HC Deb 16 July 2001 vol 372 cc92-104 7.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne)

I beg to move,

That the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001, which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved. I am grateful for the opportunity presented by this debate to explain the background to the order and explain why the Government believe that it is necessary to introduce it at this time.

The order provides for the conduct of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is being laid at this time purely as a precautionary measure. It is essential in order to keep open the option of elections if the Assembly fails to elect new First and Deputy First Ministers within six weeks. However, that does not indicate the Government's intentions nor commit the Government or the parties to this particular course of action. It is too early yet to say what will happen. This is contingency planning: all our focus presently is on working with the Irish Government to put together a package of proposals to carry forward the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement following last week's intensive discussions.

I should like to say something about the content of the order which, of course, is understood to be compliant with the rights under the European convention on human rights. It is being made under the powers of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and replaces the original order, the New Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 1998, which provided for the original Assembly elections only.

The provisions of this order provide for the conduct of all future Assembly elections. The content of this instrument is broadly in line with that of the original order save for the necessary modifications as a consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and the Representation of the People Act 2000. One change that we have made is to the timetable for Assembly elections. All future elections will be based on a 25-day timetable rather than the 19-day one that was set for the 1998 elections. That makes sense as it brings Assembly elections in line with district council elections, which are also run on the proportional representation single transferable vote system.

As the original order provided only for the first Assembly elections, we planned to introduce these measures at some point prior to the programmed Assembly elections that are scheduled for 1 May 2003. However, as the House will know, the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) as First Minister became effective as of 1 July and the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 rendered that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) automatically ceased to hold office of Deputy First Minister at the same time.

The provisions of the 1998 Act state that, if the offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers become vacant, the Assembly must hold an election to fill the vacancies within six weeks. However, should this process be unsuccessful, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to exercise his statutory duty and call fresh Assembly elections.

The order ensures that elections to the Assembly could be called if required. You, Mr. Speaker, will note that I used the word "if'. The reason we are introducing the order at this time is to ensure that all the options laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are open to us. It is an option, and it does not force either the Government or the political parties of Northern Ireland into one particular course of action. It is certainly not our intention, in laying the order, to railroad them into holding Assembly elections or to assume that the search for a new First and Deputy First Minister will be unsuccessful.

We are continuing our efforts, with the parties and with the Irish Government, to find a way forward in implementing the Good Friday agreement and it is hoped that the process of the Assembly electing new First and Deputy First Ministers will prevail. However, it is our fundamental duty to ensure that the procedures are in place should early Assembly elections be required. For that reason, I commend the order to the House.

7.49 pm
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

We on the Conservative Benches are grateful to the Minister for setting out the main provisions of the order. As he has made clear, the order is technical in nature. Despite that, in the grand scheme of things, it could have profound implications for the political process in Northern Ireland—and even for the survival of the Belfast agreement.

Under section 31(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the next elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are due on 1 May 2003. The order enables the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the event of a failure to elect a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister by 12 August. The only alternative open to the Government in those circumstances would be an order to suspend the institutions, such as occurred in February last year. Of course, nobody knows what the outcome of such fresh elections might be. They could produce a fresh basis for progress in the political process in Northern Ireland. Alternatively, they could simply entrench the current impasse.

The Opposition do not necessarily oppose fresh elections, but before the option is triggered, the Government should be aware that it is far from risk-free. To borrow a phrase, such elections would be a leap in the dark. Whether they are held will be for the Government to decide in the light of what might happen in coming days and weeks, and in particular the response of parties to the document on which they are working with the Irish Government. Only then could a proper assessment be made of what is the best or, as the late Ian Gow would have put it, the least dangerous way forward.

The fact that we are forced to debate this order is of course deeply regrettable. Many of us had hoped that, by now, all elements of the Belfast agreement would have been implemented in full by all the parties. That, alas, has not been so, and why the order is before us.

It is important for the House to be aware of why the agreement has not been implemented in full. It is emphatically not the result of any failure to deliver on his commitments under the agreement by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—or, for that matter, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and his party. Responsibility for failing to implement the agreement—and as a result the current impasse—rests firmly with those paramilitary organisations that have failed to decommission a single gun or an ounce of Semtex.

Decommissioning was a clear obligation under the agreement that was supposed to be completed within two years of the referendum. That was by 22 May last year. The date came and went; nothing happened. Then, also in May last year, the British and Irish Governments issued a statement setting out the steps that had to be taken to ensure full implementation of the agreement by the end of June this year. That was followed by an IRA commitment to begin a process of putting arms, credibly and verifiably beyond use". More than a year later, that has still not even begun, as the report of General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission confirmed a fortnight ago.

The failure to decommission is not all. As well as being fully armed, paramilitary organisations remain fully intact. The beatings, shootings, murders and the orchestrated violence that we saw last week continue—yet during the same period, Sinn Fein has had Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, 444 terrorists have been released early from prison and the morale of the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been seriously undermined.

It is no wonder that the confidence in the agreement of many moderate law-abiding Unionists has been stretched to the limit. They have seen a process that appears to be all take and no give by the paramilitaries and their political associates, who pocket gain after gain and give nothing in return. The people of Northern Ireland—in fact, the people of the island of Ireland—did not vote by an overwhelming majority in 1998 for what has been described as an armed peace. They voted to take the gun out of Irish politics for good and for a peaceful and democratic future underpinned by the principle of consent. The refusal of paramilitaries to decommission is the obstacle to all those things and—again—the reason why we are debating the order.

We wait to see whether the joint proposals of the British and Irish Governments are able to command the confidence and support of all pro-agreement parties, so that both options of suspension or elections can be avoided and the agreement fully implemented. We are told that those proposals will be forthcoming in the next week to 10 days. Given that the House rises for the summer recess at the end of this week, will the Minister say what opportunity there will be for Members of Parliament to examine and debate what the Governments come up with?

We are entering a critical period affecting the future of a part of the United Kingdom. Surely it is right and proper that this Parliament—which, after all, remains sovereign in Northern Ireland—should have the opportunity to debate the situation and have its views heard. We on the Conservative Benches, for example, would have serious concerns if anything were proposed that appears to reward those who have failed at every turn to fulfil their obligations, but punishes democrats such as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and members of his party, who have done everything that has been asked of them, and more. In particular, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear in the House a few days ago, it would be utterly wrong to give any further ground on security or policing reform before any decommissioning.

As the Irish Tunesput it in its editorial this morning: there must be no fudge on decommissioning of weapons. Those who enjoy the privileges of democratically elected office cannot remain wedded to an armed, illegal force. Sinn Fein and the IRA must choose politics and politics alone—as the electorate demanded of them in May 1998. If they do not do so, the operation of the Belfast Agreement is a sham. Decommissioning remains the key test of the seriousness of Sinn Fein-IRA intent. Is it committed to what the agreement describes as exclusively peaceful and democratic means", or is its participation in the process simply what has been described as tactical use of the armed struggle? We on the Conservative Benches are in no doubt that responsibility for progress rests with Sinn Fein-IRA. The paramilitaries must deliver. In the event that that delivery is not forthcoming, the Government are right to retain the possibility of elections as an option, with the caveats that I mentioned at the outset. For that reason, we shall not oppose the order.

7.59 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said that we are entering a critical phase. I would say that we did so in the 1960s and that this order is simply another page in the current chapter of trying to find a solution.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Surely we did so in the 1690s?

Lembit Öpik

Some may say so; I would be digressing if I tried to give even a brief resume of the highlights of that time.

It is worth stepping back and recognising that we have made quite a lot of progress towards peace. The difficulty now is the end game. The order before us is another tool in attempting to close the deal and achieve normality in the long term. Although it is regrettable that we have to face that eventuality, it is probably necessary.

However, the timing of the order is unhelpful. According to the Northern Ireland Act 1998, if the office of the First or Deputy Minister becomes vacant, an election must be held within six weeks to fill it, so there does not have to be an election to fill the posts for another month or so. The political parties in Northern Ireland are engaged in intensive talks to resolve the crisis. If the worst comes to the worst and the Assembly is unable to elect the First Minister in August, other options can be explored before it is necessary to hold Assembly elections.

The order allows elections for the whole Assembly to occur prior to May 2003, as set out in legislation, and is being made prior to the outcome of the talks. I am slightly concerned that the Government are sending out mixed messages to all those involved in the current process. As the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) said, there is no guarantee that elections will improve things. They may simply serve to polarise the positions in Northern Ireland and create a hardening and perhaps growing rift between the two key sides, as we saw about a month ago. Who knows whether the gamble will pay off? By tampering with the process to achieve an outcome, we are, to some extent, playing roulette because we cannot predict what will happen.

The process of having an election may necessitate a degree of entrenchment in the eyes of various Northern Ireland politicians, and that would mean that we have not made progress. I disagree with the Conservative party's implication that the republicans lack a commitment to show good faith to move forward. We can all agree that decommissioning has been a key sticking point. The paramilitaries—especially on the republican side, although individuals are culpable on both sides—have singularly failed to deliver that commitment. Nevertheless, the mood music has at times been more promising than the Conservatives make out. I hope that we will be careful not to hold back progress by making opportunistic comments in this place. We sometimes need to give the Government the space to have discrete conversations with those who can deliver the result.

That said, it is clear that even if the timing is regrettable, the order is a necessary tool in the range of devices that are available to the Government to make progress in what seems to be a stagnating process, and we will not oppose it tonight. However, there is no substitute for hardliners taking the opportunity not so much to be involved in elections, but to show more good faith than they have done to date. Whatever we do with the process here, it is their attitude and actions that will determine the outcome of events in the proceeding months.

8.3 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down)

As someone who is strongly supportive of the Belfast agreement, I take no pleasure in seeing it in its present difficult circumstances. The extent of its difficulties is merely reflected by the fact that we are debating the order this evening when we should he looking forward to the scheduled Assembly elections far away in June 2003.

No one can gainsay that the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons is the reason—the main reason—why we have been brought to the regrettable stage of debating an order that prepares for premature elections to the Assembly. Decommissioning of illegal weapons was, and remains, an integral part of the Belfast agreement. Almost three and half years after it was signed, we are still waiting. I am on the record as having said that I am not a patient person in the best of circumstances; these are now difficult circumstances and I have completely run out of patience.

I also deeply resent being cheated, and I do feel cheated by the IRA for reneging on its promise made to all of us in Northern Ireland on 6 May 2000. It promised that it would verifiably and completely put its weapons beyond use. On the basis of that statement, I was one of the Ulster Unionists who, on 27 May last year, stood in the Waterfront hall and, despite a great deal of heckling, urged my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist council to jump first and take Sinn Fein back into the Executive.

We did jump first, and as a result Sinn Fein regained its two substantial Ministries within the Assembly—Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Education—but no decommissioning followed. I feel deeply cheated and, but for the resignation of the First Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Balm (Mr. Trimble) on 1 July, the Government would, I fear, have continued to tolerate no movement on the weapons issue. I am ashamed of that fact. His resignation should not have been necessary. I certainly regret that he felt compelled to resign, but I fully support his reasons for taking that step. The ensuing talks at Weston Park between the pro-agreement parties have ended without a breakthrough at all. Given that they were scheduled before 12 July, which is a sensitive enough time in Northern Ireland, it should come as no great surprise that there was no substantial or significant breakthrough.

Although Ulster Unionists have no fear of Assembly elections, I remind the Government that if there continues to be no movement on the arms issues, the D-word—decommissioning—will be the major factor in any election campaign. That is bound to polarise the two communities, as it did in the recent general election. If we head into elections in the autumn—as I say, we have no fear of them—[Interruption.] Despite the amusement of Democratic Unionist party Members, I assure them that we are confident that we will do well in the Assembly election.

The difficulty is that the decommissioning problem will not go away even if we have elections in the autumn. So I urge the Government to give serious consideration to the other options, however unpalatable, especially suspension. They did not like it the last time, but it must be considered again. Last week we debated electoral fraud. There are no reforms in place to combat that before the Assembly elections. It does not take a crystal ball to predict that there will be a significant number of absent voters west of the Bann. I urge the Government to consider all options and remember that decommissioning must be dealt with; elections in the autumn will not take away the problem.

8.8 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

We just heard the confessions of a pro-agreement Unionist who admits to having exercised poor judgment in advising colleagues to trust the IRA. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has learned to her cost that it should not have been trusted.

Elected representatives from Northern Ireland have few powers in the House because of our numbers. The one authority that we have is to speak on behalf of those we represent and to tender advice to them. When we tender advice, we need to summon up all our experience of those whom we are being asked to trust and determine whether there is anything in their past behaviour which would show them worthy of that trust. In this case, few intelligent people would have been prepared to advise the people of Northern Ireland that they should trust the IRA and put their future in its hands.

The Ulster Unionist party has learned the electoral price of putting its trust in the Provisional IRA—it has had to pay a heavy cost indeed. I find interesting the UUP's enthusiasm for elections while remaining willing to encourage the Government to consider other options, including suspension. The hon. Member for North Down did not clearly state her preference—whether she would prefer no institutions to institutions in which there were fewer representatives from her party—but perhaps she will get around to it at some point.

The Minister said that the order is a necessity and that it is part of the Government's contingency planning, but he did not state in precise terms what contingency would bring it into use. Even if the circumstances that he spelled out were to arise, there is no guarantee that the Government will use this contingency measure because, as the hon. Member for North Down said, other options are open to the Government.

I am sure that the House would regard it as a cynical exercise if the Government were to have tabled the draft order knowing full well that they had no intention of using its provisions. However, Government advisers are openly telling the press that they prefer suspension to elections. If the Minister were to encourage some of us by stating that if the circumstances—in his terms, the "regrettable" circumstances, although I might describe them otherwise—arose in which no First Minister or Deputy First Minister was elected before the six-week period had expired, he would act under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and use the order to call elections, the House will have used its time wisely tonight. If, on the other hand, he has no intention of doing that—I shall explore some of the reasons he might have for not doing it—the Government are engaged in a cynical exercise tonight.

I thought I detected in the speeches of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesmen a notion that is foreign to my concept of democratic principles: they advised the Government that the outcome of any election was not wholly certain and that Ministers did not really want to hold an election unless it was going to provide the desired result. The people of Northern Ireland are being told that the Government are putting through an order tonight and they will allow Assembly elections to take place, provided the people vote the way that the Government want them to. That is the message from both the Minister and the Front-Bench spokesmen for the principal Opposition parties: such is their adherence to democracy that they will allow the people of Northern Ireland to have a vote, provided they vote the way they want them to.

In fact, the Government know that the electorate will not vote the way they want them to. Recent experience tells them that. The UUP professes enthusiasm for elections, but whatever the tough talk in the Chamber tonight we know that in the 13 of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies in which the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party went head to head, the DUP got five Members of Parliament elected while the UUP got four, and the DUP beat the UUP in eight of those constituencies while the UUP beat the DUP in five. Taking all of the votes cast for the two parties in those 13 constituencies, the DUP got 20,000 more votes than the UUP. Those are the facts that the Minister and his colleagues will take into consideration when deciding whether or not to use the order before the House tonight. I hope that the Government get better polling information than the Belfast Telegraph managed during the general election.

If whatever soundings they take lead them to judge that they can get an election result that suits their policy, Ministers will use the order and go to the country, but I judge that the electorate have not changed from 7 June—if anything, they have come to a stronger realisation that Sinn Fein-IRA are not fit to be in government. That was our belief from the start and it has been borne out by Sinn Fein-IRA's behaviour ever since.

To the Unionists, the process has involved the making of concession after concession to Sinn Fein-IRA while getting next to nothing in return. The Provisional IRA has not decommissioned one weapon, one bullet, one ounce of Semtex, one detonator—it has not moved at all on that issue. Its representatives are happy to talk to people and issue statements containing well studied words, but they have not delivered the product—indeed, they do not intend to deliver the product and they were not required to do so by the Belfast agreement. The agreement required only that they make sincere and genuine efforts to do so.

A later agreement indicated that the Provisional IRA would be prepared to decommission in certain circumstances—if the context was right. That context is, of course, a united Ireland. If the Provisional IRA can see that progress towards a united Ireland is irreversible, it will be prepared to consider decommissioning. Many of us saw that back in 1998 and our views have been justified.

I note that the Minister holds out the hope of the current round of negotiations, which is now complete. We are told that the two Governments are to go away and draw up a paper that will, according to the press—I shall be interested to hear the Minister confirm or deny this—be provided to pro-agreement parties. It would appear that the Government, indulging their fascist inclinations—[Interruption.] Government Members can tut as much as they want, but they should listen before arriving at their conclusions.

The reality in Northern Ireland is that there are four main parties. My party is larger than both the Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein. The Government want to speak to Sinn Fein—they repeatedly ask for and hold meetings—and they do the same with the SDLP. However, they do not do that with the DUP; they do not want to hear views that differ from their own. The Government issue invitations to talks at Weston Park not to the DUP, but to those who hold the same views on the Belfast agreement as they do. That is the form of democracy being exercised by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

My question is a simple one. If the tuts from Government Back Benchers are anything to go by, they expect the Minister to stand and say that on the same day as the parties that support the agreement receive the documentation, the parties that are against the agreement will do so as well. That would be the proper thing to do. A major political party, one that is bigger than the parties to which the Government are currently talking, is outside the process, but it is entitled to see what proposals are being made on the future of Northern Ireland. My party's electoral mandate means that we have a greater stake than the SDLP and Sinn Fein. I want the Minister to clarify that point.

The hon. Member for North Down said that an alternative was available—suspension. In that, we see the hypocrisy of the SDLP. When the first suspension of the institutions in Northern Ireland was being considered to salvage the hide of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), the SDLP said that the Government could not suspend—that it was dreadful even to contemplate suspension. Its representatives hightailed it to Dublin and asked the Government there to put pressure on the UK Government to ensure that the institutions of the Belfast agreement were not suspended, saying that to do so would be to ensure the death of the agreement itself.

However, because the SDLP knows that suspension is now the alternative to an election—an election in which its strength is likely to be reduced—to save its own hide it is urging the Government to choose suspension rather than elections. Although it is not always the case that the pattern of the past is repeated in such circumstances, thus far the position has always been that the SDLP, the IRA and the Dublin Government demand one thing—namely, suspension rather than an election—and I rather suspect that, during the next few months, there will not be too many people pulling out their copies of this order to look at the arrangements for the election process.

The outcome will of course be determined on the basis of the paper being provided by Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Irish Republic. I note that although the former First Minister for Northern Ireland told us that the process he had entered into at Weston Park would address only one subject—decommissioning—the heralded paper deals with a whole series of issues, including policing, demilitarisation, or normalisation depending on how one wants to describe it, and other matters such as the equality agenda.

It has been indicated, rightly, by the Front-Bench spokesman for the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), that there is huge concern in Northern Ireland about further concessions being offered to Sinn Fein-IRA on policing. That is a matter of concern not only within the Unionist community but for the police service itself. There is massive demoralisation in the force. At present, hundreds of people are taking sick leave. More than 800 have already left the RUC. If further concessions are offered to the IRA for political purposes, that will be a heavy blow and one from which the service will never recover.

The hon. Gentleman said that there should be no further concessions on policing until decommissioning had taken place. I am sure that was loose wording, but it is worth clarifying the point. My view is that there should be no further concessions on policing before, during or after decommissioning takes place. The so-called concessions in the Patten commission report have been delivered. There is no requirement on the Government to go beyond that in terms of practical policing, and I do not believe that the Government should move on that issue. If the Government are seen to be providing policing concessions to Sinn Fein and the SDLP in order to extract some weapons from the IRA, that will undermine the whole political process—a process that no longer enjoys the support of Unionists.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Earlier, the hon. Gentleman made a disparaging remark about my hon. Friends. Does he agree that the majority will should hold sway in Northern Ireland in relation to reform of the police service? It is surely the overwhelming will of the people of Northern Ireland that the police services in Northern Ireland be reformed as part of the Good Friday agreement. Is he not guilty of ignoring the democratic will of the people whom he represents?

Mr. Robinson

I think that the hon. Gentleman is confused on two issues: first, as to what people voted for in the referendum, which I assume is what he refers to as the view of the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland were told by the former First Minister that the Belfast agreement would save the RUC. That was the premise on which the Ulster Unionist party fought the Belfast agreement referendum. As far as Unionists were concerned and certainly for those who trusted the former First Minister, their view was that by voting in favour of the Belfast agreement they were voting for the salvation of the RUC.

Lady Hermon

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robinson

I shall give way in a moment, but I want to deal with the second point raised by the intervention of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). Majority rule in Northern Ireland is not the policy of the hon. Gentleman's Government: it is no longer policy for Northern Ireland. The present policy for Northern Ireland, enshrined in the Belfast agreement, is that there is a requirement to have the support of a majority of both sections of our community. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is no support from the Unionist community for those proposals—not only on policing but also on other issues.

Mr. John Taylor


Mr. Robinson

I shall give way to the hon. Member for North Down and then to the hon. Member for Solihull.

Lady Hermon

To correct a major point made by the hon. Gentleman, those of us who actually voted for the Belfast agreement did so in the knowledge that we were voting for police reform. As he well knows, the articles and the terms of reference set down in the agreement, for which I voted, stated that the Independent Commission on Policing had to bring forward the means of encouraging widespread community support. That is what I voted for but it has not been delivered, so we do not have the form of policing that we actually voted for. We, too, are bitterly disappointed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. After that debate within a debate, I remind the House that we are discussing the arrangements for the conduct of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the debate may be wide ranging, I do not believe that it should be as wide ranging as it has become during the last few moments.

Mr. Robinson

Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall respond briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down. She has it wrong: that is not what the Belfast agreement said. It stated that the outcome had to be capable of having the support of a widespread section of the community. Is the hon. Lady saying that she will not support the new police service for Northern Ireland, because I certainly would not be saying—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have just ruled. The hon. Gentleman is trying to continue the mini-debate that I suggested should be terminated.

Mr. Robinson

Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall leave it there. I was only tying up loose ends. I give way to the hon. Member for Solihull—unless he, too, wants to take part in the mini-debate.

Mr. John Taylor

I am cowed by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I was about to ask the hon. Gentleman if he agreed with my interpretation of Patten: that it was intended to apply to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Older. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be cowed.

Mr. Robinson

The Assembly for which the order provides a process for new elections was set up under the Belfast agreement. The Assembly was one of the key features of that agreement, but is no more or less important than those features, such as policing, decommissioning and the whole issue of prisoner releases. All those matters were the subject of the decision relating to the Belfast agreement. If the other factors of the agreement have not been delivered, the Assembly for which the order is being introduced no longer has the same meaning or the same significance: nor indeed is it a part of the same process on which the people of Northern Ireland voted in the referendum in 1998.

In closing, I say to the Government that it is not sufficient for them to attempt to put sticking plaster on the wounds of the agreement. That simply will not work. The requirement is for the Government to make a fresh start: to recognise that the agreement has failed; that the agreement no longer has the support of the majority of Unionists; that no process can stand or live in Northern Ireland that does not have the support of the majority of Unionists; and that there is thus a requirement for a renegotiation, to have an agreement that is capable of winning the support not only of nationalists but of Unionists as well.

8.28 pm
Mr. John Taylor

I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is only with the leave of the House that I can speak a second time in these proceedings. I defer to you in the matter. Must that be tested or is there a ruling from the Chair?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If no one objects, the House gives leave to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Taylor

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) quite fairly corrected me. He said that my text implied that we were entering a critical phase. I ought to have said "a new and difficult phase". Along with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), who made a sedentary intervention, I accept that the problems are far from new. They are well over 300 years old or even more. I shall pass on the comments of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to my speech writer.

I was also corrected by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) about concessions on policing. I want the hon. Gentleman to know that my views are much closer to his than he may imagine. Although I know that I am trespassing now, I am coming to an end, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I always regarded Patten as being predicated on peace first, then Patten. These are, perhaps, differences between the two sides of the Chamber in an area in which we have tried to be helpful, as the record shows.

I conclude with a short anecdote. I remember my first insight, well over 30 years ago, into Northern Ireland society. I went to play golf in Northern Ireland and was asked whether the golf club to which I belonged in England was a Catholic golf club or a Protestant golf club. Nobody had ever asked me such a question before, and it gave me an insight into a rather different society, which was none the less part of my own country.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House for letting me respond briefly.

8.31 pm
Mr. Browne

I thank the hon. Members who contributed to the debate, and I am grateful for the expressions of support for the order from the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for North Down (Lady Hermon). In this short summing-up speech I shall endeavour to respond to the comments and questions that arose during the debate.

I assure the hon. Member for Solihull that any package that emerges over the next week or so must be acceptable to all sides if it is to be effective. The Government's aim, and the priority throughout, remains the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. If we succeed in producing a package that meets that objective, every side wins and there are no losers.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) invited me to speculate on the content of the package of measures. I am not prepared to do so. At this stage, such speculation would be unhelpful. Although I cannot say what will be in the package or when it will be completed, I can assure the House that both Governments are aware of the need to make early progress on all the outstanding issues.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East somewhat unworthily accuses the Government of cynicism. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my opening speech I made clear the Government's position as regards the order. The Government hope that the normal process will take its course and that the Assembly will elect a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but we must ensure that if elections are required, the necessary technical steps have been taken. That is the purpose of the order. I am not prepared to answer hypothetical questions based on an assumption of failure in respect of that objective.

Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Belfast, East that the Government's primary goal is to implement the remaining aspects of the Good Friday agreement, which was voted for by the majority of the electorate in the north and south of the island of Ireland. It is only natural, therefore, when formulating ways in which that agreement can finally be implemented in full, that the Government should do so in negotiation with the pro-agreement parties.

The Government have said on numerous occasions that the agreement remains the best opportunity that we have to bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland. It is our duty to do what we can to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented. It is not up for renegotiation. We will do whatever is most helpful to the process of implementing the outstanding areas of the Good Friday agreement. That is the priority. Exactly how the proposals are delivered, and to whom they are delivered, is a secondary issue.

As I said in opening the debate, it is essential that we set in train the mechanisms for holding Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. It may be necessary to hold such elections later this year. Elections are in any case scheduled for 2003, but no matter when they happen, we must ensure that the system for conducting them is in place. The statutory instrument will form the basis for all future elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am grateful to the House for allowing time to consider the order this evening.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001, which was laid before this House on 4th July, be approved.