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In the short time before April 1998, that helped to move forward the Good Friday agreement. When it was up and running, yes, the first Assembly sat for only
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72 days, but in that short time the work of people like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) showed that despite the opposition from outside the Assembly, there was a chance to make progress. People did get together and work positively. After suspension, the Assembly returned. All the arguments and problems were described earlier by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). We went from crisis to crisis to collapse.

There has been much talk today about deadlines. I wish I had a pound for every deadline that has been set and broken. The real worry in the past was that when a deadline failed, a vacuum followed. The history of Northern Ireland is that if a political vacuum occurred, the terrorists filled it. I wish the deadline had not passed yesterday, but there is no vacuum. Instead, people are working their socks off to try and pull things together and make the agreement work. That is a massive change.

Since I entered the House two years ago, there have been enormous frustrations. We have sat down and worked together for hours, and it has been pointless, going forwards, then backwards. We sat for 27 hours on one Bill. The Secretary of State had to come to the House and acknowledge that it was not working. He had egg on his face that day, as well as yesterday. That was frustrating for those who wanted to see the process move forward.

While people in the political world in the House and in Northern Ireland have to some extent been talking to each other, in Northern Ireland the people’s world has moved forward massively. It is unrecognisable, compared with what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. In every sense it is a much better place, and we should all be proud of that. The Northern Ireland Assembly is to be led by probably the two most polarised parties anywhere in Europe, if not the world, and there will be ideological problems, but in a democracy that must be accepted.

Since I entered the House, I have worked closely with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Twenty years ago I was ideologically opposed to his Government, and I still am. As a miner, I was ideologically opposed to what his party was trying to do to my community. That has not stopped us, along with other Members with similar experiences, working together for the betterment of the people whom we represent and for the people of Northern Ireland. That demonstrates the possibilities for the people who will take up responsibility.

We now have a date for restoration. The positive things that were said yesterday not only by the DUP, but by Sinn Fein, about being serious and making the agreement work, have set an agenda. Collapse is no longer an option. Yes, there will be crises. That is part and parcel of the democratic process, but walking out, deliberately undermining the process because one group cannot get their own way, is not on. That would be a betrayal of the people whom they represent, of the House and of the trust that the House has placed in them. It would also betray the people of Great Britain, who for 40 years have supported the people of Northern Ireland in every sense and want to continue to do so. I take on board what was said earlier—that nobody in Northern Ireland wants to be the recipient
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of handouts. I accept that totally, because I know what proud people they are. The fact is, however, that what has happened over the past 40 years has caused economic disadvantage to Great Britain, and that when we get rid of that disadvantage it will be to the benefit of us all.

We will betray the futures of our children and our children’s children if we do not make the system work this time. I am not na├»ve. I know that it will not be easy, and I know that this is very much a beginning and not an end. Democracy is not easy; it is much easier to move in the other direction. But I plead with all who will run the Assembly in Northern Ireland not to abuse the chance that they have been given.

5.50 pm

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson). I am sure that throughout my time in the 1980s and 1990s our views on the position in Northern Ireland would have been diametrically opposed, but we certainly agree today.

I was an Army intelligence officer in Northern Ireland in 1994. I therefore had a unique insight not only into the thinking of the Government of the day and the efforts that they were making towards peace, but into what was going on inside the terrorist organisations. It is right to pay tribute at this time to the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s special branch, the military and the security services, who not only worked to achieve justice and catch criminals and terrorists, but had worked towards peace for many years before the 1994 ceasefire. They continue to work towards peace, whatever their titles are today, because we always worked not just to catch members of the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries but to achieve a settlement.

Ministers will be aware, although they may not be allowed to say it in a public forum, of the work that has taken place, and is taking place today, to ensure that the Government of the United Kingdom are in the best position to use information to achieve peace. There was no great conspiracy to make war and continue conflict; the conspiracy was only to achieve a good resolution for peace.

I must give some credit to a man to whom it is not easy for me to give credit. I must give credit to Gerry Adams, and to Sinn Fein. I know from experience, from members of Gerry Adams’s organisation and indeed from the IRA, how much horror and murder was inflicted by some of those individuals, but I must give Gerry Adams credit for what he has achieved in persuading a terrorist organisation to come to the table to talk and, moreover, commit itself not just to a ceasefire but, apparently, to a permanent ceasefire. The constitution of the IRA army council has always denied any form of peace. It was a military organisation, and what Gerry Adams has achieved deserves some credit in this arena.

I can say that because I have had many experiences of Gerry Adams’s organisation, none of them jolly. Indeed, I think I remember arresting his cousin at some stage, or possibly his nephew. I have not met him in the House to ask him which it was, but I do know that we are here today partly because of that organisation’s
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actions. I can say that in memory of people such as Tim Parry and others who lost their lives on this side of the argument.

More importantly, I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the DUP. Throughout the process people were keen to say, “Appease, concede, give in, make the gesture, go for peace,” and every time it was said the right hon. Gentleman responded, “Not until we achieve the best deal for our constituents, our electorate: not until we are sure that these people mean peace.” Actions speak louder than words in Northern Ireland. They always have, to Ulstermen. Those who forget that may find themselves in the position of the Secretary of State today. I believe that the slipping of the deadline was probably nothing more than an Ulsterman’s wish to have the last word. That is very much the way of Ulster. The Secretary of State may have thought that he was in charge of all the blackmail and the bullying, but in the end the Ulstermen will tell him when they want to start the process. So I pay tribute to the DUP, which stuck to its guns.

I never agreed with all that the DUP said in my time. I remember stopping the right hon. Member for North Antrim one day; he was not a Member of Parliament at the time. It was a Sunday, so he would not speak to me, a member of the security forces. He was on his way to do God’s bidding. When I saw the press trying to interview the party leader on yesterday’s television news, I knew that nothing would be said on God’s day. The right hon. Gentleman has stuck to his guns, and I believe that without that, Sinn Fein would never have recognised the Police Service of Northern Ireland or worked with the forces of law and order. No doubt it will be tested by the DUP in the Assembly, to establish that its words mean actions.

We should not, however, forget the efforts of the United Kingdom Government under this Prime Minister and those of a number of previous Conservative Governments to ensure that we achieved what we have achieved today: a peace process with, hopefully, a conclusion. Last March I went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Headquarters Northern Ireland. I remember it as a pulsating citadel of the power of the United Kingdom, under threat sometimes, and sending men and women out to risk their lives—but it was a ghost town. Much of it was empty: many of the places that I recalled having purpose and function no longer existed, because there was no longer any purpose or function.

I went to visit my old bases, but I could not do so because they are now housing estates. In Cookstown there are a number of houses and no base, which is ironic because it was in Cookstown, in 1994, at the time of the first ceasefire, that I made the decision to close two vehicle checkpoints for a couple of hours. That was interesting, because the habit among the population of that town was to stop at the checkpoints; they were not used to being able to drive on. As a result there was a traffic jam, although no soldiers were present.

I think that others are sometimes quicker to kick the habit of violence and recrimination than our politicians are. During my visit last Easter, I rang for a
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taxi from Headquarters Northern Ireland. I asked in the guardroom how I could book an “approved” taxi. In my day, to risk a taxi that had been booked by telephone might be to take one’s life in one’s hands, if the taxi had been booked from the wrong part of town. I was told, “There is no approved list. Just dial a number.” I dialled a number, a taxi duly appeared at the gates of Headquarters Northern Ireland—I was not used to that either—and I was driven to the centre of the city.

I did not look at the driver’s tattoos, terrified lest I catch sight of the Red Hand of Ulster, “God Loves the UVF”, a tricolour or “IRA” on his arms. Instead, I engaged him in conversation about what he thought of the current peace deal, or peace process. He did not mind—he wanted it to happen—but he was most aggrieved by the fact that politicians were receiving allowances for doing nothing. If anything could have told me that normality was arriving in Northern Ireland, it was that. It sent a signal that the Daily Mail might have a circulation in Northern Ireland in future—that people were obsessed with, and angry about, the fact that politicians were wasting time rather than dealing with the issues of the day.

There is a challenge for the Assembly. As a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, I have seen devolution in action, and I am not opposed to it. I have also seen nationalists in action, on a far better footing than I have in Ulster. The challenge for the Assembly and the Assembly parties is not to become bogged down in petty squabbling. If on day one the parties in Northern Ireland become involved in discussing whether they should have green, orange or blue tablecloths, or whether there should be lilies in the hall of Stormont, they will betray not only themselves but the electorate who sent them there.

When at a time of peaceful politics the nationalists’ agenda is to exploit such difficulties—such tiny, petty differences—for their own ends, my advice will be to ignore it. The best way in which to counter nationalist pettiness is to say, “You can argue about whether the cross of St. Andrew or the Union flag should go on top of a Government building all day long, but it will not give people a better health service, a better education or a better transport system.” That type of real politics usually puts the nationalists down. I advise people not to play into the nationalists’ hands if that is what they set out to do—and I am sure everyone knows from what happened the first time that that is exactly what some of them set out to do. I say, “Be better and bigger than that, and I believe that the electorate of Ulster will, in the end, reward you for it.”

The role of the Northern Ireland Office must change. With devolution a success, it must give up the bullying and the blackmail that has sometimes characterised trying to get the Ulstermen to the table. It needs to become the strong voice of Ulster in Westminster, not Westminster’s voice in Ulster. It needs to be at the top table of the Cabinet and to say, “We need a fairer corporation tax so that Northern Ireland can compete better with the south of Ireland.” If it is the champion of Ulster in the constitutional environment of Downing street and the House of Commons, the electorate will again be less tempted to move towards a nationalist agenda. If it does that, the symbol that we are all chasing—a handshake—will become a reality,
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Stormont will become a lasting, successful settlement, and in the end peace will be achieved. Then the electorate, who have throughout this put up with death, murder and threats, will be able to focus on what is really important in Northern Ireland—education, health, industry, business and a future for the Province, which, as a Unionist, I hope will remain in the United Kingdom.

6 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate briefly in this debate.

I want to start by congratulating the Prime Minister on his dogged determination in sticking with the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State on the sensitive way in which he has applied himself to resolving some of the outstanding difficulties in Northern Ireland. However, I would say to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team that they might still have some way to go in explaining to the younger generation how we ended up with the meeting that took place yesterday. My teenage daughter, who was born in Northern Ireland, wanted to know why, if all it took to get devolution in Northern Ireland was to threaten to send out water rates bills, it had not been done many years ago.

Of course, we all know that it is much more difficult and complex than that. That is why I pay my main tributes to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) for the truly extraordinary meeting that happened yesterday. I congratulate them not only because the meeting took place—it was certainly an historic event in itself—but because of the measured and careful language that they used in the statement that was given to the press. Great care was taken to acknowledge each other’s histories and the positions that they had come from. I very much pay tribute to them for doing that, because it gave all of us, particularly those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland and were used to hearing very different language, hope that things might be different, and better, in future. I suspect that when the Assembly is up and running, comments will not always be so measured. However, it is good that the difficulties of Northern Ireland will be played out across a chamber, with disputes settled through political discourse, not through violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. That is what we all hope will happen.

As a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland to see my family and friends, I know that there is enormous thirst, particularly among the younger generation, for things to change there. They want real leadership from their politicians, and they saw that yesterday. They want to grow up in a country where decisions about Northern Ireland are made in Northern Ireland, particularly about bread and butter issues.

Perhaps more than most people here, I am aware of the difficult road that Members in all parts of the Chamber have travelled to get to yesterday’s meeting. Most of us in Northern Ireland have lost relatives and friends. It is very hard to put that anxiety and grief behind us and move forward, but we all know that it has to be done if Northern Ireland is to have the
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prosperous and peaceful future that we all want to see. Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West, because theirs is an extraordinary journey. I hope that they bring other people with them on that journey so that people in Northern Ireland can have their devolved Assembly and a peaceful future.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a very gracious speech and adding a great deal to the debate, much of which I have had to watch from my office. Will she support me in saying that a major contributor has been the right hon. Member for North Antrim, who, through his leadership, consistency and courage, has led a majority of the population of Northern Ireland to support him and his party in this agreement?

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I do indeed agree with those comments. I have already paid tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim, but we must also recognise what an enormous journey it is for the hon. Member for Belfast, West, who has contributed a great deal to the peace process as well.

I hope that the next six weeks are used constructively to get positive feedback from the people of Northern Ireland about how they would like the Assembly to be constructed. I wish Members every success in that endeavour.

6.6 pm

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Members come to this debate with many different emotions and feelings. Some are full of elation and praise. There was once a song about Barry McGuigan called, “Thank you very much Mr. Eastwood”, because he was always thanking people. Some are full of excitement because of the possibility of devolution in the month of May. There is a wide breadth of opinion in any political party. A party is always stronger, and democracy is always stronger, for that. I am exactly who I am; I am not going to be somebody else. That sometimes pleases and sometimes does not.

I came to this House way back in 1983, representing the constituency of Mid Ulster. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) mentioned Cookstown. I was educated in Cookstown, and we lived just outside it. I represented that constituency for some 14 and a half years. It was ravaged by IRA terrorism and was for a considerable period known as the killing fields of Northern Ireland. Today, I represent another constituency on another side of the Bann. Many constituencies had different experiences during the years known as the heart of the troubles in South Antrim.

Some hon. Members feel excited because we were able to drive a coach and horses through the Secretary of State’s magic deadline of 26 March. He said that it could not be changed under any circumstances and that no legislation would be brought before this House. With one stroke of the pen, he promised that on 26 March it would be devolution or dissolution, one or the other, with no clouding of the issues or equivocation; it was black and white, and the people of Northern Ireland had better realise that. In my opinion, there was a despicable plan to blackmail the
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people and politicians of Northern Ireland into accepting 26 March. I am glad that that plan has been thwarted and that once again a message has gone out that it will not be possible to carry out such blackmail, and that whenever Unionist politicians take a principled stand, they will stand by that principle. That message should exercise the minds of many. I believe that a message has been conveyed for the future: Unionist politicians will not yield in the face of threats and blackmail.

Others are excited because they believe that every hurdle has been overcome. Let me remind hon. Members of the reality of delivery. The Democratic Unionist party made it abundantly clear in its resolution at the executive that it will accept no regression on the issues already determined, and that we will press to ensure delivery by Government and Sinn Fein and make it a reality. On the St. Andrews declaration, we said that no delivery means no deal.

There is still a need for delivery—for example, by the Chancellor. The Government must provide an adequate financial package to ensure that any Administration in Northern Ireland have the finances to meet the challenges. Promises that have been made are inadequate and will only undermine devolution when it comes. Let us consider corporation tax and the challenge of getting the engine of industry going again. We are not spongers, as Harold Wilson once said. We are a proud people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) rightly said. We are a people with dignity and we want to provide for the future and for the prosperity of our children, but we are confronted with challenges just over a land border that we, as political people, must face and tackle. We can do that only when a sufficient financial package is in place.

For years, water and sewerage infrastructure has been left to decay. When the Government on this side of the water in the United Kingdom decided to privatise, they increased the standard of and modernised the infrastructure before doing so. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, they used the budget and the money given through taxation—there was taxation through the regional rate for that infrastructure—for other purposes. Our infrastructure was left to decline and was being destroyed. For many years, the people of Northern Ireland paid for infrastructure that they never got. The Chancellor and the Exchequer owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to restore—not as a handout—the money that they paid for that infrastructure.

The other side of the deal and of delivery is Sinn Fein. We said and we say—we have not changed our minds—that Sinn Fein must unequivocally support the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the courts, the rule of law, a complete end to paramilitary and criminal activity and the removal of terrorist structures. That is where we stand today. The apex of those structures is the so-called army council. There is no need for an army council when there is no need for an army to threaten the people of Northern Ireland. It must therefore be dismantled.

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