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In regard to the Prime Minister, who may indeed be looking for a legacy, it is true to say that he should
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reasonably regard the developments in the Northern Ireland peace process as a proud and legitimate element of that legacy.

When we debated the previous emergency legislation in November 2006, I said that I believed the St. Andrews agreement could bind the DUP into a commitment to assume power alongside Sinn Fein. I was optimistic enough to believe it could happen, even though others were not. I am glad to say that it is a testimony to the optimism of the Secretary of State that we have come this far.

When Sinn Fein’s ard fheis and its leaders encouraged supporters to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I said then and I say now that it was a momentous move forward. Again, the optimists were right and I praise the journey that Sinn Fein and the IRA have taken. Others doubted that this would be so, but I never did. My confidence in the republican movement was based on the people I met, and I judged them to be sincere. They have proved that faith in their positive intentions was not misplaced, though of course it must now result in action.

In yesterday’s momentous meeting, the DUP categorically committed to entering a power-sharing Government with Sinn Fein on 8 May. That is six weeks from now. The right hon. Member for North Antrim has taken a very strong position throughout and his conditions have been met. It is important to recognise that. His party said that it was condition-led. He has achieved what he laid out as his goals in the previous two Assembly elections. In large part it is thanks to his contribution that the restoration of devolved government is now just weeks away. So we must recognise the potentially historic significance of the statement yesterday.

However, I am disappointed that the deadline of 26 March, as set down by the emergency legislation passed last November, has not been met. We are faced with yet another delay, yet another piece of legislation on Northern Ireland rushed through Parliament, despite Government assurances that there was no time to do that. I understand the reasons for this. I understand why the Minister has felt the need to let deadlines come and deadlines go, reassuring us almost every time that there was no plan B—and always, of course, there was. The most reliable insurance policy to guarantee that 8 May will be the date for the restoration of the Assembly comes not from the Government, but from Sinn Fein and the DUP. It is their deadline that I choose to believe.

It follows that if for any reason 8 May does not work out, there is no point in the Government pretending that they have any leverage left to threaten anybody in this place, in another place or in Northern Ireland with deadlines again. They have put all their cards on the table, for reasons that I understand. When it comes to deadlines, they have no more cards to play.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I thought that I heard the Secretary of State say earlier—I may be wrong—that he had always been prepared to extend the deadline if the parties could find an agreed way forward together. Did I hear the Secretary of State say that? Is the hon. Gentleman convinced that that was the case?

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Lembit Öpik: I will leave the hon. Gentleman to check Hansard with regard to his former question, but on the latter, I am in no doubt at all that the Secretary of State told the House that the deadline was immovable and absolute. As I say, I understand why he has taken this position, and thus I do not condemn him for it. Instead, I make an observation about the future, rather than about the past. The future allows the Government no leverage with regard to deadlines, so we must hope that on this occasion it works.

There are many people who remain sceptical about the ability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to produce genuine power sharing. However, it is those two parties who primarily have been entrusted by the electorate with the mandates and responsibility to govern. It is up to them to rise to the challenge, and it is up to others, including my sister party, the Alliance party, to hold them to account and to provide constructive opposition as and when necessary. I am determined to ensure that the next six weeks are used to their full advantage. There are discussions going on about an entire programme for government, including the Treasury’s financial package. I hope sincerely that the details are hammered out. Unless they are, we will have trouble ahead.

My colleagues in the Alliance party—including David Ford, who I think I can suggest is a First Minister in waiting in Northern Ireland politics—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): He will have a long while to wait, I fear.

Lembit Öpik: However long or short a time that may take, I believe it will happen.

My colleagues in the Alliance party say that about £1 billion is wasted in Northern Ireland every year on managing a divided society, through implicitly providing separate services for different sides of the same community. Resources would be much better spent on providing quality public services for the entire community, rather than providing services a few hundred metres and a physical or psychological wall apart in a fashion which, in 2007, is out of date. After all, if Sinn Fein and the DUP can do business together in the dining hall of Stormont, surely Catholics and Protestants can exercise together in the sports halls of Belfast and the Province.

The segregation that is ending in politics must also end in the community, but it will take the expenditure of some resources in the short term to release money. Northern Ireland currently receives a larger subvention than any other region in the United Kingdom—a position that is not sustainable. I hope that the Government will work in the weeks ahead, before 8 May, to ensure that there is a clear programme of economic government to accompany the political changes that are taking place.

The mutual respect that I want to see in the community must also apply to political parties. There are many in Stormont who have been loyalists to the cause of a shared future, a cross-community approach to the governance of the Province. They were shown attention when the Government needed them and ignored when the Government did not. That is disrespectful, thoughtless, and ultimately a betrayal of a decade of good faith.

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I want the Government to commit themselves to ensuring that all parties will be involved in the brokerage of solutions in the six weeks ahead, because if anything does go wrong, there will be no good will left for the Government to fall back on from those allies who feel ignored. What plans have the Government to offer briefings to all parties going into government and into opposition, and how will the unique arrangements of statutory committees be reflected in such briefings? It is important for any restored Assembly to be given the chance to make a difference and to prove its worth. We hope that the legislation we are pressing today achieves what we want to see: a stable and long-lasting settlement in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hain: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I think that the leadership shown by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his party in meeting all the parties yesterday was intended to do precisely that.

The parties are now taking charge of the process. It is not for me to prepare for government; it is for them to prepare for government. That is what they are doing, and that is what has transformed the situation.

Lembit Öpik: I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s words, but I can tell him that there are individuals who have acted in good faith for many years and have bailed out the Government and the devolution process on at least one occasion. I am thinking of David Ford and his colleagues in the Alliance party, who have repeatedly felt passed over at times of great importance in Northern Ireland political debate, only to see the Government returning cap in hand and asking for support at times when they have found themselves in a difficult corner.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I think the hon. Gentleman is being a little unrealistic and a little churlish. I also think he should recognise that the Alliance has the number of members it has because people voted for that number of members.

Lembit Öpik: Indeed. Contrary to all predictions in the Chamber—apart from mine—the Alliance increased the number of its seats. I have made that point, and the Minister knows exactly what I mean. It it is to the credit of the DUP at this stage that it has been consulting all parties, but the consultation must be meaningful. It must not consist simply of the relating of decisions made to the exclusion of the minority parties.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we met all the parties, and have agreements with them on how we will meet and continue the dialogue.

Lembit Öpik: I am encouraged to hear that. It is symptomatic of the positive changes that have taken place this year. I am sure that members of minority parties in Northern Ireland who are listening will accept the right hon. Gentleman’s comments in good faith, and with the positivity that I consider appropriate to the important strategic statement that he has just made.

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There has been talk of stopping Stormont Assembly Members’ salaries. While there are those who are still frustrated by many years of paid silence in the corridors of power in Stormont, perhaps we can now leave that aside. I am sure that no reasonable suggestion about future financial arrangements would be refused, but let us be clear about this: if for some reason things do not happen on 8 May, I will sincerely expect the Minister to be true to his word and stop paying individuals for not delivering on devolution.

The Liberal Democrats have always been friends of the process, and I have always sought to be a friend, albeit sometimes a critical friend, to successive Secretaries of State as they have stumbled to find their way through the mire of political quicksand that has sometimes threatened to engulf them. Unlike others, I have never allowed political expediency to get in the way of what is right for the processes of peace. Even when criticised by other parties, we have done our best to support the Government.

Those of us who have helped the Government in good faith expect good faith back in return. The process is not yet over, although I sincerely hope that we are in the endgame. Until we have finished the discussions of the next six weeks, my advice is that the Government had better take care of their friends, because there are many who offer good will, but expect the good will to be returned.

4.35 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Thankfully, unlike much of the tortuous process of past years, what we have in front of us today is short and simple, in the form of this Bill.

The Secretary of State will recall that some of us predicted that we would be here in late March facing more emergency legislation, probably providing for a date in May. When we honestly offered that as our best surmise about what was likely to happen, we were rubbished by the Secretary of State and others. To that extent, our judgment and assessment has been vindicated, but it included the assumption that we would have the required arrangements at least by May.

Some of us have always believed in power sharing and have stuck with that belief since the 1970s, in the darkest days of the troubles. Stars of hope arose in the past when parties got together and promoted power sharing, but those stars were shouted down and shot down by people in parties such as the DUP and by people in the provisional republican movement. The unswerving belief by parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour party and others that power sharing, partnership, co-operation and shared institutions that deliver a shared future—not only in the north but on a north-south basis—are the way to create a future for forthcoming generations has absolutely been vindicated by recent developments.

I have observed before that our peace process has carried more people on more roads to Damascus than the Syrian bus fleet, and we saw that again yesterday. Not only did the DUP and Sinn Fein agree power sharing—in different ways, they can say that they have previously agreed that—but in meeting as they did,
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they entered into a sort of political compact. That is very positive. The fact that they were able to present the option of a new date for devolution on 8 May and to make the commitments that they did is a much more hopeful sign of how things are going to work than what we legislated for in this House previously, when we had to remove, at the DUP’s insistence, the provision for the joint election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister because it was said that they could not be jointly elected under the Good Friday agreement, and that it should be done separately. Now that people are prepared to engage in this sort of compact, we will be able, under the review of the workings of the agreement, to revert to joint election in future.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) for, as the right hon. Member for North Antrim has said, meeting the other parties yesterday. The president of Sinn Fein met the other parties, not in a series of bilaterals, but at least in order to share some thoughts about certain issues with other parties.

If we are to make things work it is important that we make the most of the next six weeks, and the least of whatever difficulties might arise in that period, so that we can, in turn, make the most of all the devolved institutions when they return.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred to some of the comparisons made in the newspapers between yesterday’s meeting and, for example, the Rabin-Arafat meeting. There is a big difference. We do not have two leaders who are setting out on a voyage to try to discover arrangements and devise institutions. We already have agreed institutions, which were previously established and have proved themselves. All parties, whether they voted for them or not, could work well within them. We need to remember that, in the past, those institutions were brought down and destabilised, not because they could not function or suffered from structural problems and procedural and partisan tensions, but because of issues outside. We therefore have cause for more hope and a bit more confidence than some hon. Members suggest.

I hope that the Bill, which has been introduced in emergency mode, is the last Northern Ireland emergency measure that the House has to tackle. We know that we cannot have 100 per cent. confidence in that, but I do not want to join the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) in spreading too much doubt about 8 May. We would do better to leave that aside and concentrate on all the other issues about which we want to create certainty and build confidence.

The developments of recent days have vindicated those of us who always believed in power sharing and consistently believed in the Good Friday agreement. In the aftermath of the agreement, some of us argued that the institutions would allow people to sit down in partnership and co-operation—not only Unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans, but those who voted yes and those who voted no. Again, some people doubted that. Yesterday’s events help prove that those of us who argued for that were correct.

Yesterday vindicates not only those of us who stood by the agreement but those of us who helped negotiate it and made specific choices during the negotiations. It vindicates those of us who resisted the pressures from,
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among others, the Prime Minister and George Mitchell, not to go for an Executive model of power sharing, to duck deciding whether there would be Ministers and an Executive and to abandon the principle of inclusion. We insisted on the principle of inclusion because we wanted to ensure that, when the agreement came to be endorsed nobody would have the excuse for voting against it, because that would have created a form of government that included some parties and excluded others. We therefore succeeded in maximising the endorsement in the referendum, but we also wanted to ensure that even those who voted against the agreement would not, by virtue of that, be excluded from its institutions but could participate in them to the extent that they saw fit. We saw that as part of the healing process and as a means of breaking down barriers. Again, that judgment has been vindicated by the progress that we have made. Although changes have been made to some of the decision-making mechanisms under the agreement, the broad architecture remains essentially the same and I believe that we can make things work.

I want to make it clear that when the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) take up their responsibilities as joint First Ministers, they can enter that office free from the sort of harassment and hassle to which parties that previously took that course were subjected. I want to assure them that as they undertake work, not in the interests of their parties but—in that office and working with others in the Executive—on behalf of the entire public, they will have my party’s understanding, good will and, every time it is deserved or necessary, our support. That is the only way in which we can take matters forward. I am no less a believer in the institutions of the agreement just because my party is weaker in them than it was. The level of our party support has not determined our judgment.

In yesterday’s statements by the leader of the DUP and the president of Sinn Fein—and in some of the remarks made today—people have rightly referred to the past. As on other occasions when there is much talk in the media of progress and a lot of hype and spin, victims are left with very mixed feelings, as the Secretary of State has rightly said. There is an added twist of futility that adds to the hurt that they have carried when they see people settling for power-sharing institutions, which Sinn Fein previously denounced so many times as equivalent to surrender and a sell-out. Even in the weeks running up to the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Fein was saying, “No return to Stormont,” and was insisting that because we were canvassing models for power-sharing institutions in the north and structures for north-south co-operation, the SDLP was a neo-Unionist party.

Similarly, the DUP and others within Unionism totally opposed power sharing and set their face against any attempts at it in the past. When people see parties that then rejected those concepts settling for and embracing them now, they have to wonder whether we needed to go through the suffering, the hurt, the political stalemate, the stagnation and the divisions that we went through—and the answer is that we did not.

In recent times in this process—perhaps because of our tolerance, patience and generosity—my party has
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lost seats, but I can live much more comfortably with lost seats than with what other parties have to live with: lost years, lost opportunities and lost lives. We could have been and we should have been where we are now far sooner. If it is our destiny now, it was always our destiny. If it is the only way forward now in circumstances of peace, then surely it was the only way forward in circumstances of difficulty, division, violence and ongoing suffering.

I also want to join the Secretary of State in offering thanks to his predecessors in that office and, of course, to the Prime Minister—and, indeed, the previous Prime Minister, who contributed so much in unlikely circumstances to the process. The Secretary of State knows that we have been frustrated many times about how the process was handled, and we believe that if the Government had been firmer and fairer in the earlier years after the agreement, we would have got further faster. A certain destabilisation of the institutions was allowed and was tolerated—at the expense, we believe, of the long-term process.

The Government could have shown better authority in the immediate years after the agreement by making two things clear: first, that decommissioning was absolutely a requirement of the Good Friday agreement and had to happen by May 2000; and, secondly, that decommissioning was not a precondition of the establishment of the institutions. If the Government had shown good authority on those two basic points, we would not have had the running instability that led to delays in establishing the institutions and then the various suspensions and subsequent difficulties.

I do not want to pretend in the warm glow of expectation that we now feel that those frustrations and criticisms are not still felt, but we have to recognise—and the House has to recognise—that were it not for the Prime Minister, there would not have been a Good Friday agreement. We ensured that it was a better agreement than perhaps he suggested in the faxes that he sent us in the weeks before its negotiation, but if it were not for him and his ministerial colleagues, I do not believe that we would have had the agreement. I believe that we could have had a better agreement, and more from it sooner, if different approaches had been followed, but the agreement is still there and we are essentially returning to it. It is a case of back to the future on 8 May.

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