[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, Draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, HC 1003, and the Government Response, Cm 8621.]
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Patterns and lessons report on aspects of the past
‘(1) The Secretary of State may appoint a person or persons to prepare an analysis of findings, issues, patterns or lessons from various reports in particular events of Northern Ireland’s troubled past.
(2) The Secretary of State may exercise this power in consultation or conjunction with another statutory body.
(3) The reports from which an analysis or narrative might be drawn will include those by—
(a) a body established to investigate, review and report on matters in Northern Ireland’s burdened past in terms, and with standards, which comply with Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights;
(b) the Historical Enquiries Team;
(c) the Police Ombudsman;
(d) Public Inquiry;
(e) an independent panel; or
(f) other review mechanisms.
(4) If the Secretary of State appoints a person or persons to prepare a narrative analysis under this section, any existing provision prohibiting publication of the material to be analysed shall, subject to subsection (5) below, not apply for the purposes of this section.
(5) No personal information shall be included in the analysis as published without the permission of the person concerned or, if they are dead, of their relatives.—(Mark Durkan.)
This Clause would allow reports to be commissioned on aspects of Northern Ireland’s troubled past, drawing on findings in reports by given mechanisms which have investigated or considered particular cases or events. Those mechanisms could include any new body created with particular regard to Article 2 ECHR compliance.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss
New clause 3—Annual report an activity relating to Northern Ireland’s past—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall lay a report before Parliament in respect of each year as soon as possible after the end of the year to which it relates.
(2) The Secretary of State may appoint a person or persons to produce the report required under subsection (1).
(3) A report laid under subsection (1) shall contain in relation to the year to which it applies—
(a) a summary of the work of any body established to investigate, review or report on matters in Northern Ireland’s burdened past in terms and with standards which comply with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights;
(b) a summary of the work of the Historical Enquiries Team of the Northern Ireland Police;
(c) a summary of the work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland insofar as it relates to Northern Ireland’s past;
(d) a summary of the work of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victim’s remains;
(e) a summary of the work of other public bodies which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, relates to Northern Ireland’s past;
(f) a summary of findings of any inquiry, review or panel which has reported on particular events in Northern Ireland’s past;
(g) a summary of responses made by Her Majesty’s Government or any other Government or body to any of the work covered by the report; and
(h) a clear indication where the findings of any work summarised in the report contradict remarks recorded in the Official Report of the House of Commons or House of Lords, especially by a Minister of the Crown.
(4) After a report under subsection (1) has been laid before Parliament the Secretary of State shall provide a statement to Parliament which shall contain references to—
(a) independent legal assessment of the compliance of the work covered by the report with Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights;
(b) the progress made during the year in dealing with Northern Ireland’s past;
(c) any apologies that have been given by any Government or public body in relation to the work summarised in the report;
(d) any apologies that have been given by any Government or public body in the context of any other reports, revelations or admissions which relate to Northern Ireland’s past; and
(e) any other relevant issues or concerns as they relate to Northern Ireland’s past.
(5) Any existing provision prohibiting publication of the material to be summarised under subsection (2)(a) shall, subject to subsection (6) below, not apply for the purposes of this section.
(6) No personal information shall be included in the report as laid before Parliament without the permission of the person concerned or, if they are dead, of their relatives.’.
This Clause would allow for a new Article 2 compliant mechanism to investigate past events. This could replace the Historical Enquiries Team and Police Ombudsman’s respective roles on the past. It provides an annual report on all work on the past accompanied by a ministerial statement addressing certain matters.
New clauses 1 and 3 are tabled by me and my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie).
I should explain to the House that new clause 1 expands on an amendment I tabled in Committee— in the Public Bill Committee upstairs, rather than in Committee of the whole House. The point of the new clause is to afford the House an opportunity to consider whether some of the work undertaken on the past in Northern Ireland could be consolidated and could have its value advertised and added to by creating the capacity for the Secretary of State to commission a report or reports by a person or persons on various groups or classes of cases, on events in a particular locality or period, or on the activities of a particularly paramilitary group within a particular period of time.
We are suggesting that a class report, based on other reports and findings that have already been produced—whether by the Historical Enquiries Team, established inquiries or independent panels, or even by reviews that might be established in the future—would be necessary because at the minute we have a fairly inadequate arrangement whereby if the HET reports on a case the report is given to the family concerned and treated as though it is the property of the family. It is published only if the family chooses to publish it and only in the manner the family chooses.
When there have been issues with some of the HET’s work, not least when it has investigated what have been called “Army deaths”, that situation has meant that although the HET has done some good work over a number of years, which has been valuable to the families, many families have not felt that they could discharge the burden of publishing the work. Of course, other families have been able to publish that work or to turn to the assistance of others to have it published. In recent times, a powerful compilation examining different HET reports has been produced by the Pat Finucane Centre, resulting in a book called “Lethal Allies.” It draws on the HET reports on a number of cases, on Ministry of Defence files and on other papers in the national archive to set out more of the circumstances behind a certain group of murders—the up to 120 murders conducted by the Glenanne gang. That powerful book has been able to draw on HET reports simply because those families gave the reports to the Pat Finucane Centre and entrusted it with that work. That points towards a wider gap in the provisions on the past, not least those that the Secretary of State would preside over in the public interest and in the name of the wider political process.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have enormous regard, in full flow, but is he speaking on behalf of a small group of families whose loved ones’ murder the HET has investigated, or is he speaking on behalf of the majority of those families, they having asked him to make this change?
In no way could I claim to be speaking for a majority of all the families whose cases have been investigated by the HET, but I have met many of the families, and I appreciate the very different experiences that they report to me. Some families are unhappy about how the HET investigated their case, and what it was able, or not able, to find; other people were particularly satisfied, and have taken consolation and a sense of closure from what the HET has been able to do for them. The point is that many families feel that there may be an unequal process in relation to the past, and they are coming at that from different points of view and experiences. The new clause tries to ensure that our approach to the past, not least in terms of the HET, is more holistic.
The Historical Enquiries Team has been seriously compromised by a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that found that the HET’s conduct of investigations of what are called “Army deaths” was so unequal and off-standard as to be illegal. That has put a serious question mark over the future of the HET’s discharging of its investigative role. Many of us believe that there is a need to replace the HET with a new body that is clearly compliant with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, and that if such a new body were created, the role relating to historical investigations that attaches to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland could devolve to that new body; we see the possibility of that article 2 compliant body taking over both the HET’s role in investigating the past, and the police ombudsman’s role in investigating complaints about past police conduct. Whether or not that new body is created, there needs to be an ability to draw on the good work already done by the HET in a lot of cases—work that currently is not celebrated, or shared in a meaningful way with the wider public.
Will the hon. Gentleman indicate to the House whether the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggott, has in recent weeks made it evident that he has any intention of replacing the HET and has lost confidence in it? That certainly was not the information that he gave to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs two or three weeks ago.
I am not speaking for the Chief Constable; I am speaking to the new clause. I have said that many of us believe that the HET has been seriously injured, and that the viability of it serving its purpose in future, and its reliability, have been fundamentally wounded. I know that many people on the Northern Ireland Policing Board have that view as well. As to whether the Chief Constable has come to that view, we will have to see. The new clause does not legislate for a new body; it simply allows us to ensure that if a new body were created, that would not negate good work already done by the HET, and good work done, and sound reports produced, by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
The new clause would ensure that reports can be commissioned not just on individual cases and events, but on evident lessons or patterns in findings relating to different cases and events. Anne Cadwallader, on behalf of the Pat Finucane Centre, has been able to bring out glaring and compelling points relating to the Glenanne gang and its work: the connections between many different killings; the repeated use of various weapons; the likely involvement of some people; and issues of collusion and complicity in all that. That approach should be available for other cases, too. It is not just about being able to tell that narrative about the activities of loyalist paramilitaries; there are compelling narratives that need to be told about the activities of republican paramilitaries as well.
The new clause has been tabled while talks are under way with Haass and so on, and there is a process that deals with issues from the past. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the new clause puts the cart before the horse, or does he think that it complies with that general process?
I believe that it is entirely compatible with the Haass process. I have no wish to pre-empt—and I would not ask the House to vote to pre-empt—what may or may not come of the Haass process. However, the House has responsibility in relation to the past, as it was the main chamber of accountability for many years in relation to Northern Ireland’s troubled past. It is not enough for us to say that we do not want to address the past as we consider the Bill because the Haass process will do that. It is right and proper for parties in Westminster and the Chamber to reflect on some aspects of the past.
The new clause tries to say, first, that it is not the case that nothing has been done in relation to the past. However, it is clear that not enough has been done, and that not enough has been done with some of the good work that has already been done on the past, not least some of the good work by the HET. Although I accept many of the criticisms of the HET, I cannot ignore the fact that I have heard directly from families who have been helped by what the HET has been able to do in their case. I believe, however, that the wider process and the wider community could be helped if we drew together some of the lessons and compelling findings that the HET has been able to share with families. Not all of those findings have been shared with the wider public, and not all of them have been shared equally.
Before the hon. Gentleman responded to the intervention from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), he was speaking about the need for a complete record that involved a spotlight not just on one set of paramilitaries but on all of them. How will his proposal ensure that an analysis or narrative drawing on the various reports that have been cited gives a complete picture of the many hundreds of deaths in which the Provisional IRA and other paramilitary groups were involved? How will we get the right proportion in the overall picture, and a proper investigation or analysis of the role, for instance, of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein’s current leaders in the disappearance of Jean McConville and others? How is all that included on the basis of the list of reports that he cited?
First, the new clause does not seek to introduce an omnibus report in relation to all the events of Northern Ireland’s burdened past. It is not one received version that looks at all the tragedies and atrocities in Northern Ireland’s troubled history. The new clause would create the ability or capacity for the Secretary of State to commission reports on different classes, groups or possible groups of crimes. Just as many people have found the book, “Lethal Allies”, a compelling drawing together of a number of different reports, plus other evidence relating to the work of a network of loyalist activity over a period of six years, so there could well be room to say that we need a report that draws together HET and any other findings on the work of the IRA in a given area or over a given period, or of the Irish National Liberation Army, or of loyalist paramilitaries in other areas, so that people who were victims know that their experiences were not isolated cases in which they were victimised and bereaved but were part of a network or pattern at a particular time. That narrative should be brought out and should be available to people.
Is there not a confusion in what the hon. Gentleman has presented to the House? On the one hand, he tells us that there is a report about the HET and its fairness and ability to investigate collusion and so on which puts a question mark over it. On the other hand, he brings out the virtues of the HET, which somehow aids a “powerful” book, so-called, whenever it comes to security force collusion.
The HET has done some good work, but it has also done some work of very questionable quality. No less an authority than Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has found the HET’s work wanting in relation to the investigation of Army deaths, how they were investigated and how witnesses and potential witnesses were treated in that situation. It was a damning indictment by HMIC that the HET’s standard of performance in relation to a certain class of cases was illegal. That is not my finding, but accepting and recognising it and its seriousness does not lead me to rubbish cases in which the HET has done some good work and been able to marshal firm evidence that was of significance to families—evidence that was not shared with those families by anybody except the HET before now.
First of all, I am not creating a class of good HET reports or bad HET reports. I am not saying that the Secretary of State must commission reports in relation to every single death on the basis of HET reports. My aim is to make good a deficiency in the work of the HET to date: its work counts solely as the private property of families, unless the families themselves choose to publish it. There is no formality in this House, for instance, whereby the Government may make an apology to a family on the back of an HET report. The Government up till now have treated that apology as a private matter, not a matter for the parliamentary record. An apology was duly given by the Ministry of Defence after a family had shared with it an HET report, but we had to go to the bother of an Adjournment debate, which I called, to get that apology voiced on the record. That shows that there is a problem in how HET reports are treated.
This is not just a point that we in the SDLP have come up with. Others have addressed it as well. There are victims groups who say that this is one of the deficiencies in relation to the HET. There is a question mark not only over the quality of the HET’s work, but over what the rest of us are doing with the HET’s work and whether the rest of us are interested in it. In the Haass talks the parties are meant to be addressing what is to be done about the past and what is being done, and it is important to acknowledge that some good work that has been done may not have been valued enough and is not well enough advertised or circulated. The measure is an attempt to improve that.
When we talk about a level playing field with other parties, and all parties being included in the collusion issue, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a further investigation into the Garda Siochana and the allegations made about collusion there? We talk about apologies. Is it not time that we got a proper apology from the Irish Government and their part in the troubles many years ago?
I have no resistance to any inquiries about any allegations of collusion that there might be against Garda Siochana or anybody else. In relation to the point that is often made by the DUP about the possible involvement of members of the Irish Government in arming the Provisional IRA initially, I have no problem with an investigation of that or anything else. I point out that members of the Irish Government were sacked at the time and former Ministers stood trial alongside others, so it is not as though the issue passed without moment at the time.
The Berry papers brought those issues out again, in much the same way as the Pat Finucane Centre was able to find in the national archives in Kew many documents that provide a strong back-light on the murderous machinations of the Glenanne gang. In Irish Government records, including the Berry papers, which were perused by significant elements of the media some years ago, there is also significant back-lighting of what happened in and around the arms trial.
I want to return to the point of new clause 1. It is not to prescribe that there shall be one sweeping narrative in relation to all issues in the past, or to refuse any, but to say that where there have been various investigations or reports, whether by a public inquiry, the HET, the police ombudsman, or any other investigative means—the Ballymurphy families, for example, are talking about having something like the Hillsborough independent panel look at their case—if there were common strands to be brought out in relation to different cases, the Secretary of State could commission a report that would do that.
I understand the merit in the proposal, but is the HET, for example, the right basis for the kind of reports that the hon. Gentleman seeks? The purpose of the investigation, for example of the HET, is to look at the matter with a view to the prosecution of those guilty of offences. The understanding and the narrative that forms the backdrop to those events are not necessarily the job of the HET, but are a more complex mix. I want to probe whether the hon. Gentleman believes that those are the right bases for this kind of narrative-building report.
I believe that they potentially are. If one has been privileged to have a HET report shared with one by a family, one has only to read it to see that it may be pointing less towards any possible prosecution, than bringing out significant information about the background events and circumstances. The first time that many families found out that their loved ones were murdered by the same weapons was when they read the HET reports that dealt with murders by the Glenanne gang. No one ever told them that before. They were never told that as a result of RUC investigations or any other revelations, or comments or observations made by Ministers about the nature or network of crimes or murders. None of that information was ever shared with those families until they received it from the HET, and until the Pat Finucane Centre literally brought them together as victims of the same weapons.
I seek clarification on the issue of the HET inquires. As an elected representative during the last couple of years I have made four, perhaps five, referrals on behalf of individuals to the HET. The HET has replied, but they are confidential, private, individual issues. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that they should be made known to everyone, even though the families themselves want them kept secret?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to subsection (5):
“No personal information shall be included in the analysis as published without the permission of the person concerned or, if they are dead, of their relatives.”
One of the issues at the moment with the HET—too much of this debate is focusing purely on the HET—is that it is limited in that it cannot make its reports public. Many of us assumed that that was a statutory restriction on the HET, but it turns out that it is not. The clause allows germane facts that can point to the wider pattern and help to fill in the wider narrative in relation to forces, whether paramilitary or anybody else, who carried out murders and series of crimes. Where that wider narrative is brought out it would not be at the expense of publishing any information that is in the HET report that has previously been regarded as private, for whatever reason of sensitivity. But the wider narrative lesson should be able to be drawn out by a wider report.
Again, I make the point that there has been a significant response to the book “Lethal Allies”, including in Armagh and Tyrone. The Glenanne gang carried out its nefarious sectarian murder campaign against innocent Catholics. Remember that only one of the 120 whom it killed had any link whatever with the provisional republican movement. The people it killed were members of my party, the SDLP, people who were in the Gaelic Athletic Association, people who had bought property who were setting up in business. That is why they were targeted. Those who were specifically targeted and shot in their workplace or in their homes, as opposed to those who were more randomly killed by bombs, were all people of the ilk that I have described.
It was not only those forces that were involved in a sectarian campaign in Tyrone and Armagh and other places; so too, I believe, were the IRA and many others. That is the belief of many of the IRA’s victims in those places in those years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because we are moving into a very sensitive area. There seems to be a hierarchy of victims. Will he tell me why Robert McLernon, at 16 years of age, and Rachel McLernon, at 21 years of age, on the day she was engaged to be married, were targeted by the IRA? Should we not know that? Who is going to tell us that?
I absolutely believe that, in so far as anybody can tell us, we should know that. If there is ever an HET report that could tell us that, we should be told, rather than someone saying, “Oh no, it’s an HET report, so it’s the private property of the family.” The onus should not be entirely upon the family to make good that report.
The HET produced a very significant report on the Kingsmill massacre, but I do not believe that it received as much attention as it deserved. Its import was not fully registered in this House, or indeed in other places, and I believe that it should have been. Of course, the Kingsmill massacre is not the only evidence that discounts the cosy claim that has been made in the past for the IRA, and is still made to date, even on behalf of Sinn Fein, that there was nothing sectarian about the IRA campaign and that only loyalist paramilitaries carried out campaigns with an eye to a sectarian agenda. That is quite clear from a number of events, and not only those carried out by the IRA, but arguably those carried out by other republican paramilitaries at the time, when it was or was not the IRA, or when another flag of convenience was being flown, for example in the Darkley massacre.
I do not believe that it is only in relation to the murders of the Glenanne gang that we could benefit from a clear account based on sound findings from other inquiries. Remember that the power that new clause 1 would give the Secretary of State is to commission a report that draws on the findings of other bodies, not to set up a new investigative mechanism or some new roving or roaming inquiry into everything and anything. It would take the value and significance of what has already been found by other competent inquiries and investigations, so it would take what is already there in reports and marshal it together to draw value, and not just for the victims, but for wider society. I hope that idea will commend itself to the parties as they consider these and other issues in the Haass talks.
Apart from the reports of the HET, which we have spent a lot of time on, the hon. Gentleman has mentioned reports from other bodies, such as the police ombudsman and public inquiries. Subsection (3)(f) of new clause 1 refers to “other review mechanisms.” Will he explain what that phrase means?
That is to do with the fact that we cannot pre-empt what other review mechanisms might come out of the Haass talks. Other review mechanisms could cover a variant of something like the de Silva report, in which people basically examine what is on the record in various archives. Of course, those archives need not be just in the UK, because, as we heard earlier in relation to the southern Irish dimension, there could be significant records in the south. There are also different forms and models of inquiries available in the south. Some of those inquiries that have looked at some of these issues might have relevant findings that could be drawn into a wider report that the Secretary of State might commission others to do.
We have left it very open as to who might be commissioned to do those reports. The Secretary of State will not necessarily appoint civil servants. The Secretary of State might appoint other competent and credible people, be they academics or those from other groups, or indeed groups who have worked with victims and would be very trusted to draw together the narrative from certain reports in ways that would be seen to bring out the salient truth, and not only for the victims, but for the wider community and future generations.
New clause 3 provides for the idea that in future the Secretary of State could present an annual report to Parliament that summarises all the ongoing work by various bodies in relation to the complaints about the past during that year, whether those bodies are the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the HET, if we still have it, or the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains. It also relates to whether, as I believe, there should be a new article 2-compliant mechanism to investigate the past. Other bodies may undertake work that touches on facts of the past. Of course, those bodies could be outside the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland.
In the new clause, the hon. Gentleman refers to the Historical Enquiries Team, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and various other inquiries and inquests. Will he kindly take this opportunity to put on the record his genuine appreciation of all the retired police officers, members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and members of the armed services who, time beyond number, have willingly and freely given up their time to co-operate with the police ombudsman, the HET and various other inquiries and inquests?
I have no problem acknowledging where there has been very good and sound co-operation with the HET and with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. However, both have put it on record that they have not universally found such co-operation on the part of every single person they have sought to interview.
I further note that the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association recently issued its own qualifications in relation to its future co-operation with the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, regarding the latter’s report on a murder that happened in my constituency in the late 1980s. I question the terms in which the retired police officers have voiced their position. Indeed, the statement the association has issued adds to the questions about that event and the background to that murder. Two innocent civilians were allowed to die when, after 10 o’clock mass, they went to inquire after a neighbour they had not seen for some time, so there were questions about whether he was at his flat. When they did so, purely out of their good nature, they became the victims of a booby-trap bomb that was in the block of flats, having been planted by the IRA, who are absolutely the culprits in this—let nobody else say anything different. It is clear from the police ombudsman’s report that the police—the security forces—were aware that the bomb was there. They made sure they did not go near it, but it was left and civilians died. I regret that the retired police officers have chosen this particular report on which to voice a strangely couched position in relation to the police ombudsman.
Here and now is not the place or the time to open a debate on the particular event that the hon. Gentleman refers to, although he has gone into a bit of detail on it. I merely point out that the retired police officers would say that one side of the story is told but theirs is not always told in the same depth or to the same extent in the circumstances of the time. Does he agree that retired police officers who served in the RUC are in a uniquely invidious position, because unlike others they do not have all the legal back-up and wherewithal to support them, and many of them are getting on in age, yet an onerous task has been put on them with all these inquiries and so on? These issues need to be recognised.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point that gives rise to questions about what other support should be available as a way of assuring people when they are co-operating with inquiries. Perhaps that would also encourage more people to co-operate in future, given that we have experience of times past when some did not, and we now have a signal that fewer would in future.
New clause 3 provides for whatever work goes on in the future in relation to the past; it is not prescribing what work should go on. It states that, whatever different channels are used to review and report on the past, it would be right and proper for this House, year on year, to receive an annual report that reflects the work that has gone on and for that report to be accompanied by a statement by the Secretary of State that refers to whether there is independent legal advice to show that all that work is compliant with article 2 of the European convention on human rights and addresses other salient matters.
No, there would be no free-for-all for lawyers in my proposal, because it would not add any new form of investigation relating to the past. The new clause basically says that whatever different strands are dealing with complaints about the past, whether it be the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains, the HET or any successor body, the police ombudsman, or any other inquiries or panels—and whatever their work is—this House would receive an annual report showing what had been done in that year. It would also address article 2 compliance, because that is a serious issue that has arisen in relation to the HET, and other matters.
One issue the annual report could address is whether the reports of that year show new findings and put new light on events that were previously the subject of very different accounts in Parliament. We know that Ministers reported very differently to Parliament about a lot of these events, compared with the evidence now available from HET reports and Government papers that have emerged from the archives, thanks to the work of the Pat Finucane Centre and others. The annual report, with the statement from the Secretary of State, could be a parliamentary point of record for any apologies that have been issued by anybody in Government, and not only the British Government. Any apology by any public body or any Government in respect of findings or reports would be recorded, rather than being left as though it is just a matter of private correspondence between a victim’s family and a Government Department, which is the Government’s current position. The Government say that if they issue an apology on the back of something in an HET report or anything else, they do not see it as being up to them to record it or to acknowledge it in Parliament in any way. If the Government are iffy about doing that in every single instance, an annual report that reflected on work on the past and responses to it would provide a way for them to do it.
It would be very important for this House, as its encouragement to the parties in the Haass talks, to say, “Yes, we know that on the issue of the past there is a huge responsibility on the parties to come to an agreement and an understanding on how better to deal with it. More honestly addressing the serious events of Northern Ireland’s past is not the job of the Northern Ireland parties alone; there is a serious and particular role for the British Government and for this House, which held Northern Ireland under direct rule for so many years and heard so many accounts and versions of events that may now have to be addressed differently in the light of what reports find.”
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that what he is proposing smacks entirely of a one-sided report, account and interpretation of the past? The vast majority of murders throughout the 30 years of mayhem in Northern Ireland were committed by the IRA. Who, exactly, is going to stand in this House and apologise for the murder by the IRA of innocent victims in their hundreds?
Unfortunately, I do not know who will do that. If families have received apologies from the British Government or the Ministry of Defence, there is no reason why they should not be recorded in this House. Remember, many people lost loved ones and saw those deaths misreported and mis-accounted for in this House and in other places, and that is one reason why we need to reflect that. If apologies have been given in response to any reports on or inquiries into the past—whether the HET, the ombudsman or any of the other channels provided for on a non-pre-emptive basis in the new clause—there is no reason why they should not be properly recorded.
That would add to the indictment of the IRA, which has either not apologised or has offered mealy-mouthed, generic apologies. Those who speak to those apologies on behalf of the IRA still try to have the rest of us receive them under the pretence that the IRA campaign was somehow a clean campaign compared with the loyalist death squads, or under the pretence that the IRA only targeted people in uniform in the heat of battle or direct confrontation. The IRA killed many people by murdering them down lonely lanes, by shooting them in the back, by shooting them as they came out of their workplace and by shooting them as they came from their place of worship. It would then say that there was nothing sectarian in its campaign. Apparently, the loyalist campaign and collusion by members of the security forces was sectarian, but the IRA campaign was meant to be clean and sectarian-free. We know, and not just from IRA victims, that that is simply not so, and we need to have that spelled out in wider narrative accounts. New clause 3 aims to ensure that that can happen, and that we are not denied the means to draw together that wider narrative based on other reports that might emerge in relation to investigations of particular cases or events.
No. The new clause is aimed precisely at preventing that. In the absence of anything wider, people are getting away with their own gable wall histories. They are getting away with their own pretences about the nefarious character of violence during the troubles being attached to one side and not the other. Equally, we still sometimes get the nonsense from some spokes- persons within sections of Unionism that the loyalist campaign existed only as a response to republican violence, and that it needs to be understood in that context. As far as I am concerned, all the violence was wrong. None of it could be justified, and none of it could be justified by the violence or excesses of anybody else. What the IRA did, did not justify what the loyalists did. What the loyalists or security forces did, did not justify what the IRA did either.
It is important that we are able to bring those sorts of narratives out. If reports are available from the various mechanisms to deal with the past, they should be sourced and reported on in the way I talked about—on a class basis, which can straddle a number of years and localities, as under new clause 1—or through future annual reports to this House. Such reports would provide an assurance that the past is being dealt with by due standards and is receiving a due response from those in Government and in other public bodies who should be responding to it. I make no pretence to claim that either of the new clauses would directly burden paramilitary organisations with compliance with giving evidence or the truth. However, the new clauses would be a lot better at addressing the truth and being open to all dimensions of Northern Ireland’s difficult past than some other partial proposals.
I remind hon. Members that back in 2005, this House saw what was probably the worst piece of proposed legislation: the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. It attempted to set up an entirely secret tribunal whereby people could go in, unbeknownst to the relevant victims, and claim complete indemnity and immunity from anything in the past. Not only would the issuing of certificates have been secret; the then Government proposed a clause through which an added seal of secrecy could have been imposed by the Secretary of State. The only person who could have gone to prison in connection with any crime committed in the past would have been a relative or a reporter who reported or alleged that somebody had benefited from a certificate relating to their particular victimisation. Potentially, only the victims, or people who were reporting in sympathy with the victims, could have ended up in jail—not anybody else.
I do not pretend that the two new clauses are perfect, and nor are they complete. I do not want to pre-empt what might come out of the Haass process, but they are offered as honest contributions, recognising that more could be done with what is already being done in relation to the past. Whatever happens with Haass, this House has a continuing responsibility to address the past and to acknowledge its responsibilities during that past.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). New clause 1 is new in the sense that it is a proposal that has come before us at relatively late notice. I am not being unkind to the hon. Gentleman—he tabled the new clauses properly in the context of the Bill—but this proposal has not received much consultation or discussion, or indeed any elucidation heretofore in any forum of which I am aware. It is certainly worthy of consideration and debate, but I am not sure whether we want to take it on board and include it in the Bill today.
I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that in Committee I proposed a shorter version of new clause 1 that focused entirely on the HET. By sheer coincidence, it rhymed with a significant article in the Belfast Telegraph that week, which pointed out that nothing joins up the work of the HET in individual cases and that something needed to do so.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining that, and I understand that. It is indicative that this came to him only relatively recently and prompted him to table the new clause. There are a lot of ideas out there, many conflicting, in relation to the past. There are many good ideas coming from many different sources, which is one reason the Haass process is important—he will be taking all of them on board. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will put forward this idea as part of that process. It would be somewhat at odds with the Haass process if we were to pass new clause 1 and new clause 3, because it would seem that the House was legislating in advance of any agreement or full-scale negotiations. It is another contribution and the proper way forward might be to feed it into the Haass process and to seek other people’s views on it. I am not sure whether it is right to push it in the House today.
I will deal with the point about partiality and a holistic approach in a moment, but I want to make some points about new clause 1, having had a reasonably cursory look at the details and having listened to the hon. Member for Foyle.
On the proposal for the Secretary of State to
“appoint a person or persons to prepare an analysis of findings, issues, patterns or lessons”,
it seems to me that one man’s analysis is another man’s prejudiced point of view that comes with political baggage. I can see all sorts of difficulties in finding someone or some people who would be acceptable right across the board, whom everybody would say was fair, and whom people would trust enough to permit them to do the analysis and be broadly content with whatever they came up with. I think that is a recipe for further contention and arguments about the past. Even very detailed judicial and other investigations over many years, costing lots of money, have not drawn a line under anything for the relatives, and certainly have not done so for the public. One wonders how far the proposal would take us and what its purpose is, because it might provoke more hurt on behalf of others, or more contention, strife and difficulties.
My other point, which has just been mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), is about the problem of partiality. I asked the hon. Member for Foyle about the list of reports from which an analysis or a narrative might be drawn, and he kindly said that the “other new mechanisms” under subsection (3)(f) of new clause 1 might include what comes out of Haass, a de Silva-type review of archives or investigations in other jurisdictions. However, if those are added to reports from the other bodies mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (e), we would have a list of official investigations that will inevitably and invariably result—this is one problem of current investigations into the past—in a preponderance of evidence coming out, issues arising or events being investigated that involve members of the security forces. That is because members of the security forces and the authorities keep records, which are the means through which such matters can be investigated.
In that list of reports, I fail to see any real analysis or narrative that would include any great in-depth investigation of any paramilitary murders, whether loyalist or republican. That is just the reality of all reports that we have seen up to now. It is one reason we hear reasonable people on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland say time and again, and I have a lot of sympathy with the view: “All this concentration on the past is one-sided and is designed to rewrite history, because all we see is a massive concentration on the 10% of deaths”—every death is regrettable, so I make no issue about the sorrow of the relatives of those killed—“in which members of the security forces were involved.”
That fact has to be remembered. I want to put on the record the fact that 3,530 deaths are attributable to the troubles, euphemistically called, that Northern Ireland went through. Even to state that figure brings home to us the terrible tragedy and devastation inflicted on Northern Ireland over the years: more than 3,500 deaths, with many hundreds of deaths in some years. Some 297 of those deaths involved the Army and low hundreds involved members of the police, but more than 1,700 were the responsibility of the Provisional IRA. We do not, however, see a proportional concentration by the press and the media or by investigations and anything else into that category of deaths. There were also 500, 600 or 700 deaths at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries, which is equally abhorrent and wrong. The vast majority of deaths in Northern Ireland were the responsibility of illegal paramilitary organisations. Where is the balance in the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, and where will the concentration be that can lead to closure for people who have suffered from the deaths that occurred at the hands of the Provisional IRA and others?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Castlederg was very much in the news this summer. We all need to be very sensitive in dealing with the past, but a party whose Members do not take their seats in this House, Sinn Fein, organised a celebratory parade through Castlederg, at which the speaker was Gerry Kelly, a leading Sinn Fein Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. That was seen as deeply hurtful by relatives who lost loved ones in Castlederg.
Yet we are lectured about the need to move forward. We do need to move forward in Northern Ireland, but everybody needs to move forward. Republicans and Sinn Fein—and, indeed, loyalists—cannot have it both ways: they cannot say that they are willing to move forward, but then eulogise the terrorist activities in which they engaged in the past. They cannot make a false distinction between the sordid activities of so-called dissidents today, which they say are intolerable and unacceptable, and exactly the same behaviour 30, 20 or 10 years ago, which they say was perfectly acceptable because it was by the Provisional IRA. It was all unacceptable and totally needless: it was all about inflicting pain and suffering on innocent people.
I understand what the hon. Member for Foyle is seeking to do through new clause 3, but I have concerns about the overall impression left by laying reports before Parliament. Paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (4) mention
“apologies that have been given by any Government or public body”.
The only reference to apologies is therefore in relation to Governments or public bodies. I understand what the hon. Gentleman has said, but that points up the difficulty here, because the clear impression that would go out is that nobody is laying reports of apologies for the 1,700 deaths by the Provisional IRA and the hundreds by loyalist paramilitaries. They would not get the same kind of attention or concentration. That issue is very live and raw in Northern Ireland today, and it needs to be addressed.
The proposals therefore have some merits in some respects, but they are flawed for the reasons that I have set out. They should be fed into the Haass process, but the House should not take them forward tonight.
I rise to make a short contribution in support of the new clauses tabled by me and my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell).
We want to bring some clarity to the issue of victims and the past. There are various issues that relate to the troubles, as they are euphemistically called, which took place over 30-odd years in Northern Ireland and during which many people right across the community lost their lives. The SDLP wants to underscore the fact that murder was wrong and that those who perpetrated it were wrong to do so and were culpable in doing so. There are issues with the past that relate to victims, flags and emblems. All those matters are rightly being addressed by Richard Haass in the current talks process, which is due to be completed by the end of December. We look forward to those findings.
It is opportune that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle has tabled the new clauses and particularly new clause 1, which relates to patterns and lessons from reports on aspects of the past. One of the critical cases happened in my constituency. I do not highlight it because six men were murdered by loyalists, but simply to illustrate a point. A police inquiry was carried out by the RUC in which the families were not really involved. They were never really asked for their opinions or asked about what happened on that night. They were always searching for the truth. There was a police ombudsman’s report into the police investigation. Both were found wanting. The police ombudsman’s report was contested because it suggested that what happened was tantamount to collusion, but it did not say that.
That report required there to be a further police investigation, which is still ongoing. The police are fact checking what they have put in their voluminous report. The senior police officers who have undertaken the investigation have told me that forensics show that some of the weapons that were used on the night of 18 June 1994 were used in other incidents in which people were killed at around the same time, which was a couple of months before both ceasefires were announced. They cannot provide their comprehensive report into Loughinisland because it relates directly to other deaths, murders, bombings and incidents.
The hon. Lady touches on a point that I had intended to raise with the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). At the end of an Historical Enquiries Team review of a case, it is not necessarily a closed case, but could still be an open case in which new information could lead to prosecution. Is there a risk that publishing detailed reports that imply patterns could prejudice the outcome of future prosecutions? Would that not have to be carefully managed?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I do not necessarily disagree with her, but I will proceed with the point I am making.
Senior police officers have highlighted the fact that various weapons that were used in the Loughinisland incident were probably used in other incidents. That has precipitated further analysis and fact checking to establish who or what group may have perpetrated that dastardly crime. I am sure that there are patterns of activity in other incidents throughout the 35 years.
The RUC did not discuss the case adequately and left all six families, some of whom are directly related to me, feeling very unfulfilled. I think that that would be the best way of describing it. If the matter had been adequately addressed at the time and prosecutions had been forthcoming, we might not be in the place we are in now.
To return to new clause 1, there is a clear need for the Secretary of State to
“appoint a person or persons to prepare an analysis of findings, issues, patterns or lessons”.
In the case that I am describing, the police have said that there are patterns and lessons. The best way to deal with such matters is for somebody to document them. I believe that that is true right across the board and right across the community. I am sure that there are many similar incidents.
Given that the Minister was formerly at the Ministry of Defence, perhaps he could provide some elucidation on the Ministry of Defence files that have been held in Derbyshire and which the Historical Enquiries Team alleges it was not aware of until June or July of this year. The contents of those files could have been helpful in bringing prosecutions and in providing elucidation.
I am afraid that I have no knowledge of that and that I now have no responsibility for it either.
I thank the Minister for his helpful intervention. I have received some parliamentary answers on this issue, so it is on the record. However, I am still not satisfied because I know that those files are available. I simply want to know why they were not pursued, given that they might have been helpful in bringing prosecutions. Perhaps he could pursue that with Ministers in the MOD.
In summary, the new clause is eminently sensible at this time. It could inform the debate.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady will take this opportunity to address a valid point that was made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). How do she and her colleagues propose that the Secretary of State would appoint the person or persons who would prepare such an analysis? What criteria would be used? Would it be done by a man or a woman? Would the person be an international figure? Who do she and her colleagues have in mind?
We would be happy to provide some information on that. It could be an individual, a range of individuals or a range of bodies.
Suffice it to say that we believe that this device is required in order to inform because patterns have emerged in various cases, such as in the weapons that were used, that suggest who might have been involved in carrying out murders. It is good to learn those lessons and to have them documented. The compendium of work by Anne Cadwallader, which was published several weeks ago, suggests that such a device is urgently required.
I have listened with interest to the speeches that have been made. New clause 1, which was proposed by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), states:
“The Secretary of State may appoint a person or persons to prepare an analysis of findings, issues, patterns or lessons from various reports in particular events of Northern Ireland’s troubled past.”
Let us be honest in saying that the past is a difficult subject. It is rightly called “Northern Ireland’s troubled past”.
If we are to ask someone
“to prepare an analysis of findings, issues, patterns or lessons from various reports”,
these reports must already have been issued, but the HET reports concern only a small number of those who suffered. Why, then, should we ask someone to collate those reports and not take into account all the families? The murder of any individual is very personal and the pain very real, and the death of any loved one is as important as any on whom a report has been issued. I genuinely believe, therefore, that a collation of these reports would be skewed, given that only a small percentage of cases have been reported on.
We and many families are searching for the truth, but how will we ever get it? It seems only to come from one side. We have the records of the Army and others, but what about the vast majority of murders committed in Northern Ireland by members of paramilitary organisations on which there are no records? What about the truth for those families? I have said it before and will say it again: we have Gerry Adams standing up and saying, “I’ve never been a member of the IRA”. We know that is the biggest lie. And that brings me to another point. Let us not have a selective revelation of the archives. Why should we have only the Army or MOD records? The Loughinisland and other tragedies should never have happened and deserve to be unreservedly condemned, but why should we have only those files? I can assure the House that the Army also has records on McGuinness, so why are the hon. Members for Foyle and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) not asking for the archives on Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams? The Army has those records. I know that one of the files disappeared, but it has those records on the “Fisherman”. The files are there on these people.
Surely we do not have to wait for the revelation of the Boston tapes; let us have the records now. If we want the Army and MOD files, let us be open and honest about all these files. My loved ones and the loved ones of other innocent victims of Northern Ireland’s troubled past equally desire truth and justice, but they cannot see those records or know who is responsible. To this day, the police have not talked to us about our loved ones. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has left, was surprised that the police had not gone to see the families of Loughinisland, but the family of Robert and Rachel did not get many visits either telling them how their loved ones were brutally done to death one night as they travelled along the road. They were not, and never had been, members of the security forces. If we want the archives opened, therefore, let us have them completely opened, let us have the whole truth and nothing but the truth, not simply the MOD files on soldiers or other members of the security forces. I have heard it peddled so often, but I have not heard those people saying, “Let’s have the files on the likes of McGuinness. Let’s have them opened and on the table as well.” That has never been mentioned. If we really want the truth, we must have those files. If they are to be opened—if that is what is wanted—let us not cherry-pick; let us have the whole truth.
I lived in a community where many members of the security forces were brutally murdered. I do not know about proof of collusion, but I know that the vast majority of police officers, whether in the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve, and members of the Army in Northern Ireland served with distinction and great bravery in the face of a merciless foe. Let us never forget their bravery every time they donned their uniform or went out, even with their children. I think of a young banker and part-time member of the Ulster Defence Regiment in Magherafelt who went out one morning to get his car from the garage to take his child to school and was blown to bits. Let us not forget the sacrifice. This is the troubled past. All these archives need to be opened.
Even with a commitment to opening up all the files, would not most of them show only what the security forces did, because there are not the files on what the terrorists did? Indeed, many of them, including the current Sinn Fein president, deny ever having been involved in terrorism.
I accept that many of the atrocities carried out by members of the IRA are not in the files, but there are files on McGuinness and Adams, and it is about time they were brought out, if we are to have this openness we talk about.
The apologies, too, are selective. We have had apologies in the House, but they have been selective. Where was the Government’s apology to the people of Teebane? People might say, “Well, the Government didn’t let it happen”, but yes they did. Successive Governments of this United Kingdom allowed the Provisional IRA to carry out its atrocities. They could have stopped it on many occasions, but what did they do? They wined and dined its members and took them into the places of power, instead of bringing them to justice. If we are to have apologies, therefore, I do not want selective apologies; I want apologies to the families of La Mon, Teebane, Castlederg. I represented that constituency when those people were killed, and I would take Members to visit a little graveyard outside the town of Castlederg— 30 mph speed limit—because proportionally more members of the security forces lie there than in any other part of this United Kingdom. But who really cares? They were just members of the RUC and UDR along the border. They were just ordinary families.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have a pup’s chance of getting an apology from the Provisional IRA? The MLA for Belfast North, Mr Gerry Kelly, shot a man in the face when escaping from Her Majesty’s prison Maze, but not only does he deny it, he has now authored a book in which he makes no apology and shows no shame for organising an escape from the prison. What are the chances of ever getting an apology from that type of scurrilous individual?
One thing about that man from north Belfast: he knows who shot that prison officer and so he should be making a revelation.
I heard more about the Glenanne gang, but let us be quite clear. If we are going to have the record of the troubled past and if we want to appoint a person to prepare an analysis of the findings, issues, patterns and lessons from previous reports, there are an awful lot of gangs that were around in Northern Ireland, and I can assure hon. Members that they brought a lot of grief to a lot of families and homes whose lives will never, ever be put together again. We had 30 years of terrorism— 30 years of appeasement by those in authority.
I thank my hon. Friend for the impassioned speech he is making on behalf of us all inside and outside this House. He talks about the contribution of the security forces. When four UDR men were killed in Ballydugan outside Downpatrick, 12 people were brought in for questioning, yet none was made accountable for that crime. I knew three of those four men who gave their lives for the Province—as, indeed, did many others. That is an example of sacrifice and no accountability for those who committed the crime.
We could tell that story over and over again; all I am saying is that I do not want a partial telling of the story. When it comes to the story of the tragedy of the 30 years of trouble in Northern Ireland, I am certainly not willing to allow the provos or the Shinners to rewrite the history. I would say this to the hon. Member for Foyle: remember, there is no excuse for any paramilitary act or for taking the life of another person. Let us remember that the Provisional IRA started a campaign of murder against an innocent, law-abiding people. The only sin we were guilty of was that we wanted to be British. We wanted to remain a part of this United Kingdom, and the only good thing—on which I will finish—is this. Thank God we won, because we are still British and the Union flag is still flying—I trust it will be brought back for every other building, as well as those on which it is flying now. Thank God they did not beat us, they did not beat the ordinary people of the Province and we are still a part of this United Kingdom.
It is good to have this rare opportunity to debate Northern Ireland matters on the Floor of the House. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) to his role as Minister of State and wish him well on behalf of all Members. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is unable to be here, but I am sure she has important matters to deal with that require her attendance elsewhere.
I have said that we will work in a bipartisan way with the Government where we agree. For the most part, the proposals in the Bill are common sense and consistent with devolutionary principles, which is why they have our support. Our only disappointment is that they are relatively minor matters when considering the scale of the challenges facing Northern Ireland, whether about the past or building a shared future.
Before turning to specific elements of the Bill, I would like to use this first parliamentary opportunity to pay tribute to Eddie McGrady, who sadly passed away last week. He was a tireless campaigner for social justice and peace and was held in high regard by many Members in all parts of this House. Our thoughts and prayers are with Eddie McGrady’s family and friends at this difficult time.
I would also like to take this opportunity to condemn in the strongest possible terms the petrol bomb attack on the Alliance party office in east Belfast over the weekend.
That is very generous of the hon. Gentleman. Eddie McGrady earned tremendous respect, not only in all parts of this House, but across the divides in Northern Ireland. He genuinely believed in peace and condemned the use of violence at every opportunity. Perhaps most of all, he will be remembered for being a great fighter for social justice and fairness.
I thank my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for their tributes. As the successor to Mr McGrady in South Down, I thank them both for their kind remarks, which I will pass on to all our colleagues but most of all to his family, who are grieving. My predecessor was a person of certain distinction and certain political intellect, and somebody whose political representation stretched right across the community.
I would not like this opportunity to pass without saying that when I was first elected in 2001, I was then an Ulster Unionist, and Eddie McGrady was a marvellous friend. At the end of a lengthy debate, he and his then colleague Seamus Mallon—both brilliant parliamentarians and very fine gentlemen indeed—would often ask me to join them for supper. It was a spontaneous act of kindness, which was the mark of the man. At Eddie McGrady’s requiem mass in Downpatrick on Thursday, there really was standing room only, which was a tribute from right across the board and the political spectrum in Northern Ireland. We wanted to pay tribute, because rarely do we see that kind of parliamentarian and politician in Northern Ireland. He was of the old school and a gentleman in every sense.
I hope that the sincere words that have been uttered in all parts of the House will be some comfort to Eddie McGrady’s family and friends at this difficult time. Indeed, perhaps we can ensure that those words are relayed to them from this House.
If I may make some progress, let me again condemn in the strongest possible terms the petrol bomb attack on the Alliance party office in east Belfast over the weekend. All Members of this House will want to express their support and concern for the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), the Alliance MLAs and their staff. A first principle of any democracy is that elected representatives should be able to speak and vote free of intimidation or the fear of violence. That is why, irrespective of political differences, we should take every opportunity to express our solidarity with the hon. Lady, who frankly has suffered intolerable attacks in recent times. It is not good enough for politicians, either in Westminster or Stormont, to remain silent in the face of such an affront to democracy. They should turn up the volume in making it clear that such intimidation and violence are entirely unacceptable and can never be justified. It is also essential that the Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to do all in its power to prevent such attacks and bring those responsible to justice.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and, in her absence, the Secretary of State for contacting me over the weekend about the events that took place, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister for phoning today. I pay tribute to the police officers who attended the scene on the evening. Without their swift response and the actions they took, the situation could have been much more serious. As it is, the damage to the property was rather minimal. However, nothing that happens at that office will deflect me from doing the job that I was elected to do here on behalf of the people of my constituency.
The hon. Lady’s courage is truly inspirational. She speaks up without fear or favour. Whether Members agree with her or not, the fact that she shows that courage should be an inspiration to all of us who have the privilege of participating in the political process.
Over the past month I have had the privilege of visiting Northern Ireland twice and have been fortunate enough to meet business people, civil society groups, athletic associations and representatives of inter-governmental bodies, as well as religious and political leaders. It was a privilege to attend the Ulster Unionist party conference in Belfast and the SDLP conference in Armagh. I look forward to attending the DUP conference this coming weekend and to paying a further visit before Christmas to Stormont and the UK’s city of culture, Derry/Londonderry. I have already learnt that Northern Ireland is an amazing place, home to people of tremendous courage and aspiration—a place that has been transformed over the past two decades by the peace process. Despite that remarkable progress, we know that significant challenges remain on security, the economy, building a shared future and, crucially in the context of new clauses 1 and 3, dealing with the past.
I have been particularly moved—and, I should say, troubled—by my meetings with the families of victims of violence. It is clear to me that not only their search for truth and justice, but the scale and depth of the trauma that continues to afflict so many people and communities in Northern Ireland is not sufficiently understood or recognised by outsiders. That is one major reason why the Haass talks are so crucial. As I promised during the recent DUP Opposition day debate on the past, I will make a formal submission on behalf of my party to Ambassador Haass in the next few days, and that submission will be put in the public domain.
Turning to the two new clauses I mentioned and, briefly, to other elements of the Bill, our position on political donations has been clear both when we were in government and now we are in opposition. We support greater transparency on political donations in Northern Ireland and it is a testimony to the progress made by all political parties that we are able to move towards this reality.
I share the view of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), who has well made the point in the past that Northern Ireland politicians, serving both at Stormont and at Westminster, made an important contribution to the peace process. However, we agree that now is the time to end the practice of double-jobbing. It is right that this provision applies both to the Assembly and to the Dáil Éireann to maintain parity. As suggested by DUP Members, there is also a valid case for reducing the number of members of the Legislative Assembly, and we believe that this should be done on equal basis across constituencies, with a continued coupling with Westminster constituencies.
Order. I appreciate that the hon. Member has recently taken up his post. He has now made a few general remarks, but I would prefer it if he would come on to deal with the new clauses. Perhaps he was about to do so as I interrupted him.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have a long track record of obeying your instructions in a variety of contexts, and shall do so again.
Dealing specifically with new clause 3, I ask the Minister to look sympathetically at the proposal that the Secretary of State should provide an annual report to the House on the work of the various organisations that deal with the past. As the current Haass talks highlight, dealing with the past in a serious and meaningful way is essential if the people of Northern Ireland are to make progress on building a shared future. While it is right that dealing with any processes relating to the past are led by the Northern Ireland Executive, there must be full and consistent engagement by the UK and Republic of Ireland Governments both because of their central role in the troubles and because likely solutions will require their active participation and their legislative and financial support.
Although we broadly support the Bill, as I said at the beginning of my contribution, it is somewhat disappointing in its lack of ambition. It fails to do anything that will support economic growth or create opportunities for young people, which in my view are the greatest challenges Northern Ireland faces. While those issues are primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government have a key role to play.
As the Minister will be aware, unemployment in Northern Ireland remains above the UK average, with almost one in four young people out of work. Too many communities are struggling with the corrosive cycle of poor educational attainment, worklessness and inter-generational deprivation. That is on top of a cost of living crisis in which prices are rising and wages are falling.
In conclusion, the Bill is necessary and, broadly speaking, deserves the support of the House. However, there are far bigger issues facing Northern Ireland that require the full engagement of the Government working with the Irish Government to support the Northern Ireland Executive. I hope this Government will start to show the leadership that is so essential at this crucial time for peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time. Before he concludes, would he address some of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) for whom, I repeat, I have enormous regard, even though I have not agreed with half of what he has said this evening? While the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) is considering new clauses 1 to 3, would he particularly address the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms of the Historical Enquiries Team?
At Madam Deputy Speaker’s urging, I was bringing my remarks to a conclusion, but I will address the specific point that the hon. Lady mentions. We will deal with the issue in our response to Ambassador Haass, which the hon. Lady asked me to put in the public domain; we shall do so in the next few days. My view is that, on the whole and in many cases, the work of the Historical Enquiries Team has been effective and has delivered some level of justice to victims. I think we should applaud that and draw attention to it at every opportunity. However, some serious and legitimate concerns have been raised about elements of the HET’s work, which must be seriously considered. There are also questions about the criteria applied to the investigations, the independence of the HET, its capacity to do its job, and the HET’s ability to carry out its functions given the limited resources available to the PSNI.
Haass therefore provides an important opportunity not only to review and recognise the successes of the HET, but to reflect in the context of any new framework that is developed on some of the weaknesses and to try to put them right. We need a balanced and a measured approach to the HET. In speaking to victims, it has brought truth to a number of them—there is no question about that—but we know that independent evaluation has raised some serious and legitimate concerns. In the role that Ambassador Haass is fulfilling in the all-party talks, it is very important to get the balance right. Options would include a reformed HET or a replacement body to build on the successes of the HET, but there must be some structure to deliver truth and justice for the victims of violence in Northern Ireland. We need a balanced and sensible view of the HET’s successes, reform of the HET and of any future replacement body.
Despite the hurt they have experienced, many people in Northern Ireland wish to put that hurt behind them. Often without invitation from the people concerned, the HET reopened the sores and the wounds. Indeed, rather than help the situation, it has made it worse for those people. We need to give careful consideration to simply saying that we need another body to replicate what the HET did, without any reference to the wishes of the victims.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The first and overriding principle in any discussion about truth and justice has to be putting the victims centre stage. We know that victims have very different needs and very different wants. Some victims make it clear that they simply want truth. Others want justice, and others simply want to get on with their lives. Any process must therefore appropriately reflect the fact that we must start from the perspective of the needs and wants of victims. It is incredibly difficult to get that right, because there are such competing and different views of what people want, but the overriding principle has to be the needs of victims—not lumped together in a collective way, because the needs of every individual victim, treated sensitively wherever possible, must take centre stage.
Having spoken to victims, I still believe that there remain so many outstanding cases for which we have neither truth nor justice, but if we were to close down the process at this stage, we would not be doing right by the families and relatives of the victims of violence in Northern Ireland. The question is how to reconcile all those competing pressures and extremely difficult challenges and come up with a system that enjoys maximum support in all communities in Northern Ireland. I certainly think there is a strong case for the importance of truth recovery, which has been mentioned in the past, and there is still a lot of work to be done around it. That, however, cannot be an alternative to justice for many people. It is vital to get the balance right.
This is a crucial time for peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and let me say to the new Minister in particular that it is a particularly important time for the Government to demonstrate the leadership that is necessary there. It is not a time for disengagement on the part of the United Kingdom Government; it is incredibly important at this stage for them to work in partnership with the Government of the Republic of Ireland.
I believe that new clauses 1 and 3 have a great deal of merit. However, I also believe that it would be wrong to prejudge the Haass process or to straitjacket the ambassador at this stage, and if the House were forced to express a view on what is proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), that would be the impact of tonight’s proceedings. I therefore urge my hon. Friend not to press the motion to a Division at this stage, but rather to see the points that he has made in his new clauses as a vital contribution to the debate, and a vital submission to the all-party talks.
Let me first repeat an apology that I am sure you have already received, Madam Deputy Speaker, from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is currently on ministerial duty in the United States of America. Let me also echo the condolences and sympathy that have been expressed for the family of Eddie McGrady. I knew him a little, and took part in debates with him. I would say of him, overall, that he was a particularly decent man. I may have disagreed with him on various issues, but he certainly stood up for his constituents, and stood up for what he believed in in Ireland. He was both decent and courteous. I wish that we could say that about every Member of Parliament, but I am not sure that people would.
Let me also say that I deplore the petrol bomb attack on the constituency offices of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who represents the Alliance party. As others have said, such acts have no place in the democratic process. This was a very worrying incident, and I hope very much that we shall not see more such incidents.
I used to take a great deal of interest in Northern Ireland affairs, but this is the first time that I have spoken in a Northern Ireland debate for eight years. I have been otherwise detained elsewhere—and I think that that is more or less the right description. I believe that I made my last speech about Northern Ireland during a debate on what the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) described in his opening speech as one of the worst pieces of legislation ever brought before the House, namely the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. I dug out my speech the other day, and I stand by every word of it. The Bill was indeed a disgraceful piece of legislation, and—as a result of pressure from all sides—it was rightly dropped by the last Administration.
I understand that the issues raised by new clauses 1 and 3 were considered in Committee, and that the hon. Member for Foyle initiated those discussions as well. I appreciate that his party would like more to be done to address legacy issues, and I sympathise with that to a large extent. Like him and, I think, all Members of Parliament, we want to see a way forward that commands the support of all parts of the community and all parties in Northern Ireland, but it was not evident from the interventions on his speech that there was support for this particular way forward.
Much of the responsibility for dealing with legacy issues is now devolved, and it is right for us to allow the local parties—which are, of course, represented here—to work towards an agreement on dealing with the past. I welcome the initiative that is being taken by the main local political parties in Northern Ireland to address the issue of dealing with the past through the all-party group chaired by Richard Haass. We have heard a certain amount about that today, and I agree with the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) that we must not pre-empt, or in any way undermine, what is being done by Richard Haass. The Government support the efforts that are being made, and hope that progress can be made. As a House and as a nation, we should await the outcome of the talks, and Dr Haass’s report.
A great deal has been said about the Historical Enquiries Team. We should be clear about the fact that its work and the work of the police ombudsman are not the responsibilities of UK Ministers. Those bodies are accountable to the devolved institutions, and a carefully negotiated framework exists in relation to accountability of policing. There are already mechanisms for reporting on the work of the bodies that are the responsibility of the devolved Administration; creating a further mechanism is likely to incur unnecessary expense, and would also duplicate the work of other bodies.
Let me say in relation to new clause 3 that the Secretary of State already reports to Parliament by way of parliamentary questions and the Northern Ireland Office’s annual report regarding the work for which she is responsible. That does not provide for everything that the hon. Member for Foyle wants, but the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee does examine the annual report.
We cannot agree to the removal of the Secretary of State’s powers to exclude certain material from publication when it is in the interests of national security—or some other important public interest, such as the protection of life and safety—for that to be done. The Government therefore cannot support the new clauses, and, although I listened with interest to what was said by the hon. Member for Foyle, I ask him to withdraw his motion.
A number of points have been made about both new clauses, and I accept the spirit in which many of those points were made. I could readily rebut the detail, but I shall desist from doing so.
Let me take this opportunity of acknowledging the warm tributes that have been paid to Eddie McGrady, with whom I served in the House and whose election campaign I managed in 1987, when he unseated Enoch Powell. He served all his constituents, and indeed the wider community in Northern Ireland, well, and he was clearly held in high honour. He was also a man of much greater humour than his public persona may often have allowed him to express, but he was absolutely dedicated to the sanctity of life and the solidarity of community on a totally inclusive basis. The parity of esteem of which he always spoke was something that he himself clearly enjoyed across the political divide.
Important issues have been raised. I said at the outset that I did not wish to divide the House, or to do anything that could possibly be seen as pre-empting the Haass process. However, I think that the House must face up to its responsibilities in relation to the past, both now and in the future. It is in that spirit that I tabled the new clauses, and it is in that spirit that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 2
Petitions of concern
‘(1) In section 42 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Petitions of concern), omit subsection (3) and insert—
“(3) When a petition of concern is lodged against a measure, proposal or a decision by a Minister, Department or the Executive (“the matter”), the Assembly shall appoint a special committee to examine and report on whether the matter is in conformity with equality and human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
(4) Consistent with paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 (Strand 1) of the Belfast Agreement, a committee as provided for under subsection (3) may also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
(5) A committee appointed under this section—
(a) shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration; and
(b) shall take evidence from the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
(6) The Assembly shall consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.
(7) Standing Orders shall provide for—
(a) decisions on the size, timescale and terms of reference for such a committee; and
(b) procedure(s) to allow for subsection (8).
(8) In relation to any specific petition of concern or request under subsection (4), the Assembly may decide, with cross-community support, that the procedure in subsections (3) and (5) shall not apply.”.’.—(Mark Durkan.)
This Clause would amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to reflect the terms and intent of paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of strand 1 of the Belfast Agreement. It would qualify the exercise of veto powers, via petitions of concern in the Assembly, through the consideration of possible equality or human rights implications.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 3, clause 6, page 6, line 37, at end add—
‘7B The alteration of the number of members of the Assembly required to express their concern about a matter which is to be voted on by the Assembly, such concern requiring that the vote on that matter shall require cross-community support.
This paragraph does not include the alteration of that number to a number exceeding 30.”.’.
Amendment 4, clause 22, page 16, line 3, at end insert—
‘(1) After subsection (2) of the section 75 (Statutory duty on public authorities) of that Act insert—
(2A) A public authority shall not interpret its obligations under subsection (2) in a way that is incompatible with measures taken on the basis of objective need.”
(1B) In subsection (5) of section 75 of that Act insert ““good relations” shall be interpreted in line with international obligations and, in particular, with regard to—
(a) tackling prejudice, and
(b) promoting understanding.”.’.
This amendment would apply to Northern Ireland, the clarification provided in the Equality Act 2010 to restrict the good relation duty being cited against fulfilling equality obligations based on objective need.
The new clause and amendments are intended to return the position to what was intended in the Good Friday, or Belfast, agreement of 1998. New clause 2 seeks to reflect properly what was in paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the strand 1 paper, which provide for a petition of concern in respect of a measure or a proposal in the Assembly. Those paragraphs make it clear that the petition of concern was not meant to be used as an open veto to be played like a joker at any time.
The position relating to the petition is qualified in the agreement, but unfortunately that was not reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In the initial Bill, there was no reflection whatsoever of the true provisions of paragraphs 11 to 13. When some of us pointed that out, the Northern Ireland Office “scrambled in” a measure stating that the Assembly’s Standing Orders should make provision for the procedures outlined in those paragraphs, but unfortunately the Standing Orders never did make that provision. They ended up providing for a petition of concern which could be signed by 30 Members, and that automatically became a dead-end veto: end of story.
This new clause seeks to remind people that the Good Friday agreement said that those issuing a petition of concern would have the opportunity to prove they had a legitimate concern on grounds either of equality or human rights and that those grounds would be tested by a special committee that would be established in the Assembly to report on the matter. We worked that out very painstakingly during the negotiations because people were concerned that a petition of concern might simply become a drive-by veto, as it were, on any issue going forward or even being tabled, which could lead to gridlock with tit-for-tat vetoes and petitions of concern. The then leader of the Alliance party, now Lord Alderdice, spoke very strongly in the negotiations about his concern that we should not have just an open-ended free-for-all system of vetoes.
The notion of having petitions of concern is rightly in the agreement, not least because having protections around decision-making mechanisms was a key part of the rules in the negotiations that led to the agreement, and, therefore, if it was essential in the rules that led to the agreement, it would be essential in the agreement itself. The particular model of protections had to be carefully balanced and calibrated, however.
The balance we came up with was that there could be a petition of concern, but it would not of itself be a veto. Unfortunately, the system as it is now practised does turn the petition of concern into a veto. That has meant that many matters in Northern Ireland end up not progressing, and some are not even tabled at the Executive or in the Assembly because the veto is now also used as a predictive veto, to prevent issues from being tabled and to hold things up in discussion within the bowels of government somewhere.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying and his interpretation of the Belfast agreement, and if I have the opportunity to speak I will deal with that in more detail, but it is an interpretation. As we had the agreement of his party, which was the main nationalist party at the time, and the agreement of the Ulster Unionist party, which was the main Unionist party at that time, and the wholehearted agreement of the then Government led by Tony Blair and the wholehearted support of the then Opposition in this House, how did this major issue that the hon. Gentleman is so exercised about not get translated into legislation? How did that happen?
It happened precisely for the reasons I have suggested. First, the NIO draftspeople who drafted the Bill neglected to deal with that part of the agreement, and there were a few other provisions like that as well, which just goes to prove that, contrary to what we read in a lot of memoirs, the agreement was not drafted by the British Government, the Irish Government or the American Government; instead, it was broadly drafted by the Northern Ireland politicians.
It is not good enough to blame the draftsmen and say, “Oh, the draftsmen left it out.” Surely in all the hours of consideration in this House and in Committee and the massive debates that took place at home, here and everywhere else on the legislation that became the Northern Ireland Act 1998, someone—not least the hon. Gentleman himself—could have prompted a Member of the House to say, “An amendment might be in order. This is such a glaring gap that it needs to be filled”? Why was that not done?
I actually think an amendment may well have been tabled because, although I was not a Member of this House, I remember drafting an amendment —but I am not sure whether it was subsequently tabled.
I should stress that when we pointed out that this was not provided for in the agreement, the NIO response was to provide for it by way of a stipulation that the Assembly Standing Orders would provide for that procedure. That turned out not to be robust enough. The right hon. Gentleman might say, “Well, did we not address that in Assembly Standing Orders?” He will find that the record of the Assembly shows, in the very first Standing Orders report, that I did address the fact that it was not there. The then Presiding Officer, Lord Alderdice, acknowledged my attention to detail, in so far as he could without being drawn into the debate; that obviously went very much back to his own participation in the negotiations.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a more cynical interpretation of why those concerned neglected to deal with this at that stage is that the UUP and the SDLP were then the largest parties, and they were hoping that they might be able to use the veto? Perhaps the reason for the concern now about the petition of concern is that the SDLP is not in a position to use it—as was originally intended, which is the reason why the legislation did not reflect what he is now saying that he wants.
The hon. Gentleman might have some basis for saying that if there was any truth in it, which, of course, there is not, not least because we deliberately set the petition of concern threshold at 30 because at that time we thought there was no chance of a party reaching the 30s. That was one of the reasons why the 30 threshold was there; there were concerns about how freely this could be used and that it might block things up.
The need for the petition of concern to be significant was emphasised not just by the threshold but by the special committee procedure to show whether there was a prima facie case on either equality or human rights grounds. The petition of concern was not to be used just for the convenience of a party that wanted to stop something. The fact is, however, that petitions of concern have been used to veto Bills that addressed the question of dual mandates between local government and the Assembly, which is a completely undue use. A petition of concern was also used to veto any question of a binding or significant vote in relation to censure of a Minister; it was never meant to be used in that sort of way.
The fact of a petition of concern being used, or being threatened to be used, by different parties prevents issues from being tabled. The whole point of the petition of concern was not to stop things being tabled, but to ensure that when they were tabled they were duly frisked and tested in respect of sensitive considerations such as human rights and equality. New clause 2 simply tries to get the Assembly out of the rut it is currently in, where vetoes are used far too often in a way that not only negates outcomes but prevents debate.
Amendment 4 seeks to ensure consistency with what was intended and envisaged in the Good Friday agreement and in the provisions that became section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which provides for equality duties and duties of public bodies in respect of good relations. On a number of occasions in recent years there has been a move to say that the good relations duty could sometimes trump the equality duty, so that a public body might not come through with a measure on equality grounds based on objective need because somebody else might feel it would upset good relations. We have seen that arise in relation to the Irish language, and there have been suggestions of its arising in relation to the provision and siting of social housing as well. The amendment seeks to clarify the balance and relationship between the good relations duty and the equality duty.
But surely what the amendment does is not clarify the balance between the two, but in fact give one supremacy over the other? The reality is that in a divided society where there are competing rights and tensions in respect of those rights it is essential to strike a balance. Instead of simply giving equality the upper hand on all occasions, we must ensure that equality and good relations are balanced in decision-making processes.
That is why the amendment seeks to translate into Northern Ireland legislation something that the House legislated on for Great Britain in the Equality Act 2010, by specifying the relationship between good relations and equality based on objective need. We cannot use the question of good relations to justify a decision that fails to exercise an equality duty based on objective need.
When we discussed this matter upstairs in the Bill Committee, I pointed out that my proposal would not have the converse effect that a public body could not introduce a measure with an eye to good relations unless it also met the requirement of equality based on objective need. The new clause would not, for example, prevent the sort of thing that happened in my constituency in relation to the Fountain estate. There was widespread support for creating a new school there, even though it would not have fulfilled any of the criteria on the Department of Education’s lists relating to qualifying for capital spending on a new school. Similar issues arose there over school transport. Because of the particular circumstances of the estate and the community, however, and because of the ambition to uphold the ethos of a shared city, it was agreed that it should happen for reasons of good relations and community support, even though the proposals did not fulfil any of the Department’s investment criteria relating to need.
The new clause would not prevent such a project from going ahead in the future. It would, however, prevent someone from using concerns about good relations or agitating to advertise tensions in relations as a way of preventing a measure from going forward on the basis of equality based on objective need, whether in relation to language or to any other public programme or investment, such as in social housing.
I am simply trying to correct the confusion that is now building up, and to remove the undue tension that is being created by the two important aspects represented in section 75 and that relate to the commitments in the Good Friday agreement. On that basis, I commend new clause 2 and amendment 4 to the House.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this short debate on new clause 2, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should also like to speak to amendment 3, which stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
In new clause 2, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) is proposing to introduce new provisions relating to petitions of concern. I understand that the Assembly and Executive Review Committee is dealing with this matter, among others, and I believe that that is the right and proper place for the issue to be decided on. It is for the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to agree or disagree to such matters relating to petitions of concern. I understand that 40% of the petitions of concern tabled in the Northern Ireland Assembly have been tabled by the nationalist parties, so this is not a question of one party tabling petitions in a way that abuses the process. This has happened right across the board.
New clause 2 could create the potential for gridlock in the Assembly. Let us remember that a petition of concern is lodged after a matter has been debated in the Assembly and is about to be voted on. Let us imagine how it would play out in this Chamber if such a process had to be undergone after a debate and before a vote could be taken. Under the new clause, a committee would have to be set up. As soon as we hear the word “committee”, we know that we are not going to be in for a quick decision-making process—certainly not in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The new clause goes on to propose that a committee appointed for this purpose
“shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration”.
Not only that, but it “shall take evidence”—that would not be discretionary— from
“the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.”
This would no doubt have to happen when diaries had been sorted out and all the necessary people had been brought in to be cross-examined and to give their evidence. Then, after the committee had listened to all the evidence, sifted it and debated it, voted on it and produced a report—in addition to all the other committee and legislative work that those Assembly Members do—the Assembly would have to
“consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.”
Only then could the Assembly have its vote.
I respectfully suggest that that is not a recipe for quick governance or quick decision making. The Northern Ireland Assembly is already criticised in relation to processing matters quickly and efficiently, and I submit that the new clause would add greatly to the problems.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as a petition of concern is likely to have been issued because there is concern and a lack of cross-community support, the requirement in subsection (6) could never be met? If the reason for lodging the petition of concern in the first place was a lack of cross-community support, how could a report from a committee ever get through the Assembly to allow a vote to take place?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those of us who have served in the Northern Ireland Assembly know that that is exactly what would happen. The new clause is misconceived. It would simply bung up the works of the Assembly and make no advances in getting things done.
In an intervention, I asked the hon. Member for Foyle why the provisions in his new clause had not been in the original Northern Ireland Act. First, he blamed the draftsmen. I then asked whether no one in the then Government or Opposition or in any of the Northern Ireland parties was in any way culpable for not having spotted this massive gap in the legislation. I asked whether an amendment had been tabled to rectify the omission. I have no doubt that, if it had been part of the Belfast agreement, the then Government would happily have acceded to the change.
The only opposition that was coming in from any quarter came from those of us in the DUP and allied Unionists who pointed out that we could not found an agreement without support for the police, the courts and the rule of law in Northern Ireland. I am glad that we finally managed to achieve that objective at the St Andrew’s agreement and elsewhere. That is why we now have stable devolution. I do not want to go into that debate now, however. The point is that the hon. Gentleman said that he thought he might have drafted an amendment, but he did not know whether it had even been tabled.
I want to try to explain why this matter might have been left out of the original legislation. I have looked at paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the Belfast agreement, and I submit that the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of them is open to question. The provisions relating to petitions of concern were set out in paragraph 5(d) of strand 1 of the agreement. That agreement was drafted by his party as well as the other parties that agreed with its terms. That provision contains no qualifications whatever: there is no reference to equality or to the circumstances in which petitions of concern may be lodged.
The section of the agreement that deals with “Operation of the Assembly” covers Chairs and Deputy Chairs of the Assembly, and the role of the Committees and Standing Committees. Then we get to paragraph 11, which states:
“The Assembly may appoint a special Committee to examine and report on whether a measure or proposal for legislation is in conformity with equality requirements, including the ECHR/Bill of Rights. The Committee shall have the power to call people and papers to assist in its consideration of the matter.”
Paragraph 12 states:
“The above special procedure shall be followed when requested by the Executive Committee, or by the relevant Departmental Committee, voting on a cross-community basis.”
Paragraph 13 then refers to “a petition of concern” in relation to whether or not that special procedure is involved. But the special procedure—the committee that is set up—is about an investigation at the behest of a departmental Committee or the Executive into a measure or legislation which they consider worthy of consideration under those terms. It is not about whether or not we have a petition of concern.
Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I was there negotiating the agreement and I know what was understood and agreed. Clearly, those paragraphs provide for a committee to be appointed not only in response to a petition of concern, but at the request of the Executive or departmental Committee, because we were saying that a petition of concern should not be the only way of triggering the establishment of a special committee. That was to reflect the fact that there may be concerns about human rights and about equality.
But the agreement certainly does not talk about setting up the procedure that the hon. Gentleman has alluded to today relating to petitions of concern. Saying, “I was there, so I know what it was about” is not going to wash. We have to deal with the written text—what is there. Saying, “I was there and I know what it meant, and we should legislate on that basis” is not a good way forward.
The right hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks failed to address the fact that I had made it clear that whenever the omission in the earlier Bill was pointed out, Northern Ireland Office Ministers moved to deal with that omission by putting a provision in the Bill. The provision relies on Standing Orders, but it actually says that the Assembly’s Standing Orders shall provide for the procedure provided for in paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 of the Good Friday agreement.
I have absolutely no difficulty with the Assembly’s Standing Orders providing for that, because I have already referred to my interpretation of what those paragraphs relate to. All I am saying is that the massively cumbersome, clumsy, convoluted, time-consuming, time-wasting process set out in new clause 2 on petitions of concern will be a disaster for the Northern Ireland Assembly if this House is ever so unwise as to pass it.
May I take the liberty of trying to summarise what the right hon. Gentleman has said? I understand that he and his colleagues disagree vehemently with the content and detail of new clause 2, but am I right in understanding that they support the Assembly parties looking at the excessive use of petitions of concern? Does he accept that they are used excessively in the Assembly, that we have stalemate on too many occasions and that it is simply left for the Assembly to deal with this issue?
I do not accept that. I do not accept that we have an excessive use of petitions of concern. I would need to look at all the evidence and, as I have said, 40% of the petitions are put down by nationalists. I do not subscribe to any gridlock being entirely down to these petitions, but the new clause would add to the problems if it were passed. Let us consider the example of welfare reform, which is currently held up in the Assembly. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who has now moved on, was in Northern Ireland the other day warning about the consequences of welfare reform delays for the block grant. That has nothing to do with petitions of concern; that is a political hold-up because Sinn Fein will not grasp and deal with the issue, and it is going to cost the entire Northern Ireland electorate, ratepayers and taxpayers a lot of money if it does not. So I do not think that petitions of concern are primarily the issue here.
What seems to be at the root of the proposal by the hon. Member for Foyle is that some kind of abuse is happening. He spoke about when petitions of concern should be used and so on, although that is not qualified in the Belfast agreement. What happens when we consider other elements, such as cross-community voting? He has not in any way sought to amend that—indeed, no party has. If proposals were to be made about that, they should be discussed within the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, and the parties in Northern Ireland should come up with their own suggestions, solutions and proposals.
I recall a famous day when I was in the Assembly and those processes of cross-community voting were abused—a horse and carriage was driven through the powers of designation. The Alliance party previously had been designated as “other”—neither Unionist nor nationalist—and has remained “other” for every other vote and occasion since. However, on this occasion it was persuaded to become, in the words of its now leader,
“the back end of a pantomime horse”—
that is how he described it—by designating the party as “Unionist”. Why was that done? It was done to ensure that then deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the hon. Gentleman’s party, could remain as Deputy First Minister when he had actually resigned. The proposal was introduced whereby the Assembly had to accept the resignation for it to become valid. There was a total abuse of the rules and of the purposes for which they were introduced. This has never been done since because people were appalled by it, yet reference is never made to it.
Is it not strange that, yet again, we are hearing from the revisionists? Whenever 40% is republican, we are told, “No, there is no abuse of petitions of concern.” But, then, when the Unionists use 60%, we are told, “Yes, that is abuse.” So, once again, we have, “Unionists at fault. Nationalists and republicans not at all.” My right hon. Friend mentioned that Seamus Mallon resigned and then did not resign. Well, Bobby Ewing came out of the shower and he was dead—and then he was not dead, after all.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks.
In conclusion, new clause 2 is a misconceived proposal, but I commend amendment 3. It is a technical amendment saying that if we are giving the power to the Northern Ireland Assembly to reduce the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly—as we are proposing to do in this Bill, because that is right and proper, and that should be a matter for the Assembly—the Assembly should also have the power to consider the number of people required for a petition of concern to be valid. For it to remain at 30 would be completely wrong, as that number was regarded as proportionate for 108 MLAs. If the Assembly were reduced to 90 MLAs or fewer, as would be my preference, it would clearly be right, proper and sensible to reduce the number required to sign a petition of concern. Amendment 3 is a technical and sensible amendment, and I hope the Government will take it on board.
We are considering two issues of vital importance to the political settlement in Northern Ireland that are embodied in the Belfast agreement of 1998, a copy of which we have seen on the other side of the Chamber. Petitions of concern are intended to ensure that on sensitive issues, the views of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland must be taken into account. That is fundamental to the power-sharing arrangements that now exist in Stormont. The requirement that 30 MLAs sign a petition was part of the Belfast agreement and it has not been amended since that time. I believe that petitions of concern have been used 61 times since 1998, but there have been many more cases when the possibility of such a petition being used has led to policies being rejected or amended before reaching that stage.
At times, that has resulted in deadlock and important decisions being delayed. A failure to take into account the views of both communities would be far more damaging and could affect the stability of the settlement as a whole. As has been made clear, not all parties are content with how petitions are used at present, and I have some sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).
Given the concern in Northern Ireland about the way in which the petitions are used, greater scrutiny of the impact of such decisions would seem appropriate, but there is already provision in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 for scrutiny of the kind the hon. Member for Foyle has proposed. The question is whether it would be appropriate for the UK Government to dictate to the Northern Ireland Assembly that such scrutiny must take place. I do not believe it appropriate for us so to do.
Turning to the amendment moved by the right hon. Gentleman, it is a valid question whether the number of Members needed to trigger a petition of concern should remain the same if the Assembly is reduced substantially in size. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) made clear in Committee, amending the threshold of support required for a petition of concern would require cross-community support before the Government could back it. Cross-community support is particularly important for this measure, which is a fundamental building block of the 1998 agreement and is specifically intended to protect minority interests. We have heard today of the different views that exist on the use of petitions of concern, and let me be clear to the House that no consensus currently exists on the matter. If such consensus emerged—for example, from the review process under way in the Northern Ireland Assembly—the Government would certainly be ready to consider giving effect to the conclusions when a legislative vehicle was assembled. However, I fear we are not yet at that point.
Turning to the amendment to clause 22, proposed by the hon. Member for Foyle, I know that the debate about objective need and equality is a live one in Northern Ireland and is a subject a new Minister should engage with delicately. I appreciate the force of and feeling behind what the hon. Gentleman said, and his comments will of course be noted in Northern Ireland. There are many who argue that the interpretation of “good relations” is the appropriate reading of section 75 as it stands. In its guidance for public authorities on promoting good relations, the Equality Commission Northern Ireland states:
“Equality of opportunity and good relations are inextricably linked and interdependent, and both must be addressed by designated public authorities. A failure to achieve one impacts on the ability to achieve the other.”
“Promoting equality of opportunity sometimes requires the use of positive action measures in order to address existing inequalities with a view to achieving a level playing field for all. In such circumstances, public authorities must have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations both within and between communities, on the grounds of race, religious belief and political opinion, and consider what steps need to be taken to gain the confidence, trust and acceptance of all parts of the community. Communication of the reasons for the positive action is essential in this situation.”
Even if the clarification in the amendment suggested by the hon. Member for Foyle is necessary, it is difficult territory for Parliament to enter into without prior consultation with the Assembly and the Executive in Northern Ireland, which would try to find the broadest possible measure of agreement.
Much of equality law is devolved, and it would be wrong for us to legislate unilaterally here. The Executive have announced their strategy document on a shared future, entitled “Together: Building a United Community”, which proposes changes in the law, including the establishment of an equality and good relations commission. It seems that that is the context in which such steps should be considered. We would prefer, therefore, that the amendment be not pressed in the House, but I am sure the debate will go on and on. For the moment, I ask the hon. Member for Foyle and the right hon. Member for Belfast North to withdraw the new clause and the amendments.
I assure the House that I stand fully by both amendments and the case for them, but that will not run to the extent of troubling the House with a Division on them, not least out of respect to other business both on the Bill and on other matters yet to come.
As I have already said, I can refute all the arguments that have been made against both of my new clauses. I can also correct the mistaken reference to the Alliance redesignating to help elect Seamus Mallon as Deputy First Minister. At the time the Alliance redesignated, it was to elect David Trimble and me as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. As I understood it, the whole point about Seamus Mallon being deemed not to have resigned was precisely to avoid a vote. I want to correct that in case anybody thinks that I have been economical with the truth as it relates to me. At the time, I made it very clear to the then Secretary of State, John Reid, that I would have preferred an Assembly election than to be elected on that basis and on those terms. That clear view was expressed to both the Secretary of State and to Downing street at the time.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) claimed that the procedures proposed would lead to indefinite delay. They would not, because any Committee would be subject to a time scale; Standing Order 35 of the Assembly partially provides for that, albeit, again, not correctly. This is about properly joining up provisions to form the agreement. We have real delay and ongoing gridlock in Northern Ireland when a petition of concern is exercised as an open-ended veto—it ends matters so that nothing goes forward. The new clause would create a procedure whereby people had to put up or shut up on an equality or human rights issue, otherwise the measure concerned would proceed. To that extent, it would be an aid to better governance and a more responsible use of petitions of concern as well.
Again, the hon. Gentleman makes his own defence. He says that it was not him and that he had argued for an election. Nevertheless, he benefited. I am grateful to him for that clarification, although it does not aid his cause.
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the role of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, of which we are apprised. If the threshold for petitions of concern is not addressed, it is bound to have an effect on the thinking of parties and their desire to implement change with regard to the numbers in the Assembly. The matter has to be addressed at some point, but given what the Minister has said, and in deference to other business, I will not press our amendment to a vote tonight.
These are relatively minor changes, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will be able to support them. There has been support on both sides of the House for the provisions in clause 1, which will protect permanently the identities of those who have made donations to Northern Ireland political parties in the past.
In the past, donors gave money in the understanding that their identities would not be revealed, and it would be unfair to change that position without their consent retrospectively. However, there has been some debate about the date on which the guarantee of anonymity should end. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who is in her place, proposed amendments that would reduce the length of time for which donors would continue to benefit from these provisions. It is important that all donors are fully aware that the rules have changed at the point at which they make a donation.
The Bill as drafted refers to 1 October next year because the Government believed that that would ensure the clearest framework for political parties. It is a date that is already familiar to parties and their financial supporters as the date on which the prescribed period will end if the Bill does not come into force. All donors are already on notice that permanent anonymity will come to an end at that point. However, it has never been the Government’s policy to stand in the way of changes that might help to increase transparency, provided that the change to an earlier date can be implemented.
In view of the support for the change from all Northern Ireland parties represented in the House, whose donors are those affected, and from the Electoral Commission, which regulates party finance, the Government are willing to support a change to an earlier date.
Will the Minister kindly give me some advice? A large number of delightful gentlemen and ladies in my constituency are members of the Northern Ireland Conservatives. Should they follow this Bill, which applies only to Northern Ireland, or should they follow the example set by the Conservative party in the rest of the United Kingdom and make all their large donors and donations transparent, open and public, rather than keeping them secret?
I am very pleased to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box this evening, but if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had been here she would, of course, have quite rightly reminded the House that Northern Ireland has become such a normal place that it could host the G8 summit in Fermanagh successfully and could host the world police and fire games. No matter how normal Northern Ireland has become, however, for some reason this Bill will preserve the anonymity of and secrecy about donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. That, of course, is not the policy in the rest of the United Kingdom, where the Conservative party supports transparency. Will the Minister take this opportunity to urge his sisters and brothers in the Northern Ireland Conservative party to make their donations public?
Oh, I see. It is because it is discretionary. I am sorry, I had missed the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). Having the discretion gives us the opportunity to do it, if I can put it that way. I think that she will understand what I am saying, but given that the Secretary of State is not here I think that it would be unwise of me to go any further down that road. I am sorry that I did not understand what she was saying the first time around.
Let me now turn to amendment 2. Clauses 14, 15 and 16 introduce minor changes to the requirements for voter registration for Northern Ireland, the requirements for obtaining an overseas vote and the requirements for absent voting. Hon. Members will be aware that European parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held on 22 May 2014. We look forward to them. It is also the Government’s intention that local elections in Northern Ireland be held on that date.
Amendment 2 is a technical amendment that changes the commencement date for clauses 14, 15 and 16 to avoid their coming into force during or immediately before the election period, which would be not only inconvenient but very difficult. It would avoid a situation in which electoral administrators in Northern Ireland were expected to make changes to registration and application processes at a time when they were busy with electoral preparations. It would also help to avoid public confusion about voter entitlements. It remains the Government’s intention to commence the provisions as soon as possible and in good time for elections to this House in 2015. As we say in government, the provisions will commence “soon” after the elections in 2014.
I support the amendment, and I particularly welcome the fact that following our debate in the Committee of the whole House the Government have listened to the representations I made, as well as those made by the “Who Pulls the Strings” campaign in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
It is not often that those of us on the Opposition Benches see the matters that we would like a Bill to deal with being addressed. It is even rarer for those of us who sit as solitary Members to see such concerns taken on board. I am particularly pleased that a compelling argument has been made for the amendment. I must qualify that, however, with my slight disappointment that we have been unable to go further to remove the exemptions and rules in Northern Ireland to allow us to move into line with the rest of the UK. There is evidence of huge public demand for that in Northern Ireland. Like in every other part of the UK, and, I suspect, in almost every other part of the democratic world, there is suspicion and a perception in the minds of the public that politics operates for the benefit of the few not the many and that those who have money and influence can wield that to their own advantage.
To rebuild trust and confidence in the political system, it is hugely important that people have transparency about donations and can scrutinise whether donations made to political parties influence policy and decision making at a government level. That is not possible currently because even though donations are declared to the Electoral Commission, they cannot be published. I believe that the time has come for the veil of secrecy to be lifted.
The amendment is a good step in that direction in that it clarifies the position for donors. Those who donate up until the January date will know that their anonymity will be permanent. There was a question mark over that as the powers of the Secretary of State would have allowed those donations to be published retrospectively. I believe that people gave that money on the understanding that it would be handled with confidentiality and privacy, and that expectation should be met by the Government. That is very important.
The amendment also means that those who donate after January will know that those donations will eventually be published. They will not be published right away. It will be for the Secretary of State to decide at the next point of review, which is due, I think, in October 2014, whether the security situation, in her view, would allow her to publish them.
The amendment makes it very clear to anybody making a donation from January onwards that at some point in the future that donation will be open to public scrutiny. It clarifies the situation in their minds so that they know when they make the donation the risk and the public scrutiny that will be involved. They will be able to make an informed decision.
Sir Christopher Kelly gave evidence on the subject to the Committee. He was very clear that he was not convinced by the argument that security should automatically outweigh the right of the public to scrutinise donations that are made to political parties. I share his view and do not believe that security should outweigh that right. Indeed, despite everything that has been said in the House about intimidation and threats against my own party, we continue voluntarily to publish the details of those people who make donations of more than £7,500 to the Alliance party so that people are fully aware of and can scrutinise our policy decisions.
Perhaps I can take this opportunity to encourage the Minister, which I think my colleague the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) sought to do, to encourage his colleagues in the Conservative party in Northern Ireland to join us in voluntarily publishing their donors. Indeed, I urge other parties in this House in Northern Ireland to do likewise. I think that it would help to build trust and confidence in the political system, to ventilate what has become quite a toxic issue in Northern Ireland, not least in recent months, and to move forward on a clearer footing.
My disappointment is that we are not in a position at this point to make more progress on bringing us into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the amendment is a good step forward. It will provide clarity for the public and reassurance that the direction of travel is towards openness and transparency. I thank the Government for taking this on board. The assurances given by the Electoral Commission that they can prepare parties and donors to be ready for the change that is about to take place by January has been helpful in enabling things to move forward. I thank the Government and fully support what they are proposing.
Before I discuss the amendment, Madam Deputy Speaker, perhaps I may pay tribute briefly to the late Eddie McGrady, who served in this House for many years. It was a pleasure to work with him. He was indeed a decent man with a sharp and ready sense of humour and I know that he will be sadly missed in Northern Ireland.
I join others in condemning the attacks on the office of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who is a very valuable member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Having worked with her on that Committee for three years, I know that she will not be put off by the attacks; she will continue to show great determination, and to carry out the work that she has been doing with great distinction.
The Select Committee was keen for a move towards transparency as regards donations in Northern Ireland, partly, as has been said, to move the Province towards what might be termed more normal politics. It was interesting; we took evidence from all the political parties—not just the main ones, but the smaller ones in Northern Ireland—and I think that I am right in saying that there was unanimous agreement that we should move towards greater transparency on donations. There were some question marks about how quickly that should happen, and about the security situation, but it was generally accepted that people who stand for office in Northern Ireland, and those who sign nomination papers, put up posters or go canvassing, take the same risks as people who make donations to political parties in Northern Ireland; why would they be any different? For me, that was the convincing argument.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, clause 1 allows the Secretary of State the discretion to make the decision. The Select Committee suggested that there be a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to consult the appropriate security authorities with regard to taking that decision, but overwhelmingly, we felt that we should move towards greater transparency regarding donations in Northern Ireland. Like the hon. Member for Belfast East, I am grateful to the Government for listening to the points that the Select Committee made on not only this issue, but others.
When the matter was debated and voted on in the Committee of the whole House, we voted for the proposal. The Government have had consultations, and the measure has been brought forward because it has widespread support in Northern Ireland, and so fulfils one of the criteria for changes to which the Minister has alluded previously. It is because there is cross-party consensus that the amendment has been put forward, and we welcome that move. We have absolutely no difficulty with moving towards greater transparency from 1 January —mindful, of course, that as the Minister says, there is no change to the fundamental point that the decision will be made only when the security situation allows. If it is made, however, it can be retrospective and apply back to 1 January.
We remain concerned that the amendment, and the Bill, will not close the massive loophole that allows parties from outside the United Kingdom to be bankrolled to a fairly considerable degree by donations made outside—indeed, very far from—the jurisdiction. In that context, I refer to a report of 11 November in the Belfast Telegraph that revealed that Sinn Fein was being bankrolled by donations from American companies
“that have been embroiled in racism”,
Sinn Fein took in £245,000 in the period up to May this year, and almost £31,000 of that
“was used to pay printing expenses in Northern Ireland and to purchase a vehicle.”
A political party that operates and seeks votes in part of the United Kingdom, and is elected to this House and to the Assembly, is allowed, through the special provisions of electoral donation law, to raise such funds and channel them to Northern Ireland, and basically to skew the electoral process through massive donations from abroad.
Unfortunately, the Government have not, so far, seen fit to close that loophole, which should not be available to any party. When the decision was made to bring in regulations and legislation on the funding of, and donations and loans to, political parties, it was rightly decided that, in principle and fact, parties should be able to receive donations only from registered electors in the United Kingdom. That is a solid, sound principle, but an exception has been made in relation to Northern Ireland. Nationalist parties—primarily Sinn Fein—can raise all this money outside the jurisdiction. That money is used to influence the political and electoral process. It is a scandal, and it is wrong, morally, politically and constitutionally. Something needs to be done about it; a party has openly admitted, through records filed in the United States, that it is using foreign money. One can imagine the howls of outrage that there would be from other parties if a Unionist party, or the Conservative, Labour or Social Democratic and Labour parties, used foreign money that had been donated secretly to fund their electoral campaigns, with no accountability.
Sleazy money. One can imagine the howls of outrage that there would be from sanctimonious people in Sinn Fein about that, yet we are talking about a party that is receiving individual sums of up to $20,000. Documents filed with the US Department of Justice indicate that a New York-based company called MarJam Supply Company contributed $5,000. A Government employment equality agency in the United States found that staff at that company were subjected to racial abuse. Another company that gives money to Sinn Fein hit the headlines after its former boss was sentenced to three years in jail for embezzling pension money. The former chairman of another company that donated $1,000 to Sinn Fein pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bribery charges. How do we know all that? It is because the US authorities require that information to be registered in the United States—it is no thanks to legislation passed in this House.
I say to the Government that this is intolerable. It is a scandalous abuse of the electoral system in Northern Ireland. No wonder the IRA and Sinn Fein do not have to rob banks any more, when they can get that sort of money flowing into their coffers from abroad, with no accountability whatever. I urge the Government to listen, to take this argument on board, and to create a level playing field for all the other parties.
This is not an appeal made on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party. We will fight our campaigns and get our votes; I am confident that we will do well. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said in an earlier debate that he never foresaw any party in Northern Ireland getting more than 30 seats and being able to trigger a petition of concern. He did not envisage it; I am sure that if he had envisaged it, the trigger figure would have been higher. We have 38 Members. Things can happen in Northern Ireland, and we will fight our battle. When it comes to donations and loans, all that I am calling for is a level playing field for everybody. The Government need to act on that. Frankly, it would be a disgrace if, in this Parliament, a Government led by a Conservative Prime Minister—and a Government comprised of right hon. and hon. Gentleman who have sought to reform the parliamentary system to create greater fairness and transparency—continued to allow this outrageous situation to continue.
I welcome Government amendments 1 and 2. I want to acknowledge the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who championed amendment 1 at an earlier stage of the Bill. I recall that at one point on that day, she thought she would not be able to divide the House, because she did not have Tellers; we guaranteed her Tellers if the amendment went to a Division. I also want to acknowledge the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), who put his name to the amendment and took an active part in the discussion, as a conscientious legislator and a person of consistency. I recall that on that day, the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was very strident in pressing the Government to see the sense of the amendment, and in rejecting their arguments against it.
I am glad that the Government have found that there was consensus on the issue, but it was a new, revised consensus, induced by the fact that we had Divisions on the subject in Committee of the whole House. Clearly, very different messages were being given before that, including in evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. It is one of the occasions on which debate in the House brought about change, not just in Government thinking but in how parties responded and saw those issues by understanding how they were regarded by others. The public are vexed about the lack of transparency and the readiness of too many parties constantly to use security considerations to deny scrutiny, which is treated as a matter of course elsewhere.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has looked more widely at the issue of political donations, and we need to look at anything else that needs to be tightened up at any other level. I am particularly alert to the need to allow an active and positive interest by members of the wider Irish diaspora and by democrats throughout the island of Ireland, but that should never allow for any dubious corporate donations or anything else. It is quite clear that the ambit of measures in relation to donations to Northern Ireland has been cynically abused, and it does not match funding that would be allowed elsewhere. Again, for the sake of consistency, without transgressing any legitimate interest of the wider Irish diaspora, including the very recent diaspora, I would point out the need for balance.
Government amendment 2 is a sensible measure, as the provisions of clause 28 would impose quite a scramble and some difficulty on local electoral officers, so it makes sense to kick forward the commencement date.
I meant no disrespect to any Member of the House of Lords on that matter, although one or two of them have had a few problems. [Interruption.] I will if you want.
The vexed issue of donations stretches across the Irish sea and, indeed, across the Atlantic, as we have heard from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We would all wish to move to greater transparency. We have moved in Great Britain to increased transparency, which is absolutely right. I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about people declaring their donations quite happily to the Alliance party. There is a special situation in Northern Ireland—we know that, which is why we are discussing the Bill—but we want to move forward with consensus to normality above all else. That has to be done slowly—we know why—and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said that it should be a case of one step forward. I think that that is the right way to go.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North wants to go further. Donations from America, as I understand it, must be made either by Irish citizens or by an Irish company carrying on one or more principal activities on the island of Ireland. [Interruption.] I have been told to lay off anyone going to jail, but I could name another one who is in the news today.
Finally, may I tell the hon. Member for Belfast East that I did not serve on the Bill Committee, but I understand that her amendment was resisted at the time? I hope that she realises as the single member of a single-Member party in the House that the Government listens. We have listened to her, and essentially we have accepted her amendment.
Amendment 1 agreed to.
Amendment made: 2, page 18, leave out lines 1 to 3. —(Mr Robathan.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I should like to begin by thanking my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), who was in the Chamber earlier, for his work in preparing this Bill and steering it through the House. My task today has been greatly eased by the work that he has done in explaining the contents of the Bill to the House. I should also like to thank speakers from all parts of the House—from the four parties of Northern Ireland represented in the Chamber today—for their constructive contributions to debates on the Bill. [Interruption.] Three parties and an independent, I am sorry. I have looked carefully at the earlier debates, and I think the House has done an excellent job on the Bill. While we have not always agreed on amendments, there has been a great deal of consensus on much of its contents.
As many hon. Members have noted, this is not a Bill that makes radical changes to the architecture of government in Northern Ireland. It has been described variously as a “tapas Bill”, a “portmanteau Bill”, and a “bouillabaisse Bill”. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), in his inimitable way, has even suggested that some would see it as a “bits and pieces” Bill. I welcome that sort of Bill, because I would describe it as a Bill for more normal times. In the past, Northern Ireland Bills have made fundamental changes to government in Northern Ireland, or have been introduced in response to political crises. This Bill supports the development of the devolved institutions. The emphasis now has to be not on further radical institutional departures, but on delivery—chiefly delivery by the institutions in Northern Ireland, but with our support—on reducing community division and on economic renewal. That is the keystone of our approach to Northern Ireland.
If I may be allowed a personal note, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am newly arrived back in Northern Ireland, although as some hon. Members will know, I spent time in an earlier incarnation there. Indeed, I spent the best part of a year in west Belfast, defending, as I saw it, people of the community of Northern Ireland, whether they were from a nationalist, Unionist, Protestant or Catholic background—I was defending them all—against the scourge of terrorism, and I am proud of having done so.
In my view of the past, and in my hopes for Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, I, too, have a past, shaped by my experience, which has shaped my views. For now, my aim is to work with all the politicians in the Northern Ireland Executive to help them to deliver the benefits to which the agreements have opened the way. The Bill is consistent with that approach. It clears the decks of a number of relatively small, but important, matters, to smooth the way for better delivery aimed at Northern Ireland’s future peace and prosperity. The changes that the Bill makes are not radical, but they are important. Northern Ireland is now moving in the right direction.
I am very flattered indeed that the Minister should regard me as a party in my own right. I am an independent Member but it is always lovely to be unanimous with myself.
The Minister will know that a key provision of the Bill is to move the scheduled election date for the Northern Ireland Assembly. By statute, the Assembly should be elected every four years, but that term has been extended. Will he kindly give a guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland that the House regards that as a rarity? In fact, when there is a statutory lifetime of a devolved Assembly that should be changed very rarely indeed.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady is unanimous with herself. I did not mean to portray her as a party, but rather as an individual independent.
On the substantive issue, as an historian I remember the Septennial Act 1715, which extended the life of the Westminster Parliament and was rightly disparaged over the years. Extending the life of any assembly or Parliament should be done with great care and only in exceptional circumstances. I, like the hon. Lady, am a democrat and I do not think we should go that way, but on this occasion there is general consensus that that is probably the right way forward.
It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to consider hosting world leaders in Northern Ireland for the G8 summit. I remember that when the Prime Minister announced it, some people said, “That’s a bit dodgy,” but it worked extremely well and I pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland, who made it such a successful G8 summit. It would have been inconceivable a decade ago to present the Turner prize in Northern Ireland. It would have been inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of visitors would travel to Northern Ireland for events like the world police and fire games this summer.
The passing of this Bill through the House marks a further step towards normalisation for Northern Ireland. This is the first Bill since the imposition of direct rule in 1972 which has not been enacted in haste, as a result of a political crisis or to implement a political agreement. Instead, it has been subject to public consultation, pre-legislative scrutiny and thorough scrutiny following the usual timetable in this House. It is something to celebrate that we are now able to consider matters thoroughly and without the urgency that has been a feature of previous Bills, and although I have attended only this sitting on the Bill, I might say that we have been able to discuss it with good humour, which is also important. I commend the Bill to the House.
I reiterate the comments made by the Minister of State about the good spirit in which the debate has been conducted. We have been considering matters of great moment—matters of state, matters of considerable importance, but it has been done overall, I hope, in a good and positive atmosphere.
May I trespass upon your good nature, which is legendary, Mr Deputy Speaker, by adding my own tribute to the late Eddie McGrady? When I attended his funeral in Downpatrick last Thursday, as I went up past McGrady’s estate agents, turned round at McGrady’s accountants, arrived at the cathedral to meet Father Fergal McGrady, son of Malachy McGrady, it occurred to me that possibly there was somebody in Downpatrick who was not a McGrady, but I did not find them. I was privileged to sit with Arlene Foster, who represented the DUP very well. Between the Secretary of State and Arlene Foster was none other than the present hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who is not, as I know it, a McGrady, though she was considered and referred to as a protégée of the great McGrady.
May I, once more trespassing on your legendary good nature and good will, Mr Deputy Speaker, add my sympathies to the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for the occurrence that took place over the weekend, which she has typically and characteristically responded to with enormous courage? She is here tonight to support what may be Government amendment 1, but is in fact the hon. Lady’s amendment 1. She has done that extremely well and successfully. For somebody who considered the matter in a Statutory Instrument Committee, to see it come to fruition on the Floor of the House is a great tribute not just to the good sense and good will of the House, but particularly to the driving force of the hon. Lady.
We heard from the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson). He could have spoken more—I recommend to any Member the Committee’s full report on the draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It should not be forgotten that a great deal of the business that is affected by this legislation has not been discussed on the Floor of the House tonight and has not been amended. Although the expression “a bits and pieces Bill” may seem a trifle crude, the Bill is a glorious melange, a coming together of so many different aspects, all overseen with a golden thread of positivity.
Let us not forget that the Bill deals with political donations, dual mandates, the position of the Justice Minister, electoral registration, equality duties and even the regulation of biometric data. We have considered so many of these—the fixed terms, the length of the current Assembly term—and we have arrived at the end with, I like to think, a strong degree of consensus, which is again a tribute to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, its present Chairman and its members, who I see are well represented in the House tonight.
On the first group of amendments, new clauses 1 and 2, we heard from the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). I have immense sympathy with the points that he makes. The hardest task that any of us who is involved even peripherally with the affairs of Northern Ireland must face is the legacy issue—the issue of dealing with the past. It overhangs everything we do. All our deliberations must be seen in that context. Just to listen to some of the names and some of the atrocities that the hon. Gentleman mentioned reminded us—those of us who needed reminding, and I rather doubt that any of us do need reminding—that we will always have to be aware of the full horror, the monstrosity of the past, which lurks over our shoulder at all times.
However, tonight we have heard a little bit of good news which points us in the direction of consensus. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), as ever, spoke from the heart and spoke with great emotion. None of us in the House could ever have anything less than utter respect, regard and understanding of the pain and the agony that he and his family and many members of his community have suffered, yet we are here today in a democratic House, undertaking democratic legislation to make life better for a group of people who have not been well served in the past.
If there is one thing that we must recognise as binding together everything that we have done tonight, it is, as the Minister said, that the Bill is an indication of progression. We are moving forward into a safer, more inclusive and shared future. It may seem that much of the content of Bills is minutiae—a minor matter. There is nothing of minor matter in the politics of Northern Ireland. Every single aspect of the Bill is crucial and has great significance beyond this House. I like to think that what has emerged here this evening is at the very least a signpost on the way to a better and a shared future. All Members of the House should take some credit for that achievement here tonight.
There is important Back-Bench business to be taken. My natural loquacity will be limited, if not choked, on this occasion. I would like to say more and there is probably more to be said, but I shall end by saying that the House has done Parliament, democracy and above all the people of Northern Ireland a great service tonight. I am proud to be a Member of the House that agreed this Bill this evening.
I would like to say it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), but it is very difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman. Once again, I welcome what he said and the way that he said it, with his customary humour and good grace.
I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well. We look forward to working with him. I formally put on record our condolences to the SDLP and to the people of South Down on the sad loss of Eddie McGrady, who was a very decent and honourable representative for all the people of South Down. I have expressed my sentiments privately and I have written to the SDLP, but I want to put that formally on the record. He was a true outstanding example of what a Member of Parliament and an elected representative should be.
I also want to put on record our condemnation of the attack on the offices of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long). I note that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) has tabled a motion for debate today in the Northern Ireland Assembly condemning that and other attacks. He made the point that whether these evil acts have a loyalist or republican label, they are equally wrong, regardless of who is responsible. I think that all hon. Members will endorse that. We as democrats must stand up against attacks. Members of my party and of the SDLP, and members of other parties and of no party, have had their person, their offices and their property attacked previously, simply because they stood up and expressed a point of view in a democratic way. It is scandalous that anyone should be targeted for doing that.
We welcome the Bill. It is limited in scope, but nevertheless it deals with some important matters. We wish it had gone further in relation to party donations and the point that I raised in relation to a glaring loophole, but no doubt we will return to that at some point. I welcome the fact that the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly has been brought into line with those for Scotland and Wales. We now have an equal situation for the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The Government have been sensible and right to do that. There are the new arrangements for the Minister of Justice and the Assembly’s power to reduce the number of MLAs, which we certainly want to see. There are far too many Assembly Members in Northern Ireland, and the number needs to be reduced.
We recognise that other more substantive issues need to be debated and for which provision needs to be made. We hope that after the Haass talks and further consideration in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee we will be in a position to come forward with some kind of consensus on major issues and debate them further and, if necessary, legislate for them in this House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on Third Reading. We had a good debate on Second Reading and during part of the Committee stage in this Chamber in June, and my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) took the Bill forward in Committee. Tonight we discussed further amendments on Report and now we have the Third Reading debate.
As Member of Parliament for South Down I want to thank all Members on the Front and Back Benches and across various parties for the tribute that they have paid tonight to the former hon. Member for South Down, Eddie McGrady, who passed away last Monday afternoon in Down hospital. I worked for and with Eddie for many years, and I, like other hon. Members here tonight, always found him a man of considerable integrity, hard work, dedication and commitment to all his constituents without fear or favour. He represented the true hallmarks of what a Member of Parliament should be, at a time in Northern Ireland when it was difficult to engage in that particular role because of ongoing violence, ongoing deaths, ongoing threats and the ongoing murder of many of his constituents, some of whom I have already referred to in this debate. He condemned all of those unequivocally, because he always believed that the principle of democracy must reign. He, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle and many other party members, participated faithfully in the negotiations on the Good Friday agreement, because we firmly believed that that was the pathway and the direction of travel to the resolution of our conflict, bringing about a final political settlement on the island of Ireland, espousing the relationships between Unionists and nationalists in the north, between the north and south of the island and between Britain and Ireland, which were characterised by the political institutions that were established as a result of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
On behalf of my party and my SDLP colleagues in this House, I condemn the terrible and horrendous attack yet again on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and on her constituency office. Such attacks are an affront to the democratic process and to democracy. Again, I emphasise that this House and all Members adhere to the principle of democracy, and we want that to reign supreme. Those who carry out such acts of violence are reprehensible, and their deeds are reprehensible.
The Bill, with its 29 clauses, is being debated at a time, as the Minister said, when there has been no particular crisis in Northern Ireland. It simply reflects a movement in the democratic process in Northern Ireland. We in the SDLP—my hon. Friends the Members for Foyle, for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) and me—would like to have enhanced the Bill with the inclusion of clauses to deal with the past, which is currently the subject of the Haass talks, bringing back the whole issue of petitions of concern to what they were meant to be under the Good Friday agreement of 1998, and the whole area of statutory duties with regard to good relations. We welcome the greater level of transparency in relation to donations and the Government’s further commitment tonight on that, which was originally brought forward by the hon. Member for Belfast East.
In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle and I raised the issues to do with dual mandate. We asked for that area of the dual mandate to be extended to the Lords and Seanad Eireann in the Republic of Ireland, because that would be more comprehensive and would deal with the issue in a much fuller way.
In Committee, I tabled amendments on the length of the Assembly mandate, which has been referred to tonight by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). We believe that the extension of the Assembly term from four to five years is undemocratic, because Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who fought the election in May 2011, those Members who were elected, and those people who voted for all candidates in that election, did so for a four-year term, not a five-year term. I understand the Government’s wish for synchronisation, so that matters concur with what is happening in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but we in the SDLP are clear that that is a disruption to the democratic process and to the principle of democracy. On Second Reading, I referred to the mystery tour, and why that decision had been taken. When the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and other organs of political activity in Northern Ireland were supporting a four-year term, why was it automatically changed to a five-year term? So far I have not received a sufficiently adequate answer to that mystery or puzzle. Perhaps the Minister will be able to elucidate that tonight.
Does the hon. Lady agree that whatever the pros and cons of the delay of the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, whether or not it is delayed for a year could hardly be categorised as an issue of burning interest among the people in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The people of Northern Ireland fully subscribe to the principles of democracy and, I think, contrary to what he says, would be concerned about that.
In conclusion, although the political process in Northern Ireland has moved on and there is now a concentration on the social, health and economic agenda, we want to see those processes built on. We want to see total delivery for the people of Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Assembly. We want to see an Assembly and an Executive that are actually working for the people on all the issues that matter, rather than some of the sterile debates and decisions that have taken place in recent months.
We want the British and Irish Governments to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive on energy, economic development, urban regeneration, jobs and the economy, because we all—I am sure that this applies to all parties from Northern Ireland represented here—want to see delivery for the people in relation to Treasury and fiscal matters. We want to see our tourism protected. In that regard, and in advance of the autumn statement, there is a need for VAT on tourism to complement the level it is at in the Republic of Ireland, because we do not want our tourism industry, our jobs and our economy—
In conclusion, after that slight detour— I am back on track, Mr Deputy Speaker—and in relation to the general principles of the Bill, we look forward to a positive solution from the Haass talks on issues relating to flags, emblems, the past and victims, some of which we would have liked to have been addressed by new clauses in the Bill, but I am pleased to have been able to participate this evening.
I will take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State to his new post. It has been an experience getting to know him slightly better this evening. It is good that we have been able to make some progress during what I think has been, with regard to outcomes, quite a positive evening.
I also want to express my personal sympathy, and that of my party, to the SDLP and the McGrady family on the passing of Eddie McGrady. He was a gentleman, someone with integrity, and he served his whole community without fear or favour. I know how closely the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) worked with Eddie McGrady and so particularly want to pass on my personal condolences to her at what must be a very difficult time. He was very highly thought of right across the community in Northern Ireland, and that cannot be claimed of many people. He was distinguished by that and by many other things he did while a Member of this House.
There is much to commend in the Bill. However, in line with the convention that we should save the best until last, I will focus first on some of the matters about which I am still discontent. As I stated earlier, I am disappointed that donations were not addressed more fully at this stage in the Bill’s progress, with regard to both moving towards full transparency and addressing the issue that the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) raised on overseas donors and the lack of transparency. The time has come for us to build on the progress we have made in Northern Ireland and show confidence in that progress, and I believe that in order to do that we must be courageous in the decisions we make as politicians. Part of that has to be about taking on responsibility for transparency and accountability and the normal standards of public life that apply everywhere else. It would be a huge step forward if progress could be made on that.
I am also disappointed that we have been unable to address as fully as I had wished the issue of dual mandates between the Assembly and Seanad Eireann and between the Assembly and the House of Lords. I have had some success this evening, so I will chance my arm and ask for some more. One of the reasons for not addressing the issue in relation to Seanad Eireann in Committee of the whole House was that there was soon to be a referendum on abolishing it. The referendum failed to abolish the Seanad, so it is an ongoing concern that people can still be Members of the Assembly and the Seanad. I ask the Government, in the light of that development, to consider revisiting the matter when the Bill moves to another place.
I want to welcome progress made in the Bill on four matters. First, I welcome the progress in addressing the anomaly of the appointment of the Justice Minister, which currently advantages my party but would advantage any party that found itself in receipt of that post. It is unfair and, we believe, unbalances the situation. That is something we have raised and worked with other parties to find a solution to, so we are pleased to see it resolved in the Bill.
I also welcome the legislative footing for the end to dual mandates. It is a matter on which a number of parties made commitments before the last Westminster elections, but only now are we slowly beginning to see some progress. I believe that the Bill’s passage through the House has concentrated minds on the issue. I believe that putting that on a legislative footing will ensure that those commitments will be met by all the parties that made them, which I welcome.
I also welcome the regularising of the Assembly’s terms to avoid future clashes with Westminster elections. I regret that that could not be done before the last Assembly elections so that the public would have known that they were electing an Assembly for a five-year term. However, I think that on balance it is better that we regularise it now, rather than having the kinds of ad hoc changes to Assembly dates that we had previously, when people were never quite sure when Assembly elections would take place. It almost appeared as though our elections in Northern Ireland were not as valuable or important as elections in other places. It is important that that has been regularised. It will allow people to focus properly on Westminster issues for Westminster elections and Assembly issues for Assembly elections.
I also welcome the move to remove permanent anonymity for donors from January. I want to put on the record my thanks to the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for his support for the amendments we tabled in Committee. He ensured that mine was not a lone voice on the matter and that at least there would have been two of us to act as Tellers, even if there was no one to count. I was pleased that he was willing to do that and thank him for it.
I am pleased about those matters not just because they are ones on which I have campaigned, but because I believe they mark an improvement in the democratic process for the people of Northern Ireland and the people I represent in east Belfast. Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland—Members have reflected on that this evening—but we still have a long way to go to achieve the normality we wish to see. Indeed, the events of recent days and weeks suggest that there are still those, both loyalist and republican, who would seek to deflect us from doing that. It is our duty as elected representatives to make politics work, to aspire to the highest standards in public life and to restore the relationship between us as elected representatives and those we represent, to engender their trust and confidence and to demonstrate that politics is the only way forward and that it is a practical and effective way to make our views known and heard. I believe that the Bill will move politics forward in Northern Ireland and improve the working of the system there. I am pleased to be able to support it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.