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7.45 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): When the commentators, of whom there are probably far too many in Northern Ireland, come to commentate on this period of history in the political process more commonly known as the peace process, the passage of this Bill will symbolise the ending of the possibility of devolution in Ulster in the foreseeable future.

We in the Unionist community have no faith in the Government's returning in the next six months to organise an election in Northern Ireland that could create a workable, meaningful Executive or Assembly to try to offer Northern Ireland the benefits of devolution that have been offered, and are working with a certain amount of success, in Scotland and Wales.

This is why I believe my prediction will be proved correct. The minute the Prime Minister announced the postponement of this election, the Provisional IRA

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withdrew its contact with de Chastelain. The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein only react under pressure. They knew that they could not get in; they knew that they could not get anything unless they came back in. They were under pressure. There is no pressure on them now— and what messages are they getting from the British and Irish Governments? The joint declaration was conditional on acts of completion—the ending and disbandment of the IRA as an organisation, and the 100 per cent. conversion of Sinn Fein to a totally normal democratic party. They have no need to do those things, and they will not do them. They will maintain the pressure, they will maintain the army and they will maintain the threat, because the Governments who preside jointly over Northern Ireland have already made another tactical mistake. They already have the concessions on the watchtowers in South Armagh, and they will get more, as surely as day follows night.

Whatever the Government say, the Unionist people no longer have any faith in this Government's restoring decent, accountable democracy in Northern Ireland. We will come back in the autumn, and I hope that I will be proved wrong. I hope that we will have a democratic election for the Assembly, and that the republican veto that this Government have not had the guts to stand up to will be removed from the democratic process in Northern Ireland.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), I have no wish to divide the House, but this is a sad day for democracy in Northern Ireland. We are to have no local democracy, no election and none of the advantages of devolution in the Province.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I am a little confused, as I believe my hon. Friends may well be. What the hon. Gentleman has just said is virtually an echo of what the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said. Do we take it that the views of the hon. Gentleman and the Democratic Unionist party on this issue are identical?

David Burnside: I think that the view across all sections of Unionism is identical: we would like a form of devolution in Northern Ireland. I think that the Ulster Unionist party, the DUP and the broad Unionist community agree that the republican movement continues to have a veto on progress towards devolution in Northern Ireland. If there is unity across the Unionist community, I welcome it.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will my hon. Friend further confirm that we in the Ulster Unionist party, being totally committed to an election at the earliest possible date, like our Unionist colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, had nominated and were prepared to take our message to the community at large in Northern Ireland, with absolute confidence of victory at the end?

David Burnside: My hon. Friend is correct. I put in my Assembly candidate nomination papers last Friday; indeed, the Ulster Unionist party, along with many other parties, put in nomination papers throughout Northern Ireland. We wanted an election and I was looking forward to one for a single reason: to end the veto of the men of violence who use terrorism, and to

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replace that threat with democratic, accountable government at Stormont. We do not have democratic, accountable government at Stormont because there is a veto from the republican movement that this Government will not face up to.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): I want to make a few brief comments, as several of the issues have already been dealt with. I reiterate the comments of other hon. Members about the disgraceful proceedings that have accompanied the process governing this legislation. Frankly, for Members of this House to have no opportunity in Committee or on Third Reading to move amendments or to speak is disgraceful. [Interruption.] The Minister may want to reply to that point directly, rather than by speaking to one of his colleagues from a sedentary position. However short a time the House of Lords, an unelected body, may have spent in Committee on individual clauses, at least it had that opportunity, whereas the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland and of those throughout the United Kingdom had no opportunity for detailed consideration of this very important legislation, which deals with the democratic process in Northern Ireland. The Bill was not timetabled but guillotined—a distinction that was made clear in the House the other day. That makes the Government's actions all the more reprehensible.

The amendments constitute the slightest of improvements. They make no outstanding change to the Bill's substance, in that there is still no date for an election. There is a quasi-sunset clause, and the provision before us will ensure that the matter has to come before the House again if the Secretary of State makes an order. However, the people of Northern Ireland have been denied their right to have their say in an election on 29 May—the second time in a month that they have been denied their right to speak at the polls. That has gone down very badly across all sections of the community in Northern Ireland.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, all the parties in Northern Ireland, bar half of one, wanted this election to take place. I listened with interest to the intervention of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs). His comments are at odds with those of his senior colleagues in Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, on the pro-agreement wing of the Ulster Unionist party. In the press at home, they were calling virtually daily for the elections to be put off. Indeed, his comments are also at odds with those of his party's leader, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who congratulated the Government and welcomed the statement when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State made it in this House. The people have been denied their choice at the ballot box, and that has been met with the support of the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, but with denunciation from all the other parties in Northern Ireland.

The irony is that this legislation is progressing through Parliament to stop an election that has already happened. As a result of this provision, the House could end up debating the Secretary of State's decision when the election is already under way, if it is called in the autumn. That is the nonsense of the Government's

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position. They will end up bringing matters to the House for decision after the elections have already started in the Province.

The campaign has started, de facto, but the Secretary of State tells the people of Northern Ireland not to nominate candidates, because legislation will be put before the House of Commons. In other words, they should ignore the law, the wishes of Parliament and what Parliament might do. The suggestion is that we should assume what Parliament will do but forget about all the demands of the electoral process. According to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and the chief electoral officer, the elections are under way as we sit here tonight. Expenses are being racked up and the other processes are continuing.

In the autumn, the elections could be announced and halfway through the Government would come to the House to ask whether it approved. That is the nonsense of the situation that the Government are in. They should have let the elections proceed on 1 May, or at the latest—if they had to be postponed—on 29 May. Let the people have their say.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 2.

Mr. Browne: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Another concern raised in the House was that the power to hold elections was open-ended. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) referred to the welcome and helpful report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place. It was this aspect of the Bill that the Committee described as unacceptable, recommending, in paragraph 7 of its 20th report, dated 12 May 2003, that

An earlier section of the report shows that the Committee, acting expeditiously, described the other delegations in the Bill—those outwith clause 1—as

I am grateful for those observations.

As we heard earlier, some hon. Members looked for the Bill to fix a date for an election, or a deadline by which one might be called. The Government continue to think that that would be undesirable. We do not believe that it would advance the restoration of a functioning system of government, or more stable politics in Northern Ireland. What is necessary to the restoration of functioning devolved institutions in Northern Ireland is absolute clarity about the future of paramilitarism, and confidence in the stability of the institutions. That is how we will get functioning institutions. Setting a date will not provide them. Setting a date now for an election in the autumn would effectively mean that the campaign would begin now. I have read the report of the Second Reading debate and it is clear that a substantial part was taken up with campaigning. That is not how we should

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create a propitious environment for political dialogue and political advance. Indeed, the opposite is true—as that debate showed.

However, it is right to set some bounds to the power and provide further opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny. Accordingly, we have tabled an amendment that would require the Government to return to Parliament to extend the power if it has not been exercised by 15 November, which is six months from tomorrow, when we hope that the Bill will gain Royal Assent. It would then be renewable, under the amendment, for periods of up to six months thereafter.

I can also say that it is certainly our intention, if there has been no election by that date, to renew the powers. Indeed if we formed the opposite view—that the power should lapse—we should seek to ensure that the House had an opportunity to consider the question if it wished, before the powers were lost. My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has authorised me to say that the debate on renewal this autumn—if, regrettably, we have not had an election by then—would be taken on the Floor of the House. However, I stress that it is our intention to have an election by the autumn.

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