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17 Mar 2003 : Column 640—continued

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. He must stick to the timetable motion.

David Burnside: I will conclude.

I have stated my opposition to the timetable motion. I believe that we need more time. I will try, if I can catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to speak in the main debate later in the day. We do not need this legislation. It should not be put before the House. It is another example of mismanagement of the peace process, a political process, by the Government.

4.4 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): We are short of time. Everything we say prolongs the debate and leaves us less time to deal with something that needs to be dealt with and the people of Northern Ireland need to hear about.

The Minister says that the Bill and the need for it comes from what happened at Hillsborough. The majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland were not represented during the final voting at Hillsborough: add them up, and see how many were represented. A large section of the people were cut out—we knew nothing about it—yet the police were able to visit some Unionists to tell us that we were about to be attacked, and that we should be careful because the IRA had information on us as a result of its having broken into Stormont. That organisation—the very organisation accused of doing that—knew what was happening at Hillsborough, but I, a public representative, did not.

So this is all news to us; we do not know what is happening, and no one will tell us. I asked the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to let us see what they were talking about, but they said, "You will not see it; you will not even have a peep at it." I know people—people who are no friends of the well-being of law-abiding citizens—who not only saw it, but who were, for a time, put out of free access here, there and yonder, because of what they knew.

All that I am saying is that we need to get down to discussing the matter at hand, and that we should leave this subject. I do not believe that there should be a timetable, and, as I said in my initial statement, this is an awful guillotine that goes far too far. We should have time, but we will not get it, so what should we do? We should take the time—as you said, Mr. Speaker, which satisfies me—to get into this debate as hard as we can.

If the House divides as a result of a particular Member's speaking for such a long time during this debate, I, of course, will vote against this timetable, because I oppose it. However, I believe that we need to get on with the main subject before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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17 Mar 2003 : Column 641

Orders of the Day

Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

4.7 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As I said during the debate on the timetable motion, the need for this Bill arises from the intensive negotiations on the political future of Northern Ireland that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach conducted at Hillsborough a fortnight ago.

This is a short Bill with a simple purpose. It provides for a 28-day postponement of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that are currently scheduled for 1 May. Postponing an election is a serious step, and it is certainly not one that we would contemplate lightly. However, I believe that it is very much the right thing to do in the circumstances that now face us, because what emerged from the Hillsborough discussions was a potential basis for political advance in Northern Ireland. Nothing is guaranteed and more work is needed, but we may now have an opportunity to end direct rule, pass powers back to the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland and implement all the remaining aspects of the Belfast agreement of 1998.

If that opportunity is taken, the people of Northern Ireland could vote for an Assembly that had already resumed its powers at the time of the election, or that was ready to take them up afterwards. That is clearly a great deal better than an election to an Assembly that is in a state of suspension, without powers, unable to meet, and with no clear route out of that state.

Lady Hermon (North Down): Will the Minister clarify the precise circumstances in which a suspension could be lifted before the elections on 29 May?

Jane Kennedy: Suspension of the Assembly would have to be lifted with the agreement of the parties. That is the only basis on which we can move forward, and I will come to that point later in my speech if the hon. Lady will be patient for a moment while I outline some of the big issues that we are discussing today.

Realistically, we could not hope to tie down the political agreement necessary to move beyond that state if the election date remained 1 May—which, on the present timetable, would mean the dissolution of the Assembly, and the start to all-out campaigning, at the end of this week. If the election date were moved to 29 May, we should have a much better chance of such agreement. That is the reason for the Bill.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was obliged to suspend devolved government on 15 October last year, in the aftermath of concern about continuing paramilitary activity. It was clear that there had been a catastrophic breakdown of trust, that the lack of trust existed on both sides of the community, and that that catastrophic breakdown of trust made the effective functioning of devolved government impossible.

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As the Prime Minister made clear in a speech in Belfast on 17 October, Northern Ireland had reached a fork in the road. It was, my right hon. Friend said, time for republicans to complete the transition to exclusively peaceful means—to make it real, total and permanent. Without that, it was clear that the system would no longer work, but if such real change occurred, the way would be open to the implementation of the rest of the agreement in its entirety. What was needed, the Prime Minister made clear, was action sufficient to restore trust on all sides.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Minister talks about trust having broken down on both sides. What did Unionists do to breach trust?

Jane Kennedy: There was a sense that there was a lack of commitment to power sharing and to working together to make government work. As I have said, there was a catastrophic breakdown of trust in the veracity of those associated with paramilitary organisations. It is that trust that we have sought to restore, through the talks and negotiations that have taken place in recent weeks.

Since that breakdown of trust and the Prime Minister's speech in Belfast, both the British and Irish Governments have worked in the closest partnership, along with the parties, to promote a fundamental step forward. There has been a series of round tables, convened by the British and Irish Governments and open to all parties in the Assembly. There have been other meetings of the six parties who favour the agreement. There were meetings with the Prime Minister and Taoiseach at Hillsborough in February. Most promisingly, though, there have been intensifying contacts among the parties themselves. Engagement by the parties with the Government, and with the Irish Government, is often important, but engagement between the parties themselves is crucial.

The Prime Minister and Taoiseach arrived at Hillsborough on the morning of Monday 3 March, intending to leave that evening. In fact, both stayed through the whole of Tuesday, and into the early hours of Wednesday. The House knows the pressures on the Prime Minister's time, especially in the present international situation: his choosing to remain with the parties is eloquent testimony to the fact that the negotiations, though often difficult—as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have reason to know—held out real promise from the start.

There was a great deal of engagement between the parties, and, although areas of real difficulty remained, there was by the end, as the Prime Minister said, a shared understanding of how the process could now be moved forward to a lasting and durable settlement based on full implementation of the agreement.

The key issues under discussion—and there are many—are widely known and have been widely commented on. At their core is, on the one hand, an end to paramilitarism, and, on the other, the stability of the institutions. It was the clear judgment of both Governments that a settlement was within reach. Such a settlement would open the way to reviving the full operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the important north-south and east-west

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institutions on a foundation of stability and willingness by all parties to operate them wholeheartedly. It would necessarily be founded on an end to paramilitarism, as the Prime Minister made clear. That would include—in the context of the changed environment brought about by the definitive transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and in the context of all parties endorsing the policing arrangements and structures—the coming of security arrangements that would be regarded as normal in other parts of these islands.

We cannot rush the steps to the conclusion of such a settlement. There is a need on all sides to rebuild the trust and confidence that is necessary to underpin the successful operation of the institutions, which will take time. The Governments cannot dictate the pace of the process. The parties need an opportunity to reflect on the key issues with their colleagues around the country. They also need time to engage with each other further. The Government concluded that we needed to give space for that to happen before the two Governments come back with definitive proposals about the most promising basis on which implementation of the Belfast agreement can be set back on track. We intend to do that in early April. I hope that, by that stage, we will see a response from the paramilitaries that enables us all to go forward.

I have to emphasise again what the Prime Minister made clear in October, because it is critical: the system will no longer work in the shadow of paramilitarism. We can go forward only on the basis of the agreement. That must include a commitment to exclusively peaceful means on the part of the parties that are involved in government and the organisations that are linked to them. We now need to see acts that are unmistakably acts of completion of the transition to exclusively peaceful means. We also need, of course, to see a renewal of the commitment to operating all the agreement institutions wholeheartedly. On all sides, what is said and done must inspire trust and confidence in all parts of the community.

By early April, when we will introduce our final proposals, the Assembly would, on the present schedule, have been dissolved for two weeks. If we held elections according to the schedule, therefore, those elections would be to an Assembly in suspension, with no clear way established to its resuming powers again. However, in the light of the discussions at Hillsborough, we now have good grounds to hope that, if we postpone for a few weeks, the elections may be to an Assembly that either has resumed powers or has good prospects of doing so once the votes are counted. That would be a far more satisfactory state of affairs for the voters, for Northern Ireland and for us all. Hence, we decided, after careful consideration, that a brief postponement of the Assembly elections would be right.

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