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David Burnside (South Antrim): Unlike most members of my party, including its leader and my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), I did not go to the law faculty at Queen's university; I just struggled through a general degree on the arts side.
The real problem is the totally confused exchange between the Secretary of State and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman about perception and realitythat lies at the very core of this issueand the fundamental debate that relates to the clauses on the oath and to the later amendments on arms and symbols, to which I shall not refer now. Those issues are interconnected and interrelated.
There is a lack of confidence. The Secretary of State talked clearly and accurately in his interview during the weekend and in his earlier Cold House speech, but he does seem to think that, in our misty red, white and blue eyes of Ulster Unionism, it is our perception that he is dealing with the reality. As a non-lawyer, I can only consider the reality clearly and clinically in the Bill. As a Unionist, my bottom-line belief is that I will not support or vote for anything in the House that weakens the United Kingdom or the fundamental oath of allegiance for me, as an individual subject or citizen, and for the font of the judiciary which is the Crown.
By making us different, we would weaken the Britishness of the people of Northern Ireland and the oath. I am not really disagreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), but the reality now in Northern Ireland involves judging whether the Bill will weaken or strengthen us as British citizens and subjects. By any judgment, clearly and clinically, it will weaken us. That does not mean that I and other hon. Member across the Unionist Bench might not approve of some improvements to the much worse earlier proposal in the legislation. I would support the Conservative party in its amendmentthe leader of my party shakes his headas I could support the two amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Down. All three
Mr. Mallon: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that this or any other Parliament should draft a criminal justice Bill to reinforce the political beliefs of any section of any community? In effect, that is what he is saying. He is not judging the merits of the Bill itself, but dealing with his perception of what Unionism should involve and demand.
David Burnside: The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong on that point. I want legislation to be drafted that affects all affairs related to Northern Ireland, including those reserved to this Parliament and those devolved to the Stormont Executive and Assembly, to involve uniform, full and equal British rights and citizenship as subjects of the Crownequality right across the board. That is not party political.
The hon. Gentleman makes a major mistake in the pursuance of his viewsa Member of the Executive made this point in debating with me on the radio this morningbecause he believes that the Belfast agreement somehow gives equal treatment to the head of state, but it does not. The Belfast agreement enshrines the principle of consent. By common consent, we are part of the United Kingdom and we want equal rights. That may not be fashionable any longer and there is a debate within Unionism, but we want equality of treatment so far as we can throughout the United Kingdom.
I have tried to combine the oath of allegiance and the debate that will take place either this evening or in the future on the symbols of the Crown in Northern Ireland. I can only consider the reality, and the reality is that our fundamental citizenship as part of the United Kingdom will be weakened, rather than strengthened.
Mr. Gregory Campbell: In dealing with the oath of allegiance in Northern Ireland, as the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland suggested, it is important to refer to whether it is one person's reality or another person's perception, but the Conservative amendment would at least have the advantage of being much more concise without yielding anything in terms of the integrity of the nation state to which anyone affirms the oath of allegiance.
Hon. Members who are not from Northern Ireland sometimes have to grapple with the sensitivities of wordings. Only an hour or so ago during the debate, there was a reference to the term "resident magistrate", which most people would consider innocuous. The lineage back to the famine was immediately drawn, so I can imagine that some people would begin to despair if even the apparently innocuous term "resident magistrate" were almost given the standing of a swear word.
The amendment tabled by hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) deals with the distinction between the terms "according to" and "upholding" the laws and usages of this realm. There may be a slight distinction, but I would not imagine that it would cause the House to divide on the two wordings.
Dr. John Reid: I have obviously listened to the views expressed by hon. Members in this debate and read the views that they expressed during the consultation process and on Second Reading. It is worth saying that the oath in clause 20 replicates exactly the words recommended by the review and that the review spent a considerable amount of time discussing that matter. Of course, that is not to say that there can be no deviation from any recommendationby definition, they are recommendations. In recommending this oath, the review group recognised the need to take account of the independence of the judiciary, as well as Northern Ireland's wider constitutional status.
The Opposition spokesman made a point about ambiguity, but there is no ambiguity at all. Nothing in the clause casts the slightest shadow of doubt on Northern Ireland's constitutional status. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said, the word "realm" reflects the United Kingdom's position as a constitutional monarchy. That word is important on two counts. To dismiss the inclusion of the word "realm", as was done earlier, as somehow being a concession to republicanismas if people rarely spoke of anything in the pubs of west Belfast besides the welfare of the realmis to misunderstand the word's importance. The clause brings in a more modern oath that focuses on the impartiality of the judiciary and its independence.
The review group also sought to remove any blockages that might inhibit people from applying for judicial appointmenta key part of ensuring a reflective judiciary. I am sure that we can all agree on the importance of those principles, especially in the devolution scenario. Amendment No. 45 seeks to disregard the rationale that lay behind the recommendation for the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, choosing instead to caricature it as a republican manifesto and template. I can only say again that there will be no change to the judiciary's relationship with Her Majesty the Queen. The clause is not about republicanism, but about protecting independence, impartiality and inclusiveness, and modernising where it is useful to do so. Given all the argument that we have had on the matter, I doubt that my request that we agree on it and that the amendment be withdrawn will get a positive response. None the less, I ask again for that agreement.
Amendments Nos. 81 and 82 seek to amend the new oath and declaration, requiring office holders to uphold the laws and usages of the realm, rather than to act in accordance with them. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for North Down said. I agree with much of the burden of her analysis of the oath itself. Indeed, she analysed it more perceptively than many others
Although I do not object to the word "upholding" in principle, I point out that there are dozens of ways of expressing the same thing. We have stuck pretty closely to both the English and Scottish usage, as well as replicating exactly the recommendations of the review. As there are dozens of ways of expressing the meaning, if we are agreed on the underlying aimI think that we arethere does not seem to be any point in accepting drafting changes for the sake of it.
I would prefer, therefore, to stick to the current wording, which reflects the review recommendations, and urge the hon. Member for North Down not to press her amendments. Of course, we will vote against them if she does so, but I say to her that I shall reflect further on what she said. Although I cannot discern any important difference in the meaning that is conveyed, having listened carefully to what she has said, I shall reflect further on the matter. None the less, I cannot discern any such difference this evening, so I shall have to oppose her amendments, because we have followed not only the recommendations, but the usage in Scotland and elsewhere.