On April 26 and 27 the bill designated as The Northern Ireland Bill was extensively debated in the House of Commons for over ten and a half hours. Northern Ireland MPs, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and government ministers probed, prevaricated, postured, explored and questioned to establish the contents as well as the intentions of the governments proposals for a return to devolved government in the Six Counties.
Having read the Hansard covering the debate I have attempted to give the flavour thereof for those who may find the discussions confusing.
Moving the bills second reading, Peter Hain the Secretary of State said
The measure prepares the way for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. On the 15th of May the Assembly will meet for the first time for nearly four years. The bill sets in statute the 24th of November as the date by which we must be able to restore devolution. That is the date by which the political parties in Northern Ireland must take responsibility for the government of Northern Ireland, as they have been mandated to do.
At this point the DUP leader Ian Paisley asked the Secretary of State to confirm that the Assembly mentioned in the bill was not the Assembly set up under the 1998 Belfast Agreement which the Secretary of State confirmed.
There followed much discussion as to whether the Assembly was the same as the shadow one which preceded the 1998 Assembly and the nature of its remit. A number of queries were made as to whether the members would have the same freedom of expression as Members of parliament and that of the suspended Assembly.
Was the 24th of November really the final date for agreement to be reached, or might it be extended if settlement appeared to be near at that time?
Was it to be a mere talking shop? Was it just a forum? What input or influence could it have on the governments decisions? If it through transition actually became the restored suspended Assembly would it be able to reverse those decisions taken through Orders in Council by Westminster ministers?
Why, it was asked, could the Assembly not elect its own Presiding Officer (Speaker) instead of it being an appointment made by the Secretary of State? Should it not be allowed to decide the subjects to be debated, instead of those directed to it by the Secretary of State? Were those who were not taking their westminster seats (Sinn Féin) exercising any influence over what might or not be included in the bill?
Among other issues raised was whether the government of the Irish Republic had any input in to the drawing of parameters, and whether, in the event of failure to reach agreement by the 24th of November, that government would be part of a condominium, i.e. would there be joint rule?
The to and fro of debate as I read it took the usual party lines and apportioning of blame, including the abstentionist MPs. However, all the contributors expressed the view that they wished to see an early return to devolved government with the DUP insisting that Sinn Féin IRa, as they defined them, could not yet be trusted although they did accept that some progress had been made in respect of weapon decommissioning.
The validity of the judgement of the Independent Monitoring Commission that the IRA had terminated paramilitary activities as well as criminality was questioned by DUP speakers who also criticised Sinn Féin for failure to take up seats available to them on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
Reading through the Hansard text I discerned a clear bias towards the Unionist DUP outlook from Conservative participants like Sir Patrick Cormac, although he, like all the other contributors, broadly welcomed the bill but had reservations in some aspects.
Many old bones of contention and historically conditioned responses were apparent to me, and though some optimism was expressed, I feel that the odds are still stacked against a satisfactory consensual outcome.
Believing a detailed narrative of the debate of almost eleven hours would be repetitive and tedious it was subject to time limited speeches except for ministerial replies I have I hope given a flavour of the jousting. Perhaps it is best that I summarise the objectives and structures of the Assembly to be established by the bill as well as the reply to the debate by the Secretary of State Peter Hain before the final approval by the House of Commons.
The Assembly, the Secretary of State asserted, was not intended to be a talking shop. He could not make the Assembly discuss anything but he could refer a matter to a business committee which he hoped would be established and operate by consensus. It could refer the matter to the floor of the Assembly, to working groups, to other committees or whatever it decides.
He was responsible for Northern Ireland affairs but accountable to Parliament and could not accept direction by the Assembly although he was anxious to reflect on the views expressed there. Either responsibility lay in Belfast or in Westminster but not in both. When a point had been reached and it had accepted responsibility and had an executive that could make recommendations and parties therein to vote accordingly because they knew their decisions had consequences he would be happy for decisions on water charges, the review of public administration and education reform and so on to be made by the Assembly.
He had wide powers over the choice of Presiding Officer and, as a facilitator, over what matters are referred to the Assembly with a default power to make sure that things moved forward.
There was no evidence of any disagreement over his appointment of Eileen Bell as Presiding Officer and he hoped that an election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be possible in the six weeks after May 15th.
They would stay faithful to the procedures of the 1998 Agreement in the Assembly where possible, he said. The bill is precisely about restoring the institutions that the Good Friday Agreement established.
The term all party talks means essentially that. No party can exercise a veto, either by not appearing at the talks or by seeking to exercise a veto in some other way. If a party chooses to exclude itself that is that partys decision.
The proceedings of the old fully fledged Assembly enjoyed absolute privilege, in this one it is qualified: it will not protect the maker of defamatory statements if there is proof of malice on his or her part.
The Assembly is composed of all the members who were elected to the Assembly. One of its key functions is the selection of an Executive. Once that function has been discharged the way will be open for the restoration of all the devolved institutions and and the other powers of the Assembly.
All the amendments brought forward during the debate by the various Northern Ireland members and parties were either withdrawn or defeated when put to the vote. After further discussion during the third reading and a quick passage in the House of Lords it was passed and given Royal Assent on May 8th.
During the third reading discussion the government minister Mr. Hanson in answer to a question from the Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik said: I assure him that, when the Assembly is fully restored I emphasise the words fully restored with an Executive, a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister and its full legislative powers, it can obviously have locus in any matter to do with its responsibilities, and it can pass any matter that it wishes. I cannot fetter that potential legislative assembly in the future, by orders that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or I pass now.
The DUP member Nigel Dodds, who was the final speaker before the third reading was proposed and passed, concluded his remarks with these words, We are glad of the opportunity to debate issues of relevance to the people of Northern Ireland and we hope that we can get full restoration, but there are conditions. The IRA and Sinn Féin must become a fully democratic party. I think ministers have recognised that in the debate. We look forward to completing the road we are now on.
That statement in my view, is a clear indication that the road the DUP embarked on when they refused in April 1998 to participate in the negotiations which led to the Belfast Agreement is going to be a long one.
I cannot see them changing this stance.
They will raise hurdles and move the goal posts, always claiming that Sinn Féin and the IRA have not done enough.
I shall be astonished if by the 24th of November agreement is reached within the parameters of this legislation and of the Good Friday accord.
I anticipate therefore that direct rule will continue indefinitely and that the assembly elections will not take place on the scheduled date in May 2007 and that the Norths problems will appear at some point for debate between the contending parties during the general election in the Irish Republic which takes place next year.
There is provision in this Northern Ireland Act, which as noted above came into force on May the 8th, for the elections to the Assembly to be postponed until May 2008 even if agreement between the parties is reached by November the 24th this year.
Although the DUP holds all but one of the Unionist seats at Westminster there is still a large representation of the Ulster Unionist Party under their new leader Sir Reg Empey among the members of the suspended Assembly. In the new one set up under the Act just passed they are one and the same as far as membership is concerned.
On May the 15th, however, and subsequently there was no indication that much progress is being made. At the first meeting a proposal from Sinn Féin that Ian Paisley be elected as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister failed to get the necessary support from the DUP.
Despite their denials, the strategy of the DUP is clear to me. They will not be satisfied until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is replaced by one which satisfies their aspirations. Thus they again will make reconciliation between the two communities and traditions fraught with tensions and difficulties.
This coming week the Secretary of State Peter Hain will meet the Republics Foreign Minister. This will be followed by a meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to consider the lack of progress .
©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, UK: 26 June 2006.
Samuel H. Boyd