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21 Nov 2006 : Column 432

Mr. Lidington: We shall have to see what happens on Friday regarding any nomination process that takes place. It seems to me that the Democratic Unionist party is accepting its responsibilities as the largest political party in Northern Ireland and is seeking a way for devolution to be restored. It deserves credit for the moves that it has made, and I now want to see Sinn Fein live up to its frequent claim to have put the past behind it and to be a normal democratic political organisation. I understand the differences and the old battles between the established democratic political parties in Northern Ireland, but I really believe that everyone’s attention now needs to be focused on the need for the republicans to deliver on policing and on support for the criminal justice system. That is the essential ingredient of the enduring settlement that is still missing.

We are hoping to go into the Bill in greater detail during its subsequent stages this evening, and to raise various questions with the Minister. I want to highlight four areas of concern that I hope the Minister of State will be able to deal with in his response to this debate. If he cannot do so, perhaps he will be able to respond to them during subsequent proceedings.

The first concern relates to the accountability of Ministers in part 2 of the Bill. It is important that the Government should set out clearly how that is to work. It would appear from what the different Northern Ireland parties have said and from some of the press comment on the matter that there are contradictory claims about the extent to which an individual Minister will have autonomy and to which he or she will be subject to the collective will of the Executive. When it comes to matters such as sorting out the details of education—for instance, criteria for admission to post-primary schools—an answer to that question will be very important.

Secondly, I want the Government to spell out more fully what will happen if devolution is restored—if the deadline of 25 March is met—but the Provisional IRA then returns to crime. We do not want that to happen, but after the Northern bank robbery we must accept that it is a matter of more than just academic speculation. I do not think that in those circumstances it would be right for every other party to be penalised.

Thirdly, clause 9 and schedule 6 provide for the establishment of a department for policing and justice. I have no quarrel with that, but I hope the Government will assure us that it would be accompanied by a reduction in the number of other departments at Stormont. I do not think that we need yet another hierarchy of officials and team of Ministers to add to the large number that Northern Ireland would already have under devolution.

I also hope that the Government will look afresh at the possibility of district policing partnerships sub-groups outside Belfast. It seems to me that in limiting the number of DPPs to the number of councils, we risk making DPPs remote from local communities. We are approaching a time when there will be just seven local authorities in Northern Ireland, and those outside Belfast will cover very large areas of land and very diverse populations. Might not having just one DPP to cover the whole of such a local authority area remove effective neighbourhood participation in policing?

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Fourthly, I want to question the Government on their time scale for moving towards what I would term normal politics. I accept that in the circumstances of Northern Ireland the system of designating Assembly Members Unionist or nationalist, and the complex rules for cross-community voting, are necessary; but I hope that that will not always be the case.

When I have talked to politicians in Northern Ireland, I have met members of both the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party whose views on questions of economic policy and general political philosophy would be pretty close to mine, and others whose outlook would be much closer to that of the Secretary of State and the Labour party. I expect the Secretary of State has found the same. At the risk of horrifying the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I will add that I have met members of the SDLP whom in England I would welcome to the Conservative party, and who I think would feel very much at home there. I hope, however, that in a stable, devolved settlement in Northern Ireland, politics will be about health, jobs, schools and the environment, and no longer about deadlines, the operation of committees and the internal rules of devolved institutions. Do we really have to wait until 2015 for any review of the current arrangements, as clause 11 envisages? Should it not be possible to bring the date forward if devolution is clearly settled, enduring and working well?

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lidington: I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not; I am coming to the end of my speech.

Whatever the time scale for moving beyond the terms of the settlement envisaged at St Andrews, it is time for us to make a start on getting devolution up and running. I agree with the Secretary of State that Northern Ireland needs devolved democracy that is accountable to the local electorate. I agree with him that the people of Northern Ireland, from both traditions, want decisions about their public services and environment to be made by politicians who are accountable to them, the people, and who are accessible in a way that even the best-intentioned politician representing an English or Welsh constituency cannot be. But such devolution, if it is to work, has to proceed on the basis that the same democratic rules apply to every political party and, in particular, to every Minister. Above all, it must rest on every Minister and their parties wholeheartedly accepting the rule of law and the legitimacy of the authority of the courts and of the police.

4.35 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I very much welcome the Bill and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his ministerial team and, of course, the parties in Northern Ireland on the progress that they have made so far on the St. Andrews agreement. My right hon. Friend will recall that one of our predecessors as Secretary of State for Wales referred to devolution as a process, not an event. I did
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not share that view with regard to Welsh devolution, but I certainly share it with regard to Northern Ireland.

The Bill will alter the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in many instances. I had the privilege of steering that Act through the House because it was based on the Belfast—or Good Friday—agreement. There are occasions when it is necessary to change the way in which arrangements for governance in Northern Ireland are dealt with, and I welcome the changes in the Bill on consultation.

When we had the privilege of hearing my right hon. Friend’s statement on the St. Andrews agreement, one of the sketchwriters said that he was good cop and bad cop combined. I suppose that if I were in his place, I would have to do more or less the same thing. However, we have to be a little careful about deadlines and closing down things, or other draconian measures that might arise from the way in which we deal with matters over the weeks and months ahead. I know what the reasoning is—that we cannot go on as we are for ever—but the political and peace process in Northern Ireland has been going on for a long time and will continue for a long time—longer than any of us are in the House of Commons.

We have to be very careful not to be patronising to the local political parties in Northern Ireland and the way in which they deal with these matters. I do not suggest for one second that my right hon. Friend is patronising, but it is a danger for all Governments. After all, the Belfast agreement was not made by the British or Irish Governments, although technically in law it was. It was facilitated and driven by the Governments, but in reality it would have been a complete failure if it had not been based on the work of the local parties. Any agreement in Northern Ireland will fail unless it is based on that. It is the ownership of any agreement or negotiations that makes them successful. The two Governments could have sat down and written the Belfast agreement in a couple of weeks and it would not have been a million miles away from what eventually emerged, but it would not have worked. The two and a half years it took to create were necessary because they involved the parties talking about the issues and, above all, reaching agreement on them. In paying tribute to the local parties in Northern Ireland for doing what they have to do, we have to bear that in mind in the weeks and months ahead.

I thought that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) gave an exemplary description of where Northern Ireland is now in respect of policing, and I agree with every word he said. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made similar statements. Sinn Fein and the republican movement have come a long way and we have the Independent Monitoring Commission to monitor developments. However, it is complete nonsense for any agreement to go ahead without the realisation that every party in Northern Ireland has to sign up to the rule of law and the new policing arrangements. People sometimes forget that it was very difficult for the Unionist community to accept the changes that the Patten report brought about, as it also was for the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland—but accept them everybody did. Of course, some people would like changes to be made, and we will consider some amendments to the Bill later this afternoon.
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Nevertheless, people made sacrifices for the new policing arrangement—the Police Service of Northern Ireland—to work as well as it does.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Aylesbury that elections are an issue—that the closer we get to the elections in Northern Ireland, the more difficult it will be to get away from electioneering. It is true that when the comprehensive agreement was almost agreed in the winter of 2004, Sinn Fein would have signed up to the policing arrangements in Northern Ireland very quickly. I see no reason why that cannot happen again, and every reason why it should happen in order to develop the process.

There has to be a special arrangement for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, because devolution there is not quite like Welsh or Scottish devolution. Those devolved systems are important, but devolution in Northern Ireland is about more than governance—it is about our ability to govern together. All the months and years spent establishing how the Assembly and other institutions were to be set up were based on the premise that we would govern together. As soon as that is achieved, the problem of devolution will be resolved, and we can get on with the business of governing the people for whom we have a mandate.

Another consequence will be that there will be an end to direct rule, which was brought in as an historical necessity 30 years ago and should long since have gone. I have said more than once in this House that I very much regretted having to deal with education, health and social services as part of my Northern Ireland portfolio, because it was not my business to do that, any more than it is the business of another Labour Member. Labour Members have no mandate in Northern Ireland: not one person there votes for the Labour party. It is important that people there should be governed by people with the proper mandate. The longer direct rule goes on, the more difficult it will be for devolution to be accepted and to become embedded into the constitutional system of Northern Ireland.

It is important that when my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues deal with the issues that come before them between now and the end of March, they take serious account of the views of local politicians. I have said that before, but it is worth repeating. I do not express a view one way or the other, but the agreement states that it will be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to deal with education. I believe that other issues could be left to the Assembly. Of course, if no agreement is reached, the situation will be different, but we all agree that there should be an agreement. If there is, major decisions on how the people of Northern Ireland live their lives should be left until the new Assembly is up and running.

Some people believe that it would be better not to have devolution and to leave the governance of Northern Ireland to Members of Parliament here and the seven new super local authorities that will be formed by joining together existing local authorities. That is not the answer to the problems in Northern Ireland—there has to be proper devolution there in the same way as in Scotland and Wales. The Secretary of State knows my views about having seven local authorities, so I shall not rehearse them, but I do not believe that the way forward for the governance of
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Northern Ireland is through local government and Members of Parliament. The people of Northern Ireland should be governed by their political leaders and the parties that are represented in the Assembly. That is what we all hope and pray for.

I wish to say only one more thing, and it is in my capacity as co-chairman of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body.

Lady Hermon: As the right hon. Gentleman was a key player at the time of the Belfast agreement and knows its detail like no one else in the House, will he give us his reaction to the Bill before us today? It will separate the joint election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, which was of course a cornerstone of the Belfast agreement in which he took particular interest.

Mr. Murphy: I could, but I do not think that it would do any good if I went into considerable detail about what happened. When we looked at the comprehensive agreement, I spent a lot of time on changes to the way the Assembly worked, including the issue to which the hon. Lady refers. I know that people held strong views on that, for obvious reasons. The agreement was a long time in the making; it was the result of many late nights and through-the-nights, ending up in Good Friday 1998.

Although I have said that devolution is a process and not an event in Northern Ireland, we have to take great care in how we make changes. I would not want to exacerbate the situation by making a personal reference to the issue that the hon. Lady raises, but parts of the agreement could still be useful. I shall give one example. The agreement said—the people of Northern Ireland voted on this—that if there was disagreement on the newly formed Executive about how to govern Northern Ireland and how to produce a First and a Deputy First Minister, the Assembly should be dissolved and further elections should be held, and that that process should continue until such time as the issue was resolved by the people of Northern Ireland through the ballot box. That has never been tested or tried. It is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for.

In this House we have had Bill after Bill and Act after Act, but we still have not arrived at a solution. We have not tried the first one—but that is an aside. Today, we are dealing with another issue—the St. Andrews agreement, which we have to consider as it occurs in the Bill. I sometimes wonder and reflect on whether, if we had stuck by the Belfast agreement, we would have had a different outcome. I do not know; none of us does.

I return to strand 3 of the agreement on the east-west relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, the devolved institutions within them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware that the parliamentary body to which I referred earlier brings together Members of this Parliament, the Irish Parliament and the Assemblies of Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It seems to me that the St. Andrews agreement, which refers to the parliamentary aspect of strand 3—although there is no direct reference to it in the Bill—should reconstitute it in such a way that Members of Parliament from all parties in Northern Ireland are in a position to become
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members of the parliamentary body. I understand the problems of the past, as a result of the Anglo-Irish agreement and so on, but if the body was reconstituted and formed out of the legislation on which we vote today or in the future, that would be a good development.

I shall conclude because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I wish my right hon. Friend and his team and all the parties in Northern Ireland well in seeking a successful outcome to the negotiations.

4.49 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It may seem unusual to those who have been listening to the Queen’s Speech debates that we have interrupted them for this important debate, but as others, including the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have said, we agree that the importance of what we are trying to do justifies the change in programming from what would be regular at this stage in our parliamentary proceedings.

Some may regard Northern Ireland politics as dreary, but I prefer to regard our machinations today as a light and refreshing sorbet between the heavy courses of the Queen’s Speech debates.

I start with the debate about deadlines, which is rather important. It is clear that once again the Secretary of State wants to underline the fact that the deadlines in the legislation are cast in stone. He also made it clear that Northern Ireland’s political parties should not assume that they can do a deal “five minutes after midnight”. However, everything that we have seen before suggests otherwise; almost every deadline in the Northern Ireland peace process has been broken, moved or abandoned.

I take the Secretary of State back to 26 April 2006 and the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Act 2006—the measure that we are seeking to alter today. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said

The Secretary of State responded:

I asked the Secretary of State:

The Secretary of State replied:

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