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Lembit Öpik: I rise to speak to amendment No. 1, in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), which is essentially a probing amendment. We are concerned whether there will be enough time for Parliament to legislate to bring into effect any change to the workings of the Assembly that might be needed before a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister can be elected. We would like the Government to assure us that there will be proper time for Parliament to consider the implications of any change to the workings of the Assembly. That is particularly important, as it is the duty of the two Governments—the one here and the one in Dublin—in conjunction with the Assembly, to review and report on the operation of the Assembly. Colleagues will remember that section 11 of the Good Friday agreement spelt that out very specifically under the heading of "Validation, Implementation and Review". I quote paragraph 8, which states:

As Ministers know, I was very dissatisfied with the Government's tardiness in conducting that kind of review. The Alliance party was assured that a review would take place. There was enormous obfuscation and delay, prior to the appointment of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). In the end, the work that has taken place has not really addressed some of the core issues—for example, the question of political designation. I covered that in an earlier speech and do not need to repeat my
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criticisms now. Amendment No. 1 asks the Government to make clear how they see the progress towards making sure that sensible changes can be introduced before the First and Deputy First Ministers are elected, without the sham and farce of redesignation being forced on Alliance party members or anybody else.

I will comment briefly on the other amendments. It seems that amendments Nos. 10 and 11 both seek to remove the deadline from the Bill. If I understand things correctly, that would mean that the proposal for an interim Assembly in the Bill could carry on indefinitely, which is not a good idea. My judgment is that the 24 November deadline is necessary to resolve which way we are going to go with Northern Ireland politics.

I am more sympathetic to amendment No. 14. It is clear that we all want to see the end of criminality, in all its forms—not just the so-called politically motivated paramilitary activity. I am encouraged by what the Independent Monitoring Commission has said in its most recent assessment of the matter—the 10th report. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about amendment No. 14, because surely it contains a reasonable expectation.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I would like to contribute briefly to the debate on amendments Nos. 10 and 14, in particular. I can see the benefit of having an end-date in place. It does tend to concentrate the mind. However, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said yesterday, quite correctly, we have seen so many deadlines come and go in Northern Ireland. I suppose I have to question whether there can be any confidence in the idea that this is a real deadline. I understand fully, and take completely at face value, the assurances that the Secretary of State gave yesterday that it is a deadline, but there are ways of setting further deadlines and still retaining this one. Things can be fudged in one way or another.

I also take the point made yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who has been present for virtually all the debate—he has just left his place for a moment. If we get to, say, 20 November and we are almost there, but not quite, is it right to let the whole thing fall? That is a powerful point. Although I can see the point of a deadline, I think that, on balance, the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) carries a lot of weight and we will therefore support the Democratic Unionist party if the matter is pressed to a vote.

Amendment No. 14 is difficult to disagree with. The Government have set so much store by what the IMC is saying.

Lembit Öpik: I am a little surprised by what I think that the hon. Gentleman just said. He said that he would support the removal of the deadlines, if that was pushed to a vote. I am not quite sure why he would do that because, although I am pretty sceptical about the Government's willingness to hold to a deadline, I am absolutely certain that the absence of a deadline would guarantee that we will live with this halfway house of an Assembly for the rest of our natural lives.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman was rather scathing about deadlines himself yesterday. I have every
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respect for this Parliament—I am sure that hon. Members share that view. I have come into the Chamber—in the case not only of this Bill, but the previous Bill relating to Northern Ireland—undecided on how to vote on a number of issues and I have listened to the arguments. Parliament is at its best when hon. Members do that and are not necessarily whipped into one line or another. [Interruption.] The Minister is laughing, but I make no apology for listening to the debate, which I am sure that he does regularly. I am not entirely convinced that we are right to support the DUP on amendment No. 10, but having listened to the arguments made by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), we will, on balance, do so.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that his vote is negotiable, so perhaps I can persuade him to swing back towards the case for deadlines. The inference from what he says is that a Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would not impose a deadline on the interim Assembly. That worries me, so I ask him to think about it. Is he really saying that the antidote to flexible deadlines is no deadline at all? It is my judgment that any Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would have to impose a deadline to get a resolution of the situation.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman asks me to speculate about what we would do in government. It is not that far off, so we will have to face up to those questions, but we are not quite there yet. I want to move on from this point because there are other things to discuss, but I will not dodge the hon. Gentleman's question. If he is asking whether no deadline is better than a deadline that is all over the place, I would suggest that it probably is.

Mr. Dodds: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the amendment would not take away the deadline because the Secretary of State would still be able to remove salaries and stop the Assembly from meeting? However, it would mean that the fall-back position would be much softer than the hard landing with a crash and the complete end of everything that would be effect of the Bill.

Mr. Robertson: I am persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's eloquence. He made the important point earlier that if we were almost to reach the deadline, surely it would be better to let the Assembly to continue to run for a while—at least we would have something—than to get rid of everything. That could lead to full devolution more quickly than would otherwise be the case, so, on balance, we will support the DUP if the amendment is pressed to a Division.

The Government set a good deal of store by what the IMC says and I understand why the Secretary of State quoted from the report extensively yesterday. I would be surprised if the Government opposed amendment No. 14. I accept that the IMC cannot dictate what we do in the House because that is up to hon. Members. However, I also accept that there are worries among the Unionist parties and, probably, the SDLP about going into government with people who have not fully given up violence. It does no one on the Unionist side, including me, any good to pretend that there was no
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good news in yesterday's report—no one has suggested that—but it does the Government no good to pretend that the whole report represented a clean bill of health. I quoted at length yesterday the parts of the report that said that senior members of the IRA were still involved in criminality and cited specific expulsions that were still being carried out by the IRA. That was all in the report as well as the good news, so if we are to accept the IMC report, we must accept the whole report. I thus have a lot of sympathy with amendment No. 14, too.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I intend to be brief. I am not quite as vociferous, or windy, as some of my colleagues and hon. Members on the other side of the Chamber.

Clause 2 provides that if three conditions are met the Secretary of State will make an order of restoration. The conditions are that a First Minister and Deputy First Minister are elected, that persons are nominated as Ministers, and that each of them takes a pledge of office. I am deeply worried about amendment No. 10, because it would make the Assembly open-ended. The Assembly should not be open-ended because that would undermine the concentrated effort that is required to get devolution back in place.

4.45 pm

I note that DUP colleagues have claimed that the Bill means that the 1998 agreement is dead. That is an exaggerated notion of their mandate. We all have mandates and we can all count numbers, but the place to exercise the mandate and count the numbers is on the Floor of the Assembly when it is reconvened.

We oppose any aspect or concept of a shadow, powerless Assembly, because that could last for ever. The deadline is an essential backstop position, which concentrates minds and gets things done.

I fear that amendment No. 1 would set the precondition for restoration whereby Westminster has to legislate for changes to get the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister elected and an Executive formed. There is nothing wrong with the terms and the details that we worked out in 1998; nor was there anything wrong with the agreement reached in 1998. What was wrong was that a number of the parties failed to honour and implement their responsibilities in 1998 and subsequently. I shall not point fingers. Everyone knows who the wrecking parties were, and it was not the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists. Frankly, the problem had nothing to do with the institutions, the regulations, the Standing Orders and the concepts. Rather, it was the outright refusal by the provos to destroy their weapons. To some extent, that was supplemented, aided and abetted by the refusal by some Unionist politicians to share power.

It would be a profound mistake to make changes to the agreement, or the 1998 Act that flowed from the agreement, a precondition for restoration. Of course, improvements can be made to the working institutions. Improvements can always be made and development can always take place. We gave a long list of improvements that we wanted to see at the conference at Leeds castle two years ago. All of them were consistent with the Good Friday agreement. However, such matters need to be worked out on the Floor of the
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Assembly or on the margins of Assembly meetings, and between the parties involved. I am worried that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who has always been a good friend and a good supporter of peace and progress in Northern Ireland, has taken up the position set out in amendment No. 1. However, we will have a chance to discuss that later.

I am also deeply concerned about amendment No. 14. Frankly, for the reasons that I outlined, it is unnecessary and irrelevant. The terms will not have been met if we are depending on the IMC. We do not need to hang ourselves on the amendment. I outlined the terms for electing a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, and for each of them taking the pledge. It appears that the DUP cannot trust itself and will not participate, but we cannot meet the primary conditions of clause 2 without its support. So why do we need an amendment, as a belt-and-braces operation, to ensure that if one of them strays a wee bit, he is pulled back? It is a sort of choke lead.

The DUP is trying to pass the buck for taking up its position. If it has issues with which it wants to deal, let us do that face on, eyeball to eyeball, and, in a gentlemanly fashion, sort them out. We do not need the amendment. Again, the substance of it should be dealt with on the Floor of the Assembly. The amendment makes unreasonable demands and tries to remove the independence of the IMC, an independent body, and suck it in as a partisan political player. We are the political players. Let us sort out the issues.

The amendment also places a loaded gun, so to speak, in the hands of a handful of rogue provos in various places around the country, with the result that half a dozen people can prevent any progress from being made by carrying out systematic disruption that causes the IMC to report negatively on one small case. I do not wish to delay the Committee further. My colleagues and I are opposed to the amendments for the reasons that I have outlined.

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