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Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The statement by the Secretary of State covers two main areas and my remarks will relate to both. First, he said that he hopes that talks will be held and asked party leaders to agree to dates in early February. I can assure him that my party has no problem about his preferred dates and that we will take part in a sensible and meaningful way, but I hope that he will ensure that we will not have to continue our grand tour of various stately homes in Great Britain.
Will the Secretary of State also consider setting a date for restoration of the Assembly? Instead of making flaky threats about withdrawing salaries if progress is not made by the summer, he should tell us by what date the Government want the Assembly to be restored. It was the Government, and not the Members of the Legislative Assembly, who suspended the Assembly: they did so because of the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons and its decision to continue its activity. The IRA's refusal to decommission gave other parties an effective veto on Northern Ireland's political institutions. Now that that problem has been dealt with, that veto should be deemed to have expired and the Government should make it clear that we are on a countdown to restoration.
Secondly, the Secretary of State announced the withdrawal of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. I join other hon. Members in welcoming that, although my welcome is not unqualified, as I am concerned that some of the right hon. Gentleman's other remarks imply that the proposals might be recycled in another form. I hope that he will confirm that the Bill truly has been abandoned, and not merely parked until another time, because it does not deal with the past in the way that he suggested.
The House will recall that, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State referred to the example of South Africa. However, the key phrase in the foreword to the South African legislation was that the past should be left behind "on a moral basis". There was nothing moral about the Bill, nor about the way that it was introduced. It would have built a moral vacuum, a legal quicksand
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Mr. Speaker: Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman some leeway, but the Secretary of State has made a statement. Several supplementary questions have been put to him, so I think that we will leave the hon. Gentleman's contribution at that.
Mr. Hain: First, I can respond to the final point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) by saying that I am grateful for his welcome for the withdrawal of the Bill. I assure him that there is no intention to recycle it, but the anomaly associated with the on-the-runs and those who might be prosecuted as a result of historic or current inquiries persists. That is true whether the people involved were in the security forces or belonged to paramilitary groups. That anomaly will continue to throw up many problems and issues over the coming years. We can either accept that, or we can find a legislative vehicle to resolve the matter. I want people to pause for reflection, and there is no question of our just recycling the Bill. It should not be on the agenda for the next months, at any rate.
I am grateful that the SDLP will be willing, as it has always been, to participate in political negotiations. Indeed, it has been pressing for them. I agree that, in my hon. Friend's inimitable phrase, there should be no grand tour of stately homes. We might come to my own one at Hillsborough once or twice
On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about setting a date to restore institutions, I do not think that that can simply be done unilaterally. We have to proceed carefully, but he is right that we are on countdown. May 2007 is a deadline, but it means that we have to proceed this year and to get the Assembly up and running. We are in the countdown period, but I do not want to set an arbitrary date as that could cause the sort of problems from which it is difficult to emerge.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): It is helpful that the Secretary of State has set out his stall today. I welcome some of his comments, and my colleagues and I particularly agree that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, although we would enter the caveat that it must be governed by those committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
It is not unreasonable of the Secretary of State to recognise that it would be unconscionable to hold an election to an Assembly that has not met over the past four years. Nor do we have many misgivings about ending the salaries of Assembly Members if progress cannot be made, although, to be consistent, I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to give the House an assurance that if Sinn Fein is not doing its job in this House, he will never consider paying allowances to its Members of this place.
I very much welcome the withdrawal of the OTR Bill; it was the right step for the Secretary of State to take. It is welcome to all the Opposition parties, who have
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worked collectively and very well on the issue. I am glad the decision was taken here in the democratic Chamber rather than being forced on the Government in another place.
Finally, while the DUP wants real progress on devolution in Northern Ireland, there has to be some reality in the Government's thinking. It is not always possible to complete a journey in one step. Would it not be sensible for the Government to recognise the limitations imposed by the fact that trust is the most essential ingredient in forming any Cabinet? That trust, at present, simply does not exist. Trust is not based on a calendar; it must be built up over time. Is it not possible to consider taking a first step on the road to executive devolution by having a non-executive form in which people can start to build trust and in which the credentials of Sinn Fein and the IRA can be tested?
Mr. Hain: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said, which was in the spirit of the mood of the House. Since he has agreed with the point I made about 2007, I have to agree with him. There is no difference between us in saying it would bealthough I hesitate to use the terma kind of farce for democracy to go through a process of electing people to a body that does not exist.
I note that the hon. Gentleman has no misgivings about salaries and allowances, which covers Members' advice centres and all the rest. I am not suggesting that because I want to hold a sword of Damocles over MLAs. I am doing it because it is logical and what the public want. The public want MLAs to do their jobs, and the hon. Gentleman is indicating, I think, that he senses that they may be right.
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said about the Bill. Implicit in what he said was the fact that many fierce words were expressed in Committee over many days. What struck me, however, and what the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), reported to meI pay tribute to the great sensitivity with which my hon. Friend dealt with matters in Committee, and I sense that the House agrees with me on thatwas the role played by the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and, indeed, the official Opposition, despite the fact
The point is that the Committee showed Parliament at its best. People had fierce disagreements but were able to treat each other with respect, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and his colleagues certainly behaved in exactly that way.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about wanting real progress on devolution. That was an important statement from the Deputy Leader of the DUP, and I know that he means it. He is entitled to say that there has to be a reality check, and I understand why he says it. I note carefully what he said about the problems of taking just one step. He asked whether there could be some non-executive precursor to power sharing, to build trust. I await proposals from him and
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his party and from other parties. I am not keen on the idea of an Assembly prior to a power-sharing Executive. I would like to act in the way provided for by the Good Friday agreement. If, however, there were all-party consent, which it would be the duty of the DUP to seek, along with other parties, and if people came to me with a model that others would support, that would be an interesting proposition, which we could talk about after the IMC report in early February.
Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the Minister for having the honesty to recognise that the Bill had become unworkable and for being prepared to withdraw it. It is obvious from what he has said that he has spent considerable time talking not just to the politicians of Northern Ireland, but to the people on the streets from all communities. What are his assessments of opinion on the street about restoring the Assembly and of all-community support for policing in Northern Ireland?
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