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

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Mr. Trimble: The point that the hon. Gentleman is making is simply that suspension gives time. However, it does not cure the problem. Something else will have to do that.

Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It gives time, but it gives time to find a cure. If one does not suspend the Assembly, it is much more difficult to diagnose what must be done, because one is still in the process rather than able to take a longer perspective on the process itself. That is a matter of judgment, but it is an important one.

When one considers the pressures that were being put not only on Sinn Fein but on the other parties, one can appreciate that suspension also gives those parties an opportunity to regroup. I believe that that is roughly what happened during the previous periods of suspension. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann and others will be far more versed in judging whether this is an inaccurate external view, but I can only judge from what I have heard on the ground.

In fairness, I agreed with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford about one point: he described the process of election of First Minister as very artificial, in the sense that it divided the Assembly into two main groups. I have long held the view that it is one of the most unfortunate elements of how the process has been put together. It almost forces groups to default into Unionist or nationalist camps. I do not want to make a big point about that just now, but if the hon. Gentleman feels uncomfortable with that, I hope that he will consider supporting amendments

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that we might collectively table in the review that we have been promised will eventually take place.

Let me try to plan the scenario of why I do not think that exclusion would work. I am sure that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford feels this strongly. As I said yesterday, I respect his sincerity, because he genuinely believes what he is saying. He used strong language against the Government to say how he felt, but he did not explain what would happen, and that is what concerns me. He was asked five times to look ahead and say what happens next.

I will paint my scenario. This is what I think would happen. If one excluded Sinn Fein it would immediately harden up the Sinn Fein hardline position. It would not become more moderate; it would become less moderate. The SDLP, for reasons that have been given already, would be put in a difficult situation, which it has already said in public would force it not to support exclusion. In addition, exclusion increases the pressure on the other side and does nothing to disband the IRA, which therefore would probably still be in operation in January 2003, with the inevitable consequence that the various Unionist contingents might have to pull out too.

There would be three variables rather than one, making it much more difficult to recover in the long term than in the present position. I will be happy to allow the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford to intervene if he believes that that is an unreasonable scenario to paint. At present, it is the only scenario painted for that particular route. Neither yesterday nor today have I heard the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland paint any scenario whatever about what might happen next.

Mr. Trimble: Of course, when one is painting scenarios and dealing with hypotheticals, it is difficult to judge what may or may not be the case. The hon. Member should reflect on the Northern Ireland party with which his party has links—the Alliance party, which is cross-community. Leaving aside the Speaker of the Assembly, four of its Members are from a nationalist background and one—I am not certain, but I believe that he is English—from a Unionist background. That party was right in the thick of things and understood all the options, and it was in favour of exclusion, which is why I mention it.

Lembit Öpik: That is right. We have referred to it in the past. The Liberal Democrats and the Alliance party for Northern Ireland have associations, but we are freestanding parties. We have discussed the issue internally and I acknowledge that we take a slightly different view. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to make the point, but it does not detract from my right to say what I have said. Let me stress that it is about judgments, not principles. With the benefit of further information, I might even change my view, but I am trying to describe how I see things to the best of my ability with the information that I currently have.

Let me finish elaborating my concerns about exclusion. Saying that too many unpredictables preclude making any sort of prediction is an abdication of responsibility in respect of the

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consequences of implementing policy. We earlier came close to talking about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Accordingly, the world is not indeterministic because of too many variables, but because probability theory takes over at the subatomic level. However, I cannot believe that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford bases the Conservative party's Northern Ireland policy on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, superstrings or the laws of physics. The only law that matters here is the law of human nature. In my experience, the more people who are already mistrustful are pushed, the less likely is a good result. That, rather than physics or anything else, is the core debate.

The man facing the most difficult circumstances is the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, because he has to live with what is decided rather than merely debate it. I am always persuaded to take his points seriously. He observed that at this stage 60 per cent. of Unionists do not support any form of power sharing. Even with an exclusion, enormous tensions must be resolved on the Unionist side before the confidence of the community in the Assembly can be restored or built on. A suspension can provide space: without it, it would be almost impossible for us to intervene from a distance in a constructive, non-patronising or non-interfering way. On balance, that is how Liberal Democrats view the current position and I acknowledge that it is a different view.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford may have been offended by what I said yesterday and may believe that I called him a hypocrite, but that is not the case. I am counselling all of us to think carefully about the consequences of our recommendations. Uniquely for this portfolio, what we say in these Rooms has a potentially significant effect on what can be achieved through debate between parties in the Province. I hope that the Minister will confirm that under the new arrangements he will consider how to involve Northern Ireland parties more actively. Only one representative from a Northern Ireland party is present in this Room, which is unsatisfactory. Perhaps I can bleep for some assistance myself. If we are to pursue the issue through the invisible channels—they were mentioned so often that it made Parliament sound like a canal structure—I hope that greater representation for Liberal Democrats can also be taken into account. We try to make our contributions constructively and in a non-partisan manner. I hope that whoever reads the record will take note.

As long as we ensure that Northern Ireland parties are not actively excluded by decisions about who sits on various Committees, there is a good chance of having a reasonably effective procedure in Parliament while we try to unsuspend the Assembly. The Government will let down the principles that we have discussed if they do not make such provisions to allow hon. Members who might strongly disagree with Government policy to sit on the relevant Committees, even if that requires setting a precedent and leads to longer debates.

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Suspension seems to be the best solution for now. Liberal Democrats will do what we can to support the Government's policy. We reserve the right to make our criticisms in private and in public, but we will always attempt to do that with respect. I hope that we can get away from political opportunism and that all parties will take a serious and responsible attitude to resolving yet another little local difficulty. I would rather have a compromise than no Good Friday agreement at all.

6.51 pm

Mr. Swire: I will keep my comments brief, because I know that the Minister wishes to respond, but I add my voice to that of those who have articulated the idea that our discussion should have been held on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann said.

I contend that the Government may be trying to play the suspension down, because of the Minister's suggestion that it will not last for long. I do not know how he can know that any more than we do. We have indulged in a consideration of several hypothetical situations this afternoon.

Conservatives are distinguished from representatives of other parties because we have consistently said that suspension was perhaps not the right thing to do. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, as far back as 15 October, clearly suggested

    ''taking powers in the House to enable the Secretary of State to exclude any party in breach of its obligations''.

He went on to say:

    ''we argued very forcefully for that in the debate that we had in this Chamber in July.''—[Official Report, 15 October 2002; Vol. 390, c. 194–5.]

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire asks what would have happened if Sinn Fein had been excluded. No one can answer that for certain, not even the Minister. We are where we are: we have suspended the devolved Assembly. Will the Minister reassure Conservative Members that we will have more accountability for Northern Ireland, not less? He said that he was examining different ways of increasing accountability. Will he comment again on what he proposes to do through the Grand Committee, the Select Committee, Northern Ireland questions, Westminster Hall debates or debates on statutory instruments?

The problem is that the Assembly has lacked credibility for some time because of the concessions that have been made to one party—Sinn Fein-IRA—again and again. The salutary lesson that we should take away from the debate is the statistics that the right hon. Member for Upper Bann read out: 16.3 per cent. of Unionists do not want the Assembly back at all—that is one in six Unionists. Credibility has been lost. When devolved rule is restored, credibility must be restored alongside it, because otherwise Stormont is doomed to fail. That can happen only if the Government do not shy away this time from their responsibility to ensure that Sinn Fein-IRA are

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penalised whenever they break the spirit of the Belfast agreement.

6.54 pm

 
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Prepared 29 October 2002