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I believe that the two days allotted under the programme motion is a substantial allowance of the time of the House for the discussion of such a Bill.

Question agreed to.

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Northern Ireland Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.39 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The measure prepares the way for the restoration of devolved Government in Northern Ireland. On 15 May, the Assembly will meet for the first time for nearly four years. The Bill sets in statute 24 November as the date by which we must be able to restore devolution. That is the date by which the political parties in Northern Ireland must take responsibility for the Government of Northern Ireland, as they have been mandated to do.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State make it clear that the Assembly to which he refers is not "the" Assembly?

Mr. Hain: Indeed. The Assembly that the Bill defines is not the Assembly as defined under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The right hon. Gentleman is right to clarify that.

The twenty-fourth of November represents not a threat but great promise—a promise that the Belfast agreement holds out. The patience of all those who want locally accountable Government in Northern Ireland should be tested no longer. Successive British and Irish Governments, with the warm support of US Administrations, have been working with the parties to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland. The truth is that there is little more we can do. The parties in Northern Ireland must now take ownership of the process and see it through.

The twenty-fourth of November can, therefore, be a beginning or an end. The leadership of the parties have to decide which it is to be. As ever, the biggest obstacle to progress is the mutual lack of trust in the process. Unionists need to know that the republicans, with whom they are being asked to share power, have turned away from paramilitary activity and that they will not accept, tacitly or otherwise, criminal activity, whatever its source. They also need to know, before criminal justice and policing powers are devolved, that support for the criminal justice system and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is absolutely unequivocal. That is not too much to ask.

For their part, republicans and nationalists need to know that Unionists are serious about sharing power on a fair and equitable basis and not simply paying lip service to the theory while always finding reasons to avoid the practice. That is not too much to ask.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Secretary of State has, for understandable reasons, played around with dates a lot recently. However, he is not telling the House that, were the parties in sight of an agreement on 24 November, he would bring down the guillotine, is he? Presumably we are considering not a final and ultimate but a flexible date.

Mr. Hain: I am afraid that I cannot reassure the hon. Gentleman about that. The Bill sets the date in statute.
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As I said earlier, the Government will not blink. If eleventh-hour attempts are made on 24 November to force us to blink, people will be disappointed.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Further to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made when he sought clarification of the nature of the Assembly that will be set up under the Bill, will the Secretary of State confirm that, on 25 November, the Northern Ireland Assembly that was established under the 1998 Act will continue to exist?

Mr. Hain: The Northern Ireland Assembly as set up under the 1998 Act remains in suspension. Once the date has passed, if there were the prospect of restoration again—I know that the hon. Gentleman is actively involved in trying to promote a process that could be successfully concluded—there will be no attempt to prolong the life of the Assembly for which the Bill provides beyond 24 November. He knows that any attempt to seek restoration later—for example, in a year or two after 24 November—would be done under the 1998 Act arrangements. We would move straight to selecting a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and run d'Hondt to select an Executive. If that failed after six weeks, an election would be called.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I was grateful to the Secretary of State for his response in Northern Ireland questions about deadlines. Will he assure us that they are genuinely not flexible? I ask that because, as he knows, my great anxiety is that the Government's credibility has been somewhat tarnished by allowing deadlines to be flexible and, indeed, by occasionally ignoring them. If he wants the Bill to work, he must impress on everybody that the deadlines are not negotiable.

Mr. Hain: I have already done that but I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman's invitation to emphasise and underline as much as necessary—in flashing neon lights, if he wishes and if that is not a mixed metaphor—that the deadline is for real. The salaries and allowances will stop at midnight on 24 November. The Assembly will no longer sit, which it will be entitled to do after 15 May, and that will be that. I do not want that and, as I shall explain, there will be serious consequences if the parties do not act maturely and take their responsibilities to reflect the mandate and the job that they were elected to do. If they do not take that seriously, the consequences will be serious, but that will be their decision, not mine.

The 10th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission was published today. I want to remind the House that the IMC has previously stated unequivocally that the IRA no longer represents a terrorist threat. That is clear, unambiguous and, in the context of all that has gone before, historic. That followed the IRA statement of July 2005 and the act of decommissioning later that year in September. Two of the demands, not only of Unionists, were that Sinn Fein should say that the war was over and that the IRA should decommission its arsenal of weapons. Both have now been done.
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The report states:

The IMC also states:

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): The IMC report states that

How can it be suggested that that is distinct from the IRA organisation when one of those persons happens to be the IRA chief of staff?

Mr. Hain: Because I rely on what the IMC says. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to study what it said about the matter. Any illegal activity, including smuggling across the border to a specific farm and in other areas, is being clamped down upon, as he knows. I know that he will enthusiastically support the Assets Recovery Agency and the police service on both sides of the border.

Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of what the IMC said. The report states:

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hain: Let me finish the point and then I shall gladly give way.

Paragraph 2.14 is important to answering the fair question that the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) asked. It states:

The report says that, of course, there may be individual republicans, who still call themselves republicans and perhaps attach themselves to the name "Provisional IRA", who are engaged in illegal activity. However, that is outwith the organisation and without the sanction and approval of the leadership and certainly without its prior knowledge. That is completely different from the position in the past, when the IRA was organised from the centre and from the top. It was not only a violent terrorist organisation but it undertook, conducted and organised criminal activity to raise funds to finance that violence and terrorism. The difference now is that it is
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not a question whether individual republicans have come into full compliance or not. Given the culture that has existed for too long in Northern Ireland, it would be difficult to imagine that everybody would behave absolutely perfectly, as a very interesting passage in the IMC report acknowledges. The crucial point is that the organisation's leadership is delivering on what it promised and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that, because it is indeed historic.

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