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Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): If it is the demands of the Belfast agreement that prevent the restoration of a devolved and democratic Government in Northern Ireland, is it possible that it is the demands of the agreement that are at fault?

Mr. Murphy: That is possible, but I do not think that it is the case. The hon. Gentleman knows that the nature of the Assembly that was suspended and eventually dissolved is different from that of any other Assembly in the United Kingdom. The Assembly is based on complicated and sophisticated rules of cross-community voting to ensure that nationalists and Unionists feel comfortable and able to accept it. It is a very special institution and, as I have said, it is not the same as the Assembly in Cardiff or the Parliament in Edinburgh.

The Assembly is an integral part of the Good Friday agreement and those who were involved in drawing up the agreement will remember that during the strand 1 talks, which I had the honour of chairing, we spent month after month working out the intricate rules and regulations on cross-community activity and the sharing of power and responsibilities that were necessary to keep the Assembly going. If the Assembly had not had those special rules and had become an ordinary Assembly like any other in the United Kingdom, the Belfast agreement would not have worked. I do not believe for a second that the Assembly would be accepted across the board in Northern Ireland unless everyone in Northern Ireland who wanted the agreement accepted that it is very special and different.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) rose—

Mr. Murphy: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will put me right on that and tell me that other views are held in Northern Ireland about the nature of the Assembly. Those views are sincerely held and may be debated, but they are not compatible with the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. Dodds: The Secretary of State talks about the nature of the agreement and the institutions set up under it and thus the need for Unionist as well as nationalist support. How does he respond to the assertion that the majority of Unionists do not support the implementation of the Belfast agreement? He should refer not to the referendum results but to the more recent results of the general election to this House. A clear two thirds of the Unionists elected were opposed to the agreement. How can the right hon. Gentleman sustain the notion that the Belfast agreement is the only way forward given that, although it clearly has the support of nationalists and republicans, it does not have the support of a clear majority of the Unionist people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Murphy: How can that be reconciled with the point that I made earlier? An opinion poll held more

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recently than those elections showed that people want the Belfast agreement to work. People want a peace process and a political process to work. The way in which the Belfast agreement works could be changed, and the hon. Gentleman knows that paragraph 8 of the agreement provides for the parties represented in the Assembly—including his—to sit around a table and determine how best to improve on practices used for the last four or five years. I do not suggest for a second that the agreement is static, but it is the only basis on which we may move the process forward. I cannot conceive of an Assembly in Belfast that did not allow the power sharing that the present agreement allows being workable. That is why the Government's decision last week was still, nevertheless, a difficult one. Last week, it was argued that, with an election campaign out of the way, dialogue and compromise would be easier for those involved. That is not manifestly an unreasonable point of view, but on the basis of what we have heard in recent exchanges—including in the House in the last fortnight—I cannot believe that that is the reality. An election held now, in the conditions created by the uncertainty surrounding the commitments, would simply have polarised opinion further and made it much more difficult to get the institutions up and running again.

The other point is that the Good Friday agreement also refers to the other institutions of Government—the machinery north-south, east-west—and other issues that are interconnected. When people voted for the agreement, they voted for a host of different things, some of which were unpalatable to some and more palatable to others. What it has done, however, is to produce peace for five years, and no one—but no one—could underestimate the significance of that.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Has there not always been a lot of antagonism towards power sharing? Is that not why the original concept of power sharing rightly produced by the Conservative Government in the early 1970s—the Sunningdale agreement—was destroyed on the ground? We have undoubtedly improved on that agreement, but power sharing has always been opposed by a powerful section of the Unionist forces.

Mr. Murphy: That may well have been the case, but I am sure that the parties, even the party represented by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), would agree that in the years of devolution since the Good Friday agreement was signed, the institutions that it established—in particular, the Assembly—were institutions in which all Unionist parties in Northern Ireland were willing to discuss with nationalists and, indeed, republicans, decisions that affected all the people of Northern Ireland.

I am not saying for one second that everyone agreed with the Good Friday agreement, because people evidently did not. However, devolution worked and Ministers in the Executive came from the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour party. All those parties, representing the broad spectrum of Unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland, worked to bring benefits to all the people of Northern Ireland. I am convinced that that was the case. I am not saying that it was always the happiest of families, but it never is. It is

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clear from events in the House today that we are not always a happy family here and sometimes disagree, but there is no question in my mind but that the people in Northern Ireland valued devolution because local Ministers made decisions for local people and were locally accountable.

Some people, of course, do not want the agreement to succeed. I do not agree with them, but nor do I believe that their outlook is widely shared in the House. I am proud to defend the agreement and the benefits it has brought to Northern Ireland. It is not possible to argue that Northern Ireland was a better place before the agreement. Let us consider the economic benefits. We have 100,000 new jobs since the agreement's conclusion and the lowest levels of unemployment since 1975; and manufacturing output is up 15 per cent., compared with a fall elsewhere in the UK. Most of all, people are not being killed as they were when the conflict was raging.

Of course, the situation is far from perfect. There is still criminality, including much violent criminality. In particular, the threat of paramilitarism looms. To cite one instance, all of us would deplore the attacks on the offices of democratically elected politicians from whatever party. Nevertheless, grave though some of the problems that still trouble us are, there is no doubt that the picture has greatly improved since, and directly because of, the Good Friday agreement.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): The Secretary of State commented on Northern Ireland's economy. As one who spent several days as a private citizen in Northern Ireland over Easter, I was reminded of what a beautiful country it is. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that enough is being done to promote tourism there?

Mr. Murphy: We must do as much as we can to develop tourism. There is no doubt in my mind that it has improved over the past few years compared with 10 years ago. The work that the Assembly did through its Ministers encouraged tourism in Northern Ireland. I entirely agree that it is well worth visiting. There are great examples of geographical, topographical and geological places that we need to sell as well as we possibly can. The Giant's Causeway is one of the greatest sights that can be seen. All those places are there to be promoted, but that is best done in the context of peace. Tourism was not developed for 30 years because people were frightened to go to Northern Ireland to see what it had to offer. There is enormous potential for tourism right across the board, in the countryside, in the cities and the towns and on the coast—

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) rose—

Mr. Murphy: Not least in the hon. Lady's constituency.

Mrs. Robinson: How many jobs have been lost to Northern Ireland since the Belfast agreement came into play?

Mr. Murphy: There is a net gain. That is the point that I am making. [Interruption.] Obviously, I do not have the figures and the detail with me, but the hon. Lady knows as well as I do that Northern Ireland has the fastest growing economy of all the regions and nations in the UK. [Interruption.] Perhaps she has the figures.

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As Secretary of State for Wales, I had the benefit of seeing what happened in Wales. As a member of the Government, I have had the opportunity to see what has happened in the English regions and Scotland. Despite the setbacks, the fastest growing economy in the UK is in Northern Ireland. I do not underestimate the problems of redundancies in parts of Northern Ireland, but I am sure that the hon. Lady would be the first to say that over the past five years Northern Ireland has been a better place in which to live than it was 10 years ago.

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