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9.16 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I would very much like to see normalisation in Northern Ireland, as would the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). Indeed, I think that we all would. We are making good progress, but we are not there yet.

In some of our debates on Northern Ireland, it almost feels as though we are so focused on the issues and so willing to accommodate Northern Ireland in its efforts to achieve normality that we sometimes fashion individual bits of policy round the needs of individual parties, or perhaps even round individuals in Northern Ireland. Is that not a great model for Parliament, in which politics fits itself round the needs of a community in transition rather than expecting the community to fit round the needs of the policy-makers? In that context, it is reasonable, on a judgment call, to make this exemption. My party has consistently felt, throughout the debates on this issue in the House and elsewhere, that we probably need to make the exemption, as long as it is temporary.

We have been told by the Minister and by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) that individual donors could be at personal risk. The hon. Member for South Down cited some examples that I found very persuasive. There have been real examples of intimidation of a nature that we do not tend to experience on the

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mainland of the United Kingdom, which alter the political environment for providing donations and support to particular parties.

For now it is, therefore, probably defensible to protect the anonymity of the individuals making such donations. However, four years seems to be too long a time for such an exemption. A two-year exemption would make much more sense, not least because having to re-justify it sooner would provide a driver and a focus for the Government. It would still be an exemption, and the right hon. Member for Bracknell rightly described it as one that should, preferably, not exist at all.

As I understand it, under a two-year exemption the political processes of the House would require the Minister to ensure that the order was laid again in the upper House, because it would be hard to rescind it in two years' time and it could not be modified. Will the Minister consider re-laying the order in a format that incorporates a two-year upper limit when it goes to another place? That might involve a little more administrative messing about than he would have wanted, but a 24-month exemption just makes more sense. To that extent, I agree with the implication in the comments of the right hon. Member for Bracknell that we should get out of these arrangements as quickly as possible with regard to Northern Ireland.

However, I disagree that the measure is a sop to party politicians who are involved with paramilitary organisations. The hon. Member for South Down, who spoke for the SDLP, can hardly be described as public enemy No. 1. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bracknell did exclude the SDLP--[Interruption.] I am acting as a messenger for the right hon. Gentleman, who rightly points out that he went to great trouble to do so. [Interruption.] If he wants to say more, he will have to intervene because I do not get paid to speak for the official Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman seemed to miss the fact that the SDLP is obviously one of the key organisations that need the exemption now. He acknowledged that the SDLP was not culpable in a paramilitary sense, but perhaps did not acknowledge that it is typical of a party political organisation that clearly thinks that there is a political imperative for the exemption in the short term. That is a persuasive argument and we must respect the people on the front line of Northern Ireland politics who say that they need the exemption.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that, wherever possible, Northern Ireland should be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the UK. The crucial words are "wherever possible". Northern Ireland has done a good job of catching up, but is not there yet. He also regards it as outrageous that political parties could take money from abroad and said that it is fundamentally wrong for political parties to obtain money from abroad. Not that long ago, his own party did exactly that. Northern Ireland is only about five years behind the rest of the UK, which is not bad. We must recognise that the normalisation of Northern Irish politics will happen, but it must be given the space to allow that.

Incidentally, it is equally outrageous that political parties on the mainland are willing to accept enormous private donations--£5 million, for example. That implies that, on occasion, the wealth of donors to political parties represented in the Chamber can have an impact on

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the ability of those parties to campaign effectively. The Liberal Democrats have long talked about state funding and I would like to think that the implication of comments in the debate is that other parties now seriously recognise its benefits. We could remove the cheque book's influence on the quality of debate and the strength of campaigning here on the mainland.

Whatever hon. Members feel about the situation, the problem will go away because some time in early summer, when the Liberal Democrats form the next Government, we shall return to it and make sure that everything is put right. Until then, let us continue apace with the normalisation of Northern Irish politics and acknowledge, in all seriousness, that we have room to differ. In fairness, the right hon. Member for Bracknell and his party have been consistent throughout the debate. This is a judgment call, not a matter of principle, and I tend to side with the Minister and the hon. Member for South Down. The right hon. Gentleman and his party simply take a different view.

Time will probably tell who is right, but, for now, we are prepared to live with the risk. I remind the Minister again that, although we agree that the order should be approved, two years would be better than four. I say to the right hon. Member for Bracknell that we still think two years better than none.

9.23 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I shall not follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), especially if we have to wait until the next Liberal Government come to power for improvements to be made. There are problems. I understand the points made by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), but we have not given enough credit to people in Northern Ireland who have carried on democratic politics despite all the fierce opposition that has been directed towards them.

I have lost colleagues--one I replaced as Member of Parliament for Belfast, South and the other, who represented Belfast, South in the Assembly, was one of the brightest young lawyers on his way up in the United Kingdom--and seen other members of our party brutalised and killed. I understand something of the terror, but the harsh reality is that we are discussing not that but how Northern Ireland has constantly been made somewhat different from the rest of the United Kingdom. Some Members of the House, who have continually made us different, have the audacity to say, "But Northern Ireland is different."

If the order is passed, registered parties in Northern Ireland will not have to adhere to a specified list of permissible donors, make quarterly reports with respect to donations or make weekly donations reports during election periods. An individual donor will not have to make a report to the commission if he or she has made an aggregate donation of more than £5,000 in any given calendar year, and the commission will not have to keep a register of donations reported to it.

I understand why the secretary, chairman and treasurer of the Ulster Unionist party may say that they are concerned about even reported donations to the commission, given that the Parades Commission released names submitted to it to a Sinn Fein representative. That, however, does not strike me as a final answer.

Our main concern relates to foreign funding. I know that in earlier years, for a considerable time, the SDLP was a major beneficiary of the National Democratic

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Institute, which trained and funded the party for election and other purposes. The order, however, does no service to the people of Northern Ireland. It fails to provide transparency in the financing of Northern Ireland political parties.

In recommendation 24 of its fifth report, the Neill committee said:

The order permits foreign funding for Northern Ireland. It is true that the committee said in recommendation 29:

the Minister referred to this--

I should like to know what that really means, and why we are being asked to sign a blank cheque.

The Neill committee incorporated a Northern Ireland exception in its fifth report. That exception was not to benefit the Ulster Unionist party or any other unionist party, but to benefit Northern Ireland nationalist parties. We know that nationalist parties in Wales and, in particular, Scotland may well have benefited from exceptions, but no exception was made for them. What is before us might be called a Northern Ireland nationalist party order--or, to be more exact, a Sinn Fein rather than an SDLP order.

The order will go beyond the Neill committee's recommendation of an exception for Northern Ireland parties. It will permit financing by any country, not just the Republic of Ireland. That was not recommended by the committee.

Republicanism is international--Irish republicanism, that is. It goes beyond Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, it is abroad that the romantic message of "mother Ireland" sells best. Men like Martin Galvin find those in the United States easy prey: they have not witnessed the misery and brutality of the Provisional IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom for the past 30 years. Galvin has now declared his support for the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA.

Lest we forget what those groups are doing in Europe, I remind the House of a recent report in the Swedish paper Aftonbladet that the IRA was raising funds through a restaurant it was running in Stockholm. That money could easily be used for the Armalite or the ballot box, such is the fluidity of the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Ulster Unionists have an exceptional problem because our people regularly say that we do not do enough. However, they would not allow us to be funded by the types of sources used by Sinn Fein-IRA. Those sources include not only foreign donations, but the proceeds of criminal acts in the community.

What about records and transparency? Disapplying chapters I to III of part IV of the 2000 Act to Northern Ireland will result in all the provisions on donations not being applied. The term "permissible donors" will mean nothing. All sources will be permissible; indeed, the concept of permissibility will not even exist. Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, if a party in Northern Ireland

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cannot identify the source of a donation, there will be no issue. Anonymous donations will continue to be permitted in Northern Ireland.

Hon. Members have suggested that, because of the terror, business men do not want to be identified. When I was a young assistant, we were building an extension to a church. A certain business man said to my senior, "We see that you've made a start. We'll give you a £100 contribution." That was almost 50 years ago, when £100 was a fair sum. The church was extended and the hall was built. However, regardless of how closely one searches the records, one will find no mention of a £100 donation from that business man. I think that, sometimes, people who are interested only in making money for themselves, not in supporting democracy, say that they do not want to be seen to be supporting a political party.

Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, no improperly obtained funds will be subject to forfeiture in Northern Ireland because there would be no concept of improperly obtained funds. In Northern Ireland, funding sources will not need to be voluntary, as is implied in the term "donor", and racketeering will continue to be a legitimate form of funding for paramilitary-linked parties. The order will ensure that the

will not apply to Northern Ireland. Then again, as there will be no restrictions, there will be no restrictions for one to evade.

Northern Ireland parties will not need to concern themselves with reporting on donations weekly, quarterly or otherwise and regardless of whether they are made in an election period. Although disapplying part IV will reduce administration for Northern Ireland parties and might be perceived as beneficial, there is clearly no benefit in comparison with what is being lost by not subscribing to the rules and regulations that will apply to the other United Kingdom parties. It is essential that, sooner rather than later, Northern Ireland political parties, like political parties elsewhere in the United Kingdom, are subject to the rules on funding sources.

Only Sinn Fein and other paramilitary parties will really benefit from a non-regulated system and a lack of transparency. It is they--not the Ulster Unionist party and other constitutional parties in Northern Ireland--who have something to hide.

At the beginning of the debate, hon. Members had exchanges with the Minister on referendums. It is strange that there is confusion even about those. We cannot have referendums without the involvement of political parties, but, in Northern Ireland, political parties will not be restricted. Conversely, the order seems to provide that cross-community groups could be restricted. Additionally, if referendums were to follow the precedent set by the 1973 border poll and the United Kingdom European referendum, the sums provided to one side could entirely skew the result. Not for one moment am I suggesting that Ulster Unionist people will vote to withdraw from the Union. However, the weight of funding available for publicity could have an adverse effect on turnout. That is why it is important for us to consider the matter again.

The Belfast agreement, with its concept of the principle of consent, provides for the possibility of such a referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. I shall be brief, as other hon. Members want to speak and I do not want to curtail the time available for

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the Minister's response. However, as I said, we do not believe that extravagant campaigning by republicans and nationalists in any future referendum on Northern Ireland's constitution would persuade Unionists to be anything other than Unionists, but there could be an adverse effect on turnout.

A further anomaly is that those organisations set up especially to campaign in a referendum under the Belfast agreement would be banned from receiving foreign funding. If we read the legislation aright, those parties are dealt with in a different part of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Minister seems to have missed that.

Campaigning organisations have been dealt with, and I noticed that the hon. Member for South Down was a little puzzled when his party was referred to as the sister party of the Labour party. I do not understand that, as he and his party leader have regularly proclaimed that both parties belong to the socialist federation.

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