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House of Commons

Wednesday 7 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Thursday 15 November at Four o'clock.

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Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): If he will make a statement on his future plans for devolution in Northern Ireland. [10848]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): We must now carry forward the implementation of the Good Friday agreement in all its aspects. Devolved institutions need stability in the interests of good government in Northern Ireland, and in preparation for them taking on further responsibilities under the agreement. Concerns have been raised about aspects of Assembly voting arrangements, which I hope all parties will deal with constructively through the review process. Yesterday I also proposed that the next Assembly elections should be on 1 May 2003.

Mr. Hall: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Given the events in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the past few days, does he agree that there is something deeply unsatisfactory about a situation in which a candidate for First Minister can achieve 70 per cent. of the vote in the Assembly and yet be deemed not to have attracted sufficient support? Will he outline any changes and processes that he intends to put in place to address the problem by speaking to other people and other parties?

Dr. Reid: The first thing that I should do is to welcome the election of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and Mark Durkan. I congratulate them on that.

My hon. Friend refers to a problem that has been raised with me by a number of parties in the Assembly. I have agreed to constitute a review under paragraph 36 of strand 1 of the agreement to consider that and other matters as they relate to the operation of the Assembly. It is evident that despite all the difficulties and passions that are inflamed by the many aspects of the Good Friday agreement with which we are proceeding, we have a chance to have stable democratic institutions in Northern Ireland in which the various communities can share responsibility for government. I have no doubt that that is what people in Northern Ireland want: local decisions taken on local problems by local politicians.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I share the Secretary of State's opinion that local people want local decisions on things that matter to them. Is he prepared to say how wide the review might be? Will he comment on the demand by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Irish Republic for greater visibility of the war being over by the dismantling of military bases at a time when the

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majority of people in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their background, are still bemused by what is happening about decommissioning?

Dr. Reid: On the first question, the review may not be solely concerned with one aspect. Paragraph 36 of strand 1 of the agreement says that it can deal with procedures and, indeed, wider electoral arrangements. That will be a matter for the parties, which I will ask to come together on 19 November.

On the second question, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman misinterprets the situation. Very few people in Northern Ireland make demands on me or each other, although they sometimes make suggestions. As for the idea that we should proceed with the normalisation of Northern Ireland, that is our wish, but that can be done only in the context of visible and practical proof that the threat is reducing. We have made significant progress on that, and the decommissioning event was another important step forward. Nevertheless, all hon. Members realise that there are still rejectionist loyalists and dissident republicans, who carried out another attempt to maul and murder people in Birmingham only a few days ago. While those people exist, they stop normalisation. It is a supreme irony that in many areas of Northern Ireland, which, like us, want troop levels to be reduced and normalisation to occur, the main stumbling-block is those dissident republicans who claim to want that very aim.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): May I congratulate the Secretary of State and others who were involved in the political process over the past few days? Does he agree that that has done more for devolution than anything else over the past few months? I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) and Mark Durkan for their courage and endurance in those months. Despite the scenes the other day that were reminiscent of "Rocky IV", we know that there is a way forward, and those people who have been involved in the process must be congratulated on that. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that the community infrastructure, especially in working-class Protestant areas, needs to be reinforced, because it will only be at a local level that we solidify that base and ensure an enduring political peace process?

Dr. Reid: We all deprecate some of the scenes that occurred, but we should not sensationalise them. There was a great deal of passion involved—that is the nature of politics in Northern Ireland, as it is in many other areas. The more we can settle disputes with dialogue that does not border on violence, the better it will be for us all.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the stability of the Executive and the Assembly. Those institutions are not only the democratic bedrock of the Good Friday agreement, but the vehicle through which the age-old differences between the two sides of the community can be reconciled in partnership and, in the Joint Ministerial Council, through which an all-Ireland dimension can be given to the process of seeking solutions, while granting the wish of the majority in Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom. I hope that all the institutions progress. Ultimately, and most importantly, they are the means by which we will deliver a better life for people in

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Northern Ireland through jobs, education and housing. The sooner we can address those concerns, the better for all involved.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): I rejoice in the election of the First Minister, but does the Secretary of State understand the anxiety that many of us in a law-based society feel about the sleight of hand that took place? I refer in particular to the redesignation of Assembly Members from the Alliance party of Northern Ireland as Unionists, which is very difficult to understand. There is also the disparity between the date of elections announced in this House and the date that was apparently, or at least implicitly, communicated to the High Court of Justice in Belfast.

Dr. Reid: On the first matter, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that no-one in his party or in this House has ever used parliamentary techniques, such as filibusters, deadlines and suspensions, that is a chronic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Everything that was done in the Assembly was within the Standing Orders, and it was done with propriety. I wish that he would not take that rather patronising, lofty tone.

I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's advice on my statutory obligations, but I do have others to advise me on my legal responsibilities, and I have a degree of integrity that I hope remains unquestioned. I have met my statutory responsibilities; I have proposed an election date, and I have done so in a way that not only meets the statutory requirements but, I hope, marks the actions of a reasonable man taking into account all the developments that took place.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): With other hon. Members I had the honour earlier today to meet some of the parents of pupils at Holy Cross school in the Ardoyne. What hope can my right hon. Friend offer those parents of young schoolgirls who want nothing more than for their children to walk to school in peace?

Dr. Reid: I have made my view known: I would like to see the protest called off for three reasons. First, we have opened channels of communication to allow any grievances to be aired, and there may well be real or perceived grievances among the residents of the Glenbryn estate. Secondly, I do not think that any children should be subjected, even by peaceful protest, to the treatment experienced by these children, particularly when some are coming up to their 11-plus examinations at the end of this week. Thirdly, the Glenbryn residents and those who support them undermine their own cause by using that form of action.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the Alliance party and its leader, David Ford, for showing the courage of their convictions and temporarily redesignating themselves as Unionists to ensure that one of the architects of the peace process, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), was re-elected to his position as First Minister? Does he agree that it is unreasonable that they should have had to redesignate themselves for their votes

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to be counted? Will he assure me that one of the considerations in his review will be to ensure that we do not find ourselves in such an inequitable situation again?

Dr. Reid: I have no hesitation in expressing publicly my admiration for the courage of and the initiative taken by the leadership of the Alliance party, and before that by the Women's Coalition. Those are small parties which took those steps not to their own advantage, but to the advantage of the whole peace process and the stability of the institutions. Obviously, I cannot prejudge the conclusions of any review, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is one of the matters that will be addressed.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Will the Secretary of State accept that we would like to associate ourselves with what he has just said about both the Alliance party and the Women's Coalition? They allowed their sense of the general good to override long-standing party political predilections and they have played a momentous part in the arrangement that has now been reached.

May I also—the right hon. Gentleman might want to hold his breath and enjoy it while it lasts—offer him my sincere congratulations on the astuteness and perseverance that he has shown during this period, especially in allowing time for the various parties to reach that essential agreement? Although there were many artificialities in the anomalies in the arrangement—my right hon., learned and noble Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) is right to draw attention to them—the greatest artificiality of all would have been 70 per cent. of Members of the Assembly wanting the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to be First Minister, but that democratic decision being overridden. I add my voice to those who have been asking the Secretary of State to ensure that the whole issue of blocking minorities and their appropriate levels is thoroughly examined in the review.

Dr. Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous accolade and for his support in private discussions on those matters. Sometimes the lack of publicity implies that he and others, such as the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), have not been engaged, whereas in fact they have taken a great interest.

To answer the question, we shall address that issue in the review. Although the fact that someone can get 70 per cent. support and still not be elected is an obvious subject for discussion, it is also important to remember the history of Northern Ireland: the degree of mistrust between the two communities required a threshold of acceptance by both to be part of the Belfast agreement, so as to ensure that we could make progress with the whole community behind the proposals. The issue is therefore not as simple as it appears, but it will certainly be addressed.

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