|Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001
Mr. Blunt: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Griffiths. The fact that, under your guidance, we are discussing the orders together, will enable you to give us some freedom to explore the issues behind all four orders and the current situation, following the expiry of the six-week period on 3 November.
The Opposition support in principle the suspensions and restorations by the Secretary of State during the summer, as we supported the Northern Ireland Act 2000. Some uncomfortable questions arise, however, from his actions and the operation of the legislation, and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer them. I am fulfilling the Opposition's proper duty to ask difficult questions, even though in principle we in support the Government's action.
Management of the desired outcome in Northern Ireland has continued for a long time. The Northern Ireland Act 2000, as a product of the Belfast agreement and an adjustment of it, has been part of the process in which the House and the Government have acted as midwife to peace in Northern Ireland, but we must ask how long the process can go on. Will the Secretary of State, through orders endorsed by the House, allow the devolved institutions to continue? We have to attend to the fact that there may be a genetic flaw in the make-up of the Assembly and the institutions before the deadline for the next Assembly elections on 1 May 2003. I want to flag that issue for consideration by the Government.
I am concerned about the review process. The review follows a suspension of the institutions under section 2 of the 2000 Act. The Minister did not draw our attention to the requirement of section 2(3), which states:
Dr. Godman said:
In Committee, several amendments were tabled on the review process. Mr. William Ross tabled an amendment to remove the requirement for a review, and my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) suggested changes that would have made the requirements of a review much more exacting. He said:
So dissatisfied were those two Members with the debate that followed that they pressed the matter to a Division. The result was Ayes 10, Noes 301, so the House came to a different view.
It was envisaged by the House in 2000 that the review process would be much more detailed and made in circumstances other than simply facing a 24-hour suspension. That being the case, can we be surprised at the Secretary of State's conclusion? What legal advice has the Department been given about the review process, and does it say that the review that the Minister outlined to the Committee satisfies the Act? If he has had advice to that effect, it would reassure the Committeeor has this been an issue about which the Northern Ireland Office has carefully not taken legal advice?
The difficulties of the review process and the fact that it has been somewhat of an embarrassment to the Secretary of State to have one 24-hour suspension after another indubitably led to his statement on 21 September when he suspended the institutions for the second time. He said of the possibility of a further suspension:
Will the Minister explain the background to the fact that a suspension was necessary? He will know from reports in Saturday's edition of The Daily Telegraph that the true reason that the deadline could not be met was that Lord Alderdice had decided that it was more important to go and buy a cottage in France than to be around to recall the Assembly so that it could have another go at electing the First Minister, within the deadline of six weeks, after the Alliance party decided to redesignate some of its members Unionist. If that story is wholly wrong, I am sure that Lord Alderdice would want it contradicted, but if it is not, that begs a question about his priorities. The Minister can put the record straight about what happened on Saturday 3 November and why the Secretary of State was not spared the embarrassment of being placed in difficultypossibly along with the entire processbecause of the legal challenge mounted by the Democratic Unionist party. I understand that the result of that challenge has been to uphold the position of the Secretary of State, but only with his undertaking to propose a date for Assembly elections.
I would also be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether the lawyers representing the Secretary of State today had to undertake that he would propose a date for the elections? If so, might that date be 1 May 2003which would make a mockery of the legislation, because the implication is that the elections should be at a relatively early date? However, I have not been able to find anything in the legislation that requires the Secretary of State to propose an early election date. It simply requires him not to call an election within two months either side of the next likely date if the Assembly runs for its usual term. I look forward to hearing some detail about the background of the events. Given that we are taking all four orders together, that would be appropriate.
I wish to address the issue of cross-community support, required under the 1998 Act, which led to the suspension of the institutions. I alluded earlier to the question whether there is a potential flaw in the make-up of the institutions. Given the requirements placed on the Assembly for the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister around May 2003, there has been enormous anxiety about early elections among the parties supporting the Belfast agreement.
In the current climateor certainly before the IRA began some form of decommissioning verified by General de Chastelainelections might produce an Assembly whose largest party in the Unionist bloc is the Democratic Unionists, who are opposed to the Belfast agreement, and whose largest party in the nationalist bloc is Sinn Fein. With Sinn Fein-IRA only just beginning arms decommissioning, that would lead to all sorts of problems. It is still not clear whether it is a process or a single event. That is the concern that lies behind the manoeuvringsuspension and restorationto keep the institutions going.
Will the Minister explain the Alliance party's proposals for changing the sectarian nature of voting requirements for the election of the First Minister? Do the Government, having had to go through suspensions and restorations of devolved government, envisage changing the requirements of the 1998 Act in respect of cross-community support? Will section 4(5)(a) and (b)one paragraph specifying majority support within the Assembly as a whole and among the designated caucuses, the other requiring a 60 per cent. majority in the whole Assembly and at least 40 per cent. support within each of the designated caucusesbe changed?
Assuming that the Assembly survives without an election until May 2003, continuing to require a majority in each designated nationalist or Unionist caucus after the 2003 Assembly elections might cause problems. We can see a problem in Committee now and we shall vote in due course on the Floor of the House. Devolved government has had to be suspended and restored and suspended and restored in order to deal with the problem of electing First and Deputy First Ministers who will command support across the communitya problem that results from the peculiarities inside the institutions that we have established. We should reflect on whether it would be appropriate to amend the 1998 Act.
I float the ideano more than thatof changing the hurdles from half in the Assembly and in the caucuses to a clear majority in the whole Assembly and at least 40 per cent. in the caucuses. If we are to consider such a proposal, we shall have to alter further beyond our discussion of these measures this afternoonthe constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland in order to keep it all going. We all have an interest in peace, and a vast majority of hon. Members have concluded that the uncomfortable compromises involved in the Belfast agreement and the 2000 Act are necessary if the Government are to act as midwife in the peace process and if the institutions in this first, most difficult phase are to be maintained while trust builds between the two communities and more normal political life begins in Northern Ireland. In that spirit, I raise those issues and questions and hope that the Minister will be able to address some of them.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 5 November 2001|