Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lady Hermon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I am sure that the Minister will dutifully pick it up at the end of this debate, given the clarity with which he has just taken us through the Lords amendments on lay magistrates, which filled us all with such enthusiasm that none of us could comment afterwards. I am sure that he will be delighted to comment on whether the appointment of the Attorney General should take place before or after devolution.

It had been my understanding that, in accordance with the agreement, the British Government had given an undertaking that, in the context of ongoing implementation of relevant recommendations within the agreement, there would be devolution of responsibility for policing and justice issues, which I took to include the appointment of the Attorney General.

16 Jul 2002 : Column 190

My difficulty with the Lords amendment will come as no surprise to those who served in Committee on the Bill—the words "acting jointly". The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and I do not always agree, but I am pleased that we agree that the difficulty will become increasingly apparent after the scheduled elections to the Assembly in May 2003, which could return a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister who could find it exceedingly difficult to act jointly or agree on anything.

I can save those hon. Members who may be rushing out to count the number of times the Bill refers to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister acting jointly some time. I counted 28 references by the time I reached schedule 2. If we have a commitment to policing and justice issues being devolved to the people of Northern Ireland, it is not helpful to keep repeating that. In fact, it makes the prospect of devolving such issues more distant.

Mr. McGrady: I welcome the further clarification in the Lords amendments of the role of the First and Deputy First Minister in the appointment of the Attorney General. I note that the number of staff and their salaries and conditions of service are also part of their remit. Does the Minister intend to impose any conditions in respect of number, salary and conditions of service or is he content to leave it to the office of the First and Deputy First Minister? Hon. Members will note that I refer to the office—in the singular. There is only one office. The First and Deputy First Minister are elected jointly, and one cannot continue in office on the resignation of the other.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states specifically that there is only one office, so the incumbents must act together willy-nilly in order to have legality in their decision making. They may find it difficult and be politically opposed in many ways, but it is one of the key points of the Good Friday agreement, with our communities and their representatives acting together for the good of all in Northern Ireland. This is but one expression of that very important principle.

I was surprised to see that the signatories to amendment (a) are David Trimble, Lady Hermon and Roy Beggs, as—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should refer to hon. Members by their constituencies, not their names.

Mr. McGrady: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Two of the signatories are strong supporters of the Good Friday agreement, whereas the third is totally opposed to it. There seems to be some political incompatibility. I want to emphasise very strongly that to accept the amendment and say that the First and Deputy First Minister should act singly would send a difficult political message to the people of Northern Ireland.

I am aware that the office of the First and Deputy First Minister is a difficult one for the incumbents to engage in. However, to date, it has proved significantly successful in respect of many diametrically opposed policies, and social and economic issues. Those who hold the office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister have come to an agreement, and have been supported by the Assembly in an entire programme of government. They have reached certain agreements on the annual budgetary allocation of our finances, in order to implement that programme. So it

16 Jul 2002 : Column 191

is not proven that a great barrier exists to their acting jointly on very difficult matters; in fact, all examples to date prove that it is possible for them to act together, and to be elected together, to serve all the community in the best possible way.

5.45 pm

Although I accept Lords amendment No. 5, I am totally opposed to the amendment to—

Lady Hermon: The Belfast agreement—for which I definitely voted yes, and which I strongly support, as does my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble)—explicitly states:

However, it does not thereafter require them to act jointly. Does not the hon. Gentleman see the incompatibility between proposed new subsection (2A) of Lords amendment No.5, which requires the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act jointly, and proposed new subsection (2B), which contains no such requirement? I do want devolution to be a success; I simply think that the devolution of justice will be further delayed if we constantly use the phrase "acting jointly".

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I should point out to the hon. Lady that she must learn more precisely the art of intervention. By making her interventions so long, she is in danger of getting round the rule that hon. Members may speak only once in consideration of Lords amendments.

Mr. McGrady: I take the points made by the hon. Lady, but would not the very act of deleting the phrase "acting jointly" suggest strongly that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister could, and perhaps even should, act separately? That would be greatly detrimental to the process. On the alleged disparity between proposed new subsections (2A) and (2B), as a lay person—if not a legalistic one—I would assume that the latter would be subject to the interpretation of the former, in that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would also act jointly in respect of numbers, salary and other conditions of service. In terms of supporting the Good Friday agreement, the hon. Lady would doubtless agree that for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to act differently in a substantive matter such as this would send entirely the wrong signal.

In conclusion, I welcome Lords amendment No. 5, but I reject the amendment to it.

Mr. Blunt: I am afraid to say that I part company with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on this issue, but as I also did so in Committee, it will come as no surprise to her. I agree with the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) in respect of amendment (a), which would leave out the term "acting jointly". The Belfast agreement and the institutions rest on the relationship between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and if that relationship does not work, the entire agreement and the institutions will not work either. We are contemplating

16 Jul 2002 : Column 192

enacting legislation that will allow the devolution of policing and of justice, so perhaps the most important consideration is our need to rely on that relationship working. If it ceases to work and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are unable to act jointly in the discharge of their functions, the peace agreement and the process—

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Strange to relate, this House paid tribute to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) when he resigned as Deputy First Minister, but the Conservative party did not then demand that the First Minister resign too. Instead, it supported the proposition that he stay in his post. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) now argues, very adroitly, that everything is all right and the relationship must be maintained. However, that relationship is now under stress because the First Minister says that IRA-Sinn Fein should be removed, while the present Deputy First Minister says otherwise. That is a real and major issue.

Mr. Blunt: I certainly agree that the relationship is under stress. That stress has caused the institutions to be shaped as they have been. As a purist, I believe that the relationship set out in the legislation is far from ideal, but it stems from the history of the conflict between the two communities in Northern Ireland. I accept that the Democratic Unionist party did not support the Belfast agreement, and that it continues to want to have it renegotiated. It has been consistent in that respect, but supporters of the agreement acknowledge that at the heart of the relationship between the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister lies the necessity of co-operation in the practical discharge of administration in Northern Ireland.

I hope that the necessity that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister discharge those functions together will be part of the process by which the wounds that the two communities have inflicted on each other over the past seven or eight decades—or longer, in the case of the history of the whole island of Ireland—will be bound together. I therefore have much more sympathy with the argument of the hon. Member for South Down than with that of the hon. Member for North Down.

As for the other amendments in this group, I am glad that the Government have had the opportunity to trawl more carefully through the relevant legislation. I am pleased, too, that they have identified those matters of international law that properly will be for the Advocate General for Northern Ireland, and in respect of which he, and not the Attorney General, will be the appropriate Law Officer.

We welcome those improvements to the Bill. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that he has performed a full and comprehensive search and that there are no matters to which we shall have to return.

Next Section

IndexHome Page