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The whole House will want to thank the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary for their very hard work to help bring this agreement about. Of course, the devolution of policing and justice is something that we
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have to get right, but is it not important also that the politicians of Northern Ireland now move on and focus on the issues that people on the ground really care about, such as health, housing, schools and tackling social problems? Does the Prime Minister share my hope that that-a return to normal, healthy, democratic devolved politics as part of the United Kingdom-can now really happen in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his very generous remarks about how people have come together to make this set of agreements possible? I agree with him that the all-party consensus that has existed on this set of challenges for many years is one that we should want to continue, and one that stands us in good stead for backing the agreements that have been made and for ensuring that on 9 March, we can encourage the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the decision to move forward with the devolution of policing and justice.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support for the process and for the investment conference, which will go ahead, but of course only if the agreement is fully implemented with the devolution of policing and justice. I assume from what he said that he also supports the dates that we have set forward-9 March and 21 April-and I am grateful for that, as well. Northern Ireland began to move forward not only when the parties there agreed that they wished to come together to address issues that they had to face in common, but when all parties in this House agreed that it was essential that we worked together as well.

I shall deal with each of the right hon. Gentleman's specific questions in turn. The continued independence of the judiciary is guaranteed by the agreements. The Chief Constable is independent and will continue to be so, and I would read no significance into the use of the word "responsible". He has operational independence and reports to the Policing Board. That will remain, and I think everybody in Northern Ireland believes that that system has worked, and continues to work, well.

As for 2012-the point at which people have got to consider again the issue of the Department of Justice-it is true to say that the parties agreed that it should not at this point be changed, and that to do so might have made it more difficult to get the agreement they have. However, I have no doubt that if the devolution of policing and justice works, all parties will want it to move forward in exactly the way that has been designed, including after 2012.

On the working parties, it is true to say that three working parties are dealing the some of the most difficult issues. The Leader of the Opposition asked me about other issues raised at the talks. One of the working parties is going to deal with the issues that are still outstanding from the St. Andrews agreement-and I should tell him that that means all outstanding issues from that agreement. A working party chaired by junior Ministers on both sides will report to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and then to the Executive, on the basis of the agreement reached last week.

The issue of the future of the Executive and how they work deserves the views and recommendations of all parties in the Assembly. One point consistently made to me by the leader of the UUP is that it is important that
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the Executive can work well, and indeed better, in future. One issue that prevented the Executive working as well as they should was the cloud hanging over them before they established a solution to the problem of the devolution of policing and justice. It was perhaps inevitable that the Executive would not work as well as they could until that was resolved.

The proposal that has been put forward-it came from the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister-that a working party to be set up would be chaired by the leaders of the UUP and SDLP is a good one. I hope that they will find it possible to take up that offer, which allows them to participate in shaping how the Executive will work in future. When that working party should report is a matter for the parties to agree on, but I know that people will want to move things forward at the earliest opportunity.

I believe that the UUP is meeting today to consider its response, as is the SDLP. I am pleased that the previous leader of the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)-he has now given way to Margaret Ritchie, whom I congratulate on her victory in the leadership elections-said that he was in favour of the agreement in principle but that he wanted to be sure of the details. Both those parties will look at the agreement, and I hope they come to the view that it is essential that we move forward with it and support the cross-community vote on 9 March. In my view, that would be the best way of sending a signal not only to those people of violence, but to the rest of the world, that Northern Ireland has resolved the problems that remained; that it is ready to move forward; that it is open to investment from the rest of the world; and, indeed, that it offers a peaceful and secure future.

As the Leader of the Opposition says, discussing housing, health, welfare, social security, education and the other issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland will be the main focus of the Assembly in future. That will be a huge change from the past.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I, too, congratulate the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Minister, the Taoiseach, the Irish Foreign Minister and, as the Prime Minister said, all their predecessors, on the considerable amount of work they put in to everything that led up to this very significant deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. I also join the Prime Minister in recognising the painstaking work of General de Chastelain and his colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

The Liberal Democrats have long believed that policing and justice powers should be devolved to the Assembly if and when it wanted such powers. That is a crucial element to devolution, and it will be a momentous achievement if the powers are indeed devolved as early as April, as the agreement has set out.

There is no place for party politics here: the biggest contribution that we in this House can continue to make is to do what we can, on a non-party basis, to ensure that normality returns to Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Prime Minister will recognise-indeed, he already has done-the importance of now bringing on board all the political parties in Northern Ireland, including those that were not directly involved in the negotiations. Will he confirm that he and the Secretary
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of State will continue to help all the parties in Northern Ireland to work together constructively to avoid any further logjams in the peace process?

Finally, on one specific point, we share the concerns of our colleagues in the Alliance party that there is little in the agreement on how to build progress on community relations on the ground, which is where it counts, on everything from public services to the role of community groups. Perhaps the current agreement is simply not the appropriate place for such a commitment. Yet it is undoubtedly true that a political agreement between the parties will be durable only if it is accompanied by concrete steps towards greater integration between the communities. I spoke with David Ford about that this afternoon, and I know that he has also raised the issue directly with the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that improved community relations are crucial to the future of Northern Ireland, and can he assure us today that the parties in Northern Ireland will work together constructively to take forward an agreed and practical community relations strategy?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, first, for his support for the agreement, and secondly, for his desire that all parties can move forward together in unison in supporting what has been agreed. I agree with him about the importance that the Alliance party has given to the talks. It was there from the beginning of the talks, and it was there right to the end. I praise David Ford, the leader of the Alliance party, and all the Alliance Members I talked to for their willingness to enter into discussions about the future of the Executive and, in particular, the programme for the Government. The Executive's strategy for cohesion sharing and integration is one of the vital foundations of Executive policy for the future. The Alliance party is keen to see that that policy shapes the work of the Department of Justice and other Departments for the future.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the creation of a shared and better future, based on tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, is absolutely essential to what all parties have agreed they wish to see. They are going to bring forward a programme of cohesion and integration for that shared and better future. I thank the Alliance party for its involvement in that, as I thank all the parties for the way in which they have approached the final stage of the negotiations.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): It is very difficult for those of us in the House from outside Northern Ireland to understand just how challenging, difficult and sensitive the issues of law and order, and justice are. It is therefore to the credit of all the parties in the Northern Ireland, including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who have shown the courage and resilience to carry the process forward. May I also thank the Prime Minister and his Secretary of State? The role of the British Government, as an honest broker and a guarantor of the process and the settlement, is essential. If, after all the decades of mistrust, the Government ever deviate from that role of being an honest broker and become in any way partisan in those agreements, that will be very much to the detriment of the continuation of that process.

The Prime Minister: First, let me pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and also during his period as
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Home Secretary, with responsibility for security. He has contributed to the process that has ended today, with the announcement here that the parties wish to support the devolution of policing and justice, and wish for that to happen only a few weeks from now.

I also agree entirely with my right hon. Friend that it has been of great benefit to the peace process that there has been all-party support in this House-all-party support when the Conservative party was in government, with Labour supporting the Conservatives, and all-party support while we have been in government, with the Conservatives, Liberals and other parties supporting what we do. If at any time we had lost that sense that this House was united in seeking to advance the peace process and the security of Northern Ireland, we would all have been the losers from it. I am determined that we work in the role of trying to move agreement forward between the parties.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the important role of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. Without their determination to come to an agreement, without their skills at negotiation and without the patience that they showed when the negotiations were very difficult, we could not have succeeded in reaching an agreement. It is right to commend the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, as I said, for the statesmanship they have shown in bringing their parties together and at the same time bringing Northern Ireland together.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): May I join in the thanks to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of State for the support and encouragement they have given throughout this process? May I express a firm and unalterable commitment to ensuring that every element of this agreement is faithfully implemented? We all have ways as individual parties of ensuring that the brakes can be put on and that things can be brought down, but only collectively can we ensure that we take them forward and that the process works.

I noticed that the Prime Minister emphasised the word "many" when he referred to the many hours of negotiations that had taken place, but will he accept that there are very special circumstances in respect of these sensitive functions and that the agreement reached acknowledges the independence of the courts and the operational independence of the Chief Constable and ensures that there is no interference in the role carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland board? It ensures that we have a Justice Minister, who will be elected by a cross-community vote in the Assembly and will have the support of all sections of our community and that any quasi-judicial decisions will be taken outside the political Executive who would be in power, so that there is an ability for any urgent decisions to be taken prior to the Executive's having to be consulted. Does he agree that all of these matters will give confidence to the people of Northern Ireland, who will be delighted at the fact that a new way forward is being offered in respect of parading, which has cost so much in the past in Northern Ireland?

Will the Prime Minister therefore accept that the institutions that we already have in Northern Ireland are not the politician's institutions, as the institutions belong to the people, so any alteration or addition to
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them belongs to the people as well? It therefore becomes imperative that the institutions being changed have the support of the community and that there is confidence among that community. It can be expressed in two ways-through the consultation process outlined in the agreement and through the support of all the parties in the Assembly, and without that we cannot move forward.

The Prime Minister: I am very grateful to the First Minister. I was incredibly moved when he said in his speech on Friday that for all parties there must be "no going back", as there had been too much violence and too much conflict. As he said, there was only one way to go now, and that was forward. I confirm that everything he said about the Department of Justice, its relationship with the Executive, the powers of the Justice Minister and the quasi-judicial decisions that he or she would make is absolutely correct and in the agreement. What is most satisfying is that this agreement is jointly authored by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister-by the Democratic Unionist party and by Sinn Fein working together. In the preliminary or prefix to the agreement, it states that they will address the problems on the basis of trust, "mutual respect and equality". I believe that that has come out of a long process of negotiation, through which people have had to come together, put aside the differences of the past and reach a solution for the future.

The First Minister is also absolutely right that there is a process of consultation, which he and the Deputy First Minister have inaugurated. On that basis of that consultation, they will put forward what they feel is the right resolution to the Assembly on 9 March. If that resolution is acceptable, we will of course move forward to the devolution of policing and justice by 12 April. I have made it clear that we will do everything in our power here to get the relevant changes put into effect in this Parliament to make that possible, while ensuring that the Department of Justice will be able, with the necessary financial arrangements in place, to start to deal with the problems it faces. I entirely agree that with the right hon. Gentleman that there is no going back. What has come out of these negotiations is the wish of every single party to move forward. I hope that every single party in the Assembly will now assent to the proposals and make them the basis of a very strong vote in the Assembly on 9 March.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): May I welcome the Prime Minister's statement and, more importantly, the positive announcement on Friday of which he and others were part? May I say to him that, based on experience, the public might feel a bit more hope if there was a wee bit less hype? Although some of us might have misgivings about how the Minister is to be appointed, as that departs from the Good Friday agreement-which, unlike all other agreements, was solemnly endorsed overwhelmingly by the people of Ireland, north and south-will he acknowledge that we nevertheless support the firm date for the devolution of policing and justice, and my party will vote for it in the Assembly and for any related measures in this House?

The Prime Minister and others have touched on the relationship between the Minister of Justice and the Executive. Does he recognise that some of us are also
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concerned about the relationship between the devolved and non-devolved functions? That interface could be sensitive, and we would not want controversies arising in which the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland is left pleading ignorance and impotence. That would not be good for the integrity and credibility of a devolved justice system.

The Prime Minister: First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for his outstanding record as leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party. I first met him 25 years ago, and have seen him work patiently for peace in Northern Ireland over the 25 years. He has an outstanding record in arguing the case not just for peace but for economic justice in Northern Ireland. We thank him for his service as a member of the SDLP.

I am also grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments this afternoon. Although he is not a signatory to the agreement, he has not only supported it in principle but said that he will wish to vote for it on 9 March. I hope that is the message that all parties will take up so that we can move forward.

Obviously, the arrangements between the Minister of Justice and the United Kingdom Government will be such that he or she will be kept properly informed about what is happening, and will be able to make the decisions subject to the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. I believe that the process that is being agreed will work smoothly, so I assure him in that regard. Most of all, however, the House wants to thank him for everything that he has achieved.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): On behalf of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, I unreservedly congratulate the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and Minister of State on what they have helped to bring about. I also congratulate the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on their courage and persistence. Will the Prime Minister also recognise, sensitively, that the Ulster Unionist party and SDLP-under Lord Trimble and John Hume, who were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts-showed us how to begin this road within Northern Ireland? Will he impress on them that their continued presence and participation is essential for success? We do not want the current Executive and Assembly to collapse as theirs did, but they have a vital role in ensuring that it will not do so.

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He was in Northern Ireland as we were having talks and played a part himself in encouraging the parties to accept that an agreement is absolutely necessary. I value the comments and representations of the UUP and SDLP, and I of course have huge respect for Lord Trimble and John Hume and for what they achieved over the years. However, it is important to recognise that we now have an agreement. Although the parties are right to look at the detail of the agreement, it is important that they make up their minds-in my view, the right decision would be to support the agreement. The former leader of the SDLP has said today that he will support it, and I hope that soon we will have the same answer from the Ulster Unionist party.

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