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Mr. Hain: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point. I pay particular attention to what he says as he is Chairman of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I am not an historian and I have been less close than other hon. Members to what has been said in Northern Ireland in the past, but I do not remember the IRA ever talking about republicans who have embraced criminal activity. The ethos of the IRA and republicanism was that the British state is an unacceptable intrusion in Northern Ireland, and therefore it is legitimate to do whatever is necessary to get rid of it. What the IRA has said is a significant move forward. I agree with him, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the deputy leader of the DUP and others that we must ensure that criminality is rooted out—absolutely.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Mr. Speaker, it is great to see you back and looking so splendid. I hope that you are well.

I support what the Secretary of State is trying to achieve in restoring a devolved Assembly to Northern Ireland, but is he convinced in his discussions with the DUP that that party actually wants the restoration of a devolved assembly? Is he convinced that it wants to reach an agreement? Is there not a danger of handing the DUP a veto over the whole future of the devolved process in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hain: I do not think that there is any question of a veto. The DUP is a pro-devolution party: it has consistently said so. The issue is how to create the circumstances in which all the parties can agree. There will be no vetoes for anyone in that process.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I, too, welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

I welcome the Secretary of State's undertaking that there is no question of joint authority in the case of failure to meet the November deadline. Welcome, too, is his assurance that any progress will be based on trust,
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not coercion. In that context, he will have heard the words in the mouths of Irish Ministers last week referring to the November deadline as a last chance saloon, thereby raising suspicion that the Irish Government would retain some sanction over the governance of the Province if the deadline were not met. Will he make it absolutely clear that the governance of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, will be for this Government and for this Parliament of the United Kingdom alone?

Mr. Hain: Of course, but, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows from his time as a Northern Ireland Minister, it is also important to co-operate as good democrats with an important neighbour across the border, the south of the island of Ireland. That is what the issue is about, and there is no question of sanctions being imposed against anybody. I have not used the phrase "last chance saloon", and the Taoiseach certainly did not use it. However, we cannot continue to have an Assembly that costs some £85 million a year and that does not meet or do its job, because that brings democracy into disrepute. That is our point, and we are giving people the opportunity to reach a conclusion, but it is a question not of sanctions, but of moving on if progress is not possible.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows that the Taoiseach held a press conference in Armagh, where he urged the Unionist parties to enter government with Sinn Fein-IRA. Will he answer the question that most men and women in the street are asking: if the Taoiseach thinks it so important and so right for the Unionist parties to enter government with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, why has he stated so categorically that he will have nothing to do with Sinn Fein entering government in the Republic?

Mr. Hain: The Taoiseach has answered that question himself by stating that his main disagreement with Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland concerns its economic policy, which he thinks would undermine all the success in the Republic.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): I am delighted to see you back in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Speaker.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State has announced that the Assembly will be restored, but will he clarify this contradiction? He has said that he firmly believes that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally and that the people of Northern Ireland share that view and he pointed out that the Assembly will be recalled on 15 May, in less than a month. With that in mind, will he explain why the Northern Ireland Office is driving through delegated legislation this afternoon to set in stone the seven super-councils?

Mr. Hain: That is not a contradiction. The policy was decided after years of consultation and has widespread support across the business community, the voluntary sector and independent opinion, which is the basis for the change. It is important to press ahead with the order to ensure that the new boundaries are in place for the next local elections in May 2009. The order does not
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address the substantive issue of the functions of the new councils—it would be very good if the Assembly were to address that—or detail the checks and balances that will apply. If would be good if the Assembly were to get on with the work on the legislation to implement the architecture of local government reform and reduce the number of councils from 26 to seven.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am surprised that the Secretary of State has decided to name the new Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, because surely even the humblest legislative assembly jealously safeguards its interest in choosing its own speaker. His statement was ambiguous, because he did not make it clear whether he was making a nomination, an indication of preference or an appointment. The existing standing orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly provide for the retiring Deputy Speaker, who has been re-elected, to preside at the election of the new Speaker, but will that take process place? What are the ground rules for the election of the Speaker—is it a nomination or is it an appointment?

Mr. Hain: I am doing very little different from what was decided when the Assembly was first convened. There is obviously a responsibility to ensure that somebody presides. I think that Eileen Bell is the right person to do that, and therefore she will be in the Chair on the opening day. It is open to the parties to change that decision, as it is for them to appoint deputies if they choose to do so.

Andrew Mackinlay: What about the existing standing orders?

Mr. Hain: The standing orders will need to be changed for a whole number of reasons that will become apparent when we publish the emergency Bill.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): While warmly supporting what the Secretary of State is endeavouring to achieve and wishing him well, may I gently put it to him that when he asks the political parties in Northern Ireland to close this chapter of mistrust, he is treating each of those parties equally? That is something of an insult to the democratic parties that are totally non-violent and it does not make his task any easier in achieving a lasting settlement.

Mr. Hain: Clearly, those parties that have consorted with or organised criminality in the past must be treated in a different way. I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman about that. However, the principle that I was trying to express was that Unionists need to be sure that republicans have put behind them all commitments to paramilitary activity and criminality, while republicans and nationalists—Sinn Fein and the Social and Democratic Labour party—have to be certain that Unionists will form a power-sharing Executive with them. There is trust to be built from both ends. That is what this initiative is designed to achieve, and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support for it in principle.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I am delighted to see you in your place, Mr. Speaker.
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Does not the Secretary of State surprise this House in rewriting the last Independent Monitoring Commission report, which said that the IRA is still heavily engaged in criminal activity? How can he accept, or want us to believe, that the IRA really has turned its back on criminal activity when in fact the Donaldson death and the recent criminal activity in the Irish Republic are clearly attributed to members of the Provisional IRA?

Mr. Hain: Let us see what the police say in their investigations about those two matters. As I recall, the last IMC report said that the IRA had turned its back on paramilitary activity and had closed down a series of criminal operations, but—on this I agree with the hon. Gentleman—indicated that members were still engaged in criminal activity. There was no evidence that that was organised, planned or in any way led from the centre. We are about to receive another IMC report, so let us see what it says and whether it can help to build the trust that the hon. Gentleman and his party are entitled to have and demand.

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