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Ministerial Office

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2006

5. If he will make it a requirement of holding ministerial office in the Northern Ireland Executive that a person must take an oath to uphold the rule of law. (79739)

All the parties should support the rule of law and policing arrangements in Northern Ireland, especially those holding ministerial office in a restored Northern Ireland Executive, who should also abide by the terms of the pledge of office, which commits them to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

Many people believe that former terrorists should not be Ministers. However, if they are to serve in the Northern Ireland Executive, the very least they could do is to take an oath to uphold the rule of law so that their despicable pasts can be just that—their past. Would the Secretary of State agree?

I agree absolutely, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the pledge of office, which commits all serving members to commit themselves to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, is effectively a commitment to the rule of law. It was agreed by all the parties and is in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as a result of the Good Friday agreement. I am at one with him in insisting that all elected politicians, especially Ministers, comply with the rule of law and support the police.

Could we have an unequivocal answer from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Does he believe that all people who hold public appointments in Northern Ireland not only should support the policing arrangements but must support them, because the police uphold the rule of law? Will he say that they must support policing arrangements, and go rather further than he has to date?

Of course I think that the police must be, and should be, supported by all holding ministerial office. I want to be clear, however, that there has been a sea change on the part of republicans, Sinn Fein and the IRA in the past year or so, as a result of all the painstaking work done by our Governments and our predecessor Governments, and we should welcome that. I do not want to see another obstacle erected late in the day to stop the restoration of devolved government. If we disagree about that, that will have to be that.

The Secretary of State is correct to warn us of the dangers of turning objectives, no matter how good, into preconditions, but does he recognise that we are caught in a vicious circle of vetoes on policing? Sinn Fein says that it will not sign on for policing until the Democratic Unionist party agrees a date for the devolution of justice and policing, and the DUP says that it will not agree a date until Sinn Fein commits to supporting policing. Does the Secretary of State share my suspicion that those two parties are trading vetoes so that they can blame each other for failure?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in his own way. It is essential that all the parties, including the two that he mentioned, work together to get the restoration of devolved government and to make progress on policing. Both of those objectives are crucial to the future stability and success of Northern Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State try to understand the concern of my right hon. and hon. Friends that the message coming from the Northern Ireland Office is that—[Interruption.]

The message is that Sinn Fein is already a partner fit for Government, but there are still issues outstanding in terms of criminality and the acceptance of the rule of law. Instead of sending out his officials to leak to the BBC about the finances and position of DUP Members should the Assembly close, will he go out and tell Sinn Fein that there is work for it to do? May I also assure him that whatever issues my party considers in the run-up to 24 November, party finances will not be one of them?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have made what I expect to happen clear to Sinn Fein. He and his party have been considerably responsible for putting pressure on Sinn Fein and the IRA to make sure that they continue to change in the way that they have done in the past year. He and the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) deserve credit for that.

On the question of finance, we have made it clear that party funding for Assembly groups will have to stop if politicians do not do their jobs in the Assembly. Moreover, advice centres will have to close down and salaries will stop being paid. That is what the people of Northern Ireland have demanded, and that is what will happen at midnight on 24 November if there is no agreement.