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Northern Ireland

Volume 404: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2003

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10.45 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker—

Order. I apologise to the Secretary of State; I promised the Rev. Ian Paisley that he could raise a point of order.

You will remember, Sir, that at business questions last week the hon. Member for Belfast. South (Rev. Martin Smyth) raised the matter of how the official in government in Dublin told about the elections being off and other matters. At the end of those business questions, there was an exchange between the hon. Gentleman, me and those on the Front Bench. The Leader of the House made it clear that he knew nothing about any statement being made, which we accept, but during those discussions there was quite a gathering around your Chair, Sir, and suddenly you stood up and said that we would have a statement. However, when we were told that we would have a statement, we were told that we would have more time to discuss it. I wonder how, at this late hour, Members from Northern Ireland will have that time, and can you tell us how much time we will have?

I clearly recall that I said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would come back today and make a fuller statement. The right hon. Gentleman is a man of his word. He promised me that he would come back, and he is here this evening. I am here and the hon. Gentleman is here, so what more do we want?

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about political developments in Northern Ireland.

I reported to the House last Thursday on our assessment of the state of political dialogue in Northern Ireland, and our regretful conclusion that the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, due on 29 May, must once again he postponed. We thought it right to announce that decision to the House as soon as possible, given that the election campaign was beginning, but the result was that many right hon. and hon. Members from Northern Ireland and, indeed, those interested in its affairs were unable to be present.

I said that I would therefore return this week to say something more, giving those Members who wished to participate in discussion a chance to come here and do so. I am now also able to report on the discussions in Dublin today between the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and colleagues, including me.

In my earlier statement, I recalled that, since the suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland on 15 October last year, we had made a great deal of headway in discussions between the two Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland, aimed at completing the implementation of the Belfast agreement, including the full restoration of the institutions. The Governments had drawn up a comprehensive and detailed set of proposals, capable, we believe, of achieving broad support among the parties.

We published those proposals last Thursday. They consisted of a joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments, setting out a vision of the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, with detailed annexes on security normalisation, the devolution of policing and justice and human rights, equality and identity. There was also an agreement between the two Governments on how to monitor the parties' and the Governments' honouring of commitments set out in the agreement and joint declaration, along with arrangements for remedying breaches of those commitments. Finally, we set out a scheme for the handling of the cases of those on the run for terrorist offences.

From the start, however, both Governments made it clear that, as the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach put it on 14 October,
"it must be clear that the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, which has been ongoing since the Agreement, and indeed before, is being brought to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion".
Unfortunately, a draft statement by the IRA and subsequent comments by Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, were neither clear nor unambiguous. Without clarity, there could be no trust between parties and therefore no early return for devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The question that the Prime Minister and the people of Northern Ireland wanted the IRA to answer was a simple one: will the IRA call a halt to all of the activities listed in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration? Will it stop the so-called punishment beatings? Will it stop the targeting and the procurement of weapons? Will it stop inciting people to riot on the streets of Northern Ireland? Those are simple questions, to which there should be a simple answer—yes or no.

The IRA has tonight published its statement. As the two Governments acknowledged at the time, it represented some progress. Members of the House and the people of Northern Ireland can now read it and judge for themselves whether it answers the fundamental questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Does it mean the definitive end to all the paramilitary activity to which the joint declaration refers? The view of both Governments is that it does not. It is not a clear and unambiguous statement. Without that clarity, there can be no trust, and therefore with great regret we concluded that elections should be further postponed. We shall introduce later this week, and propose to debate next week, a Bill to authorise this postponement. We hope that the election will be held in the autumn.

I know the concern felt by many at this further delay, and at the late stage at which it was announced. There is also frustration among many members of the political parties who had geared themselves up for a mighty effort, which is now abruptly halted. I well understand those feelings. This was, for the Government, a very difficult decision. In the special circumstances of Northern Ireland and the unique form of government established by the agreement, we believed that it was the only course to take. It is clear that, as the political dialogue stands at present, there would not have been the willingness to participate that is necessary to partnership government under the agreement. We therefore plan to introduce a Bill that will allow us to hold an election as soon as it is clear that the necessary trust between the parties has been re-established. We hope that that can be done in the autumn.

The Government's course for the future is clear. We will go on seeking to build trust between the communities and hence the foundations for political advance. We have had a great deal of success so far: what we are now experiencing, I believe, need be no more than a temporary setback. We are indeed in a position of great strength. Most of those foundations are already there: we have the agreement, and that must be the bedrock of any future progress. It is not something that is open to renegotiation. Indeed, a vast amount of progress has already been made in implementing that agreement, especially in the vital areas of policing and criminal justice.

It is a further strength, however, that the joint declaration published last week represents a shared understanding between the two Governments and the pro-agreement parties of how we can proceed to the full and final implementation of the Belfast agreement. That, too, has been the subject of discussion with all the pro-agreement parties and agreed by the Governments, and that, also, is not open for renegotiation. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated this evening in Dublin, we shall proceed to implement many elements of the joint declaration that are not conditional on action by others: for example, in the areas of policing, criminal justice, equality, human rights and some aspects of normalisation. We will also introduce the legislation necessary to set up the independent monitoring body, which will, among other things, report on paramilitary activity. The joint declaration package also contains a number of measures that can be implemented only if there are acts of completion by the IRA.

I believe that it is a strength of the present position that there is such a widespread recognition of the benefits that devolution brought to Northern Ireland and a wish on all sides to return to a local Administration. In the coming weeks, the Government will consult all parties, whatever their position on the agreement, about the best way of bringing devolution back to Northern Ireland as soon as possible.

Finally, I should remind the House that a key element in the progress that has been made is the close partnership between the Irish Government and ourselves. Without that relationship and the unstinting support of successive American Administrations, the transformation that has already occurred in Northern Ireland would not have been possible.

In fact, the reason for the late hour of this statement is that I wanted to report to the House the results of this afternoon's meeting between the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Dublin. That was an important opportunity for the Governments to reaffirm the centrality of their partnership to continuing political progress in Northern Ireland. There was agreement about the implementation of aspects of the joint declaration to which I have already referred, and I shall continue to work closely with the Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, to ensure, that the political parties in Northern Ireland are encouraged to engage with each other to resolve current difficulties and to re-establish trust.

We have faced many challenges and setbacks in the five years since the agreement was reached and I will not pretend to the House that the current impasse is not serious. However, we are determined that that obstacle will be overcome, as others have teen in the past. The critical issues of trust—over commitment to exclusively peaceful means and about the stability of the institutions—can be addressed with clear statements of intent from all parties.

Events in the past few weeks have been deeply disappointing for everyone concerned, but they should not obscure the great progress that has been made. The publication of the joint declaration represents a major step towards the complete implementation of the Good Friday agreement. We believe that that agreement remains the only sustainable basis for a fair and honourable accommodation between nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland. It remains the only possible basis for peace. In the coming weeks and months we will work openly and transparently to fulfil further our side of the bargain struck on Good Friday in 1998 and we call on the IRA to find the clarity, in both words and deeds, to convince the people of Northern Ireland that they are ready to fulfil theirs.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me an advance copy of his statement.

I must begin by taking up with the Secretary of State a grave matter, on which I hope he can immediately set our anxieties to rest. A report is circulating this evening that the Government propose, irrespective of progress in the peace process, decommissioning or cessation of paramilitary activities by the IRA, to dismantle two observation towers in south Armagh. If that report is correct, the Government have retreated from their newfound robustness and the comprehensive approach of the peace process that we have urged on them for some time, and have reverted to their previous pattern of making unilateral concessions. That is disastrous, as the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well.

That pattern started when the Government released all prisoners without obtaining any decommissioning in return. I really thought that, after all this time, even they would have learned some essential lessons from that. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can give us a definitive and clear reassurance on that report. If the concession was made today merely to appease the Irish Government after this Government's decision to postpone the elections in Northern Ireland, a double error has been perpetrated.

What other aspects of normalisation do the Government intend to proceed with unconditionally and regardless—that is to say, unlinked with progress by paramilitaries or former paramilitaries to observe their obligations under the Belfast agreement? Why do the provisions in the joint declaration on on-the-run terrorists not provide for a court appearance by the ex-terrorist? Surely a court procedure with no power to imprison and no power even to compel attendance is a mockery.

On the postponement of the elections, is it not the case that a considerable shambles has now been created? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that over the past few weeks thousands of people in Northern Ireland have been spending their time and money in good faith preparing for these elections, selecting candidates, issuing manifestos and launching campaigns? Some candidates will have given up jobs or forgone other job opportunities, but now, after nominations are in and canvassing is in full swing, the Government want retrospectively to call the whole thing off.

As we are on the subject of candidates, what is the position of Members of the last Assembly, dissolved last week, who have been paid at a reduced rate since the suspension last October? Do the Government propose that they should be paid anything now? What about officials and staff at Stormont? Those practical matters are important for a lot of people, and the Government owe the House an explanation.

More important still, what kind of democratic enthusiasm will people in Northern Ireland display next time if they have been made such a fool of on this occasion, when in good faith they began to prepare for elections? Do the Government accept that if they succeed in their aim of cancelling or postponing the elections they will owe full financial compensation, although I wince to think that the poor taxpayer will have to pay for the Government's mess? On Thursday, the right hon. Gentleman undertook to consider the matter of compensation, but he did not mention it in his statement, so will he tell us what he has now decided? In any event, does he not think that a fulsome apology is owed to all concerned?

If, as has been widely suggested in Northern Ireland, I am afraid, the reason for seeking to postpone the elections was that the Government did not like what they thought would be the result, irrespective of the political morality of that decision, what makes the Government think that the result will be any different in a few months' time? The decision makes no more practical sense that it has moral justification unless they can answer that question. If, on the other hand, the real reason, not the excuse, was to punish Sinn Fein for not completing the clarification of the three points—we also condemn it for that—was that not a perverse response? Why punish everyone because of the failings of one party? Is not the right way to punish Sinn Fein for non-compliance, as I have said over and over again—for example, at the time of Stormontgate—and to exclude it from the Executive and from taking part in any future Executive if it does not comply?

Why, if the real reason for the cancellation is Sinn Fein's non-compliance, were the Government apparently happy in February, up until Hillsborough, to hold elections on 1 May, at a time when Gerry Adams had not made any of the clarifications that he has now made, including the two that the Government have accepted? Is it not bizarre to say that elections can go ahead if Sinn Fein-IRA make no clarification at all, but that they have to be cancelled if they make two clarifications out of three? Do the Government expect to be taken seriously when they give that as an explanation for their decision?

Let me now turn to the consequences of the decision for the peace process. Do the Government not appreciate that an impending election can itself be a major inhibiting factor, deterring the parties in a process of this kind from reaching closure? It is difficult for anyone to make final concessions or, indeed, accept publicly and formally that the other side has made adequate concessions, even if it has done so, if one is battling with internal opponents or rivals who may accuse one of going soft. That inhibition would, of course, be removed once an election was over, but if the Government get their way those electoral pressures and the attendant difficulties and the uncertainty that follow will simply be pushed forward for as long as elections are postponed. Was there not a combination of circumstances that might have induced a settlement next month, in June? Elections and the associated electoral inhibitions would have been over, but nevertheless there would be a deadline ahead to concentrate minds in the form of a six-week deadline for agreeing an Executive once an Assembly was summoned. Has that opportunity not been thrown away rather carelessly in a decision clearly made in panic with little forethought and less consultation in the course of Thursday morning? Does that not all amount to a rather bad day's work indeed, both for the peace process and for democracy in Northern Ireland?

With regard to the towers—the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is right that there are two in south Armagh—the current assessment of the security services in Northern Ireland is that we can dismantle them in any event.

I mentioned in the statement that it is one thing to deal with what normal normalisation, as it were, is all about, which was agreed in the Belfast agreement, and which is subject to the level of threat—because it is subject to the level of threat—and another to deal with the normalisation details in the joint declaration, which were linked to an act of completion on the part of the IRA. For example, there was a time scale in the joint declaration of some two years, and there were other details there too. But the hon. Gentleman is wrong to assume that normalisation was coming to a halt, and that these things would not happen. He should realise that the normalisation, as it is outlined in the joint declaration, is precisely that which, as I say, is linked to the question of the acts of completion by the IRA.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, too, that of course prisoners were released as part of the Good Friday agreement, but that was as a direct result of the people of Northern Ireland agreeing, and the people of the island of Ireland agreeing, by way of a referendum—

I am referring at the moment to the release of prisoners. The Government did not suddenly decide one Wednesday morning to release all the prisoners in Northern Ireland. Those prisoners were released directly as a result of the Good Friday agreement. The hon. Gentleman and many hon. Members will understand that there were months and months of negotiations at Castle Buildings in Belfast, which eventually led to the decision that that is what would happen in the agreement.

With regard to appeasing the Irish Government, those, if I may say so. are entirely the wrong words to use about a Government who are in partnership with this Government to try o bring about peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity, as indeed will the House, to discuss OTRs, particularly with regard to any judicial process that is referred to in the joint declaration.

The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's comments came about the postponement—not the cancellation, but the postponement—of the elections. It is not true to say that the decision t o postpone the elections was taken in panic. Obviously, it was a difficult decision to take. It was not easy; of course it was not.

As I said to the hon. Gentleman last week, I believe that he fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the settlement in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement did not set up an Assembly such as the one that I have in my own country of Wales. It is not the same as the Parliament in Scotland. The Assembly in Northern Ireland is a body specifically designed to bring about political stability and peace in a country that was divided for 30 or 40 years. The only way in which that can happen is if there is trust and confidence between the Unionist and the nationalist communities in Northern Ireland as expressed through their political parties.

What sense would it have made to proceed if, at the beginning of the election campaign, as it was, we knew precisely that it would have been impossible to have set up an Assembly that could have produced an Executive? What would have been the point of that? In exactly the same way, what would be the point of returning Members to this House of Commons when we knew that could never produce a Government? That is the issue. But a Government—[Interruption.]Let me qualify what I have said to Opposition Members. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Assembly in Northern Ireland is the same as an Assembly in any other part of Europe? Of course it is not.[Interruption.]

Order. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesman put questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Opposition must have the courtesy to allow the Secretary of State to reply in his own way.

I labour under the misapprehension that members of the Conservative party agree with the Good Friday agreement. If they did so, they would understand it, but clearly they do not. The agreement sets up an Assembly that is specially designed in order to accommodate trust and confidence among the communities. That is impossible in the present circumstances. Why is it impossible? We could not get the agreement that was required to restore the institutions. We could not get an answer from the IRA that was clear or unambiguous enough to establish trust and confidence between the parties, so it is a pointless exercise to try to establish that institution until we have tried again. We are saying not that we are cancelling those elections, but that we are deferring them until the autumn so that we can get trust arid confidence among the parties in order to ensure that we can restore the institutions of the Executive so that they can have local Ministers and so that Northern Ireland will no longer have direct rule. At the end of the day, this is about the trust and confidence that are necessary, and we have to build them.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for allowing me advance sight of the statement. The Liberal Democrats share his disappointment that the IRA, when called upon to make a clear and unambiguous statement renouncing violence, does not seem to have been able to do so.

Since the Good Friday agreement, we have sought to approach Northern Ireland matters on a non-partisan basis and to support the Government where possible. It is therefore with particular regret that we are unable to support this further postponement of the elections. We cannot preach democracy to the paramilitaries while in practice we deny it to the people.

Will the Secretary of State please clarify whether the open and transparent process about which he spoke means that there will be a departure from his practice of conducting talks as a series of bilaterals instead of having round-table talks involving all parties? Might that be done as part of the paragraph 8 review of the agreement? Will the postponement last until a fixed date and not for an indefinite period? We shall judge the Government's Bill when we see it, but I give notice to him that, if it does not include such a date, we will take steps either here or in the other place to ensure that it does so.

Finally, will the Secretary of State tell the House exactly what steps he proposes to take to ensure that the political parties that have been left out of pocket as a result of his decision will be compensated? He must be aware that the most effective way of squeezing smaller and more moderate parties out of the political process in Northern Ireland is to allow them to stand the losses resulting from the Government's stop-go approach to the elections.

It is not a question of the Government stopping and going, but of the process stopping and going. That above all else is what matters.[Interruption.]I do not know why Opposition Members scoff at the idea of the process, because it is the process that is most important; it is not the fact that elections are deferred by a few months that is important, but getting lasting peace in Northern Ireland. Do they think for one second that we would have got the peace that we have had? We have had peace since the Good Friday agreement was reached. Of course we have had peace. Fewer people died as a result of terrorist activities this year than in any other year. At the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland, more than 400 people perished in one year. Of course progress has been made in Northern Ireland in five years and it is entirely wrong to suggest otherwise.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the denial of democracy. What is happening is not a denial of democracy, because it is the postponement of elections until the autumn. That must be taken into account with regard to the fundamental nature of the agreement that set up this particular type of Assembly. I repeat that it is not like assemblies elsewhere. The rules and regulations of the Northern Ireland Assembly are based on ensuring that both communities can live in this particular context.

On the talks themselves, we will have to see in the next few weeks what the parties want. Clearly, that has always been a combination of bilaterals and round-table talks. Frankly, the most successful approach is to ensure that we get the trust and confidence and re-establish agreement on moving into the restored institutions.

On compensation, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have today written to all parties in Northern Ireland indicating that the Government will compensate parties for any losses made within the terms of the Representation of the People Acts. That is important.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there is some concern and doubt about the reasons for the postponement of the election, centring on the notion that there is, or was, a semantic debate over "will" or "should". I happen to believe that there was not such a debate, but the Secretary of State can clarify the matter by stating explicitly that the two Governments made it clear to Sinn Fein from the very beginning of the negotiations, and at every stage throughout them, that the issues dealt with in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration would have to be delivered as an act of completion. If the Secretary of State makes that unequivocal statement on behalf of the two Governments, it can dispel the fear, concern and apprehension that this was a matter of semantics.

I should like the Secretary of State to give an opinion on a hypothetical situation. Had the IRA given a commitment to end the activities specified in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, does he believe that an election would have been able to proceed as of now?

My third question is this: after at least two suspensions and two postponements of legally called elections, is the Secretary of State convinced that all the blame lies on one side?

I suppose that the blame lies on us all for not producing what should have occurred in the past few months. Having spent seven months trying to establish an agreement to move to a restored institution in Northern Ireland, I am the first to regret, and, indeed, to apologise to the parties in Northern Ireland for the fact that we did not achieve what we wanted to achieve.

My hon. Friend rightly mentions paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, which refers to
"an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity".
It identifies those and spells them out, referring to targeting, surveillance, procurement of weapons, rioting and so-called punishment beatings. All those issues are important to anyone who lives in Northern Ireland because they represent continued activity on the part of paramilitary organisations. My hon. Friend is also right that if the IRA had said, "Yes, we will put an end to all those particular activities", I am sure that that would have produced sufficient trust among parties in Northern Ireland to go into an election campaign and enable them to say, "Yes, we will restore the institutions when this election is held and move forward in the peace process."

The Government have clearly brought themselves into a situation in which they are open to criticism for their decision, which was made at the last minute and in a rather incoherent way. If they had been thinking more carefully and more clearly about the situation, things would have been better. I have to say also that the Secretary of State has added somewhat to the confusion with some of his comments this evening. Is it not the case that the key issue revolves around suspension; that without genuine acts of completion from the republican movement suspension could not be lifted and the institutions could not resume; and that consequently, without those genuine acts of completion, there was in reality no Assembly and no body that could even meet? It is not a question of whether an Executive could form. As things stood, and as they stand today, is it not the case that the Assembly cannot meet, cannot function and, to all intents and purposes, legally is not there?

The key question is whether there are genuine acts of completion, as defined. Is not it therefore paradoxically good that we can all read the IRA statement and see that it contains no suggestion of an end of paramilitary activity? It does not contain any clear indication of when we will get an equivalent statement to the war being over so that people know that there is a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. The IRA has clearly failed to respond in the way in which the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said that it was told time and again in recent months that it would have to respond.

The Secretary of State reminded us that the key elements of the joint declaration were conditional on acts of completion. However, he introduced a distinction between matters that were to be conditional, such as further normalisation. I associate myself with the comments of the Opposition spokesman on any proposal to dismantle security installations before genuine acts of completion. That was never discussed or agreed by any party. The Secretary of State will confirm that he has introduced a new distinction between normal and abnormal acts of normalisation. We are left wondering into which category dismantling security installations falls.

The joint declaration contains other matters that are not conditional. It would help the public if the Secretary of State clearly stated the precise matters with which the Government will proceed. The comments in the statement are general and will therefore spread some confusion and perhaps alarm. Precision is necessary.

I welcome the Secretary of State's reference to introducing legislation to establish the independent monitoring body. However, will he make it clear that it will contain the new power for Her Majesty's Government to exclude parties from the Northern Ireland Executive? Will the legislation be on the statute book before any resumption of the Assembly so that the means are available to deal with any continuing paramilitary activity or a party's failure to commit to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods?

The Secretary of State claims that the declaration is no longer negotiable. Does that apply to all aspects and details? I am thinking of the considerable detail on Army deployment in the event of normality. The Secretary of State knows that there is anxiety about the locations of particular bases. There will be considerable disappointment if, even in the event of normality, full peace and a return to the pre-1969 position, there are no soldiers in County Armagh.

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman found some of my comments confusing. It may be due to the lateness of the hour.

On suspension, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that one could not restore the Assembly without restoring the Executive. As soon as the Assembly is restored, the mechanisms that the agreement created mean that the Assembly would immediately have to select a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and other Ministers. Consequently, if the Assembly is unsuspended, forming a Government is automatic.

I agree that the IRA's statement did not present a clear and unambiguous picture of the end of paramilitary activity. That is why we are in the current position. The IRA has not expressed with sufficient clarity its intentions on continued paramilitary activity.

I shall discuss the continued implementation of the agreement with the right hon. Gentleman and other parties in the weeks ahead. However, the Government will appoint an independent oversight commissioner to provide independent scrutiny of the implementation of their decisions on the criminal justice review. By the end of 2003, we will publish statements of ethics for all criminal justice agencies that do not currently have them. We will look for further co-operation on criminal justice matters between the two jurisdictions when dealing with crime that is occurring right across the island. We will work with the parties' victims and survivors to seek to establish what further help we can give to them.

We will also look at broadcasting to see whether we could have a fund to give financial support for the Irish language, and take steps to encourage support to be made available for an Ulster Scots academy. We will look at the human rights situation in Northern Ireland and at the work of the Human Rights Commission, and at other matters, too. I will not burden the House with further details, but we will be discussing all these matters with the parties in Northern Ireland in the weeks ahead. On future legislation, take note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that he and I, and others, will have discussions about the nature of that legislation as we move forward.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I wrote to the Prime Minister before this announcement was made, expressing my concern that the elections might be postponed because I thought that that would undermine the democratic nature of the Good Friday agreement, and because I believe that it will leave a dangerous vacuum during the summer that people of ill will might seek to fill. Does my right hon. Friend not see that, while one accepts his argument that an Administration must follow from elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, he seems to be deciding what the results of the elections are going to be? That sets a very bad precedent. What will happen in the autumn if we are unable to gel agreement between the parties? Will the elections again be postponed because we do not like the prospect of a particular result? My right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister have set themselves on a difficult, dangerous and embarrassing course.

There were some crumbs of comfort in the Secretary of State's statement, however. It is good to know that the two Governments are continuing their close cooperation, and we would like to know what steps they are going to take to try to prevent that vacuum from occurring in the summer. Will my right hon. Friend also tell us what will happen to the review of reserved and excepted matters? Does he agree that one of the problems of the IRA's not giving the specific and direct reply that was properly asked of it is that it let some parties off the hook, as they have yet to say unreservedly and completely that they would accept service in a joint Administration?

I do not think that this is a question of the result of the elections. Whenever those elections are held, who knows what will happen? Obviously, people will vote in the way that they will vote in Northern Ireland, and that will be the democratic test. I have been trying to explain to the House for the last half hour or so, however, that this was not simply a test of the democratic process. It was also a test of the agreement itself. In my view, the agreement and the process would have been put in considerable jeopardy if the elections had gone ahead and we could not have seen the restoration of the institutions and had remained with a suspended Assembly. I saw no point in that.

I sincerely hope that there will come a time in the autumn when we will be able to resolve the difficulties that we currently face. If we cannot, we will have to see what happens then, but we must try again to ensure that we can get agreement and clarity from the IRA. As the agreement now stands, Sinn Fein, with the number of Members that it possesses in the Assembly, is able to form part of the Government and the Administration. Clearly, if there is an unwillingness on the part of certain parties to share government with a party that has not made its position clear on paramilitary activity, we will get nowhere as a consequence. The first thing we must try to ensure is that we obtain clarity about these issues from the IRA.

There are those who regard the agreement and the process as flawed. They are entitled to that view, but I do not share it. The Government do rot believe that there is an alternative to the Good Friday agreement. We consequently believe that we should do our best to sustain it and protect it, and to protect the process. We think that this was the best way of doing that.

The Secretary of State will recall that on 27 November I asked the Prime Minister what completion meant. I asked whether it meant a statement. The Prime Minister replied

"It is not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules."—[Official Report, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
It could not have been more crystal clear.

Why have the Government changed? Why have they said in tonight's statement that the critical issues of trust, over commitment to exclusively peaceful means and the stability of the institutions, can be addressed with a clear statement of intent? It was not a clear statement of intent that the Prime Minister issued to me in November; he said that that commitment had to be seen, and that there must be action. It is action that the people of Northern Ireland want to see. Why the sudden change? I think that the Secretary of State has changed because of the pressures placed on him, and I think that he and the Prime Minister should stand up to these people and say "We want a change".

I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), and he does not often agree with me. He said tonight that the next election might not take place in the autumn. What will decide the date? Will it be arranged as soon as it is clear that the necessary trust between the parties has been re-established? I never had any trust in the IRA, so it cannot be re-established. The vast majority of Unionists have no trust in the IRA. For the Secretary of State to tell us that he will look for a day when the sun will shine and the IRA will come out and say something, and everyone will be satisfied, is a recipe for more disaster, not for bringing peace to a troubled country.

The Secretary of State cannot get away with what he said about the towers. He cannot get away with dismantling the only security that hundreds of Protestants have in those peripheral areas. I have been there, as a public representative and as MEP for the area. I have been at the towers, and I have been with the police. The police inform me that if the military are pulled out, they will be sitting on a little island, and will not be able to move out of their police stations. They need the military to help them to police the area.

A calendar has been set out. What is this calendar? It is a calendar that hangs, draws and quarters Northern Ireland. We need to recognise the seriousness of the situation. No one will be deceived in Northern Ireland. The Government and their spokesmen talk to people. We hear of Northern Ireland's bravery—of a parochial little place. I know what my next-door neighbour is thinking about me, and he knows what I am thinking about him. But why are the Government so keen on investigations, with bodies finding out how the people are likely to vote? According to the last report they received, there would be too many—

Order. I have given the hon. Gentleman some leeway. Perhaps the Secretary of State can reply.

As I said in my earlier answer, people will vote as they vote, and what will happen will happen, but let me deal with the first point that the hon. Gentleman made in referring to what the Prime Minister said in November. It is very rare that I quote myself in the House of Commons, and even rarer that I quote something that I said an hour ago or less; nevertheless, I will. I finished my statement by saying: "We call on the IRA to find the clarity, in both words and deeds, to convince the people of Northern Ireland that they are ready to fulfil theirs." The reason we are debating this statement and these matters in the House this evening is precisely because we did not get sufficient clarity and unambiguity from the IRA about its intentions so far as continued paramilitary activity is concerned. That is central to re-establishing that trust and to ensuring that the process moves forward.

Order. Before I call any other hon. Members, I should say that I have called all Front-Bench spokesmen for every party represented here. I therefore expect only one question from each Back Bencher who is called. I call Eddie McGrady.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has laboured long and hard at this particular coalface, and we must put on the record the enormous transformation of Northern Ireland, in terms of political development and peace, that has taken place in the past five years. But I must part company with him on the Government's decision to postpone elections, because not a single party in Northern Ireland, of whatever perspective or tradition, said that it wanted postponement; all were prepared and geared to go. That is unless, of course, he can tell the House that private requests were made to the Government by certain parties that there be a postponement; but according to the public record, that has not happened. How does the Secretary of State envisage, therefore, in the current circumstance of a huge democratic and representative deficit, that it will be possible to pressurise the parties to any greater extent than in a post-election period? Given my concern about his statement and answers to subsequent questions, will he reaffirm that the Good Friday agreement and the joint declaration of the Governments are not negotiable, and will not be frustrated by IRA paramilitarism or Ulster Unionist party intransigence? It was nothing else but the withdrawal of the UUP from the Government that caused the suspension.[Interruption.]

It is back to the issue again: if we do not get sufficient trust within the Assembly, we will of course find that there is a collapse of the Executive. No one can force political parties or their leaders or elected representatives to go into government with anybody else; at the end of the day, that is the important issue. Ultimately, only if there is agreement about that can we move forward with the process. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of these issues, because he and I spent year in, year out before 1998 trying to establish the process that we are currently in. He also knows that the particular nature of the Assembly, the way it operates and the rules and regulations that govern it are based entirely upon the trust between parties that is, at the end of the day, voluntary. We cannot force anybody to do anything, but what we can do is to provide an environment in which people can get back together. That environment can happen only if the IRA clarifies the position with regard to paramilitary activity, and I repeat that that is why I share my hon. Friend's disappointment. The last thing that I wanted was a deferment of the elections in Northern Ireland, but the first thing that I wait is to ensure the success of the process.

Last week the Secretary of State told the House, that a substantial set of proposals had been discussed by the two Governments with the political parties and broadly accepted by them, including a joint declaration. Tonight, the Secretary of State tells us that it is a further strength that the joint declaration published last week represents a shared understanding between the Governments and the pro-agreement parties of how we can proceed to the full and final implementation of the Good Friday agreement and, further, that that joint declaration is not open to renegotiation. On what basis does the Secretary of State presume on the support of the Ulster Unionist party for that joint declaration?

It was pretty clear during the seven months of negotiation that the leadership and negotiating teams of all the parties were based in Hillsborough and elsewhere to discuss the issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is not for me to comment on the internal mechanisms of individual political parties in Northern Ireland—that is their business. When we discussed the matters, the issues were agreed as an understanding. Some were not. For example, the issue of OTRs was separately identified outside the joint declaration, because the Ulster Unionist representatives in the negotiations did not agree with the nature of OTRs, in the same way—I hasten to add—that Sinn Fein did not agree with the paper about sanctions, of which the hon. Gentleman is aware. There were disagreements, but there were other issues to do with the implementation of the agreement on which there was a huge shared understanding, such as issues of equality or those contained in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, which defined precisely what paramilitary activity was and is.

The Secretary of State has said that he wants openness and transparency. Does he agree that the treatment of the journalist fromThe Sunday Times, who made sonic things transparent, has been appalling? In the Secretary of State's view, were the conversations true and, if so, what will he do to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland may believe that their elected representatives are not being called such names?

My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on issues that are clearly matters of national security—[HON. MEMBERS: "No, they are not."] Of course they are matters of national security.

My hon. Friend could use more tempered language. We can disagree on the issues, but it is not gibberish to suggest that matters of national security are ones on which Ministers cannot comment. Similarly, it is not right for me to comment on an investigation that the police have already started with regard to the individual mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey).

What we have heard this evening, from an uneasy Secretary of State, is the triumph of hope over experience. Why does he believe that Sinn Fein-IRA will comply with the demands for completion by the autumn when they have failed to do so by the timetable that has been outlined for months? In the spirit of openness and transparency, does he agree that some credibility might be restored to the entire process if the arms that Sinn Fein-IRA still hold were surrendered in a verifiable and transparent way, not in some behind the scenes deal that we have to take in good faith?

The hon. Gentleman's last point is valid. People in Northern Ireland, from whichever party or community they come, have to have sufficient confidence that acts of decommissioning are genuine and verifiable. I am uneasy, I suppose, because I did not for one second want the elections to be postponed. However, I am at ease with myself with regard to the importance of the process. Many of us have been involved in the process for a long time, and some have been involved for much longer than I have. I know that they want the peace process in Northern Ireland to succeed. I accept that not all the parties concerned agree with our view, which is the sensible position that the best way to ensure that the process developed was to do what we did. I repeat that it is a postponement, not a cancellation.

Tonight may be the last time this week, but I support the Government. There is no democratic vacuum in Northern Ireland because of this decision. We have 11 Members opposite from Northern Ireland and another two next to me. Is not the key matter the peace process itself? Is it not essential either that the Provisional IRA gives up all activities in which it has been involved, or that Sinn Fein detaches itself clearly from the Provisional IRA? There is a precedent, in that, in the end, the democratic left detached itself from the Official IRA and entered fully and properly into democratic politics.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The essence of the Good Friday agreement was that politics in Northern Ireland should be exclusively democratic and non-violent, and that the way forward for any political party—be it republican or any other—is to move down that road and not down the road of violence. That is why the two Governments have expressed with great robustness over the last couple of weeks the importance of ensuring that we have a clear answer from the IRA to the questions that we posed. We will continue to do that.

Will the Secretary of State not admit openly tonight his shame and embarrassment at the fact that he has to come here to explain why democracy was denied to the people of Northern Ireland on the very day that voters in Scotland and Wales were casting their votes? Does he accept that the root of the problem is that while a clear and overwhelming majority of nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland support the Belfast agreement—why would they not, as it delivers a nationalist and republican agenda?—the vast majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland do not support it? By running away from the election, the Secretary of State is simply putting off the day on which that fact will have to be faced up to and he will have to enter negotiations with those who truly represent the Unionist people of Northern Ireland.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman; nor do I admit to being ashamed or embarrassed about what we had to do. Whether we disagree about the Good Friday agreement and the institutions and systems that it set up, the hon. Gentleman and I would nevertheless agree that devolution for Northern Ireland worked well. He was a Minister in the devolved Administration. I am sure that he would agree also that an Assembly that could not produce an Executive and remain suspended was of no use to anybody.

Should the republican leadership bother to read some of the exchanges that have taken place tonight, would it not come to the conclusion that by refusing to give the answers that are necessary to both sovereign Governments, the IRA is in effect playing right into the hands of the very people who are dedicated to destroying the Good Friday agreement? Perhaps it would be useful if the IRA and its political allies realised that fact.

I agree. I am not sure whether IRA members are watching the statement on the parliamentary channel this evening, but if they are, I repeat the message that I gave to the House an hour ago: we must have a clear and unambiguous statement with regard to the ending of all paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. Only then can we proceed successfully with the peace process.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the electoral mandate given to Assembly Members in 1998 has now expired and that parties therefore no longer have the democratic authority to negotiate? Would not it have been better for democracy for the elections to go ahead and to allow new mandates to be given to the parties?

I do not agree that the mandates for negotiation are worthless—far from it. The purpose of negotiations in Northern Ireland is to ensure that all parties, if they so wish, can take part in negotiations and discussions. The hon. Lady knows that my door is always open to members of all parties in Northern Ireland to discuss these issues. In the weeks ahead, I will ensure that all parties in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to make their points known.

Those of my constituents who listened to the Secretary of State's statement tonight will have heard him say that elections have been postponed in Northern Ireland because the IRA has failed to surrender its weapons. They may well ask me whether the simpler and fairer way forward would have been to exclude IRA-Sinn Fein from the electoral process. How would my right hon. Friend help me answer my constituents' question?

My right hon. Friend's constituents' questions would be answered by referring to the agreement made in 1998, which provided for exclusion from the Assembly, by the Assembly itself. That did not happen, but the agreement also said that politics in Northern Ireland should be exclusively peaceful. Exclusively peaceful politics can be achieved only if there is a commitment on the part of parties that are linked to the IRA, within the republican movement, to secure an end to paramilitary activity. That in turn led to the destruction of trust and confidence between the parties in Northern Ireland, and to the suspension of the Assembly. When we have restored trust, we can restore the institutions, and hold our elections.

Further to that question, does the Secretary of State not see that there is something fundamentally and morally wrong in a political arrangement that suspends the workings of democratic, devolved government because a terrorist organisation refuses to give up violence? Should there not be an arrangement whereby nationalist and Unionist parties exclusively committed to democracy can resume restored devolved government?

That has to be based, of course, on there being willingness and agreement across the political board that that should occur. I think that, in many ways, there is something particularly immoral about 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. Whatever the deficiencies of the Good Friday agreement since it was signed in 1998 and brought into effect, I believe that the world has changed for the better in Northern Ireland. It is much better than in the 30 years that preceded the agreement. I therefore believe that, although all of us deeply regret that we have had to postpone the elections, it would have been much worse to see the process fail.

The Secretary of State has said several times that the agreement cannot be changed. Will he accept that the agreement has been changed, in so far as the An Taoiseach is having a direct role in Northern Ireland's internal affairs, which is contrary to strand 1? Will he also accept that some people were conned into voting for the agreement by promises from the Prime Minister that have not been fulfilled? The Secretary of State will be aware that a famous Ulster actor is starring at the moment in a television series called "Murphy's Law". We in Ireland are never too happy about Murphy's law.

Well, there is no answer to that really, is there? The law that has to reign supreme in Northern Ireland is the one that allows us to have a peaceful Northern Ireland, with stable political institutions. In 1998, people believed that the agreement provided that. No one thought for one second that we would have complete peace and harmony after 1998—far from it; everybody knew that there was going to be a very bumpy road ahead of us. I suppose that we have hit the biggest bump of the lot during the past number of weeks. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that, central to the whole question, is the importance of ensuring that the IRA—and indeed all paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland—ceases its activities.

It is nearly Wednesday. How many sitting days will there be between publication of the Bill to postpone the elections and its Second Reading? Is it intended that all the Bill's stages will be taken in one day, which would be unsatisfactory?

In the great scheme of things, my next question is perhaps unimportant, but the Secretary of State has not spoken about the staff of Members of the Legislative Assembly and the high street offices. What will happen to them, particularly as regards redundancy notices?

The Bill will be published by Thursday, and, so long as the House authorities and the usual channels agree, there will be a day for all stages at the beginning of next week. I know that that may be regarded as unsatisfactory, but my hon. Friend will be aware that in order to fulfil the requirements of ensuring that one election has ended and the other started we have to act within a given time frame.

On my hon. Friend's second question, let me assure him that we are carefully considering the issue of the political parties and their staff, and not least the staff of the Assembly itself, and are looking at how to ensure that the political process continues in Northern Ireland in the months between now and when the elections are held.

Is the Secretary of State not ashamed and embarrassed at coming to the House to defend the cancellation of elections, for cancellation is what it is? Will he explain how he could tell us on Thursday that the elections would be postponed until the autumn but that he has twice in his statement tonight reverted simply to "hoping" that the elections will take pi ace in the autumn? Is it not abundantly clear that he knows well that the conditions that he requires will not be met even in the autumn, and that his attempt was simply intended to save the skins of those Unionists who have supported the Belfast agreement against the wishes of the Unionist community?

No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The trust and confidence necessary to re-establish the Assembly., and therefore an Executive, are important. The hon. Gentleman would agree with me—he has not mentioned it—that central to that is an end of paramilitary activity. I understand his frustration and huge disappointment, from his own and his party's point of view, with regard to the postponement of the election, but I am sure chat he would agree that there is little point in electing Members to an Assembly that could remain permanently suspended. If he knocked on the doors of his constituency and in other parts of Northern Ireland, the people whom he would ask to vote would ask him the same question.

Five years ago the Belfast agreement was hailed throughout the world as a sign of hope and reconciliation. What message is sent around the world by the fact that, once again, Sinn Fein is not present in the House to take part in this discussion or from the fact that the rejectionists who were against the agreement still reject it? Meanwhile, the vast majority of people in the civil society of Northern Ireland will welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to carry on the process of normalisation and hope for the future.

People are, of course, entitled to their own views about the Good Friday agreement. Parties represented in the Chamber—the Democratic Unionist party is one, but not the only one—made their points of view known at the time of the referendum. Since then, other views have been expressed about the agreement, and they will doubtless continue to be expressed. At the end of the day, it is all about ensuring that people have the opportunity to see a possibility of peace ahead of them. I think that people in Northern Ireland have tasted that to a large extent in the last five years, in comparison with the 30 years before that. We must continue to ensure that people continue to have that hope, from whatever part of the community they come.

May I ask the Secretary of State, at one minute before midnight, to pass on to the Prime Minister our best wishes for a very happy birthday, in that for a Prime Minister who decided to take half of his birthday celebrations in Dublin with the Irish Cabinet, I think it shows a tremendous contribution to the Irish peace process?

Now for a serious point. If the Prime Minister and the Government do not come to the House soon, they will continue to turn off the people of Northern Ireland, who are just getting fed up and disillusioned and being pushed into fanatical apathy with the whole peace process, because it just stumbles and stumbles. Why do they not tell us the truth: that we cannot have devolution without Sinn Fein? Is that the Government's position, and can we take it that that is not going to change? Is it that we cannot have devolution in Northern Ireland without Sinn Fein in the Executive? If that is the position, tell us, because some of us do not want it at that price.

But the issue in the agreement was that the Assembly would be inclusive, right across Northern Ireland. There is the opportunity, the possibility within the agreement itself, for parties to be excluded from that particular Executive. It would obviously be the best for all of us were we to get to a situation where there is an end to the paramilitary activity—all those things that I have described and which are in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration. Surely it is best to see an end to that, not just because of the way in which it impacts upon an Assembly and upon devolution, but the way in which it impacts on the people of Northern Ireland in general. That is the issue; we want to see a peaceful Northern Ireland with all those terrible things stopped, and that is what we, as Governments, will be pressing for over the months ahead.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not in a difficulty here, because in the north of Ireland, which after all was established originally by threat of violence, there is a continuing determination to force one side against the other? Should he not this evening take note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) said about the possibility of an election forcing people to find a way of creating an Executive?

I agree that the right hon. Gentleman may have some concern when he has heard the extremist language and the revanchist views that we have listened to from those who never wanted peace anyway, but he should recognise that an election forces people to try to find a way of having an Executive. I wonder whether he would accept it from moderate people, who take neither the extreme view of the Protestant Unionists nor the views of those who are supporters of the IRA, that perhaps an election is the means of making people face the fact that in the north of Ireland, if we are to have peace, people actually have to live together and choose an Executive that makes that possible.

I would not dismiss that scenario at all, and that is why it was a very difficult decision. The right hon. Gentleman refers to being in difficulty. He is right; of course we are in difficulty, and it was a very difficult decision to take because the points that he has made are valid. But we had to look across the whole board and as well as looking at the political process we had to look at the peace process; they are intertwined. If at the end of the day we do not get sufficient clarity—as we have not got from the IRA—we must take that very seriously in terms of the peace process in Northern Ireland but also in terms of the impact that it has on other parties, whether or not they would join in an Executive with the IRA.

I take it from the comments that the Secretary of State made earlier in the evening that he would accept the credentials of those of us who are peaceful, democratic and law-abiding in our opposition to a process that we see as one of appeasement of terrorism. I take it that he will accept the credentials of those of us who have put forward that view consistently. If he does accept that, can he give an incentive to the many thousands of people in Northern Ireland who are equally peaceful, democratic and law-abiding but who see an increasing degree of cynicism among their community when they see evidence of an electoral opportunity to express their views being denied them? How does he present an incentive for those people to continue in their democracy, to continue in their peace, to continue to be law-abiding when he snatches the opportunity of an election from them?

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are committed to peace in Northern Ireland. I do not agree, however, on his analysis of the Assembly because cynicism would be even worse if people were elected to a body that remained suspended. I see no point in that because people would see no point in voting for it if they thought that it would be continually suspended—much better for people to vote for a body that they knew would be restored and could produce a Government for the people of Northern Ireland.

Does the Secretary of State agree that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, within 12 months of receiving a huge electoral mandate in this country, was hugely influential in securing the support, in particular, of the Unionist population of Northern Ireland for the Belfast agreement, but that that agreement has been unilaterally breached by Sinn Fein-IRA, by their failure to decommission weaponry, which they hold illegally, and that it is in the context of that unilateral breach that faith has been lost by so many of the Unionist community? Does he not understand that he has now put the Government in the position where they need Sinn Fein more than Sinn Fein needs them, because they are giving to Sinn Fein unilateral British disarmament in Northern Ireland as a reward for Sinn Fein's unilateral breach of the agreement?

That is not the case at all, because no normalisation would take place if the Chief Constable and the security forces in Northern Ireland agreed that there was still a threat. If there were still a threat, obviously, those events would not take place, and what the hon. Gentleman will read in the annexe to the joint declaration is based on the contingency of the IRA completing what we want it to complete—that is to say that it is ending paramilitary activity.

As I say, this is ultimately about trust and confidence, but it is also about indicating to the IRA that we were not happy and that we were not content with the statements that it made. It did move; there was progress, but, frankly, it was not enough and, until there is enough, I fear that—without that trust, which is necessary to bring back what is important in Northern Ireland in every respect—we will still have to wait.

One can genuinely sympathise with the Secretary of State in seeking to use the prospect of a future Assembly to try to bring Sinn Fein-IRA on to the democratic path permanently, but would not there be an equal or even greater incentive to do that if the elections had been allowed to go ahead, so that Sinn Fein-IRA would have felt that they were the ones who were excluding themselves, while others got on with holding the positions to which they had been democratically elected? Is not really the position that the Secretary of State is taking rather analogous—I do not mean to trivialise it—to that of a referee in the FA cup final who, when a player on one side commits a foul, instead of penalising that player, sends both teams off the field?

Except that the match has still to be played in the new season. I hope that, as I say, come the autumn, those elections are held and that, at the same time, we have the trust that is necessary to restore the institutions, but the hon. Gentleman is right in this respect: the decision was extremely difficult and the arguments were very finely balanced. It was not an easy decision at all. We think that we have taken the right one because, as I say, what is the point of electing people to an Assembly that remains suspended?