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Mr. McNamara: For the record, Cromwell exported 2,000 McNamaras as slaves to Jamaica. It is arguable that

21 Jan 2002 : Column 707

he exported the wrong ones, but to call me Cromwell, or to suggest in any way that that man was a great parliamentarian, is to rubbish history.

Mr. Blunt: That is why I made my point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire had been somewhat maladroit in making such a remark. I shall go no further into that point because I should have no time to discuss the rest of the Bill if I did.

It was a bit rich of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to say that the Conservative view of the merits of devolution appeared confused. Let us consider the messages put out by his party at present. A bipartisan arrangement between Government and Opposition continues to exist over the Belfast agreement. Our concern is about cases in which the agreement is not implemented, as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) made clear during the debate. Yet today, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has announced that the bipartisan arrangement that has prevailed for some time between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats is over.

The party of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire also sent out a confused message in its votes on access to facilities of the House: 14 of its Members voted for, 14 voted against and 28 abstained. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should put his own house in order before seeking to criticise the Conservatives for confusion of messages.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) was quite right about the consistency of the approach taken by the Social Democratic and Labour party over the years. He said that it sought to achieve neutrality in the criminal justice system. That goes to the heart of the difference between the hon. Gentleman and the official Opposition. We do not believe that there should be neutrality in how the criminal justice system is represented in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the criminal justice system must flow from the Crown. Symbols should recognise that reality, and I shall return to symbols later. However, I appreciated the tone in which he suggested that we should withdraw our amendment, even though I fear that that request will not meet with success.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) made it clear in speaking immediately after the hon. Member for South Down that our opposition to that detail of the Bill is no cheap publicity stunt and that it arises from fundamental principles. He drew proper attention to the fact that the review group's conclusion on the issue was illogical, and I want to return to that in a few moments.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) was that of a self-confessed republican. That became clear during this debate.

Mr. Tom Harris: The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge the difference between a republican in Ireland and a republican in Britain—the latter simply believes that the hereditary principle is not the most appropriate way to select the Head of State.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Gentleman is right to make that distinction. Of course, I am not suggesting that he is

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associated with the violence that has been the distinction between the people who describe themselves as nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland. Part of the problem in dealing with Northern Ireland issues is that one ends up talking in code and words such as "community" become enormously loaded.

That is also part of the problem with the Bill, especially with regard to community safety partnerships. What is the word "community" supposed to mean in that context? The Secretary of State has introduced the Bill, but clauses 70 and 71 deal with community safety partnerships in absolutely no detail, so the House is entitled to be extremely suspicious about what will flow from that, which is why the Secretary of State should not have such powers.

I compliment the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on the charming tone with which she delivered her speech; it completely deceived the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) by wholly disguising the steel in her remarks and the resolution with which she put them to the House. She referred to the role of the chief inspector, and we agree that it would be appropriate to include the ombudsman in the list of institutions to be subject to inspection by the chief inspector. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us that satisfaction, if not in replying to the debate, certainly in Committee—if the House is minded to debate the Bill in Committee.

The hon. Lady also talked about the Irish language. Of course, an absurd position has now arisen in the new courts in Laganside. To accommodate verbal instructions to members of the public, they can ask for those instructions to be put on a board in three languages—English, Irish and Cantonese—because more people speak Cantonese on the island of Ireland than speak Irish. That is the rather bizarre result of attempting to accommodate everyone.

I agree with some of the analysis of by the hon. Member for Ilford, South, especially when he said that the problem was with Unionists and loyalists and that people could abuse the debate about symbols. That has to be viewed in the context of the fact that there is now a cold house for Unionists in Northern Ireland. Almost every informed commentator now agrees that the issue that requires the greatest management is not reassuring the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, but what has happened to the Unionist community as a direct result of the way in which the Government have conducted themselves, going above and beyond the Belfast agreement.

The issue of coats of arms in courthouses and the oaths taken by members of the judiciary goes right to the heart of that symbology. The hon. Lady quoted the agreement. I shall not repeat that quote now, but it made it clear that the measures are not part of the Belfast agreement. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart complained that there had been too much focus on the issue, so why is it in the Bill? Why is such a measure being introduced when it will cause such offence to the people who want the Union to be sustained?

The provisions for the oath and the coat of arms will be foolish in practice because of the message that they send to the Unionists. They are unacceptable in principle to those of us who regard Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and want it to remain so. That is why we shall press our reasoned amendment to the vote.

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9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I fear that 15 minutes is not long enough to deal with all the points that have been raised in the debate. I am grateful to most Members for their contributions to what has, in the main, been a constructive debate on an important Bill. I say "most", because I was disappointed by the contribution of an hour and 15 minutes by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). He devoted about an hour and 10 minutes of that to form, not to substance. I suspect that the bluster and alleged passion of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen was a cover for their failure to prepare properly for the debate so that they could address the provisions of this complicated and difficult, but important Bill.

Before the debate, the Bill had benefited from the significant consultation that has contributed to its final form. The issue of consultation has occupied far too much time in the debate, but it is instructive that not one party other than the Opposition referred to the amount of consultation and co-operation that it has received from me, my officials in the Northern Ireland Office or my predecessors since the review proposals were published.

I had an extensive meeting with the chair of the ad hoc committee of the Assembly. His work has been mentioned and he clearly understood the circumstances and the background that led to the Bill having to be published when it was. It is a pity that the understanding that was apparent in that meeting was not reflected in the report that was subsequently published.

I must deal with another point that is not of substance but has been raised at length by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford. He referred to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland left the Chamber a short time after he had made his speech. My clear recollection—I have checked this with the official record—is that my right hon. Friend referred in his speech to the fact that he would have to leave, so it is a great pity and a great discourtesy to him that those who were present in the Chamber and who sought thereafter to malign him by making constant references to his absence did not seek to raise that issue when he was here to defend himself.

As a matter of fact, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a significant programme of extensive meetings and many people in the Chamber will know the hours that he works for Northern Ireland, both in Belfast and in London. He would not have absented himself from the Chamber but for the fact that he had to go to Belfast this evening. He set out this evening, so it is a pity that those who sought to criticise him in his absence did not have the courage to raise the matter when he was here.

Mr. Quentin Davies: The Secretary of State said in his speech that he would have to leave early but not for a moment did I imagine that that meant that he would not stay even to hear the remarks of the Opposition spokesman. I thought that he would leave at some point in the evening. As he left, he sent me a note as I was speaking. Clearly, I was not able to read that note.

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On the most important point, the Secretary of State should so arrange his priorities that Parliament comes first whatever may need to be done in London, Belfast or elsewhere. The fact that he has not done so clearly shows what is wrong with the Government as a whole.

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