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Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the House for its indulgence in allowing, at very short notice, planned business to be disrupted. I am especially grateful for the co-operation of the Opposition parties.

I wish to begin by congratulating the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), on his courage and his leadership. When he sat for the very first time alongside the leader of Sinn Fein, the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), in Parliament buildings at Stormont yesterday, they took Northern Ireland closer to a final political settlement than anyone has ever before thought possible. Their pictures together resonated around the world, a graphic manifestation of the power of politics over intolerance, bitterness and horror.

Those implacable foes have individually and collectively said that now is the time for Northern Ireland to move forward into a new era. They have together taken charge of the process from the British and Irish Governments. As a result, the political settlement that will emerge will be far stronger and more robust than anything imposed by Government, precisely because it is grounded in local agreement. That is where we have wanted to be since before the Good Friday agreement was signed almost nine years ago: locally accountable politicians taking responsibility for the future; locally accountable politicians showing that whatever their differences—and it is hard to imagine two parties with greater differences—they can work for the common good without sacrificing either principle or integrity.

I do not need to remind this House of the tortured history of Northern Ireland over four decades, or of all the attempts by the Government, working closely with our Irish counterparts, to bring peace and stability, or—especially—of the courage of SDLP leaders, such as John Hume, and Ulster Unionist party leaders, such as David Trimble.

We have seen enormous progress, especially since the Good Friday agreement. The security situation has been transformed. The IRA has declared its war over and decommissioned its weapons. It has closed down the criminal activity that used to fund the conflict, because there is no conflict to fund. Sinn Fein has committed to the active support of the police and criminal justice institutions. There has been a new beginning to policing and the rule of law, stretching right across the communities. There is peace, and there are more jobs and more prosperity than ever in Northern Ireland’s history. The final piece in the jigsaw is long-term political stability. That has proved to be elusive.

My right hon. Friend will have encountered the understandable deep caution and occasional cynicism of the people of Northern Ireland, after what they have had to put up with over the past decades. In the vital weeks ahead, what will he do to give them confidence that, at long last, this is a time for them—and us—to hope?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. This is a tremendous time for hope and progress, as I shall explain.

There have been numerous attempts by both Governments working together to broker a deal that would stick. In our view, the best—and possibly the last—hope in the foreseeable future to bring about that deal came after the talks at St. Andrews last October.

The Secretary of State will know that thousands of people voted at the ballot box on the understanding that his words had some meaning when he promised that devolution would happen on 26 March—that is, yesterday. What confidence can the people of Northern Ireland have that the right hon. Gentleman will ever keep his word to them again?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s role in the peace process over many years, and I shall explain why the situation has developed as it has.

The St. Andrews agreement, with its twin pillars of support for policing standing alongside the commitment to share power, provided the basis for a lasting settlement. Last November, during the passage of the St. Andrews legislation, I made it clear that, if a power-sharing Assembly and Executive did not result, it would be a considerable time before an opportunity like it ever came round again. That was quite simply because I, and many others, thought that the parties themselves would never agree a way forward on their own. I am delighted to have to revise that view in the light of the extraordinary events of the past few days.

I turn now to the point raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). The House will recall that the legislation set in statute the date for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. That date was 26 March— yesterday. The legislation was explicit: if an Executive were not formed on that date, the Assembly would dissolve. As a consequence, Members’ salaries and allowances would stop. Water charges would come into force, academic selection at age 11 would go, and partnership with the Irish Government would deepen.

Everyone knew the position when the election was held on 7 March. I said more than once that 26 March was a deadline that would not move, and that failure to meet it would have consequences. There would only ever be one set of circumstances in which progress outside that framework could be made and that would be if the parties, for the very first time ever, formed a consensus around an agreed way forward.

It is axiomatic in Northern Ireland that there is not a political wire down to which the parties do not go. There were those who said that we were bluffing, that deadlines come and go and that, if we got close enough to a deal, extra time would be claimed. With my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we made it clear that there would be no extension to the deadline in the absence of an agreed way forward brought to us by the parties. When we were asked by the Democratic Unionist party last Wednesday to grant an extension we said no, because we could not credibly return to this House and ask for more time unless the DUP could persuade the other parties that there was a credible reason for doing so. We were asked again last Friday. Again we said no—unless the DUP managed to get other parties, including Sinn Fein, to agree.

Had we not been resolute, we would not have had the historic agreement yesterday—and the significance of that agreement cannot be overestimated. It is for that reason that this Bill, which will have the effect of moving the date of the restoration of devolution to 8 May, is before the House today. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have agreed on that date, and both have asked that the introduction of water charging be deferred until the Executive are formed. I have agreed to both requests, and I ask for the support of the House in that.

I know that there will be many victims of the troubles, including Members of the House, who will find this moment especially painful, but we have reached a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. There are many here and in another place, and from both sides of the House, notably John Major, who have played their part over the years to bring peace and stability to Northern Ireland. That we are where we are today is a tribute to them.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we have reached a turning point, and no doubt that is true. Would it be even more of a turning point if Sinn Fein Members who were elected to the House took their place? Does he agree that one way in which we can facilitate that is to change the Oath so that they can take an oath that is acceptable to them?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is not a point for us today.

That we are where we are today is a tribute to all those people, especially my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He has brought a forensic understanding of the politics of Northern Ireland—and, allied to it a fierce tenacity and a level of commitment—as has no other Prime Minister.

Does the Secretary of State agree that while it is right and proper to praise both John Major and the present Prime Minister, we should praise the ordinary people—in fact, the extraordinary people—on the ground, who did not stop working across sectarian barriers? Trade unionists and public service workers stood through 40 years of the troubles, and never ever gave up on their belief in peace.

I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend about the role played by the trade union movement, and the role that it continues to play in bridging the divide between the communities, pressing ahead with a policy of social justice across the divide and making sure that the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, especially the employees of Northern Ireland, are always to the fore. He is absolutely right, and his own trade union—Unison—has done a tremendous job, and continues to do so.

I hope that the Secretary of State does not leave out the people who keep the shops going when they are bombed and destroyed, and who do not shut down—“Business as usual tomorrow”. Those people kept Ulster sane in that time of terrible trial.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of heroes and heroines over the generations who have stood for decency and justice. I singled out the trade union movement for the remarkable role that it has played, as within its ranks there are people of widely divergent views, from republicans to loyalists, working together for the common good.

May I place on record my appreciation for the work that my right hon. Friend has done in bringing about what is without doubt an historic achievement? In today’s press, we saw the picture to which he referred of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), who were described in the Irish Independent as the “darling buddies of May”. One hopes that that can continue.

I think that I will leave that description to the newspapers, with my hon. Friend’s assistance. However, I thank him for what he said, and I thank everyone for the way in which they have worked together on the process, particularly my ministerial team: my deputy, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State; the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who is responsible for security; the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is responsible for education; and, of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), who doubles up as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

I do not want this to sound like a love-in, but the Secretary of State has been described during this process as “Hain the pain”. Has the pain been worth the gain?

I have to say yes. In a republican area of Belfast there is graffiti saying “Hain is insane”. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raises his thumb to that. In a loyalist area of Belfast, there is graffiti saying “Sinn Hain”, so obviously there is universal support for my work as Secretary of State, just as there is among Government Back Benchers.

It was great to see the politicians come together yesterday, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that the most important thing in Northern Ireland is bringing the communities together?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. There have been signs of progress in that direction for a number of years, especially over the past nine years. For example, late last year I opened the first integrated housing estate, a social housing project near Enniskillen. That is a sign of progress and there are many others.

One of the achievements of our Labour Government of which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should justly be most proud is the way in which we have brought peace, stability and progress to Northern Ireland. The work he has done with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has been quite simply remarkable. We have been backed up by some of the most dedicated and outstanding civil servants I have ever worked with, from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to my own staff in the Northern Ireland Office.

I also want to pay tribute to the political parties in Northern Ireland. I have not always seen eye to eye with them and I have not always agreed with their analysis, but I have never doubted their commitment to work tirelessly for the people they represent. Now they have the opportunity to discharge their responsibilities to their voters, and to do so in their own way. That is as it should be, and to hasten that day I commend the Bill to the House, signifying as it does the triumph of peace over conflict.

On the Conservative Benches we welcome the Bill and it will have our support this afternoon. The Government’s decision for a further delay of just a few weeks was a sensible and pragmatic response to the dramatic events of the past couple of days.

Like the Secretary of State, I congratulate the leaders of all the Northern Ireland parties on a major step forward towards the longed-for enduring political settlement for Northern Ireland. I want in particular to pay tribute to the generous words spoken by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) during his momentous joint press and public statement yesterday. As the Secretary of State said, yesterday’s agreement was the fruit of many years of work by officials and Ministers of various Governments both in this country and the Republic of Ireland, and in the United States of America under successive Administrations.

Today, it is right that I particularly acknowledge from the Conservative Benches the commitment that the Prime Minister has made. He took forward the process begun by John Major and he has invested unprecedented amounts of both time and energy in the pursuit of peace in Northern Ireland. It is no great secret that there have been occasions when we disagreed with the Prime Minister, and even with the Secretary of State—sometimes vehemently—about particular decisions that they had taken. When the history books are written we shall find out who was right. One might say that the earthly reputations of all of us as politicians are, in the last resort, in the hands of history, but it is true to say that without the Prime Minister’s unremitting personal commitment the political process in Northern Ireland would not be within sight of the success that we can see today.

However, although this is an occasion for hope, optimism and looking forward, it is not yet a moment when we can indulge in euphoria, and least of all in complacency. This morning, I noted that a number of newspaper commentators made a comparison between the events at Stormont yesterday morning and the famous meeting between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House—but we know now that the hopes that Prime Minister Rabin and President Arafat held then lie in ashes. Although we should unite in welcoming what was achieved yesterday, we must be unflinching in facing up to the huge problems that still confront Northern Ireland and stand in the way of reconciliation.

On policing, there is no doubt that Sinn Fein’s belated and long-overdue decision to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the courts made an agreement yesterday possible, but we will continue to look for demonstrable evidence that that declaration of support is indeed bearing fruit locally. Bogus distinctions between so-called civic and so-called political policing will undermine the credibility on this issue that the Sinn Fein leadership seeks to achieve. It is easier to decommission guns than criminal livelihoods. Support from all the political parties in Northern Ireland is essential if Northern Ireland is finally to be rid of the scourge of organised crime and particularly that run by paramilitary gangs.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In that respect, I am encouraged by a whole series of initiatives that the Sinn Fein leadership has taken. Following representations by the right hon. Member for North Antrim, after an attack on Councillor Brush, a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, the local Sinn Fein Member Michelle Gildernew said that she would encourage anyone with any information on the matter to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That is further progress of the kind we need to see.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Like him, I am encouraged by those demonstrations of support. The more of that we see, the better the chance of moving beyond the appalling divisions and violence of the past towards a genuinely shared future in Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that his colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), today published a pamphlet—I take it that it is a policy statement from the Tory party—on how to increase confidence in politicians and how to encourage people to vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the greatest casualties yesterday was trust in the entire Northern Ireland ministerial team, who gave undertakings and commitments in the House that there would be no emergency legislation to break through the 26 March deadline?

Unlike the hon. Lady, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading the report by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). It is a treat that I shall look forward to. I can reassure her on one point: it is not a formal policy statement on behalf of my party; it is a report from the vigorous policy commission on the revival of democracy, which my right hon. and learned Friend heads.

In response to the substance of what the hon. Lady said, we expressed doubts about the deadline at the time. To be honest, I suspect—I claim no scientific knowledge—that the general feeling in Northern Ireland will be one of relief at what was achieved yesterday and that there will be a desire to move forward from arguments about deadlines in the House to practical arguments about policies that really matter to people living in Belfast, Bangor and elsewhere in Northern Ireland.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Democratic Unionist party has been inundated with messages of support from right across Northern Ireland—from every constituency, including that of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)? People who are relieved and delighted by what has happened are supporting what we have done. We have had offers of investment from right across the globe, from people who want to have a stake in the future of Northern Ireland.

I suspect that the calls to the DUP’s headquarters are probably a reflection not just of their supporters—who, it has been clearly demonstrated, support what the right hon. Member for North Antrim did yesterday—but of the longing of people in Northern Ireland, whether nationalist or Unionist, to move away from the abnormal situation that we have been in for decades towards what everybody in England, Scotland and Wales would consider to be normal political debate.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) appears to be so hung up on a date that she would prefer academic selection to have been done away with and for bills for water charging to drop on the mat of each constituent throughout the Province?

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not intervene in that particular battle on the Unionist Benches.

All Northern Ireland parties have a responsibility to show that they are there for all the people of Northern Ireland, not just one community or another. One of the most hopeful signs in yesterday’s public statements was the clear commitment by the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the leader of Sinn Fein to work on behalf of everyone in Northern Ireland.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says about the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland parties. May I put to him a point that I made to the Secretary of State? It would be a very good thing if Sinn Fein Members were to take their seats in this place. If there are artificial barriers that stop them, such as the Oath, would we not be wise to see whether we could take reasonable steps to make it easier for them to sit here?

I would be pleased if Sinn Fein Members dropped their policy of abstention. When I made that point to leading members of Sinn Fein, they told me that it is not the Oath that stops Sinn Fein Members from taking their seats, but their belief that this Parliament should have no say in governing any part of the island of Ireland. Until they are prepared to move on from that firm and regrettable ideological position, the sort of proposal that my right hon. and learned Friend makes would be a largely academic exercise.

The sad truth about the situation in Northern Ireland today is that despite all the encouraging signs of movement towards political normality, the so-called peace lines—the high metal fences that divide residential estates in north and west Belfast—are higher and stretch longer today than they did before the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s. It is when those divisions start to heal and both the physical and psychological barriers between communities start to come down that we can truly believe that the dreadful conflict that scarred the history of Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century has come to an end. The Bill marks an important milestone along that slow and difficult road.

This is a good day for the House, a good day for our United Kingdom and a good day for the whole of the people of Ireland, whether north or south, for it is a day when there has risen at last in the darkness a star of hope. However, it is only a star of hope, and we must remember that. We are not near across the river, and we have some very hard things to do and great sacrifices to make in order that this start will not be like many other starts. I was accused of not shaking hands with the leader of the Sinn Feiners and I said, “Why should I?” All the people who shook hands with him are gone—do you want me to go, too? I have no intention of going.

We must face up to the fact that the Democratic Unionist party and I are in a strange position today, because we seldom got any credit for what we stood for and what we did. When the first agreement was signed, I remember that they celebrated with songs, handshakes, dancing—and kicking me, for I happened to be there. I was well kicked by them all and cursed as well. Then the Secretary of State at the time, Mo Mowlam, got me wrongly arrested, and the Assistant Chief Constable had to come and get me out. I have been through all that, but people who know me will realise that I am not saying that just to bring back the old bitternesses. Let us get the old bitternesses away. As I said to the leader of Sinn Fein, it is not a love-in but a work-in that we are engaged in, and when the people start to work for the things that they need, we will find a cure for some of the terrible problems that are still there; that is when we will get those bitternesses away.

I agree fully with the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that many things are not there yet. I trust that they will be put in place, and that we will have full deliverance on policing. I might add that at the meeting, we raised not only the matter of which the House has been informed by the Secretary of State, but a matter concerning a man from Sinn Fein’s own district in Belfast, Mr. McCartney. We raised that issue again, and we said that we felt that it would be a great opportunity for Sinn Fein to do something about Mr McCartney’s death. We got a promise that something would be done, and we look forward to something being done.

I must say that the Secretary of State really brought himself to feel the cane on the matter of the date of 26 March. He was belligerent with us all; he warned us and told us. I said to him, “You can argue with Ulster people, and you can present your arguments strongly. You can even be stern with them, but if you bully them, you’ll get nowhere.” He did not believe me, but he believes me now; the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I do not think that we should rub that in. [Laughter.] Perhaps I have done enough rubbing already. All I am saying is that I am glad that Ulster people, whether they be Sinn Feiners or Unionists, will, at the end of the day, have some say in how they are governed. When that is established, this whole movement will take a leap forward.

I thank the House for what has been said. I trust that it will realise that we do not have a magic wand, and that there will be hard work, difficulties, fights, tough talking and rough riding, but we should keep before us what I said yesterday—that after all, all the elected representatives of Northern Ireland have an onus of responsibility to all the people. I am not here today to say that I will represent Unionists; I am here to say that I want to see achieved whatever is good for the people of the whole of Northern Ireland.

Having listened to the contribution of the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), I think that I can speak for the House when I say that I feel the hand of Paisley on my shoulder, not least because he is sitting right behind me. I have covered Northern Ireland issues for the Liberal Democrats for 10 years now, but I have lived with Northern Ireland politics for 40 years. I remember the feeling of fear and, frankly, hopelessness of the 1970s, when politics in the Province was measured more in lives lost than votes won. Even as a teenager, the hate that I observed seemed as endemic as the violence—and back then, it probably was.

What has changed is that there seems to be a willingness to give peace a chance, and to turn a clichéd but hopeful slogan into a fledgling political partnership, even though we know that partnership needs real proof of good faith to become more than just an act of provisional trust. I congratulate the Government for getting as close as they have done. I have known the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for many years, and I regard the measures that we are discussing as his greatest political achievement. I share his vision for a stable and sustainable Stormont Assembly and a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman has the right to feel a sense of gratification that his endeavours have helped to achieve it.

In regard to the Prime Minister, who may indeed be looking for a legacy, it is true to say that he should reasonably regard the developments in the Northern Ireland peace process as a proud and legitimate element of that legacy.

When we debated the previous emergency legislation in November 2006, I said that I believed the St. Andrews agreement could bind the DUP into a commitment to assume power alongside Sinn Fein. I was optimistic enough to believe it could happen, even though others were not. I am glad to say that it is a testimony to the optimism of the Secretary of State that we have come this far.

When Sinn Fein’s ard fheis and its leaders encouraged supporters to co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, I said then and I say now that it was a momentous move forward. Again, the optimists were right and I praise the journey that Sinn Fein and the IRA have taken. Others doubted that this would be so, but I never did. My confidence in the republican movement was based on the people I met, and I judged them to be sincere. They have proved that faith in their positive intentions was not misplaced, though of course it must now result in action.

In yesterday’s momentous meeting, the DUP categorically committed to entering a power-sharing Government with Sinn Fein on 8 May. That is six weeks from now. The right hon. Member for North Antrim has taken a very strong position throughout and his conditions have been met. It is important to recognise that. His party said that it was condition-led. He has achieved what he laid out as his goals in the previous two Assembly elections. In large part it is thanks to his contribution that the restoration of devolved government is now just weeks away. So we must recognise the potentially historic significance of the statement yesterday.

However, I am disappointed that the deadline of 26 March, as set down by the emergency legislation passed last November, has not been met. We are faced with yet another delay, yet another piece of legislation on Northern Ireland rushed through Parliament, despite Government assurances that there was no time to do that. I understand the reasons for this. I understand why the Minister has felt the need to let deadlines come and deadlines go, reassuring us almost every time that there was no plan B—and always, of course, there was. The most reliable insurance policy to guarantee that 8 May will be the date for the restoration of the Assembly comes not from the Government, but from Sinn Fein and the DUP. It is their deadline that I choose to believe.

It follows that if for any reason 8 May does not work out, there is no point in the Government pretending that they have any leverage left to threaten anybody in this place, in another place or in Northern Ireland with deadlines again. They have put all their cards on the table, for reasons that I understand. When it comes to deadlines, they have no more cards to play.

I thought that I heard the Secretary of State say earlier—I may be wrong—that he had always been prepared to extend the deadline if the parties could find an agreed way forward together. Did I hear the Secretary of State say that? Is the hon. Gentleman convinced that that was the case?

I will leave the hon. Gentleman to check Hansard with regard to his former question, but on the latter, I am in no doubt at all that the Secretary of State told the House that the deadline was immovable and absolute. As I say, I understand why he has taken this position, and thus I do not condemn him for it. Instead, I make an observation about the future, rather than about the past. The future allows the Government no leverage with regard to deadlines, so we must hope that on this occasion it works.

There are many people who remain sceptical about the ability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to produce genuine power sharing. However, it is those two parties who primarily have been entrusted by the electorate with the mandates and responsibility to govern. It is up to them to rise to the challenge, and it is up to others, including my sister party, the Alliance party, to hold them to account and to provide constructive opposition as and when necessary. I am determined to ensure that the next six weeks are used to their full advantage. There are discussions going on about an entire programme for government, including the Treasury’s financial package. I hope sincerely that the details are hammered out. Unless they are, we will have trouble ahead.

My colleagues in the Alliance party—including David Ford, who I think I can suggest is a First Minister in waiting in Northern Ireland politics—

However long or short a time that may take, I believe it will happen.

My colleagues in the Alliance party say that about £1 billion is wasted in Northern Ireland every year on managing a divided society, through implicitly providing separate services for different sides of the same community. Resources would be much better spent on providing quality public services for the entire community, rather than providing services a few hundred metres and a physical or psychological wall apart in a fashion which, in 2007, is out of date. After all, if Sinn Fein and the DUP can do business together in the dining hall of Stormont, surely Catholics and Protestants can exercise together in the sports halls of Belfast and the Province.

The segregation that is ending in politics must also end in the community, but it will take the expenditure of some resources in the short term to release money. Northern Ireland currently receives a larger subvention than any other region in the United Kingdom—a position that is not sustainable. I hope that the Government will work in the weeks ahead, before 8 May, to ensure that there is a clear programme of economic government to accompany the political changes that are taking place.

The mutual respect that I want to see in the community must also apply to political parties. There are many in Stormont who have been loyalists to the cause of a shared future, a cross-community approach to the governance of the Province. They were shown attention when the Government needed them and ignored when the Government did not. That is disrespectful, thoughtless, and ultimately a betrayal of a decade of good faith.

I want the Government to commit themselves to ensuring that all parties will be involved in the brokerage of solutions in the six weeks ahead, because if anything does go wrong, there will be no good will left for the Government to fall back on from those allies who feel ignored. What plans have the Government to offer briefings to all parties going into government and into opposition, and how will the unique arrangements of statutory committees be reflected in such briefings? It is important for any restored Assembly to be given the chance to make a difference and to prove its worth. We hope that the legislation we are pressing today achieves what we want to see: a stable and long-lasting settlement in Northern Ireland.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I think that the leadership shown by the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and his party in meeting all the parties yesterday was intended to do precisely that.

The parties are now taking charge of the process. It is not for me to prepare for government; it is for them to prepare for government. That is what they are doing, and that is what has transformed the situation.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s words, but I can tell him that there are individuals who have acted in good faith for many years and have bailed out the Government and the devolution process on at least one occasion. I am thinking of David Ford and his colleagues in the Alliance party, who have repeatedly felt passed over at times of great importance in Northern Ireland political debate, only to see the Government returning cap in hand and asking for support at times when they have found themselves in a difficult corner.

I think the hon. Gentleman is being a little unrealistic and a little churlish. I also think he should recognise that the Alliance has the number of members it has because people voted for that number of members.

Indeed. Contrary to all predictions in the Chamber—apart from mine—the Alliance increased the number of its seats. I have made that point, and the Minister knows exactly what I mean. It it is to the credit of the DUP at this stage that it has been consulting all parties, but the consultation must be meaningful. It must not consist simply of the relating of decisions made to the exclusion of the minority parties.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we met all the parties, and have agreements with them on how we will meet and continue the dialogue.

I am encouraged to hear that. It is symptomatic of the positive changes that have taken place this year. I am sure that members of minority parties in Northern Ireland who are listening will accept the right hon. Gentleman’s comments in good faith, and with the positivity that I consider appropriate to the important strategic statement that he has just made.

There has been talk of stopping Stormont Assembly Members’ salaries. While there are those who are still frustrated by many years of paid silence in the corridors of power in Stormont, perhaps we can now leave that aside. I am sure that no reasonable suggestion about future financial arrangements would be refused, but let us be clear about this: if for some reason things do not happen on 8 May, I will sincerely expect the Minister to be true to his word and stop paying individuals for not delivering on devolution.

The Liberal Democrats have always been friends of the process, and I have always sought to be a friend, albeit sometimes a critical friend, to successive Secretaries of State as they have stumbled to find their way through the mire of political quicksand that has sometimes threatened to engulf them. Unlike others, I have never allowed political expediency to get in the way of what is right for the processes of peace. Even when criticised by other parties, we have done our best to support the Government.

Those of us who have helped the Government in good faith expect good faith back in return. The process is not yet over, although I sincerely hope that we are in the endgame. Until we have finished the discussions of the next six weeks, my advice is that the Government had better take care of their friends, because there are many who offer good will, but expect the good will to be returned.

Thankfully, unlike much of the tortuous process of past years, what we have in front of us today is short and simple, in the form of this Bill.

The Secretary of State will recall that some of us predicted that we would be here in late March facing more emergency legislation, probably providing for a date in May. When we honestly offered that as our best surmise about what was likely to happen, we were rubbished by the Secretary of State and others. To that extent, our judgment and assessment has been vindicated, but it included the assumption that we would have the required arrangements at least by May.

Some of us have always believed in power sharing and have stuck with that belief since the 1970s, in the darkest days of the troubles. Stars of hope arose in the past when parties got together and promoted power sharing, but those stars were shouted down and shot down by people in parties such as the DUP and by people in the provisional republican movement. The unswerving belief by parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour party and others that power sharing, partnership, co-operation and shared institutions that deliver a shared future—not only in the north but on a north-south basis—are the way to create a future for forthcoming generations has absolutely been vindicated by recent developments.

I have observed before that our peace process has carried more people on more roads to Damascus than the Syrian bus fleet, and we saw that again yesterday. Not only did the DUP and Sinn Fein agree power sharing—in different ways, they can say that they have previously agreed that—but in meeting as they did, they entered into a sort of political compact. That is very positive. The fact that they were able to present the option of a new date for devolution on 8 May and to make the commitments that they did is a much more hopeful sign of how things are going to work than what we legislated for in this House previously, when we had to remove, at the DUP’s insistence, the provision for the joint election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister because it was said that they could not be jointly elected under the Good Friday agreement, and that it should be done separately. Now that people are prepared to engage in this sort of compact, we will be able, under the review of the workings of the agreement, to revert to joint election in future.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) for, as the right hon. Member for North Antrim has said, meeting the other parties yesterday. The president of Sinn Fein met the other parties, not in a series of bilaterals, but at least in order to share some thoughts about certain issues with other parties.

If we are to make things work it is important that we make the most of the next six weeks, and the least of whatever difficulties might arise in that period, so that we can, in turn, make the most of all the devolved institutions when they return.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) referred to some of the comparisons made in the newspapers between yesterday’s meeting and, for example, the Rabin-Arafat meeting. There is a big difference. We do not have two leaders who are setting out on a voyage to try to discover arrangements and devise institutions. We already have agreed institutions, which were previously established and have proved themselves. All parties, whether they voted for them or not, could work well within them. We need to remember that, in the past, those institutions were brought down and destabilised, not because they could not function or suffered from structural problems and procedural and partisan tensions, but because of issues outside. We therefore have cause for more hope and a bit more confidence than some hon. Members suggest.

I hope that the Bill, which has been introduced in emergency mode, is the last Northern Ireland emergency measure that the House has to tackle. We know that we cannot have 100 per cent. confidence in that, but I do not want to join the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) in spreading too much doubt about 8 May. We would do better to leave that aside and concentrate on all the other issues about which we want to create certainty and build confidence.

The developments of recent days have vindicated those of us who always believed in power sharing and consistently believed in the Good Friday agreement. In the aftermath of the agreement, some of us argued that the institutions would allow people to sit down in partnership and co-operation—not only Unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans, but those who voted yes and those who voted no. Again, some people doubted that. Yesterday’s events help prove that those of us who argued for that were correct.

Yesterday vindicates not only those of us who stood by the agreement but those of us who helped negotiate it and made specific choices during the negotiations. It vindicates those of us who resisted the pressures from, among others, the Prime Minister and George Mitchell, not to go for an Executive model of power sharing, to duck deciding whether there would be Ministers and an Executive and to abandon the principle of inclusion. We insisted on the principle of inclusion because we wanted to ensure that, when the agreement came to be endorsed nobody would have the excuse for voting against it, because that would have created a form of government that included some parties and excluded others. We therefore succeeded in maximising the endorsement in the referendum, but we also wanted to ensure that even those who voted against the agreement would not, by virtue of that, be excluded from its institutions but could participate in them to the extent that they saw fit. We saw that as part of the healing process and as a means of breaking down barriers. Again, that judgment has been vindicated by the progress that we have made. Although changes have been made to some of the decision-making mechanisms under the agreement, the broad architecture remains essentially the same and I believe that we can make things work.

I want to make it clear that when the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) take up their responsibilities as joint First Ministers, they can enter that office free from the sort of harassment and hassle to which parties that previously took that course were subjected. I want to assure them that as they undertake work, not in the interests of their parties but—in that office and working with others in the Executive—on behalf of the entire public, they will have my party’s understanding, good will and, every time it is deserved or necessary, our support. That is the only way in which we can take matters forward. I am no less a believer in the institutions of the agreement just because my party is weaker in them than it was. The level of our party support has not determined our judgment.

In yesterday’s statements by the leader of the DUP and the president of Sinn Fein—and in some of the remarks made today—people have rightly referred to the past. As on other occasions when there is much talk in the media of progress and a lot of hype and spin, victims are left with very mixed feelings, as the Secretary of State has rightly said. There is an added twist of futility that adds to the hurt that they have carried when they see people settling for power-sharing institutions, which Sinn Fein previously denounced so many times as equivalent to surrender and a sell-out. Even in the weeks running up to the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Fein was saying, “No return to Stormont,” and was insisting that because we were canvassing models for power-sharing institutions in the north and structures for north-south co-operation, the SDLP was a neo-Unionist party.

Similarly, the DUP and others within Unionism totally opposed power sharing and set their face against any attempts at it in the past. When people see parties that then rejected those concepts settling for and embracing them now, they have to wonder whether we needed to go through the suffering, the hurt, the political stalemate, the stagnation and the divisions that we went through—and the answer is that we did not.

In recent times in this process—perhaps because of our tolerance, patience and generosity—my party has lost seats, but I can live much more comfortably with lost seats than with what other parties have to live with: lost years, lost opportunities and lost lives. We could have been and we should have been where we are now far sooner. If it is our destiny now, it was always our destiny. If it is the only way forward now in circumstances of peace, then surely it was the only way forward in circumstances of difficulty, division, violence and ongoing suffering.

I also want to join the Secretary of State in offering thanks to his predecessors in that office and, of course, to the Prime Minister—and, indeed, the previous Prime Minister, who contributed so much in unlikely circumstances to the process. The Secretary of State knows that we have been frustrated many times about how the process was handled, and we believe that if the Government had been firmer and fairer in the earlier years after the agreement, we would have got further faster. A certain destabilisation of the institutions was allowed and was tolerated—at the expense, we believe, of the long-term process.

The Government could have shown better authority in the immediate years after the agreement by making two things clear: first, that decommissioning was absolutely a requirement of the Good Friday agreement and had to happen by May 2000; and, secondly, that decommissioning was not a precondition of the establishment of the institutions. If the Government had shown good authority on those two basic points, we would not have had the running instability that led to delays in establishing the institutions and then the various suspensions and subsequent difficulties.

I do not want to pretend in the warm glow of expectation that we now feel that those frustrations and criticisms are not still felt, but we have to recognise—and the House has to recognise—that were it not for the Prime Minister, there would not have been a Good Friday agreement. We ensured that it was a better agreement than perhaps he suggested in the faxes that he sent us in the weeks before its negotiation, but if it were not for him and his ministerial colleagues, I do not believe that we would have had the agreement. I believe that we could have had a better agreement, and more from it sooner, if different approaches had been followed, but the agreement is still there and we are essentially returning to it. It is a case of back to the future on 8 May.

An observation was made in the American context—that irony in politics is just hypocrisy with panache. There were ironies in some of what went on yesterday, and, to give credit where it is due, there was certainly panache as well. I will leave it at that. What we have to do now is make the most of the opportunity and the responsibility—and a real sense of responsibility certainly came through yesterday. We want to take things forward: we have to refit our economy, rebuild and renew our public services and completely upgrade our infrastructure. I believe that all the parties will set their faces to that task—not just in the work with the Chancellor, but in the decisions and choices that will be made, some of which, when devolution returns, will be hard. Then we will move from divided grievances to shared government, and complete the journey from paying the price for growing apart to reaping the rewards of growing together in both the north and the south. As we do that, we will build a new country and a new society, and we will restore faith in politics—a new belief. Northern Ireland will be known for positive things. We will start to appear at the right end of the league tables rather than always being at the wrong end. We will no longer be a byword for instability, stagnation, political difficulty and political crisis. This generation will have the chance to write its own history in a very positive light.

I welcome the fact that people have belatedly embraced the point that the only way forward is power sharing and inclusion. We can put up with six weeks. Although I sympathise with some of what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has said, the Secretary of State would not have been in a strong position if he had come here today and said, “I have kept my word, but I have lost my marbles.” We know what the deadline was for—it was to ensure an outcome—and I hope and believe that we have that outcome, so let us get on with it.

We can all agree with the last words of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan).

I have gently chided the Secretary of State about the deadline, and he knows that I would rather that it had been slightly more elastic—for example, it could have been “the end of April”. However, we are here today because he was insistent. I do not want to be churlish—this is not a time for churlish speeches; this is a time for hope and determination. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, with whom I have always been able to talk confidentially and properly about events in Northern Ireland. In my experience, he has never betrayed a confidence. He has not always done the things that I would have liked him to do, but he has always been determined to see the day that we now see. I pay tribute to him and to the Prime Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said in a splendid speech from the Front Bench, we would not be here today without the Prime Minister. I also pay tribute to John Major, because the personal chemistry between John Major and Albert Reynolds helped to get the show on the road. There are many people whom we can thank, such as previous Secretaries of State and previous Prime Ministers—Baroness Thatcher played her part—but this is a day for Northern Ireland.

I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), the First Minister designate who will soon be First Minister. I hope that he will have many years in office and that he will be able to lead, with the other parties at his side, the people of Northern Ireland to a brighter future. The best memorial that the right hon. Gentleman could have will be the pulling down of those strangely called peace walls in Belfast and Londonderry. If he can lead the people of Northern Ireland towards that consummation devoutly to be wished, then he will earn the undying gratitude of the people of the Province of Northern Ireland.

I wish the right hon. Gentleman well. He spoke with real statesmanship today, as he did yesterday. I remember sitting on the Government Benches in the summer of 1970, when we came to this House as new Members. I literally sat under him, and I almost had to send for earplugs, so resonant was the voice. In a spirit of charity and friendship, I say to him that he has moved a long way since then. He is now the elder statesman of Northern Ireland politics, and so much depends on him. We wish him and all the others, including, although it sticks a little to say it, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and his colleagues, well.

I entirely approve of what the right hon. Member for North Antrim said about the handshake. A handshake is a gesture, and there is always a time for gesture, but what he and the hon. Member for Belfast, West must do is work together. They come from different backgrounds and have different legacies, but if they can work together alongside the other political parties in Northern Ireland—the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP, for which I have a lot of time—there will indeed be true hope, and a real chance of taking Northern Ireland to a condition of real normality alongside the other parts of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. Member for North Antrim is, understandably, a great one for biblical texts, and one thinks of beating spears into ploughshares and lions lying down with lambs, although he is certainly not a lamb. One also thinks of another First Minister, although differently designated, who stood on the steps of a certain house and read the prayer of St. Francis. We all need to remember the context of that prayer, because it applies to Northern Ireland. We need a time of determination and a time without bitterness, which is the most corrosive of all emotions. There is plenty that one can be bitter about: there are those in Northern Ireland who have lost loved ones and suffered, and we have discussed that many times in the House. Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I wish that we had reached this stage a few years ago, but we are here now, and we must therefore look forward.

Most of all, we must not be euphoric, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said. This is a time for determination, and a time when we must hold in our hearts—and if we so believe, in our prayers—all those who are working for the good of Northern Ireland. We must recognise that the road ahead will not be easy. There will be moments of verbal conflict and raging rows, when people will feel like throwing in the towel, slamming doors and walking out. I say to the right hon. Member for North Antrim and to all my colleagues in Northern Ireland that the temptations to turn their back must not be succumbed to. The greater good of the greater number must be recognised as the goal for all. It matters not whether a man or woman’s background is Protestant or Catholic, or which part of Northern Ireland they come from. Each one is individually important, and each one must be able to look to the power-sharing Executive as representing them, irrespective of their own political views and prejudices, of which we all have both.

There is a yearning in Northern Ireland for true peace and normality. I have had the good fortune to chair the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for almost the past two years. When we conducted our inquiry into organised crime, we saw the black side. When we conducted our inquiry into tourism, we saw the bright side. We toured Northern Ireland, and saw what an incomparably beautiful part of the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland it is. The people who live there deserve—no less than the people who live in England, Scotland, Wales or the Republic— a bright future. It is my earnest hope that they will have a brighter future now.

We look to the right hon. Member for North Antrim and all his colleagues from all parties to help to deliver that bright future. We in the United Kingdom have a moral responsibility to do all that we can to assist. The Government have a real role. It must be possible for the people of Northern Ireland to determine the future of their education system, as they want it. It must be possible for the people of Northern Ireland to decide how the vexed question of water charges will be worked out. If we truly believe in devolution and in giving responsibility, we must give responsibility to those who have now shown themselves to be willing, and big enough, to take it. When that is done, that part of the United Kingdom will truly be as normal as the rest of it.

I again offer my congratulations to all who have brought us to the point that we have now reached, but most of all I offer my good wishes to those who will lead us into tomorrow.

I add my congratulations to those of other Members for everyone who was involved in the discussions that led to yesterday’s historic agreement at St. Andrews, so that we are now passing emergency legislation to ensure that we consolidate the peace process in Northern Ireland.

My interest in Northern Ireland dates back to when I was first elected to this House. Members will recall that in March 1993 the IRA tried to blow up gas holders in Winwick road in Warrington. That is my home town, and I was Member of Parliament for Warrington, South. Fortunately, the IRA failed on that occasion. I would not like to speculate on how many casualties there would have been if it had succeeded. Sadly, two weeks later on 21 March—the day after mothers’ day—the IRA set off two bombs in Bridge street in Warrington. They immediately killed a young boy called Johnathan Ball, and on 25 March Tim Parry’s ventilator was switched off after he had been injured by the explosions in Bridge street.

Wendy and Colin Parry are very close friends of mine. They have made a unique contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process. They never dwell on the past and on the tragic death of their son. I should add, for the record, that Bronwyn Vickers, who was also injured in the explosion, died some time later. Colin and Wendy Parry never look back. They always look forward and they have striven to contribute to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Through the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball peace centre in Warrington, they have established and developed links with the communities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and attempted to take forward the reconciliation process.

Colin Parry said today that he invited the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) for dinner at the peace centre in Warrington, but that he found it very difficult to sit opposite Martin McGuinness and to eat food with him. However, he also said that if it was possible for him to do that, it should be possible for the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) to sit down and play their part in taking forward the peace process in Northern Ireland. He congratulates them both on reaching yesterday’s historic agreement.

My hope for the peace process is that the next six weeks are used positively, that we reach the deadline of 8 May and that power sharing once again takes place in Northern Ireland, so that we can use that and build on the foundations of the peace process that were laid by John Major in a previous Government, and then taken forward by our Prime Minister and by those on all sides of the divides in Northern Ireland who have sought to reconcile their differences. I hope that we consolidate the peace process. To borrow Colin Parry’s words, if that happens, the death of his son Timothy and the death of Johnathan Ball will not have been in vain.

There is one certainty in politics: when there is an historic moment of progress and promise there will be at least two reactions, one of which is that persons and parties attempt to justify the positions that they have adopted, and the other is that there will be those who seek to ensure that no one forgets the role that they played in events. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and other Democratic Unionist party Members of Parliament care nothing about those issues. The only important factor in any agreement that is reached is the benefit that it will bring to the people of Northern Ireland.

In saying that, I take nothing away from all who have contributed, not least those who have been involved with us in negotiations since we became the largest political party in Northern Ireland in 2003, including the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and all of their officials. It is proper that that is put on the record. We have spent many hours on this; I cannot imagine how many drafts of sections of legislation we have looked at. It has been a very long road.

I want to make one point. I am told—I did not hear it myself—that the suggestion was made that the Home Secretary had in some way intervened, and that the DUP had made some agreements with him behind the back of the Secretary of State. I have not been asked to make any remarks on this, so my word will, I hope, be all the more sincere and genuine. No such agreements were ever reached with the Home Secretary. He is one of those Cabinet Ministers who would never pass one in the corridor without having a word—I have often had to console him about the defeats of Glasgow Celtic—and he has an abiding interest in Northern Ireland matters. From time to time, of course, we talk about progress that is being made, but at no stage did the Home Secretary interfere in any way in the responsibilities of the Secretary of State. Lest there be any tension between the two Cabinet Ministers, let me put that on the record.

I want to say something about the position of my party. The DUP reached a decision on its own. It decided what the consequences might be. It was not bullied into that position by anybody. No threats from the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister or anyone else would have altered the considered opinion of the DUP. We put our position forward to the Government publicly, as we have in the past, publicly, making it clear that this was what the DUP believed to be the right thing to do. I shall not remind people in any detail of the debate that we had on the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 and the amendment that we put forward, which suggested that there should perhaps be some flexibility on the date of 26 March. If our amendment had been passed, we could have saved ourselves some time tonight and got on with the business of the Budget.

The reality is that deadlines are much less important than agreements. Let us consider the reality for Northern Ireland if we had proceeded yesterday to set up an Executive without all the essential preparatory work that is required. We saw that in our meetings with the political parties yesterday, as we stacked up the issues that we had to deal with between now and May, with barely enough time between now and then to complete those preparatory tasks. It was abundantly clear that to do the job properly and to bring the community with us, we needed that additional time. The substance of what will happen in future will be much more robust because we have that additional time, irrespective of the deadlines.

I have heard what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has said. She seems to be disappointed that agreement has been reached about the six weeks to a greater extent than she would have been if things had collapsed yesterday. That is sad and disappointing, and she needs to reconsider her position because it certainly is not the position held by her constituents. Indeed, with the same attitude, the leader of her party said yesterday, “Isn’t it a pity—all this could have been done nine years ago.” Of course it could not have been done nine years ago. Nine years ago, the IRA was still killing people. Nine years ago, it still held on to its illegal weapons. Nine years ago, it still continued with its paramilitary activity. Nine years ago, it still continued with its criminal activity. Nine years ago, it gave no support to the police, to the courts, to the rule of law. Nine years ago, there were no accountable structures under which we could operate. Nine years ago, legislation had not gone through this House ensuring a triple lock on the devolution of policing and justice—ensuring that if ever a policing and justice Minister were put forward, he had to be somebody who could command the support of the Assembly.

So, nine years ago this could not have been done. Indeed, nine years ago, without those things being done, some people did enter into government, and it was followed by suspensions, by crisis after crisis and, ultimately, by collapse. It will be no good to the people of Northern Ireland if we simply go for a deadline to get things moving. We need to get things right, and that was the slogan that this party adopted in the elections. However long it took, it was necessary to get things right.

I will be honest with the House: there was no joy in the hearts of members of this party at having to take the step that we took yesterday. There are people on these Benches who have suffered considerably at the hands of Republicans. There are people on these Benches who have lost members of their families—some many members of their families. There are people on these Benches whom the IRA has attempted to kill—and everyone on these Benches has had constituents butchered by the IRA. So there was no joy or enthusiasm in going forward in those circumstances.

It was a difficult decision to take; no doubt it was too difficult for some. I understand that it will be too big a decision to bear for some in the Democratic Unionist party. I accept their decision. I wish that they continued to walk with us. I wish that they could continue to use their talents for the benefit of the community in the only way that they can properly do so now, given the party sizes and structures in Northern Ireland. I am sad that people will leave and I hope that in time they will see that the decision that we have taken has been vindicated, but I recognise that many will find it too long a step to take.

There has been much history in Northern Ireland and the House has seen many events unfold over the years. The responsibility that we have, which was outlined by my party leader yesterday, was to ensure that no matter how great our own personal sadness about, or loathing of, all those events, we did not allow that sadness or loathing to become the stumbling block to ensuring that there is peace and stability in the future.

We have taken a decision based on our own judgment as to how we can move forward, but that is based entirely on all parties keeping the commitments that they have made, including an end to all paramilitary and criminal activity; to exclusively peaceful and democratic means; to the support of the police, the courts and the rule of law in every tangible way; and to demonstrate that in their daily lives and to encourage others to do so as well.

We have given our commitment to enter into an Executive, and when the Democratic Unionist party gives its word, the Democratic Unionist party keeps its word. Therefore, we will move between now and 8 May to ensure that all of the necessary work is completed. In that respect, I say to the Secretary of State that when we were working in the transitional Assembly, in the Programme for Government Committee, the members of that committee sought details from the Departments about the present circumstances on several issues, but the answers were less than forthcoming. If we are to do our job properly in the preparatory period, the Secretary of State must give instructions to ensure an opening up of the inside details of each Department—

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s speech and the eloquence with which he makes his contribution. I wish to give him, from the Floor of the House, an absolute and categorical assurance that I discussed yesterday with the head of the civil service, Nigel Hamilton, exactly the terms that the hon. Gentleman asks, which have also been requested by other parties. We will make our officials available. Whether the parties choose to indicate which individuals might assume ministerial posts or just wish to put individuals forward, they will be able to have access to the Departments so that they may properly prepare for government without hindrance. They will be able to discuss with ministerial colleagues any joint decisions that might come up in the future, so that they are not taken unilaterally by the present Government, but with consensus on them from the incoming ministerial team.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State, whose intervention will be welcomed by all the parties that will form the Executive. We trust that we can have the unusual relationship that he described in the weeks that lie ahead—although I am not sure whether it means that we will be blamed for some of the decisions that will be taken in the next few weeks. However, it will be helpful to have a greater knowledge of the position in each of the Departments.

I do not want to burst the bubble of enthusiasm in the House and outside it about the events that occurred yesterday. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said that there would not be a love-in—I think that that was his term—but a work-in. Those who know the different backgrounds of the two lead parties in the Executive will recognise that there is a massive difference between them in their ideology and goals, and in how they see the political future of Northern Ireland.

Gerry Adams once said that an Executive with Ian Paisley would be a battle a day. I was attacked during the recent elections for agreeing with him, but that does not mean that we will be thrust into conflict over every issue that arises, as all the parties will be able to agree on many of the matters that come up. However, nothing changed yesterday in Gerry Adams’ desire to bring to an end the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and neither did anything happen to alter the determination of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim that that link should be retained and strengthened. With two such constitutional opposites in an Executive, there is bound to be tension. If Gerry Adams really believes that there should be a united Ireland, that is what he will work towards. It will be the job of all Unionists in the Executive to ensure that Northern Ireland goes in exactly the opposite direction.

I believe that Northern Ireland’s best interests remain with the UK, and the DUP will continue to put that at the forefront of all its policies and strategy. I recognise that some do not share that view, but the big difference now is that the blood of people who disagree will not be spilled: instead, we can deal with such matters politically and allow the electorate to make their decisions in a democratic fashion.

The hand of history seems to have touched the people of Northern Ireland once again and another historic day has been marked on the calendar. We have had many historic days and, depending on one’s perspective, many times has the hand of history touched us on the shoulder, poked us in the back or walloped us in the ear.

However, the generosity and all-encompassing nature of the statements made yesterday—and again today in this Chamber by people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)—are a great ray of hope, both for me and for the people whom I have had the privilege to represent here for the past 20 years.

In fact, my memory goes back even further. Despite my youthful appearance, I have been involved in this process for more than 40 years, as I was first elected in 1961—almost half a century ago. In that time, the transition undergone by the people of Northern Ireland has been slow but remarkable. It may sound like a cliché, but the reality is that they have had to cope with a legacy that is many centuries old. Today, the orange and the green—the men of extreme violence and words—are joining together to promise a future that will embrace all the people in Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland. That is a day that I have long sought and long hoped for, and sometimes even prayed for. The communities of Northern Ireland have suffered greatly—I need not repeat that there have been 3,000-plus deaths, 30,000 maimed, and many, many maimed mentally for life as well, and we are still suffering the consequences of an enormous suicide rate. The divided communities are still there, with high walls between them. It is a huge challenge to translate the good will and the getting together from the hierarchy of political parties into the ghettoes that, unfortunately, are still to be found in some parts of Northern Ireland.

We need not be pessimistic, because the process is ongoing, and it has enabled this momentous occasion to take place. I know—I hope—that the agreement made yesterday between the two primary parties and the other parties will sustain us into a much more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous society than we have ever had in my lifetime. That is a huge dream to fulfil in many ways, and I hope that I will not be disappointed in any respect. I remember many years ago in the House when the first ceasefire was announced, and I know that we cannot expect a sudden switch-off of violence and attitudes of hatred. It will be a slow process and the new arrangements will be tested—perhaps, unfortunately, on the streets on the Northern Ireland. I hope that that does not happen, but the political will of the major parties and all the parties in the Assembly will be hugely tested.

While we have a Government primarily of two parties that were at the extremes—hopefully, they have moved from that position—there is a huge dichotomy in their policies. On 7 March, the people elected combatants rather than Governments, because never before in these islands or, indeed, in Europe, have people gone into an election where the Prime Minister has already been appointed from one party and the Deputy Prime Minister from another. The Governments, the media and everyone have encouraged people to involve themselves in what was a gladiatorial political contest. We have a result—and, yes, the people have spoken—but it was a contest of strength rather of policy.

There is a huge dichotomy in most of the major areas of social and economic development in Northern Ireland. Water rates were used as a weapon by the Government to persuade people that they must move, but in fact, in my constituency, there is a firm belief that water rates were a red herring, as the Government did not have the capability to collect them from 1 April onwards. I am only too happy for those rates to be shelved and used as a carrot for the parties coming into power. They will be shelved for one year, and it is their problem thereafter. There is a huge question, too, about the review of public administration. Sinn Fein wants seven super-councils, and the other parties are roughly united on a figure between 11 and 15. That must be resolved because it directly affects every aspect of life in Northern Ireland, perhaps for the next two decades. In education, one of the major parties supports the concept of selection for secondary education, but other parties do not.

Those huge differences have to be ironed out, hopefully before 8 May—although that may not be possible—so that people who committed themselves to the new partnership have a vision of where they are going and so that their problems can be addressed. It has taken a long, long time to arrive at this point, and if it is the final resolution of our problem it truly is an historic day not only for the north of Ireland, but for Ireland and the UK. Indeed, our diaspora throughout the world is taking solace from what has happened in Northern Ireland; perhaps we can even apply some of the lessons in conflict resolution in other areas. That may be presumptuous, but we have some experience.

I wish the parties involved every success. They will have our support. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, the British Government, the Taoiseach and the Irish Government for their unswerving commitment in trying sometimes to knock heads, sometimes to cajole, but more often to bribe. The bribery has been very effective.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate this afternoon. May I say how much we appreciate the words that have been spoken by many in the Chamber, including the remarks just made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady)? Whatever our differences across the Chamber, we recognise him as a man of honour who has made a positive contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. Although he is no longer a Member of the Chamber at Stormont, he still has a contribution to make and we thank him for his comments.

What happened yesterday, difficult though it was for many, was a good day for Northern Ireland. It offers the prospect of a better future for all our people and, as my colleague and leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, what we are trying to do—what we want to do—is for the benefit of all the people in Northern Ireland. It would be easy simply to act in a sectional interest; it would be easy to do what the loudest voices might want us to do, but leadership is about making tough decisions and displaying courage and vision, and my right hon. Friend’s comments yesterday demonstrate that he has done so in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will not mind me saying that the Democratic Unionist party made a collective decision. Our party executive met on Saturday. We had a good, constructive debate and more than 90 per cent. of the membership of that body backed the resolution proposed by the party officers. I believe their view represents the view in the country. As I said earlier, we have received many messages from across the community and across Northern Ireland supporting the leadership of our party in what we have done.

I am sure that there were people who were disappointed that government did not happen on 26 March, but the overwhelming majority—even those who voted for parties that were committed to 26 March—recognise that it is better to get it right. That is what we stood for in the election. That was our campaign slogan, but it was more than a slogan, more than mere words, more than a façade. We mean it. We want to get this right. The people of Northern Ireland have seen too many false dawns. How many times have we been here before? How many times has there been the prospect of a breakthrough and delivery of the peace for which we hoped, only for those hopes to be dashed? We do not want to do that. We do not want to build up people’s hopes only to see them falter and fall. That is why we want to get it right. We have worked hard to get it right and we are committed to getting it right.

With respect, I say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon): surely we have moved beyond the point of getting hung up on dates and allowing our disappointment to override our good judgment about what is best for the people of Northern Ireland?

May I remind the House that in the recent Assembly elections the Democratic Unionist party had only 30 per cent. of the vote on changing the deadline? However, DUP Members were not going to be calendar-led—not until today when they picked the date, and in fact we will be calendar-led, so they have changed that policy. More than 60 per cent. of the electorate voted for parties—including Sinn Fein—on manifestos that committed all the parties to sit in Government yesterday and to be paid yesterday. If Assembly Members are not sitting in a devolved Assembly, people at home are entitled to know why they will be paid for the next six weeks. That question has been raised with me in Northern Ireland, so let us find out.

The hon. Lady has missed the whole momentum and tenor of this debate. Her nit-picking and pettiness do her no good whatsoever. With the news that people will not be getting water charge bills through their door, that academic selection will remain in Northern Ireland—the good grammar schools in North Down will benefit from that—and that we are going to get a Government on 8 May, I do not believe that the people of North Down are sitting wondering whether it is right or wrong that their Assembly Members are getting paid. Those Members will now engage in preparatory work and will be working day and night, as we have been, and as the hon. Lady has not been, on this issue. We have been working long hours—well beyond midnight on many evenings—trying to resolve these issues and to make progress.

I do not think that anyone in my constituency is going to question whether I earn the much-reduced salary that I and my colleagues on these Benches—as both Members of Parliament and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly—receive. Nor do I believe that the people who were elected in North Down will be any less worthy of the salaries that are paid to them, because we are preparing for the return to government. We are still a condition-led party.

The conditions need to be right. That is why we are continuing the discussions with the Government about the financial package and why we want to ensure that there are commitments on everyone’s part to supporting the police and the rule of law. Our resolution makes that absolutely clear: no one must go back on the commitments that they have given. So conditions are still very important to us, but we believe that by 8 May the conditions will be right, and that is why we have taken this decision. I will give way.

That is very generous indeed of the hon. Gentleman. He has just exemplified the generosity of spirit and the great charm of the DUP that mean that I, and thousands like me, will never vote DUP.

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, that is not the message that we are getting from traditional Ulster Unionist voters who have been contacting the Democratic Unionist party in the few hours since yesterday. With that kind of attitude, they will be switching their allegiance—and have been doing so. If she looks at the voting figures in North Down, she will see that the Democratic Unionist party is now the largest party in her constituency. What does that say about her representation when it comes to the people in her constituency? If I was sitting in Lagan Valley and another party was taking over as the leading party, I would not attack that party and make churlish remarks like the ones she has just made. I would try to do something to ensure that this process works, because that is what the people of North Down want.

Is it not a fact that the election is over? The people have made a decision. The party of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) did not want an election. It fired its arrows into my heart and said, “Imagine him daring to ask for an election.” I asked for the election. I felt that all the people of Northern Ireland had the right to say what they said. They did not say it in the way that she wanted it said, but the election is over. We have to go forward to fulfil the obligations that are put upon us by what the electorate said.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I believe that the hon. Member for North Down will be eating her words, because the DUP has been consistently increasing its support. One of the reasons why I left the Ulster Unionist party was that it has become so embittered towards fellow Unionists and so tied up in its inward-looking attitude that it cannot see the wood for the trees. I think that traditional Unionists will be glad of what happened yesterday, as are all hon. Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for North Down. She might reflect on why she is alone on this Bench as the only Ulster Unionist Member and wonder whether the attitude that she is displaying today is part of the reason for that.

It is time to look forward. I welcome the Bill because it offers the prospect of real progress. However, I also realise that some people have difficulties with the measure. This morning’s edition of the Belfast News Letter includes comments made by William Harpur, a disabled former police officer who survived four IRA attempts on his life. He is unhappy with what has occurred. I respect Mr. Harpur’s opinion and understand where he is coming from. However, I say to him and many others like him that the reason why we want to build the new future for Northern Ireland is so that no other policeman has to be the subject of terrorist attack and so that there is a genuine end to terrorism.

The date of 12 August 1970 is etched on my mind because it was the day on which the politics of Northern Ireland first came into my life, with the murder of Samuel Donaldson, the first Royal Ulster Constabulary officer to be murdered by the IRA in the troubles. He was my cousin. I can well remember the day that my uncle came to our front door to deliver the news of his death at a place called Crossmaglen in south Armagh. I am glad that we have the prospect that his death and the others that have occurred in Northern Ireland might be the last of the deaths of gallant officers who have stood at the front line to serve and protect the community of Northern Ireland. If the price that I have to pay to ensure that that happens is to swallow hard, look to the future and perhaps face difficult and challenging decisions, I am prepared to pay it, and so are my colleagues. We want to be sure that when people say that they support the police, they actually do support the police, and that when they say that they want to uphold the rule of law, that is precisely what they do. We have taken the extra time—not just the six weeks, but the time since 24 November, when we had the last deadline—because we want to get this right. That is important for everyone in Northern Ireland.

In six years, people will look back at these events. Will those people who feel that an extra six weeks is too high a price to pay really remember those six weeks if we get economic stability in Northern Ireland after years of underinvestment, neglect and the troubles, when our economy has been put under enormous pressure? If we have a peaceful society, will they reflect that it was not worth taking the extra six weeks so that we could secure that future for them and our children? I do not believe that they will. I do not think that anyone will remember much about 26 March as a deadline. They will remember it as a day that offered hope for the future.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said, we recognise that the road ahead will not be easy. There are many difficulties and challenges to overcome. There are battles ahead, but at least we have the hope that the differences between us in Northern Ireland will be resolved by peaceful means alone, not by resorting to violence. That is what we have fought for and it is the position in which we have always wanted to be. As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) commented, we could say that this might have happened several years ago. Perhaps things could have happened sooner, but, unfortunately, the men of violence have taken so long to make the transition that it has taken until now to achieve what we hope is being achieved.

I look to the future with hope, but I recognise that there is still pain in our community. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim said yesterday at the Parliament building, Stormont, we do not forget those who have lost and the victims who still carry the pain, the hurt and, like Mr. Harpur, the disabilities that are the result of our conflict and the violence. We will not forget those people. They will receive support and the recognition that they deserve. They will not be left behind. We need to bring them with us into the future, just as we need to bring everyone in Northern Ireland with us into the future. That will not be easy. There are people on both sides who have doubts—and why would not they have doubts, after so many years of false dawns and dashed hopes? However, perhaps this time there is a real prospect of moving forward. This House and Parliament have a role to play.

Today, I am proud to be a Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, because I believe that my place in the Union is secure. I believe that Northern Ireland has come through the troubles and the worst of times, and has emerged, although perhaps not as a better place. However, we have learned, and I hope that we have learned enough to know that violence is not the way to resolve our differences. Parliament can continue to make a real contribution. Later this evening, we will wind up the debate on the Budget, and as well as looking to the Northern Ireland Office to help us on our way forward with the administrative arrangements, we look to the Treasury to help us with the financial arrangements, but we are not holding out a begging bowl. Our objective is to rebuild our economy so that we can pay our way in the United Kingdom, because we are a proud people, and we do not want to be dependent on others. We want an economy that enables us to be fully part of the UK, and we want to be capable of securing our place by paying our way and playing our full role in this United Kingdom.

A lot of people present in the Chamber have come a long way to get where we are today. I was just thinking about some of the things that I have gone through since I first got involved in Northern Ireland politics. In 1988, a group of 11 parents came across to north-east England to tell us about the children whom they had lost because of plastic bullets. We went with them to Brock’s fireworks factory in Sanquhar in south-west Scotland, where the plastic bullets were made. They were pilloried by local people for going there and for asking, “Will you please stop making these weapons, because they are killing our children?” It was a salutary lesson for me about man’s inhumanity to man, and particularly about inhumanity towards young people.

Later that same year, I attended a demonstration in Glasgow to speak against the restrictions on freedom of speech that had been imposed on Sinn Fein. It was not that I necessarily approved of what Sinn Fein was doing, but I disapproved of silencing people, as that is the wrong thing to do. Again, we were met with howls of protest, and the demonstrators faced real and present danger in the streets of Glasgow. Thankfully, we have come a long way since then, but even so, there have been milestones and setbacks.

In the early 1990s, I was involved with a group called the Agreed Ireland Forum. Its members, who were from virtually every part of Irish society, first came across to this country for a meeting, and then went back to hold meetings in Ireland to try to take things forward. I was pleased to be able to organise a conference in Newcastle, County Down, just a few days after the bombing of Canary Wharf. People from every political party in Northern Ireland bar one—unfortunately, it was the Democratic Unionist party—came to that meeting, as well as people from the ethnic minorities, a growing group whose needs must be taken care of in the new Northern Ireland. The meeting was opened by the President of the Republic of Ireland; that was a very strong statement, all those years ago. It said, “Yes, we can work together.”

In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned the work of the trade unions. I am proud of the fact that I worked with trade unions in Northern Ireland that tried to ensure normalcy when their members were working in chaos. Their members were threatened every day by people trying to jump queues and abuse public servants and public services. I was convinced and guided by people on both sides, including a branch secretary at a hospital in Belfast, who had served time as a young man for robbing banks to fund the loyalist cause, and civil rights marchers on the Republican side who have carried the flame from the 1960s to the 1990s and beyond, to try to develop peace in Northern Ireland. I was attacked by so-called London Irish representatives of my own union, who said that we should not even be organising in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that we were by far the largest trade union in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that 30,000 people wanted to be members of my union. I am very glad that we ignored those voices.

We developed structures that crossed sectarian barriers and we said, “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter where you went to school. It doesn’t matter where you go to church. It doesn’t matter what your name is. If you’re being treated badly, the union will stand up and oppose that.” I probably had more problems in the trade union movement with people arguing among themselves than we had in arguments about the country’s politics.

I supported the work of my Government and of my party before it got into government. My union was responsible for funding much of the work that Mo Mowlam did before she went in as Secretary of State. That meant that as a Minister she was able to confront civil servants and wipe them out of the way, so that she could sit down and talk directly with the politicians on the ground who were developing a way forward that was not blocked by the stagnant, cold hand of the civil service in Northern Ireland.

In the short time before April 1998, that helped to move forward the Good Friday agreement. When it was up and running, yes, the first Assembly sat for only 72 days, but in that short time the work of people like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) showed that despite the opposition from outside the Assembly, there was a chance to make progress. People did get together and work positively. After suspension, the Assembly returned. All the arguments and problems were described earlier by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). We went from crisis to crisis to collapse.

There has been much talk today about deadlines. I wish I had a pound for every deadline that has been set and broken. The real worry in the past was that when a deadline failed, a vacuum followed. The history of Northern Ireland is that if a political vacuum occurred, the terrorists filled it. I wish the deadline had not passed yesterday, but there is no vacuum. Instead, people are working their socks off to try and pull things together and make the agreement work. That is a massive change.

Since I entered the House two years ago, there have been enormous frustrations. We have sat down and worked together for hours, and it has been pointless, going forwards, then backwards. We sat for 27 hours on one Bill. The Secretary of State had to come to the House and acknowledge that it was not working. He had egg on his face that day, as well as yesterday. That was frustrating for those who wanted to see the process move forward.

While people in the political world in the House and in Northern Ireland have to some extent been talking to each other, in Northern Ireland the people’s world has moved forward massively. It is unrecognisable, compared with what it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. In every sense it is a much better place, and we should all be proud of that. The Northern Ireland Assembly is to be led by probably the two most polarised parties anywhere in Europe, if not the world, and there will be ideological problems, but in a democracy that must be accepted.

Since I entered the House, I have worked closely with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Twenty years ago I was ideologically opposed to his Government, and I still am. As a miner, I was ideologically opposed to what his party was trying to do to my community. That has not stopped us, along with other Members with similar experiences, working together for the betterment of the people whom we represent and for the people of Northern Ireland. That demonstrates the possibilities for the people who will take up responsibility.

We now have a date for restoration. The positive things that were said yesterday not only by the DUP, but by Sinn Fein, about being serious and making the agreement work, have set an agenda. Collapse is no longer an option. Yes, there will be crises. That is part and parcel of the democratic process, but walking out, deliberately undermining the process because one group cannot get their own way, is not on. That would be a betrayal of the people whom they represent, of the House and of the trust that the House has placed in them. It would also betray the people of Great Britain, who for 40 years have supported the people of Northern Ireland in every sense and want to continue to do so. I take on board what was said earlier—that nobody in Northern Ireland wants to be the recipient of handouts. I accept that totally, because I know what proud people they are. The fact is, however, that what has happened over the past 40 years has caused economic disadvantage to Great Britain, and that when we get rid of that disadvantage it will be to the benefit of us all.

We will betray the futures of our children and our children’s children if we do not make the system work this time. I am not naïve. I know that it will not be easy, and I know that this is very much a beginning and not an end. Democracy is not easy; it is much easier to move in the other direction. But I plead with all who will run the Assembly in Northern Ireland not to abuse the chance that they have been given.

It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson). I am sure that throughout my time in the 1980s and 1990s our views on the position in Northern Ireland would have been diametrically opposed, but we certainly agree today.

I was an Army intelligence officer in Northern Ireland in 1994. I therefore had a unique insight not only into the thinking of the Government of the day and the efforts that they were making towards peace, but into what was going on inside the terrorist organisations. It is right to pay tribute at this time to the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s special branch, the military and the security services, who not only worked to achieve justice and catch criminals and terrorists, but had worked towards peace for many years before the 1994 ceasefire. They continue to work towards peace, whatever their titles are today, because we always worked not just to catch members of the IRA or the loyalist paramilitaries but to achieve a settlement.

Ministers will be aware, although they may not be allowed to say it in a public forum, of the work that has taken place, and is taking place today, to ensure that the Government of the United Kingdom are in the best position to use information to achieve peace. There was no great conspiracy to make war and continue conflict; the conspiracy was only to achieve a good resolution for peace.

I must give some credit to a man to whom it is not easy for me to give credit. I must give credit to Gerry Adams, and to Sinn Fein. I know from experience, from members of Gerry Adams’s organisation and indeed from the IRA, how much horror and murder was inflicted by some of those individuals, but I must give Gerry Adams credit for what he has achieved in persuading a terrorist organisation to come to the table to talk and, moreover, commit itself not just to a ceasefire but, apparently, to a permanent ceasefire. The constitution of the IRA army council has always denied any form of peace. It was a military organisation, and what Gerry Adams has achieved deserves some credit in this arena.

I can say that because I have had many experiences of Gerry Adams’s organisation, none of them jolly. Indeed, I think I remember arresting his cousin at some stage, or possibly his nephew. I have not met him in the House to ask him which it was, but I do know that we are here today partly because of that organisation’s actions. I can say that in memory of people such as Tim Parry and others who lost their lives on this side of the argument.

More importantly, I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and the DUP. Throughout the process people were keen to say, “Appease, concede, give in, make the gesture, go for peace,” and every time it was said the right hon. Gentleman responded, “Not until we achieve the best deal for our constituents, our electorate: not until we are sure that these people mean peace.” Actions speak louder than words in Northern Ireland. They always have, to Ulstermen. Those who forget that may find themselves in the position of the Secretary of State today. I believe that the slipping of the deadline was probably nothing more than an Ulsterman’s wish to have the last word. That is very much the way of Ulster. The Secretary of State may have thought that he was in charge of all the blackmail and the bullying, but in the end the Ulstermen will tell him when they want to start the process. So I pay tribute to the DUP, which stuck to its guns.

I never agreed with all that the DUP said in my time. I remember stopping the right hon. Member for North Antrim one day; he was not a Member of Parliament at the time. It was a Sunday, so he would not speak to me, a member of the security forces. He was on his way to do God’s bidding. When I saw the press trying to interview the party leader on yesterday’s television news, I knew that nothing would be said on God’s day. The right hon. Gentleman has stuck to his guns, and I believe that without that, Sinn Fein would never have recognised the Police Service of Northern Ireland or worked with the forces of law and order. No doubt it will be tested by the DUP in the Assembly, to establish that its words mean actions.

We should not, however, forget the efforts of the United Kingdom Government under this Prime Minister and those of a number of previous Conservative Governments to ensure that we achieved what we have achieved today: a peace process with, hopefully, a conclusion. Last March I went to Northern Ireland and stayed in Headquarters Northern Ireland. I remember it as a pulsating citadel of the power of the United Kingdom, under threat sometimes, and sending men and women out to risk their lives—but it was a ghost town. Much of it was empty: many of the places that I recalled having purpose and function no longer existed, because there was no longer any purpose or function.

I went to visit my old bases, but I could not do so because they are now housing estates. In Cookstown there are a number of houses and no base, which is ironic because it was in Cookstown, in 1994, at the time of the first ceasefire, that I made the decision to close two vehicle checkpoints for a couple of hours. That was interesting, because the habit among the population of that town was to stop at the checkpoints; they were not used to being able to drive on. As a result there was a traffic jam, although no soldiers were present.

I think that others are sometimes quicker to kick the habit of violence and recrimination than our politicians are. During my visit last Easter, I rang for a taxi from Headquarters Northern Ireland. I asked in the guardroom how I could book an “approved” taxi. In my day, to risk a taxi that had been booked by telephone might be to take one’s life in one’s hands, if the taxi had been booked from the wrong part of town. I was told, “There is no approved list. Just dial a number.” I dialled a number, a taxi duly appeared at the gates of Headquarters Northern Ireland—I was not used to that either—and I was driven to the centre of the city.

I did not look at the driver’s tattoos, terrified lest I catch sight of the Red Hand of Ulster, “God Loves the UVF”, a tricolour or “IRA” on his arms. Instead, I engaged him in conversation about what he thought of the current peace deal, or peace process. He did not mind—he wanted it to happen—but he was most aggrieved by the fact that politicians were receiving allowances for doing nothing. If anything could have told me that normality was arriving in Northern Ireland, it was that. It sent a signal that the Daily Mail might have a circulation in Northern Ireland in future—that people were obsessed with, and angry about, the fact that politicians were wasting time rather than dealing with the issues of the day.

There is a challenge for the Assembly. As a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, I have seen devolution in action, and I am not opposed to it. I have also seen nationalists in action, on a far better footing than I have in Ulster. The challenge for the Assembly and the Assembly parties is not to become bogged down in petty squabbling. If on day one the parties in Northern Ireland become involved in discussing whether they should have green, orange or blue tablecloths, or whether there should be lilies in the hall of Stormont, they will betray not only themselves but the electorate who sent them there.

When at a time of peaceful politics the nationalists’ agenda is to exploit such difficulties—such tiny, petty differences—for their own ends, my advice will be to ignore it. The best way in which to counter nationalist pettiness is to say, “You can argue about whether the cross of St. Andrew or the Union flag should go on top of a Government building all day long, but it will not give people a better health service, a better education or a better transport system.” That type of real politics usually puts the nationalists down. I advise people not to play into the nationalists’ hands if that is what they set out to do—and I am sure everyone knows from what happened the first time that that is exactly what some of them set out to do. I say, “Be better and bigger than that, and I believe that the electorate of Ulster will, in the end, reward you for it.”

The role of the Northern Ireland Office must change. With devolution a success, it must give up the bullying and the blackmail that has sometimes characterised trying to get the Ulstermen to the table. It needs to become the strong voice of Ulster in Westminster, not Westminster’s voice in Ulster. It needs to be at the top table of the Cabinet and to say, “We need a fairer corporation tax so that Northern Ireland can compete better with the south of Ireland.” If it is the champion of Ulster in the constitutional environment of Downing street and the House of Commons, the electorate will again be less tempted to move towards a nationalist agenda. If it does that, the symbol that we are all chasing—a handshake—will become a reality, Stormont will become a lasting, successful settlement, and in the end peace will be achieved. Then the electorate, who have throughout this put up with death, murder and threats, will be able to focus on what is really important in Northern Ireland—education, health, industry, business and a future for the Province, which, as a Unionist, I hope will remain in the United Kingdom.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate briefly in this debate.

I want to start by congratulating the Prime Minister on his dogged determination in sticking with the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the Secretary of State on the sensitive way in which he has applied himself to resolving some of the outstanding difficulties in Northern Ireland. However, I would say to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team that they might still have some way to go in explaining to the younger generation how we ended up with the meeting that took place yesterday. My teenage daughter, who was born in Northern Ireland, wanted to know why, if all it took to get devolution in Northern Ireland was to threaten to send out water rates bills, it had not been done many years ago.

Of course, we all know that it is much more difficult and complex than that. That is why I pay my main tributes to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) for the truly extraordinary meeting that happened yesterday. I congratulate them not only because the meeting took place—it was certainly an historic event in itself—but because of the measured and careful language that they used in the statement that was given to the press. Great care was taken to acknowledge each other’s histories and the positions that they had come from. I very much pay tribute to them for doing that, because it gave all of us, particularly those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland and were used to hearing very different language, hope that things might be different, and better, in future. I suspect that when the Assembly is up and running, comments will not always be so measured. However, it is good that the difficulties of Northern Ireland will be played out across a chamber, with disputes settled through political discourse, not through violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. That is what we all hope will happen.

As a frequent visitor to Northern Ireland to see my family and friends, I know that there is enormous thirst, particularly among the younger generation, for things to change there. They want real leadership from their politicians, and they saw that yesterday. They want to grow up in a country where decisions about Northern Ireland are made in Northern Ireland, particularly about bread and butter issues.

Perhaps more than most people here, I am aware of the difficult road that Members in all parts of the Chamber have travelled to get to yesterday’s meeting. Most of us in Northern Ireland have lost relatives and friends. It is very hard to put that anxiety and grief behind us and move forward, but we all know that it has to be done if Northern Ireland is to have the prosperous and peaceful future that we all want to see. Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim and to the hon. Member for Belfast, West, because theirs is an extraordinary journey. I hope that they bring other people with them on that journey so that people in Northern Ireland can have their devolved Assembly and a peaceful future.

The hon. Lady is making a very gracious speech and adding a great deal to the debate, much of which I have had to watch from my office. Will she support me in saying that a major contributor has been the right hon. Member for North Antrim, who, through his leadership, consistency and courage, has led a majority of the population of Northern Ireland to support him and his party in this agreement?

I do indeed agree with those comments. I have already paid tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim, but we must also recognise what an enormous journey it is for the hon. Member for Belfast, West, who has contributed a great deal to the peace process as well.

I hope that the next six weeks are used constructively to get positive feedback from the people of Northern Ireland about how they would like the Assembly to be constructed. I wish Members every success in that endeavour.

Members come to this debate with many different emotions and feelings. Some are full of elation and praise. There was once a song about Barry McGuigan called, “Thank you very much Mr. Eastwood”, because he was always thanking people. Some are full of excitement because of the possibility of devolution in the month of May. There is a wide breadth of opinion in any political party. A party is always stronger, and democracy is always stronger, for that. I am exactly who I am; I am not going to be somebody else. That sometimes pleases and sometimes does not.

I came to this House way back in 1983, representing the constituency of Mid Ulster. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) mentioned Cookstown. I was educated in Cookstown, and we lived just outside it. I represented that constituency for some 14 and a half years. It was ravaged by IRA terrorism and was for a considerable period known as the killing fields of Northern Ireland. Today, I represent another constituency on another side of the Bann. Many constituencies had different experiences during the years known as the heart of the troubles in South Antrim.

Some hon. Members feel excited because we were able to drive a coach and horses through the Secretary of State’s magic deadline of 26 March. He said that it could not be changed under any circumstances and that no legislation would be brought before this House. With one stroke of the pen, he promised that on 26 March it would be devolution or dissolution, one or the other, with no clouding of the issues or equivocation; it was black and white, and the people of Northern Ireland had better realise that. In my opinion, there was a despicable plan to blackmail the people and politicians of Northern Ireland into accepting 26 March. I am glad that that plan has been thwarted and that once again a message has gone out that it will not be possible to carry out such blackmail, and that whenever Unionist politicians take a principled stand, they will stand by that principle. That message should exercise the minds of many. I believe that a message has been conveyed for the future: Unionist politicians will not yield in the face of threats and blackmail.

Others are excited because they believe that every hurdle has been overcome. Let me remind hon. Members of the reality of delivery. The Democratic Unionist party made it abundantly clear in its resolution at the executive that it will accept no regression on the issues already determined, and that we will press to ensure delivery by Government and Sinn Fein and make it a reality. On the St. Andrews declaration, we said that no delivery means no deal.

There is still a need for delivery—for example, by the Chancellor. The Government must provide an adequate financial package to ensure that any Administration in Northern Ireland have the finances to meet the challenges. Promises that have been made are inadequate and will only undermine devolution when it comes. Let us consider corporation tax and the challenge of getting the engine of industry going again. We are not spongers, as Harold Wilson once said. We are a proud people, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) rightly said. We are a people with dignity and we want to provide for the future and for the prosperity of our children, but we are confronted with challenges just over a land border that we, as political people, must face and tackle. We can do that only when a sufficient financial package is in place.

For years, water and sewerage infrastructure has been left to decay. When the Government on this side of the water in the United Kingdom decided to privatise, they increased the standard of and modernised the infrastructure before doing so. Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, they used the budget and the money given through taxation—there was taxation through the regional rate for that infrastructure—for other purposes. Our infrastructure was left to decline and was being destroyed. For many years, the people of Northern Ireland paid for infrastructure that they never got. The Chancellor and the Exchequer owe it to the people of Northern Ireland to restore—not as a handout—the money that they paid for that infrastructure.

The other side of the deal and of delivery is Sinn Fein. We said and we say—we have not changed our minds—that Sinn Fein must unequivocally support the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the courts, the rule of law, a complete end to paramilitary and criminal activity and the removal of terrorist structures. That is where we stand today. The apex of those structures is the so-called army council. There is no need for an army council when there is no need for an army to threaten the people of Northern Ireland. It must therefore be dismantled.

The Government stressed before, during and after the St. Andrews talks that there were twin pillars for agreement. One was DUP support for power sharing and the other was Sinn Fein support for policing. The DUP election manifesto provided for the first pillar. Our executive endorsed that on Saturday at a meeting that I chaired. However, Sinn Fein must prove beyond doubt that it is capable of fully delivering the second pillar.

Councillor Brush was attacked four times by the Provisional IRA, which tried to murder him. The Secretary of State quoted Michelle Gildernew, who is absent from this House but was elected to it—her party gets an awful lot of money for not coming here from the Government, who talked about Assembly Members getting paid for not doing their full work. The Secretary of State was selective in his quotation. He said that Michelle Gildernew said that she would give information to the police. That certainly constitutes movement—I will come back to that. However, she also said that no republican attacked Councillor Brush and, in the same article, that the attack was not sectarian. Councillor Brush and the people of that area believe that it was a deliberate sectarian, republican attack, but Michelle Gildernew has decided that it is neither. She was asked whether, if she knew of weapons in dissident terrorist hands, she would report it to the police. She said that she would not. That is not what was demanded of Sinn Fein. There was to be unequivocal support for the PSNI, the courts and the rule of law, and a complete end to paramilitary and criminal activity.

Weapons in the hands of a terrorist organisation are there to threaten, kill, and destroy the peace and stability of a community. It is therefore abundantly clear that it is important to take such weapons from those who have them. For example, I am led to believe that last week, dissident republican groupings brought in a cache of arms. That fact has been hidden; it has not yet been published. A cache of arms was brought into republican hands. What for? What will the Government do about it? If Sinn Fein wants to call itself completely democratic, it must declare that any terrorist uprising, irrespective of the proponents, must be crushed, and that the organisation must be stopped in its tracks and face the full rigour of the law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) acknowledged the difficulties for hon. Members of having to meet Sinn Fein, and the fact that no one was jumping up and down about it. As far as I am concerned, the idea of Sinn Fein in a Government is obnoxious. It makes me sick to the pit of my stomach. My thoughts are with the innocent victims, Protestant and Roman Catholic, throughout the community, who have been slaughtered by the IRA and so-called loyalist terrorist organisations. Neither has a place in a democratic society.

Many people will find it difficult to forgive those who brutally and callously murdered their loved ones. Last week, I believed that Martin McGuinness was a terrorist with blood on his hands. I believed that he had been a murderer. I have to tell the House that I believe that this week, because he is the same person. Irrespective of a person’s position, in a democratic society everyone is equal under the law, equally subject to the law and must, therefore, face justice. I do not believe that I have a right to ask for that for the republican community if I do not ask for the same for the Unionist community. If there is failure to meet justice under any political climate, those guilty will never evade the justice of Almighty God, who knows the murders that have been committed. Until the wrong is acknowledged, there cannot be healing.

I know what it is for my children to look over their shoulder every day and for my wife to look under her car every day. I have known what it is for many years to stand with my constituents and look into coffins nearly daily. Many of those coffins did not hold bodies, but only pieces of them when terrorists had finished with them. We cannot live in the past. We have to build a future—but a future that is just, honourable, democratic and has a solid sound foundation.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the day on which Sinn Fein Members may come to this House. There is nothing to stop those Members who are elected to this House from coming to it. That is their right and it has been their right for years: they have failed to represent their constituents in this House.

Are we looking at a new dawn? I earnestly hope that a new dawn in Northern Ireland will be proven to be true, for bitterness eats into the hearts of individuals. In fact, it hurts the individual that carries it more than those who just walk away untouched and unconcerned. I yearn for an honest genuine peace and a brighter future. Are we to be given the opportunity for it to happen? It will happen only when those responsible for crimes face justice and only when we build a solid foundation on democratic principles alone. I pray that Northern Ireland can enjoy that future.

First, I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. I was attending events in my constituency, but I wanted to take the opportunity to say a few words in this debate, representing a constituency that is home to a large number of Irish people from both the north and the Republic.

Last week, I attended an Irish pensioners event in my constituency and met people who had been driven to London by the poverty in Ireland. We briefly discussed the situation and they looked forward to today with some trepidation and concern, as they thought it might never happen. But it has actually happened and I would like to place on record my tribute to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team for their efforts towards achieving yesterday’s very important meeting. Previous Secretaries of State over the past 10 years should also be praised for doing so much over that time to bring about some kind of resolution to what was seen to be a wholly intractable problem.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) that many people who have suffered grievously must have very mixed feelings about today. I have met Colin Parry on a number of occasions and found him to be one the nicest human beings one could ever hope to meet: he suffered so much, but has tried to do so much to bring about peace. That is the sort of spirit that we want to see in operation from today onwards. All over Northern Ireland, there are people who have lost loved ones and seen the brutality and violence that can lead to the most horrible deaths. One hopes that this is the end of that particular chapter in the history of Ireland.

The history of Ireland has indeed been very bitter and bloody in the north and the south. If we look at the history of Ireland from the occupation onwards, we see the famine, the hunger, the Easter rising, the civil war and all that went with it. Then there is the history and process in Northern Ireland itself. One hopes that today sees at least an acknowledgement of the contribution that both communities have made to the history of Northern Ireland and will continue to make in future when the Assembly starts up.

One also has to recognise that all four of the main parties in the Assembly have made enormous jumps and changes—Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionists, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists. I have been a Member of the House since 1983 and like many other Members I have sat here and opposed many of the pieces of legislation to do with Northern Ireland: the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, the broadcasting ban, the travel ban and all sorts of legislation designed to support the idea that there could be a military solution in Northern Ireland, which suppression of speech could help to bring about. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) about that. Indeed, not so long ago, I voted with SDLP Members on the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill because I believed that it provided the possibility of continuing the Diplock courts system—a system that was wholly discredited. One hopes that normality will return and that Northern Ireland will get jury trials—just like I hope—the rest of the UK.

We should pay tribute to a number of people today. In particular, I want to pay tribute to Gerry Adams and John Hume, who both had the courage to go into secret talks and subsequent talks that brought about the Hume-Adams accord, which began to bring about the possibilities of the 1994 ceasefire. That was broken, as we know, and we then moved on to the 1997 ceasefire and subsequent developments. Then there was yesterday’s historic event when the Reverend Paisley, as we should call him—the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—sat down with Gerry Adams and finally announced that an agreement had been reached. I pay tribute to both of them for bringing that about. It is very difficult to lead a community that is set in a particular direction to recognise the values of other communities within Northern Ireland and lead the way towards a devolved assembly, which we hope will come into operation at the beginning of May.

Today’s legislation is, as everyone now acknowledges, a minor blip in an historic and very important road. Six weeks is absolutely nothing for the prize that lies at the end. I hope that, in passing this legislation tonight, we recognise the huge sacrifices that have been made by many people in all communities. The brutality and the awful pieces of legislation of the past are now behind us, I hope, as we move to a peaceful and democratic future in Ireland. People there deserve the opportunity to live in peace. We should remember those who have sacrificed so much for todayand recognise those who have made important contributions in civil society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon pointed out the contribution of the trade unions and, speaking as a former trade union official, I readily acknowledge how the unions were able to provide some kind of common meeting ground where normal working-class politics could operate because of the common interest in retaining levels of public spending, employment and all the rest of it. Huge steps have been made. Today is historic, important and welcome. We look forward to perpetual peace and democracy for all the people of all of Ireland.

I was interested in the Secretary of State’s comments in the early part of his speech, particularly when he mentioned some slogans—Northern Ireland is famous for its slogans written on walls—such as “Sinn Hain got the cane and Hain fell into an omelette”. Well, he did not mention that one, but I have seen it. They tell me that confession is good for the soul, and I can tell the Secretary of State—it is a pity that he is not here to listen, but I am sure his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office will pass the information on to him and it will be recorded in Hansard—that white emulsion was used for the slogan, and I assure him that at the end of the week, my colleagues and I will remove it. He may want to know who put it up, but my colleagues and I will remove it.

I do not think that anyone could seriously doubt that the scenes witnessed in Northern Ireland yesterday were of huge significance. Whether they will prove to be a good piece of history or another false dawn will be judged only by time.

I entered this House in 2005, and I confess to having been on a steep learning curve since then. I was present at negotiations at Leeds castle, St. Andrews and, sometimes, No. 10 Downing street. One thing that I have learned is that one cannot take anyone’s word, because one needs to see actions. At Leeds castle, a deal was close, but it did not happen—in many ways, I am thankful that it did not happen, because the Northern bank robbery took place afterwards. At St. Andrews, Sinn Fein-IRA promised that they would fulfil their commitments on policing and other issues, but they dragged their heels. They promised many things, so only time will tell whether Sinn Fein-IRA come up to the mark.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and other hon. Friends have mentioned victims. I am part of the victims group in my party, and I listen to and visit a lot of victims organisations. When I was on the road to the airport this morning, I listened to a radio programme in which comments were made by victims, including former RUC officers, the victims of republican paramilitaries and the victims of loyalist paramilitaries. It would take a very hard individual not to be emotionally moved by some of the stories on the radio this morning—I heard men, women and young people who were literally in tears. We cannot allow ourselves to be carried away with what has taken place and to forget about the people who have been left in that state. Those people were not only victims in the past, because they are still going through torture in the present, and different acts are still carried out by different organisations in different guises. It is important that we do not forget those people.

The only way devolution can work is if everyone sings from the same hymn sheet. Trust is a word that has been bandied about a lot over the years in Northern Ireland, and it is lacking in the Unionist community towards Sinn Fein. I suppose that the argument could be thrown back that it is lacking on their side of the community, too, and the only way in which we can move forward is if there is trust on both sides.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has mentioned that many DUP Members have suffered at the hands of terrorism. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim(Dr. McCrea) has mentioned his personal circumstances, and I, too, have suffered at the hands of terrorism, which affected four members of my family. Such matters are difficult. Yesterday, a reporter who knew the background rang me and asked, “How do you feel about this?” I gave him a glib answer, because I did not have time to talk to him. Afterwards, however, I thought about the question, and I felt a certain amount of anger and a certain amount of sadness and emptiness. Many of my hon. Friends would say exactly the same thing, and different emotions go through one’s mind as events unfold.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim that Martin McGuinness was a terrorist last week, and as far as I am concerned, he is a terrorist today—the bottom line is that it is only through the grace of God that he can repent of that. Whatever happens after 8 May, I hope and trust that we will have stable government in Northern Ireland and that we will see a future for our children’s children. Like many of my hon. Friends, I have teenage children who are growing up, and I want to see a future for them, but we must get it right. I think that we owe it to the next generation to get it right.

Yesterday has been described as a good day for Northern Ireland, and I believe that there are a number of reasons why it was a good day.

First, yesterday was possible only because we have had a complete change in the security situation in Northern Ireland. We moved away from a situation in which a party that claimed to be a political party openly engaged in terrorism. Although many people contributed to the process, it is important to note the resolve of the leader of our party, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), who made it clear that unless guns went and unless support and evidence were provided to the police, there would be no move towards including in government representatives of a party that still espoused terrorism. That resolve, along with world events and pushes by other political leaders including the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, led to the change in the climate that has made devolution possible.

Secondly, yesterday was a good day because we are moving away from unrepresentative government in Northern Ireland. How ever hard direct rule Ministers try, they do not represent people in Northern Ireland, because they do not stand for election in Northern Ireland and because they have other duties in their constituencies and in this House. Indeed, many of them represented two or three Departments.

However, the Minister did not get five salaries. Northern Ireland business was put through this House in an unacceptable way. I remember when the Secretary of State introduced legislation that would have changed the face of education in Northern Ireland. That legislation went through this House with one and a half hours’ debate and without any opportunity for further discussion. At the same time, a similar Bill, which had less far-reaching effects, was subject to two major debates in this House and to weeks in Committee. I do not believe that that is a good way to do business or to rule another part of the United Kingdom. Now we are moving towards a situation in which legislation can be considered properly and Northern Ireland business can be attended to properly, which is why yesterday was a good day.

As has been said, however, yesterday was not a good day for many people, because those people are still suffering and still remember what Sinn Fein did to Northern Ireland. Different people have reacted in different ways. Shortly after the election, I held an advice centre. A lady led her husband into the advice centre—she led him by the hand, almost like a child—to talk about incapacity benefit. The lady’s husband had been a policeman, and he was unable to put behind him the attacks on him and what he had witnessed, which had affected his mental capacity and everything else. After we dealt with the business, she said to me, “Sammy, make sure you go through and sort this thing out. I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way my husband has suffered.” The very same day, another lady came in who had lost a son who had been in the Ulster Defence Regiment. Of course, her attitude was completely different: “Have nothing to do with that bunch of murderers,” she said. Different people will have viewed yesterday in different ways.

I want to emphasise what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) said: in part, we are where we are today because of the dedicated efforts of the police, Army and security personnel who made sure that the terrorists would ultimately be defeated, and would not be able to run our country. Many of them paid a sacrifice, and we owe them a great debt.

Of course, other people are unhappy about yesterday, as was shown by the comments of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who only reflects the views of her party leader. Their unhappiness is more to do with a political disappointment. In the case of the hon. Member for North Down, perhaps her faith in the integrity of the Secretary of State had been challenged. Perhaps she really believed him when he said, “This is a deadline like no other. It is immovable. It is set in stone. It is set in statute.” In parts of Ireland we have moving statues, and we now have moving statutes as well. The hon. Member for North Down is weeping because the Secretary of State said, “Those who believe that they can push devolution back to May or October are making a catastrophic mistake, and if devolution is not up and running on 26 March, we will shut up shop.” Perhaps she would have preferred the shop to be shut, but it is still firmly opening, and the official opening will take place on 8 May. It will be open for business, and we intend to do the business on 8 May.

We were told that we could not sneak past the deadline; we never had any intention of doing so. We believed that the deadline had been arbitrarily set, and did not provide the necessary time for business to be done. We marched over it; we did not sneak past it. Perhaps the hon. Lady is unhappy about that, but that is not the view that should be taken. We now have the opportunity to do the business for people in Northern Ireland. It will not be an easy task.

As the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) mentioned, there are huge differences between Sinn Fein and our party, and there are differences between his party and our party. When he and I were first put on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, the same predictions were made that it would not last six months, and that it had to face the insurmountable problems presented by the Patten proposals, many of which the police and the Unionist community opposed. We worked our way around that. I could tell many stories about his role in taking on some of the Patten purists in his party, but I will not. During the four years that he and I were on the Policing Board, we disagreed and were unhappy about things, but we worked our way around them, and as a result policing in Northern Ireland was improved, despite the predictions. The same will apply to this Assembly, and we must address ourselves to the task.

We have many problems to deal with—the restructuring of our economy, the improvement of our education system, and the planning issues that gum up the workings of our economy. We must deal with them through a form of government that parties in this House would find impossible to work. I listened to the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister promise that they would never engage in Punch and Judy politics, but they still do so. We in Northern Ireland are being asked to overcome even greater differences than those between the two main parties in the House in order to work together. All parties are being asked to work together in a coalition.

Safeguards have been put into the system, at our insistence, which will make it more sustainable. We intend to make it work. The shop will be open on 8 May. Business will be done. Sometimes, there might be squabbles behind the counter, outside the shop and inside the shop. Ultimately, however, we can do the business for people in Northern Ireland, and that is why yesterday was a good day.

May I say what a constructive debate we have had? There is a rare and bold spirit of optimism in the House this afternoon.

All my life, Northern Ireland has meant pain and suffering. All my adult life, Northern Ireland has meant bombs, bullets, death and destruction. Those have been the images for people not just in Northern Ireland but throughout Great Britain and the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) gave us a stark reminder that that pain and suffering was not just confined to Northern Ireland but has spread throughout the United Kingdom and the world. Soldiers from my constituency have died serving their country in Northern Ireland. All my life, devolution has been a stop-start process, with Parliament buildings lying empty, Members elected to do jobs that they could not do, and Members of Parliament and Assembly Members not fulfilling their tasks.

In the Northern Ireland that I have come to know over the two years for which I have had the honour of having this post, those painful legacies still exist, and the difficult challenges of the past still reverberate. The experiences of those such as the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) are still living memories for people, every day of the week, and every week of the year. But the Northern Ireland that I have come to know is also one that yearns for peace, prosperity and a stable future for all its people. The generosity of spirit and outlook that I and my ministerial colleagues have experienced, and the wish for local politics to work, through the difficult decisions that we have had to take, have kept us in touch with the true aspirations of the people of Northern Ireland. The economic promise, friendship and tourism, and the cities of Londonderry and Belfast, which are on the move, are products of the peace brought by hard-won bargaining and stances on all sides, and by brave actions by brave politicians on all sides.

As right hon. and hon. Members have recognised throughout today, this has been a historic week for Northern Ireland. I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and, as Members have done, to the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), for working together to take on the challenges of the future, while not failing to recognise the difficulties of the past, or the fundamental differences in their political outlooks.

The right hon. Member for North Antrim referred to a star of hope. We now have that hope in Northern Ireland, but I and my right hon. and hon. Friends wish and believe that the Bill will see not just hope for future, but the beginning of a new dawn for the people of Northern Ireland, in which the past is not forgotten but individuals can work together for the good of all in Northern Ireland and for a strong future, and in which their traditions and loyalties, whether to the Crown or to a united Ireland, are recognised, but they work together, in peace and prosperity, for the people of Northern Ireland. At last, Northern Ireland will see local politicians from all sides exercise their mandates to represent fully the people who elected them into government on 7 March. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, all direct rule Ministers and I are acutely aware that we do not have electoral roots or community contacts in Northern Ireland. We have not been able to work as local politicians could in Northern Ireland.

The Minister will be aware that an awful lot of important legislation has been passed through statutory instruments in the House. Now that we have a clear agreement between the parties—so strong an agreement that the Government are prepared to move the immovable deadline—will he guarantee that no further such statutory instruments will be introduced?

I would very much like to give that guarantee, but I cannot for the simple reason that legislation might be required in the next few weeks, through the usual channels of this House. There will be matters in respect of which we will have to undertake legislation, but I shall give the following commitment. As my right hon. Friend Secretary of State said earlier, we, as direct rule Ministers, want to act in partnership with the Member for Belfast, West and the right hon. Member for North Antrim in looking at the programme for government over the next few weeks and months until 8 May. We want to work with them in order to have local democracy. We want to give them support and help, and we will do so.

Today is an historic day for the people of Northern Ireland. It brings together the right hon. Member for North Antrim and the Member for Belfast, West in moving towards a positive future for all the people of Northern Ireland. That will give them the opportunity to ensure that in future the children of Northern Ireland do not experience the pain and difficult times that have been experienced in the past. We will work with local politicians to make this a success, and—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Business of the House: Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No. 2) Bill motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].

Bill read a Second time.

Bill immediately considered in Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

The Chairman put forthwith the Questions necessary for the conclusion of proceedings in Committee, pursuant to Order [this day].

Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [this day], That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.