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5.7 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I have great sympathy with the position in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been put and the necessity, because of circumstance, of tabling this guillotine motion. I also felt sorry for him last Tuesday night, when we again addressed at 10 pm a very difficult problem in Northern Ireland. However, that is nothing new. This Administration, like earlier Administrations, have given us a dosage of late-night debates on some of the most crucial matters of life and death.

I must not waste time on this guillotine debate, because we as a party must oppose the guillotine. The reason is simple. We are talking about a fundamental change in the democratic process. It is not necessarily a suspension of the elections sine die. It might be an abolition of the elections, because the only redeeming aspect or possibility of bringing an election back to the political forum of Northern Ireland is, in the terms of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, if trust can be re-established. Who measures the degree of trust that would trigger an election? That is a very subjective theme on which to base whether we have an election. Is it the Secretary of State's judgment to say that trust has been re-established or is it the Prime Minister's judgment? That is what the Bill is all about.

The reality is that, by the suspension and possible abolition of elections, we are handing to the parties in Northern Ireland—particularly Sinn Fein and, I must say, the Ulster Unionist party—a veto as to when, if ever, elections will be held. If they say that they do not have trust, there will, according to the Bill, be no elections. That is a very dangerous precedent. Although I have great sympathy for the Secretary of State, we must record our opposition to the guillotine. Such fundamental principles are involved that we cannot let them go without debate.

I extend my sympathy to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and his party, and to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), who was attacked physically. That is an attack on us all, as we have said so often in this House.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Does not the hon. Gentleman underestimate the present electoral strength, power and veto of the SDLP? The Assembly and the Executive would still be in existence and the election would already have taken place had the SDLP separated itself after Sinn Fein proved itself to be incapable of being a democratic party and was involved in Stormontgate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go down that route: it is outside the scope of the motion.

Mr. McGrady: You have disappointed me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by not allowing me to respond to that attack on my party, but I will abide by your ruling. We

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know which party withdrew from the last Administration: it was the party of the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), and no other, that withdrew, bringing about the collapse of the Government. Had its members stayed on in their posts, we would not be here tonight.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): When my hon. Friend speaks about the hon. Gentleman's party, what exactly is he talking about?

Mr. McGrady: I wish that I had had notice of that intervention, because I am somewhat nonplussed as to how to respond.

We must record our opposition to the shortness of this debate on a very fundamental aspect of democracy in Northern Ireland. We now have the ludicrous situation whereby many party members who paid their deposits for nomination for election last Friday week and last Monday are still waiting for it to be repaid as the Bill goes through. That is how much politics and the democratic process have been, and are being, brought into disrepute in Northern Ireland.

5.12 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Of course, all hon. Members sympathise with the official Unionist party and condemn the attack on its headquarters. I wish that the leader of that party had been as liberal with my party after it was attacked in North Belfast with a 100 lb bomb in a building where two senior citizens were being attended to by their Member of Parliament. At the time, no one in this House, not even the Secretary of State, thought to mention that. I am glad that he did so today. I condemn all such actions equally. Whatever the place may be, no one should plant a bomb or anything that would cause grief, wounding or even killing. That must be utterly and totally condemned. I hope that the people who bombed the official Unionist party's headquarters and the people who bombed the advice centre of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) will be caught and brought to justice, and that the law will take its course, showing that the law does rule in Northern Ireland.

It is all very well for the Secretary of State to say that I am wasting time, but he tabled the motion and allowed us three hours to discuss it. He cannot say to me, as a representative from Northern Ireland, that I am wasting the time of the House. I had nothing to do with the three hours that he appointed; neither I nor my party were consulted. As he knows very well, because I spoke to him personally in the House last week, we are grateful that he made an effort to get Members from Northern Ireland a copy of the draft Bill. Otherwise, we would have received a copy only when we walked into the House today. The House should not conduct its business in such a way.

The Bill does not postpone but cancels the election. In the case of postponement, a date would be set. Even someone in Dublin, who must have been at the meetings there, gave a date in October. However, that disappeared when the matter came up for discussion. We have no date and the statement made it clear who

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would make the decision. The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) referred to that. The Bill would wipe out a date for elections, so we are considering cancellation. That is very serious.

The Secretary of State is a fair man and I know that he wants to help the people of Northern Ireland. He may be helping them in the wrong way, but we shall not judge him for that. Some day he will answer to a higher authority. However, surely we should have time to debate the matter properly. I ask him to give us time to do that.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): The date of the next general election to this House has not been announced. It may be in 2005 or 2006, but we will not know until a month beforehand. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that elections to this House have been cancelled?

Rev. Ian Paisley: It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman has not read the Bill. The measure that set up the Assembly provided for a fixed-term Assembly. I sit in the European Parliament, and I know on the day I am elected when the next election will take place. That should apply in the case that we are considering. My party took the Government to court to deal with the matter, and we have therefore done our bit. After the Bill is passed, the election will be cancelled—that is the truth.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Is not the comparison that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) made ludicrous? Clearly, elections to the House have to take place in a stipulated period of time. The Bill makes no such stipulation. The Secretary of State could decide to hold them in five years.

Rev. Ian Paisley: My hon. Friend is right. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) made his point. The subject pulls together voices from all over the community. I do not often agree with the SDLP, but its members agree with me and I agree with them about the Bill. We should not pass it and the elections should take place when they were set to happen.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am beginning to be sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) raised the matter, because it is taking us away from the motion. We must not discuss the Bill at this stage.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I believed that we were discussing the timetable motion, not the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: We are considering the timetable motion.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to get on the wrong side of the Chair today, because I mean to stay until the bitter end to vote on the Bill.

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The House does itself no good with anybody in Northern Ireland when it acts in the way in which it is acting to put off the elections.

5.19 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The answer to the dilemma is for the Government to ask permission to modify the timetable motion in the light of the debate and the time that was properly taken up by the two statements. At least that time should be added to our discussions. In the remaining minutes of the timetable debate, I make a plea to the Government to hold consultations, speak to the Chair and ascertain whether it is possible to make such a modification. Otherwise, debates in this place make no difference.

I do not believe that the arguments put forward for maintaining the timetable stand up at all. I do not want to be partisan, but this is the simplest answer. If this debate went on until about midnight, it might inconvenience some of the people who have got used to the idea of clearing up at 10, but I think that they would understand the importance of the matter.

I do not agree with the leader of the Ulster Unionists, or with the Liberal spokesman. I think that this is a matter on which a vote is necessary. We cannot start accepting this kind of trampling on the opportunities of Parliament. Most Members of Parliament have seen the Bill only today and have had no opportunity to table any amendments. Without going into the merits of the Bill, or of specific parts of it, I would like to draw hon. Members' attention to clause 6(5), which says that the Secretary of State can do whatever he likes within 40 days by putting an order through—and, by the way, clause 6(6) says that he does not even need to do that if he thinks it expedient not to. If I had had the time, I would certainly have tried to table an amendment that would have taken out subsection (6). We cannot deal with subsection (6) without considering clause 6. The timetable motion should at least allow for debate on matters on which there has been a chance to table amendments.

I would say to the Government that, of course, life is difficult, and the decisions that they have taken have not been easy. I would also say to those who are not here—namely, the Sinn Fein Members of Parliament—that I am very sorry that the IRA has not allowed them to take part fully as Members of this House, because they would then learn that Parliament is normally, although not today, a place where we can air our views and be defeated. In this case, however, we are not even to be allowed a debate before we are defeated on some of the things that we would like to change in the Bill.

I repeat my plea to the people on the Government Front Bench to think again, and to change the terms of this motion in the light of the debate. I suspect that the Chair would be amenable to the tabling of an amendment to this timetable motion. Although two days' debate would be better, to go on until midnight rather than 10 in the light of the time taken up by the two statements today would be appropriate.

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