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17 Mar 2003 : Column 643—continued

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The Minister has outlined two possibilities. In the first, an agreement would be forthcoming before the election. In the second—which she did not quite explain to the House—

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an agreement might be reached after the election. What circumstances suggest to the Minister that, if people had not agreed before the election, they might agree after it?

Jane Kennedy: As I said, that would have to be in the context of acts of completion. Without those, the idea that we can begin to restore trust is nonsense. The acts of completion underpin all our hopes for the way forward in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): In pursuit of the same point, does the Minister accept that what sounds like a strong statement—in this case, acts of completion—can become a flexible statement in the interests of expedience? It is that problem that causes concern and perhaps scepticism in certain groups.

Jane Kennedy: I do not accept that. I am not aware of specific statements that could be taken as watering down the absolute commitment that the Prime Minister himself spelt out in Belfast in October. The commitment is unequivocal and that remains our position. Without that, we would be unable to restore the trust not so much of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives, but of the parties that need to be part of the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. That is why the acts of completion are one of the issues that are central to our discussions.

Short delays to elections are unusual and are undesirable in principle, but they are not unprecedented. The House will recall that although local elections were due on 3 May 2001 in England and Wales and on 16 May in Northern Ireland, they were postponed to 7 June because of concerns about the impact of foot and mouth disease and its accompanying restrictions on the electoral process. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which established devolved government on the basis set out in the agreement, provides for elections to be delayed, or indeed brought forward, by up to two months by order subject to the negative resolution procedure. We decided, however, that it would not be right to use that provision in the circumstances of the postponement that we are considering.

As I said, any delay to an election is regrettable. We would not propose it if there were any other way to achieve our objective. I hope that the House will agree that the potential prize well merits the postponement in this case because a month could make a very great difference. The Bill postpones the election date by four weeks, or 28 days, to 29 May. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party have tabled an amendment that I regard as a wrecking amendment. I am not sure whether it is a typographical error, but the date in the amendment must be wrong. Surely it should refer to 1998, not 1999.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): The amendment is not clear in the documents that I have. Bearing in mind that it is a manuscript amendment, I would be grateful if the Minister could help us by saying what it is about.

Jane Kennedy: I am not sure that I should discuss the amendment at this stage. I am sure, however, that a copy of it can be made available. Indeed, there is one on the Table.

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Andrew Mackinlay: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not want to embarrass myself, although that has never stopped me before, but a copy of the amendment is not available outside the Chamber.

Mr. Speaker: I understand that copies of the amendment are in the Vote Office, and they may well be available on the Table.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am very much obliged to you for your help, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Peter Robinson rose—

Jane Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Before I move on, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson).

Mr. Robinson: Copies of the amendment are available because I picked one up several hours ago from the Vote Office. My copy refers to 1998. I am not sure why there is a date of 1999 in the Minister's copy.

Jane Kennedy: I have an earlier copy. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the date is correct in the amendment that is now available to the House, although I shall not dwell on it.

As a consequence of choosing 28 April as the dissolution date, the election timetable is shortened from 25 to 20 days, but that will not affect other key election timetable events, such as deadlines for absent votes. The election will be safeguarded by the most stringent precautions ever taken against electoral fraud.

The Bill includes technical provisions to take account of the impact on expenditure limits of moving the elections.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): The Minister will be well aware that photographs are supposed to be made available so that people can get an identity card to vote. Is she aware that there is a complete jam-up of the works, which means that in some areas people cannot get those photographs or they cannot get an appointment to have photographs taken? The elections will be on us shortly, so will the Minister set her mind to finding out how to keep the process moving?

Jane Kennedy: I am not aware of the complete jam-up to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I understand that on 14 March the number of applications for electoral identity cards stood at 55,225, and that on 11 March the number of cards issued was 16,935. The processing of applications is well under way. Every elector may now use a range of photographic identification; people are not restricted to using the electoral identity card to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am confident that those who need a card will be able to get one in ample time for the elections.

We are asking the House today to go the extra mile, as it has done before, to give the agreement a chance to succeed and come to full fruition. We believe that that is a real prospect; otherwise we would not have introduced the Bill. Northern Ireland, and therefore each of us in

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these islands, has come a very long way since the agreement was concluded in 1998. I hope that the House will agree to offer this vital chance of advancing further.

4.26 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): As it is St. Patrick's day, I start by offering my warm congratulations to all those in the House from Northern Ireland and with Irish connections generally. It occurs to me that we may all like to send our warmest wishes to the men of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment, who are currently deployed in the Gulf and for whom this must be an anxious time.

The Opposition have supported the Northern Ireland peace process and the Belfast agreement from the very first. Indeed, the peace process as we know it began with the ceasefire that followed the historic Downing Street declaration negotiated by the then Conservative Government. It is therefore reluctantly, and with a heavy heart, that over the past 18 months, we have felt the need, in the interests of the peace process and of the people of Northern Ireland, to take issue with the Government on the tactics that they were adopting in the process. In our view, those tactics were imperilling the implementation of the Belfast agreement and the achievement of peace and normalisation in Northern Ireland.

Those tactics were based on three illusions on the part of the Government, no doubt honestly, if naively, held, but no less potentially damaging and disastrous for that. The first of those was that the issues at stake and the parties involved in the peace process could be dealt with effectively one by one and separately. In other words, the Government, although well meaning, failed to appreciate that everything in Northern Ireland is interlinked. Everything is therefore contingent; side deals will never work; and no party will make a move unless it knows what the others will do in return.

The second illusion was the belief that terrorists and former terrorists can be appeased, or even disarmed, by unilateral concessions. In other words, the Government appear to fail to appreciate that we are dealing here with hard men, negotiators as tough as they come, who will never give anything for nothing and will take unilateral concessions as a sign of weakness and simply ask for more. In short, there was a failure to recognise that concessions must always be reciprocal and there must always be sanctions for non-performance in any successful peace process or agreement.

The third illusion was the belief that no damage would be done to Unionist parties or to the SDLP, the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, by endless conciliation and appeasement of republicans; that they could be, to a large degree, taken for granted. That was both unfair and impolitic. It could only lead, as I fear it has, to increasing disillusionment and cynicism about the peace agreement over the past few years in Northern Ireland, and to the hardening of positions in both the Unionist and nationalist camps. So the Government saddled themselves and are responsible for quite a large measure of the difficulty with which they now have to contend.

The Government's misconceived approach—it was fundamentally misconceived in relation to the three illusions that I have set out—led to their committing,

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and it could only have done so, four cardinal errors. I have described these four errors before as the Government four cardinal errors, and I shall again repeat what they were to remind the House.

First, there was the colossal error of releasing all the prisoners without any decommissioning taking place, even though the Belfast agreement required both processes to be completed within two years. Secondly, there was the failure to respond at all to successive breaches of the ceasefire and the agreement by Sinn Fein-IRA—Florida, Colombia, Castlereagh and the continuing beatings, shootings and intimidation. As I said at the time, failure to respond to such egregious breaches could only lead to more, and so, sadly, it proved with Stormontgate.

The third cardinal error was the incredible decision, despite all that, to offer new unilateral concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA that were not required by the agreement. The two worst such examples were the promise at Weston Park of an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists to be delivered by the end of 2001, and the special status for Sinn Fein members in this place.

The fourth cardinal error was the decision to turn down the offer that I made in the House last July to pass rapid legislation to give the Secretary of State power to suspend from the power-sharing Executive any parties in breach of their obligations or in concert with those in breach of their obligations under the ceasefire or the agreement.

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