Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I am grateful for your clarification, Mr. Pike. We shall oppose clause 66 standing part of the Bill, and I do not intend to repeat this speech in the clause stand part debate unless unexpected additional issues arise during the remainder of the debate. I intend to cover the clause stand part debate in this contribution. Just to ensure that I have understood the ruling, am I right in thinking that if clause 66 stands part of the Bill, new clause 3 cannot be put to a vote?

The Chairman: I was going to make the point at the end of the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I felt that it would be helpful to make it clear because he specifically referred to it. If clause 66 is carried and stands part of the Bill, I cannot take a vote on new clause 3 because I cannot allow a Bill to leave Committee with two clauses that are totally inconsistent.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful because that relieves me of my dilemma, Mr. Pike. I wish that I had known that before.

Lady Hermon: I want clarification on how the hon. Gentleman thinks new clause 3, which would cause division over symbols, is compatible with the part of the agreement that promotes mutual respect. His party supported the agreement, and I would therefore expect to find that new clause 3 and the agreement are reconcilable. I do not see how they can be, so perhaps he can explain that.

Mr. Blunt: It is simply because new clause 3 respects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, and the agreement also respects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Those matters have never previously been legislated on, and my information on that coincides precisely with the Minister's.

We have been driven to legislate because the matter has come up in the Bill. I regret that and wish that that had not happened, but, as Mr. Pike has made clear, if we are unlucky enough not to manage to persuade Government Members to strip out clause 66, we shall not be in a position to vote on new clause 3. That is how I reconcile those positions. The hon. Lady has drawn attention to a potential contradiction with the agreement. There is no such contradiction, but the

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matter has drawn us into territory that it would have been infinitely better not to cover.

I hope that we can persuade the Government to think again. A principle that has underlain many of my contributions in Committee is that such matters should, as far as is possible, be properly devolved. It would be much better if such decisions, particularly in areas where there is a precedent for resolving a difficulty, were taken by the devolved authority once justice were devolved. The matter is regrettable, and I hope that the Government will think again.

I certainly hope that the Government are not going to indulge in the vandalism of ancient symbols in courtrooms. I understand that there are courts in the Republic of Ireland that still have royal coats of arms, not least because they have cultural and heritage value. If such coats of arms have not been destroyed in the Republic of Ireland, it would be odd to choose to do so in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh made, among things, two interesting remarks. One was that the civil service of Northern Ireland had no pronounced views—I paraphrase. It may not have any publicly deeply held and pronounced views, but many civil servants who are professional men and women must from time to time hold their noses, as they do the Government's business. The hon. Gentleman also asked the hon. Member for North Down whether the royal coat of arms included a representation of the nationalist—

Mr. Mallon: I did not ask that question. I asked which symbols represented the nationalist tradition in the courts that had been specified by the hon. Lady, and not what part they may be of another symbol.

Mr. Garnier: The question that the hon. Gentleman outlines is one with which I want to get to grips. It identifies the very problem that lies behind his amendment. He wants to introduce a political element to the courts of Northern Ireland, but politics has no part to play there. I appreciate that many people think that it should, and that some cases that have been, and may in future be, dealt with by Northern Ireland courts will have a political tinge, but courts are wholly disinterested in politics. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the symbol by wanting to introduce a political element. One must only ask what the royal arms symbolise to understand why they exist, and why they should be allowed to continue. We seem to be confusing symbols in Northern Ireland generally with this particular symbol.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is a genuine opportunity for conflict in the way in which the amendment is framed? It states:

    ''No other symbols must be displayed . . . in any courtroom''.

One could get into debates about everything, from clothing to items in the courtroom, having symbolic value.

Mr. Garnier: There is a myriad of good arguments to be deployed against the amendment, and I have time to deal with only one or two. An obvious symbol is the statue, or picture, of the blindfolded lady of justice with scales. Under the amendment, that would

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have to go were it on top of a court building or in some pictorial form within one.

The only witty part about the amendment is the words,

    ''in any other place inside a court-house'',

because they identify a location that is not catered for in clause 66, which refers to the inside of courtrooms and the exterior of courthouses. The clause does not take account of the point drawn to our attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate about fittings in court halls, foyers and other public parts of court buildings that are inside the building but outside the courtroom.

I want to concentrate on the proper understanding of what the royal arms symbolise. They do not symbolise a political party or sectarian interest; still less do they symbolise the Government of Northern Ireland in the political sense of the word—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I should point out to whoever has their mobile phone going off that it should be switched to silent mode, and should not be heard in Committee.

Mr. Garnier: The royal arms symbolise not a political party, sectarian interest or the Government, but the Crown. I do not mean Her Majesty the Queen, an individual human being, but the impersonal, disinterested non-party political state, which is the provider of impartial public justice. In modern jargon, we call it ''the state.'' The state is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and the hon. Member for North Down.

Under our constitution, we sometimes call the state the Crown. We are concerned with the state's courts, and it is perhaps worth bearing in mind, if only briefly, that when the state brings a prosecution against one of its citizens, it is not the State v. Bloggs but the Crown v. Bloggs. I have no understanding that, under the Bill, the Public Prosecution Service will entitle criminal prosecutions in any other way.

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. and learned Member completes his comments, may I draw to the Committee's attention the fact that it is incorrect to cross the line between the person who is speaking and the Chair when coming into or going out of the Committee Room. Members must avoid that whenever possible.

Mr. Garnier: Mr. Pike, your intervention is—I think—the fourth that I have had to cope with. However, it encourages me to cut short my remarks, because I suspect that those members of the Committee who have a modicum of interest in or understanding of what I am saying have long since got my point. [Interruption.] I was not sure whether my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was reversing out of the Room or bowing.

Let me quickly conclude my remarks. The arms within the courts are a convenient, useful and inoffensive shorthand. I suspect that some in the Committee are manufacturing offence where none is

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intended and none should be taken. I invite those who support amendment No. 274 to consider carefully what they are supporting. I am concerned not so much about symbols—for goodness' sake, I have spent a great many years of my adult life wearing in court what some may think a silly uniform—but that the provision of justice has more to do with human beings and their attitudes to other human beings than with the furniture, the uniform or the other symbols of justice.

People want to see justice being done in the courts of the devolved justice system in Northern Ireland. Justice will not be improved by removing the coats of arms. Indeed, nothing will be improved by doing that. Instead, an unnecessary and unwelcome political angle will be added to what should be an area of public policy and public life that is wholly divorced from political and sectarian division.

Mr. Francois: I opposed this aspect of the Bill on Second Reading because, as my party's reasoned amendment made clear, it infringes the principle that justice flows from the Crown throughout the realm. I am still opposed to it for the same reason.

As I intimated earlier, the issue does not relate to Northern Ireland only but has important implications for other constituent parts of the United Kingdom as well. If we pass the Bill in its present form, in time we may hear an argument from certain quarters that the royal arms should be removed from other courthouses in the United Kingdom. [Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] I hear Labour Members muttering ''Hear, hear.'' They prove my point. The people who may make such an argument, whoever they may be, will then seek to pray in aid the precedent that we are in danger of setting this afternoon for Northern Ireland.

There was some debate on Second Reading about the situation in Scotland, concerning the fact that, some time ago, the royal arms were not displayed in Scottish courts. My understanding—the Minister has worked in the Scottish system, so he will know—is that the royal arms are currently displayed in Scottish courts. We should, therefore, remain consistent on this point, for the sake of the integrity of the United Kingdom. The point about practices in Scotland is a red herring.

6.15 pm

My objection to the provisions is that they give succour to republicans, but not just republicans in Northern Ireland. They threaten to give succour to republicans across the United Kingdom, and I am deeply opposed to that. What the Government are proposing that we do this evening has the potential—I use that word deliberately—to become the thin end of the republican wedge. Therefore, we must remember that what we are voting on tonight has implications across the whole of the United Kingdom. We must be very conscious of that when we vote on the matter, especially those of us who are, at heart, constitutional monarchists.

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Prepared 12 February 2002