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22 Jul 1998 : Column 1188

Northern Ireland Bill

[1st Allotted Day]

Considered in Committee, pursuant to Order [17 July].

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 1

Status of Northern Ireland

7.58 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): I beg to move amendment No. 60, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, at end insert--

'(1A) The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 without the Assembly giving its consent by a cross-community vote as defined in section 4(5).'.

As hon. Members and those who have been following the debate will be aware, the Bill strikes at the very heart of the Union. The Union rests on the sovereignty of this Parliament. When the Government of Ireland Act 1920 came into effect and the southern and northern parts each got a Parliament, a declaration was made in the Act that this Parliament was sovereign and controlled the jurisdiction of all of Ireland at that time. When the south of Ireland changed, having violated the treaty that it entered into, and became, first, the Irish Free State and then the Irish Republic, amendments were made to the Act. However, the Government of Ireland Act continued to declare the authority of this House as supreme and sovereign over Northern Ireland. That is done away with in clause 2, which repeals the Act.

Clause 2 states:

That goes back to the 1800 Act of Union and before that. I should be delighted if the Minister stood up and gave the lie to Bertie Ahern's statement in the Dail, when he said that the British were now out of the equation because they had been content to do away with the 1920 Act and would introduce a Bill--this Bill--that would make all the other Acts subservient to it. An axe has been taken to the root of the Union. No amount of argument can take away that fact, which is on the face of the Bill.

All that stands between us and a united Ireland is not legislation in this House but a vote in a poll that will take place when the Secretary of State decides. No elected person in Northern Ireland will have any say about that. The Secretary of State can say, on a whim, "I shall have a poll, which will be a one-way street. You can vote either to become part of a united Ireland or to remain within the United Kingdom." No other option will be given.

There must be a safeguard, which is why my hon. Friends and I have tabled the amendment. We have heard the Minister of State praising the Assembly. He has been saying how great it is that the Bill will give responsibility to the elected people of Northern Ireland and that there is a democratic deficit that the Government are tackling. Why not therefore trust the Assembly on the great issue of the Union? Why should not the Assembly have the opportunity not only to advise the Secretary of State on that issue but to do so on the same basis--the consensus principle--that has been devised to make a majority a minority in the Assembly and a minority a majority?

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As the Minister knows well, the votes in the Assembly must be a majority of the Unionist-registered Members and a majority of the nationalist-registered Members. Now, all that will be needed to change everything that the Bill is setting up and everything else in Northern Ireland is a simple majority of one. If there is a majority of one in the referendum, Northern Ireland will immediately go down the line to a united Ireland. We do not know what preservation there will be for the Unionists in Northern Ireland. There are no safeguards or recommendations. We shall simply have a united Ireland.

We are arguing that a safeguard should exist for the people of Northern Ireland. The nationalists will be represented. The second Minister, or as the Bill tells us, the nationalist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland--the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)--will be in the Assembly. He makes many recommendations. He will give us a new House of Lords--all the members of the new civic forum will be picked by two men. That is better than the House of Lords, as at least there will be even odds about who will be a member. All that will be in the charge of two men. On that issue, not even the First Minister, the Prime Minister of the Unionists, or the second Minister, the Prime Minister of the nationalists, will have any say.

This Committee should say tonight, "We think that the Assembly should be consulted on such a vital issue. If consensus, or the basis of consensus, cannot be reached in that Assembly, how can there be majority support in the country?"

There may be repetition of such referendums, but even the first time that such a vote takes place--I know that there is a condition that another cannot take place for 10 years--it will have a destabilising effect on the whole Province. The Province will suddenly be plunged into a referendum after all the commotion that we have had on this Bill. The Committee should be wise and say, "Yes, the Assembly should have the opportunity to vote on a referendum and, if the vote is in favour, then by all means that referendum should be held."

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). It deals with the issue that is most critical and central to politics in Northern Ireland--whether Northern Ireland is to remain part of the United Kingdom or whether it is to become part of a united Ireland.

My hon. Friend has already said that there is a limitation on the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland--they can move only in one direction. They cannot, for example, choose a form of dominion status, which is the kind of constitutional future that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) once advocated. I still have the documentation on that. Other options for an independent Ulster could still be open to the people of Northern Ireland, but not under the Bill.

Under the Bill, the people of Northern Ireland are allowed only to go into a united Ireland or remain in the United Kingdom. They can remain in the United Kingdom not like other citizens, but in a transitional form as they move gently out of the United Kingdom and into a united Ireland ascribed for them in clause 1. Only one option is offered to them in the clause because the whole purpose of the Bill is to lead towards that very option. The Bill's

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purpose is to take the people of Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into a united Ireland. The provision of clause 1 is to make that come about at the appropriate time. Nowhere in the Bill does it state how the Secretary of State is to determine when the moment has come to call a poll for that purpose.

The Secretary of State will be able to look at the election results and say, fairly clearly, how many Unionists there are and what votes Unionists and nationalists have. Therefore, we have to take ourselves forward to that moment in time when the Secretary of State tots up the votes for Unionists and the votes for nationalists and discovers that half a dozen more nationalists have voted than Unionists. No doubt, at that moment in time, the pressure will come from nationalists for the Secretary of State to call a poll under what will then be the Act. If the Secretary of State were to give in to that pressure, he would end up with a narrow result one way or the other.

Does anyone really believe that, if the Secretary of State is required by the Bill, on the basis of a handful of votes of a majority, to put Northern Ireland into a united Ireland, that will provide a peaceful future for the people of Northern Ireland? It is a preposterous thought, but it is what the Bill requires the Secretary of State to do at that moment in time.

The amendment puts a more sensible proposal before the Committee. It acknowledges that, on every other issue, the Government recognise in the Bill that there is a division in Northern Ireland that requires more than a simple majority for decisions to be taken. Why should the majority outlined in the Bill to take Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom be a majority of a simple variety? If it is right within the Assembly to have a consensus vote on some planning, health or agricultural matter, why is it not required for the crucial issue of the future of the Union itself? If the amendment were accepted, we would have reached the stage where a significant majority had supported the concept of a united Ireland, so we could move towards that knowing that there would not be the deep divisions that would otherwise occur.

Clearly, the statistics are such that it may never occur. This is my 20th year in the House and, in each of those years, I have been told that a united Ireland is just around the corner. If it is simply to be left to the arithmetic in Northern Ireland, it is no closer today than it was 20 years ago.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Presumably, the hon. Gentleman refers to those on the Government Benches when he says that he has been told that a united Ireland is just around the corner. I wonder who put forward that view. I have always taken the view that, if there is to be a united Ireland, it will be long in the future. I have never for one moment believed that there would be a majority in Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future for the kind of state to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I am surprised. Can the hon. Gentleman name any Labour Member who has said otherwise?

Mr. Robinson: I shall answer that question, Mr. Haselhurst, in so far as you will allow me to go outside the terms of the amendment. The reality is that the Government's policy is based on the premise of the

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inevitability of a united Ireland. They would not follow the policy that they have at present if they did not believe that that was the direction in which the Province was heading. I do not simply blame the Labour Government for that. They were not the first ones to push down that road. That was the policy being pursued by their predecessors in government.

The principle behind the amendment is that it should take more than a simple majority for Northern Ireland to be put out of the United Kingdom, and for a poll which can be divisive in itself, to be held, there clearly is an advantage in having a weighted majority--if one can put it that way--within the Assembly suggesting to the Secretary of State that it is now time for her, or for him as the case may be, to call a vote.

The amendment should commend itself to the Committee, particularly as there are those, like the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who feel that a united Ireland is not something which will happen quickly and that one should take a moderate line on the position. Here is the opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to support us by voting for the amendment.

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