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There should be no misunderstanding. I would say to the hon. Lady that one of the most important things for me is self-determination, and the people of Northern Ireland have clearly and demonstrably expressed their view that, at this time, they want the existing constitutional arrangements to remain. I fully and wholeheartedly support the honouring of that, and I do not think anyone questions it seriously now. Let us
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be blunt: Sinn Fein must accept it, because it is the freely expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. However, the police system will demonstrably not be run from London. It will be run from the territory of Northern Ireland—from that part of the United Kingdom—under devolved arrangements. Similarly, the police forces of Scotland are United Kingdom forces but, demonstrably, Scottish forces as well. I believe that that is fully understood.

Let me return to a point on which I hope I can establish concord with the hon. Lady and others throughout the House. I find it unacceptable, as I am sure my constituents would, for anyone to opt out of recognising the Police Service of Northern Ireland and accepting the courts. People can choose how they describe the system. That was the point that I was trying to make, perhaps inadequately. They should be relaxed about that. What must endure above all is the principle of courts created by legislatures and run by Ministers chosen by them.

I will support the Bill, and I wish it well.

6.11 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): As a Unionist who is proud to be British, I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who deserves to be heard in the House on Northern Ireland matters. He has always shown considerable interest in the subject, he takes the trouble to come to Northern Ireland—although I hope that it is not trouble—and he knows Northern Ireland and its people well.

I agreed with the hon. Gentleman’s early comments about the advantages of devolution over direct rule. Few of us who live and work in Northern Ireland believe that the bunch of Ministers we have now could not be bettered by Northern Ireland Ministers doing the same job. Indeed, some of us believe that certain of their decisions were made in a way that would incite the people of Northern Ireland to want devolution back. Be that as it may, devolution is clearly preferable to direct rule—but my colleagues and I believe that it must be the right form of devolution, not just whatever is cobbled together and thrown at us.

The road to where we are now has been a long one, more of a marathon than a sprint. While some will talk of deadlines, to my party the important thing is to ensure that the conditions are right rather than that they are secured quickly. I shall deal with the timetable issue shortly, but let me first point out that in 1998 an agreement was reached following deadlines given by George Mitchell, who was responsible for mediating and facilitating the talks. When he said that he would go home on the next flight unless an agreement was reached, people hurriedly reached an agreement.

Hearing the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) lecture us about the imperfections of some aspects of the Bill, one would think that we had something akin to Utopia in 1998. In fact, it was such a bad deal—so bad were the structures—that it collapsed and collapsed and collapsed again, and we have had nothing remotely close to devolution in Northern Ireland since. It is clear that improvements could be made. My party knows that in 1998 we had people in Government representing an organisation that was still
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holding on to all its weaponry and was still involved in paramilitary activities. Even while its members were in Government, that organisation was still carrying out terrorist acts. It was continuing to engage in criminality unabated: it was probably the largest criminal empire in Europe.

Mr. Donaldson: Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming today’s news that £1 million of criminal assets are to be frozen—assets linked to the alleged chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, one Thomas “Slab” Murphy? We have pressed for precisely that kind of action by the authorities, and this shows the success of our pressure.

Mr. Robinson: I seem to recall that when “Slab” Murphy’s farm was invaded by the guards on one side and the police on the other, Sinn Fein’s leader told us how honourable, decent and honest this man was. In the weeks ahead, the nature of the business that “Slab” Murphy carried on may be exposed; but it is better that I say no more. We will leave the courts to deal with those matters.

Not only was there the issue of weapons being retained and the continuation of paramilitary and criminal activity, but there was no indication that Sinn Fein would ever be asked whether it was prepared to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. Those who were negotiating in those days did not even dare ask Sinn Fein to make such a commitment. At the same time, there was no accountability for Northern Ireland Ministers in the Executive. I think we had better define “accountability”, because to the hon. Member for Foyle it means answerability as opposed to being held to account for decisions, and the ability to negate those decisions if the Assembly did not like them. There was no accountability in that democratic institution.

As Ministers, both the hon. Gentleman and I were able to make decisions. We did not require the approval of any committee in the Assembly; we did not even require the approval of the Executive committee of the Assembly; and we did not require the approval of the Assembly itself. Indeed, decisions were made in defiance of all those bodies. I recall a decision—

Mark Durkan rose—

Mr. Robinson: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish what I am saying, I will give way to him shortly.

I recall the decision by the then Member for West Belfast, the Minister responsible for health, to take the maternity unit to her own constituency, despite and in defiance of the view of the Assembly’s health committee and a vote by the Assembly itself. The system was clearly not accountable. Not only was it not accountable in terms of the Northern Ireland Assembly itself; it was not accountable in terms of the “north-southery” that went with it. The Bill, although inadequate in parts, will introduce more accountability than there was for the Belfast agreement: much needed accountability.

Mark Durkan rose—

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Mr. Robinson: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as he has been sitting on the edge of his seat.

Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman is presenting us with a farrago of misrepresentations of how the institutions actually worked. He said that he and I, as Ministers, were totally unaccountable. When I was Finance Minister, anything to do with the budget had to be approved by the Executive committee. it was then subjected to a cross-community vote in the Assembly. Not just the budget itself but budgetary procedures had to be subject to such cross-community votes. That is accountability and transparency, far more than the hon. Gentleman’s party would be comfortable with other Ministers’ being subjected to.

Mr. Robinson: If the hon. Gentleman had been out in a spending department as I was, he would know just how flexible those budgets can be. He would know how money can be taken from a head of expenditure and used virtually according to ministerial decision, in whatever way one wishes. That has happened. Many decisions were made that never went near the Executive. The fact is that there is now real accountability.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, who complaints about that accountability, that any system of government can be made not to work. This system is there as a protection—a safety net. It is not envisaged that every day Ministers will run into an Executive and use their veto powers to stop decisions. The aim is to ensure that the handful of decisions that may be made during the term of an Assembly can be blocked before the Executive, and that a collective and united decision on those issues can be made by the Executive, rather than decisions being made that damage the interests of one community or another. That seems good sense to me, and an improvement on the previous position.

Mark Durkan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robinson: I really must make some progress. I have not come to the real issue with which I want to deal, and we have already heard from the occupants of the Chair that they would prefer brevity so that all who wish to speak can do so.

There are important issues to address. We made progress at St. Andrews and we have made progress since, but there is still more work to be done. The Government know the outstanding issues on which my party colleagues and I must be satisfied. Those issues will not go away. They will have to be dealt with. The Government know that delivery is required, including by Sinn Fein in relation to policing, the courts and what they say about the rule of law. There also has to be delivery in terms of the IRA’s position on paramilitary and criminal activity and the structures of terrorism. Those are all required before there can ever be devolution in Northern Ireland. Nothing in that is new: we have been saying it for years. We are mandated to say it and we are mandated to have it carried out.

Delivery is also required from the Government. Some parts of that delivery lie within the Bill, but it has elements that we do not like. When we come to consider the amendments, the Government will hear about some of the elements that we do not like. There
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are other elements that should be included in legislation and we will continue to press the Government on those.

We have started the marathon, but we have not reached the finishing post. That is why I am concerned when I hear remarks such as those made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who wants everybody to be tight about timetables. If conditions are attached to making progress and the timetable does not satisfy them, the process is condition-led, not calendar-led. That is an essential element that the hon. Gentleman cannot ignore. Unless those conditions are satisfied, my colleagues are mandated not to move forward. Unless they are met, the executive, the officers and the Assembly Members of the Democratic Unionist party are not prepared to move forward. It is not the case that once we reach a certain date we can be bludgeoned into an Executive. At that time, we will look to see whether the necessary conditions have been met and if they have not, the Government will have to be flexible.

The course that the hon. Gentleman offers will lead to failure. He says that if the conditions are not met by that time, we should tear the edifice down. I say that if we are going in the right direction, we should make sure that we get it right. If that requires more flexibility, such as the Government accepting an amendment to the Bill or the need for new legislation, better that than going forward with the sort of structures that we had in 1998, with the consequences that we also then had.

Lembit Öpik: I do not really disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I understand his position, which he accurately summarised as condition-led, not deadline-led. My concern is that the Government are deadline-led, but that that is not credible because everybody knows that they will always alter a deadline if that is what they have to do to continue the process. I was suggesting that the Government need to recognise the needs of the DUP and others and stop pretending that setting a deadline will make everything fall into place.

Mr. Robinson: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. If the parties themselves had reached the timetables, there might be some justification in his position, but these are not our timetables. They are designed to suit other people and not because they have anything to do with Northern Ireland or because it makes sense for Northern Ireland to make progress by that date. The timetable has been set to suit the Prime Minister in relation to his legacy and his tenure in office. Bertie Ahern also has a timetable, because he has an election in the offing. Those are the timetables to which we are being asked to adhere, but that is not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. What is in their interests is that, whatever the timetable, we get it right and we have stable, secure and lasting Government in Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik rose—

Mr. Robinson: I shall give way one last time.

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Lembit Öpik: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman twice, but I wished to clarify my point. There surely has to be some acceptance by the DUP that although the Government’s timetables will always have an element of expediency, there has to be an endpoint. Does he agree that we cannot carry on like this indefinitely and that at some point the DUP has to recognise that it has some obligation to shift?

Mr. Robinson: But to accept what the hon. Gentleman has said I would have to accept an outrageous premise. The suggestion is that the DUP is holding the process back. If our position is condition-led, we will move forward when the conditions are in place. The conditions are that Sinn Fein brings completion to paramilitary and criminal activity, tears down its terrorist structures, and supports the courts, the police and the rule of law. Does any hon. Member think that that is unreasonable? If not, we should forget about the timetables and put the pressure where it should be put—on those who are holding back progress in Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robinson: I said that I had given way for the last time, but I will give way to the hon. Lady.

Lady Hermon: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He even gave way with a smile, which is extraordinary. That is like tea and hot cross buns. Will he confirm the briefing given to the political editor of The Sunday Times that the deadline of 26 March lacks credibility? I notice that the only amendments tabled by the DUP relate to moving the 26 March deadline? Is he telling the people of Northern Ireland to forget about 26 March because it is not a feasible deadline?

Mr. Robinson: What I have said is abundantly clear. I do not feel bound by any deadline in the process. Conditions have to be met. Will they be met by 26 March? I do not know, because I am not the one holding back progress—Sinn Fein is. On the basis of what the Government said, we expected Sinn Fein to come out of St. Andrews and call its ard chomhairle—I hope that the Hansard reporters do not ask me how to spell that—together to pass a resolution that would be put before the ard fheis, which would take the decision to support policing and the courts in Northern Ireland. That has not happened. It has not even got to the stage of making a recommendation. Far from calling a meeting, the Irish Times has revealed in the past few days that Sinn Fein is saying that until it gets a timetable for policing and justice to be devolved to Northern Ireland, it will not call the ard fheis. If that is Sinn Fein’s position, it certainly is not a condition in the St. Andrews agreement. If the Government accepted that Sinn Fein had given a positive response to the agreement, I assume that they must have been prepared to move forward without that condition being met. Once again, they are asking people to meet the condition who are not responsible for meeting it.

The position on policing and justice is as plain as a pikestaff—an expression better known to those from the island of Ireland than anyone else. There can be no more sensitive issue affecting the people of Northern Ireland. It affects people’s lives and is the key issue
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affecting their security and way of life in the Province. It cannot be ditched as part of a deal. Everybody has to be secure and confident about the issue before we move forward. I say to people in Northern Ireland that even if one of my colleagues were to be the Minister responsible for the issue, we would still do better not to have it included in the early stages of devolution . [ Interruption. ] I am glad that the hon. Member for Foyle agrees. To put policing and justice into an Assembly that had not bedded down would be madness. To put it into the hands of those who have been engaged in acts of terrorism and criminality would be absurd. The community would not tolerate that.

The essential ingredient is community confidence. People must demonstrate that they have turned over a new leaf. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, they must prove that they have changed. It is not about what people say, but about how they behave. That is what is important, but it will be a long time before the people of Northern Ireland accept the bona fides of any Sinn Fein Minister.

I cannot create that confidence. In the comprehensive agreement of 2004, the Government said that they would work to create the community confidence that was necessary, as did the DUP. Both they and we can work as much we want, and I am sure that we will, but none of that will make any difference because it is Sinn Fein who must create that confidence. The people whom I represent have no confidence in Sinn Fein, so it us up to Sinn Fein to make the moves.

What confidence could anyone in Northern Ireland have in a timetable for the devolution of policing and justice when Sinn Fein has yet to give any support to the police in Northern Ireland? It would be a bit cheeky of Sinn Fein members to want to hurry along the process of devolution even after they had given some support to the police and the courts but, as the hon. Member for Foyle said, they have a right neck to ask for it before they have even reached that stage. That is the reality in terms of policing and justice in Northern Ireland.

I want to ask the Minister a few questions on the record. To avoid any suggestion that they are unexpected, I can tell the House that I gave him prior knowledge of the specific points that I intend to raise. I hope that he will be able to give the fullest possible answers to what are undoubtedly complex matters. If he does not have the necessary information, his officials certainly do. I am sure that he will want the courts, when they interpret the legislation, to have the benefit of the clearest possible ministerial statements to help resolve any ambiguity.

Will the Minister confirm that the intention of the clauses on the ministerial code is to ensure that particular decisions set out in what will be sections 20(3) and (4) of the amended Northern Ireland Act 1998 will be decisions for the Executive and not for a “Minister or junior Minister”?

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