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17 Mar 2003 : Column 683—continued

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and colleague for giving way again. I want to make two points. First, it was grossly unfair to criticise the absence of the SDLP Members here this evening. I am sure that he knows that they have domestic reasons that sometimes make it difficult for them to attend.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Apologist.

Lady Hermon: I am so glad that hon. Members have all been blessed with St. Patrick's generosity of spirit in the Chamber this evening. The second point that I would like my hon. colleague to remember is that there is still a substantial number of pro-agreement Unionists in Northern Ireland, and I would not wish him to pre-empt their judgment or their decision on 29 May.

Mr. Donaldson: I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend has made, but I do not agree with her on the SDLP. Wallace high school in my constituency is playing in the schools rugby cup final today. My daughter attends that school, and I had wished to be there today to see that cup final. I deemed it more important, however, to deal with the business that I was elected to deal with here, which is legislation from the British House of Commons. No one should apologise for the absence of a political party that ought to be here—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that we have heard quite enough on that subject. We should be dealing with the business before the House.

Mr. Donaldson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I do not believe that a majority of Unionists would support the kind of deal that has been outlined. I concede to the hon. Lady that there could well be a minority of Unionists who might sign up to and support the deal, and the election will provide the verdict on that, when it comes.

In conclusion, there has to be a bottom line here. This process has lurched from one crisis to another, and every time we reach a crisis, the Government reach into the goody bag to find more concessions to make to the republican movement. Instead of punishing those who have been responsible for the crisis, they reward them. That is precisely what is happening here, in terms of on-the-run terrorists, for example. Some kind of deal is also to be conceded to the IRA in reward for its targeting Unionist politicians, prison officers and police officers.

The Prime Minister talked about acts of completion, and we need such acts. We need complete disarmament and complete disbandment. That has to be the bottom line. I urge the Secretary of State to stick to that instead of holding out carrots by offering concessions to the republican movement, which, of course, it will pocket while offering the minimum in return.

Mr. John Taylor: How confident is the hon. Gentleman of the thorough degree of the acts of completion that he seeks, and over what timetable does he think that they are achievable?

Mr. Donaldson: The agreement stated that they ought to have been achieved after two years, but that was in

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2000. The acts of completion need to be achieved very quickly indeed. The article by Mr. Alex Kane to which I referred earlier suggested that there should be a six-month period in which the IRA would follow through on the commitments made, but that its political representatives should not be allowed back into government in Northern Ireland until such completion had occurred. That is the principle here, and it has consistently been my view that, because of the IRA's failure to commit to the requirements of the agreement for complete disarmament, its political representatives should be excluded from office until such completion has taken place.

If the Assembly cannot be put back together and have power devolved back to it before the elections, may I make a suggestion to the Secretary of State? After the elections, he should reconvene the Assembly, put back in government those parties that are committed to exclusively peaceful means and exclude from office those parties that have failed to make that commitment. They should not be permitted to re-enter government until they have completely disarmed and completely disbanded. In my opinion, that is clear.

While expressing grave concerns about the purpose of the legislation, I reiterate what other Members have said today: we look to the Secretary of State, in this debate, to make it absolutely clear that this is the final time that the election will be delayed and that it will happen on 29 May.

7 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): It is terribly important that we look forward positively to the election. There should not have been a postponement until 29 May, but the election will now take place and I hope that the Government commit themselves to that date, supported by the Opposition and all the minority parties whose Members have spoken here tonight. However, it is no good looking forward unrealistically. The Assembly and the Executive have not worked. Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and there are inherent flaws in the institutions set up by the Belfast agreement, which a new Assembly will try to put together again.

It was an admirable aim to have an all-inclusive Executive, but that meant no collective Cabinet responsibility and no departmental Committee structure that could hold Ministers to account. It meant, in reality, that there was no Opposition for the Northern Ireland Administration. All of us who are standing in the Assembly election look forward to campaigning for something that works and is right at Stormont, but the Secretary of State will have to be flexible in reaccommodating and regaining the consent of the pro-Union people in Northern Ireland.

I voted for the Belfast agreement. I was one of the 55 per cent. of the pro-Union people, who, traditionally, are Protestants, who supported the agreement, but we have been seriously let down by the Government's mismanagement of the political process. Promise after promise by the Prime Minister has been broken. I shall not repeat them, as the House has heard them time and again. The House is about to authorise going to war, but Sinn Fein-IRA remain armed, terrorist and involved in criminal activities and we are expected, before 29 May

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and with a couple of promises, to put them back in the Northern Ireland Executive with Martin McGuinness as Minister of Education and Gerry Kelly, perhaps, as Minister of justice after the election. No way, Secretary of State, will we allow that to happen.

After the election, there must be a coming together of the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party to renegotiate, to get inside the negotiation and to re-establish administrative devolution that works at Stormont. The system has not worked; it has inherent flaws. I see no time in the foreseeable future at which I, as an Ulster Unionist, could support Sinn Fein representatives returning to an Executive governing Northern Ireland. They should not have been allowed to participate in the first place. They have been tried and they have failed. While their ceasefires have stopped the major bombing and the major violence that terrorised the Province for 30 years, their organisation remains a terrorist organisation. They must be marginalised from the process.

After the election—it is important that it takes place—I would support the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the other smaller parties that may or may not be elected to the Assembly trying to reach a consensus agreement to replace the inclusive imposed coalition with a voluntarily agreed coalition of democratic parties so that we could have the advantages of devolution and, I hope, a slimmed down Executive and Assembly. We want something realistic that can work in co-operation with local government in Northern Ireland, which is under review. A considerable transfer of powers is needed to the local government authorities that will replace the 26 district councils.

It is good to have an election, and it is good to have an election that will give the people of Northern Ireland a chance to express their views on how they want Northern Ireland governed internally within the United Kingdom and locally. There is support for devolution, but not the devolution that has been tried and has lurched from crisis to crisis since 1998. Let us admit that, consider the system and try to improve it. After the election, we should get into negotiations. I hope that all parties will be involved, and it is totally unacceptable for the DUP not to be invited in. I would expect the Secretary of State to invite all the parties and to have a negotiation to try to reach consensus after the election.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I must make it absolutely clear that my colleague's views, which are going on the record, are entirely his own. They do not reflect a decision of either the Ulster Unionist Council or the Ulster Unionist Executive.

David Burnside: My views and what I am saying are consistent with the united resolution of the UUC, which was passed at the Ramada hotel. I intend to stick by it and to adhere to it to the letter, which means that I will not support at a future UUC meeting going into the type of settlement proposed and negotiated at Weston Park and Hillsborough. Therefore, I am happy to go to the electorate on 29 May, as I hope my party will go to the electorate, with a united policy statement that adheres to democracy in Northern Ireland and to "no guns, no

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government", which was our party's policy at the last Assembly election. Unfortunately, our party withdrew from it.

On that further note of Unionist unity, I want to convey this to the House: the Unionist people have had enough of this process and we must regain their consent. All the parties will take part in the democratic election and we must try to make it a real election that produces Executive government in Northern Ireland, but there needs to be a deadline that is not six or 12 months, Secretary of State. After the election on 29 May, he must tell the parties, "There is negotiation and openness. We want consent across the community and we want consent from the pro-Union and the nationalist communities." We all recognise in Unionism—both the UUP and the DUP, I believe—that we cannot have a local Administration unless it has cross-community support that reflects the Unionist tradition and majority as well as nationalist opinion.

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