Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Godman: I merely wanted to remind my hon. Friend that weighted majorities have unintended consequences, as we discovered in Scotland. The people of Northern Ireland would find the same.

Mr. McNamara: I bear in mind what you have said, Mr. Martin, but you will recall that the burden of the speech of the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) drew in aid the previous experience in Scotland, so I thought that the record should be put straight for those who were not fortunate enough to be here on those great and stirring occasions.

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1207

The agreement was accepted by many parties. When my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party accepted the agreement, they did not accept the interpretation put forward by the Democratic Unionist party and others. There are many parties to the agreement. It would be wrong to suggest that my hon. Friend the Minister or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State could rewrite the agreement without recourse, sense, feeling or discussions with all the other parties.

Under the heading "Constitutional Issues", the agreement says:

There is no mention of a weighted majority or the number of people entitled to vote. People understand and accept that that means a simple majority.

I am sure that none of the Unionist Members would insist that they had to have the support of 50 per cent. plus one of all those entitled to vote in their constituency to be able to sit in the House. Many of them are not in that position. If they won an election by one vote, they would not say, "Oh dear me! I cannot go along to the House of Commons and take my seat because I have got a majority of only one vote." We have never decided that a Government should cease to be the Government because they have a majority of only one. That is a foolish argument.

The aim of the amendments is to undermine the agreement. Those who support them want to achieve what they could not achieve by negotiation or by other means: they want to change the agreement as it was written and accepted in the referendum in Northern Ireland. I urge the Committee not to accept the amendments.

9.30 pm

Mr. Robert McCartney: I shall first deal with the lack of logic of the remarks of the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). To suggest that a constitutional change involving the political and national identity of, perhaps, upwards of 1 million people, in a highly charged and emotional situation, is in any way comparable with winning a parliamentary or other election by a small majority--whether it is one, two or 20 votes--indicates the wisdom of the aphorism that logic makes a very good servant but a very indifferent master. There is absolutely no common sense in such a comparison.

The main reason behind the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) is to recognise the important constitutional significance of a poll that would change fundamentally and basically that

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1208

which most people consider to be of vital importance: their national and political identity. I can think of nothing worse than being a stateless person. To have such a sense of identity is fundamental to all of us; it is where we belong. Changing that sense of identity is so grave and significant that it ought not to be done on the basis of any analogy of winning an election by one vote.

I draw to the attention of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), who may have been present at the time--it would have been of much greater importance had the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), the joint Minister designate in the Assembly, been present--that, during the first 14 months of negotiations which gave rise to the agreement, it was recognised by all present that the understanding was that

Perhaps the right hon. Member for Upper Bann can confirm that those words were recorded by representatives of the two Governments in the talks. In practical terms, amendment No. 106 reflects that requirement.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann suggested that, although a majority of less than 60 per cent. would not represent an absolute ban on action, the matter would still be one for the Secretary of State's discretion. Unless such a majority is achieved, such a decision should not be taken lightly. If the majority is under 60 per cent., the decision to go ahead might be precatory, but, if it is over 60 per cent., the decision to act would be mandatory. To suggest that any Government would blithely, on the most simple of majorities, remove the national political status of 1 million of their citizens is beyond belief. No constitutional and democratic Government should be entertaining that if they intend to bring about what Harold Laski might have described as "social peace" of a substantial section of the community.

In effect, the hon. Member for Belfast, East has suggested an alternative: that the majority should be of those on the electoral roll. Again, comparisons can be odious, but in Wales barely more than 50 per cent. of those on the electoral roll actually voted, and a fraction more than 25 per cent. of those on the electoral roll took the decision, as it turned out, to have devolution for Wales.

As it happened, because of the nature of things in Wales, that was not crucial--but can we imagine a border poll taking place with only 51 per cent. of the electorate turning out to vote, and just over 25 per cent. of the entire population, who none the less form a simple majority of those actually voting, determining to remove the political and national identity of nearly 1 million people?

No one who seriously considered that prospect, and who had in mind the good government and social peace of those who would be affected by the decision, could, in my humble submission to the Committee, conceivably refuse to entertain one or other of the amendments.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) cited the section on "Constitutional Issues" in the agreement, but clause 1(i), which he quoted, refers to recognising

22 Jul 1998 : Column 1209

    It does not say a simple majority, a majority of 60 per cent., or a majority of those on the electoral roll. It says:

    "a majority of the people".

What is more, it was recognised by everyone--I hope that I can persuade the hon. Member for Hull, North to accept this--that all the parties present, and both Governments, in the negotiations leading up to the agreement, recognised and recorded the fact that the agreement reflecting the overall package had to be supported by more than a simple majority. The majority had to be of such a substantial kind as would lend not only political efficacy but political reality to what is being committed to law. I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Dr. Godman: I listened carefully to the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) and I think he said that a poll determining the future of1 million people at an emotionally charged moment in the history of those people was not in any way analogous to a contest such as a parliamentary election.

Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman has a point there, but such a poll is comparable with a referendum in another country of some 5.5 million people. All that I can say, with reference to Scotland, is that our experience of weighted majorities in a referendum prompts me to argue against the amendment.

I can see that the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) is ready to jump to his feet, but in no way do I accept the contention that he offered us; that a referendum is a dangerous thing. In my view, Governments should hold referendums from time to time, as we did in Scotland and Wales.

Mr. Robert McCartney rose--

Mr. Thompson rose--

Dr. Godman: In a moment.

In terms of the comparative evidence in Scotland, there was a substantial majority for what even the hon. and learned Member for North Down would, I think, acknowledge will be radical constitutional change. That is what is in the Bill before us--radical constitutional change.

I understand some of the fears that have been voiced in connection with the amendments, but my view is that those people should be urged to engage in debate with constitutional nationalists about what has been said over the past few minutes, just as we engage in debate with our peaceable democratic secessionists. There are useful comparisons to be drawn, although I shall not argue for or against the hon. and learned Gentleman's analogy.

Next Section

IndexHome Page