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10.35 am

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): We have just listened to a characteristically bleak and dismal speech by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). It was a speech of a politician whose world is changing radically. We share his detestation of terrorists--I have said that often enough in the House--but we part company dramatically and radically on our reaction to the Bill. I welcome the Bill. Over the past

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15 months, we have seen the beginnings of a radical transformation of the United Kingdom. If one links the Bill with the Government of Wales Bill and the Scotland Bill, it is fair to say--on this I agree with the hon. Gentleman--that the United Kingdom will never be the same again; nor will these islands in which we live.

The three Bills have profound implications--both intended and unintended--for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the United Kingdom as a whole, as well as for the House. Of the three Bills, the Northern Ireland Bill is the most remarkable, thanks to the people of Northern Ireland, their political representatives and our Ministers. I never thought that we would come this far in so short a time. For me, the statement on the Bloody Sunday tribunal was a defining moment. The legislation has gathered pace.

We understand some of the concerns of Opposition Members although to us the principle of consent holds in this context just as it does in Scotland. We have said to the people of Scotland in the context of the Scotland Bill that if a majority chooses to separate from the rest of the UK, we would not thwart that desire. Similarly, that holds in Northern Ireland. A majority of the people will determine the future of the nations that make up the multinational state that we call the United Kingdom.

I should like to make three brief points. First, every effort must be made by those elected to the Assembly to avoid the institutionalisation of sectarianism in that body and associated organisations. Secondly, the Government must examine clause 81 of the Scotland Bill, which removes in an honest and fair-minded way the flaw of future Scottish representation in this House. That is a very thorny question, but it must be understood, not only in Scotland but in Northern Ireland and Wales. There ought to be at least a discussion of that question in the other place.

Thirdly, perhaps also in the other place, the Government should seriously consider setting up a consultative council that comprises senior Ministers and senior representatives of Opposition parties in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The aim of such a council would be, inter alia, to establish harmonious and efficient working relationships and practices between the two Assemblies, the Scottish Parliament and Westminster. I know that the Procedure Committee is seeking to consult us on matters connected with what I have outlined, such as the continuing role of Select and Grand Committees, Question Time in this place, and legislation. There are still matters to be determined, and relationships need to be established on an harmonious basis.

The Council of the Isles has an utterly different role to play in the scheme of things, so I urge the Secretary of State to give serious consideration to the idea of a consultative council. I do not have time to go into detail about the idea now, but I believe that Ministers and the leaders of the opposition parties in all four bodies will need to come together so that we can avoid, among other dangers, references to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Our representatives, in both government and opposition parties, can establish a fair passage for the two Assemblies and the Parliaments.

I finish by offering my compliments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her colleagues, and others on both sides of the House, especially members of the Social Democratic and Labour party, for their work

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over the years. I have long admired those who argue in a peaceable and democratic way for dramatic constitutional change. That is why I have long admired my hon. Friends in the SDLP who sit on the Government Benches with me.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said, this is a remarkable moment in our history. The legislation that we are passing will have profound consequences, both intended and unintended, and this United Kingdom of ours will never be the same again.

10.41 am

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The closing sentence by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) was deadly accurate: the United Kingdom will never be the same again--because it will not exist. That is the inevitable consequence of the three constitutional Bills that have been passed in this Session of Parliament, and we had better come to terms with it. I think that the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends are now starting to realise, albeit dimly, what the consequences will be. It will certainly mean that, over the years ahead, the United Kingdom will cease to exist as we know it--or, indeed, at all.

I have to say to the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who is sitting grinning on the Back Bench, that when he talked about the changes in the Irish constitution and about uniting the diverse elements within Ireland, it would have been better if he had adopted the traditional Unionist position, which was that this archipelago of islands was one natural geographic, cultural and political unity, from which great good could flow, and did flow when it was united. It will be immeasurably diminished not only by the Bill before us but by the other constitutional Bills that have gone through the House this Session.

I remind those who have spoken from the Government Benches that the Social Democratic and Labour party, as an Irish nationalist party, walked out of Stormont--26 years ago, I believe--over the shooting of two persons in Londonderry. It then transferred its reason for withdrawal from that issue to bloody Sunday, whenever the issue arose. We need to look carefully at the history, and at the rewriting and revision of history that has taken place in some quarters.

Much of the debate about the Bill has revolved round the question whether the Prime Minister's criteria for membership of the Northern Ireland executive have been met. We have exposed the hypocrisy of the words and guarantees given. Although that debate was largely about whether the IRA and the other terrorists met the criteria set by the Government and the agreement, my objections--and, I suspect, those of many others--to the agreement and the Bill run far deeper.

I refer to the nature of the governing structure, which is far removed from the policies set out and followed by the Unionist party for many years. It is also far from the position set out by the Ulster Unionist party leadership on entering the talks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said on 20 July 1998, as is recorded in column 828 of the Hansard report, that, in order to reach agreement with the SDLP, we had to move towards a form of Executive--a massive shift from the position that the Unionist party had taken up.

The arrangement is far from the sort of local government structure on which we stood for election. It is a full-blown power-sharing structure. I have never been

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in favour of that: I never put it in my election manifesto, and I never will. My right hon. Friend also told us on 20 July that he supported the concept of an effective coalition with the SDLP in 1975. At least we can give him credit for being consistent in that respect. At that time, he was a member of the Vanguard party with Mr. Bill Craig, and went along with his concept of a voluntary power-sharing arrangement.

The arrangement in the Bill is very different, and goes much further. It creates a coalition not between the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP, but between the Unionist party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. The First Minister and his deputy are in effect Siamese twins, who must agree before any action is taken. I cannot see the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) allowing anything that would upset Sinn Fein, because those two Ministers, like the Ministers who are chatting on the Front Bench now, are intent on keeping the IRA aboard.

Given the practical workings of the power-sharing arrangement, I fear that my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, the leader of my party, has placed himself in a very weak position with regard to what he can actually do in the Assembly. In that classic form of power-sharing we have not rule by the majority, but rule by the minority, who can always wreck things by walking out if they do not get their way.

I believe that the whole edifice is not only an insult to normal democratic standards but unworkable. Indeed, not many years ago the power-sharing concept was described as unworkable by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). That is on the record. Because the arrangement is unworkable it will fail, creating misery that could and should have been avoided by setting our sights on achieving what is workable rather than trying to create what is inherently unstable and unworkable.

The House will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) said during our debates that if no satisfactory amendments were made he would vote against. Unfortunately my right hon. Friend is absent this morning, but his is advice which, despite his absence, we are content to follow with regard to the Bill.

10.47 am

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster): I am under severe time pressure, although I would very much like to debate with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). Suffice it to say that as I listened to his speech, and one other speech that I have heard this morning, I saw but a continuation of the violence and the desperate situation of the past 25 years, rather than the cure to it, which the Bill gives us the best chance for years of bringing about.

I shall make three quick points. First, I reiterate and underline what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said--that it would be a tragedy if we so construed events of violence, and went chasing after them to such an extent, that we excluded from the process those who can bring about its success.

We must look at violence as it occurs in the real world. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) talked about the difference between so-called military activities and so-called civil--I prefer the word "criminal"--activity. We have to look at such activities in the light of what they actually are, and their intention. There is no naivety whatever in what I say.

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Secondly, a continuation of the bipartisan approach is absolutely essential. The Opposition have handled the Bill admirably and the spirit in the Chamber has been very good. The Opposition were perfectly within their rights to move amendments to the legislation and it is significant that clause 23, the area of the Bill that refers to violence, is a central concern. When the Bill is passed and the Assembly is up and running, the House must stand back from the inevitable disputes that will occur within it. It will not help the Assembly if we involve ourselves in those inevitable internal disputes. We must let Assembly Members sort them out for themselves.

Lastly, the Minister made it clear that the British-Irish Council is a body with Executive membership. That leaves the way clear for interparliamentary activity and, as my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) have said, for a continuation of the British parliamentary body--a committee of which will meet in this building in 10 minutes. That body involves two sovereign Parliaments and that arrangement should continue. Further interparliamentary activity with the devolved Assembly is an admirable, but a different, thing.

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