Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 and Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Modification) Order 2002

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Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Beard, in this important debate. Every time I stand up to speak on Northern Ireland I have the pleasure of welcoming a new Minister to the Treasury Bench. A couple of weeks ago it was my pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Members for Dudley, South and for Basildon. Yesterday I was able to welcome the new Secretary of State to his new responsibilities.

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) today. She represents a particularly beautiful city with the most magnificent cathedral in the country, in my view. She is an old friend and sparring partner. We are both rivals and colleagues in public life in Lincolnshire. I have learnt to respect her political abilities in that smaller, microcosmic context: it is not microcosmic for either of us but it may be for the rest of the Committee. I have no doubt that those qualities will serve her and Government well in both the Whips Office and the Northern Ireland Office.

I have to start on a negative note, repeating at slightly greater length what I said yesterday in a point of order in the Chamber. It is highly unsatisfactory that we are taking such an important order here in Committee. Whatever the merits of discussing substantive measures in the Chamber or in Committee, surely the dramatic decision to suspend devolution should have been taken in the Chamber under the full glare of publicity. I can only assume that the Government decided to push it upstairs simply because they do not want the full glare of publicity. They do not want the public and the press to be unduly exposed to the arguments and difficulties that they have had in managing the whole Northern Ireland peace process.

I am not a member of any usual channels that may exist. I am not a party to such proceedings. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), my understanding is that on every occasion the Opposition have expressed themselves with a single view on the subject. I do not think that I could have said it much more explicitly, or indeed much more publicly than I did yesterday in a point of order in the Chamber. The official Opposition's line on this has been utterly consistent. It is a very considered view. If there is ever a case for discussing a matter on the Floor of the House of Commons it is when we are debating constitutional matters, strategic issues and a

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whole family of problems about an area of policy and a particular area of the United Kingdom.

That is the case here. We must discuss what we should do about the governance of the Province, that part of the island of Ireland that remains part of the UK. It is a very important matter. It is disgraceful of the Government to try to brush it aside in the way that they have. I know that with their enormous majority they do not tend to think about what everyone else thinks about these matters. They just decide things internally and are quite confident that whatever they decide can be enforced and imposed on whomsoever. That is a great shame. The Minister, who is a highly intelligent human being as well as an astute politician, knows as well as I do that such arrogance will have a penalty one day, even if it takes a long time for the penalty to materialise.

Mr. Browne: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not intervene just as he was complimenting me to highlight what he was saying. I am grateful to him for his compliment. I am astute enough to remember—as will the hon. Gentleman, who was the Opposition spokesman for Northern Ireland at the time—the time when devolved government in Northern Ireland was suspended, restored, suspended and restored again. All four orders were dealt with by agreement in this very Committee. No issue was made of that then; there were no arguments about constitutional issues. The Opposition, through their activities on that occasion, established that it was appropriate to deal with such issues in Committee.

Mr. Davies: I have not yet come to the substance of whether we should suspend on this occasion. Our policy on that is not a matter of principle; we do not think that it is always or never right to suspend. Indeed, such a policy would be absurd. Our position is pragmatic, and I think that the Government have made a pragmatic mistake on this occasion.

It is true that last year the decisions to suspend were taken in Committee, but those were technical suspensions, designed to resolve a particular problem about the continuation of the Assembly. The First Minister found that he no longer had a majority, but that he might if certain parties re-designated themselves under the admittedly artificial system that pertains to Stormont, under which people are members of one or other of two camps. The suspensions were designed to give some time for that, and we understood that.

As has already been said, this suspension is different because it is a sort of suspension sine die. It is not a technical suspension. There is no visible exit, to quote a phrase that I used yesterday, either in terms of means—how we get out of the suspension, and how we move on—or timing. The Minister has already conceded that. Indeed, he has made provision for the suspension to last a long time. We shall come to how we are to provide for Northern Ireland legislation, and I shall make a contribution on the subject. The Government have appointed new Ministers and have brought forward able and ambitious Back Benchers. I hardly think that they are doing that just to keep them in office for 48 hours and kick them out again.

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The Government are regarding the suspension as long term, if not permanent. If the Minister cannot understand the difference between this suspension and a technical suspension of the kind that we had last summer—incidentally, only the second of which took place when I was spokesman for Northern Ireland—I should be surprised. There is a distinction between the technical suspension of last year and the more substantive suspension that we are now debating.

Mr. Browne: I sought by my intervention only to undermine the hon. Gentleman's argument that the matter was one of principle. It is not, just as his contribution to yesterday's debate—with all due respect to him—was not based on principle. The hon. Gentleman is saying that if he takes the view that there is opposition for certain reasons, the suspension should be dealt with on the Floor of the House but if the suspension is just what he describes as technical, it could be dealt with in Committee. The matter is not one of constitutional principle, and he should not pretend that it is.

Mr. Davies: A matter of this importance should be debated on the Floor of the House unless there is specific reason why it should not be, and unless there is general agreement in the House that the matter is purely technical. The Minister has therefore got the matter completely the wrong way around. His values on the subject, so far as the importance of Parliament is concerned, are wrong.

Mr. Wilshire: Can my hon. Friend help me out with a difficulty? He and I have heard the Minister's response to why the suspension was technical, rather than a matter of some substance. Courtesy of the unusual channels of the House, I have before me a note prepared by the office of the Leader of the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Office, which was circulated to Government Back Benchers for yesterday's debate. It suggests that the current situation is rather different from a technicality. Will my hon. Friend comment on whether this is a matter of serious substance, which should be considered in the House? The note says,

    ''Question: Why did the government decide to suspend the Assembly? Why didn't you let David Trimble resign?''

That is slightly more than technical.

Mr. Davies: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am sorry that we do not know more about that interesting document. It may reveal a different picture of the Government's intentions and true beliefs on the matter than we have heard from the Minister.

Mr. Trimble: I am sorry to comment parenthetically. I hope that the document was not produced as a result of the operations of some spy ring.

The two suspensions and restorations that were dealt with in Committee were of a technical nature, although when the issue of redesignation came up, the then Secretary of Secretary did not go through with a further technical suspension, as he should have done, which would have prevented the case from going to the House of Lords. The analogy that should be drawn—I

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make this point without knowing the answer, because I cannot remember—is with the way in which the February 2000 suspension was handled. Perhaps someone can provide the answer.

Mr. Davies: I hope the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I cannot answer his question. He has held his present position with great distinction for a long time while I have been involved with Northern Ireland matters for only a year, and my memory on the matter is no better than his.

I am prepared to continue talking about the issue for some time, if the Government want me to. We should be looking at the merits of the issue on first principles. If there is a precedent, that will be interesting and we should examine it, but it may be good or bad. If it is a bad precedent, we should not fear to create a better one. Decisions about advancing, withdrawing or suspending constitutional changes should be taken in the House, unless there is a strong reason not to do so. There were strong reasons not to do so last summer, which we have discussed, but those reasons do not apply today, as the Minister acknowledged. Therefore, this matter should have been considered in the House. Unless the Minister wants to catch my eye, we have disposed of it. I hope that the Government will think again. It is always possible that there will be other reverses in the Northern Ireland peace process, although I hope not. It is also possible that we shall return to normality before long. Any debate about restoring institutions should take place in the House, not in Committee.

The next question I want to address is substantive, rather than procedural. Is it right to suspend? That cannot be a matter of principle, for the simple logical reason that it cannot always be right or wrong to suspend. If it is always wrong to suspend, the power should not have been created in the first place. If it is always right, it means that the Secretary of State must suspend every week, which would be absurd. The issue is a pragmatic one of whether it is the right decision in the circumstances. In some circumstances, we have considered it to be the right decision. My predecessor took that view of the first technical suspension last summer and I took that view of the second technical suspension just a few days after I had been asked to play my present role. We made it clear, in advance, at the time and subsequently, that we believed that suspension was the wrong way forward this time. I said that in public and in private to the former Secretary of State, and I feel strongly about it. Of course, a crisis was created by the latest in a long series of Sinn Fein-IRA abuses of the agreement and ceasefire. The latest outrageous abuses were the presence of a spy ring in the Northern Ireland office and the purloining of documents.

The press have told us about what those documents included—I have had no private briefing on the matter. If I had, my lips might be sealed, but I have not, and my lips are not sealed. I can only repeat what I hear. I gather that there were transcripts of conversations between the First Minister and the Prime Minister, and between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States. I understand that there were lists of prison officers, with their names and

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home addresses. Why would anybody want those? The only possible explanation is a very sinister and frightening one indeed.

The man who was responsible for running the main Sinn Fein office in Stormont—we could call him the chief staffer, although I think that he is called the manager—was found in possession of some questionable materials. I do not know whether that will be substantiated in court or whether that report was accurate. However, things were going badly wrong and a crisis ensued. Clearly, that crisis was grave. There has been a series of abuses, which I mentioned in the Chamber yesterday. They included Florida and gun running, as determined by an American court. As I said yesterday, I do not think that it is possible to get a more convincing or objective validation of the circumstances and the facts. Convictions have been secured in that case.

Such activities are completely and utterly contrary to the ceasefire and to the agreement on any possible interpretation, yet the Government did nothing about it at all. A cat might as well have been run over in Lincoln high street or something. It was quite extraordinary.

Then there was the involvement of Sinn Fein-IRA in Colombia with the FARC, a nasty terrorist and drug-running organisation. I cannot remember what FARC stands for in Spanish, but I think it translates as ''Revolutionary Action Front of Colombia'', or something like that. Anyway, it is a nasty organisation. It was not just IRA personnel who were arrested, but an official Sinn Fein representative in Cuba. Again, a legal process is in train. A strange situation arose and the Government did nothing at all about it as far as I can make out.

At the end of March this year, evidence arose of the IRA's continuing to target both physical objectives and persons in this country, which was again frightening. Then there was the Castlereagh break-in, which was determined by the Chief Constable to be an act of the Provisional IRA. I gather that an extradition suit is pending in the United States, which may lead to a substantive trial. Clearly, however, the break-in took place and the Government have never sought to challenge the determination of the Chief Constable, nor have they done anything about it.

There has also been a series of shootings, beatings and other nasty things. Somebody said yesterday in the Chamber that perhaps Sinn Fein-IRA's concept of a ceasefire was that policemen and members of the Crown forces should not be attacked, although there was an attack on a Catholic policeman in Ballymena a few months ago. There was a nasty shooting in Londonderry a month ago. A taxi driver was killed in Dungannon earlier this year, which the Chief Constable again said was the work of the Provisional IRA.

I found it extraordinary that the Government did not do anything about those matters. As I said yesterday, it is deeply damaging to the peace process that they did not. It is as surprising that they did not realise that at some point there would be a major reaction. Thus, there has been the immense and

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understandable reaction of the Unionist parties. There was a crisis and the Government decided to respond by suspending the whole show—by getting rid of devolution. The Conservative party feels strongly that that was completely the wrong reaction.

 
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Prepared 29 October 2002