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Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Earlier, the hon. Gentleman made a disparaging remark about my hon. Friends. Does he agree that the majority will should hold sway in Northern Ireland in relation to reform of the police service? It is surely the overwhelming will of the people of Northern Ireland that the police services in Northern Ireland be reformed as part of the Good Friday agreement. Is he not guilty of ignoring the democratic will of the people whom he represents?

Mr. Robinson: I think that the hon. Gentleman is confused on two issues: first, as to what people voted for in the referendum, which I assume is what he refers to as the view of the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland were told by the former First Minister that the Belfast agreement would save the RUC. That was the premise on which the Ulster Unionist party fought the Belfast agreement referendum. As far as Unionists were concerned and certainly for those who trusted the former

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First Minister, their view was that by voting in favour of the Belfast agreement they were voting for the salvation of the RUC.

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robinson: I shall give way in a moment, but I want to deal with the second point raised by the intervention of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris). Majority rule in Northern Ireland is not the policy of the hon. Gentleman's Government: it is no longer policy for Northern Ireland. The present policy for Northern Ireland, enshrined in the Belfast agreement, is that there is a requirement to have the support of a majority of both sections of our community. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is no support from the Unionist community for those proposals—not only on policing but also on other issues.

Mr. John Taylor rose

Mr. Robinson: I shall give way to the hon. Member for North Down and then to the hon. Member for Solihull.

Lady Hermon: To correct a major point made by the hon. Gentleman, those of us who actually voted for the Belfast agreement did so in the knowledge that we were voting for police reform. As he well knows, the articles and the terms of reference set down in the agreement, for which I voted, stated that the Independent Commission on Policing had to bring forward the means of encouraging widespread community support. That is what I voted for but it has not been delivered, so we do not have the form of policing that we actually voted for. We, too, are bitterly disappointed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. After that debate within a debate, I remind the House that we are discussing the arrangements for the conduct of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Although the debate may be wide ranging, I do not believe that it should be as wide ranging as it has become during the last few moments.

Mr. Robinson: Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall respond briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down. She has it wrong: that is not what the Belfast agreement said. It stated that the outcome had to be capable of having the support of a widespread section of the community. Is the hon. Lady saying that she will not support the new police service for Northern Ireland, because I certainly would not be saying—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have just ruled. The hon. Gentleman is trying to continue the mini-debate that I suggested should be terminated.

Mr. Robinson: Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall leave it there. I was only tying up loose ends. I give way to the hon. Member for Solihull—unless he, too, wants to take part in the mini-debate.

Mr. John Taylor: I am cowed by your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I was about to ask the hon. Gentleman if he agreed with my interpretation of Patten: that it was intended to apply to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be cowed.

Mr. Robinson: The Assembly for which the order provides a process for new elections was set up under

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the Belfast agreement. The Assembly was one of the key features of that agreement, but is no more or less important than those features, such as policing, decommissioning and the whole issue of prisoner releases. All those matters were the subject of the decision relating to the Belfast agreement. If the other factors of the agreement have not been delivered, the Assembly for which the order is being introduced no longer has the same meaning or the same significance: nor indeed is it a part of the same process on which the people of Northern Ireland voted in the referendum in 1998.

In closing, I say to the Government that it is not sufficient for them to attempt to put sticking plaster on the wounds of the agreement. That simply will not work. The requirement is for the Government to make a fresh start: to recognise that the agreement has failed; that the agreement no longer has the support of the majority of Unionists; that no process can stand or live in Northern Ireland that does not have the support of the majority of Unionists; and that there is thus a requirement for a renegotiation, to have an agreement that is capable of winning the support not only of nationalists but of Unionists as well.

8.28 pm

Mr. John Taylor: I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is only with the leave of the House that I can speak a second time in these proceedings. I defer to you in the matter. Must that be tested or is there a ruling from the Chair?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: If no one objects, the House gives leave to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Taylor: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) quite fairly corrected me. He said that my text implied that we were entering a critical phase. I ought to have said "a new and difficult phase". Along with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), who made a sedentary intervention, I accept that the problems are far from new. They are well over 300 years old or even more. I shall pass on the comments of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to my speech writer.

I was also corrected by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) about concessions on policing. I want the hon. Gentleman to know that my views are much closer to his than he may imagine. Although I know that I am trespassing now, I am coming to an end, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I always regarded Patten as being predicated on peace first, then Patten. These are, perhaps, differences between the two sides of the Chamber in an area in which we have tried to be helpful, as the record shows.

I conclude with a short anecdote. I remember my first insight, well over 30 years ago, into Northern Ireland society. I went to play golf in Northern Ireland and was asked whether the golf club to which I belonged in England was a Catholic golf club or a Protestant golf club. Nobody had ever asked me such a question before, and it gave me an insight into a rather different society, which was none the less part of my own country.

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House for letting me respond briefly.

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8.31 pm

Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Members who contributed to the debate, and I am grateful for the expressions of support for the order from the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for North Down (Lady Hermon). In this short summing-up speech I shall endeavour to respond to the comments and questions that arose during the debate.

I assure the hon. Member for Solihull that any package that emerges over the next week or so must be acceptable to all sides if it is to be effective. The Government's aim, and the priority throughout, remains the full implementation of the Belfast agreement. If we succeed in producing a package that meets that objective, every side wins and there are no losers.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) invited me to speculate on the content of the package of measures. I am not prepared to do so. At this stage, such speculation would be unhelpful. Although I cannot say what will be in the package or when it will be completed, I can assure the House that both Governments are aware of the need to make early progress on all the outstanding issues.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East somewhat unworthily accuses the Government of cynicism. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my opening speech I made clear the Government's position as regards the order. The Government hope that the normal process will take its course and that the Assembly will elect a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but we must ensure that if elections are required, the necessary technical steps have been taken. That is the purpose of the

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order. I am not prepared to answer hypothetical questions based on an assumption of failure in respect of that objective.

Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Belfast, East that the Government's primary goal is to implement the remaining aspects of the Good Friday agreement, which was voted for by the majority of the electorate in the north and south of the island of Ireland. It is only natural, therefore, when formulating ways in which that agreement can finally be implemented in full, that the Government should do so in negotiation with the pro-agreement parties.

The Government have said on numerous occasions that the agreement remains the best opportunity that we have to bring lasting peace to Northern Ireland. It is our duty to do what we can to ensure that the agreement is fully implemented. It is not up for renegotiation. We will do whatever is most helpful to the process of implementing the outstanding areas of the Good Friday agreement. That is the priority. Exactly how the proposals are delivered, and to whom they are delivered, is a secondary issue.

As I said in opening the debate, it is essential that we set in train the mechanisms for holding Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. It may be necessary to hold such elections later this year. Elections are in any case scheduled for 2003, but no matter when they happen, we must ensure that the system for conducting them is in place. The statutory instrument will form the basis for all future elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am grateful to the House for allowing time to consider the order this evening.

Question put and agreed to.


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