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7.7 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I will take in earnest your warning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about being brief.

Listening to the debate and in particular to the speeches by hon. Members representing the various Unionist parties, one could be very depressed this afternoon about the future for the people of Northern Ireland. The genesis of this simple Bill was the agreement of Good Friday--I mean Good Friday not in a religious but in a political sense. Hon. Members would be misled if they took many of the remarks made this evening to be the attitude of the people of Northern Ireland. I can but remember on the Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday the huge euphoria and the welcome that people, at least in my constituency, gave the agreement, be they Unionist, nationalist or non-committed. Every single one of them without exception said, "Thank God you have got together. We hope that you can make the arrangements," as we have done substantively, "and give us peace for ourselves and for our children." That was the response that I felt, but I have not felt it during the debate--it is as if I am in a foreign clime.

My constituency is roughly evenly divided, and its people represent the aspirations of all the cross-sections in Northern Ireland. Right across the spectrum, from extreme Unionism to extreme nationalism, there was acceptance of the agreement in my constituency, and I believe that that is reflected in many other constituencies in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert McCartney: On Monday last, I went to the village of Lisbellaw in Fermanagh to address what I was told would be a meeting of 60 people; 450 turned up at the hall, and 80 stood in the doorway for three hours. All were solidly against the agreement.

Mr. McGrady: I do not know whether to thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention, but perhaps the eloquence of his delivery rather than his arguments brought so many people to the hall. That is for the public to decide at a future time.

The Bill is an enabling measure, and it follows the agreement on Good Friday after, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, a gestation period of two wearying and frustrating years. The negativity of Members representing the various Unionist parties does not reflect honestly the feeling of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not dispute their right to promote such an attitude, but they are not conveying to hon. Members the euphoria and hope felt by the people of Northern Ireland on Good Friday.

The agreement on which the Bill is based is founded on equality, respect and fairness. Built into it throughout are mechanisms for the protection of the aspirations of

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nationalists or of Unionists and for the prevention of one side overriding, outdoing or in some way conning the other. The people will decide on 22 May whether they support the agreement or not. I hope and am convinced that it will be endorsed substantively.

To express the democratic wish about which we hear so much and which is of paramount importance, the Bill will enable that decision to be initially implemented through the creation of the shadow assembly and the corresponding bodies dealing with the north-south and east-west relationships. We in the Social Democratic and Labour party have laboured for over a quarter of a century to bring those concepts together, as we consider them to be the only way in which to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland, to achieve justice and to protect the various aspirations.

A difficult part of the process, which is often forgotten, is the weaning of people away from the gun, the bomb, the bullet, the punishment beatings and the rest of the paraphernalia of violence and into the democratic process. That will not happen overnight. The process will not embrace all the extremes of our society. We should remember the young men who were shot yesterday in Portadown and extend our sympathy to their families. Violence will continue. It cannot be switched off completely, but I hope that it will decrease, and we must bring into the process those who previously espoused violence.

The agreement creates a situation in which we can all express our aspirations and political philosophies and work for them strongly, but where each is protected from the other by its terms. No one--no party or group of parties--will be able to impose his will on another because protections are in place. It will be difficult, but I should love to think that we shall go forward into this new process with such an ethos.

Those who oppose the agreement and are campaigning to reject out of hand all the work that has been done have given no alternative to the people over the past two and a half decades of violence. At least we have addressed in the agreement the problem of relationships in the north of Ireland, and the problem of relationships between north and south and between east and west. If the agreement goes wrong, so be it, but let the people decide on 22 May and 25 June. We should take their word forward and work with it positively rather than negatively. That is the message on which the Bill is based.

I have two comments on the Bill, the first of which concerns numbers in the assembly. The system of six representatives from each of the 18 parliamentary constituencies has been portrayed as a bribe or a sop to small parties, but such a sop could have been contrived much more effectively. We want as many aspects of political life in Northern Ireland as possible to be represented in the assembly in a broad democratic process; we want inclusivity. There is no sinister motive and there has been no bribery to make small parties sign up.

My second point relates to substitution for vacancies, about which there has been considerable debate. As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has said, in a proportional representation system it is more just in democratic terms to have a replacement process rather than an elective process to fill a vacancy. In any PR electoral system, the majority party would always win

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a single by-election, which would deny the system's proportionality. It is logical to make arrangements that presume that parties will negotiate and agree to fill vacancies by means other than the election of a single replacement in one constituency.

I affirm once again that the Bill will enable the people of Northern Ireland to have an election--what is wrong with that?--and to establish an assembly, which I hope and pray will make arrangements to take us into the next millennium in peace. I cannot for the life of me think of how anyone could object to those two principles. The agreement gives the people of Northern Ireland the authority to express their opinion in a referendum. If it is successful and there is a yes vote, they will have the democratic right to elect people to represent them in the new process.

7.18 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I shall be brief, because I am humbled, as the representative of the Liberal Democrat party, to listen to so many hon. Members who have such experience of the Province and bring to the debate not simply the past two years but a lifetime of work there.

I apologise to the House, and especially to the Secretary of State, for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), who had an accident in the Easter holiday. He sends his best wishes. He has worked hard to try to get to know what is happening within the Province.

I have sat here for the past three hours, and have become increasingly depressed that what was an historic achievement on Good Friday should very quickly begin to descend back into the old partisan situation. I understand fully where the Unionist Members are coming from. I hope that hon. Members will give them the respect they deserve for their views, but equally I hope that Unionist Members will recognise that they are at a pivotal point in the history of Northern Ireland, and that the way in which they conduct themselves and the views they represent are important to the whole peace process.

It was rather sad that Senator Mitchell came in for criticism. His work as chairman has been remarkable. I pay tribute from the Liberal Democrat Benches to him, and to all those people of whatever persuasion who paid such a high price to come to the agreement on Good Friday. I welcome on behalf of the Liberal Democrats the ringing endorsements of the Irish Parliament yesterday for both the peace settlement and the agreement. We should not underestimate how important it is that the relationship with the Republic remains on the level it is, and how important it is that its people endorse whatever happens under the peace settlement.

On Monday, the Liberal Democrats made clear with our leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), our position on the agreement. I whole-heartedly repeat on behalf of the party our congratulations and endorsement of the agreement. We generally welcome the Bill, but we do not believe that it is simply a procedural matter, as it has been portrayed by some hon. Members today. It is more than that. It is an important next step on the road to peace. It has to be recognised as such, and not seen simply as a small piece of enabling legislation.

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My family come from Ireland--from Donegal. I have large contingents in Belfast, Donegal and Limerick. On Good Friday, I rang up a number of my family both in Belfast and in parts of Donegal. There was genuine euphoria both from people who were hard-line republicans and from people who were very much committed to another route. They saw the agreement as a real step on the road to peace.

I have been going over and back to the Province and to the Republic all my life. It is sad that, in the past 25 to 30 years, the hassles that my relatives have had to put up with have been typical of what ordinary families--ordinary working people--have had to put up with to bring up their families and further their careers.

We welcome the Bill, because we must not waste the opportunity. I find it bizarre that hon. Members on the Unionist Bench feel that consensus is somehow not to be trusted, and regard the fact that parties support each other across the Floor of the House as a conspiracy. I find that rather sad. The public not only in Northern Ireland but across the whole of the United Kingdom have begun to abhor the adversarial way in which the political system operates. They want to see more consensus.

On the streets of Belfast, one would find that an awful lot of people want consensus from their politicians rather than seeing them constantly try to pick faults with each other. Yes, they want argument, and they want the principles and practice to be put forward, but they also want to see their politicians make progress, not constantly go back into the past.

There are clearly a number of problems with the agreement. They will have to be hammered out and argued through over the months, indeed the years, to come, but it is the implementation of the agreement that raises the real issues. The agreement relies on good will. Without good will, it has no hope. That good will needs to be buoyant, and to be buoyed up as we move towards the referendum. The referendum is the first test of the will of the people and whether they have the good will to carry things forward.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) was right to say in an intervention that only time would show whether this was a good agreement. It is only in the months, the years, the decades, to come, that, if the agreement is part of a process to bring lasting peace, people will look back, despite their opposition, and say that it was a price worth paying.

I disagreed with the shadow Secretary of State when he said that the legislation set up a shadow assembly which did not have the same significance as the assembly to come. I think that it has perhaps even more significance. What happens in shadow organisations for local authorities and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies--the relationships, commitments and working practices that are built up--frames the future. The Bill is extremely important. Yes, it sets up a shadow authority, but it is important that that works, and that we recognise as the House of Commons that it is an important step.

I do not want to keep the House any longer, because hon. Members wish to make their contributions, but I commend the Bill to the House. Liberal Democrats strongly support the Government's approach, and trust that the Bill will have a successful passage this evening.

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