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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Twenty-first Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Twenty-first Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


†Mr. David Wilshire

†Cormack, Sir Patrick (South Staffordshire) (Con)
†Dowd, Jim (Lewisham, West) (Lab)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
†Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
†Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
†Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
†Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
†Heath, Mr. David (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
†Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
†Keen, Alan (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury) (Con)
†Merron, Gillian (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
†Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Sîan Jones, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):Durkan, Mark (Foyle) (SDLP)
Mackinlay, Andrew (Thurrock) (Lab)

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Thursday 14 July 2005

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2005

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2005.

The Chairman: I shall explain to those who have not suffered me in the Chair before that they do not need to ask if they want to take their jackets off. As I am conscious that one or two hon. Members are not familiar with what happens when we are playing this game and the Division Bell goes, I shall explain: the Committee automatically adjourns for a quarter of an hour; should there be a second Division straight after the first, technically it should adjourn for a further quarter of an hour, but if the Committee is willing, I shall do my best to make it 10 minutes so that we are not kept here until the early hours of the morning.

Mr. Hanson: Thank you for your helpful comments, Mr. Wilshire. I hope that we will not be here until the early hours of the morning, although I expect a full discussion on the order, as it has a great impact on Northern Ireland and is a serious matter on which I hope that Committee members will reflect.

A draft of the proposal was laid before the House on 25 May. As members of the Committee will be aware, on 15 October 2002, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended. That suspension has continued and it has therefore been necessary for the Government to exercise responsibility for Assembly functions and to maintain power to legislate by Order in Council. That remains a matter of regret to the Government, to me, as a new Minister, and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because the Government wish to maintain their commitment to restoring devolution, so that hon. Members from Northern Ireland who are elected to the Assembly can exercise the powers that they have been elected to exercise, as soon as possible. The present power, as agreed by the House, will expire on 14 October and the order provides for a further six-month renewal of these powers to 14 April 2006.

The Government’s ultimate goal remains the restoration of an all-inclusive power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland. In order to restore the devolved institutions, however, we need to rebuild trust and confidence in the political process. As hon. Members know, we await the IRA’s response to the statement by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr.
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Adams) in April. I hope that it will contain credible, verifiable and definitive commitments to ensure that paramilitary and criminal activity is ended. We need to see a complete cessation of paramilitary and criminal activity, with full and verifiable decommissioning of all illegally held weapons. I hope that when such a statement is forthcoming, it will form the basis of trying to restore the devolved institutions to their rightful place.

If that is the case, we believe that we can then make progress towards the restoration of a fully inclusive, power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland, in which all parties will participate. In the meantime, as I said with some regret, the order is a necessity. We appreciate that legislating by Order in Council is far from satisfactory. Indeed, in the two or three orders that I have taken through the House in the past couple of weeks, I have had strong representations from the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and from Northern Ireland Members, all of whom, I believe, have been Members of the legislative Assembly. It is not a satisfactory situation as previous debates have indicated. I appreciate entirely that those with an interest in Northern Ireland orders have to bring themselves up to speed, especially on what is often detailed and complex legislation.

I welcome the fact that there have been discussions and a number of ideas have been put to us suggesting ways in which we can improve direct rule accountability. The Government remain open to suggestions and the Secretary of State and I will continue to consider them very carefully over the summer recess before Parliament resumes in October. My right hon. Friend has had discussions on the matter with several hon. Members. I give a commitment that I, too, am happy to discuss with the official Opposition, with other parties and with colleagues from Northern Ireland how we can examine these issues. In another place, my noble Friend Lord Rooker also expressed a willingness to engage on these matters.

The Government want to consider how the system can be improved and to provide an opportunity for changes to be taken on board. This will be the last Order in Council before the summer recess. Let us remain focused on the objective, which is to ensure that the Assembly in Northern Ireland is restored, that local decision making can take place, and that local elected politicians such as the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) who is in Committee today can play their rightful role in determining the future direction of Northern Ireland policy.

The purpose of the order is not to suspend the Assembly because we wish to suspend it; it is to suspend the Assembly because we are in a difficult position in which we need to build a consensus to get the Assembly back up and running with proper, local accountability and decision making. In the meantime, it is necessary to move this order, to renew the power to legislate by Order in Council, and to allow Ministers such as myself to remain accountable to the House of Commons for matters relating to the devolved Administration’s responsibilities with which
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I deal on a daily basis. I hope that we can have a good discussion, and I am happy to discuss in Committee and afterwards how we can examine the issues before us. I commend the order to the Committee.

2.36 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to welcome you, Mr. Wilshire, back to the Committee, and to serve under your chairmanship and guidance yet again.

In many ways, it is a sad day. As the Minister acknowledged, we do not want to have to discuss the order, never mind endorse it. The Minister has recognised the unsatisfactory state of affairs, and he has been generous in suggesting that he would discuss the matter today and beyond. I know that the Secretary of State is open to discussion and negotiation about the order, but I am concerned that progress does not appear to be forthcoming. There does not appear to be a willingness to look beyond the promised IRA statement. I will not say that it is imminent, because I do not know when it is due, what it will contain, nor how satisfactory its contents will be.

I want to speak to the order in some detail, because I am concerned that I do not see an end in sight to the government of Northern Ireland by statutory instrument. If we pass the order, we will effectively confirm the suspension of the Assembly for three and a half years. It will have been suspended on four separate occasions, and it will have been suspended for more months than it will have sat.

We are aware of the difficulties of governing anywhere through statutory instrument. The input of Northern Ireland Members is limited by the very make-up of the Committee; and, by its very nature, a statutory instrument cannot be amended. We either have to pass it or reject it, and that cannot be a satisfactory way of running the Province, of running a part of the United Kingdom.

My main concern is that there is no end in sight to the process. I read very carefully Lord Rooker’s speech about this order in the House of Lords. I admire him very much. It may come as a surprise to the Committee to learn that he has a cottage in my constituency, and I have worked with him in several Departments. Again, he is a man whom I admire, but having read his speech, I fear that there is an over-dependency on and an over-expectancy about the IRA statements. It is as if the IRA is in complete control of the entire process, and I am not happy to go along with that.

I want to ask several questions related to the order. What is the Minister’s understanding of the IRA statement? Where is the statement at? I ask that not from a position of ignorance. Who is considering the statement? Is it just the IRA, is it the two factions that we are told exist in the IRA, or has it gone beyond that? Will the Government see the statement before it is issued? In order that we might know whether we shall be sat in Committee in another six months discussing a similar order, I should like to ask
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what if the statement and its contents are not acceptable to the Unionist community in particular. What if it is not acceptable to the Government or the Irish Government? Even if it is acceptable, will there be a period in which we have to consider not the words, but the actions of the IRA? In other words, how long will it be before we move from the current position, in which we run Northern Ireland by statutory instrument, to one in which the people of Northern Ireland run the Province? Those are important questions, which need answering.

I shall move on from the Unionist community in a moment, but I make no bones about the fact that I in no way blame the Unionists for the position that they are taking. In December 2004, at the very time when certain members of Sinn Fein-IRA were discussing bringing back the Assembly, some of its other members were planning the largest bank raid that we have ever seen in the United Kingdom. How can anybody have confidence in a group that is so duplicitous and hypocritical?

What was the money from the Northern bank raid used for? Was it used to help the IRA rearm and regroup? If that is the case—and my information certainly indicates that it is—what prospects does that hold out for the restoration of the Assembly? If that is not the case, what evidence does the Minister have that it is not? Does he have any evidence that the money was being used to wind down the IRA and pay off those who were its loyal servants for so very long? If he has that evidence, I would like to hear it.

Neither the Unionists nor the SDLP can be expected to fight elections legitimately when they face a group financed by money that is obtained illegally and through terror. Would we in England be prepared to accept that situation? I do not think so. It is not just the Unionists who are affected. I had a meeting with Seamus Mallon a while ago, and he told me that Sinn Fein had 200 paid volunteers in his area. How were those people paid? Were they paid in the same way that we finance political parties in this country? If they were, I would very much like to know how Sinn Fein does it. I leave that thought with the Committee.

There is also the problem of continuing criminality. We have a mafia-style business being run on the republican side. What is the money being used for? For the record, as I said on the Floor of the House yesterday, I also condemn the violence on the so-called loyalist side. We therefore have two processes: the political process and the problem of controlling the violence that is pursuing control on the streets of Northern Ireland. How on earth are we going to deal with that?

To sum up, what are the prospects for a comprehensive and fundamental IRA statement? What are the prospects for acceptance of that statement? What are the prospects for a complete end to paramilitary activity and mafia-style criminality? What are the prospects for all the legitimate parties in Northern Ireland to accept that situation? Given all that, what are the prospects for the subsequent restoration of the Assembly?

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2.44 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Mr. Wilshire, I am delighted to be enjoying your chairmanship and the flexibility that I know you will allow me over the next few minutes, given your characteristic good humour.

This is something of a ritual, and it says something about the Government’s optimism that they make it a six-monthly ritual rather than an annual one—perhaps there was an early hope that the structures in Northern Ireland would be returned more promptly. Many of us will not be surprised, however, if we find ourselves back here in six months’ time, going through the procedure once again.

We find ourselves in this position because the Government have tied themselves to what the Minister described as the all-inclusive power sharing Executive being their prime target. As soon as he requires them to be all-inclusive they cannot move on until everybody is ready to move. That means that they takes the pace from the slowest party. The Government know the difficulties that they currently face and that there is no control over the agenda or the pace at which it can move.

If the Government stick rigidly to the policy doctrine that they currently hold, we will be required to come back many more times. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said, this is an unsatisfactory procedure. It is unsatisfactory in many ways. Whereas the Minister stated his desire to be made accountable, the reality is that he is not unaccountable under these procedures. To me, accountability means the ability properly to scrutinise legislation and what Departments are doing, and the ability to amend legislation. None of that is possible under the Order-in-Council procedure. We simply do not have the time or the sort of structure in place that would allow us to do that.

That is not to say that the Government could not, if they looked beyond their six-month horizon and expected to be in this position a little longer, change the procedures of the House of Commons, so that we can have some proper scrutiny of Northern Ireland legislation. Why should it not be dealt with in Bills?

Why should the Grand Committee not be used more extensively than it is, and not just for the items of business that the Government feel safe to allow it to consider? Opposition parties should be allowed some control of the issues that can come before it. They could allow the Grand Committee to meet in Northern Ireland. It is outrageous that the Scottish Grand Committee and the Welsh Grand Committee can happily take themselves off to Scotland or to Wales, while the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is hidebound to this building. If one wants to make direct rule more accountable, the Grand Committee needs to be seen in Northern Ireland.

The resistance that the Government Whips tell me comes from the Social Democratic and Labour party in that respect is misplaced. The SDLP, perhaps more than any other party, will benefit from the fact that it can deal with and scrutinise important issues in Northern Ireland, in the absence of those who keep
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themselves away from the business of the House of Commons. I cannot understand how the SDLP finds it appropriate to have members on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which frequently goes to Northern Ireland and their members with it—it frequently takes evidence in Northern Ireland from, among others, the SDLP—yet seems to put up the blocks when it comes to having the Northern Ireland Grand Committee meeting in Northern Ireland. I hope that under the new leadership of the SDLP there will be a reconsideration of that issue. If not, I hope that the Government will be prepared to reconsider it, so that we can have that greater degree of visibility of our democratic structures in Northern Ireland, in the absence of having the devolved structures returned.

We remain left with the procedures that the Government have put in place. I urge them to reconsider the better use that they might make of the existing Northern Ireland Assembly. As has been indicated, it has been suspended for a longer period than it was in action. The public have been patient. Indeed, the Government have been patient to keep it in existence when it is not carrying out its full functions and to continue, albeit at a reduced rate, to pay for Assembly Members’ salaries while they are not discharging the full range of their functions. That is not to say that they are idle but, at present, they are little more than social workers and I suspect that they would want to be more involved in political life than they are. I commend the new Secretary of State, who was willing to meet Assembly Members of the Democratic Unionist party. We spent a long time probing several issues. He made himself available in a way that other Secretaries of State have not. I hope that his good example will be followed by the Minister and his colleagues and that they will adopt their departmental roles, share their thinking with Assembly Members and open themselves up to the advice that might result from such action. I know that they will be as generous with other parties as they have been with mine.

However, such matters are a poor substitute for having democratic control and responsibility within Northern Ireland itself. We therefore need to consider why we find ourselves marking time and what we can do to move on. The official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury, has made it clear that the IRA’s statement is at the forefront of the Government’s agenda. They seem to have tied themselves to a waiting role to see what the terrorist organisation might do. That is a massive error.

Yesterday, I said in the House of Commons—I think that it was yesterday, days begin to weld—that, by doing that, the Government are giving a veto to the republican movement. They say that they require an all-inclusive Executive and will not move until one is available. They then say to Sinn Fein-IRA, “Put up whatever demands you have and, for us to move forward, we have to meet them.” The Government are giving the movement a massive negotiating strength, as well as a veto on progress. They must not allow the
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pace of democratic government in Northern Ireland to be set by a terrorist organisation. They must be prepared to move on.

If the Minister really wants movement in the Sinn Fein-IRA organisation, there is no better way in which to achieve that than for it to possess the knowledge that the train is moving on without it and that it must catch up. Nothing will settle and concentrate the organisation’s mind more quickly than the fact that it might be left behind. The hon. Gentleman must therefore consider the alternatives that do not depend on Sinn Fein-IRA making a statement that, unlike previous statements, is clear in all respects and that goes to the extent that the two Governments set out in the comprehensive agreement that they hoped would be reached last December, and which included three vital areas. It first required complete decommissioning of all illegal weapons and explosives and for that to be carried out in a verifiable and transparent manner.

The agreement wanted the transparency to include the presence of independent witnesses and such photography as was necessary to convince a rather doubting community that the guns have gone and that they have gone for ever. That requirement of the two Governments was endorsed by the United States Administration last December. I trust that the Minister can tell us that the Government have not gone back from that position, but are still holding the line firmly on the issue. I hope that the IRA is aware that any statement it makes that promises anything less than that would be regarded immediately as unsatisfactory.

Secondly, there is a requirement for a complete end to paramilitary activity. That involves recruitment. However, according to the Independent Monitoring Commission, new blood is still being brought into that organisation. People are still being trained. New weapons are still being procured, as evidenced by the recent police discovery of ammunition of a sort not previously found in Northern Ireland. The exiling must finish, as must the kneecapping and the punishment beatings—that sort of activity must be brought to a complete end.

Thirdly, there is a requirement to end all criminal behaviour. Of course, the IRA never admits to being involved in criminality; it tells us that, as the lawful government for the whole island, nothing it does can be considered criminal. Indeed, the chairman of that party, Mitchel McLaughlin, told us that it was not a criminal act to have murdered those regarded as “The Disappeared”.

According to its own code, the IRA is not capable of being involved in criminal activity. The rest of us, however, know what criminality is, and we know how heavily the Provisional IRA is involved. It is big business. It is a criminal empire such as we have never before seen in these islands. It is structured, and it brings in tens of millions of pounds every year in its “normal” procedures.

The Northern Ireland Select Committee investigated the activities of paramilitary groups about five or six years ago. It gauged that the IRA was probably bringing in between £10 million and
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£12 million from racketeering and other illegal activities. I suspect that that figure has increased considerably. When one adds the bank robberies and other heists that have taken place, it is significantly greater than that. As to what is being done with the money—what does a terrorist organisation do with its resources? It is pretty clear that the Provisional IRA is equipped for whatever terrorist activity it might seek to carry out or return to.

That brings us to the mindset of the organisation. If Sinn Fein was serious about divesting itself of its terrorist organisation, of leaving criminality behind and of adopting a sincere and genuine position, there could have been no better moment than last December, when it was involved in negotiations with the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland. Yet at the precise moment when it was involved in detailed discussions about ending criminality and the words that would be used in the statement to pronounce that the criminality had come to an end, it was dealing with the fine detail of arrangements for making the largest bank robbery in the history of the British Isles. If the organisation had two separate departments or two parts, both of which clearly had no knowledge of what the other was doing, we might be able to put it down to the fact that those involved in the activity were not involved in the delicate negotiations. However, as the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic made clear, those at the highest levels of Sinn Fein are also involved in the army council of the Provisional IRA and would have been aware of the information about the bank robbery.

We have the spectacle of those involved in organising a bank robbery that would take place before Christmas were also arranging to put out a statement that would indicate that the organisation intended to give up criminality. What confidence can Unionists have when those facts are confirmed by the Taoiseach and the police? For that reason, Unionists will require much more than a carefully crafted statement from P. O’Neill to be convinced that the IRA has changed. We have had many carefully crafted statements in the past, with applause from the sidelines, the press, the political pundits and, it has to be said, from the Government, and people saying that a new era had been reached because the Provisional IRA had now said something that it had never said before and we could all be confident that these were new days.

This statement will go with all the others that meant nothing and were simply empty words. It will not be the statement that does things. The best reaction to its statement that the Provisional IRA can expect from any Unionist is for us to see what it says and wait to see what it does on the streets. The action will be the judging factor as to whether the Provisional IRA intends to leave violence and criminality behind it. On that basis Unionists will determine whether those involved will ever be fit partners in government. I have to count myself among the most sceptical people, having been treated to the activities of that leadership last December. The Unionists will react carefully to the
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statement when it comes out and there will be a requirement for a significant period to assess the bona fides that we will require.

In conclusion, Mr. Wilshire, I fear that you may return to the Chair and this issue in six months if the Government insist on an all-inclusive Executive. I urge them to consider otherwise. In the period after the suspension had come into place, my party published a document called “Devolution Now”, which offered three routes forward: the preferred one being a voluntary coalition, with the parties across the community voluntarily entering into arrangements. By its voluntary nature that coalition was likely to be more stable and built on agreed programmes. However, in the absence of that coalition—we cannot do it alone—we were prepared to consider a mandatory coalition in circumstances that met what we then described as the Blair necessities: the conditions set out by the Prime Minister in a number of speeches that basically amounted to the three principles that I have already mentioned.

The third option was a corporate Assembly, which was not a favourite, because it meant a lower level of government with no Executive and the Assembly sitting much as local government sits and makes corporate decisions. However, the absence of an Executive removed the problem of having Sinn Fein Ministers at a time when Sinn Fein was not committed to peace and democracy.

As decisions would be taken corporately by the Assembly, in the same way as decisions are made on a corporate basis in councils throughout Northern Ireland in the presence of Sinn Fein, it would be possible to move forward. That is still on the agenda. The Government and other parties have not shown any great enthusiasm for it, but the longer we go on with renewals and legislation of this kind,  and the longer we go without an active Assembly, the more attractive such options may get. However, if we have to go short of that, let us put the Assembly in preparatory mode and consider how we might build confidence while increasing accountability of direct rule over that interim period.

My party remains willing to discuss all these issues with the Government and other constitutional parties. We ask the Government to move that agenda forward with urgency, rather than sit on their hands waiting for P. O’Neill to make his utterance and hope that the IRA will allow democrats to exercise democratic procedures.

3.5 pm

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