Previous Section Index Home Page

16 Oct 2006 : Column 591

Of course, the one element of the jigsaw missing from the timetable set out in the St. Andrews document is a date for the special Sinn Fein ard fheis required to change that party’s position on policing. Can the Secretary of State give the House any indication of when that meeting is likely to take place? Will he also agree that it is crucial to the entire process that there be clear movement on the issue of policing before 10 November, when the parties have to give their responses to the St. Andrews document? Will he further agree that support for policing has to be more than just simply taking up places on the Policing Board? It has to include encouraging people in republican communities to report crimes to the police, to co-operate fully with police investigations, and to provide evidence to the police and to the courts that will lead to the conviction of criminals. It also has to involve, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, republicans urging people from their communities to join the police force as a career.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be no toleration whatever of either individuals or parties seeking to use community-based restorative justice schemes as a form of private justice, or as an alternative to the legitimate authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland? Can he give a specific assurance that the words in the St. Andrews documents about reintegrating ex-prisoners into employment do not mean that the Government have any intention of relaxing the current safeguards against people who have terrorist convictions or who have been involved with paramilitary groups joining the police as officers, or becoming police community support officers?

The Secretary of State spoke about the possible routes for electoral endorsement of the St. Andrews proposals. Does he agree that, whatever route the Republic of Ireland intends to follow in that respect, it would be constitutionally wrong if citizens of the Republic were to vote in a referendum on matters that related solely to the internal governance of the United Kingdom and that a referendum in the Irish Republic should surely be confined to changes in that country’s constitution or system of government?

The Opposition support the institutional changes set out in the St. Andrews document, in particular those relating to ministerial accountability and collective responsibility. Subject, of course, to seeing the text of the new legislation, we hope to be able to offer the Government our support when they introduce the Bill. We also welcome the Government’s changes of policy on capping and additional relief for pensioners when the new rates system is introduced, and their change of heart on the retention of academic selection. Will the Secretary of State introduce a new Order in Council to repeal the complete ban on all academic selection that the Government imposed earlier this year?

I wish the Government well in the course that they have set. The ultimate prize on offer is indeed great: a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland, with a shared future for people from all traditions, based on democracy and the rule of law rather than on terrorism and the gun. It is an objective that I believe unites all of us in this House, and success in that endeavour is in the interests of us all.

16 Oct 2006 : Column 592

Mr. Hain: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for what we achieved at St. Andrews. Despite the questions that he is entitled to put to me and the answers that he is entitled to get, cross-party consensus on these matters is important at this critical moment. I also thank him for in-principle support for the Bill when we introduce it—probably in the week starting 20 November, to get it in before the deadline of 24 November. I have discussed with him the fact that the Bill will have to be taken through using emergency procedures and the Opposition’s support will be critical to deliver what we intend.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about full support for the police and all the different elements of that that he described, including co-operating with investigations. That is vital. Any party that aspires to hold ministerial office, let alone any democratically elected party, ought to support the police, full stop, and the policing situation that they are being asked to support has been completely transformed, as I described.

On the pledge of office, the hon. Gentleman will see in annexe A, paragraph 8, that the preparation for government committee is being asked to consider that matter. It is important for at least four of the parties that the issue be addressed. We shall have to see what emerges from that consideration and where we can take it.

The hon. Gentleman asked when an ard fheis will be called. That is a matter for Sinn Fein’s internal procedures, but the agreement contains a reference to the Sinn Fein executive, the ard comhairle, which needs to meet sooner rather than later. He is right to say that we will need to know by 10 November whether we are in business—whether we are in a position to proceed with the emergency Bill with all-party support, or not. That will be crucial.

On community restorative justice, I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute guarantee that there is no question of it being an alternative to the rule of law or policing. Indeed, any CRJ schemes that are supported and officially recognised—we are consulting further on that—will have to comply with the rule of law and have to have the police almost embedded within them, as happens in a number of cases now. I give the House the pledge that I gave the Policing Board last week: if we do not get the arrangements for community restorative justice schemes right and if we do not satisfy everybody, broadly speaking, we will not do them. It would be better not to have them than to create a climate of uncertainty or ambiguity about what is involved.

On recruitment standards to the PSNI, the Patten report was clear that people with serious paramilitary backgrounds should not join the PSNI, and we have no plans to move away from that. Recruits to the PSNI, whether regular officers or community support officers, will have to have the same rigorous standards of entry applied to them. There is no intention of changing that.

On an election or a referendum, the different parties are thinking about that matter and plan to come back to us. We await the outcome of their deliberations. On academic selection and rate capping, as of now the Government’s policy remains as it was prior to St. Andrews. We need to see the implementation of the agreement and delivery of the legislation in the week beginning 20 November, with all-party support for that,
16 Oct 2006 : Column 593
as well as the nomination for the First and Deputy First Minister on 24 November. That being the case, included in the legislation will be the removal of the ban on academic selection. Quite separately, if the agreement is implemented—if not, we will proceed with our policy, as was our original intention, based on long consultation—and signed up to, including those crucial steps to legislation about which the parties need to tell us by 10 November and the nomination of the First and Deputy First Minister on 24 November, we will impose a cap.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I welcome the statement and my early sight of it. Good progress has been made and it can work, particularly because the most recent Independent Monitoring Commission report suggests that the IRA’s activities have been massively reduced, although not to zero, and that many of its structures have been dismantled.

I was also pleased to see annexe B, which shows true progress on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and on a single equality Bill, both of which will be essential if we are to see a truly shared future for the people of Northern Ireland.

My first question relates to the apparent removal of a cross-party vote to confirm the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers. That was a fundamental principle of the Good Friday agreement, under paragraph 5 of strand 1. Why has it been removed?

It seems that some work will be done on generating structures for a department of justice. We fully agree with that intention, but it is not clear whether the matter will be determined by the Executive or by the Assembly as a whole. Will the Secretary of State say whether the department will be established by the Assembly or by the Executive?

It seems that, when a decision is to be taken, the options are an election or a referendum. If the Government choose an election, they need to explain why they proposed in the Northern Ireland Act 2006 to postpone the election from May 2007 to May 2008, specifically to give the Assembly time to bed down and govern Northern Ireland for a year. I am not sure why there is a debate on this matter, given the Government’s robust arguments on the issue at the time. Can we have clarification, given the enormous interference in election dates that we have had?

In the interim period from now until March, there is a danger that the Government will continue using Orders in Council, which cannot be amended, with regard to legislation affecting Northern Ireland. May I have an assurance that, during that period, there will be a moratorium on any significant legislation in order to allow the Assembly to pick up the reins on such decisions?

In the spirit of celebration that may have broken out, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) asks for an assurance that the Campbeltown to Ballycastle ferry, which unquestionably would be in greater demand as tourists flock from Scotland to Northern Ireland, will be reinstated.

The Secretary of State will know that the promise of funding was held out and was rudely grabbed away. It is a serious issue, so may we have an assurance that that strategically important service will be revisited and will get the funding that it needs?

16 Oct 2006 : Column 594

Finally, I want to make an observation about deadlines. I predicted that the 24 November deadline would slip. On many occasions, I sought an assurance from the Secretary of State that it would not and he said that it would not, but in reality there has been some slippage. I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s strong rationale for that slippage, but, given that it is very likely—it is obvious, in fact—that he will seek to lift the condition of having a fully established Executive on 24 November and that that decision will slip to March, what assurance can we have that, if there are further roadblocks and difficulties between now and March, the March deadline itself will not slip? The right hon. Gentleman was very robust and has been clear in the documents that have been shared with me that March is an absolute deadline, but, once again, we have seen those deadlines slip. He knows my concern. If deadlines are seen to slip, we could carry on living with slippage and deadlines for the foreseeable future and that will not lead to the lasting peace and the effective devolution that we seek.

Mr. Hain: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support. I am grateful for it, because we need to move forward together.

To take up his last point on slippage, we never expected that implementation would take place on 24 November. What we insisted on was that there had to be a deal, and that we have. There had to be a deal and we have a deal. Indeed, we have the nomination of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 24 November, so we have carried out our promise to the House in that respect.

The 26 March deadline—that incorporates the 14 March deadline for the nomination of Ministers by the parties and the 26 March deadline for the running of the d’Hondt system and the restoration of self-government—will not slip. As I said in my statement, if anything unravels, the Assembly will be dissolved and Stormont will be shut down, as it would have been and still could be. If something unravels between now and 24 November, Stormont will shut down—that would mean the end of costs, salaries and the rest of it. That is what we have committed ourselves to, with the hon. Gentleman’s support.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the IRA’s huge change. In particular, I draw his attention to paragraph 2.17 in the Independent Monitoring Commission report of 4 October, which referred in terms to the disbanding of the IRA’s structures that were responsible for the “procurement, engineering and training” of its military operation—in other words, the disbandment of its military capacity.

We have reconsidered the question of a cross-party vote and the appointment of the Executive as a result of inter-party negotiations. It was important for the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his party to get the Good Friday agreement amended in that respect, and the way in which we have reframed it has been accepted by the Social Democratic and Labour party. We can take that matter forward.

On the department of justice, clearly the provisions are laid out for how that will be decided in terms of the Executive making recommendations and the involvement of the Assembly.

16 Oct 2006 : Column 595

On postponing elections to May 2008, which was in the Northern Ireland Act 2006, which we carried through in May, there is a change in circumstances, because we now have the St. Andrews agreement. Most of the parties felt that there ought to be a fresh mandate for that. There is a new circumstance. The Democratic Unionist party, especially, was elected on a different manifesto and the right hon. Gentleman, its leader, explained to me that he needed a fresh mandate and the endorsement of the people, by whatever route.

On Orders in Council, there are some vital matters still to take forward. Water charges is one. If we do not make progress on that, not only will constituents in Northern Ireland continue to be in a unique situation compared with my constituents, those of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and those in the rest of Great Britain, there will be a great big hole in the budget—which will not do any favours to an incoming Executive—because of the money that would have been raised for investment in water and sewerage and the release of money for extra investment in public services. However, we will certainly look at the controversial orders and, as was promised to all the parties—a promise given in the House of Lords—we will undoubtedly look at how we can seek to consider amendments to them, perhaps at pre-legislative stage.

The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), is considering the ferry service from Ballycastle to Scotland, after which no doubt his views will be clear. However, I just say this: it is very expensive.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): May I commend my right hon. Friend and the political parties in Northern Ireland on the progress made so far, especially with regard to the fact that all parties in Northern Ireland will have to accept the new policing arrangements? However, I am sure that he agrees that the sooner that direct rule ends, the better for democracy in Northern Ireland. It is entirely incongruous that we have an Assembly in Wales and a Parliament in Scotland, but direct rule in Northern Ireland. Controversial measures might have to be considered between now and—if things go well—March. Does my right hon. Friend agree that new controversial measures should not be introduced, but should be a matter for consultation on a consensual basis with all parties in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hain: First, I thank my right hon. Friend for what he says and pay tribute to his distinguished role over three years in getting us to this point. I happened to have occupied the job when things came round in the way in which they did, but he did fantastic work to move Northern Ireland forward. I agree that the sooner that direct rule ends, the better. We want locally established self-government and devolution, and in that respect, I must be the only member of the Cabinet who wants to do himself out of a job.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): You are going for another one: Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Hain: I will not rise to that bait.

16 Oct 2006 : Column 596

I understand the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about controversial orders, but we need to proceed with much-needed reforms to make savings and change layers of bureaucracy through the review of public administration. We would be doing the incoming Executive a favour by reforming water charges because we would release money that they would otherwise have to find. If we did the job, they could come in and get on with other matters with which they would need to deal.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I accept wholeheartedly that he has given us the categorical assurance that one of the foundation stones on which the future government of Northern Ireland must rest is the full recognition and fullest support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the structure of law and order enforcement. Those matters must be kept. We have the promise, but not the delivery. As I have said to him face to face, if they were not delivered, we could not go forward with this matter. I do not accept that for years people have been saying just that, because I have sat in the House and heard arguments against.

I believe that throughout this United Kingdom, there will be relief among all people, who will say, “At long last, in any Government in any part of this United Kingdom, those who are in it must support the police in a way that satisfies the people.” That is crucial, as the Secretary of State very well knows, to what we are speaking about today. I look forward in anticipation that—without ifs, buts, or trying to water things down—that is done. That is the solid foundation on which real democracy can exist in Northern Ireland, but if that foundation stone is dislodged, all the work is over—it will crumble and decay.

I am sorry that I am perhaps not so excited, but I have been through these periods over and over again. I pray, Almighty God, that our country—our little province of this country—will come to a place of peace. I do not want to visit any more homes of bereavement. I do not want to take little orphans on my knee, look at them and say that they will never see their father or mother again. I want that all to finish, but it must be built on that solid foundation.

I have one thing to ask the Secretary of State. If he proceeds with the water charges, will he please consult the parties in Northern Ireland, so that he does not introduce a contentious measure and so that there is some sort of agreement about it? The best thing for Northern Ireland would be for the new Assembly to settle all these little matters. Then the people could say, “We can approach our elected representatives and they can tell us what has happened.” I make that plea to the Secretary of State. Thank you.

Mr. Hain: I agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said about policing, and acknowledge to the House his own steadfast role in moving the situation on so that all parties are now within sight of signing up to what he believes in. I agree that promises are not sufficient and that delivery is important. It is significant that no party disagreed with paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement, which expressed those principles.

Next Section Index Home Page