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17 Mar 2003 : Column 651—continued

David Burnside (South Antrim): The hon. Gentleman has recognised time and again in the House that every deadline in Northern Ireland is not a deadline, but is repeatedly reset. If and when the election takes place on 29 May this year, what sort of deadline would he propose for excluding those who are in breach of the agreement and are still involved in paramilitary terrorist activities? Surely, no deadline for a newly elected Assembly should entail continual uncertainty. Surely, a deadline must be set for going ahead with an all-inclusive Executive or to exclude Sinn Fein from it.

Mr. Davies: I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, given his business background, that one of the rules of negotiation is that one does not declare hypothetical tactics in advance or say what one might or might not do in situations that have not arisen. That would be foolish.

I was trying to make a strong distinction—perhaps it would help for me to repeat what I was saying—between a constitutional deadline based in constitutional or foundational law and a deadline in negotiation. Deadlines in negotiations must be treated seriously or they will lose all credibility. However, a fortiori, if a deadline is enshrined in constitutional rules, one must be very careful indeed about extending it; otherwise, one will devalue the whole constitution of which that deadline is a part. That is particularly true in respect of deadlines for elections, as democratic elections are, of course, at the very centre of the democratic and constitutional process—or of any process worthy of such a name.

We are prepared to accept the extension of the deadline, but just this once. I think I have made it unambiguous and clear—I have certainly sought to do so—that this should be the last time. There should be no illusion about that on anybody's part.

Secondly, we are prepared to accept this procedural step—for that is what it is—in advance of a genuine, comprehensive and definitive settlement on the basis of the Government's assurance that it will help significantly to bring about such a comprehensive settlement in Northern Ireland, but we will not accept any substantive concessions in advance. We will not accept the making of any such concessions except as part and parcel of that comprehensive and definitive settlement. We will not therefore agree, to provide for any such concessions now in primary legislation to irrevocably complete the primary legislative process in advance in respect of any matter that needs to be dealt with because of the Northern Ireland peace process and simply leave it to the Government to decide on implementing the provisions of that change in our law under statutory instruments if and when they feel that they have achieved enough in the process to warrant their doing so. Parliament should not, and in such critical cases—they are critical constitutionally, for judicial propriety and for peace—it absolutely must not,

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sign blank cheques in that fashion. Only when the whole package is available for inspection can Parliament make a judgment on it, and only then can it decide whether a particular measure is still justified in principle or should be modified or amended. Statutory instruments notoriously cannot be amended in this House, and we therefore absolutely reject that method of proceeding. In other words, if the Government wish to legislate as part and parcel of their delivering their side of a bargain in a Northern Ireland settlement, I am afraid that we must wait to see what that bargain consists of, and primary legislation should only be introduced at that stage. I hope that the Government will take account of these observations very seriously when they plan ahead and take decisions—for example, on the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which is scheduled to be debated on Report next week.

Let there be no doubt about what we mean when we say "comprehensive settlement". It must be a settlement in which there are no loose ends—no necessary actions that are left over indefinitely or are to be dependent for their fulfilment on good will in the future—and no side deals or secret agreements. It must be definitive and transparent. It must, of course, include the completion of decommissioning, to a strict timetable, of IRA and loyalist paramilitary weapons to the satisfaction of General de Chastelain and of the public in Northern Ireland. The latter means inevitably that the completion of decommissioning must be undertaken in a much more open fashion than were the two acts of IRA decommissioning that we have already had. A settlement must involve the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations connected to any party that wishes to take part in the political process and does not wish to go down the route of permanent professional criminality. There can be no third choice. Concessions by the British Government must be made pari passu with, or after, the verified completion of those two processes of decommissioning and disbandment. There must be no payment in advance whatsoever.

Last, but certainly not least, there must be clear and enforceable sanctions for non-performance or for subsequent backsliding at any and every stage. That is our concept of a successful peace process. If it is the Government's agenda, too, as I hope, they will have our full support; if not, I fear that they will not.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House has resigned. That is something that we understand and, indeed, that many of us support, but it creates an issue in terms of the flow of information to Members in the House as to what statements are being made, and by whom, and what debates are being held, and when. In particular, will the commitments given last Thursday by the former Leader of the House still stand in relation to the timing of any debate on the international situation? The usual channels are not a matter for you, but the flow of information to Members and the fact that every Member must be of equal standing most certainly is. Can you give some reassurance on that in this highly unusual situation?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I inform the hon. Gentleman that that is not a point of order for the

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Chair. It is a matter for the Government. My responsibility now is to comply with the allocation of time motion that is before the House.

4.53 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): At a time when we are all understandably preoccupied with events in Iraq, it is nevertheless appropriate that we should not be so distracted that we fail to continue to seek to get our own house in order in respect of Northern Ireland. I support the Bill as an important measure to allow time for parties to reflect on the recent negotiations and, I hope, to get the Assembly up and running again in time for the elections.

I make no bones about the fact that I am no expert on this subject. I visited Belfast for the very first time last month with a number of colleagues. We met representatives of all the parties at Stormont, toured the interface areas and met cross-community workers, the Chief Constable, the head of the mediation service and members of the suspended civic forum.

The visit was truly fascinating. It was clear that Belfast suffers the problems of any major city in this country or in Europe relating to housing, employment, educational standards, drugs, crime—organised and otherwise—and transport. We also saw plenty that was good and positive. The relative peace was clearly welcomed despite understandable nervousness about its fragility. However, as a first-time visitor to Belfast, I was struck by one point above all others: it is a scandal that Northern Ireland is not a bigger issue in the wider, mainstream political debate in our country.

Andrew Mackinlay : One of the reasons why it does not form part of our mainstream debate is that there is no Labour party in Northern Ireland. Some of us, who are on a three-line Whip, are waiting with bated breath for our political cousins from the Social Democratic and Labour party to turn up. I have been a Member of Parliament for 11 and a half years. I am sick and tired of being brought here by my Whips to support measures—I emphasise that I support the Bill—only to find that there is no Labour voice from Northern Ireland. I hope that Mr. Mark Durkan takes note. At the moment, no representative of our political cousins is present. I—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a close.

Jim Knight: I think I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I broadly support his comments. There is a strong argument for the Labour party's allowing membership for residents of Northern Ireland, but also against its organising there.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): It is a complex issue.

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right.

It was truly shocking to find that we live in a country where some communities are so divided and informed by violence, and where people have so little hope. I have been brought up with the troubles—they are approximately as old as me—but last month, I saw the reality of the TV pictures with which I grew up. I saw the walls on the peace lines, the abandoned housing, the

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murals of hatred, the marked-out territory, and schools on opposite sides of the road that could be on opposite sides of the world for all the contact that they have with each other. I am sure that that is all too familiar to all hon. Members in the Chamber, and perhaps the normal facts of life for some. However, they were shocking to me, and form part of the reason why I wanted to speak in the debate.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve better. They deserve peace and security as much as anyone else in the world, yet they have been isolated in a discrete pocket in the mainstream political debate of this country. That has been allowed to happen because the subject is all too depressing and difficult and if we put it to one side, we do not have to worry about it too much. I therefore pay great tribute to the Prime Minister for his work in trying to sustain progress throughout his premiership, even in recent difficult international times.

What are the substantive issues in the Bill? We are told that the British and Irish Governments have reached agreement on a series of proposals to restore devolved Government on a secure footing that are capable of commanding the support of the pro-agreement parties. We are told that it is possible that we have reached the basis for the final breakthrough, resolving all the outstanding issues and delivering stable and inclusive government in a peaceful society. We are told that we need to give the parties time to reflect on that possible breakthrough so that they can make the necessary decisions to restore the devolved institutions of the Belfast agreement and thereby hold meaningful elections to a live Assembly. I believe that we should trust that information.

However, postponement should not be undertaken lightly. When we met all the parties at Stormont, we discussed postponement and, although we largely considered indefinite postponement, there was clearly considerable opposition to the idea. Many believed that it was being considered simply because the polls suggested that the result would not be to the Government's liking.

I also appreciate that the immediate run-up to an election is not the best time to secure the necessary compromises to make progress on the more substantive issues such as achieving a complete cessation of paramilitary activity, agreement on future sanctions, the final acts of completion, full cross-party representation on the Policing Board and so on. The Belfast Telegraph published a contradictory poll that showed both that 64 per cent. of Unionists are against the Belfast agreement and that 60 per cent. of Unionists want it to work. The position is therefore difficult to predict.

The Bill is the right way forward because the position is so difficult. To make a definite, clear postponement of just four weeks is not to run away from the ballot box. It is a sensible compromise to provide some breathing space. I know that, for some, compromise is an unwelcome "C" word, but I believe that the majority will welcome it if it produces results.

I would say the same about the publication of the proposals agreed by the British and Irish Governments. I understand the wish of anti-agreement parties to know what is in those proposals, but I also think it right to allow those who are committed to progress to consider them in the round, without having them picked apart in

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public, bit by bit, by their opponents in the run-up to important elections. We need to see the bigger picture. Everyone will find things that they like and things that they do not. Nothing can therefore be viewed in isolation. We can all predict what the main issues will be, and all that is now being proposed is that the key players have the chance to have a good look before they leap forward to what I hope will be a lasting peace.

Before I sit down to make way for more experienced voices—I said that I was no expert on these matters, and I do not intend to take up very much time, although there are some who might wish that I could—I would like to raise one further issue. I would like to hear further reassurance from the Minister that the election identity card scheme will be fully implemented in time for the elections, and that the Northern Ireland Office will ensure that there are no administrative logjams. It is vital that the electorate should have complete confidence in the outcome of elections, wherever they are held. I speak as one who failed to gain his seat in the 1997 general election by just 77 votes, and I was delighted to double my predecessor's majority to 153 in 2001. I know all about close results and recounts, and I am happy to say that I have every confidence in the validity of those results.

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