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

[back to previous text]

Mr. Browne indicated assent.

Mr. Trimble: I am glad to see the Minister nod his head, because there seems to be some hostility towards the Assembly emanating from the Northern Ireland Office and from the Administration generally. As someone remarked at Stormont on Monday, it is remarkable how the offices of the Administration, which took months to create, are being dismantled in days. The official system that had great difficulty giving us the necessary support when we entered office is having no problem moving people out. By Monday lunchtime, there was no one left in the Deputy First Minister's private office. Although the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that he would continue to provide special advisers for the Deputy First Minister and me, no official support has been provided.

Mr. Davies: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Trimble: I will not, as I am aware of the time.

There is an inconsistency between that hostility towards the Assembly and the much more welcome words that we have heard from the Minister this evening. If the Northern Ireland Assembly is in suspension, exactly the same arrangements should apply to the North-South Ministerial Council, because the two are linked, and the same official attitude that applies to one should apply to the other.

How will suspension be ended? The opinion poll to which I referred is helpful on this point. Some people said that they wanted the Assembly to be brought back immediately, without further ado. Others said that they never wanted it back. Remarkably, 16.3 per cent. of Unionists—one in six—said that they never wanted to see the Assembly brought back. That is significant. I do not agree with that view, which is misguided, but it underlines my point that people feel that the events of

Column Number: 34

the past few years have tainted the whole operation. Those events include the behaviour of paramilitaries, but the Government's behaviour has reinforced that attitude.

Of the five options of events that might end suspension offered to people in the poll, it is interesting that a full cessation of paramilitary activity received most support: 27.1 per cent. endorsed that option, whereas 23.6 per cent. opted for the disbandment of the IRA. It is interesting that that option came second, but it is essentially the same as the first. In effect, half Unionist respondents say that the end of paramilitarism is the significant factor. Interestingly, an IRA statement that the war is over received the support of only 7.8 per cent. Right at the bottom was another act of decommissioning, which was supported by only 3.5 per cent.

There is a factor that the Government might wish to take into account: it has been suggested in some quarters that a further act of decommissioning—perhaps performed in a public manner—might lead to a resumption. That would be welcome, but it would be wrong to think that that alone would resolve the present difficulty, because the poll seems to show that people now want to see something that clearly marks an end of the paramilitaries. I state that generally, because we must seek an end to loyalist as well as republican paramilitary groups.

My party colleagues and I want the process to be fixed. It has been unstable from the outset. In each of the past three years, I have found myself departing from office for one reason or another. The holidays that I get each year for indefinite periods have disadvantages. I would rather be engaged in a process that is a bit more settled and predictable and that works a little bit better.

We want the process to be fixed as soon as possible, and we want what people really wished for in the first instance to be achieved. What they thought they were getting four and a half years ago must be realised. If that happened, it might lead to a rolling back of some of the worrying evidence about what people on the ground think.

6.31 pm

Lembit Öpik: This has been one of the longest-running statutory instrument Committees that I have attended, so it seems like the debate started a long time ago, but I suppose I should welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Beard. I am sure that you feel like an old hand on Northern Ireland matters.

I also welcome the new Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Dudley, South, who will no doubt have lots of fun with his portfolio. If he enjoys it half as much as I do, he will be a lucky man. I welcome, too, the hon. Member for Lincoln, who is a thoroughly nice person—at the moment—and I hope that the pressures of her job will not cause her to lose her sparkle and good nature.

What has caused this situation? Why is suspension justified—if indeed it is? That is where I want to begin, because there has been a huge amount of discussion about the matter, not least from the hon. Member for

Column Number: 35

Grantham and Stamford, whose speech I did not immensely enjoy. It was clear that the Assembly was in trouble, and that something had to be done to reduce the risk of its instability leading to a permanent collapse. As we said last night in the Opposition Day debate, this matter was never really about breaking a ceasefire, because that has never been a determination by the Government, but even today there seemed to be some inferences that that had been the case.

Let us remember that it was not only a focus on the actions of Sinn Fein or the IRA that led to the difficulties, which were also caused by the fact that, for understandable reasons, which we have all followed and observed, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann had said that if the IRA did not disband by January 2003 it would probably be necessary for his party to withdraw from the Assembly. Clearly, pressures beyond a simple assessment of the performance of the IRA in fulfilling various commitments led to this suspension. That dynamic was not taken into account in the assessments that were made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford yesterday and today.

Stability has been a key issue. I think that what we are debating is whether an alternative strategy to suspension would have done more to stabilise the situation. If I understand correctly what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, he was suggesting that it was wrong as a matter of principle to suspend the Assembly; if that is incorrect, he is welcome to intervene.

Mr. Davies: I specifically stated that that could not be a matter of principle, as the agreement sets out circumstances when one should suspend, so one must be pragmatic about the matter, and I argued pragmatically that it was the wrong practical solution on this occasion. I spelled that out at some length.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman did spell that out at great length, and I am grateful that he has clarified that point. We are making progress. We can bank that statement and not return to it. In future debates, we will all accept that one of the potential tools that the Government must consider is whether to suspend the Assembly. That is a profoundly important strategic acceptance on all sides.

The hon. Gentleman also seems to believe that there are a number of important considerations in threatening Sinn Fein with exclusion, leading him to take the position that he does. He seemed to suggest that Sinn Fein was substantially influenced by Conservative party statements in the House and by the introduction of various debates. I imagine Sinn Fein quaking and losing sleep over the prospect of an Opposition debate such as the one that we had yesterday, which lasted two hours and 27 minutes and concerned office space in the Houses of Parliament. It is delightful to think that debates in the House could have such an intimidating effect on paramilitary organisations such as the IRA.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should consider a transfer to the Foreign Office, where an Opposition

Column Number: 36

debate led by him could cause Saddam Hussein to surrender within 36 hours. That would be a tremendous contribution to world peace. It is a testable theory, and 12 hours after the debate we will see if the IRA makes such significant progress that the Assembly can be unsuspended. My suspicion is that it will not.

In the real world of politics, we all know that the dynamics with which the republican cause has to contend range from moderate to hard line. The real question is not whether we can threaten Sinn Fein with a stick, but what is the best thing that responsible politicians who care about Northern Irish matters can do to make it easier for the moderates to hold sway. An exclusion would have done considerable damage to the opportunity for moderates to win the day in the republican movement.

The main difference between the Unionist and the republican sides is that, while the right hon. Member for Upper Bann has the difficulty of experiencing such discussions in the public domain, the republican movement has, by and large, been able to disguise or hide them a little more effectively. Let us be under no illusions: that is the real dynamic. If I am correct in my logic, that leads me and the Liberal Democrats to the conclusion that an exclusion would simply hand a gift to the very part of the organisation that is most sceptical and most resistant to a procedure involving peaceful democratic means rather than the use of force. That is the first pivotal judgment that we make. The Conservatives decided that it was the other way round. I have already described what the Liberal Democrats decided, and I suppose that the Government, too, would favour the carrot rather than the stick.

We have already discussed the process to suspend the Assembly. That is not the key issue, so I will not dwell on it. However, in principle, it is not inappropriate to have the discussion in Committee. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford quite reasonably corrected me on a point that I made, and I am sure that he will accept that a judgment has to be made on whether we should have the discussion in Committee or in the House. The advantage of having it in Committee is that we have a smaller Room and in some ways a more intimate opportunity to get to the bottom-line facts. Perhaps we have also managed to avoid the grandstanding that is always tempting on the Floor of the House.

Regardless of whether we are comfortable with the environment for the debate, we must consider, in a mature and sensible way, some of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford and to what extent they stand up to inquiry. He suggested that one reason why we are in this Room rather than the House is that the Government are scared of the full glare of publicity. Why? What is the logic of that? Why on earth would the Government be so terrified of having this discussion that they would try to shunt it off into a Committee Room, hoping that no one would notice that we were having it?

I have a number of criticisms of the Government in relation to Northern Ireland policy and I have made them publicly from time to time, but it is not very

Column Number: 37

mature to assume that the Government are terrified of public interest in the debate. It is important that our debate is publicised and, more to the point, in my experience, the Northern Ireland press has been pretty assiduous in passing comment as well as providing effective reportage of what we do. I felt that that line of argument was something of a red herring and did not really contribute to the main debate.

I want to say why I feel that the judgment made by Ministers is probably preferable to exclusion, which has been advocated forcefully by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. In order to do that, I will take a risk. I will plan some scenarios. That is the only way in politics: one cannot make suggestions unless one has thought through their implications.

Far from increasing the variables that we have to contend with, suspension reduces them. It necessarily slows things down in a number of ways, which provides an opportunity for a prudent Minister to consult all parties in Northern Ireland, and organisations from beyond the parties, if that seems appropriate. Furthermore, the suspension process is manageable from Westminster in a way that has been tested and implemented before. To put it another way, there is a track record for suspension that has provided some progress in the past. I accept once again that it is a judgment whether this is the right tool on this occasion, but if we are looking at evidence-based decision making, we can at least understand why advisers and Ministers could regard this as the best way forward.

Previous Contents Continue

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

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 29 October 2002