Draft Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2006

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The Chairman: Order. Despite the fire alarm, we will continue with proceedings until advised otherwise.

Mr. Robinson: The Dublin Government’s position is that if they cannot get devolution under way, they shall give the Provisional IRA what it wants, which is closer north-south contact—in spite of the fact that that is Sinn Fein policy. I would have thought that the obvious punishment for those who create the obstacle to devolution is to move in a direction other than that in which they want to go. I hope that that is not the position of Her Majesty’s Government, and that the Minister will make it clear that in the absence of devolution he will attempt to improve the accountability of Ministers to this House and its Committees, and the way in which business for Northern Ireland is done in this House.

I might even encourage the Minister to integrate Northern Ireland more closely with the United Kingdom. That is surely the way forward. Perhaps he is doing that, because perhaps the Government’s
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announcements about the review of public administration show that they believe that more power should be given to local government in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]

It may not be politically correct for the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic to say that he cannot have Sinn Fein in a Government in the Irish Republic because of its paramilitary and criminal activity. It does not gel with the plans of that Government. However, in reality, as far as they are concerned, they have produced a new reason. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The difficulty is that the Hansard reporters cannot hear the proceedings owing to the fire alarm. I am now advised by them that we can continue.

Mr. Robinson: The Prime Minister of the Irish Republic has found himself with a dilemma. He wants people in Northern Ireland to have Sinn Fein members as Government Ministers, but he is not prepared to have them as Government Ministers in the Irish Republic. He recognises that it is regarded as hypocritical, and many people have publicly said so. He has therefore managed to take a circuitous route that brings him to the same conclusion. He is excluding Sinn Fein from the Government of the Irish Republic no longer because of its criminal and paramilitary activity, but because he does not agree with its policy on Europe.

No one believes for one minute that the reason why Fianna Fáil will not have Sinn Fein as a partner in the Government in the Irish Republic is because of its policy on Europe. I wonder how it would be tolerated if my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) were to say, “It is no longer because of Sinn Fein’s paramilitary and criminal activity that we are not prepared to share power with them in Northern Ireland; it is because we do not agree with their policy on renewable energy.” I wonder what the Government’s or Mr. Ahern’s response to that would be.

Everybody knows that, in reality, the Government of the Irish Republic are not prepared to have Sinn Fein in government because its members are bank robbers who have been carrying out murder in the past months and years. Why should that Government insist that Sinn Fein share power with the Democratic Unionist party in a Government in Northern Ireland? It is just not acceptable. Rather than hide behind that withered fig leaf, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic should face up to the reality that we must deal with that key issue. It cannot be avoided.

I urge the Minister to take back to his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office and beyond the message that we in Northern Ireland simply do not have the circumstances whereby an Executive can be formed. Progress, if it is to be made, must be made at a lower, devolved level. I hope that that is the proposal that the Minister will introduce.

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It has been hinted that the Minister might introduce that, but down the line attempt to force democrats into Government with Sinn Fein by timetabling them into an Executive. Let me make my message to him very clear: my party’s decision as to whether to share Government with any party will be based on the criteria set out in our manifesto, which includes the adherence of those parties to the principles of democracy in a peaceful way.

It does not matter what timetable is in existence because, when it comes to an end, the question for us will be exactly the same: have our criteria been met? If they have not, we will not go into Government, no matter what the timetable might dictate. I do not want the Government to be under the misapprehension that by forming a lower level of devolution, and timetabling it for full Executive devolution, then at that point there will automatically be Executive devolution. If that can be done, there will be no one happier than I. If the transformation takes place, I might be surprised, but at least I will be content.

If that transformation has not taken place, however, the Minister should not expect us to go into Government with Sinn Fein. And nor should the Prime Minister, who set out the Blair necessities—as they were described in an earlier document—of what was required before Sinn Fein could be a suitable partner in Government. We are holding the Prime Minister to those requirements, and we have not set any new ones ourselves. However, until those are met, he cannot expect any of us to be prepared to go into Government with Sinn Fein IRA.

Can that happen in six months time, or a year? Neither the Minister, nor I, know the answer to that. It is not in his hands or mine. It is entirely a case of whether the republican movement is prepared to make that transition. I suggest to the Minister that if he puts in place a lower level of devolution, it should be timetabled not according to the calendar, but to conditions and when those are met. If he wants to timetable that according to the calendar, let him timetable in when he requires Sinn Fein to divest itself of its criminal empire and paramilitary activities. That is the way in which political progress is going to be made in Northern Ireland.

Everyone accepts that it is neither suitable for an Executive form of devolution to be set up with those who are not democratic, nor satisfactory to continue with an Assembly that is not carrying out any meaningful role, other than its Members being involved effectively as social and constituency workers. I accept the Minister’s argument that it would not be satisfactory to hold an election to a body that has not been sitting for the last four years, and that the public purse cannot be expected to continue to pay Assembly Members if they cannot do the job that they want to do, and for which the electorate have elected them. It is necessary therefore for the Assembly to be given a meaningful role.

If the Government are considering that option, I urge them not simply to make it a talking shop in which people can discuss issues. That would be a recipe
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for conflict, and I hope that the Minister will think about giving the Assembly a useful role that includes the ability to have an input into decisions and their implementation, rather than have it just talk about the issues and pass them over to the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State. We need a functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland, and I hope that the Government will seize upon that option.

This morning, I met the representatives of the IMC in Northern Ireland and spoke with them about its last two reports. Having done so, I am satisfied that they recognise that the republican movement’s present level of activity is not satisfactory, and that further progress is required. I hope that the Government accept that, and will not attempt to get a knee-jerk reaction out of the community before those issues have been properly dealt with.

Like the Minister, I have no desire to sit through consideration of another modification order in six months’ time, but I would rather do that than go through a system setting up a quick-fix solution that—like all previous forms of devolution under the Belfast agreement—ends up in suspension after suspension in a stop-start process. I do not believe that devolution in Northern Ireland can survive that kind of event again. Devolution may be slow, phased or progressive, but it must be stable and have a degree of permanence. The Government must go for that option rather than the high wire act of getting an Executive form of devolution, which, in reality, they know—as we do—will collapse. I hope that the Government will keep at the forefront of their mind the best interests of the community, and not the Prime Minister’s personal timetable and his hopes to create a legacy in Northern Ireland.

5.16 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I apologise for being a little late, but sometimes when one has looked forward to something for six months, one gets stage fright when it finally happens. My staff had to talk me into coming to this exciting and unrepeatable debate.

Under the Northern Ireland Act 2000, Westminster can use the provisions that we are debating for six months after the Assembly has been suspended. The Assembly was suspended on 15 October 2002. Since then, the powers have already been renewed five times, so this is the sixth time around. The order will extend by another six months the ability of Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland on devolved matters, as long as the Assembly is in suspension.

Once the Assembly is restored, the provision will lapse; I understand that. However, the order will last until October 2006, by which time the Assembly will have been in suspension for four years. Assuming that the proposal is agreed today, it will have been in force for four years. We are all pretty fed-up and frustrated that after all that time we still do not appear that close to restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. It is true
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that we have made significant progress in terms of the activities of the paramilitaries, including the IRA, and the organisation does appear to have done something towards decommissioning in a very significant way.

The most recent Independent Monitoring Commission report, which the hon. Member for Belfast, East, discussed, shows that it believes that the IRA has taken a strategic decision to follow a political path, and that is very encouraging. That being said, we remain deeply concerned about the illegal criminal activity still being engaged in by paramilitaries. I ask the Minister to tell us whether any political pressure is really being put on the paramilitaries to cease involvement in criminal activity. It could be that we would not be discussing this order if the Government had been a little more robust about aspects of paramilitary activity that are criminal but not overtly terrorist.

I am sure that the Minister and others will recall the pickle that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland got himself into when it sounded as though he was categorising terrorism at different levels. Any clarification by the Minister of what the Government are doing specifically to close down criminal activity would be most welcome, and would be fairly relevant to our understanding of what practical steps they are taking to ensure that we can regard this as the last time that we discuss a modification order.

The purpose of the order is, obviously, to allow Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland for another six months in the absence of an Assembly. It is quite clear that there is a democratic deficit in Northern Ireland. Elections to the Assembly occurred in November 2003. Since then, no local politician from Northern Ireland has taken, or been given the chance to take, formal responsibility for the day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues that affect the people who elected him. As an outside observer, I sense a lack of enthusiasm for the current round of talks. I therefore wonder what the Government can tell us about their intentions to bring all the parties together round one table so that the remaining issues can be thrashed out on a cross-party basis.

The Minister knows that my concern is that we could be back here in six months if unilateral or two-way conversations take place between the Government and individual parties, but the Government fail to force all the parties to work the issues out together. The only way in which we can ensure that there is a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland—resulting in the Assembly getting back up and running, and remaining up and running—is for all the parties to sit down together and come to an agreement. Only by doing that will we get a stable and durable settlement.

I find the DUP’s proposals interesting. Let us recognise and celebrate the fact that, far from shunning devolution, the DUP is putting forward proposals that should be seriously considered, and that provide a potential way of restarting the Assembly. It might not be exactly what the Government want, and it might cause pressure in
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Northern Ireland with other parties. However, it is an important step forward in terms of the discussions that must, necessarily, take place between parties in Northern Ireland if the situation is to be regularised.

Therefore, my question for the Minister is: what assessment have the Government made of the DUP’s proposals, and to what extent does the Minister see them as a potential step towards restarting the Assembly in some form or another? This is not the place in which to analyse the proposals, and I shall resist passing judgment or making a critical analysis. However, today is the day to get some indication from the Minister as to how seriously he takes what the DUP has said.

As others have said, Orders in Council are not the right way in which to run the Province. As we have heard, there have been times when every single political party in Northern Ireland has been united in opposition to what the Government have proposed, but the Government have forced the measure through anyway. An obvious example is tuition fees, another is water rates and thirdly, perhaps the greatest irony of all, there is the apparent determination of the Government radically to alter secondary education provision in Northern Ireland when doing almost the opposite in England. They are using their parliamentary majority, with the help of the Conservative party—I am not getting at the hon. Member for Tewkesbury—

Mr. Coaker: Does he agree?

Lembit Öpik: Of course he agrees; it is Conservative party policy. What is extraordinary about the situation is that we have simultaneous U-turns going on in relation to what has happened in England and what is going on in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury will agree that nothing should be forced upon Northern Ireland when it is obvious that the majority of the people and of the parties have major reservations about what has been put forward. I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees. This is not about the outcome; it is about the process. Therefore, my next question is: how can the Minister believe that the Government are engendering confidence in this Order in Council process, when they ride roughshod time and again, without taking account of the debates that we have here or of the occasions when the parties in Northern Ireland agree?

What confidence can the Minister give us that if we approve this modification order, the Government will adhere to their principle of being a listening Government? I have seen precious little of that in the Order in Council process up until now.

The Prime Minister is famous for having said that there is no plan B when it comes to Northern Ireland. That claim has little credibility, because while this Government and the former Conservative Government have contributed significantly to the creation of the most stable situation that the Province has experienced in three decades, there will always be a plan B when lives are at stake, and we need not pretend otherwise. We have now done this five times and this
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will be sixth time. I am concerned that this is plan B: the Government are willing to renew this order indefinitely. I do not put it as more than a rhetorical question to the Minister, but will the Government eventually find the confidence to do what they need to do? They need to establish that they will not tolerate indefinite obfuscation in the search for re-establishing the Assembly. There should be a time limit so that we will not be here for the 10th, 16th or 20th time, as we have been with other legislation. If the Minister chooses to respond, I will be grateful, but the whole process would be aided if, rather than empty rhetoric about the absence of plan B, the Government gave us a concrete outline of their timetable of tolerance when it comes to resistance to making progress.

We have heard potential for progress from the DUP today. We have heard a willingness to progress from Sinn Fein, from the Alliance party, from the Ulster Unionists and from the SDLP. Everyone is looking for a lead from the Government. While I certainly will not stand against the passing of this order one more time, I expect a little bit more gumption from the Government about how they will ensure closure in a process that has been left hanging through the indecision and, in some cases, the naivety of Ministers who mean well but have allowed themselves to look a little threadbare when it comes to specific proposals and leadership.

5.25 pm

Mr. Hanson: Thank you, Mr. Amess. You will have got a flavour of Northern Ireland debates in the last hour.

I begin by agreeing with the hon. Members for Tewkesbury, for Belfast, East and for Montgomeryshire. First, it is true that I am not elected by the people of Northern Ireland. That is a great regret to me in my current position. Secondly, I am not accountable to the people of Northern Ireland, except via the mechanisms of this House, rather than via the mechanisms of the 180-Member Assembly. That is also a matter of regret to me. Thirdly, I cannot be removed by the people of Northern Ireland. The only person who can remove me is the Prime Minister and that is a matter for him in due course.

All those three issues are of regret to me personally, because all three hon. Members who have spoken in the debate will recognise that Ministers who exercise authority in various areas of responsibility do so because the Assembly cannot. My areas of responsibility are housing, culture and a range of regeneration issues; of my ministerial colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) has responsibilities for health and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) has responsibilities for education. The order enables us to continue in our roles while the Assembly is not established.

While I agree with all three hon. Members who have spoken on that matter, the question remains: what are the obstacles? That valid point was made by the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for Tewkesbury. There
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are several obstacles to the establishment of the Assembly. They are clear and have been elucidated by all three hon. Members. There are serious questions that I would put to hon. Members who have raised these issues. First, there is the question of the response to the IRA statement that was made last July and just post-dated our discussion the last time that the order came before the Committee.

I believe, and history will judge all of us on this, that that was an historic statement. I believe that there has been movement since that July statement by the IRA on decommissioning and on positive action to remove weapons from the political process. By all means take my word on that, but the IMC report published on 1 February 2006 said that the IRA was moving in the right direction and that it continued to see improvements in the security situation. The IMC report of 8 March stated that the provisional IRA had taken a strategic decision to follow a political path. It added:

    “It does not in our view present a terrorist threat and we do not believe it is a threat to members of the security forces.”

We will continue to monitor what the IMC says and the way in which the IRA performs, but there is movement on those issues.

To back that up, let us look at the comparative statistics. From 1 January until 5 March this year, there have been 20 paramilitary attacks, compared with 37 in the same period last year. Loyalists were responsible for 17 of those attacks—10 shootings and seven assaults—and Republicans were responsible for three attacks—no shootings and three assaults. None of those activities is acceptable, because it is not acceptable in a civilised society, in Northern Ireland, or indeed in Southend, Gedling or my constituency in north Wales, for any attacks or shootings to take place. However, there is progress. There was progress in July and there has been progress in March on the number of paramilitary attacks.

Let us compare last year’s figures to those for 1972, at the height of the troubles. There were five deaths last year as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland, compared with 470 in 1972. Last year, there were 83 bombings, compared with 1,853 in 1972, and 164 shooting incidents compared to 10,631 in 1972. Each year the trend is downward. While I accept that there are concerns and that real elements of criminality associated with paramilitary organisations, loyalist and republican, still exist, there is progress, and that progress should be examined in the light of the restoration of the Assembly.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asked specifically what we are doing about tackling those aspects of criminality. That is an important point. Let me give the Committee a clear message, one that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will have heard before. The Government will not tolerate any criminality or paramilitary activity that damages the fabric of Northern Ireland society. That is a clear red line for the Government. The figures show that that has been put
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into practice and is not simply rhetoric: in the past 12 months, 28 top-level, organised crime gangs have been disrupted or dismantled, assets totalling £12 million have been restrained or confiscated, and drugs worth £9.5 million and counterfeit goods worth £7 million have been seized.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will be aware of what has happened in the last month alone. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has welcomed it, and I am grateful for his support. On 1 March counterfeit goods, cash and equipment valued at £600,000 were seized during a raid by the Police Service of Northern Ireland. In January and February, £300,000 worth of goods were seized by the PSNI. On 6 February, three illegal fuel dumps were examined and seized, and action was taken. Prosecutions are pending, with 80,000 litres of laundered fuel a week being taken out of capacity, at an estimated annual loss of revenue to paramilitary activity of £2.25 million. Those are real issues that are being dealt with daily and they are part of the Government’s crackdown on paramilitary activity and criminality.

Mr. Robinson: The Minister makes his point powerfully: progress is being made, and he has offered statistics. However, he accepts that there is ongoing criminality and paramilitary activity. The question that we must ask the Minister is this: is that level of activity acceptable to him in terms of those who are responsible for it being in an Executive in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. No level of paramilitary activity or criminality is acceptable to the Government, and we shall crack down on any such activity. We need to consider whether, and how, that activity relates to the Provisional IRA and is sanctioned by its leadership and whether the IRA’s July statement on criminality and weapons decommissioning, which has been monitored by the IMC, stacks up against its leadership’s approach to the issue.

I believe that there is progress, which we should welcome, but in doing so we must bring the parties to discussion. One of the key issues, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury said, is Sinn Fein participation in the Policing Board. I want to see that happen. I want to see devolution, as in the Bill now before the House, take place on those issues when the Assembly wants it. We must consider how we can bring together the parties to bridge the gaps.

I shall answer the points raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. He will know that the Secretary of State and I have had several long sessions at Hillsborough and Stormont with all political parties to discuss their views on how to restore the Assembly. The DUP, the SDLP, Sinn Fein and other political parties differ as to how that will occur. Those discussions are being considered, and we are having further discussions. The Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and I as Minister of State have held discussions with political parties on the way forward.

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We have found some areas of potential agreement. We have considered carefully the proposals of the Democratic Unionist Party, and we have discussed those proposals with representatives of Sinn Fein and other political parties. To be perfectly honest, there are still difficult gaps between the parties. The issue of criminality is paramount for DUP Members, and that is a legitimate point, but there are still gaps in the process of how we will restart the Assembly and how that matter should be examined.

Having heard what the parties have said at the ministerial and prime ministerial levels, the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, the Secretary of State, Foreign Secretary Dermot Ahern, myself and others are considering what our responses should be. We must square the circle between what the republican and nationalist movements and the Unionist community want to see when the Assembly is restored.

I say to the hon. Members for Tewkesbury, for Belfast, East and for Montgomeryshire that no decisions have yet been taken on the way forward. We are examining the points that have been put to us. As the Taoiseach clearly established in his pronouncements during the weekend—they were addressed to the Irish audience but picked up by colleagues in Northern Ireland—the political leaders will shortly make a statement on how we intend to take the matter forward. We have not yet finalised how we shall do so. The Government are working on the details of the plan, and the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach hope shortly to announce how they will proceed.

It is a decisive year for the Assembly, because we cannot keep it standing idle or continue to pay MLAs indefinitely, although they do a good job in their constituencies. While visiting Northern Ireland only yesterday, I met with three. I meet with people, receive and sign correspondence and receive delegations week in and week out from Assembly Members, but at the end of the day, the Assembly is about its legislative capacity, its capacity to hold the Executive to account and its role as part of the Executive. That is the function of this House. If we in the House simply undertook constituency duties and did not have a Chamber, questions or ministerial offices in Government, people outside the House would soon ask serious questions about our role. That is the situation in Northern Ireland.

We seek to bring together the parties’ different views to ensure that we can restore the Assembly. I have no easy solutions to that problem. The discussions that I have had at Stormont and Hillsborough have shown that there are still wide gaps to be bridged, but we are trying to construct that bridge. Although there are no answers today, I hope that we will shortly place proposals before the parties that they will be able to consider and respond to positively.

I repeat for the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire what I said in my opening remarks: this process is not acceptable to the Government. It is not something that we wish to undertake. I reiterate for the record that I welcome his correspondence with the Secretary of
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State, and I welcome the correspondence from the hon. Member for Aylesbury to the Secretary of State. We are reflecting on that and we shall write to them in the near future to consider how, in the next six months, we can respond to their proposals about managing the proposal more effectively.

On the issues put to us today concerning education policy, water rates, the review of public administration and the response of local councils, the answer is that we shall continue to govern on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland in the meantime. There are difficult decisions. Decisions we are taking now have long-term implications for the future of Northern Ireland, but we are taking those decisions: for the past four years, with respect to my colleagues who held this position before, such decisions have sometimes not been taken.

Difficult decisions concerning local council numbers, water rates, income and the future of education need to be taken, and are now being taken by the Government. In due course, we shall be able to consider how some of those issues can be dealt with through the suggestions made in these debates on the Orders in Council, but we want to get to a situation whereby such decisions are taken by the sole person in this room who has the mandate and the electoral will to take them: the hon. Member for Belfast, East. His colleagues and those elected by people in Northern Ireland, like the hon. Gentleman, should take the decisions. That is the Government’s aim.

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