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Because of the demography of Northern Ireland and the sad history of recent decades, we recognise that we must try to find an accommodation and work with those people. The least that we can expect is for them to behave in the same way as Marxist parties in some democraciesalthough not manyin other parts of the world.
We are asking a great deal. I make a plea to the Government on two fronts. I understand why the Secretary of State cannot be present, and I hope that the Minister, who is diligent, will relay my points to him. First, while I accept the firmness of the Government's intention and wish for a deadline, I think that it would be sensible to make it the end of the year. Secondly and more important, I think that it would be sensible, if we are to plead with the parties in Northern Ireland to work
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together, to refrain from any unnecessary Orders in Council in the House, at least until the November deadline specified by the Government.
Several speakers, including the right hon. Member for Torfaen, referred to the reform of local government. At the moment, this House is imposing on the people of Northern Ireland a democratic local government structure that none of the democratic parties wants. It is clear to me from my many conversations with people in Northern Ireland that there is an acceptance that there are too many local authorities. But there is an equal acceptance among most to whom I speak that seven authorities is too fewan acceptance of the logic of the argument of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that such a structure runs the risk of polarising Northern Ireland for generations into, "Three green, three orange and Belfast." Such a structure cannot be good if we truly want a Northern Ireland that works together.
Frankly, it was very undemocratic of the Secretary of State to dismiss such worries when he was intervened on by saying that business people and various groups want such a structure. Northern Ireland's elected politicians, who are playing a part in the democratic structures of this House, do not want it, so I beg the Minister to put that proposal on ice and to say, as a real encouragement to those who would participate in a proper and fully functioning Assembly, "We will not impose on you a new local government structure if you can get your act together by the deadline."
I also hope that the same will prove true of education. I accept that unanimity among the parties on this issue does not exist; indeed, it is clear from the evidence that my Committee took, and from talking to people, that there is division. There is probably a majority in Northern Ireland who do not want the change that the Government are seeking to impose, although there seems to be a general recognition that the form of the 11-plus could be altered. However, we should let the Assembly get its teeth into this issue and deal with it. As I said in a jocular aside to the right hon. Member for North Antrim, I am not sure that this House should even be passing water until 24 November; there again, there are deep divisions in Northern Ireland and real concerns. [Interruption.] Perhaps that is what the right
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hon. Gentleman, who is no longer in his place, has gone to do. [Interruption.] That was indeed a very indelicate remark.
I urge the Minister to recognise that we are dealing with a number of issues that will affect the daily lives of the people of Northern Ireland for generations to come, and that we are anxious to have an Assembly that represents, is elected by and is answerable to them. Should not that Assembly have the same freedom to decide on such issues as the Parliament established in Scotland and the Assembly established in Wales? If we all mean business, there will have to be give and take on all sides. The absent ones in this Housethe Sinn Fein Members who do not take their seatshave got to prove their democratic credentials. I would like them to be here, but if they will not come here, they should at least make the absolute and total renunciation that I have talked about. I say to the Unionist partiesand to the Social Democratic and Labour party; I well remember the bravery of Gerry Fittthat those who have suffered at the hands of gangsters and terrorists will have to sit down with those who have been gangsters or terrorists, or who supported them. A lot of give and take is involved.
We in this House must be prepared to say, "We are going to draw back from interference and domination while you have this period to sort yourselves out." That is not too much to ask of the Governmentit is not too heavy a price for them to payin order to preserve a truly bipartisan policy. I am very pleased that we in the Select Committee do not divide on party lines. I hope that we will not, and that this House will not do so today or tomorrow. I very much hope that the Secretary of State's wishes will be fulfilled, but I ask that he show the degree of caution and tolerance that is necessary if we are to have a real chance of achieving success on 24 November.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am pleased to speak, if only briefly, in this debate. I wish to take the opportunity to make a few comments, but I shall begin by welcoming many of the speeches that have preceded me, not least the speech by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). All the speeches so far have been characterised by courage and leadership. I represent a constituency with no historical affinity or great links with Northern Irelandalthough I have spoken regularly on Northern Ireland mattersbut the contributions have filled me with great optimism. While a long journey remains to be made, I and other colleagues are greatly encouraged.
There are enormous reasons in Northern Ireland politics for the long history of distrust on all sides and they are measured in the incidents of violence and the atrocities that have been perpetrated, which we all condemn. Even recently, there are reasons to extend that distrust further, such as the recent history of bank raids and the failure to sign up properly to the changes to policing and the criminal justice system. Even in the welcome report by the IMC today, we see paragraphs on the dissident republican groups and loyalist paramilitarism. Despite that, as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) mentioned, we are today considering a leap of faith. However, that leap will not be taken completely in the dark: it is based on evidence.
We can begin with the IRA statement on 28 July, in which it clearly signalled the end of an armed campaign. The history of Northern Ireland suggests that we should view that with distrust, but it is a significant issue on its own. The IMC report noted, despite reservations in certain areas, a sea change in Northern Ireland politics and the willingness of groups to lay down the gun and subscribe to the democratic process.
Indeed, the greater peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland is illustrated by the story of Belfast itself. My wife now regularly travels to Belfast for her "away day" with fellow wives, but only 10 or 15 years ago that would have been almost inconceivable. Belfast is now one of the destinations to which people aspire to travel to spend time in, not least because of the welcome received and the friendliness of the people there.
The Bill is a question of faith, and that also applies to the Government. Ministers have the strong belief, which I share, that if they pass the ball firmly across to the politicians of Northern Ireland, they will run with it and deliver. I am encouraged by this debate and I believe that the ball will not be fumbled or dropped. There is every hope that in the ensuing months we will see not simply an Executive, butdespite the worries about a talking shopa fully functioning democratic institution with a mandate, so that Assembly Members can deliver their promises and make their judgments, instead of that being done by the MP for Ogmore and others like me. That is what I hope for today.
There will always be thousands of reasons to hesitate about making progress in Northern Ireland. The only reason for making progress is that that is what will
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benefit the wider population there. Politicianswhether they belong to the Assembly or the Oppositionknow that what happens to them is less important than delivering peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. The Bill is an essential step in that endeavour.
I hope that members of the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and other parties will use the proceedings of today and tomorrow to take matters forward. History will not say that they sold out or that they were backsliders; they will be remembered as statesmen and stateswomen with courage and vision in difficult times. These difficult questions are not for political journeymen, and the right hon. Member for North Antrim was correct to say that we must look beyond the horizon. I have every hope that we can move forward today.
It would be unfair of me to finish my brief remarks if I did not pay tribute to those who have brought us to this point. Former Secretaries of State, both Labour and Conservative, have made important contributions, and members of the UUP, the DUP, the SDLP and other parties have taken incrementally courageous and painful decisions to get us to where we are today. I look forward to the day when my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) can celebrate a very good birthday, when his present will be that the political institutions in Northern Ireland are in place and running effectively, led by Northern Ireland politicians.
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