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Mr. Robert McCartney: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that both the previous Prime Minister and the current one emphasised that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to make the decision? That is the basis on which I support the amendment.

8.30 pm

Mr. Temple-Morris: That is precisely what it is about. If the Secretary of State, who is answerable to this House, decides that there should be such a referendum--I do not think that I shall see that day--it will be answerable to this House, and it will be a referendum of the people of Northern Ireland.

My next point deals directly with the comments by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). There is great repetition of the claim, and some great belief, that the whole purpose of the legislation is to deliver a united Ireland. There seems to be an underlying fear that everyone south of the border is itching to have the hon. and learned Member for North Down in the Dail rather than here.

I assure the hon and learned Gentleman that there is, in fact, a considerable feeling of relief that he is our responsibility, not theirs. All they want is to deliver peace to their island, which is also the island of the hon. and learned Gentleman. The legislation is not about delivering a united Ireland, but about delivering peace to the island of Ireland. I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman and others to try to see it from that perspective, because nobody, but nobody, is going to take Northern Ireland away from them.

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We are told that, the moment there is a population change in favour of the nationalists, there will immediately be enormous pressure on Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Republic of Ireland. That would be most unwise, and I greatly doubt whether, if there was some minor population change, which would take years to happen in any case, the nationalist community in Northern Ireland would risk reopening the sort of conflict which, by that time, would have been over for many years.

The clause is a good one. The matter is one for the United Kingdom Government of the day to deal with. As a United Kingdom matter, it will be dealt with by the Secretary of State. If we ever get to that stage, although I do not see us reaching it, the Assembly will clearly have a vested interest, because the matter will have left its Members to come up to the level of this place; but it must be dealt with by this House, and by the Government answerable to it.

Mr. Thompson: The amendment deals with one of the fundamental issues about which we as Unionists are greatly concerned. We believe that there are a terrible lot of people who want to put Northern Ireland into a united Ireland. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) seemed to be saying that that is not true, but perhaps he should speak to his hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and see whether he believes that. I think that the hon. Member for South Down is keen to see a united Ireland; certainly, over the years, he has done his best politically to get a united Ireland.

The idea that nobody wants a united Ireland is nonsense. The reality is that there is a movement to put Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Those of us who oppose the agreement are persuaded that the rationale behind the agreement is to get rid of us--perhaps not overnight, but gradually, over time, to try to persuade the people of Northern Ireland to join the people of the Republic of Ireland.

As I understand the current arrangements, there could be a border poll, to be decided by a simple majority; but that poll would not be a determinant or definite poll. In other words, the result would have to come here to the House of Commons--to this sovereign Parliament--and it would be for this Parliament to decide what to do about that poll. Clearly, if a majority of the people, or even of the electorate of Northern Ireland, voted to leave the United Kingdom, it would still be for this Parliament to decide what should happen. In other words, the poll would not be a definite decision.

However, under the Bill, when the poll is called the Secretary of State will be under an obligation to carry out the wishes expressed in that poll. That appears to me to be a significant constitutional change, and a weakening of the constitution governing Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I believe that we need an amendment to clarify that position.

We have heard a lot of talk about referendums. Referendums are dangerous things, and a democracy cannot operate under referendums. The question that is asked and the propaganda that is promoted can often influence the result, as we saw during the recent

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referendum in Northern Ireland. We live in a parliamentary democracy, so it is up to Parliament, or other democratically elected institutions, to decide issues. We should not have issues decided by referendum.

I believe that to have the Assembly vote on the issue would give a far more representative result than a referendum. That the Secretary of State should exercise the option given in the amendment and put such questions to the Assembly is but an instance of democracy. Therefore, I believe that the Committee should support the amendment.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): We have heard from the supporters of the amendment a novel set of presentations, convoluted in their interpretation of democracy and of figures. It is the first time that I have heard the Unionist family, if I may call them that, indicate that 51 per cent. in support of the Union is not acceptable to them. That assertion has come from several hon. Members who have already clearly indicated that 71 per cent. of a referendum vote by the people of Northern Ireland is not acceptable by turning their faces against that verdict of the people of Northern Ireland and against the implementation of the Belfast agreement. That belies the integrity of the argument about the numbers game. If the time came, and we were foolish enough to accept this amendment, the argument regarding 51 per cent. would be offered for 61 per cent.

The, I hope, devolved Northern Ireland Assembly will deal with subjects that are transferred from this place. Reserve powers will be retained by the Secretary of State and, through her, this place will maintain sovereignty. In that context, there is a great differential between those two concepts. As we are talking about mathematics, we should recognise that cross-community or parallel consensus requires a majority of Unionists and a majority of nationalists, and others, who constitute the whole. A majority of the parts is obviously a majority of the whole, which comprises those parts. The mathematics of the matter erode the substance of the argument advanced by the last few speakers.

I return to the basics. The acceptance of the will of the people of Northern Ireland by Unionists on any matter is always subject to party politics. The will and the wish of the people is seldom the end product that is addressed. That is illustrated clearly by the fact that the anti-agreement Unionist family have rejected totally the 71 per cent. figure--they argue that it was the result of a propaganda machine, deceit, misrepresentation and so on. I have witnessed politics in Northern Ireland for the past several decades, and political life is driven by propaganda. So what is new now? If Unionist Members are insinuating that the people of Northern Ireland are stupid and do not know what they voted for, it is a deep insult to them.

Mr. Robert McCartney: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, if a simple majority of 51 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland voted to move into a united Ireland, that would make for social or political peace in Northern Ireland? Is that his argument?

Mr. McGrady: No, it is not. A result of 51 per cent. would indicate what it indicates: 51 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland--the majority--would like to be associated with the rest of Ireland. The hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) implied that there was

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something wrong with people aspiring to a united Ireland achieved through peaceful and democratic means. I see nothing wrong with that. I have lived with that idea and worked towards it all my life through purely democratic, argumentative and persuasive means. Hon. Members may rest assured that I shall continue to do so--even to the point of trying to persuade the hon. Gentleman that that is the most advantageous way for Ireland to advance politically, socially and economically. My party puts on record its opposition to the amendment before the Committee this evening.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy): This has been a most interesting debate at the beginning of the Committee's consideration of the Bill. I do not intend to stray into the next batch of amendments, which deal with the question of a majority, but we cannot treat this amendment or those that accompany it in a vacuum.

On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend and many other right hon. and hon. Members said that the Bill is based upon the agreement for which a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted. The hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) was correct to refer to democracy. However, we must have at the back of our minds what constitutes democracy when it comes to these matters. In this case, democracy means that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted for the agreement. Clause 1, which we are considering and which the hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues wish to amend, is part of the agreement--word for word. I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to page 3 of the agreement, the top two paragraphs of which are reproduced in subsections (1) and (2) of clause 1. Given that the House of Commons is enacting the agreement, it would not be right for it to change it as suggested.

I do not say that the arguments that have been put forward do not have merit in their own right, but that is overridden by the fact that the political parties in Northern Ireland, and, above all, the people of Northern Ireland, signified their assent to those paragraphs, which are now in the Bill.

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