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The truth tells a different story. With the best intentions, the Secretary of State has blinked and altered the goal posts yet again. I do not condemn the Government for that change, but in response to the question that the Secretary of State implicitly asked me, it matters because he has to recognise an alternative outcome from today’s legislation: a new precedent for peace in Northern Ireland, whereby we persistently re-establish deadlines—perhaps on a six-monthly or annual basis, as we do with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005—so that we ensure a peace of sorts, but not the re-establishment of devolution.

What would I do if I were in the Secretary of State’s position? It is possible that I would find myself in the same situation, but the reason this point is salient to the debate is that for the Bill to have credibility the deadlines, too, must have credibility. When the Secretary of State—or the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—sums up the debate, I hope that we will be given some new assurance that the March deadlines are not as flexible as all the others.

The Secretary of State’s claims that the Government have not shifted the goal posts, or shifted the deadlines again, may seem credible to him, but everybody knows that the Government have renegotiated the deadlines because they think that is right for the peace process. I stress again that I do not condemn the Secretary of State for that decision—the shadow Secretary of State made the point that he, too, might have found himself in the same position—but the Government must have a strategy to ensure that the provisions we pass today will not be subject to further modification next year.

Mr. Hain: I do not want to keep labouring the point. The point about the previous phase of this process was that 24 November was a real deadline—it was a real deadline. If we had not had an agreement to move it forward, we would have closed it down; there is absolutely no question about that. As the hon. Gentleman very well knows—I make this point to emphasise the point that he is making—these deadlines are set in statute. The last legislation did not specify an election date; it did not specify the restoration of an Executive. It said that there had to be progress, there had to be an agreement, in order to get a deal by 24 November. That was very clear. This legislation says that it is devolution or dissolution by 26 March. In resisting amendments on clause 2, I shall make that absolutely clear again.

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for making that clarification. Perhaps he might wish to give an assurance before the House that there will be no intention whatsoever of the Government coming back again with emergency legislation, fitted in in a rush, to make the March deadlines, which he outlined in his opening speech, into April or May or October deadlines.

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I do not want to see failure—I do not want to see the collapse of the peace process—but I do feel that what we are almost planning for by default is a situation where those parties in Northern Ireland that are keen to resist setting up some sort of power-sharing arrangement—

Sammy Wilson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: I will in a moment.

I am thinking specifically of the DUP. We may end up giving those parties some reason to believe that they will be able to carry on playing this Government for new deadlines, for new extensions, in such a way that we end up living with the precedent of indefinite extensions to deadlines on a regular basis.

Mark Durkan: First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates, as I do, that the apparent slippage that he is talking about by the Government will actually be sourced in the slipperiness of some of the political parties involved in the process. Does he also recognise that there is slippage already on the St. Andrews agreement? The Programme for Government Committee was to meet on 17 October. It did not meet until yesterday, 20 November. The St. Andrews agreement said that legislation would be introduced here, in November,

We did not hear such an endorsement from parties. Instead, we got Vicky Pollard: “Yes but no, but—not our fault, see!” Also, we had an indication on Friday of who will be First Minister and Deputy First Minister, not nominations as set out in the St. Andrews agreement.

Lembit Öpik: What we hear now is the frustration of other parties, who are not Sinn Fein or the DUP, but who feel that the change to deadlines is being made expediently and explicitly to accommodate the needs of those two parties. There is no need to be a psephologist to understand the play for political advantage that will necessarily be entailed by the announcement of another election. However, my worry is that while the Government are eager to accommodate the two large parties in Northern Ireland, they begin to cause resentment among the smaller ones, the overwhelming majority of whom have been both loyal and allied to the peace process. For that reason, I ask the Minister to consider the warning signs that we see already—for example, the credible period of testing that is being requested by the DUP in regard to Sinn Fein's genuine commitment to policing. It is very easy to envisage, in the run-up to March, a statement by the DUP, saying “Of course we want to see the restoration of the Assembly; we are even willing to work with Sinn Fein to achieve it, but you really must give us another six months to make sure that Sinn Fein is credible and serious about its commitment to policing.”

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): May I ask the hon. Gentleman why he was not so exercised at the time that Sinn Fein-IRA failed to make the deadline for decommissioning in 2001?

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Lembit Öpik: Well, I was not happy about that either. The fact of the matter is that, as I said before, in the real world of Northern Ireland politics, deadlines have shifted all the time. Let me stress again: I am not condemning either the DUP for maximising the opportunity for itself, or the Minister for trying to get the right answers. but I am suggesting that the Government need to have an alternative strategy that ensures either that these deadlines are genuinely binding—I doubt that they are—or, alternatively and more probably, that whatever they intend to do in March, if once again faced with an impasse, will lead to a genuine improvement in the chances of the restoration of the Assembly.

The Secretary of State said something today that concerned me, namely, that he wished to be given an indication of which individuals Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party would nominate, but he was not able to give us clarity about what form that indication might take. Will it be enough for a press release to be issued by the DUP and Sinn Fein? Will they just need to make a telephone call to the Northern Ireland Office? That is one of the reasons why I feel that slippage is being allowed to come into a process that cannot afford to have slippage. It is for such reasons that I believe that the Government must take much more seriously the danger in the precedent they have set by undermining the credibility of their own, apparently not so binding, deadlines.

Lady Hermon: The hon. Gentleman is right to be cynical about so-called unbreakable deadlines set by this Government. Last weekend, at least one DUP Member of Parliament was briefing the political correspondent of The Sunday Times. He was not named, so I will not risk attempting to guess who it was. [Hon. Members: “Go on. Go on.”] DUP Members can come out and canvass with me at any time. That DUP Member told The Sunday Times that the 26 March deadline “lacked credibility”, so the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) is spot-on about Government deadlines.

Lembit Öpik: To sum up on the deadlines question, my concern is not so much that the deadlines lack credibility in the eyes of certain individuals and parties, but that moving the deadlines presents opportunity, and that that opportunity is in the interests of the parties rather than of the process. I would, of course, rather see the breaking of deadlines than the breaking of bodies in Northern Ireland, and to that extent there are expedient reasons for breaking deadlines, but I would like the Government to say in this debate why the deadlines now under discussion are more credible than previous ones.

The St. Andrews agreement has the potential to bind the DUP to a commitment to assume power alongside Sinn Fein, and also to bind all parties, including republican parties, to a commitment to policing and the rule of law. However, it is still far from clear to me that those parties are truly prepared to rise to that challenge.

There is significant popular demand for the restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, especially because decisions made in Westminster on behalf of Northern Ireland have, on
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many occasions, been universally opposed on a cross-party basis in Northern Ireland. The agreement gives some hope that the demands for restoration will be met. A road map is now set out in respect of the institutions and how the Good Friday agreement can be restored. A series of small steps can now be taken, as opposed to one large leap—but for success to be achieved, the DUP and Sinn Fein must deliver.

Crucially, it has now been established that the institutions of the agreement can be modified provided that the modifications are consistent with the agreement’s underlying fundamental principles. Some of the institutional changes made to the Good Friday agreement are positive, as are some of the changes to public policy. Nevertheless, I have grave concern about some aspects of the St. Andrews agreement as they risk breaking some of the principles of the original agreement. In particular, I do not believe that we have yet had a process where mutual commitments are clear, ambiguities have been removed and shared understandings exist. There is a danger that a fragile process could easily be broken when difficulties arise as a result of intentional or unintentional misinterpretation of the contents of the agreement and its implementation.

The St. Andrews agreement addresses only issues and priorities placed on the table by the DUP and Sinn Fein. The wider range of changes to the institutions, public policy priorities and measures required to build a sound future have yet to be addressed. For example, why are some public policy issues listed in annexe B of the St. Andrews agreement, whereas others are not? Why does the Bill require any new Executive to address some policy issues but not others? What is the basis for requiring specific action on poverty and language issues but not on, for example, a shared future, equality or victims’ matters?

What was the rationale for these selections? Indeed, why are the Government imposing such statutory duties on the Executive at all? Should it not be up to the Executive to decide whether their priorities are promoting minority languages and equality, dealing with poverty or promoting the shared future agenda? It seems like a random list, or a list built out of expedience, following negotiations with a very limited number of parties and individuals.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that one of the duties imposed on the institutional review committee is to look at mandatory coalition, which was the chief issue raised by his party’s sister party—the Alliance party in Northern Ireland—but not the chief issue raised by either Sinn Fein or the DUP?

Lembit Öpik: The majority of the contents of the list that I outlined earlier has in my judgment been determined by talks between Sinn Fein, the DUP and the Government. I fully accept that the DUP may claim to see things differently, but I can only say as I see. I have repeatedly made the point in this Chamber and elsewhere that the Government need to be inclusive on a cross-party basis. Other interest groups and parties have been frustrated at the Government’s
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tendency to fixate on the two parties that they are most desperate to bring together. That tendency is understandable, but the Government run the gauntlet of turning off allies who, in my judgment, are very important to the Assembly’s successful restoration.

Let us consider the example of languages. Although the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages are important, it is not at all obvious that they are the most important languages in Northern Ireland, given that a very significant proportion of people there speak Chinese. But obviously, because the Chinese lobby is not salient to the peace process, it has been excluded in the legislation. We are also concerned that the process is aimed primarily at producing a quick fix—at doing little more than what is perceived as necessary to achieve the restoration of the suspended institutions in a tactical way, without addressing the deeper and wider problems that have been identified in the agreement, or neglected in the past eight years.

One of my main concerns is power sharing, which was already weak under the Good Friday agreement, as evidenced by the poor relationship between the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party when they were in charge. Although some minor improvements have been made, they are insufficient to take into account the increased political polarisation and the ascendancy of the DUP and Sinn Fein into what is necessarily likely to be a fractious environment. The removal of the need for any vote for either the joint election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or for the Executive as a whole, is a major flaw. The need for governing parties formally to recognise each other’s mandates and the legitimacy of their share of power and responsibility has been undermined. That simply entrenches the divisions, rather than reducing them.

There is also a danger that the only way that the DUP and Sinn Fein will be able to operate or co-exist within the same Government is through creating more and more separation. That seems to be the subtext. At present, the DUP and Sinn Fein are not really talking to each other in any formal way, so it is a big leap to see them effectively running a regional Government in partnership. It might be possible for parties to co-exist within the same Government, but it appears that this legislation will achieve that by ensuring that they can co-exist without having to deal directly with each other. Rather than Ministers working together, Northern Ireland could end up with government by memorandum, with civil servants acting as messengers between various Ministers who are not prepared to talk to one another, and who are not required to do so by the system.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am truly bewildered by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The flaw of the old system—and we know this happened—was that it was possible for members of the Executive not to attend the meeting of the Executive. Under this system, they have to attend and participate. Although there is not collective Cabinet responsibility in the Westminster mould, collegiality is entrenched in this system. Under it, matters can be discussed exhaustively by the Executive, to the benefit of everybody. Surely that is a step forward.

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Lembit Öpik: The theory sounds great, but when we consider the amendments—at which point we can talk in more detail about my and other people’s concerns—we will we see that, in fact, this system entrenches the opportunity for Ministers to operate on a silo basis, without having to share collective decision-making responsibility. I suggest that we discuss the issue in more detail when we consider the amendments.

Sammy Wilson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that as that system works pretty well for the Government in Westminster, it should work okay in Stormont as well?

Lembit Öpik: When the Liberal Democrats take power in 2009, many things are going to change—and that will be one of them.

The Government have also missed an opportunity to bind all parties into a firm commitment to build a shared future in order to counter the tendencies to separation. While we welcome the commitment to a shared future within the proposed pledge of office, I am not convinced that it will be sufficient to counter the separatist tendencies within the new structures. A short-term fix to restore devolution may be superficially attractive but, particularly if it is based on tactical rather than strategic considerations, it will not really secure long-term peace. More general flaws within the Good Friday agreement as established and operated include institutionalised sectarianism, the politics of “them versus us” over control of territory and resources, the failure of moderation and accommodation to be incentivised, and entrenched inter-ethnic competition that rewards ethnic outbidders.

My response to the question posed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is that we need to address the four key issues, and our amendments will be designed to do so. If the Government go down their current path, the problems are, in my view, set to get worse. There are also inherent difficulties and dangers in the Government focusing almost exclusively on expediency and tactical considerations in order to secure some sort of a peace and a restored Assembly.

The lack of inclusivity will bring a number of negative consequences. It limits the number of ideas placed on the table, risks missing certain aspects of the process that need to be addressed, removes the ability of other parties to put more pressure on the recalcitrant parties and focuses on the most negative parties, to some extent enabling them to reinforce their position by holding the overall political process hostage to fortune. Crucially, it removes any sense of collective ownership of the outcomes and it is important to note that where the Government focus only on two parties, the other parties feel no ownership of the results, which risks them being rejected.

It is not realistic to restrict all meaningful discussion and evolving documentation to two parties alone, so I suggest that the Government reflect on how they arrived at this legislation and think seriously—even at this late stage before implementation, which will unquestionably go through—about a further consultation process with the parties not directly responsible for creating the wish list that I have described.

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Finally, with those reservations, it is obvious that we will still have to pass the legislation as there is no sensible alternative before us. However, when we discuss somewhat esoterically whether the proposals can work, it is important to note that some of the prime architects who will decide whether it works or not are in their places in the Chamber right now. They have the power to decide whether a power-sharing Assembly will work. Sinn Fein, of course, is not here and, as has been made abundantly clear, it is going to have to play ball, especially over policing. There is no space to mess about. Sinn Fein needs to provide some confidence that it is serious about democracy; otherwise democracy will be compromised.

Let us remember the stakes. With respect to all the legislation passed through statutory instrument without amendment—covering everything from water charges and housing rates to tuition fees and changes to the education system—we need to remember that if it is not fixed in Northern Ireland, it will be enforced in Westminster. For the citizens whom Northern Ireland politicians represent, the stakes are indeed very high.

In supporting Second Reading, it is more an act of hope than expectation that the deadlines will be made binding. As it stands, there is every reason to think that it will buy us more time to make it work, but I also believe that we should regard the Bill more as a lifeline for peace than as a deadline for devolution.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I advise the House that 14 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. The time available is limited, so I would appreciate it if they thought about keeping their speeches brief in order to achieve maximum participation.

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