Previous Section Index Home Page

As regards the comments by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the appointment of a Minister of Justice, we are very clear that this is about public confidence, and in our view there would not be public confidence in the appointment of a Sinn Fein Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland. We have to reflect that reality, and that is why we have introduced
22 Mar 2010 : Column 60
the arrangements that we have to ensure that whoever is appointed Minister of Justice has cross-community support in the Assembly.

We want to move Northern Ireland towards a more normal form of Government. At a British-Irish Association conference that I attended last year, the hon. Member for Foyle talked about removing the ugly scaffolding of the Belfast agreement. I think that that is important. We will certainly go all the way with him on that objective, because we believe that normalising the politics of Northern Ireland is an integral part of the peace process. In future, we want to move towards what we hope will be a more voluntary form of coalition where parties come together to negotiate a programme for Government on a voluntary basis, and then establish that Government, together with an effective Opposition, because that is how democracy operates and should operate.

That is the way forward as we see it, and we want to move towards that more normalised situation. The cross-community vote mechanism is part of normalising our politics and part of moving towards that kind of system.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): The right hon. Gentleman said that there would not be public confidence in a Sinn Fein Minister of Justice. Is he implying, along the same lines, that there would not be public confidence in a Social Democratic and Labour party Minister of Justice?

Mr. Donaldson: I am not implying that there would not be public confidence, but it is a matter for the SDLP to put its candidate forward to see whether it can get sufficient support within the Assembly to become Minister of Justice. We will look at the candidates who come before us, and the party will vote accordingly in the Assembly when the time comes.

The Secretary of State mentioned parading. I had the privilege of co-chairing the working group that was established to consider parades in the aftermath of the Hillsborough agreement. We were set a very tight deadline by the First Minister, who has now joined us in the Chamber, yet we were able to get to a point where we agreed a report that is now being worked on by the parliamentary draftsmen. We hope to have the draft Bill ready for consultation by the end of this month. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East said earlier today, it will probably be the most consulted on piece of legislation that the Assembly will have brought forward in its existence. That is good, because parading is an important issue and we want the legislation to be put in place so that there are new mechanisms and a new system for dealing with parades that will create a level playing field and be based on people's rights, not on prejudice, as has been the case in the past. We want a shared future in Northern Ireland.

Mark Durkan: On the right hon. Gentleman's point about the report that has emerged from the working group on parades, was it not the case that the Hillsborough agreement promised us that there would be consultation on that report, and then legislation would be prepared? In fact, the report is going straight into legislation and only then will there be consultation.

Mr. Donaldson: I am very clear about what the Hillsborough agreement said, and it most certainly did not say that there would be consultation after the report
22 Mar 2010 : Column 61
was prepared. What it did say was that there would be consultation during the preparation of the report, which was what we undertook to do and carried out. Indeed, we met representatives of the hon. Gentleman's party on at least one occasion and received written representations from them on a number of occasions, which were taken into account in finalising our report. We made it clear in the timetable, as Hillsborough set out distinctly, that as soon as the report was agreed, it would be presented to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and that the task of drafting legislation would get under way. That task is now moving towards completion. The Bill will be published and there will be a full consultation period before it is enacted by the Assembly.

We welcome the proposed changes to parading and believe that they will provide a basis for dealing with the issue that is fairer and based on respect for the rights of those who want to engage in a parade or public assembly.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Is it not the case that the work of the working group that was set up to deal with parades has not been completed, because the draftsmen are raising a series of detailed and technical issues that need to be determined before the final document is available for consultation? It would be wrong to consult on an uncompleted document.

Mr. Donaldson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment, and he is right. The working group's representatives are meeting the draftsmen several times each week in various formats to deal with those technical issues, which is why we are not yet in a position to publish the final work. We anticipate that that will happen at the end of this month.

Reference has been made to the retention by Parliament of the power to provide for what is called 50:50 recruitment to the PSNI. As the Secretary of State will know, my party has consistently opposed that measure, because we believe that state discrimination is wrong in any circumstance. Although we share the Government's objective to increase the level of representation within the PSNI of the Roman Catholic side of the community, we believe that the provision is a very blunt instrument. It leaves a lot of young people who would otherwise qualify to become police officers, and who pass all the tests and enter the merit pool, unable to do so simply because of the church they attend on a Sunday. We certainly cannot agree to that.

Lady Hermon: I should like to put it on record that, although earlier in the debate I expressed support for the Conservative position on the devolution of policing and justice, I was hideously disappointed that the Conservative party voted in support of 50:50 recruitment. The Ulster Unionist party differs once again from the Conservative party and we are firmly opposed to 50:50 recruitment.

Mr. Donaldson: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, which raises a curious question. If members of the UUP had been elected to this House and taken the Conservative Whip, would they have voted in favour of extending a power that they say they have consistently opposed in principle throughout its enactment? It will be interesting to see how that works out in future. I wish
22 Mar 2010 : Column 62
to put it on the record that although the power is reserved to Parliament, we will continue to oppose its exercise in principle.

The hon. Lady mentioned the potential conflict between the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the scrutiny committee that the Assembly will establish. I understand her concern, which others outside the House have echoed. However, the scrutiny committee will have a much broader remit than the Policing Board in that it will cover all aspects of the Justice Department, not only policing. Its role is different from that of the board in that it will, among other things, play a part in scrutinising proposed legislation from the Justice Department. Its scope in respect of the Chief Constable's operational responsibility will probably be limited. Although it will take time for those things to be worked out, there may be a basis for establishing some sort of protocol between the board, the committee and the Assembly about the way in which they pursue their respective functions.

Mark Durkan: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again-he has been generous. Does he recognise that the concerns relate not only to the position of the Policing Board but to the role of the Chief Constable? There was concern that some previous drafts of the protocols spoke of the Chief Constable becoming the chief adviser to the Minister on policing and security matters, and that that would qualify or regulate the Chief Constable's clear independent role and its integrity, making the Chief Constable somehow subsidiary to a Minister. The Patten dispensation certainly did not envisage that.

Mr. Donaldson: We are clear that the Chief Constable's operational independence will not be open to interference by the Minister. The lines on that are clear and have been firmly established. Of course, the Chief Constable will be there to advise the Minister about matters that fall within the Minister's remit, but that does not give the Minister the right to interfere in operational matters.

We support the orders. We believe that accepting them is the right move to make at an important time in the development of Northern Ireland politics.

A few weeks ago, I attended a memorial in Newry, which is now a city. It experienced some horrible things; terrible atrocities were committed there during the troubles. For example, we remember the three police officers who were murdered by an IRA gang while they conducted community duties in the town centre. Ironically, the IRA gang wore butchers' uniforms as they carried out those assassinations-the execution of the three officers. We have just passed the 25th anniversary of the mortar attack on Newry police station, when nine Royal Ulster Constabulary officers lost their lives-the highest loss of life sustained by the RUC in one incident during the troubles. One of those officers was Chief Inspector Alexander Donaldson, my cousin, who had lost his brother, Constable Samuel Donaldson, who was murdered by the IRA in Crossmaglen in August 1970-the first RUC officer to be murdered by the Provisional IRA.

I therefore recognise the difficulties and challenges that such decisions present to people in Northern Ireland. However, as I stood in that service in Newry and listened to the long list of names of those brave men and women who had given their lives in defence of our community so that we might have the hope of peace
22 Mar 2010 : Column 63
some day in Northern Ireland, I was reminded of why we do what we do. I was reminded that the task that has been given to us as political leaders and politicians is to help to secure that better future and build on the work of those brave men and women who held the line when politics was not working and there was no agreement on how we would settle our differences. Thankfully, we now have a broad measure of agreement and it is our duty and responsibility to ensure that what we have done succeeds, that the progress we have made is built on, and that those who sacrificed their lives did not do so in vain.

That does not make right the terrible wrongs that terrorist organisations did in Northern Ireland over the years. It does not justify the terrible actions that they carried out against members of the security forces and civilians and the countless lives that were lost during that period. That is to be condemned; such actions and the terrorists' motivation is not the way to settle our differences. This is the way to do it: by creating political stability and a Government who enable local people to take responsibility for their own affairs, firmly in the context of the United Kingdom. This Parliament will always be sovereign, but I believe that, in giving away some of its power again to the Assembly, this elected Chamber recognises the progress that has been made and that, after many difficult, dark years in Northern Ireland, people are stepping forward who are prepared to take tough decisions and give leadership-no one more so than my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East, who, as First Minister, has shown that leadership. We do these things in the hope of a better future.

5.55 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) made a powerful, statesmanlike speech and I very much agree with what he said.

In what will probably be my last speech on Northern Ireland in the House, I am delighted that the First Minister and his predecessor are here. The House, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom owe a great deal to their leadership. Without the remarkable work of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), we would not be here today. Without the courageous persistence, at a time of great personal difficulty, of the current First Minister, we would not be debating the orders this afternoon. We owe them both a great deal for what they have done and the leadership they have given, just as we owe much to many others in all political parties in Northern Ireland.

I share the disappointment that the Ulster Unionists did not feel able at the very least to abstain on 9 March. It was a great pity that they ignored the advice of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and that of the Leader of the Opposition, and that they persisted in voting against. That was a short-sighted and mistaken decision, and I hope that, even now, they are realising that the only future for Northern Ireland is for them to accept, as true democrats, the will of the overwhelming majority in the Assembly and give every possible support to implementing practical devolution of justice and policing after 12 April. I know that their one representative
22 Mar 2010 : Column 64
here, the hon. and courageous Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), will hold to that view, and I hope that they will come to follow her example.

It is also a pleasure to be here with the Secretary of State and his admirable, estimable colleague, the Minister of State. I pay tribute to their actions in building on their predecessors' work and ensuring that we have the debate this afternoon. Many people have contributed a great deal, including successive Prime Ministers. We must not forget the work of Tony Blair-I think that events in Northern Ireland will be reckoned his greatest achievement as Prime Minister-that of the current Prime Minister, and also that of John Major. The accord that John Major formed with Albert Reynolds, and the way in which the chemistry between them worked, was fundamental to what has been built afterwards. I am confident that, in a spirit of true party accord, we will pass, without Division, the orders that we are considering.

When the Select Committee was in Northern Ireland in January, we took evidence from the Chief Constable, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, the Policing Board, the director of prisons and many others on devolution. At that point, things hung in the balance. Indeed, our meetings coincided with the first two days of the Hillsborough talks, and we did not quite know what was going to happen. We all hoped that the talks would result in success, but we did not know. On that first evening, when I talked to the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Prime Minister, there were real obstacles to overcome, but they were overcome.

In taking evidence from the people whom I cited, we found that the people on the ground were ready for change. Every one of them said, "Yes, we are ready." Some went further and said, "We were ready two years ago and we are sorry it has taken so long," but they were ready and they relished the challenge. I believe that Northern Ireland is exceptionally well served by some truly remarkable people who head its various public services. It is sometimes easy to forget that Northern Ireland has a small population. I do not think that any other part of the UK with such a small population-Northern Ireland's is about the same as that of Greater Birmingham-has such talent to draw upon for its judiciary, Prison Service, probation service and Chief Constables.

A succession of Chief Constables have been true leaders, none more so than the late husband of the hon. Member for North Down. I believe that the present Chief Constable, with his great experience of community policing, which is terribly important, will make his mark-as did Sir Hugh Orde-as a fine Chief Constable. It is very important indeed-the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made this plain in his remarks-that the Chief Constable has true and complete operational independence. There must never be any doubt about that, and I do not think that there will be, because it seems to me that the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and everyone else accept how important that is.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about 2012. I can understand why he feels apprehensive that everything might go into the melting pot again in 2012, which will be just a year or so after the probable date of the next Assembly elections. It behoves all of us-in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK-to try to ensure that there is no real problem or crisis at that point. Of course, if the devolution
22 Mar 2010 : Column 65
of policing and justice works as well as I believe it can, and as well as I hope and think it will, confidence will be built up over the next two years, and there should be no great hiatus, as we all hope. The hon. Gentleman made a valid point when he talked about not expecting perfection as a precondition of anything. What has struck me over the last two or three years in particular has been the way in which there has been a truly sensible and pragmatic approach from those who have led the political parties in Northern Ireland. They have recognised, as all human beings should, that perfection is a fairly elusive quality.

I often think of the first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whom I knew well, who was the Leader of the House when I was first elected in 1970-the late, great Willie Whitelaw. He is remembered for many things, including his saying that he was not going to go around stirring up apathy. He also made that immortal remark, which I frequently quote, that things are never as good or as bad as they seem. We all need to recognise that and what was implicit in the closing remarks of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley, who reminded us of the dark and terrible days of the troubles. He reminded us of the bereavements in his family-other Northern Ireland Members could echo those stories from their family histories-but he also said that we must now go on. One of the most difficult things, after such a time of trouble, when so many have lost their lives, is that drawing of a line. Some who came before the Committee during its investigations were able to say, "Yes, I could see my wife's name on the same memorial as the man responsible for her death". That was an extraordinary and deeply moving remark to make. However, others said, "No, I can never rest until I have complete satisfaction and justice."

"Justice" can be a very hard word. I often remember a story told to me by a friend of mine who was a great artist, John Ward, whom some Members of the House might remember-he died at the age of 90 two or three years ago. A captain of industry commissioned John to do a portrait of his wife. They discussed where the portrait would be painted and how she would pose. As John left, the captain of industry turned to him and said, "And you must do her justice." John turned round and said, "It's not justice she needs; it's mercy." We must remember the moral of that story in respect of Northern Ireland. To forget is impossible, and to forgive-however strong one's Christian beliefs-is terribly difficult. However, if one does have Christian beliefs, as most Northern Ireland political leaders do, one believes in the power of forgiveness and redemption, which is so necessary if we are to move forward to the normality that every Northern Ireland Member of this House wants, and which one is conscious that people want whenever one goes to Northern Ireland.

I shall end with some remarks about this place, if I may. When one looks at the progress that has been made over the last two years in particular and at that remarkable achievement of 2007, when the right hon. Member for North Antrim gave that extraordinary and exemplary leadership, one realises that the influence of this House has quite clearly and properly been marginalised-that is a necessary and proper consequence of devolution. The role of the Committee that I have had the honour to chair for almost the last five years has also clearly been marginalised to a degree, as its remit has shrunk. If, as I devoutly hope and pray, we move to this final stage of devolution on 12 April, some
22 Mar 2010 : Column 66
may ask, "Is there a point and purpose in having a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs?" My answer to that would be yes, because if ever a constituent Assembly within the United Kingdom needed firm, foul-weather friends, it is going to be in the years ahead. We need within this Parliament those who passionately care about Northern Ireland even if they do not come from Northern Ireland. I know how my Committee's work has been welcomed in Northern Ireland, as it was last week, when we published a significant report. I know that people in that most beautiful, fascinating and historical part of our country look to this House, whatever their ultimate views might be about the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Whether they look at it from a Unionist or a nationalist point of view, they recognise the responsibility vested here. I hope that although the Committee's remit will be significantly reduced, Members will be willing to serve on it in the next Parliament to provide those firm, foul-weather friends whom I mentioned.

It has been a great honour to be involved with the history of Northern Ireland during one of the most exciting and challenging times in its recent history. I hope that we have been able to make a minor contribution to the progress that has been made. It is highly appropriate that the last significant debate on Northern Ireland in this Parliament should be on these orders. I hope and believe that we will pass them without Division, but with inward acclamation, wishing them total success.


Next Section Index Home Page