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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I would like to thank the Secretary of State for introducing the Bill and for his inclusive approach to consultation about it. As we said in our response to his statement last week, we can give a general welcome to the Bill. We are pleased to see that there is now a very clear target, set down in legislation, for the restoration of the Assembly.
I think that we would all agree with the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) that Northern Ireland is best served by local politicians taking local decisions on local issues. It is right and proper that those who take responsibility for health care, education, the provision of public transport and the stimulation of the economy in Northern Irelandto name just a fewshould be directly accountable to the people who will be affected by their decisions. There could not be a bigger contrast between how decisions are taken nowin a fairly undemocratic fashion, I believe, through Orders in Counciland how they will be taken when the Assembly is fully functioning. Liberal Democrats very much hope that this Government initiative will succeed in restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland and that the Assembly will become a secure and permanent institution, not dogged by the instabilities of the past few years.
There are still huge difficulties to overcome before we reach the point of restoring devolved government. Hon. Members have already alluded to them so I do not intend to repeat them, but to make some new points. First, the Government must not shy away from their responsibilities in ensuring that those difficulties are faced up to and dealt with in the coming weeks and months. There remains a fundamental and deep mistrust between the political parties, which cannot be dealt with on a quick-fix basis. Will the Secretary of State therefore reaffirm his commitment to instituting inclusive, round-table talks? We have stated many times our belief that that is the only way in which a lasting settlement can be achievedwhen all the political parties in Northern Ireland are involved in the negotiations.
Far too often, Northern Ireland parties have been separated, so Ministers do side deals with one or two parties. Each of those initiatives has ultimately failed. The Government cannot afford to make that mistake again and squander the good willto an extent, they have already done soof some pro-devolution parties that Ministers and successive Secretaries of State have taken for granted. If the Government want to achieve a lasting settlement, they must ensure that all the parties work together to achieve it; otherwise we will find ourselves with another temporary deal that will ultimately come unstuck.
I also very much welcome the statement by the IRA in July last year and its subsequent act of decommissioning. While many were sceptical about those words, I think that the IMC has pretty much confirmed that significant action has taken place in that
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regard. The reports that have followed have served to reassure Liberal Democrat Members at least that the terrorist threat from the IRA is now massively diminished. However, we still feel quite troubled about the IRA's continued involvement with organised crime. That has been noted once again by all hon. Members who have spoken so farthe Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State have made that pointand it is something that we simply cannot ignore.
The Organised Crime Task Force has done some very good work, but it seems to have scarcely scratched the surface. Does the Minister agree that if Sinn Fein were to join the Policing Board and unequivocally support the police and the criminal justice system, the people of Northern Ireland would be greatly assisted in believing the IRA and Sinn Fein statements that they oppose any form of criminal behaviour? That has been an ongoing inconsistency, and Sinn Fein must live up to its responsibilities. Although I disagreed with some of the changes made to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, many of them were expressly introduced to make it easier for republicans to support mainstream policing and the rule of law.
I think that Sinn Fein is in deficit in its responsibilities towards the police. One of the very important actions that Sinn Fein can now take is positively to encourage republicans and Catholics to join the police, and it has been rather slow in that regard. However, on a very positive note, the IMC report seems to show that intelligence gathering has diminished, and there seems to be no coherent paramilitary intelligence-gathering activity of the type that the paramilitaries used to undertake to inform their terrorist atrocities. That is one of the most important findings in the IMC report, and it is one of the reasons why I am a little bit more optimistic that the process that the Bill puts in train can be successful.
I hope that some of the sceptics on the loyalist Benches will regard the abandonment of a significant part of the intelligence-gathering exercise as a very significant, albeit circumstantial, straw in the wind to show that there has been a permanent shift in Sinn Fein's ability to tool up and return to paramilitary violence as before. Indeed, the 10th report underlines the belief that the IRA is now much further from the ability to conduct organised, politically motivated paramilitary events than in the past.
Do the Government accept that the changes to the structures and working of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to ensure that design flaws and general problems are properly addressed should form part of the current negotiation process? The Government will recall the difficulties posed by the system of designations, for example. The Secretary of State has said nothing about that today. So will the Minister reassure the House that if such changes are deemed necessary before the Assembly can elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, adequate time will be available for the House to debate them?
I turn now to the specifics of the Bill. I have a few questions for the Minister, and the Secretary of State knowsthe Minister probably does, toothat the Liberal Democrats have already tabled some
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amendments by which we hope to have a full and considered discussion in Committee tomorrow on those various points.
Our primary concern is about the Assembly's ability to act in relation to issues on which the Government legislated during suspension. Can the Minister confirm whether the Assembly will be able to amend or repeal any Order in Council passed in Westminster since October 2002? Surely, once the Assembly resumes responsibility for transferred matters, it is up to the Assembly to determine policy on all those matters. Therefore, I should like the Minister to reassure us that the Assembly can reverse, by means of an Act of the Assembly, any policy decision that the Government have made and brought into operation during suspension. That point has been made already by Members on the SDLP Bench.
I am cognisant of the fact that the hugely unpopular changes to student funding that the Government forced through using the Order-in-Council process, despite the unanimous opposition of every political party in Northern Ireland, is a classic example of the kind of thing that a fully operating reconstituted Assembly should be able to repeal. It is not good enough for the Minister simply to say, "Well, I'd like to see where the money will come from." That is not the answer that we are looking for; we want to know whether, in principle, the Assembly has the right to make those changes. After all the bonhomie and positive consensus seeking by the Government, it would be extraordinarily undemocratic if they sought to scotch the Assembly's opportunity to repeal something that was unanimously opposed when it was introduced in the first place.
Lembit Öpik: That is why I asked the question. Surely that should not be the case. If it is the casethis is why I want to press the Minister to give a reasoned response on Second Readingthe Government are, in essence, excluding a reconstituted Assembly from making some very important decisions on a whole raft of issues. One of my increasing irritations with the Government is their obsession with forcing through many decisions in a very short time, when it simply is not necessary to force the pace of Northern Ireland legislation at that rate. The Minister and his colleagues have been wholly unable to justify why decisions of such importance must be taken here and now. If they are so confident that the process will work, they can wait eight monthsor perhaps not so longto let the Assembly do its business.
To press the point that the hon. Lady makes, how does the Minister expect to get the good will of Northern Ireland parties if he really means that the Assembly should be explicitly excluded by the legislation from altering decisions that, in the judgment of its 108 democratically elected Members, are the wrong answers for Northern Ireland? Indeed, if the Minister cannot give a good response to that questionI am not holding my breathit will be one of the important topics of discussion tomorrow.
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I ask the Minister to reconsider whether the Government are willing to put on hold some of the more controversial policy decisions that they are proposing to put before Parliament between now and the deadline of 24 November 2006. I heard what the Secretary of State had to say about that, but what greater incentive could there be to focus the minds of the people whom they are trying to persuade than to ensure that everything is to play for until 24 November? Obviously, there is a stick-and-carrot approach, but it is diminished by the fact that the Government seem willing to make decisions that are not too time-sensitive now, when they should be giving everyone the clear space to focus on reconstituting the Assembly.
We agree with the Government that if a restoration order is made before the deadline set out in the Bill, it makes sense to postpone the date of the next Assembly election until May 2008. We agree with the analysis that that would give the Assembly time to bed down and tackle some of the very real issues that face Northern Ireland before the Assembly is devolved and the parties must face the electorate again. In that context, the breathing space seems sensible.
I am pleased to see that a firm date has been proposed in the Bill. The Secretary of State will know that the Liberal Democrats are suspicious of the setting of election dates by order. In fact, we feel that we were somewhat duped by the Government on a previous occasion, when they assured us that they were going to make one change, and then made another change. We are pleased that the merits of such a proposal can be discussed and debated before the whole House.
We are also willing to accept the provision that would allow the Secretary of State to set an election date in the future if the Assembly is not restored in the autumn. Initially, I was not so sure about that. I hope that there is no need for that provision. I accept that the Government's reasoning is sound, in the sense that there should be the ability to recall the Assembly and hold an election at some time in the future, even if in the short term things do not work out.
My next point is about deadlines. I have watched deadlines come and go, and I have often seen the Government promising that there will be no plan B and then capitulating at the last minute all the same. That is one of the reasons why, in the months ahead, the Government may have some trouble making people really believe that the Secretary of State will be true to his word and pull the plug on the proposals at midnight on 24 November. To that extent, it is really important that everybody be given a practical assurancereflected not just in the Government's words, but in their actionsso that we can see that the deadline is for real.
The conditions in clause 2 are very clear. There is no question but that they are as close to objective as can be achieved, but I still harbour a concern that, if things are progressing slowly on 22 or 23 November, we will see some kind of order, or a quick piece of legislation, going through the House to provide more breathing space. I would be interested to know what the Minister can give by way of reassurance. The Government have created a rod for their own back by being so expedient in the past with deadlines that we were told were final, but turned out to be nothing of the sort.
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We also hope that in Committee, the Government will be able to give us a clear and detailed explanation of the purpose of each of the clauses in this short Bill, and how they envisage them being used, so that there can be no ambiguity or attempted reinterpretation either by the parties in Northern Ireland or, more likely, by Ministers, when they feel that they have to start wriggling around the legislation. We have seen that before.
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