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

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Mr. Swire: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Davies: I shall finish my sentence before giving way to my hon. Friend.

In July, again in anticipation of the events that have led to this crisis, I explained in some detail why excluding people would not work. I said that it was not fair, reasonable or sensible to expect one party in the Assembly to take the burden of excluding another party from its own camp. Specifically, it would not have been sensible or reasonable to expect the Social Democratic and Labour Party to have voted for an exclusion motion against Sinn Fein. Clearly, that would have created considerable electoral problems for that party, which would have been regarded as a traitor to its community in the nationalist camp. One understood, as any sensible person would, that that was an unreasonable burden to place on the SDLP. It was quite wrong to place it on the SDLP or any party in the Assembly, because the responsibility for managing the agreement should have the Government's. That responsibility should not have been sloughed off to one of the parties in the Assembly. I told the former Secretary of State that that would not work and would not be the right

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solution. In fact, he promised that he would do that in such an eventuality, but did not keep that promise. When the crisis broke, he did a third thing—the suspension of the whole show of devolution—that we are criticising today.

Mr. Swire: I support what my hon. Friend just said by quoting the Official Report of 24 July this year, which bears out what he said that the Secretary of State said:

    ''In circumstances in which I decided that the IRA had broken the ceasefire, I would be ready to use that power, and to place such a motion before the Assembly to require it to address the matter.''—[Official Report, 24 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 992.]

Mr. Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was drawn into this point by the ready intervention of the hon. Members for West Renfrewshire and for Montgomeryshire. I had not intended to discuss it in so much detail, so did not have any notes with me and could not have recalled the exact words that were used or given anyone the column number. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for providing them, and now the Official Report will read even more clearly. I do not see either of the hon. Gentlemen to whom I referred trying to catch my eye. If they were unsatisfied with my explanation, I would have expected them to do so, so I take it that they are satisfied. It is clear what we would have done.

Lembit Öpik: I will respond to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has attempted to clarify. There is one outstanding question. Will he talk us through how he would envisage things unfolding, if he were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, from the moment before suspension to the moment of normalisation of the process? I understand more or less what he would like to do, but how would that play out in his scenario?

Mr. Davies: I just accused the hon. Gentleman of not listening to what I said in the Chamber yesterday, and I now have to accuse him of not listening to what I said two minutes ago. I said that I would not have suspended. I shall say it three times: I would not have suspended; I would not have suspended; I would not have suspended. It therefore seems ludicrous to ask me how I would have responded had I been responsible for the decision to suspend, which is the scenario that he envisages.

Mr. Browne: I want to press the hon. Gentleman on the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. We have all now understood what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) would not have done had he been Secretary of State, and many of us are relieved that he was not. What he is being asked is what would have happened had he not suspended, and had he excluded Sinn Fein. It is incumbent on him to explain how that would have played out in his view. For example, how does he think that the nationalist SDLP would have responded? Has he consulted it on the subject? Does he have reason to believe that it would have stayed in the Executive? Would there have been a power-sharing Executive to continue? Would devolved institutions continue in his scenario? That is what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is asking, although the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford may not

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understand it. If he could answer the question, it would be a great help to us all.

Mr. Davies: I see that the love-in between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party has reached the stage at which Ministers try to help out their allies by rephrasing their questions in a more pertinent way. As the report of our proceedings will confirm, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire actually asked me what I would have done after suspending, and I said that the question was not relevant. The Minister has now asked me what I would have done after excluding, which is a relevant question and relates directly—[Interruption.] Maybe there was a slip of the tongue, but I do not think that I misheard the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

Lembit Öpik: The report of our proceedings will clarify what I asked the hon. Gentleman. Rather than talking about the immediate past, let us talk about the immediate present. If he were Secretary of State, he would not have suspended the Executive but he would have done something else. Many of us would like him simply to say what would happen next in his scenario. What would be the consequence of his actions?

Mr. Davies: I am very happy to talk about that, of course. If my speech takes a little longer than it otherwise might, I hope that all members of the Committee will be indulgent because the matter is clearly important. We are talking about a hypothetical situation, but it is important to consider the various alternatives.

It goes without saying that a logical corollary of suggesting that one option would have been better than another is that more benign consequences would have flowed from it. Had we excluded Sinn Fein from the Executive—that is what I would have done—one would hope that it would have come back in due time and in the normality of things, but the conditions on which it did so would have been subject to complex negotiation. The difference from the present situation is that the complex negotiation would have been with one party. That is less problematic than the situation that we now confront.

Mr. Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I am going to answer the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, so that he will not be able to say I have not done so. When I come to the end of my remarks on the subject, I will of course give way to the Minister again.

The Minister asked me whether other parties would have remained in the Executive, and whether I consulted them before I made my suggestion. I can only answer by saying two things, and I think that he will understand why. First, before I say anything about Northern Ireland policy, I consult widely and try to talk to all parties relevant to the issue. Secondly, I make it a rule, which I will not breach under any provocation, that people who tell me things in the course of consultations will not have their confidence abused. Therefore, I am confident that the policy that I advocated was viable and workable. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman footnotes to the references, and I

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hope that he knows me sufficiently well to know that I do not say such things frivolously. For all the reasons that I set out, my solution would have been right for the situation. Now I will happily give way to the Minister again.

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman will forgive me and other members of the Committee if we judge his claim for prescience in the issue against his contribution to the debate last night, when, without actually saying so, he clearly implied that whenever the Tories table a motion in the House, the IRA or Gerry Adams issue a statement or make an apology. There was a degree of scepticism about the correlation of those two factors despite the fact that he tried to pray in aid the coincidence of other occasions. I am not pressing him to reveal confidences; I am only suggesting that he will understand if members of the Committee are slightly doubtful about his ability to predict Northern Ireland's future—something happens and another thing happens as a result—when we bear in mind his contribution to last night's debate.

Mr. Davies: There are three ways I can answer the Minister. First, sadly for us all and especially for the people of Northern Ireland, my analysis of what was wrong with the Government's handling of the peace process over the past year has been more than borne out by events—the crisis facing us brings that home. Secondly, if the Minister cares to re-read my comments in Hansard for the Opposition Day debate on 24 July he will see that we were remarkably prescient.

Mr. Wilshire: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Davies: I will once I have finished my response to the Minister.

Thirdly, in relation to what I said yesterday about the IRA apology in July and Saturday's statement by the president of Sinn Fein, it is not unreasonable to say that if two events seem to be linked on one occasion it is an accident, on two occasions it is a coincidence and it has to be repeated several times for one to regard it as a rule. I said that it could hardly have been entirely coincidental that the IRA apology was published at exactly the same time as the Opposition Day debate on Northern Ireland was due to begin. Such a coincidence seems to be a very low mathematical probability, so my conclusion was more than reasonable.

As far as yesterday is concerned, I could hardly avoid drawing attention to such an apparent coincidence. However, if anyone had listened, I said that we would have to conduct the experiment on several occasions to be sure of any link. I jokingly said—I do not know how much of a sense of humour the Minister has—that perhaps the Opposition should initiate debates on Northern Ireland more often; then we would see whether we could continue to make a positive contribution.

I think that the Minister understands entirely the spirit in which I made my comments and that he has a real problem in relation to the timing of the IRA apology.

 
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Prepared 29 October 2002