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Political Situation

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 14 March 2007

5. What assessment he has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland following the Assembly elections; and if he will make a statement. (126339)

First, I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to congratulate all those who signed the roll in the Assembly yesterday. The results of the election issue the clear message that voters want devolution on 26 March. An historic opportunity lies before the Northern Ireland political parties.

I thank the Secretary of State for his good wishes to Members on the Democratic Unionist party Benches. Central to the stunning and tremendous victory of the DUP in the elections was our requirement for delivery by republicans and the Government on a range of outstanding issues, if devolution is to happen. We require delivery by republicans on unambiguous and clear support for policing, the courts and the rule of law. We require the ending of criminality, paramilitarism and all the rest of it. We also require delivery by the Government, not least on a financial package. At the moment, what we are hearing from them falls well short of what will be necessary. Will the Secretary of State assure us and the people of Northern Ireland that an adequate financial package will be on offer to ensure that devolution can be bedded in and that a success can be made of any future Administration?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; his party did indeed have a stunning victory—he also had one in his own constituency—and I congratulate it on that. It is the case that Sinn Fein needs to deliver—as it is doing, and as its president did on Monday in calling for information about two brutal murders in Belfast to be brought to the police. I want to quote the Belfast Telegraph on this. Interestingly, it says:

“The difference this time is that, although there were reports that the killings had links with republican dissidents, Gerry Adams asked anyone with information to take it to the police. ‘They should co-operate’, he said, ‘to bring the perpetrators to justice.’ Now that as senior a figure as Gerry Adams has urged people to co-operate with police in specific murder inquiries, the barriers that were erected between republicans and the police, over 80 years, are crumbling.”

I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) that an incoming Executive will have to have a good financial package. The Chancellor is very aware of that, and he will not want to stand in the way of successful devolution on 26 March.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, as we hope that the institutions will shudder to a start on 26 March, financial lubrication would certainly help the process, but that we also need fiscal additives to ensure longer-term better economic performance? Does he also agree that, in making this case to the Treasury, the Northern Ireland parties need to present it by way of long-term plans, not short-term demands? People in Northern Ireland want to see long-term planning that will lead to sustainable institutions delivering differently and better. That is the message that all the parties received, no matter what their manifestos said.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, it was notable that, instead of the old issues dominating the election, water charges, the rating system and academic selection were the key issues on the doorstep and at the ballot box. The message from the people is that they want locally elected politicians to take those decisions, and the Government will assist in providing an environment for that to occur. It is important that the will of the people be respected, and that the Assembly be up and functioning on 26 March.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there were two major election issues on the doorstep: the important constitutional issues, and water charges. The people of Northern Ireland feel great anger and resentment that the Government, who are telling us today what a wonderful future we have, did not give us that wonderful future when they were in office. Why did they not do all these wonderful things that they tell us we should be doing? They missed out very badly.

I say to the Government today that it is no use putting a beautiful engine on the road, saying, “Here is devolution. Here is a wonderful form of government”, if there is not the money to pay for the fuel to run that engine. The Government have a responsibility not only to put the engine on the rails but to supply the people of Northern Ireland with the money. Instead of doing that, they are saying—

I got the impression that the right hon. Gentleman was feeling strongly about water charges. The Chancellor was listening closely to his point, and we will do our best to provide an incoming Executive with the wherewithal they need to have the successful start to devolution that he wants.

May I follow the potential engine driver and ask the Secretary of State to talk to the Chancellor, who is, I think, now listening? Will he tell him that the people of Northern Ireland really are concerned about water charges, and do need a moratorium of at least a year, and not to be double-charged for the privilege?

All that the Government were doing was introducing water charges in Northern Ireland as they are paid in Wales, Scotland and England. The verdict on the doorstep, however, was very clear. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is well aware of the situation and will no doubt take close notice of the hon. Gentleman’s points.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Alliance party of Northern Ireland on its super-stunning victory and on returning the first ethnic minority Member of the Legislative Assembly, Anna Lo, in the Assembly’s history? Does he accept that the nine-strong united community group is truly committed to the shared future agenda? Will he work with the UCG to ensure that, however unstable any potential Government in Stormont, there will be a stable and progressive Opposition, led by the Alliance, which maximises the chances of a principled shared future and a prosperous Province?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. I particularly welcome the fact that Northern Ireland has the first legislator of Chinese origin in the entire United Kingdom, which is a fantastic achievement.

I join the Secretary of State in hoping that on 26 March we see the Assembly and Executive fully restored and exercising powers over the government of Northern Ireland. For that to endure, however, does he agree that the tendency of some republicans to make an artificial distinction between so-called civic and political policing must end, and that there must be a readiness to support the police unreservedly?

Indeed, and that has been made clear by both the president of Sinn Fein and the ard fheis motion. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and am grateful for his support on the objective of getting devolution up and running on 26 March. I am sorry that I cannot congratulate his party on its performance in the elections. It was beaten by the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party, the Alliance, the Green party and the Progressive Unionist party, but at least it beat the Rainbow candidate who stood on a commitment to remove cash from circulation and introduce an electronic currency called the wonder.

At least my party was not afraid to put up candidates for those elections, unlike the Secretary of State’s party.

To return to the policing issue, does the Secretary of State agree that the comments of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) that she would not report to the police knowledge of the activities of republican dissidents are unacceptable, and that politicians must be prepared to support the police even if it leads to the investigation and arrest of their former comrades?

I think that Gerry Adams’s statement on Monday about the brutal murders committed that day, which I quoted earlier, was very clear. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, has said that anyone who has information on the McCartney murder should supply it to the police. He has encouraged people to report crimes such as rape, car theft and violence against old people and to co-operate with the police, and he has encouraged republicans to join the police. Those are sea changes of historic proportions, which I know the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

I think the path is very clear. The people spoke on 7 March: they want devolution back. Parliament has spoken: it wants devolution back on 26 March, and we should proceed towards that objective.