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Pledge of Office

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Bill, which was debated in the House last night, incorporates four new commitments within the pledge of office.

Given that the new pledge of office does not include a specific or explicit requirement for a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means, will the Secretary of State assure the House that, in the event that Stormont is restored and a Minister or his political party is in any way connected with violence or criminal activity, that behaviour in itself will constitute a breach of the pledge of office and he will take action?

There are procedures under legislation dating from the Northern Ireland Act 1998 on the Good Friday agreement for exactly that eventuality. Of course, as I have said before, I think, to the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), I would take action, as would any Secretary of State in those circumstances. We should not underestimate the importance of the change in the pledge of office which, for the first time, includes specific commitments to support policing and the rule of law, as detailed in paragraph 6 of the St. Andrews agreement, reference to which appears in the title of the Bill.

In the Secretary of State’s opinion, would it be a breach of the commitment in the new pledge of office to uphold the rule of law, including support for the courts, if a Minister were deemed to have misled a court, if a senior civil servant were deemed to have misled a court in an affidavit seen and approved by a Minister, or if a Minister misrepresented a court when it clearly found against him on a key matter?

I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but if he is talking about a situation in which devolution takes place, of course all Ministers, including that Minister and their ministerial team, must abide by such conditions. It is important, if we are to make devolution work, to prepare for government through the Programme for Government Committee. What will happen on Friday is absolutely key; if it falls over on Friday, there are no prospects of moving forward. People need to understand that; that was part of St. Andrews. That is where we should focus—on the big picture, as I hope the hon. Gentleman will do.

If there are no nominations or designations at the meeting on Friday, what is it about? What will be its business?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, because he was party to the St. Andrews agreement—he was present at it and played a constructive role—24 November, this Friday, was always part of the process of moving forward in that an intention needed to be indicated as regards who would be nominated by the two largest parties to be First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 26 March, when restoration occurs. If that does not happen—if the parties, including the Democratic Unionist party, are not even in a position to indicate an intention to nominate on 26 March—people will say, “What is the point of going on at all? Where is the confidence in the system and what is the prospect of success?”

Tomorrow I will make a direction to the Stormont Speaker for the parties to convene under her in Stormont at 10.30 am on Friday for that process to go forward. If people do not turn up and give that indication, we will all draw our conclusions, which will be very bleak indeed, as there would not seem to be a lot of point in proceeding with the rest of the process. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said yesterday, the legislation that went through yesterday, which is going through the House of Lords today, probably contains 90 per cent. of what his party—the DUP—wants.

Just to clarify this, is the Secretary of State saying that what he is looking for on Friday is an indication rather than a nomination?

I am happy to clarify that for the hon. Gentleman, particularly given his key position as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was always the case that nobody will be taking ministerial office on Friday. Ministerial office is taken on 26 March when the pledge is taken. On Friday, it is an absolutely key and indispensable part of the St. Andrews process—let the House be in no doubt about that—that the parties make an indication to nominate for 26 March, when the pledge will be taken. Everybody knows that when they give that indication on Friday, they accept the process whereby they will be taking the pledge when they assume full ministerial office, because it will be the law of the land, assuming that the legislation receives Royal Assent. That is what should proceed on Friday; if it does not, I do not think that people will have any confidence at all in the rest of the process.

(Aylesbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that a verbal pledge to support policing has to be matched by practical action to support policing, particularly by a readiness on the part of republicans to give information and evidence to the police, the courts and the Assets Recovery Agency to ensure that criminals can be brought to justice?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who puts it extremely fairly and accurately. However, let me reiterate a point that I made in passing last night. If inflammatory statements are made by DUP Members about never devolving policing and justice “in my political lifetime”, that is hardly an encouragement to Sinn Fein to move as quickly as we all want it to move on policing. It is already co-operating on policing, as it needs to do and as any democratic party holding ministerial office needs to do. If it is a question of moving the process forward, making statements such as “never in my lifetime” when Parliament has expressly legislated for the devolution of policing and justice is hardly an encouragement to those who need to fulfil their obligations on policing and the rule of law to do so very quickly.