Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2003

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David Burnside (South Antrim): The Minister and her colleagues keep saying that there is a breakdown of trust on both sides. There was no breakdown of trust concerning the Unionist community; the breakdown of trust occurred in the law-abiding community because the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein were found to be spying in the Northern Ireland Office. The breakdown of trust occurred in the law-abiding community with regard to those who were breaking the law.

Angela Smith: There was a breakdown of trust that ensured that the Assembly could not continue at that time. The Secretary of State therefore decided that the appropriate measure was to suspend the Assembly, a decision that was fully endorsed by members of the Government. If there is an unambiguous and definitive conclusion to the transition from violence and trust is restored, devolved government can begin to flourish again in Northern Ireland. That is what we all aim for.

Two days after suspension, in a speech in Belfast, the Prime Minister reiterated the Government's belief that we had reached a fork in the road. Republicans needed to complete the permanent transition to exclusively peaceful means. If that happened, the Government could implement the rest of the Belfast agreement and devolved government could be restored and founded on a more stable footing than previously. Since last October, both Governments have engaged with the parties and, most importantly, the parties have engaged with each other to try to promote that step forward.

Recently, there has been much discussion of Northern Ireland matters in the House. There was considerable discussion of the postponement of the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. In the light of the proposals that the two Governments discussed with the political parties at Hillsborough in early March, a Bill was introduced, with widespread understanding on both sides of the House, to delay the elections from 1 May to 29 May to give the political process time to function.

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The Government believe that, at Hillsborough, the two Governments and the pro-agreement parties arrived at a shared understanding of how the process could now move forward towards a durable settlement. The key issues under discussion are no secret: an end to paramilitarism and the stability of the institutions.

If the paramilitaries are committed to giving up their activities for good, and if there is commitment on all sides to the stability of the institutions, we can move forward to restoring the devolved Administration and implementing the Belfast agreement on the basis of the proposals made by the two Governments. It was clear to us that time and space would be needed for that to happen. One cannot rush the rebuilding of the trust and confidence necessary for stable institutions to be restored. The Governments cannot dictate the pace.

However, we hope that there is now a real prospect of advance. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will visit Belfast twice this week, once for discussion with the parties and President Bush, and later to publish the two Governments' proposals. I repeat that the proposals are contingent on the acts of completion for which the Prime Minister called in his speech in Belfast. Without complete cessation of paramilitary activity, the process cannot move forward.

If the proposals ultimately find a basis for devolved government that commands trust across the community, I hope that the Assembly and Northern Ireland Ministers will promptly be restored to authority. I shall not be drawn on the possibilities, but if matters advance sufficiently before the elections now scheduled for 29 May, the institutions could be restored before then; failing that, we may go into the elections with a clear understanding of the basis on which devolved government could be restored.

I believe that when restoration happens, it will be on a more stable and satisfactory basis than existed before direct rule was introduced. We shall be able to restore the institutions only if there is confidence on all sides that the shadow of paramilitarism has been removed from the Northern Ireland political scene and if there is real trust in the willingness to operate the institutions in a stable and inclusive manner.

That will mean that the Secretary of State and his junior ministers will hand back control of the Northern Ireland Departments to devolved Ministers and renounce the power to legislate on Northern Ireland economic and social matters. The order will then be quickly forgotten, which is the fate that we have in store for it. However, we must ensure that the full machinery of administration is in place while direct rule lasts, which is why we had to bring the order before the Committee this afternoon. I believe that members of the Committee will share my hope that the order will meet an early and ignominious end, but that they will also see why it is, if only briefly, a regrettable necessity.

7.15 pm

Mr. Taylor: Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Pike.

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I agree with the point made during an intervention by the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), who is sitting close to me. He took exception, with every justification, to the Minister's innuendo that the breakdown of trust in the Assembly last autumn was in some way equivalent or mutual, when it was not. There was one, clearly identifiable, wrongdoer and, as the Conservative party said at the time, the Secretary of State could have taken powers on the Floor of the House to suspend individuals who had broken trust. However, he did not do so. What happened instead was that unfair thing that we all remember from our schooldays when every member of the class was punished because two or three individuals had behaved outrageously. That is never fair. I never thought that that was fair when I was at school. If I was in the wrong, I was the one who was punished, not the whole class.

Lembit Öpik: One serious point I should make is that that never happened. Another serious point is that we should surely understand that the Minister and the Government were trying to do something to restore the process. One of my complaints about the Conservative party is that it complains about suspension, but has not proposed an alternative that is a more credible way of protecting the system as a whole.

Mr. Taylor: I shall not rise to that remark because it is a contention—a personal subjective view. It is wrong, and I shall proceed with my comments.

Lembit Öpik: A powerful argument!

Mr. Taylor: If the hon. Gentleman goads me into continuing, I gladly shall.

When these issues came to a head—in fact, even before they came to a head—the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said on the Floor of the House, in a debate that we sought and secured, that if such a thing should happen, the Secretary of State should hasten to take powers so that he could act in a way that singled out wrongdoing rather than carry out a blanket suspension of all, including those who were trying scrupulously to do their best in the process. I have probably talked enough about that, but I wanted the hon. Member for South Antrim to know that I agree with him.

We have no alternative but to pass what is before us tonight. To do otherwise would make no sense and would fly in the face of what is clearly legally required at this stage. However, I notice that the order will lapse if the Assembly is restored before 14 October 2003, which permits me to say that we would countenance the restoration of the Assembly only if there is a comprehensive settlement with no ifs or buts, and completion of verified decommissioning and disbandment. It must be the works, with no half measures or side deals. All the issues must be interlinked. If I say that sternly, it is not because I do not want it to happen—I profoundly do want it to happen—but I counsel the Government that this is a one-off opportunity to get everything right, although I am sure that they know that already and do not need my advice. They will go down famously if they pull it off—and I say that as an Opposition Member. I hope

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that they take the chance and are not tempted by near misses, fudges, nearlys or almosts, or words and equivocations that bear possible double meaning. I hope that I have left no doubt about my view.

Finally, I am unhappy about government by Order in Council. I was more comfortable with the idea during the earlier stages of finishing off the Assembly's work, because in every case during that period there was clear evidence of debate, and one could see the direction of local opinion. I found that a great source of reassurance when supporting certain measures because, as an Englishman—others will have heard me say this before—I do not like to tell Northern Ireland citizens what is best for them.

As was illustrated by what happened with criminal justice last week, it is as though we have gone back two centuries and are governing Northern Ireland as a colony. That is demeaning to my fellow citizens who live there. My fellow citizens in Northern Ireland should have the benefit of the same degree of scrutiny of their laws as we, who live in England, have of ours.

7.21 pm

Lembit Öpik: Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Pike. I note with some concern that I see you in Committee more often these days than I see my own family, but it is none the less a great delight and honour to serve under you so often.

There is a degree of inevitability about having to pass this order, as we cannot leave Northern Ireland in limbo. There is also the temptation to have a general moan about the intensity of Orders in Council, which are clearly not the best way to legislate in an ideal world. We have all had an horrific time keeping up with the intense barrage of legislation that has come from the Government as they try to fulfil the legislative programme left by the suspended Assembly. In many cases, the legislation has not received detailed scrutiny, although most of the time it deserved it. In the long run, legislation may end up taking a lot of time, if one includes the time that the Assembly will have to spend considering updates.

I suppose that we must agree to differ: the Minister feels that there has been justification for ramming this legislation through in a binary fashion, by which one can either accept or reject it; I feel there might have been alternatives. For example, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs might have been used to gather more evidence informally from interested bodies. It could almost have provided an informal Committee stage, which would have allowed it to discuss legislation with experts. Such discussion has happened a bit, but not hugely. The Northern Ireland Grand Committee could also have been more greatly used, although, in fairness, I should note that the Government have stepped up the frequency of its sittings. For legislation such as the criminal justice matters that we discussed last week, it is insufficient and, in my judgment, unacceptable that profoundly important debates provide so little opportunity for modification.

The Minister hoped that we would not need this process much longer. We obviously agree with that. However, we are to have up to six months more of

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carrying out the Assembly's legislative programme. The Government clearly felt it necessary to complete legislation by the date of the election in Northern Ireland at the end of May. I do not see why that was so: the important point is that progress was being made. I still do not subscribe to the belief that the end of April or the end of May drew some kind of line in the sand.

I have two other points. First, the Minister succumbed to the irresistible temptation to talk about the breakdown of trust on both sides. I should say—not for the first time—that Northern Ireland is a community not of two sides, but of many sides. I make that point because the phrase ''on both sides'' irritates people, who feel that, whatever the Government say in public, they think, attitudinally, of Northern Ireland as having two sides, and that serves to entrench the sectarianism that the Government claim to be trying to remove. I plead with Ministers to be more careful about their use of language, so that people can feel that there is a genuine desire to acknowledge the diversity and community colours in Northern Irish politics and culture.

My other point was on disbandment, and whether the Government are being tough enough. There is critical acceptance of the fact that the order must be agreed to. To the Government's credit, they are at least being sufficiently realistic, and have not been tempted to call for grand and, in my judgment, unachievable goals such as the total and measurable disbandment of the IRA. We all want that to happen, but the hon. Member for Solihull should think about how such a statement sounds in Northern Ireland. Calling for such a goal does not serve any useful purpose in Northern Irish politics. Perhaps it gets a few headlines, but it does not help to keep the republican community on board, or make it confident that no desire to gain a victory over republicans is involved.

The Government's mistake was to allow themselves to be corralled into talking about acts of completion as if such acts were everything. In fact, considering acts of completion is less important than talking about a permanent cessation of violence. However, we have discussed that. The Liberal Democrats will support the order—grudgingly, and with the reservations that I mentioned. However, we ask the Government to take on board the valid criticisms of all parties, who believe that the Government have the space, and perhaps a moral responsibility, to provide more opportunity for us to amend legislation. That would be better than having to decide, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, which orders to approve and which not to.

7.27 pm

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