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Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): There is no Assembly, so that does not apply. They got of rid of the Assembly, so we cannot do that.

Mr. Davies: My logic is obviously so compelling that I have carried the hon. Gentleman with me. He has filled in the next line in the equation. He is absolutely right, as the review is an important—indeed, an essential—part of the Belfast process. It is a milestone in the process, or road map, for those who like to use the modish phrase. The process cannot proceed if that review is removed; it will have no route to proceed past that point.

The removal of any element of such an agreement, except with the agreement of all parties, will invalidate the rest of it. That is the law of all treaties, agreements and contractual obligations. What is more, even if all the parties were agreeable, the sort of review process that is envisaged could not occur if no Assembly was in place. That is exactly the point on which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) picked up. In such circumstances, there would be no such thing as "Assembly parties". The individuals and parties not represented here would merely be private citizens speaking for themselves alone. They would have no democratic mandate whatever for the purpose of taking part in a review or anything else.

Thus the provision that the "Assembly parties" would summon the review together with the two Governments would be physically impossible to implement. Could the term be changed—I anticipate the thoughts in the Secretary of State's mind—to "Westminster parties"? That would disfranchise many people in Northern Ireland, but most importantly, it would amount to renegotiation of the agreement—something that the Government have always said is impossible and would be tantamount to the failure of the agreement. That is the Government's judgment and those are their words. What that means is simple and should be very sobering in the Government's own terms: unless the Assembly is

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restored by 1 December, the peace process will be able to go no further. There is a precise date—I use the word "precise" very strictly—by which elections must take place if the peace process is to survive: 1 December.

It will now be clear to the House that the Government have made a catastrophic mistake. As a failure of practical judgment, it is on a par with the mistake of releasing all the prisoners without securing any decommissioning in return. In their contemptuous disregard for democratic norms and electoral laws, that mistake is in a class quite of its own.

What should the Opposition do about that? Clearly, we dissociate ourselves entirely from this lamentable shambles. Many people, including many of my hon. Friends, will say that we can do that most obviously by voting against the Bill here and in another place. That would indeed be the most obvious thing to do and I appreciate the strong feelings of those of my hon. Friends whom I know are looking to me to urge them to do just that. Indeed, I share those strong feelings, but the Conservative party is a responsible Opposition. We never fail to take account of the practical consequences of our actions and never vote except when we genuinely wish for the consequences that will flow from that vote if it is successful.

So I must ask myself what will happen if we defeat the Bill today or in another place. I fear that that can only make even worse the disaster of an aborted election. Some people would claim that they had lost campaigning time or not secured campaign funds that would otherwise have been available to them because of the uncertainty involved. Some people would no doubt argue, truly or otherwise, that they would have put in nomination papers but for the Government's announcement last week. They would say that it was not their fault, as they took the Government's announcement seriously. Of course, the chaos that ensues will be entirely the fault of the Government. One thing is clear: we will not now be able to have a fair, democratic election on 29 May. Sadly, if the Bill is thrown out, there will be chaos. A postponed election must be a lesser evil than the travesty of an election.

That is the position of the Conservative Opposition and I hope and believe that it will be the position of others who are equally offended and horrified by what the Government have done and equally sad about the consequences for the peace process of this ill-conceived initiative, but are as concerned as we are to ensure that we do not have in Northern Ireland an election of which all of us would be thoroughly ashamed.

Mr. Dodds: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I was about to finish my speech, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I wish to explain to him why I make this exception. I am extremely sorry that I did not comment in the House about the attack on his advice centre and office at the time when it occurred, but I am afraid that I did not know about it on whichever day it happened. When I referred earlier to Members of the House from all three Northern Ireland parties represented here today having often suffered attacks on their homes and families, he was one of those whom I had in mind, especially in respect of the particularly appalling attack on a child.

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Mr. Dodds: I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way and for his remarks. Attacks on any elected representative, no matter what party they belong to, are to be deplored.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman about the consequences of a defeat of the Bill? Would not those disadvantaged by such an outcome have disadvantaged themselves by taking the advice of the Secretary of State and, for example, not lodging nomination papers? That would be their fault, as people should await the outcome of the democratic vote in Parliament and not listen only to the Secretary of State. People should wait to hear the voice of Parliament and its decision, rather than that of a Minister.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman has a good intellectual and moral argument. As I have said, I take that view very seriously indeed. He is right. Incidentally, the Conservative party, whose members believe in observing the law as it is, not as it was or might be if we can change it, has of course put in its nomination papers, paid deposits and so forth. We have proceeded on that basis. It is very important for the reputation of this country's democracy, of which we are proud and to which many people around the world have always looked with admiration, that as far as possible we do not have an election if we can see that it will be a shambles.

The hon. Gentleman knows how controversial everything is in Northern Ireland and I am sure that he can see the scope that would arise for people to say, "I have been unfairly treated and disadvantaged." They would say, "Well, of course, if this had been a decent, proper election I would have won or done well, but I've been done down because of the shambles." I cannot, on reflection, recommend the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to my colleagues, much as I understand the force of his argument and the considerations that will be in the minds of many other hon. Members.

We have tabled an amendment that would ensure that there is indeed an election later this year. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if we reach that stage I may catch your eye so that it is selected. The Liberal Democrats' amendment is very much along the same lines, with a difference of a couple of weeks in the maximum time allowed. We are being slightly more generous to the Government than the Liberal Democrats in that we are giving them another two weeks. If theirs is the amendment that you choose to put to the vote, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it, because the central principle is that this must be a postponement, not a cancellation. It is a regrettable shelving of the democratic process in Northern Ireland, and a thoroughly unjustified one, but it must not be something that is even worse than that.

7.11 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): As the Secretary of State will know, I wrote to the Prime Minister on 25 April urging him not to take the gravely mistaken step that we are considering today. The Good Friday agreement is rooted in, and underpinned by, the foundation of the democratic process. Its negotiation was conducted by elected representatives. Its principles were endorsed by referendums north and south of the border. Its Assembly was elected, and its Executive selected, proportionally by the d'Hondt method.

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Cancelling the elections—until there is a date, we must assume that they are postponed indefinitely—is the wrong way to deal with the situation. It sends exactly the wrong message about making politics work. It appears to reject what all the commentators agree is the most significant forward movement by the IRA towards the exclusive use of peaceful and democratic means. It creates a break in the process of implementation that will leave a dangerous political vacuum during the traditionally tense marching season in the coming summer. Political vacuum incites violent alternatives. The Government are seen as fiddling the timing of an election to get the results that they want and as bending the rules to meet the short-term electoral needs of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble).

The Ulster Unionists argue that an election should not be held because it will not result in the formation of an Executive, but that is not the purpose of this election. Its purpose is to renew democratic mandates, not to elect an Executive. I referred earlier, in my intervention on the Secretary of State, to the precedent of not electing an Executive. There were 15 months of negotiation before we had the Executive.

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