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17 Mar 2003 : Column 679—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Before I call the next hon. Member, it may be helpful if I say, further to the point of order that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) raised, that I can tell the House that a motion has been tabled that affects tomorrow's business. A copy may be obtained from the Table Office. As hon. Members may have noticed from the Annunciator screens, statements are to be made at the conclusion of our business tonight.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can the business continue till 10 o'clock or will statements be made before that point?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We are operating under an allocation of time order and the business cannot therefore be interrupted. We must wait until the proceedings are completed before Ministers can make statements in the House.

6.40 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The business relates to the date of the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I share the view that there should be no need for the Bill. The elections should not be delayed; they should proceed on 1 May. I shall explain the reasons for that.

The republican movement—the IRA—has been given a veto over holding the elections on 1 May. It is the greatest determinant of the election date. The Assembly is in suspension because of the IRA's actions. The Government have been clear that if the suspension is to be lifted, we need, as the Prime Minister said, acts of completion from the IRA. We were told that elections had to be delayed because the parties needed to consider Government proposals.

I listened to the statements that were made after the Hillsborough talks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) clearly said that the elections would be delayed because the IRA had failed to come up to the mark. In other words, elections will not be held on 1 May because of the IRA's failure, just as we do not have a Government—neither Assembly nor Executive—in Northern Ireland because of the IRA's failure. The Government are giving the IRA a veto. In a democratic society, we should challenge that.

It is worth revisiting the reasons, which some hon. Members have mentioned, for the current political vacuum. Hon. Members have already touched on that. A couple of weeks ago, the police commander in my constituency visited me. He delivered a document

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entitled, "Police Message", which stated that the IRA had information about me personally that they had collected in recent months. Underneath the information, the police issued a warning:

Other hon. Members have been given similar police messages and warnings about the IRA's activities in collecting information about their personal details and political viewpoint.

At the beginning of the debate, the Minister talked about a break-down of trust. I hope that she understands why hon. Members who receive such messages from the police do not trust the IRA and the republican movement. We do not trust a party that was in government when such activities were taking place; the information was collected about me when Sinn Fein was in government. While it was in government, its friends in the IRA were collecting information about Unionist politicians. It is difficult for those of us who are from the Unionist community and represent it to trust such an organisation.

Trust has broken down and confidence is breaking down. An article by Mr. Alex Kane, a pro-agreement Unionist, on the Hillsborough process appeared in Saturday's Belfast News Letter. He prefaced his remarks by outlining events at Hillsborough. He wrote:

Those words are strong indeed from a pro-agreement Unionist. He continued:

Lady Hermon: I hope that my hon. Friend will make it clear that Alex Kane writes in a personal capacity. He is not an elected member of the Ulster Unionist party and his views are therefore personal. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend said that.

Mr. Donaldson: I simply described Mr. Kane as a pro-agreement Unionist. I did not even ascribe a party political affiliation to him. His views reflect a growing lack of confidence in the process, even among those who support the agreement. Of course, it is clear that his views are personal.

Mr. Dodds: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that Mr. Alex Kane works as a member of staff for a pro-agreement Ulster Unionist Member of the Legislative Assembly?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are getting further away from the terms of the Bill that we are meant to be discussing. As I said to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), although we are conducting a Second Reading debate, the terms of the Bill are narrow. I appeal to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) to tailor his remarks accordingly.

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Mr. Donaldson: I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the decision to postpone the election gave rise to the Bill. I am referring to events at Hillsborough that resulted in the decision. It is important for hon. Members to understand the reasons for our debate. However, I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply confirm what the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) said. Mr. Kane is also a paid-up member of the Ulster Unionist party. I believe that he is a member in the Malone branch in Belfast, South.

A deal was discussed during the Hillsborough talks. Like other hon. Members who spoke earlier, I do not know its terms. The Irish Times mentioned sections of a document that was discussed at Hillsborough. It dealt with a wide range of issues, including so-called normalisation. I understand that that will involve significant troop withdrawals—perhaps between 5,000 and 7,000 troops over a period of time—the demolition of the Army watchtowers along the border in south Armagh; remaining troops being confined to barracks and becoming "invisible". That is proposed at a time when so-called dissident republican terrorists promise a bomb a week. One of those bombs was delivered to the High Court in Belfast last week.

David Burnside: My hon. Friend should not confine his remarks to dissident republicans. Only last week in south Armagh, an illegal IRA gun was used to shoot a member of the IRA. The former chief of staff, Brian Keenan, gave the oration. Is that an organisation that is on ceasefire?

Mr. Donaldson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Let me quote some of Mr. Brian Keenan's comments during the oration. I understand that he is the deputy chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. The Secretary of State should note the comments because they come close to, if they do not constitute, incitement to hatred under current Northern Ireland legislation. He said:

He refers to Keith Rodgers, the IRA volunteer who died last week. He continued:

Those comments are being interpreted by many people in Northern Ireland as a clear threat from Mr. Keenan that the IRA will take revenge. All this sets the political context in which we are considering the Bill tonight, in which the Government took the decision to postpone the date of the election, which has given rise to this legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) is right: it is not only the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA but the Provisional IRA that have been involved in acts of terrorism, as we saw last week at Cullaville in south Armagh. It matters not that the objects of that violence were republicans, or that it was some kind of internal feud or dispute. It still constitutes terrorism and the use of violence to further a political agenda.

I am disappointed that no SDLP Members are here for this debate. On a previous occasion, and with a fanfare of trumpets, the leader of the SDLP launched a

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direct rule watch, in which the party would take the lead in monitoring direct rule. Where are its members today, when this matter is being considered in the House? It has three hon. Members who are entitled to take their seats here, yet none of them is here to scrutinise this important piece of legislation, which is being introduced under direct rule. The direct rule watch seems to have gone to sleep so far as the SDLP is concerned. The party was very active in putting forward demands under the Hillsborough process on issues such as criminal justice, yet it is not here to make a contribution tonight.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) referred to the new international body that is to be created to oversee the implementation of the agreement and, specifically, to deal with the issue of sanctions. This is important because we are told that power will not be restored to the Assembly until there is some kind of political deal. Part of that deal supposedly involves the establishment of this international body. There was an interesting article in The Irish Times on Saturday 15 March, written by the former Irish Prime Minister, Garrett Fitzgerald, who said of this proposal:

Well, it has no attraction for any Unionist who values the Union. I cannot believe that we would want to support a proposal that would see the transfer of the sovereignty of the United Kingdom to some kind of international body on an issue as important as the exclusion from office of a Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In terms of the legislation before us, I believe that the Government are wrong to change the date of the election, but they have clearly made up their mind to do so. I would echo the remarks that have been made by others, however. There should be no further postponement of the date of the election: 29 May is now proposed as the day on which the people of Northern Ireland should go to the polls, and that date should be adhered to. No one should be afraid of the democratic process. If we believe in and cherish democracy, elections should be at the heart of that process, and it is time for people to give their verdict on that process.

The way things are going—and if the Government cobble together this deal and manage to get enough people to sign up to it—I cannot believe that a majority of Unionists will accept the kind of deal that is on offer at present, in which policing and justice powers would be transferred and then exercised under some kind of joint arrangement. In the present circumstances, in which the IRA is continuing to engage in violence and has failed to decommission its illegal weapons, I do not believe that anyone would support someone from Sinn Fein-IRA becoming a Minister with responsibility for justice or policing. These are important issues. If the deal that has been outlined in some of the media is introduced, it will be rejected by the Unionist community.

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