Mark Durkan: In respect of amendments Nos. 7 and 8, the Secretary of State has indicated that the Government's purpose in the Bill, and the whole point of the exercise, is to give effect to re-establishing the institutions of the Good Friday agreement. On that basis, he feels that the amendments add nothing. In introducing them, I said that they were probing amendments to register that point, which was certainly made to us in meetings with the British and Irish Governments and registered strongly by the Taoiseach, not only in his joint statement with the Prime Minister on 2 March but on several other occasions. I am glad that our amendments have brought such an explicit statement from the Secretary of State. The Minister with responsibility for political development, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is now sitting next to the Secretary of State, will be glad to hear that I can take yes for an answer. On that basis, we will not press the amendments to a vote.
Among the various comments on amendments Nos. 7 and 8, there was some misunderstanding of their purpose. The right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is not in his place, but I point out to him that I did not at any stage say that I believed that the DUP's only intent was to go into the Assembly to wreck it. How could I say that, in circumstances in which it is clear to all of us that this new creature is very much along the lines that the DUP specifically
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advocated? If anything, on the basis of his contribution yesterday, the DUP's intention would not be to bring down this new creature but to prolong its existence. Clearly, subsequent amendments that they have tabled would do away with the 25 November deadline. He has therefore misapprehended my concern.
In relation to the position of the DUP, I believe that, contrary to 25 November and the notion of a proposed alternative representing a threat to the DUP, in the overall political scheme, the DUP might well be comfortable in those circumstances. It can then make a different case that closing the book on devolution is effectively closing the book on devolution as per the agreement. Drawing down the curtain, as the Secretary of State said yesterday, on the process since 1998those were the Secretary of State's wordscan quickly be converted by the DUP to drawing down the curtain on the Good Friday agreement. As Governments search for an alternative that they do not yet have, the DUP will say, "We always advocated an alternative. The Governments are proposing an alternative that is not agreed; we want an alternative that is agreed." A lot of people in Northern Ireland, including some nationalists, naively believe that the DUP is somehow under the cosh in respect of 25 November and some other alternative, but I do not believe that the DUP appears particularly frightened by that prospect. I also put it on record that Sinn Fein might have an interest in seeing a crash at that stage, as long as it can blame it on the DUP.
We wanted the Assembly to be able to consider possible solutions. If it seems that we are facing total crash and burn, and if there are proposals that could give life to implementation of the Good Friday agreement, the Assembly should be able to consider those proposals. It would do so on an agreed and an inclusive basis, with no side deals or anything else of that kind.I was pleased when the Secretary of State said that there would be no side deals in the negotiations, although he will probably become tired of being continually asked to give assurances in that regard. I accept his assurance and hope that it will extend to all levels of government.
As long ago as 1998, we were negotiating the Good Friday agreement in Castle buildings a few weeks away from Good Friday, grappling with the minutiae of the proposals for strands 1, 2 and 3. Two parties were supposedly negotiating with the others, and supposedly negotiating with the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). The right hon. Gentleman, then the Minister responsible for political development, was chairing the strand 1 talks while negotiating with Senator George Mitchell, who was chairing the talks overall. Those two parties, the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP, received a fax from Downing street giving an outline of what the strand 1 outcome should be.
The SDLP made it clear, in fairly stark terms, that we were not negotiating with a fax machine, whether it was in Downing street or anywhere else. If the Prime Minister wanted to contribute to the negotiations, he should come to Castle buildings and join in the talks with all the parties and with the Irish Government. Those who were chairing the talks, including the political development Minister, did not know about the faxes from Downing street until we told them.
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I hope that that answers the insinuation from some people that the SDLP has not always stood for inclusion, and has been prepared to do deals on its own or in its own way. We have never done that. We are absolutely clear about the integrity of the principle of inclusion, which is why we wrote it into the agreement, ensuring the inclusion of people who opposed the agreement. We always maintained at the time that the Good Friday agreement and its institutions, as they worked and grew, would be capable of involving in partnership and co-operation not just Unionists and nationalists, not just republicans and loyalists, but those who voted yes and those who voted no. We did not want a new permanent divide in Northern Ireland's political life.
I believe that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement are capable of sustaining such partnership and co-operation. That is whythis answers the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)I do not accept that changes to the agreement are a necessary precondition for restoration. After all, if the suspension had never happened in the first place and if the DUP, with the mandate that it secured, had entered unsuspended institutions, the DUP would have taken office in those institutions. It would then have used its strength in those institutions, and in the context of a formal review of the agreement, to oversee some of the changes that it seeks. It would find thatas, in fact, its members knowmany of us have proposed changes in the workings of the agreement to improve it, at a number of levels and a number of ways. We have even proposed changes in the 1998 Act, because many changes could be made to the Act without denting the agreement.
We do not wish to divide the Committee on amendment No. 7. I shall deal with amendment No. 6 shortly. As for the other amendments, I understand the point that has been made about the Presiding Officer. We feel that it might seem petty, and might be misrepresented and misunderstood, if we created a scramble over the appointment of the Presiding Officer in the current circumstances. People might think that we had something against Eileen Bell, which we do not.
It is interesting that Eileen Bell has been appointed Speaker and Eileen Paisley has been appointed to the House of Lords. Given the common assumption that things happen in threes, Eileens up and down the country are probably waiting with bated breath for some wonderful appointments to come their way.
We will certainly work with Eileen Bell as Speaker. In the circumstances, it is probably better to avoid any unseemly stand-off in regard to the Presiding Officer in the early days of this new creature. As someone who comes from Derry, and who is looking across the Floor at someone who clearly comes from Londonderry, I am not going to get into the issue of what we should call the Assembly; the most important thing is what we do in it.
As many Members have said, amendment No. 6 is in many ways a modest proposal. It is a modest test of the truth of the Secretary of State's assurance that he wants Assembly Members to have responsibility; indeed, he has sometimes said that he wants them to have "a
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powerful influence". What is wrong, therefore, with giving the Assembly the power merely of negative resolution over Orders in Council on a cross-community basis? It is not a veto in the pocket of any one party or community, so it could not be abused. The Secretary of State doubted whether there would be cross-party support for providing such a power. I agree that there would not have been cross-party support for a power of affirmative resolution, which would have given a veto to one party or community, but I cannot see what objection even Sinn Fein would have to proving the power of negative resolution on a cross-community basis. If we are meant to participate in this Assembly in anticipation of taking on powers and doing good things, surely we want the ability stop some of the bad proposals coming through via Orders in Council. As we look toward achieving restoration, what is wrong with our being given the power, on a cross-community basis, to put a stop to the gallop of direct rule via Orders in Council?
The Secretary of State said that that cannot be done because such matters are for Parliament to decide and cannot be decided by anybody else. Yet we are told constantly that Parliament does not want to legislate on these matters via Orders in Councilthat it wants them to be properly the business of people in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State tells us that he will not allow us to oppose Orders in Council by way of cross-community support, yet he cites that issue as the very reason why he will advise Parliament against giving us that power.
The Secretary of State says, "We cannot allow anybody else to decide on issues that are a matter for Parliament." I do not like to remind him and his Ministers of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, but it comes to mind. We were told that the Government and, through them, this Parliament, were honour-boundhideboundto introduce legislation that in fact, nobody liked, agreed with or could justify to victims. We were told that there would be dire consequences if it was not passed, but we were not told what they would be, what the threat was or where it came from. The Bill was withdrawnand the sky still has not fallen in. We were told that an ulterior entity had a hold and a prior say that bound this Parliament and the Government. In the light of that, I do not regard the Secretary of State's argument as very strong.