HC Deb 17 June 1998 vol 314 cc347-9
3. Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

If she will make a statement on arrangements for the first meeting of the Northern Ireland assembly. [44742]

9. Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

If she will make a statement on the arrangements for the first meeting of the Northern Ireland assembly. [44748]

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

Following the outcome of the election on 25 June, and having identified and appointed an initial Presiding Officer, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to be able to notify Members that the first sitting of the shadow assembly will take place in the week beginning 29 June at Castle buildings, Belfast and, from September, at Parliament buildings. Upon full transfer of power, the assembly will determine its own meeting place. I will write to all political parties later this week regarding the business of that first meeting.

Ms Hughes

I thank my hon. Friend for his informative answer. In the light of the large majority of women voters who supported the agreement and of the role of women generally in bringing us to this point in Northern Ireland, does he hope, as I do, that many more women will take part in the decision-making process by being elected to the Northern Ireland assembly?

Mr. Murphy

Yes, of course I do. I entirely agree that the assembly elections will provide an excellent and unprecedented opportunity to involve more women in public life in Northern Ireland. Women from all parties played a highly significant role in the talks process. We understand from polling that 75 per cent. of women in Northern Ireland—Catholic and Protestant—voted for the agreement in the referendum. I am pleased to inform the House that just under 50 women from a total of around 300 candidates are standing for next week's assembly elections.

Ms Stuart

The first meeting of the assembly will be a tremendous historic event and a great new beginning for the people of Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the main objective of the assembly will be to achieve greater integration between all sections of the community and between all ages, and that, in that integration process, particular attention will be paid to the young people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy

The House will agree that the turnout at the referendum was the highest that we could have hoped for—indeed, it was the highest for many decades. Many young people voted for the agreement on the basis that it would provide an opportunity for further integration of all communities and of people of all ages in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to say that, once it has been elected next week, the assembly will give another unprecedented opportunity for that to occur. The way in which voting will take place in the assembly is unique, and will offer an opportunity to bind together those people who, for many centuries, have been bitterly divided.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

I think that it is true to say that, if I had been in prison for two years or more, I would have been barred from standing for election to the House of Commons. I accept the Government's policy on prisoner release, but will the Minister think most carefully about who should be barred from sitting in the assembly at Stormont? It may not augur well for the assembly's future if elected representatives have to sit in the Chamber facing those who are guilty of terrorist offences.

Mr. Murphy

It was not the Government who decided these matters, but the agreement, which was forged by all the representatives of political parties in Northern Ireland. Nothing in the agreement says that ex-prisoners cannot be members of the assembly, just as there are no such rules in the House of Commons.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

If a Sunday newspaper article is to be believed, at the first meeting of the assembly, Sinn Fein-IRA elected Members will be accompanied by armed bodyguards, whose weapons will have been issued as personal protection by the Secretary of State. Can the Minister confirm whether that is true?

Mr. Murphy

As far as I am aware, it is untrue.

Mr. MacKay

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he agree that there is no room for private armies in a free, open and democratic society, and that, if politicians in Northern Ireland or elsewhere felt that they needed protection, they would have only to contact our security services to receive the best protection in the world?


Yes, of course they would—I think that everyone accepts that. I think that everyone also accepts that the agreement was based on the understanding that violence would no longer be part of a democratic society in Northern Ireland—to that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.