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Mr. Thompson: I have a simple question for the hon. Gentleman. If the Parliament in Scotland decided to have a referendum on whether to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom, would he be prepared to accept a simple majority, even if a majority in the Parliament was opposed to the proposal?

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. The debate is going wide of the amendments before the Committee.

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Hon. Members must remember that amendments are narrow and that they should keep their arguments within the confines of those amendments.

Dr. Godman: I expected your intervention, Mr. Martin. I did not intend to answer that question.

The consent of the people in a mature parliamentary democracy must override the views of parliamentary representatives. For change to be given legitimacy, it must meet the expectations and concerns of the people whose lives will, in the words of the hon. and learned Member for North Down, be changed. In that sense, referendums have more legitimacy than some of the divisions that take place in our Parliaments and Assemblies.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Godman: I shall give way if the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind your strictures, Mr. Martin.

Mr. Robinson: Will the hon. Gentleman define the term used in the Bill--

What is a majority of the people of Northern Ireland as opposed to a majority of those voting?

Dr. Godman: That is a good question. In the custom and practice of referendums, we speak of those who have the right to vote in elections. The hon. Gentleman may say that he does not like that definition of a majority in Northern Ireland, but I do not understand how otherwise one can define a majority. That must be a simple majority, not a weighted one, because George Cunningham and his supporters did us no favours 19 or 20 years ago.

I have some understanding of the concerns of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), but he must continue engaging, as he has done so admirably up to now, in honourable debate with hon. Members such as constitutional nationalists who sit on this side of the Committee. The amendments are wrong in principle and they would be disastrous in practice.

Mr. Öpik: I have been examining the Belfast agreement. I assume that many of us accept that it is the starting point and that if we ever need help with interpretation we should return to the agreement to find out what it says.

There is a potential contradiction on pages 2 and 3 of the agreement that requires clarification. As the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has already pointed out, on page 2, under "Constitutional Issues", the agreement states that the participants will,

On page 3, paragraph 2 of schedule 1 states:

    "Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland."

There is potential confusion there. On one page, the agreement seems to refer to 50 per cent. or more of those who are eligible to vote; on another, it seems to refer to 50 per cent. or more of those who choose to vote.

Mr. Robinson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are two stages in the process? Even in the annexe,

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the first stage is referred to as requiring a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has to determine when the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wish to leave the United Kingdom. In that sense, the Secretary of State should be making such a determination based on the wish of a majority of the people, as opposed to a majority of the electorate or a majority of those who will be voting, but when the Secretary of State then calls a poll, under the annexe it will be based on a majority of those voting.

Mr. Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman demonstrates, the point needs to be clarified. That is exactly my concern. Given the seriousness of what will take place if such a referendum is held, it is important that we determine now exactly what we are looking for and what we would expect in this context. At least twice in those two pages there is a reference to a majority of those entitled to vote, and I seek clarification on that.

I should also like the Minister to explain what he sees as the role of the House of Commons before a referendum is held. Would it have a debate? What other role would it have before the Secretary of State initiated a referendum?

9.45 pm

Mr. Temple-Morris: I have been listening carefully and I hope that I am not alone in thinking that a certain unease is beginning to creep into the debate about the language used, not only in the amendments but in the various documents. During the debate on amendment No. 60, I disagreed very much with the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney). This time I pay him the compliment of saying that I listened to his speech carefully.

The constitutional significance of the Bill and the amendments, and of any referendum that might result, is enormous, so we must get this right. I do not like weighted majorities any more than anybody else, but we are dealing here--surely to goodness we all know it and that is why we are here--with a unique situation in our islands. That uniqueness may even go beyond our islands.

We must get this matter right. The language does not hang together. If the lawyer in some of us comes out, it does not appear to be quite right. The Bill is clear. Clause 1(1) refers to

Clause 1(2) contains the words

    "expressed by a majority in such a poll".

Therefore, the Bill is clear enough.

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) that the language of his amendment goes to the heart of the discrepancies more than the amendment so moderately moved by the right hon. Member forUpper Bann (Mr. Trimble). The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) mentioned the Belfast agreement, but paragraph 1(v) of the agreement between the two Governments contains the words

That is a straight bland comment.

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In the constitutional section at the beginning of her statement to the House, the Secretary of State referred to the principle of consent and said:

That is another interpretation of it.

I make no plea, simply a statement to hon. Members from Northern Ireland that having another Division at this stage with the result that could emerge would belie the seriousness of the issue. We must hear the Front-Bench spokesmen, but, whatever we end up voting for, I hope that the language and the discrepancies will be worked out. I repeat that I do not like weighted majorities, but the seriousness of the situation deserves a symmetry of language.

Mr. McNamara: The Bill simply incorporates the draft clauses and schedules as contained in annexe A of the agreement, to which I refer my hon. Friend. That is what was agreed, and to depart from that would be to depart from the agreement.

Mr. Temple-Morris: My hon. Friend is the last person with whom I would want to disagree on that, but what he says does not alter the fact that, in other material documents and in agreements solemnly entered into by the two Governments, the language is at odds with the language of the Bill. The seriousness of the issue--a referendum and the constitutional results that would flow from it--merits a symmetry of language. I hope that the Minister will think about that both now and as consideration of the Bill progresses. If, afterwards, the Bill is the same, we shall no doubt vote on it in due course.

Mrs. Fyfe: I urge Unionist Members to think carefully about pressing the amendment to the vote, as some hon. Members have had bad experiences of such measures. The Bill must mean what it says when it specifies

How can the views of people who do not vote be taken into account? People can vote by postal ballot or by proxy, so anyone who is not totally brain dead may vote if he or she cares enough about the issue. If people do not vote, we must presume that they do not care much one way or the other. Only the views of those who vote in any ballot anywhere can be taken into account.

Such a poll will not fall from the skies; there will be one only if it is obvious that a clear current of opinion is running one way or the other. Who in their right mind would hold such a poll if they thought that the outcome was on a such knife edge that it could go 1 per cent. either way?

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): The hon. Lady is talking about the wrong matter. There is no question that the views of those who have not voted will be taken into account. The clause specifically refers to

As there are 1.6 million people in Northern Ireland, the clause must mean that 800,000 plus one must vote for any change in the constitution.

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