will they be enforced? Must weapons be surrendered before they are released?

We should mention the victims, as the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) did. Both sides—the IRA and the loyalist terrorists—are rather rich from their drug running, criminal activities, extortion, protection rackets and so on. We might expect some evidence of good faith from them: perhaps they should put some of the proceeds towards compensation. That may be a vain thought, but I voice it nevertheless.

Over the past 30 years, the peace, such as it has been, has been maintained by the security forces, both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the armed forces. I served out there with the armed forces. I do not say that the armed forces were perfect. I served with the RUC. The RUC would certainly not say that we were perfect either, because we had some pretty ding-dong battles or disagreements. I would not say that members of the RUC were perfect, but I would say that they were mostly pretty good. I would say that they were very brave. I would particularly say that the Catholics in the RUC were outstandingly brave, as they, above all others, had to move house and often suffered family separations because of their standing in the RUC.

I know that there is to be a commission on policing for Northern Ireland. I wonder why. I ask Ministers to refer to their own press notice of 7 April, which quotes from a digest of information on the Northern Ireland criminal justice system. It states: More than half of all respondents reported that they thought there were too few Catholics in the police force. We would all agree with that. It continues: The main reason given for this by Catholic respondents was that Catholics would not join because they 'fear intimidation or attack on themselves or their relatives."' Why do we need a commission? We already know why there are so few Catholics in the RUC, and we regret it. That report stands by itself.

I was taught at school never to pay danegeld. There is no real and tangible movement yet by terrorist organisations. No weapons have been surrendered, and punishment beatings and murders continue. I wish the agreement well and I support elections, but if the agreement is built on sand, I fear that we may all rue the day that we pass it.

8.1 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I am mindful of the time and of the fact that under the timetable motion the vote will be taken in 12 minutes' time. I know also that the Minister wants a reasonable time to answer many of the points that have been raised in the debate, so I shall be brief.

I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). Opposition Members welcome the agreement and congratulate all those who have brought the negotiations to the present position. We believe, as the Prime Minister suggested this afternoon, that this is a stage in a process and that there is still a long way to go before we can say that the Government and all those involved have achieved a binding peace settlement. We were grateful for the Minister's reference to the triple lock. Can he give the House an assurance again this evening that he can foresee no circumstances in which that triple lock could be broken? If the present agreement fails, the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the British Government may consider it necessary to present other proposals that may go outside the triple lock agreement.

In his opening remarks, the Minister mentioned that this was the first of two Bills. It is our understanding that the prisoner issue requires primary legislation. Do his comments mean that the prisoner issue will be incorporated in the constitutional Bill to which he referred, which may come before the House in the next Session?

Two crucial issues were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell relating to assurances in the Prime Minister's letter, which has been placed in the Library. They primarily refer to paragraph 25 of strand 1 of the agreement, which deals with the means of removing Ministers and people in office from the assembly. The Prime Minister's letter states: This letter is to let you know that if, during the course of the first six months of the shadow Assembly or the Assembly itself, these provisions have been shown to be ineffective, we will support changes to these provisions to enable them to be made properly effective in preventing such people from holding office. The words we will support changes to these provisions are somewhat ambiguous. Can the Minister clarify whether legislation brought before the House, perhaps in the constitutional Bill to which he referred, could make changes to implement those ideas, and that we do not have to rely exclusively on legislation emanating from the new assembly to make those changes? The wording is ambiguous and it would help enormously if the matter could be clarified.

On decommissioning, the letter goes on to say that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away. Can the Minister give the House some assurance that relevant measures have started? If not, when will they start? Can we have further details about how those are being informed?

8.5 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy

With the leave of the House, I shall do my best to answer some of the points that have been made in the debate.

The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), raised several issues. The letter to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) was placed in the Library of the House this afternoon.

We will deal with decommissioning and the holding of office, which was raised by several hon. Members, in Committee later this evening. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered some points made by the Leader of the Opposition today. He referred to the fact that decommissioning is an indispensable part of the agreement. In answer to the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) on the apparatus for decommissioning, there is no obstacle in the way of decommissioning. The legal technicalities are in place, the schemes in place, and it is up to the organisations that hold illegal arms to decommission them.

This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the fact that the right to hold office is a matter for the assembly, within its code of conduct and Standing Orders. There are aspects of the agreement that deal specifically with that. My right hon. Friend said that he would review the matter in six months' time. I shall return to the subject later this evening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made an exceptionally powerful speech. He referred to unity of purpose within the new structures. All of us would pay tribute to him for his valuable contribution over two years in the talks.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) referred to numbers in the assembly and the electoral system. My only answer is that those issues were specifically dealt with in the agreement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently reviewing electoral fraud as a result of evidence given to her by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the forum committee, which did good work on the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) spoke of the filling of vacancies by by-elections or substitution. That, as I said earlier, is a matter for consultation with the parties. The Bill allows for the Secretary of State to take into account the result of that consultation.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred to decommissioning and the powers of the Secretary of State. They will be dealt with later, in Committee.

The House will agree with the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) in condemning the recent murders that have taken place. Again, the filling of vacancies will be a matter for consultation. I agree with him on numbers and the new assembly. I also agree that the assembly will successfully fill the democratic deficit.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) raised various interesting points. I wish the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) well and hope to see him soon in the House. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the three independent chairmen did excellent work in the talks, which would not have succeeded without them. I agree, too, that the Bill is not an unimportant issue and that it paves the way for local democracy.

In a moving speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Ms Southworth) reminded us about the victims of violence, especially in Britain but also in the rest of the United Kingdom. We all listened with great interest to the tribute that she paid to the people in her constituency.

I did not agree with anything that the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) said, but in the referendum the people of Northern Ireland will make up their minds about the matters to which he referred.

I did not agree with much that the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) said. I accept that he has lived in Northern Ireland all his life and practised there as a barrister, but it is for the women and men of Northern Ireland to decide on 22 May what they think of the agreement.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) referred to the agreement in not particularly glowing terms. I believe that he thinks sincerely that peace should come about in Northern Ireland, but he has some doubts about the agreement. The agreement was the work of the parties in the talks process, not only the two Governments. We have to accept that the referendum is the time that will tell.

Finally, I can assure the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) that there will be a separate Bill for the release of prisoners issue. I agree that there is a long way to go before there is a firm settlement. I agree also that, ultimately, the triple lock must be put into effect. There can be no imposition on the people of Northern Ireland, but the parties have decided, the House will decide later tonight and the referendum is to take place on 22 May. I believe that there will be a resounding yes to the agreement from the people of Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

Further proceedings postponed, pursuant to Order [this day].