House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2001- 02
Publications on the internet
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001

First Standing Committee on

Delegated Legislation

Monday 5 November 2001

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 2884).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2001, the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001 and the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001.

Mr. Browne: I welcome you, Mr. Griffiths, to the Chair for this afternoon's deliberations. The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001 was laid before the House on 13 August 2001. I shall speak also about the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2001, which was laid before the House on 13 August 2001; the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001; and the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001. The latter two were laid before Parliament on 26 September 2001.

The orders were made under special procedures during the summer recess for reasons of urgency. The first suspension order suspended devolution in Northern Ireland on 11 August by bringing into force section 4 of the 2000 Act, thereby revoking the restoration order that came into effect on 29 May last year. While it was in force, the Assembly was unable to meet or to carry out any business, the Northern Ireland Ministers and the Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Assembly Statutory Committees ceased to hold office and the functions and responsibilities formerly carried out by the devolved Administration returned to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The first restoration order came into effect on 12 August, 24 hours after the suspension was brought into force. That order was made under section 2(2) of the 2000 Act, which provides that the Secretary of State may by order provide that suspension shall no longer have effect. Section 3 sets out the effect of restoration. I shall explain the precise implications of that section a little later.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Is the Minister referring to section 2?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful for that intervention. I am referring to section 3, which deals with the effect of restoration. I shall return to it and I shall refer also to other sections of the Act.

The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001 suspended devolution in Northern Ireland on 22 September by revoking the earlier restoration order made in August. As before, while it was in force, the Assembly was unable to meet or to carry out any business, the Northern Ireland Ministers and the Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of Assembly Statutory Committees ceased to hold office and the functions and responsibilities formerly carried out by the devolved Administration again returned to the Secretary of State.

The last order before the Committee is the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001, which came into effect on 23 September—24 hours after the second suspension was brought into force. The restoration order brought into force section 2(2) of the 2000 Act.

The four orders are to be debated together, and I hope that hon. Members will accept the logic of that approach. It might help if I explain the political context of the orders. The Government's focus has been to restore stability to the devolved institutions following the resignation of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) as First Minister on 1 July 2001. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, if the Assembly has failed to elect a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister within six weeks of a vacancy occurring, the Secretary of State has a statutory duty to propose a date for electing a fresh Assembly. The 1 July resignation created a deadline of 12 August.

The right hon. Gentleman made it clear when he resigned as First Minister that neither he nor any of his Ministers would be prepared to stand for election as First Minister in the absence of IRA decommissioning. The Government consequently worked hard with the parties and the Irish Government to achieve sufficient progress on decommissioning and other measures outstanding from the agreement to encourage the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider his decision to step down.

The British and Irish Governments hosted multi-party talks at Weston park in July, as a result of which we published a joint package of proposals on 1 August. That covered the four outstanding issues—decommissioning, policing, normalisation and the operation of the institutions. We expressed our belief that, taken together, those proposals formed the basis for securing the full implementation of the agreement.

On Monday 6 August, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning reported that the IRA representative had proposed a method for putting IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use, which met the commission's remit in accordance with the scheme and the regulations of the two Governments.

The commission expressed its belief that the proposal initiated a process that would put IRA arms completely and verifiably beyond use. What the report could not say was when the first act of decommissioning would take place. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann responded that, in the absence of actual decommissioning before 12 August, he would not be prepared to stand for re-election as First Minister.

The Secretary of State consulted the Irish Government and a number of Northern Ireland party leaders on options for progress. The Government believed that the IRA's offer was significant, even though, in the circumstances pertaining at the time, it was insufficient to restore the full operation of the institutions. On the afternoon of Friday 10 August, the Secretary of State announced that he would sign an order to suspend devolution from midnight that night. That was to provide a short breathing space in which further progress could be achieved on the basis of that announced by the Decommissioning Commission and the joint proposals of the two Governments made on 1 August. That order was the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001, which is before the Committee.

Following a meeting with the Irish Foreign Minister and separate consultations with the Northern Ireland parties, the Secretary of State restored the devolved institutions after 24 hours. The order that brought the restoration into force was the Northern Ireland Act—

Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister please say exactly what happened? I think he said that the review process that is required under the legislation amounted to a discussion with the Taoiseach. Will he please repeat that, as I did not catch it all?

Mr. Browne: I shall repeat it for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman. Following a meeting with the Irish Foreign Minister and separate consultations with the Northern Ireland parties, the Secretary of State restored the devolved institutions after 24 hours. The order that brought the restoration into force was the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2001, which is before the Committee. Under section 3(4) of the 2000 Act, that gave the Assembly a further six weeks in which to elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Mr. Blunt: Will the Minister say what the meeting with the Irish Foreign Minister entailed and what the consultations with the Northern Irish parties consisted of?

Mr. Browne: Unfortunately, I am not in a position to do so at this moment. I might be able to return to the matter in Committee. If not, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

Under section 3(4) of the 2000 Act, the order gave the Assembly a further six weeks to elect First and Deputy First Ministers. That provision states that if the office of First Minister is vacant on the day that devolution is suspended, when the Assembly is restored, it is as if that office had been vacated on the same day. As a consequence, the six weeks allowed by the 1998 Act are restarted.

Important progress was made in the following weeks. Crucially, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published on 17 August the Government's policing implementation plan. Following a number of discussions with the Government, the Social Democratic and Labour party announced on 20 September that it would nominate members to the Policing Board.

Other developments have affected progress. It emerged on 13 August that three Irishmen suspected of having links with the republican movement had been arrested in Colombia. On 14 August, the IRA announced that it was withdrawing the proposals that it had agreed with the Decommissioning Commission, because of the Ulster Unionist party's reaction to the IICD statement and the Government's decision to suspend the institutions.

The six-week deadline for electing First and Deputy First Ministers was due to expire at midnight on Saturday 22 September. However, the latter part of that period was understandably overshadowed by the outbreak of serious violence near the Holy Cross school in north Belfast and the tragic events in America on 11 September.

After consulting the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland parties, the Secretary of State announced on Friday 21 September that he was again suspending the devolved institutions to allow more time for a solution to be achieved. The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001 came into force at midnight. The following day, the Secretary of State held a series of discussions with the relevant parties in the Assembly to review the causes of the suspension—it was primarily due to the decision of the right hon. Member for Upper Bann not to stand for re-election as First Minister in the absence of decommissioning—and to ascertain whether sufficient progress could be made to enable a successful election of First and Deputy First Ministers to take place.

On the back of those discussions and bearing in mind the consultations that the Secretary of State had carried out before suspension, my right hon. Friend decided that movement was possible and that ending the suspension quickly would create the best opportunity for progress to be made. Devolution was restored 24 hours after suspension. The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No. 2) Order 2001—the last order before the Committee—came into force on Saturday 22 September. The new six-week period ended at midnight on Saturday 3 November.

As the Committee will be aware, we have taken historic steps in the last few weeks in the space made available by the use of the suspension and restoration provisions in the 2000 Act. On Monday 22 October, the president of Sinn Fein made a statement calling on the IRA to move on the arms issue to save the agreement. The following day, the IRA made the historic announcement that it had carried out an act of decommissioning. Later that day, the IRA statement was confirmed by the Decommissioning Commission, which reported that it had witnessed the IRA carry out a significant act of decommissioning that met the commission's remit in accordance with the scheme and regulations of the two Governments.

In response, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann announced that he was prepared to back that move by standing for re-election as First Minister. The Secretary of State made a full statement to the House on 24 October, setting out the Government's response to those key developments. He announced the Government's belief that, following that unprecedented step, nothing should be put in the way of the agreement's full implementation, including the full and unfettered operation of the institutions. He called on all parties to support the right hon. Gentleman's decision to re-enter the Executive as First Minister.

Since the Assembly's unsuccessful attempts to elect First and Deputy First Ministers on Friday, the Secretary of State has been engaged in intensive discussions to try to resolve the difficulties and progress has been made. The Assembly will have a further opportunity to elect First and Deputy First Ministers tomorrow. Although such matters are not for discussion in today's debate, I am sure that I am not alone in hoping that it will soon be possible for all the devolved institutions to be re-established on a stable and lasting basis and able to operate to their fullest extent.

Whatever else has happened, I think that everyone recognises that the IRA's recent act of decommissioning is an unprecedented and historic step. Who could have predicted even as recently as five years ago that it would be prepared to make any move to reduce its arms capability? Yet that is exactly what it has done, and by so doing it has shown a commitment to the process that should be welcomed by all.

I hope that the Committee agrees that those developments fully vindicate the Secretary of State's decision to suspend and restore the institutions on two occasions. His actions have achieved real and tangible progress; they have certainly achieved more than would have been possible in the political upheaval caused by fresh Assembly elections, which, under the 1998 Act, were the only other course of action.

4.45 pm

 
Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 5 November 2001