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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): The Liberal Democrats will likewise not oppose the amendments further. I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to reflect on the representations that were made to them here and in another place, and in particular to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place, which produced an excellent piece of work at very short notice and was quite trenchant in its criticism of the Government. It made it quite clear that the proposal that was originally in clause 1, as it was when the Bill was before this House, was not an acceptable way of doing business. Indeed, I think that "unacceptable" was the term that the Committee used.
I was intrigued by the Minister's reference to the relative brevity of the debate in the other place, and by his remark that it has lasted just in excess of two hours. I am sure that that would not be an implied criticism of the Secretary of State, who spoke on Second Reading in this place for the best part of an hour, as I recall.
Mr. Carmichael: He did indeed take a goodly number of interventions, as the Minister says. However, if that is an argument against the use of timetable motions, I can assure the Minister that he would have our wholehearted support if he should choose to pursue that argument with his colleagues in the Government Whips Office. I remain of the view that the limiting of the debate in this Chamber on Monday night to a Second Reading onlywith no opportunity for the House to vote on the amendments that would have been considered in Committeewas, frankly, a disgrace. I have said that this is a mess of the Government's own making, and I remain of that view. What they have done, having gone to the other place, is to come back
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): I join the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) in condemning the Government for the procedure that they adopted in this House for this very important measure. There can be no more crucial issue in any democratic society than maintaining the purity of the electoral process, and there is no more serious constitutional matter than a Government stepping in to abort a democratic election.
The Minister must recognise that the fact that some of his colleagues in the other place entered into a self-denying ordinance and therefore managed to complete their business in two or three hours without the kind of guillotine that we had does not take away from the fact that there were Members of this House who were unable to speak on Second Reading here, and that there was no debate at all on any of the amendments in Committee, never mind a Third Reading. That is an insult to Parliament and to parliamentary democracy, and it is certainly an insult to the people of Northern Ireland.
The Bill as it has returned from the Lords is only marginally improved. The amendment allows the House to consider the matter should an order be made. However, allowing this Chamber to consider what would in effect be a denial of democracy in Northern Ireland might restore some democratic accountability to this House, but it does little to restore democratic rights to the people of Northern Ireland.
The purpose of the Bill is to allow an election to be put off, not to allow an election to take place at a later stage. The Government have shifted their position consistently on the matter, from what appeared to be an undertaking to have an election in the autumn, to a hope that there might be an election in the autumn, to this Bill, which gives no undertaking to have an election at any specific time. I note that the Minister is not prepared to stake his political career on whether there will be an election in Northern Ireland for the Assembly in the autumn.
Mr. Quentin Davies: The hon. Gentleman, like me, will have heard the Secretary of State, who sadly is not here this evening, say clearly in the House on Monday that he intended that there should be an election in the autumn. I emphasise the word "intended". Those are strong words. We know the Secretary of State, we know that he is a man of his word, and we are entitled to believe, are we not, that that remark was made in good faith and that we can all look forward to an election in the autumn on that basis?
Mr. Robinson: If the Secretary of State had told us what the factors were that would govern his intention, the House might be in a position to reach a conclusion. He might have been saying that he intended, if the conditions that he wanted to occur were favourable, to have an election. If one of the conditions that he wants to occur is such as to allow the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to win an election, it is probably fairly unlikely that the Secretary of State will have an election in the autumn.
I can understand how any politician who has put a lot of time and effort into a particular strategy will want to do everything possible to safeguard that strategy. It is not, even from my point of view of being opposed to the Belfast agreement, difficult for me to understand why the Prime Minister, who has expended a great deal of time on supporting that agreement, should want to do everything conceivable to give continued life to that agreement. I do not find that at all surprising. What I find difficult is his inability to recognise that the Belfast agreement's season has passed; that the agreement has failed; that in effect it is finished. Simply because he does not like what the electorate are going to say, he cannot take away their opportunity to say it, which is effectively the purpose of the Bill.
The Prime Minister knows that, should he allow democracy to seep into the process, the game is up. Any agreement that cannot survive a democratic test has come to the end of the road. The mess that the Government are getting themselves into comes directly from their refusal to face the reality that the agreement cannot survive. They have to face the reality that it has failed and that negotiations for a new agreement are the only way forward.
Even with the Lords amendment in place and the Prime Minister constructing the most favourable circumstances from the shabby choreography that was outlined during the run-up to the Bill being introduced in the House, even if all the factors that the Prime Minister had wanted to take place had done so, the electorate would still reject the Bill. He may not like it, but the views that this party expresses are the views held by a majority of the Unionist community. The sunset clause inserted by the Lords will be of benefit only if the Government use the time to condition themselves to the reality that the agreement has to go and that a new agreement must be brought in.
The Government have sought to suggest that the election is being cancelled because of the inability of the IRA to talk the talk. No thinking person believes that that is true. As one who was not waiting for the IRA to use any particular formulation of words, I found the whole word game fiasco completely bizarre. My colleagues and I are not interested in statements from the IRA. Frankly, we would not believe them or rely on them. Only deeds, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, are capable of convincing the Unionist people. The disarray that the leader of the Ulster Unionist party finds himself in today comes as a direct result of his taking the IRA at its word. No Unionist should make that mistake again.
Approaching the word games as a disbelieving bystander, I never thought that anything stood or fell on the intentionally conditional and cynically devious language crafted by the IRA. Even using words that it has not used before means nothing if it has not lived up to the words that it used in the past.
The Government were set for an election on 1 May not because the legislation required it to be on 1 Maythe Secretary of State invoked the extraordinary power that he has to call an extraordinary election on 1 May. He did that without any words from the IRA. Again, the Government came to the House and set the date of 29 May, once more without any words from the IRA, but
Frankly, we are not fooled by that. We all know that the reason is something other than that. The election was aborted to save the skin of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. If he could have won the election, does anyone in the House believe that we would not have been out campaigning in Northern Ireland tonight? All parties wanted the election to take place except for half of the Ulster Unionist party.
The Government ask us, "What would you have an election for in Northern Ireland if there is no prospect of setting up a Government afterwards?" The answer is easy. It is called negotiations. If there is deadlock after an election, the legislation provides for a process of negotiations. As it is, no one has a mandate to negotiate in relation to the Assembly in Northern Ireland. The Assembly has been dissolved, the Members of the Legislative Assembly effectively made redundant, although some finance is being provided for them under the Bill. The reality is that none of them has the democratic authority to negotiate on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the Government included in previous legislation that they brought to the House designating 29 May as the date of the election a provision to ensure that the Assembly would not sit immediately after an election to allow negotiations to take place, so why do the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State ask in a rhetorical fashion, "Why would you have an election if you couldn't set up a Government?" Their own legislation provided the answer: negotiations could then take place with mandated politicians. I believe that the Government will find out just how easy it is to abolish an Assembly and just how difficult it is to set it up again afterwards. There has been plenty of experience of that in Northern Ireland over past decades.
Although the House of Lords has made a marginal improvement to the Bill, there is still no commitment to an election. I do believe that it would benefit the House for us to divide on this issue, although if other Members do we shall be happy to join them; but at least the people of Northern Ireland will have an opportunity to see their elected representatives deal with this issue once more if the Secretary of State makes a decision during the next few monthsor, if Lords amendment No.2 is agreed to, even if he does not.