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David Burnside: The hon. Gentleman keeps raising the question of why the Government postponed the election for some indefinite period. Is he aware, as I am, that the polling—perhaps the Minister might pay attention to this question—carried out privately by the Northern Ireland Office proved that an immediate election would put a majority of Unionists into the Assembly who were not satisfied with the present implementation of the agreement, and who would force the Government to negotiate something better for the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Carmichael: I fear that the hon. Gentleman perhaps overstates the case when he says that polling "proved" the case one way or the other. There are some very disappointed and redundant politicians in Scotland this week who thought that the security of their future had been proved by opinion polls, but when the actual poll—the one in the ballot box—came to pass, a very different verdict was delivered.

Mr. Mackay: Name them.

Mr. Carmichael: I will not name them, but none of them was a Liberal Democrat, I am pleased to say.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Is the hon. Gentleman taking into account what was found out recently when an opinion poll went against Government thinking and pressure was put on people not to release those figures? When the figures were released, the majority against the agreement was watered down to make it more acceptable to the people who wanted a particular result. I do not know whether that happens in Scotland, but it happens in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Carmichael: All of which surely makes it more important that we have an election, which is the definitive poll—the one with which there really is no argument.

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The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford has referred to the fact that chaos would ensue if we did not now cancel or postpone the elections. I have said that I am broadly in agreement with that. I take the view, however, that the Bill is far too broad in its compass. The Government have shown that they are not particularly well equipped in their adherence to deadlines when such deadlines are in place in primary legislation. I have no confidence that they will improve their performance in any way if one removes the compulsitor of a fixed date. That is why, later this evening, I hope to press to a vote in Committee an amendment tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

That amendment would put a fixed date into the legislation. That is where the Government have an opportunity to redeem themselves from their earlier poor performance in relation to the lack of consultation. I shall listen to the Minister's reply, and hope to hear some sign that he will listen to votes here, and possibly in the other place, where the Government do not have the same overwhelming majority.

Mike Gapes: If there is another deferment to a fixed date, what certainty do we have that that date will be met? Is it not dangerous if we have fixed dates that are unrealistic? The hon. Gentleman spent the beginning of his speech talking about the fact that we now had to deal with a situation in which we had a deferral to a fixed date that proved unworkable. What guarantee do we have that another fixed date would be any more likely to work than the one we have already had?

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is no such guarantee. It is infinitely preferable, however, that such a decision should be made in this Chamber, rather than in someone's office in the Northern Ireland Office. That is a fundamental basic principle of democracy, from which we should not be departing. Further to that, all I seek to do is to hold the Government to their own aspiration when they say that they hope that the election will be in the autumn, by fixing a date in October. If that is a genuine aspiration on the Government's part, they should have no problem putting their money where their mouth is, and fixing a date, rather than being vague.

Mr. Quentin Davies: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest, and I very much agree with it. Does he recall that the Secretary of State this afternoon put it even more strongly than saying "hoped for"? He said that he intended that there would be an election in the autumn, which surely makes it even less likely that the Government, if they thought about the matter sensibly for more than a few minutes, would want to resist the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

Mr. Carmichael: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and his argument has a great deal of force. I thought in passing that the Government have found themselves in difficulties in the past, caught between their policy pledges on one hand, and their aspirations and wishes on the other. I would not want to pursue them too vigorously on that point tonight.

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If I may draw my remarks to a conclusion while I still have some voice to do so, the remainder of the Bill is unexceptionable, in my view. It is proper and decent that measures should be put in place for Assembly Members and their staff to have some degree of certainty. Although I would enter the obvious caveat that we await the details of that provision, I have little quibble with it. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about clause 6, whose compass seems to have been drawn exceptionally wide. That perhaps shows a certain degree of nervousness on the Government's part, and that they have introduced the legislation in haste. I hope that it will not be a case of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure.

7.39 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I have a divided mind in relation to some of the elements that we are debating tonight. I abhor a political vacuum. I learned that lesson a considerable period of time ago, after the fall of the then Sunningdale Executive, which was followed by the Northern Ireland convention. I was arrogant enough to make a substantial bet with a journalist that within three months, Humpty Dumpty would be put together again. Thirty years later, the process of doing that began. For that reason, I am almost paranoid about vacuums in a political process.

There is another reason why I have a divided mind. I listened intently to the Prime Minister at his press conference and to the Secretary of State on two occasions here in the House, and they made what seem to be compelling arguments in relation to what can only be described as the salvation of the agreement in electoral terms. I have to ask myself, given the arguments that they have made: what does the Prime Minister see in relation to the immediate future in the north of Ireland that the rest of us may not see? What insight has he that has prompted him not just to postpone an election, which of itself is a fundamental decision, but to bring about the first significant disagreement between him and the Taoiseach on an issue that is of constitutional importance to the Government of the Republic of Ireland? What has led him to act in a way that is contrary to the wishes of all the political parties in the north of Ireland, except, I understand—possibly, maybe—the Ulster Unionist party? In effect, that takes a political process that can survive only on activity and its own dynamism and parks it, stalls it or immobilises it, call it what you like, when it should be challenged to face the problems in front of it.

The problems that the Prime Minister himself foresaw should be faced rather than parked, and the problems that may arise from the political process—they may arise, as there is no such certainty whatever—should be faced down. The only basis on which they can be faced down is proceeding with an election and getting the mandate for the support for the agreement. I believe that, for those reasons, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State did not make the decision lightly. I have seen them in action at close hand on the issue, and I commend them for the time and effort that they have put into trying to solve this problem. I bow to no one in my admiration for what they are doing and for what they have tried to do. All the more reason, then, to try to probe the Government's mind in relation to the

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decision. In an attempt to do that, I must ask five questions, some of which are fairly easy and others of which are difficult. I believe that they must be answered, and I shall now talk about the first.

Having posed in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration the questions to the IRA as to its future activities, the two Governments required direct answers. They wanted absolute clarity, not creative or selective ambiguity, and the IRA was asked to say that there will be no more punishment beatings, no more targeting, no more intelligence gathering, no more procurement of weapons and no more enforcement of exile.

Those seem to me to be questions that, in their bluntness, could and should be answered by those who are not involved in violence and who, a matter of weeks previously, showed their abhorrence of war in Iraq, yet they refused to step to the mark in relation to things that affect the community in which we live. Punishment beatings are not carried out on people from other parts of the island. They are carried out on people in the same street, in the same townland and in the same parish.

The refusal to give those answers has been one of the core problems. It has been and could be argued that there are forms of words that, if one wanted to pass and analyse them in certain directions, might lead to a conclusion, but the difficulties of Northern Ireland will be solved not by forms of words, but by the understanding that when people say that a war is over—I believe that it has been over this past seven or eight years—they also say that the attendant elements of war, such as keeping control of a community through punishment beatings, are over as well.

I couple policing with that, too. I was rather surprised in the last policing debate on the Floor of the House, when, despite probing, I got little indication that participation in the Policing Board would be, in effect, one requirement for the type of new beginning that is required. So be it. The time will come when that is faced, but I say to the republican movement in terms of the IRA and Sinn Fein, "Look what you have done. You have done what one of the parties sitting opposite has failed to do. You have done what the anti-agreement parties could not possibly do. You have created, or possibly recreated, an apolitical situation in the north of Ireland." I hope that it is proud of what it has done. I believe that the community that we all represent deserves better than to have its political process dealt away in terms of paramilitary requirements by paramilitary people.

In relation to that, I must ask whether come October—come the autumn—the approach will have changed and whether the process, including all the forms of words, will recommence. Will we go again for clarity or the studied, creative ambiguity? It will be interesting to see, but surely the experience has been that things are never done the same way twice. Once we have looked at that and asked that question, we have the right to ask what happens in September, October or whenever that period may be.

The second question is one that I would dearly like to have answered, because then I would be able to make up my mind as to the insights that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State may have had. If the IRA had said

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that there would be no more of the activities in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, would the Ulster Unionist party have agreed the joint declaration? I do not know the answer to that, although I would dearly love to know it. Maybe we will get an answer at some stage tonight. [Interruption.]

I address this remark to the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson): it is not becoming of any person in a political party to stab his own party in the back on such issues—not just tonight, but on previous occasions. The question has to be asked and answered. Had the IRA stepped up to the mark, would the joint declaration have been accepted and supported by the Ulster Unionist party? I have no doubt that there are those in that party who would have done that, but I have no doubt whatever that there are others—at least four are sitting here—who would not.

We must look carefully at what we are talking about here: on the basis of the IRA announcing an end to those activities, would the Ulster Unionist party have gone into an election on a pro-agreement platform? It is crucial that we know that, because some people have legitimate doubts. In those circumstances, would the Ulster Unionist party announce an end to the stop-go politics that in effect reduced the operation of Executive decisions in the past five years to 18 months? There have been suspensions, refusals to work with the north-south bodies, postponements and excuses. It is fitting to remember that the first suspensions were determined by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), and the reason he gave was that it was to save the agreement. That very same reason has now been given by the Government for the postponement of these elections.

I would like to be convinced that the Ulster Unionist party and those involved with it would proactively support the agreement, which they signed, in this House, in their central council and on the doorsteps in an election. That is crucial not just from a nationalist perspective, but from the perspective of Unionists who want leadership.

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