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Rev. Ian Paisley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Belfast agreement is the document on which we shall have to vote on 22 May--not that document plus the Prime Minister's letters, or an assurance from any Minister in this place? The Belfast agreement is the document. If the Government proceed in the way in which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, the later Bill will not appear until after 22 May. People will not have an opportunity to consider other documents. They will say, "This document came through my door and I have been asked to say yes or no to it." The hon. Gentleman knows that no statement by any Minister can be added to a document that is to be voted on in a referendum.

Mr. MacKay: It was precisely for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition today sought assurances from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time. I am seeking the assurance that in his winding-up speech the Minister will say that that will be covered in the legislation.

Mr. Hogg: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. MacKay: Perhaps I may be allowed to give a comprehensive answer to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

Such assurances will be helpful and will ensure that a substantial number of voters in the Province who have not yet made up their minds will be able to come to a decision.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have an advantage over him in that I have a copy of the letter. I shall pass it to my hon. Friend as long as he assures me that he will hand it back. The problem is that power will rest with the shadow assembly or the assembly, and the Prime Minister's letter merely states that the Government will support changes in the provisions. However, the power to make those changes lies with the assembly and is therefore outwith the Prime Minister's absolute discretion.

Mr. MacKay: My right hon. and learned Friend makes a valid point, and I promise to return the letter to him. His intervention shows why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I seek additional assurances in legislation. My right hon. and learned Friend is a

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distinguished lawyer and I am sure that he would be much happier if such assurances were in the major constitutional Bill and not at the discretion of the assembly.

Mr. Hogg: I do not wish to tease my hon. Friend, but it would be much nicer if the power were in the Bill that we are debating because we are also concerned with the shadow assembly. However, by agreeing to the timetable we have curtailed our ability to amend the Bill.

Mr. MacKay: I have known my right hon. and learned Friend long enough to know that he is perfectly happy to tease.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay: I should like to respond to my right hon. and learned Friend's intervention before giving way again. It is not for the shadow assembly but for the full-blown assembly that is based on the constitutional Bill to decide on Ministers. I am quite happy for that not to be in this Bill as long as it is in the major constitutional Bill.

Mr. Thompson: Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that an agreement has been made and signed? The idea that it can be changed without the agreement of all the parties to it is nonsense. Little pieces of paper flying around are meaningless. The hon. Gentleman is being negligent. To say that the agreement can be changed is nonsense. Those who have signed have made their bed and they have to lie on it.

Mr. MacKay: I do not accept that, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why if he will listen. We want provisions to be incorporated in the later Bill so that what he describes as little bits of paper floating around will be in a Bill.

Mr. Robert McCartney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. MacKay: I should like to make a little progress. Those who are trying to intervene have complained that they do not have enough time for debate. I am anxious not to delay the House so that Members from the Province are able to speak fully on Second Reading and later.

I have two comments that go slightly wide of the Bill, but they cover the overall agreement and are important. First, it is essential to ensure that the agreement releases prisoners prematurely only when we are totally satisfied that they have renounced violence and will not commit further crimes. Perhaps more important, we must be satisfied that those with whom they associate have substantially decommissioned and have given up all forms of violence.

Secondly, we do not quibble with the setting up of an independent commission to look at policing in the Province. Far from being a trap, that will be an opportunity for the RUC, which is one of the world's bravest, most sensitive and courageous police forces. It has nothing to hide and much to gain. At times,

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its enemies have attempted to distort its work, but I am satisfied that the independent commission will be an opportunity to put the record straight once and for all.

On Monday, I said to the Secretary of State that any change must have the consent of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland and the consent of the parties in the House. Most important, it must have the consent of those who maintain the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and we shall watch carefully to ensure that.

Dr. Godman: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's positive comments on the independent commission. It might be well served if it were chaired by a Scots judge.

Mr. MacKay: I was happy with the hon. Gentleman's intervention until I felt that I was being drawn on the second part of it. He and I have had many happy debates over the years and I do not think that he would expect me to comment on his suggestion.

The assembly election presents great opportunities, and I wish the people of the Province well in electing its Members. In due course, the assembly will have real powers and responsibilities which I am sure the Members of the Assembly will discharge to the best of their considerable abilities. This is a positive day for democracy in the United Kingdom.

5.47 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): It will be difficult to consider the Bill in isolation from the other factors in the agreement. I shall try to resist the temptation to stray into other areas, but if I have to do that I shall try to limit it.

I pay tribute to Ministers in both Governments, the chairman of the talks process and all the people in the other parties for their remarkable tenacity and patience in the talks over the past two years. It is sometimes lost on people that the talks process has been going on for two years and did not suddenly start in the past two or three weeks. That important debate was frustrating and tedious and, at times, it did not seem to get very far, but it was essential to the end product. It was essential that, for the first time, people had a really serious political means by which to begin to gain an insight into not just the other person's argument but their own as well. That was crucial.

It was also crucial that relationships were built up over those two years. I believe that those relationships will stand us in good stead as we go into the next part of the process--the momentous time when the assembly and the north-south and east-west bodies have to be set up. I say that because there will be appreciation within the House of the time and effort that were required. It would be the equivalent of sitting on a Standing Committee for two years non-stop. Those of us who have taken part in Standing Committees for a few weeks realise the amount of detail involved. I pay tribute to all those people for their effort.

I believe that this a turning point. I will make no exorbitant claims, but, as I said on Monday, I believe that it was a mighty victory for the political process over violence, for pragmatism over ideologies which have outlasted their time and, above all, for the confidence and hope that exist in the human spirit to deal with problems that seem insurmountable. A combination of all those

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things should allow us to recognise, irrespective of our views on some parts of it, that what was done was done in a way that will be fundamental.

We are dealing with one part of the strand 1 element of the agreement, which is the legislation to set up an assembly in the north of Ireland. I believe that an assembly in the north of Ireland is essential. Coming from my political perspective, that may sound strange, but I shall explain in terms of that perspective. Irrespective of what the constitutional position would be in Northern Ireland, whether we were talking about the north remaining in its present status or changing status to what is termed a united Ireland--if that ever came about--there would still be a need for a separate body in the north of Ireland to deal with the uniqueness of the north of Ireland. My political perspective does not colour my opinion that an assembly is necessary. I believe that its necessity in either set of circumstances is self-evident.

After the propositions document was issued by the two Governments when, for the first time in the talks process, public reference was made to an assembly, I and others were demonised for agreeing with or purporting to agree with a partitionist settlement. That criticism came in stringent terms from those in the nationalist community, largely represented by Sinn Fein. It showed the steps that had to be taken to gain an acceptance for the idea that the assembly is worth while.


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