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'take the oath of allegiance and the judicial oath or make the appropriate affirmation.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 81, in page 13, line 28, leave out "according to" and insert "upholding".

No. 82, in page 13, line 34, leave out "according to" and insert "upholding".

Mr. Davies: This is an important amendment but the issues at stake are straightforward and can be simply put. We wish to restore, by means of the amendment,

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the normal oath of allegiance as it is taken by judges elsewhere in the United Kingdom. There are three arguments that the Government have to address with regard to clause 20. I continue to hope that the Government will accept our view that this is a concession too far and will take the opportunity of accepting amendment No. 45 to restore the position. If they do not, they will have clearly defined the differences that separate us. Those are not nuances of differences of emphasis but differences of fundamental principle. Let me set out those three arguments as simply as I can.

7.15 pm

The first argument, which I hope the Government will not take issue with, is that oaths are important. They mean something; they are not symbols. Oaths create obligations—that is their purpose. In this case, the oath of allegiance enshrines the fact that justice in this country flows from the Crown. If the Minister does not think that justice flows from the Crown, the onus is on him to tell us where it does flow from. If he wishes to create an ambiguity so that although the position is not as clear as it is today, justice is not deemed to flow from any other source, he must justify that. Ambiguity in legal matters is always problematic and generally undesirable. We positively believe in the principle that justice flows from the Crown and that judges should undertake an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

The second major issue between us and the Government is that if that principle is right—and it can be right or wrong—it should, by definition, be extended to the whole kingdom. If a principle of justice is right, it is, by definition, right for everybody. What concerns us is not the suggestion that that principle should be set aside, with republicanism introduced into our legal system and the oath of allegiance abolished. That would be a dramatic move by the Government although they have not done that. Instead, they have decided that in most of the country the principle on which our justice is based should continue while in one part of the country that principle should be changed. That is a dubious procedure; it is a discriminatory and partial approach to a fundamental issue.

This is, by definition, a republican measure. The Government do not want, or do not have the courage—I do not know which it is—to make such a change for the country as a whole, but intend to limit it to one part of the country. That position cannot be sustained—one cannot have a principle that is valid in one part of the country and not elsewhere because a principle, by its nature, is universal and should be applied equally and fairly everywhere.

Why are the Government doing this? There is no doubt that it is part of an agenda to erode, by stealth, the position of the Province of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, and that is extremely worrying.

The Opposition are committed to the Belfast agreement, as are, notionally, the Government. The agreement says clearly that there should be no change in the status of Northern Ireland except by the vote of the people of Northern Ireland. We endorse that utterly. It is wrong and inconsistent with the principle of the Belfast agreement that a change should be effected by stealth in this piecemeal fashion. It is death by a thousand cuts; that is the approach of the Government and it is one that we reject.

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Thirdly, we must look at this move in the context of the Government's general policy towards Northern Ireland, particularly over the last few months. I have characterised that policy—rightly, I am convinced, because the Government have never quarrelled with my definition—as an endless series of one-way concessions, almost all of them simply designed to appease Sinn Fein-IRA, which is just one of the parties to the Belfast agreement and to the peace process.

I have said over and over again that we believe that is a disastrous approach to implementing the Belfast agreement. If we are to have peace in Northern Ireland, it must be based on a sense of balance and fairness. For the first time ever at the weekend, the Secretary of State—in an "On the Record" interview that I did not see but of which I have seen a transcript—actually recognised that the perception in Northern Ireland is that all of the concessions have been one way, against Unionism. He said:

The Secretary of State is entirely endorsing the analysis that we have made and which we have put before him over the last few months. The balance has been broken in Northern Ireland and there is no sense of fairness. There is simply the sense of a one-way street.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): First, I should thank the hon. Gentleman for telling me what I said; I know, since I am the person who said it. As he will see if he reads further on in the transcript—I had to correct the interviewer in the same way as I am having to correct the hon. Gentleman—I was careful to distinguish between the reality and the perception. I fully acknowledged the perception that the process was imbalanced. Quite wrongly, the hon. Gentleman is using that to justify that it is in fact imbalanced.

Mr. Davies: The Secretary of State is perfectly right. Anyone reading the transcript can see that, subsequently, the Secretary of State fought desperately to retrieve what he appeared to have given away. I do not doubt that at all. I dare say that, within seconds of mouthing those words, the Secretary of State began to regret them. There is evidence in the interview that that is what he wanted to do.

The Secretary of State is an experienced politician and he knows that when one is interviewed, one uses terms advisedly. Perhaps he should have thought more carefully about what he was saying. If it was a slip, clearly it was a Freudian slip. It was not a deliberate attempt to mislead anyone; I do not suppose that for a moment. If it was a slip, it was because he was too frank or candid. The Secretary of State is simply acknowledging the position that we have put to him for a long time. It is great progress that even if the Secretary of State has done so by a slip of the tongue or inadvertently, he has acknowledged that position, even in his own mind. Later this evening, we will discuss an instance where it appears that, for once,

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the Secretary of State responded in deed as well as in word to the worrying situation that the Government's tactics have created in Northern Ireland.

Dr. Reid: I want to help the hon. Gentleman and prevent him from being unintentionally disingenuous with the House. Let me quote my words exactly before and after the interviewer:

The interviewer says later:

There was no slip of the tongue. That is something that I acknowledged not only yesterday, but in a speech six months ago. The hon. Gentleman may not have heard it, but he has often quoted it.

Mr. Davies: It is obvious that I have touched the Secretary of State on a raw nerve. He is obviously concerned about this quotation, and any hon. Member who wishes to read the whole transcript will see that it is amusing to see how the Secretary of State rowed back from what he said, which was very revealing.

Mr. Tom Harris: Given the sensitivity surrounding politics in Northern Ireland, does the hon. Gentleman think that it is appropriate for a Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on Northern Ireland to define the success or otherwise of any policy in Northern Ireland by a points system for and against any particular community? Is that really a progressive and sophisticated way to define policy in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say gently to the House that we are not discussing politics in Northern Ireland as a whole, but a particular amendment concerning the judicial oath? I would like to hear further remarks in this debate confined to that.

Mr. Davies: Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but this concession fits into a general pattern. We care about the implementation of the Belfast agreement, and it is important that if the Opposition are convinced—as, sadly, we are—that the Government's tactics are leading in the wrong direction and away from the aim that we all share, we should draw that to everyone's attention and use our influence to try to redress the position. We are not afraid of saying what we believe should be done. I have never run away from that.

Lady Hermon: May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the actual wording of the oath, as set out in clause 20? It says:

"This realm"—those words are in the Bill. Clearly that is a reference to the United Kingdom. I cannot see how this can be described accurately as, in the hon. Gentleman's language, "a concession".

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