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12 May 2003 : Column 64

Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections and Periods of Suspension) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

5.44 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill provides for deferment of the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly that were due to be held on 29 May. I very much regret having to introduce the Bill. I should have much preferred to present an order for the restoration of devolved Government. Elections should be deferred only for the most compelling reasons. However, I am clear that, in presenting the Bill, the Government are doing what is most likely to sustain the Good Friday agreement and a political process that will bring nearer the day when we shall be able to restore the devolved institutions.

I have already set out in my statements of 1 May and 6 May the advances that we, the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland made over the six months following the suspension of devolved government in October last year. We had arrived at a comprehensive set of proposals for the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. A fundamental element of those proposals was that there must be an end to all paramilitary activity. Those Members who have read or will read paragraph 13 of the joint declaration of the two Governments will have seen or will see that that is spelled out in detail.

The paragraph says:

Nothing is clearer than paragraph 13 and that statement, which defines in detail what is meant by paramilitary activity.

The IRA statements that were published last week and the clarifications offered by the president of Sinn Fein were significant developments but, taken together, they do not give the clarity that is needed in response to the single question: will there be an immediate end to all paramilitary activity? That lack of clarity is very damaging. A very broad range of opinion in the UK, in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere has found the statements of the republican movement lacking the assurance that it is legitimate to demand in a democratic and civilised society.

Our central goal is to make the Good Friday agreement work. At the heart of that agreement, which the vast majority of the House supported at the time and which a vast majority continue to support, was a commitment to pursuing political goals by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. It is self-evident that, after five years of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister called "creative ambiguity", we now need clarity if the institutions are to work.

We did not have that clarity. Consequently, we believe that the institutions would not work. The election would not have given us government as

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envisaged in the agreement, and so it was to defend the agreement that, with a very heavy heart, we decided that a deferment was necessary. I would not pretend for one second to the House that it was an easy decision; it was not. However, I believe that it was the right decision.

David Burnside (South Antrim): The Secretary of State has been very clear in defining the non-violent democratic activities to which we expect the republican movement to adhere. Does he therefore agree that it would be wrong and undemocratic for the Provisional IRA to carry out any action against an informer who has been in its military organisation in the past 30 years and who, at present, may feel under great threat from its execution squads?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman must have someone in mind. I assure him that none of the attacks made on whatever persons in Northern Ireland can be justified. No attack on anybody in whatever circumstances is justifiable. It would be condemned by all of us in the House.

Let me recall how the agreement came about. It was the product of several decades of political activity, and many Members of the House spent many months—indeed, years—in arranging political activities so that we could come to an agreement as we did in 1998. However, effectively there was intensive negotiation in 1997 and 1998. The agreement held the promise of a final transition from deep-rooted community conflict and the plague of terrorism to a normal and peaceful society.

The key characteristic of the system of government that the agreement established was the institutionalisation of cross-community partnership. Many different features of the agreement are valued by different people in Northern Ireland, but I believe that that feature inspired the electorate of Northern Ireland to vote by 77.1 per cent. in favour of the agreement. The prospect of an agreed future in place of division and conflict enthused many people on both sides of the community. That promise still leads a majority of people on both sides of the community to say that they still want the agreement to work, which was shown by a poll in the Belfast Telegraph in February, to which 60 per cent. of the respondents were Protestants.

The mechanics of such institutionalised partnership government are different from the system in the House or the institutions in any other democracy that I know. Nearly all elections to such institutions yield a government, even if time is required to build a coalition. Cross-community government, as we all know, is different. It depends on widespread willingness to participate, and that is dependent on trust. That trust was lost last October when we had to suspend the institutions.

As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said last week, an election now would not be an election to the institutions prescribed by the agreement because those institutions would not work. It would be an election to a set of non-functional institutions. Had we held such an election and then lifted suspension, we could well have faced administrative chaos and further early elections. Far from democracy being enhanced, it would have been undermined. That would not protect

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the agreement. All hon. Members who support the agreement must ask themselves whether holding an election now would represent a step toward its long-term success.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Does my right hon. Friend recall that 15 months passed after the elections to the Assembly before an agreed Administration was formed?

Mr. Murphy: I do remember that, because I was involved in trying to bring the institutions back together during at least half of those months. The difference lies in what I said earlier. The reasons why we were in difficulty during those early months are not as stark as the reasons why we are in difficulty today. The Prime Minister's speech in Belfast in October 2002 was echoed and agreed by the Taoiseach. He said that we had reached a "fork in the road" and that after five years, there must be an end to paramilitary activity, although there might have been creative ambiguity for some years before. The world has changed in five years and people have lost patience with continued paramilitary activity, which is why trust was lost in October 2002.

My hon. Friend was right to imply that we can experience a long and involved process. He will recall that just after 5.30 pm on the Good Friday in 1998 when Senator George Mitchell said that the agreement had been approved, one of the first things that he said was that we were at the beginning of the difficulties, rather than the end of them. He said that a bumpy road would be ahead of us. Of course we knew that, but everything depends on how big the bumps are. Some institutions can survive specific difficulties. However, he knows that the Assembly will operate properly only within the terms of the Belfast agreement that allow for proper power sharing throughout the community, which were approved in the referendum.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am interested in what the Secretary of State says about the postponement of the elections, but will he explain how postponing elections will assist the development of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, since those who did not want the Assembly in the first place do not want the elections to be held and, indeed, have a vested interest in ensuring the breakdown of the Good Friday agreement?

Mr. Murphy: There are certainly people—I shall refer to them in a second—who do not, and never did, agree with the Belfast agreement. They have sincere reasons for that position, and they were explained to the electorate when the referendum was called. However, the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted in favour of the Belfast agreement in the referendum, as did the majority of people in the Republic of Ireland.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Times change.

Mr. Murphy: Time does change things, as I hear the hon. Gentleman say, and that is precisely the point that I am making: times have changed over the past five years and we can no longer tolerate continued paramilitary

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activity. Such activity must stop so that trust and confidence may be built up among politicians in Northern Ireland.

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