HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc125-40


Mr. McGrady

I beg to move amendment No. 194, in page 31, line 33, after '(a)', insert 'meeting and'.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 133, in page 31, line 35, at end add `where such agreements and arrangements have been agreed by the Assembly voting on a cross community basis.'. Amendment No. 216, in page 31, line 35, at end add `within the terms of the authority defined in advance for those participating by the Executive Committee and in accordance with the provisions of the Belfast Agreement.'. Amendment No. 96, in page 31, line 35, at end add— '(3) No executive function shall be discharged under this section, by a Minister or Ministers, without the prior approval of the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis in accordance with section 4(5).'. Amendment No. 160, in page 31, line 35, at end add— '(3) No agreement regarding new implementation bodies made by a Northern Ireland Minister under subsection (2)(b) above shall be binding, or shall be considered binding, unless—

  1. (a) it has been approved by a vote of the Assembly with cross-community support; or
  2. (b) it is part of a Bill which has been considered and approved by the Assembly, in accordance with sections 8 to 11 of this Act.'.
Amendment No. 195, in page 31, line 35, at end add— '(3) Participation in the North-South Ministerial Council shall be an essential responsibility of the First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers. (4) The Assembly shall, on the joint proposal of the First and Deputy First Minister, defray a share of the North-South Ministerial Council's expenses, as may be agreed in the Council, and shall ensure the provision of such share of the Council's property, staff and services as may be agreed in the Council.'. Amendment No. 217, in clause 68, page 32, line 7, leave out 'he considers is established' and insert `is proposed to be established in any agreement made by the New Northern Ireland Assembly'. Amendment No. 97, in clause 68, page 32, line 15, at end insert 'but may not be made without the approval of the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis in accordance with section 4(5).`. Amendment No. 98, in clause 68, page 32, line 23, at end insert— '(6) The authority vested in the Secretary of State by virtue of this section shall lapse if the Assembly is dissolved or prorogued:. Amendment No. 197, in clause 79, page 37, line 3, at end insert— `the "British-Irish Council" means the British-Irish Council established pursuant to the Belfast Agreement; the "British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference" means the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference established pursuant to the Belfast Agreement;'. Amendment No. 198, in clause 79, page 37, line 28, at end insert `the "North-South Ministerial Council" means the North/South Ministerial Council established pursuant to the Belfast Agreement;'. New clause 6—Certain bodies to cease to exist when Assembly is prorogued'If the Assembly is prorogued the Civic Forum, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the North-South Ministerial Council and implementation bodies established under Clause 68 shall cease to exist.'. New clause 11—Relations between Northern Ireland Ministers or Departments and authorities in Ireland'—A Minister or Northern Ireland department may—
  1. (a) consult on any matter with any authority in Ireland; and
  2. (b) through the North-South Ministerial Council, and in accordance with the provisions of paragraphs 6 and 12 of Strand Two of the Belfast Agreement, enter into arrangements with any such authority in respect of any transferred matter.'.

Mr. McGrady

Amendment No. 194 is simple and merely inserts the words "meeting and" before the word "consulting" in clause 66(1)(b), which would ensure that the First and Deputy First Minister and other Northern Ireland Ministers did in fact meet, and that the consultation was not by way of letter, telephone call or some other meaningless exercise. They would have a statutory requirement to meet and consult other members of the council and to enter into agreements to that effect.

Amendment No. 195 would add two subsections to clause 66. The first would ensure that participation in the north-south ministerial council shall be an essential responsibility of the First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers. It simply reflects the terms of paragraph 2 of strand 2 of the Belfast agreement, which makes it clear that participation in the council is to be one of the essential responsibilities attaching to relevant posts in the two Administrations", and is fairly self-evident.

The second subsection states: The Assembly shall, on the joint proposal of the First and Deputy First Minister, defray a share of the North-South Ministerial Council's expenses, as may be agreed in the Council, and shall ensure the provision of such share of the Council's property, staff and services as may be agreed". It would oblige the Governments of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that the necessary funding was made available to that body.

Amendments No. 197 and 198 would simply clarify the interpretation of clause 79 by defining the meaning of the British-Irish council, the British-Irish intergovernmental conference and the north-south ministerial council. They are simple matters of clarification of the interpretations given in clause 79. The mention of "line 3" in amendment No. 197 is obviously wrong, because the amendment does not fit in at that point, but I am sure that the Minister gets the drift of the amendments. I want to ensure that the meanings of bodies are clearly understood in terms of the Belfast agreement.

New clause 11 raises my concern about a lack of clarity and some ambiguity in the Bill's legal basis for the operation of the north-south ministerial council. The new clause gives that basis some statutory substance. We have heard the Government argue during consultation and in other ways that such a statement is not necessary, but we who tabled the new clause think that it will remove any ambiguity or other difficulty in interpretation. It is proper that the Bill should provide a legal base for constitutional and institutional arrangements arising from the Belfast agreement. There should be a clear basis for operation of the north-south ministerial council.

Mr. Öpik

I shall comment briefly on amendment No. 160. We want to ensure that the Assembly has some influence on decisions made on a cross-community basis. The Bill currently seems not to include such an assurance. Put simply, the amendment seeks to introduce a safeguard that is consistent with the spirit of the Bill. It will give the Assembly the right to veto agreements Ministers make with Dublin regarding the establishment of any new implementation bodies. Paragraph 12 on page 12 of the Belfast agreement states clearly that any arrangements further to those set out in the agreement are to be by agreement in the Council and with the specific endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly". It may not be necessary for the Assembly to endorse every detail of all routine arrangements between Ministers and Dublin, but it is vital that the Assembly should have the opportunity to veto agreements made in relation to new implementation bodies for the simple reason that the agreement says that it should. However, the Bill does not say so explicitly at present.

I think that amendments Nos. 216, 96 and 133 seek the same assurance. I hope that I do not misrepresent those who tabled them. I infer from my reading of them that the provision has caused considerable worry among various parties. I want the Minister to make it clear for the record that there is an expectation that the Assembly will have the opportunity to veto. Without such a provision, Ministers could make agreements unilaterally with Dublin that cannot be overturned by the Assembly. That is a recipe for difficulties and friction.

Amendment No. 194 creates rather a strong mandate by requiring that Ministers cannot abstain from meeting their counterparts on the council. I assume that my reading is correct. I am not convinced that we want to put such a strong mandatory expectation on Ministers.

Amendments Nos. 197 and 198 try to define the British-Irish council and the British-Irish intergovernmental conference. It is important that we understand clearly what they entail. We must eliminate as much vagary as we can in anticipation of developing strands 2 and 3 further. I want the Minister to explain what safeguards ensure that the Assembly can veto decisions that it does not agree with made by Ministers on its behalf with the Dublin Government.

Mr. Canavan

Some of the amendments mention the British-Irish council, commonly referred to as the Council of the Isles. Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify what the Government have in mind regarding the method of appointment, election or whatever of its members? The Belfast agreement is rather ambiguous. It states: Membership of the BIC will comprise representatives of the British and Irish Governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, when established, and, if appropriate, elsewhere in the United Kingdom, together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The agreement is unambiguous about the representatives of the British and Irish Governments. They will be members of the respective Executives, but what exactly is meant by the term institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales"? Does that mean the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, or does it refer to the Executives or Administrations associated with them? We are entitled to some explanation. Will a Member of the Scottish Parliament be eligible to be a member of the Council of the Isles or would that Member have to be a member of the Scottish Government or Scottish Executive?

Paragraph 11 of strand 3 states: The elected institutions of the members will be encouraged to develop interparliamentary links, perhaps building on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. That body has existed for some seven or eight years. I have been a member of it for almost its entire lifetime. It is a useful body for the exchange of opinion and for bringing closer together politicians from the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Dail and the Irish Senate. It is a pity that the Ulster Unionists choose to boycott that body, because it would be more representative if they came along and expressed their views, and participated in much of the dialogue, whether formally on the Floor of the House or informally after the debates. If they contributed their views and listened to the views of others, that would assist the mutual understanding that is vital if we are to heal the divisions within the island of Ireland.

11 pm

Dr. Godman

My hon. Friend mentioned his membership of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. Paragraph 11 of strand 3 on the British-Irish council says: The elected institutions of the members will be encouraged to develop interparliamentary links, perhaps building on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. Does my hon. Friend believe that the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body will continue to exist once the British-Irish council has been set up?

Mr. Canavan

I seek the Minister's views on that matter. My view, which is not absolutely firm, is that there is merit in having one parliamentary tier, rather than several. The Ulster Unionists may find it easier to enter a broader body that is representative of all the peoples of Britain and Ireland. Do the Government have in mind one parliamentary tier or several? There is merit in the British-Irish council, or the Council of the Isles, replacing the existing British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, but my mind is not closed on the issue.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Amendment No. 96, to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) referred, deals with the rule of the Assembly in relation to any decisions that may be taken in the north-south body. It goes to one of the twin pillars of the agreement and was a central issue during the referendum campaign.

Clause 23 dealt with one area where the Government and the First Minister designate clearly did not live up to their pledges to the people of Northern Ireland, and clause 66 deals with another. Both the Prime Minister and the First Minister designate made a number of commitments. Having looked at the opinion polls and consulted the various working groups that he had set up, the Prime Minister dashed over to Northern Ireland with five pledges, one of which dealt with clause 66. He gave a commitment to the people of Northern Ireland about north-south co-operation. He used the word "co-operation", and made it clear that the body was to have no Executive powers or functions; it was simply a body set up for co-operative purposes. However, his second pledge was that it was to be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Nothing in the Bill says that the north-south council is accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Minister must address that issue.

Having gone that far, the Prime Minister gave encouragement to the First Minister designate of Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who sent to all and sundry a personal letter—well, it was apparently a personal letter, but I rather suspect that he did not sign all the copies himself—which was headed "A Message from the right hon. David Trimble MP Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party". In the letter, the right hon. Gentleman speaks of the creation under the Assembly's control of a consultative North-South Council with no executive powers. When we read the Bill, we need to be clear about whether there is any executive power or function within the north-south body, or whether it is simply consultative.

The body is consultative in the first part of clause 66, but the clause then branches off and states that "participation" is to include: entering into agreements or arrangements with the other member or members of the Council in respect of transferred matters. It is clear from clause 66 that Ministers from Northern Ireland will themselves, on their own, be able to act. Let us look at an example: a Sinn Fein Minister will be able to go down south, sit down with his Dublin counterpart and enter into arrangements and agreements. There is nothing in the Bill that would prevent that Minister from entering into an agreement on his or her own.

Dr. Godman

Clause 66(2)(b) refers to such agreements. Would the hon. Gentleman expect there to be a need for those agreements to obtain the approval of Members of the Assembly?

Mr. Robinson

We do expect that, which is why we have tabled our amendment asking that that should happen, but the Bill does not say that; it would be necessary to return to the Assembly only if the agreement required some form of financial or legislative back-up. If a Minister entered into an agreement with the south in respect of some cross-border matter—for example, a road—he might need finance for his part of that deal, so he would have to go the Assembly in those circumstances. Similarly, if legislation were required, he would have to go to the Assembly. However, if he made an arrangement or entered into an agreement that did not require those things, he could do so on his own.

Under strand 2 of the agreement, under the heading "North/South Ministerial Council", paragraph 3 states that the council can meet in different formats:

  1. (i) in plenary format twice a year …
  2. (ii) in specific sectoral formats on a regular and frequent basis with each side represented by the appropriate Minister".
We are to have the Minister sitting down, by himself, with his counterpart from the Irish Republic, entering into agreements and making arrangements with the Irish Republic, without needing the approval either of his ministerial colleagues or of the Assembly.

That is contrary to the promise given by the Prime Minister when he rushed over to Northern Ireland and personally signed the billboard with five pledges on it, the second of which said that the north-south body would be accountable to the Assembly and would be consultative. Both aspects of that pledge have been broken by the Bill. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party made similar and, indeed, more extensive pledges, which have broken by the Bill. We need to look seriously at the consequences of the Bill going beyond the pledges that were made.

I have to say honestly that I do not believe that the Bill is unfaithful to the agreement as I interpreted it, but the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party interpreted the agreement differently and, on the basis of their interpretation, the Prime Minister was able to swing an extra percentage of people's votes to the yes campaign during the referendum. Those people are entitled to get what the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom promised them they could have.

We have no doubt about what is in the mind of the Government in respect of the north-south body, because the Government revealed their hand when they produced a draft Bill and allowed some of us to participate in consultation. It was good that they did so, and I think that Ministers did the right thing in consulting the political parties, but, in the course of that consultation, they handed over a draft Bill. The original draft contained the disappearing clause 26, which is not in the Bill before the Committee. That clause said: A Minister or a Northern Ireland department may … consult on any matter with any authority in Ireland and enter into agreements or arrangements with any such authority in respect of any transferred matter. That is another issue. How often were we told during the referendum campaign that the Government did not know why Unionists were getting so excited about north-south issues because they related to matters such as animal health and plant welfare? Now we find out from the Bill that any transferred matter—every single function given to the Northern Ireland Assembly—can be dealt with by the north-south body, and arrangements and agreements on those matters can be entered into.

The Minister needs to explain why the Prime Minister has not fulfilled the commitments that he made to the people of Northern Ireland. I cannot ask the Minister to answer for the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, or the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), neither of whom is in his place tonight; one is in the sunshine and the other may be in the darker recesses of the building. If the Minister deals with the Prime Minister's pledge, we will deal at another time with the pledge made by the right hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

The hon. Gentleman will confirm that there are those of us in the Ulster Unionist party who encouraged the electorate to vote for what was in the agreement, not for promises that were added on paper.

Mr. Robinson

Yes, and those members of the party and others who did the same will have been vindicated since the publication of the Bill because the promises that were given have not been honoured and, as a result, many people in Northern Ireland have lost their confidence in the Government and in the process.

Amendments Nos. 97 and 98 are relevant and I ask the Minister to deal with them. Amendment No. 97 deals with the implementation bodies, which are clearly Executive bodies. They implement decisions made by Ministers in the north-south body behind everybody's back. I want the Minister to confirm that, before the Secretary of State confers any powers on those bodies, that decision must have the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If that did not happen, Ministers could enter into agreements without reference to the Assembly and hand over functions to the implementation bodies; before the Assembly knew it, it would have no powers left, because the Secretary of State would have conferred them all on implementation bodies on the basis of agreements reached by Ministers. It is only right that the Assembly should have some say if powers and functions are to be taken from its responsibility and given to all-Ireland bodies.

Amendment No. 98 also deals with implementation bodies. If the power conferred by the clause were to continue after the Assembly was dissolved or prorogued, it could be as dangerous as, or even more dangerous than, it is under the Bill. The amendment would mean that the powers vested in the Secretary of State to confer powers on all-Ireland bodies would lapse if the Assembly were dissolved or prorogued.

The amendment is in line with new clause 6, which states: If the Assembly is prorogued the Civic Forum, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the North-South Ministerial Council and implementation bodies established under Clause 68 shall cease to exist. Many people in Northern Ireland would be very concerned if they thought that the all-Ireland aspects of the deal would live on if the Assembly were dissolved or prorogued.

That would be contrary to the Belfast agreement. [Interruption.] The Minister is listening carefully to me and the Whip at the same time, but he will realise that the agreement states: It is accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements—an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North/South Ministerial Council, implementation bodies, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland—are interlocking and interdependent and that in particular the functioning of the Assembly and the North/South Council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other. It is clear that all those aspects are tied in together, and I want it clearly on the record that all of them fall if the Assembly falls. If the Minister is not able to give me that undertaking, he will depart from the agreement.

11.15 pm
Mr. Winnick

Inevitably, the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) have tried to portray the north-south ministerial council as a sinister plot that, within a relatively short period, will take Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Belfast, East nods his head in agreement. I doubt whether many people see it in that light.

The ministerial council seems to make a lot of sense. Matters of common interest on the island of Ireland can be duly discussed. Undoubtedly, there will be every opportunity for the Northern Ireland Assembly to discuss what has happened and is likely to happen before meetings take place between Ministers in the two parts of Ireland, so the sinister plot that the hon. Member for Belfast, East has been telling us about is far removed from reality.

I want to touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East mentioned.

Mr. Canavan

Falkirk, West.

Mr. Winnick

I apologise.

Again, there will be every opportunity, once the British-Irish council is up and running, for Members of the Assembly to meet British Members of Parliament, and Members from the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The particular point about the eight years of experience of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body is that it has provided for an on-going dialogue between parliamentarians from both Parliaments—the United Kingdom and the Irish Parliaments—with each expressing their point of view in discussions.

It is true that, unfortunately, those representing constituencies in Northern Ireland were not present on that body, but Conservative Members, who take a pro-Unionist view, certainly put that view at every opportunity at that body's meetings. The idea that, because we meet together, we have to adopt someone else's point of view, is nonsense, as has been shown during the eight years of that body.

I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister how he sees the future of that body. I do not take, I must confess, quite the pessimistic view of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). The work that is undertaken may become part of the British-Irish council; on the other hand, the existing body represents two sovereign Parliaments and it may be—I do not know; time will tell and, in another two or three years, conclusions will be reached—a useful supplement to the British-Irish council.

We have no wish—if I may speak on behalf of the British members of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body—to keep ourselves in existence for the sake of existence; to keep our jobs, so to speak. If we have no role to play, so be it, but I need to be convinced, as I believe a number of my hon. Friends have yet to be, that our days are finished. I shall be interested in what the Minister says on that aspect.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

This clause deals with the very important issue of the north-south ministerial council. Those of us who opposed the agreement opposed it because of the formation, or the likely formation, or the anticipated formation, of that ministerial council. Unionists do not oppose co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is no reason why there cannot be co-operation between Ministers and civil servants in the way that Governments normally operate. We do not accept that an institution should be set up to bring that about. We rightly believe that the institution's purpose is to increase and speed up the nationalist desire for a united Ireland and to bring that about in a kind of secret way.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Labour Members have said that the council will be a consultative body. If that is the case, it is strange that it will make decisions and implement them.

Mr. Thompson

The council will be far more than a consultative body. It will have tremendous powers, as the Bill and the agreement show. When Ministers get there, it seems that they will be able to take decisions within the remit of their Departments. There seems to be no necessity for recourse to the Assembly to have those decisions approved. Unionists seek to limit the body while nationalists seek to extend it. That is shown by new clause 11, which states that this new body may enter into arrangements with any such authority in respect of any transferred matter. It is obvious that the new clause would increase the powers of the council, and we reject that. In addition, amendment No. 195 states that the Assembly will be under an obligation to defray a share of the North-South Ministerial Council's expenses, as may be agreed by the Council, and shall ensure the provision of such share of the Council's property, staff and services as may be agreed in the Council. That seems to mean that the Assembly will be expected to pay up, to share the bill, while it will have little influence on what goes on. That is completely unacceptable.

Mr. Winnick

As First Minister in the Assembly, the hon. Gentleman's leader, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), will obviously attend meetings of the north-south ministerial council. I do not understand how he could be persuaded to bring about a united Ireland, because clause 1 makes it perfectly clear that there can be no question of Northern Ireland ceasing to be part of the United Kingdom without the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland voting accordingly. How on earth could the council be described as part of some sort of plot to bring about a united Ireland against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Thompson

Of course, it is obvious that the council's whole purpose is to try to cushion people and to persuade them that this is the way that they should go.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The Bill does not refer to the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland; it refers to the wishes of the majority voting in a poll. We have been over that point. The Government have decided that the majority wish will not prevail.

Mr. Thompson

The majority in a poll can well mean a minority of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. That is another reason why we object to the agreement.

Amendment No. 160,. tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), is welcome and should be supported. It would ensure that any additional implementation bodies would have to have the approval of the Assembly.

The clauses under discussion go to the heart of why we are opposed to the agreement. When the new Executive is set up—I hope and pray that it never will be—there will probably be a majority of nationalists on it. They will be able to go to the ministerial council. They will not always have the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, or the First Minister, with them, so they will have a free hand to do what they like. Unionists will have very little influence and will not be able to stop them. That is why we are against the agreement.

Mr. McGrady

The hon. Gentleman has just stated that the majority on the Executive will be nationalists. That is a total misrepresentation of the application of the d'Hondt principles. How does he square his statement with the reality? I am not sure what party the hon. Gentleman is in at the moment, but certainly the Ulster Unionist and the Democratic Unionist parties, among others of Unionist persuasion, will be on the Executive. Presumably, under the d'Hondt system they will make up at least half, if not the majority, of the Executive. How can he tell the House that that is not the case?

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman should go home and do a bit of arithmetic. If the Executive ever gets off the ground, the proposed composition will be four members of the Ulster Unionist party, probably four member of the SDLP and probably two Sinn Fein members. That seems to me to be a majority of nationalists.

The clause highlights the difficulties we have with the agreement and the Bill. It endorses all that we have objected to and, no doubt, it will lead to very much trouble in the days ahead.

Mr. Paul Murphy

I shall try to answer some of the points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) made a most interesting speech. I cannot say that I agreed with much of it, but I am sure that he was sincere. However, it did not represent what the agreement says or what the Bill incorporates of the agreement.

I want to respond to the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). The British-Irish council is occasionally called the Council of the Isles. That is an accurate description as it comprises more than just Britain and Ireland; it also incorporates the Isle of Man and the channel islands. It is one of the most interesting, if not exciting, aspects of the agreement; the opportunity that it will eventually give, after devolution, to Wales, Scotland, the Belfast Administration, the Republic of Ireland and the British Government is unique. An enormous number of areas can be covered, including cultural, educational, transport and free trade matters. I could go through a long list of areas. The British-Irish council is developing, and the agreement mentions a number of ways in which it may operate.

Who will be on the British-Irish council? The Executives of the Scottish Administration and of the Welsh Assembly will be on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West asked whether parliamentarians may be represented on it. The answer is no, as it will be composed of the Governments—the Executives—of those places.

11.30 pm

As my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West rightly said, however, there will be an opportunity for parliamentarians within those devolved areas of the United Kingdom—whether in Scotland or in Wales—to form themselves into interparliamentary groups, perhaps building on the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary body itself. There may be an opportunity for hon. Members who wish to do so to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, or to make bilateral arrangements within the British-Irish council—between, for example, the Republic of Ireland and Wales, between Scotland and Northern Ireland, and between the Isle of Man and the others parts of the United Kingdom to which it has most affinity. There are all sorts of possibilities. I know that some hon. Members find the idea of interparliamentary links very attractive. We shall develop the idea.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Minister has described the Council of the Isles as a very interesting jigsaw. Does he envisage that it will have also an international dimension? The Nordic Council of Ministers, for example, played such a role under Dag Hammarskjöld at the United Nations. Does the Minister foresee such potential for the council in the international community, beyond the British isles?

Mr. Murphy

The agreement certainly envisages considering examples such as the Nordic Council of Ministers and the co-operation between the Saar in Germany and parts of Luxembourg, between parts of Luxembourg and Belgium, and in Alsace-Lorraine, in France. All those areas have common interests in matters such as declining coal and steel industries. Although they belong to different nation states, they work very closely together.

I think that, earlier in the debate—because of the lateness of the hour—I said "free trade"; I meant to say "trading arrangements". I had better put that on the record.

The British-Irish council, in all its forms, will be a very exciting venture that we can all look forward to. I do not think that many hon. Members will disagree with that.

There is not as much unanimity on strand 2—on the north-south ministerial council—which was the basis of an important division in the referendum. The essence of our debate has been the accountability of Ministers. As the talks on strand 2 developed, it was very important to try to understand to whom the north-south ministerial council would be accountable. It will be accountable both to the Dail, in Dublin, and to the Belfast Assembly. It must be so.

Ministers who will operate the north-south ministerial council are themselves accountable to the Assembly. They cannot go to the north-south ministerial council unless they know that, when they return to the Assembly, they will be able to persuade the Assembly to pass the various measures—whether financial, legal or administrative—that they are suggesting.

The Ministers will also have to report to the Assembly's Committees. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) mentioned those committees being on Ministers' backs. The Committees will be on Ministers' backs also about the north-south ministerial proceedings.

The reality is that none of the arrangements will work unless the Assembly agrees with the way in which the north-south ministerial council operates. The realpolitik is such that the council will work only if the Assembly itself decides that it must work.

Mr. Öpik

That being the case, why will the Minister not accept the amendment, which explicitly states what he says will happen anyway? By accepting the amendment, he would greatly reassure many people.

Mr. Murphy

I have not come to the amendment yet. The hon. Gentleman does not know whether I am going to accept it or not, but we shall soon get there.

The hon. Member for West Tyrone said that there was nothing wrong with north-south co-operation. Such co-operation has occurred for many years and will continue. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have referred many times to the north-south co-operation that already exists. Of course, as members of the European Union, the Republic of Ireland and ourselves will continue to have that co-operation.

Amendment No. 194 stands in the names of the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and others. There is nothing wrong with the amendment, and I am happy to have another look at the points that were raised. It states merely that the north-south ministerial council will have to meet. It will not be much of a council if it does not, but we will need to ensure that that provision is included in the Bill in some form or other. It is probably unnecessary as we assume that the council will meet, but we shall certainly consider the matter.

Other amendments in the group were tabled by the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and for North Antrim, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and, of course, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). Some refer to accountability. I accept that we need to have another little look at how the Bill's wording reflects precisely the spirit of the agreement. The spirit of the agreement was clear. There is no question but that the north-south ministerial council is linked to the Assembly, and that they are interdependent—no Assembly, no north-south ministerial council. That was clear throughout the talks, but how do we make that clear in the Bill?

Some of the amendments go too far—they go beyond what the agreement says. However, amendment No. 216, in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, refers directly to the agreement. It would add the words: within the terms of the authority defined in advance for those participating by the Executive Committee and in accordance with the provisions of the Belfast Agreement. If we refer to the Belfast agreement, we do indeed see the need for the interlinking between the Assembly and the ministerial council.

I accept that amendment No. 160, tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, is very much in the spirit of the agreement, but I am not sure that it is necessary. The establishment of a new implementation body is a matter for endorsement by the Assembly, as envisaged by paragraph 12 of strand 2 of the agreement. Even if a Minister were to attempt to make such an agreement without approval, it would be unlikely to be enough to enable a new body to function because, of course, the Assembly would have to pass laws giving the body the necessary status, and finance would be necessary. The amendment is not necessary, although I accept that it relates to the agreement itself.

Also, Ministers are going to have to sign a pledge of office, and that pledge refers to the accountability that they must have, just as we do, to the Legislature.

Amendment No. 195 in the name of the hon. Member for Foyle and others deals with two separate issues: the responsibility of Northern Ireland Ministers to participate in the council, and the Assembly's responsibility to provide funding. I have some sympathy in respect of both issues, and, if the amendment is withdrawn, we shall certainly undertake to take another look at them.

Amendment No. 97, in the name of the hon. Member for North Antrim, refers to the transitional period between now and when the full powers of the Assembly are in operation. Between then and now, it is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, by order, to deal with these matters. Of course, when the Assembly is up and running, it will be a matter for the Assembly itself, passing its own laws.

In the limited time—if any—that I have left, I shall refer to the other matters raised in this debate, the most important, I suspect, being what happens to implementation bodies and to everything else if all this does not work. As I said last week, we are planning for success, not for failure. It is important to ensure that the Bill reflects not only the agreement, but the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland who voted for the agreement to work.

Nothing in the agreement says that the British-Irish council must wind up if the Assembly is prorogued or dissolved, although that would mean that an important part of that council was not operating. Of course we would have to look at the issue at the time, but if bilateral arrangements were made between Wales and the Republic, for example, the council would not necessary disappear.

Mr. Peter Robinson

May I refer the Minister to the declaration of support in the agreement? Paragraph 5 on page 14 makes it abundantly clear that the British-Irish council is one of the bodies that are interdependent and interrelated and depend on the future of the Assembly. Is the Minister going back on the agreement?

Mr. Murphy

No. Of course they are interdependent, but it is important for everyone—including the implementation bodies—to understand that if something good is set up and working well, it need not necessarily collapse as a result of what may be only a temporary disagreement or problem within the Assembly. I entirely accept that the life of the north-south ministerial council depends on the life of the Assembly—if the Assembly goes, so does the council—but if, as the hon. Member for West Tyrone said, sensible co-operation resulted from the Assembly deciding what would happen by way of an implementation body, is it sensible for that body to disappear?

Mr. Donaldson

I thank the Minister for giving way. He must understand that this is precisely the concern that many Unionists have—

It being six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Bill, THE CHAIRMAN, pursuant to the Order [17 July], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Amendment negatived.

THE CHAIRMAN then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill:

The Committee divided: Ayes 135, Noes 3.

Division No. 348] [11.41 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) McAllion, John
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) McAvoy, Thomas
Allen, Graham McCafferty, Ms Chris
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Atkins, Charlotte McDonnell, John
Barron, Kevin McGrady, Eddie
Bayley, Hugh McGuire, Mrs Anne
Betts, Clive McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Blears, Ms Hazel McNamara, Kevin
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) McNulty, Tony
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) McWalter, Tony
Browne, Desmond Mahon, Mrs Alice
Butler, Mrs Christine Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Canavan, Dennis Michael, Alun
Clapham, Michael Miller, Andrew
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Mitchell, Austin
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Clelland, David Mullin, Chris
Coaker, Vernon Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Colman, Tony Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
Connarty, Michael Öpik, Lembit
Cooper, Yvette Osborne, Ms Sandra
Cousins, Jim Pike, Peter L
Crausby, David Pope, Greg
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Pound, Stephen
Cunliffe, Lawrence Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Prosser, Gwyn
Denham, John Purchase, Ken
Dobbin, Jim Quinn, Lawrie
Dowd, Jim Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Ennis, Jeff Rendel, David
Etherington, Bill Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Rooney, Terry
Fitzpatrick, Jim Roy, Frank
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Foulkes, George
Fyfe, Maria Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Gapes, Mike Sanders, Adrian
Gardiner, Barry Savidge, Malcolm
Gerrard, Neil Sawford, Phil
Gibson, Dr Ian Sedgemore, Brian
Godman, Dr Norman A Skinner, Dennis
Goggins, Paul Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Soley, Clive
Gorrie, Donald Southworth, Ms Helen
Grogan, John Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Harris, Dr Evan Sutcliffe, Gerry
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Healey, John (Dewsbury)
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Temple-Morris, Peter
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Timms, Stephen
Hepburn, Stephen Tipping, Paddy
Heppell, John Touhig, Don
Hill, Keith Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Hood, Jimmy Vis, Dr Rudi
Hope, Phil Wareing, Robert N
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Welsh, Andrew
Hoyle, Lindsay Winnick, David
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Wise, Audrey
Iddon, Dr Brian Wood, Mike
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Woolas, Phil
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Jenkins, Brian Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Jones, Ms Jenny
(Wolverh'ton SW) Tellers for the Ayes:
Kemp, Fraser Mr. John McFall and Jane Kennedy.
Laxton, Bob
Beggs, Roy Tellers for the Noes:
Donaldson, Jeffrey Rev. Ian Paisley and Mr. William Thompson.
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 67 to 69 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 11 agreed to.

Clauses 70 to 76 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 12 agreed to.

Forward to