I beg to move, That the Bill be read a Second time.
The Bill is potentially the most significant for generations. It gives effect to the St. Andrews agreement with its twin pillars of power sharing on a fair and equitable basis and support for policing and the rule of law across the whole community. Those twin pillars stand or fall together. The Bill means that the vision set out in the Good Friday agreement can at last be fully realised: a Northern Ireland of equals where political difference can be accommodated, cultural diversity celebrated, division healed, and where young people can look forward to a safe, secure and peaceful future.
Since April 1998, Northern Ireland has been in transition: from conflict to peace, from instability to stability, from economic stagnation to increasing prosperity, from a divided past into a shared future. The time is now right to complete the transition, with the local parties delivering on a stable and lasting political settlement.
In Armagh last April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach made it clear that 2006 was the year of decision for the political parties in Northern Ireland. I have made it clear both in this House and outside that the political process could not be allowed to become an end in itself, and that politicians could not and would not continue to be paid—now, for over four years—without doing their jobs, as if there was no tomorrow. Northern Ireland’s public will not tolerate that.
The time has come for action on restoring devolution, ending the democratic deficit and closing down direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough for locally accountable, democratic government. The politicians of Northern Ireland have waited long enough to take their proper place, with responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland, and to be answerable to the electorate for their decisions. With this Bill, the Government are delivering on our commitment to bring that about. It is now up to the parties to deliver on their obligations, too.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that tomorrow, the Scottish Parliament will discuss the collapse of Farepak, which effectively robbed hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families— many of whom come from Northern Ireland—of Christmas. Surely the Northern Ireland Assembly should discuss this issue, and particularly the fact that letters were sent out on 12 September telling people that they had to pay their bills by 6 October—the week before the company went into liquidation.
I pay tribute to the fearless way in which my hon. Friend has exposed the Farepak scandal. He is absolutely right—if a Northern Ireland Assembly were up and running, that issue could be raised on the Floor of that Assembly, and Back Benchers could press Ministers for action to ensure that the families in Northern Ireland who have suffered so badly as a result of the Farepak scandal could get justice.
Given that we did not have a particularly lengthy debate—in fact, none at all—on the allocation of time motion, can the Secretary of State explain for the benefit of the House, and particularly of those in Northern Ireland, what justification there is for bulldozing through this House today in six and a half hours a Bill that changes the constitution of Northern Ireland?
I point out to the hon. Lady, whom I respect greatly, that the reason is to make progress, so that we can meet the deadline of the end of the week. The House has just nodded through the motion, thereby giving its assent to this timetable. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have a chance to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I shall be happy to take any interventions from her.
I thought that he might. He moved the motion formally, without making a speech, which I was very appreciative of. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and I, and a few others, have a dilemma, however. We want to get to the guts of this legislation, which is extremely important, but that does not excuse the Government from not allowing two days for debate—one for Second Reading and the second for consideration in Committee. The matter is urgent, but it is not that urgent. This happens time and again with Northern Ireland legislation. What is the justification for going through all the stages in one day?
My hon. Friend is a very diligent parliamentarian—there are few more diligent—but I have already answered the point and the House has accepted the programme motion. We need to get on with devolution in Northern Ireland and to make progress, which is why we are bringing the Bill before the House in this form.
I want to take the Secretary of State back to his comment about Members of the Assembly no longer being paid after a certain date if progress is not made. Does he not think it time that we looked again at the fact that Sinn Fein Members of this House get huge sums of money? Although three quarters of their duties should be carried out in this House, they are never here to carry them out. Why are we justifying all that money, when we are blackmailing Assembly Members to get back to holding discussions in order to avoid not being paid?
There has been no blackmail at all. The people of Northern Ireland have demanded that this happen. They have demanded that, after four years of the politicians not fulfilling their obligations in an Assembly, they get the show on the road, or that Stormont shut down. The question of Sinn Fein’s allowances was decided by the House following a recommendation by the Independent Monitoring Commission. That was after the House had withdrawn those allowances—in fact, I think that I moved the motion myself—following another, earlier recommendation from the IMC.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to the House that it was because of something that Sinn Fein did that all the Assembly Members were put out of their offices and were unable to do the work, and that no Member of this House has any right to indict them? They did nothing, but they had to take the scourge that should have been put on the back of Sinn Fein only.
The explanatory notes refer to the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, but as far as I can tell, the Bill is silent on that point. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when the regulations flowing from the Equality Act 2006 will take effect in Ulster?
It depends on which regulations the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but in respect of the Human Rights Commission, legislation will be introduced next week, which will cover the relevant reforms for Northern Ireland, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to inspect it then.
As has been the case throughout the process, little is ever easy or straightforward.
I can well understand why the parties are edging forward with considerable caution and I can quite see why feelings are fragile, why anxious party members worry about what their leaders may have accepted and why a marauding media picks away at the fragilities. The easy option—for politicians and, of course, for journalists, too—is to prise open the detail of understandings and to unnerve either or both sides with negatives. The harder option is to stick with it, to show courage and fortitude, and say that the positives outweigh the negatives by a million miles. In Northern Ireland’s politics, it has always been easier to say no, always harder to say yes.
I know that there are issues on which all sides want reassurance. Where the Government can give that reassurance, we will. Where the parties must give reassurance to each other, they should. But there is nothing—given the will to do it—that cannot be resolved within the time frame set out in the St. Andrews agreement. I believe that the will is there, but that the St. Andrews momentum must be maintained to achieve the end.
I am not convinced by arguments that say, “We cannot do a deal at 5 to midnight, but we might do at 5 past—or with another day here, or another week there, or six months more, but let’s get Christmas out of the way first”. No. The timetable to devolution is clear.
I would like to take up the Secretary of State’s offer of providing reassurance. Will he reassure me, on behalf of my constituents and many others across Northern Ireland, that what we are driving through here today at top speed will, in fact, bring about nominations by the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein by Friday? Can I have that reassurance?
If I may say so, I fully intend to deal with that matter in just a second—in fact, precisely this second, so the hon. Lady intervened at a very timely point.
On 24 November—this Friday—the Assembly will convene and the DUP and Sinn Fein, as the two largest parties, will indicate who the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will be, come the restoration on 26 March. That indication will trigger the transitional Assembly, which can get down to the real work of preparing a programme for Government. In January 2007, we will have the 13th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission and the seventh report since the IRA declared that it would end its illegal activity. On 7 March, there will be an election in which the people will speak and on 14 March, members of the Executive will be nominated by party leaders. On 26 March, power will be devolved and the d’Hondt process of choosing an Executive will run, with Ministers assuming office taking the pledge of office. That Monday will be “democracy day” for Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman has told us the date of the election, which is in the Bill, but will he confirm that whatever is decided on Friday this week could well be changed by the electorate of Northern Ireland on 7 March?
The electorate will speak and give a mandate to their parties to support the St. Andrews agreement. That is the purpose of the election and it is why the largest two parties requested that if there were to be any consultation, it should happen through an election. There is now cross-party support for pursuing the St. Andrews agreement, which is why we intend to move forward on that basis.
The Secretary of State mentioned Friday 24 November and said that the DUP and Sinn Fein would have to indicate who their nominees would be. What form is that indication to take? What happens if either party does not make that indication?
I have given an outline of what will happen on 24 November. I am currently in discussion with the Speaker and the parties. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to make it clear that it is important that Friday is successful. Friday 24 November was part of the St. Andrews architecture, to which all the parties, including his, signed up—I accept that they did so in broad terms. If Friday 24 November is not successful, the door to a transitional Assembly and everything that follows will not be unlocked. That is the clear position that everybody faces.
As I interpreted it, the Secretary of State stated categorically that, on Friday, the DUP and Sinn Fein will nominate First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Is that a categorical assurance, without qualification? If that is not fulfilled, what would constitute a failure of the rubric on Friday that, in his view, would inhibit further progress in the restoration process?
As I said, the two largest parties will indicate who the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister will be, come restoration on 26 March. I do not anticipate failure at any point in the process. I anticipate success because the people of Northern Ireland want success and all the parties who came to St. Andrews and left endorsing the broad terms of the St. Andrews agreement want that success, too. We are working for success. However, let us be clear: if there is failure at any time, Stormont dissolves and everybody packs up and goes home. That has been clear for a long time and it is clear in the Bill.
Like the Secretary of State, I am planning and hoping for success, but I am not optimistic that the deadlines that he describes are genuine. Why, when 24 November was a cast-iron deadline set in statute, which we are changing, should any Northern Ireland party be confident that the other three deadlines that he outlined in March are any more solid and unchangeable than 24 November? I accept that he needs wriggle room to make it work but, at the moment, we are discussing not wriggle room but completely flexible deadline room.
I have been grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support and that of his party throughout the process, although he has asked legitimate questions, as he is doing now.
In May, when we passed the emergency Bill to set up the transitional Assembly—the Northern Ireland Act 2006—I said that agreement had to be reached by 24 November. That has happened. We had St. Andrews and the parties’ indication that we should introduce the Bill. If there had been no agreement, we would have closed Stormont down. The hon. Gentleman supported that strategy and it remains. There is no wriggle room in the Bill. If any of the dates are not met, and especially if the Assembly and the Executive are not fully restored on 26 March, it will all close down and dissolution takes place. There is no wriggle room in that, and there will not be any.
The Secretary of State made a similar statement about 24 November. He said that there would be no negotiation, no change and no movement beyond that. Now he has reached a stage whereby the two parties, in some vague way, must “indicate” who the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are likely to be. What confidence can any of us have that the Government will be any more robust about the March deadlines given that, in my judgment, the commonly received view is that all the deadlines up to now have been subject to change?
I am obviously happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions, as I always do. However, I am not sure where his last question is leading him. I made it clear throughout to the House and in other public pronouncements, as did my ministerial team, that agreement had to be reached by 24 November. A deal had to be done by then. That has been achieved and it is why we are introducing the Bill. If there had been no agreement at St. Andrews and the parties had not subsequently given it a fair wind, we would not be introducing the Bill today.
Assuming that this legislation goes through the House and the other place and that it receives Royal Assent on Thursday morning, it will then set in statute the date for the election and the date for restoration, and the powers contained in clause 2 make it clear that, if it is apparent to me at any time that there will not be restoration at the end of the process, I can move to dissolution immediately.
Only one party has been absolutely clear: the UK Unionist party of Bob McCartney. He has made it absolutely crystal clear that he is opposed to this entire project—always was and always will be.
I am under no illusions about the process. There is still work to be done. No one can be forced into government, and no one will be forced into government. If at any stage between now and 26 March—this repeats the point that I was making earlier—we run out of track, devolution becomes dissolution: the clock is stopped, the election scrapped. That is the reality. In that event, direct rule and plan B, with even closer co-operation with the Irish Government, will stretch into the foreseeable future. The Governments will not be chasing after the parties. We will have done as much as we humanly can. It would be for the parties to come to the Governments to tell us when they would be ready to do the deal that would restore devolution. I leave it to Members to state how likely they believe a deal would be done by the parties on their own when they could not accept the deal facilitated by the Government.
The Secretary of State talks about the process running out of track. Could he give an indication to the House about when he will make a judgment if Sinn Fein fails to hold its special party meeting to endorse the police and the rule of law in Northern Ireland? At which point does he determine in this process that we run out of track on that issue?
Sinn Fein needs to call an ard fheis—and before it, I guess, an ard chomhairle—to make it crystal clear that it is signing up to the pledge of office and that it is endorsing the terms of this legislation and the pillar that I mentioned at the beginning about the support for the rule of law and policing. It is absolutely crucial that Sinn Fein has to call that conference, and I expect it to do so.
There is a choice to be made by the parties and the people—not next week, not next month, not next year, not the year after that, but now. Choices do not get easier if they are postponed; mostly they get harder.
Has the Secretary of State seen the recent statement by Sinn Fein saying that it will not call an ard fheis, or whatever it is called? Excuse me, I cannot pronounce these so-called Irish words; I am an Ulsterman. Has he seen the statement by Sinn Fein—not by the leader of Sinn Fein, but by Sinn Fein, as the newspapers have pointed out—saying that it will not call that meeting of the ard fheis?
I have not, but it is absolutely apparent and crystal clear to me that, to fulfil the terms of this legislation and to fulfil the implementation of the St. Andrews agreement, Sinn Fein has made it clear that it needs an ard fheis to support it in the way forward. That ard fheis will need to be called at the appropriate time.
It is a matter for Sinn Fein; but of course, it is important that Sinn Fein make its position clear.
This legislation provides the mechanism to go forward. The twin pillars of power sharing and the rule of law are enshrined in the pledge of office that all Ministers must take on 26 March, to take office. The pledge of office requires all Ministers to
“promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly towards the goal of a shared future”.
Politicians everywhere, particularly those who aspire to govern, are there not just to represent and work for those who voted for them and loaned them their mandate but for those who did not.
In a society that has been as bitterly divided as Northern Ireland, politicians who have been entrusted with a mandate that will give them access to power have an even greater obligation to govern for all and not just for their own. The pledge requires all Ministers to
“participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council”.
If devolution is to deliver good government, all the institutions of government must function effectively. Anything less than a full commitment to that will sell everyone in Northern Ireland short. The pledge of office also requires Ministers to
“observe the joint nature of the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister”.
Those are fundamental tenets of power sharing, which go well beyond the symbolism—important as that is—of two different political traditions working together in equality without sacrificing either principle or integrity.
On support for the rule of law, the pledge of office, as enshrined in the Bill, could not be clearer. All Ministers will
“uphold the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing and the courts as set out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews Agreement”.
Let me remind the House of what paragraph 6, and clause 7(2) of the Bill, says about support for law and order:
“We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board”.
I recognise that the issue of policing has been contentious ever since Northern Ireland came into being, and still more so during the conflict, but we are in a very different and much better place now.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that, as far as the Unionist population is concerned, rhetoric—words—from Sinn Fein is not sufficient? There must be the proof of action—a credible period in which their action proves that they support the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Certainly, one of the tests would be handing over those in their membership who were responsible for the murder of Mr. McCartney.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that all parties, especially those aspiring to ministerial office, must support the police. Their councillors and representatives, whether MLAs or MPs, should co-operate with the police as everyone else does. That is an essential foundation for a democratic society.
Will the Secretary of State indicate whether he believes that pledging to uphold the rule of law would also include upholding and accepting the authority of, for instance, the Parades Commission? In terms of upholding the rule of law and supporting policing and the courts, will he also indicate whether the pledge of office would have any implications for a devolved Minister who might find himself the subject of grave judgment by a court after a judicial review?
In respect of the earlier point, it is absolutely essential that the Parades Commission—which is the statutorily based body responsible for the marching season, legislated for and part of the law of Northern Ireland—is respected as an institution. That does not mean that people cannot argue that it should be reformed, or that it should not change its methodology. A review of the Parades Commission is going to be undertaken. I should add—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have made this point—that the Parades Commission has done an excellent job this year. The marching season was the most peaceful on record—[Interruption.] I accept that that was not just because of the way in which the Parades Commission behaved, but because of the hard work done at local level by Unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans.
There has been no greater example of transformation in Northern Ireland than in policing, led by Sir Hugh Orde, who is recognised and admired the world over for his integrity, toughness, plain speaking and professionalism, deserving the support of the whole community, of every party and of everyone. There is increasing evidence that that is happening, shown by the rising numbers of applicants to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland from the nationalist and republican communities.
The St. Andrews agreement also included a clear commitment, and a target of May 2008, for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the restored Executive. We expect all concerned to take that target seriously. Indeed, the Bill requires the Assembly to report to the Secretary of State before 27 March 2008 on progress towards the devolution of policing and justice powers. I want to make it clear that, once policing and justice is devolved, there is nothing in the pledge that would remove or unreasonably constrain any future Minister of policing and justice from making legitimate criticism of the police. After all, proper accountability was central to the Good Friday agreement’s vision for new policing arrangements in Northern Ireland and was a core element of the Patten report’s recommendations. Proper accountability, which can sometimes include constructive criticism, is essential in delivering the police service that Northern Ireland deserves. There is a world of difference between that and a failure to support Northern Ireland policing and justice institutions.
I remind the House that, this summer, Parliament legislated for devolution of policing and justice. We want to see that delivered so that the whole of Northern Ireland can better have ownership of the rule of law and policing. That is in the interest of everyone: the old lady who is reluctant to go out at night for fear of intimidation from drunken yobs; the woman, her life shattered, who demands that her rapist be apprehended; the victim of murder; the victim of mugging; and the victim of burglary. It is one thing for republicans to explain why, for historic and political reasons, policing has been so neuralgic for them. It is quite another to turn their back on constituents who, as Northern Ireland has normalised, demand safety and security in their lives and demand that it is provided by the police.
Of course, much of policing has already been devolved and I want to pay tribute to the work of the Policing Board, the police ombudsman and the district policing partnerships for the role that they play in making the Police Service of Northern Ireland more accountable than perhaps any other force anywhere else in the world.
The Secretary of State quite rightly points out the magnificent role that those who are on the Policing Board and involved in district policing partnerships have played. Will he give an assurance that, if Sinn Fein is to come on to the Policing Board or the district policing partnerships, the independents who took great risks to serve in those institutions will not be taken off them in order to facilitate places for Sinn Fein members?
First, it is important that Sinn Fein support all the institutions of policing, including the Policing Board and the DPPs. There is no question about that. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises is one that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and his party have raised with me, too. His party, especially, has supported independent candidates. Some of them have been from his party. Those candidates have taken a principled stand in moving forward in the new era of the PSNI and have often had a rough time in their communities. There has been a great deal of intimidation—sometimes threats and sometimes actual violence. The vice-chairman of the Policing Board, Denis Bradley, was attacked in a pub in Derry simply because he had been courageous and had done an excellent job on the Policing Board. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) that those members who stood by the policing institutions deserve support and recognition.
The future of devolution for Northern Ireland rests on twin pillars: if either one collapses, the whole edifice collapses. We must know that the parties want to move forward to 26 March on that basis. That is why 24 November—this Friday—is important. When that deadline was set, well before St. Andrews, I said that we needed to know by then that a deal was on and that we were on track for a lasting political settlement—devolution. That is still the case. Without knowing that, there cannot be a transitional Assembly. Without knowing that, there cannot be an election. Without knowing that, there cannot be devolution. The sequence set out at St. Andrews will not be set aside. No one should see this as some kind of virility test to see who will blink first. If the Assembly has to be dissolved because we cannot move forward, it will be. I sincerely hope that it will not come to that.
As the Preparation for Government Committee showed over the summer, meeting with all parties present for 43 sessions between 5 June and 30 October, the parties can work constructively together when they choose to. Indeed they did so yesterday in the first meeting of the Programme for Government Committee. That was the first of what I am sure will be many meetings, because it is clear that there is considerable work to be done as we move to the point where the people can give their verdict in the election to be held 7 March 2007. There is work to be done on education reform, rates, water charges and rural homes planning; work to be done on the ministerial code; and work to be done on preparing for devolution of policing and justice—work to be done not, as now, by direct rule Ministers, but by locally accountable politicians.
I am conscious that there was a range of views on how the commitment at St. Andrews to consult the people should be met. There is a case for a referendum, which does have the attraction of being a single issue question, but if a referendum were to be held, an election would follow within a year of the new Executive getting down to work. What the newly devolved institutions will need is a prolonged period of stability in the four years before the next election is due, in May 2011. For the parties to go into election mode almost from day one would inevitably get in the way of MLAs getting on with the business of government on the wide range of challenges that will face them—education, rates, rural planning, water charges and so on. That is what the people want to see them taking charge of. Of course, the fact that the two main parties indicated that, if there was to be a reference to the people, it should be through an election, was another factor to be considered.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for being so generous in taking interventions from both sides of the House. Does he accept that, by the time the DUP and Sinn Fein have written their manifestos and promised the sun, the moon, the stars and goodness knows what else, the people of Northern Ireland will be being asked to vote in an election to a deadlocked Assembly, not the Assembly that he has just described to the House?
With all due respect, I do not see why that should be the case. The parties will be elected to a new Assembly. Their Members, as nominated, will take their place in the Executive in ministerial posts only after taking the pledge of office. Then, they will be able to move forward and govern together. When one looks at the challenges facing Northern Ireland and some of the thorny issues with which we as direct rule Ministers have had to grapple, one sees that it is imperative that responsibilities are exercised, decisions are made quickly and progress is made. That is why the work of the Programme for Government Committee, which met successfully yesterday and will, I am sure, have a programme of regular meetings in the coming days and weeks, is crucial to enabling the incoming Executive to get off to a flying start and, far from remaining deadlocked, to be very dynamic.
The Secretary of State has said several times in the course of his speech that both my party and Sinn Fein have requested an election rather than a referendum. It is, of course, true that we want an election, but Sinn Fein has specifically denied saying that it wants an election. Will the Secretary of State be crystal clear about when Sinn Fein has said that it is against a referendum and for an election?
All I can go by is what Sinn Fein told me. Its representatives told me that they would prefer no consultation prior to restoration—that was their preferred option by a long way, to be fair to them—but if there had to be consultation, as I believe there must be if we are to move forward, they preferred an election to a referendum. That was their clear choice. They would have preferred there to be no form of consultation, but I pointed out that there would be consultation, so they joined the DUP in preferring an election.
Following the election, when Ministers take the pledge of office and assume responsibility for government, Northern Ireland will have entered a new era. Between now and March—and well beyond, I have no doubt—there will be difficulties that some will call crises and some will try to make into crises, but those can be overcome if everyone delivers on their commitments. That is what this is all about—not saying it, but doing it, and finding a way to work together so that future generations are not shackled by the past.
Just last week the cutting edge travel guide, “Lonely Planet”, said that Northern Ireland is one of the must-see destinations for tourists. It stated that Northern Ireland was
“abuzz with life: the cities are pulsating, the economy is thriving and the people, the lifeblood that courses through the country, are in good spirits”.
There could be no greater incentive for the parties in Northern Ireland to be an active part of that. They can be, and this House trusts that they will be. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is never satisfactory when we are invited to bypass the normal procedures of the House for debate and detailed scrutiny, but this is one of those occasions when I believe that it is right for the House to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and to co-operate in seeing the Bill through all its stages today. It is somewhat ironic that we are being invited to repeal the Northern Ireland Act 2006, which we solemnly debated and passed as recently as July. However, as the Secretary of State hinted, the Government are in a tight spot as regards this Friday’s deadline, whereby the current statutory position is that on Friday he must either restore the devolved institutions or dissolve the Assembly and cease the payment of salaries and allowances altogether. I argued consistently that the November deadline was over-optimistic; the Secretary of State will probably riposte that had he not set the November deadline we might not have moved as far forward as was achieved at St. Andrews.
One thing that is clear is that over the past few months we have at least inched closer to an agreement. We are closer now than we were back in July. The Independent Monitoring Commission has reported that the provisionals have dismantled key departments of their paramilitary organisation and the IRA leadership is working to stop the involvement of its members in crime.
St. Andrews was a step forward. I welcome the clear statements from the Democratic Unionist party, particularly from the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), that it is willing to take part in a power-sharing Executive that includes Sinn Fein, provided that the basic democratic ground rules are accepted and observed by all parties. It is important that we all acknowledge that that commitment from the Unionists is a remarkable and generous step for them to take, given the bloody history of the Provisional IRA and the personal bereavements that so many people in the Unionist parties and the democratic nationalist tradition have had to bear.
However, one key element is missing. There is a gap in the framework of arrangements that would allow devolution to proceed. If Sinn Fein is to be accepted, as it claims, as a normal democratic political party, and if its leaders are to serve as Ministers in Northern Ireland, it must say and show by its actions that it supports the police and the courts of the place that it will be helping to govern. Doing so does not mean that Sinn Fein, or anyone else for that matter, needs to stop campaigning for votes on a manifesto that seeks further reforms to the police service or the criminal justice system—we frequently have such debates in this Chamber and campaign on those issues out in the country—but it does mean requiring that the republican movement accept that the authority exercised by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and by the courts is legitimate. It means people showing its practical support by reporting crimes to the police, by giving evidence to police inquiries, and by acting as witnesses in court cases—in other words, it means accepting the basic responsibilities held not only by Ministers, but by all citizens in any normal democracy. Those are responsibilities that all Members of the House of all parties, and every mainstream political party in the Republic of Ireland, take for granted.
The hon. Gentleman outlined the bloody history to which the IRA has subjected the people of Northern Ireland, and he is graphically illustrating the move that Sinn Fein must make towards giving support to the rule of law and the police. Does he understand that, given that background, we need to set a credible period of time in which Sinn Fein must go further than just saying that it supports the rule of law? We need to see practical examples of that support on the ground, once it has given that commitment, before we can move forward.
There must be both a clear statement of commitment and evidence on the ground, and I look to bodies such as the Independent Monitoring Commission and the Police Service of Northern Ireland itself to provide evidence of that change on the ground. If it is possible to achieve devolution by next March, that sort of regular co-operation with the police, constructive participation in district policing partnerships and co-operation with the Policing Board will be very important, especially if the Assembly is to be persuaded to ask the Secretary of State and the House to devolve policing and criminal justice to the institutions in Stormont.
I almost apologise for asking this question, because it is an awkward one to bowl towards the shadow Secretary of State. He has heard the Secretary of State avoiding answering, and cringing under, sedentary comments from colleagues asking him the “when” question. Clearly, if a date of 26 March is set, there must be a point along the road from the St. Andrews agreement to that date at which it becomes ludicrous to ask people to accept the bona fides of Sinn Fein. Does that point come at 7 March, in February, or in January? At what point along that line must Sinn Fein make that statement and that commitment?
I see no reason why Sinn Fein should not make it tomorrow, but I preface my answer by remarking that I genuinely do not want to say anything that will hem in the Secretary of State when he comes to make that difficult judgment. However, looking at the evolving political situation in Northern Ireland, it seems that if the transitional Assembly is to be dissolved on 30 January, and if parties are then to go to the electorate and ask people to vote for their candidates, there must, by then, be certainty about Sinn Fein endorsing policing. In practice, it will be very difficult to persuade voters to support at the ballot box a package based on St. Andrews in the absence of such a commitment. To ask people to seek election on the basis of a “perhaps” or a conditional promise is asking a lot. The electoral process will start to impose its own pressures on the timetable.
As I said, I do not want to impose arbitrary dates, particularly because, as an Opposition spokesman, I am not party to the details of conversations between Ministers and the various political parties, but the thrust of what my hon. Friend says is correct. We are looking for some sign of clear movement within a period of weeks, rather than of several months.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, as he is dealing with the nub of the issue. For people in Northern Ireland it is vital that there be a credible period in which to test individuals who have engaged in the butchery that has been under way for 30 years. They need to move pretty soon—any time now, in fact—on policing, criminality and paramilitary structures in order to be credible. There is a 10-week period from today until an election is called, so most people think that that condition cannot be met.
The sooner that that happens, the better. In considering the points made by Northern Ireland Members, I am reminded of the draft comprehensive agreement of 2004. Both the British and Irish Governments expected that, within two months of that agreement becoming a firm one, Sinn Fein would take the necessary steps to endorse policing. In July this year, Members on both sides of the House took steps to make sure that the legislation to permit the devolution of criminal justice and policing completed its passage through Parliament and received Royal Assent before the summer recess, when we expected significant moves forward by the republican movement. I am dismayed that, so far, it has failed to take those steps.
From my perspective in Essex, there is an elephant trap for the constitutional parties—the Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionist party and colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party. If Sinn Fein does not deliver in a short time, surely it faces a dilemma. It may wish to maximise its strength, but it will go to the electorate without delivering or being prepared to play ball. There is a danger that ambiguous and confused signals will be sent to the various electorates. The parties want elections, and they want to maximise their seats to show their strength, but they will not enter a coalition with people who have not signed up to the police and court services.
I can only repeat that the electoral timetable will impose its own pressures on political developments, precisely because candidates at those elections must decide what to include in their election addresses, and what they will say on the doorstep to the people whose support they are trying to secure. They must answer the kind of questions from electors that the hon. Gentleman suggested. It is a shame, to put it mildly, that Sinn Fein failed to move over the summer.
The Secretary of State touched on the following point. When I talk to Sinn Fein politicians, I sometimes wonder whether they fully appreciate the nature of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I believe that much of the criticism of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was based on an unfair caricature, so it is disappointing that, even today, Sinn Fein spokesmen appear to resort to that ancient caricature to describe the PSNI of the early 21st century.
A few weeks ago, with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I visited Garnerville, where we met a number of police recruits. All the senior police officers left the room, leaving my right hon. Friend and me alone with those new recruits. We both left the meeting inspired by a group of young men and women from both traditions in Northern Ireland who were committed to delivering modern, effective community policing to the men and women of Northern Ireland, whatever their political or religious or cultural traditions. We heard young men and women from the Ardoyne and other nationalist and republican heartlands saying that whereas their parents’ generation would certainly have shunned the police and would never have contemplated a career in the police, they believed that they were helping to build something that was new, exciting and in the interests of everyone in the whole of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein leaders need to wake up to the reality of what is going on. I also hear from police officers on the ground that ordinary men and women in republican heartlands increasingly want to see effective neighbourhood policing, and they want their political leaders in Sinn Fein to lift the ban on co-operation with the PSNI that I am afraid it still seeks to impose through the threat of intimidation.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is describing accurately—and eloquently, if I may say so—the pressures on the ground. The paramilitary grip on many of the communities—involving punishment beatings for drug dealing and all that kind of thing—has receded and has, in many respects, been completely withdrawn by the Provisional IRA, although dissident republicans are acting in a different way. The people are now bringing pressure to bear, and they are saying to their Sinn Fein representatives, “I want this burglary dealt with. I want this rape dealt with. I want you to do your job and to co-operate with the police so that my safety can be protected in the absence of alternative forms of protection.” The fact that those changes are happening under the rule of law puts enormous pressure on Sinn Fein, which knows that it is moving in that direction in any case.
In the light of the severe criticism that the hon. Gentleman has rightly levelled at Sinn Fein for dragging out the period in which it is prepared to give its acceptance to policing and the criminal justice system, and of the Secretary of State’s assurances that there will be nominations this Friday, 24 November, does the hon. Gentleman believe that the DUP is jumping too soon by nominating by Friday?
We shall have to see what happens on Friday regarding any nomination process that takes place. It seems to me that the Democratic Unionist party is accepting its responsibilities as the largest political party in Northern Ireland and is seeking a way for devolution to be restored. It deserves credit for the moves that it has made, and I now want to see Sinn Fein live up to its frequent claim to have put the past behind it and to be a normal democratic political organisation. I understand the differences and the old battles between the established democratic political parties in Northern Ireland, but I really believe that everyone’s attention now needs to be focused on the need for the republicans to deliver on policing and on support for the criminal justice system. That is the essential ingredient of the enduring settlement that is still missing.
We are hoping to go into the Bill in greater detail during its subsequent stages this evening, and to raise various questions with the Minister. I want to highlight four areas of concern that I hope the Minister of State will be able to deal with in his response to this debate. If he cannot do so, perhaps he will be able to respond to them during subsequent proceedings.
The first concern relates to the accountability of Ministers in part 2 of the Bill. It is important that the Government should set out clearly how that is to work. It would appear from what the different Northern Ireland parties have said and from some of the press comment on the matter that there are contradictory claims about the extent to which an individual Minister will have autonomy and to which he or she will be subject to the collective will of the Executive. When it comes to matters such as sorting out the details of education—for instance, criteria for admission to post-primary schools—an answer to that question will be very important.
Secondly, I want the Government to spell out more fully what will happen if devolution is restored—if the deadline of 25 March is met—but the Provisional IRA then returns to crime. We do not want that to happen, but after the Northern bank robbery we must accept that it is a matter of more than just academic speculation. I do not think that in those circumstances it would be right for every other party to be penalised.
Thirdly, clause 9 and schedule 6 provide for the establishment of a department for policing and justice. I have no quarrel with that, but I hope the Government will assure us that it would be accompanied by a reduction in the number of other departments at Stormont. I do not think that we need yet another hierarchy of officials and team of Ministers to add to the large number that Northern Ireland would already have under devolution.
I also hope that the Government will look afresh at the possibility of district policing partnerships sub-groups outside Belfast. It seems to me that in limiting the number of DPPs to the number of councils, we risk making DPPs remote from local communities. We are approaching a time when there will be just seven local authorities in Northern Ireland, and those outside Belfast will cover very large areas of land and very diverse populations. Might not having just one DPP to cover the whole of such a local authority area remove effective neighbourhood participation in policing?
Fourthly, I want to question the Government on their time scale for moving towards what I would term normal politics. I accept that in the circumstances of Northern Ireland the system of designating Assembly Members Unionist or nationalist, and the complex rules for cross-community voting, are necessary; but I hope that that will not always be the case.
When I have talked to politicians in Northern Ireland, I have met members of both the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party whose views on questions of economic policy and general political philosophy would be pretty close to mine, and others whose outlook would be much closer to that of the Secretary of State and the Labour party. I expect the Secretary of State has found the same. At the risk of horrifying the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I will add that I have met members of the SDLP whom in England I would welcome to the Conservative party, and who I think would feel very much at home there. I hope, however, that in a stable, devolved settlement in Northern Ireland, politics will be about health, jobs, schools and the environment, and no longer about deadlines, the operation of committees and the internal rules of devolved institutions. Do we really have to wait until 2015 for any review of the current arrangements, as clause 11 envisages? Should it not be possible to bring the date forward if devolution is clearly settled, enduring and working well?
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not; I am coming to the end of my speech.
Whatever the time scale for moving beyond the terms of the settlement envisaged at St Andrews, it is time for us to make a start on getting devolution up and running. I agree with the Secretary of State that Northern Ireland needs devolved democracy that is accountable to the local electorate. I agree with him that the people of Northern Ireland, from both traditions, want decisions about their public services and environment to be made by politicians who are accountable to them, the people, and who are accessible in a way that even the best-intentioned politician representing an English or Welsh constituency cannot be. But such devolution, if it is to work, has to proceed on the basis that the same democratic rules apply to every political party and, in particular, to every Minister. Above all, it must rest on every Minister and their parties wholeheartedly accepting the rule of law and the legitimacy of the authority of the courts and of the police.
I very much welcome the Bill and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his ministerial team and, of course, the parties in Northern Ireland on the progress that they have made so far on the St. Andrews agreement. My right hon. Friend will recall that one of our predecessors as Secretary of State for Wales referred to devolution as a process, not an event. I did not share that view with regard to Welsh devolution, but I certainly share it with regard to Northern Ireland.
The Bill will alter the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in many instances. I had the privilege of steering that Act through the House because it was based on the Belfast—or Good Friday—agreement. There are occasions when it is necessary to change the way in which arrangements for governance in Northern Ireland are dealt with, and I welcome the changes in the Bill on consultation.
When we had the privilege of hearing my right hon. Friend’s statement on the St. Andrews agreement, one of the sketchwriters said that he was good cop and bad cop combined. I suppose that if I were in his place, I would have to do more or less the same thing. However, we have to be a little careful about deadlines and closing down things, or other draconian measures that might arise from the way in which we deal with matters over the weeks and months ahead. I know what the reasoning is—that we cannot go on as we are for ever—but the political and peace process in Northern Ireland has been going on for a long time and will continue for a long time—longer than any of us are in the House of Commons.
We have to be very careful not to be patronising to the local political parties in Northern Ireland and the way in which they deal with these matters. I do not suggest for one second that my right hon. Friend is patronising, but it is a danger for all Governments. After all, the Belfast agreement was not made by the British or Irish Governments, although technically in law it was. It was facilitated and driven by the Governments, but in reality it would have been a complete failure if it had not been based on the work of the local parties. Any agreement in Northern Ireland will fail unless it is based on that. It is the ownership of any agreement or negotiations that makes them successful. The two Governments could have sat down and written the Belfast agreement in a couple of weeks and it would not have been a million miles away from what eventually emerged, but it would not have worked. The two and a half years it took to create were necessary because they involved the parties talking about the issues and, above all, reaching agreement on them. In paying tribute to the local parties in Northern Ireland for doing what they have to do, we have to bear that in mind in the weeks and months ahead.
I thought that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) gave an exemplary description of where Northern Ireland is now in respect of policing, and I agree with every word he said. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made similar statements. Sinn Fein and the republican movement have come a long way and we have the Independent Monitoring Commission to monitor developments. However, it is complete nonsense for any agreement to go ahead without the realisation that every party in Northern Ireland has to sign up to the rule of law and the new policing arrangements. People sometimes forget that it was very difficult for the Unionist community to accept the changes that the Patten report brought about, as it also was for the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland—but accept them everybody did. Of course, some people would like changes to be made, and we will consider some amendments to the Bill later this afternoon. Nevertheless, people made sacrifices for the new policing arrangement—the Police Service of Northern Ireland—to work as well as it does.
I also agree with the hon. Member for Aylesbury that elections are an issue—that the closer we get to the elections in Northern Ireland, the more difficult it will be to get away from electioneering. It is true that when the comprehensive agreement was almost agreed in the winter of 2004, Sinn Fein would have signed up to the policing arrangements in Northern Ireland very quickly. I see no reason why that cannot happen again, and every reason why it should happen in order to develop the process.
There has to be a special arrangement for the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, because devolution there is not quite like Welsh or Scottish devolution. Those devolved systems are important, but devolution in Northern Ireland is about more than governance—it is about our ability to govern together. All the months and years spent establishing how the Assembly and other institutions were to be set up were based on the premise that we would govern together. As soon as that is achieved, the problem of devolution will be resolved, and we can get on with the business of governing the people for whom we have a mandate.
Another consequence will be that there will be an end to direct rule, which was brought in as an historical necessity 30 years ago and should long since have gone. I have said more than once in this House that I very much regretted having to deal with education, health and social services as part of my Northern Ireland portfolio, because it was not my business to do that, any more than it is the business of another Labour Member. Labour Members have no mandate in Northern Ireland: not one person there votes for the Labour party. It is important that people there should be governed by people with the proper mandate. The longer direct rule goes on, the more difficult it will be for devolution to be accepted and to become embedded into the constitutional system of Northern Ireland.
It is important that when my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues deal with the issues that come before them between now and the end of March, they take serious account of the views of local politicians. I have said that before, but it is worth repeating. I do not express a view one way or the other, but the agreement states that it will be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to deal with education. I believe that other issues could be left to the Assembly. Of course, if no agreement is reached, the situation will be different, but we all agree that there should be an agreement. If there is, major decisions on how the people of Northern Ireland live their lives should be left until the new Assembly is up and running.
Some people believe that it would be better not to have devolution and to leave the governance of Northern Ireland to Members of Parliament here and the seven new super local authorities that will be formed by joining together existing local authorities. That is not the answer to the problems in Northern Ireland—there has to be proper devolution there in the same way as in Scotland and Wales. The Secretary of State knows my views about having seven local authorities, so I shall not rehearse them, but I do not believe that the way forward for the governance of Northern Ireland is through local government and Members of Parliament. The people of Northern Ireland should be governed by their political leaders and the parties that are represented in the Assembly. That is what we all hope and pray for.
I wish to say only one more thing, and it is in my capacity as co-chairman of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body.
As the right hon. Gentleman was a key player at the time of the Belfast agreement and knows its detail like no one else in the House, will he give us his reaction to the Bill before us today? It will separate the joint election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, which was of course a cornerstone of the Belfast agreement in which he took particular interest.
I could, but I do not think that it would do any good if I went into considerable detail about what happened. When we looked at the comprehensive agreement, I spent a lot of time on changes to the way the Assembly worked, including the issue to which the hon. Lady refers. I know that people held strong views on that, for obvious reasons. The agreement was a long time in the making; it was the result of many late nights and through-the-nights, ending up in Good Friday 1998.
Although I have said that devolution is a process and not an event in Northern Ireland, we have to take great care in how we make changes. I would not want to exacerbate the situation by making a personal reference to the issue that the hon. Lady raises, but parts of the agreement could still be useful. I shall give one example. The agreement said—the people of Northern Ireland voted on this—that if there was disagreement on the newly formed Executive about how to govern Northern Ireland and how to produce a First and a Deputy First Minister, the Assembly should be dissolved and further elections should be held, and that that process should continue until such time as the issue was resolved by the people of Northern Ireland through the ballot box. That has never been tested or tried. It is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for.
In this House we have had Bill after Bill and Act after Act, but we still have not arrived at a solution. We have not tried the first one—but that is an aside. Today, we are dealing with another issue—the St. Andrews agreement, which we have to consider as it occurs in the Bill. I sometimes wonder and reflect on whether, if we had stuck by the Belfast agreement, we would have had a different outcome. I do not know; none of us does.
I return to strand 3 of the agreement on the east-west relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, the devolved institutions within them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware that the parliamentary body to which I referred earlier brings together Members of this Parliament, the Irish Parliament and the Assemblies of Wales, Scotland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It seems to me that the St. Andrews agreement, which refers to the parliamentary aspect of strand 3—although there is no direct reference to it in the Bill—should reconstitute it in such a way that Members of Parliament from all parties in Northern Ireland are in a position to become members of the parliamentary body. I understand the problems of the past, as a result of the Anglo-Irish agreement and so on, but if the body was reconstituted and formed out of the legislation on which we vote today or in the future, that would be a good development.
I shall conclude because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. I wish my right hon. Friend and his team and all the parties in Northern Ireland well in seeking a successful outcome to the negotiations.
It may seem unusual to those who have been listening to the Queen’s Speech debates that we have interrupted them for this important debate, but as others, including the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have said, we agree that the importance of what we are trying to do justifies the change in programming from what would be regular at this stage in our parliamentary proceedings.
Some may regard Northern Ireland politics as dreary, but I prefer to regard our machinations today as a light and refreshing sorbet between the heavy courses of the Queen’s Speech debates.
I start with the debate about deadlines, which is rather important. It is clear that once again the Secretary of State wants to underline the fact that the deadlines in the legislation are cast in stone. He also made it clear that Northern Ireland’s political parties should not assume that they can do a deal “five minutes after midnight”. However, everything that we have seen before suggests otherwise; almost every deadline in the Northern Ireland peace process has been broken, moved or abandoned.
I take the Secretary of State back to 26 April 2006 and the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Act 2006—the measure that we are seeking to alter today. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) said
“he is not telling the House that, were the parties in sight of an agreement on 24 November, he would bring down the guillotine, is he? Presumably we are considering not a final and ultimate but a flexible date.”
The Secretary of State responded:
“I am afraid that I cannot reassure the hon. Gentleman about that. The Bill sets the date in statute. As I said earlier, the Government will not blink. If eleventh-hour attempts are made on 24 November to force us to blink, people will be disappointed.”
I asked the Secretary of State:
“Will he assure us that they are genuinely not flexible? I ask that because, as he knows, my great anxiety is that the Government’s credibility has been somewhat tarnished by allowing deadlines to be flexible and, indeed, by occasionally ignoring them. If he wants the Bill to work, he must impress on everybody that the deadlines are not negotiable.”
The Secretary of State replied:
“I have already done that but I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to emphasise and underline as much as necessary—in flashing neon lights, if he wishes and if that is not a mixed metaphor—that the deadline is for real. The salaries and allowances will stop at midnight on 24 November. The Assembly will no longer sit, which it will be entitled to do after 15 May, and that will be that.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 597-98.]
The truth tells a different story. With the best intentions, the Secretary of State has blinked and altered the goal posts yet again. I do not condemn the Government for that change, but in response to the question that the Secretary of State implicitly asked me, it matters because he has to recognise an alternative outcome from today’s legislation: a new precedent for peace in Northern Ireland, whereby we persistently re-establish deadlines—perhaps on a six-monthly or annual basis, as we do with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005—so that we ensure a peace of sorts, but not the re-establishment of devolution.
What would I do if I were in the Secretary of State’s position? It is possible that I would find myself in the same situation, but the reason this point is salient to the debate is that for the Bill to have credibility the deadlines, too, must have credibility. When the Secretary of State—or the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—sums up the debate, I hope that we will be given some new assurance that the March deadlines are not as flexible as all the others.
The Secretary of State’s claims that the Government have not shifted the goal posts, or shifted the deadlines again, may seem credible to him, but everybody knows that the Government have renegotiated the deadlines because they think that is right for the peace process. I stress again that I do not condemn the Secretary of State for that decision—the shadow Secretary of State made the point that he, too, might have found himself in the same position—but the Government must have a strategy to ensure that the provisions we pass today will not be subject to further modification next year.
I do not want to keep labouring the point. The point about the previous phase of this process was that 24 November was a real deadline—it was a real deadline. If we had not had an agreement to move it forward, we would have closed it down; there is absolutely no question about that. As the hon. Gentleman very well knows—I make this point to emphasise the point that he is making—these deadlines are set in statute. The last legislation did not specify an election date; it did not specify the restoration of an Executive. It said that there had to be progress, there had to be an agreement, in order to get a deal by 24 November. That was very clear. This legislation says that it is devolution or dissolution by 26 March. In resisting amendments on clause 2, I shall make that absolutely clear again.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for making that clarification. Perhaps he might wish to give an assurance before the House that there will be no intention whatsoever of the Government coming back again with emergency legislation, fitted in in a rush, to make the March deadlines, which he outlined in his opening speech, into April or May or October deadlines.
I do not want to see failure—I do not want to see the collapse of the peace process—but I do feel that what we are almost planning for by default is a situation where those parties in Northern Ireland that are keen to resist setting up some sort of power-sharing arrangement—
I will in a moment.
I am thinking specifically of the DUP. We may end up giving those parties some reason to believe that they will be able to carry on playing this Government for new deadlines, for new extensions, in such a way that we end up living with the precedent of indefinite extensions to deadlines on a regular basis.
First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates, as I do, that the apparent slippage that he is talking about by the Government will actually be sourced in the slipperiness of some of the political parties involved in the process. Does he also recognise that there is slippage already on the St. Andrews agreement? The Programme for Government Committee was to meet on 17 October. It did not meet until yesterday, 20 November. The St. Andrews agreement said that legislation would be introduced here, in November,
“once parties have endorsed the agreement and agreed definitively to restore the power sharing institutions.”
We did not hear such an endorsement from parties. Instead, we got Vicky Pollard: “Yes but no, but—not our fault, see!” Also, we had an indication on Friday of who will be First Minister and Deputy First Minister, not nominations as set out in the St. Andrews agreement.
What we hear now is the frustration of other parties, who are not Sinn Fein or the DUP, but who feel that the change to deadlines is being made expediently and explicitly to accommodate the needs of those two parties. There is no need to be a psephologist to understand the play for political advantage that will necessarily be entailed by the announcement of another election. However, my worry is that while the Government are eager to accommodate the two large parties in Northern Ireland, they begin to cause resentment among the smaller ones, the overwhelming majority of whom have been both loyal and allied to the peace process. For that reason, I ask the Minister to consider the warning signs that we see already—for example, the credible period of testing that is being requested by the DUP in regard to Sinn Fein's genuine commitment to policing. It is very easy to envisage, in the run-up to March, a statement by the DUP, saying “Of course we want to see the restoration of the Assembly; we are even willing to work with Sinn Fein to achieve it, but you really must give us another six months to make sure that Sinn Fein is credible and serious about its commitment to policing.”
Well, I was not happy about that either. The fact of the matter is that, as I said before, in the real world of Northern Ireland politics, deadlines have shifted all the time. Let me stress again: I am not condemning either the DUP for maximising the opportunity for itself, or the Minister for trying to get the right answers. but I am suggesting that the Government need to have an alternative strategy that ensures either that these deadlines are genuinely binding—I doubt that they are—or, alternatively and more probably, that whatever they intend to do in March, if once again faced with an impasse, will lead to a genuine improvement in the chances of the restoration of the Assembly.
The Secretary of State said something today that concerned me, namely, that he wished to be given an indication of which individuals Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party would nominate, but he was not able to give us clarity about what form that indication might take. Will it be enough for a press release to be issued by the DUP and Sinn Fein? Will they just need to make a telephone call to the Northern Ireland Office? That is one of the reasons why I feel that slippage is being allowed to come into a process that cannot afford to have slippage. It is for such reasons that I believe that the Government must take much more seriously the danger in the precedent they have set by undermining the credibility of their own, apparently not so binding, deadlines.
The hon. Gentleman is right to be cynical about so-called unbreakable deadlines set by this Government. Last weekend, at least one DUP Member of Parliament was briefing the political correspondent of The Sunday Times. He was not named, so I will not risk attempting to guess who it was. [Hon. Members: “Go on. Go on.”] DUP Members can come out and canvass with me at any time. That DUP Member told The Sunday Times that the 26 March deadline “lacked credibility”, so the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) is spot-on about Government deadlines.
To sum up on the deadlines question, my concern is not so much that the deadlines lack credibility in the eyes of certain individuals and parties, but that moving the deadlines presents opportunity, and that that opportunity is in the interests of the parties rather than of the process. I would, of course, rather see the breaking of deadlines than the breaking of bodies in Northern Ireland, and to that extent there are expedient reasons for breaking deadlines, but I would like the Government to say in this debate why the deadlines now under discussion are more credible than previous ones.
The St. Andrews agreement has the potential to bind the DUP to a commitment to assume power alongside Sinn Fein, and also to bind all parties, including republican parties, to a commitment to policing and the rule of law. However, it is still far from clear to me that those parties are truly prepared to rise to that challenge.
There is significant popular demand for the restoration of the political institutions in Northern Ireland, especially because decisions made in Westminster on behalf of Northern Ireland have, on many occasions, been universally opposed on a cross-party basis in Northern Ireland. The agreement gives some hope that the demands for restoration will be met. A road map is now set out in respect of the institutions and how the Good Friday agreement can be restored. A series of small steps can now be taken, as opposed to one large leap—but for success to be achieved, the DUP and Sinn Fein must deliver.
Crucially, it has now been established that the institutions of the agreement can be modified provided that the modifications are consistent with the agreement’s underlying fundamental principles. Some of the institutional changes made to the Good Friday agreement are positive, as are some of the changes to public policy. Nevertheless, I have grave concern about some aspects of the St. Andrews agreement as they risk breaking some of the principles of the original agreement. In particular, I do not believe that we have yet had a process where mutual commitments are clear, ambiguities have been removed and shared understandings exist. There is a danger that a fragile process could easily be broken when difficulties arise as a result of intentional or unintentional misinterpretation of the contents of the agreement and its implementation.
The St. Andrews agreement addresses only issues and priorities placed on the table by the DUP and Sinn Fein. The wider range of changes to the institutions, public policy priorities and measures required to build a sound future have yet to be addressed. For example, why are some public policy issues listed in annexe B of the St. Andrews agreement, whereas others are not? Why does the Bill require any new Executive to address some policy issues but not others? What is the basis for requiring specific action on poverty and language issues but not on, for example, a shared future, equality or victims’ matters?
What was the rationale for these selections? Indeed, why are the Government imposing such statutory duties on the Executive at all? Should it not be up to the Executive to decide whether their priorities are promoting minority languages and equality, dealing with poverty or promoting the shared future agenda? It seems like a random list, or a list built out of expedience, following negotiations with a very limited number of parties and individuals.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that one of the duties imposed on the institutional review committee is to look at mandatory coalition, which was the chief issue raised by his party’s sister party—the Alliance party in Northern Ireland—but not the chief issue raised by either Sinn Fein or the DUP?
The majority of the contents of the list that I outlined earlier has in my judgment been determined by talks between Sinn Fein, the DUP and the Government. I fully accept that the DUP may claim to see things differently, but I can only say as I see. I have repeatedly made the point in this Chamber and elsewhere that the Government need to be inclusive on a cross-party basis. Other interest groups and parties have been frustrated at the Government’s tendency to fixate on the two parties that they are most desperate to bring together. That tendency is understandable, but the Government run the gauntlet of turning off allies who, in my judgment, are very important to the Assembly’s successful restoration.
Let us consider the example of languages. Although the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages are important, it is not at all obvious that they are the most important languages in Northern Ireland, given that a very significant proportion of people there speak Chinese. But obviously, because the Chinese lobby is not salient to the peace process, it has been excluded in the legislation. We are also concerned that the process is aimed primarily at producing a quick fix—at doing little more than what is perceived as necessary to achieve the restoration of the suspended institutions in a tactical way, without addressing the deeper and wider problems that have been identified in the agreement, or neglected in the past eight years.
One of my main concerns is power sharing, which was already weak under the Good Friday agreement, as evidenced by the poor relationship between the Ulster Unionist party and the Social Democratic and Labour party when they were in charge. Although some minor improvements have been made, they are insufficient to take into account the increased political polarisation and the ascendancy of the DUP and Sinn Fein into what is necessarily likely to be a fractious environment. The removal of the need for any vote for either the joint election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or for the Executive as a whole, is a major flaw. The need for governing parties formally to recognise each other’s mandates and the legitimacy of their share of power and responsibility has been undermined. That simply entrenches the divisions, rather than reducing them.
There is also a danger that the only way that the DUP and Sinn Fein will be able to operate or co-exist within the same Government is through creating more and more separation. That seems to be the subtext. At present, the DUP and Sinn Fein are not really talking to each other in any formal way, so it is a big leap to see them effectively running a regional Government in partnership. It might be possible for parties to co-exist within the same Government, but it appears that this legislation will achieve that by ensuring that they can co-exist without having to deal directly with each other. Rather than Ministers working together, Northern Ireland could end up with government by memorandum, with civil servants acting as messengers between various Ministers who are not prepared to talk to one another, and who are not required to do so by the system.
I am truly bewildered by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The flaw of the old system—and we know this happened—was that it was possible for members of the Executive not to attend the meeting of the Executive. Under this system, they have to attend and participate. Although there is not collective Cabinet responsibility in the Westminster mould, collegiality is entrenched in this system. Under it, matters can be discussed exhaustively by the Executive, to the benefit of everybody. Surely that is a step forward.
The theory sounds great, but when we consider the amendments—at which point we can talk in more detail about my and other people’s concerns—we will we see that, in fact, this system entrenches the opportunity for Ministers to operate on a silo basis, without having to share collective decision-making responsibility. I suggest that we discuss the issue in more detail when we consider the amendments.
When the Liberal Democrats take power in 2009, many things are going to change—and that will be one of them.
The Government have also missed an opportunity to bind all parties into a firm commitment to build a shared future in order to counter the tendencies to separation. While we welcome the commitment to a shared future within the proposed pledge of office, I am not convinced that it will be sufficient to counter the separatist tendencies within the new structures. A short-term fix to restore devolution may be superficially attractive but, particularly if it is based on tactical rather than strategic considerations, it will not really secure long-term peace. More general flaws within the Good Friday agreement as established and operated include institutionalised sectarianism, the politics of “them versus us” over control of territory and resources, the failure of moderation and accommodation to be incentivised, and entrenched inter-ethnic competition that rewards ethnic outbidders.
My response to the question posed by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is that we need to address the four key issues, and our amendments will be designed to do so. If the Government go down their current path, the problems are, in my view, set to get worse. There are also inherent difficulties and dangers in the Government focusing almost exclusively on expediency and tactical considerations in order to secure some sort of a peace and a restored Assembly.
The lack of inclusivity will bring a number of negative consequences. It limits the number of ideas placed on the table, risks missing certain aspects of the process that need to be addressed, removes the ability of other parties to put more pressure on the recalcitrant parties and focuses on the most negative parties, to some extent enabling them to reinforce their position by holding the overall political process hostage to fortune. Crucially, it removes any sense of collective ownership of the outcomes and it is important to note that where the Government focus only on two parties, the other parties feel no ownership of the results, which risks them being rejected.
It is not realistic to restrict all meaningful discussion and evolving documentation to two parties alone, so I suggest that the Government reflect on how they arrived at this legislation and think seriously—even at this late stage before implementation, which will unquestionably go through—about a further consultation process with the parties not directly responsible for creating the wish list that I have described.
Finally, with those reservations, it is obvious that we will still have to pass the legislation as there is no sensible alternative before us. However, when we discuss somewhat esoterically whether the proposals can work, it is important to note that some of the prime architects who will decide whether it works or not are in their places in the Chamber right now. They have the power to decide whether a power-sharing Assembly will work. Sinn Fein, of course, is not here and, as has been made abundantly clear, it is going to have to play ball, especially over policing. There is no space to mess about. Sinn Fein needs to provide some confidence that it is serious about democracy; otherwise democracy will be compromised.
Let us remember the stakes. With respect to all the legislation passed through statutory instrument without amendment—covering everything from water charges and housing rates to tuition fees and changes to the education system—we need to remember that if it is not fixed in Northern Ireland, it will be enforced in Westminster. For the citizens whom Northern Ireland politicians represent, the stakes are indeed very high.
In supporting Second Reading, it is more an act of hope than expectation that the deadlines will be made binding. As it stands, there is every reason to think that it will buy us more time to make it work, but I also believe that we should regard the Bill more as a lifeline for peace than as a deadline for devolution.
The Bill is designed to implement the St. Andrews deal, and the SDLP has reason to welcome many aspects of it. The deal is essentially about getting all parties to accept the two core ethics of the Good Friday agreement: the requirement for an inclusive democracy and the requirement for a lawful society. It is about getting the DUP to accept power sharing under the Good Friday agreement and challenging Sinn Fein to accept policing under that agreement. In short, it is about implementing the Good Friday agreement.
The deal is about getting Sinn Fein and the DUP to do what they should have done years ago, not only under the Good Friday agreement, in accepting the opportunities of power sharing in the north, co-operation between north and south and a new beginning for policing. Those decisions could have been made nearly 33 years ago when we had the Sunningdale agreement. If everything works out, and institutions are restored next year, Sinn Fein and the DUP will be in government together in what is effectively Sunningdale digitally remastered.
Some of us have paid a price in the process for our generosity, tolerance and patience. Our mistakes can be counted in lost seats. However, other mistakes that other parties made consistently in opposing power sharing, north-south structures and a new beginning to policing can be measured in lost years, lost opportunities and, tragically, lost lives.
We welcome the DUP to the threshold of accepting power sharing, and Sinn Fein to the threshold of accepting the new beginning to policing. However, at St. Andrews we were struck by the fact that spokespersons for the DUP said, “We have never had a problem with power sharing as such,” and the president of Sinn Fein said, “We have never had a problem with policing as such.” One is reminded of the observation that was made in an American context, that in politics, irony is just hypocrisy with panache.
The Bill contains some welcome provisions, which the SDLP sought. Some undo much of the damage that was unnecessarily conceded in the proposed comprehensive agreement in 2004. Some were lacking from the draft clauses that the Secretary of State published last month before we went to St. Andrews. Those draft clauses aimed to implement the failed Sinn Fein-DUP comprehensive agreement.
We welcome the fact that the right of all parties to be included in government is clearly respected and protected in the Bill, as it was not under the comprehensive agreement. We welcome the fact that the right of parties to make ministerial appointments without vetting and without veto is protected, as it was not under the comprehensive agreement. We also welcome the fact that some of the unnecessary restrictions on the north-south agenda have been lifted.
Above all, we welcome the sunset clause for the changes. That means that if the DUP does not go into government in March, the amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 in part 2 will be automatically repealed. We sought that sunset clause because we did not want the DUP to get the Bill passed, bank it and then refuse go into government, for whatever reason, with all the other parties, and come back for further legislation in future. Too much of that has already happened in the process, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said. The tragedy of the process is that what gets rewarded gets repeated, and because people get rewarded for putting things off and holding things back, they repeat the trick and come back for more, on top of the failure that they have created.
All the changes that I have outlined are positive. The SDLP sought them, and they are welcome. The Bill contains other welcome provisions such as the repeal of the suspension legislation. I hope that the Minister of State will tackle in his winding-up speech some other welcome aspects of the St. Andrews agreement for which the Bill does not provide, and perhaps give us some idea of how and when the progress that the Government have promised on them will be made.
The Bill also contains some serious defects. We did not succeed in mitigating all the damage that was done in the comprehensive agreement or some of the other side deals that the Governments made in the process. Of course, an obvious defect is the question of how the St. Andrews deal will be endorsed. The Government have chosen election, rather than a referendum. So this deal, as a way of implementing the Good Friday agreement, will have no clear mandate of its own. Unfortunately, as some of the debate today has indicated already, it does not even have a clear meaning of its own. There are clear presumptions and understandings about when Sinn Fein will move on policing, which are not written into the deal or into the legislation, and Members still cannot get answers here about what the Government’s presumptions are in that regard.
Instead of the public having a clear chance to endorse a clear deal—the Government would have been able to set the terms of the referendum—all the political parties will go into an election with their own manifestos and claim their own different mandates afterwards. It is a fairly safe prediction—I am sure that I am not putting ideas into their heads—that those in the DUP will put preconditions for restoration into their manifesto. For instance, they will say that they will impose a fixed time limit on the current power-sharing arrangements of inclusion by d’Hondt. No doubt, they will have demands about the outcome of the parades review that the Secretary of State referred to.
Of course, those in the DUP will handcuff themselves in relation to when the devolution of justice and policing will happen. We have seen evidence of that since the St. Andrews agreement. They will do their usual trick of saying, “We’re handcuffed to this sort of hard-line manifesto, and the rest of you are stuck with it.” Given that the Secretary of State has spent the past year and a half telling the rest of us that we have to concede all sort of changes in the agreement to the DUP because of its mandate, of course those people believe that an increased mandate will give them increased leverage for those changes. I assure the House that I have not been wrong yet in any of my predictions about the difficulty that the Government’s approach has created. Of course the dangers do not end there—nor, I regret, does the problem of new vetoes.
With the changes to the operation of the institutions and decision-making arrangements under some of the provisions in the Bill, there is a danger of unworkable government. Some of the changes invite bad politics and could guarantee bad government, with tit-for-tat vetoes by Ministers over one another. That has come about because the DUP has peddled the myth that Ministers in the devolved Administration could do just what they liked, and there was absolutely no collectivity or scrutiny. That is untrue, given that anything serious had to be passed by the Assembly, just as it would have to be passed anywhere else, and that any expenditure had to be authorised in the budget and through the Department of Finance and Personnel.
New safeguards are provided if any Minister breaches the ministerial code or an Executive decision. Those safeguards were provided a number of years ago precisely to protect against some of the concerns that people have mentioned, but the Bill goes further and also provides new, unnecessary and dangerous provisions. Clause 5 imposes a duty on Ministers to abide by the ministerial code and provides that a Minister has no authority to take any decision against it. That might sound attractive and reasonable, but it is unnecessary, unworkable and dangerous.
First, that provision is unnecessary, since we already have mechanisms to ensure collectivity and accountability—I have just mentioned some of them—and we have proposed sensible improvements to them. Secondly, it is dangerous, as it will encourage Ministers not only to veto one another, but possibly to sue one another. Thirdly, it could cause gridlock and deadlock, with Ministers bringing insignificant decisions to the Executive for fear that the courts might otherwise strike them down.
Fourthly, that provision could be exploited by vested interests, which have a whole raft of new procedural grounds to challenge ministerial decisions because of the ministerial code’s statutory basis. Those grounds would never be tolerated in any other Government. Direct rule Ministers have been taken to court and judicially reviewed just about public consultation on a number of issues, so let us think how ripe for judicial challenge things will be for people who want to hold up and challenge the Government if they have the ministerial code as a whole new field of play to take to the courts. Fifthly, all this bad politics and bad government will punish the public. How efficient is that? It is not good government, and the Government would not legislate for it here.
Ministers know that a lot of that is nonsense. The principle, however, as in so much else, is to accept whatever it takes to get the deal. If Sinn Fein and the DUP want it, that is what we must do. If parties sense that the Government are desperate, they keep taking more and more, and asking for more and more. The possibility of bad government does not worry the DUP. It will be happy to have those problems created, as it will say that they are all the fault of inclusion, d’Hondt and so on, and that power sharing is the problem, not the new litany of vetoes that it is picking up in the Bill. It likes the idea of having endless vetoes over other Ministers. When the DUP gets vetoes, it does not just use them, it abuses them. Giving vetoes to the DUP is like asking Attila the Hun to mind one’s horse.
We see that in relation to the devolution of justice and policing. In the failed 2004 Sinn Fein-DUP comprehensive agreement, it was conceded by Sinn Fein that the devolution of justice could come about only if the First Minister and Deputy First Minister proposed that that would happen. Of course that gave the DUP, in the post of First Minister, a clear veto. That was provided for by the House in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which also provided that parallel consent was essential for devolution of justice and policing, and that that double consent was needed not just for devolution of justice and policing but also for the form of devolution of justice and policing. The DUP therefore ended up with the so-called triple lock. When that Bill passed through the House, we warned that the DUP would abuse those vetoes. Meanwhile Sinn Fein was doing handstands on the basis that the legislation was sealing the devolution of justice and policing and was the missing piece of the jigsaw.
What, however, have people found out in recent weeks? The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) has said that there will be no devolution of justice within a political lifetime. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) stated that the DUP would make sure that there was no possibility of a Sinn Fein Justice Minister in his lifetime, pure and simple. They made those assertions on the basis of already having the triple lock. That is how the DUP uses vetoes, and that is why we are proposing amendments that would try to unlock some of the triple lock.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not the position of the Democratic Unionist party. What my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said yesterday was that the issue was community confidence, and that it was necessary to have sufficient confidence in the community before devolution of policing and justice could happen. He also said that Sinn Fein had a major role to play in building that confidence, and that at its current pace—dragging its feet even on reaching a decision on policing and justice—several lifetimes could pass before we reached the objective. The problem is Sinn Fein’s, not ours.
That intervention shows, as I pointed out previously, that Sinn Fein and the DUP give each other vetoes in relation to policing, and the devolution of justice and policing. Sinn Fein’s position is that it will not move on policing, it will not accept the PSNI and it will not take its places on the Policing Board, unless and until the DUP agrees a date for the devolution of justice and policing. It is clear, however, that the DUP has a whole variety of preconditions for the devolution of justice and policing, over an unspecified testing period, including an unspecified indication of satisfaction or confidence on the part of the public.
That brings us to the nub of the matter—the huge contradiction at the heart of what we hope to do. In the St. Andrews deal, the two Governments have told us that they believe that they have a basis for ensuring that Sinn Fein moves on policing and that the DUP moves on restoration of the institutions. If the DUP does not give an indication of a date, however, that will be Sinn Fein’s excuse for not moving on policing. If Sinn Finn failed to move on policing on the basis that the DUP already has the triple lock on the devolution of justice and policing, Sinn Fein would blame the DUP for the failure of the St. Andrews agreement, and the DUP would blame Sinn Fein. That is why those parties have given each other vetoes—so that they can blame each other.
The Government need to address that question with a bit more robustness. I do not doubt that the DUP has some neck in pushing these things as it has. I certainly do not doubt that Sinn Fein has neck in how it pushes things. We need to see a little more backbone from the Government in dealing with this issue, rather than their just pretending that the problem does not exist, or that somehow we will go past it.
There are other issues in the Bill that my hon. Friends will touch on as well. Not least, we disagree hugely with what is provided in respect of education. We do not believe that a veto should be created on the opportunity for equal education arising from ending selection. It could be a poor start to a restored Assembly if the first item of business involved failing to confirm the ban on academic selection—only to be in a position where we could not provide for anything in place of the 11-plus. We would then end up with the worst possible combination of the unfair, the unknown and the unworkable in making future provision for secondary education.
When we are in those difficulties, no doubt it will all end up being called “Hain’s hames”. People will be able to blame everybody else for that gridlock. That is why we want to get away from the vetoes, the side deals and the go-slows. We want to see the Government push the pace of progress and put it to parties to accept a deal that has been approved by the people. That is the way to make progress—not to keep putting things off or demanding extras, and not through side deals. Straightforward up-front agreements, not side deals, are the way forward. Parties need to be put under pressure as far as those clear fundamental principles are concerned. I regret that, rather than putting parties under clear pressure and giving the public clear answers, too often the Bill panders to parties.
We have misgivings about the Bill, but we know the exigencies of the timetable. We want to see the nominations for the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on Friday, and we know that that depends on the passage of the Bill. That is why we will not divide the House on the Bill, or on some of the important issues that we are raising in amendments. We do not want to give anybody any excuse. However, when the Government are getting that degree of tolerance and understanding from other parties in the House, they need to make it clear that they will hold the parties that need to stand firm on living up to this agreement to that requirement.
As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am a man of plain speech. People know that I try to keep my word as my bond. I am not interested in any word games tonight. I am interested in peace in the country that I love—peace for its families and its children. When I spoke at St. Andrews I said:
“The DUP has been consistent in our demand that there must be delivery from the republican movement before devolution can be restored in Northern Ireland. The days of gunmen in government are over.”
I have no interest—neither in relation to my members nor in relation to the people I represent: the majority of the Unionist population in Northern Ireland—in deviating from the course of action that I have taken. I believe that my policy can and will lead to a better Northern Ireland, where peace and justice take the place of terror and strife, when true democracy reigns. For that to happen—for me as the leader of Unionism to enter a Government under the arrangements identified at St. Andrews—there must be full and unequivocal support for the rule of law, the Police Service and the courts by all Members.
I was rather alarmed to hear the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) blaming the Democratic Unionist party, as if it did not live up to what it said. He will see in the coming months—even in a few days, on Friday—whether we live up to it or not. He will get his answer. I will not move my party in any shape or form into any power-sharing arrangements until the circumstances are right. All the parties in Northern Ireland must agree with this. Sinn Fein must support the Police Service, the royal courts of justice and the rule of law. At this stage, it has not done so, and the hon. Gentleman referred to that. Sinn Fein has said that until it gets a date for the devolution of justice, it will not budge on the timing of support for the police. Sinn Fein must support the police now, and the people must see that it supports the police.
I am not jumping first or last. Other politicians jumped first: they broke their arms and their legs and are now deserted. At 80 years of age, I have no intention of breaking my legs or my arms—I am going to hold on to them. Sinn Fein, at last, has met the resistance of the democrats of Northern Ireland, including many Roman Catholics, who have been in touch with me and said, “Big man, you’re right. We must have freedom for the police to function in our areas.” I listened to a radio broadcast in which a man said that he had been a republican all his days on the Falls road, but that now he wanted the police to come into the Falls road, because there was no peace for the people unless the Police Service came there. From all over Ulster there is a cry: let democracy rule and let each party have one thing in common—that they support law and order.
In the light of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, will he confirm whether his party will be nominating on Friday? The Secretary of State has said that he is confident that there will be nominations. Will the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) confirm whether the Secretary of State is correct?
I invite the hon. Lady to come. I will get her a free pass and a cup of tea, and perhaps a hot cross bun. The people of Northern Ireland know that I do not say one thing in this House and another outside.
I will not accept Sinn Fein paying lip service to the concepts of the St. Andrews agreement but continuing in crime and not supporting the police and the authority of the Crown forces. In all those matters, the members of Sinn Fein have still to prove that they have crossed the Rubicon in their mind and ideology and that they accept the Crown forces operating in defence of the state.
Mr. Adams continues to attack the rule of law, suggesting recently in America that he does not accept British law, and that he does not accept the Orange Order, which is probably the most truthful statement that he has made for a long time. I am sure that the parades commissioners would like to hear that statement. He said last week, in the Village magazine that
“There can be no role…in Ireland for MI5.”
But if he is genuinely to support policing, he must accept that, as paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement states, he must endorse “all the policing…institutions”. That “all” includes the security forces and MI5.
There must be no more double-speak from Mr. Adams on those matters. He has to move. He has to deliver. The people of Northern Ireland have delivered their young men and women to the bullet and the bomb, their mothers and fathers to murder. It is time that Mr. Adams delivered us from that state and we return to the ways of peace and the ways of power. He claims that he cannot move until he gets agreement on the modalities of all justice and police departments and until he gets a precise date for the devolution of policing. I refer him to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who can tell him about the unreliability of dates. For Mr. Adams, the dates seem never to develop.
Mr. Adams well knows that none of those things are in the gift of the DUP, the SDLP or anyone else, unless the Sinn Feiners change. The people of Northern Ireland will not change; they will stand fast in the liberties that they believe that they should maintain. It is blatantly obvious that the community is not ready to say that Sinn Fein will do what it is supposed to, so we have to put it to the test. I trust that the test will be one that everyone can believe in, and the first step must be the declaration—not only the declaration but the demonstration—that it has really changed and will help people forward, especially the police. At St. Andrews, I said that the clock had started for Sinn Fein to commit to policing, but since then it has studiously avoided every opportunity for commitment in a practical manner.
The week before St. Andrews, Sinn Fein councillor Tom Hartley declared that Sinn Fein must detach the police from British state control. The week after St. Andrews, there was a dispute in Ballymurphy involving a gang attack, a severe beating and a gun attack, which all went uncondemned by the local Sinn Fein councillor and other local spokesmen for Sinn Fein, and no witness evidence from the community has been forthcoming or even encouraged by Sinn Fein members. Earlier this month, a man and a woman were viciously beaten and then burned to death in South Armagh by a republican family. The Sinn Fein MP for that area bit his tongue when it came to support for the police in their investigation of that horrific and diabolical crime, and once again no evidence is forthcoming from the people in that area who know who did it.
Without genuine community and political support for the police, how are Unionists expected to move forward in confidence that Sinn Fein is ready to support the police? How can this House realistically believe that in 16 weeks it will be proved that Sinn Fein has done everything it should have done, that it is the most innocent of the innocent, and that all is well? Go and tell that even to the Roman Catholic people off the bottom of the Falls road and in Ballymurphy, and they will say what they are going through at this present time.
My party and its executive officers have resolved the following:
“The DUP holds to its long-standing position that there can only be an agreement involving Sinn Fein when there has been delivery by the republican movement, tested and proved, over a credible period, in terms of support for the PSNI, the courts and the rule of law, a complete end to paramilitary and criminal activity and the removal of terrorist structures.”
The refusal of Sinn Fein even to begin to give support to the PSNI, the courts and the rule of law has clear adverse implications. We must demand at this time that the St. Andrews agreement is kept and that no provisions creep in to let these men off the hook. The DUP has met all the tests and conditions set for the agreement, and will meet all the tests and conditions set for democratic government in Northern Ireland.
All I can say to the House is to echo the words of the great German reformer: “Here we stand; we can do naught else.” I trust that the Government will stand up to the terrorists and that we will see an end to terrorism and the beginning of a better Ulster, with pure democracy leading it.
As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have a pressing and long-standing parliamentary commitment tonight, so I shall make a brief speech, but we have just heard an extremely important one, and I hope that the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues take note of what was said. I have not always agreed with the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), but today he spoke with force and passion. As he spoke, I could not help but think that the future is not what it used to be. He has held out real hope to the people of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. His party is the majority party at the moment, but it is for the people of Northern Ireland to determine, on 7 March, whether it remains in that position. He has indicated that, notwithstanding what happened in the past—the murders, the mutilations, the atrocities—his party is prepared to sit down with people who perpetrated, supported or condoned those acts, and to seek to work with them in a common cause, for the sake of the government of that part of the United Kingdom.
We cannot expect any part of the United Kingdom to be governed by people who are not prepared, unequivocally, to sign up to the rule of law and to accept the courts, and the right hon. Gentleman made that plain. I say to the Minister of State that the Government have bent over backwards to try to bring people, and the parties, together, and I support them in that. I devoutly hope and pray that all will be well, and that we will achieve what the Government want to achieve through the Bill.
However, if there is no credible delivery, and no absolute assurance, it will behove the Government to tell the one party that has refused to play by the democratic rules, and to take its seats in this House, “Enough; no more. We will work with the other, democratic, elected parties of Northern Ireland—the Democratic Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance party, and the other parties represented in the Assembly. We will work together to create as wide a power-sharing Executive as we can, in communities that play by the democratic rules, and that accept the rule of law.”
I hope that Sinn Fein will do what the right hon. Member for North Antrim says that it should, but the situation cannot go on and on. This is Sinn Fein’s ultimate chance, and it must grasp it. If it does not, we must lead the people of Northern Ireland to a democratic future that includes all those who play by the democratic rules.
My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) spoke about many of the Bill’s successes, our hopes for the next couple of months, and the Bill’s failings. I want to address two of those failings, which will have a considerable impact on the community in Northern Ireland.
It is pretty obvious from all that we have heard that there are still many problems to be overcome if there is to be a restoration of the institutions under the agreement. I hope that we can overcome those problems and rein in the vetoes that are allowing people to hold back progress. At a time when direct rule has never looked more high-handed and shady, people need proper accountability. A devolved Government must be restored as soon as possible, and it must be a Government who respond to people’s needs, instead of riding roughshod over their interests, even when those interests are unanimously expressed.
It would be wrong, however, for people to regard the last five years purely as a time of deadlocked politics, because there have been great changes—nowhere more so than in policing, which has been raised many times today. As the oversight commissioner reported, in just five years, 84 per cent. of Patten’s 10-year programme of change has been completed or substantively implemented. That did not happen by accident—it was a huge endeavour by the people of Northern Ireland—and it happened mainly because, in 2001, brave people decided to get on board and support law and order, taking risks to deliver a new beginning in policing. Without them, it simply would not have happened.
Chief among those people were the independent members of the district policing partnerships, which perform the job of holding the police to account on local issues. They are composed of a majority of political members drawn from Northern Ireland’s councils, as well as a minority of independent members. Schedule 8 rightly provides that if Sinn Fein is entitled to political membership of a DPP, all political members of that DPP automatically stand down so that space can be made for Sinn Fein councillors to join. That is fair—we do not want to keep Sinn Fein members out of the DPPs for a moment longer than they keep themselves out—but they must join DPPs only if they are committed to membership of the Policing Board.
The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to significant changes in policing over the past five years, but does he accept that whereas in the past many Catholics were prevented from joining the police by IRA threats, now many Protestants are prevented from doing so because of discriminatory legislation implemented by the House?
The hon. Gentleman’s comment is skewed, because a far higher proportion of Protestants join the police force today than Catholics.
The Bill provides that independent members of DPPs will be automatically fired and must reapply if they wish to serve again. That is patently wrong, because independent members are, indeed, independent—they should not be fired just because Sinn Fein has joined the board. They are appointed for a four-year term, and they should not be sacked after just a year and a half, especially because many of them have been intimidated by Sinn Fein and attacked by republican dissidents. It will be difficult to encourage them to reapply, and that will deal a lasting blow to the credibility of DPPs in the community. Ironically, the St. Andrews agreement does not require the shoddy treatment of those people, who have delivered a great deal. It is yet another dirty side deal, in which those who have given most are treated worst by the Government.
It is a poor reflection on Sinn Fein that it sought that concession. It shows that its priority is not change for the public good—the independent members of DPPs have worked to deliver such change—but inside jobs for the boys. Surprisingly, the DUP, which saw it coming and secured many other vetoes, did not bother to veto that provision. That demonstrates yet again that the two parties that produced and excused the worst of our past will never deliver the best of our future. For them, it is jobs for the boys that count, not change for the public good or the public weal.
I regret the fact that the Government have tried to veto another change, thus affecting public confidence in their approach to national security. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has primacy in matters of national security, and the police ombudsman has the power to investigate complaints about its handling of such matters. That accountability has been enormously helpful in building confidence in policing’s new beginning, but the Government have taken a retrograde step by announcing that MI5 will assume primacy for national security in Northern Ireland next year. That does not make any sense whatsoever, as the Government’s own Organised Crime Task Force has conceded that organised criminality and terrorism or paramilitarism in the north are two sides of the same coin. A single body—the PSNI—should deal with all aspects of such issues.
Critically, the Government’s decision has serious implications for accountability on national security issues, because the police ombudsman will be hampered in her ability to investigate national security complaints. Instead, such complaints will be handled by the investigative powers tribunal. That is insufficient, because only people who believe that they are subject to MI5 surveillance can bring complaints against MI5. Terrorists under surveillance—even Osama bin Laden—can complain about MI5, but people who are not terrorists, such as the Omagh families and other victims who have been let down by MI5, which did not bother to pass on important information, cannot do so.
Complaints to the investigatory powers tribunal are fruitless. In the four years from 2000 to 2004, 380 complaints were made to the tribunal, but not one has been upheld, nor have any reasons been given for the failure to conduct further investigation. The police ombudsman can investigate the actions of staff belonging to UK-wide bodies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, HM Revenue and Customs and the immigration service. We believe that the Office of the Police Ombudsman should be able to do likewise for MI5. We even proposed an amendment to that effect. Regrettably, it was not selected because of the tight interpretation of the Bill’s long title. I bow to superior knowledge, but the long title concludes with those all-important words, “and for connected purposes”. An appendix to the St. Andrews agreement was devoted to MI5, yet the organisation is not relevant to a measure entitled the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill. That is extremely curious, but we cannot debate it tonight.
The Government may avoid facing up to the issue in the Bill, but it must nevertheless be confronted. Faceless men must not be allowed to get away with dark deeds, as has often happened in the past. Accountability is Patten’s watchword, and the police ombudsman—the watchdog for policing—must be able to shine light into the shadowy places where MI5 operates. Our party has always believed that to solve the problems of our society we must ensure that there are working political institutions and working policing institutions. The two go hand in hand. That is why we warn the Government against making underhand moves on MI5 and side deals on policing, which damage not only the new policing dispensation but our political institutions. They weaken trust and strike at the foundations of openness in security and policing on which we are trying to build a new society. Strong, robust policing, as we know, protects everyone, and it deserves everyone’s respect, not least the Government’s.
Briefly, despite the curtailment of discussion and parliamentary process, I very much welcome the Bill. The Government have done a great deal to improve the modalities of power sharing and to facilitate much needed devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland statute book is seriously deficient, because there has not been proper governance there for a quarter of a century.
We can see that right across the range of services, particularly in regard to matters that relate to the ordinary taxpayer and ratepayer. Those matters include environmental protection and the maintenance and quality of the fabric of Northern Ireland. For example, its beautiful Regency and Georgian architecture does not receive the protection that is afforded to similar places in London or Essex.
The Government have done a great deal to remedy all this, and they are entitled to take credit for working hard over a long period to facilitate this agreement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will probably be remembered for many things, but he is certainly entitled to be remembered for the energy, enthusiasm and enormous patience that he has brought to trying to achieve a settlement in Ireland—I am using the word “Ireland” deliberately—during his premiership. Many people have contributed to those efforts, some of whom are in the Chamber today. Whatever their persuasion, people have moved and tried to reach concord and agreement, and they are entitled to some acknowledgement for that. We must also remember the significant contribution by members of the United States Administrations in recent years to persuade, cajole and facilitate, and the energy that the Taoiseach has brought to bear on these issues.
The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned MI5 a few moments ago. The Government should, in any event, bring before the House a new security and intelligence Bill. Quite apart from the issue of MI5’s responsibility for security in Northern Ireland, the oversight by this Parliament of our security and intelligence services is woefully inadequate. This is one of the few parliamentary democracies that has no parliamentary oversight of its security and intelligence services. There is no parliamentary Committee to provide that oversight. There is a Committee of parliamentarians appointed by the head of the security and intelligence services, the Prime Minister, but there is no parliamentary oversight. That oversight is long overdue. The Foreign Affairs Committee has made this point in the past.
Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, it seems to me that the answer is that the Government need to introduce with some expedition a new security and intelligence Bill to create a Committee of Parliament, rather than one that is appointed by the Prime Minister, to scrutinise MI5, MI6 and the other security and intelligence services right across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. That would give some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
If the Government give an undertaking to expand the membership of the Security and Intelligence Committee, that will require legislation in this House. It cannot be done by a decision of the Prime Minister or by order. The Government should come clean and acknowledge that, because I understand that that is their intention. I believe that they should increase the Committee’s membership, to facilitate the involvement of the parties that take part in the deliberations of the Westminster Parliament. Members of those parties should have seats on the Committee, which should, for the first time, be made a Committee of Parliament.
I want to counsel caution on another issue. The Northern Ireland Assembly is extraordinarily large for a democratic legislature, but I think that we all know why. It is to make room in the garden for everyone, and it is a price worth paying. There is talk of reducing the size of the legislature in the long term, but I would counsel the need to keep the large numbers. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) talked about the need for normal politics. I cannot help but reflect that Northern Ireland is not greatly different from the central belt of Scotland, where Protestant and Catholic working-class people have a truce and, by and large, vote for a radical party—[Interruption.] I carefully crafted my words when I said that. There is certainly a tradition among the Protestant and Catholic working-class people in Scotland of voting Labour. There are many people who hold office in local government in the Labour party who are members of the Orange Order. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), looks surprised at that. He really ought to know a bit more about the Labour party. There are many members of the Orange Order in Scotland who are active in the Labour party, to their credit, and there are of course many good Catholic folk as well.
I dream of a day when people’s aspirations regarding the national issue of Ireland can be accommodated in normal politics. Across Europe, we see the social democratic parties, the conservative parties, and so on. Given time, there could be a realignment of the political position in Ireland—in Northern Ireland, in Ireland—that would make people feel more comfortable voting in a way that reflects the normal tradition. These provisions might be a vehicle for that.
Most reasonable people will find it unacceptable for a political party not to accept a policing structure that has been carefully crafted. Supporters of Sinn Fein in the United States of America prevailed on it to sign up to the policing arrangements and worked with the political parties to craft the Police Service of Northern Ireland. It cannot be acceptable that any party is able to say that it still does not accept the policing structure, while expecting others to serve in government with it. There must be a test of reasonableness. If people are to be in government, they must accept the arrangement that has been agreed and welcomed by the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, namely, the courts and normal policing by the PSNI.
I would not use terms such as “United Kingdom courts” or “the royal courts of justice”. They are Irish courts. It is an Irish police force. It happens that people have different traditions, but I would say to the people of Ireland that they can be Unionists and also proud to be Irish, as the regiments are. The point is that these are Irish courts, and it is an Irish police force.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I cannot allow him to get away with that. He knows perfectly well that, when the people of Northern Ireland voted in their thousands for the Belfast agreement, they voted that Northern Ireland should remain an integral part of the United Kingdom unless or until they voted otherwise. The courts in Northern Ireland are British in the same way as the courts in Liverpool, London, Birmingham and everywhere else in the United Kingdom are. It is not correct to describe them as Irish. It is completely constitutionally and technically incorrect.
I fully accept the long-standing agreement that Clement Attlee’s Government made that, unless or until there was any change in the views of the people of Northern Ireland, freely expressed, the constitutional arrangements would remain, and that the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I fully accept that. Perhaps my inability fully to explain the position is the problem. I was appealing to the people who do not subscribe to that agreement, and saying that they could feel confident that those courts were in the ownership of the people of Northern Ireland. They demonstrably operate in Ireland—for some people, it is Northern Ireland. We also have the Irish regiments. We do not talk about “the Northern Irish Guards”; they are the Irish Guards, and everyone is comfortable with that. I notice that many people come from Ballyfermot in Dublin to join the Irish Guards. People do not see this in any other terms.
There should be no misunderstanding. I would say to the hon. Lady that one of the most important things for me is self-determination, and the people of Northern Ireland have clearly and demonstrably expressed their view that, at this time, they want the existing constitutional arrangements to remain. I fully and wholeheartedly support the honouring of that, and I do not think anyone questions it seriously now. Let us be blunt: Sinn Fein must accept it, because it is the freely expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. However, the police system will demonstrably not be run from London. It will be run from the territory of Northern Ireland—from that part of the United Kingdom—under devolved arrangements. Similarly, the police forces of Scotland are United Kingdom forces but, demonstrably, Scottish forces as well. I believe that that is fully understood.
Let me return to a point on which I hope I can establish concord with the hon. Lady and others throughout the House. I find it unacceptable, as I am sure my constituents would, for anyone to opt out of recognising the Police Service of Northern Ireland and accepting the courts. People can choose how they describe the system. That was the point that I was trying to make, perhaps inadequately. They should be relaxed about that. What must endure above all is the principle of courts created by legislatures and run by Ministers chosen by them.
I will support the Bill, and I wish it well.
As a Unionist who is proud to be British, I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who deserves to be heard in the House on Northern Ireland matters. He has always shown considerable interest in the subject, he takes the trouble to come to Northern Ireland—although I hope that it is not trouble—and he knows Northern Ireland and its people well.
I agreed with the hon. Gentleman’s early comments about the advantages of devolution over direct rule. Few of us who live and work in Northern Ireland believe that the bunch of Ministers we have now could not be bettered by Northern Ireland Ministers doing the same job. Indeed, some of us believe that certain of their decisions were made in a way that would incite the people of Northern Ireland to want devolution back. Be that as it may, devolution is clearly preferable to direct rule—but my colleagues and I believe that it must be the right form of devolution, not just whatever is cobbled together and thrown at us.
The road to where we are now has been a long one, more of a marathon than a sprint. While some will talk of deadlines, to my party the important thing is to ensure that the conditions are right rather than that they are secured quickly. I shall deal with the timetable issue shortly, but let me first point out that in 1998 an agreement was reached following deadlines given by George Mitchell, who was responsible for mediating and facilitating the talks. When he said that he would go home on the next flight unless an agreement was reached, people hurriedly reached an agreement.
Hearing the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) lecture us about the imperfections of some aspects of the Bill, one would think that we had something akin to Utopia in 1998. In fact, it was such a bad deal—so bad were the structures—that it collapsed and collapsed and collapsed again, and we have had nothing remotely close to devolution in Northern Ireland since. It is clear that improvements could be made. My party knows that in 1998 we had people in Government representing an organisation that was still holding on to all its weaponry and was still involved in paramilitary activities. Even while its members were in Government, that organisation was still carrying out terrorist acts. It was continuing to engage in criminality unabated: it was probably the largest criminal empire in Europe.
Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming today’s news that £1 million of criminal assets are to be frozen—assets linked to the alleged chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, one Thomas “Slab” Murphy? We have pressed for precisely that kind of action by the authorities, and this shows the success of our pressure.
I seem to recall that when “Slab” Murphy’s farm was invaded by the guards on one side and the police on the other, Sinn Fein’s leader told us how honourable, decent and honest this man was. In the weeks ahead, the nature of the business that “Slab” Murphy carried on may be exposed; but it is better that I say no more. We will leave the courts to deal with those matters.
Not only was there the issue of weapons being retained and the continuation of paramilitary and criminal activity, but there was no indication that Sinn Fein would ever be asked whether it was prepared to support the police, the courts and the rule of law. Those who were negotiating in those days did not even dare ask Sinn Fein to make such a commitment. At the same time, there was no accountability for Northern Ireland Ministers in the Executive. I think we had better define “accountability”, because to the hon. Member for Foyle it means answerability as opposed to being held to account for decisions, and the ability to negate those decisions if the Assembly did not like them. There was no accountability in that democratic institution.
As Ministers, both the hon. Gentleman and I were able to make decisions. We did not require the approval of any committee in the Assembly; we did not even require the approval of the Executive committee of the Assembly; and we did not require the approval of the Assembly itself. Indeed, decisions were made in defiance of all those bodies. I recall a decision—
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish what I am saying, I will give way to him shortly.
I recall the decision by the then Member for West Belfast, the Minister responsible for health, to take the maternity unit to her own constituency, despite and in defiance of the view of the Assembly’s health committee and a vote by the Assembly itself. The system was clearly not accountable. Not only was it not accountable in terms of the Northern Ireland Assembly itself; it was not accountable in terms of the “north-southery” that went with it. The Bill, although inadequate in parts, will introduce more accountability than there was for the Belfast agreement: much needed accountability.
The hon. Gentleman is presenting us with a farrago of misrepresentations of how the institutions actually worked. He said that he and I, as Ministers, were totally unaccountable. When I was Finance Minister, anything to do with the budget had to be approved by the Executive committee. it was then subjected to a cross-community vote in the Assembly. Not just the budget itself but budgetary procedures had to be subject to such cross-community votes. That is accountability and transparency, far more than the hon. Gentleman’s party would be comfortable with other Ministers’ being subjected to.
If the hon. Gentleman had been out in a spending department as I was, he would know just how flexible those budgets can be. He would know how money can be taken from a head of expenditure and used virtually according to ministerial decision, in whatever way one wishes. That has happened. Many decisions were made that never went near the Executive. The fact is that there is now real accountability.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, who complaints about that accountability, that any system of government can be made not to work. This system is there as a protection—a safety net. It is not envisaged that every day Ministers will run into an Executive and use their veto powers to stop decisions. The aim is to ensure that the handful of decisions that may be made during the term of an Assembly can be blocked before the Executive, and that a collective and united decision on those issues can be made by the Executive, rather than decisions being made that damage the interests of one community or another. That seems good sense to me, and an improvement on the previous position.
I really must make some progress. I have not come to the real issue with which I want to deal, and we have already heard from the occupants of the Chair that they would prefer brevity so that all who wish to speak can do so.
There are important issues to address. We made progress at St. Andrews and we have made progress since, but there is still more work to be done. The Government know the outstanding issues on which my party colleagues and I must be satisfied. Those issues will not go away. They will have to be dealt with. The Government know that delivery is required, including by Sinn Fein in relation to policing, the courts and what they say about the rule of law. There also has to be delivery in terms of the IRA’s position on paramilitary and criminal activity and the structures of terrorism. Those are all required before there can ever be devolution in Northern Ireland. Nothing in that is new: we have been saying it for years. We are mandated to say it and we are mandated to have it carried out.
Delivery is also required from the Government. Some parts of that delivery lie within the Bill, but it has elements that we do not like. When we come to consider the amendments, the Government will hear about some of the elements that we do not like. There are other elements that should be included in legislation and we will continue to press the Government on those.
We have started the marathon, but we have not reached the finishing post. That is why I am concerned when I hear remarks such as those made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who wants everybody to be tight about timetables. If conditions are attached to making progress and the timetable does not satisfy them, the process is condition-led, not calendar-led. That is an essential element that the hon. Gentleman cannot ignore. Unless those conditions are satisfied, my colleagues are mandated not to move forward. Unless they are met, the executive, the officers and the Assembly Members of the Democratic Unionist party are not prepared to move forward. It is not the case that once we reach a certain date we can be bludgeoned into an Executive. At that time, we will look to see whether the necessary conditions have been met and if they have not, the Government will have to be flexible.
The course that the hon. Gentleman offers will lead to failure. He says that if the conditions are not met by that time, we should tear the edifice down. I say that if we are going in the right direction, we should make sure that we get it right. If that requires more flexibility, such as the Government accepting an amendment to the Bill or the need for new legislation, better that than going forward with the sort of structures that we had in 1998, with the consequences that we also then had.
I do not really disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I understand his position, which he accurately summarised as condition-led, not deadline-led. My concern is that the Government are deadline-led, but that that is not credible because everybody knows that they will always alter a deadline if that is what they have to do to continue the process. I was suggesting that the Government need to recognise the needs of the DUP and others and stop pretending that setting a deadline will make everything fall into place.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. If the parties themselves had reached the timetables, there might be some justification in his position, but these are not our timetables. They are designed to suit other people and not because they have anything to do with Northern Ireland or because it makes sense for Northern Ireland to make progress by that date. The timetable has been set to suit the Prime Minister in relation to his legacy and his tenure in office. Bertie Ahern also has a timetable, because he has an election in the offing. Those are the timetables to which we are being asked to adhere, but that is not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. What is in their interests is that, whatever the timetable, we get it right and we have stable, secure and lasting Government in Northern Ireland.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman twice, but I wished to clarify my point. There surely has to be some acceptance by the DUP that although the Government’s timetables will always have an element of expediency, there has to be an endpoint. Does he agree that we cannot carry on like this indefinitely and that at some point the DUP has to recognise that it has some obligation to shift?
But to accept what the hon. Gentleman has said I would have to accept an outrageous premise. The suggestion is that the DUP is holding the process back. If our position is condition-led, we will move forward when the conditions are in place. The conditions are that Sinn Fein brings completion to paramilitary and criminal activity, tears down its terrorist structures, and supports the courts, the police and the rule of law. Does any hon. Member think that that is unreasonable? If not, we should forget about the timetables and put the pressure where it should be put—on those who are holding back progress in Northern Ireland.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He even gave way with a smile, which is extraordinary. That is like tea and hot cross buns. Will he confirm the briefing given to the political editor of The Sunday Times that the deadline of 26 March lacks credibility? I notice that the only amendments tabled by the DUP relate to moving the 26 March deadline? Is he telling the people of Northern Ireland to forget about 26 March because it is not a feasible deadline?
What I have said is abundantly clear. I do not feel bound by any deadline in the process. Conditions have to be met. Will they be met by 26 March? I do not know, because I am not the one holding back progress—Sinn Fein is. On the basis of what the Government said, we expected Sinn Fein to come out of St. Andrews and call its ard chomhairle—I hope that the Hansard reporters do not ask me how to spell that—together to pass a resolution that would be put before the ard fheis, which would take the decision to support policing and the courts in Northern Ireland. That has not happened. It has not even got to the stage of making a recommendation. Far from calling a meeting, the Irish Times has revealed in the past few days that Sinn Fein is saying that until it gets a timetable for policing and justice to be devolved to Northern Ireland, it will not call the ard fheis. If that is Sinn Fein’s position, it certainly is not a condition in the St. Andrews agreement. If the Government accepted that Sinn Fein had given a positive response to the agreement, I assume that they must have been prepared to move forward without that condition being met. Once again, they are asking people to meet the condition who are not responsible for meeting it.
The position on policing and justice is as plain as a pikestaff—an expression better known to those from the island of Ireland than anyone else. There can be no more sensitive issue affecting the people of Northern Ireland. It affects people’s lives and is the key issue affecting their security and way of life in the Province. It cannot be ditched as part of a deal. Everybody has to be secure and confident about the issue before we move forward. I say to people in Northern Ireland that even if one of my colleagues were to be the Minister responsible for the issue, we would still do better not to have it included in the early stages of devolution. [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Foyle agrees. To put policing and justice into an Assembly that had not bedded down would be madness. To put it into the hands of those who have been engaged in acts of terrorism and criminality would be absurd. The community would not tolerate that.
The essential ingredient is community confidence. People must demonstrate that they have turned over a new leaf. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, they must prove that they have changed. It is not about what people say, but about how they behave. That is what is important, but it will be a long time before the people of Northern Ireland accept the bona fides of any Sinn Fein Minister.
I cannot create that confidence. In the comprehensive agreement of 2004, the Government said that they would work to create the community confidence that was necessary, as did the DUP. Both they and we can work as much we want, and I am sure that we will, but none of that will make any difference because it is Sinn Fein who must create that confidence. The people whom I represent have no confidence in Sinn Fein, so it us up to Sinn Fein to make the moves.
What confidence could anyone in Northern Ireland have in a timetable for the devolution of policing and justice when Sinn Fein has yet to give any support to the police in Northern Ireland? It would be a bit cheeky of Sinn Fein members to want to hurry along the process of devolution even after they had given some support to the police and the courts but, as the hon. Member for Foyle said, they have a right neck to ask for it before they have even reached that stage. That is the reality in terms of policing and justice in Northern Ireland.
I want to ask the Minister a few questions on the record. To avoid any suggestion that they are unexpected, I can tell the House that I gave him prior knowledge of the specific points that I intend to raise. I hope that he will be able to give the fullest possible answers to what are undoubtedly complex matters. If he does not have the necessary information, his officials certainly do. I am sure that he will want the courts, when they interpret the legislation, to have the benefit of the clearest possible ministerial statements to help resolve any ambiguity.
Will the Minister confirm that the intention of the clauses on the ministerial code is to ensure that particular decisions set out in what will be sections 20(3) and (4) of the amended Northern Ireland Act 1998 will be decisions for the Executive and not for a “Minister or junior Minister”?
Will the Minister confirm that a decision that, by virtue of proposed sections 20(3) or (4), ought to be brought to the attention of, and considered by, the Executive committee, will not be valid without the committee’s approval, and that without such approval Ministers will have no authority to take any such decision? Will a Minister have authority to take a decision that is properly brought to the Executive committee under proposed new section 28A(5) but about which the Executive committee is unable to agree? What is the status of a decision taken by Ministers who do not have the necessary authority?
Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will mean that any decision of the North/South Ministerial Council, which is cross-cutting by nature, or any other matter involving relationships with the Republic of Ireland that are affected by external relations, will have to go to the Executive for agreement? Without such approval, will Ministers have authority to take such a decision? Would any such ministerial decision be valid?
Will any decision beyond a de minimis level that involves human rights, equality or economic policy issues and which is regarded as cutting across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers therefore need to be discussed and agreed by the Executive committee? Will any decision outside a Department’s delegated authority that involves expenditure and which requires the approval of the Department of Finance and Personnel be regarded as one that cuts across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers? Would such a decision also need to be discussed and agreed by the Executive committee?
I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear that I have only one more question. Will any significant, strategic or controversial decisions fall outside the category of decision that could require the discussion of and agreement by the Executive committee?
I gave the Minister notice that I would be asking those questions, and I know that he is ready to reply in great detail. It is important that those questions, and the Minister’s replies, be placed on the record, as in one case that I once took right through to the House of Lords it was suggested that the Minister who had made certain remarks at the Dispatch Box was not necessarily aware of all the issues and so had not made a considered response. This Minister has had the opportunity to prepare, or at least his officials have, and I am therefore expecting a considered response from him tonight.
First, I apologise to the House for having to leave earlier.
The question that we must ask ourselves is: why are we here? We might all have different reasons, but I think that the underlying reason is that we want to make Northern Ireland the same as every other part of the UK. We want people there to have the same experiences as other people in this country.
I come from Sunderland, which is similar to Belfast, although I know that Belfast is not the same as the rest of Northern Ireland. Sunderland was built on ships; for many years, ours was the biggest shipbuilding town in the world. It was built on hard work, and the people there played hard and worked hard. It was a town with poor housing in some areas, and poor educational achievements. Unemployment was endemic, and the population was made up of people from different religions and races.
However, Sunderland was never a town where people killed each other, blew each other up, shot at the police or killed troops on the street. I want my town and Belfast to have the same future, even though they have had very different pasts. I am not saying that Belfast should become the second Sunderland—especially as Niall Quinn and Roy Keane are trying to make Sunderland the second Dublin.
We should grasp with both hands the chance that this debate offers. I am not a Johnny-come-lately to this discussion: those who have been involved in it in the year and a half since I came to the House will know that I have a long, proud record of representing people in Northern Ireland as a lay official of the Unison trade union.
Unison had a chequered history in Northern Ireland. Some of its partner unions did not support or organise there, while others did. Some people did not believe that representatives from Great Britain should have any say in the day-to-day workings of the union in Northern Ireland. As a result, for the first two years that I was involved over there, we spent a lot of time talking to each other about what we would do to try to make the union work in Northern Ireland.
Thankfully, the union did work over there. It worked because people worked together and ignored what was happening around them, although that is not to say that they did not care about what was happening outside. They developed an agenda that is non-partisan. If something is wrong it should be challenged: if people do not have jobs, if they have bad housing or are being mistreated at work, or if children do not have good schools to go to, that should be challenged and put right. Our agenda does not take sides on the constitutional position, and we have refused to be drawn into the argument about whether there should be a united Ireland, or whether Ireland should never be united. We chose instead to do the work that the union always does: protecting the working people in their day-to-day lives.
The union supported civil rights issues on all sides and worked with the often ignored ethnic minority community in Northern Ireland. We argued with past Governments—including a Labour Government—for better terms and conditions and against the privatisation of jobs. We acted as a catalyst for people to come together. We shared experiences with those in other parts of these islands and the Republic of Ireland about developing a way to devolution and self-determination.
My union put peace and stability on the Labour party agenda. Before the Labour party came to power, we funded the work of the shadow Northern Ireland Office, because we believed that that was in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the members of the union. We promoted the equality agenda and we condemned attacks on innocent people at home and at work. We did what many hon. Members present did: we did our best, standing up for people and defending them.
The union engaged with various political parties. One of my proudest moments was in 1996 when we organised a seminar in Newcastle, County Down, just five days after the bombing at Canary Wharf. The seminar was attended by representatives of almost every political party. It was one of the first times that we got together in one room, and it was a great success. An even greater success, for me, was my return to the same venue last month, as a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, under the leadership of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). The difference in the area is palpable, and the House and the nation should be proud of the changes that we have made in the past 10 years. We still have a lot of work to do, but we should congratulate ourselves on what we have done.
When we were in Northern Ireland, we went to Belfast. People were having a discussion about the removal of murals. The argument was not, “If you remove that mural, it is an attack on my culture and my past.” The argument was whether removing the murals would have an impact on tourism. That shows again how the mindset has been changed in Northern Ireland as a result of the work that we have all done and should keep on doing.
My union welcomed the Good Friday agreement back in 1998 as the best deal on offer. Clearly, some people did not agree with that, but the union stood up for the brave people who stood against the communities that they came from. They took a lot of personal flak, but they said, “We believe this is the way forward for the people of this Province.” The process has been neither happy nor straightforward—we have talked about the problems tonight—but things have got better.
I can remember when Belfast was almost a no-go area for people from Great Britain. The first time I went to Northern Ireland, I drove from Newcastle to Stranraer, and the last thing I did was fill up with petrol so that when I got off at Larne I did not have to stop at the border. Thankfully, that mentality no longer exists. The truth is that Northern Ireland is a place that people from all over the world, especially from this island, should go to, enjoy and respect.
There is much more for us to do. As an advocate of devolution, I wish that the opportunities that are being given to Northern Ireland through the Bill and previous work had been given to the people of the north-east of England. If they had, we might have had devolution and been able to look after our people better. We must accept our responsibilities in this House. We have to do what we can for the people of Northern Ireland with the chance that we have got. I understand the issues that people have raised today; they are serious, genuine issues, but the underlying process must be to move forward. The local politicians and politicians in this House have shown that they can do that, and we should be proud of what they have done.
The Bill lays the foundation for that to carry on. The people of Northern Ireland will be represented by their people. Northern Ireland politicians will be directly accountable to their people in a way that at this moment they are not, because they cannot deliver the things that people deserve and rightly expect. Northern Ireland Members will have the right to talk about transport, culture, arts, leisure and planning matters—issues that are now decided by Ministers and civil servants, who clearly do not have the same interest or faith in the people. Therefore, the Bill should be supported.
One thing that kept me going through the debates when devolution broke down was that there had been some successes. I believe that those successes were achieved because the politicians were nearer to the people. The people were telling the politicians, “We elect you; this is what we want you to do.” People responded to that and should be allowed to do so again in the positive way that they did during the short period from 1998 onwards.
The time has come for us to re-engage with that accountability. We owe it to the people of Northern Ireland and Great Britain to make that move forward. Any structural or ideological objections need to be sorted out and removed. I hope that that can be done in a timely way, but not so as it slows down the process until it yet again goes into reverse. The fact is that sometimes the best that we can achieve is not always what we want, but it is the best. The agreement and the Bill should be embraced by the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland, and should be implemented and pursued positively and progressively.
I urge the political representatives of all parties to use this opportunity on behalf of their people, their communities and their cultures to accept that with this power comes a massive responsibility—a responsibility not to allow centuries of hatred and bigotry to get in the way of delivering for their people; a responsibility not to use the limits and restrictions in the legislation in a partisan way in order to further party political goals; and a responsibility to the rest of us in this Parliament and on this island to ensure that the faith that we place in them is not misplaced and not abused.
This is a good day for democracy; it is a good day for my Government, for a succession of Ministers and for our Prime Minister, who has stood firm and led from the front in this debate for more than a decade. It is a good day for all the people in this House, in Northern Ireland and beyond who have refused to accept the rule of the gun over the rule of law. We should praise and congratulate those people. It is a good day for those who have said that terrorism will never ever succeed. Above all, it could be a good day for the great people of Northern Ireland—if we have the bottle to get this right.
I have listened with interest to many of the contributions that have been made from both sides of the House. There is certainly a reality that seems to be in many hearts and minds at this moment. People think that there are certain issues that we have to face if we are to move towards a stable future for Northern Ireland. It is clear that the Belfast agreement failed the people of Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, some of the ground that was surrendered by David Trimble at the time of the Belfast agreement can never be regained. That is a solemn and sad reality, and for that his name will go down in the history books, never to be forgotten by the Unionist population of Northern Ireland.
We have had many false dawns, so it is important that there is a realism over this House tonight. The realism is this: if there is not delivery, then there certainly is no deal. The Secretary of State has suggested that as we have signed up for the St. Andrews agreement we have moved on to the next stage. In actual fact, he must be under some illusion, because no one has signed up. The two people who have signed up are Her Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Irish Republic. The Democratic Unionist party has made it abundantly clear that if there is no delivery, there is no deal. Therefore, the delivery has to come. There is no delivery at the present time. We have to face that reality. We will come on to what we mean by delivery.
It is a reality that, for too long, our Province and the democratic politicians in Northern Ireland have been held to ransom by terrorists. Successive Governments bowed and scraped to the terrorists who threatened the people of Northern Ireland and Governments. In order to appease terrorism—the IRA—they have penalised the innocent instead of facing up to and defeating terrorism. We must never forget, whenever we come to talk about a future, the hurt and the innocent victims who were slaughtered by terrorists. Many people still carry scars on their bodies, never mind those who carry scars in their hearts whenever they think of the murder and slaughter of innocent loved ones. We have to remember these things when we come to talk about the Second Reading of the St. Andrews agreement Bill.
We need to remember that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. The Minister needs to know that. The Secretary of State said that if we did not accept the Bill and we did not have devolved government, we would go to plan B, which would introduce the interference of the Government of a foreign state in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. That is absolutely repulsive. It is blackmail and a threat held over the people of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is an equal part of the United Kingdom. It deserves to be serviced and governed equally with every other part of the United Kingdom. If there is no devolved government in Northern Ireland, this House is the House that governs; this Parliament is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is the responsibility of this House to deal with the laws that affect the day-to-day lives of people in Northern Ireland.
A threat is held over the people of Northern Ireland. The threat is, “If you do not bow to accept into government thugs or murderers who have not repented of their terrorism, you will be given something worse.” The something worse is more interference in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic. It is an absolute disgrace and a humiliation that the Government are trying to force that on the people of the United Kingdom. We are an equal part and no threats from Dublin in the past or threats from the Government now or in the future will make the people of Northern Ireland accept anything less than true democracy and democratic rule. Let the Government hear that loud and clear.
I mentioned earlier that Mr. Trimble has much to repent of as regards what he has done to the good people of Northern Ireland, for which he will go down in history.
Let me make it abundantly clear: repentance is proved by action. Whenever a person repents, there is a change of mind and a change of heart, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) should know. That is why we have made it abundantly clear that words and rhetoric are out if that is all there is; there must be a credible period of testing to prove that there has been repentance and a change of mind and that Sinn Fein has turned its back on terrorism and completely renounced its path. It must prove that it is relying on the democratic mandate alone for the future of Northern Ireland.
Should the House be interested in knowing whether I believe that Sinn Fein has come to that place, my answer is no, I do not believe that it has done so, and I shall give the reason. In July, Michael McIvor, a Sinn Fein councillor, who is still a member of Sinn Fein, which has taken no action against him, made some comments about dissident republican groups. He claimed that the strength of Continuity IRA and the Real IRA had been “blown out of proportion” by the media and the police, because despite being responsible for a litany of killings and attacks they had
“never caused British army deaths”.
He described the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA as “Brit loving”, and said that there was “no comparison” between them and the Provisional IRA, because:
“The PSNI and those sections of the media who call the dissidents hardline refuse to tell the Irish people why the Continuity or Real have never killed a member of the Brit forces”.
They are, therefore, not heroes and not to be taken seriously because they have not murdered British forces. A member of Sinn Fein—an elected representative of Sinn Fein—says that those people are not strong republicans because they have not put bodies in coffins. All the Bills in the world will not change that mindset. Until there is a turning away from that pathway and clear repentance, Sinn Fein members cannot be treated as democrats.
What do we mean by support for the security forces? Is it just that Martin McGuinness, or somebody else with a history of terrorism as long as their arm, has only to say, “I support the police”? Of course, paragraph 6 of the agreement specifies that it is support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but he believes that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. If he has to support the PSNI he will have to turn his republican philosophy on its head, because he will have to acknowledge that failed political entity. Indeed, if he wants to be part of the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive he will have to be part of that failed political entity, so his republican philosophy has disappeared in that respect. Furthermore, many members of the PSNI were formerly members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which he also hated and despised, so that will be interesting.
However, to give such support does not make Martin McGuinness a democrat or prove his credentials. He and Sinn Fein have to do that not only by word but in deed, and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition made it abundantly clear at the Dispatch Box the other day that one of the proofs was that they would have to hand over those responsible for the murder of Robert McCartney. Not only does Sinn Fein know who the murderers are, they are a part of that organisation. Let us see whether Sinn Fein gives those proofs by its actions—by handing over those whom it knows are responsible for murder and destruction in recent days, since the Belfast agreement.
I have said in the past that some of the Sinn Fein leadership were part of MI5. I believe that the British have so much on certain persons that they have been turning the screw on them to get them to jump through hoops. I do not care which individuals are responsible for that murder in this respect: whoever is responsible must be brought to justice. It does not matter who they are or where they come from, the persons responsible must be brought to justice—
The SDLP tried to lead me down the wrong path, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I shall listen to your advice and not be sidetracked.
The issues relating to delivery will not be pleasant for some people, but if they want to be democrats they have to face the line of democracy, and there will be no dulling of that line to placate or appease them. That was done for years and where has it taken us?—down the bloody pathway of murder and destruction. It is time that the Government and the House had the guts to stand up to the terrorists and to the party that has trailed democracy on the ground for years. The Government must allow us to have real peace and stability.
No, I will not be led astray again.
Sinn Fein is trying to fool its electorate by suggesting that some fanciful date will be given in respect of policing and justice. Let me make it abundantly clear: we will not be led by the nose by Sinn Fein into the devolution of policing and justice just to placate its members. Some of my colleagues have rightly said that the date will not be in their political lifetime—or even in 10 lifetimes—but we will not be fooled, or fool the electorate, by saying that reality will be softened just to please Sinn Fein or anyone else.
I want to mention a few other things before I draw my remarks to a conclusion. A number of issues must be nailed down. There must be a default mechanism; it is a great weakness that the Bill does not include one. Sinn Fein wants to get through the door, because it knows that in the past the SDLP did not have the guts to put its members out. The Ulster Unionists hardly ever had the guts to put them out. Those parties worked together to keep them in. There must be a default mechanism to ensure that if people do not stay on the path of democracy, they should not be in the democratic Government of our Province.
What about ill-gotten gains? What about the proceeds of crime? We cannot run away from those issues. What about the structures of the IRA?
On the issue of criminal assets, we are glad to hear the news today of the freezing of the assets of one ‘Slab’ Murphy, whom Gerry Adams described as a decent republican—[Interruption]—a decent republican farmer, not a criminal. Does my hon. Friend agree that the retention by any individual or organisation of the proceeds of crime is criminal activity in its own right, and that if the IRA is ending criminality it will need to make arrangements for the disposal of assets, not just have the Assets Recovery Agency seize them? Does he also agree that in the number of weeks that we have left before certain deadlines, whether it be an election or 26 March, it is going to take a lot of handing over to meet that deadline?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I absolutely concur with every word. Yes it will take a lot, and those in this Administration—our Government—had better face up to those realities. As for deadlines, this party did not set the deadlines; and as for breaking the deadlines, those who set them are responsible for them, and we will not be put into the corner by any deadline that has been set, because for years the IRA has been given deadlines, and it has never kept one of them. It is supposed to have decommissioned all its weapons years ago, but it did not do so until it was forced into what was, indeed, considerable decommissioning when the screw was put on by the DUP and the leader of our party.
The structures of the IRA have to be dealt with. We saw the dismantling of our army bases along the border, and now we are told that there is a considerable threat against the Protestant community along that border and in border areas. The structures of the community’s defence have been taken away, but the structures of the IRA are not taken away. No; its structure is still there. As far as any democratic Government is concerned, there is no need for a paramilitary and there is no need for an army sitting in the wings to threaten those in a democratic society; so as far as the provisionals are concerned, the structures of the IRA have got to go.
I simply say in closing that, yes, we have made progress, but certainly we have a long road to go. That may be a long, hard road, and if we break deadlines so let it be, but we are not misleading the people of Ulster, the people who have suffered for so many years. We want to ensure that we have a credible peace—a definite peace—and that we shall have stability for our people in the future. That, in my opinion, is the best deal that we could do for Ulster.
I shall be brief. I welcome the progress that we are making towards peace, stability and devolved government in Northern Ireland, however slow. The St. Andrews deal marks another milestone on that long, slow road and I hope that, perhaps, today will mark a milestone as well, enabling us to move forward.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Mr. McGrady), I agree that this legislation has some positives, and perhaps a few negatives or failures. I think that our party, the SDLP, has the right to take credit for a lot of the positives. After all, this legislation contains many clear improvements on the draft legislation published last month by the Government, which would have implemented many aspects of the failed comprehensive agreement of 2004, which was negotiated between the two Governments and accepted readily by Sinn Fein and the DUP. The SDLP led the campaign to highlight not just the inadequacies but the blatant injustices of the comprehensive agreement. Above all, we highlighted the fact that it would have provided, in effect, for a voluntary coalition between Sinn Fein and the DUP, with other parties effectively automatically excluded from office. I welcome the fact that both the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiators have now thought the better of that voluntary coalition deal. However, I regret that the mechanism for ensuring it in the comprehensive agreement by excluding other parties is still being championed, unfortunately, by my friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and his party.
There are many things that I would like to say, but I particularly want to question the Secretary of State on the transitional Assembly that will emerge after Friday. Will the Secretary of State outline to us whether that Assembly will be treated any differently from the current so-called Hain Assembly, which I understand will disappear on Friday? I would like to know—and many have asked me—what extra influence this transitional Assembly will have over water, planning, education, the review of public administration and the Workplace 2010 proposals. Will this Assembly have any consultative role? Will it have any more authority than the Assembly that is being wound up on Friday?
I shall now discuss some of the other injustices that remain in the Bill. We are, it seems, to face elections on 7 March if all goes well between now and then, but it is a startling fact, which has just emerged, that up to 100,000 people—10 per cent. of the potential electorate—stand to be disfranchised in those elections. I have heard the Secretary of State, in sedentary remarks, suggest that the people will have their say on 7 March. At that rate, only some people will have their say; 10 per cent. will not. We understand from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland that those 100,000 are missing from the register that will be used for the March election, compared with the register used for last year's elections to this House. That is no surprise, given that the public were relatively disengaged and were not, until now, fully aware that an election might emerge later next year. This year they were not expecting an election, and given that there is no carry-forward from last year's register, the reality is that many people just did not bother; they did not feel any need to register to vote.
To make matters worse, unlike in Britain where registration can take place up to 11 days before polling, in Northern Ireland the last day for registration will be 11 January. I make that 55 days before the elections. There was nothing in the St. Andrews deal that required that or even referred to that. That is why the SDLP will continue to push, for a carry forward of voters from last year's election register. The right to vote is precious, and it is unacceptable that 100,000 people should be denied the right to vote come 7 March.
It is no more acceptable that thousands upon thousands of our young people should be denied the right to an equal opportunity in education, yet that is exactly what the Bill does. The fact is that the 11-plus and academic selection in Northern Ireland are very significantly failing pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only 7 per cent. of those attending grammar schools in Northern Ireland are from disadvantaged backgrounds—by contrast, 28 per cent. of those in secondary schools are from such backgrounds. If the system were working fairly, one would expect roughly a 17 per cent. slice right through all schools. That is why I and my party colleagues welcomed the education order passed by the Government earlier this year, which would provide for an end to the 11-plus and an end to selection in post-primary education. But—
No, I am on a time constraint here. I am sorry. [Interruption.] I have only two minutes left.
In yet another concession—but an unfortunate and cruel concession—to the DUP, the order also provided that if there was restoration of devolved government by 24 November, there would need to be a cross-community vote to confirm the ban on selection. It did not work—the 24 November deadline will not be met—but that is not the end of it. Astonishingly, clause 21 of the Bill goes even further, offering the DUP a veto on education reform if there is restoration by the new deadline of 26 March. It also appears to allow different rules to be made for different types of schools, to ensure that academic selection of the worst kind remains the order of the day.
It is wrong for our education system to be thrown into chaos in that way, and I would plead with the Secretary of State not to do it—not to allow our children's education to be held to ransom. I have an eight-year-old child, a daughter, who, believe it or not, regularly asks me whether she will do the 11-plus, because her friends in her class at school, P4, do not quite know where they are. My daughter does not know what pathway will be available to her in three years’ time; her teacher does not know; her mother, my wife, does not know; and I do not know, and that is representative of the situation for a whole tranche of eight-year-olds throughout Northern Ireland.
Nothing in the St. Andrews agreement requires that confusion, and the Social Democratic and Labour party will oppose the clause that introduces it in Committee and at every other opportunity. It is tragic that the Democratic Unionist party is driving forward this awful education agenda, ironically ensuring the total neglect of the children of people in loyalist working-class areas, who are the very people from whom it demands. But that is the case not only in loyalist areas, but for all children, ensuring that they do not get the education opportunities that they deserve.
Regardless of whether the issue is education, water, rural planning, the review of public administration or Workplace 2010, the people I talk to want devolution and they want it now. They want us to get a grip. I appeal to Sinn Fein and the DUP to stop their ritual hostage dance and to get on with things, because that is what ordinary people want. We want devolution, and we want it now.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is very kind of you to do so as we have only a brief time to complete our debate. It is a travesty that six and a half hours have been set aside for this Northern Ireland legislation. It has constitutional implications for Northern Ireland—and I must say that I do not like the Bill one little bit. I can assure the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) that not only did the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) smile this afternoon, but he was certainly smiling on Thursday after the publication of the Bill. I do not wonder a bit about that because the Bill contains so much of what the Democratic Unionist party wanted it to contain.
That has come at a very high price for the rest of us, because the people of Northern Ireland are fed up with direct rule. They are particularly fed up with having direct rule Ministers from the Labour party, because the Labour party does not organise or field candidates in Northern Ireland, and therefore the five current Northern Ireland Office Ministers are completely unaccountable to the people of Northern Ireland. That is not intended as a personal reflection on those who hold those offices, although I must say that if I were the Secretary of State I would be sincerely considering my position if I had read a High Court judgment of the tone, and with the depth of criticism, of that delivered by Mr. Justice Girvan in the Downes judicial review proceedings. Therefore, it is rather rich of the Secretary of State to come before the House and to talk about Sinn Fein delivering on policing and justice, when he knows that there are obligations on all Ministers to be candid, frank and open, and that they have an overarching duty to be honest with the courts. I must say that the credibility of the Secretary of State and the Government are in question.
Today, in response to remarks of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), the Secretary of State stood up at the Dispatch Box and glossed over the deadline of the 24 November. The commitment to that deadline was clearly given in this House on 26 April 2006. In a debate on the Northern Ireland Bill, the Secretary of State told the House:
“The Bill sets in statute 24 November as the date by which we must be able to restore devolution. That is the date by which the political parties in Northern Ireland must take responsibility for the Government of Northern Ireland, as they have been mandated to do.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2006; Vol. 445, c. 597.]
The Bill before us today asks us once again to push the people of Northern Ireland to accept a change in a deadline. That is a moveable feast and it is not fair to the people of Northern Ireland, who desperately want a devolved Assembly to deal with issues such as water and water charging, their rates, their education and local government reorganisation. But there is a cost—the people of Northern Ireland want the real Assembly, not a Hain Assembly or a transitional Assembly. Our current Assembly has been suspended since 2002; it has been suspended for four years, with salaries and allowances continuing to be paid to Members of the Legislative Assembly, which means that about £2 million per month is being paid for a suspended Assembly.
The people of Northern Ireland are entitled to know that, at some stage, a deadline means a deadline. I listened very carefully to everything said by the hon. Member for Belfast, East—as I always do, regardless of whether I agree with him, which I rarely do—and by the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). From what they have said, as well as from other responses and interventions, it is clear to me and to the Government that the DUP does not regard the 26 March deadline as a deadline at all—[Interruption.] DUP Members are nodding and making sedentary interventions confirming that. In fact, the only amendments that they have tabled this afternoon would move the 26 March deadline.
I, for one, am absolutely weary with this Government setting deadlines and then blinking first—they always blink first. The difficulty with blinking is that the Government’s credibility is always on the line. The Prime Minister has—
No, I am sorry but I have limited time and I alone represent the Ulster Unionist party, and in fairness to it I shall not take any interventions on this occasion.
The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) rightly put on the record the time spent, and the dedication given, by the Prime Minister to trying to sort out Northern Ireland affairs. It was not necessary to commit to an election, but the difficulty is that we have just undone what the Prime Minister promised the people of Northern Ireland. He and the Irish Prime Minister issued a joint statement on 6 April this year, in which they said:
“While it is reasonable to give the Assembly a little more time, there must be a clear limit. We said in January that a power-sharing Executive must be formed this year”—
in 2006. As the Secretary of State said, that is a decisive year for Northern Ireland. The joint statement continued:
“If by 24 November the Assembly has failed to achieve this, we do not believe that any purpose would be served by a further election at that point or a few months later in May 2007. We do not think that the people of Northern Ireland should be asked to participate in elections to a deadlocked Assembly.”
By conceding to an election instead of a referendum following the St. Andrews agreement, we will, of course, get a deadlocked Assembly. We will have Sinn Fein writing its manifesto, putting in commitments to its constituents that will be unattainable in the context of the devolution of policing and justice, and, as the Secretary of State knows full well, the DUP will do exactly the same.
We have a little taste of that in an article entitled “Your Verdict—what is it to be?” posted on the DUP website, www.dup.org.uk. I want the Secretary of State to contradict what has been claimed by the leader of the DUP in that piece, a copy of which was, of course, enclosed with the Belfast Today News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph, and which had a tear-off strip. The leader of the DUP asked why he was regarded as enemy No. 1. The answer in the DUP publicity—I was going to say propaganda, but let us be kind—is:
“Because we are replacing the disastrous Belfast Agreement so that at last the people of Northern Ireland are to have a real say in their own future.”
To clear up any ambiguity, will the Secretary of State confirm for the record that there is absolutely no question of ripping up the Belfast agreement, and that what is being proposed would not in any way overturn what was agreed and voted on by thousands and thousands of people in 1998? That would be shameful. It was a cornerstone of the agreement that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister were to be jointly elected. It was to say—[Interruption.] Actually, joint election meant that the Unionist community had a veto over who was the Deputy First Minister. Now, by courtesy of caving in to the DUP, the Unionists—[Interruption.] I am sorry—let us look at the Bill in detail later this evening. I would like the DUP to say why it did not table an amendment to clause 9—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am most grateful to you. I am sorry that there have been so many sedentary interventions.
I am trying to make the point that when people voted for the agreement, they voted for the First and Deputy First Ministers to be elected jointly. Through this Bill, we have now made a major change to that election and that procedure. Of course, we have also included policing and education. It is shameful that, in six and a half hours in this House, we are shoving through such changes and foisting them on the people of Northern Ireland. I ask the Secretary of State to respond to the points that have been made when he winds up.
Before I begin, I have been asked to pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who made a speech earlier. He had to leave for other parliamentary business. [Interruption.] He is indeed a great man.
I have very little time and I do not know which of my various points I wish to make, so I shall perhaps start with a very general one. I do not know how many Statutory Instrument Committees I have sat on this year. It is usually one a week—sometimes two—and we have dealt with very important issues such as rating, local government reorganisation and education. Indeed, I understand that a statutory instrument on water will be considered on Tuesday. With the best will in the world, although I travel often to Northern Ireland I do not represent a constituency there, so this strikes me as a very unsatisfactory way of governing the Province, as I think Ministers will agree. It is therefore very important that we move towards devolution as quickly as possible, but I agree with my friends in the Democratic Unionist party that it has to be the right devolution settlement. If we look across the United Kingdom, we certainly do not see a uniform, or an entirely satisfactory, settlement. In Northern Ireland, the least that we should hope for is achieving the right settlement.
There are concerns about the timetable. I understand why things have to be moved on, but like other Members present, I wonder when exactly Sinn Fein will act on its obligation. It will have to be soon, in order to give it time to prove to everyone else that it means it, but I can see no immediate prospect of that. That concerns me, because support for the police is absolutely crucial. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was perhaps slightly misinterpreted earlier, but I think that he was saying that a British police force represents people, whether they are Scottish, Welsh, English or from Northern Ireland.
It is their police force—not ours, imposing a judgment on them. It is very important that those who seek to control that police force at least support it and recognise its legitimacy.
In the few seconds left to me, I want to echo the desire that was expressed for a return to normal politics in Northern Ireland. Having studied the past situation in South Africa and Rwanda, I know that it was important for those countries to move on—to move away from sectarianism. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland we have institutionalised it, so while there might be good reasons for power sharing at the moment, I hope that we can move toward something more like the Westminster model—a Government and an Opposition—rather than everybody being in government or everybody being in opposition. The hon. Member for Thurrock said that the playground has to be big enough for everybody to fit into it, but in the long term that is not necessarily the best way of going about things.
It is not deadlines that will achieve lasting peace in Northern Ireland—it is hearts and minds. People have to want peace and to be genuine about it, and I really hope that we have got to that position. I fear that there is a little work left to do before we get there, but in general terms I wish the Bill well and I hope that we get the chance to explore it in a little more detail in a few minutes’ time. I apologise to the House for the brevity of my remarks.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. Because of the programme motion, I have very little time in which to respond, but I hope to deal with the points that were made as best I can in that time.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell)—and, indeed, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson)—in that Northern Ireland is best governed when governed locally by an elected Assembly. I happen to think, rather modestly, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are doing a reasonable job, but I recognise that we are not elected or accountable in Northern Ireland, and we cannot be removed by the people there, so we have to get devolution back. That is the whole purpose of today’s proceedings.
I want to ensure that I get on the record my responses to the important points made by the hon. Members for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and for Belfast, East, who both touched the accountability of Ministers and how the ministerial code and such accountability will work. Both asked the Secretary of State to confirm that the intention of the clauses dealing with the ministerial code is to ensure that the decisions set out in what will be section 20 (3) and (4) will be ones for the Executive to make, not for individual or junior Ministers. I can confirm that subsection (5) of new section 28A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 will make it clear that the new code
“must include provision for requiring Ministers or junior Ministers to bring to the attention of the Executive Committee any matter that ought, by virtue of section 20 (3) or (4), to be considered by the Committee”.
That makes it clear that such matters are for the Executive committee, and that all Ministers have a duty to refer them to it.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked the Secretary of State to confirm that a decision that by virtue of section 20(3) or (4) ought to be brought to the attention of, and considered by, the Executive committee, is not validly taken without the approval of the Executive committee, and that without such approval, a Minister has no ministerial authority to take such a decision. I can confirm that subsection (6) of new section 28A requires the new code to establish a procedure to enable a Minister to check whether a decision that he proposes to take should properly fall to the Executive committee for consideration. If Ministers are in any doubt, they should avail themselves of the new procedure.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked whether a Minister has ministerial authority to take a decision that is properly brought to the Executive committee under a provision of the ministerial code, but on which the Executive committee is unable to agree. The Bill makes clear what issues Ministers are required to bring to the Executive, and places a legal duty on them to do so. It also places a duty on the Executive to decide how to handle issues that fall within their remit, either by consensus or by cross-community vote. I am labouring these points because I know that they are important to the hon. Gentleman and his party.
The hon. Gentleman also asked the Secretary of State to indicate the status of a ministerial decision taken without ministerial authority. I can confirm that in such a case, the decision would have been taken in contravention of the code itself. As such, it would not be a legitimate decision and would be open to legal challenge. The Minister himself would also be liable to the existing procedures under the 1998 Act.
The hon. Gentleman also asked the Secretary of State to confirm that, by virtue of the arrangements put in place by the Bill, details relating to the North/South Ministerial Council or any matter involving relationships with the Republic of Ireland will require Executive approval. I can confirm that such matters will be referred to under the ministerial code that applied until suspension, and will require Executive agreement. Under the arrangements provided for in the Bill, decisions taken without Executive agreement would not be legitimate and would be open to legal challenge.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether any significant strategic or controversial decisions will fall outside the category of decision that could require discussion by, and the agreement of, the Executive committee. Under new section 24, the Executive would have the function of discussing and agreeing on any significant or controversial matter—and indeed, the code requires that such matters be brought before the Executive committee for consideration.
The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked about de minimis level engaging of human rights, equality or economic policy issues being regarded as matters that cut across the responsibility of two or more Ministers. It is difficult to answer that question, but I hope that the new code will include a procedure to enable Ministers to check whether a decision should properly fall to the Executive committee. His final point was whether any decision involving expenditure would require discussion and agreement by the Executive committee. The answer is yes.
Today’s proceedings lay the foundation for what I believe is a historic Bill and a historic decision, which looks toward restoring devolution and lays the framework for power sharing and for Sinn Fein recognition of and support for the police. That, in itself, would be a historic shift. The right hon. Member for North Antrim, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and indeed other hon. Members have strongly emphasised the need for that aspect to be placed on the record, in relation both to power sharing and to police recognition by Sinn Fein.
I look forward to the Assembly meeting on Friday this week, when I hope that steps will be taken to put us on the road to ensuring that devolution is back in place by 26 March next year. I welcome the commitment of the right hon. Member for North Antrim—and, indeed, the Member for Belfast, West—to this process and the work that has been done. I am sorry that I have not been able to respond to every point, because of the time available, but I am pleased to say that major steps are now being taken towards restoration of devolution. The Bill is the foundation for it and I am confident that, with the good will that I know exists between all parties, we will move towards devolution and restoration, in due course, by 26 March. Those who want devolved power exercised in Northern Ireland by local politicians, many of whom are in their places today, will welcome that.
It being Four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Bill [allocation of time] motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Order [this day].
Question agreed to.
Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].
Bill immediately considered in Committee.
[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Compliance or non-compliance with St Andrews Agreement timetable
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 44, in page 2, line 11, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 45, in page 2, line 17, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 46, in clause 27, page 20, line 24, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 47, in schedule 1, page 21, line 29, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 48, in page 22, line 10, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 49, in page 22, line 33, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 50, in page 22, line 40, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 51, in page 23, line 8, leave out ‘2007)’ and insert
‘2007, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State)’.
No. 52, in page 24, line 39, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 53, in page 25, line 33, leave out ‘2007)’ and insert
‘2007, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State)’.
No. 54, in page 25, line 34, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 55, in page 26, line 3, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 56, in page 26, line 10, after ‘2007,’, insert
‘or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 57, in page 26, line 22, after ‘2007’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
No. 58, in page 26, line 28, after ‘2007,’, insert
‘, or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State’.
I welcome the opportunity of moving the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and the associated amendments in the group. The purpose is to insert the words
“or such later date as may be specified in an order made by the Secretary of State”
after the date of 26 March, as set out in the clause. The issue of the timetable in the St. Andrews agreement has already been debated on Second Reading. I know that the Secretary of State was not present throughout that debate, so he may not have heard the contributions of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who made it clear that, as far as the DUP is concerned, we are condition led, not deadline led.
Devolution must be on the right terms, not imposed at a time set by the Secretary of State or by any piece of legislation. When devolution happens, the conditions must be ripe. We have made it clear previously and in today’s debate that the notion of Unionists, particularly the DUP, being dragooned or forced into taking a decision on power sharing or devolution that does not meet the conditions set out in our manifesto or put before the people is something that simply will not happen.
Was my hon. Friend as disturbed as I was by the remarks of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)—the Ulster Unionist party’s sole Member in the House—when she said that, come what may, the timetable had to be adhered to? Is the UUP telling the people of Northern Ireland that even if Sinn Fein delivers nothing, it should be in government on 26 March?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. The hon. Lady’s remarks—I am sorry that she is not in her place at the moment—certainly outlined that position. For some time, the UUP—a party that let Sinn Fein-IRA representatives into Government at a time when they had not decommissioned any weaponry and were still engaged in criminality, terrorism and even murder—has believed, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has made clear, that devolution should be up and running regardless of whether Sinn Fein has delivered on what it needs to deliver even under the terms of the St. Andrews agreement between the two Governments. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that, faced with that choice, the Unionist population of Northern Ireland will be reassured to know that this Democratic Unionist party will stick to the pledges that we have made to the people and the manifesto position that we outlined. We will also stick to the position recently conveyed to the Government by our central executive committee.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that it strikes me as a bit rich to be talking to DUP Members about signing up to deadlines when it is quite clear that Sinn Fein has signed up to absolutely nothing as far as policing is concerned. Indeed it has not only failed to sign up, but has retreated from what we were told was its position at St. Andrews. As to the timetable, the Secretary of State and other Ministers have told us that there are certain dates by which certain things have to happen and that if they do not happen, there will be consequences. When faced with the question of when Sinn Fein is going to call an executive, when Sinn Fein is ready to convene a conference and when the testing period can begin—so that Unionists can gain some confidence that those people really are changing and should be admitted into government—we are met with silence, evasion and vague statements. Time and again today, questions have been asked about when the conference to be called by Sinn Fein has to happen in order for a credible period of testing to commence, particularly if 26 March is not to be a meaningless date.
Does my hon. Friend accept that DUP Members are disquieted by the Secretary of State’s evasion on three occasions of a question about the time that he believed would be required for Sinn Fein to hold its conference and make a decision on policing? That sends the wrong signal to Sinn Fein, too.
My hon. Friend is right—that was precisely the point that I was making. The Secretary of State and Ministers refuse to make any demands on Sinn Fein about the commitment even to calling a conference to adopt a resolution or a position on policing. The Secretary of State shakes his head, but I would welcome his coming to the Dispatch Box now and telling us when Sinn Fein has to call its conference so that we can have a credible period of testing before 26 March. Again, he refuses to accept the challenge. We have noted his evasion and the people of Northern Ireland will be rightly concerned, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said.
The earlier intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) in the absence of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) pointed up the contradiction in the position of the Ulster Unionist party. On the one hand it says that it wants the Government to stick by deadlines, and on the other that if the conditions are not met, we will end up with devolution through having people in government who do not support the police and the rule of law. Does my hon. Friend agree that the outcome of the scenario painted by the hon. Lady, if we accept the deadline, is reverting to plan B in the event of no devolution, which means joint authority? Is that now the policy of the Ulster Unionist party?
My hon. Friend has raised important questions, which only the hon. Member for North Down can answer. I am sorry that she did not take the opportunity in the previous debate to allow an exchange about those policies. There is no doubt that the position of the Ulster Unionist party is that the deadline must be met, regardless of the conditions. We will not fall into that trap, which would catch only the most naive.
I should like to correct the record, especially given that I was not in the Chamber when the first attack was made on me by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), who obviously was not smiling at the time. Every time the Government move a deadline, Sinn Fein moves. It takes two to tango—the DUP and Sinn Fein—and there must be mutual trust. An Irish Government election will take place next spring, and it is obvious to me that every time the Government move a deadline and show that they will blink first, Sinn Fein also moves. That is the problem with moving deadlines, not that conditions are unmet. It gives a clear signal to Sinn Fein that every time it goes to No. 10, it can change the mind of whoever happens to be Prime Minister. That is the problem.
The hon. Lady appears to say that if one sets a deadline, the parties should stick to it and agree on 26 March to form a devolved Government. That appears to be her position and she does not dissent from it. Our position is that we are not bound by a deadline unless the conditions are right—unless criminality and paramilitarism are finished and the structures are gone, unless there is support for policing, the criminal justice system and the courts of law, and that is proved over a period of testing. We will wait and see. We will judge those matters by the action and inaction of Sinn Fein and the IRA, not by any dates set by the Secretary of State or in legislation.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Sinn Fein position on policing. The Bill is crystal clear—it could not be clearer—about the necessity for Sinn Fein to sign up to all the specifics of policing spelled out in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement and enshrined in clause 7. The Bill is the first measure to do that. I would have thought that he would give credit for that. In my view, Sinn Fein needs to call an ard fheis sooner rather than later. I shall not get into discussing specific weeks or days, because that would not be helpful. The end process is that Sinn Fein candidates who hope to be Ministers must accept the pledge of office, as spelled out in clause 7.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s intervention, although we are well aware of what the Bill provides about the pledge of office on 25 March. However, he knows that, for the DUP, it is not simply a matter of making a pledge. Anyone who wants to be in government, especially Sinn Fein, must prove over a credible testing period that they are committed, not only in word but in action, to supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the courts and the rule of law. He appears to claim that, as long as Sinn Fein signs up to a pledge on 25 March, everything in the garden is rosy, even if it makes the pledge or holds an ard fheis only on the previous day or in the previous week. That is not satisfactory to us, the Unionist people or the people of Northern Ireland.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the obvious question that arises from the Secretary of State’s intervention is whether the right hon. Gentleman expects the ard fheis to take place, or believes that it should, before or after the election on 7 March? Is not there a crazy position whereby the Secretary of State tells us that the people will be asked to endorse a deal on the basis of the DUP talking about all the things that are not happening and that it does not believe exist, and Sinn Fein not having signed up to policing or held an ard fheis and setting all sorts of terms and pre-conditions? How are the general public meant to make sense of that if the Secretary of State cannot make sense of it for us in the House today?
The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point. Some people might wonder in those circumstances whether an election will advance anything. If the Assembly is dissolved on 30 January and we begin an election campaign while still awaiting a conference on policing, does anyone seriously suggest that we can tell the people of Northern Ireland that we will be in a position on 26 March to achieve some sort of devolution including such people as members of Sinn Fein? Many people believe that the time is rapidly passing for Sinn Fein to start delivering on policing, criminality and paramilitarism if it is to be taken seriously through a credible period of testing.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Secretary of State has specific powers under the Bill to stop the process if he is not satisfied that sufficient progress is being made for devolution to come about on 26 March? I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will want to answer the following question when he responds to the debate: would he call a halt to an election process if Sinn Fein had not held its ard fheis and made a decision before the election period?
The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. I do not judge the DUP on the matter. I should love it to go along with the deadlines but it would be pointless for me to push that. Can he conceive of circumstances in which the conditions that the DUP requires to be met could be fulfilled in the available time? Does he believe that it is possible? What would be the DUP’s timetable for requiring the conditions to be met? Can he be specific, if possible, about what he needs from Sinn Fein for the DUP to believe that the conditions have been fulfilled in time for the election?
Having castigated people for setting deadlines, I will not get into the business of starting to set them. That would be a grievous error. If we have learned anything, it is that we should not get into that game.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first question about whether such things are possible or probable, I repeat what I said: with every day that passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince people that the necessary movement and delivery will be achieved in policing, criminality and paramilitarism and all the other issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim, my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East and others have mentioned already in the debate.
These are not new issues. They must be delivered on, but we must have a period when people in Northern Ireland are truly convinced not only by word but by action that those matters have been dealt with. If they are not dealt with and people are not convinced, we will again have another recipe for collapse and crash, and no one wants that to happen. When we move, we must be certain that we are doing so on the basis of some kind of real delivery, so that people can be relatively convinced that it is the time to move. However, we must also ensure, as has also been mentioned, that any new devolution process includes a proper sanction or default mechanism. If anyone does not fulfil their obligations, there must be an effective mechanism to ensure that the whole thing does not collapse and that the people who are responsible for the default are punished.
The amendment presents the Secretary of State with a choice. Is he honestly and genuinely saying that the 26 March is an absolute cut-off date and that he will bring the entire process to an end even if Sinn Fein has not called its conference or has not made sufficient progress on policing, because it has decided to draw out the process and to refuse to give and deliver on the issues on which everyone knows it must deliver? Is he honestly saying that that is the Government’s position? Is it not more sensible to include a provision in the legislation that accepts the reality that, if the conditions are not right, we must continue to work with the progress that has been made to ensure that the delivery happens and that, at the right time, we can move forward on a stable basis with devolution?
We have referred to the issues during interventions. It is clear what must happen in the period between now and 26 March. There must be delivery by Sinn Fein in support of policing. We know what is in the pledge, but we also know that there must be delivery in terms of people supporting the police and encouraging others to give information to the police. People have rightly said that one of the litmus tests is the McCartney case and whether or not the provisional movement is prepared to give up people.
We have heard some discussion of the devolution of policing and justice. Sinn Fein appears to be setting a precondition that it will not hold any conference unless it has a date from the DUP on the timetable for policing and justice. Sinn Fein requires of the DUP some agreement on the modalities of the type of department that will administer policing and justice. It also requires of the Government delivery in respect of MI5 and other issues. No doubt, it has thrown a number of other issues into the pot as well.
It has been said today—let me repeat it for the Secretary of State, who may not have been here when it was said previously—that the DUP does not regard the devolution of policing and justice as happening any time soon. It would be complete madness to believe that a newly created Assembly would somehow be made more stable with the devolution of such powers, no matter about the modalities of how those powers would be administered. For anyone to suggest that some kind of arrangement should allow Sinn Fein members anywhere near the administration of policing and justice in a devolved settlement is simply ludicrous.
I have said before in the Chamber and in a Committee upstairs how long that period might be in my view—a political lifetime—and I repeat it for those who think that perhaps I shy away from doing so. I believe that many people in Northern Ireland would be totally appalled at the notion of the likes of Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness being in charge of policing and justice. I know the reaction of the House if anyone were to suggest that those who were involved in the current campaign of bombing in London and Britain—no matter what words they might utter or however much they say that they have repented—should at any time be placed in charge of or have influence over the administration of policing and justice on the mainland. People would be absolutely appalled at such a notion. People in Northern Ireland are entitled to reassurance on that matter, and on that matter, we give them that reassurance. If Sinn Fein is upset by that, so be it.
Sinn Fein’s argument appears to be that it is unreasonable to ask it to support policing while denying it control or influence over the police. To be fair to the SDLP and to large sections of the nationalist community, they were prepared to come forward and sign on for policing, to support policing and to encourage people to give evidence to the police and to join the police without any demand that they should have control over the devolution of policing and justice. Sinn Fein makes a different demand: it will support policing when it gets control. People only get control when there is confidence in the community and they earn the trust of the community. That is not to be bargained with.
Is it not the case that we have no demand or requirement for the devolution of justice and policing at ministerial level? Clearly, the Good Friday agreement envisaged that, as did the Patten report, but it recommended the establishment of the Policing Board to do the job for a number of years, with the devolution of justice and policing to follow. That is why we want the devolution of justice and policing to follow the good work of the Policing Board.
Is not the important point not that all the democrats in all the other political parties are quite prepared to support the police without making any preconditions about getting their hands on the leverage of policing and justice but that only Sinn Fein says that it will begin the process of supporting the police when it alone gets its hands on policing and justice?
My hon. Friend has summed up the issue very succinctly, and people should therefore be in no doubt where we stand on that issue.
The other issues that need to be dealt with are criminality and paramilitarism. I have read newspaper reports and articles that no demands are made as part of the St. Andrews process. I have heard the statement made that it contains no demand for any kind of dismantling of terrorist structures, or that criminality is not an issue. Of course those things are included. That is why an Independent Monitoring Commission report is built in and why there is the testing period. If anyone is in any doubt about that, they should look at all the statements that have been made by members of the DUP in recent weeks and months in relation to all those matters. Indeed, people do not even have to believe the words that we have spoken: next time they meet the Justice Minister and Tanaiste, as he is now, in the Irish Republic, they can refer him to what he said about the continued existence of the IRA army council and the continued possession by the IRA of massive amounts of money—
I thank you, Mrs. Heal, and I will make my remarks in the context of the amendment.
If we are to have a date other than 26 March for the possible restoration of devolution, it is necessary to concentrate on the conditions that must be fulfilled to allow devolution to occur. We have dealt with the policing issue, and I now refer to the paramilitarism issue that must be dealt with, which members of my party are on record as saying over and over again. On the issue of criminality, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim has made it clear that criminal assets would have to be handed over and those responsible given up. Those are serious issues, which cannot be swept under the carpet and will have to be dealt with. That is why the Secretary of State needs to consider carefully the 26 March deadline. Even tonight, some 10 weeks, including Christmas, before an election campaign begins in Northern Ireland, it is hard to imagine going from door to door and convincing people that somehow all those things have been delivered. I also remind the Secretary of State of the other outstanding matters that my party has brought to his attention, which must be delivered too.
I urge the House to adopt this and a series of amendments, which will build into the Bill a flexibility that anyone who considers the position in Northern Ireland objectively will accept must be accommodated.
I oppose amendment No. 43 and the other amendments grouped with it.
It is clear from the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) that the amendment is an attempt to ensure a dissolution of the key deadline of 26 March. I have no doubt that the Government will oppose the amendment, although, as we have seen previously, the Government’s attitude on such matters has melted subsequently. The Secretary of State and Ministers have presented all sorts of measures as absolute necessities and unbudgeable requirements only to withdraw them subsequently. We have probably had more withdrawals from Ministers than we would get from an automatic telling machine.
That has created a situation in which the DUP has the expectation that the deadline can slip yet again. Unfortunately, it probably takes some encouragement in that from the fact that there has been slippage on St. Andrews already. As I indicated, a programme for government committee was meant to meet on 17 November, but it only met on 20 November for the first time. The week of 20 November was meant to see an ard chomhairle meeting of Sinn Fein followed by a clear statement in relation to policing. We did not see that. Parties were meant to indicate endorsement of the deal and a definitive commitment to restore power sharing. We did not see that. On 24 November, we are meant to get the nomination of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Instead, it appears, from what the Secretary of State said, that we might get indications. The problem—and I hope that the Secretary of State will address this in his remarks—is that the DUP will only take encouragement from that, and the later deadline in the process will equally be bucked.
I welcome the Government’s saying that the deadline is an absolute one. If they believe in deadlines, however, they need not only to hold firm to the 26 March deadline but to clarify some other interim deadlines on the way. If there is to be an election on 7 March, are the requirements as to the conditions for that clear? Will the Secretary of State say, for instance, that we will not proceed with the election if either the IMC report is bad or the DUP’s reaction to the IMC report is bad? Will there be an election willy-nilly, no matter what the IMC report says, or what the DUP says about the IMC report? If there is an election, what are the implications for the deadline of 26 March if a mandate is secured to defy that deadline? That is the conundrum created by the way in which the timetable, some of which is unspecified—not least in relation to Sinn Fein’s position on policing—is set out. Do the Government require or intend Sinn Fein to have taken a definitive position on policing before an election? What will be the position regarding appointments to the Policing Board and so on after restoration?
Those matters could be sensibly clarified to remove many of the fears and concerns, and many of the calculations for partisan advantage, which would give the public real confidence. If people were able to join up the dots, and fill in all the gaps and blanks in the process, that would do more for public confidence than side deals and concessions in relation to education and other matters. We hear the DUP indicating that it is also looking for other side deals. The Government have a habit of making such concessions in the name of building public confidence. They will not build public confidence, however, if there is a question about exactly what the process and the agreement mean. They need to clarify what it requires, what will happen and by when it will happen, so that the public can vote, safe in the knowledge that those things have happened and will be delivered.
In supporting the Government in rejecting the amendments, I ask them not just to be firm about the deadline but to be a lot firmer and clearer about the requirements of the process, and not to allow slipperiness from parties, which will just result in Ministers appearing at the Dispatch Box to justify embarrassing slippage yet again.
With the amendments, the DUP is trying to push back the date by which the Assembly should be up and running and the Executive formed. The timetable set out in the St. Andrews agreement is that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be nominated by 24 November, and the rest of the Ministers in the Executive by 14 March, with power set to be restored to the Assembly on 26 March. If that timetable is not followed, schedule 3 of the Bill comes into effect, which would mean that the Assembly would be dissolved. The DUP amendments would allow the Secretary of State to let that deadline slip.
We have criticised the Government previously for allowing deadlines to slip, so we would certainly not be willing to support amendments providing for the expectation that the current timetable will fail. The incentive of a deadline, which, if not met, would mean that the Assembly would be dissolved, is needed to persuade the parties to move and to reach agreement. The Government must convince us all, however, that the deadline is real, as unless the parties believe that, we will simply not see agreement. The DUP, in moving the amendment, has shown that its mindset is to expect the 26 March date to be pushed further back. I hope that the Secretary of State will make it clear that that is a real deadline.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) to understand the DUP mindset a little better on the issue.
The amendment relates to dates and deadlines, and today’s debate has focused a lot on dates and deadlines. The date of 12 August 1970 is etched in my memory as the day that the troubles of Northern Ireland came crashing into my home, my family and my life. It was the day on which my cousin Samuel, a young constable in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was murdered by the IRA. He was the first police officer in Northern Ireland to die at the hands of the IRA in what has become known as the troubles. No one has ever been brought to justice for Samuel’s murder. He was a young Christian police officer doing his duty. Indeed, my family received hundreds of cards from the community in Crossmaglen, and from Roman Catholics in Crossmaglen, expressing sympathy.
The local chapel in Crossmaglen held a special memorial service for Samuel, and for the young officer, Roy Millar, who died with him that day on a lonely countryside road in South Armagh. Little did we know then that, some 15 years later, in February 1985, Samuel’s brother Alexander, a chief inspector in the RUC, would also lose his life in the mortar attack on Newry police station, when nine RUC officers, men and women, lost their lives. That atrocity saw the greatest loss of police officers’ lives in the troubles.
I share those things with the House to highlight the importance of policing to me, as an individual and as a Member of Parliament representing constituents who have experienced losses as a result of the troubles and who carry the scars, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) referred to in his remarks, of the many atrocities and incidents that have unfortunately been the landmarks of the last 35 or 36 years in Northern Ireland. I need to know that the people that my party will be sharing government with in the future are committed to supporting the police and the rule of law. I need to know that the men who were behind the murder of Samuel and Alex Donaldson and almost 300 other police officers in the course of the troubles in Northern Ireland—whose murders were sanctioned by people who today are in the leadership of Sinn Fein—have crossed the line and embraced democracy.
My family did not get justice. No one was ever brought before the courts for those two murders, and yet I want to know that, for my family, we are going to get peace and stability for the long term. That is why the amendment is important to me. In the end, it is not deadlines that will bring peace to the people I represent, to my family and to those who have survived the troubles; it is what people do, it is the changes that are necessary and the conditions that we all require as members of a society that has suffered so much. It is the conditions being met that is important.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) indicated, if Sinn Fein moves soon, we may have a reasonable period of time over which to judge whether what it says in its ard fheis is what it does on the ground in terms of supporting the police and the rule of law. We have not had a definitive answer from the Secretary of State this evening about what would happen in the kind of scenario that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) raised: if Sinn Fein does not hold that ard fheis and does not give its support to the police and the rule of law before an election, what does that mean for the election? Will the Secretary of State still proceed with the election, or will it be postponed? Is that one of the moments that he talked about earlier when we run out of track in this process? There is a lack of clarity on that issue. Members of the Democratic Unionist party, who will be expected to fight that election, along with the hon. Members representing the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Ulster Unionist party, are entitled to know where we stand on that issue. If Sinn Fein does not have its ard fheis before the election, will the election proceed? Those issues are important.
Surely the Secretary of State cannot be suggesting to the DUP that, if Sinn Fein holds its ard fheis on 24 or 25 March, within hours of the deadline for devolution of 26 March, we should accept that as demonstrating clearly the bona fides of Sinn Fein in giving its support to the police. I am sorry, but my family and the people I represent could not accept that as a sufficient period in which to make that judgment call. For years, in district councils up and down Northern Ireland, when Sinn Fein councillors have been elected to office, they have stood up and given an oath that they will not do anything to support unlawful activity, but there have been Sinn Fein councillors who have been convicted of unlawful activity. They take that pledge, as it were, but in the past they have not always fulfilled it. We need to know that Ministers who take pledges in a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland will honour those pledges. Before that happens, we need to have a reasonable period of time in which to know that Sinn Fein has not only said in words that it supports the police and the courts, but has followed that up in deeds.
I say all that because I want to see progress made in Northern Ireland. I want to see this matter settled and a devolved Government in place. Despite what the IRA has done to my family and my community, if Sinn Fein crosses the line and supports the police and the rule of law, if the IRA ends its paramilitarism and criminality for good, and the structures of terrorism are progressively dismantled—and those things are demonstrated not just in word, but in deed—I am prepared to accept that Sinn Fein is in the Government of Northern Ireland and that we have to share power with it.
That is a personal mountain that I have to climb, and a personal mountain that the people I represent have to climb. Recently, in our civic centre in Lisburn, I had a meeting with some police officers. It was not a political meeting. We were marking the retirement from his post of our district police commander. I sat and talked to some of the officers. One of them was disabled. He is one of my constituents and he has shown great courage. He was left badly disabled as a result of an IRA mortar attack in Newry in which one of his colleagues lost her life. As I was talking to him, the conversation came round to the issue of Sinn Fein in government and its support for the police. That man, who will carry the scars of our conflict to his grave—long may he be spared to live—said to me that he was prepared to support the DUP going into government, but in circumstances in which it was clear that there was support for the police and the rule of law.
That is why it is important that the Government do not get hung up on the deadline of 26 March. I say in all sincerity to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) that I hope that the Ulster Unionist party does not get hung up on deadlines either. We need people to stand together on this issue. What matters is the quality of what is delivered, not some arbitrary date that has been plucked out of the air. What matters is that we get long-term stability for her children, my children and the people we represent so that this time things are copper-fastened, the foundations are strong, and what the Secretary of State referred to earlier as the pillars or the cornerstones of this process are set in concrete, not sand. That is crucial.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North has eloquently outlined why the DUP believes that it is important that the process is condition-led, progress-led and meaningful, and that it is not simply about setting an arbitrary date. We are not in the business of crashing through deadlines simply for the sake of it. We are not the joyriders of the peace process and I should say to the hon. Member for Foyle that we are not interested in drive-by attacks on deadlines or anything like that. We want progress and a real settlement. We want to see the issue settled once and for all, whether on 26 March, 26 April, 26 May or whenever—perhaps on 12 July.
I hope that the House will give serious consideration to what we are about. This is not about the DUP wanting to get off a hook, because we are not on a hook. It is not about the DUP simply wanting to crash through deadlines for the sake of it, or being obstructionist. It is about making real progress in Northern Ireland and ensuring that people who have made lots of promises in the past, but have failed to deliver at the end of the day, really do deliver this time. That is vital for our future. It is vital that those who are in Garnerville today training to be the new recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and their colleagues who are on the ground tonight, whether in my constituency or any other part of Northern Ireland, know that they will not have to face what their colleagues in the past, in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, had to face with great courage and valour, but at a huge price. I do not want any more police officers to die in Northern Ireland because we have failed to get this right.
Schedule 1, paragraph 1 tells us that there will be a transitional Assembly, which will meet on 24 November. However, it does not say, as many hon. Members have tried to suggest tonight, that at that meeting nominations will be made for either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister. Further down the page, the Bill states:
“The proceedings to be conducted by the Transitional Assembly shall include the making of nominations”
but it does not say that nominations must be made on 24 November—in fact, no business is set down for 24 November. Later, the schedule talks about the draft ministerial code. I would therefore like the Secretary of State to explain how the idea got started that all those nominations must be made on that date. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was eager to see what would happen, and I promised her a Paris bun, I think it was, if she attended the meeting.
The right hon. Gentleman may accept that many people are relying on paragraph 10 of the St. Andrews agreement, which states:
“the Assembly will meet to nominate the First and Deputy First Minister on 24 November.”
It also states that
“in the event of failure to reach agreement by the 24 November we will proceed on the basis of”
other “partnership arrangements”. Furthermore, the timetable in annexe D to the agreement states, under the date 24 November:
“Assembly meets to nominate FM/DFM.”
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is trying to elevate that bit of white paper, which was drawn up between two Governments and does not bind this House in the least. Only when it has gone through the House and become law is it to be obeyed. He is now advocating that, every time the southern Government and the UK Government put out a wee bit of white paper, I have to bow my neck to it. It will not be done. That is all I have to say.
First, let me make it clear that the amendment is not about putting off devolution or trying to avoid the hard decisions in which devolution is likely to involve Unionists. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) has already made it clear that, as far as the DUP is concerned, if the conditions that we believe are necessary for parties to be able to participate in devolution in Northern Ireland are met, we wish to see devolution and we will participate in devolution, even with parties that we do not like being in government with—
Yes, they have made that clear. The amendment is not an attempt to put off the decision on devolution.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) seemed to be concerned that the amendment would simply push back the date for devolution. In fact, the amendment is designed to ensure that, if devolution is possible, it will happen and it will be sustainable. He was concerned about the failure of the timetable, but we believe that the timetable is likely to lead to a failure of any ability to have devolution, because it is set against a background in which there is no guarantee.
The Secretary of State has made it clear that he will not even set an expectation for when Sinn Fein should make a commitment to support policing in Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman’s evasiveness on that point will not help to create the conditions in which Sinn Fein is able to give the community in Northern Ireland the assurance that the party has truly changed its position on policing. It behoves him to stop that ambivalence. In the past, in the face of what the parties all around him were saying, he insisted that he would not set a new precondition for devolution, so he avoided saying whether Sinn Fein had to be committed to policing. That was less than five months ago. Now, he has bowed to the arguments and accepted that devolution is not possible without support for policing, but he will not spell out to Sinn Fein that it must give an early commitment to policing and prove that it supports the police.
If we abide by the timetable laid down, Sinn Fein could, as some hon. Members have said, hold its conference and make its commitment to devolution the day before the Assembly is up and running. Judging by the debate so far, the Secretary of State believes that, the next day, Sinn Fein Members could walk in, take a pledge and, hey presto, that would be what is meant by making a commitment to policing. However, the DUP believes that making that pledge should be the culmination of Sinn Fein’s transition from a party that is opposed to the police, does not support the police, discourages people from joining the police and has been hostile to the police. It is the culmination of a process: first, Sinn Fein accepts that it has an obligation to support the police; then it fulfils that obligation by doing something in the interim period; and finally its Ministers make the pledge to support the police. The pledge is not the start of the process, but its culmination.
That means that time will be required. As long as the Secretary of State allows Sinn Fein to put off the day on which it starts that process, the timetable for devolution will be elongated. It has to be, if there is to be confidence in any devolution settlement that is finally arrived at. That is why the Secretary of State was pressed today to say when he wants Sinn Fein to start that process. Is it this month? Is it before Christmas? Is it January? The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) even asked the Secretary of State to tell us whether it is before the election or after it. We could not get a response from the Secretary of State.
The reason why there must be a testing period for Sinn Fein is that people in Northern Ireland—and certainly not those in the Unionist community—do not believe the words that Sinn Fein speaks. I sat as a member of Belfast city council from 1981. In 1985 or 1986, all members were supposed to pledge to support non-violence and to oppose the use of violence to pursue political ends. During that period, after they took that pledge, I heard Sinn Fein members justify the bombing of Belfast and defend the murder by the IRA of some council members and council workers. Their words did not mean a thing. That is why there must be a testing period.
Sinn Fein has established a situation in which there is no trust. We do not want a repetition of what has happened in the past two years. Let me give three instances, one of which has already been mentioned. The police raided the home of a prominent IRA man, where they found a laptop and money. He had been involved in criminality. Gerry Adams, the Member for Belfast, West, who does not come to this House, condemned the police and the Garda in the Irish Republic for raiding the home of a farmer, saying that he was being persecuted for his republican views and was only trying to make an honest living. The leader of Sinn Fein defended his criminal activity and opposed those who tried to bring him to justice for it. Today, £1 million-worth of his assets have been seized.
A young girl was raped in Gerry Adams’ constituency, a video was taken of her rape on her telephone, and the pictures were sent to her mother. When he was asked whether the perpetrators should be turned in to the police and the people who know their names should give evidence to the police, he refused to tell his own constituents to turn such barbaric people over to the police.
Two people were set on fire in their own home. The man is already dead, the girl is seriously ill in hospital, and the house is burned to the ground. Within the past three weeks, the Member for Newry and Armagh, who does not sit in this House either, has refused publicly to encourage anybody to give information to the police about that crime.
Against that background, it is necessary to have a period between Sinn Fein speaking the words of support for the police and showing that it is prepared to practise support for the police and encourage others to do so. That is why the timetable set down by the Secretary of State in the Bill is unrealistic. If he wants Sinn Fein to make a declaration within a certain period, I am prepared to listen to him, but as he has not been prepared to say when that process starts, he cannot expect the democratic parties to live by a time by which he says the process has to end. We must have a period for that testing process.
I am still not clear about the position of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). She is right to say that people in Northern Ireland want devolution and want to move away from the cynical way in which we have been governed, whereby things have been done to blackmail, bribe or bully people, even if those were not good policies and utterly contrary to the policies that the Government operate in other parts of the United Kingdom. Of course people want to move away from that so that we can make our own decisions in Northern Ireland through a devolved Assembly, but we cannot afford to ignore the requirement that the parties that will engage in that activity must have a clear-cut position on the police. The hon. Lady did not make it clear whether she believes that it is more important to have devolution or to have all the parties involved in devolution signed up to policing. If it is the latter, she should have no difficulty with the moving of the deadlines and dates.
Let me make myself absolutely clear. I am speaking not only as the Member for North Down but as the wife of a former Chief Constable. There are 302 dead police officers—members of the RUC—and I do not want there to be another. It is essential that Sinn Fein realises that it has to sign up to policing, but its difficulty is that every time a deadline is set, it is moved by the Government. If they cannot trust the other parties to keep to their side of the bargain, why did they play their last card? There will be an Irish general election in the springtime. Having listened carefully to every DUP Member, I do not have a clear idea of the time scale that is required to meet the 26 March deadline. According to one Member it is one thing and according to another it is a different thing. Will the hon. Gentleman give me a clear line?
I am still not clear whether the hon. Lady thinks that Sinn Fein can be in government without supporting the police or that the deadline is an important requirement. If she thinks that it is an important requirement, she has reached our position, whereby meeting the conditions is the essential requirement. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) made it clear that we do not want to engage in deadlines involving dates—we want to ensure that there are conditions that are met. How quickly they are met will depend on Sinn Fein. If it holds its Ard Fheis—
I am now clear about where DUP Members stand: the debate has been helpful in clarifying that. The one thing that I am not clear about is what, explicitly, the conditions are. It is reasonable for us to ask DUP Members to be absolutely clear about the conditions that they want Sinn Fein to meet in order to participate. I must press the hon. Gentleman to indicate for how long they think that Sinn Fein needs to be actively involved in policing before it is sufficient for them to regard Sinn Fein as having met the conditions.
How quickly the conditions are met will depend on the enthusiasm with which Sinn Fein embraces the democratic process. If it moves quickly in dismantling its terrorist structures and in encouraging people in the nationalist community who support the police, if its members give strong support to the police, and if, when incidents happen, it encourages the public to help the police to catch the criminals, the period of building confidence in the fact that there has been a genuine change will be much shorter than if it is done in its usual begrudging way. The time that is required to move forward will depend on how quickly Sinn Fein acts on its words. I cannot have any control over that, the Secretary of State cannot have any control over it, and this House cannot have any control over it, but Sinn Fein has control over it. That is why setting arbitrary deadlines when we do not know how or when Sinn Fein is likely to act creates an impossible situation.
For far too long, people in Northern Ireland have felt that what has happened, and what has been demanded of them, has been set by other people’s agendas. Many people feel at present that the deadline of 26 March—the springtime—has been set not because the Secretary of State has made a judgment that that is the time required for Sinn Fein to take the first step and then move towards showing its acceptance of policing, but because it is an important date for the Secretary of State, who has an agenda and a timetable that he has to work towards. There are important elections and important positions to be sought in the Labour party. Some of the cynicism about dates in Northern Ireland has been driven by the belief that the agenda and the timetable have more to do with the political advancement of the Secretary of State or the political legacy of the Prime Minister.