Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 29 October 2002
[Mr. Nigel Beard in the Chair]
Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 (S.I., 2000, No. 2574)
The Chairman: Is it the wish of the Committee that we should consider the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002 at the same time?
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): No.
The Chairman: In the light of an objection, the orders must be debated separately.
Mr. Browne: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Beard. We will value your guidance as we consider the orders seriatim. I am sure that I speak for all Committee members when I say that we promise to be on our best and most relevant behaviour—perhaps, on reflection, I do not speak for everybody.
My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already told the House why he felt obliged to make the order suspending devolved government in Northern Ireland about a fortnight ago. That decision was extremely difficult, as many people in Northern Ireland recognised. The devolved institutions had achieved much valuable work, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday. Several people within the institutions made a substantial contribution not only to the better administration of Northern Ireland but to the wider process of establishing the arrangements in the Belfast agreement on a stable footing, and as he said, no one has made a more distinguished contribution than the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).
We ultimately concluded that suspension was the least bad alternative. We acted in order to safeguard the progress that had been made under the Belfast agreement and to address, as vigorously as possible, the problems that now stand in the way of full implementation of that agreement. As the Prime Minister said on 17 October, the agreement has already provided huge benefits for the people of Northern Ireland.
The essential problem is a lack of trust on both sides of the community. That must be addressed in all its aspects. Concerns that are increasingly felt about the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods are acute and central to the current difficulties. The Prime Minister made it clear in Belfast that the only way forward is to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. There must be an end to violence and paramilitary activity of any sort, from wherever it
Column Number: 4
comes. Everybody must be willing to act decisively if it recurs and to make the institutions of devolution secure and stable.
Let me make it absolutely clear that we are not suspending the Belfast agreement. We have had to suspend the devolved institutions—the Assembly and the Executive—but we will continue to do our best to implement the rest of the agreement in any event. We will work hard to try to secure the restoration of the devolved institutions as soon as possible. We do not see any other way forward. Our priorities are clear. We will do our level best to provide good government for people in Northern Ireland. To assist with that, the Northern Ireland Office ministerial team has been reinforced by my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Angela Smith) and for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson). My hon. Friend the Minister of State has also taken on new responsibilities, as have I.
We do not embark on this new, and we hope brief, phase as caretakers. We will act energetically and in a joined-up way to provide good government to the people of Northern Ireland, and we will not shirk taking difficult decisions.
Mr. Wilshire: Will the Minister comment further on the fact that his ministerial team has been reinforced? On previous occasions, when the aspiration was expressed that such a suspension would be brief, those sorts of changes to the ministerial team were not made. Is it reasonable for the Committee to conclude that, because there are new Ministers, we are in for the long haul? If he still thinks that the suspension will be brief, will he tell us how long he thinks it will last?
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. The answer to the latter half of it is simple: we have in mind that the suspension will last as long as it takes to achieve the objectives. The former Secretary of State clearly stated that those objectives are endorsed and supported by the Prime Minister, and the current Secretary of State repeated that yesterday in a debate on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on the fact that on this occasion the Northern Ireland Office has been reinforced by the addition of new Ministers, and I am happy to do so. To understand why that has happened, he must appreciate the differences between the circumstances of this suspension and those of previous ones, and how much work was already in progress when the Assembly was suspended. That work is to do with a programme for government that had been put in place and was being taken forward in a significant fashion by the Executive and the Assembly. He must also appreciate that this suspension has presented a greater work load to those who have to take responsibility for the good governance of Northern Ireland than was presented on other occasions and in different circumstances.
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): The Minister is making an important point, which should be underlined. In effect, he is saying that the first suspension in 2000 was analogous to direct rule, as nothing of any significance was happening, and the Ministers would not be expected to do any work. That is the normal direct rule mode. However, on this
Column Number: 5
occasion, because we have had a local Executive in place for some time, things were happening—policy was being developed, legislation was being introduced—and there was a job of work to be done. He is right to highlight that distinction.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for summarising that point in a way in which I would have done if I had not accepted his intervention—I would not have used exactly the same form of words, but I was coming to that point.
Committee members know fine well that I am committed to devolution personally, as well as in terms of my membership of the Government, and I am delighted that on this occasion so much work was in progress in the Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive—Departments that were run by Ministers from all the parties involved. The decision of the former Secretary of State to augment the Northern Ireland Office team to deal with that work shows how much progress devolution had made, and what the potential of it was for all the people of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Wilshire: I understand that there is that extra work, and I am delighted that the Government have addressed the issue, but I want the Minister to expand on his comment that the suspension will last as long as it takes to achieve the Government's objectives. What are those objectives? I hope that they include the disbandment of Sinn Fein-IRA as an armed paramilitary organisation. If that was the objective, I might be able to support him.
Mr. Browne: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to what I said. I refer him to the Hansard report of 15 October 2002, when those issues were debated in detail in the context of a statement by the former Secretary of State. The Prime Minister also set out the objectives in a recent speech in Belfast and he did so again in yesterday's debate in the House, which the hon. Gentleman might have attended.
If I were to repeat what I have said on that matter, that would not advance this debate. The objective is to try to tackle lack of trust in the context of shared government and devolved government in Northern Ireland and the reducing trust, especially in the Unionist community, as a consequence of circumstances to do with the investigation and findings in relation to the apparent behaviour and activities of paramilitaries, and most significantly republican paramilitaries. I do not think that the position adopted and laid out to them by the Secretary of State, the former Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and myself could be any clearer.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I have no way of knowing how long it will take to re-establish the trust necessary for devolved government and for the institutions to be reinstated in Northern Ireland. It is not a matter that can be associated with an exact time line or a precise series of events. Informed commentators and those who are most acutely involved with that process in Northern Ireland, who have recently been commenting on these matters in some detail, are not setting them out with
Column Number: 6
the sort of precision that he wants from me, especially in relation to the timing of any objectives.
I share the view that tying ourselves down to purely arbitrary time limits would be unhelpful to the process on which we are about to embark. The hon. Gentleman is aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will embark on a process of meetings with the political parties that are represented in the framework of politics in Northern Ireland to discuss the issues that have been identified to determine what needs to be done. When that process is concluded, the Government will have a clearer idea of what precisely needs to be done and of what processes we can then embark on to address these issues in a collective fashion.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Yesterday, much was made by the new Secretary of State, among others, of a speech that the President of Sinn Fein made at the Hillgrove hotel, Monaghan last Saturday. We were told that it was an interesting speech, with much in it—including this:
''the electorate or for that matter the political parties can have little confidence or commitment to political institutions if they can be established and suspended at the whim of a British Government acting on behalf of unionism''.
Does such a statement give the Minister much hope for the early re-establishment of devolved rule, or does it leave him with a taste in the mouth that shows we have a long way to go?