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9.59 am

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): What a marathon this has been. I congratulate Ministers on the pace at which they have moved the Bill forward. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill whole-heartedly and believe that it is the vital ingredient which will turn the agreement into reality.

During the past two weeks, the House has witnessed the transformation of the Belfast agreement into tangible legislation that will guide the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a good thing. It is also great to see some true innovations: Northern Ireland stands to lead Europe on a number of human rights issues, especially those challenging prejudice.

However, the Government have not accepted amendments that we would have liked. I know that there is strong concern on the Ulster Unionist Benches about

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the Assembly's ability to ratify important decisions made by the North-South Ministerial Council. The Belfast agreement clearly states that the council remains accountable to the Assembly. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), gave a serious commitment in yesterday's debate to revisit that matter in another place.

I have also been concerned about the allocation of chairmanships. It is a drum that I have been banging during the Bill's long parade through the Chamber, and I hope that the Government will honour their commitment to examine that, too.

The summer provides an opportunity to fine-tune what is basically a very good Bill. The Northern Ireland parties know better than any others the aspirations of the people of Northern Ireland to make the Assembly work. It is important that the Northern Irish public are able to consult, through their parliamentary representatives, during the informal period of summer.

We need to remember what we are doing all this for. It is to normalise Northern Ireland and make it an even better place in which to live than it is already. From the point of view of tourism, Northern Ireland is probably Britain's best-kept secret, from the beautiful glens of Antrim to the mystery of Giant's causeway, from Strangford's character and its ferry--or is it a barge?--to the mountains of Mourne--

Mr. McGrady: What about South Down?

Mr. Öpik: There are many other areas that I shall not mention in order to prevent another lengthy debate. If one were to design a country for tourism, one would come up with Northern Ireland.

The point is that we have to turn the opportunity of Northern Ireland into a reality, for the people who live there and for those who visit. Many people who visit the Province return to it. Those who have not visited it do not know what they are missing.

Personally, I have learnt a few things during the passage of the Bill--something about our procedures, a bit about the problems faced by Northern Ireland representatives here, and a great deal about attitudes.

There is an old saying that you cannot talk yourself out of a problem that you have behaved yourself into. To some extent, Northern Ireland had behaved itself into a problem. The biggest problem is that people stop listening. I have to admit that I am thinking of myself the other night when I was a bit of a grumpy old hon. Member. I have learnt that people listen least when they are the least confident about their position or that of others, and when they feel threatened. Perhaps that is something to which we should be sensitive.

We have to recognise the enormous stress placed on Unionist and nationalist representatives here. They are the ones who have to make the process work. They are on the front line and have to face the individuals who are most affected by what we have decided.

I look forward to the Assembly meeting in September. I hope that it will be able to work with the Bill and that the review which has been promised will iron out any teething problems that we come across as the Assembly implements the procedures.

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Scars run deep, and there is much bitterness and many tragic memories in Northern Ireland, but I hope that all the parties that have been so constructive in our debates will recognise that it is up to all of us to make this work. Let us not think of the future in terms of failure, but plan for success. By doing so, we shall make it much more likely that that success occurs.

10.5 am

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the House had been very busy making sure that the Bill is passed. We may have been busy in the past 10 days, but we have been nowhere near as busy as she and her able team of Ministers, who, with single-minded determination, have made sure that an agreement was reached.

I shall make three brief points. First, since Northern Ireland came into existence, there has never been a satisfactory way of governing that part of the United Kingdom. Stormont was wrong, and I doubt whether any Unionist politician would now stand up and say that what occurred at that time could possibly be defended or justified in any way. Direct rule was necessary, but there was a tremendous democratic deficit. The agreement is the fairest possible way in which Northern Ireland can be governed.

Secondly, the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom has been reinforced. The idea that the agreement somehow paves the way for a united Ireland without the consent of the people who live there is simply paranoia. The notion that the North-South Ministerial Council is a halfway measure to a united Ireland without the agreement of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland is absolutely without foundation. Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution have been removed. On virtually every occasion, Unionist politicians have said that they should be removed, for reasons that we understand. There is no question of the agreement bringing about a unitary state in Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people. That fact is reinforced in the Bill.

Thirdly--I choose my words with care and speak simply as a Back Bencher--for more than a quarter of a century, the British people, like the House, refused to give way to terror or to accept terrorist aims and activities on the ground, either in Northern Ireland or on the mainland. We never accepted that we should surrender or say in effect that the IRA would triumph and that a united Ireland would be brought about without the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. We have held that position for a quarter of a century, regardless of what happened in Northern Ireland--for example, at Enniskillen and many other places--or on the mainland in Warrington and in Birmingham, where so many people were butchered in November 1974. The British people refused to give in to terror. As far as I know, none of us--certainly not me--received any--

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone) rose--

Mr. Winnick: No, I shall not give way. I said that I would be brief.

None of us received letters from constituents suggesting any course other than fighting terrorism.

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However--I choose my words with care--one should not take the consent and tolerance of the people of Britain for granted. Had there been a referendum on the mainland about the agreement, there would have been an even larger majority in favour than there was in Northern Ireland. There is absolutely no doubt about that. If the agreement were destroyed, or if there were attempts to destroy it by influential sections of the Unionist community, I believe that the British people would take a rather different attitude to Northern Ireland.

As I said, the British people have stood up to terror. They have refused to give way under any circumstances for more than a quarter of a century. The agreement is the fairest possible way for representatives of the two communities to govern the people of Northern Ireland, and it has been endorsed by an overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland. Understandably, the British people would find it difficult to understand the agreement being destroyed by the very people who constantly say that they are part of the United Kingdom and that they accept the rule of law and parliamentary democracy. If those people are arguing as politicians who do not like the agreement, so be it. Many things happened in the past 18 years which we, in opposition, did not like, but the democratic process must always be observed. I hope that that point will be taken on board by all hon. Members, whether they are for or against the agreement.

This is an excellent measure. I hope that it will succeed and that the people of Northern Ireland can live in peace.

10.8 am

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): It has long been the desire of the Ulster Unionist party to have proper democratic and accountable government restored to Northern Ireland, and we have worked hard over many years for a Northern Ireland Assembly that will give elected representatives a real say over local affairs.

We welcome the opportunity to have a form of accountable government restored to Northern Ireland, but we have concerns which we have expressed. We make use of the democratic process, which is our right, and we are committed to exclusively peaceful means of pursuing our concerns. Let no one be in any doubt about that. However, it is legitimate and right in a democratic society that elected representatives of the people should voice concerns. It is true that the agreement was endorsed by a majority of the people voting in the referendum in Northern Ireland, but that does not mean that the almost 30 per cent. of people who voted against have no say in the future of Northern Ireland and how the institutions develop. It is significant that not one right hon. or hon. Member on these Benches who voted for the agreement is here today to defend it and to advocate support for the Bill. Where are they?

We are here representing the people who elected us, and we will continue to do that, but we will do it in a democratic fashion because, for 30 years, we have watched as terrorists have tried and failed to undermine democracy in Northern Ireland. We have watched as they have carried out their terrorist acts here in Great Britain, and our condemnation of those acts is equal to our condemnation of the actions of terrorists in Northern Ireland.

My party stands against terrorism and against those who would use violence for supposedly political objectives. The question is: can we fudge the lines

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between democracy and terrorism. Can we blur those lines in a democratic society? The chief reason why I personally voted against the agreement was that I believe that aspects of it blur the lines between terrorism and democracy. I reiterate that today. There are also aspects of the Bill that blur those lines. We have sought to clarify the lines--not to wreck the agreement and the institutions, as some hon. Members have suggested, but to ensure that adequate safeguards are built into the legislation to protect those institutions from people who have used violence in the past and who continue to use violence to further their political objectives.

I acknowledge what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said. He argues that one cannot condemn an organisation simply because the actions of certain individuals, but he will know, as I do, that those individuals do not act in isolation. He will know that the Provisional IRA is the most disciplined terrorist organisation in these islands and to suggest that murders are carried out without some sanction from the leadership of such organisations is wrong and naive. Our responsibility is to ensure that the institutions that have been created are protected from those who have used violence and continue to use violence for political objectives.

When the Prime Minister came to Northern Ireland during the referendum, he promised the people of Northern Ireland that those who have used violence would not be allowed to hold ministerial office if they had not given up violence for good. He also promised that the prisoners would stay in gaol unless violence had been given up for good. In light of the decision taken by the Government in respect of the release of terrorist prisoners, it is highly legitimate to argue that the release of IRA prisoners, UVF prisoners and UDA prisoners in the wake of on-going violence by all those organisations demonstrates the point that we have made--that the provisions are inadequate and need to be strengthened.

If there is not to be a fudge between terrorism and democracy, we cannot have elected representatives holding ministerial office who are connected to, or are members of, a terrorist organisation that is continuing violence in the pursuit of its political objectives. That may well become a reality in the weeks ahead. It will not have my support. I will not support a system that places in government over me and my family those who continue to support or engage in terrorist violence. That is why we believe that the mechanisms in the legislation need to be strengthened to ensure that that cannot come about. I urge the Government to look again at that.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that the Bill represents an opportunity for Northern Ireland to have a Government who have the support of the majority of the people. As he said, Stormont failed because it did not win the allegiance of a significant proportion of the population. I make the argument back to him that the agreement and the institutions created under it must command even wider support than they have to date. Up to 30 per cent. of the people have not so far given their allegiance. The same number withheld their allegiance to the Stormont Parliament for 50 years. I ask the hon. Gentleman to think about that and not to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people such as myself and simply say that because 70 per cent. gave their allegiance,

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the other 30 per cent. should do the same. Our allegiance also has to be won. Our trust and our confidence have to be created and it is the responsibility of those who engage in violence and terrorism to persuade us that they have given up violence for good and to do so in a tangible manner.

Violence must be given up for good. That includes the decommissioning of terrorist weapons, as provided for in the agreement. It also includes the dismantling of terrorist organisations and an end to the punishment beatings, as the Prime Minister said at Balmoral. None of that is happening in Northern Ireland. It must happen if we are to have any confidence that those engaged in violence have ended their violence for good.

In respect of north-south co-operation, we have asked for proper accountability and that the Assembly exercises its authority to ensure that those elected by the people of Northern Ireland control the rate and extent of co-operation. That is important because there is a view that Irish nationalists, in pursuit of their objective of a united Ireland, will cease to use the North-South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies to create an all-Ireland framework that will be the basis on which the political unification of the island of Ireland will be built. That is not paranoia. It is simply a statement of concern by many Unionists. If co-operation is to take place, it must be on the basis of mutual respect and understanding, and not in pursuit of a political agenda that is about usurping the wishes of the majority. The only provision for real consent in the Bill is on the final question of Northern Ireland's constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom. Consent on the development of north-south co-operation can be exercised only through the Assembly and the elected representatives. That is why accountability is crucial. I welcomed the Minister's commitment last night to look again at the issue. I hope that he will strengthen the lines of accountability for the Assembly.

As a Unionist, I believe that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom because that is the wish of the greater number of people who live in Northern Ireland. I hear what the hon. Member for Walsall, North says about the impatience of those who live in Great Britain. Perhaps one can begin to understand that, given the difficulties that we have had in Northern Ireland, but I hope that he accepts that although the people of Northern Ireland, who have endured 30 years of terrorist violence, long for peace, they want to ensure that democracy and the rights of all are upheld.

Constitutionally, only the people of Northern Ireland can determine whether they remain within the United Kingdom. It is unhelpful to imply that impatience could lead to a different outcome. It would not be right for the people of Great Britain to eject the people of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. It would certainly not be right under the Bill. My understanding--perhaps I am wrong--is that it is for the people of Northern Ireland alone to determine whether they remain part of the United Kingdom. I hope and pray that they will long continue to take that positive decision to remain within the United Kingdom, because that provides the best future for them.

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