Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 and Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002

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Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): My knickers are about to explode in anticipation of what the hon. Gentleman can offer as an alternative. If he has one, can he share it with us sooner rather than later?

Mr. Davies: Of course. The hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber yesterday and has not read this morning's Hansard. If he had been present yesterday, he would have heard me set out the alternative. He has now given me the opportunity, without any risk of criticism from those on the Government Benches, to repeat myself. He asked an important question and I can go over the ground again. I do not like repeating in Committee what I said the previous day in the Chamber but I hope that, through repetition, the message will eventually sink in. When I am positively invited by the Government to repeat myself, I find the prospect far too seductive to resist. I shall therefore set out our alternative solution.

Let me first obey the rules of logic and tell the hon. Gentleman what was wrong with the Government's answer. Then I shall explain why our answer was right. The Government's answer was wrong because it was a moral and political mistake to penalise the innocent with the guilty. One should not do that in life unless one wishes to create perverse incentives. The Government should have been in the business of creating positive incentives for the peace process of Northern Ireland—benefits for those who comply with their obligations and make an effort to help the peace process to succeed and penalties for those who do not.

Such elementary logic seems to have been completely lost on the Government until now. I can only hope that the new Secretary of State, in whom I have great confidence, will review the whole policy and start again on a clean and fresh sheet. I hope that he will do better, but the disaster of the Government's policy until now has been readily apparent. It has led to the problem that we face today with the suspension of devolution. Government policy was a mistake and a deep insult to those on the nationalist and on the Unionist side, to Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the vast majority of whom are wholly committed to peace, to taking the gun and the bullet out of politics and to re-establishing the rule of law and the normal rules of democracy. What happened was a deep insult to people in both communities who had played a major part in trying to make devolution work: they were also sacked or suspended or thrown out, which was quite wrong. I hope that the Government have now realised that it was wrong, in principle, to go down that route.

Perhaps the right values do not come naturally to the Government. If they had been clearer minded in analysing the costs and benefits of the policy—in other words, adopted a purely pragmatic approach—it may have occurred to them that it is much easier to suspend an institution than to revive it. It is not clear how or in what circumstances we can return to devolution. I very much hope that we can, but the Minister does not

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know any better than I do how it can happen or what price will have to be paid. We all know that in Northern Ireland all parties always demand some price and some guarantees from others before they take any action.

By suspending devolution, a new set of bargaining counters is being created. People may say that they may return to devolution, but only if points 1, 2 and 3 are met. If one party says that it wants points 1, 2 and 3, another party will demand A, B and C or X, Y and Z, and so it goes on. Members familiar with the mathematical concept of chaos theory will know that when an equation has a certain number of variables, it becomes much more difficult to resolve. After a certain critical point, it becomes impossible, yet the Government have created all these new variables and uncertainties. They have created prospects for new demands, new problems and a further spinning out to negotiations, which is not at all clever.

The Minister is not personally responsible. I am not even sure that it is fair to blame the former Secretary of State. The Prime Minister and his advisers, such as Mr. Jonathan Powell, should bear a large measure of the guilt for the mistakes of the past few years. I hope that they now feel a degree of modesty and humility. If the new Secretary of State can think it all through again from first principles and suggest a better approach, let us hope that he will be heard with some respect and that we will be able to move forward more constructively and more rationally. That has not been the case until now.

The former Secretary of State created a new problem for himself with the answer that he gave me following his statement on suspension on 15 October. He said in the statement that elections were intended to take place on schedule next May, so I asked whether he intended there to be elections even if there were no Assembly in which those who were elected could take their places. I received the most confusing and rambling answer. Clearly, the then Secretary of State had not thought the question through, which was extraordinary, because it seemed to be an essential part of the homework that one should have gone through before one decided to suspend in the first place.

That creates another series of problems, which I am very concerned about. The leader of a major party is here, the suspended First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. It will be much more difficult to persuade any of the parties in Northern Ireland to make any moves or changes in their position—let me use that word rather than another one—in advance of an election, if there is an election. In addition, the right hon. Gentleman will not disagree that the nationalist and Unionist camps, each of which contains two big parties, look at each other like hawks the whole time to see whether they can accuse the other of some weakness.

It is difficult for anyone to make any substantial move away from established positions before an election takes place. If everyone expects an election, it is much more difficult to achieve the sort of global settlement that we all want, but unless there is a global

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settlement, there will not be elections, because elections without an Assembly would be a complete pantomime. How can one ask fellow citizens to spend their time going to the polls, when if they elect someone they will not be able to sit anywhere, decide anything or do anything? Perhaps they could consume some public money, but they would not be able to represent people's interests in any concrete way. That would be a complete farce; surely we cannot do that.

This is a nasty quandary, in that it is difficult to see how one can have elections unless there is a settlement—one needs a settlement to re-establish the Assembly. Equally, however, it is difficult to see how one can achieve a settlement without elections, because until there have been elections, until people know what the relative strengths of the parties are and until they are not in a position where they have to go in for a lot of electoral rhetoric, it may be very difficult to reach a settlement.

That is one practical problem that occurs to me; I do not know whether it has occurred to the Government. Perhaps the Minister will say, ''We've thought about that, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the answer is A, B and C.'' If so, I look forward to hearing the answer, but he does not have one. He simply reinforces the rather pessimistic conclusion that the Opposition have reluctantly had to draw that the Government did not think the situation through properly. They did not do their homework before they took a dramatic and what could be a very damaging decision.

Lembit Öpik: I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's exposition. I know that any moment now he will explain what the Conservatives would have done had they been in power, and I have two questions on that. First, why does he think that there would be fewer variables by not having suspended the Assembly in the circumstance, for example, that Sinn Fein had been excluded and the troubles continued? Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman talk us through how he would have reacted at the point just before the Assembly was suspended, and how he would have envisaged getting from that point to normal operation of the Assembly? That would be a very interesting exposition.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman's two questions boil down to one: what would we have done had I been the real Secretary of State instead of the shadow Secretary of State? The difference between the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), who invited me earlier to say what we would have done, is that the latter was clearly not in the Chamber yesterday. We cannot all be in the Chamber all the time, so that is completely forgivable. However, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire was in the Chamber yesterday. It was as much a debate on his subject as it was on mine, but he obviously did not pay the slightest attention to what I said. I said what I am about to repeat, as the official record will bear out, and I will not take any more interventions until I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question.

The most sensible thing to have done would have been to do what we set out in July, because we

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anticipated this problem, explicitly and at some length, for which we should be given credit, long before the crisis broke. As I said at the time, the solution was to take powers to enable the Secretary of State to exclude from the Executive, not the Assembly, any party that was in breach of its obligations under the ceasefire agreement or associated with persons in breach of those obligations. That was the precise phrase that I used last July and in my representations to the Government over the past few weeks, and I am happy to stand by it today. The advantage of that would have been that the guilty, not the innocent, would have been targeted. There would have been no problem about the Assembly, which would have been allowed to continue. The Government created a trap for themselves that would not have existed if the Assembly, and therefore the elections to it, had continued. No one would dream of suspending Sinn Fein or any other party from the Assembly that serves by direct democratic mandate. The Executive is an artificial creation—some Unionists often refer to it as an involuntary coalition—that exists by virtue of the power-sharing arrangement that was concluded in Belfast. People sit on the Executive by virtue of the Belfast agreement, not by anything else. It is therefore very important that they should observe that agreement. If they do not, it is quite natural that they should be excluded from it.

It is perfectly true, of course, that the Secretary of State taking powers to suspend is not in the original agreement. However, many things on which we have legislated since were not in the agreement. Also not in the agreement was any provision about what would happen if people broke it. We were going to have to do something, and that seemed to be the most sensible thing to do. However, that is not to be confused with what the former Secretary of State, in a debate in July, said that he would do in a crisis, but did not do, which was to introduce a motion in the Assembly to suspend the party that was responsible for the breach.

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Prepared 29 October 2002