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Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is refreshing our memory of history, and I

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recognise his point about South Down. However, how long were those people kept in the Irish Senate thereafter? The hon. Gentleman referred to them as dying here. Am I right that the understanding that there would be Unionist representatives in Dail Eireann was not maintained?

Mr. Mackinlay: In those days, it was possible for a Unionist to get elected to Dail Eireann because there was not separate citizenship. I stress that those concerned did serve in the Senate. I regret the impact of the constitutional amendments in the 1930s, which abolished the Irish Senate as set up under legislation in the 1920s. However, the principle was there.

I draw the House's attention to that point in response to the right hon. and learned Members for Folkestone and Hythe and for Sleaford and North Hykeham, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. In fairness, they were unaware that this Parliament had provided for that matter in those circumstances.

A colleague told me not to dwell on the Oath. The Oath does not present difficulties to me personally. However, we should facilitate people in taking their place within a legislature. If they are disbarred solely on a formulation of words that is very important to those who consider the Oath important but not to those who do not, that will contravene the European convention on human rights.

In looking at the tragedy of Ireland and the missed opportunities, one must look at the Oath, which kept the Republican party out of the Dail for 10 to 12 years after the creation of the Free State. That was a great tragedy. How did they overcome it? Those who value the Oath must think that the formulation whereby the problem was overcome was the worst possible scenario. De Valera led his deputies into Dail Eireann after they had been disbarred having consistently refused to take the Oath. Eventually he said, "This is a formula", and signed the register. That was seen as the way round the problem. I happen to know that some hon. Members here have mentally poached that formula when they have signed after our general elections. Openly, some people elected to the Scottish Parliament used the same formulation.

That debases the Oath. An oath should be something with which everyone is comfortable. Perhaps we all do not even need to take the same oath--there could be a degree of choice. For the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to challenge the Minister to say that he will never contemplate a change in the wording of the Oath seems to reinforce some of the great mistakes that were made in the previous century in relation to Ireland. There must be fresh thinking: members of one United Kingdom legislature should not be disbarred from serving because of a formulation of words.

Only exceptional people will want to take advantage of this Bill when it is enacted. However, its presence on the statute book could benefit the United Kingdom and all its people. After all, Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, appointed Dame Lydia Dunn, a member of the Hong Kong legislature, to the House of Lords. That appointment was a recognition of the lady's work, but it was also expeditious for the United Kingdom to send a signal to the people of Hong Kong that they had not been forgotten. The appointment was therefore an important shibboleth and was expedient at the time.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I have the greatest admiration for my hon. Friend, but does he accept that the Hong Kong

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Executive could not in any way be said to be the sovereign Government of the people of the Republic of China? Although it might have been possible to argue that Hong Kong, as the only democracy in the state of China, could and should have been that sovereign Government, it was not.

Mr. Mackinlay: No, but my point is that it was expedient for the United Kingdom to have that facility on the statute book.

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is not comparable with the Bill.

Mr. Mackinlay: My hon. and very good Friend and I will have to disagree. I believe that the two sets of circumstances are parallel. There are good reasons why the same facility should exist for the electorates of Northern Ireland--to whom the Bill primarily relates--and for those of the rest of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland.

5.2 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): When I take constituents on tours of the House, I am often asked about the early days of women's suffrage. One of the bits of history that I tell them as a matter of interest is that the first woman to be elected to this Parliament was a Sinn Fein representative from the St. Patrick's area in Dublin. She never took her seat in the United Kingdom Parliament, but the story disabuses people of the conventional, history-book belief that Lady Astor was the first woman to be elected to this place.

Although this Bill is small in size, it opens a set of big related issues. The Liberal Democrat party is a United Kingdom party, but more in practice a Great Britain party, so it is especially sensitive to the needs of people in Northern Ireland, to whom the Bill has most relevance.

Mr. Maginnis: No.

Mr. Hughes: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, he may go quite a long way towards agreeing with what I say.

The Bill is about the rights of the people of Ireland--particularly the rights of a small group of those people--in the United Kingdom and its Parliament. Essentially, it is about the rights of representation, in the United Kingdom Parliament and other UK Assemblies, of representatives elected to the Parliament of Ireland. This is something of a paradox.

Mr. Swayne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Hughes: I shall give way in a moment.

Mr. Swayne: What the hon. Gentleman says applies the other way around, too.

Mr. Hughes: I shall come to that in a second.

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The question of reciprocity arises from the basic proposition.

Mr. Forth: Yes, that is a big issue.

Mr. Hughes: The Bill rests on two narrow proposals. Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill's Second Reading, as do the Conservatives, but we are worried about how the Government have introduced it to Parliament. The approach adopted by the Government does not seem to be the most appropriate.

The relationship that the United Kingdom has with Ireland is different from any other that it has. It is not the same as our relationship with Commonwealth countries, any other European Union country or any other country--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but there are far too many sedentary comments in the House this afternoon, and they do not assist the debate.

Mr. Hughes: It is noteworthy that, in our legislation, Ireland is not categorised as an alien country. That is because of our strong historical connections. As we see whenever we are in Central Lobby, Ireland is one country within the United Kingdom until the independence of Ireland; it then became a Republic after the war, at the end of the 1940s. The relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland is unique, and legislation that affects it will, and should, be considered separately from legislation in relation to every other country.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The hon. Gentleman said that Ireland's position is to do with our long historic relationship. In a sense, that is right, but it is also a result of Acts of this Parliament. That is the point.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is right: the historical relationship has resulted in particular Acts of Parliament that have governed our relationship.

The Government have chosen--that is why I asked the Minister the question--to come to the House with a proposal that is specific to the United Kingdom-Irish relationship. I want to make a few comments on that, although I shall shortly be discussing the fact that we have missed an opportunity. There is a wider set of issues to do not just with disqualification from being elected to Parliament, but with the links between Members of Parliament and other Assemblies--the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) rightly called them subordinate Assemblies--including the European Parliament, which is not a full sovereign Parliament in that sense of the word. In addition, dual mandates and conflicts of interest have not been addressed. It is also a pity to have this debate before having the even wider debate, which is particularly topical given last week's report by the Wakeham commission on the House of Lords, and the opportunities that that presents.

Let me deal first with the Bill and the two narrow points that it contains. Let me say to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who is no longer in her place, that if we accept that the Bill presents to our Parliament an issue on the rights of the Irish people and people elected to the Irish Parliament--the Senate and

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the Dail--it is wrong to tie the Bill to issues of decommissioning, however much we share the view expressed most frequently by Members on the Ulster Unionist and the other Northern Ireland Benches that we desperately want decommissioning to take place and to be seen to be taking place. I advanced that case in a question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland only last week. The rights of citizens should not depend on other processes that will be arbitrated on by an independent body. It muddies the water to link those issues.

Although the Minister did not say it directly, the obvious conclusion is that the Bill arises from discussions after the Good Friday agreement. The point must have been raised--perhaps someone in the Government said it to someone in the Irish Government, or vice versa, or perhaps it came from the Northern Ireland Office--about correcting this one constitutional anomaly, and the Government must have decided to legislate.

It would have taken some of the heat out of the issue if the Bill had awaited the conclusion of the commission in Ireland, which is inquiring into the composition of the Irish Parliament. I gather, from prior knowledge and from the Library's briefing note, that it is due to report early this year.

It would have been logical, and would have been good as cement for relations in the UK-Irish axis, for there to have been simultaneous consideration--as simultaneous as it can ever be--in this Parliament and the Irish Parliament of proposals that might have ensured that there were no anomalies. We should have preferred that and we regret that it has not happened.

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