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10 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy): This has been an interesting short debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) referred to the histories of past assemblies and similar bodies, and reflected on how it was important for Parliament to have the power to dissolve those bodies in the event of various crises. However, I believe that times have changed and that this agreement and this Northern Ireland Assembly will be more permanent.

We have consulted widely on this clause in recent days, and we have sympathy with the points raised by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) referred to the Scottish comparison, which is a valid point. It is worth examining it so that we may determine whether there is a read-across from the Scottish to the Northern Ireland situation.

I think that we should re-examine the clause and the consequential amendments that would have to be made to other parts of the Bill.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Minister agree that proponents of the amendment claim that the clause gives total, absolute and almost dictatorial powers to the Secretary of State? However, clause 24(5) states:


That is surely a very strong and adequate democratic safeguard relating to the cause, reason and execution of such a proposal.

Mr. Murphy: In no sense is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a dictator and she, and anyone who succeeds her, will have to be accountable to the House of Commons and the other place.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The issue is surely the balance between the autonomy of the Northern Ireland Assembly versus the insurance policy of referring the decision to this Chamber and the other place. The real

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concern is that the clause goes some way towards undermining the responsibility and trust invested in the Assembly to be able to manage its own affairs.

Mr. Murphy: This is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, as such, authority ultimately rests here.

In terms of the Assembly's workability, we believe that we should plan not for failure but for success. We propose to re-examine the clause, consult in detail with the parties during August and September and refer the matter to the other place.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Parliament is sovereign anyway, and thus would be able to do what the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) suggests. However, Northern Ireland representation in this place is very small, and Northern Ireland parties are not represented in the upper House. According to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), the leader of the SDLP, it would not have any representatives in the other place. My party has never been represented there. Therefore, the House of Lords would not have a full complement of spokesmen to represent the people and put the views. The Assembly should at least--

Dr. Godman: Lord Paisley.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I do not think that that will ever happen--and I would not want it to. I would rather be in a place that has real power. Apparently the other place will be dehorned anyway--and does the hon. Gentleman think that I would offer my head for the chop? I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman would make such a suggestion. I will allow him to take my seat.

It is important that the Assembly be allowed at least to express its feelings about the matter.

Mr. Murphy: That is why it is important to talk to the parties in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) referred to the four-year term. He is correct in saying that that is not in the agreement, although it was discussed during the negotiations and all parties agreed that a four-year term should be the norm. The poll may be shifted up to two months before or after it would otherwise be held in order to ensure that it could be held on the same day as other elections, where appropriate. For example, the Assembly election would coincide with local elections in Northern Ireland, which makes sense financially and would increase the voter turnout. Subsection (4)(c) enables a dissolution of the Assembly at any time during the four-year term.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde raised several issues. There is no specific provision for votes of no confidence in the Administration rather than in Ministers or parties. We could consider a dissolution on a two-thirds majority--which would be comparable with the Scottish model, as my hon. Friend is aware. As elsewhere, the definition of public interest is in statute and it is not easy to define in abstract. They are just a few reasons why it is important to re-examine the issue, and I ask the right hon. Member for Upper Bann to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Trimble: I thank the Minister for his response and for his willingness to re-examine the matter. I am glad

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that the Government have had second thoughts, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) for his comments about the desirability of having a read-across into the Northern Ireland institutions from the newly devolved institutions. I thank the Minister for taking that point on board.

It was also pleasant to hear the Minister make the simple but fundamental point--which has been sometimes lost sight of in the past few months through misinterpretation of the position--that Parliament remains sovereign and that, at the end of the day, power over all parts of the United Kingdom returns to the House. That point is made clear in clause 5(6). Therefore, those who are concerned about the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 can be reassured about the absolute sovereignty of the House.

That is also the answer for the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris). If there is a need for a reserved power in order to act in an emergency, the Parliament has the capacity to do so and has no need of such a clause in this Bill. The one time that it was felt necessary to intervene in the terms that the hon. Gentleman described--I did not agree, but it was done--when the House decided in 1972 to prorogue and abolish the Northern Ireland Parliament, legislation was passed in the course of one day to give effect to that action. The point about the undiminished sovereignty of Parliament remains.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Under the terms of the agreement, Parliament and the British Government have agreed that, in the event of a simple majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom, there will be no claim of sovereignty--which is exactly what section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 declared.

Mr. Trimble: The hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely wrong. While the United Kingdom continues, the sovereignty of this House is undiminished. If part of the United Kingdom seceded, the situation would be different. The possibility of secession has been explicit in British constitutional legislation since 1921, so the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) does himself no credit by advancing arguments that are simply wrong in law. I shall not pursue the issue further at this stage.

I thank the Minister for his willingness to look again at the matter. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 25 and 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 27

Vacancies

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I beg to move amendment No. 100, in page 14, leave out lines 9 to 11 and insert--


'(2) Subject to subsection (2A) below an order under subsection (1) shall provide that where a seat was last filled by a member of a registered party, any vacancy shall be filled by another member nominated by that party (without a by-election).

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(2A) Provided that where the condition mentioned in subsection (2) is not met, a vacancy shall be filled by--
(a) a by-election, or
(b) such other method as the Secretary of State may prescribe in the order.'.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 151, in page 14, line 9, leave out 'or substitutes'.

No. 92, in page 14, line 10, leave out from 'substitutes' to end of line 11 and insert--


'(2A) The Secretary of State shall also provide a scheme for updating and replacing substitutes.'.

Mr. Mackinlay: Amendment No. 100 would write into the Bill the requirement that, if a vacancy occurs in the Assembly's membership, the vacancy shall be filled by a member of the party that had ownership--if I may use that term--of the seat at the time of the Assembly election. The Bill leaves the method of filling the vacancy vague. It gives the Secretary of State the discretion to fill the vacancy in the way that I have just outlined, or to hold a by-election, or to use some other method.

Now that we have had considerable discussion of this Bill and the earlier Northern Ireland (Elections) Bill, it is time that we clarified how vacancies are to be filled. Vacancies will inevitably occur, and there must be clarity and precision on the matter now. In our discussions on the earlier Bill, the Minister implied that the Government would have resolved the matter by the time this Bill reached the House. I do not complain about the fact that they have not moved forward since then, but it is appropriate now that we resolve that vacancies shall automatically be filled by members of the same party as previously held the seat.

My amendment also provides for circumstances in which that condition cannot be fulfilled--for example, because the member was an independent. Only then would a by-election be the correct method of filling the vacancy. That is a common-sense approach.

In our earlier debates, we drew attention to the fact that, under the proposed electoral system, a perverse situation could arise where a member of the nationalist minority lost the seat in a constituency where there was a numerical majority for the Unionist persuasion. If a by-election were held, the Unionist persuasion would inevitably win, which would be a source of considerable irritation, and demonstrably unfair. The opposite could happen in a constituency with a nationalist majority, where someone of the Unionist persuasion might feel unfairly treated.

We used as an analogy the European Parliament seat of Northern Ireland. If, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) had sought the presidency of the Irish Republic and got it, there would have been a vacancy. If there had subsequently been a by-election for the European Parliament, the seat would have been won by someone of the Unionist persuasion. That is a matter of fact. The absence of a provision such as I am outlining would create enormous difficulties.

With respect to the Secretary of State, I believe that we must resolve the matter now, rather than some weeks or months down the road. Such a vacancy could occur at any time. Numbers are critical to all parties in the Assembly,

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as we see from the complicated criteria for votes. I hope that the Minister will be persuaded that my amendment improves the Bill.


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