Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lembit Öpik: We have already told you.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman may think that that is my responsibility, but he represents a party that has pretensions to government and yet he is not prepared to discuss the funding implications for higher education and student finance, as well as the policies themselves.

To conclude, I emphasise that the commitment to all-party inclusive talks is genuine and without reservation.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): I add my voice to those who have already welcomed you back to the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Speaker. The whole House will appreciate and understand why the democratic parties in Northern Ireland do not want to trust Sinn Fein, but, in forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament, the Labour party has shown that it is possible to form a working relationship with those who neither deserve nor receive our trust. Is it not about time that the Democratic Unionist party did the same?

Mr. Hain: I think that it is best if I just say to my hon. Friend, who makes his point with great eloquence and force, that Northern Ireland is Northern Ireland and Scotland is Scotland.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): May I join others in saying that my colleagues and I are delighted to see you back in your place, Mr. Speaker? We are particularly pleased that you look so well.

I echo the shadow Secretary of State's comments about paragraph 10 of the Prime Minister's statement—the threat applied to Unionists should the date of 24 November not be met. That threat was crass and foolish, and is contrary to any concept of the principle of consent. I hope that the Secretary of State will make
18 Apr 2006 : Column 29
it very clear that there will be no constitutional change as a result of the Provisional IRA not meeting the deadline that is set for 24 November.

Will the Secretary of State also find some time to take his hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) to one side and explain to him the principle of the mandate? We are living in a parliamentary democracy and, in a parliamentary democracy, the electorate can change the mandate from one election to the next. The electorate have freely, at the ballot box, made it very clear in the Unionist community that they oppose the Belfast agreement. My colleagues and I have suggested the changes required to achieve a satisfactory agreement that can win the support of the Unionist community. There is a deficiency in the Prime Minister's statement, as it does not provide a road map to show how that can come about, and the timetable does not take account of the necessary steps to bring it about.

There is another deficiency in the timetable. The Prime Minister seems to have opted for the notion that the Unionist community can be timetabled into an Executive. The issue will be determined not by the clock but according to whether various conditions have been met and whether paramilitary and criminal activity has ended. That is the critical factor for my party. We want to move into devolution, and we want an Executive in Northern Ireland, but the principle of our mandate indicates that we can only share power with those who are committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

Will the Secretary of State say very clearly at the Dispatch Box that he does not expect anybody to share power in government with those who continue paramilitary and criminal activity? I remind him that the Prime Minister's statement was sandwiched between two events—the killing of Denis Donaldson, in which members of the Provisional IRA were involved, and the vodka heist in the Republic, in which members of the Provisional IRA were involved. The Unionist community wants to be certain that the provisional IRA did not organise and sanction those events.

Mr. Hain: First, I am sure that the House will join me in wishing the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) a happy 80th birthday, which fell on the day of the joint statement by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister—I do not know whether that was pre-planned by divine intervention.

May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there are absolutely no threats to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in the statement by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister or in anything that I say at the Dispatch Box today? That constitutional status was decided by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, and it can only be changed by them in a referendum. I reiterate that that is our policy, and the policy of every good democrat in the House and outside. Nothing in that statement, and nothing that I have said today about north-south co-operation and practical matters, alters that at all, nor could it do so.

I agree that the principle of the mandate must be respected. The hon. Gentleman's party won a clear majority of the votes, and it is the largest party from Northern Ireland in this Parliament and, indeed, in the
18 Apr 2006 : Column 30
Assembly. It was elected on a platform that requires changes to the detail of the Good Friday agreement, and that is precisely what we will address when it comes to negotiating a final solution. There is no point other parties seeking to deny that, which is why I sought to address the matter in my early thoughts about the Bill. We will have to take it forward in another way if we reach the point where there is, as I hope that there will be, all-party agreement to restore the institutions, as I accept that that cannot be done without changes of the kind that we have discussed before, particularly in 2004, and that require further legislation.

On the question of paramilitary and criminal activity, the hon. Gentleman has seen the last few IMC reports, particularly the last one, which made it clear, as I said, that the IRA no longer poses a terrorist threat. The report made it clear, too, that although there are instances of localised criminality, there is no evidence that that is organised from the top. Indeed, it made it clear that criminal operations have been closed down by the organisation, which puts us on the right road. I accept that the hon. Gentleman's party is concerned about the matter. I am concerned about it too, which is why the police and the Assets Recovery Agency—this applies across the border—are pursuing those responsible for such criminality energetically. All the recent reports confirm that, whether the criminals are claimed to be republican or loyalist.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Before I call a Back Bencher, may I ask hon. Members to co-operate by asking the Minister only one supplementary question?

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): May I add my good wishes to you, Mr. Speaker, on your recovery and return? The Chair seemed a little empty in your absence, and we are very glad to have you back.

I am deeply concerned about the singular attention given by Secretary of State to the mandate of the Democratic Unionist party. The DUP has a mandate—it has about a third of the votes in Northern Ireland—and I respect it. However, my party has a mandate, too, and I would like the Secretary of State and the DUP occasionally to respect it. Other parties have a mandate. Most of all, however, the Good Friday agreement has a mandate—a bigger mandate and a more significant one than any individual political party's. It involves not just many of the political parties, but two Governments at national level and was endorsed by public referendum.

My concern also extends to the Secretary of State's reference to changing institutions. Does he believe that any of the proposed changes will make any difference? It was not issues surrounding the change of institutions that brought the agreement down, so will the changes that he proposes help us in any way to restore it?

Mr. Hain: I agree that it is not only the DUP that has a mandate; of course the SDLP has an important mandate and I listen to what that party says, too. I also agree that the Good Friday agreement has an even bigger mandate because it was endorsed by all the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, by the people of the whole island of Ireland. The fact remains that, if a
18 Apr 2006 : Column 31
party makes it clear that it requires certain changes that are important to it, and has stood on such a platform—not changes to the fundamental architecture of the Good Friday agreement, because that remains in place; all the fundamental principles remain in place—there is no point in denying that that has occurred. There is every reason to expect, plan and provide for—as I intend to do—the opportunity to make those changes, if there is a commitment by all the parties to form the necessary agreement to restore the institutions. We would have to make those changes as part of that agreement and I do not see how the hon. Gentleman could, publicly or otherwise, really disagree with that.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I wish the Secretary of State success, but does he accept that there cannot be different standards of democratic integrity in different parts of the United Kingdom? Therefore, an absolute, complete and credible repudiation of criminality on the part of Sinn Fein-IRA is fundamental to the success of what he seeks to achieve.

Next Section IndexHome Page