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10.21 am

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I understand and appreciate the pain and concerns that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) feels as a member of

31 Jul 1998 : Column 643

a minority. I hope that he and the people whom he represents never have to go through the same abuse and fear that members of the other minority went through during the period up to the granting of civil rights and beyond. I do not wish that on anyone and I want to respect his position, his attitudes, his tradition and his ideas in a way that was not granted to other people in the past.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has said, the Bill that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her Ministers have successfully piloted through the House represents a moment of history. Like most moments of history in this place, it goes through in exactly the same way as if we were legislating for the width of a drainpipe. The aim of the Bill is to bring together two different traditions and to bring about understanding and compassion between them, overcoming past prejudices and promoting respect for different loyalties. Those who have been involved in seeking to achieve that deserve the support of the whole House.

I welcome the undertaking that the Government gave in Committee to look again at strengthening the provisions for the Human Rights Commission. I also welcome the undertaking to consider putting into the Bill the provisions in the agreement for statutory impact assessments by public authorities.

We were all moved by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). I should like to pay tribute to the leader of his party, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who, for 30 years, has argued for peace, respect for traditions, the constitutional way forward and the acknowledgement and welcoming of diversity. At times, he has been pilloried, even in this House, when he sought to bring the men of violence away from the path that they were pursuing and into the constitutional system. We should note and honour his role in seeking to bring people together. The House should regard with shame the treatment that he was given in this place when he was working on the momentous task of bringing Sinn Fein away from the path of violence and into democratic dialogue.

The Bill is only the start and we must not be too euphoric. A lot will have to happen in Northern Ireland. Drawing up the procedures of the Assembly, and agreements on cross-border institutions will take a lot of hard negotiation, compromise and skill. Having seen the work done by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), I have confidence that, given the good will of the Assembly, they will be able to achieve that aim.

The position of the Unionists is guaranteed not by the Act of Union, which has now gone, but by the people of Ireland. It is guaranteed by all the people of Ireland under the agreement. I should like to read out the proposed changes to the Irish constitution. The new articles 2 and 3 are a fundamental change from the old attitude that nationality was based on the ownership of territory, not on a union of peoples. My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has continually pointed out that a bit of land is not worth fighting about, but unity in diversity of peoples is worth seeking.

Article 2 says:

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    qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage."

That is a fine statement and a great banner for the people of the Irish diaspora. Article 3 is a powerful statement of the attitude of the people of the Irish republic. It says:

    "It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island."

That could not be clearer. The threat of the old articles of the Irish constitution--which I always thought was an imagined threat--will be gone. The new articles give a ringing declaration of the nature of the Irish nation and the wish of the Irish people to achieve their aims by peaceful means only. We should all welcome that.

10.28 am

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): This is a sad day not just for Northern Ireland and the Union but for the House. Instead of crowing at the Despatch Box, the Secretary of State and her Ministers should hang their heads in shame.

This Bill is a victory for the men of violence. No matter what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) says, terrorism caused the Government to bring forward the legislation. Some standing up to terrorism to give terrorists places in government; some standing up to terrorists to let them all out of gaol while they continue their violence! Everyone in Northern Ireland knows that the House did not stand up to IRA terrorism; it caved in to it and is bringing forward the Bill as a result of it in an attempt to buy off the terrorists.

I well understand how the conscience of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who does not like the words that I am uttering, may twinge. Everybody in Northern Ireland from the Unionist community will know that the Bill will become a broken pledges Act. It is not a settlement Bill; it is a recognition of and a monument to the Government's political immorality and deception.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said that the Bill is the enactment of the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. It is far from it. The people of Northern Ireland voted on the basis of clear promises made by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. Those pledges indicated that there would be substantial decommissioning before any prisoners were released or any Sinn Fein-IRA terrorist representatives were allowed to participate in the government of Northern Ireland. The Bill breaks those pledges.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party indicated that violence would have to be given up for good before terrorist representatives could benefit from the agreement. The Bill shows very clearly that terrorists can continue with their violence--continue killing and continue the so-called punishment beatings--and still benefit from the agreement both through the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill and this so-called settlement Bill.

The Prime Minister and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party told the people of Northern Ireland that north-south bodies would be wholly accountable to the

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Northern Ireland Assembly, yet that is not stated in the Bill. The commitments given by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party have clearly been broken; they are not honoured in the legislation. The people of Northern Ireland were conned, and I am glad that the majority of the Unionist community now realise that and are moving away from supporting the agreement.

Of course there were those in Northern Ireland who told us that the Union would be more secure as a result of the agreement. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said that not only had the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gone, so had the Act of Union 1800. How can there be a more secure Union if the Act of Union is gone? The Bill states:

yet the Union is supposed to be stronger. The Bill fundamentally weakens the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Anybody with a modicum of sense will recognise that.

There are those in the House who, although they supported the agreement and retailed it to the community in Northern Ireland, seek to distance themselves from its implementation. At one stage, they told us that they had a 40 ft barge pole with which they would not touch the agreement. But, within a few days, they signed up to that agreement. They went around the country advocating that people should vote yes in the referendum on the agreement, but now they are saying that they have misgivings, and are attacking the Government for implementing the agreement, the successful implementation of which they pledged to work for. No matter how much they wring their hands, the finger of accusation points at them. They are the guilty men, they are the ones who advocated support of the agreement when their colleagues and others in the Unionist community made abundantly clear that the agreement meant exactly what the Bill says that it means.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said in the House many days ago that the legislation was something of a mess. He pointed his finger at the draftsmen, but said, "You should have seen the earlier draft; it was a greater mess." The draftsmen are not to be blamed because the greatest mess of all is the agreement of which he was one of the architects. I do not in the least blame the draftsmen for the difficulty that they have had in interpreting the agreement.

I say again in the House that the Bill faithfully represents what the agreement says and others have interpreted, but does not faithfully represent the pledges given by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the First Minister designate of Northern Ireland. The Bill is not what the people of Northern Ireland voted for. In such a form, it will not work.

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