Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Nor should the right hon. Lady be perturbed, because under the Interpretation Act 1978, he means she.

Mr. Murphy: I take the point, and it covers any problem that we might have.

Clause 2 provides for elections to be held on 25 June, presuming of course that there has been a positive result in the referendum. As agreed in the talks, the election will be by single transferable vote, which has been used in Northern Ireland for many years for many different sorts of elections, with six Members being returned from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. The franchise reflects that used in local elections.

We will make more detailed provision for the election in an order to come before the House in the next few weeks. One outstanding point that we shall need to resolve in that order is the method of filling vacancies in the assembly's membership. In the multi-party talks, some parties favoured doing that by a system of substitutions to preserve the original party balance; others favoured conventional by-elections. We said that we would consult on this, and we will welcome any comments offered to us in the coming weeks.

Mr. Hogg: This is one of the points that I raised in the previous debate. The impact of clause 3 is not clear to me. Does the Secretary of State propose to deal with vacancies on a case-by-case basis, or to introduce a general regime that will provide either for by-elections or for substitution, to be approved by affirmative procedure? In any event, does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of us feel that that is precisely the kind of issue that ought to be determined by the House and which should appear in the Bill?

Mr. Murphy: I partly agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but not wholly. The determination that my right hon. Friend will make will be based on a general principle, not on individual cases--that would certainly be wrong. The difference between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and me would be on the basis of consultation. The difference between this legislation and the legislation used for Wales and Scotland is that this is firmly rooted in the talks agreement--the settlement. In the course of two years, and especially in the past few weeks and months, the matter has raised its head. There is some disagreement among talks participants, as they were called. My right hon. Friend and I must consult more widely and come back to get the feeling of the House.

Mr. Robert McCartney: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is it not a fundamental abuse of the democratic principle if those who have been elected and who, by death or disability, are no longer fulfilling the office to which they were elected are not replaced in exactly the same democratic and electoral manner in which they were originally elected? Is there any room for debate about that?

Mr. Murphy: There certainly is room for debate. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows that debate was not to

22 Apr 1998 : Column 853

be lost in the talks that we had over all those months and years. He will also know that there are examples in many other countries around the world that operate on a strictly proportional basis where vacancies are filled by substitution according to the parties.

The difference of view lies in the nature of the proportional system. If it is a strictly additional Member system or a list system, substitution is the only way in which vacancies can be filled. The system that we propose is somewhere in the middle and needs proper consultation. That is why we have decided to talk more about the matter. It is not unusual or unprecedented in other democracies in the western world.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I appreciate the Minister's giving way. Does he accept that under the single transferable vote system in a six-Member constituency, if the person who came in last were to die, a different party could come in by another vote? Is that not one of the issues that must be considered?

Mr. Murphy: Indeed. That is why the matter must be examined in more detail.

Disqualification from membership of the assembly is largely the same as that in the House. Peers and citizens of the European Union will also, however, be allowed to sit, and so will members of the Senate of the Republic of Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland yearn for peace and political stability. The party leaders and the British and Irish Governments, after more than two years of negotiation, have produced a settlement which, if agreed in the referendum, provides the basis for such a peaceful and stable society. The Bill is the beginning of a new era for the people of Northern Ireland who, as they move into the next century, will govern themselves in a new way that embraces the hopes and aspirations of all communities in Northern Ireland. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

5.26 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): I confirm what I said at the Dispatch Box on Monday: my party warmly endorses the agreement. We believe that it is only the first stage in a process that we hope will reach a lasting settlement and peace in the Province.

There are already hiccups along the way, and it is regrettable that since the Secretary of State's statement on Monday, Sinn Fein has failed to endorse the agreement, as we thought it had on Good Friday, and that it is apparently advising its supporters to vote yes in the north and no in the south. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and confirms many of our fears about Sinn Fein-IRA. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that the Minister and the Secretary of State will continue to pursue the process and reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. That is the second time he has used the word process. Does he accept that that causes great concern to many people? It was highlighted in an article in The Irish Times yesterday, which stated that the miasma of peace is there to make way for the concept of process. In other

22 Apr 1998 : Column 854

words, we are not reaching a settlement; we are at a staging post in the process towards an ultimately united Ireland.

Mr. MacKay: I shall not pursue the line of argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). The process is long, but I hope that it will reach a lasting settlement. I hope that he will not think it insulting if I say that his argument is mere semantics and that there are more important matters to debate today.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Let us debate them.

Mr. MacKay: Turning to debate them, as my hon. Friend desires, I shall say straight away why we warmly support the Bill and why we have facilitated by an earlier vote the timetable motion and the Bill's being brought before the House so rapidly. We are dealing with an important but small measure and there has been a huge amount of misunderstanding outside the House. Regrettably, some of it has been deliberately created by certain hon. Members. The Bill is not the major constitutional measure that will set up the assembly. It is not the legislation that will change the prisoner release policy in the Province. Those are both major measures, and I am confident the Minister of State and the Secretary of State will want the House to give full time to them.

Let us remind people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere clearly, as the Minister did earlier, what the Bill is all about. The Bill will set up elections for the assembly, assuming that there is a yes vote in the referendum. My colleagues and I are strongly in favour of an assembly in Northern Ireland for reasons that I shall outline. The second purpose of the Bill is to set up a shadow assembly in exactly the same way as shadow local authorities were set up in my constituency about two years ago as part of local government reorganisation. This is not the time or place to discuss in any detail the permanent assembly. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said earlier, there are major issues to be discussed in that context, and that is for another day later in the year.

Mr. Robert McCartney: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a Bill that sets up a shadow assembly for Northern Ireland--not a local government body--that in due course is to have legislative and executive powers and will have to decide the functions and contents of a north-south ministerial body and the remit of implementation bodies on an all-Ireland basis is in the context of Northern Ireland not a substantial and significant constitutional matter?

Mr. MacKay: The hon. and learned Gentleman is not correct. If I believed that the Bill, in passing through this place at a rapid pace, would set in place the assembly, with all its powers and responsibilities, the Opposition would not have agreed to its going through the House so quickly.

I do not want to repeat entirely what I said earlier, but this is a simple, straightforward Bill which sets up the elections for the assembly and sets up the shadow assembly. There will be a completely separate Bill introduced later. To quote the Minister, it will be a major constitutional Bill. He has given assurances that it will be

22 Apr 1998 : Column 855

considered in the same detail as the devolution measures for Scotland and Wales. I welcome that assurance and I expected nothing less. It would be a disgrace if that were not the position. I am satisfied, and I cannot think of any other reasonable Member of this place who will not also be satisfied.

Going back about 10 years to my days as a parliamentary private secretary to the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and subsequently as a founder member of the British-Irish parliamentary body, as a Government Whip dealing with the Northern Ireland Office and more recently as the shadow Secretary of State, I have always been privately profoundly uncomfortable with the fact that first-class politicians from both parties have been Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office and have served to the very best of their ability, which has often been considerable ability, yet elected Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies have had no opportunity to have a say in the running of the Province. In other words, there has been no possibility of their being Ministers.

Direct rule has had some obvious benefits. I do not believe that the Province would have been secure without direct rule. I believe that progress to reduce sectarian friction and violence has been considerable because of direct rule and because of successive Administrations of both parties. However, deep down, I guess that nearly all right hon. and hon. Members cannot feel entirely comfortable with the fact that Members who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland have had no opportunity to be directly involved with the administration of the Province.

Bearing in mind the fact that local parties, for reasons that we know--the arguments have been well rehearsed--have little powers in the Province, that is, to quote the Minister, a democratic deficit. We now have the opportunity, through the agreement, to put that right. One of the most attractive, positive and important elements in the agreement is that we shall have an assembly in Northern Ireland, which in due course will approve ministerial positions and will, I believe, remedy the democratic deficit. I believe that the responsibility of those ministerial positions for many politicians from many parties will have a sobering and positive effect on the politics of the Province. I look forward to that.

It would be wrong of me to give the impression to Ministers that we do not have reservations. Our reservations were made absolutely clear by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition from the Dispatch Box only a couple of hours ago. We were pleased with and gained some confidence from the letter that the Prime Minister wrote to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), but we have not yet seen the letter. It needs to be fully in the public domain. I am not criticising the Secretary of State, but she did indicate that it would be. The right way forward is for all this correspondence, if this has not already been done--I hope that I am now out of date--to be placed in the Library. If that has not been done--I can see the right hon. Lady nodding--it seems that it will be.

It is essential that no Member of the Assembly is promoted to be a Minister if the paramilitaries with which he or she is associated have not substantially decommissioned, or have in any shape or form continued with violence. I hope that there is consent across the Floor

22 Apr 1998 : Column 856

of the House that we cannot have such people having executive responsibility in the assembly. It would bring the assembly into disrepute, and I believe that it would bring down the whole process and a lasting settlement.

The Prime Minister's letter gives us some confidence, particularly when we read it in the Library. However, I think that the Minister of State will agree that the letter in itself is not enough. We completely understand that it was not practical to incorporate the letter into the heads of agreement of the Belfast agreement. We do not quibble about that. We are saying that the major constitutional Bill that will set up the assembly must contain appropriate clauses that completely satisfy right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, who I think share the concern that men of violence must not have ministerial responsibility.

Next Section

IndexHome Page