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Mr. Hain: There has been no blackmail at all. The people of Northern Ireland have demanded that this happen. They have demanded that, after four years of the politicians not fulfilling their obligations in an Assembly, they get the show on the road, or that
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Stormont shut down. The question of Sinn Fein’s allowances was decided by the House following a recommendation by the Independent Monitoring Commission. That was after the House had withdrawn those allowances—in fact, I think that I moved the motion myself—following another, earlier recommendation from the IMC.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to the House that it was because of something that Sinn Fein did that all the Assembly Members were put out of their offices and were unable to do the work, and that no Member of this House has any right to indict them? They did nothing, but they had to take the scourge that should have been put on the back of Sinn Fein only.

Mr. Hain: The right hon. Gentleman accurately describes the circumstances of suspension. What we are concerned with now—I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman on his own role in it—is getting devolution up and running, which his party has long supported.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The explanatory notes refer to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, but as far as I can tell, the Bill is silent on that point. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when the regulations flowing from the Equality Act 2006 will take effect in Ulster?

Mr. Hain: It depends on which regulations the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but in respect of the Human Rights Commission, legislation will be introduced next week, which will cover the relevant reforms for Northern Ireland, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to inspect it then.

As has been the case throughout the process, little is ever easy or straightforward.

I can well understand why the parties are edging forward with considerable caution and I can quite see why feelings are fragile, why anxious party members worry about what their leaders may have accepted and why a marauding media picks away at the fragilities. The easy option—for politicians and, of course, for journalists, too—is to prise open the detail of understandings and to unnerve either or both sides with negatives. The harder option is to stick with it, to show courage and fortitude, and say that the positives outweigh the negatives by a million miles. In Northern Ireland’s politics, it has always been easier to say no, always harder to say yes.

I know that there are issues on which all sides want reassurance. Where the Government can give that reassurance, we will. Where the parties must give reassurance to each other, they should. But there is nothing—given the will to do it—that cannot be resolved within the time frame set out in the St. Andrews agreement. I believe that the will is there, but that the St. Andrews momentum must be maintained to achieve the end.

I am not convinced by arguments that say, “We cannot do a deal at 5 to midnight, but we might do at 5 past—or with another day here, or another week there, or six months more, but let’s get Christmas out of the way first”. No. The timetable to devolution is clear.

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Lady Hermon: I would like to take up the Secretary of State’s offer of providing reassurance. Will he reassure me, on behalf of my constituents and many others across Northern Ireland, that what we are driving through here today at top speed will, in fact, bring about nominations by the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein by Friday? Can I have that reassurance?

Mr. Hain: If I may say so, I fully intend to deal with that matter in just a second—in fact, precisely this second, so the hon. Lady intervened at a very timely point.

On 24 November—this Friday—the Assembly will convene and the DUP and Sinn Fein, as the two largest parties, will indicate who the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be, come the restoration on 26 March. That indication will trigger the transitional Assembly, which can get down to the real work of preparing a programme for Government. In January 2007, we will have the 13th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission and the seventh report since the IRA declared that it would end its illegal activity. On 7 March, there will be an election in which the people will speak and on 14 March, members of the Executive will be nominated by party leaders. On 26 March, power will be devolved and the d’Hondt process of choosing an Executive will run, with Ministers assuming office taking the pledge of office. That Monday will be “democracy day” for Northern Ireland.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has told us the date of the election, which is in the Bill, but will he confirm that whatever is decided on Friday this week could well be changed by the electorate of Northern Ireland on 7 March?

Mr. Hain: The electorate will speak and give a mandate to their parties to support the St. Andrews agreement. That is the purpose of the election and it is why the largest two parties requested that if there were to be any consultation, it should happen through an election. There is now cross-party support for pursuing the St. Andrews agreement, which is why we intend to move forward on that basis.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Secretary of State mentioned Friday 24 November and said that the DUP and Sinn Fein would have to indicate who their nominees would be. What form is that indication to take? What happens if either party does not make that indication?

Mr. Hain: I have given an outline of what will happen on 24 November. I am currently in discussion with the Speaker and the parties. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to make it clear that it is important that Friday is successful. Friday 24 November was part of the St. Andrews architecture, to which all the parties, including his, signed up—I accept that they did so in broad terms. If Friday 24 November is not successful, the door to a transitional Assembly and everything that follows will not be unlocked. That is the clear position that everybody faces.

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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): As I interpreted it, the Secretary of State stated categorically that, on Friday, the DUP and Sinn Fein will nominate First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Is that a categorical assurance, without qualification? If that is not fulfilled, what would constitute a failure of the rubric on Friday that, in his view, would inhibit further progress in the restoration process?

Mr. Hain: As I said, the two largest parties will indicate who the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be, come restoration on 26 March. I do not anticipate failure at any point in the process. I anticipate success because the people of Northern Ireland want success and all the parties who came to St. Andrews and left endorsing the broad terms of the St. Andrews agreement want that success, too. We are working for success. However, let us be clear: if there is failure at any time, Stormont dissolves and everybody packs up and goes home. That has been clear for a long time and it is clear in the Bill.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Like the Secretary of State, I am planning and hoping for success, but I am not optimistic that the deadlines that he describes are genuine. Why, when 24 November was a cast-iron deadline set in statute, which we are changing, should any Northern Ireland party be confident that the other three deadlines that he outlined in March are any more solid and unchangeable than 24 November? I accept that he needs wriggle room to make it work but, at the moment, we are discussing not wriggle room but completely flexible deadline room.

Mr. Hain: I have been grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support and that of his party throughout the process, although he has asked legitimate questions, as he is doing now.

In May, when we passed the emergency Bill to set up the transitional Assembly—the Northern Ireland Act 2006—I said that agreement had to be reached by 24 November. That has happened. We had St. Andrews and the parties’ indication that we should introduce the Bill. If there had been no agreement, we would have closed Stormont down. The hon. Gentleman supported that strategy and it remains. There is no wriggle room in the Bill. If any of the dates are not met, and especially if the Assembly and the Executive are not fully restored on 26 March, it will all close down and dissolution takes place. There is no wriggle room in that, and there will not be any.

Lembit Öpik: The Secretary of State made a similar statement about 24 November. He said that there would be no negotiation, no change and no movement beyond that. Now he has reached a stage whereby the two parties, in some vague way, must “indicate” who the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are likely to be. What confidence can any of us have that the Government will be any more robust about the March deadlines given that, in my judgment, the commonly received view is that all the deadlines up to now have been subject to change?

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Mr. Hain: I am obviously happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions, as I always do. However, I am not sure where his last question is leading him. I made it clear throughout to the House and in other public pronouncements, as did my ministerial team, that agreement had to be reached by 24 November. A deal had to be done by then. That has been achieved and it is why we are introducing the Bill. If there had been no agreement at St. Andrews and the parties had not subsequently given it a fair wind, we would not be introducing the Bill today.

Assuming that this legislation goes through the House and the other place and that it receives Royal Assent on Thursday morning, it will then set in statute the date for the election and the date for restoration, and the powers contained in clause 2 make it clear that, if it is apparent to me at any time that there will not be restoration at the end of the process, I can move to dissolution immediately.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I do not suppose that many people will want to vote against the St. Andrews agreement in March, but will the Secretary of State indicate which political parties opposed it?

Mr. Hain: Only one party has been absolutely clear: the UK Unionist party of Bob McCartney. He has made it absolutely crystal clear that he is opposed to this entire project—always was and always will be.

I am under no illusions about the process. There is still work to be done. No one can be forced into government, and no one will be forced into government. If at any stage between now and 26 March—this repeats the point that I was making earlier—we run out of track, devolution becomes dissolution: the clock is stopped, the election scrapped. That is the reality. In that event, direct rule and plan B, with even closer co-operation with the Irish Government, will stretch into the foreseeable future. The Governments will not be chasing after the parties. We will have done as much as we humanly can. It would be for the parties to come to the Governments to tell us when they would be ready to do the deal that would restore devolution. I leave it to Members to state how likely they believe a deal would be done by the parties on their own when they could not accept the deal facilitated by the Government.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Secretary of State talks about the process running out of track. Could he give an indication to the House about when he will make a judgment if Sinn Fein fails to hold its special party meeting to endorse the police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland? At which point does he determine in this process that we run out of track on that issue?

Mr. Hain: Sinn Fein needs to call an ard fheis—and before it, I guess, an ard chomhairle—to make it crystal clear that it is signing up to the pledge of office and that it is endorsing the terms of this legislation and the pillar that I mentioned at the beginning about the support for the rule of law and policing. It is absolutely crucial that Sinn Fein has to call that conference, and I expect it to do so.

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There is a choice to be made by the parties and the people—not next week, not next month, not next year, not the year after that, but now. Choices do not get easier if they are postponed; mostly they get harder.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Has the Secretary of State seen the recent statement by Sinn Fein saying that it will not call an ard fheis, or whatever it is called? Excuse me, I cannot pronounce these so-called Irish words; I am an Ulsterman. Has he seen the statement by Sinn Fein—not by the leader of Sinn Fein, but by Sinn Fein, as the newspapers have pointed out—saying that it will not call that meeting of the ard fheis?

Mr. Hain: I have not, but it is absolutely apparent and crystal clear to me that, to fulfil the terms of this legislation and to fulfil the implementation of the St. Andrews agreement, Sinn Fein has made it clear that it needs an ard fheis to support it in the way forward. That ard fheis will need to be called at the appropriate time.

Mr. Donaldson: When?

Mr. Hain: It is a matter for Sinn Fein; but of course, it is important that Sinn Fein make its position clear.

This legislation provides the mechanism to go forward. The twin pillars of power sharing and the rule of law are enshrined in the pledge of office that all Ministers must take on 26 March, to take office. The pledge of office requires all Ministers to

Politicians everywhere, particularly those who aspire to govern, are there not just to represent and work for those who voted for them and loaned them their mandate but for those who did not.

In a society that has been as bitterly divided as Northern Ireland, politicians who have been entrusted with a mandate that will give them access to power have an even greater obligation to govern for all and not just for their own. The pledge requires all Ministers to

If devolution is to deliver good government, all the institutions of government must function effectively. Anything less than a full commitment to that will sell everyone in Northern Ireland short. The pledge of office also requires Ministers to

Those are fundamental tenets of power sharing, which go well beyond the symbolism—important as that is—of two different political traditions working together in equality without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

On support for the rule of law, the pledge of office, as enshrined in the Bill, could not be clearer. All Ministers will

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Let me remind the House of what paragraph 6, and clause 7(2) of the Bill, says about support for law and order:

I recognise that the issue of policing has been contentious ever since Northern Ireland came into being, and still more so during the conflict, but we are in a very different and much better place now.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State recognise that, as far as the Unionist population is concerned, rhetoric—words—from Sinn Fein is not sufficient? There must be the proof of action—a credible period in which their action proves that they support the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Certainly, one of the tests would be handing over those in their membership who were responsible for the murder of Mr. McCartney.

Mr. Hain: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all parties, especially those aspiring to ministerial office, must support the police. Their councillors and representatives, whether MLAs or MPs, should co-operate with the police as everyone else does. That is an essential foundation for a democratic society.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the Secretary of State indicate whether he believes that pledging to uphold the rule of law would also include upholding and accepting the authority of, for instance, the Parades Commission? In terms of upholding the rule of law and supporting policing and the courts, will he also indicate whether the pledge of office would have any implications for a devolved Minister who might find himself the subject of grave judgment by a court after a judicial review?

Mr. Hain: In respect of the earlier point, it is absolutely essential that the Parades Commission—which is the statutorily based body responsible for the marching season, legislated for and part of the law of Northern Ireland—is respected as an institution. That does not mean that people cannot argue that it should be reformed, or that it should not change its methodology. A review of the Parades Commission is going to be undertaken. I should add—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have made this point—that the Parades Commission has done an excellent job this year. The marching season was the most peaceful on record— [Interruption.] I accept that that was not just because of the way in which the Parades Commission behaved, but because of the hard work done at local level by Unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans.

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