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15 Oct 2002 : Column 194—continued

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I should like to thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me an advance copy of his statement. I should also like to congratulate, on behalf of the Opposition, the two new Ministers who have joined his team—the hon. Members for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) and for Basildon (Angela Smith). I should also like to endorse his appreciation, which we strongly share, of the great efforts that have been made by so many people in Northern Ireland to make a success of devolution: the First Minister and the Members of the Executive—except for the Sinn Fein Members who are responsible for today's setback—and the Members of the Assembly and so many people throughout Northern Ireland. It is a very disappointing day for all of us—for us in the House, but for the people in Northern Ireland in particular.

We can only hope that this setback—the Secretary of State was right to use the word Xsetback"—is only temporary, and I hope that the political process and devolution can be restored as soon as possible. I should also like to extend our congratulations to the Chief Constable on the prompt and effective actions of the police over the past few weeks, and it is very good news—I strongly support what the Secretary of State has decided in this matter—that the police board has been asked to continue. I also share the right hon. Gentleman's relief that an arrest has been made in connection with the shooting of Mr. McBrearty in Londonderry a few weeks ago.

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge, however, that we have made it clear—I to him in private and several of us in public—that we do not share the Government's view that suspension of the institutions is the right response to this crisis? Suspension amounts to penalising the innocent—indeed, the whole peace process—because of the misbehaviour of one party. That seems perverse, and to take risks with the whole process, which we find unnecessary and undesirable. Our strong preference was to exclude the guilty party, which is—although I notice that the Secretary of State still does not quite want to use the words—Sinn Fein-IRA, by taking powers in the House to enable the Secretary of State to exclude any party in breach of its obligations, and we argued very forcefully for that in the

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debate that we had in this Chamber in July. Is it not very regrettable that the Government took no notice of those arguments and that when the latest crisis broke that power was not in the Government's armoury at all?

The Secretary of State, of course, took the line in July that the mechanism of an exclusion motion in the Assembly, not his taking the power in the House to exclude, was quite adequate for the purpose, and he promised to introduce such a motion in the event of another Sinn Fein-IRA breach. Let me quote the right hon. Gentleman's words precisely:

Why did he not fulfil that promise yesterday instead of suspending? Is it not rather destructive of confidence on the part of all concerned, particularly those who have to deal with the Secretary of State, that he should promise to adopt a particular course in a given eventuality in July and do something quite different when that eventuality duly presented itself in October?

Our responsibility is now to make the best of the situation, to contribute to ensuring that the governance of Northern Ireland from Whitehall and Westminster is as effective as it can be and to bring back devolution as soon as possible. We are absolutely committed to that objective, and I shall ask a number of practical questions on that in a moment. But does the Secretary of State not agree that it would be quite remiss of Parliament to brush over this dramatic reversal without asking some of the essential questions that arise and trying to draw the appropriate lessons for the future?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the great moral blame for what has happened must lie with Sinn Fein-IRA and with no one else? They have persistently and blatantly breached their obligations under the ceasefire and the agreement. Why does the Secretary of State find it so difficult to say so unambiguously and explicitly?

Will the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister, who is sitting beside him, not accept that the Government cannot escape their share of responsibility for allowing the situation to deteriorate in the way that it has? Was is not a very serious error of judgment not to respond at all to the successive Sinn Fein-IRA breaches of the agreement and the ceasefire, such as those in Florida, Colombia and Castlereagh—we all know what they were—as we urged the Government to do at the time? How can anyone seriously have supposed that failing to respond at all to blatant breaches of that kind could do other than encourage Sinn Fein-IRA to go for worse breaches in the future? Was not that fundamental error compounded by the extraordinary decision during precisely that period to offer Sinn Fein-IRA new concessions going right beyond the Belfast agreement, such as the promise of an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists or a special status in the House? Since Sinn Fein-IRA have so clearly breached the good faith on which the Government were counting when they offered that concession, is it not now time to review it?

We can all hope that however much the Government want to wriggle away from this and however much they want simply to sweep all those issues under the carpet

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and say, XWell, this is a new beginning; let us not talk about the past", they are inwardly contrite about those mistakes because it is very important indeed that, as and when we get back to devolution, mistakes of that kind are not made again.

Now let me turn to the immediate practical issues that arise. Will the Secretary of State clarify what he just said about elections in Northern Ireland remaining on schedule for May? Does he mean that those elections will still take place even if there is no Assembly at the time for those elected to sit in? If that is not what he means, will he just elucidate the position to the House? Of course, if he tells us that he is certain that we can return to devolution by that time, we shall be the first to be delighted. [Hon. Members: XOh."] Oh yes, indeed. Labour Members do not like that, but I have to tell them that they will not be able to shout down the history books. When the history of the peace process is written, it will show that our judgment was vindicated by events and that our judgment would have enabled the process set up by the Belfast agreement to continue.

How do the Government propose to legislate from now on for Northern Ireland? Does the Secretary of State accept that Orders in Council, which cannot be amended here, are a thoroughly unsatisfactory method of legislation? Does he also agree that Parliament will now need more time to consider Northern Ireland because of the much wider range of responsibilities for which Ministers here are directly accountable? Does he therefore agree that Northern Ireland Question Time will need to be longer than it has been in recent years? What role does he envisage for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee? Does he agree that, above all, in present circumstances, we must not repeat the bad example of last year, when there was not a single policy debate on Northern Ireland in Government time in the whole of the year? We had to use Opposition time for such a debate before the House rose in July. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet with the Opposition and the Northern Ireland parties to discuss how scrutiny can best be applied in these new circumstances and how Parliament can do its job?

Finally, and very importantly, will the Secretary of State be frank with the House on any understandings or undertakings—I include informal understandings—that may have been reached with the Government of the Irish Republic on consultation or co-ordination with them under the new direct rule regime?

Dr. Reid: First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations to my colleagues, and for his kind remarks, which were well deserved, about the Chief Constable.

In terms of what arrangements have been made with the Irish Government or the other parties, my priorities in the first few days and the first week have been to attend to the governance of Northern Ireland. I shall therefore meet the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, as they were yesterday, along with other Ministers, to achieve the handover. At that stage, I shall discuss matters with the Irish Government and the other parties to consider how to carry forward the other aspects of the process. That will probably be done, as I think I said in my statement, through the British-Irish intergovernmental conference provided for in the agreement.

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As for blame, I think that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said, as he claimed that I was reticent to blame republicans or Sinn Fein for what happened. I mentioned Colombia and Castlereagh, and, having said that it was improper to prejudge things—I think that it is—it would be naive to underestimate the political effect and the effect on public opinion of those events. I went on to refer to the impact of the opinion of the charges brought against republicans, including members of Sinn Fein—I said that specifically—as a result of the police operation of 4 October. It is therefore beyond rhetoric to suggest that I neither alluded to nor referred to Sinn Fein; I specifically mentioned it.

As for the exclusion option that was available to us, we were presented with various options ranging from doing nothing—which was urged on us by some parties—to suspension of the Executive, suspension of the whole body, exclusion of Sinn Fein and exclusion from the process. As I said earlier, the option on which we decided was the least worst one; there were no good options in terms of balancing the magnitude of what we were trying to achieve against the problems that we face at present.

As for the elections, my comments stand. The election date remains unaffected by anything that I said yesterday. The election date was 1 May; it still is 1 May. We will obviously have to keep the date in mind in view of the real world, real politics and real circumstances, but there is no reason at the moment for anyone to feel that anything has changed about the election date. If, before or after it, we are faced with an impasse of the nature that we have at the moment, it is an issue that we shall have to consider at that time or, indeed, before it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to parliamentary procedures, and they will have to be discussed through the usual channels. It is not a matter for me how those procedures are finally decided upon but, if he wishes to speak to us about them, I am more than happy to make sure that Parliament carries out the appropriate scrutiny as it sees fit, given the portfolios that have been added and the extension of powers that I have now found thrust upon me.

I merely wish to make a final comment. Although the hon. Gentleman tries hard on these occasions to show a veneer of bipartisanship, he does not rise to the extent of the project that we are attempting to grapple with. I well remember the Anglo-Irish agreement, the Downing street declaration and the secret talks with the IRA, all of which took place when he was on the Conservative Front Bench and when the IRA was still committing acts of atrocity and was still visibly in the middle of a terrorist war. Because of the magnitude of the prize that was before us, we managed to give support to the then Government—his own party—when they were conducting such talks with the people conducting a murderous and terrible campaign, so a little more grace and support from him would rise to the occasion.

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