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17 Mar 2003 : Column 661—continued

5.25 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I am tempted to begin by saying that this is my final question, but I shall resist that temptation. May I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House a very happy St. David's day? It is good to hear—[Interruption.] I apologise, I meant St. Patrick's day. That has rather spoilt my point, which is that it is nice to know that all hon. Members can be so happy on the feast day of St. Patrick, that famous Catholic Welshman who went to the emerald isle to do his bit.

This is the third time that I have attempted to speak in a Northern Ireland debate, but the first time that I have been successful in catching the eye of the Chair. I am sure that my success has nothing to do with the fact that you, too, Madam Deputy Speaker, were born in Wales, but, for that reason, you will know the saying, "Three tries for a Welshman—Tri chynnig i Gymro."

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My comment is no reflection on next Saturday's match between Wales and Ireland, although I am tempted, as someone who is half-Irish—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not be tempted into saying anything more to do with Wales or rugby.

Kevin Brennan: I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just wanted to say that—despite the fact that I am a Welshman—I wish the all-Ireland team well for next Saturday, given that they are on their way to their first grand slam since 1948.

In supporting the Government today, I follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) in paying tribute to the work of the Prime Minister. I also pay tribute to the work of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I was pleased to hear Opposition Front Benchers do likewise. The Prime Minister's personal commitment, and his great experience, wisdom and diplomacy, along with that of the Secretary of State, have been very important.

No one ever said that delivering peace in Northern Ireland was going to be easy. It is perhaps easy to forget how long the process of building a lasting peace has been going on. It is worth reminding the House that 15 December will be the 10th anniversary of the historic Downing street declaration, which was brokered by the former Prime Minister, John Major, and the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. There have been 10 long and arduous years of dogged negotiation and effort, followed by hope, then setback, then breakthrough, then disappointment. However, we are all still here today, discussing peace and trying to find a way through the current difficulties, and that is what we must focus on in this debate.

There is an old Welsh saying that the difference between devolution and evolution is that devolution takes longer. In the context of Northern Ireland, the peace process perhaps takes longer than evolution. Despite the recent difficulties, the parties and both Governments remain focused not just on delivering peace, but on securing workable and successful institutions through the Bill. That is testament to how far we have come, but we must not lose sight of one very important fact. Who would have thought that we could have gotten this far at the beginning of this process, 10 years ago, under John Major's Government? It is right to pay tribute to the efforts made by the previous Conservative Government, as well as to the progress made under the current Government and Prime Minister.

It is also easy to forget the distance that everyone has had to travel along this route. I pay tribute to the distance travelled by the parties in Northern Ireland—nationalists, republicans, Unionists and loyalists—towards compromise and peace, but also to the political parties in Britain in coming to terms with the peace process. When the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) famously described the Good Friday agreement as "Sunningdale for slow learners", he put into context the time that it takes to secure a lasting peace.

That also puts into the correct historical context the monumental progress that has been achieved in recent years. From a British perspective, progress has been

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made since the Prime Minister took hold of the process and drove it forward with his characteristic determination and vision. That has been the hallmark of his approach, and that of the Government, to British-Irish affairs since coming to office in 1997.

While we will listen to any concerns that people in Northern Ireland have about the Government's decision to delay the elections, it is worth thinking about the delay in the context of the Good Friday agreement itself, to see what the Bill actually proposes. As the House knows, the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up under strand 1 of the agreement, which related to democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Under paragraph 36 of the agreement, it was envisaged that after a period there would be

That makes the Government duty bound to review the electoral arrangements for the Assembly, and gives them the power and moral authority to make any adjustments necessary. I am pleased that the Government have chosen to introduce legislation on the issue.

Paragraph 5, entitled "Review procedures following implementation", puts a further onus on the two Governments to put the wheels back on the wagon, if they should fall off along the way. It states:

The Government are acting responsibly and within their jurisdiction in introducing the Bill.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman quoted that section of the agreement, because it does not limit the consultation to the parties in the Assembly who are in the Executive, but to the parties in the Assembly. That should include all the parties in the Assembly, whether they support the agreement or not.

Kevin Brennan: I know that the hon. Gentleman's party has been consulted on many occasions, but has made it clear that it does not support the agreement. Therefore, in a sense, that is a moot point if the Government are trying to pursue progress on the agreement. I understand that if the hon. Gentleman's were the largest party after the election, it would drop the agreement, so I am not sure in what sense it could be party to any progress on the agreement.

If the process fails, the shape of any settlement that could be achieved in Northern Ireland will be no different in 10, 20 or 30 years' time. We had Sunningdale in 1974 and we now have the Good Friday agreement, but no one has made a convincing case that any settlement achieved in future would be substantially different. Clearly, the danger is that a return to violence could happen. I was with my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset, for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) and the

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hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), on a trip to Belfast, and only a week later a dissident republican bomb was left close to some of the places that we visited. We are all aware of the danger of a return to violence, but that does not mean that we should not pursue peace.

We saw efforts at reconciliation being made by communities in Belfast. It was remarkable to meet some people who were active participants in the conflict but who have since made genuine efforts to build peace. There have been many genuine and sincere acts of contrition. We need now to continue the process and to have acts of completion, which will give a sense of certainty that the war is over.

I am sure that some Northern Ireland Members sometimes feel that those of us from the mainland who take an interest are naive and have facile ideas. It can be easy to make false comparisons, but if one comes from Cardiff, as I do, one cannot help being struck by the similarities between Cardiff and Belfast. They are Victorian cities with similar types of housing. In many ways, they have similar histories. There is only one jarring difference—the sectarian conflict that has held Belfast back from achieving the renaissance that it could achieve. Cardiff has been able to achieve such a renaissance in recent years.

Lady Hermon: I do not represent a Belfast constituency, although North Down is fairly close so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to clarify one point. The Bill before us this evening seeks simply to change the date of the election—a date that was set by section 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Bill is not part of a formal review as set out in the agreement. I would not wish hon. Members to be misled into thinking that it was.

Kevin Brennan: I accept that, although I felt that, on Second Reading, there was leeway to range widely around a topic. I have waited many hours on two previous occasions, so I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for having ranged widely. I will conclude shortly.

I represent a city in mainland Britain of similar size to Belfast. In Belfast and Cardiff, the similarities of the problems, which we discussed with people living on estates, are striking, leaving aside the conflict. I am sure that, in years to come, Belfast will be shortlisted for European capital of culture, as Cardiff has been, and as Belfast tried to be on this occasion. People will benefit if we can sustain the peace. If the time that is granted by the passage of this Bill helps in that, it will have been worth while. There have been 30 years of strife and we do not want another 30 before returning to square one. I hope that we are giving time for peace to develop, at least in Northern Ireland.

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