Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001

[back to previous text]

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:

    ``Before making a restoration order, the Secretary of State must take into account the result of the review conducted as a result of subsection (1).''

I congratulate the Minister on making it clear that there was a form of review process that consisted of consultations with the parties, and I would like to know the details of those consultations. When the Bill went through the House, there was a different belief about what the review process would mean. On Second Reading, Dr. Godman, the then Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, questioned the Secretary of State on the expectation that there would be a review after the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) suspended the institutions, as was anticipated in the wake of the Act.

Dr. Godman said:

    ``Will he confirm that the review will be treated as a matter of urgency? Who is to conduct the review? Is it likely to be jointly chaired by my right hon. Friend and Mr. Cowen of the Irish Government?''

The then Secretary of State replied:

    ``Those are important details, which I need to consider with the Irish Government under the terms of paragraph 7 of the Good Friday agreement.''

He went on to say:

    ``We must be clear about what would ensue if we lost the First Minister from his position. First, the Deputy First Minister would automatically cease to hold office at the same time. I cannot choose, or wave a magic wand, to change that. As sure as night follows day, consequences would follow. No other credible candidates would secure a majority of Unionists and a majority of nationalists in the Assembly. An alternative First Minister and Deputy First Minister would have to do that if they were to stand any chance of election. The cross-community majority would not exist for another ticket.''—[Official Report, 8 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 135.]

That is the background against which the review was supposed to take place.

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:

    ``I submit that a requirement to take into account is wholly inadequate and what is needed is the requirement contained in amendment No. 20. First, the Secretary of State should be required to publish the complete text of the review that has been undertaken and, secondly—and more importantly, in the light of the general thrust of our debate this evening—he should be required to publish the complete text of any report from the commission on decommissioning.''—[Official Report, 8 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 199-200.]

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 Committee—or 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:

    ``It is not one that I believe I could credibly repeat and I do not intend to do so.''

That leads us to the events of this weekend and the fact that he decided not to suspend the institutions on Saturday 3 November. Will the Minister explain the thought processes or reasoning behind that decision? Was it the embarrassment that would have ensued if the Secretary of State had gone back on the statement that he made on 21 September?

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 difficulty—possibly along with the entire process—because 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 2003—which 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 climate—or certainly before the IRA began some form of decommissioning verified by General de Chastelain—elections 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 manoeuvring—suspension and restoration—to 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 caucuses—be 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 community—a 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 idea—no more than that—of 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 afternoon—the 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.

5.5 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 November 2001