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Standing Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2006

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Seventh Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. David Amess

†Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley) (Lab)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Davidson, Mr. Ian (Glasgow, South-West)
†Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
†Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
†Hendrick, Mr. Mark (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
†Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
†Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
†Prosser, Gwyn (Dover) (Lab)
†Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
†Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
†Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
†Trickett, Jon (Hemsworth) (Lab)
†Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

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Tuesday 21 March 2006

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2006

4.30 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) Order 2006.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. I hope that you will enjoy your time presiding over matters relating to Northern Ireland.

A draft of the order was laid before the House on 23 February. As members of the Committee will be aware, on 15 October 2002, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended. Sadly, that suspension has continued. It is therefore necessary, in the absence of the Assembly, for the Government to exercise responsibility for transferred and devolved matters and to maintain power to legislate by Order in Council for the Assembly. You will be aware, Mr. Amess, that this is a matter of some regret to the Government, as one of their central objectives is to ensure that we restore the Assembly as a matter of urgency. I know that a range of issues around that still cause difficulties. I am sure that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) will refer to some of them shortly, in view of his experience on these matters. However, we are where we are at the moment, and the present power, as agreed by the House last year, expires on 14 April 2006. The order provides for a further six-month renewal of the powers to legislate by Order in Council to 14 October 2006.

You will be aware, Mr. Amess, that the Government stand firm in their belief in devolution. We want to see the principle of an Assembly re-established and the principle of devolved government central to the workings of Northern Ireland. I know from discussing the matter with them that the Northern Ireland political parties want devolution returned to Northern Ireland but, sadly, there are still some difficulties with that process and there are areas that we need to explore with the parties to secure agreement for that restoration. Our challenge as a Government is to bring the parties together to bridge the differences. The impasse cannot continue, and all those involved in the process will face some hard choices.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that 2006 will be a decisive year for the re-establishment of the Assembly, because it is clear that this process of Order in Council, with the Assembly not sitting and Assembly Members receiving pay indefinitely during suspension, cannot
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and will not continue. That is the backdrop to the order. I sincerely hope that this will be the last time that we consider such an order in Committee.

Every hon. Member will agree that Northern Ireland is best governed when it is governed locally, and that is what the Government are striving to achieve. However, in the meantime, the order remains a regrettable necessity. I know, and the point has also been made by the hon. Members for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and others, that legislation by Order in Council is far from satisfactory. We wish to consider with the parties how this matter can be examined in future, should we need to continue the process. As I have said, I hope that we do not have to.

We have had correspondence with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland, and with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire about the Order in Council process, and the Government are considering the suggestions made by the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats on that process. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to respond in the near future to the points put in correspondence following the previous order, which we considered in July last year.

We want suggestions on the way in which we can examine accountability under direct rule. We will consider in detail any ideas that are put forward, in the same way as we are considering the outstanding correspondence.

I want to place it on the record that this is not a satisfactory situation. It is something of great difficulty for the Government. We do not wish to be in this situation, but while we are in it, the question of Order in Council and the Government’s power to pass legislation in this place for devolved matters in Northern Ireland is paramount. Our aim is the restoration of the Assembly on a stable, inclusive and lasting basis. In the meantime, the order will give the Government the power to act on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland until 14 October 2006. If, in the meantime, the Assembly is restored, we will revoke the order, but we must maintain it until then.

Because of the timing of this year’s summer recess and the fact there is no September sitting, the order will expire on 14 October 2006. In the event that the Assembly is not restored by 14 October 2006, we will need to bring back a further order before the start of the summer recess in July. As the House will not be sitting until later in October, this order would expire, and the relevant powers would also accordingly expire. Therefore, if the order is passed today, and the Assembly is not restored, I will bring a further order back in July. Obviously, I hope, as I am sure the whole Committee does, that the Assembly will be restored in due course and exercise the powers that my ministerial colleagues and I exercise on behalf of the people of the Northern Ireland.

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4.35 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Committee, Mr. Amess. I think that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship and I very much look forward to the experience.

As the Minister said, the Assembly was suspended on 15 October 2002. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has only just arrived—the Minister’s speech was not that bad. As I was saying, the Assembly was suspended a considerable time ago. When we considered the previous order, on 14 July, everybody was waiting for the IRA statement. An awful lot seemed to hang on it, and it seemed that things were being put off a little until it came out. If the Minister will allow me, I will quote what he said at the time:

    “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 . . . 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”.

Eight months on, however, we are no nearer to restoring the Assembly than we were then; indeed, we are probably no nearer to restoring it than we were when we considered the order before that, on 9 March 2005, so we have to wonder what has gone wrong.

When the IRA statement was made, the Government said that it was significant and indeed “historic”. They accepted that IRA arms had been put beyond use

    “in a manner required by the legislation”,

so why is there no Assembly and why do we have the order?

As the Minister also said in the debate on the order in July,

    “We appreciate that legislating by Order in Council is far from satisfactory.” —[Official Report, Twenty-first Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 14 July 2005; c. 4.]

He has said that again today, and he is right. With all due respect to every member of the Committee, the fact is that Committees are filled with Government supporters.

Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Shame.

Mr. Robertson: It is a shame. It means that the Government always win the day, even when they are wrong and Labour Members privately disagree with the order—we have all heard Labour Members make good speeches, only to vote in the opposite way. Of course, that would not be the case if our situations were reversed.

A further point is that most members of the Committee, including myself, are not from Northern Ireland. Again, that cannot be right. Another weakness of orders, as we are all aware, is that they cannot be amended—we either take them or leave them, and that is unsatisfactory, too.

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The Minister said that discussions have been going on about how we can improve the Orders in Council process, but as far as I know those discussions have been going on for a considerable number of months. As I said, that point was last made during consideration of the previous order eight months ago. I do not know whether we are any nearer to coming up with a solution, but here we are discussing in the same way an order that we have discussed a number of times before. For all its design faults, we need the Assembly to be up and running again—so why is it not, and how many of more of these orders will we have to deal with?

In July, during the debate on the last order, I said that I did not see an end to the present suspension. The IRA statement has come and gone, and the arms decommissioning body has—in the Government’s opinion—reported favourably. So, too, has the Independent Monitoring Commission. However, I still do not see an end to the situation. What is getting in the way? One of the biggest obstacles to the restoration of the Assembly is the refusal of Sinn Fein to support the police. Its members do not take their seats on the Policing Board or, in some ways more importantly, support the police in terms of hearts and minds. They do not encourage their people to join the police or to provide them with evidence when one of their own is caught up in criminality, nor do they recognise the legitimacy of the justice system in Northern Ireland.

We are now in the ridiculous situation in which Sinn Fein says that before it joins the Policing Board it wants to see policing and justice devolved. However, there will be no devolution of those powers until the Assembly is up and running. It seems that—quite understandably—the Democratic Unionist party says that it cannot move forward while Sinn Fein is not prepared to endorse the police or to accept their legitimacy. Thus, a vicious circle is created, and I cannot see a way out of it. That is why I repeat that I am not convinced that we will see an end to the Order in Council process. That is a depressing thought. We are discussing, have discussed and will discuss many major issues—rating reform, water charges, reorganisation of local government, changes to energy regulation, abolition of the grammar school systems—that should be dealt with by an Assembly made up of people elected by the population of Northern Ireland, not by a carefully constructed Committee.

Sinn Fein has also said that the suspension of the Assembly cannot go on for much longer. I do not know what is meant by that—what is the implication, the “or else”? The Government have also said that the situation cannot continue, so I should like to ask what their fall-back position is. They said that they would discontinue the salaries and allowances of Assembly Members if the Assembly did not sit, and would see no point in holding elections to an Assembly that had no prospect of sitting, and they are probably right to take that view. However, that is not the issue. They might be right in doing those things, but that does not address the fact that even if they do those things, the
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Assembly will still not be up and running—in fact, that would be an acceptance of the fact that it was unlikely to get up and run.

The issue is what can be done to bring about the restoration of the Assembly. Is there likely to be another order in six—or even fewer—months? Is there a plan B? If so, I should like to know what it is.

4.43 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I join with others in welcoming you to the chair, Mr. Amess. You might not have chaired any of the renewal debates in the past, but I suspect that if you listened to the Minister in this one, you heard the same speech that he delivered at the last one. His pages are probably getting a bit dog eared, and his civil servants probably put square brackets wherever the one or two sentences are to go that will bring it up to date.

The Government are gluttons for punishment. In most cases, they have annual renewals. For this statutory instrument, renewal is every six months. I think that they were trying to convince people that the move back to devolution was coming in a relatively short time, so there was good cause to renew the order twice yearly. In reality, we come along every six months, we all say how much we would love to have devolution in Northern Ireland, and we agonise about how we will have to endure another six months of direct rule and go through the door predicting that we will be back in six months’ time. So it has been, because it has become a ritual over that time.

I have some hopes that it might be different on this occasion. At least, I had some hopes until I came here. I was fully expecting that the Minister would share with us the Government’s proposals, or at least let us see a little of his ankle in terms of what the proposals might be, but he has kept himself fully covered. Indeed, he is being less explicit on these matters than the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary of the Irish Republic who, it appears, now announce future British Government policy in Northern Ireland. I hope that before the debate is over the Minister will take this opportunity to speak to United Kingdom citizens in Northern Ireland and tell them the Government’s intention in the next number of weeks rather than their having to hear it from the Aherns, as we have in the last few days.

I confess that I am a staunch devolutionist. I believe that Northern Ireland is best administered by local people who know the needs of that community and the nuances of its politics and who, although they have great differences on many issues, have many common interests. I want to see progress being made and I therefore look at where the present obstacles are to see how they might be overcome, as I know the Government have done in the last few weeks and months.

The Ministers who come here are not elected by the people of Northern Ireland, they do not enjoy the support of the people of Northern Ireland and they are
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not accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. Indeed, no Minister who was accountable to the people of Northern Ireland would be taking the kind of decisions that these men and woman are taking on education in Northern Ireland, against the wishes of nearly 90 per cent. of the people of Northern Ireland. On the Review of Public Administration, they bring forward proposals that are endorsed by one party, Sinn Fein-IRA, and opposed by everyone else. Water charging is opposed by every party in Northern Ireland and by the people, as one might expect. There are clear issues that could be better dealt with by the people of Northern Ireland and I hope they soon will be.

I have put my flag clearly to the mast: I want devolved government in Northern Ireland. Having been elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, like every other Assembly Member I want to exercise the authority that the electorate vested in me. It ill becomes the Minister to start pointing the finger at poor Assembly Members who want to do their job, and treating them as if they are skiving off, doing nothing, taking their wages and running to the bank, although that would be an improvement on some who run from the bank. These are people who want to fulfil the mandate that they have been given and who are keen for the Government to recognise that willingness and set up a system of Government that can operate given the prevailing circumstances in Northern Ireland.

It is essential that when we do get devolution it is in a form that is not just a quick fix, although there are many who will urge the Government to go down that road. Members will have heard voices being raised saying, “Just call the Assembly together, forget about the opposition that there is at present, and see what happens.” Everybody knows what would happen if the Government were to do that: within six weeks the Assembly would have collapsed, the Government would have a crisis and devolution would effectively be dead, for a very long time.

The argument for a more cautious and progressive approach is beginning to take root. I note that the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic advocated a phased form of devolution. That is progress. He said that if we cannot establish Executive devolution, because people are not prepared to take part in it, it does not mean that we must do without devolution. Some degree of devolution can be achieved until Executive devolution can be launched effectively. That argument is being won. I had hoped to be able to quote the Minister on something he might have said today to endorse that view. It is the view put forward by my party colleagues and me in our recent document, “Facing Reality”, which recognises that the obstacle to Executive devolution is the fact that the larger Nationalist party is not yet committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, continues to be involved in paramilitary and criminal activity and is therefore not fit for government.

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Surely, the Minister would not ask Northern Irish politicians to share power with bank robbers. He would not want us to share power with those who are still enjoying the proceeds of a bank robbery. He would not ask us to share power with the people who murdered Robert McCartney. He recognises that, as the International Monitoring Commission stated in its eighth report, members of the larger Nationalist party are still involved in paramilitary activity, particularly in relation to intelligence gathering, which, according to the report, was being sanctioned at the highest level of the republican movement, which means the leaders of Sinn Fein. The report states also that they remain deeply involved in criminality, including money laundering sanctioned at the very highest level of the republican movement.

The republican movement has not made a full transition. However, I will enter the caveat that steps have been taken. Substantial decommissioning has taken place. There has been a substantial change in levels of terrorist activity, but the road has not been completed. It remains evident that Sinn Fein-IRA continue to enjoy the proceeds of a huge criminal empire. Indeed, much to the detriment of those who are opposed to them in the political field, they use the benefits of it to increase their role and political clout.

There is no quick fix available to the Government. They cannot simply establish devolution based on existing legislation. They must consider what can be done in the prevailing circumstances. If Executive devolution cannot be initiated, we must question whether non-Executive devolution is possible and, if so, whether benefits can be derived from it. It seems that the answer is yes. There are many different types of devolution available to the Government. Northern Ireland has experienced many different forms at one time or other in its history—from the “Prior” Assembly, which was a form of deliberative and consultative devolution, to the Shadow Assembly, which was a talking shop, during the period of the Belfast agreement in 1998.

Northern Ireland parties have proposed legislative devolution. Legislation does not appear to be the problem. The Executive offices appear to be the problem and, therefore, with the necessary safeguards, legislative devolution could be established. Another option is administrative devolution, because Northern Ireland’s councils, which have an administrative function, work perfectly well. None of them is suspended. They are all operating fully, with corporate decisions taken by the council as a whole. Alternatively, Executive authority could be exercised in a corporate manner by the whole Assembly. Indeed, the Social Democratic and Labour party put forward proposals for commissioners. I took some heart at the last Northern Ireland Question Time when I heard the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) stating that he felt that it would be possible to proceed on that basis, giving the direct rule Ministers the role previously suggested for the commissioners. That was an advance on the SDLP’s position, but it seems now that it is back-pedalling. I hope that it has the courage
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to move on with that kind of proposal, because it fills some of the gaps between the policies of the DUP and those of the SDLP and would allow us to move forward.

The Taoiseach—that is as far as my Gaelic goes—intends within the next three weeks to bring out a policy document, or paper of some kind, indicating what the Government’s intentions will be. If it envisages some shadow form of Assembly with a meaningful role, as it will according to the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, it will be worth doing, providing that the form of Assembly surrounding it is not the old Belfast agreement rejected by the people of Northern Ireland, but one that makes changes, including some of those outlined in the comprehensive agreement of 2004.

The Minister will know that in December 2004 there was a fair degree of agreement between the Government and Sinn Fein on one hand and the Government and the DUP on the other about the kind of changes that should be made to the institutions to make them more accountable, efficient, effective and stable. I hope that as part of whatever proposals the Government will bring forward there will be changes to how the Assembly will operate, because there are massive misgivings about how the old Assembly operated without any accountability. As a Minister in that Executive, I was not accountable to the Executive Committee, or to the First or Deputy First Minister, any Committee of the Assembly, or the Assembly itself. Under the law, the powers were delegated to the head of the Department, not the Assembly, so I could virtually do what ever I wanted, provided that I did not need more money or legislation to do it. I could take whatever decisions I wanted and nobody could alter them under the prevailing legislation. That seems democratically unhealthy and should be changed.

Proposals contained in the comprehensive agreement made a good start on the road to making the Assembly and its Ministers more accountable, not just in terms of the strand one issues relating to the Assembly and the government of Northern Ireland, but also relating to the north-south relationship. There is probably a greater need for accountability in that function. Both things were taken into account in terms of the proposals in the comprehensive agreement. If the Minister was hoping to avoid returning in six months, or whenever, he will have to address those issues and what the endgame is, as opposed to what any interim solution might be.

There has been some misunderstanding among nationalist parties of the Democratic Unionist party’s intention, which is clearly to have full devolution in Northern Ireland of an Executive nature. It is not in our interest, as the largest party in Northern Ireland, to satisfy ourselves with anything short of that. Why would we? But there seems to be some thought on the part of the nationalists that if a form of shadow Assembly is set up, the DUP will want to stick there and not move from it. Of course, we want full
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devolution, but we want it to be on a basis that is sustainable, stable and democratic and does not put terrorists or criminals into government.

There should be no mistake on the part of the Government about where the spotlight should be shone in terms of the obstacles to full devolution in Northern Ireland. The obstacles come in the form of the republican movement, which has not managed the transition from terrorism and criminality to being democrats. The process may be under way, but the Government owe it to the community—certainly, my party owes it to the community—to be satisfied that that transition is made.

There were two schools of thought. The first, made under the Belfast agreement, was that if we brought Sinn Fein into government, even in advance of the IRA handing over its weapons and ending its terrorist campaign, and even in advance of it starting to pull down its criminal empire, that would encourage it, and we could wean it off its terrorist and paramilitary activities. It did not work. Everyone recognised the game. Guns were sold for concessions. If we were waiting for that process to end, the IRA would probably still be selling guns to the Government for more concessions a century from now.

The view held by my party, which was supported by the community, is one of zero tolerance. If people want into the club, they have to pay the membership; and the membership requires them to be exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means. That has to be done up-front, beforehand; it is not something to be done along the way, nor can one can eventually come to terms with it. I believe that that approach is working. The fact that substantial decommissioning has taken place is a signal, but it would not have happened otherwise.

I believe that the necessity for the IRA to clean up its act—to cease criminal and paramilitary activities—has started a move in that direction. No one knows how long it will take, and it is necessary for it to reach the end of that road. If the Government were precipitously to say to the parties in Northern Ireland that they were satisfied that there was an acceptable level of violence, or an acceptable level of criminality, it would sent out the wrong message. It is far more important at this stage that the Government satisfy themselves that progress is being made, but they must hold out until we have reached the end of that road. Every day that we hold out, every day that we make progress, is to the advantage of the community in Northern Ireland.

If the Government say to the parties in Northern Ireland—I fear that they are starting to give such indications—that they are satisfied and that Sinn Fein can enter government today, they are effectively saying to the republican movement that the level of paramilitary and criminal activity that exists today is acceptable and that it can be continued for all time. That would be wrong message. Far better that the
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Govt should be prepared to hold out for Executive devolution until such time as there is a complete end to all paramilitary and criminal activity.

Any fudging of the issue or an attempt to pressurise democrats into sharing power with terrorists or bank robbers would allow republicans off the hook and divert attention away from the main issue. It is time for the Government to keep the focus on those who have caused the breakdown, those who have put up the obstacles to progress. There should be no mistake on the part of the Government about where that spotlight needs to be shone. I hope that the Minister will remember to put pressure on those involved in criminality, and not on those who want to ensure that we have exclusively democratic behaviour in government.

It was somewhat odd to hear Dermot Ahern, the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic, indicate over the week that if progress could not be made on devolution for Northern Ireland, they had a plan B. I wonder whether it is the same plan B as our Government have. Mr. Ahern managed to coin a new word—“intergovernmentalism”—telling the Unionist community that it was the way forward and hinting that that plan B would effectively offer joint authority.

It is absurd to say that the obstacle is that the IRA continues with its criminality and paramilitary activities, but that is what the Government of the Irish Republic was saying until this weekend. The Justice Minister had been making it clear that the problem with Northern Ireland was the IRA’s involvement in bank robberies and criminality, and even its involvement in such activities in the Republic. Yet Ireland’s Foreign Minister is now telling us that if progress is not made towards devolution, he will go for the IRA’s agenda of a closer relationship between London and Dublin on decisions that affect Northern Ireland. Is it the Government’s wish to put people off the idea of devolution by giving them what they want, despite their continuing bad behaviour? [Interruption.]

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