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Devolved Government

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 9 January 2008

The restoration of devolved government in May last year has given Northern Ireland what it wants: locally elected, accountable politicians taking decisions on the issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland.

As Northern Ireland’s institutions bed down, devolved government is starting to deliver a shared future of peace and partnership for nationalists and Unionists—a future of which a past generation, involved in that all too recent nightmare of sectarian violence, could only have dreamed. Is not the logical next step to encourage a political realignment and framework on the island of Ireland under which more parties are organised on a 32-county basis, thereby denying Sinn Fein fundamentalists the effective free rein that they too often enjoy?

My hon. Friend makes an important observation. Political parties and political organisation is a matter for people who live and work in Northern Ireland. However, as he remarked and I underline, it is an illustration of just how different life is today in Northern Ireland that the discussion now is about the future of democracy and political institutions, and a vibrant political culture it is, too.

We all welcome the progress that has been made in devolution in Northern Ireland in terms of stability moving forward, but does the Secretary of State accept that in both communities in Northern Ireland there is little appetite for the devolution of policing and justice powers? Does he accept that as far we are concerned, it is not on the agenda? Does he further accept that continuing to push against a door that is not only locked, but triple locked, is counter-productive?

There are many matters on which I would be delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but on the proposition that people in Northern Ireland are not looking forward to further devolution of policing and criminal justice, I beg to disagree. Opinion polling shows that more than 60 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland now want the Executive and the Assembly to make progress on the second stage of devolution. That is a matter on which Members have been elected to the Assembly in Northern Ireland and it is what people in Northern Ireland expect. It flows from the St. Andrews agreement, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to make progress on the matter as quickly as is sensible.

I join the Secretary of State in recognising how well institutions are working. That goes to show that when everyone is committed to allowing arrangements to work, they will work well. If we want to add to the effectiveness of the institutions of devolution, surely we need to add to the confidence by ensuring the devolution of justice and policing, not just to complete the devolution project and the policing change, but so that all parties can unite to defy and deny the dangerous lie coming from dissident republicans that the policing arrangements are about Crown forces and the British police force. Is not the best way of all parties uniting against the agenda of dissident republicans is to secure the devolution of justice and policing?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The best way of demonstrating that to every dissident in Northern Ireland is for politicians to reflect what people who live and work in Northern Ireland want, which is the second stage of devolution that of policing and criminal justice. In relation to the investment conference and attracting investment, there could be no greater show of the future stability of Northern Ireland than local politicians embracing the devolution of policing and criminal justice sooner rather than later.

I hate to be the one to break the cosy consensus, but does the Secretary of State accept that the operation of devolved government could be much more effective if the Executive were to take on board and to demonstrate the same commitment that his Government demonstrated towards working for a shared future? Although it is part of the ministerial oath of office, there is no reference to it even in the programme for government. The Executive could give an early indication of a small commitment to working towards a shared future if they would get on and appoint a victims’ commissioner.

The appointment of a victims’ commissioner is a matter for the Executive. I invite the hon. Gentleman to be part of the cosy consensus that we all so warmly enjoy. Huge progress is being made. It is sometimes best to judge these things not by words, but by actions. When the Executive unanimously agreed the draft programme for government, the investment strategy and budget, as they did in October 2007, we can see what progress has been made by politicians across the spectrum in Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the ways to make sure that the long-term settlement in Northern Ireland works is through the expansion of integrated education? At present, 95 per cent. of children do not meet people from other cultures. What can he do to encourage integrated education?

Academic selection is the issue that my hon. Friend touches on. It is entirely a matter for the devolved Administration. The Minister of Education has set out her vision for the education system. That is now a devolved matter, but I look forward to hearing more about the details of how she will take it forward.

I wish the Secretary of State a happy new year. I am sure that he is relieved to be in his place and that the predictions made by the new year blogs have so far proved incorrect. In his own new year message, the Secretary of State said that devolution would be effectively completed by the transfer of justice and policing in 2008. Further to his reply to the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds), does he think that that will happen this year?

Yes, I do, and I do because I see that this is something that the people of Northern Ireland want, and from which the people of Northern Ireland continue to draw every confidence. They see an Executive working effectively, being prepared to make difficult decisions and being able to embrace the clear vision and future for those areas that have been devolved. The appetite for devolution of policing and criminal justice is growing in Northern Ireland. Of course, it is based on confidence, but the embracing by Sinn Fein of policing and criminal justice and the steps that have been taken in the last few months are yet more signals of that. It is now up to local politicians to push the agenda forward and to adopt stage two.

But in the past six months, I have not met a single Unionist who either expects or wants that to happen in 2008. In the short time that the right hon. Gentleman has left, how does he propose to persuade the Unionist community that he is right and it is wrong?

I am sorry to disturb the cosy consensus in my turn, but I do not really think that it is a judgment of right and wrong. Most Northern Ireland politicians believe that it is right to move to stage 2; the issue is when. Therefore, this is not a matter of right and wrong; it is a matter of whether we should move within the St. Andrews timetable, which I believe that we should, and on which the Government will be ready to deliver. It is a matter for consensus to be achieved between the politicians and the Executive, but whenever they stand ready to ask for it, we will be ready to deliver devolution, and I believe that the confidence will be there to deliver that this year.