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Sammy Wilson : We have gone over the issue a great deal, but I should like to take up a couple of points made by the hon. Members for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) and for Foyle (Mark Durkan). There has been an attempt to use passion to cover up the lack of logic on the part of some Members who argued against a perfectly reasonable amendment. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is asking for two things: first, anyone who is in charge of policing in Northern Ireland should not have a serious criminal record and, secondly, they should be prepared to support the police service, and give public expression to that support. I do not know why that generated so much opposition, as both requirements are logical.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North said that there were two reasons why he could not support the amendment. He said that we should not confuse the past with the present—just because someone has a past, that does not mean that they cannot have a present or a future. He may have stolen those words from the previous leader of the party of the hon. Member for North Down. On the issue of whether having a past disqualifies someone for office, I believe that it is difficult for someone with such a record to be in charge of policing or to have any credibility in such a role. Setting that aside, proposed paragraph (b) requires Ministers in charge of the police service to give support at the present time to that service. I do not see why that should create a problem. How could anyone say, "I wish to be in charge of policing in Northern Ireland, but by the way, I am so suspicious of the police service, or I have such antipathy towards it because of its past record, that I could not make a declaration of support for it"? There
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is no logic in that. The hon. Member for Ealing, North must have understood that, so he became quite passionate, to overcome the lack of logic in the position that he had adopted.

The hon. Gentleman asked what it would take to make a member of Sinn Fein acceptable as Justice Minister. Let me tell him. I shall give some recent examples of the practical implications of not supporting the police service. A young girl from England, walking home late one night in west Belfast last summer, was raped by three fellows. They videoed it on her phone and sent the pictures to her mother in England. Sinn Fein would not encourage the people who had witnessed that event to give evidence to the police. What would it take? It would take members of that party at least to have enough willingness to support the police to encourage their constituents and those who look up to them to give evidence.

What would it take? The hon. Member for Ealing, North has sat in a Northern Ireland Committee and listened to some of the evidence given about organised crime in Northern Ireland. When the police raid the home of someone who has hidden £600,000 under hay bales and hidden evidence of his fuel laundering and smuggling, it would take Conor Murphy and Gerry Adams not to attack the police for raiding the home of someone who is only a poor republican farmer and who supports the police process—the implied threat being that by raiding that home, the police are disturbing the chance of peace in Northern Ireland. That is what it would take.

What would it take? Let me tell the hon. Member for Ealing, North. I serve on Belfast city council. Every year the police give awards for a rambling scheme. When it comes to allowing council facilities to be used to give out those awards, Sinn Fein's opposition to the police requires them to vote against that every time. I am not talking about an individual member of a party. I am talking about the collective attitude of Sinn Fein towards the police. If the hon. Gentleman believes that some member of a party which adopts that attitude towards the police is fit to be in charge of the police and to stand up in the Northern Ireland Assembly and defend the police, answer questions about the police and explain police operations, there is no logic in that. I hope the hon. Gentleman will rethink his position.

I think the hon. Member for Foyle was having an experience similar to the experience that the Minister had yesterday, when he was trying to explain the circumstances in which the Secretary of State might refuse to allow the electoral officer to hold an additional canvass. He scratched around for reasons, and he came up with two—yesterday, the Minister came up with three, but they were no more convincing than the two that we have heard today.

The first reason was, "We do not believe in building in a vetting requirement." I have pointed out that SDLP members on the Policing Board believe that the members of lowly district policing partnerships should be vetted. The Policing Board has a vetting procedure, which SDLP members argued for furiously. The code of conduct will require people on the Policing Board to have due regard to equality and diversity requirements. That means that even if someone expresses in a private
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capacity a religious belief deemed to be against equality and diversity requirements, they cannot sit on the Policing Board. Do not tell me about vetting.

Mark Durkan: I have never said that the SDLP has no time for vetting of any kind. In negotiating the agreement, it was clear that the appointment would be made by the d'Hondt system with no qualifications or vetting by any other parties, but the amendment would go against that aspect of the agreement. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that the agreement included a pledge of office, and that we have said that we would look again at the pledge of office, including in relation to policing.

Sammy Wilson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I did not realise that my argument had such force, but perhaps he is coming round to our point of view.

Mark Durkan: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the record of our submissions to the review of the workings of the Good Friday agreement in 2004 shows that we made it clear that the terms of the pledge of office might need to be looked at. We also made that point as far back as 2003, when the question of the devolution of justice and policing came up—at that point, it was agreed that a series of arrangements needed to be looked at before that issue could be examined.

Sammy Wilson: The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has given the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to move in that direction by including in her amendment a requirement that those who take on the role of policing and justice Ministers must pledge to support the institutions which they are going to govern.

The second argument advanced by the hon. Gentleman—that the amendment could have unforeseen applications—was as weak as his first. The hon. Gentleman did not let the Minister off with weak examples yesterday, but the only example of an unforeseen application that he could provide was that the Ulster Unionist party in Belfast has withdrawn from the DPP, which could be interpreted as not supporting the police. I will not defend the UUP, because the hon. Member for North Down is quite capable of doing so, but by no stretch of the imagination could that example be described as not supporting the police in the same way as Sinn Fein members do not support the police.

We will support the amendment, despite the lack of consistency—the position is no more or less important than any other office in an Executive in the Assembly, and the provision should apply to all Ministers and all ministerial posts. At least the amendment is a start, and when we discuss the pledge of office, hopefully the hon. Member for Foyle and his party will have changed their position sufficiently to include the provision in all pledges of office for Ministers in any Executive in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hanson: I thank hon. Members for their powerful contributions to the debate. I particularly appreciate the comments made by the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), for
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South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). They put their case powerfully; I cannot in any circumstances understand the difficulties that they and their constituents have faced.

3 pm

I shall not condone or defend the actions that hon. Members have described. Indeed, I condemn them with every fibre of my body. Terrorist activities—such as the cowardly attack against the family of the hon. Member for South Antrim—need to be, and will be, condemned by me from this Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government. I will not condone or support any of the actions that have been mentioned, because they are intolerable and incompatible with a democratic society and with the values that we hold dear in this House.

I understand the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). Support for law and order authorities and the rule of law are fundamental to democracy and to the good working of the Assembly in having control of policing and criminal justice in future. Nevertheless, I cannot support their amendments, for reasons that I hope to explain in clarifying the Government's view.

Amendment No. 31 states:

in a Department responsible for criminal justice and policing if they have—

I understand why the hon. Member for North Down tabled the amendment, but I cannot support it. In the House of Commons, the disqualification arrangements for ministerial office are broadly the same as in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In this House, a person who is detained in prison for a year or more is automatically disqualified from membership of the House and therefore from holding office for the period of his or her detention. Section 36(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that a person is similarly disqualified from the Assembly if he or she would be disqualified from the House of Commons. I can see no good reason to bar an individual in Northern Ireland from holding ministerial posts on the basis of any criminal conviction or to depart from the Westminster model.

I do not wish in any way, shape or form to equate the situation in South Africa, for example, with that in Northern Ireland. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) pointed to three or four examples of individuals who have served criminal sentences in jurisdictions and who have gone on to serve their nation with distinction because, however much we may dislike the views that they express, they have ultimately, just like the hon. Member for South Antrim, had crosses put by their names on ballot papers by individuals in their communities. That is the test of democracy. They are in those Chambers with the legitimacy of those crosses, even if they have had convictions in the past for events that were, by any stretch of the imagination, intolerable at that time.

If we introduce special provisions on disqualification relating to the Northern Ireland Assembly, they will not apply in the House of Commons. When I researched the
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amendment, I found, surprising as it may seem, that a Home Secretary of today could have a past conviction. Provided that they are not in jail now, they could serve as Home Secretary. Likewise, no such provisions for disqualification apply in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. Although there are special and difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland, to introduce that condition would disqualify individuals on the basis of their past sentences, not on the basis of where they may be currently. Indeed, there may be Members of the House who currently could not serve in a Northern Ireland Executive because of the disqualification for which the amendment provides. That is unacceptable and generally unfair to society.

Secondly, I believe that the protections for which the 1998 Act provides are sufficient. The hon. Member for Foyle mentioned the pledge of office. As hon. Members know, all Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly must affirm it before taking up their posts. It already requires them to make a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) also referred to the pledge of office. The protection of exclusively peaceful and democratic means already exists.

If that were not enough, amendments to the 1998 Act to facilitate consideration of Independent Monitoring Commission recommendations provide sufficient safeguards when Ministers and parties fail to observe the pledge of office. Hon. Members know that if the IMC reports that activity of a criminal nature has taken place, it can be debated in the Assembly. Safeguards therefore exist for Ministers and the Assembly.

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