Previous Section Index Home Page

However, to give such support does not make Martin McGuinness a democrat or prove his credentials. He and Sinn Fein have to do that not only by word but in deed, and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition made it abundantly clear at the Dispatch Box the other
21 Nov 2006 : Column 470
day that one of the proofs was that they would have to hand over those responsible for the murder of Robert McCartney. Not only does Sinn Fein know who the murderers are, they are a part of that organisation. Let us see whether Sinn Fein gives those proofs by its actions—by handing over those whom it knows are responsible for murder and destruction in recent days, since the Belfast agreement.

Mark Durkan: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the deeply held suspicion that some of those involved in the McCartney murder were MI5 agents?

Dr. McCrea: I have said in the past that some of the Sinn Fein leadership were part of MI5. I believe that the British have so much on certain persons that they have been turning the screw on them to get them to jump through hoops. I do not care which individuals are responsible for that murder in this respect: whoever is responsible must be brought to justice. It does not matter who they are or where they come from, the persons responsible must be brought to justice—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I am responsible for ensuring that the debate concentrates on the Bill, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will do that.

Dr. McCrea: The SDLP tried to lead me down the wrong path, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I shall listen to your advice and not be sidetracked.

The issues relating to delivery will not be pleasant for some people, but if they want to be democrats they have to face the line of democracy, and there will be no dulling of that line to placate or appease them. That was done for years and where has it taken us?—down the bloody pathway of murder and destruction. It is time that the Government and the House had the guts to stand up to the terrorists and to the party that has trailed democracy on the ground for years. The Government must allow us to have real peace and stability.

Mark Durkan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. McCrea: No, I will not be led astray again.

Sinn Fein is trying to fool its electorate by suggesting that some fanciful date will be given in respect of policing and justice. Let me make it abundantly clear: we will not be led by the nose by Sinn Fein into the devolution of policing and justice just to placate its members. Some of my colleagues have rightly said that the date will not be in their political lifetime—or even in 10 lifetimes—but we will not be fooled, or fool the electorate, by saying that reality will be softened just to please Sinn Fein or anyone else.

I want to mention a few other things before I draw my remarks to a conclusion. A number of issues must be nailed down. There must be a default mechanism; it is a great weakness that the Bill does not include one. Sinn Fein wants to get through the door, because it knows that in the past the SDLP did not have the guts to put its members out. The Ulster Unionists hardly ever had the guts to put them out. Those parties worked together to keep them in. There must be a default mechanism to ensure that if people do not stay
21 Nov 2006 : Column 471
on the path of democracy, they should not be in the democratic Government of our Province.

What about ill-gotten gains? What about the proceeds of crime? We cannot run away from those issues. What about the structures of the IRA?

Mr. Dodds: On the issue of criminal assets, we are glad to hear the news today of the freezing of the assets of one ‘Slab’ Murphy, whom Gerry Adams described as a decent republican— [Interruption]—a decent republican farmer, not a criminal. Does my hon. Friend agree that the retention by any individual or organisation of the proceeds of crime is criminal activity in its own right, and that if the IRA is ending criminality it will need to make arrangements for the disposal of assets, not just have the Assets Recovery Agency seize them? Does he also agree that in the number of weeks that we have left before certain deadlines, whether it be an election or 26 March, it is going to take a lot of handing over to meet that deadline?

Dr. McCrea: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I absolutely concur with every word. Yes it will take a lot, and those in this Administration—our Government—had better face up to those realities. As for deadlines, this party did not set the deadlines; and as for breaking the deadlines, those who set them are responsible for them, and we will not be put into the corner by any deadline that has been set, because for years the IRA has been given deadlines, and it has never kept one of them. It is supposed to have decommissioned all its weapons years ago, but it did not do so until it was forced into what was, indeed, considerable decommissioning when the screw was put on by the DUP and the leader of our party.

The structures of the IRA have to be dealt with. We saw the dismantling of our army bases along the border, and now we are told that there is a considerable threat against the Protestant community along that border and in border areas. The structures of the community’s defence have been taken away, but the structures of the IRA are not taken away. No; its structure is still there. As far as any democratic Government is concerned, there is no need for a paramilitary and there is no need for an army sitting in the wings to threaten those in a democratic society; so as far as the provisionals are concerned, the structures of the IRA have got to go.

I simply say in closing that, yes, we have made progress, but certainly we have a long road to go. That may be a long, hard road, and if we break deadlines so let it be, but we are not misleading the people of Ulster, the people who have suffered for so many years. We want to ensure that we have a credible peace—a definite peace—and that we shall have stability for our people in the future. That, in my opinion, is the best deal that we could do for Ulster.

7.2 pm

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): I shall be brief. I welcome the progress that we are making towards peace, stability and devolved government in Northern Ireland, however slow. The St. Andrews deal marks another milestone on that
21 Nov 2006 : Column 472
long, slow road and I hope that, perhaps, today will mark a milestone as well, enabling us to move forward.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady), I agree that this legislation has some positives, and perhaps a few negatives or failures. I think that our party, the SDLP, has the right to take credit for a lot of the positives. After all, this legislation contains many clear improvements on the draft legislation published last month by the Government, which would have implemented many aspects of the failed comprehensive agreement of 2004, which was negotiated between the two Governments and accepted readily by Sinn Fein and the DUP. The SDLP led the campaign to highlight not just the inadequacies but the blatant injustices of the comprehensive agreement. Above all, we highlighted the fact that it would have provided, in effect, for a voluntary coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP, with other parties effectively automatically excluded from office. I welcome the fact that both the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiators have now thought the better of that voluntary coalition deal. However, I regret that the mechanism for ensuring it in the comprehensive agreement by excluding other parties is still being championed, unfortunately, by my friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and his party.

There are many things that I would like to say, but I particularly want to question the Secretary of State on the transitional Assembly that will emerge after Friday. Will the Secretary of State outline to us whether that Assembly will be treated any differently from the current so-called Hain Assembly, which I understand will disappear on Friday? I would like to know—and many have asked me—what extra influence this transitional Assembly will have over water, planning, education, the review of public administration and the Workplace 2010 proposals. Will this Assembly have any consultative role? Will it have any more authority than the Assembly that is being wound up on Friday?

I shall now discuss some of the other injustices that remain in the Bill. We are, it seems, to face elections on 7 March if all goes well between now and then, but it is a startling fact, which has just emerged, that up to 100,000 people—10 per cent. of the potential electorate—stand to be disfranchised in those elections. I have heard the Secretary of State, in sedentary remarks, suggest that the people will have their say on 7 March. At that rate, only some people will have their say; 10 per cent. will not. We understand from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland that those 100,000 are missing from the register that will be used for the March election, compared with the register used for last year's elections to this House. That is no surprise, given that the public were relatively disengaged and were not, until now, fully aware that an election might emerge later next year. This year they were not expecting an election, and given that there is no carry-forward from last year's register, the reality is that many people just did not bother; they did not feel any need to register to vote.

To make matters worse, unlike in Britain where registration can take place up to 11 days before polling, in Northern Ireland the last day for registration will be 11 January. I make that 55 days before the elections. There was nothing in the St. Andrews deal that
21 Nov 2006 : Column 473
required that or even referred to that. That is why the SDLP will continue to push, for a carry forward of voters from last year's election register. The right to vote is precious, and it is unacceptable that 100,000 people should be denied the right to vote come 7 March.

It is no more acceptable that thousands upon thousands of our young people should be denied the right to an equal opportunity in education, yet that is exactly what the Bill does. The fact is that the 11-plus and academic selection in Northern Ireland are very significantly failing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only 7 per cent. of those attending grammar schools in Northern Ireland are from disadvantaged backgrounds—by contrast, 28 per cent. of those in secondary schools are from such backgrounds. If the system were working fairly, one would expect roughly a 17 per cent. slice right through all schools. That is why I and my party colleagues welcomed the education order passed by the Government earlier this year, which would provide for an end to the 11-plus and an end to selection in post-primary education. But—

Mr. Donaldson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. McDonnell: No, I am on a time constraint here. I am sorry. [Interruption.] I have only two minutes left.

In yet another concession—but an unfortunate and cruel concession—to the DUP, the order also provided that if there was restoration of devolved government by 24 November, there would need to be a cross-community vote to confirm the ban on selection. It did not work—the 24 November deadline will not be met—but that is not the end of it. Astonishingly, clause 21 of the Bill goes even further, offering the DUP a veto on education reform if there is restoration by the new deadline of 26 March. It also appears to allow different rules to be made for different types of schools, to ensure that academic selection of the worst kind remains the order of the day.

It is wrong for our education system to be thrown into chaos in that way, and I would plead with the Secretary of State not to do it—not to allow our children's education to be held to ransom. I have an eight-year-old child, a daughter, who, believe it or not, regularly asks me whether she will do the 11-plus, because her friends in her class at school, P4, do not quite know where they are. My daughter does not know what pathway will be available to her in three years’ time; her teacher does not know; her mother, my wife, does not know; and I do not know, and that is representative of the situation for a whole tranche of eight-year-olds throughout Northern Ireland.

Nothing in the St. Andrews agreement requires that confusion, and the Social Democratic and Labour party will oppose the clause that introduces it in Committee and at every other opportunity. It is tragic that the Democratic Unionist party is driving forward this awful education agenda, ironically ensuring the total neglect of the children of people in loyalist working-class areas, who are the very people from whom it demands. But that is the case not only in
21 Nov 2006 : Column 474
loyalist areas, but for all children, ensuring that they do not get the education opportunities that they deserve.

Regardless of whether the issue is education, water, rural planning, the review of public administration or Workplace 2010, the people I talk to want devolution and they want it now. They want us to get a grip. I appeal to Sinn Fein and the DUP to stop their ritual hostage dance and to get on with things, because that is what ordinary people want. We want devolution, and we want it now.

7.10 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is very kind of you to do so as we have only a brief time to complete our debate. It is a travesty that six and a half hours have been set aside for this Northern Ireland legislation. It has constitutional implications for Northern Ireland—and I must say that I do not like the Bill one little bit. I can assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) that not only did the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) smile this afternoon, but he was certainly smiling on Thursday after the publication of the Bill. I do not wonder a bit about that because the Bill contains so much of what the Democratic Unionist party wanted it to contain.

That has come at a very high price for the rest of us, because the people of Northern Ireland are fed up with direct rule. They are particularly fed up with having direct rule Ministers from the Labour party, because the Labour party does not organise or field candidates in Northern Ireland, and therefore the five current Northern Ireland Office Ministers are completely unaccountable to the people of Northern Ireland. That is not intended as a personal reflection on those who hold those offices, although I must say that if I were the Secretary of State I would be sincerely considering my position if I had read a High Court judgment of the tone, and with the depth of criticism, of that delivered by Mr. Justice Girvan in the Downes judicial review proceedings. Therefore, it is rather rich of the Secretary of State to come before the House and to talk about Sinn Fein delivering on policing and justice, when he knows that there are obligations on all Ministers to be candid, frank and open, and that they have an overarching duty to be honest with the courts. I must say that the credibility of the Secretary of State and the Government are in question.

Today, in response to remarks of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), the Secretary of State stood up at the Dispatch Box and glossed over the deadline of the 24 November. The commitment to that deadline was clearly given in this House on 26 April 2006. In a debate on the Northern Ireland Bill, the Secretary of State told the House:

The Bill before us today asks us once again to push the people of Northern Ireland to accept a change in a deadline. That is a moveable feast and it is not fair to the people of Northern Ireland, who desperately want a devolved Assembly to deal with issues such as water
21 Nov 2006 : Column 475
and water charging, their rates, their education and local government reorganisation. But there is a cost—the people of Northern Ireland want the real Assembly, not a Hain Assembly or a transitional Assembly. Our current Assembly has been suspended since 2002; it has been suspended for four years, with salaries and allowances continuing to be paid to Members of the Legislative Assembly, which means that about £2 million per month is being paid for a suspended Assembly.

The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to know that, at some stage, a deadline means a deadline. I listened very carefully to everything said by the hon. Member for Belfast, East—as I always do, regardless of whether I agree with him, which I rarely do—and by the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). From what they have said, as well as from other responses and interventions, it is clear to me and to the Government that the DUP does not regard the 26 March deadline as a deadline at all— [Interruption.] DUP Members are nodding and making sedentary interventions confirming that. In fact, the only amendments that they have tabled this afternoon would move the 26 March deadline.

I, for one, am absolutely weary with this Government setting deadlines and then blinking first—they always blink first. The difficulty with blinking is that the Government’s credibility is always on the line. The Prime Minister has—

Mr. Peter Robinson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lady Hermon: No, I am sorry but I have limited time and I alone represent the Ulster Unionist party, and in fairness to it I shall not take any interventions on this occasion.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) rightly put on the record the time spent, and the dedication given, by the Prime Minister to trying to sort out Northern Ireland affairs. It was not necessary to commit to an election, but the difficulty is that we have just undone what the Prime Minister promised the people of Northern Ireland. He and the Irish Prime Minister issued a joint statement on 6 April this year, in which they said:

in 2006. As the Secretary of State said, that is a decisive year for Northern Ireland. The joint statement continued:

By conceding to an election instead of a referendum following the St. Andrews agreement, we will, of course, get a deadlocked Assembly. We will have Sinn Fein writing its manifesto, putting in commitments to its constituents that will be unattainable in the context of the devolution of policing and justice, and, as the Secretary of State knows full well, the DUP will do exactly the same.

We have a little taste of that in an article entitled “Your Verdict—what is it to be?” posted on the DUP
21 Nov 2006 : Column 476
website, I want the Secretary of State to contradict what has been claimed by the leader of the DUP in that piece, a copy of which was, of course, enclosed with the Belfast Today News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph, and which had a tear-off strip. The leader of the DUP asked why he was regarded as enemy No. 1. The answer in the DUP publicity—I was going to say propaganda, but let us be kind—is:

Next Section Index Home Page