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17 Mar 2003 : Column 664—continued

5.38 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I had to pinch myself during the early part of this debate as I watched the Minister, in almost angelic fashion, presenting the Bill as if it had some moral authority. In reality, it is probably one of the most corrupt pieces of legislation that the House will see. It will not simply put off an election for four weeks, because it is now four years since that election should have taken place. I will go into that in a moment.

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There is an imperative on the Government to obey the law and respect the rights of people to democratic expression through the ballot box. Those are two principles that any Government should guard. However, on every occasion that this agreement faltered, the Government were prepared to change and abuse the law, and avoid giving the electorate any say. The law has been redesigned on a number of occasions and democracy has been consistently manipulated. The process has been a farce and the Government's sole objective has been to cobble it together and evade the will of the Northern Ireland electorate.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 set out several different ways through which elections could take place. Section 31 makes provision for an ordinary general election, and section 32 details two processes that could bring about an extraordinary election. The Minister was wrong to tell the House that the Government could have relied on the provisions in section 31 that allow flexibility of up to two months. They could not have done that because after we took legal action against the Government, the Secretary of State was forced by the Court of Appeal to introduce an order in the House that would allow an extraordinary election, which he determined should be on 1 May 2003. Therefore, section 31 had already been superseded and could not be applied because the Secretary of State had called on section 32 to get out of the dilemma that he faced because of the ruling. Section 32 provides for an extraordinary election when a stalemate has occurred in the Assembly. That can arise for several reasons, including if the six-week requirement has not been met for the election of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The Government have exerted themselves improperly to bypass section 32 on many occasions. The first such occasion was when the then Deputy First Minister, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), resigned following a disagreement with the then First Minister, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said that he could not work with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and believed that he had gone back on agreements. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made a personal statement to the Assembly in which he announced his resignation. As a result, he was put out of his ministerial office, his ministerial car was taken off him, his ministerial staff were removed, his ministerial salary was taken away, his fax machine was pulled out of his home and his little mobile was taken off him. All the emoluments of office were removed from him.

The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, came to the Dispatch Box and, with tears flowing down her cheeks, announced the resignation of the Deputy First Minister and said what a great contribution he had made. The whole world believed that the Deputy First Minister had resigned until everyone realised that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were joint offices that were tied together. There could not be one without the other, and neither could be elected without a majority of the votes of both sections of the community as represented in the Assembly. The issue of designation became central, and because the majority of Unionists in the Assembly were opposed to the process, the Government knew that the Deputy First Minister who had resigned would not be

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re-elected. They also knew that the First Minister had consequently fallen and that he would not be elected either.

What were the Government to do? The law made it clear that the stalemate could be resolved by applying provisions in section 32 of the 1998 Act that allowed for an extraordinary election that would let the people decide. However, the Government's problem was that they knew that the people would support those in the Unionist community who opposed the agreement, so they could not allow the people to have their say. The end result was that the cheating began. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland produced a new Standing Order for the Assembly that said that no resignation would be effective unless it had been accepted by a vote in the Assembly, and so the resignation became a non-resignation.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument, and he is certainly giving a vivid account of events at which he was present and I was not. Does he agree that a resignation is a perfect act of itself and does not require another half, acceptance, to make it complete? What does he say to that?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that we are not going to stray too far into resignations. We are talking about the postponement of elections.

Mr. Robinson: The issue of resignation is central to the Bill, which is based on the principle of when an election can be called and the circumstances in which it can be delayed. The Leader of the House has shown us today that a resignation issued by the individual is effective, whether or not it is accepted by anybody else. That is what the world believes, but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland changed the rules to ensure that a resignation that everyone knew had taken place would not be counted, so the person concerned could get back to the business of the Executive.

That was only the first problem. The second occurred when we were approaching the 2001 elections to this House. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party knew that he would have problems with the electorate and thought that he had to toughen his act, so he made a statement indicating that unless Sinn Fein-IRA jumped through certain hoops, he would resign with effect from 1 July. That was a post-dated resignation. Of course, the IRA did not jump through the hoops that he had set for it, and the statement did not have the impact that the Ulster Unionist leader expected. That can be seen from the number of my colleagues on these Benches; the Ulster Unionist leader had predicted that he would get 10 members of his party returned, but that was not to be. The end result was that after the election, on 1 July, he had to resign.

The Ulster Unionist leader wanted to get back into office, but he could not because the law requires that a majority of Unionists support the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That conundrum is similar to the one that faced the Government when the Deputy First Minister resigned, but this time things had changed. The Secretary of State no longer had the power to introduce Standing Orders in the Assembly, and devolution had occurred, so the Northern Ireland Act was in force.

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How did the Government solve that conundrum? Not by using the processes in the Act, section 32 of which would have allowed an extraordinary election. Instead, we had the farce of the Alliance party, sister party to the Liberal Democrats, and half of the Women's Coalition redesignating themselves as Unionists. As the House will know, when Members take their seats in the Assembly they have to designate themselves Unionist, nationalist or other. For the purposes of that particular vote, the Alliance party and half of the Women's coalition redesignated themselves as Unionists just for the day, throwing out of the window the purpose of the Act, which was to ensure that any major decisions would be taken with the consent of both sections of the Northern Ireland community. Once again, cheating got the Government through the problem that they faced.

We then had the introduction of the Northern Ireland Act 2000, which allowed for the suspension of the Assembly. That measure had the same purpose. If a First Minister and Deputy First Minister could not be elected within a given period—six weeks—the suspension process would begin, so for the third time, this House made laws to circumvent the legal requirement for an extraordinary election that would have allowed the people to give their verdict.

Now, we have this Bill before the House. It comes about as a result of the Government attempting for political purposes to avoid an election on 1 May. The Government have no choice in the matter; the order made it clear that the election was to be on that date. That decision was taken by this House on the Government's advice. The Secretary of State chose that day because it was the last possible day on which an election could be held. That resulted from the case that ultimately went to the House of Lords and deeply divided the Law Lords, as it had the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland. The reality is that the Secretary of State chose what he recognised to be the last possible date on which an election could be held.

I question the authority and ability of the Government to revoke the Northern Ireland (Date of Next Assembly Poll) Order 2001. The order was a legal requirement that was placed upon the Government at the time—they could not have done without the order—but now they are attempting to remove that legal requirement simply by changing the rules once more.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman's recollection of the history of these developments is similar to mine. He omits from his analysis, however, the fact that at each turn when he was able to do so he challenged the steps that were taken and claimed that they were illegal, but on each occasion he was proved not to be right. He knows that the Bill cannot become law unless the House passes it, and he, of all Members, would protect the sovereignty of Parliament.

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