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5.17 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): The hand of history seems to have touched the people of Northern Ireland once again and another historic day has been marked on the calendar. We have had many historic days and, depending on one’s perspective, many times has the hand of history touched us on the shoulder, poked us in the back or walloped us in the ear.

However, the generosity and all-encompassing nature of the statements made yesterday—and again today in this Chamber by people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the right
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hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—are a great ray of hope, both for me and for the people whom I have had the privilege to represent here for the past 20 years.

In fact, my memory goes back even further. Despite my youthful appearance, I have been involved in this process for more than 40 years, as I was first elected in 1961—almost half a century ago. In that time, the transition undergone by the people of Northern Ireland has been slow but remarkable. It may sound like a cliché, but the reality is that they have had to cope with a legacy that is many centuries old. Today, the orange and the green—the men of extreme violence and words—are joining together to promise a future that will embrace all the people in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland. That is a day that I have long sought and long hoped for, and sometimes even prayed for. The communities of Northern Ireland have suffered greatly—I need not repeat that there have been 3,000-plus deaths, 30,000 maimed, and many, many maimed mentally for life as well, and we are still suffering the consequences of an enormous suicide rate. The divided communities are still there, with high walls between them. It is a huge challenge to translate the good will and the getting together from the hierarchy of political parties into the ghettoes that, unfortunately, are still to be found in some parts of Northern Ireland.

We need not be pessimistic, because the process is ongoing, and it has enabled this momentous occasion to take place. I know—I hope—that the agreement made yesterday between the two primary parties and the other parties will sustain us into a much more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous society than we have ever had in my lifetime. That is a huge dream to fulfil in many ways, and I hope that I will not be disappointed in any respect. I remember many years ago in the House when the first ceasefire was announced, and I know that we cannot expect a sudden switch-off of violence and attitudes of hatred. It will be a slow process and the new arrangements will be tested—perhaps, unfortunately, on the streets on the Northern Ireland. I hope that that does not happen, but the political will of the major parties and all the parties in the Assembly will be hugely tested.

While we have a Government primarily of two parties that were at the extremes—hopefully, they have moved from that position—there is a huge dichotomy in their policies. On 7 March, the people elected combatants rather than Governments, because never before in these islands or, indeed, in Europe, have people gone into an election where the Prime Minister has already been appointed from one party and the Deputy Prime Minister from another. The Governments, the media and everyone have encouraged people to involve themselves in what was a gladiatorial political contest. We have a result—and, yes, the people have spoken—but it was a contest of strength rather of policy.

There is a huge dichotomy in most of the major areas of social and economic development in Northern Ireland. Water rates were used as a weapon by the Government to persuade people that they must move, but in fact, in my constituency, there is a firm belief that water rates were a red herring, as the Government
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did not have the capability to collect them from 1 April onwards. I am only too happy for those rates to be shelved and used as a carrot for the parties coming into power. They will be shelved for one year, and it is their problem thereafter. There is a huge question, too, about the review of public administration. Sinn Fein wants seven super-councils, and the other parties are roughly united on a figure between 11 and 15. That must be resolved because it directly affects every aspect of life in Northern Ireland, perhaps for the next two decades. In education, one of the major parties supports the concept of selection for secondary education, but other parties do not.

Those huge differences have to be ironed out, hopefully before 8 May—although that may not be possible—so that people who committed themselves to the new partnership have a vision of where they are going and so that their problems can be addressed. It has taken a long, long time to arrive at this point, and if it is the final resolution of our problem it truly is an historic day not only for the north of Ireland, but for Ireland and the UK. Indeed, our diaspora throughout the world is taking solace from what has happened in Northern Ireland; perhaps we can even apply some of the lessons in conflict resolution in other areas. That may be presumptuous, but we have some experience.

I wish the parties involved every success. They will have our support. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, the British Government, the Taoiseach and the Irish Government for their unswerving commitment in trying sometimes to knock heads, sometimes to cajole, but more often to bribe. The bribery has been very effective.

5.25 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate this afternoon. May I say how much we appreciate the words that have been spoken by many in the Chamber, including the remarks just made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady)? Whatever our differences across the Chamber, we recognise him as a man of honour who has made a positive contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. Although he is no longer a Member of the Chamber at Stormont, he still has a contribution to make and we thank him for his comments.

What happened yesterday, difficult though it was for many, was a good day for Northern Ireland. It offers the prospect of a better future for all our people and, as my colleague and leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, what we are trying to do—what we want to do—is for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland. It would be easy simply to act in a sectional interest; it would be easy to do what the loudest voices might want us to do, but leadership is about making tough decisions and displaying courage and vision, and my right hon. Friend’s comments yesterday demonstrate that he has done so in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will not mind me saying that the Democratic Unionist party made a
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collective decision. Our party executive met on Saturday. We had a good, constructive debate and more than 90 per cent. of the membership of that body backed the resolution proposed by the party officers. I believe their view represents the view in the country. As I said earlier, we have received many messages from across the community and across Northern Ireland supporting the leadership of our party in what we have done.

I am sure that there were people who were disappointed that government did not happen on 26 March, but the overwhelming majority—even those who voted for parties that were committed to 26 March—recognise that it is better to get it right. That is what we stood for in the election. That was our campaign slogan, but it was more than a slogan, more than mere words, more than a fa├žade. We mean it. We want to get this right. The people of Northern Ireland have seen too many false dawns. How many times have we been here before? How many times has there been the prospect of a breakthrough and delivery of the peace for which we hoped, only for those hopes to be dashed? We do not want to do that. We do not want to build up people’s hopes only to see them falter and fall. That is why we want to get it right. We have worked hard to get it right and we are committed to getting it right.

With respect, I say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon): surely we have moved beyond the point of getting hung up on dates and allowing our disappointment to override our good judgment about what is best for the people of Northern Ireland?

Lady Hermon: May I remind the House that in the recent Assembly elections the Democratic Unionist party had only 30 per cent. of the vote on changing the deadline? However, DUP Members were not going to be calendar-led—not until today when they picked the date, and in fact we will be calendar-led, so they have changed that policy. More than 60 per cent. of the electorate voted for parties—including Sinn Fein—on manifestos that committed all the parties to sit in Government yesterday and to be paid yesterday. If Assembly Members are not sitting in a devolved Assembly, people at home are entitled to know why they will be paid for the next six weeks. That question has been raised with me in Northern Ireland, so let us find out.

Mr. Donaldson: The hon. Lady has missed the whole momentum and tenor of this debate. Her nit-picking and pettiness do her no good whatsoever. With the news that people will not be getting water charge bills through their door, that academic selection will remain in Northern Ireland—the good grammar schools in North Down will benefit from that—and that we are going to get a Government on 8 May, I do not believe that the people of North Down are sitting wondering whether it is right or wrong that their Assembly Members are getting paid. Those Members will now engage in preparatory work and will be working day and night, as we have been, and as the hon. Lady has not been, on this issue. We have been working long hours—well beyond midnight on many evenings—trying to resolve these issues and to make progress.

I do not think that anyone in my constituency is going to question whether I earn the much-reduced
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salary that I and my colleagues on these Benches—as both Members of Parliament and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly—receive. Nor do I believe that the people who were elected in North Down will be any less worthy of the salaries that are paid to them, because we are preparing for the return to government. We are still a condition-led party.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Donaldson: The conditions need to be right. That is why we are continuing the discussions with the Government about the financial package and why we want to ensure that there are commitments on everyone’s part to supporting the police and the rule of law. Our resolution makes that absolutely clear: no one must go back on the commitments that they have given. So conditions are still very important to us, but we believe that by 8 May the conditions will be right, and that is why we have taken this decision. I will give way.

Lady Hermon: That is very generous indeed of the hon. Gentleman. He has just exemplified the generosity of spirit and the great charm of the DUP that mean that I, and thousands like me, will never vote DUP.

Mr. Donaldson: With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, that is not the message that we are getting from traditional Ulster Unionist voters who have been contacting the Democratic Unionist party in the few hours since yesterday. With that kind of attitude, they will be switching their allegiance—and have been doing so. If she looks at the voting figures in North Down, she will see that the Democratic Unionist party is now the largest party in her constituency. What does that say about her representation when it comes to the people in her constituency? If I was sitting in Lagan Valley and another party was taking over as the leading party, I would not attack that party and make churlish remarks like the ones she has just made. I would try to do something to ensure that this process works, because that is what the people of North Down want.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Is it not a fact that the election is over? The people have made a decision. The party of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) did not want an election. It fired its arrows into my heart and said, “Imagine him daring to ask for an election.” I asked for the election. I felt that all the people of Northern Ireland had the right to say what they said. They did not say it in the way that she wanted it said, but the election is over. We have to go forward to fulfil the obligations that are put upon us by what the electorate said.

Mr. Donaldson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I believe that the hon. Member for North Down will be eating her words, because the DUP has been consistently increasing its support. One of the reasons why I left the Ulster Unionist party was that it has become so embittered towards fellow Unionists and so tied up in its inward-looking attitude that it cannot see the wood for the trees. I think that traditional Unionists will be glad of what happened yesterday, as are all hon. Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for
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North Down. She might reflect on why she is alone on this Bench as the only Ulster Unionist Member and wonder whether the attitude that she is displaying today is part of the reason for that.

It is time to look forward. I welcome the Bill because it offers the prospect of real progress. However, I also realise that some people have difficulties with the measure. This morning’s edition of the Belfast News Letter includes comments made by William Harpur, a disabled former police officer who survived four IRA attempts on his life. He is unhappy with what has occurred. I respect Mr. Harpur’s opinion and understand where he is coming from. However, I say to him and many others like him that the reason why we want to build the new future for Northern Ireland is so that no other policeman has to be the subject of terrorist attack and so that there is a genuine end to terrorism.

The date of 12 August 1970 is etched on my mind because it was the day on which the politics of Northern Ireland first came into my life, with the murder of Samuel Donaldson, the first Royal Ulster Constabulary officer to be murdered by the IRA in the troubles. He was my cousin. I can well remember the day that my uncle came to our front door to deliver the news of his death at a place called Crossmaglen in south Armagh. I am glad that we have the prospect that his death and the others that have occurred in Northern Ireland might be the last of the deaths of gallant officers who have stood at the front line to serve and protect the community of Northern Ireland. If the price that I have to pay to ensure that that happens is to swallow hard, look to the future and perhaps face difficult and challenging decisions, I am prepared to pay it, and so are my colleagues. We want to be sure that when people say that they support the police, they actually do support the police, and that when they say that they want to uphold the rule of law, that is precisely what they do. We have taken the extra time—not just the six weeks, but the time since 24 November, when we had the last deadline—because we want to get this right. That is important for everyone in Northern Ireland.

In six years, people will look back at these events. Will those people who feel that an extra six weeks is too high a price to pay really remember those six weeks if we get economic stability in Northern Ireland after years of underinvestment, neglect and the troubles, when our economy has been put under enormous pressure? If we have a peaceful society, will they reflect that it was not worth taking the extra six weeks so that we could secure that future for them and our children? I do not believe that they will. I do not think that anyone will remember much about 26 March as a deadline. They will remember it as a day that offered hope for the future.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, we recognise that the road ahead will not be easy. There are many difficulties and challenges to overcome. There are battles ahead, but at least we have the hope that the differences between us in Northern Ireland will be resolved by peaceful means alone, not by resorting to violence. That is what we have fought for and it is the position in which we have always wanted to be. As the hon. Member for Foyle
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(Mark Durkan) commented, we could say that this might have happened several years ago. Perhaps things could have happened sooner, but, unfortunately, the men of violence have taken so long to make the transition that it has taken until now to achieve what we hope is being achieved.

I look to the future with hope, but I recognise that there is still pain in our community. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said yesterday at the Parliament building, Stormont, we do not forget those who have lost and the victims who still carry the pain, the hurt and, like Mr. Harpur, the disabilities that are the result of our conflict and the violence. We will not forget those people. They will receive support and the recognition that they deserve. They will not be left behind. We need to bring them with us into the future, just as we need to bring everyone in Northern Ireland with us into the future. That will not be easy. There are people on both sides who have doubts—and why would not they have doubts, after so many years of false dawns and dashed hopes? However, perhaps this time there is a real prospect of moving forward. This House and Parliament have a role to play.

Today, I am proud to be a Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, because I believe that my place in the Union is secure. I believe that Northern Ireland has come through the troubles and the worst of times, and has emerged, although perhaps not as a better place. However, we have learned, and I hope that we have learned enough to know that violence is not the way to resolve our differences. Parliament can continue to make a real contribution. Later this evening, we will wind up the debate on the Budget, and as well as looking to the Northern Ireland Office to help us on our way forward with the administrative arrangements, we look to the Treasury to help us with the financial arrangements, but we are not holding out a begging bowl. Our objective is to rebuild our economy so that we can pay our way in the United Kingdom, because we are a proud people, and we do not want to be dependent on others. We want an economy that enables us to be fully part of the UK, and we want to be capable of securing our place by paying our way and playing our full role in this United Kingdom.

5.41 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): A lot of people present in the Chamber have come a long way to get where we are today. I was just thinking about some of the things that I have gone through since I first got involved in Northern Ireland politics. In 1988, a group of 11 parents came across to north-east England to tell us about the children whom they had lost because of plastic bullets. We went with them to Brock’s fireworks factory in Sanquhar in south-west Scotland, where the plastic bullets were made. They were pilloried by local people for going there and for asking, “Will you please stop making these weapons, because they are killing our children?” It was a salutary lesson for me about man’s inhumanity to man, and particularly about inhumanity towards young people.

Later that same year, I attended a demonstration in Glasgow to speak against the restrictions on freedom
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of speech that had been imposed on Sinn Fein. It was not that I necessarily approved of what Sinn Fein was doing, but I disapproved of silencing people, as that is the wrong thing to do. Again, we were met with howls of protest, and the demonstrators faced real and present danger in the streets of Glasgow. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then, but even so, there have been milestones and setbacks.

In the early 1990s, I was involved with a group called the Agreed Ireland Forum. Its members, who were from virtually every part of Irish society, first came across to this country for a meeting, and then went back to hold meetings in Ireland to try to take things forward. I was pleased to be able to organise a conference in Newcastle, County Down, just a few days after the bombing of Canary Wharf. People from every political party in Northern Ireland bar one—unfortunately, it was the Democratic Unionist party—came to that meeting, as well as people from the ethnic minorities, a growing group whose needs must be taken care of in the new Northern Ireland. The meeting was opened by the President of the Republic of Ireland; that was a very strong statement, all those years ago. It said, “Yes, we can work together.”

In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned the work of the trade unions. I am proud of the fact that I worked with trade unions in Northern Ireland that tried to ensure normalcy when their members were working in chaos. Their members were threatened every day by people trying to jump queues and abuse public servants and public services. I was convinced and guided by people on both sides, including a branch secretary at a hospital in Belfast, who had served time as a young man for robbing banks to fund the loyalist cause, and civil rights marchers on the Republican side who have carried the flame from the 1960s to the 1990s and beyond, to try to develop peace in Northern Ireland. I was attacked by so-called London Irish representatives of my own union, who said that we should not even be organising in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that we were by far the largest trade union in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that 30,000 people wanted to be members of my union. I am very glad that we ignored those voices.

We developed structures that crossed sectarian barriers and we said, “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter where you went to school. It doesn’t matter where you go to church. It doesn’t matter what your name is. If you’re being treated badly, the union will stand up and oppose that.” I probably had more problems in the trade union movement with people arguing among themselves than we had in arguments about the country’s politics.

I supported the work of my Government and of my party before it got into government. My union was responsible for funding much of the work that Mo Mowlam did before she went in as Secretary of State. That meant that as a Minister she was able to confront civil servants and wipe them out of the way, so that she could sit down and talk directly with the politicians on the ground who were developing a way forward that was not blocked by the stagnant, cold hand of the civil service in Northern Ireland.

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