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

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Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Reigate for his support in principle for the decisions that the Secretary of State made in the circumstances that I laid out. I am also grateful for his careful consideration of the issue, which was shown by his contribution and questions. I shall endeavour to respond in sufficient detail—I will give as much as I can, with the information that I have available today—in as short a time as possible. However, if he is dissatisfied with the extent of my responses or if other issues occur to him, I am happy to provide additional information later, in private conversation or through correspondence.

The hon. Gentleman made some general observations about the stability of the process. Although I referred to the greater political circumstances to set the background for the decisions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I prefer to consider his actions in relation to the orders, because they are directly relevant.

The hon. Member for Reigate made some general observations about the expectation of review based on debates on the 2000 Act on Second Reading and in Committee. It is only fair to augment the perfectly correct quotations to which he referred with other quotations, which set the context for the Government's understanding of the statutory provisions. When the then hon. Member for East Londonderry, Mr. Ross, sought in Committee to remove the requirement for review, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said that, in the event of suspension

    ``it will be essential to bring the process back on track through discussion and negotiation. In other words, we will need a review.''

He added that, without a review,

    ``we might find ourselves in a dangerous political vacuum . . . it is not entirely clear how the review will operate; we do not know who will chair it, or how, when, where or between whom the meetings will take place. Those details will need to be worked out, if and when the institutions are suspended.''—[Official Report, 8 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 202.]

By implication, the shape of the review would depend on the circumstances of the suspension, and the provisions of the Act allow that flexibility. The Act also refers to the Good Friday agreement, which, in turn, does not prescribe the form of the review, apart from the requirement that there should be consultation between the two Governments and the Assembly parties. That is indeed what happened.

I undertook to obtain as much detail as I could about the consultations in respect of the first review. Mr. Brian Cowen, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Ireland, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met at Hillsborough on the morning of 11 August; and my right hon. Friend separately had a number of telephone conversations with several parties represented in the Assembly.

It is not possible for me to give an exhaustive list of what was said during those telephone calls, and the Committee will understand that some conversations were confidential and that it would not be appropriate for me to reveal their content. However, my right hon. Friend spoke to all those to whom he believed it was necessary to speak in order to form a view on whether restoration would achieve progress or whether suspension should continue. In the second review, he met Minister Cowen before restoration and before suspension and restoration. Again, he spoke to a number of Assembly parties by telephone, but I cannot say to whom, and again some conversations were confidential.

The hon. Member for Reigate asked about legal advice. I assure the Committee that the Department was advised that the reviews were sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Act. He asked, in effect, why the Secretary of State did not suspend the Assembly on 3 November.

The hon. Gentleman also reminded the Committee that when my right hon. Friend last suspended the Assembly he said that he did not intend to do so again. He meant it. To suspend too often could undermine the institutions of devolution and the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement and all that we are trying to achieve. A further suspension would have built up the false assumption that the Secretary of State would suspend the Assembly the next time we got into difficulties and the time after that. Stop-go devolution was not envisaged by the agreement, as it will not achieve long-term stability.

It is difficult to see what could be gained from another suspension. We achieved what we set out to achieve—an act of IRA decommissioning—with the previous suspension and restoration process. A further suspension would not have encouraged further movement, but it might have had the opposite effect. In support of my right hon. Friend, it seems to me that because he decided not to suspend the Assembly, we have the prospect of a successful election tomorrow for First Minister and Deputy First Minister, although I cannot say whether that prospect will be realised.

The hon. Member for Reigate spoke of a report in The Daily Telegraph. I have not seen it, but I know of it and of the general allegation. I have no information on where or how the Speaker of the Assembly spent his weekend, but I know that the Assembly Standing Orders do not allow the Speaker unilaterally to recall the Assembly. The Business Committee must have time to consider and agree the Order Paper, which is why it was possible to schedule another election. I suspect that whatever the Speaker was doing at the weekend had no effect on whether the Assembly could meet. I hope that I have helped to scotch the rumour that politicians who spend their leisure time doing something sensible are not necessarily doing a disservice to democracy.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Alliance party had made specific proposals on a review of the provisions relating to the election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. As far as I am aware, no such proposals have been made. However, the Government have agreed to a review under paragraph 36 of strand 1of the Good Friday agreement. It would not be right to speculate on the outcome of that review, but my right hon. Friend has made his position perfectly clear. Indeed, he referred to it in a statement on Saturday, which was released to the press. He also made it clear on Saturday that, now that the six-week period over, he is obliged to propose a date for an Assembly election under section 32(3) of the 1998 Act.

That leads me to what was said in today's court case, whatever might have been reported in the media. Crown counsel, representing the Secretary of State, repeated in the High Court this morning that the Secretary of State knew that he was obliged to propose a date for an Assembly election. On that basis alone, Mr. Justice Kerr ruled that the basis for the DUP application for an order obliging the Secretary of State to propose a date fell away. The judge acknowledged that no time limit was fixed for the Secretary of State to make the proposal and he was not surprised that the Secretary of State should want time to reflect and to take account of political considerations.

In addition, counsel said that the Secretary of State would want to undertake consultations with the parties before proposing a date. As he is still in that frame of mind and has not reached the point of proposing a date, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate in Committee about when that date might be.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister for the care with which he has replied to my points. Is there anything to preclude the Secretary of State's proposing 1 May 2003? What obligations are on him concerning the proposal of a date and what will it mean once he proposes a date?

Mr. Browne: I shall answer the complex and detailed question put by the hon. Gentleman so far as I am able. I can make it no clearer this: my understanding is that the statute places the Secretary of State under an obligation to propose a date for an Assembly election. As the judge observed this morning, it does not oblige him to fix a date. It obliges him to propose one. That is the wording of the statute.

David Burnside (South Antrim) rose—

Mr. Browne: Perhaps I should try to answer this complex question while the detail is still in my mind. The Secretary of State is well aware of his obligation to progress matters before long. That is clearly understood. However, as the court recognised, he is entitled to take his time to reflect on the date and to take account of political developments, so I do not propose to be drawn—

David Burnside rose—

Mr. Browne: I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene in a moment.

I do not propose to be drawn at this stage on what the Secretary of State is thinking, either in respect of a date or in respect of how he proposes to go about things, for two reasons. First, that would not be helpful and would not assist the Committee in its deliberation in respect of these retrospective orders. Secondly, I am not privy to that thinking—the Secretary of State is in Belfast while I am in London. It would be total speculation for me to attempt to answer such questions. If I had some facts, I might be encouraged to indulge in some speculation, but I do not intend to indulge in total speculation.

David Burnside: I still designate myself an Ulster Unionist. On reflection and after consulting the parties, can the Secretary of State announce an election in June next year?

Mr. Browne: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's designation will be a great comfort to many of his party colleagues. I shall ensure that the reinforcement of his existing designation is communicated to them. Let me repeat what I said earlier, so that he can work out exactly what the position is. The statutory obligation on the Secretary of State is to propose a date for an election. I am not aware of any provision in statute that requires a specific date to be fixed.

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