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Mr. Forth: It is disappointing that the Minister has tried to deal with the matter in such a superficial way. I come immediately to his spurious point about me. I am able to distinguish between a national Parliament of a sovereign nation, such as this is, despite the depredations and subversions of European institutions, and the role played by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Minister suggested that I was somehow in dereliction of my duty or inconsistent in opposing Members from an alien country coming to one body but not to the other. However, I see the two issues as completely different.

I freely concede that the Minister has listened to most of the debate, but it is worrying that he does not understand the distinction between the roles of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Houses of Parliament. That is a sad reflection on the Government's fundamental failure to understand the dangerous game that they are playing.

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The point of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was a red herring. I happen not to agree with Members of Commonwealth Parliaments being eligible for election to this House. If there is an anomaly in the treatment of Commonwealth countries and Ireland, I would sort it out by going the other way and abolishing that now redundant provision.

The hon. Gentleman says that Ireland and Commonwealth countries are in the same category, but they are not. The Irish chose to leave the Commonwealth. They made their statement and I respect that, but they must not expect the privileges of Commonwealth membership when they have opted not to be a member of the Commonwealth. That is a false argument.

We have had an interesting and useful debate, from which a matter that is relevant to the amendment has emerged. The Minister has now said what he previously said but half denied: that there were discussions with the Irish Government and, he now adds, with Sinn Fein. That is the first time during the debates in Committee that the Minister has said, in terms and on the record, that the measure arose largely from discussions between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland and Sinn Fein. We are now, for the first time, beginning to get a sense of the origin of the measure and the thrust behind it.

Mr. William Ross: The right hon. Gentleman will recall the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) in respect of alleged consultations with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. He was apparently not so much consulted as told what the Government intended to do, and he objected to what they intended to do. It has slowly been dragged out of Ministers that the only people who were consulted are the Government of the Republic of Ireland and Sinn Fein.

The Chairman: Order. I have already explained that that point is outside the scope of the amendment, so I do not want it to be pursued.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful, Sir Alan. I shall not explore at this stage nuances in the definitions of discussion and consultation, or who pushed whom. However, I give the Minister fair notice that we shall return to the matter. In the meantime, the debate has proved extremely useful in that we have dragged out of the Government something that they had hitherto failed to state.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman says that he has dragged something out of the Government. I refer his attention to column 26 of the Hansard of 24 January.

Mr. Forth: You, Sir Alan, would not want me to become distracted by embarking on reading a column of Hansard at this stage. I do not know what it says, or the significance of the Minister's intervention. However, if he is implying that we have already been told that discussions took place between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Republic of Ireland on the one hand and Sinn Fein on the other, I can say only that I am glad that he has now told us it twice.

Mr. Bercow: My right hon. Friend is generous to a fault, but on this occasion he is crediting the Minister with

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a clarity that was not present in his remarks yesterday. For the avoidance of doubt, will my right hon. Friend accept that the reference the Minister has cited mentions discussions with

    "the Irish Government and others"--[Official Report, 24 January 2000; Vol. 343, c. 26.]?

Is that opaque, or what?

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not want to linger on the point, but, having sat through almost every minute of debate that has so far taken place on this measure, I was fairly certain that Sinn Fein had not hitherto been mentioned in terms. Now, for the first time, we have it on the record. That is a step forward. We are now beginning to get to the bottom of the matter. We shall have to return to the matter on Third Reading and in another place.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The issue of what was said to Sinn Fein is extremely important, because no one can understand why anyone would want to sit as a Member of two Parliaments. However, we know that members of Sinn Fein want expenses for sitting as Members of the UK Parliament--

The Chairman: Order. That was not a helpful intervention and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not pursue it.

Mr. Forth: I shall press on, Sir Alan.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Before my right hon. Friend does so, will he press the Minister to respond to a point made earlier? In the discussions that took place, was the question addressed by the amendment, namely reciprocity, raised with the Irish Government? In the discussions about the Bill generally, did the Minister and other Ministers discuss with the representatives of the Irish Government whether it would be a one-way Bill or whether an amendment of the sort that is before us could be incorporated in it?

Mr. Forth: I would hope that that is the sort of matter that we might be able to explore further by means of manuscript amendments, for example, which we discussed early in our proceedings. Perhaps that is worth bearing in mind. However, I detect--I am something of a student of body language and facial expressions, and particularly those of the occupants of the Chair during these proceedings--that if I were to follow my hon. Friend's intervention, which I know was intended to be helpful, I might incur Sir Alan's displeasure, which I do not want to do.

I want to move on to cover some of the main points that have been made in this useful debate. I confess to a feeling of disappointment and hurt that so many of my hon. Friends attacked my amendment with such vigour. I thought that I would get support from them, and all I have had during most of this part of our little debate are attacks and misunderstandings. It is incumbent upon me to try to clarify some of the points that my hon. Friends have made.

My hon. Friends seemed to be occupied inordinately and disproportionately--they struggled over this--with my use of "qualified". The amendment was drafted, as

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ever, with the help and expertise of the Clerks. I suspect that it is beyond suspicion and beyond doubt. To try to put it further beyond doubt, I had it in mind only to make the simple point that it is up to each legislature to lay down qualifications for membership of itself. I am seeking to say that such qualifications should be reciprocal. That is putting the matter in layman's language and returning to the word that I used when introducing the amendment only two or three hours ago. It is inappropriate for my hon. Friends to make heavy weather of the meaning of "qualified" in this context. I would have said "unfair", but I would not use that word when describing the approach of my hon. Friends in any circumstances. The amendment is straightforward and my hon. Friends need not look for difficulties. What they see is essentially what they will get.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) asked me a peculiar question. He wanted to know whether I had been in negotiations with the Irish Republic about my amendment. The answer is no. I am not in the habit of negotiating with the Irish Republic. I used to do so when I was a member of the Council of Ministers. I was involved then in negotiations with the Republic, and I still have the bruises and the scars. I did not find much co-operation, friendliness and helpfulness from Irish Ministers. Quite the opposite. I shall not dwell on that because it is a painful memory. However, I can say categorically that I did not negotiate the terms of my amendment with any representatives of the Irish Republic. I bear sole responsibility for it and for its many weaknesses, which my hon. Friends have been at such pains to point out.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) raised an important matter. He said that he believed that for reciprocity to be achieved in its fullest sense, it may be not entirely a matter for the Irish Government themselves or for the Irish legislature, given the constitutional arrangements in the Republic. He raised the fair point of the need for referendum approval of amendments to that constitution.

That raises the prospect that we are not here, as in so many other areas, on the same footing on the two sides of the Irish sea. We have different electoral systems, and we have the requirement in the Republic of Ireland of a referendum on any change, which would not apply in the United Kingdom. So there is a question mark over whether full reciprocity in the purest sense of the word could ever be achieved.

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