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Standing Committee F
Tuesday 12 February 2002
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Display of Royal Arms at courts
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I beg to move amendment No. 275, in page 57, line 31, leave out from 'after' to end of line 32 and insert '30 March 2000'.
The amendment is an attempt to get to grips with the time scale in which the provision may operate. In one of last week's sittings the Minister made it quite clear, in response to a question from me, that it was envisaged that some central provisions of the Bill would be in operation before devolution. We were left in no doubt about that. A question therefore arises. When will the recommendations based on the review body's opinions, and set out in the Bill, be carried out? We need to be precise about when clause 66 will come into operation.
It is remarkable that, in the Northern Ireland context, the matters of great substance that have been dealt with in the past two and a half weeks have not grabbed the imagination, but the business of symbols is all that is required for interest to arise with great alacrity. It is an old road that we travel. We have travelled it before with other legislation, and we shall travel it again when the Bill is implemented and when the criminal justice measures become operative in their totality. I agree with the Minister that even after the initial elements of the Bill are established—those relating to such crucial matters as the district policing partnership and its role it will be a considerable time before devolution takes place.
For that reason, some provisions of the Bill will be in force while other substantive provisions are not yet operative. The changes in the use of symbols will be dependent on a day, and I suppose that there is a choice of three possible dates: the date on which the recommendations of the review body became public; the date or dates when recommendations and some provisions of the Bill become operative; or the date on which devolution takes place. We can take our pick of those, but the question needs to be cleared up. It is and will be a matter of deep and genuine concern in the north of Ireland—symbols always are. The amendment takes probably the most sensible approach in that the new process would start without undue delay. It is the most public manifestation of the new dispensation in relation to the process of justice.
I have discussed the matter with many people, including Unionists, nationalists, and those of no ideology—as if that ever were the case in the north of Ireland—and I regard the views that I have heard as genuine and sincere. However, the subject poses a
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fundamental question, touched on last week by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), which will not be answered until certain questions are asked. What is the Government's attitude towards Northern Ireland? Is it a last residue of colonialism? That was the question posed by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough. Has there been a fundamental change based on the Good Friday agreement? Let us not forget that the criminal justice review stemmed from the Good Friday agreement. Is Northern Ireland some sort of strange, semi-detached place, detached from anything and everything, in limbo and without a place of rest until these questions are eventually decided?
I shall not make any pejorative judgment on those three alternatives, but the sooner that the recommendations of the criminal justice review body are seen to be implemented, the better chance there will be to deliver all the legislation. It may be possible for the Government to put in place certain parts of it, but it is worth reminding people that this is not just a decision for the British Government because unless the devolved Administration decide, jointly and equally, that they will take on responsibility for justice, that will not happen. Hence, Northern Ireland could, and probably will, be in no man's land for some time. Do we want that no man's land to persist in relation to symbols, which will be a running sore? No one wants that.
Lady Hermon (North Down): It is good to see you back in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Pike.
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) and I both feel passionately about making the agreement work and be seen to work. I want to draw to his attention the clause in the agreement that refers to the use of symbols to promote mutual respect rather than division. Would it not be unfortunate to include in the Bill a date that would give the provision retrospective effect from March 2000, and to close down the possibility of parties, such as his and, hopefully, mine, agreeing on mutual symbols for the exterior of court houses?
Mr. Mallon: I take the hon. Lady's point. She raises the other crucial issue, which is probably at the back of everyone's mind, not least the Minister's, as we debate the clause. I have a high regard for the Standing Committee system. I think that this is the eleventh Standing Committee on which I have had the honour to serve. The other Committees of which I was a member considered a broad range of emergency and other legislation.
I do not like to see the Committee system abused—I have some experience of that. We expend a great deal of effort, time and energy on the Bill, knowing full well that parts of it were not decided on in Standing Committee, nor on the Floor of the House, but elsewhere. We might well say that that is the nature of politics. Maybe it is, but it does not add to the credibility of our debates or of a Committee such as this.
As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said, time might help to solve this problem. Time might heal it or produce a road to Damascus
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change of view that many people hope for. However, minor miracles are not the basis on which to append clauses to a Bill. Having said that, I hope that the issue will not be used as a bargaining counter. I am not suggesting that the Minister would use it in such a way, but I am adamant that if this part of the Bill were to become a bargaining counter against other parts of it, the process of justice would be devalued, as would the political process.
It is right to take the earliest opportunity to show the fundamental changes that are taking place. Anybody who knows Northern Ireland knows that at present there is an unseemly rush to ensure that edifices—or an edifice—are finished in time so that they will not be subject to this measure. We all know that that is happening—let us not make a secret of it. I am not in an unseemly rush, because the more we get the newness into this, the more the oldness will start to disappear of itself.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I think it is unwise to assume that we all know anything on this Committee.
Mr. Mallon: I think you are right.
Mr. Turner: I speak entirely for myself. However, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that works are being advanced or slowed down for political purposes, perhaps it would be well for him to provide the Committee with some details, so that those of us who are less familiar with events in the Province may become more so.
The Chairman: Order. The amendment is fairly tight. It concerns a date, and although I understand your point, Mr. Mallon, you should keep your discussion relevant to the terms of the amendment and not get sidetracked by others who might lead you astray.
Mr. Mallon: Thank you very much, Mr. Pike. I shall try not to go astray. There is only one edifice being built, and it is there for all to see. I shall certainly share my insights with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) if he wishes, as the point is essential in relation to amendment No. 274.
May I make a personal observation on symbols? I have no problem living with anybody else's symbols, and I never have had. I was raised in a little village, where the symbols of my tradition simply did not exist. I was reared on the symbols of Orangeism, Unionism and Britishness, and then along came 30 years of violence. Lo and behold, what did those who called themselves patriotic Irish republicans do? They copied exactly what had been done with Orange, Unionist and British symbols and started to use the Irish symbols in the same provocative way. I have no time for either tendency.
I want to respect people's symbols and traditions, and what they mean to them, and do not want to cause offence to anyone in that regard. But neither do I want symbols of any kind to be used provocatively—although I do not suggest that that is the case in this
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instance—or in a manner that would retard progress. I suggest that the use of symbols would retard progress in the context described in the clause.
I shall leave the matter there. I hope that I have made my position clear.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I want to respond briefly to the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh on the issue of the date. I am afraid that I shall have to treat him more harshly than his status in the community would seem to merit.
The hon. Gentleman's amendment is precisely the sort of thing that is proposed when one starts mucking about with symbols, as the clause does. For the reasons that we shall no doubt address shortly, the amendment may appear to the part of the community that values the symbol of the royal coat of arms as a racket to get it stripped from courthouses between the date that the hon. Gentleman suggests and the date when this legislation comes into effect.
The hon. Gentleman's objection to symbols is to the provocative way in which they are used, but his amendment would achieve the provocative effect that he said he wanted to avoid. In dealing with this area, people must be straight down the line, and I do not think that the amendment falls into that category. It is not a straightforward amendment, or would not be regarded as such by many in Northern Ireland, and the Opposition will resist it.