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25 Jan 2000 : Column 522

Disqualifications Bill

Not amended in the Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

5.27 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Having had a fairly friendly afternoon of it, I do not want to be too controversial now. Let me just say that I do not think that the last 24 hours have been very helpful to the situation in Northern Ireland, or shown the House of Commons at its best.

The Conservative Front Bench did not oppose Second Reading. It seemed to me that it lost control of a number of its dissident Back Benchers, who then created an entirely new situation which took the Front Bench down the garden path. At various stages of the debate, I was not entirely clear about how Conservative Front Benchers were approaching the matter. At one point, they were saying that this was not a constitutional outrage; on other occasions, it seemed almost as though other Conservative spokespersons were suggesting that it was.

Mr. MacKay: What unites Conservative Members--and, I believe, Liberal Democrats and Unionists--is our belief that it is an outrage to arrange a Second Reading debate on the Monday and then, after the Minister has said--in response to me--that the Bill constitutes neither emergency nor urgent legislation, to bulldoze the measure through, allowing a Committee stage and a Report stage with no time for reflection. That, I think, unites all the Opposition parties, and I believe that it also unites certain Labour Members who are disgusted with the way in which the Government bulldoze through legislation while ignoring the House of Commons.

Mr. O'Brien: Given the unreasonableness of his intervention, I am sorry that I felt disposed to give way to the right hon. Gentleman. This is not emergency legislation; it is a Bill that was given broad support on Second Reading, by a vote of 300 to 17. The Conservative Front-Bench team did not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. It is a short Bill of three clauses and has been available since just before Christmas. Many amendments to it were tabled.

When the timing of the Bill was put before the usual channels, there was no protest from the Conservative Front-Bench team. It could have protested if it felt that it was a significant matter, but the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks on Northern Ireland for the Conservative Front-Bench team, said that he did not regard it as a major constitutional Bill. He has been clear in that view. Therefore, it seemed that, at that stage, Conservative Front Benchers did not object to the way in which the House was proceeding.

Mr. Hogg: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: No. I am dealing with a point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). I hope to give way later to hon. Members, but I do not want to detain the House too long; in many ways, it has already been detained too long.

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The Bill became a matter of principle at the late stages yesterday. It was only when a number of Conservative Back Benchers decided to deal with it in a certain way that others got dragged along.

The Bill is essentially a small step in building a closer relationship between the Irish Republic and the UK as a whole. Whereas, under present law, Northern Ireland is treated uniquely--its citizens can have dual membership of the Irish Senate and the Northern Ireland Assembly--under the Bill, it will be treated broadly as the rest of the UK is in its relationship with the Irish Republic. If we do not pass the Bill, the current law will remain and Northern Ireland will continue to be the only part of the UK with that special link.

It is surprising, then, that an essentially fairly modest little Bill has produced so much controversy. It says more about the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland than the Bill itself. It is not surprising that there are sensitivities in Northern Ireland, given the history of the past 30 years, but we must be aware that seeing threats in changes that are not really threatening is not helpful.

I understand that lives have been blighted, murders committed, atrocities have taken place and rightful anger engendered. I understand the concern that each move must be carefully reciprocated. All those things make the whole Northern Irish process a painful journey away from violence and, I hope, towards a better future. Sometimes, the price for some can seem high. The so-called concessions sometimes appear great to some Members, until we consider that, if we do not continue the process, we will face the prospect of more lives blighted and more widows created. I think that the whole House would share that view.

It is understandable that, sometimes, both sides say, "So far, but no further," and that there are suspicions. Sometimes, people in England may not understand some of those feelings, but if they remember the history and the families who have been directly affected, perhaps they will.

We are engaged in a process of reconciling the two communities and two heritages in Northern Ireland within a wider institutional structure. Essentially, the Bill is a small step in ending the anomaly with regard to Northern Ireland and in recognising the need for closer links between the UK as a whole and the Irish Republic. It is not about unification, or even a step towards it. It is about two countries with many shared concerns working out, within the context of the British Isles and the European Union, a closer working relationship on a number of issues.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I promised to give way to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I shall then give way to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Then I shall move on.

Mr. Hogg: It is kind of the Minister to give way to me.

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I take the Minister back to the points that he was making about the nature of the Bill and opposition developing late last night. Perhaps he would remember that, in business questions last week, I said to the Leader of the House that what she was doing was wrong. The Bill raises questions of considerable constitutional importance and it was offensive in principle for the Committee stage to follow Second Reading so quickly. The hon. Gentleman will see that I said that to the Leader of the House last Thursday. It is wrong to suggest that that point was not anticipated by Conservative Members.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. and learned Gentleman was one of those who took a somewhat different view from that of Conservative Front Benchers on the importance of the constitutional issues raised by the Bill. My point was about Conservative Front Benchers. Although I entirely accept the point that he makes on his own views, which are shared by one or two other Opposition Members, that was not the view adopted by Conservative Front Benchers.

Mr. Simon Hughes: The Minister is right to say that Liberal Democrat Members agree that the Bill will iron out an anomaly in relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland. However, will he tell us who--we have not yet been told--last year, in 1999, proposed that the anomaly should be ironed out, and when--in which month--the matter was first put on the agenda? Did the initiative come from the United Kingdom Government, from Northern Ireland or from the Irish Government?

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps I should explain the broader context to the hon. Gentleman. I cannot tell him the month that the issue was raised or even who raised it, as I did not see the initial representations on the matter. However, if I write to him on it, perhaps he will be better informed of the context. I am not able now to give him the precise information that he requests.

The Bill is not a huge constitutional concession, but a minor development in line with the forging of the special relationship between us and the Republic--our European partner, which is also a part of these islands.

No new principle is involved in the Bill. Dual membership is already possible between the Senate and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Lord. Is it in order for the Minister continuously to say that the Bill raises no major constitutional issues, although it has been determined by the House--on the advice of the authorities of the House, and at the insistence of the Speaker--that it is a constitutional Bill and debate on it must be held on the Floor of the House? How can the Minister say that the Bill is minor and non-constitutional legislation?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): That is not a point of order, but a matter for debate.

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill is not a huge constitutional concession. That point was made by Opposition Front Benchers, who also took the view that the Bill does not entail major constitutional innovation. At least to some extent, Opposition Front Benchers and I share that view--which, unfortunately, is different from that held by the hon. Gentleman. Then again, it is not for him to have

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different views from those of Conservative Front Benchers. However, many other Conservative Members seem to hold different views from those of their spokesmen.

Dual membership is possible also between Commonwealth legislatures and our own. There are those who say that there should be no dual membership between sovereign states, but it has existed under our constitution for decades. Those who protest about it now did nothing about it when they were in government.

The Republic of Ireland has unique geographic, historical, economic, family and cultural ties with Britain. It is a special relationship, closer in many ways than our relationship with any other country outside the Commonwealth. Under our constitution, Irish nationals other than TDs have long been in the same position as Commonwealth citizens and have been able to stand for and vote in elections to the House of Commons.

In the previous century, there were constitutional issues to resolve, but the Good Friday agreement, and the British-Irish agreement, which came into effect on 2 December 1999, and our membership of the European Union make it clear that there is more that draws us closer than needs divide us.

The Bill is a small move, and it is now timely to take that step. As part of a bigger picture, it reduces anomalies and clarifies relationships. It is a small step that will give perhaps a little help--I claim no more for it--in the broader context of the peace process. The British-Irish agreement enabled the change to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and changes to British constitutional legislation.

With the new agreement between the Governments on some of the constitutional issues, it is more appropriate that treatment of the Irish Parliament should be on the same basis as the most favourable treatment accorded to some Commonwealth legislatures.

Whether constituents want their MP to sit in two Parliaments and represent the views of two different constituencies is an issue on which many hon. Members have views. Some disapprove in principle; we believe that it is a matter for the electorate in each case to decide. We do not propose to bar Commonwealth legislators from standing for this House. We were also reluctant to leave section 36 of the 1998 Act unamended, and now we have decided to extend it to the UK as a whole.

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