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

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Mr. Browne indicated dissent.

Mr. Davies: The Minister is shaking his head. We must get this point right. If the Minister would like to correct my understanding, which may be wrong, of what he has just said, I would be delighted to give way to him.

The Minister does not want to intervene, so I take it that I am right in thinking that he has decided to give us 30 days' notice. If I am wrong, he may like to tell us

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how much notice he will give. If he is not going to give us any notice, my criticism and my concerns are more than justified. This is a troubling state of affairs. What possibilities will there be to take evidence? It seems elementary that we ought to be able to hear evidence before we consider these orders. We are acting as a substitute for the Stormont Assembly, which, of course, would have been able to consider such matters in detail and to hear from interested parties. What kind of democratic procedure is it that allows us to legislate here without even giving our fellow citizens, on whom we are imposing these costs, burdens and constraints, the opportunity to make representations to us before we take a definitive decision?

Mr. Browne: In order that I might be absolutely precise about what I said, I have found the note containing what I said. I said that we would seek, wherever possible, to resume the practice in respect of new proposals for legislation of generally allowing 12 weeks' consultation.

Mr. Davies: That timing is much better; I am grateful that 12 weeks will be allowed. However, the conditionality is less satisfactory. ''Wherever possible'' could be interpreted, if one wanted to be cynical—far be it from me to be cynical—as meaning when it is convenient for the Government, or they may be thinking, ''If we can find an excuse we might not do it.'' I should prefer to have a general rule. Nevertheless, let us take what we have been offered with gratitude and appreciation, and let us ensure that we advance in jurisprudence what we have not secured as a formal commitment by the Government: in practice, we will find that we have the full 12 weeks. I hope that the Minister will not think me churlish if I say that it is fine to be given that time, but there is no point in having it unless we make use of it—otherwise it just holds up legislation. There is no use in having orders available for 12 weeks when nobody knows who will be on the statutory instrument Committee until a week beforehand when they get a note from their respective Whips—

Jim Sheridan: If the hon. Gentleman is genuinely concerned about the conduct of Committees such as this, perhaps he should limit his contribution to an extent that would allow us to attend the modernisation debate that is taking place now.

Mr. Davies: I am sorry, but I do not think that it is possible for the hon. Gentleman to come to a Committee concerning Northern Ireland and say that we ought to attend to pressing business on the Floor of the House, without having the courage to draw the logical conclusion that this matter is so important that it should have been debated on the Floor of the House and there should not be the conflict to which he has referred. If he thinks it through, he will conclude that I am more than justified in what I have said. I hope that he will make representations to the Minister and say to his new Whip that it is a disgraceful state of affairs; there should have been no conflict between two important matters. Both should have had the opportunity to be discussed on the Floor of the House.

Often, involuntary agreement is the most valuable; unconscious endorsement of one's arguments is the

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most reassuring. We have just seen a good example of that. One cannot tell whether explicit compliments are sincere. However, an unconscious but clear endorsement of one's position gives one confidence in the good sense of one's words. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire.

Welcome as the additional 12 weeks will be, we must use that time to allow those who will have the responsibility for legislation an opportunity to focus on it, to do the necessary homework and to make themselves available for any representations from interested parties that they may receive. That is how to conduct legislation that is open, accountable, thorough and professional. We cannot condone rubber-stamping. If we do that, the Government and our parliamentary procedures will be discredited. I hope that the Minister does not have it in mind to discredit either. I have touched on important issues and I hope that when, in due course, we vote, we will reflect the answers that we have received to our serious questions about how suspension will work in practice and how the considerable responsibilities that are now on our shoulders are to be discharged.

6.14 pm

Mr. Trimble: I do not wish to be facetious but I wonder, as we are discussing an order that removes me from office, whether I should declare an interest.

It is unfortunate that I am the only Northern Ireland Member who is present. That is part of the reason why the point has been made about the desirability of discussing the matter on the Floor of the House.

I do not regard the one-day suspensions that happened last year as suspensions in the full sense of the word. However, this is a suspension, in substance, and the previous time that that happened was in February 2000. I apologise again to the Committee that I cannot recall precisely how that suspension was handled, although I suspect that it was handled here. Whether or not that was the case, in the current circumstances it would have been desirable for there to be the opportunity for wider debate.

Mr. Browne: If that issue is important to the content of the right hon. Gentleman's contribution, I will refresh his memory, as mine had to be refreshed. As I recollect, there was no structure for suspension in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The suspension in 2000 took place as a result of other primary legislation, and it is that primary legislation that created the mechanism with which we are dealing today.

Mr. Trimble: Indeed, the primary legislation was enacted shortly before the suspension was exercised. However, aside from the actual suspension order in February 2000, I am not sure where the matter was debated. Having drawn attention to the point, I do not wish to spend too much time on it. We are beginning to run short of time, and I do not wish to detain hon. Members unnecessarily.

However, several other points must be made. The reason for suspension this time was that the basic circumstances no longer existed to enable the Administration to continue. Those circumstances

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were such that there would have been, in my view, a catastrophic loss of confidence in the operation of the institutions, had not something happened. The trigger for that danger of a catastrophic loss of confidence was republican activity, and, specifically, the events now referred to by some people as Castlegate or Stormontgate—the uncovering of quite a substantial republican spy ring operating right at the heart of the Northern Ireland Office. In parenthesis, I still believe that that matter should be thoroughly investigated, not only by the police, but by others.

Those events crystallised a concern that had been growing during the previous year about the way in which republicans behaved. We could go through the litany of Colombia, Castlereagh and the continuing violence. By mentioning that, I do not wish to distract attention from the fact that, at the same time, there had been a considerable amount of violence from loyalist paramilitaries.

That violence also contributed to the loss of confidence, because people were saying that the peace that they had hoped and believed was going to come was not coming. Although there was a considerable improvement in the situation after the agreement in 1998, and a very substantial reduction in the incidence of violence, that violence has increased again over the past year. That, in itself, has eaten away at the confidence of the community.

My view was that, after those events at Stormont on Friday a couple of weeks ago, unless something very dramatic happened within a short time, whether by way of exclusion or otherwise, we would have seen a catastrophic loss of confidence, and the consequence of that might have been to lose the entire agreement. Hon. Members need to bear it in mind that that risk existed.

It is not just the continuing violence and the particular activities to which I have referred that led to the loss of confidence. There was another underlying factor, one which affects the Government themselves.

If one asks Unionists why they appear to be disillusioned with the agreement, they invariably answer that it is because all the concessions were one way—to the nationalists. When that point is put to the Government, they show a certain amount of irritation. They refer back to the agreement and say that concessions were made on both sides, and that the Unionists gained from some things in the agreement. That is true. However, the Government are missing the point by reacting in that way. When people say that the concessions were all one way, they are not thinking of the agreement.

By a narrow majority, Unionists endorsed the agreement. They are thinking about what has happened since. They are thinking about how there was a lack of balance in the course of the implementation of the agreement. That is indisputable if Labour Members refer back to the events after the agreement, the way in which prisoner release was implemented, and the catastrophe of the

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Patten report. I say again that Patten broke the agreement. The report did not comply with the agreement. The Government accepted it, even though it departed from its terms of reference and acted in a way contrary to the agreement.

People in Northern Ireland are conscious of the fact that the Government did not act even-handedly in the implementation of the agreement. It is important to underline that point, particularly as we enter into another period of direct rule. The Government enter that period without the confidence of a considerable section of the community—that section of the community has lost confidence in the Government and their handling of the process. A consciousness of that would be useful for the Government in handling the situation. I say that in the hope that hon. Members listen and reflect on it because I do not want to see that loss of confidence get worse.

I would like to see an increase in confidence in the Northern Ireland community in the Government's intentions and ability to handle the situation. That is important for the handling and resolution of the present situation. It is important for Ministers who are beginning their tasks to bear in mind the significant loss of confidence in the Northern Ireland community in the even-handedness and fairness of the Government. That is an important point, which I do not want to labour.

There is another worrying development resulting from the way in which things have operated during the past few years, which one should bear in mind. I refer to an opinion poll that the BBC in Northern Ireland held. Some hon. Members may be familiar with it, but because not all Members may have access to it, it may be useful to put some of its findings on record. It gives the figures with regard to Unionists only, and says whether the question was asked of Unionists only or of nationalists as well. The poll asked whether people supported power sharing, and gave a number of alternatives. The last alternative given was whether people did not support any form of power sharing at all; whether they did not support power sharing with either the SDLP or Sinn Fein. Nearly 60 per cent. of Unionists did not support any form of power sharing, despite the experience of two to three years of a cross-community Administration.

I suspect that if that question had been asked in 1998, there would have been quite a different answer. I suspect that if the question had been put in 1998 in the aftermath of the agreement, one would have found that there was much greater support for a cross-community Administration. That diminution in support is due to the way in which things have happened. I am not referring to the way in which the Administration was carried out, but to the behaviour of the republican movement as a whole, and the way in which people have felt that it did not play the game properly. That has damaged the basic concept of forming an Administration who are representative of the community as a whole. There is a serious problem as a result of that.

By way of a slight digression, I know that several people in the Northern Ireland Office have the fond delusion that somehow they will solve all problems by

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relying on the Democratic Unionist party. I draw the attention of those people who think that the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) will somehow solve all their problems in future—I know that that opinion exists in the Northern Ireland Office—to the fact that of those respondents to the opinion poll who identified with the DUP, the percentage who supported the Administration who existed prior to suspension was 2.7 per cent. Part of the reason why the DUP goes out of its way to conceal the fact that it took part in a power-sharing Administration with the SDLP and Sinn Fein is because only 2.7 per cent. of its voters approve of what it did. Those in the Northern Ireland Office who have the fond belief that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will somehow solve their problems should bear that in mind.

Several points regarding the handling of Northern Ireland business in the interim have already been made. I want to emphasise that frequent meetings of the Grand Committee, including time for questions, would be extremely valuable. I welcome the Minister's suggestion that we should follow previous practice under direct rule and widely consult the Northern Ireland community, including members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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Prepared 29 October 2002