HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc181-5
Mr. McDonnell

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 13, leave out subsection (5).

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 16, leave out subsection (6).

Mr. McDonnell

As we covered much ground on Second Reading, I shall be brief; I hope that we shall be able to speak more generally on Third Reading.

The amendments are simple; they would delete subsections (5) and (6) of the clause. They follow on from the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on Second Reading: a concern that, in suspending the Assembly, we would also suspend the other institutions established under the Good Friday agreement. We are concerned because those institutions form part of the mechanisms for creating greater understanding between the different traditions on the island of Ireland and between the Six Counties and the Irish Republic.

The dialogue that was developing as a result of those institutions means that there is a continued commitment to the ceasefire and to the peace process. It is beyond understanding that we should penalise those existing, successful institutions through the measure. We are concerned that in doing so, there is a risk of longevity not only for the suspension of the Assembly but for the suspension of that dialogue.

That is the basis on which I introduce the amendments. The process would not be jeopardised if those existing institutions remained. We have been told of the necessity for the scrapping or suspension of the institutions, because of some interlocking authority that derives from the Good Friday agreement. However, the Bill has no authority under the agreement; there is no power given to the British Government to suspend those institutions. As that organisational structure has operated effectively, the institutions should be maintained. On that basis, I ask the Committee to accept the amendments.

Mr. Öpik

I want to make a brief contribution to seek clarification. It seems that clause 1 will allow some Committee Chairmen to carry out their functions without their Committees. Clause 1(3) states that no Committee of the Assembly can hold any meetings or conduct any business during suspension, but clause 1(4) suggests that that only the Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of the Statutory Committees will not continue to hold office. That seems to be a little illogical, so I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the position and tell us whether the Government need to introduce anything to sort the matter out.

8 pm

Dr. Godman

I shall also be brief, as I, too, seek clarification. Have discussions about the British-Irish Council taken place with the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Executive and others involved in the council, which held its inaugural meeting a few weeks ago? I think that another meeting is planned for June of this year. Although I realise that discussions continue all the time with the Irish Government, when were the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Executive and the Welsh Assembly informed of the probability of the suspension of the British-Irish Council?

Mr. George Howarth

I wish to challenge slightly the terminology that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) used when moving the amendment. I am sure that he will appreciate that the term "suspension" is entirely different from the term "scrapped". I do not want to labour that point, but I think my hon. Friend will recognise that it is important to make that distinction.

A fundamental principle of the Good Friday agreement is that all the institutional arrangements are interlocking and interdependent. My hon. Friend acknowledged that, but he took issue with the context in which we have used that argument in the Bill. However, he will know that the concept is set out in the declaration of support at the beginning of the agreement.

If suspension is called, it will inevitably impact on all the institutions. In particular, the agreement recognises that the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council are so closely interrelated that the success of each depends on that of the other. When we talk about interdependence and interlocking, that is precisely what we mean.

During any suspension, the Assembly and the Executive will be suspended. All Northern Ireland Ministers will cease to hold office. In practice, that will mean that the North-South Ministerial Council simply will not be able to function in the absence of representation from the Northern Ireland devolved Administration.

As my hon. Friend suggested, clause 1(5) and (6) provide that, during a suspension, the functions conferred on the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 cannot be exercised. That means that the Secretary of State cannot nominate people to take the place of Northern Ireland Ministers on those bodies. It would be frankly inappropriate for him to do so given that the institutions are interdependent.

I realise that my hon. Friend's amendment is designed to preserve some of the good developments that have taken place in the recent past—and we should acknowledge that huge strides have been taken. We have recognised where there is common purpose between Northern Ireland, the Government in southern Ireland and ourselves. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) made clear, some institutions also involve Scotland, Wales and other parts of the British isles. Clearly, therefore, consultation will be necessary on the implications, and they will rightly take place in the coming period.

However, it would be inappropriate to carry on as if all the institutions were still in place and as if nothing had happened during the period of suspension. I repeat what I said earlier: we hope that the Bill becomes unnecessary, that the institutions carry on and that the Executive and the Assembly will be able to continue. However, if, over the next few days, it becomes clear that that is impossible without everything collapsing under its own momentum, it will sadly be inappropriate for us to carry on as though nothing had happened.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington that the close working relationship that we have with the Irish Government will continue. On matters on which we clearly have a continuing interest—not least the continued implementation and, if suspension takes place, re-implementation of the Good Friday agreement—that relationship will continue at Government level. I hope that we shall be able to work our way through the problems.

Rev. Martin Smyth

The Secretary of State was opaque on occasions this afternoon. I can understand why the two Governments must have relationships with one another, but will the Minister clarify whether the suspension of ministerial bodies will also include the suspension of implementation bodies, or was I misled when I heard that they will come under Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr. Howarth

The powers of the implementation bodies transfer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is for him to decide where it is appropriate for those powers to be used. I emphasise that we consider it inappropriate to carry on as if nothing had happened; that would simply be flying in the face of reality if a suspension were to take place.

Mr. Winnick

I am not aware that the Irish Government in any way dispute what my hon. Friend the Minister has said. The institutions can hardly continue to survive if a suspension of the Executive and Assembly occurs. Will my hon. Friend reaffirm what he has just touched on? If, unfortunately, there is a period of suspension, will he confirm that close ministerial contacts will continue between the two Governments? In view of the circumstances, the contacts in some areas will be even closer than they were before the Good Friday agreement. Everyone on the Opposition Benches should understand that.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, which enables me to make the position absolutely clear. We simply would not have got as far as we have without the close co-operation and understanding of Ministers in the Irish Government, the Taoiseach and of Irish politicians, from various parties and holding various principles. It would be inconceivable that we could continue our work if that relationship did not still exist.

My hon. Friend is right. Contacts will continue to take place at an official level and, over the next few days, they will intensify. They will involve Ministers and they might involve the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. When things are difficult, it is important that relationships are maintained. We can make progress only through those contacts and if we have an understanding of the difficulties that the parties in Northern Ireland face. If we ignore such factors, we will find ourselves running out of road. It is important that we maintain all those relationships.

Mr. Corbyn

I am pleased to hear that the Minister intends to continue to have the closest possible contact with the Irish Government, but I do not understand why he finds it necessary to suspend the workings of the North-South Ministerial Council, when it ought to be possible to continue them by ministerial contact, despite the suspension of other activities.

Mr. Howarth

I have used well-chosen terms to explain why that situation should pertain and, without being disrespectful to my hon. Friend, I think it would be tedious to the Committee if I were to repeat that explanation. This is a delicate situation, and I have made what I thought were sensible remarks about it. If I were to enter into negotiation across the Chamber, that might undermine discussions taking place elsewhere, and I know that my hon. Friend would not want me to do that.

I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), will appreciate that although I realise that they tabled the amendment in a constructive spirit, hoping to maintain a close working relationship between the two Governments, it would in the current circumstances be inappropriate for the amendment to be carried. I hope that they will recognise also that we shall use all other available means to try to work as closely as possible with our Irish counterparts, and that on that basis they will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Is the Minister saying that the bodies will also be put on hold?

Mr. Howarth

I think that the hon. Gentleman was in his seat when I made my speech, and it would be unnecessary and difficult for me to become involved in a detailed discussion about the matter. There are issues that have still to be discussed. No one has yet agreed to suspend any of the institutions, and we hope that suspension can be avoided. In the Bill we are taking a power, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will exercise if things go wrong over the next few days, to suspend devolved government, and everything that depends on devolution will necessarily cease if devolution does not continue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman finds that a suitable explanation. I repeat my hope that my hon. Friends will feel that it is appropriate to withdraw their amendment.

Mr. McDonnell

Our hopes are that if suspension takes place, it will continue for a short period. We have been given an assurance that if it continues for a long time, there will be a continuing dialogue between the Governments, and structures to enable the co-operative working relationship that has been established to be maintained. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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