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Mr. Ross: The Minister refers to representations made after the Bill was published, but I am talking about the consultations, which he has already disclosed in part, that took place before the Bill was drawn up.

Sir Patrick Cormack: May I inform the hon. Gentleman that the Opposition expected a proper interval between Second Reading and the Committee stage, so that there would be a proper opportunity to study the Bill and to table appropriate amendments?

Mr. George Howarth rose--

The Chairman: Order. The Minister cannot intervene on an intervention.

Mr. Ross: No doubt, the Minister will want to intervene on me.

Mr. George Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me, yet again. May I repeat the point that has been made before to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), that the usual channels exist precisely so that such representations can be made. However, they were not made.

Mr. Ross: As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) has already pointed out, members of our party are not involved in the usual channels. Two weeks ago, he made representations asking for information, but received none.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The Bill clearly states that it was ordered to be printed on 21 December 1999, which was either the day the House rose or the day before. It is wholly disingenuous to suggest that there was a great opportunity for consideration, as though we were meant to take the Bill home with us and study it on Christmas eve and Christmas day.

Mr. Ross: That makes us more suspicious. I was even more annoyed that I caught the flu bug over Christmas and so was not in any state to plough through a Bill, even one as short as this one.

The Minister has still not dealt with my point, which is that there is a difference between representations made after the Bill was published and the consultation that he admits took place with Sinn Fein and the Irish Government. In addition, he has not yet told the Committee who else was consulted about the content of the Bill--

The Chairman: Order. I have to remind the hon. Gentleman, as I have had to do several times already, that he should be speaking specifically about the amendment, not about more general matters that he believes overhang it. We are debating the amendment.

Mr. Ross: Regrettably, Sir Alan, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who

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composed the amendment, is not present. I do not know whether it arose from his consultation with the Government, or whether he tabled it in sheer frustration at not having had the opportunity for full consultation before the Bill was published--

The Chairman: Order. As the hon. Gentleman has nobly stepped into the breach to move the amendment, he should do so in his own capacity, rather than speculating about what other right hon. and hon. Members might have done.

Mr. Ross: As you know, Sir Alan, I am always willing to move amendments, no matter how scant my knowledge. I do so in the sure expectation, which has been fulfilled in today's debate, that as the debate proceeds more information will seep out. As more information has been provided throughout today's debate and yesterday's, we have become more suspicious about the intentions underlying the Bill--

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman must listen to what I am saying, which is that he must stick to the amendment. We are not debating the Bill as a whole. The House has already decided on Second Reading that the Bill should be accepted in principle. We are now dealing with the amendment.

Sir Patrick Cormack: On a point of order, Sir Alan. The Committee is clearly in some difficulty and I wonder whether you are able to help. It would be in the interests of the House if there could be a Report stage and if manuscript amendments could be submitted for scrutiny by you and the Speaker. Will it be possible to have a relatively brief suspension between the conclusion of Committee and the commencement of Report?

The Chairman: There is no case for that--that eventuality does not arise. The House made a decision to proceed with the business until any hour and that is the decision that I must apply.

Mr. Ross: That was a welcome decision by the House, because it gives us time to explore the issues in moderate detail. We still have a long time to go--we do not even have to stop until this time tomorrow morning. There is no reason not to keep going, as everyone appears perfectly content and well settled down for a long stay. I was a Member of Parliament in the 1970s, when such evenings were quite--

The Chairman: Order. We do not need a trip down memory lane. We must return to the amendment.

Mr. Ross: Trips down memory lane sometimes serve to refresh one's memory of happier times when the House sat all night.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): It was not under a Labour Government.

Mr. Ross: As I recall, the hon. Gentleman was not a Member of Parliament then.

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The amendment is designed to improve the Bill. In that context, what impinges on one part of the Bill must have an influence on the rest of it. On occasion, therefore, one has to widen the scope so that the amendment can be set in the context of the Bill as a whole.

The amendment seeks to remove the capacity of Ministers of foreign nations to become Back-Bench Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If anyone is elected to any legislature, whether here, the Assembly or anywhere else, there is no guarantee that he will complete the full term of office. A Member might appear in the Assembly from elsewhere. He might be there as an independent, and that would most likely be the case. Under section 35 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 there seems to be some difficulty in filling the vacancy. The Secretary of State

In that light, I am not entirely sure about the provision for filling a vacancy caused if the sort of Member to which the amendment relates were to die. Such a Member may resign or want to emigrate. He might be needed back at home. In such circumstances, he might not be able to complete his term, so there would be a vacancy. How would it be filled? That is only one of the side issues that flow directly from the amendment. I am curious that the Minister has decided that he will not say anything. I hope that he will address the matter and give us his advice.

The amendment that deals with Ministers from the Irish Republic is welcome, but I can think of other people who will come in from other countries who might well be Irish nationalists or Irish republicans in disguise, who would act as fifth columnists within the Northern Ireland Assembly. Even if they were not Ministers in the Assembly, they could become Chairmen of Committees, for example. In that powerful position they could pursue an objective that the generality of the population of Northern Ireland might not wish to see pursued. Whenever I consider that possibility and the inherent dangers for the people of Northern Ireland, I see that they fit in with new articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Government draft legislation to amend the constitution.

You will be aware, Sir Alan, having been an assiduous observer of these matters, that although the original articles disappeared, a new one appeared which stated:

That is the sort of person of whom I am thinking. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said, we and our hon. Friends would be cherished.

Article 3 states:

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    It is that consent that we are concerned with because we see signs that we shall be undermined by people coming in through the loophole that is left in the Bill, which the amendment seeks to close. I presume that people such as Austin Currie, who has already been mentioned, could stand for election. He has been a prominent member of the Dublin political establishment for many years. He is not friendly to the Unionist position, and we fear that a chap like him could get elected and be in a position to undermine Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom.

5.30 am

What are the real reasons for the Bill? Has Sinn Fein agreed to it and does it disagree with the sort of measures that the amendment proposes? It is not the potential conflict of interest, but the potential conjunction of interest with that of the Irish Republic that worries me. A litany of measures favours the Sinn Fein-IRA element, and no one else. For those who care to look for it, there is clear evidence that Sinn Fein is being favoured in many ways, including the funding of political parties.

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