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Andrew Mackinlay: I should be interested to know whether the Opposition approached the Government business managers, and if so, when they approached them, to ask for more time for the Bill.

Mr. Davies: We had no opportunity to do so. The hon. Gentleman must know that Parliament was not sitting on Friday, when the Bill was published. I did not see the programme motion until this morning. I have not had any conversations with the Government nor, as far as I know, have they made any attempt to consult us, either on the programme motion or on the substance of the Bill.

David Winnick: The hon. Gentleman has been very critical of any consultation between the two sovereign Governments. Is it not a fact that the Anglo-Irish agreement, signed when Lady Thatcher was Prime Minister, first started the process of involving the Republic in matters concerning Northern Ireland, and hence was the reason Ian Gow resigned from the Government?

Mr. Davies: One of the things that I resent most about the Government is their stealthiness. There is no openness about what they intend to do. If they acknowledged that they were planning to run Northern Ireland in concert with the Irish Republic—in co-dominion with the Irish Republic—we could discuss that. But they do not do that. They try to conceal it. That is what I particularly resent. Clearly, it makes sense to have as co-operative a relationship with the Irish Republic as we can in respect of Northern Ireland. I have always been a great supporter of that, but I resent

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the fact that highly controversial decisions are being imposed on the House by the means that I described, having already been negotiated in private with the Irish Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, will he confirm two things to the House—first, that he had, by arrangement made between him and the Secretary of State, a draft of the Bill on Thursday, and that there is not one comma of difference between the draft that he was given and the Bill that was published? Secondly, the hon. Gentleman must have made a mistake when he told my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that he knew nothing about timetabling. He raised the issue with me in the House on Thursday evening, in the presence of other Members.

Mr. Davies: Indeed, I received a copy of the draft Bill, but I did not get a copy of the timetable motion. I have just said in the House and I repeat that the first time that I saw the timetable motion was this morning in the Order Paper. Secondly, I raised with the hon. Gentleman the matter of timetabling, and what is more, I have protested several times to the hon. Gentleman and to the Secretary of State about their proposals to postpone elections in Northern Ireland, but I have never been consulted. Consultation means going to the Opposition and saying, "What do you think? Before we take a decision, we would like to hear your view." That process has never been undertaken by the Government: never with us and never, I believe, with the majority of the Northern Ireland parties. I have been very clear and definitive on that, and I now move on.

Let us get to the real reason why the Government seek to postpone or cancel the elections. The statements made by the Secretary of State on 1 May, 6 May and this afternoon have been contradictory. There have been different explanations at different times, and we must get down to the real explanation. The right hon. Gentleman claimed on 1 May that the reason the Government wanted to postpone the elections was that Sinn Fein-IRA had not fulfilled their commitments under the Belfast agreement and had not sufficiently clarified their intention of doing so. He reverted to that explanation this afternoon, but it makes no sense. There is nothing new about Sinn Fein-IRA not fulfilling their commitments under the Belfast agreement. If that were the reason for suspending elections in Northern Ireland, it would have been valid months and years ago.

In March, instead of asking for an exceptional one-month extension to enable all parties to respond to Hillsborough, the Government could have said that there would be no elections unless Sinn Fein complied. That would have been an entirely different Bill to bring before the House in March, but that was not the Bill that the Government introduced in March.

The only change over the past few weeks is a positive change. On two important items, Sinn Fein-IRA have clarified their intentions in the way demanded and accepted by the Government. We can argue about how positive that is and how near we are to complete fulfilment of the agreement by Sinn Fein-IRA, but indubitably it is a positive step, so it makes no sense to say that elections could have taken place when the

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situation was worse, when Sinn Fein-IRA had done less to comply, and that they should now be punished for making at least two clarifications out of three.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): Is it not always helpful to encourage a sinner to repent? As my hon. Friend says, for a long time the Opposition have complained that the agreement has not been fulfilled in full, particularly by the paramilitaries. Now we have a Secretary of State who is demanding that they fulfil their obligations, and rightly in my view has postponed the elections, and I think that the Opposition should support the Government in that.

Mr. Davies: In dealing with Sinn Fein-IRA, my tactic, which I have always defended from the Dispatch Box, and which seems universally valid in dealing with such situations, is that if people do the right thing, they should be rewarded. If they make a step forward, a step forward should be made to them. If they do the wrong thing—for example, if they breach their obligations under an agreement—some sanction should be taken. They should not be given new concessions. The Government's attitude for most of the past few years has been the exact reverse. When Sinn Fein-IRA have not done what was required under the agreement, they have scratched around for new concessions to offer them, and that has been a disastrous policy. I am sorry to say that it is the policy that the Government seem to be reverting to, offering the destruction of the two observation towers in south Armagh, despite the fact that we still have no comprehensive agreement.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I shall not give way at the moment. It is the fault of the Government whom he supports that we have so little time for today's debate, and if he suffers from his Government's decision, he must complain directly to those on his own Front Bench.

Whatever brought about last week's sudden panic by the Government, it was assuredly nothing said or done by Sinn Fein-IRA. In any case, as I have said many times, it would have been as senseless as it is unjust to punish everyone in Northern Ireland for the failings of one party.

What exactly was the reason for this extraordinary last-minute reversal if it was not to punish Sinn Fein-IRA? Was it because, as the Secretary of State perhaps rather hastily said on 1 May:

I am glad to say that he did not repeat that today, but surely he cannot have meant that in any democratic process any one party can at any time veto scheduled elections taking place at the end of a parliamentary mandate? What an extraordinary idea that is. No form of representative Government could be run on that principle. Anyone who thought that he might do worse in new elections would simply veto them until he thought that he could do better. We would never have elections at all on that principle anywhere. Someone would always have an incentive to veto them. We need a better explanation than that.

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I think that the Government themselves recognise that neither of those two hasty explanations, delivered on that day of panic, 1 May, makes any sense. That is why by the time the right hon. Gentleman made his second statement on Tuesday, and again this afternoon, he had changed his tune, giving a different explanation, a third one. He said that in the present circumstances an election would not produce an Assembly capable of agreeing on an Executive. He said almost exactly what he said on 6 May, when he said:

Bizarrely, he then added:

I shall not hold the right hon. Gentleman to that second statement. We can all reach for a false argument or a mistaken simile under pressure.

I have a lot of sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman, who is an honest man and a genuine democrat, and knows and cares about the people of Northern Ireland, but who finds himself in the position of having to defend a thoroughly misconceived policy imposed on him by the Prime Minister, so I shall not allege that he has some secret ambition to carry out a coup before the next election. However, I do take seriously the main thrust of his comments, which means—it is a serious matter—that the election is to be cancelled because

Let us consider that explanation, because several questions arise from it. The obvious one is: how could the Government possibly have known "precisely" the outcome of the elections? It reminds me of Nikita Kruschev's famous remark that the trouble with bourgeois elections is that one never knows what the result will be. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman meant that he knew "precisely" that Sinn Fein could never serve on the Executive because they would not comply with the agreement or complete their clarification of the three points. That is a very different thing. As I have said many times, there is no reason to deny everyone else the right to a democratic election and to a devolved government because one particular party is misbehaving.But how could the Government have known that "precisely" either?

As I said on Tuesday, there are at least two plausible reasons why Sinn Fein might have been deliberately holding back from completion before the elections. First, they might have wanted to provide for possible new negotiations with whatever combination of other political forces might emerge after the election. Secondly, they might have thought that whatever they did no Unionist leader would be likely to announce that he was satisfied with those statements while still in the throes of an election contest, so they might well have held back.

Of course, there can be no precision about those hypotheses either. In both cases we are speculating. But I think that on reflection the right hon. Gentleman will

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concede that what he meant was that there was a risk of a combination of forces emerging that would make it more difficult to bring the peace process to a successful conclusion. But risk is a very different thing from certainty, from precision. It makes no sense to trade a risk of something bad happening for a greater risk of something bad happening. It makes even less sense to trade a risk of something bad happening for the certainty of that happening. I fear, as I shall now show, that that is precisely—if I may use that term strictly for a moment—what the Government have done.

If the Bill passes today, I put it to the Government that there are two logical possibilities. Either elections will genuinely be postponed—the right hon. Gentleman said on 1 May and again today that his intention is that there should be elections in the autumn, but the Bill makes no mention of that—or they will not happen at all; they will effectively be cancelled. The right hon. Gentleman has rejected that term, but I hope that he will acknowledge that an indefinite postponement is tantamount to a cancellation, with the sole difference again that the Government have not been frank about it. It would be a cancellation by stealth, as it were.

Let us take the first of those two logical possibilities. If the decision was to postpone, that is only a rational decision to take—given for the sake of this argument that the Government have no constitutional or moral scruples about doing that—if there is a reasonable assumption that the result will be more desirable, more favourable for the peace process, at the later date, perhaps the autumn, when the elections do take place. But nothing that the Government have said this afternoon or at any other time provides the slightest basis for assuming anything of the kind, and I challenge the right hon. Gentleman now to rise at the Dispatch Box and tell me on what ground he assumes that elections in a few months' time, or at any other time that he may care to name, would have a result more favourable for the peace process than elections held on 29 May.

Surely the setting aside of the constitutional rules will itself, in so far as it has any impact, weaken the credibility of devolution—it can hardly strengthen it—and strengthen parties who have opposed that decision, not weaken them. In other words, the Government's own intervention can hardly be productive in their own terms, and may very likely be counterproductive, and there is no reason why any of the other variables should have changed at all between now and whenever an election takes place.In short, the Government, if they postpone, will have exchanged a risk of things going wrong, as they see it, for a greater risk of things going wrong. That is not good logic and it is not good policy. On the other hand, if the shelving of elections continues indefinitely, at a certain point, it must clearly result in the end of devolution—the complete abandonment, not the temporary setting aside, of the whole structure of devolution set out in the Belfast agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In short, in order to avoid the risk of failure, the Government would have brought about the certainty of failure and the definitive collapse of devolution. That is even worse logic and even worse policy.

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Of course, one may argue about how long a postponement would need to be in order to become a cancellation and constitute the end of the process. In normal circumstances, it might be difficult to give a precise answer to that question, but it can be said without hesitation that the longer a democratic process remains in abeyance, the more public confidence in it is eroded and the greater the danger of people abandoning hope or ceasing to believe in it altogether.

In this case, however, a crucial and precise date is on the horizon. Paragraph 8 of the final section of the Belfast agreement provides for a review four years after the commencement of the devolved institutions. Let me read to the House the relevant passage:

I am not sure that the Government recalled that very important provision of the agreement before they took their hasty decision, so I shall, if I may, repeat that quotation:

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