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Lorely Burt: We are glad to support the Government's proposal because we were worried about setting the election date by way of statutory instrument. That is a constitutional and democratic matter that should not be decided through secondary legislation. Members of the House and the other place should have the opportunity to debate fully the merits of such a move and table such amendments that Parliament considers necessary. We cannot allow the routine operation of democracy to be reduced to a short debate on the Committee corridor, which would deny the vast majority of hon. Members the opportunity to discuss such an important matter.
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Lady Hermon: I will keep my remarks brief—[Interruption.] With provocation from the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), I might not keep my remarks so brief.

I was disappointed that the Minister did not respond to an intervention in which I asked him about the response from not only the chief electoral officer, but the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, about the canvass proposed in clause 3. I am extremely worried that the Government and, in particular, the Northern Ireland Office, think that the election date for the 108-Member Assembly is somehow a movable feast. In the past, the Northern Ireland Office has changed the date of the election not just once but twice, and now, in a matter of weeks, it has changed its decision on a measure that was considered to be critical when the Bill received its Second Reading.

On 13 March, on Second Reading, the Secretary of State accepted that there would be complaints about changing the date of the election. He said to the House:

Is the Minister ensuring that clauses 10 to 12 are taken out of the Bill because the Government are preparing for failure, rather than success? [Interruption.] The Minister seems to be rather agitated. Just a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State justified bringing forward the Assembly election from the scheduled date in 2007 by saying that that would cement the success of the process.

5.15 pm

Mr. Hanson: I give the hon. Lady a full assurance that the purpose of the provision is not to anticipate failure in the political peace process outlined by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I have given a clear indication that the Government wish to restore the Assembly at the earliest opportunity. Our chosen method was given in the Prime Minister's statement on 6 April, which was echoed by the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the House.

Lady Hermon: I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful intervention.

If we had the wisdom of knowing the contents of the emergency Bill that will be published tomorrow, that could change the complexion of the Bill and our debate. The Government constantly remind the people of Northern Ireland of the emphasis that they place on human rights. They introduced the European convention on human rights and made it part and parcel of domestic law—something of which I am enormously proud. The Minister will be well aware that protocol 1 states that the "High Contracting Parties", which include the United Kingdom,

The Northern Ireland Assembly is a legislature, and it has full legislative powers when it sits and suspension is lifted. When I voted for the agreement, I voted for an Assembly with legislative, Executive and administrative powers. The British Government, who went to the difficulty of making the convention part of our domestic
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law, are beholden to uphold and respect its provisions. I urge the Minister to give the House an assurance that the Government and the Northern Ireland Office do not regard the date of the Assembly election as a moveable feast. On Second Reading, they said that it would be brought forward, but within a few weeks they withdrew that proposal.

Mr. Dodds : I have a great deal of sympathy for the hon. Lady's view about not making the date of a democratic election a moveable feast. Will she reflect on the position that her party and its then leader, David Trimble, adopted regarding the Assembly election scheduled for May 2003? Her party was instrumental in ensuring that that election was delayed, primarily because its then leader feared the consequences if his policies were put to the people of Northern Ireland. Does she regret the fact that her party played a role in that manoeuvre?

Lady Hermon: I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of that election result. The Prime Minister, in his Harbour Commission speech of October 2002, made it clear that the Assembly election would not take place until after acts of completion. There were no acts of completion by the scheduled date, so the Assembly election did not go ahead. The then MP for Upper Bann did not have the power to take back the words that the Prime Minister had spoken in October 2002. I therefore thank the hon. Gentleman for his reminder.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady think, looking back on what happened in Northern Ireland, that a fear of election results dominated the situation? Let us not argue about whether or not we should have held elections. The argument was that they did not want the Unionist people to be heard. When they were heard, they did not like it so they decided to do away with the Assembly. We had nothing to do with the pulling down of the Assembly, as the hon. Lady well knows. The IRA conspiracy pulled down the Assembly.

The Chairman: Order. It might be helpful to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) if I point out that the clause that we are discussing, whether or not it is retained, relates to the election date for the next Assembly. We have gone sufficiently far down memory lane.

Lady Hermon: You will definitely be on my Christmas card list, Sir Alan, for bailing me out so effectively.

This Government have paraded their commitment to upholding human rights on the international stage and made the ECHR part of our domestic law. The ECHR contains a specific provision that there should be elections to a legislature at reasonable intervals, but it does not state that that should be at the whim of the State of Secretary. I hope that the Minister has listened to the point that the election schedule for 2007 for the Assembly should not be moved either earlier or later in any circumstances whatsoever.

Sammy Wilson : Now I understand why the Minister dug in his heels on the earlier clauses in this Bill. Once
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again, we are witnessing him engaging in a retreat—when it comes to legislation, he has engaged in more retreats than some Trappist monks. The last time that he retreated, he ran away from a whole Bill, whereas this time it is only a few clauses.

Mr. Hanson: When I listen, I get criticised; when I do not listen, I get criticised. Is that the duty of a Northern Ireland Minister these days?

Sammy Wilson: The retreat is an admission by the Government that their strategy on elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the restoration of the    Northern Ireland Assembly is in tatters. The Government were hoping that there would be a change of heart among the people of Northern Ireland, that the people would be prepared to see the Assembly up and running again and that the people would be prepared to trust Sinn Fein. They were therefore hoping to use those powers to call an early election to try to change the political composition of the Assembly at an early stage.

I think that the fact that the Government are now retreating from these clauses indicates that they accept that had they attempted to call an early election, the result would have reinforced previous election results and my party would have again been the clear winners in the Unionist community. Nothing has been done to engender the trust that Sinn Fein should be admitted to government. I take heart from the Minister's retreat because, although we are not afraid of an election, it means that the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government recognise that early elections to change the political landscape is a ploy that will not work.

The Government have accepted our point that if trust does not exist, there is no point in calling another election. An interim arrangement for the Assembly is needed to start to build up that trust, which is what the Secretary of State and the Minister have agreed to do. I hope that SDLP Members will grab that opportunity and enter that interim arrangement and, knowing that we cannot have full blown devolution, seek the lowest common denominator that will allow local representatives in Northern Ireland to get back into doing some things locally.

Although we would have had no difficulty with the clauses remaining, or indeed with the Government calling an election to the Assembly, the hard reality that the Government now face encourages us to believe that they have at least recognised that there has been no change in opinion in Northern Ireland as regards accepting Sinn Fein in Government. We are happy that they have decided not to pursue the clauses and have recognised that their strategy was folly.

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