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Will the Minister confirm that a decision that, by virtue of proposed sections 20(3) or (4), ought to be brought to the attention of, and considered by, the Executive committee, will not be valid without the committees approval, and that without such approval Ministers will have no authority to take any such
decision? Will a Minister have authority to take a decision that is properly brought to the Executive committee under proposed new section 28A(5) but about which the Executive committee is unable to agree? What is the status of a decision taken by Ministers who do not have the necessary authority?
Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will mean that any decision of the North/South Ministerial Council, which is cross-cutting by nature, or any other matter involving relationships with the Republic of Ireland that are affected by external relations, will have to go to the Executive for agreement? Without such approval, will Ministers have authority to take such a decision? Would any such ministerial decision be valid?
Will any decision beyond a de minimis level that involves human rights, equality or economic policy issues and which is regarded as cutting across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers therefore need to be discussed and agreed by the Executive committee? Will any decision outside a Departments delegated authority that involves expenditure and which requires the approval of the Department of Finance and Personnel be regarded as one that cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers? Would such a decision also need to be discussed and agreed by the Executive committee?
I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear that I have only one more question. Will any significant, strategic or controversial decisions fall outside the category of decision that could require the discussion of and agreement by the Executive committee?
I gave the Minister notice that I would be asking those questions, and I know that he is ready to reply in great detail. It is important that those questions, and the Ministers replies, be placed on the record, as in one case that I once took right through to the House of Lords it was suggested that the Minister who had made certain remarks at the Dispatch Box was not necessarily aware of all the issues and so had not made a considered response. This Minister has had the opportunity to prepare, or at least his officials have, and I am therefore expecting a considered response from him tonight.
The question that we must ask ourselves is: why are we here? We might all have different reasons, but I think that the underlying reason is that we want to make Northern Ireland the same as every other part of the UK. We want people there to have the same experiences as other people in this country.
I come from Sunderland, which is similar to Belfast, although I know that Belfast is not the same as the rest of Northern Ireland. Sunderland was built on ships; for many years, ours was the biggest shipbuilding town in the world. It was built on hard work, and the people there played hard and worked hard. It was a town with poor housing in some areas, and poor educational achievements. Unemployment was endemic, and the population was made up of people from different religions and races.
However, Sunderland was never a town where people killed each other, blew each other up, shot at the police
or killed troops on the street. I want my town and Belfast to have the same future, even though they have had very different pasts. I am not saying that Belfast should become the second Sunderlandespecially as Niall Quinn and Roy Keane are trying to make Sunderland the second Dublin.
We should grasp with both hands the chance that this debate offers. I am not a Johnny-come-lately to this discussion: those who have been involved in it in the year and a half since I came to the House will know that I have a long, proud record of representing people in Northern Ireland as a lay official of the Unison trade union.
Unison had a chequered history in Northern Ireland. Some of its partner unions did not support or organise there, while others did. Some people did not believe that representatives from Great Britain should have any say in the day-to-day workings of the union in Northern Ireland. As a result, for the first two years that I was involved over there, we spent a lot of time talking to each other about what we would do to try to make the union work in Northern Ireland.
Thankfully, the union did work over there. It worked because people worked together and ignored what was happening around them, although that is not to say that they did not care about what was happening outside. They developed an agenda that is non-partisan. If something is wrong it should be challenged: if people do not have jobs, if they have bad housing or are being mistreated at work, or if children do not have good schools to go to, that should be challenged and put right. Our agenda does not take sides on the constitutional position, and we have refused to be drawn into the argument about whether there should be a united Ireland, or whether Ireland should never be united. We chose instead to do the work that the union always does: protecting the working people in their day-to-day lives.
The union supported civil rights issues on all sides and worked with the often ignored ethnic minority community in Northern Ireland. We argued with past Governmentsincluding a Labour Governmentfor better terms and conditions and against the privatisation of jobs. We acted as a catalyst for people to come together. We shared experiences with those in other parts of these islands and the Republic of Ireland about developing a way to devolution and self-determination.
My union put peace and stability on the Labour party agenda. Before the Labour party came to power, we funded the work of the shadow Northern Ireland Office, because we believed that that was in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the members of the union. We promoted the equality agenda and we condemned attacks on innocent people at home and at work. We did what many hon. Members present did: we did our best, standing up for people and defending them.
The union engaged with various political parties. One of my proudest moments was in 1996 when we organised a seminar in Newcastle, County Down, just five days after the bombing at Canary Wharf. The seminar was attended by representatives of almost every political party. It was one of the first times that
we got together in one room, and it was a great success. An even greater success, for me, was my return to the same venue last month, as a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, under the leadership of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). The difference in the area is palpable, and the House and the nation should be proud of the changes that we have made in the past 10 years. We still have a lot of work to do, but we should congratulate ourselves on what we have done.
When we were in Northern Ireland, we went to Belfast. People were having a discussion about the removal of murals. The argument was not, If you remove that mural, it is an attack on my culture and my past. The argument was whether removing the murals would have an impact on tourism. That shows again how the mindset has been changed in Northern Ireland as a result of the work that we have all done and should keep on doing.
My union welcomed the Good Friday agreement back in 1998 as the best deal on offer. Clearly, some people did not agree with that, but the union stood up for the brave people who stood against the communities that they came from. They took a lot of personal flak, but they said, We believe this is the way forward for the people of this Province. The process has been neither happy nor straightforwardwe have talked about the problems tonightbut things have got better.
I can remember when Belfast was almost a no-go area for people from Great Britain. The first time I went to Northern Ireland, I drove from Newcastle to Stranraer, and the last thing I did was fill up with petrol so that when I got off at Larne I did not have to stop at the border. Thankfully, that mentality no longer exists. The truth is that Northern Ireland is a place that people from all over the world, especially from this island, should go to, enjoy and respect.
There is much more for us to do. As an advocate of devolution, I wish that the opportunities that are being given to Northern Ireland through the Bill and previous work had been given to the people of the north-east of England. If they had, we might have had devolution and been able to look after our people better. We must accept our responsibilities in this House. We have to do what we can for the people of Northern Ireland with the chance that we have got. I understand the issues that people have raised today; they are serious, genuine issues, but the underlying process must be to move forward. The local politicians and politicians in this House have shown that they can do that, and we should be proud of what they have done.
The Bill lays the foundation for that to carry on. The people of Northern Ireland will be represented by their people. Northern Ireland politicians will be directly accountable to their people in a way that at this moment they are not, because they cannot deliver the things that people deserve and rightly expect. Northern Ireland Members will have the right to talk about transport, culture, arts, leisure and planning mattersissues that are now decided by Ministers and civil servants, who clearly do not have the same interest or faith in the people. Therefore, the Bill should be supported.
One thing that kept me going through the debates when devolution broke down was that there had been some successes. I believe that those successes were achieved because the politicians were nearer to the people. The people were telling the politicians, We elect you; this is what we want you to do. People responded to that and should be allowed to do so again in the positive way that they did during the short period from 1998 onwards.
The time has come for us to re-engage with that accountability. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland and Great Britain to make that move forward. Any structural or ideological objections need to be sorted out and removed. I hope that that can be done in a timely way, but not so as it slows down the process until it yet again goes into reverse. The fact is that sometimes the best that we can achieve is not always what we want, but it is the best. The agreement and the Bill should be embraced by the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland, and should be implemented and pursued positively and progressively.
I urge the political representatives of all parties to use this opportunity on behalf of their people, their communities and their cultures to accept that with this power comes a massive responsibilitya responsibility not to allow centuries of hatred and bigotry to get in the way of delivering for their people; a responsibility not to use the limits and restrictions in the legislation in a partisan way in order to further party political goals; and a responsibility to the rest of us in this Parliament and on this island to ensure that the faith that we place in them is not misplaced and not abused.
This is a good day for democracy; it is a good day for my Government, for a succession of Ministers and for our Prime Minister, who has stood firm and led from the front in this debate for more than a decade. It is a good day for all the people in this House, in Northern Ireland and beyond who have refused to accept the rule of the gun over the rule of law. We should praise and congratulate those people. It is a good day for those who have said that terrorism will never ever succeed. Above all, it could be a good day for the great people of Northern Irelandif we have the bottle to get this right.
Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I have listened with interest to many of the contributions that have been made from both sides of the House. There is certainly a reality that seems to be in many hearts and minds at this moment. People think that there are certain issues that we have to face if we are to move towards a stable future for Northern Ireland. It is clear that the Belfast agreement failed the people of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, some of the ground that was surrendered by David Trimble at the time of the Belfast agreement can never be regained. That is a solemn and sad reality, and for that his name will go down in the history books, never to be forgotten by the Unionist population of Northern Ireland.
We have had many false dawns, so it is important that there is a realism over this House tonight. The realism is this: if there is not delivery, then there certainly is no deal. The Secretary of State has suggested that as we have signed up for the St. Andrews
agreement we have moved on to the next stage. In actual fact, he must be under some illusion, because no one has signed up. The two people who have signed up are Her Majestys Government and the Government of the Irish Republic. The Democratic Unionist party has made it abundantly clear that if there is no delivery, there is no deal. Therefore, the delivery has to come. There is no delivery at the present time. We have to face that reality. We will come on to what we mean by delivery.
It is a reality that, for too long, our Province and the democratic politicians in Northern Ireland have been held to ransom by terrorists. Successive Governments bowed and scraped to the terrorists who threatened the people of Northern Ireland and Governments. In order to appease terrorismthe IRAthey have penalised the innocent instead of facing up to and defeating terrorism. We must never forget, whenever we come to talk about a future, the hurt and the innocent victims who were slaughtered by terrorists. Many people still carry scars on their bodies, never mind those who carry scars in their hearts whenever they think of the murder and slaughter of innocent loved ones. We have to remember these things when we come to talk about the Second Reading of the St. Andrews agreement Bill.
We need to remember that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. The Minister needs to know that. The Secretary of State said that if we did not accept the Bill and we did not have devolved government, we would go to plan B, which would introduce the interference of the Government of a foreign state in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. That is absolutely repulsive. It is blackmail and a threat held over the people of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is an equal part of the United Kingdom. It deserves to be serviced and governed equally with every other part of the United Kingdom. If there is no devolved government in Northern Ireland, this House is the House that governs; this Parliament is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is the responsibility of this House to deal with the laws that affect the day-to-day lives of people in Northern Ireland.
A threat is held over the people of Northern Ireland. The threat is, If you do not bow to accept into government thugs or murderers who have not repented of their terrorism, you will be given something worse. The something worse is more interference in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic. It is an absolute disgrace and a humiliation that the Government are trying to force that on the people of the United Kingdom. We are an equal part and no threats from Dublin in the past or threats from the Government now or in the future will make the people of Northern Ireland accept anything less than true democracy and democratic rule. Let the Government hear that loud and clear.
Lady Hermon: I am a little bit concerned about the word repentance. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether it is now a precondition of sitting in government in the Executive that Sinn Fein Members should repent of their sins?
Let me make it abundantly clear: repentance is proved by action. Whenever a person repents, there is a change of mind and a change of heart, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) should know. That is why we have made it abundantly clear that words and rhetoric are out if that is all there is; there must be a credible period of testing to prove that there has been repentance and a change of mind and that Sinn Fein has turned its back on terrorism and completely renounced its path. It must prove that it is relying on the democratic mandate alone for the future of Northern Ireland.
Should the House be interested in knowing whether I believe that Sinn Fein has come to that place, my answer is no, I do not believe that it has done so, and I shall give the reason. In July, Michael McIvor, a Sinn Fein councillor, who is still a member of Sinn Fein, which has taken no action against him, made some comments about dissident republican groups. He claimed that the strength of Continuity IRA and the Real IRA had been blown out of proportion by the media and the police, because despite being responsible for a litany of killings and attacks they had
never caused British army deaths.
The PSNI and those sections of the media who call the dissidents hardline refuse to tell the Irish people why the Continuity or Real have never killed a member of the Brit forces.
They are, therefore, not heroes and not to be taken seriously because they have not murdered British forces. A member of Sinn Feinan elected representative of Sinn Feinsays that those people are not strong republicans because they have not put bodies in coffins. All the Bills in the world will not change that mindset. Until there is a turning away from that pathway and clear repentance, Sinn Fein members cannot be treated as democrats.
What do we mean by support for the security forces? Is it just that Martin McGuinness, or somebody else with a history of terrorism as long as their arm, has only to say, I support the police? Of course, paragraph 6 of the agreement specifies that it is support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but he believes that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. If he has to support the PSNI he will have to turn his republican philosophy on its head, because he will have to acknowledge that failed political entity. Indeed, if he wants to be part of the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive he will have to be part of that failed political entity, so his republican philosophy has disappeared in that respect. Furthermore, many members of the PSNI were formerly members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which he also hated and despised, so that will be interesting.
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