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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 15-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now.

3.5 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): The debate has been interesting so far and I am sure it will continue to be so.

I certainly welcome the Independent Monitoring Commission publication today; there is still a long way to go, but with reference to the IRA, it indicates that progress has been made. I also welcome the statement made in Killarney this week by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) when he and his colleagues addressed a meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, which I co-chair. His statement was excellent, especially in terms of his party's willingness to share power with nationalists in Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Bill in so far as it restores the Assembly. It is important that all Members understand, as Members who have been involved in Northern Ireland affairs over the years do, that a crucial part of the Good Friday agreement—indeed of any agreement to bring stability and harmony to politics in Northern Ireland—must have at its heart the principle that people in Northern Ireland should be governed by people from Northern Ireland in a special way, with shared responsibility among the different communities.

We are not just talking about the business of devolution. After all, there is devolution in Wales and Scotland. Indeed, it is ironic that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is more of a devolutionist than I, has rightly expanded devolution in Wales, yet if, unhappily, the latter part of the Bill has to be enacted, it would bring the end of devolution in Northern Ireland. The business of devolution is working together—sharing government and making decisions together. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) pointed out how difficult that is, inevitably, among parties with fundamentally different political views. It goes beyond that: I would find great difficulty in forming a coalition with the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats and other parties in the House, but it is a thousand times more difficult for parties in Northern Ireland.

The continuance of direct rule would be disastrous for Northern Ireland and for the political process. I was a direct Minister for five years—two years as a Finance
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Minister and three as Secretary of State dealing with devolved issues. I was deeply uncomfortable in the role of direct rule Minister, although not in dealing with the politics and security of Northern Ireland. My party does not get a single vote in Northern Ireland although the Conservative party wins a number of votes, but apart from the Northern Ireland parties no party has a mandate there, so it is hard for direct rule Ministers to square their conscience when taking difficult decisions on behalf of people from whom they have received no mandate. That is coupled with the ludicrously inadequate method for parliamentary scrutiny of hugely important issues that affect the 1.7 million people in Northern Ireland.

The Assembly will not be the one set up by the agreement, but I am happy that it will be restored if the Bill is passed, because it will be able to discuss individual issues in Northern Ireland. I believe that it is right for my right hon. Friend to listen exceedingly carefully to those 108 Members elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the issues that they want to debate.

Some issues, such as water rates, rates more widely and other financial matters, remain very controversial in Northern Ireland and every Administration, whether by direct rule or through a restored Assembly, would have to confront them. Some in Northern Ireland, of course, would rather like direct rule Ministers to take the difficult decisions, so that they would not then have to take them themselves.

Other issues, such as education, are not in that category. Martin McGuiness started the ball rolling when he announced the end of the transfer test, or 11-plus. I had to continue the debate over that issue when I was Secretary of State, and my right hon. Friend is doing it now. It is, of course, an issue that divides people in Northern Ireland. Local government reform is a rather different issue again, in that all parties save one are opposed to it. I repeat to my right hon. Friend that on the highly sensitive issues that will impact on the politics and political geography of Northern Ireland for decades to come, he should listen very carefully to what is said in the intervening weeks—between now and, I hope, the summer, but possibly 24 November.

We must remember that Northern Ireland Assembly Members were democratically elected. I was present during the election and attended the count. Those Members have a representative role even if they have not yet gathered as an Assembly. The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) mentioned earlier that Sinn Fein Members do not—they do not want to—take up their seats in this place, but they still have a representative role, as do Assembly Members. I hope that my right hon. Friend and his Ministers will listen very carefully.

Another problem facing Northern Ireland is that people can become comfortable with direct rule, which is a grave danger. Every person in Northern Ireland who can exercise the franchise should think carefully about the loss of devolution and what it will mean to them—and to their grandchildren. It is a hugely significant issue. I would also say to my Front-Bench colleagues that Ministers must not become too comfortable with direct rule either. It is easy to slip into that, as I have often seen. It is easy to start thinking that we are governing parts of the United Kingdom over which we have some sort of mandate—but we do not. We—
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whether as Ministers, as parliamentarians or as members of the public in Northern Ireland—must not become comfortable with direct rule. It is not the answer, but the antithesis of the answer.

Salaries and the endgame are further issues. I would love to hear my right hon. Friend say that the aim over the weeks and months ahead is to succeed. The message from the Government and from this place should be that in the weeks ahead, between now and the summer or November, the key purpose is to ensure that sufficient confidence and trust is built up between the parties in Northern Ireland. The Governments in Dublin and London should help to ensure an end to direct rule and the restoration of the Irish Executive. That has to be the central message. If it does not work, if direct rule continues and devolution is not restored, it will be a great disaster for the people of Northern Ireland. Ultimately, everyone would see a diminution in their lives—not just the democratic deficit, but a diminution in people's proper entitlement to be governed by people who live in Northern Ireland for whom they have voted.

I understand the frustration of Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland and I understand the impatience of people living in Northern Ireland. However, when we talk about the great progress made there in recent times, everyone must understand that that is not just a cliché. Enormous progress has been made there politically, socially and economically. It has not come by accident, but through hard work and commitment. It has also taken some time: the time between the signing of the Good Friday agreement and reaching agreement on it was years, not months, but we must not lose patience. We must always have the ultimate aim or the big picture in view. This is about not just the absence of violence on the streets of Northern Ireland, and prosperity in that place—although those are highly significant—but the hugely important issue of people governing themselves.

Yes, it is probably right that the salaries—the reduced salaries, as people did not receive full ones—should come to an end. They cannot continue to be paid for ever. However, hon. Members should reflect on the fact that, in the intervening years between the referendum and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a political class has developed. It includes a generation of politicians—108 Members, but also others who work for them or who serve in local government—and it is right to say that the political class has to be maintained. If all this does not work—I hope and pray that it will—my hope is that on the eve of my 58th birthday, which will be on 25 November this year, we will not see the collapse of those institutions.

Mr. Dodds: A nice birthday present.

Mr. Murphy: It certainly would be one of the best birthday presents that I could have if we saw the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, whereby the people of Northern Ireland could rightly be governed by themselves. The absence of that success, however, is too dire to contemplate. It is too difficult to get our political heads around that. It would mean the destruction of devolution, the continuance of direct rule and the complete collapse of the Good Friday agreement or any other agreement that sought to bring about power sharing in Northern Ireland.
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I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, his fellow Ministers and all the parties in Northern Ireland the very best in the months ahead. We are all hoping, praying and working hard to move in the right direction for the future.

3.17 pm

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