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Rev. Martin Smyth: Perhaps Scots thriftiness is one reason why the royal coat of arms is not displayed in every court.

One of my constituents, who has practised for 20 years, has never heard any objection from any side to the presence of the coat of arms in the Northern Ireland courts. Rather than doing away with it, should we not encourage people to recognise it and accept with respect what it stands for?

Mr. Hunter: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that informative intervention. I certainly agree with him.

The Bill's proposals on this matter are indications not of Northern Ireland's legal and constitutional Britishness but of the fact that Northern Ireland is being moved by the Government, quite deliberately and in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants, into some sort of constitutional neutrality. The Secretary of State said in a speech quite recently that he did not want a "cold house for Unionists" to be created. To allow the Bill to become law will create arctic conditions for Unionists.

It is relevant to recall that political developments in nationalism in Scotland have not led to the removal of the current symbols of justice. The Scottish court system has its own distinctive characteristics but devolved government has brought about no such changes.

Mr. Browne: When the hon. Gentleman draws Scottish comparisons, he should be complete about it, and two of them are very important to his argument: first, judges are appointed on the recommendation of the First Minister in Scotland, without any of the constitutional implications that he infers; and secondly, it is now proposed to appoint a judicial appointments commission there, without any of the constitutional implications that he says there will be for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Hunter: It is early days to draw such conclusions. If the political composition of the Scottish Parliament changes significantly, the Minister may find that the very problems that he says do not exist will emerge in some force.

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If enacted, the Bill will politicise judicial procedures in Northern Ireland as never before. In attacking the symbols of Britishness, it undermines Northern Ireland's constitutional status within the United Kingdom. It harmonises the legal system of Northern Ireland with that of the Republic of Ireland on an unprecedented scale. It incorporates a restorative justice system that could fall into the hands of terrorist organisations or otherwise be influenced by them. And it creates a new layer of quango and bureaucracy.

I have no doubt at all that the Bill should be resisted.

8.4 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Before the start of this debate, I read for the first time the exact wording of the amendment. The Conservative party is making a major mistake by continuing, or even accelerating, its break from the cross-party consensus that prevailed through Conservative and Labour Governments.

The complaint is that the Government are making

Such language is not only inflammatory and irresponsible: it is unworthy of any party that aspires to lead the Northern Ireland peace process in government one day, and I hope for the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland that that day is a long way off. Such language is more suited to student politics than to a debate in the House. I have little doubt that, had the Conservative party been in government at any point over the past five years, the peace process as we know it would already have been dead and buried.

After berating the Secretary of State for not being in the Chamber, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has now left the Chamber.

Lembit Öpik: The peace process might have been dead and buried, or a Conservative Government might have made exactly the same decisions as the Labour Government have made.

Mr. Harris: I agree: being in government often concentrates the mind on a more responsible attitude, and I hope—no one can be sure—that that is what would have happened.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford spent some time describing what he would do as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland but neglected to mention two of the Government's achievements, which he clearly has no regard for and no ambition to emulate: a three-year IRA ceasefire and the decommissioning of a substantial quantity of illegally held arms. Make no mistake: the Conservatives may claim to support the Good Friday agreement—and God knows they mention it often enough—but they are most definitely opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process. I hope that they will reconsider their strategy on the issue in the very near future.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his ministerial team for introducing the Bill and for their wider efforts in pushing forward the peace process. The Bill represents yet another Labour party manifesto commitment honoured and another piece of the Good Friday agreement implemented.

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I am disappointed that the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Michelle Gildernew) are not here in the Chamber—I understand that they are in the Palace of Westminster—to debate an issue that is of great importance to their constituents as well as those of the hon. Members who have chosen to be here to represent those who elected them.

When almost everything we hear about developments in Northern Ireland revolves around terrorism, intimidation and weapons decommissioning, it is easy to forget that here is a part of the United Kingdom where normal life must go on and is going on, and that Government policy in Northern Ireland goes beyond the headlines to address the everyday concerns shared by people of all communities. The Bill is no less important to the people of Northern Ireland for the fact that it deals with measures that are not especially headline grabbing.

I warmly welcome the Bill and I want to raise a few points—salient ones, I hope—about it. In England and Wales, and in Scotland, the development of the criminal justice system has been the subject of constant though often understated debate, and where change has been necessary, appropriate legislation has followed. The Bill is the first major criminal justice reform in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. I accept that that is an illustration of what happens to a community that is thrown into chaos and violence, and political debate focuses almost exclusively on questions of security, nationality and religion. I hope that the House will welcome the Bill as a sign that normal politics in Northern Ireland has been, if not resumed, at least rescheduled for a date in the not-too-distant future.

I especially welcome the establishment of the rights of the victims of crime, who will be kept informed, for example, of the time scale for the release of offenders. Such information, I understand, has been available to the victims of terrorist crimes, who are informed about the release of members of paramilitary groups, and I am sure that this reform is welcomed by the whole House.

Most important of all, the Government have made known their desire for responsibility for criminal justice to be devolved to where it belongs—the Northern Ireland Assembly—within a definite time scale.

The Bill makes it clear that the future development of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland must be seen as part of a politically neutral process. That is fundamental to many of the reforms that have taken place since the Good Friday agreement, and has been the cornerstone of the Government's policy. I have always believed that in Northern Ireland it is utterly impossible to please all the people all the time—but at the very least, if we are displeasing everyone at the same time, we must be doing something right.

As for symbols and oaths, I accept that it is always difficult for those of us who do not live in Northern Ireland to make judgments on those who have lived with terrorism and violence in their communities for their whole lives. However, let me say in all sincerity that it is difficult to understand why the question of emblems has to take up so much of the debate, and why it took up so great a proportion of the speeches made earlier from the Conservative Benches.

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I appreciate that, in Northern Ireland, history is just not a record of the past, but, although invisible, almost a living thing, which is at the table whenever any party, Government body or courthouse meets.

Mr. Trimble: There is a very simple answer, and it has nothing to do with delving into the past; we only have to consider the past three years. The Belfast agreement recognised that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, but the problem is that since then the Government have not been implementing the agreement; they are failing to implement it. It is as simple as that. If the Government were keeping to the agreement in that respect, the Bill would have a much easier passage.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, but I am afraid that I disagree with him. I believe that the Government are implementing the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and have worked tirelessly to keep the peace process on track. They must be commended for that.

Mr. Francois: If the hon. Gentleman's argument is that the Bill is implementing the Good Friday agreement, will he tell the House what paragraph of the agreement says that the royal arms will be removed from courthouses in Northern Ireland?

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