HC Deb 17 September 2003 vol 410 cc900-32

Order for Second Reading read.

2.50 pm
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy)

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

The Bill is one of the outcomes of discussions with the Irish Government and Northern Ireland political parties that were held at Hillsborough earlier this year. I acknowledge the point made earlier by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) when he said that the matter was discussed last summer when the then Secretary of State referred to the points that he mentioned. The Bill represents an essential step along the road to a key objective of the Government that is, I believe, shared by the great majority of hon. Members—elections that lead to the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland on the basis of full implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

The commitment to the agreement includes, most crucially, a commitment to the use of exclusively peaceful and democratic means by all involved in government in Northern Ireland. It also includes a commitment to operate the institutions in good faith. Those matters are the concern of the independent monitoring commission for which the Bill will make provision, and the Bill will confer new powers to deal with departures from those commitments.

Let me outline the context of the Bill, which represents the efforts of the Government and the Irish Government—and earlier efforts—to encourage political advance in Northern Ireland. It is essential that we secure such an advance. It is almost a year since we were forced to suspend devolved government in Northern Ireland, but we should all remember that devolution has had many successes. Constructive instincts and talents, some of which were unsuspected perhaps even by those who harboured them, found fruitful outlets with great benefits for the public good in Northern Ireland. New methods of working were found that enabled people with widely different political interests to work together for the common goal of all the people in that part of the United Kingdom. Talented people from outside politics came into the political system.

We still see that promise at work in some areas. I pay tribute to the excellent continuing work of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and district policing partnerships, and especially, given the current circumstances, to the courage of those who face threats and intimidation when playing their part in those institutions. However, as regards the wider political system, such a time has elapsed since suspension that we now risk some of the gains being lost unless we are able to restore devolved government and the institutions in the near future.

A great deal has already been done by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to establish the foundations on which restoration could take place with broad support among Northern Ireland parties. In the light of discussions with the parties at Hillsborough, we published documents on 1 May that set out our view of the most promising route ahead, including the joint declaration.

An essential part of that way forward was finding a basis on which there could be confidence among the people of Northern Ireland that paramilitary activity on the part of those associated with political parties in power was definitively at an end. The two Governments made it plain what they meant by an end to paramilitary activity in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration.

The two Governments also agreed on the establishment of the monitoring and compliance regime that is the subject of the Bill. The commission is intended to build confidence on all sides because confidence and trust are essential for politics to work in Northern Ireland. There must especially be confidence that paramilitary activity is over and that all parties are properly fulfilling their obligations. We remain clear that the agreement marks the only way forward. We do not believe that there is a workable approach that differs from the fundamentals of the agreement, although we will, as ever, try to engage in dialogue all significant strands of opinion in Northern Ireland, including parties that do not share our view.

There is a good deal of speculation about whether elections will be held this year. We are working hard to try to ensure that they can be held; as the House knows, I profoundly hope that they will be. However, we should remember that elections in themselves are not a panacea for Northern Ireland's problems. If they are to lead to the stable restoration of the institutions—instability has caused much of the difficulty that has faced Northern Ireland over the years—we also need to restore trust and confidence. Of course, we also want the restoration of the Executive to govern Northern Ireland, because it is the combination of the institutions that were set up by the Good Friday agreement that governs Northern Ireland. It is not only the Assembly that governs—important as that is—but the Executive and other institutions.

People must be reassured not only that paramilitarism is ending, but that if it were to re-emerge there would be authoritative public confirmation of what was occurring and that appropriate measures would be set in hand to remedy and sanction it. That is why the independent monitoring commission and the mechanisms that the Bill will establish will be of central importance.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Will the Secretary of State clarify an important point at this early part of the debate? Will he confirm that if Sinn Fein-IRA, the corporate body that is the republican movement, are proved to have been involved in Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormontgate, the new monitoring body will have no power or authority to expel them retrospectively from the Executive or the institution of the Assembly?

Mr. Murphy

Of course, the body is yet to be set up and although the people who will serve on it have been chosen, they will have first to examine the state of what is alleged to be paramilitary activity at this stage. I would not want to comment on individual cases, which are still being investigated by the authorities in three separate legal jurisdictions. As we will discover as the debate continues, the body will have to decide how it will operate. It will have to decide its procedures, which is why it is so important to pass the Bill and to enable it to establish its mechanisms. Perhaps we will address the hon. Gentleman's point in more detail in Committee.

We intend that the commission will be set up under an international agreement between this Government and the Irish Government. It will make assessments about fundamental requirements of the agreement to which we are both parties, and it will be permitted to report fully on activities in relation to Northern Ireland in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. A draft of the agreement that will establish the body has been made available to the House. We intend that it should be signed in that form and ratified in October following the passage of legislation in the Irish Parliament and formal procedures here. The Bill contains several further provisions in respect of the commission, which I shall outline later.

In line with the Hillsborough scheme, the commission will be composed of four distinguished individuals who will bring a wide range of valuable experience. They will be able to speak authoritatively, as well as impartially, on central questions of public trust. Two members will be appointed by Her Majesty's Government, one of whom will be from Northern Ireland. One will be appointed by the Irish Government and the other will be appointed by the two Governments on the nomination of the United States Government, who, as so often in recent years, have shown that they are a staunch friend of the peace process and of Northern Ireland in general.

We have already announced the names of those concerned: Mr. John Grieve, until recently a senior Metropolitan police officer; Lord Alderdice, who served with distinction as the first presiding officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly; Mr. Joseph Brosnan, a former secretary general—we would call them permanent secretary here—of the Irish Department of Justice; and Mr. Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of central intelligence in the United States of America. I am deeply grateful to them all for agreeing to serve. I believe that this is a group of very high calibre, with the right skills and experience for the challenging task that the commission faces.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)

Will the Secretary of State explain the reasoning that led him to decide that there should not be in the commission a respected figure of the Northern Ireland Unionist community? Is that not a deficiency if the objective is to restore confidence?

Mr. Murphy

The appointments were based not on whether someone was a Unionist or a nationalist but on the experience that they would bring to bear. The people whose names I have just read out have a wide variety of experience, much of it in the security sector. Of course, the nomination of Lord Alderdice rests very much on his position as the former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The commission will be purely advisory.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Should not it be made clear to the House that, with all due respect to Lord Alderdice, he was never elected Speaker by Members of the Assembly? He got in because no one could agree who it should be. To say that he was elected by the Assembly is wrong.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Totally wrong.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Totally wrong.

Mr. Murphy

I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. I did not say that Lord Alderdice was elected as Speaker. I said that he was the presiding officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I suppose he was not unelected by the Assembly because he stayed there for all those years. One imagines that he had the support, at least tacitly, of the majority of Members.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that all Assembly Members had the opportunity at every turnaround, every week, of electing a different Speaker, had we so wished? I certainly would like to put on record the fact that Lord Alderdice would not perhaps have been the person whom I would have voted for had a vote taken place, but he did a remarkably good job. In fact, if the circumstance arose, I would vote for him, and I have no doubt that he will perform his functions in the commission with the same ability as he did as Speaker.

Mr. Murphy

I give way to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

May I remind the Secretary of State that the term that he used in describing the noble Lord was that he. was the greatly respected interim presiding officer of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in that respect may I assure the Secretary of State that he is absolutely right? Lord Alderdice earned respect on all sides, and the absence since the announcement of his appointment to the commission of any criticism from any serious quarter underlines the extent of the respect that he earned.

Mr. Murphy

I agree entirely. Lord Alderdice did his job extremely well. Obviously, one cannot please all the people all the time. I suspect that, whatever name emerged as the Northern Ireland representative, as it were, on the body, it would have been very difficult to have got someone whom 100 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland agreed with, but I will stay absolutely firm on the fact that I believe that he did a very good job and that he is highly qualified to be a member of that body.

David Burnside

On that point, does the Secretary of State agree that one of Lord Alderdice's advantages is that his political pedigree is that of the Alliance party, which cannot make up its mind whether it is Unionist or nationalist and changes every now and again? Therefore, in the ambiguity of political evolution in the past four or five years, he is exactly right for the job.

Mr. Murphy

The commission will be purely advisory.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, from the impartial position in which I find myself, I have nothing but praise for the courage of the Alliance party in bailing out the Ulster Unionists when they needed its help? More to the point, does he accept that we run the risk in this debate of setting the precedent of appointing the entire House as the appointments panel for the membership of the IMC? Will he therefore give his judgment on the most effective way of ensuring that we have the right four people, whomever they may be, to serve on the commission?

Mr. Murphy

Members were appointed by the Governments. Obviously, we looked very carefully at the background, experience and expertise of the people concerned. I am not sure whether it would be worth continuing to discuss individuals in this debate, but I repeat that I think that the four people who have been appointed will be do a very good job indeed.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said he was neutral, but I thought that the Alliance party was a sister party of the Liberal Democrats. May I press the Secretary of State not on the quality and character of the four, for I have no difficulty with that, but on the question of whom the commission will be reporting to and how will it report? Will what it says be published clearly, or will it be massaged by Government at some level?

Mr. Murphy

I hope that we will be able to address all those issues not just in what I have to say—I will touch on some of them in a few moments—but in Committee. Those matters are, of course, crucial to the understanding of the mechanisms.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It would help hon. Members to know what time is going to be allotted. I understand that there is nine hours, but there is no set time for Committee. I understand that the Second Reading debate can run for all that time. Is that so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

The hon. Gentleman is correct. The total time for the debate, including the debate we have had on the allocation of time motion, is nine hours. There is no specific time for any particular section of that, so the length of the Second Reading debate is entirely a matter for hon. Members who contribute to it.

Mr. Murphy

It is up to us how we deal with those matters, but it is important that we have a reasonable amount of time to discuss some of the detail that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) mentioned.

The commission, which will be advisory, will deliver its assessments of the matters referred to it, and may recommend remedial action and measures that the Assembly might take under its powers, as extended by the Bill, but it will make no substantive decision. If the commission recommends that measures should be taken, it becomes a matter for the agreement institutions, and ultimately for the Government.

The commission will have three remits, the first of which will be to examine and to report on paramilitary activity. The draft agreement makes it clear that that covers every aspect of paramilitary activity: not only bombing and shooting but training, targeting, carrying out so-called punishment beatings, and all the other associated activities, including those set out in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

This would be a good moment to answer the very pertinent question that has already been asked by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), which is whether the commission will be able to undertake investigations into previous—that is to say, up until now—alleged breaches, including Castlereagh, Stormontgate, Colombia and so forth, and to make appropriate recommendations, or whether it will be limited to looking at events that follow its setting up.

Mr. Murphy

I have not forgotten that point. If the hon. Gentleman would wait a little longer, I hope to be able to give him the answer to those questions.

We shall provide the commission with all the support that we can, and so too, I believe, will the Irish Government. However, the body will reach its own conclusions. The commission will consider progress on security normalisation, which is a key element of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that has yet to be fully implemented. While the security situation that we have faced has prevented us from moving as quickly as we would have wished, the Government have nonetheless made significant progress in this area. I pay tribute to the security forces for all that they have done to meet that objective while ensuring at the same time that the people of Northern Ireland continue to be properly protected.

Let me make it clear that the programme of normalisation outlined in the Hillsborough texts is linked to the ending of paramilitary activity. Monitoring of that will not begin until the Government set it in train, although at our request the Commission will be able to report on normalisation activity in recent years, and we intend it to start on that at an early stage. The commission will, finally, also be responsible for investigating certain conduct in the political field. The agreement, in its pledge of office, imposes important standards of behaviour, which, if they are not observed, mean that the institutions cannot function properly. The commission may investigate complaints that a party or Minister is in breach of the pledge.

There is a long-standing convention that matters relating essentially to internal Northern Ireland institutional affairs which, as we all know, in the political talks leading to the agreement were called strand 1 issues, should be decided by people from Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom alone. So, for example, in the talks, those issues were discussed in a format chaired by the British Government—in fact, by myself—without Irish representatives being present. There were concerns that that principle would be undermined in the scheme introduced at Hillsborough, and we have reflected on those concerns. I believe that the draft agreement—the international agreement-fully respects the convention. In so far as complaints made to the commission concern the operation of the internal institutions of Northern Ireland, they will be considered only by those two members of the commission who are appointed by the British Government. The other two members of the commission will not be concerned with them at any point.

In respect of paramilitary activity and political breaches, the commission or the two members concerned will be required to report their findings and, where they consider it appropriate, recommend what measures they envisage the Assembly taking. Their reports will be published. However, as I have said, decisions are for the Assembly, and ultimately, if it cannot agree, for the British Government.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

The Secretary of State has made the point that political breaches will be considered by the two appointees of Her Majesty's Government. However, what is the position when it comes to the Secretary of State taking action? Will he take action if he needs to do so alone, or will he first consult the Dublin Government and involve them before he makes a decision? In the latter case, Dublin is involved in strand 1 matters.

Mr. Murphy

The Dublin Government are not involved in making the decision. May I make it absolutely clear that decisions on political issues should rest with the Assembly, both through the implementation group and the Assembly as a whole? The Assembly, acting as a body corporate, should ideally deal with those issues. It will be self-regulating and will deal with its own disciplinary matters. If that fails, the agreement resulting from the Hillsborough talks is that the British Government will deal with the matter because it is a strand 1 matter.

Of course, we consult the Irish Government on all issues, but at the end of the day, the decision is ours. It is important that that should happen. The operation of all the institutions derived from the Good Friday agreement, because the agreement was set up between two Governments and the political parties, involves collective discussions. However, it is quite clear that when it comes to decision making the decision rests with me and the British Government—of course it does. I shall return to the issues in more detail later and make the position clear. I would not want to mislead either the House or the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) on some of the details.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley)


Mr. Murphy

Before the hon. Gentleman speaks, may I say that I want to clarify some of the issues later.

Mr. Donaldson

The Secretary of State said that matters relating to the Assembly's internal affairs are for the Assembly and the implementation group to determine. Why do we need an independent commission to monitor the conduct of parties in the Assembly in the first place, apart from the issue of a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, if the implementation group will decide what happens?

Mr. Murphy

Certainly, it is for the implementation group in the Assembly in the first instance to try to decide how to deal with these issues. As I said, I hope that it will do so, and that such matters will come to the Government very much as a last resort. Obviously, it was a matter of debate in the discussion which took place in the spring whether in fact the commission should or should not have responsibilities beyond looking at what might be called paramilitary and security issues. The decision made by the Governments in the spring was that that opportunity should be given to the commission.

The hon. Gentleman knows that Assembly Members can go to the implementation group and argue that a breach of the Belfast agreement has taken place. The Assembly has to deliberate on those matters and make its own decisions. The hon. Gentleman and I would probably disagree as to whether in principle the issue of political breaches as opposed to paramilitary activity should or should not be dealt with by the commission. However, that is what was agreed would happen.

Mr. Donaldson

How does it assist the credibility of the implementation group in the Assembly if a Member has a choice and can decide whether he wishes to make the complaint to the implementation group or the independent commission? Surely it undermines the position of the implementation group if there is another route that Members can take. I cannot understand the need for matters other than the commitment to democratic and peaceful means to be addressed by an independent commission, as the Assembly itself already has a means of addressing those issues.

Mr. Murphy

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but the principle of whether political breaches should be dealt with is a proper one. However, he and I probably disagree about that.

To return to points made earlier by the hon. Member for Belfast, North, I deliberately did not conclude my remarks on his question, because I wanted to check the position. The House will understand that the procedural aspects of the work of the commission are a matter on which we have not gone into great detail because we are only setting the legislative framework. It is probably reasonable to say that where British members of the IMC have reported on a strand 1 matter, I would not expect formally to consult the Irish Government.

Mr. Dodds

I am interested to hear what the Secretary of State said on that particular point, because it directly contradicts what was said in the other place by the Government spokesman. Will he reflect on what he said, and clarify the position further? We are told in one House that the Dublin Government will be consulted, but now we are told that they will not be consulted, although the Secretary of State used the word "formally", whatever that means. Perhaps he would clarify what "formally" means. Does it mean "secretly", or does it mean that civil servants will not be present? The fact is that the Secretary of State referred earlier to Dublin being excluded from strand 1—its representatives were not in the room, so why are they being brought into the room on this issue?

Mr. Murphy

I think that there is a distinction to be drawn about a formal consultation, which will be required, as it were, with regard to the paramilitary activities, and where the four members of the commission are involved. An undertaking was given at Hillsborough in the joint declaration that there would be formal consultation with the Irish Government on that issue. I think the hon. Gentleman would accept that in the real world, if some major crisis was affecting the stability of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is inconceivable that in the course of a conversation about general matters, I would keep my mouth shut and say nothing. If the whole institutional stability of Northern Ireland was in jeopardy, would I not speak? He knows that that is nonsense and it would not happen. However, the formal position—where there is to be a formal consultation because of paramilitary matters—is now clear, and we will go through it.

It was also an important part of the Hillsborough scheme that there should be an increased range of measures available against individuals and parties in the Assembly who were in breach of their obligations. The Bill amends the Northern Ireland Act 1998 accordingly. The Assembly will be able to exclude individuals and parties from office in Northern Ireland for a range of periods, rather than for the 12 months that was the only option under the 1998 Act. The Assembly will also be able to withhold pay and party allowances, and pass motions of censure. In taking such steps, the Assembly would, as with exclusion motions now, need to make its decisions with cross-community support. That is in line with the agreement. These are decisions that may be absolutely fundamental to the future of the devolved system.

Rev. Ian Paisley

What percentage of the Assembly would need to support a motion to meet the requirement for cross-community support? As the Secretary of State knows, a percentage was specified previously.

Mr. Murphy

That is set out in the Bill, and I shall return to it.

Those powers are available to the Assembly at any time. However, as we have seen in the past, the Assembly may be deadlocked at a time when the resolution of an issue demands some action, failing which the institutions could become inoperable. The Hillsborough agreement addressed that. It made it clear that there would be a range of discussions in the light of any finding by the IMC that a party or Assembly Member was in breach, and any recommendation by it of consequential measures.

Those discussions would involve the implementation group, of which the pro-agreement parties in Northern Ireland are members. If the group recommended that a motion should be put before the Assembly for the taking of such measures, the Secretary of State would exercise his powers requiring the motion to be moved, but where the motion had failed to achieve cross-community support in the Assembly, or the implementation group had failed to agree any course of action, it would be for the British Government—to turn now to the paramilitary aspects—in consultation with the Irish Government and the parties, to resolve the matter consistently with the commission's report.

The Bill accordingly provides powers for the Secretary of State himself to take the measures required. Though the Bill does not set out all the procedures in the Hillsborough text, I confirm now that we would envisage following them in the light of a relevant commission report. We should, in particular, consult the implementation group, and the Irish Government, as the text specifies.

These are powers of last resort. It is right that intensive efforts should be made by people in Northern Ireland to resolve these issues. They should not end up, before that, on the desk of a British Minister. That is not the Hillsborough plan, and it is far from the 1998 agreement. I should also say one other thing of the spirit in which we should operate these arrangements: we believe it is very important—difficult and painful though it may be in the circumstances—to give effect to the commission's recommendations. We certainly intend to use these powers where the commission had so recommended, but action had not been taken.

I shall not dwell at length on the details of the Bill. As I said earlier, it is important that hon. Members have an opportunity to deal with it in Committee. I hope that the explanatory notes will have been of use to them. Clauses 1 to 3 make provision for the commission, supplementing the agreement establishing it. Clause 1 provides for it to have immunity from suit, which is essential for the safeguarding of information that it has received in confidence. Clause 2 places on it a duty in carrying out its functions to do nothing to prejudice national security, put lives at risk or prejudice legal proceedings. Clause 3 requires me to lay a copy of its reports before Parliament.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Clause 3 provides for the reports to be laid before Parliament. The agreement between the two Governments suggests that those may include a wide range of matters relating to paramilitary activity and the people leading it. However, clause 2, dealing with the commission's duty to avoid prejudicial effect, states that a report should not put anyone's life in danger or prejudice future legal proceedings. Might not the situation arise where, although the commission knows the identity of people against whom action needs to be taken, it cannot report that to Parliament because it would be prejudicial under clause 2?

Mr. Murphy

I repeat that the commission must work out how it deals with its own mechanisms, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would understand that its reports could not include details that would put lives at risk, and it is clearly not a court of law. Its purpose is to monitor and then tell the House of Commons and the people of Northern Ireland whether, in its view, having examined the evidence, there have been breaches of the agreement and paramilitary activity has been taking place.

My hon. Friend knows, too, that some of the commission's examinations would inevitably deal with highly sensitive intelligence which, if revealed, could compromise people's safety. Members of the commission would be conscious of that, which is why it is so important that we have confidence in them and in their ability to give the House an honest report that reflects its findings but contains essential safeguards to protect the safety of the people concerned.

David Burnside

The people of Northern Ireland are confused about the recommendations that we are discussing. Could the Secretary of State give an example, without commenting on the legalities of it? If a murder by the IRA occurred, such as the murder of Gareth O'Connor, about which the police will have advised the right hon. Gentleman, and if he is also advised by his police advisers that Martin McGuinness still sits on the army council of the IRA, would that be an offence that could lead to Martin McGuinness's exclusion from the Executive? How long does he think the commission would take before it excluded Martin McGuinness from the Executive?

Mr. Murphy

It would not be proper for me to comment on individuals in a debate such as this. In general terms, the commission would have to make up its own mind collectively about how best to report what it had discovered. It would make recommendations to me first, and the Assembly would then consider them and take decisions. If it did not, I would.

Clauses 4 to 8 are concerned with amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in respect of measures against individual Ministers or parties. Clause 4 provides for the new range of periods of exclusion and obliges me, in requiring the Assembly to consider exclusion, to take account of reports from the commission.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The Secretary of State will see that I have tabled an amendment to clause 4. If the Assembly is not dealing on its own initiative with a motion to exclude, but he is persuaded that there should be an exclusion, why should the vehicle of the presiding officer be used? In what must be extraordinary circumstances anyway, would it not be more appropriate for him to present his case directly to the Assembly?

Mr. Murphy

The provision follows the 1998 Act and the Good Friday agreement, in which it was decided that such mechanisms were the best way of proceeding. As my hon. Friend knows, there has to be cross-community support, but we shall return to the matter in a little more detail in Committee.

Clause 6 permits the Assembly to reduce the remuneration of a Minister or members of a political party and confers on me a reserve power in the same sense. Clause 7 makes similar provision in respect of financial assistance. Clause 8 permits the Assembly to pass censure motions.

Lembit Öpik

I have a question about clause 7, although Ministers may wish to return to it in Committee, as it concerns a point of detail. Around line 19 on page 9 of the Bill, it seems that, while salaries can be reduced, there will be no negative effect on pensions, which implies that if the Assembly were suspended for 40 years, a Member would still retire on a full pension. What is the logic for not penalising the pensions outcome as well?

Mr. Murphy

I would be 96 after a 40-year suspension of the Assembly, and I would have to consider the effect on my pension in such circumstances. We will come back to the hon. Gentleman on that issue; he is right to highlight the current position.

Clause 9 provides for parliamentary procedures in respect of my powers.

Mr. Dodds

On clause 8, the Secretary of State mentioned censure motions. What is the thinking behind that clause? At the moment, it is possible for a Member or party to table a motion in the Assembly expressing no confidence, censuring a Minister and so on. Clause 8 makes that harder and restricts Assembly Members' freedom. Such provision did not feature in the Belfast agreement or even the Hillsborough talks, and it is not in the joint declaration, as I understand it. Where did it come from? Why does it restrict the right of Members to call for a vote of no confidence or table a censure motion in respect of any other party or Minister? Can he explain that clause?

Mr. Murphy

I was not aware that the measure made it more difficult to table censure motions, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, we will deal with that point in winding up the debate, as it is a technical one. More generally, the reason why the provision is included, as opposed to how it affects the current circumstances, is that there will be a gradation of punishments starting at a motion of censure—a reprimand by the Assembly as a body corporate—increasing in severity in terms of the various measures outlined in the Bill and ending up with exclusion.

There is provision for those powers to be exercised in advance of approval, as is right given that urgent action may be required, perhaps when one or both Houses of Parliament are in recess. There is provision for the consequences if such an exercise of powers is not upheld.

We now need to move forward with great urgency in the Northern Ireland political process. We all want to see elections; confidence restored on all sides to the point at which politics can again operate; and decisions that are properly made in Belfast again being made there, in Northern Ireland.

The independent monitoring commission will be part of the foundations of rebuilt trust and confidence in Northern Ireland. No one who is committed to wholly democratic politics should object to the new independent scrutiny of paramilitary activity that this new body will provide. No one can claim that the men involved will not bring objective expertise and experience to the task, and no one can convince me that the commission will not help to restore the trust and confidence that are required to allow elections to a working Assembly and a stable and peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

I commend the Bill to the House.

3.33 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Nobody could possibly object to the fact that the Secretary of State has spoken for three quarters of an hour on a Bill of such importance. He was generous—and rightly so—in taking interventions and giving detailed explanations, at least most of the time. However, that illustrates the anomaly whereby nine hours have been allowed not for Second Reading alone, but for all stages of the Bill's consideration, including the time taken in considering the allocation of time motion, which should never have been tabled. In conducting the debate as he has, he has demonstrated that Second Reading should have lasted the whole day. We should have had a proper Second Reading taking the whole afternoon, after which we would have had time for reflection, discussion and even negotiation. The other stages could then have taken their turn.

The history of Northern Ireland over the past five or six years is one of great hopes followed by severe disappointments. The Belfast agreement was not in any sense an ideal document—it contained many features that were unpalatable to many people, including me—but it was a great achievement, and I have always given the Government due credit for it. Nevertheless, it was not followed, as it should have been, by full decommissioning, by the disbandment of private armies, by the end of intimidation, harassment and paramilitary murders and by the successful and permanent embedding of devolved government—in short, by normalisation. Five and a half years on, we still await substantial progress in decommissioning. The exiles remain exiled, and the intimidated remain intimidated. Only yesterday, as the Secretary of State knows, there was another resignation from a district police partnership because of intimidation.

The Government suspended the devolved institutions nearly a year ago. There have been two successive postponements of Assembly elections since then, and in the second instance no date was given for them to take place. Since the second, indefinite postponement—exactly as I predicted—there has been no progress on negotiations for the completion of the peace process. Instead—here I use the words that I used in May—rather than parties being compelled to examine the scope for agreement with each other, they have turned in on themselves.

Thank heaven it has remained relatively quiet on the streets this summer. I pay tribute to all on both sides who have used their influence in favour of forbearance, patience and moderation. It would, however, be utterly irresponsible to suppose that because things have been calmer over the summer, they can be counted on to remain calm irrespective of progress on the peace process or opportunities for peaceful, democratic expression at the ballot box.

Who bears the blame for the disappointment of the great hopes of five years ago? Of course it is predominantly Sinn Fein-IRA. Whether through deliberately planned duplicity or otherwise, they have talked peace while continuing to plan and prepare for war—procuring arms, training, targeting, spying, intimidating. We all know the names of those responsible for these egregious breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement: Florida, Colombia, Castlereagh, Stormontgate. No words are too strong to condemn their behaviour. If the peace process collapses—and it could—they will bear, in the eyes of generations to come, the great historic guilt for destroying a precious opportunity for all the people of Northern Ireland.

But no peace process that was not properly and effectively chaired and managed was going to work. That role could fall only to the British Government. What was required was the application of some classic principles of good negotiation and good chairmanship: clarity, consistency, decisiveness, balance, fairness, rewards for compliance, and penalties or sanctions for bad behaviour. Have we had any of those? The Government have proved themselves quite incapable—consistently—of supplying them. There has been muddle, and there have been U-turns. Just look at the elections. They have been promised, postponed, promised, postponed again and now, apparently, promised again.

We have had false assurances, such as those given by the Prime Minister at the time of the campaign for a referendum on the agreement in 1998. We have had indecisiveness, we have had unilateral concessions, and we have had complete abdication—complete inaction—in the face of the most serious breaches, including the four that I mentioned.

I have often said, in this place and outside, that the Government have committed four cardinal errors. Time has moved on, and I am sorry to say that that number is now five. The first error—I have of course said this before and I am afraid that I will continue to say it, because no one should ever forget it—was the catastrophic decision to release all the prisoners without any decommissioning at all, giving away the most valuable card for precisely nothing. It is not surprising that no IRA decommissioning whatever took place for three and a half years after the agreement, until the Americans themselves took a hand and became directly involved, after 11 September. But the Government could hardly have predicted that tragedy and its consequences for, among other things, the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The second cardinal error was the making of unilateral concessions that went quite beyond the Belfast agreement, and which were not required by it at all. They included the special status for Sinn Fein-IRA MPs and the amnesty for on-the-run terrorists, which, at Weston Park, the Government promised would be delivered by the end of 2001. The Secretary of State has been good enough to acknowledge publicly that it was, in retrospect, a thoroughly good thing that the Conservative Opposition were able successfully to oppose implementation of that concession, and that in consequence that valuable card now remains in the Government's hands, so I shall say no more about that.

The third cardinal error was the complete failure to respond with any sanction at all to serious breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement by Sinn Fein-IRA. I said after Florida and Colombia that if there were no sanctions—no downside to such behaviour—more breaches would inevitably occur. The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy)—it is a pleasure to address her in that fashion—has listened to me these past two years, and has heard me say that many times before. I am afraid that it remains as true as when I first said it.

After what happened at Castlereagh, the Opposition themselves proposed a remedy—a point that takes us directly to the Bill's substance. On 16 July 2002, I suggested that we empower the Secretary of State to exclude from the Executive parties that were in breach of their obligations under the agreement, or that were acting in concert with persons in breach. I also Predicted—this point was raised earlier—that, in the event of a serious breach and a requirement to exclude, it would be ineffective to rely on the Assembly's voting for an exclusion motion. I said: I think that the Secretary of State may be missing the point that was being polite— which is purely practical—that one has no credibility in this life in threatening a sanction that one is not in a position to enforce. The right hon. Gentleman will get no leverage in the negotiations with Sinn Fein by suggesting that one day there might be a majority of Sinn Fein and Social Democratic and Labour Members who might like to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive. If he wants to use that mechanism, he will have to take powers in this House."—[Official Report, 16 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 233.] It has taken the Government 15 months to come to this House to try to take those powers. It has taken them 15 months to realise that it was not sufficient to rely on the Assembly to vote through an exclusion motion, and that we need to provide a procedure for dealing with the situation in which the Assembly cannot agree—through securing agreement in both of the two camps, according to the principle on which that Assembly works—to vote through such a motion. But I am delighted that after 15 months, the penny has dropped.

Mr. Mallon

Will the hon. Gentleman elaborate on what he means by "the two camps"?

Mr. Davies

I hardly need to describe to the hon. Gentleman how the procedures work in the Belfast Assembly. He knows perfectly well that, to get an exclusion motion through, it would be necessary to have a majority in both the Unionist and the nationalist and republican camps. That is a fact—I do not want to quarrel about it now—and he knows it even better than I do.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even at this stage, the Government seem not to have woken up, in that, instead of the Bill stating that the Secretary of State "shall", it states that he "may"? In other words, the Bill leaves one means of leverage out.

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I shall come to that when I deal with the Bill in more detail.

Mr. Mallon


Mr. Davies

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, if he will forgive me.

The Secretary of State's predecessor never produced any arguments against following up the Opposition's suggestion at the time to introduce a Bill containing exclusion powers. I do not know why he did not; he never explained. Perhaps he could not make up his mind, or suffered from a bad case of "not invented here" syndrome. The Government often seem to suffer from that. Perhaps he could not persuade Mr. Jonathan Powell.

Whatever the explanation, it was a grave error that had serious consequences within only a few months when, as I warned was likely in the circumstances, the next breach came. Of course it came in the shape of Stormontgate. When that happened, the Government found that they did not have the necessary weapon in their armoury, which I had tried to place there. No effective sanction was available to them, which is precisely why they ended up having to resort to dismissing the whole institutional structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. They brought the whole edifice down, unjustly and perversely punishing the innocent with the guilty, and plunging Northern Ireland into the constitutional crisis and political impasse in which it remains embedded. All that could have been avoided.

As we now see from the Bill, the new Secretary of State has seen the point of exclusion. Although we have several difficulties with the way in which he proposes that it should operate, it would be churlish and ungenerous not to pay due tribute to him, which I certainly do.

The Government's fourth cardinal error was not to appreciate that every issue in Northern Ireland—its institutions and their working, decommissioning, policing, demilitarisation and so forth—is inevitably interlinked. Some parties are more committed to some aspects and other parties to others, so any solution and any negotiation must be comprehensive, by any definition. It is therefore always an error to believe that some issues can be resolved in vacuo or that side deals can be done with one party without unwinding the commitment of others. We have seen far too many unilateral concessions, one-sided assurances and side deals done with one party, offending another, which then has to be appeased with another concession that in turn upsets another party.

That was a hopeless way of conducting a negotiation, but every time that I mentioned the word "linkage"—the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree will remember me doing so on many occasions—to the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, he bridled at it and rejected it.

Lembit Öpik

The Conservatives called for unilateral exclusion and demanded that Ministers implement it last year, so I am at a loss to understand why they repeatedly criticise the Government for acting unilaterally when they requested such action last year.

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood what I have said. I am criticising any sort of unilateral concession, which I said was completely wrong. Equally, I have said that it was necessary to have a balance, not unilateral action. I said that part of the balance—I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening, but if he was not, I shall repeat it for him—requires some sanctions for bad behaviour. The Government found themselves in a hopeless position last year when no response was available to them. I suggested a response, but they did not take it. That is why they ended up dismantling the whole institutional structure in Belfast and are now finding it difficult to put it back on its feet again. That, in a couple of sentences, shows the tragic outcome of a series of avoidable mistakes.

Lembit Opik


Mr. Davies

I will not give way again, because we are under a time constraint. It is not my fault, but we suffer from a time constraint imposed on us arbitrarily by an arrogant Government.

To be fair, after the present Secretary of State took office, we had a different approach, which resulted in multilateral and comprehensive negotiations at Hillsborough. As the House knows, we strongly supported those negotiations and they led to some genuinely encouraging progress. Sadly, that progress has not been sustained. The best hope that we have is that it has been deep frozen and can, in due time, be revived and built on.

The Government committed the fifth cardinal error when they postponed the Assembly elections indefinitely. The difference between an indefinite postponement and a cancellation is a nice philosophical question, but an important pragmatic question that the Government should ask themselves today is how long does an indefinite postponement need to continue before it has the political consequences of a cancellation?

That postponement was an error is now clear—for two reasons. First, it penalised the innocent, and the democratic process itself, for the failings of one party. It thus breached both an elementary principle of justice and the pragmatic requirement in any process that the structure of incentives should be rational and not perverse. Secondly, it was an error because it made it predictably certain that no progress would be made in the peace process. Before an election, parties and political leaders in Northern Ireland will always seek to strengthen their position in their own sectarian camps. That means talking tough and pointing to rivals' weaknesses. No one can make concessions in such circumstances, nor accept concessions from the other side as adequate. It follows that no concessions will be made. It follows that no negotiations will proceed. The history of the past few months may prove more eloquent than any analysis of mine, and I hope that the Government will draw the right conclusion from that before even greater risks are run.

The Bill enshrines two principles—the principle of exclusion and the principle of a monitoring commission. We clearly do not object to exclusion, because we first introduced the concept into the Northern Ireland political debate and we feel as strongly about it as we did when we advocated it 15 months ago. We will not play dog in the manger. Simply because we had to wait for 15 months for the Government to come around to our point of view is no reason to fail to support the principle of exclusion. We will hold firm to that principle.

We equally approve of the concept of a monitoring commission. We cannot claim authorship of that, because the credit goes to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who tried to urge it on the Secretary of State's predecessor, with no more success than I had with exclusion. However, the concept was generally accepted at Hillsborough and we greatly welcome it. I recall suggesting to the Secretary of State that to give effect to the monitoring commission, we might simply expand the remit of General de Chastelain. I saw advantages in asking a military man to supervise the essentially military task of unwinding the paramilitary operations of terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. However, that is in the past and I am happy to endorse the Government's approach to the constitution of the monitoring commission.

We have considerable problems with the Government's original proposal to link the concept of exclusion and the monitoring commission. The Government's original idea was that the Secretary of State would have no power to exclude, except on the recommendation of the commission. To us, that clearly raised a matter of fundamental principle, and I am surprised that it was not equally clear to the Government. We all believe in democracy, and its first principle is that government is conducted by those who are elected or those who are accountable to those who are elected—in the case of our parliamentary system, to Parliament. The original, pristine Bill proposed that four people, who would not be democratically accountable to Parliament or in any other way, should determine who should and who should not serve in the Government of Northern Ireland and exercise executive functions, not the Secretary of State, who is democratically accountable. That is a fundamentally obnoxious procedure, and one that we could not accept.

I am glad that the Government have—wisely—accepted the Liberal Democrat amendment tabled in another place. My own party made a significant contribution to that amendment, which was also supported by the Ulster Unionists. It gives the Secretary of State a power of exclusion for a period of two weeks, irrespective of the monitoring commission's recommendations. That is a substantial improvement, and it affects the Opposition's attitude to the Bill. However, a point of principle is still involved for exclusions that continue for more than two weeks. I hope later to be able to advocate an amendment that would protect the principle entirely, and another that would require the Secretary of State to take account of the commission's recommendations when making a decision to exclude. We believe that the role of the commission in this matter should be advisory. It is totally inappropriate that it should have a decisive role in determining who should sit in an Executive.

The Bill enshrines two important innovations. For the reasons that I have given, we strongly support them. The Government have accepted an amendment that attenuates considerably our remaining concerns, although it does not remove them entirely. We shall therefore support the Bill on Second Reading. We hope to improve it further in Committee. Above all, we hope that it will contribute—as I believe that it will—to progress in the peace process.

3.56 pm
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

I shall begin with a brief account of the context and background of this debate. There is more to this than the nihilistic apologia that we have just heard in respect of who was right and who was wrong. The reality is that anyone dealing with politics in these circumstances is caught between armies, in the quagmire of violence. In that context, rights and wrongs have neither the neatness nor the absolute values suggested by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies).

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point, and in some respects he is technically correct, but we are trying to end 30 years of violence and to bridge almost 100 years of political, religious and sectarian divisions, and in the search for absolute wisdom, we must remember that our own sense of rectitude—of being right or wrong—is not as absolute as we might wish.

The collective effect of matters such as the Castlereagh break-in, the IRA's spying operation and its activity in Colombia broke the back of a political process that was already struggling. It was readily accepted that the Ulster Unionist party could not have stayed in the power-sharing Executive in those circumstances. There is a general realisation that no political party or organisation could live with another party that undertook such activities while involved in government.

Mr. Donaldson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mallon

I have anticipated the hon. Gentleman's question, and I have my answer waiting for him.

Mr. Donaldson

If, in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has described, and following the Stormontgate revelations, a motion had been tabled in the Assembly to exclude the Sinn Fein members from the Executive, would his party have supported it?

Mr. Mallon

I was not in the leadership of our party at that stage, but I am not evading the question because the answer is in the Bill and in what the Secretary of State said. There already exists a built-in barrier—prohibition would be the wrong word—against that happening, just as there was in the negotiations before the Good Friday agreement. The Ulster Unionist party was then able to resist action against those who would not play a full role in the Executive, and that was so for reasons that we recognised as good ones. I myself tried and failed to find a way to deal with that problem. It was spurned by the Ulster Unionist party, which ignored it for a year. It was spurned by the IRA. Neither made any attempt to see whether that was workable. I failed on both counts, therefore, but I would rather have failed than not tried. That is the approach that I want to bring to this Bill, too.

Mr. Donaldson

Is this a yes or a no?

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman will have time to nibble away as we go along and—he need not worry—I will nibble back.

I am no great advocate of commissions. I have a concept of the sturdy, independent Ulsterman, standing on his own two feet, going about his own business, looking after himself and not having to resort to commissions. I am on record as praising the commissioners: I know two of them well and hugely respect them, and I have no doubt that I would have similar respect for the other two. However, I would much prefer it if the matter could be dealt with through the political process in the north of Ireland by those who should and could—I hope will—slot into the vision of the sturdy, independent Ulsterman, standing on his own feet and doing things for himself.

We are not short of commissions. Now we are to have the monitoring commission. We have the international commission on decommissioning, a commission for the disappeared—that is, those who were murdered in various ways—and a human rights commission, the least said about which the better at this stage. However, if the political process were strong, vibrant and self-confident enough, we would not need to appoint people to commissions. We could deal with things ourselves.

I have nothing fundamentally against the new commission. It may throw some light on Castlereagh. It may be able to look into the way in which some sectarian attacks take place. It may be able to establish the role of paramilitary groups in riot situations. It may even look at the Government's credibility when they become tardy in relation to some of their commitments. I am not against the international commission in those terms, but I feel that we will soon have almost more commissions than we have issues to deal with.

I am not against sanctions, and I want to put that point on the record, although I do not doubt that it will be misunderstood. Along with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), I saw how difficult it was to sit through a situation in which the basic rules of politics were flouted daily before our eyes. The standards of non-violence and the highest standards of the duty of office that the Good Friday agreement demanded were tossed to the wind, and we were not capable of doing anything about it.

However, when I say that I am in favour of sanctions I mean the sanctions in the Good Friday agreement, which—except for some people—we have all broadly agreed: sanctions that are workable and sanctions that protect and defend the political process and will not eventually tear it apart. That is one of the difficulties with this Bill and with the draft agreement on which it is based. We must be careful that, while we seek the optimum protection for the political process, we do not create the means by which it could be torn apart again.

I am not in favour of contrivances. If we are all honest, we will accept that in many ways this legislation is a contrivance—I do not mean that disparagingly. It is a contrivance for various reasons. It is intended to bridge the gap that I identified—the political inability to make the Assembly take decisions. Also in many ways, it has more of a paper value than the real substantive value that it might well have had.

Indeed, the legislation is a contrivance in the sense that although it is derived from the Hillsborough joint declaration, it was not part of it; it was an addendum. It did not come out of the joint declaration as agreed by the political parties; it was stuck on to it and issued separately, almost as a counterweight to whatever had been agreed about what might be done governmentally about the issue of on-the-runs. In many ways, that adds to the contrivances. The balancing act that resulted from the two addendums has not increased the standing of the approach.

I am not against sanctions, but this contrivance is political—I can see why it was a political requirement for some, but a political contrivance to get people in may not be the right method of ensuring that everyone stays in or that there is anything in which to stay. I hope that I am wrong.

I can say with some confidence that the mechanisms within this legislation will in any case never be used. I am firmly of the opinion that the day on which the Secretary of State—whoever he or she may be—decides to exclude without cross-community support within the Assembly will be the day on which the question of pensions to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) referred becomes very relevant indeed. That is when the political process in the north of Ireland will have decided that it cannot sustain itself and cannot stand on its own two feet. That is when the test that is in this legislation will be used. [Interruption.] I will not lose that confidence because of heckling from the cheaper seats. I shall not lose that confidence in spite of those the Americans would call "bleachers"; we might say they were the people up in the stands —[Interruption.] I did not mean that offensively.

I am confident because there are many good people in the north of Ireland who want the agreement to work. They want devolution to work. They want north-south development, through the Assembly, to work. They want to experience the sense of pride that Northern Ireland people can fairly and effectively administer their affairs. I am not confusing good people with people who think as I do or who believe what I believe; there are many good people right across the board who genuinely believe that the principle of consent is the cement that will bind the people of the whole of Ireland, north and south, into a people at peace with themselves and with others.

Even as we approach what I hope will be a new electoral situation and a renewed establishment of the political process, I have no doubt that the trust and confidence required are being, and will be, put to the test. There are images in my mind that show how difficult it will be for good and brave people inside and outside politics in Northern Ireland. Those good people in Unionism and in nationalism will have to look at some of the things that are happening around them and face those things down.

The question put by the Good Friday agreement is whether those involved in violence can be regarded as genuine political partners in the creation of lasting peace and a wholly new political dispensation. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that that can be so. Among the images that I recall, just from the past few weeks, is that of the body of Jean McConville, found at Shelling Hill beach—a place I know well. I remember, too, the awesome comment of one of her relations that she was identified because the cardigan found in her sandy grave was her only cardigan. That is some comment on those who murdered Jean McConville, those who gave the instruction to murder her and those who belong to the organisation that killed that lady. Why? Because she was a person of compassion and humanity and gave comfort and help to a dying soldier on the streets of the city in which she lived. That image does not do much for confidence.

I recall a photograph of four Sinn Fein TDs, pictured in Castlerea prison with the murderers of Jerry McCabe, the garda killed outside Limerick. Four Members of Parliament went to that prison to be photographed with the men who murdered one of the Garda Siochana and published the picture in An Phoblacht to be gloated over. That is how they feel. Multiply one Jerry McCabe by every policeman killed in the north of Ireland and you see the extent to which those two images alone put the fingers in the eyes of good people in the Unionist community and good people in the nationalist community who want a different and new way of life.

Mr. Dodds

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mallon

I will give way in just one second.

There will be such an occasion in Letterkenny, when a reunion of those who escaped from Crumlin Road prison will take place. There will be dancing and singing, photographs and gloating, and others will be reminded of their tragedies. I ask this question, simply because it has to be asked: is that the way to create trust and confidence in the Unionist community about a new electoral situation and a new administration? Is that the way to create confidence in the nationalist community that, in effect, a new way of life is coming from the political process?

Add to that the fact that Father Dan White received death threats because he had the audacity to carry out a religious service in a graveyard in Greyabbey. Add to that the desecration of headstones at the small parish church at Ballyargan in my own parish at the weekend. And add to that the threats to brave people who sit on the policing partnership boards from, in the words of the Chief Constable, the Provisional IRA. All that is sticking fingers in people's eyes. I believe that those things have got to be looked at. I will give way now, but I want to expand further on that if I may.

Mr. Dodds

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is right to draw attention in such a forceful way to the issues that he highlights. On the issue of the Sinn Fein TDs photographed with those responsible for the murder of Garda McCabe, does the hon. Gentleman understand the outrage felt by the families of RUC officers murdered in Northern Ireland who have seen the murderers of their loved ones released and set free, yet people in the Irish Republic—politicians, newspapers and others—say what an outrage it is even for Sinn Fein TDs to be photographed with the perpetrators of such violence? The hon. Gentleman and other Members voted for the release of prisoners—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I have allowed some latitude to the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that other hon. Members will bear in mind just what we are discussing today.

Mr. Mallon

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), who asks a valid question. Do I understand? Yes, I think I understand, but this is not just about understanding; it is about feeling. In my view, this is something that transcends understanding, and perhaps that will take us further than a lot of the analysis that we impose on things.

I have mentioned certain visual images. I hope that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) does not mind that I refer to this, but his churches have been attacked—desecrated—in Counties Monaghan and Cork. I include that with the other images as a means of saying to all of us and to myself that, while we recognise that the creation of peace and the creation of new political institutions have created a moral quagmire for all of us, it is the responsibility of politics to proceed, not to be bogged down in that moral quagmire. In my view, the business of politics will survive.

Politics is about compromise. It is about arbitration. It is about giving a little and getting a little. It is about understanding the other person's position. It is about leaving the other person with enough to ensure that self-respect is not taken away. It is about all those things. It is not about always winning.

I recently noticed a newspaper article by Professor John Murphy. I forget whom he attributed the quote to, but it was this: God cannot change what happened in the past—historians, revisionists and spin doctors can. And they are doing it now. The awfulness of what we are talking about, and the awfulness of the moral quagmire that the good people in the political parties and in the community must wade through rather than get bogged down, is that those who carried out the murders of Jean McConville and young Columba McVeigh—they are digging for his body not far from where I live now—are lionised and heroised. Their dealings and activities are airbrushed in such a way that, in effect, they become folk heroes within their own country. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said previously that history will blame. Unfortunately, the most recent part of history does not. It lionises those who use violence. It makes them the pin-up boys of the political process and it gives to them an aura that they simply do not deserve. That is another problem that the good people in the political process will have to see down and see out, and live with it in such a way that we can bury it eventually by creating the type of society that we want.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Should not my hon. Friend's words be heard particularly by one or two who can find kind words for the IRA—[Interruption.] I repeat: should not his words be heard by those who have said one or two kinds words about the IRA?

Mr. Mallon

If I were to answer my hon. Friend's question, I would be here a long time. I would apply those words especially, however, in generic terms, to the media in Ireland and in Britain. Could I apply them also to those commentators in Ireland and in Britain who see something exciting about the whiff of cordite and who are prepared to airbrush the awfulness out of their considerations? May I refer them with the greatest of respect to two sovereign Governments and simply say that the more that those who carry out acts of violence become the beneficiaries—in many ways, the gratuitous beneficiaries—of political negotiations, the more the good people in the political process in Ireland, be they Unionist or nationalist, are sacrificed? I therefore thank my hon. Friend for his question. Those are harsh and difficult words to say, but if we are to get beyond this moral quagmire into real development as a people and in terms of a political process, we must say them.

I want to make one or two observations about the legislation. As I said earlier—I could not believe the hornet's nest that I was raising—we are dealing not just with this Bill, but with the draft international agreement, which has established the functions. I will not go through that again. I simply raise the issue because of the distinction, which I believe was confirmed by the Government spokesman in the House of Lords— I am convinced of this, and it is the advice that I have received—that the international commission receives its functions from the agreement between the two Governments, not from the legislative process in which we are engaged here. Consequently, any changes in or to the functions cannot be dealt with in Committee. If I am wrong, I have got it terribly wrong and the Government spokesman misled the House of Lords. I have far too much respect for him as a person and for his intellect to believe that that would be the case.

Lembit Öpik


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


Mr. Mallon

I give way to the Minister. Ladies first.

Jane Kennedy

I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend, but it would help me to understand the point to which he and others have already drawn attention if he could give me the column reference from the Lords Hansard. I would then be able to read it and perhaps respond.

Mr. Mallon

So that there is no lack of clarity, I make it clear that the remarks appeared at column 667 of the Lords Official Report on Monday 15 September.

Lembit Öpik

Surely in any practical sense it is reasonable for us to assume that the will of this House can be seen to prevail. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) certainly made the point that this is the sovereign court of the laws of the United Kingdom. For all practical purposes, we can proceed on the assumption that if the House votes in a certain way, it can be taken as the outcome of our deliberations and that will stand in the eyes of our national and international colleagues.

Mr. Mallon

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but the conclusion will have no legal effect. [Interruption.] I hear someone suggesting that that is ridiculous, and perhaps it is. However, that is the reality. I am not a lawyer, but there are many eminent lawyers on these Benches. There are those who properly advise Lord Williams. I do not make my point in a legalistic sense because there is a reason for my wanting to make a change in relation to the functions.

Mr. Quentin Davies

The hon. Gentleman has just said that a decision of Parliament has no legal effect. Of course, that is absurd. Only decisions of Parliament can have legal effect in this country. It may well be that the opposite of what he has said is the case, namely that if Parliament takes certain decisions that have a legal effect, that may invalidate other documents. That is a very different matter.

Mr. Mallon

I take that point, so perhaps I should at this stage explain the reasons for my belief. In response to an amendment tabled by Lord Maginnis of Drumglass, Lord Williams of Mostyn said: Therefore, however much one sympathises with the thinking behind it, the amendment would have no legal effect. Later in the same column, he repeats that point. He said: So if the amendment were carried it would have no legal effect." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 667.] That may or may not be the case, but I happen to believe that it is.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

I think that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his analysis of the words spoken by Lord Williams of Mostyn. However, I also think that Lord Williams is absolutely wrong. This is probably the most significant point that we will deal with today in relation to a Bill that may not ultimately have short to medium-term importance. Lord Williams was speaking about the exercise of a function by the Executive, but the Executive only have the powers that this place gives them. If this place declines to ratify an act by the Executive, that act is surely null and void. To that extent, when the hon. Gentleman says that something that the other place does by way of amendment would have no legal effect, he is wrong.

Mr. Mallon

I am not saying that. I was simply doing what any Member of Parliament would do by reading what a Government spokesman said. What he said was either right or wrong—I shall leave it to hon. and learned Members to sort that out.

The issue is important to me because when I read the draft agreement, I noticed one great omission. That has caused my difficulty because I would not have gone down this road at all were it not for that. Article 4 of the draft agreement specifies the things that are to be monitored, which include attacks on security forces, murders, sectarian attacks, involvement in riots, other offences, training and targeting. They all appear in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, but there is one exception: organised crime.

Given Northern Ireland's post-ceasefire experiences, why has organised crime been omitted? Living where I live and coming from where I do, I can tell hon. Members that organised crime is the greatest source of benefit for paramilitary groups because it gives them unlimited money to follow their paramilitary activities and objectives and the money is also channelled into their political objectives. It perverts the society in which racketeering exists to the extent that it does in the north of Ireland and changes and perverts the approach in society. It has a long-term effect and it will take decades before parts of the north of Ireland recover from it, if they ever do. I have to ask again why there is such an omission and why I cannot make an amendment. When the lawyers sort this out, we shall see.

Mr. Donaldson

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that he can seek the leave of the House to table a manuscript amendment? He would have support on this side of the House if he tabled such an amendment, given that he has not already done so.

Mr. Mallon

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann smiled whimsically at me when he heard the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) saying that I might get support. The right hon. Gentleman sometimes recognises what that is worth.

I shall leave it to the lawyers to sort out the situation but in addition to defrauding the Exchequer, creating a mafia culture in our society and perverting the democratic standards for decades to come, organised crime will fill political coffers north and south of the border in a way with which the Bill should deal.

There is a serious second issue, although perhaps it is not as dramatic. Again, no attempt has been made to deal properly with the failure to fulfil properly functions in the Executive. The joint declaration at Hillsborough said that the body will also have a more general responsibility to consider claims by any party in the Assembly that another party is fundamentally in breach of requirements in the Declaration of Support or elsewhere in the Agreement. The words have been changed so that the draft agreement says: has failed to observe any other terms of the pledge of office". There is a substantive difference. The question of the difference between the pledge of office and the duty of office has still not been resolved. It could have been resolved under the terms of the wording of the joint declaration at Hillsborough, in my view. Again, it is questionable. It is a legal matter. It cannot be done in relation to this, in terms of the pledge of office, rather than the duty of office.

I have already alluded to my third point and will not labour it. There is something weak inherently and something wrong fundamentally, when a political process has to go to a Secretary of State to sort out its problems and has to appoint commissioners from America, the Republic of Ireland, Canada, Finland—name any country in the world and we have commissioners from it—rather than sorting it out ourselves. I very much regret that the cross-community support element can be superseded by a decision of the Secretary of State. I think that I understand the reason for it—I am sure I do—but it tells us something about ourselves.

Mr. Dodds

Does the hon. Gentleman think it is right that those who are supposedly or allegedly in breach of political obligations should be treated in the same way and possibly have the same sanctions applied against them, for taking a principled political position, as those who are alleged to have taken part in criminal or terrorist activity or who are associated with those who do? Is it right that the same sanctions should be applied in both cases?

Mr. Mallon

The hon. Gentleman is asking me to quantify guilt. The reality is that it is not possible. If he is asking me whether it is as damaging, it is not—that is obvious—but is it in the best interests of the political process?

I leave it to people to try to resolve at some time the distinction between the pledge of office and the duty of office, because until we do it will be a running sore.

Mr. Peter Robinson

The hon. Gentleman is on record that, during the lifetime of the Executive, he sought to have excluded from the Executive my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and me because we would not sit down at the Executive table with Sinn Fein, yet at the same time the hon. Gentleman did not go after Sinn Fein and its association with the IRA. How could he try to have the Democratic Unionist party, as democrats, removed but not Sinn Fein?

Mr. Mallon

For obvious reasons, I did not table anything in relation to the hon. Gentleman's position. I did not table anything in relation to the Sinn Fein position. As I said earlier, I made an offer that failed on both counts but surely when there is a failure properly to fulfil the duties that are required, as in attending North/South Ministerial Council meetings, that is a breach of the duty of office, however one semantically argues about the pledge of office.

Rev. Ian Paisley

The hon. Gentleman is on record that the agreement was to bring about an inclusive Government. I have heard him say it, I have heard him preach it. Why now is he so anxious to exclude people who are not engaged in violence, who are not leading people on to kill one another but simply want to have the basic democratic principles upheld, which are, as set out by the Prime Minister, that one is not expected to sit down with people in Government and pretend that one can do something, because one must have faith that everyone in that Government has said goodbye to violence and wants democracy to have the ascendancy?

Mr. Mallon

I do not want the exclusion of the hon. Gentleman's party or any party. I want the adherence of all parties to the title duties required in the political arrangement and the agreement. and the adherence of all parties to the crucial point of non-violence. I want a situation in which the hon. Gentleman's party and all political parties in the north of Ireland are inclusively involved in trying to create something that is new and that can give us a new way of life. I am confident that that can happen, and to maintain that confidence I have to believe that inclusivity means serving in an Executive, an assembly, committees and every walk of political life with people whom one may not particularly like, including those who in the past have carried out atrocities. That is what inclusivity means, and that is the moral quagmire that I spoke about earlier.

We must consider which is the more powerful position—not moving out of the moral quagmire because of one's perception of one's own rectitude or having the courage to move out of the moral swamp, and biting one's lip as one goes to do something that will put an end to the swamp. It is easy for all of us to become self-righteous and stay in the swamp because of our beliefs, principles and self-righteousness. However, people of courage get out of the swamp and do difficult things like trying to reach an accommodation, even with people whom they find revolting. That is the challenge that we face, and that is what this is all about.

Finally, I shall return to the good people in the north of Ireland in all political parties who, I hope, will shortly have the opportunity in an election and subsequently to get out of that moral quagmire. If they do so, their contribution to this period of Irish history will be enormous.

4.42 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I expressed reservations about the allocation of time motion in our first debate, but I am now concerned that if everyone who wishes to speak in this debate does so we will not complete Second Reading before 10.27 pm. However, we will see what happens.

I should like to underline something that arose in our discussion of the motion that is relevant to Second Reading and has direct implications for the process that we are debating. My biggest reservation about completing all the Bill's stages in one day is the fact that it leaves no time for reflection between Second Reading and Committee, and between Committee and Report. Quite apart from the fact that the purpose of the Report stage has been virtually invalidated, it would have been better if the Government had allowed themselves room to manoeuvre on something that is evidently contentious. On balance, they could have saved time by allowing us to have the sort of dialogue that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said would be helpful.

Notwithstanding my reservations, I should like to set out the Liberal Democrat view of the Bill, highlighting the things with which we agree and areas that, should we reach a discussion of amendments, we may be able to discuss in more detail.

First, I must take issue with something that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said. He described, as he often does, the five cardinal sins committed by the Government with regard to Northern Ireland policy. I humbly suggest that the one cardinal sin that he committed was to attempt to take credit for other people's ideas. He said that on 16 July last year he proposed the arrangements that we are discussing today. I am sure that he will remember that 12 days previous to that, around 4 July 2002, the sister party of the Liberal Democrats, the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, suggested something similar in the Hillsborough talks. I am sure the Alliance party of Northern Ireland would welcome the Conservatives' support for the idea, but it a bit cheeky for the Conservatives to suggest that they came up with it first, when the Alliance party has consistently suggested such ideas, perhaps not realising that it was being watched so closely from across the water.

David Burnside

On the subject of the Liberal Democrats' contribution to new ideas, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that one of the more constructive ideas in recent years from their sister party, the Alliance party, was the contribution from Seamus Close, who suggested that if Sinn Fein cannot turn into a democratic party, we might have to move towards a weighted majority representing both the Unionist and the nationalist community? Perhaps that is the position to which we are now moving.

Lembit Öpik

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of cross-community support for legislation, which touches on the present debate. Seamus Close was right to raise that for consideration. We are acutely aware of the sensitivities involved, and the SDLP would no doubt have much to say about the abandonment of that principle. My personal feeling and the view of the Liberal Democrats is that at this point it would be premature to abandon the principle on a wholesale basis, because it underpins a large part of what has been shown to be successful in forcing the many different parties in Northern Ireland to work together.

I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's concern, and I am sure that he could give examples of business being held up by the need for cross-community support, but it is probably more necessary to have that brake in the system than expedient to remove it at this stage. If one considers the history of the Good Friday agreement and the Assembly, one realises that a great deal has been achieved through consensus, but of course that is not reported in the news so much because it is not controversial. In domestic and social policy, the cross-community requirement has served to improve the quality of the legislation passed, and has certainly improved the prospects of ensuring that decisions made in the Assembly have cross-community applicability. For those reasons, I would resist such change.

It is necessary for the Assembly and all of us to allow space for blue-sky thinking so that more controversial and creative thoughts can come forward. In such a debate, we may come across third alternatives that win on all sides.

I remind the House what the Alliance party was suggesting—that the two Governments appoint an independent person of domestic and international standing to monitor paramilitary activities in Northern Ireland. That was originally conceived as a means whereby domestic and political pressure could be brought to bear on those engaged in sinister deeds and deeds detrimental to the normalisation of the Province. It was not so much about catching people out in order to impose sanctions as about embarrassing groups into changing their undesirable actions. Sanctions are only a backstop in the event that people do not change their behaviour, and with sanctions come all the dangers about which we have heard from the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon).

I welcome the recent announcement of the four commissioners. The Secretary of State went into some detail about Commander Grieve, Mr. Brosnan, Mr. Kerr and my noble Friend Lord Alderdice. In my judgment, they have the background, the experience and the authority and respect to ensure that the commission undertakes its role efficiently and effectively. I congratulate the Government on convincing them to take on the role, which was probably more difficult than deciding who would perform it. It is reassuring to know that the tasks of the monitoring commission in investigating paramilitary activity, security normalisation and parties' political commitments will be undertaken by such distinguished persons. I was slightly concerned that we were heading down the path of becoming the appointments panel en masse. Giving 659 politicians the potential to make such appointments will guarantee that we never achieve consensus. To that extent, I am willing to tolerate the concession to the political hierarchy of accepting that the decisions will be made by a small number of individuals connected with the Northern Ireland Office.

In another place, concerns were expressed about the powers of the Secretary of State. Given the Liberal Democrats' involvement in tabling an amendment on that matter, I feel that it is appropriate to raise it now, not least because the Secretary of State himself was silent about it. There was unease about the feeling that the Bill as it stood did not give the Secretary of State the freedom to work positively, ahead of the monitoring commission, if he or she felt that some people or parties in the Assembly were not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. While we appreciated those concerns, my noble Friends in the other place were especially concerned that the commission and Assembly should not be sidelined by any remedy in that regard.

As I said, we support the commission, and we are firm supporters of devolution. As such, we believe that it is vital to tie the Assembly into the process of any exclusion or strategically important decision that is made, for example, by the Secretary of State. In essence, we are saying that it is essential that the democratically elected body in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to discuss the exclusion of a Minister from its own Executive.

A range of amendments was tabled in an attempt to address that concern. My noble Friends did not feel able to support the amendments tabled by the Conservatives or Ulster Unionists as they thought that they were too wide, strong and exclusive of the Assembly and the independent monitoring commission to be acceptable. As I said, we believe that it is crucial that both those bodies are involved in any sanctions. That is why my noble Friends tabled an amendment attempting to do two things—address the concerns expressed about the Secretary of State's ability to act, and ensure the integrity of the monitoring commission and the Assembly in any decision that is made. The amendment was agreed and is now part of clause 6.

With the amendment in place, the Secretary of State would indeed be able to exclude Ministers or junior Ministers from office if he felt that there were exceptional circumstances. That would include a situation in which something happened and he felt it prudent to act immediately without waiting for a report from the commission or for the Assembly to discuss the exclusion. There could subsequently be a space of 24 hours before the Assembly could discuss a motion seeking to exclude Ministers, or perhaps a few days. Let us remember that a week is a very long time in politics. We have seen many times in Northern Ireland a situation that began in tension ending in crisis within hours or days.

That is why we felt that it was appropriate to table an amendment seeking to ensure that the Secretary of State could exclude a Minister from the Executive, but only for a period of two weeks. In that time, the commission would report. Frankly, if something so monumental had happened that the Secretary of State chose to act without reference to the commission, I have no doubt that it would certainly want to investigate and report on it. The Assembly would also debate it. If there is any concern that the Assembly would not discuss exclusion, the Secretary of State can serve a notice on the presiding officer requiring him to table an exclusion motion. There is no question but that a debate could be secured in the Assembly in that period.

Mr. Quentin Davies

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, because of an amendment to the Liberal Democrat amendment tabled by my noble Friend Lord Glentoran, which was agreed, the Secretary of State will have the power of exclusion for two weeks, and the two contingences to which he refers are included in the possibilities involved when the Secretary of State exercises his judgment, albeit that he can do so without those contingencies if he so wishes? That is a very important point.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about claiming credit for the idea of exclusion, before I brought the proposal to the House, over several weeks previously, I discussed the matter in detail, as I always would do, with parties in Northern Ireland, including the Alliance party, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist party. If a member of the Alliance party made a statement about exclusion in the days before the debate, he might have been not uninfluenced by his discussion with me in the preceding period.

Lembit Öpik

I recall the occasion when the hon. Gentleman suggested that Sinn Fein, and perhaps the IRA, had crumbled from their stubborn position on a matter of important policy because—I do not quote him exactly, but this is close to what he said—the Conservatives had chosen to debate it on an Opposition day.

I applaud optimism. Indeed, as a Liberal Democrat I am a perpetual optimist, not least in regard to a by-election that will take place tomorrow. I will leave it not just to Members here but to the Alliance party, whose members assiduously read the Hansard reports of all our proceedings, to decide who is right and who is wrong: but if it can be shown that the hon. Gentleman was the architect of this inspirational idea, in a spirit of fairness I shall buy him a gin and tonic when we return from the recess, however damaging that may be to my social credibility.

The hon. Gentleman made a substantive point as well. It would, I think, be very undesirable for the Secretary of State to operate unilaterally, without respect for the commission or indeed the Assembly. As ever, there is a degree of interpretation—and there will always be a degree of precedent—governing how an amendment or legislation is established; but just as I have no doubt that the commission would report very shortly after any period of exclusion implemented by the Secretary of State, I consider it pretty much inconceivable that any Secretary of State could withstand the pressure to ensure that it did report, and that the Assembly—if it was sitting—had an opportunity to discuss the report. Failure to do so would not just be disrespectful to the democratically elected body in Northern Ireland; it would make a mockery of the Bill.

In the event of the Assembly's failure to achieve cross-community support for an exclusion motion, the decision would revert to the Secretary of State under clause 5. While giving the Secretary of State a certain amount of discretion, the clause ensures that both the commission and the Assembly are ultimately included in any decision about the exclusion of Ministers from office. The Liberal Democrats consider the involvement of those bodies to be critical.

I realise that there will be some discussion about the latitude within which we can operate. I am aware of the tensions and pressures affecting others involved in this debate, not least politicians in Dublin. I sincerely hope that Ministers will accept their responsibility to ensure that any dialogue with key decision makers, here and in Dublin, that is needed to bring about consensus in favour of the Bill will indeed take place.

It is here that the compressed time scale is perhaps most critical. The Government, having decided in their wisdom to compress the entire debate into nine continuous hours, must also take responsibility for ensuring that our partners in the peace process are involved directly and expeditiously in the ironing out of any problems caused by pressures. Obviously, I hope that there will be no such pressures, but I do not think anyone other than the Government is responsible for disposing of them, given that the Government have chosen to truncate a process that was designed specifically to ensure that no such pressures would arise as a result of our decisions.

Another key point relates to pensions. I have raised it before, and I hope that if we have an opportunity to discuss the amendments in detail the Minister will provide a plausible explanation for the fact that salaries can be curtailed while pensions are untouched. It massively reduces the credibility of the sanction to say "You will suffer in the present, but in the long term you need not worry, because on the day you retire you will receive everything that would have come to you if you had not been mucking about." Ministers should perhaps consider whether there are grounds for changing the relevant provision, perhaps today on Report. Indeed, if that is possible we need not hold up the very tight agenda that the Government have presented us with.

It is clear that the Bill's essential purpose is to act as a confidence-building measure for all in Northern Ireland. Matters of interest to everyone in the community will be investigated and reported. Paramilitary activity, security normalisation and any claims that a political party is not observing the pledge of office can come, as I understand it, under the commission's remit. I hope that, in considering the Bill's provisions so quickly, we have not missed some crucial points, thereby making it less effective.

Andrew Mackinlay

As I understand it—this is really a question for Front Benchers—a Minister's allegedly not fulfilling the pledge of office is one of the issues reserved for the two UK-appointed commissioners. If one were indisposed, could the other act alone—in other words, is the quorum one? Do they have to meet formally, or can they communicate by post, telegraph or pigeon? This is a very real point: do the two British commissioners dealing with strand 1 institutional issues have to come together, or can one of them act alone?

Lembit Öpik

I shall let the Minister respond to that point. Such salient and practical matters need at least to be put on the record to provide guidance for the future.

This is a confidence-building measure, but as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford rightly said, the most confidence-damaging measure of late was probably the postponement of the elections, and in that regard I am forced to agree with him about the fifth cardinal sin committed by the Government. They have postponed the elections twice, and there is little confidence in the Province that they would not be comfortable with doing so again. As he correctly pointed out, that takes the heat off, in terms of focusing on garnering support in the constituencies. We will all agree that it would be totally unacceptable for the Government to choose the election date to try to achieve a particular political outcome, just as they would never dream of doing so on the mainland, on the occasion of a general election. Of course, the difference in Northern Ireland is that they have to change the law to change the election date, which is a serious business indeed. Liberal Democrats do not consider it acceptable to change the election date, but we also feel that the Government have to climb the mountain of credibility again whenever they talk about confidence-building measures. That is a great shame.

We agree in principle with this measure, which goes beyond the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That Act dealt with exclusion but only the Assembly could exclude, and there was no censure resolution or financial penalties. So this Bill has gone further, and in our view the amendment to it could be regarded in the same category as the censure resolution and financial penalties.

I hope that the Minister can answer our questions, that we get further reassurance about the election date, that we get some perspective on the amendment passed in the other place, and that the question asked by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is answered. I hope, too, that we are all looking for solutions rather than victories, and that we recognise that no single measure will be successful if people set their faces against getting an effective Assembly up and running in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh pointed out, however hard we try in this place, we are talking about a contrivance that requires a positive attitude to make it work. Still, Liberal Democrats feel that if this Bill succeeds in moving our attitude forward by increasing the mutual good faith that exists in the Province—thereby ensuring that we get back to the democratic process, which must run hand in hand with the peace process—at a strategic level it is worth passing it.