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8.45 pm

Mr. Robert McCartney: The Minister implies that the terms of the agreement were put before the people of Northern Ireland and asserts that the arguments being advanced today are valid in their own right. When the Government sought the people's endorsement, did they put those valid arguments to them?

Mr. Murphy: I said that, for debating purposes, the arguments are valid--of course they are. However, they are consistent with neither the Bill, the agreement nor the spirit of the agreement. The spirit of the agreement is that the Secretary of State should, when she or he thinks fit--this is reproduced in schedule 1--hold a border poll. The gap between the border polls would be no less than seven years. However, no Secretary of State would hold such a poll unless he or she thought that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted a change to be effected. The Secretary of State would then have to come to this House and put that point.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Where in the Bill is the Secretary of State required to come to this House to ask it to hold a border poll? It requires that she ask the House to give effect to what happens as a result of a border poll.

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The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) said that the Secretary of State came to this House because she had to. She does not have to; she does so of her own volition.

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I am saying that the result of the poll is then relayed to the House, as it was in the case of the referendums for Wales and for Scotland.

The underlying issue is that of consent. The purpose of discussing whether this provision will take us down the road to a United Ireland is overridden by the fact that the spirit of the agreement and the Bill is based squarely on the consent of the majority of people who live in Northern Ireland. There is nothing more and nothing less than that in it.

Mr. Winnick: Over the past quarter of a century or more, especially when the United States has attempted to give the impression that we are using Northern Ireland as a colony, we have argued that we are respecting the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland. Would not the amendment undermine the essence of that argument?

Mr. Murphy: Indeed. We accept that argument in other contexts, too. I do not want an independent Wales or an independent Scotland, but I would accept the wish of the majority of those people if they voted accordingly.

The Bill is clear: the Secretary of State may hold a poll at any time, and she must hold a poll if she thinks that a majority would be likely to vote in favour of a united Ireland. She would hold such a poll only if she thought precisely that, and it would have to be based on a proper assessment of the political circumstances at the time.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The kernel of the Minister's argument is that the agreement has been given the support of the people of Northern Ireland and it must therefore be given legislative effect in its entirety. Yet the notes on clauses say that there are clauses in the Bill that have no relevance to the agreement, because the agreement was silent on many of the issues contained in the Bill. The agreement does not say that the mechanism for putting it into effect cannot be what the amendment proposes. The amendment is not inconsistent with the agreement; it is simply a mechanism that will be brought into play.

Mr. Murphy: The agreement is clear, not only in terms of the clauses that the hon. Gentleman wants to amend, but in respect of schedule 1 to the Bill, which is schedule 1 to the agreement. It states:

It is quite right that the ability to hold such a poll should be in the hands of the Secretary of State, who is the Government's chief representative in Northern Ireland, but the essence of the argument is that the agreement tells us that that should be the case. The parties that met in Belfast said that that should be the case, and the people agreed it. Of course parts of the Bill clarify the agreement, but there is no need to clarify this part: it is crystal clear that the Secretary of State is the person who should have the ability to hold such a poll, and that it should be held on the basis of the consent of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland who vote in it.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): My hon. Friend mentioned the principle of consent.

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Despite what has been said from across the way, the Bill is entirely compatible with the objectives of the Welsh and the Scottish legislation.

Mr. Murphy: I understand that. The Bill is based on what the Government are doing throughout the United Kingdom, whether in London, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland--we are holding referendums to ask the people what they think.

Mr. Thompson: What would happen if 51 per cent. of those who voted in a referendum voted to go into a united Ireland, and a majority in the Assembly had voted to stay within the United Kingdom? What would the Government do then?

Mr. Murphy: There would be a big disagreement, but there is no doubt that the will of the people must prevail.

Mr. Thompson: Does that mean that the view of an elected Assembly in Northern Ireland in which a majority wanted to stay in the United Kingdom would be rejected, and the view expressed in a referendum would not?

Mr. Murphy: We are getting into awful hypothetical situations. We will discuss the percentage when we come to the next group of amendments. The chief reason why the Government cannot accept the amendment is because it goes against the agreement. As a consequence of that, I ask hon. Members to reject them.

Rev. Ian Paisley: What I want to say to the Minister is simple: nothing in the agreement forbids him to accept the amendment. It substantiates the fact that the Secretary of State will have the right to hold a poll, but it also provides that she should consult the Assembly. Surely that does not go against the spirit of the agreement.

I am glad that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) has been converted to majority rule--it has come as a tremendous revelation on this vital issue. Labour Members should look to the history of their party. Where did this all come from? It came from Mr. Herbert Morrison and from a distinguished Labour Prime Minister, Mr. Clement Attlee, who took on the Dublin Government, because he was not a bit afraid of them. He decided that the Parliament of Northern Ireland would decide on remaining within the Union.

When the Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued, I moved in the House that the issue should come back to the people and should be decided by the majority. Other amendments deal with who are the majority of the people. I remind Labour Members that I sat in the House through intense debates about devolution for Scotland. I remember their saying that they would not accept a majority vote at all, and that a majority of the people of Scotland must vote for devolution. If that was good enough for Scotland on devolution--not on going out of the United Kingdom--surely it is good enough for us to say what we are saying without being hammered down as if we are bigots of some sort.

We must consider this realistically. The Minister referred to Wales and Scotland voting in a referendum on independence. Is he telling me that he would stand at the

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Dispatch Box and say to the Scottish people that Scotland would have to leave the United Kingdom immediately if one person provided a majority? Would he come to the House and recommend, as a Minister, that Scotland should get out of the United Kingdom? Would he do the same for his own country? Certainly not--and he knows that. We are presenting an argument that we have a right to present.

Then there is the question of voting in the Assembly. I have heard a good deal about people rejecting the referendum. People rejected the Tory party; does that mean that, having been rejected by the people, the Tory party should not continue to be represented in the House of Commons? The Labour party has been rejected at times; does that mean that the Tories should take its place? We are all democrats. We come back, and we fight in defence of our principles. It is suggested that the line should be "You need not bother to fight, because the people have decided the issue once and for all, and it can never be changed." But politics is about change, and the House should be prepared to listen to people who are democrats.

I could say many things about the referendum. I will say that I do not think it right for a Prime Minister to make promises to the people, and to tell them that those promises will be included in legislation--and I cannot find those promises anywhere in the Bill. I do not think it right to say, in such circumstances, that the result of the referendum should stand.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) says that there may never be a referendum. In that case, why is he voting for one tonight? I asked the former Prime Minister--in the presence of the two other party leaders, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and the then right hon. Member for Lagan Valley--to give us a border poll. Such polls were to take place over 10 years; in fact, we had only one. The then Prime Minister said no. When I asked why not, he said, "We know the result, so it is not necessary." When I asked the same question of the present Prime Minister, he said the same. I said, "Why not take the matter to the people? After the people had spoken, you could put the matter aside and get on with the nitty-gritty of politics in Northern Ireland." The Prime Minister said no.

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