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4.33 pm

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): I shall be brief. The contents of the Bill are of profound importance to the people of Northern Ireland. Some feel that the agreement is deeply divisive, but even those who support it should avoid at all costs giving the people of Northern Ireland the impression that the legislation is being conducted in an oppressive, coercive and undemocratic manner.

The suggestion that a measure of such profound constitutional importance should be hustled through the House unconsidered or ill considered because of the lack of time will simply deepen the suspicions of the people whom this legislation will most deeply affect that they are no longer considered first-class citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but may be dealt with in the same way as those outside the law.

All hon. Members, regardless of their feelings about the benefits or the detriments of the Bill, should consider carefully that, if democracy and the reputation of the House are to be served, and if the agreement and the measures that are required to implement it are to be a success, democracy and justice must not only be done, but, in accordance with the best practice of the House, be manifestly seen to be done.

4.35 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I support the motion. My inclination is always to oppose a guillotine, so I understand the arguments of hon. Members from the Conservative and other parties that there is not sufficient time--I have sympathy with that point of view.

We are facing arguments, however, from those who have had the opportunity over these past two long years to take part in every stage of framing the agreement and to debate in depth every word and phrase in that agreement. For reasons known to themselves--they are entitled to their views--they did not avail themselves of that opportunity. It is remarkable that not one of the Unionist Members arrayed before us today took part in the final decisions, or even the earlier decisions, on the Bill.

Whatever the merits of the guillotine, there can be no justification for opposing it on the ground that it will not give the people of the north of Ireland and their representatives the opportunity to make their case. That opportunity existed for two years. Some refused to take it, and shirked it, whereas others faced up to their responsibilities. For that reason, on behalf of my party, I support the guillotine motion.

4.37 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): It is a pity that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) did not stick to the facts. I was at the talks on the condition that they would not proceed until the arsenal of murder weapons was surrendered--that commitment was given to me in Downing street again and again by the Prime Minister of the day. I was also told that, if only some arms were given up, those parties involved would have to pay over every month--if they did not, they would be put out of the talks. That was the basis on which the talks were to take place.

When my party went to the country, we made it clear that if decommissioning did not occur--I am talking about decommissioning of all arms used by terrorists,

22 Apr 1998 : Column 840

whether they be on one side of the fence or the other--and there was an attempt to bring IRA-Sinn Fein to the table my party would not be present. We fought the election on that manifesto. We are not like some parties in the House that tell the electorate something and then go back on it--we made our position perfectly clear.

It is ironic that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh should say that we should have joined the talks, as I received a letter from the Secretary of State saying, without any explanation, that my party would not be allowed into the talks even when the final decision was to be taken.

The House can go ahead and ram these measures through. I have seen that happen before. I remember the Prime Minister of the day, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), telling me that he had made peace when he did away with Stormont. I said to him, "You have had a Christmas party, but you will not have one any longer," and we know what happened.

The House is supposed to be democratic, and even those who are opposed to the legislation should be allowed to discuss it with the same amount of time that is given to any other part of the United Kingdom, especially when so many issues are at stake. Where are the friends of the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, who sat in the talks until the end, and were hailed as statesmen? Where is the leader of the Official Unionist party, his deputy or his chief security man? Why are they not here to defend their position? We saw how they ran out of the forum on Friday, and were not prepared to take part in debate.

Those who cannot debate an issue and run away need not hurl insults at those who bring up issues that they do not like to be brought up. It is mean and contemptible that representatives of Northern Ireland are not permitted to discuss under the usual circumstances a matter that has divided and polarised Northern Ireland more than any other. Hon. Members can close their eyes and ears, but, at the end of the day, as the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) said, the people of Northern Ireland will have to reap the whirlwind of their sowing.

4.41 pm

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan): I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). This business has been going on for an awfully long time--I am thinking particularly of the negotiations and discussions of the past two years--and an agreement was reached on Good Friday this year. That agreement lightened the hearts of everyone, both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney indicated dissent.

Mr. Stott: I heard what the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) said earlier.

We have gone through this process for a long time, and we now have an agreement between the Irish and British Governments and the leadership of the Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party about how to move forward. I never thought that that would happen in my lifetime, having spent so much time in Northern Ireland in the bad days.

22 Apr 1998 : Column 841

We can debate the agreement on Second Reading, but we must allow my Government to facilitate it through the House so that we can get to the stage of a referendum. The hon. and learned Member for North Down says that it is unacceptable. It is all right for him to sit there--I see that he has crossed the Floor from where he sat before--and say that the agreement is not acceptable, but we shall see whether it is accepted in the referendum by people in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

If I were a gambling man, which I am not--my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh is, and always has been--I would bet that this agreement, which was discussed and painfully negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, will be accepted by the people of Northern Ireland.

4.44 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor: I will be brief. Obviously, the shorter the time spent on this motion, the longer there will be to discuss Second Reading. I will leave those points that should be dealt with on Second Reading to the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is to reply later.

I will pick up on one or two of the contributions made to the debate, in particular that of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who picked up on my words that this was an unusual process. It is indeed, but taking all the stages of a Bill in one day is not unprecedented. He has voted for such procedures on some occasions, so he is not justified in suddenly objecting today simply because we are doing so.

The Bill is not complex, and the issues contained in it, which relate to the provision of elections, were the subject of much discussion in the talks process before Good Friday--one reason why we can make good progress today, I hope. I will not go in detail into the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raised, because my hon. Friend can deal with them on Second Reading. If the House took the right hon. and learned Gentleman's advice and delayed discussions of the Bill, he would have to think carefully about the consequences of the delay. I do not think that that would be an attractive proposition.

Mr. Hogg: I have no objection to proceeding with Second Reading today in the ordinary way. The right hon. Lady could bring the Bill back to the House for the Committee stage next week if she wanted. Why is she not prepared to do so, and to allow a seven-day gap between Second Reading and Committee?

Mrs. Taylor: There is sufficient agreement, and there has been sufficient discussion of the Bill during the talks process, for us to proceed as we intend, and I am glad that the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is nodding his head in agreement.

As regards the comments made by some hon. Gentlemen--

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Did the right hon. Lady say a few moments ago that there had been

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sufficient discussion of the Bill during the talks over the agreement? Was the text of the Bill available there? If so, we Ulster Unionists were not aware of it.

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