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Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): It might be useful if I begin by saying that my colleagues and I have entered into a pact; we will speak for no more than 10 minutes each, so that all hon. Members who want to contribute to the debate can do so. That shows that concessions are being made already. [Laughter.]
We do not intend to vote against the Bill getting a Second Reading this evening, even thought it is not everything that my party would want. Many elements could be improved, although we recognise that there are time constraints. I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that this measure should be renamed and that, instead of being called the Northern Ireland Bill, it should be called The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Bill, as it seems to give him enormous powers.
Mr. Deputy Speaker has just announced the results of last week's deferred Division on Northern Ireland delegated legislation. That vote came after two days of Committee debate on the Floor of the House on the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, when there was widespread criticism of how legislation is handled here. There were calls for a much greater degree of democracy in the process, yet this Bill gives so many powers to the Secretary of State that the person who holds that office will be a virtual dictator.
I am not talking about a particular individual when I say that, as I would say the same regardless of who was Secretary of State. However, when the Government are unsure of what the future holds, they give powers to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in a way that would not be acceptable in any other part of the UK. We must move away from that practice.
This Bill arises from a joint statement by the Prime Ministers of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, paragraph 10 of which implied that certain threats would
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be made real if the parties in Northern Ireland did not meet the deadline set. The threat was that some form of partnership would be established between the two Governmentsindeed, the statement actually contained the word "partnership"and that it would go beyond their present relationship.
I think that that would be damaging. I advised the Government and their officials before the statement came out that that was not the route to take. Ulster men and women do not respond well to threats; I think the Secretary of State is beginning to learn that lesson, although sadly a little too late.
I welcome what the Secretary of State had to say in the House today. I suspect that he will have to say it an awful lot more to convince people, but I believe that it is imperative that the Secretary of State makes it very clear that he will not move away from the principle of consent. The Government cannot argue that they are abiding by the statement in the Belfast agreement, which is, we are told, confirming the principle of consent, and in the next breath indicate that they have intentions to allow some form of joint management or joint sovereignty or joint authority to come after 24 November.
The role of the Assembly is one of the areas where the Government have not gone as far as this party would have asked them to. Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), we wanted an Assembly that was going to be able to take decisions. We do not want a talking shop; we want to come to agreements and to have those agreements implemented. That arises out of our document "Facing reality", which recognised that for the immediate future it would not be possible to set up an Executive in Northern Ireland and that therefore in the meantime, however short or long that might be, the Assembly should be doing some productive work and the highest level of devolution should take place consistent with the circumstances.
I certainly agree with the very eloquent and thoughtful remarks made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) that the Government do need to go a little further than simply saying, "we shall take into account what the parties in Northern Ireland have said". It would be a travesty if the parties in Northern Ireland were to reach an agreement in that Assembly, for instance on water charging, and the Government failed to give it life. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's humour was lost on those who were not there for the earlier part of the debate, and they may have wondered why he was restricting Members from passing water, but I think that the Minister who is replying to the debate would do well to take up our challenge to him and his colleagues.
I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle and his colleagues will join us in testing the Government on these issues, because I would like us very early in the life of that Assembly to knuckle down to some of the issues that have been referred to, whether it is water charging, or education, or the review of public administration, or the rating system or even how we might handle the economy, and reach agreements on those, and put them to the Government to see what they will do in those circumstances. I say to the Government, if they fail to give life to agreements that are reached in that
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Assembly, they will dent, if not destroy, the credibility of the Assembly, and indeed the purpose of any of us being there. So I hope that the hon. Member for Foyle will join us in testing the Government and seeing just how far the definition of taking account of what we have to say in the Assembly will go.
Likewise, following on from that, I want to make it very clear that there cannot be a move towards executive devolutionleaving aside the issue of paramilitary and criminal activityuntil such time as changes are made to the Belfast agreement. My colleagues and I have a fundamental issue about the structures that arose out of the Belfast agreement. That is not simply because we produced policy documents and manifesto commitments and they are binding on us, but because of what we believethat there are issues in relation to the stability of the Assembly, accountability within the Assembly, and the efficiency and effectiveness of that Assembly, that have to be addressed. We addressed those issues back in 2004 in negotiations that we had with Her Majesty's Government and we asked for changes to be made.
Some of the changes in the comprehensive agreement were not exactly as we would have had them be. Improvements could be made; indeed, some improvements could be made that might bring it more into line with some of the thoughts of the SDLP, but those changes will have to be made or there will never be any prospect of us moving into an executive form of devolution if it relies on the support of the Democratic Unionist party.
We are a party with a mandate that is opposed to the Belfast agreement. These are essential changes that need to be made in order that progress can be made. I think the Government understand that; I just hope that other parties in Northern Ireland understand that. In many ways they were catered for to some extent in the comprehensive agreement proposals.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire referred to the picking and choosing of the IMC report. Everybody who believes in democracy and peace in Northern Ireland will welcome progress on ending paramilitary activity. When we reflect on the early 1970s, we recall that more than 470 people were murdered in a 12-month period, in a small community of about 1.5 million. Only a fool comparing that picture with the current situation would say anything other than that there has been significant progress, but the Secretary of State and the Minister should not expect to hear applause from the Democratic Unionist Benches. We do not believe that 470 people should have been killed in the first place, so we find it difficult to give credit to people because now they are not killing our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. That is why there will be no cheers from our Benches.
At the same time, we can acknowledge that there has been progress, although as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, there is still progress to be made. We cannot simply take the parts of the IMC report that say this or that is better without also considering the untied things that need to be tied downthe grey areas that must be dealt withso it is essential that the Government do not send out a signal to terrorist organisations saying, "You've really done enough". The message must be clear: there is more to do.
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If the process is working, let us continue with the strategy that it is up to the IRA to finish the course. My colleagues and I deserve considerable credit for the strategy that we proposed, because the previous one was to bring in the IRA and to allow its members to have their cake and eat it. That is exactly what they did; they had their cake and they are still eating it. When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will express greater urgency about the IRA finishing the course, rather than marking time as it is doing at present.
As Democratic Unionist Members are limiting their speeches to 10 minutes, I shall try to do the same, in a spirit of collaboration and co-operation. I want to focus on some of the benefits of devolution and what it could mean for Northern Ireland.
The Government have introduced devolution in Scotland, Wales and London. I was one of the 25 members of the original London assembly elected in 2000 and am one of only 34 assembly members to date. We are the smallest city government in Europe, a contrast with the Northern Ireland Assembly of 108 Members.
Local government was restored to London in 2000. I am on record as having many differences, at different times, with the incumbent Mayor of London; no doubt I and others will have differences with future Mayors, but I defend the institution, as I defend the principle of devolving power to the most appropriate level.
I want to highlight some of the benefits that we have seen in London, because the people of Northern Ireland could see similar benefits if the Assembly sets up an Executive and power is truly devolved. The main change has been in transport where there has been a real transformation. There has been a huge increase in bus services and a reduction in car travel, which could not have happened when such issues were run solely from Westminster. It was the power and will of a London Mayor who could make decisions for the whole city that made the difference. There is a whole-London approach and a strong political voice, with political power devolved to a wider city region.
One of the crucial decisions in which was London involved could not have been made without the devolution of power: the delivery of the London Olympics. There is an important parallel for Northern Ireland. Theoretically, such decisions could have been made through local government, but we could not have had the Olympics because no London borough would voluntarily have voted for a council tax increase of £20 a year for their residents. Whether or not we agree with the Mayor's decision, he was in a position to take it.
The parallel with Northern Ireland is perhaps the review of local administration and the current debate about the future of local government there. As it stands today, many small district councils and numerous public bodies run health, education and other public services. If regional government, the Assembly and the Executive are restored, the people of Northern Ireland
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will be able to take decisions that will deliver for the whole of Northern Ireland rather than for the individual districts or individual service areas. London has a population of 7.5 million, Northern Ireland about 1.5 million; but I firmly believe that both have the right to be released from the grip of Westminster control.
It is rather peculiar for me, a London Member of Parliament, to be in my place today taking decisions on Northern Ireland issues in a Chamber that is lamentably empty of the Members who will pass through the Lobbies if we divide tonight or on other occasions when we debate Northern Ireland legislation. It feels wrong that the people of Northern Ireland who elect their own representatives here, albeit only a handful in the House as a whole, do not have links to a directly elected Assembly in Northern Ireland.
Members have already debated the issue of whether it is right for the Secretary of State to suspend decisions on Northern Ireland between 15 May and 24 November. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made his point eloquently. As he rightly said, we often find ourselves in agreement in the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. I am not making a party political point, but I disagree with him on this matter. The Government cannot stand still in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. For example, if we suspended decisions on the review of public administration as he suggests, and if, in the worst case scenario, the attempt to set up the Executive failed, we would then be left with the variety of small district councils, which might be unable to take on some of the requisite responsibilities.
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