Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mark Durkan: If the hon. Gentleman looks at amendment No. 7, he will see that it would allow people to consider and argue about other such proposals, to test one another and to press one another on them. However, the fact is that we could face a dangerous situation after 25 November if we have failed by that stage and if the language used is that of closing the book on devolution and therefore closing the book on the agreement for the foreseeable future. We could end up in circumstances that no one has advocated, no one has argued for and certainly no one has voted for in voting for any party. That is why I believe that, in the period that we have, if it looks as though we are not making progress to form the inclusive Executive and getting the First Minister and Deputy First Minister elected in the due way, it might well be appropriate, if the parties agree, to look at some options that still allow us to make progress that is consistent with the Good Friday agreement and that allows suspension to end—not to continue and prolong this kind of half-baked, twilight zone Assembly, but to create one that allows us to end direct rule and to restore the Assembly with its powers, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) refers to our proposals in the past. Our proposals were made more than two years ago. They did not require IRA decommissioning or anything else—it would have been restoration there and then, or restoration here and now—and if the Assembly were to discuss options such as ours, other parties would be free to propose other options. I urge the Secretary of State to make it clear that the Assembly will have the potential to maximise the agreement's implementation. That is made clear in amendment No. 7, and we would like to hear that the Government will consider that, rather than pushing to a position that would simply allow others to declare the agreement dead.

1.15 pm

We recognise in that context not only that we will be trying to test others with alternatives and better ways to find a more definite approach to implementing the agreement, but that other parties will be testing us with their proposals, some of which, of course, would involve departing from the agreement. However, if the purpose of the Assembly is, as we have been told over the past few weeks, to provide a forum where all the parties can discuss things and where side deals are not going on and if the Assembly is the locus for political discussions, it seems to me that, given such political discussions as the Government know they will have with the parties, the parties should be able to have discussions with one another in public view in the context of the Assembly created by the Bill.

I will not speak to the amendments tabled by other hon. Members. We have also tabled amendments Nos. 8 and 6 in this group. The purpose of amendment No. 8 is simple: to make it clear that the purpose of the
27 Apr 2006 : Column 741
Assembly created by the Bill is to give effect to the Good Friday agreement. The House should have no problem with that because, after all, section 1 of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, which set up the original shadow Assembly, contained similar wording, and the Secretary of State has told us that much of the Bill has been drawn from that original 1998 Act. If it was okay then, and the purpose of the Bill is to get us to implement the agreement, we see no reason why that cannot be made clear upfront in the legislation now.

I will now address amendment No. 6—and as I said yesterday, the key to our approach is whether the Bill offers a path to restoration or whether it offers the sort of talking shop that the DUP have advocated. We recognise from what we have seen to date that the Bill may offer both. It could be a path to restoration in that, if we elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and run the d'Hondt system and everyone takes the pledge of office, the Secretary of State will restore the institutions. Certainly, we would welcome that—we want to see those things happen—and we will be there, taking our place in the Assembly, to try to make them happen.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Again, the hon. Gentleman alludes to two distinct things: either a talking shop, which he appears to believe, wrongly, is an option that the DUP wants, or a restitution of the institutions, which is obviously what he wants. Can he open his mind to the fact that this may in fact evolve into something that is neither of those?

Mark Durkan: I look forward to hearing more from the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues about some of what they have in mind, but so long as we are in the Assembly created by the Bill and not a restored one, I certainly want to ensure that the elected representatives in that Assembly can use their time as productively as possible. I do not want the considerations that its Members then have to be meaningless and weightless.

The fact is that the Secretary of State is given the power in clause 1(1) to refer to "such other matters as" he "thinks fit" to the Assembly created by the Bill. Obviously, that refers back to the statement by the two Governments on 6 April. We are told that the Secretary of State and Ministers would take account of motions passed with cross-community support on matters such as water rates and the review of public administration. It is hard for people to put much weight on such verbal indications from the Government in circumstances where the Government have consistently failed to respect the will of parties, as clearly expressed on a cross-community basis outside the Assembly during suspension.

How are we to believe that the Government will respect the views of Assembly Members in that Assembly? Will "take account of" extend to "abide by the will of"? That is what amendment No. 6 tests. It would give the temporary Assembly created by the Bill a temporary power for the life of that Assembly, by cross-community vote, to veto Orders in Council. That would not be a veto in the hands of one party or another party, or one community interest or another community
27 Apr 2006 : Column 742
interest, but a veto, for the life of the temporary Assembly, in the hands of a cross-community majority in that Assembly.

If the Secretary of State cannot accept amendment No. 6, I will have to ask what reason he can offer to Members of the Legislative Assembly for attending work in the Assembly to deal with such other matters as he might refer to it. If the clear and overwhelming views of the Assembly on matters such as industrial de-rating, water charges and the review of public administration will have no binding impact on what the Government do, it is hard to see how people will be well motivated in that work. It is also hard to see how the variety of policy communities and sectoral interests will take the Assembly seriously in that context. If the Secretary of State, who is creating and will control the Assembly, does not take it seriously, it is hard to expect or rely on all its Members, and certainly the wider public, to take it seriously.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Having read amendment No. 6, it seems that the hon. Gentleman seeks a negative power for the Assembly to veto Orders in Council. How does he consider that the Assembly will work in terms of positive powers? What positive powers does he think the Assembly should have and how much budgetary control does he think it should have?

Mark Durkan: To give the Assembly positive powers on a cross-community basis would, in effect, give one community or another, or one party or another, a veto on positive proposals and that would not be constructive in this situation. We do not want to give life to any sort of diversionary, half-baked Assembly. In so far as we are faced with this Assembly, which would not have been our choice—we wanted to go for full restoration—we will make the most of what is put in front of us, but we are not going to give life to something that diverges significantly from the agreement.

This is a temporary Assembly. If the idea of the 25 November deadline is to concentrate minds and to say to parties, "You will face serious consequences if you let all this fizzle out and the prospect of devolution turn to dust," giving that temporary Assembly the temporary power of political estoppel on matters that are clearly unpopular in the Northern Ireland community, would at least let people know that, if there is failure by 25 November, the effect of that power of estoppel will go. People will know that the community will pay a price and hopefully then parties will pay a price in front of the community for having allowed their success in stopping and preventing some of these    measures to evaporate, because obviously the Government are then free to return to implement those measures under direct rule.

Concentrating and galvanising the power of that incentive makes the deadline count for far more. It will give people in the wider community—the various policy communities and sectoral interests—some mission and purpose in looking to the temporary Assembly to send a signal of a real prospect of better policy outcomes for them. They will be pressing parties to make the most of the situation and to make sure that we have success before 25 November, not failure. That is the purpose of amendment No. 6. I will not address the other amendments in detail.
27 Apr 2006 : Column 743

Next Section IndexHome Page