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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Minister has been full in his explanation, but will he deal with two matters that have not been dealt with? First, is it right to conclude that the Bill has a purely Irish genesis and is not part of any wider review of whether there should be a dual mandate between other legislatures and ours, or of whether one should have to be qualified by residence to stand for a legislature? Secondly, if the Bill does have only an Irish background in recent history, when did the matter first come to Ministers' attention as a proposal for legislative consideration?

Mr. O'Brien: The relationship between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom is in many ways special. I think that I have outlined the reasons for that, so I shall not rehearse those points.

Mr. Maginnis: Go on, give us the reasons again.

Mr. O'Brien: I thought that I had already described them. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to go through my

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whole speech again, I suppose that, notwithstanding the time and the nature of the debate, I could oblige him--although I do not think it necessary.

The issue arose after the Good Friday agreement was made, during further discussions between the two Governments. It was one of the issues on which we felt helpful progress could be made. I shall, as agreed, give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North and then deal with the other point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the most encouraging features of the past 15 years has been the better relationship at ministerial and parliamentary level between Britain and the Republic of Ireland--in spite of the opposition of a few, although not the majority of, Opposition Members? Does not the Bill strengthen that relationship and remove one or two anomalies, and is it not therefore to be warmly welcomed?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I agree that the Bill will remove some of the anomalies and that it is to be welcomed.

I did not respond to one point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey: whether the Bill is part of a wider process. It is part of the development of a special relationship between the United Kingdom as a whole and the Republic of Ireland. We do not therefore envisage extending its provisions to other countries that are not members of the Commonwealth. The Bill signals a recognition that, on certain issues, we have particular relationships with other countries and international organisations, including the United States, the European Union, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. It is right that we should ensure that we properly recognise such relationships.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. O'Brien: No--I must conclude my speech.

I recognise that there are concerns about conflicts of interest, but the holding of dual mandates does not, in itself, represent a conflict of interest or make it impossible for such elected representatives to carry out their duties effectively. Several hon. Members here today are also members of devolved legislatures in the United Kingdom.

The position of Ministers who take Executive decisions differs from that of Back Benchers who participate and press points in two different legislatures. Ministers must be in a position to take into account the best interests of people in the jurisdiction they govern. That might not be possible if a Minister is also a Minister in another sovereign country. Conflicts of interest might arise, or be thought to arise. That is why clause 2 prohibits Ministers of the Irish Government from taking up ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In addition, the clause states that a junior Minister, First Minister or

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Deputy First Minister of the Assembly would have to resign his or her position in the Assembly Executive before becoming a Minister in the Irish Government.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Yes, because the hon. Gentleman has not yet intervened. However, it will be the last time I give way.

Mr. Ross: The Minister said earlier that Members of Parliament could also be elected to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. However, the Bill does not bar them from becoming Ministers in those devolved Administrations. Why not?

Mr. O'Brien: That is one of the issues that can be discussed in Committee. Following representations of which the hon. Gentleman is, no doubt, aware, it was argued that, because it might give rise to concern in Northern Ireland, that issue should be specifically addressed in legislation. It has been addressed in clause 2. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied that we are listening to representations from all parties.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill is modest, but worth while. It makes no dramatic changes, but simply extends to the Irish legislature existing provisions that permit members of Commonwealth legislatures to become Members of Parliament. That is in line with a wide range of special provisions in electoral law covering Ireland and Commonwealth countries. The Bill builds on the existing provision allowing Members of the Irish Senate to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and extends it to other UK legislatures and to Members of the Irish Dail.

The Bill provides a further example of the development of mutually beneficial relationships between our two countries and throughout these islands--relationships that are now based firmly on the principle of consent. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Viggers: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I apologise for raising the matter in this way, but I think that I am justified in so doing because the Minister failed to give way to me. Have you received any representations from the Government to suggest that they are contemplating a change in the Oath that is taken by hon. Members?

Madam Speaker: No, I have received no such indication from the Government at any time.

4.15 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): As we recognise that the aim of the Bill is to build on what has already been achieved in Northern Ireland, we will not oppose its Second Reading. However, there are issues that the Opposition hope the Minister will help to resolve, either today or during succeeding stages of the Bill's consideration. We are in no doubt that the Bill has serious implications. That is why we have tabled an

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amendment for the Committee stage, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) will move. We shall also support two amendments in the name of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

Before turning to our reservations, I want to join the Minister in welcoming the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past few years. It represents a real step forward in its sadly troubled history. After all the horrors of the past 30 years of the troubles, marked as they have been by truly wicked and vile atrocities, we all hope that, at long last, Northern Ireland is looking forward to a new era of peace and stability. It should be one in which political differences are resolved by dialogue rather than by violence, and in which everybody accepts that the future of Northern Ireland must be determined by democracy and consent, not by gun and bomb.

No one on either side of the House should underestimate the leadership, courage and vision that has been shown by many politicians from Northern Ireland, including the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and the hon. Members for Foyle (Mr. Hume) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), in negotiating the Good Friday agreement and in bringing us to the current position. I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and to Lord Mayhew of Twysden for their contributions.

As the Minister said, we accept that there is a seeming discrepancy: although both Irish and Commonwealth citizens may vote in United Kingdom elections, provided that they fulfil the relevant residency requirements, members of Commonwealth legislatures may sit in the House but members of the Irish legislature may not. However, we must be careful that in resolving that seeming anomaly we do not create others.

Although members of Commonwealth legislatures are entitled to sit in the House, there are obvious difficulties for members with an allegiance to one country sitting in a Parliament where they are required to declare an allegiance to another country. Our safeguard is the Oath, which has always applied. Every Member of the House, regardless of origin, must take the Oath. No Member taking the Oath should put the interests of another country first.

Mr. Hogg: My right hon. Friend is relying on the precedent created in favour of members of Commonwealth legislatures. Does she understand and agree that many of us, if we were considering this matter afresh, would not wish to give those members a right to sit in this place because of the conflict of interest?

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