HC Deb 17 March 2003 vol 401 cc641-702

Order for Second Reading read.

4.7 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As I said during the debate on the timetable motion, the need for this Bill arises from the intensive negotiations on the political future of Northern Ireland that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach conducted at Hillsborough a fortnight ago.

This is a short Bill with a simple purpose. It provides for a 28-day postponement of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that are currently scheduled for 1 May. Postponing an election is a serious step, and it is certainly not one that we would contemplate lightly. However, I believe that it is very much the right thing to do in the circumstances that now face us, because what emerged from the Hillsborough discussions was a potential basis for political advance in Northern Ireland. Nothing is guaranteed and more work is needed, but we may now have an opportunity to end direct rule, pass powers back to the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland and implement all the remaining aspects of the Belfast agreement of 1998.

If that opportunity is taken, the people of Northern Ireland could vote for an Assembly that had already resumed its powers at the time of the election, or that was ready to take them up afterwards. That is clearly a great deal better than an election to an Assembly that is in a state of suspension, without powers, unable to meet, and with no clear route out of that state.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

Will the Minister clarify the precise circumstances in which a suspension could be lifted before the elections on 29 May?

Jane Kennedy

Suspension of the Assembly would have to be lifted with the agreement of the parties. That is the only basis on which we can move forward, and I will come to that point later in my speech if the hon. Lady will be patient for a moment while I outline some of the big issues that we are discussing today.

Realistically, we could not hope to tie down the political agreement necessary to move beyond that state if the election date remained 1 May—which, on the present timetable, would mean the dissolution of the Assembly, and the start to all-out campaigning, at the end of this week. If the election date were moved to 29 May, we should have a much better chance of such agreement. That is the reason for the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was obliged to suspend devolved government on 15 October last year, in the aftermath of concern about continuing paramilitary activity. It was clear that there had been a catastrophic breakdown of trust, that the lack of trust existed on both sides of the community, and that that catastrophic breakdown of trust made the effective functioning of devolved government impossible.

As the Prime Minister made clear in a speech in Belfast on 17 October, Northern Ireland had reached a fork in the road. It was, my right hon. Friend said, time for republicans to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful means—to make it real, total and permanent. Without that, it was clear that the system would no longer work, but if such real change occurred, the way would be open to the implementation of the rest of the agreement in its entirety. What was needed, the Prime Minister made clear, was action sufficient to restore trust on all sides.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The Minister talks about trust having broken down on both sides. What did Unionists do to breach trust?

Jane Kennedy

There was a sense that there was a lack of commitment to power sharing and to working together to make government work. As I have said, there was a catastrophic breakdown of trust in the veracity of those associated with paramilitary organisations. It is that trust that we have sought to restore, through the talks and negotiations that have taken place in recent weeks.

Since that breakdown of trust and the Prime Minister's speech in Belfast, both the British and Irish Governments have worked in the closest partnership, along with the parties, to promote a fundamental step forward. There has been a series of round tables, convened by the British and Irish Governments and open to all parties in the Assembly. There have been other meetings of the six parties who favour the agreement. There were meetings with the Prime Minister and Taoiseach at Hillsborough in February. Most promisingly, though, there have been intensifying contacts among the parties themselves. Engagement by the parties with the Government, and with the Irish Government, is often important, but engagement between the parties themselves is crucial.

The Prime Minister and Taoiseach arrived at Hillsborough on the morning of Monday 3 March, intending to leave that evening. In fact, both stayed through the whole of Tuesday, and into the early hours of Wednesday. The House knows the pressures on the Prime Minister's time, especially in the present international situation: his choosing to remain with the parties is eloquent testimony to the fact that the negotiations, though often difficult—as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have reason to know—held out real promise from the start.

There was a great deal of engagement between the parties, and, although areas of real difficulty remained, there was by the end, as the Prime Minister said, a shared understanding of how the process could now be moved forward to a lasting and durable settlement based on full implementation of the agreement.

The key issues under discussion—and there are many—are widely known and have been widely commented on. At their core is, on the one hand, an end to paramilitarism, and, on the other, the stability of the institutions. It was the clear judgment of both Governments that a settlement was within reach. Such a settlement would open the way to reviving the full operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the important north-south and east-west institutions on a foundation of stability and willingness by all parties to operate them wholeheartedly. It would necessarily be founded on an end to paramilitarism, as the Prime Minister made clear. That would include—in the context of the changed environment brought about by the definitive transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and in the context of all parties endorsing the policing arrangements and structures—the coming of security arrangements that would be regarded as normal in other parts of these islands.

We cannot rush the steps to the conclusion of such a settlement. There is a need on all sides to rebuild the trust and confidence that is necessary to underpin the successful operation of the institutions, which will take time. The Governments cannot dictate the pace of the process. The parties need an opportunity to reflect on the key issues with their colleagues around the country. They also need time to engage with each other further. The Government concluded that we needed to give space for that to happen before the two Governments come back with definitive proposals about the most promising basis on which implementation of the Belfast agreement can be set back on track. We intend to do that in early April. I hope that, by that stage, we will see a response from the paramilitaries that enables us all to go forward.

I have to emphasise again what the Prime Minister made clear in October, because it is critical: the system will no longer work in the shadow of paramilitarism. We can go forward only on the basis of the agreement. That must include a commitment to exclusively peaceful means on the part of the parties that are involved in government and the organisations that are linked to them. We now need to see acts that are unmistakably acts of completion of the transition to exclusively peaceful means. We also need, of course, to see a renewal of the commitment to operating all the agreement institutions wholeheartedly. On all sides, what is said and done must inspire trust and confidence in all parts of the community.

By early April, when we will introduce our final proposals, the Assembly would, on the present schedule, have been dissolved for two weeks. If we held elections according to the schedule, therefore, those elections would be to an Assembly in suspension, with no clear way established to its resuming powers again. However, in the light of the discussions at Hillsborough, we now have good grounds to hope that, if we postpone for a few weeks, the elections may be to an Assembly that either has resumed powers or has good prospects of doing so once the votes are counted. That would be a far more satisfactory state of affairs for the vcters, for Northern Ireland and for us all. Hence, we decided, after careful consideration, that a brief postponement of the Assembly elections would be right.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The Minister has outlined two possibilities. In the first, an agreement would be forthcoming before the election. In the second—which she did not quite explain to the House— an agreement might be reached after the election. What circumstances suggest to the Minister that, if people had not agreed before the election, they might agree after it?

Jane Kennedy

As I said, that would have to be in the context of acts of completion. Without those, the idea that we can begin to restore trust is nonsense. The acts of completion underpin all our hopes for the way forward in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

In pursuit of the same point, does the Minister accept that what sounds like a strong statement—in this case, acts of completion—can become a flexible statement in the interests of expedience? It is that problem that causes concern and perhaps scepticism in certain groups.

Jane Kennedy

I do not accept that. I am not aware of specific statements that could be taken as watering down the absolute commitment that the Prime Minister himself spelt out in Belfast in October. The commitment is unequivocal and that remains our position. Without that, we would be unable to restore the trust not so much of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, but of the parties that need to be part of the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. That is why the acts of completion are one of the issues that are central to our discussions.

Short delays to elections are unusual and are undesirable in principle, but they are not unprecedented. The House will recall that although local elections were due on 3 May 2001 in England and Wales and on 16 May in Northern Ireland, they were postponed to 7 June because of concerns about the impact of foot and mouth disease and its accompanying restrictions on the electoral process. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which established devolved government on the basis set out in the agreement, provides for elections to be delayed, or indeed brought forward, by up to two months by order subject to the negative resolution procedure. We decided, however, that it would not be right to use that provision in the circumstances of the postponement that we are considering.

As I said, any delay to an election is regrettable. We would not propose it if there were any other way to achieve our objective. I hope that the House will agree that the potential prize well merits the postponement in this case because a month could make a very great difference. The Bill postpones the election date by four weeks, or 28 days, to 29 May. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party have tabled an amendment that I regard as a wrecking amendment. I am not sure whether it is a typographical error, but the date in the amendment must be wrong. Surely it should refer to 1998, not 1999.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The amendment is not clear in the documents that I have. Bearing in mind that it is a manuscript amendment, I would be grateful if the Minister could help us by saying what it is about.

Jane Kennedy

I am not sure that I should discuss the amendment at this stage. I am sure, however, that a copy of it can be made available. Indeed, there is one on the Table.

Andrew Mackinlay

On a point of order, M r. Speaker. I do not want to embarrass myself, although that has never stopped me before, but a copy of the amendment is not available outside the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that copies of the amendment are in the Vote Office, and they may well be available on the Table.

Andrew Mackinlay

I am very much obliged to you for your help, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Peter Robinson


Jane Kennedy

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Before I move on, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).

Mr. Robinson

Copies of the amendment are available because I picked one up several hours ago from the Vote Office. My copy refers to 1998. I am not sure why there is a date of 1999 in the Minister's copy.

Jane Kennedy

I have an earlier copy. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the date is correct in the amendment that is now available to the House, although I shall not dwell on it.

As a consequence of choosing 28 April as the dissolution date, the election timetable is shortened from 25 to 20 days, but that will not affect other key election timetable events, such as deadlines for absent votes. The election will be safeguarded by the most stringent precautions ever taken against electoral fraud.

The Bill includes technical provisions to take account of the impact on expenditure limits of moving the elections.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

The Minister will be well aware that photographs are supposed to be made available so that people can get an identity card to vote. Is she aware that there is a complete jam-up of the works, which means that in some areas people cannot get those photographs or they cannot get an appointment to have photographs taken? The elections will be on us shortly, so will the Minister set her mind to finding out how to keep the process moving?

Jane Kennedy

I am not aware of the complete jam-up to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I understand that on 14 March the number of applications for electoral identity cards stood at 55,225, and that on 11 March the number of cards issued was 16,935. The processing of applications is well under way. Every elector may now use a range of photographic identification; people are not restricted to using the electoral identity card to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am confident that those who need a card will be able to get one in ample time for the elections.

We are asking the House today to go the extra mile, as it has done before, to give the agreement a chance to succeed and come to full fruition. We believe that that is a real prospect; otherwise we would not have introduced the Bill. Northern Ireland, and therefore each of us in these islands, has come a very long way since the agreement was concluded in 1998. I hope that the House will agree to offer this vital chance of advancing further.

4.26 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

As it is St. Patrick's day, I start by offering my warm congratulations to all those in the House from Northern Ireland and with Irish connections generally. It occurs to me that we may all like to send our warmest wishes to the men of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment, who are currently deployed in the Gulf and for whom this must be an anxious time.

The Opposition have supported the Northern Ireland peace process and the Belfast agreement from the very first. Indeed, the peace process as we know it began with the ceasefire that followed the historic Downing Street declaration negotiated by the then Conservative Government. It is therefore reluctantly, and with a heavy heart, that over the past 18 months, we have felt the need, in the interests of the peace process and of the people of Northern Ireland, to take issue with the Government on the tactics that they were adopting in the process. In our view, those tactics were imperilling the implementation of the Belfast agreement and the achievement of peace and normalisation in Northern Ireland.

Those tactics were based on three illusions on the part of the Government, no doubt honestly, if naively, held., but no less potentially damaging and disastrous for that. The first of those was that the issues at stake and the parties involved in the peace process could be dealt with effectively one by one and separately. In other words, the Government, although well meaning, failed to appreciate that everything in Northern Ireland is interlinked. Everything is therefore contingent; side deals will never work; and no party will make a move unless it knows what the others will do in return.

The second illusion was the belief that terrorists and former terrorists can be appeased, or even disarmed, by unilateral concessions. In other words, the Government appear to fail to appreciate that we are dealing here with hard men, negotiators as tough as they come, who will never give anything for nothing and will take unilateral concessions as a sign of weakness and simply ask for more. In short, there was a failure to recognise that concessions must always be reciprocal and there must always be sanctions for non-performance in any successful peace process or agreement.

The third illusion was the belief that no damage would be done to Unionist parties or to the SDLP, the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, by endless conciliation and appeasement of republicans; that they could be, to a large degree, taken for granted. That was both unfair and impolitic. It could only lead, as I fear it has, to increasing disillusionment and cynicism about the peace agreement over the past few years in Northern Ireland, and to the hardening of positions in both the Unionist and nationalist camps. So the Government saddled themselves and are responsible for quite a large measure of the difficulty with which they now have to contend.

The Government's misconceived approach—it was fundamentally misconceived in relation to the three illusions that I have set out—led to their committing, and it could only have done so, four cardinal errors. I have described these four errors before as the Government four cardinal errors, and I shall again repeat what they were to remind the House.

First, there was the colossal error of releasing all the prisoners without any decommissioning taking place, even though the Belfast agreement required both processes to be completed within two years. Secondly, there was the failure to respond at all to successive breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement by Sinn Fein-IRA—Florida, Colombia, Castlereagh and the continuing beatings, shootings and intimidation. As I said at the time, failure to respond to such egregious breaches could only lead to more, and so, sadly, it proved with Stormontgate.

The third cardinal error was the incredible decision, despite all that, to offer new unilateral concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA that were not required by the agreement. The two worst such examples were the promise at Weston Park of an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists to be delivered by the end of 2001, and the special status for Sinn Fein members in this place.

The fourth cardinal error was the decision to turn down the offer that I made in the House last July to pass rapid legislation to give the Secretary of State power to suspend from the power-sharing Executive any parties in breach of their obligations or in concert with those in breach of their obligations under the ceasefire or the agreement.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman describe the mechanics of how he felt that such a suspension would have played out in Northern Ireland and why he feels that it would have been effective?

Mr. Davies

I am not pretending that I predicted Stormontgate. Of course I did not. However, I predicted and said at the time—it is on the record—that if we did not respond to breaches, there would be more. I said during the debate that took place in July that we had better prepare for what the Government do, because the Government, as sure as hell, had better do something next time, otherwise there will be more and more. The Government need to suspend from the power-sharing Executive parties that are in breach of their obligations or in concert with organisations that are so in breach.

At the time, there were only two possibilities available to the Government, and unfortunately that remained the position. One was to introduce a motion in the Assembly, which under the rules of the Assembly would have had to achieve a majority in both camps, Nationalist and Unionist. In practice, that meant that the entire onus for excluding Sinn Fein would have lain on the SDLP. That would have been a ridiculous situation and an abdication of a fundamental responsibility on behalf of the Government to do something about these breaches.

The other alternative was to suspend everybody, both innocent and guilty, and to bring down the structure of devolution—the Executive, the Assembly, the whole lot. That is what the Government ended up having to do. That is because they did not accept my proposal, which was to provide in legislation in this place—it could have passed through the House quite rapidly—for the Secretary of State to have powers to exclude the particular party which was in breach or in concert with those in breach. That is simple. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not follow the argument at the time. It seems clear in retrospect that we should have done that. Instead, we have brought down the whole structure, and that is precisely why we confront the difficult situation that we do. That is precisely why, in addition, we have had the crisis over the past six months and the issue of how we shall restore the institutions of devolution, which were suspended because, unfortunately, there was no alternative.

However, let me be fair to the Government. Since the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) took over as Secretary of State, there has been, in all honesty, a striking change in the Government's approach, which is extremely welcome. All the other elements in the equation, such as the issues, the parties, the personalities—in Northern Ireland, the Government of the Irish Republic, and the Government themselves, including the Prime Minister, Mr. Jonathan Powell and everybody else—remain the same and nothing else has changed. The only new element is the arrival of the right hon. Member for Torfaen, so it is fair to give him substantial credit for that change in approach.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Davies

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that I am endeavouring to be fair. Perhaps our own critiques were not without effect. Perhaps even more eloquent is the fact that the predictions that we made on the basis of our analysis proved true all too often and, sadly, what we said would happen came about. However, there was undoubtedly a change of tone. The Prime Minister's speech in October, to which the Minister of State has already referred, was certainly the most realistic and robust that he has made so far in the peace process. At the time, I said that we welcomed the speech but that we would judge the Prime Minister by his deeds, not merely by his words. Importantly, over the past six months, there has been a welcome absence of unilateral concessions by the Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne)

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's speech, which could be described as slightly understated, but urge him to reflect on the timing of the events that he is narrating to the House. My recollection is that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when the Prime Minister made his speech on 17 October.

Mr. Davies

The tone of the speech, as I have already said, was welcome. The substance—the negotiations—I shall come on to later; they are a more recent phenomenon, but are also extremely welcome. We keep our eyes and ears open and have noticed that the words and concepts that we have espoused for so long and which the Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), used to reject passionately or even to rubbish when I used them over and over again in the past year and a half at the Dispatch Box—words such as linkage, timetable, sanctions, multilaterality—are now on the Government's lips, including those of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) and the Minister of State, which I welcome.

Last Wednesday, in Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State generously and revealingly agreed with me that it was a thoroughly good thing that we in the Conservative party had successfully resisted the promise of amnesty for on-the-run terrorists at Weston Park. As a result, that important card remains in the Government's hands, and enables us to achieve the judicial treatment of the problem of on-the-run terrorists, which both the Secretary of State and I, both Government and Opposition, agree we should seek. There is therefore a new realism and robustness, and there is a new approach that could be characterised as a multilateral, comprehensive package—exactly what the Opposition have been calling for for the past year and a half, recognising the linkages and insisting on the need for discipline, balance and sanctions on the Government's part. I hope and trust that that will bear fruit—indeed, there is some evidence that it is beginning to do so, as we always expected it would. Has the divergence—the rupture, even—between us over tactics now come to an end? Can we now speak of bipartisanship of approach and tactics as well as objectives? I profoundly hope so—the next few weeks will tell definitively.

It is clear that the Government's new course has produced a more hopeful situation. I have already had two private and detailed briefings from the Secretary of State about the meetings at Hillsborough and I am grateful for that. I must not betray in my remarks to the House the confidentiality of those briefings, but I can say that the new approach has been based on the principles of multilaterality, comprehensiveness and balance, and I know that the agenda now includes the essential mechanisms of explicit timetables and sanctions for non-performance.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had had two detailed briefings from the Secretary of State on the outcome of the discussions at Hillsborough. Does he agree, therefore, that it is all the more despicable that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, and members of the party that I represent in the House have received no such briefings, consultations or any information whatever from government, officially or otherwise? Is that not a despicable way to treat hon. Members, particularly when they represent a substantial—indeed, a majority—view of Unionism in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Davies

I have the greatest respect for the electoral mandate of any democratic party and I recognise that what the hon. Gentleman says is true—his party represents a large number of people in Northern Ireland. It has chosen, for reasons that we know, not to take part in the Belfast talks or in talks subsequent to the Belfast agreement, but I agree that the party cannot be left out of account. It would be inconsistent with the briefings that I have had if I engaged in publicly second-guessing the Government's tactics at Hillsborough, but I take note of the hon.

Gentleman's comments, and I hope that the two Ministers on the Front Bench will have done so too. The complaints are not new, but that is no reason for not taking notice of them. I am glad the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to make the point again this afternoon.

Without breaching the confidentiality of the briefings that I have had, I must tell the House—I have the agreement of the Secretary of State that I should say this—that what he told me about the results of those discussions so far has convinced me that it is right that we should not prevent the process being given a little more time before the Assembly elections. We therefore decided not to oppose the Bill today. I say that we shall not oppose it, rather than that we shall support it. I hope the Government will understand that.

Although I have had briefings on those meetings, I have not been present at them, so I am not in a position to make a judgment on behalf of the Opposition as to the extent of the progress achieved or the genuineness of that apparent progress. However, I have sufficient confidence in the Secretary of State to believe totally in his sincerity when he says that he believes that the progress is sufficient and sufficiently genuine to warrant a little more time. On that basis we should decide not to stand in the way of a little more time being given.

I emphasise, and I have emphasised this privately to the Government, that we say that with considerable reluctance and after much thought. One should not put forward proposals to extend deadlines, let alone extend deadlines for democratic elections, unselectively. One should do so only very rarely and specifically, and on the basis of extremely good arguments. There are two big issues that we should not overlook. One is that we are dealing with rules for a constitutional process. Constitutional rules must be taken seriously if they are to be worthy of that term. That is particularly true of the rules of new constitutions, like the constitution for devolved government in Northern Ireland, which are very young and have not yet acquired a substantial legitimacy or credibility of their own.

Secondly—this is a point of negotiating tactics on which in the past there have been considerable differences between us and the Government—the deferral of any deadline in any negotiation process must always be problematic. Extending one deadline inevitably reduces the credibility of all deadlines in that process. The object of deadlines is to concentrate minds and exclude opportunities for delay. If it is felt that deadlines are flexible in practice, they are worse than useless, as they will not be deadlines at all, but merely instruments enabling one party to make a fool of another. We must look very critically at this matter, and it is only after having considered it very soberly and critically that we have come to the decision that we should not stand in the way of the Bill this afternoon.

Having said that, I want to make three points as plainly and forcefully as I can. First, we will support no further postponement of the elections. I hope that the Government will make it very clear to all their interlocutors in the peace process that elections in a democracy cannot be postponed beyond the constitutionally prescribed dates except by consensus and that there will certainly be no such consensus for any further delays. The evil day cannot be further postponed and minds must be concentrated. We cannot continue as we have for the past five years. This extension of the deadline must really and genuinely be the last.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The hon. Gentleman has recognised time and again in the House that every deadline in Northern Ireland is not a deadline, but is repeatedly reset. If and when the election takes place on 29 May this year, what sort of deadline would he propose for excluding those who are in breach of the agreement and are still involved in paramilitary terrorist activities? Surely, no deadline for a newly elected Assembly should entail continual uncertainty. Surely, a deadline must be set for going ahead with an all-inclusive Executive or to exclude Sinn Fein from it.

Mr. Davies

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, given his business background, that one of the rules of negotiation is that one does not declare hypothetical tactics in advance or say what one might or might not do in situations that have not arisen. That would be foolish.

I was trying to make a strong distinction—perhaps it would help for me to repeat what I was saying—between a constitutional deadline based in constitutional or foundational law and a deadline in negotiation. Deadlines in negotiations must be treated seriously or they will lose all credibility. However, a fortiori, if a deadline is enshrined in constitutional rules, one must be very careful indeed about extending it; otherwise, one will devalue the whole constitution of which that deadline is a part. That is particularly true in respect of deadlines for elections, as democratic elections are, of course, at the very centre of the democratic and constitutional process—or of any process worthy of such a name.

We are prepared to accept the extension of the deadline, but just this once. I think I have made it unambiguous and clear—I have certainly sought to do so—that this should be the last time. There should be no illusion about that on anybody's part.

Secondly, we are prepared to accept this procedural step—for that is what it is—in advance of a genuine, comprehensive and definitive settlement on the basis of the Government's assurance that it will help significantly to bring about such a comprehensive settlement in Northern Ireland, but we will not accept any substantive concessions in advance. We will not accept the making of any such concessions except as part and parcel of that comprehensive and definitive settlement. We will not therefore agree, to provide for any such concessions now in primary legislation to irrevocably complete the primary legislative process in advance in respect of any matter that needs to be dealt with because of the Northern Ireland peace process and simply leave it to the Government to decide on implementing the provisions of that change in our law under statutory instruments if and when they feel that they have achieved enough in the process to warrant their doing so. Parliament should not, and in such critical cases—they are critical constitutionally, for judicial propriety and for peace—it absolutely must not, sign blank cheques in that fashion. Only when the whole package is available for inspection can Parliament make a judgment on it, and only then can it decide whether a particular measure is still justified in principle or should be modified or amended. Statutory instruments notoriously cannot be amended in this House, and we therefore absolutely reject that method of proceeding. In other words, if the Government wish to legislate as part and parcel of their delivering their side of a bargain in a Northern Ireland settlement, I am afraid that we must wait to see what that bargain consists of, and primary legislation should only be introduced at that stage. I hope that the Government will take account of these observations very seriously when they plan ahead and take decisions—for example, on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which is scheduled to be debated on Report next week.

Let there be no doubt about what we mean when we say "comprehensive settlement". It must be a settlement in which there are no loose ends— no necessary actions that are left over indefinitely or are to be dependent for their fulfilment on good will in the future—and no side deals or secret agreements. It must be definitive and transparent. It must, of course, include the completion of decommissioning, to a strict timetable, of IRA and loyalist paramilitary weapons to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain and of the public in Northern Ireland. The latter means inevitably that the completion of decommissioning must be undertaken in a much more open fashion than were the two acts of IRA decommissioning that we have already had. A settlement must involve the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations connected to any party that wishes to take part in the political process and does not wish to go down the route of permanent professional criminality. There can be no third choice. Concessions by the British Government must be made pari passu with, or after, the verified completion of those two processes of decommissioning and disbandment. There must be no payment in advance whatsoever.

Last, but certainly not least, there must be clear and enforceable sanctions for non-performance or for subsequent backsliding at any and every stage. That is our concept of a successful peace process. If it is the Government's agenda, too, as I hope, they will have our full support; if not, I fear that they will not.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House has resigned. That is something that we understand and, indeed, that many of us support, but it creates an issue in terms of the flow of information to Members in the House as to what statements are being made, and by whom, and what debates are being held, and when. In particular, will the commitments given last Thursday by the former Leader of the House still stand in relation to the timing of any debate on the international situation? The usual channels are not a matter for you, but the flow of information to Members and the fact that every Member must be of equal standing most certainly is. Can you give some reassurance on that in this highly unusual situation?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

I inform the hon. Gentleman that that is not a point of order for the Chair. It is a matter for the Government. My responsibility now is to comply with the allocation of time motion that is before the House.

4.53 pm
Jim Knight (South Dorset)

At a time when we are all understandably preoccupied with events in Iraq, it is nevertheless appropriate that we should not be so distracted that we fail to continue to seek to get our own house in order in respect of Northern Ireland. I support the Bill as an important measure to allow time for parties to reflect on the recent negotiations and, I hope, to get the Assembly up and running again in time for the elections.

I make no bones about the fact that I am no expert on this subject. I visited Belfast for the very first time last month with a number of colleagues. We met representatives of all the parties at Stormont, toured the interface areas and met cross-community workers, the Chief Constable, the head of the mediation service and members of the suspended civic forum.

The visit was truly fascinating. It was clear that Belfast suffers the problems of any major city in this country or in Europe relating to housing, employment, educational standards, drugs, crime—organised and otherwise—and transport. We also saw plenty that was good and positive. The relative peace was clearly welcomed despite understandable nervousness about its fragility. However, as a first-time visitor to Belfast, I was struck by one point above all others: it is a scandal that Northern Ireland is not a bigger issue in the wider, mainstream political debate in our country.

Andrew Mackinlay

One of the reasons why it does not form part of our mainstream debate is that there is no Labour party in Northern Ireland. Some of us, who are on a three-line Whip, are waiting with bated breath for our political cousins from the Social Democratic and Labour party to turn up. I have been a Member of Parliament for 11 and a half years. I am sick and tired of being brought here by my Whips to support measures—I emphasise that I support the Bill—only to find that there is no Labour voice from Northern Ireland. I hope that Mr. Mark Durkan takes note. At the moment, no representative of our political cousins is present. I—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a close.

Jim Knight

I think I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I broadly support his comments. There is a strong argument for the Labour party's allowing membership for residents of Northern Ireland, but also against its organising there.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

It is a complex issue.

Jim Knight

My hon. Friend is right.

It was truly shocking to find that we live in a country where some communities are so divided and informed by violence, and where people have so little hope. I have been brought up with the troubles—they are approximately as old as me—but last month, I saw the reality of the TV pictures with which I grew up. I saw the walls on the peace lines, the abandoned housing, the murals of hatred, the marked-out territory, and schools on opposite sides of the road that could be on opposite sides of the world for all the contact that they have with each other. I am sure that that is all too familiar to all hon. Members in the Chamber, and perhaps the normal facts of life for some. However, they were shocking to me, and form part of the reason why I wanted to speak in the debate.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve better. They deserve peace and security as much as anyone else in the world, yet they have been isolated in a discrete pocket in the mainstream political debate of this country. That has been allowed to happen because the subject is all too depressing and difficult and if we put it to one side, we do not have to worry about it too much. I therefore pay great tribute to the Prime Minister for his work in trying to sustain progress throughout his premiership, even in recent difficult international times.

What are the substantive issues in the Bill? We are told that the British and Irish Governments have reached agreement on a series of proposals to restore devolved Government on a secure footing that are capable of commanding the support of the pro-agreement parties. We are told that it is possible that we have reached the basis for the final breakthrough, resolving all the outstanding issues and delivering stable and inclusive government in a peaceful society. We are told that we need to give the parties time to reflect on that possible breakthrough so that they can make the necessary decisions to restore the devolved institutions of the Belfast agreement and thereby hold meaningful elections to a live Assembly. I believe that we should trust that information.

However, postponement should not be undertaken lightly. When we met all the parties at Stormont, we discussed postponement and, although we largely considered indefinite postponement, there was clearly considerable opposition to the idea. Many believed that it was being considered simply because the polls suggested that the result would not be to the Government's liking.

I also appreciate that the immediate run-up to an election is not the best time to secure the necessary compromises to make progress on the more substantive issues such as achieving a complete cessation of paramilitary activity, agreement on future sanctions, the final acts of completion, full cross-party representation on the Policing Board and so on. The Belfast Telegraphpublished a contradictory poll that showed both that 64 per cent. of Unionists are against the Belfast agreement and that 60 per cent. of Unionists want it to work. The position is therefore difficult to predict.

The Bill is the right way forward because the position is so difficult. To make a definite, clear postponement of just four weeks is not to run away from the ballot box. It is a sensible compromise to provide some breathing space. I know that, for some, compromise is an unwelcome "C" word, but I believe that the majority will welcome it if it produces results.

I would say the same about the publication of the proposals agreed by the British and Irish Governments. I understand the wish of anti-agreement parties to know what is in those proposals, but I also think it right to allow those who are committed to progress to consider them in the round, without having them picked apart in public, bit by bit, by their opponents in the run-up to important elections. We need to see the bigger picture. Everyone will find things that they like and things that they do not. Nothing can therefore be viewed in isolation. We can all predict what the main issues will be, and all that is now being proposed is that the key players have the chance to have a good look before they leap forward to what I hope will be a lasting peace.

Before I sit down to make way for more experienced voices—I said that I was no expert on these matters, and I do not intend to take up very much time, although there are some who might wish that I could—I would like to raise one further issue. I would like to hear further reassurance from the Minister that the election identity card scheme will be fully implemented in time for the elections, and that the Northern Ireland Office will ensure that there are no administrative logjams. It is vital that the electorate should have complete confidence in the outcome of elections, wherever they are held. I speak as one who failed to gain his seat in the 1997 general election by just 77 votes, and I was delighted to double my predecessor's majority to 153 in 2001. I know all about close results and recounts, and I am happy to say that I have every confidence in the validity of those results.

Lady Hermon

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is the Government's stated intention to withdraw all non-photographic identification before the Assembly elections, but that there has been insufficient advertising and publicity given to the fact that people must have photographic identification? I hope that he will have a word in the Minister's ear, either later this evening or on some other occasion, about increasing the advertising for these electoral identity cards.

Jim Knight

I certainly support what the hon. Lady says. That is why I have raised the matter. I want to put on record my concern that the scheme should be implemented properly, because it is an important safeguard given the delicacy of the situation in Northern Ireland. It is particularly important that the electorate should have the same confidence that I had when I lost by 77 votes. It is clear that this has not been the case in Northern Ireland, and I am keen that that certainty should be in place by 29 May.

In conclusion, I would simply say, "Give peace a chance." That is quite a controversial statement to make in these times, but, in the context of Northern Ireland, it is our only hope. The Bill is a reasonable and measured response, at a delicate time, and it deserves the support of the whole House.

5.3 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on what could be called his maiden speech on Northern Ireland. He was doing very well—bearing in mind the fact that there is a vacancy in the Cabinet—until his potentially ambiguous comment about giving peace a chance.

The Liberal Democrats are disappointed that it has been necessary to introduce the Bill to postpone the elections, because we are reluctant to see any interference with the democratic process. When the Assembly was suspended last October, we stressed that it was really important to convene round-table, all-party talks immediately, so that progress could be made quickly to restore the institutions and proceed with the original election date of 1 May 2003. My colleagues in another place sought and were given reassurances from the Government that, despite the suspension, the elections would indeed take place on that date.

I understand that circumstances have now changed and, in fairness to the Government, they have been fairly good at consulting and informing the Liberal Democrats on the need for the change to 29 May. But we need to be convinced of the reasons for that change. As the hon. Member for South Dorset pointed out—quite reasonably, I think—the Prime Minister has spent some time in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Given the international situation, I pay tribute to his personal dedication to the peace process. Although I have taken issue with one or two of his decisions, there is no doubt that he, aided by the powerful presence of former US President Bill Clinton, did a great deal to drive the process on. The Prime Minister can regard that as an achievement of which he should be justly proud.

The Prime Minister has said that it is necessary to postpone elections to allow time for more talks on restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. In that context, a series of questions are raised by the decision, which should inform the House on whether the delay is appropriate. First, how often is the Secretary of State meeting the political parties, and will there be any further round table discussions before the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach return to Belfast in April? During that time, the political parties in Northern Ireland will no doubt debate the merits of the package put before them by the two Governments, but I understand that, as yet, a final text—a final deal—has not been agreed in every detail, although the parties have seen copies of a document produced by the Governments. On 5 March, BBC News reported A 28-page document … included five annexes dealing with security normalisation, policing and justice, human rights and equality, on-the-run paramilitaries and mechanisms to verify and monitor any deal. That is an extensive statement, but if the document has not yet been finalised, how can the parties gather support for it? I have raised separately a concern that it seemed, at least to one party in Northern Ireland, that there was differential access to the materials—in other words, some parties saw more than others of what has been put forward. If the elections are to be postponed to 29 May, it seems not just respectful but vital that all parties are treated equally in terms of access to the proposals.

One reason for the degree of scepticism is what happened at Weston Park, where many of us felt unilateral agreements were made, regarding on-the-runs, for example. That has caused a scepticism or a concern—a distrust—as to everyone being involved at present because they were not involved in the past. That point was made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), and it is one with which I very much agree. If someone is shown to have behaved not completely openly with all sides, those who feel excluded will be much more difficult to convince in future. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an assurance that all parties will have equal access to the information and that the scourge of unilateral deals, as correctly highlighted and criticised by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, is not part of the current negotiations.

Even if the package is 99 per cent. completed and agreed, the final 1 per cent. may contain something that is seen as vital to one party, but completely abhorrent to another. My time with the Northern Ireland portfolio has taught me many things, one of which is that if we are truly to move forward together, it is vital that all those in the process are clear about what is being proposed and that they can support it. Otherwise, we are looking at another short-term fix rather than one that can provide long-term stability.

That goes to the heart of the problem with which we are dealing in Northern Ireland. There is a lack of trust among the political parties and it cannot be resolved by another quick fix. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to behave in a way that reassures all parties, and indeed the public, that a quick fix is not being sought to bring in one side or another and, potentially, distance a third.

The discussions at Hillsborough were about the response of the two Governments to actions that have yet to be delivered by paramilitaries—the so-called acts of completion. That is the context in which we must assess the package presented to the parties. For the Liberal Democrats, it is important that the Secretary of State reassure the House today that the Government will take forward the elements of the package only in that context.

The Minister of State gave the impression in her introductory comments that acts of completion are solid objects and very clearly defined in the sense that there is no flexibility in them. Once again, however, the Government have created a rod for their own back because the definition of "acts of completion" is rather vague. For example, they have already assured us that acts of completion are necessary to ensure the changes to the district policing partnerships, as circulated with the draft of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill; yet an accompanying letter sent on 25 November from Lord Williams of Mostyn to Lord Glentoran, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Shutt stated: We are not yet persuaded that the time is right to introduce changes in these areas. In particular the removal of the disqualification of ex-prisoners could, in our view, happen only in the context of acts of completion, as envisaged by the Prime Minister. Does that commitment still stand? If it does not, it is hard to see what will be achieved by delaying the elections. It is obvious to me and to others that various parties representing Northern Ireland in the House would have difficult issues to address with their memberships, let alone with their principles, in accepting something that shifted away from the unequivocal statement in that letter of 25 November.

That is also the context for any discussion of on-the-runs. When the two Governments announced their package of proposals after the Weston Park talks in the summer of 2001, the Liberal Democrats firmly rejected the notion of a general amnesty for those who are on the run from justice. The early release of paramilitary prisoners was an extremely bitter pill for many people in Northern Ireland to swallow, but it was tolerated because it formed part of the Good Friday agreement. That cannot be emphasised too much.

The Good Friday agreement was negotiated by the political parties and accepted by the people through a referendum. However bitter the pill, the political parties were willing to swallow it because of the transparency of the process that led to the agreement. To propose an amnesty for those who are on the run—in effect, to ignore their offences entirely—is not an extension of the early release scheme and would go well beyond the Good Friday agreement. At the time, the Lib Dems indicated to the Government that if we were to support any legislation on that matter it was essential that those who intended to avail themselves of the measure should face some form of judicial process and that their release should be on licence.

The judicial commission proposed by the two Governments appears to be addressing our concerns, but will an admission of guilt be needed from a person who appears before the commission before their release on licence?

Rev. Ian Paisley

During the talks, it was stated that people would not have to attend any courthouse or legal proceedings, and nor would they have to make any statement as to their guilt or otherwise.

Lembit Öpik

The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to the concern that the process could be carried out in absentia. The issue could be resolved by a casual letter sent to the commission. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain to what extent the details of the process will be set out in any measures that would necessarily have to be debated carefully by the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies

I very much agree with the drift of the hon. Gentleman's comments. Does he agree that the House cannot possibly be asked to take irrevocable legislative decisions so that no further amendment is possible—for example on the changes proposed in the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which are concessions that the Government have agreed to make to republicans as par; of a settlement—when we have no idea about the nature of that judicial, or quasi-judicial, procedure for dealing with on-the-runs and the whole matter has been left vague?

Lembit Öpik

It is possible to modify any legislation if the Government have the will to do so. However, it is difficult to consider each part of what is being agreed when we cannot see the big picture. It is much more difficult for politicians on the ground in Northern Ireland to sell a package when some of it has to be taken on trust. Again, I point out that the issue has been entirely created by the Government because of occasions in the past when one side or the other felt betrayed by unilateral agreements. That was bound to come home to roost. Had the Government shown more of a spirit of bilateralism in their negotiations in the past, perhaps politicians in the Chamber now would find it easier to sell packages on the basis of trust. Because the Government seem to have played fast and loose, particularly at Weston Park, Ministers must now be much more explicit about the details. It would not be reasonable for them to expect those details to be taken on trust again.

As for on-the-runs, it is vital for justice to be seen to be done and for victims' concerns to be properly addressed. I think of those victims in particular when I consider what legislation we should have. But the issue of on-the-runs cannot be dealt with in isolation; we must also bear in mind those who have been exiled from their homes in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries—quite probably by paramilitaries who, despite the prospect of an amnesty, perhaps through licence, have nevertheless excluded people from their home state.

It would be highly distasteful for those suspected of crimes by the proper authorities to be allowed to return home when those exiled by paramilitaries are not afforded the same right. The paramilitaries must lift their threats from those who have been exiled, and allow them to return. My fourth question to the Minister is this: what plans are there to address explicitly the question of exiles? It is hard to imagine, certainly in the context of on-the-runs, how the Government could do other than ensure that it is handled transparently and equitably.

The issue of sanctions seemed to cause the most difficulties during the recent talks. Under the Good Friday agreement, the only sanction to be imposed on individuals or parties not upholding their responsibilities is removal of their membership of the Executive by cross-community vote. Paragraph 25 of the agreement states Those who hold office should use only democratic, non-violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office under these provisions. Since the signing of the agreement and the election of the Assembly, it has not always seemed to be the case that all involved in the peace process are truly and exclusively committed to peaceful means. The number of so-called punishment beatings and attacks in Northern Ireland over the past five years is unacceptable, and testimony to the ongoing underlying problem.

I wholeheartedly agree with the two Governments that there must be a strong procedure to ensure that parties comply with the necessary democratic standards. The establishment of a commission to examine paramilitary activity was mooted by the Government last July. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) said in a statement to the House that he could see a case to shine a light on the levels of paramilitary violence in the community, both loyalist and republican".—[Official Report, 24 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 984.] That brings me to my fifth question. In the absence of any action that is clear, emphatic and proactive, other than words of concern in the Chamber, what can we expect from the discussions that will come to light between now and 29 May to assure us that real pressure is being put on the paramilitaries to turn off the tap of beatings which, as they have shown in the past, they can administer and desist from as political expedience requires?

One of the four cardinal sins of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford was to criticise the Government for not introducing a power to suspend individuals rather than the Assembly as a whole. I take a different view. According to the hon. Gentleman's logic, in what he calls Stormontgate it would not have been feasible to suspend individuals there and then without violating the principle of their being innocent until proved guilty—suspending people who were still awaiting trial by law on the assumption that they would indeed be found guilty. I do not think that a change in the law would necessarily have helped to achieve what the hon. Gentleman wanted.

Mr. Quentin Davies

I see the hon. Gentleman's argument but I do not think he has quite understood the point. As far as I know, there was never a suggestion of indicting members of the Executive in connection with Stormontgate. Equally, one does not need to have a conviction of individuals to know that an offence has been committed. The fact that an offence had been committed was clear and on that basis the party that was the beneficiary of the intelligence ring could legitimately have been suspended without any prejudice to the trial of individuals who may have been subsequently indicted.

Lembit Öpik

The difficulty is that that leads to quite a big divergence from how we would handle things, for example, in the House. If one were trying to normalise things, that would be counter-productive. To take the hon. Gentleman's example, if wrong-doing were committed in the House by, let us say, a member of the hon. Gentleman's party but it was not clear who it was, one would have to find some way of creating a sanction that punished a wider group. I seek the Minister's perspective, if he wants to give it, but I am highlighting that these rather blunt instruments of law are not as effective as handling the issues on a case-by-case basis. As the record shows, I felt that the only option that the Government had at the time was to suspend the Assembly as a whole.

I ask the Secretary of State to give the House some indication of how he proposes to deal with the question of community relations. In the run-up to the election on 29 May, there is every danger that the Northern Ireland community will feel more split than it has for some time. One of my ongoing criticisms is the assumption, often in the very words we hear from Ministers, that there are two communities in Northern Ireland. That is unhelpful because it sectarianises the debate. I have said many times that 14 per cent. of people regard themselves as unaligned with Protestant or Catholic groupings. Sometimes, I feel that Ministers still slip into the assumption that legislation can validly be framed in a way that looks at those two main blocs rather than perhaps giving more weight to those people who do not regard themselves as traditionally Unionist or nationalist.

My final question is—

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, which is reflected in his sister party in Northern Ireland's approach. It is a regular interlocutor of mine on these issues. I would not wish him to leave the impression in the House that Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office are careless with their vocabulary in relation to the community of Northern Ireland and the failure to recognise its diversity. It is at the heart of our policy that we recognise that Northern Ireland is a diverse society. That has to include those people who do not see themselves as being in one or other of the two traditional camps. If the hon. Gentleman carefully examines the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my fellow Ministers, he will see that we are very careful not to do the very thing of which he accuses us.

Lembit Öpik

I am pleased that the Minister intervened. Rather than raking over examples from the past—I can think of a few from recent Standing Committees on statutory instruments, where I raised that point—let us accept that all of us now recognise the importance of acknowledging those who do not traditionally align themselves with, if you like, the two larger community groups, which often are seen to dominate, certainly in the media.

I am grateful that the Minister has given that assurance. I was not suggesting that Ministers were being cavalier in their language but the hon. Gentleman would expect me to make that point, not least on behalf of the Alliance party in Northern Ireland.

Let me conclude by—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the attentive support of Labour Members. I hope that this one final assurance can be given by the Minister. The Liberal Democrats are inclined to support the Bill but only on this condition, and it is my final question. [Interruption.]Okay, I will make it my final statement, and silence will indicate assent, in order to be philosophically consistent with what I said before. The statement is: there is absolutely no prospect of a further delay. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said that and I echo his sentiment. It is reasonable to expect the Minister to give the explicit commitment that 29 May is now the given date. Although we are not pleased about the change, we understand it, but if that date were to change after such an assurance were given, Ministers and the Government would begin to lose the confidence of the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps of the House in general. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to give that assurance.

5.25 pm
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

I am tempted to begin by saying that this is my final question, but I shall resist that temptation. May I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House a very happy St. David's day? It is good to hear—[Interruption.] I apologise, I meant St. Patrick's day. That has rather spoilt my point, which is that it is nice to know that all hon. Members can be so happy on the feast day of St. Patrick, that famous Catholic Welshman who went to the emerald isle to do his bit.

This is the third time that I have attempted to speak in a Northern Ireland debate, but the first time that I have been successful in catching the eye of the Chair. I am sure that my success has nothing to do with the fact that you, too, Madam Deputy Speaker, were born in Wales, but, for that reason, you will know the saying, "Three tries for a Welshman—Tri chynnig i Gymro." My comment is no reflection on next Saturday's match between Wales and Ireland, although I am tempted, as someone who is half-Irish—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted into saying anything more to do with Wales or rugby.

Kevin Brennan

I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just wanted to say that—despite the fact that I am a Welshman—I wish the all-Ireland team well for next Saturday, given that they are on their way to their first grand slam since 1948.

In supporting the Government today, I follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) in paying tribute to the work of the Prime Minister. I also pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I was pleased to hear Opposition Front Benchers do likewise. The Prime Minister's personal commitment, and his great experience, wisdom and diplomacy, along with that of the Secretary of State, have been very important.

No one ever said that delivering peace in Northern Ireland was going to be easy. It is perhaps easy to forget how long the process of building a lasting peace has been going on. It is worth reminding the House that 15 December will be the 10th anniversary of the historic Downing street declaration, which was brokered by the former Prime Minister, John Major, and the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. There have been 10 long and arduous years of dogged negotiation and effort, followed by hope, then setback, then breakthrough, then disappointment. However, we are all still here today, discussing peace and trying to find a way through the current difficulties, and that is what we must focus on in this debate.

There is an old Welsh saying that the difference between devolution and evolution is that devolution takes longer. In the context of Northern Ireland, the peace process perhaps takes longer than evolution. Despite the recent difficulties, the parties and both Governments remain focused not just on delivering peace, but on securing workable and successful institutions through the Bill. That is testament to how far we have come, but we must not lose sight of one very important fact. Who would have thought that we could have gotten this far at the beginning of this process, 10 years ago, under John Major's Government? It is right to pay tribute to the efforts made by the previous Conservative Government, as well as to the progress made under the current Government and Prime Minister.

It is also easy to forget the distance that everyone has had to travel along this route. I pay tribute to the distance travelled by the parties in Northern Ireland—nationalists, republicans, Unionists and loyalists— towards compromise and peace, but also to the political parties in Britain in coming to terms with the peace process. When the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) famously described the Good Friday agreement as "Sunningdale for slow learners", he put into context the time that it takes to secure a lasting peace.

That also puts into the correct historical context the monumental progress that has been achieved in recent years. From a British perspective, progress has been made since the Prime Minister took hold of the process and drove it forward with his characteristic determination and vision. That has been the hallmark of his approach, and that of the Government, to British-Irish affairs since coming to office in 1997.

While we will listen to any concerns that people in Northern Ireland have about the Government's decision to delay the elections, it is worth thinking about the delay in the context of the Good Friday agreement itself, to see what the Bill actually proposes. As the House knows, the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up under strand 1 of the agreement, which related to democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Under paragraph 36 of the agreement, it was envisaged that after a period there would be a review of these arrangements … including the details of electoral arrangements and of the Assembly's procedures, with a view to agreeing any adjustments necessary in the interests of efficiency and fairness. That makes the Government duty bound to review the electoral arrangements for the Assembly, and gives them the power and moral authority to make any adjustments necessary. I am pleased that the Government have chosen to introduce legislation on the issue.

Paragraph 5, entitled "Review procedures following implementation", puts a further onus on the two Governments to put the wheels back on the wagon, if they should fall off along the way. It states: If difficulties arise which require remedial action across the range of institutions, or otherwise require amendment of the British-Irish Agreement or relevant legislation, the process of review will fall to the two Governments in consultation with the parties in the Assembly. Each Government will be responsible for action in its own jurisdiction. The Government are acting responsibly and within their jurisdiction in introducing the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman quoted that section of the agreement, because it does not limit the consultation to the parties in the Assembly who are in the Executive, but to the parties in the Assembly. That should include all the parties in the Assembly, whether they support the agreement or not.

Kevin Brennan

I know that the hon. Gentleman's party has been consulted on many occasions, but has made it clear that it does not support the agreement. Therefore, in a sense, that is a moot point if the Government are trying to pursue progress on the agreement. I understand that if the hon. Gentleman's were the largest party after the election, it would drop the agreement, so I am not sure in what sense it could be party to any progress on the agreement.

If the process fails, the shape of any settlement that could be achieved in Northern Ireland will be no different in 10, 20 or 30 years' time. We had Sunningdale in 1974 and we now have the Good Friday agreement, but no one has made a convincing case that any settlement achieved in future would be substantially different. Clearly, the danger is that a return to violence could happen. I was with my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset, for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), on a trip to Belfast, and only a week later a dissident republican bomb was left close to some of the places that we visited. We are all aware of the danger of a return to violence, but that does not mean that we should not pursue peace.

We saw efforts at reconciliation being made by communities in Belfast. It was remarkable to meet some people who were active participants in the conflict but who have since made genuine efforts to build peace. There have been many genuine and sincere acts of contrition. We need now to continue the process and to have acts of completion, which will give a sense of certainty that the war is over.

I am sure that some Northern Ireland Members sometimes feel that those of us from the mainland who take an interest are naive and have facile ideas. It can be easy to make false comparisons, but if one comes from Cardiff, as I do, one cannot help being struck by the similarities between Cardiff and Belfast. They are Victorian cities with similar types of housing. In many ways, they have similar histories. There is only one jarring difference—the sectarian conflict that has held Belfast back from achieving the renaissance that it could achieve. Cardiff has been able to achieve such a renaissance in recent years.

Lady Hermon

I do not represent a Belfast constituency, although North Down is fairly close so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to clarify one point. The Bill before us this evening seeks simply to change the date of the election—a date that was set by section 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Bill is not part of a formal review as set out in the agreement. I would not wish hon. Members to be misled into thinking that it was.

Kevin Brennan

I accept that, although I felt that, on Second Reading, there was leeway to range widely around a topic. I have waited many hours on two previous occasions, so I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for having ranged widely. I will conclude shortly.

I represent a city in mainland Britain of similar size to Belfast. In Belfast and Cardiff, the similarities of the problems, which we discussed with people living on estates, are striking, leaving aside the conflict. I am sure that, in years to come, Belfast will be shortlisted for European capital of culture, as Cardiff has been, and as Belfast tried to be on this occasion. People will benefit if we can sustain the peace. If the time that is granted by the passage of this Bill helps in that, it will have been worth while. There have been 30 years of strife and we do not want another 30 before returning to square one. I hope that we are giving time for peace to develop, at least in Northern Ireland.

5.38 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

I had to pinch myself during the early part of this debate as I watched the Minister, in almost angelic fashion, presenting the Bill as if it had some moral authority. In reality, it is probably one of the most corrupt pieces of legislation that the House will see. It will not simply put off an election for four weeks, because it is now four years since that election should have taken place. I will go into that in a moment.

There is an imperative on the Government to obey the law and respect the rights of people to democratic expression through the ballot box. Those are two principles that any Government should guard. However, on every occasion that this agreement faltered, the Government were prepared to change and abuse the law, and avoid giving the electorate any say. The law has been redesigned on a number of occasions and democracy has been consistently manipulated. The process has been a farce and the Government's sole objective has been to cobble it together and evade the will of the Northern Ireland electorate.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 set out several different ways through which elections could take place. Section 31 makes provision for an ordinary general election, and section 32 details two processes that could bring about an extraordinary election. The Minister was wrong to tell the House that the Government could have relied on the provisions in section 31 that allow flexibility of up to two months. They could not have done that because after we took legal action against the Government, the Secretary of State was forced by the Court of Appeal to introduce an order in the House that would allow an extraordinary election, which he determined should be on 1 May 2003. Therefore, section 31 had already been superseded and could not be applied because the Secretary of State had called on section 32 to get out of the dilemma that he faced because of the ruling. Section 32 provides for an extraordinary election when a stalemate has occurred in the Assembly. That can arise for several reasons, including if the six-week requirement has not been met for the election of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The Government have exerted themselves improperly to bypass section 32 on many occasions. The first such occasion was when the then Deputy First Minister, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), resigned following a disagreement with the then First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that he could not work with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and believed that he had gone back on agreements. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made a personal statement to the Assembly in which he announced his resignation. As a result, he was put out of his ministerial office, his ministerial car was taken off him, his ministerial staff were removed, his ministerial salary was taken away, his fax machine was pulled out of his home and his little mobile was taken off him. All the emoluments of office were removed from him.

The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, came to the Dispatch Box and, with tears flowing down her cheeks, announced the resignation of the Deputy First Minister and said what a great contribution he had made. The whole world believed that the Deputy First Minister had resigned until everyone realised that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were joint offices that were tied together. There could not be one without the other, and neither could be elected without a majority of the votes of both sections of the community as represented in the Assembly. The issue of designation became central, and because the majority of Unionists in the Assembly were opposed to the process, the Government knew that the Deputy First Minister who had resigned would not be re-elected. They also knew that the First Minister had consequently fallen and that he would not be elected either.

What were the Government to do? The law made it clear that the stalemate could be resolved by applying provisions in section 32 of the 1998 Act that allowed for an extraordinary election that would let the people decide. However, the Government's problem was that they knew that the people would support those in the Unionist community who opposed the agreement, so they could not allow the people to have their say. The end result was that the cheating began. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland produced a new Standing Order for the Assembly that said that no resignation would be effective unless it had been accepted by a vote in the Assembly, and so the resignation became a non-resignation.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, and he is certainly giving a vivid account of events at which he was present and I was not. Does he agree that a resignation is a perfect act of itself and does not require another half, acceptance, to make it complete? What does he say to that?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that we are not going to stray too far into resignations. We are talking about the postponement of elections.

Mr. Robinson

The issue of resignation is central to the Bill, which is based on the principle of when an election can be called and the circumstances in which it can be delayed. The Leader of the House has shown us today that a resignation issued by the individual is effective, whether or not it is accepted by anybody else. That is what the world believes, but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland changed the rules to ensure that a resignation that everyone knew had taken place would not be counted, so the person concerned could get back to the business of the Executive.

That was only the first problem. The second occurred when we were approaching the 2001 elections to this House. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party knew that he would have problems with the electorate and thought that he had to toughen his act, so he made a statement indicating that unless Sinn Fein-IRA jumped through certain hoops, he would resign with effect from 1 July. That was a post-dated resignation. Of course, the IRA did not jump through the hoops that he had set for it, and the statement did not have the impact that the Ulster Unionist leader expected. That can be seen from the number of my colleagues on these Benches; the Ulster Unionist leader had predicted that he would get 10 members of his party returned, but that was not to be. The end result was that after the election, on 1 July, he had to resign.

The Ulster Unionist leader wanted to get back into office, but he could not because the law requires that a majority of Unionists support the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That conundrum is similar to the one that faced the Government when the Deputy First Minister resigned, but this time things had changed. The Secretary of State no longer had the power to introduce Standing Orders in the Assembly, and devolution had occurred, so the Northern Ireland Act was in force.

How did the Government solve that conundrum? Not by using the processes in the Act, section 32 of which would have allowed an extraordinary election. Instead, we had the farce of the Alliance party, sister party to the Liberal Democrats, and half of the Women's Coalition redesignating themselves as Unionists. As the House will know, when Members take their seats in the Assembly they have to designate themselves Unionist, nationalist or other. For the purposes of that particular vote, the Alliance party and half of the Women's coalition redesignated themselves as Unionists just for the day, throwing out of the window the purpose of the Act, which was to ensure that any major decisions would be taken with the consent of both sections of the Northern Ireland community. Once again, cheating got the Government through the problem that they faced.

We then had the introduction of the Northern Ireland Act 2000, which allowed for the suspension of the Assembly. That measure had the same purpose. If a First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not be elected within a given period—six weeks—the suspension process would begin, so for the third time, this House made laws to circumvent the legal requirement for an extraordinary election that would have allowed the people to give their verdict.

Now, we have this Bill before the House. It comes about as a result of the Government attempting for political purposes to avoid an election on 1 May. The Government have no choice in the matter; the order made it clear that the election was to be on that date. That decision was taken by this House on the Government's advice. The Secretary of State chose that day because it was the last possible day on which an election could be held. That resulted from the case that ultimately went to the House of Lords and deeply divided the Law Lords, as it had the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. The reality is that the Secretary of State chose what he recognised to be the last possible date on which an election could be held.

I question the authority and ability of the Government to revoke the Northern Ireland (Date of Next Assembly Poll) Order 2001. The order was a legal requirement that was placed upon the Government at the time—they could not have done without the order— but now they are attempting to remove that legal requirement simply by changing the rules once more.

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman's recollection of the history of these developments is similar to mine. He omits from his analysis, however, the fact that at each turn when he was able to do so he challenged the steps that were taken and claimed that they were illegal, but on each occasion he was proved not to be right. He knows that the Bill cannot become law unless the House passes it, and he, of all Members, would protect the sovereignty of Parliament.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister is wrong on two counts. First, he is wrong in saying that at each stage we issued a legal challenge. We took a legal challenge on only one occasion, on one specific issue. We did not mount a legal challenge on redesignation or on the Mallon resignation. Similarly, we did not mount any challenge on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The House is sovereign in changing legislation for events to come, but it cannot change events that have already taken place. Historically, those events have already happened. How can the House change a decision—[Interruption.] I will give way if the Minister has the point.

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman is right, I have the point. Perhaps I was not sufficiently precise in my language. As he and his party showed, there was an opportunity to mount a challenge if they believed that we were acting illegally, but they decided not to do so. The Government's position was upheld in the one case they challenged.

We can enter more carefully into the detail at another stage, but the order that set the date of 1 May set a prospective date.

Mr. Robinson

Only one case was taken to the House of Lords, and that related to the decision of the Secretary of State to permit the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to remain in office after the six-week period had passed. I have already said that that issue resulted in the closest division of the Law Lords and the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, the Minister refers to whether the Government were acting legally. I have not thus far claimed that the Government were acting illegally. My first reference was to the morality of the Government having set down in legislation a specific course that has to be taken in certain circumstances, but, when those circumstances arise, deciding to change the law rather than to abide by the law that they had written. That is the reality.

Why is there delay? We have delay because the Government managed—at Hillsborough, according to them—to reach some level of agreement among the parties. We were not there and we were not invited to be there. I do not think that the shadow Secretary of State quite picked up the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). It was not simply a case of the Democratic Unionist party not having been consulted and having stayed away from the talks—it was the DUP not having been invited to the talks. When it made contact, asking to see the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister, it was refused the right to do so. We were deliberately refused access to any of the information contained in the documentation. Still, to this day, the Government have not let us have sight of that documentation, yet little parties that collectively do not have the same representation as my party and receive a lower percentage of the vote—the Progressive Unionist party, the Women's Coalition and the Alliance party—have had the right of access to the documentation.

The DUP enjoys greater electoral support than the SDLP and Sinn Fein, but we are not allowed to see the documentation about which the Minister spoke so glowingly at the beginning of the debate. It is not good enough to say, "You were against the agreement." Does being against Government policy mean that we cannot be consulted about new Government policy? That is an absurd position for the Government to adopt.

Lembit Öpik

Is my perception correct that the absence of perceived consultation makes it much more difficult for members of the hon. Gentleman's party sometimes to be sympathetic to ideas to which otherwise they would be more amenable?

Mr. Robinson

It has that effect, but it has another effect. It becomes clear that the Government are attempting to cobble something together behind the viewpoint of the majority of the Unionist community. The viewpoint that we express is the viewpoint of the majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland. They may not all be members of my party, but they hold the same views as members of my party on these important issues.

Apparently there is supposed to be a collective understanding about the way forward. I watched with interest the press conference that took place immediately after the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic came out of the talks. One person after another took a different position, indicating that they did not have a common understanding of the way forward. The Government seem to have seen a common understanding, but the participants seem not to have done so. However, it appears that at least there is a document setting out a number of concessions to the IRA, to buy it off in the hope that it might make a gesture and make a statement to the effect that its war is over.

No doubt we shall know precisely the words of that statement when the and fheis meets at the end of this month. I understand that the Government expect that the IRA will then make a statement, closely followed by some act of completion. I think that the Government want the act of completion to be as public as possible. However, I can say with certainty that it will not be an act of completion. There will still be further acts required. The IRA will not hand in all its weapons, nor has it any intention of doing so. Indeed, it is bringing more guns and weaponry into the country, rather than decommissioning.

An essential part of the deal is what has been described as the sanctions. In both the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act there is a sanction, but it is totally ineffective. It required nationalists and republicans to throw out Sinn Fein. We knew that that would never happen. We told the parties that supported the agreement that it would not happen, and it has not happened. Every attempt has been made in the Assembly to hold a vote on the issue, but the SDLP and Sinn Fein have always vetoed it.

A more effective sanction was required, and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party has described it as a deal breaker. I assume that we must judge from that that all the other concessions were not deal breakers for the right hon. Gentleman. He was quite prepared to support them or to acquiesce in them, including on-the-run terrorists. However, the one deal breaker for him, and according to him, was the issue of sanctions.

I have to go by what the newspapers say because the Minister has not taken us into his confidence and has not told us what the proposals are. According to the Belfast Telegraph, a four-man panel will be set up, which will have a representative from the United States, from Her Majesty's Government, from the Dublin Government and a person from Northern Ireland. Those four wise men must reach some kind of consensus to determine whether there has been a breach of the ceasefire. The Belfast Telegraph did not tell the world, nor has the Secretary of State or any of his Ministers, whether that consensus has to be unanimous or whether one person can veto it. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will tell us his winding-up speech. However, the four-man or four-person panel will make a decision about whether there has been a breach of the ceasefire. If they deem that there has, they will inform the two Governments and an implementation body, which is a pro-agreement group in the Assembly. They will consider the matter, and if they deem that there has been a breach of the IRA ceasefire, they can require Sinn Fein to give its views, excuses or indeed a report.

David Burnside

Will the hon. Gentleman interpret or define the way in which he sees—and I saw no more of it—the four-man international committee institutionalising the sanction procedure, with the United Kingdom Government and Parliament giving up their sovereign power? It would be dangerous to go down that international route, with a veto for appointees from the British Government, the Irish Government and the American Administration. We should be very wary of participating in such an internationalisation of the sanctions procedure rather than leaving it as the responsibility of the Government.

Mr. Robinson

I agreed entirely with the hon. Gentleman until his last few words, with which I have some difficulty, as. I would not leave it with the Government of the United Kingdom. No Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will throw Sinn Fein out. People have had opportunities over the past five years to table a motion in the Assembly to have Sinn Fein excluded, but have failed to do so, in spite of Florida, in spite of Colombia, in spite of the killings, in spite of the shootings, in spite of the paramilitary beatings, in spite of Castlereagh, even in spite of Stormontgate and the spy ring. Never on any of those occasions did they table a motion in the Assembly, so I do not rely on the Secretary of State or Her Majesty's Government to impose any sanctions on Sinn Fein

The hon. Gentleman's first two points, however, are sound. First, there has been a further internationalising of the situation. A great mistake was made by the previous Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who advocated the internationalising of the decommissioning issue, as a result of which people from outside the United Kingdom became involved in a number of different ways. The second and, in my view, more important, issue raised by the hon. Gentleman is the fact that we will end up having an internal Government matter within Northern Ireland vetoed by people who do not live in Northern Ireland and should have no jurisdiction there. Throughout the whole period of previous talks, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) resolutely opposed the Dublin Government having any say in internal Northern Ireland matters. On the four-man panel, a representative of the Dublin Government will have a direct say in the sanctions issue and a direct ability to veto any sanction.

However, those are only the first two stages of the process. In the next stage, if Sinn Fein makes its apologia and it is not accepted by the implementation body, the matter will proceed to the two Governments, who have to agree on the appropriate measures to be taken. Again, a veto will be given to Dublin in the process, after which the Secretary of State will make his decision. That is a recipe for disaster, procrastination and delay, and is a certain way of ensuring that no decisions will be made to impose sanctions on Sinn Fein. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party may consider that worthy in ensuring that a deal will not be broken, but I have a different view of its value.

Mr. Dodds

In light of the process that my hon. Friend rightly described, which is the subject of speculation and leaks and has not been denied by the Government at all, is it not all the more incredible that the leader of the Ulster Unionist party should describe that process as a deal breaker, rather than things such as on-the-run terrorists, destruction of security along the border and elsewhere for innocent citizens, and other similar matters?

Mr. Robinson

My hon. Friend's point stands without me having to make any further comment. If that was the only deal breaker, the prospect now lacing everybody in Northern Ireland in the devolution of policing and justice powers fills Unionists with dread. On the back page of the UUP manifesto was a picture of a clock, showing what the leader of the UUP considered to be the progress made under the Belfast agreement and what the next steps would be. One of those steps was the devolution of policing powers. Again, that is one of the proposals to be introduced under the Hillsborough deal—perhaps not immediately, but no doubt after the election, powers over policing and justice matters will be devolved to Northern Ireland, but only in certain circumstances. My understanding of the 28-page document that I have got from parties that were there—not Sinn Fein, I must immediately tell the House—is that that will happen in only one set of circumstances, where there is a division of those responsibilities between Unionists and nationalists. Whether Unionists get the policing portfolio and nationalists the justice portfolio, or whether they hold them jointly, those proposals have been considered, and are included in the document that the Secretary of State will not let the world see.

The bottom line is that if the Sinn Fein organisation becomes the largest nationalist party, not only will one of its members become Deputy First Minister if the UUP leader can command a majority in the Assembly, but the policing and justice post will be held jointly by a Sinn Fein representative. The obvious person to get it is Sinn Fein's policing and justice spokesman, Gerry Kelly who, of course, has a wide knowledge of justice and policing matters. He has a wide knowledge of justice matters because he was found guilty of being responsible for blowing up the Old Bailey, when 200 people were injured. His wide knowledge of policing issues comes from the fact that he attempted to blow up Scotland Yard. This is the man who is being canvassed as the Minister with responsibility for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. When he was caught and put in prison, he escaped. A prison warder was killed when a screwdriver was gouged into his head during the escape bid by the Sinn Fein representative who will become the Minister with responsibility for policing and justice under the proposals being acquiesced in, if not agreed, by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. People in Northern Ireland are rightly not pleased about that prospect. However, it is part of the deal that was cobbled together.

At Hillsborough, only one party canvassed for a delay in the elections, and did so publicly for a long time. An article headed, "Postpone Assembly poll urges Trimble advisor" says: A Queen's University political lecturer who acts as a senior advisor to Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has suggested a year's postponement of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections to avoid the collapse of the Executive and other institutions of the Belfast Agreement. The UUP leader refined his argument as he spoke to people from London and Dublin, suggesting that extra time was needed because time had been lost over the Assembly's life as a result of postponements and suspensions. The fact is, that was built into the legislation—the Assembly's first term was for five years, not four years, as every other term should be under the legislation. The UUP advanced the argument that there should be a delay in the poll, and that there should be a one-year postponement of the election. The morning of the first day, the UUP leader went in and argued for a one-year postponement of the elections. By the end of the day, he was falling back on an argument to put them off until October—he would have been satisfied with a delay over the summer. By the time that the meeting finished, and he left early, he was satisfied with a delay of four weeks. Some people say that if had stayed any longer we would be out campaigning now.

The right hon. Gentleman was the one demanding the delay in the elections, and his was the only party demanding such a delay. All the other parties had openly said that they opposed a delay. On leaving the United Kingdom on his way to the United States, the right hon. Gentleman had the audacity to make a statement—again, the subject of a headline in the Belfast Telegraph—on Tuesday 11 March: "Trimble warns: don't postpone poll again". The man who had begged and pleaded, who had worn the knees out of his trousers pleading with the Secretary of State to postpone the elections, ends up warning the Secretary of State not to do so again—the very person who had been responsible for the delay.

There is nothing unusual about the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to wash his hands of the decision that had been taken. I remember the occasion in the House when he stood up to berate the then Secretary of State about allowing facilities in the House to be made available to Sinn Fein-IRA. The Secretary of State put his hand into his inside pocket and asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he wanted to reconsider what he was saying. Eventually the Secretary of State pulled out a piece of paper that turned out to be a letter from the leader of the Ulster Unionist party advocating that facilities in the House should be given to Sinn Fein-IRA in circumstances that then pertained. He was changing his position to one that was more attractive to the electorate. The delay comes as a direct result of an on-the-run politician, afraid to face the electorate, attempting to avoid the decision of the electorate at the ballot box.

It would appear from the debate that there was only one element to the Bill. There has been no discussion about its other element. Even the explanatory notes do not give away what the other element is. Leaving aside the issue of the postponement and delay of the election, there is a key provision in the Bill that allows the Government to delay the return of an Assembly after an election. As a consequence of delaying the first occasion when the Assembly meets, clause 1(2)(c) states: in subsection (5), at the end there is added as shall any day on which section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 is in force'. The effect of that subsection is to ensure that the requirements laid down in section 16(1) of the 1998 Act, whereby a First Minister must be elected within a six-week period, will no longer apply. The six weeks will drift with the suspension. If the first meeting of the Assembly is not held within eight days, the six-week period is not triggered.

In case the Minister tenses himself at this stage, I should tell him that I support the provision. It is a sensible provision. The Government will not admit it, but the reason for it is that they recognise that things will change after the election. Negotiations will be required after the election. This is the negotiations clause in the Bill. It is, perhaps, the real purpose of the Bill.

Mr. Browne


Mr. Robinson

Yes, confession is coming.

Mr. Browne

Having listened to the hon. Gentleman for some considerable time and found something on which we agree, I hate to spoil it. The provision is a restatement of the state of the law as a consequence of section 1 of the 2000 Act. It is in the Bill only for the avoidance of doubt. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would have any doubt, as I know how carefully he studies such matters, but it is there in case anyone else had any doubt. It is not a new provision at all.

Mr. Robinson

The House might be prepared to swallow that one, were it not for the fact that this is the second time that the Minister has indicated that there was no requirement for a provision in the Bill. On the first occasion, we were told that the revocation of the 2001 order was not required. Now we are told that the provision in clause 1(2)(c) is not required. If that is the case, we do not need the Bill at all.

There is no requirement for a Bill because, if we simply revoke the 2001 order, we fall back on the provisions of section 31 of the 1998 Act. That allows the Government to have the flexibility provided by section 31, which gives them two months before or two months after for the calling of an election.

Mr. Browne

I fear the hon. Gentleman misunderstands. The provision relates to section 1 of the 2000 Act, not any subsequent order. The point that I was making about the previous order was that the Bill effectively repealed that order. That is why it is necessary to restate it.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister confirms that in his view the Bill is unnecessary legislation. Both subsection (2)(c) and the one to which he previously referred are a belt-and-braces operation, restating what has already been stated elsewhere. However, no parliamentary draftsman would put into a Bill a provision that was already the law. The purpose of a Bill is to change the law, not to confirm the law as it stands. The Government are clearly making a provision. There is a legal requirement in the 1998 Act that is not interfered with by the 2000 Act—the suspension Act. The 2000 legislation deals with circumstances of an existing Assembly. It has no provision for the first day of a new Assembly. That is why the Bill was considered by the parliamentary draftsmen to be necessary.

It is clear that the Government had the alternative simply to revoke the 2001 order, which would have removed the section 32 provisions, and the Secretary of State could have fallen back on the section 31 provisions. The only change is the new suggestion that the Government can stay the hand of the new Assembly for a period beyond the eight days, thereby obviating the requirement for the section 16(1) provision to come into play.

Again, the Government are attempting to manipulate the democratic process for their own political benefit. The electorate were entitled to have their say on these matters. That was required four years ago, and the Government avoided it. It was required when redesignation took place, and again the Government avoided that consequence. They have avoided it several times with the suspension legislation. On this occasion, there should have been an election on 1 May. Once again, the Government put it off because it is not politically timely.

There is no reason why the election could not proceed and agreements be reached with people who will have a mandate after an election. What is the purpose of delaying the election for a further four weeks in order to reach agreement with people who do not have a mandate and who, after an election, will be seen not to be representative? It is clearly an attempt once again by the Government to present new circumstances that might give a leg up to one particular political party.

Several hon. Members have raised the issue of voter identification. I have serious concerns that hundreds of thousands of people will lose their vote as a result of voter identification. In a letter to me the Minister stated that 243,000 people had ticked the requisite box on the registration form to indicate that they required voter photo ID. He told me in a letter that only 45,000 people had returned such applications. Today he updated the figure to bring it up to 55,000. That still means that there are 200,000 people who stated that they required the ID and have not got it. Can anyone imagine what will happen at the polling stations if 200,000 people come along to vote and are told that they cannot do so because they do not have the requisite photo identification? There will be riots in the street. In one of the most middle-class areas of Northern Ireland, where legislation previously passed by the House meant that there were queues and people felt they would not be able to vote, the police had to be brought in and there were all sorts of problems. That happened in one small area and involved a few dozen people. What will happen when the Minister's legislation is introduced and 100,000 or 200,000 people end up unable to vote? It is not good enough for him to say that people will realise after the event that they had other photo identification. The form that they ticked indicated very clearly that they did not have alternative photo identification and those people will lose their vote.

I hope that I may have the Minister's attention for one final moment. Several references have been made to the question whether the Government will attempt once more to postpone the date of the election. Personally, I do not see how they could do so under the Bill—the Secretary of State has waived any ability to change the date—but what they can do is scrub elections all together. They could determine that they will not proceed because they do not like the potential outcome of the election. Will the Minister assure us from the Dispatch Box that he has set the course for an election come what may and whether or not parties act and perform as he expects as a result of Hillsborough? Can we have the undertaking that there will be an election on 29 May whatever the fallout from the Hillsborough discussions might be?

6.21 pm
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

I shall not speak for as long as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—I am sure that some will be happy about that—but I would like to mention the matter of people getting their identity cards. I understand that the Minister received a letter from my office that I had not signed. I would like to see that letter, because I understand that there were was no signature, but merely a "pp" against my name. Usually, when a letter goes out from the office, there will be a signature on it as well.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I do not want to make it a feature of every Northern Ireland debate in the House that a Minister produces a letter from his pocket. Nevertheless, I have a letter that states: Please reply to 256 Ravenhill Road Belfast BT6 8GJ", which I assume is the address of the hon. Gentleman's office. The letter is on House of Commons notepaper, addressed to me and signed "I. Paisley". Although the letters "pp" appear underneath the signature next to "Ian Paisley MP MEP MLA", it is signed "I. Paisley". I do not know who has access to the hon. Gentleman's notepaper or who he authorises to use it, but I naively assumed that that letter came from him or was at least dictated on his behalf. I am sure that he accepts that.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I should like the Minister to give me a copy of that letter. I shall be very happy to look into the matter.

Mr. Peter Robinson

At any rate, the letter would have been sent before anyone in the office was aware of the statistics provided by the Minister, which indicated that 200,000 people had not replied to the applications that were sent out.

Rev. Ian Paisley

All I can say about that is something very simple: this House has given an opportunity to the people of Northern Ireland to vote using a certain route. They should be encouraged to take that route and there should be no hold-up. I have constituents who have been told that so many people want their photographs to be taken that they have to wait in a long queue. Asking people to wait in a queue to get an identity card so that they can vote will cause great difficulties. That is what I am worried about and I do not feel that we will deal with all the people who say that they need the identity card. I cannot see us catching up on that. As my hon. Friend said, there will be trouble at the polling station.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has just entered the Chamber and I am sure that he will take note of what I say. I am not saying that the Government do not want these people to vote; I am saying that they have specified the way in which they must vote and we must see that that route is kept open and made available. That is the point that I wish to make at this time.

On 27 November, I asked the Prime Minister the following question in the House: The Prime Minister is aware that in the past two days my party has met the Minister with responsibility for security in Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We put one question to both: what is an act of completion? Does it consist of IRA-Sinn Fein repudiating and ceasing violence and being disbanded, or does it simply mean that they make a statement that they will give up violence? Can the Prime Minister tell us what he believes it means? This was the Prime Minister's reply: I can. It is not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules."—[Official Report, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.] I can say a hearty amen to that, if we are to get what the Prime Minister described. I read after the meetings in Hillsborough comments saying that a statement would first be made and accepted in good faith, but no statement measures up to what the Prime Minister said in this House. I say to this House that the Prime Minister has to deliver on that statement, and that if he does not do so, he will have fallen down on his own definition. He came to Belfast and no politician was invited to the meeting. He made a statement and would not allow the press to question him. He returned to the House, I questioned him and that was his answer. I hold the Government and the Prime Minister to that statement.

We want to see the disbanding of IRA-Sinn Fein and all terrorist organisations, whether they are Protestant, Roman Catholic or whatever they want to call themselves. I have suffered from them all. I have had bullets put through my bedroom window by those who call themselves loyalists. I have had a church bombed by those who would say that they are republican. I have suffered from both, and when I read what they say about me, I see that they think that I am Mr. Baddie No. 1. I congratulate myself, as that is what I want to be in the eyes of such people, for they are the scum of the earth, no matter what they profess to be. Deliverance is needed. I would like to hear the Minister stand up and say "Yes, we dot every t and stroke every t of the Prime Minister's statement and there will be no going back— there must be a complete cessation of violence, the abandonment of paramilitarism and a goodbye to the gun in politics." Let us hear that.

When there were acts of decommissioning, there was rollicking laughter on the Labour Benches when I said in the House that I did not accept the reality of what had taken place. I spoke to General de Chastelain, who was supposed to be in charge, and asked "Could you tell me, general, where this happened?" He said, "No, I couldn't tell you." I asked "Do you think it happened in Ireland?" He said "I don't know." I said "Who were these men?" He replied that the men who had met him were all disguised. He said, "They told me that they were the IRA and that they were going to deal with the weapons." I said, "How did they deal with the weapons?" He said, "I cannot tell you." I asked, "How many weapons did they deal with?" He answered, "I cannot tell you." I said, "Were you out in a boat?" He said, "We may have had a boat journey."

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There has been a great deal of speculation in the media this evening about a possible change to business in the House tomorrow, and I wonder whether you can confirm that. In doing so, can you let the House know if and when the text of any Government motion for debate tomorrow might be available to all hon. Members from the Vote Office?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I can say to the hon. Gentleman that his words will have been heard across the House. If a change in business for tomorrow is to be made, no doubt the Minister will inform the House as soon as it is practicable and Members will have a chance to ask questions at that time. I cannot add to that statement at the moment. have had no notice of the details, but the hon. Gentleman and the House as a whole can expect that events are marching upon us.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The general was unable to give any information. I notice that people who laughed at those of us who did not believe that it was proper decommissioning are now saying that previous acts of decommissioning were not really decommissioning. They are coming over to our point of view after laughing at us and mocking us. The bombings, the killings and the beatings went on, and now on-the-run terrorists—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman has very strong and deep-rooted views on these matters, but he is straying wide of the Second Reading debate on a Bill that, whatever he may see as its implications, is quite narrow in its terms.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but other hon. Members dealt with matters relating to why we are here tonight. Why are we here? What is the House meeting for? What are we discussing? We are discussing the date of an election. Why has that election been called? Because the Assembly has had to be suspended. Why was it suspended? Because those who were in government were found to be guilty of a whole series of acts that could not suggest that they were concerned only with peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The root cause of the matter before us is that IRA-Sinn Fein refused to accept what it told us it had accepted. I, for one, cannot believe a word of what any IRA man says, and neither do the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

Certain aspects of the Bill alarm me. Will the Government honour the result of the election? That is a question that has to be put. We must remember that this House governs the election. It will not be organised by the Assembly, by any Minister of the Assembly or by any elected Member from Northern Ireland. The Government here are responsible for everything that happens in managing the election—for getting the bolts into the boxes and getting them cut. It is a free country. We do not like the views of many of the people standing for election—we wish that they were not there, but they are. We are democrats, so if the democratic vote goes the way in which I personally believe it will—I have talked to many Government officials, and to people even closer than Government officials, and they agree—there will then have to come an honouring of democracy. It is all right to say that you are a democrat when things are going your way, but I have been in politics for a long time, and I have sat in this House for a long time, and I have seen the swings that take place—some days you are up, some days you are down and some days you do not know if you are up or down.

The day has come when the people of Northern Ireland are no longer going to be fooled by Government promises or allow Adams and his colleagues to deceive them. The day of the election is coming, and I am glad of that. I trust that the Government will make it clear that they will honour that election and that those who are elected will be consulted. The majority of Unionists have a right to be consulted, irrespective of whether the Government like their views, and I trust that that is what will happen. Then, perhaps, democracy will be seen to work as everybody puts their case.

Matters in Northern Ireland are very serious, and tonight matters in this old world of ours are very serious. It is interesting that we meet on St. Patrick's night. Someone said that St. Patrick was a Catholic. Of course, I am a Catholic, too. I am not a Roman Catholic, as everybody knows—I do not need to tell the Secretary of State that. There is unity in the message that Patrick brought to Ireland. I could say amen to every one of the doctrines that he taught, one of which was that no Christian man should take the life of another. He was harder on the terrorists of his day than any other preacher ever was We need to return to that basic teaching of Patrick and to see that a man's life is a very important thing and that no one has the right to put out his hand to take that life, except under the constitution of the state where power is given to the magistrate to use the sword as an ordinance of God. It is important that we remember that tonight.

My deputy has given a fair history of the saga of this agreement. Hon. Members should realise that the time has come for the election, but that the time has also come when the Government must honour what the Prime Minister said to us in this House and accept the verdict of the people. The sooner we are around the table, when every man will have the opportunity to put his case, the sooner we will get this settled. I will not sit for my party at any table where there are gunmen and terrorists who continue to hold to that and to do their misdeeds. Those are not the people with whom I, as a democrat, have anything to do, but I will sit with those who are constitutionalists and believe that the way out is through the ballot box and democracy. I hope that at long last the Government will come out strongly on the side of democracy, and I look forward to that day.

Several hon.Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the next hon. Member, it may be helpful if I say, further to the point of order that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) raised, that I can tell the House that a motion has been tabled that affects tomorrow's business. A copy may be obtained from the Table Office. As hon. Members may have noticed from the Annunciator screens, statements are to be made at the conclusion of our business tonight.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can the business continue till 10 o'clock or will statements be made before that point?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are operating under an allocation of time order and the business cannot therefore be interrupted. We must wait until the proceedings are completed before Ministers can make statements in the House.

6.40 pm
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

The business relates to the date of the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I share the view that there should be no need for the Bill. The elections should not be delayed; they should proceed on 1 May. I shall explain the reasons for that.

The republican movement—the IRA—has been given a veto over holding the elections on 1 May. It is the greatest determinant of the election date. The Assembly is in suspension because of the IRA's actions. The Government have been clear that if the suspension is to be lifted, we need, as the Prime Minister said, acts of completion from the IRA. We were told that elections had to be delayed because the parties needed to consider Government proposals.

I listened to the statements that were made after the Hillsborough talks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) clearly said that the elections would be delayed because the IRA had failed to come up to the mark. In other words, elections will not be held on 1 May because of the IRA's failure, just as we do not have a Government—neither Assembly nor Executive—in Northern Ireland because of the IRA's failure. The Government are giving the IRA a veto. In a democratic society, we should challenge that.

It is worth revisiting the reasons, which some hon. Members have mentioned, for the current political vacuum. Hon. Members have already touched on that. A couple of weeks ago, the police commander in my constituency visited me. He delivered a document entitled, "Police Message", which stated that the IRA had information about me personally that they had collected in recent months. Underneath the information, the police issued a warning: This information is believed to have been gathered and held by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which is currently on cease-fire. You are however advised to seek advice on and take steps to protect your personal security. Other hon. Members have been given similar police messages and warnings about the IRA's activities in collecting information about their personal details and political viewpoint.

At the beginning of the debate, the Minister talked about a break-down of trust. I hope that she understands why hon. Members who receive such messages from the police do not trust the IRA and the republican movement. We do not trust a party that was in government when such activities were taking place; the information was collected about me when Sinn Fein was in government. While it was in government, its friends in the IRA were collecting information about Unionist politicians. It is difficult for those of us who are from the Unionist community and represent it to trust such an organisation.

Trust has broken down and confidence is breaking down. An article by Mr. Alex Kane, a pro-agreement Unionist, on the Hillsborough process appeared in Saturday's Belfast News Letter. He prefaced his remarks by outlining events at Hillsborough. He wrote: And that is why the Ulster Unionist Party should not have participated in last week's republican-promoting circus at Hillsborough. Those words are strong indeed from a pro-agreement Unionist. He continued: It should not be part of a negotiation process if all it is doing is bargaining for, and making new concessions for, promises which it bargained for and made concessions for in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002 and again, last week.

Lady Hermon

I hope that my hon. Friend will make it clear that Alex Kane writes in a personal capacity. He is not an elected member of the Ulster Unionist party and his views are therefore personal. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend said that.

Mr. Donaldson

I simply described Mr. Kane as a pro-agreement Unionist. I did not even ascribe a party political affiliation to him. His views reflect a growing lack of confidence in the process, even among those who support the agreement. Of course, it is clear that his views are personal.

Mr. Dodds

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that Mr. Alex Kane works as a member of staff for a pro-agreement Ulster Unionist Member of the Legislative Assembly?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are getting further away from the terms of the Bill that we are meant to be discussing. As I said to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), although we are conducting a Second Reading debate, the terms of the Bill are narrow. I appeal to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) to tailor his remarks accordingly.

Mr. Donaldson

I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the decision to postpone the election gave rise to the Bill. I am referring to events at Hillsborough that resulted in the decision. It is important for hon. Members to understand the reasons for our debate. However, I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply confirm what the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) said. Mr. Kane is also a paid-up member of the Ulster Unionist party. I believe that he is a member in the Malone branch in Belfast, South.

A deal was discussed during the Hillsborough talks. Like other hon. Members who spoke earlier, I do not know its terms. The Irish Times mentioned sections of a document that was discussed at Hillsborough. It dealt with a wide range of issues, including so-called normalisation. I understand that that will involve significant troop withdrawals—perhaps between 5,000 and 7,000 troops over a period of time—the demolition of the Army watchtowers along the border in south Armagh; remaining troops being confined to barracks and becoming "invisible". That is proposed at a time when so-called dissident republican terrorists promise a bomb a week. One of those bombs was delivered to the High Court in Belfast last week.

David Burnside

My hon. Friend should not confine his remarks to dissident republicans. Only last week in south Armagh, an illegal IRA gun was used to shoot a member of the IRA. The former chief of staff, Brian Keenan, gave the oration. Is that an organisation that is on ceasefire?

Mr. Donaldson

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Let me quote some of Mr. Brian Keenan's comments during the oration. I understand that he is the deputy chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. The Secretary of State should note the comments because they come close to, if they do not constitute, incitement to hatred under current Northern Ireland legislation. He said: There is no place in this community, or any republican community for degenerates who abuse and contaminate the struggle young Keith died on behalf of. He refers to Keith Rodgers, the IRA volunteer who died last week. He continued: It is not the time now for any thoughts of revenge, the republican movement will no doubt make their position very clear. Those comments are being interpreted by many people in Northern Ireland as a clear threat from Mr. Keenan that the IRA will take revenge. All this sets the political context in which we are considering the Bill tonight, in which the Government took the decision to postpone the date of the election, which has given rise to this legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) is right: it is not only the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA but the Provisional IRA that have been involved in acts of terrorism, as we saw last week at Cullaville in south Armagh. It matters not that the objects of that violence were republicans, or that it was some kind of internal feud or dispute. It still constitutes terrorism and the use of violence to further a political agenda.

I am disappointed that no SDLP Members are here for this debate. On a previous occasion, and with a fanfare of trumpets, the leader of the SDLP launched a direct rule watch, in which the party would take the lead in monitoring direct rule. Where are its members today, when this matter is being considered in the House? It has three hon. Members who are entitled to take their seats here, yet none of them is here to scrutinise this important piece of legislation, which is being introduced under direct rule. The direct rule watch seems to have gone to sleep so far as the SDLP is concerned. The party was very active in putting forward demands under the Hillsborough process on issues such as criminal justice, yet it is not here to make a contribution tonight.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) referred to the new international body that is to be created to oversee the implementation of the agreement and, specifically, to deal with the issue of sanctions. This is important because we are told that power will not be restored to the Assembly until there is some kind of political deal. Part of that deal supposedly involves the establishment of this international body. There was an interesting article in The Irish Times on Saturday 15 March, written by the former Irish Prime Minister, Garrett Fitzgerald, who said of this proposal: And as Sinn Fein also seeks the abolition of the British government's unilateral power to suspend the Assembly, its abolition—and the substitution of an alternative method of guaranteeing the integrity of the process that would involve representatives of the Irish and US Governments—may have positive elements from their point of view. For Sinn Féin, the de facto transfer to an international body of British sovereignty over the working of the system of government of Northern Ireland must surely have some attractions. Well, it has no attraction for any Unionist who values the Union. I cannot believe that we would want to support a proposal that would see the transfer of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom to some kind of international body on an issue as important as the exclusion from office of a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In terms of the legislation before us, I believe that the Government are wrong to change the date of the election, but they have clearly made up their mind to do so. I would echo the remarks that have been made by others, however. There should be no further postponement of the date of the election: 29 May is now proposed as the day on which the people of Northern Ireland should go to the polls, and that date should be adhered to. No one should be afraid of the democratic process. If we believe in and cherish democracy, elections should be at the heart of that process, and it is time for people to give their verdict on that process.

The way things are going—and if the Government cobble together this deal and manage to get enough people to sign up to it—I cannot believe that a majority of Unionists will accept the kind of deal that is on offer at present, in which policing and justice powers would be transferred and then exercised under some kind of joint arrangement. In the present circumstances, in which the IRA is continuing to engage in violence and has failed to decommission its illegal weapons, I do not believe that anyone would support someone from Sinn Fein-IRA becoming a Minister with responsibility for justice or policing. These are important issues. If the deal that has been outlined in some of the media is introduced, it wall be rejected by the Unionist community.

Lady Hermon

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and colleague for giving way again. I want to make two points. First, it was grossly unfair to criticise the absence of the SDLP Members here this evening. I am sure that he knows that they have domestic reasons that sometimes make it difficult for them to attend.

Mr. Peter Robinson


Lady Hermon

I am so glad that hon. Members have all been blessed with St. Patrick's generosity of spirit in the Chamber this evening. The second point that I would like my hon. colleague to remember is that there is still a substantial number of pro-agreement Unionists in Northern Ireland, and I would not wish him to pre-empt their judgment or their decision on 29 May.

Mr. Donaldson

I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend has made, but I do not agree with her on the SDLP. Wallace high school in my constituency is playing in the schools rugby cup final today. My daughter attends that school, and I had wished to be there today to see that cup final. I deemed it more important, however, to deal with the business that I was elected to deal with here, which is legislation from the British House of Commons. No one should apologise for the absence of a political party that ought to be here—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that we have heard quite enough on that subject. We should be dealing with the business before the House.

Mr. Donaldson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not believe that a majority of Unionists would support the kind of deal that has been outlined. I concede to the hon. Lady that there could well be a minority of Unionists who might sign up to and support the deal, and the election will provide the verdict on that, when it comes.

In conclusion, there has to be a bottom line here. This process has lurched from one crisis to another, and every time we reach a crisis, the Government reach into the goody bag to find more concessions to make to the republican movement. Instead of punishing those who have been responsible for the crisis, they reward them. That is precisely what is happening here, in terms of on-the-run terrorists, for example. Some kind of deal is also to be conceded to the IRA in reward for its targeting Unionist politicians, prison officers and police officers.

The Prime Minister talked about acts of completion, and we need such acts. We need complete disarmament and complete disbandment. That has to be the bottom line. I urge the Secretary of State to stick to that instead of holding out carrots by offering concessions to the republican movement, which, of course, it will pocket while offering the minimum in return.

Mr. John Taylor

How confident is the hon. Gentleman of the thorough degree of the acts of completion that he seeks, and over what timetable does he think that they are achievable?

Mr. Donaldson

The agreement stated that they ought to have been achieved after two years, but that was in 2000. The acts of completion need to be achieved very quickly indeed. The article by Mr. Alex Kane to which I referred earlier suggested that there should be a six-month period in which the IRA would follow through on the commitments made, but that its political representatives should not be allowed back into government in Northern Ireland until such completion had occurred. That is the principle here, and it has consistently been my view that, because of the IRA's failure to commit to the requirements of the agreement for complete disarmament, its political representatives should be excluded from office until such completion has taken place.

If the Assembly cannot be put back together and have power devolved back to it before the elections, may I make a suggestion to the Secretary of State? After the elections, he should reconvene the Assembly, put back in government those parties that are committed to exclusively peaceful means and exclude from office those parties that have failed to make that commitment. They should not be permitted to re-enter government until they have completely disarmed and completely disbanded. In my opinion, that is clear.

While expressing grave concerns about the purpose of the legislation, I reiterate what other Members have said today: we look to the Secretary of State, in this debate, to make it absolutely clear that this is the final time that the election will be delayed and that it will happen on 29 May.

7 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim)

It is terribly important that we look forward positively to the election. There should not have been a postponement until 29 May, but the election will now take place and I hope that the Government commit themselves to that date, supported by the Opposition and all the minority parties whose Members have spoken here tonight. However, it is no good looking forward unrealistically. The Assembly and the Executive have not worked. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and there are inherent flaws in the institutions set up by the Belfast agreement, which a new Assembly will try to put together again.

It was an admirable aim to have an all-inclusive Executive, but that meant no collective Cabinet responsibility and no departmental Committee structure that could hold Ministers to account. It meant, in reality, that there was no Opposition for the Northern Ireland Administration. All of us who are standing in the Assembly election look forward to campaigning for something that works and is right at Stormont, but the Secretary of State will have to be flexible in reaccommodating and regaining the consent of the pro-Union people in Northern Ireland.

I voted for the Belfast agreement. I was one of the 55 per cent. of the pro-Union people, who, traditionally, are Protestants, who supported the agreement, but we have been seriously let down by the Government's mismanagement of the political process. Promise after promise by the Prime Minister has been broken. I shall not repeat them, as the House has heard them time and again. The House is about to authorise going to war, but Sinn Fein-IRA remain armed, terrorist and involved in criminal activities and we are expected, before 29 May and with a couple of promises, to put them back in the Northern Ireland Executive with Martin McGuinness as Minister of Education and Gerry Kelly, perhaps, as Minister of justice after the election. No way, Secretary of State, will we allow that to happen.

After the election, there must be a coming together of the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party to renegotiate, to get inside the negotiation and to re-establish administrative devolution that works at Stormont. The system has not worked; it has inherent flaws. I see no time in the foreseeable future at which I, as an Ulster Unionist, could support Sinn Fein representatives returning to an Executive governing Northern Ireland. They should not have been allowed to participate in the first place. They have been tried and they have failed. While their ceasefires have stopped the major bombing and the major violence that terrorised the Province for 30 years, their organisation remains a terrorist organisation. They must be marginalised from the process.

After the election—it is important that it takes place—I would support the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the other smaller parties that may or may not be elected to the Assembly trying to reach a consensus agreement to replace the inclusive imposed coalition with a voluntarily agreed coalition of democratic parties so that we could have the advantages of devolution and, I hope, a slimmed down Executive and Assembly. We want something realistic that can work in co-operation with local government in Northern Ireland, which is under review. A considerable transfer of powers is needed to the local government authorities that will replace the 26 district councils.

It is good to have an election, and it is good to have an election that will give the people of Northern Ireland a chance to express their views on how they want Northern Ireland governed internally within the United Kingdom and locally. There is support for devolution, but not the devolution that has been tried and has lurched from crisis to crisis since 1998. Let us admit that, consider the system and try to improve it. After the election, we should get into negotiations. I hope that all parties will be involved, and it is totally unacceptable for the DUP not to be invited in. I would expect the Secretary of State to invite all the parties and to have a negotiation to try to reach consensus after the election.

Lady Hermon

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I must make it absolutely clear that my colleague's views, which are going on the record, are entirely his own. They do not reflect a decision of either the Ulster Unionist Council or the Ulster Unionist Executive.

David Burnside

My views and what I am saying are consistent with the united resolution of the UUC, which was passed at the Ramada hotel. I intend to stick by it and to adhere to it to the letter, which means that I will not support at a future UUC meeting going into the type of settlement proposed and negotiated at Weston Park and Hillsborough. Therefore, I am happy to go to the electorate on 29 May, as I hope my party will go to the electorate, with a united policy statement that adheres to democracy in Northern Ireland and to "no guns, no government", which was our party's policy at the last Assembly election. Unfortunately, our party withdrew from it.

On that further note of Unionist unity, I want to convey this to the House: the Unionist people have had enough of this process and we must regain their consent. All the parties will take part in the democratic election and we must try to make it a real election that produces Executive government in Northern Ireland, but there needs to be a deadline that is not six or 12 months, Secretary of State. After the election on 29 May, he must tell the parties, "There is negotiation and openness. We want consent across the community and we want consent from the pro-Union and the nationalist communities." We all recognise in Unionism—both the UUP and the DUP, I believe—that we cannot have a local Administration unless it has cross-community support that reflects the Unionist tradition and majority as well as nationalist opinion.

Lembit Öpik

If the hon. Gentleman were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, what process would he introduce to achieve that?

David Burnside

After 29 May, I would put on a deadline of about four weeks and say that the parties must try to bring together an inclusive Executive under the current institutions. If that was not possible, the sectarian blocs of nationalists and Unionists should be replaced with a weighted majority of, say, 60 or 65 per cent. under an Assembly vote, which would allow the formation of a voluntary coalition. They would have executive Cabinet responsibility, with all that that entails, and there would be a stronger Committee system. We would negotiate a local Administration at Stormont that reflected the whole community and brought better accountable government to Northern Ireland. We need a deadline and politicians elected to the Assembly must not just sit there being paid but not doing the job. They must decide to put the system together, make it operate and make it effective. A short rather than a long deadline would help to concentrate the minds of all the political parties.

It is not unfortunate, but fortunate, that the differences within Unionism have been expressed here, although I hope the House understands that the pro-Union people have a right to expect their consent to be given to an election and to the institutions of government. The whole system has gone in one direction: it has the consent of the nationalist and republican community, but not that of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland. The task after the election is to regain that consent, so that we can have better administrative devolution and accountable government at Stormont with the consent of the Unionist and the nationalist people.

7.9 pm

Mr. Nigel Doddis (Belfast, North)

I join the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) in sending our good wishes on this St. Patrick's night to the men of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment. At this critical time, our thoughts are with them.

It is important to take time to debate democracy in part of the United Kingdom. The Government's move to postpone elections, coming on top of the shabby history of interference with the legal set-up for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), sends a worrying message to the people of Northern Ireland: the Government are prepared to interfere with the rights of the electorate—the democratic rights of the people of Northern Ireland—if it ends in a result that better suits their political objectives and those of their friends rather than one that truly reflects the wishes and feelings of the people of Northern Ireland.

Although our minds are concentrated tonight on events that are taking place farther afield than Northern Ireland and although we await statements on world conflict of historic importance, we should remember that the debate on Iraq is about human rights and democracy; yet the House is currently discussing a measure that would stop a democratic election taking place on 1 May and would postpone it until 29 May, as a result of negotiations at Hillsborough Castle on 3 and 4 March 2004 that involved, among others, a party that is inextricably linked to terrorists and whose representatives at Hillsborough included people who sit on the army council of the Provisional IRA. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that we are about to discuss action against Iraq because of its possession of weapons of mass destruction and its links to worldwide terrorism, when we are dealing with legislation for part of the United Kingdom that arose from negotiations to which one of the parties was the Provisional IRA, which has worldwide links with terrorism.

Many people in Northern Ireland deeply resent the Prime Minister's approach to the decommissioning of illegal terrorist weaponry, where he is prepared to go the second, nay the third, nay the fourth mile in negotiating with IRA-Sinn Fein and giving them concessions, while he takes a completely different approach to Iraq—one that involves military action. Many people in Northern Ireland say: would that the Prime Minister had adopted the same approach towards the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland that he is prepared to adopt towards the Iraqi regime and its possession of weapons of mass destruction. When one considers this Bill, which arose from the negotiations at Hillsborough Castle, it is hard to square the Government's approach to Iraq with their approach to the Provisional IRA and its cohorts in Northern Ireland.

As other Members have pointed out, the Democratic Unionist party experienced a complete lack of consultation, dialogue or briefing about the negotiations, which is deplorable. It is a travesty of democracy, especially as there are five DUP Members.

The other day, on television, I heard a member of the American Administration give an insight into dealings over the putative agreement that had been reached at Hillsborough. Today, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford indicated that he had received at least two briefings on the outcome of the Hillsborough talks, even though, like us, he was not present. Paragraph 4 of the explanatory notes states: The Bill follows intensive negotiations at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March 2003 between the UK and Irish Governments and Northern Ireland political parties. My party, with other like-minded Unionists, represents the majority of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland. The Government may not like that, but the facts are clear; from the results of the last Westminster election and the contributions from the Unionist side tonight. It is wholly unacceptable that the people whom we represent should be excluded from negotiations on the political way forward in Northern Ireland, and should even have been denied access to knowledge of what was discussed at Hillsborough.

It is no good for the Government to say, "It is all about implementing the agreement and you're against the agreement". It is time that the Government faced the fact that, even if they have 100 per cent. nationalist support, they cannot implement a process based on the consent both of Unionists and nationalists if they no longer have Unionist consent. If the process does not have the consent, support and acquiescence of a majority of Unionists, the Government should recognise that and enter negotiations with those of us who represent the majority of Unionists. In their contributions tonight, Ulster Unionist Members, too, have reflected the concerns of the Unionist community.

Back in 1985, Unionist people and their representatives were completely excluded from consultation on the negotiations that led up to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The same mistakes are being repeated. The explanatory notes state that the measure will allow a period of three or four weeks for the parties to reflect, yet the second-largest Northern Ireland party represented in the House has not even been given the proposals. The proposals included things that are not in the agreement, such as legislation relating to on-the-run terrorists, so it is no good saying that the measure is all about implementing the agreement. Some of the points discussed at Hillsborough go well beyond what is in the agreement.

That the Government can believe that the measure offers a proper, stable and sensible way to proceed is beyond those of us who represent the majority of Unionist people. The Government and other Members are keen to point out that the process is inclusive and involves everyone. They say that that includes Sinn Fein-IRA, no matter about their past or even their present. It seems to us and to the people whom we represent that the process includes everybody but the majority of the Unionist people. That cannot be right.

When the Under-Secretary responds to the debate, he should explain why the majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland and the representatives in this place of a substantial section of the Unionist community are being kept in the dark about the proposals. Why do we have to rely on newspaper reports? Why do we have to rely on Mr. Hass, the American envoy? Why do we have to rely on the utterances of members of the IRA army council who are better informed about what is going on at Hillsborough and in the negotiations than the decent law-abiding people of Northern Ireland? For the Minister to think that the measure will build confidence and gain the support of Unionists when they have been excluded from any chance of input to the negotiations beggars belief. I challenge him to address that point.

I shall not detain the House by going into details about the overall package that was discussed at Hillsborough, as they have already been covered by other hon. Members. Those negotiations continue. Although the Prime Minister told us that there would be no further negotiations, there have been delegations to Downing street from one or two of the main parties since Hillsborough. Even within a few hours, or days, of the Prime Minister's statement at Hillsborough, the situation that he outlined was reversed.

People in Northern Ireland are gravely concerned that the election has been put back to give further consideration to the scaling down of security along the border, in Belfast and in other urban areas of Northern Ireland merely in response to some gesture from the Provisional IRA, when, as we have heard recently, that organisation and other so-called dissidents are still active in Northern Ireland.

It strikes many people in Northern Ireland as outrageous that anyone should suggest—after the leaving of a bomb at the Laganside courthouse, which Her Majesty had visited only the previous week—that we can simply tear down all our defences and leave ordinary decent people denuded of proper security, simply because Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness demand that as part of the price of their returning to government.

As has been said many times in the House, we should not accept a process allowing those currently on the run to evade any form of justice. We should remember that those whom we are discussing have committed some of the most awful, heinous crimes. We should remember the case of Mrs. Hill, whose husband lay in a coma for more than a decade—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going into too much detail, which is outside the scope of this Second Reading debate. We cannot recapitulate the whole history, recent or distant, of the troubles of Northern Ireland on this occasion.

Mr. Dodds

The election has been postponed to give Northern Ireland parties which are party to the deal more time to reflect on a range of issues such as the running down of security, the evading of justice by those on the run, the introduction of legislation devolving criminal justice in Northern Ireland, and policing. I was in the process of citing a specific example, but in deference to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not go into specifics. I will say this, in general terms. There are people in Northern Ireland tonight who will view the Bill as having been designed simply to allow the IRA time to go away and try to do some sort of deal with its own people—to persuade people that it is worth pocketing all the concessions, and that in return for a gesture on decommissioning, some statement or stunt, it will return to government in Northern Ireland.

We have heard no details of the definition of the acts of completion outlined by the Prime Minister in Belfast on 17 October. We have heard no definition from anyone in Government of a complete end to paramilitarism. Does it mean disbandment? It should mean disbandment if it is to mean anything, and that disbandment must be proved over a considerable period. I ask, as others have today, how anyone can trust the word of the Provisional IRA. I am one of the Members who have been visited in recent weeks to be told that our details are being held by the Provisional IRA—and its army council includes Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Those elected politicians in the Assembly who people are so keen to return to government are organising the gathering of such intelligence, and the targeting of other elected Members as well as a host of ordinary citizens across Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford spoke of the Government's failures. He said that the middle ground represented by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP had been failed by the Government's appeasement. It must be said that those parties, and their leadership, have been party to that appeasement. Many of the deals done with the Provisional IRA have been done with the support of not just the British Government but the pro-agreement parties, led by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). They cannot wash their hands of responsibility.

Substantial concessions are being offered to the Provisional IRA, as is clear to the people of Northern Ireland. We regret the fact that the Bill is before the House tonight. The election should have proceeded on 1 May, and we are opposed to any further delay. I hope the Minister will confirm that there will indeed be no further delay. On Radio Ulster the other morning, in reply to a question from the interviewer, his colleague the Secretary of State, said that "hopefully" the election would take place on 29 May. I should be grateful if the Government would confirm that it will, come what may, and that there will be no further attempt to interfere with the rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

I add my voice to those of Members throughout the House who have expressed concern about the possible effect of legislation on electoral fraud, namely the disfranchising of tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland. It is vital that, when the election goes ahead, everyone whom the register entitles to vote is able to do so. If they have no photographic ID at the time of the election, they should not be deprived of that right.

7.25 pm
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

Let me say, I hope not gracelessly, that if the Government are hoist on their own guillotine with the present business it is their fault. The lesson is that they should not guillotine everything: they are now reaping the results of their guillotine reflex.

Those who are present now may wish to know that four hours ago my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) offered them the opportunity of proceeding without a guillotine, whereupon other matters could have intruded. Ministers declined, but I do not intend to extend their discomfiture. My party has said that it will not oppose the Bill; but if the Government attempt a second postponement, we certainly will.

7.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne)

I listened with interest to hon. Members of all parties. Let me say at the outset that the Government agree with all who have spoken that the postponing of any election is a serious step, but what is proposed in this instance is a short, defined postponement. I will develop the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State shortly, but let me say to all who have sought clarification that the people of Northern Ireland will have a chance to deliver their verdict on 29 May if the Bill is passed.

Although it may not be reflected in the number of speeches made to this effect, there is widespread agreement in the House on the desirability of the Bill. Although I cannot agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues, I respect their views; but those views are, to an extent, rooted in their antipathy to the Belfast agreement, which the great majority of Members support and which, I think, lies at the heart of the albeit qualified support that the official Opposition are prepared to give the Bill tonight.

Let me now—early in my speech—deal with the issue that has largely dominated the contributions of members of the party of the hon. Member for North Antrim in the context of the talks that have taken place. I understand why it has. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—any of us, indeed—would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman's party about the political way forward, but our proposals, which formed the basis of the discussions at Hillsborough castle and are at the heart of the decision to postpone the election for a comparatively short time, are essentially about the better and fuller implementation of the agreement. It must be said that it is unlikely that the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues have many suggestions to make in support of that objective.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne

May I finish responding to the point that the hon. Gentleman, among others, made?

The discussions are about the full implementation of the agreement. Members of the Democratic Unionist party say that that is an inadequate response but the Government's response is that anti-agreement parties, though we respect their views, by their nature are not going to contribute constructively to that debate.

The proposals will in due course be published when they become definitive, which the Governments expect to be at or about the beginning of April. The Hillsborough discussions involved a series of working drafts aimed at finding common ground between the parties, so that those proposals can be published at that time.

Mr. Robinson

The Minister puts a far from convincing case if he is saying that, because my party does not agree with the Government's policy on this issue, we cannot have any valuable contribution to make and should not be heard. That seems an outrageous suggestion for any democrat to make. We may have a different policy but that does not mean that there are not genuine proposals that we can put and general views that we can submit to Government on all these issues, particularly as some of them go beyond the Belfast agreement; they were not touched on in terms of the format of the agreement.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Had I said what he has just attributed to me, it would have been outrageous, but I did not. I said at the outset that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and indeed any of us would be happy to discuss the way forward for Northern Ireland with the hon. Gentleman or any member of his party. If he seeks to have those discussions and has contributions to make, those discussions can take place. He knows, because he has regular access to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, that when he and others request meetings, they are refused only if the diary of the respective Minister does not allow it. If he wants to come in to make the sort of contribution that he has just told the House he wants to make, we will be happy to have those discussions with him.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) raised a different point in relation to the same issue: whether all parties had the same opportunity in the context of the discussions at Hillsborough to make a contribution. We in Government listened to all the views expressed to us, whether they were on the details of the text or the substance.

No one will be surprised to learn that we spent more time discussing some particular issues with some parties than we spent with others. That has nothing to do with democracy or being undemocratic. It is just a reflection of the realities of negotiation. Parties came to those discussions with interests that they wished to discuss with us in greater detail than other parties, but we shall take into account in producing our final proposals all the views expressed to us, whether on the text or otherwise. However, we do not propose to enter into detailed textual negotiation before publication. That would protract the process of reaching the point of definition, so that these matters can be published. In the views of both Governments, significant and sufficient discussion has taken place and the Governments hope to be in a position at or about the beginning of April to publish the definitive text.

While I am on the detail of the matter, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), and others who were encouraged by him to do so, have let their imaginations run away with them about who might or might not be the Minister for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. There is no such deal. The hon. Gentleman knows that it has been Her Majesty's Government's intention in the right circumstances to devolve responsibility for policing and justice. Indeed, the introduction to the implementation plan on criminal justice specifically said that a significant time ago.

That principle commands wide support across Northern Ireland, but much is not agreed, including the timing of it and the ministerial structure that will have to take on those important responsibilities for Northern Ireland. A good deal of discussion is needed before we could arrive at answering many of the questions about ministerial appointments, even on the most optimistic timing.

I dare say that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will not desist from making his colourful assertions, because it allows him to give descriptions of the background of his nominee for the post in the context of what he anticipates is happening, but, if he will allow me to, I will try to put his mind at ease by saying that there is no deal such as that on which he based his contribution and which was supported by other hon. Members.

Mr. Donaldson

Is the Minister aware of a report in The Irish Times that stated that the Government were considering a variety of models for the devolution of justice, including a joint ministry with office holders drawn from the two political traditions"? If that is not the case, will he deny it, and will he show a willingness to share the proposals with those of us who have not seen them?

Mr. Browne

I am aware of that report. But the fact that something was reported in The Irish Times does not mean that it is correct. What I have said is—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman and others will wait a moment, I may answer the question. What I have said is that it has long been the Government's intention in the right circumstances to devolve responsibility for policing and justice, so no one should represent that to the House as something that emerged from the Hillsborough discussions. It is not. Indeed, it is an aspiration of the hon. Gentleman's party that policing and justice be devolved to Ministers in Northern Ireland in the context of devolution. He knows that fine well and if he is trying to pretend otherwise—[Interruption.] Let me finish. The point is that it cannot be devolved to Northern Ireland unless it is devolved into some ministerial structure. He will accept that, so we agree that it is the hon. Gentleman's party's policy to see devolution in the right circumstances. We agree that there will need to be a ministerial structure into which it should be devolved. We must, therefore, agree that it is sensible for the Government to consider what that structure will be.

At the moment, the Government have reached no decision as to what that structure will be and that structure cannot be agreed unless it is agreed with the parties that form the devolved Assembly. I cannot make it any clearer than that. People may take from that that we must be considering models and then seek to set them out in a newspaper article, but that will not he Government policy and it is not likely to be the way in which Government policy is fixed.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Minister's evasion in answering the question of the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) seems to suggest that the report is right—that that is one of the options being considered. The Minister still has not told us that it is not one of the options. If it is one of the options being considered, everything that I said stands and I was perfectly entitled to make my comments.

Mr. Browne

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have just made the Government's position clear. The Government's position on devolution of policing and justice has been clear for some considerable time. It would have been remiss of the Government in the time since they have made that position clear—urged to do so by, among others, the Ulster Unionist party—not to consider what structures could be put in place to receive devolution, but no decisions have been made and there is no policy.

I want to refer to my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who contributed to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset told us that it was his first contribution to a Northern Ireland debate. I feel for him. I know from my time on the Back Benches in the early years of the previous Parliament how daunting it can be to enter these debates. Often, the first contribution in response, although not this time, is a Northern Ireland Member telling the hon. Member that their contribution is worthless because they do not live in Northern Ireland. The irony is that it normally comes from a party that puts itself forward as a Unionist party and in every other context wishes to identify itself with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The fact that that did not happen tonight is a credit to both my hon. Friends, who spoke well. Their advocacy of the restoration of devolution was strong and augurs well for how much can be learned in a comparatively short time in visiting Northern Ireland. Frankly, in many aspects, Northern Ireland is not that much different from the rest of these islands. Members should not be daunted from entering these debates just because Northern Ireland politicians can sometimes be a little over-aggressive in responding to honest contributions.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) for his contribution, which was characteristically comprehensive, and multilateral and understated. I am also grateful for his qualified support for the Government. He will forgive me if I do not respond in detail to his analysis of the past months and years. Whether his prescriptions would have led to greater political progress than we have seen is perhaps for other Members to judge, but I am grateful to him for his praise for the wisdom of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and for his support. It would be churlish of me to enter into a critique of his analysis at this stage. I am grateful for his current position in supporting Government policy in Northern Ireland, and I hope to keep him there.

I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire for his support, even if that, too, was conditional. I hope that my earlier answer about the election date has matured the conditionality of his contribution. He raised a number of interesting issues, as he usually does in such debates. He asked whether we can expect continued round table talks. What I can offer him is that we will continue to stay in touch with the parties in Northern Ireland, but whether those talks will be round table, bilateral, multilateral, quadrilateral or any other "lateral" I cannot say at this stage; it depends on whether people ask for them. If the talks involve the hon. Member for Belfast, East and his party, I suspect that they will be simply bilateral. However, talks will take place, and we will continue to stay in touch.

More importantly, the parties in Northern Ireland need to talk to each other, because what matters is the future of politics in Northern Ireland, and of the parties. This agreement is not a series of bilateral agreements with the British Government, or of trilateral agreements with the British Government and the Irish Government; it is a multilateral agreement, and the parties need to understand that, and to talk to each other about it. It would sometimes be better if they spoke to each other before coming to either Government to talk about the issues that they wish to address.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked for an assurance that the letter written by the Leader of the House of Lords to some of his colleagues in the other place would be honoured, and I have no difficulty in giving him that. The proper place for discussing issues relating to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill is during the remaining stages of that Bill, which the House should consider shortly.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the important issue of justice and victims, in the context of on-the-runs. He will accept that the Government's stated position since Weston Park is a logical extension of the Good Friday agreement. It has never been the Government's intention to treat this as an amnesty. We have always intended to deal with this issue, but I can assure him that it can be dealt with only as one step in the context of acts of completion. I think that that is the assurance that he was looking for, and I hope that he accepts it.

Lembit Öpik

I also seek the Minister's reassurance that the Government are still looking at some form of licensing scheme, or, to be more exact, that they are not intending to push through a blanket amnesty.

Mr. Browne

The Government have made it clear that amnesty is not part of their thinking. There will have to be a system that respects the issues of justice, and the question of victims is also important in that regard.

On victims, the hon. Gentleman also raised the question of exiles and punishment beatings. He can rest assured that exiles and punishment beatings fit in with the Government's definition of acts of completion. In his speech in Belfast on 17 October last year, and in a statement in the House in November, the Prime Minister made it clear that violence must be given up completely in a way that satisfies everyone, and which gives them confidence that the Provisional IRA has ceased its campaign, thereby enabling us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules. That means acts of completion, which manifestly must include some response to the issue of exiles, and an end to punishment beatings, among other forms of behaviour.

Several hon. Members mentioned electoral fraud and the electoral identity card. The exact provenance of a letter—a copy of which I have in front of me—that purports to come from the Democratic Unionist party's leader, the hon. Member for North Antrim, and which approves the implementation of measures to remove all forms of electoral identity other than those involving photographic identification, may need to be resolved without delay to ensure that these measures are in place before the next election in Northern Ireland. I am confident that the letter will prove to have come from his office.

I should point out that every party in Northern Ireland that is represented in this House agreed at the end of February, or thereabouts, to that legislation. As I undertook to do in this House, I wrote to all those parties asking for their comments on whether we should take that step, recognising its significance in terms of what was required from electors in Northern Ireland, and recognising that if the process was mishandled, it could accidentally disfranchise a lot of innocent, good voters. All the parties in Northern Ireland that are represented in this House wrote back in a positive fashion, saying that we should go ahead, and it was on that basis alone that I decided to do so.

With respect, issues are now being raised with me that ought to have been raised at that time. I am told that there is evidence to suggest that people are being turned away in their efforts to obtain these cards. I should point out that I have no such evidence, but if the parties do have it, they should bring it to my attention as quickly as possible.[Interruption.] I note that some assent is coming from a sedentary position, and I should be happy to receive that information.

Some people tell me that the system is being gummed up, but that is not the case. As research continues, evidence is emerging to suggest that in excess of 900,000 people in Northern Ireland have photographic driving licences. Given that it is not possible to drive until one is over 17, by far the majority of those people will be voters, or at least entitled to be registered. We also know that, thanks to the policy of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, a significant number of people—in excess of 140,000—have other photographic identification.

For example, in Northern Ireland there are 150,000 holders of passports issued by the Irish Government, and about 75 per cent. of adults across the UK have UK passports, all of which will be accepted. It does not take a genius to work out that although the number of people on the electoral register is increasing, the likelihood is that almost every one of the 1.1 million, or thereabouts, on the register has the appropriate type of electoral identification. Having said that, 50,000 applications for electoral ID cards are being processed, only 3,500 of which had to be rejected because of the way in which the forms had been completed. The issuing of those cards by post is increasing daily, and the chief electoral officer has given an undertaking that anybody who applies before 16 May will have an electoral ID card for the election on 29 May.

On the absence of advertising, the Electoral Commission, which has accepted responsibility for advertising, is spending more than £500,000 in Northern Ireland on advertising the electoral identity card. I understand that advertisements have been placed during peak-time television programmes, including episodes of "Coronation Street", which are watched by more than 50 per cent. of the adult population of Northern Ireland. Daily advertisements are also placed in the press. The advertising campaign, which is being conducted through television, the press and billboards—I have seen the press and billboard advertisements—is extensive and very expensive. I do not understand why it has been suggested that the campaign is inadequate.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The Minister is stringing out figures on the number of people with passports, driving licences, and smart passes for senior citizens. He then says that because of those numbers, and of the number of people who vote in Northern Ireland, there is clearly no problem. However, he must surely have considered the possibility that someone with a passport might also have a driving licence; in other words, we could be dealing with the same person, so both documents should not be added into the equation. The reality is that the Minister, in a letter to me, indicated that some 243,000 people—one in five voters in Northern Ireland—had said that they needed a photo-identity pass, having been shown the alternatives, but only 55,000 have made an application. That suggests that some 190,000 people—almost one in five of the voting population—will be disfranchised—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman bring his remarks to a close?

Mr. Browne

I propose to bring my remarks to a close shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, the hon. Member for Belfast, East may be assured that sufficient resources are available to ensure that everyone who needs an electoral identity card can have one.

It has been suggested that in postponing the election our motive is to influence the result in one way or another. We have not proposed the delay with the aim of influencing the choice of Northern Ireland voters one way or another. No Government could or should prevent the people of Northern Ireland from expressing their democratic choice, and it would be a rash Government who tried to do so.

What we do have a duty to do is to try to give the people of Northern Ireland something real to vote about. The majority of people in Northern Ireland want the Belfast agreement to work, and it is not in their interest for the process to fail. In the long run, stable and inclusive institutions can flourish only in a society from which the shadow of political violence has been removed. The Government believe that the Bill is a necessary part of bringing that about.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order this day.

Bill immediately considered in Committee.

[SYLVIA HEAL in the Chair]

  1. Clause 1
    1. cc697-702
    2. DATES OF ELECTION, ETC 2,447 words, 1 division
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