§ The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Mandelson)
I beg to move,That the draft Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointed Day) Order 1999, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.This is one of the most welcome pieces of legislation that any of us will be asked to enact this Session—indeed, in the whole Parliament.
It is a momentous occasion for Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Secretary of State, but I must have a greater degree of quiet in the House. This is a very important occasion. Those hon. Members who are here for the debate should give the Secretary of State a good hearing.
§ Mr. Mandelson
This is indeed a momentous occasion, as Northern Ireland begins to put behind it the conflict, prejudice and division that has blighted the lives of everyone in both communities for a generation.
For the first time, all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland will have a stake in the future. After a quarter of a century, the curtain is finally coming down on direct rule. Of course, there will still be anger about the past, and real difficulties undoubtedly still lie ahead, but this generation is now turning the page to the future.
In Stormont now, Ministers have been appointed and a Government formed. They are waiting only for their powers. Passing those powers to them is our job tonight.
To the new Northern Ireland Executive—five Unionists and five Nationalists—we are transferring responsibility for enterprise; trade; culture and the environment; higher education; training; agriculture and rural development; schools, health, social services and public safety; social and regional development; and finance and personnel.
This is not mere symbolism. It is the passing of real, practical power into the hands of parties drawn from both communities, to democratically elected and accountable people who will no longer have a Secretary of State and his officials to blame when things go wrong.
What has been created is so strong and so durable that not even the Democratic Unionist party of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) wants to stay out of it. I am glad to say that that party has entered the Executive with two very capable Ministers.
At last, the Good Friday agreement is being implemented.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)
Will the Secretary of State say whether the Democratic Unionist Ministers will be at the meeting of the Executive on Thursday?
§ Mr. Mandelson
That is a question that the hon. Gentleman might put to the Democratic Unionist 254 Members, who are in the House tonight. I have every confidence that they will play a full part in the work and life of the Executive.
§ Mr. Mandelson
I thought for a moment that I was going to have to give way again.
As I said, at last the Good Friday agreement is being implemented. I can state that, under the terms of section 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, sufficient progress has been made in implementing the agreement for me to set a commencement date for devolution to take effect in Northern Ireland.
If the order is approved tonight, I can tell the House that Her Majesty has agreed to hold a special Privy Council meeting tomorrow, when the order may be made.
The order states that devolution for Northern Ireland will take effect from midnight tomorrow. In addition, from this Thursday, direct rule will be no more.
In addition to the 10 new Departments created by a previous order, the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister will also be responsible for the promotion and protection of equality issues, and for human rights as well as economic policy.
Some areas of responsibility will remain under my authority, notably policing, security and criminal justice, and that is right and proper for the time being.
The security situation has been transformed as a result of politics replacing violence as Northern Ireland's way of life. However, vigilance remains necessary and we will remain on our guard until it is safe to do otherwise. In the exercise of my authority in those important residual areas, I will consult the Assembly whenever proper and appropriate to ensure that local concerns and issues are taken into consideration in relation to the exercise of my responsibilities. The institutional changes foreshadowed in the Good Friday agreement are not limited to the new Executive.
If the order is approved, in two days' time the new British-Irish agreement will come into effect following the exchange of notifications between the two Governments. This replaces the former 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and will mark the beginning of a new understanding between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It will trigger the establishment of the six north-south bodies-including the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference—and it will provide a foundation for practical cross-border co-operation.
The Irish Government will immediately make a declaration that will bring into effect the amendments to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and our own amendments relating to the law on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will also come into force.
This settles, once and for all, the constitutional argument that has been at the root of the conflict. Henceforward, Northern Ireland's future will be decided by consent of its own people. Unionist and nationalist 255 aspirations will have equal legitimacy, but only so long as they are peacefully and democratically expressed and pursued.
§ Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)
Will the Secretary of State be reminded that Unionism is not an aspiration? It is a possession, whereas nationalism is an aspiration.
§ Mr. Mandelson
I am sure that the House will have heard and noted what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Together, the steps that I have described begin a new era for Northern Ireland, which it behoves all hon. Members to welcome in the House tonight.
I should like to pay particular tribute to the Northern Ireland civil service, which has worked enormously hard to put in place the arrangements for devolution at remarkably short notice—not merely the administrative steps needed to create 11 Departments from six and to get ready all the other institutions under the agreement, but also the physical reorganisation, the movement of staff, the preparation of buildings, the reorganisation of telephone and computer networks and so on.
To take just one example, the corridor outside my office has for the past 36 hours reverberated to the sound of trolleys piled with desks, chairs, lamp stands and countless other items as the bureaucracy demonstrates its unique mobility and marches off to serve a new Administration. I welcome this—I am losing some excellent advisers, but I know that they will serve their new Ministers with the same dedication and integrity with which they supported me and my predecessors.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
While the right hon. Gentleman is recognising the work that is being done, will he also recognise that tonight is possible only because of the dedicated work of the Northern Ireland civil service and so many others for so many years, during which they kept administration going in difficult circumstances and made it possible for this much more hopeful day to dawn?
§ Mr. Mandelson
The right hon. Gentleman knows that what he has said is only too true. Others in the House, including other right hon. Gentlemen who have served in a similar capacity, will testify to the excellent service that the civil service has given.
The civil service will be among the first to say that local politicians should be in charge of local affairs. Little trust has previously existed among those politicians, but in London and Belfast, in offices, corridors, canteens and the odd ambassador's residence, the story of this week's breakthrough is that trust crept in and partnership grew throughout those important contacts during the 11 weeks of the Mitchell review.
It is invidious to single out one person for credit as so many have played their part, but George Mitchell refused to believe that Northern Ireland's plight was hopeless. His patience, tireless spirit and determination have been indispensable. The leaders of the pro-agreement parties have indeed repaid his faith handsomely.
I congratulate also the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) on his election as Northern Ireland's First Minister. On Saturday, he proved that he has instilled in his party the personal courage that he has shown throughout the whole process. Northern Ireland will 256 indeed need strong, assured leadership in the early days of self-rule. There can be no one better qualified than the right hon. Gentleman to take the helm.
A power-sharing Government for Northern Ireland has been a long-cherished goal for the party of the Deputy First Minister, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). His status, endorsed by Assembly Members yesterday, is a fitting reward for his contribution to realising that goal. His presence reassures us that this new Government will prize fairness and tolerance. His party leader, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), has long championed parity of esteem for both traditions in Northern Ireland, and on Thursday that will become reality.
I would also like to pay tribute to Gerry Adams. He has brought Sinn Fein in from the cold. Without sacrificing his or its basic beliefs, he has created a party with which Unionists can do business, as the sight of Martin McGuinness—to some a remarkable sight—on his first day as Minister for Education goes to show.
I cannot let this moment pass without saying that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have each put extraordinary time and effort into finding a solution in Northern Ireland—as did their predecessors, notably the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). They are the architects of the Good Friday agreement, and can justifiably be proud of their achievement. The same is true of my predecessor as Secretary of State, now the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam), whose endless patience saw the process through countless difficult times—as did our predecessors through the long years of direct rule.
There is one final piece to the jigsaw that will bring the twin goals of devolution and decommissioning to Northern Ireland. The IRA has confirmed that, within hours of the transfer of powers, it will appoint an authorised representative to deal directly with General de Chastelain's decommissioning commission; I hope that the other paramilitary organisations will also do so. That is the first step on the road to the decommissioning of arms in Northern Ireland.
No one is being asked to leap in the dark. General de Chastelain will give a full, frank and public account of the decommissioning process. He is respected on all sides, and his integrity is beyond doubt. I have no doubt that he will ensure that the commission will achieve its mandate. We are not planning for failure, but, as I told the House last week, swift action will follow if there is clear default at any stage of the twin processes of devolution and decommissioning.
Approval of the order will assure new stability, new prosperity and new hope for Northern Ireland. After much frustration and many false starts, we can now unlock the full potential of the Good Friday agreement. The arrangements that will come into force on Thursday will bind the citizens and Government of Northern Ireland closer than they have ever been before. Only the people of Northern Ireland will have the power to decide their future. For all of them, this is the path to an unbreakable peace and to truly democratic and accountable Government.
I commend the order to the House.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)
I wholly endorse the remarks made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about Senator George Mitchell. It is no exaggeration to say that we would not be considering the order if it were not for his tireless patience—the patience of a saint. The senator has gained the trust of everyone involved in the process. This country owes him a very great debt.
The Opposition support the order; not least because we have consistently wanted a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. Many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have served honourably in the Northern Ireland Office. I believe that they would all agree that they have been only second best, because it is right and proper that the people of Northern Ireland elect politicians who then can exercise power and responsibility. Successive Governments, Conservative and Labour, have administered Northern Ireland to the very best of their ability, but there has been a democratic deficit. It is unacceptable, in a perfect society, for Northern Ireland to be run exclusively by Northern Ireland Ministers who represent Welsh, Scottish and English constituencies.
That democratic deficit has been further illustrated by the fact that, for perfectly understandable reasons, local government in Northern Ireland, unlike elsewhere in the United Kingdom, has very, very few powers. It is important that the elected representatives, Unionist and nationalist, gain the power and then the responsibility. It will not be easy for them, and in the weeks and months ahead those Ministers will suddenly have to take some very tough decisions, but we wish them well.
The second reason that we support the order is for the reasons outlined by the Secretary of State. The moment that the Executive is formally set up on Thursday, the cross-border bodies come into effect, and, automatically, the Irish constitution is amended. Articles 2 and 3, which for too long have been a stumbling block to lasting peace in Northern Ireland and have caused huge misunderstandings, will disappear, and the Irish Government—the people of Ireland—will no longer have a constitutional claim on the Province. Instead—rightly, in a democracy—the people of Northern Ireland, exclusively and entirely, will be able to decide the future of that Province. I applaud that; it is a major step forward.
There is something that we have always wanted in addition to devolution, and that is the end to violence for good, and the decommissioning of all illegally held arms and explosives. We have been bitterly disappointed and very frustrated that not one gun, nor one ounce of Semtex, has been handed in by any of the paramilitaries, loyalist or republican, who signed up to the Belfast agreement. They have failed to fulfil their obligations, and previously the House has heard me say that I believe that it was wrong to release 300 or more loyalist and republican terrorist prisoners back on to the streets without getting anything whatever in return.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
The Secretary of State has said that he will not plan for failure. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure to have 258 a plan B—the failure to have a plan for failure—has given the terrorists a powerful negotiating hand, which has enabled them to get away without handing in any weapons?
§ Mr. MacKay
The House will have heard the Secretary of State say tonight, clearly and without equivocation, that if anyone defaults on the Mitchell review proposals, they will be penalised. I take the Secretary of State at his word, but he knows full well that the House will be watching events carefully. Like him, I do not wish to contemplate failure, but we must be aware that we do not live in a perfect world. If decommissioning does not take place reasonably quickly, action will need to be taken.
I believe that the House should endorse what the Secretary of State said about the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and congratulate him on being elected First Minister, as we congratulate the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) on becoming Deputy First Minister, and wish them both well for the future.
I should like to return, for a second, to the role of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann. I entirely endorse what he said at his party's council meeting on Saturday. It seems to me quite reasonable and proper that the Ulster Unionist council should be reconvened early in February to review progress. It is absolutely clear that if decommissioning has not properly commenced by that point, it would be wrong and improper for Sinn Fein Ministers to remain on the Executive.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
I heard my right hon. Friend endorse the Secretary of State's comments about the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I trust that he will not endorse the Secretary of State's comments about Gerry Adams, who ought to be a Member of the House. Will my right hon. Friend consider that many people in Northern Ireland will be very distressed to hear the Secretary of State paying tribute to somebody whose hands are dripping with blood and who is almost certainly a member of the IRA Army Council, which is the cause of all the troubles in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. Hon. Members should allow me to deal with this point. I will not tolerate interventions that are in fact mini-speeches. They are not the done thing.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a matter of common courtesy that we always refer to Members of the House, whether or not they have taken the oath, by their constituency. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) referred to a certain person by name, as indeed did the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for Blaby was not out of order.
§ Mr. MacKay
I want to look to the future, and I believe that all the parties in Northern Ireland and all the 259 participants in the review process will be judged, rightly, not only by the statements that they have been making but by their actions. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I say that we shall judge Mr. Adams, Mr. McGuinness, Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA by their actions in the weeks and months ahead.
I welcome the fact that it now seems almost certain that the Provisional IRA will appoint a representative to deal with General de Chastelain, and I very much endorse the Secretary of State's remarks that the whole House has absolute confidence in General de Chastelain to produce the right report and reach the right conclusions on the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. However, you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that actually arranging for somebody to discuss those matters with the general is only the first step. Although we welcome that step, shortly thereafter it will be absolutely essential that there is a proper start to the decommissioning of those illegally held arms and explosives, not only by the republicans, but by the so-called loyalist paramilitaries who signed up to the Belfast agreement.
Equally, I believe that it is vital that all arms and explosives are handed in by May. It is very easy to forget, in this short debate, that all those arms and explosives were supposed to be handed in over a two-year period concluding next May. Eighteen months has gone by, and there has been no decommissioning. There ain't long to go.
I want briefly to refer to the appointment of Mr. McGuinness as Education Minister. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] There seem to be complaints from Members on the Government Benches. It is absolutely right that in this House we are able to discuss developments in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] Let me say to hon. Members who groaned and who are now shouting from a sedentary position, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), that there are legitimate, genuine concerns in the Province and elsewhere in the United Kingdom about the fact that Mr. McGuinness, with his background and record, is now responsible for schools in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. MacKay
I shall conclude my point and then I shall certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman.
If the House is not going to discuss those legitimate concerns, and I, as the shadow Secretary of State, am to be shouted down for raising them, all I can say is that that is not what the House of Commons is about. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Corbett
My point is simple, but the right hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand it. The appointment in Northern Ireland of Ministers to their portfolios has nothing to do with the House—that is what devolved government is all about.
§ Mr. MacKay
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I fully understand that, but it does not mean that we cannot comment on the legitimate fears of the people of Northern Ireland and elsewhere. If we are properly to resolve the difficulty—
§ Mr. MacKay
No, because there is a 10-minute limit on speeches and many right hon. and hon. Members want to speak in the debate.
If we are to make progress in the review process, we have to be aware of the huge upset and legitimate concern arising from Martin McGuinness becoming schools Minister, with responsibility for education in Northern Ireland. I accept that Mr. McGuinness is entitled to be Education Minister. Under the d'Hondt process, the different parties were able to choose the Departments they wanted; Sinn Fein chose education, and I make no complaint about that. However, the fact that there is such legitimate concern about Martin McGuinness running schools in Northern Ireland makes it all the more important that Mr. McGuinness and his—
§ Mr. Bermingham
Does the Opposition spokesman have the right to mislead the House? The matter to which he refers is not one of appointment, but one of choice in a devolved—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) is not misleading the House. He is in good order; had he not been, I would have stopped him. Let me tell the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) that when he raises points of order, he squeezes Back Benchers out of the debate.
§ Mr. MacKay
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
As I was saying, the House accepts that Mr. McGuinness is legally entitled to be Minister for Education under the d'Hondt formula, which is part of the agreement. However, there is huge concern about him running schools in Northern Ireland. Therefore, along with Mr. Adams, Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA, Mr. McGuinness has a responsibility quickly to commence the decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives. In that way, they can prove to us, in action rather than in words, that they are now legitimate democrats who want to play a full role in the Executive running Northern Ireland. If they fail to do that, they and their representatives have no legitimate right to remain as Ministers.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
My right hon. Friend will have noted that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred to swift action if decommissioning did not take place within the prescribed time, and he has referred to 261 the question of the action needed in that event. Will he specify what action would be taken if decommissioning did not take place within the set time scale?
§ Mr. MacKay
That is a matter for the Secretary of State, and he would not necessarily welcome my advice at this point. However, I think it inconceivable that the Executive should continue into February without proper and sustained decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives taking place. Many Ministers who have been appointed to the Executive would not want to remain in post if decommissioning did not take place, and they would have my full support and that of my colleagues in withdrawing from the Executive.
I wish the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all the other Ministers well in the difficult task that lies ahead of them. I pray that not only devolution but decommissioning takes place in full, so that peace can at last come to that troubled Province.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind the House that Madam Speaker has ruled that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench Members' speeches.
§ Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)
After 27 years of the most torrid life that any part of Europe has seen, it is a rather strange feeling for me this evening, having been active in politics for those 27 years, to stand in the Chamber literally on the threshold of the end of one era and the beginning of another.
From Whitelaw to Mandelson is a long time. There is more than one Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Chamber this evening—there are previous Secretaries of State; and there is more than one former Northern Ireland Minister and more than one present Minister. Collectively, so that I leave no one out, I sincerely thank them all for their efforts as Secretaries of State and as Ministers for trying to help in the most appalling situation that the House will ever deal with in terms of the violence, suffering and trauma that people have lived through.
I do not want to plough over the past but I wish to emphasise that we will never know the suffering of people in the north of Ireland. We will never know the depth and the scope of it. However, we all know collectively, especially Members from Northern Ireland and those in the political process who are not Members of this place, that we as a political process owe it not only to the people who are alive in Northern Ireland and not only to those who died, but to those whose lives are in front of them to take this opportunity and mould it into a future in a way that ensures that the past will never be conceivable and will never happen again.
The Good Friday agreement was the product of many long years of effort by Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Ministers and Members. That was the beginning of the end of the horror of those 27 years. The Mitchell review was the penultimate step to that end. Now, 602 days after the signing of the Good Friday agreement, we stand at the end of that era of death, suffering and violence. However, paradoxically, as we reach that end we are at the beginning 262 of a new era, a new dispensation, a new hope and a new confidence that we, the people of Northern Ireland, and those of us who are charged and honoured to represent them politically, will change the future.
We will make this work because we know the alternative to it. We will make it work because we owe it to everyone in Northern Ireland. We owe it to everyone in this country who suffered greatly too. We owe it also to people in the Republic of Ireland and to those abroad, especially in the United States and Europe, who helped us to try to solve our problems. We shall do so in the sense of the Mitchell review and in the direction in which it pointed us. I join in the thanks to George Mitchell for his skill, patience and steeliness, which should never be underestimated.
George Mitchell asked us to do two things. That should not be too much for any of us. One is to take responsibility for our future and our own well-being. That we do at midnight on Wednesday. The other is to get rid of illegal arms within our society. That we must do, if only for the most base political consideration, because people agreed in the Mitchell review that that must and should be done.
Both of those things must happen. I am confident that they will, because I am confident that we will build a new future and a new relationship, no longer one of abject dependence on philosophies that are outmoded, outdated and irrelevant to the type of world in which we live.
We will build a new society and a new dispensation, based on an absence of hostilities, which will create a Northern Ireland that is at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbours, with strong north-south linkages, interacting with a devolved United Kingdom and working within a devolved and common European framework. Then we can look at some of the philosophies that guided people towards violence in the north of Ireland and see how dated and outmoded they are.
However, problems are not ended when devolution comes; they begin, and there will be many of them. There will be myriad problems to be overcome, but I am certain of one thing. With the resolve, the good will and the new relationship that we must build, those can and will be overcome. I also believe that by dealing with those problems together, we will all emerge better people as a community, better politicians and better able to pay our debt to all the people, past and present, who deserve to have that debt paid.
Finally, I repeat that we made solemn promises in the agreement on Good Friday. We made solemn promises again in the Mitchell review. This is an opportunity for all of us collectively to make another solemn promise tonight that we will deliver on a future that we ourselves will create, with the help of the House and the help of the Irish Government and our friends abroad.
I do not want to overplay the theme, but I believe that for the first time we can all use a common understanding of the words, "We shall overcome."
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
It is a pleasure to follow my colleague, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). May I associate myself with the thanks that he expressed, and the thanks expressed by the Secretary of State, to all those who have helped to bring us to this point.
263 I welcome the order, which will result in a significant devolution of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly and bring an end to direct rule. May I say, in passing, that there never should have been direct rule. There was not direct rule before Stormont, and if it should ever be necessary for the Secretary of State to come back to the Dispatch Box to revoke the order that he is making today, there is no need to go back to direct rule, because the legislative authority for Northern Ireland will remain in the House, and the executive authority is vested in the Queen. Consequently, should it ever be necessary for the Secretary of State to revoke the order, it will not be necessary for him to do anything further.
We should never have had the debasement of democracy that was direct rule. We are ending that tonight, just as on Thursday we shall be ending the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Irish Government's quite improper territorial claim. Those are substantial matters for the people of Northern Ireland, which are well worth stretching for as we have stretched ourselves in order to achieve them. We are doing that in the course of the implementation of the Mitchell review and, as others have said tonight, that review is based on bringing about devolution and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.
We have always sought to ensure that devolution is accompanied by decommissioning. It is no secret that my colleagues and I would have preferred decommissioning to have happened in closer association with devolution— rather than happening now, effectively sequentially—but we are about to complete the process of devolution; it will be completed on Thursday. The process of decommissioning should begin on Thursday and we are, in effect, passing the baton on to the republican movement. It will need to move rapidly, and it knows that.
Reference has been made—not only in the House but in public comments—to the resolution that was passed by my party's council on Saturday and, in particular, to its intention to revisit this matter in February. All I shall say about that is that all the resolution does by arranging for a meeting in February is simply regularise what would otherwise inevitably happen. No one should be perturbed in any way by what has happened.
As the Secretary of State said, yesterday we nominated a number of people for ministerial and other offices through the application of the d'Hondt formula. I say to those Members of the House who are enthusiastic proponents of proportional representation in all its forms that, having experienced that particular form of it, I cannot recommend it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There were, of course, particular reasons why, in the course of the Northern Ireland talks, we adopted that formula, but its operation yesterday was, in some respects, somewhat capricious and produced results that would not otherwise have happened under what we would have regarded as a more normal system. However, I have to say to the House that it is a matter of pride for myself and my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Assembly party that we were the only group that did not have to take an adjournment to work out what to do next.
I have to say, too, that I look forward to working with those who have been nominated under that process—the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh and, indeed, the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). I hope that we shall work closely together—[Laughter.] Perhaps even in the same room, from time to time.
264 I met this morning a journalist who came to interview me. He told me that he had just interviewed a member of the Democratic Unionist party who had obtained an appointment yesterday, saying that that person—it is not the hon. Member for Belfast, East—was bursting with enthusiasm and eager to get to grips with his job. I think that that is true not only of those who have been selected, but of the community as a whole in Northern Ireland. This morning, I had the pleasure of meeting a party of 25 people from Portadown who were visiting the Assembly. They, too, were looking forward to what we hope will be a new era.
Some matters are problems that remain unresolved. The Secretary of State knows what they are. He will have today received the submission from my party in response to the Patten recommendations. I hope that he will study it and see, as he comes forward with the Government's conclusions on the recommendations, that we should steer away from some of the sillier proposals that Patten made. On examination, I think that he will discover how ill-advised so many of those proposals are, but I shall not go into them now.
Another problem is the criminal justice review, which should have been completed by now but has been delayed. That delay is causing concern because we are aware of some other foolish ideas that are being canvassed by the members of that review, particularly with regard to what is called restorative justice. In my view, it is—in the form in which it is being operated by the Northern Ireland Office in some pilot schemes—contrary to the European convention on human rights. I remind the Secretary of State that the order brings the Human Rights Act 1998 into operation for a large number of matters in Northern Ireland, so that needs to be considered carefully.
I look forward to the time when policing and criminal justice matters are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that that will happen as soon as possible, because we should take control of that important aspect.
I shall not say much more because many other hon. Members want to speak. I simply say once again that we welcome this measure and hope to carry it through to fruition.
§ 11 pm
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
When the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) made the announcement that led directly to this order, I was one of a small minority who expressed reservations about the whole process. It is with considerable relief that I make a short contribution this evening. If I may, I want to impress two points on the House.
First, I want to pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) made in his typically generous and graceful contribution. He was at pains to point out Members of the House who have played some part in bringing about this order. I should like to name three people who are present and have been crucial to this process.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has negotiated thus far, though there have been considerable difficulties with his party. That cannot have been an easy task, and the bravery that he has shown is well supported in the country as a whole.
265 My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh has a particular role in the House for English Members and English constituents. Irish Members have come on the media to condemn brutal murders. If my hon. Friend came on, no one could tell from how he phrased his anger and disgust whether the person murdered was a Protestant or a Catholic. Sadly, that was not true of all spokesmen in Northern Ireland. Like the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh has a particular place in the affections of the House for the courage that he has shown over a long period.
It would be wrong if I did not also mention the Secretary of State. Although some will dismiss this movement and these events as inevitable and what history is about, I believe that individuals have played an important part in bringing us to this point. The Secretary of State has shown an array of skills, especially knowing when crucial guarantees should be given, and giving them. His statement to the House on Monday of last week played an important part in ensuring that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann had a majority on Saturday when the vote came, rather than a deficit. I would not want someone who had previously been a critic of this process to let events go past without admiring the skills that the Secretary of State has displayed.
We are celebrating an important event of this Parliament in a proper, reserved way and with a certain anxiousness, because it is not without risk. In the week that we take this action, a terrorist organisation in Spain that did not surrender its arms has given notice that it believes that it should now turn its back on the democratic process. However, I think that two powerful forces will work for the success of this agreement, beyond those highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh.
First, if we pay attention to the local government by-elections in the Republic of Ireland, we already see the effects that the potential agreement is having in the politics of these islands. Sinn Fein is emerging as a major challenger for power in the Republic; the Irish Prime Minister therefore has an added interest in ensuring that those who said at some stage they should surrender their arms do so, for there are major consequences for the polity of his own country.
The other factor that I believe is working for good, for security, and for effective democratic change is the Secretary of State's statement that if need be, he, with the Irish Government, would collapse many agreements that are coming into force if arms were not delivered. With typical skill, he did not define the time limit involved in that judgment.
I recall a comment made by Beatrice Webb when asked why her marriage was so successful. She said, "I leave all the important decisions to Sidney. I decide which are the important decisions." The Secretary of State, while giving a guarantee, has left in his own domain the timing in regard to when he will act on the statement that he made tonight and on Monday last week.
266 As someone who was sceptical about the whole process that the former Prime Minister initiated in the last Parliament, I wished, in my short speech, to thank three of the big figures who have brought the House to this stage. I also wished to emphasise that, although we celebrate the change in an appropriately low-key mood, it is still fraught with great difficulties. I believe that the statements made by the Secretary of State tonight and earlier will help to ensure the success of what we do now, rather than the opposite.
§ 11.8 pm
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
This has been a year of amazing events, from the retirement of the leader of my party to the people's pregnancy. However, while the rest are basically accidents of circumstance, this is the biggest surprise of all. It says something about human nature: it proves that, for all the differences between all the sides, there was enough good to make the process work.
Flexibility has been fought for on every step of the way. The dangers have been well documented. Sometimes we almost forgot what the end was meant to be, but the end has been achieved, and I am pleased to note that even those who doubted the process have accepted the democratic will of the majority. There have been a few wobbles, and at some points it has not been entirely clear where the various parties have stood. For example, I continue to be concerned about those who seek to create a link between prisoner releases and the Good Friday agreement. That always struck me as an inappropriate connection. Having said that, let me add that I think we need to start looking forward, and burying those reservations with the past.
Sometimes it looked as though party politics were beginning to creep in. If party politics are allowed to interfere with the peace process, the result is an amazingly debilitating set of circumstances, and I think that that almost did slow the process down. However, I was glad to hear—it was reiterated tonight—that the official Opposition were genuinely behind the initiative. The meeting of senior Conservatives with Sinn Fein representatives a few weeks ago reiterated their willingness to give Sinn Fein the opportunity to take its place in the eyes of the public, as well as in Northern Ireland, as a serious political player.
About two weeks ago, I was at a prize day at my old school, the Royal Belfast academical institution. When I spoke there, I expressed the hope that we would get there in the end and that children at the school would not have to live through the troubles and violence, and live in the completely sectarian environment that, unfortunately, so many children have had to live in for so many years. It seems now that they will not have to grow up in that environment. My feeling is that, more than anything, if the process works, they will be encouraged to take a completely different outlook on people from different parts of the sectarian divide. Indeed, I like to think that, in 20 or 30 years, the very phrase "sectarian divide" will have fallen from public use because it will no longer have any meaning.
I noted the comments of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) with regard to Martin McGuinness and his concerns that that gentleman should not be the Education Minister—but that is devolution. It 267 is not our remit to determine who the Minister should be. It is important that we understand that our job is to ensure that people have the space to make the democratic decisions that they want without interference from over here.
§ Mr. MacKay
To put the record straight, I did not say that Martin McGuinness should not be a Minister. I said that many people, understandably, deeply regretted that he is and that he has to prove himself. I acknowledge that, under the agreement, he has every right to be appointed under the d'Hondt formula. I just put that right.
§ Mr. Öpik
I stand corrected. It underlines the importance of us making it clear that we will not meddle in processes and in decisions that are, rightly, in the hands of the Province. I understand from his intervention that the right hon. Gentleman is confirming that his party accepts the legitimate right of those who are elected as Ministers in Northern Ireland to play their role in that process.
Thanks have already been given. The list was pretty comprehensive. I should like to say again what I said a few days ago: it is worth remembering that the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) was instrumental in beginning the whole process. To that extent, one of the great triumphs that he should be proud of, and that we should acknowledge on both sides of the House, is the courage that he showed as Prime Minister in taking big political risks to move the process forward.
Of course, the current Administration, including the Secretary of State, have played an important part as well. Sometimes it is easy to forget the pivotal role that the right hon. Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam) played in beginning to bring the republicans into the political process in a positive way. She deserves great credit for what was a unique contribution in that area.
Of course, the future holds some difficulties. Those who have been involved with devolution in Wales and Scotland know that there will be a period of readjustment between the House of Commons and Northern Ireland as we begin to understand how the devolution process works. That will take one or two years. I suspect that there will be frictions in that process, but is it not great to be in the same sort of political environment as Scotland and Wales, where the issues are ones of interaction, rather than whether we can set up the process in the first place?
The whole process is not just a lesson for Northern Ireland, or the United Kingdom. It is a lesson for the world stage of politics. It shows that, with courage, determination and some good faith, almost anything is possible. Almost anything can be resolved, however unlikely the goal may seem as we embark on such a process.
For anyone who has lived in Northern Ireland, the order is a personal thing. When I watched politics as I grew up, I envisaged that, perhaps at some point in the future, I would see the sort of momentous changes that needed to be implemented for peace to become a reality. Back then, I did not expect that I would be here in person now to vote in favour of such an important order. It is almost unbelievable. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, this is a new beginning that has a strong emotional overtone for the people of Northern Ireland.
268 Naturally, we support the order. It is an honour for me to be here to observe the proceedings—which are a triumph of reason over emotion—and for that I shall always be grateful.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)
The order says:Whereas, it having appeared to the Secretary of State that sufficient progress had been made in implementing the agreement".So we are asked to say that sufficient progress has been made. That statement will then become law and cannot be gone back on—yet no progress has been made on decommissioning.
I am disturbed by the Secretary of State's attempts to paint things differently from how they are. He should tell the truth. Everyone knows my party's attitude on the issue; we have fought two elections on it. Our position is clear and was spelled out in our manifesto. It ill becomes the Secretary of State to bandy about words such as "hypocrites" and "hypocrisy" when he is well filled with those himself.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that remark. He should not refer to any Member of Parliament with words such as "hypocrisy"
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I wonder why the same remark can be said about me by the Secretary of State, but nothing is said—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The Secretary of State did not say that about the hon. Gentleman, I can assure him of that. He would not have done that in my presence. I repeat, the hon. Gentleman cannot continue his speech until he withdraws that remark.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I note that the hon. Gentleman has withdrawn the remark, but there is only one law.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
I want to put on the record what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said yesterday in the Assembly. His words show that all the Secretary of State's so-called optimism about the Democratic Unionist party surrendering its principles is false. My hon. Friend said:Everyone here knows that I am one of the sternest opponents of the Belfast Agreement. I have consistently maintained that the purpose and the objective of the agreement is to have Northern Ireland absorbed in a united Ireland through developing all-Ireland institutions. I still believe that to be the process underlying it. Whether a Member or a Minister, as a convinced Unionist I shall use every ounce of influence I possess to frustrate and thwart Northern Ireland's being conveyed into a united Ireland.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
No, I will not. The Deputy Speaker tells me that, as the second speaker from Northern Ireland tonight, I have to cut short my speech. I am not giving way to any hon. Member—or right hon. Member—from the Labour Benches.
269 My hon. Friend continued:Moreover, it remains for me a fundamental principle that only those who are committed to use exclusively peaceful and democratic means are suitable partners in government.This House tonight seems to think that a suitable partner in government is a man whose hands drip with the blood not only of the people whom I represent in the House, but of his own fellow Roman Catholics. Hon. Members should go and read about the sobs of a widow in Londonderry. Mr. McGuinness got her son to return from exile with a promise that nothing would happen to him, but he was sent for, taken out and brutally murdered. Hon. Members should talk to her about what Mr. McGuinness really stands for.
My hon. Friend continued:The call of my conscience and the commitments I have given to the people of Northern Ireland are unalterable. I oppose terrorism in all its forms and of every shade. Whether it be the murder of a friend or that of an odious adversary, I oppose it without qualification and without any mental reservation. As far as my conduct as a prospective Minister may be an issue, I want to place firmly on the record my intention and disposition to be scrupulously fair in every respect, while exercising such responsibilities as may be in my charge. The religious conviction or political opinion of any person or any group will form no part of the judgment I will make on any matter. I shall work for everyone in this community seeking for them a better deal. I consider myself to be the servant of all and the master of none.I hope that no other hon. Member will try to do what the Secretary of State tried to do tonight to Democratic Unionist Members. Those Members took office not because this House wanted them to, but because the people of Northern Ireland—according to the laws of this House—gave two seats to the Democratic Unionist party. The Secretary of State, like others who have occupied his position, would like to get rid of the Democratic Unionist party. However, I am afraid that it happens to be here to stay, and will at least outlast the short life that he will have in Northern Ireland.
There is not one truly democratic country in the whole world which would, for one moment, accept the principle that armed gunmen, thugs and murderers, with their hands dripping with the blood of their fellow countrymen, their fellow co-religionists and their fellow citizens should, as of right, be given office in government. Where would we find another democracy passing a measure like this? It is a fundamental of a pure and proper democracy that only those who have eschewed murder and bloodshed should be permitted to be placed in the government of their country.
There used to be laws to keep criminals from taking office. Now we are asked to pass a law to put criminals into office—and the Government think that the people of Northern Ireland should join in some happy ceremony on this occasion. They should go and tell that to the widows, the orphans and those with vacant seats in their houses, and they will get an answer. The Secretary of State needs to talk to, not lock the doors on, those victims and the people who are in tears daily because of the agonies they have suffered. He should listen to what they have to say.
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
No, I will not.
270 The House is asked to approve a law that provides that those who have engaged in murder—the most heinous and atrocious of murders—must have a way opened for them to get into the government of Northern Ireland. That is what we are being asked to do. True democracy rests on a bedrock of liberty. It was established not to satisfy the views and aspirations of a mere single generation, but to secure the blessings of enduring principles of liberty—
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
We have heard a characteristically impassioned but wrong-headed speech from the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I endorse the warm compliments paid by the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon).
I also offer my compliments to that remarkable woman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam). In the early days when she took office she faced formidable problems, but she behaved with immense courage. The fact that we now have an international tribunal reviewing the Bloody Sunday affair is a tribute to her.
There are those on the Opposition Benches who see these developments as the further unravelling of the United Kingdom, but we have a different United Kingdom to the one we lived in just two years ago. It is now a multinational state based on, among other things, the principle of consent. That holds for the people of Scotland, the people of Wales and, of course, the people of Northern Ireland. In the many years that I sat on the Opposition Benches, I did not think that I would see the setting up of a Scottish Parliament, but it is now firmly established, as is the Northern Ireland Executive, with the Assembly about to begin work.
I have said over and over again that the critical factor of decommissioning has to be addressed. It looms over the Executive and the Assembly, and the paramilitaries must co-operate with General de Chastelain to ensure the comprehensive and viable decommissioning of weaponry. However, as I have said before, everybody in Northern Ireland stands to gain from the Assembly, based as it is on the principle of consent.
That admirable politician, Monica McWilliams, who, I am glad to say, is a member of the Assembly, said yesterday:It has taken a tremendous amount of time to get here. True, the mood music we heard today was the one we have got used to at Stormont. But I think people are anxious to get into their new jobs and they will work well together once they have settled in.I believe the new Ministers are all anxious to prove they are the best Ministers for their particular areas and that can only be good for Northern Ireland.I hope that that holds for the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). I hope and trust that all of the Ministers will do their damnedest to improve the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland.
There will be some lively, even heated, exchanges when the new Ministers are cross-examined by the Scrutiny Committees. I can tell the hon. Members who 271 are going to be Ministers that new Scottish Ministers have found appearing in front of Committees in the Edinburgh Parliament a somewhat interesting experience. There are certainly some interesting pairings of Ministers and the Chairs of Committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Whatever hon. Members may think of Mr. McGuinness, and I certainly have serious reservations about him, I was much taken by his comment yesterday that he is committed to the campaign for the integration of schools and is opposed to the 11-plus. Hon. Members with constituencies in Ulster will know how often I have spoken against the 11-plus. As someone who failed the exam, I have always thought that it should be abolished anyway. The words used by Mr. McGuinness were reassuring.
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my old and hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), carried on the work involved in the integration of schools. Such integration is a force for good—long may it continue and develop. As a child, I attended a Catholic school. If it were possible for me to have children again, I would not send them to segregated schools. The integration question is very important in the context of Northern Ireland.
Finally, those with the appropriate responsibilities should ensure that a programme is set up in the near future to bring together cross-border organisations and other bodies. From a Scottish perspective, we now talk about British-Irish relations and about a different kind of United Kingdom.
I believe that another force for good is the Council of the Isles. Hon. Members, especially the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, will not be surprised to hear me say that if that council could be given a permanent secretariat, after the manner of the Nordic Council, it would make good sense to locate that secretariat in Glasgow. That is my appeal. It could not be based in Greenock—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]. I assure my hon. Friends that it would make good sense to locate the secretariat in Scotland rather than in Dublin or London.
I say to those hon. Members who are members of the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland that they and their constituents have everything to gain from this Assembly.
§ Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)
I think that there is nothing that I should add at this hour, save to congratulate all those who have brought us this far and to give my party's good wishes to all concerned. Everyone knows how much there is to do. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said, in effect, that the apparent end is in fact the beginning. I agree.
The Opposition would like to say to all concerned, "Good luck with the beginning, the middle and the end. God speed."
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)
By the standards of the best of this House, in many ways this has been a good debate. The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) made a good speech. I could not agree with all of it, but he acknowledged that it has been a long and difficult path that has led from the problems of the past to the present position. On behalf of my departmental 272 colleagues, may I say how glad I am that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, even though they may not have been with us throughout the entire journey, should be here at the end of it.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell spoke about Mr. Martin McGuinness. He, and the rest of the House, should remember that there are still two communities in Northern Ireland. The whole process has been about healing the wounds of the past and bringing in parity of esteem for the future. I hope that Martin McGuinness, Bairbre de Brun and all the other Ministers will play their part, and that the right hon. Gentleman, and the whole House, will encourage them to work towards healing divisions and making a future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)—typically, if I may say so—made a moving speech. Assuming for one moment the mantle of responding to him on behalf of all past and present Ministers, I thank him for his kind words to all of those who have served at any time in Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to the vision that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have held on to, often in unimaginably difficult circumstances, and to congratulate him and all the other pro-agreement parties on now seeing a time when that vision can be realised. His eloquence tonight was the expression of the eloquence of almost all the community in Northern Ireland and I congratulate him on the role that he has played tonight and for many years, in bringing us to where we are today.
The right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has rightly received many compliments in recent days and months. More than anyone, he has recognised the substantial gains that the Good Friday agreement brings to his community, yes, but also to everyone in Northern Ireland—I know that, increasingly, he will want to speak for the whole community in the future. It is a future that puts aside violence, in which communities come together instead of driving each other apart. The right hon. Gentleman, through his courage, which has often been commented on, his good sense, which I have often witnessed and respected, and with the wit that he has shown tonight, has played an important part in that process—probably one of the key parts—alongside Senator Mitchell and others.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he feels—perhaps rightly—that some issues remain unresolved. While there is not time for me to deal with those issues in detail in this debate, he well knows that the door of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is always open to him and to the other parties that have matters that they still need to resolve. My right hon. Friend will welcome him and those other parties. He will keep that door open to them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who is also a friend, paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I have watched him work in recent weeks and he has indeed shown a great deal of skill and commitment, but also a great deal of principle in building on the work that many of his predecessors—most recently my right hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Marjorie Mowlam)—have put into bringing us to where we are today. This is indeed a momentous point in history and a great deal of trust and responsibility will rest on the shoulders of my right hon. 273 Friend the Secretary of State in the weeks and months to come. He will take those responsibilities as seriously in the future as he has in the past.
§ Mr. Howarth
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. It is well made. The comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the undertakings that he has given stand on the record. They are serious commitments and undertakings.
§ Mr. Thompson
The Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that decommissioning is a voluntary act. If that is so, how can he fulfil his promise to take quick resolution if the action is not carried out?
§ Mr. Howarth
My right hon. Friend has also made it clear that there is a package, with devolution on the one hand and decommissioning on the other. He has given clear and unambiguous undertakings that he will monitor the progress of both matters; default on one side will have consequences. The hon. Gentleman may not like to accept that; he may not like its implications. However, that is the reality of the undertakings given by my right hon. Friend; that is why the Ulster Unionist party, last Saturday, decided to give the process a go.
More in sorrow than in anger, I come to the speech of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley). I do not propose to deal with all the points that he made. However, he made a specific attack on the intentions expressed by my right hon. Friend in his opening speech. By way of clarification, when my right hon. Friend referred to the hon. Member for North Antrim and his party, he had in mind the fact that, after 30 years of telling us that Ulster says no, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were remarkably swift-footed in saying yes when it came to taking up ministerial positions. Although we welcome that news, the hon. Gentleman may have to make some explanations as to how that came about to the people who have put their trust in him in the past.
§ Mr. Howarth
I have some affection for the hon. Gentleman. That is not the first occasion on which he has shouted at me. I congratulate him and his colleagues on taking up Government posts. I hope that they will play a constructive role.
This is truly a moment in history when, for the most part, Members of the House have been patient and understanding. On occasion, we have been willing to suspend our collective judgment in the hope that that will help. As a House, we have played our part in this piece of history. Of course, we should acknowledge and remember all the past suffering, but I hope that the hon. Member for North Antrim and all those who do not wish the process well will join us in wanting to see a future for 274 all the people of Northern Ireland—a future in which they will all have a stake and in which they can all take their place, not only with pride, but with confidence that it is indeed all of their future.
The House divided: Ayes 318, Noes 10
§ Question accordingly agreed to.