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Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): This is the second time that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the so-called 15-month delay. In fact, 12 of those months were occupied by the inevitable and necessary transitional arrangements that had to be made, but there had been an election to an Assembly. As matters stand at the moment, there is no Assembly.

Mr. McNamara: That is precisely why I want an election for the Assembly—to enable the necessary negotiations to continue, hopefully not for as long as 15 months.

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend is in danger of falling into exactly the same misunderstanding of the Secretary of State's speech as the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). At no stage have the Government made any argument—and at no stage have I heard the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, privately or publicly, make any argument—that relates to the outcome of elections. It is about whether the trust and confidence is there to restore the institutions. If my hon. Friend would address himself to that, we would all be debating the same issue.

Mr. McNamara: I understand my hon. Friend's point. I shall come to it in a moment, when I shall perhaps take another intervention.

The significant point is that the Government's decision means that we will have politicians arguing without a renewed mandate after a long period of time. Cancelling the elections undermines those nationalists who believe in the primacy of politics. It strengthens rejectionists of all shades and gives them a veto on the forward movement of the process. The Government's decision is dangerous and reckless, and they should, even at this late date, step back.

The Prime Minister has spoken of the need for clarity to promote confidence and build trust. I agree with that. So let us have some clarity in this Chamber. Let us forget the word play, the sophistry and the spin. In paragraph

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13 of the joint declaration, the British and Irish Governments restate their long-standing determination that paramilitarism and sectarian violence will be brought to an end— and, indeed, should be brought to an end. Nobody can disagree with that.

When the IRA made its statement, the Governments acknowledged significant progress but said they were not satisfied. The Prime Minister asked three blunt questions to clarify the republican response. The republicans said that they thought that the IRA's answers were perfectly clear, but the Sinn Fein leader responded to the Prime Minister and expanded on the three questions. According to most commentators, the Prime Minister was satisfied on two counts, but thought that the third answer stopped short. Sinn Fein was told that agreement was "within a whisker", but the Governments wanted a "will" instead of a "should". Mr. Adams came back with the missing word and, according to his own account, the IRA was poised to seal the deal by putting a large quantity of munitions beyond use—except that that did not happen. Instead, the elections were halted in mid-track and the process was thrown into crisis. The Ulster Unionist party, whose members told us at every opportunity that the IRA and Sinn Fein were one and the same, suddenly decided that Mr. Gerry Adams' interpretation of the IRA statement was not good enough—that he could speak only for Sinn Fein. Now, we discover from the IRA that its position is accurately reflected by Mr. Adams.

So where do the Government stand? On whether the IRA is committed to decommissioning its weapons, they say: the IRA says that it

On whether the war is over, they say that the IRA says:

On whether the IRA will end paramilitary activity, they say:

It has also been said:

There is a long way to go from the words to bringing about a verifiable end to targeting, intelligence gathering, punishment beatings, military training, arms procurement and all other manifestations of paramilitary activity. However, that is precisely why the two Governments have drawn up their joint declaration, which proposes to establish safeguards and assurance mechanisms to ensure compliance and build trust. Sinn Fein does not like or want that, but it has not said that it will not enter an Executive because of it.

The mechanism to which the Governments and most of the parties agreed was established through negotiation, not cancelling elections. The question is not therefore whether the Government accept the IRA's statement, but what undertakings they have received that, whatever the IRA or Sinn Fein say, the Ulster

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Unionist party is prepared to contest the election on the basis of taking its seats in a power-sharing Executive as prescribed by the Good Friday agreement. When has it said that? Would it have been said before the proposed date of the elections?

Where do we go from here? The two Prime Ministers have met and reaffirmed that the Good Friday agreement is not open for renegotiation. That is right and proper. They have published a joint declaration and stated their commitment to push firmly ahead with implementing measures that flow from the Good Friday agreement and are not contingent on any other development. Progress can and must be made on security normalisation, policing and justice, rights and equality. Forward movement is the best defence against the approaching political vacuum.

Details of the measures that are needed to complete the process of devolution must be worked through. I am in favour of pressing ahead with the discussion on a Bill of rights and an all-Ireland charter. I am in favour of transferring responsibility for policing and justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly and for that to be negotiated as a proposal that will follow elections. I would go further and revisit the whole range of reserved and excepted matters with a view to extending the process.

I should like more progress on cross-border matters and to re-examine the neglected east-west dimension to find new methods of increasing participation. I should like Unionist representation on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body. The obstacle to developing all those aims and the brake on such progress is the delay in holding elections.

There can be no formal review of the Good Friday agreement this side of the elections. For that reason, the democratic mandate of parties involved in negotiations must be renewed. I disagree with the postponement in principle, but if the Government are set on that course, we must ensure minimum damage by setting a new date as early as is feasibly possible. Without the anchor of democratic legitimacy, the Good Friday agreement will drift on to the rocks and might end up a wreck. I believe that none of us wants that.

7.23 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): As others have observed, we are considering a Bill on Northern Ireland elections for the second time in eight weeks. First, I want briefly to examine the Government's conduct. Since the completion of the Belfast agreement, the Government have rightly placed great stress on the necessity for bipartisanship and partnership in dealing with Northern Ireland matters. My party has always been keen to participate in that process.

Hon. Members will remember that when the matter was discussed on 17 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made an important point at the end of his speech. He said to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), who is present, that there must be no prospect of a further delay. He continued:

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The Under-Secretary replied:

He continued:

Mr. Browne: What does that mean?

Mr. Carmichael: As one member of the Law Society of Scotland to another—[Interruption.] As one failed member of the Law Society of Society to another, I appreciate that there is some ambiguity in the Under-Secretary's words, but on any reasonable construction, he gave us the guarantee that we sought.

In that context, the Government's actions on 1 May, when they gave no notification of their intentions to the Liberal Democrat party, the official Opposition or any Northern Ireland parties that are represented here, constitute poor conduct. The Government presumed that after they had made their decision and their announcement, Parliament would simply acquiesce in the decision. I did not come here simply to acquiesce in Government decisions. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was right to speak about the possibility of chaos, but it would be chaos of the Government's making, and they must be mindful of the possible consequences.

I believe that the decision is wrong for all sorts of reasons. The Secretary of State said that the "people" had lost patience and that "people" wanted the peace process to work. I lost count of the number of references to people and what they wanted. How does one determine what the people want in such circumstances? An election should be held to allow the people to speak through the ballot box. I cannot understand the logic of the Secretary of State's position when he says that he is promoting what the people want but denies them the opportunity to express that.

The Secretary of State is right to regret the lack of clarity that led to the postponement of elections. However, I do not understand how we achieve clarity by removing the impetus created by the immediacy and pressure of an election campaign. It is a logical non-sequitur. Postponement is bad strategically for the peace process because in removing the impetus of the election campaign, the Secretary of State takes the heat off the paramilitaries, especially the IRA.

Postponing the elections is also bad for elected politics in Northern Ireland. I get the clear impression from the time that I have spent there that the Assembly has run its course and that the democratic mandate must be renewed to give further legitimacy to its pronouncements. That can only be done through further elections.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford also referred to the need for a paragraph 8 review—an important part of the agreement—which should be held by 1 December. If that review is to be meaningful, it

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must take place after elections. That is why a vacuum will be created without the renewal of the mandate, as the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said, and there will be no shortage of strangers to the democratic process who will be only too keen to step in and fill that vacuum, particularly if that gap is allowed to extend over the summer months.

It is our view that the Government have lost their place badly here. The reason for that is that they now seem to view the peace process as a game to be played between the political parties. That ignores, or perhaps forgets, the context in which the whole process started. That context was one in which the overwhelming will of ordinary people in Northern Ireland was for a peaceful, normal existence. They had got sick and fed up with living under the shadow of violence and they wanted peace. Cancelling the elections removes the people from that process. If the Government were to continue with elections and if the verdict were one that they might regard as being unhelpful, that could only be a challenge to the parties in Northern Ireland to say to the people that they were prepared to find some solution. It should not be the job of Government to second-guess the outcome of elections before deciding to go ahead with them.

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