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17 Mar 2003 : Column 686—continued

Lembit Öpik: If the hon. Gentleman were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, what process would he introduce to achieve that?

David Burnside: After 29 May, I would put on a deadline of about four weeks and say that the parties must try to bring together an inclusive Executive under the current institutions. If that was not possible, the sectarian blocs of nationalists and Unionists should be replaced with a weighted majority of, say, 60 or 65 per cent. under an Assembly vote, which would allow the formation of a voluntary coalition. They would have executive Cabinet responsibility, with all that that entails, and there would be a stronger Committee system. We would negotiate a local Administration at Stormont that reflected the whole community and brought better accountable government to Northern Ireland. We need a deadline and politicians elected to the Assembly must not just sit there being paid but not doing the job. They must decide to put the system together, make it operate and make it effective. A short rather than a long deadline would help to concentrate the minds of all the political parties.

It is not unfortunate, but fortunate, that the differences within Unionism have been expressed here, although I hope the House understands that the pro-Union people have a right to expect their consent to be given to an election and to the institutions of government. The whole system has gone in one direction: it has the consent of the nationalist and republican community, but not that of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland. The task after the election is to regain that consent, so that we can have better administrative devolution and accountable government at Stormont with the consent of the Unionist and the nationalist people.

7.9 pm

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I join the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) in sending our good wishes on this St. Patrick's night to the men of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment. At this critical time, our thoughts are with them.

It is important to take time to debate democracy in part of the United Kingdom. The Government's move to postpone elections, coming on top of the shabby

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history of interference with the legal set-up for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), sends a worrying message to the people of Northern Ireland: the Government are prepared to interfere with the rights of the electorate—the democratic rights of the people of Northern Ireland—if it ends in a result that better suits their political objectives and those of their friends rather than one that truly reflects the wishes and feelings of the people of Northern Ireland.

Although our minds are concentrated tonight on events that are taking place farther afield than Northern Ireland and although we await statements on world conflict of historic importance, we should remember that the debate on Iraq is about human rights and democracy; yet the House is currently discussing a measure that would stop a democratic election taking place on 1 May and would postpone it until 29 May, as a result of negotiations at Hillsborough Castle on 3 and 4 March 2004 that involved, among others, a party that is inextricably linked to terrorists and whose representatives at Hillsborough included people who sit on the army council of the Provisional IRA. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that we are about to discuss action against Iraq because of its possession of weapons of mass destruction and its links to worldwide terrorism, when we are dealing with legislation for part of the United Kingdom that arose from negotiations to which one of the parties was the Provisional IRA, which has worldwide links with terrorism.

Many people in Northern Ireland deeply resent the Prime Minister's approach to the decommissioning of illegal terrorist weaponry, where he is prepared to go the second, nay the third, nay the fourth mile in negotiating with IRA-Sinn Fein and giving them concessions, while he takes a completely different approach to Iraq—one that involves military action. Many people in Northern Ireland say: would that the Prime Minister had adopted the same approach towards the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland that he is prepared to adopt towards the Iraqi regime and its possession of weapons of mass destruction. When one considers this Bill, which arose from the negotiations at Hillsborough Castle, it is hard to square the Government's approach to Iraq with their approach to the Provisional IRA and its cohorts in Northern Ireland.

As other Members have pointed out, the Democratic Unionist party experienced a complete lack of consultation, dialogue or briefing about the negotiations, which is deplorable. It is a travesty of democracy, especially as there are five DUP Members.

The other day, on television, I heard a member of the American Administration give an insight into dealings over the putative agreement that had been reached at Hillsborough. Today, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford indicated that he had received at least two briefings on the outcome of the Hillsborough talks, even though, like us, he was not present. Paragraph 4 of the explanatory notes states:

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My party, with other like-minded Unionists, represents the majority of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland. The Government may not like that, but the facts are clear; from the results of the last Westminster election and the contributions from the Unionist side tonight. It is wholly unacceptable that the people whom we represent should be excluded from negotiations on the political way forward in Northern Ireland, and should even have been denied access to knowledge of what was discussed at Hillsborough.

It is no good for the Government to say, "It is all about implementing the agreement and you're against the agreement". It is time that the Government faced the fact that, even if they have 100 per cent. nationalist support, they cannot implement a process based on the consent both of Unionists and nationalists if they no longer have Unionist consent. If the process does not have the consent, support and acquiescence of a majority of Unionists, the Government should recognise that and enter negotiations with those of us who represent the majority of Unionists. In their contributions tonight, Ulster Unionist Members, too, have reflected the concerns of the Unionist community.

Back in 1985, Unionist people and their representatives were completely excluded from consultation on the negotiations that led up to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The same mistakes are being repeated. The explanatory notes state that the measure will allow a period of three or four weeks for the parties to reflect, yet the second-largest Northern Ireland party represented in the House has not even been given the proposals. The proposals included things that are not in the agreement, such as legislation relating to on-the-run terrorists, so it is no good saying that the measure is all about implementing the agreement. Some of the points discussed at Hillsborough go well beyond what is in the agreement.

That the Government can believe that the measure offers a proper, stable and sensible way to proceed is beyond those of us who represent the majority of Unionist people. The Government and other Members are keen to point out that the process is inclusive and involves everyone. They say that that includes Sinn Fein-IRA, no matter about their past or even their present. It seems to us and to the people whom we represent that the process includes everybody but the majority of the Unionist people. That cannot be right.

When the Under-Secretary responds to the debate, he should explain why the majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland and the representatives in this place of a substantial section of the Unionist community are being kept in the dark about the proposals. Why do we have to rely on newspaper reports? Why do we have to rely on Mr. Hass, the American envoy? Why do we have to rely on the utterances of members of the IRA army council who are better informed about what is going on at Hillsborough and in the negotiations than the decent law-abiding people of Northern Ireland? For the Minister to think that the measure will build confidence and gain the support of Unionists when they have been excluded from any chance of input to the negotiations beggars belief. I challenge him to address that point.

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I shall not detain the House by going into details about the overall package that was discussed at Hillsborough, as they have already been covered by other hon. Members. Those negotiations continue. Although the Prime Minister told us that there would be no further negotiations, there have been delegations to Downing street from one or two of the main parties since Hillsborough. Even within a few hours, or days, of the Prime Minister's statement at Hillsborough, the situation that he outlined was reversed.

People in Northern Ireland are gravely concerned that the election has been put back to give further consideration to the scaling down of security along the border, in Belfast and in other urban areas of Northern Ireland merely in response to some gesture from the Provisional IRA, when, as we have heard recently, that organisation and other so-called dissidents are still active in Northern Ireland.

It strikes many people in Northern Ireland as outrageous that anyone should suggest—after the leaving of a bomb at the Laganside courthouse, which Her Majesty had visited only the previous week—that we can simply tear down all our defences and leave ordinary decent people denuded of proper security, simply because Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness demand that as part of the price of their returning to government.

As has been said many times in the House, we should not accept a process allowing those currently on the run to evade any form of justice. We should remember that those whom we are discussing have committed some of the most awful, heinous crimes. We should remember the case of Mrs. Hill, whose husband lay in a coma for more than a decade—

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