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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con):
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for making this statement at the earliest opportunity after Parliament's return and also for his courtesy in letting me have early sight of its contents. I say at the start that I hope that this initiative by the Government succeeds. My party will support the Secretary of State in this initiative. However, I have several concerns and questions.No one in this House does anyone in Northern Ireland any favours by trying to wish away the serious difficulties that still exist. Like the Secretary of State, I want to see devolution working in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland
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should have the right to elect representatives to take decisions on their behalf and to hold those representatives to account for their stewardship. But the truth is that we will not get agreement on an Executive, and certainly not by 24 November, unless we are able to overcome the deep mistrust that exists between the different communities and political parties.
My party accepts that the republican movement has come a long way in the past yearwould that it had done so much earlierand the IRA's statement of 28 July 2005 and the act of decommissioning in September were highly significant developments. But does the Secretary of State agree with me that the responsibility now rests primarily with republicans to persuade democrats from both the Unionist and nationalist traditions that their renunciation of violence and their declared commitment as republicans to democratic politics are both permanent and irreversible? Does the Secretary of State accept that it would be wrong to have Sinn Fein Ministers in the Government of Northern Ireland while the IRA continues to be involved in criminal activity, or before Sinn Fein is prepared to give its unequivocal backing to the police and the courts in Northern Ireland? Does he further accept that those moves need to come before an Executive are formed, and not at some unspecified point in the future when powers over policing and justice can be devolved?
In that context, I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to comment briefly on the fact that two very serious crimes have taken place in the last fortnight. In both cases, there has been much speculation about the involvement of members of the provisional republican movement. Clearly, if such involvement were to be proven, the task of building confidence and restoring devolution would be a hard oneI suspect that it would be impossiblein the time frame that the Government now envisage. Will the Secretary of State tell the House, so far as he is able to without compromising ongoing police investigations, what information he has received?
First, does he believe allegations that the murder of Denis Donaldson was carried out by the provisional IRA? The Prime Minister has declared very confidently that people who wanted to wreck the peace process carried out that crime. That confidence suggests that Ministers possess reliable information about the matter. At the time of the Northern bank robbery, both the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda swiftly concluded that the IRA was to blame, and said so publicly. Have the two police forces yet come to any similarly firm conclusion about who was responsible for the murder?
Secondly, the Secretary of State will know that on 10 April the Garda arrested three men in Westmeath, after a lorry carrying vodka worth €300,000 was hijacked. Have the Irish authorities told him whether Dublin press reports are true and that the alleged criminals were known provisional activists? It has been claimed that one of them was released under the early-release provisions of the Belfast agreement.
The joint statement of 6 April listed education among the issues that the new Assembly should discuss as part of its preparation for government. Will the Secretary of State therefore agree to put off his proposed education reforms, at least until the Assembly has considered them and its views are known?
Regarding the internal governance of Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State confirm that it remains entirely a matter for the UK Government accountable to this Parliament? We on the Conservative Benches appreciate the efforts and commitment of successive Irish Governments, and of the Taoiseach personally, to a lasting settlement. I believe that political, economic and cultural relationships between the UK and the Republic of Ireland should be at least as close as those between any two modern European democracies that share a common land border. However, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is a fundamental principle of the Belfast agreement and the entire political process that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK is accepted by all sidesalbeit unwillingly in some casesunless and until the people of Northern Ireland freely consent to change? Does he therefore agree that any form of joint authority would be in breach of that principle of consent?
On the emergency legislation that the right hon. Gentleman has announced, my colleagues and I will want to look at the detail as soon as it is available. However, once we have done so, we hope to be able to support the Government and to help to bring the Bill into law as quickly as possible.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can give me some reassurance about a particular anxiety of minethat the Bill might include powers for Ministers to amend Acts of Parliament by order. Will the Bill contain such powers? If the answer is yes, will he promise that it will impose very strict limits on both the extent and duration of those powers?
Mr. Hain: First, I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes, and for putting it on the record that, in general terms, the Opposition will support the initiative. I agree that it is in no one's interest to attempt to wish away what he described as the serious difficulties afflicting this process.
There is deep mistrust, and I agree that responsibility does indeed lie with republicans to ensure that everyonenot just their supporters, but their opponentsis persuaded that they are genuinely committed to peaceful and democratic means; that they have, as the Independent Monitoring Commission has reported, rejected their past commitment to terrorism; and that they are committed to rejecting criminality, about which I will say more in answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific questions.
The hon. Gentleman asked for further information on the murder of Denis Donaldson and on the vodka heist. He asked for further information on whether they were carried out by the IRA. I accept that he himself made a distinction between those events and the
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Northern Bank robbery, which the Chief Constable was quick to say was the responsibility of the IRA. No firm conclusions have been yet drawn by the police on either matter, and there is certainly no evidence that I have seen, or that the police have provided to me, or any intelligence, that either very serious incident, not least the barbaric murder of Denis Donaldson, was sanctioned, approved or in any way organised with, as it were, prior thought by the leadership of the provisional IRA.
"The IRA has no responsibility for the tiny number of former republicans who have embraced criminal activity. They do so for self-gain. We repudiate this activity and denounce those involved. The IRA remains committed to the peace process . . . The leadership . . . believes that it is possible to achieve the republican goal of a united Ireland through the alternative route of purely peaceful and democratic means."
On education reform, I am happy to provide assurances that I believe it would be a suitable matter for discussion in the Assembly if the Assembly chose to discuss it and if there were all-party agreement to do so. Undoubtedly, if all-party policy positions were agreed by the Assembly, the Education Ministerthe Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith)and I would want to take careful note of them. We intend to bring forward an order next month to set the overall architecture, but there will be considerable scope once the Assembly has got going to determine the exact new admission arrangements, the nature of the pupil profile, curriculum detail and so forth. Those would be appropriate issues for the Assembly to discuss, but no one, I think, is in any doubt aboutI have heard no one defend it to methe continued existence of a method of deciding a child's future on the basis of two one-hour tests, after which their future opportunities are either closed or opened up. There is agreement, however, that there is genuine debate on the issue and there will be an opportunity to influence the future over exactly how the new regime will operate.
On the supremacy, as it were, of the United Kingdom Government in the governance of Northern Ireland, I am happy to agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. There is absolutely no question of joint authority or joint governance. There is plenty of scope, however, and the hon. Gentleman implied that he agreed with this, for practical co-operation, as provided for through the architecture of the Good Friday agreement, which was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, for cross-border co-operation in a number of areasfor example, on energy, the economy, child offending, and getting rid of unfair mobile phone roaming charges so that there is a single, all-Ireland rate. On those sorts of issues, and on many more, there is tremendous scope for future co-operation, much of which, indeed, is already taking place. But there is no question of joint authority. There is no question of that at all.
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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's general support on the emergency legislation and will be happy to take him through the detail when we have an opportunity to do so. I am being very cautious about Orders in Council; I know there is sensitivity to them in Parliament, both in this place and the House of Lords. However, I want some flexibility to make progress. I had hoped to include in the Bill provision by Order in Council, should we be in a position to reach a final agreement, and also to amend the strands 1 to 3 arrangements, which everybody understands will be necessary in terms of the original architecture; for example, the Democratic Unionist party has made its position clear.
I had hoped to include an Order-in-Council provision in the Bill, but it seems that there is opposition to that, so we shall have to look at emergency legislation later in the year, should there be the conditions for the necessary all-party agreement and the restoration of the institutions that we desire. I shall obviously consult the hon. Gentleman on all the detail as we go through the process.
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