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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The Minister seeks to draw a parallel between the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth countries, but Commonwealth countries have Her Majesty the Queen as their head of state.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): No, that is wrong. Two thirds of them do not.

Mr. Howarth: Most of them do. In any case, an hon. Member in this House is required to take the Oath of Allegiance. The Bill covers people who, being representatives of foreign countries, cannot take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen. Moreover, the south of Ireland is a republic. Is not the Bill therefore creating a huge anomaly?

Mr. O'Brien: I will deal shortly with the issue of European and Commonwealth countries, but primarily as this applies to the latter. It is true that some Commonwealth countries are republics.

Mr. Mackinlay: The majority.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will, once more.

Mr. Bercow: Before the Bill's publication, how many representations in its support did the hon. Gentleman receive, when, and from whom?

Mr. O'Brien: There have been discussions on this, but we shall be listening closely to what is said in this debate

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and as the Bill proceeds through the House. There have been discussions with various representatives--[Hon. Members: "Who?"]. I refer to the Government, the Irish Government and others. I hope that the Bill will command a great deal of support in the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): No.

Mr. O'Brien: I nevertheless hope that we can convince Opposition Members that this is a worthwhile Bill.

This country has a number of special relationships with other countries--with the United States, for example, on security, with the Commonwealth, of course, with other members of the European Union, and also with the Irish Republic, with which we are working to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

Our relationships with the Irish Republic are special in geographical terms, given the sheer proximity of the two countries, as islands off the European mainland. We have historic links, for better or worse. Our economic links are strong. We have cultural links--millions of British people were born in the Republic, or their parents were born there, or their ancestry is Irish, whether from the north or south.

For its own political reasons, the Republic left the Commonwealth. That did not end its special relationship, but it made it more difficult to facilitate the recognition of certain links. If the Republic had not left the Commonwealth, some of the changes in the Bill might not be necessary.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: May I just say before I give way to the hon. Gentleman that this will be the third occasion on which I have done given way? I propose to make some progress after the hon. Gentleman has made his point, because I hope that this will not be too long a debate.

Mr. Maginnis: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As he predicates his argument on the relationship between the Irish Government and this Government, I wonder whether he has had any representations from the Fianna Fail party, Fine Gael, the Irish Labour party or the Democratic Left, expressing an ambition to have a dual mandate? Or is this measure purely a concession to be enamelled on the side of the Good Friday agreement and to facilitate only and exclusively Sinn Fein-IRA?

Mr. O'Brien: I propose to discuss some of these issues as we progress. However, let me make it clear that we have had some discussions with the Irish Government, which I hope reflect some of the views of various parties in the Republic.

The Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement. It is not directly linked to it, but is a separate measure. The Bill, recognises, however, that there is a special relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole--

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I emphasise that phrase--and the Republic. It puts members of the Irish legislature in a position similar to those of Commonwealth legislatures.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: This will be the fourth occasion on which I have done so, and it will, I hope, be the last.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. This is quite a sensitive matter, and I want to be clear in my mind. My hon. Friend says that unlike certain other countries, Ireland is not a Commonwealth member and chose not to be a one--it was not driven out. Is he saying that a special category will be created for non-Commonwealth countries enabling them to have dual mandates?

Mr. O'Brien: I am spelling out for my hon. Friend and for the rest of the House the view that, due to various reasons that I have set out, there is a special relationship not only with the United States, the Commonwealth and other members of the EU, but with the Republic of Ireland. We need not labour that point too much; it is clear that we have geographical, economic, cultural relationships--indeed all sorts of relationship--on which we must ensure that we build. That point is fairly straightforward.

All the measure does is put members of the Irish legislature in a position similar to that of members of Commonwealth legislatures. There is little real change in principle. Members of legislatures of the Republic of Bangladesh, the Kingdom of Brunei, the Republic of Uganda, Canada, Australia or Tonga can be members of legislatures in this country. However, at present legislators from the Irish Republic are in a different position.

Members of the Irish Senate can be Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but there are restrictions on their membership of other legislatures in the United Kingdom. The Bill would end that anomaly. In future, the same rules as apply to Northern Ireland would apply to all the United Kingdom.

For many years, Irish citizens have shared with Commonwealth citizens the right to vote in British elections. They have been able both to stand for and to vote in elections to the House of Commons, but there is one significant difference in their treatment. Under current law, members of Commonwealth legislatures--unlike members of foreign legislatures--can become Members of this House, but Members of both Houses of the Irish Parliament cannot, even though all other Irish citizens can do so.

Section 36(5) of the 1998 Act was the unique exception; that provision can now be repealed by clause 3. The Bill does not single out Northern Ireland for special treatment; Northern Ireland is treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom. As part of the process--

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall not give way at the moment.

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As part of the process of building on the special relationship, the restrictions on Members of the Dail--the lower Irish House--will be ended. In regularising relationships, it is difficult to argue that the Senate should be treated differently from the Dail. The measure will merely put members of the Irish legislature on the same footing as members of Commonwealth legislatures. It rightly reflects the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole and the Irish Republic.

The importance of keeping electoral law in good order was illustrated in 1982. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), before he was elected to the House, was disqualified from the then Northern Ireland Assembly because he had been appointed to the Irish Senate by the Taoiseach. That outcome was controversial at the time. It would now be out of step with the transformed political landscape in Northern Ireland and with relationships between the two countries.

Mr. Mates: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman towards the end of my speech. I have given way on many occasions and I want to make some progress. I want to make several points.

Mr. Hogg: Would the hon. Gentleman care to give way?

Mr. O'Brien: In particular, the establishment of the new institutions provided for in the Good Friday agreement makes the measure timely. The agreement gave a new shape to all these relationships, and created a new architecture of institutional links throughout these islands. Those links respect the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, but provide a framework for practical co-operation between the United Kingdom, the devolved bodies and Ireland.

When devolution and the new institutions came into force on 2 December last year, the Irish Government repealed the longstanding territorial claim over Northern Ireland in articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution. That makes it clear that a united Ireland can be achieved only with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland. With the principle of consent at the heart of the new constitutional settlement, there is a solid basis for a closer relationship between our two countries.

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