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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 21 June 2000

[Mr. Jonathan Sayeed in the Chair]

Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000 (S.I. 2000, No. 1445)

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2000 (S.I. 2000, No. 1446).

Mr. Howarth: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Sayeed, in what I hope will be a short but sweet sitting.

The orders were laid before the House on 5 June. Both orders cease to have effect if they are not approved by resolution of each House of Parliament within 40 days of their being laid. I am seeking the approval of the Committee today; approval in another place will be sought next week.

Under powers conferred by section 2(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 2000, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000 repeals section 1 of the 2000 Act, thereby lifting the suspension of the devolved institutions.

On 30 May, the Northern Ireland Assembly Ministers, under the procedures laid down, automatically resumed their posts, salaries and allowances. They were returned to their pre-suspension levels and the Committees of the Assembly were once again able to meet. Members of the Assembly and the Executive have already embarked on a demanding programme of work. The brief period of suspension has done nothing to diminish their energy or enthusiasm—or their commitment to work diligently for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. I am sure that this Committee will join me in wishing them every success, both now and in future, in building the prosperity and security of Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2000 has been made by the Secretary of State to ensure that the actions taken by him under powers granted to him during the suspension by the Northern Ireland Act 2000 cannot be annulled or revoked by the Assembly. The order also ensures that Orders in Council made by him under the schedule to the 2000 Act during suspension are not affected by restoration.

On an historic day in November last year, the House approved the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointed Day) Order 1999 that brought devolution to Northern Ireland for the first time in almost 30 years. We all agree that it was a momentous occasion—the return of power to the people of Northern Ireland.

The Assembly and the new Northern Ireland Ministers approached their task with energy and commitment, and, having been peripherally involved in some of the arrangements, I can attest that there was a great deal of early excitement and optimism about the positive effects for Northern Ireland that devolution could have. Sadly, however, as has often been the case in the past 30 years, the people of Northern Ireland had to wait a little longer before the promise became a reality.

In introducing the suspension order to the House in February 2000, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State stressed that it was intended to be only a temporary measure. He made it clear that the Government's primary aim would be to work to bring about the restoration of the political institutions as quickly as possible, and on a lasting basis.

Many people worked tirelessly to bring that about. The Northern Ireland political parties and the two governments put in an enormous amount of time and effort to reach agreement on the way forward, and the positive response of the IRA was crucial in building confidence. The personal involvement of the Taoiseach and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister demonstrated the importance that we and the Irish Government attached to securing the best outcome for the people of Northern Ireland. The Irish Government worked closely with us throughout the process. Their commitment to the Good Friday agreement and to implementing that political settlement is beyond doubt.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that that degree of close working between the two Governments is essential for progress? Is he confident that the co-operation between the two Governments will continue? I hope that he is, because, whenever there has been a lapse, there has been a lack of progress in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention, which illustrated the depth of understanding that he has in his dealings in Northern Ireland. I certainly confirm that the contribution of the Irish Government has been crucial and invaluable. From experience, we have found that if we move forward together, we can make progress; if we try to move separately or become too detached from the political parties in Northern Ireland, the prospects diminish. My hon. Friend is right to recognise the importance of the involvement, understanding and commitment of the Irish Government.

On 27 May, sufficient progress had been made to allow the Secretary of State to restore devolution. The restoration was signed on Sunday 29 May and devolution was returned at midnight. The determination of the pro-agreement parties to fulfil their commitments under the Good Friday agreement and to return power to the Northern Ireland political representatives has also been crucial in bringing about the right circumstances for the restoration of devolution.

More than anyone else, the political representatives experienced the effects of devolution at first hand, by participating in the Assembly, its Executive and Committees, and by responding directly to the needs and concerns of the people of Northern Ireland. They have already proved that local politicians can work together for the common good of the whole community. That shows that local people are best suited to tackle local issues. Although there is an issue of principle there, during the three months' suspension I was the Minister responsible for five Departments; my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, was responsible for a further five Departments. The technicalities of devolution alone demonstrate how superior devolution can be. Although I thought that devolution was right in principle, in practice I was relieved to relinquish such wide responsibility to local politicians, who had the knowledge and understanding, and the contacts in the community, to carry out those functions in a more coherent and sensible way.

The experience demonstrates how important it was for us to address the difficulties that led to suspension and to resolve them in a way that allowed the people of Northern Ireland to take control of their political future and to enter a new era of peace and prosperity. That is important, because it buttresses peace—and normality.

The word ``normality'' is often bandied about casually, but members of the Committee know that normality is what the people of Northern Ireland desire and deserve, considering what they have put up with for 30 years. We have succeeded in restoring their confidence that devolution is here to stay, and that we can implement other aspects of the Good Friday agreement, crucial to which is the IRA's commitment to put their arms completely and verifiably beyond use. They have signalled their good intent by offering an early confidence-building measure: they will ensure that weapons are secured and make arms dumps available for regular inspection by independent inspectors. I have reason to believe that that process will begin shortly.

We have words, and we also have deeds, to show the IRA's commitment to peaceful means and to putting their arms beyond use. In turn, the two Governments have made a commitment that the agreement will be implemented in full and to move as fast and as far as we can to achieve that.

The proposals are a triumph of democratic politics over the politics of fear, violence and intimidation, but there is more hard work ahead. This week, there was further evidence of the continuing threat from dissident republican terrorists and yesterday's statement by the Ulster Freedom Fighters showed that at least one loyalist ceasefire cannot be taken for granted.

4.42 pm

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I endorse the Committee's welcome to you, Mr. Sayeed.

I doubt that the proposals have many serious enemies and the official Opposition welcome them. However, it is unfortunately necessary to point out that decommissioning remains the one unfulfilled aspect of the Belfast agreement. It is not merely unfulfilled, but, for practical purposes, it has not even started. Furthermore, punishment beatings by paramilitaries continue and are themselves violations of such ceasefires as may be claimed. I am unaware of any serious progress with arms dumps inspections, although the Minister said that he had reason to hope that they may be started soon. I , too, hope that is the case.

We are not unrealistic about differential progress on various aspects of the Belfast agreement. In the language of the turf, we never expected the handicapper to achieve a result akin to all horses in the race crossing the finishing line together. To extend that metaphor, sadly, one of the horses has not even started. While that is so, my party will not subscribe to an attitude that might be described as ``hear no evil, see no evil''.

Meanwhile, on a happier note, important sections of the law-abiding business community in Northern Ireland believe that political affairs in Northern Ireland are best handled by elected Northern Ireland politicians from Northern Ireland constituencies, taking difficult decisions for Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland. We do not live in an ideal world, but in the world that we do live in, we should accept the proposals.

4.45 pm

 
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