In his remarks the Secretary of State spoke of the prospect that would ensue if the current course did not work out. As he put it, the curtain comes down on the process since 1998. In a statement last week, he spoke of closing the book on devolution. The Government need to remember that in present circumstances and in what unfolds in the next few months, it could be in some people's interest to see the book closed on devolution or the curtain coming down on the process since 1998, if that allows them to say that the curtain has come down and the book has been closed on the Good Friday agreement.
I am not sure that parties are as afraid of the suggestions from the Secretary of State as he might think they are. That outcome might suit the purposes of some parties. It is also clear that parties are not frightened by the prospect of a so-called alternative coming from the two Governments in that context. I am not sure that parties believe that the Governments will be able to muster much of an alternative at the end of the year, depending where the Prime Minister might be, as the Irish Government are on a count-down to elections. The search for a so-called alternative would lead only to confirmation in the eyes of some that the agreement had been abandoned or set aside. Such a situation might suit them. We might not have an agreement as a given. We might not have the restoration of the Assembly as a giventhe Government have made it clear that they do not think that it is a given. It might be that the only thing
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that we have in Northern Ireland as a given is seven super-councils. That will involve the balkanisation of Northern Ireland, which is repartition in waiting. There will be three green councils, three orange councils and Belfast, where there will be all to play for.
When the Secretary of State talks about the possibility of writing off a political generation later this year, he must be careful, because we could end up with a choice that no one has advocated, no one has asked for and nobody has voted for. Over the coming months, we face a choice between two futures. People voted for one of those futures, which will respect and accommodate the mandate of everyone, including people who did not vote for that dispensation. If one listens to the Government, we face the reality of seven super-councils, in which case parties will adapt to the situation and seek to build up their power bases in a divided and politically sterile Northern Ireland.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): This Bill provides for an Assembly in Northern Ireland, and my party and I welcome that. This proposal is in line with our suggestion, which we put to the Government earlier this year, that there should be a phased approach to the return to devolution, and I believe that the Bill presents a chance for that to take place. We have made it clear that the conditions are not yet right to see the restoration of the Executive, but we believe that there is important work that the Assembly can do. I welcome today's contribution by the Leader of the Opposition on IRA-Sinn Fein.
The Northern Ireland people will not have full time in this debate because of the regulations of this House. I am allowed to speak for only 15 minutes, although I am the leader of a party that has nine Members. That is the fairness of this great democratic body that I am addressing.
We have made it clear that the conditions are not right to see the restoration of the Executive, but there is important work for the Assembly to do, and this Bill can help us to do that work. Such work can contribute to the conditions which could see the Assembly-proper returning, and it could also give the Members of the Legislative Assembly an enhanced role in helping to shape decisions in Northern Ireland. I do not think that MLAs should be despised, because they made a case to the electorate and some of them put their lives on the line to get elected. I salute them for their work, particularly in local areas in Northern Ireland.
Many areas of Government policy in Northern Ireland urgently require attention. The direct rule Administration is on the wrong track on some important issues. In some areas, I believe that it is possible to achieve a measure of consensus between all the local parties, which will make it difficult for the Government to ignore our views. However, the big question is whether the Government ignore or accept our views. They have been lecturing us on our ethical standing, but what is their ethical standing? If a majority of MLAs say no to some of the proposals that they have put their shirt on, what will they do? They must face up to their ethical responsibility.
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The Assembly must not be allowed to be a mere talking shopit must produce goods that the people can examine and say yes or no to. The constitutional nationalists say that they want to see the return of proper devolution. They told us that they love us and want to put their arms around usthat they want us to be with themyet they called us a bunch of rogue Ministers. The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to determine standing orders and to allow the Assembly to deal with matters as he sees fit. However, woe betide him if he tries to gag the Assembly. Its Members must have the freedom to speak their minds.
There are regional rate rises of 19 per cent. in Northern Ireland, and the future of our education system is being decided. The Minister says that a majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of his education system. He clearly does not know what is happening in Northern Ireland, because there is no such majority. I am speaking for Roman Catholic and Protestant constituents, and for Roman Catholic and Protestant schools. Let not this House be bluffed that the education system presented by Ministers is acceptable to Northern Irelandit is not acceptable at all, and well the Minister knows it. No wonder he smiles and his glasses are about to fall from his face.
I should like all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to put their shoulders to the wheel in the Assembly and make it a real motivating factor among the people of Northern Ireland. I should like it to determine and bring in changes. The Government have said that the Bill is structured so that 24 November will be the deadline. Let the House understand this: that does not destroy the original Assembly; it is still there and it will go on. Let me also say that I do not believe that people who have no say in Northern Ireland, do not live in Northern Ireland, and cannot even pronounce the names of the towns of Northern Ireland properly should decide our futurethe people of Northern Ireland should decide that.
The people of Northern Ireland are told that there is a deadline, but it is the Government's deadline, not the Ulster people's deadline. I am enraged by the fact that as a Unionist I had to wait for years while both Governments talked to Sinn Fein, pleaded with it, handed it money, and tried to bribe it, while the Unionists were ignored. Now I am told that the deadline is 24 November. I do not know of any Member of the Assembly who went pleading for money and asking for £11,000 for their hip pocket. I wish the Minister would tell us who these people are, because there has been no outcry. I have told the Secretary of State that he does not need to threaten us by talking about money: nobody is asking for his money. We are not going to crawl. The people of Ulster can look after themselves, and they do not need these Ministers to say, "You're depending on me but you'll not get your money." That is a funny sort of direct rule.
It is the IRA that needs to change. If the IRA changes from its criminality, terrorism and threats, it will be received in the Assembly on the very same basis as anybody else. I will not say anything about its roguery. We have been called rogues but we shall not say anything about it. Let the IRA repent and
The Government should ask themselves whether, despite all the progress they say that they have made, even one large paramilitary organisation has closed down. The answer is not one. They should not therefore come to us and tell us another story. The story is that not one has closed down. I want them all to close down and all the parties to stand on the one, same basisthat of democracy.
"in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules."[Official Report, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
I want that and it is what the people of Northern Ireland want. That is building on a sure foundation, not a sham rock. Let us lay a foundation that will last and run the course, not only to the twenty-fourth of some month. Let us create a solid rock of democracy on which we can build for the future. Let us encourage the people of Northern Ireland to enter into proper negotiations on a proper democratic basis so that our problem can be properly resolved.
No one is losing faith in Northern Ireland. The spirit of the Ulster people is stronger than ever. I believe that we can see something out of this that will bless our children and our children's children.