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9.45 am

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I shall be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I, too, want to contribute to the civilised nature of the debate. If the Secretary of State wants to find me in a couple of weeks, I shall be long gone--

Mr. Jim Dowd (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury): But not forgotten.

Mr. Moss: It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to say so.

As the Secretary of State said, this is a major piece of constitutional legislation. It fits in with the rapid pace of change in Northern Ireland during her tenure of office. The Bill has gone through the House in record time. We know the reasons for that--commitments were given, and it has been part of a fluid and continuing process.

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The Opposition have taken a bipartisan approach, while giving the Bill full scrutiny. We recognise the need to get the Bill on the statute book, because at the heart of the process is the agreement. Whether or not we like the agreement, or think it will work to fulfil expectations, is irrelevant at this particular time. The agreement was arrived at by the various parties in the talks in Northern Ireland, and in that sense it is a local agreement. We are simply giving a statutory framework to what was agreed on Good Friday. It therefore ill behoves us to try to rewrite the agreement, and that has been the theme throughout our discussions over the past week or two.

I, too, want to give some praise to the civil servants in Northern Ireland, who have pulled out all the stops to get the Bill to this particular juncture in record time. It builds on the framework of existing Northern Ireland legislation, even though that legislation may now be on the shelf for some considerable time. The Bill introduces considerable new powers that reflect the agreement.

The Secretary of State said that the Government still recognise that a considerable amount of tidying up remains to be done, and discussions need to continue over the summer months. The Bill has yet to progress through the other place. The Opposition certainly intend to table amendments then to try to improve the Bill.

There have been few areas of disagreement, for the reasons that I have already outlined. The two areas of disagreement that remain concern clause 23, relating to the exclusion of Ministers from office, and clause 60 and related clauses on the Equality Commission. As we said during our debate the other evening, clause 23 is closely related to the release of prisoners and proscribing--or specifying, as the Bill puts it--certain terrorist organisations.

We recognise that the legislation is a matter of interpretation for the Secretary of State, and that it is her right to interpret it as she will, based on the information she possesses and her overall knowledge and perception of events in Northern Ireland. Occasionally, we will beg to differ on that interpretation. That principle has been the basis for the limited opposition that we have brought to bear.

I realise that clause 60 deals with a matter that is very dear to the Secretary of State's heart and that she would like, if at all possible, to proceed on it as stated in the Bill. However, she is aware, as are we all, of the disquiet that is still being expressed by some of the bodies that will be influenced by, and be party to, the change--particularly the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Northern Ireland Disability Council. Those three bodies are still very concerned at the implications of clause 60 and of the Bill generally.

We are pleased in some ways that the Minister, in his reply to the debate on those clauses, said that consultation and discussions will be continuing over the summer. We welcome that. It is important to try to arrive at a sensible compromise on which all parties can agree, rather than simply to push through provisions that currently seem not to have been subjected to the full range of consultation that was promised, or even expected.

The Opposition put down the marker that further amendments will be tabled in the other place, particularly amendments dealing with the matters that I

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have just adumbrated. On balance, we realise that the legislation gives statutory powers as agreed in the Good Friday agreement, and we shall be voting for it on Third Reading.

9.51 am

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): The House will be well aware that the great desire of the people of Northern Ireland is, first, to have a cessation of violence and to create the circumstances in which violence will not recur; and secondly, to provide a framework whereby economic and social development can occur. Northern Ireland Members will recall the euphoria that swept Northern Ireland on the morning of 10 April when the agreement was reached, and also when the referendum received the support of more than 70 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland. That support is the reason why all Northern Ireland Members should be supporting the Bill. The Bill contains the agreement that was reached by the vast majority of parties and peoples and endorsed by those peoples.

I recall also the ceasefire of 1994--the great burden that was lifted off the shoulders of Northern Ireland, and the physical feeling of relief, which was to be dashed by a subsequent reversal--and then the renewal, in 1997. Surely the Bill, which embodies the agreement in its entirety, will give us an opportunity to develop constitutional political stability, economic development, new investment, confidence and social development. At long last, all those matters can now be administered locally and tailored to meet the needs of the people.

As I said in previous debates, after 30 years of violence it cannot be switched off overnight. Many people in our community have used violence--executed people in the most horrible way, maimed and killed people, and destroyed property--and they have been desensitised to normal modes of behaviour and acceptance of the rule of law. It is highly probable, however unpalatable it might be, that those people--if they are in some way thwarted, either personally or by events--will express their opposition in violence.

I make a plea, particularly to the family of Unionist parties, not to use those singular acts of violence as a reason to bring down the whole delicate edifice of constitutional and democratic institutions that we have so painfully built up over the past two years. It is a very difficult and sensitive matter. It is a matter of grave judgment, one way or the other, whether a person or party is involved in violence for the purpose of pursuing political objectives. We must not confuse that violence with personal violence, with implementation of personal vendettas, or even with group vendettas.

In an earlier debate, the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor)--I do not want to take his name in vain again--cited 58 incidents of republican violence and 53 or 54 incidents of loyalist violence. Such events will happen. I hope that, by working and growing together, our communities will be able to eschew such behaviour and develop an ethos of peace and co-operation. We can do that only by working together.

I know that some representatives of parts of the Unionist community have a fear of the agreement--that in some way it will overtake them and their aspirations and traditions. Nothing could be further from my mind. The agreement is, first, a matter of co-operation.

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Unless there is co-operation--not only in the agreement itself and in the legislation, but in their implementation--the agreement will fall apart and nothing will happen.

The greatest strength that any Northern Ireland party has is the ability to say no--which I know is a rather dangerous thing to say in Northern Ireland politics. However, in the context of participating, there is always a veto for those parties. The Bill contains so much protection in ensuring that one will is not imposed on another, or that one group, community or tradition does not win a victory over another. That was the spirit driving the negotiations and the mechanisms embodied in the Bill, giving everyone enough confidence to participate.

This morning, even at this late stage, if there is a Division on Third Reading, I urge those persons and representatives who are opposed to the agreement--which has been endorsed by the people--to say, "Yes, we have reservations about this. We will continue to fight our corner and, from our viewpoint, to safeguard the views of the people we represent. But we will give it a chance." The Bill is one chance, in the centuries and decades of violence, to make progress, and it affords the confidence of knowing that protections are fully built into it. Furthermore, the people have clearly and unambiguously said, "Please do this for us."

I welcome the Secretary of State's mention for human rights, language and culture. I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their own openness in consultation and readiness to listen to what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House; and for their promises and undertakings to pursue further dialogue during the five short weeks until 14 September, when the Assembly will reconvene for very formal and important decisions. I thank also "the back office" people who constructed the Bill. Although it is very difficult to translate political terminology into statutory terminology, it was done reasonably well in the Bill, which can be amended later in greater detail.

Much has been said about the Bill. My main concern is that the people's will should be endorsed, and that--because of that will--an ethos of peace should be created. The violence that we have had must never recur, and at long last we will have an opportunity to strengthen economic development, inward investment, social advancement and a better standard of living. I sincerely believe that the Bill is a vehicle by which those goals can be achieved.

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