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Mr. Mallon: In fact, there were three empty chairs. Mine was empty for the last two plenary sessions because the meetings coincided with crucial stages of the talks. We hope to put that right. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. Perhaps the council of the isles could encourage Unionist members to play their role in an inter-parliamentary body. If my memory serves me right, in 1986 one of the requirements of the Ulster Unionist party's policy was an inter-parliamentary body. Then, the Anglo-Irish Agreement made a subtle mistake--it found that requirement favourable, so the UUP's policy changed. I do not think that this is a matter of principle for any Unionist, but, in pure political tactical terms, it would be the right thing to do.

I welcome the change relating to disqualification. I served in the Seanad Eireann in 1982, but suffered the ignominy of being hauled before the courts and disqualified from the Northern Ireland Assembly. It did not cause me great concern, but it certainly cost me a great deal of money that I could not afford. Eminent lawyers from both north and south were intent on proving that the Republic of Ireland was no longer a member of the Commonwealth. Be that as it may, I am glad, belatedly, to see the provision go, because it would have been out of tune with the actual thinking and ethos of the agreement.

Of course, getting rid of that piece of legislation will be hailed as another notch--I have to be careful with my terminology--another gain by Sinn Fein. I would have to say to Sinn Fein members, as gently as I could, "Sorry, mates--been there, done that, long before you ever thought of it."

My final point relates to the replacement of members, which is a serious issue. The entire proportionality of the assembly, of its committees and, indeed, of its Cabinet

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could be distorted if the proportionality on which the assembly was set up were disturbed. We can imagine circumstances in which someone could be sitting as a Minister, but a member of his party dies and at the by-election the party is not returned. Can he then continue to sit as a Minister when the proportionality upon which he was appointed has changed? Imagine how difficult it would be in the by-election process when, in effect, all the parties have recommended proportionality. I ask the Minister to consider that point very carefully, because the entire proportional basis for the assembly could be unhinged.

I welcome the Bill. It will be remarkably different; it will be historic in its own right. There will be difficulties--difficulties in the referendum, difficulties in the election, difficulties in setting up the assembly, difficulties in getting it to operate and difficulties in getting the type of mechanics that are required from a standing start. However, it is a good agreement which stands up to scrutiny, so the one thing that is now needed is inspiration. The people of the north of Ireland need to begin to believe that they can--that we all can--solve this problem. They look to the political parties for that inspiration.

Some will cherry-pick, I have no doubt; some will nitpick, I have no doubt; some will try not to pick, and I have no doubt about that either; but do we not all owe it to the people of the north of Ireland, who have lived through a crucible for almost 30 years, to put our nitpicking to one side and to try to inspire them to give the response that I am confident they will give on the day of the referendum and in future months? That is our challenge.

I put it to those who are opposed to the Bill that there is always something bigger than one's own argument; there is always something more important than one's own ideology; there is always something much more fundamentally important than what we think. I make the plea to them, on this occasion, to think of all the people who live in the north of Ireland and the future that they face.

6.15 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): I have been in this House for a fair number of years and, during that time, I have seen cross-party support on a few occasions. It has always been the prelude to disaster. It means that the legislation before the House is not examined in detail and that grave errors will not be exposed. Of course, that is not to say that some legislation, such as the poll tax, which received ferocious opposition did not also prove to be a disaster. When all the major parties put their names to the same bit of paper, heaven help us all in the long run.

When such cross-party support is allied to the rapid passage of legislation--in this case, within 24 hours--the probability of disaster is multiplied. I remind the House of one piece of legislation that went through the House in 1972, which removed the Stormont parliamentary system. Ever since, this House has been engaged in one initiative after another in an attempt to replace it, with scant success.

Mr. Clifford Forsythe (South Antrim): Does my hon. Friend remember the Child Support Agency legislation, which this House enthusiastically passed and now enthusiastically condemns?

Mr. Ross: The House would enthusiastically love to murder that legislation, if only it could think of something

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to put in its place. No doubt Ministers are beavering away and will come up with something to replace it in due course.

This debate is supposed to be about the principle of the Bill, but, as the Bill will create an assembly in Northern Ireland in line with the agreement signed within the past week, it is inevitable that the whole question of an assembly will intrude into our deliberations. My view of any assembly is that it should be both democratic and able to work efficiently. Quite frankly, when I apply those criteria to the proposed body, I fear that it will not be the success that those who laud it believe it will be. The end result will be very different.

Mr. Robert McCartney: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was present when the House joined together to endorse the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The Conservative Government said that their aim was to strengthen the Union and the Labour Opposition, under Mr. Kinnock, said that it was a step, albeit a small one, in the direction of a united Ireland. The agreement promised peace, stability and reconciliation for everyone, but ended up with hundreds upon hundreds of deaths, mutilations and mass destruction. Are we in for the same thing again as a result of the happy and unctuous togetherness of the House?

Mr. Ross: To that I would add that Baroness Thatcher, who was then Prime Minister, said that she had signed the agreement to stop the violence, but she came very rapidly to understand that that was not just going to happen.

Before the people of Northern Ireland are really in a position to judge whether the assembly will work, they need to have a very clear understanding of what has been agreed by the parties. Even before the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) intervened, it was clear from what we have heard today that those who are pushing the assembly as the way forward certainly have very different ideas, hopes and aspirations as to where it will end up. We all know that the language of the agreement is ambiguous and that one can take any one of half a dozen meanings from it and extend it in any direction.

The agreement sets up an assembly of 108 Members, a north-south ministerial council and implementation bodies. I noticed that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) swiftly skated over what the implementation bodies were, how they were going to operate and whether they would be able to continue to exist if something went wrong with the assembly, although I do not think that they would be needed then as we also have a British-Irish council, which is the Irish way of saying a British Isles council.

There is also to be a British-Irish intergovernmental conference. Some interesting paragraphs in the agreement state that other types of implementation bodies could be created within that between London and Dublin, bypassing the others if they so wished.

Of course, there will also be certain constitutional changes. As far as I can see, the Bill, sadly, does not detail the changes in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, but the agreement makes it plain that in future the Union will be defended only by the votes of the people in a referendum, which is to be held every seven years or

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thereabouts. I find that very interesting because the legislation that already exists for the specific purpose of providing for border polls to ask exactly the same question stipulates a minimum of 10 years. Why on earth have we departed from the 10-year rule?

I recall from my brief glance through the so-called Mitchell document that it stipulated five years. We have now gone up to seven, but there was no need for that issue to be raised in the agreement at all. The possibility of a having border poll already existed. Indeed, we could have held one next year. It might not have been a bad idea to hold one now so that before people signed up to this agreement, one could find out whether they were prepared to enter a united Ireland or not.

As most of the Unionist population in Northern Ireland are rapidly coming to the conclusion that the agreement drives us down that road, we would have had a very clear answer before we started erecting a house of cards on a sandy foundation. I believe that the existing legislation allowing for polls to ask whether Northern Ireland is part of Her Majesty's dominions or part of the Irish Republic was quite sufficient, and there was no need for the issue to be raised at all.

The Bill also sets out the make-up of the assembly. There are to be 108 Members. Well, there are, I think, 129 in Scotland which has an electorate of nearly 4 million, and there are 60 for Wales, which has an electorate of just over 2 million. It is interesting that the Government have to bribe all the politicians they can in Northern Ireland with the possibility of a seat in order to ensure that a large number of folk will be prepared to support the proposal within the councils of the various parties.


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