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17 Mar 2003 : Column 689—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is going into too much detail, which is outside the scope of this Second Reading debate. We cannot recapitulate the whole history, recent or distant, of the troubles of Northern Ireland on this occasion.

Mr. Dodds: The election has been postponed to give Northern Ireland parties which are party to the deal more time to reflect on a range of issues such as the running down of security, the evading of justice by those on the run, the introduction of legislation devolving criminal justice in Northern Ireland, and policing. I was in the process of citing a specific example, but in deference to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not go into specifics. I will say this, in general terms. There are people in Northern Ireland tonight who will view the Bill as having been designed simply to allow the IRA time to go away and try to do some sort of deal with its own people—to persuade people that it is worth pocketing all the concessions, and that in return for a gesture on decommissioning, some statement or stunt, it will return to government in Northern Ireland.

We have heard no details of the definition of the acts of completion outlined by the Prime Minister in Belfast on 17 October. We have heard no definition from anyone in Government of a complete end to paramilitarism. Does it mean disbandment? It should mean disbandment if it is to mean anything, and that disbandment must be proved over a considerable period. I ask, as others have today, how anyone can

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trust the word of the Provisional IRA. I am one of the Members who have been visited in recent weeks to be told that our details are being held by the Provisional IRA—and its army council includes Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Those elected politicians in the Assembly who people are so keen to return to government are organising the gathering of such intelligence, and the targeting of other elected Members as well as a host of ordinary citizens across Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford spoke of the Government's failures. He said that the middle ground represented by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP had been failed by the Government's appeasement. It must be said that those parties, and their leadership, have been party to that appeasement. Many of the deals done with the Provisional IRA have been done with the support of not just the British Government but the pro-agreement parties, led by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). They cannot wash their hands of responsibility.

Substantial concessions are being offered to the Provisional IRA, as is clear to the people of Northern Ireland. We regret the fact that the Bill is before the House tonight. The election should have proceeded on 1 May, and we are opposed to any further delay. I hope the Minister will confirm that there will indeed be no further delay. On Radio Ulster the other morning, in reply to a question from the interviewer, his colleague the Secretary of State, said that "hopefully" the election would take place on 29 May. I should be grateful if the Government would confirm that it will, come what may, and that there will be no further attempt to interfere with the rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

I add my voice to those of Members throughout the House who have expressed concern about the possible effect of legislation on electoral fraud, namely the disfranchising of tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland. It is vital that, when the election goes ahead, everyone whom the register entitles to vote is able to do so. If they have no photographic ID at the time of the election, they should not be deprived of that right.

7.25 pm

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Let me say, I hope not gracelessly, that if the Government are hoist on their own guillotine with the present business it is their fault. The lesson is that they should not guillotine everything: they are now reaping the results of their guillotine reflex.

Those who are present now may wish to know that four hours ago my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) offered them the opportunity of proceeding without a guillotine, whereupon other matters could have intruded. Ministers declined, but I do not intend to extend their discomfiture. My party has said that it will not oppose the Bill; but if the Government attempt a second postponement, we certainly will.

7.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I listened with interest to hon. Members of all parties. Let me say at the outset that the Government agree with all who have

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spoken that the postponing of any election is a serious step, but what is proposed in this instance is a short, defined postponement. I will develop the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State shortly, but let me say to all who have sought clarification that the people of Northern Ireland will have a chance to deliver their verdict on 29 May if the Bill is passed.

Although it may not be reflected in the number of speeches made to this effect, there is widespread agreement in the House on the desirability of the Bill. Although I cannot agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his colleagues, I respect their views; but those views are, to an extent, rooted in their antipathy to the Belfast agreement, which the great majority of Members support and which, I think, lies at the heart of the albeit qualified support that the official Opposition are prepared to give the Bill tonight.

Let me now—early in my speech—deal with the issue that has largely dominated the contributions of members of the party of the hon. Member for North Antrim in the context of the talks that have taken place. I understand why it has. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—any of us, indeed—would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman's party about the political way forward, but our proposals, which formed the basis of the discussions at Hillsborough castle and are at the heart of the decision to postpone the election for a comparatively short time, are essentially about the better and fuller implementation of the agreement. It must be said that it is unlikely that the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues have many suggestions to make in support of that objective.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: May I finish responding to the point that the hon. Gentleman, among others, made?

The discussions are about the full implementation of the agreement. Members of the Democratic Unionist party say that that is an inadequate response but the Government's response is that anti-agreement parties, though we respect their views, by their nature are not going to contribute constructively to that debate.

The proposals will in due course be published when they become definitive, which the Governments expect to be at or about the beginning of April. The Hillsborough discussions involved a series of working drafts aimed at finding common ground between the parties, so that those proposals can be published at that time.

Mr. Robinson: The Minister puts a far from convincing case if he is saying that, because my party does not agree with the Government's policy on this issue, we cannot have any valuable contribution to make and should not be heard. That seems an outrageous suggestion for any democrat to make. We may have a different policy but that does not mean that there are not genuine proposals that we can put and general views that we can submit to Government on all

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these issues, particularly as some of them go beyond the Belfast agreement; they were not touched on in terms of the format of the agreement.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Had I said what he has just attributed to me, it would have been outrageous, but I did not. I said at the outset that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and indeed any of us would be happy to discuss the way forward for Northern Ireland with the hon. Gentleman or any member of his party. If he seeks to have those discussions and has contributions to make, those discussions can take place. He knows, because he has regular access to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, that when he and others request meetings, they are refused only if the diary of the respective Minister does not allow it. If he wants to come in to make the sort of contribution that he has just told the House he wants to make, we will be happy to have those discussions with him.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) raised a different point in relation to the same issue: whether all parties had the same opportunity in the context of the discussions at Hillsborough to make a contribution. We in Government listened to all the views expressed to us, whether they were on the details of the text or the substance.

No one will be surprised to learn that we spent more time discussing some particular issues with some parties than we spent with others. That has nothing to do with democracy or being undemocratic. It is just a reflection of the realities of negotiation. Parties came to those discussions with interests that they wished to discuss with us in greater detail than other parties, but we shall take into account in producing our final proposals all the views expressed to us, whether on the text or otherwise. However, we do not propose to enter into detailed textual negotiation before publication. That would protract the process of reaching the point of definition, so that these matters can be published. In the views of both Governments, significant and sufficient discussion has taken place and the Governments hope to be in a position at or about the beginning of April to publish the definitive text.

While I am on the detail of the matter, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), and others who were encouraged by him to do so, have let their imaginations run away with them about who might or might not be the Minister for policing and justice in Northern Ireland. There is no such deal. The hon. Gentleman knows that it has been Her Majesty's Government's intention in the right circumstances to devolve responsibility for policing and justice. Indeed, the introduction to the implementation plan on criminal justice specifically said that a significant time ago.

That principle commands wide support across Northern Ireland, but much is not agreed, including the timing of it and the ministerial structure that will have to take on those important responsibilities for Northern Ireland. A good deal of discussion is needed before we could arrive at answering many of the questions about ministerial appointments, even on the most optimistic timing.

I dare say that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will not desist from making his colourful assertions, because it allows him to give descriptions of the background of

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his nominee for the post in the context of what he anticipates is happening, but, if he will allow me to, I will try to put his mind at ease by saying that there is no deal such as that on which he based his contribution and which was supported by other hon. Members.

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