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Let me leave the Committee with this thought. There is a real danger that the voters of Northern Ireland will be turned off politics completely, because there is no longer any hope left in politics in Northern Ireland. The opportunity to restore hope lies in the St Andrews agreement, which, I repeat, was signed up to by all the Northern Ireland parties represented here tonight, as well as others. That is the mandate that we were given
on which to proceed, that is the prospect for success, and that is the track we are on. If anyone wants to climb off that track, so be it. It will be devolution or dissolution. There will be no shifting at all on any of these dates.
Mr. Dodds: I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State had to say and we are still waiting for him to give an indication of when the Sinn Fein conference should happen. He says that he will not answer what if questions, but his speech was riddled with remarks to the effect that if the DUP do not do this or that by certain dates, this is what will happen. He is clear about what will happen in certain circumstances, but he refuses to make any demands of Sinn Fein and its timetable for delivery on policing, except vague statements that it should happen sooner rather than later. He says nothing about what will happen if it does not and he has refused to answer questions from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and others about what happens if it is not held before the election. We see evasiveness, shiftiness and a refusal to answer direct questions, while all the time seeking to blame others. The reality is that this party is signed up to devolution on the right terms.
The Secretary of State mentioned where dates came from. At the St. Andrews event and the agreement between the two Governments, the DUP did not sign up to anything other than the delivery by Sinn Fein-IRA of their commitments on policing. Since then, we have seen a reneging by Sinn Fein on those commitments.
The Secretary of State tells us tonight that people will be disappointed by the lack of bubbling enthusiasm for the Bill. People in Northern Ireland are disappointed, but it is because the things that we were told would happen in the wake of St. Andrews have not happened. Sinn Fein has retreated on policing. The people of Northern Ireland will rightly expect us to stick to our manifesto commitments that we would not jump first and repeat the mistakes of the Ulster Unionist party, which led to its electoral annihilation. The people of Northern Ireland expect us to keep our word on that issue, and keep our word we will.
Our amendment would provide a safeguard to ensure that the Secretary of State does not have to come back to the House at some future point with new emergency legislation. He sits there and pretends that once he decides that the process cannot be delivered because Sinn Fein has not signed up to the policing, everything will somehow disappear and politics in Northern Ireland will shut down. That is not credible and it will not happen.
Mr. Donaldson: Will my hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Secretary of State to read the results of the opinion poll published a week ago by the BBC in its Hearts and Minds programme? It asked a specific question about what people wanted to happen if the deadlines were not met. A large majority of respondents said that politicians should be given more time.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that poll, because the Secretary of State is always keen to refer to the opinions of the people of Northern Ireland. He should also take on board the opinions of leading churchmen recently who, when asked the same
question, said that more time should be given. Of course, every sensible person believes that if we have not reached a point at which everybody has made a commitment to full support for the police, the courts and the rule of law and a complete end to criminality and paramilitarism, we should wait until everybody has made that commitment and delivered on those issues.
The Secretary of State referred to specific comments that I made about devolution of policing and justice. I stand by those comments, just as my hon. Friends stand by their comments. The Secretary of State should not pretend that those comments form a new position. I refer him to Hansard for 17 May, column 1032, where my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that he could not envisage devolution of policing and justice happening in his lifetime. Later in that debate, at column 1037, I made similar remarks, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea). So the Secretary of State should not pretend that this is somehow a deeply unhelpful new demand. It is on the record. That is our position and that is where we stand. Sinn Fein will have to prove to people in Northern Ireland that it is committed to policing, justice, courts and the rule of law without being given control over the police service. That can be granted only when the community has confidence, and I cannot see that happening for a political lifetime.
Mark Durkan: In an earlier debate this evening, the Democratic Unionist party again tried to create the misleading impression that devolution as it operated in recent years in Northern Ireland was a free for all, just a governmental tower of Babel, with nobody able to make sense of it or understand it or clear anything with anyone else. However, the reality is that Ministers had to get clearance from the Executive if they were to bring forward legislative proposals. They had to get their legislation approved, and often amended, in the Assembly. They had to work in the context of the programme for Government, again agreed by the Executive and approved by the Assembly.
Mrs. Iris Robinson: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain to me why Bairbre de Brun was able to take the decision on maternity services, why Martin McGuinness was able to scrap the 11-plus, and why there was no accountability between north-south meetings with Ministers representing each of those two states.
The fact is that for key decisions, the ministerial code, and particularly the ministerial code as amended, including in the aftermath of the decision on Belfast maternity services, already made it very clear when Ministers had to bring things to the Executive. The DUP pretends that nobody had to bring anything to the Executivethat there were no requirements for accountability, transparency or notifying people of anything. We had quite a sizeable ministerial code, which covered all those issues.
Ministers also had to get the approval of the Executive for key proposals, and even DUP Ministers did so; even they had to submit memorandums to the very Executive that they had promised to destroy. Yes, it was a bit of a phony correspondence between the Executive and the DUP, but the fact is that DUP Ministers had to abide by the ministerial code and send a number of their key proposals in to the Executive.
Yes, we have proposed on previous occasions, and will propose again, that far more transparency should be built into prior notification of possible ministerial decisions, to the departmental Committees as well as to the Executive, but all our proposals for added transparency and up-front declarations by Ministers and Departments were actually rejected by the DUP when we made them in the review of the Good Friday agreement and at the subsequent talks at Leeds castle.
The DUP said that our proposals for far more accountability, transparency and scrutiny in the Assembly were actually providing for too much transparency and too much accountability. The truth is that the DUP is not interested in accountability in the true and proper sense of that term, or transparency for the public good; the DUP is into private vetoes, and DUP contributions to the debates this evening prove that members of the DUP are not reformed vetoholics. They are still vetoholics, committed to taking every veto they can get when they can get it, and once they start on the vetoes they just cannot stop themselves. That is the reality.
That is why I pointed out earlier the mistake that was made in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which gave the DUP the triple lock on the devolution of justice and policing. The DUP has been brandishing it ever since. We now get these cries of Shock! and Horror! and Disgrace! from Sinn Feinthe very people who applauded as that veto was handed to the DUP in legislation, when people were doing handstands and saying that it was wonderful legislation that would seal the devolution of justice.
Our amendments purport to address what we see as a number of problems with new vetoes that are gratuitously given, especially to the DUP, in the Bill. Decision making will be snarled up and complicated. That is something that the provisions in the Bill invite via politics, and they will guarantee bad government.
We are reinforced in our opposition to the provisions in clause 5, and some of the provisions in clause 6 in the light of the Minister of States answers to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). He gave carefully choreographed answersit was a side deal unveiled in publicthat show that this is really about giving the DUP the sort of drive-by vetoes that the SDLP has complained about ever since they were provided for in the so-called comprehensive agreement of December 2004.
Members of the DUP might argue that they want to have more controls and more constraints on Ministersfurther obligations for Ministers. But under legislation already passed by Parliament, if a Minister breaches the ministerial code a complaint can be brought to the Independent Monitoring Commission, and if the IMC upholds that complaint, the Secretary of State can impose sanctions against the Minister, regardless even of the will of Assembly. That, as well as a ministerial code that the DUP has been in denial about, undermines and refutes the case for the sort of changes in this Bill that Ministers have granted to the DUP.
The Bill goes radically further than what existed before, because it imposes a legal duty on Ministers to comply with the ministerial codea code that cannot always be as tightly drafted as one might want, and which, for very good reasons, might in part have to be drafted more loosely. Clause 5 goes on to provide that a Minister has no authority to take any decision against the ministerial code. As the Minister said in reply to questions asked by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, that will mean that any decision taken that might not
be in compliance with the ministerial code could be subject to full legal challenge.
When I look at the existing ministerial code, I can see all sorts of grounds on which Ministers might take cases against other Ministers for supposedly not complying with it, and possibilities that subsequently, one or two years down the road as things are being implemented, consequential issues will be raised and people will then discover that those issues all stem from a ministerial decision taken a couple of years ago that was not in compliance with the ministerial code. A vested interestperhaps a wealthy business person or some other third-party interestmight then decide, We can gridlock the whole thing; we can take this into the Northern Ireland courts. They will not have to find a ruse involving people breaking a European Union regulation and take that to Brussels. They will have far more things on which to take Ministers and Departments to court than merely issues such as not complying with consultation requirementsthe very issue that has seen Ministers from a number of Departments in courts in recent times. We could have Government gridlocked.
Taking such decisions into courts can cause hardship for third parties who are relying on decisions being implemented and followed through, and that can of course be exploited by cynical third parties who want to stand in the way of people benefiting from certain Government decisions; those third parties might want to complicate issues regarding contracts that have been awarded, or to stop contracts in their tracks, which might prevent roads or hospitals from being built. That is what can come from elevating into law the requirement for Ministers to comply with the ministerial code, and from saying that anything that people can allege is shy of the ministerial code to any degree can automatically be a matter for the courts.
Under the Bills provisions, it will be impossible for Ministers to move quickly to deal with emergencies such as an influenza epidemicavian flu might hit usor foot and mouth disease. Foot and mouth hit us during the last period of devolution, and there were issues and sensitivities concerning the fact that the then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development took the straightforward decision to close the ports. That helped to save Northern Ireland from the scourge of foot and mouth, but under the proposals being discussed, that Minister would not be able to do that. Under these proposals, that Minister would have to wait at least a week until there was an Executive meeting, and even then would not be able to take that decision if other Executive Ministers had any issues with it. So under these provisions we could end up not with bad decisions but with no decisions, which would be worse.
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