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Mr. Clifton-Brown : My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and powerful speech. He has put his finger on the key point—that it is a question of trust. The Secretary of State is asking the parties represented here to trust the peace process. Should not he in turn trust Assembly Members to shape their own future?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Of course. Trust must be reciprocal and indivisible. The Secretary of State is saying to the House, "Trust me"—and, on a personal level, I do. I therefore say to him, "Trust the people of Northern Ireland", as represented by active and vigorous Members of Parliament who have all proclaimed their dedication to a proper Assembly. I ask him not to make irreversible changes to the structure of Northern Ireland and the fabric of its society before the Assembly has come into being. If the Assembly does not come into being, that is a different story, but let us have at least until November before irrevocable decisions are set in stone in Northern Ireland.

A proud people in a beautiful part of the United Kingdom care passionately—even though they do not always agree—about the education system and the shape and framework of local government. Although many things about Northern Ireland are not normal and there are many things that some of us do not like, we cannot question the deep intensity of local patriotism, which is admirable and must be harnessed to a productive future. I know that the Secretary of State has a regard for the people of Northern Ireland. I ask him to show it by treading softly when he insists on what the House passes in the coming months.

I hope that the Secretary of State will touch on the small but important point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made about parliamentary privilege, which is again part and parcel of trust. We know how difficult it is to prove malice. How can I prove the innermost thoughts of the right hon. Member for North
 
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Antrim or of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who may think that I am going on inordinately at the moment?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, of course not.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am delighted. However, how do I know what anybody else thinks? How do I know what motivates people? I have to trust people. Just as I would trust the Secretary of State, I ask him not to shackle the privilege of those who meet in forum or conclave and what they can say to and about each other.

I said yesterday that the task in Northern Ireland—it is a joint task—is to make hatred history. We have spoken much about making poverty history recently, and that is good. To make hatred history, we have to work together. That requires a great deal of sacrifice, especially by those who have suffered. The communities represented by Northern Ireland Members on the other side of the House have suffered; those represented by Northern Ireland Members on my left have suffered enormously. Those who are not here but could be present to argue their cause have inflicted much of that suffering. They have not expressed remorse for doing so. We are going to have to draw a line without that expression of remorse, and that is quite a task.

I, too, have lost close friends and colleagues as a result of the troubles, as we all have on this side of the House. Those men were popular across the House. If we are to begin to create the climate for a new era of trust, it is incumbent on the Secretary of State to be cautious about what he pushes through Westminster in the next six months. He should devote his time almost exclusively to Northern Ireland. I am sure that the people of Wales will not mind. He knows that I do not like the dual mandate that he holds, although that is not his fault.

Let us use the Bill as a launching pad for the true democracy that the people of Northern Ireland richly deserve.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I want to comment on one or two amendments in the group. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) about amendment No. 6. In the Democratic Unionist party document, "Facing Reality", which preceded the Government's initiative, we stated clearly that we wanted an Assembly that would exercise the maximum power and responsibility that was consistent with the circumstances. We never advocated a talking shop. Indeed, we put forward in the document a number of options to be considered by the political parties in Northern Ireland, one of which was legislative devolution. That option would still have allowed the executive functions to be performed by the direct-rule Ministers, while allowing legislative rule by the Assembly. The proposal by the SDLP is a small gesture in that direction, but it is none the less a helpful suggestion, and my party colleagues and I are quite happy to support it. Indeed, the Secretary of State and Her Majesty's Government will start to lose credibility if they turn down a reasonable proposal that is supported by all those who are prepared to speak in this House on behalf of the electorate in Northern Ireland.

What is the Government's purpose? I had assumed that it was to establish cross-community support in Northern Ireland and to encourage the political parties
 
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to reach agreements. Here we have an agreement, however small it might be, yet the Secretary of State has not, as yet, indicated his willingness to accept this small step forward. He must relinquish some of his control and power, because the tendency, as illustrated by the Bill, is that he is seeking to draw more and more power to himself. That is not a good example for the politicians of Northern Ireland to be set by a Government who say that they want to devolve and cast off their powers. Here we have an all-party agreement among all the members from Northern Ireland in this House, yet the Secretary of State still appears to want to resist it. I hope that he will reconsider his position on these matters. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has suggested, the Secretary of State could review the situation when we reach 24 November. It need not be set in stone for all time.

The purpose of this Assembly is that it will be a transitional Assembly that will move towards full executive devolution. This measure seems to be a very adequate way of performing that task.

Sammy Wilson: Given the filters in amendment No. 6—including the requirement for cross-community support, and the provision that the Secretary of State would still have powers to make urgent orders without reference to the Assembly—does my hon. Friend agree that this is in fact a very modest proposal? Surely the Secretary of State should have no difficulty in accepting it.

Mr. Robinson: My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument. I hope that, as the Secretary of State has been considering these matters, he will have been swayed by the arguments that have been presented from both sides of the House on this matter.

A number of issues were raised during this short debate that bring two words to mind: "mountains" and "molehills". We are at times inclined to get into the minutiae to such an extent that we lose track of the key issues.

Let me deal with the issue of the Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is not a new issue; we faced it in 1998. We are talking about a transitional Assembly that will move from its present structures and powers towards a creation that we hope will eventually have full executive authority. The Ulster Unionist party did not oppose such a metamorphosis in 1998, and I am surprised that it is opposing it today. The words used to describe the body—be it "assembly" or "forum"—are pretty meaningless in reality. It is the Assembly. It is not the Northern Ireland Assembly as set up under the 1998 legislation. It has a specific role that would take it seamlessly from its existence under this Bill to an existence that we hope it will have under an amended version of the 1998 Act, given that that legislation will have to be amended.

2.45 pm

Indeed, the seamless transition is detailed in the Bill, in that certain powers automatically given to this Assembly will be given, without any further action, to the new Assembly that follows it—for instance, in
 
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relation to the Presiding Officer's position, the enrolment process for Assembly Members and their designation, and decisions taken in relation to the First and Deputy First Minister and other Executive positions. By being taken by this body, those powers will automatically get taken by the new Northern Ireland Assembly under, I hope, an amended 1998 Act. We are talking about a transitional Assembly, and I suppose that putting the word "transitional" in the title might have made its intention and purpose clearer.

I do not think that the terms used in the Bill do great violence to the overall position and future of Northern Ireland. Certainly, I am not greatly exercised about what the body is called. We all know what it is intended to do, and what its purpose is to be. I simply hope that the public will be more concerned with what the Assembly does than with what it is called. If the Members of that Assembly do a job that gets the favour of the community in Northern Ireland, they will worry little whether it might be confused with some other body that has been in suspension for a long period.


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