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Column 58In response to views that were expressed by Opposition Members from a sedentary position, the Secretary of State said that no repudiation of violence is included in the declaration. The truth is that the declaration which appears in the Minister's letter, the explanatory notes, the Secretary of State's remarks in the House and in the Bill itself, and which purports to be a declaration against terrorism, is not a declaration against terrorism. One does not need to declare oneself opposed to a proscribed organisation. That is not included in the delaration in the Bill. If it is a declaration against anything, it is a declaration against publicly announcing support for terrorism. If it were the former, I should be happier to give full and whole-hearted support to the measure. That is the weakness of the legislation--that it is not what it purports to be.
It is hypocritical for the Government to suggest to Unionist councillors that, even with this piece of legislation helping the situation to whatever extent it may, they should calmly and rationally debate local government issues with members of Sinn Fein while the Secretary of State and his Ministers refuse to do that self-same thing about self-same issues. I urge the Secretary of State to treat elected representatives in Northern Ireland as he would wish to be treated. If Sinn Fein members are unclean for Stormont castle, they should be considered unclean for council chambers in Northern Ireland.
The answer--the Government cannot dodge it--must be the proscription of the organisation concerned. If the Secretary of State would consider with me for a moment the effect that that would have on Northern Ireland, he would see that there would be many beneficial side-effects. For the first time, the people of Northern Ireland would see determination and resolve on the part of the Government to take any measure, no matter how unpopular it would be with some hon. Members. They would see that the Government are prepared to take the necessary action to make it clear to the community that there is no place in our council chambers for terrorists or supporters of terrorists.
Let us be clear about what Sinn Fein is. It is not simply a support organisation for the Provisional IRA. It is an integral part of the Provisional IRA. Its constitutional and organisational structure demonstrates that Sinn Fein councillors are directly under the control of local IRA commanders. That is clear evidence that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA are one and the same entity. If the Secretary of State does not want to take my word for that, he can look up the Baker report on terrorism, in which it was stated that that is the position. The report almost urges the proscription of that organisation.
I have some sympathy--certainly on an academic level--with the view of a Labour Secretary of State who said that, if we could encourage people away from violence and into the political process, we should do so. It was on that basis that de-proscription took place. That Secretary of State considered that, if Sinn Fein were allowed to grow as a political party, its representatives and councillors would move away from the spoils of violence towards the political process, thereby undermining the Provisional IRA and, obviously, reducing violence in Northern Ireland. Academically, many people could embrace that argument, but it has not happened. The direct opposite has happened. The political process has been used to bolster the Provisional IRA's terrorist campaign.
Column 59The quotation that the present Secretary of State used in his remarks clearly shows that the Government see it as a step-by-step parallel process, pushing the political wing along with the military wing of the Provisional IRA--the ballot paper and the Armalite policy. It is totally inconsistent--indeed, it is absurd--to continue to allow people who are clearly identified with a terrorist organisation to parade in council chambers as though they were interested in the day-to-day welfare of their electorate. Instead of a strong Bill that would have given life to the Government's rhetoric, we have a limp, lukewarm, lifeless measure that is neither fish nor fowl. At its heart is the declaration which does not live up to its title. My colleagues will seek to amend it so that it becomes a declaration against terrorism and I trust that there will be some opportunity at a later stage to do that.
Clause 6(1)(b) shows the whole purpose behind the declaration against terrorism. The declaration, which should be a declaration against support for terrorism, will be breached if a person supports a proscribed organisation or terrorist act
"(i) at a public meeting, or
(ii) knowing, or in such circumstances that he can reasonably be expected to know, that the fact that he has made that expression of support or approval is likely to become known to the public." That means that the Government do not object to a person expressing privately by word or deed his support for a terrorist
organisation--that is consistent with membership of a local government authority in Northern Ireland. It is only when a person steps into the public arena and shows his support for that organisation that he runs foul of this legislation.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) said that some members of Sinn Fein may be prepared to sign this declaration. Of course they will be. There is no reason why they should not. Without being dishonest in the least, a gunman or bomber could sign that declaration. It does not ask him not to bomb or shoot again. It asks him only not to support that sort of activity publicly. Therefore, Sinn Fein members will find no difficulty in signing the declaration.
The declaration takes us only one step on and, like many hon. Members, I believe that Sinn Fein members will sign it. Sinn Fein members are elected to district councils and, careful and well trained though they may be in getting round legal niceties, with the passage of time one or another is likely to offend under this legislation and say something that will give rise to a court case. Who will take the action? It will not be the Director of Public Prosecutions, because it is not to be considered a criminal matter. I should be interested to hear from the Minister where the support came from for dealing with this as a civil matter. I have not heard of any great pressure on the Government or the Minister to treat this as a civil matter. I do not necessarily object to it being dealt with either as a criminal or civil case--if the DPP declines to take a case, I am certainly in favour of civil recourse--but I cannot understand why the DPP should not have a role. If the DPP is not to be given a role, we had better be clear what we are asking local government representatives and local electors to do--we are asking them to sign their own death warrants.
Column 60The first case will be the test case. The first person to take a case against a Sinn Fein councillor had better keep his head down, because Sinn Fein will want to dissuade anyone else from following that path. That is not to say that there are not people with sufficient backbone to stand up to the PIRA and Sinn Fein and take that action, but why is it necessary for them to do so when there is not only the option of this being a criminal matter, but other options?
Mr. Robinson : It is likely that Sinn Fein representatives will be elected in predominantly Nationalist areas. That means that we shall be talking about councils such as Omagh, Strabane and perhaps Londonderry, where there is a Nationalist majority. It is unlikely that a council with a Nationalist majority will take any court action against a Sinn Fein member for remarks that he or she may make. Other councils will have great difficulty in taking such action. A Belfast council, for example, cannot take such action against a councillor from Omagh or Strabane who makes such a remark.
Mr. Robinson : Yes, but they fall back into the category of people who are putting their lives on the line. Many will be prepared to do that. I am not suggesting that because the Government have specified these categories no one will take such action--some will--but by specifying only these categories the Government are putting the lives of elected representatives and others in danger.
Both Unionist parties asked the Government to consider proscription and certainly to make this a criminal offence and therefore a matter which could be pursued by the DPP. If the Government are not prepared to do that, they must seriously consider setting up a body which can be regarded as a commission. In that way, people who have a complaint about the remarks of an elected representative can take it to that body, which will be sufficiently financed by the Government to provide the legal advice necessary to institute a prosecution and which will have the authority to take any further action in accordance with this legislation. It is far easier to ask people who live in safer areas of the Province to take this sort of stand than to leave it to those who are necessarily in the front line. I urge the Government to consider those aspects in Committee.
As a district council can bring an action against a council representative for his views, why did the Minister exclude the Assembly from taking such an action against an Assembly Member for his remarks? I should have thought that the same entitlement would have fallen on the Assembly. I know that the Assembly is not of immediate concern because it is not an immediate prospect, but I should like to have the Government's thinking on that.
Clause 6(4) makes it clear that an Assembly Member who makes such remarks in the Northern Ireland Assembly will not be protected by the privilege of that Assembly. Does that mean that an elected representative in this House would be protected by the privilege of this House? Are elected representatives from Northern Ireland who make such remarks in this House in a special category
Column 61in that they cannot be caught under this legislation? If I were the creature that the Front Bench Opposition spokesman thinks I am and wished to make a remark which would offend under this legislation, all that I would have to do is make the remark in this House--then nobody could do a thing about it because the privilege of this House would protect me.
My colleagues and I feel that while this legislation started out for the right purpose, it has been weakened considerably.
Mr. William Ross : Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the question of who may bring a case, will he draw attention to the sheer cost of bringing such a case? Although the IRA and its mouthpiece, Sinn Fein, will always claim not to recognise British courts, we can be sure that they will recognise British courts for this. The first test case will probably end up in the other place and cost a huge sum. An individual bringing such a case may have means such as to place him outside the legal aid provisions and thus be unable to afford to do so. Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister who is liable to pay if a council loses the case? That will be fairly contentious because of the wording of the legislation. Moreover, the Government are continually trying to cut the money that councils can spend and the purposes on which they can spend it.
Mr. Robinson : The cost, as the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) suggested, could be considerable. The Secretary of State has said in the explanatory notes and in the Bill itself that legal aid will be available, but what percentage of councillors will be eligible for legal aid? Will a councillor who is entitled to bring an action under the Bill also be eligible for legal aid? The Secretary of State may say that a council can bring an action as a legitimate item of expenditure, but if such an action failed, the local government auditor might say at the end of the financial year that the council's action had been frivolous and that there should be a surcharge as a result. That would be a disincentive to many councillors who might otherwise consider bringing an action. That is why I have suggested that, if the Government want to get to grips with the matter, there should be a body funded by the Government to bring such actions. It would be in a better financial position to do so, it could stand up better to IRA terrorism and it would be better equipped to obtain the necessary legal advice to pursue the case. The question of finance is important.
I suspect--although I have no firm proof of this--that the Government will resist the idea that the matter should be dealt with through criminal prosecution and that it will be left to civil action. The Government have ducked out and left others to carry on the front-line work. The Bill should be strengthened. In its present form, it will be ineffective and unlikely to have more than a marginal impact on local government. I am disappointed in the Bill, but I am prepared to ensure that amendments are tabled in Committee by myself and by other hon. Members from Northern Ireland and I hope that there will be a blood transfusion to give the Bill more life, vitality and strength.
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Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : I am delighted that this matter is being dealt with through a Bill and not, as is generally the case, by an order that applies to Northern Ireland. That is a relief.
To understand why the Bill is necessary, one should consider the motives of local government councillors before the 1985 local government elections. At that time, district and borough councillors felt that it was their public duty to serve the local community, even though that meant more kicks than ha'pence--that is, roughly translated, more criticism than salary. Although it was felt--and still is--that councillors had little power, there was generally a surplus of candidates who were anxious to use their expertise, such as business men, teachers, trade unionists and farmers. They wanted to make a contribution to the local administration.
I speak from personal experience, as I have met many local councillors. In May 1981, I was elected to the Newtownabbey borough council and, with 20 other councillors, I began to look after a limited number of responsibilities for the area in which I was born. As the House has heard before, those responsibilities were, basically, emptying bins, providing recreation facilities and burying the dead--not necessarily in that order.
We also had a consultative role in a number of other matters, but we quickly became aware that consultation was usually another word for confirming departmental decisions that the council had no power to change. Nevertheless, because of the good personal relationships between councillors, it was an enjoyable and instructive experience. In spite of our frustration about the absence of power, the council, as a corporate body, carried out its functions with good humour and togetherness, overcoming differing party views and generally reaching decisions which were for the good of the whole community. That happy state of affairs lasted until 9 May 1985 when, because of my membership of the House, I gave up my council seat to concentrate on my parliamentary duties, thus making way for another candidate to gain valuable experience as a public representative. I took my decision with great regret because of the friendships that I had formed with councillors from all parties. I know that I should have had a similar experience in most local councils in Northern Ireland.
Little did I realise the anger, aggravation, disgust, heartache and high blood pressure that I was to be spared by that decision. In May 1985, seven months before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Sinn Fein candidates stood in local authority elections for the first time since the present troubles began. Of its 59 elected councillors, no fewer than 11 had previously served prison sentences for terrorists crimes. That is hardly surprising when one remembers what the then director of Sinn Fein publicity said during its party conference in 1981--to which the Secretary of State has already referred. Danny Morrison, in addressing the cheering delegates, said :
"Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?" Can anyone be surprised that the arrival of such people in council chambers caused widespread revulsion and apprehension? The vast majority of councillors, regardless of political views, wholly reject violence.
Column 63There is no doubt that the running of the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland has been seriously put at risk by the presence of Sinn Fein in 16 of them. That has had a knock-on effect on the other councils. The Ulster Unionist party fully understands and sympathises with the many decent and moderate councillors who have despaired and who have seriously considered resignation because of the presence of Sinn Fein on the councils since May 1985.
But an even more serious situation has developed among the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland. There is a great risk that unless the Bill is effective enough to satisfy the demands of those decent and moderate citizens upon whom our democracy depends, they will not even consider running for office in the 1989 local government elections. That is an extremely dangerous situation that could have long-term effects for the United Kingdom as a whole, and for Northern Ireland in particular.
We are all well aware of how much local councils depend on attracting able people to run their affairs in a balanced and democratic way. We need young men and women to start their political careers in local government, perhaps eventually ending up in this House. Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult to attract such people into public service while the shadow of the gun and the terrorist hangs over council chambers.
This problem could not continue to be ignored by the Government. When the Secretary of State issued his discussion paper on this matter in October 1987, we said that as a party
"we welcomed this indication that the Government now recognised the obscenity of sustaining a system whereby bona fide elected representatives were forced--by law--to share council chambers with those who would advocate violence in pursuit of political objectives."
We agreed with some of the suggestions in that paper but naturally disagreed with others. We agreed that while it is a fundamental right of democracy that people should be free to participate in elections, it is also reasonable to conclude that that freedom does not include the threat of or the use of violence against political opponents or "challenging democracy" by using the electoral process to undermine democratic institutions. It is a fundamental point that the principle of democracy should not be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
We also agreed that a serious threat to stable local government comes from Sinn Fein, the candidates of which are proud of their open support for the armed struggle. "Armed struggle" is a euphemism for terrorist crime, including the murders carried out by the Provisional IRA. I must point out that the term "stable local government" alludes to a principle--and does not suggest that Northern Ireland enjoys local government comparable to or in line with that of other areas of the United Kingdom.
It is also true that the presence in council chambers of Sinn Fein councillors who are fully committed to supporting a terrorist campaign gives rise to grave alarm among other councillors, especially when the Provisional IRA, which they openly support, has been responsible for the murder of public representatives--I shall name only three : Robert Bradford, Edgar Graham and Charles
Column 64Armstrong, who was the chairman of Armagh council--and when those same Sinn Fein councillors have sought to justify those killings. It must be obvious to everyone who wishes to see it that in such circumstances other council members take the view that information gleaned by such Sinn Fein activists in the course of their elective duties might become available to terrorist organisers. Is it not understandable then that some councils have attempted to solve these problems themselves by procedural devices to overcome such dangers? However, court challenges have rejected the legality of those devices. It becomes essential, therefore, that steps should be taken to give effect to the widely held view that those who condone or support terrorist violence should not be permitted to exploit democratic institutions.
I come now to the part of the Bill that attempts to address those problems and to the declaration which is to be signed by all candidates at local government elections. It seems clear from the wording of the declaration--I shall not weary the House by reading it in full--that a candidate can sign such a declaration and then run a campaign supporting the armed struggle, making it clear when speaking that he or she signed the declaration only to continue their attempts to destroy the very democratic institutions that the declaration is designed to protect. The declaration could also be signed by those with a long track record of violence, for the same reasons. The declaration must be capable of preventing unrepentant supporters of violence from entering council chambers.
The whole reason for the Bill is likely to be called into question if the present wording is not amended because otherwise there is a great danger that the legislation will be rendered completely ineffective by Sinn Fein candidates who, on being elected, blatantly carry on their support for violence, thus challenging other councillors to take them to court. Councillors from constitutional parties must not be put in such a position. The declaration must impose conditions from the date of signing and action must be taken against anyone breaching its terms.
The declaration must be redrafted in a way that will present real difficulties for supporters of terrorism, such as those in Sinn Fein. We must recognise that those who have condoned murder will not, as would honourable men, have any compunction about signing the present declaration. Therefore, it must be redrafted in a way that will thwart the aims and devalue the credibility of those who act as political advocates for terrorist organisations.
The fact that we do not accord those people any credibility must not blind us to the reality that there are those who do. It is for that reason that we suggest that the word "repudiate" be included in the declaration. To require Sinn Fein candidates to repudiate the Provisional IRA would present them with a serious credibility problem. It follows that each proscribed organisation will have to be specified by name in the declaration. Simply leaving it as it is will enable Sinn Fein to say that it considers that the Provisional IRA is not proscribed by any authority that it is willing to recognise. We are obviously unhappy about clause 7, which lists those who would be entitled to bring a councillor to the High Court for a breach of the declaration. Surely it has been insult enough for the Northern Ireland Office to require councillors even to talk to Sinn Fein when Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office rightly refuse to do so, without now asking councillors to take on the role
Column 65of the Director of Public Prosecutions, thus leaving themselves open to the personal expense and danger that would be inseparable from such an act.
We feel strongly that any breach of the declaration must be deemed a criminal offence. There must be no equivocation whatsoever on the issue. The proposed legislation is neither for the convenience nor for the protection of an individual. It should not be portrayed as either a sop to Unionists, hurt by 20 long years of terrorism, nor as a weapon to be placed in the hands of Unionists.
The declaration is urgently required to protect and maintain those electoral processes upon which the democratic system of Government in the United Kingdom is founded. But it is the primary duty of Government to sustain those processes for the benefit of all the electorate. No self- respecting Government could contemplate any abdication of that responsibility. In this House we should say that if the Government make the law, the Government should enforce the law.
We believe that those who terrorise the community by extortion, kangaroo courts, the destruction of property, intimidation of workers and brutal cowardly murder should, along with those who openly support them, be ostracised by all who believe in the democratic process ; otherwise society will be destroyed and we shall inevitably return to the law of the jungle.
Of course we would have wished for greater and more determined efforts to remove the blatant supporters of violence from the ranks of those who prefer the way of democracy. Although we accept the powers in the Bill, which even in its minor way seeks to redress the balance between democracy and terrorism and its supporters, we shall nevertheless seek to strengthen those powers during the passage of the Bill through the House and in Committee.
As a final example of the reasons why this Bill should be introduced, I shall quote an article which appeared in the Belfast News Letter this morning under the heading "Churches in SF boycott". It states :
"Churchmen in Castlederg and Newtownstewart have united against the presence of the Sinn Fein chairman of Strabane council at Christmas ceremonies this week.
Feelings have been running high since the IRA murder in Castlederg a fortnight ago of RUC Reservist Willie Monteith and there is solid opposition to the chairman Ivan Barr, who refused to condemn the atrocity and to be associated with a message of sympathy from the council to the dead policeman's family
A letter from four clergymen in Castlederg has been sent to Strabane district council making it clear they will not share a platform with any person who espouses violence and condones murder. The letter was signed by Rev Denis Anderson (Methodist), the Rev Stewart Jones (Presbyterian), the Rev Patrick Grant (Roman Catholic), and the Rev Walter Quill (Church of Ireland)."
Here I rest my case.
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on introducing this measure through the conventional Bill procedure. I am extremely glad that the Bill will be debated in Standing Committee, that it will then have its Report stage on the Floor of the House, followed by a Third Reading and that there will be an opportunity to amend the Bill further in another place.
Column 66When my right hon. Friend introduced the Bill today, he hinted that it might be the first of a new programme of giving those who represent Northern Ireland and those who represent other parts of the kingdom the same opportunity to debate and to amend proposed legislation for Northern Ireland as that given to us to amend legislation that affects Great Britain.
My right hon. Friend was kind enough to give way to a single intervention from me when I asked whether, as a result of this Bill, there would be the same qualifications for voting at district elections in Northern Ireland as there are for voting at district elections in England, Scotland and Wales. My right hon. Friend did not answer the question, but said that it was a trick question because it came from me.
Of course, it was a totally strightforward question and it was predictable that it would be asked by an hon. Member. If my right hon. Friend had not foreseen that it was likely to be asked, his officials should most certainly have advised him. I have never sought to trick my right hon. Friend and will never do so. In the three and a quarter years since he has been Secretary of State--he arrived in Northern Ireland on the same day that I arrived at the Treasury--I have had the most cordial relationship with my right hon. Friend. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) will respond in a straightforward way to my straightforward question when he replies to the debate.
It is nearly 10 years since the then shadow Cabinet came to decide on its policy towards Northern Ireland. There was a short debate in that Cabinet-- characteristically short, of course, since there were other matters perceived to be of greater moment in the proposals of the incoming Government. In March 1979, the shadow Cabinet agreed to its policy in relation to local government in Northern Ireland, a policy which is now the subject of the Bill. The sentence in the manifesto was clear and unambiguous and you will remember it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It reads :
"In the absence of devolved government, we will seek to establish one or more elected regional councils with a wide range of powers over local services."
Here we are, almost nine years on from May 1979, still in the absence of devolved government, but having abandoned and never having tried to implement precisely that policy. It was not suggested by me at the general election in May 1979, but had been suggested by Airey Neave and had been approved by the then shadow Cabinet.
Since we are debating Northern Ireland, since we are debating local government in Northern Ireland and since the title of the Bill is "Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Bill", it is timely to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary why it is that, although there is still no devolved government in Northern Ireland, we have never made any attempt to implement the policies set out in 1979.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), in a thoughtful and wise speech, which made a deep impression upon the House, referred to his experience as a member of one of the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland. He reminded the House of the difference between the powers conferred upon district councils in Northern Ireland and the powers conferred upon district councils in England, Scotland and Wales. We may wonder why the Bill does not address itself to that difference in powers to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention.
Column 67There is another aspect to this matter. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is on record--she has said it in this House--as saying that Northern Ireland is as much a part of the United Kingdom as any part of the United Kingdom situate in Great Britain. That is not entirely so. Those who live in Gloucestershire and Somerset are able to vote for a county council. The constituents of the hon. Member for Antrim, South cannot vote for a county council. In Scotland, not a single person who qualifies to vote for a parliamentary election does not have the opportunity to vote for a regional council. Only in Northern Ireland are the Queen's subjects denied the right to vote for a county council.
Why do I say that that is relevant to the words of the manifesto? In 1979, we were seeking to set up a regional council or councils in Northern Ireland with widely devolved powers over local matters. The shadow Cabinet believed that that county or regional council should enjoy powers similar to those enjoyed in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Conservative research department--a body with which you will be familiar, Mr. Deputy Speaker--has published for the guidance of members a brief, copies of which can be obtained from the Whips' Office. On the last page of the brief appears an article written by my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State. As one would expect, it is an excellent article, not least because it assists me in the case that I am trying to put.
Writing on 25 November in The Daily Telegraph, of which Labour Members will be keen students, my hon. Friend said :
"The Government wants to see progress towards devolution But no settlement can work without local government."
That was a strange choice of words. I need not justify the choice, for they are not my words. But what did my hon. Friend have in mind when he said that
"no settlement can work without local government"?
I know what I have in mind. If he has in mind what I have in mind, I agree with him. It is essential to the settlement of the problems in Northern Ireland that we should have a system of local government that commands the support of the people and that gives to the people of Northern Ireland a system of government similar to that enjoyed in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and east Sussex.
Despite the fact that my hon. Friend was writing about the Bill in that article, the Bill does not address itself to that fundamental. My hon. Friend went on to say in the article :
"Local government needs able young men and women."
I agree. Local government was able to attract the hon. Member for Antrim, South, who made a distinguished contribution to it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) was also a member of a district council. But what my hon. Friend should have said in his article, and what for some unaccountable reason he did not say, was that we shall not recruit able young men and women to local government in Northern Ireland until we give additional powers to the 26 district councils and until, as we promised to do in 1979, we set up a regional council or councils.
In my hon. Friend's constituency in Wiltshire there are parish councils. The powers of parish councils are not
Column 68great. Even in north Wiltshire, the local giants do not serve on parish councils. People of massive ability are not queuing up to get on to parish councils--
Mr. Gow : My hon. Friend disagrees with me. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a member of his parish council-- [Interruption.] I understand that my right hon. Friend's wife is a member of the parish council, and I pay tribute to her. Although it seems to have caused some hilarity, my point is not without importance. We shall attract more readily those people whom my hon. Friend described in his article if we give more power to elected people in Northern Ireland.
Another aspect of the article will have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as it did mine. My hon. Friend said :
"We consulted widely and then issued a discussion paper ... Following representations we reconsidered."
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley and all hon. Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland will note the contrast between that consultation, that reconsideration and the claim that 84 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland were in favour of this relatively modest Bill with the total lack of consultation, reconsideration and testing of public opinion before the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed on 15 November 1985. We would not be human if we did not notice that contrast.
I have mentioned one or two matters that should have been included in the Bill but are not. The Bill should have given modest additional powers to the 26 district councils, and it should have implemented the Conservative party's pledge of 3 May 1979.
Of course I shall vote in favour of the Second Reading of the Bill. I agree with its relatively modest proposals, including the one to give 10,000 people the right to vote for district councils, despite the derisory powers that they enjoy. I do not know how many of those 10,000, who have so far been deprived of that great right, will take up the power to vote, but they should have it. The proposal about signing a declaration before one can offer oneself as a candidate for a district council is modest, precisely for the reasons that were described so eloquently by the hon. Member for Antrim, South. In his article, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said : "We did consider whether enforcement should be by a criminal case, brought by the DPP, or a civil action initiated by the
That which my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend considered and which both rejected should be reconsidered. It is wrong to say that a citizen should have to go through such a complicated procedure. Many people, not only in Northern Ireland but in my constituency, and even in Wiltshire, North, do not take matters daily to the High Court. It is not part of their normal experience or comprehension. [Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) laughs, but I assure him that most people are unfamiliar with the High Court of Justice.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State tells us in The Daily Telegraph that he has considered the matter carefully. It would have been better if my hon. Friend had decided that, where there seems to be a breach of the terms of an undertaking, that breach should be the subject of
Column 69criminal proceedings initiated not by the council, a councillor or an elector, but by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Mercifully, we shall again be able to turn our minds to this matter, thanks to my right hon. Friend, who has used the proper procedure to bring in the Bill. We shall be able to examine the Billl at some length in Committee. We shall welcome the opportunity to test the arguments of my right hon. and hon. Friends against the very consideration that the Minister himself says was undertaken at an earlier stage within his Department.
Rev. Ian Paisley : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as the Government have power in this matter, it would be wise for them to ensure that Northern Ireland is properly represented on the Committee so that the voice of Northern Ireland people and their elected representatives can be heard? The matter should not be decided by a Committee on which the elected representatives of Northern Ireland and perhaps Northern Ireland parties will not have a voice.
Mr. Gow : I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that that is a matter for the Committee of Selection. Even my derisory influence in this place does not extend to influencing the selection of hon. Members who will consider the Bill. Are not two representatives of the all-powerful Whips' Office seated on the Treasury Bench? We have heard the Secretary of State's introduction and, unless we have voted him off, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox) is still on the Committee of Selection. I am sure that he is a keen student of our debates and will read the intervention of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley).
I warmly approve of the Bill. I hope that it will reach the statute book shortly but not until it has received rigorous further examination. Some of us, whether or not we are on the Committee, will be keen to return to these important matters on Report. I hope that Ministers will reconsider their decision that initiation after a suspected breach of the undertaking should rest in hands other than those of the Attorney-General.
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) : I have listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). As usual, he speaks interestingly-- although not always in terms with which I can agree--about Northern Ireland. I am glad to be able to agree with him on one matter, perhaps even on two--that at last we have an order being discussed on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Ashdown : The Secretary of State is right to correct me. It is not an order, but a Bill. It is good to have discussion on the Floor of the House when so much has been done through orders in Committees upstairs or statutory instruments which from time to time we have had to pray against on a negative resolution.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne was also right in another sense in seeking to place this in a broader context--in his case, in the context of local government, on which he has strong views. The Secretary of State spent about 12 minutes sketching the broader context of the Bill and it is right to take a couple of minutes to read the Bill into where we are. In this sense I am glad to be able to agree with the
Column 70sense of puzzlement expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). This week we are bringing into the first process of legislation an instrument which will, we hope, assist the Government. In principle, I and my party will vote in favour of Second Reading, although I have some reservations which I shall enter later.
It is with some sadness that I reflect upon the fact that in seeking to provide the Government with an instrument that will assist in the defeat of terrorism, we do so against the background of the Prime Minister's bungling mismanagement of the extradition affair last week. That seriously damaged our capacity to fight terrorism. [Interruption.] Conservative Members choose to disregard unpleasant facts. What the Prime Minister did last week seriously undermined our capacity to achieve the co-operation with the Government of Ireland which is absolutely essential for the defeat of terrorism.
Mr. Gow : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not a rule of the House that on Second Reading one may speak only about matters that are in the Bill or could reasonably be in the Bill? What the hon. Gentleman is discussing could not possibly be in the Bill, so is it in order?