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17 Mar 2003 : Column 655—continued

Lady Hermon : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is the Government's stated intention to withdraw all non-photographic identification before the Assembly elections, but that there has been insufficient advertising and publicity given to the fact that people must have photographic identification? I hope that he will have a word in the Minister's ear, either later this evening or on some other occasion, about increasing the advertising for these electoral identity cards.

Jim Knight: I certainly support what the hon. Lady says. That is why I have raised the matter. I want to put on record my concern that the scheme should be implemented properly, because it is an important safeguard given the delicacy of the situation in Northern Ireland. It is particularly important that the electorate should have the same confidence that I had when I lost by 77 votes. It is clear that this has not been the case in Northern Ireland, and I am keen that that certainty should be in place by 29 May.

In conclusion, I would simply say, "Give peace a chance." That is quite a controversial statement to make in these times, but, in the context of Northern Ireland, it is our only hope. The Bill is a reasonable and measured response, at a delicate time, and it deserves the support of the whole House.

5.3 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on what could be called his maiden speech on Northern Ireland. He was doing very well—bearing in mind the fact that there is a vacancy in the Cabinet—until his potentially ambiguous comment about giving peace a chance.

The Liberal Democrats are disappointed that it has been necessary to introduce the Bill to postpone the elections, because we are reluctant to see any

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interference with the democratic process. When the Assembly was suspended last October, we stressed that it was really important to convene round-table, all-party talks immediately, so that progress could be made quickly to restore the institutions and proceed with the original election date of 1 May 2003. My colleagues in another place sought and were given reassurances from the Government that, despite the suspension, the elections would indeed take place on that date.

I understand that circumstances have now changed and, in fairness to the Government, they have been fairly good at consulting and informing the Liberal Democrats on the need for the change to 29 May. But we need to be convinced of the reasons for that change. As the hon. Member for South Dorset pointed out—quite reasonably, I think—the Prime Minister has spent some time in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Given the international situation, I pay tribute to his personal dedication to the peace process. Although I have taken issue with one or two of his decisions, there is no doubt that he, aided by the powerful presence of former US President Bill Clinton, did a great deal to drive the process on. The Prime Minister can regard that as an achievement of which he should be justly proud.

The Prime Minister has said that it is necessary to postpone elections to allow time for more talks on restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland. In that context, a series of questions are raised by the decision, which should inform the House on whether the delay is appropriate. First, how often is the Secretary of State meeting the political parties, and will there be any further round table discussions before the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach return to Belfast in April?

During that time, the political parties in Northern Ireland will no doubt debate the merits of the package put before them by the two Governments, but I understand that, as yet, a final text—a final deal—has not been agreed in every detail, although the parties have seen copies of a document produced by the Governments. On 5 March, BBC News reported

That is an extensive statement, but if the document has not yet been finalised, how can the parties gather support for it? I have raised separately a concern that it seemed, at least to one party in Northern Ireland, that there was differential access to the materials—in other words, some parties saw more than others of what has been put forward. If the elections are to be postponed to 29 May, it seems not just respectful but vital that all parties are treated equally in terms of access to the proposals.

One reason for the degree of scepticism is what happened at Weston Park, where many of us felt unilateral agreements were made, regarding on-the-runs, for example. That has caused a scepticism or a concern—a distrust—as to everyone being involved at present because they were not involved in the past. That point was made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), and it is one with which I very much agree. If someone is shown to have behaved not completely openly with all sides, those who feel excluded will be much more difficult to convince in future. I hope that the Under-Secretary will give an assurance that all

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parties will have equal access to the information and that the scourge of unilateral deals, as correctly highlighted and criticised by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, is not part of the current negotiations.

Even if the package is 99 per cent. completed and agreed, the final 1 per cent. may contain something that is seen as vital to one party, but completely abhorrent to another. My time with the Northern Ireland portfolio has taught me many things, one of which is that if we are truly to move forward together, it is vital that all those in the process are clear about what is being proposed and that they can support it. Otherwise, we are looking at another short-term fix rather than one that can provide long-term stability.

That goes to the heart of the problem with which we are dealing in Northern Ireland. There is a lack of trust among the political parties and it cannot be resolved by another quick fix. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to behave in a way that reassures all parties, and indeed the public, that a quick fix is not being sought to bring in one side or another and, potentially, distance a third.

The discussions at Hillsborough were about the response of the two Governments to actions that have yet to be delivered by paramilitaries—the so-called acts of completion. That is the context in which we must assess the package presented to the parties. For the Liberal Democrats, it is important that the Secretary of State reassure the House today that the Government will take forward the elements of the package only in that context.

The Minister of State gave the impression in her introductory comments that acts of completion are solid objects and very clearly defined in the sense that there is no flexibility in them. Once again, however, the Government have created a rod for their own back because the definition of "acts of completion" is rather vague. For example, they have already assured us that acts of completion are necessary to ensure the changes to the district policing partnerships, as circulated with the draft of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill; yet an accompanying letter sent on 25 November from Lord Williams of Mostyn to Lord Glentoran, Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Shutt stated:

Does that commitment still stand? If it does not, it is hard to see what will be achieved by delaying the elections. It is obvious to me and to others that various parties representing Northern Ireland in the House would have difficult issues to address with their memberships, let alone with their principles, in accepting something that shifted away from the unequivocal statement in that letter of 25 November.

That is also the context for any discussion of on-the-runs. When the two Governments announced their package of proposals after the Weston Park talks in the summer of 2001, the Liberal Democrats firmly rejected the notion of a general amnesty for those who are on the run from justice. The early release of paramilitary prisoners was an extremely bitter pill for many people in

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Northern Ireland to swallow, but it was tolerated because it formed part of the Good Friday agreement. That cannot be emphasised too much.

The Good Friday agreement was negotiated by the political parties and accepted by the people through a referendum. However bitter the pill, the political parties were willing to swallow it because of the transparency of the process that led to the agreement. To propose an amnesty for those who are on the run—in effect, to ignore their offences entirely—is not an extension of the early release scheme and would go well beyond the Good Friday agreement. At the time, the Lib Dems indicated to the Government that if we were to support any legislation on that matter it was essential that those who intended to avail themselves of the measure should face some form of judicial process and that their release should be on licence.

The judicial commission proposed by the two Governments appears to be addressing our concerns, but will an admission of guilt be needed from a person who appears before the commission before their release on licence?

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