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Flexible Working

Lorely Burt accordingly presented a Bill to extend the right to request to work flexibly to parents of children up to the age of 18; to make provision for the encouragement of employers to offer flexible working arrangements; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 85].

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Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill


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Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.51 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the House for its indulgence in allowing, at very short notice, planned business to be disrupted. I am especially grateful for the co-operation of the Opposition parties.

I wish to begin by congratulating the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), on his courage and his leadership. When he sat for the very first time alongside the leader of Sinn Fein, the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), in Parliament buildings at Stormont yesterday, they took Northern Ireland closer to a final political settlement than anyone has ever before thought possible. Their pictures together resonated around the world, a graphic manifestation of the power of politics over intolerance, bitterness and horror.

Those implacable foes have individually and collectively said that now is the time for Northern Ireland to move forward into a new era. They have together taken charge of the process from the British and Irish Governments. As a result, the political settlement that will emerge will be far stronger and more robust than anything imposed by Government, precisely because it is grounded in local agreement. That is where we have wanted to be since before the Good Friday agreement was signed almost nine years ago: locally accountable politicians taking responsibility for the future; locally accountable politicians showing that whatever their differences—and it is hard to imagine two parties with greater differences—they can work for the common good without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

I do not need to remind this House of the tortured history of Northern Ireland over four decades, or of all the attempts by the Government, working closely with our Irish counterparts, to bring peace and stability, or—especially—of the courage of SDLP leaders, such as John Hume, and Ulster Unionist party leaders, such as David Trimble.

We have seen enormous progress, especially since the Good Friday agreement. The security situation has been transformed. The IRA has declared its war over and decommissioned its weapons. It has closed down the criminal activity that used to fund the conflict, because there is no conflict to fund. Sinn Fein has committed to the active support of the police and criminal justice institutions. There has been a new beginning to policing and the rule of law, stretching right across the communities. There is peace, and there are more jobs and more prosperity than ever in Northern Ireland’s history. The final piece in the jigsaw is long-term political stability. That has proved to be elusive.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will have encountered the understandable deep caution
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and occasional cynicism of the people of Northern Ireland, after what they have had to put up with over the past decades. In the vital weeks ahead, what will he do to give them confidence that, at long last, this is a time for them—and us—to hope?

Mr. Hain: I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. This is a tremendous time for hope and progress, as I shall explain.

There have been numerous attempts by both Governments working together to broker a deal that would stick. In our view, the best—and possibly the last—hope in the foreseeable future to bring about that deal came after the talks at St. Andrews last October.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): The Secretary of State will know that thousands of people voted at the ballot box on the understanding that his words had some meaning when he promised that devolution would happen on 26 March—that is, yesterday. What confidence can the people of Northern Ireland have that the right hon. Gentleman will ever keep his word to them again?

Mr. Hain: I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s role in the peace process over many years, and I shall explain why the situation has developed as it has.

The St. Andrews agreement, with its twin pillars of support for policing standing alongside the commitment to share power, provided the basis for a lasting settlement. Last November, during the passage of the St. Andrews legislation, I made it clear that, if a power-sharing Assembly and Executive did not result, it would be a considerable time before an opportunity like it ever came round again. That was quite simply because I, and many others, thought that the parties themselves would never agree a way forward on their own. I am delighted to have to revise that view in the light of the extraordinary events of the past few days.

I turn now to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). The House will recall that the legislation set in statute the date for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. That date was 26 March— yesterday. The legislation was explicit: if an Executive were not formed on that date, the Assembly would dissolve. As a consequence, Members’ salaries and allowances would stop. Water charges would come into force, academic selection at age 11 would go, and partnership with the Irish Government would deepen.

Everyone knew the position when the election was held on 7 March. I said more than once that 26 March was a deadline that would not move, and that failure to meet it would have consequences. There would only ever be one set of circumstances in which progress outside that framework could be made and that would be if the parties, for the very first time ever, formed a consensus around an agreed way forward.

It is axiomatic in Northern Ireland that there is not a political wire down to which the parties do not go. There were those who said that we were bluffing, that deadlines come and go and that, if we got close enough to a deal, extra time would be claimed. With my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we made it clear that there would be no extension to the deadline in the absence of an agreed way forward brought to us by the
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parties. When we were asked by the Democratic Unionist party last Wednesday to grant an extension we said no, because we could not credibly return to this House and ask for more time unless the DUP could persuade the other parties that there was a credible reason for doing so. We were asked again last Friday. Again we said no—unless the DUP managed to get other parties, including Sinn Fein, to agree.

Had we not been resolute, we would not have had the historic agreement yesterday—and the significance of that agreement cannot be overestimated. It is for that reason that this Bill, which will have the effect of moving the date of the restoration of devolution to 8 May, is before the House today. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed on that date, and both have asked that the introduction of water charging be deferred until the Executive are formed. I have agreed to both requests, and I ask for the support of the House in that.

I know that there will be many victims of the troubles, including Members of the House, who will find this moment especially painful, but we have reached a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. There are many here and in another place, and from both sides of the House, notably John Major, who have played their part over the years to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland. That we are where we are today is a tribute to them.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman said that we have reached a turning point, and no doubt that is true. Would it be even more of a turning point if Sinn Fein Members who were elected to the House took their place? Does he agree that one way in which we can facilitate that is to change the Oath so that they can take an oath that is acceptable to them?

Mr. Hain: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is not a point for us today.

That we are where we are today is a tribute to all those people, especially my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He has brought a forensic understanding of the politics of Northern Ireland—and, allied to it a fierce tenacity and a level of commitment—as has no other Prime Minister.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that while it is right and proper to praise both John Major and the present Prime Minister, we should praise the ordinary people—in fact, the extraordinary people—on the ground, who did not stop working across sectarian barriers? Trade unionists and public service workers stood through 40 years of the troubles, and never ever gave up on their belief in peace.

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