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Mr. Öpik: I have always regarded the right hon. Gentleman as highly dangerous. He has just answered his own point: he is being theoretical and building a castle in the air, but has also pointed out the real fact that no responsible party in the Chamber would undertake such action. I accept his concerns--although we have different views--since parties could indeed do that. Surely, as he said, wherever possible Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK should be the same. On this occasion, however, there are mitigating circumstances that, perhaps, would lead to the need to have a temporary difference. Would the right hon. Gentleman not accept even a partial justification on that basis?

Mr. MacKay: No, I do not accept that. The only exception is the fact that, in the rest of the United Kingdom, the names of donors who give more than a certain sum have to be published, whereas that is not the case in Northern Ireland, for legitimate security reasons. Northern Ireland should be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom only in respect of security issues.

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I take issue with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). I said that I had deliberately used a sensitive example that would not offend people in the House and in Northern Ireland--the example of my own party in Northern Ireland. I went on to say, quite reasonably, that we would not abuse the order in that way.

However, political parties in Northern Ireland may feel strongly about a certain issue. For example--the hon. Member for South Down will correct me if I am wrong--the Social Democratic and Labour party is closely and legitimately linked to the Labour party, takes the Whip in the House and is strongly in favour of joining the single currency. Under the order, there is no reason for the SDLP not to accept large donations from abroad for the euro referendum and to pay for a great many pro-euro advertisements in the campaign on the mainland.

There would be nothing wrong with the hon. Member for South Down doing that. We know that his party is a democratic, non-violent party which has substantial support in the Province and always acts with due propriety. It would not be doing anything illegal or out of order if the measure were passed tonight.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is wrong if he thinks that that is just wild theory, with no chance of being realised. The House must always make sure that the laws that it passes are tight, exact and well defined; otherwise, they can be abused. That in turn brings the House into disrepute and causes serious problems later. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire may be relaxed about the order being so open to abuse, but that is not a prospect that the Liberal Democrats, with an honourable history over many years, have ever countenanced in the past.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. So that we do not become obsessed with hypothetical models, will he confirm that the order would last for four years? If his concern is about a referendum, is he conceding that there will be a referendum within four years? If so, he obviously knows which party will be in power.

Mr. MacKay: The hon. Gentleman's seat is one of our leading target seats in the west midlands, as he knows full well. I believe and expect that there will be a new Member for Hall Green in the next Parliament, but I do not want to trespass on the hon. Gentleman's personal grief.

I say to the hon. Member for Hall Green, as I said to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, that we must legislate for every possibility--even the horrendous possibility of the re-election of a Labour Government, and the re-election of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). Much as I hope and expect that that will not happen, I would be unwise and not fulfilling my parliamentary and legislative duty if I did not take it into account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

To return to the serious arguments against the order, I conclude and summarise by saying that the order is wrong because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, without good cause. The order is wrong because it prays in aid the security situation and the non-publishing of donors' names, although the electoral commissioners could scrutinise any money coming from abroad. The order is wrong because it will allow abuse and an uneven playing field for referendums in Northern Ireland and possibly elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): The right hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points. If the

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Electoral Commission is to scrutinise contributions in camera, what happens when there has been a breach of the law? What sanctions will be imposed, and will any subsequent litigation also be dealt with in camera?

Mr. MacKay: I have no doubt that the Electoral Commission will take the same action and impose the same sanctions as it would in relation to a party that is registered elsewhere in the United Kingdom and which is found to be taking money from abroad. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary nodding.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) is a lawyer, so I shall not try to second-guess him on whether subsequent court action or appeals should be heard in camera. Off the top of my head, my answer is that they should not be. I would trust the commission, which is an independent body. Indeed, I think that it has the confidence of all political parties. Once again, the Under-Secretary nods. If it finds abuse in Northern Ireland or any other part of the United Kingdom, the commission should act accordingly. If the political party and donor in question think that they have been wrongly treated, perhaps because the donation did not come from abroad, the decision can be tested in the courts. That is fine and proper. It is up to the donor and party to decide whether to pursue the case. The more I reflect on the hon. Gentleman's question, however, the less I think that the court case should be heard in camera.

For all the reasons that I have given, I believe that the order is profoundly wrong, and I hope that the House will reject it.

9.6 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I rise to speak on behalf of my party in support of the order. I should like to return to the practical reality of political life in Northern Ireland and move away from the castles in the air to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) referred.

In the SDLP's submission to the Neill committee, we stated our firm belief in

We asked the committee to be sensitive to the practical difficulties of applying such principles in what is still a deeply divided, sectarian and troubled society. That is where Northern Ireland is today. It is different from Great Britain--a difference that is addressed through its exemption from the requirements of section 65 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

In past years, the SDLP party headquarters has been bombed five times. Our members have been physically intimidated and abused, and their property has been damaged and destroyed. Only two weeks ago, the constituency headquarters of my colleague Alban Maginness, the Member of the Legislative Assembly for Belfast, North, were bombed. That context creates fear. We cannot say that it does not exist and that Northern Ireland is the same as Great Britain. It is not the same, and that is the problem that we are trying to address in order to sustain a proper democratic process. Of course, members of other Northern Ireland parties have suffered equally, and Members of Parliament have previously paid the ultimate price of political violence by having their lives taken from them.

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We have resisted violence over the years and have tried to create a normal political society. We have been tested in every possible way by sectarianism and violence. Now, every morning in news bulletins, we hear about pipe bombing. That is where we are at. In that context, we asked the Neill committee and the Government to exempt Northern Ireland parties for a trial period of four years to ascertain whether we could achieve some normality and subsequently be covered by the whole Act.

I am a wee bit surprised by the comments and attitudes of the Conservative and Unionist party spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), because the Ulster Unionist party agreed with us on the matter and made similar requests to the Neill committee. Jack Allen, the central treasurer, said in paragraph 6667:

That statement was supported by the late president of the Ulster Unionist party, Josias Cunningham, when he referred to foreign donations in paragraph 6676.

Funding from the Republic of Ireland cannot be banned because such a ban would contravene section 2(1) of the Ireland Act 1949, which states:

That is the answer to jibes about such funding.

The exemptions in the order were originally proposed by the Neill report, which states:

I stress that that is a proposal from the Neill committee, not from the Government. Nothing could be more specific than that recommendation from the report on standards. The proposal is reflected in the order.

During the drafting and in the debates, we lobbied jointly with the Ulster Unionist party until the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was passed and the two exemptions for recorded donations and foreign fund-raising were made. There was consensus throughout the discussions between us and the top officials at the centre of the Ulster Unionist party. Our chair and central treasurer received a letter, which stated:

recorded, not publicised. The letter continues:

That is a statement from the Ulster Unionist party in a letter to us. I have not quoted it out of context. The last phrase of the letter asks us to feel free to refer to it in our discussions with anybody, so I am not betraying any confidence by using those quotations.

Something subsequently happened. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party insinuated or even said that the Under-Secretary had misled the House. However, I have

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the submission to us from the Ulster Unionist party in writing; it is there for the public to see. The Under- Secretary did not mislead the House.

Furthermore, the SDLP, with the approval of the Electoral Commission, supported the Bill on the basis that the Northern Ireland parties would be exempt from recording donations. As a result of the Act and with the guidance already received from the Electoral Commission, we have informed potential donors in good faith that there will be no requirement to declare their donations at least for the four-year exemption period.

We believe that our future will be based on normalising politics in Northern Ireland, and we look forward to a normality of the kind enjoyed by Members of the House here in Great Britain, but not, as yet, by us. We look forward to a normality in which people will be free publicly to express their support for a political party, to put their party posters up in the windows of their homes and businesses without fear of intimidation, and to donate openly to political parties without fear of threats to themselves or their families.

I pray and hope that that day will come, but it is not here yet. Meanwhile, we must be conscious of the potential threat to individual personal security if donations are disclosed or written down in any way. I ask all hon. Members, who are democratically elected and proven to subscribe to the democratic process, to trust us. We shall not usurp any powers, or do any wrong.

Hon. Members may be worried about the wrongdoers doing wrong, but they will continue to do wrong anyway. They will have the advantage of doing wrong and not being caught. If a paramilitary organisation wants to get funds from Timbuktu, it will get funds from Timbuktu irrespective of any legislation passed by this House. However, the democratic political parties, which form a bulwark against such activities, must be given the ability to sustain themselves until the day arrives when we have normal politics in Northern Ireland. I support the order.

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