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6.3 pm

Mr. Winnick: I do not challenge the right of the Opposition to oppose, or their right to exploit every parliamentary opportunity. For me to say otherwise would be humbug and hypocrisy. I spent 18 years on the Opposition Benches, and I cannot now say that the Opposition should not do what they believe they should do.

There is, however, the question whether the Conservatives' actions at a sensitive time in Northern Ireland are right and proper. I take the view that this has been a disastrous day for Parliament. I believe that what the Opposition have done today--I do not challenge their right to do it--was most inappropriate, and I will explain why.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack)--whom I greatly respect--said that his remarks should not in any way given the impression that the Conservative party is against the peace process. Those are very important words, and all of us on the Labour Benches appreciate the widespread support for the peace process, including among many Opposition Members.

The hon. Gentleman was cheered on various occasions during his speech--but when he referred to the peace process, there were no cheers. That in itself is rather alarming.

Opposition Members said that no Labour Back Bencher had spoken in favour during the debates. However, I know of no one on the Labour Benches, apart from one hon. Friend, who does not agree with the sentiments of the Bill. As Opposition Members know, it is not unusual for Government Back Benchers not to speak when Opposition Members take up so much time. We are not against the Bill, so why should we have spoken? The silence of Labour Members on Second Reading and in Committee should not be taken as a lack of support for the Bill.

The Bill will end several anomalies. However, it is also important because it will further normalise relations between this country and the Irish Republic. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire spoke about the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), the former Prime Minister. I am pleased that in the past 15 years-- I do not say from when we were elected--there has been a substantial improvement in relations between this country and the Irish Republic. That is right and it is the way to proceed. I have always paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Huntingdon for the way in which he initiated the peace process. I may have some criticisms, but what he did was in the national interest and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has consolidated the process in ways that the large majority in the House support.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): Is not the Irish Republic a sovereign independent state with its own Parliament and a constitutional court? Did it seek the Bill? No one has said that it did. What does the hon. Gentleman mean by normalising relations when that will involve opening up the House of Commons, with its responsibilities to the British electorate, to foreign citizens who are proud of who they are and whom we respect?

Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend the Minister has explained that both on Second Reading and in his remarks just now.

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I am suspicious of some of the opposition to the Bill. I excuse those on the Opposition Front Bench; I know that they are in favour of the peace process. We have differences of opinion and criticise each other, but I take their word that they are in favour of the peace process. However, four Unionist Members are in the Chamber, and three of them are against the peace process.

Mr. Donaldson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Winnick: No, I shall be very brief. Three out of the four Unionists in the Chamber were against the peace process and the Good Friday agreement from the very beginning. As we all know, some Opposition Back Benchers are against the peace process and the agreement.

Much of the opposition today and throughout the night came from hon. Members who have opposed the Good Friday agreement and from others who have a great deal of anti-Irish spite. They have used the opportunity to prolong our proceedings. The Bill is right. It will help the peace process and further normalise relations with the Irish Republic. I hope that it will receive a large majority on Third Reading.

6.9 pm

Mr. Maginnis: There was a difference between the Minister's opening and his closing remarks. In his opening remarks, he emphasised the special relationship that existed between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom and suggested that the Bill was a necessary concession based on that relationship. The Minister need not go to the trouble of looking up the reference: I can tell him that the phrase "special relationship" occurs twice in the opening paragraphs. That should enable him to concentrate on my speech. On Third Reading, the Minister tells the House that the Bill represents a minimal constitutional and procedural change--one that is of no great import. How does he reconcile those two attitudes, struck within 24 hours of each other?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: If I had made such diverse remarks, I would have to reconcile them. However, if the hon. Gentleman reads my remarks on Second Reading with care, he will see that they are on all fours with my remarks on Third Reading. The Bill represents a small step in the broader context of the creation of a stronger special relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole. I said that on Second Reading and I have now repeated it. I have never suggested--indeed, I have denied throughout--that the Bill makes a big constitutional change.

Mr. Maginnis: I have considerable sympathy for both Ministers who have borne the burden of taking the Bill through the House. However, their performance, while gutsy, has betrayed the fact that they do not in their hearts believe that it is a good thing, not only to divide the House down the middle, but to have in their party's ranks many Labour Members who have, in the past 24 hours, told me that they wonder what the Government are about.

People are understandably confused by what we have heard, for the simple reason that we have not been given a clear exposition as to who was involved, not in consultations, but in creating the concept that Members of the Dail want to be patronised by the UK Government

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acting as though they were old colonialists. People do not want to be so patronised. I have been in Dublin on numerous occasions over the past three weeks; I spent 48 hours there last week, during which time I spoke to journalists, to business men and professional people and to Back Benchers from all the political parties, as well as to political leaders. Not one person with whom I spoke expressed any desire for the Bill and most of them denied having any knowledge of it. The Government are being foolish, not only in terms of the Opposition parties, but in terms of their own Back Benchers.

In the past 24 hours, the question has been asked several times why a Bill that is not emergency and urgent legislation has had to be rushed through in two consecutive days. Why could the normal processes whereby legislation passes through the House not be employed? I do not know whether the answer has anything to do with the fact that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) and other old Labour Members were high on the list of questions to be put to the Prime Minister on his 1,000th day in office. Proceedings on the Bill gave Ministers a useful lesson in avoiding the scrutiny of dissidents on their own side.

To sustain their position, the Government have had to be "misleading"--I cannot think of a better word. However, the Government have not clearly enunciated how we reached our present position. It is time that there was a little frankness about the part that was played by my party and my party leader. The Minister has suggested that consultation took place. When I pressed him on the issue and said that consultation after the event and after decisions had been made was not proper consultation-- I tried to intervene but was not permitted to do so--he said that he was not really there so he did not know what was going on. The hon. Gentleman cannot say to the House, "There was consultation with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party but I am not terribly sure because I do not know what was going on and when that consultation took place." It is an issue that he might reasonably clarify. I hope that he does so with the sort of frankness that I would expect from him.

Mr. O'Brien: I shall be entirely clear with the hon. Gentleman. If he wants to discover precisely what discussions the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) had with Ministers, he should first approach his right hon. Friend rather than trying to get the information first hand from me. However, as I understand it, clause 2 is entirely the result of the consultation that took place with the right hon. Gentleman who is the leader of his party. The views of Ulster Unionists have been recognised within the context of the Bill, but that may not be all that the hon. Gentleman wanted. I do not know, because I did not hear all the representations that he made. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman could alert him to the precise nature of the representations that were made.

Mr. Maginnis: I think that there is a degree of frankness in what the Minister now says. When the proposal was put to my right hon. Friend, he expressed clearly his antipathy to it. He said that it was entirely unnecessary. I am pleased to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland nods with some vigour. Not

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being able to make the impression on Downing Street that he had hoped to, and to have the proposal withdrawn, my right hon. Friend pointed out there would be a conflict of interest and hence--

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