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

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill is just one example of that closer relationship. However, it is built on the firm foundation of the principle of consent that is central to the Good Friday agreement, and which was enshrined in law through the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and reinforced by international treaty. It cannot be undermined. There is no question of the Bill being the means to achieving Irish unification by the back door; that is not its objective, nor will it be its consequence.

The Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement, but it is consistent with it. Separate development of direct interparliamentary links between the various legislatures was envisaged at the time of the Good Friday agreement.

As a further positive--if relatively minor--measure which can help to improve relationships between our two countries, I welcome the Bill, and hope that hon. Members will feel that they can do so too.

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I shall now give way to the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates). Then I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has been asking me to give way, and then I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Then I shall make progress.

Mr. Mates: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I have to take him back a bit, because I wanted to question him on a specific point that he made. He said that he was putting the Northern Ireland Assembly on the same basis as all the other institutions of the United Kingdom, but that is fundamentally to miss a point. There are only two sovereign institutions in these islands--the Parliament here and the Parliament in Dublin. The others are subordinate to one of those sovereign Parliaments. By changing that rule, the hon. Gentleman is allowing people to join two different sovereign Parliaments with two different aims in mind, so there is a major conflict of loyalty.

Mr. O'Brien: One of the issues that I proposed to discuss in due course was the issue of conflict of loyalties, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that at the moment it is possible for a person who is a member of a legislature in Brunei or Bangladesh to be a member of this legislature, so it is already, in a sense, within our law; but perhaps I may discuss that in due course.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman has given us an account of the precedents and legal background, and the House is grateful for that, but he has not told us the motive behind the Bill. I believe that hon. Members would like to know why we are being asked to address this matter now. Where does the pressure come from? Why are we being asked to do it?

Mr. O'Brien: With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I think that I have indicated that we have now, as a result of the changes that have taken place and the relationship that has developed over recent years, been able to put behind us, to some extent, some of the difficulties that had arisen between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. It is time to build a sounder basis to our institutional relationships and to provide a basis on which we can proceed, as two islands just off the mainland of Europe, with many common links, historical and otherwise, between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic--a basis for ensuring that those closer links are given some institutional background. I believe that that explains this fairly modest Bill, and I hope that hon. Members will find it satisfactory.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will not give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I promised to give way next to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock.

Mr. Mackinlay: I do not know whether the Minister's notes encompass this point, but is he mindful of the fact that, between the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the passage by the Attlee Government of legislation consequent upon the Costello Government's declaring the

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Irish Republic in the late 1940s, it was wholly possible for people to sit in two legislatures? Indeed, Eamon de Valera was elected to the Northern Irish House of Commons after the establishment of the Irish Free State; that was perfectly acceptable then.

Surely the Minister should rely on the argument that the 1949 legislation created a new inconsistency, in that it extended and continued the right of Irish Republic citizens to vote in our elections and to stand for election to Westminster, but drew a distinction between Ireland and most citizens of the emerging Commonwealth. Coincidentally, as Ireland left the Commonwealth, India came in as its first republic. We should bear it in mind that the majority of states in the Commonwealth are now republics, so the arguments used by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) are wholly bogus.

Mr. O'Brien: Most of my hon. Friend's points are quite right. There are a number of historical reasons why we created what is, in effect, an anomaly. The anomaly is that we have a special and unique institutional arrangement whereby Members of the Irish Senate can become Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are best placed to ensure that we regularise the relationship between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom by providing that members of the Irish legislature can be members of any legislature in the United Kingdom. That is the view that the Government have taken, but those Members who wish to take a different view can do so.

Mr. Maginnis rose--

Mr. Howard rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).

Mr. Howard: The Minister told the House that, although the Bill was not part of the Good Friday agreement, it was envisaged at the time of the agreement that it would be introduced. Can he point to any on-the-record statement to support that view? Was anything ever said at the time of the Good Friday agreement to the effect that this measure would be taken?

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. and learned Gentleman obviously misheard me. I did not say that the Bill's introduction was envisaged at the time of the Good Friday agreement--I did not say that at all. Let me make it clear that the Bill arose after the Good Friday agreement. It is not directly linked to the agreement except in the sense that, following a number of changes that took place both before and after the agreement, relations between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom as a whole developed and got stronger, closer and better. We now need to ensure that we deal with anomalies in our legislation. The Bill happens to relate to one of them and we are proceeding to deal with it.

Mr. Maginnis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, so this is the last time I propose to do so.

Mr. Maginnis: I am grateful to the Minister but--if I dare--may I try to persuade him not to cease to give way? He may learn from those of us who are slightly closer to the coalface than he is.

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Will the Minister clarify one point? He says that he wants to remove anomalies. Will a Member of the Irish Dail be able to be a Member of the two other subordinate Assemblies--those in Scotland and in Wales? That point is not yet clear.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I said at the start of my speech--I have the note in front of me so I can quote it--that the Bill would cover the House, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I know that the hon. Gentleman has--to use his own phrase--been close to the coalface for a long time and that he has dealt with many difficult issues. I always listen to him with great care, but it is important to create a situation in which, as far as possible, we consider the United Kingdom as a whole--which we are doing--and remove the unique position in respect of the north alone.

We should also deal with another anomaly whereby the Senate has been treated differently from the Dail. Once we recognise that they are anomalies and deal with them, we will be better placed. Much as I respect the hon. Gentleman's views on many of these issues, I hope that we shall be able to convince him not only that the proposal is the right thing to do, but that this is the right time to do it.

Some would argue, for example, that the Bill's timing is wrong and that it should perhaps be linked to decommissioning. May I deal with that argument? We are at one on the importance of decommissioning. All parties are now agreed that decommissioning is an essential part of the process, that it should begin as soon as possible and that it is for the de Chastelain commission to deal with precisely how and when. The commission has said that it will issue a report in January. That will be of great importance. The future of the Good Friday agreement is obviously linked to its performance, which includes issues of decommissioning. However, the Bill is not part of the Good Friday agreement and should be seen and treated separately. We agree on the objective of decommissioning, but frankly, I do not think that the Bill provides the means for advancing it.

I recognise, for example, that Sinn Fein should not benefit politically if the IRA defaults on decommissioning, but the benefit conferred by this Bill falls to all Members of the Dail. As a result of the Bill, any member could also stand for election to this House. There are 130 Members of the Dail, of whom just one is a Sinn Fein TD. We should not assume that Sinn Fein members are the only ones with an interest in pursuing politics both north and south of the border.

In the past, a number of individuals from the broad nationalist tradition have pursued such an interest. For example, Austin Currie, a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour party, is now a Fine Gael TD, and John Cushnahan, a former member of the Alliance party of Northern Ireland, is also now a Fine Gael TD. As we know, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, before being elected to this House, was a member of the Irish Senate, and Conor Cruise O'Brien, a distinguished former Irish Minister, chose to stand in 1996 in Northern Ireland as a member of the party of the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney)--the United Kingdom Unionist party.

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I quote those examples to demonstrate that the pool of individuals who might have an interest in benefiting from the Bill goes far wider than Sinn Fein, and we must be clear about that. We must also remember that Sinn Fein is the minority nationalist party in the north and that, in the south, at the last general election, it secured just 1 per cent. of the vote. To suggest, therefore, that the wide pool of potential beneficiaries should be denied the sensible treatment that is already available to members of Commonwealth legislatures, simply because Sinn Fein members would be such beneficiaries, is unfair and out of proportion.

If the issue is to be linked with something else, the right and better link is with the resolution of the overall constitutional issues between our countries. Until those were resolved, there was always, understandably, a question mark over whether it was truly possible to have the closest of relationships with the Irish Republic, as symbolised by this type of measure.

That issue has, to some extent, been resolved by the Good Friday agreement--negotiated between all parties and the two Governments--and the referendum that followed, in which the people of the Irish Republic overwhelmingly endorsed changes to the Irish constitution to place consent at the heart of their aspiration for a united Ireland. Most importantly, on 2 December, those constitutional changes, along with corresponding changes in British constitutional law, were brought into effect, in parallel with the devolution of power and the establishment of the Good Friday institutions.

With the agreement on consent now in force and new articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution in effect and capable of being changed again only by another referendum, regardless of developments under the rest of the Good Friday agreement, the Government believe that the way is clear for this Bill. Over many years, we have developed close working relationships with the Irish Government, but with agreement now in force between us on constitutional issues, the way is clear for the formalisation of that relationship. To some extent, the Bill provides some basis for that.

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