HC Deb 13 July 1999 vol 335 cc294-312

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1999, which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.—[Mr. Paul Murphy.]

12.8 am

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I do not believe that an order of this sort can be allowed to go through on the nod, and it is essential that we understand what we are being asked to do.

If we pass the motion tonight, we will extend direct rule in Northern Ireland for a year and a day from the date when the d'Hondt process is to be triggered on Thursday. However, we have just spent the past eight hours passing a Bill that has been sold to us all as standing between us and the end of direct rule. We have been told time and again during those eight hours, "One more step, one more thing, one more concession—pass this Bill and direct rule will not be required after next Sunday."

Yet five minutes later—and almost on the nod—the Government are prepared to say that that was all a charade and that it did not matter, because they now want the powers to continue direct rule for a further year.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Earlier, we were chided on the grounds that some of our amendments were precipitate and causing problems. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the order is precipitate and could cause problems?

Mr. Wilshire

It seems to me that the Government are speaking with forked tongue. For eight hours they have said that the Bill will solve the problem and, in the early hours of the next morning, they try to sneak through the reality—the extension of direct rule for a further year.

To make matters worse, the Government were not even prepared to do more than move the order formally. They did not consider it worthy of even five words of explanation. They want to continue direct rule without telling us why, but they have to tell us why. If they do not, we have no alternative but to come to the conclusion that the whole episode earlier today was a charade.

The Government must therefore tell us whether they want this order because they have already privately concluded that the Unionists will refuse to join an Executive with armed terrorists. Or is it perhaps because secretly they have already made up their minds that Sinn Fein-IRA will not decommission, so devolution will not happen? Is that the problem?

The Government must explain whether the order is before us tonight because they have decided that the Unionists will not co-operate. If that is so, we have had a cynical pantomime today. The only explanation for the proceedings today would be that they were an attempt to force the Unionists into a position in which they had no alternative but to refuse to co-operate. That is cynical in the extreme.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)


Mr. Wilshire

I am willing to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wants to expLain to the House why we are being asked to continue direct rule within minutes of being sold a Bill which, it was claimed, would solve the problem. Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell us why we are being asked to do that?

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Give way then.

Mr. Wilshire

I will willingly give way.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman seems to be trying to lay before the House several principles that suggest that he is the kind of gentleman who, having taken out fire insurance cover, would then be silly enough to throw away the fire extinguishers.

Mr. Wilshire

I think I follow the hon. Gentleman's point. I have given the only explanation that has been offered. Ministers were prepared to push the order through on the nod.

We must ask the Government whether it was in their mind this afternoon that they would need this order tonight because they were going to manoeuvre the Unionists into such a position that they could not join the Executive. If that is so, I can assume only that the Government have done that to the Unionists because the Government know that the Unionists are the democrats in this process. They play by the rule of law. Have we had this pantomime because the Unionists do not have a gun to hold to the head of the Secretary of State?

Alternatively, the reason for the order could be that the Government have already made up their mind that the pantomime of passing a Bill with so-called failsafe mechanisms was worthless, as many hon. Members argued this afternoon. Did the failsafe mechanisms mean nothing? Was the talk of a matter of days merely weasel words? Was it meaningless when Ministers talked of a matter of weeks this afternoon? Did it count for nothing when they said that the process might be complete by May 2000? Is that the cause of today's pantomime? Had the Government decided already that there would be no decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA?

If so, I say hallelujah—at last the Government have come to their senses and now accept what many have been saying for years. They should now tell us why they want this order. We have to consider what the order aims to achieve and not just let another year go by. If the House is to make a meaningful decision tonight, we must be clear about the objectives behind the order.

The Northern Ireland Act 1974 allows the Government to continue to run Northern Ireland as a colony. Decisions are made in London about housing, education, and planning.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

What about Dublin making them?

Mr. Wilshire

If the Government are given half a chance, they will let Dublin run the whole shooting match. Some Labour Members have that as an objective, and I am grateful for that confirmation.

The order asks us to continue to allow Northern Ireland's affairs to be run by unelected officials and to be overseen by politicians from Great Britain who come and go with monotonous regularity. I read in the newspapers that some will come and go again in a few days or weeks, if those words still mean anything to the Government. I wonder how my fellow Conservative Members would feel if their constituents in Great Britain were treated as colonials, as the order that the Government want us to nod through implies for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I shall vote for the order with alacrity. Although my hon. Friend is right to point out that it denies the people of Northern Ireland proper local government, it at least allows the prospect of undoing the damage that hon. Members inflicted by voting for the Bill only half an hour ago.

Mr. Wilshire

That is an intriguing and thought-provoking argument. If my hon. Friend develops it he may convert me to his view.

As well as considering how we would feel if our constituents and local services in Great Britain were treated in the way that direct rule allows their equivalents in Northern Ireland to be treated, we should also consider how the Government have used the powers since they were last extended. They have used them disgracefully, to make concession after concession to the gunman and the bomber.

I hold no brief for terrorists on either side. They are as evil as each other. The Government have shown no discretion in the evil people whom they allow out of prison early. The releases have applied to both sides of the despicable terrorist divide. If that is the way direct powers are used, it justifies their being described as disgraceful.

Direct rule also allows the Government to invite foreign Governments to tell us how to run part of our country. I have always deplored that. To any American who considers the matter seriously I have always said, "How would you feel if we came to your country and told you to get out the red carpet for the Oklahoma bomber and make a hero of him?" That is precisely what foreigners have been telling us to do with terrorists in our country. Some members of the Government have used the direct powers to make as many concessions as they can to those determined to have a united Ireland by any means—the ballot box, the bullet or the bomb. Those people have been appeased by the powers of direct rule time and time again.

Over the past year or so, we have also seen the release of terrorists. Some people may be tempted to believe that the release of prisoners, and everything else that happens in Northern Ireland, does not play with voters in the rest of the United Kingdom. That may be true. Perhaps English Members of Parliament like me take an interest in matters in which many of our constituents take none. However, many people in Great Britain are appalled by the early release of bombers, murderers and people of that ilk. We have heard today that the Government are not prepared even to contemplate stopping the release of yet more evil people; that will not go down well across the whole UK.

Direct rule is to be used to undermine the very principle of democracy by allowing into a part of the Government of a part of the United Kingdom people who keep Semtex and guns and who are prepared to mutilate, torture and threaten. That is a disgrace. If extending the order will enable the Government further to appease the men of terror, I am against it.

12.22 am
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I echo the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I find it puzzling, and not a little disturbing, that the Government are so arrogant as to place on the Order Paper an item such as this without seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that they may expLain what it is all about. Mere courtesy to the House should lead the Government to spend a few minutes expLaining the object of the order and the reasoning behind it. To say nothing, and to assume that the House will simply nod the matter through, is arrogance of the worst kind. The Government should be held to account for their arrogance, and it may take us some time this evening to hold them properly to account.

I am concerned by my hon. Friend's point about the apparent lack of availability of documents. It is normal for documents relating to a matter on the Order Paper to be freely available to hon. Members so that we may study them before participating in debate. If my hon. Friend is right to say that the original Act to which the order applies—the Northern Ireland Act 1974; the key to proper consideration of the extension order—is not readily and equally available to all Members, there is a real question over how far we can be expected properly to consider and debate the matter before we vote.

I leave it to others to judge whether it is good enough to say that some copies will be available in the Lobbies or in the Library, but are we are expected to stampede out of the Chamber to lay our hands on the few copies available? Are we expected to crowd around the copying machine before—or, worse, during—the debate? I hardly think that either scenario would contribute to the quality of our debate or our consideration.

We are in real difficulty here. As we get into the early stages of this debate, we are at a distinct disadvantage. We have not had the benefit of an explanation by the Government as to what the order is about, why it is on the Order Paper and why they want us to approve it. Also, we are handicapped by the lack of ready availability of a source document for the debate.

All that would be bad enough, but when one looks at the words on the Order Paper, one sees that we are apparently being asked that the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1999, which was laid before this House on 7th July,"— as long ago as that— be approved. The Order Paper continues: The Instrument has not yet been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I wonder whether there is something sinister behind this. The implication of that apparently simple little phrase is that such an order would normally be considered by the Statutory Instruments Joint Committee but that in this case it has not been and I can readily understand why. If the matter was only laid before the House as recently as 7 July, it is no wonder that the Committee has not been able to consider it fully and properly so that it may advise the House.

The Government are trying to rush this matter through without having given the reasonable and normal opportunity for that Committee to consider it. That is my reading—

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Has the right hon. Gentleman read the title? It is an extension order to extend existing powers and to cover the predicament that might arise if anything went wrong.

Mr. Forth

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is trying to be helpful. He seems to think that simply because it is an extension we need not bother too much about it. I do not know whether he thinks that his constituents will be happy if, when they ask him what he did about the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1999 and say, "Don't you realise that it had not been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments?", all he can say is, "Don't worry folks. It was only an extension order, so I did not bother to look at it.

That may be good enough for the people of St. Helens, but it is certainly not good enough for the people of Bromley and Chislehurst. They will have expected me to consider the details of the matter on the Order Paper fully and properly. I expect that the constituents of most other hon. Members would feel the same. I cannot understand why the people of St. Helens are not interested in the reasons behind an extension order, but I defer to the hon. Gentleman and his understanding of the fact that his constituents have so little interest.

Mr. Bermingham

The answer is simple. The people of St. Helens, South are very intelligent and I am sure that the people of Bromley and Chislehurst can understand the meaning of the order, even if the right hon. Gentleman cannot.

Mr. Forth

I advise the hon. Gentleman to stop digging before he is called to account by his constituents.

That exchange has made its own point. If Labour Members believe that simply because an order is an extension it does not require deliberation or consideration in the House, they have a different idea of their parliamentary duties from mine. I try to take seriously the matters that are laid before us by the Government. I assume that it is still the responsibility of this House to give these matters proper consideration. I would prefer that the documents were readily available. I would prefer that the Government initiated the debate by giving us an explanation of the matter before us.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what he has described—an unwillingness on the part of the Government to explain the nature of the order—is part of a pattern? I think that he is aware of last night's debate on the Ways and Means resolution for the Food Standards Bill, which involved a great deal of money. He will remember that it was not until the end of that debate, after a great deal of prompting, that Members on the Treasury Bench explained the Ways and Means resolution. This is part of a pattern.

Mr. Forth

I regret to say that my right hon. and learned Friend is correct. Given that he is so assiduous in his parliamentary duties, he was in the Chamber last night and witnessed the fact that, yet again, the Government expected the House to pay little or no attention to the important matter before us. At the beginning of that debate, the Government failed, yet again, to offer the House the merest courtesy of an explanation—however brief—as to what the debate would be about.

Having concluded my preliminary remarks, I want to get into the substance of the issue—the extension of the order. As we are in unguided mode, I can only guess what the order is about—it might take me some little time because I have not yet been told by the Government. I do know, because it is stated in the order, that: The interim period specified by section 1(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1974 shall continue until 16th July 2000. I did not need to be told that by the Government.

However, I am left to guess why the order should continue until 16 July 2000. If we relate the order to our earlier proceedings today, we are forced to ask why, if the Government have such confidence in those matters, they should want to extend the order until 16 July. I could understand the argument for its extension to May of next year, because that date seems to have some relevance for the Government. I could even understand an extension for only a few days or weeks beyond today's date, if necessary. Why was the date of 16 July 2000 chosen? It seems to bear no relation to our earlier deliberations. We are left to wonder why the Government are extending the order at all, because we have not been told. However, even if we grant that the extension has a certain logic, we have not yet been told why the order will extend to that date.

The House is entitled to ask such questions; in fact it is our duty to ask them. That is why we are all here—to ask questions of the Government of the day. The matter could probably have been dealt with much more briefly if the Government had had the courtesy and good sense to explain matters at the beginning of the debate. Who knows? That might have meant that some of us would not have to ask these questions, because they would already have been answered. The Government seem to want to prolong the proceedings unnecessarily by not offering us an explanation.

I shall bring my questions to an end, as the lack of an explanation from the Government might mean that one or two of my colleagues may want to add their own questions.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend itemises some of the questions that should be put to the Government. Will he also invite the Government to explain the relationship between motions 6 and 7? I note that motion 7 may not be debated, but that it can be objected to. In order to avoid making an objection, which may be tiresome, it might be helpful if, when Members on the Treasury Bench are speaking to motion 6, they will tell us the relationship between that motion and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman ought to know that we can deal only with one motion at a time.

Mr. Forth

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was about to be tempted to note in passing—but I resisted—that motion 7 intriguingly contains a reference to Friday 16 July. Is that the key to the as yet unanswered question as to why 16 July is referred to in the order? We still do not know. However, there is a hint of an explanation that there might be a connection between the two. You have said that we must not refer to motion 7, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although, regrettably, there will be no opportunity to debate it—only to vote on it. We shall have to make our own judgment on the matter.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Does my right hon. Friend consider that the extension order provides a good opportunity to review how the arrangements have worked over the past 12 months, first, in respect of policies and, secondly, in respect of the individuals conducting those policies in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Forth

I would that that were so. My hon. Friend has made a perfectly reasonable request, but we have no opportunity for such a review, judgment and evaluation process, which would enable us to put in context the measure before us. If we were able to do that, I would feel more comfortable when the House, as it must, divides on the motion and hon. Members express their views in the Lobby. However, we shall leave that for a little later—after we have had an explanation from the Minister at the conclusion of this brief debate.

There are real questions to be asked, and the House is owed an explanation. We shall want to have on the record a statement of what the measure is about, because such matters should not be left to speculation of the sort in which I have necessarily had to indulge. Only when we have heard the Minister's explanation shall we be able properly to cast our votes on whether or not we agree with the Government. I await that explanation with eagerness.

12.36 am
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I shall not detain the House long because I do not believe that we should look a gift horse in the mouth. I do not share the perspective of my right hon. and hon. Friends: as I said earlier, I shall vote for the measure with alacrity.

The extension of the powers is all the more vital as a consequence of the Bill to which we have just given a Third Reading. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) has said about the way in which the powers have operated in the past. He has said, quite rightly, that they have denied the people of Northern Ireland a measure of local government that all our constituents enjoy. That is regrettable. However, we now have the basis for taking a step back from the policy that has been pursued over the past 18 months in respect of those powers.

That policy has been to try to draw the terrorists into the democratic process—to entrap them with the trappings of democracy. However, the consequences of that policy are that the very reverse has been achieved. In the Northern Ireland Bill to which we have just given a Third Reading, we see that we have actually corrupted the democratic process by providing for continual compromise on the part of the democrats, so that they are, in effect, duped into giving credence to the posturing of the terrorists. We have corrupted the entire democratic process.

The extension of the powers in the order gives us the opportunity in the year ahead, to 16 July 2000—I am not so taken by the theological questions surrounding that date as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is—to correct the mistakes that we have just made. I accept that the powers are necessary, I shall vote for them with enthusiasm, and I hope that I shall be able to do so soon.

12.39 am
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

This is a bizarre little debate—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—although not because of the hilarity being evinced by some Government Members below the Gangway. As we approach 12.40 am on the following day, those of us who have sat here most of the time since 4 pm yesterday—Ministers, Front-Bench spokesmen, Unionists and others on both sides of the House, including myself—are wondering what has gone on. Only an hour ago—[Laughter.] The hon. Members who find this debate hilarious do not realise the importance of this measure or the Bill that we discussed earlier. Only an hour ago, the Government were arguing exactly the opposite of what they are now proposing, yet they expect the motion to go through without debate. That is pretty much a derogation of democracy.

As we have heard, the Northern Ireland Act 1974 is not in the Vote Office and, regrettably, my hon. Friends and I—and, I suspect, most Labour Members—have not had time to read the 1974 debates on the original Act or the debates on it that have taken place every year since then. It would be interesting to know whether the Labour party opposed the measure when in opposition. I have no idea, but I should like to know, because I want to know on what basis the measure might have been opposed in the past.

Mr. Hogg

There is a perfectly sensible basis for opposing the measure, which is that there should be direct integration of the Province into the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a substantive issue, and if the Act is to be extended for another 12 months, that may be precisely the Question that we should consider.

Mr. Robathan

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, because, as it happens, I shall touch on that point later in my remarks.

As I understand the issue without having read the debates in 1974, we are being asked to extend direct rule. Who in the House is in favour of that? I am not, because I would much rather see devolved government for Northern Ireland or, indeed, a Northern Ireland that is integrated with the United Kingdom.

Mr. Swayne

Does my hon. Friend realise that he has only just emerged from the Division Lobby where he opposed a measure that he rightly thought would include terrorists in that devolved Government, and that these powers are therefore all the more necessary?

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend is kind to think that I had not considered that, but the devolved rule that I should like to see is devolved government to democratic parties in Northern Ireland, not terrorist parties. I do not want general devolution. Along with every Member of the House, I want the Good Friday agreement to be implemented in full, but that does not include the measure against which I voted less than an hour ago or the Act that we are now debating.

Who is in favour of direct rule for Northern Ireland? The Government, who have put forward the order, are not, and they have been arguing against that position for the past 12 hours. The Unionists are not particularly in favour of it. The Conservatives are not in favour of it; we want devolved rule. Sinn Fein certainly do not seem to be favour of it. So who is in favour?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst and Bromley, or wherever it is—

Mr. Forth

Bromley and Chislehurst.

Mr. Robathan

A very fine place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that it was arrogant of the Government—which indeed it is—to spend eight hours arguing for one position and then suddenly introduce an order of this magnitude and expect it to go through on the nod. This is a very important order. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gainsborough; no, Lincolnshire; no, Grantham—[Laughter.] I cannot think what Labour Members find so hilarious. [HON. MEMBERS: "You."] That is kind, but I never intended to be a stand-up comic. I can only suspect that the hilarity has something to do with the lateness of the hour and the way in which the previous hours have been spent.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) talked about the integration of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom. That is a very reasonable position, and one that I would support, but it is very much against the Government's devolutionary tendencies. Surely that is a matter for debate, rather than merely for nodding through the House.

What about other alternatives that have not been considered or even mentioned by the Minister, who simply proposed the motion formally? That is quite inappropriate. I know it is late, but this is an important issue. It is extraordinary that the Government intend to steamroller the motion through, as they do with so many other measures, even though they argued for entirely the opposite position for hours this afternoon and evening. The laughter of Ministers and others surely shows confusion in their minds.

What do the Government really believe? They seem to be in a mess. Do they want direct rule for an emergency? They have been saying that Sinn Fein and the IRA are sticking to a ceasefire, so there is no emergency. The order provides for emergency legislation to deal with special circumstances. If the special circumstances have passed, why do we yet again require the order? The killings and beatings in Northern Ireland that I mentioned in our earlier debate are very important, yet the Government tell us that there is no emergency.

I would like some consistency in Government policy, as I think would the more serious Government Members. That is not too much to ask. This is not some little order to be nodded through about whether—this is close to my heart—we ride bicycles on pavements. It is about the ruling of the Province of Northern Ireland—part of the United Kingdom—and affects millions of people. We should surely treat it rather more seriously.

What does the order contain? What have we heard from Ministers about security and security policy? All such matters are relevant to the order, but we have heard nothing. What have we heard about schools, roads or health? We have heard nothing except the Minister move the motion formally. That is not good enough for me, for Northern Ireland, or for the constituents of Labour Members sitting below the Gangway, who seem to find the whole thing very funny. I do not know whether people in Northern Ireland will find it funny; perhaps they will read about it.

We are told that all these matters should be dealt with by locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland. All we get from the Minister is one word. There must be some explanation—

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

Order. The hon. Member keeps repeating himself. He should not do that.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I notice that the Order Paper says The Speaker will put the Question not later than 1½ hours after proceedings begin". As a new Member, I would have thought that that probably gave you some discretion. In view of the quality of the debate, I wonder whether I may be allowed to move that the Question be put?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There are occasions on which I wish that I had discretion, but I am afraid, even at this late hour, that I am in the hands of the House.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I plead with you to give the right to the people of Northern Ireland to be heard in this debate, and to let it continue for its full length.

Mr. Robathan

I know that, notwithstanding the barracking from the riff-raff on the Labour Benches, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will always—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member should not use such terms. Perhaps he will withdraw his remark.

Mr. Robathan

I shall certainly withdraw it. I apologise if "riff-raff' is an unparliamentary term.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can tell the hon. Member that it is unparliamentary, and that he must withdraw it.

Mr. Robathan

I shall certainly withdraw it. I can think of many other terms to describe the hooting from Labour Members. I am glad that you use your discretion wisely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, unlike the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner).

This is very important legislation. It deals with the governance of 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland and it is not to be taken lightly and dealt with late at night. It should be considered at much greater length.

Mr. Swayne

Before my hon. Friend resumes his place, will he at least favour us with an explanation of whether he is in favour of extending these powers? I am not clear, and perhaps I have not followed his argument. If he is in favour of extending the powers, will he tell us why?

Mr. Robathan

I do not want to go too far down that line. I do not think that the responsibility is on me to say whether I am in favour of the powers. The responsibility is on the Government to tell us what the powers will involve and to describe the purpose or intention of the order, given what has been said since 4 o'clock this afternoon. They should tell us what the consequences of the order will be. I very much hope that we shall hear rather more from the Government than we have heard so far.

12.50 am
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I support the order. It seems sensible that the provisions should continue to be on the statute book. We all hope that the agreement succeeds, but, if it does not, the Province will still have to be governed in the short term and beyond. There are about 1.5 million citizens in Northern Ireland and it is an important part of the United Kingdom. If we have a problem in the Chamber, it is that we do not discuss Northern Ireland enough. I am talking not about security matters, although they are very important, but about health, education and welfare services—all the things that we implement under the guise of the extension order in the administration of the Province. It is a pity that the Minister moved the order formally.

We have an hour and a half to debate the order, but we cannot use the full time to debate issues that concern the people of Northern Ireland. I rather suspect that they are concerned with unemployment, health, education and their children getting on. Those are the issues that concern all our constituents. It is a great pity that, as a Parliament, we have not had the opportunity to discuss these matters as fully as we might.

Rev. Martin Smyth

There are about 1.75 million citizens in Northern Ireland.

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, if we go down this road again, Ministers should at least move motions in this place that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee might meet in Northern Ireland from time to time? Does he agree that they should depart from the over-long tradition of getting their officials to phone a Member a day or so before they visit the constituency? They then say, "If you want any other information, please phone us tomorrow."

Mr. Syms

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am glad that the former Conservative Government set up the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, but I think that it needs to be used rather more and that it should meet in Northern Ireland.

I think also that the normal courtesies of a democratic Government should be extended to Northern Ireland. We hope that the Assembly will not fail, but, if it does, it will be wrong to fall back on direct rule without considering other options.

There is no meaningful local government in Northern Ireland. People stand for election under party colours, sometimes under great threat from terrorists. Sometimes, they have to sit in a council chamber with terrorists to run footpaths and swimming pools. Some people risk their lives doing that. On the mainland, we do not always understand the difficulties that people sometimes face in participating in democratic life in Northern Ireland.

About two years ago, I went on a trip to Northern Ireland. We had a look round Belfast city hall and we talked to some local councillors. They are frustrated because they want to take part in ordinary democratic life. They want to shape their communities, but they cannot do so because of direct rule.

All politicians wish to make great leaps and to embark on big schemes. We hope that what we have been debating for several hours in the Chamber succeeds. However, small steps are also possible. If things do not work out, I hope that, when we debate the order next year, we shall consider transferring some meaningful powers back to local government in Northern Ireland. It is important that when people stand for election they are able to undertake responsibilities and shape their local community, and there are many who would like to do that in Northern Ireland.

It is wrong not to debate how people are governed at a local level and the processes of the health boards and authorities in Northern Ireland. There are important health matters throughout the Province and these are not discussed in the Chamber. There are great black spots of unemployment. Yet we are being asked to extend the order without even a report about how things have gone over the past 12 months.

There are 1.75 million people in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said, and the way in which they are governed deserves debate. We hope that progress will be made, but if not, we fall back on the order. Important issues are involved, but we have not had the opportunity to address them.

I hope that I have made a serious point, in the early hours of the morning. There are 1.75 million people who deserve decent government. I hope that we do not have to fall back on the order. I would support it if there were a vote, because the Province's services must be provided. That would be the line for us, as responsible politicians, to take.

If progress is not made on the political front, I hope that we will not simply nod the order through year after year, without addressing the real issues: how Northern Ireland is governed; how local politicians can be given responsibility; and how the degree of accountability can be increased not only at local level in the Province, but through the House, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and other methods.

I have spoken to one or two people who have been elected to 'the Assembly in Northern Ireland. They say that one of the best things that have happened since that occurred is that civil servants who work in the Northern Ireland Office have telephoned them and asked their opinions. They feel more included in the process.

If the political process does not work and we fall back on the order, we should try to embrace those within existing democratic structures in Northern Ireland by integrating them far more in the decision-making process. It is a common criticism in Northern Ireland that civil servants and representatives from south of the border are consulted more than some of our democratic politicians from north of the border. I have concerns about the order, but I will support it in a Division. The future of 1.75 million people is important and is worthy of debate.

12.57 am
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I entirely support the remarks of the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on the government of Northern Ireland. In the earlier debate, I wanted to mention the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The House owes a great debt to the RUC. During the period of direct rule, the independent commission to deal with the RUC was set up.

It seems strange to the people of Northern Ireland that we are told by the general in charge of so-called decommissioning that all decommissioning of terrorist organisations will be by mutual consent, yet terrible attacks have been made on the Royal Ulster Constabulary as a result of the setting up of the independent commission. The independent commission became a sounding board for protests from IRA-Sinn Fein. Instead of proper communications from the general public, there was a campaign to attack and discredit members of the RUC.

People in Northern Ireland say that, before there is any change in the policing of the Province, there should be a rigorous campaign to deal with the terrorists who are still carrying out terrorism in Northern Ireland.

I salute the members of the RUC and the Royal Ulster Constabulary reserve. I salute their mothers, their wives and their families, who every day send their loved ones out to work and do not know whether they will return in safety.

The force, which has done its best in difficult times and has had a terrible job policing the Province because of the acts of terrorism carried out there, seems to have been the butt of attack because of the setting up of the commission.

Recently, we had a visit from representatives of the Congress and the Senate in Washington, which I deeply resented. It was led by two prominent Senators and a Congressman and the most vicious attack was launched on the RUC. I did not see any defence made of the RUC by any Minister of the Crown. That most scurrilous attack called for its complete abandonment and said that all it did was discriminate against the Roman Catholic population of our Province. I say, "Hands off the RUC." Mr. Patten has become the Foreign Secretary of the European Union; his work is over and he has drawn up his report. We are waiting for it, and I understand from the information that it will be very damaging and will help to forward the republican agenda in our Province. I say to the Ministers of the Crown that they should be taking a stand for those who are seeking, in difficult circumstances, to police our Province.

I should like to raise one other matter—a long-service medal for the firemen of Northern Ireland. There was—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is a perfectly good thing that the hon. Gentleman has brought up the question of a long-service medal for the firemen, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to raise it in another debate. We are discussing an order that covers a multitude of matters, but he is going into specific detail.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I have taken part in such debates for many years—perhaps for more years than you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This debate was held every year and it used to be a proper debate. If any Minister of the Crown had stood by and said, "Formally," he would have had his head taken off. With respect, all that I can say to the House is that, tonight, I am entitled to roam over every part of the government of Northern Ireland—from Dan to Beersheba—because it is all included in the order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that I have allowed him to roam—[Laughter.] I have allowed him to roam, but he is going into great detail about a specific subject relating to Northern Ireland. I suggest that perhaps he finds another time to raise that matter.

Rev. Ian Paisley

It is not often that anybody sends me to roam, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friends have told me to come home quick; they must think that I would be contaminated.

The fire services of Northern Ireland have done a magnificent job in protecting everybody's property. There was a move to strike a long-service medal for the firemen of Northern Ireland, but it was rejected when a head of steam was raised by a republican lobby. Ministers know something about this matter—I ask them to remember that those men deserve that medal, which is what they would receive if they worked on this side of the water—and I trust that it will be resolved satisfactorily and those who have served the people of Northern Ireland in that capacity will be the proud wearers of long-service medals. I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

1.4 am

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

I see from the Order Paper that the draft order has not yet been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. As it happens, for a good many years, I have been a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I was struck by the fact that the order has not been laid within the normal time scale. It may have been considered by the Committee today, but, due to my presence on these Benches, I was unable to attend that meeting. If not, it will come before the Committee in due course. When it does, no doubt we shall ask the usual questions. Such questions are all too frequent, because, through either incompetence or neglect, Departments often fail to produce statutory instruments in the proper time, so hon. Members do not have an opportunity to table motions either to condemn them, to commend them or to demand a debate on them. Occasionally, the Order Paper contains prayers asking that orders or statutory instruments be rescinded or withdrawn.

This order is defective in a number of ways. The proper time scale has not been observed. It has come before the House before it has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. We have not had an opportunity to consider whether it meets the proper standards and falls within the power delegated to the Minister by the main legislation. Furthermore, it has not been signed by the Secretary of State, as it should be. I should be grateful for an explanation of why that has been neglected. It refers to One of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State", but there is nothing above that, so we do not know which Secretary of State it should be. Any of them can legally sign it, but that has not apparently been done.

The draft order states that it shall come into force forthwith". Draft orders are usually laid some considerable time before the application date. The fact that this order must be brought into force forthwith shows that the Government have got the time scale wrong, as they have on a number of occasions. They were wrong over the time that it was to take before the new arrangements for the Government of Northern Ireland came into force. They clearly expected that the Northern Ireland Act 1998 would have been in operation by now.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman has had a great deal of experience as a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Will he confirm to the House that one of the advantages of a draft statutory instrument being considered by that Committee is that it can make a report to the House, which would inform our debate? As a consequence of the Committee not having considered this draft order, we do have the advantage of a formal report.

Mr. Ross

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct. These instruments are carefully considered by the legal advisers to the Speaker, so that we can be certain that they fall within the law. That has clearly not happened in this case, and that is a matter of regret. No doubt, the Joint Committee will report to the House on this order in due course. As is far too often the case, it may castigate the Department concerned for its failure in this matter.

As I was saying when the right hon. and learned Gentleman intervened, given the fact that this order has had to be introduced at the last minute, it is clear that the Government intended that the 1998 Act should be in operation by now, but it is not. Why not? That has been debated at some length today, and it is purely the fault of the Provisional IRA and the other terrorist organisations that have held on to their weaponry. This order has appeared in such great haste because it has become apparent to the Government that the IRA has no intention of co-operating on the surrender of weapons.

That is also the reason why Mr. Ahern, the Prime Minister of the Republic, is now trying to make everyone believe that Sinn Fein and the IRA are two separate organisations. That is like saying that the yolk and the white are not part of the same egg. No one in this place, and no one in Northern Ireland, would accept Mr. Ahern's description of the two organisations. They are one and the same. They have been using the laws and rules of this country; they have been using the system to destroy the system. The sooner people understand that, the better.

This is the interim period extension, for the 25th year in succession. Actually, we are talking about rather more than 25 years: the arrangement has existed since 1972, in its previous incarnation. The late Enoch Powell used to say that there was nothing so permanent as the temporary, and I think that this piece of paper proves the accuracy of that observation.

There is no good reason why Northern Ireland should have had to suffer the problems associated with direct rule over the past 25 years, under Governments of both parties. The matter could have been resolved long ago. Means were set out whereby it could have been resolved—not least in the manifesto commitment given by the Conservative party at the time of the 1979 election, to which I often hark back. If implemented, it would have resolved the situation: we would have had some form of local administration at an early stage in that long period of Conservative administration of the nation. The Conservatives, however, broke that commitment when they were bombed.

I well remember being out with Gerry Fitt and Airey Neave—whose crest is above the door of the Chamber—the day before Airey Neave was killed. We did a television interview; then we came back, and I talked to Airey. I was the last Ulster person who talked to him before his murder in the precincts of this building. It was clear that he understood what had to be done. The House, and the two principal parties in it, have assiduously avoided doing what is necessary for the last 25 years.

In the last few months, many billions of pounds have been spent on bombing Kosovo in an attempt to get gunmen off the back of citizens there. We have spent the last 16 months trying to put gunmen on to the backs of the citizens of Northern Ireland, as rulers over them. That is repugnant to me; the whole legislative process in regard to this has been repugnant to me. I have seen and heard nothing today—or, indeed, at any time during the past 16 months—to make me change my mind. There are means of improving the government of Northern Ireland without any great difficulty. I hope and pray that, if there is a new Secretary of State, he or she will consider the ways in which the government of Northern Ireland can be improved, and avoid all the nonsense that we have had to suffer for many years which has cost us so dear.

It has already been pointed out that Ministers have not given an account of how they have cared for the Province of Northern Ireland in the last year. I wish that they would. There will be other opportunities, but I think that, in this debate, Ministers should be prepared to say what has been accomplished to improve government, to improve the lot of the people of Northern Ireland, and to ensure that law and order is enforced throughout the Province. We know that there have been murders. Murders have been committed by the IRA, and by other terrorist organisations, but principally by the Provisional IRA—not only in Northern Ireland, but in the Irish Republic.

I read in the paper that a drug dealer had been killed there a couple of weeks ago, with two barrels from a shotgun in his back. He was not the first, and I suspect that he will be the last. We all remember the so-called Direct Action Against Drugs organisation, which was so good at murdering drug dealers. In fact, it is nearly as bad as north London now.

I suspect that if Ministers really put their minds to what can, should and must be done over the 26th year of the direct rule legislation and system in Northern Ireland, they will find ways to improve the government of Northern Ireland without engaging in what my former party leader used to call high-wire gymnastics, and summits that lead to nothing but many more newspaper sales the next morning and a lot of people staying up late, watching, and listening to, commentators make a very good living out of what they say on radio and television.

If the two principal parties in the nation had done their job, those things would have long since been consigned to history. I hope that it is the last such order.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At the start of the debate, I raised with the Deputy Speaker who was then in the Chair the fact that no copies of the original Act were available in the Vote Office for us to consult. I raise as a matter of order the fact that the Vote Office has very helpfully found some copies. Hon. Members who were restrained from joining in the debate may wish to obtain copies, so that they can be better informed and then contribute.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the information.

1.16 am
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I am greatly surprised and somewhat disappointed by the way in which this important order was presented to the House. I was surprised on two counts. First, the Minister who moved it formally normally affords a courtesy to the House by explaining the order. Secondly, it has been taken on the Floor of the House, not in Committee, where we usually take such orders.

I should like an explanation from the Minister. It is incumbent on him to answer some of the points in the debate, but, principally, to say why the order has been taken on the Floor of the House late at night after a long debate on other Northern Ireland business. We have two orders in Committee this week. The one on Thursday has been moved from 10 o'clock in the morning to 9 o'clock. There is no reason why the order that we are discussing could not have been taken in Committee.

Mr. Öpik

Just to clarify the matter, had the hon. Gentleman not been informed before the debate began that the Government intended to take the order formally? My understanding was that he had been so informed.

Mr. Moss

No, I had not been informed. That information was not passed to me. I can honestly say that that was not communicated to me.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked a question about the wording on the Order Paper, which says: The Instrument has not yet been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. How significant is that?

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

Not at all.

Mr. Moss

Not at all, the Minister says from a sedentary position.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) asked a question about the next business on the Order Paper, which relates to a statutory instrument that may be laid this Friday. The date, 16 July, seems to be significant. It appears in the order that we are discussing and in the next business of the House. Without notice, a motion for approval of the said instrument at the sitting that day will be laid and taken without debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will know that we cannot discuss business that is not before us. We must dispose of the business that is before us before we mention any other business on the Order Paper.

Mr. Moss

I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but there is some significance in the date appearing in both the orders on the Order Paper.

The Minister owes it to the House to give some explanation of why the order has been tabled today and moved formally without any explanation. It has been a long debate, and many questions have been asked. Obviously, it is important that the extension goes through. We will not oppose it because we recognise that we cannot have a vacuum in the governance of Northern Ireland, but the Minister should get to the Dispatch Box and explain why we are debating it tonight and the significance of that.

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

There is a difference between what we have done for 25 years and what we are doing today. Before I come to the reasons for that, there are a couple of technical points with which I should deal.

The first point relates to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Today, the order went to the Joint Committee, which has been approving exactly the same order, without comment, for a quarter of a century. Hon. Members will find that the Joint Committee's report is in the Library with the Northern Ireland Act 1974, to which hon. Members have referred.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) asked why the order has not already been signed. It has not been signed because it is an affirmative order and cannot he signed by the Secretary of State until the House has approved it.

Mr. Hogg

I may have misheard the right hon. Gentleman, but I think that he said that the order went today to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. If the order was laid on 7 July, why was it not sent to the Joint Committee on 7 July?

Mr. Murphy

I shall have to write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on that matter, as it does not come within my purview.

The order is usually taken on the Floor of the House; the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) was therefore mistaken about that. In addition, the order has been taken on the Floor of the House, not in Committee, because of the requirement that it be passed no later than 15 July.

Mr. William Ross

Surely the right hon. Gentleman will admit that the reason for the time scale of the all such orders is to ensure the protection of the citizen. The Minister may very well argue that that does not matter in relation to this order, but in relation to other orders it might matter a very great deal to the citizen. For that reason, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments insists that proper procedures should be observed. Why will not the right hon. Gentleman observe them on this occasion?

Mr. Murphy

Obviously, that is a matter for consideration by the Joint Committee.

I should like to try to explain to the House why we are dealing with this order differently from previous ones. Northern Ireland Members will certainly recall that, previously, our consideration of this order provided an opportunity to have a general, state of the nation debate about Northern Ireland. Today, however, we have already had plenty of debate; moreover, this order is rather specific.

The order would extend the period of direct rule in the event of what we hope will occur, in two days, as devolution is passed to Northern Ireland. As the House will know, if the d'Hondt procedure is run on Thursday, an Executive will be established in Belfast. The intention is that, on Friday, a devolution order will be passed in this place and in the House of Lords, so that devolution will pass to Northern Ireland at midnight on Saturday-Sunday.

Therefore, from the passing of that order on 16 July to Sunday, there will be two days in which, technically, there will be no Ministers of either the United Kingdom Government or the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. Consequently, we shall have to cover two days, and that is what the order is all about.

If all that does not occur—I sincerely hope that that is not the case—the order will continue, and direct rule will continue until such time as devolution is passed. Therefore, this order is very different.

I am sure that all hon. Members want devolution to occur in Northern Ireland. The Government want it to happen as quickly as possible, and the plan is that it will happen this weekend. However, for those two days to be covered, it is necessary for this order to be passed. If it were not, we should have to govern by emergency procedures and without Ministers. That is the simple purpose of the order. There is nothing sinister about it: it is something that has to be done. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1974 (Interim Period Extension) Order 1999, which was laid before this House on 7th July, be approved.