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Northern Ireland

Volume 404: debated on Thursday 1 May 2003

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2.34 pm

With permission, and with thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I intend that this should be only a brief statement, but I propose, again with the permission of the House, to return to the House next week to speak at greater length about the issues involved and to allow Northern Ireland Members in particular, but other hon. Members too, to participate fully in respect of such a statement.

We have, with the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, made a great deal of progress since the institutions were suspended in October 2002 towards restoring devolved government on a stable footing and completing the process of implementing the Belfast agreement. We have made it clear throughout those discussions, however, that in order to do so, it was essential to complete the permanent transition to exclusively peaceful means in Northern Ireland politics.

A very substantial set of proposals has been discussed by the two Governments with the political parties and broadly accepted by them setting out what acts of completion would involve. They include a joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments setting out how we would secure full implementation of the Belfast agreement, with detailed annexes on security normalisation, devolution of policing and justice and human rights, equality and identity. There is also an agreement between the two Governments on how future adherence by all parties and the Governments to the commitments set out in the agreement and joint declaration would be monitored and arrangements for remedying breaches of those commitments. Finally, there is a scheme for the handling of the cases of those on the run for terrorist offences.

We have also received a statement from the IRA about acts of completion, but despite the intensive efforts by the leadership of Sinn Fein to clarify the key points, we believe that there remains a lack of clarity on the crucial issue of whether the IRA is prepared for a full, immediate and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots. Without clarity here, we will not be able to build the trust that is necessary to restore devolved government.

We have concluded that this issue cannot be resolved during an election campaign. We have therefore concluded that we should postpone the elections until the autumn to provide more time to rebuild the trust that will allow the restoration of the institutions based on the agreement and its full implementation.

We have not so far published our proposals because they were part of a whole package that would also have included clear statements on exclusively peaceful means, but we believe that in the interest of proper public debate, we should now make them available. We shall publish the proposals this afternoon and call on the IRA to publish its statement. We, for our part, will go ahead and implement as much of the joint declaration as we can, where that is not conditional on clear and definitive acts of completion. Copies of the joint declaration will be placed in the Library of the House.

The Prime Minister is speaking this afternoon about this issue and he go to Dublin next week to discuss the next steps with the Taoiseach. I understand that there will be a strong wish in the House to discuss these issues once hon. Members have read the Government proposals. As I said. I therefore propose to make a fuller statement to the House next week, and a Bill for the postponement of the elections will follow shortly afterwards. But I believed that it was essential to give the earliest possible notice to the House of our intention that elections should be postponed, and that is why we are making the announcement here today.

I thank the Secretary,of State for his courtesy in giving me a brief oral summary of the decision that the Government had reached a few moments ago. May I say how much I regret that the Prime Minister has apparently decided to make a statement at the same time to the press in Downing street? That shows where his priorities lie, and he has relied upon his colleague, the Secretary of State, to come and deal with the House of Commons, where the awkward questions are likely to be asked. We will all draw our own conclusions from that.

It is known in this House, and I repeat it today, that we thoroughly support the robust attitude of the Government in demanding full clarification on the three vital matters from Sinn Fein-IRA, and we shall continue to support them on that for as long as they remain equally robust. However, the Secretary of State will understand if I say that I will not comment on the two documents, the joint Governments' declaration and the IRA's declaration, until I have seen them. It is welcome that we will see them shortly—I gather that they are to be published this afternoon—and we look forward to commenting on Tuesday.

The main burden of what the Secretary of State said is dramatic. It is that despite the fact that the Government came to the House at the beginning of March to ask, exceptionally, for a month's extension of the date of the Assembly elections from 1 May to 29 May, now, six weeks later, they are saying that they want to suspend the elections again. Will the Government be absolutely clear about whether that suspension will be to a new named day or open-ended—sine die—so that the Secretary of State can act whenever he feels like it? That absolutely vital element was left out of the Secretary of State's comments, and it is impossible without it to evaluate his proposal.

Sadly, once again in Northern Ireland, the Government have shown that they do not take their own constitutional rules seriously and that devolution does not benefit from any objective constitutional framework, but is merely the plaything of the Government; whenever they feel like it, they can simply intervene from on high to change the rules to delay elections or to do a s they please. Is not that deeply damaging to the credibility of devolution and to the institutions in Northern Ireland?

What the Government have done is to say that democracy is suspended for everyone in Northern Ireland—for all parties and all citizens—just because one party has misbehaved or has not fulfilled its obligations under the Belfast agreement. That is one more deplorable example—we have had them before, including at the time of suspension—of the innocent being penalised, not just the guilty. Is not that a perverse signal to send at a time when we are trying to build a new peaceful and democratic Northern Ireland?

Will the Secretary of State agree that again, for the umpteenth time, what appeared to be a set deadline in the peace process has been opportunistically shifted by the Government at the last minute, after their characteristic period of several days' shilly-shallying and vacillation, and as they see fit? That is deplorable. No peace process can be successful unless deadlines are taken seriously, yet once again, the Government have shown that they are not to be taken seriously. Is not that very damaging to the peace process?

The Secretary of State said that he thought that it was impossible to conclude an agreement during an election campaign. However, the Government foresaw exactly the circumstances that would arise when they came here in March, after Hillsborough, and said that it was sensible to set a date of 29 May and that the negotiations with all the parties to consummate the Hillsborough agreement would take place against that background. Once more, there has been a U-turn by the Government. Is that not a self-condemnation by the Government—an admission that as recently as March their judgment was clearly wrong? Might not one factor that inhibits parties from going the last mile in any negotiation on such a peace process be an impending election? There are two reasons for that: first, the need to appear tough to one's own electorate before the election makes it difficult to make concessions of any kind; and secondly, parties may feel that they need to know what the concatenation of political forces in the Assembly will be in a few weeks' time before they can say, "Right, we will put all our cards on the table." The fact that a different combination of political forces may emerge after an election inclines people to keep same of their cards in their pockets. The uncertainty surrounding an election having not happened is an inhibiting factor in concluding the process. It is therefore doubly regrettable that the uncertainty has now been continued and prolonged, perhaps indefinitely—sine die—although we do not know that, because the Secretary of State has not told us.

What indication does the Secretary of State have that there will be any difference at all in the circumstances if the election is postponed to later this summer, to the autumn or to any other time? What circumstances does he expect to change in the meantime that give him some hope that there will not be a third, fourth or fifth retrospective postponement?

The final date by which nominations for Assembly elections on 29 May had to be in was Tuesday, which means that the Secretary of State has produced complete chaos in Northern Ireland. People who want to observe the law as it currently stands, and who want to take part in a democratic election, as they are entitled to, have to get their nomination papers in by Tuesday. Do they still have to get their nomination papers in by Tuesday? Or are the Government saying, "Because we have a 200 majority in this House we can do anything— we can roll over Parliament and simply change the dates retrospectively whenever we feel like it, so don't bother to put your nomination papers in"? Which is it? Perhaps the Secretary of State will answer that, because people require guidance before Tuesday. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) cannot intervene on a question.

The candidates are entitled to an explanation before Tuesday, because they have to decide before then whether they are going to put their nomination papers in.

Can the Secretary of State cite a single instance in the past 100 years in any democratic country where the constitutional rules for an elected assembly have been treated with such levity—such contemptuous frivolity? How can the Government expect the people of Northern Ireland to take seriously the new institutions in Northern Ireland, to which we are very committed, if they take those institutions and the rules behind them so unseriously themselves?

Three things come out of this with their credibility very gravely damaged: first, the peace process; secondly, the institutions of devolved government, and the basis of democracy, in Northern Ireland; and thirdly, the Government themselves.

On nominations, we cannot as a Government anticipate what the House of Commons or the House of Lords will do, but it would still be sensible for parties in Northern Ireland very much to take into account my announcement that elections in Northern Ireland, if Parliament so agrees, will be postponed. I think that parties in Northern Ireland will understand that.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not think for one second that I, or the Government, wanted to have elections deferred until the autumn. It was the last thing that I wanted. What does he think that we have all been doing for the six or seven months since I became Secretary of State last October? Virtually every day of every week of every month has been taken up with trying to ensure that we have a joint declaration. What does he think that I was doing from 1997 to 1998, when I chaired the strand 1 talks in Northern Ireland that set up the institution of the Assembly? Does he not understand that the whole basis upon which the Assembly in Belfast is created is very special? He says that this would not happen in any other country, but no other country has such an Assembly. No other country has this type of agreement, which was based on a subtle and important compromise that made sure that both sides of the community—Unionist and nationalist—could sit together in an Assembly in Northern Ireland in a very special way.

On the date of the election—I do not yet know precisely what is in the Bill; we shall see when it is published—I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we want it to be in the autumn. If he cannot understand that the whole basis of the restoration of the Assembly is the restoration of trust between the Unionist and nationalist Members of the Legislative Assembly, he seriously misunderstands the whole basis of the Good Friday agreement.

I shall repeat the reasons for having to make a difficult decision. First, there is lack of clarity from the Irish Republican Army about whether there will be an end to paramilitary activity. Secondly, that means that trust and confidence has not been restored. Time and again, I have told hon. Members that we can restore the institutions only if we restore trust and confidence between parties in Northern Ireland. Clearly, that has not happened. If we went ahead and elected an Assembly, what would we have? It would be like electing a Parliament with no guarantee that we could produce a Government. That is not a stable way in which to proceed.

We are not giving up and we shall ensure that the elections will go ahead, but later. In the meantime, we shall keep on talking. We shall try to resolve issues so that we can restore the necessary trust and confidence. The all-important point is not whether the date of the election is in autumn or spring, but that the process continues.

I thank the Minister of State for giving me a brief indication of the statement's content. It is regrettable that matters have been organised in such a way that the normal courtesies of advance notice of statements could not be observed.

I welcome the Secretary of State's comment that the joint declaration will be published and placed in the Library. Like the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), Liberal Democrat Members regret the decision to delay the elections from 29 May. We believe that democracy delayed is democracy defeated and we cannot be party to that.

The delay is especially regrettable because it places control of the democratic process in the hands of people to whom it is anathema. Responsibility for the delay lies fairly and squarely with Sinn Fein and the IRA. They have been asked to make a straightforward choice between violence and democracy and they have been unable to make it. Surely the time has come for the democratic process in Northern Ireland to move on. If Sinn Fein and the IRA cannot move with it, that is their choice and the people of Northern Ireland will judge them on it.

When the Secretary of State introduced the previous legislation at the beginning of March to delay the elections until 29 May, Liberal Democrat Members said that we would support him then but that we would support no further delays. That remains our position. Like Conservative Members, we shall wait and see the contents of the Bill, but I foresee no circumstances in which we would support it.

Will the Secretary of State clarify his response to the point that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made about the nomination process? It should continue in the absence of legislation to the contrary. The right hon. Gentleman knows that democracy comes at a price. Many parties and individuals in Northern Ireland have already committed and incurred expenditure in the legitimate expectation that elections would proceed on 29 May. Will the Government seriously consider a mechanism for compensating those parties? The Government and the Opposition in this House take such funding for granted, but it is not easily available to parties in Northern Ireland.

I regret the postponement of elections until the autumn as much as the hon. Gentleman. I deeply regret it, as I said to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. I agree that we could not observe the normal courtesies as much as we would have liked. However, in fluid negotiations yesterday and today, I was conscious of wanting to ensure that the House of Commons was told about the announcement. I therefore had to decide whether to make an announcement this afternoon or go through the normal procedure of giving longer notice to political parties. Clearly, it is important for my colleagues and Ito speak not only to the parties in Great Britain but those in Northern Ireland. I needed to speak to the leaders of those parties.

I have little to add to my reasons for believing that the elections should be postponed until the autumn. However, the Government will certainly consider compensation.

Order. Hon. Members should put only one question to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It should be borne in mind that we have interrupted a debate and that a fuller statement will be made when we return next week.

In February, we had only one day of debate on the legislation to postpone elections. I appreciate that the matter must be tackled with dispatch, but may we have at least two days for the forthcoming Bill, because it will be more complicated than the legislation that we passed in February? For example, we should consider the 200 members of Assembly staff—the employees of Members of the Legislative Assembly—who will presumably receive redundancy notices. We must consider what happens to them in the interregnum.

When precisely was the Social Democratic and Labour party told about the statement, bearing it in mind that other Northern Ireland business was scheduled for this afternoon?

On the final point, contacts have been made with the SDLP, but the nature of the negotiations in the past 24 hours and the fact that members of political parties in Northern Ireland are campaigning mean that one would not expect Northern Ireland Members to be able to get to the Chamber for the statement. That is why I propose to make another statement next week.

That is not a matter for me. I understand why Northern Ireland Members could not be present today to listen to the statement. It is therefore important to make another.

The time allocated for the debate on the Bill is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I am sure that he listened to my hon. Friend's comments.

I made the point earlier, and I want to make it plain that I received the first intimation, apart from speculation in this morning's press, of these matters at 12.15 pm through a press notice. I raised the matter on a point of order. Business questions did not start until 12.30 pm and I regret that the seamless robe of Government did not mean that the Leader of the House was apprised of matters. I appreciate that he was frank and open with us when he made his first response.

Why could Dublin Ministers announce the business of this House before we were given information? I cannot accept the explanation of courtesy because the harsh reality is that although others were consulted, albeit orally, as an Ulster Unionist Member who is present today, I knew nothing about what was happening until I received the information from outside sources.

Whatever might have been anticipated or speculated upon elsewhere, the Government announced the postponement of elections here at 2.30 pm. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will announce it afterwards. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that negotiations have been fluid yesterday and throughout the morning. I repeat that the official announcement of the matter is to the House of Commons and by the Prime Minister after my statement.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is overcome by the extent and warmth of the constructive comments of the official Opposition. They demonstrate the extent of their commitment to the Good Friday agreement.

In many parts of these islands, today's statement will be perceived as a victory for the Unionist veto. May I urge my right hon. Friend to resist the temptation to set a date in autumn? We want progress, not programmes and trust, not timetables.

My hon. Friend is right about the trust that is required to establish the institutions.

The Opposition referred to the Sinn Fein veto, whereas my hon. Friend referred to a Unionist veto. Everyone has a veto in the Northern Ireland peace process. We must establish trust and confidence between parties so that we can go ahead with an institution that has the confidence of the Unionist and nationalist community.

Why does not the Secretary of State confess today that he was not going to come to the House to make a statement at this time but was going to make one next week? The reason why we are here today is that the Minister for Justice of a foreign country announced to journalists in Dublin that the election was to be suspended. That is why the Secretary of State has come here in such great haste.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that legally at this moment the elections are on? He needs to change the law to bring about what he is about to do. According to legal advice that I have and according to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, the nominations tomorrow are on. If a Member who has spent considerable funds on preparing for the election—for example, on printing—is to make a legal claim to obtain reimbursement of those funds, he must prove that he has been a candidate, so all my party members will be nominating tomorrow and all the party members of many other parties will be nominating tomorrow. They can do nothing else. We have to keep to the law and the law says, "You have no claim unless you have been nominated." What will the Secretary of State do about that?

I very much regret that it is Members who do not represent Northern Ireland at all who have time to put their case in this House, whereas we have no time.

I will sit down on this point: it is an appalling thing that IRA-Sinn Fein have been talking to the Government right up to this morning when the majority Unionist population have been treated like lepers and their leadership has not been consulted in any way. The reason why you do not want an election is that you do not like what is going to happen as a result of that election. That is the difficulty you have.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman believes that the statement came as a result of what other people have said, because that is not the case. I decided earlier today to ensure that there would be a more substantial statement next week, precisely so that Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies would be able to come to the House to make their point. I am conscious that, for all sorts of reasons, there are Members elsewhere today and the House is not full, so it is important that that opportunity is given to Members, particularly from Northern Ireland, but I thought that it was important that the decision to postpone the elections should be made and that the decision should be announced in the House of Commons as soon as possible, despite the difficulties that I have just outlined.

On nominations, it is for the parties themselves to make up their minds. Technically, of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that, at the moment, as the law stands, elections are to be held, but I am announcing today that the Government intend to introduce a Bill to change that.

Will my right hon. Friend make a security assessment? Now that we have a further interregnum, would it be sensible to look at the implications for the British Army in Northern Ireland and ensure that there is an understanding that there will be no further withdrawals? Clearly, we must have at the forefront of our thinking the need to achieve stability in this very difficult situation.

I will, of course, keep the security situation under constant review—as we always do—on the advice of the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks.

Amid all the recriminations and expressions of horror, perhaps some of them more synthetic than real, can we at least all agree on one thing—that the blame for this lies fairly and squarely with Sinn Fein-IRA, who have procrastinated, used weasel words and brought this thing to the brink, hoping that the Government would bend over and meet their demands? As difficult as the Secretary of State's decision was and as regretful as we all recognise he is, he has made the right decision, because an election within a vacuum is not good for democracy.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. He is right that trust is ultimately what is important. That could not be restored, bearing in mind the lack of clarity over that final answer on paramilitary activity. I hope that, over the months ahead in the talks, we can get that clarity.

Will the Secretary of State reflect more deeply that it is entirely inappropriate for the democratic process of Northern Ireland to be suspended because unreconstructed terrorists remain precisely that, and that it would be appropriate for devolved government to be restored, conducted by those Unionist and nationalist parties that are exclusively committed to the principles and practice of democracy?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Assembly in Belfast is specifically constituted on the basis of what was agreed by vote among the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A referendum established that particular type of Assembly, which meant that there had to be Unionists and nationalists agreeing on how to go forward. That is why the Government have decided to postpone.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while this entirely predictable and indeed predicted U-turn reflects badly on the political processes in Northern Ireland, he has made the right decision? May I ask him to reflect on the Bill that he will introduce? Notwithstanding his office and his addressing the House of Commons, there is an election at the end of May until the law of the land is changed. Will he ensure that under that Bill he has power to recompense all the legitimate political parties in Northern Ireland for the legitimate expenses that they incur until the law of the land is changed? Incidentally, as a right hon. Member of the House, I do not appreciate learning from an Irish Minister about the intentions of the Government.

I take the point that the right hon. Gentleman has made. I am grateful for his support and that of the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates) for the decision, although all of us regret it. Both of them were Northern Ireland Ministers—indeed the right hon. Gentleman is from Northern Ireland—and understand the difficulties that we face in the peace process. As I said earlier, I will, of course, look at the question of compensation.

I know that the Secretary of State has been striving hard for a just peace in Northern Ireland but we now know that a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to a known terrorist, Martin McGuinness, as "babe", which surely is an insult 1: 0 the families of constituents who have been murdered by the IRA. Martin McGuinness was on the Provisional IRA council with the blood of British soldiers on his hands. When will the Government abide by their own Belfast agreement? When will they abide by their own deadlines and not give way to the IRA? Cancelling the elections is giving way to the IRA. When will the Government fulfil the Prime Minister's promise to take the weapons and violence out of politics in Northern Ireland?

On the first point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear the other day that it is not appropriate for Ministers to comment on matters of national security. Alt! I will say is that Mo Mowlam used that phrase to many people, including me.

On the other matter, the hon. Gentleman will know that I disagree with him. Everything that I have said so far means that I disagree with him, although not on the issues that we face—he and I agree how important it is for the IRA to discontinue any sort of paramilitary activity. As I said earlier, I believe that the best way to solve this problem, particularly in the climate of an election, is to postpone the elections and to sit down and talk through the issues so that we can get better clarity on the very points about which he is concerned.

Despite the Government's protestations to the contrary, we are all aware of the difficulties with the electoral register in Northern Ireland. If legislation is to be enacted within the next few weeks or days to postpone the elections, will the Secretary of State make it his business to have an urgent meeting with the electoral commissioner and the Electoral Commission and use this intervening period to keep the electoral register open, in order to spend the time clearing up some of the backlog and mess, so that the elections, when they come, will be fairer than they would have been had they been held at the time when they were intended to be held before this morning's announcement was made?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He has my assurance that we will meet the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission to discuss any difficulties that arise not only from the postponement of the elections but with regard to the register, to which he rightly referred.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise briefly a point of order of which I would have liked to give you notice a little earlier. As some hon. Members may know, and as you certainly will know, the debate that was due to take place in Westminster Hall on the financing of terrorism in Northern Ireland had to be suspended because of the urgent statement on Northern Ireland. I do not argue with that decision, which was quite right. However, the House should surely have a better mechanism to deal with such events. Could you put in train ways of putting that right? Madam Deputy Speaker had no jurisdiction to suspend that debate until the statement had finished. It would have been sensible and rational if, 40 minutes later, we could have conducted our Westminster Hall debate, which, alas, has had to be put off for another day. Parliament has lost a day's debate in Westminster Hall, so I ask you to consider whether a better way could be found of conducting our business.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, but I alone do not have the powers to change the rules. Those who do have the power will have heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say and heard that I sympathise with his case.