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Column 12569.30 pm
No. 6, in clause 7, page 4, leave out lines 11 to 15.
No. 7, in clause 8, page 5, line 1, leave out subsection (2).
Mr. McNamara : I shall be brief. This is an important issue, and that is why we prefer to have it debated on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee. It concerns Parliament and parliamentary privileges and the powers to be held by the Northern Ireland assembly, if it should meet again, as the Opposition hope it will. The purpose of the amendment is to protect the privileges of the Northern Ireland assembly. If effective devolved institutions are to be set up in Northern Ireland, real powers will have to be transferred to the subordinate assembly. This was recognised in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 whereby the effective powers of Stormont with regard to the proceedings of the assembly and the manner in which they should be treated were transferred to the subordinate assembly in Northern Ireland.
It would be impossible for a new assembly to operate correctly if its rights and privileges were to differ greatly from those of this House, especially in terms of the right of freedom of expression. In the House and below the Gangway we have the ability freely to express our opinions. We do it under the convention that the most favourable construction is placed upon our words and thoughts. In that way, we are best able to carry out our duties as citizens and Members of Parliament.
If an assembly in Northern Ireland is to work, it will have to be able to demonstrate the kind of leadership that will render the Bill superfluous. What we cannot do is create artificial stability by passing legislation that removes the right of most favourable construction from the Northern Ireland assembly.
Administrative measures of that kind will not make the assembly more stable, acceptable or responsible in the duties that it must undertake. For those reasons, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I ask the House to support the amendment to remove lines 26 to 28. That will be a small but important improvement in terms of parliamentary privilege, and we shall divide the House.
Mr. Needham : It remains our policy to seek progress towards devolution in Northern Ireland. The assembly would have an important part to play in that process, as I am sure the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) agrees. We would be looking for inter-party agreement on the way forward within the assembly, and fresh elections to it would be easy and straightforward.
It is more than probable that any future assembly will give rise to problems similar to those currently existing in local government. Therefore, it seems sensible to give to assembly electors and members the same remedies that district councillors, councils and their electors enjoy.
We do not want to give Sinn Fein or anyone else a political weapon with which to frustrate Northern Ireland's future political development. As has been mentioned many times tonight, Sinn Fein has the dual
Column 1257strategem of the Armalite and the ballot box, and there is no need to arm it with the new political weapon that removing the assembly from the Bill would present. Amendment No. 8 opens a major loophole in the Bill, making the declaration unenforceable against assembly members who were not councillors. More important, even those assembly members who were councillors might be free to say what they like in the assembly under the protection of its privilege.
It would be ridiculous if an assembly member who is also a councillor were bound by the declaration in his council chamber, but was able to move a few miles up the road and say in the assembly whatever he liked under the protection of its privilege. We see no sense in the Opposition amendment. It offers no likely way forward to a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. If anything, it places a further obstacle in its path. I urge the House to reject the amendment.
Mr. Ashdown : I was interested to know why the Labour party tabled the amendment, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) for explaining so clearly. I am bound to disagree with him. The arguments advanced by the Minister make cogent sense. I thought that the Labour party, like us, wished to move towards a devolved Northern Ireland assembly as quickly as possible. Surely Labour Members recognise that a devolved assembly might be established before the provisions in the Bill could reasonably be lifted. Although I understand the amendment's sense, and agree to some extent with the argument for it, it would delay the process until circumstances existed that would make the legislation no longer necessary. That time must be further away rather than closer to us. The conclusion to be drawn from the amendment is puzzling, to say the least. If Labour Members divide the House, I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote with the Government. The amendment would remove a development that all parties who are keen on peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland wish to advance, sooner rather than later.
Rev. Martin Smyth : I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) moved the amendment. However, in the light of the remarks of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who leads the Democrats, I am puzzled at the suggestion that a move towards a Northern Ireland assembly may be further down the road.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North talked about favourable interpretation. I have sat here and heard hon. Members on occasion evince a marked degree of unfavourable interpretation. Allegations have been made, usually from a sedentary position, about other hon. Members. I wonder what would happen if a certain political party came here with its leader, who has been recognised by a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as the IRA's chief of staff--a view echoed in the Chamber on various occasions. I am sure that the Government are aware that that man's brother has recently been promoted again to the leadership of the Provisional command structure. How can a favourable interpretation be placed on the words of such people when we know what they are doing day by day and night by night?
Column 1258Does this not highlight the real problem of the legislation : that there is an honourable way of dealing with terrorists and the parties that represent them? The House has done it in the past. It has even suspended hon. Members who were involved with such bodies.
Mr. McNamara : The Minister spoke about the nonsense of a person not being able to say something in a council chamber, but being able to go a few yards down the street to an assembly and there to be given full protection. Of course, Northern Ireland council members could come across the water to this place and also be given full protection. The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) spoke of the ridiculous position of the IRA chief of staff. I accept his point, but equally we have sitting in the House people who have been at the formation of paramilitary organisations--who have, indeed, set them up and promised to give them full political control and to spread their political mantle over them. We are allowing those people to sit here and make speeches supporting paramilitary organisations. That is the nonsense of the Government's legislation. That is why we are saying that if people are entitled to such protection here, they should be able to have it in the assembly in Northern Ireland. Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 21, Noes 131.
Division No. 55] [9.42 pm
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Golding, Mrs Llin
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Pike, Peter L.
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie and
Mr. Bob Cryer.
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Currie, Mrs Edwina
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Davis, David (Boothferry)
Emery, Sir Peter
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)
Fishburn, John Dudley
Fookes, Dame Janet
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)
Gower, Sir Raymond
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)