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Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Without entering into a debate on the merits of the amendment, will the hon. Gentleman explain why the amendment contains a reference to a cross-community vote as defined in clause 4(5), when that clearly can be defined only by reference to the designation of nationalists or Unionists in terms of the Assembly and when the vote that is envisaged in clause 1 would be a vote by the voters of Northern Ireland who would not all be members of the Assembly nor designated?

Mr. Robinson: The amendment says that a motion in the Assembly would have to be passed by a cross- community vote under clause 4(5) to advise the Secretary of State that the appropriate time had come for her to call the poll of the people of Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will see another amendment in my name which recommends, much on the basis of the Scottish and Welsh referendums in the past, that a majority of the electorate is required, as opposed to a simple majority, when the referendum is held.

8.15 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): The hon. Members for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) say that they cannot see a majority favouring a united Ireland. Nevertheless, they still want belt and braces to protect their position. That is slightly illogical. They advocate a dictatorship by a minority. Under the amendment, an overwhelming majority of at least 60 per cent. for a united Ireland would be blocked if a majority in one of the cross-community bodies did not want to be part of a united Ireland. That is the purpose of the amendment and that is completely undemocratic.

There is a great deal of difference between the nature of the Assembly and the nature of the decisions that the Assembly will be taking on a cross-community basis and those affecting the future of the Union. If such an amendment were agreed, it would be dangerous because

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it would result in a dictatorship by a minority within the community as a whole. The hon. Gentlemen might be happy to think in such terms, but that is what they would achieve.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): The hon. Gentleman is right, but does he accept that almost every decision in the Assembly will be taken under such a system and, therefore, the whole Assembly is undemocratic?

Mr. McNamara: No, I do not accept that because we are talking about a devolved government with a special set of arrangements. The amendment affects the status of Northern Ireland. The Bill provides that, when a majority of the people in Northern Ireland seek the change, it should take place. The amendment suggests that a minority can prevent the wishes of 60 or 70 per cent. of the population being carried forwards.

Yes, that does go to the question of the Union, but the agreement and the legislation have established that the strength of the Union depends not upon the opinions eventually of hon. Members, or indeed of this island, but upon the strength of the opinions of the people in Northern Ireland, whose wishes have been accepted by the people in the Republic of Ireland. Under the agreement, the Union is maintained not by our wishes, but by the wishes of the people of the Republic of Ireland. That is the truth of the agreement. If the hon. Member for North Antrim and his hon. Friends want to maintain such support as they have in Ireland, and if they want to maintain the Union, they must be straight and not fiddle the system, which is what the amendment would do.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): The Committee should address some of the fundamental principles of democracy, as they are inherent in the application of the amendment, which I support. It has been suggested--I think that it is accepted in principle--that democracy means majority rule, but not unbridled majority rule. Principles for the protection of minorities are encapsulated in all modern constitutions, particularly written constitutions.

It has been decided that, in Northern Ireland--this is the essence of the agreement and the Assembly that it sets up--there can be no majority decision making or majority democracy, even with built-in protections; there must be equality of treatment. That is why we have a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who are elected jointly and who will fall jointly; it is why every important decision requires consensus in both communities, even though, numerically and electorally, one of the communities is significantly smaller than the other. An accommodation based on consensus has been accepted as the price that has to be paid for agreement.

On the most fundamental issue of all--whether Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom or departs into a united Ireland--the ordinary principles of democracy and majority decision making are imposed. In other words, we may not have a majority decision about anything Unionist, but a final and unalterable decision that may be made at any time by a nationalist majority--to abandon for all time the British link and the Union and become part of a united Ireland--may be decided on a single vote. That is a dramatic reversal.

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As the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) pointed out, a simple majority of one vote on a border poll that is called as and when the Secretary of State wants is enough to transform Northern Ireland, removing it from the United Kingdom and making it part of a united Ireland. The Bill may indeed advocate that, but the reality is that such a course of action would be a recipe for absolute disaster. As the date for the vote approached, the whole population would be on their starting blocks, ready to take whatever action--perhaps violent--that they thought necessary.

The amendment would not give the Secretary of State such unbridled power. It would allow her to test, through the elected Assembly, whether there was a real consensus for a border poll to be called. It conforms to the consensus principle that many people are prepared to accept and which applies to every other issue. If such a consensus could be obtained in the Assembly, it is likely that the border poll would be carried by a majority that was large enough to have what could be described as political efficacy.

Mr. McNamara: As I understand the hon. and learned Gentleman's position, he is against the Bill and against the agreement. However, under legislation that applied before the agreement, border polls could be carried by a majority of one. If he votes for the amendment, he will be voting for principles that are contained in existing legislation and in clause 1--there would be no alteration of the status quo.

Mr. McCartney: I am dealing with the amendment and the current position. I had nothing to do with the constitutional legislation that provided for the 1972 border poll, but if it had been decided then, by one vote or a tiny majority, that Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom, that would have been as unworkable as the current proposals. The fact that the principle was bad in the past is no justification for continuing with it, as it is equally unworkable now.

Mr. McNamara: The hon. and learned Gentleman did not argue that then.

Mr. McCartney: The suggestion is that I never argued that. I was never called on to argue it; I am simply stating what my view is here and now. If one really wants the principle of consensus to work, one should test it in the Assembly; if there is no consensus among the elected members--on the basis of clause 4(5)--it is unlikely that there will be a majority in the country large enough to have any political efficacy.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): If such a poll was carried out, and delivered the verdict that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted to stay in the United Kingdom, what would the hon. and learned Gentleman say to the majority of the designated nationalists who said that they disagreed? I imagine that he would tell them to get lost, and would he not be right to do so?

Mr. McCartney: With respect, exactly the same principles would apply. The amendment would require, on the same fundamental principles that are contained in

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the Bill, a nationalist consensus. If nationalists said that a border poll should not be called, the poll would not be called.

The amendment would work both ways; as elsewhere in the Bill, it would require a consensus on both sides. It would prevent the Secretary of State from making the silly, politically ineffective and dangerous decision of calling a border poll in which there was likely to be a majority of 1 or 2 per cent. either way, which would be unworkable. Northern Ireland is not Wales. Something that may work in Wales on the basis of a fractional majority above 50 per cent. of those voting would certainly not work in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). He may take it as good news that I do not believe that there will be a referendum on the subject for many years to come, if ever. When he talks about the fundamental principles of democracy and majorities and minorities, I respectfully remind him--I do not say this malignly--that one of the main historical arguments, as he knows better than I do, concerns who is the majority and who is the minority. That is why we have to do the best we can in establishing special arrangements for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The hon. and learned Gentleman does not address another aspect of fundamental democracy--the Union that he wants to hang on to, that he will hang on to and that we want him to hang on to. That is democracy at the level of the United Kingdom, which is about responsibility to the House of Commons. The amendment focuses on Northern Ireland, but the clause deals with the United Kingdom--it deals with the Secretary of State, the House of Commons and Parliament.


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