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8.21 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): When the Secretary of State introduced the motion, he invited us to approve it on a number of grounds. Let me paraphrase what he said. He wished to address the democratic deficit, and he wished to approve the participation of Northern Ireland politicians and representatives in the decision-making process. Those are laudable sentiments, and it is hard to argue against them--except when they are placed against the practicality of what has happened, and is happening.

It is difficult to conceive of a conversion to the body that we discussing. This is the last gasp of a Government who have exercised a system for more than 18 years, and who have made this move only in the dying moments of what is probably their last Parliament. So much for the concern that they have expressed.

It was suggested that we should approve the motion because it would involve Northern Ireland politicians much more than heretofore. That is true; but Northern Ireland politicians have been involved in many serious policy matters, and have addressed those matters, not just individually but jointly--and, on almost every occasion, their unanimity has been rejected by the Government. So much for addressing the democratic deficit. We have seen that over the years, and particularly in recent years, when our health and social services system has been attacked by Tory party policy, and when our education system has been attacked. As often as not, when parties throughout the community asked for change, they were ignored. Unfortunately, therefore, I do not accept the Government's deathbed conversion to the principle of addressing the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland.

Let me digress for a moment. It has been said that the democratic deficit can be observed in local government. Why? Because of the abuse of powers, which, to some extent, is still going on. It is not as bad as it was, because there is much cross-party, cross-community co-operation, based primarily on the principles established by the SDLP--which we called power sharing in 1972, all of 25 years ago. Although that theory of partnership was rejected out of hand as being impractical, it has permeated much of local government--although there are notable exceptions.

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So we have had 18 years during which the democratic deficit could be addressed. Let me speak bluntly. The announcement at the Tory party conference on 11 October that Northern Ireland was to be given a Grand Committee was seen by the nationalist community as just another sop or pay-off to the Ulster Unionists for helping the Government in the House. It was as simple as that, and that perception remains today. It may be argued that the perception is wrong, but it is there.

The point has been emphasised time and again in connection with other matters over the past 12 months, in particular. That was the perception back in 1994, when the Select Committee was established. Early in 1996, elections were held under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996: they were not really necessary for the negotiations, but were held at the behest of, primarily, the Unionist parties. On each of those occasions, the nationalist community saw its parity being destroyed or, at the minimum, held in much less esteem than that of the Unionists.

The same theme has continued throughout the present Administration, for many years. One of the main reasons why my party objects to the Grand Committee--in addition to what I have already said--is that it was always acknowledged that the real solution to the problem of Northern Ireland was representatives of the two communities getting together and arriving at a means whereby Northern Ireland could be best administered. Every time a little piece is taken out of that jigsaw, the need to reach such a compromise is weakened.

Dr. Godman: Is there not an inconsistency in the Government's conduct in regard to the democratic deficit? The Prime Minister promised us in Scotland a stock taking exercise concerning the governance of Scotland--and what have we finished up with? The Scottish Grand Committee.

Mr. McGrady: No doubt the same will be reflected in the establishment of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, when it is established. We see the Grand Committee as another degradation of the parity of esteem--the esteem in which nationalists were supposed to be held by both Governments.

I should also like to know whether consultations took place on the international scene under national agreements, on whether the Grand Committee should be part of the administration of Northern Ireland. We see this as anti-nationalist legislation.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that this sovereign Parliament, dealing with one of its regions in setting up a Committee with parity with those of Wales and Scotland, should discuss the matter with the southern Ireland Government, and that that Government's OK should be given before this Government can set up the Committee?

Mr. McGrady: I am not saying that that Government must be consulted to the point at which their agreement must be obtained. I am saying that, if there is to be agreement between the two Governments, the Dublin Government must be consulted. I do not know whether they were consulted and what their opinion was; perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us whether consultations took place under the international agreement, and what the consequences were if they did.

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As I have said, we see this as a degradation of the vitality that must be preserved in the inter-party talks. If everything is already agreed to, there is no push, no initiative and no drive to reach an arrangement with opposite political numbers. That is what we have been trying to do in the 25 years since the establishment of direct rule. It is for those reasons that my party has been against the formation of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee and has consistently stated that that is our position. It remains so tonight.

Before I sit down, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say to the Secretary of State that, despite what I have said in terms of his propositions, personally, we wish him all the best on his retirement. I have no doubt that his very many talents will be put to good use in some other place. Thank you.

8.29 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North): I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) in the general thrust of his argument, but I too would like to join him in paying my compliment to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for his efforts in Northern Ireland. Certainly he started off with very high hopes and, with the Prime Minister, achieved a great deal in the Downing street declaration and in the framework document. It is sad that those matters have not come to earlier and quicker fruition. We can perhaps argue about the reasons for that on other occasions, but it is right that the Secretary of State's efforts should be acknowledged. He must to a certain degree feel disappointment that so many of those high hopes have not been realised, as he would have hoped.

One of the reasons for that is the matter that we are debating today. We have seen the last cheque being cashed for keeping a discredited and faltering Government in power in the past two or three years. The votes of the Ulster Unionists have been purchased. We have seen that happening, first, with the Maastricht debate and, immediately after that, with the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. We saw it in the altering of the legislation so that we had fewer orders for Northern Ireland and more British legislation covering the rest of Northern Ireland--that was another demand.

We saw it in the establishment and acceptance of the Unionist agenda. The price that had to be paid for getting Unionists into talks was the mini-general election in Northern Ireland for the establishment of the forum for the establishment of the talks. That again was their price, and it kept a faltering, staggering Government in operation. However, it achieved on the other side a continuous feeling that its interests were being downgraded. There was no parity of esteem on the Select Committee, on the legislation and on the negotiations for entry into talks. All those things were done against the express wishes of the minority party in Northern Ireland. If that is true, we have to be very suspicious about what has been happening today.

Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether he would want to include in his condemnation of the present Government, condemnation of the Wilson Government and particularly the then Leader of the House, Ted Short, who took the initial steps in forming the Northern Ireland

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Committee. That progressed to the later stage of the Grand Committee and to the final third stage tonight under another Government. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman would want to record, because I know that he is basically a fair man, his condemnation of the Callaghan Government, which he supported, in granting Northern Ireland free and equal representation in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. I think fair dos for all three Governments.

Mr. McNamara: I am quite happy to say that I did disagree with my then right hon. Friend, Lord Callaghan. The right hon. Gentleman will remember, because he was in the House at the time, that I voted against the extra seats--the price that was demanded of the then Prime Minister Callaghan to keep him in power. I remember that I warned him. I said that, as long as he paid the Danegeld, he would never get rid of the Dane. When hon. Members did not get their gas pipeline, they brought Callaghan down. I remember that that was the majority of their votes, so this is nothing fresh to me. I know where the Ulster Unionists stand and where they are coming from.

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