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Mr. Peter Robinson: I wanted to make six further points in my speech, one of which concerned elections. If the hon. Lady wants to examine my notes, I have them here. I wanted to discuss elections, but in deference to my hon. Friends, I did not have time to do so.
Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. I look forward with bated breath to DUP Members expressing concern and objections about a democratic election to the Assembly being postponed for no particularly good reason. I would be delighted to share his notes over a cup of tea in the Tea Room, but only his notesthe hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) is welcome to attend, too. It is a serious issue in a democracy that the date of a scheduled election can be changed at the whim and whimsy of the Secretary of State.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is in the Chamber. I was most concerned that the spokesperson for Her Majesty's loyal Opposition did not question the shifting of the scheduled Assembly election, but there will be an opportunity for him to do so tomorrow when we discuss the amendments that have been tabled for the Committee.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I apologise to the hon. Lady for missing the beginning of her speech. I have tabled an amendment for tomorrow that questions the clause that gives the Secretary of State the power to delay that election.
An enormous amount of Executive power is being taken to the Secretary of State under cover of this Bill. If we allow it to go through unchallenged this eveningas we have indicatedand if the Government do not accept amendments tomorrow, this House will have agreed to a Secretary of State in our Government having the power, by Order in Council, to amend and to repeal any Act of this Parliament and any Northern Ireland legislation. I do not in any way challenge the personal integrity of the current Secretary of State, but I would caution that the Bill not only hands any future Secretary of State the power to amend or repeal any legislation by
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Order in Council, but, if they deem it expedient, not even to have to bring it before this House, so there will be no scrutiny or transparency whatsoever. I do not think that any right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber would countenance such a degree of Executive power being taken to a single Minister in any circumstancesyet we are not discussing emergency or counter-terrorist legislation, but an attempt to restore devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
The aims of the Bill are laudable, but the means that the Government are adopting are deplorable. That brings me back to my argument about the christening of this new creature, the Assembly, which would have been better termed a forum or a talking shop. It strikes me that the Government have done something very clever. It is as if they were parents with two sonsperhaps I should say daughtersone of whom is very bright and the other not so bright. The parents choose to call both children by the same name, so that after a while the public do not know the difference between one and the other. I suspect that the Government have chosen deliberately to give the impression that this is the restored Assembly, but it is no such thingit is a toothless talking shop. It worries me considerably that the people of Northern Ireland are being led to believe that the Bill will lead to the restoration of something more powerful at Stormont, when that is clearly not going to happen. I urge the Government to listen very carefully to tomorrow's debate and to amend the Bill before it leaves this place.
Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): I shall say only a few words and leave my colleagues to deal with the nitty-gritty of the measure and what the Assembly should be called and how it will be perceived, which the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) mentioned.
I want to make a few comments about what I had the pleasure of saying in Killarney at the British-Irish Parliamentary Body meeting on Monday 24 April. My party is up for a fully functioning Assembly with Executive powers. It is in the interests of our people in Northern Ireland for locally elected representatives to make decisions on local issues that affect the everyday lives of Ulster people. We in the Democratic Unionist party are not the problem. The responsibility to step up to the plate lies with Sinn Fein-IRA.
Too many families are still reeling from the freedom from serving their jail sentences given to murderers when the Belfast agreement was signed, coupled with broken promises, which the Prime Minister made in 1998. He promised that terrorists would not be in government or released from jail. The rest is history.
The debate has covered most of the pertinent points about the Bill. I would simply like to say that Northern Ireland Members look forward to a time when they no longer have to live behind bullet-proof windows, which are installed in their homes along with panic buttons and cameras, or be driven by police escorts. Like my colleagues, I have grown-up childrenwhose ages range from 33 to 24and grandchildren, who are aged between 14 and six. They have never known normality and have always had to endure living in an abnormal setting.
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I therefore have a vested interest in seeing our long-suffering people, as well as my children and grandchildren, experience proper democratic institutions, which will tackle the genuine problems of the serious position of our health service, our educational future and the water charges, which are being foisted upon us.
However, the caveat is that, when we make our decision in the DUP to go forward, we must ensure that the Assembly is made up of democrats, who are all equal under and subject to the law. No party should have at its disposal an army ready for action if Sinn Fein does not get its way.
We must ensure that the victims of 35 years of terror are considered. Our party is mandated not to repeat the mistakes of the past in-and-out pantomime of an Assembly. We must get it right. That means Sinn Fein being democratised, with no more criminality and paramilitary activities connected directly or indirectly to it.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), who clearly set out the conditions under which the Democratic Unionist party would enter into Executive Government in Northern Ireland, as did my other right hon. and hon. Friends who have already spoken.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I am not sure whether her speech had been passed or endorsed by Cunningham house. How much of it will gain assent from the leadership of her party remains to be seen. Given her comments and her attitude todaysuggesting that she would divide the House on Second Reading if she were in a position to do soI wonder whether members of her party will turn up at Stormont to participate in the Assembly when it is called on 15 May.
The hon. Lady took some time to explain her difficulties with the proposals in the Bill. She railed against the Assembly that the measure sets up, but I wish that she and the wing of her party that so vehemently supported the Assembly that was set up in 1998, with all its fundamental flaws, including IRA-Sinn Fein in government without decommissioning, had expressed even one word of concern about it and its make-up. Had she done so, her complaints today would have had a bit more credibility. Likewise, had she and her colleagues on the wing of the party that she supports opposed the deferral of the election in May 2003, first for four weeks and then until the Novemberthey did not want it even thenher concern about the moving of the election date would have had more credibility.
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My party is happy to face the electorate at any time. We will face them quite happily in May 2007, because every time we have gone to the polls, they have endorsed our position and given us a clear mandate. We have no doubt that, when we face them againwe are happy to face them sooner rather than laterthey will once again give us a resounding mandate.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Member for North Down said about executive power in the hands of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I would remind her and those in the wing of the Ulster Unionist party that supports her that she supported the handing of full, untrammelled executive power to Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assemblyand to all-Ireland bodiesso that they could carry out enormous acts of damage to the people of Northern Ireland, to its economy and to its health and education systems, as evidenced by the decisions of Bairbre de Brun in a number of cases, and by Martin McGuinness over the 11-plus. So I am glad that a different approach is now being taken, but I shall wait and see whether it will be carried out in practice.
On the matter before us today, the Secretary of State said that there would be serious consequences if the parties involved did not carry out their mandate and act maturely. This party has certainly been elected on a mandate to try to bring about devolution. We were devolutionists when other parties in the Unionist community were fully fledged integrationists that did not want Stormont or any kind of local accountability whatever. There is no doubting our devolutionist credentials. However, our mandate also states that devolution must be based on sound democratic principles, and must involve a complete end to paramilitarism, terrorism, violence and criminality, along with certain changes to the Belfast agreement. I shall not rehearse all those points, because my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) and others have already outlined that mandate.
We have come a long way, in regard to not only the change in the circumstances on the ground in Northern Ireland, but the attitude of the parties and of right hon. and hon. Members. We are now talking about the need for absolute clarity and certainty, and for the completion of the transformation of the paramilitary groups into exclusively peaceful democratic entities, and I am glad that the policies that we put forward for many years, from 1998 and before, are now widely accepted. Everyone in the House now says that the IRA must completely end all criminality, terrorism and paramilitary activity.
Indeed, the Prime Minister talked in his famous Custom House speech about acts of completion. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has talked about adopting a Blairite approach to these matters, but I think that it is the other way round. The Prime Minister has adopted a Democratic Unionist party approach, and that approach is working. It is delivering, and our party deserves credit for that. Previously, the Ulster Unionist party was prepared to go along with the policy that stated, "Bring Sinn Fein and the IRA in and give them positions in government, and they will learn to be democrats". Well, we said that that would not work,
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and it did not. We said that they would want to have their cake and eat it, and that people would suffer as a result.
The approach that we are now taking demands that, before Sinn Fein-IRA can come anywhere near the Government of Northern Ireland, there has to be a complete end to criminality, terrorism and paramilitary activity and a complete transformation to democracy, with certainty and clarity. That is the right approach, and we must keep working at it. It is delivering, and it is the sound and sensible way to proceed.
As far as the work of the Assembly is concerned, I welcome the opportunity for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to debate and discuss matters of deep concern, but we will want the Government to respond to their views. It is essential that the Secretary of State does not proceed with contentious legislation and change. If he does, that will ultimately act as a major disincentive to the restoration of devolution. Many people will say, "Even if we have devolution back, we will not be able to change some of these matters of vital concern to our people." I urge him, in the interests of his project to restore devolution, not to proceed with some of the more contentious matters mentioned in the House.
There are issues of concern. The IMC report published today had the inevitable spin and hype prior to publication. We have had some selective quotes from the report even today in the House. Of course, we welcome the progress made, but we want more progress so that there is completion. There are major issues, such as the retention of guns. It is now clear that guns have been retained, the report says, without the authorisation of the leadership. Surely we cannot just leave it at that. Something has to be done about it. If members of an organisation are acting outside their authority, we should at least expect the leadership to do something about them. Is it okay simply to say, "That was without the authority of the leadership"? Is it all right if the IRA has now moved from a centralised structure to a federal structure? For the people living in Markethill and elsewhere in South Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone along the border, or in my constituency, it will be of little comfort to say that the guns held by the local IRA are not authorised by the brigade headquarters in Belfast, but just by the local IRA commanders. We must grasp that. Movement on that issue will be needed if we are to see progress.
On criminality, I listened to what the IRA said over Easter, and I have listened to it being praised today about that matter. Let us remember that as far as the IRA is concerned, any act that it carries out in pursuance of its objectives cannot be criminal. It is easy for it to condemn criminality, because it does not regard anything that it does as criminal, even to the extent that, as Mitchell McLaughlin famously said, the terrible atrocity of the kidnap and savage murder of Jean McConville, who was then buried for decades, and about which the IRA lied, was not a crime in its eyes, and is still not regarded as a crime by Sinn Fein-IRA. We need to be careful about those matters.
The people of Northern Ireland know how the IRA operates; they know its theology and thinking and how it will interpret everything according to the letter of its constitution and values. Those of us on the ground must judge what it is up to and what it is about. It is important that we do not make the mistakes that were made in the
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past but that we bring the IRA to the point of completion and bring about a permanent and irreversible transformation to democratic politics. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has made it clear that if we reach that point, we can make real progress, and we will not shy away from the commitments that we have made. Until we reach that point, however, we will stand firm in the interests of democracy.
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