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6.10 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I oppose the motion.

The Bill derives from the Belfast agreement; it is not simply the product of Patten. On Second Reading, I made it clear that I considered the Patten commission's report to be a faithful representation of the remit given to Patten by certain politicians in the Belfast agreement, although many of them want to wash their hands of it now. However, given that the agreement had its passage, as it were, during 1998, I think few hon. Members would not readily admit that this is the most controversial element of it, and has been paid considerable attention by the Northern Ireland community. The issue with which we shall deal this evening is therefore of great significance to the people of Northern Ireland. It cannot be dealt with lightly, and it cannot and should not be dealt with quickly.

It demeans the Government if they are seen not to be confident enough of their arguments to allow them to be fully debated here. For it is clear that the issues in the Bill will not be properly debated this evening: they are too many, and too great, to be considered adequately in the time allowed.

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The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who has left the Chamber, has said outside it that he is delighted with the Bill. I am therefore surprised--[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) like to repeat that, so that the Chair can hear it? I think not--but, like everything else that the hon. Gentleman says, it was substantially lacking in factual relevance.

The right hon. Member for Upper Bann said publicly that he was delighted with the outcome of the Standing Committee's work. So he should be: it was he and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone who recommended to the people of Northern Ireland that they should support the Belfast agreement, within which the Patten commission's remit was given and of which the Bill is the outcome.

Intervening on my friend, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney), the right hon. Gentleman asked what amendments he had tabled. Any sensible Northern Ireland Member would recognise that there is enough to oppose in the Bill, by way of clause stand part, for the proper result to emerge. It is not necessary to amend a Bill that is so inherently disastrous for the police service in Northern Ireland: it is to be opposed, rather than amended.

The right hon. Gentleman then turned on my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), saying that those who were disrupting and perpetrating violence against the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland were supporters of his. If the right hon. Gentleman were a wee bit closer to the ground, he would recognise that the violence in Northern Ireland is being orchestrated by pro-agreement paramilitary organisations--the very same organisations with which the right hon. Gentleman walked into the talks shoulder to shoulder, and which supported him throughout the process.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying far from the motion. I ask him to return to its confines.

Mr. Robinson: I am happy to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if I have indeed strayed I have been referring to remarks made in the House, without challenge, by others during the debate.

Rev. Ian Paisley: It is well known in Northern Ireland that two members of the Stormont Assembly, on the so-called loyalist side, represent terrorist organisations. It is they, with others, who are seen on the streets, and who are carrying out attacks on the police.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That has absolutely nothing to do with the motion.

Mr. Robinson: I think that the issue has been dealt with properly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I feel that, as it was raised by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann without challenge, it was right for us to have an answer on the record.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) had the audacity to tell the House that there was sufficient time. Having been a member of the Standing Committee, he had every opportunity to say whatever he wanted to say during, I believe, 11 sittings. He now tells those of us

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who were not allowed to be members of the Committee, and who have therefore not had the same opportunities, that there is enough time--time of which he will no doubt take part in order to have a further say.

Mr. Ingram: It might be helpful if the hon. Gentleman reminded us that the last time he was a member of a Standing Committee--the Committee considering the last Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which became the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998--he attended only two sittings. I think I am correct in saying that.

Mr. Robinson: I have not the slightest idea what the Minister is talking about. [Interruption.] The debate will continue for some time, and we shall be able to return to the issue with the Minister.

Mr. Öpik: The hon. Gentleman described my views on the guillotine as audacious. I thank him for the compliment, but surely he accepts that there was simply a difference of opinion. Members are perfectly entitled to have differing views. He himself has made important points, and I hope he recognises that I was not criticising him or his party for having a view different from mine.

Mr. Robinson: I did not suggest that the hon. Gentleman had attacked our view. What he said was that there was sufficient time for the issues to be debated. My party, however, sought representation on the Committee, and was deliberately refused that representation. Our only opportunity to deal with the issues with which the hon. Gentleman had so much time to deal in Committee is tonight's debate, and we are being deliberately denied that opportunity by a Government who are afraid to allow them to be debated properly here.

The Government may well suggest that there is very little time for the issues to be discussed further before the end of the Session. Of course, they left the debate until near the end of the Session because they did not want the details of the Bill to be revealed earlier, in case members of the Ulster Unionist Council saw what they were up to, and therefore formed a different opinion about the return to devolution in Northern Ireland.

One very good reason why we should have more time is the absence of the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor). He has not been able to come along because he is in Cyprus or somewhere. He clearly has such strong opinions on the issue that he did not want to interrupt whatever his business may be elsewhere. It was that right hon. Gentleman, however--this is relevant, Mr. Deputy Speaker--who went to an Ulster Unionist Council meeting, and told that meeting that there was a piece of paper in his inside pocket that he would be able to produce if the Government did not stand by promises given to him. If we cut off tonight's debate, what opportunity will he have to come to the House and reveal for the first time the commitments that he was given--commitments that he said would be sufficient for the Ulster Unionist Council to allow--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have been very tolerant in allowing the hon. Gentleman to make the remarks that he has made in the context of the debate, but I must ask him again to return to the terms of the motion.

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Mr. Robinson: I am dealing entirely with the issue of time. If a Member who is so central to the issue is not present, I would expect him to want time, in a resumed debate, allowing him to produce the evidence that he produced for the Ulster Unionist Council--evidence that he said would ensure the survival of--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman heard my ruling. It is not a matter of what other Members should be doing in the debate; we want to hear what the hon. Gentleman wishes to contribute.

Mr. Robinson: I am grateful. I am sure that the House would agree.

The Government have nothing but the contempt of the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland for the way in which they have dealt with the whole issue of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They have attempted to use it as a political issue in relation to the Belfast agreement. They have one minute been attempting to suggest to the Unionist community that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was safe in their hands and that, on that basis, they should support the right hon. Member for Upper Bann in resuming the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland; and, the next minute, they have pandered to the republican tradition in Northern Ireland and, as has been seen throughout the stages of the Bill, produced amendments to satisfy that republican element.

This debate--the charade that we are offered of just a few hours to debate a critical issue--reflects badly on the Government. I think that it will ensure that the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be hung around their neck as an example of how they reward those who have stood by and made sacrifices for the community. At the same time, it will be seen in stark contrast to the rewards that they have given to terrorists in putting them into government and releasing their prisoners.

6.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): We have had an interesting debate, and I shall be relatively brief compared with some of the contributions.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has in these matters the merits of sincerity, which is palpable when he speaks on the subject, and of consistency. Although on this occasion he will understand that I cannot agree with him, I always respect his sincerity.

I come to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and, in so doing, rise to the defence of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), even though he does not agree with us on this occasion. I am sure that, when the hon. Gentleman reflects on what he said, he might regret it. He attacked the right hon. Gentleman for not having mentioned the republican bomb in Stewartstown.

I have to say--I think that the hon. Member for North Antrim knows it--that, just as the Government, he and other hon. Members condemn every terrorist activity, from wherever it comes, so does the right hon. Member for Bracknell. The right hon. Gentleman may have

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omitted to mention that particular incident, but if the hon. Member for North Antrim consistently followed what the right hon. Gentleman has said on those matters, he would find that, like us, the right hon. Gentleman condemns all terrorist incidents, whether they happen in Aghalee or Stewartstown. I am sure that, when the hon. Gentleman has a cooler head, he will appreciate that that is the case.

The hon. Gentleman argued--it was repeated with greater force by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)--that the Government deprived them of a place on the Standing Committee. The Government do not allocate the places of the smaller parties on Standing Committees. It is not a question of the Government letting him down. Whatever representations he may have made--he referred to representations that had been made--would have been made within the arrangements for smaller parties. I understand that no representations were made through my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), who speaks on these matters for the Patronage Secretary.

Therefore, the idea that, cynically, out of fear, trepidation or whatever, we excluded the hon. Gentleman's party or, for that matter, the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) from membership of the Committee does not stand up to scrutiny. If the hon. Gentleman goes back over the record of what representations may have been made, he will find that they certainly were not made to the Government, so that simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

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