Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Mar 2003 : Column 636—continued

Mr. Davies: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That failure of imagination clearly extends to a lack of sensitivity—until I intervened to make the point rather cruelly and blatantly—about the embarrassment that would be caused to the Prime Minister himself if the timetable motion were pursued.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and especially reassured to learn that I was understating my case. It is always right to proceed by subtlety, so I am glad that I have that reputation among my colleagues and hope that I shall retain it. Equally, however, I hope that I did not leave the Government in any doubt whatever as to the seriousness of the points that I was trying to make and, indeed, that my language was not so mild as to nourish any illusion on that score.

Once again, important business is subject to a scandalous artificial timetable imposed by the Government. Again, there has been a breach in the equilibrium and balance in the powers of the constitution between the Executive and the legislature, which is the price our country continues to pay for the terrible error of having elected a Labour Government.

Once again, we face the prospect that serious and important legislation will leave this House without having been properly considered, and that we shall not have been able to discharge our responsibility to those who sent us here. Again, that is the result of explicit deliberate decisions taken by the Government, who are so intoxicated by the vast majority that they happen, temporarily, to enjoy that they feel that they can even get away with violating some of the essential principles of our constitution.

To add farce to those serious considerations, the Government are proceeding so blindly on the course that they have adopted, against the background of their

17 Mar 2003 : Column 637

massive complacency, that they do not even realise that it is their own Prime Minister whom they will embarrass and inconvenience. Further words of mine about the great mistake—the grievous error—that the Government are making by introducing this motion would be superfluous. I have generously given them every opportunity to withdraw before we have to vote on the motion. They have declined to do so and have obstinately continued on their set course.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I should hate to suggest that further words from the hon. Gentleman would be superfluous, but if his offer was genuine, why has he chosen to spend the past 10 minutes taking up time unnecessarily when he could have tested his proposition by finding out whether other hon. Members would co-operate so that we could move on to the main business, which is what he said he wants to do?

Mr. Davies: The offer was genuinely made and, it seemed to me, equally genuinely rejected. If the hon. Gentleman does not realise that when an offer is rejected its benefits have to be forgone by the rejecting party, he does not know the first thing about negotiation. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been living; I thought that our fellow citizens sent men and women of this world to the Chamber to bring experience and wisdom to bear on our proceedings, so I am slightly surprised by his apparent naivety. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's defence would be that he was desperately trying to stem my flow so as to save his Front-Bench colleagues from further embarrassment. The Government Whip grins, so I am glad that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) has scored a few brownie points where they count.

We shall oppose the timetable motion, irrespective of our views on the substance of the Bill. Whether this motion is passed or rejected, we shall continue to reject timetable motions on the same firm principles as long as the Government remain in power, which I trust will be for only two more years. Then Parliament will be able to return to conducting its business properly.

3.54 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) may well be right—a Liberal Democrat Government may well be elected in two years—but that is not the issue.

The Conservatives, understandably, seem to get annoyed about everything. What annoys me is the assumption that Conservative Front Benchers have authority to negotiate on behalf of all the Opposition parties. The Liberal Democrats take a different view. I recognise that when I am Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I shall have to decide whether, by not imposing a guillotine, I will bring about a terrible compromise, and Conservative Members will try to generate mischief and delay the proceedings inordinately—as often happens, I might add, in Standing Committees considering related matters.

Perhaps the most serious arrogance is the hon. Gentleman's assumption, in seeking to negotiate for others in the Chamber, that it is acceptable simply to sweep away the Bill—to postpone it from 7 pm, or whatever time a statement is made, until 8 pm, rather

17 Mar 2003 : Column 638

than completing an important debate before proceeding to other matters. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made a similar case in his point of order. I am pleased with your judgment, Mr. Speaker: we should focus on this issue and resolve it before, if necessary, moving on. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford appears to confuse the importance of Northern Ireland business with the importance of other matters.

It seems to me that if there are those who have a right to complain about the guillotine, they are the Unionists sitting behind me and—when they arrive—the SDLP Members sitting opposite. The people whose opinion on the guillotine I really respect are the representatives of Northern Ireland parties. They may not persuade me to oppose the guillotine on this occasion. Given that there is one amendment and there are only two clauses, one of which consists of the name of the Bill, we shall probably have enough time to complete our discussion while allowing reasonable time for Northern Ireland speakers, who are not in the habit of procrastinating or pointlessly stringing out debates and will not, I am sure, be guilty of any such behaviour today.

I agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford on one thing: enormous majorities to tend to create bad and arrogant Governments. I hope that the current Government will bear that in mind as they look back on the dark days of Thatcherism, when a majority of 144 brought the country to its knees.

3.57 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): My understanding is that we have three hours in which to debate the guillotine motion before the statement that is expected to be made at 7 pm. If two statements are made, at 7 pm and 8 pm, the substance of the Bill will be squeezed into the time between 9 pm and 10 pm. Let me explain my opposition to the motion, and to the fact that we are even debating it.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I understood you, Mr. Speaker, to say that we should proceed with the debate, that if we finished early there would be an opportunity for a statement, but that we would not interrupt business between the debate on the guillotine and the Second Reading debate.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. That is exactly my position—we should dispense with this business first. The House may decide in favour of the timetable, in which case we shall dispense with this business and any statements will follow. Nothing will interrupt the business if the House so decides.

David Burnside: I thank Mr. Deputy Speaker, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for his wise words!

I will oppose the timetable motion because we should not even be discussing the subject in the House today. A democratic election was set in legislation for 1 May. May I explain what the Government perhaps do not wish to explain openly and honestly to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland—why we are here today debating Northern Ireland business to postpone the

17 Mar 2003 : Column 639

Assembly election from 1 May to 29 May? It sums up the Government's total mismanagement of a political process that they call the peace process.

We are having a one-month delay, and perhaps even more—who knows?—because the Government have accepted a 100 per cent. veto from the representatives of Sinn Fein-IRA on the operation of any form of democratic local government in Northern Ireland. Following the signing of the Belfast agreement, an Assembly was established in 1998. It has come on and off—

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) in order in discussing what is essentially the substance of the Bill when we are discussing the timetable motion?

Mr. Speaker: Sometimes hon. Members get a little elbow room from the Speaker. The hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) should take that point on board. He has made passing reference to the Bill, but it is the timetable motion that we are debating at the moment.

David Burnside: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The timetable motion means that we are limiting the time to discuss why the Government have postponed the Assembly election. I hope that I am within order in trying to outline why that guillotine motion has been put before the House: it is because of the clear mismanagement of the peace process. It is worth while stating why that process has stalled again.

The Minister referred—I assume that she was in order—to the recent discussions at Hillsborough. I assume that she was referring also to the discussions at Weston Park. Those are relevant to the motion, because of the substance of the negotiations between Her Majesty's Government, the Government of the Irish Republic and four, sometimes five, of the political parties in Northern Ireland, with one or two parties being excluded from that process, especially the Democratic Unionist party. An effort is being made to cobble together an agreement with Sinn Fein-IRA to try to restore the institutions in time for the election.

The House deserves to have considerable time to debate why that has happened. It is not because my party did not adhere to its obligations under the agreement. It is not because the other democratic parties in Northern Ireland did not try to adhere to the institutions as set up and as they operated in the Assembly and the Executive. There is no Executive or operational Assembly in Northern Ireland at the present time because one party, Sinn Fein-IRA, will not adhere to totally democratic methods.

17 Mar 2003 : Column 640

Today is St. Patrick's day, when all Irishmen, I hope, can celebrate our patron saint. It is one year ago to this day that Sinn Fein-IRA broke into Castlereagh police station under the authority of Mr. Storey—

Next Section

IndexHome Page