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Mr. Hain: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments and I am very grateful for them. I agree that the decision that I have takenit was not an easy decisionis good for the House. My hon. Friend the Minister of State listened for 27 hours to the very powerful points made in Committee by those who were seeking amendments, so to that extent, we have listened to the House and reflected its views.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about exiles. We expect from republicans and loyalists an end to the obnoxious activity of exiling, and that their communities start behaving in a different way. One problem is that there is a need for a change of culture, which, as he knows, is not easy to bring about even in years, let alone in the few months in which we need to make progress.
I always did, as he rightly insisted that we do, listen to victims. Indeed, just before Christmas, the Prime Minister and I met a delegation, including parents, from the Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Widows Association. It was a very moving meeting and they made some very powerful points. I hope that they will feel reassured by the decision that I have taken today.
The hon. Gentleman put the point wellI shall read his words in Hansard very carefullywhen he said that we have to see some justice done for the past, even if it may have to be symbolic. He is pitching to exactly the right part of the problem that we need to resolve. In effect, he made the point that I made earlier: we have to find closure on the past not by denying it, but by allowing Northern Ireland to move forward in such a way that people feel that justice has been done, but they are not dealing with offences that could involve events that took place 30 or even 40 years ago by the time they come to court and in a sense feel that they can be dealt with in exactly the same way today, when the IRA war, in its own words, is over, compared with what was the case at the time.
I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the discussions that we are about to undertake. I hope that, in the spirit of consensus that we
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are seeking to work towardI am grateful for that, toohe will encourage all political parties to behave responsibly and to take part responsibly in those discussions. I agree with him that decisions are best taken in Northern Ireland by elected representatives, which is what we both want to achieve. I also agree that the situation depends on building trust. I should point out to my friends in the Democratic Unionist party in particular that they are entitled to feel suspicious. They got very close to doing something very difficultreaching agreement in the latter part of 2004, only to discover, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Northern bank robbery and the McCartney murder.
As the hon. Gentleman also said, to be absolutely fair, events have changed the situation very significantly since then. The IRA's statement and the decommissioning that followed are of historic significance, as he pointed out. I also accept that we cannot build trust on the basis of a single report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which is due in early February. On the other hand, if that report shows a sea change, we are entitled to expect a responsible response from all the political parties. I further agree that we have to see an end to criminality, and that Sinn Feinalong with all political parties, loyalist groups and othersneeds to sign up to the rule of law and policing. That is absolutely essential.
In respect of policing, I visited south Armagh over the Christmas recess and discovered that many residents in republican communities such as Crossmaglen now approach the police about burglaries, youth yobbery and other problems with which we are all familiar in our own communities. Such problems are starting to arise in the more normal conditions that now prevail across Northern Ireland. I hope that there will be full co-operation with the police, especially from Sinn Fein councillors and Members of the Legislative Assembly. It is their duty to co-operate, but it beats me how on earth they can expect to take part in an Assemblyand even to hold ministerial officewhen they do not even talk to the police.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I add my welcome to the Secretary of State's candid announcement, and the fact that he chose today to share the Government's intentions with us. From the first part of his statement, it is clear that he regards May 2007 as something of a deadline. Does he agree that there have been rumblings of discontent for a long time now about the cost of the Assembly and the salaries that are being paid when there is no visible return in terms of an operational democratic structure? However, does he accept that many Assembly Members have acted in good faith throughout and done their very best to ensure a functioning Assembly?
What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the good are not punished for their loyalty to the process? Will he make sure that there is a degree of discrimination in the Government's approach and that a distinction is made between those who have acted in good faith, in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and those who have sought to resist the operation of the Assembly? I am sure that he will agree that it is not reasonable to punish those who throughout have done their best, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, to maintain a bipartisan agreement.
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I turn now to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has sensed and heard the resentment and opposition from all sides to that proposal. Is not this only the second time in the past few years that there has been collective opposition to Northern Ireland legislation introduced by the Government? That collective opposition has been so considerable that all the Northern Ireland parties, including Sinn Fein, have opposed the Bill, as have all the Opposition parties on the UK mainland. Does he recall that the other legislation to arouse such opposition was the Bill to introduce student tuition fees? On that occasion, the Government lost a vote on these premises but nevertheless forced the introduction of the proposals. Will he accept my gratitude for the fact that, this time, he and the Government have heeded the many criticisms and amendments put forward in the Standing Committee considering the offences Bill?
My party concurs with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) in that we will not make mileage out of this decision. The Government have done the right thing, and we recognise that there must be some sort of resolution to the problem. On behalf of all Liberal Democrat Members, I thank the Secretary of State for his announcement. On this occasion, the Government have listened, and acted maturely.
Mr. Hain: After that, what can I do but thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks? I do so in all sincerity: he and I are in the same position on this matter, and always have been. He has played an honourable and responsible role in seeking to make progress in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) is right to say that the Government have listened to the House in respect of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. Equally, the Bill was passed by a comfortable majority on Second Reading. There were 44 Divisions in Committee, and none was lost[Laughter.] I say that because withdrawing the Bill is the right thing to do, as the hon. Gentleman freely said. However, I want to make it clear that I am not withdrawing it because the Government did not command a majority and were unable to get it through the House. I think that we could have got it through, with amendments of the sort that we were planning.
Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman agrees with that. He spoke about the political process, but May 2007 is not a deadline, as we have to make progress this year. An election in early May 2007 cannot be postponed a matter of weeks beforehand. He is right to say that we cannot elect people to an Assembly that does not exist and that the public in Northern Ireland would not stand for that. Moreover, as I said in my statement, we cannot continue to pay the salaries and allowances of people who are not prepared to take their legislative responsibilities seriously.
Mr. Hain: I say to my friends in the Democratic Unionist party that it is right to recognise that people in certain parties have sought honourably to get the political process up and running. The Alliance is one of those parties.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke about discrimination, but I do not think that that would be possible. I think that all Members of the Legislative Assembly act in good faith, to use his phrase. I would not want to be the arbiter of who does and who does not act in that way, especially when it came to deciding whether salaries and allowances should be withdrawn. If Members of the Legislative Assembly are not willing to do their jobs in the Assembly, there is no point in going on as we are.
Assembly Members from all parties write to me, so I know that many of them do a job in their constituencies. However, their constituents elected them to take their responsibilities as legislators seriously, and the point is that they are not doing so. I welcome what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said and look forward to working with him over the coming months.
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