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17 Mar 2003 : Column 647—continued

Lembit Öpik : Will the hon. Gentleman describe the mechanics of how he felt that such a suspension would have played out in Northern Ireland and why he feels that it would have been effective?

Mr. Davies: I am not pretending that I predicted Stormontgate. Of course I did not. However, I predicted and said at the time—it is on the record—that if we did not respond to breaches, there would be more. I said during the debate that took place in July that we had better prepare for what the Government do, because the Government, as sure as hell, had better do something next time, otherwise there will be more and more. The Government need to suspend from the power-sharing Executive parties that are in breach of their obligations or in concert with organisations that are so in breach.

At the time, there were only two possibilities available to the Government, and unfortunately that remained the position. One was to introduce a motion in the Assembly, which under the rules of the Assembly would have had to achieve a majority in both camps, Nationalist and Unionist. In practice, that meant that the entire onus for excluding Sinn Fein would have lain on the SDLP. That would have been a ridiculous situation and an abdication of a fundamental responsibility on behalf of the Government to do something about these breaches.

The other alternative was to suspend everybody, both innocent and guilty, and to bring down the structure of devolution—the Executive, the Assembly, the whole lot. That is what the Government ended up having to do. That is because they did not accept my proposal, which was to provide in legislation in this place—it could have

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passed through the House quite rapidly—for the Secretary of State to have powers to exclude the particular party which was in breach or in concert with those in breach. That is simple. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not follow the argument at the time. It seems clear in retrospect that we should have done that. Instead, we have brought down the whole structure, and that is precisely why we confront the difficult situation that we do. That is precisely why, in addition, we have had the crisis over the past six months and the issue of how we shall restore the institutions of devolution, which were suspended because, unfortunately, there was no alternative.

However, let me be fair to the Government. Since the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) took over as Secretary of State, there has been, in all honesty, a striking change in the Government's approach, which is extremely welcome. All the other elements in the equation, such as the issues, the parties, the personalities—in Northern Ireland, the Government of the Irish Republic, and the Government themselves, including the Prime Minister, Mr. Jonathan Powell and everybody else—remain the same and nothing else has changed. The only new element is the arrival of the right hon. Member for Torfaen, so it is fair to give him substantial credit for that change in approach.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Hear, hear.

Mr. Davies: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that I am endeavouring to be fair. Perhaps our own critiques were not without effect. Perhaps even more eloquent is the fact that the predictions that we made on the basis of our analysis proved true all too often and, sadly, what we said would happen came about. However, there was undoubtedly a change of tone. The Prime Minister's speech in October, to which the Minister of State has already referred, was certainly the most realistic and robust that he has made so far in the peace process. At the time, I said that we welcomed the speech but that we would judge the Prime Minister by his deeds, not merely by his words. Importantly, over the past six months, there has been a welcome absence of unilateral concessions by the Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's speech, which could be described as slightly understated, but urge him to reflect on the timing of the events that he is narrating to the House. My recollection is that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when the Prime Minister made his speech on 17 October.

Mr. Davies: The tone of the speech, as I have already said, was welcome. The substance—the negotiations—I shall come on to later; they are a more recent phenomenon, but are also extremely welcome. We keep our eyes and ears open and have noticed that the words and concepts that we have espoused for so long and which the Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), used to reject passionately or even to rubbish when I used them over and over again in the past year and a half at the Dispatch Box—words such as linkage, timetable,

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sanctions, multilaterality—are now on the Government's lips, including those of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) and the Minister of State, which I welcome.

Last Wednesday, in Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State generously and revealingly agreed with me that it was a thoroughly good thing that we in the Conservative party had successfully resisted the promise of amnesty for on-the-run terrorists at Weston Park. As a result, that important card remains in the Government's hands, and enables us to achieve the judicial treatment of the problem of on-the-run terrorists, which both the Secretary of State and I, both Government and Opposition, agree we should seek. There is therefore a new realism and robustness, and there is a new approach that could be characterised as a multilateral, comprehensive package—exactly what the Opposition have been calling for for the past year and a half, recognising the linkages and insisting on the need for discipline, balance and sanctions on the Government's part. I hope and trust that that will bear fruit—indeed, there is some evidence that it is beginning to do so, as we always expected it would. Has the divergence—the rupture, even—between us over tactics now come to an end? Can we now speak of bipartisanship of approach and tactics as well as objectives? I profoundly hope so—the next few weeks will tell definitively.

It is clear that the Government's new course has produced a more hopeful situation. I have already had two private and detailed briefings from the Secretary of State about the meetings at Hillsborough and I am grateful for that. I must not betray in my remarks to the House the confidentiality of those briefings, but I can say that the new approach has been based on the principles of multilaterality, comprehensiveness and balance, and I know that the agenda now includes the essential mechanisms of explicit timetables and sanctions for non-performance.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had had two detailed briefings from the Secretary of State on the outcome of the discussions at Hillsborough. Does he agree, therefore, that it is all the more despicable that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies, and members of the party that I represent in the House have received no such briefings, consultations or any information whatever from government, officially or otherwise? Is that not a despicable way to treat hon. Members, particularly when they represent a substantial—indeed, a majority—view of Unionism in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Davies: I have the greatest respect for the electoral mandate of any democratic party and I recognise that what the hon. Gentleman says is true—his party represents a large number of people in Northern Ireland. It has chosen, for reasons that we know, not to take part in the Belfast talks or in talks subsequent to the Belfast agreement, but I agree that the party cannot be left out of account. It would be inconsistent with the briefings that I have had if I engaged in publicly second-guessing the Government's tactics at Hillsborough, but I take note of the hon.

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Gentleman's comments, and I hope that the two Ministers on the Front Bench will have done so too. The complaints are not new, but that is no reason for not taking notice of them. I am glad the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to make the point again this afternoon.

Without breaching the confidentiality of the briefings that I have had, I must tell the House—I have the agreement of the Secretary of State that I should say this—that what he told me about the results of those discussions so far has convinced me that it is right that we should not prevent the process being given a little more time before the Assembly elections. We therefore decided not to oppose the Bill today. I say that we shall not oppose it, rather than that we shall support it. I hope the Government will understand that.

Although I have had briefings on those meetings, I have not been present at them, so I am not in a position to make a judgment on behalf of the Opposition as to the extent of the progress achieved or the genuineness of that apparent progress. However, I have sufficient confidence in the Secretary of State to believe totally in his sincerity when he says that he believes that the progress is sufficient and sufficiently genuine to warrant a little more time. On that basis we should decide not to stand in the way of a little more time being given.

I emphasise, and I have emphasised this privately to the Government, that we say that with considerable reluctance and after much thought. One should not put forward proposals to extend deadlines, let alone extend deadlines for democratic elections, unselectively. One should do so only very rarely and specifically, and on the basis of extremely good arguments. There are two big issues that we should not overlook. One is that we are dealing with rules for a constitutional process. Constitutional rules must be taken seriously if they are to be worthy of that term. That is particularly true of the rules of new constitutions, like the constitution for devolved government in Northern Ireland, which are very young and have not yet acquired a substantial legitimacy or credibility of their own.

Secondly—this is a point of negotiating tactics on which in the past there have been considerable differences between us and the Government—the deferral of any deadline in any negotiation process must always be problematic. Extending one deadline inevitably reduces the credibility of all deadlines in that process. The object of deadlines is to concentrate minds and exclude opportunities for delay. If it is felt that deadlines are flexible in practice, they are worse than useless, as they will not be deadlines at all, but merely instruments enabling one party to make a fool of another. We must look very critically at this matter, and it is only after having considered it very soberly and critically that we have come to the decision that we should not stand in the way of the Bill this afternoon.

Having said that, I want to make three points as plainly and forcefully as I can. First, we will support no further postponement of the elections. I hope that the Government will make it very clear to all their interlocutors in the peace process that elections in a democracy cannot be postponed beyond the constitutionally prescribed dates except by consensus and that there will certainly be no such consensus for

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any further delays. The evil day cannot be further postponed and minds must be concentrated. We cannot continue as we have for the past five years. This extension of the deadline must really and genuinely be the last.

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