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5.33 pm

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Northern Ireland Members and our constituents are in a very difficult position. The Elections Bill has sprung from the womb of the tragedy that has afflicted the larger part of the United Kingdom--the foot and mouth plague--but we do not have that plague in Northern Ireland. The plague can be isolated, and the European Community has declared Northern Ireland plague-free, except for one local government area.

The Bill has been introduced to postpone elections because of foot and mouth, but there is no ground for that whatever in Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland are enraged by the fact that the Bill is almost wholly concerned with us: there are a couple of lines on England and Wales, then on page 2 we find the clause

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heading "Postponement of local elections in Northern Ireland". Schedule 1, on page five, also deals with Northern Ireland. Almost the whole Bill deals with Northern Ireland.

For some reason or other, local government elections that could have been held on 16 May will not be held on that date but postponed to a date to be chosen on which both elections can be held. If we in Northern Ireland had ever heard of such a proposal, perhaps we would have treated this Bill with more respect. There has been a large argument in Northern Ireland about when local elections should be held.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing the allocation of time motion?

Rev. Ian Paisley: I am making the point that I object to the guillotine because it is part of a solution to a situation that did not need to arise. It is legitimate for me to make that very special point, as my colleague the hon. and learned Member for North Down (Mr. McCartney) did in his speech. That is what I am seeking to do.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland--who is now in control of the Treasury Bench--knows the discussions that he has had in past months on local government elections. Those discussions have had nothing whatsoever to do with the foot and mouth plague. Two parties in Northern Ireland--the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister--want something to be done about those local government elections. One party--the First Minister--wanted the elections to be postponed for a long time, perhaps one or two years. It did not suit him to consult the people because the people would have rejected what he said. He therefore decided, "Let us postpone them. They are going to be unpleasant for me."

The First Minister's Deputy wanted something to be done about the elections, but he did not want to be so drastic. As the two parties could not agree, they could not present an agreement to the Government. However, they decided to propose that both elections should be held on the same day, as they felt that that would be a great advantage to them. Therefore, the House is being asked to pass this Bill not because of foot and mouth disease--according to Europe, which seems to be the supreme potentate in these matters, there is no foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland--but because the Government have decided that we shall go with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, who feel that it would be good to delay the elections.

Hon. Members will notice, however, that not one Ulster Unionist Member is in the Chamber. Ulster Unionist Members do not want what their leader wants; they do not want it at all. Therefore, they have not attended the debate, although they may attend for debate on Second Reading, if we have time for that.

The Minister is smiling graciously because he knows all of that very well. He and my party had long meetings on the matter. I am holding a very long letter on the matter that I sent to the Prime Minister. I am glad that, yesterday, I mentioned in the House that I had not received a reply to it from the Prime Minister because, this morning, I received a hand-delivered reply from him. I will bear that in mind in future when he does not reply to my letters.

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No decent democrat could agree with some of the Bill's provisions. Even the Alliance party is opposed to the Bill. Although it is one of the pro-agreement parties, it cannot stomach the Bill, which strikes at--

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I really must remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing not the Bill's content, but the allocation of time for considering it.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Should we not have time to discuss a matter that cuts across basic democracy? I happen to believe in free elections. I happen to believe that, when the boxes are opened, they should be scrutinised by the candidates and by the scrutineers. I lost my first election because an election box went missing. I would have been elected had the box been found. My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) lost the election in the Mid-Ulster constituency because of fraud. Everyone admitted that there was fraud in that election, even members of the Social Democratic and Labour party.

The Bill under consideration provides a way for fraud to be carried out. Interestingly enough, it used to be that the electoral officer had to perform certain duties when votes were counted. The Bill does not require him to do anything. The word used is "may", rather than "shall". He cannot be forced to do anything. That cuts at the heart of democracy.

What is more, scrutineers and candidates will be prevented from seeing the boxes opened for the first time.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that the programme motion will allow insufficient time to represent the interests of the thousands of people in Ulster who vote for him and his party?

Rev. Ian Paisley: There will be no time for that. Once debate on this motion is complete, we will move on to the next motion. I have been told that perhaps one person from my party will be able to make a short speech, and then it will be all over. We have gone through the Bill and have tabled amendments to it. I do not want to raise this matter continually, but my party has been treated shamefully in not being told about the Bill. We have received an apology for that.

When we were eventually told about the Bill, we were given a draft version. I went to the Vote Office and asked for all the relevant Acts, but the office could not supply them, so I was not able to give full consideration to all the papers mentioned in the Bill. I had to wait until late last night before I got the necessary papers.

How could I have had time to look at all the papers? I worked hard on the matter, and discovered that one of the papers--Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 2001--could not be found because it does not exist. The Vote Office wrote to me, stating:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I thank the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) for giving way. His normal eagle-eyed scrutiny has revealed a drafting mistake in the Bill. If he looks at the amendments selected for debate, he will note that the Government have

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tabled an amendment to put the matter right. We spotted the error as well, but of course the resources available to us are far greater than those available to him.

Rev. Ian Paisley: The Minister is not revealing all the facts. He spotted the problem because he received a letter from the Vote Office. However, the argument remains the same.

I represent, both here and in Europe, more people in Northern Ireland than are represented by any other hon. Member. My party represents a majority of the Unionist electorate. It is right for me to tell the House that I must oppose the guillotine. We cannot reasonably discuss a matter when there is no time to consider it. The relevant parliamentary offices lack the necessary information, and the Minister is forced to reveal that a drastic mistake had been made.

There have been two drastic mistakes. As the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), the spokesman for the Ulster Unionist party, said yesterday in the House, Northern Ireland representatives have been unable to get hold of the papers in time. When we finally got them, a paper that was not relevant held up the supply of the other papers.

The people of Northern Ireland cannot be expected to ask us to ram this measure through, because it is not needed. We could go ahead and have our elections on 16 May. It is a terrible thing when politicians are afraid of an election result. What is more, the Bill opens the way for cheating and fraud on the part of every criminal in the country. All they have to do is run down one motorbike rider carrying a bundle of votes from one station to the other. If those votes are lost, the whole election has to be declared null and void. The Minister knows that there are people in Northern Ireland who would do that gladly. If the big bomb in Londonderry yesterday had exploded it would have blown up many police officers, so we know that that is a reality.

How could the Government expect me to say, "Go ahead, rush it through."? I must make my protest. I have found it very difficult to do so. I was held up yesterday because I was told that I was out of order. I know that there will be no time to speak on Second Reading today, so I am making my point strongly now.

There is no need for the Bill. Northern Ireland does not have foot and mouth disease, according to the European Union, which is the supreme potentate. It examines the innards of the animals and declare whether they are clean or unclean. It has taken the place of the Aaronic priesthood. As Europe has declared Northern Ireland clean, we should be able to hold the local government elections on the proper day without any change.

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