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Lady Hermon: Can the Minister assure the House that the Government were not brought under any pressure whatsoever by either Sinn Fein or the Irish Government to abandon plans for an early election?

Mr. Hanson: I am sorry, but I could not quite hear the hon. Lady's point.

Lady Hermon: I am quite happy to repeat what I said. I want a clear assurance from the Minister that the Government were not brought under any pressure whatsoever by either Sinn Fein or, for that matter, the Irish Government to abandon plans for an early election.

Mr. Hanson: The situation has changed dramatically. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Irish Government, with the response of the Taoiseach on 6 April, have put a different political complexion on the way in which the Assembly could be restored. The Government's prime objective is to restore the Assembly; that is what we want to achieve. We want to get the Assembly back up and running so that individuals, some of whom are in the Chamber today, can undertake their rightful role of deciding policy on issues to do with housing, culture, sport, planning, agriculture and other matters. That is the Government's objective.

We did have an objective of having discussions with political parties, with the potential through the Bill of calling an early election if that was the way to unlock the difficulties that may have been faced. We are now in a different position and, because we do not want an early election, this set of clauses needs to be deleted from the Bill.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving me a reply to a question that I did not ask. May I just repeat the question for the third time? Were the
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Government brought under pressure by Sinn Fein or the Irish Government to abandon plans for an early Assembly election—yes or no?

Mr. Hanson: I am certainly not aware of any pressure on those matters and the situation has changed politically.

Sir Patrick Cormack: He wouldn't be, would he?

Mr. Hanson: I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Government's objective is to ensure that we get devolution back. When the Bill was published, the Government's proposals were to meet the parties, to have discussions with them and to have an outlook of reaching agreement with them to ensure that devolution came back. As part of the armoury of that machinery, an early election may well have been one of the issues that would have led to the unlocking of any impasse that might have been there. Now we have set a clear route in terms of 15 May, discussions, the potential election of an Executive, a deadline for that process and, at the end of that, no elections if an Executive is not formed. We are now in a different position, so I am in the unusual position of not voting for the clauses that we originally envisaged because circumstances have changed.

5 pm

Mr. Dodds: Could not people, including Members of the House, easily take the view that the Government are making it up as they go along? They published the Bill on 16 February and now the Minister is telling the House that, by 6 April, everything had changed so dramatically that these provisions are unnecessary and redundant? Is it not the case that, within a very short time, the Government changed gear and completely changed their policy? People in Northern Ireland take the view that the Government are simply making it up as they go along.

Mr. Hanson: I respect the hon. Gentleman's viewpoint, but the Government are not making it up as they go along. They have the clear objective of restoring the Assembly so that he, if he is chosen by his party again, can do the job that I am currently doing on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland in running the Department for Social Development. My objective is to get rid of the power that I am exercising and to give it back to him. That is the clarity of the Government's position.

We have looked at several methods of trying to get that position back, one of which was discussion with the political parties to try to ensure that we reached a conclusion on the restoration of the Assembly. Given that that does not appear to be working—the discussions that we had initially showed that there were real obstacles to the political parties getting together to restore the Assembly through political dialogue—we have taken affirmative action through my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, with the support of the Irish Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to put definitive stakes in the ground on where we are with the restoration of devolution. I refer to 15 May, the end of November and a clear process of potential engagement to form an Executive in that window. That has changed the situation with regard to the Bill.
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Yes, there may well have been a U-turn and a change of policy, but the overriding objective of whatever track we took was to secure the hon. Gentleman in his place in the Assembly and to give him responsibility for issues for which direct rule Ministers are currently responsible. I would hope that he shares that objective.

Mark Durkan: We would love to take great comfort in the journey that these three clauses have made from being necessary as a contingency to being utterly redundant in a matter of weeks. If they had made that journey by going past the certainty of a restoration date and a known future election date for the Assembly, we could have taken such comfort, but, in the absence of such certainty, we cannot. As the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) has said, it seems that the Government are busking on this issue and hoping that whatever happens catches the eye of somebody who passes by.

Mr. Hanson: Again, I am trying to offer some form of clarity to the House on behalf of the Government. We want to see the Assembly restored. We are happy to look at any method that will get the Assembly restored, because the rightful people to run the affairs of Northern Ireland are the people who were elected to that Assembly to do so; not me, who represents a seat in north Wales and who flies in and does a job on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland at that time, but ultimately flies out again. The people who are elected and have roots in that community should do that job. As I hope the hon. Member for Foyle recognises, we are looking at the best way to unlock the real gridlock problems that exist between political parties in restoring the Assembly.

I am happy to look at any suggestions that will unlock that gridlock. There was a possibility of political talks, but they have proved difficult, for reasons that I fully understand with regard to confidence on the part of several parties in the current situation. In the absence of those talks, we have put a framework in place whereby we hope those issues can be resolved during the time scale of May to November. In the light of that time scale being put in place, the clauses are redundant. That is the simple fact of the matter.

If people want to call that a U-turn or a change of Bill, that is fine. I am very unused to withdrawing clauses in a Bill that I supported only six or seven weeks ago in this Chamber on Second Reading, but that is the nature of Northern Ireland politics. Our overriding objective is the same: to restore the Assembly. That is why I commend the withdrawal of these clauses. The Government are looking at a different way of achieving the same objective to make sure that colleagues are back in government as soon as possible.

Mr. Lidington: I am tempted to express the hope that the Minister's speech is the first of many occasions on which, on many different subjects across the span of Government, Ministers will come to the Dispatch Box to withdraw legislation that they have, until very recently, proposed. However, I have some sympathy for the plight in which the Minister finds himself.

Several things are clear about the clauses. The power to bring forward the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly would have to be initiated by the Secretary of
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State and that would have to be taken forward by means of an order in both Houses of Parliament. If the Government have concluded that the Secretary of State is not, under any circumstances, going to want to exercise that power in the time frame that they had previously envisaged, such a power clearly becomes otiose and so there is no point in keeping it in the Bill.

The political explanation seems to be that, when the Government started off their current political initiative in Northern Ireland at the beginning of this calendar year, they were over-optimistic in their hopes about what could be achieved within a short space of time. They hoped that, perhaps by now, they would have had agreement between the various Northern Ireland parties on the restoration of the devolved institutions. After all, there was open speculation in the media both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic—and I think that it is fair to say that there were suggestions by Ministers themselves—that either in Committee or on Report, we might be presented with proposals to change the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to accommodate changes that might by then have been agreed between the two Governments and the various political parties in Northern Ireland.

Such a deal has clearly not taken place. We could debate today, albeit somewhat fruitlessly, the precise circumstances in which the power in clause 10 could have been used. We can reflect on the reasons why no agreement has been possible up until now. Some of the problems were of the Government's own making due to the proposals on terrorists on the run. The Independent Monitoring Commission report that was published earlier this year, which clearly showed that although republicanism was changing, it had not broken with criminality, made things more difficult for the Government. Ministers, and perhaps the Prime Minister especially, finally realised that the underlying mistrust was still deep and could not be overcome in a few weeks, which had perhaps been hoped for at the turn of the year.

I remain of the view that the Government's initiative looking forward to November deserves support. I wish it well, and although I still think that the Government incline towards over-optimism, I hope that the optimism proves to be justified and that we will see the restoration of devolution later this year. In the meantime, my party and I will support the Minister in his recommendation that the clauses be dropped from the Bill.

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