Previous Section Index Home Page

5.15 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Bill is designed to implement the St. Andrews deal, and the SDLP has reason to welcome many aspects of it. The deal is essentially about getting all parties to accept the two core ethics of the Good Friday agreement: the requirement for an inclusive democracy and the requirement for a lawful society. It is about getting the DUP to accept power sharing under the Good Friday agreement and challenging Sinn Fein to accept policing under that agreement. In short, it is about implementing the Good Friday agreement.

The deal is about getting Sinn Fein and the DUP to do what they should have done years ago, not only under the Good Friday agreement, in accepting the opportunities of power sharing in the north, co-operation between north and south and a new beginning for policing. Those decisions could have been made nearly 33 years ago when we had the Sunningdale agreement. If everything works out, and institutions are restored next year, Sinn Fein and the DUP will be in government together in what is effectively Sunningdale digitally remastered.

Some of us have paid a price in the process for our generosity, tolerance and patience. Our mistakes can be counted in lost seats. However, other mistakes that other parties made consistently in opposing power
21 Nov 2006 : Column 445
sharing, north-south structures and a new beginning to policing can be measured in lost years, lost opportunities and, tragically, lost lives.

We welcome the DUP to the threshold of accepting power sharing, and Sinn Fein to the threshold of accepting the new beginning to policing. However, at St. Andrews we were struck by the fact that spokespersons for the DUP said, “We have never had a problem with power sharing as such,” and the president of Sinn Fein said, “We have never had a problem with policing as such.” One is reminded of the observation that was made in an American context, that in politics, irony is just hypocrisy with panache.

The Bill contains some welcome provisions, which the SDLP sought. Some undo much of the damage that was unnecessarily conceded in the proposed comprehensive agreement in 2004. Some were lacking from the draft clauses that the Secretary of State published last month before we went to St. Andrews. Those draft clauses aimed to implement the failed Sinn Fein-DUP comprehensive agreement.

We welcome the fact that the right of all parties to be included in government is clearly respected and protected in the Bill, as it was not under the comprehensive agreement. We welcome the fact that the right of parties to make ministerial appointments without vetting and without veto is protected, as it was not under the comprehensive agreement. We also welcome the fact that some of the unnecessary restrictions on the north-south agenda have been lifted.

Above all, we welcome the sunset clause for the changes. That means that if the DUP does not go into government in March, the amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in part 2 will be automatically repealed. We sought that sunset clause because we did not want the DUP to get the Bill passed, bank it and then refuse go into government, for whatever reason, with all the other parties, and come back for further legislation in future. Too much of that has already happened in the process, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said. The tragedy of the process is that what gets rewarded gets repeated, and because people get rewarded for putting things off and holding things back, they repeat the trick and come back for more, on top of the failure that they have created.

All the changes that I have outlined are positive. The SDLP sought them, and they are welcome. The Bill contains other welcome provisions such as the repeal of the suspension legislation. I hope that the Minister of State will tackle in his winding-up speech some other welcome aspects of the St. Andrews agreement for which the Bill does not provide, and perhaps give us some idea of how and when the progress that the Government have promised on them will be made.

The Bill also contains some serious defects. We did not succeed in mitigating all the damage that was done in the comprehensive agreement or some of the other side deals that the Governments made in the process. Of course, an obvious defect is the question of how the St. Andrews deal will be endorsed. The Government have chosen election, rather than a referendum. So this deal, as a way of implementing the Good Friday agreement, will have no clear mandate of its own. Unfortunately, as
21 Nov 2006 : Column 446
some of the debate today has indicated already, it does not even have a clear meaning of its own. There are clear presumptions and understandings about when Sinn Fein will move on policing, which are not written into the deal or into the legislation, and Members still cannot get answers here about what the Government’s presumptions are in that regard.

Instead of the public having a clear chance to endorse a clear deal—the Government would have been able to set the terms of the referendum—all the political parties will go into an election with their own manifestos and claim their own different mandates afterwards. It is a fairly safe prediction—I am sure that I am not putting ideas into their heads—that those in the DUP will put preconditions for restoration into their manifesto. For instance, they will say that they will impose a fixed time limit on the current power-sharing arrangements of inclusion by d’Hondt. No doubt, they will have demands about the outcome of the parades review that the Secretary of State referred to.

Of course, those in the DUP will handcuff themselves in relation to when the devolution of justice and policing will happen. We have seen evidence of that since the St. Andrews agreement. They will do their usual trick of saying, “We’re handcuffed to this sort of hard-line manifesto, and the rest of you are stuck with it.” Given that the Secretary of State has spent the past year and a half telling the rest of us that we have to concede all sort of changes in the agreement to the DUP because of its mandate, of course those people believe that an increased mandate will give them increased leverage for those changes. I assure the House that I have not been wrong yet in any of my predictions about the difficulty that the Government’s approach has created. Of course the dangers do not end there—nor, I regret, does the problem of new vetoes.

With the changes to the operation of the institutions and decision-making arrangements under some of the provisions in the Bill, there is a danger of unworkable government. Some of the changes invite bad politics and could guarantee bad government, with tit-for-tat vetoes by Ministers over one another. That has come about because the DUP has peddled the myth that Ministers in the devolved Administration could do just what they liked, and there was absolutely no collectivity or scrutiny. That is untrue, given that anything serious had to be passed by the Assembly, just as it would have to be passed anywhere else, and that any expenditure had to be authorised in the budget and through the Department of Finance and Personnel.

New safeguards are provided if any Minister breaches the ministerial code or an Executive decision. Those safeguards were provided a number of years ago precisely to protect against some of the concerns that people have mentioned, but the Bill goes further and also provides new, unnecessary and dangerous provisions. Clause 5 imposes a duty on Ministers to abide by the ministerial code and provides that a Minister has no authority to take any decision against it. That might sound attractive and reasonable, but it is unnecessary, unworkable and dangerous.

First, that provision is unnecessary, since we already have mechanisms to ensure collectivity and accountability—I have just mentioned some of them—and we have proposed sensible improvements to them.
21 Nov 2006 : Column 447
Secondly, it is dangerous, as it will encourage Ministers not only to veto one another, but possibly to sue one another. Thirdly, it could cause gridlock and deadlock, with Ministers bringing insignificant decisions to the Executive for fear that the courts might otherwise strike them down.

Fourthly, that provision could be exploited by vested interests, which have a whole raft of new procedural grounds to challenge ministerial decisions because of the ministerial code’s statutory basis. Those grounds would never be tolerated in any other Government. Direct rule Ministers have been taken to court and judicially reviewed just about public consultation on a number of issues, so let us think how ripe for judicial challenge things will be for people who want to hold up and challenge the Government if they have the ministerial code as a whole new field of play to take to the courts. Fifthly, all this bad politics and bad government will punish the public. How efficient is that? It is not good government, and the Government would not legislate for it here.

Ministers know that a lot of that is nonsense. The principle, however, as in so much else, is to accept whatever it takes to get the deal. If Sinn Fein and the DUP want it, that is what we must do. If parties sense that the Government are desperate, they keep taking more and more, and asking for more and more. The possibility of bad government does not worry the DUP. It will be happy to have those problems created, as it will say that they are all the fault of inclusion, d’Hondt and so on, and that power sharing is the problem, not the new litany of vetoes that it is picking up in the Bill. It likes the idea of having endless vetoes over other Ministers. When the DUP gets vetoes, it does not just use them, it abuses them. Giving vetoes to the DUP is like asking Attila the Hun to mind one’s horse.

We see that in relation to the devolution of justice and policing. In the failed 2004 Sinn Fein-DUP comprehensive agreement, it was conceded by Sinn Fein that the devolution of justice could come about only if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister proposed that that would happen. Of course that gave the DUP, in the post of First Minister, a clear veto. That was provided for by the House in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which also provided that parallel consent was essential for devolution of justice and policing, and that that double consent was needed not just for devolution of justice and policing but also for the form of devolution of justice and policing. The DUP therefore ended up with the so-called triple lock. When that Bill passed through the House, we warned that the DUP would abuse those vetoes. Meanwhile Sinn Fein was doing handstands on the basis that the legislation was sealing the devolution of justice and policing and was the missing piece of the jigsaw.

What, however, have people found out in recent weeks? The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) has said that there will be no devolution of justice within a political lifetime. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) stated that the DUP would make sure that there was no possibility of a Sinn Fein Justice Minister in his
21 Nov 2006 : Column 448
lifetime, pure and simple. They made those assertions on the basis of already having the triple lock. That is how the DUP uses vetoes, and that is why we are proposing amendments that would try to unlock some of the triple lock.

Mr. Donaldson: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not the position of the Democratic Unionist party. What my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said yesterday was that the issue was community confidence, and that it was necessary to have sufficient confidence in the community before devolution of policing and justice could happen. He also said that Sinn Fein had a major role to play in building that confidence, and that at its current pace—dragging its feet even on reaching a decision on policing and justice—several lifetimes could pass before we reached the objective. The problem is Sinn Fein’s, not ours.

Mark Durkan: That intervention shows, as I pointed out previously, that Sinn Fein and the DUP give each other vetoes in relation to policing, and the devolution of justice and policing. Sinn Fein’s position is that it will not move on policing, it will not accept the PSNI and it will not take its places on the Policing Board, unless and until the DUP agrees a date for the devolution of justice and policing. It is clear, however, that the DUP has a whole variety of preconditions for the devolution of justice and policing, over an unspecified testing period, including an unspecified indication of satisfaction or confidence on the part of the public.

That brings us to the nub of the matter—the huge contradiction at the heart of what we hope to do. In the St. Andrews deal, the two Governments have told us that they believe that they have a basis for ensuring that Sinn Fein moves on policing and that the DUP moves on restoration of the institutions. If the DUP does not give an indication of a date, however, that will be Sinn Fein’s excuse for not moving on policing. If Sinn Finn failed to move on policing on the basis that the DUP already has the triple lock on the devolution of justice and policing, Sinn Fein would blame the DUP for the failure of the St. Andrews agreement, and the DUP would blame Sinn Fein. That is why those parties have given each other vetoes—so that they can blame each other.

The Government need to address that question with a bit more robustness. I do not doubt that the DUP has some neck in pushing these things as it has. I certainly do not doubt that Sinn Fein has neck in how it pushes things. We need to see a little more backbone from the Government in dealing with this issue, rather than their just pretending that the problem does not exist, or that somehow we will go past it.

There are other issues in the Bill that my hon. Friends will touch on as well. Not least, we disagree hugely with what is provided in respect of education. We do not believe that a veto should be created on the opportunity for equal education arising from ending selection. It could be a poor start to a restored Assembly if the first item of business involved failing to confirm the ban on academic selection—only to be in a position where we could not provide for anything in place of the 11-plus. We would then end up with the
21 Nov 2006 : Column 449
worst possible combination of the unfair, the unknown and the unworkable in making future provision for secondary education.

When we are in those difficulties, no doubt it will all end up being called “Hain’s hames”. People will be able to blame everybody else for that gridlock. That is why we want to get away from the vetoes, the side deals and the go-slows. We want to see the Government push the pace of progress and put it to parties to accept a deal that has been approved by the people. That is the way to make progress—not to keep putting things off or demanding extras, and not through side deals. Straightforward up-front agreements, not side deals, are the way forward. Parties need to be put under pressure as far as those clear fundamental principles are concerned. I regret that, rather than putting parties under clear pressure and giving the public clear answers, too often the Bill panders to parties.

We have misgivings about the Bill, but we know the exigencies of the timetable. We want to see the nominations for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on Friday, and we know that that depends on the passage of the Bill. That is why we will not divide the House on the Bill, or on some of the important issues that we are raising in amendments. We do not want to give anybody any excuse. However, when the Government are getting that degree of tolerance and understanding from other parties in the House, they need to make it clear that they will hold the parties that need to stand firm on living up to this agreement to that requirement.

5.32 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am a man of plain speech. People know that I try to keep my word as my bond. I am not interested in any word games tonight. I am interested in peace in the country that I love—peace for its families and its children. When I spoke at St. Andrews I said:

I have no interest—neither in relation to my members nor in relation to the people I represent: the majority of the Unionist population in Northern Ireland—in deviating from the course of action that I have taken. I believe that my policy can and will lead to a better Northern Ireland, where peace and justice take the place of terror and strife, when true democracy reigns. For that to happen—for me as the leader of Unionism to enter a Government under the arrangements identified at St. Andrews—there must be full and unequivocal support for the rule of law, the Police Service and the courts by all Members.

I was rather alarmed to hear the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) blaming the Democratic Unionist party, as if it did not live up to what it said. He will see in the coming months—even in a few days, on Friday—whether we live up to it or not. He will get his answer. I will not move my party in any shape or form into any power-sharing arrangements until the circumstances are right. All the parties in Northern
21 Nov 2006 : Column 450
Ireland must agree with this. Sinn Fein must support the Police Service, the royal courts of justice and the rule of law. At this stage, it has not done so, and the hon. Gentleman referred to that. Sinn Fein has said that until it gets a date for the devolution of justice, it will not budge on the timing of support for the police. Sinn Fein must support the police now, and the people must see that it supports the police.

I am not jumping first or last. Other politicians jumped first: they broke their arms and their legs and are now deserted. At 80 years of age, I have no intention of breaking my legs or my arms—I am going to hold on to them. Sinn Fein, at last, has met the resistance of the democrats of Northern Ireland, including many Roman Catholics, who have been in touch with me and said, “Big man, you’re right. We must have freedom for the police to function in our areas.” I listened to a radio broadcast in which a man said that he had been a republican all his days on the Falls road, but that now he wanted the police to come into the Falls road, because there was no peace for the people unless the Police Service came there. From all over Ulster there is a cry: let democracy rule and let each party have one thing in common—that they support law and order.

Lady Hermon: In the light of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, will he confirm whether his party will be nominating on Friday? The Secretary of State has said that he is confident that there will be nominations. Will the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) confirm whether the Secretary of State is correct?

Rev. Ian Paisley: I invite the hon. Lady to come. I will get her a free pass and a cup of tea, and perhaps a hot cross bun. The people of Northern Ireland know that I do not say one thing in this House and another outside.

I will not accept Sinn Fein paying lip service to the concepts of the St. Andrews agreement but continuing in crime and not supporting the police and the authority of the Crown forces. In all those matters, the members of Sinn Fein have still to prove that they have crossed the Rubicon in their mind and ideology and that they accept the Crown forces operating in defence of the state.

Mr. Adams continues to attack the rule of law, suggesting recently in America that he does not accept British law, and that he does not accept the Orange Order, which is probably the most truthful statement that he has made for a long time. I am sure that the parades commissioners would like to hear that statement. He said last week, in the Village magazine that

But if he is genuinely to support policing, he must accept that, as paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement states, he must endorse “all the policing...institutions”. That “all” includes the security forces and MI5.

Next Section Index Home Page