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18 Nov 1998 : Column 999

Northern Ireland Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

7.8 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy): I beg to move,

18 Nov 1998 : Column 1000

I acknowledge that this is an unusual Bill, proceeding to an unusual timetable. However, I believe that the Bill and the manner of its passing reflect the wishes of the majority of hon. Members, although I know that some have grave doubts about the timetable and the Bill--doubts that we all respect. The dilemma that the Government faced before the summer was that, if we were to meet the target of having the Bill ready to come into effect at the end of January, there was no opportunity for extensive consultation before it was introduced. Had we had such consultation, we should not have been able to put the Bill to the House in this Session.

I believe that we were right to introduce the Bill before the summer. The Government have done all that we can to make up for the adverse consequences of the timetable. The main amendments before us reflect our undertaking on Third Reading to reflect and consult further. We took note of points made in debates here before the summer, along with those made in another place since then. We have held the intensive consultations that we promised with the Northern Ireland parties, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which have continued through a long series of meetings, in which I personally have been involved.

We have also had many meetings with others. We have been ready, of course, to meet all interested Members, whether they supported the agreement or opposed it. We have also met the representatives of many outside interests. All the most significant amendments that we propose today have therefore, as I promised the House, been the subject of consultation with the key Northern Ireland parties, including those represented here, and with hon. Members from parties in Great Britain.

I believe that, as a result of our consultations, we have a much better Bill, which is a more faithful reflection of the agreement. We have augmented its provisions substantially in the areas of human rights and equality, and in strands 2 and 3 in particular. There are also, inevitably in so complex a Bill, many technical adjustments, so we have many drafting amendments made in the other place to deal with. The fundamentals of the Bill, however, are unchanged.

Although there are a good many amendments before us, the key ones will be widely familiar among hon. Members who take an interest in Northern Ireland affairs. Members who are interested will also have read closely the reports of debates in another place, and I hope that the note about the amendments that I made available last week may have been of some help to the House.

This Session has been significantly prolonged by the proceedings on the Bill. Both Houses have put themselves out considerably to deal with legislation that is hugely significant in the history of Northern Ireland. We are now at the end of the Session, and time is very limited--and because of our previous business today, we are all aware that there are still other pressing matters, which are also of great concern to hon. Members, to be cleared up.

We therefore believe that it is right to timetable the present stage of the Bill, so as to give the House an opportunity to pronounce on the Lords amendments, but also to permit other business of interest to the House to be properly dealt with.

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7.11 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): I could not go along with the Minister when he said that everything possible had been done to consult people and give some basis of democracy for the presentation of the Bill. Amazingly, about 450 amendments have been made to it since it left the House in the summer. That must be a record.

Now that we have come here tonight to speak of those matters, it is interesting to see that the First Minister designate and his deputy, although they are both Members of this House, are not even present. The leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party is not here either. That shows that everything has already been decided.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I am here.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is here, and he is worth an army--regiments, battalions and all--on his own.

I am simply drawing attention to the fact that everything has already been concluded. We all know that what the Government want will take place no matter what arguments are advanced; it is a foregone conclusion. As a representative from Northern Ireland, I must protest at the way in which the issue has been managed. If the Government had dealt with the future of any other part of the United Kingdom, over such an important matter as devolved government, as they are dealing with the future of Northern Ireland and its people, Members representing other localities would class it as an outrageous insult to be treated in that fashion.

Of course we understand about the timetable, but it is the result of something of which the House should have taken cognisance. Everybody knew that there would be a row about the elections to the European Parliament. I have been a Member of that Parliament, and I would like to have seen how the Labour Members from Strasbourg would have voted here tonight. I have had their ear for the past three months, and they have been telling me how they feel about the way in which things have been going. A row has been brewing.

Why should Northern Ireland suffer because of that? Why should Northern Ireland's representatives not have the opportunity to deal with matters on which we have made representations? The Minister may have had many meetings with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister designate, but he has not had many meetings with the parties. At least, if he has had as many with other parties as he has had with my party, he will not have had to go to too many meetings. There was one discussion on one simple issue, then that was left, and when we came back we had a discussion on other issues.

The Minister wrote to the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), about an

I do not think that anyone on the Opposition Benches occupied by Members from Northern Ireland tonight would agree with that.

There are many points to which I would like to draw the attention of the House. The issue most commonly discussed in Northern Ireland is the fact that the Prime Minister said that if people were not satisfied, and he was not satisfied, with what was happening, and legislation was introduced, the problems would be dealt with in that legislation.

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We all know about the five pledges, the substantial points, that the Prime Minister made. I notice that not one of those has been reinforced. Everybody in Northern Ireland knows that it was because of those promises that the result of the referendum turned out as it did. However, that result was undermined after the elections, in which 28 Unionist Members who opposed the system were elected, and only 28 who voted with the First Minister designate and his deputy. That shows plainly that there was opposition to what was taking place.

There are many issues affecting people in Northern Ireland at the moment. What will the Minister say about the prisoner releases? When we read in the paper that someone sentenced to 1,000 years for multiple murder is out in 16 years, we are alarmed about the future moral situation in our country. Time should have been given for a proper debate on that issue.

What about decommissioning? We have just heard from one of the leaders of Sinn Fein that that will never take place until there is a united Ireland--so it is clear that there will be no movement on that issue.

I have already spoken about the Prime Minister's pledges, but there are many other matters in the Bill that need to be considered. Of course, many amendments have been made to deal with some of the factors, but I must make the point that we are setting in place a system of government that will stay there until the next election. So far as I can see, there can be no change, and the Bill copper-fastens the First Minister and his deputy in place.

We were told that there would be no cherry-picking of the agreement, but anyone who reads the document will notice that there has been not only cherry-picking but the planting of a few more cherry trees that bear a different type of fruit. I see the Minister smiling, because he knows that that is only too true.

Perhaps the Minister will tell us something about the department of the centre? Will it be based on a similar department in Downing street? Has this proved to be so good that the Government have decided that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) need such a system?

The tragedy is that we have an Assembly that is not meeting and is not having Committee meetings. Committees could have been handling cross-border matters, the civic forum and education, but all those have been relegated by the two Ministers to nice little ad hoc Committees at which those who are opposed to the agreement have no say. We believe that those matters should be discussed in the Assembly, but they are not being discussed.

Much was said about the d'Hondt appointment of department chiefs, and it was argued that that was the only way. Why is there to be a departure from the d'Hondt rule when it comes to the appointment of assistant Ministers, or Ministers of State--or whatever they are to be called? It will not matter what the electorate say--the First Minister designate and his deputy will appoint those Ministers. That is a radical departure from the agreement, and it is totally out of order. All appointments will rest on the electoral strength distributed by the d'Hondt method--except junior Ministers. That will bring in the power of patronage, and the First Minister designate and his deputy will have total power.

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