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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. These sedentary interventions must not continue.

Mr. Trimble: I want to make something else clear, which refers to comments from the same quarter. My colleagues and I have no fear of an election or of its result. [Laughter.] Indeed, I am confident that when the result emerged some of the laughter we are hearing would be wiped away. I am confident that we would make gains and take seats that some of the Members sitting on my left currently occupy.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Trimble: No. I will make my points.

Mr. Robinson rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman is clearly not giving way. I remind the House that serious matters are being debated.

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Mr. Trimble: I will make my points, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope to make them without interruption.

We were confident about our campaign. The start of the DUP's campaign featured plenty of signs of panic. I am sure that if it had continued in that vein, my predictions would have come true. I will not go into the mistakes that it made during its campaign, because I hope very much that it repeats them when the election comes, and there is no doubt that we will benefit from them.

The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) asked five questions. I repeated one of them again and again during the past couple of months, in the run-up to the Government's decision, and I will do so again. The important question, which had to be answered, was this: how would the Assembly discharge its functions? How would it work?

The Assembly was suspended on 15 October. Technically there is no Assembly. In the event of an election, that question would arise. How would the Assembly function? Given its suspension, in what circumstances, if any, could it resume?

The issue is there largely because the Northern Ireland Act 2000 was not clearly thought out, and, as I said in the timetable debate, there is an inconsistency between it and the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Had the 1998 Act not made express reference to an election on 1 May 2003, after suspension there would have been no question of an election taking place at all. That is the extent of the inconsistency. Logically, suspending the Assembly and the Executive should have carried through to the suspension of all aspects of it.

On that first postponement and the circumstances that gave rise to it—it may be of interest to the Members to my left to listen carefully again to this point—the reason for the four-week suspension and the four-week postponement in the earlier legislation was that a party at the discussions in Hillsborough said that it needed four weeks to consult its members in order to deliver the actions that would enable suspension to end. It was not my party that said that. We all know which party it was. The request in effect for the postponement of the election came from Sinn Fein, which said that it needed those weeks in which to consult its party, so that it could come forward with genuine acts of completion.

I remember pointing out to my colleagues that the postponement, which was to give Sinn Fein time to do what we all knew was necessary, would have certain implications if it failed to do that; that logic was there, too. Indeed, one thing that Members should bear in mind when they look at recent actions is that, in a sense, republicans, and others besides just republicans, were using the issue of elections to delegitimise suspension, to try to find a way around suspension and to force resumption in circumstances that would be advantageous to them. That explains why republicans ran down the clock, went past the last minute and then came forward with a statement that was clearly inadequate, bowling it short again in the hope that, by that time, the Governments would be so desperate that they would grab at an inadequate arrangement. The republicans' aim was to force resumption without their having to give up all forms of paramilitary activity.

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That is the subtext of what has been happening over the past number of weeks and I am glad that the Government did not allow republicans to succeed in that manoeuvre. I regret the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin was taken in by it. I confine my criticism there to the DFA and I have good reason for confining it to that. As I say, I am glad that the Government stood firm on that and did not let republicans manoeuvre them out of suspension, because that essentially was the issue.

The question is: what do we do from here? It is very well to argue, as some of my colleagues have, for the option of looking at some form of exclusion. We argued against suspension in October. We argued that the Governments should do what the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh said—that the Secretary of State should send a motion to the Assembly. It was at that time that the argument that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) advanced—of the Government taking on themselves powers to deal with the situation—was most apt, and perhaps that is where we look in terms of the future. It is perfectly right to argue for developing those new powers and for that form of exclusion if republicans will not do the necessary acts of completion. The reality is that to press for an election while the Assembly is suspended is to do the work of Sinn Fein-IRA. I am afraid that some Unionists are being blinded by their own personal ambition, their desire to get back into office and to continue to share power with Sinn Fein, not realising that they are doing the work of the republican movement.

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

Mr. Trimble: No.

My final query is to the Government: how do they plan to bring about an ending of suspension in circumstances that will enable the Assembly to function properly? It is all very well for Government to say and to give the hope that, somehow in a month or two or whatever it may be, we will be able to come back and to proceed in the way we all want to, but the Government must think seriously about how they are going to do it. There is something that they should consider and move forward. The Secretary of State has touched on it this evening. That is, to go to those measures for monitoring of paramilitary activity, for having appropriate remedies and sanctions for that and to bring those forward as rapidly as possible. Therein lies the lever that we need to move the republican movement that bit further.

My preference in these matters, as always, is to see the political process in Northern Ireland function, and to see the agreement fully implemented and operating on the basis of the principles that we agreed, the most important of which is, of course, that it operate by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Exclusion is a second best but it is preferable to the situation that we are in now. I rather suspect that, were the Government to bring forward those provisions, including the new power for Her Majesty's Government to act, that would be the lever that made republicans face up to the reality that they have to move, and I hope the Government will do that before the autumn comes and before we have to come back to this issue again.

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8.15 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): No one is likely to be happy that the situation remains unsettled in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, I believe that in the circumstances the Bill is right. I have been from the start an ardent supporter of the Good Friday agreement. It is, in my view, the fairest way for the Province to be governed on behalf of both communities. I have said before that if the people on the mainland had had the opportunity—I am not saying that they should have had it—to vote on the Good Friday agreement, the majority in favour would have been even greater than in the Irish Republic. That point should not be overlooked by Unionists, whether they are for or against the agreement.

We cannot compare the situation with which we are faced with the other devolved institutions that have been set up since 1997. No one would ever imagine a Minister proposing the postponement of elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the London Assembly. It is as unlikely to happen as any attempt to extend in peacetime the powers of this Parliament. We know that to be the position. However, the situation in Northern Ireland is unique within the United Kingdom, although, sadly, not in the wider world, with two very divided communities with a long history, going back two or three centuries, of antagonism, suspicion, bloodshed and mutual distrust. That is why it is so important to have all-inclusive, power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland.

When I was out of the House in between seats, my view on the Sunningdale agreement, negotiated by the Conservative Government of Edward Heath, was that it was the right approach. Some who opposed such power sharing later came to the view that, in different circumstances, it was right to have such power sharing as in the Good Friday agreement, but the Sunningdale agreement was destroyed on the ground and we know what happened in the years that followed.

I hope that the leader of the DUP will recognise that what I am now going to say is nothing personal. He has been in the House long enough. I do not wish to make any personal remarks, but he has said repeatedly that he is totally opposed to the Good Friday agreement and that his party is so opposed that no matter what Sinn Fein does or does not do, it will never go into Government with Sinn Fein. That has been the position that he has adopted, although a representative of his party was in the Executive when it was functioning. In this unsettled situation, an election that produced complete deadlock would satisfy only those who are determined to destroy the agreement.

I do not know what the outcome of any election would be. We have been told by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who leads for the main Unionist party, that he was confident that his party would do well. No one can predict election results, but if there were an election result that meant that the DUP was the largest party on one side and Sinn Fein on the other side, we know that there would be complete deadlock. That is precisely the position that those who are opposed to the agreement want to produce. I do not want that position to arise and, although I do not like elections being postponed and I accept that there is a good argument for saying that they should not be postponed, I would rather the measure went through so as to save the agreement. I hope that in so arguing I am

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not being anti-democratic. [Laughter.] I would say that my track record demonstrates that I am certainly not anti-democratic.

The republican movement has gone a long way towards accepting that its perfectly legitimate overall objective of a united Ireland can come only through the use of constitutional and democratic means. One of course wishes that that had been the policy of the republican movement from the very beginning. A lot of bloodshed on both sides would have been prevented.

I repeat a point that has been made previously. Sinn Fein has accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom. As we know, over the years, it totally denied that. It said that Northern Ireland was a statelet and that Ireland had no right to be divided. Sinn Fein took no account of the majority view in Northern Ireland. That has changed and I welcome that, as I am sure everyone does. It is part of democracy to accept the wishes of the majority.Arising from the Good Friday agreement, articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which laid claim to Northern Ireland, have also gone following a referendum in the Republic.

Having rightly gone so far, the republican leadership is now required to declare that all forms of paramilitary activity and violence will cease. That is not asking too much. It should take the final step. Although Sinn Fein denies that it is directly involved, the activities that have been carried out by the IRA since the Good Friday agreement—the punishment beatings, the hooliganism and the other activities that in no way can be equated with the actions of a democratic party—are totally unacceptable. One can understand the feelings of those Unionists who are in favour of the Good Friday agreement, but who take the view that, in those circumstances, it is not possible for the agreement to be fully implemented. Although this possibility does not arise because of the arithmetic in the Irish Republic, the Taoiseach has said that he would not be willing to enter into an agreement with Sinn Fein as long as that party was associated with a republican organisation—the IRA—that carried out the activities that I have just mentioned.

I hope that we can get the agreement working once again and that elections can take place this year and will not be indefinitely postponed, although much of the responsibility for that lies with the IRA. We know that the majority of Unionist Members elected to the House are opposed to the agreement.

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