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7.55 pm

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar): The Northern Ireland Grand Committee, as it is now known, was set up in 1975 following the establishment of direct rule and the Northern Ireland Act 1974. The Secretary of State has outlined the Committee's history since then.

Direct rule is without doubt an imperfect and unsatisfactory situation. Legislation for Northern Ireland is largely enacted by Orders in Council, which cannot be amended and are not subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. There was a 50 per cent. increase in the number of such orders between 1994 and 1996. The system of direct rule is the status quo. On basic principles of democracy and accountability, that is not acceptable.

As I have said many times, change is necessary. There are two basic routes for change--one is by direct Government action and the other is by local consent and agreement. Achieving local consent and agreement is the task of the two Governments and the parties in the talks. Those talks are designed to address relationships within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and between Britain and Ireland.

Progress since last June has been slow and immensely frustrating at times, but we should not underestimate what has been achieved by agreement on independent international chairs, on rules of procedure and on the agenda for the talks. There is something to build on when talks resume.

In our view, a way forward on decommissioning has to be found on the basis of the Mitchell report. We hope that all parties will use the time between now and 3 June to develop their thinking on this and offer ways forward out of the current blockage. If we are elected, we shall immediately invite the parties at the talks to discuss the matter with us on a bilateral basis. We want to see a fully inclusive talks process, but if the talks are to succeed, everyone must be fully committed to the democratic process and to peaceful methods. Sinn Fein and the IRA can demonstrate that commitment by calling an unequivocal ceasefire and showing by their actions that they mean it. They should do so immediately. If they do not, we shall go forward in the talks without them.

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In government, we shall put all our energies into the process that I have outlined--both within and outside the talks--in working to build confidence between the communities to create fertile ground for compromise and agreement. Trust and confidence between the parties and the communities that they represent must grow to enable real progress to be made.

Direct government action to improve accountability and transparency in Northern Ireland should be sets within the context of greater confidence building. We want to find the best ways to help include local people in debating issues, in holding government to account and in taking part in the decision-making process. The lack of local input into decision making in Northern Ireland is a problem for both communities.

We understand the desire for changes to the Grand Committee. We welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that they are proposed without prejudice to developments in the talks. We would also welcome his assurance that, while he is proposing to enable the Grand Committee to debate legislation on a Government order, the decision making--any votes on that legislation--will continue to be taken on the Floor of the House. Extending the use of the Grand Committee would create more opportunities for debate, as has the establishment of the Northern Ireland forum.

If Labour is successful in the forthcoming election, we shall immediately begin to examine how those mechanisms work alongside others in improving openness and democratic accountability across the board in Northern Ireland. Although we shall ensure that this legislation passes through the House today, we reserve the right to look again at the proposals after the election in that broader context. We understand why there is support for the measure, but the proposals have been drawn up in haste in the dying days of a Parliament, and, given the importance of this issue to both communities in Northern Ireland, it would be irresponsible of us not to give a commitment to look at them afresh when a new Parliament begins.

8 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I agree with the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), the Opposition spokesperson, that direct rule is totally unsatisfactory. Those of us who have been in the House for many years will agree that it is unsatisfactory to Northern Ireland Members that we are able to table amendments to proposed legislation for England, Scotland and Wales but are unable to table amendments to measures that relate to our constituencies in Northern Ireland. It is unsatisfactory that we have only an hour and a half--tonight's timetable is not unique to Northern Ireland Members--to deal with the most complicated and heavy orders.

A few months ago, a licensing order came before the House. Indeed, two orders were brought before the House on the same night. Hundreds of pages of detailed legislation were pushed through in an hour and a half. That is a totally unsatisfactory way to conduct business. Therefore, the ability of a Grand Committee to consider detailed and weighty matters and for us to have the opportunity at least to make our arguments to the Government about legislation must be welcomed.

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Anything that makes a Government more accountable for their actions is an improvement, but I would not like to leave the House with the impression that a Grand Committee will be a panacea in terms of the restoration of democracy in Northern Ireland. It is right that Northern Ireland should have such a Committee, not just because Scotland and Wales do, but because we have a better case than Scotland and Wales because of the deficit in local government democracy in Northern Ireland and the few powers that exist for local authorities there.

The hon. Lady referred to the Labour party's manifesto position on Northern Ireland. That requires a response. According to Labour, the issue of decommissioning is holding back the talks process. In a sense that is true, but there is something much more fundamentally flawed about the present talks process, because it is designed to bring into the democratic process those who have not yet accepted the principles of the democratic process; those who would bypass the principles of democracy, even those enshrined in the international report. The issue of decommissioning is central to that, because it is the desire of some parties--the Social Democratic and Labour party being one--that people should have entrance to the talks process and still hold on to their weapons while they sit around the negotiating table.

My party has made its position clear. We accept the Mitchell principles but we do not accept the Mitchell report. The Labour party says that it does. It should reconsider, because the report is based upon a faulty premise. The Mitchell team felt and believed--no doubt those in it were convinced by the Government and others--that there was a permanent cessation of violence on the part of the Provisional IRA. In the belief that there was a permanent cessation of violence, the Mitchell team made the proposals that are contained in the report.

We all know--some of us knew at the time, but others will understand by now--that it was a phoney cessation of violence, a tactical cessation, a manoeuvre by the Provisional IRA in an attempt to extract concessions. Therefore, it would be very dangerous if any Government attempted to accept principles enshrined in an international body's report which made a judgment based on proven false principles. The Labour party would do well to go back to the drawing board before it simply picks up an international body's report that was based on an incorrect judgment of what the IRA's position was.

I hope that it was not a slip of the tongue by the Labour spokesperson, but I noted that she said that Labour would require an unequivocal ceasefire before the IRA could enter the talks process. I am looking to see whether I get a shake or nod of the head from her, but Hansard will show that that was the terminology that she used. I am delighted at that. That, of course, is different from the present Government's position. The Government's position and the position in the ground rules document is that they require an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994.

There is a clear distinction between those two positions. The Government want an unequivocal restoration of a failed, phoney ceasefire. I am glad that the Government who we may have after 1 May are now saying that we want not an unequivocal restoration of a failed ceasefire but an unequivocal ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire, a complete ceasefire, a universal ceasefire, one that is totally unequivocal. I hope that the Labour party will see the distinction between those two statements. It will, of

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course, require from the hon. Lady a change in legislation, because the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 refers to command 3232 which enshrines the principle of an unequivocal restoration--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I assumed that he was making a broad introduction to the subject, but we are debating the Grand Committee. I rather think that the hon. Gentleman is speaking to a later order.

Mr. Robinson: No; I was speaking in response to the comments made by the Opposition spokesperson. I had assumed that, as she was considered to be in order, I would be in order to respond to her. If she has led me astray, I will come back to the straight and narrow path.

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