Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Mar 2003 : Column 667—continued

Mr. Robinson: The Minister is wrong on two counts. First, he is wrong in saying that at each stage we issued a legal challenge. We took a legal challenge on only one occasion, on one specific issue. We did not mount a legal challenge on redesignation or on the Mallon

17 Mar 2003 : Column 668

resignation. Similarly, we did not mount any challenge on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The House is sovereign in changing legislation for events to come, but it cannot change events that have already taken place. Historically, those events have already happened. How can the House change a decision—[Interruption.] I will give way if the Minister has the point.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right, I have the point. Perhaps I was not sufficiently precise in my language. As he and his party showed, there was an opportunity to mount a challenge if they believed that we were acting illegally, but they decided not to do so. The Government's position was upheld in the one case they challenged.

We can enter more carefully into the detail at another stage, but the order that set the date of 1 May set a prospective date.

Mr. Robinson: Only one case was taken to the House of Lords, and that related to the decision of the Secretary of State to permit the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to remain in office after the six-week period had passed. I have already said that that issue resulted in the closest division of the Law Lords and the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland.

Interestingly, the Minister refers to whether the Government were acting legally. I have not thus far claimed that the Government were acting illegally. My first reference was to the morality of the Government having set down in legislation a specific course that has to be taken in certain circumstances, but, when those circumstances arise, deciding to change the law rather than to abide by the law that they had written. That is the reality.

Why is there delay? We have delay because the Government managed—at Hillsborough, according to them—to reach some level of agreement among the parties. We were not there and we were not invited to be there. I do not think that the shadow Secretary of State quite picked up the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds). It was not simply a case of the Democratic Unionist party not having been consulted and having stayed away from the talks—it was the DUP not having been invited to the talks. When it made contact, asking to see the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister, it was refused the right to do so. We were deliberately refused access to any of the information contained in the documentation. Still, to this day, the Government have not let us have sight of that documentation, yet little parties that collectively do not have the same representation as my party and receive a lower percentage of the vote—the Progressive Unionist party, the Women's Coalition and the Alliance party—have had the right of access to the documentation.

The DUP enjoys greater electoral support than the SDLP and Sinn Fein, but we are not allowed to see the documentation about which the Minister spoke so glowingly at the beginning of the debate. It is not good enough to say, "You were against the agreement." Does

17 Mar 2003 : Column 669

being against Government policy mean that we cannot be consulted about new Government policy? That is an absurd position for the Government to adopt.

Lembit Öpik: Is my perception correct that the absence of perceived consultation makes it much more difficult for members of the hon. Gentleman's party sometimes to be sympathetic to ideas to which otherwise they would be more amenable?

Mr. Robinson: It has that effect, but it has another effect. It becomes clear that the Government are attempting to cobble something together behind the viewpoint of the majority of the Unionist community. The viewpoint that we express is the viewpoint of the majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland. They may not all be members of my party, but they hold the same views as members of my party on these important issues.

Apparently there is supposed to be a collective understanding about the way forward. I watched with interest the press conference that took place immediately after the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic came out of the talks. One person after another took a different position, indicating that they did not have a common understanding of the way forward. The Government seem to have seen a common understanding, but the participants seem not to have done so. However, it appears that at least there is a document setting out a number of concessions to the IRA, to buy it off in the hope that it might make a gesture and make a statement to the effect that its war is over.

No doubt we shall know precisely the words of that statement when the ard fheis meets at the end of this month. I understand that the Government expect that the IRA will then make a statement, closely followed by some act of completion. I think that the Government want the act of completion to be as public as possible. However, I can say with certainty that it will not be an act of completion. There will still be further acts required. The IRA will not hand in all its weapons, nor has it any intention of doing so. Indeed, it is bringing more guns and weaponry into the country, rather than decommissioning.

An essential part of the deal is what has been described as the sanctions. In both the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act there is a sanction, but it is totally ineffective. It required nationalists and republicans to throw out Sinn Fein. We knew that that would never happen. We told the parties that supported the agreement that it would not happen, and it has not happened. Every attempt has been made in the Assembly to hold a vote on the issue, but the SDLP and Sinn Fein have always vetoed it.

A more effective sanction was required, and the leader of the Ulster Unionist party has described it as a deal breaker. I assume that we must judge from that that all the other concessions were not deal breakers for the right hon. Gentleman. He was quite prepared to support them or to acquiesce in them, including on-the-run terrorists. However, the one deal breaker for him, and according to him, was the issue of sanctions.

I have to go by what the newspapers say because the Minister has not taken us into his confidence and has not told us what the proposals are. According to the

17 Mar 2003 : Column 670

Belfast Telegraph, a four-man panel will be set up, which will have a representative from the United States, from Her Majesty's Government, from the Dublin Government and a person from Northern Ireland. Those four wise men must reach some kind of consensus to determine whether there has been a breach of the ceasefire. The Belfast Telegraph did not tell the world, nor has the Secretary of State or any of his Ministers, whether that consensus has to be unanimous or whether one person can veto it. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will tell us his winding-up speech. However, the four-man or four-person panel will make a decision about whether there has been a breach of the ceasefire. If they deem that there has, they will inform the two Governments and an implementation body, which is a pro-agreement group in the Assembly. They will consider the matter, and if they deem that there has been a breach of the IRA ceasefire, they can require Sinn Fein to give its views, excuses or indeed a report.

David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman interpret or define the way in which he sees—and I saw no more of it—the four-man international committee institutionalising the sanction procedure, with the United Kingdom Government and Parliament giving up their sovereign power? It would be dangerous to go down that international route, with a veto for appointees from the British Government, the Irish Government and the American Administration. We should be very wary of participating in such an internationalisation of the sanctions procedure rather than leaving it as the responsibility of the Government.

Mr. Robinson: I agreed entirely with the hon. Gentleman until his last few words, with which I have some difficulty, as I would not leave it with the Government of the United Kingdom. No Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will throw Sinn Fein out. People have had opportunities over the past five years to table a motion in the Assembly to have Sinn Fein excluded, but have failed to do so, in spite of Florida, in spite of Colombia, in spite of the killings, in spite of the shootings, in spite of the paramilitary beatings, in spite of Castlereagh, even in spite of Stormontgate and the spy ring. Never on any of those occasions did they table a motion in the Assembly, so I do not rely on the Secretary of State or Her Majesty's Government to impose any sanctions on Sinn Fein

The hon. Gentleman's first two points, however, are sound. First, there has been a further internationalising of the situation. A great mistake was made by the previous Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, who advocated the internationalising of the decommissioning issue, as a result of which people from outside the United Kingdom became involved in a number of different ways. The second and, in my view, more important, issue raised by the hon. Gentleman is the fact that we will end up having an internal Government matter within Northern Ireland vetoed by people who do not live in Northern Ireland and should have no jurisdiction there. Throughout the whole period of previous talks, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) resolutely opposed the Dublin Government having any say in internal Northern Ireland matters. On the four-man panel, a

17 Mar 2003 : Column 671

representative of the Dublin Government will have a direct say in the sanctions issue and a direct ability to veto any sanction.

However, those are only the first two stages of the process. In the next stage, if Sinn Fein makes its apologia and it is not accepted by the implementation body, the matter will proceed to the two Governments, who have to agree on the appropriate measures to be taken. Again, a veto will be given to Dublin in the process, after which the Secretary of State will make his decision. That is a recipe for disaster, procrastination and delay, and is a certain way of ensuring that no decisions will be made to impose sanctions on Sinn Fein. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party may consider that worthy in ensuring that a deal will not be broken, but I have a different view of its value.

Next Section

IndexHome Page